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October 17, 2012

Portal fantasies, and cycles of desire
Posted by Teresa at 08:04 PM * 309 comments

Over at Dangerous Jam, the LJ of Rachel M. Brown (Rachelmanija), they’re discussing portal fantasies in light of certain remarks made by some unnamed agents in a post that isn’t available to the general public. Which is tiresome; but that’s Live Journal for you. It’s nevertheless an interesting subject.

Yesterday there was a fascinating discussion of portal fantasy, in which a character from our world is transported to another world. The classic example of this is Narnia. I can’t link to the post, because it was filtered (the “portal fantasy” discussion was in the comments) but I offered to make a public post on the subject. I invite the participants to copy their comments to it.

There was a Sirens panel in which five agents, who were discussing their slush piles, mentioned that they were getting quite a few portal fantasy submissions. Two of them said those made up about a quarter of their total fantasy submissions.

This would all be clearer if the agents’ names were mentioned. There’s nothing improper about it.
I said, “This intrigues me, because I haven’t seen a single one in the last ten years. Is it that editors aren’t buying them? Did you pick any up?”
I know what you’re thinking. Hang on and keep reading.
The agents replied that none of them had even requested a full manuscript for a single portal fantasy.

They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they’re not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world.

One agent remarked that if the protagonist didn’t fall through the portal, there would be no story.

Of course, this is the key quality that makes a portal fantasy a portal fantasy. England was not at stake in the Narnia series, Narnia was. If the kids hadn’t gone through the wardrobe, there would indeed be no story. Nor was Narnia tightly connected to England: the kids were from England and that was important, but the story was all about Narnia.

The agents added that nothing is absolutely impossible to sell, and one said that she had a middle-grade fantasy which had portal elements. But overall, they were not enthused.

In the filtered discussion, several people confirmed that it isn’t just that agents won’t even take a look at portal fantasy manuscripts; almost no editors are willing to buy them, either. Presumably, this is why agents don’t even want to read them.

Agents and editors: Is this correct? If so, why? The obvious answer is that they don’t sell to readers… but normally, you know that because they consistently fail to sell. In this case, there seem to be none published at all.

Granted: on the face of it, this makes no sense. Just off the top of my head, the last decade (loosely defined) saw the publication of Spin, Axis, Vortex, Un Lun Dun, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Coraline, The Magicians, The Magician King, various works by Jasper Fforde, and volumes in the Wheel of Time, Harry Potter, Merchant Princes, and Laundry series, all of which use numinous portals. If you include TV shows, there’s Buffy, Angel, Fringe, and the whole Stargate franchise. I can’t possibly list all the movies, but I’ll mention Spirited Away, Monsters, Inc., Pan’s Labyrinth, The Ring, and Inception.

Portals aren’t just present; they’ve become part of the basic toolkit.* Why grown so common? At a guess, because we’re all spending a lot of time in an environment where we magically jump from one location to another.

I suspect the misunderstanding in question grows out of the ubiquity of portals in fiction. They’ve ceased to be interesting in their own right, and are now just a mechanism. If a writer thinks having a character fall through a portal is sufficient bang for the buck, they probably aren’t writing a very good story.

This is borne out by the agents’ other remarks: there’s not enough at stake in portal fiction, there’s no reason for readers to care what happens, and if it weren’t for the falling-through-the-portal bit there’d be no story. I’ll take that as tentative confirmation that if they’re thinking of a book as a portal fantasy, there’s not enough going on in it; and if there’s enough story to make it a good book, they aren’t identifying the portal as a central feature.

There is another possible explanation, but I’m not feeling a surfeit of portals at the moment, so I don’t think it’s what’s going on. I’ll describe it anyway, because it’s always happening to one kind of fiction or another.

It’s a cycle. It starts when someone writes a terrifically appealing book or series:


Writer: Hmmmf. I could write that as well as (original author) did.

Editor/Publisher: It appeals to the same audience that loved yon terrifically appealing book or series. (Acquires and packages it accordingly.)


Writers: Ka-ching! Here, have some more!

Editor/Publisher: Gosh, these are selling awfully well. ( Acquires and packages them accordingly.)

Readers: LOOK, MOAR! NOM.

More writers: This subgenre is Teh Hot Stuff. I shall write a series in it, and all shall love me and despair!

Editor/Publisher: Um. I know it’s got problems, but these are so popular …


Lots and lots of writers: It’s practically a formula! Cowabunga!

Editor/Publisher: Cripes, it’s another one of those. I’ve already rejected a dozen of ‘em this morning.

Readers: OOH, SHINY! (Wanders off in pursuit of some new thing.)

What cloys the readers’ appetite for a style or trope or category isn’t the good examples; it’s the third-rate knockoffs. If they O.D. on imitations, you sometimes have to wait for their dyspepsia to subside before they can remember what they liked about it in the first place.
Comments on Portal fantasies, and cycles of desire:
#1 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 08:21 PM:

I remember once in my hearing at a convention, a Famous Editor who was at the time Very Important at Pocket Books (remember Pocket Books? Raise your hand if you do...) commented that all he wanted, because it was all his readers wanted, was The Amityville Horror Six. (Remember The Amityville Horror? I believe it's still in print. The Amityville Horror Part Two? The Amityville Horror: the Nightmare Returns? The Amityville Horror Meets Godzilla?)

#2 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 08:41 PM:

Kind of a vector off into speculation, but now all of a sudden I want to read a fantasy in which someone finds/builds/magics up a (replicable) Portal-style portal gun.

#3 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 08:47 PM:

The comment about not enough being at stake fascinates me, and if I understand its intention, I wonder if a bunch of editors are missing an opportunity. On the other hand, maybe it's just me again.

A lot of the time, lately, I've been preferring stories in which not a whole lot is at stake. And this is very much a reaction to real-world issues. Like many people, I find far too much of my own well-being and the well-being of people I care about, at stake far too much of the time. Usually thanks to the power of people busily violating many or all of the standards of basic human decency while congratulating each other for being the real heroes. Feeling this precarious, year after year, gets very depressing sometimes.

In that context, turning to fiction where the key questions are things like "Can they make a good thing better?" and "How stylishly will they do a good thing and humiliate those who have it coming?" It's not al I like, but it's certainly a kind of thing I like, and distinctly more now than 10-15 years ago, for the obvious reasons.

I have this feeling that there's a still-growing market for really good stories with less at stake.

#4 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 09:17 PM:

Cyberpunk is portal fantasy.


Heck lots of people are living aspects of Portal Fantasy: e.g. XCom.

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 09:30 PM:

I think your central point is absolutely correct. I just want to observe that when most genre people these days say "portal fantasy," they don't mean "any genre work that has a portal in it"; they mean "a work of fantasy in which people go from our contemporary world into a fantasy world." Which excludes a number of the works you're citing, like Spin and The Wheel of Time.

Still, this cavil has no effect on your main points. And I love your enactment of the Cycle of Literary Desire.

#6 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 09:32 PM:

And there is stempunk, which will probably soon be declared dead, unless it pulls an electric Mark Twain on us.

#7 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 09:34 PM:

'Steampunk', not 'stempunk', unless gardening becomes the new thing in fantasy. I'm still waiting for Urbane fantasy to be the other new thing, with Nick & Nora fighting lovecraftian horror.

#8 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 09:49 PM:

Serge #6: For one moment there you had me wondering about a genre of fiction which featured sf/f type stories about wineglasses.

#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 09:52 PM:

Patrick: I get your point. Portal fantasy, wardrobe, Narnia. Check.

My point, portals everywhere, I've got a hole in me pocket, also true. Sure you don't disagree.


Lizzy: Ah. Yes. Pocket.

One really does have to forgive the readers for wanting what they want, and (more to the point) for having limited ways to express it. How much trenchant and insightful literary analysis does it take to figure out that when they say "I want another one just like that," they mean "I want another book that makes me feel like that one did"?

Joe McMahon: It makes me want to come up with a plot involving a person who falls into our world from Somewhere Else.

Bruce, they're not talking about the kind of "not much at stake" you get in Jeeves & Wooster stories. I could use more of those myself. What they mean are the kind of manuscripts where you find yourself increasingly disliking the protagonist for no clear reason, and wondering why the [bleep] the cameraman is following him or her around.

Actually, I know why you find yourself at odds with the protagonist: the author obviously loves them a lot more than you do, and is willing to follow them around, at great length, when nothing interesting or consequential is happening.

Trust me: you wouldn't enjoy it.

#10 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 09:53 PM:

Serge, if the Laundry series goes on long enough, I'm sure you'll get your wish.

#11 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 09:58 PM:

Teresa@9: OK. I do believe you - I find it the sensible thing to do on publishing matters. :) I will say that it seems quite an opaque way to put the idea.

#12 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:02 PM:

Like Bruce (@3), I was struck by the claim that fantasy isn't popular unless the whole world is at stake. I'm reminded of Sidney Mellon, a fictional columnist in the comics magazine Amazing Heroes, written by (I think) Gerard Jones, as a parody of the worst features of comics fanboys. According to Mellon, a story's quality improved in proportion to the size of the region threatened by the action — a story with the whole world at stake was intrinsically better than one that threatened just a single city, but not as good as one that threatened the galaxy.

I'm also surprised to see (apparently) there's no reason for readers to care about any world but the real one. So much for The Lord of the Rings, then. When I was a teen, secondary-world fantasies were the big thing, as if it were the real world that nobody could sustain an interest in.

#13 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:06 PM:

Honest, guys, the reason you don't have a concrete referent for the "not enough is at stake" thing is because we keep you from having to wade through books like that.

You know the Mary Sue Litmus Test? Get rid of everything about the character that scores points on that test. Now have to read about them anyway.

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:07 PM:

Avram, they don't mean you can't care about another world. They mean you don't care about the world the writer has created.

#15 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:12 PM:

TNH @9, the character who falls into our world is a staple of science fiction, isn't it? Generally he's a mechanism for social commentary, constantly being puzzled by our curious ways.

#16 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:12 PM:

Teresa, just double-checking. So this is using "at stake" in about the sense that Twain had in mind as one of his points against Cooper?

They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

#17 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:17 PM:

Is there any suburban fantasy?

#18 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:22 PM:

TNH @14, so it's not really the world being at stake then, but rather that in the stereotypical portal fantasy, everything that happens does so in Magic Otherplace Land, and the reader can't be expected to care about it? Like, if the story is about starting up a magical pizzeria in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that's interesting because the reader can imagine being in Williamsburg, but if it's a magical pizzeria in the land of Faranwide, who cares?

Or is it that the Faranwide version of the story will waste the reader's time with endless exposition about the Faranwide equivalents of the L train, skinny jeans, and fixies, while the Williamsburg version will just mention those things and move on?

#19 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:28 PM:

There are a number of things I wonder about portals; most of them relate to conservation of energy.

If it's always winter in Narnia, why isn't there cold air blowing out of the wardrobe?

Could you build a perpetual motion machine by putting a portal higher than the place you enter it from, thereby creating a perpetual falling through it?

What would happen if you carry a portal through another portal?

Could you make an energy beam weapon by portalling to an energy source in another universe?

#20 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:34 PM:

Avram @ #15

constantly being puzzled by our curious ways.

Depends on how old he was when he arrived. Sometimes he's adjusted to our world and become a reporter for a large metropolitan newspaper.

#21 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:52 PM:

Avram, it's more like the character has to ask her father the blacksmith for permission or the use of his flint fire-striker or something, only she can't ask until three days from now, and you get all three days.

Imagine the person from another world has landed on a cruise ship, only it doesn't run aground off the coast of Tuscany, and nothing really decisive can happen as long as they're at sea. Now reverse the polarity. It's like that.

#22 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 10:54 PM:

Erik Nelson @ 17... I guess TV series "Bewitched" would have qualified as suburban fantasy.

#23 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:11 PM:

I sold a portal fantasy in 2011. Sounds a bit like I might have caught the last train to Portalia.

#24 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:16 PM:

Eric Nelson, @17

There is, yes.

It's called "Homestuck." It's about a bunch of suburban* kids who live in relative isolation and mainly communicate via the internet. They must play a game called, appropriately, "Sburb" in order to determine the fate of the world.

Ironically, it is a portal fantasy. And the stakes rise steadily over the course of the narrative. It's the most popular modern work of fantasy you've never heard of, and it just raised 2.5 million dollars on Kickstarter.

*Ok, technically only two out of the four kids live in the literal suburbs, but they are all very much immersed in that modern suburban mindset. Characters introduced later on exist in a fantastical version of suburban culture... with the haves, have-nots, frenemies, and "lawn rings."

#25 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:21 PM:

Erik Nelson at 17: Um -- Buffy?

#26 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:24 PM:

Followup: it's not portal fantasy,I know. But surely it is suburban fantasy.

#27 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:25 PM:

Would the gnomes like some Thai noodles with stir-fried veggies?

#28 ::: Steven desJardins ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:36 PM:

Howard the Duck fell into our world (for some values of "our world") from Somewhere Else. "Trapped in a world he never made!"

#29 ::: Jeremy Preacher ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:38 PM:

I just read the second in Cat Valente's Fairyland series, which are as portally as a portal fantasy gets, and they're fantastic and seem to be doing just fine in the market. Having that so fresh in my head made this discussion seem really odd to me.

That said, I can see where portal fantasies could make up a very distinct category of terrible slush. It might be the easiest possible opportunity to create a blisteringly perfect Mary Sue and consequently a world with no real stakes. (Because the stakes in the kinds of portal fantasy I'm thinking about often as much internal as external - not stakes for the world, but the character.)

#30 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:43 PM:

Trying again: in response to my own post at 25; I am aware that Buffy is not a portal fantasy -- though the Hellmouth is sort of a portal into our world, no? -- but it is definitely, possibly definitively, suburban fantasy.

#31 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:51 PM:

I am now thinking of the Secret Country books with love, longing, and a bit of despair because AUGH SEQUELS. WANT NOW. Perhaps it's time I reread the three I have.

(also, I can't decide whether the readers in the exemplar sound like Hulk or Cookie Monster. Either is fine by me.)

#32 ::: Eric K ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:53 PM:

Erik Nelson @ 19 There are a number of things I wonder about portals; most of them relate to conservation of energy.

As is so often the case, xkcd has an excellent take on these questions.

#33 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2012, 11:54 PM:

For suburban fantasy, who could forget The Stepford Wives? If you could, would you tell me how you managed to?

I expect that if someone gave one of those agents a good portal fantasy, they'd shop it around like crazy. For a really peculiar example of fairly recent interesting portal fantasy, what about Garth Nix's The Keys to the Kingdom series (finished in 2010), which is a portal fantasy where the world the protagonist comes from is a stfnal version of our world (but definitely not the same as this world). I can't recall anyone else using that approach. And what goes on in the fantasy world has profound effects on the base world of the protagonist. Like, causing panics, killing people and spreading plague.

#34 ::: Tehanu ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:00 AM:

Bruce@3: "I have this feeling that there's a still-growing market for really good stories with less at stake."

Me too. I love epic, but lately the "real" world is so depressing ... if there's anything I don't need to read about, it's dystopias and invasions of zombies and apocalypses.

#35 ::: Keith Edwards ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:16 AM:

Bruce Baugh @3:

I have this feeling that there's a still-growing market for really good stories with less at stake.

I do as well. And not just because the real world is irritating in big honking ways, but because it offers a different perspective on conflict. It opens opportunities for more numinous stories, internal conflict manifesting in unique, external ways. Creates challenges for writers to find ways to show these small conflicts in concrete ways.

Also, I just published a novella along these lines and have a baby on the way. So yeah, I hope there's a market for such stories!

#36 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:31 AM:

I'm waiting for the Charles Williams revival. It's not a story about a man suddenly cast into another world. It's not a story about alien gods suddenly descending on our own, breaking it in two. It's just a guy who looks like a spider climbing down to Hell on a rope.

I might need coffee.

#37 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:34 AM:

Bruce Baugh: I have this feeling that there's a still-growing market for really good stories with less at stake.

This sounds like the time to quote Raymond Chandler: "Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest."

#38 ::: gaukler ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:46 AM:

An excellent suburban portal fantasy (except no-one goes through the portal) is Katherine Blake's Interior Life.
(URL given in this fashion because I can't find the spelling and how-to list that should be at the bottom of this page, but isn't at the moment.)

#39 ::: gaukler, gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:48 AM:

Yes, it's a long URL, but it's a link to a Jo Walton post at
Fresh bread and blueberry jam?

#40 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:49 AM:

Erik 19: If it's always winter in Narnia, why isn't there cold air blowing out of the wardrobe?

Because there's a pressure differential. There's a slow but constant airflow INTO Narnia.

Could you build a perpetual motion machine by putting a portal higher than the place you enter it from, thereby creating a perpetual falling through it?

Yes, you can build it; no, it's not a PMM. Either gravity is acting on it (which is an outside force powering it, thus no more a PMM than those little sun-powered globes from the 70s), or if gravity can't get through the entry port's back end, the object won't accelerate, and will gradually slow to a stop due to air friction.

Which is another cool effect, actually, but never mind.

What would happen if you carry a portal through another portal?

Nothing much. Why?

Could you make an energy beam weapon by portalling to an energy source in another universe?

Absolutely. Done in several different SFF books, none of which I can recall at the moment. Frank Herbert did something similar in one of his egregious non-Dune books.

#41 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:52 AM:

#39 ok, that's technically not a PMM. But for all practical purposes, isn't it close enough to win a government contract?

#42 ::: gaukler ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:53 AM:

I'll just re-post, using the proper linking method (I hope) which has mysteriously reappeared on the page:(
Erik at 17: look for Katherine Blake's Interior Life , a suburban portal fantasy with no portal.

#43 ::: gaukler, gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:54 AM:

Well, that didn't work, either. Gnomes, please choose the better post for release when you get the chance. Probably the second one.

#44 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:57 AM:

Well, this makes me glad I never finished writing the SFF story about the people who fall from a magic-using world into Earth in the mid-21st Century, and have to figure out how magic works here (and convince anyone that it DOES), while evading the minions of a malevolent AI who wants to take over THEIR world, and simultaneously figure out why everyone thinks they're pretending to be the characters in an early-21C SFF novel about people who fall into Earth, etc., but with slightly different details than are actually happening to them.

It was a fun story while I was thinking it up, but clearly this isn't the time for it. OTOH, but the time I finished WRITING the damn thing...

#45 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:59 AM:

... I'd read that.

#46 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:01 AM:

Christopher 49: Only if the energy used to power the portal is less than the potential energy acquired by the falling object as a result of being transported (which kind of IS a PMM of sorts). If it's equal or greater, probably not.

Except for the portal tech itself, of course. Pretty sure the military would be interested in that even at huge energy cost!

#47 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:05 AM:

Xopher #44 you could have the gravity-propelled-object continue to fall through the two portals until it reaches terminal velocity, then turn the bottom portal off and make a very big crashy boom.

Granted, there are easier ways of doing that. Like dropping something out of a plane. But that's not the point!

#48 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:12 AM:

@#17, Suburban Fantasy:

I had an idea once (please! someone! Steal this idea!) about a suburban witch. I know, there's N thousand suburban series right now that I don't want to read. For all I know, "Trolls in the Hamptons" or "Flip this Zombie" or ... whatever... are very good books. I am just not the target audience.

