Tag Archives: books

Magical Realism Actually Exists

I recently heard an off-hand comment that magical realism was just another term for fantasy, used by people who don’t want to admit they read fantasy. While I agree there are plenty of pretentious people who go through dramatic convolutions order to claim they don’t read genre stories, I don’t think this is the case with magical realism.

The key distinguishing factor of magical realism is that the fantastic elements cannot be proven within the story, whereas in typical fantasy they can be. The main fantasy stories in the general zeitgeist currently are “zombie apocalypse” and “superhero” – both of these are fantasy stories, and for both there is no dispute within the world of the story that the fantastical elements are real. These are a form of alternative universe stories, where the rules are fundamentally different to the rules we accept in the “real” world.

Magical realism, on the other hand, has fantastical elements that are not provable even within the world of the story. For example, in “100 Years of Solitude” Gabriel García Márquez has ghosts, prophetic visions, and people who reportedly live for longer than is realistic, such as a 145 year old brother owner. If they wanted to prove this to the satisfaction of the outside world, they wouldn’t be able to do so. There is a guru in India who claims to be more than two hundred years old, and no-one can really prove that he is or isn’t based on record keeping. In the book there’s a women who ascends into the sky, which would be quite a metaphorical ending for her if it wasn’t written so literally. Again, except for the witnesses all anyone has to go on is hearsay.

Most fantastical elements in magical realism have real-world counterparts, legends or stories which are accepted by some people as true but dismissed by most as fabrications, not because there is any evidence against them but because that’s simply not how we think the world works. But sometimes, the world works in ways that are different to what we expect, and people do experience things that they can’t explain in terms of “the real world”. That doesn’t mean those things have no explanation, of course, but it has to be taken on faith that there is a “reasonable” explanation that is simply unknown.

That is what distinguishes magical realism from other fantasy genres.

Review: Miniature Symphonies

Miniature Symphonies is a book of song-inspired vignettes, ranging from flash fiction to short essays to emotional soliloquies to the occasional rant. The songs range from heavy metal to jazz to rock to rap, an eclectic mix that means you’re bound to recognise and enjoy at least some of the songs, and be left scratching your head over what some song you’ve never heard of must be like to inspire the piece that was written. The same treatment is applied to books about music and musicians, and films about music and musicians. According to the author: “This book is to offer up the idea of inspiration and how close writing, music and film can be.”

F.J. Gouldner has a distinctive voice, and a worldview that is chock full of freedom and individuality and anti-government libertarian anarchism. This comes through in his interpretations of the songs that inspire him, screeds of individualism and fighting-the-power. There’s also a healthy dose of a desire to protect close family and friends. Then there are pieces like Carny, which look at how a life can go very wrong. There is a (seemingly) autobiographical bit at the end which gets downright disturbing, and is a brilliant piece of writing if it’s not completely true.

If you’re into music, looking for short pieces and celebrate freedom, try this book. FJ Gouldner blogs here.

Review: Homeworld Blues

This debut novel by A.J. McMillan is a cracking good read. The writing style is fast and fresh, the characters mostly well-written and the world-building brilliant. It’s a good length, too.

Homeworld Blues is in the science fantasy genre, which combines technology and magic-as-science-we-don’t-understand…like the Force in Star Wars. In this universe, Earth as we know it shares an interdimensional axis with two other planets in two other worlds (or dimensions, or branes, or planes, or however you want to think of them) and certain people know how to leap between the worlds, which ability they use to transport refugees from Earth to the paradisiacal Breorl, via the hellscape of Darsa. All the locations are richly detailed and realistic, and I often paused my reading and spent a while imagining what I would do in each place. The books starts off in a claustrophobic colony ship, jumps quickly to a desert world, then to a magic jungle tree with dizzying rapidity that often made me wish McMillan had spent longer in each setting.

Still, this is the first book in a trilogy (the second one is planned for 2015 some time) so I’m sure the plot will return to each place over the course of the series. The characters are fleshed out and likeable – and you’ll find some annoying and some pretentious and so on based on your personal preferences, which is a sign of diverse characters. McMillan follows the lead of George R.R. Martin in being perfectly willing to kill off characters that the reader has become attached to and which appeared as if they would have a major role to play throughout the series.

Apart from a few minor scientific errors, the few things which jolted me while reading concerned a couple of characters. Zepp is a great character, but a touch inconsistent. At one point he looks at a woman “in a whole new light” because she was wearing a sexy and revealing dress; but he had the hots for her the moment he met her and his increase only increased throughout the novel, so I’m not sure what the “whole new light” would have been. At another point he admitted to himself that he deserved to be distrusted because of his actions, but he’d never been anything except completely open and honest throughout the novel – to the point where some other characters chastised him on his openness. At one point I got the impression that Zepp had originally been two characters that had been merged in editing.

Trayia, the protagonist, is awesome. She’s a strong character – not just a strong personality, but a character with good depth and believable motives and beliefs. Still, she gets accepted as the leader/saviour pretty easily by everyone else despite her extreme inexperience and lack of broader knowledge. One guy got told by the Goddess that she’s “the one”, so that’s fair enough, but a lot of other experienced and highly capable people give her undying loyalty based on not very much. I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve it, just that her actions in this book didn’t really warrant it.

All in all, they’re minor issues in a well-written book, and I think we can expect McMillan to get better as the series progresses. So if this is a genre you like, buy the book.

A.J. McMillan’s blog is here.

This is the Most Terrifying Thing I’ve Ever Read*

Indie publishing is great! Because it cuts out the middle man! No more gatekeepers!

This is all true, but there is potentially a pretty unpleasant downside, as detailed in the New Republic.

In a world without major labels, then, the most profitable artists are likely to be those whose main genius is for self-promotion. Jack & Jack use their artistic freedom to be more mainstream than the mainstream, turning R&B and hip-hop into bland, hearty cheer, suitable for consumption by middle-American tweens of all ages. Performers who are more focused on music, or whose music and image doesn’t so thoroughly occupy the middle of the road, are unlikely to duplicate Jack & Jack’s commercial success…

if Jack & Jack’s success is any indication, independent superstars need to be more flavorless, and more single-mindedly entrepreneurial, than even their major-label counterparts.

Of course, most indies are happy to make a living rather than achieve megastar super-success, but the point remains the same – writing well can be secondary to marketing well in terms of making a living from your art.

*That was hyperbole, but not by much.

Using Fantasy to Escape into Real Life

There’s a very fascinating conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro published in the New Statesman, which is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the meta-surroundings of storytelling (as opposed to just enjoying the stories). One thing that leapt out at me was this statement by Neil Gaiman:

I remember as a boy reading an essay by C S Lewis in which he writes about the way that people use the term “escapism” – the way literature is looked down on when it’s being used as escapism – and Lewis says that this is very strange, because actually there’s only one class of people who don’t like escape, and that’s jailers: people who want to keep you where you are. I’ve never had anything against escapist literature, because I figure that escape is a good thing: going to a different place, learning things, and coming back with tools you might not have known.

This sounded very familiar; I recognised the idea from my bio, where I wrote “escaping into a fictional world and imagining how he would behave in particular situations or strange places helped prepare him for the challenges and moral quandaries he faced in real life”. That came from me trying to elucidate, for the first time, the usefulness of reading fantasy books (as opposed to science fiction books).

People do a lot of bad things (or fail to do good things) simply because they’ve found themselves in a situation they’re unprepared for with people telling them to do things that they haven’t considered the significance of. It’s a slow buildup of insufficiently pondered ideas, orders that are a little off but not enough to disobey, justifications of minor deviances, and other such things, that moves the line of what is reasonable and right slowly and surely into territory that would once never have been considered.

Reading fantasy stories introduces you to crazy ideas and unlikely situations and impossible people that nevertheless have a corollary in your real life. What would you do if an evil lich lord set up a deadly sports tournament that resulted in a lot of deaths, and therefore a lot of bodies to be resurrected which gave the lich more power, and wanted to hire you to convince the populace that it was in their best interests? Would you tell people that the players entered the sport of their own free will, seeking riches and glory, and well know the risks? Would you say that banning the game would be a move to oppress the liberty of the people? Would you turn down the offer, considering what it would be like to look in the mirror in the morning? Would you actively campaign against the lich, arguing that the game is bad for society as a whole and is only accepted because of misleading lies and misdirection spread by the lich?

What would you do if you work in a PR agency that accepts a major contract from a cigarette manufacturer?

There are so many small steps that people take on the road to doing something evil, and the direction of the steps is a lot easier to recognise if you’ve read something similar in “escapist literature”.

Indies Don’t Need No Stinking Curator

I’ll be the first to admit there can be quite a few problems with independent publishing, but the persistence of the refrain “solve the problems of indie publishing by making it more like traditional publishing!” is becoming ridiculous.

This is in response to “Curation, Please!”, a column by James Patrick Kelly in the March 2015 edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Kelly goes through the five things he knows about self-publishing*, and I agree with him, and talks about editors and gatekeepers as “curators”.

“In an ideal world, where we were all immortal and lived in a post-scarcity utopia, there would be time enough for us to sample all new stories personally. But until that happy day arrives, we have to rely on curators to read and make recommendations for us.”

There is no “indie curator” that Kelly trusts, and he doesn’t trust on-site reviews because of the possibility of buying reviews. Leaving aside the fact that trust is a very subjective thing, and it’s pretty easy to distinguish a paid-for review from an honest one once you’ve read a few, we don’t have to rely on curators at all. Assuming there’s a decent number of reviews (on Amazon), just look at the top-ranked positive review and the top-ranked negative review, and that should give you a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

More useful than that is the automatic recommendations Amazon generates, which suggests books based on the purchases of other people who have bought the book you’re looking at: These are books they’ve forked out money for, so you know the recommendations haven’t been “bought”. This isn’t perfect, of course, since people have a wide variety of tastes that don’t always go together, and it’s theoretically possible that a lot of them bought the recommended book because it was on the “also bought” list, but they didn’t actually like it. However, if you see two books on this list by the same author, that’s a pretty good sign that those who bought the first book liked it enough to buy the second.

“So here’s my modest proposal for self-publishing: we need some curation…maybe the indie writer community could steer some of its promotional savvy toward creating its own curation infrastructure.”

Apparently Kelly has missed the point that any curator established by the “indie writer community” would probably be considered biased by himself, and therefore not trusted. Let’s consider how this curator would get paid – obviously a writer paying the curator to review their work is a pretty dubious affair. Perhaps all the independent writers could pay a certain amount to fund the salary of the curator, except they’re probably going to get annoyed at the time it takes the curator to get around to reviewing their own work, and therefore resent the fee. Maybe the curator could create a magazine that people subscribed to, that included reviews of independent books and authors, and perhaps some short stories that the curator feels are worth reading. They’d have to pay the author for the stories, of course. What a fantastic business model, I wonder why no-one has thought of that?

Hopefully this demonstrates that the whole idea of a curator of independent publishing defeats the purpose, because once that happens the publishing isn’t independent, but rather based on the tastes of the curator, ie: Traditional publishing.

On this whole topic I have only a couple more points to make. First, a comment on Kelly’s “post-scarcity utopia”. Time is only one lack that people have, the other is money. Indie books are rarely above $5 each, there’s often discounts and promotions, series collected into one low purchase price and so on. If an indie author has written a series the first book is usually free or 99c, a very cheap way to try the author out. The authors still make money because their royalty rate is so much higher. In traditional publishing the cheapest book is $10, most are even higher, and new books spend an inordinate amount of time in hardcover at $25-30. In this very issue of Asimov’s there was a book review that I found interesting, but it was hardcover for $25 so I know it’s going to be a long time before that’s cheap enough that I’m willing to buy it…and by that stage I will have forgotten all about the review. Publishing online removes this problem, which I’ll talk about below.

The final point I want to make is the most obvious one, in that it all comes down to personal taste. It’s very rare that I’ll read a magazine and like every story published in it, because the curator and I have different tastes. The best I can hope for are a couple of stories I think are awesome and a few that I think are reasonably good, and that there aren’t too many I thought were a complete waste of time. So it’s not that much different from checking out different indie authors. One of the problems with editors is that they have to appeal to their entire readerships, so they’re looking for stories that will appeal to the majority of their tens-or-hundreds of thousands of readers. It’s inevitable a certain amount of homogenisation will creep into the selection. This might be what Kelly wants – I had a recent conversation about Terry Pratchett** that clearly demonstrated that quite a lot of people do seek this – clear knowledge of what to expect from a story.

Myself, I like having my expectations challenged. I like reading things I find strange or surreal, things that have knew thoughts or show me different ways of thinking. Now, it’s true that a lot of this stuff is mediocre at best, but after dropping 99c on a new author I’m not really that concerned. When I was a kid looking for books I’d walk into something like Dymocks or Barnes and Noble, and I left dissatisfied more often than not. Either I could find nothing I wanted to read – or at least, nothing I wanted to drop $15 on for a test – or there were many books I wanted to read and I could only afford to buy one or two. Sometimes there was a book from a new author that looked interesting, and if it was in paperback and there was nothing else I wanted I’d buy it. More often this book was published at the same time as a few other books I was interested in reading, books that I knew I would like, so I’d buy those books instead. The next time I went to the bookstore and there was nothing to interest me there’s a good chance that new interesting book would have completely slipped my mind, and if I did remember it there was a good chance it was no longer in stock because the bookstore hadn’t sold enough copies to keep it on the shelves.

Now everything is digital, and a lot easier. Books are always on the shelves, and there’s often new authors I can try out for a dollar rather than fifteen dollars. If I don’t want to buy the untested book at that time, it goes on the wish list and is not forgotten. Or I can try 101 authors for free, such as the example below.

So the main point of this post is: Considering the ability to buy from home and have the books instantly delivered, the wide range of ways to get an idea about a book before you read it, and the incredibly low prices, the barriers are lower than ever for you to find stories that you like yourself rather than passing off that selection to a third party. So why not have a go?

* The five things James Patrick Kelly knows about self-publishing:
1) “Indie authors” can be confused with Indie Publishing or Small Press, which are publishers with less than $50 million per year according to Wikipedia.
2) More control is in the hands of authors.
3) Responsibility for the quality of the work rests entirely on the author.
4) Promotional acumen is the survival skill for all writers.
5) Vanishingly few writers of any persuasion, indie or traditional, earn a living wage. He also notes that because of indie publishing the definition of “professional” needs to change, for things like SFWA.

** Someone was going to try the Discworld series for the first time, and asked where to start. I suggested at the beginning, not just because Julie Andrews suggested it, but because I think that’s where Pratchett’s best books are most highly concentrated. Others suggested starting towards the end of his oeuvre, because he had developed as a writer and worked out his style. I found that his later books became predictable and repetitive, both the plot and the jokes, and weren’t as exciting and original as his first books (still really good though, for sure). Basically, I picked up The Colour of Magic because of the Josh Kirby cover and was blown away by fast-paced original writing that was really unlike anything I’d read before. Others want a more formulaic approach, they want to know what they’re getting when they buy a book. That’s perfectly fine, and they’re going to get a lot more out of curators than I do.