Children of Time – Sometimes It’s Tell, Not Show

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s award-winning novel Children of Time breaks one of the most common rules of good fiction. It’s a book that wouldn’t have worked without breaking that rule and which gains much of its power by breaking it. As such, it makes an important point about “rules” of writing and how they work.

And did I mention that it’s a damn good read? Because that’s going to be relevant later…

Adrift in Time and Space

Children of Time is set in the distant future. On a planet far from our own, scientists prepare an experiment in evolution. But just as they’re about to trigger the process, political dissent tears society apart. The experiment starts, transforming a planet, but not in the way the scientists planned.

Countless generations later, the desperate survivors of a dying Earth approach the planet. There they find a civilisation of highly evolved spiders protected by a technological ghost. As both humans and spiders struggle to make sense of their worlds, the stage is set for a dramatic clash of civilisations.

Explaining the Alien

One of the great joys of reading Children of Time is learning about the spider civilisation. As usual, Tchaikovsky brings a flair for invention and extrapolation, creating a society that makes sense but is utterly different from our own. Communication, social structures, technology, all are very different from those of humans. As the book progresses and the spiders evolve, they keep getting stranger and more fascinating.

To let us understand this society, Tchaikovsky often has to explain aspects of the spiders’ lives. From political changes to new inventions, there’s something to reveal in nearly every spider chapter. While some of this is shown through the spiders’ actions, we’re flat out told about much of it.

This goes against one of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers – “show don’t tell”. We’re taught to use action and implication to let readers work out what’s going on. It’s helpful advice, as it makes more engaging prose and lets readers feel smarter as they read. So how has a book that tells so much become a best-selling, award-winning, much-beloved success?

You’re Always Telling Something

One answer is that this book needed to tell. The appeal of the spider civilisation is how it works. To show this without telling would take hundreds more pages. It would be a drag on a tense and thrilling novel. A few paragraphs of explanation set the scene to let us get into the action.

Tchaikovsky’s skill as a storyteller plays a part. Sure, the explanations stand out as more expository than in many books, but they’re still a good read. He understands how to make this interesting.

But behind all this lies another issue – the limits of “show don’t tell”.

Writing involves telling. Any time we “show” a piece of information in a story, we do so by “telling” other things. To show that a character is upset I have to tell what he looks like and what he’s doing. To show that someone is smart I have to tell you about a clever thing she says or does.

In this case, telling us how the spider civilisation had progressed shows us that it is advancing. Telling us about individual social and technological developments shows us the outline of evolution in action.

It also gives us the knowledge to understand what later actions will show.

Context is Queen

“Show don’t tell” is invaluable writing advice. But asChildren of Time shows, it’s context dependent. What you show, and what you tell to show it, depends upon the story. As Terry Pratchett said, rules are there so that we think before we break them.  Good writing follows the rules. Great writing knows when to break them.

Children of Timeis great writing.

Adrian Tchaikovsky Talks Dogs of War at Waterstones

Last Wednesday, I was in Leeds for the launch of Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s latest novel, Dogs of War. Leeds Waterstones have a lot of good events for the discerning sf+f fan, and this was no exception. With a reading from the novel followed by an interview conducted by David Tallerman, it was an intriguing introduction to what promises to be a great read.

I made a bunch of notes on what Adrian said, notes I’ll dig out when I have time to read the book (my to-read pile already includes five other Tchaikovsky books, so it might be a little while). Dogs of War is a story that addresses human rights and the hypocrisy of war, as well as the different approaches that might be taken to artificial intelligence. Based on what I’ve heard so far, it also has one of the most distinctive character voices I’ve ever encountered. The uplifted dog Rex wants to be a good boy and please his human masters, which coming from a carefully engineered killing machine is touching, funny, and tragic. This is military scifi that doesn’t follow the usual path of military scifi.

But what I most took away from the evening was a love for what Leeds Waterstones are doing for readers. To compete with the likes of Amazon, they’re turning into more than a shop, running events that bring readers together. Just attending this book launch, I stumbled into the tail end of a regular book quiz and got to hear about a Terry Pratchett book club. It made me realise that there’s a community of sf+f fans being brought together by these events, a community I want to get more involved with.