My concept was: Witches get their power from boundaries. Seashores. Crossroads. Sunsets. Eclipses, lord, eclipses.

New Jersey, to pick an example, has a band of NYC suburbs at least, what, 30 miles thick by 80 miles long?

Don't mess with the witch that lives THERE.

#49 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:18 AM:

Um, that's Christopher 40. I am only occasionally precognitive, and never that specifically.

Christopher 43: If I ever finish it, I'll send you a copy. It also has a Beatles-themed Mexican restaurant called LCD (Lucía en el Cielo con Diamantes).

#50 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:24 AM:

Christopher 45: you could have the gravity-propelled-object continue to fall through the two portals until it reaches terminal velocity, then turn the bottom portal off and make a very big crashy boom.

Or evacuate the air from the chamber where this is happening and just leave it somewhere until relativistic effects make a big slurpy boom.

Or invert the portals at the end so that all that falling is suddenly an intercontinental lob of whatever-it-is.

Lots of ways to have destructive fun with this.

New Jersey, to pick an example, has a band of NYC suburbs at least, what, 30 miles thick by 80 miles long? ... Don't mess with the witch that lives THERE.

Awww, I'm harmless.

Well, mostly harmless.

#51 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:25 AM:

TNH @21, and that's specifically a portal fantasy thing?

#52 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:31 AM:

Avram @49, I took TNH @21 to be about the "nothing at stake" discussion, not specific to portal fantasy.

#53 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:26 AM:

Jeremy Leader @50, well, the context the "have no stakes" thing came up in was specific to portal fantasies ("...portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because..."). As Bruce said, if they meant something unspecific to portal fantasies, they chose a pretty opaque way of putting it.

#54 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:31 AM:

Serge @7,

Urbane Fantasy? Have you read Jo Walton's "Tooth and Claw"? If a Regency story about dragons struggling over dowries and inheritance isn't Urbane Fantasy, I don't know what is.

BTW, I think today's Steampunk is tommorrow's Portal Story, if you know what I mean. We're seeing the knockoffs of knockoffs now.

Now, Stempunk, that I would read. "Out! Out! Damned squirrels."

#55 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:37 AM:

Xopher @42, eh, if you want to write the thing, go ahead and write it. I've lost track of the number of times I had an idea for a story, shrugged it off as something that'd already been done to death, and then seen something very similar come out and be popular a few years later.

#56 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:41 AM:

Am I the only one who saw "stempunk" and thought of stem cells?

#57 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 03:06 AM:

Another suburban fantasy that comes to mind is Dorothy Heydt / "Katherine Blake"'s The Interior Life.

TexAnne @31: You make me wonder whether you've been following Pamela Dean's LJ.

#58 ::: Matthew F. ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 03:26 AM:

No, Avram, I thought of stem cells too. I've seen the word "biopunk" floating about the place, I imagine the two would shade together.

The Jarts in EON used portals as a weapon, opening one into the place they didn't like and the other into the heart of a sun.

Stephen King's Tommyknockers liked to mess with them and badly messed up one planet they visited when they opened a portal onto some supermassive planet that sucked a lot of atmosphere through the portal and actually exerted enough gravity to wrench the planet off its orbit (I suspect the physics might not stand up, but it sounded very impressive when the character told the anecdote).

For other neat portal tricks I'll have to go back and look through some of my superhero roleplaying books. People have come up with some wonderfully sneaky applications for them.

#59 ::: Matthew F. ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 03:35 AM:

Oh,and, suburban fantasy. Shaun Tan's wonderful Tales From Outer Suburbia for a start. Twelfth Planet Press did a suburban-fantasy anthology called Sprawl, which I understand was inspired by it.

#60 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 04:37 AM:

Teresa @9 "Joe McMahon: It makes me want to come up with a plot involving a person who falls into our world from Somewhere Else."

The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key.

Children's, but still. Read it about 35 years ago; remembered it instantly. Can't think of anything quite like it, which is of course another way to say MOAR PLZ!

#61 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 04:42 AM:

Avram at #12: But Middle Earth is not a Fantasy World of the kind you could Port to, it's a secretly historical Earth, like the Hyborian Age.

Narnia is in one way a pure portal story, in that Narnia is created, saved a few times and finally ends without affecting anything in 19th or early to mid 20th century Earth.

But the stories are not portal stories of the kind where nothing is at stake because they are not about Narnia at all, they are about children relating to the actual, real Christian God.

#62 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 05:39 AM:

Xopher #42 - that sounds interesting, reversing the usual 'person from this world drops into other world'.
Teresa's life cycle of a genre look right to me. What I have been wondering though is, since we've had vampires, zombies, werewolves and suchlike for years now, what is the next thing going to be?

I have a portal story all written up, but the people and activities in it don't have much effect on this world. I have however laid some trails so as to suggest that the two worlds are linked, in some strange and numinous fashion, because theres a much bigger sequal planned.

#63 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 06:10 AM:

More suburban fantasy: Esther Friesner's Witch Way to the Mall, Strip Mauled: Supernatural Suburbia, and Fangs for the Memories.

Also, I think there's been some suburban fantasy that got mainstream publication.

#64 ::: David Langford ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 06:47 AM:

#19: Could you make an energy beam weapon by portalling to an energy source in another universe?

The usual sf treatment is a stargate or wormhole opening on a sun, as in A E van Vogt's 1942 "Secret Unattainable" and Charlie Stross's Glasshouse. The van Vogt story also features the xkcd idea of an ocean coming through the portal at high pressure, reprised in Philip José Farmer's The Gates of Creation.

#65 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:08 AM:

Serge Broom @6: And there is stempunk, which will probably soon be declared dead, unless it pulls an electric Mark Twain on us.

Stempunk is where you have to wind-up the electric Mark Twain. It's an early hybrid technology, where springs and gears drive the wind-up generators that power the electric motors.

#66 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:09 AM:

I have a very soft spot for portal fantasies, Narnia included. I was fairly miserable during some of my childhood and part of how I coped was through reading portal fantasies. Very obvious escapism in hindsight, wanting to go somewhere else and be special and make friends + save the world. I dreamt up lots of them on my own as well

Also one thing re: Narnia that I still find hilarious. I was fairly religious as child actually but I pretty much strayed away in a sense after devouring the Narnia books because Aslan was so much cooler and better than anything I heard about in sunday school. I read the books quite literally at the time and didn't spot any of the subtext.

#67 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:34 AM:

The Freedom Maze is a sort of portal fantasy (involving a gate to the past), in which the protagonist's power is severely limited, and the main thing at stake is her own identity.

I would buy a hundred more of them, if there were a hundred more.

#68 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:39 AM:

Doug @ #58, Thank you! I was racking my brains to think of the author and title of that book, which I also loved when I was in middle school.

#69 ::: Lila got gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:40 AM:

No idea why; was thanking Doug for author/title of The Forgotten Door, of which I am also a fan.

#70 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:42 AM:

Teresa @10, and Serge, urbane fantasy: check. Also: extreme Lovecraftian gardening.

(Those are now in my clippings file. Or compost heap. Whatever.)

#71 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:50 AM:

David #62 is far too self-effacing to mention his own portal weapon, from "The Space Eater", in which you drop one end of the wormhole device just inside the event horizon of a black hole. Which, via the cosmic censorship principle or some such, promptly causes the black hole to shrink slightly ... and the surplus mass comes out of the other end of the wormhole device in the form of a much smaller (but perfectly formed) black hole.

This one definitely falls into the "not a hand weapon" category.

(I have a bunch of ideas stashed away for the next Merchant Princes series, as/when I get around to writing it.)

#72 ::: Dave ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 08:08 AM:

#19 What would happen if you carry a portal through another portal?

Now I'm picturing Thomas Covenant in Narnia.

#73 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 08:44 AM:

What I have been wondering though is, since we've had vampires, zombies, werewolves and suchlike for years now, what is the next thing going to be?

Changelings? About the only thing left...

Spinning off the suburban-fantasy idea... if vampires are the aristocratic horror story (elegant, rich, cultured, feeding off the blood of the poor), and zombies are the underclass horror story (mindless, outnumbering you, multiplying, unstoppable) what's the middle-class horror story?

It's got to be either The Body Snatchers or, and this would be my favourite, stories about selling your soul to the devil. Isn't that the ultimate middle-class horror? Making a deal in the hope of bettering yourself and having it all go horribly wrong because you've been outsmarted? There's already been a film that made the analogy between selling your soul and the subprime mortgage industry (Drag Me To Hell, I think it was called)...

#74 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 08:55 AM:

Dave at #70 writes: Now I'm picturing Thomas Covenant in Narnia.

"Futility is the defining characteristic of life. Pain is proof of existence, if you can call this existence. Which I doubt" said Thomas Puzzlement. "You are sitting on a thistle, Thomas", said Jill.

#75 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:30 AM:

Ajay #71: "Changelings? About the only thing left..."

Absolutely not!

What about Golems? Bunyip? Chupacabra paranormal romance ("their red-rimmed eyes met over Billy-Goat Gruff's supine form ...")? Banshees? (And I'm not talking punk/goth rock here ...) And there's a huge range of Yokai -- how about the human-faced tree, or the Bathtub-Licker?

All that's been strip-mined is the traditional British/Irish fae, the central European vampires, a smidgeon of Zombies/Voudon stuff by way of the Caribbean, and of course Godzilla. There are lots of other things that go bump in the night lurking around the twilit interstitial margins of fantasy, awaiting their marketing opportunity!

#76 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:33 AM:

I've been following Rachel pretty regularly for the past several years (ever since that amazing four-part series on PTSD, actually), and I'd like to address a few points in Patrick's original post:

certain remarks made by some unnamed agents in a post that isn’t available to the general public. Which is tiresome; but that’s Live Journal for you.


This would all be clearer if the agents’ names were mentioned. There’s nothing improper about it.

Rachel writes YA SF. Not so long ago, she had an unfortunately public dustup with one agent who requested that she make a gay character straight or remove any elements of romance for that character in order to make her book salable. She and her co-author refused, and withdrew the book. It got very ugly; IIRC, the agent was the one engaging in ad hominem attacks and other smear tactics, whereas Rachel was largely calm and invective-free, but it caused her a great deal of anxiety. She's since sold the book, gay character and romance intact.

However, given this history, Rachel understandably doesn't want to be seen to be calling out any one agent by name, while still wishing to have a discussion of "why do agents choose not to buy portal fantasies, and do these stated reasons sound valid?"

Also: the panel, and Rachel's post, framed this as being specifically about YA, though I would not be surprised if the comments have drifted. (I didn't have the time to spare for a thread of over a hundred comments.) She and the agents acknowledged that there have been both middle-grade and adult portal fantasies published in the last few years, some of them critically acclaimed and selling well, but that apparently for YA they're anathema, and dystopias and urban fantasy are all the rage. And she wanted to consider why, if they're acceptable for those two categories, were they unacceptable for YA?

I think she's aware of the cycle of desire. I've personally reached the "blech" stage on both dystopias and urban fantasy, and, as a result, have left off reading YA.

#77 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:34 AM:

Whoops. Teresa's original post. I caught it on my LJ RSS feed first, which seems to attribute everything to Patrick.

#78 ::: Rikibeth has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:37 AM:

Probably because second post in a short period of time? I was attempting to correct the attribution -- I first had Patrick as the OP, because the RSS feed on LJ makes it look like that if you're not careful, but of course I looked up just after and noticed my error. Teresa's original post, I meant to say.

I would be happy to make the gnomes a cup of cafe au lait.

[The term "RSS feed" knocks a post into the moderation queue. -- JDM]

#79 ::: Rikibeth's reporting of gnoming has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:39 AM:

I'm going to make some banana bread soon. I will be patient about my de-gnoming if the gnomes can be patient about their treat.

#80 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:44 AM:

Teresa -- what you're talking about with the stakes isn't limited to portal fantasies. Bad writers could write those three days of boring trivia in any world, surely? Imagine Tedium McSlush writes two stories about the pizzeria, one in this world and one in an imaginary world, and in both stories the girl has to wait three interminable days to ask her father for permission. They'd *both* have no stakes and they'd *both* be awful.

What you're talking about isn't what I call stakes at all. It's Dorothy's Deadly Words "I don't care what happens". This is what I call investment, how much the reader cares.

What I call stakes doesn't have to do with investment, it has to do with internal stuff. So sometimes you get awful stories where they say the stakes are really high. You can't get higher than destroying the whole world, and some writers assume that if the whole world is at risk then I will automatically care. Guess what, no.

It doesn't matter to me whether what's at stake is the embarrassment of one person or the destruction of the universe -- I can be on the edge of my seat at one and yawning at the other, depending on how much I am invested.

I think this is what Bruce is also talking about. Low stakes, but good story and you care what happens. You know, like in Patrick O'Brian. The worst thing that could happen is that the characters die. Earth will still be there and Napoleon won't even win.

So to my reading, and I think Rachel's too, the thing those agents were saying isn't that they're not invested in the portal fantasy stories, it's that the destruction of an invented world isn't high enough stakes -- which is a different and stranger issue.

#81 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:44 AM:

Re. #73
And that, Ladies, Gentlemen, Deities, undead and contructs, is why Charlie is a bestselling author...

I too find that since lots of nasty things happen in real life, non-world shaking stories are rather to my liking. The Vorkosigan saga is quite good that way, the latter ones seeming to alternate world shaking drama with romantic comedy or such.

#82 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 10:34 AM:

Based on a certain amount of reading of story-like-objects not ready for publication... I wonder what percentage of portal fantasies that YA agents have submitted are ones where the "LOOK! A PORTAL!" part is framed as the one cool thing the story has. Because I keep seeing that sort of thing crop up in other places, and I'm pretty sure it's not a good way to promote a subgenre. It's like trying to sell a romance based on "But in this story, two people...fall in love!"

Portal stories seem to do pretty well when they don't spend a lot of time on the portal, and get on to the cool things the portal allows.

#83 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 10:36 AM:

I wouldn't at all mind seeing a conversation between Puddleglum and Thomas Covenant.

#84 ::: Renatus ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 10:49 AM:

Leah Miller @ 24:

It made me grin very, very big that someone mentioned Homestuck before I got to it. Suburban fantasy, indeed, and in the weirdest possible way!

And a portal fantasy, and a time travel story, and alternate universes...

#85 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:06 AM:

David G., #57: Yes, and you could almost call that a portal fantasy too except that there's no physical translocation. And there are definitely effects on both sides of the connection!

I've occasionally wondered if the "other world" part of that book wasn't originally written as a standard hero's-quest fantasy, which was then revised into part of another (much more original) story after being rejected. Whether or not that's the case, it's a fabulous story and I recommend it to anyone who hasn't read it.

Doug, #60: Maragaret Ball's Mathemagics and Doranna Durgin's Dun Lady's Jess both involve people who fall thru a portal into our world. In the latter, one of them is also transmuted from a horse into a human, and has the difficulties one might expect in adapting.

Nancy, #63: A fair amount of fantasy chick-lit is suburban fantasy. Sometimes quite explicitly so, as with the one whose title I can't recall about the demon-fighting soccer mom.

Fade, #82: That sounds like some writers have forgotten (or never heard) Campbell's Maxim: "Grant your gadgets, and go on from there." A good story isn't about tech, no matter how cool the tech may be -- it's about people.

#86 ::: Lee has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:08 AM:

Probably for a trigger word or phrase, though I can't see anything that jumps out at me.

#87 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:34 AM:

Oh, holy cow, the Witch Mountain guy wrote The Forgotten Door too? (I'm another person who loved the book and forgot the name/title.)

#88 ::: Hilary Hertzoff ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:37 AM:

Not literary, but Once Upon a Time is at its core a portal fantasy (fairy tale characters trapped in our world) and it's very popular at the moment so I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more portal fantasies trickling into the literary market in the next few years.

#89 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:41 AM:

From my years of reading slush, I see the operative comment as being "We're seeing lots of". That indicates that something happened in writerly media circles about six months ago which caused a whole lot of writers to think "wow! portal fantasy! nobody's doing THAT!"

I wonder what it was?

#90 ::: giltay ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:08 PM:

I think a lot of suburban fantasy (perhaps suburban fiction in general) is young adult or children's fiction. Buffy was mentioned, Harry Potter is a suburbanite in the framing story, Twilight feels more suburban than small-town to me. I half-remember novels from my youth about the kid who finds a genie in a tube of toothpaste or the one where the kid finds goop from a meteorite that he blows into bubbles and they don't pop and they're SPACESHIPS. The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks. Bunnicula!

(OK, some of these aren't fantasy per se, but soft, soft SF written in a fantastical style.)

#91 ::: Alec Austin ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:24 PM:

Jo @ 80: That's my reading of it too, and (I feel) the literal and exact reading of what the agents appear to have been saying there.

The equation of "stakes" with relevance to the world in which the reader lives is both weird and something that came up repeatedly in the comments of Rachel's post in the context of people *agreeing* with the agents' statement (!), which I think makes it worthy of closer examination, especially when the stakes claim is used to justify never requesting the full manuscript of anything perceived as a Portal Fantasy.

#92 ::: quercus ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:40 PM:

Well, since someone mentioned XKCD, he says something maybe more interesting about portal stories here (hey, it even has the word 'portal' in it):

#93 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:53 PM:

Josh Berkus @ 54... And there are Mary Robinette Kowal's "Glamour" novels set in the Regency.

#94 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:57 PM:

I wonder if Kim Newman's story "Witch Hunt" qualifies as Suburban Fantasy. In its reality, Oppenheimer and the rest of the gang instead tapped into magic and burned Berlin to the ground. In the Fifties, McCarthy and his clowns hunt anybody who might have dabbled in magic, and go after a quiet housewife to make her Name the Names of the rest of her coven. Her name is Stevens. Things do not go well.

#95 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 12:59 PM:

I see that Portal comic-book "Amethyst" is back, with Christy Marx writing.

#96 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:01 PM:

Rob Rusick @ 65... Would the electric Twain be as crotchetty as the original?

#97 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:02 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 70... Coming soon, "The Shadow over the Vermouth"?

#98 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:08 PM:

The stakes don't have to be high in some global terms within your story for the stakes to be plenty high for the characters. In real life, we see every imaginable mixture of these. Somewhere, in the last week, some kid has been murdered over the question of who gets to sell drugs on some particular street corner--this is a matter of zero practical importance in the big wide world, but his killer was willing to commit murder and risk prison or execution because the stakes were high enough for him. Somewhere else, the research that would have developed a practical biotech-based alternative for fossil fuels has been shut down by political infighting, because whatever the global stakes, the local incentives are all about winning the political battles.

#99 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 01:12 PM:

Wow, topical. I was sick last Sunday and so devoured a pile of Charlie Stross books I had gathered up.

Two of them were Merchant Princes books. Book three and five, I think?

At any rate, I nearly didn't buy them. I did, because I had heard so many good things about his books (which, by the way: all true. ALL) and so I gave it a try, but from the outside it looked like Just. Another. Portal. Story.

The way I say that should be all that you need to know about my opinion on such stories, handled poorly.

(say? type? pedantic details!)

