Monthly Archives: October 2011

Antiheroic Fantasy and other stuff

This is not the essay that I’m going to write. Instead, I’m going to take my time on it and do some research. I want to have sources and cite them. So, expect it to come around sometime later.

I’m also aiming to do a post on comic books and manga- namely my own thoughts on both. Look for that later own today.

And, I’ll do post on how I’ve done on the Russ Pledge.

All that provided I’m not too sucked into DC Universe Online or busy writing a few short stories.

Later.

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November 1! Awesome

So, DC Universe goes live on November 1. I can barely keep my excitement at bay. For one thing, it’s next week. And another thing, my birthday is the following Saturday. Yes! A lot of interesting information from the webcast. I’ll have to rewatch it on Youtube when it is posted. Stickam is really, really laggy. Yesh. I had already guessed this, but I think the majority of incoming players are likely to be premium ( buying a single new player slot practically gets you into premium and buying DLC is instant premium).

Anyway, so excited! I can’t wait!

I’ll update this post later with more information (maybe).

My Top Five James Bond Novels (by Ian Fleming)

I have a confession to make, I haven’t read The Man with the Golden Gun yet (or Octopussy and the Living Daylights for that matter). Anyway, I’ve read the rest (although it has been some years for most of them).

Now, before I begin my list, there is a major issue to be dealt with. Unlike the films, Fleming’s original books are offensive on many levels. Bond is extremely misogynistic, racist, homophobic, etc. He reflects a conservative (rather a right wing) world view from the time he was created. Bond echoes the opinions and prejudices of his creator. And Fleming was a product of his time. So, reading any one of the original Bond novels will be cringe worthy at points. Even if the stated prejudice is subverted.

This is not to say that Fleming is a bad writer. He has a very taut and sparse style that is also extremely detailed. The world of spies and super spies is compelling and a great read. But one must be aware of and acknowledge the fact that the original James Bond novels are products of their time.

Now on to the list:

5. You Only Live Twice is the final installment of the Blofeld Trilogy. When I first read the Bond series when I was in high school, this novel was my favorite. This novel is notable for its themes of revenge and new beginnings (even if the later does not last).

4. Goldfinger is a really interesting novel, even though I haven’t read it in years. But I remember enjoying it immensely.

3. Diamonds are Forever is a more recent favorite. I enjoy how Bond infiltrates the Spangled Mob and largely makes fools of them. And I like the fact that there are no Soviet agents or super villains running around. Just simple mobsters. And Wint and Kidd are so much better in the book than in the movie.

2. Dr. No is a terrific read. More action packed and adventure driven rather than the more sophisticated Diamonds are Forever. I like the character of Dr. No. His motives and psychology is well done, even if he is a father to countless parodies and pastiches.

1. From Russia, with Love is by far my favorite Bond novel. An extremely sophisticated adventure yarn that pits Bond against SMERSH in a sick game of revenge. I enjoy the attention paid to the crafting of the plot, Rosa Klebb is a great villain, and I like that this is a bit of Fleming’s “The Final Problem.” My only issue is why the hell Klebb is in a position to get herself captured.

There you have it, my favorite Bond novels. Next time, I’ll have more on DC Universe Online going Free to Play, Comic Books vs. Manga, and the Antiheroic Subgenre in Fantasy.

My Top Five Conan Stories by Robert E. Howard

I’m a Conan fan even though I came to Robert E. Howard’s stories of the Cimmerian later than I did his pastiches. I started, like most fans of my generation, on the movies starring Arnold, then I moved on to the comic books, and finally I reached the Tor Conan line from the later eighties and nineties. It’s been a decade plus since I read many of them, but it’s been less than a decade since I read my first Robert E. Howard penned Conan yarn. In that time, I’ve read most of them (mostly last year when I did my Wizards of Conan series). I took the opportunity to re-read some of my favorites by Howard. So here they are:

5. The Scarlet Citadel- The scenes set in Tsotha-lanti’s dungeons are amazing, filled with awesome weirdness. I also really enjoy the play of the two wizard rivals- Tsotha-lanti and Pelias. The implication that there are few “good” wizards is a cool one. And King Conan’s telling off of the two kings is simply amazing.

4. The Tower of the Elephant- This yarn is likely to be my earliest favorite. The story’s most powerful moment is the encounter with Yag Kosha. The humanity of the non- human entity and the inhumanity of the human wizard is simply a great theme.

