Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 28, 2011


Filed under: meta — Sam @ 10:18 pm

Absolutely no-one has pointed out to me that I spelt the name of one of the critics in my post on Literariness and Science-Fictionality. They are of course two of the theatre critics from Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Inspector Hound, and I should have written about Birdbolt and Moan.

Mea culpa!

February 26, 2011

Literariness & Science-Fictionality

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 12:00 am

Every so often (by my calculations, it’s on an average of once every 3.6 days) the SF blogosphere erupts with grumbling indignation over some mainstream critic or novelist’s impingement upon genre. Said impingement takes one of two forms; either the critic, whom we shall for the purposes of brevity refer to as Birdbolt, entirely dismisses genre as an irredeemable morass of tedium and invention, or he (Birdbolt is more often male than not) claims some author that SF regards as its own as literature, and often uses a phrase closely resembling “transcending the limitations of genre”. The latest breath of oxygen for this charcoal-burning pastime is this article in the Guardian by John Mullan, which is effectively an attempt to claim literary fiction for a worthwhile thing-in-itself—an recognizable artistic body of work of commercial value, or in other words a “genre”. Of course, Mullan in his role as Birdbolt doesn’t use that word; in fact, he specifically says:

What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a historical novel. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, the leading British prize for science fiction. Yet you only have to think about these two examples to see how they escape their genres.


February 24, 2011

A couple more DNFs – Cast, MacAlister

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 1:26 pm

PC Cast, Goddess of Spring: a reimagining of the Persephone myth, in which Demeter decides to teach her daughter responsibility by having her switch places with an Italian-American bakery owner, and sending the latter to look after Hades. Hades, of course, is brooding but hot, and there are happy endings all around—at least, as far as I could tell from a quick skim forwards. It is, to say the least, a bold reinterpretation of the myth. The thing that annoyed me most, however, was the name of the protagonist’s bakery: Pani del Goddess. I don’t even speak Italian, and I can tell that none of those three words are correct; ten seconds’ research confirmed that.

Katie MacAlister, Love in the Time of Dragons: I picked this one up because the idea of urban fantasy which actually had dragons in intrigued me, and because I’m a sucker for lost-memory plots. Unfortunately, the “dragons” turned out to be functionally equivalent to werewolves, and I hate werewolf books even more than I hate badly-done fairies. Humans who can shapechange into monsters; hierarchical clan structures (led by a “wyvern”, which apparently means “drama queen” rather than “smaller, less powerful & intelligent dragon”); unreasonable possessiveness; big men dick-slapping each other at the slightest opportunity; and pissing on lamp-posts. Clearly, these are just suspiciously lizardy werewolves, and being tricked into reading a book about werewolves really annoys me.

Until I saw this quotation, I was mentally encouraging the heroine to dump the lot of them and find someone worth it, but frankly, after this they’re welcome to her, on the basis that then none of them will make anyone else miserable.

My heart warmed. I couldn’t help it. Oh, he was being arrogant and pushy and domineering, but none of that really mattered, not when I could see the insecurity and fear that he tried so hard to keep from me.

February 20, 2011

Some common myths about JRR Tolkien

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:27 pm

There are a couple of immutable truths about any discussion of fantasy subgenres. Someone will talk about “rewriting the Lord of the Rings”; and someone will completely misunderstand what Tolkien was writing about. So I’ve listed a few common myths about his work, with refutations. This shouldn’t need saying, but it does: I’m talking only about the books here. The films are good in their own way, but they are not the same artistic entity and not aimed in the same direction.

Myth #1: The Lord of the Rings is purely consolatory fantasy. Everything gets better in the end.

This is arrant nonsense. The book has four endings, because it needs them; the message is that winning is hard, and protracted, and there are more battles to fight beyond the final push, the secret weapon, the big resolution. And that there will always be scars. Some things just don’t get better. Frodo and Sam are genuinely resigned to death after Mount Doom, before the sheer kitschy wonder of Iluvatar’s own SAR squadron coming down out of the north; while we were off destroying one evil abroad, another evil was destroying and corrupting our home; and when we’ve beaten that, despite all the rejoicing and celebration, some people don’t recover. Lobelia is frail and humbled; Will Whitfoot is starved thin; the Gaffer’s own home is demolished; and Frodo’s wound never quite heals. And in the fourth ending, the Ringbearers go over the Sea to Valinor, but that’s hardly an unmixed blessing. Deathlessness is not given to mortals unless they really, really need it—Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam need to spend time there to rest and heal.

It extends to a larger scale, too. The Elves are sailing westwards, taking the Rings of Power with them, and the Wizards too. Magic is going out of the world. (That may or may not be a Bad Thing; personally, I think it isn’t, and that it’s a necessary development. I also like to think that the Professor agreed with me.)

