The continued re-envisioning of fantasy has been eye-opening. I had given up on the genre by the 1980s, as writers milked Tolkien’s formula in ways that I found not that interesting. As often happens, the genre itself was simply going through the types of changes that happen when young readers rethink the generic expectations that they grew up with, and then become writers. Beautiful stories often are the result.
That said, Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass hints at that kind of rethink. Several African authors have created some amazing texts (I’m currently working my way through this list), N.K. Jemisin has won a Hugo and written a fantasy series that I still think about a lot, and even the white guys (Erikson & Esslemont, Martin, Abercrombie, et al.) have pushed fantasy far beyond its previous incarnations, making it both more and less based in real-world laws. Beyond the genre, authors like Susannah Clarke, Karen Lord, Jo Walton, and Akwaeke Emezi incorporate elements of fantasy in texts that fit into a variety of categories, all of which look far different for having accepted this straying.
Maas’s exploration of generic boundaries is a bit more restrained, at least in this first novel, but still Throne of Glass defied my expectations, often. I’ve catalogued some of these thoughts below:
- The female protagonist and heroine has been done, of course, but Maas adds a couple of interesting elements of choice to her portrayal, (this is sort of a spoiler, but not really) including who she chooses to end up with. There are elements of romance in this novel in ways that I do not often see.
- Bringing in chaos and the Wyrd (and the land of faerie) is a touch that I wish more authors did (Clarke is brilliant at it, and Martin’s children of the forest owe a lot to this concept as well), and these features add depth to this novel.
- This is a long series, so I am assuming that these elements get explained more thoroughly in future texts, but there is a lot of potential in that world…
- These characters are also developed differently, in a way that hints at what Lauren Berlant saw as ways to deal with the constant trauma that many people in our world experience. The main character, for instance, is rescued from a slave mine, albeit for a competition that she might not survive (although we know she will). At first I was frustrated, because the slave mine experience seemed to be one that was offered as a isn’t-she-amazingly-tough backstory. As the novel develops, though, the horrors of that place become more apparent, and we start to get glimpses of how the experience has both traumatized and molded her.
- It’s an interesting approach to character development, and I wonder if Maas does this as an element of her craft, mimicking the gradual reveal of trauma that might happen in intensive therapy.
Throne of Glass helps expand the generic boundaries, and I am curious to see how that expansion continues. Fantasy has moved far from the hide-bound genre it was in the 1970s (with apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson, of course), and here’s hoping its influence lives long…
Although I love cyberpunk I was not familiar with Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita series until I saw the film with a friend. I then picked up the comic books, and…well, thoughts below:
- The genial cybernetic surgeon who works for the poor (Dr. Ido) and still swings a mean atomic-powered hammer at night is not something I saw coming…
- The morphing of “battle” and “angel” feels like another look at the Molly from the Neuromancer series…Kishiro seems to roll seamlessly between having characters comment on how cute she is and then having her disembowel or decapitate them. Or both.
- The search for a backstory hints at the economic separatism and destroyed world that the film emphasized, and while the enemy (impossibly rich and obsessed with occupying the top rungs of the economic ladder) is sort of an easy one, the idea of a fall from the heaven of economic security only to be reinstated in a worthy body posits a world in which violence gets directed downwards over and over again…
- The image is fascinating to me, and I think speaks to how little I know of Japanese culture – why a tiny very young woman? Why does Kishiro invert the stereotype so broadly? Why do the “evil” cyborgs fall in love with her, and what are the implications of that?
