All posts by SFF Book Bonanza

Speculative Fiction: A Safe Space for Exploring Topical Issues?

 

by Chloe Garner

I don’t know if you’ve looked around recently, but the world is kind of a tricky place. Issues concerning race and cultural identity live at the forefront of everything in the American news cycle, and I know that different versions of the same conversations are going on all over the world. Problems that I wouldn’t even imagine for the sake of my own fiction are very real, and no one wants anyone else to tell them what they are, what they should want, who they should be.

And I get that. There are no good answers.  Most of us have been mistreated at some point, and no one wants to see things they identify with painted as villainous, either in the real world or in fiction. It creates a situation that – I’ve gotta tell you – is challenging for a fiction writer. Fiction is about the way the world is, the way the world could be, the way the world has been, and the way the world should be. Underneath of that, there are statements, theories, ideas, perspectives, pictures of what it means to be human.  Thoughts about the way humans are, what’s normal, what’s not, what’s okay, and what really isn’t.

And those are really, really important to me, as a person, as a reader, and as a writer.

Conversations among authors are hot with passionate opinions about how to treat characters by type. I was in a class where a woman argued that describing a woman as ‘small’ was sexist, and I’ve more recently seen a statement that creating a bisexual assassin character plays on negative stereotypes about bisexual individuals. And sensitivity here is important. It’s also paralyzing. No one wants to see their people set up as villains. Even if the evil of the character has nothing to do with their race, class, or cultural associations, they don’t like it, and that’s perfectly rational, perfectly reasonable, and something I’m wholly empathetic to.

But fiction needs conflict.

And some women are small. And thieves exist most everywhere in the world.  As do cheats and liars and busybodies.

Add to this a genuinely held belief that a writer does not have the ability to speak from a perspective that he has not experienced, be it racially, culturally, economically, or elsewise, and I often find myself at a loss. Because fiction remains important.  Stories about people, regardless of where they come from or what formed them, they’re critical to empathy and our ability to look outside of ourselves and understand how others might experience the world.

We must tell stories.

More and more, both as a reader and as an author, I find that I take refuge in the world of fantasy. The things that are true about fantasy characters are also true about real people, but the divide between who is allowed to tell a story and whether or not their perspective is biased or inappropriate vanishes because we are now talking about races that do not have a real history – indeed, they have a complete history that exists solely in the head of the writer. Conflicts can be as complex as they need to be, but without the risk of underplaying a dynamic that is core to someone’s real life. Without the risk of speaking for the collective experience of a group, authors are free to create an experience that has an authentic and instructive perspective.

For much of my life, the grown ups have looked at fantasy as a form of childish play. Something that I would outgrow, that I would join the adult world in its pursuit of more adult fiction.

As I sit here today, thinking about what I want to write, what I care about, and the things that I believe are true, I wonder if maybe more childish play is exactly what we need.  Play is where we learn to interact safely and healthily with others, and it’s about instruction more than agenda. The things that we have always needed fiction for remain true, today, perhaps even more than ever, but we close doors and condemn them as venues of conversation. Some writers are simply brave, but in being brave, they take on an additional layer of responsibility for being fair to all of the parties and types and groups that they’re representing.

I love speculative fiction. I always have. I don’t want to write fiction that is necessarily fair: I want to write fiction that is authentic and real and meaningful, even if it is about vampires and demons and aliens and magic. I think that, rather than being a barrier to reality, these separations from the real world form a protective shield, a barrier that protects these stories from the pressure to conform to sincere, well-meaning rules, and just tell the story that needs to be there.

Urban Fantasy – What is It and Why Should You Be Reading It?

by R.R. Virdi

Urban fantasy is a subgenre of the traditional fantasy parent genre in literature. You know, kings, horses, courts, monsters, magic, mayhem, and typically a roguish hero. The genre’s come about in the last thirty or so years even though the term has been used since sparingly since the early 20th century. Urban fantasy has one notable difference from its sister genre, Contemporary fantasy. So long as—you guessed it, the genre takes place in an urban environment with some level of fantastical qualities, it counts as urban fantasy. Contemporary requires the story to be set in present day times.

This subtle difference allows people to play with the genre in ways to niche it into other genres and widen its appeal. The Daggers and Steele series by Alex P. Berg is a wonderful example of this. It’s a bit of a spoiler to give this away, but the great twist and wonderful part of this series is that it’s an alternative history like fiction with an urban fantasy emphasis. You’re aware of the genre from the get-go. The cover and blurb tell you all you need to know:

Elven side kick, tough guy investigator who sleuths into mysteries that defy normal convention, and urban setting. It’s a concentrated does of some of the urban fantasy tropes that old readers will resonate with and find familiar, and new ones will be sucked in by and glean understanding of in what makes the genre. Daggers and Steele is a series that helps show the flexibility of the urban fantasy subgenre and how far or…back (see what I did there) the setting can be taken and tweaked to add to the fantastical elements already within this brand of fiction.

The name really stuck to the style of fiction and began to describe it in the late 1980’s with a few scattered pieces of work then, to now with hundreds of series between traditionally published and indie.

Some of the earliest and most notable authors in the genre who helped it find its feet are: Laurel K. Hamilton of the Anita Blake series—often considered one of the most substantial works in the genre, Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece, Neverwhere (the urban fantasy adventure set in London and a twist off parallel London Below), and another in the genre that’s developed a major cult following: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. A series that follows the grizzled and snarky, self-abasing wizard, Harry Dresden.

All three of those works are some of the best examples to show the variances allowed in setting and style within the genre while all falling under its umbrella. Laurel K. Hamilton’s series follows a necromancer, Anita Blake, living in a world where the supernatural are widely known about and have rights. It’s a dark and seedy version of Missouri following the paranormal side of things. While it’s urban and set in a present day setting, the world is vastly different than ours on a series of levels.

Butcher’s Dresden Files takes a different route—set in modern day Chicago where the supernatural elements are mostly kept under wraps by their own powers. For the most part, his Chicago is pretty much along the same lines as ours. The paranormal lurk, are unexplained and unbelieved by most people. Freak accidents and occurrences are just that. The boldest and most shocking bit of overt magical presence is none other than the protagonist himself, Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard. He’s in the phonebook as such.

And then Gaiman’s work falls somewhere, and lovably in between. Richard, the main character, crosses path with a young woman, Door, who possesses the uncanny ability of opening up doorways between the modern (at that time) London, and a twisted version, London Below. She accidently ends up dragging him along into her weird world of odd people selling odder things, a portal fantasy set within a major city where monsters and myths are real. Members of the normal world apart from Richard aren’t aware these places and things exist. In fact, as time passes and Richard becomes more immersed in London Below…people forget he exists.

All three references offer just a hint of how fluid the genre can be as well as welcoming to readers with different tastes and a want of setting that might be different and resonate with their personal interests.

My own series, The Grave Report, follows a disembodied soul, Vincent Graves, murdered by the paranormal and tasked with inhabiting the bodies of those killed by the supernatural and using their minds, bodies, memories, and skills to solve their murders. The series is predominantly set in the burrows of New York. Given that urban fantasy allows for so much flexibility, I wanted to play with that. So, the series shifts urban locales per novel/story, and yet always retains the urban fantasy vibe tinged with the classic noir investigator hints that permeate many novels in the genre. Given that he’s a soul that can bounce into any body murdered anywhere…the series isn’t limited by setting all. And, it still qualifies as urban fantasy.

That series has gone onto land award finalist positions alongside giants in the genre: Jim Butcher and Larry Correia, last year at the inaugural DragonCon Dragon Awards under the Best Fantasy (Paranormal) category. As noted, two other urban fantasy writers all with their own spins on the endlessly workable genre.

The urban fantasy subgenre has no limits on what can be done, and so very few constraints. So, make sure to dive into it, readers. I’m sure you’ll find something more along the flavors you yearn for. There’s certain no shortage of material and takes on the genre. Go looking, read on, I know there are works out there for you, and I’ve only named a few.

The Cosmic Train Schedule, and Getting Science Right

by Jennifer Willis

During the Q&A following my author reading at Orycon in November, I was asked a question I’d not gotten before:

“What was the coolest thing you learned while researching your Mars books?”

What an awesome question, right? I had to think quickly on my feet and sort through all of the fun stuff I got to dig into while working on these three books. The answer that sprung to mind, though, was the Cosmic Train Schedule. And I promise that’s not something I just made up.

The Cosmic Train Schedule is an online resource that includes real-world transit times between Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It’s a massive timetable that spans centuries and gives exact dates for departures and arrivals as well as information on aphelion, perihelion, and other fun geekery.

And I did geek out over this. I opened up a new project in Aeon Timeline and mapped out all of the (fictional) manned missions to Mars for my series, including both the government-sponsored trips crewed by trained astronauts and the waves of colony missions that are central to my stories. This helped me get a better sense for the lengths of missions, a reasonable timeline for sending people on interplanetary voyages, and a hard schedule for overlaps between missions and gaps when there would be no human beings on the Red Planet. While I had a lot of nerdy fun pulling that together and inserting more mundane elements like future Super Bowl dates (because I also mapped out a fictional NFL expansion as background material), I also needed this information to construct and drive my stories—particularly for the third book, Mars Heat.

So why go to all this trouble? Because actual science matters in science fiction. This can be tricky for authors, because sometimes real-world limitations and physics can get in the way of what would otherwise be an awesome plot point. But I try not to use handwavium too much if I can help it. This is a big reason I’m still excited that I got to participate in the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers at the University of Wyoming in 2011, even though my brain melted as we tried to absorb what amounted to a college course in astrophysics in the space of a single week. It’s no coincidence that Mike Brotherton—founder of Launch Pad, UW physics and astronomy professor, and sci-fi author—is the one who directed me to the Cosmic Train Schedule.

Sci-fi authors have a unique opportunity to promote science literacy through our work. Countless astronauts, scientists, and others credit their early sci-fi reading for inspiring their studies and careers, and scientific understanding is important for everyone. Plus, it’s fun to learn something new while you’re in the middle of a great read. My SFR books aren’t hard science fiction, but I do try to get the science right where possible.


A chronically optimistic nerd, Jennifer Willis writes urban fantasy, sci-fi, and sci-fi romance. She is also the writer behind the Northwest Love Stories feature in The Oregonian and has a byline in the Hugo Award-winning Women Destroy Science Fiction from Lightspeed.

5 Kick Ass Women Warriors in Japanese History Who Fought in Battles

by K. Bird Lincoln

Part of what drew me to women warriors in Japan is that Japan has had very rigid, traditionally defined gender characteristics and roles for long periods in its history. Yet when I first encountered Onnagatta actors (boys/men who play women characters in the 1600’s) and Okama entertainers (transvestite or transsexual TV stars) I was surprised by how Japanese society accepted a chosen gender as long as the person abided by those rigid stereotypes.

The men are treated as women. The very rigidness of how to dress, how to speak, how to act actually seemed like a framework that allowed the men to be women in society’s eyes.

I was fascinated to see if the opposite held true. Could women also be accepted in a man’s gender role? Historically, there have been many women in Japanese history who picked up a sword, but that didn’t necessarily make them men. And to this day, the famous Takarazuka actresses who play male roles retain a sense of their femaleness.

But in creating my main characters in Tiger Lily, I wanted to delve into the lives of women, who born according to the twelve-year cycle zodiac calendar in the Tiger year, express their gender in unconventional ways. Here are some of the most famous historical women warriors in Japanese History that inspired me.

Empress Jingu

As the wife of an emperor sometime around 160-260 AD, Jingu has some historical legitimacy, although her exploits as regent after her husband died are somewhat in the legendary category. Apparently after taking power around 200 A.D, she invaded the Korean kingdom of Silla, starting a long-standing troublesome relationship between historical Korea and Japan. She’s depicted as a warrior and shamaness, using both sword and her ocean-controlling divine jewels to invade Korea. Jingu’s legend is intricately tied up with Japanese Nationalism, so it’s hard to tell what’s legend and what’s propaganda, but along with Himiko, who we’re not touching upon here, she’s one of the foremothers of women warriors in Japan.

Hangaku Gozen and Tomoe Gozen

These two women warriors (onna-musha or onna bugeisha) lived around the same time period but weren’t related. Tomoe is the more famous of the two, and noted in the famous 12th Century chronicle of battles called the Heike Monogatari. She is depicted artistically as wearing battle armor, was famed for her horsemanship and archery, and considered extremely brave. She went into battle for her master/lover Minamoto Yoshinaka with a sword, not just the traditional female bladed pole naginata.

She is also described as being beautiful, so despite her leading battles and wearing armor, she still was seen as primarily female. There is controversy over how her life ended. Some say she was forcibly married to another warrior, some that she was beheaded, and another that she died a nun. Tomoe has been immortalized in anime, videogames, movies, and books, including a historical science-fiction-fantasy trilogy written by Jessica Salmonson, titled The Tomoe Gozen Saga.

Hangaku Gozen rode into battle with naginata and bow with her nephew during the Kennin Uprising against the main military government in Kamakura. She led 3000 against a force of 10,000 warriors. Hangaku is said to have been ‘fearless as a man and beautiful as a flower’, so despite her male leadership role, history cast her into a female role. Her ending quite firmly teaches her a lesson about females daring to get mixed up with political battles: married off to an enemy warrior after she is wounded and taken prisoner by the Kamakura military government.

Nakano Takeko

Here we have our first entirely historical woman warrior who fought on the losing side of the Boshin War. Although not officially allowed to join the fight, Nakano teamed up with 20 other women, including her mother and sister, and formed a counter-attack to break the siege on her castle. She killed 5 enemy soldiers before taking a fatal bullet to the chest. But here’s where she doubled down on her kick-assery: fearful the enemy would take her head as a trophy and she might risk disgracing her family even in death, she asked her sister to cut off her head and bury it.

Rui Sasaki

Rui was a sword instructor in the mid-17th century. Although a known female, she would walk around town in men’s clothing and her hair in an unfeminine style on her way to her martial arts school. She would occasionally tangle with sword-wielding hoodlums. This got around, and apparently wasn’t considered the appropriate behavior for the daughter of a samurai. This meant certain authorities made it their business to find a husband to keep her in line.

So there you have 5 really kick-ass women warriors in Japanese history. None of them were able to shed their femaleness completely even when going into battle—and several of them experienced the subjugation of a husband figure to firmly put them back into their less powerful, female place. But their legacy of strength and honorable resolve is one I hope informs my characters who also have to find ways to battle despite not quite fitting into the rigid lines of what females should be—whether shamaness or warrior.


K. Bird Lincoln is an ESL professional and writer living on the windswept Minnesota Prairie with family and a huge addiction to frou-frou coffee. Also dark chocolate– without which, the world is a howling void. Originally from Cleveland, she has spent more years living on the edges of the Pacific Ocean than in the Midwest. Her speculative short stories are published in various online & paper publications such as Strange Horizons. Her first novel, Tiger Lily, a medieval Japanese fantasy, is available from Amazon. Her debut Urban Fantasy, Dream Eater, was published in April 2017 by World Weaver Press. She also writes tasty speculative and YA fiction reviews on Goodreads, ponders breast cancer, chocolate, and fantasy on her What I Should Have Said blog and hangs out on Facebook.

The Venn of Sci-Fi and Fantasy

by LC Champlin

Twenty years ago, when I was starting to read fiction, I gravitated toward Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Times were simpler then, and so were the genres. If you picked up a Fantasy book, it had dragons, swords, magic, and castles. If you grabbed a Science Fiction book, there were spaceships, aliens, and strange planets. But we live in a different world now! Click on Fantasy on Amazon, and you’ll get more subgenres than there used to be main genres in all of fiction. Same for Sci-Fi.

This Tribble-like multiplying of subgenres didn’t rain down on me, though, until I attempted to select a genre category for my novel series. You see, I hybridized genres, which makes for a fun read, but is tough to class. My story is a fusion of Thriller (terrorists attack), Horror (terrorists unleash a plague that turns people into cannibals), Action-Adventure (running and gunning galore!), and Sci-Fi (the man-made contagion doesn’t reanimate corpses, and it comes with some technologically-advanced features). And those are just the conventional, main categories.

As I explored categories, I started to see an overlap of my two favorites, Fantasy and Sci-Fi. Could it be, I thought, that the two are not as diametrically opposed as they once were? In my quest for answers, I Googled “sci-fi subgenres” and “fantasy subgenres.” Taking the first sites on page one gave more info than I ever wanted.

These are the common Fantasy subgenres, according to Thoughts on Fantasy.

High Fantasy / Epic Fantasy

Low Fantasy

Portal Fantasy

Urban Fantasy / Contemporary Fantasy

Paranormal / Paranormal Romance

Fantasy Romance / High Fantasy Romance

Young Adult Fantasy (YA Fantasy)

Children’s Fantasy

Fairy Tale Retellings

Sword and Sorcery / Heroic Fantasy

Medieval Fantasy / Arthurian Fantasy

Historical Fantasy

Comic Fantasy

Science Fantasy

Grimdark Fantasy

Gothic Fantasy / Dark Fantasy

The New Weird

But wait, there’s more!

These Sci-Fi subgenres are from SciFi Ideas.

Hard

Soft

Military

Robot

Social

Space Opera

Steampunk

Cyber/Bio/Nanopunk

Superhero

Voyages Extrordinaires

Scientific Romance

Gothic Science Fiction

Mundane Science Fiction

Horror

Comedy

Science Fantasy

Apocalyptic

Post-Apocalyptic

Zombie

Alien Invasion

Alien Conspiracy

Time Travel

Alternate History

Parallel Worlds

Lost Worlds

Dystopian

Space Western

Retro Futurism

Recursive

Speculative F

Slipstream

Pulp

Fanfiction (or ‘Fanfic’)

Erotic

Make it stop!

How to make sense of this mess? How are you the supposed to find what you want to read? You can look up the definitions to all these genres, but I wanted a more overarching view. Why? Because nowadays, Sci-Fi and Fantasy have begun to fraternize with each other. I compared the descriptions, and found that no longer can you grab a Sci-Fi and know 100% that you won’t run into wizards. Or if you get a Fantasy, you won’t find aliens.

Thus, I bring you the down-and-dirty infographic, the Venn of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Like any Venn diagram, the overlapping bits hold items that can belong in either category, or have elements of the other category. Purple text are the subgenres that blend Fantasy and Sci-Fi.

What do you think of the proliferation of subgenres? How about the crossing of genres? Are there any you believe shouldn’t be classed together? Did I miss your favorite? Then comment!

PS: If you’re curious what I ended up with for my book Behold Darkness, I chose:

Science Fiction > Post-Apocalyptic

Literature & Fiction > Action & Adventure > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thriller

But I’m still experimenting.


About LC Champlin: I write fiction because the characters in my head have too much attitude to stay in my skull, I want to see the world through different eyes, and I want to live life through different souls. As a lover of all things Geek and Dark, I admire villains, antagonists, and rogues more than a little. My books’ characters are antiheroes, not angels.

Fantasy from Cradle to Grave

by Andy Peloquin

Imagination is such an important element of childhood. The more imaginative a child is, the more their brains grow and expand. Imagination and daydreaming fosters critical thinking skills, creative problem-solving abilities, and opportunities for cognitive growth. Simple things like painting, drawing, playing outside, and making messes gives children the opportunity to expand their imagination.

One article on Psychology Today says, “Fantasy-prone children (those who daydream and have imaginary friends) tend to have positive interpersonal, creative, and cognitive capacities. They tend to be more outgoing, better able to focus their attention, and more effective at seeing things from the perspective of others.”

The day they discover books is the first day they discover just how big the world is. Infants and toddlers learn about new countries and places they could never have imagined possible. They are taught about animals: fish in the sea, birds in the sky, mammals of such wondrous shapes, colors, and sizes.

As a child grows, they begin to find their own interest in books. They hear stories that teach them vital life lessons, lessons that will shape them into the men and women they will become. They learn that they are the hero in their own story, and that the only limits to possibilities exist in their minds.

Fantasy gives children a way to “put themselves in the mental shoes of others”. It goes beyond simple fiction—as one expert says, “this cognitive ability to adopt other perspectives is what makes elaborate pretend play so easy even before our brains are fully developed.”

As children grow into teenagers and adults, their imagination waxes and wanes depending on how much it is engaged. By the time they reach adulthood, many begin to seek out the escapism offered by fiction. With all of our daily troubles, nothing offers that escape like speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, dystopian, and more.

But that vivid imagination can follow us through the years, as we become adults. One psychologist drew an interesting comparison: “The joys of becoming caught up in entertainment are a big part of what many of us live for. In this sense, we are like those of firm religious faith who believe that a genuine paradise awaits them, except that we don’t even have to die to get there.”

As the narrative of our stories transport us to other realms—realms filled with monsters and aliens, wizards and space captains, heroes and villains—we step outside the limits imposed upon us by society and stretch the boundaries of “possible”. Even if we have to return to Planet Earth when we close the pages of our books, we know those worlds of impossibility are still there, waiting for us.

And, as we mature through our adult years and enter the later stages of life, that hunger for imagination follows us. We think back to our “glory days”, when we were young and strong and carefree. When we read about mighty heroes and warriors of renown, we get that sense of “I was like that once”. It brings back memories of the good times and the bad, and gives us hope that we had a live worth living.

From birth to death, cradle to the grave, imagination and the realms of fiction give us a way to step beyond our limits and experience something marvelous!

Space Opera – Are You a Fan?

by Milo James Fowler

The original Star Wars trilogy, Star TrekBattlestar GalacticaBuck Rogers, even comedies like Galaxy Quest and Guardians of the Galaxy are all examples of space opera, which, according to Merriam Webster, is “a futuristic melodramatic fantasy involving space travelers and extraterrestrial beings.”

Notice how it’s not referred to as science fiction? Probably because there isn’t a whole lot of actual science in this fiction. According to the Urban Dictionary: “Generally speaking, [space opera] refers to an epic adventure in space that focuses less on the technical details and more on good vs. evil and action.”

That’s fine by me. Sure, I enjoy cerebral sci-fi too, but there’s just something about the swashbuckling bravado of space opera that makes me feel like a kid again. (Cue Star Wars theme.) Which is probably why I’ve written so many tales featuring Captain Bartholomew Quasar and company. I can’t get enough of this stuff, so I have to write it myself!

But not all space opera is science-free. One has only to look as far as Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series to see hard science coupled with the intergalactic trappings of classic spacefaring adventure stories. The Expanse series of novels by James S. A. Corey, while mainly character-oriented, includes plenty of real science in the fiction, as do the occasional space opera tales published by Analog every month. I find them just as enjoyable—maybe even more so, than the hard science stories. And while reading this variety of science fiction, I can’t help but feel like I’m being educated (or re-educated) in the process.

In the latest issue of Analog, James Gunn delineates what he perceives to be the difference between print science fiction and the variety we see on the screen. In many ways, the contrast is the same as that between space opera and traditional science fiction. Screen sci-fi (and space opera) is often about big ideas, character arcs, and genre tropes, while print sci-fi (hard science fiction) echoes more from the cutting edge science itself. Some critics have said that space opera stories could easily be recast as westerns if you took away the ships, lasers, aliens, and bounty hunters and replaced them with horses, pistols, natives, and banditos. The science just isn’t as integral to the plot.

