A few thoughts on literary agents.

There’s a thing going around on Twitter, from a US small press saying that they only work with unagented writers now, and any agented writers they accept will be required to drop the aforementioned agent.

My guess is this outfit seem to want to tap into the ‘real indie authors go it alone and stick it to The Man by making a fortune’ mythology that never mentions the millions of writers with shattered dreams to set against the very few high-profile successes.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, this is a huge red flag, as umpteen people have pointed out, and has more usefully, started conversations about literary agents.

Are they essential? No. Are they extremely useful? Most definitely. Are the majority of writers well-advised to work with one? Absolutely. This is one reason why publishers who take on unagented writers usually recommend they get an agent at that point. It works out best for everyone in the long run, in most cases.

I did my first deal without an agent but I knew a fair bit about contract law from a professional qualification, plus I had back up from The Society of Authors. Anyone with a contract offer should get advice from them or a similar professional body.

In passing, I’ll just mention that I walked away from a publishing contract I was offered about a year ago, when SoA advice confirmed my misgivings. It was a perfectly legal and legit offer – but a lousy one in terms of who would earn what, and the backing the book could expect. If you’re working unagented, you need to be ready to walk away.

Back in 1997 I replied to that first offer letter/contract with 3 pages of clauses to add, clauses to amend and clauses to strike. This is not typical debut author behaviour. This is where most new writers find having an agent is essential, because if publishers can get away with minimising their obligations, they will. This is business and authors need to understand that. Agents do understand that, and that’s why reputable publishers are happy to work with them.

As my career progressed, I got a literary agent to handle all the more complex stuff like foreign rights etc to free up my time to write. That decision earned me far more than paying the agent’s commission cost me. It’s good business sense.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve worked succesfully without an agent and with different agents, as has suited me at the time. That has always been my choice. I will never work with a publisher who insists I drop an agent. There can be no good reason for that.

Yes, there are crooks and charlatans out there calling themselves literary agents, just like crooks and charlatans calling themselves publishers, Authors must always do their research and be alert for scams or bad deals. That’s a different conversation.

Forensic Fencing: What can damage on blades tell us about medieval swordsmanship?

For anyone interested in this sort of thing, who can be in Oxford for 2pm on Saturday 25th November, there’s going to be an absolutely fascinating talk by James Hester (University of Southampton) , courtesy of The Society for the History of Medieval Technology and Science.

“The martial arts of Europe were just as sophisticated as those of Asia. However, as the weapons concerned declined in use, the arts were gradually forgotten. Only in the last thirty years have efforts been made to study surviving sources in an attempt to understand, and perhaps re-create, these lost techniques.

We are fortunate in having a wealth of surviving late medieval arms and armour in collections throughout the world, including many beautiful and well-preserved swords. Closer examination of some of these reveals traces of their former use preserved as notches, rolled edges, and wear patterns on the blade. Having not been previously investigated in detail, this talk will discuss part of my PhD research in which I analyse these damaged blades to gain insights into medieval swordplay. Focusing on the period between 1350 and 1500, this includes the ways in which different parts of the weapon were used, the types of techniques that may have been most common, and also any possible shift in technique that could have taken place throughout the period covered.

Perhaps ‘reading’ the blades will prove a major key to recovering these lost martial arts.”

The talk will be in the seminar room at The Museum of the History of Science, Old Ashmolean Building, Broad Street, Oxford
Use the outside staircases to go down to glass doors and the seminar room. Free to Members and Students, all others £5.

I shall be there. If you are, introduce yourself!

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

Thoughts on ‘Bitten’ – the Kelley-Armstrong-inspired TV series

As a long-standing fan of the ‘Otherworld’ series of urban fantasy books written by Kelley Armstrong, I was naturally interested when Netflix UK flagged up this Canadian series to me. There are three series in total, of thirteen, ten and ten episodes respectively, broadcast from 2014 to 2016. I’ve been watching them from start to finish over the past month.

Elena Michaels is the world’s only female werewolf. Only men naturally inherit the condition and for some reason, at least until now, women seem unable to survive the trauma of ‘the change’ after being bitten. The Pack lives among mankind in a covert, parallel society with rigid, merciless rules. Elena is trying to find her own way to live free of such claustrophobic restrictions without condemning herself. Unfortunately, there are those within that hidden world ready to use the secrets which she cannot betray as a weapon against her. The desire for power, advantage and control turns out to be common to humanity and to werewolves.

Inevitably as a writer myself, and a fan, I’ve been watching with half an eye on the adaptation, and that’s been done very well. The cast of characters and the number of locations has been intelligently pared down with an understanding of the different, more linear nature of TV story-telling, when compared to a book. And yes, doubtless with a view to budgetary considerations but that’s only commonsense. New characters have been added to facilitate the exploration of aspects of werewolf pack life that could be conveyed directly in a written first-person narrative. Aspects of real life that have changed since the first book came out in 2001 are also deftly incorporated, such as the Net and the ubiquity of mobile phones

Overall, the atmosphere of the books is well maintained, and the adaptation does not shy away from the sensuality and the violence that are both integral elements of the written series. Crucially these two things are not confused or conflated, and the sex is both tasteful and even-handed in terms of point of view. For the viewer, the female gaze is assuredly catered for, with the quality and the quantity of well-muscled male physiques on show.

When it comes to the violence, the body count is substantial and there’s a good deal of gore. These deaths matter. The writers clearly understand that if a loss doesn’t have an impact for a story’s characters, then that doesn’t count for the viewer. Consequently, overall, I found the tone darker than the books, and still more so in the second and third series, where the stories diverge significantly from the written series. That’s by no means a criticism. It’s a distinct plus that I was kept guessing as to where the narrative might go. As a fan of the books, I was more than content to see this as an alternate timeline for already familiar characters. For those who don’t know the books, this also means that the narrative is more than sufficiently coherent and self-contained for viewing without that background reading.

So I’ve certainly enjoyed watching this series. I also now find myself contemplating a start-to-finish reread of the original books over the Christmas and New Year break…

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.

Guest post – Jeanette Ng on the inspirations for “Under The Pendulum Sun”.

Meeting Jeanette at Nerd East in Durham, I found her great company and really interesting to talk to. Accordingly, I kept an eye out for her debut novel, now released. In Under the Pendulum Sun, Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

One thing that particularly interested me about this premise was this depiction of Faerie alongside Victorian England, since that was the very era when fairies were denatured from Shakespeare’s eerie menace to sickly-sweet little things dressed as flowers. So, I asked, what prompted her to write a book set in that period?


What Drew Jeannette to the Victorian Era

Under the Pendulum Sun began very Victorian. I had picked up a Victorian missionary manual from the university library and as we started reading it in my living room. Having no television, our evening entertainment occasionally involved reading things aloud to each other and discussing the texts afterwards. It was from those discussions that I had thoughts of “what if they met beings actually as alien and as strange as they describe in these books?”

I had then toyed with basing it in other eras of missionary work. It was at the ruins of St Paul in Macau that I thought of the conviction of their early missionaries and martyrs. They set sail without sparing a single moment and it was only after they arrived that they wrote to the pope to ask for “permission”. I also read about the lonely Bishop of Beijing and Kublai Khan’s request of a hundred priests[1] to come to teach Christianity to his empire. In the end, only two friars braved the journey and even then, they did not finish it. I was also very familiar with the rapid conversion urged on by apocalyptic fears around the year 1000 in Northern Europe. There are undoubtedly stories there still, waiting to be told.

But none of it felt quite right, for all that I was more familiar with the historical eras. I wrote a great many false starts and I kept coming back to the passages that first inspired the project. I wanted to use them and recontextualise their words and with that I was locked in. There is also something very pleasing about it being Victorians meeting horrid fae since it is also the same era that is largely responsible for popularising very twee and tiny fairies.

I chose the year 1847 because it was the year Jane Eyre was published [2] and I was drawing so very much from the life and work of the Brontës. For all that Jane did not go with St John Rivers to India, Charlotte Brontë clearly greatly admired the work of a missionary. She wrote a poem titled The Missionary, which was one of the axed chapter epigraphs:

“Though such blood-drops should fall from me

As fell in old Gethsemane,

Welcome the anguish, so it gave

More strength to work≠more skill to save.”

Thinking back, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were some of first “adult” novels I read. I still remember carrying around Jane Eyre with an absolutely massive dictionary, looking up all the words I didn’t know in it. And there were very many. My little notebook of vocabulary was absolutely full by the end[3].

That memory is what gave birth to the dedication of Under the Pendulum Sun. I grew up reading the Brontës and they remain to me, and are still to many, part of that esteemed Western Canon. I see literature as a culture conversing with itself, rewriting and revisiting stories of the past. I’ve loved Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair, to name but a few of the Brontës’ literary descendants. I wanted Under the Pendulum Sun to be, on some level, part of that pantheon. It is me placing my own apocrypha among the stories of my childhood, a metaphor that is itself a theme within the text itself.

My approach to writing the half-real owes also quite a lot to Jorge Luis Borges, whose literary forgeries made a deep mark on my teenage mind. I adored his reviews of nonexistent books, translations of fictional texts and mostly true biographies of real historical people. He would use facts and details of our world that are just absurd enough to be false (or at least seem false) as a bridge into the fantastical. Having myself a magpie mind that loves historical trivia, they all became natural hooks to pull me into the story.

Which all makes my approach a little different from steampunk, a genre that has now come to be synonymous with Victorian fantasy. Under the Pendulum Sun has been tagged as such in its brief life and I have no real objection to such labelling, people use these words to help them navigate the wilds of fiction. Being of a rather academic background, I do see the driving impulse of steampunk being that so-called Victorian optimism at the future of technology. It is where steam power provides the sense wonder instead of magic. All of which is rather absent from Under the Pendulum Sun.

I am, of course, not without precedents. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a beautiful novel with strange fae written in a distinctly Victorian voice. Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to The Crown also gloriously deals with faeries and themes of colonialism, but in dramatically different fashion to myself. Mary Robinette Kowel’s Shades of Milk and Honey rather famously uses only words Jane Austen herself used to tell a restrained tale of domestic Regency magic. Marie Brennan’s Natural History of Dragons is set in secondary world but has both a very Victorian voice and a genteel lady explorer. All of which I sincerely and absolutely recommend.

[1] I always loved this story as it seems to highlight how the Great Khan simply thought on a whole different scale to the leaders in Europe.

[2] It became a sort of memory aid for me. I’d forget when my book was set and would look up when Jane Eyre was published. For a historian, I am really appallingly bad at dates.

[3] I never did read another book that way, looking up words as I go. I was taught the magical trick of just ignoring it and letting myself be pulled in by the story.

Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog.

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.