|The Rings of... Meh.|
Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Monday, September 26, 2022
I was OOO (and frankly, only semi-coherent) this past Friday-Sunday, after a sorely needed guys weekend getaway. Me and four other dudes rented a house on Whaley Lake in Holmes, NY, consuming booze and retelling old college stories. Included in the trip was a stop at Darryl's House, a bar/restaurant owned by Darryl Hall, where we took in a wonderful Foreigner tribute band. If you ever come across Double Vision, check them out, they're highly recommended.
As a result I failed to mention my most recent blog post for Tales from the Magician's Skull/blog of Goodman Games is now up: Stranger Things in the Stories of Michael Moorcock.
I hope you like it. I enjoyed digging out the old AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide for this, and my treasured copy of S2: White Plume Mountain.
Friday, September 23, 2022
Wednesday, September 21, 2022
|Some hanging... much stabbing.|
These books are all over 500 pages, far longer than the lean and mean S&S I typically prefer. I’m not the biggest fan of this type of thing: Epic fantasy/Grimdark, multi-volume series of phonebook sized tomes. With a few exceptions. I’ll gladly read long series from the likes of Bernard Cornwell, for example.
Joe Abercrombie is another exception. I’ll read what the dude puts out. He’s an excellent writer and the First Law are easily among the best books I’ve read this year. His strengths as I see them are:
• Ear for dialogue. His characters speak with unique voices, with each other (not at each other, not in declarative speech, but dialogue), and through the dialogue the plot moves apace. He also adds a simultaneous internal dialogue that reveals the characters’ thoughts simultaneously—which is sometimes at odds with the carefully concealed lies they speak aloud.
• Characterization. A series of this size requires a cast of characters and I would say at least 3-4 are something approaching fully realized. There are characters you remember, including Ninefingers, Ferro, Jezal, Glokta, and to a lesser degree West and Dogman, to whom you can’t wait to return.
• Depictions of violence. If you like battles (who doesn’t?) these are taut, wildly dangerous, unpredictable. Abercrombie is up there with the likes of Bernard Cornwell and GRRM for desperate melees and violence that you can picture as you read it. There is an amazing sequence in which a main character who thinks he’s victorious is suddenly struck in the face with a mace, and after a detour into unconsciousness returns to the horror of pain and disfigurement. Grimdark, but very well done.
A few specific observations and a few critiques.
Abercrombie is at this best when he’s focused on the conflict of human beings and gritty reality, but seems slightly out of his element when portraying fantastic elements. I find his use of monsters/magic not entirely convincing, and not as compelling to read. Which is why his The Heroes resonated strongly with me—there’s nary of whiff of magic in it. I have a hard time picturing what the Shanka look like; they are called “flatheads” but are essentially orcs (I think?)—hordes of cannon fodder with less menace than any of the human protagonists. Likewise Bayaz, a great wizard of the first order, can move things with his mind with a psionic-like power, but it fails to awe or inspire. Bayaz in general reminds me of a much less likeable, highly irritable Gandalf.
I could see Abercrombie morphing into an author of historical fiction. There is a lost Empire of Gurkhul that evokes the ancient Roman empire, of past glories of architecture and construction that can no longer be achieved by the peoples of the current (fallen) age, only glimpsed through ruins. I think he could do a wonderful series set in 6th or 7th century Britain, something like Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy.
Despite the story moving apace, and the general high quality of the prose, the series does not entirely avoid the bloat endemic to almost all high fantasy. Some of the sequences, even when well done, feel like semi-indulgent detours into world-building. I think the overall page count could be safely reduced. Probably more of a preference-thing; some people love world-building. Not really my thing.
A final note: I was tickled at mid-book to read what is essentially a voyage into Moria complete with the bridge of Khazad-dum, a bridge “soaring across a dizzy space in one simple arch, impossibly delicate.” It is a work of some master maker, “undiminished. They shine the brighter, if anything, for they shine in a darkened world.” At one point the group’s guide, Longfoot, launches into an entirely un-Abercrombie-like soliloquy complete with archaic, high language that sounds as if it issued from Boromir or Aragorn, completely different than the rough, coarse, modern dialogue typical of the rest of the book:
“And this is why I love to travel,” breathed Longfoot. “At one stroke, in one moment, this whole journey has been made worthwhile. Has there ever been such another sight? How many men living can have gazed upon it? The three of us stand at a window upon history, at a gate into the long-forgotten past? No longer will I dream of fair Talins, glittering on the sea in the red morning, or Ul-Nahb, glowing beneath the azure bow of the heavens in the bright midday, or Ospira, proud upon her mountain slopes, lights shining like the stars in the soft evening. From this day forth, my heart will forever belong to Aulcus.”