Reading can seem like an isolated activity, but a love of books can really bring us together.

Now to go join a book club.

Histories of Violence – the FantasyCon 2017 Fighting Panel

Fighting features a lot in fantasy literature. And so it makes sense that almost every FantasyCon has a panel about writing combat. This year’s featured:

What Makes a Good Fight?

Adrian talked about how a well-written fight scene has a clear perspective. The fight should be seen from a specific point of view but the writer should also know what’s happening beyond that viewpoint. Anna said she focuses on sensations and emotions, bringing the fight to life. Stewart went more specific on this, saying that as a reader he likes to feel breathless.

Stewart also said that the fight should fuel what else is going on for the character. Related to this, Simon said that there needs to be a reason for the fight, something to care about.

The Influence of Other Media

Discussing the influence of other media on their work, Stewart said that good computer games are an influence for him, but not films, as none of them live up to his experience from HEMA.

The panellists picked out a few examples that have good lessons – the meaningful action of Sam Peckinpah, the sensory richness of costume dramas, the mess and chaos of Saving Private Ryan. But as Adrian pointed out, trying to replicate a good scene from a film wouldn’t make a good written fight – they work differently.

This led into an interesting discussion of the aesthetics of violence in fiction. Simon said that it should be simultaneously appealing and appalling. Stewart said that the tunnel vision that comes in a fight creates a sense of intimacy and even camaraderie between opponents. Anna described it as something that can be deeply mindful.

As Adrian pointed out, if the reader knows more about the fight and its consequences than the participants then this can add to its power and emotion. There is, as Anna brilliantly described it, a moment of human tragedy as you see the mistake unfolding.

Accuracy Versus Entertainment

As David pointed out, most real fights are short, ugly, and not cool. This raised a question – is accuracy not a good thing?

Stewart discussed how, in late medieval and renaissance fighting manuals, most moves have only three steps – by then you’ve won, lost, or backed off. If you don’t hit first and you don’t back off, you might get hit back. If you’re writing something grim, there’s a place for that harsh realism.

Anna said that it depends on what you want to write. This is fantasy, and there’s a place for the gorgeous romance of Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling. As Adrian said, fights with pezazz are part of what readers expect from fantasy.

Final Points

A couple of interesting points came out near the end.

Adrian discussed how there are three levels of fights, each requiring different skills from both combatants and writers – the duel, the skirmish between a few people, and the mass battle. He considers the skirmish the hardest to write, as you’ve got multiple combatants but can’t just treat them as a chaotic mass.

Stewart said that, historically, battles with melee weapons tended to have surprisingly low casualties. Victory came through intimidation and breaking the enemy’s will, not through killing.

Overall, this was an excellent panel with a lot of useful insights. There’s a reason why the fighting panel is a staple of conventions.

Good and Evil in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Spiderlight

At first glance, Spiderlight seems one of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s less substantial works. Not just because it’s too small to beat a hippo to death with, unlike his Shadows of the Apt. But because of the way it’s pitched, as an exciting quest fantasy.

And sure, it is exciting. It is fantasy. It is about a quest.
But it’s also a book that rearranges the furniture of fantasy quests, providing a fascinating reflection on the nature of good and evil.

The Rules of the World

Spiderlight starts with a group of heroes on a quest. It’s a familiar setup for anyone who’s played Dungeons and Dragons, watched a fantasy movie, or read a little book called The Lord of the Rings. It tells us that this is a world where huge problems can be fixed by small groups of heroes completing self-contained missions.

This is a style of story that brings a lot of assumptions with it. Not least is the idea, common to quest fantasies, that good and evil are intrinsic elements in the universe. Their existence, their interactions, and above all their opposition are fundamental to the mechanics of the world. In roleplaying games, this can extend to magic affecting only creatures of good or evil, to skills and abilities being limited based on these alignments, and to objects that detect the presence of evil like some kind of magical geiger counter. Good versus evil is a clear cut and well understood mechanic.

The idea that this duality is baked into the universe, like so many raisins in a Christmas cake, isn’t something that sprang fresh-formed from roleplay games. It’s an idea as old as religion. The Abrahamic religions in particular, with their battle between God and Satan, tend to look at the world this way. For many Christians, sin isn’t just another word for mistake, it’s a metaphysical taint upon someone’s being. And modern roleplay games, for all their pagan trappings, have emerged from a culture defined by that duality.

So when Spiderlight starts in the middle of a D&D-style quest, it’s setting us up to expect a clear duality. It’s something that the author, who’s a roleplayer himself, is clearly very aware of. And it’s an assumption he’s going to spend the rest of the book unpicking.

Because in reality, Spiderlight‘s world has a constructed morality, one far more shaped by modern philosophers than by Old Testament theologians.

Spider as Symbol

The most powerful symbol of this challenge to old-fashioned duality is the character of Nth. Nth is a giant spider, a creature of darkness and the “evil” side. A creature who, from early on in the book, is trapped in a semi-human form. He mixes features that the world’s inhabitants would recognise as signifying good and evil. He’s a creature of evil brought into a good cause. He’s breaking down familiar boundaries, whether he likes it or not.*

A spider is a perfect choice for this. Much like the quest narrative, it comes loaded with baggage. From Tolkien onwards, giant spiders have been portrayed as creatures of evil in fantasy fiction. In less fantastical adventure fiction, spiders often equal danger, like those tarantulas crawling all over Indiana Jones. When we talk about a spider at the heart of its web, we’re talking about something predatory and Machiavellian.

By making a giant spider into one of the protagonists, Tchaikovsky forces us to empathise with a creature we’re trained to see as evil. It’s a clear symbol of what the novel’s about to do, shaking up the quest fantasy’s familiar morality.

Acting Out Morality

Throughout Spiderlight, Tolkienesque metaphysical morality is contrasted with a more personal morality, in which good and evil are defined by how we treat others. In this regard, the characters who claim the strongest morality are often shown to be the most corrupt. Harathes, a knight in the service of the light, is revealed as an entitled sex pest with a cruel streak towards those who stand in his way. In contrast, professional thief Lief is the first of the supposed heroes to show kindness towards Nth, to make any effort to empathise with him.

This creates startling contrasts. We’re shown the difference between presenting as virtuous and living that way. An ethical system built on grand ideas is shown to be blind to the needs of real people, on whom an alternative value system is built. Some become so focused on the big picture and appearances that they lose sight of the reality of how people will be affected.

Look at the news on any given day, or worse yet social media, and you can see the same problems. From the President of the United States to bullies in a playground, from right to left, liberal to conservative, alt-right to social justice warriors, we all tend to tout our causes more than we listen to what’s driving people different from us. I’m not saying that all sides are equal in this, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a problem.

The Origins of Evil

Spiderlight ultimately moves on to explore the origins of morality in its universe. It’s a revelation that will seem familiar to anyone who knows their Old Testament, though as usual Tchaikovsky gives it his own twist.

This, more than anything, makes a point about where we are now. Because it’s vital that we consider who is defining our ideas of right and wrong, and in particular why they’re defining them that way. If we won’t interrogate those concepts, then we risk being manipulated in some very unsubtle ways.

Relevant to More than D&D

None of these themes I’ve mentioned are new. They’ve probably all been addressed in some form of fantasy literature by now. But by combining them with a traditional quest narrative, Spiderlight creates a sharp juxtaposition. It forces us to examine the nature of good and evil in fantasy literature. It encourages reflection on good and evil in the world. And ultimately, by its example, it shows why fantastical fiction can be so relevant to reality.

 

 
* He doesn’t like it. Not only is he being forced into actions against his will, but anybody becomes uncomfortable when their old certainties collapse. I could write a whole post on that, but let’s stick with a footnote.

The Private Lives of Elder Things – Powerful Hints of Powerful Horrors

elder-thingsHorrors creeping in around the edges of modern life. A sense that something terrible and abnormal is reaching out toward us. The eldritch amid the mundane.

No, I’m not talking about party political conference season. I’m talking about The Private Lives of Elder Things, a cracking collection of Cthulhu mythos short stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Keris McDonald, and Adam Gauntlett.

