Thursday, April 26, 2018

Fading Suns and Boschean Weirdness

I thought I'd lost my copies of the second and third Nifft novels - Mines of Behemoth and The A'rak (which I still haven't read) - by Michael Shea and it sent me into a bit of a frenzy. Eventually, I found them and calmed down. It got me to thinking about them and where they fit into my mental fantasy library.

They do not belong to the subgenre of sf/f called Dying Earth, neither taking place on Earth nor on a dying world. Nonetheless, Shea, one of the more Vance-influence writers there ever was (more on that later), created in the Nifft stories a world that feels as weary and worn out as any of that genre's settings. The same thing applies to other books I'll mention here as well.

The genre roots, I believe, rest in both HG Wells' vision of the last days of the world in The Time Machine and William Hope Hodgson's massive recounting of the quest for the Lesser Redoubt in The Night Land.

Wells provides a taste of the setting, but his book is really about the future dispute between management and labor. Nonetheless, it is an excellent little book and sits first among these works I've linked.

Hodgson's book, which I've actually started to read, is the real fount of so much of the genre. The Earth lives in darkness, ravaged by monsters, and the surviving humans sheltered in a giant metal pyramid. The prose is dense and convoluted, intended to give a sense of great distance from the present. It's sort of rough, though as I digest more and more, it seems more and more natural. 

The next book found on the same shelf, and the most influential, is Clark Ashton Smith's story collection, Zothique. While there are many tales by plenty of authors set in the last days of dear old Terra, Smith's collection of grotesqueries under a fading sun is the real template for the sort I'm considering here. As I wrote, Wells had other things on his mind and Hodgson's work is too personal from which to craft a subgenre. 

Smith's stories, and most of the rest alongside them, are rooted in fin de siècle decadence. Markedly unerotic sexuality, sadism, moral corruption, they're all there. Even though written eighty years ago, Smith's are often still wonderfully unsettling - by today's loose standards. So much of today's supposedly shocking literature feel like it's only for show; as if the author is intent on proving he or she is so much more 

Zothique, for those unfortunately unfamiliar to it, is the last continent on Earth in the far off future. The past - its history and its technology - has been forgotten and magic and demons have appeared. Not only the planet, but humanity and it cultures, its very soul, are tattered and exhausted.

The next writer to run with a version of this setting was Jack Vance. He began with his first book, The Dying Earth. Only a little less cynical than Smith's stories, Vance's are funnier - even if it's usually in a very nasty, black-hearted way. 

With Eyes of the Overworld, Vance returned to this milieu and introduced the absolutely self-interested thief, Cugel the Clever. More often than not, his self-assumed appellation doesn't apply, but fortunately, his enemies, who, due to his actions, are legion, are usually a little less clever. It's novel of exquisite weirdness and baroque prose. Of all these writers, I find his style the most purely beautiful. There's an amazing precision to his sentences. Each word is like a gemstone placed in the perfect place by the hands of a jewel-maker of consummate abilities.

Later, Vance wrote another two books in the setting, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous. Both have their good bits, but neither is as sharp or enjoyable as their predecessors. 

The other major works I put next to Smith's volume are Gene Wolfe's Books of the New Sun. Smith's and Vance's works are pure entertainment. They are the tale of Severian, a torturer in a world that seems to Earth in the very distant future. I've only read the first three books, but I'll be getting to all five this year (in between the first and second Black Company series).

Wolfe is roundly considered one of the finest sf/f writers, garnering glowing write ups even in mainstream magazines like the New Yorker. I've only read a handful of his books and stories and am utterly unqualified to way in on that. I can say, the three New Sun books I read are absolutely mindblowing works of seemingly bottomless imagination.

Next we come to the alluded to Michael Shea books: Nifft the Lean, The Mines of Behemoth, and The A'rak. I reviewed the first several years ago. It is a dark and wonderful book. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and find a copy. Read my review to get a fuller sense of the book and Shea's style.

He also wrote a fully approved sequel to Eyes of the Overworld long before Vance's own effort. Called A Quest for Simbilis, I only just secured a copy and am anticipating reading it rather soon.

Neal Barrett Jr. entered the field with a two book series called Investments. I reviewed the first, The Prophecy Machine at Black Gate. Set, perhaps, in Earth's far-future, its protagonist, Finn, is a master craftsman who has made a sentient lizard and is married to a beautiful, uplifted mouse named Letitia Louise. Not quite as cynical or pessimistic as Smith or Vance, Barrett, here, was a very funny writer.

The second, The Treachery of Kings, remains unread on my real-world shelf. Perhaps, soon, but probably not too soon. 

The rest of the books, all of which I've written about at Black Gate are, again, not really Dying Earth books. All three, though, are set in spent and sere worlds, where the remains of past days litter the landscape and cities are the accumulation of centuries of architectural debris, one century's piled on another.

The first is Throne of Bones by Brian McNaughton. SE Lindberg called it ghoul erotica, and that's not far off base. Rereading four years ago, I actually felt a little unclean when I was done. I wrote "I want to on one hand praise and with the other hold it away from myself with a pair of iron tongs." I stand by that, but it is a seriously disturbing work.

The other two are Raphael Ordoñez’s two novels, Dragonfly and The King of Nightspore's Crown. Rooted in pre-genrefied fantasy, they are good and weird. Like all the works above, they are rich, maybe too rich for many modern readers, and complex. I love them and have gone to as great lengths as I am able to recommend them to others. 

All these books stand out from the great crowd of genre fantasy. They may share some very basic tropes - a decayed land and society - but none of them rely on the usual assortment of Fantasyland® elements and worked and worked and worked over plots. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Black Company Reread

I recently read some comments on that the Black Company books by Glen Cook are terrible. The prose is non-descriptive and the books are just dialogue-driven. I disagree with those complaints vehemently. Almost all the modern military and grimdark books owe an extreme debt of gratitude to Cook's 35 year old series.

When I read the first book, The Black Company, back in 1984, it was like nothing I had read before. Cook told a story of an epic struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of even greater darkness. He told it in alien-sounding contemporary dialogue and from a ground-level view. The narrator, Croaker, is smart, but he isn't one of the important strategists or commanders of the titular mercenary commanders. 

The second book, Shadows Linger, is one of the most hard-boiled fantasy books I've ever read. The initial protagonist is pure noir protagonist. For money and lust, he gets ensnared in the vilest of plots. When he tries to extricate himself, he falls into the hands of the Black Company. It might be my single favorite book in the whole, long series.  

The last of the initial three book run, The White Rose, is epic and weird. It's got flying whales, talking menhirs, and the resurrection of the series' Sauron figure, the Dominator. Again, Cook shows us events from a grunt-eye view (or at least a surgeon-eye view), and it's a mean, brutal vantage point.

Except for the last two installments, Water Sleeps (1999) and Soldiers Live (2002), I've read these books three or four times at least. I might have read the first three another two or three on top of that. Everything above is from memory. Next to PC Hodgell's Kencyrath books, Cook's series is my favorite. What separates it from its grimdark descendants is it never succumbs to their penchant for misery porn and cheap cynicism. So many current authors seem to think Cook's work succeeds because of the darkness, so that's what they go for. I also think a lot of them can't do the plotting and character creation of Cook, so they settle for gore and sadism. 

In case you doubt my opinion about the quality of Cook's prose, here are the opening paragraphs of the entire series. 
   There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye's handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.
   Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts or livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the Paper Tower.
   Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight.
   But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.
   We should have been better prepared. We did have four modestly accomplished wizards to stand sentinel against predatory tomorrows - though never by any means as sophisticated as divining through sheeps' entrails.
   Still, the best augurs are those who divine from portents of the past. They compile phenomenal records.
   Beryl totters perpetually, ready to stumble over a precipice into chaos. The Queen of the Jewel Cities was old and decadent and mad, filled with the stench of degeneracy and moral dryrot. Only a fool would be surprised by anything found creeping its streets at night.
That is how you open a series. You know you're in for crazy and wild, you're in for a world painted shadows and blood. There's also a clear current of cynicism that was almost bracing back then. You know you're in for something that will stand in stark contrast to the Terry Brooks-style fantasy that was getting churned out. 

Yeah, Cook's prose is sparse. It's not devoid of color and life, however. It's sharp and economical. You don't get pages wasted on extraneous sideplots. I get the love for Erikson's Malazan books (I read five of them before I quit), but I found them nowhere near as tight or exciting. The more I write, the more I'm looking forward to starting these in a couple of weeks. Woo hoo!

I don't love the morions the Company members are wearing, but more than any of the other covers (most of which, admittedly, stink). They're for the French editions and they're by Didier Graffet.

The Black Company
Shadows Linger (The Black Castle)

The White Rose 

The Books of the North

The Silver Spike

Shadow Games

Dreams of Steel

Bleak Seasons

She Is the Darkness I
She Is the Darkness II

Water Sleeps I

Water Sleeps II

Soldiers Live I

Soldiers Live II

The Books of the South

The Books of the Glittering Stone I

The Books of Glittering Stone II

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Some Thoughts on Opinions and Reviews

I'm old enough that I can remember the time when politicizing everything was the province of cranks and curmudgeons - like my dad. He wouldn't watch a Jane Fonda movie or read anything in the New York Times by Anthony Lewis or Tom Wicker. He would never think of buying the old New York Post when it was run by Dorothy Schiff. Today, though, way too many people submit everything to a political litmus test. If a writer disagrees with a reader's politics, than that reader is willing to avoid any of their work completely.

I'm also old enough to know that feeling strongly about politics and social/cultural arguments is serious business for many people (though far, far fewer than reading social media might lead you to believe). Sometimes I'm one of those people. I have very strong beliefs and opinions on a whole host of topics, and I also know I disagree in some way with every single one of you reading this right now. Trust me, I do.  

Most of you are probably blissfully unaware of the brouhaha surrounding the hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic a few weeks back. It's not something I want to talk about specifically, but I do want to point to an article, "A Dissent Concerning Kevin Williamson," by one of the magazine's writers, Conor Friedersdorf. While it was written in support of not firing Williamson, what made it important for me was its call for everyone to back up, simmer down, and don't force people you disagree with out of publications and spaces in the middle. It reduces conversation to an echo chamber. I think it's a valuable article for the fraught and stupid times we live in. If we can't live alongside people we disagree with, - and residential self-sorting means we increasingly don't have to - what will we become?

I don't want to talk politics, especially here. I started this blog to write and talk about swords & sorcery. If I had to judge a book by its writer's politics, there are lots of books I wouldn't read. Sure, there are lines an artist might cross that'll exclude their work from my consideration (think Marion Zimmer Bradley or Bill Cosby). Few, though, actually cross those sorts of lines.

The thing is, lots of artists say vicious things or stupid things without it making their art vicious or stupid. Many live less than exemplary lives. So where do you draw the line? Do you not read Republican writers? Or do you not read Democratic writers? What if you're a Socialist, does only China Miéville make the cut for you? What about men who treated women like garbage? Where do you draw the line?

I'm bringing this up because a commenter on my recent Black Gate post lamented the political tweets of Cirsova's editor, P. Alexander. His posts are political, but they're only as political as those of plenty of folks on the opposite side of the spectrum. I generally avoid the more political comments from writers and editors I follow. Mostly because they bore me. It bores me deeply when people feel the need to be some sort of activist should crowd out their artistry and they have to expound on everything under the sun. Be political all you want, just don't expect me to care.

I care about and am intrigued by an artist's politics where they intersect with their art. Steve Brust and Jerry Pournelle's stories are infused with their politics. That's where I want to see what a writer believes come out - in the stories they tell, not in a series of tweets. I want to see how it affects his work aesthetically and thematically.  

If a writer engages in polemics, does her artistry enable her to create an engaging and rewarding story? It can be done, but it's difficult. That's why when that's achieved, I can enjoy a book even if it's pushing an agenda I disagree with. With that sort of book, I'll be more than happy to discuss the author's politics, heck, it's imperative that I talk about the politics. It would be unfair to the work and the writer if I didn't. I'd be doing it as a critic of art, not of politics, though. 

In my reviews, I will not allow myself to get yanked into political discussions that don't have bearing on the actual works. If you think Isaac Asimov's or Robert Heinlein's politics sucked, good for you. Unless you can show me where how they're important to a better critique of Second Foundation or Rocketship Galileo, move on.

Most of what I review is entertainment, no matter its author's views. I don't know and I don't care what Karl Edward Wagner's or Fritz Leiber's politics where, and I'm glad. I'm sort of pissed off that so many contemporary writers insist on telling me and everyone where they stand on everything.

I'm getting off track, though. As much as I don't want politcs everywhere, it seems like that's how things are going to stay for the time being. If we don't want to be at each everyone else's throat, we all need to step back when someone says something we disagree with we need to step back and think instead of screaming that the speaker should be cast out or running away. We need to learn how to engage with people we disagree with and discuss and debate. 

I came across another valuable article, this time at Psychology Today. By Pamela Paresky, it's titled "No Decent Person..." In it, she describes the response of someone to an innocuous tweet from conservative writer, Charlie Sykes.

The general response she got on Twitter was "Not a chance." One person tweeted:

“I can't consider someone who favors stripping healthcare and food from those who need it a 'decent person.' Ever.”

I'm not going to get into the politics of Sykes, the tweeter, or the larger political debate here. What matter to me is, if you want you're political views to succeed and to be accepted by enough people to bring them to bear in the public sphere, refusing to talk to or see anyone on the other side as ever being decent, you'll probably fail. If you persist as seing everybody you differ from as an enemy, you're going to work yourself into a constant state of fury. 

Instead, for all sorts of reasons, - as an American, as a man, as a Christian - I strive to start by seeing people as decent and go from there. Sometimes it isn't easy, but I have to try. If I learn we differ on how we think healthcare should work in the US, I will not send you to Coventry. If you want to discuss and debate it, cool. I'm not going to scream and holler at you. If I do that, I'm treating you like less-than-human, and I'm giving up control over my own actions, the only ones I can control. Things improve by how we treat each other face to face.  

If you're going to say I'm naive or foolish, try to think of a novel way to tell me. I know what it's like to be deeply caught up in politics, both as someone with deeply held beliefs and as someone who has logged thousands of hours workign for politicians and on campaigns. I take politics incredibly seriously. What I don't believe is that it's the sum of who I am. They're only a part. Most of the people I've known who are the sum of their politics are people I'd rather not spend my time with. They're dull, monomaniacal, and rarely know less about the issues than they should. But, yeah, I know what it is to be completely wrapped up in politics and it's a lousy way to live.

I'm rambling here, so I'll bring it to a close. But, if it's not clear already, here's where I stand: I'm not going to not read a book because I don't like the author's views or what he or she tweets. All of us are far more than our politics. We owe it to each other to listen and try to understand where someone is coming from and why he believes what he does. If these things are important to us, whatever we're talking about, then we should be willing to explain explore them with someone who holds the opposite opinion. Right winger and left wingers, evangelicals and atheists, straight and gay, libertarian or Marxist, apathetic and apolitical, you're all welcome in my library. The one caveat is, you have to write a good book.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Berserker Covers

from If Magazine
It's been a long time, but I remember Fred Saberhagen's Berserker books with great fondness. The short stories were better than the novels, but even those weren't bad. I only read the first seven books. Saberhagen went on to write another ten books, and I have no idea how good or bad they are.

For those who haven't read them, in the far future, humanity is attacked by titanic, intelligent, self-replicating machines. Ages past, they were created by a species to wipe out its enemy. Now, only the machines remain, operating under their original programming: destroy all bad life.
"Mr. Jester" illustration from If

While the novels tend toward military sci-fi and thrillers, many of the short stories are good old fashioned problem stories. As most of the plots have faded from my brain (except "Mr. Jester"), so I'm thinking of digging them out and giving them a spin soon. When I do, I'll try to write something about them.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Covers from Another Unread Classic: Saberhagen's Empire of the East

Another one of the books everyone I knew growing up read and loved and that I never got around to myself is Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East. Presented as a single, big book, it's really an omnibus comprised of three novels: The Broken Lands (1968), The Black Mountains (1971), and Changeling Earth (1973). I even bought a copy some years ago, but I lost it or traded it in or something or other. Whatever happened, I don't have it anymore. Well, until yesterday when I grabbed a copy in THE GREATEST USED BOOK STORE IN THE WORLD (which I'll talk about later). 

I started reading it almost at once, and so far it's great. Very iconic stuff -- young boy, family murdered by villains, mentoring wizard, etc. Saberhagen isn't the most poetic of writers, instead writing in a clean, contemporary style. It's appropriate for a story that isn't pure fantasy, but one set in a post-apocalyptic super-science and magical setting. 

The Broken Lands

The Black Mountains

Changeling Earth

 Empire of the East