Michael Moorcock, The Land Leviathan

1Of course I’ve read a moderate amount of Michael Moorcock, but I haven’t for some time and, as I finished the Jack Vance book and went to the library for the next volume I looked for a change of pace to take along with the Vance. Moorcock had been on my mind for a while now, because he, as much as anyone I can think of–save Octavia Butler–is the great example of an intellectually-rigorous, politically-Left sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction.

Genuinely excellent politically engaged literature is not easy to come by, but it’s fantastic when one does. I wouldn’t even say so much that both Moorcock and Butler are writers first and advocates of a political agenda second but that their politics is inseparable from their storytelling and their storytelling is that much more compelling because it does have political content.

Now, I had been very aware of Moorcock’s politics even before I’d read any of the Elric books, which threaded a critique of the type of Christian morality (and its political form) that presented itself, much more artfully to be sure than in C.S. Lewis‘ fantasies, in Tolkien. It is easy and not wrong to link Moorcock’s coherently anarchist sensibilities to his most famous hero, whose first act in the narrative was to dismantle a government.

I write this, but I will say that I was almost taken aback by precisely how front and center the politics are in The Land Leviathan, much more so than in at least the original Elric stories. Briefly, the book can be described as an “alternate history,” the first of its kind that I’ve read per se. Oswald Bastable, Victorian Englishman, has become, much like Vonnegut’s hero but admittedly less funny, unstuck in time. Bastable finds himself bouncing back and forth between alternate futures and pasts. In the one that occupies this book’s narrative, he finds himself in an alternate first decade of the twentieth century. Development of advanced technologies have given the human race extraordinary powers of destruction, and by the time Bastable arrives on the scene global war has been going on for years and the countries which had run the nineteenth century more or less have been reduced to rubble. Bastable uses the word “Apocalypse” more than once.

The healthiest society on the planet, pacifist and isolationist, is the former South Africa, named Bantustan, led by President Ghandi. Other African peoples are led by “The Black Attila,” a black American man who only appears if my memory is correct in the last third of the book. Prior to that, he exists only in reputation. The Europeans or those of European ancestry from whom Bastable hears rumor consider him to be simultaneously a genius and a savage. He has, it is said, declared genocidal war on the white race. Moorcock’s alternate past is, more or less, an inversion of the nineteenth century imperialist world order, which to be certain persisted in essential features through until 1974 when the book was published and indeed continues in broad strokes until today.

Moorcock caught me off-guard. It was very clear that Bastable, with whom I felt sympathy for the overwhelming reason that he was the protagonist of the narrative, had a clear distaste for what he imagined to be the Black Attila’s project, and he voiced his distaste in terms colored by the type of garden-variety racism of middle-class white people. Without doubt, Bastable wouldn’t attend a lynching, let alone participate in one, yet he certainly wouldn’t support a Federal lynching law. I wondered, indeed was concerned, that Bastable, in a book written as the 1960’s left coalitions, to the extent that they ever really operated as coalitions, had fragmented, largely through a concerted effort by the FBI to infiltrate and otherwise discredit radical organizations, particularly black radical organizations, the Black Panther Party above all. I wondered if Moorcock had bought the bull***t about the Panthers.

I was relieved, then, to find that as the book progressed that Moorcock revealed not only that the Black Attila’s reputation among the remaining white powers of the world was a reflection of racist ideology rather than reality, but that those white powers, particularly in the course of the narrative those in North America, were themselves the barbaric forces of the world. Moorcock deserves huge credit for using the technique of alternate history to expose the historical reality of the overwhelming virulence of classical white ideology. “Classical white ideology”: if the term doesn’t yet properly exist, I’m pleased to have coined it. In any event, Moorcock is correct to show the white power structure of the United States trying to reinstate racialized slavery. There continue to be lots of white people in the United States today who wish precisely that.

It’s interesting, though, that Moorcock uses the plot device of a race war. I’ve heard lots of people talk about the idea of a race war, or as they saw it the inevitability of a race war. I’ve heard people speak of it with fear, and a few with relish. Whatever the approach, every single one of these people has been white. I have never, not once, heard a person of color talk about a “race war” except to tell the white knucklehead that such a thing was a crazy idea and that in any event were such a thing to happen, given how the past 500 years have gone down, it wasn’t white people who needed to be scared. It should be stressed here that Nat Turner’s rebellion spared poor whites. “Race war” is simply not something any people of color I have ever known want to imagine. The reality of North America–I write of where I live–is a low-intensity race war to this day, if one we can qualify in any number of different ways.

So it’s interesting that Moorcock’s imagined revolutionary-apocalypse takes the form of an inverted white imagination. Without question Moorcock knows who the villains of history are: he really does. He breaks out of that trap of classical white ideology. But he does so not by escaping it, but by inverting it, which is no escape at all.

Still, a fantastic read. Moorcock is tops, really tops.

Jack Vance, The Demon Princes, v. 1

51MqFWpDvmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Recently, for the second time, the screen on my ebook reader crapped out on me. I may have been careless. The first time it crapped out was because I stepped on it, having absent-mindedly let my bag carrying it fall to my bedroom floor. I liked the thing, so I replaced it. Then, as time passed, I started to get tired of having to recharge my book. I disliked having to turn my book on and off. I regretted that I could actually break my book. So when it ended up breaking, I didn’t replace it, and I figured I’d just chalk up the relatively small number of books I’d purchased as a loss and, once again, make the library my major source of reading.

One of the things I’d bought, though, was an anthology of Jack Vance‘s short stories, The Jack Vance Treasury. I had originally approached Vance’s work because of his influence on Dungeons & Dragons. Sort of to my surprise, as I worked my was through the anthology, I found myself enjoying Vance’s science fiction more than his fantasy. In point of fact, one of more interesting and appealing things about his work as I found it was that it tended more often than not to straddle the two categories, entirely appropriate as categories generally are arbitrary constructs. His stuff straddles the two but definitely tends to lean in one direction or the other. The “Dying Earth” series is basically fantasy, with sci-fi elements, for example.

All this is a long way of explaining that when my ebook screen broke and I decided not to replace it, I went to the library to see if they had the anthology I’d read two-thirds of. They didn’t, of course, so I grabbed this collection of the first three Demon Princes novels off the shelf. Maybe at some point I’ll finish the anthology.

Briefly put, these three books, The Star King, The Killing Machine, and The Palace of Love, are as good as pulp sci-fi gets. It would be very possible to approach these books from, for lack of a better term, an art-fiction perspective and find them flawed but generally satisfying. On a level with any writer, Vance has real strengths. His prose is, as they always say of Pushkin‘s, terse in the best of senses. While on the one hand one could say that this is a cardinal virtue of any pulp fiction and, given the commercial aim of any such writing, it would do Vance a disservice. He is concise not simply to conform to an editorial requirement, but really because he is someone who is genuinely in command of his language.

Once I got fairly deep into the first of the three books–five in the series, the last two in a second volume which I’ve already checked out from the library–I bopped around the internet to examine the general take on the series. To be certain, anything Vance wrote gets high marks, but I was looking for what people tended to look at as the flaws in the series. I wanted to find relatively negative reviews. One sentiment that popped up in a few places was the critique that, for sci-fi, these books spent a fairly small amount of time on the scientific aspects of whatever world Vance described. The science is by no means absent, but what Vance does not give us are long, multi-page descriptions of imaginary future technology.

This lack of lengthy description of science–indeed, Vance is more likely, as more than one observer has noted, to spend more time describing architecture than technology–points to one of Vance’s chief virtues as a writer. Descriptions of the empirical conditions of the worlds in the books are plentiful, but not lengthy. What Vance does, as well any anyone I’ve ever read, is use quick detail to believably suggest unfathomable depth. Contrast this with a Tolkein or Frank Herbert. Tolkein and Herbert–either or both–are held up as exemplars of “world-building,” the term that gets tossed about on the various discussion threads in sci-fi/fantasy forums I browsed. I get the impression that, like there is a sizeable audience that measures the quality of rock guitarists through things like the speed and accuracy of hammer-ons, there is a sizeable audience that measures the quality of a sci-fi/fantasy writer by the number of words spent describing the “world” or “universe” in coherent detail. Quantitative measures are taken to be qualitative.

I’d propose another measure, which will get us to George R.R. Martin. The quality of a sci-fi/fantasy writer generally, or maybe we will go for the sake of argument just in terms of “world-building,” is how few words he or she uses in convincing that the “world” at hand is unfathomably detailed. Taken on this measure, qualitative posing as quantitative, Vance has few equals.

I will tangentially report, then, that I picked up at the library an anthology of stories set in Vance’s Dying Earth. I can’t remember the precise name of the book but George R.R. Martin edited it if I’m correct and to be certain he contributed both a story and, more to my point, an introductory essay. In it he, much to my surprise, pointed to Vance as his favorite writer of genre fiction and primary influence, to the point of having consciously attempted early on his career to write in Vance’s style.

At this point I will report that having begun Martin’s series enthusiastically, and having had that enthusiasm sustained thoroughly through the third of the books, that I began to feel somewhat bogged down in the fourth and that, to get to my point, I made it through a mere (!!!) 250 pages of A Dance With Dragons before putting the book down in disgust, swearing I would read no more, forever. More than a year has passed and I have had no serious brushes with a desire to finish either the book or the series, if Martin manages to finish it. I am done with it, absolutely. I can’t imagine that anything Martin could do in the next two books would make me want to read them. If he follows all the logical threads he’s pulled to their ends in a similar level of detail to what he’s done so far, it will continue to be a horrible slog of a read and run to ten volumes. If he cuts down the detail from the level he’s currently at, it will feel like he’s rushing to finish it for he sake of finishing it, even if it reads better. If he ditches plot threads and focuses on the main plot, he’s got a ton of loose ends. If he completely changes the trajectory to make it interesting again, he might as well start another series. In short, there is no hope for Martin’s series and little hope, it seems, for Martin as a writer generally. I am sure the sixth and seventh books of the series will be published at some point and in some form, and I am equally sure they will be too long and fairly predictable in the broad strokes.

If only Martin had a tiny measure of Vance’s concision, he would be in much better shape. There are two types of bad writing important here. One is writing which, lacking detail, is simply vague. The other is writing that gives an excess of detail and leaves nothing to the imagination. Vance, like any really capable writer, is of a third type–not a middle position–who provides a relatively small amount of compelling detail which encourages the reader to actively imagine something broader than explicitly on the page. That’s a beautiful thing, and that type of detail, concise and suggestive, is the cardinal virtue of great pulp fiction of any genre.

To be certain, Vance is not without flaws. Women, in his work as far as I’ve encountered it, are props. The autochthonous inhabitants of the various planets at times are thinly veiled colonialist fantasies of “the natives.” Really, the books, which–I realize I haven’t mentioned a single thing about any of the novels’ plots–follow Kirth Gersen’s quest for revenge against the five “Demon Princes” who presided over the enslavement and destruction of his people, feel, in the outlines of their plots somewhat like conventional, though interesting, murder mysteries, mutatis mutandis. A pulp writer cranks things out, to be sure, and the plots such as they are are familiar, at least.

The test of a pulp novel, though, is in the reading of it. How does the book read? Reading quick is not in and of itself the goal, but a good pulp novel will read smoothly and be hard to put down. The book should challenge but not tax the intellect. There should be pleasures, but not guilty ones. The plot should carry one along, but the the book should not be narrowly plot-driven. I could go on, and as Miles Davis famously suggested to John Coltrane, I should at this point take the horn out of my mouth. The point here is that writing great–not merely good–pulp fiction strikes me as an enormously skilled endeavor and a genuinely difficult balancing act, with a relatively small number of top-notch practitioners. Vance was one of those genuine greats.

Jack Vance, the Dying Earth

dying-earth2These words refer to Jack Vance’s original, 1964 anthology, consisting of six stories, and currently out of print. What remains in print is a larger anthology of the four Dying Earth books Vance wrote over the course of his lifetime. Unless there is some compelling reason, I like to deal with things as they originally came out.

I’d long known Vance’s name because of his influence on the magic system in Dungeons and Dragons, and, then, by the consistently high regard in which his work is held by readers who by all appearances care about quality. I will say that with this collection–to be clear, I’m talking about first Dying Earth book, six stories–I entirely agree.

While on the one had the characterization in the collection is strong across the board, the setting itself here is of central interest. Briefly, the “Dying Earth” stories are so-called because the setting is on the planet Earth, but of the far future, when the Sun is in the process of dying out. Climate and weather change in fantastic ways, and, more interesting, the characters are aware that they are living, if not at, then near the end.

It’s not a deep observation to say that good speculative fiction, be it sci-fi or fantasy, or whatever, uses the speculative aspects of the genre to examine ways in which actually-living people live in the world. Not a deep observation, but a critical one. There is an escapist appeal to speculative fiction, but if it is going to stick, it needs to be about us. The best case in point I know of is Octavia Butler. Vance’s setting, fantastic, with magic, points to the underlying awareness in all people that life is transitory. Nicely done, Vance.

Nearly immediately, it’s clear why the people who created D & D turned to Vance as a source for their system of magic. It’s not simply that Vance’s portrayal of magic fits the demands of a game. It certainly does: in Vance people who use magic must memorize spells verbatim, which, upon their use, they completely forget, requiring more study before more use of magic. Great for a game.

Reading Vance, though–and this leads right to characterization–what’s most interesting is that part of the reason people need to memorize spells is because, late, late in the Earth’s game, magic is magic because people have, by and large, forgotten how to create it through experimentation. What remains are the records of other magicians’ work, which one memorizes, uses, and forgets.

In “Turjan of Miir,” we meet the titular character who is trying to create humanoid live in vats using magic. He is not up to the task, and seeks another, greater magician, Pandelume, who by reputation knows how to pull the spell off. This of course is the same basic trope, with all its attendant patriarchal problems, as Pygmalion.

Pandelume has previously created a physically beautiful and mentally flawed woman named T’sais. T’sais sees everything negatively, and as a result is both miserable and violent. Her story in the collection, taking her name as its title, is one of the most affecting works of fantasy I’ve read, and by any measure a beautiful story. Maybe it spoke to me on some personal level, and as a result produced the emotional response it did. I know what it is like to see everything as ugly. The crucial moment, one of the most beautiful transitions I’ve read, is when T’sais becomes conscious that it’s not that the world is ugly, but that she perceives it to be so. She then resolves to learn how to see beauty, and her attempts, with some beneficial results, are entirely believable and therefore very affecting.

I can’t overstate how thoroughly a small transition in a character, like that in T’sais, is the mark of a real writer. I’m in the fifth of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and feeling very frustrated with the writing. The action seems to be in taking more or less static characters and creating situations in which the plot develops, but the characters do not. Or–this in hindsight–we have a character who develops, if very early on, like Daenerys’ change from timid girl to Dragon queen. The more I read in the books, though, the more confused I am about how that change actually happened, and the more convinced I am that Martin did not in fact give us a character development but merely replaced the first Daenerys with a second. Vance, totally contrary and vastly superior, not only shows us a turning moment in T’sais but causes us to feel it. That’s the real thing.

Michael Moorcock, The Stealer of Souls


The book, and the man himself behind it.

Though I hadn’t read the Elric stories in this anthology the first time around–I read the old DAW versions, in order of the internal chronology–I continue this new pattern of rereading stuff. I like it. A good book read at a different point reveals something different.

I don’t know why, fix or six years ago, I decided to read Elric, but it was at the time the first work in the genre that, once started, I actually finished. For whatever reason, likely a piercing nostalgia for my childhood adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, I took Elric up. I’d tried to read Robert Jordan many years earlier when someone I worked with at a bookstore told me how genuinely well-written it was. I was not impressed. Maybe I’d read it differently, but the language seemed artificially archaic and I detected no moral subtlety. I made it through 50 pages at most.

Likely, one of the things that drew me not only into but through the entire Elric series, excepting Moorcock’s more recent novels, was what immediately impressed me again this time around. Moorcock, it bears repeating, came up in a literary world of monthly magazines and fanzines. He had to engage his reader from the start unlike something drafted with the intent to occupy a minimum of three volumes. I have read, as a glance at this “blog” indicates, plenty more since in the genre, but with the possible and for me likely exception of Fritz Leiber, for straight-up page-turnability, Moorcock has no peer.

Likely, as well, I initially chose Moorcock and Elric particularly because of his reputation as a critic of Tolkein. Rereading the work, it’s impressive how, working with the concision pulp literature demands of its authors, Moorcock provides an exceptionally clear and systemic philosophical framework for the narrative. Tolkein’s son–good for him–has milked his father’s background sketches for decades now, and while some point to the volumes Tolkein wrote with no expectation of publication to sketch the backstory to The Lord of the Rings as a virtue, it strikes me as more akin to the shut-in who works, in his dingy apartment, all week preparing volumes for the one evening he will act as Dungeon Master at the Wednesday evening D & D game at the local game shop, volumes the bulk of which will never get pulled out of his backpack but which will be lovingly filed in one of the stacks on his bedroom floor. Moorcock, very much the contrary, drew up a clear sketch, thought about it to see if it worked, and then, knowing it did, got down to the business of writing something he actually wanted to see published.

One thing to note about this particular anthology is that it apparently follows the date of publication rather than the internal chronology I’d first encountered. Stormbringer, in which Elric dies, was, I now know, written quite early, with intervening stories later. The upshot is that while I expected I’d read the first portion of Elric’s story, I got the first bit and then the last. The other volumes in this series I gather fill in the rest. This is fine, but to fact is that I would rather have kept the internal chronology. Bear this in mind if you investigate the work.

As an aside, while Alan Moore‘s introductory essay displays all of the pomposity that mars his own work, I read it and felt that I’d wished he’d become a literary critic rather than a comic book writer. He fully understands both Moorcock’s literary and his social significance, and communicates both objectively and entirely clearly. Moorcock’s essay which follows Moore shows a man less impressed with his own erudition and at the same time clearly more genuinely erudite. Moorcock comes off as someone aware of his talents but much more interested in the work itself than what the work indicates about his own value as a person, an enthusiast in the best sense of the term.

David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band

I read something recently that made the point that fantasy writers are in a bind of sorts.  For marketing purposes, one must write a trilogy, because that’s what the audience expects, after Tolkien.  However, third books in trilogies apparently sell very poorly.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  I know I was the first person to check out David Anthony Durham‘s The Sacred Band, the third book in the Acacia trilogy.  People are missing out, I suppose.

The short story is that Durham pulled it off.  I am not sure, given his chops, that this is that great an achievement.  He is more writer than most people who make their living from it.

More interesting is that Durham resolved a number of the tensions in the series in good ways.  In particular–and I don’t know his politics, I don’t know his political vocabulary, so I don’t know how he would phrase this–he reverses the fascist tendency in the genre to great effect.

I use the word very deliberately.  Tolkein, despite having fought the Hun himself, and despite the whole Lord of the Rings series working in its way as among other things a proxy narrative for the war against Hitler, used deeply fascist logic in his approach to his subject.  Moorcock aimed his punch well, only to pull it:

He claimed that his work was primarily linguistic in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.

In 2012, this is like some colleague of Pat Buchanan‘s saying that he’s not saying Pat’s precisely racist, but that he would do better to keep his mouth shut.  If it quacks, it’s a duck.  Yes, Tolkein’s books were fascist, but not the fascism of the actual Brownshirt.  His was the fascism of we see so well portrayed in “Heimat.”  Resistance to change become willingness to back genocide.  Be clear: Tolkein’s solution to conflict is genocide.  When Sauron goes, so goes his entire crew.

Zizek is on-topic:

Picking and choosing is the problem.  I’ve had all kinds of discussions with people who want to like the idea of Buddhism.  (Leave aside the practice of it.)  People balk at the idea that attachment produces suffering.  “But I love my dear husband!  That’s good!”  Sure, it’s good.  You suffer over it, though.  Why?  Because of your discriminating mind.  Tolkein loves the Hobbits but he hates the Orcs.  The Hobbits are good and the Orcs are bad.  So, who commits the genocide?  The good guys.  Durham rebuts:

[Rialus:] “Yes, but they want war and conquest, murder just as much. They are vile. Just vile!”

[Aliver:] “They are not ‘just vile.’ There is more to them than that.  If you cannot see that, then you have only one of two choices: destroy them or be destroyed by them.” (524)

Can’t fault Aliver’s logic, and much of the US electorate would do well do consider its implications.

No character or group of people, in Durham, is without some perfectly comprehensible explanation for their behavior or pursuit that makes it impossible to dismiss him, her, or them as evil.  The adversary army, the Auldek, invades because evidence convinces them that they will once more become fertile in a new land.  Their actions are unfortunate, but very comprehensible.

This is how I see the genre, plainly: we have Tolkein, Moorcock’s critique, and then, broadly speaking, a hashing out between the two, with Tolkein holding sway above all commercially.  I have made it clear that I adore Moorcock, but his critique, aside from stylistic, is political and ontological, where Durham’s is ethical and historical.  Politically, Moorcock critiques Tolkein’s Toryism from an anarchist perspective, and denies the existence of good and evil, positing instead order and chaos.  Good for Moorcock!

While I might imagine that Durham and I both vote pragmatically left, there is nothing in the Acacia trilogy that is specifically political.  Rather, there is an ethical imperative: a person must act in a way that recognizes the fundamental humanity of all other humans.  Leave off that we are dealing with all kinds of different species in a fantasy novel.  The point is that everyone in the book has a backstory and everyone in the book wants to be happy.  If we recognize this impulse in another, it is impossible to slaughter him or her.  What did the orcs want, in Tolkein?  If Tolkein had dropped his Toryist, genocidal approach to the orcs, he might have noted that they didn’t create themselves, nor did they create their impulses.  Not that massacring villages is OK, but it’s an action.  The orcs as beings were another matter.  They were like a bunch of drunks: they needed to stop their nonsense, but they came by it honestly.

Durham’s historical critique aims not simply at Tolkein’s model of benign and therefore fictional monarchy but rather at large states generally, and United States as a historical process specifically.  The genre disguises it, as well as the specificities of the plot, but when we are talking about major societies run by slave power, in the case of Ushen Brae, slave souls’ power, the US needs to enter the discussion.  The point is that, quite the contrary to the typical fantasy-genre nonsense of a good monarchical state, Durham takes pains to illustrate how the states in the novels maintain themselves through the extraction of labor power from subject populations.  The royal family, adhering to the contours of the genre, provides focus for the plot, but their state has a rotten moral core and Durham makes no bones about it.  If one were to apply his basic question–how do states maintain themselves?–to the US, the US would look pretty bad.  The central role of the slave trade in Acacia’s fortunes obliquely, as Acacia is a supplier rather than consumer of slaves, inevitably raises the question of how the United States became a world power in the nineteenth century.  At least, it ought to.  This is what distinguishes Durham from Moorcock.  Where Moorcock took a contrary position to Tolkein on abstract ideological grounds, Durham does so on concrete historical grounds.  Actually-existing large states, he notes, have always been ugly.

Well-played, Durham.

Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

Cover of "Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, ...

Cover of Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, Book 2)

I suppose I should sum up right at the beginning.  Both Frank Herbert and I should have left well-enough alone: he in the writing, and me in the reading.  I had been told that none of Dune‘s sequels was cut from anything resembling the same quality of cloth, and Dune Messiah proved the point.

Famously, Miles Davis asked John Coltrane why he soloed for so long.  Coltrane responded that he didn’t know how to stop.  Miles then said, “take the horn out of your mouth.”  I side in that discussion with Coltrane, but Miles, had he been speaking with Frank Herbert, would have been right on point.  Put down the pen.  If nothing else, Dune Messiah is a cautionary tale about the dangers of continued writing after a story is over.

A few points about Dune itself.  It straddled a lot of lines politically, and this allowed some appeal.  Paul Atreides, led the Fremen, an occupied, indigenous underclass on its own planet, Arrakis, to not only power but to conquest of other planets.  Written in the 1960’s, Dune benefited from the broader historical context of the anti-imperialist struggle.  One sympathized with the Fremen, who were the good guys.  Herbert, as I noted in my first piece, focused on Paul–we might call him “Lawrence of Arrakis”–for reasons I wasn’t entirely sure of.  Was it a plot device or did Herbert see natives as historically passive?  We find out in Dune Messiah that, indeed, natives are historically passive.  No surprise here, but certainly disappointment.

The bulk of the struggle in the book, if not necessarily the plot, is Paul’s regret over his role in history.  He unleashed a Fremen jihad, leading to the deaths of billions, and can do nothing to stop it.  Poor boy gets all weepy half the time in his imperial helplessness.  We now get Herbert’s take on liberation movements: aren’t they all just bloody messes in the end?  This is how liberals justify the maintenance of a bloody, but normalized, status quo.  Oh, but if we changed things, people might get hurt.  I don’t suggest that bloodshed should be taken lightly, but this line of thought is precisely the kind of thing that Gramsci was dealing with when he looked at liberals’ role in capitalist hegemony.

Much is made, largely through the character of Alia, Paul’s sister, of the cultishness of the Fremen.  Paul detests what he takes to be their naive superstition.  One can take this position if one wants, and we can agree or disagree–I myself  have had enough experience in meditation to no longer doubt the possibility of basically any religious sentiment or experience.  The problem here is that Paul detests this superstition, or religiosity, while getting filthy rich off it.  Paul, seen through the lens of his personal morality and its revulsion at bloodshed, is sympathetic.  Seen through the lens of his class position, he is, at best, an ass.

I have been told not to bother with the other books in the series.  An AA buddy told me that, in fact, they get progressively more inane.  I accept his advice.  Let it be known though, that Herbert did, in fact, write one great novel.  That’s an achievement.

Frank Herbert, Dune

For a few years, now, I’ve been wanting to reread Frank Herbert’s Dune.  I read it on my father’s recommendation as a kid, liked it, but was curious to return to it and see what Herbert’s subtext was.  I imagined it could go a lot of different ways: the spice could represent oil, etc., in the desert, yada yada.  Also, I had an interest in rereading the Sci-fi book–this one should indeed be called, using Octavia Butler‘s preferred term, “speculative fiction“–that people said rivaled The Lord of the Rings‘ detail without, I hoped the Tory politics.  I’ll note that the following will include no quotes: having paid 50 cents for my copy at the library’s book sale, I gave my copy to someone at the local Alano Club.  I had stopped in for a cup of coffee and to finish the book, she came up and started talking to me about it and expressed an interest, so I finished it and gave it to her.  She said that she was starting to be able to read complex material in her recovery, and I thought that was very  cool.

I expected on the one hand to enjoy the book immensely, and I did.  As a yarn, it’s top-notch, though I felt like the last quarter of the book actually moved more quickly than I wanted.  Likely, this is a good sign.  That said, it sped it its end, I thought.

More of an issue to me was my worry that reading Dune would be something like watching Lawrence of Arabia: well-done, but hopelessly orientalist.


Lawrence raises Arabs above their racial lot equals Paul raises Fremen above their racial lot.  This was my fear, and I hope it’s not an original point to point out that my fear was somewhat confirmed, though much less offensively so than might have been.  That is to say, the Fremen, though initially faceless, mysterious presences in the wild, certainly got good, deep characterizations in the book and Herbert’s exploration of Fremen culture denoted an author who had actually studied desert peoples as peoples with culture.  That’s a big deal in a white American author, and he must get credit for that.

The Lawrence of Arabia problem is to some extent conditioned by the plot, and once one has a good plot to go with it seems like it would be a bad idea to ditch it.  The Atreides family is given the desert planet Arrakis as a fief.  The Harkonnen family screws them out of it and kills the Atreides Duke, Leto.  His wife, Jessica, and son, Paul, flee to safety among the Fremen, assumed dead.  Paul takes on the role of messiah and leads the Fremen to take over the planet.

In this yarn, the Fremen themselves–the indigenous people–are functionally, as in, there would be no other way with this plot, props.  They allow the real action, that between the foreign rulers, to proceed.  Clearly, I’d argue that this ought to be reversed: I’d like to read the book in which the Atreides and Harkonnens serve as plot devices so the Fremen can reclaim their ancestral land fully.

I thought this through a bit, trying to find a way out for Herbert.  There is a real issue when abject oppression is involved, and when big institutions like, in the novel, an empire and intergalactic economy are the agents of oppression.  This is more or less analagous to the struggle indigenous people have faced vis-a-vis international capital over the last 500 years or so.  Survival as a people is the one act of resistance people can choose, and in choosing it people have not always been successful.

I remember a comment in the eighth volume of the UNESCO History of Africa in which the author, noting the political and economic difficulties most African states have experienced in independence, pointed out that the colonists indeed forced themselved on the colonized culturally through education.  The colonists taught culture, history, literature, philosophy and the like.  Africa, in independence, has produced world-class culture, he argued.  What the colonists emphatically did not teach the colonized was administration and technical expertise: i.e., how to run things.  That they consciously omitted from the curriculum.  This applies here, in Dune.  If the Fremen literally had no access to the type of knowledge they would need to run things, someone else would need to give it to them.  This would be, in the direct context of the plot, Paul Atreides.

It’s not enough, though.  After having this line of thought, I remembered The Black Jacobins.  I assume Herbert hadn’t read it.  Rather than a Lawrence of Arabia, why not a Toussaint L’Ouverture?  That is indeed historical precedent–because sci-fi needs to be believable.  Indeed, some of the elements that might have allowed this are in the book, particularly the little-referenced urban Fremen.  Those people, in close contact with the foreigners, would have access, were it written into the story, to the type of technical knowledge referenced above.  So, too, did Toussaint have white collaborators.  The figure of Kynes, the planetary ecologist, could have as easily gone native–the book uses the term–and followed a Fremen, Stilgar most likely, rather than, as the book has it, led.

Nonetheless, I’m reading Dune Messiah now.  Without question this is good stuff, and my critique is a reflection of how engaged I was with the book.

Octavia Butler, Wild Seed

Octavia Estelle Butler signing a copy of Fledg...

None better.

I’ve read a number of Octavia Butler‘s books, and she’s never disappointed.  Wild Seed, picked up at the library, is in the same series as Mind of My Mind, also brilliant, read a few months ago, and on which I’ve previously written.  This is part of her Patternmaster series, so-called, which she wrote out of the larger narrative’s chronological order.  I loved Mind of My Mind, for example, but I can also see how Butler had developed as a writer by the time she wrote Wild Seed, though the events described in the latter actually precede those in the former.

Throughout her work, Butler examined the nature and consequences of modern ideas of race.  She took a Black and feminist perspective, as she explicitly put it in the brief, autobiographical passage at the end of the book.  As such, her work ought to be instructive to the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of this world.  Real Black feminists don’t adhere to white men’s stereotypes of who they ought to be.  Butler is analytical where an O’Reilly would be more comfortable if she were shrill.  Butler labels nothing: never, in her writing, does she condescend to say “this is racist” or “this is sexist.”  Rather, she shows it so impeccably that the reader’s understanding of our actually existing social and historical world is transformed.  Labels by their nature do not transform, but reify.

The book itself follows Anyanwu and her interaction with Doro.  Both are immortal, Doro older.  Doro’s spirit inhabits body after body, killing by necessity, while Anyanwu can change her body’s form at will, and heal others.  Taken together the two, the blurb on the back of the book intimates, constitute a destruction/creation dualism, but I’m not at all sure Butler would limit their relationship to a stasis such as that.

More interesting is Doro’s project.  Unable to die and required to kill, he got it in his head a few millenia earlier to selectively breed a race of “supernaturally” gifted descendents, partially, one imagines, to relieve boredom, partially to satiate his massive ego, and partially to provide an illusory relief from the solitude of immortality.  He uses people like cattle, and kills them when they’re past use.

Butler situates the novel in the broader context of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and while this could in lesser hands drive the point home so hard as to be annoying, her use of the context serves to increase the gravity of her argument.  She is interested in the effect of history on people, in particular their senses of self and relationships to each other.  Doro’s project is that of the slaveowner, mutatis mutandi.

The O’Reillys and Hannitys would posit that the effect of such a brutal process on people would be to strip them of their humanity.  This is a fundamentally white misconception of the historical process that formed our world.  Neither would come out and say that the Slave Trade was a good thing, and both will decry racism, but their view of who, in this case, Black people are is straight out of Moynihan‘s famous report: Black people are damaged goods, and therefore one can’t help but look down on them.

Butler deals with reality, and so she takes a contrary position: in this history, it is the oppressor rather than the oppressed that behaves in the inhuman way, though no-one in her novels is beyond humanity.  This is her entire point.  Doro’s victims, for lack of a better word, increase their humanity as a response, and do so defiantly.  Many of them die in the process, but theirs is a human death.

Required reading, if we’re doing to develop ourselves out of this historical mess we’re in.

Michael Moorcock, The Jewel in the Skull

English fantasy and science fiction writer Mic...
A smart cookie with good politics.

I finished the Fritz Leiber book but still had not had my fill of fantasy escapism, so, walking the stacks of the sci-fi section of the library (where fantasy books are kept, not without practical reason) I came to Michael Moorcock, whose Elric books–all of the original stories, six books all told if I remember, though they have been differently anthologized since–I enjoyed immensely and who can be depended on to have some substance in his fantasy.  It’s fantasy, but certainly with Elric not crap fantasy.

Moorcock, I could say, needs no introduction, but a couple of points need to be stressed, and probably I should say that this is the first book of his that’s not about Elric that I read, so I don’t write this as a Moorcock scholar, just as a reader.  In any event, Moorcock conceived of Elric, and as I think of it it seems his larger project of the Multiverse, so-called, as a rebuttal to Tolkien, at least in part.  Moorcock’s politics, and this is the second point worth stressing, are anarchist, which we in the anti-Soviet good old-fashioned revisionist Marxist camp can hang with, for sure–and if you’re in that camp and you can’t hang with anarchists, you need to get over yourself.  Tolkien’s fantasy was the worst kind of Tory in its sensibility and, worse still, prose style.  The Shire is the Village Green without Ray Davies‘ sense of humor (or sense of melody).  The enemy is the modern industrial world, with some Saracens tossed in anachronistically, and the goal is to return the legitimate heir to the throne to his proper seat of monarchical authority.

To be sure, Tolkien’s politics continue to exercise an influence on fantasy as a genre, because what in Tolkien was plot became, in the genre, convention.  Again, my first exposure to Moorcock was Elric, and I loved it.  Elric was a bastard–temperamentally, not literally.  He did things that were not cool to do to other people.  That, plus he was a drug addict.  Things got worse still when he got that sword who–yes, the sword was intelligent–ate people’s souls, which is a way worse thing to do than anything Elric would have come up with on his own.  Less tongue in cheek, though, is that Elric starts the series firmly on the side of Chaos as opposed to Order.  This last is the key to Moorcock’s critique of Tolkien: Chaos, not Evil, Order, not Go(o)d.  Moorcock tossed out Christian morality and replaced it with Balance.  Indeed, by the end of things Elric ends up doing work for Order as the forces of Chaos threaten to overwhelm the Balance.

So, Moorcock, in addition to writing stories that are fun to read–certainly a requirement of the genre–is dealing with serious philosophical, ethical in particular, thinking, and that he does so so seamlessly, that is, without ever having to draw the reader’s conscious attention to a philosophical discussion, is what makes him such a fantastic writer.  He really is good, and is probably the writer, were I to try to convince a skeptic that fantasy books can be “literature,” that I’d point to first.

Having said all this, Hawkmoon is a much more straightforward character, at least so far (I’ve read the first two books of the series) than Elric.  That’s not to say The Jewel in the Skull is not absolutely worth reading if you’re into the stuff.  For one thing (and this is a response, not a review), it meets the fun to read requirement handily.  That’s simple enough, but there is also critique to chew on here.  I won’t rehearse the plot, but the setting is of interest.  The book takes place in the distant, post-nuclear apocalyptic Europe.  The continent is threatened by the nasty empire of Granbretan–Great Britain–with its capital, Londra.  The English are the bad guys, and the hero, Hawkmoon, is a German who ends up defending southern France.  While Britain had begun to dismantle its Empire when the book was written, it still maintained it to a great extent, and it’s significant that Moorcock, born in the first year of the Second World War–1939, not 1941–makes a Hun the good guy.  We British, he says, are the barbaric ones.

I’d note that the plot takes Hawkmoon through Eastern Europe to Western Asia, and there’s none of Tokein’s orientalist nonsense.  These are simply places with peoples and cultures in Moorcock, which is very refreshing to read in a white, British writer writing in the 1960’s, before Edward Said published his book and it became cool for white Leftists to reference it.  Very good for Moorcock.

Fritz Leiber, Swords and Deviltry

I tell myself that I like to read what I call “crap fantasy,” but it’s not actually the case.  I like good fantasy or, given the confines of the genre, great fantasy.  I’ve tried reading crap fantasy–one of the Forgotten Realms novels, because I’d played D&D in that setting before–and couldn’t get past the third chapter.  I need a relatively high grade of crap to keep my attention.

I had also played D&D–this in college in what was the best group I’d ever played with (we’d start at noon with a case of Newcastle)–in a Lankhmar setting, based on Fritz Leiber‘s stories.  The Dungeon Master raved about Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and a few years later I started reading Leiber, but for some reason he didn’t, at that point in my life, take to me, or vice versa.  If memory serves, I had picked up one of the books in the middle of the series.  At minimum it wasn’t Swords and Deviltry, the first, and a good beginning.  Maybe it’s that I started at the start, or that I’m at a point in my life where I’m more open to escapist reading, but I loved the book.

I will, before noting what struck me about Leiber, say that I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings, mainly because when I pick up The Fellowship of the Ring in a bookstore or library and flip through it, I can’t get past the dainty, tra-la-la prose Tolkein insisted on using.  I say this because I’ve seen the films, and one thing I gather is that Tolkein created a number of very strong characters for his fiction, which is more than I can say for most of the fantasy I’ve read, which centers on usually one complex character with a series of arche- or stereotypes surrounding him, because it’s basically always a male central character.

Leiber, apparently in collaboration with his friend, Harry Otto Fischer, came up with two compelling characters and an even more compelling relationship between the two, and that strikes me as the basic reason these stories work in a way that genuine crap fantasy doesn’t.  It should be said that Swords and Deviltry contains three stories, the first two about Fafhrd and then the Gray Mouser respectively, before they met each other.  Most of the book is about either Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser, with the third story, the justifiably-famous “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” about their meeting and the formation of their relationship.

All of the stories are good, but without question “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is the masterpiece.  Leiber has a lightness to his writing that, so diametrically opposed to Tolkein’s leaden prose, is refreshing, and much of this comes from the characters.  The two are quick to drink and impulsive, which makes for lightness.  The trick, though, is that Leiber can use these characteristics to bring the plot to totally devastating consequences, completely convincingly.  He’s an excellent writer.

A last note: Mouser begins his career as an apprentice Wizard, Mouse.  His transformation into the Gray Mouser is well-done–and it seems to me that showing (as opposed to telling) the transformation of a character is one of the more difficult things a writer can do–but though he showed himself capable with magic, he drops it completely in favor of swordplay, noting in a later story that magic was powerful but dangerous, or something like that, but with no further comment.  Fantasy as a genre contains magic, but it’s dangerous it seems for a writer because it can easily function as a deus ex machina, relieving the writer of the need to think one’s way out of a literary problem.  That said, and only having finished the second of the series now, I want Mouser to use a little magic sometimes, precisely because Leiber’s approach to it is that it has a cost.  Witness my notes on Octavia Butler for more on why precisely this is so important.