New Masters of Story

Some months ago this column looked at three fantasy novels that defied convention and the herd mentality, eschewing dragons, elves, orcs, vampires, boy wizards, and evil empires to map new realms of the vast universe of fantastika.

 

The time seems right to slice another tranche from the fantasy genre, and examine what's been happening in the meantime. First off, I should mention that since our last foray a small controversy has roiled the field, over the topic of morality versus nihilism in the literature. Shades of John Gardner and his jeremiad, On Moral Fiction. The trail, which by now stretches across myriad blogs, begins with this article by Leo Grin.

 

For whatever it's worth, none of the books under discussion today exhibit the slightest trace of ethical bankruptcy on the part of their authors, except insofar as the writers might positively revel in the dilemmas presented by the ethically problematical behavior and choices of their characters. But isn't that dicey focus the core allure of all fiction?

 

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British critic and editor David Pringle has a very interesting literary theory. He maintains that much of the last century of popular fiction has been consciously or unconsciously following a smallish stock of narrative templates and methods brilliantly codified during the late Victorian/early Edwardian period, or what Pringle dubs "The Age of Storytellers." Kipling, Stevenson, Verne, Wells, Doyle, Haggard: these writers and others were such powerful, popular storytellers that their influential signature patterns of fiction writing continue to determine the kind of tales that get fashioned and sold right down into the twenty-first century. In this light, later inspirations and role models such as Tolkien pale in comparison, and fantasy writers seeking to return to the ur-source would do well to leap backward a generation deeper than many shallow scavengers currently do.

 

Pringle's theory certainly receives a boost from the inspired work of Robert Redick, whose quartet of novels known as "The Chathrand Voyage" reaches its penultimate stage with The River of Shadows. Redick has succeeded in creating a Kidnapped or Treasure Island for contemporary times, which reads at once like some timeless fable and also like a knowing postmodern artifact (a mysterious editor intervenes at times with pronouncements that break the fourth wall). This work manages to be both sophisticated and naïve, direct and cunning, heartfelt and cerebral. The adventure is nonstop, the characters powerfully endearing, and the world-building meticulous, generous, fresh, and surprising: the term "widescreen baroque," coined by SF Grandmaster Brian Aldiss, proves a particularly apt tag for this example of what The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction defines as "a subgenre of science fiction characterized by larger-than-life characters, violence, intrigue, extravagant settings or actions, and fast-paced plotting."

 

Redick's series began in 2008 with The Red Wolf Conspiracy. A panoply of Dickensian characters were set loose in a largely maritime world, all abroil in conflict, intrigue, and passionate plots. Chief among the large cast were "tarboy" Pazel Pathkendle, exiled by war from a cozy home to the lowest stratum of sailors; and Thasha Isiq, an admiral's daughter about to be sacrificed in a loveless diplomatic marriage. Aboard the humongous warship Chathrand, these youngsters find each other and fall in love, in the midst of intricate dangers, both natural and supernatural. Pazel and Thasha each exhibit growing magical talents which wreak dramatic penalties on the hapless users. Strewing the path of the main struggle—will an evil conjurer named Arunis Wytterscorm gain the most potent magical device in the whole world?—are a hundred other obstacles and difficulties, to be transcended only by love, courage, friendship, and faith.

 

By the end of the second book, The Ruling Sea—an installment that gifted us with a plague of mutant rats, tiny mannikin warriors, ninjas turned were-whales, good old cannon-fire between warships, and lost civilizations of tropical isles—the battered vessel and its equally battered crew had landed on terra incognita only to find that everything they assumed about their destination was wrong.

 

River of Shadows picks up precisely at this point. With some Swiftian satire (humans in the southern hemisphere are mindless beasts, and the dominant race are golliwogs), Redick propels Pazel and Thasha in search of a way to stop Arunis, who continues to lurk in the labyrinth of the Chathrand. Time-slips and evil sentient swords complicate matters, before a Pyrrhic victory is attained, setting us up for a future, final confrontation.

 

Besides his intelligent emulation of the techniques of Old Masters—Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard come to mind—Redick is not above paying homage to such twentieth-century luminaries as Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. His world of Alifros has the mix of red-blooded barbarism and decadent court life that marked Howard's Hyborian Age, or Burroughs's ancient Mars. In fact, Alifros features such a thick, ripe history that, as in the best fantasies, the exotic milieu itself becomes a character. And the giant ship stirs up echoes of Peake's Gormenghast.

 

But what ultimately ensnares the reader in this fantasy (and in all great fantasies, I think) is, paradoxically, its verisimilitude, its shock-of-recognition intersections with the consensus reality we inhabit, sensory and emotional touchstones both small and large. The stifling smell of a cramped grog-locker; Thasha's salt-stiffened hair; the sore mangled paw of an intelligent rat; the desire to reconnect with lost family. Redick exhibits such a winning sensitivity toward and engagement with life's many common vicissitudes ("How many times could the world change, before there was nothing left you could recognize?"), its sweetness and gall, that the fantastical elements seem at times secondary to the very human losses and triumphs he so ably crafts for our enjoyment.

 

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Fans of Daniel Abraham's formidable opus, The Long Price Quartet series, will find much to admire in his newest, The Dragon's Path, which constitutes the opening salvo of The Dagger and the Coin. But the considerable charms of the new work lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from Long Price. That first series was, overall, an undeniable tragedy: somber, weighty, full of remorse, loss and realpolitik. This new venture is decidedly a comedy, albeit one with violent mortal corollaries always lurking at the edges of the pratfalls (and I do mean pratfalls: our introduction to one of the main characters involves him falling into a latrine).

 

The reader will note from the frontispiece map that Abraham's fantasy world mirrors almost exactly the geography of our Europe and the British Isles. A telling clue, that. We are in a transitionary scenario where the "mundane" world we experience is becoming dominant, a riff that might be best characterized by the title of a Larry Niven novel: The Magic Goes Away. With the uncanny standards dissipating, how does mankind learn to go about its new business?

 

In Abraham's vision, the titular dragons that once ruled an empire are long gone, leaving little more than crumbling statues and their superior roads, abandoning the stage to the squabbling of thirteen races of men (not counting hybrids such as our main heroine). The emphasis here is on swordplay, military campaigns, and politicking, and the main "cunning man" magician is literally an actor playing a role.

 

But when I say "mundane," it's all relative, for this is what students of mimetic literature call "High Romance," of the Sir Walter Scott/Alexander Dumas variety. (There we are again, in the early nineteenth-century pre-dawn of the Age of Storytellers!) We have a bold and weary mercenary, Captain Marcus Wester (think of any number of bad-ass Hollywood leading men, from Errol Flynn to Robert Mitchum); his dour sidekick, Yardem Hane (Willem Dafoe); a waifishly attractive orphan girl, Cithrin (Veronica Lake or Kirsten Dunst); and Sir Geder Palliako, a "strange little pudgy man with the enthusiasm for maps and comic rhyme" (Jack Black or Akim Tamiroff). Put them all on the road, mix well, and let the farce begin. "I think the world is often like that," our faux mage opines at one point. "Comic, but only at the right distance."

 

Abraham exhibits a fine talent for droll dialogue, one of the prime requisites for this type of tale. Here's Marcus and Yardem—both unsentimental ex-military types—when the men realize that Marcus is falling for Cithrin:

"This girl's not my daughter," Marcus said.

"She's not, sir."

"She doesn't deserve my protection more than any other man or woman in this 'van."

"She doesn't, sir."

Marcus squinted up into the clouds.

"I'm in trouble here," he said.

"Yes, sir," Yardem said. "You are."

The MacGuffin at the heart of the Marcus-Cithrin thread—a cart full of misappropriated treasure—develops quickly into something approaching a heist novel by Westlake. The subplot involving Geder is darker, and the occasion for the remaining traces of magic to surface, as we witness the innocuous scribbler transformed into a punitive avenger. By novel's end, we sense that Geder's revengeful schemes will eventually impact the private doings of the mercenary and his female client. And as for that "fake" cunning man, his secret past will undoubtedly come into play.

 

Abraham's superb balancing act between farce and disaster, folly and fear, has barely begun to unfold.

 

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The writer of fantasy or science fiction set in recognizable milieus—contemporary times, or the near future—faces a bit of a dilemma when depicting characters who enjoy reading, and whose personas have been molded by books. The writer can, within his own fiction, either allude to the actual existing literature of the fantastic (or to invented analogues), or ignore the field entirely. To take the first tack—which offers a delightful and sometimes profound sense of connection to the shared world of books—risks not only puncturing the reader's suspension of disbelief, but the possibility of becoming nerdily recursive, prey to in-jokes and cliquishness.

 

 

On the other hand, to pretend in a work of fantasy that fantasy literature doesn't exist, or simply to omit mention of same, is not only an easier task, it lends one's work a kind of sovereign majesty: the occult adventures I am recounting are tangible and real and unprecedented, not just some imaginary book such as those other chaps write! The naïve protagonist who is unaware of the tropes of fantastika can display reactions that a character well versed in these devices cannot logically exhibit.

 

Of the two approaches, I favor the first. As John Crowley has said of his own impeccable fantasies, "My books are made of other books." To embed a new work of fantasy explicitly in the long and honorable lineage of such books is, to some degree, to inherit a portion of the ancestral magic. It's not cheating or theft, if the new author lives up to her predecessors.

 

Such is the case with Jo Walton's Among Others, to an unprecedented degree. A story in the form of diary entries from a gawky, brainy, crippled UK teen named Mori Phelps, the novel features at least one mention of a fantasy or SF novel per page, and oftentimes more. (Some non-genre works play their part as well, and in fact Mori has the kind of eclectic adolescent tastes that can encompass Roger Zelazny in one breath and T. S. Eliot in the next.) These beloved books constitute Mori's lifeline to sanity and sheer existence. She's an inveterate, habitual reader, who would (or so she thinks for a while) rather have a new book than a boyfriend. An isolated soul at the mercy of her strange family and past; a nerd, a loner, a girl otaku. In short, a card-carrying member of the actual potential audience for this very book. Walton has chosen to plunge unashamedly into geekdom, and somehow turned this heartfelt catalogue of pop culture into art, a naturalistic representation of the species. Admittedly quasi-autobiographical, Among Others still attains the proper distance and clear-sightedness to transcend self-indulgence and self-pity.

 

It's not so much that Among Others as a narrative is made of books, but that Mori herself is in large part constituted of printed words. Her soul and mentality have integrated great chunks of fictive lessons and virtual experiences into themselves, as life-saving measures. Mori is under the care of her milquetoast, formerly absent father, having escaped the mad mother she deems a practicing witch, who was responsible for the death of Mori's twin sister in a car accident. Able to see fairies, Mori realizes that the world is a larger and more mysterious place than most people admit, and only SF and fantasy tales allow her to make sense of the big universe.

 

Because we experience everything through Mori's narration, we are forced to consider her reliability. Walton cleverly, with the hallowed fictional game of is-she-mad-or-isn't-she?, accentuates the dilemma with several telling allusions. Why doesn't the otherwise omnivorous Mori like the work of Philip K. Dick, for instance? Could it be that Dick's delusional protagonists, with their weak grip on reality, hit too close to home? When toward the close of the book, Mori's new boyfriend sees fairies too, the scales appear to tip in her favor. But then again, we only have Mori's report and interpretation of his behavior.

 

Ultimately, however, questions about whether Mori's fairies are real or a coping mechanism for a broken home, and whether her mother is a literal witch or not, are concerns that fade away in the face of her struggle to fashion a self that is authentic and able to confront the harshness of the world.

 

Set in 1979, long before the distractions of the Internet and DVDs, long before the etherization of books into bytes, this novel chronicles a vanished age when books had to be won at great costs, and consequently meant so much more. Could a similar biography unfold today? Only if fantasy continues to resonate with those for whom consensus reality is always achingly unsatisfactory.

About the Columnist
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award -- all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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