Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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All time best SF novels

So, yesterday I declared that Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is, in my opinion, one of the great science fiction novels of all time. Naturally I now feel I should place it in the context of a top ten list.

This is not a list of “most popular” or “most well known” or “most frequently considered great.” I’m not sure how far off the beaten track I’ll get with all these entries, but I’m pretty sure the discerning reader will notice that I admire sociological science fiction.

I’m not going to try to sort anything out within this list. All of these are great books, full stop. I don’t even care whether or not they had a marked impact on the genre; I’m judging the books solely in themselves. Also, I don’t generally like grim tragedies, so I haven’t read Hyperion or various others that often get picked out for lists of this kind. I’m sure it’s brilliant, but obviously I have to stick to books I’ve actually read. Not only that, but loved enough to read several times, so I remember them and appreciate them — unlike The Diamond Age by Stephenson, which I only read once.

In other words, like all lists of this kind, this one is a personal list, even though I’m trying to pick only objectively great books. These are also all science fiction because in this list, I’m steering clear of fantasy.

1. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

2. Cyteen by CJC

3. Dune by Frank Herbert

4. The Mars trilogy by KSR

5. The Foreigner series by CJC — I know; it’s not necessarily okay to uinclude two works by the same author, but here we are.

6. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

7. The Gaia trilogy by John Varley

8. Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie

9. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein

10. The rest of these are novels, but for my last pick: The collected short stories by Cordwainer Smith.

I realize that Ursula K LeGuin is a glaring absence. Unfortunately, though they may be great novels, I actually did not like and did not finish either The Dispossessed or Left Hand of Darkness. Beautiful, beautiful writing. But I didn’t connect with any of the characters.

Okay! So, given these lists are inherently personal, which science fiction, not fantasy, novels would you definitely pick for inclusion on a list of top ten greatest science fiction novels ever written?

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Fencing demo at WindyCon

I wasn’t actually aware the at the author guest of honor at WindyCon this year was Elizabeth Moon until I bumped into her. I hadn’t looked to see who any of the guests of honor were because I was going anyway, so what difference did it make, right?

Well, I actually do like many of Elizabeth Moon’s books, plus if you weren’t aware of it, she writes the best horse posts on Facebook. Very detailed posts about training and managing her horse — she has a handsome young new-to-her gelding called Tigger for his bounce. Anyway, yes, really good horse-themed Facebook posts.

Plus did you know she fences? So there were fencing demonstrations, both modern competition style (in which I have little interest) and historical style, which is much more what I’m interested in. The latter is the kind of fencing Elizabeth Moon does.

So, yes, that was a fun demo to attend.

Plus, as you may know, I’d personally put The Speed of Dark on a list of Best Ever Science Fiction Novels. I really would. So, since my copy is an elderly mass market paperback, I went ahead and picked up a nicer edition at the con and asked Elizabeth Moon to sign it for me. So that was certainly a nice plus for the weekend.

Oh, yes, and all my panels went well, plus I saw both my brothers and various friends, and it was altogether a great weekend, though I was happy to get home and pat the puppies.

Also, I picked up a cd by my now-favorite filk group, Vixy and Tony and listened to it for quite a lot of the way home. You can listen to their songs at the linked website. My favorites are Missing Part, Eight-Legged Blues, Dawson’s Christian, The Girl Who’s Never Been, Uplift, and now Emerald Green, Mal’s Song, Persephone, and Erased. That’s in order as I look down their songlists; it’s hard to pick a real favorite.

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The Martian, 2?

Looks like Andy Weir’s been asked to help develop a sequel to the The Martian. Or maybe not a direct sequel, but something similar.

Via a short post at tor.com:

The Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are developing an idea by Weir, described as “another problem-solving science fiction adventure.” …

It sounds as though it’s something along the same lines as The Martian, which saw astronaut Mark Watney stranded on the surface of Mars after his crew aborted their mission abruptly. 

Sounds promising! The Lego Movie was fun and innovative; The Martian was exciting and also pretty innovative in a different way. I’ll definitely be interested to see what emerges.

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We don’t understand anything

Something Strange And Unseen Seems to Be Causing Distant Galaxies to Synchronise

Galaxies millions of light years away seem to be connected by an unseen network of massive intergalactic structures, which force them to synchronize in ways that can’t be explained by existing astrophysics, Vice reports. The discoveries could force us to rethink our fundamental understanding of the universe.

Having recently listened to Niel deGrasse Tyson’s Great Course’s lectures on Our Inexplicable Universe, I find it really quite easy to believe that we don’t understand anything.

separate study, published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics in 2014, found supermassive black holes aligning with each other, despite being billions of light years apart.

Of course they are.

Yep, really, we don’t understand anything.

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WindyCon

I’ll be at WindyCon this weekend, so if you’re around, say hi if you get a chance!

Panels:

Friday, 5:00 pm — new and exciting developments in our knowledge of dinosaurs. I am prepared with a powerpoint slideshow, but also with printed pictures in case technology isn’t available or fails. My favorites by a mile are the maniraptorans, so I hope someone else on the panel knows more about some other branch of dinosaurs.

Friday 6:00 pm — Worldbuilding in SF. Looks like planetary science is expected to be the focus, rather than worldbuilding in fantasy. We’ll see how the panel actually develops…

Saturday 7:00 pm — “Ask a Scientist.” I’m somewhat flattered to be included on this panel, since although I have a background in science, I’m not really a scientist. The plus: no way to prepare, so that makes preparation easy. The minus: no way to prepare, so that means the right (or wrong) kind of question might catch everyone at a loss. Perhaps the audience members can fill in the gaps in panelist knowledge. I, of course, would most welcome questions about animal behavior, genetics, and evolution.

Sunday 10:00 am — “Fannish Pets,” it says here. “Lead a discussion,” it says. Well, I am second to none in my willingness to talk about pets, mine or other people’s. This sounds like the kind of panel where everyone will be passing around photos, so I’m going prepared with a printed copy of this one, which is a professional job rather than a snapshot I took with my phone, as you might be able to tell:

That is Leda in the middle, with her brothers. She is two years old now. How time flies!

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Dark fantasy versus gritty fantasy.

Recently I said that dark fantasy is not the same thing as gritty or grimdark fantasy. Let me go on with that now, with an attempt to pull apart dark fantasy from gritty fantasy. I feel this is a useful distinction because if you just search for “dark fantasy,” a whoooolllle lot of the suggestions are either very gritty or grimdark, but are not by any stretch what I would prefer to call “dark fantasy.”

I said the other day that dark fantasy should have the following characteristics: It should have a high fantasy or mythopoeic tone, it should be atmospheric, the fantasy elements should remain largely or entirely unexplained, and the protagonist(s) should be heroic rather than helpless or ineffectual.

This is, of course, a personal type of definition. But if we follow it for a minute, then obviously gritty fantasy is completely different from dark fantasy. I like a certain amount of grit in fantasy — sometimes — if it’s well done, not overdone, and I’m in the mood — but gritty fantasy has almost nothing in common with horror and therefore is not very similar to dark fantasy either.

Let’s take a close look at gritty fantasy.

Gritty fantasy, in my opinion — and I think this fits everyone’s opinion — specifically does not have a high fantasy or mythopoeic tone. The worldbuilding instead emphasizes some or all of the following features of daily life: extreme poverty, filth, prevailing ignorance, selfishness, the misery and general ugliness of daily life. In gritty fantasy, streets are filthy, and we get a good look at the sewage. Beggars might have rotting fingers, and we get to smell the putrification. Poor families might sell a child to slavers, and they might not feel especially bad about the necessity, either.

All of these attributes were indeed typical of many (most) human societies, but I don’t personally want to read about a world where these features are brought front and center, even if the protagonists appeal to me and the writing is good and all of that. Some grittiness can be fine as long as the author also shows us the beauty in the world. The grittiness then becomes an additional layer added to the world, a layer that is more or less elided in high fantasy. I’m not always too keen on that layer, but it depends on the extent of the grittiness.

Here are some examples of gritty fantasy, lined up in descending order of grittiness:

Unendurably gritty: Dark Apostle series by EC Ambrose.

I tried to read this book. I like the idea of a surgeon in a fantasy novel; I’m fine with the historical surgeon-barber profession. Here is part of the back cover description of this book:

Elisha Barber is good at his work, but skill alone cannot protect him. In a single catastrophic day, Elisha’s attempt to deliver his brother’s child leaves his family ruined, and Elisha himself accused of murder. Then a haughty physician offers him a way out: serve as a battle surgeon in an unjust war.

The novel opens with that “single catastrophic day.” Not only is the day catastrophic, the setting also brings every gritty worldbuilding element into the forefront and dumps it all, like a bucket of rotting offal, over the reader’s head. I didn’t make it to the offer from the haughty physician.

Moving on to tolerable levels of grittiness:

Gritty: Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series; the Night Angel serieby Brent Weeks. I read these and like them, but I have not gone back to re-read them. The one by Weeks, I gave away.

Somewhat gritty: Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series. Now we’re at a level I can appreciate. I love this series and highly recommend it to anyone as an example of outstanding epic fantasy.

A bit gritty: Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series. Yes, really. This series is very different from Pierce’s middlegrade series. It’s much more sophisticated, much “bigger,” and much grittier — without being too much for (most of) Pierce’s young readers. But the focus on the street-level grime, poverty, crime, and daily life place this series firmly in the gritty category as opposed to the high fantasy side of the genre.

In this case, this is by far my favorite of Tamora Pierce’s series. Long and slow-paced at times, but I’ve re-read the whole thing a couple of times and will undoubtedly do so again in the future.

This all boils down to the essential difference between high fantasy and low fantasy, except it’s between a specific type of high fantasy (dark) and a specific type of low fantasy (gritty). I think this is actually a quite useful distinction, much more so than just lumping together everything with unpleasant or scary or grim aspects and calling it “dark fantasy.”

If you have a suggestion for a gritty fantasy — but not too gritty — drop it in the comments! Or if you’d like to redraw the lines of the definitions, then by all means, jump in and lay out where the lines should be between horror, dark, and gritty.

Next week sometime, I’ll try to separate grimdark from gritty. Fantasy can absolutely be extremely gritty, far too much so for my personal taste, without being grimdark.

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Viking warrior woman

Scientists Reconstruct The Mutilated Face Of A 1,000-Year-Old Female Viking Warrior

A skeleton found in a Viking graveyard in Solør, Norway has been identified as female for years, but experts weren’t sure if the woman was really a warrior when she was alive. Now, cutting-edge facial reconstruction appears to confirm her status as a fighter.

According to The Guardian, archaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi explained that this latter part was in dispute “simply because the occupant was a woman” — despite her burial site being filled with an arsenal of weaponry that included arrows, a sword, a shield, a spear, and an axe.

This does seem somewhat odd to me. What can a facial injury tell you that burial with an arsenal can’t? It seems to me like the number of nonfighter women murdered with swords and spears must be quite a lot higher, to put it mildly than the number of warrior women killed in battle. Nothing in the article suggests why a specific wound indicates death in battle rather than slaughter of a noncombatant. Personally, I think the arsenal is a lot more suggestive than the wound.

However, it’s always something to see the face of someone out of history.

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Where did the Berlin Wall go?

I happened across this post just now: The Berlin Wall Fell 30 Years Ago. Where Did It Go?

The wall spanned 96 miles, encircling West Berlin. It stood for nearly three decades until November 9, 1989, when East Germany suddenly opened its borders and crowds began tearing it down.

In the 30 years since, chunks of the wall have made their way to some 237 locations in more than 40 countries, according to records from a German government foundation tracking them.

I can tell you, chunks of the wall have made their way to a lot more than 237 places. I have a piece myself, picked up in person by my brother, who was in Germany at the time.

Nice event to commemorate. Definitely a good one to remember; I’m glad to have noticed various articles and posts about it. Hard to believe it’s been thirty years.

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Dark Fantasy vs Horror

So, I commented last week that T Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones is perhaps more dark fantasy than horror. I think this is the case. But then why would I, or anyone, say this? What is the difference?

There is one fairly obvious differences, like so:

Horror does not have to have fantasy elements. It can draw solely on the horror internal to the human condition — Misery, by Stephen King, for example. Or it can use real-world elements and nothing but — Cujo, for example. Or it can use science-fiction-y elements, such as genetic experimentation gone awry or computers that develop in odd ways or, of course, aliens.

Dark fantasy must by definition use fantasy elements.

But okay, plenty of horror does include fantasy elements or supernatural elements, so how do you separate horror fantasy from dark fantasy? Blood and body count? This post at Disquieting Visions argues that if the adventure is foremost, it’s dark fantasy, while if generating suspense is foremost, it’s horror. That post suggests that the distinction is made, essentially, by whether the reader of the book would tend to exclaim: “You got blood on my adventure!” vs. “Your adventure is detracting from my sense of pervasive fear!” That is a very nice line. This definition would perhaps make The Twisted Ones horror, at least at first, although the second half might be dark fantasy.

However, I don’t agree that this is necessarily the case. It seems to me that there is a whole lot of adventure in a good many horror novels, superseding the atmosphere of dread; for example, in It. Though again you might then say that most of It is horror, but the last part is dark fantasy. But since It is a horror classic, that suggests the definition needs work. You really cannot use a definition of horror that excludes half of all classic horror works.

Here’s another post that I liked quite a bit: On Dark Fantasy, by an author named Lucy Snyder.

Horror is about an intrusion of the frightening and unknown into a mundane, everyday world the reader is familiar with. … The intrusion doesn’t have to be supernatural (a deranged serial killer will do just fine) though it often is.

Dark fantasies have an established setting that is fantastic or otherworldly. … If you start out in a world where vampires or ghosts or magic are treated as a “normal” occurance by the characters, it’s a fantasy world.

So for Snyder, horror is not about suspense or blood; it’s about the intrusion of the frightening into the mundane world. I could go with that, and in that case, again, The Twisted Ones would fall into the horror genre — again, tending a bit more toward dark fantasy toward the end. However, there are so many fantasy, not horror, novels where something fairly creepy intrudes into the mundane. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. Shadows, by McKinley. Just a huge number. So I’m just not sure I’m happy with that definition either.

Snyder makes two more important points, but I’m not sure either works much better for me than the first. One is that the protagonists of dark fantasy novels are heroes, who at some point deliberately choose to face something terrible in order to save others; while the protagonists of horror novels are victims, forced to face something terrible because they can’t get away. This is very much, I think, like the adventure versus pervasive dread argument above. Heroes choose to act and therefore their stories are adventures. Victims of horror aren’t choosing anything and just want to survive.

Well, you know, this still doesn’t work. A whooooole bunch of horror novels have heroes, including classic novels like, again, It, and also The Stand and just about everything by Dean Koontz. You can either define all those as dark fantasy — even if they also involve the intrusion of eerie elements into the mundane world — despite the obvious fact that they are considered absolute classics of horror. Or you can give up on this characteristic.

I will add, though, that this particular element is a big driver of whether a dark fantasy / horror novel will work for me. I very much prefer heroes. I am not into helpless victims, even if they eventually take action to save themselves. I loathed Misery almost as much as I hated Cujo. In the latter, I was so filled with contempt for the ineffectual protagonist that I came close to throwing the book in the trash rather than giving it away. These days I would never bother finishing a story like that one.

But moving on: The other point Snyder makes is this: In many dark fantasies, there’s an implied promise that the characters the reader cares about will make it out alive in the end, and the day will be saved, while in horror neither is guaranteed.

I suppose this might have been true at one time, but the rise of grimdark fantasy zaps the distinction completely. Grimdark fantasy is not horror, but there is no such implied promise. Also, I always considered Dean Koontz to be writing “horror lite” — that is, horror where the good guys are going to live and the day will be saved. But those are still horror novels; nobody would call them dark fantasy, just as no one would peg Joe Abercrombe grimdark classic The Blade Itself as horror. This could be a matter of historical convention: if an author started writing when horror was popular, he’s writing horror. If his career took off when horror was in eclipse, we find another word for what he’s writing — grimdark or dark fantasy. Which, by the way, I think of as completely different subgenres.

When I picked up The Twisted Ones, I did indeed assume the good guys would win and the day would be saved, based on T Kingfisher’s other work, and if I’d been wrong I’d have been pretty unhappy about that. Since it’s marketed as horror, should I have been worried? I don’t think so. Lots of authors write horror where you can be pretty sure the good guys will triumph, at least the good guys you most want to survive.

Anyway, all this leaves the question of what, if anything, distinguishes dark fantasy from horror still unresolved. So far we have:

a) Horror involves intrusion of the weird and scary into the mundane world; dark fantasy involves secondary worlds and/or fantasy elements.

b) Horror involves the maintenance of pervasive dread rather than adventure; dark fantasy prioritizes adventure above the maintenance of pervasive dread.

c) Horror involves victims who have little other goal than survival; dark fantasy involves heroes who strive to save not only themselves but others.

d) Horror means no assurance about any characters surviving; dark fantasy carries an implicit promise that all or most of the characters will survive and the adversary will be defeated.

None of these defining characteristics seem to me to do a very good job of separating dark fantasy from horror. What else might work better to actually distinguish the two? Any ideas? Or should we just give up and declare there is no difference other than a marketing decision? Or should we say, “I don’t know, but I know it when I see it?”

Here’s where I would start:

a) Tone. Dark fantasy should be eerie and atmospheric. The feel should be high fantasy or mythopoeic. Grotesque is fine, but not buckets of gore splashed all over everything. It should not be overly gritty. It should not intergrade with grimdark. That is a different sub-subgenre.

b) The eeriness should be unexplained. Aliens, no matter how strange, are not eerie. Pseudoscience need not apply. Definitely no computers gone amok.

c) There should indeed be heroes rather than solely victims, and most or all of the characters should survive. If someone dies, it’s because they deliberately sacrifice themselves, not because the author threw in gratuitous death for no particular reason.

d) It is not primarily a romance story. Paranormal romance is a different subgenre with an entirely different “feel” to it. some Urban Fantasy might also be dark fantasy, however.

Here are some examples of what I would consider actual dark fantasy, in basically no order except how I thought of them:

1)Uprooted by Naomi Novik

2)Cuckoo’s Song by Francis Hardinge

3) Coraline by Neil Gaiman

4) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

5) The Dark Tower series by Steven King

There, that’s five, enough to go on with. I’ll add one more:

6) The City in the Lake

What do you all think? What constitutes dark fantasy, and what novel do you think is a good example of the subgenre?

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Novels based on folk legends

At tor.com, this post by Shea Ernshaw: 5 Fictional Books Based on Real Folklore

We’ve all heard them: local legends and small-town rumors, whispers of an eerie abandoned house, a spooky bridge over a dried riverbed, a haunted forest.  … The following YA books were inspired by real world myths and legends and unexplained tales—my favorite kinds of stories.

This seems topical, considering I just posted about The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher. That story concerns “holler people;” that is, stranger inhuman people who are associated with certain hollers.

Hollers, as you probably know, are an Appalachian term for “hollows,” meaning little valleys among the mountains.  The Twisted Ones is set, I think, in North Carolina, so Appalachian or at least Appalachian-adjacent. I don’t know whether T Kingfisher drew on any specific Appalachian or local folk legends for the story … wait, I don’t think so, she says in an author’s note that she drew on a specific literary inspiration: Arthur Machen’s 1904 short story, The White People

However, it feels like it’s based on a folk legend, so that’s good enough.

All the books featured on the tor.com post look like dark fantasy / horror. I’m just judging on title here, but “Teeth in the Mist” sounds like horror. So does “The Devouring Gray.” This one sounds interesting, in a way:

Conversion by Katherine Howe

Inspired by true events, Conversion is the story of several friends attending St. Joan’s Academy who are inexplicably struck by a strange condition which causes the girls to suffer from uncontrollable tics, seizures, hair loss, and coughing fits. … this book was based on the real-life events that took place in a high school in Le Roy, N.Y. where high school students began suffering from similar ailments. The community of Le Roy feared it might be pollution or poisoning of some kind, but it was eventually determined to be a case of “conversion,” a disorder where a person is under so much stress that their body converts it into physical symptoms. Also known as hysteria.

I’m skeptical about that conclusion, so here’s a link to a Skeptical Inquirer post about that if you’re interested. However, judging from the couple of posts I glanced over, it does appear that this might have been a case of mass hysteria.

However, I don’t want to move on from this topic without pointing out that, of course, the single best example of Appalachian folklore-based fantasy must surely be the Silver John stories by Manly Wade Wellman. I’ve been re-reading those recently and I’d forgotten the extraordinary colloquial style. If you’ve never read any of the Silver John stories, some of them are available online here.

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