Saturday, February 26, 2011

Me want

Here's some ultimate nerdity that I would nevertheless gladly wear (look closely/zoom in on thumbnails below):

I wonder if the Tolkien Estate will be putting the smack down on this, though.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chewing over realism in fantasy: A few morsels more

Fantasy literature is rife with pour souls being fed to hungry beasts. A hungry crowd watches as weaponless prisoners are forced into the Arena of Tokalet where the monstrous, half-intelligent ape Nji awaits (L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring). In George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords the unarmored female warrior Brienne is thrown into a bear pit for the sport of onlookers. The tentacled demon-god Thog devours drugged, defenseless denizens of an ancient city in Robert E. Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk.”

It’s all pretty awful (albeit suspenseful, and gruesomely entertaining) stuff, but the way in which one author handles this familiar scenario vs. another I think sheds a little more light on my discussions of realism in fantasy literature.

Here’s how J.R.R. Tolkien handles anthropomorphs as monster food in The Two Towers (Chapter 7: “Shelob’s Lair”):

And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made.

That to me is a great piece of writing. It tells you plenty about the cruelty and maliciousness of Sauron and his relationship with the giant she-spider (which he half-hates and half-fears, but tolerates as a valuable guardian into Mordor).

As for the gory details, it allows my mind to fill in the rest. Tolkien goes on to explain that Shelob cares not for wealth or power, but spends all her time brooding on her next feast. "For all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness," he writes. That's about as nasty and explicit as Tolkien gets.

Now compare that passage with this preview of Richard Morgan’s forthcoming novel The Cold Commands:

In the wild, a Hanliagh black octopus would have wrapped tentacles around surface prey this large and dragged it deep, where it could be drowned and dealt with at leisure. Defeated by the bobbing wood and the manacles, the creatures settled for swarming the boards, tearing at the chained bodies with frenzied, suckered force, biting awkwardly with their beaks. So skin came off wholesale, gobbets and chunks of flesh came with it, finally down to the bone. Blood vessels tore – in the case of a lucky few, fatally. And occasionally, a victim might smother to death with tentacles or body mass across the face. But for most, it was a long, slow death by haphazard flaying and flensing – none of the creatures was bigger than a court-bred hound, they could not otherwise have squeezed in through the chamber’s vents, and even their combined efforts were rarely enough to make a merciful end of things.

Jhiral was watching her.

She forced herself not to look away – the spray of blood, the up-and-down flail of tentacles like thick black whips, the soft, mobbing purple-black shapes hanging off the wood and flesh, crawling across it. Her gaze snagged on a wild, wide-open human eye and a screaming mouth, briefly blocked by a thick crawling tentacle, then uncovered again to shriek to shriek, to shriek……

As for that passage, man, it’s brutal. It’s effective, and horrifying, and well-done. But it’s not why I read fantasy. It jerked me back into reality with its clinical descriptions of flensing and tearing blood vessels. Perhaps Morgan intended this scene as a condemnation of torture. It vaguely reminded me of the real-life practice of waterboarding, albeit turned up to 11. I don’t know. I read it and it just felt — too much.

Perhaps what I object to in some modern fantasy literature is the degree to which it emphasizes violence—graphic carnage is shown in vivid, sometimes nauseating color, vs. implied in the older forms. Because in the end, being the plaything of a monstrous, reeking, millennia old spider, paralyzed with poison, and eaten alive, isn’t any more comforting than being consumed piece by piece by a swarm of ravenous octopi. But I know which one I’d rather read. And it does not involve cephalopods.

I’ve said my piece on this a few times and have little else to add; I happened to see that Morgan posted that excerpt at his website and thought it provided a timely example of what I was trying to convey in my couple of previous posts on the subject.

Just more food for thought (no pun intended) and a rather lighthearted example in the ongoing realism debate.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Internal, external conflict ignite Cornwell’s The Burning Land

“Our gods prefer feasting. They live, Uhtred. They live and laugh and enjoy, and what does their god do? He broods, he’s vengeful, he scowls, he plots. He’s a dark and lonely god, Uhtred, and our gods ignore him. They’re wrong.”

–Bernard Cornwell,
The Burning Land

Conflict — internal to fictional protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and external to blood-soaked, fire-ravaged Britain — burns brightly in The Burning Land, the fifth and latest entry in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, a partially fictionalized chronicle of the real-life Viking invasions that swept Dark Ages Britain.

A Saxon-raised-Dane, Uhtred is a microcosm of the rough mixing of Christianity and pagan culture that occurred in war-torn ninth century Britain. Uhtred is a Saxon whose father was killed in a Danish raid. Taken prisoner as a thrall to the Dane Earl Ragnar and raised hard, he nevertheless grows to love the Danes. Although they’re ferocious raiders, the Danes drink deep of life, scorn Christian virtues of humility and pity, and worship the pagan gods of Thor and Odin (they expect less of their followers than the one God, and leave more leeway for fun).

But Uhtred’s loyalties are torn. His hereditary home is the Northern kingdom of Bebbanburg and his peoples are Saxon. Over the course of the series he comes to respect the coldly pious and serious, but brilliant and fair King Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great) and at times reject the occasionally murderous habits of the Danish warlords.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A few thoughts on The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists

In joining with it seems everyone else on the internet I thought I would weigh in on Leo Grin’s The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists . I felt reluctant to do so at first and I still feel that way to some degree, since I respect Grin and the wonderful work he’s done at The Cimmerian, and I much prefer to comment on art and not the man (or woman) behind the works. But that’s what I’m doing here, commenting on the essay itself. So here goes.

Leo seems to be drawing most of his flak for the political commentary in his post. He would have been better served (in my opinion) to keep his post to a critique of art. But in his defense Big Hollywood is a political website and he feels passionately about that stuff. He's a big man and been at this for a long time; like it or hate it he said his piece.

I am not as adamantly opposed to grimly realistic fantasy literature as Grin, even if its terminus is “nihilism.” I’m on record as liking A Song of Ice and Fire. I have had Joe Abercrombie on my to be read list for quite some time. I enjoy some of this stuff as a palate cleanser.

That said, I don’t prefer a steady diet of realism in my fantasy (one Red Wedding is enough, thanks). As I’ve said before the new wave of shock and awe/ grim and dark/whatever you want to call it fantasy literature is not inherently better or more adult than stuff like Tolkien and Howard. In fact, I think it’s the work of an adult to try to make something of this life, not revel and roll about in the muck. Fantasy literature can shock, surprise, and provide edge-of-your-seat storytelling. It can strive to present an accurate depiction of the squalor of Medieval life and the terrible carnage of the battlefields of the era. That’s all fine. But it can also aspire to something more, and at its best it does.

I often ask myself: Why do I like fantasy? I like swords and armor and medieval settings. I like wizards, as long as their magic is dark and mysterious and unpredictable. Monsters are cool. In other words, I like the trappings of the genre. Although, like Grin, I also don’t have the patience anymore for multi-tome epic fantasy, which is why I studiously avoid series like The Wheel of Time. Tolkien gets some flak for starting this trend, but the hardbound The Lord of the Rings I have sitting on my bookshelf checks in at a slim 1,008 pages--all three "books" (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) combined. To put that in perspective, Martin’s A Storm of Swords, alone, is nearly as long as LOTR.

I also like books that have something to say about the human condition. Tolkien does, and Howard and Poul Anderson do to some degree. I just finished listening to the audio book of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men: While not fantasy, that book certainly does. While it has many other fine qualities, I’m not so sure I can say the same (yet) about A Song of Ice and Fire. Then again maybe I'm being too hard on Martin; I think what he's doing with the character of Jaime Lannister for example is pretty amazing.

I also like fantasy works that are mythic. This is much harder to explain or quantify. It’s what draws me to Anderson, to E.R. Eddison, to Tolkien, and also to newer works like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Perhaps a better question to ask is, why do I like myths? Maybe because they provide a framework for how the world works, other than everything is crap. I already know that politicians are corrupt and war is hell; what else do you got?

In the end I have a hard time explaining this stuff, but I do know that works like The Steel Remains don't feel particularly mythic to me. They feel ordinary and de-mythologized, and not very, well, fantas-tic.

Friday, February 11, 2011

We've got singing dwarves...

So Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is retaining a part of Tolkien's novel that I thought would surely be left on the cutting room floor: The singing. Courtesy of The One "Thirteen Singing Dwarves and a Very Funny Hobbit".

From the article:

Many fans have been wondering whether 13 dwarves would become a generic mass in the film, or whether they would be fleshed out in the script to have individual personalities.

Dwarf actors William Kirchner and Peter Hambleton spoke on that: “We are thirteen distinct and strong personalities – but we are an ensemble as well”.

Speaking of ensemble, the dwarves confirmed they’d be doing their own singing. “It’s all staying very close to the book – yes, there WILL be singing.”

I've got to say that this is rather heartening after the less than stellar news I'd heard about this "Itaril" character. Although it morphs into a rather serious tale by the end, The Hobbit is much more lighthearted and whimsical than The Lord of the Rings. As such I'm glad they're keeping the singing, even if it's just "Far over the misty mountains cold; To dungeons deep and caverns cold." The deep-throated dwarven song in the dark of Bag End is one of my favorite scenes in the novel.

As I've said before I’ll be there on the opening night of The Hobbit, hoping that everyone involved in its making has the sense to hew closely to Tolkien’s story. It’s a simple formula, and therein lies success.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grails: Quests of the Dawn: Or, where’s my knights, dude?

In John Boorman’s Excalibur there’s a scene in which an ailing, aging King Arthur prepares to send his knights on the quest for the holy grail. With his warriors assembled about him, faces grim at his pain-wracked appearance (or perhaps the prospect of not returning from said quest), Arthur whispers a final, cryptic order: "Only the grail can restore leaf and flower. Search the land, the labyrinths of the forest, to the edge of … within.”

The holy grail is as much a concept as a cup. We assume the knights are looking for an actual, physical vessel, but Arthur’s hint suggests that the quest is a search within the individual—the voyage of a soul seeking spiritual perfection. Excalibur is a film steeped in Arthurian lore and it practically demands at least some cursory knowledge of the myths in order to make complete sense of it. That’s one reason why I like it so much. The other is that it’s got knights riding around in armor fighting, jousting, and in general causing a ruckus. It’s smart and delivers on the battle scenes, too.

It was with images of armor-plated knights riding out on a great quest that I eagerly dug into Grails: Quests for the Dawn (Roc, 1994), a collection of 25 short stories and a handful of poems by such greats as Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, Mercedes Lackey, and Neil Gaiman, as well as many other lesser literary lights. Alas, my anticipation did not live up to reality. Grails: Quests of the Dawn gets it half right, delivering stories about broken characters in search of healing. But it comes at the expense of, well, knights. There are precious few in the book and as I recall only a single sword is drawn in anger (Brad Strickland’s “The Gift of Gilthaliad”). Most of the stories in fact don’t even take place during the Middle Ages but instead opt for modern or in some cases pre-medieval settings.

Now, lest I be accused of being a literary lowbrow, as I said previously I get the symbolism of the Grail Quest. But couldn’t we get the literary bits after Launcelot whips up on a half-dozen would-be robbers in the Forest Sauvage? Too much to ask, I guess. You won’t find the clash of sword and lance or the quickening heartbeat that betokens impending battle in Grails: Quests of the Dawn.

Despite my complaints about its lack of blood and thunder there are a few worthy stories in this collection. Neil Gaiman’s “Chivalry”, a story about a kindly old woman who finds the grail in a second-hand shop but doesn’t want to relinquish her prize so quickly to a handsome young knight, is very good. So is “Atlantis” by Orson Scott Card. The latter does not feature the grail, though it does include a famous (waterborne) vessel. It’s a clever retelling of the Noah’s Ark/flood story and how that begat the myth of Atlantis. There are a few other decent entries too. “Greggie’s Cup,” though a bit telegraphed, is a heartwarming story about a child with special needs who befriends a ghostly Launcelot in the ruins of an old castle, as the latter rejoices to find a trusting, non-judgmental spirit in whom he can confide. Alan Dean Foster’s “What You See … ” would fit nicely into a Year’s Best Horror anthology with its E.C. Comics’ “you reap what you sew” harsh morality tale of an ending.

Unfortunately there are an equal number of stinkers, too. “The Awful Truth in Arthur’s Barrow” is 25 pages of mildly interesting buildup to a bad punchline, the world’s worst pun. A few other stories felt like cloying Hallmark Channel fare.

I was eagerly looking forward to Gene Wolfe’s entry “The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun” but I must admit I was left scratching my head at this (symbolic? lunatic?) story about a farm boy who leaves his drab home life to seek adventure on a whaling ship out of New Bedford. When the crew lands on an uninhabited island he decides to remain and a talking ape named Jacko (not making this up) takes his place among the crew. Wolfe is a great writer but has a tendency to veer off into rather strange territory at times. If anyone has read “The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun” and has a theory of what it’s supposed to mean, drop me a line.

Grails: Quests of the Dawn has a companion volume that I have sitting on my shelf: Grails: Visitations of the Night, though I’ll admit after volume one I’m not so keen on starting. Karl Edward Wagner (author of the savage Kane stories) is one of the contributors, so I may take up the quest yet, hopeful that it may satisfy my less than noble spirit, which yearns for a little action in its fantastic tales, too.

Final verdict: Three out of five stars.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Realism does not equal adult: A followup

My Thursday post generated a lot of comments here and on Black Gate and some personal e-mails, which was great, but at least one person didn’t seem to understand my argument or feel I made it clearly. I’ve also had a few additional thoughts on the subject. So here goes.

My main point was (and remains) that realistic fiction does not equal adult fiction. If someone writes a story about elves and dragons in which violence is de-emphasized, and another writes about humans killing each other graphically with swords in a faux-medieval/historical setting, the latter is not inherently more adult. I define adult in this context as a work that appeals to mature, adult sensibilities. As I stated in the article The Lord of the Rings grapples with very adult issues, as does The Once and Future King and Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series. In contrast, The Steel Remains struck me as rather shallow and without any insights on the human condition. In fact it seemed purely reactionary, written as a grimy, alternative viewpoint to traditional stories of heroism. It certainly features a much higher degree of graphic violence and sex and shades of gray morality, but these elements alone do not make it a superior book for adults.

Some enjoy this style of fantasy fiction, obviously. Others don’t like to have their noses mashed in suffering, to be immersed in cities that resemble the worst of our own urban decay, and stories where (almost) everyone dies. This type of writing is certainly realistic, but is it more adult, is it a more serous form of literature? What do these works seek to accomplish? Unlike the three works of traditional fantasy I mentioned above, reading The Steel Remains did not cause me rethink my life, the nature of my humanity (providing examples of what it could be, instead of the depths life frequently descends into), or my place in the universe. It merely reminded me of the worst life has to offer. There are no heroes: A hero is just someone who is stronger or better with a sword than another. Concepts like honor and principled stands are meaningless. Materialism is king and all else is relativism.

To reiterate, I’m not opposed to realism. As I said in my first post I like A Song of Ice and Fire quite a bit. I plan to finish it (if and when Martin gets around to it). Although I will add that I found A Feast for Crows to be a marked drop in quality, in part due to page bloat and a weakened narrative thrust, but perhaps also because many of the characters I cared about were killed off. I lost interest in reading POV chapters of characters with whom I did not identify and in whose fates I was indifferent (we all know what happened to the lone principled hero of ASOIAF).

It’s also worth noting that my argument is partly a matter of taste. I’m not fond of extremely graphic sex and violence in my casual reading. I’m certainly not a prude; I love reading about historical combat and my interest is piqued by weaponry and armor and tactics and the like. But I have a problem with books that revel in gore, either for shock value, as deliberate reaction against traditional fantasy, or as some ham-fisted metaphor for how the world “really works.” I wrote a post a while back for The Cimmerian about my disturbing venture into the dark recesses of horror films, and while I’m not equating The Steel Remains with Cannibal Holocaust the theory is the same.

Right now I’m reading Bernard Cornwell’s The Burning Land and there’s a scene in which the Dane Harald tries to force Uhtred to give back his captured wife Skade. When Uhtred refuses, Harald orders a line of Saxon women and children out of the forest and nods to one of his men, who splits the first woman’s head in half with a war-axe. Blood gouts like a fountain and soaks her screaming daughter. The killer moves to the next in line. Uhtred gives up Skade, and the Saxons are whisked offscreen.

Yes, events like these really happened (and still occur in some parts of the world, sadly). This is the ugliness of the Dark Ages and Cornwell doesn’t whitewash it, which is a good thing. Reading Cornwell wakes you up to reality circa 800 A.D. Of course, Cornwell is writing historical fiction, and as such has some obligation to historical accuracy. In another example I rated Flags of our Fathers as a five-star (highest rated) book and that includes first-hand accounts of soldiers who witnessed real atrocities, graphically recounted. I have no problem reading this stuff. I don’t agree with whitewashing history.

But I think fantasy can aspire to something different than historical realism. That’s why I ended my essay with an examination of fantasy and the element of escape, which I think is part of the appeal of fantasy and a quality to be embraced, not shunned. I happen to like this aspect of fantasy. I know realism has been around since the days of REH and Clark Ashton Smith and Glen Cook, but while these earlier authors may be of kind with George R.R. Martin or Richard Morgan, they are often very far apart in degree. I wonder at what point grim, brutal, realistic fantasy ceases to become fantastic, and becomes something else altogether.

Am I off-base here? Do people understand my argument? I’m interested in your thoughts and comments, pro and con.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why realism does not equate to adult (or even good) fantasy

That foul smell in the air? There’s something rotten in the realm of fantasy fiction, and its name is realism.

Two of the blogs I frequent and another one I’ve recently stumbled across have all recently commented on (and lamented about) a new trend gripping fantasy these days: Realism, and the corresponding claim that it somehow makes fantasy more adult and serious.

Lagomorph Rex of Dweomera Lagomorpha says that the new trend leaves him cold: It’s no secret that I dislike the current trend in Fantasy. It’s almost as if every author has decided they will up the misery and muck quotient and see who can make the nastiest world in which to force their characters to try and survive in.

To read the rest of this post,
visit The Black Gate website.