io9’s James Whitbrook argues that our obsession with canon—whether a story is an “official” part of a fictional universe—is ruining our ability to enjoy stories, because it values factoids and trivia over storytelling. “It predicates the gatekeeping act of being a fan that is built on how much you know about a thing over whether you actually enjoy that thing or not. It’s an attitude that in turn feeds the equally unruly and constantly growing spoiler culture because a fandom that values pure details above all else puts weight in the knowledge of those details.” True that. (I also think people obsess about canon because, deep down, some part of them believes their fictional universe is real: it’s why they freak out when a show breaks established canon.)
Category: Science Fiction & Fantasy Page 1 of 4
New from me at Tor.com this morning: “Celebrating Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy.” It looks at the collaborative process between J. R. R. Tolkien and his son Christopher as father and son tried to make the narrative agree with the map, and vice versa; takes a deep dive into Christopher’s mapmaking technique; and tries to assess the impact of his maps on fantasy mapmaking.
This piece came from a general sense that Christopher Tolkien’s mapmaking was being overlooked in the obituaries and remembrances posted in the wake of his death last week at the age of 95. I posted briefly about it on The Map Room last Thursday, and then found myself having more to say about it. By the end of day Friday I had nearly 2,000 words’ worth of more to say. Revised it over the weekend, sent it off, and now you can read it.
Featured image: Christopher Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth from The Fellowship of the Ring (Unwin, 1954). The British Library.
Today is, I’m told, the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture—the first Star Trek movie, and one that suffered from a rushed production that left several things unfinished (the prints were apparently still wet when they were shipped to theatres) and from a critical response that could charitably be described as lukewarm.
(I saw it in the theatre myself, but as I was all of seven years old at the time, I hadn’t developed much of a critical sense yet.)
Forty years later, though, there seems to be some groundswell of affection for the thing, warts and all. (See Ed Power’s piece in The Independent, for example.) A few years ago I wrote a piece for my fanzine, Ecdysis, called “In Defence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and I thought I was being all heterodox about it. Turns out I wasn’t alone: others have either been reassessing their initial takes on the movie or finding that their impressions weren’t in sync with conventional wisdom.
It probably doesn’t hurt that there have been a dozen Star Trek movies since then to compare it with, and against some of them The Motion Picture compares … rather favourably. It was in that context that I wrote my little essay. Which practically no one read when it first came out, so here it is again:
Earlier today we got back from Scintillation, which went well. My co-panelists loved the book I chose (Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar)1 and my presentation was very well received: one attendee called it the highlight of the convention, my friends asked questions so on-point that I’ll get an article out of them, and I made Greer Gilman happy. So there’s that.
Next up this weekend is Can-Con, Ottawa’s science fiction convention; this year they’re the hosting convention for Canvention, the Canadian national sf convention, and (as a result) the (English-language) Aurora Awards. I’ll be appearing on program again, twice—which is just the right amount for me. Read on for the details:
Friday, 18 October
6:00 PM Worldbuilding: Government and Politics (Salon E). Anatoly Belilovsky (moderator), Jonathan Crowe, Millie Ho, Stephen Graham King, Nisa Malli, Leo Valiquette. “There’s a whole category of science fiction and fantasy that centers on politics (like Game of Thrones) or incorporates political maneuvering heavily (like Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5). How do you create a believable government that isn’t too heavy on worldbuilding? How can government’s idiosyncrasies and redundancies fit in without it always being a caricature? What is there to learn from contemporary political thrillers, and how well do they match the real world?”
Saturday, 19 October
7:00 PM Criticizing Criticism (Salon D). Jonathan Crowe (moderator), Shirley Meier, Michael Skeet, Una Verdandi. “In a world of Amazon and Goodreads reviews, is there a still a need and a place for the professional critic? Have critics been failing to keep pace with new technology and changes in how writing about writing is consumed, or has the craft become lost between the academic and the popular? How can critics and book reviewers reclaim the trust and attention of readers? In a world of algorithms and ‘5 stars!’, what is it that critical writers bring to the table that can’t be crowdsourced?”
Can-Con is sold out, so if you haven’t registered yet, too bad: you can’t. Better luck next year.
This weekend I’ll be appearing at Scintillation, a small convention that takes place in Montreal over Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. Registration for the event is already closed, so if you haven’t signed up for it yet, it’s too late for you to attend. If, however, you’ll be there too, here’s my schedule:
Friday, 11 October
6:00 PM A Good Read (The Big Room). Marianne Aldrich (moderator), Jonathan Crowe, Matthew Surridge, Shaz Taslimi. Four people each choose a novel, everyone reads all of them, and then discuss them. (Show up at the panel to attend to find out which books we chose.)
