Category Archives: The Guardian

Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

In a world built on myth, we can’t ignore the reactionary politics at the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.

“A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.”

On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.

To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.

Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.

Myths are a lens through which we investigate the mysteries of the world around us. Change the myth, and you can change the world – as JRR Tolkien well knew when, alongside other writers including CS Lewis, he began to consider the possibility of creating new myths to help us better understand the modern world – or if not to understand it better, then to understand it differently. Tolkien borrowed the Greek term “mythpoesis” to describe the task of modern myth-making, and so the literary concept of mythopoeia was born.

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Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made by the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.

We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the wish to return to a more conservative society, one where people knew their place, is so popular. It’s the same myth that conservative political parties such as Ukip have always played on: the myth of a better world that has been lost, but can be reclaimed by turning back the clock.

Whatever the limitations of his own myth-making, Tolkien’s genius as a storyteller rekindled the flame of mythopoeia for generations of writers who followed. Today our bookshelves and cinema screens are once again heaving with modern myths. And they represent a vastly diverse spectrum of worldviews, from the authoritarian fantasy of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, to the anti-capitalist metaphor of The Hunger Games. The latter is so potent that the three-finger salute given by Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of freedom. What clearer sign could there be that the contemporary world is still powered by myth?

Originally published in The Guardian.

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The shameful joys of the franchise novel…and why the force is with them

Snobby attitudes to sci-fi and fantasy can mean missing out on great stories amid popular book series – a publishing genre that is sure to grow.

Make of it what you will, but it’s a plain fact of publishing life that more people will read the latest Star Wars franchise novel than all the books shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize put together. The world is a noisy place, made all the more so by the democratising influence of the internet, where it sometimes seems that all seven billion members of the global village have self-published their own book. Confronted with this tumult of competing egos, you can hardly blame the average punter for sticking with entertainment brands scorched into their psyche by the lightsabers of multibillion-dollar marketing budgets.

“with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills.”

The parochial world of literary fiction tends to deal with mass-media franchises in the same way it deals with genre fiction, comics and the other narrative arts that eclipse it by magnitudes for size, influence and profit margins: by giving them the silent treatment. This isn’t an entirely stupid strategy. Literary fiction may very well touch parts of the human condition its more successful cousins fail to reach. But then it may not, and the arrogant assumption that novels published within a franchise that has touched the hearts and minds of millions have nothing to tell us is … well … arrogant.

What franchise novels can certainly do well is compelling storytelling. And at their best, they can do it much better than the franchises that spawned them. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire introduces the malevolent Grand Admiral Thrawn to the extended Star Wars universe, where he remains hands-down its best antagonist. One of the many problems with the vastly overrated Star Wars movies (Empire being the moment of genius that rescues the entire franchise) is the absurd incompetence of their villains. Any evil galactic Empire that can be brought low with a missile up the exhaust pipe is not worthy of the name.

Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy follows the painstaking progress of Admiral Thrawn as he leads the remnants of the Imperial fleet against the ascendent New Republic. Have no doubt, Thrawn is a merciless villain, but Timothy Zahn’s smart decision to cast the bad guys as the underdog gives the entire trilogy a compelling edge that the movies simply lack. With rumours about the latest Star Wars trilogy swirling, Disney even went as far as denying Zahn’s masterful narrative will play any part in the new movie. Which is shame, as the brinksmanship of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a lot more entertaining than the predictable in jokes and cheesy pastiche of yet another JJ Abrams fangasm.

The kingdom of the franchise novel extends far beyond spin-offs from cinema and TV. You can keep your Lord of the Rings and even your Game of Thrones. If I could take only one fantasy novel with me to read in the dungeons of Mordor it would be Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil – better known to most readers as the redoubtable Kim Newman. In the early years of Games Workshop the creators of the Warhammer franchise it published a short run of novels that added some depth of charcater to the two-dimensional world of tabletop gaming. Drachenfels was by far the best, a little known gem of fantasy fiction still unrivalled in its canon.

Detlef Sierck is a playwright of Shakespearean talent with the ego of a young Orson Welles. He is pulled out of debtors prison by Oswald von Konigswald to recreate in theatre the prince’s youthful quest to destroy the great enchanter Constant Drachenfels. What follows is a taught phantasmagoria as the story within the story weaves itself back in to reality. Imagine the gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula movies merged with the ironic humour of PG Wodehouse and you get a sense of Drachenfels. As with much of the best franchise writing, it’s the constraints and limitations of the Warhammer world that seemed to bring out the best in Newman’s writing.

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John Scalzi’s Redshirts boldly takes the franchise novel to explore strange new territory in a universe bearing some resemblance to that of the original Star Trek. The story follows the journeys of the low-ranking members on board a starship crew as they come to realise they are living in a television show. It’s a metafictional homage to the classic sci-fi serial, the writing of which gave Scalzi an insight in to the work of the franchise writer.

“I think there is a snobbery toward franchise writing that’s wholly unwarranted,” Scalzi says. “It’s a ridiculous double standard. Franchise writing requires flexibility, speed, the ability to adhere to canonical guidelines while still producing entertaining work. That’s a specific skillset.”

And writers with that skillset can make a solid living in the franchise novel market. That’s a reality that might come as a shock to their literary compatriots. The big names of franchise writing such as Peter David and Alan Dean Foster may struggle to command much literary respect, but with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills. Of course that kind of success can become a honeytrap of its own, with success in the franchise marketplace rarely translating to acclaim for a writer’s original material.

As the world becomes noisier the franchise novel will only become more powerful, and take on new forms. Writing is seen as a solitary enterprise, but the shared worlds of franchises like Star Wars are one way that artistic collaboration can help to lift a creation above the high noise-to-signal ratio of modern life. Perhaps instead of dismissing franchises out of hand, the challenge for writers is to find ways to create much better art within them.

Originally published in The Guardian.

I read the Sad Puppies. It was not a pleasure.

For the last few years, the Hugo awards for science fiction have been campaigned against by a group of writers and fans calling themselves the Sad Puppies – mostly male, very white, and overwhelmingly conservative. Unhappy with sci-fi’s growing diversity, the Puppies have deliberately block-voted for certain titles to get them nominated for Hugos at the expense of a wider field. They say it is their goal to “poke the establishment in the eye” by nominating “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy-handed message fic”. I say it is to sponsor awful writers.

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Bureaumancy. My new favourite genre of fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with being a bureaucrat. So you’re a tiny cog in a machine made of abstract rules, paperwork, and the broken dreams of those who do not understand either. So what? You’re just misunderstood. Without you, nobody would know where to file their TPS reports. Nobody would even know what a TPS report is.

But writers understand. As species of personality go, the writer and the bureaucrat are closely related: they’re deskbound creatures who enjoy the comfortable certainties of Microsoft Office and dazzling us with wordcraft, be it small-print legalese or the impenetrable prose of literary fiction. Of course, Kafka understood the true power of the bureaucrat because he was one – and thus portrayed bureaucracy as a looming, all-powerful presence. The wonderful Douglas Adams imagined an entire planet faking the apocalypse just to get all its middle managers to evacuate in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, while in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, hell itself is one endless system of bureaucratic red tape, where doomed souls are made to sit through every last codicil and sub-paragraph of the rules pertaining to Health and Safety – all 40,000 volumes of them.

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Big Dumb Objects. Sci-fi’s USP.

We humans love things we can’t explain. Witness the vast array of outlandish claims made about Stonehenge, from ancient calendar to alien stargate, when in all likelihood it was just a big clock or an early marketplace, a neolithic branch of Tesco.

When the unknown is also alien, the mystery only grows more magnetic. Think of that iconic opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: a family of apes wake one morning to find a black monolith looming over them; that had its origins in Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. Did some super-advanced civilisation intercede in the early evolution of intelligent life on earth? Or was the monolith just filming a very special edition of Life on Earth?

Read more on Guardian Books.

It’s not science fiction – it’s systems fiction

Seen in literary fiction as well as SF, this genre weaves together complex debates in a way that can offer a clearer view of the future – think Atwood, DeLillo and Asimov.

Weirdly enough, science fiction is not the best lens through which to examine science fiction. In the 80s, critic Tom LeClair came up with an alternative category for all the weird literary novels that veered into speculative territory: the systems novel. These books pick apart how the systems that keep society chugging along work: politics, economics, sex and gender dynamics, science, ideologies – all can be explored through fiction, especially experimental fiction. LeClair applied this tag specifically to Don DeLillo, but it can be expanded more widely: think Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Umberto Eco, among others.

That may seem like an eclectic bunch to unite under one banner, but the systems novel is ultimately a space for ambitious thinkers, the ones who want to weave complex thoughts into a tastier parcel than some impenetrable academic tome. The dramatic kick in a systems novel is usually found in the points where the different systems overlap: tackling climate change isn’t all about physics, it also about unpicking the economics of a carbon-driven economy, for example.

Read more at The Guardian.

Geek critique: Neil Gaiman and Kameron Hurley pick apart pop culture

Two new nonfiction collections – Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats and Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution – present contrasting perspectives on geek culture today. So what’s the state of it?

Geeks were once like Victorian children: seen, but not heard; talked about but mocked, rarely given their own voice. But the newfound popularity of the culture – video games, comics, the mainstream cool of crossover hits such as Game of Thrones or Star Wars – makes geeks some of the loudest voices today. This week, two new nonfiction collections – Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats and Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution – showcase the spectrum of diversity that exists in the culture today.

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Dune deserves a new film adaptation

Confusing sequels, terrible prequels and poor adaptations aside, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece still stands up as the one of the truly great sci-fi novels.

I first discovered Dune through David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s SF masterpiece. The “Lynchian” style, that novelist David Foster Wallace would later define as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine”, would spin wildly out of control in the Dune universe, where the very macabre combines with … the even more macabre. Nonetheless, Lynch’s broken but mesmerising space-opera-come-art-film remains the best adaptation in a franchise that has been much abused over its 50 year history.

“Following the recent successes of Gravity and Interstellar, there’s a taste for epic sci-fi in Hollywood again”

Dune the novel was initially published in two parts, Dune World and Prophet of Dune, in Analog magazine. The full book was published in 1965, and would go on to win the Hugo award the following year, making it an immediate hit with science fiction audiences. Dune’s central conceit, of a feudal fantasy world recast in interstellar space, was not unique. Neither was the archetypal story of a disinherited prince reclaiming his realm. But the themes of ecology, drug use and spiritual enlightenment that Herbert wove into the tapestry of Dune made it vibe with the counter-cultural audience of the 60s and 70s.

It was the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, transformed from a young prince to nothing less than the omnipotent Emperor of the entire universe, that truly captured the hearts and imagination of Dune’s predominantly male audience. Dune is a boy’s own adventure, wrapped in an adolescent coming of age story, spliced with a Bildungsroman, in which boys become men by taming a giant worm and women only appear as princesses, priestesses or temptresses. It’s a book that boys and young men of a certain temperament – intelligent, introverted, angry – often obsess over. Dune is a potent wish-fulfilment fantasy, allowing its readers to play out the status and power they lack in the real world.

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Sci-fi owes much of its popularity to film and television, and like many of the most successful books in the genre, Dune’s prose style seeks to reproduce a cinematic reading experience for its audience. Frank Herbert mastered a close third person style that would influence many writers who followed, and has become the standard for commercial SF and Fantasy novels. George RR Martin’s hugely successful Game of Thrones novels clearly took some inspiration from Dune, right down to presenting each character’s inner thoughts as italicised sentences. It’s a style that makes Dune easy for infrequent readers to digest, but equally hard for literary readers to stomach.

Dune’s cinematic qualities have made it a natural target for Hollywood adaptations. But the Lynchian weirdness, followed by a lacklustre mini-series, have left the franchise in a televisual limbo for most of the last two decades. Herbert’s own sequels, while conceptually interesting and widely loved by established fans, lack the storytelling muscle displayed in the first book. A risible series of cash-in prequels have dragged the Dune universe down to the bargain basement of pulp fiction. It’s a sad legacy for such a significant work of fiction.

Like a desert planet returning to life, excitement bloomed around Dune again in 2013 with the release of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary film that revealed the unmade movie adaptation that might have been by Alejandro Jodorowsky. A decade before Lynch’s version, Chilean cult movie-maker Jodorowsy planned an even more baroque film, which would have starred Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger (presumably stepping naked out of a steam shower in place of Sting) with designs by sci-fi legends HR Giger and Chris Foss.

Learn about the 7 basic elements of great storytelling in the Rhetoric of Story.

Fresh from its 50th anniversary, Dune may seem to be a story fading into the past. But I suspect there’s life in Frank Herbert’s masterpiece yet. Following the recent successes of Gravity and Interstellar, there’s a taste for epic sci-fi in Hollywood again. And as the recent #gamergate saga confirmed, there’s no lack of angry, alienated young men begging for stories that put them at the centre of a fictional universe. But even 50 years after they reached their pinnacle, it’s Frank Herbert’s skills as a storyteller that will keep Dune alive for many decades to come. Because if there is one truly immortal thing in the universe, it’s a great story.

Originally published in The Guardian.

The ominous ordinary: horror writers finding scares in the everyday

Some of the very best work in this genre comes from writers who embed their terrors into strikingly everyday settings.

Long-lived short fiction magazines are a rarity today. And ones that have had a real impact on the wider landscape of storytelling are even rarer. So issue 50 of Black Static marks a important milestone for editor Andy Cox and TTA Press, who are responsible for two of the world’s most significant outlets for short fiction.

Reality, even comfortable suburban reality, is transitory and fleeting.

The Third Alternative was already a well-established showcase for stories that moved between sci-fi, fantasy and horror themes when Andy Cox took ownership of the legendary science fiction publication Interzone. With Interzone’s strong focus on SF, Cox made the decision to refocus TTA on horror, and rebrand it as Black Static.

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The awesome power of science fiction’s megastructures

The imaginary constructions of science fiction fill us with awe at their alien vastness. Which have you explored, and what was the most overwhelming?

Sci-fi fans call it “sensawunda”, that awe and amazement that the best science fiction stories can inspire in us. The entire world felt it recently when scientists declared that observations of a distant star might have revealed an alien megastructure. Did inhabitants of the KIC 8462852 star system encase their sun in solar panels to harvest energy? Or was this our generation’s canals on Mars moment? The sensawunda effect is so powerful that, even with scant real evidence, we are swept into believing.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

The Reengineering of Fantasy

Look. I like Conan. If stories let us play out our secret fantasies in widescreen technicolor, then clearly there’s a part of me that longs to be a muscular barbarian, crushing my enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. While Robert E Howard’s original Conan stories aren’t quite as good as the epic John Milius/Oliver Stone movie that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, they are still gems of pulp fiction well worth reading.

Conan’s rippling pectorals have proved a suitable fantasy vehicle for generations of geek boys, but the macho white male is only the fantasy ideal for a minority. As Lisa Cron argues in her excellent Wired For Story, the power of story reaches far further than mere entertainment. Our brain thinks in stories, but when stories don’t reflect our lived experience and our sense of identity, our brain will often reject them.

Read more at Guardian books.

A sci-fi history of Mars

Mars has always been, as cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, a “mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”. For the ancient Greeks, the red dot in the night sky was an aspect of Ares, god of war, who unleashed conflict when the balance was lost between Apollo – god of reason – and Dionysus, god of the irrational and chaos. This conflict between Apollonian reason and Dionysian chaos has been projected onto Mars ever since.

Read more @ Guardian Books