Narrative Transport. The official Michael Pryor website.
  • April16th

    Occasionally, one hears pundits and savants assert that Time Travel is dangerous. Moreover, the same gurus even go on to aver that the very idea of Time Travel is fraught with peril.

    Nothing could be further from the truth, which is that Time Travel is essential to our way of life.

    As is my wont, I went looking for a pithy quote to launch this searing exploration of temporal matters.

    I considered Stephen Hawking. No. I thought about Einstein. No. I wanted the best, the most thoughtful, the most penetrating intellect on my side. So I chose the esteemed Writer and Philosopher Mr William Shatner.

    He declared: ‘I find the whole time travel question very unsettling if you take it to its logical extension. I think it might eventually be possible, but then what happens?’

    And if the words of the man who played the immortal TJ Hooker aren’t enough for you, I have a case of my own to prosecute.

    Books, movies, TV – can you think of a time when Time Travel has ever turned out well? To writers, Time Travel can safely be put in the basket of items to insert when you need to have everything go horribly wrong. Time Travel is a mess. Time Travel is dangerous. Time Travel is a disaster.

    This might sound like a strange way to assert that Time Travel is something that should be undertaken as often as possible, but bear with me. My argument is subtle, it is complex, it is multi-faceted, but then again, I’m sure you can keep up. I have nothing but the highest regard for my readers.

    Why everyone should undertake Time Travel is because without it, writers everywhere would be driven to despair. Think about it, it’s such a rich and fertile area for plot thickeners. Take Time Travel out of Wells’ The Time Machine and you pretty much have a story about a man who doesn’t go anywhere. Take Time Travel out of The Edge of Tomorrow and Tom Cruise would miss out on his only good role in the last ten years. Take Time Travel out of the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series and you have a program that would be pretty empty and probably not worth making.

    Scratch that last example. Dammit.

    I’m asking you to think of the writers. Those poor, misunderstood, exploited – did I mention poor? – souls who do their best to bring a little happiness into your lives. Do you really want to deprive them of a tiny morsel which could brighten their blighted lives? Do you want them to do without something that could make their twisted, deprived and possibly soulless existences a little easier?

    I thought not.

    If there is no Time Travel, all our lives – all our lives, I tell you – would be immeasurably poorer. We would:

    • have no Morlocks or Eloi
    • have no special De Loreans
    • have no bootstrapped zombies
    • no dinosaurs stepping on butterflies leading to awful spelling mistakesdelorean
    • have no excellent adventure for Bill and Ted
    • Happy ending at the end of Christopher Reeves Superman 1
    • have no Doomsday Book, no Anubis Gates and no Time Traveller’s Wife
    • have no Outlander, no Life on Mars, no Time Tunnel.

    A world without such creations would be a much lesser world indeed.

    To put it another way, we’re all time travellers – it’s just that we’re doing it very, very slowly. It takes us one day to travel one day into the future. And I, for one, will have no truck with anyone who wishes to assert the opposite and to deny our very way of life.

  • March15th

    authors at lunch

    Authors at lunch

    Look at this for a roll call of kids and YA authors: Deb Abela, Felice Arena, Tim Baker, Tristan Bancks, the multiple person who is Angelica Banks, David Burton, Peter Carnavas, Nick Earls, Carmen Gray, Dave Hackett, Leanne Hall, Jacquie Harvey, Nicole Hayes, Jack Heath, Megan Jacobson, Andy Jones, Leisel Jones, Luka Lesson, Alice Pung, Chris Richardson, Matthew Ryan, Lian Tanner, Paula Tierney, Gabrielle Tozer, Frances Watts, Lesley Williams, Tammy Williams, Fiona Wood and Claire Zorn. Whew! That’s a stellar line-up in anyone’s terms and the breadth and diversity of offerings is a tribute to the organizers of the latest Somerset Celebration of Literature, which I was lucky enough to be part of last week – 8 to 11 March 2016 on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

    photo credit Chris Richardson

    That’s me – photo credit Chris Richardson

    And what a time was had by all. Consider the numbers. 20,000 tickets were sold to individual sessions. I repeat, 20,000! That’s a lot of young readers seeing their favourite authors in person, possibly for the first time, and getting irreplaceable insights into the craft of books and writing. Even more impressively, Somerset College funded a thousand kids from regional Queensland schools and the Northern Territory and helped them attend the festival. That sort of contribution to the community is remarkable and deserves recognition.

