We have been on a quest to find “The Next Tolkien™.” There’s always someone being called “The Next Tolkien.” Various names have been tossed out throughout the years: Terry Brooks, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan. I think we’re all looking in the wrong place: we’re looking at the various “high fantasy” types, when in reality, the next Tolkien was more important than that.

I nominate Iain M. Banks.

Tolkien wrote that his had their own internal logic, that his fairy lands were to be taken seriously on their own merit, and that their real purpose was to transport the reader far and away from the current world to a different place, a place where we encountered new and powerful visions, ones at the end of which we come out, having encountered dragons and demons, and we see our own world in a new and different light, somehow enchanted, yet with a new commission to make it all better, to keep it running, to thrive.

You can’t read the Culture as a series without having an experience as powerful, as fundamental, and as valid, as reading about Middle Earth. More importantly, as science fiction, The Culture is a call to action that Tolkien was sadly missing from The Lord of the Rings.

Most Culture novels have amazing payoffs at the end, huge set-piece scenes (each distinct and unique, so not entirely like the “money shot” of porn, a David Weber novel, or a Transformers movie) that happen in such a rush, and often with great redemption in the face of utter ruin, that are exemplars of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, a “fantastic upsetting” that sets the world right again. Unlike Tolkien’s work, Banks never proposed that there was a hierarchal structure to reality itself that causes some to “rightly order their lives,” working together to create a universe “hospitable to humans.” Banks’s call to action was to ask us to do it, to pick up more than just the axe or the plow, but to work to make the universe a better place.

Tolkien said we should take Faërie seriously. Iain M. Banks told us that not only should we take Faërie seriously, but that it was our moral duty to build it, because no one else was going to help.

Imposter syndrome is one of those things that haunts me as a writer (and probably a lot of other writers as well). Recently, there have been a few articles that have made my imposter syndrome ever sharper, and Jo Eberhardt, who I usually admire, wrote a piece on writing that made my anxiety flare ever hotter. In her piece Envy, Perfection, and the Work of Writing, she wrote, "I like to describe the process of writing a novel as follows:

The story in your head is perfect. It’s the most perfect thing that’s ever existed. Your job, as a writer, is to take that perfect story and translate it into imperfect words in such a way that when someone else reads them, your perfect story comes to life in their mind.

In my head, the story is never perfect.

My stories, especially the longer ones, start out as shattered jigsaw pieces, often from completely unrelated puzzles. I rarely start out with the idea of a story, even. Often it’s just something I want to say, and I believe that fiction is the right way to say it.

To give you two examples. Star Kingdom started out as a commentary on bad space opera where, to get the whole "rich vs poor" countries Innn Spaaaace effect writers have to do horrible things to economies. I was thinking of Weber and Bujold. Komarr’s "expensive" solettas shouldn’t be, and the typical impoverished ice-ball worlds of Weber are worse. He has cheap lift to space! The other thread was the idea of taking two characters whose professional obligation and sense of honor make it really hard to get them into the same room together, and how could I get them into bed?

Star Kingdom went through three re-writes. Each time, some of the commentary and plot ideas shifted, some getting weaker, some getting stronger. Eventually, an external plot ("Someone’s trying to kill us!") and an internal plot ("I don’t know if I can love you and do my duty to Queen and Country.") emerged, and by the third re-write I had them properly threaded together in a way that made sense and led to a lovely, if slightly melodramatic (I’m a sucker for melodrama) "Will you marry me?" ending.

The current WIP, Honest Impulses, is a sequel, so I had characters and setting already, but the story didn’t start to emerge until I had a theme of all things. I’m a thematic writer. I like themes. The theme that emerged in Honest Impulses is "What does it mean to be ‘a decent human being?’" There are other themes. I like intimacy, I like vulnerability, I like the way sex and affection expose these and turn them into pleasure and deepen characters’ (and real persons’) understandings of each other. Can you be a highly sexual person and still be a deeply decent one?

In either case, what I end up with is a string of scenes that may or may not add up to a story when I’ve thrown 100,000 words at the screen. It’s my task afterward to figure out if there is a story there, or more than one, or less than one, and eventually forge a whole, satisfying tale that respects the reader’s attention.

But there is never a perfect story in my head. Never. It’s a vague idea that might be a good story, but first I have to mine tons of mental ore out of my head, and then I have to extract the good stuff through revision after revision.

