Monday, February 21, 2011

"Realism" and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy

Leo Grin over at Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood wrote an interesting piece about the decline of modern fantasy, entitled "The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists." By-and-large, the piece is quite reactionary (as is fitting a piece for anything Breitbart-related). Pat's Fantasy Hotlist said, "To me, it all sounds like someone caught in the past, refusing to see the genre we love evolve and grow." Roland's Codex dismissed it as pathetic, saying, "I found it extremely amusing in its fanboyish indignation and intellectual constipation, and would urge you to proceed with all due haste and read it. Hilarity and merriment are to be had!" But he had some very interesting points to make.

First, Grin yearns for a return to the mythopoeic stylings of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. This is an odd coupling, because both authors are extreme opposites in a great many ways. Howard wrote for the pulps, and it shows. His protagonists are often scoundrels living on the wrong side of the law, mercenaries escaping from a lost battle, or ne'er-do-wells of any sort. His prose style is fast-paced, action-oriented, and particularly bloody and violent. Tolkien, on-the-other-hand, is erudite, educated, a loremaster weaving a grandiose mythic cycle about an apocalyptic struggle between Good and Evil writ large. Regardless, they do have things in common these days, since Grin seems to see their similarities more as a function of their distance from current fantasy offerings, and especially cites Joe Abercrombie's work.

Second, Grin decries the over-reliance on violence, scatology, sex, and overall shock in order to subvert the established literary tropes.
Endless scenes of torture, treachery and bloodshed drenched in scatology and profanity concluded with a resolution worthy of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst, one that did its best to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths. Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.
(Ironically, Abercrombie actually admitted that he found this scenario rather interesting, but also admitted that your mileage may vary.) If Mr. Abercrombie's aim was "to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths," than I applaud his success. I've not read any of Joe Abercrombie's novels, I admit, but in the course of one week, through this article, Leo Grin has managed to polarize the entire fantasy community through his reference to Abercrombie specifically.

Now, for a week, the rebuttals have come pouring in. Adam at The Wertzone said in "Missing the Point" that "the problem is that the author bemusingly names J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard as his preferred flavours of fantasy. Which makes very little sense, as few fantasy authors are more nihilistic than Tolkien and Howard." Adam's argument is iconic of the rebuttals overall, but I'd argue that it is Adam and other respondents to Grin that are "missing the point." This is a straw man argument, especially with regards to Tolkien.

Sure, Beleriand is destroyed at the end of The Silmarillion, and the ending of The Lord of the Rings sees the passing of the Elves from Middle-Earth, the dwindling of the enchantment, a shell-shocked Frodo suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and unable to live comfortably in the Shire he struggled to save. However, what Adam and so many other critics of Leo Grin are missing is that this is not nihilistic, but should instead tug at a sort of pathos in our hearts. The Latin term "lacrimae rervm" or the Japanese term 物の哀れ (mono no aware) describe a kind of pathos, or sadness, for things mortal and temporary. This is not nihilism, it is the bittersweet nostalgia for things gone, and the idea that "you can never go home again." It's about change and how one deals with change. Indeed, when Grin's description of the hypothetical Abercrombiean Middle-Earth is rebutted with descriptions of everything that was lost as a consequence of the War of the Ring, I am tempted to rip my hair out in frustration and scream, "You're missing the point!"

Grin's right when he describes Tolkien's work as heroic. His characters are ostensibly Good. They show selflessness and self-sacrifice for a greater ideal at every turn. Their victory comes at a terrible cost, but it is a victory and more to the point, their victory is not hollow. Yes, the Elves leave Middle-Earth because the rich magic that permeated the world died with the Dark Lord, but without that loss, the victory would have been cheapened. The Elves had their chance, and Feanor's obsession with vengeance put them on a collision course with tragedy. Now it is Men's turn. Yes, it's sad, but it's sadness that has a point.

Similarly, Robert E. Howard's works are not all blood, gore, and violence. Solomon Kane is one of the most compelling of all Howard's characters and one of my personal favorites. The Puritan demon-hunter is driven by his faith in God and his unquenchable desire to right wrongs. He constantly faces horrors that would warp his mind, but he fights off (of all things) a Lovecraftian nihilism by relying on his faith and adherence to Good. Conan may be selfish and ultimately out for "number one" but he has a code of honor and, by-and-large, has little patience for tyrants and those who would slaughter innocents. He is not a morally ambiguous character--his morality is right there, up front. Yeah, he's an unscrupulous character, but that does not make him morally ambiguous. Nor does it make Howard's world nihilistic. Howard saw the barbaric characters of his stories as men walking a thin gray line between darkness and light, order and chaos, civilization and savagery, decadence and nature, and it was their will and their wits that brought them triumph, even against darknesses that were dredged up from the blackest pits of Lovecraftian nightmare. Yes, civilization would eventually be washed in the blood of Turanian, then Pictish, then Cimmerian invasion, and then cataclysm, but Howard didn't like civilization much anyway, and saw strength, honor, and will in the barbarian kingdoms of European yore. That is not nihilism.

I think that this over-adherence to nihilism on the part of so many commentators and bloggers is a desperate attempt to divert the main thrust of Grin's argument. It isn't so much nihilism, per se, but a matter of taste. Some say de gvstibvs non est dispvtandvm, but I'm not so sure.
The other side thinks that their stuff is, at long last, turning the genre into something more original, thoughtful, and ultimately palatable to intelligent, mature audiences. They and their fans are welcome to that opinion. For my part — and I think Tolkien and Howard would have heartily agreed — I think they’ve done little more than become cheap purveyors of civilizational graffiti.
Abercrombie himself responded to Grin's comment:
We’re on sides, now? No one told me about sides. What are the sides? Of what? And on which side am I? I love Tolkien, after all. I’d like to be on his side. Grew up with The Hobbit. Read Lord of the Rings every year. I’m a great admirer of his. Without Tolkien there’d be no fantasy as we know it, and certainly no First Law. When it comes to an epic tale with moral clarity set in a supremely realised fantasy world, he pretty much knocked it out of the park.
Abercrombie sets up another straw man here, and proceeds with it. Leo Grin is right--there are sides. Just because Abercrombie admires Tolkien doesn't mean he's not participating in a movement of literary degradation. If Leo Grin is to be believed, Joe Abercrombie's work utilizes "cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism" to put the tropes of the fantasy genre "back together into a Frankenstein's monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten." His book, The Heroes has been cited as an utterly ironic piece in which the main characters are most certainly not, and partake in the slaughter of innocent civilians (including women and children), rape, and murder. So, in order to avoid just another umpteenth retelling of The Lord of the Rings, modern fantasy requires foul language, scatology, immoral anti-heroes, graphic sex, sickening and upsetting violence, and rape. In other words, it needs to realistically depict the graphic realities of medieval life, warfare, and death because Tolkien didn't do that (although Howard approached it).

