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Revenge of the Spec Fic Nerds!

Two old Speculative Fiction Nerds walk into in a bar…
No. Really. We met in a bar and realised we had one major thing in common: words. Preferably wrapped about fantastic worlds like some insane crazy quilt.

CC: All right, we said we were going to talk about worldbuilding this month, or at least partially, because it’s perhaps one of the biggest aspects of Spec Fic. While we usually start out with an OED definition of our topic, I’m afraid the OED doesn’t have one for this. So you’ll just have to trust us on this one:

~1 Worldbuilding noun \ˈwər(-ə)ld-bil-diŋ\

The process of inventing a world or universe to serve as a base upon which a fictional story is set. History, biology (and its evolution), psychology and sociology (and their evolution[s]), ecology and geology are all crucial components of inclusive worldbuilding and, when used effectively, can enhance and enrich a fully realized fictional world.

CC: No, we’re not going to tell you how to build a world, and we’re not going to cram in not-so-sly promos of the worlds we’ve built in our own books. Except, I did build this really cool world, and you can read all about it in my book. Here, let me paste in an excerpt and a link to—

JTH: A-hem.

CC: …Er. Yes, Jen?

JTH: Don’t give me that innocent look. No. Down, girl.

CC: *pours JTH honking-big glass of wine and grins endearingly*

JTH: *sips wine* Still no. And that grin isn’t half as endearing as you think it is.

CC: *grumbles* Okay, fine, we’re really not here to talk about our own worlds, and we’re not even really here to analyze the worlds of other authors. We’re here to talk about worldbuilding in Spec Fic and why writing it—and reading it—takes a different kind of mindset than it would in something like… oh, say, a historical memoir or a contemporary romance. We’re also going to talk about why anachronisms aren’t always anachronistic, even if they look like they are, and why—even when building a world encompasses the exposition of same-sex sexuality—the term “gay” does not necessarily apply.

JTH: And also, eventually, why worldbuilding can be its own most craven enemy, leading to such things as the Backstory That Drones On And On And ON, the World Without A Plot, and the World That Tells You–Every Stinking Paragraph–Just How Amazing It Is.

*looks at all the capitals* Bloody damn, that was exhausting.

CC: Have some cheese with that whine?

JTH: As long as it isn’t Cheetos

CC: *lobs cheese*

JTH: *catches it* But then, worldbuilding is bloody exhaustive work and we should all cast a suspicious eye upon those who say otherwise. Which end upon the hard part descends hinges on how you work and write… but if you don’t do the work, it shows. And we have an entire rich world to base us in creating our own; SF is all about the mining and resculpturing of mythic encounters. It questions valued paradigms. There is, of course and like everything, a caveat to this: so much of SF started with a bunch of upper class white guys–many of them Victorians envisioning Other, and often in a less-than-culturally-balanced way. Nevertheless, some of the most amazing worlds were born in the breath of folk tales and faery stories. Perhaps all of it, when you break it down to its essential bits…

But it’s a different kind of work than, say, the work you have to do on an historically-based event. There is no less of a world being built (rebuilt?) in historical fiction but your… ‘map’ changes. The rules by which you have to abide can be fairly binding. You can wriggle around a lot of the Rules by putting a fantastical element into the history. Steampunk and alternate history are two good examples of this. I detest bunging everything up into tidy boxes, BUT. A magical element is not license to run amok. There has to be some sort of internal consistency, some sense to be gleaned from even a wild world, however anarchic or anachronistic.

CC: It’s tempting to shove dragons and magic and the Fae Folk (or spaceships and laser guns) into a story and think: “There, I’m done. I can do what I want, now!” But no. No, no, no, noooooo. Just because it’s a Spec Fic story and there’s more license for playing with the development of the world, does not mean there don’t have to be rules. Every world has to have rules—gravity, physical limitations, societal expectations, etc.—and just because a world is made up, that doesn’t give it a free pass. There still has to be a basis in the reality of that particular world.

Given that, Anachronism is still one of those words that gets thrown around entirely too much. I’ve seen complaints about an anachronism in a book that “threw a reader out of the story”, and when I go and have a look, I find that the word or situation in question wasn’t anachronistic at all. What a reader might think is an anachronism isn’t always anachronistic:

A world wouldn’t develop mass transit before it developed mass communication, WTF!

It wouldn’t? Why not? It’s a completely different world—why wouldn’t it develop technology on a completely different timeline and in a completely different way?

A hospital scene in Medieval Japan, WTF!

And…? First of all, if it’s a Spec Fic story, it wouldn’t really be Medieval Japan, would it? And second of all, Medieval Japan had hospitals.

JTH: So much of Spec Fic is based on medieval places; it’s far too easy to fall into those assumptions and expectations… in a genre where expectations are supposed to be shaken and questioned! And if you have a race, say, of telepaths that cannot physically teleport, then they don’t need artificial mass communication… but they just might have to get somewhere quickly. So I guess my question is: who wasn’t doing the work? There’s a problem on both sides of the author/reader dynamic: the tendency to be unwilling–or just too lazy–to submit to the world being built.

The writer has a lot more to prove, a lot more trust to garner–and they should. A writer’s job is to make absolutely sure their wild and fantastic world has some kind of interior logic that holds water, and all the while be preemptive in making sure that said logic is presented in stable and hopefully non-intrusive fashion. On the reader’s side, they need to agree to let the author take them on a journey of some kind–and often in SF that means being thoughtful and open-minded. Lack of know-how on either side can sabotage the trust.

And there’s always going to be someone–author or reader–who pulls something out of their arse without checking to make sure whether they’ve mined gold or crap.

CC: And writers get bent on the weirdest things. For example, I was watching a conversation on one of my writers’ groups in which the OP asked if she should stay away from using the word “earth” in the fantasy story she was writing, and whether or not it was anachronistic. And I kind of watched the comments build and multiply, all the while boggling that everyone seemed to think it was a huge mistake to use the word in a story that didn’t take place on Earth, and not a single person seemed to twig to the fact that, in its nonProper Noun form, “earth” is just another word for “soil”. Yes, someone thousands of years ago named our planet after it, but the primary definition of the word originated from the Greek “eorthe/ertha” and “erde”, both of which mean “ground”.

The thing is, writing a Spec Fic story without inventing a whole new language for the world in which the story is based—and then writing the story in that language—is anachronistic in and of itself. We’re already putting English words in our characters’ mouths, when they obviously shouldn’t be speaking English. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, wasn’t written in Westron, so technically, the entirety of the text is one giant anachronism. So you do have to give a Spec Fic story some leeway when it comes to language.

JTH: And Tolkien wasn’t building a world that was separate from OUR world; he was doing a myth of prehistory. So he could get away with a lot of things he shouldn’t have been able to had he been doing a totally different world… and had he not been a Fantasy Trailblazer and White Dude. 😉 A Fantasy based firmly in history has to be somewhat conversant with that history… (And truthfully, Tolkien kind of did what he bloody wanted with some of his ‘consistencies’. Being Fantasy Trailblazer garners respect, but does not get you off the hook, White Dude.)

CC: Yeah, there is certainly that. Calling a story Spec Fic does not mean it’s a free-for-all when it comes to building the world on which the story takes place. The religion of that world is a four-god system that never heard of Judeo-Christianity? Then having your character say “jeepers creepers” is anachronistic. Why? Because it’s a slang phrase meant as a nonblasphemous alternative to saying “Jesus Christ.”

JTH: Or Jeezy Creezy, as Eddie Izzard would say. (And if you’ve not heard of him… run, don’t walk to your retailer of choice, and grab one of his comedic DVDs.)

CC: In your mind!

*cough* Sorry. Had myself a brief Izzard Moment. Anyway.

There are tons of words and phrases like that, and sometimes readers will trip over them, and sometimes they won’t. But it’s the author’s job to be aware of language and to use it properly. And then not get all bent out of shape when someone does trip over an anachronism the author used, however inadvertently, because let’s face it—not all of us have a 5,000,000 word vocabulary and the brass to use it. *pokes JTH*

JTH: Kept me off the streets. Dirt roads. Whatever. I do believe I was the only kid I knew who had a dictionary on the nightstand–and read it. Of course, reading the dictionary means that you end up not knowing many kids…

And language… that is a whole ‘nother thing all it’s own… and I really-really want to dive in headfirst, but will restrain myself for another visit to the Armchair. I’ll just leave it for now that language can be anachronism. Or, given the proper basis, not. Anachronism is like… a debate, perhaps, and the entire hinge upon which it swings seems to be the validity of the defending argument. Does the author make the world-logic compelling enough to take in the use of this device, or wield that equipment? Are they insecure in their world and having to desperately defend it by bludgeoning the reader? Is the reader willing to go in and be convinced–or do they, too, have some underground agenda of needing to have their own world validated, and so much that they can’t wake up to another one?

Or did just some unfortunate fuck-up happen that nobody caught? Because, well, it does.

CC: When the author ventures out of that reality, that’s when it’s okay to call a Spec Fic story on anachronism. Authors know their worlds better than anyone else ever will, but sometimes we spend so much time in them, we don’t pay enough attention to the one everybody else lives in. So yeah, things—like a phrase or a word or a concept—can get by an author and no alarm bells will go off until a reader catches it.

On the other hand, just because a character in a SF world that looks like a 4th century Mesopotamia discovers a device that looks suspiciously to the reader like a battery—and probably starts a big war or has to keep the device from Evil Bad Guy, because we can’t forget about the High Stakes Endgame—that doesn’t make it anachronistic. If the possibility of that device is built into that world, the author has done their job and it’s the reader’s responsibility to roll with it. And if the reader still can’t buy it? Look it up. It’s sometimes surprising how many “unbelievable and anachronistic” things are actually neither. ‘Cause, you know, there is such thing as the Baghdad Battery. Oh, and hey, historians are pretty sure it’s from the 3rd century.

JTH: So it seems, when you get it whittled down, it’s cultural anachronisms in SF that can be the worst offenders, eh? If a reader or writer makes the assumption that things are expected to be nothing more than status quo, set in the stone of our own culture’s baggage… that’s when things can get really dicey. Like assuming another religion will of course look at things the same way as ‘your’ religion does. Like deciding that every being living on an entire planet will act the same and look the same. (Yes, Gene Roddenberry, I love you but am looking at you.) Like being irritated when words have apostrophes or are difficult to pronounce, and…? *pauses and toasts CC*

CC: And here’s where we get into “gay”, and why it really isn’t. At least, in a Spec Fic story that’s not based in our world.

Our history is not the universe’s history. If there are other populated worlds out there, chances are not all of them came up with vengeful gods who hate it when people stick their twigs in what they perceive as the wrong knothole, or eschew twigs altogether.

I like to think that other worlds wouldn’t develop our same prejudices. I like to think alien societies would be smarter about sexuality than we are. So when I’m confronted with a story that supposedly takes place on another world entirely, and yet that world includes all of the societal absurdities of ours, I have to hold back a few emo tears. Because what’s the point? Spec Fic, you know?—where the ‘spec’ part is short for speculative. If there’s no speculation, what’s so speculative about it?

“Gay”, as a cultural concept, is characteristic of our world, and the prejudices that—unfortunately still—come with it progressed from a societal evolution unique to us. Or, at least, I certainly hope we’re the only idiots in the universe to have hissies over who sleeps with whom. But I digress. And don’t mistake “gay” for a blanket synonym for “same-sex relationships”, not in Spec Fic. In Spec Fic, same-sex relationships are often part and parcel of the cultural norm—sometimes the expectation.

