Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hissing and Squawking, and Damned Lazy Writing

It's been far too long since my last post, but I have a good excuse: I've teamed up with three colleagues from the old-school-gaming community to found a new publishing company, Pulp Mill Press, and as of July 1st we've been open to submissions for our first fiction anthology, Libram Mysterium (click the Pulp Mill Press icon on the sidebar to visit our site and read the submission guidelines).

I've been so busy reading submissions that I've barely had any time to do any writing, myself, especially since we are in the throes of July, and the excessive heat and humidity demand that I not turn the computer on for more than a few minutes at a time so as not to melt in my non-air-conditioned home.

In the aftermath of the cold-front that preceded last night's rain storm, I have a few cool hours this morning before we are back in the sauna, so I thought I'd devote some time to discussing a few of my pet writing peeves.  Normally, I would consider this to be opinionated self-indulgence, but since I'm now wearing an editor's hat it's only fair to share my dislikes; the kinds of writing habits that may not be objectively wrong, but that annoy me to the point of turning me off a story. In fact I'll cite examples from well-known authors, whose stories I probably would have rejected had their manuscripts been sent to me.

Research your topic
One of the quickest ways to turn me off a story is when an author has not bothered to research the topic he or she is writing about.  Verisimilitude is the key to suspension of disbelief and once mine is shattered I feel little desire to continue reading.  One recent example is from the novel, Kraken by China Mieville.  The protagonist, Billy, is putatively a curator of invertebrates at the Natural History Museum, but Mieville apparently didn't bother to find out what a curator is or does.  Instead, Billy's job appears to be that of a low-level collections technician and his sole responsibility is preparing specimens for the wet collection.  When one of the specimens he prepared, the giant squid Architeuthis dux, is stolen from the museum by a cult of squid worshippers Billy is drawn into the investigation.  Normally, this is the sort of story that would excite me greatly:  how could a book that combines cultists, alien gods, invertebrates and museums possibly go wrong?  It goes wrong if you don't bother to learn anything about museums or curators and then set your story in a museum and make your protagonist a curator.  There is really no excuse for this level of sloppiness.  Mieville lives in London and could easily have arranged to meet with a zoology curator at the Natural History Museum and gotten a first-hand look at the world he was planning to write about.  At the very least a Google search would have explained the difference between curator and preparator.

It can be argued that the very few readers care about such distinctions, and that only someone like me, with a background in museums and specialty in marine invertebrates would even notice the discrepancy. But I did notice and after that I could no longer trust anything Mieville had to say.  If he took so little care with his main character what other mistakes has he made?  When you're writing speculative fiction it is very important that you help your reader buy into your premise and accept the changes that you are making to the understood nature of reality.  You do this by getting your facts straight and building a covenant of trust with your reader.  Mieville didn't do this and I made it about half-way through Kraken before giving up and tossing it aside.

Two for the price of one
If some is good more is better, right?  Well, that may be true of sex and chocolate, but not if you're writing a story.  One of the mantras of writing that I firmly believe is 'never use two words when one will do.'  Brevity is the soul of clarity, and it is the masterful writer who can express a thought eloquently and concisely.  Over-writing is often a sign of a limited vocabulary, and it is usually possible reduce the number of words in your sentence while improving clarity and description by judicious word choice.

Consider the following two sentences: He moved quietly down the hall and He crept down the hall.  Here, crept is not only more concise than moved quietly, it is more evocative as well.  There's your real two-for-one bargain.  Don't suck your readers into a morass of overblown prose.  Look for opportunities to trim the fat; not only will you improve the pace of your story, you will make it easier to read.

He said, she said

Another peeve of mine is when writers insist on getting creative with dialogue attributives.  The only attributive you ever need (if, indeed, you need one at all) is 'said.'

"Dialogue attributives should be unobtrusive," said Sean.

 Too many writers, especially beginning ones, mistakenly believe that 'said' is boring and that they need to dress their dialogue up with a variety of colourful and descriptive verbs, so we see attributives like: 'he hissed;' 'he chuckled;' 'he squawked;' 'he growled,' etc.  You see these all the time in stories, but when have you ever heard someone literally hiss or growl their words?  Never.  If they did, they'd be unintelligible.  Unless your characters are barnyard animals, avoid such attributives.