#100 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:09 PM:

STEMPunk* is just another name for Hard SF.

* STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics

#101 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:14 PM:

On stakes and portal fantasies:

I can believe that books in the the "portal fantasy" category are more prone to the "boring world with little to nothing at stake" problem than other slush books. I also think you guys might be underestimating the dearth of stakes that is possible. We're not talking Jeeves and Wooster-style low stakes - while you're reading those stories, all those characters are entirely caught up in whether a particular watery-eyed gentlemen hooks up with a particular lady. Those are the stakes. Stakes are present. Same thing for, say, a nice coming-of-age story, where what's at stake is the emotional maturity and spiritual growth of the character. In no-stakes stories, there isn't a compelling small-scale question or growth. Nobody is learning or changing or striving... they're just passing through time and space.

The best metaphor I can come up with is vacation slides.

It's a cliche. You go visit aunt Melba and she and uncle Lou drag out the old projector and show you Tahiti. They aren't terribly good photographers but they had a lovely time and they want to share it with you. So you sit through an hour of near-identical mediocre photographs of the same beach, while Melba and Joe provide excruciatingly detailed narration: "And this was the south beach on the third day. We got there a little later because we slept in, but we met the nicest couple. They were from Omaha, or maybe it was Wisconsin. Was it Omaha or Wisconsin? Anyway, lovely couple, and we took a walk on the beach for a while. I think it took about thirty minutes, then we had to stop because Lou got sand in his shoes..."

The thing is, these slides and stories are an accurate record of a really good time had by two people... but they're not compellingly captured or told so they put us to sleep.

When I was in middle school, I had an encounter with interdimensional portal fantasy fanfiction. My friends were all anime fans, Escaflowne was big at the time (a lovely portal fantasy, that), so they wrote a portal story where their avatars careened through various anime universes. Each episode was basically the same - they show up, meet the characters in that anime, fight a cool monster with those characters, then go to the next dimension. It was... well... boring. By the time I showed up, they were bored of it too - they'd stopped writing the things. Looking back on it now, I realize that they wanted to tabletop roleplay, and didn't know how. They asked me to start writing their stories for them, because the other girl had gotten bored... and I ended up writing what was essentially a long RP campaign, told through a communally-written story.

My friends weren't dumb, or uncreative, but they were young. They were seeing shows set in these fantastic universes and thinking "I want to visit!" without thinking about what made them invested in the story.

It wouldn't surprise me if a lot of slushpile portal fantasy is "I want to go to there" vacation daydreaming, without any real deep thought about what to do when you get there. "Wouldn't it be great if I were an elf wizard. I'd live in the forest and make oat cakes and make friends with a bear and..."

And they spend so much time vacationing in their head that they forget about the actual story aspects of whatever work that drew them to that world in the first place. It may be that that a lot of portal fantasy writers are just imagining nice days in a place they'd rather be. Then they write down their sense memories of those hypothetical days, without regard to personal growth, social commentary or anything beyond painstakingly describing a vacation they'd like to have, down to the menu at the hotel restaurant and a list of all the flowers they saw on each of their morning walks.

I'm not saying that stories as travelogue are all terrible - many of my favorite stories are essentially travelogues. But even travelogues need to be more than a slideshow... and I'm guessing that a lot of portal slush is essentially aunt Melba's "what I did on my Middle Earth vacation."

#102 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:30 PM:

I'm feeling a bit brainless tonight. Could someone remind me why Jonathan Strange is portal fantasy?

#103 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:30 PM:

xkdc seems to like portals. Here's a third one:

#104 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 02:40 PM:

quercus @ #92

I deal with that by assuming that, even if there are no published sequels, someone who's been through that experience is not ever going to be able to unsee portals, and the rest of their life will, for better or for worse, be equally interesting.* Now, the frustrating kids' fantasies were always the ones where the kids don't remember anything.

*I need a fanfic in which Chihiro Ogino and Cole Sear cross paths as teenage occult detectives.

#105 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 04:10 PM:

Niall McAuley @61, well, sort of.

The Lord of the Rings isn't a portal fantasy in the traditional sense. But the Shire is Modern (in the European Historical sense), while the rest of Middle Earth is Medieval. I'm sure that, in Tolkien's head, the Hobbits were people he thought of as being like him, while Aragorn and Gandalf and Legolas were like the cool heroes of history and myth that he would have liked to hang around with. So, while Frodo and friends don't literally step through a portal, they do travel from a Modern setting to a Medieval setting.

In any event, Middle Earth is a secondary world (the definitive one, the one for which that term was coined). If one assumes that readers can't care about a fantasy world, then Middle Earth is a definitive example of the thing one is assuming that they can't care about.

#106 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 04:16 PM:

Leah: I like your example. The thing is, there are people who could go on the same vacation, have the same kind of time, and yet come back and tell the story well. And that story can be engrossing and fun to listen to without any rampaging mutant lizards, zombie hordes eating brains, multinational conspiracies, gun-toting gangsters, time-travel paradoxes threatening the fabric of time, etc.

How many SF stories are there that reside in a smallish world, where the outcomes are mostly important to the characters involved but not so important to anyone else? Somehow, the stuff I can think of immediately is mostly stuff with bigger impact than the local concerns of the characters. Even there, some of the plot (often the most interesting parts) aren't the big earth-shaking parts.

Off the top of my head, Oath of Fealty is mostly local concerns (against a backdrop of bigger stuff), as is Lucifer's Hammer. The Door into Summer and The Rolling Stones are local, not earth shaking. But it seems like they're in the minority--mostly, it's Willi Wachéndon fighting the Peace Authority or Rudi Mackenzie going on a world-shaping quest for a magic sword or some such thing, and the world is different afterwards.

#107 ::: Keith Edwards ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 04:20 PM:

praisegod barebones @102:

The Man With Thistledown Hair comes from Faerie and eventually shows Strange and Norell how to use the Old Roads (portals through Faerie that act as shortcuts in our world) to move about. And several characters visit Faerie, usually to no good end.

#108 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 04:48 PM:

This reminds me that it's been a long time since I've watched Gaiman's "Neverwhere", in which the young woman called Door could open doors into and of the Secret London.

#109 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 05:09 PM:

The best vacation video I've ever seen was taken by my father when he was working in Egypt. It is terribly badly shot and he kept forgetting to turn it off so there are long stretches of it pointing at the ground, interspersed with shots of the most hellish traffic I've ever seen and men on camels with assault rifles.

The audio, however, includes such gems as "Here's the giant pile of trash--ooh! It's on fire today!" and loud haggling over bribes for said men with rifles. The video ends with a shot of the car entering a tunnel and two bored-looking guards suddenly jerking upright and dragging barriers across the road. "Uh. Ok. This is bad. I think I'll shut this off now..."

Obviously he had survived since he was sitting next to us on the couch, but the entire room was staring at him and saying "But THEN what happened?!" an occurrence possibly unique in vacation videos.

I think the only possible moral to this story is that vacation slides get much more interesting when heavily armed men show up. Whether this can be extrapolated to portal fantasies is another matter, of course.

#110 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 05:16 PM:

Serge @108:
Not to mention that "Neverwhere" is itself a portal story.

The portal through portals remark reminds me of old D&D discussions of what would happen if you put a Bag of Holding into another Bag of Holding, which in turn reminds me of the Hugh Cook (Chronicles of an Age of Darkness) books that had magical bottles that contained worlds within. That was also a feature of the Zelazny/Lindskold "Lord Demon".

To me, portal stories are not uncommon at all.

#111 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 05:47 PM:

albatross @106

The original draft of my post actually contained a section specifying just that... but I cut it because I was worried that I rambling. Guess I should dig it up, and maybe elaborate a bit.

I love going to Disney World. I could go to Disney, stay there for three weeks, have a great time, and you might not want to read my painstaking diary of my time there, unless I had some special insight or useful tips or at least a unique style or voice. I'd imagine a lot of portal fantasies start out as fastidiously-detailed, dry-as-dirt "Disney World diaries", delivered without commentary, conflict, or particular insight.

Then again, commentary, conflict, insight, and/or voice can turn a travelogue into something beautiful. I can tell you the story of my high school trip to Disney, where my identity as a leader among my friends, my childlike glee at revisiting a place I truly love, and my ambivalent feelings about a particular young man all came into conflict. But if I were so overwhelmingly obsessed with being in that place and doing those things that I didn't have time to think about or remark upon my feelings, my impressions, or how the place works... then I might not think to include those things, and the story would suffer.

I've read dozens of great Disney travelogues, but I've also seen a lot of dull "we're writing this all down to remember exactly what we did and when" diary blog updates about Disney. And while those blog updates don't entertain me, they probably accomplish their actual purpose: when the person who wrote them reads them back, they trigger those recollections.

You can write an uneventful travelogue and make it good; it's just that most of the people writing this portal fantasy slush probably don't realize that they're writing a travelogue. Instead, they're writing the blog post that they're going to use to remind themselves of the fun they had on their vacation. And when they read it back, they get the same kind of feedback that a person reading a blog post and looking at vacation photos gets - that rush of sensation and memory - and they don't realize that the rush of sensation and memory come not from the brilliant depth of their writing, but from the fact that the text is triggering a memory of their imagined vacation.

I can't put a finger on what exactly travelogue writers do to make their stories different from the dull memory-trigger blog posts*. It's some combination of weaving in cultural observations, emotions, recollections, and polishing some specific sense-memories to a glorious shine, while letting other ones fade into the background. There's more to it, I'm sure... but there's something that travelogue writers do, and people writing simple blog posts to help them remember their vacations don't do.

And, based on a lot of the amateur portal fantasy writing I've seen, I could believe that lots and lots of submissions the dry blog post rather than the travelogue.

*Note that some of the good, simple, enjoyable travelogues I'm talking about do exist as posts on blogs. I'm just using these terms to differentiate between something crafted to be engaging for someone else to read and something written primarily for yourself.

#112 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 06:03 PM:

UrsulaV, I think it's related to Raymond Chandler's rule that if things get slow, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.

Jo, maybe it's because I've been playing poker with Steve Brust and some of the students at VP, but I was thinking of stakes as something that requires the reader's investment too: if you don't ante up, you're not in the game. By themselves, stakes are nothing. You can take two beetles, name them World Blows Up and World Gets Saved, put them both in a cup, and see which one climbs out first, but it won't make anyone care. Ditto, naming one World Full of Cute Elves and Puppies, and the other World Full of Cute Elves and Puppies Gets Slaughtered and Fed to the Mutant Spawn of Dick Cheney.

Which I know you know perfectly well.

Repairing Joe Plaice's skull, or dickering with the Shelmerstonians over their inscription on the side of the boat? I'm right there. Reading the Waakzaamheid sequence was practically an out-of-body experience, but too many of those would get tiresome, and start seeming arbitrary.

I've been thinking about it. Maybe those agents really are glutted on portal fantasies. The things are easy to write badly, NaNoWriMo has been teaching people that writing a book is within their grasp, and everyone knows YA is hot. Also, lots of unemployment. It could be that those agents are so thoroughly burned out on portal fantasies that they can never look at another one as long as they live. I've been known to feel that way about post-Tolkien multivolume otherworld epic fantasies in a quasi-medieval ... DIE! DIE! DIE! THEY MUST ALL BE DESTROYED AND THEIR AUTHORS WITH THEM! ... Excuse me. In a quasi-medieval vein, I was going to say. It's been known to happen.

It's different if they're good, of course.

On the other hand, the agents were quoted as saying that they'd never once asked to see the full manuscript of a portal fantasy. That can't be burnout, or they'd have asked for some earlier in their careers. They have to be talking about something else.

Beth Meacham @89: Mid-spring. It could be bunnies. Or maybe midgets. I'm not sure. How long do you figure it takes them to rewrite and clean up their NaNoWriMo novels?

Is there an educational program somewhere that requires students to write portal fantasies?

Does that qualify as a horror plot?

#113 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 06:10 PM:

Man, there were a lot of portal fantasies in the 80s. Usually featuring an engineer who accidentally stumbled into a magical realm (or was summoned on purpose) and had to figure out how magic worked, and then eventually wound up summoning Maxwell's Demon in order to get out of a jam.

And then there were the Spellsinger books, which started with magical denizens *trying* to conjure an engineer but wind up accidentally summoning a musician instead.

David Brin's Practice Effect was sort of a portal fantasy. I mean it was technically science fiction, but the main conceit of the world (that objects get better the more you use them) made skirt kind of close to fantasy, I thought.

I think there's still life left in that kind of story. I can see how agents and publishers might be a bit burned out on them, but everything old will be new again. Eventually.

#114 ::: CS Clark ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 06:32 PM:

Teresa @ 112

Is there an educational program somewhere that requires students to write portal fantasies?

Non-Euclidean Geometry 101 at Miskatonic U. Extra credit if all they find is the final draft surrounded by a heap of your clothes fallen as if the wearer had disappeared while still wearing them.

albatross @ 106

With many of Iain M Banks' Culture novels I get the impression that while they involve the lives of billions of sentient beings, on the scale of the galaxy they are at the same time pretty much local difficulties akin to one village's problems on an entire world.

#115 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 06:33 PM:

Cycles of Desire?

A Vincent Black Lightning 1952, perhaps?

#116 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 06:37 PM:

My favorite books when I was growing up (and they're still in my top 10) were The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, Grey King, and Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper. (I never really liked Over Sea, Under Stone and I never put a lot of thought into why). One of the reasons I really, really liked those books was that they took place "in the real world," and that behind the real world was this incredible mystery that most of us never knew about, but I, the lucky reader, got a peek at what was really going on.

I mean it doesn't hurt that Cooper is a brilliant and beautiful writer and that she gave Will Stanton the power and maturity of an adult at the age of 11, which I, as an 11 year old, immediately felt was only just and proper because any 11 year old will tell you that 11 year olds know best and it was nice to see a book reflect that. But the whole idea that as I was on my way to school there were powerful beings fighting each other just out of my view was really, really thrilling. The thought of being in on a big secret was a huge sell.

(Should add that this is also why "Something Wicked This Way Comes" was one of the only books I was forced to read in High School that I absolutely loved.)

I don't know if the Dark is Rising would be considered a YA book these days (I consider it ageless myself) but portal fantasies don't have that pull. I mean I did love all the Narnia books, but oddly enough my favorite of the Narnia books was The Magician's Nephew which had the White Witch showing up in London in the "real world," which lines up with my then-apparent preference for "fantastical things happening HERE."

Could the agents be thinking along those lines? If they think one of the draws of YA to a YA audience is the daydream of all that stuff in the book being real parts of the real world, a portal fantasy dilutes that by moving it all somewhere else that isn't just around the corner. Conceivably.

Anyway I'm just guessing out loud. Also it made me think of the Dark is Rising and I hate to pass up an opportunity to talk about the Dark is Rising.

I have audiobooks of the entire Dark is Rising sequence on my phone by the way. Not that you asked...

#117 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 06:59 PM:

I keep thinking that Vance wrote on a small scale, but specifics aren't coming to mind. Do the Planet of Adventure books count? It's just one person trying to collect the plot coupons parts of a rocket so that he can go home.

#118 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:07 PM:

TNH @112: Is there an educational program somewhere that requires students to write portal fantasies?

Because it helps them get their foot in the door?

#119 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:17 PM:

TNH@112 write portal fantasies

I suppose there are lots of interesting stories to write about GLaDOS.

Plus afterwards you get cake...

#120 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:19 PM:

Christopher Wright @#116

One of the reasons I really, really liked those books was that they took place "in the real world," and that behind the real world was this incredible mystery that most of us never knew about, but I, the lucky reader, got a peek at what was really going on.

Ooh, yes! Is there a term for that type of story? If not, I nominate "pull-back-the-curtain" fantasy (or some less-unwieldy variant).

#121 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:23 PM:

Adding that Neverwhere is more a pull-the-curtain than a portal fantasy, despite Door's abilities.

#122 ::: Kate Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:26 PM:

I read that LJ post last night and spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to think of some recently published YA portal stories. They really aren't many. MG has a bunch and portal fantasies aren't terribly uncommon in books for adults, but YA is stuck in the real world. Poor kids today, they don't get to go anywhere.

The only thing I came up with is YA books where the main character discovers that the Cruel World of Faerie is real and she is a changeling (that's why she never got along with her mother!), but since that's a subgenre that I particularly loathe, I don't know how many are out there. The last I read was by Holly Black, published around ten years ago. I can't remember the title.

Erik Nelson @19 If it's always winter in Narnia, why isn't there cold air blowing out of the wardrobe?

That's why they put all those warm coats in the wardrobe, because the air was cold.

#123 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:35 PM:

Sarah @ 121... True. Kind of like what Gaiman later did in "American Gods"?

#124 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:47 PM:

I'm now trying to decide if They Might Be Giants (the movie, not the band) is a pull-the-curtain fantasy. Undecided because it never quite crosses out of the realm of the mundane-possible, until the ambiguous last shot...

#125 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 07:50 PM:

Sarah @121: It's got both, though I consider it more of a portal than a curtain story.

Compromise? Portière?

#126 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:07 PM:

In some ways, portal fantasies haven't really changed much.

In at a roche the ladies rideth
And he after and nought abideth.
Whan he was in the roche ago
350 Wel three mile other mo, or
He cam into a fair countrey,
As bright so sonne on somers day, as
Smoothe and plain and alle greene:
Hil ne dale nas ther noon seene.
355 Amidde the lond a castel he seigh,
Riche and real and wonder heigh.
Al the utemoste wal outmost
Was cleer and shined as crystal.
An hundred towres ther were aboute,
360 Degiseliche, and batailed
The butres cam out of the diche buttress
Of reed gold y-arched riche.
The vousour was anourned al vaulting
Of eech manere divers aumal.
365 Within ther were wide wones,
And alle were fulle of precious stones.
The worste pilar on to biholde
Al it was of burnist golde.
Al that lond was evere light,
370 For when it sholde be therk and night dark
The riche stones lighte gonne
As brighte as dooth at noon the sonne.
No man may telle ne thinke in thought
The riche werk that ther was wrought.
375 By alle thing him thinkth it is
The proude court of Paradis.

Sir Orfeo. Auchinleck Ms. c. 1300

#127 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:08 PM:

Soon Lee @ #125

Beaded door curtain? Nori?

#128 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 09:42 PM:

Degiseliche? What are its relatives?

#129 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 10:08 PM:

It looks to me like what Teresa has missed here, is that these agents are using "portal fantasies" as synecdoche for a more specific form: Stories which simply drop a "real-world" person into a fantasy world, without consequence to the real world.

So, Middle-Earth ain't there; the action is all within the characters' world. Neither is the Spin trilogy: That's not this sort of portal, it's a major extension to the "real world", and oh boy does it have consequences. Similarly knock out any "invasion of our world" scenarios, because the point is the invasion. Also, scratch anything where the "portal" is effectively a doorway between two parts of the same fictional world. (So, e.g.Feist, Jordan, and any doors between magic-human land and magic-elf land.)

Coraline doesn't really fit either -- the "otherworld" isn't a stand-alone world, it's an attack on the protagonist's life/soul -- the plot of the book is surviving that attack. I'd argue that Neverwhere has a similar basis, the point is initially to survive getting thrown into the Larger World, but of course it's played out differently.

So, what's the problem with these worlds? The "stakes" can be too low, because "who cares what happens there?" The other world can easily become a "dreamworld", without consequence or significance. Narnia is a classic example of this problem, rescued by pretty writing, mythic subtext, and marketing to young readers. Indeed, that whole "Problem with Susan" thing comes directly from the fact that Narnia is "discounted" with respect to our world -- not only do events there not affect our world, they explicitly don't affect the characters. It's a dreamworld, and not even as lively as Alice's two.

There are still a few ways to create "stakes" for the story, but they're way trickier than doing a generic "fantasy adventure", and easier to screw up. The protagonist's own development is a biggy: what comes to mind is The Hero From Otherwhere.

The protagonist's survival is an obvious one, but if you mess that up, it's hard to tell the difference between "kidnapped by wizards/elves/orcs" and "kidnapped by the author". Neverwhere actually manages that by earning our early sympathy for the characters.

(If the stakes are "get my brother/child/parent back from the other world", that's a consequence to the real world, which the protagonist is trying to resolve.)

Anyway, I need to get to bed now (early dentist appointment), but I think I've gotten across what I wanted to say.

#130 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 10:21 PM:

Lisa @ 126: Or this, also circa 1300:

Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.

Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

Before me there were no created things,
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!"

These words in sombre colour I beheld
Written upon the summit of a gate;
Whence I: "Their sense is, Master, hard to me!"

And he to me, as one experienced:
"Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned,
All cowardice must needs be here extinct.

We to the place have come, where I have told thee
Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect."

And after he had laid his hand on mine
With joyful mien, whence I was comforted,
He led me in among the secret things.

[Longfellow is not the best translator for Dante, sorry]

#131 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 10:28 PM:

Teresa @ #128 Degiseliche cognate with disguise s.v. MED:


#132 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 10:37 PM:


Conquistador manages the portal story pretty well.

Gur bgure jbeyq qbrfa'g unir zhpu rssrpg ba bhe jbeyq (nxn Svefgfvqr), gubhtu gurer ner uvagf gung vg pbhyq vs gur jebat fbeg bs crbcyr trg pbageby bs gur bgure fvqr. Zber yvxryl, gubhtu, gurl jbhyq whfg qenj nggragvba gb gurzfryirf naq or gnxra bire ol gur znffviryl fhcrevbe azoref naq erfbheprf bs Svefgfvqr.

#133 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:07 PM:

Dave Harmon: Very nice summary.

Lisa, Rea:

‘Trojan son of Anchises,
sprung from the blood of the gods, the path to hell is easy:
black Dis’s door is open night and day:
but to retrace your steps, and go out to the air above,
that is work, that is the task. Some sons of the gods have done it,
whom favouring Jupiter loved, or whom burning virtue
lifted to heaven. Woods cover all the middle part,
and Cocytus is round it, sliding in dark coils.
But if such desire is in your mind, such a longing
to sail the Stygian lake twice, and twice see Tartarus,
and if it delights you to indulge in insane effort,
listen to what you must first undertake. Hidden in a dark tree
is a golden bough, golden in leaves and pliant stem,
sacred to Persephone, the underworld’s Juno, all the groves
shroud it, and shadows enclose the secret valleys.
But only one who’s taken a gold-leaved fruit from the tree
is allowed to enter earth’s hidden places.
This lovely Proserpine has commanded to be brought to her
as a gift: a second fruit of gold never fails to appear
when the first one’s picked, the twig’s leafed with the same metal.
So look for it up high, and when you’ve found it with your eyes,
take it, of right, in your hand: since, if the Fates have chosen you,
it will come away easily, freely of itself: otherwise you
won’t conquer it by any force, or cut it with the sharpest steel.
And the inanimate body of your friend lies there
(Ah! You do not know) and taints your whole fleet with death,
while you seek advice and hang about our threshold.
Carry him first to his place and bury him in the tomb.
Lead black cattle there: let those be your first offerings of atonement.
Only then can you look on the Stygian groves, and the realms
forbidden to the living.’

#134 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:23 PM:

Come to think of it, aren't portals a requirement of epics? Heaven and hell have to enter into it; and while you may mount up to heaven through the air, hell takes a doorway, and a passage to another world.

#135 ::: Shane ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:37 PM:

Stepford Housewives is suburban horror, shirley, but this gave me a Thought. Notwithstanding all the fine examples in the rest of the thread, I think there's a basic mismatch between the content of suburban and fantasy stories. Fantasy is about things, people and places imbued with special significance. Suburbia is about the banality of everything. Suburban fantasy ought too asserted that some way. I thought of Tim Powers work, especially The Last Coin, but Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising hooked me first, and harder.

Stakes - so a regular gm of mine likes to say "it has to be personal." Is a problem with portal stories that they don't bring a character's family/friends/school along? So there's no lasting relationships to impact. See how Wizard of Oz gets around this.

That said, it strikes me the very transience of the portal worlds and their unimportance to "ordinary people"can be strong incentive for main characters (and readers) - frex Neverending Story, Peter Pan, Horton hears a Who.

#136 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:44 PM:

#135 Shane some portal stories do bring family along--The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a perfect example of that. And Lewis makes the adventure nicely personal for them by having Edmund be an idiot and Choose The Wrong Side (the 8th deadly sin).

#137 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2012, 11:48 PM:

Stakes are as big as the reader's caring makes them. "The stakes aren't high enough" just means "This book hasn't made me care what happens." When readers are invested in the story, no one talks about stakes.

#138 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 12:12 AM:

@ Teresa Nielsen Hayden #134Come to think of it, aren't portals a requirement of epics? Heaven and hell have to enter into it; and while you may mount up to heaven through the air, hell takes a doorway, and a passage to another world.

Yep; in at a roche, a cave, Hellmouth, a well, or the bog where Beowulf struggled with Grendal's mom.

#139 ::: J Homes ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 12:28 AM:

If I may take a tangent a little way with the question of stakes?

It is I think more important that the reader know what is at stake, than that whatever it is be of vital importance. I have read works where the feared consequences were expressed so vaguely that I had no idea what was making people so apprehensive (not many, I grant, presumably thanks to good editors).

Character: If I do this thing, I will be caught and punished.

Reader: Punished? How? Sent to bed without supper? Eyegouges and boiling lead?

This does not rule out the the possibility that the fears may turn out to be groundless (or instead even worse). But how are we to empathise with a character's fears, when we know not what they are afraid of.

J Homes.

#140 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 12:31 AM:

Shane @135 -- Last Coin is Powers' friend Blaylock's work. For Powers in that, you'd want Last Call. After all, what's more suburban than poker? (and don't call me shirley!) I'll strongly suggest, from what you report liking, that you look at the Nix series I mentioned above. First is Mister Monday. And family and friends get roped in there, too.

There's an interesting subset of portal stories where the plot is about who gets to control the portal -- cf Barker's Weaveworld, Stross's Merchant Princes stories, to a lesser extent Tom DeHaven's King's Tramp trilogy. The perpetual motion machine that people are often trying to generate is more fiscal than physical.

#141 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 12:31 AM:

albatross@106: Jo's Tooth and Claw qualifies; she was explicitly trying to do the same with Lifelode but it got away from her. Bujold tried to do it in the first two Sharing Knife books: the plot is structured around jurgure crbcyr jvyy fhpprrq va celvat gur gjb cebgntbavfgf ncneg, and it finishes jura gur zna znxrf vg 100% pyrne gung ur jba'g or cevrq naq vf chggvat gur eryngvbafuvc svefg. From what I've heard, she got a lot of pushback from readers who weren't expecting that to be the main conflict, and were waiting for the protagonists to find a way to Fix The World.

In re epics: I don't think portals are a requirement of the epic form. Where is the portal in the Iliad?

#142 ::: David Goldfarb has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 12:32 AM:

No idea why, but I can offer the gnomes some candied Buddha's Hand citron.

#143 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 01:10 AM:

Oh yes -- and it's hard to believe nobody's mentioned Diana Wynne Jones' Magid and Chrestomanci books yet....

#144 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 02:19 AM:

Beth @89, TNH, Christopher @113,

*If* portal story slush submissions are on the upsurge (I don't know that that's been established, except anecdotally), I can tell you why: RPGs.

The late 70's and early 80's were the original "golden age" of paper-and-pencil RPGs. These resulted in a lot of frustrated gamers writing manuscripts where some body like them gets dropped into a fantasy world and becomes a hero of some sort. Basically, they wanted to write a story where they get to live their own RPG. I have to hope that the vast majority of these were never published; some of the ones which were were wooden enough to use as flooring. One of the exceptions, and classics of the genre, was Joel Rosenberg's original novel "The Sleeping Dragon".

Well, one recent phenomina is a resurgence of popularity of the paper-and-pencil RPG, starting about four years ago. I hypothesize that any increase in submissions of bad portal novels to agents is a result of this new generation of RPGers.

#145 ::: jennygadget ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 02:48 AM:

""...mentioned that they were getting quite a few portal fantasy submissions. Two of them said those made up about a quarter of their total fantasy submissions."

Despite what I am about to say, I would bet my next months salary that the vast majority of these are HP knock-offs.

Fade @ 82

Regarding portal YA (and, from the conversation on twitter, talking animal stories for YA): I wonder if part of the (supposed) lack of popularity of these tropes is influenced by adults and teens not always being in sync as far as what is considered typical or a relevant precedent.

You find magic portals and talking animals in picture books for preschoolers for goodness sake - infants, really, in the case of talking animals. Not so much dystopias. Aside from Seuss's The Lorax and Chris Van Allsburg's Just a Dream, I can't think of any dystopias for kids younger than 5th grade or so. And even those two picture books are at the upper age range for typical picture books. This means that portals and talking animals are tropes that younger readers are familiar with and already have strong ideas about by the time they reach the start of their teen years - while dystopias are not.

These are not necessarily the same ideas as the ones held by adults, though. Adults, after all, are more likely to be aware of overall traditions, but less likely to be immersed in current trends. Which creates a disconnect. So when teens do read stories that have talking animals or magic portals, adults are less likely to see or label them as examples of that trope. And when adults deliberately write the stories about talking animals or magic portals, the odds are against those books connecting as well to teens.

Dystopias don't have that issue. Plus, the current crop of YA dystopias are clearly aware, at least in a general sense, of the upper middle grade dystopias that their audience is most likely to be familiar with. So there's more of an agreement between adults and teens on what a dystopia is.

"Portal stories seem to do pretty well when they don't spend a lot of time on the portal, and get on to the cool things the portal allows."


I suspect that many would-be writers for teens are depressingly likely to think that they have a Duty to explain why [Their Favorite Genre] Is the Best via recreating their childhood reading experiences for current generations. Only because this would go along with my (admittedly limited) experience that would-be writers for youth of all ages are more likely to be motivated by the need to Impart Wisdom to Younger Generations, and needing to show why [Their Favorite Genre] Is the Best seems to be an offshoot of that. Its also guaranteed to create stories that focus overmuch on tired tropes and less on actual cool shit.

#146 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 05:16 AM:

Charlie Stross @ #75:

Or, indeed, the vast variety of creatures-of-myth in Scandinavian folklore (where there's no real distinction between elves and dwarves, where giants aren't necessarily huge and where naked men drown you by playing the fiddle in a stream).

#147 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 07:04 AM:

Josh @144, interesting you should mention that because one of my favorite webcomics of late is a portal fantasy called "Erfworld," where a gamer gets summoned into a magical world as their world's "ultimate warlord." Erfworld's physics are, conveniently enough, modelled after a war game--it's a world where combat is done in actual turns, and where units "pop" into existence. So now the cycle is complete.

#148 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 07:37 AM:

Teresa #133: Thanks! I'm not sure if Heaven/Hell necessarily qualify as portals. (In any case, a stairway or mountain is as much a "portal" as a cave.) In the original mythic contexts, it's arguable that those are "parts of the same world". In any case, the Heaven/Hell parts of epics can certainly be metaphorical -- consider in Middle Earth, the trajectory through the elf-realms and Mordor. (Heaven and Hell don't really need to be fantastic, even.)

Certainly they don't automatically qualify for the "slush pattern", as the mythic examples are tours or gauntlets rather than "fantastic places for people to live".

Josh Berkus #144: The late 70's and early 80's were the original "golden age" of paper-and-pencil RPGs. These resulted in a lot of frustrated gamers writing manuscripts where some body like them gets dropped into a fantasy world and becomes a hero of some sort.

One of those got me a state (?) writing award in high school... but I'd gotten the conceit from a story in Dragon. (My version was marginally less blatant wish-fulfillment. As in, the original featured a ring of three wishes....)

#149 ::: duckbunny ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 08:42 AM:

The argument that portal fantasies have low stakes because what happens on the other side doesn't affect the real world, seems rather like the argument that books have low stakes because what happens in them is just fiction. Pretending that what happens in the story is important is part of how fiction works.
There are plenty of books that give you nothing and nobody to care about, but I don't think it's inherent to having protagonists who move from a familiar to a fantastical setting.

I disagree with Dave Harmon about Narnia having low stakes. The land is ruled by a tyrant, the Beavers are fleeing for their lives, Tumnus is held captive - it may not matter to England, but I care what happens to Narnia.

#150 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 08:59 AM:

Speaking from experience, you can piss off a lot (well, a few) readers if they think they're reading a portal fantasy and it turns out that events in the fantasy world can have drastic (and unpleasant) consequences back in the "real" world. (Cough, rkgenqvzrafvbany anepbgreebevfgf tb ahpyrne, cough.)

#151 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 09:11 AM:

Keith Edwards @107: Thanks.

#152 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 09:34 AM:

Indeed, you can even care deeply whether Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet manage to live happily ever after or not, despite the fact that the British Empire and the world will go on pretty much the same way regardless of what happens between them.

#153 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 09:45 AM:

#149 ::: duckbunny

I strongly agree-- my first reaction to "portal fiction doesn't work because it doesn't involve real stakes" was that to say that is to not understand fiction.

#154 ::: Jen Birren ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 09:50 AM:

Sarah @120:
For stories set in our world but with a hidden magical society, critics have been using "wainscot fantasy" for a while (wikipedia thinks it was coined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy in 1997).

#155 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 10:03 AM:

re 149: I'm inclined to agree with your analysis here. The stakes arise out of the investment the reader has with what's going on, and for something like Narnia where the travellers are apparently in mortal peril on the Other Side, I would think that the stakes are taken by the reader as quite high. The flip side of that is the authorial betrayal filed under "it was all just a dream". Not many of us are Winsor McCay, that we can pull that off.

A side comment on The Susan Problem: I think that Lewis's point in the book, consonant with his theological writings (and especially see The Great Divorce), demanded that one of the four principals make that abandonment and rejection of their shared past. It thus seems to me that the choice of which character to use fell inevitably on Susan, with Peter as the only other possible (and more distant) choice. Edmund and Lucy together are so strongly tied into things Narnian, and Edmund so transformed, that it's impossible to plausibly consider them dismissing it as a fantasy; Peter's inevitable position of leadership in the stories likewise works against him betraying his past, though in a more YA version I think it could have been worked. But Lewis wasn't writing a YA book, and thus he trapped himself into condemning Susan into frivolity. The irony, of course, is that it is the values I think we all share with Lewis that make this problematic: we don't like the new Susan either, and we are troubled by the authorial weakening of her character.

As a side note: one of the striking "deviations" of the Narnia films is that they are more strongly grounded in the real world. The "kids sent off from home" trope in the books, which I think is very telegraphed there because Lewis's immediate British readers didn't have to have it spelled out, is given a terrifying realization in the opening scenes of the first movie; in the second, Edmund is plainly wounded by his separation from the other world.

I suspect that both 144 and 145 have a point here.

#156 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 10:26 AM:

One thing I noticed via twitter discussion last night is that my internal and automatic definition of What Makes A Portal Story is based on certain things beyond the whole "travel to a magical land from this real one" aspect. Such that a lot of things people are noting as portal stories don't fit my internal definition.

For example, "character is accidentally/unwilling transported, and can't easily return home"--whether or not they want to--is part of what makes a portal story in my head. And so Harry Potter, who cheerfully hops on a train and can be threatened with expulsion, doesn't fit that in my mind.

Or as another example, "the magical land should be completely separated from ours, and probably largely unaware of ours." In which case traveling to the underworld doesn't work (everyone goes eventually!), and Harry Potter doesn't (lots of people move between the two worlds constantly, and it's clearly set on the same level of reality on the same planet, just hidden), and stories where people move back and forth between hidden cultures in the real world don't seem to fit.

So now I'm wondering if when agents say "No, no portal stories at all!" they're thinking about a more specific set of cliches than "involves a magical portal". The wholesale rejection of the subgenre makes more sense to me if they're rejecting that whole oft-associated set of cliches, rather than just the central core point.

I'm reminded of when slush made me throw up my hands and declare I never wanted to see another post-apocalyptic story with a child PoV; wasn't that, even. It was that I never wanted to see another post-apocalyptic story with a PoV boy who hangs out with a bunch of other children, mostly boys, who talk constantly about the mysterious Big Bad that all the adults worry about, and then the protagonist ends up having to confront that monster/alien/whatever and Becomes A Man by doing so successfully though various of his boyhood friends die tragically in the process. Because I'd seen that exact story about once a day for a few weeks.

So maybe when agents say "No portals!" they mean "I'm tired of stories where the protagonist accidentally falls through a mystical portal into another realm completely disconnected from our own, where they go on a travelogue-style journey meeting lots of people and learning Interesting Facts about that world in giant chunks of infodump, and are recognized to be the Chosen One and save that world, and then finally get back home without it ever feeling more important than the character having a dream." But that's a lot harder to put in the guidelines.

#157 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 10:41 AM:

Christopher Wright @116:

Cue the Julia Ecklar CD:

"When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back
Three from the Circle, three from the track --

Wood, Bronze, Iron, Water, Fire, Stone --
Five shall return, and One go alone...

Five shall return, and One go alone."

#158 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 10:56 AM:

I can't let a reference to stakes go by without a reference to Buffy, and one of the most satisfying-in-retrospect episodes. (which is different from any other measure of quality, as well as being totally subjective)

The episode where Angel and Buffy fight against an enemy so powerful it scares them, where their love is sore tested, where Angel nearly dies...

But who the heck cares about that crap? It was going on every week! B-plot stuff. No, what's going on with Xander and the zombie students plotting to blow up the high school? THIS IS IMPORTANT STUFF, DAMMIT!!!! HE HAS INTERNAL CONFLICT!!!

#159 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:01 AM:

#155 ::: C. Wingate

Even Windsor McKay eventually had an ongoing story set in the dream world.

#160 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:11 AM:

Kate Shaw @#122 YA is stuck in the real world. Poor kids today, they don't get to go anywhere.

jennygadget @#145 adults and teens not always being in sync as far as what is considered typical or a relevant precedent.

Another thought occurs to me -- could this be the tyranny of the "YA must be Relevant to Today's Youth" that launched a thousand bleak Newbury Medal winners? Are dystopias the new Grim Lesson That Must Be Learned? Although at least they seem to be genuinely popular with the readers (possibly because they contain rebellion as an option, as opposed just saying "don't use drugs or have sex" or "the world is going to end in nuclear war soon.")

#161 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:29 AM:

Lori @ 157:

Wait, what? She did a filk song of the Dark is Rising?

... I guess I need to start Googling on a machine with a sound card.

#162 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:35 AM:

C. Wingate (155): he authorial betrayal filed under "it was all just a dream"

As in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. That ending still sends me into sputtering protest whenever I think about it. Ruined the entire movie for me.

#163 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:40 AM:

Christopher Wright: If you can't find it somewhere, I'll be happy to sing it to you over Skype or similar. There are also quite a lot of filks of her TUNE of it, including a brilliant Kanefsky about fairy tales. Two, actually.

#164 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:47 AM:

Charlie Stross #70: Urbane fantasy, for some reason, makes me think of stories involving The Saint.

#165 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:50 AM:

C Wingate @ 155... The Susan Problem

I have this theory that, if a movie has a character named Susan or a variation thereof, she's going to be a problem for the main male character. My wife agrees and *her* name is Susan.

#166 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:52 AM:

re 156: I would personally file Harry Potter at least by half under the "John Doe's School Days" trope, with a large dollop of Quest and Siegfried. The last book in particular is hard to fit into any sort of portal model.

#167 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 12:06 PM:

Charlie Stross #150: In that particular case, President Rumsfeld may have been the truly horrifying part -- right after nuking Washington, and counternuking, ahem, Fairyland.

#168 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 12:09 PM:

Robert H. Sawyer's Neanderthal trilogy is a fine example of a portal fantasy; first we get a character from the other world coming thru to ours, and later several characters from our world going over there. And Sawyer ups the ante by having the protagonists trying to save the portal world from a planned genocide by our politicians -- it's a beautiful unspoiled paradise full of natural resources to be exploited, if it just weren't for those inconvenient inhabitants.

Kate, #122: Does it count if the portal is just a convenient transportation device to get from one place to another? Or one world to another? If so, all of the Young Wizards books are portal fantasies. Sometimes the portals go to other universes as well, but more commonly they're closer to stepping disks.

Actually, I think that's getting rather far afield from the original concept.

Dave H., #129: If the stakes are "get my brother/child/parent back from the other world", that's a consequence to the real world, which the protagonist is trying to resolve.

So Labyrinth is a portal fantasy, and likewise Seanan McGuire's An Artificial Night. But the rest of the Toby Daye books largely are not, because the fae realm is just part of the background.

J Homes, #139: Even that doesn't always work. I remember one fantasy novel that I summed up later as "I found the protagonist so unengaging that I couldn't bring myself to care about his ethical dilemma."

Lori, #157: What's that song your mother sings about the horrors of the slush pile? I can't remember enough of it to quote, and the lyrics don't seem to be online anywhere.

#169 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 12:57 PM:

How about Ringworld? Not a portal story, exactly, but the characters do travel to a far-away place whose ups and downs won't much affect their homes.

#170 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 01:01 PM:

#82, @ Fade Manley

"Portal stories seem to do pretty well when they don't spend a lot of time on the portal, and get on to the cool things the portal allows."

That's true of one sense of 'portal story', anyway. Just as a 'bodice ripper' isn't really about the bodice.

#171 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 01:13 PM:

When is a door not a door?
When it's a-jar.

#172 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 01:14 PM:

duckbunny #149: I disagree with Dave Harmon about Narnia having low stakes. The land is ruled by a tyrant, the Beavers are fleeing for their lives, Tumnus is held captive - it may not matter to England, but I care what happens to Narnia.

There is that, and it's much of what makes the books readable... which makes the "all justlike a dream" bit that much more aggravating.

albatross #152: Indeed, you can even care deeply whether Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet manage to live happily ever after or not,

Certainly, and that's a nice example of character-based stakes. But non-fantastic novels have an advantage there, that such character-based goals are comprehensible and sympathetic by default. Fantastic trappings (whether magical or technological) often distract from that, making it that much harder to craft good character issues within the story. As an example, that's part of what makes the Wheel of Time novels such "tomes" -- they've got fantastic conflicts, and character conflicts (with lots and lots of characters), and that adds up to a lot of text. At a shorter length, something would have to give.

Fade Manley #156: Yes, that's just what I was saying.

Sarah #160: I suspect there's more there of "follow the leader" than tyranny of relevance. Remember when Tailchaser's Song came out? The Fantasy shelves were crawling with cats and other critters for years, of which a few eventually settled out as stable series.

Lee #168: Yup, in fact I was thinking of Labyrinth (also Spirited Away). But my point was that while it's a portal fantasy in the general sense, it doesn't fit that particular "slush pattern". Like Coraline, the otherworld isn't someplace where people actually live in a society, it's a gauntlet. The theme of the book is meeting the challenges to attain the prize, rather than "Oh look, magic world... but What These Folks Need is a HonkyEarthling". (Which is likely part of the "slush pattern" itself.)

#173 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 01:23 PM:

Dave #172,

The term "slush pattern" is very interesting (I notice you used it on two posts) and I want to get a clearer definition of it so I can use it later. :)

By that do you mean, essentially, a genre or sub-genre as it is represented by the majority of slush submissions that claim to be in that genre or sub-genre? I can see how that would be a very practical term -- it doesn't matter that Sword & Sorcery has Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser if that particular year the slush was dominated by variations of the Eye of Argon... so in that case, for that year, the slush pattern for Sword & Sorcery might trend toward self immolation, and anyone who was unlucky enough to want to write S&S would have to fight past an editors or agents instinctive flinch/autodefenestration reflex.

#174 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 01:45 PM:

#162 ::: Mary Aileen

For betrayal in the movie of The Wizard of Oz, see also the Oz characters being variants of people in Kansas, and "Heaven was in my own back yard". Feh. And I didn't even like the book version all that much.

For some reason, "it was all a dream" wasn't a problem in "The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T". Possibly it's because you went in knowing it was a dream, and possibly because the dream was so cool that you don't care. It was a pleasure just to experience it.

Also, "it was all a dream" works in Alice in Wonderland, possibly because of the two reasons above, and also because "You're nothing but a pack of cards" is so wonderful.

#175 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 01:56 PM:

I have read works where the feared consequences were expressed so vaguely that I had no idea what was making people so apprehensive (not many, I grant, presumably thanks to good editors).

There are good stories that are also vague on the subject. I never felt it was very clear what the Dark wanted to accomplish in Susan Cooper's books (there were occasional specific threats that mattered, but as a whole? no clue). For that matter, I never knew what Mephistopheles actually wanted with Faust's soul.

#176 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 02:10 PM:

Christopher Wright #173: I'm using (coining?) "slush pattern" more specifically, as any specific pattern of story found en masse (and implicitly rejected) in "The Editors'" slush piles. This thread begins by noting one such, but there are many others, and they will naturally shift in prominence as aspiring authors move from "I'll write the next Harry Potter to "... the next Hunger Games", etc.. I suspect that this one (real-world person drops in to save Fantasy World) is probably a perennial, due to its wish-fulfillment aspect and the ongoing popularity of RPGs.

Nancy Lebovitz #174: Also, Carroll's "dreamworlds" actually look and behave like dreamworlds! (OK, one's more hallucinogenic, but still close enough.) Alice isn't there to "save" them, either -- she's more of a tourist. The "stakes" there are objectively small but psychologically large -- Alice learns to navigate her dreamworlds, and gains mastery over her situation within them. That's exactly why "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" is so memorable -- like Labyrinth's half-surprised "You have no power over me!", it marks the protagonist claiming her power, and mastering the dreamworld. Decent enough stakes for a young child to be concerned with, but both stories are essentially romps rather than epics, quests, or even initiations. But that's OK, because the stories (and the author) recognize this, and don't bring in overimportant Themes and Purposes.

#177 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 02:15 PM:

Clarifying my last: Both Alice stories are romps, Labyrinth is of course a quest/gauntlet with an older protagonist.

#178 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 02:47 PM:

@ David Goldfarb #141 In re epics: I don't think portals are a requirement of the epic form. Where is the portal in the Iliad?

The hero's journey to the underworld really is an epic convention, one that Milton takes great delight in screwing with in Paradise Lost. The convention occurs even in Gilgamesh, it's that old.

The katabasis in the Illiad is a metaphoric one, but it's there. In Book 24, Priam's visit to the tent of Achilles to collect Hector's body uses the metaphors and actual phrases associated with otherworld visits -- language very close to the nekuia or necromantic converse of the dead in the Odyssey. Hermes functions as a psychopomp, we see the collection of funerary offerings, etc. We know the scene was interpreted this way even in the Classic era because the scenes are painted on opposite sides on funerary ware.

Note that there's a couple of subcategories wrt to portal stories in Stith Thompson, which distinguishes between otherworld portals, underworld portals/hell mouth.

#179 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 02:52 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz (174): One reason I was so very bothered by the end of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was that I had already imprinted on the book (i.e., real) version. Alice in Wonderland didn't have that problem, since the book was the original/real version.

#180 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 03:07 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 174... But where is Dorothy's Oz counterpart? As for "Doctor T", making it all a dream raises questions about what goes on in that boy's head when he's awake. Dreaming Mom in sexy outfits, and Doctor T singing about torture? :-)

#181 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 03:09 PM:

One of the weirdest 'dream' stories is Masefield's Box of Delights, which ends up with everything turning out to have been a dream - which is utterly odd, since it is a totally this-worldly fantasy, told in a reasonably realistic way. What's more, it is a sequel to The Midnight Folk, which is also a fantasy, shows no signs of being a dream, and must have really happened, sicen the woman who is the hero's guardian in Box first meets him in The Midnight Folk. I have no idea why Masefield did this.

#182 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 03:26 PM:

#181: That ending really ticked me off.

The way the final line is handled in the wonderfully low-budget TV mini-series takes the edge off of things; it is delivered with such joy and lack of regret that you have to smile.

Why did Masefield do that? Well, he's not alone. Let's call it the Clean Up trope. Something fantastic happens. There are real effects. Some people die. Some are shown to be fools; others become heroes. But by the end of the story, the fantastic thing goes away. The world doesn't change.

In an old Catscan column ("Cyberpunk in the 90s", I think it was), Bruce Sterling notes that at the end of Frankenstein, the monster and his creator disappear into the Arctic. We never see how the good doctor's electrical-revivication techniques might have effected society . . . and suggests that in a modern retelling, revived corpses would be pushing brooms in fast food joints and the protagonist might be one of the monsters.

#183 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 03:31 PM:

Well, there's the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which is a dream within a dream:

The book begins with Poliphilo, who has spent a restless night because his beloved, Polia (literally "Many Things"), shunned him. Poliphilo is transported into a wild forest, where he gets lost, encounters dragons, wolves and maidens and a large variety of architecture, escapes, and falls asleep once more.
He then awakens in a second dream, dreamed within the first. In the dream, he is taken by some nymphs to meet their queen, and there he is asked to declare his love for Polia, which he does. He is then directed by two nymphs to three gates. He chooses the third, and there he discovers his beloved. They are taken by some more nymphs to a temple to be engaged. Along the way they come across five triumphal processions celebrating the union of the lovers. Then they are taken to the island of Cythera by barge, with Cupid as the boatswain; there they see another triumphal procession celebrating their union. The narrative is interrupted, and a second voice takes over, as Polia describes his erotomachia from her own point of view.
Poliphilo resumes his narrative after one-fifth of the book. Polia rejects Poliphilo, but Cupid appears to her in a vision and compels her to return and kiss Poliphilo, who has fallen into a deathlike swoon at her feet, back to life. Venus blesses their love, and the lovers are united at last. As Poliphilo is about to take Polia into his arms, Polia vanishes into thin air and Poliphilo wakes up.
Note that Poliphilo dreams twice, but only wakes up once... .

#184 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 04:26 PM:

I just wanted to mention the BBC series Primeval, which is a serial time-travel portal story, where the portals randomly appear and disappear, connecting to random points in the future or past, generally conveniently equipped with voracious dinosaurs/giant bugs/oversized predatory mammals. Initially, the protagonists deal with creatures entering our world/time through the portals; eventually the protagonists also go through portals to explore other worlds/times. Last night I watched an episode (#2.5) which involved a young girl who accidentally goes through a portal (they call them "anomalies") and can't get back.

Also, there's a plot point involving exploring through a portal to the past and coming back to a universe that differs in subtle but vital ways from the one you started in (due to time-travel's "stepping on a butterfly" problem).

#185 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 04:30 PM:

Serge@7, ...stempunk...
You could argue that the canonical stempunk musical is at least close to portal fiction, because the main character has arrived from elsewhere, being a Mean Green Mother from Outer Space.

TNH@112, maybe it's because I've been playing poker with Steve Brust and
Brave, brave woman!

#186 ::: Amber ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 04:37 PM:

Man, as a reader that makes me sad, because I adore portal stories. Maybe because it's an escapist fantasy - I know that was a huge portion of it in my adolescence - but even more because a portal story gives an opportunity to explore a fantasy world from a perspective that's very difficult to convincingly do from the perspective of a native character, and I'm very much a reader who finds that exploration piece to be highly appealing, and having a MC who is just as wowed about it as the reader is presumed to be is a big plus for me.

Then again, that's one of the reasons I really like the hidden world fantasies, as well, and stick with urban fantasy despite the unfortunate turn towards the formulaic.

#187 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 04:37 PM:

"If it's always winter in Narnia, why isn't there cold air blowing out of the wardrobe?"

Well, the Wardrobe portal into Narnia functioned the same way that most portals do which is to say haphazardly. Generally you can only go through a portal not intending to go through it.

Of course there are portals that are always on, these are the most powerful and sought after of portals. These were in evidence in the Magician's Nephew.

The Magician's Nephew is also coincidentally the book that established there was a very tight connection between Narnia and England.

#188 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 04:40 PM:

Of course the functionality of a portal also seems to be based on how much YOU should be going through it. For example Lucy managed to go in and out without problem, but the others could open it and not get anything. Presumably also when they came back their last time, they must have looked to go back and seen that they couldn't.

#189 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 04:55 PM:

Bill Stewart @ 185... And there is "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes".

#190 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 05:02 PM:

In the category of Portal Fantasies where portals always work:

Time Bandits.

Related to portal fantasies: Fantastical Stores that appear intermittently.

#191 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 05:09 PM:

Dave Harmon @ 148:

a stairway or mountain is as much a "portal" as a cave.

Or a beanstalk!

#192 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 05:31 PM:

Dave Harmon @ 148:
a stairway or mountain is as much a "portal" as a cave.

Or a tornado, or Gulliver's shipwrecks. Portal is as portal does. If it takes you from our world to an interesting disconnected world and leaves you there for almost all of the book, this is probably a 'portal story'.

#193 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 05:38 PM:

Seminal British suburban fantasy must be Rupert the Bear ;-)

#194 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 05:42 PM:

re 190: I don't think it's really a classic portal story if all the portal does is serve as transport through a series of locations. Dr. Who isn't really a portal story, and the Star Trek warp drive (or the wormhole in DS9) aren't portals even though they do the same thing.

#195 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 06:06 PM:

How did I forget Edith Nesbit? Seriously great suburban portal fantasies. And she once lived in the street I live in now!

Read Five Children and It if you have't - and then The Phoenix and the Carpet, and then the story of the Amulet, which is probably the best of them (and Lewis's Magician's Nephew is a clear tribute to it)

Amazing stuff. I loved the Magic City when I was a kid. Children make a townscape out of toys and find themselves visiting it. And there is something of the Railway Children in Harry Potter. And Michael Moorcock borrowed some of Nesbit's characters

#196 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 06:09 PM:

A short story fitting the portal theme: The Door in the Wall by H.G. Wells.

Re-reading the story in light of the current conversation, it's interesting that the story has little to do with life in the portal world. The protagonist longs to go back, but when opportunity arises he fails because his stake in the concerns of the moment outweigh the possibility of return.

Until he does step through the door again.

#197 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 07:13 PM:

Amber @186: having a MC who is just as wowed about it as the reader is presumed to be is a big plus for me.

Ooh! This is a great way to build reader investment in both the world and the character, if it's done right. See: first Harry Potter book/movie. This one is also a big lack in Lazy Portal Fantasy, I find. Our Hero is sucked through the portal against their will and drops into their role as the Chosen One without much apparent emotion either way. Much more time is still spent having the hero be confused by arbitrary local customs than is spent having the hero evince excitement or apprehension or fear or, more realistically, a combination of all the above. (At least it's not the stupid Just Wants to Go Home cliché we all hated growing up, I guess, but I don't find it particularly more effective.)

If you're looking for examples of Lazy Portal Fantasy, oh my god webcomics are full of them. I bet the stories are very similar to what shows up in the slush pile, given the lack of an editor. (Webcomics also have lots of really excellent stuff -- I'm not ragging on the medium in particular here.)

Here's a hypothesis for why portal fantasies struggle in YA, and why most of the examples we can come up with, including Valente's Fairyland, are middle grade, a distinction I admit I'm not clear on. YA correlates roughly with puberty, so it's a time when children are learning how to be adults and live in bodies which are suddenly much bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. Young adults are putting aside childish things (a category into which portal fantasies perhaps disproportionately fall) and are looking for stories which are relevant to them without lecturing them (a failing of portal fantasies back to Lewis). And thus, perhaps, their gorge rises.

I base this hypothesis on my own reaction to The Magicians, read a decade past YA age but at a similarly pivotal place in life. I was close to graduating from college, and I was on the train back from an interview with a financial software company in New York. The post-Brakebills New York City scenes in the book could have been my life, if I had wanted them, down to the broken lives and broken promises -- the question I was wrestling with was, did I want that? And then the characters stepped through the portal into fantasy instead of dealing with their lives, and I was crushed. Although many unlikely things have happened in my life, no one was going to show up with a magical button to take me to Narnia. And I still had no idea what to do with my life.

So if I was twelve again (shudder) and looking for a YA portal fantasy, it would have to have at its heart the protagonist achieving some kind of relatable character change in the fantasy world (or not), and it would have to be pretty evident from the very first page that the story was aiming there, lest I think "oh no not again" and put it down before I got to the good part. If the character was running away from something in their life, well, it would have to follow them (or be already there).

Come to that, I think I've just described the set-up of The Other Normals, by Ned Vizzini. It just got a Big Idea piece, so portal fantasies are still out there and being published. (I admit some sadness that the "fantasy secondary world" in the book isn't actually a LARP camp, since that seems so perfectly apt. But I digress.) The Transall Saga, by Gary Paulsen of all people, is an SF YA portal story that really worked for me, at about that age, and it is all about the character development. The secondary world is also rather a dystopia, which seems like a theme.

#198 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 08:11 PM:

#179 ::: Mary Aileen

One of the reasons the end of the Oz movie was wrong relative to the books is that the beginning of the first books was about how gray Kansas was.

#199 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 08:22 PM:

hoouseboatonstyx @ 192... Yes, and that makes "A Princess of Mars" a portal tale.

#200 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 08:57 PM:

Jeremy Leader @ #184
Also, there's a plot point involving exploring through a portal to the past and coming back to a universe that differs in subtle but vital ways from the one you started in (due to time-travel's "stepping on a butterfly" problem).

I saw that cliff-hanger, but didn't see the follow-up - was it really a "stepped on a butterfly thing?" I ask because I immediately thought "that's way too subtle a change to have been triggered by anything that occurred more than twenty or thirty years ago -- I bet (villainess) went back in time and switched a couple of babies at birth just to mess with the protagonists."

bryan @ #190 Related to portal fantasies: Fantastical Stores that appear intermittently
Maybe they have supply-portals in their stockrooms?

#201 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 10:13 PM:

It's sort of interesting that we've come so far and nobody has mentioned Zelazny's Amber novels, or Roadmarks.

My nominee for a portal fantasy that just doesn't work appeared as (I believe) a paperback original when I was in college: I'm not giving the author's name because some folks like their other work, and while this one put me off of reading anything else by them in the future it isn't fair to pin them down by name.

Anyway, the McGuffin for travel was that the protagonist was in an experimental drug trial, and it turned out that for him it had a side effect: he ended up in a fantasyland with a princess in need of help but he was only there as long as the drug was in his system. This meant he kept trying to find a way to have the folks doing the study dose him up without being thought of as a junkie hunting for a fix. I enjoyed that idea quite a bit: it meshed with the scenario in a Marvel Comics one-shot where Mary Jane picked up an enchanted sword in a museum and was transformed into Red Sonja. I used to picture a continuing series where the museum kept upping the security on the sword and Mary Jane kept having to find a new way to get her hands on it.

Back to the book: the part that I didn't like, and which spoiled it for me, was the last scene where we found that the universe(s) were being secretly run by the role-playing gamers in front of the Student Activity Building. It brought the punchline about the Russian Meteorologist to mind, and not in a good way. You know, "Rudolf the Red knows rain, dear."

Lisa Spangenberg: Yep; in at a roche, a cave, Hellmouth, a well, or the bog where Beowulf struggled with Grendal's mom.

Somehow this feels as if you're teetering on the edge of an undiscovered verse of Green Eggs and Ham.

#202 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 10:44 PM:

Sandy B. #48: Jane Lindskold's Puvyq bs n Envayrff Lrne is similar to your concept, but rather low key (rot13 because the mention of the book in this context is a semi-spoiler for it).

I do recommend said book, at least for the scenes along the way.

#203 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:52 PM:

I hate the ending of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz! It makes it all pointless.

And they're silver shoes, not ruby fucking slippers. The anti-coastal allegory is almost completely lost, the companions are turned into cheap vaudeville characters (especially the Lion), and Dorothy kills the WWW deliberately and with malice aforethought.* And they left out the Kalidahs (Kali-dass, servant of Kali).

*"Han shoots first."

#204 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 12:29 AM:

#154 ::: Jen Birren
"wainscot society"

is there ever a "reverse wainscot society" story where we are the hidden society in someone else's world rather than vice versa?

#205 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:12 AM:

Old S-F reader that I am, my first thought on reading this thread was of Kuttner's "The Picture and the Portal," which may have been the inspiration for Farah Mendlesohn's coining the term "portal fantasy." The classic trope established in Kuttner's story can certainly be abused. (I lodged a brief satirical protest against Lucius Shepard's attempt to mine it in a 1994 issue of NYRSF.

In wondering whether the Kuttner story was the first "portal fantasy" to appear in an s-f genre publication, I recalled the Pratt & DeCamp story, "The Roaring Trumpet," (later included in the "Incomplete Enchanter" fixup novel). "The Roaring Trumpet" predated Kuttner's story, but the transport mechanism into other worlds, there, strikes me as being more of a magic carpet (mathematical syllogismobile) than a portal.

Remembering E. Nesbit's "Five Children and It" trilogy makes me want to refine Farah's definition of Portal Fantasy to add "Magic Carpet Fantasy" as a kind of branching genre. The "Five Children and It" series features a different transport mechanism in each novel: "time travel hypnotism" in the first book, "magic carpet transport" in the second book, and "portal transit" in the third book ("The Story of the Amulet"). I'd want to argue that "time travel/hypnotism" and "magic carpet" transport aren't exactly the same thing as "portal transport," but I suppose the nature of the secondary world presented in the story might also be a classification factor.

The point made by "Editor/Publisher" that portal fantasies aren't marketable when the protagonists have no skin in the game (with respect to the Earth of their origin) makes me think, again about Farah's classification schema. It appears to me that stories where elements of the secondary world impact the status of the primary world might be classified as "Intrusion Fantasy" in her schema. I guess we might ask her. Should Pullman's "Golden Compass" trilogy be classified as "Portal Fantasy," "Intrusion Fantasy," or both, as the story unfolds?

#206 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:50 AM:

" I don't think it's really a classic portal story if all the portal does is serve as transport through a series of locations."

there are multiple portals and the bandits have a map of them, so not a portal that leads to multiple locations(although I think that a story where the portal takes you somewhere randomly is a classic one, with the added complication that you don't know when you will get home), also one of the portals goes to a place outside time (can't remember where, fantasy? primordial chaos? something like that)

the thing that makes it not a classic portal story is that something comes through the portal, and takes the protagonist with it.

#207 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:14 AM:

'is there ever a "reverse wainscot society" story where we are the hidden society in someone else's world rather than vice versa?'

The ending of Men in Black II?

#208 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:37 AM:

Andrew M @ #181:

Argh, The Box of Delights. Count me as another person who was ticked off by the ending. (After I read it the first time, the ending was the only bit I could remember; it pushed the entire rest of the novel out of memory. Perhaps on some level I figured that if the author declares that none of the events matter, why remember them?) It was particularly distressing after how much I loved The Midnight Folk.

I do have an idea why Masefield did it, but I need to talk about The Midnight Folk first.

It's not quite true that The Midnight Folk shows no signs of being a dream: parts of it are rather dreamlike, and there are several chapters that end with Kay sitting up in bed and wondering how much of what happened last night was real. But we're allowed to go on wondering - and to decide in the end that it was all real, if we like, which I for one appreciate.

And you can't simply say that all the magical parts are just dreams, because things happen in the magical parts that prefigure things that happen in the realistic parts, which would be precognition, and then you'd have real magic after all. What you can do is think about it as telling the story the way Kay himself - who's very young - might have told it afterward, all in a jumble, and getting confused between the things that really happened (like the arrival of the aforementioned governess) and the things he dreamed or imagined (like the witches and the talking paintings and the living toys).

The idea that the mode of the story is How Kay Would Tell It has consequences for The Box of Delights, because now Kay is old enough now to tell a coherent story and to reliably distinguish between reality and fantasy, so if the story is going to have any fantastic elements in it there are new hurdles to overcome. (Assuming, which I don't but Masefield seems to have done, that really real magic isn't an option.) This explains both why The Box of Delights is told in a more realistic fashion and why it nonetheless turns out to be All a Dream in the end.

#209 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:37 AM:

Sarah @200: was it really a "stepped on a butterfly thing?"

In the handful of subsequent episodes I've watched so far, the only character who knows it happened seems to think it was a butterfly effect, but there hasn't been much discussion of the cause because mostly the other characters (who didn't make that particular round trip) don't believe him. I hadn't thought of the villainess sneaking back angle, though so far I don't think we've seen any portals/anomalies spanning such a short time range.

#210 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:48 AM:

Eric Nelson @204: William Tenn's "The Men in the Walls" (novelized as Of Men and Monsters) and Daniel Galouye's Lords of the Psychon spring to mind as near reverse-wainscot stories. Also Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls picture book, a little more cleanly so.

#211 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:52 AM:

#199, @ Serge Broom
Yes, and that makes "A Princess of Mars" a portal tale.

Elsewhere I said 'a portal fantasy for macho guys' would describe it well. It has the markers of an unconnected world, our-world hero getting there with little wordage spent on how he gets there, spending most or all of the book there, etc.

#212 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:58 AM:

Christopher Wright @147

I love Erfworld! That was truly terrific webcomic, and showed how to turn a classic gamer portal story on its head. Genius. Too bad it ended so quickly.

Kevin @197

There are some great examples of really creative portal stories in webcomics. In addition to Erfworld above, give Supernormal Step a chance; it's a bizarre eccentric portal story which avoids cliche. I have no idea where the author is going with it.

C. Wingate @194:

I agree ... for a classic "portal story" there has to be only *one* portal, between two worlds. Further, the Portal should be in some way transformative for one or more of the characters; passing through it should change their lives. Stories with multiple portals or where the portal is under the complete control of the protagonist are really just teleportation/time travel stories; they're not Portal Stories.

In fact, I'd say that's the attraction of a *good* Portal Story: the main character goes through the Portal (often accidentally or against their will) and becomes transformed. The Portal is a plot device for character development. The defect of the low-stakes Portal Story is that the main character is not transformed by the Portal; they are a tourist and not a participant.

Given this, it's surprising that we're not seeing *more* Portal Stories in YA. After all, the Portal is an obvious metaphor for passing into adulthood. If there's been a real decrease in YA Portal Stories, I'd guess it's because the post-Harry-Potter publishing industry OD'd on them, and we need some time off the subgenre before resuming.

#213 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 07:32 AM:

houseboatonstyx @ 211... I blame the lack of caffeine for missing that other comment.

#214 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 08:06 AM:

I have been thinking and thinking about "stakes" in all of this, and I think that the thing that makes portal fantasies so hard to pull of for a YA audience is this: The protagonist goes through a portal, has adventures, saves the world, but when she goes back home... her relationships with her friends and family haven't changed; there's no one else around who knows what she's seen and what she's achieved; and in a genre that is so much about learning to relate to the world as an adult, it makes it all feel rather pointless. An adventure in YA has to be about solving the protagonist's personal problems, and... "I learned leadership skills, and nobody else knows about it"? That's a hard sell.

(One of the big differences between MG and YA, I think, is that at the end of an MG book you're still a child. At the end of a YA book you've become an adult in some important way, even if you still have two years of high school left.)

Fushigi Yuugi, for all its flaws, was fabulously compelling as a YA portal fantasy because the main character's best friend got sucked into the portal too, but they were separated, and now the main character has to deal with one of the big dramas of adolescence -- losing your best friend because of your first serious romantic relationship. It feels important because of all the history they have together, and it's still going to matter once they get back to the real world.

(That said... a story about what happens when you get back home, you've saved the world and ruled a country, but you still have to ask your parents for a ride to the mall... could be interesting?)

#215 ::: little pink beast ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 08:28 AM:

Stories where a secret fantastic world is revealed, coexisting with our own but normally hidden from it - shouldn't those be called "apocalyptic fantasies"?

#216 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 08:32 AM:

Serge Broom #199, houseboatonstyx #211: Yes, and that makes "A Princess of Mars" a portal tale.

Certainly... it's arguably the link between "adventure tales" and that part of SF/F, as Wells' The Time Machine is for time-travel yarns. Note that the "adventure" genre also serves as some defense against the "no effect on our world" criticism.

#217 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 09:04 AM:

Emily H @214

I don't think that lack of stakes needs a portal.

Rough outline: Protagonist lives with father and stepmother in country A, not entirely happy with his life, school and family. Goes on vacation to stay with mother in country B, makes new friends, sees a different sort of life, but he can't stay. He has to go back to his old life.

Country A could be suburbs/high-school, and country B could very rural, very self-reliant. And the people in country A just aren't interested in what he's done.

You don't need a portal to make the adventures seem worthless. But if you stop that sort of book when the protagonist returned home, you're never going to be able to get anywhere. And that's maybe the weakness of portal stories. The return is the end. Can we really think that Peter and Susan, when they return from Narnia to a wartime Britain, aren't reacting differently to that situation than if they had never been away? A part of YA fiction is people learning from their experiences, and stopping with the portal homecoming blocks that off.

#218 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 10:59 AM:

#213, @ Serge Broom

I think that comment of mine was altogether elsewhere.

#219 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:02 AM:

Lee @168: Juanita is my ex-husband's mother. I know it's confusing. I kept my married name because I didn't want to go through the nine yards of paperwork to get my maiden name back -- and doing so would have cost money I didn't have at the time.

I'll have to rack my brains for the slush-pile song, it's been awhile since I've heard it.

The Julia Ecklar CD with a studio version "The Dark is Rising" will be released by Prometheus some time next year. A live version is available on the CD from Dodeka entitled "Balance."

#220 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:22 AM:

Does Have Spacesuit, Will Travel count as something rather like a portal story?

#221 ::: Robyn McNamara ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:30 AM:

Josh@212, Erfworld's still going.

#222 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:56 AM:

#214, @ Emily H.
(That said... a story about what happens when you get back home, you've saved the world and ruled a country, but you still have to ask your parents for a ride to the mall... could be interesting?)

The first Harry Potters end with him back at the Dursleys'. One Narnia book ends with Edmund iirc saying: "Bother. I've left my torch in Narnia." Out of the Silent Planet ends with Ransome, back from adventures with the Oyarsa of Malacandra, walking into a pub and ordering a pint of bitters. Charles Williams and his model E. Nesbit use the same sort of contrast throughout.

What some critics are citing as a bug, these authors are giving us as a feature, even in stories that aren't pure portal stories.

#223 ::: marin ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:02 PM:

Josh @ 212:

Um? Erfworld's still going (currently, for the duration of Book 2, as a mixture of webcomic and text story).

#224 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:50 PM:

Mistakenly posted this on the OT. Reposting here, with apologies.

I've just read Narnia for the first time this week, and I'm a) an adult and b)not a Christian and never have been, so I'm not really the target audience (a friend who was raised RC and read the series as a child resonated to the whole thing much better...with the exception of the last book, which is a retelling of the Book of Revelation, which isn't (or wasn't) emphasized in the RCC).

All the Narnia books are portal fantasies, obviously, but some have more in the way of stakes than others. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the stakes are all in the portal world, except for the worry that the characters, especially Edmund, might die. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, nothing much appears to be at stake at all. There are brief episodes of slight danger, but they're all "learning experiences," and there's no real crisis even in Narnia, just Caspian's oath. It's kind of a yawn.

In the movie of VDT, they fix this by having a crisis that's killing (maybe) people in the kingdom, and that they have to solve. The solution involves the collection of some fairly random plot tokens, but it's much more engaging than the book. (The character development of Eustace is much better done, too.)

It still doesn't affect Earth or England at all, but it's engaging, more than the book is (and I'm one who generally prefers books to movies).

The book with the highest Earth-England stakes is the prequel, The Magician's Nephew, in which Diggory hopes to get fruit from the Land of Youth to heal his dying mother. I made the mistake of reading it first, and it was pretty stupid. It's even stupider when you realize that Lewis is just using it for a lame-ass explanation of things like the Lamppost and the White Witch, which really, really don't need explaining IMO.

SO: Stakes. If the stakes are engaging, they don't have to be connected to the real world. And even some fairly dire real-world stakes won't save an ill-conceived or poorly-executed book.

Can we play "true but misleading spoilers"? Here's mine for Narnia: Gur bar punenpgre jub qravrf Aneavn naq cergraqf vg'f nyy n puvyqvfu tnzr vf gur bayl bar jub fheivirf gur obbxf. Rirelbar ryfr qvrf.

#225 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:19 PM:

houseboatonstyx @221: I expect that he ordered a pint of bitter. A pint of bitters would be extremely unpalatable. (Avoiding a "not with a Bangs" riff on your nym...)

#226 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:22 PM:

houseboatonstyx @221, I don't see how any of those are what Emily was talking about. Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone wasn't about what happens when Harry comes back from Hogwarts, it's about what happens at Hogwarts. For it to be the kind of thing Emily means, the first chapter could be Harry returning from the magical school, and the rest of the book would be him adjusting to his mundane life again, or something along those lines.

Didn't Jo Walton write a short story along these lines, about a group of adults still dealing with having, when they were kids, gone through a portal into a fantasy world, and then come back home?

#227 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:23 PM:


Qvtbel yvirf gb n evcr byq ntr.

There's something in The Magician's Nephew for me in the concept of The Wood Between Worlds. I link it in my mind to Theodore Cogswell's short story, The Wall Around the World, although this may be just a subjective conceit.

I like the concept in The Magician's Nephew of travel through the two rings. (We swapped green and orange rings that we bought from a Woolworth's, in my neighborhood, when I was in the first grade. I'm a bit sentimental about that. I've often thought of continuing the Narnia series after The Last Battle with a story about Susan; who leaves the funeral of the other Pevensies in grief and returns to Professor Kirk's house. where she attempts to dig up one of the rings buried beneath the tree that grows there. I'd like to have Susan explore the Wood with another companion (a pre-dated Lev Grossman concept, perhaps, without Grossman's nihilism). C.S. Lewis once wrote to me when I asked about a sequel to The Last Battle and suggested that I write one if I wished to. I may still do it!

#228 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:45 PM:

Lenny: do it!

Qvtbel qvrf va gur genva penfu, qbrfa'g ur? Vs abg ur qvrq orsber gung...gur cbvag vf gung NYY gur punenpgref rire zragvbarq va nal bs gur Aneavn obbxf qvr, rkprcg Fhfna. Rira Nfyna qvrf bapr!

#229 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:32 PM:

It seems to me, based on all the foregoing, that Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom for Sale is a portal story. At least insofar as an amulet and some mist can be a portal.

Bruce E. Durocher II @ 201, I know the book whereof you speak. I enjoyed it, and have enjoyed rereads since first encountering it, but it did not act as a gateway to the author's other works. I won't say it made me uninterested in those other works, but it isn't like what happened when I found my way to Heinlein or Gaiman, frex--which was, devour everything available as soon as possible.

#230 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:37 PM:

Lenny, 226: Nice idea, but the tree fell over and was turned into the wardrobe; and the Professor gets to the Emperor's country and says "Bless me, I thought that old house was destroyed," or something to that effect, so Aslan can do his "through a glass darkly"/"it's all in Plato" bit.

#231 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:42 PM:

Texanne: I guess I could try to convince the reader that the rings are still buried somewhere near the site of the house. (Or that there was more than one tree in front of it.)

#232 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:49 PM:

Lenny @230: I'm pretty sure there would be plenty of Narnia fans who would be willing to roll with a mild retcon to make it work. I would.

And, of course, there would be plenty of Narnia fans who would scream bloody murder as they beat the war drum, wholly offended that anyone would dare such a thing.

Which would make the entire experience that much more exciting!

#233 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:55 PM:

Oh, I totally think that a story can still be engaging and engrossing even if what's going on inside the secondary world doesn't connect to the "real world"; but I *don't* think it works in terms of the contemporary YA market.

I think a story is more likely to work as YA if the protagonist's personal journey and the external plot are very tightly tied together. And I don't think that the protagonist's personal growth alone is necessarily enough for that.

(And you could say that's just the editors/agents being wrong, I don't know; I think it makes more sense to say it's an arbitrary-ish genre convention than What Teens Want.)

I like the Narnia books very much, but -- in the movie, where Peter has all kinds of angst about being the head of the family with their parents gone, and taking care of his siblings? I wasn't fond of that change, but it's very much the kind of thing that the YA market wants nowadays. (It's very screenwriting-influenced, I think.)

#234 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 05:18 PM:


It's even stupider when you realize that Lewis is just using it for a lame-ass explanation of things like the Lamppost and the White Witch, which really, really don't need explaining IMO.