Regardless, science fiction in all its forms looks at what’s ahead for humanity. Space opera in particular is often optimistic, for the most part. The Expanse and the latest incarnation of Star Trek can be dark at times, but there are still those characters we can get behind and root for. Sure, we’ll still have our struggles getting along with each other out in the deep black, but there will always be heroes to lead the way: kick-ass men and women like Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe Washburne from Firefly. And between you and me, those are the sort of folks I wouldn’t mind hanging out with.

Because I’m a big fan of space opera—as long as we’re not talking about anything operatic—and I’m proud to say it’s here to stay.


Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. Over the past 5 years, his short fiction has appeared in more than 100 publications including AE SciFi, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and the Wastelands 2 anthology. Find his novels, novellas, and short story collections wherever books are sold.

http://www.milojamesfowler.com/

Seven Ways to Fight Dunning-Kruger Skill Gaps

by John M Olsen

The Dunning-Kruger Effect comes from a scholarly paper published in 1999 by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. It describes a bias where people with low cognitive ability in a specific area also are a poor judge of their ability in that area. If you are good at something, you tend to know you are good at it. If you are very bad at something, you have a good chance of being unaware of how bad you are and assuming you have much greater skill than you really do. It’s like a drunk who believes he’s a better driver than when he’s sober, or that one guy you know who thinks it’s hilarious to constantly tell Dad Jokes.

A five-dollar word for this area of psychology is metacognition. It means thinking about how thinking works. But what does it do for us when we think about how our minds work, or how the minds of others work? That’s where the seven points come into play.

1. Awareness

Recognize there is infinitely more out there than what you already know. There are four categories of knowledge. Things you know you know (I know how to drive a car), things you know you don’t know (I don’t know how to perform open heart surgery), things you don’t know you know (Replacing that toilet float valve was simpler than I thought it would be), and things you don’t know you don’t know (Where did that come from?). In addition, there are things you think you know which are wrong. One name for this process and ability is self-awareness.

The trick is to migrate as much as possible into that first category, the things you know that you know, while removing both the ignorance and the lies you believe. You draw on this knowledge base every day.

2. Study Broadly

Study many subjects. Learn new things. Be curious. A broad base leads to better general understanding because different areas overlap. If I know how nuts, bolts, and levers work, I can apply that when I change a tire or assemble Ikea furniture.

Will I ever use this math?

When I started writing short fiction regularly, I thought I knew what I was doing. Then I started to study writing and discovered whole areas of story structure I didn’t even know about before. There were story structures I hadn’t heard of, and even vocabulary I didn’t know such as “meet cute” and “denouement.”

Your day-to-day behavior depends on what you know, so grow your knowledge base. There are several ways to do this, which I’ll mention next.

3. Read for Pleasure

Read Fantasy and Science Fiction. I read quite a bit and devoured my father’s library when I was a teenager. You probably read, too, if you’re here following this blog.There are some things that make Speculative Fiction different from other reading.

There are some things that make Speculative Fiction different from other reading. One of these is how information is delivered. Quite often at the start of a story you are bombarded with new things like names, concepts, geography, and a host of other things that are not all explained up front. Those who enjoy fantasy and science fiction have learned to package the dangling ends up and store them in a mental box labeled “the author will get back to this soon, so don’t worry about it.”

If a Borlox smells an iron-tipped carbonizer, you create a couple of boxes and drop the new terms in while fully expecting to learn what both things mean sometime in the near future.

This ability to package and delay the matching up of terms and definitions changes how you think, and how you deal with conversations. You have a built-in stock of questions to ask when someone talks to you about a new subject because you’re used to building up a list of unknowns to be defined later.

4. Expand Your Horizons

Push outside your bubble. We all have a comfort zone where everything is understood and accepted. Learn about new technical fields. Learn a language. Study history. Collect stamps, coins, or seashells. It doesn’t matter how you expand, but it does matter that you do something.

Everyone is ignorant in some area. Everyone is wrong about something. Everyone is right about something else. These bubbles we live in exist in a lot of areas. If you spend any time on social media, you can see where people divide into factions who all tend to share opinions and believe about the same way. You’ve probably seen this a lot related to politics and religion.

The problem is that these groups often don’t understand those they disagree with, which makes the others easy to label as the enemy rather than as an opportunity to learn something new. You may not agree with the other camp in the end, but if you understand them, you’re more likely to treat them as decent human beings.

If you’re generalizing, you’re probably looking at something outside your collection of bubbles, something outside your horizon. Learn about it from those who understand it. It will do you little good to learn about a subject from its critics.

5. Avoid Imposter Syndrome

Once you’ve improved a skill, you may notice that you take that skill for granted and assume everyone is as good as you, if not better. Dunning-Kruger shows this in the graphs of the study where the most skilled will underestimate their proficiency because they assume they are average.

You can become an expert. You may have heard the rule of thumb that you can become an expert at something by spending 10,000 hours doing it. That will vary wildly from one subject to another, just like the idea as a writer that your first million words are just practice and likely garbage.

The Dunning-Kruger study showed that learning a skill improved the ability to judge skill level in that area. As you become an expert, you will recognize your past ignorance and your current skill level more and more over time.

There is, however, one downside.

6. Retain Humility

Once you’ve overcome Imposter Syndrome, your biggest challenge is to remain humble about your improved skills. There are enough unknowns out there to keep you humble if you look for them. Go back and learn something new all over again. We are all horribly ignorant in so many areas that we can’t count them.

Some look on humility as a weakness. Here’s a different way to look at it:

There’s another step to this to keep in mind as well, since there’s something a lot of humble experts have in common from my personal experience.

7. Teach others

Encourage others to expand their horizons. Share what you know, whether it’s knowledge in a particular field or a general thirst for truth.

 


John M Olsen reads and writes fantasy, science-fiction, steampunk, and horror as the mood strikes, and his short fiction is part of several anthologies. He devoured his father’s library in his teen years and has since inherited that formidable collection and merged it with his own growing library in order to pass a love of learning on to the next generation.

He loves to create things, whether writing novels or short stories or working in his secret lair equipped with dangerous power tools. In either case, he applies engineering principles and processes to the task at hand, often in unpredictable ways.

He lives near the Oquirrh Mountains in Utah with his lovely wife and a variable number of mostly grown children and a constantly changing subset of extended family.

Strap on some safety goggles and see all his ramblings on his blog.

His debut Fantasy novel Crystal King is available on Amazon.

Putting the Science in Sci-Fi

by J.D. Lakey

Don’t tell anyone. This will be our little secret. I use a calculator when I write. I have to.

It started out small. I invented this planet full of humans who have traveled so far in space and time from human Earth that they have forgotten it exists. The world of Black Bead is full of psychic creatures, some of whom would dearly love to eat you. The main character, Cheobawn, lives in a dome that protects the humans from these predators. In the first book, the protagonists go outside the dome to have a bit of fun.

Here comes the math. Part of my world-building involved creating a unit of distance. A click – the distance an adult dome dweller can walk in an hour. The question became this. If you were an adult concerned about the well-being of your children without being a helicopter parent, how far would you let them travel? Next question. If an adult can walk one click per hour how long does it take for a group of kids to travel the same distance? How far would they go if they meant to break those rules? How far would they have to be from the dome if they had to run to get home in a hurry?

That was the simple math. In the second book, Bhotta’s Tears, the math became tricky. The people use huge elk as mounts and pack animals. So here is the equation. If a mule train on Earth can travel X number of miles in a day at Y miles per hour what does that equate to in bennelk miles on the planet Occonomara? Getting that number allowed me to confidently plot out an adventure to the edge of the Escarpment and back.

That math part was easy. The third book, Spider Wars, required the invention of a quantum entangled stone grown in the brain of a giant lizard that altered how humans traveled through space-time, a race of aliens who can drag a star ship around dimensional corners, thus eliminating that tedious time problem inherent in space travel, and a race of spiders who solved that same problem by recreating themselves, getting rid of the need for star ships or spacesuits. The trick to writing this without boring the reader to tears with explanation is to have the science firmly in mind and then have your characters walk around inside a world where these things are true. If I can make the reader believe it to be possible then the reveals in the fifth book, Arrow’s Flight, are easier to write because you have already explained all the science.

The ultimate questions become the ones concerning eugenics. If you were a highly evolved civilization who wanted to engineer your children to survive a hostile universe full of the aforementioned creatures, what would you change about yourself? Would you become as psychic as the animals on this alien planet? Would you become a race of physically adept warriors? Or would you simply engineer a brain that could process the immense amount of data required to do it all? Now walk around in this world with an avatar empowered with those skills and see what kind of trouble you can get into.

Welcome to Cheobawn’s world.


J.D. Lakey is the author of The Black Bead Chronicles. Find out more at www.jdlakey.com

From Fairytale to Fantasy – How Did You Get Here?

by JA Clement

I write fantasy, and I’m just coming down from the mad amounts of work involved in a new release. I’ll not talk about that now, except to say that one of the aspects of it that I’ve really loved over the last couple of weeks was getting emails from readers who were as excited about it as I am. In particular this has meant a lot because for a lot of years when I was younger, there was no-one I knew who liked fantasy, so there was never any point in enthusing about it at all.

When I was a kid, I was considered very odd by my classmates because I hated Sweet Valley High and preferred to read fairytales. As far as they were concerned, I was still reading baby books; but I loved the endless possibilities of dragons and witches and giants, and there was nothing that called to me, as a clumsy, unfashionable girl who was no good at sport, in a set of books where shapely blonde teenagers vied for the attention of handsome young men, apparently through the medium of cheerleading.

At ten or eleven we moved to upper school, and the difference became even more pronounced. In my school library there was shelf after shelf of “girls’ books” like Judy Blume (in all fairness, her stuff was very good) and Malory Towers. All the good adventure books were apparently “boys’ books” or classics, so that’s what I gravitated to for a while (my reading choices became a source of ongoing puzzlement to the librarian, a lovely elderly lady who was very much a product of her time) but then one day hidden right at the back, at the bottom of the Reference stack, I found a pretty good beginner’s selection of sci fi and fantasy.

In the ten minutes it took me to skim a few blurbs, I was enraptured. There was just half a shelf, some very old, but there were swordfighters, robot civilisations, magic, spaceships, witches, new worlds, dragons – all by names I would soon come to recognise such as Asimov, Clarke, Pratchett, Andre Norton, and McCaffrey. I devoured them over the next couple of weeks, and the token novel they had for each new author was enough to send me down to the town library, a great hulking Victorian place where amongst what seemed like acres of books, they had a whole shelving unit full of all the rest of these authors’ works. Bliss! From then on, I would save up the change from my dinner money and buy book after book. I got a Saturday job in a bookshop – at the end of a year I had four pounds in my saving account and pretty much a year’s wage in books on the shelf…. But the only thing was, no-one I knew was at all interested in sci fi or fantasy, so every time I found a new author and came home bubbling about it, there was no-one to tell. It was very frustrating.

With the burgeoning of social media, I met a few likeminded souls, but through Uni and my earlier working years, there were not many. Gradually this started to change, and is changing faster all the time now: in recent years fantasy has become very much more widely-read, and more accepted. With the ascent to fame of such authors as Robin Hobb and George RR Martin, fantasy has changed tone considerably – even Pratchett changed from the silly, funny earlier books to much darker and more nuanced later novels (I love the earlier ones, but for me the later ones like The Night Watch are where it really became gripping). It’s a long time since fantasy was just for kids…

For me the real epiphany was when Worldcon came to London. I went, and did a couple of panels etc, but for me the shared references and commonality of taste meant that people-watching was the real fun. There was a joyful gusto about the whole thing – an uninhibited sharing that really lifted the heart. Everywhere there seemed to be fun – four jawas dashing about pushing a hostess trolley on which crouched Spiderman in full regalia; the very impressive Darth Maul who engaged in a lightsaber fight with a six year old Jedi and allowed himself to be horribly slain in the main hall with much groaning and theatrics, leaving the kid in fits of giggles (and the parents and most of the onlookers too). I saw Patrick Rothfuss take a selfie with two fans dressed as Adem mercenaries, and all three of them were geeking out as much as each other. I suddenly realised, with a shock of delight, that I had found my tribe, and there was a whole conference centre full of them… It was a truly magical moment.

These days I’ve got my whole family interested in fantasy. Even my mum, who thought fantasy was silly for about sixty years, got interested with the films of Lord of the Rings, progressed through Robin Hobb and is now as up to date with the lighter end of fantasy as I am, if not more so. It makes it all so much more fun when you can discuss your latest book with others, and hopefully pass it on for their enjoyment as well.

That community, that gleeful sharing is a large part of what keeps me going as a writer. I’d be writing anyway because I get twitchy if I don’t, but I go to the length of publishing for that magical moment when someone ‘gets’ your story, when these amazing tales and characters and events that play in your head like films translate well enough that someone else loves them too. That is a really magical sharing, an incredible privilege. That’s like a little bit of Worldcon right there….

So shout-out to you guys, to the readers. We do what we do for and because of you, and your words of encouragement are what keep us writing. I am still in touch with a handful of people I only ever met at Worldcon, people from all over the world, and I continue to meet interesting new fantasy fans all the time in cyberspace (and sometimes even in real life). I love that. It’s all about the sharing. And it all started with half a shelf of elderly books in the school library, Pratchett and Norton and Asimov.

Now, I have a couple of my own paperbacks on the shelf and mostly read ebooks – I only tend to buy the ones I really like in paperback now due to lack of space. I’m just catching up on a Lindsey Buroker or two, and next I’ve got a choice between rereading Rothfuss, a new book by N. K. Jemisin or a short by Mhairi Simpson, depending on what suits my mood when I come to choose. Decisions, decisions….! Or, of course, get on with writing the next one of my own. It all feels more than a little luxurious.

So that’s how I got into fantasy… Now it’s your turn – what was it that brought you to fantasy? Authors? Books? Films? Events? What are you reading right now, and what’s next on the list?

And what is your all time favourite fantasy or con-related memory?

JAC


Find out more about JAClement and her books at http://jaclement.wordpress.com