Category Archives: Fantasy

Want to read a story about oceans, colonizing other worlds, friendship, and how time and memory are part of the fabric of the universe? Oh, good. Here’s my short story “Tear Apart Worlds”, first published in Pen-Ultimate: A Speculative Fiction Anthology, Edited by LJ Cohen  and Talib S. Hussain.

Tear Apart Worlds – PDF
Tear Apart Worlds – EPUB
Tear Apart Worlds – MOBI


Seaborn Books Timeline

Several readers have asked for details on how the “seaborn books” are connected, and in what ways. Most of the books and stories I have written over the last ten years are tied together in one timeline, sharing characters, a couple of them extending over a generation. A few clearly share the same setting–our near-future world, with seaborn characters, but without Kassandra making much of an appearance–or not at all (Salvage).

You may have noticed that there’s a genre mix, from what would neatly fall into fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, etc. to stories that could legitimately be categorized as science fiction or tech-thriller (Nanowhere, Salvage), to stories that may not clearly fall into any bucket (Winterdim). Futuristic fantasy?

You may have noticed that most of these stories take place in the future. That’s on purpose. You could also look at the stories in this timeline and see the advance of technology from one to the next–especially when you get twenty or ninety years into the future, from Nanowhere to Teller and finally to Winterdim. I am a software engineer and technologist, so I am always interested in the progress of technology, where it will lead us, and where it will be applied in the fields of health, culture, military, and–very important to me–in or on the ocean, in support of preserving ocean wildlife as well as how we will continue to provide enough seafood for the world’s every growing market for it.

Want to print out the timeline, or get a closer look?

Let me know if you see typos, problems with the order or dates. I threw this together quickly, a lot of of it coming out of long email discussions with Georg (, Lorena (, and others. Also, I mention characters, plot direction for future books, and other details that you may consider spoilers, so read some of the longer blocks of fine print at your own risk!


Fantastically Evil

Damaris_thumbWhat if the villain in the story values the same things as the hero? Here’s my post for the September Fantasy Roundtable—Evil and the Fantastic.

I started out with the idea of spinning this topic away from the Saurons of the genre—the supremely bad players with vast armies of hideous soldiers and architecturally magnificent but poorly-lit fortresses, players who want to take over extensive amounts of someone else’s territory, an entire world, or some valuable plane of existence. I wanted to spin this topic toward the blended moralities in Glenn Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, and others, where the main characters are not always good, and some are clearly great fans of seeing others in pain—proudly wearing their “Go Sauron” jackets when off screen.

On the other hand I know the “evil protagonist” thing is all the rage. Every fantasy and SF discussion group on Goodreads and the Amazon forums has a dozen threads on “books where there main character is evil”, or something like that.

What about the good villain—or apparently good villain?  I don’t mean where the villain thinks he’s doing the right thing, because that’s pretty much what drives every complexly-written scoundrel.  Power-hungry, ladder-climbing, step over the bodies of your superiors to get what you want types of characters are the mainstay.  Power, money, control—these are the things that motivate so many baddies, along with a generous portion of justification for whatever they are after.

Another common theme is the bad guy or girl who must do something evil in order to survive —kill, drink blood, go all Mr. Hyde on us, or do bad things as the result of some curse.  Come on, doesn’t everyone deserve to survive?  Every reader can understand that kind of drive, and in many cases it’s the thoughtful appreciation (and sometimes sympathy) that shapes the reader’s reaction to the villain’s actions, usually based on the physical and emotional price paid by the afflicted character in order to fight or throw off the curse.

Still, that’s still not quite the evil I’m thinking about—or the “good” when I say “good villain.”  Like many writers I spend a lot of time thinking about evil—evil people, as well as their actions and motives. First, someone tell the NSA I was just doing research.  Second, here’s where I’m going:

What if the character or characters who represent evil in a story want to help develop the world instead of destroy it?  What if they benefit as much as the heroes, the shopkeepers, as much as the simple but courageous village gardeners from the worldwide advancement of magic, technology, living conditions, clean water, and green pastures? What if they are as turned off by a giant volcano spewing reeking sulfurous clouds as any hero? What if they are against war of any kind?

I started down this path in Teller, with the principal evil character making it clear that she wants all of humanity to progress. She’s even willing to help in an underground, organized-movement sort of way—you know, duffle-bags full of cash, “removing obstacles”, and other varieties of influence in the right places.  Teller is contemporary fantasy, and so the characters are living in a world with runes, rockets, and Reddit. Think of hundreds of “evil” characters around the world, nominally working together, with the common goal of getting rid of humans. Not by wiping them out—that would be messy, but by making sure that civilization either advances to the point where humans can travel to other planets—getting the majority of them offworld, or to the point where humans develop the technology to “digitize human consciousness” and go virtual—with two paths from there: withdrawal into some localized computational substrate with a small realworld footprint (e.g., “still here, but quiet and out of the way”), or by extending the range of exploration by sending “digitized human freight” to planets lightyears away and decanting the data into physical forms on the other side (e.g., “grass is always greener colonization strategy”).  The baddies want our world after all—and although they really don’t get along, there is one clear and shared requirement for the take-over: they want the world in move-in condition. Furnished would also be a nice perk.

I continued plotting and writing using this flavor of evil with my latest book, Salvage, where the principal evil character, Damaris, is completely open to discussions with one of the protagonists, and even hints that he’s going to invest in the character’s company, Knowledgenix, which develops advanced autonomous robots.  Damaris genuinely likes Jon Andreden, and wants to help him succeed.

Evil in the fantasy genre doesn’t have to mean miles of wasteland, ever-present storm clouds, minions with sharp weapons and low morale, or any mode of transportation that involves chiropteran wings—although I am a fan of some of these, especially the wings. To me, a villain who shares values with the protagonist frightens me more than any straightforward grab for land, money or power.  It totally freaks out the heroes, too.



Chris Howard is just a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books, 2008), Salvage (Masque/Prime Books, 2013), Nanowhere (Lykeion, 2005), and a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine.  His story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic Saltwater Witch.  His art has appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages of books, blogs, and other interesting places. Find out everything here:

Evil and the Fantastic

The September edition of the Great Fantasy Traveling Roundtable Blog is live with this month’s topic: “Evil and the Fantastic”. A bunch of great posts by Warren Rochelle, Deborah Ross, Carole McDonnell, Valjeanne Jeffers, Chris Howard, and Andrea K Höst.
Read it all here:
Category: Fantasy, Writing

July Rountable Fantasy – Intrusive Fantasy

Intrusive Fantasy
Sylvia Kelso

The term was coined by Farah Mendlesohn in her book The Rhetoric of Fantasy, and she classifies intrusive as one of four types in a fantasy taxonomy:

“In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic, in the intrusion fantasy the fantastic enters the fictional world.”

I immediately thought of Jadis the Witch loose in London in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. In my terms, this is fantasy where Elsewhere comes Here.

But then, if that’s intrusive, why call going to Elsewhere a portal-quest? Surely that’s when Here goes Elsewhere? So by analogy, that wd. be Extrusive Fantasy?

And the obvious example here is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the children first go to Narnia.

But enough frivolity. Both sorts of fantasy have been around a long time, though the current turn of the market has intrusive fantasy wayhay up the visibility scale, with werewolves, vampires, paranormal romance, etc. etc. etc. But as The Magician’s Nephew indicates, such fantasy was well-known in C. S. Lewis’ day. You might even say that “intrusive fantasy” covers the entire range of horror and the ghost story as well, because what are they but stories of intrusion into this world by the unreal?

And in these cases, the horror frisson or the fantasy sensawunda, the air of Faery, to misquote Tolkien, comes from the sudden anomaly of the impossible being Right Here in Your  Front Yard. Or Front  Door, in the Magician’s Nephew’s case. When I read the Lewis I didn’t really get the full flavor of this jolt, since Lewis’s London was already Elsewhere for me. Hansom cabs? This is Here?

Contemporary intrusive fantasy probably got its first actual market impetus from the Elves in the Supermarket sub-genre pioneered by Mercedes Lackey. For some reason, Lackey has never clicked with me, but the earliest  example I thought of for intrusive fantasy came from this sub-genre. It was the first in eluki bes shahar, aka Rosemary Edghill’s unfinished Twelve Treasures series, The Sword of Maiden’s Tears.

In this book, an Elven prince ends up mugged on a New York street, whence he is rescued by a mild-mannered Columbia librarian student. Def-initely a good aberrant jolt as she tries to parse his pointed ears and anachronistic clothes in terms of a Renaissance Faire costume etc. The story wears to a dark and not-very-happy end, which for the first of twelve projected volumes is fair enough, and there’s enough sword-clashing and tripping through weird old subway tunnels and monsters, elven or otherwise, to satisfy any dark fantasy reader. The section I remember best, though, is when Ruth takes her prince to get kitted out in modern clobber at Macy’s, where he ends up in

“artistically frayed and very tight jeans that molded the entire swell and sweep of calves and thighs and anchored Melior  firmly in the twentieth century world.” But “his hair had come loose of its tie… He looked like a particularly delectable rock star, silvery and shining and insulated from mortal touch” (p. 66)

Later, a teenager in a restaurant does ask for his autograph: “’I saw you in concert last year. Got all your albums.’” Which returns us to the anomalous comedy of errors. But at that one line, “silvery and shining and  insulated from mortal touch,” the first time I read the text, I felt the frisson that, like the presence of dragons for Tolkien, signaled the true presence of Elsewhere.

It’s rare for me to find that in the now hackneyed presence of werewolves, vampires, etc. etc,  and elves are no longer a fashionable form of intrusion.  It’s a form I’ve never written myself as fantasy, though a couple of my short stories have featured intrusions into Here. But these intrusion forms are plainly SF. For “The Cretaceous Border,” which is set in my backyard, to accustomed SF wip readers the title instantly signaled the content, and they took for granted that it was SF.

Intrusion then, imho, is not merely a feature of fantasy, but occurs across the unrealist genres, including all of horror, and some SF. It’s a useful term, though. Even though I’d love to keep its opposite as well. Extrusive Fantasy. Covers Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant books as well as countless other Go-to-Elsewhere stories, works just as well on the later Twelve Treasure books, where Ruth goes to Elfland, can be applied to some of Diana Wynne Jones’s books like Deep Secret. And given the sausage-machine production line of a lot of current fantasy, it has a handy second inflection. Maybe I’ll try to introduce it into Academia, she said, keeping a very straight face.

* * * * *

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story,  “The Honor of the Ferrocarril” appeared in Gears and Levers 3 from Skywarrior Books, and “Spring in Geneva,” a novella riff on Frankenstein, is projected to appear from Aqueduct Press in October  2013. (

(Illustration from The Magician’s Nephew by Pauline Baynes)



Intrusive Fantasy

Intrusion in fantasy often occurs in two ways. Either this is the intrusion of something alien, something entirely other, something not normally seen or active in the character’s world, something that disturbs the status quo by its arrival.  Or, intrusion is not truly intrusion at all but unveiling, an “apocalypse” where something hidden and secret now makes itself known to the character.

For instance, in the NBC program Grimm, Juliet discovers that monsters walk among us. This is not merely a realization of evil because evil has always been on earth, but a realization that the rules of life are more complicated than she had formerly thought and that certain species of people (hitherto unknown to her) are living lives she had not dreamed about. The fantastical intrusion might be a good thing. Or not. It might give glimpses of the numinous, the awesome, the otherworldly, the kind-heartedness at the center of the universe — thus creating saints (which often happens to folks who have seen angels or God. It might give the one intruded upon a glimpse of evil. . .the result of which is paranoia, conspiracy theories, isolation, prophets, or freedom fighters (spiritual or otherwise.)

In the Christian view, the Revelation of St John is the ultimate intrusion of fantasy. As one of the Old Testament prophets stated, “Tear the heavens and come down!” In the same way, John sees a day when the heavens will roll away like a scroll and the truth about the world — its true ruler, its basic battles, its true moorings— will be revealed.

In Christianity, John saw the revelation of the unveiling when a door opened up in heaven and he was invited into it to “Come and See.” He was trusted with knowledge of how the real world works and told how to declare it. In fantasy novels, the unveiling comes about either through sudden accidental discovery, by a character’s gradual insight and realization, or by trust…that is, another character (good or evil) decides to share the “secret” of the intrusion with the main character. Examples of this kind of encounter with fantasy intrusion in contemporary life are cases of alien abduction, haunted houses, and bumping into bigfoot.

Once the character’s eyes are opened, choices have to be made. The character can choose to close her eyes to the truth, as some do in The Matrix. The character can choose to align herself with other “adepts,” “visionaries,” or wizened souls. . . after all fantastical truth is hard to follow alone. There is the danger of forgetting. Therefore, some kind of fellowship is needed. The fellowship’s duty is to grow in knowledge about this revealed truth, strengthen the will of those who might be tempted to fall back into unknowing. Thus churches, fellowships, partners, support groups are needed, especially if the intruder into the real world is dangerous, the character may choose to fight.

In the end, the character is changed by this sudden intrusion. Something must be done. Or the character must change. Intrusion fantasy shows the main character that the world is not what she had thought it was. Whether this unveiling blesses the main character or curses her is unimportant. What matters is that the character is changed and will never see herself, the world, or her place in the world in the same way again. Thus, those who have seen the God behind the veil will suddenly “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance”  or go about preaching to neighbors with the zeal of an ex-alcoholic or an ex-smoker. Intruded-upon characters generally change. And who would not? They must in order to accommodate the secret that had formerly been hidden behind that closed door in heaven.

* * * * *

Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower.



Intrusive Fantasy
Andrea Höst

Going from an ‘ordinary’ world to a magical world is a very common progression in fantasy.  Even in secondary world fantasy, we often see the protagonist living a relatively adventure- and magic-free existence until magic arrives (in the form of a wise old man who knows what to do) and triggers a journey to vastly more interesting locales and experiences.

This type of journey can happen even within our world, where we meet magic which has been there all along – settled in and operating in parallel, so to speak, and merely hidden until now.  This is the kind of magic of many urban fantasies, and of books such as Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  The story still follows a path of exploration of an established second world, however.  The status quo of separate worlds is rarely altered.

Intrusive fantasy offers a different kind of narrative, one of threat and change.  The protagonist is in a settled and usually safe world into which something comes.  Although certain varieties of urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy take this form, it is a trope which is found most often in horror.

Ordinary people living ordinary lives, into which something Other comes.  A sourceless voice, strange noises, furniture moving, or even something or someone valuable disappearing.  The stories then tend to follow to either a “defence of the home”, “recovery of the lost”, “escape”, or “inevitable death” resolution.  Ghost and poltergeists and vampires – even robots from the future – they arrive in the safe world and make it worse.

Far rarer is intrusive magic which is benevolent, positive, bringing joy instead of threat.

I spent some time thinking over examples of “benevolent intrusive magic” and feel it most often appears in children’s literature.  The Psammead is not a threat to the protagonists of the Five Children and It, but instead an opportunity for delight and adventure.  Magic forms a treat, and usually provides a lesson – very much as the ‘chemistry’ kits in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Ogre Downstairs create excitement and problems, but lead to the family’s emotional resolution.  Even with all the drama benevolent intrusive magic brings, it’s very common for the protagonists to wish to seek it out again if they lose contact:

“After his pencils died, Malcolm began to suggest going back to the old man’s shop to see what else he had to sell.  So, in the end, Caspar went there with him.  He was very much afraid they would get sold something worse than pink footballs or the chemistry sets.  But the shop was gone.  Where the dark court had been, they found a wide hole full of mechanical excavators.  Next time they saw it, the space was filled with an office-block even taller than the Ogre’s.  That seemed to be the last of Magicraft.” – Diana Wynne Jones, The Ogre Downstairs

In both cases – malevolent or benevolent, adult or child-oriented – these stories most often conclude with a withdrawal of the intrusion.  The ghost becomes less active (presumably after driving a few victims insane, out the door or to their graves), the vampire is put to rest (or dust), the alien spaceship explodes, the magic ring breaks or is lost, and the sand fairy becomes irritated and flounces off in a huff.

