Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fantasy: 1990 - 2000. The Age of the Doorstops and Gimmicks

Two days ago, I read and responded to Tom Simon's review of several 1977 fantasy publications that established many of the traits that would, in his opinion, damage much of the fantasy to emerge in the next thirty-five years. Yesterday, I determined to trace major developments in mainstream epic fantasy through the 1980s in this previous post.

I will probably make a lot of references to those posts, so it would be helpful to read them before continuing through this installment of my essay. The main question I am asking is simply this:

Is Tom Simon correct that mainstream epic fantasy has been so locked into a ditch where all of these huge flaws are part-and-parcel of much of fantasy, especially its strongest-selling sagas? Have incoherent philosophical moralizing, uninspired attachment to a Tolkienesque formula, and an editorial/audience reluctance to pursue non-Tolkienesque fantasy truly harmed mainstream epic fantasy over the longe durée?

Yesterday, I determined that, yes, mainstream epic fantasy was very much damaged by these developments--especially the attachment to trope and formula. David Eddings played an enormous role in codifying and formulating these fantasy elements, far beyond the impact of Terry Brooks. Despite Eddings' awareness and inspiration of pre-Tolkien mythological and romantic cycles (many of which were the same as Tolkien's sources), his work lacked the poetry, thematic strength, and musing upon the human condition that Tolkien had done. Indeed, Eddings' work reduced mainstream epic fantasy to a tight, strict formula. A prolific writer, Eddings would dominate 1980s fantasy, publishing nearly one (sometimes two) novels a year.

In tandem with the formalization of epic fantasy came what Tom Simon calls "Procrustes the Publisher." As paperback prices began to rise, publishers began to demand more page-counts to justify price-hikes. However, page-counts do not necessarily equal quality and word-bloat became a necessary evil in the production of mainstream fantasy.

Then in 1988, Tad Williams published The Dragonbone Chair. On the surface, it looked like a knockoff of David Eddings, and a continuation of the formalization of epic fantasy. It would not become apparent until much later in the 1990s that mainstream fantasy would be divided into several camps. Old novels, once overlooked, would regain new life. Other authors would continue to slog in their worlds long after their original spark of inspiration had died.

Let's turn, now, to 1990, yet another watershed year in fantasy fiction much like 1982 and 1984 were.

In this year numerous epic fantasy publications were to have a major impact on the growth of fantasy, some much greater than others. First, and perhaps most importantly, Robert Jordan released The Eye of the World through Tor Books. Terry Brooks broke ground with The Scions of Shannara. Tad Williams continued his epic saga with The Stone of Farewell. TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, released R.A. Salvatore's Homeland. And Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman kicked off a seven-novel cycle with Dragon Wing.

Tad Williams
Williams really deserves an entire post to himself, which I intend to get to sometime this month (or next). Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is literature of the highest quality and I owe it to his series that I give it a much more thorough treatment than I can give it here. For the sake of argument, I'll sum up my reasons why Williams is one of the greatest fantasy writers of the 1990s:
  • Incredible use of thematic symbolism. The eponymous swords are not simply McGuffins, but their names should clue the reader in--they've incredible thematic and symbolic value that any English professor would be daft to miss.
  • The employment of trope elements drawn from chivalric romance (especially Arthurian romance) and their elegant, artistic, and poignant subversion that, nevertheless, preserves the sense of epicness and romanticism.
  • The villains, especially the Storm King, have deep, personal, and believable motivation beyond simply "covering all the lands in darkness."
  • The ending. For some it may be a letdown but it makes sense and is, indeed, the best ending possible--given the motivations of the villains and the reasons behind their actions, the protagonist's decisions at the climax of the series have far, far more literary and thematic weight than anything since Gollum fell into the Cracks of Doom.
Robert Jordan
I've waxed wroth regarding Robert Jordan's novels elsewhere. Quite wroth, in fact. In my opinion, Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time was one of the worst things to happen to fantasy literature in the twentieth century. Jordan took the Tolkienesque/Eddings formula fantasy, padded it out to a thousand pages a volume, combined it with aspects of Eastern philosophy (admittedly much more coherent than Hancock's Circle of Light, but still erratic and somewhat inconsistent) as a religious/philosophical/supernatural gimmick, and initiated a saga that he would continue to milk ad infinitum, so much so that he would not even survive long enough to complete what has come to be a 15-volume whopper that meanders through character-relationships, political intrigue, laughably caricatured villains and their oh-so villainous plots, and a sequence of unsatisfying, anti-climactic endings.

