Off to North Wales for a writers’ week. Meantime, a writerly warning.

The very briefest of updates as I am racing around getting stuff done before disappearing to the Milford SF writers’ week in Snowdonia tomorrow. I expect to be largely absent from social media until I get back.

So I don’t have time to write a lengthy takedown at the moment, but this is worth flagging up. I’ve noticed that vanity/predatory ‘publishers’ are co-opting the term ‘hybrid’ in an attempt to veil their scams.

As widely understood in the booktrade for a decade or so now, ‘a hybrid author’ is someone combining self-published and small press projects with traditional writing contracts from major publishers. Someone like me, and any number of others I could name.

It is NOT an author paying an exorbitant sum of money to some outfit with no record of measurable success in the marketplace, for unspecified services that won’t be properly accounted for, under some exploitative ‘partnership’ contract that will see the scammer pocketing the cash while the writer ends up with an unedited, shoddily produced ebook that will never sell to anyone but family and friends.

And as a new pal on Twitter pointed out, it’s also muddying the waters as follows: “They may be yoinking its academic article publishing definition. There, money never flows to the author anyway and a “hybrid” journal is partially unpaywalled, funded by authors paying $$$ to make their article open access.”

All told, remember that con artists preying on writers haven’t gone away, they’ve just evolved for the digital age, along with other such vermin.

Do your due diligence, check with reputable author organisations for red flags, talk to other authors, check out Writer Beware!
Right, I’ll get back to getting on 🙂

Victoria (V.E.) Schwab’s Tolkien Memorial Lecture – video available. Does not contain Tolkien.

For those who couldn’t be in Oxford last Tuesday, the video of this year’s Tolkien Memorial Lecture is now available. Victoria (V.E.) Schwab gave a fascinating talk entitled ‘In Search of Doors.’ Set aside an hour for her thoughts and then the Q&A. It will be time well spent.

This an excellent series of lectures exploring many facets of fantasy fiction, as varied as the speakers who have delivered the talks thus far. You can find videos of the full series here.

Meantime, my life continues to be divided between World Fantasy Award reading, and my own writing. Along with being inordinately thrilled by how popular The Green Man is proving. 🙂

If you’ve been writing while I’ve been reading? Links of interest…

The WFA reading continues absorbing and yes, time-consuming. I am also writing and there’ll be news of new projects in the fullness of time 🙂

In other news, from Tor.com

On May 1, 2018, Lee Harris, Carl Engle-Laird, and Ruoxi Chen will be reading and evaluating original novellas. We are reading from May 1 around 9:00 AM EST (UTC-1:00) to May 15 9:00 AM EST (UTC-1:00).

This open period is intended for authors who have completed works ready or close to ready for submission. We will reopen slush a second time in July 2018 for authors who are actively working on (or beginning) something that would fit our list. In other words, don’t panic if you’re not ready to submit in May! We would rather see a polished novella in July than a rushed one in May.

Until the end of this open period, Tor.com Publishing will be considering novellas of between 20,000 and 40,000 words in both the science fiction and fantasy genres. If it’s speculative and fits the bill, we want to take a look at it.

Lee Harris, Carl Engle-Laird, and Ruoxi Chen all actively request submissions from writers from underrepresented populations. This includes, but is not limited to, writers of any race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, class and physical or mental ability. We believe that good science fiction and fantasy reflects the incredible diversity and potential of the human species, and hope our catalog will reflect that.

In addition to reviewing the guidelines, we also encourage you to take a look at our existing list to get a sense of the work our current authors are producing and Tor.com Publishing’s vision and tastes. Good luck—we look forward to reading your work.

Over at Mslexia

We are proud to launch the first Mslexia Women’s Fiction Awards – a stable of competitions that includes our popular Short Story and Novel competitions, our second-ever Flash Fiction competition and our all-new Novella competition in association with Galley Beggar Press!

As well as cash prizes, we also offer publication, mentoring, writing retreats, manuscript feedback and personal introductions to editors and literary agents for winners and finalists. As a result, many have gone on to see their work broadcast and/or published beyond the pages of Mslexia, and to achieve agent representation and publishing deals.

Open for entry now, and all with a deadline of 1 Oct 2018.

>Women’s Fiction Awards 2018: Flash Fiction Competition
>Women’s Fiction Awards 2018: Children’s Novel Competition
>Women’s Fiction Awards 2018: Short Story Competition
>Women’s Fiction Awards 2018: Novella Competition

For those looking for a SF&F writing course, check out The Arvon Foundation course tutored by Emma Newman, Peter Newman with guest author Gareth Powell.

SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY
How to build worlds and develop your writing
Aug 20th – Aug 25th 2018
The Hurst

Science fiction and fantasy encompass a dazzling array of potential worlds and stories. The scope is so wide it can be hard to know where to begin. Designed for budding writers of SFF, this course gives you the tools to understand the opportunities these exciting genres can offer. We will cover specialised techniques such as world building, the creation of magical and technological ‘systems’, and a robust grounding in aspects of the craft – storytelling, character creation and writing style. This course also gives you the opportunity to examine and overcome your own writing blocks.
Single room price: £800

A writing opportunities round-up, for SF&F and non-genre projects.

I’m currently reading and writing about Mars, for the ‘Second Round’ anthology coming next year from ZNB. Don’t forget that the current ZNB anthologies have open submission slots and the deadline is 31st December. You can find the full guidelines here.

THE RAZOR’S EDGE is to feature science fiction or fantasy stories that explore the fine line between a rebel and an insurgent. It is a military science fiction and fantasy anthology. We are attempting to fill half of the anthology with science fiction stories, and half with fantasy stories. Stories featuring more interesting settings and twists on the typical themes will receive more attention than those that use standard tropes. In other words, we don’t want to see 100 stories dealing with the general fighting insurgents who joins their cause at the end. If we do, it’s likely that only one, at most, would be selected for the anthology. So be creative, choose something different, and use it in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

GUILDS & GLAIVES is to feature sword & sorcery stories where a guild is featured somewhere in the story. So thieves, assassins, and dark magic, but with a guild or guilds incorporated into the story somehow. Obviously most such stories will be fantasy, but we are interested in science fiction takes on this theme. Stories featuring more interesting takes on the guilds, and twists on how they are integrated into the story, will receive more attention than those with the standard thieves guild or assassins guild. So be creative and use your guild in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

SECOND ROUND: A RETURN TO THE URBAR is to feature stories where the time-traveling Urbar, first used in the anthology AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE URBAR, is a central part of the plot. The story may start in the bar, end in the bar, or be in the bar somewhere in the middle, but at some point a significant plot point must involve the Urbar. Stories featuring more interesting historical settings for the bar, and twists on how the bar is integrated into the story, will receive more attention than those with more standard uses of the bar, or where the bar is only incidental to the rest of the story. So be creative and use bar in an unusual and unexpected way, preferably in an unusual or unexpected era of history.

I’m also thinking how amazing it is that I can access real photos of Mars from my computer here in Oxfordshire thanks to the assorted probes and rovers sent all that way. And rewatching The Martian is going to count as research, right?

In other interesting projects looking for submissions from unpublished writers, I spotted this from Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Hometown Tales aims to celebrate regional diversity by publishing voices from across the UK. Each book will feature work from two writers – one established and one previously unpublished, found through open submissions – both writing about the places they think of as home.

The first initiative of its kind to focus on regional diversity, Hometown Tales will provide a platform for new writers, helping them to launch the first step of their careers, edited and mentored by our team. The books will be published in paperback and ebook in June 2018

There’s a lot more information and full submission details here.

Then there’s The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 15 Call For Submissions. No, you don’t need to be a mechanic! Or to have any link with Birkbeck College where this is based.

The Mechanics’ is a literary print and ebook publication that aims to champion the short story as an art form, promoting diversity, inclusivity and opportunity while publishing new work of the highest possible standard. Thanks to funding from Arts Council England, The Mechanics’ has gone national, widening its reach to find and develop talent from throughout the country. We are looking for unpublished short stories of up to 6,000 words from both new and established authors. The deadline for submission is 5 p.m. on Friday 9 February 2018.

Once again, full details here.

It’s really encouraging to see opportunities like this out there!

Guest Post – Lucy Hounsom, Starborn, and reinventing epic fantasy

I’m reviewing Starborn, first volume of The Worldmaker Trilogy, for my next Albedo One column, and with the final book out in December, this seems an ideal time for a guest post from Lucy.

Upon discovering Tolkien at 14 years old, I knew I would lose my heart to fantasy. Some months and several authors later, I realised I wanted to write for a living. I’d been at drama school for six years, but decided to drop it all in favour of locking myself away with a notebook, computer and a handful of ideas, which I hoped to fashion into a story. The authors I read as a teen are considered giants of the genre: Brooks, Goodkind, Pratchett, Jordan, Eddings, Garner – to name just a few. They were also overwhelmingly male. I didn’t know it then, but this fact and the implications it carried, would have a profound effect on my own writing.

