Making Sense of the World Through Fantasy & Sci-Fi

We live in overwhelming times, although I suppose people always have. Tiny bodies caught in a massive gravitational pull. Cause and effect, strangeness, beauty and choice all wrapped up together. Each individual seemingly at the centre, capable of being a hero or villain. Perhaps this is why fantasy and sci-fi have risen to the forefront of popular culture; the scale and scope of these living legends resonating in our consciousness.

We sense the vastness, the grand scope, the great threat and dreaded task. We seek direction and inspiration. For humanity, since the beginning, it appears that we have looked to story to provide meaning, to help make sense of our own role in this complex existence. A story has pattern and rhythm, rise and fall, beginning and conclusion; a world contained. A vehicle offering an objective view, a way to safely make connection, as well as providing opportunity for reflection.

Books have the particularly subtle quality of encouraging the reader to place themselves inside the story; an invisible sort of give and take. Individual perspective works with the words to shape a unique experience. This is magic. Technology not fully understood, even today. True whether you live in the Shire or Mordor, Smallville or Gotham.

Some readers prefer a more optimistic outcome whereas others revel in the darkness exposed. Each have their merits, but I believe that a balance of both is required to create a fully realized story. Because humanity is messy, terrible and wonderful, and so is the reader. As is the writer.

There are voices for everyone, what with the ability to self-publish. Categories and characters that probably never would have made it past the gates of traditional publishing. Seems as though people and tastes are more diverse than what a few executives in tall buildings decided.

I leapt at the chance afforded by indie publishing and wrote a trilogy (discovering afterwards that it could be classified in the fantasy sub-genre, Grimdark.) Grimdark is a foreboding title that doesn’t really mean anything, except maybe to stride forward and meet the challenge headfirst, blade at the ready. Anti-heroes and likeable ruffians that are sometimes more relatable than the knight in shining armour and the ridiculously evil dark lord. Because we live in confusing times and not everything is as it appears at first glance, despite how loudly some people shout.

Everyone is evolving on their own journey, empowered by hidden motivations, born into a world of rules and systems not of their choosing. Grimdark, despite its name, does as good of a job as any genre of revealing this struggle, this desire to discover personal truth.

So I encourage you to try a walk down the many paths of fantasy and sci-fi. Maybe Grimdark isn’t your cup of stale beer, but there are plenty of other categories to choose from. Try a self-published author if you’re feeling saucy, why not? Be bold and see where the story takes you.

Tough Women

The damsel in distress days are over. Women are more than capable of solving (and creating) their own problems. A female character no longer has to wait for rescue from prince charming, she can save herself and kick the bad guy’s ass in the process.

Gender equality, while not perfect, seems to have reached a level of acceptance where strong and flawed feminine characters are being recognized in popular culture. People want to view and read about these characters because they are relatable. Aspects of these heroines exist in reality, their attributes plucked from the personal and collective milieu. The bones of fantasy and sci-fi elements mirror those from our day to day lives and many of our lives are filled with complex, independent women.

When I began writing Daughter of Shadow there was no doubt in my mind that the story revolved around a strong female character.  Her name is Melea and she bucks the classic tropes of a fantasy protagonist. I don’t want to give too much away but when the story begins she’s certainly not a hero and would kill anyone who labeled her as villain.

A recent reader review of Daughter of Shadow described Melea as a “tragic, Don Draper character.” This comparison blew my mind—the manliest guy on a show where the word men is even in the title (Mad Men) was legitimately compared to a young female character in a fantasy novel. There are similarities: an outwardly successful individual with a carefully managed persona who is constantly being disrupted by a haunted past. In Mad Men, Draper drinks and humps his way through the 1960’s as his way of coping with this internal conflict, a cliche usually reserved for men. This is not always the case as the motif is flipped in the new Netflix series, Jessica Jones.

Jones is a foul mouthed, hard drinking, fiercely independent woman working as a private investigator. A childhood accident made her the recipient of superpowers and she’s caught in the struggle of what to do with this unwanted power. The first season is fantastic and Jones is one of the most interesting new characters I’ve come across.

Then there’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most hyped movie of all time. The saga finds Rey, an intelligent, persistent, caring, resilient woman whose role in the Star Wars universe increases exponentially from her humble beginnings (No spoilers I promise). It’s no accident that Star Wars & Disney teamed up to place a strong female character at the forefront of the biggest movie series in history (Harry Potter and James Bond are in the conversation).

In Paolo Bacigalupi’s, The WIndup Girl, the near future is given a harsh, realistic, breathtaking portrayal and Emiko, a New Person, is the ultimate survivor in a world of hustlers. Emiko is not human, not in the eyes of those around her, so she must overcome the kinds of abuse usually reserved for females as well as what it means to be human. Bacigalupi crafts the story expertly and Emiko’s transformation is a powerful statement about some of the obstacles faced by women in a rapidly changing world.

The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley has entire continents of strong women—some nice, some not so nice. The first installment, The Mirror Empire, struck me as a truly modern fantasy novel. The way she bent and broke all the cliches of classic fantasy with seeming ease to create matriarchal societies is a thing of beauty.

I’ve watched an interview with George R. R. Martin where he is asked about his “complex and well-rounded female characters.” Martin chuckles and smirks, looking like he’s about to give a retort that Tyrion would use but then calmly conveys his bewilderment at having to constantly express that women are people. Why shouldn’t they be complex and well-rounded?

Women are tough.  It’s not that woman are changing to fit the definition but the other way around.