And yet, people love Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. Why? Well, a New York Times article in 1996 explains that "Robert Jordan has come to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal." I'm tempted to ask "what world, exactly, would that be?" and also "how, exactly, does he dominate it?" My answers are not good. The world he dominates is that of the mainstream fantasy fan that longs for Tolkien ad nauseum and he dominates it through excessive description, soap opera character interactions, cliffhangers, and a paint-by-numbers adherence to The Formula (at least in the initial novels). When he finally starts to emerge from the repetitive fantasy formula Eddings codified, his books are so full of character and plot issues and so bloated as to be unsalvageable.

Terry Brooks
After the train-wreck that was The Wishsong of Shannara in 1985, Brooks took a hiatus from the Shannara world. Five years later, Del Rey published his first volume in his Heritage of Shannara series. At first glance, the new series would be, much like The Wishsong, a repeat of The Sword of Shannara, making it a copy of a copy of Tolkien yet again.

However, Brooks actually dodges that bullet, especially in The Druid of Shannara (1991) and The Elfqueen of Shannara (1992), before tying everything up in 1993's The Talismans of Shannara. Although not the soulless brick that were The Sword and The Wishsong, Brooks' new tetralogy didn't really break new ground and still suffered from the characterization issues that plagued the earlier novels. By this point, the Shannara setting had its own set of cliches and formulae to which Brooks would slavishly adhere. Nevertheless, The Heritage of Shannara seemed to be a step in the right direction and an excellent place to retire the setting.

If only Brooks had.

R.A. Salvatore
Salvatore's first publications by TSR, The Icewind Dale Trilogy (1988-1990) were predictable knock-offs plagued by more formulaic plotting, poor characterization, crippling reliance on D&D setting mechanics, uninspired villains with shallow motivation, and worst-of-all, a laughably feeble attempt at heroic prose. The term "hack" comes to mind.

A few months after thankfully closing The Icewind Dale Trilogy with The Halfling's Gem, TSR released Salvatore's Homeland--the first chapter in The Dark Elf Trilogy. Although not an incredible work of literature, the novel was highly unique in that its protagonist was a Dark Elf who was wracked by a morality that ran contrary to that of his subterranean society and culture, leading to his exile and search for acceptance on the surface. Its ruminations on racism, matriarchy, morality/ethics, isolation, and solitude weren't especially deep but it remains perhaps Salvatore's best series to date and a fan-favorite. It's certainly stronger, better-written, and of more substance than anything that came after.

Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
The Deathgate Cycle is, perhaps, the best thing that ever came off of Weis' & Hickman's typewriters. The nature of magic and the sundering of the world into a number of different elemental realms reachable only through magic gates were excellent gimmicks and highly imaginative. Combined with these ideas, Weis & Hickman wove a striking tale of trust and betrayal, racism, stereotyping, unforeseen consequences, and mistrust. The solitary protagonist would, through the course of his journey, find all of his prejudices and beliefs challenged, as would some of his racial opponents. The philosophical underpinnings of magic actually make a lot of sense and speak more to quantum physics than to esoteric spirituality. In addition, names of characters and places carry symbolic meaning and Weis & Hickman use language to reinforce these symbols. Seven novels in all, The Deathgate Cycle is an incredibly original, bold, and challenging piece of fantasy literature. Unfortunately, as I mentioned previously, Weis & Hickman seem relegated to the D&D ghetto and thus seem to be often avoided by much of the mainstream fantasy audience. Regardless, The Deathgate Cycle not only dodges many of the bullets Simon laments in his five-part review of 1977's fantasy breakouts, it goes above-and-beyond by featuring real dramatic tension and dilemma within the psyches of the characters and reaches for more substantive thematic and literary levels than many of the other fantasy novels of the time.

New writers began to emerge in a flood during this period and mainstream fantasy sales began to soar as more authors achieved publication. However, perhaps Sturgeon's Law was in full effect during this period. Tad Williams finally completed his trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn during this period. Terry Brooks published a prequel to The Sword of Shannara that completely undid all of the progress he had achieved with his Heritage series, and it became apparent that he intended to pound his world to death with sequels and tie-ins that sought to unite the current modern world with his decaying fantasy edifice. Raymond E. Feist would start publication on The Serpentwar Saga, which lacked the vigor, depth, and heroism of The Riftwar Saga but made up for it with a depressingly heady dose of directionless nihilism, marking a distinct shift in the tone and substance of his work. David Eddings would (with acknowledgements to his wife, Leigh) publish a sequel to his Belgariad and produce a series of novels that would follow-up on The Elenium with just as much adherence to the formulae that made him a paint-by-numbers success in the first place. Robert Jordan's projections for The Wheel of Time would expand from a trilogy to a sexology but by 1996's A Crown of Swords (volume seven) it would become apparent that the end was nowhere in sight.

A few new authors emerged onto the scene and a few more returned with new projects. Mickey Zucker Reichert fanned her fascination with Norse mythology in The Renshai Trilogy. C.S. Friedman debuted in fantasy with the science-fiction-infused Coldfire Trilogy. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. also fused fantasy with science-fiction in his Saga of Recluse. Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule would set Ayn Rand's objectivism in a fantasy setting.

Mickey Zucker Reichert
1991's Last of the Renshai, while not a bad novel, per se, was rather uninspired and didn't justify its thickness. Though subsequent novels in the trilogy would shift focus onto the character of Colbey Calistinsson, it was not the most imaginative fusion of high fantasy with Norse myth. Colbey is a male Mary Sue character who cannot be defeated and is capable of mastering any challenge that opposes him. The real dramatic tension is generated by the tightrope Colbey must walk, as his strict moral and ethical code is unwavering and might even lead him to inadvertently cause Ragnarok. An interesting read, Reichert's novels nevertheless fail to deliver much more than a bunch of stories about a slightly morally conflicted character who is essentially unbeatable. What would strengthen her work would have been a more mythic narrative style, akin to Tolkien's prose. Perhaps it is better that she writes in a modern voice instead of falling into the same trap as R.A. Salvatore and his trusty thesaurus.

C.S. Friedman
Friedman's background as a science-fiction writer gives her a way with gimmicks and informs her approach to the fantasy genre. What if humans landed on a planet that responded to their subconscious, making their fears real? What if this could manifest itself as magic and be controlled? What sort of institutions, programs, and individual actions could be taken to create stability and order on such a world? What kind of impact would this have on the native ecosystem of such a world and upon the planet itself?

Tackling these questions sets Friedman head-and-shoulders above other, more popular fantasy writers. Far more heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov than by J.R.R. Tolkien, Friedman ignored many of the formulaic fantasy conventions that had become canonized by the late 1980s. Thus, her work remained fresh, innovative, and unsurprisingly overlooked by all but a few. Incorporation of a believable antihero who chose evil for the good of the world introduces moral quandary and rumination on the human condition beyond simply examining how societies and institutions would be shaped in the presence of a magical that seemed to resist the rational.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Similar to Friedman, Modesitt was heavily influenced by science-fiction and enamored of many philosophical questions regarding how societies and individuals deal with worlds where chaos and order are in constant combat with one another. Ethical questions, ecology, time travel, immortality, music, war, the physical and mental price of power, and other themes make frequent appearances throughout his Saga of Recluse. A prolific writer, Modesitt would hammer out nearly a book a year (sometimes two) set in this saga. However, he would also succumb to the same self-codification and self-imposed formalism that Brooks and Eddings would. Many of his books would feature the rags-to-riches/poverty-to-power model, weakening his later narratives despite his unique thought-experimentation on a wide variety of literary themes. Narrative weaknesses do plague The Saga of Recluse--the series itself jumps back-and-forth in time, making an exact chronology difficult to follow and the novels themselves often shift perspective.

Terry Goodkind
Robert Jordan's strongest competitor for the Doorstop Award, Goodkind's first novel, Wizard's First Rule, is objectivism in a fantasy setting with a strict adherence to Eddings' "visit every place on the map" structural formula. Yet again, like Jordan, Goodkind is compared with J.R.R. Tolkien's. Marion Zimmer Bradley commented on the back cover, "I really think it's going to sweep the country as Tolkien's work did in the sixties."

Similar to Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind cannot even begin to pretend to being a good writer. His prose is dull and uninspired, his narrative employs nearly every single cliche in the most soulless manner, he recycles his plots and conflicts in every single subsequent novel with only minor variations, and he spoonfeeds the reader with his Randian Objectivism with no real room for alternate perspectives or philosophies. Goodkind's fetishization of rape and other forms of sexual torture go from shocking to boring and repetitive. The characters are flat and never really advance or grow. Essentially, Goodkind is the fantasy version of Ayn Rand: his entire fantasy series is the soapbox from which he preaches his own ethical system.

With the emergence of Jordan and Goodkind as dominant doorstop producers in the fantasy genre and the advent of their fanatic fanbase, it might indeed seem that fantasy is mired in an overly derivative period in which incoherent philosophical themes are jammed into narratives that often serve only as pulpits for the authors' moralizing. Very rarely did the novels really speak to the human condition. Authors began to delve into endless repetition of their own works, creating infinitely self-referential cycles instead of branching off and breaking new ground. There is no real thematic resonance in any of the prose--Tolkien and his sources might be imitated to varying degrees of substantial value but their voice is either ignored or imitated so poorly as to be excruciating.

However, during the latter half of the 90s, more authors began to emerge, many of whom displayed a more nihilistic bent. The reliance of gimmicks began to increase. For example, Dave Wolverton (writing under the pseudonym of David Farland) would write his Runelords series centered on an equally unique gimmick--the use of branded runes to "donate" traits to certain lords and warriors to make them superhuman. The donors would lose their ability to use that trait. For example, by donating your strength, you become bedridden; intelligence, an idiot; sight, blind; hearing, deaf. Mostly the donors were volunteers and their families were treated well. Nevertheless, it does grate upon our modern sensitivities to see people enslaved in such a bizarre manner and viscerally robbed of their own natural abilities for the glorification and enhancement of one person.

During the latter half of the 90s, though, two authors would release stupendous works that would shake up the fantasy scene beyond recognition.

George R.R. Martin
The other "man with two R's" would largely abandon the mythopoeic style of Tolkien, along with many of its trappings, retaining only a few tropes and drawing far greater inspiration from history. A Game of Thrones is not a happy tale. And the series it inaugurated doesn't become more lighthearted. Martin's story is one of politics and consequences--especially unforeseen consequences. Martin's characters are deep, believable, often not very likeable, but very human and his work is very much a meditation on aspects of the human condition. Martin uses fantasy as a backdrop and vehicle to tell his story. The fantasy world is rich and well-detailed, full of diverse cultures beyond the chivalric pseudo-Europe of Westeros.

What separates A Game of Thrones from works of other fantasy authors, such as Jordan, Goodkind, Brooks, Eddings, etc., is that Martin's story is most decidedly not a Tolkienesque quest (although quests do feature in it). It is the story of a very human civil war, although he does include a looming supernatural threat. Martin's narrative forces it's readers to ask damn hard questions regarding benevolent despotism, whether (and how) power corrupts, the impact parents have on their children, why civilizations become corrupt, decay and decline, and ultimately fall, and honorable conduct. Goodkind beats us over the head with his message. Jordan's characters sit around drinking tea and commenting how "men only think with the hair on their chests" or "women make no sense." Eddings and Brooks ask no questions at all but simply have their characters fight evil with magic McGuffins.

Steven Erikson
Erikson succeeds where R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, and other TSR/Wizards of the Coast writers fail--he takes a world he played role-playing games in and turns it into an incredible saga of war, empire, power, religious and cultural conflict, and race. Weis & Hickman succeeded with their tight focus on the Majere brothers in The Dragonlance Legends, but Erikson's 1999 publication, Gardens of the Moon, began a series of such immense scope it defies description. I've only read the first two novels of his series but I cannot deny his incredible talent. Similar to Martin, Erikson also asks incredibly difficult questions about religion, race, benevolent despotism and tyranny, and the decline of civilizations. Unlike Martin, Erikson's world is simply unimaginably HUGE and full of infinite possibilities. He eschews the traditional fantasy races for unique ones sprung from his and Ian Esslemont's imagination. Like Feist's Riftwar Saga, Gardens of the Moon incorporates a number of fantasy themes and ideas from not only the role-playing world (and its foundations in pre-1977 SF). Yet Erikson pulls inspiration from a host of other places as well, such as history (like Martin), the psychology of the rank-and-file soldier (like Glen Cook), and even throws in dark, dead gods.

The 1990s in Fantasy a Mess?
So, we return to Tom Simon's original statement which I've framed as a question: "Has mainstream epic fantasy been so locked into a ditch where all of these huge flaws are part-and-parcel of much of fantasy, especially its strongest-selling sagas?"

So far, yes (but there's hope). Let's take a look at the most salient characteristics of the major 1990s writers.
  • By 2000, Feist, Brooks, Eddings, Jordan, and Goodkind are pounding out popular sagas that are all recycled plot elements, slavishly devoted to the Tolkien/Eddings trope formula, and largely bereft of literary substance.
  • Jordan and Goodkind further dilute their own work with grotesquely turgid prose. This cripples Jordan's narrative so badly that it essentially goes nowhere.
  • Attempts at philosophical exploration are handled clumsily, either descending into droning sophistry and moralizing or incoherent gimmickry.
  • These are the most popular authors, propped up by a fanbase that was birthed by Tolkien fandom in the 1970s with a thirst for the same story ad infinitum.
Modesitt and Friedman may have been a ray of hope, since their sources of inspiration are found more in the pre-1977 SF milieu of Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison. Indeed, the nature of their inquiry is much less fantasy and far more "speculative" and "science-fiction" oriented, hearkening back to the 60s and 70s. Indeed, Weis & Hickman's Deathgate Cycle tiptoes very close to the SF boundary as well. These authors incorporated gimmicks not to turn their settings into vast, immobile McGuffins but as vehicles for their speculative explorations. Unfortunately, these authors and their works had a very limited appeal or impact during the 1990s when compared to Jordan, Brooks, Eddings, and Goodkind.

Although Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn had a very limited appeal, it did have the very important impact of inspiring George R. R. Martin to turn his own hand to fantasy. Martin employed the trappings of fantasy but drew far more from historical reality to fuel his narrative. Erickson (and later Esslemont) would bring their impossibly vast and realized world of the Malazan Empire into print with a vengeance.

In my next post in this series, I'll write more about Martin, Erikson, and Williams. I'll give a spoiler, however, upfront just so my readers know where I stand: the best, most literary, and challenging authors in 20th century fantasy, specifically epic fantasy, are J.R.R. Tolkien, Tad Williams, Steven Erikson, George R.R. Martin, and R. Scott Bakker. Bakker, Williams, Erikson, and Martin, in my opinion, are the true inheritors of Tolkien's mantle. But I'll explain why later.


Chris Cesarano said...

I've been planning on moving on to Williams' Shadowmarch series, though I still need to finish the first volume of Otherland first. It's more sci-fi, but I started reading Otherland about a year after Snow Crash, and it's interesting how the two authors portray similar worlds in such drastically different methods.

I know it's a 2000-Present book, but I should lend you Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. I pulled my "bookmark" out of it to plug into A Dance With Dragons because, well, I just didn't get sucked into it. My friend Aubrey and his fiance swear by it (though his fiance is the only one that's actually well read), but I just couldn't get pulled in. Once I'm finished A Dance With Dragons, I'll move on to giving Otherland another try. After that I'll probably try either Gardens of the Moon or one of Bakker's books.

Dave Cesarano said...

Adam Roberts just totally blasted The Name of the Wind a few years ago. Michal/Taran of One Last Sketch recommended that essay/article back in February and it kind of killed my desire to read it.

I'm re-reading Gardens of the Moon and its better the second time around. The first time was good, but the second read is awesome.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I greatly enjoyed the two Patrick Rothfuss volumes so far, I've not enjoyed a book as much since reading Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

I've also rather enjoyed what I've read of Gardens of the Moon. It's darker fare than what I normally seek out.. but it's not quite as bleak as I found Martin to be.. I imagine because it seemed to have a very Glen Cook sort of sense of humour to lighten the mood.

You should probably include Kate Elliot, she is another author who was extremely inspired by Tad Williams.. and wrote a enormous 7 volume series. Her series starting with King's Dragon has all the Tea Drinking and sitting around chatting that Jordan features.. and all the Political Intrigues of Martin.. but none of the action of either series. I managed to get 4 volumes in and was so bored with it I had to quit.

Also, you've made one small error in your essay. From his own mouth, Terry Goodkind dosen't write fantasy. He Only writes about Important Human Themes. /Sarcasm

Anonymous said...

You need to be editing/reviewing books, or at least vetting them before publication.

Dave Cesarano said...

@Lagomorph Rex: Never read Kate Elliot and haven't heard much about her stuff, which is why I didn't include her. I primarily included authors with whom I'm familiar.

Goodkind said that, huh? Well, I'm not impressed. He qualifies as fantasy. He's published under the Tor Fantasy label. Whatever, he's full of himself.

@Some Guy: I'd actually like a job reviewing fantasy novels but I have no idea where to even begin. I probably need a better following online before I can really get enough clout to try to get that sort of job.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Oh yes he absolutely said that.. amongst other things.

I agree with you entirely. His books are Fantasy, and not very good fantasy (Though he like Robert Jordan have glimpses of greatness.. that had they been saddled with a truly draconian editor could have been chiseled out) Alas, the TV show began to do that and was canceled.

You aren't missing much with Kate Elliot.. I'm hoping Robin Hobb will be better..

Unknown said...

This whole post is idiocy. you take great books and post your retarded drivel about them as though they are terrible.

Anonymous said...

Randy's comment is my favorite thing ever. I, for one, can't figure out why Salvatore hasn't been awarded a Booker Prize.

WriterJosh said...

Ah, Randy, Randy. Look up "ad hoc argument" some time.

Not one of the books "trashed" here even approaches greatness. I would argue that even some that are (lightly) praised don't even come close.

I have a soft spot for the WOT series but I know it's deeply, deeply flawed. What can I say, it charmed me.

The SOT books did the opposite. I didn't notice its flaws at first but after a while I couldn't handle it anymore and it repelled me. I can't stand those books today and can't fathom why anyone likes them. I've got a whole list of reasons why they're terrible but that's a blog post (hell, that's a whole BLOG) on its own.

I should point out that Robert Jordan always seemed like a nice man who was thankful to his fans for providing him with a career.

Terry Goodkind seems like a total jerk who hates the genre that made him a success and is angry with any fan who reads his books for the wrong reasons. "No, you don't understand. It's not fantasy. QUIT READING IT FOR THE FANTASY ELEMENTS! IT'S DEEP, DAMMIT!"