"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

How Terry Pratchett changed my life

When I first began this blog, oh so many years ago, I wrote two sarcastic posts about two authors that I don’t admire all that much: How Ayn Rand Changed My Life and How George R. R. Martin Did not Change My Life.  Since that time I’ve written about many authors, Chesterton the most prominent among them.  There are authors besides Chesterton who changed my life.  One of them died today.  His name was Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett’s books have sold somewhere around fifty million copies.  His fan following is enormous.  Yet there are many avid readers, especially among the serious set, who have never cracked open a Pratchett book.  What they would find inside is very difficult to explain or describe.  If you haven’t read any Pratchett you should start doing so now, rather than reading my humble attempt at explanation.

Pratchett is most famous for the Discworld books, a series of more than thirty fantasy novels set on a flat world that rests on the back of four elephants which stand on a turtle.  (No word on what the turtle stands on.)  In the earlier Discworld novels, the elephants and the turtles were mentioned a lot, as were magic and dragons and other fantasy elements.  It was a straight-up parody of formulaic writing in the genre.  As time went on, things changed.  The magical elements gradually vanished and the Discworld novels became social satires, poking fun at all kinds of things.  Pratchett trained his satirical sight on government, business, academia, religion, the press, sports, Hollywood, and much more.

He also wrote many other books that aren’t set in/on Discworld; these are much lesser known, even among his fans.  Yet works such as Strata and the Bromeliad Trilogy offer rich rewards to anyone who takes time to buy a copy.

What I’m Reading: The First Betrayal, by Patricia Bray

When I was younger, I slogged through quite a lot of mediocre fantasy novels.  Like many young folks, I had somehow picked up the idea that I should always finish a book once I’d started it.  Except for a few of the most truly atrocious ones, I reached the end of every single book.

The First Betrayal, by Patricia Bray, is the quintessence of mediocrity.  We have two main characters.  Josan is a monk who’s assigned to keep a lighthouse on a lonely island.  Ysobel is a diplomat assigned to ferment a rebellion against the Empress in the city of Karystos.  The two meet briefly at the start of the book and then separate.  Josan remains at his lighthouse.  He has a mysterious past and only fragmentary memories from childhood.  Then an assassin shows up and Josan is forced to flee for his life.  Meanwhile, Ysobel manages the intrigues of life among rebellious nobles.

Everything in the book follows a predictable, paint-by-numbers scheme.  Characters, plot, and world-building all proceed along a dull, monotonous path towards a destination that’s just not worth caring about.  The high point, or perhaps low point, is around the two thirds mark of the book, where we finally learn the secret of Josan’s mysterious past.  The only problem is, any intelligent reader will have guessed the secret hundreds of pages earlier, making the whole thing anti-climactic.

I would mention one other problem.  Bray’s prose isn’t terrible.  It’s pretty much the definition of ‘workmanlike’.  But it’s boring for a clear reason: there’s no humor.  None.  I don’t expect every book to be comedy gold, but has there ever been a decent book that didn’t include at least a little bit of humor?

So there’s some kind of movie opening today

Today would have been a great day in my life if it was twelve years earlier, or if I were twelve years younger.

Let me explain.

I had the privilege of being in college when the original Lord of the Rings movies were released.  Fellowship was released in December of 2001, when I was a sophomore.  The Two Towers arrived my junior year, and The Return of the King during my senior year.

And it was a big deal, let me tell you.

Back then, I knew the names of all nine members of the fellowship.  I could pronounce Maedhros correctly.  I could discuss the merits of Book 4 relative to Book 3.  This made me a moderate LotR fan.  (The serious LotR fans were able to name Thorin’s ancestors for seventeen generations and conjugate Elvish verbs.)

Back then, at college, the movies were big events.  I’d guess that on the night each one was released, about two thirds of the student body showed up at the nearest theater for the midnight screening.  It was the social event of the season.

Why?  Can’t really say.  When I was nineteen or twenty years old, there was something immeasurably cool about watching vast armies chopping each other to pieces.  The fact that the armies were entirely digital, with no physical existence to speak, did not reduce the coolness of it.  It was cool.  It was awesome.  It was amazing.

Thirteen years later, it’s no longer cool or awesome or amazing to me.  I would venture to say that if someone rounded up those hundreds of Harvey Mudd students who sat is lines outside the theater for six hours in December of 2002, most of the them would express similar feelings.  Hence I’ve not bothered to see any of the Hobbit movies.

Why is a particular movie–or anything, for that matter–cool at one stage of life and uninspiring at a later stage?  I don’t know.  Somebody should investigate that question.

What I’m Reading: H. P. Lovecraft

It’s October.  Autumn is here.  Colored leaves are falling.  Pumpkins are appearing.  There’s a chill in the air.  What better time to curl up with a book by one of the great masters of horror: H. P. Lovecraft?