Longfoot is then cut off by Ferro, raining on his parade by calling the sight a “load of old buildings,” which rips us back into the dark narrative. Perhaps Abercrombie (a big fan of Martin, his chief inspiration for the First Law) is taking a bit of a piss out of old JRRT. Interesting, nonetheless.
Saturday, September 17, 2022
Friday, September 16, 2022
What? Saxon has yet to make an appearance on Metal Friday?
Consider that corrected. I could have thrown up something from Denim and Leather but instead went with this straightforward rocker off Innocence is No Excuse.
Love the slow atmospheric build on this. The drums are perfect, as is the guitar tone. Everything I love about mid-80s metal.
It's Friday, we'll be rocking again.
Friday, September 9, 2022
Today's Metal Friday is a cut off Nightfall in Middle-Earth by the great Blind Guardian.
"Blood Tears" is typical of the work on this album... fucking awesome. The tempo changes in this one...wow. At 1:33 the song transforms from an atmospheric and melodic medieval feel, to full-on mosh-pit. Then returns. There and back again.
Tolkien is on my brain a bit more than usual (JRRT never leaves this cranium) due to the recent Rings of Power, which I still haven't watched. Will I? I don't know, I'm feeling very apathetic about it all. I’m not a big TV watcher, but mainly I have no faith Amazon can recreate Tolkien's genius.
But I can say Blind Guardian channeled a bit of it, with Nightfall in Middle-Earth. Enjoy this bit of First Age storytelling. “Captured” and “Blood Tears” are about the capture of Maedhros, Morgoth’s chaining of the Elven hero by his wrist to a sheer cliff in the mountains of Thangorodrim, and his deliverance when Fingon hacks off his hand. Blind Guardian offers a moving look into the mind of Maedhros and the torment and pain he must have experienced:
And blood tears I cry
You've searched and you've found
Cut off your old friends hand
Thursday, September 8, 2022
We don’t always stop to praise others whose stuff we read, or who are doing general good work in the spaces we enjoy. So here’s a shout-out to a few folks who deserve it for their work as S&S champions/commentators/historians/publishers/etc *:
Dave Ritzlin: DMR Books is the premiere publisher of all things S&S/S&P/heroic fantasy, which makes Dave, well, the premiere publisher of all things S&S/S&P/heroic fantasy. For that alone he deserves our praise. But on top of that he curates a must-read website and is a good S&S writer in his own right. Recently he’s been running a series of interviews with contemporary S&S authors, “Independent Author Spotlight,” to champion their work. So I thought I’d champion his.
Deuce Richardson: Deuce is an interesting dude. I have never met him in person but have corresponded with him a bit over the years and had a couple phone calls. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone with a memory like his, or quite as well-read (except for the late Steve Tompkins). His stuff at DMR Books is always worth reading. He never fails to recognize important anniversaries. Strong historian and champion of pre-S&S adventure writers. I love his posts unearthing artwork from artists I know well but whose full catalog I have not seen.
Jason Ray Carney: The hardest working person in this space? I would say, yes, without question. I don’t know how Jason manages to do it, but he’s pulled off a small conference, established awards, edits several amateur magazines (Whetstone, Witch House), started up the Whetstone discord group, writes fiction and non-fiction books and academic essays, edits The Dark Man journal, creates Youtube videos, speaks at conferences, organizes online panel sessions, on and on. Boundless energy and erudition.
Oliver Brackenbury: Oliver has been hard at work bringing new voices to S&S. I’ve enjoyed several episodes of his So I’m Writing a Novel podcast, which has morphed into interviews with a diverse range of writers old and new. He is also the host of Unknown Worlds of the Merril Collection podcast, a moderator on the Whetstone server, and more.
