Friday, July 29, 2011

Fantasy: 1999 to 2011. Disillusionment and Nihilism.

My final segment of my brief history of post-1977 mainstream epic fantasy closes with the past decade of development in the genre and a bit of musing regarding the direction it's taking. To recap, I first began this as a response to Tom Simon's discussion regarding trends that arose in 1977 which came to plague mainstream fantasy. When I examined the 1980s, I noticed that the most popular writers were derivative of Tolkien and/or medieval romance. While analyzing the 1990s I found that those writers continued but were joined by didactic polemicists and gimmicky weak narratives; doorstop fantasies that meandered with little or no payoff were actually the biggest bestsellers.

I am still questing to see if Simon is correct in his assessment that mainstream fantasy has become so mired in formula and convention, bereft of little true creativity or writing skill.

This segment is particularly difficult to write because it was during this time that I finished college, went to graduate school, and then left for Korea. My tastes in reading were necessarily shifted by my studies, gravitating strongly toward more canon literary works, historical inquiries, and books of philosophy. Therefore, I drifted from fantasy for about seven or eight years, only returning to the genre lately and finding it very different from when I left it back around 2001.

During this time, most of what I read was drawn from Gygax's & Arneson's Appendix N from the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. I was more than pleased by the Del Rey releases of Robert E. Howard's short stories in trade paperback format (including his Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and Conan yarns). I started reading Moorcock's Elric books, Zelazny's Amber novels, Vance's Dying Earth, and Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser tales. I also dove into more SF with Kurt Vonnegut, Dan Simmons, Frederick Pohl, and H.G. Wells. I periodically pulled a few works from the shelves of the fantasy section, such as John Marco's The Eyes of God but overall, I wasn't really inspired to continue. Oh, I certainly enjoyed what I read. Yet there was something missing.

In the following, I cannot speak from firsthand experience reading these authors. I must admit a distinct bias which will, no doubt, color my assessment. I'm drawing much of my information from reviews found on blogs and reviews. The uniting trend I've recognized, however, is that all of the negative reviews had very specific criticisms of writing and narrative style, weak characterization, and an overattachment to gore, violence, sex, and rape; all of the positive reviews were very vague, used adjectives like "enjoyable" and "exciting," and tended to compare the work to other authors the audience "may have liked."

Stan Nicholls
Nicholl's first Orc novels, Bodyguard of Lightning and Legion of Thunder were released amidst a small fanfare touting his subversive decision to write a novel from the perspective of the "bad guy cannon fodder" of fantasy. This wasn't a bad decision. However, Nicholls certainly had issues with taste. A lot of the criticism of Nicholls' novels focus on how he fails to actually detail and describe a different race; ultimately, they are humans with different skin--stereotypical noble barbarians. The over-fetishization of violence, rape, dismemberment, and gore do not make up for the lack of character depth and believable worldbuilding.

Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie debuted with The Blade Itself in 2006, the first novel in his The First Law trilogy (followed by Before They Are Hanged in '07 and Last Argument of Kings in '08). According to one reviewer, the trilogy is "Conan the Barbarian meets the anti-Lord of the Rings...and its not a compliment." While dialogue may be a strength, Abercrombie seems to lack the panache for character and plot development. His hard-boiled prose is apparently quite fitting and has garnered a great deal of complements on the internet, although the proliferation of modern swears and parlance in his character dialogue has been labeled as "distracting." Nobody gets what they deserve and almost none of the characters can be characterized as "good." This is not a problem, so much, except that all of the characters are basically evil. They might be sympathetic to some, but many who have not rejected the moral ambiguities of Martin's novels have rejected the amorality of Abercrombie's.

However, it appears that the most negative reaction to Abercrombie has come from his 2011 release, The Heroes, in which the eponymous characters are anything but. As one reviewer opined, The Heroes descends into being "a 500 page vignette on the folly and nihilism of war, brutally told."

