Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fantasy: 1977 to 2011. Wrapping It All Up

This project grew out of a response to Tom Simon's review of fantasy in 1977 and his lamentations regarding the trends that 1977's publications foreshadowed. I broke down Simon's issues with mainstream fantasy thusly:
To distill from the above, it seems an over-arching adherence to Tolkien as the defining figure of the genre seems to be crippling it. In addition, attempts to break away from his influence often falter with both editors and audiences. Dabbling in the mythologies and philosophies of non-Western cultures can be interesting, but it must also be coherent--when its not you get confused and pointless sagas that go nowhere like Hancock's Circle of Light.
Each series Simon reviewed displayed problems that he had with the growth of these trends:
  • Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara represents imitation of Tolkien's work, debasing it into a set formula, without any of the thematic impact, narrative content, or unique characterization. This application the formula tends to be inept and riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies.
  • Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever represents how doing something different (and indeed, philosophical) with the genre will lack the mass-audience appeal of more imitative work and how a work is hindered by the demands of publishers for a follow-up trilogy.
  • Niel Hancock's The Circle of Light illustrates meandering plots without any meaningful pay-offs or resolutions. It also demonstrates how many later authors would clumsily employ different philosophies and religions as narrative gimmicks.
  • Finally, by analyzing The Silmarillion, Simon appeals to authors to blaze new trails and not get caught up in world-building to such a catastrophic level where the writer cannot escape it and becomes imaginatively bankrupt.
My own analysis of the 1980s and 1990s in fantasy seemed to uphold Simon's conclusions. I isolated a number of tropes Tolkien had established in fantasy, many of which were drawn from typical medieval and renaissance romances. To reiterate, they include:
  • The pastoral, bucolic countryman drawn into events beyond his initial ken.
  • The reluctant king in disguise or exile (or perhaps his kingdom is fallen).
  • The wise, sagelike wizard guide.
  • Dark lords, evil gods, or some other source of world-threatening power.
  • Ancient races (elves, dwarves, etc.) that predate humans and live a fey-like existence quite removed from the mundane realities of humankind.
  • Epic battles and wars.
  • A journey into darkness.
  • Evil lands or kingdoms.
  • The chivalric ideal.
  • Orcs, goblins, or some other sort of twisted creature that follows the dark lord/god.
  • Gigantic, formidable monsters.
  • Demonic, ghostly, or otherwise terrifying agents of the dark lord.
  • Copious worldbuilding, history, backstory, languages, and myth.
  • Infodump chapters where the peasant/country bumpkin hero is described the history and backstory.
The successful authors, primarily Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind and David Eddings, exhibit many of the flaws that Simon identified in his examination of 1977's releases. That many of these authors were released by Del Rey or Tor Books should not go unnoticed. The growing influence of the publisher on the author (especially the cynical del Reys themselves) had a profound effect on the proliferation of doorstops and simplistic narratives. Some overly-slavish imitations, such as Dennis McKiernan's The Iron Tower Trilogy never garnered the audience of the more successful authors. Nevertheless, many authors who started strong, such as Raymond E. Feist, Glen Cook, and L.E. Modesitt, Jr., with imaginative worlds and interesting thematic elements, failed to maintain their uniqueness and strength in the long run. Feist, in particular, reached a high-water mark with A Darkness at Sethanon, but subsequent novels became more derivative and self-referential, with more repetitive conflicts ("bigger and badder" do not always equal better) and less-and-less payoff. Other authors, such as Tad Williams, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and C.S. Friedman, wrote unique, focused, imaginative series of finite length that didn't approach the mass-market appeal of other works.

It wasn't until George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson debuted that mainstream fantasy received a much-needed shot-in-the-arm. Yet in the first decade of the 21st century, following Martin (in particular) came a bevvy of authors without the skill at crafting a coherent narrative that wrote in stark contrast to Tolkien. Indeed, they often seemed to blame Tolkien for the mire in which fantasy found itself. These writers were R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, Stan Nicholls, and Richard Morgan. Many of them drew influence from pre-1977 writer Michael Moorcock and likewise fueled their writing with fumes of stark dislike for "Tolkien's politics."

