Does good SFF require age and experience?

I just finished listening to the latest Geek Gab podcast, with guest Jon Mollison of Seagull Rising. Another good episode – congrats to all involved!

Something Jon said got me thinking. He observed that there are some talented young writers in SFF who are getting caught up in gimmicks and writing tricks and as a result are losing the plot, literally.

I think it’s true that for many contemporary writers, good storytelling is losing out to political and cultural commentary. Strong male heroes are so last century. Good and evil without nuanced, middling gradations are played out, man.

isheokay
[He asks about the guy he just beat up, who is literally a sworn enemy who wants to kill him]
This is certainly a problem. I’m with you! This is a big reason why I’ve retreated down the Appendix N/ Grant List hole and haven’t had any strong desire to come back up for air.

Jon went on to say that these pre-30 authors don’t have the necessary experience to really sell us on what they’re writing. They don’t have the same juice to put into their works. And to some degree I think he’s right. Age and experience flavor and influence a writer’s stories. Look at Tolkien (as we always seem to). His part in World War I is directly observable in the Lord of the Rings. Mordor pretty much is Verdun.

verdunlunar

I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Jon’s stuff yet, but it seems clear from what I’ve heard that Jon’s own experience as a father has greatly colored some of his work. And I dig that.

Still, I think we need to be cautious about writing off younger, more life-inexperienced writers, especially those in the vanguard of the pulp revival/revolution. I’m not saying here that Jon is doing so, as it sounds like he’s certainly giving the youngsters a reading and a fair shake. But just as something to chew on for all of us, let’s remember that SFF grandmaster Robert E Howard died at 30. Manly Wade Wellman was in his twenties when he put out his first novel. HP Lovecraft wrote “Dagon” when he was 27 years old.

Now those are some pretty big shoes, and it could very well be that Howard and Lovecraft and Wellman were exceptions to the rule. Still. I’m not entirely convinced that age is nearly as important as talent and imagination.

-Bushi

bushi

Does good SFF require age and experience?

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.

isaac_asimov_on_throne

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)_/¯

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

Asimov was an asshat, but so what?

Solomon’s key

 

A fun little NES game, to be sure. But I only mention it because it sprung to mind when thinking about the real topic at hand.

A holy man may or may not have once said “[T]he [K]ane is the remedy for every passion.” In other words, Solomon Kane is a kickass character whose stories can cure what ails you, if what ails you is a lack of sweet fantasy stories.

Last week my first post for the Castalia House blog went up. Jeffro had asked me if I’d be interested in joining the recently exploded cadre of talented writers over there by contributing a biweekly post on my SFF meanderings. I’ve long held to the proscribed wisdom of surrounding yourself with people smarter than you are, so I gladly signed on.

Largely at Kaiju’s prompting, I’ve circled back to Robert E Howard of late. As if I don’t have enough unread authors to get to! But the gift of  the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane was on point, as is usual from my friend. I’m nearing the end of the volume now, and savoring each story about our grim hero.

One thing that’s become clear to me is the error of Tor’s 2008 piece on Kane. While it’s true that the crusader is tortured and cursed, describing him as a “functioning madman” just doesn’t do the character justice. It’s true that what we see of Kane’s attitude towards evil does seem to change over time. In the jungles of Africa, Kane picks up a powerful ally – the sorcerer N’Longa.

This “blood brother” gifts him a mysterious staff, which has the power to vanquish evils that cannot be harmed by steel or other mundane weapons. For a time Kane is conflicted on both N’Longa and the stave.

Of N’Longa, Solomon at first thinks that he is conspiring with a Satanic wizard, but is resigned to do so in order to fight a darker evil. After a time and the ju ju man’s assistance in slaying a horde of vampires, however, Kane reassesses:

Kane listened unspeaking, seeing for the first time in N'Longa's
glittering eyes something stronger and deeper than the avid gleam of
the worker in black magic. To Kane it seemed almost as if he looked
into the far-seeing and mystic eyes of a prophet of old. - "The Hills of the Dead"

It seems that there is more to the old magic man. Perhaps something divine or divinely guided.

the_hills_of_the_dead-04

Similarly, Kane has misgivings about the staff, but determines once again that it may take evil to defeat evil. It ultimately turns out that the wood is the very same wielded by Moses and Solomon in the Bible. Kane’s faith and determination is vindicated once again.

