Conan, Cugel, karma and Leiber

I’ve been making my way through Swords Against Death, the second collection of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. First off, let me say for the record that I heartily subscribe to Cirsova’s Rule that starting with Swords And Deviltry, the “first collection” of stories, is unwise. Indeed I’d be hard-pressed to think of a situation in which reading by publication order would be a bad idea.

Second, after reading a couple of the “good” stories, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are kinda cool. Or at least entertaining.

Third, I don’t foresee them ever taking a place among my favorite SFF characters. It’s not that they’re overly tropey (even if it sometimes grates, gotta forgive that when reading older tales, for it was fresher back then!). It’s not even that they’re morally gray, for look at characters like Howard’s Conan or Vance’s Cugel. I think it’s more that they’re cads who are cast as the good guys.

Let me rap on that a little bit.

Conan the Cimmerian is a badass dude. He’s also a noble savage, after a fashion. But he’s not really a hero in the sense of being a good guy. He’s a thief, a mercenary, and a pirate. And at times he is a murderer. I’ve seen this one debated, but the opening of the “Tower of the Elephant” is pretty clear-cut to me: a dude insults Conan, Conan gets pissed and lops the guy’s head off.

But we love Conan anyway. Why?

It’s not hard to imagine that Conan may have robbed and pillaged from innocent people. But during the time we spend with him, we don’t see that. Mostly we see him thieving from people who deserve it; fighting monsters; killing men who are bad, or at least worse than him. Often he’ll save a pretty wench, and he never forces himself upon her. As a leader he thinks of his men, and as a ruler he has compassion for his people. We like Conan because not only is he a tough-as-nails man’s man, but he generally winds up doing the right thing. When he does play the rogue, it’s largely targeting people who deserve it.

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Cugel the Clever is not a badass dude. He’s a a charlatan and a scoundrel. I must admit I disliked him throughout a large segment of my Dying Earth reading. But he grew on me as two things happened: one, I tempered my expectations, and two, I recognized the karmatic element to his adventures. First we have to recognize that Cugel is not a hero. He’s not marketed as one, and though he thinks very highly of himself, he doesn’t claim to be one unless it’s material to one of his scams. Second, when Cugel targets the innocent or victimizes the good, he usually pays for it in some way. These misadventures can be fun, but my favorite tales are the ones where Cugel winds up pitted against villains worse than him. In these cases, he is often the initial victim and he plays a part in delivering a sort of justice. He may wind up demolishing a ratmen lair or conning a niggardly merchant out of some valuable wares, and “yay” because they deserved it. It’s possible to appreciate Cugel when you accept that he’s a cur and learn to enjoy both his failures and successes.

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That brings me to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I think what bothers me about them is the fact that Leiber almost suggests that they’re heroes. And to be fair, their battles with the Thieve’s Guild can be fun. But despite being the Best Swordsmen in the Universe (TM) and master thieves, and later also bards and magicians, they aren’t good guys. One story offhandedly mentions that they like to rob merchants on the road (so they’re highwaymen). Fafhrd’s origin story renders him almost completely unlikable in my eyes – the fact that he abandons his pregnant girlfriend because he’s got the hots for a traveling dancer.

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It’s certainly plausible that Conan’s got a bunch of bastards floating around. And maybe if he were in Fafhrd’s situation he would have done the same thing and abandoned his woman rather than be pinned down at home. After all, Conan is driven by wanderlust and a thirst for adventure. But we’re not told that Conan did any of this, and I think that’s important to maintaining his image as an almost-hero.

You may be able to say that justice is visited upon the pair. After all, even if they always survive, they don’t always win. Their plans go awry, they lose the treasure, they get beaten up. But it’s never really presented in the “ha-ha you got what you deserved” kind of way we see when Cugel gets his comeuppance. That’s because Fafhrd and Mouser are supposed to be likable and Cugel isn’t.

For now I’m just trying to enjoy the stories of Fafhrd and Mouser for what they are – the fun exploits of two rogues who get into trouble and do some cool stuff. But when I think about who they are as characters and what Leiber built them into, I’m just not impressed.

-Bushi

bushi

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Swords and Stuff, a second crack at Leiber: Strike Two!

It’s been a while since I’ve gushed here about pulp. Hopefully I’ll have something for ya’ll soon – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core is making its way through the pipes.

In the meantime, I don’t want to lose track of what I’ve been up to. You know, for posterity.

Fritz Leiber is one of the older sword and sorcery guys who gets a lot of positive buzz from some of the old hands. I guess that makes sense – he certainly had a visible impact on the development of Dungeons and Dragons. Appendix N don’t lie! Still, I wasn’t impressed with my first reading of his stuff. Gather, Darkness! had some cool ideas, plus an exclamation point in its title! But it was just too bogged down with ideology that got in the way of telling a good story or building interesting characters. I guess I should have started with some Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, right? His signature adventuring duo! Well…

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I nibbled on Swords & Deviltry for a while. Many train rides: reading a few pages, falling asleep for the remainder of the trip, and repeating. And then I finally finished it.

First off, let me plug another review of the same collection. Dan over at QuQu Media got his up before me, and it’s a bit kinder. Go check it out!

As for my own thoughts…

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I’ll try not to rant for too long. I actually largely agree with Dan, only I take a somewhat dimmer view. The pacing was poor, yes. I would say both Fafhrd and Mouser’s individual stories were only all right. The latter was a bit more engaging for me, as well, but I found Ivrian irksome and weak (perhaps that was the point). And when she finally gets interesting…the story ends. Then in the last tale, she mostly reverts back to the annoying weakling.

The last story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” is the best of the three. I’d still only call it “not bad.” Leiber was a strong writer, and he wielded words well! I did admire that strength while reading, despite being somewhat unimpressed with the story itself.

I’ll say this – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are synergistic. They’re much more fun to read about when they’re together. They’re like the Friends of sword and sorcery (how’s that for a generational reference?). Their fight scenes are fun, and they have some chuckle-worthy banter.

Unfortunately, this tale reads like the prequel that it is. The two become best friends pretty much immediately. Because, you know. They’re supposed to be best friends.

*SPOILER ALERT*…..

 

Also, both of the womenfolk are dead weight. You know the two protagonists most likely aren’t going to willingly leave their lady loves (which is all right because frankly one is naggy and half-crazy and the other is feckless). So you know Leiber’s gotta get them out of the picture somehow. He goes give them a pretty memorable death – I give him credit for that. Don’t see too many people strangled by magic smoke and then eaten by rats.

 

 

*END SPOILER*

“Ill Met” is fun enough. There are elements that some may find overdone or silly (there’s just something about a hero drinking like 10 jugs of booze and still being functional enough to fight that always bothers me), but overall it’s enjoyable. By today’s standards, it’s worth a read. But for me now, compared to the other stuff I’ve been reading (Vance, Burroughs, Howard, CAS, Zelazny)…meh.

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Alex of Cirsova has been telling people that they should start with Swords Against Death, which was written earlier than the chronologically preceding Swords & Deviltry. This is probably sound advice. Seeing as I already own it, I’ll give it a shot sometime and see if I can join my pulp fan friends in Leiber Land, or if maybe he just doesn’t do it for me.

Bonus thought: the sorcerer’s familiar in “Ill Met” bears a strong resemblance to those in Gather, Darkness! Perhaps not surprising, but interesting to note.

-Bushi

bushi

Asimov was an asshat, but so what?

Time to write another tedious defense piece. But I feel compelled to argue with people on the internet – thus is my curse.

I’m not going to go into an explanation of the Pulp Revolution right now (though that warrants a post in the near future), but suffice it to say there is a growing contingent of bloggers, tweeters, indie authors, podcasters, and literary critics who have come to know and love classic and pulp Scifi/Fantasy. Like any group of enthusiasts, we spend a lot of time chewing the cud. When we’re not reading or writing, we tend to be reviewing, discussing, and/or trying to preach the gospel.

And while the other activities in which we engage can contribute to the last one, I think spreading our message and drawing new fans into the fold is the most valuable service we can render. I suppose we go about this in different ways. I see positivity and enthusiasm as the most effect recruiting tools. When I found the Cirsova blog and then Jeffro’s, I felt like I’d struck gold. Here were a couple of guys who clearly loved the stuff they were writing about, and it was infectious. Jack Vance sounded awesome, and as a result I wanted to read him.

Now if the first blog posts I had come across at those two excellent destinations had been about how Harry Potter is trash, or maybe a top ten list of overrated authors listing five of my favorites, well, fair or not I probably would have been turned off and clicked away. And then, because I am a frail human being who is susceptible to hurt feelz, I would have lost out. My awakening to the classics could have been prevented (or thanks to Kaiju’s influence, perhaps just delayed). In most cases, shitting on something that someone likes isn’t going to attract them to try out your brand.

And so I first put forward that we as a movement and even as individuals are at our best when we’re touting the great and the good. Criticism and righteous indignation of course have their place. But if we want to draw more people to us – not just the disillusioned scifi fans of decades gone by, but fresh blood robbed of this stuff by the SFF generational gap – let us also exercise restrain and thoughtfulness. If you see yourself as a solider in a literary war, I’m not proposing you offer your enemy succor. Rather I am pointing out that when throwing bombs or fireballs, you may not have full view of the blast radius. If that doesn’t give you pause, or if you deem the payoff greater than the risk, or if flinging fireballs just feels good and you don’t care because they have it coming, well. Not much I can do about it – wage on, I guess.

So let’s get to the title of this particular post.

Among some fans of older SFF, Asimov has been a popular punching bag for a while. They say he doesn’t deserve to be called one of the “Big Three” scifi writers. They say that the Golden Age of scifi is a misnomer. And you know, I don’t disagree.

Well, some of my Pulp Rev friends have been taking a turn with Asimov. Some people are even writing stories about the evils of his ilk. And you know what? We’re each entitled to our own opinions.

I think the grievances being put forth against Asimov can pretty much be condensed thusly:

  1. He was a pompous asshole
  2. His name has been undeservedly hoisted above better writers
  3. He was a godless leftist punk
  4. His stories didn’t uphold traditional heroics
  5. His stories were boring and he was untalented

 

As to the first accusation, I would say that from what I’ve read and gathered, this is the case. But so what? Most typical SFF fans don’t go digging for quotes and manifestos and essays. They want to read an entertaining story, and being an asshole doesn’t disqualify one from spinning a good yarn.

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Second – this is also probably true, but difficult to objectively prove. Maybe an argument can be made based on sales numbers or some such metric, but this would be a purely quantitative indicator. Though I agree with this second statement, I wouldn’t assert it as fact.

Third – Again, yes. But again, how does this matter? There were godless, leftist punks whom the Pulp Rev crew likes. I like to point to Fritz Leiber.

Fourth – This is true, and a great argument for why you don’t like Asimov, or how he’s brought down the genre. But does it lessen his writing talent or the impact he’s had upon science fiction? I’d say not. And while many of us may prefer stories with a traditional good guy who beats the bad guy and gets the girl, there are other forms of entertainment. Silence of the LambsBreaking BadThe SopranosScarfaceOcean’s ElevenFight Club; Beetlejuice. There are plenty of popular stories and characters that don’t conform to the formulas we most enjoy.

Fifth – This is purely subjective. Many people, including myself, have enjoyed some of his stories. “A fan of the pulps cannot enjoy Asimov’s garbage” you may say. Then how do you explain me? I am a fan of the early Foundation books and the Daneel Olivaw/Elijah Bailey stories.

To me, the war between pulpy, actiony raygun romance and hard SFF is asinine. It’s like telling someone they can only like hard-boiled detective crime fiction or else legal thriller, but not both. One cannot enjoy both epic fantasy and fairy stories.

Say what you will about Asimov, but his writing was interesting enough that he still has many fans.

The fact that Asimov was a petty, obnoxious, intellectual, craphead of a man doesn’t matter to people who just want to read a fun scifi story. I’ve read that Lovecraft held and voiced many anti-black and anti-Catholic opinions. But that doesn’t make the Cthulhu mythos any less cool. Nor should it. I hold the same to be true for Asimov. Where a sharp mind (probably honed by regular political and literary analysis) may see Foundation as a story of an intellectual class lording over a people incapable of ruling itself – the ultimate elitist big government! – others of us just see a future story with cool fake science, planning, and problem solving. Doesn’t have to be sinister.

If the messaging you dislike is in your face, I can understand and respect taking a pass. No one wants to fork over their cash to someone who’s spitting in their face. But for many of us, Asimov and a lot of these writers aren’t in our faces. Maybe that’s because we’re blissfully unaware, but you know what they say about ignorance.

If you don’t enjoy Asimov because you find his stories boring or overbearing or loaded, I can understand that. But that doesn’t make him a bad writer, nor unworthy of literary accolade and recognition. For my part, I find Stephen King to be highly overrated. I found the Stand, for example, to be way too much buildup for a disappointingly paltry payoff. But I also recognize that he’s a SFF giant, and I’m not about to tell millions of people that they’re wrong and I know better. Just rubs me the wrong way.

And putting my money where my mouth is, I guess now I have to acknowledge that, HP, the Force Awakens isn’t garb. I simply didn’t care for it, on the whole. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

 

Update (9/28/17): Related.

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

Foray into Fritz Leiber: Gather, Darkness!

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Gather, Darkness!, my first Leiber book, and the perfect example of a story I can simultaneously dislike and credit with having some solid writing and interesting ideas.

Set in a distant future that has seen the collapse of society and subsequent rebuilding into a Medieval facade, Gather, Darkness! tells a bleak, subversive, and rather cynical story. The Hierarchy, an evil, futuristic version of the Church, rules over the masses using a false religion as a means of control. The common folk toil endlessly to support the often luxurious lifestyle of the priest lords and their lieutenants, the deacons, who see themselves as providing order and stability and preventing society from spiraling downward into oblivion once again. It’s all a big con, though. Miracles abound, but are in reality nothing more than scientific devices and applications beyond the ken of the peons. Newly inducted priests are slowly taught that there is no Great God; it’s all a farce.

So on the one hand, we have an evil stand-in for the Catholic Church. On the other, we have the Witchcraft, an underground resistance, of sorts. Except they employ the same tactics as the Hierarchy, disguising their technology and weapons as magic. Satanic magic. That’s right, the “good guys” in this book profess to worship Sathanas, the futuristic devil. Their leader, shrouded in secrecy, takes the name Asmodeus. Their goal – to topple the priesthood and ultimately reveal that both God and the Devil are fictions, and to education and elevate the populace once again.

Aside from carrying some rather subversive messages (which is nothing new now, though in 1943 this may have been quite revolutionary), there are some politics and quite a bit of intrigue within the two main factions. Unfortunately the setting is the real main character here, and not in a good way. The players in the story – chiefly Armon Jarles, the Black Man, Sharlson Naurya, and Goniface, are rather shallow and largely uninteresting. They serve to carry the plot forward, but are one-dimensional the mostly unsympathetic.

Leiber did craft some cool, noteworthy scifi ideas: “angels,” which were basically flying mech suits, “wrath rays,” which were  disintegration beams, and a scientifictional take on the concept of the witch’s familiar.

Classically, familiars were minor spirits or demons that took the form of animals (most famously the black cat) and served witches and warlocks. In Gather, Darkness!, the characters explain that familiars supped upon the blood of their masters for sustenance – a kind of symbiotic deal. In the story’s reality, however, familiars were scientific creations like all other forms of magic; the result of genetic manipulation and cloning.

The explanation for the telepathic link between the master and familiar was a little strained, but the rest of it was an interesting take on the concept. Particularly the biological parts.

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There were also a couple of scenes that reminded me of a part from the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. In the book, there’s a nefarious priest tasked with reprogramming particularly problematic priests or persons who may be useful to the Hierarchy. When he goes to work on Armon Jarles, Jarles tries clinging to his ideals and memories as they’re pulled from his mental grasp. Later on, the Black Man hits upon a more effective defense in taking the opposite approach – emptying his mind. Incidentally in Flash Gordon, Zarkov was able to resist being brainwashed by focusing on song lyrics. Groovy.

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Gather, Darkness! possessed some elements that I’m sure must have been innovative for their time, and some ideas that even now struck me as original and praiseworthy.

On the whole, though, the story fell flat. The transparent critique of religion and the Church specifically, along with a lack of any real, likable hero just isn’t my cup of tea. The plot of the story is decent enough, but it’s not very uplifting. Sure, the good guys win eventually, but to what end? If there is no God and no moral law, who determines what is good, what is just? The erstwhile forces of darkness, worshipers of fake-Satan? The Black Man even says at the end that there is much work to be done, as many of their peers will no doubt want to set up their own ruling government similar to the one they had just overthrown. “Burn it all down” is well and good when you’re toppling an oppressive government, but what comes next? And if the answer is a more egalitarian society, why? Why do all men deserve to be treated equally? Leiber is silent here.

When it comes to Fritz Leiber, I expect I’ll enjoy Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a lot more than Gather, Darkness! From what I’ve heard, it sounds as if at some point he learned how to write entertaining characters, so I’ll look forward to that.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Heroes, witchcraft, and more Amber

As I go into a busy couple of work weeks before the holiday lull, I’ve been focusing most of my “game time” recently on Heroes of the Storm (with a little Dominions IV on weekends). For a long stretch I’d been sticking to Quick Match (casual play), but now something inside me has reawakened and I’ve been jumping back into ranked. Perhaps it’s the changing meta or watching pro and semi-pro games online that have whetted my appetite.

 

Side note: it’s a little off-putting that so many people don’t know how to properly pronounce “aegis.” With the last few hero releases, the meta (that is, the popular play style and character picks) have definitely come to revolve more around mobility and lockdown. Varian, for example, may not have a super high win rate right now (mysteriously), but he’s incredibly difficult to fight against. That short cooldown stun and dash plus his solid damage mitigation make him a high threat in both solo lane dueling and team fights. Keep your distance or you’re likely to get chunked or erased.

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Luckily I haven’t seen a whole lot of Varian in Team League. Unluckily, this is because there are a bunch of other characters who are dominating the scene at the moment and can be incredibly frustrating to play against.

Chen is not one of these, and yet strangely the only two games my team won last night were games in which I went with the Pandaran asshole.

At any rate, I hear the ranked system will undergo an overhaul for season 3, and I’m looking forward to it. Should make Team League a lot more accessible once again.

In other news, I finished up with the Hand of Oberon last night. Onto the Courts of Chaos. I won’t include any spoilers here, but the Amber books do a very nice job of ladling out the intrigue and reveals in never-quite-satiating portions, leaving you always wanting to know more about the setting or the family or who’s plotting to kill who.

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I do not picture Benedict as Fabio with a robo arm.

I’ve also stuffed Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness! into my bag as train reading material. I’m about 40 pages in and so far it’s not really up my alley. Major, organized religions as the bad guys and bad guys as the actual good guys are not usually tropes I enjoy, and we seem to have both going on here. Still, it’s a short book so I’ll power through it and see if something changes my mind.

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Closing thought: I wonder if the scarlet priests were an inspiration for the Forgotten Realms red wizards, visually at the very least.

 

-Bushi

bushi