I know Eberhardt probably didn’t mean to demean writers who don’t have the idea in their heads right from the get-go, but I’ve never been so lucky as to know what I was writing before I got to the end. The second time.

tl;dr: It’s David Weber. FTWLTSOT,TITSOTTL1

I finally slogged through the entirety of David Weber’s Safehold series. "Slogged" is exactly the right word. These books are doorstops bar none. I vaguely guess there’s somewhere between 3 million and 3½ mililon words total in these nine books, most of them clocking in somewhere between 700 and 850 pages. They’re so full of David Weber tropes it’s almost like Weber fanfic: war, blood, heroism, swashbuckling derring-do, angelic heroes of the most upright standing and mustache-twirling villains of foregone depravity.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal the setting and basic plot: It is The Future. Humanity has all but been wiped out by mindless alien xenophobes, and Safehold, the last human colony has been hidden far away from the interstellar warfront. To make it even more invisible, the colonists have been mindwiped and dropped into a 15th century tech level with a book, The Holy Writ Of Langhorne and the Archangels, which explains how God wants them to live: healthily (the books explain everything: animal husbandry, antiseptic would care, terraforming, even some cognitive psychology) but simply (there are proscriptions against invention and innovation, with absolutely hideous death-by-torture punishments for anyone daring to experiment with electricity, backed up by an automated orbital death machine that will rain down Mjolnir-level death on any city that starts to use electricity extensively), the better to avoid putting out the radio and neutrino signals that the aliens used to track Terran vessels down. It’s a clever conceit that lets Weber have his beloved sailing ships and broadside-to-broadside battles, but it reads like "Hey, what if someone wrote Honor Harrington but like, on water, with sailing vessels?"

A thousand years later, into this mess awakens Nimue, the last surviving woman of the Terran Federation. She’s been reincarnated in a robot body (Weber does a lot of handwaving about posthuman technologies to explain why H. sapiens hadn’t NerdRaptured™ to deal with the aliens), and learns that the "hideous torture" part wasn’t actually in the original plan. There was a coup among the colony commanders, and the "No tech, ever" team murdered the "We’ll have to deal with the aliens eventually" team. She formulates A Plan to invalidate the Holy Writ, and touches off a massive World War™ between the liberal (read: England and the better, more Protestant, parts of Europe) and conservative (read: The nastier, more Catholic, parts of Europe, plus a few Chinese thrown in for good measure) parts of the planet. Without using electricity, Nimue bootstraps the most liberal political entity (the one that had banned slavery and adopted universal literacy, etc. etc.) on the planet from rowed galley ships to, well, that would be spoiling.

The problem with the Safehold books is twofold. The first is what David Brin calls the spearcarrier problem. Safehold is a Great Game story. A few people in positions of power send millions out to die in their battles. We get names of many soldiers and sailors who get killed within one or two chapters, with details about their wives, friends, parents, and children thrown in to remind us that these are real people who get killed when the Great Gamers start to roll the dice. They still get killed nonetheless.

The second problem is one that’s familiar to readers of long series from Weber: While we want the heroes to win, we don’t want the winning to be easy. The winning on Safehold is easy. The main characters are rarely, if ever, in any real danger of losing. Nimue is an immortal, nearly indestructible, well-trained killing machine who can provide satellite-based, world-encompassing reconnaissance, complete with audio and video recordings of (almost every) conversation the enemies are having to her allies, and who has a very large library stashed away in her Fortress of Solitude, including all the war history and every technological improvement she can supply. Most of our World War One was fought without electricity, after all, and by the end of the series her generals and commanders are quoting Patton and Clausewitz at each other. Despite the overwhelming numbers of soldiers the bad guys have, the good guys always pull out a technological advance that wins that day.

Weber is reluctant to kill his angels. Almost none of them die, all of them have the author’s hand of forebearance atop them. The main characters of the first three or four books become distant givers-of-orders, and the last five books are a painful series of watching ordinary people go out and get killed for them.

One thing that might turn off people is how Weber uses religion. He is a Methodist by training, and his characters engage in a lot (and I mean a lot) of talking about What God Wants. The God of Safehold is a deliberately twisted, distant syncretic deity meant to supply the post-mortem muscle behind what the coup survivors wrote in the books of their Writ (the major leaders of the coup: Langhorne, Bedard, Schueler, Chihiro, etc., all have their own books in the Writ), and Weber’s point is that "the real, human knowledge of God will shine through even their twisting of it," as the first Archbishop who comes to know Nimue and the true origin of the Writ says while retaining his faith. Nimue in passing mentions that she is a Christian, but it’s never belabored much, and she says she’d be thrilled if she could get past all the brainwashing and let all Safeholdians know about Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and all the rest. It isn’t badly handled; in fact, I rather enjoyed how deftly Weber made his Case For God without ever once having to rely on supernatural intervention as a reason to believe.

