Fantasy/SciFi

Harry Potter’s History of Magic

16 September 2017

From the BBC:

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the British Library exhibition Harry Potter A History of Magic unveils rare books, manuscripts, and magical objects from their collection, capturing the traditions of folklore and magic at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. Exploring the subjects studied at Hogwarts, the exhibition includes original drafts and drawings lent by J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter illustrator Jim Kay from their personal archives, going on display for the first time.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is to be shown on BBC Two and will follow the exhibition in the run up to its opening at the British Library, as the ancient texts, artefacts and artwork are put on display. Harry Potter: A History Of Magic includes an interview with J.K. Rowling talking about some of the personal items she has donated to the exhibition whilst readings from famous fans playfully recreate some of the best loved spells, potions and magical moments from the series, exploring the origins of the world of Hogwarts, from basilisks through to broomsticks.

Link to the rest at the BBC

A Neural Network Wrote the Next ‘Game of Thrones’ Book Because George R.R. Martin Hasn’t

3 September 2017

From Motherboard:

Minutes after the epic finale of the seventh season of Game of Thrones, fans of the show were already dismayed to hear that the final, six-episode season of the series isn’t set to air until spring 2019.

For readers of the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series on which the TV show is based, disappointment stemming from that estimated wait time is laughable. The fifth novel in seven-novel series, A Dance with Dragons, was published in 2011 and author George R.R. Martin has been laboring over the The Winds of Winter since, with no release date in sight. With no new source material, producers of the TV series have been forced to move the story forward themselves since late season 6.

Tired of the wait and armed with technology far beyond the grand maesters of Oldtown, full-stack software engineer Zack Thoutt is training a recurrent neural network (RNN) to predict the events of the unfinished sixth novel. Read the first chapter of the book here.

“I’m a huge fan of Game of Thrones, the books and the show,” said Thoutt, who had just completed a Udacity course on artificial intelligence and deep learning and used what he learned to do the project. “I had worked with RNNs a bit in that class and thought I’d give working with the books a shot.”

. . . .

“It is trying to write a new book. A perfect model would take everything that has happened in the books into account and not write about characters being alive when they died two books ago,” Thoutt said. “The reality, though, is that the model isn’t good enough to do that. If the model were that good authors might be in trouble. The model is striving to be a new book and to take everything into account, but it makes a lot of mistakes because the technology to train a perfect text generator that can remember complex plots over millions of words doesn’t exist yet.”

. . . .

“I start each chapter by giving it a prime word, which I always used as a character name, and tell it how many words after that to generate,” Thoutt said. ” I wanted to do chapters for specific characters like in the books, so I always used one of the character names as the prime word … there is no editing other than supplying the network that first prime word.”

George R.R. Martin isn’t going to be calling for writing tips anytime soon, but Thoutt’s network is able to write mostly readable sentences and is packed with some serious twists.

Link to the rest at Motherboard

PG predicts AI-written books will be common within two years.

He doesn’t know if they will be very good, but it will be interesting to watch the technology develop.

PG also predicts that AI-written books won’t put good human authors out of business.

How sci-fi from China became a global proposition

23 August 2017
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From The Bookseller:

For the best part of a century, the science-fiction Silk Road was one-way: manufactured in the West and shipped to China. But inside China an SF revolution was brewing. At its vanguard was one extraordinary work which took a decade to make its way to the West. But when it did, Mark Zuckerberg selected it for his Facebook Reading Club, Barack Obama blurbed it, SF readers propelled it to win the Best Novel Hugo award – a first for translated fiction. It’s been a New York Times bestseller, spent 11 weeks on Germany’s Der Speigel bestseller list, and sold over 100,000 copies for Head of Zeus in the UK. The book is Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem.

Initially serialised in Chinese magazine Science Fiction World in 2006, its triumphant arrival in the West nine or so years later may be the crowning achievement of an extraordinary flowering of Chinese SF, but it is by no means the end of the story. I suspect it is only the beginning.

