Tag Archive: “reviews”
My appreciation of Dan Simmons’ novel Ilium was greatly enhanced by my prior reading, in translation, of the actual Iliad. A passing familiarity with some of Willy Shakespeare’s work was helpful, too. The sort of literary name-dropping and cultural cross-referencing encountered in Ilium is called “intertextuality” in word-nerd circles. Whatever; it served to weave the world inhabited by Ilium’s characters into the world inhabited by Ilium’s well-read readers, and that’s a nifty trick.
(And isn’t it interesting how references to familiar works of fiction or mythic tradition constitute references to the reader’s “real world”? Dude, what is reality, anyway? )
More recently, I read Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. A captivating book, and especially fun to figure out without any advance knowledge of the setting – so don’t read that Wikipedia synopsis if you plan to read the book. Suffice to say that the Lord of Light story is deeply rooted in the Hindu tradition. It’s a good read even if you don’t know much about Hinduism, but I suspect that, as with Ilium and the Iliad, the read would be richer if you did. I’m sure there are layers of foreshadowing and suspense transparent to me which add texture to the tale for those more familiar with the personalities and themes of Hindu mythology.
(A common concern of Ilium, Lord of Light, and many other parables, science fictional or not: the hubris of those who would be gods.)
So what are some other examples of how your familiarity with one set of stories informs your understanding and appreciation of another? Bonus question: how does real-world mythology contribute to fictional worldbuilding?
Posted on Monday, September 3rd, 2012.
The works of J.R.R. Tolkien have had a tremendous impact on fantasy fiction and, arguably, on popular culture. Renowned for the scope and rigor of its conception, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is familiar to many as an exemplar of the fully-imagined secondary world, replete with language, history, and a complex mythological (if not moral) landscape. World-building of such detail provides a potentially powerful framework for fascinating story-telling – and indeed, the epic quest of the Fellowship of the Ring set the mold for generations of subsequent adventure stories.
Yet for all its influence and entertainment value, The Lord of the Rings is not beyond critique. Here I would like to share a few thought-provoking criticisms from other authors I respect. My intent is not to negate your enjoyment of Tolkien, but to enrich the way you think about what you read and how it relates to the “real world” in which you live. That, at least, is the impact these ideas have had on me.
The quotes I’d like to relay share a concern with the worldview and political structure evident in the quasi-medieval culture of Middle Earth. Plots are driven by conflict and conflicts can reasonably emerge from the social environment characters occupy. It is not necessarily the society of Middle Earth itself that these authors object to, I think, but the way in which Tolkien aligns thematic elements of good and evil – of propriety and upheaval – with elements of that setting.
Consider Fantasy and revolution: an interview with China Miéville, conducted by John Newsinger, from the autumn 2000 issue of International Socialism Journal. Miéville is an author closely associated with the “New Weird” and a vocal observer of real-world social issues. Here, he fingers Tolkien’s romanticization of feudalism, a recurring theme in fantasy criticism:
If you look at stereotypical ‘epic’ or ‘high’ fantasy, you’re talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there’s a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it’s because he’s a bad king, as opposed to a king.
In a January 2002 Socialist Review article titled Tolkien – Middle Earth Meets England, Miéville elaborates on the problem of simplistically categorizing characters as good or bad:
Tolkien wrote the seminal text for fantasy where morality is absolute, and political complexities conveniently evaporate. Battles are glorious and death is noble. The good look the part, and the evil are ugly. Elves are natural aristos, hobbits are the salt of the earth, and – in a fairyland version of genetic determinism – orcs are shits by birth. This is a conservative hymn to order and reason – to the status quo.
And all dwarves love gold!
Miéville does temper his critique. He has kind things to say about the Lord of the Rings movies (then just released) – “Jackson beefs up Tolkien’s rizla-thin women, turning them into actual characters” – and even admits admiration for aspects of the original:
it would be churlish to claim that there’s nothing to admire in the book. The constant atmosphere of melancholy is intriguing. There are superb, genuinely frightening monsters, and set pieces of real power.
But the bottom line is clear. Miéville admires the world-building, and embraces the inventive modes of story-telling possible with fantasy, but feels let down by the direction of Tolkien’s vision:
He established a form full of possibilities and ripe for experimentation, but used it to present trite, nostalgic daydreams. The myth of an idyllic past is not oppositional to capitalism, but consolation for it. Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth.
China dismisses most charges of escapism as genre snobbery – “just because [non-genre] books pretend to be about ‘the real world’ doesn’t mean they reverberate in it with more integrity” (ISJ) – but, ultimately, faults Tolkien for exactly that – escapism. Or, more accurately, for making too little of the liberating opportunities afforded by literary escape.