G.W. Thomas: A bit of an unsung hero in this space but deserves greater recognition. Every time I go to Google something S&S related, it turns up something with his name on it. I recently wrote a piece for DMR on S&S in Fantastic magazine and halfway through realized Thomas had already done something similar. He provides encyclopedic coverage of the genre in a fun way for Dark Worlds Quarterly and elsewhere. I’m indebted to his comprehensive, thorough, tireless work.
*There are many others of course but that’s for another post, another day.
Friday, September 2, 2022
|More witches! Art by Jones.|
Anyway, I got to reading these old back issues and that led me where my reading inevitably does—to thinking, and writing. I sent a lengthy article about S&S in Fantastic, including the four L. Sprague de Camp/Lin Carter Conan pastiches that appeared between 1972-75, over to Dave Ritzlin at DMR Books the other day. I expect that to appear on his website next week.
Speaking of pastiches, I recently started reading The Goddess of Ganymede (excellent thus far) and author Michael D. Resnick leads off the volume with this:
To Edgar Rice Burroughs Fans Everywhere
I hope you enjoy reading this Burroughs pastiche as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Finally, I see that we now have a cover of the new Conan novel by S.M. Stirling, Blood of the Serpent. I join a chorus of others in wishing the cover was more classic S&S, a Frazetta-esque painting of the Cimmerian perhaps, but hey, it’s clean, it works, there is a sword on it, and a snake. Two S’s, now that I think of it (too clever by half)? But now this new and latest Conan pastiche feels a lot more tangible.
I tie all of these experiences with pastiches into Deuce Richardson’s recent piece over at DMR Books and it’s got me thinking about this practice as well.
I have mixed feelings on pastiches, and likewise think we need some better-defined terms. Resnick is here using “pastiche” in its original definition, as Deuce lays out “A literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work.” The Goddess of Ganymede is the story of American soldier of fortune, Adam Thane, on a mission to Jupiter. His spacecraft loses contact with earth and is forced to land on its satellite moon, Ganymede, where Thane is embroiled in swashbuckling adventure. Thane finds he can take huge jumps due to the weaker gravitational pull of the planet, encounters red-skinned inhabitants of the planet, etc. In other words, a transparent Burroughs homage/imitation/pastiche.
De Camp meanwhile used “pastiche” as the continued stories of an established literary character by a new author. That term became synonymous with what he and Carter did with the likes of the Conan story “The Witch of the Mists” (August 1972 Fantastic). This is sort of how we all think of “pastiche” today.
My current stance on (De Campian-style) pastiche is: I enjoy them (when done well) and have no problem with others continuing to write new stories of beloved characters. I do think fidelity to the original character/world/lore should be a very high priority. And I’m also of the belief that pastiches should contain a short introduction to the original series or other clear indicator that these are imitations, not the real McCoy, to prevent any confusion with new readers and point them in the direction of the source material. But if you want to write them (and have the rights), have at it. If it's good, I might read it.
Thursday, August 25, 2022
One of my fondest heavy metal memories is seeing Ace Frehley at the now-defunct Underground, a former rock club in Lowell, MA, back in March 1994.
At the time my friend Wayne and I were a few months shy of our 21st birthdays. But we liked to drink (still do), and outside in the parking lot we pre-gamed in good Ace fashion, splitting a 12 pack of Zima.
Yes, we split a 12-pack of that now-infamous malt liquor that (to quote David Letterman) “tasted like Zhit.” It did, but we weren’t picky. As I recall it was introduced that year and everyone was drinking it. It was “Zomething different.” Don’t judge me too harshly.
|Putrid, but fun.|
Inside they were handing out wristbands to anyone 21 and older to ease the sale of liquor (it was dark, and crappy inside, hard to check IDs). But they weren’t checking these too close, and Wayne and I discovered that we could freely buy Bud from the young waitresses working the crowd.
All was going great until Wayne caught the eye of a bouncer with 3-4 songs to go. With a beer in his hand and no wristband, Wayne got tossed. And I had a decision to make.
Shit man, I said to myself. Ace hasn’t played Do Ya yet. Fuck it, I’m staying. And so I did. While Wayne cooled off outside, I rocked out to the encore.
He still gives me shit about it to this day. No regrets from me though.
Anyway, tomorrow night Wayne and I will be seeing 71-year-old Ace again, this time at the Cabot Theater in Beverly. Can’t wait. The Spaceman oozes style, and always puts on a good show.
Ace was always the coolest member of KISS. Never a good singer by anyone’s imagination but he wrote and performed some good material. “Rock Soldiers.” “Shock Me.” “Strange Ways.” “Fractured Mirror.” “Snowblind.” “Rip It Out.” Covers of “Do Ya,” “New York Groove” and “2000 Man.” Live he plays a lot of old classic KISS songs, including “Gold Gin,” a stone-cold classic which he wrote, and “Parasite,” which he co-wrote with Paul Stanley. I think he was a talented guitar player, with a unique sound and style, even though he squandered a lot of that native ability beneath a flood of booze and drugs in the 70s and 80s.
His 1978 self-titled album is duly accorded as the best of the four solo efforts by KISS.
Here's his cool guitar work from “Fractured Mirror,” off that same album.
Wednesday, August 24, 2022
Humans are on a path of upward progress. This is a good thing. We enjoy material comfort and personal levels of wealth unimaginable 200 years ago. We’re living longer, in less pain and with less physical suffering, than any generation prior. I’m not denying the looming potential catastrophes of China saber-rattling and the deteriorating climate. But I’m hopeful that cooler, economic heads will prevail, and the latter will be solved through emerging tech and greater corporate responsibility.
But, we lose things along this path of progress, too.
As a kid growing up in Reading, Massachusetts I had access to a bookstore that was so much more than just a place to plunk down your nickels. My memories are wreathed in a blanket of nostalgia so thick and cloying that they are likely unreliable, but for me and a few friends this bookstore was a place of wonder.
I remember the smell, musty but not foul, the one you get when you thumb the pages of an old book near your face and let the breeze riff your hair. I remember the creaking floorboards under my feet. And the sprawling, semi-disorganized riot of it all, old and new titles and wild and fantastic covers colliding in color.
This bookstore carried tons of comics, all the new stuff on display, but reams of back issues, boxed and bagged, ripe to explore. Its book inventory was mostly second-hand, and I was eventually able to buy most of the Lancer Conans and many other old paperbacks too. Dungeons and Dragons and other assorted role playing games could be had. It carried Dragon and White Dwarf, which allowed us to keep up on the RPG news of the day. This was a place to learn.
Money was a limiting factor so we’d spend a lot of time looking through the massive collection of books and comics, reading, observing. I would eventually buy 3-4 issues of Savage Sword of Conan, perhaps, as many as I could afford, and trek home, barely able to contain my excitement at the reading I had ahead. I would stop for a can of soda at the firestation. This had a side door, open to the public, and the soda machine was programmed I think for 40 cents a can, 15 cents less than the corner drugstore. That’s a big difference when you’re living off an allowance or lawn mowing wages.
I’d go home, put my feet up on my desk, and get lost in the Hyborian Age, or the Avengers mansion, or the weird stories told in Heavy Metal or Epic illustrated magazine.
Life was moving slowly, but it was great.
You probably know what is going to happen next. That old bookstore succumbed to soaring real estate values. The owners probably couldn’t afford the rent anymore, or it might have been that the book traffic was getting sucked to the malls of a couple neighboring towns. I don’t know. But one day it closed, and eventually the building in which it stood along with a few other businesses was razed, and replaced with a … bank. Commerce won the day.
This was near the time that the likes of Barnes and Noble and later Borders were eating up all the book traffic. But soon even those far more standardized, safe, generic bookstores that ate up the little guys would themselves suffer the same fate, succumbing to the grinding wheels of Amazon and online efficiency and convenience.
Maybe I’m just romanticizing a time that I’ll never get back to, or I'm becoming an old fart. Probably both. But I feel like I’m not just reliving lost and fond memories of childhood, but rather remembering a real time that was markedly different. One where I could just be. Before the Great Distraction.
The internet and its subsequent rapid adoption and proliferation has changed the nature of human interaction in ways we really don’t understand. Life was moving slower then. We learned differently, through books and word of mouth, inherited wisdom, or a once daily newspaper or evening newscast. Not an iphone. I know others feel like I do, that sustained reading is much harder today than it used to be.
We were also seemingly much less angry. Yes, humans fought a lot, in terrible wars. But the long spaces between were not filled with what they are now, unending nastiness and pettiness and virtue-signaling and screaming about injustices and offenses, 24-7.
We’ve lost something that we will never recover.
J.R.R. Tolkien understood this. We move from magic to modernity, from superstition and myth to reason and science, and lose something beautiful. It’s inevitable, and many new things are beautiful, but during this process we discard the old. And it’s sad.
It’s OK to mourn and honor the past, even as it slips through your fingers.
Sunday, August 14, 2022
Friday, August 12, 2022
With their shields and their swords
To fight the fight they believed to be right
Overthrow the overlords
To the town where there was plenty
They brought plunder, swords and flame
When they left the town was empty
Children would never play again
From their graves I heard the fallen
Above the battle cry
By that bridge near the border
There were many more to die
Then onward over the mountain
And outward towards the sea
They had come to claim the Emerald
Without it they could not leave
Thursday, August 11, 2022
Wednesday, August 10, 2022
A good idea? Or, should politics be avoided? Can it ever be avoided, when authors are humans and presumably possessed of some political bent, lightly or tightly held?
I think politics can be de-emphasized, and unless you’re setting out to write something like Gulliver’s Travels, think it usually should. Good writers show, not tell, which means showing life in all its richness and complexity, including the non-political sphere (it exists). But shorn of anything remotely considered political your writing runs the risk of being bland. Or becoming the Weird, otherworldly variety of Clark Ashton Smith’s wildest stories.
Getting political cuts both ways. For the liberal who’d like to see something closer to socialism implemented, punching up at corporate overlords through their fiction has understandable appeal. The bad guys can be Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. But the perceived war on white men, capitalism, and the embrace of identity politics, has brought with it authorial counter-reaction from conservative authors.
Doing this type of work requires sophistication and a deft hand, or else it comes across as crass, activist screed. I don’t like reading painful, on the nose allegory. If you choose to write about the politics of the day, within a few years when the next leader is elected, you will find that your stories have aged, fast. Your clever references to political figures and hot-button issues will be rapidly outdated, obscure. Which is why I generally recommend either avoiding overt political messages, or better yet, focusing on reality—life as it actually exists, in all its forms, across the political spectrum and in the non-political sphere.
J.R.R. Tolkien was influenced by the events of his day, his Catholic upbringing, his World War I experiences (and World War II, despite his disavowal)—in addition to great swathes of non-political input including his deep knowledge of languages and medieval literature. But his stuff resists easy analysis. Is The Lord of the Rings conservative? In some respects, yes. A king is restored to his throne at the end. The Scouring of the Shire brushes up to outright critique of socialism. But the story is also about a multicultural fellowship who put aside their differences to beat a dictator. It reveres environmental preservation, critiquing the rapaciousness and industrial pollutions of Saruman. In other words, it depicts life in its richness and complexity. In so doing it presents glimpses of the truth, not a subjective political message of the day, which is one of the reasons why that work endures.
If you’re a writer, getting overtly political is one way to appeal to an audience, find your tribe, sell books. Certainly there is an appetite for all things political today. But it runs a risk. For example, in an anthology your tribe may discover other authors embrace views antithetical to its beliefs. The crudest example of this is the Flashing Swords #6 incident.
I keep going back to Howard for how to do this the right way (or at least the way I prefer my fiction). Are his Conan stories political? In a broad sense, yes. We can read Conan cutting through corrupt judges and monarchs as rebellion against the established order, a counterreaction to the injustices wrought by the Great Depression. But they are not direct critiques of Herbert Hoover (or maybe they are; if someone makes the case I’ll read that essay). They take a much broader, longer view of the course of human history, offering a dark view about the cyclical rise and fall of civilization and the imperfections in human nature, which makes them far more dangerous and memorable than mere of-the-day political commentary. It’s part of what has made Howard’s stories last. As has their non-political elements, like Howard’s incorporation of the literature of the west, and the Texas landscape.
I also think Leiber is instructive. Leiber’s critique of civilization was more subtle than Howard’s, his view of barbarians less romanticized (see “The Snow Women”). Rime Isle, the heroes’ end, was perhaps his statement on the need to break away from gods and cities, religion and politics. Perhaps old Fritz was on to something here, even though I found most of these latter stories wanting. Which maybe tells you something about our inability to ever flee reality.
I have said that my credo is literary freedom, and I stand by it. If getting overtly political in your fiction is what you want, it’s well within your rights, under the First Amendment. It should be this way.
