Sunday, May 30, 2010

We Weren't Going to Win...

When the nominations were opened for the 2010 PrixAurora Awards, all of us – Ryan McFadden, Roxanne Felix, Billie Milholland and I -- threw our names in the ring, even though we knew we'd never be shortlisted.  “Women of the Apocalypse,” the anthology we had written, had been launched by Absolute Xpress in October of 2009, and though we had had some success with it, we could see we were up against big names.  We were too small, too unknown, too everything.  We didn't have a chance, and we knew it.  But, we entered our stories and the anthology, just the same.  Because you never know what will stick.  Then, we pushed.

Since Women of the Apocalypse was launched in October of 2009, one of the biggest lessons we learned was the hard work does not stop when the book is published.  That is actually when it starts.  We quickly realized nobody cared about four unknown writers and their a strange little print on demand anthology.  If we wanted to get anywhere at all, we had to push.  Hard.

Using the push hard technique got us into book stores when we didn't have distribution.  It got us a series of successful launches and book signings, across the country.  It got us advantageous tables at events, even if we didn't start there.  (I call that my Nazi Germany tactic.  “We need more room!”) It got us media attention.  It got us on the Calgary Herald Bestsellers List.

So, we wanted to see if it would get any of our stories – and maybe even the anthology – shortlisted.  We all set to work, contacting everyone we knew who had purchased a book, telling them about our nominations, and asking them to help us attain one more goal. They were happy to hear from us, and happy to vote.  And, they were happy to tell their friends and networks.

It worked, better than we could have hoped.  My novella, Pawns Dreaming of Roses, made it into the “Short” category, and the anthology made it into “Other.”  We were delighted, over the moon, thrilled.  We knew we couldn't win.  But we wanted to make a good showing, so when it came to the final vote, we did what we do best.  We pushed.

We explained about the Auroras to whoever would listen – and to some who would rather have not.  We explained about the honour and tradition, we tried to explain the voting system used (even though we didn't really understand it ourselves) and we talked about our book.  We talked endlessly about our book.  To anyone and everyone. 

I don't know about the rest of the four, but when I pulled into Winnipeg for Key Con, and then the Aurora Award gala on Sunday night, I was exhausted, but determined to celebrate how far we had come in a relatively short time.  Way in the back of my heart, I wished we would win... but I knew we probably wouldn't.  But that was OK, because we'd done the best we could. 

And then, on Sunday, we won.  Not once, but twice.

We didn't have thank you speeches prepared.  We didn't have media releases ready to shoot out to all the local and national media the next day.  We didn't have much planned at all.  So, we all looked and acted like happy deer in the headlights for most of that night, and the next day.

And now?  We are pushing again.  Hard.  But it's funny.  I don't feel quite as exhausted as I did last week.            


Eileen Bell has written (you guessed it) most of her life. She has completed 3 novels (one burned, one under her bed, one out in the world), and many short works.  She has been published in On Spec and Western Producer (showing her range) and her work has been produced for CBC's Alberta Anthology.  She also won an Honourable Mention in the Writer's Guild of Alberta's Screenwriter's Initiative. Her last published work is her Aurora winning novella in “Women of the Apocalypse.”  When she is not counting her minutes of fame, she is working on another collaboration project. When she isn’t writing she’s living a fine life in a round house with her husband, her dog, her daughter’s cat, and two goldfish.

Women of the Apocalypse
The Aurora-winning fantasy anthology!

Four women. Four shooters. Four destinies to save the world…

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are coming. And four Archangels find the perfect champions to save the world: fighters, warriors, soldiers, and brave men,  all ready to fight for humanity against end times. All they have to do is drink a shooter — a caustic mix of alcohol and divinity that will imbue them with the conviction to battle the Four.

Buy it here.
Visit the website

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Why Awards Matter

 By Hayden Trenholm

The voting for the 2010 Prix Aurora Awards ends on Saturday, May 22.  The Awards themselves will be given out at a banquet the next day.  By the time you read this, my novel, Steel Whispers, may have won the Aurora for best Canadian SF novel of the year.  Or maybe not.  And what difference will it make anyway?  Why does an Award voted on by a few hundred fans of the field matter?
Of course, you could say the same thing about the Hugos (less than a thousand fans generally determine those) or even the Nebula (voted on by the fewer than 1500 members of the Science Fiction Writers of America).  Heck, why not throw in the Golden Globes (selected by a couple of hundred foreign journalists) or the granddaddy of them all, the Oscars, voted on by the 6000 members of the Academy?
But, of course, awards matter, the Auroras no less than any other.  In fact, on a per capita basis more people nominate and vote for the Auroras than any of the other SF awards around the world.  The Auroras are a symbol of professional success for writers and artists (and an acknowledgment of volunteer contributions with the fan awards) and most – though not all – major Canadian SF writers have been or will be nominated or win one in the course of their career.
The Awards also help to establish you as a significant player in the field.  Since winning my own Aurora for short fiction two years ago, I’ve been more welcome as a guest at conventions and, I think, my stories get a little harder look by editors.  Was winning the Aurora the only factor?  I hope not.  I’ve worked very hard to promote my work and to improve it.  But being able to call myself an Aurora-winning writer hasn’t hurt.
Perhaps the most important element in the whole awards business is not in the winning at all.  Like pursuing happiness – whether or not you ever achieve it – pursuing an Aurora has its own rewards.  Obviously, no one can vote for your work if they never heard of it.  The annual awards process encourages writers to build their fan base and their web presence.  Editors and publishers like writers who do a good job of promoting themselves and their work. In the long run, the side effects may have more to do with your long-term success as a professional writer than actually having a few shiny statues sitting on your shelf. 
Still, whenever I feel the urge to pack it in as too much work for too little reward, I like to look up at my shimmering Aurora on its maple base and remember that, sometimes, it’s all worthwhile.