Richard Morgan
With 2008's The Steel Remains and the forthcoming The Cold Commands (Oct. 2011), Richard Morgan has thrown down his own gauntlet against the perceived weaknesses of Tolkienesque fantasy.
A slow moving novel that attempts to challenge contemporary fantasy tropes with in-your-face assaults on the hero archetype. But given the lack of plot progression, the book seems to be a pretense for forcing readers of basic fantasy to digest homo-erotica as a statement, not in pursuit of a larger plot point. Yeah, we get it, good literature is hard to read - and in western culture gay sex scenes are challenging to many readers. But challenging literature is not necessarily good literature, and that's a logical fallacy Richard Morgan embraces in this novel. review for The Steel Remains by Oria S. Bjorklund
Another reviewer states that "if graphic rape is your thing, this book is for you." Brian from The Silver Key had a decent amount to say about Morgan's debut fantasy novel. The overall trend in the negative criticism of his work is that the writing style is weak and at times overly technical, eliminating suspension of disbelief. Like Abercrombie and Nicholls, the emphasis is on being "edgy" and "dark, gritty, and violent." One positive reviewer said of Morgan's writing that "this isn't Disney." What the hell that is supposed to mean, I'm not sure (maybe the reviewer seems to think that Tolkienesque fantasy is Disney, I don't know).

Morgan (as one will read below) is highly critical of Tolkien. Just read "The Real Fantastic Stuff."

China Miéville
Although technically a writer of the New Weird, a movement that seeks to move fantasy back to its SF and horror roots of the early 20th century, China Miéville is yet another anti-Tolkien author who is deeply critical of what he sees as Tolkien's politics in The Lord of the Rings. Miéville is a socialist and a Marxist and infuses his work with such themes as class struggle and industrialization, often setting his writing in parallel worlds full of magic and more modern/postmodern thematic elements.

I can't really comment much on China Miéville because I actually want to read him. Out of the current list, Miéville has the most awards and honors heaped upon his novels, suggesting that there is really some substance to his work. I'm purposely avoiding reviews of him in order to make up my own mind. But since he's one of the most active and heavily recognized writers in the SF/fantasy genre he deserves mention.

REMINDER: I've read none of these authors. I have seen how they've spawned a degree of backlash amongst a more conservative readership. Just read my "Realism and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy" and check out all of the blogs and articles I link throughout the post. Therefore, yes, I do carry a bias. If I ever attempt to read these authors, I will comment on them much more directly and where necessary redact any statements that might be erroneous.

R. Scott Bakker
Some might argue that they have read nothing more nihilistic, violent, or graphically sexual than R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor. I would disagree. The only nihilism there is what the reader imposes upon the text and Bakker's work most certainly transcends genre. Yes, his work is graphically violent and sexually explicit. Yet Bakker draws from not only literary influences within the SF, fantasy, and horror genres but from Freud, Plato, Gnosticism, Nietzsche, Jung, and countless other writers and sources of philosophy, religion, and psychology. He combines everything into a grandiose thought-experiment whose thematic narrative is not didactic or polemic but instead allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

To be fair, Bakker's story is only one-half to two-thirds finished (he has five books thus far in his Second Apocalypse saga with two or three novels forthcoming). Thus far, Bakker is very deeply interested in the concept of damnation and the power of collective consciousness upon the Outside (and/or the hereafter), psychological determinism and whether or not we can truly control our conscious selves or are ruled by a subconscious, and the nature of knowledge and truth. Bakker reveals how his characters may believe they are acting out of a sense of justice or honor and strive for what they believe to be good but in reality are acting on subconscious motivations shaped by their upbringing, culture, religion, experience, and a myriad of other external stimuli. These revelations have thought-provoking implications for the reader and strike at the very heart of the human experience. This, in my opinion, catapults him far above many of his contemporaries into the realm of true literature.

Current Trends in Mainstream Fantasy?
What we see are two developing trends. The first is an increase in "adult" themes, such as sex and sexuality, violence and gore, and the gritty realities of medieval life and warfare (rape, pillaging, the chevauchée, religious and noble hypocrisy, class dominance, female repression, tyranny, widespread poverty and disease, etc.). These things are remarkably absent in not only Tolkien but also Eddings, Jordan (with the exception of sex/female repression), Brooks, Feist, etc. This growth of "hardcore" themes gives the new books an "edgy" feel.

The other trend is wholly political. Many of these writers are approaching fantasy from different postmodern perspectives (gender perspectives/feminism, Marxism/class struggle, industrialization, liberalism, atheism/alternative religions, etc.). We saw the dawn of many of these in the 1990s--for example, Philip Pullman published His Dark Materials during that time, which was keenly critical of the Catholic Church in specific and religion in general.

