Moldy Fantasy

Empire of the East
The Complete Book of Swords
Fred Saberhagen
The Book of the Wars
Mark Geston
Tales of the Dying Earth
Jack Vance

In a past post about the infamous NPR Top 100 SFF list, I noted that, if the list is to be trusted, most of the best science fiction was written before 1980, while most of the best fantasy was published in the last fifteen years or so. This is obviously not the case, but begs the question of why fantasy readers seem ignorant of, or indifferent to, the tradition. Well, here at Two Dudes, we pride ourselves on taking stands against ignorance! Today’s article is a survey of old, moldy stuff that was written before one of the Two Dudes was born. (The older Dude predates the most recent additions by just a few years.) More importantly, these books were written before the epic fantasy boom and are a look back at a different way of writing, before Dragonlance, Shannara, and Robert Jordan scrambled everything.

Length is the obvious difference between yesteryear and the new century. Most of today’s fantasy can’t seem to say anything in under 600 pages, and that’s just for one book in a (long) series. Without criticizing authors who love to write lots of words, I will merely point out that each of the four listed above is a complete trilogy within the page count of a contemporary introductory volume. The other major difference is thematic: each takes place in a fantasy version of the post-apocalypse sub-genre and is, while perhaps not free of Tolkein’s influence, not beholden to the archetypal fantasy land of merry elves, gruff dwarves, and fat halflings. These stories are also shot through with ambiguity and ambivalence; the line between good and evil is faintly drawn, if at all. This is not to claim that today’s fantasy is different, except that anyone praising one or another high profile series for being gritty and/or dark and implying that it is somehow groundbreaking is obviously out of touch with the classics.

Saberhagen’s might be my favorite of the books under the microscope today. The Empire and Swords books all take place in the same world, but thousands of years apart. Both are, on the surface, fairly typical fantasy storytelling. In Empire of the East, brave but oppressed peoples rise up in revolt against their evil tyrants. In The Complete Book of Swords (which includes the main Swords trilogy but none of the supplemental novels), the gods toy with humanity and distribute magical swords for their own amusement. The humans, of course, use the swords for mayhem and goodness, and try to thwart the gods. So far, so standard, but there is magic in the telling. In particular, the world building stands out, especially considering the amount of space available, as do some of the characters. Many of the men and women are somewhat stock, but the gods and other entities are all kinds of fun to read about. By combining nuclear holocaust with fantasy, we get bizarre combinations of Cold War technology, magic, bioengineering, and divinity.

Geston mines similar territory in The Book of the Wars. I found out about this series from a David Drake interview, wherein he credited Geston’s books from helping Drake stay sane in Vietnam. I had never heard Geston’s name before, but a David Drake endorsement is enough for me. I was at the library the next day picking this up. All three books in the trilogy are operatic tragedies, filled with an over the top pathos that could only come from the mind of a young man who is obsessed with the fall of civilization and is spending his college days at an isolated, exclusive, all-male institution. This is not the quiet, poetic mourning of a single broken heart, but rather the deaths of doomed millions, the end of planets, and worlds with no hope. If it seems a bit heavy and overwrought, Geston makes up for it by coming at these stories from an off-kilter angle. His settings, story lines, and characters are all his own; things may be bleak in the stories, but they are definitely not derivative. The first two stories are vaguely connected and talk about a post-holocaust world that is trying to finish itself off. The third tells of a war between science and magic. It’s hard to say who the good guys are, since the magic half is power-crazed, self-absorbed, and probably tyrannical, but the science end is cynical, dry, and emotionless.

Tales of the Dying Earth is perhaps the oddest of the bunch, though it may have had the greatest genre impact of the three. Vance’s world may or may not have enjoyed a nuclear exchange, but the sun, or the Earth, or both, are in their final days. Technology has gone and magic haunts the land, as things sputter down towards the end of the world. The books take a bit of getting used to. Everyone speaks in a stilted, formal style and uses a lot of big words. Once I decided that Vance wanted the people in his world to speak this way and wasn’t just being pompous, I started to enjoy it. Another required adjustment is the complete lack of ethics in the Dying Earth. Apparently altruism burned out with the sun, because not a single character in the stories spares a thought for surrounding people. Again, at first I was taken aback by this. Then I figured out that since everybody in the story is a jerk, nobody expects kindness in any situation. Once this made sense, things became funny, rather than appalling. In a way, the “hero” of two books even learns an Important Life Lesson. He fails, hilariously at times, until he finally starts to – gasp – work with someone. Kids! Cooperation works!

Oddly enough, however, Vance’s greatest legacy is not his worlds, his words, or his characters. It is instead his magic system that has bedeviled D&D players for decades. Yes, the system of spell memorization that is such a bane to gamers comes from the Dying Earth. In the books, it makes sense. Why exactly Gary Gygax thought it would be a fun addition to a game is beyond me however, as D&D magic has always been a dumpster fire.

So to sum up without making any deep, literary conclusions, each of these is worthy of a look. Empire of the East is probably my favorite, but any of them offer a window into pre-TSR / Robert Jordan fantasy. I can only imagine what the NPR Top 100 would look like if more fantasy fans dug into the archives before disgorging their opinions.

Rating: Brazilians from the 1970s, doing crazy soccer things that wow fans today.

One thought on “Moldy Fantasy

  1. Most interesting stuff. I do come from the pre-1980 age; Robert Heinlein before he went pornographic; L. Sprague de Camp; Faffahrd (sp?) and the Grey Mouser; early Ben Bova, etc. I remember thinking that a lot of that stuff was badly written, although I really like Ray Bradbury a lot. Then I found Zenna Henderson, and believed I had discovered a really great writer.
    There is a lot of crap written today, but there was just as much written then. Sci-fi was sold in cheap, shoddy paperbacks that usually didn’t make it through a first reading; fantasy was Edmund Spenser and the Fairie Queen. My 9th grade English teacher told me not to waste my time reading Lord of the Rings–I wouldn’t like it, he said, and it was poorly written to boot. That was all the incentive I needed to begin on The Hobbit and thence to LOTR.
    The feeling was indescribable. It was more than just “a good read;” it was nothing less than magic, pure and absolute magic masquerading as a morality tale. LOTR changed me more than anything I’ve ever read, before or since (yes, even more than the Book of Mormon!). I’d like to think that change was for the better.
    Way, way too much fantasy today depends on Tolkien. The worst writers don’t even bother to hide their debt to him. That’s why it’s so refreshing when something new comes along: Gene Wolfe and “The Book of the New Sun” (which I am re-reading and which I will review in these august pages someday soon); Michael Moorcock and the Eternal Champion (anybody who listens to Blue Oyster Cult has heard of Elric’s woes); “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” which gave me that LOTR feeling all over again; Patricia McKillip, who writes the same story over and over in dreamy, luminous prose that defies replication or explanation.
    Let me conclude simply by stating that I envy anyone who has not yet read LOTR: You have a marvelous, soul-stirring adventure awaiting you. At the end, you’ll cry–mostly because the novel was way, way too short!

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