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Oct 252011
 

There’s something blissfully surreal about Halloween. I’m not quite clear on how a festival concerned with our departed loved ones turned into a monster movie turned into sugar shock, but I do love watching all of these little monsters gallivant about and demand candy.

I love monsters. I think every fantasy reader does. One might be forgiven for thinking there’s something charmingly anachronistic about them; a reminder of a more credulous time when evil things lurked just outside the ring of torchlight. Indeed, most of us over the age of eight aren’t really afraid of the supernatural. I’m not even sure that’s possible in a post-Scooby Doo world …

… and yet, the 2000s and 2010s may be the monster-iest decade we’ve had in at least a century. Vampires are everywhere and no G20 or OWS protest would be complete without its incongruous zombie walk. And the reason is simple: we may not be afraid of monsters, but we’re still plenty afraid of the things they stand in for.

Vampires
What are we afraid of? Sex.

Vampires are to our time what ninjas were to the ’80s. They’re on TV, they’re in movies, they’re in books. They run the gamut from villains to anti-heroes to brooding, tortured heroes. No longer content with ‘traditional’ depictions, we’re throwing a coat of glitter on them and having them parade about in sunlight. We are, no doubt, only a few steps away from a band of teenage vampires that live in the sewer, eat pizza, and bludgeon gang violence. In short, vampires have gone from cinnamon artfully dashed about to a heaping bowl of salt upended into our collective wheaties.

And nobody takes more blame for this than Twilight, which is frequently accused of stripping out everything that’s scary about vampires in order to indulge tweens who have just recently discovered fetishism. It’s to be expected. Whenever something blows up in popularity, the hipsters come out. I liked vampires before they were cool. When it was all about the scary monster violence, man. Now it’s all just tawdry sex.

The irony of all this is that Twilight is just carrying Bram Stoker’s torch. Vampires have always been about sex. Dracula, the prototype for modern depictions of vampirism, is essentially a sexual predator. He seduces the local womenfolk, nibbles on their necks, and turns them into his blood-sucking brides. He’s charming, urbane, glamorous, rich and a whole lot of other nice things, and if those nice things get you into his boudoir, it’s perdition for you – you’ll never be the same again. Dracula, in its obsession/repulsion with sexual themes and the oblique nature in which it references them, is an essentially Victorian work. Given that our societal outlook on sex has changed so much, it’s probably to be expected that vampires aren’t really at the top of the villain list any longer …

… and yet it’s interesting to note that the current vampire revival started with Anne Rice. Her books became popular in the ’80s, when the high-profile rise of blood-borne AIDS made sex scary again.

Werewolves
What are we afraid of? Anger.

Vampires may have gone all soft on us, but werewolves are old reliable. They still transform when the moon is full, and they still rampage about, eating everything in sight. While Twilight is apparently trying to throw a coat of glitter on them as well, I’m not sure there are enough furries in the world to make werewolves into a sexual thing.

The defining feature of the werewolf is a loss of control; he’s essentially a fuzzy Jekyll and Hyde, doomed to transform from a dapper doctor to a snarling beast. The werewolf is a rabid animal, a rock star one hurled whiskey bottle away from self-destruction. It lives simply to kill (and sometimes eat, although that’s typically not considered an important part of the mythos), and inevitably, the people likeliest to become the werewolf’s victims are its nearest and dearest. The werewolf can’t control itself. It’s every little explosion we’d like to take back, all the regret we’ve built up over a lifetime of accidentally killing and eating our husbands and wives.


Zombies

What are we afraid of? Mindlessness.

Zombies are in a strange place. They’re almost as popular as vampires, and even share one of their most common characteristics: the ability to propagate via the medium of chewing on the living. But where vampires still cling to a few shreds of dignity, zombies have exchanged self-respect for parody. They’re dangerous only through overwhelming numbers and tirelessness. Their shambling is easily outrun. There’s no need for silver bullets or garlic: they’re defeated through the low-tech application of blows to the head. They groan things like ‘braaaains’.

I guess we have to blame George Romero for this one. Dawn of the Dead and its sequels are the archetypal zombie apocalypse movies: plague of unknown origin, everybody wants to eat brains, plucky band of protagonists try to escape and are then forced to hole up someplace and hope they can wait it out. Except with parody. Romero’s movies were a commentary on mindless consumerism. There’s a reason why Dawn of the Dead was set in a shopping mall.

The mindless hunger of the modern shambling zombie (or its cousin, the speedy zombie of 28 Days and the like – a ghoul, in nerd parlance) goes back to the zombie origin story. Voudoun practitioners in West Africa and notably Haiti designed and applied – allegedly and quite possibly apocryphally – with a chemical treatment / sensory deprivation combo designed to convince people that they were in fact dead in order to break their spirits and turn them into the perfect slaves. Yes, this sounds mental, but how accurate the sources are isn’t particularly important where mythologizing is concerned, and there’s a very short leap from the perfect mindless slave to … well, the perfect mindless slave of capital. The exact nature of zombie stupidity changes with the depiction, but the core of it remains: zombies want to eat brains because they haven’t got any of their own, and they want you to be just as dumb as they are.

Ghosts
What are we afraid of: Collective guilt.

The ghost story is, in many ways, the least uniform of monster stories. Virtually every civilization we’ve got has some form of afterlife belief in its cultural playbook, and sheer volume makes it difficult to find ties between phantoms and spooks that go deeper than the fact that they’re dead.

Given that, it’s almost surprising how consistent western depictions of ghost activity are. The traditional formula is simple: a living person is wronged or has done wrong, and must now spend an eternity suffering for the sin. And if, in the doing, said ghost can terrify or kill a few tourists and their mangy dog, so much the better.

There’s an element of injustice to the standard ghost story. When a murderer is consigned to eternal haunting, well, that’s just Biblical. But when the ghost is an eternal victim, something’s gone badly wrong in the afterlife’s HR department. It’s not our fault that Old Man Murray kidnapped and killed thirty accountants, but try telling that to the crazy thing trying to brain us with flying ledgers. The ghost is the victim of circumstance, and we’re the victims of … well, ghosts. It’s the job of the living to atone for – or simply get the hell away from the result of – the sins of the dead, because the results of their actions remain with us.

And that sucks, because all we wanted was a spiffy new house.

Happy Halloween!

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Oct 182011
 

Last week, we talked a bit about fantasy series and why I think they’ve come to dominate the fantasy landscape.

This week, I want to briefly go over some of the things I learned whilst writing a trilogy of my own, through the artless but useful medium of the numbered list. The series we’re talking about here are traditional fantasy series – i.e. continuous narratives across multiple books, rather than the more episodic Ernest Goes to Mordor approach.

The biggest challenge, essentially, is that series wear out their welcomes.

The three Moonlit Cities books, together, clock in at about 300k words. That’s a lot of time to spend in one place, and a 3-novel series is, nowadays, a tiny thing. It’s the purse-dog to George R.R. Martin’s husky and Erikson’s Fenrir, Eater of Odins.

This is a problem – perhaps just a challenge – for two major reasons.

The first, of course, is that readers really have only so much patience. Even Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which through some arcane artifice manages to be both tightly wound and sprawling at the same time, comes under fire now and again for how much space it’s come to take up. It’s so big that entire perfectly lovely self-contained books could be edited right out of it. It’s so big it needed A Feast For Crows to serve as essentially a 100k+ bridge between the first three books and the next however many there will be.

That’s a lot to ask of your readers, and while Martin’s readership is by and large willing to trust him with that kind of commitment, many other writers have fared less well.

The second problem is that writers have only so much patience. A series represents a commitment to playing in the same sandbox for years, and eventually you may find that your seventeenth birthday has snuck up, and the first-graders are looking at you funny.

And it is a commitment. Leaving a series unfinished is not nice in the special-hell way that jabbering your heads off at a theatre is not nice. (Though, of course, most abandoned series can be blamed on publishers or death, and not the authors in question).

That commitment can become a bit of an artistic straight-jacket, and it goes deeper than simply needing to follow around the same characters or the same setting; a series also demands a certain level of consistency in voice, theme, and framing devices. Lord of the Rings might have been totally awesome if Return of the King became a first-person stream-of-consciousness crazymajig (“We were somewhere around Mordor, at the edge of the Mere, when the Precious began to take hold.”), but alas, complaints would be inevitable, numerous, and … well, rather fair play, really.

With all that in mind:

1) Plot the whole damn thing out in advance, or – better yet – write the whole series before you submit or publish any piece of it. Outlines are negotiable, and no end result in the history of writing has entirely matched one, but the structure will certainly help. A series isn’t a set of disconnected books. It’s one book, split into pieces that are themselves (hopefully) books with their own beginnings, middles and ends. It’s a Matroshka of book.

The more you don’t do this, the likelier you are to fall into the I-need-eight-more-novels-to-wrap-this-up trap. Moreover, it’ll be easier to deal with continuity issues if you can see the whole thing laid out before you, and it’ll be easier to draw up links between the various books. Sometimes, a good idea may come out of book three’s left field, but it won’t be possible or practical to include it without more setup in the earlier stages of the series. If you’re still holding on to those earlier stages, that’s an easy fix. If you’re not … well, tough luck. The more complex the plot is, and the more conspiracies you’re hurling into it, the more valuable it is to hold on to the whole rather than disseminating the parts.

Now, obviously, this isn’t always within the writer’s control. Sometimes, the publishing world looks like TV, and a publisher may take on a project that was intended to stand alone on the condition that it be spun out into something longer, for business reasons. That sucks, but it’s a possibility for which one must leave a little bit of room.

Moreover, there’s the income problem. Sinking however many hours it takes into writing multiple novels before making any of them available is a big ask and may be impossible for simple pragmatic reasons. Still, the side project I’m working on right now will follow this model, and I expect the results to be excellent.

2) On that note, consider a side project. I didn’t realize the value of this sort of thing until a good way into my last novel. I came to realize that I had more time to write, but no particular desire to add to my already considerable daily word count … until I decided to put that time into a completely different project, with a completely different voice, different themes, and a different target audience.

The variety was energizing. The opportunity to do something I’d been looking forward to alongside my main commitment made me more productive in aggregate, and much happier as a writer. It doesn’t need to be another novel or anything of the sort (though I expect I’ll be writing two books at a time for the foreseeable future because it really works for me). Extra time could just as easily be funneled into short stories or articles to pitch to magazines. Variety is good not only for your sanity, but for your development as a writer.

Of course, this requires a certain amount of discipline, and we all know a would-be author who’s started three different novels of which not one will ever be finished. Also, a heads-up: trade publication contracts these days try to sneak in what are essentially non-compete clauses that shackle you to one work until it’s complete (and, in the worst cases, complete and published, an entirely unreasonable demand to which you should never acquiesce). A side project could very easily become a breach of contract if you’ve not done your due diligence on the legal front.

3) Consider … well … not writing series. Or consider writing an episodic series (such as, say, Brust’s Vlad books). There’s a huge amount of room in fantasy for stand-alone or mostly stand-alone novels that isn’t being properly exploited.

I understand wanting to leverage all the research and world-building into more than one project – it’s a lot of work, no question – but it’s perfectly possible to write multiple unconnected novels in a single setting, and doing that leaves you with a lot more freedom to toss in side projects than committing to a single overarching narrative does.

It’s also worth noting that this may force you along the indie path. The series is deeply entrenched, and fantasy publishers want to see it because it’s easy money. You hook a reader with the first book, they’ll buy the rest, or – in the worst-case scenario – as many of the remaining books as they can get through before lethargy sets in. Open-minded publishers do, of course, leave room for discussion, and that room grows bigger if you’ve built up a readership. I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, Guy Gavriel Kay’s predilection towards stand-alone novels owes a debt to some of the clout he built up writing a series.

Now that there are more paths to publication, fewer rules are imposed from above. If you don’t want to play along with the sprawling world of the series, there’s no better time than now to try something else.

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Sep 202011
 

… And the fate of the very world hangs in the balance! Wait! Conan, wait! Where are you going? Come back here this instant!

Fucking barbarians.

We talked, last week, about a classic high fantasy trope I can’t help but like: the United Colours of Fantasy Benetton. This week, we’ll move on to something a little less salutary; see, all those elves and dwarves would be a lot more likeable if they just stopped saving the world.

So you’re wandering down Your Favourite Street – let’s call it Yonge, because Toronto is the centre of the universe – when suddenly, you’re accosted by a robed figure.