Making Sense of the Incomprehensible

I don’t read a lot Cthulhu fiction. I hold my hands up now and confess that I’ve never read a word by H. P. Lovecraft himself. But I’m friends with two of the authors of this collection, I like their writing, and there was free wine at their book launch. So not only did I buy a signed copy, but I started reading it.

The less horrifying side of this - the authors.
The less horrifying side of this – the authors.

Weeks later, I told Keris that I was reading her book and hadn’t read much Cthulhu. She seemed surprised and asked what I thought of it. After all, the stories are built on references to existing Cthulhu creatures. Without that prior reading, a lot of the references were going to be lost on me.

The answer is that I’m really enjoying these stories. I can tell as I read them that they’re referring to things I don’t recognise or understand. For me, that doesn’t leave me frustratingly lost. Instead, it creates the feeling of being embedded in a larger, richer world. I’m intrigued by those hints at things beyond the stories in my hands. They add to my immersion because they’ve been done well and so hint at a wider in-story world, rather than being nudge wink references that pull me out of the text.

And of course, the feeling of incomprehension is part of the allure of the mythos.

Superheroes and the Supernatural

I get the same experience reading the better superhero comics from DC and Marvel. References to events and characters in their wider continuities can create a sense of depth and richness. As long as those add to the story, rather than being what holds it up, they create depth whether I understand the references or not. Take this page from Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers:

thor-and-cap-wont-help

 

Do I need to know about the current story arcs of Thor and Captain America to understand the significance of them ignoring events outside? No. Is a deep understanding of their personalities vital to the story? No. Does it add something? Yes.

Of course, when poorly handled, these references become meaningless and frustrating, and that happens a lot in comics. A reliance on continuity rather than its use as flavour makes many comics inaccessible to new readers and boring to the less continuity-minded like me. Some people love it, but I think you can over-salt this meal.

Fortunately, that doesn’t happen in The Private Lives of Elder Things. These are creepy stories set in the modern world that hint at something more. They’re thoroughly enjoyable.

 

You can get The Private Lives… through Amazon. And while you’re there, why not check out the latest issue of 9Tales Told in the Dark, featuring my own take on horror, “Cold Flesh”.

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tiger and WolfThe Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky is an exciting fantasy adventure story. It has one of the best fantasy metaphors I’ve ever read for growing up. And, as you’d expect from Tchaikovsky, it’s a great piece of world building that provides a new and fascinating setting.

Stepping into Different Bodies

The protagonist of The Tiger and the Wolf, Maniye, is a tribal chief’s daughter. In her world, everyone can transform into an animal, a process called Stepping.

Which animal depends upon the culture they come from. Maniye lives in a wolf tribe, so the people around her can transform into wolves. The traders can become horses, the people of the distant southern lands alligators, the cave dwellers of the far north bears. Stepping gives the story its unusual and well-written action sequences, as characters shift between bodies to give them an edge in fights and chases.

One of the interesting parts about this is that Stepping is entirely voluntary. Which body to use is a choice characters make, unlike many traditional werewolf stories in which the animal takes over. This isn’t about a division between civilised and base instincts – it’s about what sort of person to be at any given moment.

For Maniye, that’s a tough decision.

Choosing Who to Be

Maniye’s father may be a wolf chief, but her mother was a tiger queen. She can turn into either animal, but violent tensions between the tiger and wolf cultures mean that her tiger form is completely unacceptable in her tribe. On the verge of adulthood, Maniye is about to face the choice of all those with two animal spirits within them, abandoning one and embracing the other.

As a metaphor for growing up, it’s not the most subtle, but it is powerful. Maniye is facing a choice between the different people she could be, the different heritages she comes from. It’s about the forms her parents would want her to take. She’s facing big choices about her identity, is under huge social pressure, and life seems out of her control. Her two animal souls are tearing her apart as she struggles to choose.

This could have ended up reading like a terrible heap of teen angst, but it doesn’t. Instead, it’s one more struggle for Maniye to face as she goes on the run, trying to define her own life and save that of a stranger. The final choice is predictable but immensely satisfying, and how she gets there is far from predictable. Like being a teenager, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

A Rich and Diverse World

When I started reading this book, I thought it was set in a world based on bronze age and dark age Europe. The more I read, the more it became apparent that that was my biases coming into play. As Tchaikovsky expands his world beyond the snowbound forests of the tiger and the wolf, we see civilisations influenced by real world examples from all over the globe. The wolf are reminiscent of hunting tribes from all across the icy regions below the Arctic. It was my background that coloured them Norse or Germanic. The world ofThe Tiger and the Wolf is actually far richer and more varied than that, and all the more fascinating for it.

Given the fierce online debates raging about diversity and representation in fantasy – debates which have fostered some gems of insight and a lot of ugly bluster – the diversity of this world reflects the themes of the book within a wider context. Fantasy culture is facing choices about what to be, just like Maniye. And like her, it is tearing itself apart over this. This book sets an example of a positive direction that choice could take us, and how that is compatible with the exciting stories more conservative elements claim to fear losing.

But honestly, most readers will neither know nor care about that. Good for them. What they’ll find is a gripping story, good characters and a cool new setting to explore. What more could you want?

 

 

Disclaimer:

I know Adrian Tchaikovsky personally, and my copy of this book was provided courtesy of his publicist.

But if I hadn’t liked the book I just wouldn’t have written about it. I’m not a pro reviewer, I mostly save this space for enthusing about cool stuff, and so if someone I know produces something that’s not to my tastes, I just don’t deal with it here. Call it my review policy, if you like. Andrew Knighton, taking the discreet way out since 1978.

 

And remember, my new book A Mosaic of Stars, collecting together over a year’s worth of weekly short stories, is available for pre-order as a Kindle e-book now.

Werewolves and Whuppings – An Interview With Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tiger and WolfAnyone who follows epic fantasy has heard of Adrian Tchaikovsky. A lawyer, gamer and all round top chap, he’s the author of the Shadows of the Apt series – the sort of massive fantasy work whose printing almost causes deforestation – and the wonderful Jane Austen meets Vietnam war fantasy Guns of the Dawn. I discussed his new book a little last week. Today I have an interview with Adrian, in which he talks world building, writing and which authors could beat him in a fight…

 

AK: Your new book, The Tiger and the Wolf, has just come out. Could you please tell readers what the book’s about and why they should be excited about it.

The Tiger and the Wolf takes us to a completely new world of shapeshifters. It’s a plunge into a setting where everyone has an animal soul, and some – like the heroine, Maniye – have more than one. This is my first new series after Shadows of the Apt, planned for at least 3 books, and the plot moves from Maniye’s quest to escape the reach of her father towards something truly world-shattering.

Why did you pick the particular animals you use in the book?

Obviously I wanted to get away from the insects and arachnids that were the mainstays on Shadows of the Apt. What I ended up with was a mix of the very familiar and the unexpected. So the people of Maniye’s cold northern climes are wolves, bears and tigers, fairly common shapeshifting fare, but other characters travelling in from elsewhere have different shapes – crocodiles, serpents, hyenas. I wanted to get a diverse spread of cultures, and the cultures are inextricably linked to the animals.

Have you learned any new lessons as a writer in the process of writing this book? And if not, could you tell us something you’ve learned from writing one of your previous novels?

I cut a whole hell of a lot of world building exposition. It’s really easy, when you put a lot of work into the world, to want to show your working to the reader. It was actually useful for me to write down, as it fixed it in my mind, but it all had to come out before the final version.

I heard you talking about your re-enactment fighting a couple of years ago. How does that feed into your writing? And which other author would you be most afraid to face in battle?

A basic understanding of how fights work is always a good thing as it gives you a much expanded toolkit when writing those scenes (though, as above, you also have to learn not to show your working too much). In T&W a lot of the fights were kind of crazy to write because the shapeshifting is instantaneous, so characters are shifting in and out of animal shape depending on what works best in that moment.

As for other writers, I’m a big guy but I reckon there are a whole raft of them who would whup my ass but good. Myke Cole, for one, or Martin Page who’s a very accomplished swordsman.

Is there any chance you’ll be returning to the world of Guns of the Dawn? I loved that book.

There’s every chance if it looks as though the demand is there. I have an idea for a sequel, with Emily being called back into military service out of civilian (and married) life, because when you’ve done what she’s done, war isn’t just going to leave you alone. Some day it’ll get written.

And finally the inevitable question – where can people find you online?

My website is www.shadowsoftheapt.com, and I’m on Facebook, and @aptshadow on Twitter.

 

The Tiger and the Wolf is out now from TOR.

Thanks very much to Adrian for the interview, and to Jamie-Lee Nardone for setting it up.

 

Making Fights Characterful – The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tiger and WolfGood action in a story doesn’t just get your blood pumping through a string of blows and dodges. It makes the most of whatever’s unique in the fight to create something distinctive. Best of all, it reveals character.

I’m currently reading The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and it’s a book that does this really well. The characters live in a fantasy world with similarities to the early Middle Ages. They are shapeshifters, each one able to transform into the animal associated with their tribe. But they don’t just go through action sequences as a human or a wolf/tiger/lizard. They shift between forms, making the most of each as the situation allows. How weapons, armour and clothes fit with these transformations is relevant to the fights, and this adds variety.

The characterful part comes from the way that their animal forms fit with their characters, and how this affects their use of them. Whether fiercely predatory, playfully vicious or torn between two worlds, their transformations add to the action while revealing who the characters are, and filling out the readers’ understanding of the world.

I’ll write about the whole book once I’ve finished it – and I’m definitely going to finish it, it’s really cool so far. In the meantime, I feel like I’m learning something as a writer from this book, as well as enjoying myself, and that’s awesome.

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky is out today. If you like fantasy with unusual twists on combat you should also check out his Guns of the Dawn, which I wrote about here.

Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky – War, Magic and Polite Society

I’ve been looking forward to reading Guns of the Dawn since listening to its author Adrian Tchaikovsky read from it at FantasyCon last year. Combining black powder fantasy with a war story and an exploration of gender roles, it hits a lot of themes that interest me. And as it turned out, it was even more interesting than I expected.

Revolutionary War is Hell

Guns of the Dawn is set in a fantasy world with late 18th century technology and politics, in which one nation has overthrown its monarchy in a bloody revolution and its neighbour is invading in defence of the old order. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, neighbouring Lascanne is running out of soldiers to fight with. Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend their country from their regicidal neighbours.

Except that, as the cover says, ‘the first casualty is always the truth’, and the rights and wrongs of this conflict are far from clear.

Half the book’s action takes place in a brutal battle for control of a stretch of swamp. It’s a good example of fantasy world building that draws from different parts of history, with the technology of the Napoleonic Wars, the exhausting jungle warfare of Vietnam, and the issues of mass conscription that marked the First World War. This jamming together of historical elements shows one of the great advantages of using fantasy over historical fiction – looking at how elements from different historical periods might combine. It’s a great piece of world building, and really hammers home the horrors of war.

Now for Some Jane Austen

The dark experience at the heart of the book is made all the more striking for being framed by Emily’s pre- and post-war experience. Hers is a genteel life like something out of Jane Austen, leaving her unprepared to become a soldier. As well as making the war all the darker by contrast, this acts as a reminder that such a privileged life is often made possible only by the suffering and struggles of others.

Jane Austen’s characters existed in the same world where Napoleon was conquering most of Europe. These two elements, often seen apart, combine to make a fascinating contrast.

Dawn of the Guns

There are plenty of other things about this book that I could enthuse about. The characters follow familiar tropes, but are given enough depth to make them enjoyably familiar rather than tedious clichés. The way magic fits into the social and political hierarchy hints at some fascinating possibilities. The atmosphere of the the military campaign, and the psychology of people unable to face the truth, are brought vividly to life.

But one of my favourite details is a technological one. During the fighting in the swamps it becomes clear that the Denlanders have special guns which are giving them an advantage. When the truth eventually comes out it’s a clever use of real historical technology, showing how researching the real world can make imagined worlds stronger.