Dunsany is best known as one of the masters of fantasy, possessing one of the most complex, developed, and subtle voices in supernatural fiction, as h...moreDunsany is best known as one of the masters of fantasy, possessing one of the most complex, developed, and subtle voices in supernatural fiction, as he displayed to peerless effect in The King of Elfland's Daughter, one of the few fantasy books I've read where the magic actually felt magical, instead of just being a contrivance or allegory. And yet, so many times, when I discover these great authors, it takes me a long time before I read another of their books.
I'm not sure why I possess this habit--perhaps its that, once I've found something really good, I know it's there, waiting, and so I can get on the search for the next revelation and return to my cadre of Great Authors when I'm too tired of disappointment. Then of course, there are also those authors, like Leiber, who start out brilliantly and become rather disappointing, themselves, as time goes on.
So there is always a certain hesitancy when approaching a new work by a well-loved author, because few things are more unpleasant than to watch someone do something poorly when you know it is perfectly within their power to do well. Gladly, when I cracked this collection of tales fictionalizing Dunsany's experience in The Great War, I discovered that Dunsany's skill was to be felt in all its force.
Within, you will find his knack for creating odd little characters who feel real by virtue of their unrealness--that same gift that lent Peake and Gogol their brilliance. Likewise he demonstrates his fine sense of mood and rhythm, and of curious turns in his language, which never fails to remind me that he wrote all his stories longhand, with a quill pen. There is also a great variety of mood and theme, from stories of small life to unsettling, eerie tales to his meditations on the ancient, fey spirit of the land, and the crass stupidity of war.
Unfortunately, coming to the middle of the book, this variety of approaches begins to wane, and he gives us a number of stories which harp on the same themes over and over--namely, the foolishness of the Kaiser and the destruction of the ancient beauty of France. Some of these are quite powerful and affecting, but others rehash the same ideas over again, and it becomes rather dull. Its not that any individual story is weak, but it feels like we're looking at many drafts of the same idea, some stronger than others.
This was really the only reason that I dropped the rating down from five stars. Indeed, its one of the few examples I can think of where the removal of some stories would have improved the book. In any case, it did nothing to reduce my opinion of Dunsany, and I'll have to make a note to myself to visit his lovely works more often than has erstwhile been my habit.(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)
I came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium E...moreI came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium Eater' about some clever reprobate's adventures through the Victorian. If you know anything about this book, then you can imagine my shock and wonder at discovering the story it actually contains.
It begins simply enough, as a witty picaresque set in Scotland and making some mockery of self-righteousness and Calvinist pre-destination in particular. But then the thing breaks off, it becomes suddenly clear that it is impossible for it to continue as it began, and we are split off into a second telling of the same events from a new point of view, a la Rashōmon. This second version is much darker and the prose becomes experimental, until we seem to be dealing with a crazed serial killer attended and impelled by a strange figure who may be the devil himself--if indeed he exists, at all.
The narrator is what we'd call a 'flat character', as despite his doubts and concerns, he remains static throughout and does not go through a great revelation about his state. This can be somewhat frustrating, as often, the only thing we desire of the character is for him to show the slightest bit of self-awareness, but the story is also a kind of satire of allegory, and those of us who recall The Pilgrim's Progress, Piers Plowman, and Everyman will see that Hogg's work provides a sort of parallel to Candide, and that the wooden characters are a fuel for mockery, and for deeper thought.
Yet I found Hogg's work much more interesting than Voltaire's, for as much as Voltaire turned the allegory on its head, in the end that's just an inverted allegory, relying on the same stereotypes for its message, but mocking instead of lauding them. Hogg, on the other hand, manages to make the whole thing conflicted, self-consuming, deluded, and mad. His treatment of Calvinist doctrine might be said to play rather straight, but all the other notions his story is concerned with intermingle and subvert beyond any straightforward interpretation.
But in the end, and for all that, I'm not sure what to say about it. As a piece of art, it is powerful and unusual, prefiguring existentialist and experimental literature, but for what it all means, I feel somewhat less qualified to say.(less)
And so the adventures of Oswald Bastable continue, thrusting him yet again through the barriers of time and into a strange Earth at once familiar and...moreAnd so the adventures of Oswald Bastable continue, thrusting him yet again through the barriers of time and into a strange Earth at once familiar and disturbing. The themes and characters we explore are similar to the first volume, featuring at the center yet another Nemo-esque warlord whose methods give our narrator uneasy pause. By the end, we find ourselves liable to agree with Mr. Bastable's suspicion that time is having a laugh at his expense, forcing him to experience history as 'variations on a theme', and not a theme he appreciates reliving.
Usually, describing a book like this as 'alternate history' is a malapropism, since 'alternate' means to shift back and forth between things while 'alternative' means 'of a different sort'. So, if we described wind power as an 'alternate energy' to coal, that would mean we would be constantly switching between wind and coal, not replacing one with the other. But in Moorcock's case, both terms are actually applicable, which must be a boon to sci fi fans that have trouble keeping words straight.
So, if our theme is 'world-shaking war', the variation here is 'global politics of racism'. There is a certain tension throughout the book because Moorcock presents a lot of genuinely racist characters of different stripes and degrees, and even lets prejudice slip into his narrator's mouth. It's clear that the violence and rhetoric of the Civil Rights Era tickled Moorcock's unyielding imagination, so we get quite a few powerful (and somewhat unsettling) scenes charged with the complexities race dynamics.
Moorcock also seemed to take a bit more time with his narrative as compared to the last book, and didn't rely quite as much on bare exposition to carry the story along, which was nice--but as usual with Moorcock, it was a fairly straightforward adventure with some interesting concepts driving it along throughout, but lacking polish and care.
Reminds me of this charming episode of Neal Degrasse Tyson's StarTalk where sex researcher Mary Roach talks about the fact that long-term couples experience better sex because they tend to take their time and get lost in the moment, whereas newer couples are often 'going through the motions' of what they think should work. It's the same with writing books, people: don't just go through the motions when you should be in the moment, taking the time to give your narrative the attention it deserves.(less)
As ever, Moorcock is a wry, clever author full of ideas and insights, but he ends up rushing from one moment to another when I wish that he would let...moreAs ever, Moorcock is a wry, clever author full of ideas and insights, but he ends up rushing from one moment to another when I wish that he would let his stories play out. The characters and their relationships were intriguing and promising, but Moorcock tends to fall back on exposition instead of showing the development of his characters and plot through interaction and carefully-constructed scenes. The scope of his tales rarely seem to match the length of his books.
