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.

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George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

A_Feast_For_Crows.365x600.w.bI’d heard from more than one source that this fourth novel was one of the weaker, if not the weakest, of the five yet published. Likely this is because—I’m not making an original observation here—it’s one-half of the too-large manuscript Martin submitted to his publisher, only to be told to split the thing into what would be the fourth and fifth books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin chose to divide the text geographically rather than chronologically, and this meant that a number of well-liked characters, left in cliffhangers in A Storm of Swords, made no appearance in A Feast for Crows. This, and a large part of the book involves new characters, yet to prove their depth compared to the old.

So be it: the book’s good. If the new characters don’t seem as deep as the old, then at some level it remains to be seen whether this is a function of knowing them for less time or a less-compelling conception.

The broader issue for me, aside from enjoying the read, is the extent to which Martin’s work revises Tolkein’s precedent. Along this line, the question of women in the narrative is central. Martin’s work is widely seen as rebutting Tolkein’s near-totally male Middle Earth. Rhiannon, in an excellent piece, puts it as follows:

A Song of Ice and Fire is a mostly feminist text, featuring fascinating, dynamic female characters in a variety of situations. The fact that these girls and women live in a deeply misogynistic world only adds to the realism of their struggles and ultimately to the strength of their achievements.

I might have gone with that sentiment all the way through the first three books, but am hesitant with A Feast for Crows. Why, precisely, and why with this book? For me, any feminism worth getting behind is based on the premise that women are precisely as complex as men. This is more of an analytical point than an evaluative one. Patriarchy is based on the premise that women are as a group are subservient, simply. All my experience flies in the face of this idea, and so I reject it.

Martin’s treatment of Cersei in A Feast for Crows has forced me to re-investigate the women who populate the books generally. She is, here, an alcoholic hitting her bottom. For starters she drinks constantly, and to finish everything she does is wrong and destructive. Interestingly, I find myself becoming more sympathetic toward her in inverse proportion to the extent Martin reduces her to a simply destructive presence. It’s as if I feel like it’s one thing for her to fight against a rotten father, dashed hopes, a philandering royal husband, and a murdered child, but something more difficult entirely to fight against an author who chooses to make you a predictable villain. Nobody deserves that kind of treatment.

I don’t have the series of books at hand and were they here I would not refer to them in any event. My concern is how I feel about the books now. I find myself wondering about how Martin built Cersei in previous books. The general idea is that Martin, contra Tolkein, not only writes women into his books, but writes them well. I am not sure at this point. Martin places appropriate details in Cersei’s trajectory, but I am not sure, in hindsight, that I saw them come together as someone like Jaime or Tyrion. Cersei behaves selfishly and abominably throughout the series, but we get told that she is truly devoted to her children. This is contradiction substituted for complexity. I don’t suggest that any individual has some kind of essential core character from which all behavior springs. There is no such core in anyone. What is true, however, is that as people develop, the varying aspects of what we call, as a convenience, personality, fit together, not because of a predetermined design but because each influences the other and in turn is influenced.

We don’t see this kind of developing “personality” in Cersei. We have elements in her that form contrasts—love of children, selfish behavior—but not mutually-forming contrasts, as in real people and, I would say, in characters like her brothers. Though she makes no direct appearance in A Feast for Crows, I think back to Daenerys and feel as if a similar process is at work. On the face of it, she functions as a foil for Cersei, and vice versa. Where Cersei wields state power foolishly, the teenage girl Daenerys,when last we saw her in A Storm of Swords, makes political and strategic decisions more effectively than either Jorah Mormont or Barristan Selmy. All good, but we don’t see any development that would have given her the kind of understanding she demonstrates in her actions. She began the series timid and emotionally dependent on her older brother. After learning to enjoy sex with her husband, her personality changes and she becomes assertive. That’s the only development, per se, I can recall in the character. I like Daenerys, it’s good that we see a woman wielding political power well, but real people have a learning curve. Daenerys doesn’t.

Feminism’s most important point is that women are real people and that our social, political, and economic norms need to reflect this fact. I see powerful women in Martin,and certainly progress from Tolkein, but I am increasingly unsure that I’m reading, in his female characters, about real people.

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George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

I'm with the consensus. Best yet.

I’m with the consensus. Best yet.

For whatever reason, A Song of Ice and Fire really has its hooks in me by this point. A number of people I know who’ve read the series thus far have told me that A Storm of Swords is their favorite, and thus far I have to agree. More than anything, the book is good because Martin maintains a general inventiveness in plot and depth in character.

To return to the running thread of the discussion, my concern with Martin has been the extent to which he revises Tolkein’s influence on the genre. Right now, my concern is that the genre, nearly without exception takes a European center to its fantastic settings. Middle Earth is Europe, and the Shire is rural England. We know this. Even a Moorcock, who so thoroughly revised Tolkein’s ethical framework, maintained this European focus. His principal non-Melibonean characters were either Europeans by another name or exoticized others, sympathetic or no. In Tolkein, Sauron enlists the forces of Islam, if one scratches below the surface.

There can be no doubt that Westeros is, for the greater part, Europe. You could argue about Dorne, but the rest is there. I make this point without judgement, but with some concern. Why? Because one of the reasons I engage with literature the way I do is because literature, particularly more lowbrow forms of it, those for “entertainment’s sake” shape the way we as people see our world and the other people in it. This, and the fact that when we imagine that something is “just entertainment” we are all the less likely to be conscious as people of how what we read (or otherwise consume) affects our thinking about our world. My concern is that the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the genre can leave a reader with the impression that Europe–or the settler colonies Europeans established–is the center of the world and its history. This can transfer easily, especially in one of the settler colonies like that in which I live, to people. White people become the center of the world’s action, and their phenotypes become the norm. This type of thing has concrete, destructive consequences.

So, Martin doesn’t change this aspect of the genre. The question then becomes, how does he handle Europe? Discussions about what Europe means are very important, just like though we know Marx didn’t deal in depth, in his major works, with the non-European world, what he had to say about Europe is of enduring importance.

The colonialist line on Europe is that it took a civilizing turn away from the rest of the world when the Greeks defeated the Persians. Where others had superstitions, Europeans had philosophy. This predicated the Roman and British Empires both, and is why the English-speaking peoples gave us heavy industry.

There is a second, less discussed, and much more accurate and useful take on Europe. Rather than a Europe that breaks from the rest of the world with the Greeks, we have a Europe that breaks in the modern period. Of interest here is Carlo Ginzburg’s work, which I’ve discussed before. In essence, what we see with Ginzburg’s work is the process of church orthodoxy rooting out–physically–localized, indigenous religious practices under the guise of a struggle against witchcraft. This happens both under the context of the new Reformation and the development of modern, global, colonialist capitalism. The point here is that Europe was, as it continues to be, split unto itself.

We imagine Europeans, and, it follows, their white descendants in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, as peoples entirely culturally–genetically, to the biological racists–distinct from the indigenous peoples they displaced in their colonialist primitive accumulation. However one deals with this, though, the arrival of those Europeans who settled other peoples’ lands was the end of another, European process as much as it was the beginning of another. What a Ginzburg points to is a Europe that was as much connected to its particular, local land as any indigenous culture could be. In this view, Europe split from the rest of the world when it cut off its own roots in its own land.

All this discussion, because Martin deals with this process, in his way. Jojen Reed is the best example, at least in Storm of Swords. Bran, too, but Jojen is the one who is conscious of the processes involved. Tolkein gave us happy Hobbits living in their English countryside, but Martin gets to something more real: indigenous peoples under seige by settlers. The settlers–think the kings of Westeros, with their ideologues, the maesters–imagine that what had been there before is now entirely gone, but they’re wrong. The land still functions through people like Jojen.

Why is this important? Because one of the sustaining fictions of white supremacy is the lie, cherished as fact by explicit racists and privileged white liberals both, that “the Indians are gone.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that precise sentence from people who considered themselves on the left. Indigenous people are not gone, though white settlers did their damnedest. And who were those white people? Not people who were at some basic essence different from those they displaced, but people whose bond to their land had been forcibly cut, who found themselves at some level unmoored, and, as such, capable of great social violence. I return to Chief Seattle, to whom I will continue to return, again and again:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret.

George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

A-Clash-of-KingsBeset by illness, I plowed through the last 200 pages of A Clash of Kings much more quickly than I expected to. A part of me had thought I’d finish both it and the ensuing A Storm of Swords before the third season of the HBO series began, but that train’s left the station. 960 pages is long. Needless to say, the best part of being fairly sick was the time spent with this book. Generally I felt awful.

Substantively, A Clash of Kings improved on A Game of Thrones. We all miss Ned Stark, but what struck me, having seen the series, was how well-developed the characters are in this second book compared to the series. Arya Stark stands out. There’s a lot more going on with her in the book than the show. So too Davos, Stannis Baratheon’s “Onion Knight.” These are fantastic characters, and the show simply does not do them justice.

Any glance at any of the bits I’ve written on fantasy here will reveal that one of my hobby horses is to bemoan how thoroughly Eurocentric the genre as it exists is. I noted that while Martin certainly demolishes Tolkein’s almost entirely-male conceptual precedent, he does so in a world that is, basically, late Medieval Europe. In particular, I am concerned when indigenous people–in Martin’s world we have “the Children of the Forest” are “all gone” or at least presumed to be.

My point has nothing to do with fantasy lit per se but rather that I’ve had too many conversations with actually-existing white people (it’s white people that concern me most because I am one, and because they still hold, as a group, social sway in this country) who say things like, “gee, the Native Americans really had a good thing going. Too bad they’re all gone.” This, despite the very real presence of all kinds of Native people not only on reservations but living in your city, white man. This approach allows this country to not deal with the present results of past genocide, and it’s not good. So, when I see that trope play itself out in fantasy lit, I know that it soothes the white subconscious in a way that will not move us forward.

So, let me then say that it’s becoming clear that Martin’s approach to indigenous people is more nuanced than was clear, or at least clear to me, in A Game of Thrones. First, we meet Jojen, who has the ability of greensight. He is of a group of people who, while not children of the forest, “keep the old ways.” Those old ways, clearly, still work in this new world of Westeros, and that is leagues removed from the idea that “those nice people are all dead and gone now.” It puts the question of our full, human relationship to land and ancestry into the present, rather than the past. There are other examples as well: Bran Stark is a “warg,” inhabiting the body of his direwolf in dreams, and one gets the feeling that we will meet children of the forest in later volumes. Good for Martin.

I’m nearly 200 pages into the third book as I write this. I don’t feel like I’ll bother with the HBO series for some time, if at all. Good series, better books.