Hayden Trenholm’s short fiction has appeared in On Spec, TransVersions, Tesseracts 6. Neo-Opsis, Challenging Destiny, Talebones, Gaslight Grotesque and on CBC radio.  In 2008, after a record fourth consecutive short fiction nomination, he won the Aurora for his novella, "Like Water in the Desert."  His novel, Defining Diana, was released by Bundoran Press in 2008 and was nominated for an Aurora Award in the long fiction category.  A sequel, Steel Whispers, was published in August 2009 and is a nominee for the Aurora this year.  The third book of the Steele Chronicles, Stealing Home, will be published later this year.

Steel Whispers by Hayden Trenholm
 Four dead Borg and counting. Serial killer, gang violence or civil war? While the Special Detection Unit hunts for answers, a terrified family searchs for their Disappeared daughter, and war between society's elites takes an even nastier turn. Borg and genetic technology is evolving exponentially and Frank Steele finds himself up against unfathomable enemies.

Franks needs to find the key that ties it all together. He's sworn to protect every citizen. It's his duty as a cop. But now it's gotten personal and Frank has to face the ultimate test - investigating the death of his own son.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Away From Paris

By Matthew Johnson

Hemingway once wrote that "away from Paris I could write about Paris, as in Paris I could write about Michigan." He needed the Atlantic Ocean between him and his old life in order to be able to write about it with detachment, a distance that was the same as the distance between memoir and fiction.

Distance is what lets science fiction and fantasy do things no other genre can do. The most obvious application of this is satire, which is what made Star Trek famous (and occasionally infamous) in its day: the distance provided by the genre allowed the producers to tackle issues that would have been taboo in a more “realistic” setting. The episode Errand of Mercy, for instance, provides an interesting commentary on Cold War concerns when omnipotent aliens impose a peace upon the Klingons and the Federation by force – reflecting a wish, which might have been impolitic to air on American TV in the 1960s, that the United States and the then-Soviet Union be made to settle their differences.

Satire, though, is only a small and very limited application of the distance provided by writing in the fantastic genres, and it’s instructive to note that many of that show’s most memorable episodes are not satires. (Moreover, the episodes that did not rely on satire have generally aged better.) Instead they, like many of the best works of SF and fantasy, make use of the kind of distance Hemingway was talking about: the distance necessary to write about the things that matter to us.

Take, for example, John M. Ford’s beautiful story “Walkaway Clause.” (Alas, this is available nowhere on the Web; if you want to read it – and you should – you need to find a copy of his collection From the End of the Twentieth Century.) The story is simple enough: a beautiful interstellar trader, who has settled down with the man who designs her starships, has her life turned upside down when her long-lost lover – a starship pilot in the Galactic Hero model, long presumed dead – returns from the other side of the universe, or the end of time, or possibly both, on a starship that has been rebuilt by a mysterious alien intelligence. A number of complications follow – most notably, she needs to spirit the ship away from her insurers, who intend to claim either the ship or her own company.

That’s not really what the story is about, though: it’s about the fear of losing your loved ones – in particular, the fear of losing them because you didn’t hold on hard enough. (Go read the story, you’ll see what I mean.) So why write it as science fiction? Why not write a story about, say, an ex-biker chick, now settled in the suburban life in Grosse Pointe, whose long-vanished boyfriend roars into town on his Harley? To begin with our experiences with bikers, whether real or fictional, will colour our view of that story; writing about starship pilots and galactic traders, on the other hand, makes the story more nearly universal. As well, in the biker story we would know immediately what it was about on an emotional level: writing it as SF, on the other hand, allows Ford to do bit of legerdemain, using the genre to make you hey-look-over-here­ at the space opera story while the real story socks you in the gut. The strength of the fantastic genres is that they let us sit in a café in Paris – or Barsoom, or Middle-Earth – and tell our stories about Michigan.
Matthew Johnson is a Canadian SF and fantasy writer whose works have appeared in places such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine. His novel Fall From Earth was released in 2009 by Bundoran Press. You can see more of his work at his blog. He lives in Ottawa with his wife Megan, his son Leo and two surprisingly patient cats.

Fall From Earth by Matthew Johnson.