Constructing an epic fantasy can seem a herculean task. The temptation when starting out is to create a ‘world bible’ – an encyclopaedia of a world’s society, religion, customs and culture. While this works for some authors, I’ve taken a more organic approach, letting the characters discover the world as they go. It means I’m not tempted to cram in a lot of omniscient information my characters couldn’t possibly know and it prevents the worldbuilding getting in the way of the story. I also like to consider each chapter a mini story in itself, which I can then link together once I have the whole thing down. Otherwise the sheer number of words left to write feels insurmountable.

I suppose some might call The Worldmaker Trilogy heroic rather than epic; at 130,000 words a book, it’s hardly the largest fantasy ever written. But it owes a debt to one of the most famous epics, The Wheel of Time, which I discovered at the impressionable age of 17. I loved the sweeping sense of history in Jordan’s series, the personal stories played out against a backdrop of turmoil. It’s this fight against unknowable hostile forces – a reflection of our own grappling with the things beyond our control – that I found so compelling. It’s what fantasy does best.

However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the predominantly male-authored epics I so enjoyed as a teenager are problematic. As a genre built on archetypes, fantasy is particularly vulnerable to becoming stuck in a loop of restrictive thinking. Archetypes aren’t negative in and of themselves – they’re universal patterns of behaviour. But they do provide a framework on which to hang stereotypes, and it’s stereotypes that have the potential to damage. Fantasy is inherently nostalgic, often bent on recreating a lost world somehow better than the one we have now. This can lead to a sort of homogenised pseudo-past, in which we romanticise aspects of society that a. weren’t great and b. weren’t true. The European Medievalist world popularised by Tolkien is especially guilty of this and is so over-used that it now comes with its own predetermined settings, the most worrying of which are racial stereotypes, a lack of female agency and misrepresentation of the LGBTQ communities.

Growing up under the auspices of traditional western fantasy, it took me a full draft to realise I’d inherited some of these problematic stereotypes and copied others, notably the heroic male’s journey. The genre is saturated with the whole boy becomes a man narrative, which relegates women to the side-lines. I had made a subconscious decision to follow suit and the first incarnation of Starborn featured a male protagonist. Realising I could write an epic fantasy with a woman at its heart was part revelation, part no brainer. I’ve spoken a little about the process of switching Kyndra’s gender here.

Although it’s a decision I’m glad I made, that doesn’t mean to say I threw out every trope. After all, my trilogy is in large part an ode to old favourites like Dragonlance and The Belgariad. But they and their contemporaries are very much products of their time, a time we no longer live in. Speculative fiction should be a progressive genre and even backward-looking fantasy must adapt and change to survive. So I’ve kept recognisable tropes, choosing to reinvent instead of abandon. My chosen one is no shining knight, or noble-hearted farm boy, but a flawed young woman who steers her own destiny, sometimes poorly. The autocratic empire brings technological benefits at the price of cultural oppression. One man’s heroism is another man’s tyranny. Overall, I’m trying to show that there are two sides to every story and that evil lies in actions, not ideology.

Dyed-in-the-wool tropes also extend to gender. I’ve kept the love triangle, but reversed the usual roles, putting a man between two women. An older man manipulates a younger man instead of the traditional younger woman. Because my world is not patriarchal, women aren’t excluded from male-associated professions like smithing, engineering, the military and the merchant elite. There is so much more to explore when it comes to gender, sexual identity and societal roles; I’ve barely scratched the surface, acknowledging my own biases and inherited opinion in the process. Now, more so than ever before, we need to be aware of these concerns, to equip ourselves to better address them in our writing, so that they may be discussed openly without fear of censure or harassment.

I’ve grown up on a diet of blokes-in-cloaks fantasy – a feature publishing defends with remarkable tenacity given how much of it is out there and how tiring it is to pick up yet another testosterone-fuelled epic. But fantasy is still growing in popularity and the grimdark arena of Game of Thrones is no longer its sole setting. From scarred dystopian landscapes to the intrigues of faerie courts, young adult fantasy can offer a pacier, character-driven alternative. However, the twin rise of grimdark and YA has left an odd and unexpected gap in the market, making it tricky to find adult fantasy of the kind that helped birth the genre, fantasy in the vein of Le Guin, of Canavan, of McKillip and Hobb: fantasy that serves as a graduation of sorts from YA into adult, where the camera zooms out and world events play a more central role. ‘New adult’ is a term that never really took off, but I see it as an essential bridge between these two extremes. Focusing on character and storytelling, but without the brutal nihilism that distinguishes grimdark, this is where I’d like to think my trilogy sits.

lucyhounsom.co.uk
Twitter: @silvanhistorian
Facebook: lucyhounsom

Bonnie Greer: The Feminine, Africa, and Constructing an African Hedda Gabler

I wasn’t able to get to this year’s Lady English lecture at St Hilda’s, but thanks to the marvels of modern technology, it’s available online. I’m hoping to get to it over the weekend.

Playwright and arts commentator Bonnie Greer discusses her adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in which she casts Hedda as an African woman,as well as why she believes many male adapters have got Hedda wrong, what she thinks Ibsen intended, and the notion of ‘Africa’ and people of African descent in the ‘West’.

Click here for the St Hilda’s JdP Music Building livestream webpage.

In other news, I’m very busy! We’re heading into the final stages of preparing The Green Man’s Heir for publication. This is a modern fantasy novel that will be coming soon from Wizard’s Tower Press. I had great fun at last week’s Bristolcon, and am currently preparing for what promises to be an excellent weekend at Novacon. I also have my review column for Albedo One to write… So I’ll get back to all that.

Still more reasons why little, local museums are a treasure trove for writers

I’ve written before about illuminating discoveries in local museums, such as finding the works of Rolinda Sharples in the Bristol Museum and Gallery, challenging the notion (among others) that women historically stayed at home doing nothing much. Our recent week in Wales turned up some interesting evidence to counter assumptions about traditionally masculine skills and pastimes.

We visited Swansea Museum and in common with many local museums up and down the country at the moment, they have a sizeable current exhibition on the local experience of World War One. The displays cover life in the trenches, and on the home front, looking at the full gamut of lives affected and the contributions of men and women alike, in fighting on land and at sea, in nursing and in war work in industry and agriculture, as well as the experiences of conscientious objectors. The updates on the later lives of those who survived the Western Front made for very interesting reading, including men who’d lost limbs or survived other appalling experiences. Some never recovered, mentally or physically. Others simply went back to their families and former lives working in the coal mines, on the docks and on the farms, with or without artificial limbs, or lingering shrapnel working its way out of their flesh for decades after.

Part of the transition from the unreality of war back to civilian life was what we would now call occupational therapy. The display cases had a fine range of decorative pin cushions, embroidered keepsakes and belts etc, made by wounded soldiers and those on active duty alike, sent home to wives and sweethearts. A few were a bit rough and ready but most were made to a very high standard, showing both craft and dedication.

Fancy needlework? For manly men? Yes, and when you think about it, what’s so surprising about that? Every soldier’s kit included needle and thread, as making running repairs to uniforms would have been routinely required. This fancy needlework was a way of connecting with home, as well as occupying hands and minds amid the trials and tribulations as well as the extended periods of boredom that make up warfare. If books and newspapers were available, not everyone wants to read.

More than that, I remembered a piece I’d heard on Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme a few years back, about treating PTSD in soldiers suffering after modern wars. Therapists have been teaching patients to knit. They have discovered that patients benefit from talking through traumatic experiences at the same time as having their hands and part of their attention occupied with such a task. These memories become denatured, less intrusive, as the brain somehow reprograms itself in a way that doesn’t happen when talking without such activity allows the memory to replay awful events with undiminished horror.

It seems that the British Army may have cottoned on to this, whether or not they realised it, well over a hundred years ago. There were similar examples of embroidery from WWI and earlier in The Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh Regiment in Brecon, as well as a very fine patchwork table covering made up of scraps from uniform tunics in scarlet, green and cream wool cloth.

Incidentally, while celebrating the heroic service of this regiment’s soldiers all over the world, and most notably at Rorke’s Drift, the particular museum wasn’t in the least bombastic or jingoistic about the ‘glory days of Empire’. There were clear and concise explanations of the short-sighted and divisive actions and decisions by British governments and generals which prompted local protests and unrest, resulting in the wars which young men were sent to fight across Africa, Asia and elsewhere. These days, such military museums have moved well beyond ‘My country, right or wrong!’.

There’s so much for the writer in all this. A reminder that what we might consider women’s skills and hobbies nowadays, weren’t always so. A reminder that life goes on before, around and after dramatic, traumatic events, both for whoever might be at the centre of it, and for their family and friends. A reminder that ordinary people cope in different ways with extraordinary events.

I’m not yet sure how these various things will work their way into my writing but experience tells me they will. Meantime, support your local museums!

Writing about a wizard called Shiv, and understanding why representation matters.

A while ago I got an email from a Tales of Einarinn reader, enthusing about the wizard Shiv. This is not unusual; he’s a very popular character. Let me tell you a bit about him. As I’ve said many times since The Thief’s Gamble was published in 1999, I wanted to write a high fantasy adventure challenging the more tiresome clichés of the genre in the 80s and 90s.

Shiv and Livak, art by Andrew Hepworth

So Shiv’s a wizard, and he’s a talented one, but not a pontificating greybeard who never actually does much magic. He’s got a sense of humour, he’s not afraid of a fight, and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and get the job done by whatever means might be necessary. He’s alert, intelligent and a loyal friend.

Oh, and incidentally, he’s gay. That’s because I encountered a conundrum in the story I wanted to tell. I was determined to avoid all those fantasy romance clichés of Our Heroine doing all her brave deeds for the love of A Good Man. I was much more interested in friendship and mutual respect as motivation. So Livak and Shiv were never going to fall into bed together. However, I did want Livak to have a sex life that wasn’t yet another romantic cliché. The thing was though, given the choice between Shiv and the alternatives…?

Okay, I thought, that’s not an issue if Shiv is gay. I’ve always had gay and lesbian friends, and I was aiming to make Einarinn a realistic world, so no problem there. Could I think of other gay characters in SF&F back then? Bear in mind I was writing the first draft of this book twenty one years ago. Not many and all too often that sexuality was coupled with unpleasant character flaws. So that was definitely an ill-thought-out and over-used cliché that deserved a kicking.

Okay but… how, as a straight mother of two, could I write an honest and emotionally realistic gay character without leaving my gay and lesbian friends wincing or giggling? As it happened, I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference in Oxford when I was writing the first draft of Thief, and the crime writer Val McDermid was there. Val happens to be gay. We’d both been going to this conference for a couple of years and became friends, so I asked her advice back then.

She said ‘make no more of this character’s sexuality than you would of any other character’s.’ Which is one of those things that’s so blindingly obvious when someone says it, but until someone says it, it’s can be very hard to see! It was the key to writing Shiv for me.

Since then, I’ve discovered he’s a character who’s had far more impact on people’s lives than I ever expected. Since The Thief’s Gamble was first published, I’ve had letters and now emails from readers, telling me just how much they have valued encountering a positive example of a likeable, loyal, quick-witted, and when necessary bad-ass man who happens to also be gay. Far more younger male readers than I could have imagined, found reading about Shiv offered them a helping hand as they came to terms with their own sexuality, amid all the other complexities of teenage life.

Then there are the others, far fewer but also significant. Young men who’d been raised with unthinking homophobia, who were prompted to rethink those ideas after encountering Shiv. Young men who decided to leave such prejudices behind, as they concluded someone’s positive personal qualities are what really counts.

This is intensely rewarding as an author and also genuinely humbling because I never set out to Do Good in my writing, but merely to write honestly about emotionally realistic people caught up in fantastic events. But that’s the thing. This isn’t about me. A book is never only about the writer.

Readers see all sorts of things in fiction’s magic mirror which the author never expected or intended. All sorts of readers should see themselves reflected there. This is why diversity and representation in fiction matters. This is why what I’ve learned thanks to Shiv continues to inform my own work.

Why I want to write about someone on Mars in ZNB’s next anthology

As someone who’s been reading SF for over forty years now, I’m fascinated by the different ways life on Mars has been portrayed over the decades. My earliest encounters were through books like Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, H.G Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and in my early teens, C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. Alongside such fiction, I remember reading about Mariner 4 in my grandfather’s National Geographic magazines. So I already knew that real scientific discoveries meant these enthralling stories were impossible. That didn’t matter. Mars fascinated me.

That’s still true today, as books on my shelves by Alastair Reynolds, Andy Weir and James Corey attest. The film of The Martian and the TV adaptation of The Expanse series are merely the latest depictions of Mars that I’ve enjoyed on screen, from Flash Gordon through Doctor Who to Babylon 5. I’m still reading National Geographic, and any articles I see elsewhere discussing the real practicalities of sustaining human life on our near neighbour. Then there’s the ongoing exploration of Mars by the Opportunity rover. Go robots!

So now I want to write my own story set on Mars. It’s the ideal setting for me to explore a notion that’s been coming together in my imagination thanks to several recent popular-science articles that I’ve read. The last piece I needed was the invitation to write a new story featuring the Ur Bar, the eternal, time-travelling tavern from the ZNB anthology ‘After Hours’.

