Moorcock has a reputation among fantasy editors for the speed with which he can turn out a story--call him and tell him you have a slot in an upcomingMoorcock has a reputation among fantasy editors for the speed with which he can turn out a story--call him and tell him you have a slot in an upcoming anthology that need filling, and he'll send you something the next day. It reminds me of an old truism in writing: if you never seem to be able to finish anything, then you're too critical of yourself, but if you are finishing things constantly, then you probably aren't critical enough.
That isn't to suggest that Moorcock has a swell head--from everything I've heard, he's a pleasant, self-effacing fellow--but that perhaps sometimes, his pen ends up working faster than his brain. I'd heard that the ideas he begins to touch upon in early works like Elric don't start coming into their own until later pieces, like Corum or Von Bek--which was why I was surprised that a number of elements in Corum felt less sophisticated than their treatment in Elric.
Unlike Elric, Corum doesn’t maintain his internal conflict throughout. Though he comes from an artistic, intellectual, peaceful background originally, this doesn’t really color his later actions or thoughts. Once the ‘badass warrior switch’ is flipped, that seems to be it, and he’s onto his new life. Certainly, there is a sense that he wants this to be over with, so he can return to a state of peace, but one would expect that his former life would change the way he approaches being a sword-weilding demon fighter, but it simply doesn’t seem to.
Doubtless, there was plenty of reason for the character to change--his whole life, everything he knew was ripped away from him--but I still would have liked to see that transformation play out, to see the contradiction between how his expectations and assumptions just don’t match the world around him, and the life he is forced into living. The whole story of his race is that they are ancient, wise, but naive and out of touch, and it would have worked better to see more of that in Corum, instead of the ‘take it as it comes’ style of the average sword and sorcery hero.
Likewise, the romance, while a central part of the story, is dealt with in a rather perfunctory fashion. We don't really see how the characters fell in love, or why this particular relationship formed, and so it ends up feeling less personal and more like a plot point--especially when compared to something like Dancers at the End of Time--but then, that was an occasion where Moorcock really took the time to get into the characters heads, to let the romance develop over the course of several books, and to explore the conflicting feelings at its heart.
Of course, it's not quite a fair comparison to make, since in that series, the romance really is the central plot, while here, as important as it might be to Corum's character, it's still secondary to the massive multi-dimensional conflict that takes center stage. It's unfortunate, because by focusing on that, he really could have separated Corum from Elric, who hardly has much time for sentiment.
The introduction of the dimension-hopping heroes' companion in book two didn't work especially well, either--like in Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar, the series suddenly takes an odd left turn, introducing this silly dimensional traveller who suddenly starts explaining the makeup of the universe and other such dull exposition.
We were reading a story about a man embroiled in a great conflict, but also a personal one--trying to avenge the death of his family, the only life he’d ever known, who has since become bitter and broken through struggle, but who has also found love, and keeps fighting for the sake of that love. To have this secondary character burst in with a completely different voice and tone, insisting that Corum is just one of many distracts from his story, cheapens his struggle, and makes the whole thing feel oddly goofy, especially compared to the opening book.
From there on, especially as we go into the third book and near the climax proper, the story becomes more piecemeal, where each scene begins to feel more like a self-enclosed event. It’s very much the cliche pulp approach, where this happens, then this happens, and we’re technically moving forward toward the final conflict, but the individual episodes aren’t placed in a meaningful order. It brings to mind the old writing adage that every scene should be followed by a ‘but’ or ‘therefore’ which connects it directly to the next scene. It’s not enough that they’re simply given to us in a certain order, they must be reliant on each other, there must be a sense of build, of inevitability, of meaningful connection from moment to moment.
The writing likewise vacillates in quality, from the flat exposition of the prologue to the quite visceral and imaginative scenes in the palace of the horrid chaos god Arioch at the end of book one--which indeed, are much more effective than the climaxes of the next two books, making them feel rather underwhelming in comparison.
But for all that, I can see why people find Corum to be an expansion on Elric, because there is one very real way that Moorcock is pushing the envelope here: the shifting dimensions, the alternate realities and identities, and layers of contradictory worlds are a great way to push the boundaries of what fantasy is, and how it operates--and yet, I'm reluctant to give Moorcock his due here as the self-defined 'bad writer with big ideas', because these aren't quite ideas.
What he's doing here is playing with form and structure, with the symbols that authors use to explore their ideas--but he's not creating themes and concepts beneath these symbols to hold them up and give them meaning. Magic is a symbol, and there are many different ways magic can be presented, and many ideas we can explore through our magic. However, far too many authors are content to simply produce complex magic systems without ever bothering to connect them to meaningful themes and ideas.
As other authors have proven in later books, like Viriconium and Bas-Lag--or even games like Planescape-Moorcock's symbolic innovation provides an exceedingly rich field of play for any writer to explore and represent a plurality of ideas--but unfortunately, Moorcock himself does not do much with them here.
Likewise, his focus on law vs. chaos instead of good vs. evil presents a number of interesting opportunities, from entropy and the Social Contract to the nature of the creative spirit, itself--but again, he's not pushing these representations very far.
It's the same problem he has in Dancers at the End of Time: he's given us a very strange and complex world, but the characters and themes in the book just aren't strange enough to match it. The structure Moorcock presents, wherein different individuals from various times and dimensions might come together, and that some of those individuals are really the same person, expressed in a different age--that’s quite interesting, but it’s also disappointing that he doesn’t do more with it. What does it mean for one person to meet a different version of himself? How does that feel, how does it affect him, moving forward? It should certainly offer some profound insights, or at least force us to confront some common preconceptions.
Likewise, it’s a great opportunity to explore the nature of storytelling, itself--the fact that we authors do keep writing about these similar kinds of figures, who really do feel like ‘versions’ of the same hero, or love interest, or villain--one begins to imagine the way that Gaiman would approach it. Once again, it’s something that Harrison spends a great deal of time exploring in Viriconium, where the same plot and characters are destined to recur, over and over again, but with such different pacing, voice, and tone that it becomes clear that these standard forms and types are really not the heart of the story--that indeed, they become almost superfluous.
After all, think of all the various stories in any medium, books, movies, comics, that play out pretty much exactly the same, whether they take on the form of the monomyth or the murder mystery or any other, with the same standard character types (hero, sidekick, wise man, love interest, villain, henchmen)--and then realize that this has nothing to do with the quality of the work. It’s all the other stuff that makes it good, that makes it feel original--or fails to.
The fact that, to combine their powers together, the characters are compelled to link arms and form a sort of cosmic kickline certainly does not help to make the experience feel as profound and strange as meeting an amoral albino version of yourself ought to--and really, what else is a good fantasy book but an opportunity to meet a version of yourself you'd never previously imagined could exist?
In the end, Moorcock gives us a blueprint for what the curious future of fantasy might look light, but sadly, it's largely inspirational because it invites other writers to fill in the holes he's left in his story, to take that huge, complex symbolic structure and really make it do some of the heavy lifting--and happily, they best fantasists of the modern era have done precisely that--but it's still a bit disappointing that Moorcock himself didn't sit down and take the time to give us his version of it.
The first volume in Vance's Lyonesse trilogy felt like such a departure for the author--not that it didn't have his characteristic wit and oddness, buThe first volume in Vance's Lyonesse trilogy felt like such a departure for the author--not that it didn't have his characteristic wit and oddness, but I really felt it was one of the first times that I was invited to feel for his characters. His usual fare is light and disconnected, skipping across the surface without taking time to reflect. His characters are often clowns, comically suffering for their own errors and bruised egos, motivated by base urges, like spite and greed, and lacking more personal depth--yet I found Suldrun's subtle sense of alienation and melancholy to be vastly more intriguing than all of Cugel's adventures in Dying Earth, no matter how wacky they became.
Which is why it was a disappointment that this second volume returns to more of the same from Vance: largely episodic picaresque scenes. And yet, unlike the more silly and freewheeling style of Dying Earth, here his silliness is at constant odds with his larger, more serious plot of war and politics and betrayal.
The explanations of politics and history fall particularly flat, trying to drum up some interest in the intrigue and battle which would be better served by personal connections from the characters through whom we experience the tale--as opposed to references to (thankfully brief) appendices and lengthy descriptions of architecture and food.
He gets caught up in these explanations and descriptions, in reminding us of where we are, what's going on, and what the characters' motivations are. These are central aspects of the story, so the fact that he feels that he has to keep restating them just highlights the fact that he's struggling with focus, structure, and pacing in a longer, more interconnected story.
These explanations extend to the characters--we're often being told why they do what they do, and it's not just that we're in their heads, but that Vance seems concerned with making them transparent to us. It’s not really an effective use of words to sit and tell us why the characters do everything. The reader should be able to figure that out from the behavior and details, from how they are presented. If it isn’t clear from how it’s presented, then you don’t really gain anything by sitting down and telling us.
It’s also a denial of the reader’s act of interpretation, that instead of looking at the character and trying to figure them out, to read them, we are instead told what ‘the truth’ of it is. This doesn’t mean we should never get into the characters’ heads, but what makes a character intriguing is to see their conflicts, and the gradual progression of those conflicts, which eventually lead to a point of climax, where we see that conflict come to some kind of fruition. Of course, these conflicts should also relate to the character’s outer life--the problems they have to face should reveal those internal conflicts, and force the characters to come to terms with them.
During one section, Aillas knows there is a spy in his midst, but doesn’t know who it is. So, he goes on to mention several times that he’s concerned that there’s a spy, and that he wonders who it might be. As readers, of course we’re curious, but it’s just redundant to have the character keep mentioning it in the same way without any kind of progression or fresh view on the subject.
Certainly, sometimes a writer has to remind their reader of a fact, to catch them up, and it's admittedly always a challenge to find a way to do this without being obtrusive or repetitive, and to find a balance between too much explanation and not enough--but that's what sets an author of skill apart.
In the first book, Vance managed to do a better job giving us Suldrun's and Aillas' internal conflicts without overstating them, and letting them develop naturally, over the course of the book--and besides Suldrun and Aillas, we also had the strange intertwinings of Faude Carfilhiot and Melancthe, these figures trying to discover their own identity, at once competent but unfulfilled, literal half-creatures searching for wholeness.
In The Green Pearl, there is a similar relationship between Melancthe and Shimrod, but we really only get one side of the story. We see Shimrod's pining after her, his attempts to romance her, his thoughts and desires, but not hers. She is meant to be a mystery, and we do get some explanations for why she behaves the way she does, but by and large, she serves mainly as a motivation and foil for Shimrod's romantic intentions, the source of his desires and frustrations--which is unfortunate, since she seems to be a much more interesting character, with more intriguing motivations.
That Vance faltered here may be because the emotional depth he's dealing with isn't as intense as the star-crossed romance in the first book--and also because a star-crossed romance is much easier to get your head around, rather than the existential struggle with identity that Melancthe and Shimrod go through as magical creatures.
Vance’s villains also tend to be more interesting than his heroes, not an uncommon trait in writers, because villains are, overall, given more free reign in terms of behavior and personality. This being said, they are still rather flat, often acting out of malice and spite instead of more complex internal motivations. It's more that they have more vigor, that they are more demonstrable in their personalities because they are given freer reign.
All in all, it shouldn't be surprising that Vance should struggle somewhat with this series. Here is an author who tends to prefer silly, amoral heroes motivated by greed and self-preservation now trying to produce characters of depth and pathos, who prefers episodic, humorous, unstructured stories but is now trying to relate a long-running, large scale political conflict, who tends to tell stories about character faltering and ultimately failing, now trying to depict a rise to power, who usually portrays sex as a lewd joke, but is now trying to capture deeper romantic feelings.
