Friday, July 31, 2020

Of sword-and-sorcery, politics, and the Flashing Swords that wasn't

I'm not naive, and I'm aware that politics leeches into all walks of life, art included. Consciously or subconsciously, ones religious beliefs, political affiliation, or sexual leanings make their way in.

But please for the love of God keep your overt political rants out of my fantasy. It's lazy and I don't like it.

I tried very hard to stay away from politics in Flame and Crimson and restrict my analysis to S&S as an art form, along with the artists, broad themes and conventions, and publishing facts and figures. For many reasons, one of which was made evident today.

Editor Robert Price could have and should have used this opportunity as editor of Flashing Swords 6 to talk about Lin Carter's legacy, the importance of the previous 5 Flashing Swords anthologies, and introduce some hard working new authors to a new readership. Instead he chose to pen an ugly, divisive, political screed, one that will win no one over to his side and is guaranteed to alienate more than than 90% of the book's intended audience. That includes anyone who identifies as a liberal, or a progressive, would prefer to live and let live, is female, or who has a daughter. Or frankly, has a brain.

Sword-and-sorcery appeals to strength, wish-fulfillment, acknowledges our species' fascination with violence, and celebrates self-determination. The subgenre has a history of muscular dudes lording over mounds of corpses, often with a scantily clad female clinging to their muscular thigh. I'm on record as saying I'm OK with all of this--its gorgeous art, I'm a sucker for all things retro, and moreover it's a product of its time. I also think that its OK to like stories about kicking ass, and getting the girl, and carving out one's path from street level thief to King of Aquilonia.

But I think these old S&S tropes can be successfully re-imagined for a modern audience. The anthology Heroic Visions (1983, so not exactly yesterday) for example was based around the thematic concept of strength, whether male or female, mental or physical, and proved that S&S could result in powerful new stories that did not require a muscular barbarian in a loincloth to prop them up.

For the record I don't like censorship. I don't like the implication that, because I enjoy Conan or Kane, I must be a misogynist. When I read old stories that contain casual generational racism or sexism, I apply historical context and move on. I wish more people would do the same.

But Price's introduction is poor, confusing, laughable, completely out of place, diminishes and tarnishes sword-and-sorcery, and has no business kicking off and celebrating what should be a nice relaunch of an old beloved series. We've got to do better. The genre that also gave us C.L. Moore, and Leigh Brackett, and powerful heroines like Valeria and Jirel of Joiry, deserves better.

Feel free to hit me up here or over email with your thoughts or comments. But don't expect more politics on the blog.


Paul R. McNamee said...

Thank you, Brian.

I'm in compete agreement.

And yes, personally Price's screed bothered me, but professionally--as I stated in my retraction--I don't care if it bothered me or if it hit every cultural sweet spot I ever wanted - it did not belong in the introduction to a sword-&-sorcery anthology.

Narmer said...

Thanks for pointing this out.

Matthew said...

I can't comment on Price's introduction since I haven't read it, but we need spaces outside of politics. Not everything has to be a platform for someone's beliefs. And I don't worry about gender roles in fiction all that much. I've enjoyed stories about men rescuing women and kick ass heroines. Robert E. Howard, for example, wrote BOTH.

The Wasp said...

I read one paragraph of it somewhere, and was like, hmm, a little bullhead, but, ok. Then I read on and was like, oof, what the heck?

Paul, I completely agree with you. Whether you like what Price wrote or not, it has no place in S&S anthology. I totally get why and agree, but I hate that you and Charles had to pull your stories.

Matthew, you're completely right as well - politics and cultural warfare don't need to be thrown into every single thing. Can't somewhere be clear of all this crap?

Something else that disappoints me is that Price, someone I have mixed feeling about, but I always thought was pretty sharp acted in such a manner. By the very nature of the stories he selected and the thematic direction he chose for the collection, could have made a similar argument far more cogently and without being a provocateur.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments all. Paul is the very reason I wrote this post: He's one of the authors who asked to have his story pulled due to Price's introduction, which utterly blindsided him.

Lest someone think I'm playing politics here, imagine if you were a republican that had just sold a story to an anthology, and a militant leftist dropped a surprise introduction to your series that clashed with all your personal beliefs. You, the short story author, get tarred with the same brush.

Again, keep this stuff out. As an S&S fan I'd much rather read something I didn't know about Lin Carter, or Flashing Swords, or the "why" behind the new anthology.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

Too right.

Unknown said...

Thumbs up

John O'Neill said...


Well said. I don't come down on the same side of the fence as you -- I think there is a place for politics in fantasy & S&S, and in fact I think there's a lively history of it in the field, from Jerry Pournelle to N.K. Jemisin -- but, man. The problem with Price's intro for me wasn't that it veered into politics, but that it was so ugly.

It wasn't merely a political piece. It was a screed, a full-throated attack on the politics he didn't like, and it was mean spirited, poorly argued, and barely coherent. It wasn't a compelling public statement on how S&S contains positive messages about masculinity, it was a knife attack in a room full of friends.

It was a very, very bad misfire that tars the whole field. Seriously enough that the publisher has rightly pulled the book.

SE Lindberg said...

Spot on. Sharing.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks again guys.

John, despite what I said at the end of my post I will probably need a followup, and another dive into politics and fantasy. What I wrote here was a gut reaction to my disappointment at seeing what could have been an important step in the S&S revival gutted and shot dead in its tracks by Price's ugly rant of an introduction. I don't know where to begin with his defense of pornography (?) in a Flashing Swords anthology, for example. It's embarrassing that this is the best a new S&S anthology can do, and I know it was a grave disappointment to several of the authors.

Politics does have an honorable history in fantasy and sci-fi, but Price's essay was the ramblings of a drunken uncle who makes an ass of himself at the family Christmas Eve party. Maybe that was the intended effect.

Matthew said...

Well, politics has a place in fiction but it is difficult to use it correctly. I've read pieces from both right wingers and left wingers were politics intrudes to the detriment of the story. This is particularly true of gender politics for some reason.

Of course, we are living in age where people have very little nuance in even public discourse.

Robert Zoltan said...

Well said, my friend.

Adventuresfantastic said...

Well said.

While politics does have a place, it shouldn't be in every place. There's a reason why S&S is considered escapism, It's so we can escape from those types of things for a while. Or to put it another way, we need to rest before returning to the political fight. And screeds have no place in that.

Logan Whitney said...

Good stuff, here. May your Sword always remain sharp.

Howard Andrew Jones said...

That was extremely well said.