“Repent!” quoth he. “The whore of Babylon something something fire and brimstone! Cats and dogs, sleeping together!”

Do you: a) avoid eye contact, keep right on walking; b) engage in conversation; c) offer him your unconditional fealty and strike a blow against all those filthy world-enders?

Exactly.

And yet, every other high fantasy is about Dark Lords and armies of the damned and forests of woe and the fate of the very world hangs in the balance.

Yes, I know, the logic of a fantasy world is different. When the pointy-hatted wizard shows up and tells you that the Evil One is plotting an apocalyptic jamboree, there’s a half-decent chance he’s telling the truth. (Though it really wouldn’t hurt to toss some skeptics in there now and again).

The save-the-world part of good save-the-world stories inevitably fades into the background. I’m not sure we actually care that Sauron’s orcs are on a rampage, except in the most fluffy, generic orcs-and-war-are-bad sort of way. The world-shaking threat is just a data point. Lord of the Rings works because of Frodo’s addiction to the ring. It works because of the way Sam and (perversely) Gollum help him to work through that addiction.

Likewise, Avatar: the Last Airbender succeeds because of its wit, its excellent characters and the interplay between them. Does anybody really care that the Fire Nation might take over the world? Aang – the Avatar – does, and that’s mostly because he blames himself for shirking his responsibility and allowing things to go so far in the first place. There’s context there, not straight, unearned authorial fiat.

These stories work because their writers understood that readers can’t meaningfully engage with existence-level stakes. They’re too abstract. We can’t even agree on greenhouse emissions. Readers need characters to identify with, and themes to subconsciously pull everything together…

… and yet, for every half-decent use of the trope, we get a bludgeon used to beat character development into submission.

“… And you must lead the armies!”

“Dude, kinda busy with these three kids and the harvest coming in. Wouldn’t it make more sense for you to go tell, I dunno, an actual soldier?”

“No. For the very fate of the world hangs in the balance!”

“Oh, well that’s alright then. Let me just pack a lunch and abandon my every responsibility, and I’ll be right with you.”

We hates it. Yes, we hates the nasty little writerses.

I think a lot of it comes from a desire to raise the stakes. When faced with the inevitable collapse of the world, surely our characters must be motivated. Surely, our readers must care.

I’m not sure either is true.

There’s a sense in a lot of genre literature that the plot is, de facto, everything; we’ve set up a threat and the only proper source of drama and climax is the solution to that threat.

That’s a rather limiting view. Far better drama has been built from humbler building blocks. We identify far more easily with the fate of a single well-liked character than the world that character inhabits.

Take The Wire. Do we even care whether the police get their drug-dealers? What is the destination, compared to the journey? What’s a warrant and an arrest compared to Bubbs fighting his heroin addiction, or McNulty’s narcissism, or D’Angelo growing further estranged from the life he’s been born into? Setting can go a long way in contextualizing a given work, but in the end, characters are the real source of drama, because it’s through their eyes that we’re introduced to conflict.

If you absolutely must save the world instead of, say, reuniting a father with a daughter or watching a rogue claw his way to the top of the underworld pile, fine. That’s on you. But the fate of the world can’t carry a book. You need a lot more in there.

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Aug 302011
 

The average fantasy career seems to entail a lot of travel and vagrancy, and an income made up mostly of whatever can be found in the pockets of orcs that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have names for this career path here in the real world, but none of them are ‘adventurer’, and most carry a mandatory sentence.

And when we’re not writing some sort of ronin, we toss in the standard magic farmhand, who dreams of glory and will learn important lessons about something or other from a wise mentor when he predictably leaves his entire family behind to go adventuring, for some no-doubt excellent reason that a real human being would totally go for. (Alternately, of course, his beloved village might be torched by the Dark Lord for another no-doubt excellent reason).

Interestingly, our farmhand never seems to know a whole lot about, say, weather or growing cycles, but he usually knows how to read. He’s been living on the 13th-century equivalent of Dragonlance novels, y’see, despite the fact that a) he’s uneducated and b) the farming day is about 20 hours long. Indeed, it’s a minor miracle if our farmhand ever actually farms something, which raises questions like “So why is he a farmer anyway?” and “Would somebody please burn down this Beloved Village already?”

Giving our heroes actual jobs makes a certain amount of sense. A job can be a hook to get them into the adventure, and it can contextualize their abilities so that you don’t have to pull out some surprise I-knew-how-to-ice-skate-all-along twist when the evil Penguin Lord takes to the glaciers. And, from the standpoint of verisimilitude, it … y’know, makes a certain amount of sense that our adventurers have lives outside of adventuring.

YeMonstre.com

Criminal

Job Description: confidence jobs, theft, shake-downs, beatings, the occasional murder
Must Have: entrepreneurial spirit, knife
Occupational Hazards: imprisonment, betrayal of and by allies, crises of conscience

The classic adventurer, as seen in sword-and-sorcery novels and World of Warcraft, is basically a criminal already, so the job lends itself perfectly to the patterns of a guy played by Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood. The traveling can be explained by the need to get out of Dodge now and again, and the income takes care of itself when you shank some villager leaving the pub and rifle through his pockets for… I dunno, chickens or some shit.

The criminal will know all sorts of neat adventurer tricks, like how to pick a lock, how to kill a dude and make it look like an accident, and when a welcome has been overstayed and it’s time to mosey on out. He can be pulled into the adventure when he’s imprisoned and given One Last Chance to redeem himself (sort of like Frank Abagnale, only with more dead orcs), or when he steals something he oughtn’t and is relentlessly pursued by the Dark Lord’s Hooded Cronies.

Hunter

Job Description: Filling woodland animals with spears, arrows
Must Have: spears, arrows, duck calls, patience
Occupational Hazards: bears, treacherous terrain, US vice-presidents
Better-educated Variant: Explorer/Cartographer

The farmhand’s more adventure-inclined cousin, the hunter is a good choice for a salt-of-the-earth hero who comes ready-made with skills that can be adapted for battle. He knows all sorts of things about travel and survival, and since every uncharted fantasy territory is basically orc heaven, there’s a decent chance he already has some experience under his belt when it comes to the Dark Lord’s fell beasties.

He’ll be pulled into the adventure when visiting knights-errant need a guide into the wilderness, when he’s captured by orcs while out hunting and needs to escape to warn his beloved village, or when his beloved village is set aflame by the DarkzzzzzzZZzzZZzzzzz… oh, sorry, I must have dozed off a moment.

