18 February 2011

Thoughts on Hard Sci-Fi

The Orion Nebula.
by NASA.
Hard sci-fi is one of the longstanding subgenres in the science fiction pantheon...which means, to our luck as readers and writers, there is plenty of information available on the subject. 

As with urban fantasy, my instinct to define this on my own isn't too off the mark: hard sci-fi places strong emphasis on the SCIENCE in science fiction. I would go so far as to describe this genre as the fiction of impossibility's plausibility...that is, experimenting with what doesn't or cannot exist at this moment in time, and using scientific thought and theory (and the basic elements of fiction) to imagine not only "what if," but, "how" and "when."

As we learned in our genre discussion class with Dr. Arnzen during our January residency for the Writing Popular Fiction program, speculative fiction's goal is to create wonder by asking the what-if questions. But what about the how/when questions?

This leads to the idea of innovation in the genre. "Make no mistake: the most important part of a science fiction story is the story itself [. . .] That said, science fiction relies more on conceptual innovation than any other branch of literature" (Doctorow, Schroeder 60). Innovation is utilized in the answering of the "how" and "when."

Though innovation is key to all speculative fiction, the sci-fi author has a heavy task before them, because there are limitations to how innovative he or she can be. Ideas are to be imaginative and original, but only within the framework of hard science. This type of fiction must be "based mainly on accepted scientific principles and plausible technological analogies" (Hardsf.net). It is "characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in quantitative sciences, [. . .] or on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible" (Wikipedia).

As David Samuelson wrote for DePauw University's Science Fiction Studies journal, "Rhetorical features of science do help characterize hard SF, since it uses scientific findings and theories as measures of reality. Accurate but unobtrusive science may not define the subgenre, but neither does a rhetoric of hardness without scientific substance. In the best examples, the two interact positively, demanding reader sensitivity to both as indicators of quality" (Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20).

Though there is a strong emphasis on the writer of hard sci-fi to exhibit sensitivity to its subject matter, as Samuelson suggested, the reader is also expected to be sensitive to the fine balance of rhetoric and accuracy. In fact, "readers of 'hard SF' often try to find inaccuracies in stories, a process which Gary Westfahl says writers call 'the game'" (Absolute Astronomy). In this way, science fiction requires its readers to be innovators and problem-solvers, too. This makes sci-fi a "living" genre and substantial in its contributions to literature, culture, and science.

04 February 2011

"Storm Front" by Jim Butcher

The 2000 edition cover. Source.
My first foray into contemporary urban fiction begins with Storm Front, Jim Butcher's first novel of the bestselling Dresden Files series.

I remember hearing in a class on characterization (led by horror author Scott A. Johnson) that The Dresden Files was definitely top-notch and worthy of exploration. I was happy that we were assigned to read the first book in the series, because then I could see if this was true or not. I never expected to have this much fun with a novel, let alone an urban fantasy. What a pleasant surprise!

I think the most important thing that kept me on my toes is that this book is hard to classify. This work is what we would term as not only genre-bending, but genre-blending. And if I'm rhyming, you know I'm excited about it. I could call Storm Front (and likewise the Dresden Files) a mystery, fantasy, thriller, horror, and detective novel in one. Bottom line: Storm Front is funny, creepy, suspenseful, and more importantly, it held my interest.

The first thing I learned at Seton Hill was that genre fiction is a contract between the author and the reader. Dr. Michael Arnzen brought this idea up in a genre class whose topic happened to be romance, but this unspoken law is applicable to all literary genres. Since Storm Front is genre-crossing, it has a lot of promises to keep.

It meets the fantasy part easily--we have magic (complete with Latinate spell-casting vocabulary), fairies (Toot Toot), elementals (Bob, the air spirit who resides in an empty skull), etc. We have the horrific and supernatural--the Sight (the third eye reference of the occult), monsters (giant gooey scorpions and toad demons), etc. And we have the urban--hooray, Windy City of Chicago!

But if we had to pick apart the layers of genre for Storm Front and settle on one, we'd have to call it first and foremost a mystery. I don't read a lot of mystery myself, so I got some help from a great (but now defunk) blog, "Book Diva," to help me understand the contractual obligations Storm Front had to meet for mystery readers. In summation, a good mystery:

· Has a believable, sympathetic protagonist
· Has a smart bad guy who still manages to get caught by the protagonist
· Gives clues for the reader to make an educated guess as to "whodunit"  
· Provides authenticity with details
· Continues on through sequels and series

Of course, all rules are debatable. I for one don't always dig sequels and series, but I know as a reader that if you love a character enough, you don't want to see them disappear, hence Book Diva's note that sequels and series are best for mysteries.

I would however agree with everything else she listed. At lot of these rules carry over into other genres as well, especially when it comes to heroes and villains, and the goal to provide authenticity to the reader in order to make a connection that makes a work relevant to its audience.

Let's talk about the protagonist. It's important that you like the hero enough or you're done with the book. I usually give up on a novel if the hero is annoying or fake, and I have issues with many genre novels creating an inauthentic, always wise-cracking, ever-knowing protagonist. Nobody in real life is ever that funny or smart or annoying, nobody.

Harry Dresden is the hero of Storm Front, and he also serves double-duty as our narrator and point of view, so there's extra pressure for him to be a likeable character. The author, Jim Butcher, accomplishes this by giving Harry a pleasant tone and realistic voice. Harry Dresden is immediately personable, and he wastes no time in telling us exactly who he is:
My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I'm a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I'm the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under "Wizards." Believe it or not, I'm the only one there. [ . . .] You'd be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I'm serious (3).
Right off the bat we get a friendly, straightforward, conversational tone. Harry Dresden is a great narrator of his tale--he's nonchalant, and cuts to the quick. He also admits openly to some vulnerability and weaknesses. The first case the reader experiences in Storm Front is a double-murder of the supernatural kind. Someone or something has killed a man and woman in the midst of their sexual throes, by exploding their hearts from their chests during the act. Dresden is called in by the cops to consult, since he dabbles in the otherworldly.

It's a grim picture painted--a passionate act desecrated by horrible violence. The victims' rib cages were lifted up, pushed outward, and hollowed out from an incredible force, leaving an empty cavity where the hearts used to be.

Dresden has the proper reaction to it:
[... I] then walked past him and into the bedroom. And regretted it. I looked, noted the details mechanically, and quietly shut the door on the part of my head that had started screaming the second I entered the room. [ ...] I stepped closer to the bed and walked around it. [...] The little screaming part of my brain, safely locked up behind doors of self-control and strict training, continued gibbering. I tried to ignore it. Really I did. But if I didn't get out of that room in a hurry, I was going to start crying like a little girl (15-17).
I liked that Dresden is so blunt with his emotional reactions. I never felt like Dresden (or the author) tried to hoodwink me with his character. I knew I could trust and like Dresden.

It also helps that Dresden has a fun sense of humor. One of my favorite tidbits: Harry Dresden owns a t-shirt with a drawing of tombstones on it that reads, "Easter has been cancelled--they found the body" (209). I have friends who wear dorky t-shirts like that! Or the educational pamphlets Dresden has helped write to explain magic and the paranormal, such as Real Witches Don't Float So Good (286). It's nice to have a hero with a sense of humor, and a relatable one at that.

Next stop--the bad guy. Butcher has littered Storm Front with plenty of interesting "villains"--the mobster Gentleman Johnny Marcone, and Bianca the vampiress, for example. The main villain of the novel is the "Shadowman," Victor Sells. Victor sells used to be an everyman but got caught up with drug racketeering (a hallucinogen called ThreeEye), weird sex magic rituals, and the dark arts in general. We don't know all of this information right away until we get the "reveal" in the penultimate chapters of the story. Until this point, we only learn of the villain through the trail of bodies and artifacts he leaves behind.

So the key mystery of Storm Front is "whodunit." Obviously Victor is smart enough because he is a self-taught magician. He read a few books and experimented around a bit. His power is greater than many of the wizards Dresden ever encountered, and that's why Victor is a scary villain, who is capable of harnessing the elements (in this case, storms) to blow someone's heart out of their chest. An amateur! That's frightening! However, because Victor is veiled until the very end, it's difficult to get an idea of the thought processes behind him as a character. He seems intelligent "enough"--enough to keep Dresden on his toes, enough to confuse the White Council (the Wizard Security/Governing body) as to who is doing the spells, but his actual lines of dialogue are that of a traditional Scary Bad Guy: "You bastard! Why don't you just die?" (327) or "A cute trick, Dresden, [. . .] but pathetic. There's no way you can survive this. Give up" (333).

You get the idea.

Anyway, Dresden outsmarts Victor because of a simple principle--Dresden is schooled in magic, and Victor is not. It doesn't matter that both of them have wizarding power (even Dresden admits that Victor may have more of it than he does), what matters is the ability to harness it, to control it...it's a case of who has actually mastered the craft. In the war between style and substance, substance wins.

The other tenets of good mystery--including the clues, authentic details, and satisfactory conclusion--were fulfilled with this work. The details that lent itself to authenticity were present in characterization, dialogue, and the setting, as well as in pop-culture references that easily suited the work (all nods to the Godfather, Batman, etc., were appropriately timed and referenced). I'm not the best judge of clues and "guessing" at who did it...I have an amazing ability to overlook the obvious by focusing on mundane details, so suffice it to say that I didn't have an idea of who the villain was until about the last quarter of the novel. It's great that I didn't figure it out earlier, but then again, when I did, I was a bit like, "oh well," just because we got to hear the truth in an extended monologue via Monica Sells, Victor's wife. But the conclusion was still appropriate--bad guy destroyed, mystery solved, hero still alive, hero absolved, and for the most part everybody is happy.

And even better, the story goes on (at the time of this posting, the Dresden Files series is on Book #15 out of what will be 23)!

Works Cited

Butcher, Jim. Storm Front. New York: ROC, 2000. Print.

Thompson, Stephanie. "What Makes a Good Mystery Novel?" The Bookdiva. Blogspot, 04 July 2007.

Thoughts on Urban Fantasy

In an urban fantasy world,  these are the only colors you can see
Orig. photo by Picturetokyo, purpleized by KEB.
I've begun my second semester at Seton Hill, and my next genre of choice is speculative fiction, as in, science fiction and fantasy! Horror was a blast, and I'll revisit that genre at a later time, but now, let's move onto a genre that specializes in creating wonder.

A highly popular subgenre of fantasy today is urban fantasy. The basic tenets of this genre include: (1) The presence of a folklore, myth, supernatural or fairy-tale element, (2) An urban environment--most often a city, but it can encompass other urban locales, (3) Genre-crossing or "genre confusion" (4) Often written as part of a series; rarely standalone fiction (5) The setting is a reflection of the "real world" we live in.

There's also an unofficial clause that nearly every urban fantasy cover should look oddly similar, with specific tones and color palettes (see above pic). Oh, and if you have a female character on an urban fantasy cover, they'll look oddly similar, too. Check out this article by fantasy author Jim C. Hines. You'll see what I mean. It's hilarious.

Although I am not a regular reader of urban fantasy, I've always had a rough idea of what it is, either through instinct, cover art, book reviews, and other media such as television and film. It's safe to assume that if you ask someone what urban fantasy is, they can hazard a guess, even if they don't read it. Usually the answer is "Fantasy set in a city."  

The notion of urban living encompasses much more than a major metropolitan area. A heavily populated city, like New York or Chicago, can first spring to mind, but smaller locales also qualify as urban. According to the United Nations, 50% of the world's population live in urban areas. This means towns and villages, regardless of size, fall under the classification of "urban," too.

Now that we know that "urban" is much more than the city, we know that the same goes with "urban fantasy." An urban fantasy doesn't really have to have the requirement of the large city setting; the key is that the setting involves a location where a number of people, of varied populations, live in close proximity to each other.

The other argument is that urban fantasy must be contemporary. Although popular urban fantasies today tend to function in the modern world, there are always exceptions to the rule. Some urban fantasies are set in parallel worlds that do not exist or reflect any known time period (Un Lun Dun by China MiƩville, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman; other urban fantasies can be set in the past (I know many, many novels set in 19th century London--way too numerous to list). The basic idea is not so much that fantasy must be set in today's world, but that people living in today's world can recognize the setting as something they already know and experience daily. Establishing relevance to today's readers is key, and I don't think this idea is limited to urban fantasy.

And is urban fantasy taken seriously as a genre? Time will tell. So far, it has proven to be bestselling material, with a wide and loyal fan base. There are complaints about the genre  as well as legitimate attempts at scholarly analysis. And of course, classes in universities designed to closely examine popular fiction always help bolster the credibility of genre writing (thank you, Seton Hill University!).