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)_/¯

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

Asimov was an asshat, but so what?

Into the Dying Earth

It’s been a long time coming – I’ve finally gotten underway on Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth.

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Having sampled the first entry of his Demon Princes series and the standalone the Gray Prince, and noting that he’s perhaps best known for Dying Earth…well, I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while, and it’s been perched near atop of my queue for some time now. But I kept veering off to read something less widely-reviewed or topical of conversations being had within the online SFF community. No further delay can be abided!

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of Vance’s four Dying Earth books – The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent. The contained stories take place on an ancient, decaying Earth far in the future. Although related to and maybe overlapping with the “post-apocalyptic” tag, these tales properly fall into a subgenre named after Vance’s creation – “dying earth.”

Vance’s Dying Earth draws heavy inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith’s contribution to the genre in the Zothique cycle. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, but soon enough.

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What I have read of CAH’s work suggests that he’s another one of the greats that’s fallen into unjust obscurity. Together with Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was a contributor to the Cthulu Mythos and one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine. If cosmic horror is your jam, he’s required reading.

I believe Kaiju is going though some of Smith’s material now. For my part, I’m hoping soon to dig into Zothique – the tales of an earth on its last legs. Technology has been lost, the sun has dimmed and reddened, and horrors roam the world. Sounds fun.

So far this is also the flavor of Vance’s Dying Earth. Ghosts and demons abound, and men scrape for wealth and power. Technology is lost and magic, while common, is on the decline. As for horrors, well.

Chun the Unavoidable is a scary guy.

The Dying Earth and Zothique make me think of Final Fantasy VI. Though the SNES classic initially presents more of a post-apocalyptic world than a dying one, there are many similarities.

FFVI’s protagonists encounter all manner of terrible and demonic creatures; abominations; cultists; crazed sorcerers and evil horrors. So too is the world littered with bits of forgotten and ruined technology and proofs of lost magic and powerful artifacts. Espers take the place of gods and demons, though ultimately in a sadder, more servile role.

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Image Source

 

After the collapse of the floating continent and Kefka’s rise to small “g” godhood, the world is changed. The seas become blighted and the land wastes and new terrors are unleashed upon the earth. Strange cults arise. A horrible demon even roams the skies.

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The reach of the dying earth subgenre extends far and is observable in all manner of succeeding media.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Jack Vance and the Dying Earth are cool. Clark Ashton Smith is cool. Final Fantasy VI is cool. And you, friends – you are cool.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Into the Dying Earth

In Defense of Harry Potter

I know, I know – does Harry Potter really need defending? Well, I’ll get to that.

First of all, hat tip to Jeffro for picking this up on his Google+ page. ClarkHat of former Popehat fame periodically includes nerdy bits and bobs like SFF books and movies in his tweets. Recently, he went off on Harry Potter.

You can read the whole chain here. Now that’s fine. And I have also noticed that there are many on the left who seem convinced not only that everything in politics can be accurately compared to Harry Potter or Star Wars, but that those who disagree with them are Voldemort/The Empire/The First Order.

I’m going to leave Star Wars alone for now, as my thoughts and feelings on that particular property are tangled and complex. As for Harry Potter – yes, JK Rowling is a leftist. That in and of itself isn’t, or shouldn’t, be disqualifying to those of us on the other side of the political spectrum.

After all, Asimov was a leftist and he wrote lots of great stuff. Ok, perhaps he’s a bad example, as Asimov is also much-maligned in certain conservative literary circles. How about Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock? Of course individual tastes vary, but these two are honored by broad swathes of pulp and classic SFF fans. And you know what? Lefties.

Now one might argue that Leiber and Moorcock didn’t push their politics in their works. I’ve only sampled a smattering of each, but I believe I can safely say the influence of their own values and beliefs was no more obliquely impactful on their storytelling than it was in Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Hell, in Leiber’s Gather, Darkness!, the “good guys” are a bunch of faux-Satanist revolutionaries fighting against the evil Church. If you think Harry Potter is subversive and riddled with liberal messaging, I say this – at least the story is coherent and well-written, and the insidious messages well-couched.

For my part, I don’t think Harry Potter preaches liberal values. Sure, there are messages about inclusion and diversity, but these are only harmful ideas when taken to the extremes, which we can observe today in the modern Left. Dumbledore being gay? This was something Rowling commented on outside of the books. The great wizard’s sexuality was of no importance to the story and was rightly left alone in the text.

