Monthly Archives: December 2011

How Have I Done on the Russ Pledge?

Earlier this year, I took the Russ Pledge. So, how did I do?

I think I’ve done a better job reading more women writers this year as compared to last year. Though I don’t have hard numbers, so I’m going on gut feelings. I do have hard numbers for this year, but not for last year. Given that I’m planning to catalog my readings next year as well, I should have harder data next year.

That said, I can give rough estimates on what I’ve read this year and how women place by genre. The genre where women predominate has been blogs. Most of the blog posts I’ve read this year has been by women. I’ve also increased my reading of manga written by women. I’ve also read more short stories by women. The one area where I feel that I may need more improvement is in novels. Of the novels I’ve read, only a few have been written by women. This will be an area that I’m going to look at in the coming year.  That and read the complete Fullmetal Alchemist.

On to next year.

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Reviews: Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemsit, and Fairy Tail

I’ve decided to do a four in one review post today rather than doing four individual reviews. And I’ve calmed down about Naruto, so there won’t be much of a rant. The four volumes on tap today were all checked out from my local library, so they are all rather late.

Naruto Volume 52:

What can I say about this volume except that it is a disappointment? To be honest, the entire Gokage Summit has been a let down with the only bright spot seeing Sasuke getting his rear handed to him by three of the five kage.

But, this volume is really disappointing. For one thing, I really dislike how Sakura is characterized here. Her weakness and inability to follow through on her decided course of action is just grating. And then seeing her told that her plan was doomed to failure from the beginning is just annoying.

The dynamics of the former Cell Seven just does not work well, I think. One cannot help but wish that someone, anyone, will call Sasuke out on his bullshit. And let’s be honest, Sasuke is full of shit, has been from the beginning. How about before killing (or trying to kill) Sasuke, someone just calls him out on the crap he spews out. He rants and raves to frothing about the superiority of the Uchiha when all he is, really, is a pretentious poser.

Of course, Naruto himself needs to be called out on his own bullshit (then again, the Raikage does a good job of it, not that it helped). The weakest part, for me, of this entire volume is Naruto needing to bring Sasuke back. Even though Kishimoto intends for Naruto’s declaration of friendship and determination to be a moving moment leading to tragedy, the audience should already be well aware that Naruto is doomed to failure. How can you save someone who doesn’t want to be saved?

Perhaps my issues boil down to cultural differences, but when Naruto attempts to be philosophical, I feel that it is at its weakest. I just don’t buy it.

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 26

Whereas Naruto left me frustrated, Fullmetal Alchemist’s penultimate volume is nothing short of awesome. The best way I can describe it is as a roller coaster. Will they stop Father’s plan? What’s the counter attack, the counter counter attack? All of this is just awesome.

The nice thing about this volume is that Arakawa manages to end it on an amazing cliffhanger. How will our heroes survive Father’s last, desperate gambit?

As I read, I couldn’t help but get chills as the events unfolded. From fear and despair to exhilaration and hope and back to fear again, this is truly an epic volume.

Fairy Tail Volumes 15 and 16

Echoing my thoughts about the penultimate volume of Fullmetal Alchemist, the fifteenth and sixteenth volumes of Fairy Tail are equally as awesome. The frenetic pace of the plot, the beautiful artwork, and characterizations are just extremely well done. Mind you, I have said that I am a huge fan of Fairy Tail, so yeah. . .

In a coincidence, an event from volume fifteen mirrors (to a degree) events from Naruto volume 52. Laxus has gone off the deep end in his attempt to take control of Fairy Tail. Now, given how Laxus has treated the other guild members, the lengths he is going to perform his coup, etc., one has to wonder how anyone will accept him as the Guild Master. Like Sasuke, Laxus is full of bullshit. And he is called out on it. Natsu, Gajeel, and even Freed point out to him that he is full of bologna.

That does not stop him from making a fool out of himself, though. But, the conclusion of the Fighting Festival is excellent and filled with hope. Laxus needs to find his own way, and now he can without the shadow of Makarov hanging over him.

Now, the filler between the arcs is a little boring, but the resolution of Lucy’s relationship to her father is well done.

The real meat of volume 16 is, of course, the start of Oracion Seis. Those chapters are just great. I especially liked the ending to the final chapter of the volume. Fairy Tail, to be honest, always leaves me craving more.

I do have some quibbles with the editing of these two volumes. There are a lot of stupid grammatical errors that should have been caught long before getting to a book store. The errors are that obvious. Not only that, but Freed’s name is not even spelled consistently! Is it Freed or Fried?

 

Anyway, that is all I have to say about these four volumes. I desperately want to get my hands on the two Fairy Tail volumes and Fullmetal Alchemist, but I am unsure about Naruto, to be honest.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Here’s hoping all my readers have a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

I’ll be back tomorrow with an a review (likely a rant) of Naruto volume 52.

