Monthly Archives: August 2011

Random Musings on the State of Fantasy

My critical juices have been flowing recently (thanks in large part to Black Gate Magazine and The Night Bazaar websites). So, I’m going to unleash a few hundred words of my musings about what I believe when it comes to fantasy as a genre.

I believe in experimentation. Why limit oneself to the old standby, the stereotype Fantastika Medieval shell world that has been the typical setting since before Tolkien? Okay, it is likely that instead of the Medieval Shell, we’ll be seeing the Classical Greek Shell, the Babylonian Shell, the Caliphate Shell, the Shogunate Shell, ad infinitum with the stench of exploitation added in.

What I mean by Shell, or stereotype, is that the worlds often used by commercial fantasy, the endless rehashes of Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, etc. very often seem to come from past fantasies. Tolkien was a professor, extremely knowledgeable about Medieval Northern European literature. I’ve read some of his academic work, and he is quite brilliant. Tolkien had the background knowledge to create Middle Earth. Now, those who followed him, his clones and their clones, do they have as much knowledge about the equivalent historical period? I would doubt it.

And that’s the point. You see, there needs to be some knowledge, some research involved to make it work. It cannot be just a continued rehashing, a copying, of the same stereotype devoid of what it is. It becomes an empty shell for the same empty kind of story. As Kameron Hurley states in her essay “Garbage In, Garbage Out, and All That:”

“When it comes to creating new people and new worlds, you’re only as good as what you take in. So if all you read are Tolkien knock- offs and endless re-runs of Saved by the Bell, well, it’s highly likely that your fiction is going to sound a lot like a watered- down Tolkien rip-off populated by 20th century teens. Garbage in, garbage out, and all that.” (17 August 2011 Night Bazaar)

I couldn’t agree more with her statement. So much of fantasy seems to be endless repetitions of Tolkien xeroxes or RPG game sessions without any research or knowledge. This brings me to Matthew David Surridge and Sean Stiennon’s posts on Black Gate. They seem to be arguing that the way to go is to focus more heavily on making the medieval world as “realistic” as possible. What they mean by that is, I think, focus in on one frame of time, say the Wars of the Roses, and explore the mindsets, the technologies, the way of life, etc. of the period and go from there. This approach is a must if the work at hand is a work of historical fantasy, but would a work set in a secondary world be too hampered by such a strong binding to Earth’s history?

Yes and no, I think. The key is, I think, to be aware of the history, the psychology, etc. and apply it to a new world. And depending on how the writer wishes to proceed, how closely the work follows Earth history. There are dangers in being both too narrow and too loose.

When I first read Sean’s post, I was troubled, and still am, by the implication that the writer has to follow, be bound, by the period of their inspiration. While some readers welcome this new devotion to verisimilitude, there is undoubtedly a limit on the potentials for expression inherent in this argument.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a fine, if not the finest, example of what is called for, but where would that leave works like Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Howard’s Hyborian Age, and (equally close to my heart) Kishimoto’s Naruto and Mashima’s Fairy Tail? Non of these works are completely bound by specific time periods. But they all work magnificently at combining different temporal, cultural, and civilizational influences into fantastik wholes. Should these works be denigrated in favor of “realist” fantasy?

I argue no, one can have both. But it takes a skilled writer, imaginative mind, and willingness to do the research to make it work, whether it is historical fantasy, secondary historical, or sheer crazy goodness. That is what I believe.

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A Post of Podcasts, Part 2

Like I mentioned in my first “A Post of Podcasts,” my tates are variable and subject to shifting interests and favorites. I’m always revising my lists of favorites as I discover new and interesting things. I don’t have a static, set list. For me, lists are a personal indicator of what I’m liking at any given moment and are subject to change as circumstances progress.

Therefore, I feel that I’m going to have two posts dealing with top x lists: the second podcast list and a top ten authors list. So on with the list.