This new generation of authors exhibited two distinctive and new traits.
  1. Similar to Martin (and Tad Williams before), they sought to depict medieval warfare as brutal, bloody, savage, and destructive. They also described the effect of war on the populace--famine, rapine, pillaging, disease, and other features of the medieval chevauchée.
  2. They also featured a lot of narrative elements subversive to Tolkien, such as morally ambiguous heroes, political intrigue, sympathetic villains, and a distinction between good and evil that is blurry at best (and often nonexistent). They were often driven by a polemic desire to protest Tolkien's politics and overthrow his influence over modern fantasy.
Unfortunately, these writers seem to focus mostly on these elements and not on cohesive plotting, believable characters, or effective dialogue. In effect, these elements are not included in order to advance the story or develop the characters. They are included for the express purpose of rebelling against Tolkien. This is the greatest irony of all: they are basically doing the same thing as Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, but in the opposite direction and displaying all of the narrative and characterizing problems that Tom Simon identifies in his analysis of Sword. The authors do not realize that they, in truth, are just as derivative of Tolkien as his imitators. As a result, they fail to achieve any real literary merit, relegating themselves to cheap, adolescent grindhouse versions of fantasy.

Those authors who do employ these political and graphic elements successfully make these elements vehicles for plot and character development as any writer (fantasy or not) should. Therefore, I must insist that the weaknesses and errors that Simon identified (and to which I have added) are not unique to fantasy. Those who are successful at incorporating those two new traits (politics and graphic violence/sex) have done so in a manner that makes these elements meaningful to both the plot and the characters, therefore making them meaningful to the audience beyond providing "edginess," "topical relevance," and "realism." Those successful are Martin, Bakker, and Williams in particular--they were not revolting against Tolkien or attempting to push some sort of agenda but instead presenting worlds, characters, and situations designed to provoke questions for the reader to answer. If one were to remove the sex and violence from Martin or Bakker, the narrative would become weaker. If one were to remove it from Abercrombie, Morgan, or Nicholls, would it instead become apparent that the narrative was already weak?

So, is fantasy in as dire straits and as deep a mire in 2011 as it was in 1977?

Yes and no.

Yes because the issues which crept into fantasy haven't really disappeared. They've just changed their styles. The core problems are still present.
  • Reduction of Tolkien's narrative into a formula without any of the thematic impact, narrative content, or unique characterization, the application of which tends to be inept and riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies.
  • Lack the mass-audience appeal of less imitative work.
  • Demands of publishers for larger publications and follow-up material have contributed to doorstop fantasy series.
  • Meandering plots without any meaningful pay-offs or resolutions.
  • Clumsy and often dishonest application of different philosophies and religions as narrative gimmicks.
  • A tendency to get caught up in world-building to such a catastrophic level where the writer cannot escape it and becomes imaginatively bankrupt.
Add to this my own observations from the 2000s:
  • Hyperbolic and overly didactic political polemicism, especially anti-Tolkien polemicism, that is inherently and ironically trapped in Tolkien's legacy as much as Brooks' The Sword of Shannara. Spoon-fed lessons are a major factor, here.
  • A reliance upon gratuitous sex and graphic violence (often combined) in order to further divorce one's writing from Tolkien and earlier writings without these elements contributing to character or plot development.
What does this boil down to? Basically, bad writing. Fantasy publication since 1977 (and likely, publication in general) provides ample evidence that Sturgeon's Law is in full effect. The problem is that readers aren't reading the good stuff and are becoming convinced the bad stuff is actually good. This is why such writers as Robert Jordan are dangerous to young readers and aspiring authors alike.

I may be tempted to make the argument that all of modern literature is exhibiting these issues. There are more people writing and getting published than ever before and their material is becoming more uniform and less varied and prolific. However, I won't make such a broad and sweeping claim because I don't have much access to the dregs of the past and am keenly aware of the proliferation of penny-dreadfuls in the Victorian era.

What is unique to fantasy is that the genre seems to be tragically hidebound to certain styles and both audience and publishers are woefully ignorant of the finer points of style, taste, and literary substance. The fact is that most fantasy readers are ignorant of literature outside of the genre. Such knowledge might have a profound impact on their taste. Indeed, most readers would likely prefer to read through all 15,000 pages of The Wheel of Time than The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Misérables, Moby-Dick, and The Grapes of Wrath (totaling around 3,000 pages--less than one fifth the length). This, I find, both sad and disappointing.

In the end, the blame must be laid at two sets of feet--the publishers and the readers. The publishers are at fault because instead of being motivated to publish literature they are instead motivated by profit in only the most cynical manner (as exemplified by the del Reys). The readers are at fault by being so hidebound and ignorant of literature that they are bereft of any and all taste, motivated by a desire to either see Middle-earth last forever or be violently overthrown.

There is hope for fantasy provided good writers enter the genre. That is why I continually referred to Tad Williams, George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and R. Scott Bakker as symbols of hope for mainstream epic fantasy. Williams unfortunately flew beneath the mainstream radar. Bakker's narrative is carried by extremely abstract philosophical, ethical, and psychological content (which makes sense, the man was a Ph.D. student in philosophy before he turned to writing and it shows in his work). This renders The Second Apocalypse a bit out-of-reach intellectually for most readers that cannot get past the surface elements of his novels.

Yet these writers are still going. And they're likely to inspire further writers to take on the genre and use it as a playground for their imaginations. Lets just hope that these future writers are far more literary and capable of good writing.

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.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Retrospective: Tad Williams' MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN

I'm taking a break from my series on the late history of fantasy and its so-called degradation to discuss one of the seminal fantasy works from the late 20th century--Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. This isn't a review so much as an analysis and explanation as to why I believe the series is such a powerful piece of literature and why, unlike Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, et. al., Tad Williams is a true successor to Tolkien.

Other authors and blogs have spent copious gigabytes describing why Tolkien is (or isn't) a major landmark writer in fantasy and how his works are integral to the literary canon of the 20th century. Tad Williams, by-and-large, gets ignored by the fantasy-reading public and the elitist English professor alike and this is a damn big shame. So, instead of reviewing Williams' novels or only describing how they fit into the overall historical schema of mainstream epic fantasy's evolution, I'm going to do some analysis and explain what Williams got right. Thus, it seems fair to warn the reader that THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD! You've been warned, dear reader.

The Beginning
In 1988, DAW Books published The Dragonbone Chair, a novel nearly 700-pages in length with an entirely uninspired-looking map (more highly detailed maps would be found throughout the text itself), an appendix that glossed people, places, and things in Osten Ard, and a translation guide for phrases in different languages. Most readers never got past the first 200 pages of exposition in the novel, arguing that "nothing happens" (which puzzles me, because much of books 6 through 9 of The Wheel of Time feature gratuitous amounts of nothing happening until the last 150 pages and people love Robert Jordan).

So, am I just insane or is there something here the average reader missed?

Well, the first 200 pages of The Dragonbone Chair are exposition. Williams is carefully, subtly establishing a typical medieval setting, its political situation, its characters and their feuds, loyalties, goals, and relationships. He's also instilling the reader with a sense of status quo--the world works like such, magic and faeries are just stories and reality is just mundane. Then, when the reader is about a quarter of the way through the book, all of the readers assumptions are destroyed, the status quo is irrevocably overturned, and all hell seems to break loose. This happens so rapidly as to shock the reader. After 200 pages, the reader's become subtly invested in the world, the characters, and come to feel that he/she can predict where things are going when Williams turns the tables and tells us to take nothing for granted.

The Cliche
Williams draws from medieval romance, just as David Eddings had done. However, Williams does it in a way that preserves the sense of wonder and mystery about his setting in a very Tolkienesque manner. In other words, Williams not only mimics Tolkien's style but also his atmosphere. Osten Ard is a layered setting--there's the mundane world of humans but underneath it lies the innate magic and mystery of the setting and its more subtle inhabitants. Now, Osten Ard does not feel like Middle-earth but more like the magical medieval England that never was, the one that knew King Arthur, Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn centers around an epic quest in search of powerful McGuffins (in the form of three legendary swords) that the characters hope will save them from the Storm King. Knighthood (and boys who daydream of becoming knights) plays a powerful role--righteous behavior, faith, and bravery are cherished by many of the noble characters in the series; the heroes ultimately strive for something greater than themselves, even though most of the time they're concerned with mere survival. The good guys are guided by Nisses' Du Svardenvyrd (the Weird of the Swords), a book of prophecy. One particular character happens to be descended from kings and rightfully deserves the crown, although he doesn't necessarily know it (or even want the crown). A rebellious princess seeks to escape the prison of palace life and ends up embroiled in events beyond her knowledge and maturity to handle. The faerie races feature heavily in this book, although somewhat subtly, as Williams seems to understand that familiarity breeds contempt. Much of the series is bildungsroman, focused on Simon's growth from a young boy into a hero. Finally, many of the countries and religions in Osten Ard have real-world analogues that should make them more familiar to the reader (Erkynland = England, Nabban = Byzantium/Rome, Hernystir = Wales/Ireland/Scotland, Rimmersgard = Scandinavia, the Thirthings = Magyars/Huns, Perdruin = Venice/Genoa, Aedonite Church = Catholic Christendom).