Chinese SF was in the doldrums as Liu wrote the first volume of his Three-Body trilogy. He didn’t feel China was ready for the more hardcore elements of his SF imagination, so he was careful to base the first two instalments in a world he felt readers would recognise. The final instalment stretched the boundaries – it was truly the book he wanted to write – and both Liu and his publisher worried it was a non-commercial indulgence. But it made the series.

China’s online community loved Three-Body. Fans composed songs, created fake trailers for the movie they hoped for, and wrote fan fiction. Baoshu’s Three-Body X, a “side-quel” to Liu’s books, started appearing online within a week of the final volume’s publication and, with Liu’s blessing, was itself traditionally published.

. . . .

Ken Liu was born in China, emigrated to the US at 11, went to Harvard, and has written 120 short stories and an epic “silkpunk” fantasy series, picking up Hugo, Arthur C Clarke and Nebula awards on the way. He became a translator and, almost predictably for a man with so many SF awards in his trophy case, added a Best Novel Hugo to it for his translation of The Three-Body Problem.

Li Yun’s initiative found the trilogy 12 (and counting) international publishers, and has led to Li launching Cepride, a literary agency dedicated to bringing not just the best of Chinese SF, but the best of Chinese genre fiction to the rest of the world. Agencies that once sold rights West to East are increasingly representing Chinese authors – Hao Jingfang is repped by Andrew Nurnberg Associates.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Seven Ways to Bring Characters Together

18 August 2017

From Mythcreants:

You have a character that’s made from oozing lava, and another that’s a rolling snowball. They’ll make a great lava-snow duo, but right now they won’t so much as say hi. Don’t worry, storytellers have many tried-and-true plot devices for bringing characters from different walks of life together. Start by looking through these seven.

1. Build an Alliance of Necessity

In Mad Max: Fury Road, Max is captured by the same tyrant that Furiosa wants to escape from. They’re not inclined to team up; they punch the lights out of each other when they first meet. But Max can’t get anywhere without Furiosa’s truck, and Furiosa needs another warrior on her side. They have to join forces.

To get an alliance going, give your lava character and your snowball character a common friend, enemy, or both. When the friend goes missing or the enemy strikes back, they’ll have every reason to team up. Motivating them to join forces will be easier if their skills are both essential and different. Lava can bust into the corporate fortress and knock out the security guards, but only after Snowball hacks into the security system and disables the alarms.

. . . .

 5. Force One to Guard the Other

In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a terminator T-800 was captured by the good guys, reprogrammed, and sent back in time to protect John Connor. John Connor is understandably freaked out by this mechanical menace at first, but then he discovers the T-800 has to follow his orders. The T-800 saves his life repeatedly, and they slowly bond.

This method makes it easy to drag both characters together kicking and screaming. Does Lava hate to be around Snowball? That’s just too bad, because now Lava is responsible for them. Maybe Lava’s boss assigns Lava to protect Snowball, or maybe Snowball is a captive and Lava has to keep them from escaping. For their part, Snowball either won’t have a choice in being guarded or would risk death by refusing it. Regardless of the particulars, Lava and Snowball are bound to spend hour after hour together, with little to do other than talk.

Link to the rest at Mythcreants

Voyage to the Otherworld: A New Eulogy for Ray Bradbury

17 August 2017

From Margaret Atwood via The Paris Review:

At the end of February 2012, I was sitting in a bar in the Chicago Hilton, discussing Ray Bradbury. I was staying at the Hilton, and in a moment of Bradburian weirdness, I had been put into the suite where President Obama saw on TV that he had just won the U.S. presidential election.

On that occasion, the immense, many-roomed suite must have been full—of family, of security folks, of political staffers—but I was in it all alone, and it was not the best place to be while dwelling on things Bradburian. It was too easy to imagine that there was someone in the next room. Worse, that someone might be my evil twin, or myself at a different age, or it might contain a mirror in which I would cast no reflection. It took some self-control not to go in there and look.

In February, however, the Chicago Hilton was not crawling with secret servicemen talking into their sleeves but with four thousand writers, would-be writers, students of writing, and teachers of writing, all of whom were attending the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs where I was to give the keynote address, and every single one of whom would have known who Ray Bradbury was.