Later in the week, I hope to get reviews of Fullmetal Alchemist and Fairy Tail.

Finally, I want my last post to be a revisit of my Russ Pledge. How did I do?

Later.

Anton Chigurh

Reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, I’ve been struck by the character of Anton Chigurh. In the novel, he is a cipher, a phantom who stalks the narrative.  He is almost the stuff of horror films, but is still fallible and liable to injury. As I finish the novel, I wonder at his motives. What does he really want?

Clearly, he is a sociopath. He’s all surfaces with no depth. While Ed Tom Bell and Llewellyn Moss have significant amounts of characterization, Chigurh does not, even though a good portion of the text is from his point of view. His inner life,  goals, desires, emotions, or history are never revealed to the reader. He simply is. This is in accordance to the general description of a sociopath. And his disregard for the consequences of his actions (either for others or for himself) is emphasized.

But what I’m really interested in concerning Chigurh is not so much his inner life or his personality, but why is he after the money? Clearly one of the interested parties at the botched drug deal hired him. But who?

That is a tough question. From what little information there is, there were either two or three parties involved in the deal. Clearly,  one of the parties is a Mexican drug cartel running heroin to the U.S. Another party (or parties) must have been the buyer(s). My guess is that one party betrayed the other. Who did what is unknown, but it is obvious that both sides didn’t walk away with both the drugs and the money.

Anton Chigurh is clearly hired by the buying party to recover the money, while the various gangsters are probably from the cartel trying to steal it. He is just as okay killing the gangsters as he is hunting Moss. However, this raises a new problem. Who hired Carson Wells?

My guess is that members of the organization who hired Chigurh developed buyer’s remorse. Chigurh is far too much of a “loose cannon” for people who want to avoid detection and attention. Given that Wells comes in after the Eagle Pass fiasco, it is unsurprising that Chigurh’s employers will want to get rid of him. Therefore, Wells is sent in to kill Chigurh and try to make a deal for the money. Unfortunately for Wells (and his employer), Chigurh figures out their intentions.

So then, with the money following Moss’s death, Chigurh goes to visit his employer. There, something curious happens. He wants a more permanent position with the organization. He even dresses up for the occasion! So, what is Chigurh’s game? I’m thinking that Chigurh was doing at least two things during his pursuit of the money: 1) Get the money back to its owner and 2) Remove the people associated with the deal on his employer’s end (much like what happens in Diamonds are Forever). Chigurh admits to his employer that he was executing members of the organization for their failures, as a contrast to his own success. Maybe Chigurh hopes to replace the man who hired Wells?

This new success may, of course, be short lived as Chigurh must keep his promise to Llewellyn to kill Carl Jean. While the visit adheres to his honor code, it does him no material benefit, and indeed it damages him severely (unexpected though it may be). Yes, Chigurh is one tough customer, but an injury of that seriousness has got to put him out of commission for several weeks at least. And given his penchant for self doctoring, is he even capable of dealing with fractures of that seriousness?

Anton Chigurh is an image of evil. Of the creeping sociopathy of modern America. He is a symbol for all of the terrible things that happen in the novel.  But even he is not perfect.

Fantasy Through Colored Lenses

Well, I’m experiencing insomnia right now, so I thought I’d get an early post in today. So, if I don’t make much sense, I apologize in advance.

This post is a bit of a response to Matthew David Surridge’s recent post on Black Gate’s website entitled “The Enjoyment of Fantasy: Open Letters to Adam Gopnik, Mur Lafferty, and John C. Wright.” Now, I’m not going to discuss his letters to Gopnik and Lafferty. What interested me is Surridge’s response to John C. Wright and by extension Daniel Polansky and David Brin. My object is to discuss the three modes of reading fantasy and give my own take.

In my comment to the post, I mentioned that Surridge expressed some of my own issues with Polansky’s essay “The Slums of the Shire.” But I also have a number of issues with the characterization of Polansky and Brin’s position. The two see fantasy as “real.” That means that creating a fantasy world is geared towards versions of reality. Examples would be the genocide of the elves (from Polansky) or palantirs in every home (Brin). Surridge himself doesn’t hold much stock with this interpretation. For him, Polansky is creating a vision of a fantasy reality every bit as compromised by his own interests as Wright is. Why then his obsession with dime bags and slums? Surridge further critiques Brin for not understanding Tolkien’s point- the magic is restricted and potentially dangerous, like any form of progress. Mind you, I got the impression that Brin was speaking by way of example. Tolkien is likely the fantasy author most readers are familiar with, so it is reasonable to assume he is the default example. What Brin is actually describing are forms of fantasy called dungeonpunk and magictek. The two genres posit that magic steps in for technology. Instead of a steam engine powering a train, a fire elemental does the job (courtesy of TV Tropes). Look at Bas-Lag and Fairy Tail for good examples.

John C. Wright’s position is similar to that of Leo Grin from earlier this year. For this point of view, a fantasy world is constructed to house a sense of nostalgia, a sense of reclaimed glories. Much of this form of fantasy reaches back to a “golden age” of Christian theology. Many of the adherents to this view of fantasy also hunger for a stronger religious (Christian or a Christian stand in) presence. Personally, I don’t have much I disagree with Surridge on this type of reader view.

Finally, there is Surridge’s own view. This I would call a symbolic or literary point of view. Surridge mentions several times that he reads as much for the language as the story.  He recommends this approach to Mur Lafferty to help her reconcile with the science fiction classics she is having trouble reading. Instead of reading for the story, read for the words themselves.

Given that this is Surridge’s own mode of reading fantasy, it gets a privileged position. He compares and contrasts it with both the “real” and the “nostalgic” views, and he finds his own superior to the others. But there are problems with that view as well. I think that the literary view is related to the literary theories that dominated the Anglo-American critical tradition in the early and middle twentieth century. But this view, I think neglects the succeeding critical traditions like structuralism, deconstruction, and culture studies.

Another issue I have with this approach is that it divorces the narrative from the language and focuses too much on the usage of language. Even a bad novel can be read if the language is the star, rather than the actual story.

Personally, I stand with Brin and Polansky. My issue with Polansky is that I don’t share his rather dystopic point of view. I recognize that my position has issues. Every mode of reading, every critical tradition is riddled with problems. When I read a fantasy, I’m more interested in trying to figure out how the magic works, what the unseen world is like, what the politics are like, etc.

There is nothing wrong with being interested in any of these modes of reading, or any others. The key thing, is, I think, to enjoy fantasy. Period.

Now, maybe, I can go to bed.

Sword and Sorcery Questions

So, I’ve been enjoying the recent sword and sorcery podcast series over at SF Signal. As I listened to part two,  I got the urge to write up a blog post dealing with my own views and questions about swords and sorcery.

Now, I’ve been interested in sword and sorcery for a long time now. It was the first form of fantasy I ever encountered. I still remember watching Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Beastmaster, and some movie with a giant spider. This was my first love as a fantasy fan, and I still have a soft spot for it. I don’t pretend that I am well read in the genre (hell, I won’t pretend I’m well read in any genre, even if most people would say that I am), but I have read a few works (just not as many as I would like).

Besides the podcast, two other events have caused me to start thinking about sword and sorcery more indepth. The first is a review over at Black Gate of Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders’ recent anthology Swords and Dark Magic that posited a slightly more conservative take on the genre ( there are a few stories in the anthology that I personally did not see as especially sword and sorcery, but I still liked most of the stories). The second catalyst is my own reading of sword and sorcery and its relationship to the weird genre.

So, I wonder, does sword and sorcery fiction have to be about the swords? What I mean by that is, does the story have to focus on the non sorcerous figure over the sorcerer? Can a sorcerer be the protagonist? If no, why not?

Another question, is there a set limit of when a sword and sorcery tale can be set (in relation to earth history)? Is a sword and sorcery tale no longer sword and sorcery when guns make better weapons than swords? Or what if the sorcery is so powerful that the swords are completely ineffective? If it is no longer a sword and sorcery tale, what is it? Gun and sorcery? A more fantasy oriented steampunk? Dungeonpunk?

Finally, does a sword and sorcery tale have to rehash the style, the feel, even the politics of the greats? I listened to the Skiffy and Fanty podcast today, and they mentioned Robert E. Howard’s Conan. The two hosts (and the guest) were unanimous in assuming that Conan, as he was, is not palatable for a modern fantasy audience. Are they right or are they showing themselves to be rather uninformed and foolish (given that a major topic of discussion was Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the two hosts showed a deplorable lack of knowledge about the books, I would not be surprised)? But, the moderator of the sword and sorcery panel herself seemed troubled by the sexism (and other things). So, is there a valid point about the genre that disqualifies it? Or is it, as I think, the attention is payed almost exclusively to the beginnings of the genre and its golden age?

In the end, I don’t know the answers yet. These are just the questions. Maybe as I get my own stories in a more complete form, I’ll know the answers (or at least my answers).

The Death of Fantasy? What?

Earlier today, on the Gollancz Blog, A.J. Dalton wrote a post pondering the “death of fantasy.” The posit is that because there seems to be a lack of magic in some recently published fantasy that fantasy itself is in danger of either “dying” or undergoing radical change. My own comment on the blog post argued that fantasy is not going anywhere, nor is it becoming less magical.