As I go through earlier 20th century works of fantasy fiction, I find them chock-full of sex and violence. It's just not graphic. I have to ask why George R.R. Martin finds it necessary to describe, in detail, one character's sexual experience in A Feast of Crows, where Poul Anderson simply ended a chapter of Three Hearts and Three Lions as Holger carries an elf princess off to bed. What was the rationale behind it? Sex is a part of life and shouldn't be avoided in literature, but I don't need a pornographic description of what happens. Similarly, Robert E. Howard's warriors would wade through buckets of blood, but it was always described with a certain panache that is most definitely lacking in a lot of contemporary fantasy. They seemed less like men and more like forces of nature in combat, and the violence of the scene was woven into the tale like thread. This is different from reading about some young maiden trying to hold her intestines inside herself after a mercenary decided to gut her. I'm trying read an adventure tale, not watching a Rob Zombie flick.

Nevertheless, de gvstibvs non est dispvtandvm. There is no disputing taste. Your mileage may vary. However, I have to ask, is the reason so much graphic and cold-bloodedly disturbing sex and violence being included because the authors can't actually write well otherwise? Everybody's known since Shakespeare that sex and violence on gratuitous levels will sell, but that real art is something that isn't readily accessible, and difficult to produce. Shakespeare purposely made Titus Andronicus an over-the-top schlocky gore-fest, either to capitalize on the crude "sex and violence sell" reality or to subvert it and show how hollow and mind-numbingly unartistic buckets of blood truly are. It's just another kind of spectacle, and anyone who actively enjoys reading about innocents being slaughtered in a novel needs to read about the much more recent (and true) Rape of Nanking and see if they still enjoy that sort of stuff. As an historian, I've read my fair share of civilians getting massacred and really don't need to spend dozens of pages dwelling on it in a fantasy novel.

Brian Murphy compares the over-the-top tasteless (in my opinion) graphic horror of Richard Morgan's The Cold Commands with Tolkien's description of how Shelob captures, tortures, and finally drains her victims. Describing Tolkien's passage he had this to say:
That to me is a great piece of writing. It tells you plenty about the cruelty and maliciousness of Sauron and his relationship with the giant she-spider (which he half-hates and half-fears, but tolerates as a valuable guardian into Mordor).

As for the gory details, it allows my mind to fill in the rest. Tolkien goes on to explain that Shelob cares not for wealth or power, but spends all her time brooding on her next feast. "For all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness," he writes. That's about as nasty and explicit as Tolkien gets.
When compared to Richard Morgan's excerpt, Brian went on to say this:
As for that passage, man, it’s brutal. It’s effective, and horrifying, and well-done. But it’s not why I read fantasy. It jerked me back into reality with its clinical descriptions of flensing and tearing blood vessels. Perhaps Morgan intended this scene as a condemnation of torture. It vaguely reminded me of the real-life practice of waterboarding, albeit turned up to 11. I don’t know. I read it and it just felt — too much.
Brian Murphy pretty much sums it up. We're dragged out of a story and thrown into the real world where people are tortured in Gitmo and religious fanatics blow themselves up. Fantasy is many things, but it is most certainly a brand of escapist literature as much as anything else, and to rob the genre of its escapist facet ultimately cheapens it. In the excerpt of Morgan's book that Murphy quotes, we're presented with a torturous execution that is intensely described, with little omitted. We're drawn a picture of agony, blood, viscera, and being eaten alive. It has an impact, but lacks the elegance of the Tolkien passage that Murphy quoted before it. There was no real vibrancy or flair to the description. Just a cold, calculated explanation of how these characters were dying. What ever happened to Hemingway's Iceberg Principle, where what's not said carries more weight than what is said?

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy nihilism in my literature, and graphic sex and violence--to a degree, and so long as there is a point to it all. I adore the works of James Ellroy because he grabs the hardboiled noir that Chandler and Hammett birthed and runs with it to it's logical conclusion. Noir is inherently nihilistic, but it's supposed to be. Ellroy's stuff is grim, gritty, shocking, upsetting, but that's because it is supposed to be. He's epitomized the genre. Reading a tragic and pessimistic novel like The Big Nowhere is an incredibly cathartic experience. It can be depressing, but my overall experience was actually cleansing. Fantasy wasn't designed to be nihilistically cathartic but instead nostalgic, perhaps a postmodern re-enchantment of an otherwise mundane world.

It's hard to feel nostalgic about a bunch of raiders lining women and children up in front of a fortress and burying axes into their heads until the garrison capitulates. That's not cathartic, either. It's simply disturbing and upsetting.

R. Scott Bakker has this to say to Leo Grin:
you might say that Grin thinks this is fantasy’s vocation, to endlessly eulogize, and that writing that strays into the baroque or revisionary are not only morally and imaginatively bankrupt, they are symptomatic of some great disease of the soul that is presently claiming the world and humanity.

Sound familiar? It should if you read fantasy. This particular salad of attitudes and concepts – moral certainty writ on a cosmic scale – is precisely what you find in almost all premodern works of fantastic fiction, everything from Upanishads to the Holy Bible. Consider the hyperbole. Consider the way he structures his oppositions in the above quote: on the one side you have the sacred, the treasured and the cruciform, while on the other side you have, well, shit and piss.

I'm tempted to break out Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, a landmark study in how "religious man" establishes the sacred by delegating it as "special" and "not profane"--that is, not mundane, mortal, or carnal. Indeed, fantasy often tapped into that throughout its growth and development in the early 20th century. The problem with Grin, apparently, is he sees fantasy itself as a sacred touchstone of our culture, and sees it's deconstruction and infusion with the profane to be blasphemous, a mark of Western civilization's self-loathing and willful self-destruction, and inherently political.
Soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths is no different than other artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces. In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field.
Well, Grin, if it is a sacred touchstone, then in this postmodern world where religion has become evil, the sacred has literally become a profane force in the eyes of many, then one must expect this sort of reaction.

The deconstructing and subverting of genre tropes is not always a bad thing. One of my favorite fantasy series is Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, a trilogy which preserves the rich sense of re-enchantment that Michal at One Last Sketch talks about, while simultaneously subverting a number of fantasy's tropes. Loads of characters die, medieval warfare is bloody and horrific, the realities of medieval life are not ideal in the least. And yet that makes the actions of the protagonist all the more heroic. No, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn does not simply churn out the same old tropes, but subverts almost all of them subtly, delicately. Overall, author Tad Williams wrote a fantasy series aimed at adults that doesn't require the graphic sex, violence, or scatology of other authors in order to get its points across.

Now, I have yet to read Joe Abercrombie's work. I'm not a big fan of historical fantasy, mostly because I am a historian and I can't help but nit-pick what's wrong half of the time, and from what I've gathered, that's primarily Abercrombie's oeuvre. Not to say that Abercrombie does a bad job or has inconsistencies--I just prefer not to read historical fantasy. I'm not bashing Abercrombie. But considering how his name has fueled a lot of this divide, I cannot help but ask why? What about his work, specifically, did Grin (and others) find so damn objectionable?

I am , however, insisting that Grin's argument not be dismissed out-of-hand, like Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, the Wertzone, et. al. have. Once you scrape away the political hyperbole from Grin's argument, you can't help but realize that everybody missed the point and ended up shooting the messenger.

Theo at the blog for Black Gate actually made one of the best defenses for Grin's argument I've seen. In his piece, "The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel," Theo argues that Grin is correct, the tragic heroism and mythic tenor of both Tolkien and Howard have given way to an ironic, barren landscape bereft of anything sacred or meaningful. There's nothing worth defending, and that's depressing and disheartening. For me, what I find depressing is the unnecessary gratuity of sex and violence making such literature more "adult" or more "literary." I find it quite depressing, and can't help but compare it to the gritty Dark Age of comic books during the early 1990s, when "adult" and "mature" wound up really being quite immature, adolescent at best, and unnecessarily graphic. Shock was not followed by awe, but by disinterest. (For more on this, see Michal's post on "Adult" Fantasy at One Last Sketch.)

I do not want to read a Tolkien knock-off. I've had enough of Terry Brooks' Shannara. I read fantasy to visit places that I wish were real and enjoy stories of heroism, adventure, and of individuals overcoming immense obstacles. I love books with strange monsters and magic. Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a magnificent subversion of fantasy that tragically flies under everyone's radar as "just another fairy tale," when it should actually be a model for postmodern deconstructive fantasy. Indeed, Williams' work inspired George R.R. Martin to start A Song of Ice and Fire in the first place!

There's plenty of heroism in Martin's books, too. Although he was, unfortunately, lumped into this, I see Martin's books as trying to bridge a gap between the real and the fantastic. Yeah, Martin's got a lot of gratuitous violence, but to his credit, he's not a fan of it himself. He's writing the story he wants, or perhaps needs, to tell. One of the reasons that A Storm of Swords took so long to come out was because he had such a difficult time writing the Red Wedding scene. Events such as that do not make his work nihilistic, and indeed the career of Daenerys Targaryen, if anything, is full of heroism--her character grows to develop a strong sense of justice and good. The use of perspectives makes the various characters much more real and human, and therefore understandable--their own inward struggles can make them heroes or villains in ways that a simple straightforward narrative could not. I honestly do not find Martin's work to be nihilistic in any way. Pessimistic, yes, but nihilistic, no.

There's a long list of great books to which I can point that subvert fantasy tropes and do so tastefully, without resorting to the sort of stuff that Leo Grin decries. I just finished reading Glen Cook's The Black Company, a novel about a mercenary company that works for the bad guys. The book is fraught with pessimism and darkness, but I'd not go so far as to say it was nihilistic. Similarly, I'm rereading Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, and it deals with nihilism while still maintaining a sense of fantastic wonder--the very nihilism itself of Vance's stories is part of the overall enchantment and sense of awe, which is achieved without gratuitously graphic sex, violence, or scatology. In Lord Foul's Bane, Thomas Covenant rapes a woman, but Stephen R. Donaldson doesn't give us a thick paragraph description of all her cries and his thrusts, nor are we ever treated to a phrase like "engorged member." Indeed, the guilt of this deed is something that torments Covenant's conscience for the rest of the series--something that seems to stand in direct opposition to the current "nihilistic" and "morally bereft" trends to which Grin objects.

This is where I respond to Matthew David Surridge's rebuttal to Theo's article (the one that defend's Leo Grin). When Surridge evokes a number of early-to-mid 20th century examples of rape, murder, moral ambiguity, etc., I have to shake my head and reiterate, "you're missing the point!" It's all about the presentation, otherwise, why would Grin have made such a fuss about language, scatology, and graphic description of sex and violence? Yeah, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were cut-throat thieves, ne'er-do-wells, and sex-crazed. However, there were levels to which even they wouldn't sink. The same is true for Conan. When Surridge cites Conan's pursuit of the ice-princess in "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" as having "rape" as his intent, Surridge is being hyperbolic--Conan's intent is revenge because she tried to have him killed for sport and amusement. Again, it's about the description and the presentation of events, and someone seems to be missing the point.

Grin's point, I think, in reality, goes back to what Michal at One Last Sketch said about fantasy being "adult."
However, my problem with these “new takes” on the genre is that they don’t, actually, do anything new. Strip away the swears and the sex and you’re left with works not much different from their predecessors. Yes, there may be moral ambiguity, but Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith also wrote amoral worlds. Sara Douglass has much less depth than Morgan; ignore the strange creature sex and the novels don’t much reflect the lofty themes she urges writers to pursue. We are told to strive for realism in our fantasy, yet I don’t see much inherently realistic in the word “fuck.”

The only thing that makes these books adult is that we, adults, try to bar children from reading them. We often fail. Writing sex doesn’t make your book mature unless you do something with it. I used to sneak my mother’s romance novels when I was ten to skip to the dirty bits: it’s not, in itself, a particularly adult thing to write about, or even talk about. Head into any schoolyard and you’ll hear language that would make even, I warrant, Ms. Douglass blush.

It does, however, give a false sense of legitimacy to a work. Because we don’t want children reading them, we can automatically label such books “adult.” No longer need we piddle around in a sanitized Middle Earth where no orc would dare say “shit” even if he really wants to; we can be depraved as we like.

And there you have it. Strip away all of the sex and violence and I have to ask, do these works really mean anything? If Joe Abercrombie's books were bowdlerized, would their stories lose their impact? If so, why? I know R. Scott Bakker's work would suffer, not because his work is bereft of substance but because he is dealing with deeply psychological and philosophical subjects, attacking our assumptions through a gigantic thought-experiment of a fantasy series, and doing something that the genre honestly really hasn't done before. But can the same be said of Morgan, Douglass, and Abercrombie? Are they trying to be relevant by having their characters swear, smear feces on their swords before battle, and rape twelve-year-old girls while on chevauchée? Does this actually make them adult, sophisticated, literary? Do you need this stuff in order to be more realistic? What purpose does the inclusion of scatology, foul language, graphic violence, sex, and torture actually serve in the novel? Is this really going to prevent a writer from merely mimicking Tolkien?

Or perhaps somebody is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Monastery Megadungeon

A few days ago, A Paladin in Citadel posted a fantastic idea for a megadungeon entrance that really, really got my wheels turning. It's the abandoned monastery. The first thing that came to my mind was Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Mystery, betrayal, and treachery. Religion. Politics. Heresy and witch-hunting. All in one fabulous location.

So, I've decided in my spare time to start working out this megadungeon. But my first question is: where to set it? I can put it in either a fantasy version of Earth, kind of like Ars Magica's Mythic Europe, or create my own setting from scratch. And that's the difficulty.

See, a Mythic Europe setting comes almost ready-made. A little bit of Wikipedia research and I'll be able to come up with a medieval fiefdom, a simple map, and an imaginary monastery (perhaps on an island). The religion is already fleshed out and workable--Catholic Christianity, complete with different monastic orders, and perhaps a knightly order or two. Jewish characters and even Islamic characters are possibilities (depending on location). Wizards would likely be members of the Order of Hermes Trismegistus or perhaps pre-Kabbalistic mystics.

The difficulty would be with the demihuman races. I'd have to handle them carefully in order to really disrupt the feeling of a medieval European setting. By-and-large they'd belong to the Realm of Faerie, a sort of parallel universe that lies alongside or on top of ours. The Dwarves would likely be the most familiar to humans, who would have trucked with them for precious metals, iron, and gems, as well as perhaps even learned smithwork from them. The Gnomes and Halflings could easily be hidden forest peoples that the humans rarely encounter (if ever). But the Elves would be the most difficult to work in, because they could really ruin the tone of the setting entirely. I'd consider making Elves a sort of cross between the Sidhe from White Wolf's Changeling: the Dreaming, the Sithi from Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and the Noldor/Sindar/Silvan elves from Tolkien's works. They're innately magical, and the superstitious human peasantry fears and misunderstands them. I'd probably divide the Faerie races into Seelie and Unseelie branches, with creatures like goblins and bugbears related to the Unseelie branch.

This doesn't really require a lot of mechanical adaptation. Actually, what it would require is roleplaying adaptation--the players and the DM (me) would have to approach the different races from a much different angle than they're accustomed to.

If I were to create my own setting, those things wouldn't matter. However, I'd be obliged to create everything from scratch, including the magical orders, religious institutions, political factions, etc. It wouldn't necessarily clash with any sense of "right" or "wrong" with a setting drawn from real history. However, there are a great many elements that I'd want to draw whole-cloth from our world and plunk them down unchanged in the fantasy setting, such as the Hermetics, Rosicrucians, Church and Papal politics, and other outside elements that can complicate and enliven the campaign outside of the megadungeon.

Regardless, A Paladin in Citadel has given me a lot to think on, and for that, I'm kind of grateful. I've been looking for something to run when I get back to the U.S., and this has really sparked my interest. I have to decide if I want to run this old school (S&W, Labyrinth Lord, BECMI) or something more recent (likely 3.5 with tweaks).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review -- 憂国 (PATRIOTISM) by 三島 由紀夫 (Mishima Yukio)

憂国 (Yuukoku) by 三島 由紀夫 (Mishima Yukio) is a very, very short work that can easily be read in an hour or two. The title translates, roughly, into Patriotism, although the characters have a slightly different implication. The character 憂 (yuu) can mean "concern" or "worry," and 国 (koku) is the character for "country," "land," or "nation." I'm not certain I understand why he chose that particular kanji as opposed to 愛国 (aikoku), in which 愛 means "love" and translates much more directly into the English term "patriotism." But that's part of what makes this story so compelling. Perhaps the title was deliberately chosen for that reason. Indeed, the original title, 憂國, utilized 國, the original, traditional kanji for "country," as opposed to the more recent, simplified 国.

When I put the story down, I sat for a few moments a bit bewildered, because I know a little bit about Mishima's life, and it is apparent that this work is semi-autobiographical in a sort of prophetic sense.

I might as well come out and say it--I don't know if I am really all that qualified to do something quite so gauche as to actually attempt and review something by Mishima. I've read his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, but his work is so dense and so culturally inundated with Japanese meaning that it is somewhat steep for an Occidental reader to grasp. Mishima was a very enigmatic person, difficult to understand and describe. His work is deeply suffused with his idealism and sense of justice--but it is a very different justice than most might be used to. Mishima was convinced that the Emperor of Japan was a divinity, and indeed denounced the Showa Emperor for renouncing his claim after the atomic bombings. The author felt that the Emperor's divinity wasn't personal, but was a sort of focus or expression of the spirit of the Japanese people.

Yuukoku is essentially the final evening a young army lieutenant and newlywed husband spends with his young wife before they both commit suicide. This young officer had recently been promoted and was looking forward to a bright and promising career. However, in the aftermath of the 二・二六事件 (Ni Ni-roku Jiken--"the 2-2-6 Incident") in 1936, this officer, who was not directly involved, was friend to many of the mutineers involved in the coup-d'état. Inheriting command of a unit destined to attack his friends, he instead chooses the way of the samurai--bushido demands loyalty, and death is an expression of that loyalty. Everything is described intensely, with a great focus on detail and intimacy, from their lovemaking to the husband's act of seppuku in graphic but meaningful detail. Some might find it all incredibly boring, but that is because the entire business obviously would have no meaning to them.

Patriotism and duty are tied inextricably with death. The story is much less about those elements, however, as it is about the moments themselves. The husband is a dutiful officer who chooses to commit ritual suicide rather than choose sides in a mutiny, and his wife follows him into death. This is no surprise, it is given away in the very first sentence of the story that they do this. But I'm profoundly interested in what Mishima didn't explain, perhaps because he didn't think it needed to be explained--how death is tied to patriotism is never elucidated. Mishima never even mentions patriotism in the story itself. Nor does he mention duty. Although something may have been lost in the translation, I feel that these things were left out purposely. Mishima isn't concerned with the why of the actions--they apparently don't need to be explained, but simply detailed, much like Hemingway's Iceberg Principle.

Knowing Mishima's own suicide and failed attempt at insurrection, I felt that he had harbored a profound sadness at the state of his country, which he loved. This love is reflected through the love Lieutenant Takeyama feels for the Imperial Army and for Japan itself as well, and the sadness at its perceived decline and his refusal to fight against his own forces. Mishima, writing after the Second World War, never seems to even consider the war or the loss very much in the works I've read, but everything that deals with the pre-war period (such as "Patriotism") appears to view the growth of military power with a somewhat jaundiced eye, and an awareness of loss of purpose.

This story is really about Mishima's desire for a death in service to his country. It is sad, because it is presented as perfection. He presents Lt. Takeyama and Reiko as the perfect husband and wife, and sees their conduct as moral and correct. What we are reading, in effect, is Mishima's own wish for himself--not literally, perhaps, but morally. And, indeed, Mishima would attempt to prove himself, with his own attempted coup in 1970--an even that would culminate in his ritual suicide.

I find that ultimately sad, but Mishima was someone I believe I can understand and comprehend to a small extent. This short story is far more about himself and his own wish for what he believed was perfection, than it is about patriotism alone. It is about a moral certainty and a sublime peacefulness with one's own decision. The lieutenant and his wife never question, they just do. The decision was made, and they lived their last moments as strongly as they possibly could.

憂国 (Yuukoku or "Patriotism") by 三島 由紀夫 (Mishima Yukio)
Style A
Substance A+
Overall A+

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gnosis, Increased Consciousness, Prometheanism, and Depression--A Follow-up to My Review of FRANKENSTEIN

Promethean knowledge is an interesting theme in Romantic literature, it seems, and one of the more profound revelations that it conveys is that the more consciousness one attains, the more despondent and unhappy one inevitably becomes. In his comments on Frankenstein, Harold Bloom invokes Kierkegaard's remark that Satan, being pure spirit and therefore pure consciousness, undiluted by mortal and material constraints and distractions, is perhaps the most depressed individual in existence.

This, strangely, coincides with my fascination with noir literature, especially of the hardboiled kind. The gnosis that the world is a bitter and unhappy place is a constant theme in noir, and revelation and increased awareness are not only vital to the survival of a noir protagionist, but also inevitably lead to moral quandary and misery of the individual. Nevertheless, there is that thirst and desire for gnosis, the obsessive desire to open Pandora's Box and the consequences be damned (though they are more often damning).

Again, I have stumbled across something of which I have long been acutely aware, but have struggled to put into words. Hardboiled noir fiction helped me isolate and describe some of the major characteristics of reality and society. Mary Shelley and my introductions to Romanticism have confirmed to me that knowledge, consciousness, gnosis are all reflections of a Promethean ascendancy, and that increase of esoteric wisdom and awareness will only serve to cause the ascendant pain and suffering.

However, we mustn't forget what Prometheus' name means, nor his ultimate fate. Προμηθεύς--"forethought"--was punished by Zeus for bequeathing the secret of fire upon mankind. This secret gave humans power and understanding, birthing civilization and threatening the ascendancy of the gods. For his crime, he was chained to a rock somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains, where every day an eagle would come and consume his liver from his living flesh, and every night it would grow back. The great irony of this is that Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley's husband, would write the epic romantic poem Prometheus Unbound, in which the gods are overthrown and the titan is released.

The unexamined life is still not worth living. In this, I believe, suffering makes stronger, wiser, but oftentimes more bitter and cynical. One has to wonder that, if one's liver is devoured every day, if gradually one shall discover oneself turning into the very stone to which one is chained. Wisdom and awareness always make one a superior individual, no matter what the cost in self-esteem or emotional happiness. Passionate poets and brilliant thinkers are rarely happy people, but are often disturbed and disturbing. They say the things other people try not to think about. But, ironically, these despondent individuals can find joy in things that engage them. Thus, escapism seems to be a powerful refuge for the intellectual. Yet, that escapism can become all to often a blanket beneath which the intellectual hides, and then he sinks to the level of the proles and even beneath in his refusal to peek out and accept the outside world for what it is. The proles may not accept that the world is bitter and evil in thought, but they certainly do in deed, and that makes all the difference. The intellectual, however, has to ensure that bitterness and cynicism doesn't prompt him/her to cold indifference, because that route leads to evil as well.

Book Review -- FRANKENSTEIN, or A MODERN PROMETHEUS by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley

"These thoughts supported my spirits, while I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes, on the very brink of certainty, I failed; yet still I clung to the hope which the next day or the next hour might realize. One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion."
Thus, the modern Prometheus of the title goes about his work, setting himself upon a path that would lead him to commit one of the greatest sins possible--rejection and loathing for one's own child.

Mary Shelley is the daughter of Mary Wollenstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William Godwin (author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice), and the wife of Percy Bisshe Shelley, the renowned Romantic poet who died at a tragically young age in a shipwreck in the mid-1820s.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after vacationing in Switzerland with her husband and a few other notables, including the Romantic poet Byron, when they all agreed to attempt to write a ghost story. Only Mary Shelley actually managed to scrawl out an entire novel, the rest were better at poetry than prose, apparently.

Frankenstein is a horror novel, but the horror is personal and internal, not external. It is a very tragic tale, in which the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, is a self-absorbed "Prometheus" who is so engaged in the prospect of creating life from the base material parts that he doesn't consider the reality of what he is creating. Daydreams of being worshiped as the creator of a new species are dashed at the awakening of his "monster," which he perceives as hideous and malformed only once the animating spark is endowed. Frankenstein's great sin, however, is not the creation of his monster, but his sudden and irrational rejection of it. Indeed, the monster is not much of one, at the beginning, but becomes one when he learns only cruelty and hate from the humans that surround him.

This is an incredibly misunderstood book, in my opinion. The horror is not actually of the monster, but of the black depths of the human soul--our fear and revulsion of that which we do not understand. H.P. Lovecraft wrote that the oldest and strongest emotion in humans was fear, and the oldest and strongest fear was that of the unknown. This terror in the face of the ugly and unfamiliar can lead to hate and abuse--the sort of treatment that the monster suffers. It learns, at the hands of humankind, to be a murderer and to avenge its wretched existence against its tormentors, and it focuses its hatred on the man most responsible for his miserable state--Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

There isn't much that I can say after having read Harold Bloom's "Afterword" (from the Signet Classics August 2000 printing). In his words, Frankenstein "is an important book, though it is only a strong, flawed novel with frequent clumsiness in its narrative and characterization," but nevertheless "contains one of the most vivid versions we have of the Romantic mythology of the self, one that resembles Blake's Book of Urizen, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, and Byron's Manfred... ."

I've not read those works, but Bloom gives enough of a representation for Prometheus Unbound in his "Afterword" that you can get a gist, and I'm familiar with Blake's interesting mythology and prophetic poetry. Indeed, Mary Shelley's work is rife with references to a great many inspirational works--one of which is Milton's Paradise Lost, which plays a vital role in educating the monster and is perhaps the catalyst that sets him in vengeful antagonism against Frankenstein.

I will leave the analysis to others far more suited than I, and the Signet Classics edition has a decent bibliography for further references. Nevertheless, I'll endeavor to assess the work, though I can only doubt my qualifications to undertake so daunting a task.

First, the story itself is deep, but not entirely eventful. Those expecting a tale full of dreadful screams and horrific acts of brutality might find themselves disappointed. In Aeschyline style (can I say that, or must I say Aschylus-esque?), most of the murders take place "offstage" although the details of one are relayed through flashback.

The horror, however, comes forth through how these murders impact the psyche of Victor Frankenstein. Each one drives him further and further from something human and deeper into a sort of animalistic desperation. In this, as the analysts often note, the dichotomy of Frankenstein and his monster crystallizes, and the two are revealed to simply be reflections of one-another. Thus, the horror is created in the mind of Frankenstein himself, as well as the monster, who had suffered at the hands of humanity indescribably during his brief period of innocence.