If you want to write about a hero who rips down a wall built by a dictator, and opens the borders to a suffering neighboring community, you might be meet with cheers (from some). Others will boo your effort. How about a story about a barbarian who hacks his way through crime-plagued inner cities, solving violence with violence? Will you/should you accept that story?
Be prepared for criticism, both of the unfair/ugly variety from readers with axes to grind, but also of the thoughtful kind who see things from a different angle.
Life is lived in the middle. Political theory must meet reality. If you can live with that, have at it.
Saturday, August 6, 2022
Tom Barber was kind enough to send me a few more digital images after my recent visit to his home and studio a couple weeks ago. I'm posting them here with his permission, appended with a few comments.
Enjoy the hell out of them. I sure did. I'm particularly fond of the first. That's talent, folks.
|This is Harlequin, the band/friend of Tom's mentioned in my prior post. Not the Harlequin from Canada. Started in Florida and ended up in Boston.|
|Compadre of the skeletal warrior from the cover of Flame and Crimson.|
Friday, August 5, 2022
This Metal Friday will actually be a Live Metal Friday. Of the Hair Metal variety.
Tonight I trek into Boston to Fenway Park to see an quadruple bill of aging 80s rock legends: Joan Jett, Def Leppard, Poison, and Motley Crue.
I have seen 3 of these 4 bands separately (never Jett) and each was fun. Nothin' But A Good Time, you might say. But, put them all together and you've got fireworks. You might have to Kickstart My Heart at this show-stopping lineup.
I'll stop there.
As anyone who follows this blog knows I'm much more a fan of what I call (in an admittedly gatekeeping/obnoxious way) real heavy metal, bands like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, etc. But, I do like pop metal/hair metal too. I have to be in the right mood, which is usually Friday or Saturday night with plenty of cheap cold beer.
Both boxes are checked, all systems go. Let me get through today and then I'll be time-traveling back to the 80s. There's a shitload of fun, rocking hits from these bands that regularly make my playlists. Can't wait to hear them again tonight.
For today's song, I'll go with "Same 'Ol Situation (S.O.S)." Always loved this one.
Wednesday, August 3, 2022
Sword-and-sorcery continues to show stirrings, and life. Outlets like Tales from the Magician’s Skull, DMR Books, new projects like Whetstone, New Edge, etc., are publishing new authors and new stories that embrace its old forms and conventions. Obviously the genre ain’t what it used to be circa 1970, but who knows what the future may hold for us aging diehards.
I speculate on some of the reasons why S&S died off in Flame and Crimson (which, by the way, just surpassed 100 ratings on Amazon—thank you to everyone who took the time to rate or review the book, as these help with visibility in some arcane, Amazon protected manner). I won’t rehash them all here, they are available in the book.
What I haven’t written as much about is why Grimdark filled the void, what makes that genre popular with modern readers, and what we might have to learn from this transition.
First, I am of the opinion that Grimdark is the spiritual successor to S&S. One of them, at least. I agree with the main thrust of this article by John Fultz. S&S has many spiritual successors, from heavy metal bands to video games to Dungeons and Dragons. But in terms of literature, the works of Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, and George R.R. Martin, bear some of the hallmarks of S&S, while also being something markedly different.
I believe this occurred as part of a natural evolution within S&S, with some things gained, others lost. As occurs during the general course of all progress.
First, I think this shift mirrored a broader cultural change. If we accept that Grimdark is marked by graphic depictions of violence, as well as a bleak/everyone is shit/might is right outlook (grossly simplified), then we can see what was acceptable in the 1950s-early 70s was different than what we saw in the popular culture in the 1990s and into today. Heavy metal was born in 1970 with the gloom and doom of Black Sabbath, before Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, then Metallica and Megadeth and Slayer, took the form to 11, giving the hard rock of the late 60s/early 70s a much harder, darker, aggressive edge. Popular westerns went from the tough but heroic John Wayne to the spaghettis of Clint Eastwood, reaching a culmination in Unforgiven that essentially deconstructed the genre and cast the “hero” in a very different light. War films gave us Platoon instead of The Longest Day. Frank depictions of sexuality also became acceptable. Essentially “the culture” decided this shift, artists and directors and musicians needed to break norms and explore new territories to keep their visions fresh and original. It’s a natural process, the way art always evolves. But things are lost, old forms abandoned along the way. S&S was a casualty.
I also think the ascendance of Grimdark mirrored a change in publishing trends. Grimdark borrowed from high/epic fantasy in form and length, and with its emphasis on world-building. This aspect is less appealing to me, for the most part (I love Tolkien, but I think very few if any authors have done the world-building aspect of Tolkien as well). But it seems many fantasy readers love getting lost in worlds and so gravitate toward multi-volume series. I won’t argue with that impulse, though I think a really good writer can accomplish that with few words and deft sketches of detail. Trilogies and stretched-out stories offer a far more reliable and lucrative business model for publishers and authors. But less cynically they also allow for greater character development, a thought which struck me during a recent read of Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself (Glokta and Logen Ninefingers and Jezal all feel very real, and three-dimensional, as we consistently read/hear what they are thinking). Again, some like this aspect of fiction, some don’t. S&S can do this, and has, albeit across multiple stories (see Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), but it’s not a typical hallmark of the subgenre. But readers seem to want that, hence our fascination with origin stories, identification with characters "like us" rather than larger-than-life or abstract heroes, etc.
The general cultural trend of amplified violence and post-Vietnam war-weariness led to grittier literary material like David Gemmell’s Legend and Glen Cook’s The Black Company. Before Martin gave it full life with A Game of Thrones and his multivolume A Song of Ice and Fire, and Joe Abercrombie picked up the torch with The First Law trilogy. And we have what we have today in Grimdark, a sort of mash-up of S&S and epic fantasy and other influences.
Grimdark’s ascendance doesn’t mean we can’t have S&S too, with its greater emphasis on the short form, wonder and weirdness, and less emphasis on world building and cast of characters stories. But whether it will become commercially viable again remains to be seen. Baen is about to give it a shot with its signing of Howard Andrew Jones, and Titan Books set to publish a new Conan novel.
Thursday, July 28, 2022
Wednesday, July 27, 2022
Literary freedom is my credo. With very few exceptions, I think you should be able to write whatever you want.
What does this look like in practice? It means that 99% of the time, people will use this sacred right to create stories or write essays or draw pictures about rocketships and rayguns, spies and intrigue, or knights and swords, and life is good.
But it also means that, 1% of the time, someone will write a story that someone will object to, and all hell will break loose.
For example, let’s say you want to write a spy story with a protagonist who is a sexist, i.e., an old school James Bond-type who has dalliances with women that later are dropped unceremoniously out of the picture after a night of passion. Something that harkens back to an older age.
Or, let’s say, you want to want to write a sword-and-sorcery story with a powerful, gay, female protagonist who kicks ass, and smashes jerky men’s faces in. Then she gets the girl at the end. Something that defies or upends old genre conventions.
Should you not be allowed to write that character? Some readers may be offended.
My position? Fuck no. Have at it.
Let me provide an analogy for someone who thinks I’m just defending S&S. I am of course, but I have no problem defending other genres that I have no interest in, because literary freedom is my credo.
Romance is a billion dollar industry. 84% of its 29+ million readers are women.
But as I understand it, some romance caters to stereotypes, because that’s what some of its readers want. We know what they are. Shirtless buff dudes, handsome, full set of hair. Great lovers. Flush with cash. Hearts of gold.
Now, were I more sensitive, I might say, I’m offended by the depiction of men in some of these stories. These are standards I don’t live up to. I wish I were more buff, and wealthy, and my hard heart was softer.
Are these stereotypes harmful to men? Some might say yes.
Personally, I don’t find it harmful, but mostly, I don’t care, and if someone wants to read it, have at it. Moreover, I think reading a book, (almost) any book, is superior than consuming passive entertainment. So please do read your romance novels, if you love them. Even the trashy ones.
I’ll be over here reading my trash S&S, with the barbarian who throws the gal over his shoulder after hacking through hordes of Picts. And we’re all happy.
I do think psychological harm is a thing, but I also think it’s far too subjective to do anything with. Something that you find hurtful will not be hurtful for me, and vice-versa. Rather than seek to eliminate anything potentially offensive, and sacrifice artistic freedoms, or place neutering guardrails on fiction, my preference is, leave it in, and buyer beware. I’m also of the opinion that you shouldn’t deliberately be a dick, and write fiction designed to needlessly provoke people. But again, your definition of a dick or edgelord will always differ from mine. So again, I’m erring on the side of freedom of expression.
To minimize offense, I’m also perfectly OK with warning labels. “Warning: Old Pulp sensibilities” on a cover of a book works for me. I finally got to watching Stranger Things season one (it’s good BTW), and every episode starts with a list of things in it that you might find harmful. Violence, swearing, smoking. I’m fine with this approach. It’s an elegant way around a thorny problem. We can keep in the stuff of that period—yeah smoking was incredibly prevalent in the 1980s—by letting you know in advance that it’s coming. Feel free to turn it off if you have impressionable young kids. Us adults can make up our own minds.
This is where I fall. YMMV--and I respect that, and you.
If you think this stance makes me a closeted bigot defending racism, sexism, etc., or “betraying sword-and-sorcery sensibilities” by not gatekeeping, that’s your prerogative. You don’t know me, or what I believe in, how I vote, etc. I don’t exist to make you, or the world happy. Not my job. I’d rather spend my time following my bliss, wherever that leads me. I am aware that this attitude may not make me welcome in some communities, may keep me out of some anthologies, etc, whatever.
My advice: Follow your heart, read what you love, support what you believe in. Vote with your dollars.
I’m going to answer a few questions that naturally arise with the stance of literary freedom.
Am I saying you can write blatantly, provocatively racist shit? I really wish you wouldn’t, as you’re hurting yourself, other people, and the communities in which you work. Have at it, but if you want to be an asshole, know that the market will decide, the public will have its say, and you’ll be out your commercial career. I also don’t think this is a wholesale problem, in fiction.
Do I think you can write literally whatever you want? The answer to this is no. I draw the line when writing promotes actual, physical/material, in the world harm. For example, a how-to manual for child abduction, or instructions for breeding Anthrax in your basement and shipping it undetected to your local politician. Please don’t write these things. I'd be OK with someone dropping the ban-hammer.
But as for fiction? My tolerance is way higher.
I’m not interested in adjudicating edge cases or arguing who is the club because of what they write. I’d rather spend my time in a positive manner, for example discussing good stories and why they work. Writing about interesting literary tropes, styles, and historical trends. And yes, even keeping old works of dead authors alive, because the positive things they bring to the table far outweigh the negative. I’m glad to see publishers reprinting old pulp stories. Add a helpful introduction that contextualizes the racism and sexism, or a warning label, and then let the reader decide.
It’s fruitless to codify what every “ism” means and what is acceptable vs. non-acceptable. Any definition that boils down to “whatever I think is racist/sexist/ageist” etc. is untenable, beyond slippery slope. A slope that plunges you off the side of Mount Everest to a fiery doom. Trying to do so kills communities from infighting, ends careers for authors who make inadvertent mistakes. Take a glance at the Hugos and you will see a community eating itself from the inside out.
This is a thorny problem to write about, primarily because it is aligned with political thought, and politics inevitably make their way in. Authorial freedom naturally aligns with the likes of John Locke, and the exaltation of the individual; writing with group unity in mind strikes me as Rousseau-ian, where our rights are indistinguishable from the cohesion of the state. But, because this argument comes up again and again in every community I frequent, I thought it worth clarifying my own thoughts, and produce something I can point to, when the argument inevitably comes up for the 4000th time.
In summary: Write what you want.
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Saturday, July 23, 2022
|Nice and stabby|
Friday, July 22, 2022
Wednesday, July 20, 2022
Saturday, July 16, 2022
Monday, July 11, 2022
Friday, July 8, 2022
I'm a wild child, come and love me
I want you
My heart's in exile I need you to touch me
Cause I want what you do
I was never a big W.A.S.P. fan, even back in the day when they had their day as a heavy hair metal/shock rock band, tearing out of the Los Angeles heavy metal scene like a bunch of leather-clad bikers.
But this one? 1985's Wild Child? Yeah, big fan.
Simple, great energy, propulsive, outstanding guitar tone. Badass lyrics. Basically everything I want in this type of song.
As an aside, whomever made this video probably deserves a medal of freedom or something. Outstanding work here, extraordinary visuals to supplement the kick-ass vibe of this tune.
Wednesday, July 6, 2022
|A couple shots of Bar Harbor|
Friday, June 24, 2022
|From Mustangs to modernity... looking forward, and back.|