I have great appreciation for the freedom he allows his imaginative drive, so that he has no compunction about sticking a bit of inexplicable Lovecraftian time travel in as a framing story for his zeppelin combat narrative. That sort of pulp zaniness combined with an authorial voice that can be subtle and clever and precise will keep drawing be back to Moorcock's writing--indeed, he is an inspiration for authors of speculative fiction, if only he'd spend a little more time polishing up.
Some of his political satire was a bit rough, lacking in the precision that makes satire truly effective, but other sections showed a much lighter, knowing touch. Likewise, there were errors in his structure, particularly the killing off of a certain character in a large battle that seemed entirely unnecessary--there was no apparent reason that he needed to be sent into sudden danger when he was, especially as the conflict could have been (and eventually was) resolved by a much simpler method. It seemed he was only thrown to the wolves to procure a bit of drama, which seemed rather cheap to me.
Hopefully as the series continues Moorcock will take a bit more confidence in his voice and let the story play out instead of interposing interesting scenes and rather more bland exposition.(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)
While researching the use of opium for my own (fictional) writings into the subject, I came across this fascinating article about a fellow whose habit...moreWhile researching the use of opium for my own (fictional) writings into the subject, I came across this fascinating article about a fellow whose habit of collecting paraphernalia led him to become both the leading expert on them and an addict. The interview led me to the work of Dr. H.H. Kane, and Kane's analysis led me back to de Quincey, with whom I had some prior familiarity due to my literary studies.
De Quincey's writing style is precise and exacting, but he does not have that flair for storytelling which marks a fascinating diarist. Indeed, many of the most intriguing parts of his tale are those he declined to go into in great detail, and throughout one can see his struggles not so much in what he has written on the page, but in what he cannot bring himself to say. He comes to the cusp of his own suffering again and again, but to cross that threshold is to relive his greatest shame and disappointment, so he often skirts it.
No doubt this is why Dr. Kane accuses de Quincey of presenting all the beneficial sides of the drug's use, and ignoring the dangers. Yet I found myself constantly thankful that I was not in de Quincey's position, for his constant and unabated suffering seemed clear enough to me.
Indeed, when he spoke of being unable to complete his work (the promised third part of his Confessions never arrived), of the weeks or months passing by without his being perceptibly closer to completing all of the great tasks and projects he had set before himself--one does not have to be a taker of laudanum to sympathize, as being an artist of any stripe is quite enough to understand that eternal struggle.
But though some of his narrative is less than vivid, most interesting are his descriptions of opioid dreams, which visions were so influential to fantastical authors like Gogol and Lovecraft. Indeed, his vision of the 'impossible castles of the clouds' are recognizable in the writings of numerous mythos authors, who were so obsessed with the realm of dreams, especially when it bled into quotidian life.(less)
After the overblown Frankenstein and the undercooked Dracula, it's pleasant to find that the language and pacing of the third great pillar of horror i...moreAfter the overblown Frankenstein and the undercooked Dracula, it's pleasant to find that the language and pacing of the third great pillar of horror is so forceful and deliberate (especially since I was disappointed by Stevenson's other big work, Treasure Island). But then, this is a short story, and it's somewhat easier to carry off the shock, horror, and mystery over fewer pages instead of drawing it out like Shelley and Stoker into a grander moralizing tale.
But Stevenson still manages to get in quite a bit of complexity, even in the short space. As I was reading it, I found myself wishing I didn't already know the story--that it hadn't been automatically transmitted to me by society--because I wondered how much better it would be to go in not knowing the answer to the grand, central mystery, but instead being able to watch it unfold before me. Much has been said about the 'dual nature of man', the good versus the evil sides, but what fascinated me about the book was that despite being drawn in such lines, it did not strike me as a tale of one side of man versus another. Indeed, it is the virtuous side who seeks out a way to become destructive, showing that his virtuosity is a mere sham.
Likewise, neither Jekyll nor Hyde seem to have any real motivation to be either 'good' or 'evil', it is more that they are victims of some disorder which compels them to be as they are--that causal Victorian psychology which, in the end, robs anyone involved of premeditation for what they do. Dracula kills to survive, Frankenstein does so because he is the product of the ultimate broken home and Hyde does it as a self-destructive compulsion despite the fact that he loves life above all else, yet is unable to protect himself well enough to retain it.
This is not the evil of Milton's Satan, or of Moriarty, who know precisely what they do and do it because of the way they see the world before them, but that of the phrenologist, who measures a man's head with calipers and declares him evil based upon the values so garnered, independent of any understanding, motivation, or reason.
And yet this is not an unbelievable evil--indeed, Stevenson uses it as an analysis of addiction and other self-destructive behaviors, where the pure chemical rush of the thing becomes its own cause, despite the fact that the addict will tell you he wishes nothing more than to be rid of it, to be normal again, never to have tasted the stuff in the first place. It is a place a man might fall into through ignorance and carelessness, never realizing how hard it could be, in the end, to escape.
And that's something we can all relate to, far more than the sociopathy of Moriarty, which requires that you have complete understanding but just a completely different set of emotional reactions to the world around you. It is much easier for most people to say that there is some part inside them that they do not like, that makes them uncomfortable, some thoughts and desires which rise unbidden from their brain, and which they must fight off. And it is the fact that they are strong enough to need to be fought off that unsettles us and gives us pause, for we do not like to think that such incomprehensible forces might always be there, working, just beneath the surface, and which might come out not due to some dark desire or motivation, but due to simple, thoughtless error.(less)
It is strange to me how often Lewis is mentioned as a leading Christian apologist, since his views on Christianity tend to be neither conventional nor...moreIt is strange to me how often Lewis is mentioned as a leading Christian apologist, since his views on Christianity tend to be neither conventional nor well-constructed. Of course, he's not taken seriously by Biblical scholars or theologians--I suspect this is because his Jesus is a cartoon lion and his God is a space alien.
As Michael Moorcock pointed out, the prominent tone in both Tolkien and Lewis is condescension, and I admit my general impression of Lewis is that he's talking down to the audience in a sing-song voice as if we're disturbing his perusal of the morning paper. Thus I was pleasantly surprised by the opening of this book, which looked to be a more mature adventure with a more-or-less neutral narration.
It immediately reminded me of Burrough's John Carter books, an influential series of planetary adventures about a man marooned on an alien world. Of course, Lewis' take was much more plodding. Instead of jumping from action to action, nakedly slaying naked green giants with space-swords, we wander around mostly in the main character's head as he ponders things. The further along, the more ponderous it got, until our 'climax', which was an extended conversation about the myriad flaws of man.