JTH: I think it’s that language thing again… and one that belongs to our more recent cultures. Gay, for instance–relatively recently and in the more dominant cultures of this world–has been claimed by a disenfranchised group of people as a statement and an identity. It seems to me somewhat discourteous–and disingenuous–to just hie off with that identity and use it as nothing more than a keyword. There has to be context. There will be subtext–either read into it or there waiting to be read–and we all need to be damn sure of what that subtext is saying. If history is taken from an identifier, then to some extent some of the identifier’s meaning is ripped away as well.

I can talk about a gay 12th century English outlaw–but do I use that terminology in the text proper? No. There are words from that century that are more appropriate–and many of them unfortunately brutal–but with some attention their meaning can make them pertinent to a struggle the modern reader can identify with. The cultural and language markers cannot be the same… but the subtext and questions within them can make them even more accessible.

As Spec Fic writers–and readers–we need to build upon existing identities… but we also need to know when to let them hold their own place. We need to build new identities as we’re building new worlds–and look for answers to old, troubling questions whilst we carry on our attempts to make some sort of sense within them.

And for you, Dear Readers:

What books and/or stories made you question your paradigm? Made you ‘wake up’ and ask questions about what was wrong–or right–about your own world?

Carole Cummings lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is an avid reader of just about anything that’s written well and has good characters. She is a lifelong writer of the ‘movies’ that run constantly in her head. Surprisingly, she does manage sleep in there somewhere, and though she is rumored to live on coffee and Pixy Stix™, no one has as yet suggested she might be more comfortable in a padded room. Well, not to her face.

J Tullos Hennig is suspected of having written since in utero. JTH was a professional writer 30 years ago, but Very Bad Luck prevailed so the publishing ground to a halt. JTH also tried to stop writing, but resistance is, yes, futile… and here we are. JTH has recently re-imagined the legend of Robyn Hood in a duology of Historical Fantasy; Book 1, Greenwode was published by Dreamspinner Press in January 2013. The second book, Shirewode was released on September 9th. JTH is presently working on the introductory book of a Speculative Fiction series.

The Spec Fic Nerds Strike Back!

Two old Speculative Fiction Nerds met in a bar…
No. Really. We met in a bar and realised we had one major thing in common: words. Preferably wrapped about fantastic worlds like some insane crazy quilt.

JTH: Well, I must say, my introduction to the world of m/m romance (and we will talk about that ‘slash’ very soon, we will, preciousss) is really making me realise how many things I have always taken for granted, not only as a writer but a reader. Witness this recent phone conversation with my dear comrade-in-crime, Carole:

CC: …and so they wanted to know why I kept telling the story from the PoV of the other characters.

JTH: *drops mop and stares at phone* WTF?

CC: Yeah. That I squandered too many words and pages on those ‘useless other people’.

JTH: *looking at mop on wet floor, trying not to drop phone* W…TF??

CC: That I should only be telling the story from the two main characters.

JTH: *Ginormous Air Quotes of* W… T… F……?????

CC: Because, obviously, the only ones who count are the two guys doing it.

JTH: *snatches up mop* Bloody hell. Like two shagging protagonists would be reliable narrators?

CC: And then they’re griping because they didn’t understand the book.

JTH: Well, maybe if they HAD PAID ATTENTION TO THE OTHER CHARACTERS they would have done!

(And yes, we do talk on the phone whilst doing housework. Otherwise MY house would never get clean… though Carole’s would, she’s better than me at that stuff.)

CC: You wanted to say ‘more anal’ there. Admit it.

JTH: *whistles and refills CC’s margarita pitcher*

CC: Ah, see, if I’d had this during that phone conversation, maybe I wouldn’t have been quite so bewildered about the OMG WTF MULTIPLE POV AUGH! thing.

…Actually, maybe I wouldn’t have even noticed. 😉

JTH: So. As might be obvious, I was rather astounded that you were getting flak for the audacity of… having more than two points of view. Multiple Point-of-View (PoV) is not only a widely accepted way of telling a story in many genres, but in SF it is one of the trope-iest (and perhaps trippiest) Holy Mothers of SF Tropes.

CC: Well, before we wax rhapsodic about the many advantages of this particular Storytelling tool, let’s define Trope, via the O.E.D.:

–1. Rhetoric. A figure of speech which consists in the use of a word or phrase in a sense other than that which is proper to it; also, in casual use, a figure of speech; figurative language.

Or, to use the more specialised Cambridge definition:

–Something such as an idea, phrase, or image that is often used in a particular artist’s work, in a particular type of art, etc: human-like robots are a classic trope of Science Fiction.

You can also mosey over to the TV Tropes site, but prepare to spend an involuntary and inordinate vastness of time perusing the archives. You Have Been Warned.

We touched on expectations last month, which begins, in truth, upon the Road of Tropes. Each genre has its own set of tropes but there’s a lot of crosspollination too. And there are also some tropes that are common to one genre and almost unheard of in another. Multiple POV is apparently one of those tropes not terribly widespread in the Romance genre, but so universal in the Spec Fic genre that it’s almost expected. So, we should maybe start with why that is and how it can enhance the reading experience of a Spec Fic story.

*fetches JTH a fresh bottle of wine*

JTH: *glomps on it, then scowls* Goddammit, where’s my corkscrew?

CC: *holds up corkscrew, whistling*

JTH: I have to perform for my wine. I see how you are. All right, well… First: no one exists in a bloody vacuum. The most internal head-stuck-up-own-arse character might live in their own world, but unless they’re Robinson Crusoe, they aren’t in a vacuum. In fact, it can be gainfully argued that R. Crusoe isn’t in a vacuum any more than any other character, because what is occupying said castaway’s mind? Survival, natch, but also, getting back home.

Second–and this is extremely important–a secondary or peripheral PoV will usually be a dark glass in which to view the main character. And often a more realistic glass, because usually a main character is that because they are in some sort of mess. Which means they are likely not reliable witnesses at some point.

CC: And in the book referenced in the above telephone conversation, that second reason is exactly why I chose to write the story through multiple points of view. There is such a thing as Unreliable Narrator. And in that particular story, both protagonists were unreliable, both protagonists saw the events of the story through too-personal lenses, and neither protagonist could be relied upon to interpret the truth of the events for the reader, only their own skewed perceptions of them. And while those perceptions may have been entirely honest from the PoVs of those protagonists, it still didn’t make them the truth.

