Wednesday 28 August 2013

Ten fantastical authors you may never have thought of reading, Part I

I increasingly distrust the terms "science fiction" and "fantasy" because so many people, particularly those who rarely, if ever, read anything in either genre, tend to see them as being narrow and rigid categories, as a way of excluding books from consideration rather than bringing them into the fold.  The truth, of course, is that there are untold numbers of writers out there (including many literary and even Nobel-winning authors) whose works flirt on the edges of SF and/or fantasy or flit between the two and untold more writers whose writings, while fitting into neither genre, have the same spirit of adventure and enquiry that informs the best work in both.  As a result, I've started to prefer the term "fantastical writing" which seems to cover much of the non-realist fiction I like best.

So, what exactly do I mean by "fantastical writing"?  As it turns out, it's extremely hard to define.  For me it's writing that succeeds in combining a sense of the unheimlich (somehow a much more precise word than eerie or uncanny) and of the wondrous, the sort of writing that can leave one at once both open-jawed at an idea whilst at same time feeling a shiver down one's spine.  It's writing that is informed by the spirit of fairy tale, taking us to a place that, wherever it might be set, runs according to rules slightly different from our own.  It's also writing which, at the top of its game, manages to amaze and unsettle even as it echoes to the sound of gentle laughter.  It's writing that... No, let's face it, this really isn't getting me very far at all.  Instead of continuing my attempt to ham-fistedly flail a definition together, why don't I just list some authors I think fit the "fantastical category" nicely and leave you to work out the definition from there?  It's in no way an exclusive list, in general I've tried to look at authors more firmly lodged in the "literary" than the more general "fantasy"/"sci-fi" camps, partly because I'm dreadfully pretentious but also because wonderful writers like Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Michael Moorcock et al appear on plenty of lists already.

So, with the preamble out of the way, let's get on with the first part of the list.

Angélica Gorodischer

You may not have heard of Angélica Gorodischer but if you haven't you really shouldn't blame yourself.  Until very recently only one of her books had been translated into English but what a book it is: Kalpa Imperial is a series of tales drawn from the story of a great empire, mixing fairy tale, political satire and history all told in the style of a marketplace storyteller.  Together they form a subtle exploration of the uses and abuses of power and the whole has a great sense of movement, carrying the reader through the book on a great river of story.  Unconvinced?  How about if I tell you the book's translator was Ursula Le Guin?

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse is a writer who flits in and out of popularity.  Outside of Germany, his reputation only really began to grow in the 60s, when novels about identity and self-discovery such as Siddhartha and Steppenwolf seemed a perfect fit for the hippie counterculture.  But many hippies signed up for the flirtation with eastern culture, drug-taking and uncomplicated sex present in those books and failed to take in the deep moral seriousness with which they were written.  The Glass Bead Game, which explores the conflict between the life of the mind and the life of the world remains an astounding achievement (and has been echoed in Iain M Banks's The Player of Games and Neal Stephenson's Anathem, among others).  Best of all though, are Hesse's fairy tales, which use the form pioneered by the likes of Perrault and the Grimms to explore the mystical and romantic themes so close to Hesse's heart.  Martin Amis once accused Hesse of "impregnable humourlessness" but then no-one listens to Mart any more, do they?

Karel Čapek

The brilliant, humane Karel Čapek is a slightly odd inclusion in this list, not because he lacked any sense of wonder but because, far from his writing being unheimlich, he somehow managed to make the most extraordinary ideas - the enslavement of a newly-discovered race of humanoid newts, a scientist's new power source creating little bits of the essence of god, a robot uprising, a man who meets multiple aspects of his own self - seem absolutely real, playing them out with total conviction amid a cast of characters at once as comical and as true to life as you could wish to find.  His books are suffused with a deep understanding both of mankind's follies and of its potential.  His satires in particular, while as clear-sighted and unsparing of human foibles as anything in Swift, are filled with a sense of gentle laughter.  In the 1920s, Capek was one of the world's most famous writers, his books translated into multiple languages, plays like RUR and The Insect Play appearing in productions on Broadway (Spencer Tracy played one of the robots in the former) and London's West End and The Makropulos Affair going on to form the basis of Janacek's celebrated opera.  Now he is best known for having invented the word "robot", a term in fact coined by his brother Josef.  Do your best to help put that right: go away and read War with The Newts or The Absolute at Large.

Jorge Luis Borges

Ah, Borges, creator of a world of labyrinths, mirrors and doubles within doubles, where everything and nothing is exactly what it seems.  The magic realist's magic realist, his work manages to combine philosophy and adventure, reality and fantasy and is so wide-ranging it is easier to give examples than to describe.  How about The Library of Babel, a universe which is itself an infinite library, whose books and scrolls contain every possible ordering of its letters, spaces and punctuation marks and thus must contain, besides an infinite amount of gibberish, every coherent book that had been written or will be written?  Or how about The Secret Miracle in which a man standing before a firing squad finds himself given a subjective year in which to complete his unfinished play before the bullet hits?  Or Funes, The Memorious, the story of a man plagued by the fact he remembers everything he has ever witnessed in absolute detail? Or ... but no, there are too many tales to mention and every last one is worth your time.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Krzhizhanovsky is yet another writer whom it's hard to pigeonhole, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is often compared to Borges. Combining Gogol, Chesterton, Poe and RL Stevenson, he managed to come up with a style all his own.  This is a man who will tell you the story of a nationwide craze inspired by a man's attempt to bite his own elbow, of the decision by a pianist's fingers to run off and find a life of their own, of a lover who spies, while looking into the eyes of his beloved, a tiny man looking back at him.  Krzhizhanovsky is one of those writers whose lack of success during his own lifetime (his archive was only unearthed in the 1970s, two-and-a-half decades after his death) seems to have freed his imagination.  Reading him is endlessly rewarding.

[For Part II of this list, see here]

Wednesday 21 August 2013

How Jevra Avn Soll Came to The City of Veresh, Part II

[For Part I, see here]

And then, having sipped at last from the cup from which he never drinks and tasted for the first time in many years the bitter sweetness of the black wine of Shende, Jevra Avn Soll will replace his cup and only then, hidden still within the darkest and coldest corner of the Inn of the Fallen Star, will he continue his tale.

'The guardian who came at my call was little more than a child, her face rounded and lacking the definition that comes with age, her small, slim frame made yet smaller by the vastness of the gates that separated us.  She wore robes whiter even than the sands that surround the city and unmarked by the slightest mote of dust and her eyes were the green of polished malachite.  Unspeaking, she stretched out a hand towards me.  I understood this to be a command to display the mark I had obtained from the stranger in the inn and reached into my sabretache, withdrawing at last the single pink petal that was the summons to Veresh.  I held it up towards her, miraculously unblemished and cradled in my palm.  On seeing it she nodded solemnly and touched a hand to the gates, which swung back smooth as stalking cats even as the little petal in my hand withered in an instant into nothingness.  It seemed that the stranger had not played me false: the way to the City of Veresh lay open before me at last.

And so it was that I entered that forbidden city, my little guide stepping before me with a steady precision, careful always as to where she placed her feet, much as a deer will step as it moves through forest grass.  From the gates we moved into a high-roofed tunnel, carved from the red rock of the mountain and lit by oil lamps whose wicks were candleblossom and whose clear and steady light was reflected by the polished stone of the mountain, bathing the tunnel and all that passed through it in a deep red glow.  We moved onward in silence, while all the while I tried to control the excitement that bubbled within me at the thought of what I should see when at last we had passed beyond the tunnel's walls.

I was to be disappointed: for, at the tunnel's end, I found myself in a long, open-roofed corridor off which led many doors.  I must have sighed, for my little guide stopped her stately progress and turned to me, a questioning look on her face.

"I had hoped to see fabled Veresh", I explained, "not mere walls".  It was, I concede, a little brusque of me, but my journey to this place had been one of many years and no little sacrifice.  I felt I deserved more.

My guide's face showed no sign of emotion.  Instead, to my surprise (I confess I had thought her mute), she answered me, in a voice that was high and an accent I could have mistaken for my own.

