50 Shades of Paedo?

There is fantasy and then there is fantasy that goes too far. While all of us would draw the line of what is acceptable fantasy and what is not in distinctly different places, I think most fans of the SF/F genre would agree that pedophile fantasies definitely cross that line. I’d also throw in elderly vampires that spend their days in high school and sparkle in the sun myself, but clearly millions of readers disagree. So does 50 Shades of Grey go too far? Not on the surface, as according to its description it is little more than John Norman’s Gor brought back to Earth, minus the sword battles and the awesome tarn birds. And it’s not a question I can legitimately even try to answer, since I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey nor do I have any intention of doing so.

Read the rest at The Black Gate

At the Black Gate

After reading through the various responses to my post two weeks ago, some of which were insightful and intelligent, others perhaps a little less so, I found myself concluding that I had probably gone a little too far in the process of defending historical authenticity against Daniel Abraham’s charge that it is not an effective defense against charges of insufficient strong women, excessive white people, or a surfeit of sexual violence. Upon further reflection, I don’t think it is correct to conclude that a work of fantasy will necessarily be improved by additional historical authenticity. Would The Chronicles of Narnia be improved by religious schism or removing the historically ludicrous notion of four siblings ruling simultaneously? No, I can’t honestly say it would. Would Abraham’s own The Long Price Quartet be improved by making the imperial Asian culture utilize a historically authentic kanji/hànzì system of writing that would be all but unintelligible to the various warlike Caucasian surrounding it? No, I don’t think so.

On the other hand, I still think Abraham goes too far in dismissing the importance of historical authenticity with regards to works that are billed on the basis of, as he says, their ability to “show medieval life the way that (we’re pretending for the sake of argument) it really was.” It is highly probable that George R.R. Martin wouldn’t have gone so far off the rails with his most recent two books in A Song of Ice and Fire had he stuck a little more closely to the historical Wars of the Roses and the violent struggle between York (Stark) and Lancaster (Lannister). Historical authenticity does not require that every fantasy novel concern itself with the life and times of Peasant John and his epic battle to save his diarrhea-stricken pig, after all, only that the author make a reasonable attempt to either a) get things reasonably correct, or b) provide the reader with some modicum of a rationale for departing from the realm of historical fact and plausibility.

Read the rest at the Black Gate.

The primacy of history

Daniel Abraham attacks the idea of historical authenticity in fantasy:

The idea that the race, gender, or sexual roles of a given work of secondary world, quasi-medieval fantasy were dictated by history doesn’t work on any level. First, history has an almost unimaginably rich set of examples to pull from. Second, there are a wide variety of secondary world faux-medieval fantasies that don’t reach for historical accuracy and which would be served poorly by the attempt. And third, even in the works where the standard is applied, it’s only applied to specific, cherry-picked facets of the fantasy culture and the real world.

This is a fascinating assertion. We need less authenticity in fantasy? Let’s begin by looking at Abraham’s three initial assertions. First, history does not have “an almost unimaginably rich set of examples to pull from”. In fact, those of us who study history either professionally or on an armchair basis tend to be impressed by the way in which the historical patterns tend to repeat themselves. For example, the economic notions of the Mongol ruler Gaikhatu Khan, whose issuance of paper currency in 1294 promised reduced poverty, lower prices, and income equality, eerily prefigured both the General Theory of John Maynard Keynes as well as most of the Federal Reserve statements since 2008. Granted, neither Bernanke nor Geithner met with the unfortunate fate of the Khan’s chief financial officer, but as they say, history rhymes rather than repeats.

Read the rest at the Black Gate.

Winter is waning

Scott Taylor explains why what was bad in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons is very likely only going to get worse, assuming that George Martin manages to publish another book in A Song of Ice and Fire:

Writers have a window of ‘perfect’ production, and although it’s much more forgiving than the 4 years of an athlete, it still exists. I mean, there’s a reason you know famous works by authors and yet don’t know what they’ve done in the past 20 years of their lives until their obituary is plastered all over the internet.