Once again Lewis shows that the only villain he's capable of creating is one who is stupidly comical and malicious, undermining the whole conflict. It's almost as if he's so incapable of comprehending the thoughts and actions of others that he can't write believable characters unless they think and act just like him.
Actually, in this case, there are a few more layers of complexity, but they serve to undermine Lewis' overall message, so I'm not putting that in the 'win column' for the old boy. Without giving too much away, he creates a situation where all humans are helplessly screwed by the galacto-spiritual system, but then he manages to still blame them for being ignorant and desperate.
Like in his other books, the climax is both caused and fixed by an infinitely wise spirit of goodness who carefully explains everything to us and who resolves the conflict by having everyone laugh at the villain's wretchedness for a chapter and then being so powerful that it turns out there was never any conflict in the first place.
But yeah, the climax was extremely lame with Lewis just building up Straw Men and then knocking them down, one after the other, all the while ignoring the fact that the villain is the logical result of the supposedly beneficent system.
There's also the odd issue of the alien languages as presented in the book. They're all fairly straightforward, with verbs, suffixes, prefixes, compound words, and so at first I assumed we were just supposed to take them for granted, which I have no problem with. Tell me a guy has a laser sword, and I'm with you. It gets more tedious when the author keeps going on about the laser sword, trying to explain it and make it seem important.
The linguistic structure we were given was not complex enough to be interesting or thought-provoking, the plot didn't hinge on it, it didn't introduce any complexities into the philosophy of the story--yet Lewis kept returning to it over and over. Sure, he made the protagonist a linguist, but then he never took the opportunity to analyze the differences in thought and expression that a linguist would come across when learning a language (except for the occasional eye-rolling 'they have no word for hate' tidbit). There was nothing vital or interesting in it, but that didn't stop Lewis from devoting endless paragraphs to the subject.
Then again, I suppose that aimless precision is Lewis' general mode. He goes on about theology despite the fact that he doesn't have much to say. He has long scenes where he makes fun of his villains and presents them as idiots despite the fact that it renders the whole plot conflict pointless. He endlessly paints his fellow humans as stupid and worthless, as if his faith had made him so blind that he is incapable of feeling sympathy for anyone with a different point-of-view. Who knew that Christian sentiment could be turned so readily into misanthropy?
Also, his depiction of technology and sci fi elements was fairly silly. I don't even mean that it didn't age well, because it compares poorly even to depictions of earlier writers like Verne--then again, Verne somehow predicted weightlessness in space.
I was hoping I'd like this more, but then I've never really enjoyed anything by Lewis. When it first began, I had a fleeting hope that he might have written a four-star book, but by the time we got to the space angels and the exceedingly lengthy lecture about how terribly humans are, it was over.(less)
Milton wrote this while blind, and claimed it was the result of divine inspiration which visited him nightly. There are few texts that could reasonabl...moreMilton wrote this while blind, and claimed it was the result of divine inspiration which visited him nightly. There are few texts that could reasonably be added into the Bible, and this is certainly one of them (the Divine Comedy is another). Paradise Lost outlines portions of the Bible which, thanks to its haphazard combination of mythic stories, are never fully explored.
In fact, most of Paradise Lost has become tacitly accepted into the Christian mythos, even if most Christians do not recognize it as a source. It also updated not only the epic, but the heroic form, and its questioning of the devil is a great philosophical exploration, even if it may ultimately prove a failure, as I shall try to explain.
The question remains: even if the Vatican did not explicitly include it, why are there not smaller sects which so often spring up around such and inspiring and daring work? The answer is that one need not explicitly include something that has been included implicitly. Many readers accept Milton's view of events as accurate and that it was wholly derived from the Bible, when in fact, it is largely an original work.
Under Constantine, Hell and the Devil were re-conceptualized. The representation of Hell in the Bible is often metaphorical, and does not include 'fire and brimstone'. Hell is defined as 'absence from God' and nothing more. This is supposed to be a painful and unfulfilling experience, but not literal physical torture.
Much of the modern conceptualization of Hell is based upon Hellenic mythological influences and verses from Revelation taken out of context. The place of 'fire and brimstone' is where the Devil and the Antichrist are put after the apocalypse, and is never stated as being related to human afterlife.
Likewise, the Devil is most commonly depicted as a greedy idiot chasing after farts. The only tempting he ever does Biblically is during Job, where he must first ask God if he is permitted to interfere. The concept of the Devil as a charming, rebellious trickster and genius is entirely Milton.
He portrays him this way to align Satan with the heroic figures of Epic Poetry. This is not because he thinks of the Devil as a hero, but rather so he can show that our heroes should not be rebellious murderers as they were in ancient stories, but humble, pious, simple men.
He gives the Devil philosophical and political motivations for rebelling, but has him fail to notice that God cannot be questioned or defeated. However, this requires that one absolutely believe this assertion without ever testing it. Anyone who accepts it unquestioningly (such as C.S. Lewis) is bound to believe that the Devil is foolish to question the natural order.
However, Milton himself states that the Devil had no choice but to doubt, and due to our own rational minds, man cannot help doubting either. In this case, we might fall in with Blake, and suggest that Milton was the Devil's man, not because he wanted to be, but because he carried biblical rhetoric to its rational conclusion.
This is illustrated in a rather shocking way in the creation of Eve: finding herself, utterly new to the world, she sees her own reflection in a puddle and, finding it beautiful, leans down naively and tries to kiss it. This amusing retelling of the myth of Narcissus indicates that God made women naturally autoerotic and bisexual.
Sadly, this never made it into modern Christianity, for some reason, but it does show the strength of Paradise Lost: Milton provides rhetorical support for every idea he explores, even those he did not side with. It is a great book of questions, and a book which demands the reader think and try to understand.
We are supposed to sympathize with the Devil because he is heroic and dangerous, but we also know he is the Devil. We know that to sympathize with him is wrong, and that he is supposed to be wrong. Milton here invented the concept of the Devil we cannot help but sympathize with, and who we must fight daily to overcome.
He defined sin as doubt, but without realizing that doubt will always deconstruct an old answer and suggest a new one. The fact remains that metaphysically, doubt can only injure us in a realm we cannot know exists. As the enemy of any tyranny--of men, of ideas--doubt is the helpmeet of all who struggle. The Devil is the father of doubt, and the final outcome of doubt is always accepting that we are fundamentally ignorant: either in our believing, or in our not believing.
He also uses the English language in an entirely idiomatic and masterful way, his is one of the few unique voices of English. Reading him sometimes proves a challenge for those without a background in Latin, since his sentence structure and particularly his verb use are stripped-down and multipurpose, taking the form of metaphysical poets to its logical conclusion.
He is also one of the most knowledgeable and allusive of writers, especially when it comes to the longer form. His encyclopedic exploration of myths, reinvention of scenes, and adoption of ideas make this work one of the most wide-reaching and interconnected in English.
This can make his work somewhat daunting for readers, who are often unwilling to read the books he references in preparation for tackling him, which I find rather ironic, since no one complains about having to read ten-thousand pages of Harry Potter before tackling the last book.(less)
Hector Hugh Monroe was an author of British extraction born in Burma. He lived a life shared by many authors of the imperial period, he traveling wide...moreHector Hugh Monroe was an author of British extraction born in Burma. He lived a life shared by many authors of the imperial period, he traveling widely, and finding work as a journalist in the wild world of the empire's influence. Like Kipling before him, he was a foreign-born man whose varied experiences lent depth and breadth to his tales.
He began writing short stories under the moniker 'Saki'--taken either from a character in the Rubiyat or a type of monkey--and became an acknowledged master of the form, tightening up the quirky, sometimes eerie style of Kipling and adding a deep wellspring of absurd humor which would in turn inspire the high farces of Wodehouse. He lived a suppressed man in an age when the 'unspeakable vice of the Greeks' was a criminal offense, and died a middle-aged soldier trying to make a difference in the trenches of The Great War.
What can a reviewer say about a perfect short story? That it must be brief enough not to be bogged down in superfluity, and it must be long enough to show a complete story arc: the set up, the conflict, and the reveal. A perfect short story quickly introduces characters who are at once recognizable yet puzzling--that strange gift which so shines in Chekhov. It revolves around a climax which is almost a punchline, but with a tinge of bittersweet pathos.
The master carver pulls from his pocket what seems a plain walnut, but in a moment, has popped it open, so that we can see inside a scene has been carved in complete detail. We bend down, our eyes devouring details, drawing us in, and just as we have been given a glimpse of this dear, miniature world, it snaps shut again, leaving us with the vivid impression of a work of utter precision, where any stroke out of place could have marred the whole thing in an instant.
Each story is an example of self-sufficiency, with everything in its place, so that a reviewer feels almost impious at the notion that he could add anything to a work so self-contained. Instead I must make something to hold it--a setting for the well-cut stone, a baize-lined box for the brass-hinged walnut--and having made a box to hold the box which holds the story, all that remains is for me to give it to you.
"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas." -Michael Moorcock
With this simple sentenc...more"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas." -Michael Moorcock
With this simple sentence, Moorcock reveals something troubling and endemic to the fantasy genre: that not enough fantasy authors start out with fantastical ideas. There are a lot of big writers out there (with really big books) who don't have very big ideas. But perhaps that shouldn't surprise us, since their ur-inspiration, Tolkien, has a remarkably vast amount of skill sadly limited by a very small vision, while Moorcock is the opposite: a man with grandiose visions who is sometimes limited by his meager skill.
Certainly, Moorcock is capable of some pretty, frilly prose, and shows in this story, as in the tale which opens Elric's saga, that he is capable of providing a consistent tone and driving plot. But, at his core, he is still (at least through the early Elric stories), a pulp writer, and he admits as much in the introduction to 'Stealer of Souls', talking about how many of the stories were rushed, how some were written for money, that many disparate stories were combined to make saleable novels, and how most of these stories were explorations of ideas that he would only fully develop in later series.
I admit I appreciate this straightforward humility much more than the pretension of many in the genre, and as usual, it is the most humble author who tends to produce the best work--it is almost as if some level of restraint and self-awareness was vital to being a skilled writer. Though not all of his experiments work out so well, like Leiber, the earlier writing seems to have the most drive and vitality. While this dark, mythic vision of Ragnarok might be the conclusion of Elric's tragedy, it actually comprises some of the earliest stories.
Like the introductory story of the series, this one has a consistent arc of plot and tone, and is much more concerned with Elric's psychological struggles than some of the others, where he is more standoffish and archetypally mythic.
There is also an interesting crossover here between Elric's story and the historical myths that inspired him--namely the Song of Roland, and it is an interesting choice on Moorcock's part to create a literal connection to his inspirations instead of merely a symbolic, allusive one. It is another sign of his authorial inventiveness and boldness to delve suddenly into pastiche and give his mythic world a very real connection to his reader's reality.
Once again, I am struck by the fact that, reading the entirety of the original Elric tales, I have grossed about eight-hundred-fifty pages, and in that space, have gotten a character's life: his several loves, many companions met, befriended, lost, and mourned, empires destroyed, mythical realms explored, and a worldwide war begun, waged, and concluded. In many other fantasy series, I might still be waiting for the plot to actually pick up.
Already I have gotten a depth and breadth that exceeds many longer works, and that is despite the fact that several of the Elric stories are experiments that never quite concluded, and thus acted as filler. I know that Elric is not quite an 'Epic Fantasy' (though it does have some epic scope), but it seems to me that too few authors actually have enough ideas to actually fill a series the length of the average epic.
Moorcock does have a wealth of ideas, many of them promising and unusual, and it's unfortunate that Moorcock never quite explores them all, though he has said that for him, the Elric stories were just the opening forays for concepts he would develop more fully later, and so I look forward to reading those later books and seeing how his promising concepts play out when he has the opportunity to put more time and thought into them. One complaint I had with the stories was that the interesting magical cosmology of the world never seemed to manifest in the characters, who tended to be more mythical than psychologically complex, and if, in the future, Moorcock is able to rectify this, it would deepen his fantasy immensely.
The conclusion is impressive, and if all of the stories had the same drive, continuity of tone, and depth of psychology, it would be a much stronger series. As it stands, it is an interesting experiment, an exploration of fantastical concepts that, if not as focused as we might hope, at least present a unique, inspiring vision of what fantasy can be.
There is an unusual tonal conflict central to almost all of the Elric series between the complex, metaphysical, magical world and the rather straightf...moreThere is an unusual tonal conflict central to almost all of the Elric series between the complex, metaphysical, magical world and the rather straightforward, formulaic characters. Elric, himself shows some complexity and nuanced introspection in the very first story, but then the focus changes and we embark upon a sequence of adventures where a recognizable pattern emerges.
Again and again we see Elric battling against difficult odds, his terrible sword at first ably defending him, but soon its strength fails, and he is compelled to call upon pacts with spirits for aid, never certain whether they will obey or abandon him. Sometimes this is done well, and the summoned creature gives us an insight into how Moorcock's world works--and while it may temporarily solve Elric's problem, another conflict often develops from that solution.