Saturday, 12 October
3:15 PM The Territory Is Not the Map: Exploring the Fantasy Map Style. (The Reading Room). Jonathan Crowe. In this presentation, I identify and explore the default fantasy map style: where is it, where it comes from, where it’s going, and why we seem not to be able to talk about it. (If you’ve been reading my Tor.com articles about fantasy maps, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be talking about. I finally finished the presentation just after noon today, which is, you know, handy.)
New from me at Tor.com this morning, the latest instalment in my series on the history and design of fantasy maps. “Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?” looks at the influences on and origins of the fantasy map style—the existing traditions, stretching back as far back as the sixteenth century, that the fantasy map drew upon when it came into being in the early to mid-twentieth century. (Tolkien couldn’t have made it up out of whole cloth, after all.)
This is a speculative piece that draws upon a large and diverse number of sources—everything from Renaissance maps to mountain panoramas, from bird’s-eye views of cities to children’s book illustrations—to come up with … well, something interesting, at least. To do proper justice to the subject would require a Ph.D. dissertation. This is a start.
When Amazon announced, in late 2017, that it would be producing a multi-season television series prequel to The Lord of the Rings, there was a lot of speculation as to what ground a prequel series would cover. Some speculated that it would focus on Aragorn in his youth, engaged in knight-errantry in the service of Rohan and Gondor. I held out hopes for stories set earlier in the Third Age: the rise of the Witch-king, the fall of Arnor, the Kinslaying, and various other disasters and tragedies would make fertile material for a TV series, I thought.
Earlier this year, Amazon revealed its true intentions with a map—a map of Middle-earth that was subtly different from the map found in The Lord of the Rings. Gondor and Mordor were not labelled. And the lost island of Númenor, which fell into the sea thousands of years before Bilbo and Frodo, was present at the southwest edge of the map.
“Welcome to the Second Age,” Amazon tweeted. Hold on—was Amazon planning on covering the forging of the Rings of Power and the Downfall of Númenor?
AE, the Canadian online science fiction magazine, is finally, finally back, with a new issue—its first in nearly three years—launching today. Five new stories and three new nonfiction pieces are available to read.
One of those pieces is by me: “An Exercise in Telling: Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files” evaluates whether the narrative structure Neuvel adopts in those books is a success or not. It focuses on the first two books in the trilogy—Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods—because at the time I wrote this piece the third volume, Only Human, hadn’t been published yet. Note that Only Human came out in May 2018: this piece has waited a long time to come out.
That’s because, for various reasons, getting AE back online has taken far longer than anyone involved in the project expected it to take. In September 2016 its database was hacked and the whole site was taken down. Recovering from that hack, and getting the previous six years’ content ported onto another platform, took until August 2018. Getting enough of the remaining ducks in a row to get things up and running again—that took until, well, now.
More than a dozen people worked on getting this magazine back up and running, in what little spare time they could find. I think it would have been easier, and quicker, to start from scratch. Refusing to give up on continuity took some tenacity.
Here’s hoping for smooth sailing from here on.
My latest piece for Tor.com went live this morning. It’s called “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters” and it deals with the question of in-world fantasy maps: the maps that characters inside a fantasy novel might use. (Hint: They wouldn’t look like the maps found on the endpapers of a fantasy novel.)
Some background on how this article came to be:
The presentation on fantasy maps I gave at Readercon in 2014 had many highlights for me (and apparently for the audience). One of which was the question-and-answer session afterward: because it was Readercon, the questions were, like the attendees, very, very smart.
One question was in response to the point I made that fantasy maps didn’t scale up very well: the 24×30-inch maps of The Lands of Ice and Fire were a bit of a disappointment. I said: “When you blow up a fantasy map to the size of two by three feet [sic], without concomitantly increasing the information density, you end up with too much empty space. There’s a wrongness to it, I think, that is almost uncanny.” The questioner referred to a point George R. R. Martin himself made, that the maps were something that could have existed in-universe: “The idea was to do something representing the lands and seas of which, say, a maester of the Citadel might be aware.”
In response I went on an extended riff on some of the challenges of in-world fantasy maps, and the questions that would have to be addressed—the quality of surveying, the availability of paper, the state of geographical knowledge—before a map could exist. It was a great question (and I told the questioner so the next day), and not just because I could give it a good answer. I realized that I could expand that answer into a pretty good article.
Time, as they say, passed; ideas percolated; procrastination occurred; and then it became one of several fantasy map article ideas I pitched to Tor.com. Le voilà. It only took (checks notes) … er, almost five years.
I hope you like it.
The author Gene Wolfe died on April 14 at the age of 87. He was one of science fiction and fantasy’s most brilliant, important, profound—and elusive—writers. Ever since The Fifth Head of Cerberus rewired my brain has he been one of my favourites. Here are some links to give you some sense of the man and his work.
Tor.com broke the news for many of us: Tor had been Gene’s publisher since the mid-1980s. The New York Times obituary is functional but serves its purpose. Better retrospectives come from Jeet Heer, writing for The New Republic, who calls Wolfe’s magnum opus The Book of the New Sun “an almost indescribable combination of speculative Christian eschatology with a Conan the Barbarian adventure story, written in a prose that can fairly be described as Proustian”; and from Brian Phillips in The Ringer, with an amazing recounting of Wolfe’s life.
For fantasy writer C. S. E. Cooney, an acquaintance of mine, the loss was more personal: “We were very good friends. He was one of my finest teachers. He was momentous.”
Some earlier articles and interviews worth rereading. In 2015, Peter Bebergal profiled Wolfe in The New Yorker: “Truth of any kind, no matter how closely you read, is hard to come by in Wolfe’s books. And yet, over time, it does seem to emerge.” From 2014, MIT Technology Review’s interview with Gene Wolfe. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote the introduction to The Very Best of Gene Wolfe; a revised version appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction in 2013 (in the same issue that had an article of mine). Finally, Larry McCaffery’s interview with Gene Wolfe, published in Science Fiction Studies in 1988.
I came late to Robert A. Heinlein, as I did with Ursula K. Le Guin: I didn’t grow up reading his juveniles; I didn’t look to him for inspiration or revere him as a guru. I’d read a few of his books, but my impression didn’t match the extreme esteem with which he was held in the field.
Later, beginning in my late thirties, I made a point of reading his juveniles, as well as classics like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and found myself appreciating them on a technical level: I saw why they worked for so many people, and why people thought he was good.
But there’s a great deal of space between he’s good and he’s god.
New from me on Tor.com this morning: “What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?” This is the first of several planned pieces that will take a deep dive into the look and feel of fantasy maps: their design and aesthetic, their origins and inspirations, and where they may be going in the future. In this piece, I start by trying to describe a baseline fantasy map style—which, though it’s well recognized and often imitated, has not often been spelled out.
The Writer’s Map does two things: it collects writing about literary maps and it presents those maps pictorially. We’ve had collections of literary and fantasy maps before—for example, J. B. Post’s Atlas of Fantasy, the second edition of which came out in 1979, so we’re past due for another. We’ve had essays about literary maps, published here and there in periodicals, essay collections and online. This book gathers them both in one place, creating what is nothing less than a writer’s love letter to the map.
This is one of several reviews of new map books that I’ve done lately. On The Map Room proper, I’ve reviewed Tom Harper’s Atlas: A World of Maps at the British Library and Susan Schulten’s History of America in 100 Maps. Still to come: reviews of the latest edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World as well as Betsy Mason and Greg Miller’s All Over the Map. [Update: Those reviews have now been written; I’ve updated the links.]
It’s a busy season for reviews: map books tend to come out in the fall, in advance of the Christmas season, because they position themselves as gifts for map geeks. (I do an annual gift guide for that very reason.) Which makes the fall a very busy time for me: so far my accomplishments have been largely to (1) attend sf conventions, (2) rake leaves and (3) write map book reviews.
My first post for Tor.com—by the way, that’s now a thing—is now live. “The Dúnedain and the Deep Blue Sea: On Númenórean Navigation” discusses something that’s always bothered me about the Tolkien legendarium. In The Silmarillion, the Men of Númenor are described as “mariners whose like shall never be again since the world was diminished.” But in Tolkien’s world, the world was diminished by making it round: those Númenórean mariners were sailing the seas of a flat earth. Most of our navigational methods wouldn’t work on a flat earth, so how did they navigate? In this article I actually try to answer that question; it turns out the question is answerable. I think.
This is either incredibly pedantic or delightfully geeky. You get to decide which.
Like its predecessor, Lock In (Tor, August 2014), Head On is set in a world where millions of people have a condition called Haden’s syndrome, where they are awake and aware but locked into their bodies. Hadens log into robot avatars called “threeps” (because, yes, they resemble C-3PO) to interact with the non-Haden world. But rather than make the disease and the solution the central focus of this series, Scalzi treats them as background, tucking them away in a prequel novella, “Unlocked.” What he does instead is, to me, much more interesting: he focuses on the knock-on effects of the solution to the epidemic.