Whether the protagonist is left to regret or celebrate the departure, intrusive magic only very rarely indeed puts down roots and stays.

* * * * *

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia.  She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue. 



The Fantastic as the Bringer of Chaos
Chris Howard

This month’s roundtable topic is “Intrusion Fantasy”, a term from Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, one of four categories along with Portal-Quest Fantasy, Immersive Fantasy, and Liminal Fantasy that make up the ways we read, participate in, and interpret most of the stories in the genre.  In intrusion fantasy the fantastic enters the real world–our world–in a shocking manner: “the fantastic is the bringer of chaos” that requires an “awestruck or skeptical tone” from the protagonist or most of the cast, and in the end the intrusion must be defeated.  One of the defining points from Mendlesohn is “intrusion fantasies maintain stylistic realism and rely heavily on explanation.”

Mendlesohn also points out the strong ties between immersive and intrusive fantasy, which is where I found the steadiest foothold on this topic. The mix of the two is what you’re most likely to run into. It just seemed to me that pure intrusion fantasies are rarer in the modern world, where millions have read the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, any number of other fantasy books, and know in some sense what an elf is.  In today’s world if an elf, fairy, or troll showed up in the middle of London, we (and the story’s characters) would probably be interested in how this might affect our lives or the modern world, but we wouldn’t doubt the existence of trolls or fairies.  They’re part of popular culture. On the other hand Shakespeare had to dig into fairy-lore and feed it to the Midsummer Night’s Dream audience in order to get them to go along.

I went looking for examples of fantasy books with complete plots that I could squarely fit into “intrusive”, and the list wasn’t long. That may be something missing on my part–correct me if I’m way off here. Most of the books were published many years ago, before fantasy made its way into mainstream bookshelves and nightstands and big screens. This got me thinking that Farah Mendlesohn’s category of intrusive fantasy may always be pushed out to the genre edge, where readers may still be shocked and amazed when an elf snaps into existence in the middle of Manhattan. Anyone who has read moderately deep into any list of high and contemporary fantasy might be intrigued by an event like this, but serious doubt or shock just wouldn’t be part of the response. I’m also wondering if there are–in this strict sense of intrusive–more examples in movies and television, where the audience may not be general readers of fantasy or SF who are accustomed to stories about people and creatures coming into our world from other worlds, where an “awestruck or skeptical tone” makes more sense?  (This may be a silly example, but the first thing to pop into my head was Splash with Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks–she’s a mermaid, he can’t believe it, he falls in love with her, she takes a bath and grows a tail, craziness ensues.  Another example along these lines is Ondine with Alicja Bachleda and Colin Farrell–similar set up but with serious doubt and questions to the very end–there’s just no way she can be a selkie, right? But…)

I think to most modern readers and writers of contemporary fantasy, magical realism, low fantasy, the intrusive will simply end up being one part of a larger immersive fantasy. Intrusion in this manner is part of half the stories I’ve written.  It’s a crucial part of Salvage, which comes out in August from Masque/Prime Books. One storyline is about an engineer who teams up with one of the seaborn to help her find her sister. He’s seen her stop bullets with her bare hands. He knows she can disappear under the waves with no diving gear–and never surface. And still he stumbles through the skepticism and awe. “…you have to see the position I’m in. I run this company. I—we, Martin and I—work in a very secure engineering world, with multi-million dollar R&D projects, intellectual property assessments, slow incremental progress with the occasional technology jump forward. We don’t live in a world where ocean-dwelling toymakers with missing sisters show up to offer super-advanced tech in exchange for government research and private investigation…”  This same pattern runs through the first three Seaborn books, where you have “people from the sea” doing some shocking things in our world, everything from partially damaging a US Navy destroyer in the middle of the Atlantic to Nikasia (in Sea Throne) walking out of the surf, coughing up all the seawater from her lungs, and continuing past gawking surfers, bathers and joggers as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on.  And she’s there primarily for one reason. To bring some chaos.