Though I originally compared our dark avenger to Batman, Tor’s evocation of the Punisher also seems apt. Or Judge Dredd, perhaps? Yes, Kane sees a divine purpose in his “just murder.” But the tales seem to indicate a sort of providence both guiding and vindicating this belief.

The fact that he clearly wrestles with these issues, though, and that he acknowledges that someday he may be punished by God for his deeds, indicates that he is both sane and morally driven. He doesn’t know for a fact that what he does is right, but that’s what faith is about – living out your beliefs without ever being presented with ironclad proof.

Were he mad, he would likely not suffer doubt or regret, nor would he grapple with weighty decisions. It’s true that Kane is resolute; a man of action. But he is also introspective.

No, Kane is not a madman. His sanity has not slipped away. Rather, he’s seen some shit. Horrors of both fantastic and human nature. Call it PTSD; call it age and countless unwanted, haunting memories. But Conan and Kull could take it, and Solomon Kane is no less a mensch than they. These are Howardian men; men of valor and blood. This strikes me as key to understanding our dark knight.

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

Solomon’s key

A thought on contemporary SFF

Some of my SFF analyst/author/blogger cohorts talk much recently of the coordinated expunction over the past several decades of literary giants like Brackett, Merritt, and the old pulp fiction stars. As I’ve said before, I can’t speak much to that. I’m not immersed in the industry or the history, and my understanding of what qualifies as “canon” is hazy.

I have, lately, been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History episodes on WWI. It’s hard-hitting stuff, and across the several hours I’ve listened to so far, he’s made several side references to Tolkien, Lewis, Wells, and their ilk, who were all contemporaries and (in Tolkien and Lewis’ case) participants in the Great War. This, combined with some of my recent reading about these guys has gotten me thinking.

Here’s the thought, on Twitter:

thought

 

So why is the Song of Ice and Fire series a litany of rapes and ignominious murders (and I say this as a general fan of the series)? Well, perhaps in part because the writer and the target audience aren’t seeing these kinds of horrors all around them, and there is an appetite for this kind of entertainment. Don’t forget, people are brutal creatures.

list-10-things-you-may-not-know-about-gladiators-e

I’m not saying this is to be praised, and I certainly cheer for those authors who work toward a return to the pulp heroics of times past. But I think there are numerous factors at play here, and we can at least be grateful that we aren’t craving escape from rationing, and conscription, and death on a grand scale.

-Bushi

bushi

A thought on contemporary SFF

Foray into Fritz Leiber: Gather, Darkness!

7815260_1

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.

Capture.PNG

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.

flash14sm

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

Foray into Fritz Leiber: Gather, Darkness!

Shadows and dust of Amber

For the month of October, I mostly opted to play follow the leader – dashing through Nine Princes in Amber with the Puppy of the Month Club, and Frankenstein in solidarity with HP over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

*Moderate spoilers ahead!*

amber.jpg

There are already a number of great Amber posts up, so feel free to check those out if you’re familiar with the story already and looking for some analysis:

Hooc Ott laid down a fascinating look at Amber’s influence on a classic D&D campaign module.

Jon M’s overview is worth a read. He makes some astute observations about the tone and setting of the story, and I’m in full agreement on how it concludes. It doesn’t feel like a good place to end, and while I generally prefer novellas to lengthy tomes, had I been reading Amber as it was written I’d have been disappointed.

The Frisky Pagan also makes some good points. I found myself nodding along to his opinion about the highs and lows of the first Amber tale. The invasion of Amber did seem anticlimactic and relatively dull compared to the character-building periods like Corwin’s imprisonment.

As I read the story myself, I found myself thinking about an exchange I had with Alex of Cirsova on Twitter:

cirsovatw.PNG

As to his distaste for Corwin, I didn’t share the feeling but I can definitely see where he’s coming from. As the book advances, Corwin demonstrates admirable feelings like remorse, pity, and guilt. He may be a narcissist, but I didn’t find him consistently unlikable.

Alex’s second grievance gave me more pause (incidentally he also observed at the PotM Club blog that Amber’s shadowstuff was one of the main inspirations for D&D’s illusionist class).  I haven’t read past the first book, so I could be completely off-base here and contradicted by the succeeding stories, but my impression was that the Shadows were more than illusions.