It's all outside of his comfort zone--which is why the true surprise is that he did so well with this experiment in the first book. Then again, the second volume in a trilogy is notorious for lagging and struggling along between the promise of the opening and the excitement of the climax. I'm still intrigued to see where this experiment ultimately ends up....more
The title story of this collection is exactly what you would expect of a fairy tale written by a minister and subtitled 'a parable', which is to say iThe title story of this collection is exactly what you would expect of a fairy tale written by a minister and subtitled 'a parable', which is to say it's not particularly fantastical, and feels a great deal like reading a sermon. Condescending and blandly didactic--MacDonald never lets an image or symbol stand on its own, but must always hem and haw about it, telling us what is right and what is not.
There is little enough wonder in it--we are told what to think and why. the focus is always on little errors and rules and flaws of character, never upon anything grander, nothing to ignite man’s imagination or awe--indeed, it is all terribly petty.
He seems to think of children as awful little monsters, naturally disposed to self-destruction--and the only way to fix them is to put them through a series of strange tortures. They are not corrected and taught by example, or by interaction, or explanation, or by forming any kind of genuine relationship with the child, but rather by leaving them alone and letting them grow more and more confused, miserable, and terrified. At one point the 'wise woman' uses her magic to make a child think she has accidentally killed her playmate.
Of course, anyone familiar with the tradition of English Boarding schools, whether through 'school stories' or the autobiographical accounts of figures like Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and George Orwell will recognize this sort of distant, abusive ‘hard love’ that English schooling became infamous for.
His view of humanity just comes off as so negative--so prejudiced and judgmental--and at the same time condescending. The Wise Woman of the story is entirely convinced that hers is the proper way, that no matter what she puts the children through, abandoning, confusing, and demanding things of them, it is the right thing, and will prove so in the end. Of course, in fantasy the author can create whatever sort of world they want, one which reflects his own whims and judgments, and which in the end justifies them, producing whatever effect is required.
That is why didactic works like this are so far inferior to open-ended works like Dunsany’s, which show us remarkable things, lead us through strange, new thoughts, instead of insisting that we take from it any particular message or lesson.
Dunsany is not top-down, he does not require that you believe as he does--he is not so conceited. Instead, he intends to open the world to you--not to tell you something which he thinks you ought to know, but to share an experience with you, not doling out from on high, but engaging in a give-and-take--an opportunity for both author and reader to learn and grow and see the world anew.
All in all, it is not surprising to learn that MacDonald mentored C.S. Lewis, as there is that same sense of being alternately scolded and coddled by a pretentious schoolmaster. However, the last few stories which make up this collection, while much briefer, do not suffer from this same voice. They are a bit plain, but they are not judgmental or sermonizing--indeed, there are some clever and humorous bits of dialogue in them.
It gives me hope that perhaps some of MacDonald's other stories are more pleasant and wondrous, and that I've just chanced to stumble upon him at his worst--I've certainly heard promising things about works like Phantastes and The Princess and the Goblin, but I fear it will be some time before this foul taste disperses and I feel up to cracking open another of his books....more
Fantasy has always had its moralizers and its mischief-makers, those who use the symbolism of magic to create instructive fables, and those who use thFantasy has always had its moralizers and its mischief-makers, those who use the symbolism of magic to create instructive fables, and those who use the strangeness of magic to tap into the more remote corners of the soul, and then obscure their transgressions behind the fantastical facade. Like Moorcock, Leiber, and Vance, Harrison is playful, he is rebellious.
Indeed, in his swift, pulpy approach, Harrison very much resembles those authors, but his voice sets him apart. There is a scintillation, a sophistication, a turn of phrase which shows a practiced hand, and unlike many fantasy authors, Harrison's voice is very consistent. He is aware of what he is doing, the effect he means to produce, and he generally succeeds.
Moorcock was fond of saying that he was a 'bad writer with big ideas', and the same can be said of many genre writers, from R.E. Howard on, but Harrison is not a bad writer, and it's enjoyable to see someone of his skill take up the torch--leaving no doubt why he was so successful in inspiring New Weird authors like Mieville and VanderMeer to tear into genre (with varying degrees of success).
He had already made a name for himself as an editor and ruthless critic working at Moorcock's New Worlds, often lamenting the shallow predictability of genre fiction (his critical work has been collected in Parietal Games), and this is clearly a stab at trying to break out of that monotony--to practice what he had been preaching. It is rather less wild and experimental than his later works, but there is something very effective in the straightforward simplicity displayed here.
The most obviously groundbreaking aspect of the work is his setting (not, as Harrison would insist, his 'world'). He combines science fiction and fantasy tropes quite freely, but with much greater success than Leiber's clunky attempts, and much more overtly than Moorcock's nods to quantum physics in Elric. It acts as a reminder that despite all the purists trying to drive a definitive wedge between the genres, they are really doing the same thing: creating physical symbols through which to explore ideas (it's Clarke's Third Law again).
An easy example is Star Wars, a fantasy story about wizards, prophecy, spells, magic swords, funny animals, good vs. evil, and the monomyth which adopts science fiction only as an aesthetic, a 'look'. It isn't forward-looking, it's mythical, which is why the laser beams only shoot at a fixed point in front of the ship, like World War I biplanes. Nowadays, the concept of mixing fantasy and sci fi has trickled down into the public consciousness, showing up in cartoons like Adventure Time--and to a large part, we have Harrison to thank for that, because his version (complete with laser swords) came years before Star Wars, and also presents a much more nuanced view of the world.
On the surface, Harrison's rusted-out future world resembles Vance's, but it's much closer to fellow New Wave Britisher J.G. Ballard (or Le Guin): a fantastical headspace of extremes, when everything is dying and collapsing around you, and yet life goes on--dwindling, certainly, but fundamentally not very different from how it has always been. It’s a portrait of existential dread, our fear of being alone, our foolish habit of nostalgia, of seeing the past not as it was, but as a sort of promised land, a missed opportunity for our neurotic brain to cling to.
The dying world is the legacy of poets (at least, of the Victorians, who have the most influence on our modern notions of the poetic self), from Byron’s Darkness to Shelley’s The Last Man and the mythology of Blake--and of course arch-pilferer Eliot’s The Waste Land. Indeed, in this post-modern world, it’s become almost trite to riff on The Waste Land and it’s world built around the sad, intellectual man who regrets that all meaning has been stripped away, and he’s left to figure it out on his own.
However, fantasy has long been lagging behind, particularly highly-visible epic fantasy, like Tolkien’s, which behaves as if existentialism and skepticism never happened, instead inundating the reader in a top-down, authoritative voice full of message and allegory and obvious symbolism--though Tolkien himself often denied that this was the case, as a believer, to him the real world was a symbolic allegory.
The 'dying Earth' is the same old trick of fantasy, to take a state of mind and literalize it, to produce a setting that reflects it, and through which the author can explore it. It's like how in a Gothic novel, it rains when people are said, and lightning strikes as the villain observes the results of his cruelty.
Sure, it's also what a comics writer does when he puts the fate of the world at stake to increase the tension--but I won't say it's a bad trick, or a dirty one--it all depends on the magician who is using it. Are the a con artist, trying to win us over and sell us something, or are they a trickster like Houdini or James Randi, forcing us to confront the fact that we can so easily be fooled--indeed, that we may want to be fooled.
I find Harrison to be a trickster, an invoker of our better nature, if only because he realizes that the mind can be unsure--it can change--so, what happens to a world founded upon a changing mind? It's a question Harrison only touches on here, before diving in headlong in the next book, and finally getting a grasp on it in the third and fourth.