Second, the prose itself feels a bit forced at times. It is revealed in the Forward that Percy Shelley edited much of the novel, and is responsible for some of its unnecessary verbosity. Although at times, the prose can be exquisite, at other times, it can be wantonly purple. I felt the hand of Percy throughout the novel strongly, simply because there were times when the dialogue and the description of things were stretched. Brevity was ignored in some places, and the forward even pointed out a number of instances where a plain, quick, and simple sentence was made needlessly complex by Percy for the sake of satisfying his poetic taste. While this might work in meter, I don't think it works quite well in prose, which may be one of the reasons many poets don't seem to make good prose writers and vice versa.
At these moments I wept bitterly and wished that peace would revisit my mind only that I might afford them consolation and happiness. But that could not be. Remorse extinguished every hope. I had been the author of unalterable evils, and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness. I had an obscure feeling that all was not over and that he would still commit some signal crime, which by its enormity should almost efface the recollection of the past. There was always scope for fear so long as anything I loved remained behind. My abhorrence of this fiend cannot be conceived. When I thought of him I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed. When I reflected on his crimes and malice, my hatred and revenge burst all bounds of moderation. I would have made a pilgrimage to the highest peak of the Andes, could I when there have precipitated him to their base.
It's beautiful, it's descriptive, it's poetic, but it slows down the narrative to a snail's crawl at times. I won't say much about it, though, because at least the Shelleys are doing something with the language rather than simply rattling on about the temperatures of tea or going on and on about a certain woman's rich appearance like someone we know. This is, therefore, an extremely minor nitpick, but the Shelleys engage in this sort of poetic rabbit-trail so often it does become tiresome at times.

Nevertheless, aside from that complaint, I must admit the novel, though around 180 pages, seemed awfully short. I read it on the subway over a period of two weeks, while reading other books. This adds up to probably about six or at worst seven hours spent on the novel alone, not including the forward and afterword. Perhaps it is because I had become so accustomed to reading long, meandering history books or epic fantasy novels spanning 400+ pages (at minimum) that Mary Shelley's novel seemed to simply fly past (with small print, in fact!).

Though it feels like the novel has few events within it's brief 26 chapters, it is, nevertheless, quite the page-turner. Though at times the verbosity of the prose caused my mind to drift a few times and I found myself having to re-read whole pages, I still found myself pulled through the book by the plot. Though most of the characters are a bit too archetypal to seem anything more than the two-dimensional models they are, I found the monster and Victor Frankenstein to be quite interesting. His love and hate seem almost arbitrary depending on what he wants at any given time, whereas the monster's desires seem somewhat stable and unchanging. This makes them more interesting than the stock-characters that populate the rest of the novel with their overly predictable behavior. It is difficult to sympathize with Victor Frankenstein, for from the very moment his creation breathes life, he casts the eight-foot-tall infant from him, and the two years that it wanders and sojourns in squalor teaches it to be as cruel as the humans into which it had blundered. The monster should invoke our pity, as should his victims. Nevertheless, I still felt for Victor Frankenstein's losses at the hands of his monster, partially because of the imbalance--Frankenstein gave life and little else, but the monster took away from Frankenstein that which he himself had wanted.

The impact of the book is incredible, and has spawned a great many adaptations, some of which are more faithful than others. There is, of course, the classic 1931 James Wale film starring Boris Karloff as the monster (often mistakenly named for the doctor) and Colin Clive as Henry (note the name change) Frankenstein. The film has become the most iconic representation of the story, recognizable to everyone, and reflects the technological advances of the century between the novel's publication and the movie release by adding an electrical element in the re-animation of the dead matter. As a pop culture touchstone, it's weight is everywhere, and Colin Clive's ecstatic cries of "It's alive, it's alive!" express heartfelt jubilation to present a perfect counterpoint to the terror that will be unleashed.

The irony is that the film did irreparable damage to people's understanding of the book. The focus went from Victor Frankenstein's heartless rejection of the monster and the fruits of his own cruelty to Henry Frankenstein's desire to "play God" and the repercussions of his hubris. The most humorous treatment to come out of the pop culture cauldron is probably Mel Brooks' The Young Frankenstein (ahem, FrankenSTIEN), where the doctor and the monster forge a loving bond with one-another, reversing the tragedy of the novel for comedic purpose.

All-in-all, the book is far more important for the ideas it conveys than for the style in which it was written, or the complexity of the plot itself. The ideas are incredibly powerful, and lace the narrative with a great deal of meaning that goes far beyond the simple passage of events. Mary Shelley's invocation of such works as Paradise Lost and the monster's "education" should make the importance of the ideas themselves abundantly clear to the reader. Therefore, this book has earned quite high marks. It shouldn't just serve as a cautionary tale to scientists, but also as a source of moral challenge to the reader, who will find the both Frankenstein and his monster simultaneously abhorrent and pitiable.

Frankenstein, or A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley
Style A-
Substance A
Overall A-

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Short-Lived Conan Campaign

Back in graduate school, I had barely enough time to run a very short-lived Hyborian campaign, using the D20 Conan the Roleplaying Game rules from Mongoose Publishing. Conan is not the kind of setting that an OD&D game would really fit well with, I'd think. Why? Well, simply because OD&D seems more at home with a mega-dungeon. Reading through James' Dwimmermount posts at Grognardia, Justin A.'s reactions to OD&D at The Alexandrian, and reading through the White Box rules myself, I've come to the conclusion that OD&D is more at home in the mega-dungeon than anyplace else.

Yeah, Robert E. Howard is a huge influence on OD&D, and the pulpy stories that he and others (like Fritz Leiber) wrote, with scoundrels and ne'er-do-wells adventuring for quickly-spent fortunes being at the heart of the game's flavor--but that flavor is also very much effected by the mega-dungeon, something that Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber do NOT dwell on. Dungeon settings pop up in their stories, but never one huge, oft-revisited, re-delved, evolving labyrinth.

A Hyborian adventure lends itself to two types of games, in my opinion--the city game or the wilderness game--exact opposites of what the mega-dungeon game involves. In the mega-dungeon game, the sandbox approach works incredibly well. The players and DM together, through play, create the world. There are maybe one or two bases of operation, and one big, bad dungeon that is repeatedly delved, deeper and deeper each time. But the city and wilderness games require a more definite approach.