So far as the children of Oberon believe, Amber is the only Substance; all else is Shadow. However it also appears that the people of Amber do not know everything about their world or how their powers work. They seem to speculate and take for granted.

Furthermore, Corwin feels sympathy for his Shadows. When he and Bleys move against Eric, our protagonist notes his pity for their dying, suffering soldiers. When faced with his inevitable defeat at sea, Corwin even decides that though he would personally never choose to surrender, he would give himself up to save his men. If these devotees were mere dust, only illusion, then why would he do such a thing (especially seeing as he clearly values himself so highly)? Is this nothing more than the sympathy one might feel for a video game avatar or maybe even a pet? Possible, but doubtful to me. Feelings of human decency might compel me not to beat a hooker to death in GTA, but they would not make me sacrifice in real life for said digital prostitute.

Even if Corwin doesn’t consciously realize it, I think he knows that the people of the Shadows are more than nothing. Perhaps this is a result of having lived on our Earth for some centuries. That, too, raises an interesting point. If the Shadow worlds are just reflections of Amber, devoid of any substance, then we too are nothing.

Again, I could be completely off the mark here. I’ll pick Amber back up sometime and see what else is said of the Shadow. But I want to give Zelazny credit here and believe that #ShadowLivesMatter, too. Otherwise, as Alex says, there are some big elements rendered meaningless.

-Bushi

bushi

Shadows and dust of Amber

Stocking up – collecting classic SFF

So I’ve fallen in with a shady crowd of deplorables. Not alt-righties or Trump fans, but the growing online collective of classic, pulp scifi fantasy-loving cretins. There’s something eminently satisfying about finding a stack of used Vance or ERB books, tweeting out a photo, and receiving validation. I probably need help.

I’m still getting my feet wet with this stuff; I’ve read the first three John Carter books, a couple Vance novels, and a smattering of Anderson and Offutt. I’m not going to count the likes of Lewis, Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein, etc – too mainstream.

aed1731c45bccb80f8924789613373e8

Do Dunsany, Stoker, Chesterton, MacDonald, Walter Scott, and their ilk count? Classic yes; pulp, no. This is why I put together the Grand List – not all of this stuff fits neatly together. At any rate, I’m working on supplying myself (and friends and future progeny) with several years worth of related reading. It’s tough to find some of this stuff, but I’ve discovered a few great sources.

First, there’s a used bookstore in Maryland that’s got a decent-sized SFF section. I’ve only visited a couple times, but spotted some great titles both times and am now a member of their club. This probably doesn’t help most of you (if you live in the DMV area, feel free to inquire further about this place), but chances are there are some used book stores or thrift stores in your area. These can be pretty hit or miss, but every once in a while you’ll hit a jackpot.

cr3i_chumaeyq5y

cr3jfohwyaaj-wl

Second, Amazon.com is actually a decent market. Sometimes you’ll find a republication of an older work that Amazon actually stocks and handles themselves (a plus if you’re a Prime member), but there are also a fair amount of other sellers peddling their vintage wares. Some of these are ridiculously priced, but others can be had for $4 or $5 (including shipping).

crhxw4bwaaavblc

Third, and this one I am a little hesitant to share, for fear of competition snapping up the pearls I seek, is a little company called Wonder Book. Wonder Book is another Maryland-based used book business, but this one boasts a warehouse of over 4 million books. And it also offers online shopping and shipping. I’ve found some gems on Wonder Book that were either unavailable or undesirably expensive on Amazon.

csa4-qzwiaehwo0

Lastly, there’s a veritable treasure trove to be found online, for free, at Project Gutenberg. They’ve got tons, including old pulp magazines. Have at it!

That’s it for now. After I finish reading some Witcher stories, I’ve got an excess of choices. I’m thinking Anderson and Moorcock, though, for it’s looking like the Witcher universe perhaps draws (maybe steals) a lot of ideas from Three Hearts and Three Lions and the Elric stories, and that sounds to me like an interesting avenue for exploration. We shall see!

(Pardon the recent period of inactivity. I’ve just been married and things have been a whirlwind of logistics, paperwork, and minor illness.)

-Bushi

bushi

 

Stocking up – collecting classic SFF