"It is the custom of the City that all who come here should first be brought before the Khedive or, if they be summoned by her, before the Mistress of The White Veil.  Only then are they suffered to move about as they may, for, as you know, the city is forbidden and its sights are not surrendered at once".

I was  not greatly perturbed by my guide's words, having anticipated just such a condition and having, as a result, used all that I had learned of the City to construct what I deemed an excellent tale to justify my attendance.  It was, I knew, a risk but the success of my venture had been at hazard from the moment I took the golden sandbird from the ill-favoured stranger in the inn and agreed to pay his price.  Despite my self-reassurance in this matter, some disappointment must have shown on my face, for my guide was swift to give me comfort.

"Fear not, Jevra Avn Soll, for you may ask of me what you will and I will describe to you all that you are yet to walk among".

And so we walked along the corridor and I asked much and she answered more.  As, beyond a door of dearwood, I heard  many-voiced laughter, it was explained that I was passing the Gardens of the Nine Maidens, wherein are grown the purple-petalled flowers whose scent inspires mirth and strange dreams.  When, beyond a many-spangled door, I heard the stepping of a multitude of feet, I learned that we were passing the Street of The Starwatchers, who march always in step, their eyes trained ever upon the sky.  And it was by calling on my guide to explain to me the source of each sound we passed, that I learned of the River of The Thousand Mouths and of Hati's Academy and of the Alley of the Jewelburners and the Aulah of the Second Khediva wherein she and her successors kept their lovers and of so many other wonders that lie within the City of Veresh, all of which only increased my longing to see them for myself.   And all the while, it never once occurred to me to ask how my guide had come to know my name.

And then we came to a door magnificent in both its size and construction, being crafted from bronze and from jewels and from the wood of trees and the shells of creatures both known and unknown to me.  And at this door my little guide stepped softly to one side and spoke a single word, at which the door swung open before me and I came at last into the Court of the Khedive.

The room was small and bare of ornament, its sole significant feature the thick-legged, rush-seated stool that stood upon a low dais at its centre; it's simplicity would have shocked me had I not been already amazed at the figure who sat upon the stool: it was the very same stranger with the twisted lip and the heavy hand and the scar running the length of his naked arm who had come to me in the Inn of the Fallen Star and had offered me the golden sandbird and the petal which would grant me entrance to Veresh.

"And so you have come to this Forbidden City".  There was a sadness in his voice as he said it, as if each word held within it the spirit of a sigh.

"I have", I replied, seeking to cloak my confusion in the simplicity of my response.

"I am surprised", continued the man I could now only presume was the Khedive himself, "I had thought the price would be too great even for you".

At this I could contain myself no longer.  "But your price was paid, sure enough", I said.

The Khedive shook his head.  "No, Jevra Avn Soll, it was not", he said, "For did I not demand of you that which you prize most highly?"

This angered me and my reply was hot, "And did I not render to you the red rubies that are called Eyes of  Lem, which were all of value that were left to me in the world?"

The Khedive stepped down from his stool and came towards me.  "These?" he said, opening up that great hand of his once more and showing me the very same jewels I had given him.  "No, Jevra Avn Soll", he continued, "these are not the price I sought.  And that, I must tell you, is an error I must correct".  And that he did.

When at length my price was paid and the Khedive quit me, my little guide returned to me and I, who had hungered so long to see the sights of Veresh, was led at last through all its wonders: through the Aulah of the Second Khediva to the River of The Thousand Mouths, from the Alley of The Jewelburners to the Gardens of The Nine Maidens, from Hati's Academy to the Street of The Starwatchers and to so many, many wonders beside.  And in each case she was careful to describe to me in the finest detail all that was to be seen and all the delights it brought to the hungry eye.  And then, her promise to me fulfilled, she brought me to the gates and caused them to be closed between us, letting me know that they would forever be barred against me.

And so it was that I turned away from Veresh and made my way back to Otherwhile and to Farla and to this  darkest and coldest corner of the Inn of the Fallen Star and here I have been ever since.'

And then Jevra Avn Soll will fall silent and stare once more into the cup of black liquid from which he has drunk but once.  And, though he be concealed in the dark, should you look deep into that cup, you will see reflected in the black surface of the wine of Shende the face of Jevra Avn Soll, who sought to see all the world and more and travelled even to the forbidden City of Veresh, and you will see that his face is old and much lined and that, where his eyes once were, there lie instead the red, red rubies that were once called The Eyes of Lem.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

How Jevra Avn Soll Came to The City of Veresh, Part I

His name is Jevra Avn Soll and he is to be found in the Inn of the Fallen Star, nestled always in the darkest and coldest corner, where he sits before a jug of black liquid, from which he never drinks.  They say he will tell your fortune for the price of a song and your future for the price of a thought but tell him your dearest wish or darkest love and he will tell you the story of how he entered the City of Veresh and what he saw there and of how he will never look upon it again.  And this is the tale that he tells:

'The City of Veresh, as you will know, is forbidden to all outsiders; all, that is, save those rare among the rare who are called to attend the court of the Khedive by the golden sandbirds that carry the city's messages or those, rarer still, summoned by the Lady of the White Veil.  To all others the merest glimpse of the city, carved as it is from the stone of a red mountain nestled within the white sands of Afar, is forbidden on pain of pain.

A golden sandbird of Veresh
I have, I confess, a harsh affliction: a sight forbidden gnaws at me.  There is no wall but I would know what lies behind it, no mountain but I would look down upon the world from its summit.  To see is to know, for sight bears no rumours.  For many years I crossed the globe -  travelling from Shende to Zo and from Khartiss to Worlwiy, permitting nor land nor sea nor weather nor even the Murrain to  bar my path - seeing all that could be seen.  I stood upon the Forbidden Wall and walked in the Lost Forests, I travelled even to the Chamber of the Sixth in lonely Tahrtrahzee and obtained there two of the red rubies that are called the Eyes of Lem as a mark of all that I had seen, but always there was one place that was barred from my vision and that was the City of Veresh, without sight of which I could never feel whole.  For a year and a year and a day beyond that I camped in the white sands at the foot of the mountain and went each day to stand at the city's gates, begging, cajoling, offering great treasures and threatening great crimes, all in the hope of being permitted to enter in at last, but never were my calls answered, my pleas heard or my threats heeded.

At last I had no choice but to return to Otherwhile and to this city of Farla, and here I fell into deep depression, my only comfort the black wine of Shende.  I, who love the light so much, closed my eyes and thought of Veresh and let the world step on around me in the giddy dance of drink.

And then one day, as I called for my third cup, a stranger with a twisted lip and a great scar running the length of his naked arm came and sat before me and favoured me with the sight of his rot-blackened teeth.

"I have that which you seek", he said, "and you will pay me for it well".

I waved him away with an unsteady hand, thinking only of Veresh and of the black wine, but the fellow would not move.  Rather, he raised his heavy, closed fist and placed it on the table before me and stared deep into my eyes.  I could not hold his gaze but turned away and called once more for my cup, reasoning that if this man were intent on coming to blows with me, for some reason I knew not, I would feel less pain the more I had drunk.

The stranger did not move to strike, instead letting his lips part further, revealing yet more black teeth.  "All know that the City of Veresh is forbidden, that only those who have been summoned may enter, yet they say you have stood for a year and a year and a day beyond that at the gates where no man may stand uncalled and that in that time you have whispered and railed and pleaded and cursed and all in the hopes of seeing what lies within".

My cup had come at last and I swigged from it deeply.  All that the stranger said was common knowledge and why he chose to remind me of it I neither knew nor cared.

"I say again", he continued, "I have what you seek, though you must pay a very great price for it".

And then he opened that heavy hand of his a little and I saw within it the flittering form of a golden sandbird, bearing in its claw the single pink petal that is the summons from the Khedive to attend his court.  In an instant I was sober.

"With this you may enter Veresh unmolested", the stranger went on, "though what I ask in return is that which, among all you possess, you prize most highly".

So intent was I upon the little bird in the stranger's hand that I gave his question little thought.  In truth, I had few possessions left to me, having expended much of my fortune in my travels and more still as I stood before the gates of Veresh.  Without a moment's thought, I withdrew from my pouch the last things I held of any value: the two rubies that had once adorned the statue of Many-Eyed Lem.

The stranger looked down at the two red jewels surprised, as a man may look when offered the answer to a question he has not asked, then he nodded and took them up.  A moment more and the bird was in my hand, its black eyes staring up at me, and the stranger was gone.  A moment after that, my breath almost frozen in my chest, I was reaching down to extract the single pink petal from the little creature's claw.  I had my summons at last.

Within weeks I was once more at the wide gates that bar the entrance to Veresh, the city that lies within the red mountain that stands in the white desert of Afar, awaiting I knew not what'.

And there Jevra Avn Sol will pause his tale and take up his cup of black wine and raise it to you, and then he will lean back further into the darkness of the darkest and coldest corner of the Inn of the Fallen Star and then, at last, he will drink.

[And that feels like a good time to end the tale for the moment.  To find out what Jevra Avn Sol discovered within the walls of the forbidden City of Veresh head along to Part II here.]

Monday 12 August 2013

Three Acts to Rule Them All: How the Hero's Journey Saved Aristotle's Cat.

As I've mentioned before, the ultimate purpose of Otherwhile Tales is to act as a sort of research centre for my ongoing project, a novel of fantastical adventure called (tentatively) The Heart of the World.  Writing this kind of book inevitably results in people bringing up Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, in which he laid out the structure of departure, initiation and return common to many myths, a structure usually referred to as "the hero's journey".

This in turn tends to bring up the way that Campbell's analysis has been brought to bear on Hollywood-style screenwriting by authors such as Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey and the late Blake Snyder in his various Save the Cat books.  It's at this point that things tend to turn negative, with blame being heaped on Snyder (who, being dead, is in no position to answer back) for every half-witted tent-pole flop Hollywood pumps out (while usually failing to credit him for the many successes that follow his model).  One of the more recent examples of the attacks on Snyder is this article from Slate, an article which has been linked to with approval by writers including Graham Linehan (who is, let's be clear about this, one of the funniest writers out there and can play structure like Paul McCartney can play bass1).   All of which can't help but feel unfair: of course slavishly following a formula is dangerous but Snyder is just the latest in a long line of writing gurus, all making remarkably similar points.  I could try to blog about this in more detail but handily, it's already been done very thoroughly by JJ Patrow, whose analysis can be found here on The Bitter Script Reader's excellent site, so, if you're interested, why not head on over there right now?

1. Obviously, no post-sixties reference to Macca will ever be remotely cool but this is meant as a huge compliment, as anyone who's ever listened to the bassline on, say, Getting Better must surely understand.

Friday 9 August 2013

Next week

Rather a long time ago I promised you more details on forbidden Veresh, where Mistress Cats has her Academy of Thievery.  Next week I'm planning to make good on my promise, with the tale of how Jevra Avn Sol came to visit that strange city lodged within the red mountain in the midst of the white sands of Afar and of what happened to him while he was there.  With any luck it will be as fun to read as it has been so far to write.

I'm also conscious that I've left poor old Arbor Vulpa stuck in the Tower of the Heart for quite a few weeks now, despite his heroic escape from the spider spindles, so I suspect it's soon going to be time to let him complete the greatest theft in all the world ... or fail in the attempt.  Beyond that, well, there's still a lot of Otherwhile yet to explore and I also need to have a witter about how magic these days seems a lot less magical than it once did.  In any event, there should be plenty more coming up over the next few weeks.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Time to check the Pasture

I've spent much of the last few days in the mysterious Media City, off in ancient Salford, doing what they call "proper work".  This hasn't given me much time to see to Otherwhile.  As a result, I've decided to let another story have a trot around the Pasture for Elderly Tales.  Head over there right now to find one of the very first Otherwhile-ish tales I ever wrote, penned whilst under the influence of Oscar Wilde (to whom I suspect I owe a large apology).  It's called "The Heartless Automaton" and you can find it here.