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We settle down to talk about another classic work of fantasy: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, specifically the first three novels, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore.

Also: dragons.

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Cory’s blog

Source of our theme song

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What does heaven look like? We find out by reading Steven Brust’s novel To Reign in Hell (1984).

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

Marie’s blog

Cory’s blog

Source of our theme song

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Olivier Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist: Because I do fan art now, which brings me that much closer to becoming a monster. 

I finished the last volume of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist yesterday. It’s a justly famous and popular comic with endearing characters and some really exceptional pacing—I’d compare the way the panels flow to Jeff Smith’s Bone—but what really struck me was the effortless way Arakawa blended fantasy elements into an early twentieth century industrial setting. While the alchemy of the series is undoubtedly magic, the approach is a scientific one, and outbursts of the fantastic fir perfectly alongside automobiles and rifles.

The visual aesthetic of Fullmetal Alchemist broadly aligns with the various retro-futuristic “punk” subgenres of science fiction and fantasy that boiled up in the 1980s but seem to have solidified and become more of a presence in the 2000s. The terminology began with cyberpunk but has come to mean something different, and segmented to a laughable extent. Cyberpunk was the marriage of high technology with the grimy underclass world of punk rock; steampunk was quite literally a joke word to describe the marriage of old steam technology with the upper crust world of Victorian nobles. Now we have dieselpunk, decopunk, clockpunk, which basically mean re-imaginings of pulp adventure genres from post-Enlightenment eras that operate (more or less) within the confines of that era’s technologies. While potentially fascinating, in practice science fiction and fantasy that embraces the label in North America and Britain has, I’ve found, veered towards confused pastiche and don’t reach a very wide audience.

For whatever reason, the early twentieth century in Europe and America has produced far more appealing visions from East Asia. Fullmetal Alchemist takes names, historical cues, and architecture from central Europe in the 1920s/30s. A more useful point of comparison is the anime Last Exile, which operates on the visual level of dieselpunk’s ideal: giant airships coupled with graceful planes straight out of the interwar years, the brown-and-grey palettes of military and flight uniforms in the era. This type of industrial fantasy has spread to a much greater degree in east Asia than the “punks” of western sf, which is still a largely niche genre that uses the “punk” label to proclaim its own perceived special-ness. It seems every other cover of a pulp novel or comic book or animated series out of Japan has gears and black smoke and heavy machinery, that well-regarded classics like Castle in the Sky create an inextricable link between the feeling of magic and wonder with early twentieth century machinery.

The inspirations for the look are similar but the tradition and the deployment of that look are different. That might be why my comparison here isn’t all that useful; the style of industrial fantasy in East Asia appeals to me much more than what I’ve seen out of most of the “punks” in Anglophone sf, but they are coming from different (more than a geographic sense) places. Something about the anglophone sf tradition makes bringing the same elements together seem awkward where in Fullmetal Alchemist they seem the natural thing in the world to combine. These works, while on a surface level falling into the same category, evoke a very different reaction from me that lies rooted in their approach.

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Kevan Manwaring is trying to define a new movement in fantasy he’s calling “Goldendark”. I can quibble about the name, which honestly ain’t great, but we’re well past due for another paradigm shift in fantasy literature, and Manwaring constructs an attractive and concrete thematic goal authors can aim for.

Mind you, Manwaring is participating in the “against grimdark” conversation that has been going on for years now; that is, a backlash against the perceived uptick of fantasy novels and stories with morally relativistic or amoral characters and settings, that emphasize violence and political machinations over other elements. The discussion around grimdark to this point has largely been dialectical: “old” vs. “new” fantasy, and as a result the periodic conversations tend to bog down in repeated arguments before fizzling out. People are still linking to my own stab at the subject from five years ago, much to my own bafflement. (more…)

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Continent-shifting cataclysms have been a mainstay in fantasy literature since the 1920s, epic fantasy in particular. It’s a curious thread. After all, human history is such a miniscule portion of geological time that while we’ve seen coastlines shifts or islands rise and sink, we haven’t seen significant alterations of any one landmass since the Stone Age. Continental drift will, by necessity, rarely affect a story or the characters except in the broadest sense. Yet massive geological shifts stay simmering in the foundational works of the modern fantasy genre. Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, while ostensibly set in our prehistory, has a significantly different-looking map of what would become Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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My last post about young writing projects turned my mind towards thinking about another small obsession of mine: maps. Historical maps, speculative maps, fantasy maps. There’s something about maps that fired my imagination as a child and still does today.

Maps are fascinating artefacts. For all their claims to representing the real world, they’re just as surely artistic endeavours that result from a series of choices made on the part of the cartographer; choices like naming and colour and notation. Like writing, maps embed narratives, can suggest stories. A medieval mappa mundi marries geography and chronology in a weird symbolic system that takes whole scholarly monographs to sort out. The map on an overleaf in a fantasy novel is an enticement and a promise and a one-glance summary. Maps can do all sorts of things.

I doubt my early efforts exploited all of them.

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Growing Weary

I am growing ever more weary from some members of the sf community championing the idea that the chief value of science fiction and fantasy is entertainment above all else, that these genres should not explore deeper aspects of self, society and culture because they overwhelm the story and transform the work into “message fiction” no one wants. Never mind that a good story, a deep story, a worthwhile story does explore the inmost world of the author and the culture surrounding him or her. The books that stay with me are the ones that aren’t merely entertaining, they’re the ones push boundaries of human experience, that let me see outside of our comfortable societal ideas of the norm. These books are fascinating and emotionally resonant because they take advantage of fantastic literature’s chief draw: the ability to articulate worlds different from our own. A book can do this and remain a quick, compulsive read; to include other visions of the human experience outside our immediate context can only help push forward a narrative, not hinder it. To say that sf is solely a vehicle for entertainment devalues the field and dismisses both its readers and writers as people unable to seriously connect, examine, and find meaning (or create it) with the text. It is to say the text has no power. I feel strongly on this point, because writing and reading fantasy has been an important part of my life, to how I ended up negotiating and building my dislocated identity, precisely because it articulates other worlds. Tackling troubling issues in sf does not “ruin” it; rather it expands sf, allows it to touch a wider range of readers, and makes it a legitimate (and vital) form of expression for a broader range of writers.

I can’t accept the premise that trying to find meaning in the narratives you spin is somehow wrong. And I won’t.

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