As to Clark’s takeaway, I fail to see how this is unique to Harry Potter. Children’s literature is littered with “special” children who have adventures. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe features four such. A Wrinkle in Time does, as well. It’s no sin to conjure up an imaginary world in which you are special, privy to some magical powers or swept up by fortuitous and extraordinary circumstances. And Rowling was hardly the first to image what a children’s school of magic would be like.

Harry Potter has such a long and fleshed out universe that you can look to draw any number of lessons from its text. There are plenty of conservative ones ripe for the picking, as well!

How about Ron’s twin brothers Fred and George, who drop out of school and start their own small business, which through hard work develops into a wild success?

And although Harry is financially well-to-do, thanks to his inheritance, and a celebrity to boot, what is it that he really wants? We’re shown that. Above all else, he wants a family. His wealth and “specialness” is beside the point. And as HP pointed out (see below), once you venture down that path, LoTR isn’t all about the “common man” as the hero, either.

From those hardcore fans of the pre-80’s stuff, we often hear that too much SFF today lacks action and romance. Well Harry Potter has both. Granted, the series blazes a path from children’s story to young adult, to (arguably) adult fantasy, so you won’t find too much romance in the earlier books. But as the story progresses, it’s there.

Incidentally, another complaint I’ve seen of late is that too many SFF covers feature people standing around just looking cool, without any kind of action or interesting activity going on. Well, there are a few of those in the HP series, granted. But then there have been a lot of dynamic ones.

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I guess what I’m driving at is that I don’t really get the ideological divide on Harry Potter, and I think it’s a flawed perspective. Sure, we can pick apart the messages a given story may or may not tell; as readers and critics, that’s what we do. But not everything in a story is a hidden nugget of gold or a landmine to be discovered. Great writers concern themselves with telling good stories foremost. It’s natural that to some extent their values will shine through. But I also believe that truth is observable in the imperfect, and we can find conservative messages even in “liberal art.” Beyond that, I’m content to separate a creator’s politics and works.

Brian Niemmer offers a different viewpoint on this conversation over at his blog.

Update: After some conversation in the comment section, I just want to add a note to make sure I’m not misrepresenting Brian — he says that he agrees with Clark on a micro level regarding the tendencies of liberals to prefer Harry Potter and conservatives Tolkien, but is not suggesting that all Harry Potter fans are entitled snowflakes or anything of that nature. I probably should have engaged with him on social media to confirm that he wasn’t indeed adopting such a facile position, and for that, mea culpa. I don’t think Clark was really making such a broad generalization either, but I still think it’s a topic worthy of discussion.

Anyway, a certain comment on Brian’s blog posted by anome stood out to me:

comment

Exactly. We decry the expulsion of many of the great classic and pulp writers from modern SFF. Is the answer, therefore, to shun and batter down the stories told by those we don’t like, regardless of the quality of their works? I too am wary of being thrust into the “gatekeeper” role, and of those who would install themselves into it. But I suppose when you write reviews and share your opinions, it can become a tricky act.

The bottom line for me is this – there’s no accounting for taste, and we all like what we like. There are some who prefer newer or older works, or confine themselves to a particular genre or subgenre. To each his own. I just personally find it in poor taste to categorically dismiss something without having given it a chance, or to mock those who enjoy something you don’t (within reason, of course; feel free to mock me for the many hours I’ve squandered playing Mount and Blade).

I have a feeling I’m going to garner a reputation for being that contrarian jackass who rips on his allies as often as his antagonists. Sorry, friends. Brace yourselves for the post in which I explain why you’re all wrong about Star Trek Voyager, which was actually the best of the Star Trek series. It’s coming.

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

In Defense of Harry Potter

A winner is me

So last month Andrea over at the Little Red Reviewer did a “Blind date with a Vintage Book giveaway.” I never win these things, but I threw my name in for three interesting-looking, eligible books. And lo, I won! My prize just arrived yesterday.

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Aaand the reveal…

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Wasn’t familiar with Vinge, but she looks to have earned some accolades in her time, and a dedication from Heinlein in one of his books. Goood, good. Another one for the queue!

Once again, thanks to Andrea, and go check out her blog!

 

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-Bushi

bushi

A winner is me

Real men wear dead animals

Lolz.

“PETA has written to Games Workshop CEO Kevin Rountree asking that the leading British miniature war-gaming brand ban ‘fur’ garments from all Warhammer characters,” the group announced. “While we appreciate that they are fictional, draping them in what looks like a replica of a dead animal sends the message that wearing fur is acceptable—when, in fact, it has no more place in 2017 than it would in the year 40,000.”

Allow me to retort:

 

You know what? Looks good on women, too.

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Besides, the Emperor of Mankind dgaf.

 

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-Bushi

bushi

 

Real men wear dead animals

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.

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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.

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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