    The result was four days of outstanding fun, full of talk, sharing and high spirits all dedicated to the wonderful world of books, reading and writing. I was in my element.

    photo credit Elke Schneider

    I talk the good talk – photo credit Elke Schneider

    As a measure of the enthusiasm of the attendees, I had a workshop session with Grade 6 students, late on the Wednesday. In order to get to the festival on time, some of these kids had been up since 4.30 that morning – and in this workshop they were still keen, good-humoured and totally on task. Of course, the teachers deserve enormous buckets of credit, too. They go above and beyond the call of duty in organising these squads of students and then shepherding through the whole experience. They are worth their weight in gold.

    From an author’s point of view, the festival is exemplary. In some ways, it’s a chance for some author professional development as we can slip into the back of our colleagues’ presentations and glean some tips, as well as having a chance to discuss the nitty-gritty of the writing industry over the excellent coffee in the salubrious Green Room.

    One way to ensure that a festival is memorable for authors is to make sure that it’s smoothly organised. Here, Somerset Celebration is a model for others to aspire to. Managing scores of sessions, a multitude of venues and a motley bunch of authors could be seen as a challenge, but the Somerset crew made everything run like clockwork – aided by the many, many cheerful and hospitable volunteers who were essential in making everything hum along.

    In thanking Andrea Lewis, Karen Mackie, Anna Kirkby, Lisa Thomson and Cecilia Robertson I’m sure I’m neglecting to name others who contributed – please forgive me.

    The Somerset Celebration of Literature is one of the high points in Australia’s literary calendar. It was a privilege to attend.

    authors at Literary Dinner

    Authors at the final night’s Literary Dinner – photo credit Dave Hackett

  • February25th

    I’m extremely pleased to note that ‘The Laws of Magic’ series has been shortlisted for the inaugural Sara Douglass Book Series Award.

    all covers in a strip small

    From the Aurealis Awards website:

    This Award is named for one of Australia’s best known speculative fiction writers. Sara Douglass was the flagship author of the HarperVoyager Australian line, which launched the careers of many of our most popular writers, and paved the way for the vibrant and diverse speculative fiction scene Australia has today. Sara’s contribution to the state of speculative fiction in Australia cannot be underestimated, and we are proud to commemorate her in this Award.

    Needless to say, this is a great honour, and one that would have been impossible without the inestimable folk at Random House Australia and, in particular, ace editor Zoe Walton.

    The shortlists for the other Aurealis Awards can be found here. The award ceremony will be held on Friday 25 March.

  • January20th

    magical-fantasy-landscape-1

    After a recent trip to the chemist I’ve become convinced that the pharmaceutical industry has hundreds of Fantasy writers working for it.

    I’m not sure if this has been a deliberate policy of recruiting down-at-heel Fantasy writers whose last trilogy was cut short after Book 2 or if hordes of canny Fantasy writers have seen an opportunity to ply their craft in an area of untold riches, but there is little doubt that the language of Fantasy is everywhere you look in over-the-counter medications.

    What I’m talking about is the names of these preparations. Some might think that these names are nicely sciencey, but to the veteran Fantasy reader the effect is entirely different. Running an eye along the shelves, one is immediately transported to far off, mystical realms where larger-than-life characters wield powers far beyond mortal ken and converse in eldritch tones while consulting ancient scrolls that speak of doom and great deeds.

    Consider Zantac, for instance. It may be the name of a useful anti-heartburn medication, but it could equally be the name of a sorcerer of great power, but one with a fatal weakness that will turn him to dark and malignant plotting.

    Voltaren is a handy cream for bruises and muscle pain, but it sounds as if it could be the name of Zantac’s mortal enemy, a venerable mage of great power who is troubled by actions in his past that were prophesied by a wise woman of whom he took insufficient notice, the fool.

    Once started in this mode, it’s easy to detect the hand of the Fantasy writer. Below, I’ve listed some pharmaceutical items the names of which would be perfectly at home in a major fantasy series. See what you think.

    • Allerfexo. A bard, and possible comic relief. Known for his ribald versification, and is likely to have his head cut off after offending some noble or other.
    • Mylanta. Possibly a place name, a far-off land of beauty and many lakes, ruled by a queen who is both just and fair.
    • Gaviscon. Rugged, but internally tortured, main character. Stolid, taciturn, loyal. Not dull, though.
    • Flixonase. Companion to the rugged, but internally tortured, main character. Humorous. Possibly plays the flute. Borderline annoying.
    • Hirudoid. A warrior tribe in a distant land – ‘the fierce and unrelenting Hirudoid’.
    • Claratyne. Another place name, possibly in the mountains and featuring many towers. ‘To see the spires of Claratyne is to see the heights of creation.’
    • Telfast. An innkeeper. Wears an apron. Fat.
    • Lamisil. A sorceress of formidable power, the dread Lady Lamisil. She has a notable laugh that probably drives men mad.
    • Finalgon. A lesser wizard. Appears once in the story and then is never heard of again.
    • Zovirax. Evil. Wizard, warrior, doesn’t matter – is simply evil. Bound to be, with a Z and an X in his/her name.
    • Vosol. A soldier. Brave, loyal, accompanies the main character into dangerous territory and dies for his trouble.
    • Alcon. Possibly a city – ‘brawling, bustling, breathtaking Alcon’. Possibly a thief – ‘nimble-fingered Alcon, to whom no lock is barred. Possibly a river – ‘swift and deep the mighty Alcon ran, league to league, through forest and mountain, from the plains to the sea, unmatched in its breadth and wetness’.
    • Savlon. A city. Not a very interesting one.
    • Coloxyl. A villainous duke. Oily, ingratiating, sinister, and sports a sensational goatee.
    • Dulcolax. Another villainous duke? Not as villainous as Coloxyl. Good with money, though.
    • Sorbolene. ‘Ah, Sorbolene, fair Sorbolene, the fey and star-eyed elven queen!/She makes this world both kind and clean, does hygienic Sorbolene!’ Or similar.
    • Imodium. Another city, most likely with a fortress that will be besieged by the ravening hordes of evil. Has impressive walls.
    • Combantrin. The dark and doom-wracked warrior overlord, Combantrin both stalks his fate and fears it. Whatever that means.

    See what I mean? Over-the-counter medications abound with names that could have been ripped straight from the pages of Fantasy novels. The alternative explanation is, as I’ve suggested, that Fantasy writers have found a neat sideline, a way to make some bread-and-butter money through their stock in trade – inventing names. Is it any wonder that wandering around today’s chemist is like entering a grand, epic, sweeping tale of good versus evil, where fast magics are unleashed and brave goatherds are revealed to be the rightful heir to the throne after his or her courageous and self-sacrificing deeds.

    Thank you Big Pharma.

  • December21st

    A couple of weeks ago, martianI was asked in to 774 ABC Melbourne for Raf Epstein’s monthly ‘Read with Raf’ book club, to chat about ‘The Martian’. I’d sent in a review based on my blog piece and Raf enjoyed it enough to want more. Raf, Alicia Sometimes and I had a good twenty, twenty-five minutes discussing, analysing and exploring Andy Weir’s book, as well as taking responses from the public via phone and text. We also broadened the discussion into the whole world of Science Fiction and its appeal. Good fun all round.

    Here’s a podcast of the session.

     

  • November12th

    dystopiasAh, definitions, definitions, definitions! It’s always the way with genre fiction that we have to grapple with definitions and borders and ruling in and ruling out. It’s funny how mainstream fiction doesn’t get all het up about things like, but that’s an issue for another day.

