Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 8, 2012

The Hidden Assumptions of Robert A. Heinlein

Filed under: sf — Tags: — Sam @ 8:15 pm

I am reliably assured that this post is not a parody. However, it wasn’t the text I wanted to comment on, but the Heinlein quotation in the top right-hand corner, presumably chosen as some sort of philosophical statement to live by.

Let us leave aside the wisdom of choosing an SF writer’s words as philosophy, and move on to the quotation itself.

Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.

Nice, ain’t it? Just the right blend of encouragement and cynicism, letting the adopter feel proud of their own savvy & daring, while looking down on those who don’t have the bravery or vision to realise how the world works and put up with it.

Let’s take a closer look.

Certainly – it’s important, when writing Didactic Aphorisms, to position yourself as an authority. And amongst people who respect certainty, filler words like this lend much more authority to whatever follows them.

the game – heaven forbid we be seen to treat things as important. If we do that, we lose our perspective. It’s just a game. Or, looked at another way: games are just as important as anything else is, because in the final analysis it’s all much the same.

is rigged – nice use of the passive voice there. Nobody owns the rigged-ness; it just happens. It’s just the way things are. Identifying particular people, or classes of people, as deliberate bad actors just isn’t done. For one thing, that implies that it isn’t universal, and that everyone wouldn’t do it if they owned the game – that perhaps someone might blame that person for rigging it. That there might be some overarching concept of fairness. In addition, this unsupported assertion allows the speaker to feel smugly cynical, always a very popular pose amongst adolescents desperate to avoid being seen as naïve.

Don’t let that stop you – implying that you were going to do it, you wanted to do it, but your decision might save for this advice have been influenced by small considerations like the situation being rigged against you. This isn’t anything near a million miles from a condescendingly emotive taunt like “Don’t be a coward”, and it’s not-so-subtly positioning the speaker as someone much older, wiser, and more daring than you.

; – notice the intimidating semicolon. Everyone knows that sentences with semicolons in them are much more learned and authoritative than those with dashes or ballistic commas.

if you don’t bet you can’t – phrasing this in the negative (rather than “if you bet, you could”) acts as a challenge. For the kind of people motivated by challenges, by the perceived need to prove themselves to a challenger, it’s more encouraging than actual encouragement or the provision of options. Also, notice that the focus is on the act of betting itself, rather than on the decision of whether to bet on a particular issue, or what to bet. Courage, rather than consideration of the situation, is important, it seems.

win – because you winning is all that matters.

October 5, 2012

What I see when I look at fantasy book covers

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:26 pm

It’s not all fantasy that’s like this (thank goodness) but you can see the basic tropes making this unmistakably Extruded Fantasy Product.

  • Importantly, there is no frame: the full-bleed background extends to the edges of the cover. It must be as photorealistic as possible, and preferably show either a wild romantic landscape or a dark gritty urban scene.
  • The cover text is very much not part of the image, but splashed on top. Text is metadata, the image is in the world, and the two must never ever interact (beyond decorative overlapping) or the author’s legion of dedicated fanboys will get very nervous and shouty.
  • The title font is unnecessarily ornate & curly, with the metallic foiling that tells the discerning fanboy “this is really High Class fantasy”.
  • This is a really High Class author, so he gets metallic foiling too, and an enthusiastic blurb from a completely & very distinctly different author in the same genre.
  • Extruded Fantasy Product often contains a lot of compound nouns in the title, usually made up of at least two of the following components: sword, horse, crown, shadow, throne, star, demon, dragon, blade, thorn, bone, wind, skull, moon. Otherwise, it is mandatory to use an invented place name or culture name in the title, viz. “Throne-Moon of Corokhai”, or “Revenge of the Aaladrii”.
  • Magic sword. You can tell it’s magic because it has that purple swirly halo effect. Magic is purple. And swirly. In some cases, you have the sword without the magic swirly bit, or vice versa. This may or may not be the sword referred to in the title; it may be the crowndragon, whatever a crowndragon is.
  • The all-important Hooded Man. If it doesn’t have a bloke with a big weapon front & centre, it just ain’t got that fanboy appeal. His features are in shadow, to avoid spoiling the “it might be YOU” feeling. Also important: stubble (not shown) for that handsome gritty look. He should be muscular & Hollywood Grimy for the full effect, in a very homoerotic manner. NB: The man is depicted in a dark, moody, gritty colour palette. This does not mean he is not white. Sometimes, the figure may be female; if so, she will be depicted in a very sexualised manner, and almost certainly in an anatomically unlikely pose. She will often be wearing a corset, possibly designed to look like armour; she may or may not have a face. Her hair, in any event, will be long and will not be tied back.

December 27, 2011

Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 5:04 pm

This is only going to be a very short one, because I’m too annoyed to do more.

It’s good, but don’t buy it unless you have a high tolerance for unfinished stories, because (without any indication whatsoever on the cover, blurb, or title page) it’s the first book of a series. It’s not even self-contained; the story set up in the early pages mutates to a larger one, and the only resolution we get is to a story arc introduced over halfway through. By two-thirds of the way through, I could tell it wasn’t going to finish, and the last three words of the book are “to be continued”.

This kind of behaviour by a publisher is Distinctly Unimpressive.

December 15, 2011

Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:35 am

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s a fairies-in-America book, the first of the October Daye (Fairy PI) series. It involves the usual pointless feudalism and Native American erasure—the only non-Celtic creatures in the list at the front are djinn, lamia, and peri—but the racial politics are rather more crosslinked and nuanced than in most such.

The list at the front, unfortunately, set my expectations very low for the rest of the book; it’s a pronunciation guide, and it’s wrong. “Coblynau” (Welsh for “Goblins”) is plural, not singular, and it’s “cob-luh’nigh” not “cob-lee-now”; similarly, “Tylwyth Teg” (literally, “fair folk”) is “tuhl’with tair’g” (more or less) not “tillwith teeg”. As for “Tuatha de Danann”, that would have been even easier to research than the modern Welsh names are. As is traditional, they’re all presented as different species or clans, with distinct phenotypes; unusually, none of the traditional names are cultural analogues of one another.

Happily, I can report that the book improved. It’s a good, uncomplicated read, and the worse characteristics of fairies (imperiousness, secrecy, and drama queening, for instance) are presented as annoyances rather than good things. Toby herself is competent and proactive (rather too much so for her own good, at times) and McGuire’s both good at introducing interesting supporting characters and unafraid to kill them off when we’re getting fond of them.

August 6, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – a decision

Filed under: meta,rereading — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:06 am

Life has caught up with me, and I’m not going to be able to finish the project. I was initially leaving it for a few weeks, to make sure there was a decent gap between the “official” Fae Awareness Month posts and the continuation, but then of course that stretched, and since I’ve also been spending my time looking after a partner who’s been going through an ME flare-up I’ve had no energy left to write with. I decided that if I hadn’t managed to start again on the project by the beginning of August, then realistically I wouldn’t manage it at all.

I hope I’ll get back to it eventually, because it’s a book I utterly love, but it’s not like it’s going anywhere.

If you’ve been waiting for more, then please accept my apologies, and if you can keep reading without me then please let me know how you get on!

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.

December 11, 2010

Edmund Glasby – Disciple of a Dark God

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:55 am

I have a review of this up at Beyond Fiction. Some choice quotations from it:

[V]ery definitely the kind of swords & sorcery that everybody used to write… Our protagonist, Everus Dragonbanner… could easily be a novelization of someone’s old school D&D campaign… the most toxically misogynist book I’ve read in a very long time… faintly purple… outbreaks of passive voice…

November 30, 2010

Jekkara Press

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Sam @ 2:21 am

I recently got hold of an Android phone, so of course I’ve been looking through the free SF&F ebooks available. There are some really good ones available, and if I scrape up the time I’ll post some recs, but I also found something very odd which I need to post about.

To wit: Jekkara Press, and their gender-switched reissues of classic SF, fantasy, and adventure books. (All out of copyright; they seem to be using texts available through Project Gutenberg.)

In The Three Musketeers For All, by Alexandra Dumas, d’Artagnyn, Athys, Porthys, and Aramys battle the minions of the Duchess de Richelieu and serve Queen Louise XIII. Cathan L. Moore writes about Norawest Smith, and Joanna Harker is the guest of Countess Dracula in Brandy Stoker’s Dracula Refanged.

I’d normally approve wholeheartedly of what they’re doing, but there are a few problems with it. First, they’re straightforward search & replace jobs, and sloppy ones at that—M. d’Artagnan becomes M. d’Artagnyn, rather than Mlle d’Artagnyn. Some compounded terms (godfather, churchman) are left alone, but on one occasion a “nice” gadget becomes a “nephew” one. In one particularly humourous example, the Countess Dracula is described thus:

Within, stood a tall old woman, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about her anywhere.

Second, at least one of their books is by a living author—Harry Harrison—and though it’s entirely legal as far as I can tell, it seems a bit much.

Thirdly, many of the cover images are inappropriately pornographic. Not only is this annoying and offensive in itself, but rather ruins the general subversiveness.

It was a nice idea, but the publisher could have done so much better a job.

November 27, 2010

Walter Rhein – The Bone Sword

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 6:12 pm

I’ve reviewed this one over at The Future Fire.

It’s epic fantasy from new imprint Rhemalda Publishing, and quite frankly it’s dreadful; the only thing worse than the writing style is the cover art. I have accordingly reviewed it at length.

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