Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Today I'm entering the Something Wicked Blogfest hosted by the fabulous group blog Wicked and Tricksy. This is a blogfest for those of us who love speculative fiction of any kind. To participate you should write a post about the following:

1. Name 3 of your favorite spec-fic stories (books, movies, tv shows, anything goes!)
2. Tell us why YOU love spec-fic – what plot line, character type, story trope, setting, time, place is your absolute favorite.
3. Take a guess if you can: where do you see spec-fic stories going in the next two, five, ten years? What will be popular and how will the sub-genres have changed?

The great thing about this blogfest is that it is open for signups until July 10th and there are 4 boxes full of amazing gifts that will go to four winners. There's really no downside! (I'm looking at the first box, myself.)

Naming just three of my favorite spec fic stories is going to be HARD. But to make it easier on myself I'm going to consider series as one story. (Cheating? Maybe, but otherwise the choice might give me a panic attack.) I'm going to combine point number 1 and point number 2 but stating what my favorite aspects of each story are.

It's easy to see why these books should be lumped together. They are one story unfolding over the course of seven novels and J. K. Rowling manages an impressive fluidity between them. The story of Harry Potter, when broken down to its basic parts, isn't really very original. It's full of familiar things. Wizards casting spells. A school for training magic users. An evil "Dark Lord" bent on world domination and elimination of "impurity". The "Chosen One", the only person who possesses the power to defeat the enemy. And of course, the Chosen One's faithful sidekicks. None of this hasn't been done before in many ways. Which is why the Harry Potter books are the perfect example of "it's not what you've got, it's how you use it."

Because despite the ordinary ingredients, Rowling still manages to measure and mix until she's put together a fresh, unique, powerful and compelling story experience. Not only that, but she also manages with a skillfull hand to dole out the experience in just the right amounts. A little bit of back story here, a little bit of action here, a little bit of comedy here, just the right amount of moving the overall story arc forward in each book. It's pure, masterful storytelling at its best.

My Harry Potter Favorites:

1. Plot Line

I'm a huge sucker for back story so Half Blood Prince was my favorite of the 7 books. I really enjoyed all the scenes where Dumbledore revealed Voldemort's history and told Harry the details of the Horcruxes.

2. Character

Snape. It's gotta be Snape. I was just so impressed by the way Rowling managed to play on the question of his loyalty right from the beginning until the very end, slowly revealing the extent of his involvement in the overall story. The complexity of her characterization of him and the way she could make him act like such an evil bastard and still get us to sympathize with him in the end... I want to write like that.

3. Setting

The Wizarding World. I bow to Rowling's world building skills. The way the Wizarding World exists and operates inside our own is just amazing. All the little details she inserts from Bertie Bot's Every Favor Beans to the very unique entrance into St. Mungo's make the setting come alive and feel completely real and completely plausible. Can any of us really be sure there's no Ministry of Magic?

4. Other

The Magic System in Harry Potter isn't the most complex or unique, but it's fun and interesting. It has rules and limitations, it needs to be learned and it has a good and a bad side. It facilitates wondrous things like flying sports and teleportation but it also allows horrors like Horcruxes and killing curses. And surely I'm not the only one who has waved a magic wand and cried "Accio chocolate!"

I had to choose between The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion for this spot, but it really wasn't a hard choice. (Some of you may be thinking, "What? LOTR isn't your favorite?" Shocking, I know, but that spot is reserved for something else.) I love The Lord of the Rings. It was the book that got me seriously into the fantasy genre. It was unlike anything I had ever read before and absolutely swept me away. But even more than LOTR, The Silmarillion is a book after my own heart.

I have always had a passion for history and for mythology and The Sil reads like a mythological history of Tolkien's secondary world, Arda. Like the northern mythologies from which Tolkien was inspired, it is chock full of fascinating peoples, gods, creatures and places. The War of Wrath between. the Elves and the Dark Lord Morgoth is the main story but other adventures that tie into the War are also present. The Sil tells about the creation of the world, the awakening of the Elves and the establishment of their kingdoms. After the conclusion of the War of Wrath, there is also the history of the Men of Numenor (ancestors of the Men of Gondor in LOTR) and a brief retelling of the War of the Ring as well. The book is so full of the history of Arda that sometimes it is hard to keep names of people and places straight, but the effort is worth it to get an unparalleled glimpse of the big picture that Tolkien envisioned. There was never a more ambitious fantasy world.

