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A Rant of Hot and Cold

I don’t like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I remember fully reading A Game of Thrones and being impressed that it wasn’t the usual dreck that I read. Which consisted mostly of the old Tor Conan pastiches. This was ten years ago. Then, about 2o03, I picked up A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. I skimmed those two novels. And I was not impressed. Now, almost a decade later, I have no desire to go back and give them another look. Why?

My problem with ASoIaF is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. At first, the historic-political elements of the novels are balanced by the high/ epic fantasy elements. But as the series gains in popularity and the series has to be approaching its conclusion (if there are still to be seven novels), the stronger fantasy elements seem to be thrust into the back seat. And the game for that damned Iron Throne takes center stage. (As an aside, I also think the series is too bloated).

The series, when advertised for the HBO adaptation, is described as The Sopranos meets The Lord of the Rings. Am I the only one who goes ugh? Am I the only one who really does not want this kind of fantasy?

I think I shall start calling the school of fantasy that has developed around Martin the historicist school of fantasy. Or just historicist fantasy. Now what is this new genre? Well, it is a constructed world fantasy that utilizes history as inspiration and the basis for world building. It is separate from historical fantasy in that it does not take place on Earth.

And I really don’t like this type of fantasy. If I wanted to read fantastical visions of history, I’d read historical fantasy. Or I would actually read a history book. Which would be more entertaining.

What I want is fantasy not history. I want myth not realism. Often, verisimilitude and the suspension of disbelief is brought up in critical discussions of fantasy. Maybe I just have an easier time of accepting the world building, but I could give a crap if a writer inserts bales of hay or gets the weaponry wrong or neglects religion. I don’t care. Is the story good? Can I see it in my mind’s eye?

This brings me to the grimdark fantasy. I’m honestly not very interested in them, either. I did enjoy reading Morgan’s The Steel Remains and liked Polansky’s Low Town far more than I thought I would. But Bakker, Abercrombie, etc.? No, thank you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of darkness in what I read. But, I like that darkness mixed with almost an equal measure of light. I want joy with sadness; I want hope with despair. I don’t want a continual parade of despair and horror.

I guess what I’m yearning for is a rediscovery of the fantastic, of pushing the boundaries of the imagination out from what we have.

Will I ever write a historicist fantasy? Maybe. But if I do, I want to do it right. I want to write the type of story that I would enjoy.

 

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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.

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.

Myth and History in Fantasy: A Rant

This post is, in part, a response to Daniel Polansky’s guest post on The Night Bazaar entitled “The Slums of the Shire.” Largely an advertisement for his debut novel, Low Town, the post is notable for positing a clash between Polansky’s type of fantasy and Tolkien’s. Low Town sounds interesting, but I’ll wait and ILL it through my local library in a few months. What interests me about the post is a lack or inability to understand Tolkien’s fantasy. The reason, I think, is perspective and how one views the mythic or imaginative element in fantasy.

Polansky describes himself as a “history buff” and professes an inability to understand the fantasy of the Tolkien school. There are two things to note, I think. One: what is Polansky’s view of history? Two: How does Tolkien see fantasy?

To answer question one: From reading the guest post, I would guess that Polansky has a rather dystopic view of human nature. He posits that humans would, perhaps, gleefully eradicate an elf species that lived alongside our ancestors, and he expresses an interests in the seedier, darker, nastier aspects of history (hence, the slums of the Shire). This dystopic vision of human nature is highly contestable and uncertain. The histories I have read often (especially new scholarship) display as much about our own and our predecessor’s ignorance about history as it does the actual events of the past. Often I wonder, were things truly as brutish as the “Dung Ages” imply?

To answer question two: Tolkien’s vision of fantasy is highly mythic. With The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien creates a work, a world, that aspires to the level of Homer, Ovid, Mallory, Beowulf, The Pearl Poet, etc. Middle Earth is not meant to be taken as a form of history, but it is meant to be taken as a form of modern myth making. One of the themes of The Lord of the Rings is the coming together of various distrustful races to combat an even greater threat to all of them. Rather or not humans and elves would historically have attempted to eradicate each other is immaterial, what is important is what they represent symbolically. And that it is at times the least of us who make the greatest contributions (like the Hobbits).

So, Tolkien, while being inspired by history, does not allow history to dominate the text. Middle Earth is a “fairyland,” a world where myths, legends, and fairy tales walk among average people. And depending on the vision of the author, rather an epic, romantic, comedic, tragic, or ironic mode is at play within that world.

I would argue that the reaction against the Tolkien Clones has produced a movement towards focusing on history over myth. Basically, a type of mundane fantasy in which there is little magic and myth. Historical fiction set in a secondary world focusing on the excesses of the nobility and the absolute squalor of the peasantry is not something I am especially fond of reading. Though I am a fan of Sword and Sorcery, I prefer the sorcery over the sword every day of the week.

The interplay of myth and history plays a key role in the current debate over the direction of modern fantasy. There seems to be a growing movement towards a brutal, dystopic fantasy which can play out for some readers as nihilistic. But is there something missing from these works? Is the mythic element, which is key to fantasy’s true success and power, missing? I don’t know. I’ve read some of the “brutal” fantasy, but not all of it. I have read Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before. Personally, I think anyone familiar with Herbert’s Dune should be able to figure that one out (to an extent).

But, all of this is really a matter of perspective. What histories do you read? When were they published? What audience are they intended for? How do you “read” fantasy? How do you analyse what you read? All of these questions are important in understanding how an individual author or reader looks at the world and what he/ she reads and writes. Take myself for example. I tend to prefer rather more academic (published by academics from university publishing houses) over popular histories (even though there are some popular histories that are quite good), and I tend to be more of a literary critic when I read. I am more prone to see things as constructions, including history. The events happened, but those events are artificially formed into a narrative that is intended for a specific audience. Take the attitude towards the medieval period. Shortly after the “Middle Ages,” they became the “Dark Ages” to contrast the with old light of “Classical” Rome and the new light of the Renaissance (“rebirth”) and the subsequent Enlightenment. The Romantics’ view of the “Dark Ages” is colored by their rejection of the “Neoclassical” rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the Victorians’ view is a conflict between the two. And let’s not even mention the Modern and Postmodern rejection of anything, everything, and nothing.

Would I want to live in another time period? I don’t know. The 1960s and 1970s sound interesting. The 1920s are a possibility. Would I really want to live during the American Gilded Age, the High Middle Ages, the Pax Augusta, or the reign of Ramesses II? I don’t think so. But when writing fantasy, is things really about when one would like to have lived?

In my earlier rant about research and historical knowledge, I mentioned my strong belief  in experimentation. For fantasy to grow as a genre, it has to be willing to move beyond the shadows of the medieval. It has to be able to dance between myth and history, between utopia and dystopia, between symbol and versimilitude, and between the imagination and the real.

Fantasy set in a secondary world that fully explores a setting inspired by early Plantagenets is just as valuable as a crazy mishmash of cultures and inspirations. But it is the talent and skill of the author that makes each work succeed or fail. Manga does, can fantasy?