I've discussed a great deal about these trends in "Realism and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy." However, for the sake of argument, I'll repeat a few of my ideas below.

To me, it appears that mainstream fantasy has gone where comic books went in the early 1990s. With the relaxation of the Comic Book Code, grittier, more violent and sexually charged comics found release. In some regards, this was a good thing. Alan Moore's The Watchmen and From Hell, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and Frank Miller's Sin City, 300, and The Dark Knight Returns all dealt with mature themes and challenged the readers' preconceptions regarding the literary role comics could play. (All of this had been made possible by Art Spiegelman's Maus in the 1970s). However, the drawback was a descent into worship of amoral anti-heroes (cf. Rob Liefeld's Bloodwulf mini-series and Supreme), often featuring copious amounts of gore and sex. The end result was comics became less "adult" and more "adolescent."

I see a similar trend in fantasy. The growth of more "edgy," "realistic," and "hardcore" narratives is equally puerile, mostly due to the lack of authorial skill in characterization and narrative structure. Authors have found fantasy childish and are attempting to force it into maturity through writing more "adult" stories without the skills in telling a coherent story with well-defined characters.

C.S. Lewis responded (well, I think) to the concept of "adult" themes in literature:
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence…. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. --from "On Three Ways of Writing for Children," On Stories
Indeed, this speaks directly to just how adolescent and undeveloped a proliferation of gratuitous sex, violence, and gore in both comic books and fantasy fiction is.
"Battles and bloodshed occur and occur often, but do not take the story to a higher level each time. There is no build-up. Main characters die, but only because [the author] wants to play with the reader, that is, rather than eliminating them in the natural flow of things or to add an element of drama." review of The Blade Itself by Han Jie
This is a common criticism I see repeated in many reviews for Morgan, Abercrombie, and Nicholls. The violence and sex in many of these books exist simply for the element of subversion and shock.

The second trend I've noticed is primarily political in nature. Miéville, and Morgan, specifically, have openly criticized Tolkien's writing. Abercrombie admitted to finding the following more compelling than Tolkien's original material:
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. --Leo Grin, "The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists."
Granted, I may be coming down a bit hard on Abercrombie but the trend is there and is being applauded by more than the likes of Michael Moorcock.

I'm not really interested in reading much of this newer stuff. If I wanted to, I'd read a history book about actual events. I don't read fantasy for the historical realism, I read it for the story. If the story is lacking, then it follows that no matter how subversive, postmodern, or politically topical the novel may be, I will find myself disinterested at best and angry/insulted at worst. Many of these authors aren't interested in challenging their audience and asking provocative questions--instead they take a moral stance and spoon-feed all of the meaning to the reader. Much of that meaning is highly agenda-driven and deliberately destructive of previous fantasy. Many authors have stated a heavy dislike for Tolkien.
it would be a foolish writer in the fantasy field who failed to acknowledge the man’s overwhelming significance in the canon. And it would be a poor and superficial reader of Tolkien who failed to acknowledge that in amongst all the overwrought prose, the nauseous paeans to class-bound rural England, and the endless bloody elven singing that infests The Lord of the Rings, you can sometimes discern the traces of a bleak underlying human landscape which is completely at odds with the epic fantasy narrative for which the book is better known. --Richard Morgan, "The Real Fantastic Stuff"
Morgan goes on to say in his Comments section:
The Gorbag passage I quoted is, I think, an example of Tolkien’s Authorial Talent shouldering his Priggish Metaphysical Concerns out of the driving seat for a while (you can see a similar dynamic in Milton’s handling of Satan), but, as I lamented in the article, it doesn’t last long, AT gets booted into the back seat again and PMC is back in charge. I think you can see similar examples of that struggle littered throughout the book, but the result is always the same. This is the retreat from the lessons of the twentieth century that I was talking about in the essay and it’s how we end up with a book written by a man who’s witnessed the slaughter of the Somme, in which massive frontal assault against suicidal odds is still seen as a Noble Thing. That’s the failure I’m talking about.
Here are a few things, off the top of my head, that might (IMHO) have thickened the mix to more adult proportions:
Denethor retains most of his disagreeable characteristics but is a handy motherfucker with a battle axe and repels with great gusto a couple of assaults on the gates of Minas Tirith, while still raging at Gandalf for interfering.
Theoden rides to Minas Tirith not because it’s The Right Thing to Do, but because he reckons there’s a chance he can lay his hands on Gondor’s levers of power in the aftermath (and Gandalf sells him that idea to get him into the saddle)
Faramir dies, Boromir lives (with his guilt unassuaged or not, I can see excellent dramatic potential either way)
The hardiest fighters at the siege of Minas Tirith are a company of renegade orcs who’ve changed sides and have the most to lose if the city falls since they’ll be tortured to death as traitors
The most terrifying asset in Sauron’s forces is a mercenary army of elves out of Mirkwood. Disgusted by the failings of men, they have thrown in their lot with the enemy on condition they will not be deployed to fight their own kind. The Nazgul hate them and don’t trust them, and those feelings are mutual. At Helm’s Deep the mercenaries come face to face with brother elves and Sauron’s broken promise……
An orc family provide Frodo and Sam with shelter as they cross the wastes – the family are starving and miserable, and just want the war over and their husband and father back from the front.
And so on…….
Such criticism of Tolkien completely misses Tolkien's point. Including these elements would have catastrophically undone the entire purpose of The Lord of the Rings. The narrative would have been too divided, cheapened, and unraveled. Those like Abercrombie and Morgan might see this as a Good Thing, but I don't. Why?