Myth #2: The main plotline of The Lord of the Rings is the battle against Sauron, and his destruction.

Sauron is a sideshow, really. He doesn’t do anything himself during the course of the entire book; his entire MO is to corrupt others and to make them do his work, even when they oppose him. (Denethor, for instance.) So it’s not as though destroying him would do very much to prevent the current apocalyptically bad spread of evil.

Instead, the quest is to destroy the Ring, into which Sauron placed the essence of his corrupting power and control—it’s a reified metaphor, and the heroes refuse to be mastered by the glamour of evil. (Incidentally, that’s a truly dreadful stealth pun. I love the Professor for so many reasons.)

Myth #3: All the good guys are Aryan.

The Rohirrim are certainly tall and blonde (since they’re Anglo-Saxon Cossacks), but the descendants of the Númenoreans are generally fair-skinned, dark-haired and grey-eyed. In Letter 211, Tolkien actually described the Gondorians as Egyptianate—that would certainly explain the tall stepped architecture. (Tolkien’s Middle-earth doesn’t look like Medieval Europe – Michael Martinez) I don’t think we can entirely get away from picturing the Men of Gondor as white people, but they’re certainly a mongrel race of some sort; nine ships full of colonists, in one wave, are not going to make a country without significant intermarriage.

Tolkien’s Dwarves are well-known to be influenced by Semitic cultures—in fact, they’re quite a blatant Jewish stereotype, progressive for its time but still problematic. Clannish, conservative, and magnificently bearded, the men keep their women to themselves and love gold and beautiful things. They do not serve the Enemy in themselves, but can in extremis be corrupted through their greed. They’re ferocious (The OMT is “doughty”) warriors; Israelite—and Israeli—armies had a fearsome reputation for a very good reason. And the Dwarves are very definitely, implacably on the side of Good.

Myth #4: Tolkien’s aesthetics are clear; beauty is good, and evil is ugly.

Denethor loses none of his grandeur and nobility in his despair, and Saruman’s voice is still utterly beautiful. The Silmarils, the most beautiful pieces of craftwork ever made, turned kin against kin, race against race, and set off tragedy after tragedy. Fëanor so loved his work that he doomed the world to live forevermore without the light of the Trees.

As for Good, nobody ever describes Dwarves as pretty—or Hobbits, for that matter! Strider, when he first appears in the Prancing Pony, is never described as handsome or even clean, and the hobbits take against him for his looks; he describes himself as having “rather a rascally look”; and even says, “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.

Myth #5: The countless imitators are somehow accurate representations of Tolkien’s work.

Like whom? The ones most often cited are Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin. Brooks & Goodkind have no similarity beyond swords-and-horses, cool-stuff-happening-in-secondary-worlds superficialities. Eddings was very specifically a Campbellian formula writer; Jordan’s entire fantasy oeuvre is an unnecessarily extended artistic response to Eddings; and Martin is not discernably descended from Tolkien at all, but rather from Shakespeare’s versions of the Wars of the Roses. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry is in some ways similar, but it’s a portal-quest trilogy, bringing in 20th century Americans; the idea of modern people ever being able to interact with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is just bizarre. It would be like transporting Sir Orfeo and Ysbaddaden Chief Giant to Deptford.

Fundamentally, if anyone ever mentions Tolkien on the cover of someone else’s book, it’s marketing fluff. Ignore it.

Myth #7: The Lord of the Rings is wish-fulfilment fantasy.

It’s not written in a boulomaic modality (ie. “things are not this way; they should be”) at all; it’s an elegiac might-have been, an alternate distant past that might have led to this future. Also, and this is vitally important: it is a text, not a world. The epistemic modality we’re given is not that of the events of the story, or the people; instead, we are asked only to pretend that this book exists, that there is a history called the Red Book of Westmarch, and to treat it in the same light as we do Herodotus’s Histories or the History of the Kings of Britain.

Fantasy readers are almost universally extremely bad at that. We have the ingrained reflex of trust, of epistemic acceptance (suspension of disbelief)—we take it merely as a convention that these things did not happen, never happened, could not happen, but are nevertheless written about. It is hard for us to see the text for the story, the telling for the tale. To preempt a sadly obvious quibble—this is, of course, not to say that SF readers are any better. We don’t see the text any more than we look through a window and see the glass. But in the final analysis, a book is not a window, any more than it is a world.

February 14, 2011

DNF fantasies

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:53 pm

I’ve a couple of books here I couldn’t get through, so consider this a review of about the first third or half of each. I may go back to either or both, but right now I have better things to read.

The Adamantine Palace, by Stephen Deas: This one reads like a cross between Pern and A Song of Ice and Fire, and neither dragons nor royal politics hold a great deal of interest for me these days. It’s not badly written; it’s just not for me.

Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski (trans. Danusia Stock): I picked this up because I hadn’t read anything so thoroughly Trad Fantasy in a long time, and because translated fiction (especially Eastern European, for some reason) always appeals to me a little more. The basic premise of it was fine if formulaic (orphaned royal heir adopted and trained by mystic warrior society, some sort of Prophecy going on in the background) but I got bogged down somewhere around the extended training montage and travelling scenes.

I’m also quite likely not to finish The Edge of the World, by Kevin J Anderson: I wouldn’t have got beyond the first few pages if it hadn’t been the only book I had with me on a long tube journey. The worldbuilding-mystery is interesting, but since this is apparently Book 1 of N, I’m not likely to get much payoff from it, and the writing style is very generalized, disengaged, and notional—very much tell rather than show.

February 3, 2011

China Miéville – Kraken

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 11:38 am

Kraken is extremely ambitious; it attempts to draw from dozens of zeitgeist archetypes, pulling up their Mysteries and folding them together in a kind of symphonic origami. However, there’s a very fine line between that and “half-arsed in six different directions” and I’m very much afraid that Kraken is on the wrong side of it.

It’s a novel about surfaces & intersections—we see this most of all with the titular kraken. As we’re often told, the kraken dies when it comes to the surface: accustomed to the crushingly intimate pressure of its benthic home, the openness and emptiness of the surface is lethal. We see it also in the arms-length collaborations and conversations between different cults, the way in which they deal with each other using a kind of multivalent ecumenicism, striking theological poses and leaving it at that. The benthic depths of religion are still there, but they ain’t coming here.

This is the kind of novel that absolutely relies on a city setting, and (for the British) couldn’t be told anywhere except London, metonymically denatured as it is. London’s neomythic character is one of atomized alone-in-a-crowd emptiness, with uncountable individual social & ethnic groups touching only along their edges; there’s always another borough, there’s always something new to discover, there’s always an unexpected alley.

In the same spirit as his earlier Un Lun Dun, Miéville packs Kraken with surreal and fantastic imagery; in this case, however, it’s all explained and demystified. In fact, flattened. Some scenes read like Robert Rankin by way of Clive Barker, with their quotidian treatment of putatively horrific tropes, and then a later casual explanation. I’m thinking particularly of an early scene, where our first introduction to supernatural abnatural assassins Goss & Subby (your basic tattered-and-drab nonsense-talking thug and his creepy child sidekick—2/10 for originality, but of course that isn’t the point) is as they unfold themselves out of a small parcel. That could be a real intrusion moment, a way to ram home the way that strangeness has pushed itself into our protagonist’s life—but we’re in neomythic London, so strangeness is nothing new. A few scenes later, our one-step-behind police officers find out exactly how Goss arranged it (there’s a bloke who folds stuff; in neomythic London, you can buy anything if you know where to go) and that’s the last we hear of literal folding. This kind of semiotic flattening is all over the text, however: two of the antagonists are quite literally signs of themselves.

Miéville is clearly doing this flattening & estrangement deliberately, but it doesn’t work for me; the text glances over dozens of different mythoi and literary antecedents (my personal favourite was the cult of Sredni Vashtar) but treats them with as much interest as a tourist who goes home with photographs showing signs to historic buildings. I’m sympathetic, in principle, to the message (“There is no one universal meaning, no divine system. Everyone contends for their share of ontological authority. The future is what you fight to make it. Stuff just happens, and it’s up to us to deal with it. Everyone matters.”) but it isn’t coming across with passion or dedication, only with a kind of weary, intellectually smug postmodern box-ticking perfunctoriness.

I think, also, that the time of clever new portmanteau coinages for fantastika tropes is done. In Kraken, we have “realitysmith”, “Londonmancer”, “mageslick”, and “knacker” (someone who uses a “knack”, rather than someone who butchers dead horses) as well as the evergreen “ab-” prefix… abhuman, abnatural, absurd. It gets tiresome.

On the other hand, Kraken does have a lot of good points. Miéville’s imagination is as fertile and profuse as ever, and some of his inventions—like the kraken cult itself, and Wati the union organiser—are amazing.

Overall: if you read for imagery and whimsical invention, I recommend Kraken. For character and plot, it’s passable; as regards themes and style, it’s a failed experiment. But as always, that’s better than not making the experiment at all.

(Pornokitsch are a lot more positive, incidentally.)

February 2, 2011

Michael Moorcock – The Coming of the Terraphiles

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 2:22 am

I’m a big fan of Doctor Who, and I’ve been reading Moorcock since I was 12 or so. So I was extremely disappointed with this book.

It’s not good Who, since Moorcock doesn’t have much empathy with Eleven—the Doctor we see here might be almost any of them—and less with Amy. She gets almost nothing to do, and Moorcock doesn’t have her distinctive voice at all. In fact, since there’s a reference to “her unruly red hair standing on end” at one point, I’m not sure Moorcock has ever done much more than read a written description. The only plot she gets is in turning down an Earl’s proposal, and the flirtation goes on for half the book without any reference to Rory. Presumably, this adventure takes place during the period he spent erased from existence, but the Doctor doesn’t seem to think twice about it either.

It’s set in that last refuge of the SF hack, the Edwardian era IN SPACE, using that hackneyed plot device, the anachronistic mess of half-remembered history. So, in our Incredibly English Future, we have Wodehouse-grade peers & Chaps playing the ancient game of “arrers”, which is basically cricket and archery at once, interspersed with jousting, broadsword fighting (using swords three feet wide and a foot long), and Cracking Nuts With Sledgehammers. Amidst all that, a penniless young man and the daughter of a millionaire fall in love, and the young woman’s mother acquires and wears the most appallingly ugly hat in the multiverse. Oddly, everyone seems to want that hat, and not just as an excuse for Woosteresque hijinks.

I’ll spare you the rest of the plot; it doesn’t get much better. It’s nearly all Moorcock’s consistent Eternal Champion mythos, and what isn’t Moorcock appears to be more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pastiche than it is Doctor Who. There are some extremely good concepts involved (Frank/Freddie Force and his Antimatter Men would have made extremely, er, appropriate villains for the Sixth or Seventh Doctors) but they suffer from trying to cram in far too many of them. Introducing us to Captain ‘Ironface’ Cornelius, Peggy the invisible burglar, Captain Abberly and the three singing Bubbly Boys, and Captain Quelch along with the First Fifteen not only dilutes the effect but ensures that none of them get enough screen time actually to be interesting.

It’s not good Moorcock, either—it doesn’t have any noticeable significance in his mythology, and doesn’t provide anything lingering except fluff. The plot ends with two unexpected oh-I-had-it-all-along moments, the McGuffin solving the Problem, a Heroic Sacrifice, and and a Happily Ever After. That’s not necessarily a problem, but if you’re going to go for a trad plot in a stock setting, you can’t do without intense emotional engagement, and I felt none of that at all.

February 1, 2011

Rebecca Reisert – The Third Witch

Filed under: review — Tags: , — Sam @ 2:40 pm

More Shakespeare! This time, it’s Macbeth: Gillyflower, youngest of the three witches, is obsessed with revenge against the Thane of Glamis, and all the play’s events proceed from her desire for his death. We don’t find out until the last quarter or so of the book why she seeks revenge, but it’s an interesting twist and complexification.

The witches are all marginalized women, living in the forest for one reason or another. A local convent feeds & trades with them, and they supply villagers with herbal remedies—in short, basically what you’d expect “real” witches to be like. The summoning of Hecate is treated as supernatural, but nothing else is; a lot of the supernatural-or-madness events in the play are orchestrated by Gilly, aided by occasionally slipping Macbeth hallucinogenic poisons.

She does this, more or less inevitably, by cutting her hair and going to work as a scullery boy in Macbeth’s household. When there, she befriends Fleance and starts taking fighting lessons with him. It’s an interesting example of the popular “castle life” story, showing us friendship & encouragement intermixed with casual brutality and utterly rigid enforcement of the class system. Macbeth himself is shown to be utterly charming & charismatic, casually saving Gilly’s life at the beginning of the book and later complimenting “him” on “his” bravery in defending a child from bullies, offering future training as a soldier. That all goes completely by the wayside later in the novel, when Macbeth decides that he really does want to be King, and he starts showing all the capricious evil that we see from him at the same point in the play. It’s a very dramatic character change, but we’re seeing him through the eyes of a young woman (early teens, by my guess… not that “teens” has any meaning beyond the numeric at that time) who has every reason to hate him, and indeed to force herself to hate him even more.

I haven’t talked about Lady Macbeth, and part of that is that there’s a huge plot spoiler there, which we find out in the backstory about three-quarters of the way through the book and which I’m not going to give away. She is not treated at all sympathetically, but again, that’s an entirely understandable position for our narrator to be in.

One really interesting parallel that shows up throughout the book (rarely, but clearly) is with Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gilly is likened to the fairies, protean and manipulative, pulling barely visible strings and affecting the fate of nations. At the same time, she’s very clearly not the only manipulator involved.

What originally drew me to this book was the cover on this edition—I can’t find a decent-sized image online, but it’s a good match for the New Penguin Shakespeare editions I used to use at A-level, right down to a printed reproduction of the matte cover texture.

I had quite a hard time getting into The Third Witch, but after about a third of the way through I knew I was definitely going to finish, and would definitely want to write about it. Apparently it’s been optioned for a film; if it ever actually arrives, I’ll have to see it.

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