Soldier

Job Description: Dicing, drinking, occasionally being sent off to kill things
Must Have: Weapons, armour, foul mouth
Occupational hazards: various stabby things, inevitable death after talking about sweetie back home and how his tour will be over in only two weeks
Variants: Mercenary

Soldiers are convenient. They have plenty of the classic adventurer attributes – the ability to fight, cover lots of ground, and stay upright despite being strapped with 80 lbs of weaponry – with all the authorial convenience of being easily ordered around. They’ll be pulled into the adventure when and where I damn well please, private. Now scrub me some latrines.

Former soldiers can most often be found tending bar or farming in the Beloved Village, and while they’re older and grizzled-er than their active compatriots, they still have weapons, ill-fitting armour, and a desire – frequently articulated – to show those kids how things were done in the old days. Perfect for the doomed-mentor-to-Jesus-not-another-fucking-farmhand role, the retired soldier will be pulled into the adventure when his Beloved Village etc.

Noble

Job Description: debauchery, mercantile endeavors, poor treatment of social inferiors
Must Have: inflated sense of self-worth, education, birth from correct uterus
Occupational hazards: poisoning-by-brother, revolting peasants

Nobles are convenient in the sense that they’re rich enough to fund whatever they might like to get up to and educated enough to provide some of those skills that you might want in a medieval adventuring party and can’t get elsewhere. The noble may know how to read and how to recognize the local heraldry. They’re decent in a fight, even if they tend to take the choicest mowing-down-peasants areas of the battlefield rather than the more sloggy, muddy action at the field’s centre, and unlike just about everybody else in Fantasyland, they’ve been raised on a proper balanced diet and as such have teeth and muscles.

But there are real inconveniences as well. First off, nobles are pretty recognizable. Sure, Fantasyland may not have TVs or tabloid reporters following the royal family around, but when all the peasants are ordered to flatten themselves to walls when Prince Valiant passes, they’ll probably learn his face. Plus, it’s tricky to infiltrate a ring of thieves when you’re the only one with perfect skin and all your teeth. Finally, nobles have duties to their families and the wealth and power to shirk anything too unpleasant that comes up, so they’re not easily browbeaten into heroism.

As such, consider ninth sons or what have you – in other words, those more likely to poison brothers than be poisoned by them. Being well behind the heir and multiple spares in the inheritance stakes, the ninth son a) needs to forge his own way armed with little more than eight thousand advantages over everybody else; b) is basically expendable if the King decrees that all noble families must pitch in against the Dark Lord.

Witch

Job Description: herbalism, divination, administering 13th-century contraception to local wenches
Must Have: herbs, weird shit in jars
Occupational hazards: zealots, Things Woman Was Not Meant to Unleash

The witch is the reclusive medieval equivalent to… y’know, a real doctor. In addition to leeching and bleeding, those mainstays of ancient medical practice, the witch knows a few things about actual healing, because she’s magically inclined and/or knowledgeable where herbs are concerned. But for all her talents and knowledge, something like 90% of her custom comes in the form of buxom local wenches still sweaty from tumbles in the hay.

Now, the availability of contraception terrified idiots even more in those days than it does now, so the witch has an unfortunate tendency to not-so-spontaneously combust. But if she can survive the depredations of the local yokels, the witch knows all sorts of interesting things about magic, the spirit world, and which mushrooms are edible and which will cause your soldier to flash back to the Battle of Hastings.

She’ll be pulled into the adventure when the Heroes show up on her doorstep covered in open sores because they packed a noble rather than a hunter and consequently ate the wrong kind of mushroom, or when the Beloved Village on which her custom depends is burned down.

In closing:

Fantasyland could really use some fire-fighters.

Join us next week, when we talk about something else.

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Aug 022011
 

How do you find a gift for the deity who has everything? Sure, it’s the thought that counts, but there’s still something mildly embarrassing about offering up a glitter-and-macaroni thank-you card to a being that magicked up the entire world from formless chaos.

It’s a good thing, then, that our deities had the foresight to populate the earth with nature’s foremost spiritual currency. I speak, of course, of the humble goat.

Sacrifice takes many, many forms. Its most common face is a ritual of thanksgiving; of offering up to the spiritual world the gifts it’s bestowed upon us, to show our appreciation and – more importantly – to keep those gifts flowing. A sacrifice can burn or bleed or be spilled. It might be a goat, a prisoner of war, a sheaf of wheat, or a plate of cookies for Santa. Whatever the case, it must be valuable – it’s not a sacrifice, after all, if we’re not giving something up.

Animal sacrifice was the most common, and the oldest, take on this practice. It certainly predates people writing about it, but they have done, at length. There practically isn’t a holy book out there that doesn’t, at some point, discuss best practices: a hecatomb for the harvest, a goat for good health, conscious or unconscious, bled or burned.

Such rituals were not always wasteful. After all, once you’ve knifed a goat, something needs to be done with the body (sacrifice via immolation was somewhat cleaner, but more commonly practiced with wheat and other such bloodless rituals). While it was frequently the case that priests would, by complete coincidence, dine on goat for a week or two following a festival, it was also common to share sacrificial meat with the laity or distribute it to the poor.

Animal sacrifice, and the related sacrifice of other foodstuffs – most commonly grain or wine – are a sort of sympathetic magic, like for like. Give food that we may get food.

Human sacrifice was somewhat more wasteful. In a fantasy context, it conjures up images of demonic magic, or of princesses tied to posts that the dragon may eat them instead.

Mesoamerica is human sacrifice’s poster child. Aztecs were offered up en masse to this god or the other, and for the strongest reason of all: to stave off the inevitable end of the world. When prisoners of war weren’t available, they sacrificed their own people, and they were serious about it: the wiser or more beautiful, the better. As a symbolic measure, that’s pretty powerful stuff, but one imagines that killing off your smartest and strongest creates some governance issues.

Usually, though, human sacrifice was far more boring than that (except, one presumes, for the sacrifice). It was frequently just a two-birds-one-stone scenario: a way to rid oneself of pesky out-groups and please the gods with one thrust of the dagger. Prisoners of war and criminals were the most common targets in this context.

But there’s another face to human sacrifice, and one that’s more pleasing for pharaoh than Osiris. Burial sacrifice was not an offering up to deities, but rather a rite to ensure that the dearly departed had every possible advantage in the afterlife. And since our nobility has historically faced challenges such as inbreeding of such magnitude as to make even the most minor tasks impossible without help, that meant slaves (and even government functionaries, on the off chance that one might need help preparing one’s spiritual taxes) in addition to horses, boats, food and coin.

Echoes of this practice can be seen in many different cultures. Coins for the boatman were at once a sacrifice and an anti-inflationary measure (no, not really). Sati was retainer sacrifice for the masses, and makes for catchy slogans like ‘Bring your wife to the afterlife!’ A burial with weapons was not merely symbolic: Torstang the Mighty’s gonna need those swords when he gets to Valhalla.

Of course, human sacrifice eventually ran afoul of goddamn activist lawyers, and the prevalence of animal sacrifice began to decline as well. They were replaced by wishy-washy post-modern symbolic sacrifice. Now, instead of offering up a goat, you give up eating chocolate for a month. Odin wept.

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Jul 262011
 

An interesting set of Open Yale lectures on the Old Testament make the argument that the evil ball didn’t find its way into Mesopotamian humanity’s court, philosophically speaking, until the development of Judaism.

The Jews demystified evil. Before their belief system came along, it was an animate force, a thousand little devils on shoulders, a thousand gods and malign spirits doing their thing for the greater bad. But when Simon’s brothers schemed to kill him for his coat, they weren’t possessed. They were just greedy, jealous assholes.

Certain branches of Christianity then went and remystified evil, of course, but it was never quite the same again. In the belief that there’s a devil lurking about, whose greatest joy in life is coaxing people into knocking over a convenience store, we see in some ways a return to one of the oldest human beliefs: that every human phenomenon is indeed a spiritual one, and that good and evil are constantly at war for our souls. Still, the cat of agency had already been let out of the bag of tortured metaphors, and even at its devil-made-me-do-it-est, Christianity stressed that there was a choice involved. It was possible for people to resist the supernatural lure of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The nature of evil is one of those questions that pops up everywhere. If the gods are good, we wonder where all the wars and famines come from. If the gods are not so good, we wonder how best to buy them off. If it’s a mixed crop, we can’t help but wonder if they’re at war, and if we should bet on bad or good. It’s so common a question that you need to have an answer for your own writing.

Supernatural Evil

At long last, an excuse for all those Dark Lords and Forests of Woe and Killzor, God of Evil! Toss all that shit in there. It’s okay!

A society with a belief in tangible, spiritual evil is a superstitious society. It propitiates a hundred not-so-nice deities to look the other way. It prescribes exorcism and two aspirins for migraine relief. When the crops go bad, it accuses brownies, witches, or convenient foreigners. It has laws about ‘the evil eye’, and countless folk rituals to avoid it. Got a haircut? Burn the hair, or it might fall into the hands of a witch. In this sort of worldview, luck and simple coincidence are the sorcerous mumbo-jumbo. When weevils infest your favourite cigar, it’s because you pissed off the weevil spirit. Sacrifice a goat, and do better next time.

A world where this sort of belief system represents reality opens up some of the oldest fantasy cliches. If evil is an animate force, after all, perhaps it can be fought. Perhaps it makes sense, all of a sudden, to gather three dudes, an elf and a dwarf to head through the Vale of Darkness to the Mountain of Grim of Deeds, swords in hand. The orcs they butcher along the way can be cheerfully forgotten; they’re just mindless servants of the Dark Powers, after all.

If the Dark Lord can be killed, our dear adventurers will strike a blow for good, and it doesn’t seem quite as hokey as it otherwise might (well, it does, but in a good way). We depressing existentialists know that offing a Dark Lord really just takes out one of a thousand threats (and banking regulation would, frankly, save more lives at lower cost), but the Free Peoples of the World live in a different context. Their accomplishment is very real, and may have dramatic consequences. Evil might actually scurry back to its hiding places. There might be a happily ever after. Dwarves and elves will live together in harmony.

The Anthropogenic Theory of Evil…

… is one we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on, I don’t think. Should we want to see a society that believes people and chance are responsible for the bad things that happen in the world, we can look out the window.

Perhaps the only thing that needs pointing out, here, is that the tropes of high fantasy are not modern, and that they don’t fit well into this sort of context (unless you’re playing at deconstruction). Sure, there may be a Dark Lord out there, and maybe he needs some offing, but he’s really not much more than an unpleasant dude who gathered a big army. We know full well that stopping him may do some good, but it’s not a panacea. And if we believe that evil is a reflection of choices made and not in some way inherent or supernaturally powerful, all those butchered orcs start to look a little bit like a war crime.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that beliefs are a spectrum, and that it’s perfectly feasible to have a society that believes garden-variety bad things are just boys being boys, while famine and natural disaster are matters of pissing off the wrong god. Moreover, as with any belief system, it won’t be universally held. Those pesky evil deniers have been lobbying pretty damn hard.

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Jul 192011
 

Last week, we discussed some of the basic concerns a fantasy author ought to keep in mind when designing a religion (or just filing the serial number off Zoroastrianism).

This week, we’ll dip into our grab bag to pick out a pair of religious/metaphysical questions whose answers can lend some cultural weight to your setting.

Standards of Proof
The biggest difference between a standard fantasy setting’s approach to life after death and our own is … well, zombies, really. Fantasy is so thick with the things (and ghouls, and vampires, and…) that it’s amazing necromancers aren’t unionized. Throw in a seance and a few resurrections, and you can potentially have entire societies with a strong, practically first-hand understanding of what precisely happens after they verb the noun*.

*I’m fond of the nonsensical ‘buy the farm’.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t really that big a change. Our earthly neighbours have managed to fervently believe all sorts of things without the need for proof, or indeed have chosen to disbelieve things that are staring them directly in the face (the blithering insanity of credit default swaps, say). So in one sense, you can keep on keeping on. Do note, though, that while skepticism is part of the human condition, it may look a little bit different in a world where answers exist. If you can climb Olympus to visit Zeus, “Are the gods real?” is not a question that’s going to get a whole lot of traction. But “Are the gods truly divine, or just really powerful magicians?” might, and I can’t wait to see what sort of animal Zeus will turn that little doubting Patroklos into.

The Afterlife
While we’re here: a belief in (or understanding of) the afterlife shapes a society. An afterlife belief can be a source of comfort: don’t worry how things are going in this life, because it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. It can also be a source of wine-swilling life-is-finite terror: what do you mean I get to spend infinity in some grey
morass with a bunch of depressed ghosts?

One of the first things to bear in mind is that burial rituals may have very real effects in a fantasy world. A shoddy burial might keep someone from moving on, and perhaps very real spiritual problems arise if one’s buried according to a different religion’s playbook. Or perhaps proper burial rites can keep somebody from a long unlife of brain-eating. If the local necromancer is known to pop by and raise the occasional army, you can bet even the cash-strapped kingdom will find a way to shell out for incense.

The afterlife may not be for everybody. Perhaps most of us just die, and only the beardiest and killiest get to swill mead with Odin. If that’s the case, I’d think pretty seriously about investing in blacksmithing and life insurance, because there’s going to be a lot of swords swinging about. Perhaps the afterlife is means-tested. If you can’t pay the boatman because somebody pilfered your coins, sucks to be you. If you can’t get buried with your slaves and enough food for the journey, well, maybe you should’ve been a pharaoh. Such limitations on who gets to play at forever are perhaps the clearest reflections of a society’s values.

Perhaps there isn’t an afterlife, because infinity takes place right here. Reincarnation can also have a moral element. Do well, and you come back as a mighty eagle. Kick a nun, and it’s horsefly time. Interesting questions for fantasy sorts might include: “How much memory do people have of their past lives?” Eternal lovers or enemies are an ancient story, but they’re not the only possibility. Want to be rid of a particularly meddlesome courtier? Send him in search of a particularly Bob-looking eagle.

Finally, perhaps there’s no afterlife because we die and… well, that’s that. That hacking sound is a weeping necromancer. Won’t somebody please think of the necromancers?

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Jul 122011
 

There’s an awful lot of atheists in fantasy’s foxhole. It’s somewhat rare to see religion playing much of a role (outside the antagonistic, which is quite well represented) in the behaviour or thoughts of our various characters. Yet there’s something bizarre about setting a novel in a medieval Europe with no friars or monasteries, or in a Rome without constant propitiation, or in an Imperial China without the Mandate of Heaven.

I understand this. There’s a question of ‘write what you know’, and while many of us certainly are religious, the question of faith is approached very differently now than it was even five hundred years ago. If we’re writing a priest, we’ll send him to church now and again, job well done.

Of course, there’s also the controversy. No matter how you incorporate religion, there’s a decent chance you’ll offend somebody. I’m sure readers of faith are a little tired of seeing organizations superficially like their own brought out only when it’s time to burn a witch or two. Readers of a more skeptical bent can’t help but cock an eyebrow when we come across The Irreproachable Order, who in between opposing the Dark Lord at every turn organize bake sales, run a puppy shelter and heal the sick without any compensation or the smallest division in the ranks.

Today, we’ll discuss religion in fantasy writing, with an eye primarily to organized ‘modern’ faiths (i.e. 2000BC and on; we have an interesting relationship with your newfangled ‘modernity’ here at crow on a wire). Animism, ancestor worship and the like will wait for another day.

The cardinal rule

Any organization – religious or otherwise – is capable of doing great good and great harm, often at the same time, and sometimes in the exact same context. To take a simple example, Dominican friars were one of the earliest forces to speak out against slavery, and indeed the abolitionist movements in Europe and in North America owe a lot to them, to Quakers and, eventually, to the Papacy… but it was a much earlier Papal bull that legitimized European enslavement of African colonies in the first place, by convincing the laity that it was totally cool as long as you did it to Saracens and Moors (who themselves had a rocky relationship with slavery, of course).

This sort of thing is inevitable. Faith organizations are just as prone to infighting and politicking as everybody else. The seizing of temporal power with protestations of Deus Vult started when the very first shaman realized people were really keen on doing what the spirits told him, and it hasn’t let up since.

The important thing: this is not, in any way, shape or form, a condemnation of or an argument against organized religion. It’s simply the game of power disparities being played in yet another arena, and the religious part of it is practically incidental. It’s as human as the big monkey chasing the little monkey away from his stash of nuts. And faiths have been – and will continue to be – both monkeys.

Religion has inspired great men like Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s also brought us swine like Ted Haggard. Or, perhaps more accurately, great men like MLK find beauty in religion, while venal men like Haggard go straight for the ugly, the divisive.

Religion is complicated, it affects people differently, and organizational behaviour doesn’t always intersect neatly with the principles for which that organization stands.

So, rule the first: don’t write a polemic. A religion whose every priest is a money-grubbing hypocrite or a fire-and-brimstone moral crusader is exactly as believable as Standard Fantasy Monoculture. I think we’ve moved past the land of every-dwarf-is-a-Scots-drunkard.

This isn’t some sort of bid for ‘political correctness’, nor is it the exultation of verisimilitude for its own sake. It’s just writing. Different characters can explore different approaches to religion, and that can be really, really interesting.

What religion is

A religion is equal parts philosophy and metaphysics. It’s a group identity and a set of behavioural guidelines for said group. It tells us what its adherents value, what they profess to value, and what punishments and rewards – if any – are laid out for good and bad behaviour. It explains how things came to be, and where they’ll end up, through the medium of metaphor (which, in the absence of Hubble telescopes, was most of what our forebears had to work with).

Every religious story about how something came to be is also a moral lesson. Abrahamic faiths will tell us that we speak in different languages because their god cursed the builders of the Tower of Babel. That’s an explanation of a natural phenomenon, but it’s also an injunction against hubris. If those pesky humans hadn’t tried to build so close to heaven, we’d all be speaking… er, Aramaic, I guess?

But did people actually believe all that?

That’s a thorny question. We like to pretend that our ancestors were credulous buffoons who accepted everything at face value, and that we enlightened sorts know it’s all just fable and metaphor.

In reality, the literalist/interpreter divide goes back quite a long way, as do prioritization questions – how much of this do we really need to follow?

The Protestant reformation, let’s remember, was in large part about that. Paul Veyne’s ‘Did The Greeks Believe Their Own Myths’ goes back even further, and addresses the issue with the argument that truth hasn’t always been about verifiability, which makes the scientists among us twitch, and those of us who pay attention to politics say “Duh” (also, twitch).

People are very, very capable of picking and choosing what exactly they want to believe in. The traditional-unto-the-point-of-cliche example is mixed fibres or shellfish. Leviticus hates ’em, but we don’t much care. But lordy, when two men want to marry, all of a sudden a poorly translated treatise on proper ritual behaviour for Levite priests becomes Holy Writ.

Do they actually believe this? Short answer: Yes, no, both, neither. Work out the details of belief character by character.

Spiritual distance

The idea of an ineffable, distant and omnipotent deity is a new(ish) one, in the grand scheme of things, but certainly appropriate for the medieval context in which most fantasies find themselves set.

If you’re looking further back, to Rome, or to the Celts, or to Egypt, you may wish to reevaluate this. Religious conceptions that predate Christianity (some might argue Judaism, for which see below) generally involve deities who are more likely to get their hands dirty down in humanland. They can be bargained with, they can be tricked, they can be bought off. They squabble with their co-deities. They’re prone to fits of god-sized jealousy and love to give insufficiently respectful worshipers a chance to cavort about in animal form, or roll boulders uphill forever.

They’re less like the modern conception of deity as Cosmic Dad, and more like royalty whose heads have swollen with power. And, importantly, this is frequently how they were treated by worshipers. Certainly, the gods were propitiated with sacrifice and people generally acted respectfully towards them, but it wasn’t a respect born of any great love – it’s just, if you don’t play nice, they’ll fuck your shit right up.

But even the Abrahamic faiths had their genesis (haw haw) in this religious context – the G*d of the Old Testament could just as easily be Odin. He appears to worshipers directly, makes bargains with them and is held to these bargains by his worshipers*, tricks people into demonstrating their loyalty, and alternates without warning between the magnanimous fellow that leads the Jews from slavery and a brooding, vicious sort that visits collective punishments on humanity.

*Okay, that last bit’s not very Odinly.

Who is worthy of speaking to the gods? Will they visit anybody? Can one interpret their words without the help of a qualified professional? These questions of spiritual distance can shape entire societies. If meeting a god is as simple as climbing Mount Olympus, or if they constantly and visibly intercede, that has implications on society far different than: “Yeah, he’s out there somewhere, being ineffable.”

Polytheism, monotheism, monolatry

Definition time! Polytheism = worship and recognition of many gods. Monolatry = recognition of the validity of many gods, but worship of only one. Monotheism = worship and recognition of one god.

After a few millennia of you-don’t-believe-what-I-believe strife, it’s easy to forget that, for the most part, earlier conceptions of religion generally made room for other people’s gods as perfectly valid – if, of course, lesser – spiritual options. In fact, when this whole organized religion thing was just finding its feet, there was a lot of “My dad can beat up your dad” going around. Conversions were common after losing battles, because hey, the other guy’s deity protected him better than ours protected us, so nuts to this weakling.

Cyrus, Persian imperialist extraordinaire, was the other side of that coin. When he took Babylon, he made a point of praising and publicly worshiping Marduk, that city’s god. Because why piss off the people you’re gonna rule, y’know? Ich Bin Ein Babyloner.

As monotheism became more common, this sort of your-god’s-cool-too approach faded in the Western world, until the Enlightenment and more modern times. Today, Unitarians are the foremost champions of the old ways: worship whoever you want, but stay for tea and cake.

Next time:

Religion in writing is an enormous topic, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Join us next week, when we continue on in this vein but get into some specifics – ritual purity, animism, apotheosis, and how beliefs in the afterlife shape the now-life.

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Jun 142011
 

“Globbit!” Foozle said. “He’s the zoobiest froog that ever weebled!”

Yes, it’s awful. Why, oh why, do we keep doing it?

Today’s post is brought to you by the delightfully foul-mouthed (and really rather good) The Lies of Locke Lamora. We’ll look at four-letter words, and why we fucking love them.

There’s something refreshing about swearing. It brings back all those wonderful memories of childhood, of spending a hot summer’s day with your back to a tree, watching people go by and calling them names.

But it’s kind of divisive. I think those of us whose formative experiences involved Ahnold flicks forget, sometimes, that not everybody gives the thumbs-up to a string of expletives. Not everybody watched The Sopranos, or listened to that there devil music. Which is unfortunate.

Pop quiz: You’ve stubbed your toe on a wall.

a) That hurts!
b) Oh, dear. Martha, I do think I may need a hand up here.
c) Augh, fucking goddamn fuck!

The correct answer is c).

We love to swear. We swear when we’re surprised or hurt by something. We swear as a sort of semantic exclamation point. We swear at things that are bad, and we swear at things that are fucking grand. And we do it a lot.

There are several good reasons to incorporate swearing into writing, but the biggest of them is that it’s just natural. If we cuss at some asshole dinging us in a parking lot and driving off, I’m reasonably comfortable that we’ll also cuss at orcs putting axes into our shoulders.

Swearing is also a handy voice marker and characterization tool. It can mark class, and it can hint at emotion. Our pirate may run off at the mouth constantly. Pirates do that sort of thing, in between ‘Arrr’s. Of course, his prim captive doesn’t approve. When she finally brings herself to swear at him a few hundred pages in, we know she means business, and we’re not too surprised to see the bodices start a-ripping.

How, then, do we incorporate it?

Well, it’s pretty fucking easy, innit? We’ve all had plenty of practice.

But sometimes, for whatever reason, fantasy writers choose to forego the shits and bitches of the world for swearing of their own creation. Perhaps they’ve adopted an archaic tone and feel that modern swearing interferes with it. Perhaps they’re writing for children.

Trouble is, it’s really jarring if you get it wrong.

Linguist Steven Pinker has a lot to say about why swearing is used and how its various categories shape up. The relevant bits start at roughly minute 12 and run about 20 minutes, but I recommend that you find an hour to watch the whole talk, because it’s really good.

The short version: Swearing breaks down into five main categories.

1) The supernatural. Damn, hell, anything that comes out of a Montreal mouth.
2) Bodily effluvia and organs. Shit, asshole, etc.
3) Disease, death and infirmity. A pox on thee!
4) Sexuality. Fuck, cock, cunt.
5) Disfavoured people and groups. Racial slurs, etc.

And it’s used in five ways.

1) Dysphemistic swearing. Eschewing a euphemism specifically because we want to draw attention to how awful a thing is. I.e. you wouldn’t say “Oh dear, somebody appears to have pooped all over my lamp.”
2) Abusive swearing. To intimidate or humiliate the listener.
3) Idiomatic swearing. Shit out of luck, what the fuck?
4) Emphatic swearing. That’s fucking grand, that is!
5) Cathartic swearing. The stubbed toe above.

Now, this is all very much in the background. Swearing is pretty natural, and we all *think* we know how to do it.

Oh yeah, tough guy? Explain frell.

If you’ve ever watched Farscape (editor’s note: nope, B5 was the wrong dimly remembered sci-fi series), you may have been exposed to the very strange phenomenon of people using the word ‘frell’ when they ought to be swearing. Now, the blame here lies with puritanical TV censors and not the writers necessarily, but frell? Golly gee! I’m going to fudge those fluffernutters up for this!

It’s horrible. If you’re going to devise a swearing-equivalent word, please make sure it doesn’t sound like a euphemism we teach to five-year-olds. Grown-ass adults don’t call each other ‘poopieheads’.

Battlestar Galactica’s frack, on the other hand, is much better, mostly by dint of sounding almost exactly like ‘fuck’, and having those same wonderful I-mean-business fricatives going on.

Also in the sounds-like-swearing camp, Firefly‘s rutting. It’s not nearly as good. But what’s interesting about Firefly is that it proposes a setting in which many characters lapse into Chinese when they’re angry, in what I assume is an amusing sort of end-run around TV obscenity statutes. Maybe, if we’re lucky, Joss Whedon’s next project will do the same for our delightful Quebecois friends. I would definitely pay some money to see Gina Torres or Nathan Fillion ostieing de criss de tabarnak.

Of course, even the suggestion of real swearing can be too much for well-meaning parents labouring under the delusion that their children don’t cuss like sailors the moment they’re out of earshot. YA can get away with a lot, because teenagers tend to have some income of their own and are notoriously foul-mouthed, but writing for younger readers can’t (and, in all fairness, probably shouldn’t).

And yet, Harry Potter brings us a truly excellent made-up swear in mudblood. In the Potterverse, there’s a strong cultural tension between wizards from pure families, and those with only one wizardly parent or none – i.e. mudbloods. It’s an excellent image, it rolls off the tongue, and it evokes very real racist terminology (those unfortunate enough to be aware of the idiotverse of white supremacy may have heard the term ‘mud races’ before). When Hermione has it thrown in her face, her reaction and the reactions of her friends are very true to the racial slur taboo line being crossed.

Swearing is fun, and it’s easy, and there’s really nothing wrong with injecting a bit of modern fuckery into historical fantasy. Frankly, it’s usually less jarring than attempts to make up swearing of your own. But if you absolutely must do the latter, a little preparation is all you need to keep from fudging up.

Next week: We shall see!

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Jun 112011
 

So I’m browsing my way through the iTunes store. I do this, now and again, to find interesting music.

On the one hand, it’s gratifying to see that iTunes hasn’t been entirely victimized by the subgenre explosion that the kids today can somehow make sense of. Sure, there are seven blues subgenres, and under rock there’s something called ‘surf’, but iTunes is at least comprehensible. There aren’t any of those you-just-made-that-up labels like ‘shoegaze’ or microgenres like Celtic Punk.

And there’s something freeing about that. I’m not a fan of hyper-specificity in labels.

Indeed, I’m mostly of the opinion that if it has guitar, bass, drums and vocals – or at least sounds like it does – Rock is a good enough descriptor. Suck it, Alternative. Whatever exactly you are. I’m aware of the distinction between Dirty South and East Coast rap. It just doesn’t interest me as a tool for indexing. On my iPod, Bob Dylan hangs out with Johnny Cash in a genre I’ve cleverly titled ‘Folk, Blues and Country’ because those genres basically sound alike to me.

And yet, I’m mildly irked that there’s no Trip Hop subgenre. Portishead, Morcheeba, Massive Attack et al. hang out in the general Electronica section, with a ton of bands that sound absolutely nothing like them.

There are a few lessons here:

1) Even those of us who aren’t wild about specific categorization generally accept that genre labels are a useful term for getting things across to others. I could “Well, it’s kind of like Conan” my way through a conversation, or I could just say “It’s sword-and-sorcery”, or, more broadly, “fantasy”.

2) However, subgenres are generally only meaningful when you’re talking to people who know the genres of which they’re… er, sub. An audience’s understanding of genre labels, especially as they get more and more granular, is idiosyncratic.

“It’s Trip Hop” usually meets blank stares. “Y’know, like Portishead or Tricky” is not much better. “It’s vocal Electronica with a Hip Hop back-beat” is, perhaps, a basic enough description to be comprehensible. It leaves a ton out (the subject matter; the association with Bristol, England; the fact that the big trip hop bands are different enough that they don’t sound like participants in the same musical tradition), but it’s a good enough explanation for government work. Because, really, a prospective listener isn’t interested in all that before the “Here, listen to this” step has been taken.

3) Genre counts, as a sales tool. If I were looking for more bands like Portishead, I wouldn’t be able to find them just by browsing through the iTunes store. I’d have to go to the internet and do some research. I might not get around to that. I might not know where or how to look. I could presumably click through to one of the band’s albums and see what the “You’d also like” algorithms come up with, but I have no idea if those are any good. Moreover, this sort of thing may not be possible if, say, I’m browsing a local big box music store and trying to get recommendations from staff who are really only knowledgeable on the music they personally listen to.

The trick is finding a happy medium that’s informative to a potential audience, and this in a context that’s of course massively subjective. What genre of fantasy is Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire? It reads like high fantasy told with sword-and-sorcery techniques. Where does that go on the shelf? (Answer: fantasy/science fiction, because bookstores haven’t disappeared up their own sub-asses to anywhere near the degree that music has).

The truth of the matter is that genre is a jargon: the more specific the label, the smaller the audience that can make sense of it. That’s why there’s no Trip Hop section. It’s a very clear genre to those in the know… but those in the know probably no longer need it as a label to help out with finding more music to listen to. (Especially given that music, like writing, is driven to a large extent by bestseller lists on one end and personal recommendations on the other).

The average customer can’t walk into a general-public music store and see Trip Hop and Shoegaze and Seventh-Day-Adventist Rawcore Punkabilly. They’d run away screaming.

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