So now all I need is this year’s ZNB anthologies Kickstarter to fund. At the time of writing, we’ve got a week to go, and we’re just over two-thirds funded, so there’s $6333 still needed. Do take a look, if you haven’t done so already, and flag the project up to friends who might be interested. There are three anthologies to choose from, and to consider submitting something to, if you’re a writer yourself. You can get involved for as little as $7.

If you’re really keen, there’s a tuckerisation up for grabs. Do you fancy giving your own, or someone else’s, name to my story’s protagonist?

A thought on world building – remember that pre-industrial doesn’t have to mean primitive

I’ve just included a bit of equipment which I saw in a museum in Malta, into the River Kingdom novel that I’m currently writing. It’s a library lamp from the 17/18th century. As you can see, it has four wicks to maximise the available light plus an adjustable reflector for positioning to direct as much light as possible into the page. Those chains attach a snuffer plus a pair of tweezers and a pair of scissors for trimming the wicks. This particular example could do with a bit of a polish, we saw others in museums where photography wasn’t allowed in highly polished silver and brass which would have reflected even more light. So no, there was no need to be squinting over a book by the light of a single candle, not for the wealthy and educated at least.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

We need to remember this, when we’re creating non-industrial worlds. It’s all too easy to get suckered into a positively Victorian mindset that sees the modern age as the pinnacle of human achievement, in some pseudo-evolutionary fashion, which therefore demands that anything that came before us is by definition inferior. No, pre-modern and pre-industrial solutions to the same problems that we face may well be different but that doesn’t mean lesser.

Human ingenuity has been around for untold millennia and it’s worth doing the research to find examples of solutions to problems, because the history that ‘everyone knows’ is frequently at best only half the story, and at worst it’s downright misleading. ‘Everyone knows’ that Henry Ford invented the production line, right? Actually, he invented a particular mechanised version of an approach to manufacturing that’s been around since the Bronze Age. There’s an archaeological site in (if I recall correctly) Turkey that I read about some while ago, flourishing in the 8/9th century BCE where carved hollows and troughs in the rock have recently been rescued from that all-purpose archaeologist’s explanation of ‘ritual purposes’. Someone realised that these shapes looked familiar and went away to check. Yes, these troughs and hollows are the outlines of the component parts of a chariot; specifically those long pieces of wood and elements of wheels that experimental archaeologists have established could only have been shaped by steaming the wood, somehow clamping it and allowing the wood to cool into a new form. These chariot builders weren’t using clamps but the rock itself to make the components that were then assembled by specialists in mass-production.

I have a particular advantage here in that I’m married to a mechanical engineer. He spends his working life designing car assembly lines with dozens of robots now doing the work done by hundreds of men when he first started his apprenticeship, forty-plus years ago. So he’s very good at working out how things work, and at identifying how approaches to the same problem change over the years and centuries. He also has a solid appreciation of the issues around for instance, moving massive slabs of stone to build monuments from Stonehenge, to the pyramids, to the temples of Hagar Qim on Malta, dating back to 3600-3200 BCE. This would be an engineering challenge today. For people using stone rollers, wooden levers and some sort of rope? No one who could manage that deserves to be called primitive, as far as he’s concerned.

So from the small scale items for day to day use, to major building projects in our imagined worlds, we need to remember that non-industrial societies could get along perfectly well without all our modern conveniences. And we don’t only find such things in museums and archaeological sites. Fantasy world builders should take a look at the ingenuity and practical skills of our fellow humans currently living in what can all too often be patronisingly called ‘developing’ countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

I remember seeing a TV programme where a group of Andean women build a suspension bridge to cross a river gorge, only using grass and their bare hands. Yes, really. First they made string by twisting the long strands together, then they combined those strings into cords and then made those cords into ropes, and the ropes into cables, all twisted and counter-twisted at every stage to create strength through tension. The village women on the far side of the gorge were doing the same. When they had enough cables ready, someone fired an arrow to carry a string across the gorge. That string was tied to a cord which pulled a rope which pulled a cable to be secured across the gorge. Three cables gave them one to walk on and two hand rails on either side which were joined together with more grass-rope struts which formed a framework for weaving solid sides. By the end of the day, they had a new bridge.

So please don’t make the mistake of thinking that life in your pre-industrial fantasy land has to be nasty, brutish or short. Anymore than you underestimate people who don’t happen to be white and westernised in our own world today.