Question of the Week: Fantasy in the 1980s

To expand upon the theme of a question I asked on Facebook, what are your favorite fantasy novels and films of the 1980s? You can have a little wiggle-room for films and books from the late 70s or early 90s, but part of the reason I ask is because I’m interested in what’s unique to that decade. Thus, even if you discovered R.E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien in the 80s, that’s not what I’m looking for this week.

More importantly, what elements of those novels and films do you find have become dated or tired now that you look back at them? And which elements endure or must return to save us all from the dread Grimdark*?

 

 

  • I like dark fantasy. There’s no need to crush me for this joke.

Question of the Week: What Makes a Book Good?

When friends recommend their favorite book, they offer different reasons why I should read them. “The setting is incredible!” “Her prose is just beautiful.” “I have never seen such a cool system of magic.” “I laughed out loud.” “When my favorite character died, I threw the book across the room… but then I had to pick it up to see how it ended.”

The best books are good in more than one way, usually. You can have a funny, sad, exciting book full of gripping characters and lovely writing. But sometimes a book with terrible prose gathers a passionate audience who simply must know which boy the heroine will choose, or perhaps a book with a clumsy plot succeeds because its characters all seem so real and sympathetic.

Think of your favorite book. Now, please tell me what one element stands out as making it your favorite. Is it the suspense? Is it the world-building? Describe what makes that book so fantastic that the rest of us should read it.

 

Creative Colleagues: Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Alex and I “met” when a friend invited us to a mutual-support group for writers of heroic fantasy. While I recognized Alex’s name, I hadn’t read any of his work. A glance at his website told me we had a lot of interests in common, and Mordicai Knode raved about Alex’s Eddie LaCrosse books, in which he saw some tonal similarities to my Radovan & the Count novels. Now The Sword-Edged Blonde is waiting for me to start reading the day after my next deadline.

After we exchanged a few getting-to-know-you emails last fall, I started dropping questions on Alex, who found time to answer them a few at a time during his own writing crunch.

1. Part of the reason my friend recommended your Eddie LaCrosse novels is that you blend noir and fantasy. Can you point to some specific film and literary influences on the character and series?

Well, the big influences are Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker. Spenser and Marlowe are the two great noir templates for me: they’re tough guys, and their moral compasses sometimes point in surprising directions. My second Eddie LaCrosse novel, Burn Me Deadly, was very obviously based on the film version of Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly, thanks to an offhand comment made years ago by a friend, who said that controlling dragons in a secondary world fantasy would be the equivalent of nuclear capability in our world.

2. I love your dragons-as-nukes analogy and recall some wry criticism of the MacGuffin in Kiss Me Deadly as Cold War fears taken to their absurd extreme. How much license does fantasy give us to exaggerate real-world issues? Or how much does it constrain us in terms of metaphor?

I don’t think fantasy (or SF, for that matter) constrain us at all; if anything, it blows the potential field wide open. Star Trek famously addressed racial issues by positing two races who are literally, visually half-black and half-white, but on opposite sides; you can’t get much broader and unconstrained than that. One thing that makes Kiss Me Deadly work so well is that it weds that idea of Cold War paranoia with the mythology of Pandora and her box. It takes something specific to that place and time and gives it a universal and timeless cache, which is why we still watch that movie sixty years later.

Cover by Larry Rostant

Cover by Larry Rostant

3. You prefer older films with practical effects to more recent movies. Does that preference intersect with your affection for a hard-boiled hero? Or is that nostalgic reflex part and parcel of writing fantasy? Or both?

I don’t know if there’s a correlation there. I think the primacy of story is what I respond to in classic film, and what’s missing from so much modern cinema. As for nostalgia, I don’t think any true noir, in any medium, creates a world you’d really look back on fondly. And most of the great noirs were set in their contemporary worlds. Certainly I have no particular fondness for the overall world of Eddie LaCrosse, because to make it interesting and compelling for that character to inhabit, I have to make it dark and dangerous. My goal is for the story to always feel immediate and contemporary to the character, and therefore to the reader.

4. How much does noir need humor for relief and how much of it is gallows humor? That is, what’s the margin between comedy and bravado? On a related note, who are some of your favorite wisecracking noir heroes from cinema?

I think comedy is necessary whenever you have tragedy, to balance the experience for the reader/viewer. As an example, I think David Lynch goes so far into the strange and brutal because, at heart, he’s ridiculously romantic and optimistic. Both Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart are, at their core, simple (even simplistic) and innocent romances, but he knows he needs the contrast of brutal violence to legitimize it.

The margin between comedy and bravado is a matter of self-awareness. At its best, characters are often not aware that they’re funny, they’re simply being true to their natures. Bravado, on the other hand, is putting up a conscious front, and any comedy (i.e., wisecracks in the face of danger) is thus deliberate and self-aware.

My favorite wisecrackers are Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, and Carl Kolchak from TV’s The Night Stalker.

5. Booklist describes your latest Eddie LaCrosse novel (He Drank, and Saw the Spider) as sword & sorcery via The Rockford Files, one of my favorite shows. Do you find actors like James Garner (or Humphrey Bogart, William Powell, or Darren McGavin) informing your heroes? How is the influence of an actor’s performance different from that of a writer’s characterization?

I first started writing about Eddie LaCrosse thirty years ago in high school, and I had a very specific actor in mind for him then: Alien-era Tom Skerritt. As time passed and Eddie became more set in my head, he began to look… well, basically like himself, which is similar but no longer identical to the actor. With my other, newer characters, I do sometimes ponder which actors or actresses might be suited to them, but it’s now a matter of the performer matching the ideal in my imagination, not providing a template for it. I think that’s a fairly common part of the creative process: you learn to mix your influences before you learn to create anything original.

For me, there’s no difference between the influence of actor’s performance or literary character. Both are valid forms of creativity, and both can provide the impetus to something new and original in my own work.

Check out Alex’s website.

Question of the Week: Your First Fandom

SF, horror, fantasy, or just "monster movie"?

SF, horror, fantasy, or just “monster movie”?

Before fantasy (Roger Zelazny and R.E. Howard) I discovered science fiction (Andrew Norton and Ray Bradbury), and before SF there were monster movies (mostly Universal Pictures) and ghost stories (any “50 Great ____ Stories” I found in the Weekly Reader). Since then I’ve become a fan of all sorts of genres, from film noir to kung fu to costume dramas to psychological thrillers to murder mysteries to you name it. It would be easier to list the genres I don’t care for, and when pressed for a favorite genre of movie I often  reply, “foreign films.”

But some genres seem naturally close to each other. Readers of comics and SF cross over by a fair margin, for example. Looking back at my shifting youthful tastes, I can see lots of SF elements in my favorite monster movies—especially in the 50s—and of course even before Star Wars, some SF movies were indistinguishable from fantasies.

What were some of your earliest fandoms, and what books, movies, comics, or other stories lured you into another genre? Did you obsess over fantasy for a few years before turning to cyberpunk? Or have you always slipped easily from one genre to another?

Blue Sky Setting

Let’s say you could have a free license to continue, expand upon, or otherwise develop an existing fantasy/SF property. You could do anything you want with it, but you’d be the producer/show runner/new author. You can’t hire someone else to take it on for you.

My pick is Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of Winds. I would write novels and produce tabletop and video games, but I would never, ever do a manga or anime.

What would you choose?

Question of the Week: Sword & Sorcery vs. Epic

Do you prefer sweeping tales of nations, monarchs, and world-threatening dangers? Or would you rather travel with a pair of scoundrels looking out for themselves?

There’s a lot of middle ground between epic fantasy and sword & sorcery, but the poles make a clear distinction between the ideals.

Does sword & sorcery always have to be gritty? Is it more likely than epic fantasy to be humorous? Is epic fantasy more like a movie and sword and sorcery more like a TV series?

What are your thoughts on the difference between these two popular subgenres of fantasy?