 Shi Jin is a rebel, the latest in a long line of those who have challenged the Borderless Empire and failed. Dropped with a crew of convicts on an uninhabited planet, Shi Jin  – and mankind  – encounter alien life forms for the first time. She discovers that she is part of a much bigger that will force her to decide between her desire to defeat the Empire and the future of humanity.

 "Matthew Johnson...has revealed as fresh and original a new voice as any in our field, and a voice with impressive range."
--Rich Horton, Editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2009

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sci-fi Theatre

By Leeman Kessler

This spring, I had the opportunity to portray 1920s horror writer HP Lovecraft in a play called "Monstrous Invisible".  This and three other plays of a supernatural and/or pop cultural bent were part of Monkeyman Productions' Banana Festival in Toronto.  All of these were previewed by Eye Weekly in an article called "Sci-Fi Lo-Fi" wherein Paul Gallant commented on the uniqueness of mixing science fiction with live theatre, noting the contradictions between private consumption of one and the necessarily corporate interaction of the other.  While I appreciated the publicity, I found myself struck by some of the assumptions made. 

"But still. All the artistic forms that have comfortably absorbed the caped crusaders, monsters, wizards and space travel of Planet Nerd have one thing in common: they all tend to be enjoyed alone, in the dark, usually on a screen or on pulpy paper.  Live theatre, already colonized by its own breed of misfits, has a propensity for real-time action and low budgets that seem a poor match for geek fascinations. You have to go out in public to see theatre, which is no easy chore for folks who have trouble leaving their parents’ basement."

Two things strike me as false about this.  First, is the premise that scifi/fantasy is a loner's game.  This blog alone suggests that there is an urge among the fantastically-oriented to commune.  My bookshelves are filled with sci-fi books that I've shared and have had shared with me.  My wife has a missionary's zeal when it comes to spreading the Gospel according to Joss Whedon.  The convention scene has been alive and kicking for over seventy five years as evidenced by the subject matter of Monstrous Invisible.  The story revolves around the short marriage between Lovecraft and Sonia Greene, a financial supporter of horror publications.  The two met as part of this community and while the marriage did not last long, it showcases that even an introvert like Lovecraft was able to extricate himself from his mother's basement in Providence for the sake of his literary passions.

The second fallacy is the idea that theatre rarely demeans itself with the Fantastic.  In the Banana Festival, we had my show about eldritch horror and romance, "Fortress of Solitude" about superheroes and romance, and finally "The Second Last Man on Earth" about zombies...and romance.  All three dealt with their respective subject matters in different ways, either using the horror to parallel the feelings of hopelessness in a loveless marriage or merely acting as a fantastic background.  Before this festival, Monkeyman had done other plays that explored similar themes, but outside of this company I have seen other uses of Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror on stage.  Carol Churchill's A Number is about a father, his son, and that son's many clones. Gary Owen's Drowned World is set in a not-too-distant future where the mundane and the homely have risen up against the talented and the beautiful to create a paradise free of envy where two attractive people find themselves hiding for fear of their lives.  There are also the big budgeted plays and musicals based on books, comics and movies like the Lord of the Rings, Evil Dead or The Golden Compass.  While the larger scale productions highlight the Fantastic through setting and special effects, they are no less a part of this need and urge to explore the strange that is at the heart of the Fantastic.  To suggest that it's a leap for theatre to indulge in such trappings maligns the various genres and also displays ignorance of theatre's history.  Even The Tempest and A Midsummer's Night Dreams are plays about the Fantastic and the people caught up in it.

While there are good points made in this interview about the intersection of various sub-cultures, to say that such a juncture is unseen or somehow innately problematic does not sit well with me.  Science Fiction and Fantasy are both about journeys and explorations if in different ways.  Theatre merely gives a storyteller different tools to go about showing that exploration and I consider myself quite lucky to be a part of these different forays and I recommend others join in the fun.

Leeman Kessler, Science Fiction professional, is a Nigerian-born American living and laughing in Canada.  He occupies his time selling books, acting, singing karaoke loudly, and getting paid to let medical students poke him.

Slush Pile PR

By Helen Marshall

As both a slush pile reader and a slush pile submitter, I've come to recognize that there is far more human reaction and interaction going on behind the seemingly opaque process than most people think.  Sure, we've all gotten our egos crushed by computerized line-ups, form rejection letters, and uncaring silence.  But the truth is that the writing community is not that large. It pays to remember that behind most form letters is still a pair of eyes that took the time to browse your story.  There are all sorts of considerations editors pay attention to -- the experience of the author, the quality of the story, the genre of the story, the subgenre of the story, the cover letter, the manuscript format, whether the editor has met the author.  This means that there's no cut and dry policy for catching their attention. 

That doesn't mean there aren't ways to ingratiate yourself to your editor.  Here are my top five suggestions for people submitting to the slush pile.

1) Know who you are submitting to.

