fantasy, complexity, myth-building, and ground truth

I wrote most of this a while ago and then, for reasons I don’t really understand, left it in the Dustbin of Not-Quite-Finished Drafts. But a post from Phil Tucker knocked some of these thoughts loose again. So here we go.

The first thing I did with my Christmas Kindle was download Steven Erikson‘s book, GARDENS OF THE MOON. I did this because I was in the mood for a big epic fantasy series, but I hadn’t gotten into one for a while, in part because of physical constraints on what I can carry on the train; and because I’d been hearing good things about Erikson, starting a long time ago with this SALON article by Andrew Leonard. I’m into THE BONEHUNTERS now, and my experience is more or less the opposite of Leonard’s; I think GARDENS OF THE MOON is a really excellent book, but instead of finding myself “more and more willing to trust Erikson,” I’m finding myself a little bit frustrated with the fusillade of new characters, new history, new continents, and so on — and then, when the old ones come back, I’m frustrated again because I don’t really remember what Quick Ben and Kalam were up to, what I’m supposed to know about Fiddler, &c. I say this only because some kind of reviewing sentence seems apropos here; what I’m really interested in isn’t Erikson, but Leonard.

“Successful fantasy does not require magic swords, or the triumphant overthrow of whatever Evil Dark Lord of Black Shadow Midnight Murk is currently torturing the poor denizens of Happiland. It doesn’t even require a subplot involving a teenage boy (or increasingly often, girl) who becomes a Man (or Woman) while on a dire quest to find (or destroy) the Holy Trinket.

“Give me, instead, the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative. There’s no need to spell it all out; no prefaces, please, elucidating the history of Middle Earth as if to students in a lecture hall. Instead, give me a world in which every sea hides a crumbled Atlantis, every ruin has a tale to tell, every mattock blade is a silent legacy of struggles unknown.”

“Readers of “Gardens of the Moon” are confronted with a world where very little is explained as it happens — like the characters in the story, we have to piece together what is going on from cryptic utterances by gods and warlocks and seers and the fragmentary record left behind by the detritus of previous empires. To leapfrog this process by making sense of it would defeat the purpose of the author.”

First, as Leonard acknowledges, there are magic swords (and at least one anti-magic sword), quests, and dragons; he does not acknowledge, although it is the case, that there is at least one Dark Lord of Black Shadow Midnight Murk, and although he observes that there aren’t many teenagers, two of them are main characters who are definitely discovering themselves and growing up. I observe this by way of suggesting, not that Erikson’s fantasy is in fact derivative or lazy, but that it isn’t the tropes per se that are the problem with the fantasy that Leonard doesn’t like.

(As an aside: Both Leonard and Stephen King tar Robert Jordan with the “peddler of derivative mass-market dreck” brush, with an explicit accusation of hobbit-baiting from King, and I just don’t buy it. Jordan has a reasonably well delineated set of Good and Evil characters, which can be tiresome, but his heroes face the kind of Sophie’s choices, realpolitik issues, and intermittently victorious inner demons that Leonard praises Erikson for evoking, and his world and cosmology are, if not his own, certainly not all that derivative of Tolkien’s. Jordan has serious problems — with women, most notably, and organization, and a certain flaccidity of prose — but, again, it’s not the tropes. And, by the way, whatever his flaws, it’s not as though David Eddings is obsessed with elves and dragons either; there’s a fair amount that’s original in his work as well. It’s tempting to use tropiness as a shorthand for poor quality because [a] it’s easier to score points on that than, say, prose style or deftness of character, and [b] everyone except nerds will believe you. But it really is beside the point. George R. R. Martin has fucking JOUSTS in his books; Pat Rothfuss’ child-prodigy street urchin has leveled up to sex with ninjas. It doesn’t have to be your thing. But it WORKS.)

Now that we’re back on the right side of the parentheses: The point of the extensive blockquoting above was to flag what Leonard likes about Erikson. He likes trope-avoidance, although again, the tropes are not all that assiduously avoided, and it’s not clear that they should be. (To be fair, Erikson also has lots of nonstandard characters, like military sappers, a fence, a sort of twisted Virgin Mary, a philosophical zombie, etc.; and his tropey characters often subvert expectations. But it’s plausibly argued that this latter treatment is more the rule for tropes than the exception.) He likes the complexity of history and society deftly suggested rather than presented as lecture or timeline; he likes the complexity of personality and moral judgment well and thoroughly explored.

Which brings me, finally, to my point — what fantasy is Andrew Leonard reading?