    This selection of ten superb Australian YA fiction titles is probably more of a grab bag than the last few I’ve done (see here and here) but that’s the nature of the beast. I’m possibly conflating two sub-genres here but they go together so naturally, and there are so many overlaps and titles on the border but I’m happy to live with this. The grand tradition of the End of the World novel and the grand tradition of the post-apocalyptic Dystopian novel are well represented in Australian YA fiction, with standout series like John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began opus, but I’m spreading the net wide and I hope to introduce some titles that you might be unaware of, or titles that have been unjustly neglected.

    In short, if you like The Hunger Games or Divergent or The Maze Runner you might like to try these sensational books.

    For more on each of them, follow the hyperlinks.

     

    CBD – John Heffernan (2000). Twenty-third century Sydney is in ruins, and long hidden stories might point the way to escape from an oppressive society. Dark and absorbing.

    My Sister Sif – Ruth Park (1986). Is the world ending or is it just in really bad shape? ClifFi ahead of its time. Lyrical and dreamlike.

    Taronga – Victor Kelleher (1986). It helps to survive in a post-apocalyptic world if you can talk to and befriend animals. Groundbreaking and iconic.

    The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf – Ambelin Kwaymullina (2013). Post-apocalyptic mind powers, repressive dictatorship, hidden secrets to be uncovered, rebels and underground resistance. What’s not to like? Punchy and refreshing.

    Originator – Claire Carmichael (1998). Plagues have decimated the world and society is rigidly stratified, and our heroes are rebels. Pacey and challenging.

    Shade’s Children – Garth Nix (1997). In an unhappy future where no adults exist 14-year-olds are harvested for their parts, which is pretty dystopic. Grim and clever.

    Waiting for the End of the WorldLee Harding (1983). In the chaos following the collapse of society, fleeing to the hills to escape the rising tyranny looks like a solution. Gritty and thoughtful.

    The Lake at the End of the World – Caroline MacDonald (1988). In a post-nuclear holocaust world survival is complicated by the entrenched beliefs of cults. Farseeing and moving.

    Chasing the Valley – Skye Melki-Wegner (2013). Power struggles in a dystopic world full of clever magic and esoteric technology. Lively and original.

    Obernewtyn – Isobelle Carmody (1987). After the apocalypse outcasts and misfits struggle for freedom. Intense and compelling.

     

    As usual, modesty forbids me including my end of the worlder, Blackout (2000), but if you’d like to see what happens to society when all electricity stops, I’m not going to stand in your way :-).

  • October23rd

    fantasy-covers

    In singling out High Fantasy, I’m really genre splitting here and trying to show that Fantasy is a vast and varied offering, with all sorts of subtleties, approaches and flavours that non-genre readers are perhaps unaware of. By High Fantasy, I mean the full on Tolkienesque epic, complete with fully imagined secondary world, lots of magic and rampant adventure. Australia has a great tradition of writing YA High Fantasy. Here are some recommendations that range over the years right up until today, some obvious choices, some less well known. Some of that is, naturally, are the first books of series. For more on each title, follow the links.

    1. The Starthorn Tree – Kate Forsyth. Foretellings and escapes.
    2. Sabriel – Garth Nix. The bells and the dead.
    3. A Dark Winter – Dave Luckett. Battles and empires.
    4. The Green Prince – Sophie Masson. Prophecies and the sea.
    5. Foundling – David Cornish. Costumes and grotesquerie.
    6. The Singer of All Songs –Kate Constable. Journeys and enchantments.
    7. The Ruins of Gorlan – John Flanagan. Exile and treachery
    8. Eon – Alison Goodman. Dragons and gender fluidity.
    9. The Book of Lies – James Moloney. Truth and magic.
    10. Finnikin of the Rock – Melina Marchetta. Curses and friendships
  • October16th

    As is my wont, I’ve been thinking martiandeeply about this whole business of writing – again.
    As a result of this I’m ready to make a Big Statement.

    <Clears throat> All narrative writing is a balance between describing the External World and the Internal World.