If you like Weber, you’ll probably like Safehold. If you don’t like Weber, you probably shouldn’t bother.


1 For Those Who Like This Sort of Thing, This Is The Sort Of Thing They Like.

I have completely revamped the story sites (do people still call them minisites?), and completely done away with the Django-based application that drove them.

There are no new stories in the Journal Entries or anything else yet, although I have included a bit of fanfic I wrote a few years back and only put up on Archive Of Our Own, but I figured it was time to bring it home.

The big change here is simple: The stories are readable on your phone! For years, the site was not at all responsive or adaptive. Now it is. Now you can read your Elf-generated erotica, whatever your bent, from anywhere on the planet. Even better, “swipe left” and “swipe right” are now mapped to “next story” and “previous story,” which is kinda awesome.

Equally importantly, the Bastet stories are now readable. For the longest time, there was something wrong with the CSS and I couldn’t fix it. I finally decided to chuck it and go with a fairly consistent theme-and-variation framework.

Back-end changes which might require notice: The back-end is now written entirely in Hy, leveraging several libraries for Markdown-to-HTML translation and Jinja for producing the final templatized table-of-contents and stories. This eliminates a whole database of problems. Every story now carries its own metadata header that describes what series it belongs to, if there are arcs (Aimee and Visit To Pyu Rika are separate “arcs”, as is The Mystic Treefort, basically limited-length subseries), and where in the sort order it belongs.

Still unfixed: The footer is ugly. I’m working on it. I want to put contrast controls on the page, as well as Schema markings (you won’t see those) that tell Google what these stories are.

And now that I have control back from my unmaintained story engine, maybe I’ll finally get a few more stories up.

This weekend, I attended Norwescon, an SF convention held every year in the Seattle area, and in the dealer’s room, there were both general booksellers and individual tables for small presses. At random, I picked up Mira Grant’s Rise.

For some teachers, putting on the Kevlar gloves and strapping their service pistol to their waist would have brought a feeling of security, like they had finally put the world back in order. For Elaine, it felt like a declaration of failure.

This isn’t an opening paragraph. It’s not even a chapter header. This is some random paragraph deep inside a book that I picked up at random, understanding only that it was yet another zombie novel.

There is not a word in that extract that isn’t doing an incredible amount of work. With the transition from “teachers” to the incongruent “Kevlar guns and service pistol,” the mention that other teachers would enjoy the process but our heroine would not, every word in those two sentences is either telling you something, or is glue necessary to make the grammar work.

Contrast this with the opening paragraphs of Toy Wars, a middle-press book by Tom Gondolfi that has been sitting in my “to read” pile ever since I picked up it at last year’s Norwescon:

After my uneventful manufacturing process, I woke up. Where was I before that sleep? I didn’t remember deactivating my cognitive process. My memory sump revealed no memories that predated that moment. Life must begin and end somewhere, just as a line must have two points that define its position in the universe. My line started when I awoke.

My memories show only a notation of my origin. “Activation occurs, L+13y224d1h0s. Internal clock set to M+0. Awaiting command from Factory 55466″

“Stand by for shape and color recognition patterns,” came the intense voice of the Factory itself, both auditory and over the net. The voice vibrated deeply from the very walls of the 3-meter-high chamber as the voice over the electronic network mimicked it in tone and timbre. A large video display in front of me carried the image of my body being laser-scanned from the top of my big saucer-shaped ears down to the bottom of my broad, flat feet.

There’s a lot of extraneous noise in these paragraphs. They’re written by someone who understands that he needs a hook, and has a good idea for a hook, but the execution is weak.

The sad thing is that, with no memorable exceptions, every book on the small press / self-published tables was more like Gondolfi than Grant. Wordy, weak, and often grossly conversational. Gondolfi’s story has an interest conceit, which puts his heads above many of the books I contemplated. As a writer, I’ve been tempted to open paragraphs with words like “actually” and “indeed.” Every word must convey information. Those words don’t, yet beginning writers seem to love them. Grant doesn’t, and in those two sentences she somehow tells an entire story about Elaine.

The demise of traditional publishing companies will have some real benefits. There were gatekeepers who kept out women and minorities, privileging the white men who they resembled. There were capricious editors who preyed on their writers in all manner of unscrupulous ways.

The loss of editors will have a real impact on the quality of writing that gets put out there. Critics can plug some of the gap but not all of it. Someone needs to get paid to have good taste. Someone needs to be able to say, “With this writer, you’ll be in good hands.”

keep looking »