Next I’d like to recommend J.R.R. Tolkien vs. The Modern Age, a 2002 essay by David Brin. Only an excerpt is available online, but the full text can be found in Through Stranger Eyes, an interesting collection of essays, reviews, and other non-fiction by Brin.
Brin’s critique affirms Miéville’s concern with the backwards-looking undercurrents of The Lord of the Rings. He extends this argument and situates it in historical context with a comparison of Romanticism and Enlightenment ideals.
He also asks the unsettling question of whether fantasy fans may, somehow, develop a misplaced fondness for the archaic social order familiar to their favorite characters:
Indeed, the popularity of this formula [LOTR's] is deeply thought-provoking. Millions of people who live in a time of genuine miracles – in which the great-grandchildren of illiterate peasants may routinely fly through the sky, roam the Internet, view far-off worlds and elect their own leaders – slip into delighted wonder at the notion of a wizard hitchhiking a ride from an eagle. Many even find themselves yearning for a society of towering lords and loyal, kowtowing vassals.
I don’t think I’ve ever yearned for that, but I certainly root for the good guys to crush the bad. That’s almost instinctive. Brin wonders: what does this moral partitioning reinforce in our own worldview when used for dramatic effect in fiction? The device is hardly unique to The Lord of the Rings, of course, but once more the hapless orcs serve as an example:
The urge to crush some demonized enemy resonates deeply within us, dating from ages far earlier than feudalism. Hence, the vicarious thrill we feel over the slaughter of orc foot soldiers at Helm’s Deep. Then again as Ents flatten even more goblin grunts at Saruman’s citadel, taking no prisoners, never sparing a thought for all the orphaned orclings and grieving widorcs. And again at Minas Tirith, and again at the Gondor Docks and again… well, they’re only orcs, after all.
There is a strain of dismay with industrialization in Tolkien’s work. This is understandable, considering the threat mechanization poses to traditional Shire-like lifestyles –
the good guys strive to preserve and restore as much as they can of an older, graceful and ‘natural’ hierarchy, against the disturbing, quasi-industrial and vaguely technological ambience of Mordor, with its smokestack imagery and manufactured power-rings that can be used by anybody
– but Brin offers a compelling rebuttal to Tolkien’s tactic of nostalgic withdrawal:
The planet was certainly less abused when our numbers were kept low by poverty, starvation and disease. Now we must replace those old corrective forces with new ones – knowledge, foresight, and self-restraint.
So say we all.
I think it’s charming that Miéville, an avowed “active revolutionary socialist”, and Brin, a champion of the Enlightenment tradition and pragmatic American know-how, find so much common ground in their critical readings of Tolkien – and also in their use and espousal of the fantastic and the futuristic as lenses to perceive our path through the present.
I hope you agree with my initial assurance that the critiques I’ve shared here do little to detract from the stories they dissect. If this post has exposed you to any new ideas, or nudged you to consider what you expect from fiction, or perhaps even caused you to articulate a rebuttal of your own against any of the charges recounted here, then I consider it a success.
I do not think the quotes I’ve selected do justice to each author’s arguments (least of all Tolkien’s), so please consider reading the source materials in their entirety. If you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings, start with that!
For Tolkien criticism of a different sort – more reverential, perhaps, but rife with insight into the structure and function of fiction – check out Corey Olsen’s extensive Tolkien Professor podcasts.
Posted on Thursday, March 15th, 2012.
The currently discounted title is Consider Phlebas, the first novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. It’s far-future space opera. Now, I am known to opine that science fiction is made of richer stuff than just rockets and robots, but hey – I like rockets and robots, too.
I read a more recent Culture novel last year (Matter). While enjoyable, I recall that it felt a bit haphazard, as if I’d tuned in to a series too late to catch the introduction and was relying on recaps to catch up – which is evidently exactly what I did. So, for $0.99, I’ll pop Consider Phlebas into the queue and enjoy the world-building from the beginning.
Posted on Tuesday, April 5th, 2011.
This quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed resonates strongly with me:
“No distinction was drawn between the arts and the crafts; art was not considered as having a place in life, but as being a basic technique of life, like speech.”
(As with art, so with science.)
The quote is an excerpt from a description of the egalitarian culture of the protagonist’s homeland.
The book is a dialectical dissection of ideas about culture and society and belonging and belongings, told through the device of the main character’s attempt to bridge two very different but intimately related worlds. From my vantage point halfway through the book, the central question is whether the two peoples will be reunited – or whether the reuniter will ultimately find himself without a people. The title underscores that risk, and reminds me of the challenges faced by all who would seek compromise.
Posted on Sunday, April 3rd, 2011.
Here’s my take on a few of the tales from Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. As always, let’s not be too pedantic about what constitutes a haiku or a review.
The boy ran away
and found a friend with whom to play
and maybe stay.
In high school, some of our cross country routes took us through a cemetery. Some folks said it wasn’t an appropriate place to run, but I always figured the residents wouldn’t mind the company.
Who is the demon
who resurrects your regrets?
Feelings, flayed, expire.
Gaiman’s comments on this compact parable introduced me to the “Möbius story” label for cyclical stories. This is the first of two or three summarized here.
Evening on the town:
at the circus, underground,
kingdoms, lost, are found.
While they were in the fifth room, the prim biologist said she wished the Smilodon was not extinct. In the eighth room, the Cabinet of Wishes Fulfill’d, she was chosen as a volunteer.
Apparently this story was partly inspired by a Frazetta painting. Awesome.
We all have our needs -
a hunger for friends, or meat;
and some of us feed.
Ever run in to someone you used to know, and wonder what happened to them? Ever wish they hadn’t told you?
Dreams of roads and rain
in America’s motels,
searching for yourself.
There’s no better place to work out what you’re after than a booth at an all-night diner. If that doesn’t lead anywhere, you might really be lost – or at least there’s a long road ahead. Refill?
Barbecue Sunbird -
a summer delicacy!
Ashes, hatch, repeat.
I want to hang out with Zebediah T. Crawcrustle.
Each year, here we meet
to drink and feast but most to
make you monsters weep.
This story features characters from American Gods, and is set in the world of that novel. It’s a spin on the legend of Beowulf and Grendel, inflected by the American Gods idea that mythical figures exist but subsist only on the strength of human belief. The central question of Monarch of the Glen is simply this: what makes a monster?
Posted on Tuesday, June 15th, 2010.
I have backlog of notes on story podcasts. Here are limerick synopses for a scant few of them:
A house that was home is forsaken;
abandoned in shame, it awakens.
With a creak and a lurch
it sets off on a search
to put right what once was mistaken.
Mission’s the same, boys – collect our dead
with shovels and buckets and dread.
Many battles are won
and the Queen thanks you, son,
for her best weapon needs to be fed.
In the kitchen with Grandma, baking,
young God learns the way of world-making.
“A pinch, a touch – you see?”
But He breathes life care-free;
another batch of bugs is waking.
Posted on Wednesday, May 26th, 2010.
Dune is a work of fiction, but it presents philosophies I accept as powerful kernels of real-world wisdom. Here is the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, introduced in Herbert’s 1965 classic:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
Confrontation and acknowledgement transforms fear into an understanding of risk. To face fear – or to embrace joy, for that matter – is not to be deluded by denial or delight, but to be human: to recognize emotion as an indicator of important experience.
As a cognitive tool, the Litany guides us to observe and identify sources of uncertainty. Observation changes challenges by changing how we see them; the paralyzing fog is dispelled by our gaze to reveal specific obstacles that can be attended to in turn.
I think this is especially useful as an approach to the anxiety that can sometimes inhibit opportunity or ambition. What will you tackle next?
Posted on Friday, April 9th, 2010.
- StarShipSofa received a nomination for Best Fanzine. This is the first time a podcast has been on the ballot for a Hugo award. I began listening to StarShipSofa late last year and quickly became a fan; many of the short stories I’ve mentioned here were heard on the ‘Sofa. In February, I voiced my support for the good ship’s nomination campaign in A Hugo for the StarShipSofa, so I am quite pleased to see this recognition for everyone involved in its production – especially editor Tony C. Smith.
- StarShipSofa qualifies as a “fanzine”, but there’s nothing amateurish or obscure about it or other popular SF podcasts. In the few months since I started listening to these shows, I’ve heard a number of the stories that were nominated and learned of a few more. (I suspect I may hear even more as I work my way back through the archives.) For example, I heard and reviewed The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi via ‘Sofa 121; on the strength of that story and other online recommendations, I bought, read, and enjoyed Paolo’s debut novel The Windup Girl, which is among the candidates for Best Novel.
- I take the remainder of the nominees – those I haven’t read, heard, or heard of – as worthy additions to my reading list!
A few notes on other notable nominees:
- I haven’t read Peter Watts’ Best Novellete-nominated story The Island, but I did read and review his novel Blindsight. I’m glad for that bit of good news amidst other dismaying developments in Peter’s life.
- Although I haven’t posted any reviews yet, I listen to the Clarkesworld magazine podcast and have notes on a few stories, including Best Short Story nominee Non-Zero Probabilities by N. K. Jemisin. Clarkesworld itself is a nominee for Best Semiprozine. Again, I emphasize that podcasts provide great exposure for some of the top content in the genre.
- Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve seen every film nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Avatar, District 9, Moon, Star Trek, and Up. I’m not sure which I would vote for.
Posted on Sunday, April 4th, 2010.
Business is good at Jimmy’s bar, Drakes -
a regular crowd’s all that it takes.
They pay cash to devour
loners caught after hours -
it’s money, but still Jimmy’s heart breaks.
You have to make sacrifices if you want to succeed in this business.
What shape does Fate take
to end men in her embrace?
All will see her face.
The narrator witnesses an old woman intervene in a bank robbery. He is a petrified hostage; she is grandmotherly, inexplicably calm, and in one brief but decisive moment, terrifyingly fearsome. She is called Witch, and one day you may know her, too.
Fluffy, housecat queen,
spies wee earwig invaders
and begins the hunt.
Ignore your vet – the tabloids are right. If your pets suddenly become vicious, it’s due to mind control parasites deployed by little flying saucers. Fortunately, Fluffy the domestic diva was present to observe the miniature aliens plant their bugs in her tomcat housemates’ ears. As anyone who’s ever played with a cat knows, there are certain threats our feline friends are well equipped to confront – so the outlook is grim for invaders who make such fun-to-chase morsels.
Dusty reels; real FX.
John Carter of Mars conquers
on film and in flesh.
Footage from an early silent movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series surfaces at a film festival. In some ways it is predictably dated, but the apparent age of the actors and the astounding quality of the special effects – from a grisly slaying to the fluid motion of the indigenous Tharks – raise doubts about the film’s vintage. As the protagonist investigates, however, he finds evidence that the footage is entirely authentic.
Bridesicle by Will McIntosh (via StarShipSofa Aural Delights 124)
The lost are not gone, just kept on ice:
brides are in stock, revived for a price.
Each date’s a taste of life
for each unwed dead wife -
and also, one, whose love lies alike.
As if cryogenic preservation wasn’t creepy enough, imagine adding a dose of mail order marriage to the mix. That’s the world of Bridesicle, where the dead may find themselves arrayed like so many flavors in an ice cream freezer to be sampled by wealthy suitors. It’s hard enough to repeatedly suffer a few minutes of rusty reanimation just to be rejected and returned to death, but Mylee, the main character, must reconcile this desperation with her disinterest in the men who could fund her resuscitation.
“There is still a child!”
She is chattel, but she guides,
and he holds her hand.
An aged master, more scholar than menace, beholds with mercy the hope of a woman whose people his crushed. Hope springs eternal.
We who remain sort
history’s debris in bins,
and yet still we sing.
The human spirit prevails, even as our pitiable remainder is made to sift through the rubble of civilization. A tabletop IED, a bottle of wine, and a scratched Tchaikovsky CD make for one last wonderful evening in hell.
Posted on Thursday, March 25th, 2010.
Today I started reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. So far, it’s as excellent as the testimonials claim. Having recently read Sundiver by David Brin, I noticed what seems to be a subtle nod to that story in one of the opening scenes of Windup Girl.
From the first chapter:
Cycles and rickshaws and megodont wagons flow past them, parting like a river around boulders. The cauliflower growths of fa’ gan fringe scar the beggars’ noses and mouths.
From the first chapter of Sundiver:
Bright points of static filled the space above the blankets and in front of the screen, and then Fagin stood, en-replica, a few inches away.
The E.T. did look somewhat like a giant sprout of broccoli.
An ailment called fa’ gan that looks like cauliflower and an alien named Fagin that looks like broccoli, both introduced in the first chapter of each author’s debut novel? It could be a coincidence – perhaps “fa’ gan” has a meaningful real-world etymology - but I like to think it’s an “easter egg” for the well-read geek. Now I’m going to be on the lookout for other genre references!
Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that there is an additional commonality which might suggest a more specific reason for this reference: both books deal with evolutionary themes.
As part of the Uplift series, Sundiver examines a universe in which humanity’s haphazard evolution is an exception to the norm of guided intervention. Windup Girl is set in a world populated by “genehacked” animals and bioengineered plagues like fa’ gan. One question, among others, is whether these beings are the result of guided or misguided human intervention.
According to his most recent blog post, David Brin is a contributing author to a forthcoming book, Pathological Altruism, which is edited by a group that includes my boss. So now if we can just get a character from Windup Girl to give an EvoS seminar, the circle will be complete.
Posted on Saturday, March 13th, 2010.