Sunday, August 30, 2020

Masculinity in S&S? It’s complicated

Sword and sorcery is strongly masculine and appeals to men. We can see this same ethos in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the 1980s and early 90s. Take a look at this scene from Predator and ask yourself what it plays to.

The most manly handshake ever, bar none.

And then ask yourself, is this cool? Is it OK to like this? My answer is an emphatic hell yes. Men who read S&S tend to like fictional depictions of violence and strength. As I’ve said elsewhere, dynamism, power, and muscular strength are among the elements that draw me to the work of Frank Frazetta, for example.

Make no mistake: I love this stuff. I was drawn to it as a kid, and inspired to pick up weights to try to look like my heroes of the comics and silver screen. Today I continue to champion and defend it. I push back, hard, against censorious critics who want this type of fiction memory-holed. You can pry my sword-and-sorcery from my cold, dead fingers. There’s a reason I and if I daresay the broader “we” are drawn to tales featuring swordplay, bloodletting, and fast-paced action. These stories tap into the same psychological wellsprings and biological impulses that help explain our love for professional football, boxing, and strongman sports.

Sword-and-sorcery is loaded with beefcake and masculine heroes. Here is a typical description of Conan, from “The Devil in Iron”:

As the first tinge of dawn reddened the sea, a small boat with a solitary occupant approached the cliffs. The man in the boat was a picturesque figure. A crimson scarf was knotted about his head; his wide silk breeches, of flaming hue, were upheld by a broad sash which likewise supported a scimitar in a shagreen scabbard. His gilt-worked leather boots suggested the horseman rather than the seaman, but he handled his boat with skill. Through his widely open silk shirt showed his broad muscular breast, burned brown by the sun.

The muscles of his heavy bronzed arms rippled as he pulled the oars with an almost feline ease of motion. A fierce vitality that was evident in each feature and motion set him apart from common men; yet his expression was neither savage nor somber; though the smoldering blue eyes hinted at ferocity easily wakened.

I’ll stick my neck out a bit, risk the critical axe of politically correct criticism, and say that as a result of its emphasis on violence and power, sword-and-sorcery appeals to boys and men, in far larger quantities than women.

But like life, art, and politics, even sword-and-sorcery is not this simple.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The best heavy metal guitar solo ever

I'm not qualified to render this judgement. I've got the time in to make an educated guess, as I've been listening to heavy metal since the mid-1980s, some 35 years I'd guess. But what I lack is the required breadth. I'm not a big fan of death metal, or black metal, or doom, or some of the other peripheral subgenres, and so can't speak to any solos that might exist in these far-flung corners of metal. Nor was I ever a fan of the true guitar virtuosos. I admire and respect the craft of the Steve Vais, Yngwie Malmsteins, and Joe Satrianis of the world, and admit they are probably the most talented guitarists to come out of metal, but I find I lack an emotional attachment to their music that keeps me from being a fan.

Most damning of all I don't play guitar. I cannot tell you what makes one solo better from another from a learned musician's perspective, and I lack the technical vocabulary to analyze music properly.

So to make a long story short your mileage may very well differ.

But for me, my favorite heavy metal guitar solo and the one that continues to leave me speechless with wonder is Marty Friedman's solo in "Tornado of Souls." I appreciate guitar solos that don't insist upon themselves. I love it when they fit the song, take off from a logical place and return to the rhythm. Friedman's solo almost breaks that spell, but does not.

I recommend not jumping immediately to 2:10 where the madness starts to build, or 3:09 where it becomes a solo proper, 3:28 where it blasts straight up into the stratosphere and parts beyond, or 3:48 where you're like, "what the fuck?" Do it if you must, but realize that this solo works best as the orgasmic culmination of an awesome song. It's worth the 5 minute investment. His skill and artistry and sound are evident right from the electric shocks of the opening notes.

If you're a metal fan and somehow have missed this one, I beg you to rectify that right now. For non-metal fans who appreciate great guitar work, I realize that Dave Mustaine's voice can be off-putting, but don't let that stop you. Just listen.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Canticle for Leibowitz, a review

A nuclear firestorm has caused the downfall of civilization, followed by a wave of benighted barbarism and book-burning. But the wake of the holocaust sees a slow unearthing from oblivion. Monks transcribe the literature of a lost age of mankind over centuries, cloistered in monasteries in the arid landscapes of the Southwestern United States.

This is the world of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s wonderful A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) which I recently had the pleasure of re-reading after a span of many years.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a fragmented read, consisting of three discrete stories separated by centuries of time. Each were short stories originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As a novel this stitched-together structure helps to reinforce one of Miller’s central messages: The painstaking, fragmentary, and precarious state of knowledge transmission and preservation.

At its heart Miller’s book is a re-imagining of what the medieval monks did with classical Greek and Roman literature, transcribing it laboriously and preserving the flame of past knowledge until it could be used in a more enlightened age. While historical monks survived barbarian predation and Viking raids, in Miller’s novel nuclear war and predatory radiation-scarred scavengers are the equivalent of barbarian invasions circa 476 AD. The survivors of the nuclear exchange are subject to a brutal period called the “Simplification,” where mobs of bitter, vengeful survivors attempt to eliminate any trace of the science that led them down the path to oblivion. Books and men that dare to read them are burned and destroyed.

This scenario is played out again in A Canticle for Leibowitz, with the monks of Albertian Order of Leibowitz carefully preserving the old scientific literature, resurrecting an arc lamp from old electrical blueprints. By the second and third act technology has again risen from the ashes.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Checking in with Tom Barber

Tom outside his home.
This past week I had the privilege of dropping in for a visit with the great Tom Barber. As followers of this blog might know, Tom was a prolific fantasy and science fiction illustrator in the 70s and early 80s, with credits on a wide range of paperback titles and magazines like Galileo, Heavy Metal and Amazing Science Fiction. He did that wonderful skull with the rat that we all love, adorning the cover of the Lin Carter paperback revival of Weird Tales (he was never paid for this piece by the way, thanks to a shady agent).

You can find a couple write-ups of my previous meet-ups with Tom here:

Tom dropped out of painting for a few years while battling alcohol addiction, but has since returned with a vengeance, getting some steady work from Bob McLain over at Pulp Hero Press. One of his recent projects was the cover of Flame and Crimson. I was incredibly honored to have someone of Tom’s caliber on the book.

Tom is a fun, interesting dude. We talked for a couple hours about some experiences he had meeting the likes of Harlan Ellison and Andrew J. Offutt at conventions (Ellison purchased one of Tom’s paintings at WorldCon in Phoenix), meditation and Zen states and humanity stuck in cycles of violence, checks bouncing for work he sold to Amazing Science Fiction, and the tension artists face trying to reconcile illustrating for money vs. pursuing their true muse. All while outside on his front lawn, socially distanced of course, and enjoying the sunny 80 degree weather.

The coolest bit to come out of our meet-up is the news that Tom is working on a short memoir of his own for Pulp Hero Press, one that will focus on his addiction years (his “drinking years”) and eventual recovery. The working title is Artists, Outlaws, and Old Timers. As befits the author it will be illustrated throughout with Tom’s own artwork. Tom is still writing the manuscript but is nearing completion. It will contain some amusing scenes from his early days in the late 1960s attending art school and breaking into commercial work, convention life, crazy bohemian days in Arizona, and recovery and lessons learned.

Train to Nowhere
Tom also gave me a look at some of his recent pieces, scanned onto his PC. These include the cover for an upcoming novel by Adrian Cole (a piece called Train to Nowhere; I’m not sure if this will be for a reprint of Cole’s previously published short story or a collection).

Sunday, August 9, 2020

My Father, The Pornographer: A Memoir

Andrew J. Offutt was a complex, deeply flawed man. A resident of rural Kentucky, Offutt was a husband and a father who supported his family with a successful insurance business, a job which he did not love and ultimately abandoned to make the bold leap into full-time writing. He was at one time a promising science fiction writer. He also subjected his children to emotional neglect, held baseless grudges against various personages, lacked a full emotional maturity and cohesive personality, and held a life-long obsession with pornography.

His son, author Chris Offutt, tells his father’s story with incredible bravery and honesty and a raw, pull no punches style in My Father the Pornographer: A Memoir (2016). I found this book to be absolutely fascinating and extraordinarily well-written, and burned through it in a matter of two days.

Andrew J. Offutt was “controlling, pretentious, crude, and overbearing” and spent most of his hours “in the immense isolation of his mind,” according to Chris. He demanded dead silence in the house while he hammered away in his office at this typewriter, churning out content. Chris often took to the woods to escape a stifling home existence.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The "later Leiber"

Recently I re-read The Second Book of Lankhmar (pictured, right), the 24th entry in the Millennium/Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, a series that boldly declared itself comprised of "some of the greatest, most original, and most influential fantasy ever written." And, as I am wont to do, began taking a few notes on a piece of scrap paper, that quickly became a flood, then a formal review. Which I planned to post here.

Yech... fugly, bland cover.
The review got so long and detailed that I split it into two, then offered it up to the honorable Dave Ritzlin of DMR Books. If you haven't been checking out the excellent works Dave has been pumping out, you're missing out. Follow their blog here.

I am told that the posts will appear on DMR Blog on Monday and Tuesday.

The Second Book of Lankhmar includes the later works of Fritz Leiber, including The Swords of Lankhmar (1968), Swords and Ice Magic (1977), and The Knight and Knave of Swords (1988). These latter two in particular are not among Leiber's more popular or well-regarded Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories at least among S&S fans. They are certainly far removed from Leiber's pulp roots and his days writing for the likes of Unknown, and are in my opinion only loosely sword-and-sorcery/heroic fantasy. There is little to no swordplay, they meander, and the adventures are more inward than outward facing. 

But I think they are interesting, and well worth reading at least once. And thinking about. Enriching my reading was Bruce Byfield's Witches of the Mind, which makes a clear-cut case for the considerable influence of Carl Jung on Leiber's stories, particularly after 1960.