Thursday, March 31, 2011

LA Times brings the snark to A Game of Thrones preview

Every time I think I’ve moved on from the fantasy/realism debate, someone drops the gauntlet and I find myself back in the thick of the fray, giving and receiving hard blows in turn. The latest exchange stems from this preview of the upcoming HBO miniseries A Game of Thrones, courtesy of the LA Times:

Based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels, the 10-episode saga is a high-stakes move for HBO — an expensive leap into spectacular fantasy for a network whose reputation was built on nuanced, character-driven dramas geared toward adults.

So … ASOIAF is a risky move for HBO because it’s fantasy, and therefore cannot be possibly be nuanced, or character-driven, or geared toward adults. Good to know.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Steve Tompkins, still missed

Today marks the second anniversary of the death of Steve Tompkins.

Every so often I catch myself wondering "what would Steve have thought of X?" With X being, The Hobbit filming finally begun, A Dance with Dragons publication date finally announced, the latest ridiculous essay criticizing REH on the web ... and on and on.

His voluminous and always interesting and enlightening essays are missed. And so is he. As always though you can find a treasure-trove of his work here.

“Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!”

--J.R.R. Tolkien

Friday, March 18, 2011

Falling for the allegory trap: Why J.R.R. Tolkien was not a technophobe

It’s a curious but real phenomenon that the very mention of J.R.R. Tolkien causes the Black Gate to open and the critics to issue forth, wielding blunt instruments against a black and white facsimile of The Lord of the Rings that must exist in some alternative universe from the one I inhabit. Scenting a whiff of something they don’t like, these axe-grinders turn the waters of measured Tolkien criticism into a bloody feeding frenzy where the victim, sadly, is nuance.

A few examples of these blunt criticisms include:

  • Aragorn on the throne: Tolkien is a monarchist!
  • Orcs are evil: Tolkien is a racist!

Here’s the latest: Tolkien criticized the factories of Saruman and Sauron? He’s a technophobe, and an enemy of progress!

Tolkien is often accused of having a black and white view of the world in his fiction. The irony is that his critics are quite often screamingly guilty of the real McCoy, taking up the argument that you have to be either “for” unbridled progress or “against” it. This line of reasoning was crystallized by David Brin in his 2002 essay “J.R.R Tolkien: Enemy of Progress” and recently given second life in a poorly-written fan fiction treatment: Kirill Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer. Because Tolkien is not 100% behind modernism—that he actually dared to evince an equivocal view of “progress”— in the minds of Brin and Yeskov he’s a full-blown Luddite worthy of dismissal by the adult reader.

There’s a grain of truth here, of course. But like much of the other Tolkien criticism you encounter on the web it’s a grossly allegorized reading and a rather despicable simplification of the truth of the matter. By truth, I mean the facts of Tolkien’s life, and, more apropos to the discussion, the text of Tolkien’s fictions.

Tolkien was not anti-industry. He didn’t particularly like it, he thought industrialization and urbanization wrought as much harm as good, but he did not advocate that the world remain in some quasi-medieval stasis. He recognized progress as inevitable, but he thought it was as much cause for weeping as joy (see pollution, and urban decay, and global warming). He evinced nostalgia for his home and its mill by a steam, swept aside by progress. He expressed a calm, mature, adult dislike of some forms of progress, but not a blanket reactionary dismissal of it. That certainly does not make him an enemy of progress, like Brin famously and wrong-headedly declared.

There are plenty of examples of Tolkien’s nuanced, lukewarm views of technology. For example, he actually welcomed the idea of a movie made out of LOTR (imagine that—he liked moving pictures on a screen as a medium for stories, not just ancient scrolls read by the light of a candle!) He wanted to see his books published and distributed (not locked up in monasteries and preserved by monks for a privileged minority ruling class—wow! I didn’t know that! He saw the value of publishing companies and publishing and distribution technology! Shocking!) He was in many ways an enlightened thinker: a college professor whose prime years were spent as a philologist, seeking out the objective truths of words, their derivations and meanings, in a hard, lonely search for truth and objective meaning that the great figures of the enlightenment (perhaps even Brin) would have appreciated.

This viewpoint is also to be found in the books. The Rings of Power, if you consider them a form of “technology,” had their good and useful purposes--until corrupted by the One Ring, which you might call absolute power/unbridled technology (whose altars right-thinkers like Brin and Yeskov prostrate themselves before). The creations of the Noldor Elves in The Silmarillion were wonderful and beautiful, an elevation of civilization. Tolkien himself believed that sub-creation was an exalted right of mankind. But his beliefs were tempered with the apparently audacious notion that innovation should be coupled with restraint.

At the end of The Lord of the Rings the Third Age draws to an end. A time of magic and wonder passes from the world, and the Fourth Age is heralded in. Middle-earth passes to a time of men, and systematized education, and modern conveniences, and beneficial science. Tolkien, even in his fantasy world of Middle-Earth, knew that life went on, and must go on, for better or worse. But just like life, he also believed that change is not always for the better. In Tolkien’s time mechanized warfare, industrial pollution, and the threat of atomic annihilation offered compelling proof.

But apparently this nuanced view is not enough for some of his critics. A sad glance over his shoulder at the receding past? Reactionary! His mates and best friends mowed down by machine guns and choking on mustard gas and blown up by high explosive and shrapnel? That’s reality, deal with it! A dislike for mechanized warfare and the minds and factories that think up and churn out infernal weapons? How dare he! A preference for horses instead of the belching smoke and noise and stink of motor cars? Technophobe!

I’d like to ask Brin and Yeskov: Is this viewpoint really so hard to understand? Is nuanced discussion dead? Must we throw wide our arms and unequivocally embrace every aspect of technology and urbanization? Must we kneel before the altar of progress instead of expressing a simple preference for fields instead of parking lots, or trees instead of skyscrapers? Do we have to “pick a side,” or can a middle ground exist, like we find in Tolkien?

Apparently not. History is “written by the victors” (what a tired, galling cliché) says Laura Miller in her fawning "review" of The Last Ringbearer on, and so Tolkien’s mistaken views apparently require “correction” for a modern audience.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Desert of Souls, a review

“We should talk more, you and I,” he said, “about storytelling.”

–Howard Andrew Jones, The Desert of Souls

The Desert of Souls is the debut novel of Black Gate magazine managing editor Howard Andrew Jones. About ¼ of the way into it, I thought aloud: You’ve got to be kidding me. A debut novel? Jones’ Arabian Nights-style adventure has the polish of a cut diamond, and the finish of a veteran author.

The Desert of Souls is a proper fantasy, albeit placed in a historical setting, so there’s magic, undead monsters, god-like snakes, and more. I haven’t encountered a djinn on the printed page since my old AD&D days, and was pleasantly flooded with memories of Oasis of the White Palm as I read. The Desert of Souls features two heroes, Dabir and Asim, who spend large part of the book in near-death situations in pursuit of the wizard Fifouz, who plots to visit an ancient curse on a modern city.

Jones has an excellent sense of pace and an affinity for a tale properly told. Not rushed, but told as a story should be told, as though novelist and the reader were drawn up around a campfire with the whole night ahead for stories. A lot happens in The Desert of Souls but it’s not told breathlessly; the pace is languid at times, quick at others in Asim’s first person narrative. It’s also unabashedly optimistic, a welcome relief in these often dark times of current fantasy offerings.

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

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ten years of Dungeons and Dragons, Mach II

This May will mark the 10th anniversary of my return to Dungeons and Dragons, all with the same group. I’m not sure how we’ll celebrate the occasion, though we were joking at our last session that we might do something crazy and … play a game of Dungeons and Dragons or something. Maybe we’ll show up in hooded cloaks or armor.

I haven’t posted about RPGs in a long time here on The Silver Key, mainly because I haven’t had a whole lot to say. I never got embroiled in the 4E controversy because our group never made the shift. These days I’m a player, not a DM, and I generally just go with the flow. But this recent article on and our impending 10 year anniversary has prompted a few thoughts on why I continue to play and enjoy this uncommon pastime.

This is my second go-round with D&D and the longest unbroken stretch I’ve ever played. Like most folks of my age (37) I started with the Tom Moldvay Basic boxed set, which in 1982 I begged as a gift from my parents. I would have been nine or 10 years old at the time. While the cardboard box is long-gone I still have the tattered red rulebook and my original copy of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, from which I will not be parted even unto death.

Back in those grade school days I played a heavy rotation of games, peaking in middle school. I played mostly D&D with a group of friends but we also occasionally branched out into games like Car Wars, Runequest, Middle Earth Role Playing, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret. Our gaming wasn’t limited to after school sessions and late nights on the weekend, either. My middle school offered Dungeons and Dragons as a Friday afternoon seventh-period elective, for which I eagerly signed up. Yes, we got to play D&D in school! I was typically the DM, refereeing up to 10 rambunctious players at a time. We ran through modules like Pharaoh and In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords and White Plume Mountain with gusto. I remember another group next to us in which everyone was an assassin and they spent the whole game rolling on the assassination tables and killing each other off. It was glorious.

I continued playing into high school but my gaming soon tailed off. Sports, drinking beer, heavy metal concerts, etc. took priority, and I shelved my books. I can recall another aborted 2E session later in high school that didn’t last long.

I dabbled in D&D a little bit in college, playing a few sessions with a gaming club and attending my first con, Total Confusion in Worcester, MA. That would have been 1993 or so. But when I graduated college and got married I shelved my books, possibly for good.

But around 2000 or so my interest in the game was rekindled by the issuance of 3.0, which promised a “back to the dungeon” approach. Around that time I also discovered EnWorld and its “Gamers Seeking Gamers” webpage. Via messageboard and e-mail I arranged to meet with my future DM and another eventual co-player on neutral turf, an interview over beer to ensure we had compatible interests and were not complete lunatic freaks (aside from the fact that we played D&D, of course). When I told my wife I was going off to a smoky local bar to meet up with a strange man to talk D&D she thrust her cell phone into my coat pocket (at the time I didn’t own one) in the event I got abducted. I wasn’t.

With our mutual fears allayed we arranged and played our first game in May of 2001. We’ve been gaming ever since. We’re happily plugging away with 3.5 edition, three book core with a few house rules thrown in, in a long-term home-brew campaign in which our characters recently reached eighth level. We also have another 3.5 game going in the Forgotten Realms, though it’s been a couple years since our last session in the FR. In between we’ve had few one-shots of D20 modern, a couple boardgaming sessions, and even a romp through a 3.5 version of The Tomb of Horrors (which I had to miss, sadly). In general I prefer the older versions of the game because they have far more flavor and are better reads, as I spend more time reading rule books than actually playing. But 3.5 works fine.

I’ve had a lot of fun these past 10 years. Our original plan was to game every other Saturday, but commitments and life in general got in the way. Now we’re good for maybe one Sunday a month.

Like most other role players I’ve given a lot of consideration to the question: why play? If you can get the same experience reading, watching movies, or playing computer games, why play D&D and other tabletop RPGs? What’s the appeal? Why am I still interested in the hobby after all these years?

Here’s my take: What makes RPGs unique is the aspect of collaborative storytelling, entering into a shared space of the unscripted unknown. You’re not reading a novel, you’re creating a story as you play. The tale you spin can run the gamut from brilliant to low brow, from serious to the comically ridiculous. The vagaries of the DM, player decision, and random die-rolls make every game unpredictable.

D&D is rarely boring. I don’t take it too seriously—some prefer earnest, immersive characterization and shrewd tactical play. Me, I like laughing and poking a little fun at fantasy tropes. I enjoy rolling critical hits and also failing saving throws at the worst possible time.

Some of my favorite times are those in which we had to extricate ourselves from our own messes. Carelessly walking into ambushes. Getting swallowed by a purple worm and having to cut myself free. Getting shoved off a bridge by a hill giant and falling onto a rock outcropping surrounded by lava. And so on. At other times we’ve smashed the DM’s big bad evil guy in a round or two and laid waste to his plans, too. Again, you never know what will happen, only that it’s rare to have anything go according to plan.

The other appeal of playing D&D is the out of game camaraderie. Getting together for a session gets me out of the house and among the company of like-minded individuals. We drink a few cold ones, eat good food, talk about books or films, and laugh a lot.

So yeah, once a month I play an Elf. But it’s been a lot of fun.

Happy anniversary guys (and gals).

Forth now, and fear no darkness! Tolkien in his own words

Courtesy of Miguel, former co-blogger on The Cimmerian, this amazing find from HarperAudio: Four audio clips of J.R.R. Tolkien reading selections from The Lord of the Rings.

I've never heard these before, and did not expect I'd ever have the opportunity to listen to Tolkien thundering out Theoden's speech before the charge on the Pelennor Fields.

Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

Awesome stuff. Thanks Miguel.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Drinking in the demonic energy of Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun

If you like the sound and rhythm of words — and if you’re a hopeless J.R.R. Tolkien junkie — you’ll like The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Lacking either of these prerequisites, you probably won’t. And there’s not much more to say than that.

Casual Tolkien fans likely won’t buy The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, and even semi-serious fans who have tackled The Silmarillion may lack the appetite for it. It consists of two long poems, around which are sandwiched an exhaustive introduction and a pair of lengthy explications/footnotes, the latter written by Tolkien’s son Christopher. Added together, this additional material is longer than the poems themselves.

The real reward of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is its wonderful language. The poems—“The Lay of the Volsungs” and “The Lay of Gudrun”—are composed in eight line alliterative stanzaic metre. Reading them makes me wish I knew the native Old Norse Tolkien of which Tolkien spoke so admiringly; the modern English is pretty darned powerful already.

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 releases poll results for best SFF novels of the decade recently polled its readers on the best SFF novels of the decade. The results are in (analysis here) and the top ten include:

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Blindsight by Peter Watts
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

I’ve only read three of these, two of which I liked (A Storm of Swords, American Gods), and one I’m rather indifferent about (Perdido Street Station). I’ve heard a lot of good things about Anathem and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and intend to read them one day. But unfortunately as I’ve said before there’s so much fantasy on the market, both new and old titles, and not enough time to read them all. I know I’ll never get to all these titles, sadly enough. is featuring essays about the novels on their blog. The first is up: An appreciation of American Gods by novelist Patrick Rothfuss. Rothfuss had the same reaction to American Gods as I did: He can’t quite explain why it works, only that it does, and it’s pretty brilliant. A couple recent commenters on The Silver Key expressed their dislike for AG but I’m glad to see it get some love over on I enjoyed it a lot.

George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords is a bloodbath of a book with perhaps the most painful scene I’ve read in a fantasy novel. It made me not want to continue (though I did manage to finish it). It’s extremely well-done gritty fantasy, if you like that sort of thing.

I freely admit that I don’t get the appeal of Perdido Street Station. It’s dark and byzantine … and, well, dark and byzantine. I found the characters unappealing and the plot meandering. The slake-moths were kind of cool and New Crobuzon was well-done, though.

What are your thoughts? Have you read any of these? Any you’d recommend? Any head scratchers/notable absentees that didn't make the list?