. . . .

I was greatly looking forward to meeting a writer who had been so much a part of my own early reading, especially the delicious, clandestine reading done avidly in lieu of homework, and the compulsive reading done at night with a flashlight when I ought to have been sleeping. Stories read with such enthusiasm at such a young age are not so much read as inhaled. They sink all the way in and all the way down, and they stay with you.

But then Ray Bradbury died. He was ninety-one, but still—as with everyone who has always been in your life and is then not there any more—his death seemed impossible. People don’t die as such in his work, or they don’t die in the ordinary way. Sometimes they melt—the Martian in the story of that name dissolves, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one of Bradbury’s influences. Sometimes they are done to death by aliens, as in The Martian Chronicles story “The Third Expedition.” Sometimes they are hunted down by mechanical hounds for the crime of reading books, as in Fahrenheit 451. Sometimes people don’t entirely die: revenants and vampires are not unknown in Bradbury’s work. But Bradbury’s people seldom just expire.

Any writer who delves as deeply into “horror” writing as Bradbury did has a complex relationship with mortality, and it’s not surprising to learn that as a child Ray Bradbury was worried he would die at any moment, as he tells us in “Take Me Home,” a sidebar in the June 2012 New Yorker science-fiction issue. “When I look back now,” he says—in what, ironically, was going to be his last published piece—“I realize what a trial I must have been to my friends and relatives. It was one frenzy after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another. I was always yelling and running somewhere, because I was afraid life was going to be over that very afternoon.”

But the flip side of the mortality coin is immortality, and that interested him as well. At the age of twelve—as he told us on his website—he had a definitive encounter with a stage magician called Mr. Electrico. This was in the age of traveling circuses and the like, and Mr. Electrico had a unique act: he sat in an electrified chair, thus in turn electrifying a sword he held, with which he in turn electrified the spectators, making their hair stand on end and sparks come out of their ears. He electrified young Bradbury in this manner, while shouting, “Live forever!” The child had to go to a funeral the next day, a close encounter with death that led him to seek out Mr. Electrico once more to find out how this “living forever” thing was to be done. The old carny showed him around what used to be called the freak show—complete with a tattooed man who was later to morph into the Illustrated Man—and then told him that he, Ray, contained the soul of Mr. Electrico’s best friend, who had died in World War I. You can see how all this would have made an impression. Right after his baptism by electricity at the hands of Mr. Electrico, Bradbury started writing, and he didn’t stop until his own death.

. . . .

I had to break off in order to attend a poetry event. At the party afterward, I told a writer friend that Bradbury had died. “He was the first writer I read all of,” he said. “When I was twelve or thirteen. I read every single book—I sought them out. I read them cover to cover.” I said I thought that a lot of writers—and a lot of readers—had most likely had the same experience. And that they would be writers and readers of the most diverse kinds—poets and prose writers, all ages, all levels of brow, from low to high.

What accounts for Bradbury’s reach—his scope, his influence? And—dreaded question, but one that critics and interviewers are always asking—where would you locate him on the map of literature?

My own view is that in his best work, Bradbury sinks a taproot right down into the deep, dark, gothic core of America. It’s no accident that he was descended from Mary Bradbury, convicted as a witch in 1692, during the notorious Salem witchcraft trails, for, among other things, assuming the form of a blue boar.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

So You Want to Read The ’80s: Here’s Where to Start

30 July 2017

From Unbound Worlds:

Fantasy has been around for millennia.

Yet some eras in that time have seen explosive growth when it comes to interest in the genre. The 1980s is one of those times. Before it, science fiction dominated the speculative fiction publishing world — and even then, few SF writers were being published compared to today. It was an exciting time for fantasy writers, their publishers, and of course readers.

How did this happen? Things began to change in the mid ’70s. With the success of authors like Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen R. Donaldson, and a few others, publishers began to take note of fantasy despite the long shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien. Then editor Lester del Rey took a bet and won it by publishing The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks in 1977, a book that went on to spend 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was the final wake-up call for editors at that time. For better or worse, fantasy became commercialized and accepted in a way that it hadn’t before.

Brooks would of course enter the ’80s with a full head of steam, beginning a career that would span decades. He was not the only one. An abundance of fantasy writers found they had a much larger voice with publishers than before — and as readers we gained several dozen masterpiece works. I know this because it is the decade I grew up in. I started with The Sword of ShannaraThe Elfstones of Shannara, and The Wishsong of Shannara in 1988. And I haven’t stopped reading it since then.

Link to the rest at Unbound Worlds

A Wrinkle in Time

17 July 2017

Octavia Butler: Writing Herself Into The Story

15 July 2017

From National Public Radio:

Octavia Butler used to say she remembers exactly when she decided to become a science fiction writer. She was 9 years old and saw a 1954 B-movie called Devil Girl from Mars, and two things struck her. First: “Geez, I can write a better story than that!” And second: “Somebody got paid for writing that story!” If they could, she decided, then she could, too.

Eventually she did exactly that. Octavia Estelle Butler became one of the world’s premier science fiction writers, the first black female science fiction writer to reach national prominence, and the only writer in her genre to receive a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. (“You have a Genius Grant,” Charlie Rose said in a 2000 interview. “They don’t call it that,” she corrected him firmly; “somebody probably made that up.”) When she died in 2006, she was lauded as a pioneer, an icon and one of America’s best writers.

. . . .

“Octavia Butler: Telling My Stories” is an exhibit currently at the Huntington Library, in the Pasadena suburb of San Marino, Calif. Curator Natalie Russell went through some “8,000 manuscripts, letters and photographs, and an additional 80 boxes of ephemera” to create an exhibition that shows, in chronological order, how Butler’s career was born and evolved, and what influenced her.

Large glass cases hold early notebooks and drawings, report cards from her days at Pasadena City College and notes to herself about character development. Early copies of her first editions are here. So is the one-page letter from the MacArthur Foundation notifying Butler she’d been chosen as a fellow in 1995.

The walls are hung with blowups of Butler’s childhood drawings and the affirmations she repeated to herself: “I am a best-selling writer, I write best-selling books,” one says. “Every day in every way I am researching and writing my award-winning books and short stories.”

That encouragement was probably essential: Butler faced a lot of challenges. She grew up black and poor in Pasadena, Calif., when legal segregation was dead, but de facto segregation was very much alive. She was also shy, unusually tall for her age, and not particularly social. “I’m an only child,” Butler told Sci Fi Buzz. “I had no idea how to get along with other children. And also, I was a strange kid who learned to stay by herself and make things up.”

She often made them up while sitting on the porch at her grandmother’s chicken farm, in the High Desert town of Victorville, Calif., where she dreamed about animals. The drawings of horses that illustrated one of her early stories are on the walls at the Huntington. After Devil Girl, though, Butler switched to science fiction, determined to make that her career.

. . . .

She went to Pasadena public schools, then got an associate’s degree from Pasadena City College. And she kept writing. She had short stories published here and there while she held what she called “lots of horrible little jobs” —warehouse worker, dishwasher, potato chip inspector. (“The one good thing about all those jobs was they left her mind free to think about her characters,” Russell says.) Butler’s first book, Patternmaster, was published in 1976 and caught people’s attention. It became part of The Patternist series; the stories revolved around a group of elite beings with telepathic superpowers.

Link to the rest at NPR  Here’s a link to Octavia Butler’s books.

PG would note that residents of both San Marino and Pasadena would probably dispute that, while the two communities are adjacent to one another that San Marino is a suburb of Pasadena.

Our 16 Favorite ‘Harry Potter’ Moments

27 June 2017

From The Ringer:

Twenty years ago, Bloomsbury published J.K. Rowling’s debut novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first installment in a saga that would span seven Potter books, eight Potter movies, and numerous spinoffs and extensions, in the process becoming one of the defining stories of a generation. Since Dumbledore isn’t here to help us pull any celebratory crackers, we’re marking the occasion by toasting Rowling’s magical creation — and the two decades of euphoria that it’s brought us.

. . . .

“The Prince’s Tale”

Zach Kram: “The Prince’s Tale,” Deathly Hallows’s 33rd chapter, is a writing masterpiece independent of its connection to the rest of the series. Young versions of Snape, Lily, and Petunia form with defined personality and motivation in mere sentences; relationships blossom and wither over the course of a concisely illustrated arc; the memory vignettes build atop one another with a clear exposition, climax, and emotional denouement.

But of course, “The Prince’s Tale” is not disconnected from the rest of the series. It solves perhaps the books’ greatest mystery and gives a richly complex character the firm definition around which he’d skirted for the previous six and a half books. The one-line callbacks to previous events — “Keep an eye on Quirrell, won’t you?”, Fleur and Roger post–Yule Ball — ground the memories Harry observes in familiar territory, while the new revelations pack a fierce emotive punch. In the most compelling scene, Dumbledore displays shades of cruelty while Snape counters with a gentle, sympathetic approach — a twist that still tracks from a narrative perspective. Rowling plays every note perfectly, and any reader can’t help but cry.
.

. . . .

Shopping in Diagon Alley

Kate Knibbs: As a middle schooler discovering Harry Potter, I cherished the scenes in Diagon Alley where Harry, flush with magical orphan gold, has his pick of the finest broomsticks, robes, and assorted wizard paraphernalia. Going on a school-supply shopping spree with unlimited funds in an enchanted British alley sounded like heaven, and the gulf between my reality (rifling through college-ruled notebooks) and the “barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon” that Harry encounters sums up the wish-fulfilling appeal of the franchise, which offers a more exciting, dangerous parallel school life tucked just beyond Muggle sight.

Link to the rest at The Ringer

Is It Possible to Misread Octavia Butler?

22 June 2017

From Book Riot:

“Bloodchild” is one of Octavia Butler’s most haunting, disturbing, and memorable stories, and is also one of the greatest things she ever wrote. And I know that I am not alone in having completely misread the story and entirely missed what Butler had accomplished.

The titular tale in Butler’s one and only short story collection, “Bloodchild” describes a future where humanity has developed a complicated relationship with a race of insect-like creatures known as the Tlic. The Tlic chooses one child from every family to be impregnated and “host” Tlic eggs inside their body. In exchange for this service, the Tlic “allow” the humans to live inside a special compound and ingest sterile Tlic eggs, which work as a kind of opiate, keeping the humans calm and happy. Oh, and the humans are banned from possessing any weapons, for fear of an uprising.

In this world, a boy named Gan has been chosen to host the eggs of T’Gatoi, the Tlic in charge of relations with humans in the compound. T’Gatoi lives with Gan’s family, sedating them with her sterile eggs and repeating how lucky they all are to have her living with them. When an injured and impregnated man is found outside their house, Gan watches in horror as T’Gatoi surgically removes the Tlic eggs from the man’s body to prevent them from eating him alive from the inside out. Gan realizes the danger he will be in if he lets T’Gatoi lay her eggs inside of him, but she declares that if he won’t be her host, then she’ll just use his sister instead. Gan chooses to be a host on the condition that T’Gatoi doesn’t report the illegal firearm Gan has been hiding.

The first time I read this story, I assumed Butler has written “Bloodchild” as an allegory for slavery in North America. It seemed so obvious: the Tlic are the white enslavers and their controlling humans’ bodies for their own benefit, all while insisting the humans are fortunate to be subjugated.

But Butler had heard this interpretation many, many times before, and wrote in her afterward to “Bloodchild” that she was “amazed” people kept viewing her story through this lens. And although the story does includes a group of humans that are, in a literal sense, enslaved, this reading is a vast oversimplification of what Butler was doing with the characters and their motivations.

Link to the rest at Book Riot 

PG has lead a sheltered life and was unfamiliar with Octavia Butler prior to reading several essays about her on Book Riot.

 

 

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