There comes a time where you need to retire, you need to hang up your cleats, or in this case, your keyboard, and sail into the sunset. It sucks for everyone, sure, and it’s sad to see them go, and yet isn’t it more horrible to pick up an author’s latest work and think ‘wow, what happened?’ Wouldn’t you rather remember them in the light when their words could do no wrong and each sentence was linguistic gold?

I’m going push my argument with some stats and let you be the judge. Inside these stats you’ll see I’ve included a defining award, and I’ve done this because typically an award showcases the very best of an author’s work, thus, that should be the barometer for the high point of a career.

Let me give some examples:

Michael Moorcock [Born 1939]: Definitive series Elric 1965-1979, Nebula Award Behold the Man, 1967. Prime writing years Age 26-40.

Orson Scott Card [Born 1951]: Definitive series Ender 1985 – Ongoing [but can you name a book after Xenocide, 1991?], Nebula Award Ender’s Game, 1985. Prime writing years Age 33-40.

Stephen King [Born 1947]: Definitive series [Fantasy] Gunslinger 1982-Ongoing, Bram Stoker Award Misery 1987. Prime writing years Age 30-50 [ending with The Green Mile].

Piers Anthony [Born 1934]: Definitive series Xanth 1977-Ongoing [I dare you to name all 36 current volumes!], Award Nebula Nomination A Spell for Chameleon, 1978. Prime writing years Age 32-52.

J.R.R. Tolkien [Born 1892]: Definitive series Lord of the Rings 1940+ [written], Published 1954, Award International Fantasy Award 1957. Prime writing years Age 40-57.

Arthur C. Clarke [Born 1917]: Definitive series Odyssey 1968. Hugo Award 1956 ‘The Star’, Prime writing years Age 40-55.

Robert Jordan [Born 1948]: Definitive series Wheel of Time 1990-Ongoing [Jordan died in 2007 at age 58], Locus Award Nominee Lord of Chaos, 1995, Prime writing years 40-50 [before the wheels came off Wheel of Time].

Isaac Asimov [Born 1920]: Definitive series Foundation 1942, Award Nebula The Gods Themselves, 1972, Prime writing years Age 22-65….

This could go on until the cows come home, but the essence of it breaks down to a set of years that ‘most’ great writers produce their best work, which is typically sometime between age 35 and age 55, a very comfortable twenty year window. Yes, yes, all points can be argued, all dates debated, but remember I’m talking as a whole.

The above is an average, but I believe my point is sound, that being that A Game of Thrones was written in Martin’s prime. Martin was born in 1948, so in 1994 he was 46 which pretty much puts him smack dab in the middle of his prime years. You add 17 years to that publishing figure for the release of A Dance of Dragons and all of a sudden you’ve slipped WELL past your golden creative window to the age of 63 [even the great Asimov was just doing novellas at this point in his life].

It’s hard to argue with his conclusions. There are the occasional exceptions, but I remember being simply confused when I read Caesar’s Women by Colleen McCullough, the fourth in her Masters of Rome series. While I enjoyed the first three, the fourth was almost as if it was written by a different writer. I never read Caesar, the fifth book, and while I did pick up a copy of The October Horse – great title, incidentally – it was almost unreadable from the start and I put it down almost immediately. McCullough was born in 1937, Caesar’s Women was published in 1996, three years after Fortune’s Favorites, when she was 59 years old. This suggests that somewhere between the age of 56 and 59, she lost her ups. Or her fastball, if you prefer baseball metaphors. Regardless, it’s quite in keeping with Taylor’s theory.

This is discouraging as a reader of Martin’s work, but I actually find it somewhat encouraging since the first volume in Arts of Dark and Light will be published while I’ve still got another 15 or 20 years left.

The return of the epic

After reading some of my past posts related to the degraded state of epic fantasy, it is a pleasure to be able to say that there are still writers who harbor sufficient regard for the genre to write it more or less straight rather than attempting to subvert it in some tediously predictable manner. While there is always a place in any genre for an interesting subversion – and few have ever done it better than Tanith Lee’s supremely dark take on various classic children’s tales – once the subversion becomes the norm, the novelty aspect is gone and the new sub-genre must stand or fall on its own merits rather than upon the borrowed merits of the genre it is subverting. And at this point, the antihero in epic fantasy, or to put it more accurately, the villainous protagonist, is about as novel and intrinsically interesting as the creaking Hollywood chestnut featuring the grand climactic mano-a-mano confrontation between the hero and antagonist in which the hero is all but vanquished when a last taunt enrages him and inspires him to battle back to ultimate victory. Yee-hee-hee-awwwwwn.

Read the rest at Black Gate.

Amorality is not a moral position

On the one hand, I’m pleased that people outside the coterie of Black Gate writers are interested in the question of morality and the new nihilism within the SF/F genre. On the other, I’m a little disturbed by the way in which so many people with opinions on the subject appear to have an amount of trouble grasping some of the most basic issues involved. While we can certainly agree to disagree when our opinions on the subject happen to diverge, we can’t even manage to do that when there are fundamental misunderstandings about the issues being discussed. To explain what I mean by this, it is first necessary to quote the German writer Cora Buhlert’s recent post entitled Morality in Fantasy – 2012 Edition.

And even the defenders of morally sound fantasy have often no qualms with a piece of morally questionable fantasy, as long as they enjoy it. Remember Theo, who was involved in last year’s nihilism in epic fantasy debate and felt that morally ambiguous epic fantasy was not just fiction that was not to his taste, but apparently heralded the decline of the western world itself? Turns out he’s still blogging at Black Gate on occasion. What is more, he takes Mur Lafferty to task for not wanting to read supposed genre classics, because the racism and misogyny and the prevalence of violence against women puts her off. So Theo ranting against Joe Abercrombie and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a sign of his moral superiority, while Mur Lafferty ranting against The Stars My Destination and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a sign of her lack of education and moral flatness? Sorry, but this doesn’t work. If Theo enjoys Thomas Covenant, more power to him. But that doesn’t change the fact that Thomas Covenant is a rapist and no more moral than the protagonists of the Joe Abercrombie novels he singled out for destroying western civilization. But since Thomas Covenant is really sorry for what he did, spends much of the series wallowing in self-pity and finally apparently redeems himself, at least in the eyes of Theo (I can’t say if it would work for me, since I never got that far), that apparently makes The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant okay. Though I guess what really makes Thomas Covenant okay for Theo but not Joe Abercrombie is that he enjoyed Thomas Covenant but didn’t enjoy Joe Abercrombie. Which is a perfectly acceptable aesthetic judgement, but does not automatically make one book morally superior to the other.

If you’re interested in my response, you can find it at The Black Gate.

Reading List 2011

The most interesting book of the 69 I read this year was Victor Hugo’s The History of a Crime, with Neal Stephenson’s Reamde a close second. (His Anathem is more ambitious and in some ways even more interesting, but falls apart so badly towards the end that I can’t give it primacy of position.) The worst thing I read this year was without question Plato and the Spell of the State, a convoluted quasi-academic paper by Patrick Tinsley, who could probably be committed for life on the sole basis of the evidence of that paper. I almost gave it five stars because it is so insane that it is almost worth reading just for the sheer lunacy.

The Republic, Cicero
A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
Married Man Sex Life Primer, Athol Kay
Anathem, Neal Stephenson
Reamde, Neal Stephenson
The History of a Crime, Victor Hugo
Embassytown, China Mieville
On Literature, Umberto Eco

The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons
Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Thomas Hughes
The Gold Bat, PG Wodehouse
The Head of Kay’s, PG Wodehouse
Farmer in the Sky, Robert Heinlein
A Man of Means, PG Wodehouse
Psmith in the City, PG Wodehouse
Psmith, Journalist, PG Wodehouse
A Prefect’s Uncle, P.G. Wodehouse
Something New, PG Wodehouse
Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
The Heroes, Joe Abercrombie
A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin
Stupefying Stories, Nov 2011, Rampant Loon
All Hell Let Loose, Max Hastings
The Shadow Over Innsmouth, H.P. Lovecraft
The Darkness That Comes Before, R. Scott Bakker
The Warrior-Prophet, R. Scott Bakker
Podkayne of Mars, Robert Heinlein
The Desert of Souls, Howard Jones
The Mask of Sanity, Hervey Cleckley
The Laws, Cicero

