What I was trying to get at in my recent post, “The Setting is Wrong,” is that well-developed fictional settings have an internal logic to them, and when a story violates the established principles that govern its setting, it can detract a great deal from the experience. Of course, stories (and even more, films and other visual media) set in real-world settings have the same kind of problem, to an even greater degree. Some fans spend a fair amount of time picking apart stories set in earlier historical periods, searching for anachronisms and other questionable artistic decisions.

However, I recently watched an episode of Stargate SG-1 that demonstrated how applying the logic of a long-standing science fiction setting can lead to an interesting and rather rewarding plot experience. The episode, “Lockdown,” occurs near the beginning of the eighth season, by which time the SG-1 universe (which is different in some rather important ways from the setting of the film Stargate) had been explored pretty extensively.

The primary antagonist of the Earth-based forces shifts over the course of the show. In season seven, it was Anubis—an evil being whose nature is sufficiently strange that I need to explain it in some detail. He began as a member of the race of goa’uld, alien parasites who set themselves up as false gods. At some point in the far distant past, he “ascended” to become a new kind of being—something much more like a true deity. (In his deity form, Anubis is played by George Dzundza—one of the original cops from Law & Order—in a diner. I feel like I should append a comment here that this makes sense in context, but it I can’t quite bring myself to make that claim. In any case, that challenge of logic was in a very different episode.) For his evilness (maybe), Anubis was eventually banished back to something like his former existence; he no longer retains the powers of the “Ancients,” but neither is he bound to a physical body; he can possess whatever matter he finds convenient. In spite of his great power, his space fleet got obliterated at the end of season seven during an attack on Earth, leaving him (seemingly) utterly defeated.

Now, it’s hardly a surprise in most television shows when a previously destroyed super-villain shows up to fight the heroes again, with some cockamamie explanation for how he had managed to survive. For some villains, such as Davros, creator of the Daleks, this is how things work virtually every time they appear. However, Stargate SG-1 was rather different. Generally, when somebody seemed dead, they stayed dead (although they might show up again during a one- or two-episode foray into an alternate timeline). When there was a possibility of an enemy coming back, this was usually shown explicitly at the time of their defeat. (And when a vanquished foe was shown as having possibly escaped annihilation, they did not always make it back; sometimes the bad guy has a chance, but he blows it off screen.)

So when Anubis lost his fleet, he seemed to be gone. With the previous destruction of his main mother ship, he was explicitly shown escaping in a smaller vessel, but there was nothing like that in his season seven finale swan song. However, a few episodes later, some Russian cosmonauts encounter some debris left over from the battle. A strange contagious sickness, accompanied by erratic (or, rather, possessed) behavior spreads from one of the cosmonauts involved. Then, one of the show’s more intellectual heroes, Dr. Daniel Jackson, figures out that the victims are being possessed by Anubis’s disembodied consciousness, which had been hovering around that piece of space wreckage. The first time I saw this episode, I was struck by how much logical inevitability there was behind this revelation. It was totally unexpected, but once the character had enunciated what was going on, it made total sense within the logic of the setting. Over years of watching the show, I had become sufficiently immersed in the setting that I could feel what would be logical in that world and what would be non-sequitur. There are a number of storylines that really felt like organic outgrowths of previous events, but this was most striking to me.

Hear me, Ekuman!

January 27, 2013

Here’s the first installment of our read-along of Empire of the East, covering chapter 1 of book 1 of the trilogy. The first chapter gets going quickly, with dueling wizards and a torturer dying a gruesome but fitting death. So let’s get going.

I noticed that The Broken Lands starts with the bad guys, and I realized that this is a general pattern, with the first chapter of each volume told from the point of view of a villainous character. In this case, the viewpoint character is the story’s primary antagonist, although that’s not always the case. Sometimes the major villain may be too inhuman for his eyes to be an appropriate lens in the opening pages.

The description of the events in the castle dungeon was pretty evocative for me. Ekuman the satrap and his two wizards were each interesting and evil in their own way. Ekuman is clearly a cold, sadistic warlord. Elslood is a rather conventional wizard and threatening in that fashion. (The fact that the princess Charmian is evidently so depraved that she could reflect his wicked spells back at him was, I thought, a very sinister way of illustrating what the text says—that she’s utterly evil.) Zarf was less developed as a character in this chapter; most of his menace comes from the behavior of his wicked little toad familiar (which may be the frog-thing on the back cover?).