When it is not done as well, it becomes predictable, a standard way to resolve story conflicts. Yet, I am reluctant to entirely condemn it, even then, since it is really no more repetitive than the fantasy hero who fights his way out of everything, or who calls upon some inner magical strength to inevitably overcome.
In addition, there is something mythic in the formulaic way that Moorcock constructs his stories and characters. It reminds me of how Howard always refers to Conan as 'panther-like', sometimes several times a story. At first this just looks redundant and sloppy, until one begins to think in terms of Homer or other classic epics, where the repetition of certain elements, particularly descriptions, becomes a character motif, like the epithet of a king.
Moorcock's stylistic formula extends beyond this convention, however. After the first book, I kept waiting for Elric's character to catch up with the complex metaphysics of his world, but he never does. It never quite extends down to the characters, because they are not created with the same philosophical outlook.
They are not, fundamentally, characters of existential realism and modern psychology, but mythic, archetypal figures, who develop friendships or rivalry insouciantly, who bear loves and hates that are ultimately facile. Like Beowulf or Roland, they are beholden to the plot, and their motivations, more often than not, are not willful, but received.
Which is why it is all the more unusual that the world, the cosmology, the many dimensions and realities, the magic, the gods, and the spirits tend to be so strikingly modern, owing more to quantum theories than to the great traditions. The characters cast their eyes back, while the world is halfway into an unknown future, which produces a rather strange effect. It is not that the characters are never existential, it is rather that, if they do have existential thoughts, they approach them like mythic archetypes would.
So, to some degree, I have stopped waiting for Elric to become a fully-fleshed, modern character, realizing that I only expected it because of the modern philosophy which underpins Moorcock's world. However, I am wary about declaring this experiment of his a total success. It is certainly interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking, but I am not sure that these two parts ever find a real common ground.
One definition of genius is 'the ability to take disparate ideas and synthesize them into a single, new idea', and while Moorcock sometimes approaches this, he never quite succeeds so fully that it satisfies, and so the core of the world and the characters are always strangely at odds.
More than this, the stories sometimes lack focus. They do not always have a central tone or idea that ties them together, even if there is a progression of plot, it can be somewhat arbitrary. Yet in this book, we get some of the most vibrant, cohesive tales in the entire series, reminiscent of the sort of focused excitement that make the Conan and Lankhmar stories so delightful.
These stories were almost enough to pull out a four-star rating, but it still felt rather patchwork, with some stories running too long, others feeling rushed, and rarely a strong enough central tone to tie them together into a larger arc. I have one more story to read before I try one of the much later Elric stories, and I am very curious to see whether Moorcock is able to tighten his ideas into a more streamlined conceptual whole, as he did in Gloriana.
In my last two reviews, I have talked about how Moorcock's fevered imagination keeps these books aloft, even when the plot seems to grow disconnected...moreIn my last two reviews, I have talked about how Moorcock's fevered imagination keeps these books aloft, even when the plot seems to grow disconnected from the series, or the characters grow repetitive, but he seems to be losing steam, for this book moves along apace, advancing the plot here and there, but not materially adding anything new to our understanding of the world or the characters.
Moorcock's shorter plot arcs lack the grand set pieces and focus which make Leiber's and Howard's works so delightful, and even if the brief episodes which make up the larger plot might be called 'short stories', they do not show the completeness or unity of idea of Conan or Lankhmar.
I keep longing for a return to form from Moorcock, wishing that he could combine those moments of lucid, pretty prose with his wild metaphysical magics and the brooding introspection which first defined Elric. But alas, it grows harder to look past his errors when he begins to repeat himself.
As usual, he has problems finding scenes which illustrate his characters, and so he ends up relying on exposition, or on the characters talking at length about their own thoughts and reactions, which always ends up feeling stilted and incomplete, especially when those traits are not always outwardly demonstrated.
the series itself begins to grow repetitive, as Elric is always followed by some bosom compatriot, who by the end will be betrayed, or killed, or lost, or all three. Likewise there are the female interests, who seem to traipse in and out of Elric's life to torment him, but who often have little character of their own.
The series focuses narrowly, sometimes unsparingly, upon Elric himself, but it feels as if much more could be done with his character if he had an equally strong supporting cast to play off of. When secondary characters are summarily introduced and dropped, it becomes harder for them to have any effect on Elric--and if they do produce some sudden effect upon him, it can feel rather overly convenient if the relationship has not yet been fully-developed.
One of the hallmarks of the Conan series is that in each story, Howard shows us very different sides of Conan: different humors, desires, fears, and outlooks. In the first three stories we get Conan young, aged, and full-grown, and each portrayal depicts a different sort of man.
Clearly, with Elric, we would not expect so drastic a shift, as we follow him from place to place in chronological order, but I do find myself disappointed that we don't tend to see other sides to Elric: he is always brooding, somewhat naive, and less callous than he imagines himself. I keep waiting to find something surprising in him, some aspect of depth before unexplored.
In short, I wait for the mad philosophical explorations which live in Moorcock's magic to reach Elric, to show up in him in some fundamental way, to change him or leave a trace on him, to become an exploration of his character, and more than that, of his possibility.
The series is always looking forward, always moving forward--sometimes too quickly, sometimes without a chance to build or pause or ponder--but always moving; and I have to ask myself: for what? Where are we going?
Certainly there are hints, there are moments of conflict and feeling for Elric, but rarely are they given time to emerge, rarely is the story constructed so as to reveal them naturally. If they are not constructed carefully, over time, then when they arrive, they will always be too early, or too late, and seem almost inconsequential in the face of the vast cosmic conflict which tends to make up the heart of the story.
Elric feels weak and unsure. He travels somewhere to reach something strange and magical which has piqued his interest. He battles an otherworldly thing, which he defeats, but he now feels drained. He wanders through a strange dimension and faces another thing, which is powerful and dangerous. He almost dies, but then he summons something and it saves him. the most recent of a series of doomed soldier friends saves him and makes an ironic quip (always ironic). Elric departs no richer than he arrived, and despondent at his failure.
I am still enjoying this series, and it shows a lot of promise, but at this point, the gap between what it is and what it could be is widening. Sure, it's still more interesting, original, and better-written than most of the fantasy out there, but I'm desperate for it to really find its groove. Moorcock has the tools, I just want to see him use them all at once.
Too few fantasy authors ask what 'magic' means, which is a problem, since, with a few notable exceptions, magic is what makes fantasy fantastical. Whe...moreToo few fantasy authors ask what 'magic' means, which is a problem, since, with a few notable exceptions, magic is what makes fantasy fantastical. When reading Moorcock, it becomes clear you have found an author who is very interested in exploring what 'magic' is, and who has made very deliberate decisions about what his magic means.
Magic is a conceptual space. It was created, inadvertently, as a representation of the inner reality of human thought, as opposed to the external reality of the physical world. Human beings saw the physical world around them and, in attempting to understand it, created a matching symbolic world in their heads.
They looked at a river, which moves and changes, floods, and pulls people under, and they imagined a River Spirit for it. They would have a string of bad luck, remember a person who had spoken ill of them, and imagined they were cursed. Magic mostly exists as a way for people to take inexplicable things and imagine how they might be controlled or personified, hence making them more 'human'. So magic is largely symbolic, because it is made up of ideas, of the meanings that we create to make sense of the world around us.
Thus, anyone who has studied the history of magic, from epic poems, myths, theology, and early sciences--like astrology and alchemy--can see that magic shifts and changes with time to match the changes in how people think. As a conceptual, metaphysical space, magic is made to fit our changing ideas and philosophies.
Because of this, magic is fundamentally different in different cultures and at different time periods, because of what the people in those places and times are capable of imagining. If you go back to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, you will not find teleportation, alternate realities, or time-travel, because these ideas are based on modern knowledge and theories.
When the gods move swiftly from one place to another, they must still pass the intervening space--however quickly--because dematerialization does not have a place in the ancient Greek worldview. We may get visions of the afterlife and spirits who take the form of men, but they not the concept of an alternate world which is like ours, and which contains an alternate 'you'.
In plotting my own fantastical stories, I have often struggled in deciding whether or not to include such modern concepts in my magic, fearing that my story would end up like so many others: with characters, politics, and magic feeling so thoroughly contemporary that barely anything fantastical remains. When an author makes magic a simple replacement for technology, a tool for resolving plot conflicts so the characters don't have to, structuring it with points and levels and 'schools' like a videogame, it ceases to feel magical.
What makes it magical is when it is unpredictable, unusual, and when, instead of solving all the characters' problems, it makes new problems. But until reading Moorcock, I had not considered that since magic is built from the geography of the human mind, it could be used to look forward as well as back through time.
A fantasy author who seeks to capture the feel of the past must research, and must make sure the psychology of his characters and his magic give the reader insight into a different place and time. Likewise, a fantasy author can take a cue from authors of Science Fiction (and Speculative Fiction) and show us a vision of the future of human thought, even if it is dressed in the trappings of an ancient myth. Apparently, the problem with dull genre fantasy authors is not that they are too modern in their thinking, but that they are not modern enough.
As I mentioned in my review of the first volume in the Elric series, Moorcock draws on many unusual concepts in crafting his world, so that his magic is equal parts quantum mechanics and myth. The result is something wholly unique: a mythology of modern scientific concepts which are just as strange, unpredictable, and awe-inspiring as any ancient god.
In the second volume of the series, he allows his imagination to fly away with the concept, abandoning for the moment the introspective political intrigue that marked the first plot arc, and diving headfirst into something much more unusual. Instead of slowly building to a climax, we are immediately thrust through time, across dimensions, into dream and myth and symbol, where ships of fate ferry a handful of different faces of the same man to a rendezvous with the end of the world, where selves must be combined, Shiva-like, to save a universe already lost from what may be a robot and his sister.
It is jarring to say the least for Moorcock to leave us with a certain expectation after the previous book and then to abscond on this daring vision of half-dreams. Though the structure is sometimes less than flowing, and the prose rises to moments of greater beauty than the first volume, what carries it all over is the pure, unbridled imagination.
It is a vision that has proven very influential over the past half-century of fantasy--though it is an influence which often goes unrecognized. From the man-doomed-to-live to the soul-stealing sword to the battle between the forces of law and chaos over an entire 'multiverse' of realities, one is bound to find echoes of him in most modern fantasy, though sadly, very few of authors have done as much with the concepts and Moorcock did, and most have just reused them thoughtlessly, failing to recognize what made them interesting in the first place.
Eventually, Moorcock gets us back on track toward the central plot, but each smaller story is its own unique arc, reminiscent of the technique used by Howard and Leiber of creating many brief stories which suggest a larger, more complex world in the gaps between them, though since Moorcock's stories have fewer gaps, there is not quite the same sense of scale.
I would have appreciated more story and less explanation, and more character and psychology, allowing the vastness of the many worlds to loom mysteriously. Moorcock is not foolish enough to make his world truly small by over-explanation, but I enjoy a story more when the setting serves the characters and the plot, and not vice versa, and Moorcock sometimes crosses that line.
But throughout he is surprising, as the ideas drive the story along at a clip. It sometimes feels as if Moorcock is worried that his story might not be different enough, that he needs to establish the incomprehensibly vast strangeness of his world quickly and fully, but that's the thing about the incomprehensibly vast: it can't really afford to be rushed.
There is little risk of Moorcock being like other writers because he has a thoughtful, well-considered direction for his world. He has asked himself what magic means, what purpose it serves, and what sort of tool it is for him, as an author, and he has a good answer. If magic represents the inner-workings of human thought, then why should it have any limits other than what we are capable of thinking?
I have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I ha...moreI have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I have so enjoyed the battlefields of Troy, the dank cavern of Grendel's dam, Dido's lament, Ovid's hundred wild-spun tales, perfidious Odysseus, the madness of Orlando, Satan's twisted rhetoric, and Gilgamesh's sea-voyage to the forgotten lands of death. And so I seek some modern author to reinvent these tales with some sense of scholarship, poetry, character, and adventure.
There are many great modern fantasies, but the epic subgenre lacks luster. In reading the offerings--Martin, Jordan, Goodkind, Paolini, even much-lauded Wolfe--I have found them all wanting. They are all flawed in the same ways: their protagonists are dull caricatures of some universal 'badass' ideal, plot conflicts are glossed-over with magic or convenient deaths, the magic itself is not a mysterious force but a familiar tool, and women are made secondary or worse (though the authors often talk about how women are strong and independent, the women never actually act that way).
But then, they are all acolytes of Old Tolkien, who is as stodgy, unromantic, and methodical as a fantasist can be (without being C.S. Lewis). Though I respect Tolkien's work as a well-researched literary exercise, it is hard to forgive him for making it acceptable to write fantasy which is so dull, aimless, and self-absorbed. It is unfortunate that so many people think that fantasy began with Tolkien, because that is a great falsehood, and anyone who believes it does not really know fantasy at all. It nearly died with him.
Yet there are many who do think he started it. They like to comment on reviews, especially reviews of their favorite books--especially negative reviews of their favorite books--which have, lamentably, become a specialty of mine. And often, they end up asking me "Well, what fantasy do you like?" There are many I could name, numerous favorites which have shocked and overawed me, which have shaken me to my core, which have shown me worlds and magic I dared not dream. But none of them are epics.
I could mention Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a powerfully self-possessed work and one of the only fantasies of the past twenty years that I consider worth reading--the other is China Mieville's Perdido Street Station--but these are a Victorian alternate history continuation of the British Fairy Tale tradition and a New Weird Urban Fantasy, respectively. I could mention Mervyn Peake's Titus books, which so powerfully inhabit my five-star rating that Mieville and Clarke must be relegated to four--but this is a work whose fantastical nature would probably not even be apparent to most fantasy enthusiasts.
Alas they are not good counter-examples. I can (and do) mention Robert E. Howard's Conan, and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series, but these are fast-paced adventure stories, and though their worlds may be vast, mysterious, and grand, the stories themselves lack the hyperopic arc at the heart of an epic work.
But there have been many suggestions, many readers who have come to my aid, and who have named authors I might look to next, in my quest: Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael De Larrabietti, John M. Harrison, Scott Lynch, Patricia McKillip, and John Crowley (Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have been both suggested and sneered at). It is my hope that, somewhere amongst them, I will find the exemplary epic fantasy I am looking for--but I haven't found it in Moorcock.
Moorecock is good, he has scope, depth, complexity, and long, twisting plots, but at their core, his stories are modern, metaphysical, and subversive. They are light and lilting, ironical and wry--too quick and twisting to be 'epic'. The characters are introspective and self-aware, and it is clear that it is they, and not the world, who will be at the forefront.
It is all so thoroughly modern, so reinvented, full of sprightly ideas and metaphysical brooding. But it is decidedly not modern in the accidental, self-defeating ways of all those pretenders to the 'epic' title. The characters are not merely the male-fantasy counterpart of a bodice ripper, with modern, familiar minds dressed thinly in Medieval costume. The world is not simply our world with an overlay of castles--dragons for jet fighters, spells for guns, with modern politics and sensibilities.
No, Moorcock's world and characters are alien and fantastical, but Moorcock does not achieve this by ripping them whole-cloth from history, but by extrapolating them from modern philosophical ideas. Fantasy stories have always been full of dreamscapes, of impossible places for the reader to inhabit. These places draw us in, somehow we recognize them, like our own dreams, because of what they represent.
Anthropomorphism is the human tendency to see people where there are none: to see smiling faces in wood grain, to assign complex emotional motivations to cats, and to curse at the storm that breaks our window. The 'Other World' of British Fairy Tales is based on the latter: the assigning of our luck--good and bad--to capricious spirits. The world of fairy has rules (as do storms), but those rules are mostly a mystery to man.
But Moorcock's world personifies the ideas of Kant and Nietzsche: his 'Other Worlds' (called 'Planes') are those of the human mind: they are places of morality, like heaven and hell, except he has updated the concept to existential morality. There is Chaos, and there is Law; Chaos is the selfish urge, Law the communal urge, and he arrays his magic, spirits, and dreamscapes along this axis.
Like Milton, he has infused his epic with the latest thoughts and notions, updating it for the modern age. Also like Milton, Moorcock's influence has been felt, far and wide, despite the fact that most people do not recognize it.
The Dungeons & Dragons game prominently used his Law/Chaos dichotomy, among other concepts, and his 'Wheel of Psychic Planes' is an influence on their most audacious and unusual publication, the philosophical 'Steampunk' setting, Planescape. And many of these tropes have filtered down into the grab-bag common to the modern voice of fantasy stories.
Reading Elric, one will invariably be reminded of a dozen other books and games, as Elric drinks endless potions to maintain his strength and vitality, slaying twisted demons on a plane of fire in search of a rune-sword, dressed in ornate black armor and a dragon-helm. Indeed, the central mythology (and much of the plot) of the Elder Scrolls games--in particular Oblivion--owe a vast debt to Elric and his world, and not simply for the land of 'Elwher'.
Clearly, Moorcock's odd vision has been transcribed onto the imaginations of fantasists, but as with those who were inspired by Tolkien, most of his followers have failed to recreate the weight of the original message. Except for a few outliers, like Planescape and Perdido Street Station, most authors have copied the outward appearance of Moorcock's alien world, but were not skilled or knowledgeable enough to take the substance along with the form--the existential ideas, the vital core of his dreamscapes, are most often missing, or at best, faded.
But while the ideas and the overall vision are strong--even compared to the ubiquitous attempts to recreate them--there are a number of flaws in Moorcock's presentation. The first and most damaging is a weakness in the voice. Moorcock has a lot to say, but must sometimes resort to explaining his ideas to us. He is not always able to deliver his world and characters through interactions, hints, tone, and actions. He is hardly an inexperienced enough author to explain to us that which is already self-evident, but it is a weakness in his delivery which sometimes takes us out of the flow of the story, so that we must step back from the world and listen to Moorcock talk about it, though he does do his best to veil it with Elric's thoughts.
Secondly, it can be difficult to get a strong impression of his characters, they are often difficult to sympathize with or to predict. It isn't that they aren't vivid and active, but that their actions are often based around ideas and concepts--the things Moorcock built his world on--which can create a sense of a top-down world, where the characters are there to fulfill a purpose, to explore various notions and philosophies.
The book is certainly not an allegory--there are no easy one-to-one correlations to be made between characters and ideas, but the world does not revolve around personalities--except, perhaps, for Elric's, but his thoughts and motivations are often the most difficult to reconcile. The personalities of all the other characters are, more or less, wholly dependent on him.
To some degree, the characters seem to operate on much older fantasy rules: their capricious yet repetitive acts becoming motifs for the larger ideas in the story, not unlike Tolkien's fantasy forefather, E.R. Eddison, whose characters seem half-mad with heroism for its own sake (another candidate for my favorite epic, if I didn't think his beautiful, deliberate archaism might prove too remote for many readers).
Part of the reason for this is that Elric's personality and world were created as an exercise, and with an explicit purpose: to portray the anti-Conan. He is sickly, weak, pale, effeminate, sorcerous, erudite, cruel, reluctant, intellectual, and hardly promiscuous. Conan becomes king by his own hand, while Elric begins as emperor and we witness the hardships of his downfall.