These things are all very-well established tropes that have cropped up throughout heroic epic fantasy since Tolkien. At first blush, Simon will remind readers of Garion from Eddings' The Belgariad, Pug from Feist's Magician, and Taran from Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. The Storm King ruling from his far northern kingdom will no doubt remind readers of the demonic, supernaturally powerful dark lords found in fantasy from Tolkien on (including Jordan, Alexander, Eddings, Brooks, and others). What Williams establishes is a status quo not only of setting, but also of technique and material.

But where the other authors simply sought to retell the same old tale, Williams had the talent to do things that were unique and different. He doesn't just imitate the story elements of Tolkien, Mallory, and Chaucer. He seeks to incorporate an atmosphere, sense of wonder, and thematic substance.

Literature and Substance

Heroism, Combat, and Death
George R.R. Martin was initially inspired by Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn to write a mature, intelligent fantasy. It's a shame that Williams doesn't get quite as much credit as he deserves and Martin has definitely eclipsed Williams' popularity. It would be unwise, however, to compare A Song of Ice and Fire with Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Williams and Martin are attempting to do very different things with their respective series, and Martin's work is not yet finished. Williams explores themes that Tolkien never had. Tolkien's archaically poetic voice matched his equally archaic subject-matter. The Lord of the Rings features a lot of elements subversive to heroic quest literature but Williams challenges themes that Tolkien overlooked.

Williams' voice is deep and mature. The characters are dynamic, driven, and evolving. Simon grows and changes, but he does not do so in a vacuum. Unlike Tolkien, whose characters saw many things and did many deeds, but ultimately (except for Frodo), remained the same as before, Williams' characters are unmistakably changed by their experiences. And with good reason--they experienced something so horrifically terrible, it would be ridiculous for them to simply go on as if it had never happened.

Now, this is not being entirely fair to Tolkien--his characters do change. But after their adventure, the greatest shift that occurs is the world becomes a bit more mundane (the Elves leave, the King returns, and Hobbitism continues as it always has, with that brief interruption from Sharkey). In comparison, however, the changes in Tolkien's world are much more superficial. In Williams' work, the entire world is ripped apart in the struggle over King John's throne. Alliances are made and broken, and when the dust settles, no one's demesne is as it was before. Characters have either been forced to become great heroes or have been broken and/or killed. I am reminded of Catherine Barkley's axiom in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, in which she says that the world breaks everyone, and if it cannot break them it kills them. Williams offers a third alternative--those that aren't broken or killed become heroes.

But being a hero isn't a happy thing. Simon's first taste of warfare is bloody, horrific, and ultimately unromantic. Despite all of the romantic elements that dwell on the surface of Williams' epic, there are deep challenges that flow deep below. Simon's knighthood is rewarded with a troop of men that he leads to their deaths beneath his new banner. He watches friends and comrades die and kill around him, and is shocked to numbness by the smells, sounds, and sights of the battle. His senses are assaulted and he, in a primitive echo (or perhaps, foreshadow) of the great Sir Camaris (Williams' Lancelot), is a demon in battle who weeps for the men he smites.

Being a hero means loss. Being a hero means overcoming the agony and pain of one's circumstances. Like a Homeric epic, Williams' heroes display ἀρετή (arete), but when they are alone, the pain wells up and they lament for themselves and for those around them. Thus, one of the most noteworthy characteristics of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is the role of war, death, and combat. Characters die. Combat is lethal. Wounds can result in disfigurement and death. In many epic fantasies, the main characters seem to be immune to the dangers of combat (unless the author has literary reasons for killing one or two off). Williams is never afraid to have an encounter result in half the party being slain--a far more realistic depiction of combat than what is common in mainstream epic fantasy.

Another element that runs strongly throughout Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is symbolism. Williams' keenly infuses a great deal of meaning into the three eponymous swords that give the series its title. The names of the swords: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, are reflective of the thematic weight they bear.

Minneyar (Memory) was forged from the keel of a Rimmersman's ship when they settled in Osten Ard from across the sea. It was made of metal not found in Osten Ard and bound by the Dwarrows with the Words of Making. It wasn't of Osten Ard at all, and it's alienness made it powerful. It was carried to the Sithi stronghold of Asu'a, and was there when the faeries were slaughtered beneath the cold-wrought iron of the heathen Rimmersmen.

Thorn was made from the meteoric iron found in the meteorite that destroyed the Temple of Yuvenis the night after Usires Aedon was hung from the Execution Tree. Again, Dwarrows forged the blade with the Words of Making. Again, it was not of of Osten Ard, but of alien origin.

