Archive for the 'Musings' Category

The Werewolf and His Boy: released in September 2016, by Samhain Publishing.

What is my digital identity? What will people find when they google me? What does it mean to have a digital identity?

I just did googled myself–which, I admit, I have done many times.  I have found a few odd things from time to time, such a review of my first novel, The Wild Boy, on a website about feral children.  Hmm… Anyway, when I googled myself for this blog I went through about 9 or 10 Google screens and made a list of the sites and references that popped up (I wanted to write allusions but that isn’t quite the same thing) from (this site) to the most recent, a Blue and Gray Press article about the memorial reading of Claudia Emerson’s poetry that the Department of English, Linguistics, and Communication did in January and which I hosted.

The list is comprehensive.

What does it say about me? If someone were to just read through the list, what would they learn about me?

If this reader read through the main page of this site, and I think I would start there, then they would get a sense of my adult life, from BA at UNC Chapel to Hill to teaching at UMW. That I grew up in North Carolina is foregrounded and this lets them begin to place me culturally, or subculturally. They would also learn that I write fiction and that this blog is not updated as often as it should be.

Note to self: update!

As the reader browsed down this list, they would quickly find out that:

I have a Twitter account, and I write fantasy and sometimes science fiction, and I am a teacher and a reader.

They can buy my books via Amazon (please!).

My first novel, The Wild Boy, has a Wikipedia article about it and I had nothing to do this, I swear.

Reviews of The Wild Boy and the other two novels, Harvest of Changelings and The Called, are available for their reading pleasure (buy these books, too!). The local library says I am a local author–true.

I am  a Virginia employee and my salary is public record.

In December 2014, I wrote a review of Familiars, by Fred Chappell. But the reader wouldn’t know that Fred was one of my mentors at UNC Greensboro. Should they?

I’ve been interviewed about my fiction and videoed about my teaching. I’ve studied Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m gay.

Google isn’t the only way to find out all these things, all these parts of my digital self, but then, this is probably easier: here everything is in one list.

The list is comprehensive, but still pertinent details are missing. It is incomplete, and I think it should be, even though the boundaries between what is private and public is pretty blurred these days.  What goes up stays up forever.

There you have it.

The prompt: reflect on the blog and the process—reflect on my blog and its construction—is that how I should read this prompt?  I think so. I didn’t construct my blog alone—well, it would be more accurate to say I assisted in its construction: the builder was Jim Groom. My role was to answer questions and make choices about appearance, about content, about purpose.

Perhaps that is the best place to begin for this reflection: purpose. Why have a blog? Why do I have one—well, why do I have a website?  My first thought is that I was told—and still am told—that I had to have one—every writer should have one—for self-promotion, to have an internet presence, to be part of a larger conversation.

All right. Many writers, well known and not so well known (and alas, I include myself among th latter) have their own websites, with accompanying blogs. Some, like Le Guin, for example, have others to maintain the website for them. I don’t, of course, and so I am always behind; my website is never quite up-to-date.

Note to self: update!

Be that as it may, I do understand why this is a good thing, why having an internet presence does indeed self-promote, increase visibility, create a venue for fans, readers, and colleagues to visit and comment on, and keep track of one’s public creative life, as it were. This website is my domain. Http:// is an introduction to me and my fiction.

No, I don’t use it enough. But that might be another story.

But, what seems pertinent here is the ongoing conversation in which I might have a voice. While how much one participates, or how much one should participate, are questions I haven’t yet settled, that such a conversation exists, in its many layers, is important. Blogging, having one’s own domain, not only gives one the opportunity to participate, it allows one to learn about the conversation, and the forums (fora?) in which its many layers, or parts, happen. This is, as Paolo Freire might describe it, generative space. The spark, the fire, of the connections made, the energy of the interactions, can fuel creative fires. In such a forum, meaning can be made.

Or so I would like to believe.  But then this conversation, sustained by blogs, can take the place of the storytelling. Rather than writing, one is blogging about writing.  But then, that is still writing.  But is it storytelling?

A dilemma.

From The Traveling Round Table of Fantasy Bloggers

Being Human

Deborah Ross

I think we Homo sapiens have been discussing what being human is and  means since we developed abstract language and probably before that. At first, the driving motivation was undoubtedly how to tell what is us and  not-us. This is certainly a biological imperative at the cellular  level; our immune systems must tackle the question every day, attacking foreign substances like viruses, bacteria, and allergenic proteins, and   it’s also why cancer is so insidious (cells with the right molecular  passwords that nonetheless behave like ravening barbarians). The same  distinctions hold true at the level of the individual, family/clan, and larger, political units. Whether we’re talking about communities or  nations, “us” = “human” = friendly, safe, cooperative, reliable, and  “them” = “something else” = dangerous, untrustworthy, competitors for  limited resources. In this way, “human” tends to be exclusionary and  frictions tend to narrow the scope even further.

In science fiction and fantasy, however, we tend to use the term in a  inclusionary way. Often the words “human” and “person” are  interchangeable. Sf/f writers and readers pioneered the suggestions that   all sapient races think of themselves as people and therefore, “human,”  whatever the biological differences from Homo sapiens. I had a lot of  fun with a race of giant slugs in Jaydium, who insisted that mammals  were incapable of “personness.” The television series Star Trek often  portrayed what Earth-humans and alien-humans have in common, rather than  their unbridgeable differences. (The similarities were undoubtedly  caused in part by the relatively primitive makeup and special effects,  leading to the joke about aliens being actors with funny foreheads.) The  creators of the series also exploited the romantic appeal of the exotic  to generate love stories between members of different species, a  phenomenon highly unlikely to occur in nature but one that had the  effect of demonstrating the shared values of sapient beings. This is an  example of broadening of the use of “human” as a term to include any  beings of similar intelligence and culture that we can understand and  sympathize with.

The inversion of the broadening effect comes up most commonly in  horror: beings that look and sound human but which lack some trait or  motivation we consider so important as to be a necessary part of the  definition of human: empathy, for example, or the capacity for love. A  prime example of this is the vampire, who “walks among us” as if human  but differs in his essential nature. The horrific aspect arises in part  from his blood thirst, but even more from the betrayal of the assumption  of shared humanity.

None of this addresses the question of what it is it we feel defines  human as opposed to intelligent-animal, a question not restricted to  writers of speculative fiction. We can look at the biological  characteristics of Homo sapiens, such as opposable thumbs or a greatly  developed prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for complex moral  judgments and control of social behavior, among other things). We can  look at behavioral traits like language, prolonged rearing of young and  care for the aged, the use of fire and cooking, tool-making, and the  like. But in this larger universe we live in, is it wise to judge  another entity as human or nonhuman based solely on what they look like  or how they act? Is a child born with crippling, distorting defects or  an adult with a deforming disease not still human? What about a person  who has suffered a debilitating stroke and can no longer communicate?  These and many other, similar questions highlight the difficulty of  defining human by observable characteristics.

Instead, we can look to experiential qualities: the capacity for  love, for wonder, for kindness; the awareness of personal mortality and  the “binding” of time through personal and generational transmission of  memory; abstract thought, and so forth. It may well be that animals have  some of these abilities but lack the means (or perhaps the  inclination!) to communicate them to us. We know, for example, that many  species exhibit behavior we interpret as grief, loyalty, and  self-sacrifice. Certainly, cooperation is not limited to Homo sapiens,  and tool- making definitely is not. So instead of emphasizing how we are  different from other creatures in our world, we can focus instead on  how wonderful it is that the things we value in ourselves are not  exclusive to our species. Or, contrariwise, that humanity is not limited  to humans.

Fantasy and What It Means to Be Human

Andrea Hosth

One of the primary preoccupations of science fiction is said to be  the question of what it means to be human.  Seeing ourselves through  alien eyes allows us to see ourselves anew.  It’s a question which is  less commonly associated with fantasy, and yet the sub-genre is equally  ripe for examining the question of humanity through the use of  non-humans.

One of the common positions taken when depicting humans in fantasy  (particularly in fantasy which uses a roleplaying game basis, but also  many less structured works) is that of humans as a middle ground, a kind   of neutral party capable of achieving good, but all too ready to give in to baser impulses.

Other characteristics typically awarded humanity are versatility and  creativity.  Humans can be all things, while other races possess  extremes – age/intelligence combined with sterility.  Strength mixed  with a lack of imagination.  Humans are portrayed as young, vigorous,  spontaneous, a little naïve, courageous, capable of great love and vivid  passions.  It is a very common trope to have the resolution of a dire  battle revolve around a human’s ability to love, or innovate, believe,  or be brave to the point of stupidity.  It is equally common for other  races to be failing, or to “Go into the West” and leave their  territories to humans territories.  Who took up residence in Rivendell,  once Elrond moved on?  Did they drift, dowdy and out of place, among the  echoes of their splendid predecessors?

This frequent positioning of humanity as a versatile and rapidly  improving ‘young’ race does not appear to be a deliberate examination of  what it means to be human (as seen in those novels which attempt to  make a point about humanity by viewing it through alien eyes), but  instead a glorification of the traits humanity currently displays.   Crude and ignorant – but just because of youth!  Comparatively  powerless, but able to think of new solutions to old problems.   Vigorous, a bit chaotic, blundering occasionally, but heading inexorably  upward, natural successors to the world’s bounty.

These are the stories we write about ourselves, the flip side of the  grimdark/grittygrotty species of fantasy, where the narrative itself  rhapsodises about human nature as something special and true and good.

I’ll end, without further comment, with a series of quotes from  Doctor Who.  The Doctor is not always so complimentary, but this has  been the thrust of many of the rebooted series:

” Well, you could do that. Yeah, you could do that. Of course you  could. But why? Look at these people, these human beings. Consider their  potential! From the day they arrive on the planet, blinking, step into  the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than —  no, hold on. Sorry, that’s The Lion King. But the point still stands.  Leave them alone!” – The Christmas Invasion.

” Oh, might have spent a million years evolving into clouds of gas…  and another million as downloads, but you always revert to the same  basic shape: the fundamental human. End of the universe and here you  are. Indomitable, that’s the word! Indomitable! Ha!” – Utopia.

” The one thing you can’t do… is stop them thinking. [He begins  rising upwards angelically] Tell me the human race is degenerate  now…when they can do this.” – Last of the Time Lords.


“And shards of gold flecked violet split the air with sound and fury!  With laughter love and tears I pressed my lips to these spirits, freed  them to walk across the page,”

First Breath, Valjeanne Jeffers

What is it that drives our characters? Their humanity. And this is  more important than their preternatural powers. Their strength. Or what  they look like. It even takes precedence over the wondrous plots we, as  writers, devise. That our characters are human and driven by the same  emotions and quests that drive us as writers, and which drive our  readers– even if they are sociopaths or mad men. The need for love,  shelter, money. The emotions of desire, rage, melancholy…

The same qualities that make us, the writers and our readers, identify with them and love them. Or hate them.

I have created characters so lothesome that I couldn’t wait to kill  them off. And others that I loved so much I used all sorts of plot  machinations to keep them alive. Our characters are spirits who walk  across the page: women and men who mirror our struggles.

What it means to be human


From the beginning of time (and perhaps before time began) the question has always existed: what does it mean to be human?

Humanity lives/exists within a prescribed setting which limits  knowledge, age, joy, the body, sexuality, tribe, power, authority,  dominion, physical movement, movement in time.

As a writer of Christian fiction I grew up with the story of Adam and  Eve which is the first encounter most Christians have with the question  of What does it mean to be human. In that story, man is created but not  yet settled into a specific kind of being. (And in the Christian  mythos, man will not find his true “self” and “being” until the end of  time when time is no more.

Adam and Eve are beings who do not die. Yet they are not really  immortal. They’re in a strange nexus of creation where they are like god  with (some) dominion and some knowledge. But they lack something,  something God apparently thinks is not particularly important. They do  not understand right and wrong.