JTH: But it makes them interesting. There can be this amazing subtextual conversation happening around, betwixt and beneath Supposed Truth, if readers pay attention. And if writers are skilled enough to impart it.

CC: A lot of ifs. And a lot of people wondering, I’m sure, why bother? Why tell a story through an Unreliable Narrator in the first place? Why not let one of the protagonists be omniscient and always right, and make it easy for everyone?

JTH: Um… *scrutinizes wine glass* It’s boring? Like an empty glass… *makes sad eyes at CC*

CC: *snorts and tenders a refill* Well, I write what I like to read, and as a reader, I definitely find it much more interesting when the story and the characterizations aren’t spoonfed to me. But more importantly, Unreliable Narrator is just how things work in general when you’re dealing with human beings.

Think about it in terms of real life: Put ten people in a room, make them watch two strangers act out an argument, and see how many different stories you get as to what the argument was about, whose fault it was, what started it, who made the best points and who eventually won it. Know how many different stories you’ll get? I’m betting on ten. Know which one you’re going to believe? Yours. You’ll probably listen to everyone else’s opinions first, you’ll compare it to your memory of events, and you’ll probably even adjust your opinion as a consequence, but in the end, you’ll walk away from it with your truth, and that’s the one you’ll swear to in front a jury of your peers. Or your friends on Facebook. Whatever.

So, why would characters in a story be any different? Every character has (or should have) a different POV and interprets events based on that POV. You can’t know what the real essence of a complex plot is until the pertinent characters show you their POV so you can assess accordingly and decide for yourself what the truth of the story is.

JTH: See, to me that is what takes a trope from tired into brilliant. It’s the experiences being had, and the little connect-the-dots between those experiences that give a full, rich picture. When you’re dealing with well-written Spec Fic and its complexities of other worlds and realities, you need all the info. You will be soooo screwed if you don’t have the full picture.

CC: Yes! There are, of course, disadvantages to the Multiple PoV trope. As a Spec Fic reader/writer, I’ll confess I wasn’t aware that multiPoV is apparently not the done thing in the Romance genre.

JTH: Well now everyone knows how taken aback I was. And quite frankly, it’s not a must in Romance, either. The Thorn Birds, anyone?

CC: Well, that’s an older book, too.

JTH: Classic! Back in the days of novels that took me longer than two hours to read. Those *raises glass* were the days, eh? But now… it’s not done?

CC: It seems more common now that people like their PoVs drawn very tightly, and limited to one or two. Which is okay, don’t get me wrong—especially when the major arc of a story exists to answer the question of whether or not the two protagonists will end up together, as it generally is in a romance. But when it comes to Spec Fic, the keyword there is ‘limited’. And yes, in most Spec Fic you need all the info. When you’re dealing with detailed world-building and multifaceted plots, it’s unlikely that only one or two main characters can be personal witness to everything that’s pertinent to the story as a whole.

The thing is, when dealing with a multiPoV story, it is absolutely possible that the various opinions put forth by the PoV characters can confuse a reader, especially if the main character is an Unreliable Narrator. The reader isn’t given an obvious character telling them what to think, they’re not given an obvious character stepping forth to proclaim This is the truth, the only truth, the foundation upon which you should build your opinion. And some readers might object to that.

JTH: Well, perhaps Spec Fic designed as Spec Fic is not their cuppa. To each their own and all that. But you know, I think its the stakes that often make the crucial difference in how authors choose to tell a story. Another tropiest of Spec Fic tropes is the High Stakes Endgame. In this, the characters are often sympathetic, personal representations of a ginormous conflict, one often being waged on a land-wide, planetary or cosmic scale. You can’t figure the stakes if you don’t know the players–and there are, often, many players in such a game, each with a very valid PoV.

CC: And the players themselves can be understood through another trope that’s very important to the question of multiple PoVs: Archetypes. If you know them and can recognize them, find the Witness in the story and stick with him/her. That’s where you’ll generally find the truth.

JTH: Archetypes hit the nail on the trope head–they are the instinctual expression of experience. You don’t have to be a student of Jungian theory or read Joseph Campbell to know them (though I would recommend Joe Campbell’s Power of Myth tv series with Bill Moyers as Myth 101 to everyone, particularly writers), but even if you think you don’t know them, you probably do. Everyone recognises the Callow Youth, who with the help of a aged Mentor/Wizard is revealed to be the Chosen One who will lead his people. From Arthur to Moses to Luke Skywalker, it’s all there. There’s the Innocent who walks into the enchanted forest and literally falls into the Adventure, sometimes kicking and screaming. There’s…

Gah, I could go on, you know…

CC: *pats JTH* I know, dear.

JTH: I think my Freudian Slip of Myth Geekiness is showing. It needs more wine to lull it into complacency.

CC: *offers more wine*

JTH: But you were speaking of the Witness in particular. The Witness is not strictly a Jungian archetype, but s/he often slips into the role of Storyteller, is often a uncomplicated sort with an uncomplicated view, the Everyman or the Survivor. Archetypes can also be thematic, or situational. But we all put them into use, one way or another. Particularly when telling a story that nips the heels of myth. They’re our key to the enchanted lock of Story. Which means they are both the bane and boon of storytelling, If you don’t have a solid archetypical foundation, or you’re relying too heavily on a trope without broadening and personalising the experience?

The latter is kind of like George Lucas did with the Gawdawful Trilogy of Utter Crap Backstory. I really dig backstory, but that? *shudders* Give me The Empire Strikes Back, any day.

CC: People also have to be invested in the PoV characters. Precious few were invested in The Phantom Menace characters except the marketing wizards selling toys.

JTH: Just for that, you deserve another pitcher of margaritas. And cabana boys fanning you.

CC: Jen! You got me a cabana boy! Just what I’ve always wanted! Sentimental wench.

JTH: Drink makes me sloppy. And a bit chatty.

CC: Good thing we’re supposed to be chatting. *pats* Okay, I want to go play with my new present, so let’s start wrapping this up.

As we talked about last month, there’s an expectation in the M/M genre that every story should be a Romance. A tightened one or two PoV narrative suits Romance perfectly, because Romance is all about the two main characters and the development of their relationship. That’s not always the case with Spec Fic. Basically, I think what we’ve been dealing with here is the difference between a Romance with some Spec Fic elements, in which case the SinglePoV would be most applicable, as opposed to a Spec Fic with a subplot love story, in which case the MultiPoV generally works best. When you’re building a complicated world, and populating it with complicated people, and giving them a chewy plot to gnaw through on the way to their high stakes endgame, a SinglePoV can be more of a detriment than a favored storytelling tool. And while M/M Spec Fic can certainly contain romantic elements, that doesn’t make them Romances and they can’t be read as such.

JTH: Well, they can, but that seems, more and more, to end with a disappointed cadre of Romance readers. It disrupts the expected trope… only in some cases, the expected trope isn’t truly the one the story was aligned with. It’s what Joe Campbell would call a ‘mistaken reading’. And also, perhaps, mistaken marketing–but that’s a whole ‘nother can of sandworms…

We’ll deal with one of the more thorny tropes of Spec Fic: World Building. The ins and outs of cussing, of how anachronism aren’t–‘cept when they are, how to groom a unicorn if you aren’t a virgin, and how Gay is often… not.

[And CC and I are often on opposite sides of the fence on these topics, so it should prove interesting. 😉 ]

In the meantime, Fair Readers, what is your favourite Spec Fic trope? What would you like to see discussed, or discuss with us?

Thanks, everyone. See you in the comments section!

Carole Cummings lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is an avid reader of just about anything that’s written well and has good characters. She is a lifelong writer of the ‘movies’ that run constantly in her head. Surprisingly, she does manage sleep in there somewhere, and though she is rumored to live on coffee and Pixy Stix™, no one has as yet suggested she might be more comfortable in a padded room. Well, not to her face.

J Tullos Hennig is suspected of having written since in utero. JTH was a professional writer 30 years ago, but Very Bad Luck prevailed so the publishing ground to a halt. JTH also tried to stop writing, but resistance is, yes, futile… and here we are. JTH has recently re-imagined the legend of Robyn Hood in a duology of Historical Fantasy; Book 1, Greenwode was published by Dreamspinner Press in January 2013. The second book, Shirewode is due out September 9th. JTH is presently working on finishing the introductory book of a Speculative Fiction series.

From the Ashes (Fire and Rain #1) - Daisy HarrisTitle: From the Ashes (Fire and Rain #1)
Author: Daisy Harris
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Length: ≈67k words, 216 pages
Genre: m/m Contemporary Romance
Heat: 4 – Spicy & Smutty
Sex Frequency: 4 – Very Often
Keywords/Tags: Closeted, Family Issues, Firefighters, First Times, OFY, Homeless, Pets, Series
Rating: Pretty Good

Reviewed by Nikyta


He wanted a boyfriend. What he got was a hero.

When an accident burns down Jesse’s apartment, he’s left broke and homeless, with a giant dog and a college schedule he can’t afford to maintain. And no family who’s willing to take him in.

Lucky for him, a sexy fireman offers him a place to stay. The drawback? The fireman’s big Latino family lives next door, and they don’t know their son is gay.

Tomas’s parents made their way in America with hard work and by accepting help when it was offered, so he won’t let Jesse drop out of school just so he can afford a place to live. Besides, Jesse’s the perfect roommate—funny, sweet and breathtakingly cute. He climbs into Tomas’s bed and tugs at his heart. Until Jesse starts pushing for more.

Their passion enflames their bodies but threatens to crush Tomas’s family. Tomas is willing to fight for Jesse, but after losing everything, Jesse isn’t sure he can bear to risk his one remaining possession—his heart.


I really liked this story. It’s a bit predictable but the characters and the overall writing make up for that.

This is about Jesse who has his apartment burned down, leaving him homeless and with his ex-landlords’ dog. Tomas was one of the responding firefighters and helped Jesse through his shock. Unable to leave Jesse homeless, he takes him home and cares for him and his big dog, Chardonnay. What starts there is a sweet but awkward relationship where Tomas is still in the closet, living next door to his family and Jesse is trying to get his life back together while they both fight the feelings they’re starting to develop.

The highlight of this book is probably the characters. Tomas is this big, strong guy with the sweetest heart that can’t seem to let Jesse go even if it means making his life somewhat difficult. I adored the way he tried to help Jesse and his struggle to keep things as friends between them. Jesse, at first, seems like a weak character but he’s actually strong, willing to stand up for himself and put an end to things that make things worse, even if it kills him to do it. Thankfully, while he attempts to do this, Tomas is not willing to let Jesse go and, even if he does say differently, he’s going to fight for what he has with Jesse, which I also loved!

The novel, in my eyes, was about coming out and being true to yourself and your family; to find that home that is yours and no one can take away. It’s not very angsty, even with all the situations Jesse and Tomas go through. Mostly, it is about Jesse and Tomas trying to make things work. Tomas wants a partner but doesn’t want to tell his family he’s gay. Jesse no longer has a family but just wants a partner that isn’t afraid to be with him. They’re completely different but together they’re hot and sweet. They have to go through issues such as Tomas coming out but more importantly dealing with Tomas’ older brother, Diego, who is very vocal of his opinion when it comes to Jesse and being gay.

While I enjoyed the story, I had a few issues with it. Mainly, how much sex there was. I felt like whenever Jesse and Tomas needed to talk, they’d have sex instead and put off talking for later. Also, Tomas’ reasoning for why he won’t have anal or why he won’t let Jesse go down on him were completely baffling, IMO, and didn’t make much sense to me considering what else he would do. Beyond that, I felt like Tomas’ family was a big problem between Tomas and Jesse but we don’t actually get to see them or get a resolution on ALL of their opinions of Tomas being gay and in a relationship. It was such a huge issue but that segment felt unresolved and left me slightly disappointed.

In the end, I really enjoyed the story. While it might have conflicts that felt clichéd, the characters were still likeable and made me want to keep reading. I liked that this story didn’t have much angst but still dealt with both Tomas and Jesse’s problems. I won’t lie that Jesse and Tomas together were very hot and had a good connection so readers will definitely enjoy that part of the story!


Congrats to


for winning the copy of the Conflict: Contact by Jack Greene. I’ve already emailed the winner, so they should already have heard from me, but if not, please email me at armchairreader[dot]coleriann[at]gmail[dot]com so you can get your book. Thanks for playing everyone and thank you all for stopping by and commenting on my review of this story!

Buy Link: http://www.amazon.com/Conflict-Contact-ebook/dp/B00DZ700EG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1375936052&sr=1-1&keywords=conflict%3A+contact+jack+greene

Conflict__ContactTitle: Conflict: Contact (Conflict #1)
Author: Jack Greene
Publisher: Phaze
Length: 13,650 words
Genre: m/m Sci Fi Erotica Romance
Heat: 4 – Spicy & Smutty
Sex Frequency: 3 – Average Sex to Story
Keywords/Tags: Short Story, Series, Space Travel/Opera, Military, May/December, Cheating (it’s no biggie, more info in review), Married, Affair with the Boss, Genetic Modification, Other Worlds, Artificial Worlds, Battle/War, Alliances, Stranded
Rating: So So

**Some Spoilers! Sorry 😦


Conflict is a serial in three parts: In the not-so-distant future, the people of the Earth are repressed by the iron rule of the Emperor. The Space Colonies have resisted, and as a result are at war with the Emperor.

In Conflict: Contact, Lieutenant Colton Santarelli and the Colony Special Forces undertake a desperate mission to keep the Emperor from building the ultimate weapon, an army of supersoldiers. But amidst the terror of war, Colton is secretly in love with his dashing–and married–commanding officer Colonel Vance Hohler.


The first of a three part serialized novella called Conflict, Contact sets up this science fiction and space exploration erotic story about a colony Lieutenant named Colton who is in lust and moving toward love with his Colonel. Before setting out on a dangerous mission to overpower the Earth Emperor’s forces, Colton shares a mind-blowing moment with Vance, his Colonel, on the balcony during the party to celebrate their new venture. The problem is that no matter how much Vance shows interest in him as well, the fact remains that Vance is married.

Colton leaves with mixed feelings of lust, guilt and a little bit of love only to find that the Colonist’s offensive is in serious trouble. Before long, Colton finds himself all alone in a battle where most of his men have died and his ship is alone fighting the Emperor’s forces. In a bid to recover possible success in their mission, Colton heads to land and infiltrate the enemy base. What he finds there both horrifies him and confirms that the Emperor has been up to what they expected.

Shizu is a genetically modified human that was abducted as a child and has been through a horrible hell of testing and modification along with several others. Now, he thinks he’s the only one left, at least in this base and the sight of a man who takes him out of the base and tries to get him to freedom bonds them together. But Shizu still harbors feelings for the man who was with him, who tried to escape with him before they were caught and separated forever. Hiding in a cave with Colton while they await rescue with a downed ship, the two get to know one another and forge a friendship of mutual respect and goals that might just be a bridge between the Colony forces and Earth’s grassroots rebellion that could help them overthrow the planet’s tyrannical rule.

I’m always excited to get a new Jack Greene story for review, but lately his work has been turning from more erotica to romance. He still writes highly erotic stories, such as this, but there’s definitely more plot to work with and to keep me interested and I like the fusion of styles and his growth as an author. It certainly makes me look forward to the next two stories in this “serialized” story. As the first of such a series, a large part of this story serves to set up the world. We’re presented with a world split into three factions: Earth, where a tyrant has united the world under one rule; the colonies, artificial worlds in space that use artificial gravity and other futuristic technological advances to create a sort of mirror earth in a controlled atmosphere; and lastly, the grassroots resistance on Earth, living hardscrabble lives with little food or supplies and actively defying the Empire while remaining under the radar. Conflict gives us the initial outlook in this conflict while paving the way for the next couple of stories through the connection made between Colton, Shizu and Shizu’s lover.

The relationship between Colton and his Colonel, Vance, is a different matter. Vance appears quickly in the beginning and then later in the story, but is largely removed (so far) from the actual conflict. His motivations seemed hazy to me for much of the story before he seemed to do an about face and admit deep feelings of love for Colton, despite his marriage, which he claims is unhappy and more of convenience. There’s one brief bout of cheating in the beginning of the novel, but it seems that there won’t be anymore, going by what we learn later in the story. So if you find cheating a huge turnoff, you might be initially disappointed in the story. Otherwise, I found their interactions together to be really steamy and satisfying on an erotic level, but at the end of the story I remained unconvinced in any true feelings between them. Perhaps, hopefully, that will change in the next two stories. I’d rather have an all or nothing approach, all romance and development of those feelings, or pure erotica. But a mishmash of the two where I’m not shown any of that progression cheapens the story a bit for me.

I’m definitely excited to see what’s in store for these characters. Of course, even though I had problems with some of the story, for the most part I’m pretty forgiving (always, of course, lol), but especially because this is the first story in a three part arc and there’s room for the characters to grow into the feelings presented here.

Be sure to comment below to win a copy of the story!


Please leave a comment below to win an ebook copy of Conflict: Contact. The giveaway will last until Midnight CDT on Friday, August 2. I will choose the winner using Random.org and email the winner who will then have 48 hours from the time of the drawing to reply to my email. I will then forward the winner’s information to the author so the winner can receive their book.

Please enter the email you’d wish me to contact you at in the comment form, or if you prefer, leave it in the message.

Thank you and good luck!


Two old Speculative Fiction Nerds walk into a bar…

No. Really. We met in a bar and realised we had one major thing in common: words. Preferably wrapped about fantastic worlds like some insane crazy quilt.

Hi, we’re Carole Cummings and J Tullos Hennig, and like the title says, we’re two old SF nerds, and Cole has kindly (or foolishly, we’re not sure yet) invited us to TAR to talk about the genre. There are lots of things we want to go into eventually, but for today, we thought it best to focus on the basics:


Carole Cummings: So, there was a post here on The Armchair Reader by Alex Beecroft and Elin Gregory, wherein they discussed Erotica vs. Romance. It was a great post and there was some really good discussion in the comments, but the one that made me want to write this post was the exchange I had with Erastes. She was talking about a Fantasy story (not hers) that a reader had complained about, saying it had too much sex in it, and the comment made no sense to Erastes because it was a different world and sex was treated differently there. And I went off on a tangent (because I do that) about blanket statements and anachronisms and how people just don’t seem to understand that a world created as a backdrop to a Fantasy story is not our world and should not be viewed through our world’s lens. And since all that happened here in the big, comfy Armchair, Cole kind of got hit with the shrapnel of my nattering and he said I could come do it some more, and as long as I didn’t spill beer on the carpet or get Cheetos crumbs all over the yarn, I might be able to come back.

JTullosHennig: So that’s why you asked me to this party. Because I don’t eat Cheetos. Or drink beer.

CC: Yes, because I’m trying to teach you the ways and joys of the Unhealthy Yet More Toothsome Diet, young padawan, but you keep eating all that green stuff and refusing the enlightened path of the Goddess Melitta. (Come to the Dark Side—we have cookies!) But mostly because when you and I say “We write Fantasy”, we know what the other means by it. See, I’ve had many, many aborted conversations with new acquaintances that contained that sentence verbatim. They usually go like this:

New Acquaintance: So, what do you do?
Me: I write.
New Acquaintance: Oh? (*perks in interest*) Blogging? Memoirs?
Me: (*sighing inwardly because I already know where this is going*) No, I write fiction. Novels, mostly.
New Acquaintance: Huh. (*skeptical*) Do you have anything published?
Me: Yeah, several books and a couple short stories.
New Acquaintance: Wow. Like, published-published? Like, your stuff’s on Amazon?
Me: (*annoyed with the ‘published-published’ thing but unwilling to engage long enough to make a point, because I still know what’s coming*) Yeah, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, all that stuff.
New Acquaintance: (*no longer skeptical*) That’s so cool! So, what kinds of books do you write?
Me: (*thinking ‘ah, there it is’*) I write Fantasy.
New Acquaintance: (*frowning but politely trying not to*) …You mean like dragons and trolls?
Me: Well, more like magical beings and different worlds, but yeah, close enough.
New Acquaintance: (*stares for a second then looks down at full drink*) Oh, look, I need a refill. Nice to meet you, er…
Me: Carole.
New Acquaintance: Right, Karen. Nice to meet you, Karen. And good luck with your little stories!
Me: Damn. I never get to shock people with the whole ‘Yeah, and my two male protagonists usually end up doing each other’ thing.

JTH: That’s about the time I order another brandy.

CC: I find the margarita bar.

JTH: Margaritas work It’s those straight tequila shots I can’t take any more. Unfortunately. But that conversation–it’s just the way things are, the “you write what?” has, ad infinitum, been the reaction from The Mundane. It was only us wierdos that even knew what SF/Science Fiction was, let alone knew that it split into SFF–Science Fiction and Fantasy, then broke off into more pieces–which is why we’re calling this a Speculative Fiction Show.

Only now, with the help of lots of full frontal on HBO, are those of The Mundane thinking hey, maybe this Fantasy stuff isn’t so bad… lookit the tits! Which is just annoying in its own fashion… though in all honesty I have to cop that it’s nice to finally see the men getting nekkid, too. So. It can be argued that Spec Fic is getting more widely sown and read, and thusly more acceptable to The Mundane. But therein lies the real issue. Spec Fic should not BE mundane. The whole point of SF/Fantasy/Whatever-It-Is-This-Decade–Speculative Fiction!–is that it is its own world, in more ways than one.

CC: Definitely. Someone who saw a Star Trek movie might think pointed ears are cool, but it’s the serious nerds who find coolness in… oh… things like the mating rituals of hobbits and the ecological implications of tribbles.

JTH: Which is also part of the problem. Serious SF nerds tend to shun The Mundane and also tend to write seriously nerdy books. Which can lead to… misunderstandings on all ends. Which is rather why we’re here, eh?

CC: *nods* I really don’t expect people to be impressed by what I do. I don’t expect them to ask for my card or go look me up online or gush on their Facebook that they just met me and she ROX OMG! But it would be nice if more understanding were involved.

(Side note: I don’t rock. I might engage in arrhythmic spasms while trying to rock sometimes, but I don’t, alas, rock.)

JTH: *snorts & peers into CC’s glass* A few more of those and you might. *raises her own* So. This original post you were telling me about–the one here on Cole’s TAR? It rather sounds like The Mundane is invading the asylum and trying to dictate to the Nerd Contingent what kind of Speculation is allowed. Which screams a need for not only understanding, but a wee bit of empathy. And perhaps some comprehension that SF is comprised of much more than Will Smith kicking the crap out of some Unfortunate, if Evil, Alien.

Now, you know I loved the Lord of the Rings movies. I loved the books, too–those books were why I went to the movies, not vice versa. But the unfortunate fact remains: it’s usually the other way, and the movies are more accessible to a mass audience than the books will ever be. Whether this is a good or bad thing? I’m not sure. On one hand, there is a definite and gradual erosion–of quality, amongst other things–that occurs when something is made more accessible. On the other hand, it means that good artists get recompense for their work, a wider recognition for something they’ve been marginalised for, just like that person did to you in your not-so-hypothetical ‘You write what?’ meeting. How does that Don Henley song go? “Call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye“? People who only know Speculative Fiction from the Lord of the Rings movies or SF with CGI and nothing else or the sword & sorcery made mass-market palatable with lots of tits? Those are the people who are woefully unprepared for what they get in a book that is true to Spec Fic form. Not necessarily their fault, perhaps just… unprepared.

CC: See, and that right there is where Spec Fic in the M/M genre has a problem. M/M is so associated with genre Romance and Erotica that people expect one or both of those things when they pick up a M/M book, no matter how it’s labelled, and that expectation sabotages the reading experience. A Science Fiction novel with some M/M content stands no chance when a reader picks it up expecting a Romance with a stray spaceship or two.

Like I was talking about with Lisa from The Novel Approach back in the original TAR post—so many people don’t seem to understand what Spec Fic is.

JTH: *whips out dictionary* So. Just for the record…
World English Dictionary
speculative fiction
—n. a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements

*blinks* What, doesn’t every writer carry a dictionary around? I mean, now there’s e-readers–and yes, I know I said I’d never touch one of the bloody things, but that was before I discovered you could import manuscripts, make notes and load them with the Holy Grail… erm… the O.E.D.!

It says ‘broad’ in that definition. And there are so many things that Spec Fic can be… so what do you mean by ‘what Spec Fic is‘?

CC: Going along with the end of that definition, it seems to me that Spec Fic is a story the events-characters-plots of which are so entrenched in and intertwined with the world built around them that they could not have taken place in any other world but that one created specifically for them. Where the world is as important as the characters and the plot because the world helps to define the characters and the plot.

JTH: Sounds pretty bang on from my side of the bar, too. *clinks glass against CC’s* Though there’s a lot more to expand upon. Several topics I can think of, right now. So. You invited me on this gig to address our experiences with Speculative Fiction?

CC: And to address the expectations, good and bad, of those who perhaps don’t have the same background in reading and writing it. I think between the two of us we have over seventy-five years of reading and writing this stuff. I was reading Tolkien before I hit puberty. You were treading the fault-line of SF publishing in the 70s and 80s.

*rereads that last paragraph*… Oh god, JTH, we’re old!

JTH: Experienced.

CC: Okay, yeah, what you said. *tries not to hyperventilate* And with experience comes knowledge.

JTH: It’s to be hoped, anyway.

CC: We know the SF genre. We’ve been reading it for more years than some people have been alive. We’ve been writing it for just about as long–

JTH: More. My mother used to swear I was writing in the womb and came out with a pen clutched in one tiny, defiant fist. Poor Mum. Sounds painful.

CC: And our education mumblety years ago included things that government now considers an ‘extravagance’: analytical lit, grammar, creative writing…

JTH: Art history, music, anthropology, sociology–the latter two being extremely important in writing Spec Fic. Granted, I got more of my ‘schooling’ on my own reconnaissance… they didn’t teach the types of things I wanted to learn in the little red country schoolhouse… *grin*

CC: And that brings up another point: we have been doing this–both reading and writing Spec Fic—for all the years in-between and, as I’m sure most would agree, practical applications go a lot further in the pursuit of knowledge and advancement of skill level than academic dissection does.

So, our combined experience in every facet of the Spec Fic genre qualifies us to… Er, well, okay, it qualifies us to tell you we’re qualified to tell you that. *frowns and rereads again*

Spirit Guides! That’s what it qualifies us to be. JTH, I wanna be a Spec Fic Spirit Guide. Make it so.

JTH: *raises glass* Cheers. Here’s hoping Cole doesn’t smother us with a soft cushion.

CC: Or strangle us with yarn.

So, and as your official Spec Fic Spirit Guides™, in subsequent posts we’ll be discussing a lot of other facets of the genre and how they apply to Spec Fic in the M/M world. (Provided Cole hasn’t been back there knitting us straightjackets this whole time.) But for now, let’s wrap it up with some audience participation:

What popped your Spec Fic cherry?

CC: Mine was The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien back when I was…9? 10? Ish.

It started out innocently enough—just a bit of hobbit to cheer me up, some dwarf when I needed a bit of a downer, and then a wizard or two when I really wanted to trip. All of which led me to the hard stuff, AKA: LOTR, but that’s another story. It was right around that time that Meg and Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle turned me on to the tesseract, and Geekdom officially called me to its trippy bosom.

JTH: Man, that was way a long time ago. Hm. I was in a play of The Hobbit, which led me to read it… but that wasn’t the first… Hm. It truly was the Space Race, first for orbit and then the moon shot, that started me in on SF nerd-dom. And Star Trek on… Thursday nights? And from there it was… ah. Ray Bradbury. The short story collection R is for Rocket. Particularly The Fog Horn, and Frost and Fire. And A Sound of Thunder started my obsessions over time trippery at a very impressionable age.

So, Fair Readers, what did pop your SF cherry? And what made it special? Comment and be immortalised!

AND NEXT, from the SF Nerd on TAR: Just what were you expecting when you read that ‘Fantasy’ label, anyway?–Common tropes, expectations and myth-conceptions of Speculative Fiction. Oh, and more drinking.


Carole Cummings lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is an avid reader of just about anything that’s written well and has good characters. She is a lifelong writer of the ‘movies’ that run constantly in her head. Surprisingly, she does manage sleep in there somewhere, and though she is rumored to live on coffee and Pixy Stix™, no one has as yet suggested she might be more comfortable in a padded room. Well, not to her face.

J Tullos Hennig is suspected of having written since in utero. JTH was a professional writer 30 years ago, but Very Rotten Luck prevailed so the publishing ground to a halt. It was posited that all involved might be happier did writing also halt, but resistance is, yes, futile… and here we are. JTH has recently re-imagined the legend of Robyn Hood in a duology of Historical Fantasy; Book 1, Greenwode was published by Dreamspinner Press in January 2013. The second book, Shirewode is due out this September. JTH is presently working on the opening novel of a Speculative Fiction series.