1. Favorite Plot Line

This is a tough one. I think I'd have to go with the story of Beren and Luthien. I'm normally not that much of a romantic, but there's just something about a man being willing to walk into the Dark Lord's stronghold to try and steal his most precious possession just so he can marry the woman he loves that I can't resist. And of course, the great thing about this version of that motif is that the love interest doesn't stay at home waiting for him to complete his quest, she goes after him, saves him from certain death and is the one who magics the Dark Lord asleep with her voice so that they can take a Silmaril from him. I'm not normally one to say this, but girl power!

2. Favorite Character

Another tough decision. In The Sil, characterization is not a focus. It's more of a history than a narrative. What is a focus is the Elven culture. And Tolkien's Elves are unique and fascinating. There is no more well developed (especially if you read the material in the History of Middle-earth series) fantasy race. Elves are not very popular right now. People always tend to consider them overdone. But Tolkien's Elves are always fresh, the perfect mix of like and unlike humanity. Honorable Elf mentions: Feanor, Maedhros, Finrod, Fingolfin, Luthien.

3. Favorite Setting

The city of Gondolin. There is a special allure to the hidden city motif. Gondolin is hidden away in the mountains, far from the prying eyes of Morgoth's spies. There Turgon and his people bide their time until they can contribute to the overthrow of Morgoth, but they are eventually betrayed by one of their own, the king's own nephew. The Fall of Gondolin is a particularly poignant story in The Sil, full of valiant acts of self sacrifice so that some of the people of the city might survive.

4. Miscellaneous Favorite

The languages. Tolkien developed two distinct Elven languages for his world, Quenya and Sindarin. Being a linguist himself, he was able to establish grammatical rules and quite a large vocabulary for each. For instance, I can tell you that an informal greeting in Quenya would be "Suilanyel" or I can compliment your hair in Sindarin by saying "I finneg bain." It's just one of the things that makes Arda so real.

The Dune series including the books Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune is without a doubt my favorite story of all. The books tell the story of Paul Atreides and his son Leto II over the course of thousands of years. And, oddly enough given my preferences, the books are science fiction, not fantasy, taking place on a faraway planet called Arrakis or Dune at a time in the distant future. However, what makes these books so interesting is that instead of proposing that humanity has advanced and evolved into an enlightened society (like in Star Trek), civilization has actually regressed into a feudal society run by an Emperor and his armies, a transportation guild that controls space travel, and a trading association that oversees all economic activity. In the midst of this there are the noble houses, lords of planets, among them the Atreides.

But it also proposes advances to humans themselves. There are Mentats, human computers, using logic and information to make brilliant deductions in order to advice their employers. There are the Bene Gesserit who have access to ancestral memories and have a breeding program in place in order to bring about the perfect human. There are the Guild Navigators who are able to use the spice Melange in order to "see" a pathway through the stars to guide the guild space ships. Melange is at the center of the story, the mysterious substance only found on Arrakis that grants extended life and, in the right person, prophetic abilities.

1. Favorite Plot Line

The Kwisatz Haderach and the Golden Path. Paul is the perfect human, the Kwisatz Haderach, that the Bene Gesserit have been trying to create. As such, he can see into both past and future and with his power can either doom humanity to bloodshed and violence or lead them onto the Golden Path which will ultimately save them from destruction. But Paul fails because he falls in love. Where Paul fails, Leto becomes his heir and is the only one strong enough the make the sacrifice necessary to carry humanity onto the Golden Path. That sacrifice is a dehumanizing one and is made all the more tragic because humanity does not realize or appreciate what Leto is doing for them. It breaks my heart every time.

2. Favorite Character

There are so many great characters. The books thrive on characterization. Leto II is, of course a favorite, as well as Paul. But I think it's also important to point out the strong female characters. Jessica, Paul's mother and a Bene Gesserit, who chooses to give into her lover's wishes instead of the instructions of her order and changes the world forever. Chani, Paul's companion and lover, the Fremen Sayadinna who both gives strength to Paul and keeps him from making the sacrifice the Golden Path demands. Alia Atreides, a victim of the circumstances of her birth, driven made by the voices in her head. Irulan the princess that Paul marries for the throne, denied his love and the privilege of bearing his heir, she still cares for his children when he is gone. Honestly, I could go on and on about the characters of Dune.

3. Favorite Setting

The desert of Arrakis. The Fremen are trying desperately to change their dry planet into a lush paradise, and yet there still remains something special and elusive about the desert. When the desert is gone, the Fremen soul goes with it.