Practically every online magazine advises you to read their submission guidelines thoroughly and, ideally, check out a couple of issues.  We know it's hard to spend the time doing the research.  After all, you have a day job and you just spent your free time actually writing your poem/story/novel.  But as I said above, the community isn't that large.  Chances are, you'll be submitting again so the research now can save you time, postage, and heartache later down the road.  Besides, there are so many guidelines that are ambiguous.  Everyone says they want to publish "edgy" and "experimental" work.  But what does that mean?  Do they want something dark?  Something with sex?  Something politically apt?  Something with a standard, publishable form?  Something with hyperlinks and graphics and flashing lights?  The only way to find out is to read their work and see for yourself.

2) Listen to what those guidelines say.

Perhaps one third to one half of the submissions I receive are in proper manuscript format (or something like it).  Many people send me exerpts in the body of the e-mail (with crazy fonts . . . ugh); many don't send synopses; some lack critical punctuation or formatting; some are in file types completely unreadable.  Yes, we're willing to meet you halfway on some of this stuff, but would you show up to an interview with mustard stains on your jacket, your shirt untucked, and your fly down?  No?  Don't send us a manuscript that looks like that.  Take your time.  Make sure it's professional looking, clean, proofread (as much as possible), and including all the information we ask for it.  First impressions are everything, and it honestly goes a long way.

3) Take time on your cover letter.

Some places read them first; some after the story; some never.  I normally glance over cover letters once before reading the story, because they serve as a kind of meet-and-greet with the author.  Editors of small presses, for example, wonder what it would be like to work with the author.  Will they be attentive?  Combatative?  Rude?  Detail-oriented? Easy-going? Casual?  You get a sense for some of this from the cover letter. Personally, I respond best to those cover letters that seem genuine and not overly pitch-y.  I don't need a hook or something quirky. The story should have that. I also hate being yelled at or scolded in a cover letter.  Do NOT tell me that if I don't publish your book then I'm not strong enough, or bold enough, or experimental enough.  Don't threaten me.  Don't guilt trip me.  Just be nice, polite, and then get the heck out of the way.  Oh, and please please please get my name and the name of my press right.  I was recently addressed as Bram.  I have no idea where that name came from. Trust me, that stuff irritates all editors.  And it happens a lot.

4) Be tactful to the editor.

I try to respond with something personal for every submission (though some inevitably end up more personalized than others).  This tends to open up a kind of conversation with the author, which can be intensely rewarding or incredibly frustrating.  I appreciate it when someone sends me a little note back thanking me for my time.  I don't appreciate the second pitch or the third pitch or the fourth pitch that can sometimes follow. The best thing you can do for yourself (specially if the editor recommends you resubmit that story or other material) is to be polite in response . . . even if you strongly disagree with their comments.  Starting an argument about why that editor was wrong is a surefire way to shoot yourself in the foot.  And, look, honestly, sometimes we do get it wrong.  We misread.  We don't read far enough. We misjudge the market.  But it is far better to say: "You thought x? I guess what I was trying to do with y did not work out as I planned.  I'll keep that in mind for later revisions." Don't say: "Are you blind?  What about y?  Didn't you see y?  Who do you think you are, saying that about x."

5) Be tactful after the fact.

This is sometimes tricky because rejections hurt.  They can sting like a sonovagun.  And we often want to share our pain with our friends and colleagues.  But there is a fine line between commiseration and condemnation.  If you get that story published somewhere else and find, wow, the editor really did miss y but the rest of the world got it . . . you don't need to tell the editor.  You don't need to tell the world about the editor on your blog, at your launch, during your signings, etc.  Once again, the community isn't that big.  Repeat it again: The community isn't that big!  Put it on a tape and play it over and over and night if you need to.  People hear what you're saying, and you never know when it might come back to haunt you. Even editors have friends who might be reading your blog, at your launch, getting a book signed.

A brief example: I read a novel submission that I really enjoyed.  It was funny.  It was quirky.  It was well-written with a sympathetic character and decent narrative development.  But it wasn't really the kind of material we publish. (We don't tend to do light horror or horror/comedy though I can think of exceptions.)  I wrote what was my nicest rejection letter to date.  And it was a bit strange, because how do you say "This is great, but it's not for us" and make someone believe you?  It's tricky.  But I was actually looking forward to the author writing back to me so I could recommend some places to try and genuinely show my support for his endeavour.  Instead, I found the rejection letter up (with my name and my press's name) on a rejection letter blog.  The commentary wasn't as horrible as on some rejection letters . . . but it could have been.  It's very easy to set up a Google alert and we knew the day it was posted.  And we saw it.  And we know exactly who sent it in.  Might it colour our consideration of further novels from the author?  Sure.  Might your blogging about a crazy/unfair/stupid/blind editor also attract attention?  It's possible.  So be careful, and be aware of what you're sending out into the universe.  Because it can come back in ways you can't predict.

So that's maybe a little dark and gloomy.  But the point to carry away from all this is that the Internet allows a level of personal interaction unheard of previously.  It may feel anonymous and cold, but it's really really not.  We want our authors to succeed.  We want our slush pile submissions to succeed because it's so much more fun for us when they do.  We want to be on your side.  Just meet us halfway. . . .

Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Of course, her fascination with the making and writing of books extends well into the present. Her poetry has been published in ChiZine, NFG and the Ontarion Arts Supplement. "Mist and Shadows," published originally in Star*Line, appeared in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry of 2005." "The Gypsy" and "Crossroads and Gateways" both received honourable mentions in the 2009 Rannu Fund Contest, while four other poems were short-listed. She works as an editor and slush reader for ChiZine Publications.

Speculative Poetry: The Red-Haired Stepchild of Genre Writing?

By Helen Marshall

Speculative poetry, huh?  Talk about ghetto buried in the basement of the already ghetto-ized lands of science fiction, horror, and fantasy.  I was working CZP's table at the dealer's room and, after selling somewhere in the vicinity of forty books, everyone was most astounded to discover I had even sold - wait for it! - a book of poetry! (And that book was The Animal Bridegroom by the talented Sandra Kasturi.  C'mon kids.  I defy anyone to read two pages of it and not buy the collection!)

Having been asked to participate as a judge in the Rannu Fund Poetry Competition some time ago, I found myself wondering exactly what constituted speculative fiction poetry.  Surely it must be about more than tropes, more than the trappings of genres, the familiar characters, the sly references to technology. My earlier post, which picks up upon Margaret Atwood's definition of "speculative fiction," shows that there's still controversy about what constitutes that genre (as separate from science fiction).  Is it as simple as stating that speculative fiction poetry has vampires or aliens or monsters?

 Suzette Haden Elgin, founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association defines it as being "about a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality."  I think she's on to something.  In my opinion, speculative fiction works precisely because it does something not because it is something. It makes us think about the world in new ways. It makes us re-evaluate the pillars of our society, its values, customs, mores, habits, and project forward to come face to face with the consequences of our actions.  It loosens the fixtures that bind us into thinking that this is the way things are because it has always been the way things are.

But when it comes to poetry, though, the line is increasingly blurry. Poetic language works on the very premise of pushing at the boundaries of reality.  Anne Carson, author of the Autobiography of Red (and what could be more "speculative" than a collection of poems about the red monster Geryon and his little dog?) writes about poetic language:

"What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate names. Adjectives come from somewhere else ... These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity.  They are the latches of being."

 But if nouns, verbs, and adjectives construct reality as Carson proposes, if they name it, activate it, latch it to the *real*, then isn't all poetry halfway there already?  Shakespeare writes, "Shall I compare you to a summer's day?"  He speculates. He uses the subjunctive.  He tiptoes around naming, offers us glimpses. A metaphor or simile is designed precisely to transmute one thing into another, to make it like another thing.  Is that not already beginning to alter reality, to confuse the process of naming?

 Any fantasist will tell you that poetry is a kind of magic.  That's why wizards speak in rhymes and fear to be named.  Language offers us the ropes to bind reality, but it also gives us the tools to unleash it.  To let it roam free in the woods, pouncing on passersby.

 Poetry is language compressed, made to do tricks, set up to spark and hiss in our minds.  Good poetry is, anyway.  Just look at the words of Bruce Boston and David Clink, Suzette Elgin and Carolyn Clink, Lorna Crozier and Anne Carson (the latter two who may not place themselves in the genre but certainly fit!). And, for me, speculative poetry must simply do more of that. It must push us further. It must open those chasms in reality wider.  It must be the glass through which we see darkly, strangely, because only in those shadows can we find the possibility of a new self.

Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Of course, her fascination with the making and writing of books extends well into the present. Her poetry has been published in ChiZine, NFG and the Ontarion Arts Supplement. "Mist and Shadows," published originally in Star*Line, appeared in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry of 2005." "The Gypsy" and "Crossroads and Gateways" both received honourable mentions in the 2009 Rannu Fund Contest, while four other poems were short-listed.

Myth and Fantasy Literature (IV)

By Victoria Goddard

I was originally going to write this next as a separate post from my two on myth and fantasy, but then it occurred to me that the relationship between modern fantasy literature and medieval studies fits right in with the mythophiloi and the mythopoeoi I talked about before.  A modern fantasist and medievalist, Dr. Debra Doyle has argued that speculative fiction in general is derived from medieval romance rather than the modern novel (her rant on the subject is available at  Small wonder, then, that a love of the Middle Ages -- whether amateur or professional -- characterizes many a fantasist.  (I speak from my own love; my knowledge of other branches of speculative fiction is limited.)

The roots of modern fantasy certainly come from both medieval literature and medievalists. William Morris in the nineteenth century, that doyen of Arts and Crafts, wrote a handful of fantasy romances of which the most resonant of both myth and fairy tale is The Well at the World’s End, which title is (to rework something C.S. Lewis wrote) almost a myth in itself, together with The Garden of the Hesperides or the Isles of the Blessed (for the use of which in literature one might look at Lud-In-The-Mist, by Hope Merrilees, or The Odyssey, by Homer). There was George MacDonald, most of whose books are fairy tales and who even called his adult fantasy Phantastes: A Faerie Romance

But of course, it was C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who revived fantasy literature by going back to those old sources, the gardens and the springs and wild forests.  The first time I read the Divine Comedy, I came to the end of Purgatory with a catch in my throat not only for the scene between Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice but because on entering the Earthly Paradise I was pleasantly flabbergasted to realize I’d been there before -- in Narnia.  Then I read a Norse saga, and found the names of Tolkien’s dwarves long since written.  Or I read Chrétien de Troyes, and then Gerald Morris’ YA retellings of Arthuriana (which I like particularly because they are about the knights and ladies, and not the overdone love triangle of the King), and like them both the more for the connection.

One of the joys of studying the classics is entering into the game of allusions that has been played since Virgil’s time and which some modern authors (I do not say, all) seem to have dropped in favour of originality.  In some of the best fantasy literature, I find the game still going strong, in this love of myth and fairytale, which are permitted to echo and be reworked, embroidered and re-dyed and generally made new and wonderful.  Virgil reworked Homer, and Dante Virgil, and C.S. Lewis Dante, and Terry Pratchett made fun of Lewis, and the game goes on.

Victoria Goddard has lived in more of Canada than most people even know exist.  She has lived from the East Coast to the prairies, from the High Arctic to lake country, from villages at the end of the road to Canada’s largest city.  Although in the midst of a five-year doctorate in medieval literature, she has managed to avoid breaking her record of not living for more than three years consecutively in any one house by haring off to Europe periodically to learn languages and look at medieval manuscripts.  A keen reader, particularly of fantasy (from all periods and places), she also writes (as-yet-unpublished) novels, mostly on the subject of the lives that lie behind the fairy stories, trying to combine pithy details of not-so-ordinary days with sometimes all-too-matter-of-fact magic. 

Myth and Fantasy Literature (III): The Mythopoeoi

By Victoria Goddard

And then there are mythopoeoi, the makers of myths.  These, too, most belovers, of course: to write good myths means to be in touch with the deep springs of story.  With mythopoeia we come close to the heart of all creative writing, fantastic and not, to the difference between poetry and prose that has nothing to do with form and everything to do with matter.  The great myths are the bones and the souls of stories, in that paradox of literature whereby the governing idea is also the structure of the text.  The hero’s journey of epic in all its forms, from The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to The Horse and His Boy; the raising of the humble to greatness, in every version of the Cinderella story, and there are many of them; and perhaps the oldest story of all, of love found and lost and regained.  Take those away, and what do you have?  Probably not even non-fiction, for they are the heart of all human stories, even if the characters are not.

I am not trying to argue for some reductionist concept of fantasy, mythic or not.  The glory of all art is in the particular, in the special manifestations of the universal.  Yes, Till We Have Faces, The Golden Ass of Apuleius, and Canova’s statue of “Cupid and Psyche” (insofar as a sculpture may be said to have ‘plot’; this one certainly tells a story) all have the same plot, but they do not, for all that, tell the same story. That is the point.  Prince Amatus, in One For The Morning Glory, is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be, though he is delightfully similar, a variation on a familiar tune. 

And that is really what myths in fantasy come down to, I think: they are part of the very old game (Virgil played it with Homer, and wealmost wonder if the author of Genesis played it with the writer of Gilgamesh) of turning old things new, and new things old. The retelling of a myth makes it reborn like the phoenix from the ashes of burnt-out clichés; the making of a new myth makes us wonder where we heard it before.  We can pinpoint the occasional moment of the birth of a new one, with a Charles Perrault (who gave the world “Puss in Boots,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” amongst others) or a Saint Augustine (if the conversion in the garden is not the stuff of fairytales, what is?  That it was factual does not detract from, only add to, its inherent truth), but even then we wonder if that story is not far older than its earliest incarnation.  Long ago, and far away, in the Dreamtime, in the land at the back of the North Wind, in the Isles of the Blessed, in the Summer Country, in the space between spaces, there lived a . . . story.  And also a storyteller.

Victoria Goddard has lived in more of Canada than most people even know exist.  She has lived from the East Coast to the prairies, from the High Arctic to lake country, from villages at the end of the road to Canada’s largest city.  Although in the midst of a five-year doctorate in medieval literature, she has managed to avoid breaking her record of not living for more than three years consecutively in any one house by haring off to Europe periodically to learn languages and look at medieval manuscripts.  A keen reader, particularly of fantasy (from all periods and places), she also writes (as-yet-unpublished) novels, mostly on the subject of the lives that lie behind the fairy stories, trying to combine pithy details of not-so-ordinary days with sometimes all-too-matter-of-fact magic. 

Myth and Fantasy Literature (II): The Mythophiloi

By Victoria Goddard

We are, as a species, lovers of myth one and all, and the retelling only stops briefly when a myth dies for the first time and is given a concrete form by some scholar or other.  The Greek gods died as worshipped divinities long ago, but their myths never have. When we meet the goddess of love in The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter, by John Myers Myers, or in Marie Phillips’ Gods Behaving Badly, we have no problem recognizing Homer’s laughing Aphrodite. When Harry Potter encounters “Fluffy” in The Philosopher's Stone, surely half the charm for us as readers lies in our recognition of Cerberus, guardian of the land of the dead, who was charmed by cakes and by music (then again, who isn’t?). 

This is barely to touch upon the subject of the mythophiloi.  What of the different takes on what it might mean to be a Norse god in the modern world in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Douglas Adams’ The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul?  And what about all those tellings and retellings of fairy tales?  Those, too,are myths.  Not simply those in the Fairy Tales series edited by Terry Windling (though they are worth reading) or the stories by Oscar Wilde, but all those parodies, loving and sarcastic, that weave their way into the works of Terry Pratchett and Patricia C. Wrede, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn or John Barnes’ One For The Morning Glory, which feels like many tales but, like Barnes’ use of words (the hunting of the gazebo, the drinks in the stupors, that great weapon, the pismire . . .), never seem to mean quite what you think it means.

Thinking about it, I might be able to salvage the mythic quality of The Princess Bride by placing it into this category, given the play between the story and its frame in that book. To the narrator, the book is a talisman and a thing of power, the mystery -- for he claims he has never read it -- at the centre of his life.  That the narrator is so insistently this-worldly and makes audacious claims about the historicity of his work is part of the charm, the glamour, the enchantment (as it is for that greatest poet of the Middle Ages, Dante). The frame narrative is one of the purest examples of verisimilitude I have ever read; but it, too, is a kind of fairy tale.  But more on those in part III.

Victoria Goddard has lived in more of Canada than most people even know exist.  She has lived from the East Coast to the prairies, from the High Arctic to lake country, from villages at the end of the road to Canada’s largest city.  Although in the midst of a five-year doctorate in medieval literature, she has managed to avoid breaking her record of not living for more than three years consecutively in any one house by haring off to Europe periodically to learn languages and look at medieval manuscripts.  A keen reader, particularly of fantasy (from all periods and places), she also writes (as-yet-unpublished) novels, mostly on the subject of the lives that lie behind the fairy stories, trying to combine pithy details of not-so-ordinary days with sometimes all-too-matter-of-fact magic. 

Myth and Fantasy Literature (I)

By Victoria Goddard

Fiction, as an old auctor told us long ago, is telling truth under the guise of fable.  We might take myth as being a certain kind of fiction -- tales about gods and goddesses and assorted other numinous and magical creatures in certain plots that resonate strongly with us.  This is a rather watered-down description, I admit, for the love that (almost) conquered death in Orpheus and Eurydice, Isis and Osiris, and Inanna and Dumuzi, let alone for the host of other stories that have rollicked their way down the ages because they seem to have more significance than the surface might suggest they should, but it does certainly speak to a certain something in fantasy literature.   

Although I could not go so far as to say that the presence of myth is one of the defining features of fantasy literature -- apart from anything else, that would probably lose me most of Tamora Pierce and Steven Brust, not to mention The Princess Bride, which is, shall I say, inconceivable -- nevertheless, a certain mythic quality is a notable feature of most of the fantasy literature I like best and that I think is the core of the genre.  Let me explain further.

There are, as I see it, two main ways in which myth, taken very broadly, makes its presence known. One is the use of existing (and usually very ancient) myths by more contemporary authors.  As an example, I might suggest Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the myth of Eros (or Cupid) and Psyche.  The other is the creation of new myth, the most famous example of which is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.  Under the writerly (and mythic) conception that names have power, I shall suggest that we call the former the mythophiloi and the latter the mythopoeoi, from the Greek for the lovers and the makers of myth. 

Of course, since writers are creative artists, these are rarely ever separate.  Indeed, fantasy authors being what they are, we often find that the author has carefully invented a sometimes-vast mythology within his narrative universe that he can then make use of as said myths existed as a common property, like the “real” myths of our own universe.  Tolkien is, again, a major instance of this, but so too is James Branch Cabell, who made internal cross-referencing into something of an art form.  His series (if we can so call the concatenation of novels, short stories, poems, essays, and notes that make up the chronicle of Dom Manuel of Poictesme) is about the development of a myth over time, from a ‘historical’ life that itself draws on many a myth and legend from our own world to the ramifications for modern descendants of the legend at its heart.  We do not need to stay in the earlier reaches of modern fantasy, either, to see this.

Victoria Goddard has lived in more of Canada than most people even know exist.  She has lived from the East Coast to the prairies, from the High Arctic to lake country, from villages at the end of the road to Canada’s largest city.  Although in the midst of a five-year doctorate in medieval literature, she has managed to avoid breaking her record of not living for more than three years consecutively in any one house by haring off to Europe periodically to learn languages and look at medieval manuscripts.  A keen reader, particularly of fantasy (from all periods and places), she also writes (as-yet-unpublished) novels, mostly on the subject of the lives that lie behind the fairy stories, trying to combine pithy details of not-so-ordinary days with sometimes all-too-matter-of-fact magic. 

Is the Medium the Message?

By Helen Marshall

Speculative fiction is an in-between genre, or even an in-between set of genres.  Samuel R. Delaney in his paper at the MLA entitled "Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction" drew attention to this when he tackled the question: "Does science fiction work in the same way asother literary categories of writing?" His reply?  "Science fiction works differently from other written categories, particularly those categories traditionally called literary. It works the same way only in that, like all categories of writing, it has its specific conventions, unique focuses, areas of interest and excellence, as well as its own particular ways of making sense out of language. To ignore any of these constitutes a major misreading—an obliviousness to the play of meanings that makes up the SF text."

 I take his point to be not that speculative fiction (broadened out from science fiction) is definitely different from the literary, but rather that it exists as its own subset of literature with the weight of history behind it, the establishment of a canon, the recognition of tropes and protocols as well as the development of an associated language and logic. But how do we come to a definition of speculative fiction?  The all-knowing, all-erring website Wikipedia, claims speculative fiction as a "a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history."  The definitions are hazier in other cases. 

 Wikipedia reminds us too that speculative fiction is itself a term with its own history and politics. Popularized in the 1960s and early 1970s by Judith Merril and others involved in the field, it was deployed as a rejection of pulp science fiction, often regarded as stodgy, irrelevant, cliched and unambitious.  It can be connected with the New Wave movement whose predecessors included Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Algis Budrys, and Alfred Beste.  New Wave writing was characterized by a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, coupled with a "literary" or artistic sensibility.  

 Today, speculative fiction is used increasingly as a way to escape being pigeonholed as a genre writer.  Harlan Ellison, for example, used it to signal the literary and modernist direction of his work.  Peter Watts, in his essay for OnSpec responds to what he sees as a Hierarchy of Contempt that if defined according to the light spectrum ranges between "sullen infrared" and "high-strung ultraviolet": "Down in the red-light district, science fiction's own subspectrum runs from "soft" to "hard", and it's generally acknowledged that the soft stuff at least leaves the door open for something approaching Art—Lessing, Le Guin, the New Wave stylists of the late sixties—while the hardcore types are too caught up in chrome and circuitry to bother with character development or actual literary technique."

 His essay, as vigorous as it is polemical, places authors such as Margaret Atwood at the root of the problem: "Atwood claims to write something entirely different: speculative fiction, she calls it, the difference being that it is based in rigorously-researched science, extrapolating real technological and social trends into the future (as opposed to that escapist nonsense about fictitious things like chemicals and rockets, presumably)."  It is useful to remember that The Handmaid's Tale received the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year, in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards.  Atwood, however, insisted to The Guardian that her works were speculative fiction, not science fiction: "Science fiction has monsters as spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen."  Since then, Atwood has elaborated her position to The Guardian: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth", and said that science fictional narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot."

 I don't seek to find a new kind of opponent in Margaret Atwood.  It is useful to recognize that genre writing incorporates a wide range of traditions and trends.  Some authors seek to be literary, to offer social critiques, to use literature as a vehicle of exploration.  Not all do.  To return to Delaney's metaphor that science fiction is a "language," we must remember that a language is merely a system that can be employed to communicate.  As a famous Canadian, Marshall McLuhan claimed: "The medium is the message."  It falls to practitioners of genre writing--authors, editors, publisher--to determine to some extent what the medium, that language, might be and what it might do for its readers.

 With that in mind, I turn to Atwood's article in The Guardian because it does identify precisely what speculative stories might do:

· They can explore the consequences of new and proposed technologies in graphic ways, by showing them as fully operational. We've always been good at letting cats out of bags and genies out of bottles, we just haven't been very good at putting them back in again. These stories in their darker modes are all versions of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: the apprentice finds out how to make the magic salt-grinder produce salt, but he can't turn it off.

· They can explore the nature and limits of what it means to be human in graphic ways, by pushing the envelope as far as it will go.

· They can explore the relationship of man to the universe, an exploration that often takes us in the direction of religion and can meld easily with mythology - an exploration that can happen within the conventions of realism only through conversations and soliloquies.

· They can explore proposed changes in social organisation, by showing what they might actually be like for those living within them. Thus, the utopia and the dystopia, which have proved over and over again that we have a better idea about how to make hell on earth than we do about how to make heaven. The history of the 20th century, where a couple of societies took a crack at utopia on a large scale and ended up with the inferno, would bear this out. Think of Cambodia under Pol Pot.

· They can explore the realms of the imagination by taking us boldly where no man has gone before. Thus the space ship, thus the inner space of the hilarious film Fantastic Voyage, the one where Raquel Welch gets miniaturised and shot through the blood stream in a submarine. Thus also the cyberspace trips of William Gibson; and thus The Matrix, Part 1 - this last, by the way, an adventure romance with strong overtones of Christian allegory, and therefore more closely related to The Pilgrim's Progress than to Pride and Prejudice.

Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Her poetry has been published in a variety of magazines and print sources. She currently works as an editor of dark fiction for ChiZine Publications.