I particularly liked the description of the way the magic permeating the atmosphere caused the walls and ceiling seem to pull back. I think this effective because it is something many readers can readily imagine. Macropsia is a relatively common neurological condition (I tend to get it when I’m feverish), in which the visual field seems to expand, making objects seem smaller. A lot of people have experienced at least mild versions of this kind of disorientation, so it is something readers can relate to, psychologically. Yet it’s also something that’s clearly incompatible with the nature of real physical space, which gives it a mystical feeling. Many authors have attempted to evoke similar effects with descriptions of twisted geometry—like Lovecraft with his descriptions of the non-Euclidean geometry of R’lyeh, although I don’t think those worked half as well.

Unfortunately, I’m only a couple pages into the book, and already I’m missing some of the flourishes of the original, unredacted version. Ironically, the passage that I noticed was missing was concerned precisely with the kinds of flourishes not demonstrated by powerful wizards. The revised edition points out that the spells and movements of mages of great power are relatively restrained. The original laid out in more detail the wailing, the use of amulets, and the flurry of movement that would accompany a combat between lesser magicians.

I did still like Saberhagen’s first presentation of this world’s magic. I particularly liked that fact that when the Free Folk leader begins shouting his cryptic threat, everyone listening knows that there is no magic behind it; because if it had been a spell, the other wizards’s spells would have blocked and muffled it.

The threat itself, with its references to Ardneh’s power, is thematically pretty effective. These kinds of words, from many different mouths—other avatars, as Ardneh would put it—are a regular motif for the story. But they begin here, and it occurs to me that the powerful Ardneh, who comes to dominate the story more and more as the trilogy goes on (and becomes the patron of the White Temple in the subsequent Swords novels), may have been named just to make the pun with the Indian god Indra that is presented in the first ten pages. The mythological story of Indra and Namuci provides some interesting foreshadowing, although I’m not certain how much of it Saberhagen intended at this point. Demons and their soul objects become major plot points later in the series, and the image of the lightning god dripping foam onto the back of the demon Namuci is one of the most memorable images of the whole series for me (even though it’s barely described). In the original Vedic mythology, Namuci was a drought demon (identified by Buddhists with Mara, bringer of death). The notion of this demon being slain by the sea froth, against which its nature made it uniquely weak, was not original to Saberhagen (according to folklore, Namuci was beheaded, although it appears to be unclear how Indra decapitated him using foam), but Saberhagen made remarkable use of this bit of real-world mythology as a way of tying his story to the legends of the real Earth.

More generally, Elslood’s research with the book of myths and Ekuman’s thoughts about old technology make it clear that the world of The Broken Lands is ours, but the people inhabit a ruined future. The villains know that there are tales of elephants going all the way back to the ancient days (and the reader is left to wonder whether the animals might still exist in some other part of the world), but it’s not known in Ekuman’s realm whether elephants were real beasts or just myths. (At the same time, the wizards don’t know whether there were real demons in today’s world, a point that is returned to much later in the series.) The old technology will play a crucial role in all three of the Empire of the East books, and there’s evidence of its importance right from the very beginning.

According to my lesson plan, we will be covering chapters 2 and 3 next week. Catch you on the flip side!

The Setting is Wrong

January 23, 2013

Do you ever feel like there’s something wrong with the setting of a story? Sometimes, when I’m reading a piece of fiction from a series I’m already familiar with, I’m brought up short by a feeling of incongruity. I get a sense that this narrative doesn’t fit with the established milieu. This effect can occur for a couple different reasons, two of which I want to illustrate with specific example.

The first example is the “Conan” story “The Blood-Stained God,” (almost full text available here, although the file is a mess). When I first read this story, I was struck by something. The descriptions of equipment, garb, and buildings seemed quite different from what I had previously seen in other Conan tales. To me, the story evoked an impression of Persia or Afghanistan, not the fictional Hyborean age. The vests are silken; the hats are turbans; the swords are scimitars. Men are described as “Iranistani” and wear cloaks of camel hair. It just didn’t fit. This nagged at me for a while, but I eventually attributed it to an attempt by Howard to place Conan in a more distant, more Asian-inspired part of his fantasy world. I got to the end of the story, was unimpressed, and moved on.

I was young when I read this and new to Conan. I had not yet adopted the strategy of ignoring the stories that weren’t penned solely by Robert E. Howard. I was simply reading the stories in the order they were presented, which was intended to be chronological. “The Blood-Stained God” was listed as being written by Howard and de Camp; later, seeing that byline would be a tip-off to skip past, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I didn’t think much about the story at all, in fact. I just moved on after the ho-hum ending.

Only later did I discover the true nature of “The Blood-Stained God.” L. Sprague de Camp had been responsible for editing a great deal of Howard’s fiction, something he was quite boastful about, which is ironic considering what it contributed to his reputation. When he stuck to his own fiction, de Camp was a decent, although not really impressive, fantasy author, but he was a lousy editor for Howard’s work. The tale of his editing is given by The Barbarian Keep site. In this case, de Camp took a story that Howard wrote but which had naught to do with Conan and slapped the barbarian’s name onto it. The setting reminded me of modern Afghanistan because it was modern Afghanistan. The story’s lone fantasy element, which seemed artificially tacked-on at the end, seemed that way because it was just tacked onto the end of Howard’s story. De Camp justified this by claiming that Howard’s heroes were all pretty much alike—men of action, resorting to violence whenever they were in a fix. He argued that this made the stories relatively timeless, so it was no matter to change a lesser-known hero into the more famous Conan—although he did usually feel obligated to add some fantastical elements as well, to keep with the general tone of Conan stories. And some people are obviously happy with this approach. There are reviews of this story online, written by people who know the history, that praise the universality of Howard’s writing for being transferable thousands of years in time and thousands of miles in space without making the story less enjoyable. I think this just shows these commentators have tin ears, since the setting was so jarring to me when I first read it.

There are many other stories that were mutilated in various ways by de Camp’s ham-handed editing. Sometimes he merely made unnecessary changes to the verbiage, to suit his personal preference. That is somewhat obnoxious, but hardly ruinous. In other tales, the edits are painful and obvious. There are segments that were obviously composed in order to fit the stories better into de Camp’s and Lin Carter’s preferred view of Conan’s world and history. There is an execrable section, in which the hero plots the conquest of Aquilonia, added near at the end of “The Black Stranger.” There is the recasting the Hyrkanian peoples as proto-Mongols. These grate on me when I read them, and they just cry out to me that they are wrong.

While in the first example, the incongruity is a result of a later editor trying to cram a story into a setting where it doesn’t belong, this can also occur where only a single hand is involved. This is the case in my second example, Fred Saberhagen’s novel Berserker Fury. I don’t know how many of my readers have read this. It was written quite late in Saberhagen’s career; it’s one the last books he wrote about the city-sized, life-eradicating robot-ships called Berserkers that plague his vision of the future.

The core of Berserker Fury is a fictionalized version of the Battle of Midway, one of the most important naval engagements in history. Saberhagen had done similar things before, most notably in “Stone Place,” which is based on the Battle of Lepanto. However, the strength of “Stone Place” comes from the way Saberhagen produced alternate versions of the Lepanto’s most famous participants, the commander John of Austria and Miguel de Cervantes, along with the feuding between Venusian Venetians and the other members of the human alliance.

Reading Berserker Fury, I didn’t realize that the story duplicated Midway’s (although I am quite familiar with the facts surrounding the real battle). What I did notice was that all the military matters seemed totally wrong for the story. In “Stone Place,” the Berserker fleet is defeated by ramming and boarding tactics, mirroring the use of war galleys at Lepanto. Hundreds or thousands of years have passed by the time of Berserker Fury, but the elements of code breaking and carrier-based fighter wings just didn’t seem to fit. The story didn’t feel like it was describing a space battle; it felt like twentieth-century warfare at sea. This really took me out of the story.

In addition, the book has other problems. The action skips around a lot, both in position and time, making the thrust of the story hard to follow. A lot of time is spent on a subplot involving Berserker worshippers, but these worshippers are not the insane death-seekers of “In the Temple of Mars” or the tyrannical Norse cultists from Berserker’s Planet. They’re more like peace-loving flower children, who seem totally out of place, both for the time the story was written and the time it takes place. In fact, the whole book feels like a temporal mish-mosh, with Templars singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Saberhagen goes so far as to integrate some of his non-Berserker science fiction into his Berserker universe; this was a setup for his subsequent crossover novel between the Berserkers and The Veils of Azlaroc, Berserker Prime.

You Can Read Along

January 20, 2013

When I’ve discussed short fiction on this blog, I’ve tried to keep to works that are available for free on the World-Wide Web. However, that policy has some drawbacks. In particular, there’s not enough material online that I’m familiar with, and I lack the time and energy to read through a lot of dross looking for online stories I decide I want to blog about.

I chose things that were free to read so that anybody could look over the text themselves. Yet this rules out almost all discussions of long-form fiction, which is unfortunate. Moreover, I don’t really have many casual readers; nobody has commented on this blog who isn’t among my top ten next of kin. So I’ve decided to try a different kind of project. I will be discussing novels one or two chapters at a time and posting about the material weekly. My family of readers can follow along at the same time and contribute to the discussion.

I’m sure my brother Curran will appreciate the fact that I’m going to begin with Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East trilogy (The Broken Lands, The Black Mountains, and Changeling Earth–also published in an omnibus edition). Saberhagen’s writing is well suited to this kind of project, since any change of scene and viewpoint is generally accompanied by the end of a chapter.

(Some authors take this a step further. In Jack Chalker’s novels, there are chapter breaks wherever and only wherever there is a change in the location of the action. However, don’t look for me to write about Chalker’s works here. Except for Midnight at the Well of Souls, his work is execrably edited, resounds with nonsensical ecology, and shows a disturbingly increasing fascination with polymorphed sex.)

I’m going to be using the (rather edited) omnibus edition. I’ve never actually read the one-volume version of the trilogy before, and it rather goes against my inclination to work with the original versions of works. (I don’t typically appreciate the efforts authors, or other artists, make to refashion their earlier works; it just seems esthetically wrong to me. In Saberhagen’s case, I know that I also prefer his earlier writing to what he produced later, although he re-edited the omnibus edition only five to ten years after the publications of the original volumes.) Recent printings of the omnibus have a truly regrettable cover. There’s a cover blurb advertising, “seamless splicing of SF and fantasy,” but the art makes it look the most generic fantasy book ever. I’m not even sure what most of the things pictured have to do with Saberhagen’s story.

I’ll get started with the commentary next time around. Now I apologize to any readers who may be too young to have listened to children’s stories on miniature records with read-along album books, but I have to do this.

This is the story of Empire of the East.  You can read along with me in your book.  You will know it is time to turn the page when you hear the demon lord yowl, like this:

LET’S BEGIN NOW.

See you in a week, with the first chapter of The Broken Lands.

My brother and I, along with a number of his friends, have been discussing various aspects of The Lord of the Rings, and one of the topics that came up was the way Gandalf must limit his power as he tries to inspire the free people of Middle Earth to resist the domination of Sauron. But there’s one time, in Moria, when he doesn’t need to hold back.

Some people feel that the encounter with the balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring is the absolute pinnacle of western fantasy literature. (Of course, this is a highly subjective matter; few genres have a widely accepted acme—an, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” moment.) It’s also one of the universally acknowledged triumphs of Peter Jackson’s frequently inept cinematic adaptations. Ralph Bakshi’s version is less well thought of, but it has its fans as well. (Some people also don’t like the Amerindian-looking Aragorn from Bakshi’s rotoscoped animation, but I think it’s a great representation of the character.)

In the original text, Tolkien’s description of the balrog is actually not especially detailed. As a result, there are many ways that a reader might picture the monster. This unfortunately leads to fans spending innumerable Internet hours arguing about questions like whether the balrog actually has wings, or whether the shadows around it merely look like vast wings. But clearly one reading of the description is as the classical image of a fallen angel, which is what the monster was in Tolkien’s cosmology.

I see the encounter with the balrog was the one time in the story when Gandalf (or Olorin, as he was known in the West) is able to unleash all his native power. He is facing a being of his own order, who does not belong in Middle Earth. The balrog is not going to hold back, so neither does the wizard (and even fighting all out, the battle leaves him mortally wounded).

However, my reason for posting this now was that I came across a quote that I think represents what Gandalf must have been thinking as he faced down his peer across the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. Thus spake Superman to Darkseid:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywo6F4xYTvA%5D

Talismans

January 15, 2013

Some recent online discussions have got me thinking about an issue with talismans—items of power—in fantasy fiction. There is sometimes a tendency for an author to fixate on a favorite creation and to focus on it more and more. What might have begun as an important plot device can take on such significance as to completely overpower the rest of the story.

Sometimes, this works. The Lord of the Rings began as a brief sequel to The Hobbit, but it famously “grew in the telling.” Bilbo’s ring is a key element in the plot of the first book; it is a profound equalizer, making him more than even with his dwarfish companions. From the protagonist’s point of view, the finding of the ring is the most important part of the story; Tolkien even points this out explicitly: “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.”

Yet in The Lord of the Rings, the ring is converted into epic fantasy’s ultimate artifact of doom, and practically everyone agrees that this works. Tolkien benefited from having written Bilbo’s original encounter with Gollum very well. Bilbo’s show of mercy—not killing Gollum when he had the chance, but instead risking his life to escape—provided the author with a good explanation for how the ring could be a source of corruption without tainting Bilbo’s heroism.

However, more frequently (it seems to me), this kind of change in focus is damaging to the overall narrative structure. Roger Zelazny started writing The Chronicles of Amber without the slightest idea where the story was going. A man wakes up in a hospital, and crazy stuff starts happening. The author seemingly made the first book, Nine Princes in Amber, up entirely as he went along. At some points, the story is full of detail and irrelevancies; other chapters cover world-shattering battles in barely a few pages. It’s uneven, but it works. The second book, The Guns of Avalon, has a more consistent plot, and it sets things up for a world-cris-crossing conflict. Through these two books, something called the Pattern makes several important appearances. It is through walking the maze-like Pattern that the lords of the transdimensional city of Amber come into their power. But there are other seemingly equally powerful sources of magic in the story as well, such as the Jewel of Judgement, worn at the neck of the city’s master.

From the third book onward, Zelazny had figured out where he wanted the story to go, and it had problems. One of the problems was that the Pattern seemingly expanded to be responsible for everything. There was a copy of it inside the Jewel, and the plot starts to revolve around securing and protecting the various copies of the Pattern that crop up around the multiverse. Of course, this isn’t the only problem with the later books (which extend to ten, actually, although I gave up reading after the original five). The characterization also fails. In The Guns of Avalon, the hero, Corwin, calls himself an evil that holds back other evil. By the end, he decides that his sociopathic family isn’t really so bad after all, and his youngest brother, who was ready to murder a gas station attendant for being mouthy in the first book, is raised up as a just and noble king. But what I remember about the story is that it’s all about the Pattern, which really began to grate.

Another example where a specific piece of a story’s magical impedimenta comes to totally dominate the storyline is the Staff of Law in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Donaldson wrote three separate series of books (plus a short gaiden story, representing material excised from the second volume), and I must confess that, in this case as well, I never made it to the last series (which was written long after the others). In the original trilogy, the heroes spend much of the first book, Lord Foul’s Bane, trying to retrieve the Staff of Law from the clutches of some middling baddies who are easily manipulated by the true villain, the evil god Lord Foul. Unfortunately, by the third book, Foul gets ahold of the Staff of Law and uses it to mess with the weather. In the course of dealing with this problem, the hero burns the iron-shod staff into ashes; and that really should have been the end of it.

Supposedly, Donaldson didn’t really want to write any additional books, but he ended up getting talked into two more series. However, he fixated way too much on the Staff of Law as the key to the natural balance in his fantasy world, The Land. The second trilogy is focused around recreating the Staff. The characters (and, even more, Donaldson expects his readers) are supposed to be oblivious to the fact that the super-powered golem travelling with them—a creature of pure structure—is supposed to turn into a new incarnation of the Staff. This was dead obvious to me from the moment when the construct, Vain by name, slipped on the iron bands from the ends of the original staff that was burned up in book three. Even when one of his arms turns to wood after contact with the One Tree, from which the first staff was cut, the characters remain utterly mystified about what Vain is planning. Having to go on a quest to completely recreate this artifact does provide enough material for a whole trilogy (to the extent that Donaldson ever has enough material to fill up his 500-page books), but the author took an artifact idea that was essentially already milked for all it was worth and based another whole series on the item. (Moreover, my understanding of the third set of books is that the obsession with the Staff of Law persists.) It just doesn’t really work.

There are more examples, but I think these are illustrative. And, in retrospect, I think I should have named this post “Talismania.”