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Posts Tagged fantasy
You can’t read much about writing advice before you trip over an essay about story structure, and how it works invisible magic on the reader. My guest this week has used sophisticated musical structures as the skeleton of his fantasy series, a series of nested reincarnation tales inspired by The Thousand and One Nights – and his influences range from Alban Berg to Frank Zappa. For him, music does not so much conjure up a scene or a character as an entire shape, of how an idea moves into a story and where it eventually goes. He is uniquely qualified to do so, as he is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the dance faculties of UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school (though he has not yet said if he is reincarnated). Stephen Weinstock is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
SHORT BREAK I’ll be taking a short break from blogging but will be back with a post on 30 November.
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There’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me on the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.
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I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.
I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.
It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)
But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?
Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.
He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.
One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.
Take, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.
We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.
The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.
Science fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.
We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.
Science fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.
So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange … Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?
POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.
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My guest this week represents something of a milestone. When I was new to Twitter I remember stumbling across his tweets and his blog, where he was taking his first steps in building a presence as a science fiction writer. Meanwhile, he was working on his debut novel, and over the months and years I would catch tweets and Facebook updates about rewrites, and his search for an agent and a publisher. That persistence paid off; he found representation and then a deal with Three Hares Press. Hosting him here feels like the satisfying end of a long journey. He is Nick Cook, the novel is the first in the Cloud Riders series, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles. My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you can enter the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – with her Undercover Soundtrack on the Red Blog.
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My guest this week writes reimaginings of the Robin Hood legends. He uses music to conjure the atmosphere but says he has to avoid anything that’s too tuneful or he’ll pick up his guitar instead. He admits his choice of Scandinavian black metal is a challenging listen – but finds the fast drumming, screaming vocals and glowering noise is exactly right to shift him away from the 21st century and into a time of outlaws, campfires and battles. He is Steven A McKay and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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‘The moment of making the first sound or writing the first word is special’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Pete Lockett
My guest this week is a percussionist who has worked with an astonishing list of world-class musicians, a list to make any music fan giddy – Bjork, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dido, Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Texas, Trans-Global Underground, Nelly Furtado, Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream, Damien Rice, Dave Weckl, Thomas Lang, Jarvis Cocker, Craig Armstrong – and more. Trust me, at some point you’ve had him in your headphones. He found that his music fuelled a desire to write a novel, and after a good gig he would rush back to his hotel room, eager to pour out the next chapter. He says he wanted to take a simple starting point and construct an epic journey that ventured outside the normal – bringing together birth, death, the afterlife, reincarnation and immortality into new coherence, and echoing the journey he takes when working with musicians. The result is A Survivor’s Guide to Eternity; he is Pete Lockett and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack. Pinch me, someone.
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You could divide my Undercover Soundtrack guests into those who aren’t put off by lyrics and those who are. My guest this week is one of the latter. He says that music with lyrics is too domineering when he’s trying to write – but that orchestral or ambient electronic music sets his imagination free to roam. His novel is a quirky noir of dirigibles, automata, back alleys and a hardboiled hack (the bipedal journalistic sort, not an equine), and his central character was honed by long hours simmering with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight. He is Aaron Sikes and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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My guest this week says that when he writes he chooses his aural environment carefully. There’s a cafe in his native Montreal that plays just the right music: not too loud, not too unfamiliar; exactly right for random creative loosening. He attributes one of his major characters to a chance playing of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade on Winter while he was driving on a midsummer day – the sudden meteorological transformation was exactly what he needed to start creating this pivotal player. He is YA writer JB Dutton, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Hidden forms that tell a story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephen Weinstock November 19, 2014
- I name this book… tips for choosing a good title November 16, 2014
- ‘Each morning, there was a chapter to listen to’ – guest post at Jane Davis’s blog on making audiobooks with ACX November 13, 2014
- ‘Spurred by the song’s rhythm, my typing fingers flew’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dianne Greenlay November 12, 2014
- A good editor helps you to be yourself November 9, 2014
- ‘A lyric, a tune fragment, a thrilling chord run’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, JW Hicks November 5, 2014
- Something wicked this way comes: plot book ready soon November 2, 2014
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