But this contrariness, while coloring the story, is hardly its center. Moorcock uses it as a springboard--an inspiration to drive him to something greater. It is one more example of the fact that genius is at its best when it has a lofty challenge before it. Moorcock is not interested in making a parody, but in exploring a little-trodden path, operating on the notion that if you start with something familiar and begin to move away from it, you are bound to end up somewhere else.
I must also mention an unbelievable incident involving a group of blind soldiers, which put dire strain to credulity. A bit of creative myth or capricious magic could have saved it, but as it stands in the book, it makes little sense.
But despite the subtle weaknesses in voice and characterization, Moorcock's idiomatic adventure story is eminently enjoyable. There are few fantasy books I could name which suggest such a playful intellect as this, and though it is not as wildly imaginative as his Gloriana, this philosophical exploration disguised as a pulp adventure is a delightful read that never gets bogged-down in indulging its own thoughtfulness.
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)
I first knew of Morris as the greatest bookbinder of the modern age, a master of textile design who single-handedly rediscovered half a dozen dead art...moreI first knew of Morris as the greatest bookbinder of the modern age, a master of textile design who single-handedly rediscovered half a dozen dead arts. But he was also a fantasist, contemporary with Dunsany, and a political thinker.
My search among the many branching roots of Fantasy lead me to pick up this collection, but I must admit this is not what I had in mind by 'fantasy'. Here, Morris gives us a rather bland and didactic rundown of his perfect world, loosely structured around something less engaging than a story.
Morris' pessimism about the state of man lends him a desperation, a need for things to be different, to be better. He indulges this need, but he does not build upon it. We never learn how his world came about, how it overcame the pitfalls of human conflict, of ignorance, or fear.
There was a bloody revolution, this we know, brought on by the great inequality suffered by the squalid poor. This is not remarkable, as history will attest, but in every case, such revolutions have not resulted in a sudden utopia, but in a new power structure.
In Morris' world, a pleasant socialist anarchy arises from the revolution, and the only explanation for why is that 'human beings desire to be happy'. Certainly, they seem to, but that doesn't mean they know how to achieve happiness, or that they won't be sidelined by fear, ignorance, and internal conflicts.
Morris seems to sense the ephemeral state he has painted, where the problems of the world are solved by pure coincidence, and he often foreshadows that this ideal world is poised to fall at any moment, as well it might, since there is nothing to bolster or protect it.
Like the other Utopian Socialists of Victorian England, Morris wants to see a new world born, but doesn't seem to know how to bring it about. Like them, he is content to rely on the 'pure goodness of man' to do the work for him, and like them, his pleasant thoughts prove ineffective in the end.
After reading about Morris' many laudable achievements in various arts, I felt a need to study him, hoping I might find the personal philosophy which allows a man to explore so freely, and to remain undaunted by the vastness of his studies. I quickly found his secret: he was independently wealthy from a young age.
This allowed him to pursue with absolute freedom anything which interested him, including socialism and the 'plight of the poor', which was indeed a severe one in Victorian period. So he and his other well-off friends started a social club where they would hang about and talk about how to fix the world.
And this book sounds like what would come of the conversation of a bunch of wealthy people who were concerned about the poor and decided they wanted to fix things. There are a lot of noble sentiments, many platitudes, and a complete avoidance of man's darker side.
Morris assumes that if one destroyed all of the social structures (politics, justice, law, industry, business), then all people would naturally be nice to one another, which rather ignores the fact that we developed these systems to replace the violent, anarchic systems which preceded them.
Certainly, all of these structures are rife with corruption and inequality, but it is folly to scrap an entire plan just because it has drawbacks. Every plan has drawbacks, so the real challenge is to find the one that will be most effective despite its flaws, not reject anything that isn't perfect.
Also like other idealist thinkers of the Victorian, he seems to have a very rosy, idealized view of the Medieval Period. After all, it was the Victorians who invented the world of knights, princesses, chivalry, and honor that we not think of as the Middle Ages.
Now, Morris had slightly more knowledge of the period than some of his contemporaries, since he read Medieval manuscripts in order to recreate their craft techniques, but his social understanding seems to be more rudimentary, as he seems to think of it as a Golden Age when people were intelligent and pleasant, not as a period of violent, jostling warlords who were so childish and ignorant that they would buy matching silk shirts instead of armoring their troops.
Morris' Utopia is similar to the Medieval in that it seems to be a period following a Dark Age, where people are mostly simple and uneducated, where much of technology has fallen by the wayside, and people have enough to think about with feeding their families rather than casting their thoughts to higher things.
Overall, the pervasive happiness on which his world seems to run felt more to me like ignorant self-satisfaction rather than the enrichment of a lifetime of soul-searching. Perhaps Morris likes the idea of a world run by the motto 'ignorance is bliss', but I can hardly imagine that would turn out very well.
Another concept central to his world is the notion that work and art are the same thing, and that if people simply took pride in what they did, then they would be happy and all the work would always get done. I couldn't help but think that there would definitely still be some jobs that wouldn't get done, especially ones unpleasant enough that it would be hard to find the art in them, especially if they weren't recompensed.
Certainly, there have been some projects that operated because of a pride in work--namely the great cathedrals of Europe and the Egyptian pyramids, where people were given personal prestige and spiritual guarantees for working free or at a discounted rate, but Morris gives us no such social structure to elevate the status of truly unpleasant labors.
In the conclusion , Morris asks us to believe that this is a vision, not a dream, but that isn't true. This is not a revelation of a philosophy or worldview, not a glimpse of other possibilities, but a vague and ephemeral thing, built of elation and hope--and little else.
The day after writing this review, I continued with my collection of Morris' writings, finding a lecture called 'The Hopes of Civilization' which more-or-less outlines all the problems I had with News From Nowhere. In the lecture he explains how his utopia could come about, why he idealized the Medieval period, what economic philosophies underpin ideas, and he even mentions manufacturing a pseudo-religious motivation for work.
So here were all my answers, all the failings of this book explained succinctly, passionately, concretely, and instructively, in a lecture. A lecture written five years before News From Nowhere. It is hard to describe the combination of frustration, anger, and confusion I felt as I saw him skillfully lay out what this book should have been, proving that he had all of the tools necessary to write an engrossing, insightful, well-supported work, but instead, and for unfathomable reasons, wrote something vague, repetitive, unsupported, and preachy.
I think if you took all the descriptions of how pretty women are in News From Nowhere (usually every other paragraph if the narrator is talking to a woman) and set them aside, the result would be longer than the entire lecture. I'm not sure what this means, but it gives me the same itchy, perturbed sensation I get when I see a luxury SUV parked across two handicap spaces.
I know other of his works have a more overtly fantastical bent, and I hope to get more out of them than I did from this.(less)
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.