Writing from the Gray Zone: "Academic Exercises" by K. J. Parker

Academic Exercises - K.J. Parker

Published 2014.



“A man will betray his honour, his country and his friend, but the bond between two people who share a common devotion to hardcore porn is unbreakable.”

(From the story “Purple and Black”)


This anthology shows that a true storyteller succeeds no matter what the length of the story is. Each of the works of fiction is a Lehrstunde of the art of the narrative.

What have we got here? Just some of the most fantastic pieces of fiction written in 2014 (at the moment I’m flogging myself. Without any rocks to hit myself in the head with, I plan to run headlong into the nearest wall... for not having read this collection in 2014):


“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong”

“A Rich, Full Week”

“Amor Vincit Omnia”

“On Sieges”

“Let Maps to Others”

“A Room with a View”

“Cutting Edge Technology”


“Purple & Black”

“Rich Men’s Skins”

“The Sun and I”

“One Little Room an Everywhere”

“Blue & Gold”


J. Parker, as I stated previously (cf. review here), is one of my top authors.

Why? Read on.


I will never fence, build a forge from scratch or be involved in a massive siege, but learning about these things through such well-written fiction is a fascinating experience.


Why aren’t Parker’s books boring when they are so full of details? We believe in Parker’s world because of those details. Without them we’d have nothing (compare Parker’s work with Robert Jordan’s; the latter is also full of nitty-gritty details, but the books are so damn boring. Why? Because we don’t believe). That’s always the problem with half-baked-made-up worlds: internal believability does not work. We need to believe even when the details are clearly over the top. If the story uses a siege to a city I must believe in the mechanics of the all thing.


Another wonderful thing that draws me into Parker’s Weltanschauung is her ability to write SF that doesn't read like fantasy but reads more like “historical” fiction. There wasn't much fantasy elements in these stories besides the fact that the author created the world and there was very little action in it. Even the so-called “magic elements” don’t really feel like magic (from the story “A Room with a View”):


“There’s no such thing, they tell you on your first day in school, as magic. Instead, there’s natural philosophy, science; logical, probable facts and predictable, repeatable reactions and effects. What the ignorant and uninformed call magic is simply the area of natural philosophy where we’ve recorded and codified a certain number of causes and effects, abut as yet can’t wholly explain how or why they work.”


On top of that Parker uses other techniques that are atypical fantasy-wise, but are much more common in historical fiction and some of which may in fact be more common in mundane fiction. I’m not sure whether Parker’s style is more historical-fiction and literary-fiction-oriented or not. I’m also not altogether sure whether her readers come from the mainstream side of things or come from “the other/dark side”. What I do know is that when I’m reading Parker it doesn’t feel like I’m reading genre fiction:


“He said that of all the evils in the world, of which there were rather too many for his liking, the greatest evil of all was love; it’s sheer spitefulness to allow mortals to love, because everybody dies, but the love they cause to be in others doesn’t die with them. Therefore love is the cause of the greatest sorrow, therefore love is the greatest evil.

(From the story “Purple and Black”)


Maybe all she wants is to convince us there’s more to it than meets the eye, reading-wise (from the story “Illuminated”):


“After all; a book is practically an act of violence. At least, it’s an attempt, wrong word, it’s a bid, weak word, a book is you the writer trying to impose, bad word, superimpose yourself (your vision of things, your experience, your narrative, your word view) onto someone else, the reader.[] Great books change you. Am I just a blank sheet for some dead man to write on?”


Maybe that’s the definition of a great book, i.e., to be able to change you, as Parker’s work does. And Parker’s work really does change me. I know it’s a tall order, but that’s how I feel when I finish reading one of her works.


This collection is dark and gritty, just the way I like it.  Even characters that start off likable transform themselves into unlikability, but that sometimes makes an over-simplification of some of Parker’s characters. Here lies the fact that some of Parker's work isn’t always absolutely perfect and I can always find a few flaws, but, nonetheless, they are just so much more interesting and so much more simply different than almost anything else that is out there.


Now we arrive at Parker's incomparable wit. Parker is probably the only author capable at combining wry humor and plot, cutting observations and character. Parker is also downright funny. Often hilariously so, but without toning down her stories for brief chuckles, and her sorties into the most caustic sarcasm reinforce rather than dampen her work’s mood.


Does not help that most of the things I write about here belong to the clunking essays category. I am sure they will be fun great clonking essays when I can get to them. But sometimes a book like this comes along, and the Hochgefühl for writing book reviews resurfaces. I’m glad it did. It's not that I'm not writing; I am writing; this last week was literally the most productive writing week I've ever had. It's that none of that goes here reviewing-wise...