Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Michael5000's Guide to Awesome Science Fiction, Part III

Sprawling Fantasy Epics

"But wait," the dorkier among you are even now saying, "this series is supposed to be about Science Fiction! Why are we talking about Fantasy?" To which I say, eh, it's a blurry line, there are a lot of mutual fans, and as genres I consider them very similar in terms of their strengths, liabilities, and standards of excellence. Although really, it might just boil down to the fact that they were shelved together back in the Hometown5000 Public Library and so are indelibly fused in my mind.

Why sprawling epics? Well, that just seems to be the way that the fantasy genre works. I think that writers who have lovingly imagined a whole world and its social, political, and supernatural setting are apt to want to continue working in and exploring that context. Readers too, having invested in imagining a world-system, are likely to want to learn more about its implications. Massive bloated corporate publishing juggernauts, in their turn, are pleased as punch to be able to cultivate an established brand. Everybody wins, and there's no need to invoke the genre's roots in and enduring connections to the saga forms of the premodern peoples of Northern Europe. Although, you can if you want to.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings -- Well, duh. Tolkien can fairly be said to have kicked off an entire genre of fiction, not to mention having deeply informed the evolution of role-playing games, computer gaming, and heavy metal music. It is equally fair to say that most minor-league fantasy fiction written before the year 2000 was more or less directly derivative of Tolkien's world-making. And, like many people and I expect most of my gentle readers, I love these books very dearly. One of the few books I have read more than twice, I have in fact read this series something like nine times.

The action of The Lord of the Rings is set within a massive historical, geographical, and linguistic setting that one can not help but admire even as its sheer scale makes you wonder if Professor Tolkien did not perhaps have a few screws loose. While this is a strength, I think it must also be said that odd intrusions of this ponderous backstory, often in the form of tedious faux folk-poems, are the most obvious flaw of the trilogy. (The second most obvious is the sudden save-the-day manifestation of an army of the dead, which is not at all well integrated into the rest of the story.) Some critics also fault Tolkien's narrative voice as being dry and wooden, but I do not agree with this; I feel that he successfully sustains a dignified heroism that integrates beautifully with the texture of his imagined world.

George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice & Fire -- The Ice & Fire books are still being written -- indeed, I have no confidence that they will ever be finished -- and yet they are already a masterful achievement. They are to contemporary fantasy what Lord of the Rings was to late 20th Century fantasy, the touchstone that all other efforts must react to and be measured against. Heavy on the swords, light on the sorcery, the Ice & Fire books are about politics and power and the role of the individual in history. In exploring these issues on a human scale, they are magnificent. They are also vividly and richly written in a way that compells a reader forward through their hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Which brings me to this observation: the reason why Ice & Fire has supplanted Lord of the Rings as the dominant paradigm in fantasy fiction is that -- painful as this may be to those of us who have Tolkien enmeshed in our hearts and in our bones -- it is better. Martin's world is a more fully realized ecology, his characters have more recognizable psychologies, and his understanding of how history works is far more sophisticated.

Summary is futile. The plot deals with the many contests for power, great and small, within the fuedal kingdom of Westeros. There is much violence and many surprises, and a kind of harsh fantasy realism -- don't get too sentimental, as some apparently key characters aren't even going to survive the first book. On a personal scale, all of the many, many characters are fully realized, complex, believeable people. On a world scale, the history of Westeros has an immediate plausibility to anyone who has looked at medieval European history. The only real issue with Ice & Fire is its sheer bulk; Martin is certainly making a handsome living off of his creation, and good for him, but I sometimes fear that the sheer vastness of its creation will overwhelm its long-term popularity.

Ursula LeGuin, The Earthsea Trilogy -- A fantasy trilogy for adolescents, Earthsea is a tale of an orphaned boy who is discovered to be a wizard and sent to a special school to develop his talents. There, he has to deal with the politics of his school peers before -- What?!? Did you think J.K. Rowling invented the adolescent fantasy novel? LeGuin was crafting Earthsea while Rowling was still in her diapers. Literally.