This is actually the first time I’ve read anything by Lovecraft.  When I was in college, his books were quite popular, especially with the geeky set.  I wasn’t a big fan of horror, however.  In fact, I’m still not.  But Lovecraft and his creations have gotten so deeply embedded in the pop culture landscape that I decided to give him a try.  I picked up a couple volumes from a used bookstore and decided to start with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

Well, I was not impressed.  Lovecraft certainly has a large vocabulary and a penchant for images.  He has some skill for devising gothic-sounding names.  Nonetheless, his writing is packed with stuff like this:

In light slumber he descended the seventy steps to the cavern of flame and talked of this design to the bearded priests Nasht and Kaman-Thah.  And the priests shook there pshent-bearing heads and vowed it would be the death of his soul.  They pointed out that the Great Ones had shown already their wish, and that it is not agreeable to them to be harassed by insistent pleas.  They reminded him, too, that not only had no man ever been to Kadath, but no man had ever suspected in what part of space it may lie; whether it be in the dreamlands around our own world, or in those surrounding some unguessed companion of Fomalhaut or Aldebaran.  If in our dreamland, it might conceivably be reached, but only three human souls since time began had ever crossed and recrossed the black impious gulfs to other dreamlands, and of that three, two had come back quite mad.  There were, in such voyages, incalculable local dangers; as well as that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity–the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic Ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless , tenebrous, mindless Other gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.

 Either you can take such stuff seriously or you can’t.  I can’t, so no more Lovecraft for me.

What I’m reading: The Scar

Yes, it’s time for my monthly confession that I’ve posted nothing about what I’m reading.  I always intend to remember to post about books, and I never do.  Now on with the show.

China Mieville is one of the big names in fantasy to emerge in the last decade.  Needless to say, he remains a complete unknown outside of the fantasy ghetto.  Nobody who reads, writes, or reviews serious literature would have anything to do with him.  But among the hardcore fanboys, few authors command more respect.  He burst on the scene with Perdido Street Station, set in the fictional universe of Bas-Lag, and followed it up with The Scar, set in the sample world but in a very different part of that world.  While Perdido Street Station is set in the vast and teeming but stationary metropolis called New Crobuzon, The Scar is set in the floating city of Armada.

Mieville is the leader of the subgenre known as “urban fantasy”.  Like most genre terms it’s not clearly defined, but it clearly fits what Mieville writes.  In Mieville book’s the main characters are the cities, rather than the people.  In Perdido, New Crobuzon oozes menace and atmosphere.  In The Scar, Armada is carefully established as a physical reality.  One believes in these cities because Mieville plumbs their depths and exposes all the details, because he describes countless neighborhoods in each one and digs into the social, economic, and political fabric.  As far as urban landscapes go, they have no equal in fantasy.

Mieville also stands out for his stunning imagintion as applied to new creatures and races.  While many fantasy authors struggle to come up with a single imaginative concept, Mieville spins out new ones as if he could simply pop them out of a machine.  Perdido gave us walking cactuses, human bodies with big beetle heads, “remade” persons with extra limbs attached as criminal penalties, frog-like Vodyanoi, and more.  The Scar adds in human-sized mosquitoes with insatiable appetites and plenty of other such monstrosities.  Many of these charming add-ons would be worthy of a book of their own, and we can only hope that Mieville will return to them at some future point.

The last good point is that Mieville can actually create a good plot, something which sets him aside from many other urban fantasy practitioners.  In The Scar there are big mysteries to drive the plot forward and adequate explanations for those mysteries.  The pacing is good and there are a decent number of surprises.

Own the downside, The Scar is laced with constant profanity, which is not only unpleasant but often is used as a substitute for characterization.  I wish authors (and screeenwriters) could understand that loading a character’s vocabulary with endless s###’s and f###’s does not make that person gritty, believable, or tough.  Violence is frequent but gore is usually not excessive, though one scene with the aforementioned mosquito people may go a little too far for some people.  Overall, though, Mieville’s imagination and vision win out over those flaws and make The Scar a highly recommended winner.

Chesterton on Beauty and the Beast

Now that I’ve commented on the revival of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in theatres, it seems as good a time as any to present one of Chesterton’s greatest passages, thefamous section from Orthodoxy concerning fairy tales.

But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer”; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is the same as that of the Magnificat—exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the “Sleeping Beauty,” which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep. But I am not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfland, but with the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak, and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.

It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—dawn and death and so on—as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


Day 23: A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

Five or six years ago, I read The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison and, like so many others, I was blown away by it.  Eddison, for the unenlightened, was among the first great fantasy authors.  He wrote a generation before Tolkien first produced The Hobbit, at a time when little epic fantasy existed and there were no rules for the genre.  And he wrote well.  The Worm Ouroboros is a triumph of action and adventure, larger-than-life personalities in equally large landscapes, magic, mystery, romance, and pure writing skill.  For his style and subject, Eddison looked back towards ancient epics and fairy tales, but blended them with a plot and characters worthy of a 500-page novel.

Given its greatness, you’d expect me to start immediately on Eddison’s other fantasy work: The Zimiamvia Trilogy, wouldn’t you?  I’d expect me to do so too.  Strange things happen in my reading career, however.  Since I first became a voracious science fiction and fantasy geek, I’ve discovered scores of excellent authors.  I don’t have time to finish the oeuvre of one before I discover the next.  In fact, I don’t think there’s a single author out there for whom I’ve read the complete published works.  I will, of course, pick up Eddison’s trilogy someday.  Just don’t ask me which day.

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