Friday, December 28, 2012

My favourite fictional worlds

As a reader of genre fiction, in particular fantasy and science fiction, I have read a whole lot of stories set in fictional worlds (of course, one can make the argument that our own world is as fictional when put into a story). Over the years, I've gained an appreciation for worlds that are logically coherent, fantastic, or just plain neat, and I figured I'd list my favourite ones.

Annwn from the Deverry Cycle by Katharine Kerr.

Most of this series takes place in Annwn, which is a world to which the Gaul tribe of the Deveti flee from our own world in the time of the Romans. The story is set over the next 1200 years as society, technology and politics change over time, and the meeting of the immigrating humans and the peoples that already live in that world.
Apart from the interesting interactions between humans and other races, the Deverry Cycle also has well-developed magic system akin to that of the Kabbalah or Golden Dawn, as well as a clear idea how other planes connect to the physical one. Though you can notice some changes in the world-building over time, it's a well-constructed and researched world that I wouldn't mind seeing more of (especially with the technological developments hinted at at times).

Alternate Earth of 1837 (Gregorian Calendar) from Cold Magic by Kate Elliott.

The world of Cold Magic is our own. Except, you know, for the magic, the cold, the salt ghouls who took over Africa, the Malinese who immigrated with all their wealth and changed the political balance in Europe, the surviving Roman Empire, the glacier that covers Scandinavia and the rest of the north and the dinosaur-descended trolls who live in North America. Cold Magic has a great world, in my mind, that changes some fundamentals and drives those fundamentals to large-scale change millennia later. Another thing that really gets me excited is that it's a world that's on the brink of mass movement politics and the industrial revolution, and a Napoleon-like character making waves.
Apart from the physical, the spirit realm is well-represented and so far, Elliott seems to have a firm grasp of where she wants to take it.

Terra GirlGenius (or whatever) from Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

The world in Girl Genius is in the genre of gaslamp fantasy (earlier steampunk) but with the essential ingredient of MAD SCIENCE! to spice it up a bit. Britannia has a sunken empire with a power-mad queen,, no one has managed to travel to America and back for years, small-time sparks go insane and create various abominations to gods and nature, warrior princesses from hidden nations roam the countryside in traveling circuses, and Pax Wulfenbach keeps Europa relatively calm. That's the world we're thrown into and gets to see through the eyes of Agatha Heterodyne, heir of long-lost heroes. Unlike the first two worlds, the world of Girl Genius is not particularly famed for logical consistency, opting instead for BATSHIT INSANE, and it is completely wonderful.
At the moment, they are about to wake a long slumbering insane castle to protect themselves from the giant airship that is Castle Wulfenbach. Also dragons and mind-controlling aunts. Though I live just about everything about the world, the series keeps offering up mysteries to which I want answers which makes the world even better. And I can't wait for the battle that will ensue between Zeetha, warrior princess, and Bang, pirate queen.

The Universe of Warhammer 40k by Games Workshop.

The universe in Warhammer 40k is crazy. The setting is Gothic science-fantasy on a galactic scale, and it features a theo-fascist Imperium of Mankind, who can be seen as the "good guys" of the setting, except for sacrificing 10 000 people to their undead emperor a day, preferring to wipe out the population of a whole planet rather than accept the risk of heresy, who keep scientific advancement suppressed and in the hands of techno-priests, and other general insanity. Of course, when your enemies are the forces of Chaos  who can take over people's minds and invade worlds with demons, fungus-based orks who pillage worlds for fun, undead mechanical beings, an alien insect-like species that live only for feeding, and the other unpleasantries of that universe, maybe that approach makes sense (not really). In truth, I probably just like it for the insane quotes the franchise produces.
"An open mind is like a fortress with its gates unbarred and unguarded."

Arda by JRR Tolkien.

One of the most successful fictional worlds ever. Though I have my problems with the books Tolkien produced, I can still lose several hours reading wikis and other sources about Middle-earth, the history of the elves, the curse of Fëanor, and everything else Tolkien wove into a great mythological whole.

