2018 – Blog views by country

Which countries my viewers have come from – 2016 and 2017.

Here’s 2018:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Canada
  4. Australia
  5. Sweden
  6. New Zealand
  7. Spain
  8. Hong Kong
  9. Ireland
  10. Czech Republic

Comparing 2017, the top three are the same (though in 2018, an absolute majority of views were from the United States, which has never happened before). Australia has moved up, Sweden down, and New Zealand has remained stable at #6. We have four new countries in the top ten – Spain (up from #19), Hong Kong (up from #48), Ireland (up from #21), and the Czech Republic (up from #44). Germany and Finland have slipped from #5 and #8 to #11 and #12, while Italy and France have slipped from #9 and #10 to #14 and #13. So quite the shift.

My most viewed post of 2018 – it is comfortably my most viewed post since I started writing this blog – is: The Meaning of Courage: J.R.R. Tolkien vs George R.R. Martin.


2018 Not a Reading Challenge: December

With three hours left of 2018, here are my completed reads for December:

  • Mrs Bradshaw’s Handbook, by Terry Pratchett
  • Time of Contempt, by Andrzej Sapkowski

A quiet month to end a quiet year. One of my resolutions for 2019 is to read more.

The Feast of Stephen

It’s Boxing Day, aka the Feast of Stephen, so I thought I’d share my favourite Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslas:

I have always been fond of this Carol. It’s the one sung in the spooky “eggshell voice” scene in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales – a scene that has stuck in my memory to the extent that it has influenced my own fiction – and it has a genuinely positive message of charity and generosity. Plus, there’s an actual story in Wenceslas, one that doesn’t feature either Santa Claus or the Nativity.

Interestingly, while the words of Good King Wenceslas were only written in the mid-nineteenth century by an Englishman, the tune is much older. Its previous existence was as a thirteenth century Spring Carol from Finland, Tempus Adest Floridum, which was later compiled by a sixteenth century Finnish Clergyman (the 1582 compilation found its way to England in 1853, and the rest is history). The original Carol:

The Finland connection is interesting because Good King Wenceslas is a rare example of trochaic verse in English (DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-(da)). English metrical verse tends to prefer iambs (da-DUM), so trochaic sounds… odd… Rather like chanting. The Song of Hiawatha is the other famous example in English, but ultimately this metrical form is primarily associated with the Finnish Kalevala. I wonder if the tune predates the medieval Latin lyrics…

Merry Christmas: 2018

It turned 25th December here five minutes ago, so Merry Christmas to all my blog-readers, and to those who have read my stories. I hope you have a great day – not the commerce-infected nonsense, but a day with family, friends, pets, or whomever. 🙂

Also, since it’s the middle of summer here, here’s that most iconic of New Zealand trees, a flowering Pohutukawa:

Image result for christmas tree nz

More of a North Island thing (they like the warmth, and hate frosts), but still gorgeous. And, yes, the tree shows up in Wise Phuul. Nothing wrong with including a bit of Kiwiana in the old fantasy world-building.

Something-Something-Confusion: Exile from Middle-earth, by Cody Goodfellow

Image result for fish in a barrel

Much virtual ink has been spilled over Epic Pooh, Michael Moorcock’s 1978 genre-hissy fit. Too much, really: it might be summarised as “I don’t like books that express a different political opinion from my own”, and left at that. On the other hand, Moorcock is at least capable of making a coherent argument – it’s not a strong argument once one boils away the ad hominems, but there is nevertheless something to engage with. Which is more than can be said for one Cody Goodfellow, whose recent article has popped up in a couple of places I frequent.

Exile from Middle-earth: Why Fantasy Failed Us

Half of it is regurgitated Epic Pooh, complete with time-honoured accusations of reactionary politics (in the case of Tolkien, I have written 15,000+ words on this, so I am not about to repeat them here. Suffice to say, Sauron is not the “one agent of merit, inclusion, and technological progress.”). What puzzles me about Goodfellow parroting back this decades-old argument – it was old even when Moorcock raised it forty years ago – is that he actually recognises that Tolkienian fantasy features a decidedly non-reactionary element:

the monolithic saga that foisted a humble peasant into the role of upstart challenger against some obligatory dark eminence from the east. 

Middle-earth is not saved by the high and mighty. It’s saved by a couple of very ordinary little people – one middle-class, the other working class. It’s an epic fantasy with non-epic core protagonists, the conventions of the genre up-ended. Goodfellow points this out, then cheerfully ignores the implications.

But at least there is something for the reader to work with in this warmed-over Moorcockian argument. By contrast, Goodfellow’s attitude towards the role of escapism in fantasy is downright incoherent. On one hand, he argues that a big problem with current fantasy is that readers take their prejudices with them when they escape into worlds of imagination. On the other hand, he argues that this is a problem as old as fantasy itself (people in the 1920s were racist. News at eleven). Which is it, Goodfellow – a current problem for the genre, one that has sent fantasy down a blind alley these past forty years, or an inherent problem for the genre that has shadowed it from birth?

(It is actually the latter, of course, but then the biases of worldview are an inescapable issue for any created work, fantasy or otherwise. And that includes readers and writers in 2018, who contrary to popular belief are not the supreme pinnacle of enlightenment. What is it with Whiggery in certain quarters, the idea that history is a line and progress is inevitable by cosmic law?)

Goodfellow then praises Tolkien for avoiding making The Lord of the Rings into a fairy tale about the Second World War, and criticises George R.R. Martin for making A Song of Ice and Fire too much about contemporary issues (climate change, et al). “The real world has invaded our dreams.” OK, fine. Leaving aside the point that our dreams are invariably shaped and warped by the real world – and that fantasy functions as a sort of abstract art – why is Goodfellow himself hung up on critiquing the genre in political terms? You know, invading fantasy with his own real-world concerns? A classic case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too, it seems. At least Moorcock was consistent here (seriously, did Goodfellow not notice the heavy-handed allegory in Moorcock’s works the past thirty years? Or even that Melniboné is as much a commentary on post-imperial Britain as anything in Martin?).

The icing on the cake is the article’s attempted survey of the genre, where Goodfellow goes into his authorial likes and dislikes. The fault of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain is apparently that it is “YA-destiny porn”. The idea that it was written for a younger audience, and is about the protagonist’s character development into adulthood seems to have passed Goodfellow by. Goodfellow also thinks that David Gemmell wrote the Belgariad (no, Cody. Gemmell wrote the Drenai books. David Eddings wrote the Belgariad). He takes a potshot at Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books too, for a certain scene in Lord Foul’s Bane. Never mind the fact that (in contrast to many other books I could mention), the scene is not gratuitous, and its consequences are worked through in gory psychological detail for hundreds of pages. Goodfellow just doesn’t get that Thomas Covenant is supposed to be a hateable protagonist.

Goodfellow also really, really hates J.K. Rowling. Now, don’t get me wrong – the later Harry Potter books need a good edit, and the whimsical worldbuilding breaks down once we are supposed to take it seriously. The problem is that Goodfellow simply doesn’t “get” what made the early Potter books good:

Justly lauded for inspiring millions of young readers to embark upon more ambitious reading journeys, yet as high fantasy, it reflects a turning away from the crucible of conflict into the warm cloister of an uncannily nurturing boarding school that tacks every hoary fantasy cliché onto the real thrill of being every teacher’s pet in an adverb-larded parade of inevitable accolades and cake-walk quests. That Harry Potter’s cozy, saccharine comfort food commands such unswerving loyalty among ostensible adults suggests that too many readers dream less of a harrowing quest that will test their mettle, and more of simply staying in school and having all the answers to the tests given to them because they’re destined to win, anyway.

Rather than being a collection of hoary fantasy clichés, Harry Potter (at least early on) is only secondarily a fantasy story. At its heart, it is actually a revival of a near-extinct genre focused on British boarding school life. Rowling basically takes Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and adds whimsical magic and a Dark Lord. The result is fun. Cosy, yes, but the conventions of the boarding school genre dictate cosiness, rather than harrowing experiences. Harry Potter at its best is playful, fun, and not stupid by any stretch of the imagination (Rowling makes great use of misdirection to make the point that just because someone like Snape is unpleasant, that does not make him evil). The later books are weaker precisely because – as per Goodfellow’s prescription – Rowling ramps up the seriousness in a setting that does not really allow it. A boarding school is a place of low stakes, not epic ones.

What of the authors Goodfellow likes? Well, someone who likes Clark Ashton Smith can’t be all bad, though part of me wonders whether he’s actually read Fritz Leiber’s later stuff (you know, the sexually questionable material). For an article writer keen to focus on issues of sexism and misogyny, lauding a guy who fell victim to Dirty Old Man syndrome towards the end of his lengthy career feels… odd. That is not to say the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories aren’t genre classics – they are – but Goodfellow is throwing stones from within a glasshouse, if you get my meaning. And that’s before we get to Moorcock and heavy-handed allegory. I wonder if Goodfellow has even read The Revenge of the Rose, which is most certainly the “bald political parable” he warns against.

Dunedin Speculative Fiction: The Web-Site

Image result for dunedin new zealand

Dunedin, New Zealand, is not a large city. We’re a small (120,000 people) place, five and a half hours drive south of Christchurch (that place with the earthquakes). We’ve got a University, various relics of Scottish settlement, and plenty of dead or dying industry, and that’s really it – one of those cities whose glory days were in the late nineteenth century, and which has been on a long, slow, genteel decline ever since. All those stone Victorian buildings aren’t just for show, and thinking about it a bit more, it might explain my fondness for writing settings in decline (*cough* the Viiminian Empire *cough*).

Turns out Dunedin has some fantasy authors though.

Here’s the funny thing. New Zealand fiction tends to be of the realist persuasion, rather than speculative, and those authors who do write the speculative stuff (like myself) generally have to find agents and publishers overseas. Living in Dunedin, I thought I was pretty much alone in this department… until earlier this year, when a group of us got together to do some readings, and answer questions at the Public Library.

Well, things have progressed since then, to the point where the group actually has some semblance of an organisation, a web-site, and everything. Exciting!

Here’s the web-site:

Dunedin Speculative Fiction

(I have updated the Links page accordingly).

Dunedin: UNESCO City of Literature

display at the Dunedin Public Library:

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That’s Wise Phuul in the middle of the top shelf.

Not a Reading Challenge: November

Completed reads for November:

  • The Book of the Law, by Aleister Crowley
  • The Four Socratic Dialogues of Plato, by Plato

Yet another quiet month.

Prisoner Voting [New Zealand Politics]

Image result for prison voting

People serving time in New Zealand’s prison system cannot currently vote if they are serving a sentence imposed after 2010. The Greens are now calling for these people to regain the right to vote.

I personally favour prisoners being able to vote. The traditional justification for stripping voting rights from prisoners is the old common law notion of the civil death – that is, there is a difference between the civil person and the natural person, and that civil rights are extinguished during incarceration. Basically, by transgressing against society, prisoners lose the right to interact with society. This is a problematic notion, since while prisoners obviously lose certain rights for the duration of their sentence, they are not truly civilly dead – they retain certain rights, such as the right not to be tortured, and can interact with the outside world via written communication. Claiming that the denial of voting rights is an appropriate punishment begs the question – why is it appropriate? We don’t torture prisoners as punishment, so why deny them the vote?

Rather than civil death, this is really a question of which rights prisoners lose. This in turn depends on where, exactly, the right to vote comes from. If the right to vote comes from having a stake in the decisions of society, prisoners certainly have a stake – they have an almost unique interest in the passage of laws. If the right to vote comes from being an adult with the intellectual capacity to make decisions, then they have that too – if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in prison, but in some psychiatric treatment facility. Either way, there is no real justification for denying the vote to prisoners.

