Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Magic Goes Away and "Rational" Fantasy

   I can't believe I've never read Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away sequence ("Not Long Before the End", "What Good Is a Glass Dagger?" and The Magic Goes Away). I went through a big Niven phase in the eighties and most of my friends read these stories. I know somebody told me the plot of Glass Dagger at some time. Still, never read them till last week.  As usual, there's a review over at Black Gate.

   They're not bad, just not overly engaging. I found 
the stories, like with most of my experience with Niven's writing, were better than the novel. His characters tend to be a little flat and he's given to lots of talk-talk-talk. I remember the last time I read Ringworld and realizing something like half the book (well, it felt like that) involved Louis Wu and his motley crew flying and yakking. If his concepts grab you they can sweep you up and over the longueurs and thin characters. .

   Sandra Meisel's essay at the back of The Magic Goes Away is a nice in-depth look at the Niven's fantasy stories and what he was trying to accomplish - rational fantasy. He himself referred to it as "rivets & sorcery". It's a great idea but I don't think he was totally successful at it. Not the concepts mind you, only the results.

The only other writers who tried to do the same thing that jump to mind
are Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. I've read a lot of the former but only Pratt's collaborative works. 
I remember liking de Camp's Novarian stories a lot but they're also played pretty much for laughs. I think as much as he intellectually loved fantasy, de Camp, in his heart, couldn't take it seriously and couldn't help trying to take the piss out of it. I suspect it's why his Conan stories are such slack affairs.
The Niven stories are played straight but they're fairly soulless, settling for bigger ideas than emotion. I think the only book of his that ever really moved me, and I say this a huge Known Space fan, was Inferno, and that's a Pournelle collaboration.
So, does anyone known of any other efforts to create totally rational fantasy? I know I must be missing some obvious ones ('cause that's the way my brain works). Let me know as well as you're take on the whole idea of rational fantasy.

This past week's music was indeed a healthy dose of Ocean Colour Scene, perhaps the lone survivor of England's trad-rock phase from the mid-nineties (Paul Weller doesn't count, being much of the inspiration for the whole genre itself).  This came to an end with John Fultz's post at Black Gate about metal band Conan.  Not digging them so much, but some interesting other bands got mentioned and I'm checking them out now. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell and other ramblings

Just reread P. C. Hodgell's God Stalk for the, I dunno, seventh or eight time.  I enjoyed it so much that I think I'm going to make the effort to finish reading the rest of the series. I've read half of it leaving me one long book and two short ones to go.  If you haven't, go read the review at Black Gate, then go read the book.

Reading the book got me to thinking about what makes a book one that draws me back to it again and again over the years. The books I reread every few years include God Stalk (duh), The Master and Margarita, LotR, the Disc World Series (several at a time).  Maybe I'm exposing myself as a shallow reader with poor taste, but I don't care.  I've read them at various stages in my life, as a teenager and an adult and never been disappointed.
Do these books possess something in common that makes me love them? Well, yes, all are fantastic. Not a mundane plot in the bunch.  The imagination invested in all these books is staggering. Whether it's Tolkien's reworking the themes of Northern European myths, Pratchett and Hodgell playing with the tropes of modern fantasy fiction, or Bulgakov's meshing together ancient history with grim Soviet reality into a blackly comical tapestry, I'm astounded each time I read these books.
I think that's not it, though.  It's the characters that grab me an hold me. Jame's curiosity and determination to make a place for herself, Margarita's struggle to save the Master and Pilate's to do the right thing and save Yeshua and the travails of all the Ring Party.  These characters resonate with me in ways that I'm not sure I fully understand.  I love Life: A User's Manual and Dune but I don't pull them off the shelf every few years for a reread. Maybe if I was a closer critic of the texts I could figure out exactly how each author captures my attention, but I'm not sure I want to.

Right now I'm reading Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away and the two earlier linked short stories, "Not Long Before the End" and "What Good Is a Glass Dagger?".  More interesting than really good, they're still fun enough to not make me feel like I'm wasting my time.  Also, totally cool Esteban Maroto pictures in TMGA.

No music was consumed during the reading or writing of the God Stalk post.  Sometimes it just goes down that way.  Now, I'm digging out my Ocean Colour Scene stuff and going all British trad-revival rock.  Next comes Paul Weller probably.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Some Books Are Only OK (and I'm cool with that)

   So I just read and reviewed Daughter of the Bright Moon by Lynn Abbey over at Black Gate. I've meant to read it for years but didn't. Overall, it's a decent book. Nothing special but I didn't feel like I'd wasted the five or six hours I spent on it.

   In fact the story of how it came to be is even better than the book. According to Abbey, she was going to pick up Gordon Dickson for a convention had a bad accident. He felt bad and that someone just trying to get him to the show on time got hurt, so he offered to read anything she had. With his advice she turned her ideas into a finished book.  Then he helped her get it published. Pretty cool.

   When I finished reading DotBM my initial reaction was, okay, that's done. I was sad that it was over. I hadn't rushed through it because I couldn't wait to find out what happened next but because I didn't want to miss my deadline at Black Gate.

   Only when I started describing the book to the luminous Mrs. V did I realized how many thing about it that I really liked. There's some good things going on in it and Rifkind is a great hero. In a genre that has way too many wish-fulfillment characters, she's pretty believable. I admit to having problems with a lot of the amazonian characters I've come across in some modern heroic fantasy. Few women are going to be able to go head to head with a man in physical combat for an extended period of time. That's not the case here. Rifkind's victories are hard and smartly bought. In retrospect, I had really sort of enjoyed the book.

   Most books I finish are just like that. Not great, but a good way to pass the time. I read for entertainment. Now it can be at a more sophisticated level of entertainment like The Master and Margarita or at a simpler one like Beyond the Black River, but most books aren't going to be that good.
   And that's ok, it doesn't make them bad books. Heck, the law of averages says most of what I read is going to be, well, average. And I'm cool with that.  Sometimes I just want a little adventure or humor. Maybe a some mystery.   Is every football game you watch or album you listen to the greatest? Nope, but you still enjoy them.  Same thing with books.  If a book delivers what it says on the cover then I'm happy.

Next week, provided an essay I'm working on about why I blog doesn't come together (which I'm can safely guarantee it won't), I'm going to review the fricking awesome God Stalk by the fricking awesome P. C. Hodgell.  It's one of my all time favorite books and I hope I'm able to convey some of that love.

This past week's music (and at least the coming week's as well) was various live Led Zeppelin recordings the studio albums Presence and In Through the Out Door.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Stories from September and Musings

   So blogging at Black Gate is forcing me to reacquire good reading habits. I'm back to at least a book a week and I've gotten back to reading all the current issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  Lately I'd let the latter slip. That Issue #129 has two great stories made it a little easier.  To read what I thought of the rest go check out my post.

   I'm starting to excavate my S&S shelves to find older books that either I haven't read and haven't gotten a more recent review at BG.  I also want to start getting up to speed on some newer books that deserve attention.

   I know I seemed a little pessimistic last week about writing about S&S but I've gotten over that.  I've been given a great opportunity and perch to unfurl the banners, rally the troops and sign up new recruits.  Okay, that sounds even sillier out loud than it reads, but it's how I want to approach things.   S&S may never have more than a cult following but not for lack of me yammering about it or, more importantly, dozens of excellent writers creating new and exciting stories.  

   I just bought two new e-books: David C. Smith's The West is Dying and the anthology Azieran Adventures Presents Artifacts and Relics: Extreme Sorcery.  The last has stories by friends of this site, Bill Ward and David J. West as well as an introduction by S&S entrepreneur Jason M. Waltz.  It's also got stuff by folks I'm a fan of, including Joe Bonadonna and Steve Goble, as others whom I just might become a fan of as well.  Only time will tell.

I've also ordered two newer (though thoroughly used and very cheap) books by writers I'm not familiar with because of things I've read on the 'net.  Maybe I'll even read them this year.

This past weekend's music for writing turned out to be a selection of heavy duty stoner bands like Nebula and Queens of the Stone Age.  Good stuff.