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Posts tagged ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’

The Limits of Wonder and Defining Speculative Fiction


Much as I love genre theory, I typically steer clear of taxonomic debates. I find that genre classification tends to put the cart before the horse, to be the critical equivalent of describing an engine in terms of its color. Most such debate reduces to a collection of observations that do little to advance our understanding of how narrative mechanisms actually function. Yet over the weekend, Ian Sales posted a thought-provoking essay which diverges from this general rule. Unlike most attempts at genre taxonomy, Sales’ definition of speculative fiction tries to be systematic and comprehensive, built from a set of first principles articulated in previous essays on wonder and the source of agency in SF/F. On balance, Sales’ focus and clarity of thought make his proposed definition that rare critical beast: a critically helpful taxonomic construct.

Unfortunately, Sales’ definition of speculative fiction is also flawed.

Where Do Definitions Come From?

There is much in Sales’ essay that I agree with, and I think the most important point he makes is this:

A useful definition has to describe something intrinsic to the text, not something extra-textual.

If a taxonomy is to be valid, true, and useful then it must emerge from the texts being analyzed. While I know some in the arts who look askance at the scientific method, basic logic suggests that a viable theory must be supported by repeatable observation.

If we wish to define a genre, we must point to the identifiable and unique features of that genre. Romance, for example, benefits from a beautifully succinct definition: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” One could likely come up with something just as elegant for mystery/crime or westerns.

But it is the broad, all-encompassing categories like speculative fiction and mainstream literature whose defining characteristics become harder to pin down, and that is because the reasons we enjoy them often occlude their underlying structures.

Dragons, aliens, magic, faster-than-light travel, etc. are extremely rare in mainstream literary fiction. When we read speculative fiction, they can offer us that pernicious “sense of wonder” which so often muddles critical analysis of the genre. On a superficial level, identifying speculative fiction by its devices has the simultaneous benefit of being easy and rarely incorrect. But it is a superficial and facile approach that fails to tell us anything about either how the narrative is constructed or how that construction contributes to its effects.

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Sales is right to point to the weakness of identifying genre based on the devices that appear in the text. Just because a book features dragons or elves does not mean it is fantasy (or rather, does not mean it isn’t science fiction).

Consider the science fictional treatment of dragons in both Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (which I discussed at greater length here) and Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, or Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance’s fantastical treatments of hard science in The Book of the New Sun and Tales of the Dying Earth, respectively. As these works make clear, genre taxonomy cannot be reduced to a checklist of tropes. How such devices are used in the text and their relationships with the narrative’s characters, plots, themes, and settings have a greater significance than the mere fact of their mention.

While Sales’ stated goal (to define speculative fiction using characteristics intrinsic to the text) is one with which I am in complete agreement, I fear that his definition falls wide of the mark. Of his two defining criteria (wonder and [the source of narrative] agency), fully one half is external to the text and based entirely on a reader’s subjective, individual experience of the narrative.

Critically Pernicious Wonder

“Sense of wonder” is a critically contentious term that seems to come in and out of vogue every generation. I personally subscribe to the belief that it does have critical value, but only insofar as one of several diagnostic tools. Its utility as a criterion for definition is limited by the fact that our mileage may vary.

Sales argues – in line with reasoning by Romanian SF critic Cornel Robu – that “wonder” is centrally concerned with scale, and that science fiction fosters a sense of wonder through the actualization of scale in the reader’s perception. To be clear, this is not a bad way of thinking about wonder. But it is a very specific, highly individual, and rather limited one.

In my own reading, I find that many concepts, images, devices, and even phrases can foster a sense of wonder. For me, it isn’t all about scale: It may also relate to emotional intimacy (e.g. John Crowley’s Little, Big), or spirituality (e.g. James Blish’s A Case of Conscience), or mathematical or rhetorical elegance (Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket and Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, respectively). Many have written about “wonder” as touching on the sublime, verging on the transcendent, or as enabling a reader’s conceptual breakthrough. As a concept, it has descriptive value. But its own definition is imprecise, and that very imprecision stems from the term’s innate subjectivity.

Wonder is a quality intrinsic to the reader’s experience, and not to the text.

As a result, an epistemological definition of speculative fiction that uses wonder as one of its two legs cannot stand. “Sense of wonder” is neither a quantifiable nor an independently repeatable observation that can be made for a given text. This weakness is further supported by Sales’ own (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) equation for quantifying wonder, which itself relies on four inputs which are personal to the reader and have nothing to do with the text in question.

An Alternative Definition of Speculative Fiction

However, Sales’ definition does have value. I particularly appreciate his insight into the source of narrative agency. I’ve been thinking about his breakdown for the last couple of days, and I think he makes an excellent point:

Science fiction and fantasy can be differentiated by the narrative text’s implied prime mover. Fantasy’s implicit prime mover is the author, while science fiction’s implicit prime mover is deterministic natural law (which is, admittedly, often conceived and communicated by the author).

Of course, the author in all cases has control over both the narrative and their fictional world. However, what Sales really highlights isn’t the question of how the story is imbued with narrative agency. Rather, it is the implied author’s relationship/attitude towards their fictional reality.

If the text communicates the implied author’s attitude as explicitly deterministic or naturalistic, then the work is likely to be science fictional. If the text communicates that attitude as either unexamined, theological (even given a fictional religion), or metaphysical, then the work is likely to be fantasy.

Such a characterization seems to be broadly consistent with Sales’ use of “agency”, yet such a distinction is useful inasmuch as it helps us to differentiate science fiction from fantasy. However, it does little to differentiate speculative fiction from other more mainstream genres.

A Definition of Speculative Fiction

Rather than utilize “wonder” as the definition’s second axis, I would instead suggest the centrality of the speculative/impossible to the plot. The more speculative the plot, the more likely a given work can be deemed speculative fiction. That seems somewhat tautological, but it allows us to neatly place any work of fiction along a spectrum of “speculation”.

This alternative definition seems to be less susceptible to edge cases than Sales’ original: By taking into account the totality of the implied author’s relationship to their fictional reality, works like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination can still be comfortably classified as science fiction despite their central speculative conceit going relatively unexamined. At the same time, by exploring the speculative elements’ relationship to the plot (as opposed, for example, to the theme) we can differentiate works of magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude from secondary world fantasies like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

This lets us construct several precise definitions actually based on characteristics that are observable within the text:

  1. Speculative fiction is fiction where speculative elements (i.e. devices of the fantastic, scientific extrapolation, impossible conceits, etc.) are central to the narrative’s plot specifically, irrespective of their relationship to either theme or character.
  2. Fantasy is speculative fiction where the implied author’s relationship to the fictional reality is unexamined, theological, or metaphysical in nature. A fantasy’s implied author accepts the fictional reality without necessarily trying to explain it.
  3. Science fiction is speculative fiction where the implied author’s relationship to the fictional reality is deterministic or naturalistic. A science fiction’s implied author assumes and communicates an explicable fictional reality.

By focusing on the relationship of a narrative’s speculative elements to its plot and the implied author’s attitude towards their fictional reality, we gain the ability to discuss the use of the fantastic and the speculative as metaphors and conceits, and to apply that discussion against narrative structure, techniques of characterization, and narrative subtext.

In other words, these definitions provide us with increased analytical clarity and precision – which is what definitions are meant to provide.

Pacing and Narrative Structure: How The Hobbit and Django Unchained Screwed Up


At first glance, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are fairly dissimilar. One is the tale of a beleaguered young man who is put on the path to a quest by an older, bearded wise man. The other has a dragon.

Jokes aside, both movies have come in for some criticism, though Django Unchained has gotten far less criticism than I think it deserves. Fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (myself included) were fairly incensed by the liberties The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took with its source material. And some folks have been grumbling about Django Unchained on grounds of race, representation, and its indulgent depiction of violence (though why anyone would have expected anything else from Tarantino, I have no idea). But these criticisms (deserved or not) are not what I took away from the two films. Instead, I think that both movies – especially when taken together – can show us something interesting about the way that pacing stems from the story’s narrative structure and its presentation.

Where Jackson’s The Hobbit Fails

Tolkien purposefully kept The Hobbit short, simple, and very focused. This choice is exceedingly clear when we compare it to The Lord of the Rings, which features an epic scope and scale. The Hobbit – thematically and artistically – was never designed to be a big story, and its narrative structure is therefore constrained.

When Tolkien first wrote the book, and when his editor first edited it, they determined how best to communicate the narrative and its themes to the reader. They had to decide which information to include, what sequences to portray and which to leave “off-camera”. These are not – as Jackson’s The Hobbit would suggest – idle choices. They are the foundational choices any decent creator makes, sometimes intuitively and sometimes painstakingly, but always integral to the narrative.

Tolkien’s book focuses on a simple man hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins. Yes, on his adventures, Bilbo stumbles into other characters’ epic (Thorin Oakenshield) and tragic (Gollum and Thorin both) journeys. But Bilbo’s narrative is neither epic nor tragic. Tolkien chose to focus on the narrow, pastoral concerns of an anachronistic, pastoral character. Through Bilbo’s perspective, Tolkien looks in on Thorin’s epic journey and Gollum’s tragedy. But – like Bilbo – we remain outside looking in. The Hobbit as a result reads like an anti-epic, specifically presenting the futility of a traditional epic structure.

This fact – apparent, I should think, to most of The Hobbit’s readers – apparently escaped Peter Jackson et al. Whether out of nostalgia for Tolkien’s (actually epic) Lord of the Rings, or a desire to stretch a short book into three movies, or simply the belief that Tolkien and his editors got it wrong, the film makers chose to reverse what may be Tolkien’s most important creative choice.

When we read The Hobbit, we are invested first in Bilbo, and only secondarily in the other characters. Jackson tries to simultaneously earn an equal investment in both Bilbo (who Martin Freeman plays amazingly), and in Thorin Oakenshield (who Richard Armitage plays woodenly). These two characters’ narrative arcs are thematically and structurally incompatible.

By cramming his “white orc” plot line into the movie, Jackson weakens the narrative structure of Bilbo’s story. It makes the film painfully schizophrenic: one half is a version of The Hobbit which stays (relatively) true to the book’s themes and structure. But the other half is taken up by a story which contributes nothing to those themes. Because the events are largely constrained by Tolkien’s original plot, there is no opportunity for either a more complex exploration nor for a subversion of Tolkien’s original themes. If that were Jackson’s conscious intent, then an adaptation is not the place for it.

Jackson has successfully developed split narrative arcs before. The Lord of the Rings – which is an epic story – features this kind of split narrative. We have plot A (Frodo/Sam/Gollum) and plot B (Aragorn et al.). But as Diana Wynne Jones discusses beautifully in “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in the fantastic Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), that “split narrative” is actually a complex weave, where each strand supports, relies on, and contravenes the other. And both of those strands are epic in nature. They are compatible, and the narrative structure relies equally on their compatibility and differences.

It would be impossible to develop a deeper narrative structure around Thorin Oakenshield without rejecting either the structure or the themes of Bilbo Baggins’ arc. This puts the audience in a difficult situation: We must choose which narrative we will actually invest in. This choice plays havoc with the movie’s pacing. If I’m only invested in one half of the film, that means I spend the other half waiting to get to the good bits. One half of Peter Jackson’s movie contributes nothing to its narrative, and so tries the audience’s patience.

Django Unchained and the Pacing Impact of Self-indulgence

Tarantino’s Django Unchained has a different lineage. It doesn’t stem from a book, and so its plot is unconstrained by outside factors. An unabashed homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, as evidenced in the main character’s name (i.e. Django is a nod towards Sergio Corbucci’s excellent classic Django), offhand references (e.g. a character “Eskimo Joe” gets mentioned, probably a nod towards an often-forgotten spaghetti western Navajo Joe), and actor cameos (e.g. Franco Nero, who played the titular character in Corbucci’s classic Django).

From a narrative standpoint, spaghetti westerns tend to explore themes of moral ambiguity and the interplay between justice and vengeance. Tarantino’s Django Unchained plainly follows in this thematic tradition, with its heroes relying on both deception and nigh-superhuman gun-slinging skills to free Django’s wife and exert justice on a rich southern slave-owner.

In general, the narrative itself is satisfying enough. It absolutely lacks the moral ambiguity or character complexity characteristic of the best spaghetti westerns, and in essence is little more than a classically-structured heroic quest (as the movie itself acknowledges). But that’s fine, and I would be happy to experience that kind of story. Unlike Jackson’s The Hobbit, Django Unchained picks one narrative and thematic structure and sticks to it. Where it ran into problems for me, however, lay in quite a few self-indulgent directorial choices that diverted attention from that narrative and easily added an unnecessary forty-five minutes to the movie.

Here are two examples:

Through vivid experiential flashback and spoken dialog, Django establishes his desire to free his wife Hildy (Brünnhilde, more properly). We understand what he wants, and we identify with it. We want him to succeed. The story has us invested. Great. But from this point forward, Tarantino chooses to throw in scenes where Django imagines (hallucinates?) his wife. The action slows down for each of these moments, giving us a drawn out pause that grinds the story’s movement to a halt. No dialogue is exchanged, and Django never remarks on these moments.

How do they help the narrative?

They don’t. Django’s motivation – and his character – are sufficiently established through other moments in the film. The story has only one narrative arc, and it’s pretty straightforward. We’re not likely to forget what Django wants. So these hallucinatory interludes only distract from the narrative, bringing its forward momentum to a grinding halt.

There is a similar, though much longer sequence, lampooning the KKK (to be fair, it’s really a “proto-KKK” since the movie is set pre-Civil War) which adds little to the narrative. Taken on its own, the sequence is actually quite funny, and from a moral/ethical standpoint I am strongly favor of portraying prejudiced bigots as the idiots they are. But what does it add to the story? It is a momentary side-adventure, which does nothing to move the main narrative arc (Django’s quest for his wife) forward. And it fails to deepen our understanding of either Django or Doctor Schultz: we already know where both characters stand on slavery and race relations long before this scene. While it is a very well-composed sequence, it is didactic directorial self-indulgence. And it slows the narrative arc substantially.

Window-dressing and Economic Storytelling

Whereas Peter Jackson’s choices in The Hobbit actively broke the story’s narrative structure, Tarantino’s choices in Django Unchained merely distracted from it. But while the scope of their poor judgment may differ, their mistakes were of a kind: both confused the presentation of story with the story’s narrative.

Presentation is a technical concern. It might be prose structure, language style, camera angles, or shot composition. It is the technique – any technique – through which the narrative gets communicated. When we tell a story, regardless of medium, we have to choose how to present that story. We choose our words, our sentences, our shots. But if we lose sight of what that technique is meant to communicate, if – like Peter Jackson – we choose to present thematically and structurally incompatible components, or if – like Quentin Tarantino – we choose to present self-indulgent sequences which fail to deepen the narrative arc/themes, then we’ll be damaging our story’s pacing (and possibly breaking the story beyond repair).

In short, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained just reinforced for me that presentation should always be in service to the story. That’s what people are there to read/see/experience.

Thinning and Accusations of Nostalgia in Fantasy


The other day I came across a comment somewhere (alas, I don’t remember on what blog/forum) that enjoyment of fantasy stems from a nostalgia for the medieval era when lives were “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This view is typically delivered with the rather heavy-handed (though often unstated) implication that only children and fools would enjoy stories set in a time period lacking women’s rights, flush toilets, and antibiotics. I suspect if you’re reading this blog you would agree when I label such a view simplistic and rather asinine. And yet…this opinion has been around for decades, and its staying power suggests that – just maybe – there might be something more at work here than haters hating.

Romanticizing the Past versus Being Nostalgic About It

So why then do people today still say fantasy just romanticizes the ugly past? I’ve never seen a child of the late ’90s and early ’00s make this statement. That’s understandable when we consider that for that generation, Harry Potter was the defining work of fantasy, and that its appeal and reach extended far beyond fandom’s traditional minority. In my experience, the accusation of nostalgia is most often made by folks who matured in the ’70s and ’80s. Unlike the Harry Potter generation, many of those my age or older could have grown up utterly insulated from the boom in genre. They would likely have only been exposed to the unavoidable hits of the generation that preceded them: Howard’s Conan, Tolkien’s Elves, Lewis’ Narnia, etc. Those formative books established their expectations, expectations which a cursory glance at fantasy covers in the ’70s and ’80s would have instantly confirmed. After all, contemporary urban fantasy at that time was the bleeding edge.

So fantasy’s predilection for medieval settings (whether secondary world or not) is an understandable stereotype. By volume, I would suspect (though I have no hard data) it remains warranted today. If someone were to tell me “Most fantasy is set in a quasi-medieval setting” I would say that this is likely a fact. But if somebody says that “Fantasy is nostalgic for the medieval era” I would take exception.

Contemporary fantasy owes many of its roots to romantic literature of the 19th century. In the literal sense, quasi-medieval fantasy does romanticize the past: images of the past are used as a cultural short-hand to set the tone of the work, establish a framework by which its themes can be explored, and set reader expectations. This focus on the reader’s frame of mind and emotional state is in many ways the defining rhetorical device of the Romantics. Realistic fiction does the same, but through the use of different imagery: contemporary imagery, objective or ironic presentation, etc. Both romanticize their subjects (however strenuously the realists might deny it). Fantasy just happens to use quasi-medieval window dressing.

However there is a line between romanticizing the past (a sin of which fantasy, historical fiction, and well-written biographies are all guilty), and being nostalgic for it. In fantasy, that line gets blurred by the genre’s reliance on thinning.

The Thinned End of the Wedge: Thinning vs Nostalgia

In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute defines “thinning” as the weakening of some aspect of the world or character which then enables the story to be structured as a recovery fable. I won’t reprint the entire definition, but I strongly recommend you check it out: it’s a deep and meaningful concept, however fuzzy the borders of Clute’s definition. The classic way in which fantasy stories use thinning is to present a world in some form of decline. The reversal or slowing of that decline becomes the object of the plot or one of the story’s major themes.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is replete with thinned elements yearning for restoration: the elves are leaving the world and going west, the line of Numenor is spent, Hobbits are no longer easy to find, dwarves are locked in their mountains, and the Ents have lost the Entwives (just to name a few examples that spring to mind: there are more). In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we first find a Narnia where humans have died out, the land is blanketed in perpetual snow, and the White Witch oppresses the land and its people. Thinning is even used in non-medieval fantasy, such as in Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court series (see my earlier review).

Thematically, thinning is deployed with a nostalgic tone. The pre-thinning state is never shown, so the reader never sees what this idealized past was like. But the narrator and characters leave us with no doubt that it featured characteristics that they felt were good. It is their nostalgia which permeates the text, not the reader’s or (necessarily) the writer’s. It is merely a rhetorical device, analogous in kind to the use of framing stories or unreliable narrators. It can highlight themes that the writer seeks to dramatize, and can plant deeper emotional hooks in the reader. This isn’t a tool unique to fantasy, and in fact has a long pedigree.

Remember the Dark Ages? Even though it’s an awfully imprecise term, Petrarch’s origination of it really lends a fantastical narrative to the Middle Ages: the Dark Ages were western culture’s own period of thinning after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the influence of the Renaissance (which itself idealized the classical era) remains a powerful force in fantasy today. Contemporary portal/quest fantasies are the descendents of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and characteristic fantasy characters (rogues, merchants, warriors, etc.) can often trace their lineage back to Bocaccio, Chaucer, or Malory.

What Comes after Thinning?

Thinning, and the nostalgic tone it engenders, is clearly nothing new for fantasy. This makes the accusation that fantasy pines for the medieval past an understandable conflation of the terms. Yes, it is wooly-headed. Yes, it is imprecise. And yes, the people who level this accusation are dying out. But if there is some poorly articulated truth to their criticism, then what if they really have a different and far more valid point: is thinning played out as a rhetorical device? Does it remain relevant for the thematic concerns contemporary writers wish to address?

The backwards-looking Renaissance gave way to the striving of the Enlightenment. Thinning and its nostalgic tone became rarer, and tended to be confined to the (already more fantastic) Gothic novels. Though there was much writing we might today call speculative, the thinning popular during the Renaissance was replaced by satire, philosophy, and utopian texts which raised questions about society in the moment and postulated future directions for its development. If thinning as a device has become cliché, what comes next? Can we expect a new Enlightenment in fantasy which replaces thinning and the nostalgic tone with satire? I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet, but I suspect we may be on our way there. And who knows? Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might just be the satirical canary in the coalmine that drags us kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat.

REVIEW: The Crippled God (Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 10) by Steven Erikson


My apologies for posting this on Wednesday, rather than Tuesday. I know I’m late, but I got caught up with day-job work and so…sorry. Hope the timely review makes up for the delay.

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson Title: The Crippled God: Book Ten of The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Author: Steven Erikson
Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
The impressive culmination of an epic eleven years in the making.

The word “epic” gets thrown around more often when talking about fantasy than a well-aimed dagger. I’ve seen it applied (and done so myself) to Tolkien, Brooks, and Donaldson, to Jordan, Martin, and Eddings, to Jemisin, Rothfuss, and Sanderson, and the list goes on. In most of these cases, the word “epic” is an apt descriptor. But I would argue that Steven Erikson and his ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen out-epic all of these other epics in its epic-ness. The world created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont, each individual book in Erikson’s series, and the complexity of the story Erikson planned out from the beginning: each of these alone can be justly described as epic in scope, epic in scale. But in this genre that tosses around the E-word like it was going out of style, I believe that Erikson’s ambition is the most epic of all. And having now read Erikson’s The Crippled God, the tenth and final installment in his Malazan Book of the Fallen, I believe that Erikson delivered on the “epic” promised back in 1999.

DISCLAIMER: I am not saying that the Malazan Book of the Fallen is “better” than the Wheel of Time, or A Song of Ice and Fire, or the Belgariad, or Shannara, or insert-your-favorite-fantasy-series-here. However, I do believe that it is different. This difference especially applies to its world building and plot structure, and in many respects to its themes and characterization. In its plot structure and world building especially, I find it far more complex than those other series I just mentioned. But “more complex” does not mean better. It just means more complicated.

A little over eleven years ago I was waiting to board a transatlantic flight in Warsaw, Poland, idly browsing the tiny English-language section of a little airport bookstore, when I stumbled across a thick book. Tantalizingly titled Gardens of the Moon, by an author I’d never heard of before, and with a cover not-quite-sf/not-quite-fantasy by Chris Moore that instantly set it apart from the contemporary Chihuahua killer epic fantasies of Jordan, Martin, and Goodkind, I had to buy it. I spent the next nine or ten hours sucked into Steven Erikson’s visceral, violent, gripping world. Since that fateful afternoon, I have eagerly anticipated each new volume in Erikson’s opus, and so it was with childish delight (and squeeing) that I stumbled upon a copy of The Crippled God two days before its official pub date in my local Borders.

Gardens of the Moon (via Wikipedia)

Gardens of the Moon by Chris Moore (via Wikipedia)

To read Erikson’s work, one must be prepared to immediately suspend disbelief, and to dive headfirst into a world rich with layers of history, culture, politics, and mythology that would make Tolkien’s head spin. Readers not already well-versed in the conventions of the fantasy genre might find it all a bit confusing at first. But for those readers able to suspend their disbelief, and who are prepared to intuit or await elucidation, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is an immensely enjoyable series. The Malazan world was created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont in their role-playing campaigns. But the two brought to their creation their extensive expertise in anthropology and archaeology, resulting in a world with intricate, distinct cultures, complex historical societal relationships, economic balances, and military history.

Over the course of the ten book series, we follow many (I lost count at around forty five) distinct groups of characters. Some groups are small, numbering maybe one or two members, while others are large factions with many characters going nameless. However, each of these groups is presented completely, meaning that they are drawn as round (using E.M. Forster’s definition), fully-fleshed characters. Erikson shows us everyone’s fears, doubts, concerns to such a degree that by the time we’re halfway through the first book, the very concept of “hero” and “villain” has lost all meaning. It is this moral ambiguity, this rationalization and justification of character choices and ethical mistakes, that drive the series’ themes.

The first five or six books in the series are self-contained wholes. The events of each book occur non-linearly, following several distinct “tracks” of events separated by both time and space. The main tracks comprise different books in the series, at least in the beginning. This makes it possible for a reader to start either with Gardens of the Moon (Book 1), or say Deadhouse Gates (Book 2), or Memories of Ice (Book 3).

Reading them in order of their publication, I was initially surprised and confused by their non-linearity. Where were the characters I had met and fallen in love with in the earlier books? What had happened to them? What were they doing? But like a master weaver, Erikson successfully introduces new strands while maintaining interest in those that came before. This separation across books in the series begins to collapse around Midnight Tides (Book 5), where a new reader coming into the story would be so completely lost in the whirling politics of gods, cities, armies, factions, squads, races, creeds, etc. as to make it an exercise in futility.

It is at this point in the series (books 6 – 8), that Erikson stumbles for the first time. This stumble is interesting to note, precisely because it touches upon his introduction of higher-level, more abstract philosophical themes into the story. The first six (arguably seven) books are largely plot driven. We follow the striving of different groups of characters – especially the Malazan military – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The books are thematically interesting, but there is a palpable sense that reader doesn’t yet know everything. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, Erikson thickens the plot by explaining more complex historical relationships, and introducing new gods, and new players. The introduction of this history, and metaphysical motivation for certain characters introduced in the eighth book, slows the pacing significantly. These latter books remain readable, but I had to read them at least twice in order to really understand what was happening. They are not bad, but they are much more dense than the other books in the series, and those books are already more dense than most epic fantasy fare. Thankfully, Erikson again hits his stride in Dust of Dreams (book nine) as he now has all of the actors on stage and moving towards the climax in The Crippled God.

And what a climax! The series tracks several hundred (again, I lost count) distinct plot lines. But they are all brought together in the tenth and final book. Perhaps more importantly, it is also in the The Crippled God that we see the thematic lines from the earlier books brought together. The thematic convergence in The Crippled God is one of the most impressive aspects of the series. Each of the earlier books has its own themes, which are in and of themselves complicated and well-executed. But after reading The Crippled God, the themes of earlier books are either clarified, corrected, or shown as illusory. Unifying these disparate (and oftentimes contradictory) themes without invalidating them is a neat trick, and makes the intellectual and emotional exercise of the whole series quite worth it.

From a stylistic standpoint, Erikson takes more from the gritty, boots-in-the-mud fantasy of Glen Cook than he does from the elf-and-dwarf high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Erikson’s primary characters are soldiers, and he draws them as imperfect, swearing, and swaggering. While dragons, and Erikson’s version of elves feature quite prominently, his characters are very far removed from Smaug or Legolas. It is the darkness and grit of his world that makes it compelling, that subverts the traditional tropes of the genre. Dragons as mad almost-gods? Heroes who (along with the reader) are ignorant of their quest, and just have to do as they’re ordered? These are fun subversions.

I found Erikson’s take on women in his books particularly interesting. Historically, I have often found fantasy to be full of stereotypical square-jawed male hero-types, with damsel-in-distress ladies swooning in the wings (if they are present at all). Erikson’s female characters are more likely to break a hero’s jaw than pine or swoon. They are soldiers, and conspirators, and commanders equal in all respects to the men, while still evidencing deft characterization that makes them fully believable. Both the men and women are flawed, emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes not. Erikson makes them complex, while retaining their intrinsic humanity. Which is refreshing in a genre often dominated by particular molds.

I have spent the past twelve years with these characters. Their stories have in many respects become a part of me, like old friends. The tenth book brings Erikson’s enormous cast of characters together, and wraps up their stories. With one or two (notable) exceptions, we learn what happens to everybody, how they end up. The tenth book is in many respects about closure, and Erikson unflinchingly brings the story of different groups and characters to a close. But – and this is one of his points – even though the book gets closed for some characters, life goes on. The unity of character, plot, theme, and execution in this tenth book is singularly impressive.

However, for everything good about his work, the complexity – of his characters, plots, themes – can be quite off-putting. One reader (whose opinions I respect greatly) very much dislikes Erikson’s work. She claims that it is too hard to follow, impossible to keep the myriad characters and plot lines straight even within a single book, let alone across a ten book series. For many readers, this will be a valid criticism. Erikson has produced a truly dense, complicated work of fiction. Myriad plot lines, more characters, complicated races that often go by different names, complex battle scenes shown from the perspective of multiple soldiers in the thick of it, this is writing that demands real work from the reader to keep things straight, to follow along with events. I found myself often having to read or re-read sections (and in some cases, entire books) just to really figure out what the heck actually happened. For many, this will be a weakness: why should I have to work so hard for my fiction? But I personally found that I enjoyed doing that work, that I enjoyed getting to spend time in an ugly, dark fantasy world that was realistically built while still employing the tropes of fantasy.

Back in 1999, Erikson told fans that the Malazan Book of the Fallen would be a nine book series. Like any gargantuan epic, this was an ambitious goal. However, Erikson executed on this ambition both in the creative sense, as well in the practical sense: publishers and fans like to see epic series come out with new installments on an annual basis. Publishers like it because it helps them push paperback editions of the earlier books, and fans like it because we can still remember what’s going on in the story. But in a sub-genre famous for delays (George R.R. Martin’s A Dance of Dragons has been delayed five years already and still counting), it is incredibly refreshing to come across an author whose ambition is so vast, whose story is so complicated, but who still manages to produce quality work reasonably on schedule. It’s refreshing, and my hat is off to Erikson for delivering on his vision.

Although I have read that Erikson is planning a new eleven book arc in the Malazan world, The Crippled God represents in many ways the end of an era. It is a masterfully-executed conclusion to a complicated, ambitious, dense opus. On the one hand, I am glad that the series is over, that Borders screwed up and I managed to get my hands on a copy several days before its official release, and that Erikson satisfied my (high) expectations from it. But on the other hand, I will miss the anticipation of the next book, will miss getting to laugh and cry with the characters I’ve enjoyed over the last twelve years.

Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a complex, involving, and emotionally powerful epic fantasy series. There is no series more deserving of the word “epic”. Pick up a copy of Gardens of the Moon, and see if you like it. Be prepared to work at it, because it is difficult. But difficult does not mean bad, and rest assured that by the time you get to The Crippled God, you will find your investment has been fully justified and amply rewarded.

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

Words on a Fertile Shore: The Evolution of Science Fiction and Fantasy Language


While eating delicious (and incredibly over-filling) holiday meals this weekend, I found myself thinking about Google Labs’ new Ngram Viewer. In my day job I deal with statistics, semantics, ontologies, and computational linguistics all day long. Which makes the Ngram Viewer a really, really fun toy. It allows us to look at the frequency with which particular words and phrases were utilized across all books in the English language for the last 500 years.

Which is really cool.

So with such a tool at my finger tips, I thought I would have a little bit of a fun. What can the Ngram Viewer tell us about language in genre fiction? What can it tell us about the genres themselves? To attempt a semi-serious answer to this question, I got out my trusty copy of Brave New Words and flipped through it find some of the tasty neologisms that science fiction has given us over the years. And having written them down, I started banging away at the Ngram Viewer. Here’s what I found:

The Rise and Fall of Cyberpunk, The Fall and Limping Recovery of Space Opera, and the Gradual Climb of Alternate History

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

So the late ’80s and early ’90s saw cyberpunk explode, rise to meteoric heights and then begin a gradual decline that still seems ongoing. Cyberpunk hasn’t seemed to eclipse any of the other major science fiction sub-genres, although it did seem to coincide with a gradual decline in space opera and future history. It’s also neat to see a visual representation of alternate history’s slow growth over the last 40 years.

Sword and Sorcery vs. Epic Fantasy, Paranormal Romance vs. Steampunk and Urban Fantasy

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Looking at fantasy, we can see the response to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s popularity. Looking at the 1970s and 1980s, we can see the impact of Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny. Then the 1990s show us the rise of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin and the other kings of the Chihuahua-killer tomes. But what I think is most interesting is the relationship between steampunk, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance.

Steampunk has been getting a lot of buzz recently, leading some authors (most prominently Charles Stross and Cat Valente) to complain that it eclipses everything else going on. But this somewhat unscientific chart at least shows that while steampunk may generate buzz, that buzz is disproportional to the volume of published work. Of course, those complaints are recent and Google’s data only goes up to 2008. It’d be interesting to see if in 2009 and 2010 steampunk really did eclipse other sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction. Looking at the data through 2008, the trend looks pretty steady and in line with urban fantasy. The data actually suggests that paranormal romance is the sub-genre really breaking out. At least by 2008.

Some Fun Genre Tropes

And since I am – technically – on vacation this week, I want to go out vacation-ing in a few minutes, just three last fun charts. The charts above track some of the sub-genres, but what about some of the most-common science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes? Some fun:

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Hard science fiction and space opera both have their share of tropes, including (typically) some means of traveling at or near the speed of light. Of course, technology changes all the time so how have those tropes changed over the years? For one thing, the generic (and typically ill-defined) “hyperdrive” seems to be eclipsing anything with real science behind it. The equally fuzzy “warp drive” looks to have peaked around the turn of the century, while scientific or pseudo-scientific also-rans like the ramjet and gravity drive seem to be holding steady. Probably the most noticeable (and interesting) phenomenon was the brief but intense plateau of solar sails, which came to be pretty common right around the mid-1980’s before settling back down into a slow upward trajectory in the late ’90s.

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Out of the stereo-typical fantasy tropes, dragons seem to be holding pretty steadily, but what’s notable is the rise of “wizard” in the late 1990s. Do I detect Harry Potter‘s wand at work?

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

And here we can clearly see the impact of Anne Rice and her Lestat as the progenitors of the vampire craze. Vampires are clearly the monster of last thirty years, and by 2008, they still have nothing to fear from either werewolves or zombies.

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