I have a perspective here, and by now it’s pretty obvious, so let me try to defuse accusations of bias: I know I pick books a certain way. Broadly, I go for things that Michael Moorcock praises in WIZARDRY & WILD ROMANCE and don’t go for things he pans. Moorcock introduced me to Gene Wolfe, K. J. Bishop, and Jeff VanderMeer; he speaks well of Fritz Leiber and China Mieville, and has an entire chapter on Tolkien titled “Epic Pooh,” in which I think he also lumps Narnia and WATERSHIP DOWN. The principle generalizes fairly well to, “I read what writers I like, like.” Wolfe alerted me to Jack Vance, Samuel Delany to Joanna Russ; Neil Gaiman bounced me over to Nalo Hopkinson; Pat Rothfuss has raised Peter Brett to my awareness, although I have yet to read THE WARDED MAN; another reason I picked up Steven Erikson was that he’s engaged in mutual blurbsturbation with Glen Cook. I guess the point is, I am mostly not going to the fantasy shelves and picking based on covers or blurbs or whatever; I have a reasonably-sized backlog and a relatively sophisticated scheme for adding to it, which amounts to a biased sample. And I’m aware that this is true, not because I am a superior human being, but because I am a bit of a genre whore. So when I say “what fantasy is Andrew Leonard reading?”, it’s not meant to be read with some silent pejorative (“that cotton-pickin’ muggle”) prepended to his name. But it is meant to be a gentle suggestion that, if he can’t come up with even a handful of writers who break the strictures of genre fantasy he finds so tiresome, it may not be because they don’t exist.

And it’s meant to point out that these things he’s praised in Erikson as exceptions to the rule are actually kind of viewed as best practices. And it’s meant to point out that, if I went to the “literature” shelf in the bookstore and made a bunch of generalizations about the “genre” based on random selections, a reasonable person would respond to those generalizations, not by disputing that my sample approximates the mean, but by opening up the world of possibilities — by pointing me toward the good stuff. And, along the way, that person might point out that my call of “Give me psychological depth! Give me beautiful language! Give me the human heart in conflict with itself!” is in fact amply, if not on average, answered by the body of work I thought deaf to it.

The tor.com blog hosts a fair amount of vitriol about genre these days (or did back in late 2009/early 2010). I’m not super-comfortable with the politics of the idea that sf readers have a particular skill set that non-sf readers don’t — it may be true, it just doesn’t sit well with me, especially given that sentiments of similar condescension seem to undergird the occasional spurts of intolerance from the community. And it’s not apparent to me that “mainstream” readers and viewers especially need crutches to deal with mainstream literature’s borrowing from the sf toolbox — THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION did just fine among non-sf readers, as did THE WEST WING (which is an alternate history, with the facts of its uchronia revealed subtly and at necessity as in the best sf). As did THE HANDMAID’S TALE, as did NEVER LET ME GO, &c &c &c. And let’s not even speak of YA, which is pretty much 100% post-apocalypse and paranormal romance these days. If your common-or-garden teenage Barnes & Noble customer can read sf by the boxload, I don’t think we have much to congratulate ourselves about.

So I’m not much interested in the critique of the sf and fantasy genres from the literary side, and I’m not much interested in the critique of literary fiction from the genre side. Controversial, I know. And if I can attempt to induce a little bit of wisdom about it, I think both critiques come from a sophisticated reading of one’s own side and a nonselective or indiscriminate reading of the other.

To which, happily, the only possible remedy is more reading. Because there really is no shortage of top-shelf books out there. Not even close.

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7 thoughts on “fantasy, complexity, myth-building, and ground truth

  1. Hola senor,

    I’ve been mulling my answer to your response to my post for a few days now. To my despairing cry, “Where’s the fantasy?” you answered quite calmly, “On the shelf”, and left me going, “Oh, right.”

    Which is to say, I clearly need to catch up with my reading. My sense was skewed by my tending to focus on authors who wrote their speculative fantasy a while ago; beyond Mieville I’ve not really read too many modern authors (K.J. Bishop aside). Wolfe, Vance, Harrison, Delaney–they all seem to belong to the 70’s and 80’s, at least the works of theirs that I have truly enjoyed (Dhalgren, Vircionium, Book of the New Sun, Demon Princes, etc). So I’m behind when it comes to what’s hitting the presses today.

    I clearly need to play a little catch up. You got any recommendations for recent authors? I’ve heard good things about Chiang, Bacilgalupi, and some others, but anybody leap out?

    Also, since it’s late, I’m going to post a second response to the main body of your post here tomorrow. That shall have to suffice for now.

  2. Recent stuff I’ve really liked:

    George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books (starting with A GAME OF THRONES), Pat Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle (starting with THE NAME OF THE WIND) — those are the two that use extremely typical fantasy elements really well. Obviously there’s a lot that’s fresh about their writing, not least the writing itself; either of them can write circles around Jordan, Weis & Hickman, and the rest of the mainstays of our late-90’s fantasy adolescence. Martin knows a thing or two about medieval history, I think, and Rothfuss has just geeked out on his world so carefully and lovingly (and presented the results of that geekery so lightly) that you can’t help but be drawn in.

    I think I’ve mentioned Jeff VanderMeer before, and he’s blurbed you, so you’re presumably aware of him. I’ve only read CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, but his other stuff is definitely on the list.

    Steven Brust has been around for a while and should be so much bigger than he is. THE PHOENIX GUARDS and FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AFTER are probably his best work, but his Vlad Taltos books (starting with JHEREG, set in the same universe) are great as well.

    Neil Gaiman is good, but I don’t think any of his novels are better than SANDMAN.

    I’ve also heard good things about Chiang and Bacigalupi but I haven’t read their stuff. For sf, Minister Faust’s first book, COYOTE KINGS OF THE SPACE-AGE BACHELOR PAD, is fantastic, and Dexter Palmer’s THE DREAM OF PERPETUAL MOTION is very good. And if you like Gene Wolfe, you should really read Carla Speed McNeil’s FINDER series (comics, the first few volumes of which are coming out in collected editions). Warren Ellis’ TRANSMETROPOLITAN (also comics) is an enduring sf classic as well. For magic realism, Haruki Murakami.

    I always feel bad that those who jump to mind when I’m recommending stuff are men, and mostly white, but unfortunately I’m not really up on recent women authors. People do speak quite highly of N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Catherynne M. Valente, and Lauren Beukes; I’ve read a bit of Nalo Hopkinson and didn’t really connect, but she’s definitely a good writer. (Maybe I should make a 2012 pledge to educate myself on women in sff…)

    Recent phenoms I would stay away from, given admittedly relatively brief exposure: Brandon Sanderson, Peter V. Brett, Brent Weeks. I wouldn’t say “stay away” from Suzanne Collins (THE HUNGER GAMES) and Elizabeth Moon (THE SPEED OF DARK), but I would say they’re both overrated. Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen will suck you in and wring you out — I think it’s mounting toward a pretty good conclusion, and there’s some beautiful writing and great comic dialogue, but he’s juggling so many balls that you get mentally exhausted. Like, you’ve got seventeen plotlines running on two continents already, and then four giant books in you get eight MORE plotlines on a NEW continent. I think it may be physically impossible to actually understand what’s going on the first time through. So… be careful?

    • Excellent list. I’ve read the first few books in Martin’s series, and while I thought they started off with a bang, I slowly lost interest around book 3. While many seem to revere Danery’s plot line, I found it endlessly tedious as she continuously failed to realize her revenge on the Old Country or whatever, and just seemed to march endless around dealing with frustrations. Tyrion of course is a delight, and Jon Snow balanced earnestness with cool, but slowly the books failed to capture my attention as… well. It’s as if the fun of the first book got lost as Martin took the endless ramifications of his plotl ines ever on and on…

      I read THE NAME OF THE WIND, and while I liked it, it didn’t sweep me away as it seemed to everybody else. It was solidly written, entertaining, but I didn’t see what was so innovative or original about it. I would have given it a solid four stars, but more than that? I don’t know. Perhaps you could elucidate on its incredible appeal?

      Vandermeer: absolutely need to read more of. Brust–I read THE PHOENIX GUARD in highschool, but remember nothing about it now. I still own it! So shall reread.

      I’ve read Gaiman pretty exhaustively, but agree, Sandman was tops.

      No read Minister Faust no Dexter Palmer, but shall soon remedy that. I tried reading the first issue of TRANSMETROPOLITAN and found it too self-consciously hip to take seriously. Warren Ellis was clearly high on his on awesomeness, too obviously so for me.

      Haruki Murakami = awesome. Read most of his stuff.

      I’ve read the first novel in Jemison’s trilogy, and while I enjoyed it greatly, I got into a bit of a disagreement with her about how two dimensional her villain was. Her argument to me was that every novel needs a villain that’s just a villain, and I disagreed. Not read Okorafor, nor Valente or Beukes. Nor Kelly Link, which I hear is a crime.

      I just recently finished reading Sanderson’s WAY OF KINGS, and I’d be curious to hear why you advise me to shy away from him. It was everything that I wanted Jordan to be writing that he didn’t: complex, massive, great characters, intricate world, complex history, everything, in fact, that Leonard praised in Erikson’s novel.