Stupefying Stories, Oct 2011, Rampant Loon
The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie
Before They Are Hanged, Joe Abercrombie
The Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie
Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie
Small Favor, Jim Butcher
Turn Coat, Jim Butcher
Changes, Jim Butcher
Cursor’s Fury, Jim Butcher
Captain’s Fury, Jim Butcher
Princep’s Fury, Jim Butcher
First Lord’s Fury, Jim Butcher
The Influence of Sea Power upon History, A.T. Mahan
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
The Face of Battle, John Keegan
Emile and the Dutchman, Joel Rosenberg
Great Wars and Great Leaders, Ralph Raico
A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny
World Without End, Sean Russell
Unicorn Variations, Roger Zelazny
Ghost Story, Jim Butcher
Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century, Harry Turtledove
Prince of Thorns, Mark Lawrence
The Silver Mage, Katherine Kerr

Snuff, Terry Pratchett
Moral Minds, Marc Hauser
Lessons of the War with Spain, A.T. Mahan
The Thousand-Fold Thought, R. Scott Bakker
Definitely Dead, Charlaine Harris
All Together Dead, Charlaine Harris
From Dead to Worse, Charlaine Harris
Dead and Gone, Charlaine Harris
Dead in the Family, Charlaine Harris
Dead Reckoning, Charlaine Harris
Zero History, William Gibson

A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin
Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus Empiricus
Plato and the Spell of the State, Patrick Tinsley

Book Review – Embassytown

Embassytown by China Mieville
Del Rey (368 pages, $26.00, May 2011)

Embassytown is an excellent and astonishingly original science fiction novel. It is also a clever subversion of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, defending as it does a literally Satanic theme in its rationalization of the intentional corruption of innocence. As such, it could be considered to be a philosophical novel of the sort that Umberto Eco writes; this is the sole aspect of the book that is both weak and unoriginal. But the trivial nature of the philosophical aspect does not detract from the novel in the slightest, as very few readers indeed will be aware of either the subversion or the subtext despite the relatively clear suggestions provided by Mieville.

The story concerns a human colony of the future that is established on a very distant planet inhabited by a strange and sentient alien race that speaks a unique language that involves two simultaneous voices. In order to communicate with the aliens, it is necessary for humans to speak in specially trained, genetically identical pairs because the alien’s link between Language and mind is such that the aliens cannot understand the sounds even if they are reproduced accurately by machines or unrelated human pairs. These trained pairs, called Ambassadors, are the colony’s only means of communicating with the aliens, whose biotechnology is required for them to survive given their very limited support from the human empire to which they owe a rather tenuous allegiance.

Read the rest at The Black Gate.

Three critics, three letters

Matthew David Surridge writes three intelligent responses to critics of the fantasy genre:

Dear Mr. Gopnik,

I read your recent article in The New Yorker, “The Dragon’s Egg,” with some interest. I haven’t read Christopher Paolini’s work; my interest is less in Young-Adult literature than in fantasy fiction. From that perspective I found your piece intriguing for what was left unsaid, or what you chose not to investigate. Specifically, I thought there were two major lacunae in the thinking underlying your approach to fantasy.

The first is apparent fairly early on, when you write that Ossian, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Húrin are boring. Later, you say: “And the truth is that most actual mythologies and epics and sacred books are dull. Nothing is more wearying, for readers whose tastes have been formed by the realist novel, than the Elder Edda.” This may well be so, though I’d like to think the enigmatic poems of the Edda can intrigue most readers. At any rate, true as what you say may be, the reverse is true as well. If you’re a reader whose tastes were shaped by mythology, the realist novel is pretty weak sauce. Surely, though, there’s more to be said about either form.

I’d like to draw upon our shared heritage as Montrealers to illustrate what I’m saying. Imagine, one early April night as the NHL season nears its end and the baseball season gets underway, a hockey fan and baseball fan change sports for one game. The baseball fan watches a hockey game, the hockey fan a baseball game. Leaving aside issues of team loyalty, and assuming both games put the best elements of their sports on display, what are the fans going to see?

The baseball fan’s going to look at a hockey game and think it’s ridiculous. Where’s the stillness, the reflection, the carefully-unfolding rhythm of baseball? Hockey just keeps moving, at ludicrous speeds to boot. It’s crude, players blocking other players with their bodies, and there’s clearly no strategy; players race back and forth and back and forth along the ice surface, in frantic pursuit of a round black Mcguffin. It’s wearying. And the violence — what on earth is the need for that? Don’t these people realise how ridiculous this sport is?

The Children of HúrinThe hockey fan, meanwhile, finds the baseball game dull. The thing just goes on and on, and nothing happens, and nothing keeps happening at length. There’re no real battles in the game, outside of a few footraces; nobody physically struggles against anyone else. Not one body check. And no flow; a pitcher throws a ball, and then something happens or, most often, doesn’t. There’s no structure of one play constantly organically developing into another. No plot. (There’s also a ludicrous structural imbalance favouring big-market teams, but admittedly that’s really something separate from my metaphor.)

Neither hypothetical fan really understands the game they’re unfamiliar with. They can’t see the structures of the sport, and don’t appreciate the gamesmanship involved. More than that, neither fan appreciates the long traditions of the other’s game. Their tastes have been shaped by the sport they love to the point where the virtues of the other sport simply seem nonsensical, or at best an entertainment of a lower order.

Which is what I found lacking in your article. Your perception of Tolkien and of mythology as boring is, I feel, not a particularly useful critical judgement. All it really tells me is that you as a critic are not likely to be particularly sensitive to the techniques and processes of fantasy fiction. That you do not understand the work you’re talking about.

Which in turn leads me to the second problem I found in the way you approached fantasy: a lack of awareness of traditions within the genre. You didn’t seem to appreciate the diversity of forms within fantasy, nor did you seem to understand that fantasy represents a tradition (or group of traditions) that reaches back at least to William Morris — I’d argue well before him. I felt that weakened your piece in a number of ways.

It’s a very interesting post and I highly recommend you read it if you have any interest in the SF/F genre. I don’t agree with everything Surridge says, of course,* but the core of his theme is exactly right. I would find it hard to agree more with Surridge when he writes: [I]t’s possible to love a book and still disagree with it. This possibility, I think, increases with the greatness of the book. I don’t agree with Dante Alighieri that gays and non-Christians ought to be handed an eternal afterlife of punishment, but I think The Divine Comedy is a great book. And it’s one that I like, even love, beyond my appreciation of Dante’s poetic technique, and intricate structure, and brilliant fusion of reality and imagery and allegory. Because it is a great book, one’s affirmation or rejection of is able to go beyond the affirmation or rejection of the writer’s beliefs.”

Surridge has it exactly right here. I recently finished reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, which I will review sometime in the next few weeks, and while it is a quite literally Satanic novel, it is a very good novel and one that is well worth reading for precisely that reason alone. (And other reasons too, to be sure.) The key point is that the greatness of a literary work is not in any way determined by the degree to which it corresponds with the reader’s beliefs and opinions.

*I will state that it is a grotesque insult to the language to insist that the “transgendered” are not perverse, i.e. “disposed to go counter to what is expected or desired”, no matter how “hateful” or “insensitive” they or anyone else might happen to find the description. One thing I refuse to tolerate is the ideological corruption of language.

What makes a classic?

Last week, I criticized Mur Lafferty for attempting to dismiss some of the classics of the genre unread. Reading some of the comments on that post got me to thinking about an obvious question: what makes a classic of the genre? Obviously, an ability to stand the test of time is the most important element in defining a classic, as a brief perusal of the bestsellers of 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago will demonstrate, but there must be more to it than simple longevity since there are no shortage of unread classics, both within and without the SF/F genre. Is there some sort of magic formula that allows us to distinguish between the merely popular and the temporally transcendent? We know that sales quantities are both objective and incapable of determining literary greatness, but does this mean that greatness is entirely subjective or are there some reasonably objective elements involved?

Read the rest at The Black Gate.