Indeed, many of our most cherished fantasies tend to relate to the place we were born--when we find ourselves defending it, or singing its praises. It's not that the details we give aren't true, it's that we have a sort of rosy-quartz view about the place that made us. It also comes out in what we dislike about our home, what tired and frustrated us--there is a whole mythology within us of what exactly we believe our provenance to be like, and it is more the truth of us than the truth of that place.
Kipling's Kim is often considered his greatest work, and as Said's introduction notes, it is one of his only works that profits from close reading. His others are certainly enjoyable, and have certain themes, but tend to wear these on the chest, while Kim presents a rather more complex relationship.
Of course, there was an uproar when it was announced that the Penguin edition would feature an introduction from Said, but as someone who has actually read his work, I was not concerned he would do Kipling wrong. Indeed, his treatment is even-handed, noting both the strengths and flaws of the text, and bringing together many interesting observations from other sources.
It is a boys' club book, about the doings of men in their 'Great Game' of death and deceit. Of women there are two: a whore and a mother figure, and neither one strays beyond the bounds of her given role. Indeed, this book was one of the inspirations for the creation of the Boy Scouts, after the romantic adventure of Kipling's young fellow.
It's also certainly a tale of privilege, as of course, that is the role Kipling himself was born into: of being free from social constraints, on the top of the heap, able to go where and when he liked, and in whatever guise, for there was none to gainsay him.
But beyond these bounds, it is certainly a wondrous and vivid tale, full of color and character, all those little details and curious turns of phrase that make a good adventure. Indeed, there is much more of the fantastical in this than in many adventure books--magic and mysticism have central roles, as do cultural dissonance, even if Kipling ultimately ignores the great and central conflict which first showed itself in the Sepoy Uprising, and grew to eventual fruition in Gandhi and at last, independence.
Rarely have I seen the Other and the defamiliarization of ideas portrayed so wholly, particularly in a colonial work--and if Kipling had used these strengths to tackle the great central conflict that looms over all, the work would have been truly profound.
The relationship between Kim and the Lama is the crux here, the deep and genuine friendship between stereotypically Eastern and Western figures, which crosses boundaries of faith, philosophy, race, and language, seeking ever for mutual ground and further understanding. Yet that the old man is a fool, and that Kim ultimately tricks him, secretly committing himself to the colonial role while paying outward respect is unfortunate.
There is a conflict between the two, but it is never allowed to come to the surface, it is never confronted and dealt with. Instead, the hope seems to be that if two disparate people can agree on the surface, that the fundamental contention between them is not worth exploring--when indeed, its usually the only thing that is, especially for a novelist, whose work is to drive to the heart of the matter.
But then, as Said points out, it was a conflict that Kipling did not see, or did not want to see, and in the end, it weakens the tale. Kim is not really answerable to the people he claims to serve, and as he tries to work for them in secret, he really serves himself. The condescension of 'knowing better' and with that excuse, keeping others in the dark is perhaps The Great Sin of governance.
But for that, it is an exciting tale, a thorough and palpable exploration of India and its people, as Kipling saw them, and brings to mind many important questions of the colonial role, Indiamania vs. Indiaphobia, and what it means to find yourself between cultures. If only Kipling had delved a bit more.(less)
The East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fe...moreThe East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fears. They will create it even where it doesn’t exist, and they will believe in it despite evidence to the contrary. When a lawyer in London convinces them with words, they will call him ‘shrewd’--when a Hakim in Delhi does the same, they lay it to ‘mesmerism’. When a young thing with a bare shoulder in Paris turns their head, it is because she is a pretty coquette, no more--when a musk-scented daughter of Persia does the same, it is laid to some ancient magic.
Tales of colonial adventure in the East, with few exceptions, are fantasies--true fantasies, of magic and impossible things, of notions which spring from the mind and come to life in the world. Indeed, that is part of the charm of such narratives: that in reading Burton, we learn more of Burton than we do of ‘The East’, as his sometimes questionable translations demonstrate--but even biased as he may be, to read of a man as large and queer and self-made as he is an amusing thing.
Of course, it is also makes the narratives false, and invites us to believe that the East is real, and not merely a fantasy. Hesse writes of the tenets of German Protestantism--but because he writes of them under the guise of Eastern wisdom, they are gobbled up as if they were new. In the fascinating (and sometimes uncomfortable) documentary Kumaré, a man born in New Jersey grows a long beard and imitates his grandmother’s accent, and easily fools everyone into thinking he is some wise guru, even when his words make no sense. It is the fantasy of the East, and while it can make for an entertaining story, we must not be fooled into thinking, as Kumaré's students are, that their own notion is the real story of a real people.
Mundy’s is a better fantasy than most, relying as it does upon all those little bits of oddness, verisimilitude, and turns of phrase that gradually build into a wondrous and strange realm. But then, Mundy lived during his youth in Africa, India, and elsewhere, making his way as a con man and petty criminal, which experiences certainly give his tales an excellent flavor. It is hardly surprising that his work was an influence on authors of Sword & Sorcery Adventure, inspiring Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar--and both construct their fantastical worlds along the same lines as Mundy's.
In Howard, it is the story of the foreign man in the mystical East, amongst the arched temples, the scent of incense, the dancing girls, the wicked viziers, the brutal yet righteous warriors, debauchery, savagery, and ancient magics unearthed. For Leiber, it is the thousand-fold minarets of the eternal City of Brass: the old houses and old feuds, the corruption and tyranny of the priests, the bustling marketplace where the spoils of a hundred far-fetched lands are priced and weighed.
But then, of course, these are all traits of the great European cities, as well, which are no less ancient, no less strange and bustling--but somehow, a twisting alley in London is thought of differently to a twisting alley in Marrakesh. It is the process of showing us something old, but in a way that makes us think of it freshly, without preconceptions--a process known in literary criticism as ‘defamiliarization’. The Myth of the East is a sort of automatic defamiliarization, in that we are always primed to see its ways as strange and different, even when they are not.
This was how the Theosophists used it, to lend a sense of newness and authenticity to their own lives. Without that, they were merely eccentrics with loose morals and a dislike of honest labor, but shroud it all in a veil of pseudo-religious phrases and symbols, and it starts to read in quite a different way, altogether. It’s still how many New Agers live their lives: they do not sacrifice in order to practice a faith, they sacrifice the faith in order to practice themselves. It is just an exercise in self-prejudice.
Mundy himself was a known Theosophist, which is not hard to detect in his work. He has made of the East something like a fairyland, and espouses the same old philosophy of the stagnation of the Abrahamic faiths giving way before the more ancient (and hence ‘true’) and more infinite variety of the Eastern Gods.
In his bright and curious characters, his poetic bent, and his turns at spiritualism, he resembles that group of colonial authors whose works aspired to greatness: Conrad, Kipling, Doyle, Melville, H.G. Wells--but he never quite philosophizes the way they do. His action is planted too firmly on the ground, and his mysticism is too undefined and undifferentiated to reach the profundity of those authors. Thus he is relegated to the lesser tier of adventure writers, whose works sparkle and delight, but rarely challenge.
In style, Mundy possesses a cleverness and a passion that outstrips Haggard, though one will recognize in King--of the Khyber Rifles a story that very nearly parallels the Quatermain tale She--yet I found that Mundy’s take was more subtle, owing more to Realism than Pulp, and with greater sophistication and charm. The beginning, slowly playing out, is the superior part, introducing us to Captain Athelstan King of the Secret Service--a kind of early secret agent working for the Raj. He is an immediately recognizable type, that self-possessed, competent man who wins his way through life by wit and daring, of which the Colonial Period gave us numerous examples in the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Richard Francis Burton, or 'Chinese' Gordon.
Though in detail and subtlety, Mundy outdoes Haggard, there are some slower patches, particularly in a lengthy section of exposition about the middle which should have been the climax to the mystery that led us along the first third of the book. He begins to get bogged down in his plot, and then to make of his characters mouthpieces for his own Theosophical notions about true religion and ancient divinity.
Yet, after this stint, we're on our way again, towards the somewhat predictable climax. There is a rather delightful twist in the story that I happened to guess about the middle, due to the phrasing in a particular scene--and when I realized it, I was embarrassed not to have seen it sooner, as should be the case with a good twist. Yet, I think that without that one scene, I might not have realized it until quite a bit later, though it does grow increasingly obvious.
But, for all its inevitability and a few slow sections, it is overall a delightful adventure, and reminds me once more that as a fantasist, it is important that I study not only the blatant fantasies--the fantasies that call themselves fantasies--but also those fantasies that masquerade as truth, the ones that we use as convenient shortcuts to represent the world, and to confirm our own biases, that are true only in the mind, only as symbols, and which by habit we overlay upon a world that we can never fully understand.
For you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through ma...moreFor you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through many lands, making his way by his wits and his skill and always being drawn into the dangers of politics, secret plots, and local politics. But the hero of these stories comes with a twist: he's an awful cad who lies, cheats, and steals his way through the world, a coward who only survives by the skin of his teeth, but who pretends the role of the brave, bluff Brit.
The books are well-researched, full of delightful details and references for anyone interested in the period, as well as a vivid reconstruction of archaic slang. However, I find I liked the first book much better than the second one. For one, the character of Flash is much more of a rascal there--many of the things he does make you dislike the character greatly, despite his forthright charm. In this one, I wondered if MacDonald might have been making him a little more heroic, a little more sympathetic.
Along the same line, most of the difficulties he gets embroiled in throughout the course of this book--the very things that drive the plot--are thrust upon him, leaving him a much less active character. He's kidnaped, blackmailed, and forced at gunpoint to take part in various plots, instead of being trapped into them by his own faults and greed, as he was in the first volume.
But then, that's part of the problem of a cowardly character: how do you make him an active agent in his own story without forcing his hand? How do you ensure that the mess he's in really is his own fault, and not merely a contrived circumstance that forces him to act against his own nature?
Without that culpability, he begins to become a victim, a lowly and sympathetic figure instead of the brash, bold personality which he is meant to be. We do get him taking a risk here or there for the sake of lucre, but pure greed isn't the most complex or intriguing of character motivations.
Hopefully in future volumes, I'll get to see him return to his old form--because other than that, this book is a delightful bit of adventure fiction.(less)
This one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of...moreThis one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of the time--which isn't to say childish, it's more of a young man's immaturity.
The whole premise: that a powerful terrorist force is trying to destroy all world governments is somewhat uncomfortable for a modern reader--and the fact that the terrorists are meant to be the heroes brings it to another level. However, their rebellion is a vague, nonsensical thing. The idea seems to be to destroy society, and not to worry about what the next step is until later.
I guess they've never heard of the 'baby with the bathwater' problem. I mean sure, society has lots of problems, but if you don't have something better to put in its place, then tearing it down is not going to solve anything--it's probably going to make things pretty shitty in the meantime. But then, it strikes one as being typical of a man in young adulthood: irate with the horrors and inequalities of the world, rebelling against anything society has to offer without really understanding why things are the way they are.
But conveniently, everyone just signs up and agrees that this is a great plan. There are no ideological disagreements or concerns about where this whole thing is going--everyone is stalwartly devoted to the undefined cause, and willing to die for it (whatever it might be).
There are actually a few members who betray the cause, but they always do it out of mere greed, not because this whole 'terrorism' things seems kinda shaky. They also rebel despite the fact that the terrorists have an infallible network of assassins, the only airships in the world, and a leader who can literally control men's minds with a thought. All betrayers die the same chapter in which they commit their betrayal.
I mean, I understand that this was a serial, but the fact that every problem gets solved as soon as it's introduced means that the whole thing doesn't have as much continuity as it might. Indeed, for the whole first half, they're just hanging around, waiting for things to happen, not even putting their plan into action.
Now, if this had been juvenile in a sort of fun, adventure way, that could have been enjoyable, but it's clear that Griffith is taking it a bit more seriously than is warranted. It's never a battle with a fleet of ships, it's always two destroyers, five torpedo boats, a complement of three thousand men, &c. Then there are all the wire telegrams and news stories that repeat information we already know, or just talk about various battles and parts of the war that don's seem to matter much to the story.
Then, of course, there is the titular 'Angel of the Revolution' herself, a totally gorgeous teen girl who all the terrorists want to marry, but whom they respect too much to romance overtly. She's also a crack shot, and utterly loyal to the cause, even if it means (horror of horrors) marrying someone she doesn't love. Our superscience hero, of course, does everything he can to get her, until she finally tells him that the best way to get into her pants is to destroy society and create eternal peace. Sexy.