I ran my game in Shadizar, capital of Zamora and City of Wickedness. The city game needs a pretty detailed setting, so I went to mine ideas from the Shadizar--City of Wickedness boxed set by Vincent Darlage. Yeah, I don't recommend it. The original map for the book was a joke, and the setting details were completely culled from pastiche sources, like the cheesy Conan books by Robert Jordan and the comic books. Now, I'm not knocking the pastiche, but it's not Howard, and honestly, if it's not going to be Howard, it may as well be cooked up in Darlage's own head. All of the locations were all taken from the pastiche books, all the gods from the comics, and none of it was Darlage's. There was a single adventure in there, entitled "Dark Dens of Iniquity." At its core, there could be a decent adventure. You have some interesting characters with neat motivations, but the adventure itself is basically the PCs being railroaded from one encounter to the next with really very little coherent plot development--as a railroad adventure "Dark Dens of Iniquity" even failed! But there were some really good feats (like "Eyes of the Magpie") and a few decent prestige classes in the books to make it worthwhile, plus a few tables on slaves, kidnapping, and prostitution that could be useful. And Mongoose had the good graces to produce a better map of the city for download on their website.

So, I decided to bust out my trusty pen and pencil and completely rework the adventure and city from the ground up. I spent money on the boxed set, and thankfully, a second map was released online for me to download and use. I mined some other sources for ideas, namely the Scarred Land's Shelzar--City of Sins (the similarity in names is NOT a coincidence), Planescape's In the Cage--A Guide to Sigil (for general weirdness), Dark Sun's The City-State of Tyr (for the harshness of setting), and the Forgotten Realms' City of Splendors boxed set (the 2nd edition masterpiece, not that 3rd edition abortion of a crunch catalog). I went through some of Robert Jordan's pastiche books for some locations and characters that Darlage didn't include. And I wrote up pages of notes on the pantheon, factions, politics, people, and locations throughout the city--notes that I can still pick up anytime I want to try and run a Shadizar game again (and I fully intend to do so when I return to the States from Korea). I had neighborhoods mapped, a few inns, merchants' homes, noble houses, and caravanserais.

My kind of sandbox is a bit different from many of the grognards' sandboxes--the sand isn't the world, but the actions and deeds of the players. The shovels, molds, and other tools/toys for shaping the sand are the rules-set and the setting design. The more thorough, the more it gives the players to work with.

Despite how short-lived it was, it was pretty successful with the two who played it, Jason and Kyle. It lasted about four sessions and went halfway through a story-arc. Given the characters in Vincent Darlage's "Dark Dens of Iniquity" I managed to create a pretty compelling adventure that would make a decent pulp novella had it run its course.

My GMing philosophy ran like this:

1. Don't prep plots, prep situations. Now, I didn't actually put it like that at the time--I instead said "don't railroad, make it free-form." Justin Alexander said, "Don't prep plots, prep situations" first, and he honestly says it better than I can.

2. Prepping the situation required characters and motivations. I took the characters Darlage provided me, adjusted names, occupations, and personalities to fit what I wanted better.

3. Take Raymond Chandler's advice: Whenever things start to slow down, have someone kick in the door with a gun. Robert E. Howard wasn't the only pulp writer out there, and he wrote a lot more than just Conan stories. Mine them for ideas and principles. Run your game like its a pulp story. Therefore, if the characters are stumped, stuck, or not sure what to do next, throw them something to make them start moving again. I had a gang of thieves and cutthroats who's leader wanted the PCs dead (they humiliated him almost immediately) and owed the badguys money for just this purpose. He and his gang were just the sort of characters the players loved to hate.

4. Use a MacGuffin. And what better MacGuffin than the Heart of the Elephant! At first, they didn't even know what it was, but when they finally realized what they had stolen, they were terrified. No wonder the King and this crazy evil sorceress are after us! They have no idea how to use such a powerful magical item (which limits their ability to break the game), but there's the possibility that, over time, they could unlock its secrets. But its a dangerous artifact, and a lot of people are going to be after them to get it! MacGuffins can get overused, yeah, but they're a staple of hardboiled stories and pulp ever since The Maltese Falcon.

5. "The only way out is to go deeper." Halfway through session 3, when Kyle's character turned to Jason's and said, "This is too big for us. How do we get out of this mess," Jason's responded with this line. (And he was very happy that he actually had an opportunity to say something like this in a game.) This sums up a lot of hardboiled pulp stories. Granted, they're different from sword-&-sorcery tales, but a lot of themes, pacing, and action are the same, so there's no reason not to mine the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane for storytelling techniques. Create a conspiracy or two, devise factions, and throw the PCs in the middle of the whole mess.

6. They're writing the story, not you. You just set the pins up. Let them knock them down (or get knocked down by the pins themselves). Let your world react to the PCs. They're the ones the story's about. If they do nothing, the world moves on. If they act, react in a logical manner. Throw them challenges, see if they have the wits to survive. Remember, Conan wasn't stupid, and he lived by his wits just as much as he did by his sword.

The end result was a lot of fun. The game didn't end due to lack of enthusiasm, but because work on my MA thesis was ramping up big-time and Jason and Kyle were writing papers and preparing for exams themselves. After my MA thesis was done, I graduated and came to Korea, so we never did manage to pick the game back up. There are a number of story-arcs I'd wanted to explore--one or two were spawned simply by decisions the PCs made during their game (such as the debt to the mysterious information broker). But when I return from Korea, I definitely want to resurrect the game and see what I can do with the twisted webs, dark conspiracies, weird sorcery, and deadly secrets that await in Shadizar, the City of Wickedness.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Book Review -- THE SIGN OF THE LABRYS by Margaret St. Clair

I saw this review over at the Alexandrian for Margaret St. Clair's The Sign of the Labrys. What is noteworthy about this novel is that it is one of two by the author listed in Gary Gygax's Appendix N, a list of works that inspired the Dungeons & Dragons game. James Maliszewski over at Grognardia posted a review of her other novel, The Shadow People.

Interest piqued, I ordered Sign of the Labrys used over amazon, had it mailed with my seasonal care package from home to Korea, and put it on the shelf. It took me two days to read it (and the only reason it took so long is because I am so busy). The book barely makes it to its 139th page, which is actually quite short, even as may mid-20th-century pulps seem to go.

The first thing I would like to point out about this book is the back cover blurb:

It claims that this work is "ORIGINAL!BRILLIANT!!DAZZLING!!!...FRESH!IMAGINATIVE!!INVENTIVE!!!" Aside from my amusement at the multiplying exclamation points, I have to say that, while Margaret St. Clair's The Sign of the Labrys was entertaining, I can't say that there is any great deal of originality or all of that.

The story starts out with a pretty compelling setting--it is a post-apocalyptic future brought about by plague in which 1 out of every 10 people survived. Society breaks down, but there are vast stores of food that prevent starvation, so people don't really need to work. A main feature of the setting is a vast underground refuge complex, built in case of nuclear holocaust. Much of the population has become very agoraphobic, and they live spread out from one-another both in the emptied cities and in these large underground labyrinths.