- Because I’m comfortable with sci-fi and western culture, these questions feel appropriate (and they may not be) – I can endlessly talk about how using Molly as the bodyguard (with a cybernetically-enhanced body that is still captured constantly in all sorts of powerfully disruptive ways) and Case – and Bobby Newmark – as the emotional core shreds science fiction conventions. I have no idea if Kishiro is doing the same thing, but it sure feels like it…
- I am very glad she has some serious plasma weaponry – the film seemed to emphasize her fighting style in ways that felt too used to Hollywood mano-on-mano narratives…
- Finally, the pen-and-ink, sketched out art speaks to manga in my less-than-literate-in-Japanese culture mind…
My re-read of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series continues with The Illearth War. As a kid I blew through these fast, mostly because they did not feature Covenant as a combination Frodo-Aragorn-Gandalf. As an adult, I am finding these novels pretty amazing, and way ahead of their genre time…
- I think that I kept wanting these to be some sort of eco-criticism fantasy, and the first two books keep offering this – the Lords (who are high-powered mages) are kind, wise, brave, powerful, and empathetic, and obsessed with protecting The Land. The Land itself (and it always appears in Elegantly-Capitalized Glory) is constantly being described as being at-risk, prompting a war with those who would do it damage. There are even characters who live in the forest and serve humans sort of magically. Hell, there are Giants, and they are everything we want Giants to be: alien, lovers of stone and trees, funny, incredible warriors, and so on. And there are forms of Ents, although these Ents have a mean streak a mile wide, and enjoy hanging evil creatures (that the combined force of all the good characters cannot touch) on a gallows on a hill for all to see, sort of just for the grins.
- And yet at no point does this become a not-so-subtle treatise on the ravages of polluters or what humans are doing to the planet. Instead, Donaldson I think challenges the genre, and what it demands of its readers.
I have no idea why the half-griffin is fighting a wolf-bear-lion…
- In this vein, the Lords are fascinating – they are everything that fantasy fans could want from mortals who are more like Gandalf than Frodo, and scream at us to believe in them (and offer themselves as Donaldson’s contribution to the canon).
- Still, they cannot stop Lord Foul, nor can they convince Covenant to understand (believe) that he has a critical part to play (or that he will not wake up).
- As a hint at what he is playing at, my guess is that Donaldson knows his Tolkien – here’s a passage from Tolkien’s genre-defining essay “On Fairy-Stories”:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.
- My guess is that this passage holds a key for Donaldson – Covenant is definitely the unbeliever – not just in The Land but in the idea of fantasy. He has entered a fantasy novel and is every young nerdy boy’s dream – he has a source of power that he just has to figure out how to use, and he is being catered to by powerful figures because they are sure that he is the key to them expelling evil from their world.
- All Donaldson wants to do, though, is to end this nightmare and head home, a place where he even has a horrible, disfiguring, medieval disease that has caused him to lose nearly everything and to have go to obsessive lengths in his attempts to arrest its progress.
For those who are interested in dwarves and elves and humans battling some form of evil, whether in the form of orc or balrog or whatever, these novels will not be your cup of tea. If, though, you want to read a series that will ask you why you believe what you believe at every step of the way, why, dive right in – the water is ice cold but epiphany-producing.
I will not be able to do justice to Berlant’s Cruel Optimism for a number of reasons, so this post serves mostly to document key elements and a couple of my reactions to them. Suffice it to say that Berlant’s argument tries to understand the frantic nature of contemporary story-telling, and it attempts this understanding in a profound, brilliant, and human way.
- She analyzes texts that are located in the world of art, and takes a cultural studies approach of sorts, to argue that the socio-economic promise of the 1980s is unmaintainable and some of our best art responds to the insecurities generated from this reality.
- Thus the title, eh? Cruel Optimism is the sort that happens when what we are optimistic about stuff that cannot happen.
- She focuses on the ways that we are constantly in a state of hyper-tension between the wealth we have and the desires we have to live lives of meaning and the inevitability and impossibility of reconciling these two norms.
- She argues that we feel all of this before we understand it cognitively, and those feelings become traumatic, although not in the ways that we usually think of that word, as an opposite of chronic.
- In fact, in her definition trauma becomes chronic, in ways that are immensely uncomfortable…
This is my second time reading Lord Foul’s Bane – I read it as a much younger man, fairly soon after being introduced to fantasy through Tolkien. I remember being immensely frustrated with the novel at the time (not so much that I didn’t read the rest of them, however), and wondering with my mom how Thomas Covenant could be such a non-hero.
I picked it back up after reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen series a couple of times, mostly because Erikson talks about Donaldson’s influence on him. The re-read was interesting, and I thought I’d comment on it here…
- Part of my frustration the first time came because I wanted Covenant to be a hero – for Frodo’s sake, he was picked up and dropped into the middle of a Middle Earth of sorts, and he’s got magic powers…what fantasy fanboi wouldn’t have immediately picked up the mantle of hero and done great things?
- I’m guessing that’s partially Donaldson’s point – us fan boys cannot imagine our favorite genre as anything but a constant retelling of the hero cycle, the monomyth…and Donaldson toys with the idea that we would be heroes, dropping all of our current identity to play Aragorn or Frodo or Sam…in this novel, the shock of being transmitted is too great…
- In fact, *everyone* in this world is far more heroic than Covenant, including children and horses.
- Any heroic action he undertakes happens either because he’s forced to or because the action triggered an unexpectedly heroic consequence.
- The folks of the Land even *recognize* Covenant’s weaknesses – he is not looked upon as a potential savior but as someone who wears white gold (again, a wedding ring, picked out by his now ex-wife) and has no concept of the potential for destruction that lies in it.
- White gold is considered wild, uncontrollable magic in this world…and whatever Covenant does is not out of long study or intent but simply some immediate impulse.
- The Land is this insanely beautiful place threatened by those who can be legitimately be called evil – it’s set up as the ultimate insert-yourself-and-be-a-hero story, and Covenant can’t manage it.
- And I’m convinced that Donaldson is very intentional with all of this – when he brings Covenant back to the mundane world at the end, he has a doctor comment on how medieval leprosy is, and how rarely it’s seen – all Covenant gets from the fantasy infatuation with the middle ages is a wasting disease…
- There’s a lot more to do here, and I hope to pick this back up as I re-read the rest of the series…
Cargill’s Sea of Rust lives in a couple of genres, as both an apocalyptic scifi novel and a gritty war text. In the first incarnation, it’s a worthy descendant of the robots-destroy-us-all genre, while in the second it fits with stories of small platoons trying to accomplish desperate missions. The fact that I cared about this platoon despite the fact that it consisted of robots (and robots who had committed war crimes against humans) is an interesting one…
- We follow BRITTLE, a caregiver type robot who has developed into a stone cold killer in order to survive in the new world. She’s a scavenger of sorts, putting robots down so that she can take their parts.
- Cargill talks a lot about the ways in which robots might develop some sort of conscience, and in ways he makes robot emotional states very close to those of humans.
- I think that makes sense, and speaks to the ways in which our technology will both outstrip us and be unable to avoid the same sorts of deep, hard-wiring that we gave them (even if it takes different forms).
- In this novel, the first principle is that killing makes sense and is the first principle, with controlling others a close second.
- The world isn’t total anarchy – there are two mainframes that survived the war with the humans intact, and they’re trying to bring order to the world by making all robots part of the larger network.
- Needless to say, lots of robots don’t want anything to do with this…
There was a belief for a while that cyberpunk was dead, with Gwyneth Jones its perhaps last practitioner. After all, the epiphany that William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy invoked shook up scifi in all the right ways, and produced a subgenre that moved the main genre away from its fascination with deep space and its flirtation with post-apocalypses to an engagement with the reality that networked computers and the systems that connect them. But the implications of what Gibson (and Sterling and Cadigan and all the rest) had played out, and the resulting weak revisions of the original cyberpunk vision were at best boring.
At the time I hoped that the death of cyberpunk was not true, but there wasn’t a lot of forward movement in the genre. Since then, it’s been reawakened and re-envisioned. I’ve already posted a couple of times about Richard K. Morgan’s Kovac series, and Morgan’s update of the genre is compelling and fascinating, with Kovacs’s first-person narrative simultaneously infuriating, energizing, and powerful.
Even acknowledging the power of that series, I’m particularly happy to have stumbled upon Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, an interesting new take on the movement. Drayden adds a whole new realm of inquiry to the genre in part by locating the material action in South Africa while maintaining cyberpunk’s reliance on far-flung systems. The fact that cyberpunk can go global (following Gibson’s good-guy Rastafarians in space and Morgan’s intentional opening up of the ethnic make up of human attempts to explore the universe) is a heartening one.
More thoughts below the fold: