A few weeks ago I read Jo Walton talking about fantasy and origin stories. Walton makes two related, astute points: first, that the stories of origin that people tell themselves are flexible and often serve contemporary ends, and second, that the modern genre of fantasy may be a way to reclaim and reshape the origin myth for people who no longer have a living mythological tradition. She makes a couple of guesses as to why the modern genre of fantasy appeared when it did, concluding that dominance of the printing press and the appearance of canonical origin stories limited further development of origin myths in the West. These forced people to make newer, explicitly fantastical stories to fill that gap.

There’s quite a lot of meat to Walton’s hypothesis. In particular, it’s well-known that J.R.R. Tolkein originally set out to write a new mythos for the British Isles, being disappointed in the weak mythological foundation that the actual Celts and Anglo-Saxons left. Tolkein, more than any other modern fantasist, seems to have consciously undertaken the project that Walton describes, and Tolkein towers over the genre of fantasy so completely that every post-Tolkeinian writer has to grapple with those same issues. But at the same time, this thesis misses something. By the time the Lord of the Rings came to print, Tolkein’s literary work had changed so radically that it no longer looked much like an English mythology. And if the history of Middle Earth really were the origin story of Britain, would it be so popular with people elsewhere?

Yet I do think that Walton is fundamentally correct about fantasy’s concern with origins. I just think that the origin myth which the fantasists are telling is not the origin myth of a particular place. It’s the myth of a particular time. The era that fantasy purports to explain to us is modernity, our own time, and the story that it usually tells is that of the Fall.

There are two great Falls that have formed the imagination of people raised in a Western culture: the Original Sin that expelled mankind from Eden, and the Fall of Rome that marked the beginning of the Dark Ages. (The Fall of Rome is a historical event in the way that the Fall from Eden is not, but it still has a mythological significance for our culture’s self-understanding.) Despite his Catholic faith, Tolkein most heavily draws on this second example for his great fantasy: LotR is the story of the end of the age of the Elves and the beginning of the dominion of Men. The power of Sauron is broken, but the cost of that breaking is that the high culture and numinous magic of the Elves disappear from Middle-Earth. We are left with the mundane world of Men, stripped of magic, in which the incredible achievements of the Elves remain only as memories in Gondor and a few other outposts of civilization. This post-Elvish Dark Age is the world that we live in.

Tolkein is telling, in other words, the origin story of the modern world, structured as a tragic story of passing. Modernity is characterized by disenchantment: the displacement of the sacred, magical, and numinous cosmos by the impersonal, mechanical universe described by science and dominated by industry. The passing away of the Elves dramatizes this shift. We live in the world of Men, without Elves, without magic, and without the presence of the sacred that characterized the Elvish world. In this analogy it’s significant that the Elves didn’t just die–instead, they go across the sea to the West, a place where magic and the gods still exist, but cut off and distant from the realm of Middle-Earth. This is reminiscent of the change of orientation of popular religion in the rationalized West, away from divine healing, wards against the demonic, and other forms of supernaturalism, and towards rationalism and moralism focused on a happy afterlife. A great many people still believe in some kind of divine or supernatural power, but few expect to have any contact with it, just as most people will never see the Elves.

The second element of Tolkein’s commentary on modernity is, of course, industrialization. Both Sauron and Saruman are associated with industry, and here Tolkein doesn’t spare any disdain. Saruman’s greatest sin (and the cause of his downfall at the hands of the Ents) is his transformation of Orthanc into a hellish factory, a gross mimic of the blasted wasteland of Mordor. But the most poignant example of this is the poor Shire, where Saruman’s influence means the ruin of the hobbit-holes and the intrusion of ugly brick bastions eyesores–a change which probably reflects Tolkein’s own experience of the transformation of the English countryside. He wrote a better ending for Middle-Earth, though: Orthanc is cleansed, Mordor’s power is broken, and the Shire is saved from the encroachment of industry. The lesson for us is that our world has not been so spared. One can’t help but think of Tolkein’s rueful note that if LotR were an metaphor for WWII, the hobbits “would not have survived long except as slaves”.

Tolkein’s influence over modern fantasy is so vast that nearly every fantasist that comes after him is participating in this conversation about modernity, consciously or not. The End Of Magic is one of the ur-plots of fantasy, and you can while away an afternoon trying to name significant fantasy works that don’t have an Original Sin or a Fallen Empire somewhere in their background. And fantasy is most often about restoring the status quo ante, where even if big changes occur in the shape of the world, they usually involve restoring an earlier, purer, unfallen state. This does not mean that fantasy is necessarily reactionary–though it often is. Rather, this conversation about the origins and merits of modernity lies at the heart of the genre, and arguably is the reason why fantasy exists as a genre in the first place.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent explosion of steampunk as a subculture and literary genre. Steampunk is explicitly located in the early industrial era, and its appropriation of the Victorian mills and factories for its playthings speaks volumes of its attitude towards modernity. As a whole, this is a more optimistic take on the victory of industrialism: engines and gears are presented as elements of whimsy rather than oppression. This gives steampunk an interesting ambiguity. On the one hand, it can be seen as ratifying and celebrating industrialization. However, its creativity and wild revisionism suggest a dissatisfaction with the way things actually turned out, and an exploration of the paths not taken in the early modern period. This is a genre that is engaging critically with the roots of the modern world, without needing to retreat all the way to the pastoral vision of Tolkein and his successors.

Yet steampunk is often considered a subgenre of science fiction rather than fantasy. After all, there are no Elves in 19th-century London. But I argue that by this criterion, at least, steampunk is clearly fantasy: it tells a story of origin, which is the purview of fantasy. Science fiction is not nearly so preoccupied with the origins of modernity, because SF is eschatology.

There is no one source that dominates SF in the way that Tolkein dominates fantasy, but Star Trek comes close. And Star Trek is completely, unapologetically modern. The future, Star Trek assures us, is great. Earth is united, there is no more poverty, racism and sexism are banished, and humanity embarks on new voyages of peaceful discover. The essential features of modernity are all preserved, but the negative elements of contemporary life are purged. The future turns out to be just like the present, only better. This is one way of evaluating the telos of modernism: we have already passed through the big change by becoming liberal and technological, and what remains is a smooth progression of advancement along those axes.

This is one kind of optimistic future, one that’s fallen out of favor these days. The alternatives, however, tend to be even more explicitly concerned with Last Things. The Singularity, the “rapture for nerds”, asserts that technology will not only make us happier humans, but eventually turn us into godlike post-humans. This makes the telos of modernity into the total transformation of humanity and the world, into something more powerful and wonderful than has ever yet existed. Conversely, the post-apocalyptic genre shows us the world after it’s been destroyed–usually because of something we did. This is the pessimistic eschaton, in which we destroy ourselves whether by nuclear war or ecological catastrophe or killer robots. But this shows that turn away from straightforward, progressive futures has not dampened the eschatological fervor of science fiction. If anything, it’s been amplified and given weirder, more bombastic colors worthy of John the Revelator himself.

These are old, venerable tropes of Western literature: the fall (when magic and the old order of the Elves passed away), damnation (when our technology brings us to Armageddon), or salvation (when our technology lifts us to the Singularity). Placing the generic features of fantasy and science fiction in this light suggests another intriguing reason why these genres appeared at this time. We moderns are acutely, painfully aware of how different we are from the people of earlier ages, for better or worse. Whether or not modernity is actually a unique era of history is a different question, but we certainly want to think that we are. And if we’re so different, how did we get that way? And where are we going? The key problem that speculative fiction solves is not that old origin stories became too fixed, but that they became inadequate to explain the present.

We need new myths to orient us. This need is filled by fantasy and science fiction as new books of Genesis and Revelation.

I’m finally getting around to fleshing out my thoughts on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which I finished about a week ago. And to start things off on a positive note, I’m going to start by talking about the things that the serious does extremely well.

The first book (The Golden Compass) is great from cover to cover, and there’s almost nothing bad to say about it. The heroine is marvelous, the settings gorgeous, and the world-building intriguing and complete. My favorites have to be the panserbjørne, though: giant armored bears who “make their own souls”. Iorek Byrnison is one of the most memorable figures of of recent fantasy literature, and he rightfully sits next to Aslan in the pantheon of dangerous-talking-animals-who-help-little-girl-protagonists.

In fact, what I remember most about the first book is the colorful, intriguing cast of secondary characters: the witches, the gyptians, and especially the Texan Lee Scoresby. I wished the second and third books had more of that–but then, I wished a lot of things about the second and third books.

Also, it’s impossible for me to talk about this book without bringing up the controversy and hostility the book generated in Christian circles. Some of the criticism was justified: Pullman’s clearly has it out for the Church, and his polemics derail his plot, especially in book 3. (More on this later.) But there was some rather hysterical stuff, especially lines like this: “I pointed out that, in these books, everything we normally associate with safety and security—parents, priests, and even God himself—is evil, is indeed ‘the stuff of nightmares.'” That says too much. Lyra’s actual parents are pretty nasty, but her surrogate parents (the gyptians, and to some extent Iorek Byrnison) are loving and courageous. In fact, there’s quite a bit of Christian virtue to be found in the heroes of the books, and a great many valuable or wise lessons imparted by Lyra’s surrogate parents.

As for the priests and God, that will have to be a separate post.

Which of the following myths is ultimately more harmful to realistic, honest human relationships?

  1. Sex is always dirty, shameful, and unpleasant, and should never be talked about at all.
  2. Sex is always fun, magical, and liberating, and should be talked about incessantly.

I’m calling it a toss-up.

(This is kind of a mess. Sorry.)

So there was a really great post about fantasy, power, and magic at the American Scene. This paragraph in particular resonated with me:

By contrast, Steven Erikson, as best I can tell from Gardens of the Moon, does not appear to be interested in anything other than the many varieties of power: physical, psychological, magical, political, spiritual. In his world there is no art, unless you consider as art certain varieties of magic — say, shifting a person’s soul from a human body to a wooden marionette. But this is really just the exertion of a (temporary) power over death. And once I decided that I wasn’t going to read any further in the series, I decided to cross the Rubicon — that is, check the Wikipedia pages of the next few volumes for plot summaries. I turned away from the computer with a great sigh of relief that I didn’t devote any more time to Malazan.

I haven’t read Erikson and so can’t comment on his books in particular, but this complaint is one that I’ve had, too. Furthermore, it puts me in mind of that thread at SF Signals about gods in fantasy. What’s intriguing is that almost all of the discussion of gods in fantasy assumed that the primary thing that gods to is be powerful. So the responses included the typical warning that having an omnipotent god would remove the tension (since s/he could just come in and fix everything) and a discussion of the ways that gods and their followers get or use power.

(Aside: Why do we assume that an omnipotent diety removes tension? I believe in an omnipotent God, but I experience plenty of tension thankyouverymuch.)

Really, is this all that gods are good for? In the actual religious lives of people around the world, I can think of three broad categories of experience that are related to the gods or divinity:

  • Diety as powerful and influential over the world and human lives
  • Diety as a moral judge and source of ethical judgements
  • Diety as sacred, numinous, and beautiful

Now what’s up with this list? In discussions of diety in fantasy, #1 bestrides the discussion like a colossus far disproportionate to the amount of concern that actual worshippers have for power.

#2 is almost completely absent. The problem is that “God as a source of moral reasoning” has become so tightly identified with Christianity (and with a particular political platform) that any writing about it will be perceived as a commentary on that religious/political stance. The only writer that I can think of who seriously addresses this idea is Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, and he has an explicit agenda to subvert the idea.

That leaves #3: diety as the numinous. My personal favorite! This is much rarer than treatments of diety as power, but at least it does have some serious treatments. I’d put Tolkein in this category, for example–though his dieties are certainly powerful, they’re associated with beauty and sublimity much more than ability. Raw exercise of power is the almost exclusive province of the baddies. Maybe it’s just me, but this approach seems to open up so many more possibilities than the exclusive focus on power. Art, love, majesty, sacrifice, wonder–these are the things of great literature, and they’re only tangentially related to power.

I’m a big fan of Order of the Stick, but I really felt that the plot got derailed after the fall of Sapphire City. The party was split up in two or three places, there were too many subplots, and too many intrigues involving minor characters that I didn’t care about. And the big picture plot with Xykon seemed to get lost in all of the noise.

However, the recent Evil Vaarsuvius arc has been plain awesome. We’ve gotten major development of one of the central characters, tied up a multitude of loose ends that have been lying around since, well, since the fall of Sapphire City, and it’s actually been funny. See the linked strip for demonstration of awesomeness. (But note that this isn’t the beginning of the arc. You’ll need to go back 15 strips or so to catch it from the start.) I anxiously await the conclusion of the arc.

Over at SF Signal their Mind Meld this week was about one of my favorite topics, Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Most of the answers are very good, though I especially liked John C. Wright’s answer, which included this paragraph:

Dark Fantasy lends itself nicely to monotheism, because we all know Christians are creepy: either they look like spooky Puritans, dressed in all black, a la Solomon Kane, or they have spooky gothic Cathedrals, complete with gargoyles and graveyards and torture chambers, not to mention ritual cannibalism and what’s not to like about that?

The real gem, though, was from the comments, which included this stunning poem by CS Lewis:

Cliche Came Out of its Cage


You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’.
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat… at the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.


Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

Okay, so it’s not the best poem in the world, but it’s a reminder that actual paganism was more bracing and interesting than the misty-eyed cliches that dominate much modern thinking (both in the minds of defenders and detractors).

Of late I’ve been rereading Always Coming Home by Ursula K. LeGuin, in preparation for Potlatch 18. It’s my second time through the novel, and I have to say that it’s as good upon reread as it was the first time–maybe better.

LeGuin is my favorite author. That’s putting it badly, though, because I don’t just enjoy reading her books: her writing embodies everything that I would want to accomplish as a writer. Ursula LeGuin is who I want to be when I grow up. And Always Coming Home is my favorite of the books of hers that I’ve read (which is most, but not all, of everything she’s ever published). It is the perfect combination of those traits that make her admirable: a piercingly beautiful description of a place that doesn’t exist, painted with such realism that one can hardly believe she didn’t actually go there; a fierce and overwhelming critique of modern civilization, not at its margins but at its core; a story of a place so unlike this world that it seems impossible to achieve, but nonetheless not a utopia or a city of angels, but a place inhabited by people with dirty feet. The first time I read the book it changed the way that I looked at the world. The second time has changed me again.

LeGuin is often polemical but not political, didactic but not condescending–but her politics and her teaching conflict with mine in many places. This makes it a hard book to read. It cuts me to the quick. It bites against things I believe deeply to be true. It speaks honestly, and forces me to be honest. I come away from reading it exhausted, spent and sweaty and in love. Rereading it was exhilarating but tiring, and leaving me with the need to process and consider what I saw. Hopefully, over the next several days I’ll be able to post a few articles discussing this book and my reactions to it. If I’m not too lazy, and if my thoughts settle into a pattern that fits into words.

Mark Liberman has a post up at Language Log discussing Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, and in particular his “upper case phoneme”.

I’m a fan of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, but I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that they might be improved in their approach to matters linguistic. As an example, on p. 470 of his recently-released novel Matter, we learn that “Marain, the Culture’s language, had a phoneme to denote upper case”.

Linguists would usually call a unit that denotes something a morpheme (or perhaps a word), not a phoneme, even if it was only one phoneme long. (In fact, we sometimes find meaningful units whose effect on pronunciation is just a single feature.)

In addition, it’s odd to find a morpheme that signals something essentially in the realm of writing, like alphabetic case; and also to find that Marain still uses upper case in (some of) the same ways that English does.

I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that Liberman is being way too nice. The quoted passage from the book makes it pretty clear that what Banks means: the Marain language has the ability to indicate aurally that something is a proper name or otherwise an Important Word. But Banks calling this an “upper-case phoneme” is a basic mistake on two levels. First, he seems to have confused phonemes and morphemes, and second, he has confused a property of written language with spoken language. Liberman suggests a few interpretations of “upper-case phoneme” that would be linguistically defensible, but they’re increasingly implausible. No, what we have here is the linguistic equivalent of making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs: an absurdity brought on by the fact that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, none of this really matters, and my irritation is, I’m sure, tiny compared to the irritation of a physicist trying to watch Star Trek. But it would be nice if people using linguistic vocabulary would at least try to get it right.