Literary Taste. George R.R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker can do these things in their narrative because these elements have a place in their storytelling. In The Lord of the Rings, such developments would have simply weakened the story, pacing, characterization, narrative flow, etc. Tolkien wasn't incapable of writing those elements into a story, as his Children of Húrin demonstrates. For this particular story, however, Tolkien didn't want to include those elements and his novel is better off because of it.

Literary taste demands the reader ask the question, "What purpose do these elements serve? Do they advance the story or characters? Do they increase the dramatic tension of the tale?" If the answer to the last two questions is "no," then the answer to the first will likely be unsatisfying. The purpose will be to "be edgy/hardcore/adult/realistic" and therefore be intrinsically flawed. All elements in any work of literature should be subservient to the overall narrative. If they are not, then the author is doing something wrong.

So how about the authors who have included these themes and done it right?

Frankly, it is my opinion that George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Tad Williams incorporate many of these "adult" and political themes far more successfully than many of their contemporaries. I've discussed Williams' work at length so there shouldn't be much more to say about him. Williams is not concerned with "updating" or "dethroning" Tolkien. His work is not a criticism of Tolkien or of anything at all. Despite all of the subversive elements he included in his tale, he still maintains a mythical and fantastic flavor of the sort that Tolkien achieved. Similarly, George R.R. Martin's novels do not seek to overthrow The Lord of the Rings. Martin is a great lover of Tolkien and once opined that when he dies instead of heaven he'd prefer to go to Middle-earth. R. Scott Bakker has openly admitted that the Mines of Moria inspired Cil-Aujas and the confrontation with Smaug influenced his climax to The White-Luck Warrior.

These authors have not written their works to criticize Tolkien. They're written their books to tell their own stories and wrestle with their own issues. Tolkien serves them simply as a source of inspiration as to what fantasy can accomplish. Martin, Williams, and Bakker do not descend to the adolescent levels that many of the other authors do. Bakker comes close but his voice is so matter-of-fact that he dodges both the "prude" and "pornography" bullets that many authors fail to do. Indeed, since sex is a part of life and the human experience, it forms an integral part of his characters' psyches and is therefore quite important in the development of his narrative and his exploration of the conscious and subconscious drives that direct people's behaviors. I am under the impression that Bakker is not writing to an audience that will be thrilled or shocked by sex and violence but assumes that his readers are mature enough to take his descriptions in stride. Indeed, it would be impossible to delve to such a primeval, Freudian level into his characters' psyches if he didn't write these things.

NOTE: I don't include Erickson and Esslemont as successes in this regard because they're pursuing a far different sort of tale--something drawn more from Gygax's & Arneson's Appendix N than from Tolkien. Yes, many of these political, sexual, and violent themes emerge in their works. Nevertheless, these themes are much more subdued in their Malazan novels. There isn't as much subversion in the Malazan world so much as an exploration of the infinite possibilities of the imagination through fantasy.

In other words, for Martin, Bakker, and Williams, sex and violence occur in the story in order to advance the plot. One of the major criticisms I've repeatedly come across regarding Abercrombie, Morgan, and Nicholls is the violence and sex in their books does nothing to advance the story or develop the characters.

To write something realistically in order to give definition and meaning to a story is one thing. To write realistically for the purpose of being realistic or "edgy" is another.
"Nobody writes realistic realism, and if they did, no one would read it. The writers that think they write it just give their own ideas about things they think they see. The sort of man who could write realism is the fellow who never reads or writes anything." --Robert E. Howard
Too often, writers are writing in order to be edgy.

So, what does this mean for fantasy? What about the trends that Tom Simon discussed in his essay?

I'll round that off with my final conclusion in a forthcoming post.


Lagomorph Rex said...

I have really enjoyed this series of posts.

It's something that might be nice to see expanded even further.. since as you said, you are limiting your scope to authors you have actually read, for the most part.

Dave Cesarano said...

Well, this latest generation was extremely difficult to write because I've not read much by them. Bakker is about the only post-2000 author I've tackled.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Thats certainly understandable. I've read far more books from the 70's and 80's than I have 90's or 00's..

Rothfuss is the only really "New" author I've enjoyed. Brett, I started out liking, but his second book wound up falling for pretty much all the same things that many of the other 2000's authors did.

Chris Cesarano said...

Yeah, from what I read of Name of the Wind, I can at least say that it doesn't fall into the realism trap of the rest of the authors. On paper, Orcs seemed like a book I wanted to read. I started it, but after a few chapters I pretty much forgot all about it.

I wanted to discuss how sex was used to represent Nite Owl's character growth in Watchmen, but I might save that for my own blog post.

I do find it amusing, though, that George R. R. Martin will detail sexual encounters, but has never really detailed rape. It could be he just won't write something that he doesn't know (I mean, how does a man write about how it feels to get violated by a blood-drunk warrior accurately?), but it could be that there's simply no purpose to it. I mean, even Theon Greyjoy spewing a load into some ship wench's mouth conveys the idea that he enjoyed the surprise she felt, that he enjoyed asserting some level of dominance. There are other ways to convey superiority, but Martin's T.M.I. level of detail gives some sense to who Theon Greyjoy is and what gives him pleasure. The TV show managed a different way of getting this sort of idea across, only the whore didn't even respect him, introducing the same inner turmoil, the desire to be something more than Stark's lapdog despite feeling some level of loyalty to him, and his prideful sense of dominance.

I imagine this is what truly sets mature content apart from the idea of "adult". Mature content may include violence and sex, but how it is executed will often enough say something about the characters. It's no different than comparing the fight scene between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi to the fight scene between Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan and Darth Maul in Phantom Menace. One is not as flashy, but the music, shadows and emotional weight are conveying a struggle between the characters and their emotions. The music for Phantom Menace is certainly epic, but it doesn't fit like the mournful chorus of Jedi. Further, the way everything is shot is standard. Just show a bunch of people fighting with a lot of fancy choreography. It ends up being a lot less interesting to look at than two brightly colored lightsabers as the only light amongst a room of shadows, with Luke and Vader's silhouettes visible over a dark blue light behind them.

I might also be thinking of how Empire is shot, now that I think about it. Either way, anyone that has watched Citizen Kane knows how well shadows can convey something about a character, and in both Empire and Jedi they are used strongly in Luke's confrontation with Vader.

Brian Murphy said...

Speaking of nihilist fantasy, read the review of Prince of Thorns over on

Wow, this description makes Joe Abercrombie sound like Romper Room.

Michal said...

I clicked the link, Brian. That looks...well,I'm not particularly keen on reading Prince of Thorns after that review, since it seems less like "nasty and ugly to show the darker side of the human condition and cast light on some interesting but possibly uncomfortable issues" and more like "nasty and ugly for the sake of being nasty and ugly."

WriterJosh said...

I somehow missed this section, and missed that you admitted you've not read Abercrombie.

You need to. The descriptions of others' critique of his work goes from "missed the point" (The title of The Heroes was meant to be ironic) to "skimmed it instead of read it".

Abercrombie may be the finest writer of fantasy of the new millenium, with Sanderson a half-step behind. Please, before you judge him, read him. And read him with an open mind.