3. The Queen of the Black Coast- The powerful and tragic love story of Conan and Belit. Simply moving and terrifying.

2. Red Nails- The fall of a society due to the insane jealousies of the three leaders is truly horrifying. The lost city is amazingly well done and provides, I think, a suitable setting for this dark drama.

1. The People of the Black Circle- I love this story largely for the wizards. Khemsa is an amazing character and acts, I think, as a nice foil for Conan. And I really love the Black Seers of Yimsha.

There you have it, my favorite stories of Conan penned by REH. This is a personal list that is not meant to be academic. Indeed, I often wonder if I am an atypical sword and sorcery fan. So often when I read anthologies, blogs, and other sources, the emphasis is on the sword rather than the sorcery. As stated before, I’m all about the sorcery. Give me a good wizard any day.

 

Post script: While I’ve been rereading Howard’s Conan, I’ve also taken the chance to read some of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. I may have a post up soon on my favorite Bond novels (and movies).

DC Universe Online Going Free to Play

Early this year, I wrote a review of DC Universe Online’s Beta release. I really enjoyed the game, despite all of the bugs. Had I been able to, I would have bought the game. But, to be honest, the game as it was is too expensive for most. There is the game itself at over sixty dollars (including sales tax) then fifteen dollars a month in subscription fees. The game was out of my reach.

With the game going free to play, it is certainly in my reach now. And I’m as excited about it now as I was playing the game. Indeed, I look forward to being able to play it again.

Even though I’m psyched about the game, I have to admit that I’ve experienced some annoyance at the lack of information coming out about the game. I understand and agree with SOE’s decision to focus on getting it ready rather than setting a firm release date. That said, I do wish they would be quicker in shooting down false information.

I’m annoyed, but I want them to get it right rather than it being bugged. So, I can wait for it. It’ll just be sweeter when it arrives.

The Low Down on Low Town: A Review of Low Town by Daniel Polansky

A while back I discussed Daniel Polansky’s guest advertisement post on Night Bazaar. Now, I’ve gotten around to actually reading the book he was peddling at the time. Low Town is a good first novel, but I am not totally sold on it.

Let’s be honest, The Straight Razor Cure is a much better title than Low Town (but we’ll stick to the American title). The novel is about the Warden (no other name needed), a disgraced former secret agent turned drug dealer and sorta crime boss. He is unwillingly thrust back into his old life when a series of child murders occur in Low Town.

The plot itself is good if rather unoriginal. A marriage of classic noir with urban fantasy, the noir element is clearly the dominant parent. This poses some problems as the big twist revelation is telegraphed painfully early and made more obvious as the novel goes on. Coupled with the fact that the Warden is a truly terrible detective (saved either by plot armor or plot stupidity I don’t know).  What recommends the plot is, I think, the quick pace that is set. The novel does not rest long for readers to really start questioning elements of it (including the numerous plot holes).

The Warden himself is a mixed bag. A riff on the traditional hard boiled detective, he is at times interesting and at times loathsome. He is also one to try a reader’s patience. Given that this is, keeping in the noir tradition, a first person narrative, the reader is for good and ill stuck with the Warden.

As a note on his character, I don’t get why he had to be a disgraced former “cop.” He would have worked just as well, if not better, had he been a plain drug dealer or midlevel crime boss who is justifiably pissed off that someone is committing child murders in his territory. I could see that, but then the reader would not have the pleasure of reading the Warden have to solve the case on a deadline (or die).

The other characters are okay though not as well written as the Warden, but calk that up to the issues with first person narration. I would also echo some of the criticism leveled at the novel over the issue of gender representation. There are only four female characters worth noting: one only has a chapter, another appears in two, and the other two have more appearances but one is typified as a mother-figure. So only one female character is truly major (and is slightly better characterized).

While I’m on the subject of representation, let’s touch on race and sexuality. There is a fair amount of racism in the book. This does reflect historical feelings of the period, but can be and is offensive. Especially with the clear negative images of Chinese (the Kiren) and the Dutch (the Dren). I personally disliked this aspect of the novel. And then there is the rampant homophobia. Although much of it is spouted by various antagonists, the Warden also takes part in veins similar to Marlowe and Spade (read The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon). While the racism may be historically accurate, the homophobia is less defensible that way (given that I don’t remember seeing any gay characters at all). I did not like this aspect either.

The world building is the strongest part of the book. I personally rather like temporal mashups, and I think Polansky does a fine job. Things are not quite clear at times, but it is understandable. My one issue is that things are a little too obvious in the parallels. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, the Kiren are clearly meant to be Chinese and the Dren are the Dutch (United Provinces, Staadholder, Donknacht). The Thirteen Lands is clearly Victorian Britain with some French added in (the Queen, a dissolute Crown Prince, Aton). While I like the mashup, the fantasy counterparts could be made significantly less obvious.

Finally, I want to touch on the villains. I don’t know who is stupider, the Warden or the opposition. Really, neither one could think their way out of a paper bag. The Warden is a terrible detective saved only by the fact that the hero wins. The villains are just too damn stupid (although the same is true for Gutman and his gang from The Maltese Falcon). Really, how many freaking times did you have the Warden in your grasp? Beyond that, the motive for the crimes are a little iffy.

For people who have read my blog for a while now, you know I’m rather harsh in my reviews, even if I adore a work. Despite many of my issues with Low Town, it is still a rather enjoyable book. I only hope Polansky’s next book is much better.

Thinking About Literature

Over the past week or so, Brian Murphy over at Black Gate’s website has explored rather or not Tolkien’s work can be considered literature. Personally, I consider the whole matter closed. Obviously Tolkien’s work is literature. But, of course the real question is whether or not it is Literature, a member of that not so illustrious shibboleth called the Canon. In that too, I would have to say, for better or worse, that it is a member (maybe of the red headed step child variety). To me, the whole concept of Literature is both silly and outdated.

For me, literature is any form of written communication, from Omeros to the side of the cereal box. If it is words and letters printed on paper, stone, clay, etc., it is literature. The argument, however, lies in differentiating the great works from the rubbish and middling works in literature for entertainment.

So, why is there a distinction? The rise of a print culture, the increase in reading, and the formation of a critical class whose only occupation is to separate literature into categories. As more books are printed, more stories published, and more people read; critics take it upon themselves to educate the public as to what they should read and what they should not (not that readers always follow their advice).

Genre (namely fantasy and science fiction) come into this as being one/two of the genres that are by and large historically unacceptable. Since the beginning of the mass reading culture, the literature that has been most favored critically has been those works depicting the lives of the middle classes, the dominant cultural force in the nineteenth century. What is realism but explorations into the lives of middle class folk (or the wealthy and occasionally the lower classes)? This is the favored form because it so often reflects their values.

While that form of literature has been favored and promoted, often times only the best examples remain. It is more likely that avant garde works (though still within that framework of realism) become those that are remembered. Of course, this describes what one should be reading, not necessarily what people do read.

Since the postmoderns, things have changed. Genre works are becoming more popular with the gate keepers because the scholarly focus is on what most people of the period have read rather than what critics believe they should read. Now, this leads to some wonderful works of literature like Lady Audley’s Secret and some real terrors like The Bondswoman’s Narrative or Margery Kemp. This also leads to a greater appreciation for genre as the inherent bias within the critic, either popular or scholarly, recognizes and struggles to drop it.

All of this, however, does not touch upon quality. What is meant by quality: the skill of the writing, the perfection of imagery? I would say one knows it when one sees it. However, it is also true that no work is ever perfect, not Tolkien, not Howard, not Smith, and not Shakespeare.

Whether or not a work stands the test of time is uncertain. It depends on a number of factors that may or may not depend upon the quality of the work itself. Often times works that we today consider part of the Canon were forgotten in their time (think Moby Dick). Some works in the Canon of previous eras have fallen out or lowered in the standings. Believe it or not, at one point T.S. Eliot was the paramount American poet of the early twentieth century, but William Carlos Williams has effectively usurped his position for several decades now.

All of this is just to show that the whole notion of a Canon of the Great Works of Literature is mutable and subject to the whims of chance, spite, and changing cultural mores. Who gets in and who doesn’t is determined not by the quality but by factors that can be seen as cultural and political. Does Tolkien have a place? Yes, he does. Will he keep it? Who knows. Does Howard have a place? Yes, he does. Will he keep it? Who knows. I can go on and on.

As I postscript, Ursula K. LeGuin has a great post dealing with the Great American Novel over at Book Cafe.