Once again, what could have been a passable adventure story is ruined by the author's inane attempts to make it 'realistic' and fill it with all sort of unrelated details. It doesn't take much seriousness to ruin the guileless charm of a pulp romp.(less)
The hipsters are right: society is trying to destroy you--not your body, or your mind, but you, the part which makes an individual. That's what societ...moreThe hipsters are right: society is trying to destroy you--not your body, or your mind, but you, the part which makes an individual. That's what society is: the aspect of human life that is not the self, but is communal, the part that causes humanity to behave like a colony of ants.
As brilliant Nietzsche scholar Rick Roderick pointed out, advertisement is the opposite of psychotherapy. The idea of therapy is to take things that are hidden within your brain--biases, prejudices, hangups, fears, habits--and to bring them to the surface, to make you aware of them so they can be processed, or even gotten rid of. The idea of advertisement is to plant in your brain things you don’t realize are there, but which change the way you think. We conflate Coca Cola with comfort and familiarity, the Nike swoosh with athletic ability, Mickey Mouse with childhood; our idea of how relationships work is based on yoghurt commercials.
Today, we marvel at the idea that people used to memorize The Iliad and recite it aloud--but when you’re ninety years old, you’re still going to remember songs about alka-seltzer, plastic dolls that pee, cartoon ninjas, and the commercial theme of your local water park. Think for a minute just how much space in your brain is devoted to information like that, stuff you don’t know you remember until suddenly, you hear it again. Now, think of how else that space could have been used: what would you rather you knew instead of those jingles? French? Greek philosophy? How to rebuild a carburetor?
That’s how culture gets to you: it surrounds you all the time, trying to make you into a copy of itself, and you and everyone in that culture are a part of that system. We shame other people, we guilt them, we tease them, we make suggestions, we tell them little infectious phrases that are supposed to be helpful. Look over the comments on Goodreads some time and you’ll see it at work: people trying to shut up dissent, repeating mantras and plugging their ears, and who clearly think that insulting and belittling people is the same as discussion. But why shouldn’t they? It’s how they were socialized.
Then, when people confirm our biases--when they align with our groupthink--we listen and nod, we praise them, we tell them ‘it’s so nice to talk to a person who understands’. It’s the confirmation of that tribal need to all be in the same boat together, on the same course.
Then there are systems within that society--churches, military complexes, corporations, stores, entertainment industries, political groups--all of which are trying to sway you, trying to sway society, promoting their own best interests as if there were nothing artificial about it. It’s why we accept inequality, why we accept the massive scale of deaths every day from car accidents and untreated addicts and poor people who can’t afford medical treatment--we may not always like it--but we still accept it.
Really, it’s pretty remarkable that we retain any individuality at all. I mean, how strong must that impulse be to reject all these things that people tell us we are supposed to be? We are reminded of this shit every day by books, movies, adverts, and assholes on the bus. Sure, we internalize it to some degree, but for a lot of us, we retain an iconoclastic streak that stops us from being taken over completely.
As Roderick describes it, the mind is constantly under siege: we put up walls to keep out the overwhelming force of culture. Sure, some gets in, but our defenses keep a lot out. Ideas can be infectious, they can be viral, they pray on our hopes and fears, our prejudices and insecurities, but over time, we build up better and better defenses to recognize and root out these ideas.
So when hipsters reject something popular, there’s a reason they have that knee-jerk reaction: they feel society’s fingers reaching into their skull and they instinctively flinch. That's why they don’t want to look like other people, or listen to their music, they don’t want to be advertised to or pandered to. They have constructed a sense of identity for themselves--what makes them them--and when they see someone else doing the same thing, it threatens their sense of identity.
They’re wrong, of course, but their response makes a certain kind of sense. They’ve traded one aspect of culture for another. They are a subculture, but one that still feeds into and supports the main culture. They are rampant consumers, early-adopters who are constantly looking for new ways to spend their money because as soon as other people start liking what they like, they have to dump it all and buy new stuff. Every subculture becomes co-opted and sold back to the people for a profit, and the way corporations have maneuvered hipsters is brilliant. If they stop consuming fashion, products, information, politics, music, and craft materials, they lose their identity. And so, of course, we see that they are just as dominated and defined by the culture as the ‘sheep’ they so assiduously mock. They are conformists.
That’s always been the problem, though, way back to the Dadaists: if you are obsessed with rejecting mainstream culture, that means you have to follow mainstream culture closely enough to know what it is doing, so you can then reject it. All your actions are defined by that culture, it’s just that instead of following the example, you do the opposite, which makes you just as predictable--which means you are just as useful to the culture. Predictable ants are useful ants.
But of course, the real iconoclast doesn't identify themselves with certain bands or aesthetics, with clothes or objects. They create identity based around ideas--and society doesn't want to co-opt ideas. When society takes a movement and sells it back to us, the ideas are the first things stripped out.
The iconoclast doesn’t look left and right to see what everyone else is doing before they act, because their actions aren’t defined by conforming to or rejecting what others do. They have an internal motivation, a philosophy which tells them what is worthwhile and what is not, and why.
Real iconoclasts are cool. They are fucking amazing. They change the world, they have an ineffable magnetism. They control minds, they guide fashion, so that in a century, you can look back and say ‘we think the way we do, write the way we do, dress the way we do, because of a handful of people’. And what tends to define them when they are alive is a near-complete lack of recognition. Society attacks them in all the standard ways: guilt, mockery, critique. Society is uncomfortable, it wants to invade that mind, to break the siege and to remake the person as a useful ant under the status quo. This often kills the iconoclast, or drives him mad, or makes him bitter and misanthropic--sometimes all of the above.
But misanthropy and bitterness are mind-killers. They halt thought. They turn the thinker into a self-prejudiced creature who is no longer willing to think or change, who has been so embroiled in the frustrating stupidity that surrounds him that it stops him in his tracks. That is the trap into which Des Esseintes falls in Huysmans' experimental novel, called A Rebours in the French, variously translated in English as Against the Grain or Against Nature.
Des Esseintes is the false iconoclast, the man who is obsessed with being different for its own sake, but who does not know himself. The long lists of his preferences and dislikes that fill the book are, for the most part, empty opinions. They do not point to some grander philosophy or understanding.
Again and again, he tells us that he despises this or that thing because a merchant's wife likes it. His sense of identity is threatened--he has built it around these objects and movements, and his fondest wish is to keep them all for himself. That is why he locks himself away, alone, and refuses to see anyone. Yet, even then, even in complete isolation, it is not enough to let him discover himself. Still, alone and unobserved, his likes and dislikes are defined by an outside culture which he claims to have rejected, but which seems to rule his every thought. His attempted iconoclasm becomes mere contrarianism. It is the misanthropy of the problem child who does things he knows he musn't do--not because he enjoys them, but out of a desire to betray the image of authority he has created in his mind.
One of the more curious threads in the book is the effect which his religious education has had on him: though it has not made him a faithful man, it has inspired him to reject man and the world as worthless and flawed, and to instead spend his time living for another world, a false world which exists only in his mind.
He is the prototype for the man who sits and plays Warcraft alone all day, every day, until he loses his job, his friends, and his family. Des Esseintes harps again and again on a desire to live in an artificial world of his own making--a virtual world. It does not really give him pleasure, it is just a way from him to avoid the world. It is a life without risk, a life where he does not have to confront anything uncomfortable or challenging, which will never hazard upsetting or drawing judgment from anyone--a pointless life of perfect safety which he romantically paints as fraught and challenging, because it allows him to imagine himself as the noble struggler against hardship--but solely on his own terms.
Yet, ironically, he also complains about how there is 'nothing genuine' left in the world, how it is all artificial--for which he decries it--despite the fact that he spends the rest of his time trying to live in another artificial world of his own making. Clearly, artificiality is neither the problem nor the solution, but a mere cover-up for the real issues.
His aesthetics are a replacement for faith, which explains why his house is filled with religious iconography repurposed into furnishings for his museum to himself--and yet, not himself, for throughout the text, though he spends his fortune to pursue every idea which seems to him pleasing at the time, none of it satisfies him--indeed, it drives him mad, makes him sick--it destroys him. He is not pursuing his own desires, he is not following his own thoughts and needs, and so he is never satisfied. Instead, he tries again and again to create identity through external trappings, like a college girl who wears a beret in order to feel worldly.
These trappings invariably break down around him--they disappoint him, they do not live up to his hopes. He sits and recites opinions he already holds, and fearing disappointment, seeks nothing new. The whole situation is summed up in the fact that, when he thinks on the horror of being forced to return to society, he laments that he will not be able to meet any men like himself, men who share his opinions. He is not interested in engaging conversation, or in intelligence or brilliance, he does not despair of meeting remarkable people, he is upset because he cannot meet himself--or rather, the self he imagines himself to be.
Indeed, he will almost certainly meet himself when he rejoins society, for it is full of people just like him, who put on a false front to try to convince themselves that they are interesting, but who live hollow lives, providing nothing to the world, leaving nothing of worth to the future, and doing nothing in which they can take the least pride. The unexamined life is not worth living--which is why it destroys him.
If this had been a send-up of such a ridiculous fool, it could have proven a remarkable and wondrous work--it worked well enough for Carlyle, Cervantes, and Sterne--but, though there are certainly moments of irony and contradiction throughout, overall, the message seems to be that Des Esseintes is meant to be taken in earnest--that we are meant somehow to respect or find interesting the cobbles of his life, his scattered opinions, his false identity.
Again and again, the text harps on these facts, repeats them, wallows in them. Each book Des Esseintes mentions is described by its color, the make of its binding, the type of dye used, the provenance of the ink within, the typeset, but all this detail is to no purpose. It is not like reading a treatise of William Morris' and coming to understand a particular aesthetic of how a book should be bound and why--it is a mere litany of excess, the dull and trashy kind of overspending which marks the parvenu.
Certainly, there are some interesting scenes within the book--the famous tortoise episode actually achieving some real insight (and satire), but overall, the book is terribly dull--a piling on of detail upon detail without much central notion to hang them on. Some might argue that the theme is the gross emptiness of decadence, but I don't think the work's scattered repetition does very much to explore it.
It isn't surprising that the work proved influential to men like Wilde, who had come to concentrate so fully on form over function that their wit consisted mostly of switching about common words in convoluted ways until they no longer meant much at all, an absurd style which lacks real bite--and that was the overwhelming impression I took away from Huysmans' work: that for all the fine words and lengthy lists and precise descriptions, there simply wasn't enough conceptual structure underneath to make it hang together. It was a pile of Gothic trappings whose sheer weight broke through the roof of the old church to lay all in a shambles on the floor.(less)
In 1913, Tagore became the first non-Western writer--and to date the only Indian or Bengali--to with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Reading his work,...moreIn 1913, Tagore became the first non-Western writer--and to date the only Indian or Bengali--to with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Reading his work, it isn't very difficult to imagine why, since they possess a Chekhovian focus on the lives, thoughts, and struggles of small people in a large world, all laid against the changing politics of the time.
Yet the structure left something to be desired: Tagore writes in the first person, but switches characters every few chapters. this could have been interesting and effective, perhaps giving a Rashomon-type view that shows how different people view the same events differently--but that isn't what we get. Rather, between descriptions of the action, we are given these internal soliloquies that explain each character's thoughts, motivations, and desires.
A big part of what made Chekhov so impressive as an author was the way he showed the internal lives of his characters through their actions. Though it was rare for them to openly express what they felt or thought, you always understood from how they presented themselves, or what the didn't say, what was on their mind. Of course, that is a technique available only to master writers, but perhaps that is the sort of writer who should be receiving a Nobel Prize.
There are some quite lovely passages, and a number of effective metaphors and symbols throughout which demonstrated that Tagore is insightful and imaginative, but the blatant way ideas and characters were explained to the audience made the story much less intriguing, for me. It was something akin to being cornered at a party by a number of dull, selfish people and then listening to them explain their lives, thoughts, and relationships at length. It left me feeling that a naturalistic story deserves a more naturalistic approach.(less)
One of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the character...moreOne of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characters, their little joys and quarrels and concerns. There's this humorous self-awareness throughout the story that makes the whole thing read as if its being told, given over to the reader in a particular voice.
Certainly, this can be carried too far and made condescending, as with C.S. Lewis, but it goes to show what a winking authorial presence can lend to a work, especially to a melodrama adventure. Too often among the lesser class of 'thrilling' books, we get flat characters who are so profoundly competent and neutral that they lose any chance of possessing a personality.
It just goes to show that a good story, be it action or horror or what have you, still requires some humor, some wryness to inject suitable depth and humanity, just as a good comedy can profit from a bit of pathos and tension. Of course there are some rather insensitive colonial notions woven into it, which some readers are quick to forgive as being a 'symptom of the time', but a perusal of Wells shows that it was not an inextricable part of the Victorian man's mind.
The story's notions are delightful, made up of the sort of thing that can still fire up a young man's imagination today, and it's hardly surprising to see that they were picked up and elaborated upon by numerous later authors, most prominently in Burroughs' 'Tarzan' and 'The Land That Time Forgot'.
The latter book I actually read as a child and mistook for Doyle's work, and it was only recently that I realized and rectified my error, and I'm glad I did.(less)
A remarkably progressive book, but then Wells did like his politics. His constant observation that Europeans are no more civilized than the other race...moreA remarkably progressive book, but then Wells did like his politics. His constant observation that Europeans are no more civilized than the other races of man, and no less prone to violent, dominant, cruel behavior is refreshing amongst the variety of Victorian sci fi and adventure stories I've been taking in.
However, it is rather disappointing that these comments and insights are rarely tied into the warp and woof of the narrative, but are added on as little observational essays in the voice of the abstracted narrator. It would have been much more effective if he'd found a way to demonstrate these ideas in his story--otherwise, what's the point of writing a bit of fiction in the first place when he could easily have made it into a tract?
But then, even those elements which he does manage to get into the story can be rather shoe-horned, as our main character is such an example of type that he barely possesses individuality outside of what he's meant to represent (and there can be no question of what that is, since the narrative voice reminds us with regularity); and then, after switching back and forth between essays and our representative story, he breaks off and ends the thing with an unrelated short story--the structure of the work is its greatest weakness.
However, the book has many clever spots, points of wit, insights, and a rather visceral, desperate tone maintained throughout much of the story. I admit that I was surprised that the story ends up resolving itself in a post-apocalyptic 'Dark Age' reversion right out of DeFoe's 'Journal of the Plague Year', but this outcome was just Wells' way of doom preaching that the invention of the airplane would destroy all modern society across the whole world (which might not be a bad thing, apparently).
It's always unfortunate when novelists start to turn into pamphleteers, for there was never a book that was improved by adding a digressive essay to the middle of it at the expense of a narrative-driven story about actual characters and events. Indeed, it confuses me that authors so often mistake books for pulpits, since books are, on the whole, not as tall.(less)
As a reader of Fantasy, this book felt like a return home, even though I had never read it before. The tale of this young wizard and his hardships and...moreAs a reader of Fantasy, this book felt like a return home, even though I had never read it before. The tale of this young wizard and his hardships and coming to terms with his own darkness is one that has been redone again and again, from Rowling to Jordan to Goodkind, and so far, despite adding gobs of length and endless details, no one has managed to improve upon it.
Though she isn't the first to explore the Bildungsroman-as-Fantasy (Mervyn Peake precedes her), he was an author who eschewed symbolic magic, and so has been duly ignored by most authors and readers in the genre. Le Guin's approach is much more familiar, able comfortably to abide alongside Moorcock, Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
Yet her work has none of the condescension or moralizing that mark the last two, nor the wild pulp sentiment of the first. Her world unfolds before us, calmly and confidently, as we might expect from the daughter of noted anthropologists.
As is often the case in her work, we get poignant asides on human nature, but overall, her depiction here is less novel than in, for example, the Hainish cycle. There is something flat in the plot progression, and as has been the case with every Le Guin book I have read, I found myself longing for her to take things a little further, to expand and do something risky. Often she seems just on the cusp, but rarely takes the step.
Part of the flatness is the depiction of the characters, who fall victim to the 'show, don't tell' problem. Again and again, we are told of conversations characters had, of how they reacted, of whether they were clever or unsettling, but we never actually see these conversations take place. Many times, the conversations would not have taken any longer to read than the descriptions of them, so why Le Guin chose to leave so much of her story as an outline of action is puzzling and disappointing.
Fundamentally, what characters do is not interesting. What they do does not differentiate them. What is most important is how they do it--their emotional response, their choice of words, the little pauses and moments of doubt. At the end of the day, the four musketeers are all men in the same uniform, with mustaches, dueling and warring and seducing women, but they each go about these things in such distinct ways that we could never mistake one for the other.
The import of personality is also shown in Greek tragedy, where we know what is going to befall the character (the plot), but we have no idea how they will react when it happens. All the tension lies within the character's response, not with the various external events that inspire it.
So I found it very frustrating that, again and again, Le Guin didn't let the characters do their own talking, and so I often felt estranged from them, that I didn't know them or understand their motivations or interrelationships because the fundamental signs were missing. As we near the end of the story, more and more is revealed in conversation and interaction, but that's the reverse of the ideal: once you have established a character, we can take some of their actions for granted, but it's important in the beginning to let their idiosyncrasies reveal them.
As others have pointed out, Le Guin covers a lot of ground in a short span, and perhaps it was a desire to make things brief and straightforward that caused her to take the words from her characters' mouths, but again, it seems backwards to me. I would rather see a story shortened by taking out specifics and leaving promising implications instead of the other way around. A single, well-written action or turn of phrase can reveal more about a character than paragraphs of narration.
What is most interesting about the story is how small and personal the central conflict is. Many authors in fantasy have tried to tackle the conflict of the Shadow Self, from Tolkien's Gollum to the twin alter-egos of Anderson's The Broken Sword, but none have used it as a representation of the internal conflict of the adolescent which must be overcome in order to transition to adulthood.
By so perfectly aligning the symbolic magical conflict in her story with the central theme, Le Guin creates a rare example of narrative unity in fantasy. Most authors would have made it a subplot of the grand, overblown good vs. evil story, and thus buried its importance beneath a massive conflict that is symbolic only of the fact that books have climaxes. Once again I am struck with the notion that modern authors of fantasy epics have added nothing to the genre but details and length.
If only Le Guin had given her lovely little story the strong characters and interrelationships it deserved, it would have been truly transformative. As it is, it is sweet, and thoughtful, and sometimes haunting--the scenes of stranding on the little island had a particularly unearthly tone--and it lays out an intriguing picture of a young Merlin, but in the end, it felt like an incomplete vision.
Strange to think that this was the series that inspired Martin and Wolfe in their fantasy endeavors. Going from their gritty, mirthless rehashes of st...moreStrange to think that this was the series that inspired Martin and Wolfe in their fantasy endeavors. Going from their gritty, mirthless rehashes of standard fantasy badassery to Vance's wild, ironic, flowery style was jarring--going directly from Anderson's grim, tragic Broken Sword to this was tonal whiplash.
At first I didn't know what to make of it: the lurid, purple prose, the silly characters, the story which jumped from idea to idea with abandon. I mistook it at once for the unbridled pulp style of early century genre authors like A. Merrit or Van Vogt, but soon it became clear that there was something more complex at work.
Vance is rushing from one idea to the next, heedless of contradiction or pace, but it is not merely an unbridled mind on a romp. It is a style recognizable to any scholar of Fairy Tales, or of the Thousand and One Nights, where absurd characters and situations are paraded before the reader as wry commentaries--subversions of social mores and preconceptions. Vance's characters are not psychological studies, not realistic, but archetypal and foolish, traipsing from one peril to the next and then back out again, in the vein of Lewis Carroll.
Yet Vance is not as wild as Carroll or Peake, not as unpredictable or insightful. He has some shining moments, but I did not find that they entirely excused the broken pacing and shallow characters. The tongue-in-cheek reversals were simply not constant enough to make the world suitably subversive.
Yet there still remains an original voice and vision here which has been very influential--though not always fruitfully. As someone who grew up in basements playing old Dungeons & Dragons modules (and even designed a parody of them), it became immediately clear to me where Gygax had taken his inspiration. From the endless series of strange wizards vying for power to the nonsensical dungeons where one might face a giant demon head, a talking crayfish, an Aztec vampire, and an evil chest one after the next, I was immediately stricken with an uncomfortable nostalgia.
Yet Gygax--like Wolfe and Martin--was unable to reproduce any of the wit or joy of Vance's creation, though whether they didn't recognize it or were merely incapable of recreating it I cannot say. In any case, I find it disappointing that so few authors have tried to mimick the sheer, ironic pleasure with which Vance comported himself. I know Pratchett tried to do something similar in his work, but sadly, I've never found his writing funny.
Then again, many fantasy authors are desperate to prove themselves 'mature authors in a mature genre', but as C.S. Lewis knew, the rejection of childlike mirth is the sign of adolescence, not adulthood.
Somewhat problematic in Vance's work, though not as bad as many later genre authors, is the secondary roles he gives to women. It seemed particularly glaring at first, since it opens with male wizards creating and chasing around beautiful, naive women, and the only strong woman is an aberrant creation who is easily talked down and made to change her mind. Yet the men are also often fools and simply swayed, as is the nature of a Fairy Tale, so there is some more equality there.
Beyond that, the descriptions of men versus women are often treated differently, with women being described physically and in terms of their beauty and while a man is rarely described as a physical presence at all. This is only Class I gender inequality, and nearly ubiquitous in genre writers, but a part of me hoped that Vance might let his unfettered exploration of concepts spill over and subvert the characterization of women, but it was not to be.
In many ways, Vance can be seen to represent a middle ground between the unhinged visions of Carroll and Peake and the more straightforward authors of the genre, but as it went on, I began to wish that Vance would distinguish his work more--either by making it more wild and hallucinogenic, or by making it more structured and purposeful. As it was, I felt he too often inhabited a middle ground which was easily muddied by imprecision.
Every young medium, if it wishes to be taken seriously as an art form, must find a way to present mature stories. Movies began to take themselves seri...moreEvery young medium, if it wishes to be taken seriously as an art form, must find a way to present mature stories. Movies began to take themselves seriously in the thirties, comic books began their struggle to elevate themselves in the late seventies, and videogames have been trying to achieve greater depth for the past few years.
Yet, like any rise from adolescence to adulthood, this reaching for maturity is always an awkward period. It is marked by overcompensation, by the striking of certain poses which are meant to seem mature, but which only make immaturity stand out more. Whether for child or art form, the signs of adolescence are the same: and obsession with darkness and death, violence, sexuality, swear words, and amorality. If these were truly the signs of a mature work, then my most mature creation would be the back cover of my eighth grade notebook, resplendent as it was with with daggers, bloody eyes, fantasy babes, skulls, monsters, and anarchy symbols.
We recognize that these are the signs of a naive child playing with the idea of being an adult, and yet these are the same things fans and creators of emerging art often point to as proof of their grim, gritty, amoral maturity. It's this obsession with an appearance of maturity which lacks all mature substance that I blame for the fact that today, sixty years later, I am not aware of any modern epic fantasies which can boast the tragedy, heartache, and moral conflicts of The Broken Sword. Certainly there are many truly adult fantasies out there, but they lie in subgenres other than The Epic: Urban Fantasy, New Weird, Historical Fantasy.
Once again, as with everything good or bad about the modern state of epic fantasy, it is the result of Tolkien's influence. There are many readers and even some authors of fantasy today who think that the genre began with Tolkien. Trying to understand fantasy solely through Tolkien and the authors he influenced is like trying to ride a horse with only one leg.
Much has been made of the fact that The Broken Sword was released the same year as The Lord of the Rings, and it's true that the similarities between the two books do not end there: both have distant, tall elves, deep-delving dwarves, a broken sword which must be reforged, an epic war between armies of light and darkness, a central character who is trapped between that conflict, and an interweaving of the Christian and Mythical Pagan worldviews.
Comparing the two works, it becomes increasingly clear how little of Tolkien's world was original--and how the original aspects tended to be the weakest. If Tolkien's work represents an incomplete attempt to recreate Milton's Adam in Frodo and save the heroic Satan in the guise of Aragorn, Anderson's interplay is less daring, but more successful. Taking a cue from Dunsany, he depicts a world where the old and new forms are at odds. Through humanity, they come into conflict, but it is not possible for the utterly aloof Christian god to touch or be touched by the intensely personal, meddling heathen powers.
While I found Dunsany's portrayal of that stark separation intriguing and mystical, it is less satisfying in Anderson's work. Like Kipling, he shows us a world where gods and faiths intermingle, the old dying slowly in the face of the new, but Anderson never addresses why the new faith has this power. I do not ask that he lay out the cosmology, but I would have appreciated more illustrations of the relationship which might have pointed at the intriguing depth Dunsany and Kipling portrayed.
In a curious turn, Anderson returned to this book fifteen years later, making changes throughout to the tone and word use, but also altering a few scenes to change the portrayal of the Pagan/Christian conflict. I read the original version, which has more powerful language and an unusual theological implication which, had it been explored, might have made this book very conceptually interesting.
Another problem in this book was Anderson's portrayal of women, though it was nowhere near as bad as one gets from modern epic fantasies. His women have character, wills, and power. They kill, they wear armor, they defy and manipulate men--Anderson clearly draws the women of his tragic epic from the tragedies of the Greeks and Shakespeare. Yet they tend still to be emotionally reliant on men, and are often lead to act out of their desires for and relationships with those men. More than that, every woman seems to be described at least once as wearing some clinging, form-fitting thing which makes evident her curves, revealing that it's important for an author to describe what is relevant to the story, not merely what his own eye habitually lingers on.
Strong women are not the only things Anderson takes from the great tragedies--his central story is a remarkably deep and sympathetic exploration of personal tragedy, full of purpose and pathos. The deaths, trials, betrayals and self-doubts are not thrown into the story haphazardly to feed a chaotic plot, like Martin's, they are vital and personal, each one built precisely to reveal some new aspect of a character's inner turmoil.
Despite being laid out like a classical tragedy, so that the downfall is evident from the beginning, looming over us, I never felt that this knowledge hurt the reader's expectation, because Anderson was a good enough writer to make sure that it wasn't about what external events happened to the characters, but what their internal reactions would be. There is no mystery about what event will tear apart Skafloc and Freda's love, what is vital to us is how it will impact them. It just goes to show that cheap thrills and plot twists are nothing compared to a good character.
Though Skafloc and Freda's struggles are poignant--moreso as we near the conclusion--for much of the story, Skafloc's antagonistic counterpart Valgard presents a more rare picture: that of the unsure, self-searching man who finds himself again and again on the side of darkness, without knowing what has brought him there--is it fate? his own true nature? mere bad luck? Like Tolkien's Gollum or Eddison's Lord Gro, I often feel drawn to these figures of personal crisis who demonstrate the vagueness of the line that separates heroism and villainy.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed not to see Valgard's story grow as things progressed. When he first asked himself whether he were truly born evil--a changeling child--or had some control over his fate, I eagerly anticipated his attempts to prove the fact, one way or the other. Yet, perhaps realistically, he ultimately found himself spitted on the question, unable in the end to test it. I wish that, even if Anderson chose not to explore the full range of this question, he might have had Valgard confront it in different ways, instead of returning always to the same view and phrasing. In the end, it was Skafloc who explored the fuller range of moral values in his quest to determine what truly separated a sword-wielding hero from a power-hungry killer.
Though this book is largely unknown to any outside of devoted fantasy fans, it is notable for being one of the books which inspired Michael Moorcock, especially in his Elric series, through which many of its tropes have trickled into modern fantasy. In Moorcock's opinion, it was this book, and not Tolkien's, which should have become the epic fantasy classic. It certainly would have sent the genre off in a different direction. Perhaps now, instead of a mirthless grasp at maturity, we might have recognized that since epic fantasy has already had great tragic depictions, modern authors are entirely free to write new and interesting stories free of the hollow pretensions that come with the label of 'serious author'.
Epic Fantasy is not, like some others, a young genre, finding itself, but a very old one that has lost its way. I can only hope that soon, we'll start to see the other side of this mid-life crisis, and that books like The Broken Sword may be written again.
How do we distinguish between the author and the characters he writes? There are readers who assume that if a main character does something racist or...moreHow do we distinguish between the author and the characters he writes? There are readers who assume that if a main character does something racist or sexist, that means the author is, too. But then, characters can also transform into cockroaches, commit interplanetary genocide, and die gloriously without the author having to undergo those experiences, himself.
Even in an autobiography, the author still isn't writing himself--he's writing one biased version, crafting coherent stories and meanings out of the messy aggregate of daily life. But even in works of pure, fantastical fiction, some authors reveal more of themselves than others.
For the most inexperienced author, the main character will be a reflection of how they view themselves. They know what the author knows, like what they like, and have the same faults an strengths--or more precisely, the character will have the traits the author imagines they possess (plus a few they wish they had).
On one hand, this is an easy character to write, because all the author has to do is place themselves in the situation and imagine what they would do. Unfortunately, this creates a fundamental problem for the author, since they have to create all the conflicts, yet a character who knows what they know would also know how to solve those conflicts. It becomes a game of tic tac toe against the self--the only way either side could win is by accident. In such books, you can predict that any problem that crops up will be solved within the same chapter.
In stories like this, it's common for authors to simply put their own opinions into the mouths of the main characters, and to put opposing opinions into the mouths of the 'bad guys', a la Ayn Rand. This is a silly, unconvincing technique, because the implications drawn are completely false. You can't say 'the villain kills babies and is socialst, therefore socialism is evil', because that doesn't actually demonstrate any connection between the two activities.
A slightly more sophisticated author will intentionally create a character who is more naive than them (at least, to start out with). Then they can have the character make the same mistakes the author used to make when they were younger, before they figured things out. Part of the popularity of the bildunsroman ('growing up story') is that it's easy to think up conflicts and solutions for the characters.
Authors who operate on this level can't just put their lengthy monologues in the mouth of the hero, because the hero is too naive to have everything figured out. Instead, they leave the speeches to a wise mentor figure, who stands in for all that is good, and who may be recognized in the unremitting slurry of kindly, ironical wizards in much modern fantasy.
But if a writer is self-aware and pays attention to the world, they will eventually realize that what makes people interesting is that they are flawed, troubled, and struggle through life. They will start exploring different sorts of people, people who are very unlike them, people who might disagree with them fundamentally, but who are still interesting and sympathetic.
But there's still a tall hill to climb for authors who want to write characters unlike themselves. Few authors have the grasp of psychology necessary to write a realistic character who is fundamentally different from them, so most authors just cobble together some strong character cliches and play them up. But even if he is capable of sticking to the personality he chooses, he risks giving himself away in other ways.
An author might create a sexist character, who constantly says and does sexist things, but that isn't damning--authors often explore deeply-flawed characters. The real problem is if the narration and structure begin to support those same conclusions. If a character calls someone a 'slut', that could just be an expression of how real people sometimes speak. If the narration actually refers to a character by that slur, we have a problem--where is that judgment coming from, if not the author?
It's often a problem with genre authors, who try their hardest to make strong female characters, making other characters speak self-consciously about the power and strength of women, but then completely undermining all of that by never actually having the women do anything active or make any important decisions. Narrative descriptions of women are lengthy, in florid, sexualized terms--even when there is no male present in the story to appreciate them. Men, contrarily, may never have their face or eye color mentioned.
In the case of Flashman, we have another complexity at play. Our main character is often despicable, unsympathetic, sexist, racist, and rarely deserves the victories he gets. But the entire story is from his perspective--there is no all-seeing narrator voice to tell us what's going on. All the views, all the descriptions come from Flashman, himself.
Whenever an author completely veils himself behind the character, we must decide what to believe--this technique is called the 'unreliable narrator', for obvious reasons. Sure, Flashy is a selfish coward who beats his servants, but does that mean Fraser is for cowardice? Is he arguing for toadyism and self-promotion over all?
Certainly, Flashman recognizes that, according to social ideals, he is not a good man, nor a deserving one--but then, he is surrounded by important, influential men who are even worse than he is. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that unpleasant people often end up on top of the totem pole, and never get their comeuppance, but that can be a rather depressing message.
Luckily, in this tale of rollicking adventure, the message is delivered with thick humor and irony, not dour nihilism. If money and fame are doled out regularly to the most foolish and detestable of our race, perhaps it is because only the foolish and detestable desire them enough to keep seeking them. Most worthwhile people will end up too distracted by positive human relationships and personal growth to continue self-possessed social climbing for long enough.
Happily, our dear Flashy has no such hangups. Throughout the ceaseless, rousing, ridiculous tale of Victorian colonial mishaps, he rarely fails to disappoint. Yet I kept finding myself sympathizing with him--at times guiltily. I knew he deserved punishment, but I didn't actually want to watch it administered. I didn't want the poor chap to suffer.
It just goes to show that we'll always feel more attached to the rascal we know well than to the saint we've never met. And while he's not apologetic, at least he doesn't suffer from the terrible mental disability of the average internet commentator, who cannot critique stupidity and hypocrisy without being a stupid hypocrite, himself. Flashman may be many unsavory things, but he's no hypocrite. He not only accepts his cowardice, he clings to it like a lifeline--which in fact it often is. He is not, like all the fools he serves under, a fool with grand pretensions--he is merely a fool, and glad enough to remain one as long as life's grip holds.
Fraser's Victorian is meticulously researched, and his footnotes are often funnier than his witty banter--mostly because all the most absurd parts of his stories are completely true. Overall, he reminded me of the experience of reading The Three Musketeers--a nonstop adventure full of odd characters and occurrences, with life and death always at the shake of the next cup.
Yet there was something of Conrad's The Duel, with humor and absurdity often rubbing shoulders with dire consequences and the horrors of war. The return march of the army through the snowy crags of Afghanistan brought me back to Conrad's harrowing depiction of the French invasion of Russia--and the dwindling return of that broken army, immortalized starkly in Minard's famous image.
Creating a sympathetic antihero is a difficult task--particularly when they aren't of the violent, ass-kicking variety--but Fraser displays why flawed, unusual characters will always trump a flat romantic hero. Like The Virginian or The Moonstone, this is another exciting, surprisingly touching piece of fun which easily outstrips the limitations of its genre.(less)
In 1819 in Manhattan, a strange trial was commencing. A merchant of that great city had been found in possession of barrels of spermacetti, the fine-q...moreIn 1819 in Manhattan, a strange trial was commencing. A merchant of that great city had been found in possession of barrels of spermacetti, the fine-quality oil which may be obtained from the head of the Sperm Whale. When an inspector demanded he pay the proper taxes on his goods, the merchant, who apparently made a hobby of science, declared that he had no fish product in his possession, and so the tax did not apply. He was duly arrested and, contending the charges, a trial was begun to determine, once-and-for-all, if whales were indeed, fish.
This was becoming an increasingly important question in the wake of Linneaus' great work and the recent codification by numerous biologists of the many families in which plants and animals numbered their descent, which would soon culminate in the great discovery of Darwin. Is it possible there was some familial connection between whales and dogs? Or more troublingly, between these alien monsters of the deep and humans? It was important to determine an answer, but it is singularly strange that the venue chosen to answer this question was not the halls of academia, or even the wild world of the working naturalist, but a courthouse, with judge, lawyers, and jury arguing the question.
Certainly, numerous scientists were brought in to testify, and so were experienced whale-hunters, who tended to give contradicting accounts. As D. Graham Burnett puts it, in his book on the trial, Trying Leviathan, these were men with 'lay expertise'--they dealt everyday with the subject at hand, but had no grasp of the history or theory behind it. One might point to the difference between the man who drives a car every day to work, and the man who knows how a car is built.
So it is somewhat strange that, thirty-two years later, Moby Dick seems to show us relatively little progress on this question. Melville first declares that whales are definitely fish (though he does not discount their mammalian structures), laments the many futile attempts to depict them accurately, and then embarks on an attempt to classify members of the species which is hardly scientific.
His approach was not a modern, thoroughly-researched analysis of the subject as it stood, but a conceptual exploration, and in the end, a flawed one, a failed experiment, and not the only one in Melville's great work.
There are mistaken details, dropped plotlines and characters, vast shifts in style and tone, changes in point-of-view, as if several different sorts of book were combined together. This is not a classic lauded for its narrow, precise perfection, but for its wide-reaching, seemingly-fearless leaps into waters both varied and deep.
Reading Melville's letters, it is clear he knew his experiment was not an entire success, but he pressed on boldly despite his doubts, refusing to write anything less grand just because he feared it might, in some parts, fail. It is a difficult thing for an author not to give in and write something smaller and safer, something certain. It is Achilles' choice: to live a small and easy life, which will be long and passing pleasant, or to strike at the skies, to die in the flame of youth, and become a song. Like Ahab, Melville attempts something grand, dangerous, and unknown.
It is a phrase we hear, which we understand, something pervasive. There are a number of reasons that Melville's great work, ignored and sneered at in his lifetime, is now preeminent. For all the flaws of his book, it is still full of remarkable successes.
It begins with several strange, ominous notes, like a Beethoven symphony, calling us to attention, with the mystic and dark theology of "There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within". But then it strikes away--there are still some dark shadows which flit across the scene, but for the most part, we are following Ishmael, in all of his funny, bumbling, pretentious, self-deprecating little adventures. It is, at the first, fundamentally a Sea Story in the old tradition, and we should not forget that it is a grand Romance, not serious-minded realism.
One thing I was not prepared for was this book's often subtle and sometimes uproarious humor. Sadly, that part seems to be missing from its great reputation. As a Romance, it is not precisely concerned with developing holistic character psychology, it is enough to have types and archetypes, though they are often twisted. The individual pieces on the board act less like individuals and more like different aspects of one mind, the central mind of the book itself, of which each character forms a small part.