'Said' is not boring, it's invisible.  The reader will not even notice it, but will subconsciously register it to keep track of who is speaking.  You can use 'said' in every single line of dialogue and it will not be monotonous; your reader should be focusing on the dialogue, itself, not the attributive.  If you want to convey the emotional state of the speaker you should do so through dialogue and the character's actions, not by clumsy attributives.  The only other attributives that are acceptable are those that people actually use when speaking: 'he yelled;' she whispered, etc.  Using more colourful verbs pulls your reader out of the story and that is exactly what we want to avoid.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Cormac McCarthy, has taken this argument to extremes by eliminating all attributives (and even quotation marks) from his dialogue.  This can make it difficult to tell who speaking if more than two characters are involved in conversation, but it does quite succinctly make the point that no one ever needs to howl their words.

Awkward Adverbs
Many authors exacerbate their clumsy attributives with awkwardly-constructed adverbs.  I'm pointing my finger directly at Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling who, in addition to being an internationally best-selling author, is also the architect of some of the worst dialogue I've ever read.  You probably have one or more of the Harry Potter novels on your bookshelf so check it out for yourself:  no one ever just says anything in these books; they hiss exasperatedly.  Rowling is addicted to adverbs and seems compelled to create them by adding -ly to any given word, no matter how clumsy and inappropriate.  If you've ever read a Harry Potter novel to your child, you've probably cursed her tongue-tripping word choices and this is an excellent example of why it's important for an author to read his or her work aloud during proof reading.  Clumsy passages become painfully obvious when your tongue is forced to make good on them.

Adverbs should be used with care in all cases but especially when supporting a dialogue attributive, where they are commonly employed to lazily convey the speaker's emotional state.  If you can't convey emotion through dialogue or body language you need to sharpen your powers of description, not resort to constructing adverbs.

A fellow-writer that I often correspond with is so strongly opposed to adverbs he doesn't use them at all and admonishes anyone who does so in his critiques.  Though I sometimes tease him for his zeal and accuse him of embarking on a one-man-crusade against the suffix '-ly,' he does have a point.  Certain adverbs are okay: if you would use it in speech you can use it in writing.  "The man was strangely silent." "He moved quickly and quietly."  These are examples of perfectly good adverbs.

"It's getting late," Bob yawned, tiredly.  'Tiredly' is teetering on the edge of awkwardness though it's still acceptable.  'Exhaustedly' is not, and anyone who says 'fatiguedly' should be strung up and flogged (I'm looking at you, Rowling).

A better way of presenting this would be: Bob stretched and yawned.  "It's getting late," he said.  The reader knows from Bob's actions that he's tired and we haven't encumbered his dialogue.  But wait!  Haven't I just used nine words in the latter sentence, when only six words were used in the former?  Yes, but in this case I believe it is worth the extra words to show the readers that Bob is tired instead of telling them.

So, there's the list of some of my biggest peeves in writing.  Feel free to ignore them if you will: many writers more successful than me do.  But keep in mind that they were successful despite their bad writing habits, not because of them, and you do yourself no favours by emulating their mistakes.  Especially if I'm the one to whom you're submitting your story.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Is Television the New Silver Screen?

Having grown up in the 1970's, I developed a strong disinterest in television at an early age.  Endless reruns of The Brady Bunch or The Love Boat were not much of an incentive to sit in front of our family's small black-and-white television when I could be doing more interesting things.  Even after we got cable, I was disappointed to find that all those extra channels played the exact same shows I already didn't want to watch.

So for most of my life, the rule was that if I wanted to watch something good I went to the movies, and television was reserved as a special form of torment for when I was too sick or bored to do anything more than lay on the couch, respiring and metabolizing.

This is a paradigm that seems to be reversing itself in recent years.  It's been a long time since a movie has truly impressed me, and few have entertained me enough to warrant the price of admission.  On the other hand, there has been a growing number of outstanding television shows that, unlike those of my youth, are well-written, well-acted, and have high production values.  This trend started over a decade ago, when HBO launched The Sopranos, which was so successful, that the network fed its viewer's growing appetite for high quality television shows with historical dramas like Rome, and Deadwood.  HBO isn't the only network to realize the value of quality programming, and AMC has produced some truly outstanding series over the past few years such as Breaking Bad, and more recently, The Walking Dead, both of which have been extremely popular.

One of the most exciting developments in this recent trend towards high quality television is HBO's series A Game of Thrones, adapted from George R. R. Martin's fantasy series, A Song of Fire and Ice.  This series format has allowed, for the first time ever, a high fidelity adaptation of a series of novels that remains faithful to the story and its characters.  Martin, himself, is an executive producer of the show, and has written some of the episodes.  Likewise, AMC's The Walking Dead employs Robert Kirkman, creator of the graphic novel series from which the show was adapted, as one of the executive producers.

Thus, there has been a refreshing commitment to treating adapted works with the respect they are due, and consulting with the original authors to ensure that their vision is faithfully created on the screen.  This is something that has happened infrequently in Hollywood adaptations - typically, when authors sell movies rights they lose any say in how those movies will be made and it often appears as though the writers, directors, and producers of the movie never bothered to even read the source material, let alone faithfully adapt it.  One of the difficulties in adapting a novel or, worse still, series of novels to the big screen is that the story must be told within the two to three hour time frame of a movie and it can be awfully difficult to develop characters and tell a novel-length story in that time.  A lot of plot ends up on the cutting room floor.

Television, however is the ideal medium for the visual adaptation of novels. a single book can be portrayed faithfully in about ten episodes, which is far beyond the means of a movie, but well within the scope of a mini-series presented in the course of a single season.  So, it looks as though after more than eighty years television is finally hitting its stride.

Movies however, seem to be in a decaying orbit.  Hollywood has been attempting to draw us into movie theaters with the siren call of technological innovation, filming everything in "3-D" with a veritable orgy of CGI effects.  Mostly at the expense of an actual story.

Indeed, Hollywood appears to be tapped for ideas and is doing its damndest to ignore the fact.  Instead, they're sticking their collective fingers in their ears and singing "la, la, la, I can't hear you!" while remaking movie versions of every crappy '70's T.V. show that I didn't want to watch when it was in syndication, or looking for the next hot property to licence.  But here's the thing: no amount of CGI is going to make me want to watch "Knight Rider, the Motion Picture," and I'm pretty sure that nobody in their right mind wants to see The Brady Bunch in 3-D.  Meanwhile we are treated to an endless array of lacklustre adaptations of popular works of fiction: tepid shades of cinematic Jason Bournes, Jack Reachers, John Carters, and Bilbo Bagginses limp across the screen dressed up in such flashy special effects that, hopefully, the audience won't notice.  There is much buzz about the impending release of Ender's Game, an adaptation of the science fiction classic by Orson Scott Card but, past performance being the best predictor of future behaviour, I have very little cause for optimism.

It doesn't have to be this way, though.  Television has finally found itself, and movie producers need to break out of this self-destructive cycle of laziness and rediscover their roots.  Movies need to go back to what it is they do best: telling stories written specifically to be told in a visual format in a two hour time span.  In other words, film makers need to stop adapting literary works, or incestuously plagiarizing themselves and focus on producing movies based on original screen plays.

Perhaps the age of the silver screen is over: modern home entertainment systems have made movie theaters largely obsolete, and by obsessively making movies that are intended to reverse this trend, Hollywood is looking to go down with a sinking ship.  But it doesn't have to be this way.  If they reinvent movies as a relevant story-telling medium and embrace the reality of how people watch them we could see the beginning of a new age in cinema.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cthulhu Among Us

Okay, we all knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some scientist or other would eventually delve too deeply into the mysteries of nature and pull back the veil covering mighty Cthulhu.  It has finally happened, and the Great Old One is a whopping 10 microns in size.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have recently described two new genera of symbiotic protists found living in the gut of termites and have named them after two creatures from H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos: Cthulhu macrofasciculumque and Cthylla microfasciculumque.  

Cthulhu macrofasciculumque

Cthulhu is, of course, Lovecraft's iconic monster, from his classic 1926 short story, The Call of Cthulhu, while the lesser known Cthylla, daughter of Cthulhu, is a creation of author Brian Lumley, and is first mentioned in his 1975 novel, The Transition of Titus Crow.

While the real-life Cthulhu may not be as intimidating as the colossal monstrosity that slumbers in the sunken city of R'lyeh it is a testiment to the pervasive influence of Lovecraft in contemporary society.  While the author died in poverty and relative obscurity his stories influenced later generations of writers so that his creations have now been embraced by popular culture.

If you wish to read the full description of Cthulhu and Cthylla the article, published in the journal PLOS ONE (though, I'm suspicious of any journal so sloppy as to capitalize both the genus and species names in the binomen): Cthulhu Macrofasciculumque n. g., n. sp. and Cthylla Microfasciculumque n. g., n. sp., a Newly Identified Lineage of Parabasalian Termite Symbionts

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Cultural Significance of Zombies in Contemporary Society

It's funny how certain horror subgenres achieve prominence for periods of time.  During the 1970's Satanic possession was all the rage; in the '80's it was slasher movies; vampires had a strong resurgence a while back, and these days zombies are the new hotness.