The question boils down to what one reads. I would argue that a lot of the seeming absence of magic is probably a result of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Magic plays a very small and limited role, and magic’s limited role has become a point for those inspired by him. The success of the series can be pointed to the human conflict over the Iron Throne and what that conflict does to the people involved. This means that the actual epic conflict gets pushed to the back burner.

It is not beyond reason to assume that more recent fantasy writers, inspired by Martin, would have similar attitudes towards magic. In a way, magic may be a victim to the general rebellion against Tolkiensian fantasy that has been going on for the past few years.

Does that mean that magic itself is becoming less prominent in the genre? No. Read Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, Patrick Rothfuss, R. Scott Bakker, Harry Potter, etc. Hell, read manga- Fairy Tail is all about the wizards. And it is awesome.

This whole thing annoys me to no end. It is the same kind of bunk spewed about science fiction every year. How long has science fiction been at death’s door? Twenty years? Still not dead yet.

Fantasy is not dead yet, and neither is magic.

CLAMPed Out

I just read volumes 4 through 6 of CLAMP’s Card Captor Sakura in one sitting.

And it was awesome.

Sword and Sorcery Podcast at SF Signal

I just listened to an excellent podcast on Sword and Sorcery at SF Signal (www.sfsignal.com). Check it out.

It has the Black Gate crew, James Enge, Jason M. Waltz, and Sam Sykes, the Brian Wilson of fantasy.

Research and Realism

Research:

Reading Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s blog the other day, I began to think more about researching. How extensive does one need to be? How experiential? Can the research be minimal or does it have to be on the level of a lay doctorate? In reading a lot of writing advice sites, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is likely up to the reader (as much of the advice is colored by the experience of the writers themselves). In the end, I think, the amount of research is up to the writer. There is no universal “goldilocks” level of research.

But, I do think certain genres in speculative fiction require more depth in the research compared to others. I think Schmidt is right that hard science fiction demands doing the research, of being as well informed as possible on the science of today and extrapolating out.  I also think that urban fantasy needs quite a bit of research (at least to get the setting right- though it probably helps to actually live in the city one writes about). Of course, the other major fantasy genre that demands getting it right is historical fantasy. While I question if getting the world and details absolutely right is absolutely necessary for the “suspension of disbelief,” I do think taking the time to get it right is important. It reveals a commitment to the writing, a commitment to getting it right.

Now, how much research does a constructed world fantasy need? That is a tricky one. I would say as much as the writer wants to put in it for the world building. But at the same time, you don’t need to have every little thing planned out. I mean George R. R. Martin only created a few words of Valyrian and Dothraki, but the politics of Westeros is excellently well done. Compare to Tolkien who has several immense constructed languages, but the politics of Middle Earth are rather shoddily sketched in, if you ask me.

The amount of world building and research in constructed world fantasy  is, I think, up to the writer. Do what feels best for the story, and play to your own strengths as a researcher. If you are better at anthropology, do that. If you are a stronger historian, do that. You get the idea. Just because someone else argues that a world building should be this way or that way does not mean that they are right.

Realism:

Moving on to realism. I read a post yesterday by A. Lee Martinez complaining about the usage of adult languages (and the portrayal of Catwoman, period) in Arkham City. His argument got me to thinking about my own attitudes towards more “mature” content in fantasy. I am beginning to wonder if it is necessarily appropriate to use “realism” as a defense against critics who desire the tamer works of yesterday (and today).

Perhaps now is a good time to define the realism defense. The realism defense is an argument that posits the acceptability of including objectionable or mature content into genres that have, until recently, been seen as exclusively for children or young adults. Therefore, it is likely that the recent inclusion of mature content is as a means of titillation for older young adults or as a means to maintain an older audience who continue to read the material long after “one is too old” for that material.

So, maybe realism isn’t the best defense. Maybe the best way to go about it is to argue that adding mature or arguably objectionable content is two fold: to acknowledge that this work is aimed at older consumers and to acknowledge that the work at present is a reaction to the old sugar coated reality of the genre.

Batman is a fantasy whether he is the goofy Adam West or the hyper serious Christian Bale. The Joker can be just a clown prince of silly crime or a truly terrifying and psychotic monster, he is still a fantasy either way. Indeed, the darker Batman (and comics in general) of today is a direct result, I think, of being bottled up by the comics code for decades.

In a similar way, I think that fantasy is undergoing a similar process. Some older fantasy readers don’t want to read sugar coated idylls of the Shire. They want the nasty, the brutish world of Earwa.

Post Script:

Damn, I did not want this post to be so long. Another thing on research: don’t let it consume you! Find a point and stop, write the story, and do further research in the editing phase. You don’t want to have a story gestating for a decade or more doing research. By that token, you might as well write a dissertation on the subject.