Unfortunately, one area where Harrison fails to meaningfully improve upon earlier genre outings is the portrayal of women. They are rarely present, and when they are, they tend to the weak and distant. We don't get inside their heads as we do the male characters, and so they do not really feel like complete characters, but objects of focus and motivators for the men around them. I mean, it's not like we're getting a trite Madonna/Whore love triangle, like Tolkien's, but moving from 'bad' to 'neutral' isn't much of an improvement, especially for a book written in the seventies--and the portrayals don't get much deeper in the later books.
I've often complained that many genre authors (like fellow dying-earther Gene Wolfe) give you two hundred pages of plot buried in four hundred pages of explanation, description, exposition, repetition, and redundancy--but I'm glad to say that in Harrison's case, he's happy to give us the two hundred and leave off the rest.
There are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is thaThere are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is that, despite these things, there is always something that carries them through it, some verve or strength that makes up for it.
This is especially true for pulp and genre authors: their work may be unpolished, even bordering on the cliche, but some aspect of their approach and vision still shines through. Lovecraft's pacing and voice often left much to be desired, but his unique vision of cosmic horror still makes much of his work intriguing. Early on, Moorcock struggled with subtlety and sophistication, but his odd conceptual approach often saved him. Indeed, for Howard, the more polished his style became, the more it lost the vitality that set it apart.
With Wagner, I struggled to find the unique aspect of voice that makes a story worth telling--and worth reading. Certainly, there are some things he does well: his writing shines when he is setting a scene, in descriptions of places, structures, weather, the tapestry of a landscape passing the lonely traveler by. There is some real loveliness there, some fine turns of phrase and genuine tone.
However, outside of these passages the style becomes finicky. The action scenes get bogged down in deliberate, meticulous description, preventing them from flowing, from being dramatic and wild. It all begins to feel like a foregone conclusion. Wagner doesn’t seem to be able to create interesting tensions within the action to keep us interested.
In actions scenes, there is always the obvious, overarching conflict that must be resolved. In combat, it is the naked question of who will prevail, whose sword arm will prove stronger. In the chase, it is the question of whether the quarry will escape, or be captured. In order to lengthen these into full scenes, there must be a sequence of smaller conflicts playing out which are progressively dealt with en route to the final conclusion.
However, it is vital that these smaller conflicts be interesting in themselves, and not just be an extension of the larger. So, it cannot just be ‘our hero sees a new foe before him’, to be cut down and defeated in a repetitious succession of thud and blunder. There must be some wrinkle, some particular that must be overcome in a way that requires something specific of our hero, that engages him. It is not enough simply to have a quick foe, or a massive one--that quickness or size must be given some particular thrust--some detail that makes it feel true to the reader, that makes it imperative to the hero’s momentary survival.
Kane is meant to be preternaturally skilled and competent--but even the most certain man must grit his teeth and will his way through at least some of his struggles. The combat often ends up lacking a sense of danger or thrill or unpredictability to keep things moving. It shows how difficult it really is to produce the kind of exciting flow that Howard seems to create so effortlessly--almost thoughtlessly--in the Conan stories.
Wagner’s dialogue likewise shows a niceness that causes it to lose much of the punch it might otherwise have. Firstly, he walks that line le Guin marked in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in that when he makes his language conversational, it can start to feel overly modern and plain in the mouths of these outlandish characters. That isn't to say that characters in fantasy should all speak like chivalric knights errant, but creating conversation that is both rough and retains a period feel is no easy feat.
Secondly, like many authors unsure of their own voice, he seems to fear being misunderstood. So, he leaves nothing implied, allows no subtle nods, instead making sure the whole is stated outright for the reader. So, if we have our hero speaking with a shady character, a dark-cloaked spy who works both sides, you can be certain that at some point, there will be an aside where he thinks to himself ‘I’m not sure if I can trust him’. If two characters are planning to break into a castle, one will probably mention that he doesn’t want to be caught and tortured.
There’s a reason that writers don’t do this: ‘While fully dressed and facing forward, he walked with his feet across the green grass lawn’--most of those words simply aren’t necessary. The exact same image is communicated by ‘He walked across the lawn’. The true job of a writer is deciding what needs to be shown versus what can be left unsaid. If our hero walked backwards on his hands while naked across a perfumed lawn of purple bones, that might be worth mentioning. Ultimately, it makes Wagner’s writing tedious to get through--less like characters engaged in conversation and more like two writers plotting the outline for a script.
The Cthulhu bits are played too straight, too matter-of-factly. Wagner isn’t adding anything or putting his own spin on it, he’s just lifting Lovecraft’s descriptions whole cloth. Indeed, the characters often speak of magic and demons with all the wonder and fear of a mechanic talking about rebuilding an engine.
Moreover, the events of the story don’t really seem to touch Kane, to change him moment to moment. Of course, his immortality would give him an unusual point of view, and it’s certainly not unthinkable that he should feel disconnected from the world--jaded and detached. But even so, this jadedness does not seem to drive him, it does not modify his reactions, it simply leaves him blank. With Moorcock's Elric, we get the idea that he has grander desires that drive him, even if they tend to be personal ones, and he otherwise feels separate from the world.
Now, if the intent were to explore the existential ennui of immortality, that could make for an interesting story, but the events of Kane’s life are very much the norm for a sword & sorcery hero--battles and demons, pirates and assassins. His own actions in this world are also very much the norm, so it’s not as if we’re being provided with some fresh outlook or approach to underscore his unique perspective.
I was excited to try this series, based on it's reputation--a darker Conan, a modern take on Eddison's and Anderson's violent, blood-and-glory tales--unfortunately, the tone, characterization, dialogue, and plotting simply weren't up to the challenge. Ultimately, though Wagner is certainly reaching for what might be an interesting vision of fantasy, he never quite succeeds at bringing it to life, on the page.
I've spoken before about the constant invention and reinvention of the 'Mystical East' in Western fiction, but by and large, the reason authors do thiI've spoken before about the constant invention and reinvention of the 'Mystical East' in Western fiction, but by and large, the reason authors do this isn't to malign the East, or to produce propaganda--these are just the secondary results--indeed, it isn't really about the East at all, it's about the author and their own personal self-invention.
It is the dark and coursing undercurrent of European perversity, sensuality, and violence which inspires these writers. It is an obsession with transgression, with things that cannot be openly and plainly discussed. The technique here is to express and explore these forbidden topics, but then to blame them on the image of the East in order to create the necessary safe distance, providing the author a buffer, a layer of deniability.
There are whole structures in our language built to produce just this kind of distancing. We talk about 'French' kissing, or 'Greek' love--we named buggery for the Bulgars, and mutual female desire for the residents of Lesbos. Even as we discuss, request, and engage in these acts, we blame them on someone else. Even as we perform them, we typify them not as our own behaviors, but the behaviors of others.
It's not as if our desires to do these things are going to go away, so instead, we personify and externalize those desires. A man sees an attractive woman on the street, he desires her, and he thinks of her as the source of that desire--but while it might be true that she inspired the desire in him, it is still he who is desiring, the desire comes from within him. Her role is passive, because she can inspire such desire without even being aware of it.
And yet, there are men who will blame her for that desire, who will project their own desires onto her: 'she wants it, if she didn't, she wouldn't dress that way, it's flattering, girls like being appreciated'. It is just an attempt to justify this desire, to justify feeling it, or even acting on it.
The same pattern of justification is evident in colonialism: that the colonized power must want to be colonized, must need it. Again and again, the argument was made that they wanted to be ruled, that they couldn't make it on their own, that they were immature, brutal, uncivilized, and that to be ruled was a gift. Domination stems from a desire for power and control, for profit, to take advantage of others, everything else is merely excuses, projections onto the passive party to blame them for being acted upon.
As such, the notion of the East became a natural site for displaced desires. Pulp stories are sites of sex and violence, which has long been their bane, as it makes them a target for censorship and blame. As such, it makes sense that pulp authors would use projection and justifications of this kind to ‘take the heat off’, to present sex and violence with a naturally built in buffer, a socially accepted rationale: we’re presenting it not simply to revel in it, but to present cultural dynamics that we all know are true.
But this means that, beyond simply condemning such presentations of the East as racist and convenient, we can look at them as they actually are: messy representations of the Western id run rampant, presented under a thin veil of obfuscation. After the colonial adventure tales of Kipling and Haggard slipped out of popular venues and were related to study in classrooms, the vision of the 'Mystical East' on which they relied found a new home in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and there may be no more pure and evocative representation of it than here in Smith's Zothique.
The prose is precise, unusual, powerful--the voice of a poet. It is neither the plodding dulness of Lovecraft nor the sometimes grasping repetition of Howard. This is the true and unique world of Sword & Sorcery fantasy which some other authors labor to inhabit, rich and perverse and full of deathly passions. Lovecraft cannot match it, nor Burroughs, nor even Howard, its most notable practitioner. The lineage of influence stretching from Smith to later fantasists is obvious, for instance the sense of humor that pervades these tales, which Vance reproduced in a tone much more dry, and Leiber in one very much less.
Even they were not quite able to capture the pervasive world Smith presents. It may be painted in crude images of ebony-skinned, thick-lipped, obese enchanters, but if it’s crude, that’s only what it’s meant to be. A complex, nuanced view of the imagined East would deny its presentation as a photonegative of the West (or at least, of how the West likes to imagine itself). The oversexed, overly violent projection of the id can hardly be presented in subtle terms.
The fairy tale must be drawn in broad strokes, lacking the subtlety that allows for various interpretations. It denies the reader access to the inner workings of the piece, denies them the privilege of interpretation. Instead, it is done as propaganda, simplified enough that the sides are clear.
This is why the post-modern habit has been rewriting and reimagining these fairy tales, looking at them through the eyes of the ‘villain’, looking at the absurdity of the symbols on which the allegory relies, symbols which inevitably fly apart when analyzed closely. The story deconstructs the tale by going through all the same steps, but refusing to make the same assumptions.
As such, is it possible to recreate the invented East in a modern tale, or is that the equivalent of taking the allegory it represents for granted? Does injecting any kind of subtlety, realism, and other such space for interpretation make the wild, strange, exotic setting impossible? I'd be curious to see a skilled author try it.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, as evocative as his uncanny realm is, it tends to dwarf his characters, making it difficult to get into their heads, or to care much about them. This was one area where Howard outperformed him, producing figures of suitably 'gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth' to fit their grand stage--and Leiber took the same formula even further.
To some degree, this is a deliberate aspect of Smith's style: he is not interested in whether his characters thrive or survive, indeed their wry downfalls are often part of the charm. Yet, these are not quite the tonal explorations of Dunsany, where characters are entirely secondary to description, rhythm, and feel. We do spend time with Smith's characters, with their thoughts and feelings, their desires and motivations, and yet, for all this, they rarely manage to stand out.
And while this collection has some very strong stories, the presentation sometimes suffers. The final story has a strong premise, interesting themes, but Smith presents them simply, in straightforward narration, making it feel more like an outline or summary at times than a story. Though he has a strong poetic voice and interesting language, in comparison to an author like Dunsany, he lacks a light touch, the subtlety that weaves magic throughout. A story’s theme should become clear to us based on the events described, the characters, the details, the use of words--not just explained to us in so many words.
Though he is certainly a writer with flaws, the sheer idiom of his style draws us in: the strength of his voice, and the unusual, playful way that he treats his tales. In the few stories where either the characters manage to sparkle, or Smith simply allows them to subsist in the background as the true protagonist, his setting, takes its rightful place, this series contains some true gems, visions which have inspired not merely other authors, but the very innovators of fantasy, writers who have changed its course, and who have created unique worlds in their own right. Smith is a stylist and a grandfather to stylists, demonstrating that often times, the only way to write is to take things too far, to indulge, to get lost at play, to produce a repast so rich and overwhelming that we cannot savor it--but neither will we forget it....more