Then there are the consequentialist considerations. If prisoners can’t vote, the timing of sentencing becomes important – someone serving a two month sentence that just happens to coincide with an election cannot vote, but someone serving a two-and-a-half year sentence between elections can vote (New Zealand electoral terms are three years). Which makes denial of voting rights as punishment all the odder, since the punishment does not depend on severity of the offence, but rather on sheer arbitrary considerations – one would have thought that a two-and-a-half year sentence would involve a more severe offence than the two month one. Prior to 2010, prisoners serving less than three years could vote, because it avoided this very problem, but then the National Government that enacted the 2010 change was not the brightest.

Speaking of the National Party, the Penguin has weighed in with a couple of very weak arguments: that giving the right to vote to prisoners is out of step with New Zealand history, and that having murderers and rapists voting would be a Bad Thing. He brings up Clayton Weatherston by way of example.

The history argument is simple appeal to tradition. In short, a logical fallacy (all the more ironic given that the Penguin hates New Zealand’s traditional ban on Easter Trading). No more needs to be said.

The Clayton Weatherston argument, however, is actually hilarious. Consider the wording of the 2010 Act:

Section 80(1) is amended by repealing paragraph (d) and substituting the following paragraph:

“(d)a person who is detained in a prison pursuant to a sentence of imprisonment imposed after the commencement of the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010:”.

Note the words “imposed after”. Prisoners serving sentences imposed before 2010 can vote, under this law – and since Clayton Weatherston was sentenced in 2009, he is one such example. Curiously, he could not vote under the pre-2010 legislation, since he was serving a sentence of more than three years – which means that the National Party (of which Farrar is the online propaganda wing) gave the vote back to him when they passed the law. Oh dear.

But quite apart from the hilarity, “I don’t like this person, therefore they shouldn’t vote” is weak reasoning. I don’t like Clayton Weatherston either – there are plenty of terrible people in the prison system – but being a bad person is not grounds for taking the right to vote away. There is no particular reason why the 9661 people currently behind bars in this country would have political views radically different from non-prisoners, and given the numbers involved (9000 prisoners versus 3,000,000 registered voters) restoring the vote to such people is not going to lead to a general tolerance of rape and murder. No political party is going to commit political suicide just to get the votes of unrepentant serial killers.

So, yes, the Greens are right on this one.


Hooking the Reader Immediately

Today I ran across a Youtube video on the methods and tropes associated with beginning a story:

Six minutes in, the video addresses the “story hook”. Basically, it laments that modern content is focused on grabbing the reader’s attention from the very start, rather than letting things develop more quietly. The video suggests that this is a matter of content creators not trusting the attention span of their readership… essentially that the current fad is a matter of received wisdom and low expectations.

This is where I broke out my world-weary, cynical smile. You see, it’s actually a wee bit more complicated than that, at least in the written medium. It’s not the audience we writers want to “grab by the eyeballs” – it’s the publisher or agent. A slow-starting book is, quite simply, not going to be published these days.

This isn’t actually the publisher or agent’s fault either. They’ve got limited time to devote to reading submissions, and they literally can’t read everything from beginning to end – which is why most of them ask you to send them a cover letter (featuring the Elevator Pitch summation), a short synopsis, and the first two or three chapters. If the story doesn’t grab them immediately, they will move onto someone else. There are always more submissions to read.

But wait… doesn’t this mean that certain literary classics would be passed over today? Correct, it does. The Lord of the Rings would not be published in 2018, and neither would a whole host of other books, both in and out of genre. It doesn’t matter if you have written a twenty-first century War and Peace – if your first three chapters (and cover letter) don’t grab the reader by the eyeballs, your work has no shot at seeing the light of day, except through the obscurity of self-publishing.

Writers know this, of course. It’s one of the first things we hear when we investigate getting our work published. So… we go back and make sure that the hook is featured as early as possible. It’s really that simple – it’s not about underestimated attention spans, but rather market realities. Sad, but true.