Saturday, July 27, 2013

This Category Needs An Enema

A few nights ago I sort of eavesdropped on a Twitter conversation between Django Wexler and Brian McClellan concerning the Hugo Award For Best Dramatic Presentation-Short Form and the unrelenting love that Dr. Who gets from the voting body. Now I have no aspirations of winning a Hugo even if it is the Academy Award of the SFF publishing world. I write primarily YA and, for the most part, that is largely ignored by them. But that's for another post, not this one. I want to talk about the Short Form because I think there is something wrong with the selection process that is ignoring large swaths of nominees because they favor the "things they know." Kind of sounds like a redundancy in the world of scifi/fantasy, based on recent events. Anyway, that's another blog entry for another blogger...back to my point, if I have one.

Of the 55 possible nominations since the category was formed, Dr. Who has been nominated 23 times and won 6, which is both considerably more than it's closest competitor: Buffy the Vampire Slayer with 6 nominations and 1 win. Now maybe part of it is that I just don't get Dr.Who. I mean I have fond memories of watching it when I was a kid on my grandparent's little b&w TV when I would spend weeks at a time with them. If I remember right it was on PBS in the metro NYC area, though I can't be sure. Anyway, there was no cable back then, so it had to be some broadcast network. I've tried watching the reboot/recent continuation and I just can't get into it at all. It's backstory and canon are more convoluted than that of the Transformers and compared to some of the other stuff I watch it's kind of rubbish. (I know I risk my geek card by typing this but hopefully I'll earn it back by the end of this post.)

I wonder how is it that about 42% of nominations (kind of weird that's the number, wonder if it's symbolic?) come from one show when you think of how many genre programs are out there. And it's success rate is equally as baffling when you consider that it consistently beat out a classic like Battlestar Galactica. But that's not even the thing that sticks out. It's how narrow the list of nominees actually is. Almost three quarters of all the nominees came from 5 television shows. You're telling me in this day and age of hundreds of television networks, webisodes and webshows, that's the scope of the list? It's baffling to me. It has to say something about what's happened to the SFF community. What was once a place of progress and advancement has become stagnant and stuck in an almost "Good ol' boy" cycle. Let's talk about all the things they ignored.
Animation: How is it possible that there are NO animated shows on this list (I'll admit some ignorance here in that I haven't studies the "other" nominees I spoke of to determine that they aren't animated and I apologize for that). How can something like Avatar: The Last Airbender OR Avatar: The Legend of Korra not have earned a single nomination? The "Iroh's Tale" vignette of  "Tale of Ba Sing Se" episode of A:TLA is worthy of a nomination all on it's own. (I defy you to watch that one and not cry. If you do not, I contend you are one of the lizard people.) Avatar (both incarnations) are original concepts that are brilliant examples of modern fantasy. Is it because they are aimed at a younger audience? (There's that disregard for YA/MG again, but that's another post.) Star Wars: The Clone Wars has done some pretty darn good stuff during the course of it's run too. Though I've never watched it, I hear amazing things about Adventure Time as well.

The Venture Brothers is another show that I can think of that is some of the best scifi/fantasy on TV now. Is it because it pokes fun at so many tropes of sff OR because it's animated that it gets no love in the Hugos? It is some of the best episodic television out there, as far as I'm concerned and that means it's easily some of the best scifi on TV today.

And let's not forget the two most popular step brothers since John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell: Phineas and Ferb. went so far as to call the show the best scifi on TV, yet the Hugos will march out three mediocre episodes of Dr. Who because it's the "grand duke of Sci Fi programming?" There are other shows that I don't regularly watch but when I do, I'm impressed: Gravity Falls, Ben 10, Generator Rex and Sym-bionic Titan all come to mind. I'm also ignoring the multitude of DC/Marvel properties that have shows too. They do some fine work too. But for some reason, these shows: well written, designed and acted don't get the same respect as the quirky white English guy saving Earth does.

Network & Cable Television: I'm usually sour on the big networks, but lately they've been taking big riders of genre shows and delivering too. Sure Lost has been nominated, so have a few others, but for the most part there are dozens of shows that have been ignored. First one that comes to mind is Castle. Is there a show that has more nods to the SFF world than this one? I mean they've had episodes featuring bigfoot, vampires, zombies and steampunk.  The episode where they go to "comicon" and poke fun at Star Trek/Firefly/Andromeda is all time classic brilliant, yet no nomination at all for the show.

Another one that comes to mind is Person of Interest. This is the definition of doing scifi for an adult audience without them knowing they are watching scifi. It's an amazing show that crosses so many genres it can be mind numbing, but it's clearly a scifi show that won't get noticed because the main characters hide in an old library...not a police box.

There are others. I know that Once Upon A Time can be soap opera-y, but there was some good storytelling going on the first season. I don't know if Arrow was eligible this year, but it does some fun stuff with genre and is well done.

And let's not forget the granddaddy's of today's television: The Simpsons and Family Guy. (I know, they are animated shows but I count them in a different category.) Both of these shows have never been afraid to dabble in scifi. Family Guy has played with time travel, multiverses and parodies of the SFF world. How either "Blue Harvest" or "Three Kings" weren't nominated I'll never understand. "The Splendid Source" (an adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story for crying out loud) is one of my favorite episodes of any television show ever. Do I really need to talk about The Simpsons? "The Book Job" episode is all time classic and that's one example out of about a hundred.

There are other shows: Big Bang Theory comes to mind immediately as being genre savvy. Yet there is no love for it. I'm sure there are others, but I really don't watch sitcoms anymore.

Webisodes/Web Shorts: How do these not get love? I mean seriously. Sure we had Dr. Horrible, but that was Joss Whedon and he could pretty much slap his name on a floor tile and it'll get nominated for a Hugo. (I say this not as a complaint because said floor tile would be shiny.) How has The Guild, featuring geek girl Felicia Day, not garnered one nomination? (Not to mention other webseries that she's worked on!) Not to mention all the BSG webisodes or Blood and Chrome. I'd rather see that nominated rather than another episode of Dr. Who.

And what about individual sketches from shows like Saturday Night Live? I mean their send up of Twilight Firelight was hysterical and spot on. (And, quite frankly, wouldn't be a terrible pitch for a YA novel in the right hands.) The Louis CK sketch involving heroes on a quest and an annoying hornblower was another one. Why are these not getting some mentions?
(I'm going to confess that even I'm out of the loop on this and I'm sure there are even more worthy ones.)

Commericals: Yup, why not. And I'm thinking of one in particular. This Cartier commercial. Again,the category is awarded for: "The best dramatized production devoted primarily to science fiction or fantasy." How does this not fit the bill? Super Bowl commercials are great for this. Yet perhaps because they are computers, they are ignored.

Music Videos: Okay, it's a dying art form, but I was thrilled last year when "F**k Me Ray Bradbury" was nominated but there have been plenty fantasy and scifi themed music videos that have been overlooked over the years. I know it's a bit old, but I think of "Tonight, Tonight" by the Smashing Pumpkins. But there is one that absolutely needs to be on the next ballot and I'm going to crusade for this in the coming year: Commander Chris Hatfield's cover of Bowie's "Space Oddity." Here it is and I defy you to tell me it's not deserving:

Let's get this done people. Let's make these changes and get our voices heard in the Hugos and put a stop to this damned Doctor Who.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dragons Of Autumn Twilight Re-Read Part Two: Chapter 3-5

Phew, it's been more than two weeks, I know. This was not my intent in this endeavor at all. I just got really into Myke Cole's Fortress Frontier (HIGHLY recommend the book, easily one of my top ten of 2013) and Michael Lewis' The Blind Side (Not done with it yet, I'll explain why in a minute, but it's phenomenal). Plus I started the three week summer writing institute where I teach (they'll be a blog post on that in the near future) and did some writing. But I'm going to effort on the blogging a little more and I'm back to this, so let's talk about Chapters 3-5.

This section builds off the ominous tidings of Chapter 2's cliffhanger, but any response to that isn't addressed right away, mostly because it's obvious Tanis doesn't want to talk about what it means either, this moment of tension is avoided by the arrival of out final three members of our companions and they may be the most interesting of the characters, to me at least.

Let's start with Goldmoon and Riverwind, the barbarians. Weis and Hickman do something interesting here that I always liked. Barbarian is such an ambiguous term in the context of epic fantasy. In my mind, I go in one of three directions: the Conan route, the faux Viking route or the faceless wildman rabble of the dark overlord route. Now, there's a longer post in me about these tropes but this isn't the place for it. Weis and Hickman go in a different direction and there barbarians don't seem to fit within the tropes of epic fantasy. These barbarians are plainsmen (read: Native Americans), but with swords! But they ruin that by making the barbarian princess a blonde haired, blue eyed beauty that fell in love with a tall, dark warrior. I didn't find her interesting when I was a kid and I don't know, but I was always fascinated with Riverwind. We don't get much of an impression of him, we don't even sense the connection these two have beyond that of servant and master. But these characters aren't the real stars (though I do know that they will get their chance later), the real star of this section is the introduction of Sturm Brightblade.

Weis and Hickman know their tropes and how to play with them. Sturm is presented to us as the "knight in shining armor" type. He's the definition of the D&D paladin (I know, I know...f**king game mechanics) from the moment we meet him. It's almost cliched from the "straight back" to his formality to the fact that he shows up wearing his full armor. Here's where having spent all these years reading Martin spoil me. I scream at the book...there's no way that Sturm is going to be traipsing around in full plate armor, especially antique armor. But beyond that, the most interesting thing about this section comes from when Sturm is asked if he was a knight now and he doesn't answer. No one seems to note this except for Tanis who says nothing about it. It's a wonderful moment that I probably missed when I was younger. It's a great bit of character in there for us to realize that he's actually a fraud. And it's obviously killing him.

Hickman and Weis introduce one of the backbones of the world that's been created around them: the Knights of Solamnia. I'm a big fan of the Knights and love the politics that get brought up in later books, but for now it's merely stated that there is a great amount of distrust and disdain for the Knights, almost as much for them as the barbarians. And it introduces us to a great little tidbit of worldbuilding by the authors: the sweeping mustaches. I love this. I know that might be silly, but it's a perfect little touch that stands out. We're not given an explanation (yet), just shown that they are an important part of Solamnic culture. I'm curious to see how my memories of the Knights compares to what I read. (And I do know that the Knights don't really make an appearance until book two.)

What comes next in the book is another thing that sets it apart. Usually, this is the part of the epic fantasy novel where the heroes band together and decide they are going to stop the great evil. Not so fast, my friend. And I like this. One of their own makes a mistake and inadvertently hurts someone (a cliched phony religious zealot) who is healed by what appears to be lost magic: the magic of healing. Then our band is on the run, the barbarians that have mysteriously acquired this magic. Then comes a series of what is obviously transcribed game encounters as the enemies pursue their escape. It's well done and intense with the right amount of gravity and levity as the companions escape, leading to the major revelation of the chapter: there are constellations missing...those of the most powerful old gods aren't there anymore.

More portents and mysteries. The first 60 pages are as good as I remember them, even with a more critical (and maybe cynical) eye. It feels like I'm reading a good story and that's all that matters. I feel like I enjoy experiencing the story through Tanis's POV, again he's the most obvious gateway character and it works. The thing that stands out so much about these books is that these folks are normal people. They aren't kings, dukes, regents or anything like that. They are the blue collar people (okay, Goldmoon is a princess but I'm not counting her right now because she's not REALLY part of the crew yet) of this world and that's not something we're used to seeing.

Next up: Chapters 6 & 7: What do our heroes do now?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dragons of Autumn Twlight: Old Man, Chapters One and Two

So we begin. I actually read it this afternoon while feeding my son at my father in law's house and when I finished I went swimming with my daughter and niece. As I floated in the pool I contemplated just how I was going to tackle this task. I knew that I had to set some kind of rules, but I wasn't sure what those rules were.

I knew that I was feeling nostalgia for the books, but I did read them when I was in middle school. That was almost 30 years ago. I'm not much of a re-reader and that's gotten even worse as I've gotten older, time gotten tighter and all the different online resources out there make re-reading less of a necessity when it comes to reading a series. I can just check Wikipedia to skim details and get right back into a series. Anyway, I tried to push out what I remembered about the books so not to completely spoil myself, as silly as that sounds, though there are things that I do remember as they are indelible in my mind. So I guess that was the first rule.

The second rule, and I know that I'm going to break this, is not to get all flustered when obvious game mechanics appear in the story or something reads like it is straight off the gaming table. Let me make a quick confession. I love D&D. I collected the manuals and am still obsessed with the worlds, but I've never played a single game of D&D. Never rolled a die, never listened to a game master, nothing. (I'm also not much of a video gamer, other than sports games, but that's a blog post for another time...I know, what a waste of a geek.) All this means is that while I enjoy these stories, the necessity of including obvious game mechanics or desktop RPG elements into the story grates on me. It's a problem I had with another very popular fantasy books I recently read that was almost a paint by numbers D&D session transcription...a very good one mind you, but still, after a while it made me skim huge chunks of the book. But I'm not here to talk about that book, I'm here to talk about DOAT (as I'm going to refer to it from here on out).

Old Man
One of the huge spoilers that cannot be avoided once you have read all the books is who the Old Man is...and I'm not just talking about him being a guy named Fizban. He's the avatar for the most powerful of the returning Gods. But let's be honest...he's Gandalf....he's Merlin...and he's an obvious agent of some great power wrapped up in the disguise of a crazy old man. It's always an interesting trope to play with and it's done pretty well here and brings up a great potential theme (already) in the writing: fate vs. free will. Is it the fate of these characters to save the world? Do they really have a choice or has it already been decided? It's one of the great questions that every "quest fantasy" asks and this one does it very interestingly because it's obvious that these characters are just pawns in the story.

Chapter One And Two
The thing that I think about as I'm rereading this book as a writer especially is audience. As I said earlier in this post, I read the book nearly 30 years ago when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I'm guessing that was lowest end of the target audience. As I can figure, we're probably looking at a target of 16-25 year olds for an audience when these books were written. (This is a gross generalization I know, so please, relax.) I look at these books and wonder if they'd be marketed as traditional or YA fantasy today. (Maybe even that nebulous New Adult. Anyway, the two first characters we meet are elderly: Fizban (though we don't know his name yet) and Flint, one of our protagonists. (I will talk about using multiple POVs later in this series but not now.)We meet two of our other protagonists, Tanis and Tasslehoff (there will, in all likelihood be a separate entry for Tas, but much later in the series). And thus begins the POV shifting.

In most modern fantasies it has become common practice to at least give us at least a physical break in the page between POV shifts, more common than not is to give one character their own chapter, but not always. Not in this book, they might give you a paragraph to break. Anyway, I digress.

Let's talk quickly about Tanis. Tanis is our gateway character. He's the hero. A half-elf ranger....we're wading into game mechanics because I know that Tanis is a fighter not a ranger, but go with me on this one....was the default for many of us. Not human. Powerful but somewhat balanced. It would have been easy for him to descend into Aragorn-ville if the writers allowed him to be, but they don't. Already you can tell there is something about Tanis that makes him more than he appears.

There is a throw away line, almost, in the chapter where the writers talk about his beard. I obviously didn't notice it the first time I'd read it, but it really stuck with me as I read it this time, even in the first chapter. What a great symbol the writers are using, and I'm interested to see how this plays out for the rest of the books. The beard means so many things that you can't ignore it's significance. It represents the reprehensible part of his heritage, the part that he doesn't want to identify with but he has to because there are "lands not friendly to those of elvish blood." All this sets up a terrific conflict: Tanis's inner conflict to identify which society he truly belongs, if he does at all.

Anyway, the opening chapter descends into a nicely done infodump that tells us why these characters have been away from one another so long and a quick "random encounter" from one of those charts in the game books, though introducing Fewmaster Toede is terrific and our heroes dispatching the mooks quite easily but leaving them with all sorts of questions.

The second chapter transitions to the typical "meeting of the heroes" in the tavern. It hits all the notes just right, and I'm not saying this as a criticism either...more like a good musician hitting the right notes. The "dark tidings" vibe is well done within the story and the thing that struck me was the lack of detail in some of the description. Being a Martin fan and having so much time in Randland in the last few years, there were several lines that made me chuckle where I thought about the way Martin or Jordan would have written them. The one that made me stop was when the protags notice a group of guards "armed to the teeth." Martin and Jordan would've taken up at least a paragraph to describe the weapons, armor and uniforms of these characters. Instead, Weis and Hickman don't. This economy of words is nice and makes me think if this is something I can do too.

Within this we get two terrific fantasy tropes played very differently, one perfectly, one not so much. The one that doesn't go as well is related to game mechanics again...I know, I know, I promised I wouldn't harp on it, but I am, sort of....magic comes at a great cost. I'm kind of tired of that trope (some of that coming from the book I was talking about earlier but I digress) and prefer the Harry Potter, magic is genetic kind of magic system. The Vancian (if you aren't sure, Google it, I'm sure someone has a blog post or definition of it somewhere that can help you understand it) System devalues the power of magic in my mind. (There is a blog post in me about the absurdity of "wizards are physically weak" requirement but this isn't the place for it.) These books are always going to be tied to the D&D magic system and that's going to give me fits. And it's one of the reasons why Raistlin frustrates me. He doesn't work within the context of D&D. He's a great character, but he doesn't fit the rules of the world, they just wanted to make him creepy for creepy's sake. (Okay, part of my judgement is coming from my own knowledge of the rest of the series and magic users in other D&D tie in novels.) Creepy would've been fine, if they were consistent.

The thing they do right is the last few paragraphs of the chapter. One of their band has broken the oath. Broken oaths are another building block of good fantasy. And it sets up so much of the rest of the start of the story. So many questions that we need to answer: Who is Kitaria? Why is she sending word to Tanis? Why is he so upset about the letter? Why is she breaking the oath? It's just well done.

For the most part, the first 30 pages were about what I expected with a few surprises I don't think my 13 year old self would have noticed. I'm going to watch for the way the beard symbol plays out. I think it's pretty important for Tanis, who I am paying close attention to, seeing what I can learn about him as a character since he was the character that I liked the most when I was younger.

Next post: Chapters 3-6. Post might be up Sunday. Keep your eyes out.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Studying The Canon of Modern Fantasy: DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT

I've tweeted about this before and had some discussion on Twitter about my desire to "study" the modern fantasy canon and it begins today. I'm going to look at the "important" books that inspired my generation of fantasy writers and readers. It's a daunting task, I know, and everyone's list is bound to be different, but here's what I'm considering reading in the coming months:

  • The Original Dragonlance Trilogy
  • The Belgariad
  • Wheel of Time (I'm done through book 5)
  • The Original Shannara
  • The Song of the Lioness (EDITED) (I'm done with the first three books)
  • The Queen's Thief
Now, I'm taking suggestions, so feel free to add them, but this is the base that I'm starting with. (I didn't include A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE on purpose.)

The first series in queue is the original DRAGONLANCE series. There's a lot of nostalgia for Dragonlance in the recent months. It might be more important to my development as a writer than even JRR Tolkien. I know I've mentioned it on Facebook and there was this great article over on Pornokitsch about it.

My plan is to read 2-3 chapters a night, the blog about it. I'll probably do a quick summary of what was read, some analysis (to my English teacher friends, do I dare use a Well Developed Paragraph in these essays?) and finally discuss the influence that the story has over me as a writer. I'm not going to do this with every book/series, but I felt that Dragonlance was so important to me that I'd give it a try.

Comments are welcome and appreciated from any and all of you. I'll be linking blog posts to Twitter and Facebook as well in hopes of involving other fans.

I'm a little nervous about this because I have such fond memories of the books, I'm afraid that the older, wiser and more well-read me is going to pick it apart. I'm hoping it's not.

So keep your eyes out and let's roll.