Earthsea is -- how can I put this? -- I much more mature sort of fantasy for adolescents than is Harry Potter. It's in a darker register, in a more dignified tone and a sparer and more elegant language than Rowling uses or likely could use -- LeGuin is a powerful writer even in her juvenile fiction. The daughter of a leading anthropologist, LeGuin ties her work always to the mythologies, folklore, and archetypes of premodern real-world cultures. Where a key strength of the Potter books is perhaps their setting more or less in the real world, Earthsea is thoroughly Elsewhere, an archipelago land of quasi-Celtic earthiness and quasi-Norse pessimism. It is not an especially merry place, but it is beautifully evoked and an enriching place to visit.

What about Harry? Well, I've only read fragments. It's the next item up on the Reading List, though, so I'll be sharing my no-doubt crankish opinions with you soon enough.

Stephen Donaldson, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever -- This series is also on the Reading List; I read it twice as a kid and once in graduate school, but not in the last fifteen years. It stands out in my reading memory, though, as an exceptionally alternative assay into the genre. Thomas Covenant isn't a sparkly-eyed child drawn into a happy wonderland, nor a quaintly virtuous hobbit drawn unwittingly but with pluck and spunk into events beyond his understanding. He is a disagreeable, disfigured grown man -- and an asshole, not to put too fine a point on it -- who is taken unwillingly into an parallel universe where he is asked to be an epic hero for a civilization under immediate threat from the forces of evil and chaos (who are led by the rather bluntly named "Lord Foul").

What I remember from my earlier readings is that the first trilogy took this unlikely concept and ran with it pretty brilliantly. Sometime in the next few years, we'll see if that still holds. My memory is also that Donaldson wrote a bunch of subsequent trilogies, and that they were decreasingly interesting. We'll see about that if the first series still works for me.


Rebel said...

I'm loving your sci-fi/ fantasy book reviews, but am tortured by not being able to get any of these books. I'm dying to read Earthsea... Bunny is a big fan of it and got the japanese cartoon version of it... unfortunately the subtitles are in Thai so we're completely out of luck.

Oh - and no fair comparing the 'darkness' or 'maturity' of Earthsea to Harry Potter until you've actually read books 5, 6 & 7. The books really grow up with the characters, and it gets fairly heavy.

Cartophiliac said...

I have read LotR at least ten times... I'm sure I'll read it again someday. When my children were too young to really appreciate it, they insisted I read it to them. So we did... sometimes only a page or two per night. Then we'd have to stop and talk about what happened and why. But they wouldn't let me stop. It took us over a year to get through it all. I had to let my wife read the final chapter, because I couldn't get through it without weeping. But then I barely got through the end of Charlotte's Web too...

Cartophiliac said...

My very minor claim to fame. I played Bridge with George R.R. Martin.

I cannot dispute your assessment of SOI&F. The only way I might separate them (so that I don't have to pick one over the other) is that you can place Tolkien in the category of "High Fantasy" (I think that is a term the "scholars" use).

I, like thousands of his fans, am waiting impatiently for the next volume.

Cartophiliac said...

Earthsea was a great trilogy. Years later she wrote a 4th book, but it was mostly unsatisfying.

I'll echo the "don't knock HP till you read them" comment. They get darker and deeper as they go on. Fortunately, my children were mature enough to appreciate them as they came out. I worry about little kids who start with the cute fairy story at the beginning, and then run through all seven books at once. A bit chilling.

Cartophiliac said...

Donaldson. Yes, he invented the "asshole hero" genre. Nearly couldn't read any further in the first book after his assault. Mostly I found his prose tedious and characters two dimensional. The triumphant resolution at the end of book three was satisfying. Until I learned the same villain was back for the second trilogy. Bleh. Don't put it too high on your re-read list. Much better choices out there for you.

DrSchnell said...

I also deeply love the LOTR. I've also always thought they would be a lot better if Tom Bombadil was cut out completely. Jeez, talk about momentum-killing tedium!