So if relationships are sometimes rushed, or lapse, or are unfinished, those may be flaws in pacing, but each relationship is building together, contributing to the vision Melville gives us of his little world, so they are hardly pointless elements. It is more that Melville takes shortcuts here and there to tell the central story, for as he himself points out, to tell the whole story of Moby Dick is more than any one author could do.
Much has been made of the vast symbology of the book, probably too much. It is not an allegory, there is no one thing that the whale stands for, or Ahab, or the ship. They are all parts of a story, and while we may understand them by thinking about evil, or good, or fate, or faith, to try to boil them down to some simple meaning is to miss the point, and to turn a great story into nothing more than a fable. It is a mistake to go in asking 'what does this represent', it does the book a disservice. Asking this question is not necessary for us to understand the work.
Melville's bleak vision captured the imagination of the emerging post-modern thinkers who had seen the world wars tear apart concepts and assumptions which been long unchangeable and taken for granted. But it is not that this is a dark, hopeless book, but rather that it is a book which lacks simple, familiar answers. It does not wallow in the notion of hopelessness, but rather seems troubled by the fact that hope seems so often leads us to an inescapably hopeless place.
In the thirties and forties, this book became a sort of 'test' for intellectuals. It gives no easy answers, yet it displays a wide array of ideas, conclusions, conflicts, and worldviews. So when one literary critic asked another what he thought of Moby Dick, he was asking what he was able to create from this basic toolset of ideas which had no simple, right answer.
Unfortunately, this open-endedness has given the book an undeserved reputation of being inaccessible and requiring some vast store of knowledge in order to 'get' it. It is fundamentally a story about characters, and the only thing required to get it is to be a human being with an interest in other human beings. In fact, at one point, Melville makes a parody of the idea of the text which is full of allusions that only experts will understand, with the tale of 'Darmonodes and the elephant', which is not actually a real reference to anything, but was made up by Melville to tease those who are obsessed with dissecting every allusion.
Certainly, it does slow down around the middle, when we start getting various explanations about the history and methods of whaling, but the book is not a series of dry explanations, these are the collected stories and ideas of men. Though Melville, himself, only worked as a whaler for less than two years, he researched and compiled many different accounts to create his book. And these explorations of whaling, like the characters, all contribute to our understanding, they build meaning and help to color certain words and actions.
There are some terms which Melville likes to re-use throughout, and some of these seem to be stylistic oversights, but his repeated use of the term 'monomania' (monomaniacal, monomaniac) is a reference to a specific psychological condition, which is how Melville intends it to be taken, instead of as a simple description, so I don't count this as a 'favored word' of the author's but an example of specific use of a term.
Another of his experiments is to play around with the voice of the book, which starts as a first-person narrative by Ishmael, but also includes Shakespearean soliloquies and choral scenes (complete with stage directions) and a number of scenes which it seems impossible for Ishmael to have witnessed. As with most of the book, these are not obscure, nor do they make the action difficult to follow, they are just more example of Melville's playful experimentation.
Indeed, there is much of Shakespeare here, from the speeches of personal intent to the broad humor, the crew's sing-song banter, the melodramatic, grandiose characters, the occasional half-hidden sex joke, and the references to Biblical and Greek myth. But being a modern author, Melville's writing is easier to comprehend, particularly because much of his styling and pacing has passed into the modern form of books, movies, and television.
There are also some particularly beautiful passages where the prose begins to resemble poetry, and between the grotesque, funny characters and the thoughtful, careful writing in some scenes, I began to compare the work to The Gormenghast Novels, though while Peake maintains this style throughout, Melville often switches back and forth between styles and tones.
So, with all his mad switching about, his vast restlessness, Melville reveals that his own is more of a 'polymania'--an obsession with varying things--and while this does mean that his work has many errors, many experiments which didn't quite pan out, it also means that the book as a whole is completely full of remarkable, wonderful, funny, poignant, charming, exciting, thought-provoking, philosophical, historical, and scientific notions, so that even taking the flaws into account, there is just such a wealth of value in this book, so much to take away from it. And yet, don't worry about taking everything away--that's a fool's errand--Melville did his best to write what he could, trying not to worry about whether it was all perfect, so the least we can do is to be bold enough to read it as it is, and take what we can from it, without worrying whether we've gotten all of it.
Walk the beach, and do not worry about picking up every stone you see, but take a handful that please you and know that it was worth your while.(less)
Reading Scaramouche is one of those odd experiences where a genre book really surprises you with its depth and complexity. It's a swashbuckling story...moreReading Scaramouche is one of those odd experiences where a genre book really surprises you with its depth and complexity. It's a swashbuckling story with only two swordfights, where political theory, masked theater forms, and the science of fencing all take center stage, and where the hero is strangely shy, introverted, and reluctant. But Captain Blood never strays as far from its genre boundaries.
We still have a somewhat quiet, humble, over-educated hero (Scarmouche is the lawyer-turned-actor, Blood the doctor-turned-pirate), but Blood is less complex, less conflicted. His depressive brooding is not as interesting as Scaramouche's wry frustration, in part because it's less active.
In both stories, the movements of the plot are dictated by misunderstandings, things left unsaid, assumptions made too quickly. For the audience, it's more satisfying to see a hero who is angered by these misunderstandings, and who wants to change them, rather than one who simply accepts them and gives into his woe, being saved in the end only by chance. It's more interesting to see a character win his love than to stumble upon it after a sufficient length of hardship.
The plot is made up of the expected parts: mutiny, sea battles, daring raids, swordfights, and rescues. The book is well-researched, and the pacing isn't bad, but it lacks a certain depth. The world is not complete, it is a single view, with few insights or surprises, which is the danger of any genre piece that never strays from the bare bones of its form.
It's an exciting enough bit of adventure, with some thoughtfulness and characters who are not simple cardboard cliches, but in the end, there isn't much to it.(less)
Radio waves move at the speed of light. This is not particularly noticeable on Earth, but if you were at the sun, it would take eight and a half minut...moreRadio waves move at the speed of light. This is not particularly noticeable on Earth, but if you were at the sun, it would take eight and a half minutes for a signal to reach you, which would make a phonecall rather awkward. It would be even worse at the next closest star, Proxima Centauri, where messages take four years. Thus, the speed of light is the rate at which information moves, at which change change can propagate.
But most people don't think, when watching Star Trek, that Captain Picard shouldn't be able to have a quick chat with someone back on Earth. For those who do think that, there is Hard Sci Fi. It's a subgenre where the author actually knows something about scientific theory and tries to use that knowledge to make his world seem more reasonable to other people who know something about science.
It can be delightful to hear someone tell Commander Shepard that such communication is possible due to 'Quantum Entanglement', especially if you already know what that means (even if Shepard doesn't know, meaning you are now playing a character dumber than you). Thus, Hard Sci Fi is made up of a series of technological thought experiments, which can be very interesting, or very dull.
For instance, you can play a fun game with the author and second-guess their ideas, which OCD aspies seem to get off on. I decided to play around a bit myself and test his repeated assertion that it would take a lot of time to populate the Ringworld, thoroughly solving overpopulation problems for a species like humans.
Human beings on Earth double their population every fifty years, which is a geometric progression (x2, x4, x8, x16, x32), so that the growth gets faster and faster. The current population density of humans on the Earth is 45.3 people per square kilometer of land. Take the 6.8 billion humans on earth and move them to the ringworld (1.6×10 to the 15th square kilometers, but half of that's water), and you get eight and a half people for every million square kilometers of land. That is a lot of room to spare.
But that's before we start doubling and redoubling. Since the Ringworld's land area is 1.5 million times the land area of Earth, we'd need i.5 million times as many people to reach the same population density. We would reach a population of 1.5 million times 6.8 billion between doublings 20 and 21, which--at 50 years per doubling--is just over a thousand years; not really that long a respite, in galactic terms.
And that doesn't even get into the migration rates, since, to get from one side of the ring to the other in a thousand years would require traveling 16 thousand miles per day, so you're probably starting to see both how fun and how tedious Hard Sci Fi can be.
But Niven's isn't that bad, and he rarely gets into the numbers. A lot of readers might not even consider him to be real 'Hard Sci Fi' today, he's got faster-than-light travel, after all, and without a complex explanation or anything. But if a writer wants to make an engaging adventure story, they can't let themselves get too bogged down in the Science of it all. And Niven doesn't, it's just a treat for the reader who knows what to look for--some of it's even informative.
His characters are fairly straight-forward. We have a smart, introspective, science-minded guy who doesn't have a whole lot of personality. We've got distant, unusual logic alien, giant noble warrior alien, and a naive girl. It's not a bad exploration of these now-familiar tropes, even after all the intervening time.
The woman I found rather annoying, in part because she reminded me of the type of girl I usually avoided at parties: someone who had been pretty and well-off her entire life and hence, never had the need to develop a personality. I much prefer people who started our weird and awkward and only became attractive later in life.
But, at least Niven actually tries to explore this aspect of her character, instead of merely taking it for granted that this is how women are. I won't say his portrayal of women is ideal, she and the only other woman in the book are defined by their femininity and derive all of their power from sex. They do it somewhat knowingly, but it hardly makes for very complex characters or a challenging worldview, nor is it very 'alien'.
The plot itself is passable, much more sober and well-constructed than Riverworld, but also less whimsical. It moves along at a quick pace, uncovering a few intergalactic political mysteries on the way, but we don't get a very solid conclusion at the end, so I must assume it's more of a lead-in to the next book in the series. We do get some closure, but I would have appreciated a stronger and more definitive arc.
Altogether an enjoyable, unpretentious read, and it's not hard to see why it became influential in the genre. It's not going to feel revolutionary to sci fi readers, even compared to earlier works like Star Trek and the Golden-age authors, but it's a solid, well-executed piece.
Colfer has described this series as “Die Hard, with fairies”, which is a reference to an old Hollywood joke. After the phenomenal success of that movi...moreColfer has described this series as “Die Hard, with fairies”, which is a reference to an old Hollywood joke. After the phenomenal success of that movie, a lot of writers started pitching their scripts as ‘Die Hard, with [blank]”, such as Speed: “Die Hard on a Bus”, or Air Force One: “Die Hard, on Air Force One”, or, as the joke goes, the unfortunate who wanted to make "Die Hard, in a building".
If you have actually seen Die Hard, you might recall Hans Gruber, the wealthy, cunning, erudite, European villain (played by Alan ‘Not-Just-Snape’ Rickman). But in this book, the European criminal is the main character, suggesting Colfer views the movie in the same light as Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother:
”Hans Gruber. Charming international bandit. In the end, he dies hard. He's the title character.”
So, already, we have some interesting choices going on, but many’s the good idea buried by poor execution.
In some ways, telling a good story is like telling an effective lie: you have to know your limits. Like the old writer's adage from Faulker: you've got to kill your darlings. Those overly clever ideas and indulgences have to go, if they don't fit, which they usually don't.
If an author gives in to the urge over-explain or get too fancy, he's going to trip himself up, and Colfer often does. He throws around a lot of terminology, trying to seem knowledgeable to lend credibility to his little fantasy story, but he usually gets it wrong.
He talks about an impact hitting with ‘a ton of G force’, which is nonsense. ‘G Force’ already has a built-in unit of measurement, which is 'Gs', not mass. The process of acceleration can be described in mass, but it would have to be compared to the acceleration of gravity on Earth, or 'Gs', which Colfer fails to do. It would be like describing the speed of a car as ‘fourteen feet'.
He also describes a character as rocketing down a hallway at Mach 1, which is the speed of sound (768 mph). Moving at this speed for a tenth of a second—the amount of time it takes for our brain to react enough to blink—a person would travel 112’, more than the length of the hallway described. Yet he still has his character looking back, adjusting his visor, and fretting about whether he will make it through the door. Not to mention that someone accelerating to Mach 1 within the length of such a hallway would squash them like a bug (at 350 Gs).
He also describes a seasoned bodyguard who refers to the spin kick as pointless and flashy. While jumping spinning kicks may fall into this category, a simple spinning back kick is both an effective and basic tool for a martial artist, and one which is often used in competition in many full-contact disciplines.
Early in the book, he goes to great lengths to describe the process of computer translation of an unknown language. The entire process is extremely simplified, which is fine, but then, when the translation comes out, not only is it grammatically perfect, it’s all in rhyming couplets!
I always feel frustrated by authors who see the 'Young Adult' label as an excuse to write a thoughtless, cliche book full of simple mistakes. I don't think giving kids badly-researched misinformation is going to turn them into better readers.
And these are all details that could have been easily glossed over. Anyone who knew what the terms meant would have seen they were wrong, and anyone who didn't know them would find them meaningless. One of the benefits of writing Science Fiction or Fantasy is not having to explain yourself, not having to be an expert in everything you talk about. You can just wave your hand and give some mumbo-jumbo and that’s fine, we can suspend our disbelief.
Which is why, when an author writing a fantastical story tries to inject realism, it's important for them to know what they are talking about, otherwise, they’ll just make themselves look foolish for no good reason. Instead of leaving well enough alone, he tried to make himself look well-informed and technical, and failed miserably. A good author doesn’t telegraph their ineptitude, they hide it, but a good author is also aware of their limits.
He also goes on a rather condescending diatribe about how Ireland is the most magical place, and Irish mythology is superior to all other myths, because Ireland is the birthplace of all magic. Not only is this a rather insensitive view, it’s also short-sighted, since he’s using myths which have their basis not in Ireland, but in Scandinavia (dwarves, elves, trolls). The original people of Ireland were short and dark haired. All the redheads of Ireland are descendants of Scandinavian invaders, who brought their myths with them.
But even after this bit of out-of-place nationalism, he never actually ends up using any Irish myth in the story. It’s all very generic stuff, except for a few place-names, there is nothing uniquely Irish here. His depictions of fairy creatures do not demonstrate any Gaelic origin, the only thing mythic about them are their names and pointed ears.
I’m not saying Colfer should be tied to old traditions, or that he shouldn’t create his own versions of myth, but it hardly makes sense for him to go on about the greatness of Irish magic if he's not going to bother using any of it. The statement is also incongruous with the fact that his protagonist is named after a character of Greek myth, and a female one, at that, but my annoyance with the misappropriation of the name ‘Artemis’ is my own onus to bear.
There’s also some eco propaganda, mainly in the form of attacking human beings for ruining everything, which once again, is condescending, over-simplified, and adds nothing to the book.
The characters are unremarkable, just clichés taken from buddy cop movies and played straight; no surprising depth, no twists, no masterful strokes of characterization, just what you’d expect from a techno-spy thriller. Which is somewhat unusual, since this is nominally a fantastical book, but the fantasy elements are rarely touched upon. Mostly, the fairies operate with commando squads and superior technology. There is nothing particularly magical about them.
When magic is used, it tends to be either to be a simple solution to plot conflicts, or a macguffin to cause such conflicts. As I’ve mentioned before, using a magic as a systematic problem-solver tends to make it feel a lot less magical and a lot more like the author’s crutch. This is especially apparent when the magic is portrayed aside equally fantastical technologies that serve roughly the same purpose.
If an author is going to use a lot of convenient bits of magic and technology so they don't have to think much about the plot, I’m going to expect them to provide some sparkling, unusual characters. But they often act stupidly or out-of-character, usually to move the plot. If the plot is streamlined and convenient, it should at least be exciting and unpredictable. Colfer does not deliver here, either. The plot is standard. We do get the villain’s point-of-view more often than in many stories, but that just reminds us how Fowl is a James Bond villain.
And if I get convenient plot-solving, cliché characters, and a standard story, I need something else. I had heard that, in this book, the special element was supposed to be humor, but I did not find this book humorous in any way. I’m not saying that it tried to be funny and failed, I’m not saying it was full of bad jokes which I rolled my eyes at. This book did not even attempt to be funny. There was no clever observation, and nothing surprising. Without the ability to surprise you, no author will be able to deliver any humor.
There is a quite long series of repeated descriptions of a dwarf pooping rock explosively, but this was not presented in a humorous or surprising way, it was rather matter-of-fact, but not wry enough to qualify as ‘deadpan’. The entire book is suffused with a tone of irreverence, but the tone never achieves anything. There are no moments of punctuation where the irreverence boils over, it is just a constant, even presence in every scene, description, and bit of dialogue.
It rather reminds me of a common problem of fan-fic authors: instead of being funny, or exciting, or having interesting characters, or surprising plot-twists, they will instead imply that they are doing those things through character reactions and overstated narration. Colfer constantly implies that eventually, he will just pop out and—Bam! Be funny!—but luckily, it proves to be an empty threat.
The problem is, if you spend all your time promising to be funny or exciting, it just makes it more clear that you aren't actaully delivering on that promise. It was easy to see what Colfer wanted this book to be (or more delusionally, thought it was), but it was also to see how often and predictably it failed.
The cover is also ugly and cheap, and I came across some errors in the text, but I won’t blame that on the author.
All in all a straightforward, cliche little story. It's a fast read and not insultingly bad, just poorly-structured, predictable, and forgettable. There are some promising concepts there, but they all end up buried under pointless asides, misused jargon, and the constant promises of an interesting story that never arrives.
* * *
And as I wrote this review, I discovered something disturbing: Colfer has been hired to continue the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. I find this terribly confusing: Douglas Adams was one of the most insightful, clever, unpredictable, philosophically sound, satirically acerbic, and all-around-nice-guy writers that I have ever read. Yet here is Colfer: in no regard funny, with no insights to give, characters unremarkable, dialogue predictable, plot convenient, philosophical outlook insulting, unable to capitalize on an interesting concept, and enough of a self-absorbed jerk that he ruins even simple stories by trying to impress people with references to things he knows nothing about.
Mr. Gaiman, I know you are a Goodreads author, and one of Adams’ fondest fans, so I must ask you: how could you let this happen to me? If there is anyone who should be continuing Adam’s series, it’s Stewart Lee—and if there were any two people who should continue it, it’s two Stewart Lees.
But you are also a great and talented author, and surprisingly enough, capable of being tremendously funny. No one appreciates more than I do the subtle and shocking wit of not writing a very funny book until six novels in, but I love the swerve of building up a career as a serious-minded, somewhat disturbing author of heavily-allusive horror and then suddenly kicking out something really funny.
But I’m losing my train of thought. Dear Mr. Gaiman, this year for Christmas, please use your magical authorial powers to remove Mr. Colfer from any relation to Mr. Adams’ lovely work. If he wants to write his own dull crime fiction with some fairies thrown in to snag people who are waiting for better fantasy books to be published, that’s his business, but the thought that someone would allow him to besmirch one of the great sci fi series of all time makes me want to snatch him up—along with L. Sprague deCamp and August Derleth—and make them all live in a world like the ones they created: a world which is a pale shadow of what it should be, where every conversation is stilted, every person dull, every jest flaccid—where fire is merely lukewarm, spattered blood pepto-pink, sunsets an overwrought cacophony by Thomas Kincaid, where food is ash in your mouth, where every story starts in a 'white room', and where loving a beautiful woman just feels like clutching your own calloused hand in the dark as you play out the long-faded fantasies of a false-nostalgic youth.
The term 'Speculative Fiction' was developed out of a desire by some authors to separate themselves from the more pejorative aspects of the Sci Fi gen...moreThe term 'Speculative Fiction' was developed out of a desire by some authors to separate themselves from the more pejorative aspects of the Sci Fi genre. Harlan Ellison famously hated the term 'sci fi', scorning the implication that his stories had anything in common with Flash Gordon or Lost in Space.
In Speculative Fiction, technology is not there to facilitate the plot, or to dazzle readers with fantasy, but to provide the author with an opportunity to explore the human mind in unexpected, innovative ways. The heart of the genre is an introspective exploration of the nature of reality.
Much of sci fi acts metaphorically: elements in the world act as symbols for things we recognize: the conflict between the human government and alien settlers represents the immigration issue, the planet-destroying laser shows how we feel about nuclear weapons, the super computer controls and organizes people like a cult.
Speculative fiction also acts symbolically, but it is not allegorical--there is not a one-to-one relationship between the symbols of fiction and the reality we know. Instead, the authors use thematic symbols whose meanings can change, drawing us in with an odd familiarity, a presque vu, and then dropping away, leaving us with that most fundamental of human motivations: the need for a closure we cannot seem to find.
It is the evocation of this need to discover--to know--ourselves, and thus, our world, which drives the speculative; and this is what LeGuin gives us: a thoughtful, introspective tale--a tale almost obsessively isolated, narrated from deep within the characters. We always feel their presence, we hear their observations and weigh them, and there is necessarily a constant separation between the reader and the voice on the page, a gap which exists in every story, but which we often forget is there.
The trope of the 'unreliable narrator' is a fraught trap for authors, and I recall in Gene Wolfe's 'New Sun' it became a morass where reader, narrator, and author all intermingled--and the voice was lost. In order for the method to be effective, it must be clear to the reader where the narrator falters, and where he is likely to falter.
It need not be deliberately misleading, and indeed it shouldn't be: characters who feel most confident talking about themselves usually end up giving themselves away guilelessly. I admit that I am uncertain how much of the narrator's philosophizing was LeGuin's, and I won't be until I have read more of her work, but even if the assumptions are hers, she managed to capably keep them separate from her world.
But that is her constant theme, and her story is stark: events are harsh and uncertain, and so the narrative is always driven back into the mind, into rumination, into patterns and cycles which consider the same ideas from many sides without simply repeating the same conflicts over and over.
Yet the work is not remote or brooding--it has action, it has a plot, and it has emotional character interactions. The story always moves, and it shifts, giving the occasional outside view of another character, or some piece of alien myth, which were particularly unusual and well-constructed. It is not a heavy, weary tome, but it is certainly thoughtful, and we do not get lost in the story, because we are actively interested in it, and in its outcomes, because they are made personally important.
The book held some disappointments for me--chiefly, I wished that the contemplations had delved a bit deeper, had been a bit more shocking, a bit more insightful, as the myths often were; but the narrator was stolid, in his way. I sometimes became annoyed at how thick-headed he was, how he failed to find solutions, but I sympathized in the fact that the solutions he sought were never easy to find, and that the central theme of the book was that it didn't matter if we found answers, because we so rarely ask the right questions, anyways.
The pseudo-scientific elements often felt superfluous, especially in such a character-driven story. The implications of technology and telepathy are only as interesting as their impact on society and thought. She would sometimes bring in such notions, but they were always abortive, and added little to the story. They did provide a bit of wonder, but LeGuin was too ready to analyze them, to structure them, which made them quotidian without enmeshing them meaningfully into the world she had built.
Also central was the exploration of gender, which was truly alien and speculative, but felt somewhat plodding and small. It feel true to the character, which I appreciate, but I would not have minded him breaking out of his shell, now and then, to hit on something that was a bit beyond him to really comprehend. I cannot say if the shallowness was the character's, or the author's, which means the writing was good enough to avoid transparency.
But I was left with a sense of being unsatisfied, a desire for more introspection, a deeper plunge, if only to dredge up unexpected questions. Yet the structure, the character, the world, and the tone were all so carefully, specifically laid that I felt duly impressed. This book is a work, and it is a success, and if it does not reach too high, at least it does not fall to pretension, which is the danger of any redefinition which seeks to uplift entertainment to Art.
But this is only my first LeGuin, and she deserves a second look. If she can deliver another vision, as carefully made as this one, but on a different theme, with a different sort of character, than I will be extremely impressed. If, however, she is only capable of one mode, one character, one theme--like Vonnegut--it is still a style worth experiencing at least once, and probably a handful of times.(less)
I always find myself frustrated when authors can't seem to think of anything bad for their characters to overcome, and so they have to create some unb...moreI always find myself frustrated when authors can't seem to think of anything bad for their characters to overcome, and so they have to create some unbelievably vindictive and amoral villain just so there is some central conflict. The main character gets along with everyone and always finds satisfying solutions to any momentary setback.
The only problems such super-protagonists can't solve are those which they don't yet know the details of, so Pullman gives us a faux-mystery to keep the character in the dark, but requires too many leaps for the reader to be able to puzzle things out. Then, he has one of the secondary characters wrap the entire thing up offstage near the climax.
This was especially bothersome because he just threw out all of the lead-up (i.e., the mystery), and instead gave us a climax which had little to do with anything previous in the book.
Pullman's writing was just as raw as his plotting, and you could see him struggling to use figurative language. In the end, he never finds a solid voice, and most of his characters end up as rather predictable placeholders.
It wasn't a bad book, and it had its moments, here and there, but it lifted its plot from the seminal mystery story, The Moonstone, and in all other regards seemed to be aping Kipling and Conrad.
Not that those are bad sources from which to take inspiration, but Pullman isn't doing anything new here, nor does he demonstrate the florid voice and sense of character which made those authors stand out. He tries to overcome this by giving us of little details about Victorian London, but most of them are just bits of geography, and one never gets a sense of the amazing, alien place evoked by Mayhew's London Poor.(less)
So the premise of this book (as the narrator keeps helpfully reminding us) is that this group of three children will continue to have difficult proble...moreSo the premise of this book (as the narrator keeps helpfully reminding us) is that this group of three children will continue to have difficult problems to overcome, and every time they succeed in dealing with one problem, another will crop up. In the writing business, this is what's known as 'a plot'.