4. Other

There is a lot of philosophy in the books. Each character has a unique and well established world view and the plot explores many philosophical themes often relating to politics and religion as well as the nature of humanity. It makes for a very heady and rich reading experience.

Where is Speculative Fiction going in the future?

I can't speak for all spec fic, epic fantasy is my real passion. And I'm not sure I want to think about where it will go. All I know is where I hope it will go. I desperately want a return to tradition in epic fantasy and by that I mean a resurgence of the motifs and themes that come from our mythological past. Fantasy is the child of mythology.

I want authors to stop striving for realism in a genre that was meant to bring to life our desires. Believability, yes. Realism, no. I hope authors will remember that fantasy is about exploring the wonder of our imaginations, not wallowing in the darkness of our souls. I want fantasy to return to the magic of its childhood. Cynical middle age doesn't suit it. Fantasy has often been accused of being for children and maybe it is. But it is for the child in all of us, for our lost innocence. It is meant to glorify good, not evil. It is meant to be the light in the darkness. I hope that someday people will tire of the darkness and strive once more for the light and the magic and the wonder.


  1. Sarah, I ADORE your last two paragraphs. YES! Completely agree!

    "Surely I'm not the only one who has waved a
    magic wand and cried 'Accio chocolate!'"

    - My cousin and I did this with sparklers this weekend. :)

  2. Hear hear on Harry Potter and The Silmarillion! (haven't read Dune yet)
    I avoided the Harry Potter books until the fourth one, because of all the hype, but then when I finally read them I was impressed no end by how fresh Rowling made it all sound. Say, did you see my recent post about Snape? :-)
    And of course nothing beats Tolkien [g] This song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1GCWwQbKic) reminds me of Beren and Luthien.

  3. You like your speculative fiction with detailed worlds - I can tell!

  4. Nicole, glad there are those who agree with me!

    Deniz, I commented on your post about Snape. :P I avoided Harry Potter for a long time too. There was a huge rivalry between HP and LOTR fans for a while when the first movies of both were coming out and I was firm;y entrenched in the LOTR side. Later on I condescended to watch the HP movies and after seeing Prisoner of Azkaban... I knew I couldn't not read them any longer. :)

  5. Alex, you know I've always considered myself more of a character person, but you're right. I just love fantasy worlds and I like to know as much about them as possible.

  6. Of course you did, Sarah! Sorry, been a bit out of it since I'm so busy with the writers' houseparty (http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=1&nav=messages&webtag=ws-books&tid=71737)
    That's my excuse! ;-)

  7. Excellent choices :) one thing I love about fantasy are the rich and detailed.worlds and well developed cultures within them. I agree that epic fantasy needs to go back to its roots at some point in the near future. Eventually readers will get sick of bleak worlds and see sense :)

  8. I'm starting to read HP now (currently on Chapter 3 of the Philosopher's Stone), and it's pretty good so far. Rowling's writing is fresh and tight.

    I have also read LOTR and The Hobbit, but I haven't read The Silmarillion yet. I will add that to my to-read list!

    And I've heard of Dune as well. I'll probably wait on that one, since I have about 50 books lined up and waiting to be read.

  9. Jamie, I can only hope so cause I'm already sick of bleak worlds!

    GKJeyasingham, The Sil is a tough read not for the faint of heart. So is Dune for that matter. My husband got me to read it in the first place by hinting that it might be over my head. ;)

  10. I love the Silmarillion! I'm a huge history buff, and I love learning about the past, even if it is a made up past.

    I haven't decided which Harry Potter book is my fav. I'll have to re-read them to make a decision, but I also loved the whole back story with Voldemort.

    I agree that people shouldn't wallow in darkness, but I don't completely agree with you that they are. There is plenty of light YA AND adult fiction out there. But I'm an eternal optimist that sees the good in everything, so that's just my perspective.

  11. I have not read, well, any YA. (Is HP considered YA or MG? I have no real idea where the distinction is.) So I don't really have any opinions about its contents. But I know there is quite a lot of nihilistic epic fantasy around. It's been a growing trend for some time.

    Mind, I don't mind darkness per se, I mind darkness that is never defeated by light. It's a trend I hope people loose their taste for soon.

  12. HP is weird. I think it started out as MG, but as the series progressed it turned more into YA.

    I haven't personally encountered too much undefeated darkness--other than 1984 or Brave New World--maybe I just gravitate towards happier novels?


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