5. Backstory with the American History Guys (www.backstoryradio.org) has increasingly been a favorite of mine lately. I discovered the radio show about the same time as Hardcore History, but I wasn’t as interested in it as I am now. Featuring experts from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Backstory covers a wide range of historical topics with contemporary significance. Their special series on the Civil War is a must listen.

4. SfSignal Podcast (www.sfsignal.com) is still among my favorites. I try to listen in each week and always enjoy the discussion, even if I disagree with the round table.

3. ANNCast (www.animenewsnetwork.com) is still a favorite listen, but I’m not as passionate as I once was.

2. NotesfromCoodeStreet (www.jonathanstrahan.com) is still my number two. I make it a mission to listen in every week. Always interesting and entertaining.

1. Hardcore History (www.dancarlin.com) has become my favorite podcast. Though individual episodes are months in the waiting, they are always interesting, informative, and passionate. Carlin is truly passionate about whatever subject he has on tap. This is especially true of his amazing “Death Throes of the Republic” series looking at the transition of the Roman Republic to a hereditary military dictatorship.

Anyway, that’s it for this. I’ll have my top ten authors up later tonight. And I’m working on a Naruto post.

Clark Ashton Smith: Thoughts on the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Death

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death Clark Ashton Smith, the unfortunately least well known of the triumvirate that included Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. With this sad anniversary in mind, I have a few thoughts I want to put down.

Clark Ashton Smith is one of my favorite writers, arguably fighting it out with Mieville and Mashima. Though I am but a newbie to the world of Clark Ashton Smith, every time I read a story of his, I am enthralled and enjoy every minute of the reading experience. The language that Smith uses is simply prose poetry- dense, powerful, and amazing. What the New Weird attempts, Smith achieves. It is as simple as that.

While imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, I do not think that having clones or imitators is a good thing for a writer. Take Tolkien’s clones for example. Their artistic flaws reflect negatively on the whole, genre and Tolkien. When many artists blast Tolkien, often they seem, I think, to mistake the problems of the imitator with that of the master.  So, in a way, I am glad that there are no Smith imitators.

I have yet to have the pleasure of reading the complete works of Smith, but that is one thing I hope to accomplish as the year passes by.

That’s it for now. I’ll try to get another post or two up by the weekend.

Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council Parts Nine and Ten: “Sound and Light” and “The Monument”

The reasons why I’m condensing the final two parts of Iron Council are: I want to focus this post on Judah’s relationship to the Iron Council and explore why he does what he does, and to be honest, I’ve rather grown tired of these posts at the moment.

The moment that Judah releases his time golem is the moment that every event in his life depicted in the novel becomes relevant. He learned golemetry from the Siltspear, whose greatest magic is the production of these time golems during the hunt. In a way, I think that Judah is making up for his past failure. He could not save the Siltspear, he did not have the power and knowledge at the time. It only comes later, when he has something he wants to protect.

That something is Iron Council. It is, in part, what he identifies with. As a “leftist,” as a dissident in New Crobuzon, he is automatically sympathetic and willing to aid Iron Council in its initial striving for freedom. Indeed, he is instrumental in defending the perpetual train. He has a stake in it as the great defender. And he has a stake as its prophet in New Crobuzon.

However, I am not so sure that Iron Council is the only reason why Judah returns home. New Crobuzon, despite its horrors, injustices, and monstrosities, has an undeniable stranglehold on her citizens. Why else does New Crobuzon command such loyalty from those who would like to see the government fall? Perhaps it is a dream of creating a new New Crobuzon, one that is going to be like Iron Council writ large for all of Bas-Lag to see. A place of freedom, tolerance, and economic equality.

The dream of Iron Council, the dream of a new New Crobuzon is one fated to disappoint. The Collective has failed in its attempt to create a new New Crobuzon, and Iron Council is late to the battle, to the moment. Iron Council is marching to history, but history has already passed them by. And now, history will forever pass them by. When will the time golem expire? What happens then?

Was Judah right in imprisoning Iron Council in a time golem? Yes in the that he saved them from certain destruction. He knew that Iron Council was doomed. But did he have the right to steal the choice of Iron Council to return home, to fight for a reborn New Crobuzon? That is a harder question. Ann-Hari’s response is a deadly no.

This further raises the question as to whether or not Judah does this for ulterior motives beyond saving the Council. Did he do it for his own benefit (though he knew he was likely to die)? Is he truly even a Councillor?

It is clear that Judah’s intention was for Iron Council to flee elsewhere from New Crobuzon, to be the roving lord train among its environs. That Judah was manipulated by Wrightby through Pennyhaugh is without question. And how much influence did Drogon have on the decision to return to New Crobuzon?

In a way, I suspect that Judah always intended to freeze Iron Council in time if he failed to persuade them to not confront New Crobuzon. Why? Because Iron Council itself, the physical embodiment of the dream, the birth of a third Crobuzon must survive. For Judah, the physical symbol cannot be destroyed because the dream will die. The myth, the dream cannot exist without the physical form, without Iron Council. If Iron Council is destroyed, then so is the dream of liberating New Crobuzon.

And with Iron Council now frozen outside of time (and within the precincts of New Crobuzon), the dream is not dead, it lives on. Even though the Collective has been destroyed and New Crobuzon is undergoing a dizzying level of repression, the dream remains. The physicality of successful resistance is there, a monument. And the survivors of the Collective are grouping, Runagate Rampant is still there, telling the truth of both Iron Council and the Collective.

What Mieville is getting at here, is a symbolism for the endurance of the dream of Marx, of the Commune, of all of the failed movements to supplant industrial capitalism. Though the individual movements falter, the dream itself remains in every protest against economic and political injustice. Iron Council will always be there, no matter what thaumaturgies New Crobuzon throws at it.

As Marxism is at its root an economic theory, indivisible from capitalism, so Iron Council’s fate is tied to that of Wrightby. The whole novel can be seen as a gambit on Wrightby’s part to use Iron Council’s return as a means of finding a way to complete his railroad, his holy dream. Perhaps, he is the one who instigated the Militia sending a force to destroy Iron Council in the hopes that it would return to fight?

It is fitting, then, that Iron Council rests near the TRT station. It is a constant reminder that Capitalism is linked to Marxism, a ying and yang.

And that is why Iron Council must return to New Crobuzon, the two cannot live without the other.

This ends my explorations into the world of Bas-Lag. I will be returning to it, however, as I do intend on doing more in depth looks at certain aspects Bas-Lag. But that may be a while. I’m exhausted.

Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council Part Eight: The Remaking

A rant is coming. “The Remaking” is the conclusion of the subplot of Iron Council. I both love this section as the best written, but I also find it frustrating that there is no Remaking.

What I mean is that New Crobuzon’s Commune (called the Collective) is doomed to failure. Indeed, the Militia has shrunk the areas under Collectivist control down to just three districts (Dog Fenn, Smog Bend, and Heath Barrow). Kinken has been destroyed (by those damn Quillers rather than the Militia), and much of the rest of the city is in pretty bad shape.

And Ori is reflective of that. Ori is the erstwhile protagonist of the even numbered sections, but Ori only appears in the third chapter and has been completely destroyed by the revelations of his being used by Toro and Spiral Jacobs and his knowledge that the Collective is doomed. He is a shell, an observer, he is cut off and adrift.

Perhaps, however, I am wrong that there is no permanent Remaking going on in the city. New Crobuzon will bear the scars of the conflict for years, decades to come. The Khepri have largely been expelled from New Crobuzon (Kinken destroyed, Creekside’s status is unknown, but the Khepri seems to have been hit pretty hard by the Quillers).

But, what I meant by the Remaking not holding, not lasting is that Spiral Jacobs’s attack, the many named city killer ritual, is a dud. Had the heroes not intervened, the city would have been destroyed. New Crobuzon is saved however, and I have a huge problem with how it is saved and that there is no after effects, even as what ever the Urbomach is almost came through.

I like the fact that Spiral Jacobs bested Judah Low. Judah is a great somnaturge, but he is no match for Spiral Jacobs. So, in a way, it is nice seeing Quarbin take out Jacobs. But I also see that as a cop out. Quarbin acts as a quick fix, a means of getting information quickly (though at the price of who Quarbin is). That Quarbin saves New Crobuzon is excellent, how Quarbin saves New Crobuzon is a stinker. He just asks the Hidden Moment for aid and everything is done? Such a disappointment.

That New Crobuzon would be saved is beyond question, though how Spiral Jacobs could be defeated is the source of tension. The thing is that the New Crobuzon-Tesh War is the subplot. The coming of Iron Council to New Crobuzon is the main plot, so it stands to reason that the more tension filled ending comes with Iron Council’s fate.

What bugs me is that there is no residual of the failed attack. New Crobuzon should be marked in some way, the murderspirit was just beginning to appear as Quarbin learns what he needs to do. That frustrates me as a reader.

But the murderspirit is damn cool. The entity of the too many epithets was going to possess the entire city, New Crobuzon become a ravenous monster set on devouring its own people. Brutal.

This raises the question, as I mentioned earlier, of why Tesh is doing this.  Is the difficulty in communication going both ways? What logical sense does it make to destroy New Crobuzon. While it is the enemy now, economically, it can be made a decent trading partner after an agreeable conclusion to the war. And Tesh seems to have been in the stronger position at the time. So why try and destroy it? This almost reverses the assumptions about the Grindylow of the Gengris. Of course, it does give a highly emotional sendoff for Ori and takes a little away from the rebellion in New Crobuzon.

That the Collective is doomed to fail is beyond question. Just like the Parisian Commune in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War failed. It is difficult to overthrow a government, a system of doing things that are beneficial to some. It is clear that the Collectivists did not have the entire city on their side, perhaps they did not even have half of the city. And Parliament, the Militia, is at that moment unwilling to compromise. I wonder, really, if Stem-Fulcher’s assassination did not really strengthen the resolve of the government to fight on.

As I mentioned in my last posts on The Scar, it is interesting to note that there is a movement in the Middle East that is seeing the removal of many of the regions longstanding dictators. The reason the Lovers fell in The Scar is because they relied on the support of those they governed, they ruled through, perhaps, the illusion of consensus. When they lost the support of Armada, they had to give up. And their forces refused to attack the crowd. This is the key.

New Crobuzon’s government has not lost the backing of the Militia and the powerful elite that supports it. That there are a few defectors is unsurprising, but a loosely organized movement is unlikely to win against a better trained, better equipped, and motivated force. The only way New Crobuzon will change is if enough of the elites support change or if the Militia (or enough of it) switches sides to make the difference.

That’s it for now. Next time the fate of the Iron Council in “Sound and Light”  and “The Monument”

Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council Part Seven: “The Stain”

The outskirts of the Cacotopic Stain is the featured setting in this section. Personally, there is a sense of disappointment. Is this all there is to the Stain? Changes to geography, mutations, inchmen, and a car transformed into a giant cell? All of these events, encounters, and mutations are cool, but could there not have been more?

“The Stain” is basically running, trying to escape the murder squad sent after it and trying to reach New Crobuzon in time to aid in the revolution there. And the urgency rises as a new threat unfolds.. .

The attack of the inchmen is, perhaps, my favorite scene in this section. These Torque born monsters do a number on the foraging party. Pomeroy is killed, and Judah experiences moments of weakness. Indeed, Cutter’s point of view is very well done. The fear and terror is palpable.

The reason, of course, why Judah is weakened is because the Militia have begun tripping his golem traps. They won’t stop the Militia, but those creatures should delay them for a while.

As Iron Council rolls towards New Crobuzon, refugees from the city begin appearing. They tell of the Collective and its conflict with the government. Of the freedom spirals that have become symbols of the revolution. However, Quarbin interjects himself.

The spirals are not freedom signs. They are a summoning, a marker for a murderspirit, an entity that will destroy New Crobuzon. And Spiral Jacobs is revealed as the tramp ambassador of Tesh.

This raises an interesting question, though. Why are the Tesh wanting to destroy New Crobuzon? What benefit is it to them? Or is it they are desirous of a quick end to the war (much like New Crobuzon appears to be)? What ever the reason, the stage is set for a confrontation.

Next time, Judah Low vs. Spiral Jacobs in “The Remaking.”

Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council Part Six: The Caucus Race

Set a mournful funeral march, get ready for eulogizing. Ding dong, the witch is dead. So long Eliza Stem-Fulcher.

“The Caucus Race” drives home what I have been saying about Ori for a while. Toro’s Gang targeted the Mayor of New Crobuzon for assassination, or did they? Eliza Stem-Fulcher, last seen in Perdido Street Station as Mayor Rudgutter’s Home Secretary, has become Mayor in her own right (and seems to have been in the position for a number of years- maybe a decade). While Stem-Fulcher does get assassinated at the end of this section, she was not the target.

The truth of Toro’s Gang is revealed, and also Ori’s self delusions of what he is doing. There is a distinction between terrorists and revolutionaries, although a thin one. Terrorists are aiming to cause fear and panic in their opponents and are more apt to commit atrocities when it furthers their cause. Revolutionaries can be just as ruthless, but terror is not their method, rather it is achievable goals. The line is ever so murky, however.

Ori is a revolutionary, he wants to act to bring about a new New Crobuzon. But he is unwilling, squeamish even, when it comes to killing, especially when it comes down to the innocent. The old couple for example. He is okay with their deaths when he thought them Militia, but when he realizes that they are innocents, their only crime being owning the house adjoining Magister Legus’s, he is not okay with it, despite him rationalizing it. This event sours him on Toro and the gang although he still contributes.

But this is only a part of the shattering of Ori’s illusions. He believes that the purpose of the gang is to free New Crobuzon, to make it a better, more just place to live. But the truth is very different. Toro’s true intentions have always been to kill the Magister who ordered her Remaking. Toro, like Stem-Fulcher, is a returning character. Derkhan mentions going to the trial of a woman who accidentally smothered her child. That mother is Toro. And the Magister who so happened to order her Remaking just happens to be Stem-Fulcher’s lover.

This revelation completely breaks Ori’s constructed view of the gang, its purpose, and what he is doing. He is thrown out and becomes more of a detached observer. He is not as present as he was.

In a way, Ori becomes both an observer and protagonist. As a character, he really only comes alive when he is dealing with Spiral Jacobs. There is something about their interactions, the stalking curiosity that breaths life into Ori’s sections. However, Ori is also just an observer when it comes to the new face of New Crobuzon, the Commune- wait, the Collective.

The funny thing is that Ori’s (and Toro’s Gang’s) action do not contribute at all to the “awakening.” The assassination of Stem-Fulcher honestly has nothing to do with the revolution. He keeps talking about “waking the city up” when it is actually him who has been asleep.

Moving back to Spiral Jacobs, the power he exerts on Ori is similar to that of Judah Low on Cutter. Both are older men who have taught the younger man something. Though there is clearly no sexual component to Ori’s fascination with Jacobs, there is clearly a connection-if only from Ori’s side of it.

The relationship is mediated by the memory of Jack Half-a-Prayer. Jacobs new the famous rebel, and Ori is obsessed with that image of popular rebellion. Part of his blindness as to the event unfolding around him stems from not being able to see that an organized rebellion is coming. He can only see armed struggle as originating from rebel gangs- the FReemade and Toro’s Gang.

Just as there is a new New Crobuzon, so there is a new Toro. The death and abdication of Toro, having accomplished her goal, leads to the new Toro. Ori has been given the bull’s head, the symbol of anarchism. What does he do with it?

Finally, say what you will about Mayor Stem-Fulcher, she did go out with a crowning moment of awesome.

Next time, a harrowing jaunt through the Cacotopos in “The Stain.”