* * * * *

Chris Howard is a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books), Salvage (Masque, 2013), Nanowhere, and a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of magazines and anthologies, including “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine, and ‘Tear Apart Worlds” in Pen-Ultimate. His story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic, Saltwater Witch. His ink work and digital illos have appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages and covers of books, blogs, and other interesting places. Last year he painted a 9 x 12 foot Steampunk Map of New York for a cafe in Brooklyn. Find out everything at

Category: Books, Fantasy, reading, Writing

Some art for Salvage, probably the comic

“Mermaids Discuss the Complexities of Global Shipping”

There are millions of shipping containers on vessels on the sea at any given moment, and for various reasons some of these are lost at sea en route, reported missing, and written off. Someone finds them…


Category: art, Fantasy, mermaid, mermaids

Frank Herbert and the Quest without a Hero

[This was my January 2013 piece for the Fantasy Roundtable]

Like any writer I have many stylistic influences spanning classical, romantic, and contemporary authors from Homer, Hugo, and Dostoyevsky to Terry Pratchett, Richard Morgan, and Caitlín Kiernan. But if I had to pick an author whose work influenced me to the core–and at a young age–it would be Frank Herbert. For a particular work it would be Dune.

One of the things Dune taught me was that the protagonist of the story can go on the quest, suffer at the hands of an oppressor, struggle through and around the obstacles enemies lay out for him, and he can even complete the quest and emerge victorious. And he can do all of this without being a hero.

Or maybe Paul Atreides was just a different sort of hero, one I had never come across before. With Dune, Frank Herbert made me look at heroes and their quests in a different way.

I think many fantasy writers would automatically stick Tolkien on the list, but although I have read the Lord of the Rings dozens of times—and The Silmarillion at least ten—I can’t say Tolkien affected me the same way—or as deeply. Certainly Tolkien showed me the wonder of maps, invented languages, an excitingly deep world, and how a big story—Lord of the Rings—can become just one insignificant fragment of a far longer and more complicated story. These are the things I still love about The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. I probably would have said Tolkien was my favorite author when I was a teenager, but when I hit twenty or so, after four or five readings about Paul Atreides and all the craziness he gets up to with the fremen, I sort of felt like I had graduated from The Lord of the Rings to Dune.

Dune was also exotic, non-traditional. It had European roots without being entirely European, and that drew me in. There was also a very familiar parallel with Paul’s move from Caladan with its broad oceans to the faraway and very different desert world of Arrakis. I had moved around a lot and I thought that gave me insight into Paul’s plight—typical teenager. I was living in Japan, going to high school, when I first read Dune, but I had also lived just outside Paris, and in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. I had been up and down South Korea, Italy, and through East Germany by train to Berlin. I had lived on both American coasts, and I would end up living in Silicon Valley. In my seventeen- or eighteen- year-old mind there was definitely something that connected the changes shaking up Paul’s life and the constant moving around when I was young.

If the unfamiliar and striking backdrop of Arrakis lured me in first, that was quickly followed by Herbert’s push and play with the concept of a hero. Paul Atreides wasn’t your typical innocent kid with a quest thrust on him, with everything he counted on pulled from under his feet. He wasn’t just a pawn struggling to find his way in a universe of space-folding guild navigators and galactic-scale trade and political manipulation. He was a significant piece in the Bene Gesserit breeding program. He took the terrible risk—basically gambling everything—to gain god-like powers, which he used to gather and train thousands of fanatical soldiers. He defeated the emperor’s forces, killing armies and princes, the whole time maneuvering himself onto the throne, marrying the emperor’s daughter purely for political gain. And he ends the last chapter with less control over his life than when the story started.

“Paul was a man playing god,” said Herbert.

That idea hooked me at the first reading—that the hero could take on powers that he would not be able to control, that he could end up flawed so deeply he wasn’t a hero anymore.

None of the main characters in The Lord of the Rings had an evolution like Paul Atreides. Frodo, Aragorn, and the others were heroes in the traditional sense. Even if Frodo didn’t come home whole, he came back a true hero, having lost a finger while defeating the greatest evil of his age. Paul Atreides didn’t come home from his long journey a hero. He was a messiah at the head of a monster of religious ferocity he created. Anything that monster did would be done in his name, and he didn’t really control it.

Then he unleashed it on the universe.

In Herbert’s own words, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better to rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”

Paul had the quest. He made the journey. He was victorious. There’s a clear apotheosis stage—literally.  Paul Atreides is deified.  He passes through the stages of the hero’s journey.  He just isn’t a hero. Not in the usual sense.

I haven’t read Dune in ten or fifteen years, but I can still feel the affect that book and the following two—Dune Messiah and Children of Dune —had on me. I loved the culture clashing in Dune, the court intrigue, the power and plans of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the dinner parties with codes and signals and conversations being carried on at several levels at the same time—and only understood by a few. But it was the protagonist wielding power beyond his control that pulled me back into that universe again and again. It was Paul-Muad’Dib driving his followers, his family, the guilds, the Bene Gesserits, and the entire empire toward a doom he could not escape.

That is what has stuck with me to this day. Paul became a model for the kinds of heroes I love to write about. Heroes who barely have the will or personal strength to hold onto the reigns of some monstrous power that is part of them, or that they have created, and sometimes they end up being consumed by it.

In the introduction to his short story collection Eye, Frank Herbert elaborates on this theme. “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question. That’s how 900 people wound up in Guyana drinking poison Kool-Aid…”

I don’t know if it’s unusual but I love the idea of a protagonist who isn’t heroic in the traditional sense. I love an unsympathetic hero–or a hero who starts the story without a shared compassion or a strong connection with the reader, and grows to become sympathetic.

On the other hand I also love a good straightforward heroic quest, where the hero is good and right and fights evil. I know Herbert has been taken as being an active opponent of the hero’s journey, the monomyth, the whole Campbell thousand-faced hero, and in the Dune trilogy it looks that way–even with Paul’s progress through the story closely following many of the steps Campbell describes. It’s what Paul ends up becoming that disrupts the structure.

I don’t think Herbert’s in the same camp with David Brin, a confirmed and outspoken adversary of the hero’s journey and the Campbellian insistence that components of the myths are common among most cultures worldwide (Read Brin’s fun and interesting “Star Wars” despots vs. “Star Trek” populists: )

Herbert was more of an explorer of conflict and ideas, using his heroes to work through serious flaws in leadership, on the environment and very long range planning, the power of linguistics, and down to challenging what’s considered normal and abnormal. In the Dune books at least, he did not focus on science or future technology. His explorations frequently brought him up against traditional character structure and reader acceptance, but I don’t consider him an enemy of the popular heroic journey and story structure. I consider him a thoughtful science fiction writer who wanted to push the boundaries of the genre in ways that focused on awareness of important issues—ecology, flaws in perception—the infallible leader, and on the dangers of accepting without examination long-held beliefs and cultural fixtures—the hero who completes the quest and returns home a better or at least a more evolved person.

Herbert said, “We tend to tie ourselves down to limited choices. We say, ‘Well, the only answer is….’ or, ‘If you would just. . . .’ Whatever follows these two statements narrows the choices right there. It gets the vision right down close to the ground so that you don’t see anything happening outside. Humans tend not to see over a long range. Now we are required, in these generations, to have a longer range view of what we inflict on the world around us. This is where, I think, science fiction is helping. I don’t think that the mere writing of such a book as Brave New World or 1984 prevents those things which are portrayed in those books from happening. But I do think they alert us to that possibility and make that possibility less likely. They make us aware that we may be going in that direction.”


Chris Howard is a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books), Salvage (Masque/Prime, 2013), and half a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine. In 2007, his story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic, Saltwater Witch. His ink work and digital illos have appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages and covers of books, blogs, and other interesting places. Last year he painted a 9 x 12 foot Steampunk Map of New York for a cafe in Brooklyn. Find out everything at

Category: Books, Fantasy

Saltwater Witch Giveaway at GoodReads!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Saltwater Witch by Chris Howard

Saltwater Witch

by Chris Howard

Giveaway ends March 08, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

How do you eat underwater?

Food wasn’t high on the list of
difficulties to tackle for a series of books about people from the sea,
with at least half the action taking place deep underwater. If I divided
up my world-building time for the Seaborn books more than half of it
would go to undersea combat and the kinds of powers, “bleeds”, magic,
breathing, as well as sorting out their limitations, how they are passed
to children, and other details. Most of the other half was in cultural
development, cities, history, interaction with the surface, social
structure, why a people who are apparently successful have such a low
population—in the millions.

But food proved to be more difficult
than combat. Even if there’s magic involved in making things work in a
fight, it can be applied to the weapon once. Everyone in battle-space
doesn’t need to perform something crazy three times a day in order to
sustain their strength and stop their tummies rumbling. Right off the
bat I imagined—given their technology and powers—you could reduce
friction and drag in the water for edged weapons and bolts from
crossbows, and spearguns, so that battles didn’t look like thousands of
free-falling astronauts spinning and fumbling in slow motion, taking mad
swings at each other. And everyone looking stupid rather than
dangerous or fierce.

Food wasn’t as easy to figure out. On the
surface, Kassandra—the main character—can go to Starbucks or stop in for
sushi and sashimi at Shizuko’s in Hampton. She was raised on the
surface, but when she gets underwater and sees what the seaborn have out
for what appears to be an edible arrangement, she’s disgusted by it.
No potato chips, no bagels, no coffee. Just these little lumps or
wrapped packages of something she has no need to try.

Raw fish,
sliced and presented neatly, was an obvious choice because it didn’t
require cooking and you could eat it with fingers—it worked underwater.
But it was too obvious, too simple, and they can’t live on raw fish
alone. In a typical surface kitchen you turn on the stove, you heat
water, you make some pasta. In another pot you’re making a sauce. You
serve it onto plates and you eat with forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks,
sporks, fingers. Easy. In the deep ocean where the seaborn live I was
looking at extreme temperatures, complete darkness, with most of the
abyss cold, and water around hydrothermal vents reaching 800 F/426 C and
NOT boiling because of the immense pressure. I had plumbing in seaborn
cities to pipe this water and heat anywhere I wanted, but how do you
cook with it? Food wrapped in ceramic containers, leaves? Where do
those come from? Firing and glazing clay sounds difficult underwater.
The seaborn have light—can make it—and so they can grow seaweeds,
hundred-foot tall macrocystis—the large kelp forests you always see in
video off the coast of California. Leaves were in, and they’re entirely
plausible because that’s a common enough method for cooking on the
surface, with food wrapped and steamed inside cabbage leaves, grape
leaves, and others. Fish was clearly a center course—cooked or not,
with many options for vegetable-like dishes.

I didn’t take eating
much further than this in the three books because food didn’t play
enough of a role in the plot, but it surprised me how much trouble it
caused—more than breathing underwater, pressure, darkness, and combat,
all of which could be handled with sufficient technology—or magic.
Looking back, I wish I had given eating—especially the social aspect of
gathering around food and drink—more thought. My logic went something
like dolphins don’t know thirst and they don’t drink anything their
entire lives, so why would the seaborn? I went with a limited approach
to developing their eating conventions and left it at that—with some
jabs by Kassandra and others about how unappealing their food was.

it was the complexity around something as simple as what do you eat
underwater that got me. The ocean’s a complex environment made up of
many layered environments, and many are radically different meters
apart. And stories set there have to deal with the environment. Even
with something as complex as underwater acoustics, with negative
thermoclines and capacity for changing over long distances I just had to
do my research and let it play. Sound travels almost five times faster
underwater than it does through the air, but apparently there’s no fast
food in the deep. At least I didn’t find any.