I'll also echo the HP warnings above - give the whole series a go before any final judgement - it's a pretty remarkable transformation between the light lark that is the first two books to the pretty heavy ending volumes. Even the 800 page behemoths go pretty quickly, so don't worry about that.

And also, don't let the fact that the rules of Quiddich make no damned sense -- and that if you pay attention to the rules, you'll realize that the whole game except for the seeker's role is completely meaningless -- get in the way of your enjoyment of the rest of the books.

d said...

lotr was one of the first set of books i remember owning as a kid. my dad bought me a set when i was 10 and i've read them every year since. tolkien was also my introduction and gateway to the sci-fi/fantasy genre and i spent many, many years reading about wizards, dragons, trips to mars and lives of people on worlds brought to life only through the written word.

eventually, i grew tired of the many many authors' rehashing of tolkien's general themes and storylines—oh, what? another boy who discovers magical powers/circumstances that make him special and has to go on some sort of quest?—so i've mostly moved on to other types of fiction now, but i still look forward to that moment every year when i get to crack open 'the hobbit' and read the line, 'in a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.'

mrs.5000 said...

OK, so I've been quite enjoying the Song of Ice and Fire--sprawling, grim, messy and full of surprises--but BETTER than Tolkien? Ridiculous! It's obviously unfair to compare an unfinished series to one that (like everyone else who reads this blog, apparently) I've had near to my heart since...well, sixth grade, for me. But I can't imagine I'm ever going to join you in that assessment. Reasonable to say you prefer a work that captures the ugly complexities of the "real" world to an idealized quest that aspires to mythology, but that doesn't make it BETTER. They are really completely different animals. I've felt SOI&F has perhaps as much in common with those sweeping historical dramas that were mini-series gold in the seventies as it does with LotR.

Kritkrat said...

I convinced my roommate to name her dog Arya. Arya and Tyrion are probably my favorite Martin characters, but it's so well written that it changes with each story. I have liked all of the Starks at one time or another but Brandon and Jon Snow have gotten into crazy storylines...

I guess I'd have to agree that Martin's series is more entertaining that LOTR's, but my next dog is still going to be named Bombadil.

Kritkrat said...

Wait a minute, why isn't Guy Gavriel Kay on this list? Tigana and the Lions of Al-Rassan were AWESOME. I wasn't a huge fan of The Fionavar Tapestry, but he's still a great writer!

KarmaSartre said...

I enjoyed another set: The Gormenghast Trilogy (sometimes called Titus Groan) by Mervyn Peake.

Ben said...

I agree with your assessment of Lord of the Rings. I've read it maybe 5 or 6 times (hardly any compared to some of your readers).

Haven't read Martin's stuff--I'll have to check it out.

I could never get into Earthsea. I finished the trilogy, but it wasn't very memorable for me.

As for the Thomas Covenant stuff--I LOVED it in middle school and high school. I recently re-read it, but this time I found it a bit tedious, especially the 2nd trilogy of the series. Covenant's self-loathing was over the top and just got to be too much after awhile. I'll echo Cartophiliac in suggesting that you don't make re-reading it a high priority.

Rebel said...

Dr.Schnell, go back and read about the Quiddich world cup in book 4 before you say that the seeker's position is the only one that matters. that's like saying the pitcher is the only one who counts in baseball. Essential yes... but there's a whole lot of other stuff going on.

Rebel said...

PS - the decathlon is coming!!!! =)

mrs.5000 said...

Wow, I'm so excited to be in on this debate about Quiddich.

Me, I love Earthsea; that trilogy would be my solid second favorite in this genre. I would like to nominate The Once and Future King as a favorite among those poking holes in the romanticism of the whole questing business. I loved the first Thomas Covenant series when I was in high school; it was T. H. White's bloody kids-go-kill-a-unicorn scene I couldn't get past until years later.

I would also like to point out that by "Ridiculous!" in my earlier post, I of course meant "I heartily disagree, while nevertheless respecting your opinion!"

And finally, though completely off-topic, I'd like to mention that M5K took me on a mystery date last night, and...you won't believe this, but...I SAW FRA FILIPPO LIPPI AT LA CALACA COMELONA!!!!

Michael5000 said...

It was so delightful this morning watching Mrs.5000 leap out of bed with, well, more than her characteristic vigor, hoping to find that y'all had ripped me a new one for disrespecting Professor Tolkien.

More heresy below!

@Reb: I betcha there's an English-language bookstore in Bangkok.

I'll take Harry as he comes, but in general I don't think that uneveness of tone is the best recommendation for a book. This is my problem with "The Hobbit," which I find a charming but deeply flawed book -- its starts out as a children's tale and morphs into an adult fantasy novel about 1/3 of the way through. This gets defended as representing Bilbo's increasing worldliness, but it strikes me more as lax editing of a book that was never expected to have very many readers.

@Carto: Charlotte's Web is tough on everybody. My choices off of the Reading List are for the most part chosen randomly, so I never know from time to time whether I'll be taking on Thomas Covenant or the Epic of Gilgamesh. My memory even from middle school is that the second trilogy was a massive disappointment. We'll see.

@DrSchnell: Tom Bombadil is an example of what I see as Prof. Tolkien's obsession with the backstory of his world interfereing with the craft of the novel he was writing. And yet, I also have to admit that Bombadil, his relationship with River-Water's Daughter, and the inexortible herding of the hobbits towards the world's largest carnivorous plant stick vividly in my memory, and often pop up into my head as analogues of some real-world situation.

Niece#3 has also warned me to skim over the Quiddich bits.

@d: Sorry about dissing The Hobbit, bro.

@Mrs.5000: Miniseries, eh? Nice try, but I've seen firsthand how firmly your nose can get stuck in some Ice & Fire.

@Kadonk: I endorse these pet names!

Never heard of Guy Gavriel Kay, though.

@Karma: Never heard of that one, either, but there's a audiobook of Titus Groan at the library...

@Ben: Things are starting to look grim for ol' Tom Covenant...

@Reb: I see that you are one who takes her Quiddich seriously....

Michael5000 said...

@Mrs.5000: Not to worry, dear, I respect your ridiculous opinions too.

Chance said...

Well put sir! Now I have an itchin' to try the Fire and Ice series.

Yankee in England said...

I am now in the possesion of the Earthsea Quartet and am looking forward to loosing myself in all 610 glorious pages of it on the train ride home. That should keep me busy for a week. The rest I shall put on hold at my ridiculous (no worries you don't have to heartly agree or disagree or even respect my opinion on my library) excuse for a library and I might actually get them in about six months.

I never liked the Hobbit either. I re read LofR every few years. I kind of have a schedule to rereading sci fi fantasy I go through L of R. Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials Trilogy, and Harry Potter between finding "new" books to read. I love doing L of R as an audio book and listening to it on my commute as my mother read it aloud to me the first time as a young adult, brings back great memories.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love Lord of the Rings...and that was very well put! :) (to say the least) :) Thanks for the reviews; very helpful!! :)

Taylor J. Beisler

DrSchnell said...

@Rebel: I stand by my assessment of Quiddich. The part that bugs me is that all of the other scoring (goals, etc.) are almost completely irrelevant - you would have to score fifteen regular goals above that of the other team if you were to beat them while they capture the Golden Snitch. While technically possible (and I see after consulting the Internets that it happens twice in the Potter saga), it almost never happens. It's as if you were playing a whole game of basketball, and then at some time a giant golden basketball came out and if you grabbed it you got 100 points and the game stopped instantly. Yes, technically you could still beat the other team. But barring highly unusual circumstances, it ain't gonna happen, and then what was all that running around for anyway?

Ben said...

With all the talk of J.R.R.Tolkein inventing the fantasy genre, I totally missed the George Martin also has two middle R initials. Coincidence, or wannabe?