Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Destruction of Planet Zor

Today's launch of Sherry Ramey's mid-grade SF adventure, Planet Fleep, reminds me of my own attempt to launch Planet Zor. Enough time has passed that I can tell that story here without hurting anyone's feelings (and they can't fire me over it at this late date) so here goes:

Back in the 1980s, I was in charge of compiling (which usually meant actually writing most of it myself) the Grade 3 Social Studies provincial exam. The exam had significant issues, chief among them all the research available that said Grade 3 students couldn't write multiple-choice questions and that the concept of a Grade 3 examination was a stunningly stupid idea. I had read all that research, compiled it for my then boss, who agreed with me, but such decisions are not made by the technical experts but by politicians. We were, therefore, going to have a provincial Grade 3 examination one way or another, so up to me to make it the least ghastly possible. (To their credit, the team did come up with a number of innovations that did make things better, and for a while there we were able to resist political pressure to keep the results from affecting the students' grades, but all that is a story for another time...)

One of the key concepts for Grade 3 Social Studies was "culturally distinctive communities" and the understanding of why, in Canada's multicultural society, some people want to preserve the traditions of their homelands while living in Canda. This presented two problems to me.

First, being a province-wide test, I had to be fair to everybody, but the curriculum encouraged each community to take as their case study in the course their own culturally distinctive communities. So students in Southern Alberta studied the Hutterites, because that's where most Hutterite colonies are, but students in Calgary studied Chinatown because Calgary still has a vibrant Chinatown, and kids in Northern Alberta studentied the Old Believer colonies and so on. Which makes it impossible to take a case study on the test that everyone had studied, so I would necessarily be biasing the exam depending on whether I used one case study or another.

The second problem was, when I got teams of Grade 3 teachers together to write questions on "culturally distinctive communities" it quickly became painfully obvious that these white English middle-class ladies had absolutely no idea why anyone would want to retain their culturally distinctive community. They all tried valiantly to understand what was to them a mistaken desire of these communities to hold onto a dead past, but um, I couldn't use anything they wrote. It was terrifying that the teachers did not get the curriculum objective here themselves, let alone teach it to children. (I like to think the situation is better today as all the work on addressing First Nations content over the last couple of decades might have given the general population, including Grade 3 teachers, at least a glimmer of why multiculturalism is a better idea than assimilation. But then, I'm a hopeless optimist.)

Anyway.

As much as I tried to come up with generalizable questions on "culturally distinctive communities" that would apply to all cultures everywhere--that can't be done. Being an SF reader, however, I hit upon the idea of writing the test about human emigration to the Planet Zor and why some humans might wish to retain their human culture, even when living among the friendly Zorians. So my artist and I worked together on mocking up a unit on the Planet Zor and why some humans preferred to stick with their own holidays rather than celebrate Ko Day, and so on. Problem solved. I wasn't biasing the test by which case study the class happened to take in their community because Zor would be new to all of them; and putting the kids in the position of a human among Zorians was a pretty good way of getting them to think about why people want to retain their "culturally diverse" community.

The artist and I presented the mock-up to my boss. Who immediately got it, but said NO in no uncertain terms. "I can't put science fiction on a provincial exam! What were you thinking! Zor is not part of the curriculum, and I did not authorize this!"

I may have argued back a bit. Like a lot. Because it was the only possible solution to my problem, and the artist's illustrations were brilliant, and the two of us had already talked about doing the book that would be used in every grade 3 classroom in the province, because this was gold, right?

But my boss was adamant--in spite of conceding the logic of my argument--because he was convinced science fiction was simply a nonstarter with the public. When I argued that it was no longer a nonstarter in the age of Star Trek and Star Wars and so on, he retreated to his ultimate defense which was, "You could never get it past the Committee."

The Committee was actually one of several that oversaw our work, and had absolute veto power, as it should, since it consisted of representatives of all the relevant stakeholders (except parents and students, of course--another one of my suggestions that went nowhere) and the Committee was inclined to err on the side of caution.

So having had Zor shot down by my boss in anticipation of a 'no' from the committee, he set us to chose the culturally distinctive community of Old Believers because that represented the smallest population in the province, so probably new to most students. *sigh* All work on Zor stopped, and we struggled to put together a test on the Old Believers about which none of us knew very much, and very little of which would fit into the Grade 3 curriculum.

And my boss explicitly ordered my colleagues and I NOT to mention Zor to the Committee because we were a team, and the team had to present a common front to the Committee, so whatever arguments we were free to have among ourselves, we must tow the line when facing those outside the office, etc.

So his was the exam we wrote and took to the Committee which said, "you can't just take one community at random; that's not fair to everybody who studied a different one. And what are you going to do next year, and the year after that? If you always use Old Believers, then everybody will end up studying them to do well on the exam. And if you rotate communities through the test, then some students will be advantaged over others." And so on. Round and round we went with the impossibility of making any of this work. My frustration at not being allowed to even suggest the possibility of the obvious solution of Zor grew steadily throughout the day of the meeting, but my hands were tied, as were my colleagues' who knew about and thought the artist's illustrations for Zor were pretty awesome.

Near the end of the day, one of the Senior members of the committee looked up from the draft exam and said, "I don't know...why don't you have something like a Canadian going to an alien planet? Kids today love SciFi, and that way, it would put them in the shoes of someone trying to hang onto their own culture." And then he stopped talking because I and my colleagues were glaring at my boss.

"Did I say something wrong?" the Committee member asked, confused by our reaction.

There was a long pause as I continued to glare at my boss with the "I was right, you were wrong, and I'm probably going to find a way to kill you" look.

And then my boss turned to the Committee member and reassured him, "No, no, you said nothing wrong. It's just...that's a bit of a Zor point with my staff."

To the eternal confusion of the Committee members, I exploded into laughter, and my closest colleague fled the room to keep from doing the same. She returned, grinning, and announced, "I just needed a refill" holding up her coffee and trying not to weep with laughter. Because, of course, my boss' terrible pun was both acknowledgment and apology. After the meeting my boss shrugged and said, well it's too late to go back to Zor, so we'll have to move forward with this version for this year, but, we'll see for next time. But the Grade 3 Social Studies exam only happened every three years, so by next time both the artist and I had left for other careers, and Zor never happened.

I still wished we had written that textbook, though.

[I'm out of town at the moment, but will add some of the illustrations from Zor when I return home. I wanted to post this today, while the opening line was still true.]

Monday, May 21, 2018

Social Issues in Education

I've signed up to teach a course at the UofL this summer: Ed 4321, Social Issues in Education. I've posted my course outline already, so that students taking the class in July can make suggestions now if they like. I've been teaching the course since 1991 but because it's an issues course, the specific content is different every year, and I've changed up the assignments to make them more manageable for a compressed summer course. Looking forward to a bit of teaching to break up my steady diet of editing and writing . . . I love working with authors and graduate students, but it's mostly solitary deskwork, so it will be good to away from the computer keyboard and actually interact with other people for a bit. My idea of a July holiday. . .

Friday, May 18, 2018

And Another Thing

Reprinted from Rhonda Parrish's blog series And Another Thing: More about Candas Jane Dorsey each Friday in May related to the release of Prairie Starport: A Story Collection in Celebration of Candas Jane Dorsey

Candas as Role Model

By Robert Runté

I confess when I was younger, I found Candas a somewhat intimidating figure.

She was, after all, courageously following her bliss to live the life of a writer; whereas I had cowardly chosen employment for which one might actually get paid. I greatly envied her freedom and personal fulfilment, as I toiled 9 to 5 in my government job.

I was astonished by her ability to sit down and write without angst, to produce in twenty minutes a document that would have taken me all day, had I been able to manage the task at all. She was and remains a model of efficiency and effective writing, concise and on target in every instance.

I greatly admired her intuitive leadership skills, among which was the ability to move others to action: anyone who fell into her orbit was likely to discover they had somehow volunteered to sit on Boards, or to organize readings, or to make cold calls for some cause, or to otherwise be doing things they would not, in the normal course of events, have thought of doing.

I was somewhat overawed at her weekly salons in which the artistic elite of Edmonton, and frequently the literary greats from beyond, would sit around her living room debating the nature of writing, the cost of tomatoes, and similar eternal verities. It was sobering to discover that writers were real, that there were more of them about than one would have imagined, and that one did not have to travel to Toronto or New York to meet them.

And, being somewhat socially awkward, I was frequently thankful for her frank advice on a variety of topics concerning how one should move through the world, such as pointing out on one memorable occasion, that my attempts not to disrupt the proceedings had been far more disruptive than the initial disruption.

So.

It is possible that on occasion I allowed my better judgement to be overwhelmed by Candas’ unassuming charisma.

I recall one afternoon attending at her house and, having no response to the doorbell, took the initiative of going round the back to intrude upon the privacy of her garden. I found her sitting next the flower bed examining a bloom with flat, but colorful petals.

“Here, eat this,” Candas said, handing me the flower.

Internally, I dithered. On the one hand, this was well before my culinary horizons had expanded much beyond burgers, and food prejudices being among the most strongly held, I did not wish to eat a flower. On the other hand, I did not wish to appear unsophisticated, and I considered carefully that there was no logical reason not to eat the offering. After all, Candas was hardly going to hand me a dangerous herb or one which she did not routinely consume herself. As in so many other cases, I should follow her lead to experience new things and benefit from our fellowship. And, knowing Candas’ powers of persuasion, I recognized that I was going to eat the flower in the end, and the only real question was whether I would do so after my usual whimpering hesitation, or man up and eat the damn thing as if that were a perfectly natural thing to do.

I stuffed it in my mouth and chewed, hopefully before my hesitation was detected.

Candas watched me carefully. I refused to allow any of my consternation to show on my face.

“Well?” Candas asked.

“What kind of flower was it?” I inquired, once I had swallowed.

She named the variety, though in truth the knowing of it made me none the wiser.

“So?” Candas asked. “What does it taste like?”

“What?”

“Well, I’ve always wondered what they tasted like, but I could never quite bring myself to eat one.”

“What!”

“Would you describe the flavour as ‘delicate’? It’s for a scene I’m writing.”

I like to believe that this was an important turning point in my maturity. As with so many other occasions, Candas had introduced me to an important concept, in this case something about not giving into peer pressure, especially when the pressure was entirely in my own head.

Candas, of course, has always been mystified by any suggestion she is intimidating. She considers herself perfectly normal. Which, considering her accomplishments, is a pretty intimidating standard against which to be held.

 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Protest Song

My daughter, Kasia, just showed me this. I thought it was mildly amusing until hit the chorus, at which point laughed out loud. So sad, so true.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Candas Jane Dorsey Tribute

Candas Jane Dorsey has been a driving force behind the literary scene in Alberta (particularly Edmonton) for over 40 years. As an award-winning author, editor, publisher, organizer, and activist, she has pushed to create a literary arts community as vital as any in the country. In tribute, a group of authors led by Rhonda Parrish have produced a tribute anthology: Praire Starport: Stories in Celebration of Candas Jane Dorsey. The volume is free from https://dl.bookfunnel.com/5sjui795et and includes one of my early short stories along with my brief tribute to Candas related to the story.

Here are the links for all the places people can get copies of Prairie Starport:

Official website: http://www.poiseandpen.com/publishing/prairie-starport/
Book Funnel: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/5sjui795et
Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/prairie-starport
Playster: https://play.playster.com/books/10009781988233390/prairie-starport-john-park
Apple/iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1381578127
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books/1128621942?ean=2940155635376
Amazon ($0.99): https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07CX9CFPJ/
Paperback ($9.99): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1988233380/

Friday, March 09, 2018

Excellence for What?

Very pleased to have a chapter in the just-released Routledge collection, Global Perspectives on Teaching Excellence entitled "Excellence for what? Policy Development and the Discourse of the Purpose of Higher Education." The collection is basically a reaction to recent legislation in the UK that attempted to measure and mandate teaching excellence in higher education. My wife and I wrote a critique using my discourse analysis model of the purpose of higher education applied to the new legislation to suggest that the government's definition of 'excellence' might be somewhat problematic from the perspective of students and learning.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The Luck of Charles Harcourt

My 1989 short story, "The Luck of Charles Harcourt", has been reprinted in the current issue (#5) of Polar Borealis (above left). The timing pleases me greatly because the story originally appeared in the very first issue of On Spec magazine, and my second story in On Spec (above right) came out just last month (January, 2018) in #106 Vol. 28 (3), pp. 88-105 (see post from January 11). So there is an opportunity to compare first and last, as it were.

I must confess that reading my story from nearly thirty years ago makes me wince a little bit at the now obvious sexism, and it seems strange to read about people lining up at the bank tellers instead of using the ATM, and that there were no cell phones yet. I was tempted to update the story, but editor Graeme Cameron argued that "every story is a time capsule, capturing the context of the time it was written. Which is why I don't believe fiction should ever be reprinted with alterations designed to appease changing tastes and views. Let the past speak with the authentic voice of the past, I say."

It's an intriguing issue. Lorina and I left Hargreaves' stories as they were when Five Rivers reprinted North by 2000+ because they were authentically awesome, though the future he predicted for 2000 was not quite the one we got. In my preface, I told readers to just read the stories as if they took place in a parallel universe where American and Canada had merged (to take just one example of what hadn't gone the ways Hargreaves had predicted in the 1960s) but some readers did indeed complain about the anachronisms. Though it should be noted how many things Hargreaves got right, and therefore went unnoticed.... On the other hand, we updated Leslie Gadallah's books to take out the long explanations of the Internet, because we actually had the Internet by the time we reprinted her books. Perhaps the most interesting issue I've had as an editor with anachronisms is an author who wanted to disguise that the story was based on their own life by setting it in modern day, but then the action didn't make any sense, because much of the storyline depended on the confusion arising from characters not being able to reach each other, which just can't happen that way in an era of smartphones.

Anyway, pleased with to have the two stories out at once. Waiting to see if any of the five currently under consideration get picked up.

Note that although Polar Borealis is a paying market showcasing new and established Canadian authors, it is available free to subscribers: Download Now

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Greetings at Joe Mahoney Book Launch

I wasn't able to be present in person at the launch of Joe Mahoney's novel, A Time and A Place in Toronto, so Joe asked me to send him a brief video to bring greetings. The two minute nine second video of me gives one a sense of what I'm like as an acquisition and developmental editor.

[I shared this video previously on my EssentialEdits.ca/SFeditor.ca blog, but I'm still learning how to use Youtube, so am trying out the feature where the embedded video skips the first minute and five seconds, and actually starts where me. But I can't figure out how to show the frame from where the video starts, rather than a picture of Lorina Stephens, my boss at Five Rivers Publishing, who brings greetings from the press to start the video. (Click here if you'd like to hear Lorina.]

Thursday, January 11, 2018

On Spec Magazine

Pleased to have my story, "Sermon on the Mount" in the current issue (#106) of On Spec magazine.

This is my second fiction entry in On Spec; my first was in the very first issue of the magazine, August, 1989. It's taken me 105 issues to make a second fiction sale to these folks. Tough audience! (Well, I have had a couple of guest editorial spots in the magazine in between.)

By complete coincidence, that first story, "The Luck of Charles Harcourt", is being reprinted in the forthcoming/current issue of Polar Borealis magazine. I'll post about that when it happens.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Word on the Street (Lethbridge) coming Sept 23

Essential Edits will be engaged at Word on the Street Lethbridge in three ways:

  • We'll have a table in the display area where you'll be able to meet Essential Edits staff (Dr. Runté, Elizabeth McLachlan, and Lesley Little) and view some of the titles they've edited, find out about free online resources for all types of writers, sign up for a free consultation (first come, first served), and ask questions about writing, editing, and publishing.
  • Dr. Runté will be participating on the 12:00–1:00 PM panel, "Writing Nuts and Bolts: Editors and Publishers Talk about Submissions"
  • Dr. Runté will be participating in the Blue Pencil Café (along with authors Barb Greiger and Paul Butler, and poet Richard Stevenson) from 3:00–5:00PM.
There's lots going on, and it's all free.

Monday, August 14, 2017

When Words Collide 2017 Review

In spite of my intent to cut down on programming, this year, I signed up for way too much stuff, 11 events in all. I did two solo presentations, one of which had standing room only, the other less than 20 or so. The second one was scheduled to follow a presentation on the exact same topic by another speaker which was crammed, so either everybody got what they needed from the previous speaker, or I was scheduled against tougher competition. I enjoy presenting and being on panels, but that heavy commitment kept me from taking in other’s presentations. And that’s starting to be a problem because the other presentations are evolving from the standard repertoire to really significant topics.

The Evolution of WWC: Discussion Topics

I have always enjoyed WWC, but after 30 years of going to conventions I have pretty much heard everything everyone has to say about the usual topics. Indeed, I could probably give the spiel from just about any of the regular panels. Those are all good panels, and each new generation of attendees needs to hear that information, but if I can lip sync the talk, probably not necessary for me.

WWC was different initially because it’s multiple genre approach brought in an influx of new topics as speakers from, say mystery or romance or kid lit, who talked about issues and solutions in their genre that were just starting to emerge in ours, and vice versa. One of the best presentations I have ever attended was one by a script writer on blocking out a scene, and it instantly fixed a problem I was having with some of my own writing. But by year 7, I’ve gotten most of the information from those too; or the specific topic doesn’t apply to my writing, e.g., “how to write erotic scenes” not likely to come up in my satiric writing.

