Wednesday 30 October 2013

Twisted Winter

I’m not afraid of the dark. It’s streetlights I don’t like, especially those glaring orange sodium lights. Have you noticed how strange they make people look, on the street at night? How their faces go pale and bloodless, and their clothes turn a dark, dirty grey, no matter what colour they really are?  Have you noticed how hard it is even to see people properly – because the streetlights make them the same no-colour as everything else - as if they aren’t really there at all, just moving shadows? 
            There’s no such thing as colour. All those bright reds and blues and greens we see in daytime are only wavelengths.  What shows up under the orange streetlights is just as real as what you see in daylight.
           Maybe more real.

So begins my story "DARK", in this new anthology well-received by Amanda Craig in the Times last Saturday as 'a haunting, well-written collection of spooky short stories edited by Catherine Butler'. As you're reading this, I'm heading down to Brighton for the World Fantasy Convention. In the meantime, if you feel like some Hallowe'en tales, here's a look at the contents page.

My favourite may just be Frances Hardinge's beautifully creepy take on the Snow Queen - but then there's Susan Cooper's terrifying costume party, and Frances Thomas's eerie water spirit, and Liz Williams' poignant mix of Egyptian myth and dank English countryside - and Cathy Butler's very odd dog story, and Rhiannon's retelling of the Persephone myth - and - well, see for yourselves.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Saturday 19 October 2013

Other Worlds (2)

Earthsea, Narnia, Middle Earth – the three classic fantasy worlds I talked about last week – are distinctive places. Most children – most people you meet – will have a pretty clear picture of at least the last two. If you were dropped at random into one of these worlds, you would soon be able to guess which one it was.

There has been a great deal of fantasy written since these worlds were created, but not much that competes with them in iconic status and recognisability. Try thinking of names of other worlds, and “Discworld” is the one that springs most readily to my mind.  At the borders where fantasy and science fiction blur, there may be others – "Dune", maybe - but what in fact are modern writers doing with fantasy worlds? Is sub-creation, as Lewis called it, their primary concern?

First of all there are the fantasy worlds which offer a slightly different version of our own. One example is Joan Aiken’s wonderful alternative Georgian England – not Georgian at all, of course, because the Stuart kings are still in power, and instead of Bonnie Prince Charlie, we have ‘Bonnie Prince Georgie’ and a whole series of wonderfully bizarre Hanoverian plots to bump off the reigning monarch and put him on the throne. We know we are not going to get historical accuracy, so we play a happy game of follow-my-leader through the wildest places. Pink whales (“Night Birds on Nantucket”), a sinister overweight fairy queen in a South American Welsh colony (“The Stolen Lake”), a plot to roll St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames in the midst of a royal coronation (“The Cuckoo Tree”), foiled by tent-pegging it down from the back of a galloping elephant… That one initial twist, parting her fantasy world from history, gave Aiken permission to let her imagination loose. And her imagination was powerful, joyous, puckish. Her books are always full of energy, but they can also be eerie, sad. It’s a long walk in the dark/on the blind side of the moon, a character sings in one of her short stories; and it’s a long day without water/when the river’s gone…

Diana Wynne Jones followed Aiken’s lead: many of her books are set in alternative universes that closely parallel our own except for one crucial difference: the existence of magic. She goes so far as to suggest that the absence of magic in this world is something of an aberration. Each world diverges from the next in its series because of a different outcome to some historical event – Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo, for example. ( I suspect that Susanna Clarke, of "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell", read Joan Aiken as a child: her marvellously convincing magical Regency England does seem to owe something, in the best possible sense, to Aiken's lively tales.) And the ‘In-Between Place’ in  Diana Wynne Jones's "The Lives of Christopher Chant" owes something in concept, though not in presentation, to CS Lewis’s ‘Wood Between the Worlds’ in 'The Magician’s Nephew': a neutral space, a jumping-off ground between universes.

Fascinating, fun, and sometimes thought-provoking, these books are not high fantasy in the classical sense. They don't offer self-contained Secondary Worlds like Middle Earth, or Narnia. But they share a purpose with the next one I’m coming to: Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’.

Discworld has grown enormously over the series. It began – in “The Colour of Magic” as a spoof, a comic take on popular sword-and-sorcery novels. With characters like the incompetent wizard Rincewind and the warrior Cohen the Barbarian, it was brilliant comedy, spot on the mark. But Pratchett was too good a writer to remain content with such an easy target. The books rapidly became more serious of purpose (though still extremely entertaining). Discworld fits all the criteria for an instantly recognisable, self-contained imaginary world. It is carried through space by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle. It has a consistent geography, with its central mountain range at the Hub, the Ramtops, the city of Ankh-Morpork, the cabbage fields of Sto Lat; its directions (hubwards and rimwards rather than north and south ). There is nowhere quite like it... except that nearly everything in it is a deliberate borrowing from our own Earth, viewed through a distorting fantasy lens that paradoxically allows us to see it rather more clearly. I don’t know of a more passionate advocate than Pratchett for racial and sexual equality. We might be reading about dwarves and trolls, but we’re not fooled. When Commander Vimes employs trolls, werewolves, dwarves, zombies and vampires in the City Watch, it’s not because they all live together in Ankh Morpork like one big happy family. Read "Feet of Clay", read "Equal Rites". Discworld, like the worlds of Aiken and Wynne Jones, sets Pratchett free to say exactly what he wants in a way quite different but not less seriously intended than so-called ‘realistic’ fiction.

And so we move on to wholly self-contained invented worlds. (I’m still excluding Elfland, which seems to me a different kettle of fish, and I’ll explain why some other time.) Some have been created for the sheer delight of experiencing something fantastical and other: but in the best fantasy that is never the be-all and end-all. They still have something to say. Katherine Roberts’ Echorium Sequence is a good example:  it reminds me of the Earthsea books. In the first volume, "Song Quest":

The day everything changed, Singer Graia took Rialle’s class down the Five Thousand Steps to the west beach. They followed her eagerly enough. A Mainlander ship had broken up on the reef in the recent storms, and the Final Years were being allowed out of the Echorium to search for pieces of the wreck.

Already the reader has picked up hints of reservations about the culture which treats a shipwreck as an excuse for a class outing. The task of the Singers on the Island of Echoes is to spread healing and harmony; they are the diplomats of their world, and are able to talk with the Half-Creatures, such as the Merlee who live in the sea and are trawled for by sailors who sell their eggs as delicacies. The boy, Kherron running away and picked up by fishermen, is told:

“You wait right over there with your bucket. When we draw them in, there’ll be lots of wailing and shrieking. Don’t you take no notice. Soon as we toss you one of the fish people, you get right in there with your knife. No need to wait for ‘em to die first. They ain’t got no feelings like we humans do. Got that?”

Kherron does – but soon:

Soon he was surrounded by flapping rainbow tails, coils of silver hair tangled in seaweed, gaping mouths and gills, reaching hands, wet pleading eyes – and those terrible, terrible songs.
“Help us,” they seemed to say.
He shook his head. “I can’t help you,” he whispered... [He] watched his hand fumble in a pool of green slime and closed on the dagger. He began to hum softly. Challa, shh, Challa makes you dream...
The creatures’ struggles grew less violent. One by one their arms and tails flopped to the deck, and their luminous eyes closed. Kherron opened their guts as swiftly as her could and scooped out handfuls of their unborn children. It helped if he didn’t look at their faces. That way he could pretend they were just fish.

This is strong stuff, and Roberts is clearly interested in the differences between a superficial adherence to peace and harmony – the soothing songs of the Singers, the diplomatic missions – and the blood and guts reality that it may not be possible even literally to keep your hands clean. Colourful adventures in imaginary places don’t have to be anodyne: even heroes and heroines may do some very bad things. But in YA fiction, the learning process is usually what counts, and hope is never forgotten.

John Dickinson’s fantasy trilogy – beginning with ‘The Cup of the World’ (2004) – is a more downbeat series. You could almost call it a teenage 'Game of Thrones' - plenty of Machiavellian politics, less sex and violence. It’s set in a claustrophobic medieval-style kingdom, in a world pictured as held in a vast cup and circled by a snake or cosmic serpent. All of the characters are flawed: civil war is rife, and the main characters are themselves descendants of invaders from over the sea. Long ago, their ancestor Wulfram led his sons against the indigenous hill-people, whose goddess Beyah still weeps for the death of her son. It’s an intricate story which no brief summary can do justice: but the narrative is dark and fatalistic, with a gloom bordering at times on pessimism. This trilogy is a great corrective to the notion that fantasy is all about crude oppositions of good and bad, white and black. The main characters’ best intentions can lead to disaster, and often their intentions are selfish anyway. The descriptions of the world are lovingly detailed and rich, the writing is beautiful, and these are books I greatly admire.

Last, and more recent, Patrick Ness’s trilogy “Chaos Walking” is set on another planet. The border between sci-fi and fantasy is fuzzy at best. Is this a fantasy trilogy? Why not? There is no reason other than convention why a fantasy world has to be medieval. The books ask: is there ever an excuse for violence? And there isn’t a clear answer: Todd, the adolescent main character, has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. But how do you know what the right thing is? Can you trust your own judgement? Are people what they seem? Can even first love – the most intense of experiences – sometimes be a selfish excuse for doing harm to others? Like Katherine Roberts’ Kherron, Todd learns that you can’t always keep your hands clean.

I enjoyed “Chaos Walking” immensely, but began to feel towards the end that I could have done with just a little less non-stop, breathless action, and a little more world-building. This is a trilogy which takes the moral choice to the level of a sixty-a-day habit. I loved the first book the best, maybe because there was more leisure to examine Todd and Viola’s (and Manchee’s) surroundings:

The main bunch of apple trees are a little ways into the swamp, down a few paths and over a fallen log that Manchee always needs help to get over… 

The leap over the log is where the dark of the swamp really starts and the first thing you see are the old Spackle buildings, leaning out towards you from shadow, looking like melting blobs of tan-coloured ice cream except hut-sized. No one knows or can remember what they were ever s’posed to be…

… I start walking all slow-like up to the biggest of the melty ice-cream scoops. I stay outta the way of anything that might be looking out the little bendy triangle doorway… and look inside.

What will we see?

The accusation that fantasy is escapism has always seemed strange to me. Far from being away with the fairies, what fantasy writers do is to take that little step sideways out of this dimension so that they can turn around and take a really good look at this one. At its best, fantasy offers perspective, the chance to run thought experiments, the chance to alter history and see what might have happened. A chance to look at serious issues with the heat off: Terry Pratchett can tell stories about dwarfs and golems and trolls and really he's talking all the time, quite clearly, about race relations. And nobody accuses him of writing allegory, or preaching, either.  And it's all fabulously entertaining.

Next week I want to ask: Why do we do it? And what are the pitfalls? When shouldn’t you be writing fantasy?

What’s it all for?