But then he takes it one step further: in addition to all the difficulties along the way, he assures us that the characters will never break this pattern, and there will be no 'happy ending'. I think this is a good idea, especially in a children's book, because we, as a culture, don't have enough role models for failure.
We have lots of role models for how to behave when we win, but this isn't really very useful--it's not when we win that we most need guidance and aid. We need more examples of how to maintain, how to persevere, in the face of failure.
At this point, our only role models for what to do when we fail are villains, who tend to get angry, yell, whine, take it out on subordinates, and then develop vengeful plans to make everyone feel as bad as they do. The unfortunate result is that people often begin to act like villains when things don't go well, an effect which can be observed most easily by holding a job where you have a boss.
So I'm all for 'no easy wrap ups' at the end of the story, but unfortunately, Snicket is unable to develop a conclusion without this easy route. It takes a very skilled writer to eschew convention and still write something interesting, and his reasons for avoiding standard practices should not be merely to differentiate himself, but to achieve some alternative goal for his story.
There are authors who have achieved this, even in children's fiction--Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl being the preeminent examples. When Snicket laid out the premise of his books, I began to look for something along the lines of those two authors, who, despite creating stories of children suffering constantly and unfairly, managed to write entertaining, enjoyable stories.
But then those stories were wild and vivid, even when they were dark. Dahl's ability to create grotesque, powerful characters made for dynamic, engrossing stories, while Carroll's quick, fertile mind kept us always guessing, and often laughing, despite Alice's constant frustrations.
Though Snicket is trying for a witty style, he rarely gets there. After the second chapter, all his jokes have already been established, the rest are only minor variations on the same themes. There are no surprising insights to back up his humor, nothing unexpected, just a continuance of the same tone: dry, but not acerbic.
The characters, likewise, show little variance. The vocabulary and speech patterns are all very similar, whether adults, children, villains, or heroes. We are often told of differences in character by the narrator, but these never actually make it into the characters' mouths.
Since the characters are fairly cliche and undifferentiated, Snicket cannot hang the plot on them, like Dahl would. They cannot provide the vibrant impetus for the plot, so Snicket's plot instead becomes a series of convenient (or conveniently inconvenient) events.
The writing itself is not bad, it's mostly just a case of Snicket not being clever or dark enough to buoy his premise. In the end, not much stands out, not the characters, nor the humor.
I applaud his attempt to address difficult and painful issues in his books, and without resorting to basic melodrama, but tragedy is measured by the subject's capacity for pain, so characters must be vivid and deep in order for events to feel truly unfortunate; otherwise, it just becomes the same array of problems common to every plot.(less)
Related to epic poetry and renowned for incomprehensibility? Sounded fun, but a bit hard to get into. Maybe I'll have better luck with this some other...moreRelated to epic poetry and renowned for incomprehensibility? Sounded fun, but a bit hard to get into. Maybe I'll have better luck with this some other time.(less)
This book starts off promisingly enough, but as the character grows less sympathetic and the plot draws out predictably, much of the charm is lost. Pe...moreThis book starts off promisingly enough, but as the character grows less sympathetic and the plot draws out predictably, much of the charm is lost. Perhaps it was not unexpected that I would be drawn into the plight of a young, educated man thrust out alone into the world with no prospects, forced to work pointless jobs for frustratingly inept employers for subsistence. It mirrors not only my experiences, but that of most of my generation.
Unfortunately, our narrator becomes a rather stuck-up prig as the text goes on, which slowly killed off my sympathy. It wasn't merely that he conducted himself with pride and intelligence; it was his condescension and self-assuredness that soured the taste. He read into every word and expression, giving the reader an absurd amount of subtext about glances or pauses. He also professed that his certainty in psychology allowed him to manipulate others, by which he meant snide, callous remarks, a cold shoulder, and a childish inability to keep himself in check.
It was like people who write in their dating profile: "I'm interested in psychology, because I have always been really good at reading people" despite the fact that they are not good enough at psychology to recognize that this makes them sound naive and pretentious. So, there certainly was a comical aspect to his arrogant ineptitude, but conceited prigs rarely make for very good romantic interests.
Sure, Austen did it with Darcy, but she knew that the secret was to make his prickly exterior an embittered defense to the false, superficial world around him and give him a good heart despite it all. It's not that The Professor was a bad man, merely that he wasn't interesting enough to overcome his defects.
Bronte's messages were also a bit underwhelming. I found delight in the unintentional humor of her mistrust of Continental ways and those devilish Papists in particular, but this was hardly a mark in her favor. Likewise, the feminist aspects were a bit confused. One female character is strong, but only inasmuch as she is a heartless manipulator. The main love interest is also strong, occasionally moving to defend herself and her ideas, but she is mainly characterized as being our protagonist's devoted subservient--she never argues with him, of course.
Now some of this I must chalk up to the narrator's unreliability. The case that the first woman is heartless and the second woman subservient are things we mostly have to take his word for. Given the circumstances as they are given, it seems more like he makes groundless assumptions, seeing the world in stark black and white and revolving around him.
He also meets a friend on the way, a man who is equally as stuck up and sure of himself, and throughout their dialogues they seem constantly to sneer superiority at one another's faults. That neither is capable of recognizing in himself what he laments in authors.
If tackled with a more satirical style, this could have been a very effective book, lampooning a world of naive, short-sighted people lost in ungrounded assumptions and misunderstandings. As it was, Bronte kept the sentimental, romantic heart of the book. Since we could not take the characters entirely lightly, we had to take them somewhat seriously, which resulted in a story of dumb, somewhat dull characters living out a standard romance plot.(less)
Written in 1939, The Voyage of the Space Beagle reads like the prototype for Star Trek. A multinational crew of scientists and the military embark on...moreWritten in 1939, The Voyage of the Space Beagle reads like the prototype for Star Trek. A multinational crew of scientists and the military embark on a ten-year mission to explore the galaxy, seeking out new aliens and almost being killed by them (they even have 'shields).
Grosvenor, our protagonist, is in many ways reminiscent of Mr. Spock: both are awkward, intelligent men mistrusted by their emotional shipmates because of their cool rationality. He also shares the standard characteristics of Van Vogt's heroes: he is a master of a superscience unknown to other men, capable of predicting them and controlling them through crystals and hypnotism.
As in Slan, Van Vogt is not above resolving plot conflicts through convenient introductions of supertech, but here, those resolutions are often secondary to the protagonist's interpersonal relationships and moral quandries. While in Slan, the hero lives an isolated life, working against invisible enemies, Grosvenor is constantly embroiled in social interaction.
At first, I found the character intriguing, a portrait of a strange, off-putting man trying to survive in close quarters on the long mission. Early on, we see him making many small, manipulative moves, reading and weighing those around him.
Eventually, Van Vogt gives in to the sci fi author's vice of overexplaining, and reveals that Grosvenor is acting this way because he is a student of a new, unproven science, a superscience that combines all the other sciences and relies on hypnotic sleep-learning. Soon, the majority of his thoughts revolve around philosophical discussions of how this science came about and what its purpose is, and his actions are chiefly to promote it (when he isn't saving the stubborn crew from certain death).
No matter how many times Grosvenor's new science proves him right, he always finds himself struggling to convince anyone around him to believe him. There are some amusing asides about how this happens, psychologically, since no man aboard is in a position to double-check Grosvenor's unique methods, and his assuredness makes others resentful.
But he still manages to overcome (did we ever doubt?) a series of unconnected episodes, again, evoking Star Trek or other 'monster of the week' serials. The first plot parallels the film Alien, and so does the third; the others are familiar to any sci fi fan.
Though this series of related short stories means that the book has less of a grand arc, it also allows the author to explore a number of different themes and styles, while the less differentiated Slan tends to drag on a bit. I've noticed that, for a lot of authors, especially pulp authors, their short story collections are much more thoughtful and complex than their novels.
That being said, it also often makes for a rather swift, neat ending, and we have the same here. For all that the final story builds, its resolution is rather abrupt. It seems that Van Vogt was able to produce greater depth by relying on psychological interaction, but once the interpersonal conflicts are resolved, the huge, galaxy-threatening problems that caused them are mere afterthoughts.
Van Vogt hardly overcomes his limitations, but he is able to mitigate them with deeper character exploration and more variance in plotting. As usual, he demonstrates a vivid, creative mind, combining many concepts to create his stories, but his science is shaky, his writing sometimes inelegant, and so he can't be said to outstrip earlier authors like Verne or Huxley.(less)
In Slan, Van Vogt (say: 'vote') combines a number of popular sci fi themes, some intriguing, others silly, to create a work that is interesting and in...moreIn Slan, Van Vogt (say: 'vote') combines a number of popular sci fi themes, some intriguing, others silly, to create a work that is interesting and influential, if sometimes ill-conceived.
The political tone of the work, focused on dictators, secret police, and shadowy struggles for power mark this as one of the earlier Dystopian works. Slan is a decade before 1984, though Brave New World and It Can't Happen Here are earlier.
Van Vogt's Dystopia is much more fantastical than most of the genre, relying heavily on telepathy and 'Tom Swift' gadgeteering. The use of super-gadgets is so pervasive that there are few situations our protagonist can't get out of with the use of lovingly-described technology.
There are some twists of the plot that are beyond the powers of his machines, but happily, all of these are solved by coincidence. The author has no trouble placing his protagonist in sticky situations, but can't get him out again without contrivance or Clarke Magic. Despite being told of our hero's brilliance and will, he remains passive, drifting where the plot carries him.
The writing itself is alright, but not impressive. Occasionally, Van Vogt tries for a flowery passage, and these do not serve him well. Likewise, his technobabble serves only to justify things that we, as sci fi readers, have already taken for granted. We understand that his use of Atomic Power allows him to make impenetrable steel, we don't need a speech about 'super bonding'.
Van Vogt is lost somewhere between the overt fantasies of pulp sci fi and the more reasonable predictions of harder science, like Heinlein's. When an author tries to justify a fantasy, all it does is cause the reader to question his own disbelief.
This especially evident in Van Vogt's explanation for telepathy, where he drags out that old gernsbackian chestnut about the evolution of the Future Man. Van Vogt demonstrates ably that the chief difference between hard and soft sci fi is whether the author has the least grasp of the science he's attempting to predict.
The use of evolution as 'magic plot fixer' is always laughable, and it's no wonder the layman has no conception of what the Theory of Evolution actually refers to (it has nothing to do with Nietzsche's 'Superman', and neither does eugenics).
His use of telepathy also highlights another of Van Vogt's authorial weaknesses. We often get long description of how characters feel, of how they are reacting, and of what they are thinking, which is usually a sign that the author feels a need to tell us what he is incapable of demonstrating with plot, character, scene, and dialogue.
At first, I thought that it made sense to live in the heads of telepathic characters, and was looking forward to seeing how Van Vogt would use telepathy to give us different insights into the characters and their interactions. Unfortunately, he rarely uses it this way. Indeed, most of the people have 'mind shields' which prevent the protagonists from having any such insights.
What I appreciate about sci fi is the greater scope and variability the author has to explore humanity and possibility. When a sci fi author fails to find all the interesting nooks that his alien world suggests, it is all the more disappointing.
I can also appreciate sci fi as a pure, tightly-plotted adventure, taking science as magic. Unfortunately, Van Vogt is stuck between these extremes, neither as psychologically interesting as Huxley nor as imaginative and unpredictable as Burroughs.
He does a fair enough job holding up both ends at once, but combines not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of both styles. He hits a lot of promising points here, and there is something unique about how he hybridizes ideas, but he never takes advantage the possibilities lying everywhere beneath the surface.(less)
This seems to be the quintessential Idiot Ball story, where the only thing working against the protagonist is his own constant short-sightedness, if n...moreThis seems to be the quintessential Idiot Ball story, where the only thing working against the protagonist is his own constant short-sightedness, if not head-slapping stupidity. This can be amusing enough, but Defoe constantly ignores promising plot-hooks in order to pursue Crusoe's thick-headedness undisturbed.
You'd think a survival scenario would provide a wealth of hardship, but, despite his constant panics, Crusoe has a rather easy time of it. Even more than this, every other character in the story rushes to Crusoe's aid, chumming up with him without a hint of interpersonal difficulty and remaining always loyal to him.
Then again, the plotting isn't elegant to begin with. We get the same stories and observations over and over, with the narrator telling us how he doesn't need to repeat what he's already told us, only to go on and do precisely that. His 'translations' of Friday's pidgin speech are likewise hilarious, proceeding along these lines:
"Many mans come from big boat", Said Friday, by which he meant that a group of men were disembarking from a ship.
Some have suggested that Crusoe's religious conversion in the book is meant to show the reader the noble truth of belief, but since Crusoe comes to his beliefs out of ignorance and fear, it's hardly a very convincing tract. It reads more like a satire of religion, following a thoughtless, superstitious man who believes chiefly because he is alone and afraid.
There are also a lot of little errors about animal behavior and tribal practices, showing that Defoe was more interested in sensational stories than in research. He even misrepresents animals that live in Europe, like bears, which he depicts as unable to outrun a man. He also portrays Friday as being familiar with bears, despite the fact that the only species of bear that lives in South America, the Spectacled Bear, lives only in the Andes, far away from coastal islands.
The book consistently reads as deliberately silly and overwrought, but good satire is often indistinguishable from poor writing. As far as prototypes for the novel are concerned, I'll take Quixote over Crusoe any day of the week, (and The Satyricon over both).(less)
'Surprisingly good for a TV novelization' is praise too faint to serve this book. This is not merely a good tie-in, it's good Speculative fiction. Per...more'Surprisingly good for a TV novelization' is praise too faint to serve this book. This is not merely a good tie-in, it's good Speculative fiction. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised: Disch is acclaimed as an inventive author who didn't succumb to the limits of his genre.
Then again, such acclaim is all too common, thrown at any author who deviates from the most predictable forms. Disch is more than this. His literary aspirations shine through in both form and content.
His dialogue is snappy and referential, replete with wry insight and involved psychology. His style is somewhat contrived, but that is difficult to avoid with an author who deploys such a deliberate and controlled hand.
And this contrivance, this self-aware, clever style is in no way out of place in the Prisoner universe. Like McGoohan, Disch is twisting and playing with the tropes of spy literature, including its trite dialogue, and mixing them with post-modern counterculture deconstruction.
Perhaps the most surprising part is how well his voice in this novel matches with the television series, itself. The inscrutable layers are there, as is the unyielding heart of six, the crushing weight which at every turn you feel must finally overcome him, and all the multivariate allusions to how his predicament parallels the sum of human experience, imagined as a struggle between the individual and communal urges.
I don't usually include examples from the books in question, but there is one which I feel illustrates perfectly how Disch's writing meshes with what made the series great. Feel free to skip it if you'd rather read it for yourself, though it's a momentary insight, not a plot point:
At one point, Number Six has again escaped to London, and is trying there to make contacts, to tell his story, and to seek allies to protect him from return. He rushes about the city in a furor, contacting anyone, trying to decode stolen tapes, calling offices, trying to set up appointments.
At every turn, he is met by difficulty. His calls are not returned, appointments are put off, and no one can find a machine to play the stolen tapes. Six is wracked by paranoia, seeing everywhere the hand intent to snatch him back, infiltrating everyone and everything.
Then he realizes that, being trapped so long in The village, he had grown used to it, to its constraints but also its convenience, its minuteness. He realizes that he had merely forgotten that the world is a difficult, confused, maddening place that seems to set upon you at every turn to inconvenience you and drive you back.
The poignancy of this simple insight, to me, shows all the strength of Disch's storytelling skill and grasp of psychology; and more than that, unveils a new and fundamental truism about the world of The Prisoner and the changes it has wrought in Number Six.
I have a great ardor for the original series, but this has hardly made me ready to accept all interpretations. I found the most recent televised reimagining to be sadly lacking, but not so this book. It extends itself, exploring the mythology, not limiting itself to the content of the show. But then, how could any author hope to capture the tone of such an unpredictable, ever-changing creature without being similarly bold and unfettered?
Some hardliners may resent the direction the book takes, but I appreciated that Disch was not content to wrest McGoohan's laurels, preferring to draw high his aim in hopes of winning his own. In my purview, he succeeded.
Then, some months later, I was in a comic shop in midtown Manhattan and came across a book which listed and rated books which were tie-ins to films and television series. Curious, I thumbed through it to see if there was an entry on this book. To my edification, there was, and it read:
"This is the single best tie in novel ever written."(less)
The Glass Bead Game is Hesse's final work, and is supposed to lay out his ideas and philosophies more completely than anything previously. According t...moreThe Glass Bead Game is Hesse's final work, and is supposed to lay out his ideas and philosophies more completely than anything previously. According to my foreword by Ziolkowski, this book represents a progression beyond both the simplistic, egocentric spiritualism of Siddhartha and the Nietzschean misanthropy of Steppenwolf.
He also remarks on the book's form: a narration by a stodgy academic about the life of a luminary master. Like Carlsyle's 'Sartor Resartus', there is meant to be an ironic disconnect in what the narrator fails to recognize about the sublime reality of the situation, though Hesse doesn't descend into open absurdism like Teufelsdroeckh's tale.
While Carlsyle is unpredictable and madcap, Hesse's narrative is low-key and repetitive. Much of this can be blamed on Hesse's dull narrator, though I was never sure how much. I spent most of the book trying in vain to discern what was meant to be serious philosophy and what was a sly rejection of Hesse's earlier beliefs.
The most somber, sacred moments of Hesse's attempt to build a 'Secular Spirituality' often struck me as the least convincing. For example, the more glowingly he described the persona of a secular 'Saint', the more I felt he was describing the effects of a rather serious case of Alzheimer's.
Each time he mentioned either the 'sense of peace' or 'childlike smile', they began to seem more sinister. He returned to them again and again, insistently, the sole signs of the character's wisdom, until I couldn't help but mistrust them.
It would certainly be a biting satire on the Old Eastern Master who speaks few words, since those he does speak rarely seem to make sense. Usually the student blames their own ignorance, but if the old master is just doddering? The idea is a very cynical one, and quite amusing. Yet it is hard to reconcile this deep satire with the general tone of the work.
Hesse doesn't build his ideas from the ground up, at least not that I could see. Much seemed to be assumed. Yet neither was there the revelatory, overawing voice of the poet-philosopher to nudge us from dry narrative to sudden insight. It felt like Lovecraft's old trick of describing how a horrible sight affected a character instead of describing the horror, itself.
But it wouldn't do for me to go on any more about cynicism, insightful satire, and poet-philosophers without invoking Nietzsche. He plays a role in the text, literally: the protagonist's unstable, brilliant friend is a caricature of the influential philosopher, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I found his inclusion the most appealing part of the book.
It was not merely the presentation of his philosophies, but the way Hesse spoke of him. The passages which describe him are some of the most evocative and heart-felt in the book, which is curious, because he is presented as quite flawed and muddled in thought, though still brilliant.
Even when the protagonist scorns him or undermines his rhetoric, Hesse seems unable to truly overcome the force of Nietzsche. He praises his ability to pluck out one part of an argument, a single idea or thought, and with care and insight, cause you to realize for the first time how remarkable it is, or how foolish.
Sadly, Hesse himself lacks this great ability, making his critiques less grand than his subject. Yet this, too, seems almost deliberate on Hesse's part.
At one point, the protagonist listens as the Nietzsche stand-in goes on a rant about the pointlessness of history. This is representative of the general opinion of Hesse's utopian/dystopian vision of a kind of secular, academic spiritual society which has, to the protagonist's sorrow, lost touch with the world.
But to put it in this character's mouth seems hardy appropriate. Certainly, there was a redefinition of the fluidity of history and of the people who made it up in the Hegelian tradition, but it was hardly the insular rejection of humanity put forth here.
Nietzsche steeped himself in history, old masters, old thinkers, and ideas, such as the Dyonisian vs. Appolonian philosophies. Perhaps the character was simply convenient, though it undermines the work's own historical attempt to pit real philosophical ideas one against the other. Perhaps this was just another symptom of the detrimental effect Heidegger and Nietzsche's sister have had on how he is viewed today.
After shaking his head in silent scorn for his friend's wordy speech, our protagonist goes on to give a similar speech, himself, at the end of the same chapter, about raising of a world of thoughts and ideas above the ugliness of the humanity; the speech even seems to ape in form and style his friend's earlier thoughts.
Again, I felt unsure of Hesse's message. Either he again ridicules what he once might have praised, or fails to clearly present his philosophy, or is quibbling between two ways of leaving mankind behind for the sake of ideals without pointing out to us what is meant to separate them.
Again I side with Nietzsche's stand-in, and I think, not merely because I am Nietzsche's man, but because I cannot find the point where Hesse has presented his side of the argument as anything except a farce.
Likewise the ending of the book seems to make pointless satire of the 'Sacred Transgressive Event' of the hero, which I could appreciate, but if that is the case, then it certainly puts the rest of the book in an odd light.
It is not difficult to read it as one of the most dry, sombre, heartfelt, absurdist tracts in literature, but the writings of the most fervent believers cannot always be easily be separated from the satires of the most clever cynics.
Three short works complete the book, each a fiction-within-a-fiction attributed to our protagonist. Yet these, too, could either be the budding spirituality of a noble man, or signs of conceit from an ultimate fool.
I found the early parts of the book painful to read, not merely because of the dullness of our narrator or the confusion I felt in trying to untangle Hesse's philosophies, but because it is, at it's core, the story of a fairly smart guy who is given everything on a silver platter by a series of wise men who recognize how special he is.
It's not merely that this left us without much conflict, it was annoying reading about someone effortlessly achieving things that sound like they would be cool to do. There followed a brief, interesting period of conflicting political machinations, but that soon faded, leaving us with our protagonist's thoughts and inner turmoil.
Or, rather, it left us with our narrator's apparent invention of those thoughts. Some of the book is presented as source material--speeches, letters--but most of it seems to be whatever Mr. Frame Story felt was going on at the time.
This creates another layer of distance and complexity which compounds the difficulty of any attempt to figure out what, if anything, Hesse is getting at. The narrator constantly seems to think he knows exactly what all the characters were thinking at any point in time, down to their fears, childhood aspirations, and goals for the future. Either Hesse is taking vast liberties with the setup, or this guy is one of the most unreliable narrators we could be blessed with.
So, I'm not really sure what Hesse's philosophy is, or even what the character's philosophies were, though I could say something about the narrator's. The whole thing felt like a very low-key farce to me, which would parallel other literature between the world wars. It is interesting as an analysis of the hardships facing academia in the face of the sort of widespread political changes, materialism, and conflict that marked the period leading up to WWII.
A lot of cynicism there: the failure of governments, of order, academics, ideas, values. Perhaps it is a deep satire paralleling the inter-war concerns of 'Darkness at Noon' and 'It Can't Happen Here', but if so, it's one of the least impassioned satires I've ever read; not that it would be more impassioned if we consider it a spiritual tome.
Or maybe Hesse is just dull, in earnest, and I don't remotely agree with him. That would accord with my memory of Siddhartha, which I found to be full of a rather short-sighted and egotistical personal philosophy centering on Blavatskianisms like the 'law of attraction', which still haunts the self-help section to this day.
Let's say that I hope it's a bizarre satire, because I was unable to drag any other poignant message from it.(less)
Unfortunately, the last few collections of Leiber's epic series cannot measure up to his earlier stories. In this volume, he once again refrains from...moreUnfortunately, the last few collections of Leiber's epic series cannot measure up to his earlier stories. In this volume, he once again refrains from the short, punchy stories which won him fame. Instead, he writes a single slow-going, bloated story originally released in chapters, which means Leiber is constantly reminding us what we're reading and what happened.
As we chart the ebb of Leiber's once-voracious imagination, each book has less semblance of plot, moving sluggishly between unimportant problems and convenient solutions. Leiber's heroes have grown older and settled down, but even so, he doesn't provide us anything new to carry the plot to take the place of their lost derring-do.
A charming portrait of their dotage might have been an amusing and satisfying conclusion to our heroes' lives, but we don't get that. Instead, we get more of Leiber's fetishism, meaning allusions to orgies, whole-body shaving, awkward euphemisms for anal sex, and even some teen lesbian teasing. He does momentarily ask us to consider what The Mouser and Fafhrd's relationship might have been, if they were more than friends, but this brief aside hardly balances the otherwise one-sided sexuality.
We also get more of his poetry, which isn't pretty, though I was taken aback by the way he dropped in the four-letter words. I don't mind such good Anglo-Saxon language, but it didn't make his awkward verse any more palatable.
If he seemed like Pratchett in the former volume, this one has taken a half-step into sex farce. Unfortunately, a sex farce is not something that should be done halfway.
Little remains of the bold characterization or striking language that marked the height of his talents. The growing cast of undifferentiated characters (including a gaggle of sexy teen girls) muddles about the dull, cold island trying to solve a problem whose source is never clear and whose solution provides little in the way of a conclusion.
The simplest definition of plot may be 'things happen', but woe to the author who takes that too literally. Leiber's early stories are some of the most delightful, imaginative, and varied in the genre, but the latter are mere shades, faltering in a mummer's dance of a glory that they cannot recapture.