Part of the reason for these trends is that Hollywood will jump on any bandwagon that looks likely to pay off, so all it takes is one popular film to spark a host of copycats.  But they wouldn't have become popular to begin with if they didn't appeal to the fears and insecurities of people living at that time.  So, in a way, horror trends gauge what we, as a society, fear at particular points in history.

It is widely regarded, for example, that the suite of Japanese monster movies (Godzilla et al.) reflected the fears of a society subjected to nuclear holocaust, while the popularity of alien invasion movies of the 1950's represented America's fear, at the time, of the spread of communism.  So what does the current popularity of zombie fiction say about us as a society?

I'm quite a fan of zombie fiction and cinema, and I've had them on the brain quite a lot, lately (if you'll pardon the pun).  I wait anxiously for each new episode of The Walking Dead, and I'm currently besotted with UbiSoft's recent survival horror video game, ZombiU.  Consequently, I've been spending a lot of time pondering why this subgenre has suddenly become so popular.

Zombies, in the modern context of cannibalistic undead as opposed to the classic voodoo automatons, have been around since 1968 when they were introduced by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead.  But only in the last few years have they become the popular culture phenomenon that they are today.  In other words, whatever it is that zombies represent has now achieved currency in our society - they strike a chord that they didn't before.  There's something about them, beyond the ghoulish flesh-eating, that frightens us more now than ever before.

I think that what we are currently afraid of is ourselves.  There are now more than seven billion people in the world, and the number continues to grow.  And, like a mindless horde, we consume everything in our path and leave nothing behind.  It is no coincidence that Romero set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall; it was a rather pointed critique of our consumer culture.  But this is nothing new; the human population has been growing steadily since the end of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, and it has been exploding since the 1950's.  What is new is that we are finally beginning to experience the repercussions of growth: our resources are being rapidly depleted, we are polluting our environment, global temperature is rising and sea levels will soon follow.  And we feel helpless to stop it.

I think helplessness is one of the most prominent themes of zombie literature.  It is positively Lovecraftian in its nihilism - perhaps more so than any other modern literature.  There is very rarely a happy ending to a zombie story.  In most of them, survivors struggle to find safety, fail, and then die.  The only exception that I can think of is Max Brooks' World War Z, which is writtten as an after-action report at the end of the zombie apocalypse when civilization is rebuilding.  Most zombie stories don't have such happy endings.  Among the most disheartening is The Rising by Brian Keene, in which a large-hadron collider accident tears a hole in reality allowing demonic spirits to possess the bodies of the dead.  They are infinite in number and have only one purpose: to create more hosts for their limitless brethren to inhabit.  Likewise, in Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, every person on Earth is infected with the virus and when someone dies, by any cause, they rise as a zombie.  In both of these scenarios there is no hope of eventual victory.  Mankind is ultimately doomed.

Even in Night of the Living Dead, where the zombie infestation was short-lived - the product of radiation from a passing asteroid - the protagonists all died.  The one man to live through the night was mistaken for a zombie and shot by the clean up crew.

Like any other fad, zombie literature will soon reach its zenith, if it hasn't already, and will fade into the background.  But, for the time being it allows us to confront the likelihood of human extinction - probably at our own hands - and somehow come to terms with it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Personal Templates

In what most of you probably hope will be the last of my posts about speculative fiction genres, I venture into minefield-strewn territory.  Attempting to clearly distinguish fantasy from science fiction has resulted in countless internet flame-wars and convention rumbles:

 The delineation has always seemed fairly obvious to me and, this being the internet, I must be right and anyone who disagrees with me must be horribly, hurtingly wrong.

I define science fiction quite simply as any speculative story that obeys the natural laws of the universe and whose premise is at least hypothetically possible.  Therefore, such tropes as time travel, and interstellar space flight, while not practically possible might become so with the discovery of as-yet-unknown maths.  The multiple spacial dimensions described by String Theory, for example might allow for things that are impossible according to Newtonian mechanics or Relativity.  When known laws are broken, science fiction stories are obliged to explain how and why by coming up with plausible explanations.

Fantasy, on the other hand, freely violates natural law and invokes magic as a causative agent (notwithstanding Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic), which requires little further justification.  As long as the rules of the fantasy milieu are internally consistent, you can do just about anything you want, and the readers will buy into the premise.