But there have been a number of completely new topics the last two years that took the writing conversation to a whole new level. Tim Reynolds, for example, organized one on depression, ostensibly about dealing with manuscript rejection but also dealing with the larger issues of writing with clinical depression. Laksa Media’s book launch last year brought up issues of neurodiversity among writers; this year’s launch addressed issues of writer’s coping with the burden of care for others. I believe Tim also organized the panel on mental illness. And I organized one on writing with dyslexia, dysgraphia or other learning disabilities. And all those conversations flowed out into the hallways, so that I found myself spending the weekend talking to writers about how they write with depression, autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, mobility issues, a wide variety of learning disabilities, OCD (well, those were all editors), and anxiety disorders. As the circle of people in the conversation widened, it seemed like every writer had some issue that others had said would mean they couldn’t write. [Coincidentally, the Kickstarter campaign for “Disabled People Destroy SF” has been sending out essays by disabled writers every couple of days for the last month, and it is mind-blowing what handicaps these successful writers have had to overcome…] I had known some of these writers for over 30 years and had had no clue that they were dealing with any of these issues, a sign that such personal “weaknesses” were always seen as borderline shameful. I am so grateful the conversation has now brought these things into the foreground. The exchange of ideas and information on how to cope with various conditions was surprisingly useful, even for people who had already researched the heck out of the topic that effected them. Because writers are ingenious, and had each come up with some pretty nifty workarounds or strategies that others hadn’t thought of yet. I’d never heard of weighted blankets, for example, but six people in the group testified to how that one little trick had changed how they slept. Okay, now I’m recommending that to relevant relatives.

Maybe all that was just a coincidence, the topics just floating to the surface this month as part of the Zeitgeist, and I cannot really credit WWC with “planning” those hallway conversations. But I think it is fair to say that WWC provides a safe place for writers to talk openly about anything; at least a dozen out-of-towners remarked to me how friendly and open WWC is, how easy it was to meet people, how approachable the guests, and so on. Not saying another convention could have talked openly about disabilities, but, well…don’t recall any of this coming up in previous 30 years of con going.

The Evolution of WWC: Writing Advice

Another way WWC has evolved is that all those workshops and panels seem to be having an impact. The Live Action Slush panels have always been popular--so popular that they have proliferated into a network of genre-specific sessions, each drawing large audience. What is striking to those of us who have been doing these since the start is how much improved submitted manuscripts are. We almost never get any of the “common mistakes” that turned up the first two or three years. The problems we are seeing now are subtler, more specific to that manuscript, and just rarer. A significantly higher percentage of manuscripts submitted are succeeding to earn a “pass”, and even those that get “gonged” do so later in the reading and with much more muted criticism. There is no question that quality has improved.

Similarly, I can’t speak to others’ experience, but the manuscripts that came to me in the Blue Pencil Café were better than those in earlier years. One was borderline brilliant—were Five Rivers not currently closed to submissions (while we clear out the backlog) I would have bought it on the spot. Another was interesting because I didn’t care for it at first, but then I couldn’t find a single thing to fix. I realized I had been prejudiced against it by an opening that made me think of bad fantasy novels, but once I got past that negative stereotype and read what was actually there, it totally grew on me. With the right backcover blurb and cover (to avoid my wrong-headed reaction) the novel might do very well. Two others were suffering from a single flaw each, both easily fixed. (Well, conceptually easy—tough revision slogs for those authors, I would think.) Nobody likes to hear ‘back to the drawing board’, but the fact is a manuscript with a single flaw and much else good in it is infinitely better than the sort of multitude of beginner errors we used to see.

It’s tempting to suggest that the weaker authors have just been scared off from submitting their work to the panelists/workshop’s tender mercies, but I don’t think that’s it given that the proliferation of Live Action Slush panels and bluepencil cafés. Indeed, one of the bluepencil participants explicitly told me her’s was a manuscript I had thumbs-downed at a Live Action Slush the previous year, and what I was looking at was the manuscript revised on that basis. Well, okay then…this year’s version was a thumbs up! I suspect there is a lot of that going on.

In any event, WWC continues to be the best writers’ convention ever. Instead of repeating itself endlessly, the conversation goes deeper each year. There is still plenty of information for new writers (some of it from me), but much of the material is getting more and more sophisticated as befits the growing sophistication of its audience.

Robert Runté, Barb Galler-Smith, Robert Sawyer, and Constantine K, and a piece of Brian Hades, at the Edge table at When Words Collide, 2017.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

I finally finished my major project for the last six months: writing and revising my 32 page guide on writing strategies for theses and dissertations, and have posted it to the Essential Edits site.

I argue that one has to unlearn undergraduate writing skills to learn a completely new skill set to survive.

Research suggests attrition rates of between 50% to 65% for PhD candidates and thesis-route master's programs. Interestingly enough, most drop out of the program after completing all the course work and all the data collection and analysis for thesis/dissertation, which suggests that the problem is in the writing stage—though this is seldom recognized in the literature, and often not even by the students themselves! Reorienting graduate students to the different nature of sustained writing projects could assist many more students in completing their graduate degrees.

The guide is available free from EssentialEdits.ca/ThesisStrategies.pdf.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

2017 Aurora Voter Package Available Until September

The Prix Aurora Award 2017 voter package (e-copies of most of the nominated novels, short stories, etc) is now available at http://www.prixaurorawards.ca/auror…/voter-package-download/. The package is free to members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association so they can read nominated work before voting.(Seems like a pretty sensible idea to me!)

Membership in CSFFA is $10/yr and open to any Canadian, and includes the right to nominate and vote for the Auroras.

My short story, "Age of Miracles", was nominated for a 2017 Aurora in the short story category, so is included in this year's voters' package. I'm really pleased because that means more people will likely have the opportunity to read the story, though the anthology it's from, Strangers Among Us is a good one (six aurora nominations in all!) and well worth buying.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

My schedule at When Words Collide 2017

I will be making a number of presentations at the When Words Collide festival at the Calgary Delta South August 11-13, 2017. At 750 attendees, WWC is already sold out for this year. It's always a great writers' convention, so I recommend it to anyone for next year.

Scheduled talks:

Friday 1 PM: Live Action Slush - Early Bird Edition (Panel) in Fireside room

Friday 4 PM: Common Manuscript Problems (Panel) in 1-Parkland

Friday 6 PM: Writers’ + Editors’ Speed Mingle (Interactive) in A-Waterton

Saturday 10 AM: Pantsers vs Plotters (panel) in 2-Bonavista

Saturday 11 AM: Managing Sustained Writing Projects (Presentation) in 9-Rundle

Saturday 1 PM:Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and the Experience of Writing (Panel) in B-Canmore

Saturday 2 PM: Five Rivers Publishing Presents (Book Launch/Social) in Fireside room

Sunday 10 AM: Live Action Slush – YA Edition (Panel)3-Willow Park

Sunday 11 AM: The Publishers Panel: Novels (Panel) in 2-Bonavista

Sunday 2 PM:Working with an Editor (Presentation) in Rundle

Sunday 3 PM: Blue Pencil (Workshop) Café 6-Heritage

If you have a membership and are coming, let me know and maybe we can get together in the evenings or between panels (when I have more than a five minute break).

Monday, July 03, 2017

9 Tales of Raffalon by Matthew Hughes

This is my favourite collection of Hughes short stories so far—which is saying something, because his collections have all been quite wonderful. Seven of these stories originally appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine (a significant guarantor of quality), one in a Gardner Dozios anthology (likewise, a good sign), and one is original to this volume—and frankly, a new Raffalon story is itself worth the price of admission.

The tales of Raffalon the Thief are not so much about thievery as they are about Raffalon extricating himself from one impossible predicament after another, often revolving around his involuntary involvement with various wizards. The stories in this volume fit together almost seamlessly, the characters or situations carrying over from one to the next, as we follow Raffalon's escapades to a surprisingly satisfying ending in "The Inn of the Seven Blessings". The individual stories are engaging mysteries, heists, or escapes set against Hughes' ongoing universe/magical system, and the characterization of Raffalon is delightfully twisted. Raffalon's ethical deficiencies seem entirely reasonable given the even worse characters against which he is pitted, and an age in which crime has been amusingly bureaucratized through the Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors.

It is, however, the dialog—and more especially, Raffalon's interior reflections—that sets Hughes apart from all others. "Droll" doesn't begin to cover it, because it is not merely witty, but reflects a worldview just completely off kilter. It all makes complete sense in the eccentric universe of Hughes' distant future, but one is left wishing both that people actually talked like that, and profoundly thankful that no one actually thinks that way.

Hughes' brand of dark humour is completely unique. A comparison with Jack Vance is often evoked to describe Hughes' work, but entirely misses that Hughes is often, as here, wincingly funny. I cannot recommend 9 Tales of Raffalon highly enough, to both long time fans and those not yet familiar with this grand master of the genre.

Runté reviews of some other Mathew Hughes books: