Sunday, August 28, 2011

Current reading: A cultural clash in fantasy

So I just finished reading The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, the middle book of the His Dark Materials trilogy. I'm waiting until I read the concluding volume, The Amber Spyglass, before I write a review of the series, so more to come on that later.

I finished The Subtle Knife on Friday and my local library is unfortunately closed on the weekends until September ("summer hours"--when most people have more free time and opportunity to read--go figure), so I pulled the L. Sprague de Camp edited The Fantastic Swordsmen off my shelf and read it in the interim.

Holy cow, what a contrast.

I know some people have no use for genre labels, let alone puzzling out the various sub-genres of fantasy, but if you can't tell the difference between these books beyond the fact that one is a collection of short stories, and the other the middle novel of a trilogy, you must have a tin ear. There's a gulf of difference. Reading these books back-to-back emphasized the stark contrast of epic/high fantasy vs. swords-and-sorcery at its most extreme. Children with mysterious origins and complex destinies involved in a world-spanning conflict against God himself, vs. muscular, wolfish heroes battling Cthulhu-eseque horrors and mad sorcerers... yeah. Describing both with nothing more definitive than "fantasy" is like using the term "sports" to delineate football and golf.

I enjoyed both, though in general The Subtle Knife was a bit of a letdown after the high bar set by The Golden Compass. The Fantastic Swordsmen was almost uniformly excellent, marred by one rather grating flaw. More to come on that book in a review which will appear Thursday on Black Gate.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Golden Compass, a review

I began reading The Golden Compass (1995), Book One of the His Dark Materials trilogy, with a fair bit of reserve—and, to be honest, a slight bit of ill-will. Anyone who trashes Tolkien as Philip Pullman has done automatically starts with one strike against him, in my book.

Then there’s the religious angle. But more on that in a bit.

Despite my inherent biases I greatly enjoyed The Golden Compass, both as a well-written story and as a marvelous work of imagination. Armored polar bears with their own culture? Awesome. Zeppelins armed with machine guns? Very cool. I found 11-year-old protagonist Lyra quite likeable, precocious and resourceful but not amped up with unbelievable girl power or smarts belying her age. The story takes place in a world both like and unlike our own, a parallel universe earth with some familiar geography, flora and fauna, but a different technology level coupled with science-defying magic. Perhaps the most alien feature of this world is that each person is born with a daemon, shape-shifting creatures that seem to be a physical manifestation of the soul. The trouble starts when a shady organization begins to steal children, whisking them away to a laboratory in the north where they are forcibly separated from their daemons, a dreadful process called “intercision.”

If for nothing else, the great bear Iorek Byrnison makes The Golden Compass worth reading. Iorek has a regal past but has fallen on very hard times after violating a taboo. His path back to redemption was one of the most rewarding parts of the novel. Polar bears in Pullman’s universe aren’t just men in bear form but have minds utterly alien to ours. Pullman manages to convey this difference with conviction. Here’s a description of Lyra’s first encounter with Iorek, which also provides a glimpse of Pullman’s style:

A pitted alley beside it led to a sheet-metal gate into a rear yard, where a lean-to shed stood crazily over a floor of frozen mud. Dim yellow light through the rear window of the bar showed a vast pale form crouching upright and gnawing at a haunch of meat which it held in both hands. Lyra had an impression of bloodstained muzzle and face, small malevolent black eyes, and an immensity of dirty matted yellowish fur. As it gnawed, hideous growling, crunching, sucking noises came from it.

Farder Coram stood by the gate and called:

“Iorek Byrnison!”

The bear stopped eating. As far as they could tell, he was looking at them directly, but it was impossible to read any expression on his face.

“Iorek Byrnison,” said Farder Coram again. “May I speak to you?”

Lyra’s heart was thumping hard, because something in the bear’s presence made her feel close to coldness, danger, brutal power, but a power controlled by intelligence; and not a human intelligence, nothing like a human, because of course bears had no daemons. This strange hulking presence gnawing its meat was like nothing she had ever imagined, and she felt a profound admiration and pity for the lonely creature.

I will add that The Golden Compass isn’t perfect. It contains a few too many Deus ex machina escapes. The main baddy Mrs. Coulter at this point is hardly the stuff of nightmares. She reminds me of (no pun intended) a pale imitation of the White Witch, far less diabolic and far less interesting than C.S. Lewis' creation. But overall this is well-written, inspired fantasy.

So the big question is: what about the anti-religious bias? At least in The Golden Compass, I didn’t think it was laid on very thick. At least, not yet. Pullman seems to be setting up the Church (again, not our Church, but the organized religion of this “other” universe) as an arch-conservative, unnatural influence. I’ve read that the first book is the least anti-Christian, but that this element is gradually amped up in the second book, The Subtle Knife, while the third volume is the most overtly atheistic and anti-Christian of them all.

As others have I’ve struggled mightily with the God question. As such, I see no harm in examining both sides of the issue. It’s healthy to do so, in fact. Yet as much as my own faith has waxed and waned over the years, to say that “religion poisons everything” as Christopher Hitchens did is intellectually dishonest, and it remains to be seen if Pullman espouses the same viewpoint. The Catholic Church has stated in no uncertain terms that Pullman’s real agenda is using a fantasy to sell atheism to kids. I’m not sure how I feel about that, to be honest. I certainly can’t comment on whether I agree with this statement until I read the whole trilogy.

I will say this: I don’t think it’s hypocritical to give Lewis a pass for selling children on Christianity while condemning Pullman for selling them on atheism. Why? If Pullman were only showing a view of the world without God, that would be one thing; attacking an existing institution is quite another. Lewis emphasized the positive, Pullman has shown some signs of emphasizing the negative, which I’m not sure is entirely appropriate for a book ostensibly aimed at children. I’m not sure if I’m on firm ground here, but that’s my initial reaction. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts as I get deeper into the series.

I guess it comes down to how much of “the real world” you want in your fantasy fiction. C.S. Lewis has a legion of fans who love his work (me included) and an equal body of critics who actively despise Narnia for its allegorical treatment of Christianity. His Dark Materials is no less polarizing. That to me makes it worth reading, if not necessarily for children then certainly for adults.

Part of me does wonder if this tempest isn’t in the end a moot point. To be honest, I can’t imagine my kids reading these books, and not because of any complaints I might have for the religious angle, but for the simple fact that they’re too bloody complicated. Young teens, perhaps, are the right age to grasp the story and keep track of the plotting factions and the real-world parallels. Not kids. This is far more difficult reading than Harry Potter, for example. Will kids be “corrupted” by His Dark Materials? I suppose it's possible, though I find it unlikely.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Some thoughts on the eve of Conan the Barbarian

I’ve refrained from talking about Conan the Barbarian (2011) until now, despite my love for Robert E. Howard’s works. But now that we’re poised on the eve of its U.S. release, I thought I’d weigh in with my personal hopes—and fears—regarding the film.

The bottom line for me is this: I’m going to do what the studio execs want, which is opening my wallet and seeing the movie. And I might even consider it money well spent. That said, the updates I’ve followed up to this point (your ultimate source is Al Harron’s Conan the Movie Blog) don’t leave me with great expectations.

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

Thursday, August 11, 2011

NPR releases survey results for Top 100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Books

The results are in for NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books survey. You can view the complete list over on the NPR website, but here are the top 10 as selected by 60,000 readers:

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
The Dune Chronicles, Frank Herbert
A Song of Ice and Fire series, George RR Martin
1984, George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
American Gods, Neil Gaiman

I've read all the books in the top 10, though with one caveat--I've only read the first Dune book, as I've heard the sequels aren't very good. (I've got to think that most of the votes were for Dune itself). All in all it's a pretty good list, although I think it's very premature to put A Song of Ice and Fire--which isn't even finished yet--on such a list.

Here's my personal top 10 and where they ended up:

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien (no. 1)
The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien (no. 46, a surprise as I didn't think it would make the cut)
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut (no. 19)
1984, George Orwell (no. 6)
The Once and Future King, T.H. White (no. 47)
Watership Down, Richard Adams (no. 32)
The Conan series, Robert E. Howard (no. 68)
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury (no. 27)
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (no. 20)
The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison (did not make the cut)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Imaro by Charles Saunders, a review

Charles Saunders once stated that the impetus behind Imaro (the eponymous protagonist of his 1980 novel Imaro) was a simple urge to create a character who could kick Tarzan’s ass.

I’m not so sure he succeeded.

First, I’m not entirely convinced Imaro could kick Tarzan’s ass. Second (and more to the point), this bout isn't fought with the same rules and doesn't share a common ring. Imaro is a very different type of work than Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales of the jungle hero, or Robert E. Howard’s Conan, the other character with whom he is frequently compared. While Imaro is a collection of short stories originally published in magazines like Night Voyages and Dragonbane, Saunders attempts something quite different than Howard’s picaresque tales of Conan, or the unending Tarzan sequels Burroughs would go on to write. Imaro provides a clear origin story that Howard never penned for Conan. It also contains the first rumbles of a coming clash of ancient gods, and drops hints that Imaro will be a key player in a world-shaking series of future events. As a result, Imaro straddles the two opposing camps of swords and sorcery and epic fantasy. While it clearly has more in common with the former, in Imaro you can see the beginnings of a mythic tale spanning several books. Saunders continues Imaro’s story in works like Imaro II: The Quest for Cush and Imaro III: The Trail of Bohu, and in 2009 he wrote the concluding volume The Naama War.

By combining swords and sorcery with epic fantasy and placing in the action in the relatively unexplored territory of (an alternate) Africa, with Imaro Saunders created something unique, fun, and well-worth reading. In the rarefied air at the top of the swords and sorcery genre you’ll find writers like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. These guys were so good they spawned legions of barbaric imitators—your Braks and your Thongors, and Amalric the Mangod. Based on my early exposure to the series I would say that Imaro falls somewhere in the middle or upper-third of this pack. Imaro is certainly better written and far more original than Carter’s Amalric and a lot of other short S&S works I’ve read over the years. Though it’s not at the level of a Howard or a Leiber, how many other works are, frankly? If you like swords and sorcery, you’ll like Imaro. I did.

Imaro is a collection of five short stories including “Turkhana Knives,” “The Place of Stones,” “Slaves of the Giant Kings,” “Horror in the Black Hills,” and “The City of Madness.” Saunders borrows a Hyborian Age conceit and sets the action in an alternate Africa named Nyumbani. By placing the stories on a fictitious yet familiar continent Saunders can indulge his fantastic side and do some culture building, introducing us to peoples and landscapes at once familiar and alien (as Saunders says on his blog, Nyumbani was constructed in the appropriate Howardian manner: take the best and most interesting of a variety of cultures and civilizations, mix ‘em together, full speed ahead, and damn the chronological contractions!)

Saunders does a fine job building Nyumbani and its cultures, including the proud warrior tribe of Ilyassai among which Imaro is raised. Saunders provides a glossary at the back so we can reference terms like arem, a six to seven foot spear of half wood, half edged iron, and olmaiyo, the ritual lion hunt that marks the final test of manhood for Ilyassai youth. Imaro mostly mixes it up with human warriors and wild animals but also encounters magic, battling sorcerers and a handful of monsters.

My copy of Imaro is marred by a rather unfortunate cover which de-emphasizes Imaro as black (the guy on the cover could pass as a tan Tarzan) and depicts him fighting some ridiculous hippo-man. I’d like to point out to my buddy Scott (who spent most of last weekend ribbing me with ridiculous questions about the breeding habits of hippo-men, and so on) as well as any other potential readers who might be turned off by the cover that Imaro is entirely hippo-man free. Imaro does fight a creature described as having vaguely hippo-like jaws, but that’s it.

It’s impossible not to get behind Imaro. He’s the offspring of his mother, Katisa, and a unknown stranger from the outside the tribe, a mating which the Ilyassai consider taboo. Katisa accepts exile for breaking tribal law in exchange for the promise that the rest of the Ilyassai will raise Imaro as one of their own. They renege. From his earliest days Imaro is labeled an outcast, an “other” who is bullied and betrayed at every turn. As a result he rarely laughs or expresses affection, even as he matures into a muscled warrior and the mightiest man among the Ilyassai. Fueled by hate and suspicion of his fellow man, Imaro is like a volcano, apt to erupt into violence at the slightest provocation.

But there is more to Imaro than just a bloodthirsty warrior. I was deeply moved by a scene at the end of book two (“The Place of Stones”) in which Imaro rejects a sincere offer to rejoin his old tribe. Saunders skillfully walks a tightrope with Imaro: Will he tread the path of isolation and darkness, forever looking over his shoulder at the awful events of his childhood, or will he accept friendship and companionship and overcome his dark past to become a man? I won’t reveal the answer here, though I will say that Imaro does not have a clear resolution to the question, although it can be enjoyed as a standalone novel.

So back to the most important question: Could Imaro kick Tarzan (and Conan’s) asses? From what I’ve read he’s certainly their equal physically and perhaps is even their superior. Imaro has prodigious strength and speed. He also has an iron constitution and is capable of calling on an inner reserve that allows him to fight when bloodied and exhausted. The Navy Seals complete hell week to allow them to push their bodies equal or beyond any stresses they’ll see in the field; Imaro is able to draw upon mafundishu-ya-muran, a period of warrior training lasting from age five to late adolescence in which Ilyassai boys are taken from their families to undergo a course of brutal Spartan-like training that transforms them into warriors.

So yeah, Imaro is badass, though not invincible. While he’d probably whip up on Tarzan, Conan armed with a sword would cut Saunders’ hero to ribbons, in my opinion (Imaro's fighting style is savage, but rather unskilled). But that said, Imaro is pretty kick ass and I’m looking forward to tracking down a copy of The Quest for Cush.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Get out the vote: NPR poll on top 100 SF/F titles of all time

If you haven't already heard, NPR has an open poll on the top 100 science fiction/fantasy titles of all time. To participate in the poll (you get to pick your top 1o, from which they'll compile the top 100), click here: The results will be announced August 11.

NPR is getting a lot of flack for co-mingling fantasy and SF, not including children's literature (so no Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Hobbit, or Narnia) as well as including a few too many modern authors to the exclusion of some classic titles. I don't mind the first two criticisms so much, but I agree with the latter (four China Mieville titles? Give me a break. And no Poul Anderson--WTF?)

But regardless, what's there is pretty good. Here are the ten I voted for:

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
1984, George Orwell
The Once and Future King, T.H. White
Watership Down, Richard Adams
The Conan series, Robert E. Howard
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Breathing Life Into Dead Gods: The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis

The old gods, when they ceased to be taken as gods, might so easily have been suppressed as devils: that, we know, is what happened to our incalculable loss in the history of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Only their allegorical use, prepared by slow developments within paganism itself, saved them, as in a temporary tomb, for the day when they could wake again in the beauty of acknowledged myth and thus provide modern Europe with its “third world” of romantic imagining.

–C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love

Tracing the roots of fantasy is a fascinating exercise. From whence did works of pure fancy spring? How far back do we go to find their source? Are its origins to be found in works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, or The Iliad and The Odyssey (for a great series of posts on the subject, look no further than Matthew David Surridge’s four part series Worlds Within Worlds ).

In his landmark study The Allegory of Love (1936), C.S. Lewis implies that fantasy’s roots lie not in the classical period, but the Medieval Age. Medieval poets infused “extinct” pagan gods with new life by employing them as allegory. Venus and Mars, Minerva and Jupiter, died and awoke again as concepts, sewing seeds that would eventually give rise to works like Phantastes or The Well at the World’s End.

Go back to the beginnings of any literature and you will not find works of myth and fancy, Lewis claims. Ancient writers wrote stories based on the probable, or events that they believed actually happened. Or they took the marvellous as fact, writing without irony about hippogriffs and sea-monsters. Purely fantastic fiction was unknown (classical poets employed allegory, but not in this manner). Pagan gods as allegory, and the acknowledgement of myth by medieval poets, marked a cosmic shift in artistic technique, paving the paths for writers like Spenser and Shakespeare and Milton and transitioning us to works of pure fantasy. “It is difficult for the modern man of letters to value this quiet revolution as it deserves,” writes Lewis. “Allegory may seem, at first, to have killed them; but it killed only as the sower kills, for gods, like other creatures, must die to live.”

Revelations and gorgeously turned bits of wisdom like these are only a few of the treasures to be found in The Allegory of Love.

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

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My 2011 reading list to date

Here's what I've read so far this year and my ratings for each:

Roots and Branches, Tom Shippey, 4 stars
Legend, David Gemmell, 4 stars
The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett, 3.5 stars
Grails: Quests of the Dawn, Richard Gilliam, Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton editors, 3 stars
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens 3.5 stars
The Burning Land, Bernard Cornwell, 3.5 stars
No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy 4.5 stars
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, J.R.R. Tolkien, 3.5 stars
Resolute Determination: Napoleon and the French Empire (The Modern Scholar), 3.5 stars
The Company They Keep, Diana Glyer, 4 stars
The Desert of Souls, Howard Andrew Jones, 3.5 stars
The Brothers Bulger, Howie Carr, 3 stars
Phantastes, George MacDonald, 3.5 stars
Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, Jane Chance editor, 3.5 stars
One Who Walked Alone, Novalyne Price Ellis, 4 stars
Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazny, 3 stars
Walden, Henry David Thoreau, 4 stars
Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott, 4 stars
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, John Joseph Adams editor, 3.5 stars
Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson, 3.5 stars
The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson, 4.5 stars
The Dirt, Motley Crue, 3 stars
Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs, 4 stars
Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings, Lin Carter, 3.5 stars
The Dark Tide, Dennis McKiernan, 3 stars
Watership Down, Richard Adams, 5 stars
Shadows of Doom, Dennis McKiernan, 2.5 stars
The Darkest Day, Dennis McKiernan, 3 stars
The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis, 4 stars

I set a goal to read at least one book a week in 2011; I'm slightly behind, with 29 titles read through 31 weeks. Still, I'm currently halfway through Imaro and the George R.R. Martin/Gardner Dozois anthology Warriors (I'm listening to the latter on audio), so I hope to regain some lost ground. As I've said before I'm not a particularly fast reader and I also waste too much time idly surfing the internet. Ah well.

If there's anything you want to know about any of the above titles, feel free to ask. The best so far is Watership Down, a re-read. It's a book everyone should read at least once in their lifetime, in my opinion. The worst was Shadows of Doom, the middle third of Dennis McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy.