Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The City of Madness - Enter Charles R. Saunders

  I've been lax in writing about older stuff lately because I've become a terribly slow reader this year AND obsessed with Fallout: New Vegas.  So to jump start things I went to one of the masters from the swords & sorcery heyday in the seventies, now reborn in the new century; Charles R. Saunders.
   I suspect that by now most folks reading this site are familiar with Saunders and his genre expanding character, Imaro the Ilyassi warrior (and as I've said before about certain other writers; if you haven't read Saunders at least get a cheap copy of the first book, "Imaro").  Set in Nyumbani (which is derived from the Swahili word for 'home'), an alternate magical version of Africa, Imaro fights against a raft of villains that eventually lead to his participation in the great war against the Lovecraftian Mashataan.  Inspired by his love of heroic fiction, a lack of black protagonists, the racism or at least stereotyped portrayal of black characters, and a love of African culture, history and mythology, Saunders created his hero.  To quote the author himself,  "(Imaro was) specifically created as the brother who could kick Tarzan's ass".  I'll leave that to all you Tarzan fans out there to debate amongst yourselves, but I'll just say, Imaro is one tough, monster-fighting, evil wizard-killing machine.
  His first story, and Imaro's debut, was "M'ji Ya Wazimu " published in Gene Day's "Dark Fantasy #5" in 1974.  Lin Carter got his hands on it and republished under the title "The City of Madness" in "The Year's Best Fantasy Stories" from DAW in 1975.  Not owning the first, I don't know if there's any difference between the two but I expect if so it's nothing major.  The major changes came when the tale was integrated into the large, growing saga of Imaro.  It next showed up as the final portion of  Saunder's first novel, "Imaro" from DAW in 1981, which was a fix-up of the first several Imaro tales.  Finally, in the revised "Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush" from Night Shade in 2007, it became the first chapter.
   Briefly, following events preceding the actual story, Imaro is in search of a man named Bomunu who betrayed him and his bandit army and then stole his woman, Tanisha.  Imaro is a mighty warrior and bandit chief, exiled by the people of his birth.  Tracking his enemy through the forest, Imaro encounters a pygmy being tortured by a strange trio of white-skinned warriors.  He saves the pygmy whom he learns is named Pomphis.  Soon they tell each other the life stories and how they've ended up together in the forest.  Pomphis tells Imaro he saw a man and woman captured by other whites.  Pomphis, believes the whites are a group of Atlantean survivors, servants of the Mashataan who once enslaved much of Nyumbani, and have taken the prisoners to their hidden city.  Imaro, of course, with Pomphis in tow, sets off to save Tanisha and vanquish the Atlanteans.  Brutal fighting, evil sorcery, bloodshed and other mighty shenanigans ensue.
   The revisions make the story better in the ways it fits into Imaro's growing story and as written.  In the first version, the clunky archaism of "Strange and weird were the ornaments around their waists" becomes "Even more unusual than their complexion and hair were the ornaments at their waists".  It's a minor thing, but throughout, the prose is polished and brought up a notch or two.  Exposition that originally came in the form of a memory of Imaro's instead is changed to an opportunity for Pomphis to display his deep knowledge of Nyumbani's history.  In fact, the scholarly Pomphis is now presented as knowing more while Imaro, unexposed to the great civilizations of Nyumbani, knows less.  There is more about Imaro's past childhood and past life alluded to in the fix-up story; Imaro is moved to action in saving Pomphis in rewritten story by memories of a similar incident in his youth.  The whole tale moves more easily and gracefully than as originally written but without losing its demon fighting wallop.
  "The City of Madness" is fairly routine stuff strictly plot wise, though way better than much of the dreck that crowded the field back then.  It's all the other stuff it brings to the game of S&S that makes it especially interesting, even noteworthy.  The creation of Imaro and the Nyumbani setting was an attempt to rectify the absence of black images and perspectives in heroic fiction.  Imaro also came into being at the height of the blaxploitation era where, issues of the genre's attitudes about criminality aside, there where tough, black heroes doing tough, heroic things.
   As a white guy from a white neighborhood, who grew up in the seventies, when things like "Wee Pals" and Sesame Street made it seem like issues of race were only getting better and progressing toward a shiny and bright tomorrow, it's tough to imagine what the impact of reading Imaro might have been like for a black reader at the time.  I'd like to think it would have been at least invigorating.  If it works so well for me, how would I have responded to it from a non-white position?  Imaro's tough and smart, Pomphis is funny and quick witted and Tanisha's sexy but no pushover.  The villains are creepy, decaying white men skulking in their ruined city, using the Nyumbani they kill for horrific purposes.  There's also the implication that Imaro is part of a larger, epic story that is just getting underway and there are only bigger and more powerful things to come for him.  It's an appealing introduction to the character.
   It should have been a hit but it wasn't.  I'm fascinated by what DAW did when it came time to publish Imaro in book form.  The first (and almost immediately pulped) cover for the first book read "The Epic Novel of Black Tarzan".  The image of Imaro on the cover is also a pretty much "Tarzan with a suntan".  Considering Saunder's explicit goal in creating Imaro, it's a little jarring.  Digging out my copies of the original books from the eighties, I was a little startled to see that "The Quest for Cush" had a blurb from Analog  that reads "A whole new flavor of heroic fantasy".  It might be me, but there's something almost demeaning about referring to what Saunders was undertaking as simply a "new flavor".  When the third book, "The Trail of Bohu", failed to meet DAW's expectations, Saunders was dropped from their roster.  He disappeared from the genre pretty much for the next twenty-five years.  The regular (and I'm only assuming it was mostly white) fantasy buying audience wasn't buying.  Maybe DAW could have marketed it differently or targeted it better in order to build up a readership.  I sure don't know.  All I do know is that until I came across Dale Rippke's "Heroes of Dark Fantasy" a decade ago I had never heard of Imaro or Charles R. Saunders.
   In 2006 Night Shade announced it was republishing the original three Imaro novels to be followed by two new ones.  Again, for all sorts of reasons, the project failed.  After publishing the first two books, claiming poor sales, they dropped Imaro.  This time, though, Saunders didn't walk away.  He hooked up with several small publishers and the interweb wonder that is lulu and has become a novel writing machine.  There's a fourth Imaro book, "Imaro: The Naama War", two featuring his warrior-woman character, Dossouye, and a pulp novel.  He's also been part of a gestating sword and soul movement gearing to encouraging the creation of and getting in print more black themed heroic fantasy.  With fellow author Milton Davis, he edited "Griots", a collection of sword & soul short stories.  Pretty cool.

      To stick a toe into the discussion on Black Gate this weekend started by Theo Beale and prompted by an article by Daniel Abraham, I'm going to say sometimes you got go for the authenticity, sometimes for the mythical.  I tend to prefer the latter myself and it's a big part of what I'm seeking in heroic fantasy.  REH's Hyboria doesn't work because it's a tightly interlocking, realistic world.  It works because it's a land of adventure where Conan's epic undertakings are called for by the land itself.  It's no more true to the real northern Europe of the Volsung saga or the real Britain of the various King Arthurs.  But all are true to readers and the stories being told.  They aim for our hearts and souls.
   Nyumbani serves the same valuable purpose.  It's a mythic place created to birth new legends and offer up a perspective different from the more usual Northern European or Mediterranean ones.  I've become stupidly excited about the work being done by Charles Saunders and friends to push at and expand heroic fantasy beyond its long played in boundaries.  It's an interesting time for swords & sorcery and I love being here on the sidelines watching and commenting as it morphs and grows.

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