So here’s my big announcement: my fantasy novel The Wedding of Earth and Sky has been sold to Red Adept Publishing, and will appear sometime in 2014.

I’m really excited about this. Red Adept is a small press with a focus on ebooks and audiobooks, and I’ve been very impressed by the quality of their product and the professionalism of their editorial staff. Here’s hoping for big things.

Daniel Polansky has studied the past, and he doesn’t like it one bit:

Occasionally you’ll be with a group of people and they’ll get to talking about their favorite historical epochs, nostalgic for lives they never led. One person will talk up their childhood love of the Wild West, another reveal a penchant for Victorian England. This last one just has a thing for corsets, but it’s better not to call them on it.

When my turn rolls round I take a sip of whatever we’re drinking and look at my shoes. “The mid 90’s were pretty good,” I say lamely. “Slower internet and everything, but at least we had penicillin.”

Perhaps it’s my being a history buff, but the past sucked. For about a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe just seems like a real shit place to reside. Lots of rooting in filth until you die at thirty a half mile from where you born. Nominally the nobles had it better, but still, your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches and your pretty young bride had like a one in two chance of surviving child birth.

There’s lots of words I could use to describe this, but I’m going to be generous and just say “bullocks”. The past didn’t suck for most of the people who lived there. I know this because I’ve been there, and I know people who lived most of their lives in the past.

Yes, of course, all of us have lived most of our lives in the past. The past is never really that far away. You can travel back in time up to a few decades just by visiting rural areas here in the US. (Conversely, Westerners visiting Japan often get a sense of visiting the future.) But I know time travelers from times more distant than that. My in-laws grew up and lived a significant portion of their lives in rural Romania in the mid 20th century, which was technologically and culturally at least a century behind the modern world, even the modern world of the 1950’s. My wife’s grandmother still lives on the farm where she raised her many children, and her lifestyle and attitudes are, at best, from the 19th century. Good portions of it are quite a bit older than that. Of course the past that one finds in these places is never pure, as modernity reaches its tendrils even to rural Romania in some respects. Still, it is enough to gain a sense of what our poor, pitiful, filthy, ignorant ancestors were like.

And they were neither pitiful, filthy, nor ignorant. That’s just modern condescension speaking. (It is hard to argue with poor, however.)

This is the most striking thing about visiting the past. The people who live there certainly lack many of our modern luxuries, and their lives are less pleasant than ours in some ways. But they don’t think that their lives suck. They are happy at roughly the same levels that we are happy. Many of them are distinctly uncomfortable with the modern world when it inevitably forces itself on them. Sometimes they look down on us for our laziness, loss of virtue, and alienation. To say “the past sucked” is to ignore the happiness of those who lived there, and in many cases continue to live there.

I’m also reminded of another famous group of time-travelers, the Hmong, who were caught up in a war from centuries in the future and then had to be relocated from their traditional homes into the heart of the modern world. You should not be surprised to hear that most of them found this transition to be painful, and that many of them wished to return to the filthy, disease-ridden, hard-laboring past that we had “rescued” them from. But you may be surprised that Western medicine—one of the few things that I would have mentioned as an unambiguous benefit of the modern world—was a source of special distress to many of them. Time-travelers don’t necessarily see our best points as good points at all.

One of the more interesting ideas of critical theory is the concept of abjection, which is the attitude by which the mainstream rejects and symbolically casts out its antithesis, defining itself by what it excludes. Racial whiteness is defined by the abjection of blackness. Literary fiction is defined by the abjection of genre. And modernity is defined by the abjection of the past.

This abjection is absolutely necessary for modernity to function. We have to be ashamed and disgusted by our ancestors, for how else would we justify the vandalism of our inheritance and our pollution of the natural and social environments? By making the past abject, we reassure ourselves that we have lost nothing in the transition to modernity, that our forefathers have nothing to teach us, that we were right to leave all of that behind. Daniel “The Past Sucked” Polansky is merely participating in this ongoing project of abjection.

Polansky says that he doesn’t understand fantasy, in particular its fascination with the past. But there is really an obvious alliance between the genre of fantasy, which abjected both by mainstream literary fiction and by its older sister science fiction, and the abjected past. The outcast genre and the outcast history have to make an alliance together. It is no coincidence that fantasy literature emerges as a distinct genre at the same time that the modern world starts onto its feet and begins to persecute history.

Or like my banner quote says: Realism is for those whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me present to you the most awful piece of extruded fantasy product that I’ve ever had the misfortune to read in its entirety:

Man, this thing was awful

A March into Darkness by Robert Newcomb. If you’ve read this book, then you know what’s coming. It was just… I mean… words fail me. This was bad in nearly every way that it is possible for a book to be bad. I would never have read the entire thing, except that at the time I was under unusual circumstances: I was stuck in a room with nothing else to read for an entire weekend, and one of my fellow room-sitters had this book with him. It was either read this book, or stare at the wall. I chose to read the book.

In retrospect, staring at the wall may have been less painful.

Let me quickly run down the book’s faults, before we move on to the one thing that the book did well.

  1. The protagonist was a complete idiot, and a grating, indulgent whiner at that. Main character stupidity was the main driver of the plot for the first quarter of the book.
  2. The worldbuilding was a fourth-generation Xeroxed copy of a Dungeons and Dragons cliche guide. There was nothing inventive or surprising about any of it. (Well, except for the invisible flying magical manta ray army. That was kind of cool.)
  3. The dialog was awful. It was so banal and so predictable that I learned to just skim the pages of dialog looking for the longer-than-average paragraphs, because that was where the exposition nuggets were buried. Everything else was the most juvenile, cringe-inducing conversation that you’ve ever read.
  4. The characters were factory-built from plastic parts. I can’t remember a single one of them aside from their most generic specifiers: “the protagonist”, “the girl” (there’s only one of significance), “the wizard”, etc.
  5. The plot problems were all solved by a combination of coincidence and application of magical technobabble. The main antagonist is supposedly invincible because he has a kind of magical martial arts training that takes centuries to complete. A major plot point is the protag trying to find the ancient monastery where this technique is taught and begin training, so that he has at least a chance of standing up to the baddie. And then, about 100 pages before the end, they discover a magic spell they can cast that will allow them to skip straight to being a grand-master. And why did we spend all of this time reading about the %!#$&^ training?

But there was one saving grace. One thing, one thing that kept me turning pages instead of going back to the comforting tedium of wall-watching.

The plot moved like a crack money on rocket skates.

Had I been reading under normal circumstances, I probably would not have kept reading long enough for the book to get its plot hooks into me. And even after I had sunk a few hours into the book, I looked up about once a chapter and said, “Why am I still reading this dreck?” But I kept going. Not just because I had nothing else to do, but because I actually wanted to know what happened next. When I had to put the book away for an hour, I kept thinking about it. The girl was in danger! The wizard was going to discover something magical! The protagonist was angsting about something! Would the girl be saved? What did the wizard discover? Will the protag stop being such a putz? I was aware—painfully, eye-gougingly aware—of the fact that every one of these plot points was a cliche. But nonetheless, I cared. Not about the characters, and certainly not about the setting, but about what happened next.

In part, the relentless nature of the plot is what made the later betrayals so galling. When I wondered How would the protag overcome the baddie?, the answer turned out to be By using a magic spell to make the previous 200 pages of martial arts training irrelevant. This made me mad, because I was actually invested in the answer. Not very invested, mind you, but invested enough to be upset that the resolution was so stupid. In fact, it was only as I reached the end of the book that the novel’s full stupidity began to weigh on me, because I realized that the one good thing in this trainwreck was itself going to be derailed, as all of the dilemmas of the plot were resolved in the cheesiest and most obnoxious way possible. And so I resigned myself to skimming over page after page of banal, repetitive dialog and burning through hordes of doomed redshirts on my way to the climax, knowing that it, too, was bound to be a disappointment. And it was a disappointment.

But I did learn some things along the way.

First, plot matters. Many readers get their fix from character, ideas, or prose more than plot. I would normally count myself as one of those. But even a convicted setting-and-style junkie like me couldn’t help but be taken in by the sweet plot crack that Newcomb put into his book, and I kept coming back for another hit. Even after it was clear that the plot had been cut with some nasty stuff, and even after I was sure I was going to regret it. I still wanted more. After a while I started to hate myself, wishing I could kick the habit, but the book would not let me go until I had burned through to the very last page.

The second point is don’t disappoint your reader. If the conclusion of the book had actually satisfied me rather than dissolving into a mushy pile of cliche and frustration, I might have tentatively recommended it. I mean, for a certain kind of reader, the kind who doesn’t care about characterization or prose style or anything else, this could actually be a good book. The opening is kind of interesting. At first it seems like it’s going to go somewhere compelling. If there had been any follow-through, if the author had actually tried to solve his plot problems rather than just hand-wave them away, it might have been kind of okay. Not great literature, mind you, but a pulpy little fantasy romp. Instead it was a disaster.

It turns out that Newcomb’s publishing contract was cancelled after the sequel to this book. I can’t imagine why.

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.

(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.

One of my favorite works of fantasy ever is Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, the first of his Dark Tower series. I’ll never forget the feel of that parched, cracked, and crumbling post-apocalyptic Western landscape, full of dust, sun, sage, guns and hard magic. I was captivated. The later books in the series took the shine off of it a little, but nothing could dampen the brilliance of that first outing.

So I loved The Hangman, up recently at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It has much the same feel, but with a quieter and more terrifying story. It has man-eating trains. You’ll love it.