    Obviously, more explanation is needed … By ‘External World’ I mean the surroundings, the environment, and the interactions the Point of View character has with these things. The ‘Internal World’ is the arena of the thoughts and feelings of the Point of View character.

    Now, this may not sound like a revelation. Some of you may be thinking that I’m just stating the bleeding obvious, but bear with me.

    If we think about writing fiction in this way it explains much about the differences in style and approach that authors have. Imagine narrative writing as a continuum. Right up one end we have those writers whose stories are totally, one hundred percent focused on the External World. They describe people, buildings, landscapes. They describe actions, happenings, and events. They have no time for musings, meditation, or reactions to events. Right up the other end, we have the writers whose only concern is the Internal World. They do well on emotions, feelings, and internal monologues. They love an extended flashback into a character’s past. They have no truck with action or events.

    Naturally, these are caricatures. No one writes a successful story from either of these positions. All stories, though, can be located somewhere on this continuum. Some stories tend more to one end, some stories tend more to the other. Many, many stories are somewhere in the middle. But what is prized, or considered ‘good writing’, tends to be toward one end of the continuum or the other, depending on fashion.

    This has been highlighted for me lately by the reaction to Andy Weir’s The Martian. This book – and the film, which seems to preserve much of the approach of the book – has received a fascinating range of responses from readers, viewers and critics. Hyper-enthusiasts have been ringing the bell with a ‘Whoa! Best thing ever!’ while the opposing view is more like ‘I don’t get it. It feels like there’s something missing here.’

    In the light of my opening remarks, I hope you can see that these two camps fall reasonably neatly into those who appreciate stories that concentrate more on the External World and those who prefer stories that concentrate more on the Internal World.

    Internal Worlders appear to be, at best, puzzled at the approach of author Andy Weir, and the enthusiasm with which The Martian has been greeted by many readers. At worst, they have been hostile, belligerent, and sneering, quickly assigning the book to the Popular Trash bin. This contempt has flowed over into some of the film reviews of Ridley Scott’s adaptation.

    External Worlders have loved The Martian, its detailed descriptions of disasters, solutions, and the relentless struggle to stay alive. They haven’t worried that Mark Watney doesn’t sit around endlessly brooding over his fate, examining his soul, sharing his innermost misgivings, and/or contemplating key, formative incidents from his past.

    Note that I’m not venturing an opinion on the worth of The Martian. What I’m saying here is that it is simply representative of an approach and can be valued as such. It is a story that tends towards focusing on the External World. Other stories tend to concentrate more on the Internal World and the rewards for reading such are to be found therein.

    Perhaps it’s simply a matter of personal temperament which approach a reader favours.

  • October1st

    titles-collage

    Looking for Australian YA Science Fiction rather than Australian YA Fantasy? Here are some top titles with some well-known books next to some you may be unaware of.

    1. Displaced Person – Lee Harding. What happens when you start to vanish along with everyone else? Identity, sense of self, sense of place. An Australian classic.
    2. Deucalion – Brian Caswell. Colonialism, intolerance, understanding, in an SF scenario. Thought-provoking.
    3. The Broken Wheel – Kerry Greenwood. Yes, that Kerry Greenwood. Post apocalyptic tribalism. Gritty.
    4. Singing the Dog Star Blues – Alison Goodman. Time travel, aliens, and some funky harmonica playing. Cool.
    5. Burn Bright – Marianne de Pierres. A Gothic, dark dystopia. Stylish.
    6. Ink, Inc – Jack Heath. Want to see how a single technology can change the world? Clever.
    7. Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden. Yes, it’s SF. Australia hasn’t been invaded, has it? Iconic.
    8. Black Glass – Meg Mundell. Mass surveillance, authoritarian government, young rebels. Juicy.
    9. Omega – Christine Harris. In space, which way does death lie? Wondrous.
    10. Eye to Eye – Catherine Jinks. Machines can think. Can they feel? Challenging.

    And note how I resisted adding my own 10 Futures, Machine Wars, Blackout, The Mask of Caliban or any others? See my Novels pages for details :-).