      Also read Suzanne Collins’ HUNGER GAMES, which I enjoyed (though I hear is very derivative of a Japanese movie called Battle Royale), and I loved Moon’s PAKSENNARION novels in the 90’s. Have your read those?

      Thanks for the list though–going to definitely start working on it after I polish of TALE OF GENJI.

      • A swift point-by-point:

        ASOIAF has problems, and if you thought they were bad in book 3, I’d counsel you to skip books 4 and 5. It gets worse. What keeps me going is the history. Martin is really deft at pacing and sequencing his exposition, especially in the first few books, and the great thing about his work versus anyone else’s is how personal it all is. Robert kills Rhaegar at the Trident and nothing is ever the same again, for anybody. It may not be realistic, but I’ll eat it like pancakes.

        Also, if you didn’t get to Edmure Tully’s wedding in ASOS, I would at least read that far.

        TNOTW — I’m not sure I can elucidate. The difference between four stars and five is hard to pinpoint. I’ll wave at history because it’s what’s on my mind — what is up with the Chandrian, how did the world transform from this place of Gilgamesh-type epic heroes to its current humdrum Renaissance character, who is the king and why was he killed, &c. I’m perhaps not as much of a plot-slut as this would suggest, but wrap it up in language I like and characters I’ll buy, and I really do love it.

        I started TRANSMET in midstream, which may have helped. It doesn’t hang together as well as it should, some of the motivations and plot points are muddier than they should be. But the guy does have a genuinely crazed imagination and, once he gets past the obligatory Hunter-S-Thompsonoid flexing and stretching in Spider Jerusalem, a real voice.

        HUNGER GAMES is OK, but agreed, totally YA BATTLE ROYALE (I’ve read the book but not seen the movie). Haven’t read Paksenarrion, although it sounds familiar.

        As far as Brandon Sanderson: I’m going mostly on ELANTRIS, which admittedly was his first novel. But the characters were thin, the world was thin, the plot was silly, the love interest was forced (perhaps obligatory when the characters are thin), the names are unusually laughable even for fantasy, and the magical gimmick-cum-MacGuffin at the end was clever but not satisfying. I think I sampled MISTBORN and TWOK and was still not impressed by the language, so quit. But perhaps I will give TWOK another go. I will say that I’ve been favorably impressed with Sanderson’s work on WoT (although I give him about a 15% chance of wrapping up Tar’mon Gai’don in the one book he supposedly has left), so I’ll concede there’s evidence that he can do a good job.

      • I stopped reading ELANTRIS mid-stream. I liked the premise, I liked the setting, but he failed to flesh it out as you said. TWOK however benefits from his apprenticeship under Jordan, where you can really see how he took Jordan’s best qualities and made them his own. Sense of vast and ancient history with many ages? Check. Ancient figures of incredible power that have fallen into legend but liable to show up and cause havok by book 3? Check. Careful interweaving of different POV’s so that you get a panoramic view of the world as the plot progresses? Check. I think he’s come miles since ELANTRIS, and urge you to check it out.

      • So I went through my Kindle sample of TWOK again and the problems are language and exposition (as well as his fantasy names, which continue to grate for reasons I can’t quite define). The guy just has a tin ear at the sentence level — I’m paging through and finding “The varied, unsynchronized chimes made a clangorous din,” “The colors were soft, with a washed-out, subdued tonality,” “Pain. So much pain!”, &c. The one that leapt out at me last night was “Wine is the great assassin of propriety and tradition” — which is a fine sentiment, but you can’t stuff your epigrams like that, they’ll burst. “Wine is the assassin of propriety.” Done. Likewise “clangorous din” (rather, I guess, than susurrating?), “washed-out, subdued” (rather than washed-out and vivid?), &c.

        As for the exposition thing, I’ve seen it done deftly too often to really appreciate a stop in the action — that is, an interruption to the assassin’s careening spree of death through the king’s palace — to explain exactly how each of the three types of Lashing work. He’s also weirdly variable about it, interrupting the action to explain some stuff (Lashings, the money that absorbs Stormlight) and letting other things slide (what “chulls” and “cremlings” are, why women of whatever country have to cover their left hand). Which makes me think he’s trying to set up plot twists that turn on the rules of magic. Which is fine, except when you start thinking it while you’re reading, because it breaks the dream.

        Anyway, not trying to suggest that these factors ought to be deal-breakers for everyone; if my persnicketiness gets in the way of my enjoyment, it’s no one else’s problem. But I’m not sure I’ll get through TWOK.

  3. Pingback: fantastic meditations: a linkology « the pulchrifex papers

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