Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Closing out 2011 with a glimpse of Heroic Visions

So I had given Jessica Amanda Salmonson some hard ink a while back for her less than stellar appraisal of Robert E. Howard in the introduction to her 1983 anthology Heroic Visions. I stand by my previous statements that a breezy thumbnail sketch of the heroic fantasy/swords and sorcery genre is not the best spot for criticizing the modern founder of the genre. That said, and having now read the whole thing, I will add that Salmonson put together a fairly enjoyable anthology. Not great, but a fun year-end read.

A couple of these tales really push the boundaries of heroic fantasy but that was Salmonson’s expressed purpose: to prove that heroic fantasy/swords and sorcery is about more than just muscled warriors wielding swords. Heroic Visions is heavy on women writers and depicts several strong female protagonists and powerful visions of femininity. Says Salmonson:

Without denying Howard’s genius or even qualifying it, it must be recognized that glorifying his rudimentary sword and sorcery as “ideal” heroic fantasy is akin to assuming Doc Smith’s old-fashioned space opera is “ideal” science fiction. No area of fantasy should be so stagnant and devoid of stylistic and conceptual growth or variety.

Placed in the context of the times I have some sympathy for Salmonson’s introduction. Heroic Visions was produced at the tail end of a flood of bad S&S that would ultimately hurt the genre, similar to what happened with the collapse of the horror fiction market in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Robert Jordan was writing Conan pastiches in the early 1980s. The 1970s was a time of carbon-copy barbarians named Brak and Kothar and Thongor. Michael Moorcock was pumping out his most hackneyed creations around this time, too. To be frank, the quality of such stories was all over the map. Heroic Visions was Salmonson’s attempt to stem the tide of crap and steer the genre back to respectability.

Heroic Visions leads off with a Fritz Leiber Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story that had never before seen print. “The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars” is not at the same level as Leiber’s earlier material and takes a while to get going, but is fun enough with a satisfying ending. Its strength is in its style and panache.

“Sister Light, Sister Dark” by Jane Yolen is in my opinion the best story in the collection. My only previous exposure to Yolen was reading her illustrated children’s book Owl Moon to my daughters. I won’t be reading them the bloody, violent, and lusty tale “Sister Light, Sister Dark” but I enjoyed the heck out of it, and it demonstrates Yolen’s versatility as a writer.

After those two we start to get to the genre benders. “Dancers in the Time-Flux” by Robert Silverberg is a borderline heroic fantasy story that I thought belonged here; Michael Bishop’s “The Monkey’s Bride,” though a decent enough story, does not. In the former a Dutch ship commander from the late 16th century is whisked away to an impossibly alien-appearing earth untold millennia in the future. He quickly falls in with a metallic, bug-like, multi-legged/armed human life form called Bhengarn the Traveler. Though they seemingly share nothing in common the two are both travelers in a spiritual and physical sense, and forge a friendship in a trial of endurance and strength by climbing a mighty ice wall. “The Monkey’s Bride” is a similarly odd tale about a young woman whose father against her will promises her hand in marriage to the monkey-man Don Ignacio. Fighting bitterly against her unfair fate, in the end she comes to love Ignacio for his great heart and patience. Though it’s a decent enough story and certainly of a fantasy bent, I would argue that it’s very much out of place in an anthology of heroic fantasy (the conflict is largely internal to the protganist and is resolved mainly through slow acceptance of her circumstances, not heroic action)

Heroic Visions contains a couple other stories worth mentioning. Phyllis Ann Karr’s “Tales Told to a Toymaker” features an outsider’s look at the heroic life by someone who could have been a hero, but opted to spend his days working in a toymaker’s shop. “Each of us climbs his own mountain,” the adventurer tells the toymaker. I also very much enjoyed Gordon Derevanchuk’s “Vovko,” which draws upon little-tapped Slavic lore and includes hodgepodge appearances by a vodyanyk, or a sea-demon, a warrior who wears the pelt and can assume the form of a vovkulaka, or werewolf, the witch Baba-Yaga, and a venture into the shadowed realm of the dark, accursed Slavic deity Chernobog.


And with Heroic Visions I was able to complete my modest goal of 52 books in 52 weeks in 2011. Other recent reads included Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. I’m hoping to better this total in 2012 and am already deep into two books to kick off the new year: Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien.


Trey said...

I haven't read Heroic Visions though it sounds of a type with the other 703/80s HF compilations--some gems and some dross.

Brian Murphy said...

That's about right, Trey. Worth picking up on the cheap, as I recently did in a used book store.

good old read said...

You have saved me the bother of reading this. Thank you and Happy New Year!