  • September16th

    I don’t often post book reviews on my blog, but I’m making an exception here as my response to The Powder Mage series of books is complicated and possibly centres on some important aspects of writing Fantasy, especially fantasy with an historical context.

    Brian McClellan’s The Powder Mage series has been hugely successful. I was immediately attracted by the covers, which are exquisite and promise all sorts of good stuff inside. In short he has taken the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century and added some cleverly intricate magic. The narrative is brisk, the characters are engaging and both Book 1 (The Promise of Blood) and Book 2 (The Crimson Campaign) – the two books that I’ve read – rattle along nicely.

    All this sounds like just the sort of stuff I like to read, but I found that I had – and still have – reservations. What’s going on?

    In short, my problem is that these books have enough minor irritations to detract from the enjoyment of reading them. My list of irritations might sound like quibbles, like I’m just being picky, but my disquiet really stems from something more important than just minor clunkiness. I maintain that this sort of Fantasy requires total immersion from the reader. It’s the good old ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ operating at full throttle. If a reader can fully give themselves over to the story, then the rewards are many. If they can’t, that’s where the disappointment lies. And this is where the issue of minor irritations is important. Every anachronism, every awkwardness that detracts – or distracts – from the historical/magical scenario yanks a reader out of the narrative. The fragile suspension of disbelief is broken.

    The most grating of these disbelief breakers in the Powder Mage series can be summed up in one word: modernisms. When a modernism appears in a a quasi-historical setting like this, it’s a stumbling block. It immediately jolts one out of the milieu that has been created. It’s awkward, it’s disconcerting, and it’s worrying. The modernisms that I have most trouble with in this series often occur in the speech of the characters. Again and again they lapse into sounding like sassy, streetwise 21st-centurians. Things like ‘It’s complicated’, ‘Humour me’, and ‘There’s absolutely no way’ abound and that’s before I get to my particular bete noir, ‘OK’. It’s probably just me, but I wince whenever I hear a Fantasy character say ‘OK’. I know that the term goes back to the (late) eighteenth century, but it always strikes me as an arch-modernism. It reeks of the twentieth century and immediately sounds out of place at best or, at worst, it makes the whole scenario sound inconsistent and unconvincing.

    I’m not saying that an imaginary world needs to be one hundred percent consistent with an actual historical setting, but part of the art of writing Fantasy of this sort is to seduce the reader into the imaginary world. Layering useful historical detail onto the imaginary world is an effective way of doing this – and not paying close attention to this is a source of unease. Of course a writer can pick and choose, can select what details to use and can bring together disparate elements, but there’s a limit. Fantasy readers are good at accepting the strange sitting right next to the bizarre, but that goodwill can be strained, or snapped, by going that step too far.

    That’s my major hesitation about these books, the language the characters use. Modern turns of phrase, modern vocabulary and modern attitudes kept tripping me up. I couldn’t fully give myself over to them because of this. I enjoyed them, but I kept thinking that they could be better.

    I’m not going to get into more arcane areas of historical inconsistency. That’s where I think the trouble is more with me than with the books, but I will say that I’ve done some reading about Brian McClellan and his inspirations. He tipped his hat in the direction of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, a particular favourite of mine. That influence can clearly be seen in the covers, which are a lovely nod in the direction of Sean Bean’s TV depiction of Richard Sharpe (a cracking series, well worth a look). Cornwell is excellent in the depth of his research. And details of dress, weapons, food, and living conditions are deftly dropped into the narrative of each of the Sharpe books and help to create a seamless whole. That’s why when I was reading The Crimson Campaign and the Kez cavalry was pursuing the Adros infantry I kept shouting out ‘Form square! FORM SQUARE!’ and wondering why none of the infantry commanders bothered with this basic tactic. But that’s just me being a history nerd, I suspect.

    So, The Powder Mage series has its flaws. Is it still worth a read? Yes. I like the paciness of the narrative. I like the way the Fantasy setting is something different from the standard, mock mediaeval Fantasy setting. I like the handling of the characters, and the deviousness of the politics. Will I read Book 3? Of course I will.