Well, the White Witch certainly doesn't. (I'm not sure Lewis thought she did; he may just have thought it would be nice if she had a backstory.) But as for the lamppost, I would say that it doesn't need explaining in the original context of TLTWTW, which is a rather dream-like fantasy (even though not literally a dream) in which anything can happen; but from Prince Caspian onwards it becomes much more of a conventional fantasy with worldbuilding, and people are going to ask why there was a lamppost there. (Mind you, they are also going to - and do - ask what Father Christmas was doing there and where the sewing machine came from, questions which are never answered.)

#235 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 05:45 PM:

Syd: as a History major I just may be too sensitive to historical screw-ups. There is a mystery series that in one book had both a female character calling herself a descendent of one of the witches burned in Salem as well as a lengthy discussion of using sensory deprivation for brainwashing that was obviously based on a quick read through "The Pathology of Boredom" without opening anything written by John Lilly which I almost threw across the room. (I also remember a book by a leading light in the SF/Fantasy community that had a similar Salem screw-up that put me off for the rest of the day.)

The one that I think of sorrowfully was one of the old Ace Doubles which had a lovely premise that the author promptly screwed up so they could write a bog-standard Irish fairytale on non-Earth planet. They had it--and they threw it away, and now nobody can use it again.

#236 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 05:53 PM:

Well, if they have Bacchus and Silenos, Father Christmas isn't a stretch. I would have liked the series better if the lamppost had never been explained at all. The sewing machine never bothered me either way.

#237 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 05:58 PM:

Avram@225: Yes, the title is "Relentlessly Mundane" and it's online at Strange Horizons.

#238 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 06:17 PM:

Bruce Durocher @234: there have been lots of cases of people taking a plot idea and going off to Do Something Else with it. Particularly around an obscure Ace Double, this shouldn't stop someone with a good story to tell....

#239 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 06:29 PM:

xopher@223: I disagree with your interpretation of the Magician's Nephew/lamppost thing. The way I took it, Lewis wasn't so much interested in explaining why the lamp post was there, but was using the lamp post to show Aslan's power of creation--when he sings "grow," then things will jolly well grow regardless of how inert things are "supposed" to be. It's sort of a reverse fig tree parable, but I don't know how relevant that might be to you.

#240 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 06:31 PM:

#234 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II :

I'm pretty sure that premises can be reused, especially if you do something very different with them.

#241 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 06:43 PM:

Christopher, that would make more sense if TMN had been written before TLTWATW. But it was written years later. I think it's more likely that the "everything grows when I tell it to" was implemented as an excuse for putting the Lamppost (and a couple of other things) there.

It's not even terribly consistent. In TMN we learn that Aslan sorted out the original ancestors of all the Talking Beasts at the creation of the world, Lewis apparently having forgotten that in TLTWATW the mice who nibbled Aslan free of his bonds were ordinary mice...and that he later stated that they became Talking Mice.

None of these are egregious sins. I just wish he'd left the Lamppost (I should cap it, since there's only one in the entire world) as a Mystery instead of giving it a comparatively silly explanation.

#242 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 07:02 PM:

#228, @ Syd
It seems to me, based on all the foregoing, that Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom for Sale is a portal story. At least insofar as an amulet and some mist can be a portal.

Portal is as portal does. ;-)

#243 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 07:06 PM:

I was given The Magician's Nephew to read first in the Narnia series. I liked it. I then tried to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -- and bounced. Solidly. Even as a young reader, I was sensitive enough to style to find the difference off-putting. Lewis grew a lot as a children's book writer, and the later books are significantly better written. It took me years before I could go back and read the other stories.

And this is why I insist that the latter-day approach of numbering the series to put The Magician's Nephew first is an error and a disservice to readers. It doesn't fit as the first book, at all.

Climbs off hobby horse, goes to corner.

#244 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 08:31 PM:

Bunch of Narnia comments below:

houseboatonstyx @ #221The first Harry Potters end with him back at the Dursleys'. One Narnia book ends with Edmund iirc saying: "Bother. I've left my torch in Narnia."

Also, The Silver Chair ends with Jill and Eustace ergheavat gb gur zbzrag gur ohyyvrf ner nobhg gb orng gurz hc, fgvyy jrnevat gurve Aneavna pybgurf, naq nezrq. Gurl xvpx gur nffrf bs gur ohyyvrf, jubfr fhofrdhrag pbzcynvagf gb gur nhgubevgvrf gung gurl jrer nggnpxrq ol crbcyr va fgenatr pbfghzrf yrnqf gb gur fpubby orvat fuhg qbja.

Lenny Bailes @ #230I guess I could try to convince the reader that the rings are still buried somewhere near the site of the house.

They were -- in Last Battle Wvyy naq Rhfgnpr fgngr gung, jura gurl, gur Crirafvrf rg ny., unq n ivfvba bs gur ynfg xvat bs Aneavn va gebhoyr, gurl fgnegrq gelvat gb jbex bhg ubj gur gjb jub unqa'g orra erghearq ubzr creznaragyl pbhyq or frag gb uryc, naq svanyyl Crgre naq Rqzhaq jrag vagb gur obzorq-bhg erznvaf bs gur byq ubhfr naq qht hc gur evatf. Gur lbhatre puvyqera jrer nobhg gb hfr gurz jura gur envyjnl nppvqrag unccrarq naq gurl fhqqrayl sbhaq gurzfryirf va Aneavn.

Xopher @ #235:
Maybe Beavers have Hobbit levels of technology?

I'm rather fond of Magician's Nephew because I did find Jadis' backstory interesting -- it's very much a darker take on Nesbitt's The Story of the Amulet.

#245 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 10:33 PM:

Tom: I heartily agree. I looked at the copyright dates in the huge omnibus volume I have, and made the (incorrect, as it turned out) decision to read them in internal-chronology order.

Please, friends, tell anyone you know who hasn't read the books to read them in publication order. Start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In fact...I really think The Magician's Nephew should be skipped entirely, unless one is really curious for backstory, as Sarah was. But I do wish he hadn't explained the Lamppost.

#246 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 10:37 PM:

Andrew M @ #234: Mind you, they are also going to - and do - ask what Father Christmas was doing there and where the sewing machine came from

On one of the comment threads for Anna Mardoll's Narnia deconstructions it was suggested that the one is the explanation of the other: note that Father Christmas's gift to Mrs Beaver is a new sewing machine, which suggests the possibility that the old one was also a gift from him (presumably to one of her ancestors, and subsequently passed down as an heirloom).

Unfortunately, it doesn't work the other way around: you can't use the sewing machine to explain the existence of Father Christmas. The leading explanation for him (as well as Bacchus, etc.) on the deconstruction threads is that the Deep Magic picked up a few mythological figures from Earth as a result of earthlings getting tangled in the Creation in TMN.

#247 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 10:47 PM:

On Narnia reading order:

I maintain that, even on internal chronology, LWW comes before TMN. The main plot of TMN happens before the main plot of LWW, obviously, but there's an implicit frame story in which the narrator (who's chatty and opinionated enough to be a character in his own right) is telling the stories to somebody, and he's obviously telling LWW to somebody who's never heard of Narnia before, whereas in TMN there's a lot of "of course, you'll remember this from earlier" stuff.

(I grant that some people are likely to find this viewpoint esoteric, but it works for me.)

#248 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:04 PM:

Sarah #244: Regarding your second spoiler, I'll note that brings up the thought of a Cosmic Censor. ("No, these rings will not be used again.")

#249 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:56 PM:

I first read the books several times in publication order, then tried internal chronological order and found it much less satisfactory.

A theory I've heard is that the publication order follows a human life. I haven't tried to work it out for all the books, but LWW is definitely about children, TMN is about getting old, and LB is about death/afterlife.

#250 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 12:07 AM:

#233, @ Emily H.
(It's very screenwriting-influenced, I think.)

I agree, and so does Andrew Rilstone. You'd probably like his long essay at

#251 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 12:11 AM:

#225, @ Tom Whitmore

houseboatonstyx @221: I expect that he ordered a pint of bitter. A pint of bitters would be extremely unpalatable.

I'm sure you're right. Of course he would order the most common sort.

#252 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 01:22 AM:

Robyn, Marin:

Yes, I just found that out! The author had taken a long hiatus (over a year) and I thought it was dead. Thankfully, it's not!


Of course Magic Kingdom For Sale is a Portal Story. In fact, it's a classic, largely unornamented portal story. Also, I personally didn't care for it much; I found it "low stakes", per the above discussion.

Here's a fun *inverted* portal story: Diana Wynne Jones' Dark Lord of Derkholm. This is inverted because the entire story happens to the people on the other side of the portal, and the portal-crossers are treated more as a force of nature than as characters.

#253 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 03:13 AM:

Erik Nelson @19:
What would happen if you carry a portal through another portal?

Malkovich Malcovich. Malcovich, Malcovich Malkovich Malkovich. Malcovich Malkovich Malkcovich; Malcovich Malkovich.

Xopher @224:
All the Narnia books are portal fantasies, obviously

<nitpick>Except A Horse and His Boy, which is a basic Bildungsroman. (I gotta stick up for that one; it's one of my favorites in the series.)</nitpick>

Is Inception a portal story? Are there other journey-within stories like it?

#254 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 03:15 AM:

Also, forgot to mention: one of my favorite portal fantasies doesn't show the alternate world at all: "Mom and Dad on the Home Front", by Sherwood Smith (it's in New Magics).

#255 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 03:58 AM:

#252, @ Josh Berkus

A couple of other portal stories not mentioned yet are The Phantom Tollboothand Myers' Silverlocke.

Silverlocke really is about Character Growth, and I've heard TPT described that way. But they are both very Portalish otherwise.

#256 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:48 AM:

We just rewatched the recent movie adaptation of John Carter last night, and it actually lampshades the "low stakes" thing; Just after Carter finally decides to help Deja Thoris (after spending the first two acts saying "no, I don't want to get involved in another war*, I just want to go home"), he's captured by one of the villains who asks him why he even cares what happens to the people on another planet.**

*(Because it's a portal-fantasy where the human from our world is not a child, he's a veteran.)
** Although said villain is worryingly knowledgeable about Earth, too.

#257 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 10:39 AM:

abi @253 said: Is Inception a portal story? Are there other journey-within stories like it?

Don't know if this counts, but if you like the into-someone's-mind aspect of Inception, the videogame Psychonauts rhymes with the setting, and uses it for a different plot. You, the protagonist, are a child and get sent off to a summer camp intended to train psychic powers. The main game mechanic involves jumping into other people's heads to help them resolve some conflict they're stuck on, via platformy/puzzly game levels.

The art on each person's mind is very different, and most of them are beautiful; some of them are amazing and weird, like the person who's brain-landscape is a Stepfordy sort of suburb ... except that everything but the houses and sidewalks ISN'T THERE, and the sidewalks curve and loop around 3-dimensionally (though gravity is always 'down' to the surface of a sidewalk wherever you are). It is possible to jump off a sidewalk and land on a different 'loop' of the neighborhood as a shortcut. Another mind is like walking through neon paintings on black velvet.

As a mildly-coordinated person, I also found it helpful that it is pretty much impossible to 'lose' (in the HA HA HA go back eight spaces YOU LOSER sense) Psychonauts. You can keep trying till you get it. Also, the writing brings the snark.

#258 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 02:07 PM:

I'm almost sure I had a post gnomed in this thread, but I can't find it, or the gnoming report (which makes sense, because it took a while, and the gnoming report would have been deleted to preserve numbering), or remember which one it was (because obviously *I* read it). None of my comments seem to have a duty-gnome comment either.

Sigh. I should keep track. I have no idea which of my comments has just been missed, as opposed to just not being worth responding to.

abi 253: Well, the Pevensie children are in The Horse and His Boy, but I see your point.

#259 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 02:19 PM:

Xopher, your post in this thread that got gnomed was your #228 above.

Some of the ROT-13 text (unfortunately) exactly matched a typical spam-letter-group.

(Note: Since that post of yours, every other post in the post 24 hours that's been gnomed has been for a group of three-or-more spaces in a row.)

#260 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 02:34 PM:

Thank you, Jim! I guessed that might be it, but didn't know for sure, and I've ROT-13'd several posts in this thread.

I wonder how it is that people keep ending up with three spaces in a row?

#261 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 03:43 PM:

If I were to speculate on how people wind up with three spaces in a row:

1) They're posting from cell phones or similar things with small keyboards which make such mistakes easy, but the resulting text not-easy to proofread.

2) They're editing the posts, and the three-in-a-row are an artifact from deleting/moving words or phrases.

3) They learned how to touch-type when two-spaces-after-a-period was standard, and triple-tapped by mistake.

Spammers, for their parts, put in bizarre spacing in an attempt to defeat simple filters. Filtering on bizarre spacing, however, traps them.

#262 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 04:25 PM:

My sweetie just pointed out that the recent "Avengers" movie is an inverted Portal Story: the entire story revolves around a portal, but the protagonists, who are changed by the portal, do not go through it (well, mostly not). Come to think of it, "Thor" was also a Portal Story, in a way ... except that the protagonist was travelling from a magical land to our normal world. What is that, a Converse Portal Story?

.... hmmm, no. A Converse Portal Story would be full of shoes.

#263 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 05:42 PM:

You could argue that Dreamscape was a Portal Story, but that might let in stuff like The Cell and who-knows-what else...

#264 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 06:16 PM:

Josh, it's a reverse-portal story, like The Forgotten Door.

#265 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:15 PM:

Please, friends, tell anyone you know who hasn't read the books to read them in publication order. Start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In fact...I really think The Magician's Nephew should be skipped entirely, unless one is really curious for backstory, as Sarah was. But I do wish he hadn't explained the Lamppost.

Well, if you're going to skip books, then you might as well just stop at _The Horse and His Boy_, IMO. I didn't mind _tMN_, some parts of it were even interesting, but _tLB_ is practically the archetypal example of the Ending That Ruins Everything You Ever Liked About That Series.

Anyway, assuming this thread has gone on long enough for diversion to be considered harmless, are there any series that *are* improved by reading them in internal chronology order when that is different from publication order?

#266 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:49 PM:

Series best read in internal chronological order rather than publication order? Well, I'd suggest that the Darkover novels are best not read in publication order. But the chronological order is not always obvious. Maybe it's best to skip the early, de-canonicized volumes and then read the rest in publication order. (The earliest Darkover novels are more YA than the later ones; the protagonists are young male Terrans with Anglo-Saxon names, and they also have way too many inteligent species for one planet.)

#267 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:53 PM:

I've only read to about comment 75, but I feel I have to mention Diane Duane's Young Wizards series. It's suburban fantasy, though it travels to the urb here and there (and the spinoff series about the cat worldgate engineers is definitely urban); many of its volumes are portal fantasies, including the very first one ... though "temporospatial claudication" is the fancy verbiage used. AND it's got a character who falls into our world from Somewhere Else in that first volume too - a sentient white hole, who is puzzled about Earth customs at appropriate places. Can't get much more on-topic than that!


#268 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:58 PM:

Speaking of portal stories... I have to brag about one of my nephews. He's eight and writing his first book. Well, first two books. One on the computer, and one in a paper notebook, long-hand, in cursive (which he's teaching himself). The notebook-story was left at school, so all I could read was his electronic one. This particular niebling of mine has been writing and drawing stories (comic books and picture adventures* both) since he was four or five. Probably four, because that was when I figured out he knew what perspective was. (I was letting him play with my watercolor pencils at the time.)

It's a portal story, set in a school and the portal is located in his best friend's locker. The main character goes into the portal after his friend, who has been through the portal before and came back. Only this time the friend didn't come back.

After reading this thread, I suspect that the slush pile portal stories are like M's stories, only written by older people hoping to get published. M's stories are a mix of writing what is known (an unexciting, detail filled life) crossed with writing what is loved (making up new worlds with characters to explore - essentially play acting on paper). I also note a similarity to the "Captain Underpants" series in style and voice. Although M's work is more of rolling outline. First the friend is missing, then the portal is found, next comes the monster.

As for the portal stories swamping the slush pile? It may be part of NaNoWriMo, it may be RPGers realizing that their games are story telling so one enterprising person (probably the GM) is writing it down or bad English Creative Writing instructor who hammered in the "write what you know" advice into a hopeful Freshman's - and aspiring writer's - skull until it reverberated. Only where M summarizes a scene with a couple phrases "and then Elvas showed up and killed the monster" the slush writers tell the reader in loving detail every little thing about the rescue. (I've been in some writing workshops where I've read examples of what Teresa describes. I pity the poor editors who are innundated with this stuff.)

* They're a mix of "Where's Waldo", a Rube Goldberg diagram, and a simplified labyrinth winding down level after level. Each line and squiggle has meaning. Each person is made up of few easily identifiable parts (it's almost like computer iconography)^. When asked, he will read you the story as he traces over what he's drawn. I also note, he's drawn fewer adventures since he's learned how to read and write. He didn't start doing comic books until he got to first grade.

^ My two favorites are the opera singer (a small "o" with dot-like eyes a winged helmet on top) and Bigfoot (the outline of two footprints topped by heavy dots for eyes and a scribble of hair) who happen to show up in the same story. Both were lovingly detailed in a space no bigger than my thumbnail.

#269 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 10:50 PM:

Victoria, #268: RPGers realizing that their games are story telling so one enterprising person (probably the GM) is writing it down

That sort of thing was happening 2 decades ago. As one example, the Ex-Roommate From Hell had laid out an adventure that was supposed to be turned into a novel, and was effectively using his players as dialogue generators. This didn't go over very well, and as it also affected his GMing (as in, he didn't want to let the players explore paths that deviated from his predetermined plot line), that game broke up acrimoniously after not very long. But someone with a better sense of letting the game come first (and better storytelling skills) might easily have made it work.

#270 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 11:12 PM:

I, for one, absolutely adored The Magician's Nephew. I used to read the Narnia books in order of internal chronology--which did make my favorite book rather tricky to organize--and found it rather upsetting that the books themselves were marked with numbers on the spine that didn't fit the proper order of When Things Happened.

I will happily allow that reading them in publication order works better for many people, but I will defend to the mild inconvenience my right to prefer them set in internal chronology.

#271 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 11:55 PM:

chris, I think the Vorkosigan saga is best read in internal-chronology order, with the possible exception that Ethan of Athos (in which there are no Vorkosigans onstage) should be read before Cetaganda, even though it follows it chronologically.

#272 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 12:18 AM:

It has been many, many years since I read the Narnia books.

I liked the original ordering. Postponing the origin story seemed like an interesting twist. To quote Milhous Van Hauten after he and Bart read Radioactive Man issue #1, "So that's how it happened!"

#273 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 01:29 AM:

Christopher @116: Well, for one thing, Over Sea,_Under Stone isn't a tale of magical happenings, wizards young and old, strange quests and mythic beings. Instead, it's a tale of three (?) children who are following an odd sequence of clues and happenings that's intruding on their vacation, who end up finding a MacGuffin (which contains another MacGuffin) with sometime assistance from, sometime frustration by, two mysterious-ish intruders, who are DEFINTELY not the protagonists and whose motivations we're rather unclear on.

It's a LOT less High Fantasy than the rest of the series, too. I never really liked it as much as the other four myself.

Nancy @174: As is "...and it really was a kitten, after all." Curiously, I find a lot of people who know the first book exists don't have a clue there WAS a second book. Sort of like the Oz Issue in miniature...


#274 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 07:12 AM:

And Lee @269: For a webcomic example of what your roommate was doing, I refer you happily to DM of the Rings, which is a webcomic in 144 pages, some outtakes, and a good deal of narrator-frustration about The Lord of the Rings (all three books) laid out as a D&D campaign... illustrated entirely with stills from the movies! And it is a glorious thing.

Don't forget to read the title for each comic, and the comments...


#275 ::: David DeLaney's comment has been gnomed... ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 07:15 AM:

... or should I say... HOBBITTED??2?

I don't have munchies handy, but I'm sure the halflings have a quantity of food squirrelled away somewhere.

--Dave, and drink, come to think of it

#276 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 10:03 AM:

Lee @269

I know it was. I've also been in an RPG where the GM borrowed shamelessly from fiction to get the settings and characters for his games. He made a point of translating various genres into D&D. It was a blast.

However, 20 years ago, science fiction and fantasy hadn't yet attained mainstream acceptability. I'd argue that the financial success of the Harry Potter franchise woke a lot of budding writers up as to the possibilities of what writing ground breaking fiction can do for them.

#277 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 02:24 PM:

Victoria @276: Harry Potter was "ground-breaking fiction"?

I'll grant you it's sales were ground-breaking, but the content ... not so much. It's your classic 1880s-1950s English public school YA novel (public school in the UK means "posh mostly-boarding school" in a US context) with added "magic school" vibe.

(At least that's what I got out of books 1-3.5 -- I crashed out of HP due to boredom some way into book 4.)

#278 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 03:20 PM:

Everyone here knows that Brust's Drageara novels started out as a role-playing game, right? As did the Wild Cards books?

And I'm sure I've heard slush-reading editors (or editorial assistants) complain at least a decade ago, maybe two, about manuscripts that obviously were RPG writeups. "You could practically hear the dice rolling" was a phrase I think I heard more than once.

It's possible that people writing up their games as fiction is more common than it used to be, but it's certainly not new.

#279 ::: vee ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 03:45 PM:

Avram @226: You're thinking of Jo Walton's "Relentlessly Mundane" which is available to read here:

Link handy because it's been on my list of "short stories I'd like to adapt into a movie" for some time. But first I should finish some of the other projects I have in the queueueue.

#280 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 04:44 PM:

Avram @ 278... If I remember correctly what Melinda said about the origins of "Wild Cards", she and George RR and others had become obsessed with a superhero RPG and were spending so much time playing it that they thought there to be a way they could make some money out of it.

Looking forward to the movie and. no, it won't be a romantic comedy about Jokertown's Doctor Finn.

#281 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 04:51 PM:

Charlie Stross @277 -- the specific ground that HP managed to break was an unstated length barrier in children's books. The HP books sold so well that it proved that kids didn't only want short books. At the time they were being published, this was Received Wisdom.

Story: you're spot on.

There's a lot of game-based fiction out there, but less these days. Some of it is even self-conscious.

#282 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 05:20 PM:

Tom @281 -- weren't the first two HP novels relatively normal in length? They began to grow, yes, and by book #4 it was ridiculously long by kid-lit/YA standards, but the first two were certainly not over the 100K word mark unless I'm very much mistaken. And while that's longer than most YA today, it very much used to be the case that kid's fiction was quite long; Charles Hamilton (aka Frank Richards) certainly seemed to write to a modern adult-length novel form factor.

#283 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 05:39 PM:

Charlie Stross: True -- she broke that ground gradually. And while there are older examples, it's really obvious that she made much fatter books generally acceptable. There are a lot more long books since the later Potters than before (the whole Twilight series, for example -- it's definitely a mixed blessing that she broke the ground).

#284 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 06:51 PM:

Avram 278: The reverse-portal scenario I spoke of at 44 began life as a roleplaying scenario (in my "Celtic Fantasy with geopolitics" campaign). That's not the worst thing about it, though. I put myself into it as a really annoying old man (it's set in 2044, but I was writing it around 2000, and hadn't yet starting thinking of myself as an annoying old man).

But even when we were playing it, he (I) told the characters that the novel with them in it (which the characters finally obtained, the malevolent AI having fixed the library records but not actually removed the books from the stacks) did not end the way the roleplaying game did, that he had to make it more exciting to be a worthwhile novel, and that he couldn't remember what the players actually did. In other words even my fictionalized self realized that fun-to-roleplay isn't the same as fun-to-read.

#285 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 06:53 PM:

Really the groundbreaking thing about her stories was how massively people reacted to them, and how enthusiastically reading them was embraced by so many freaking people, children AND adults. Right place, right time, maybe, but it wasn't something I ever expected to see (long lines of enthusiastic children waiting, in costume, TO BUY A BOOK).

#286 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 06:58 PM:

Has anyone mentioned China Mieville's "Un Lun Dun"? Excellent portal novel, I think YA, where what happens on the other side of the portal *is* important.

#287 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 07:02 PM:

HP got a lot of kids started on a reading addiction that I hope will persist into adulthood. The books aren't that horrible, the thematic material isn't at all bad, and it bootstraps (as others have mentioned) reading big, thick books.

If something accomplishes that, I'm going to judge it relatively gently. Of course, if it's A Child's Introduction to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Malleus Malificarum Coloring Book, that's another story entirely, but the HP books are pretty harmless.

Though to be fair anyone who studies Latin will have to take the first year UNlearning the "Latin" in the Potter books. But then again, they may make more people take Latin in the first place.

#288 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 07:07 PM:

I'd classify Un Lun Dun as MG, not YA; the protagonist is maybe a preteen, but definitely not a teenager. Which seems to support the idea that portal fantasies do just fine in the MG area, and less so in YA, at least when they're traditional explicit portal stories.

#289 ::: Ian C. Racey ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 08:28 PM:

Chris @265

The Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. The series started by taking place over the course of the Peninsular War. When he got to the middle of the war, Cornwell went back and wrote one book that took place before all the others, then went back to the middle of the war and picked up where he had left off, until ultimately capping it all off at the Battle of Waterloo. Then, when the TV series came out, he went back and wrote a trilogy of prequels set in India in the 1790s, then proceeded once again through the whole Napoleonic Wars from 1805 onward, finding any gap he could in which to insert another novel.

(I make it sound like a money grab, which of course it was, but I don't find the later books to be of an appreciably lower quality than the earlier ones.)

Reading them in publication order means you miss out on the mostly (IMHO) fairly minor instances of, "Oh, so that's why he carries a French cavalryman's sabre!", but I think that's more than offset by not having to sit there with a list of copyright dates, figuring out publication order.

#290 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 09:14 PM:

#277, @ Charlie Stross
It's your classic 1880s-1950s English public school YA novel (public school in the UK means "posh mostly-boarding school" in a US context) with added "magic school" vibe.

Well, it combined two familiar genres: 'boarding school divided by years', with the fairy tale trope 'mistreated child turns out to have a magical destiny'. Like Star Wars 1977, called 'a fairy tale in space'. The ingredients were familiar, but the combination was surprising.

As for ground-breaking longer books, at the time, the first HPs were also praised for longer sentences, and compared to Philip Pullman's.

#291 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 10:43 PM:

One of the last stories I wrote before I discovered the internet was a classic portal story - girl goes into a magical world, learns lessons, makes friends, saves day.

The first story I ever wrote post-internet was a subverted portal story inspired by the Evil Overlord's list (this was years before I heard of Making Light. Great minds, and all that.)

Specifically, it was based on #109
"I will see to it that plucky young lads/lasses in strange clothes and outlander accents shall regularly climb some monument in the main square of my capital and denounce me, claim to know the secret of my power, rally the masses to rebellion, etc. That way, the citizens will be jaded in case the real thing ever comes along."

It was set in a "destination world" where historically, whenever things were darkest, a hero from another world would show up and fix everything in a fairly dramatic fashion. So, in the same way that people anticipate an apocalypse when things are rough in worlds with a mythological history of apocalypse, people in the destination world constantly predict the imminent arrival of the next "hero from another world." Nobody is precisely sure how these heroes were summoned, and it's been a thousand years since the last one showed up, so there are all kinds of superstitions about the whole thing.

The protagonist is a con artist who goes around pretending to be a bewildered outworld hero, tricking locals out of supplies and reward money. She ends up inadvertently doing some very public, legitimately heroic things, and gets famous... more famous than she actually wants to be. All the powerful people who are paranoid about outworlders overthrowing them go after her, and she ends up planning to take them down purely out of a desire to survive.

Later on, there was a bit of a subplot where a real outworlder had come through and was noisily, stupidly, inadvertently making several bad situations worse.

I never finished it because I had about five different ideas for the ending, and couldn't decide on one. This thread reminded me of it, and I still really like the idea... though I'd pretty much have to rewrite it from scratch, considering I last touched it when I was seventeen. The more I read about portal fiction the more I want to rework it, despite the fact that it may technically be in a genre that nobody cares about anymore.

Anyway, there's a reason I specify that my naive portal story was pre-internet and my subverted portal story was post-internet. I'm guessing that teens today aren't suddenly disinterested in portal stories; rather, they're sophisticated about them. These are people who grew up with the evil overlord lists at their fingertips. They hang out on TVtropes. They tumblr the cliches in their favorite TV shows. They make supercuts of villains yelling "no, that's impossible!"

Maybe most of this unsaleable clutter of portal slush is unsophisticated portal stories written for readers who are almost definitely pretty sophisticated about them, by this point.

The popularity of Homestuck makes sense with my theory. Homestuck is a portal story; one that is simultaneously subverted and elevated. It has portals, reincarnation, dream worlds and waking worlds, afterlives and moons and asteroids and planets. It has portals upon portals upon portals, while still retaining the basic structure of the quintessential portal story: kid goes into another world, gains powers, makes friends, and tries to save the day... except that the kid is a group of kids, and some of the people he meets after he enters the portal are (spoiler) bgure crbcyr sebz bgure havirefrf jub ragrerq gurve bja cbegnyf va beqre gb unir gurve bja jbeyq-fnivat nqiragherf.

#292 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 10:57 AM:

Charlie Stross @ 277

Not all ground is created equal, and it gets broken in a variety of ways - sometimes with tractor-pulled plows and other times with pick-axes and shovels.

For a certain type of mundane reader, Rowling's Potter was groundbreaking. For a certain age of SF/F readers, it was as well. Early hullabaloo about witch craft aside. Non-fen readers were astounded at how willing kids were to sit down with a tome their non-fantasy reading parents wouldn't touch based on length alone. I'm pretty sure that's why the non-fen readers picked it up in the first place and then got their knickers in a twist never having read fantasy before. (At least that's why my very mundane brother did. He'd heard the "teaches bad things" about the first book and took it away from my niece. He also gave it back to her after he'd read it to judge for himself it the book was as evil as advertised.)

I recall a lot of people being shocked that kids would read an adult-length book. Up until Rowling wrote her door stoppers, YA books had a hard and fast word limit that was not to be exceeded. Ever. At least according to the publishers and agents in the USA that I researched pre-Potter. Post-Potter, the guidelines have relaxed quite a bit.

Also, it's been long enough that the YA readers who cut their SF/F teeth on Rowling's work are in college. These are the same readers who go "Asimov who?", bounce hard off of Heinlein and consider the classic SF/F that you grew up with to be part of the dreaded English Lit Canon -- Something That Adults Think Will Improve Their Minds And Therefore Must Read Whether They Like It Or Not. From what I can tell, their current authorial heroes include Suzanne Collins, Scott Westerfield, J.K.Rowling and Christopher Paolini.

Also? Rowling hit the jackpot when it comes to money and mainstream fame. A whole generation of young writers want to be just like her.

#293 ::: JM ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 02:43 PM:

Serge @7: I'm coming dreadfully late to this, but the Beyond Belief segment of the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast isn't far from what you describe: Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster as, basically, Nick and Nora Charles, Dealers with the Supernatural. Regularly makes me laugh myself into a coughing fit on the bus.

#294 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 02:44 PM:

204: "is there ever a 'reverse wainscot society' story where we are the hidden society in someone else's world rather than vice versa?"

In Paul Park's Princess of Roumania series, our world is the magical one to which the protagonist escapes. When she's ready to claim her inheritance, our world is folded up and put away. Or maybe the manuscript containing our world is burnt up. It's been a few years, and our world is sorta beside the point.

#295 ::: houseboatonstyx ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 02:49 PM:

#294, @ Doug

Our world is an evening's entertainment in one of Eddison's Memison books, iirc.

#296 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 03:34 PM:

#294 @Doug and #295 @houseboatonstyx...

In the realm of comic books, DC Comics has Earth-0, which is the world where DC Comics exists, and all the heroes on Earth-1 on down are just characters in their "comic books."

This is apparently part of their canon. Which I find hilarious.

#297 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 03:42 PM:

Victoria #292 - the thing about not realising children would read long books kind of puzzles me - how long are the chronicles of Narnia? Longer than the first 3 Potter books. And the Swallows and Amazons books ran to 200 pages and more in paperback, each. But then maybe there was some shrinkage in the size of childrens books in the 70's and 80's?
Also by the time the child was into the 4th volume of Potter, they were presumably getting to the sort of 12 or 13 or so where they could take a longer book.

Ha, it seems my point has already been made in 282 and 283!

At the weekend I just read "Cold magic" by Kate Elliot, which was somewhat entertaining, especially when the heroine and her husband talk to each other in a way taken out of Austen. But it probably counts as a portal story since the Spirit world is entered through mounds or other such places and is intricately bound up with magic in the 'real' world. Events in either affect each other, so it passes on that specification.

#298 ::: jennygadget ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 06:32 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 282 and guthrie @297

I was curious myself, so I checked the page counts for a few of the titles being talked about - as well as some other sff for the same age. Going by the editions on my library's shelves:

Harry Potter 1: about 300

Harry Potter 2: about 340

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe: about 200

A Wrinkle in Time: about 200

The Dark is Rising: a little over 200

The Book of Three: about 200

Now, I don't know how this translates to actual word count - especially as The Dark Is Rising had significantly smaller type than is standard for kids books.

houseboatonstyx @ 290

"As for ground-breaking longer books, at the time, the first HPs were also praised for longer sentences, and compared to Philip Pullman's."

Yes, Jim Trelease talks about this in the more recent editions of his Read Aloud Handbook. Which I, unfortunately, don't have handy. I'll see if I can dig it up when I get home.

#299 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 07:17 PM:

My HP 1 has 223 pages.

Actually, it's my mistake in communication - the thing about Chronicles of Narnia is that each book is quite thin, but you have a series. I don't view it as quite so different, working your way through a series, as reading one long book. In fact one longer book should be a bit easier, because of fewer issues wtih continuity.

Mind you I have some of my books for children down from the attic, ones that are simpler than Harry Potter. E.g. "the Demon Headmaster", it's 139 pages.
"The Minnow on the Say", which I recall as being a bit long due to it being perhaps a little dull, is actually 252 pages, but it was first printed in 1955. Citizen of the galaxy was 263 pages.
On the other hand the Green knowe books are about 120 or 130 pages, and they're 50's, 60's.

I'm starting to think a lot of people had a poor understanding/ unjustifiably low opinion of children's abilities to read what they want to read.

#300 ::: Christopher Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 09:07 PM:

#299 @guthrie,

The Narnia books weren't originally sold as a set. They seem to be now, but when I was a kid I owned The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe long before I knew there were any other books in the series. Now you can own the whole thing, which makes it a bit longer of a read, but you can also own the whole Harry Potter series, and carrying that around will throw out your back.

#301 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 01:08 AM:

The Narnia books were published one a year for seven years. No, I wasn't reading them as they came out....

#302 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 05:06 AM:

Christopher Wright @296: Actually, that was "Earth-Prime" rather than "Earth-0". And it's since been destroyed then retconned out of existence and then brought back -- sort of... and since DC rebooted their whole line yet again last year its current status is a bit unclear.

It's also been canon in Marvel since the sixties that Marvel Comics exists in the Marvel Universe and does comics about the Fantastic Four at least.

#303 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 10:54 PM:

1) Reverse-wainscotting: The Borrowers, surely? Bonus: to some extent, they actually lived in the wainscotting. Somewhat like the Wolves in the Walls.

2) I was at Sirens this year. Sadly, I was not at the panel under discussion. I'm having that odd missed-opportunity feeling.

#304 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2012, 01:38 AM:

Looking at the bookshelf here, Swallowdale (one of the Swallows and Amazons books) is 450 pages, and pretty small print at that. Not quite up to HP #7 at almost 700 pages, but there's also something like 15 of them in the series.

#305 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2012, 05:10 AM:

Yes, the various Swallows and Amazons books are noticeably thicker than the Narnia books. Print size and paper thickness are a factor, but the hardbacks were thick enough to challenge HP on the shelf, and the paperbacks comparable to "ordinary" adult paperbacks.

Peter Duck and Missee Lee are odd ones in that series, unreal in a portal adventure sort of way. I could imagine the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads being as described, because I had been to those places, but those were "over the horizon" nautical adventures. When i first read them I did not question the unreality.

Incidentally, Arthur Ransome had enough real adventures of his own that it was harder to doubt him in fiction. His life experience gave his writing a feel of reality that others might not have managed.

#306 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2012, 09:39 AM:

#305 Arthur Ransome had an interesting life indeed. Reporting for The Guardian from St Petersburg during the revolution, spied for SIS, investigated as a possible traitor by MI5, eloped with Trotsky's secretary ... then switched to writing kid-lit. Not quite as bizarre as "Mad" Jack Churchill (who arguably was mad -- at least, it's hard to imagine anyone neurotypical doing what he did), but certainly crazy enough in that quintessentially British way to demand a supporting role in a Laundry novel. Ahem.

#307 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2012, 11:23 AM:

Charlie Stross @ 306... crazy enough in that quintessentially British way to demand a supporting role in a Laundry novel


#308 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2012, 09:57 PM:

One of the things I really liked about Mark Anthony's series The Last Rune is that not only do the portal-going characters return to our world (Denver and environs), but there are serious threats to our world coming from the other world. And that threat's evident from the very start—the reason the protagonists go through the portals is that they are being chased by various nasty beasties that are obviously not from our conception of the world.

Heck, he even works a weird Western into one of the books.

But I think that's one of the last portal book sets I've liked (The Magicians being the other obvious one.) They're very hard to do well because the ground has been pretty thoroughly explored.

(Incidentally, Mark Anthony hasn't stopped writing, but it's under a pseudonym now in the romance section. And yes, Mark Anthony is his real name. Blame his parents.)

#309 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2012, 02:38 AM:

Is the problem of the bad portal novel essentially that it is a story of slumming, and that is the what the 'stakes' issue maps to?

Heinlein used this trope rather a lot, with Glory Road being the most egregious (and the most prone).

Mind you, he did address Emily H's Q from #214

(That said... a story about what happens when you get back home, you've saved the world and ruled a country, but you still have to ask your parents for a ride to the mall... could be interesting?)
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