Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

March 19, 2011

Collage Criticism

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 3:57 pm

Lud-in-the-Mist Collage This is made from selected parts of an e-text of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, which I typeset, printed out, and ripped up. (No actual books were harmed in the creation of this artwork.)

I’ve done a few of these; the first was H. Beam Piper’s classic short story Omnilingual, and I’m currently working on a large one made from a play script of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Don’t worry—that one had a long and happy life, and died a natural death before I saved it from the recycling and turned it into art.) There’s an interesting transgressive feeling to using printed matter like this, even when it’s printed matter I caused to exist purely for the purpose; I don’t think I could bring myself to rip up a physical book that was still in a readable state. Play scripts are a different matter, because an upbringing in the theatre means I regard them as essentially ephemeral: there to be scribbled on, ripped up for prompt books, broken, repaired, and tossed away.

The other Issue I have around this is down to which texts are legitimate targets. Instinct, of course, tells me that they all are; if it’s a text then it’s there to be analysed, reinterpreted, made to jump through hoops. Cutting it up and sticking it back together in a different order—in an entirely different way, in fact—is basically the same thing as literary criticism, albeit interestingly disciplined by the inability to add any new text.

On the other hand, doing this to the work of living authors (and especially living authors I know) is socially and morally fraught. I can’t think of any legal justification for forbidding it, but that doesn’t mean a great deal when it comes to intellectual property versus artistic reimagining and community investment; just look at the perennial debates over fanfic.

It isn’t just the authors, of course. The idea of reifying e-books by printing them out, and doing things to them which can be done to a physical book—treating the digital text as though it were always intended to be paper and ink—is an interesting artistic one in itself, especially when it involves re-typesetting them. But any alteration in the formatting or typesetting of a digital text means changing the work of editors & designers, and while designing for the screen (even when screens are as diverse as those of modern computers & e-book readers) is a very different discipline to designing for print, I still respect the original designers enough not to second-guess their work.

What are your feelings on this? How would it make you feel if I did this to some of your work, and would it make a difference to you if I started with an electronic version or a physical book?

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.

November 13, 2010

Gwyneth Lewis – The Meat Tree

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Sam @ 4:44 pm

Seren Books, 2010—part of the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series. Paperback, 256 pp., £7.99.

The Mabinogion is the mediaeval Welsh myth cycle; it comprises the Four Branches themselves; the four native tales; and three romances. There are several English translations available online, linked from the Wikipedia page above, and they’re well worth reading. You don’t need any familiarity with the original to read this, and I’d be really interested in hearing from someone who came to the story fresh with this version. For me, it’s in my blood & bone; I read it in English and in Welsh before I was fifteen, living in the same green valleys where it’s set, so when I was reading this I had the ghosts of a half-dozen different versions reading over my shoulder.

The Meat Tree is a version of the Fourth Branch, called in most translations “Math son of Mathonwy”; here it’s “Blodeuwedd” after the woman made from flowers to be Lleu’s bride, and Lewis’s narrative moves away from the traditional masculine-centred tale of magic and war towards a story centred on relationships—sexual & familial, through love, hatred, resentment, and obligation—and on what it means to be a flower and what it means to be meat. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy’s journey to Annwn, and the War of the Pigs, is passed over in a paragraph, but we hear a lot from Blodeuwedd herself and from Aranrhod. None of the women are given much page time in the original, and are mostly positioned as villains, victims, or (usually) both, so this is a good change.

Trigger warning: the myth deals with rape and incest, and this version doesn’t sugar-coat it.

The framing story is explicitly science-fictional, with two people going to board an unknown derelict near Mars. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks, a fussy old man nearing retirement who sublimates himself in his work; Nona is an up-and-coming young student, sent out for some practical experience. The wreck looks like an old-time Earth ship, but it’s come from entirely the wrong direction; that’s the first mystery we see, and the story keeps circling back to it.

Inside, there are no bodies, and nothing in the logs to indicate what happened. There’s a clunky old VR immersion unit, though, and our protagonists decide to experience it in order to reconstruct what was important, what the crew valued, what might have happened.

The whole book is told through the crew logs; we open with the Inspector of Wrecks, in his distinctive (and very Welsh) narrative voice.

Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.

We alternate between his narrative, Nona’s, and the shared channel they use when exploring the wreck and in the VR environment. The VR sessions themselves are done at a remove, because all we have is the log, with the two of them discussing what’s happening and trying to analyse both the story and the game system—the story behind the story.

Lewis is an extremely accomplished poet (Torchwood viewers will know her work through the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre, Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen) and she uses the myth to examine ideas about storytelling, imagination, and the writer’s process. More than that, though, the story is about itself, about this Welsh national myth, with its tricks and transformations and the struggle to claim independent selfhood. It has a great deal more in it, but in the end, it’s mythlore; it has a whole peoples’ world in it, and there are a great many perspectives on it.

Science-fictionally, it works well; the framing plot is an interesting twist on the old “something comes from outer space, and it’s not what it seems” plot so popular in Golden Age SF, and both the story-within-a-story and the game-that’s-more-than-a-game have been used to good effect recently as well. (I’m thinking of The Habitation of the Blessed, and Stross’s Halting State, respectively—though that’s the only similarity with the latter.)

The only issue I have with Lewis’s SF writing is that her explanations of her future technology are occasionally a little clunky.

Inspector of Wrecks: No, it can’t be. I’ve heard old-timers talking about something like this, but I’ve never seen one. I think it’s something called an audio-cassette player. There’s even a tape in it. Early personal entertainment system.
Apprentice: You’re kidding, when technology was still outside the body? That’s hilarious.
Inspector of Wrecks: See those couches? I bet they’re old VR systems.
Apprentice: VR?
Inspector of Wrecks: Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

The formatting is from the book there, incidentally—the whole thing is written in the style of a play script, and I’d love to hear a radio play á la Under Milk Wood. Her characterization is amazingly expressive; the Inspector of Wrecks came fully formed from his first words. Nona was less real for me, but I think that’s at least as much because I have more trouble empathizing with her.

Overall, I recommend this highly; it’s very accessible poetic criticism, it’s a new (and woman-centred) take on the mediaeval myth, and it’s good SF.

October 21, 2010

Catherynne Valente – The Habitation of the Blessed

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 12:16 pm

This isn’t officially released till the 1st of November, but it’s available early for the Kindle and through Webscriptions, where you can read sample chapters.

To summarize the plot briefly, a monk reads three books. He is Hiob von Luzern and he has travelled Eastwards in search of the legendary kingdom of Prester John, who in 1165 sent a long letter to western Christendom detailing the marvellousness of his person and the realms under his rule.

Hiob picked the books himself from the tree where they grow, and is racing to copy them before—like all fruit—they spoil and succumb to mould. The first is The Word in the Quince: “an Account of My Coming to the Brink of the World, and What I Found There, As told by John of Constantinople, Committed to Eternity by his Wife, Hagia, who was afterwards called Theotokos”.

It is, as you would expect, a story of strangeness and newness, of a man missing his first home and his love, clinging to his own notions of rightness and truth in the face of an entire nation who do not know Jesus and who think the concept is Extremely Silly. It’s also a story of a man finding his truth and falling in love. John is an extraordinarily self-centred man and this never changes, but his wife & amanuensis Hagia of the Blemmyae[1] is always present in the text she records.

The second, The Book of the Fountain (“an Account of Her Life Composed by Hagia of the Blemmyae Without Other Assistance”) is her own story, and there we see much more of Pentexore—of the wonderful soil wherein anything, or anyone, which is planted will grow into a tree after its kind; of the multiplicity of races; of the Fountain which confers eternal life; and of the Abir. Every three hundred years, the whole civic and social life of Pentexore is whirled about and shaken and stirred, because immortals inevitably get bored, and a historian might become a playwright, or a amyctrya who brewed poisons and perfumes in his huge jaw like a barrel become a maker of ink instead.

Stories are a heady and an addictive thing in this world (where aren’t they?), and there’s a constant tension running through the novel between faithful, accurate transmission and the golden glow of propriety bestowed by editorial redaction. Brother Hiob voices it, but others live it.

The third book, The Scarlet Nursery, has the subtitle “Told by Imtithal the Panoti[2] to the Three Children of Queen Abir, Who Were Lamis the Reticent, Ikram the Intractable, and Houd, Whom You Might As Well Indulge”. It’s Imtithal’s story of herself and her own life, as she watches the three cametenna[3] children grow up, and of the stories she tells them.

I came to this knowing very little of the source material, or at least never having read the primary sources—this will almost certainly change, quite soon. So I shall say only that the first of the three books reminds me rather of Philip Jose Farmer’s adventure stories, and the third of all those charming Edwardian books for older children (Travers, perhaps?), told in a precise, slightly arch manner like a panoti pirouetting over deep snow. The second is not something that wishes to be categorized by similarity, because Hagia’s voice is insistently unique. She’s a skilled scribe finally telling her own story, a forthright woman with a lot of life behind her and a lot more to come. It isn’t a retelling and revisioning of John’s story, but rather it bookends it, showing what Pentexore was like before he arrived, and how he ruled. It makes me wonder a little how a retelling of Where the Wild Things Are from Moishe’s perspective might look, or The Phantom Tollbooth from the Humbug’s.

The stories are interspersed rather than sequential, and thoroughly fractal; each book contains other books, and tellers of stories, and listeners to stories, and allusions to stories that are not told or not heard.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, but is very much a complete tale on its own; I confidently expect the others to be very similar things, rather than “the middle” and “the end”.


[1] A blemmy has no head, but instead has her face set into her chest, with eyes where those persons possessed of heads keep their nipples, and a mouth at the navel.
[2] A panoti is a small pale person with immense ears, which they can wrap around themselves or a friend like a bat. They do not eat, but live off pleasant sounds.
[3] Cametenna have pumpkin-coloured eyes and extraordinarily large hands.

September 8, 2010

Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:36 pm

By Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier. This is a blog novel, available here under a Creative Commons license.

It’s a dense, flavoursome book, making use of the blog medium—it’s basically in the form of a journal, with text formatting (including blacked-out text and nonlinear idea-clouds) and occasional embedded audio files without transcripts. I suspect it would make a screen-reader go screwy from time to time, but then a lot of SF does that in any case, with the density of odd words & names.

There are quite a lot of those here, since it’s thoroughly immersive, and the worldbuilding is decidedly non-Western. The viewpoint character, Salus Kobsarka-Nitannyi Niksubvya is a dark-skinned lesbian minority-immigrant, just beginning work with one of her political heroes.

You must forgive me when I make embellishments because I do not really remember the cirrus clouds in the sky or my thoughts as I dressed this morning, only the blue sky and the sun-shaped links I clasped around my dreadlocks. When I pose in front of the mirror every morning, I pull the transparent gyena up over my hair. To me, the gyena always suggests more … tantalizing … like the opening of a seductive dance in a film. A confession? While Kelis and I were engaged, I often lamented that she would stop wearing it after the wedding. I think that the bronze hair ornaments look beautiful beneath it no matter what any hotàkhi Shiji woman says.

It’s about a world shaped by colonization, oppression, and the struggle against them, but it isn’t about the oppressors at all; the plot circles around some of the consequences of this, the inevitable factionalism and complexity that you always get with real people and real situations. Mostly, however, it’s about relationships—romantic, sexual, professional, family, friendship—and the tensions between those and with principles or ambition. Between felt affinities and known affinities, perhaps; the truths of the heart and the truths of the mind, which can only be reconciled when one achieves akačehennyi.

There’s a glossary at the back of the book (well, insofar as blog novels have a back) which explains all the unusual words; if you’re the sort of person who likes those, it’s comprehensive and useful. Personally, I prefer to avoid them until afterwards, and enjoy figuring the words out from context. Nitannyi is a semi-stranger in the culture of the novel (a half-blood immigrant, brought up in the canyon dark) and I find the mixture of things she explains to us and things that are normal to her extremely good mind exercise. She’s also keeping this journal partly to improve her Tveshi, and Bohémier evokes that sense wonderfully in the language.

This book reminds me of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, but it’s very much a story told from the inside rather than from the outside. Definitely recommended, and to reiterate: it’s free online, so you have no reason not to give it a try.

July 11, 2010

Catherynne M Valente – Palimpsest

Filed under: review,Uncategorizable — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 3:41 pm

What should I write about this book—this book that is a city, this city that is a book, this book that is many books and none of them complete?

Cities are built upon cities and the graves of cities; books are nurtured on the warm, rich humus of libraries, the rotted and matured drifts of pages. A word, a phrase here and there, escapes the embrace of time and settles instead into a new book, bedding down in a second home.

People, too, are built on the ruin and the glory of past selves. The things we do, the books we read, the lovers we take all leave their marks on us, and we mark our cities, our books, our lovers in turn.

We must ask ourselves, then: upon what is Palimpsest written? What was reused, what was erased, what was allowed to remain, that this book could come to me like bread still warm from the oven?

It rests upon three pillars. The first, a thing of steel and mother of pearl, is the portal quest; four very different people find a new world, and there is a destiny only they can fulfill. The second is strange and fantastical, but nobody else gives it more than a passing glance; after all, they see it every day. The world is revealed slowly, in sidelong allusions and small pieces to be jigsawed together—or tossed down and left to make what pattern they will. The last has the dream-logic and strange gravities of a new relationship, of an unexpected seduction, of the discipline you never knew would be your life.

It subverts the portal-quest, in that there is no wizard, no eternally trustworthy guide—and in that the transitions between worlds are quietly backgrounded. An immersive fantasy is normally one in which the reader is the only stranger, and little care is given to make her feel at home; this is very much not the case in Palimpsest. The only intrusion is that of our protagonists, and in the end, that is accepted rather than resolved. And, whilst in the liminal fantasy, the fantastic approaches and retreats (or, conversely, is approached and retreated from) here the fantastic and the reader take their places in a winding, looping dance of approach & retreat, teasingly, seductively. But we all know how those dances end, and so it is with this.

Despite the size and complexity of the city of Palimpsest—which is, after all, almost de rigueur for city fantasy—it feels very circumscribed, very personalized. And the story tells you, its own self, that this is for you: that no other reader has been given the same book.

So, then, let us close the book, and leave the city to live happily ever after. When we return to it, it will be made new.

May 3, 2010

Adam Roberts – On

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 12:11 pm

I liked this, but with reservations. It’s a worldbuilding-mystery novel, with the Big Looming Mystery being the big looming worldwall on which everyone lives, and I’m usually keen on those if done right.

This one basically is, but the explanation of the Mystery comes from a pop-up character (even referred to in the text as a Wizard) who performs that particular kind of infodump where the reader understands it completely but the character to whom it’s addressed doesn’t. Obviously, it’s a perfectly valid authorial decision, and it underlines the themes of precariousness and insignificance that run through the entire book (Tighe, the viewpoint character, has his life turned casually upside down several times over), but it grates on my reading protocol. I have a feeling that that’s because it’s unambiguous—once you get given an explanation like that, the Wizard Has Spoken, and the intriguing mystery gets collapsed into something definite enough to have come from a RPG sourcebook, without the inherent crevices and ambiguities of real historical explanations.

This is one of the same reasons I don’t get on with far-postapocalyptic or magical-future fiction, viz. Robert Jordan’s occasional hints of our own history. I would bring in the Shannara books here too, but it’s been fifteen years since I read any of them, I think, and I don’t miss them.

May 1, 2010

Holiday reading

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:18 pm

I’ve just come back from two weeks in the Scottish Highlands, so here’s a brief roundup of what I was reading while I was there. (Some of it, anyway—the ones that interested me enough to post about.)

Fire in the Mist, by Holly Lisle

Not bad at all. Notable for the use of conflicting histories, and that not all friendly cute things are Nice. It uses the bog-standard male-female dichotomy (want to split a society into two competing groups? Make one exclusively male or male-dominated, and one female) but that’s a matter of taste as much as anything. Most SF readers are quite a lot more strongly gendered than I am. One solecism leapt out at me, though. Finding a cute dialect/fantasy name for everyday things is all very well, but meals? “Nonce” is obviously based on “nones”, but has a completely different time-based meaning. On the other hand, calling the midday meal “midden” is… rather inappropriate.

War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

This is a wonderful book. It’s a pseudo-history, it’s full of footnotes, and my copy has a really, really beautiful cover, with a painting by Paul Klee. The footnotes are full of newspaper clippings in more than one language (with a detailed history of the collection and explanations of why it’s incomplete), reports of scientific conferences, and extracts from memoirs. Overall, it gives a wonderful picture of a drastically changing world, and of the humanity who ruined it for themselves.

The Dramaturges of Yan, by John Brunner

This is quite a silly book. Nevertheless, it’s great fun.

City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer

There is very little I can sensibly say about this book, not because it is not a book about which sensible things can be said (they can, in profusion) but because the ideas, the eidolons, contained within its pages wreak their effect insensibly, with bare reference to the reader’s normal notions of narrative and literary propriety. It spatters the mind like raindrops, here and there in no apparent order, but nevertheless everywhere.

Ten Little Wizards, by Michael Kurland

A successor novel to Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy books. Not bad at all.

February 17, 2010

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

Between 1986 and 1992, New Zealand-based author Hugh Cook wrote a ten-volume series of inventive, grim, exuberant, disconcerting, nonplussing, and downright bloody weird fantasy novels. They weren’t nearly as popular as they should have been – I suspect he was mostly just ahead of his time, given the popularity of work in a similar style now. China Miéville has described them as “intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde”.

I first read them in my early teens, and I adored them – I think that was one of the things that originally set my standards for fantasy, and I’ve been seeking out More Like This ever since. Luckily, there’s a lot of it around now.

The setting for the world of Olo Malan – whose name, I think, we don’t find out till Book 6 or so – is extremely post-apocalyptic, twenty thousand years after its connection to the intercosmic civilization of the Nexus crashed and broke. There are barbarous tribes, strange races, empires, priesthoods, magic, technological survivals that look like magic, and technological survivals that aren’t magic at all; the malign torturing monster lurking Downstairs below the island of Untunchilamon is an AI employed by the Golden Gulag as a therapist, and The Combat College in Dalar ken Halvar still trains Startroopers for the Nexus, teaching them to pilot spacefighters in the virtual reality tanks, despite not of course having had any actual spacefighters for millennia.

At the beginning of the series, however – with The Wizards and the Warriors – it looks as though the apocalypse was a standard magical one, with plentiful leftover magical weapons and mysterious devices. The books stand alone, but often cover the same events from the viewpoint of a minor character in previous ones – Togura Poulaan, the hero of Book 2, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, gets caught up in Elkor Alish’s army, which we saw in detail in Book 1; two minor supporting characters, the pirates Drake and Bluewater Draven, appear in Book 4, The Walrus and the Warwolf (Drake, in fact, is the protagonist); and Yen Olass Ampadara, whom Draven describes as “the reason men should always be in charge of women”, is the centre of Book 3, The Women and the Warlords.

I never really rated Book 3 when I was a teenager, but re-reading them recently it’s now one of my favourites. Yen Olass is a female slave in a deeply sexist society, an Oracle whose function is to mediate quarrels between men. The book shows her in an uncomfortable position – in a strange legalistic limbo with influence but no power, and power but no influence (it makes sense in context, honest – as much as anything in these books does), with the Collosnon army but not part of it, caught up in politics and quarrelling, trying to make her own way in the world and never getting to do it for long. At one stage, she does establish a small self-sufficient lesbian utopia in the woods; but the politics of men intrude, and one of the heroes of the first book casually takes away her lover and then kidnaps her and her child for politics yet again.

The Walrus and the Warwolf is more or less the opposite of The Wordsmiths and the Warguild: a long hard journey, indeed, and a quest of sorts, but with an utterly selfish, irresponsible, fantasist as a hero – Dreldragon Drakedon Douay, known as the Demon-son, pirate, rightful king of Stokos, priest of the Flame, slayer of a Neversh and a watermelon stand. It’s wonderful, and self-consciously storied – all of these books do interesting things with narrative and legend, but this one is where Cook starts actively playing silly buggers.

Book 5, The Wicked and the Witless, expands on some of the political developments over the last book, as Sean Kelebes Sarazin, one of Drake’s antagonists (though, to be fair, practically everyone he meets is his antagonist, and for very good reasons) schemes and plots to take over the Harvest Plains. It’s good, but I can’t find much to say about it in comparison to the others.

Book 6, on the other hand – The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers – is definitely my favourite of the lot. It’s much more restricted in scope than the others, set entirely in the city of Injiltaprajura on the island of Untunchilamon, and it marks the point both where Cook starts going for really outlandish imagery (a millennia-old Hermit Crab with gourmet tastes and the powers of sorcery; irresponsible children’s toys from the Golden Gulag, reconditioned from military-grade autonomous robots; fountains of thixotropic industrial lubricant pouring into the sea; the Cult of the Holy Cockroach) and when the narrative tricks really get going. We have not only the unreliable narrator’s manuscript, complete with derisive references to the Redactors of Odrum, but a half-dozen layers of editorial interjections, elisions, amendments, and reproofs to less senior Redactors. The Originator, at that, is explicitly insane – an inmate in the Dromdanjerie, the asylum of Injiltaprajura – but the Foreword, in which yet another (nameless) writer debunks the Redactors, makes no mention of that.

As it endured redaction in the dungeons of Odrum, the Text which follows became encumbered by a full two million words of explication and interpolation. In the interests of convenience, readability and sanity, most of this overgrowth has been cut away.

A previous draft of the manuscript of The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers actually exists as a major plot point in the next book, The Wazir and the Witch – which is narrated by the same historian as the first, but has clearly not fallen into the hands of the Redactors of Odrum. These two books, together, show off one of the other good features of the series – diversity of races, from the grey-skinned Janjuladoola and the redskins of the Ebrell Islands with their flaming hair to the purple-skinned Frangoni warriors of Dalar ken Halvar. This shows up very strongly in the contrast between these two and Book 9, The Worshippers and the Way – Asodo Hatch, of the Frangoni, and a Startrooper of the Nexus, strongly resents the popular depictions of the Wild Tribes in Nexus popular culture as purple-skinned barbarians, given that the proud warrior culture are already looked down upon by the dominant Ebrell Islanders. On Untunchilamon, on the other hand, “Ebbies” are the lowest of the low – considered feckless, irresponsible lowlives. There are some explicitly white-skinned peoples, but generally when others refer to them it’s with some reference to “the disgusting pallor of the natives of Wen Endex” or some such.

Book 8, The Werewolf and the Wormlord, is set in Wen Endex, where the Yudonic Knights only come out at night; it gives us a picture of a complex society built on violence, financial manoeuverings, scheming, and the strategic use of monsters. It’s my least favourite of the books, and I think the weakest. Book 10, on the other hand – The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster – is rather strong, and we finally get to see the story of Guest Gulkan, Emperor-in-Exile, who has been wandering through others’ stories throughout the series in a rather Moorcockian way. Instead of the brooding questing hero we see from Togura’s perspective in Book 2, or the Conanesque thief-hero in Books 6 & 7, we see a spoilt princeling who grows to become a selfish prince, a foolish (and brief) Emperor, a brave and loving son, a cunning guerilla general who uses the magic of wizards to his advantage, and a hater of the irregular verbs with a passion beyond all telling – and the process happens insensibly, as the narrator never tires of telling us after the fact.

Sadly, they’re almost all out of print; The Walrus and the Warwolf is being reprinted by Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories, with an introduction by China Miéville, at the end of March 2010, and the Book Depository claim it’s still available in hardcover from Colin Smythe Ltd. Cook made books 2, 9, and 10 available on his website, where they’re free to download in HTML format (and very sensibly formatted for reading on my phone – I’ve been using those for travel books for the last few weeks, since I don’t have physical copies of 9 or 10), and the Book depository claims they’re also available via Lulu, but Lulu doesn’t. Basically – if you can find a set, you should, but good luck!

November 5, 2009

Ursula LeGuin – Lavinia

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:02 pm

Like Ithaka, this is another retelling (or reclaiming) of Classical mythology. This time, it’s the Aeneid, and Aeneas is about to land on the shore of Latium. Our viewpoint character is Lavinia, king’s daughter and faceless cipher in Vergil’s poem – but, since this is LeGuin, it gets Complex. The Lavinia who speaks to us is not a historical character precisely, not a real person[1] in the secondary creation, but the character in the poem, rounded out and given life in the Miltonian sense[2].

She has a series of conversations with Vergil as he lies dying, and he’s enjoying getting to know her properly – rather than the one-dimensional character with no lines that he wrote. “I thought you were a blonde.” On the other hand, there’s no recrimination or contempt for his (lack of) characterization, and it’s obvious that the poet’s insufficiency (unfinishedness – there’s quite a debate about that) hasn’t detracted from the secondary world. LeGuin obviously loves the text, even without the afterword explaining so, and she describes the countryside of mythic Latium very evocatively.

I say mythic, because LeGuin’s always very conscious of the Aeneid’s roots in Octavian’s time – the afterword discusses why she had the characters drinking wine and eating olives despite the agricultural anachronisms involved. This is very much a novel which looks forward rather than backward – that’s absolutely characteristic for LeGuin, but rare in fiction set in Classical times.


[1] Insofar as “real person” has any meaning in fiction, but you get what I mean.
[2] For books are not dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them equal to that soul whose progeny they are.

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