Tag Archives: Daniel Abraham

When Setting Defines (or Defies) Genre

There’s a rule of thumb I’ve referenced in multiple posts here at Fictorians regarding how the kind of universe your story exists within helps define its genre. The rule was brought to my attention via Daniel Abraham in a Clarkesworld post on grimdark fantasy that’s well worth a full read. Mr. Abraham in turn attributes the rule of thumb to Walter Jon Williams, and I’ll quote the relevant passage of the Clarkesworld piece (one of their “Another Word” series of posts) below so that no meaning is lost in the paraphrase:

“In fantasy, the world is essentially benign; in science fiction, the world is essentially amoral; in horror, the world is malefic. Put in terms of illness, fantasy evil is an illness from which the world must recover. In science fiction, evil is a social construct put on a universe that simply is the way it is. In horror, evil is the natural deformity of the world from which there is no way to recover.”

— Daniel Abraham, “Literatures of Despair,” Clarkesworld, 2013

Now, as with any rule of thumb, there are grains of truth to this surrounded by sand-hills (salt-mountains? I’m not clear on what kind of “grains” this metaphor refers to, and so my metaphor is collapsing) of wiggle-room. I’ve spoken at length about how genres tend to bleed together and how often works of fiction fail to fall squarely into one genre or the other.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take this rule of thumb at face value. Close examination of the physical (or metaphysical) underpinnings of what makes your fabricated world tick can help you decide what kind of story you should be telling, and even how that story ought to end. For those authors who have an easier time coming up with fantastically detailed worlds than they do defining a particular story to tell within them (you know who you are), here is one way to narrow down the multitudes of options. It can also be a useful set of guideposts to pantser-style writers who find their story getting away from them in ways they don’t like, as opposed to ways they do.

And that’s not all the rule is good for. Like all rules, it’s good for breaking. Say your goal is deconstructing a popular genre. Well then, perhaps your Tolkienesque epic fantasy story can run afoul of a universe where everything is horrible all the time and the heroes can ultimately lose or the horrific truths forming the foundation of your world can be unexpectedly defeated by the actions of the protagonist, fundamentally restructuring everything that came before. Nothing can be as exhilarating (if done well) or as frustrating (if done poorly) as a twisted expectation.

If you do go this route, I recommend a “frog in boiling water” approach, even though that particular metaphor is untrue (it turns out frogs are not that stupid). Begin with the obvious notes of one genre but quickly introduce a discordant note that points to the genre your story will eventually more into. Gradually shift from one to the other as the plot progresses, so that the transformation feels necessary by the very end. This is particularly effective in shifting from fantasy or science fiction into horror, particularly if you can ramp up the dread while staving off the final realization in the reader until the last possible moment.

In the end, it’s best to think of this rule of thumb, like any rule of thumb, as a tool rather than a boundary. Just remember another saying I’ve become fond of: don’t tear anything down before you understand why it was built in the first place.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

Wisdom in Abundance – The Characters of Daniel Abraham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve touted Daniel Abraham’s work on this blog before. It’s no secret I admire his writing as much as any other author working today. Recently, a friend asked me why. There’s plenty of reasons that come easy to hand: prose that is neither too flowery nor too spare, his ability to balance plot, pacing, character, and depth of worldbuilding into a melange that doesn’t rely too heavy on any one ingredient. But of course, there are plenty of other authors that can claim similar skills, and after my friend asked, I realized I’d never really figured out that extra something Abraham brings to his work that keeps me coming back.

The Special Sauce, if you will.

I turned my gaze inward and pondered this for awhile, and hit upon the answer in the most meta way possible. Because that very act was my answer.

Whether he’s writing epic fantasy that spans the lives of a small handful of characters, co-writing a science fiction series (with co-author Ty Franck) that somehow manages to be space opera, hard(ish) sci-fi, and character-centric all at once, or writing a different epic fantasy that does so much awesome stuff I can’t even describe it without making this sentence absurdly long (I tried), Abraham’s books have one constant: characters who think about their actions, both before and after, in the larger context against which they are set. He brings a literary quality to his characters, not enough to bog down plot or pacing, just enough to make them real. Let me try and explain with a few character sketches:

A widow who mourns her husband while acknowledging that he died fighting for the wrong cause. She contemplates the pointlessness and waste–and inevitability–of war even as she sets out to steer her war toward the least bad conclusion.

A detective who believes that saving one missing person from becoming just another statistic in a hardscrabble universe can redeem him from a lifetime of bad decisions he made almost unconsciously. And all the while, he drives a wedge between the human connections that could actually save him, and does so entirely knowingly.

A former priest of a dangerous and destructive cult who recognizes what he once represented as both evil and false and walks away from it, only to find himself drawn back into the fight to stop its spread years later.

A mage who destroys the world through his desire to protect those he loves and their way of life, and in his guilt and desperation to repair the damage, risks destroying even what little remains.

A gentle boy long tormented by his peers until he grows into a man capable of immense cruelty while a portion of him still remains kind and gentle. He is (entirely believably) both monstrous and good at the same time.

These characters act in altruistic manners, or they self-deceive for self-interest, or they desperately try to right wrongs they believe themselves guilty of, falsely or not. Yet in Abraham’s expert hands, all of them have something in common, a hard-won, often tragic wisdom that comes from self-examination (sometimes too late) and a desire to do what is right even if they can’t see what that is.

I know many readers aren’t fans of so-called “navel-gazing” (a term I hate) as a trait in characters. But trust me when I say that Abraham handles this with the same aplomb and balance as he handles his books’ other elements. I’m not certain self-examination of the depth Abraham explores occurs with the same frequency in real-life people, but to the author’s credit, it never bogs down his stories, instead strengthening his recurring themes of growth coming at a cost.

Regardless of what genre he hops into (he’s also got a paranormal romance series, and I can’t wait to see what characters his promised cosmic horror novel novel introduces) Abraham brings us the same quality and depth of characters. It’s this knack that keeps me coming back over and over to his writing.

 

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Monetizing Magic

A Shadow In SummerQuick, name one aspect of life you almost never see dealt with in epic fantasy! Did you say “economics”? No? I don’t blame you. Like many, my eyes tend to glaze over when talk of money or economics starts up. Still, when you get right down to it, money makes the world go around in many ways. So it’s kind of odd it almost never gets dealt with in a serious way in fantasy. The hero either has a handful of coppers in his or her pocket or doesn’t, and little thought is given toward where the money comes from in a larger sense. And be honest; most people gifted with magical might would neither save nor conquer the world, but would instead use said power to make crazy money.

My friends, let me introduce you to the writings of Daniel Abraham. Maybe you’ve already heard of him through his epic fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin or his work as one half of James S.A. Corey in writing The Expanse. He’s even got a television show in production for that one. But I’m willing to bet even some of his newer fans haven’t checked out his first epic fantasy series, the tragically underrated The Long Price Quartet.

The Long Price Quartet was the first epic fantasy series I ever read that seriously dealt with economics. The second-world fantasy series features a magic system where poet-sorcerers are able to hold perfectly-formed ideas in their minds, breathing life into creatures called andats. Each andat has fantastical powers based upon the idea it represents, and the city states that employ the poets use the andats to retain an economic advantage over any rivals.

Need an example? In A Shadow in Summer, the first volume of the quartet, the poet Heshai controls the andat called Removing-the-part-that-continues (“Seedless” for short). Seedless is used to remove seeds from cotton on a grand scale for the city-state of Saraykeht.

It’s not as simple as that, though. The andats do not want to exist, preferring the abstractness of thought to existence in a concrete reality. If a poet tries to capture one and fail, he or she dies. And even if they are successful, they are bound for life to a creature that wants nothing more than to cease existing. Hence poet and andat are locked in constant mental struggle. Should the poet ever lose the thread of the thought that makes up the andat or die without passing that idea to another poet, the andat vanishes. And any given andat can only be captured once.

The power Seedless wields over cotton is great for Saraykeht. The only trouble is other nations grow cotton too, and there is only one Seedless. Jealous rivals will stop at nothing to remove the advantages an andat provides. But they dare not act openly, because removing seeds from cotton is not all that Seedless can do…

The books of Long Price are a slower read than some. In addition to an interest in economics that carries through to his other writing, Abraham eschews a lot of epic fantasy staples like large-scale battles. Instead he focuses more on intrigue and the human side of conflict. His prose is spare but efficient and filled with evocative imagery, and his books have absolutely no bloat, which will be a relief to many. I remember reading Long Price and thinking that I’d never read anything quite like it before. It immediately made Abraham a must-read author for me and reading his work has taught me a lot about my own writing as well.

So maybe you’ve heard of this Daniel Abraham guy. If you have, but have only read his later Dagger and Coin or his Expanse sci-fi collaboration with Ty Franck, do yourself a favor and pick up A Shadow in Summer*. And if you’ve never read Daniel Abraham, do yourself a favor and jump on the bandwagon of one of the industry’s rising stars.

 

*Note: The books of Long Price can be purchased individually or you can buy the series in two halves. A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter have been merged into Shadow and Betrayal, while An Autumn War and The Price of Spring were merged into The Price of War.