The World of The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Though the sci-fi universe she created with the Dendarii (Miles Vorkosigan/Naismith) series is more popular, and though I like that a lot as well, Lois McMaster Bujold really got me with the world in Curse of Chalion, though mostly because of the theology. The three books in the series highlight heroes that grapple with great problems and the questionable blessing of sainthood, with the gods of that world trying to reach into the world through them to bring about their wanted end. Though not particularly well-developed, getting to see her world through the eyes of her ever-cynical protagonists makes it a joy to experience, and the five gods of Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, and Bastard make for an interesting group and theological setting.

There are plenty of other worlds I have enjoyed over the years, and series like Babylon 5, Mass Effect, The Fourlands by Steph Swainston (who takes the fantastic to the next level with gardens of meat!), The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, the large, sprawling mess of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, and the interesting magic system and depressing world of Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, but on the whole the worlds above ar the ones I've spent the most time thinking about, at least recently.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I like characters to fight their story

I finished watching the anime Princess Tutu the other day, and it made me a bit more aware of what exactly I love about my favourite anime (and possibly favourite serialized work overall), Revolutionary Girl Utena. Princess Tutu is about a town that has fallen halfway into the world of stories, with the main story called The Prince and the Raven. The prince could only trap the (obviously evil, as ravens are) raven by using his own heart, leaving it scattered in the town. So the prince lives, devoid of almost all emotions, protected by his knight from the story (doomed to die at the claws of the raven), and with the raven's daughter hovering around him, looking to claim his love. You know, a fairy-tale. Into this story comes a brave duck who wants to help the prince so much that she's turned into a girl to be able to do it, as well as getting the powers of ballet, as so commonly happens.
More to the point, the story of Princess Tutu revolves around how set in stone a story is. The main antagonist in Princess Tutu isn't necessarily the raven, but the storyteller whose influence still shines through in every part of the town. The characters try to break free from the confines of the tragedy that the storyteller has made for them, especially the knight in finding a new purpose after having avoided a glorious death. It's about characters refusing to be defined by a story and roles others have written for them, whether consciously or not. In Princess Tutu, however, unlike Revolutionary Girl Utena, the story is a bit more straightforward; we know that the antagonist is the storyteller (who is a character himself, after all), at the end the characters hew quite closely to the roles they were supposed to play, having only replaced the storyteller with a more benevolent writer, and it's more the story that has been challenged, rather than what happens in Utena.
With the ending of Revolutionary Girl Utena, what is challenged is more completely the roles and archetypes that the characters are assigned by the story as it's "meant" to be told. There's no official storyteller who believes himself to be in total control, it's understood by the main players that Utena, for instance, has agency, but they believe that in the end she, and everyone else, must conform to the roles set. As a viewer, you are also led to believe that Utena should be the prince of the tale, with her princess and enemy (the evil one, the witch), and that's what you're supposed to root for. It's quite brilliant when the most visible antagonists use the approach of trying to get Utena to be their princess to defeat her, putting them as the prince and turning Utena's princess into a witch (since there can be only one princess, after all). Revolutionary Girl Utena uses the core concepts, the brave prince, the beautiful princess, and the evil witch, of fairy-tales, but doesn't otherwise use fairy tales as much as Princess Tutu, yet manages to thoroughly penetrate the problems of these archetypes when applied to characters who are multi-faceted. And in the end, instead of more or less going with the brave prince rescuing a princess, Revolutionary Girl Utena manages to deliver a message that what's wrong is not if the wrong person wins, but that limiting ourselves to roles and archetypes is what should be fought to the last breath. And that's what I love more than anything.

I love Swedish fathers

I know it's trite, and that it's true that fathers sometimes have to do way less than mothers to get a hardy "well done" from the crowd, and it remains a fact that women spend more time on domestic work, especially after a couple has children, and finally, men only take out 24% of the total parental leave. Be that as it may, seeing that one guy on the subway the other day who had a BabyBjörn on his chest and another one on his back while everyone were in heavy winter clothes just made me really happy. Having a chat with a co-worker who will take his 8.5 months of parental leave starting this week also added to my general sense of happiness about how men's share of nurturing parenting is increasing, which I think is a good thing for children, men, women, and society as a whole.