So, according to the Robsonian Paradigm, simply setting a story in the future and with advanced technology doesn't make it science fiction.  Star Wars is an excellent example of a fantasy adventure in space.  It completely ignores the rules of physics: blasters go 'pew' in a vacuum, space ships are driven like racing cars, and parsecs are units of time instead of units of distance (though this last owes more to ignorance than intent, I think).  Furthermore, it makes free use of magic - The Force.

Likewise, Dune ventures into fantasy territory with its spice-fueled magic.  Dune could easily be rewritten as a traditional sword & sorcery fantasy novel without missing a beat.  It is simply a fantasy novel set in the distant future.

Star Trek straddles the fence between fantasy and science fiction.  However, the shakier elements of Star Trek probably owe more to a limited budget and interference by network executives than by Gene Roddenberry's intent, and intent is important so I think we can safely nudge Trek into the science fiction camp.

Despite the ambiguity of the fantasy and science fiction sub-genres they are a useful construct because, if you adopt my definitions, they let the reader know what they are in for. And as similar as the two genres may appear, many people love science fiction but hate fantasy, and vice versa.

They also allow us to use horror (which I discarded, in my previous post, as both as a genre and as a useful label), as a template applied to fictional genres.  This template, which I call 'dark fiction' is one in which the examination of fear is central to the story, which may fit into any fiction genre.  Thus we can have dark literature such as Heart of Darkness, which lacks any speculative elements, dark science fiction, which explores the terrors of the unknown (e.g. Alien), and dark fantasy, which contains supernatural elements that defy the known laws of nature (the vast majority of 'horror' novels).  You can apply the 'dark' template to anything - even romance (what is scarier than love?).

This brings me, at long last, to the point of the last couple of posts: constructing a frame of reference to discuss the sort of stories - dark fiction, all - that I write.  Over the years I've written stories of myriad genres: fantasy, science fiction, and non-speculative contemporary literature, but all of them have shared in common the theme of the dark nature of humanity.  I pick at humanity's scabby soul.  I pick at it until it bleeds.  I can't help myself.  I don't think I could refrain from morbidity if I tried; fortunately, I don't much want to.

Making this connection, identifying what all of my stories have had in common, was a fairly recent revelation and has led me further down the path to 'finding my voice' as a writer.  This is something that eluded me for years, but by understanding what, why, and how I write has enabled me to consciously apply the 'dark' template, the template of my personality, to my stories, which has greatly improved the quality of my writing.

I think we've all, some time or other, been told something repeatedly without really 'getting it' until the 'aha' moment when we finally truly understood.  There is a world of difference between knowing something and knowing it.  Writers are always told that they need to find 'their voice,' but not how to do it.  This is because finding your voice basically comes down to letting your personality show in your prose.  How we do this differs for each person, so it is really a personal voyage of discovery.  But when you do find your voice, it becomes like a template - a stamp that marks everything you write, whatever the genre, and makes it uniquely yours. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Help Name the Moons of Jupiter

Two previously unknown moons of Jupiter have recently been discovered, and the public is being offered the chance to vote on names for them.  The names must be from Greek or Roman mythology and not already taken by other planets or moons.

I voted for Hecate and Thanatos, and if you'd like to cast your vote to help determine names for the new moons, you can do so here:  Polls will be open until 25 February 2013.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Horror! The Horror!

Of all the terms used to categorize fiction, the one I most despise is horror.  I dislike it even more than literary fiction, and literature, which are completely meaningless terms because, since all stories are comprised of words they are all works of literary fiction, and anything that is written is, by definition, literature.  As bad as they are, though, horror is worse.

What's my problem with horror?  It is a loaded term that can't deliver what it promises.  The word horror is defined as a feeling of intense fear and loathing, so unless a horror story actually evokes these feelings, it fails.  By claiming to write horror, we're setting ourselves up for failure if we don't actually scare anyone - and that's something that is frightfully hard to do.

When was the last time you were truly scared by a horror novel or movie?  I'm often frightened by the news, but never by a work of fiction.  I was startled once, in 1979, while watching Ridley Scott's Alien in a darkened movie theatre.  The suspense of the movie made the jack-in-the-box scenes so effective that at one point I crushed my drink cup and spilled coke all over myself.

More recently, I was disturbed and mildly nauseated by a scene early in Brian Keene's outstanding zombie novel, The Rising.  I won't spoil the scene for anyone who hasn't read this, but I will say that it is no easy feat to gross me out.  During my undergraduate years, the fridge in the biology student lounge housed nearly as many dead pig foetuses as lunch bags and we often spent our lunch hours consuming the latter while studying the innards of the former.  Biology isn't a field for the squeamish.

These are the only two instances that I can recall a horror story eliciting an emotional response.  Nonetheless, I still enjoy the genre, so clearly the story doesn't actually succeed or fail based on its ability to horrify.  I don't read horror novels or watch movies to be scared - that's beyond their capacity to deliver.  So maybe horror is a label that needs to be discarded.

I think that horror is speculative fiction that explores the most visceral aspects of human psychology, making it one of the most important branches of literature for understanding who we are and what makes us tick.  We are the sum of our fears.  Horror fiction explores those fears and drags them screaming into the light where we can examine them like foetal pig guts at lunch time.

Horror is also problematic not only as a label, but as a distinct genre, because if you accept my definition of horror as fiction that explores fear then it crosses all genre boundaries.  Instead of asking ourselves, what is horror, we now have to ask, what isn't?  Many works that are generally regarded as 'literary fiction' can just as easily be labeled horror novels: William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, George Orwell's 1984, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange to name just a very few.

But horror literature extends much farther back than these; farther even than the gothic fiction that founded contemporary horror.  We can see horrific elements in Homer's Odyssey and all the way back to one of the earliest recorded works of fiction, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

You might even say that horror forms the foundation of all literature, and it is far too nebulous to be constrained by the pigeon-hole of a genre label.  We've been telling horror stories for as long as we've had speech, yet they still receive very little respect within the writing world and are judged primarily by the racks of tawdry mass-market paper-backs and hackneyed Hollywood productions.

It's long past time to ditch the label and embrace the ghosts that haunt us.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Fiction Genres: Useful Constructs or Meaningless Pigeonholes?

Humans have an instinctive need to categorize things into readily identifiable groups, probably owing to our inborn instinct for pattern recognition.  The ability to identify patterns is one of the pivotal adaptations in human evolution that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom; it is what allows us to predict future outcomes based on past events - in other words, it allows us to learn quickly and adapt to change.

Because this instinct is so deeply ingrained, we have the unfortunate habit of looking for patterns where none exist, leading us to frequently jump to unsubstantiated conclusions by mistaking cause and effect.  Scientists are taught early in their careers that correlation does not imply causation, but the instinct to quickly draw conclusions based on coincidences is a strong one, and it requires discipline to resist doing so.  The rest of us are usually not so rigorous, and journalists are especially guilty of leaping before they look for the sake of exciting or controversial headlines.

We've all seen news reports claiming that a new study has linked something absurd, like eating cheese or masturbating to internet porn, to cancer.  In most cases the study in question makes no such claim; it merely presented the data showing that, among the participants of the study, those who ate the most cheese, or looked at the most porn, also had a slightly elevated incidence of cancer.  But we look at this data and, particularly if we're looking for an attention-grabbing news story, jump to the unsupportable conclusion that one thing causes the other.

Likewise we have an insatiable need to categorize things into easily recognizable groups even if those categories are largely superficial and don't truly reflect reality.  Taxonomy, the science of classifying living things, attempts to organize nature in a manner that facilitates discussion.  We identify diagnostic morphological features that form the basis for a species, then group similar species into genera, similar genera in to families, and so on.  These taxonomic groups don't always accurately reflect nature, but the taxonomic hierarchy is a useful construct, nonetheless.

Fiction genres are also a useful construct; largely as a means for bookstore owners to organize books on their shelves and help customers find what they are looking for.  But to the author, genres and the implicit expectations associated with them can often be a frustrating constraint that artificially pigeonholes their work into a readily identifiable market.

Two very broad categories of fiction: 'literary' fiction (e.g. literature, realism, and postmodernism), and 'commercial' fiction (e.g. fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers, romance) are loaded with implication from the outset: the former assumes the mantle of higher artistic and intellectual merit, while the latter is consigned to the role of light entertainment for the masses.  In truth the lines between genres are so blurred that the distinction is often difficult to make.  Even the dividing line between literary and commercial fiction can become obscured when authors use literary techniques to tell traditionally commercial stories.  Thus we can find literary fantasy adventures, for example, that defy any meaningful categorization.

In the next couple of posts I will examine the concept of horror as a genre, and how I choose to define and distinguish fantasy and science fiction.  I realize that I am treading upon a subject that has already been well-covered by more qualified writers; it isn't my intent to objectively define these categories, nor even to necessarily add anything new to the discussion.  What I hope to do is to explain my understanding of speculative fiction as it pertains to and influences the stories that I write and how I tell them.  And maybe, just maybe impose some order on the chaos of my mind.