The setting is actually the most interesting aspect of the book. St. Clair combines the post-apocalyptic settings of nuclear holocaust literature with fantasy and gives the collapse of society a totally non-nuclear cause. In addition, St. Clair's humanity learns to survive not by being murderous or barbaric, but completely isolationist. Essentially, most of the characters are hermits that fear other people (mostly because of contagion).

The primary reason to read this book, honestly, is to see where Gygax (and perhaps his players) came up with some of the ideas for Dungeons & Dragons. In this case, perhaps, utility spell use during dungeon exploration and problem-solving techniques. The main characters almost never confront their opponents in hand-to-hand combat, but instead utilize trickery, stealth, and strategy to defeat their antagonists. This reminds me of a story I read on the forums:
I played a Magic User in Greyhawk .. THE Greyhawk... for a while. Up to 6th or 7th level when I retired him because I was tired of him and went back to my 8th level fighter.

My favorite adventure was as a 1st level MU. I had heard about an entrance to the 3rd level of Greyhawk and went down. Alone. With 3 HP and a Charm Person spell. Just me. A 1st level MU. In Greyhawk Castle. With Gary Gygax reffing.

I hit 2nd level at the end of the night with enough XP to be one shy of 3rd. I ran, I snuck, I threw lanterns (fire, oil, and a handle in one convenient package!), I ran, and I ran some more. It was still one of the best single evenings of gaming I've ever had.
Attitudes aside, this is what struck me about the characters in The Sign of the Labrys. It was as if they were wandering through Castle Greyhawk with only their wits, a single charm person spell, and a couple of lanterns to throw. The labyrinth in the novel is, in many ways, an archetypal megadungeon. It is laced with secret doors, special rooms, various servitors and defenders, and all sorts of interesting tricks and mechanisms. It is huge and fathomless and full of mysteries.

Unfortunately, the labyrinth is the most interesting part of the entire book. Once you are past the novelty of reading a book that perhaps inspired some of the gameplay and dungeon design of Gary Gygax and his original Castle Greyhawk crew, the book loses a great deal of its charm. Its strengths are in the speed and handling of its pacing and the brevity of its descriptions. However, those strengths quickly become weaknesses as the novel progresses and St. Clair fails to successfully develop the characters or any setting elements beyond the labyrinth itself.

The prose style is rather flat. The book reads a great deal like a lot of mid-20th century science fiction, especially Asimov. The characters are disappointingly flat, and they seem to be somewhat detached from reality. It is almost as if they are simply vehicles to advance the story along.
I turned toward the noise. She wasn't there.

I hadn't heard her go toward the door. I hadn't felt it open. I said, "Where are you?"

"Right here." Her voice was perfectly clear, and it came from the same spot where she had been standing when she had had me turn my eyes away.

"But--I don't see you."

"Look closely."

"I--there's a sort of blur there. But I don't see you, Kyra. You're not there at all."

"That's fine. I haven't done this much recently." Suddenly she was visible, standing just where the blur had been.
This passage is pretty typical for St. Clair. Something happens, but it is described in the bleakest, briefest manner possible. The two characters are completely static. They don't move. Sam (the protagonist) doesn't reach or attempt to touch the blur. Indeed, the blur isn't even described beyond just being called "a blur." The dialogue doesn't feel natural, and is pretty emotionless and almost clinical.

The way St. Clair handles major revelations, romance, and plot points is ineffectually. Below is an example where all three are combined and it is pretty disappointing to read. Be aware, there are spoilers here.
I rolled toward her and took her in my arms. "Kyra," I said, "let me go back with you when you go. Let me stay on F with you. If you have to stay there, I'll stay. We're close to each other already, darling. Already we're half in love. We could be happy together, even on F. It's an unpleasant place, but we'd be lovers, dear."

She had not resisted my embrace, but she had not yielded to it. "No," she said softly. "I'm sorry, Sam."

I did not let her go. "Why not?" I said. "Don't you feel close to me, too?"

"Oh, yes. But there's a reason why we can't be lovers, Sam."

"What is it? Some sort of prohibition, like the one that makes you stay on F?"

"No, not that. . . . I'll have to tell you. I'm your sister, Sam."

I let her go and she rolled out of my arms. I half sat up, leaning on one elbow, and looked down at her. She looked up at me unwinkingly.

"My sister? Are you sure? How long have you known?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I've known since you first told me your name."

I sat up on the edge of the bunk, my head between my hands. Her tone had brought conviction to me. There would be explanations; she would tell me how this extraordinary thing could be possible.

I did not doubt she had told me the truth. But now my future opened blankly ahead of me.
Casanova Sam is not and he is either gullible as hell or strange things are afoot (as it happens, strange things have been for some time in the novel). Nevertheless, this pivot-point is handled extremely poorly. The dialogue doesn't flow naturally at all. This segment is a great example of how characters end up "just knowing" things without explanation. And St. Clair's coining of terms is lackluster at best. "Unwinkingly?"

Overall, the novel comes off as a kind of cheap, lackluster New Age morality tale. The feminine is accentuated, but in a clumsy, haphazard manner. The main characters are all "witches," although they don't always know it at first. As the story progresses, through experimentation and training, they "discover" their abilities, but the dreary banality of day-to-day existence would normally have prevented them from ever noticing that they were different from anyone else. This whole "I'm special" business is coupled with repeated references to the moon, bronze-age Cretan imagery (such as the labrys--the double-headed axe--and the existence of the labyrinth itself), and dualism (male-female, science-magic, etc.) The "witches" are extremely intuitive and often just "know" things even though they don't know how, weakening the plot, destroying tension and just making the whole thing feel uninspired and lazy.

While some of this might sound interesting, it is executed rapidly and with very little explanation. It comes off as haphazard. When characters just seem to "know" things, it feels as though it is because the author simply needed them to in order to move the plot forward. The dialogue is rather stilted, and the characters personalities are all very flat and uninteresting. The emotional ties between them seem tenuous and ill-developed. The female protagonist-cum-potential-love-interest is thoroughly uninspiring. Everyone comes off as wooden and predictable, like cardboard cutouts instead of actual people--they are simply what St. Clair needs them to be in order to tell her little morality tale. A great deal is left unexplained, partially because the characters constantly end up just "knowing" things. One example is the eponymous labrys sign that is found scratched into walls once or twice through the novel. What the heck does it mean? Who put it there? It inspires the protagonist at two points to take interesting actions, but beyond that, it serves no purpose and is never explained. For some, this might not be noticeable, but for me, especially since it is the title of the book, it becomes a debilitating plot hole. St. Clair never develops it, never explains it. She just drops it in twice and then forgets about it.

All together, it's not a terrible book. It's definitely worth a read, especially if you've nothing going on for a few hours and are interested in seeing where some of Gygax & Co.'s ideas originated. Personally, I found Jack Vance and Fritz Lieber to be far more interesting.

The Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair
Substance C-
Overall C-