They have consciousness but are without law or conscience. They have a  blissful ignorance of evil and cannot judge/blame either themselves,  others, God, or the world. For them, it is a world which is neither  immoral or moral.

Despite God’s desire that they remain outside of the realm of guilt  or consciousness of evil, God did make them moral beings. Their one  morality: the freedom to obey or not to obey. They are aware of one thing that they lack: they do not fully  understand the ramifications of evil: disease, death, cruelty, hunger,  toil, meaninglessness, and the thousand ills flesh is heir to. This  knowledge of death is what separates them from God, what makes them less   than God.

But  third agency enters the picture and challenges them to be like  God. The agency tempts them with knowledge of evil, law, conscience,  guilt. The humans take a wager upon themselves. It is possible that  humans can understand evil and not fall into guilt.  Their first  response to eyes opened to evil: shame. Shme about what? Shame in their  comparison to  perfect God. Thus humanity falls from its own perfection  as it aimed for God’s perfection.

There is so much in this story, myth, history. And all fantasy  stories echo it. All these elements are found in fantasy: Humans who  wish to put side emotions and become, robots who wish to be humans,  humans locked way from Eden, humans betrayed by a God, humans betraying  their gods, humans casting off their gods, intrusive deceiving godlike  figures, humans battling death, humans defying death, humans conquering  time, humans failing a task, humans striving, humans ignorant of evil,  humans being dominated by the world, humans dominating the world. All  the echoes are found in fantasy stories and will apparently continue  until the end of time.

Carole McDonnell is the author of the Fantasy Novel , The Constant Tower

Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction an eBook available as an eBook at kindle.

What Does It Mean to be Human: Answering in Fantasy

Warren Rochelle

What does it mean to be human? This is a question I pose when I teach  my science fiction lit class, foregrounding it as one of the perennial  themes of the genre. I have yet to pose this same question in fantasy  lit. When I was thinking about what to write for this month’s post I  found myself wondering why I don’t. After all, as Le Guin says in  “Prophets and Mirrors: Science Fiction as a Way of Seeing,” “the  story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools  invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding”  (quoted in Language of the Night 27). So, why shouldn’t I consider  fantasy as a tool for “the purpose of gaining understanding”—for  understanding something about meaning human?

Science fiction often answers this question with aliens of one kind  or another; how then might fantasy do so with werewolves, dragons, and  elves, fairies, and witches, and other assorted magical beings? As  Vulcans and Martians become ways of seeing and understanding humanity,  through juxtaposition, comparison, and contrast, through reflection, and  in metaphor and symbol, so these denizens of Faerie. Science fiction  also will sometimes posit answers to this question when humans are taken  out of the familiar—the green hills of Earth to the deserts of the Moon  and Mars, the metal worlds of spaceships and space stations, to planets only imagined. When the background noise is gone—the background  itself—then we can often see ourselves as we really are.  So it is when we enter Faerie—the Golden Wood, the haunted house, the gingerbread  cottage, Lantern Waste, or sometimes, the house next door, or in our own   house. Facing the dangerous and/or unfamiliar, confronting the evil  and/or the strange, often demands we be most our selves—or began  learning what being that self means.

All right, let’s start with werewolves, which are of particular  interest to me at the moment as I am finishing up The Werewolf and His  Boy. Are werewolves human? Sometimes. If you prick them, will they not  bleed? Yes, sometimes wolf blood, sometimes human. Depending on the  legend used, they are at least in human form most of the time, or  twenty-odd days out of the average thirty. But what I find telling is  when we look into our reflection and we can, if the light is right, see  into the dark recesses of our souls, the hidden places in our hearts,  and there find the wolf, the beast, even without fangs or fur. Humans  are animals, occasionally, we are beasts. Wrestling with the feral parts  of our nature, recognizing they exist—that is part of what it means to  be human.

For my werewolf, Henry Thorn, he has to sort out both what it  means to be wolf and to be boy: that he both needs to run, to hit raw  meat, to howl, and to cry and miss his mother and to love another human  being.  For Henry, this means loving Jamey, another boy—but that’s  another essay. Henry also finds out more about who he is as a boy when  he finds himself in a den of werewolves, amongst the beasts. Jamey needs  protection and caring for—and Henry learns something more about human  love, and thus about being human. It is through fantasy that I can  explore the answers Henry finds as he also asks and begins to answer the  question of who he is—human boy, wolf—Henry Thorn.

In what might be an iconic werewolf tale, American Werewolf in  London, the question of what it means to be human—or rather, can a  werewolf be human—is answered, no, or not quite, as the beast, the wolf,  is far too strong, the call of the wild, or rather the disease,  overwhelms the unlucky American tourist. He dies a beast. But then, our  humanity is fragile—and the beast is never as far as away as we might  like to think. My werewolf knows the beast is always present—and that if  he remains in beast-form too long, he risks a difficult return to being  human. Perhaps this tension between beast and human, with the beast  sometimes the one in control, is an attempt to explain humans in mobs,  or at war. Surely the beasts were the ones at My Lai, at so many Native  American villages, at Auschwitz.

Fantasy, with its transformations, its wishes, its dreams and magical  beings who are so very much like us and yet so very different, does  present ways to explore answers to the question of what it means to be  human. This doesn’t seem all that surprising as I write this, but until  presented with this month’s blog theme, I hadn’t thought about it this  concretely in connection to fantasy lit. Yet, as Henry Thorn, the  werewolf, is clearly telling me, I have been thinking about it for quite   some time. So, the next time I teach fantasy …


Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary  Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in  The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award  for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001),  Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010), all published by  Golden Gryphon Press. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and  has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His  short fiction has been published in such journals and collections as  Icarus, Collective Fallout. The Silver Gryphon, North Carolina Literary  Review, Romance and Beyond, and Aboriginal Science Fiction.  His short  story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was just published in Queer Fish 2. He  is presently working on a novel about a gay werewolf and his godling  boyfriend and a collection of gay-themed speculative fiction short  stories.

This month, my fellow Fantasy Roundtable Bloggers and I discuss what many have argued is inherent and integral to fantasy literature, evil. Is evil necessary in fantasy? Is Good versus Evil an integral and essential conflict? Do heroes need villains? Here are some thoughts on those questions and others on evil and the fantastic.

Warren Rochelle

Evil and the Fantastic
As luck would have it, just last week I asked my English 379 (Fantasy Literature) students to respond to this prompt, while we were reading and discussing The Fellowship of the Ring:

Discuss evil as an element of fantasy, paying attention to how it is presented in The Fellowship of the Ring. Is evil necessary for fantastic literature? Why? Do we have to have evil to understand and appreciate good? What can we learn from evil about human nature?

Their responses were quite interesting. Below is a sample:

According to Wanda*:

“Evil is necessary for all literature, not necessarily in the form of a villain, but in some form that is counter to good. Evil is not black and white because people are not black and white. Each character in a story has flaws, has vices, and has the possibility for evil. The ring in LOTR brings out the corruptibility or weakness in each character that comes into contact with it (besides Tom), even resulting in Boromir’s death.”

Margaret argues that fantasy needs evil—or villains—to be interesting and engaging:

“Is it possible for a fantasy to exist without evil? Or more importantly, without the villain? As much as it would be a perfect utopian setting, it wouldn’t be very interesting. Imagine the Lord of the Rings without Sauron or any of Grimm’s fairytales without the wicked stepmother. The idea just doesn’t fly. But take The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth Narnia book. There are a few scenes in the story where the characters are faced with temptation: a spell to become the most beautiful, a pool that turns all to gold, treasure when hoarded breeds a dragon. However, I don’t necessarily classify these as evil; at least, they don’t fall into the same category as the White Witch or the Calormenes.”

Jed insists that

“The existence of Evil is absolutely paramount in Fantasy. In it the difference between Good and Evil, which is blurred in many genres, is stark and apparent. At [its] very foundation, Fantasy is the valiant struggle of what is pure and good against that which is corrupt and evil.”

Aaron insists we see past the simplistic black and white:

“Ultimately, issues of “good” and “evil” are important elements of any story. Morality, or lack thereof, is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Good fantasy explores this just as much as any other type of literature. There is no reason why is has to do so in a simplistic way.”

Zeno has this to say

“In the end, conflict is the essence of Fantasy; but the best stories are ones that acknowledge that “evil” is not necessarily a cut and dried force; even books in which there are forces of pure evil and good, there are situations where “good” characters must deal with their own “evil.” Evil, as an idea, is necessary to fantasy, because it provides a stable and easily recognizable theme for the conflict that any book will center around. However, the best books force us to reconsider what is evil, and how best to deal with that evil, and how to respond when, occasionally, good people do bad things, and evil people do good things.”

Arabella doesn’t think evil is essential, arguing that

“I don’t think evil is a necessary element of the fantasy genre, however it is an important element of many fantastical books. Just like in any other genre, the story doesn’t have to be good vs. evil. The plot doesn’t need to center around an evil wizard, ruler, or fantastical creature. What fantasy does is give us the option for those type of plots, making evil an important element, although not a necessary one.

Fantasy opens up new worlds and in those worlds is the opportunity for characters to be truly evil. An opportunity, not a requirement. In the world we live in, I would argue that evil does not truly exist. Our world is categorized in shades of grey and though some may be darker or lighter than others, they are not a pure white or black. The fantasy genre can create worlds in which there is that absolute good and evil we can trust. There is often a distinct line with the good guys on one side and the villains on the other. There can be obvious criteria for those characters who make up good or evil and through these the story can be ruled by the absolutes. Evil is yet another fantastical element that can be a part of fantasy stories. It helps create boundaries and definitions of what is good and through evil the goodness of characters becomes not only more obvious, but also in a way more good. The two opposite ends of the spectrum play against each other to create the good vs. evil fantasy story to which we are accustomed.”

What conclusions, if any, can be drawn from this random sampling of the 43 students enrolled in the 2 sections of Fantasy Lit I am teaching this semester? Many, but not all of them, fall in the category of the “fantasy geek” kids who cut their teeth on Rowling, Tolkien, and a variety of role-playing games, and love, love, love Game of Thrones. They are really into this stuff.  A surprising number came to Tolkien first through the movies. A goodly number want to write the great American fantasy novel, and have reams of various drafts already written.

So, is evil is a necessity in fantastic literature?  Sort of, yes, no, maybe. Conflict, yes—evil, maybe.  Is evil even real?  Is it, as another student noted in class discussion, the absence of good? Is their youth that prevents some of them from seeing that evil can be a matter of degree, that a Dark Lord isn’t a necessary presence? That evil can both be banal and ordinary and a Balrog or a Dark Lord? That evil doesn’t always leaves scars and wounds on the body, but as well on the mind and the heart?

Conflict, as in any story, fantasy or not, is an essential plot element.  In fantasy, this is often—quite often—expressed as good vs. evil. The hero must have an enemy. It is in this conflict and in this exploration of just what is good and evil that we learn what fantasy has to teach us: what it means to be human and that to be human is to be capable of both good and evil.  And here, I would argue, is one of the greatest strengths of fantasy literature.


Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010), all published by Golden Gryphon Press. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His short fiction has been published in such journals and collections as Icarus, Collective Fallout. The Silver Gryphon, North Carolina Literary Review, Romance and Beyond, and Aboriginal Science Fiction.  His short story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was just published in Queer Fish 2. He is presently working on a novel about a gay werewolf and his godling boyfriend and a collection of gay-themed speculative fiction short stories.

For more information, please see:

*All student names have been changed to protect their privacy. Each student gave written or oral permission for their work to appear here.

Deborah Ross

Evil, the Fantastic, and Making Sense Out of Pain

I don’t think it’s possible to discuss evil without talking about the literature of the fantastic. We hear people talk about “evil incarnate,” usually in reference to some person or institution that has committed particularly heinous acts, as if evil were a tangible, measurable thing that exists outside the human imagination. In real life, things are rarely that simplistic.

Certainly, history and even some current religious thought puts forth the notion of those, human or not, who are inherently evil. To this day, some people believe that snakes (or spiders or other animals) are evil (I encountered one such man in a pet store, warning his young son that the garter snake would steal his soul if he weren’t careful). Once the mentally ill (or physically ill, such as those who suffer from epilepsy) were thought to be possessed by demons. Such beliefs persist today on the fringes of mainstream Western society, although they have largely been expunged from medical and psychiatric practice. We believe that such conditions as schizophrenia and sociopathy arise from disorders of neurophysiology, even if we cannot yet pinpoint the precise etiology. Even when we do know exactly what neurotransmitters and part of the brain are involved, it is still a widespread and understandable human tendency to ascribe unexplained phenomena, whether beneficial or destructive, to supernatural agency. Even though intellectually we may understand that a mass murderer is not an incarnation of some demonic spirit, nor is he possessed by one, and even if we cannot explain why such a person is utterly lacking in empathy for other human beings, we still often use words like evil, wicked, damned, devilish, satanic, and demonic.

Humans are capable of cruelty and viciousness so extreme in degree or scope that few of us can comprehend it, let alone the motivation behind it. How can we make sense of atrocities like the Holocaust or its equivalents, historical or modern? Of the massacres in Africa, Central Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, to name but a few?

I think we can’t, not by ordinary thought. The mind numbs with the magnitude of such deliberately inflicted suffering and takes refuge in numbers, pop psychology, and political analysis. It is difficult enough to struggle with the petty unkindnesses of everyday life, the irritations, the mundane acts of thoughtlessness, the emotions like jealousy or vindictiveness. Almost everyone loses their temper with one another at one time or another, or an unhealed resentment prompts them to strike out without thinking. These acts are understandable even when we disapprove of them, because they lie within the scope of our own experience. As we seek forgiveness for ourselves, we find the means to extend it to others. While these moments, and the means of making and accepting amends, smooth our relationships, they don’t make for a very dramatic tale.

Fantastical literature, on the other hand, enlarges the sphere of reality. This could be the introduction of magical elements into the ordinary world (urban fantasy), or parallel worlds (such as Faerie or Narnia) that interact with our own, each with its own set of rules. Or completely independent worlds (Discworld, Middle Earth).

Fantastical literature is also characterized by the use of archetype and metaphor to evoke experiences for which we have no direct vocabulary. We don’t need to have personally surrendered to the Dark Side of the Force in order to understand why the temptation is at once seductive and terrifying. Nor do we need to have witnessed an atomic bomb blast to imagine the devastation of dragonfire or a wrathful volcano god/dess.

In discussing how to portray interesting, multi-dimensional villains, it’s often pointed out that these characters – antagonists to the point of view character – are often heroes in their own eyes. They don’t get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say, “I’m going to be evil today” or “Evil! Evil! Rah-rah-rah!” The best and most frightening villains have the same capacity for greatness as do heroes, whether it is physical prowess, intellect, a wounded heart, or simple charisma, only it is applied either in the wrong manner or for the wrong ends. If a tragic hero has a fatal flaw but is nonetheless admirable, then a great villain also has his blind spots, to his ultimate ruin.

Evil in fantastical literature ranges from the motivating force in such otherwise sympathetic villains to a “pure” black-and-white quality, one that is so alien to ordinary human sensibilities as to be utterly incomprehensible. We cannot know what it is, but we can know its effects – what it does to individuals, nations, and entire worlds. Black-and-white evil is in most instances a whole lot less interesting than those who come under its influence but still retain some degree of choice. That choice may be a once-and-for-all decision, informed or otherwise, or it can be the continuing possibility of turning away from the inevitable consequences, a possibility that diminishes with each step toward the abyss.

If Evil is monolithic, unmixed with any goodness, and incapable of change, then the resolution of the story conflict is reduced to either/or, yes/no, win/lose. This is not to say that such tales are less adrenaline-fueled than those that are more complex, only that there are fewer possibilities for a denouement: Evil wins and everyone dies/suffers; Good wins and the hero lives happily ever after; Good wins but the hero meets a tragic, sacrificial end. The first two may lead to an exciting climax and catharsis but are unlikely to offer the deeper emotional resonance of the third. If, on the other hand, Evil is one among many conflicting motivations, other resolutions become possible. The evil character discovers the capacity for love and sacrifices himself for a greater cause; the hero and villain form an alliance; either hero or villain crosses the gulf between them and healing ensues; the villain makes a last-ditch effort to salvage some good from the harm he has done; the possibilities become endless. All these rely on the capacity of sentient beings to choose their future actions, even when they had no power over what happened to them in the past and cannot undo what they have done. And in the course of these journeys, we ourselves gain insight into our own unhealed wounds, our festering resentments, our self-condemnation, and ultimately, our hope for redemption.


Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight and short stories in Asimov’s, F & SF, Realms of FantasyY and Star Wars: Tales From Jabba’s Palace. Now under her birth name, Ross, she is continuing the” Darkover” series of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as original work, including the fantasy trilogy The Seven-Petaled Shield, forthcoming from DAW. She is a member of Book View Cafe. She’s lived in France, worked for a cardiologist, studied Hebrew, yoga and kung fu, plays classical piano, loves horses, and is active in the local Jewish and Quaker communities.

Carole McDonnell

Personalized Personified Evil

Evil comes in many forms. It can be subtle, like a self-loathing thought. It can be impersonal like a famine, man-made like a war. It can be global, like a swarm of alien invaders, or it can be personal where one finds one’s self and only one’s self turning into a fly. It can be brushing like poverty …or falsely joyful soaring like crack cocaine or soma. It can be, invasive and occult like a cancer. It can be deceptive like a double-agent, giving wrong information…like Iago turning all our white to black…or like a demon disguising itself as an angel of light.

I’m a Christian so I guess I’ll write about Personalized Personified Evil. There are so many things to hate about evil — its pettiness, its selfishness, its delusion, its egotism. But what I have always disliked about evil is its relentlessness, its ugly, ugly will. As a Christian, I’ll say it even more clearly: I hate Satan –him and his ugly, ugly will.

The relentlessness of evil is not fascinating, certainly not in daily life. Although sometimes the great villains — as in the scifi film Terminator— are fascinated because they have the human quality of relentlessness.

Sometimes the “evil” is a system –as in The Hunger Games or Stepford Wives or non-human –as in HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or TRON, or the MATRIX or an oligarchy/cult — as with the nine-headed-hydra of Greek myth or Metropolis or Rosemary’s Baby or even Deliverance or of the kind of kin/households one often finds in horror films –then the evil must be endured, made powerless, or systematically dismantled section by section. That is structural relentlessness.

Very often, however, the pattern of evil is of the pattern shown in the Bible.

Evil is contained within one Person. That person has control of many systems, minions of differing hierarchy, has A) superior knowledge, B) a rationalized goal, C) the lack of care for those who must be trampled for the completion of the goal, D) total power or near-total power and E) the utter dislike of personal failure. And finally…relentlessness, which is the mental strength to commit to the goal repeatedly and to reassess and recalibrate until the goal is achieved or the evil Person is destroyed.

Jesus described the Devil as one who comes to kill, to steal, to destroy and the best Biblical representation of evil or Satan is shown in the battle between Moses and Pharaoh. The lines are drawn. A good God and an enslaved people on one side and on the other side a relentless Figure of Power who refuses to let the enslaved people go. It doesn’t matter how defeated the Figure of Evil (or his minions) are — the goal is enslavement of another.

The human characters in fantasy can be considered demonic, even though they don’t represent the Devil himself. So while there are many evil characters in fantasy who come to kill, steal, and destroy, the fact is an evil character can elicit pity, identification, and fear. We fear evil in the fantastic because we recognize its immensity. We identify with the evil because we see our own flaws in them. And we pity the evil (sometimes) because we recognize that at one point or another, we were stopped by a greater power or we realized our own powerlessness.


Carole McDonnell is the author of the fantasy novels, Wind Follower and The Constant Tower, both published by Wildside Press.

Chris Howard

Fantastically Evil

I started out with the idea of spinning this topic away from the Saurons of the genre—the supremely bad players with vast armies of hideous soldiers and architecturally magnificent but poorly-lit fortresses, players who want to take over extensive amounts of someone else’s territory, an entire world, or some valuable plane of existence. I wanted to spin this topic toward the blended moralities in Glenn Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, and others, where the main characters are not always good, and some are clearly great fans of seeing others in pain—proudly wearing their “Go Sauron” jackets when off screen.

On the other hand I know the “evil protagonist” thing is all the rage. Every fantasy and SF discussion group on Goodreads and the Amazon forums has a dozen threads on “books where there main character is evil”, or something like that.

What about the good villain—or apparently good villain?  I don’t mean where the villain thinks he’s doing the right thing, because that’s pretty much what drives every complexly-written scoundrel.  Power-hungry, ladder-climbing, step over the bodies of your superiors to get what you want types of characters are the mainstay.  Power, money, control—these are the things that motivate so many baddies, along with a generous portion of justification for whatever they are after.

Another common theme is the bad guy or girl who must do something evil in order to survive —kill, drink blood, go all Mr. Hyde on us, or do bad things as the result of some curse.  Come on, doesn’t everyone deserve to survive?  Every reader can understand that kind of drive, and in many cases it’s the thoughtful appreciation (and sometimes sympathy) that shapes the reader’s reaction to the villain’s actions, usually based on the physical and emotional price paid by the afflicted character in order to fight or throw off the curse.

Still, that’s still not quite the evil I’m thinking about—or the “good” when I say “good villain.”  Like many writers I spend a lot of time thinking about evil—evil people, as well as their actions and motives. First, someone tell the NSA I was just doing research.  Second, here’s where I’m going:

What if the character or characters who represent evil in a story want to help develop the world instead of destroy it?  What if they benefit as much as the heroes, the shopkeepers, the simple but courageous village gardeners from the worldwide advancement of magic, technology, living conditions, clean water, and green pastures? What if they are as much turned off by a giant volcano spewing reeking sulfurous clouds as any hero? What if they are against war of any kind?

I started down this path in Teller, with the principal evil character making it clear that she wants all of humanity to progress. She’s even willing to help in an underground, organized-movement sort of way—you know, duffle-bags full of cash, “removing obstacles”, and other varieties of influence in the right places.  Teller is contemporary fantasy, and so the characters are living in a world with runes, rockets, and Reddit. Think of hundreds of “evil” characters around the world, nominally working together, with the common goal of getting rid of humans. Not by wiping them out—that would be messy, but by making sure that civilization either advances to the point where humans can travel to other planets—getting the majority of them offworld, or to the point where humans develop the technology to “digitize human consciousness” and go virtual—with two paths from there: withdrawal into some localized computational substrate with a small realworld footprint (e.g., “still here, but quiet and out of the way”), or by extending the range of exploration by sending “digitized human freight” to planets lightyears away and decanting the data into physical forms on the other side (e.g., “grass is always greener colonization strategy”).  The baddies want our world after all—and although they really don’t get along, there is one clear and shared requirement for the take-over: they want the world in move-in condition.

I continued plotting and writing using this flavor of evil with my latest book, Salvage, where the principal evil character, Damaris, is completely open to discussions with one of the protagonists, and even hints that he’s going to invest in the character’s company Knowledgenix, which develops advanced autonomous robots.  Damaris genuinely likes Jon Andreden, and wants to help him succeed.

Evil in the fantasy genre doesn’t have to mean miles of wasteland, ever-present storm clouds, minions with sharp weapons and low morale, or any mode of transportation that involves chiropteran wings—although I am a fan of some of these, especially the wings. To me, a villain who shares values with the protagonist frightens me more than any straightforward grab for money or power.  It totally freaks out the heroes, too.


Chris Howard is just a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books, 2008), Salvage (Masque/Prime Books, 2013), Nanowhere (Lykeion, 2005), and a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine.  His story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic Saltwater Witch.  His art has appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages of books, blogs, and other interesting places. Find out everything here:

Valjeanne Jeffers

Wither the Evil and the Fantastical?

 I have often contemplated the nature of evil. What is it that drives men and women to commit evil deeds? I have concluded that evil folks are made, not born. And there are many reasons that evil doers continue on their path. The quest for power. Selfishness. An abiding hatred of everyone― including themselves.

Thus, as a writer, I have found that villains with myriad layers are more interesting, realistic and more fun than one dimensional evil doers—the villain tormented by love or guilt over his own deeds. The man or woman obsessed with material gain or power. This is the stuff of which great villains are made; such as the antagonists of my Immortal series, “Tehotep” and “Z100,” the villainess of The Switch II: Clockwork.  Art, after all, should imitate life.

Then too, some evil acts may be committed by folks who are not necessarily evil but who have simply made the wrong choices (whatever their motivation). I recently had an inner dialogue about one of my newest characters. I concluded that the character was not evil. But she does make choices that result in mayhem. And who among us has not made bad decisions? And in my Immortal saga and The Switch II: Clockwork (which includes books I and II), I explore these questions through my characters—none of whom are perfect—and plots.

Yet what would a science/fantasy novel be without the fantastical?

Fantastic is described as wondrous and wild; to quote a few definitions. These are perfect metaphors for a SF/fantasy villain: an evil doer with preternatural powers and with dark foreboding or evil intentions. A villain can, and should, wreak havoc with the lives of one’s heroines and heroes.

In my novels my evil doers are imbued with fantastic powers―supernatural or man-made. Of course, I’ve given fantastical gifts to my heroines and heroes, too. And thank goodness for this! For how could they complete their life-changing quests without them? How could the plot twists and turns take place? How could the glorious battles I envisioned, happen? The fantastic too, is a perfect metaphor for speculative fiction. For as writers we don’t want the ordinary. We don’t want the humdrum.

We want the fantastik. This is stuff of which SF/fantasy worlds are made.

In my newest novels, which I’ll release later this year, Mona Livelong: Paranormal and Colony: Ascension, I’ve used both the evil and the fantastic to build my worlds. Take a gander below at the excerpt for Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective.

Sally looked closer, stretching his mouth further open with a gloved hand. She reached inside. “It looks like a key. . .How did I miss this?” Probing with her fingertips, she pulled the metal from where it was sticking just under his tongue. All at once, she jerked spasmodically.


“Yes. . . I. . .” The laboratory waved before her eyes. . .

Light from a single, gas streetlamp pooled upon the empty street. Footfalls echoed behind her, unhurried, yet unrelenting in their step.

She whirled around His big, tattooed body blocked the dim light. 

            He was a swarthy man, with dimpled cheeks and full lips, handsome, except for his glistening gray eyes; and his smile. . . a terrible cold grin, the grimace of a killer: a sadist. . .

 I hope I’ve done justice to my characters. I hope my readers will be pleased.


Valjeanne is the author of the SF/fantasy novels: Immortal, Immortal II: The Time of Legend, Immortal III: Stealer of Souls, and the steampunk novelsImmortal IV: Collision of Worlds and The Switch II: Clockwork (includes books I and II).

 She is a graduate of Spelman College, NCCU and a member of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective. She has been published under both Valjeanne Jeffers and Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson. Her writing has appeared in: The Obamas: Portrait of America’s New First Family, from the Editors of Essence, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Pembroke Magazine, Revelry, Drumvoices Revue 20th Anniversary, and Liberated Muse: How I Freed My Soul Vol. I. She was also a semi-finalist for the 2007 Rita Dove Poetry Award.

 Valjeanne’s fiction has appeared in Steamfunk! Genesis: An Anthology of Black Science Fiction, Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, LuneWing, PurpleMag, Genesis Science Fiction Magazine, Pembroke Magazine, Possibilities, 31 Days of Steamy Mocha, and Griots II: Sisters of the Spear (in press). She works as an editor for Mocha Memoirs Press and is also co-owner of Q& V Affordable editing. Preview or purchase her novels at:

 Andrea Hosth

Evil in Fantasy

One of the biggest clichés of fantasy is the Dark Lord.  Nameless, faceless and big on Mwahaha, the Dark Lord is Evil because he is Evil.  His motivations include “More Evil Now,” “Evil for the Sake of Evil,” “Can I Get Some Evil with That?” and “Just Because.”  Or World Domination.

Dark Lords are generally accompanied by Minions.  The minions are often nameless, faceless/masked and lack such complexities as a personality.  Created to serve – or just brought up bad – they unswervingly follow orders and are rarely human enough to have a crisis of loyalty.

A Dark Lord, an unequivocal Evil with no reasons other than Evil, can still make for a compelling tale.  Some of the creepiest stories I’ve read, the most genuinely frightening, involve a true nameless, faceless evil: implacable, impossible to reason with, and entirely lacking in easily exploitable weaknesses or Evil Overlord logic.

Despite the fact that my first attempt at a book featured a Dark Lord (Sith the Destroyer) and obedient minions (Tar’Sithans) – at least until I edited them into slightly less paper-thin cyphers – I’m not generally inclined to use “Evil because Evil” primary antagonists (though I’m happy to throw thousands of predatory monsters into my characters’ paths).  Instead I tend to lean toward “greedy people” and “quite reasonable people with conflicting interests”.  The latter are not so much “Evil” as “on the wrong side”.

My greedy people drift quite close to the Faceless Evil archetype, and tend to spend most of the story off the stage.  I’m generally not that interested in detailing the slippery selfishness of a person who, when everyone has enough apples to get by, decides to scheme or manipulate or outright take someone else’s apples.  These people often start out conscienceless, and their development is from greedy to greedier.  I think they constitute a kind of Evil, just one which doesn’t name itself that way.

People with conflicting interests, on the other hand, fascinate me, although I quite often can’t write from their point of view.  The person who steals an apple because their family is starving.  And then realises that by stealing that apple, they’re making someone else’s family suffer.  Would they still steal the next apple?  How do they justify it?  What if that apple becomes two, or twenty, or all?  And that quick, unnoticed theft becomes a need to protect yourself from retribution, and outright damage, and people dying by deliberate act.  At what point do you become Evil?  Is it the first apple?  Or the first awareness of damage?  The irrevocable blow?

Or are people with conflicting needs simply people with conflicting needs, and right to do what to others is wrong?

I try to take care when making the other side in a story “Evil”.  Because if “they’re Evil” is the reason, the excuse, the justification for any and all actions by those the story considers “Good,” at what point will people of that world be able to point to my characters and say: “Evil”?


Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia.  She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.  See:


Amazing Fantasy Round Table: 50 Shades of Fantasy

This month’s Amazing Fantasy Round Table examines the question of  whether modern fantasy comes in shades other than grim and gritty.

Warren Rochelle

Fantasy: How Many Shades of Grey?

All right.  I’ve been browsing in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. I googled “different kinds of fantasy—and, for the most part, found similar lists and similar terms.  I doubt most of those who write for this blog would be surprised at the terms and definitions I found, such as:

Ø  high fantasy: immersion, set wholly in the secondary world, “with its own set of rules and physical laws,” (no connections between here and there). Think Middle-earth.

Ø  low fantasy: a sub-genre of fantasy fiction involving nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.  Low fantasy stories are set either in the real world or a fictional but rational world, and are contrasted with high fantasy stories (see above)… The word “low” refers to the level of prominence of traditional fantasy elements within the work, and is not any sort of remark on the work’s quality” (Wikipedia contributors. “Low fantasy.” (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 May. 2013.)  Examples include The Borrowers, Tuck Everlasting, The Five Children and It, Edward Eager’s novels, and so on.

Ø  epic fantasy, which is centered on the quest, relies on a heroic main character, stresses the battle between good and evil, heroes, legendary battles—often called heroic fantasy.  A portal-quest or portal fantasy could be a variant, with a prime example that of the Chronicles of Narnia.

The lists go on to include contemporary/urban fantasy, anthropomorphic, historical, dark, science fantasy—you get the idea. Fantasy, all about good vs. evil, the light versus the dark, heroes and heroines, magic, dragons, and their ilk, comes in many shades of grey. (50? That’s another essay—see the blog on sexuality in fantasy, okay?)  Then, there is immersive vs. intrusive and liminal or estranged and … But instead of defining each and every one, and dredging up examples (which is something I like to do when I teach fantasy lit—English 379, this fall, 3:30-4:45 TTh, come on down), I want to talk about the shade of grey I write and why (and yes, grey, the British spelling, and not the American gray. Grey just looks …. well, grey, and it’s prettier… I digress).

So. What’s my shade of grey?  I have two published fantasy novels, Harvest of Changelings (Golden Gryphon, 2007) and its sequel, The Called (Golden Gryphon, 2010). A third is being edited, The Golden Boy, and a fourth in progress even as I write, The Werewolf and His Boy. They are all, I am thinking, low and intrusive fantasies. True, The Golden Boy is sort of pushing the above definition of low, as it is set in an alternate reality, that of the Columbian Empire. Magic is real, but it is illegal, and the Empire is definitely meant to be a rational country. Magic, does, however, intrude, according to the Columbian political and religious authorities. But, the others: this world (more or less), and then magic returns (thus intruding), or is disclosed in some fashion, voluntarily and otherwise. Harvest and The Called are set in North Carolina; Werewolf, in Virginia. Complications ensue—lots of complications. Bad things happen. The good guys are in serious trouble. Yes, there are forays into Faerie from time to time, but on the whole, things happen here, not there.

The question of the moment is why, to what end. Part of me has always wanted to believe in magic (oh, all right, part of me does believe in magic) and that it is real and if we just knew—the right people, the right words, where to look—we could find it. It’s always been here. There has to be a reason for all these stories. So, I create fictional worlds that satisfy this longing. In these worlds the magical and the mundane intersect, overlap, come into conflict—and I find these encounters fascinating. As do their real-world counterparts (encountering the unexplainable), such meetings pull back the veils and reveal us as who and what we really are. They are meetings in which we are forced to ask the question of what it means to be human. That some of these encounters are fraught with peril is also part of this question.  To be human is, sometimes, to be in danger, to be facing great evil, and to have to confront that evil, albeit the evil is a monster, another human, or a personal darkness. To be human is to undertake the quest. As Le Guin says in her essay, “The Child and the Shadow,” “fantasy is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul”(Language of the Night 64).

In low fantasy, in intrusive fantasy, the metaphor, the myth, the symbol, the shadow, can be real, literal.  It can be touched, felt, and fought. Russell, a hero of Harvest and The Called, is an abused child; so is Jeff, his partner. They grew up with people who behaved monstrously. They also find themselves confronted with evil reptilians and black witches and other bad guys. They find they have to fight their inner demons as well as those that wait for them. Could I do this in high fantasy? I think so, but I am finding it is important to me to acknowledge the darkness and mystery that is here, in this world.

Good fantasy, after all, is about human beings doing human things, and with all the ambiguity and trouble and good and evil and love and hate and all the rest that comes with being human. Yes, they have to deal with the magical, the impossible, the mystery, the myth made real, but they are still humans—most of the time, and mostly.

So, I write in this shade of grey because it is here that I live, that my imagination lives. Oh, yeah, by the way: magic is real.


Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington  since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver  Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best  Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of  Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical  work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His story, “The Boy on McGee Street” was published in Queer  Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, 2012).


Andrea Hosth


The last ten years have seen a rise in what is known as “grimdark fantasy” (or, more amusingly, as “grittygrotty”).  Joe Abercrombie defines the core of the genre as: “The dirt physical and moral. The attention to unpleasant detail. The greyness of the characters. The cynicism of the outlook.”

There are numerous articles discussing grimdark, covering everything from what makes it “more real”, “less real”, “nihilist”, “gratuitous”, “honest”, or “unimaginative”.  Most of all, “sexist.” Beyond being a sub-genre I’m disinclined to read, I’m sure some of my negative reaction to grimdark is due to some of its champions positing it as an “evolution” of fantasy: something which has left less evolved, inferior versions of fantasy behind.  This both annoys and confuses me.

Part of the confusion is due to what I see as a lack of newness about some of these concepts.  Are grimdark protagonists more morally ambiguous than, say, Elric of Melniboné?  Steerpike of Gormenghast?  Heck, Lord Vetinari of the Discworld?  How much more cynical in outlook are these worlds compared to, say, Mary Gentle’s “Grunts” (a satire of heroic fantasy, but certainly not a recent one)? Is Leiber’s Lankhmar naïve and ‘unevolved’?

What exactly has evolved here?  Is a willingness to describe people peeing the big advance we’re supposed to find in grimdark?

The other, perhaps larger, source of my confusion is whether the link made between “grey” and “real” is supposed to lead to a second link between “heroic” and “fake”.  If the charcoal greyness of the protagonists is the big selling point of grimdark’s advances (ignoring the decades of “pre-grimdark” fantasy featuring morally grey characters), does it follow on that real heroism does not exist?

The people-are-fundamentally-rotten trope is common to another genre: post-apocalyptic.  Almost inevitably, post-apocalyptic stories feature small bands of people, sometimes fighting viciously for resources against other bands, until their own group dissolves when Untrustworthy-Second-Male produces a schism against Mr-Reluctantly-In-Charge because he wants to be in charge/to get the girl/to go that way.  My own apocalyptic story was a direct reaction to how boringly predictable I find this story progression, and to recent events at the time of drafting – particularly the 2010-2011 Queensland Floods.  Here, as with countless other natural disasters, lives and safety were threatened…and thousands of people stepped up.  Helped out.  Behaved heroically.

If we spend the time to look around us, at the real world, we see villains, we see plenty of morally grey people – a vast bunch on the paler side of the grey scale.  And we see heroes.

Grimdark is a genre which removes a portion of the real.  To cast a crapsack world as a “more real” world is to ignore the considerable amount of grey in large portions of heroic fantasy, and to suggest that the concepts of nobility, heroism, selflessness, and the rule of law are all weak figments which do not and never did exist in (historical) reality.

A brief stroll through the myths and legends which are used as the basis for many modern fantasy stories will show us that grim and tragic events are hardly new to the genre (try Deidre of the Sorrows on for size).  A passing acquaintance with history will show us heroes.


Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes  fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her  female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.Her website,  Autumn Write.


 Sylvia Kelso

Shades of  Fantasy

Originally I meant to talk about sub-genres, but I’ve covered this before, so instead I’ll look at shades in high fantasy, varying by both authors’ style and time. Which logically lets me start with one of the fathers of modern fantasy, Lord Dunsany. Here’s the intro to his short story, “Carcassonne:”

They say that [Camorak’s] house at Arn was huge and high, and its ceiling painted blue; and when evening fell men would climb up by ladders and light the scores of candles hanging from slender chains. And they say, too, that sometimes a cloud would come, and pour in through the top of one of the oriel windows, and it would come over the edge of the stonework as the sea-mist comes over a sheer cliff’s shaven lip where an old wind has blown for ever and ever (he has swept away thousands of leaves and thousands of centuries, they are all one to him, he owes no allegiance to Time).

Writing pre WWI, Dunsany has more than an echo of Yeats’ Celtic twilight: whimsical tone, slightly formal, archaic usages such as the “they say” beloved of medieval romances. And characteristic of Dunsany, whimsy extended into a long, flapping, image-ridden sentence that in the wrong hands could come perilously close to a place in the Bulwer Lytton awards.

From around the same period we have:

“His highness rode a hot stirring horse very fierce and dogged; knee to knee with him went Styrkmir of Blackwood o’ the one side and Tharmrod o’ the other. Neither man nor horse might stand up before them, and they faring as in a maze now this way now that, amid the thrumbling and thrasting of the footmen,  heads and arms smitten off, men hewn in sunder from crown to belly, ay, to the saddle, riderless horses maddened, blood plashed up from the ground like the slush from a marsh.”

Yep, that other Daddy of the Genre, E. R. Edison, from the chapter “The Battle of Krothering Side,” in The Worm Ouroboros. And yes, nobody sounds or ever again could sound like Edison. The lavish detail, the exuberance, the outrageous yet so brilliant faux Elizabethan language is a Phoenix. One of a kind. The writing in The Worm actually ranges widely, from battle scenes like this, sounding almost straight out of Mallory, to the ornate settings, and breathtaking natural beauty like the sunset that closes this chapter, or the first view of Zimiamvia. But it’s a good shade away from Dunsany, not least in the ferocity of its focus, and the equally ferocious insistence of its rhythm.

Now here’s one of the modern heirs of both Edison and Dunsany. Describing magic outright this time, 70 or so years later, when fantasy styles have greatly simplified – or been dumbed down, imo – for a far larger, less literate readership:

Lynn Hall had changed again. This time she showed me how her secret wood devoured it, in a monstrous tangle of root and vine that wove into its stones and massed across its gaping roof. Past and future and the timeless wood scattered broken pieces of themselves within two rooms. Nial Lynn’s marble floor lay broken and weathered by the years, even as his blood or Tearle’s flowed darkly across it. A curve of tree root so thick it must have circled the world had pushed through the floor beneath Corbet’s table…

Much plainer than Edison or Dunsany, yes, and yet no less part of Elsewhere in the starkness of images like the broken marble floor and the flowing blood, here in service to the time-folding, reality-dissolving effect so common in McKillip’s work. Yes, Patricia McKillip again, this time from Winter Rose, Chapter Twenty-Three.

And now a particularly famous figure from modern fantasy who first appeared in the late ‘60s and returned in the 2000s, through his creator’s trademark mix of utterly everyday details and sudden, yawning vistas of unreality:

The leaves shook and the man came briskly down the ladder. He carried a handful of plums, and when he got off the ladder he batted away a couple of bees drawn by the juice. He came forward, a short, straight-backed man, grey hair tied back from a handsome, time-worn face. He looked to be seventy or so.  Old scars, four white seams, ran from his left cheekbone down to the jaw.  ( The Other Wind Ch. 1)

Yup, it’s Le Guin’s famous mage, Ged, in his (happier) old age. Now an almost poverty stricken dweller on the heights above Havnor, with a plum tree and some goats and chooks – chickens, to American readers – a handsome old face,  and the four scar marks that invoke his first mortal struggle  in the magical world.

In this quote everything looks deceptively simple. Until you begin to analyse the subtle, resilient rhythms of the prose, and the almost invisible patterning of assonance and alliteration.  If Edison is the High Priest of Ornament, Le Guin is the Mistress of Understatement.

Further into the present, and not quite high fantasy, here’s a very good Canadian writer doing urban fantasy at its most attitudinous. It’s from The Second Summoning, a world where Keepers use their magic to maintain the fabric of reality against determined incursions from Hell, below, but sometimes, accidentally, from Heaven above. In this one, a street evangelist is confronted by a currently humanly-embodied angel (read the book for the full outrageous details):

“Greenstreet  Mission. We’re doing a Christmas dinner. You can get a meal and hear the word of God.”

Samuel smiled in relief. This, finally, he understood. “Which word?”


“Well, God’s said a lot of words, you know, and a word like it or the wouldn’t be worth hearing again but it’s always fun listening to Him try to say aluminum.” (Ch. 7)

But, I hear you muttering, where are the famously gritty and dourly “realistic” masters like George R. R. Martin? OK, I confess. I loved Fevre Dream, years ago, but the Thrones books feel to me like a fantasy version of Stephen King’s gross-out followers. It’s not realism I find in Martin. Perversely, it’s like King, a “gritty fantasy” gross-out. When it comes to gritty, I’d sooner go with another prize-winning contemporary woman fantasy writer, and the opening of her first book in the “Chalionverse”:

Cazaril heard the mounted horsemen on the road before he saw them. He glanced over his shoulder.  (Lois McMaster  Bujold  The Curse of Chalion Ch. 1)

The well-worn track behind him curled up around a rolling rise, what passed for a hill on these high windy plains, before dipping again into the late-winter muck of Baocia’s bony soil. At his feet a little rill, too small and intermittent to rate a culvert or a bridge, trickled greenly across the track from the sheep-cropped pasture above. The thump of hooves, jangle of harness, clink of bells, creak of gear and careless echo of voices came on at too quick a rhythm to be some careful farmer with a team, or parsimonious pack-men driving their mules.

It’s not over-gritty – yet. Before the end it will go beyond gritty to grotesque, to appallingly realized unrealities, like Cazaril’s demon-pregnancy, but here the only signals are in the landscape. The natural fallacy. Bleakness in the meager messy surroundings foreshadows Cazaril’s own plight, penniless, dressed in rags, with crookedly healed fingers and a back thick with flogging lesions, creeping like a beggar toward his last hope of sanctuary, after a life of war, siege and the galleys that have left him only the knowledge of “how to prepare a dish of rats.”

I meant to end with a tour de force from the grand master of modern fantasy, who in one book can do all the shades of tone and voice from chatty children’s book to King James Version mythology, with epic and romance and comedy and tragedy in between. But I’ve traveled too often already in the realms of Tolkien, so I’ll stop here, with the grit under Cazaril’s sandals, only one of my particular favourites among fantasy’s more than fifty shades.

* * * * *

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” appears in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012. “The Honor of the Ferrocarril” is forthcoming in Gears and Levers 3 from Skywarrior Press, and “Spring in Geneva,” a novella riff on Frankenstein, is projected to appear from Aqueduct Press in August 2013.


Carole McDonnell


This month’s blog tour is called Shades of Fantasy — a perfect title, I think. Because what is shading, exactly?

There   are shades of evil, shades of humanness, shades of power, shades of the  psyche, shades of power, shades of spatiality, shades of time, shades of  intelligence and different kinds of intelligences, shades of sexuality  and gender, shades of cultures, shades of life and non-life. Each  shading can bring us closer to the darkness in the universe or in humanity. It can also bring us closer to the light.

Depending   on the writer, any of these shadings can be explored. A good fantasy  book will show its reader so many shadings of its theme that the book  and its issues will forever linger in the reader’s mind. For better or  for worse or for all the shadings in between.


Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and  Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at  various online sites. Her first novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower.


Deborah Ross

Fantasy –A Long View of the Gritty, and Hope for the Numinous

At first, I thought the current fashion of dark, gritty fantasy – fantasy noir – is just that, a recent shift in popularity, like the explosion of angsty teenage vampire stories. If we take the long view, it’s an established variation in a much larger genre. Historically, fantasy’s appeal was as tales of wonder, from Homer’s Odyssey (a “tall tales” story if there ever was one) to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Scary things certainly do happen in these stories and much is at risk, but the tone is elevated and the sensibilities are distinctly romantic. I suspect that one reason movie-goers who loved Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and found the novels unengaging was the somewhat old-fashioned “epic” level of prose, very much in line with the mythic tradition Tolkien is so much a part of and yet foreign-sounding and artificial when placed in the context of contemporary “realistic” literature. In this, Tolkien’s work has much more in common with Beowulf than with The Dresden Files.

Spooky stories like the early Gothic novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796), the works of Edgar Allen Poe or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) approached the fantastical as other-worldly, making no pretense of portraying the seedier side of everyday reality. In Germany, Gothic fiction was called Schauerroman (“shudder novel”), in the sense of a delicious fascination with the macabre. Black magic, occult rites, vampires and ghosts, haunted castles, “the sins of the fathers,” Byronic heroes, ancient curses and the like pervaded these works.

Even stories that sought to balance supernatural elements and realistic settings could in no way be described as “gritty.” As time went on and literary tastes changed, the macabre or horrific elements shifted to include “explained supernatural” and psychological horror. What constitutes “realistic setting” has evolved from 18th Century drawing rooms to the streets and skyscrapers of modern urban fantasy.

Contemporary gritty fantasy, whether in an urban setting or not, has been influenced by the larger movements in 20th and 21st Century literature. The Cold War fostered the twin sensibilities of paranoia and impending disaster, giving rise to generations of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t think Ann Radcliffe or William Polidori, or even Robert Louis Stevenson would have dreamt of the bombed-out cities, virulent plagues, social disruption, and ecological collapse that characterizes modern dystopic fiction. Taking this thought a step further, I see the transformation of the zombie from a figure in voodoo religious rites to yet-another-monster to the victim of an epidemic, to one of hordes that walk the streets and break down doors, infecting everyone they bite, with all the attendant end-of-the-world you-will-be-eaten-next tropes. As a person who remembers the McCarthy Era, I see a chilling parallel in the underlying themes of contagion and loss of humanity. In this way, what we see in gritty fantasy today, particularly the dystopic and urban flavors, reflects the fears rampant in recent history.

At the same time, although it has occasionally fallen out of popular favor, epic fantasy, whimsical fantasy, fantasy that echoes spiritual or religious themes of hope and redemption, not to mention beautiful magic and romance, has not gone away. I think readers (and writers!) respond to the optimism and portrayal of courage, loyalty, and imagination in these tales.

I first got the idea for my own epic fantasy trilogy from a series of short stories that were published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress series. I love horses and was intrigued by the cultural clash between the Romans with their cities and disciplined infantry, and the nomadic horse peoples of Asia – the Scythians, Sarmatians, and others. I wondered how these two very different cultures might give rise to different systems of magic as well as different military strategies. One story (the first one being “The Spirit Arrow” in S & S XIII) wasn’t enough! I fell in love with the vast reaches of the steppe, the nature-based religion of the nomads, the lore of horses. This isn’t so different from what Tolkien envisioned in the Rohirrim of Rohan, although I came at it from a different historical context. As one story followed another, “Rome” deepened and became less of a monolithic enemy and more of a culture to be admired. In order to create the complexity of conflicts necessary for a work of novel length, I added an ancient city-state, guardian of the magical devices that once protected the living world from the forces of chaos. All this was background for the real story, the adventures of a handful of characters as they make their way through this world, each with her or his own goals and follies. I was off and running with The Seven-Petaled Shield. The first volume comes out in June 2013.

I wanted to share this review of  Collective Fallout 3.3, which includes my story, “Green Light,” in Andrew J. Peters’s blog.

Collective Fallout is a literary journal devoted to queer speculative fiction.

Science Fiction and Fantasy: We All Know the Difference, Right: Great Traveling Fantasy Roundtable Blog, April 2013
Science Fiction and Fantasy: We All Know the Difference, Right?

From the Great Traveling Round Table of Fantasy Bloggers

The Difference Between SF and Fantasy by Carole McDonnell

Science Fiction generally falls into two categories: hard or soft. Depending on the reader’s belief in his scientific aptitude or love of hardware technologies, the SF reader can explore technological, biological, physiological sciences that are emerging, yet to come,probably possible and hypothethical.

The Fantasy writer and reader roam larger territories. Sometimes those territories are far afield from modern known science, sometimes they are mental realms, sometimes spiritual arenas,sometimes past historical and cultural lands.

The science fiction reader joins the SF writer in seeing how far the mind of man can go, often learning about and wading deep into some emerging science the author or the reader share. And often the sf reader will have the sf novel in one hand, a scientific tome in the other, and be sitting in front of the computer: facts are checkable.

The fantasy reader may read her fantasy book alongside another book — if that other book deals with some lore of some lost culture. But the fantasy reader is just as happy to venture into the unknown world of the author’s mind. All the reader asks, however, is that the novelist be true to the world he or she has created.

Whether the fantasy novel deals with European vampires, Native America shapeshifters, East Indian demi-gods,European elves, alternate realities, far off planets, Earth analogues, living,dead, non-living, eternal, godly, helpless, miniscule, mammalian, oceanic,elemental, speaking, non-speaking, beings within this galaxy, across galaxies,planetary, geophysical, or plainly and simply human, the fantasy world the author creates must be held up to the collective scrutiny of its readers.

Fantasy is game-playing of a higher order of imagination than Science fiction because the SF author is bound by and exploring the ramification of rules he has found. But the fantasy author is examining larger premise of creativity. This is not to say that science fiction is not creative but while Science fiction aims to discover and seek out rules and aspects of life that is already there, the fantasy writer aims to create whole new worlds or culture, emotion, and spirit.

No wonder, then, that fantasy comes in so many forms with so many varieties. Fantasy is extreme.

Carole McDonnell holds a BA degree in Literature from SUNY Purchase and has spent most of her years surrounded by things literary. Her writings appear in various anthologies including “So Long Been Dreaming: Post-colonialism in science fiction,” edited by Nalo Hopkinson and published by Arsenal Pulp Press; Fantastic Visions III” anthology published by Fantasist Enterprises; “Jigsaw Nation” published by Spyre publications,“Griots: A Sword and Soul anthology,” edited by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders, “Life Spices from Seasoned Sistahs: writings by mature women of color,” “Fantastic Stories of the Imagination” edited by Warren Lapine and published by Wilder Publications.

Her novel, Wind Follower was published by Wildside Books. Her other works include My Life as an Onion, Seeds of Bible Study: How NOT to Study the Bible. Her collection of short stories,Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction, is available on kindle and also at Her second novel, The Constant Tower, will be published in 2013

SciFi Versus Fantasy? by Theresa Crater

I teach a class in writing speculative fiction and often use Orson Scott Card’s book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. In it he classifies Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series as science fiction rather than fantasy. Why? Because they take place on other planets. I say hooey.

Why? Because they have all the earmarks of fantasy. Early fantasy reinvented the medieval, mostly European. It brings Celtic, Norse and Germanic mythology to life. Now writers are expanding culturally, which is all to the good, but many fantasies still take place in a predominantly agricultural world whose cities have castles, farmer’s markets and guilds of artisans. Then there are the aristocrats and rulers along with their soldiers or knights. People move about on horseback for the most part. Or sail on ships. Fantasy is pre-industrial revolution.

Many say science fiction began with Frankenstein, although it’s still got a lot of hidden alchemy and magic in it.But the text argues between the old mistaken alchemy and the new correct chemistry. Much of the science in that text looks like dark fantasy to us now,but that was the science of the day. Science fiction is the conscience of science. It looks over the shoulders of men in their laboratories and asks,“What will happen if?” What will be the moral, social and personal price humanity pays for your discovery? It’s the same question Mary Shelley asked.

Urban fantasy has complicated the picture, but the reason it’s fantasy is that it convinces us that the possibilities science tells us are not real are real after all. Faeries exist.Vampires haunt the night. But if you add aliens, then I’ll have to say we’re back to science fiction.

Theresa Crater brings ancient temples, lost civilizations and secret societies back to life in her paranormal mysteries. The shadow government search for ancient Atlantean weapons in the fabled Hall of Records in Under the Stone Paw and fight to control ancient crystals sunk beneath the sea in Beneath the Hallowed Hill.

Her short stories explore ancient myth brought into the present day. The most recent include “The Judgment of Osiris” in Tales in Firelight and Shadow and “White Moon” in Ride the Moon.Writing as Louise Ryder, she publishes women’s fiction. God in a Box returns us to the 1970s world of feminism and Eastern philosophy. Theresa has also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver. Visit her at

Science Fiction and Fantasy: We All Know the Difference, Right? by Warren Rochelle

One of the first questions I ask my students in both my fantasy and science fiction lit classes is just what is the difference between these two closely related genres. After all, as Ursula LeGuin says, “Fantasy is the ancient kingdom of which science fiction is but a modern province.”

Close relations indeed, one the descendant of the other, or rather one evolving from the other, the metaphors and tropes of fantasy of sword, sorcery, the Hero and the Quest, magic, fairy kingdoms, monsters, and the rest, giving way to the metaphors and tropes of technology and the machine, of science, and other worlds and aliens.

The simplest distinction is, of course, magic and science, the impossible and the possible. Or, to cite a definition that appeared on the listserv of the SFRA (Science Fiction Research Association, whose purview is SF and fantasy), “if the story has dragons in it,it’s fantasy, but if the dragons are given an evolutionary history, it’s science fiction.” I would modify that slightly: if the story has dragons in it as one of the native fauna, it’s fantasy, but never mind that.

So, Elves, fairies, witches,wizards, magic—the impossible, fantasy. Spaceships, lasers, warp drive, aliens and mutants—the possible, science fiction.

All right. But just the other day,my individual study student this semester, Evan, turned in a blog post on Dune.First, Evan’s individual study is the writing of a science fiction novel, along with some readings and journals. I suggested Dune. After all, it is one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. Everybody knows that, right?

Evan begged to differ: “One important thing to note about Dune is that it’s not really a science-fiction story. It’s a fantasy. It’s about a chosen prince having his kingdom stolen,then mastering the magical arts and fighting, as well as befriending the natives of his land and the super-powerful creatures that inhabit it, all to overthrow the evil emperor and reclaim his rightful place. The whole story reeks of fantasy. They have sword fights for one thing.”

Wait a minute. Many of Paul’s abilities as Kwisatz Haderach come from his genetics—he is the product of a ninety-generation breeding program, a long-awaited messiah. His prescience gets“turned on” when he takes the Water of Life, a natural by-product of the life cycle of the giant sandworm. His enhanced mental abilities are, in part,attributed to his training as a mentat, a human computer. Doesn’t that make the novel science fiction?

Not according to Evan. He argues that the novel doesn’t need to be science fiction: “The emperor’s ships could be boats on an ocean just as easily as spaceships … The sandworms are basically dragons or wyverns and Paul’s [Kwisatz Haderach] status is basically that of a wizard or a magical hero. He’s not a sci-fi hero. He doesn’t make machines,tinker, or have any real connection to technology . . . While the story does contain loose sci-fi elements, aside from a singular instance of a small drone being used and the fact that their economy relies on large spaceships, the story is simply not sci-fi. It is science-fiction flavored fantasy.”

All right. Evan does have a point and I wasn’t able to shake his conviction—not yet anyway. If we were to have this discussion again, here is what I use to counter his argument. I would point out that Paul has and does use atomic weaponry and the spice, another sandworm by-product, is harvested by machines. A force field surrounds the family castle.

I would ask if the SF hero has to make machines or be connected to technology? Not those with psychic powers,which Paul has. But, more importantly, a primary basis of the novel, its controlling metaphor, is ecology, or interconnected biological systems—here, an entire planet. The Fremen, thanks to Liet-Kynes, and his father, are superb field ecologists, and have given over their entire culture to the mission of bringing water to their desert world.

It is here, I think, that Evan’s argument that the novel is fantasy doesn’t quite work. Yes, the relationship between the two genres is clearly discernible in his analysis of Dune,particularly in how science fiction evolved from fantasy through a reimagining of familiar metaphors and symbols and devices. Science fiction is, in many ways, the modern response to the questions and themes of fantasy.

I am not suggesting that ecology can’t be a theme in fantasy; it often is, including the idea that magic itself must be saved, conserved, and renewed, if necessary. But the world-view of Dune, ultimately, is rooted in science, the possible, not the magical, the unseen, the impossible but still the imagined.

And that, I think, might be the difference between science fiction and fantasy. But I don’t think I will be able to convince Evan.

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001),Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010.

He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections.His short story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was recently published in Queer Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, 2012). Contact him at:

The Difference Between Fantasy and SF is Horses by Andrea Hosth

If your characters get about on horses, you are writing fantasy. If they travel using something mechanised,then you are writing SF. Your SF can have wizards, and spaceships which fly through hand-waving. Your story can lack any form of magic whatsoever, but if the tech level has not advanced beyond the equivalent of a horse-drawn cart, it’s still fantasy.

This is almost not an exaggeration.Reader expectation is a force which can easily overcome author intention. What you write may be fantasy, science fiction or some combination of both, but your setting is what determines whether or not a story is science fiction.

Still, if I am to take a serious stab at the question, I’ll start by considering the definition that “science fiction is what could be, while fantasy is what never could be”. Of course, this is a definition which works best if you take a strict “hard science fiction” approach to SF, since a very large portion of science fiction involve smagic-equivalent hand-waving science.

There are many definitions for fantasy, mostly revolving around some variation of “has magic”, but that is a definition which quickly falls down. I prefer to regard fantasy as “any story where the setting/world building is intended to be different to an accurate depiction of our own world”. Thus a historical novel (intended to be accurate)is not fantasy, but alternate history is fantasy, books with working magic are fantasy, stories set in the future are fantasy (because there is no possible way for them to be truly accurate). Hard or soft, sword and sorcery, magic realism – the crux of the fantasy genre is that something exists in the story which demonstrably cannot be located and pointed out as having existed in (the current agreed understanding of) our world.

Science fiction is thus a subset of fantasy, and the question becomes how it separates itself off from the broader genre. A quick perusal of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness shows that even the completely soft end of science fiction can still be regarded as“unambiguously science fiction” – though in this case it appears that science fiction can be science fiction purely in terms of setting, which brings us back to the horses. The TV Tropes site goes on to base science fiction firmly in the realm of a ‘what if’ story, and makes the crux of the story a ‘technological difference’.

So, science fiction is a story where there is an intentional difference to our world where the crux of the tale depends on a difference in technology/science. Even if the science is not rigorous, and cannot by any means be considered hard science fiction, it is still science fiction if the core of the story is “what if this this technology…”.

Stories which have a scientific setting, but which are not interested in that setting – where the technology is of no import to the tale but is merely a fancy dress which could be exchanged for other fantastic clothing – could perhaps be termed science fantasy. And the flip side – stories with horses and magic where the crux of the story is a technological question?

I recently discussed the question of science fiction vs fantasy in my own novels, pointing out that the magic-rich Champion of the Rose has at its core a technological question – it’s a “genetic manipulation gone wrong” story in a fantasy setting. I suppose this may be termed “fantastic science”, since it’s using a magical means to attain a scientific action.

But, on the whole, my definition is my definition. Like so many other genre questions, it becomes an “I know if when I read it” answer, with every individual’s answer having some slight variance, and most readers interested in specific sub-genres rather than the whole breadth and depth of fantasy or science fiction.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here writing about a mechanical horse.

Vampires or Space Helmets…Fantasy or Science Fiction? by Valjeanne Jeffers

Technology and fantasy: put them together and you have a delicious synergy that’s not quite SF, not quite fantasy. Some of my favorite authors have skirted the divider between fantasy and science fiction. Octavia Butler, for example, while she is almost always described as a science fiction author blended the two quite brilliantly in books like Wild Seed and Clay’s Ark. Nalo Hopkinson also combined them with sheer genius in her novels Brown Girl in The Ring and Clay’s Ark. Nalo Hopkinson also combined them with sheer genius in her novels Brown Girl in The Ring and Midnight Robber.

The existence of technology in fantasy often results in the co-existence of “science and sorcery,” as Charles Saunders (creator of Sword and Soul) has described my Immortal series. In my novels you have werewolves and vampires—totally in control of their preternatural abilities and using said abilities to protect their universe; but still such characters are most often found in fantasy or horror genres. Yet the Immortal series also has time travel, aliens… and technology to support its futuristic setting. Such as in the excerpt from Immortal book 1:

“Karla walked across the wooden floor of her living area into a kitchenette. A press of her fingers on the first sphere of a triangular pod started coffee brewing.

She filled a cup with chicory,walked back into the living area and pushed the second button on her remote,activating a blue panel beside the window. Jazz music filled the apartment.Like her bedroom console the unit kept time, transmitted holographic images and played tapes. Using the third button, she opened the curtains.

Thus, the Immortal novels have been described as both fantasy and science fiction novels. Use a little science and one still can be considered a Fantasy writer. Use a bit more and you’ve inched into the science fiction genre. An excerpt from Colony: A Space Opera(my novel in progress) illustrates this point:

She was born 20 years after Planet Earth’s decline. The same year IST began building the probes:lightweight spacecrafts that humans could live in for years, if need be, and that moved fast enough to break the sound barrier—traveling millions of miles within weeks.

In 2065, global warning had accelerated. The final stage in Earth’s destruction had begun. Temperatures of150 degrees scorched the planet. Tidal waves, monsoons and cyclones tore it apart. Those who could afford it moved underground. Food became the world’s most valued resource. The rest were herded under the domes.

Scientists scurried to genetically reproduce fruits and vegetables—with horrible side effects. Money still ruled the world. But money was gradually becoming worthless. That’s when the government saw the writing on the wall and created IST and the probes: spacecrafts designed for one purpose, to seek out planets capable of sustaining human life.

When a writer uses technology in fantasy, the lines between the genres are even more gloriously buried. What maybe described as science fiction by one reader/writer can just as easily be characterized as fantasy by the next. The only real rule here is to make one’s technology believable; credible; plausible. Although it doesn’t yet exist—in a kind kind of literary sleight of hand.

Pulling this off, just gives me one more reason to absolutely love speculative fiction…even if no will ever be able to figure out whether I’m a science fiction or fantasy writer. I think I prefer it that way.

Valjeanne is the author of the Immortal series, The Switch II: Clockwork (includes books I and II) and several short works of fiction.

Her fiction has appeared in Steamfunk!, Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, Lune Wing, Purple Mag, Genesis Science Fiction Magazine, Pembroke Magazine, Possibilties, 31 Days of Steamy Mocha, and Griots II: Sisters of the Spear (in press). She works as an editor for Mocha Memoirs Press and is also co-owner of Qand V Affordable editing.

Preview or purchase her novels at:

This month our travelling fantasy blog tour deals with disabilities in fantasy.


Disabilities in Fantasy

 As we know, disabilities come in all kinds. Mental, physical, emotional.

 One of the problem with creating/defining a disabled character is deciding how restricted one’s character will be. A character who is utterly unable to move will not be available for derring-do unless his mental/dream world is being explored or unless he lives in a world that allows for his mind and heart are able to affect people and situations. This kind of utterly disabled character could be asleep, in a coma, in cryo-sleep or even dead. However, for the most part, a disabled character generally is able to move around.

 There are also disabled characters who are not really disabled. This often happens in sci-fi where technology is so advanced that a disability hardly matters anymore. There are also stories where disabilities are considered romantic — the odd eye-patch, a blind character such as Star Trek’s Geordie who seems more hip than challenged (It’s the future, after all!) or a character with an attractive limp. Consider the movie, Avatar, where for all intents and purposes, the hero’s disability doesn’t matter to the extent that it should, and his being helped by a female of a lower/different class feels a bit like Mr Rochester being helped by Jane Eyre. Whatever the effect, the film’s creators can preserve their cake and eat it simultaneously.  In some fantasies, as in the Drakengard video games, often some exchange is made between the disabled and some other entity which renders the disability useful in some ways. For instance, Caim gives up his voice to bond with his Dragon. It’s a loss but it’s also a gain.

 There is also the situation where a disability is not seen — by the disabled character, by fellow characters, by the audience, or by the reader as a disability. This can be good, bad, idealized, or romanticized. In the original Star Trek, the Vulcan Spock (and many of the so-called advanced cultures) are idealized because of their inability to feel emotions.  There is also a disability which is a kind of living death, a character who has some kind of debilitating ever-worsening illness which makes them continually at war with their bodies, for instance, “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”

 Whether mentally, intellectually, or physically disabled, a character with a disability is also affected spiritually. They are “marked” in some way that makes them view the world a little differently than others in their world.

 Because of my health issues and my son’s, I have become very interested in abilities, afflictions, infirmities, and disabilities. I try to see how being disabled can be strengthening to the human soul and how it opens the eyes to situations the able-bodied do not see. I don’t think one has had to suffer in order to have one’s eyes open to the world but I think it helps. For me, a disabled hero (with a true disability) is an excellent character. I will admit that I often write about disabled characters as a kind of catharsis, or to show the able-bodied how difficult life is for the sickly. But I also write about disabled characters because they populate the world I live in — especially with the rise of autism in the US population) and they rarely show up as heroes in fantasies. . I feel we ought to show the lives of all kinds of people that disabled people and the “unseen” can see themselves in literature, and that others can see them as well.

 In my short story, Lingua Franca, the inhabitants of a far-off planet do not consider themselves disabled. In my novel, Wind Follower, the main character is so ashamed of his disability (epilepsy) that all around him pretend not to see it in order to spare him from shame. There is also an autistic learning disabled character who — although she is almost an old woman– is a playmate of the main character. In my novel, Constant Tower, disabled boys born in the Wheel Clan are either killed or made into “living ghosts” called studiers, who are made to feel grateful because they have been spared death. — Carole McDonnell


Difference and Ability in F&SF

Chris Howard

I spent some time thinking about this month’s roundtable topic, disability in fantasy (and SF), building a list of characters I can remember from the literature as well characters in my own books that come to the story with physical or mental differences–differences that force the character down less certain paths or put boundaries on action, sometimes painful boundaries. 

I started out with the idea this was going to be difficult, that disabilities in fantasy and science fiction were poorly represented, but hoping that was just my own limited scope of reading, and the lack of differently-abled characters was not pervasive.  I think, it turns out, I was partially correct, that there aren’t many examples, but there are significant ones—just from the books I have read.  Many more from books I have yet to read.

 Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, born with significant physical impairments, came immediately to mind.  (Bujold has characters with disabilities in several books).  Michael Moorcock’s Elric was another, although it’s been decades since I’ve read the stories.   William Gibson has several stories containing characters with prostheses, or characters who are wheelchair-bound.  There are also a few Tim Powers books, but the one that comes to mind is The Stress of Her Regard, in which the main character, a physician, lives with physical and mental disabilities, as well as other characters with prosthetic eyes and missing limbs.  (I did google around after writing this post, and found the “Decloaking Disability Bibliography”, a fairly long list of authors with books that attempt “to explore the intersection of disability and technology within texts from the genres of science fiction and the literature of the fantastic.” It’s an impressive list, and just shows that I need to find more time to read.  Link below).

 As my kids have moved through the teenage years I’ve read more and more YA lit, and my impression is there’s some real focus on disabilities there, characters with paralysis, speech limitations, bulimia, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome.  Most of these aren’t in fantasy or SF books, but in stories that focus on characters struggling to cope with differences in a social context, characters breaking free of walls they have put up themselves, or that society has constructed to hold them back.

 This month’s topic also made me look critically at my own work.  I do have a few characters with limited or missing senses and limbs (Emandes in Sea Throne, Corina in Seaborn who has lost the complete control of her body), but not that many.  I have written several books with main characters who struggle continuously against mental limitations or differences—Kassandra in Saltwater Witch­, Thea in Dryad.  Internal struggles form the basis for my favorite kinds of characters.  This month’s topic put the focus on an important missing element in my reading as well as my writing.

Finally, there’s an interesting recent example—a recent read for me anyway—in Joe Abercrombie’s character  Monzcarro “Monza” Murcatto, who begins the first page of Best Served Cold as the ruthlessly competent fighter and captain of Styria’s most feared mercenaries, but by the end of chapter one she’s mercilessly killed and thrown off the battlements into a ravine.  Duke Orzo, who commands and orchestrates the whole thing, can wipe his hands and go about his continued political maneuvering with his greatest military threat broken and lying in her own blood below his castle, dead.


 Monza, it turns out, is only mostly dead.  She’s picked up—almost in pieces—by a mysterious stranger and nursed back to a damaged but still breathing version of her old self.  As you can guess by the book’s title, she sets out to destroy everyone involved in her “death”.   I won’t be giving anything away in saying I think she does okay.

 Decloaking Disability Bibliography

 Chris Howard is a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books), Salvage (Masque/Prime, 2013), and a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine.  His story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic, Saltwater Witch. His ink work and digital illos have appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages and covers of books, blogs, and other interesting places. Last year he painted a 9 x 12 foot Steampunk Map of New York for a cafe in Brooklyn. Find out everything at


 The  Abilities of Disability – at Least in Fantasy

 In real life, disability is exactly what it says. A lack. A limitation. A loss of possibilities open to others, whether to see, to hear, to walk, to run, or just to go a week without the black dog of depression dropping on your back to take the taste out of everything. 

 Atop the inner physical limitations, come external ones: doors too narrow for a wheelchair, handles too high to reach, prompts or safety signals only visible, or only audible. A flight of “simple” stairs. Even an escalator can be another infuriating check to someone with a “disability.”

 Add on the invisible limits: as with race, class, and colour, even heterosexuality, disability can leave a  person either Othered or literally invisible. Even when visible, the unlucky Other has to run the gauntlet, if not of naming for the problem – right up or down to names like Hopaling Cassidy – then of the other egregious reactions, from pity to repulsion: less happily than Hopalong, the person vanishes behind the stereotype.

 In fantasy, as with race, class and colour etc.,  things could, even ought to be different. Alas, a quick mental survey of Fantasy I Have Read matches too well with the real-world social map: blind seers or crippled beggars appear quite often among minor or even lesser characters.  I can recall only one high-to-mid-level blind character, the bard in Tanya Huff’s Four Quarters series, who is definitely and encouragingly NOT disabled by  his blindness and indeed, in the first book, plays a crucial climactic role.  

 Again, in The  Privilege of the Sword, Ellen Kushner offers a powerful cameo of her previous lead character, the great swordsman Richard St. Vier, now suffering from loss of all but peripheral vision, yet devising his own remedies, to remain a  swordmaster unparalleled.

 Barbara Hambly has two main male characters, wizards whose magic is off-set by poor vision. One is Antryg Windrose, her most notable wizard, and perhaps my favourite among wizards, Gandalf included. Antryg’s myopia is definitely not “disabling” – though his ability to practice martial arts without his glasses does stretch my credibility – it is only one in a bouquet of anti-establishment attributes. Antryg comes from a dirt-poor tundra family, he learnt his arts from the series’ main villain, and he is more gloriously dotty than even T. H. White’s Merlin, even Antryg frequently considering himself to be outright mad.

 There is no deaf, blind, and certainly no paraplegic or quadriplegic main character or protagonist in any fantasy I can think of (and don’t mention Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, his universe is unequivocally SF.) Does this mean mainstream fantasy is as exclusive of the disabled as of non-WASP, middleclass, heterosexual protagonists?

There is some justification, on narrative grounds. Fantasy is, after all, an adventure genre. Protagonists have to be equally fit for flight or fight, accustomed or at least able to confront dragons and scale castles at a blink.  As Hambly’s Californian geek computer programmer ponders at one point in the  Windrose series, after three days spent on the run, or the walk, in a pre-Industrial countryside, eating bread and cheese and sleeping in haystacks:  “Thank God I don’t have allergies – that’s probably something selected against in the evolution of heroines.” (Silent Tower 179.) And so are blindness, deafness, and of course, any form of wheelchair limitation. Disabilities just make things too difficult for the writer, you see?

 But should they? Try telling anyone that Long John Silver’s wooden leg limited Treasure Island in any way, adventures included. Come to that, does lameness limit Hopalong Cassidy? Sure, it would probably bring an appreciable change if Long John had needed to push a wheelchair over Hispaniola, but otherwise?

 In fact, for a writer, disability should present not a limit but a valuable asset, especially in building characters. And by this I don’t mean simply turning the “disabled” to an Other of terror and nightmare, as Long John Silver becomes. Without going completely Pollyanna, I consider disability in a main character will give a writer not just means to individualize him/her, but to strengthen that character morally, emotionally, and what matters most to a writer, charismatically. 

I can say this from experience: in the third Amberlight book, Source, I invented an imperial heir, known as a crown prince, with a “delicate stomach,” that could be upset without warning or rule by certain foods. (Art again anticipating nature, I later found one of my own friends actually has this problem.)  At the time, this was just an individuating quirk in a mid-range character. But Therkon went on to become the male lead in the fourth, (unpublished) book, Dragonfly, and there I was charmed to find his stomach upsets did not merely show Men under Pressure Behaving Well, but could actually function as part of the plot. Not merely to hamper the action at crisis but to advance the emotional plot (love-story, okay?) and, in one case, to help hero and heroine out of a tight corner as well. 

 Again, though I can’t recall a fantasy hero with a mental disability, (there are a few in SF), I managed to produce one who could suffer from clinical depression. Also unpublished as yet, The Heart of the Fire was meant as my version of the super swordsman: silent, deadly, impregnable to all finer feelings. Unfortunately, by Chapter 2  his workname had become The Killer Caramel, since he had developed an incurable weakness for fostering orphan calves.

 Later more lethal character flaws surfaced: at life crises he would drink himself, not into mere alcoholism, but to a hair-trigger readiness to take offense, and his case, kill someone. Or someones. Later, he would sink into life-threatening lethargy. Only after four books and buckets of wonderfully dramatic angst did his life even out to a point where these phases finally faded away.

Such “cures” are less available in reality. But as a writer, I have found disability, at least of a “minor” variety, a powerful and fertile trope. Ironically, at least to a writer, “disability” should be considered less a limitation than a valued basis on which to build a strong, dramatic, even charismatic hero/ine. And what writer would consider one of those a disability?

 Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies.

   Disabilities and the Fantastic

In Irish mythology, only a king without imperfections could sit on the throne. According to The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (Checkmark Books, 2004) “a king could only claim the goddess of the land as his wife—and through her, sovereignty of the country—if he were whole and without blemish. If injured he was forced to abdicate the throne” (49). So it was for Nuada, who lost his hand or arm in battle, and had it replaced with a silver one (thus becoming Nuada of the Silver Hand). This injury meant he had to give up his leadership of the Tuatha Dé Danaan.1  Only when he is given a magical prosthesis is he allowed to return to the throne. His silver hand is not enough; it has to be covered by a special skin to appear normal (362).

 Nuada lost his throne, thanks to prejudice against the disabled. That he did is indicative of attitudes which suggest that those who are not “whole” are no longer capable, and that their disability somehow hurts others, in this case, the people he ruled. Nuada was still able to fight with his silver appendage, but that wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t whole; he couldn’t be king.

 Tiny Tim, in A Christmas Carol, is another disabled character in fantastic literature. His lonely crutches in the corner, carefully preserved, are a familiar image to many readers. If he is not treated, death is his future—and it is only through the repentance of Scrooge’s evil ways that Tiny Tim can receive the medical care he needs. Unlike Nuada, who experiences prejudice, Tim is accepted and loved by his family. But it could be argued that Dickens is exhibiting prejudice against the disabled, as he isn’t a fully realized character; rather he is a symbol of repentance and redemption, an image of pity, and not a little boy who happens to have a disability.

 So, what is going on with the presentations of the disabled, of disabilities in the fantastic? Surely, there are characters who are more than just victims of prejudice and pathetic imagery? My (admittedly unscientific and indeed casual) research for this blog took me to The Passive Voice website (, and “10 Inspirational Disabled Characters from Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” Tyrion Lannister, from Game of Thrones, immediately got my attention. Yes,  as Passive Guy says, “The insults thrown at Tyrion Lannister in both the books and the TV show Game Of Thrones are, sadly, a reflection of what many dwarfs in our real world have to go through (although Tyrion, being a contrary sort, takes one of these insults – “Imp” – and makes it his own).” But he is presented as a “fantastic character first, a dwarf second  . . .Of course his size is an important part of what makes him Tyrion, but he’s so much more: clever, sardonic, scheming, sexy and vulnerable. Tyrion is not “just” a dwarf: he’s one of the best characters on TV right now.”

 Another character I found intriguing was Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon.  He has a damaged tail, which dooms him to being flightless, and thus, probably to death. Young Viking Hiccup, however, makes him a prosthetic tail (perhaps the “first dragon-limb-replacement”) and he takes wing. According to Passive Guy, Toothless is a “great example to set kids who might never have thought about what it means to need a prosthesis.”

 All right, so far, so good. Better, yes? Well, not according to one commentator, Steve Godden, who felt the entire list bordered patronizing, and borderline insensitive.  Must the disabled be inspirational and good examples?  Can’t they just be a dragon who needs a tail, or a prince who happens to be a dwarf? Godden found this list to be “[offputting sic] as characters are being defined by their disabilities, and therefore not as whole people. He notes that the “One of the things the athletes at the para-Olympics requested is that the term ‘inspiring’ should not be used.” As he further notes, “Characters are only ‘inspiring’ if they stoically accept their disability.” However, another commentator, Mira, brings up the question of intent. Why are these characters in the story at all? It is important, she argues, that the disabled be seen, and not hidden away or (often literally) looked over. According to Mira, “. . . sometimes those in a targeted community sometimes get too caught up in political correctness, and forget intent. Sensitivity is important, for sure, but sometimes there are positive things happening even if they are not 100% sensitive.”

 True and Godden agrees: “Representation is important, I just wish we had reached a place where there was no need to represent because it was no longer an issue.” But we will always have the disabled, whether due to genetics or an accident or disease. The place we need to reach is one in which there is no longer discrimination against the disabled, and they are considered whole people, and not a disability, or inspiring examples.

 In the interest of full disclosure (and shameless self-promotion) two of my main characters in Harvest of Changelings and The Called, Russell and Jeff have learning disabilities, a legacy from their fairy heritage. I remember being quite aware of not making them an image but fully realized people who are, among a long list of adjectives, also learning disabled. I hope I succeeded; that was my intent.

 So, there has been progress from Nuada’s disguised hand and Tiny Tim’s presentation as an image and not a boy who is disabled. A bad-ass prince, a dragon, and two boys who help save the world. They are real, visible, and certainly not stoic and they are certainly more than their disability: they are heroes.

 Let’s keep on until we reach the place where the disabled are just there, among the rest of us—all part of the human rainbow—including disabled villains.

 Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His short fiction has appeared in such journals and publications as Icarus, Collective Fallout, North Carolina Literary Review, and The Silver Gryphon. His story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was recently published in Queer Fish 2.

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1 The Tuatha Dé Danann (“peoples of the goddess Danu), are a race of people in Irish mythology. In the invasions tradition, they are the fifth group to settle Ireland. The Tuatha Dé Danann are thought to derive from the pre-Christian deities of Ireland. When the surviving stories were written, Ireland had been Christian for centuries, and the Tuatha Dé were represented as mortal kings, queens and heroes of the distant past; however there are many clues to their former divine status. A poem in the Book of Leinster lists many of them, but ends “Although [the author] enumerates them, he does not worship them.” Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta are referred to as Trí Dé Dána (“three gods of craftsmanship”), and the Dagda’s name is interpreted in medieval texts as “the good god.” Even after they are displaced as the rulers of Ireland, characters such as Lugh, the Morrígan, Aengus and Manannán mac Lir appear in stories set centuries later, showing all the signs of immortality (Wikipedia contributors. “Tuatha Dé Danann.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 19 Mar. 2013).

 This month the topic of discussion is technology and fantasy, magic and the machine, and the intersections, confrontations, and the like between these two seemingly opposing ideas in fantasy literature. Please follow the link below: