Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Counterfactual histories and historical fantasies

I came across a long-read in New Statesman today about The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I haven’t actually read the book – or watched the series based on it – but the article brought up an issue that interests me both as a writer and a reader: counterfactual histories, the genre of ’what ifs’. What if an event in the past had happened differently? It also reminded me that the past, real and imagined, lends itself well for all kinds of fiction.

I don’t read much historical fiction anymore – or watch historical movies, for that matter – even though I’m a historian by education. Even the best historical fiction tends to pale in comparison with the historical reality, and the incorrect historical facts and details tend to mar my enjoyment of a good story. The exception I make is for historical romances. I don’t care that most of them not only get the details wrong but the spirit of the era they portray too; I simply enjoy the romance.

And I know I shouldn’t be too judgemental. Truth, or learning from the past, isn’t the point of historical fiction. Historical fiction, even the kind that comes with the authority of academic learning and exhaustive research, isn’t there to educate people. It’s there to tell stories. The past is an inspiration for the author. However, even if readers assume that everything is invented, they can’t help but learn – occasionally incorrect things too. Georgette Heyer invented some of the things she wrote about, but her books are perfect as they are, and her idea of the life in Regency England is pretty much accepted as the truth.

That’s one of the reasons why I like counterfactual histories. They let the author to work with the richness of the past without the demand to have every single detail right. In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines a Nazi America: what would have happened if President Roosevelt had been assassinated in 1933 and the entire Second World War had run a different course. What if Germany had conquered Soviet Union and Japan had won in the Pacific? Dick imagines other scenarios too, ultimately making the book about alternative realities – counterfactual histories multiplied. They’re not about historical truth, but ask questions about our society instead.

Nazis winning the WW2 is a favourite scenario in many counterfactual histories – and not only in fiction – but my personal tastes run towards more fantastical. I especially like steam punk and its view on Victorian society with engines that run on steam and ether. It's not ’purely’ counterfactual in the sense that it would allow only a reality that is historically possible, but I love the innovativeness combined with the spirit of the era. It’s historical fantasy at its best.

Urban fantasy, though set in the modern world, is often counterfactual, too. It usually imagines an alternate reality with supernatural elements that aren’t, strictly speaking, possible. As a writer, that’s what interests me most. I like to imagine the subtle differences that would have occurred if our history had been shaped by magic or entities that aren’t purely human. In my Two-Natured London series, for example, the Inquisition is a consequence of the Church wanting to purge the world of supernatural entities. That, in turn, has led to a continuing strife between humans and the two-natured, which influences the present-day narrative.

Historical fiction with fantasy elements doesn’t have to be solely about differences. It can also be about the modern interacting with or influencing the past, as in time-travel novels. The best – or my favourite anyway – example is Diana Gabaldon’s massive Outlander series, where a woman from the relatively modern world of the 1940s England ends up in the 18th century Scotland. The historical accuracy is there, but it’s combined with the observations of differences between the past and the present, and with the subtle influence a modern person would have on the people around her. There are also her outright attempts to change the past. It asks the question all time-travel novels ask: is it possible to change the past and if it is, then what.

No matter the type of historical fiction you go for, the past is a rich source to explore and to exploit. If you don’t want to limit your story with pesky things like ’truth’ or ’accuracy’, try writing historical fantasy instead. Past is a different country. Anything is possible there.

Monday, 21 March 2016

6 writing lessons taken from the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series

I’ve been reading Dead Ice, the latest Anita Blake novel by Laurell K. Hamilton. And by reading I mean skimming the pages, hoping to land on some plot. Of over 560 pages and 65 chapters, the plot it’s supposed to be aboutillegal zombie pornhas so far taken approximately four chapters, and they are not very exciting chapters. Nothing about the book is very exciting – a far cry from what the series was originally about.

For those not familiar with the series, Anita Blake is a vampire hunter and animator, a raiser of zombies, in St. Louis, Missouri. She’s a tough as nails heroine with a supernatural ability of her own, which sets her apart from the society and has made her rather confrontational. The first book, Guilty Pleasures, was published in 1993 and Dead Ice, published in 2015, is the 24th book in the series. When the first book came out, there were no urban fantasy series like Anita Blake; it felt exciting and invigorating. The first twelve or so books were about solving preternatural crimes that took Anita to harrowing and near-fatal situations. Then something changed, and Anita’s personal life became the focus of the stories instead of the crimes.

I didn’t originally mind the change, although I rued the loss of the nail-biting suspense. I had my favourites among Anita’s many boyfriends and kept returning to the books just to learn what was going on in their lives. I didn’t mind the excess of sex either, even though the scenes are rather repetitive and contrast starkly with the first books where there is none. But after a couple of books in this new style, it became evident that something was lost for good.

Anita’s life never changes, it never evolves, and she never grows. Time passes between the books, and readers are given to understand that there’s a full spectrum of everyday life happening. But every time the reader is given a glimpse, everything is the same: Anita is at odds with a member(s) of a law enforcement agency of some kind for being a woman tougher than men and having a full love-life with non-humans; one or two of her boyfriends throw a fit for not being the number one boyfriend; Anita spends time wondering why she is loved by so many beautiful people when she’s so ugly and refusing to believe she’s not ugly; she adds a new member to her list of lovers by a sheer accident, thus alienating another old member; and a supposedly deadly preternatural incident is solved as an aside.

All this is delivered with a narrative that is rather near-sighted and very repetitive. Within one chapter, the same characters are described multiple times – often with the same words – with added ponderings about their meaning to Anita; the same goes with incidents relevant or irrelevant to the matter at hand; places are introduced afresh every time Anita goes there (in Dead Ice, the Circus of the Damned, for example, has been described at least three times). The dialogue is a series of questions and explanations that make at least one character appear extremely stupid (often Anita, as if she has no idea what her job or her loved ones are about) and/or confrontational; and chapters are a series of confrontations or accidental events that have no relevance to the plot. All this makes a very annoying read and forces to question the skills of the author and the professionalism of her editors and publishers. Doesn’t anyone care?

Long series that have a new story in every book, like crime series, with an underlying continuous plot, like many urban fantasy series, rely on readers who return book after book either for the stories, the characters or finding out what it really is all about. Good ones manage all three, like Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changling series (14 books) that balances between paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres. Decent ones manage at least one of these; I still read Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (22+3 books), even though it doesn’t go anywhere, simply because I like the main character and occasionally something funny happens. But when all three fail, something needs to change.

Anita has never been a likeable character, nor does she aspire to be one. But even she should evolve and grow. She has acquired a bunch of supernatural traits that have made her near invincible (one of the reasons the series has lost its edge, as the reader can now be sure she won’t die) but she hasn’t grown as a person. She asks the same questions about herself book after book, and even if she finds an answer, she’s forgotten it by the next book. The stories aren’t exciting anymore; the last one with a half-interesting crime plot was book number twenty, Hit List, and even that one wasn’t terribly good. And with the death of the evil entity haunting Anita for many books, there isn’t even the question of what it’s all about to keep the readers coming back. All we’re left with is wondering how Anita can juggle her personal life with so many love interests with her professional one. And that was done to death a couple of books ago.

All in all, I’ve been disappointed with the series for a long time. A wise reader would have given up, and in a way I have too. I haven’t bought the latest books, but borrowed them from the library long after theyve been published. However, to keep this post from being just a rant about my disappointment with a once-favourite series, I have lessons for writers I’ve taken from it:

  1. Less is more when it comes to descriptions. If you have to copy-paste them, you’re definitely overdoing it.
  2. If the plot described in the back matter takes less than a fifth of your book, you should consider rewriting one or both of them. 
  3. If your book is nothing but a series of events that lead to nowhere, they’re just filling. Delete them.
  4. If your series repeat the same plot, incidents or events for more than two books in a row, either end the series or write something different.
  5. With a long series, characters should grow or evolve in order to keep the readers’ interest.
  6. Even a popular series can go awry if the author becomes complacent. Trust your editors, even if you’re not listening to your critics.

I leave you with a wonderful post by K. M. Wayland (all her posts about writing are wonderful) about how to cut unnecessary stuff from your book. More words don’t always equal with a better book. In the case of Anita Blake, they make an infinitely worse one.