Jingizu (Sorrow) was forged by the Sithi prince Ineluki, when their city of Asu'a was being destroyed by the Rimmersmen. It was a blend of iron (poison to the Sithi) and their mystical witchwood, and was bound together by the Words of Making. It was named for Ineluki's lamentations as he wept at the loss of Asu'a and the destruction of his beautiful people.

These three blades each carry a legacy and each forms a major theme in the book. Memory symbolizes the cruelty of man and the memory of the faerie. It also symbolizes the memories of the characters and the harms that have been done. Disguised by Prester John, it is also given additional meaning--memory in the face of a lie. Prester John may have been the greatest king in Osten Ard, but he was also a liar, and the memory of his lie pursued him to his death. Simon ends up bringing Memory to Ineluki at the climax of the story.

Sorrow is obvious. The book is filled with loss. The Sithi lost their kingdom, and they broke with their bretheren, the Norns. They came fleeing from the dreamlike world of the Garden to Osten Ard and brought the evil they sought to escape with them. Theirs is a tragic tale. And Ineluki's search for vengeance and the emptiness of his very soul as he continues in Undeath (or Unbeing) is filled with sorrow and fury. The themes of Sorrow and Memory are closely tied together here. Sorrow is borne by King Elias, who laments the loss of his wife, and was willing to throw his very kingdom away in a mad gamble to get her back through black sorcery.

Thorn is redemption. Christ's head was pierced by thorns, and his hands by thorns of iron. Thorn is a great, black iron sword wielded by Sir Camaris. Sir Camaris, like Lancelot, is the greatest knight in Aedondom. He explains how battle is the vocation of the knight because it is the way God decides the fate of nations on the earth. It has a will and a mind of its own. It can only be wielded when the cause is righteous. The connection between thorn and Usires Aedon is vital to its identity. Simon carries Thorn for a time, although he is not it's master. Camaris spends much of his time in guilt and internal turmoil, begging forgiveness for God for his sins, both on the battlefield, and off. He inevitably is there at the climax, carrying Thorn when he meets Elias and Simon before Ineluki.

Faith & Redemption, Forgiveness, and Dark Lords
In the presense of all three, Simon stands at the crux. Instead of throwing a ring into a fire or blasting Ineluki with magical fire, he forgives him. He extends sympathy. He refuses to hate. The climax of the book stands alone amongst epic fantasy.

In this respect, Williams' differs sharply with his colleagues in the epic fantasy business. Tolkien's Dark Lord Sauron is destoryed when his Ring is destroyed--he was truly dead, but continued to exist through the Ring. His motivation was to continue the work of his master, Morgoth the Enemy, but for some reason, his objectives were vague beyond the cryptic "cover the world in darkness" routine. Brona, the Warlock Lord of The Sword of Shannara used sorcery to remain a powerful wraithlike creature, bound to the material world through lies of magic, lies which were broken when touched by the Sword of Shannara. Terry Brooks' evils in Shannara all have equally vague objectives, which in the end boil down to "cover the world in darkness". Takhasis, the Queen of Darkness in Dragonlance, was defeated through heroic bravery and by the supposed innate nature of evil to consume itself.

Williams' provides his evil characters with much more depth. In the end, this makes them less vague and distant, less unfathomable. At the same time, it makes them much more sinister and inhuman. They have traded in all of their other drives, desires, and emotions for the few negative feelings that now sustain them. The Norn Queen longs for the lost past, and seeks to Unmake reality, because she has grown so egocentric over the long march of millenia that she cannot imagine the world continuing without her. Ineluki, the Storm King, however, thirsts for vengeance. His life ended in sorrow, which is why he named his sword Jingizu (Sithi for "Sorrow"). Yet in death, he found no release, and, sustained by black sorcery and hatred, he perservered. Unlike the other undead monolithic evils of epic fantasy, the Storm King was sustained by mostly his own emotions--by hatred and the desire for vengeance. He wanted to inflict the same sorrow upon the humans that they had caused him.

The defeat of these epic beings does not necessarily involve the wielding of great talismans against them. Indeed, for most of the books, the characters have no idea how they will use the Three Swords that seem to be their only hope to defeating the Storm King. Nevertheless, the weapon that defeats Ineluki is forgiveness and sympathy. Simon tells Ineluki "I will not hate you." The most powerful talisman that can possibly be held against evil is the human heart.

This ties in with the final point I'd like to make. The role of Christianity in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Williams presents a start contrast to his contemporaries in epic fantasy again by placing the Church in a much more positive role than other epic fantasy. But he plays it subtly. The Aedonite Church is rife with corruption, just like the true historical church. However, it is a source of faith for many of the characters, and those characters who are the strongest in their faith place their faith in God--the Church is simply their vehicle, and not the object, of their affections. The "holy father" of the church is a man of great wisdom, faith, and justice. In many ways, the Aedonite Church represents the Catholic Church as it should have been, but unfortunately for history, wasn't.

The most telling scene is where Pryrates, King Elias' advisor and a powerful sorcerer, attacks the Lector (the analogue for the Pope). Father Dinivan stands between Pryrates and the Lector's rooms, armed only with his wooden tree (their version of the Crucifix). And the faith that Dinivan displays balks Pryrates--momentarily. Although Dinivan is defeated, he severely wounds Pryrates. Although the action between the Lector and Pryrates is not described, the sorcerer reports to King Elias that the lector was a very powerful man, while wincing as if remembering the wounds that he received--wounds that most certainly would not have been physical, but spiritual.

Magic, Spiritualism, and Faerie
I could continue to elucidate a variety of points that make Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn an incredibly unique tale. Williams takes a vast number of epic fantasy and chivalric romance tropes and imposes them upon a framework which warps them into a shape that is entirely new and challenging.

It is worth mentioning, however, a number of excellent adaptations that he's made in his books.

Magic and sorcery are magical and sorcerous again. Pryrates has much more in common with Tsotha-Lanti or Xaltotun from Robert E. Howard's stories than he does with Gandalf, Rastlin, or Allanon. Magic is incredibly subtle and unnatural. It twists the fabric of reality. When the Dwarrorws explain how the Words of Making work, they are emphatic that they are powerful and grave to use, because they force things to take shape that, by all intents and purposes, shouldn't be. Like reversing gravity, or cancelling it's effect whatsoever.

This ties in with the nature of the Sithi. They are, like the faeries from White Wolf's Changeling: the Dreaming, from another world, although it's spoken of as a geographical location. Williams' is purposely vague, because the reader is supposed to fill in the blanks. They could be from space, or they could be from a dreamlike realm beyond the wall of sleep. Their magic is songlike, a mixture of words and tones that creates and effect. It also makes their form of sorcery very liturgical and ritualistic, but not in the manner that most sorcery is imagined.

In addition, the battles between the Norns and the Sithi are the best description of a fight between faerie peoples that I have ever read. How the Sithi and Norn songs counter one-another, and how their hand-to-hand combat is dancelike and lethal, almost like snakes striking at one another, is incredible.

There are still more and more themes and threads that I could discuss about Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. The series is, perhaps, the best piece of epic fantasy that I've ever read. Like Frank Herbert's Dune, it seems like a straightforward struggle between Good and Evil, but also like Herbert's work, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn deals with themes and concepts that strike far beyond the boundries of the conventional epic fantasy. Williams challenges the pre-established notions of what an epic fantasy is by re-inventing almost all of its major characteristics. Nothing remains untouched. Nevertheless, when the book is finished, you've still experienced all of the things that make epic fantasy great.

I'd like to also note that Williams turns a lot of established cliches and tropes on their ears while preserving the mythopoeic feel that should permeate epic fantasy. He's done more than simply imitate Tolkien. He took the trappings of Tolkien, Chaucer, and Mallory and done something meaningful with them. In the end, he ties things up and closes the book. In the twenty years since Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was concluded, Williams has not returned to Osten Ard. That story was told and finished. By allowing it to end, he has preserved the substance and meaning of his tale without diluting it with a never-ending cycle of publications.

In some ways, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn should provide a sort of model regarding how to write heroic epic fantasy without falling into the traps that Tom Simon elucidated. I find it quite telling that George R.R. Martin, though inspired by Tad Williams, does not imitate his style or substance, instead reaching for and developing his own in A Song of Ice and Fire. This is why Williams' contribution to fantasy is so important. While Eddings, Brooks, Jordan, and Goodkind were churning out epics that used Tolkien and his sources as a model to imitate, Williams took that model and not only told a story but sought to explore a variety of themes that speak to the human condition. Although he was largely overlooked by the mainstream fantasy-reading public, the authors that mattered noticed him and set about to break fantasy out of the cliche-ridden repetitiveness, meandering and pointless plotting, and vapid attempts at philosophy that had infected it.

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.