Jose and Pep sat down the other day to mull over various mundane topics like work and family. Talk, however, soon turned to books, in a spontaneous State of the Genre conversation about fantasy. None of this was rehearsed, prepared, or planned (though it has been edited a bit), merely a glimpse inside the heads of the Two Dudes brain trust.
Jose: I’m going to take something up for reading on my trip this weekend.
Pep: Have you picked it yet?
Jose: Was thinking about some Glen Cook.
Pep: Good times. Though I’ve only read the first Black Company books. He’s someone I need to read more of.
Jose: Agreed. Also, Steven Erickson has finished up his entire series now. I probably should just buckle down and read the whole damn thing from start to finish.
Pep: I need to read book four, but it’s kind of a long investment of time.
Jose: KARSA ORLONG. I’ve read up to book eight, though he’s never hit quite as good as book three. You’ve read Memories of Ice, right?
Jose: So cool, from start to finish. The crazy artists and their frog? Amazing. “Go eat another clod of paint.” Books 6 – 8 are generally awesome.
Pep: Slowly I will get there. Right now I am about to finish my first Guy Gavriel Kay.
Jose: I like him.
Pep: I wish he would declaim in stentorian tones a little less.
Pep: His story is good enough without the soap opera narrative asides. Seriously, I smiled once at p. 181 and haven’t since.
Jose: Kay has a problem where he wants to make things dramatic, and it’s a big problem. Fantasy authors need to get away from the concept of serious human interaction. Seriously, they’re not good at it. What we do appreciate is descriptions of some dude hacking millions of crazed cannibals into a house and then setting it on fire and turning into a war god. THAT is what fantasy is for.
Pep: (laughs) It’s true though. I’m not reading these books for insights into human nature. I’ll read Hemingway or something for that. I want something awesome on my way to work, nothing more.
Jose: I enjoy Stephenson’s answer, actually. He shies away from serious human interaction and places all of it within the boundaries of some crazy issue; either crazy complex calculus or ontology [ala Anatheum] or the completely ridiculous. That way he can say whatever he wants and it seems to be relatively legit.
Pep: Agreed. You can say things about people without dripping in sincerity.
Jose: Right. That’s a serious problem. The things in real life where we learn most about people aren’t in some heart felt break down. It’s in the little asides, how they phrase their day to day life. Not some stunning reveal of their emotions.
Pep: Some of these genre writers remind me of Mormons. We so desperately want to be taken seriously by other Christians, and the writers so desperately want to be taken seriously by lit snobs.
Jose: It’s a good analogy I think. And I think you’ll find that, generally speaking, good fantasy only comes in a singular variety. It doesn’t bother so much with character and instead focuses on a world that’s so completely alien that it becomes a fantastic reality. It’s why I hate George R.R. Martin, by the way – his concept of people is totally awful.
Pep: I’ve never tried to get into him, except for about 50 pages of Game of Thrones, which didn’t impress me. I just got the feeling that 1) nothing good is going to happen here and I will just get depressed, and 2) I’ve read all the plot/world details before.
Jose: He’s revered because he doesn’t have a good guy.
Pep: And kills people. Er, characters.
Jose: Right. But the problem is he’s still awful. It’s why I appreciate people like Glen Cook, Erickson, or Gene Wolfe. No attempts at “AWESOME AND DEEP CHARACTERIZATION.” It’s about making a world that’s internally consistent and blows your mind.
Pep: The thing is, Cook nails it with the first Black Company trilogy. I loved some of those people. I even got behind the romance angle, which is unheard of.
Jose: And you never actually get any serious monologues.
Pep: Wolfe is just on another planet. That guy has no peer.
Jose: The problem is, of course, sometimes Wolfe is just on another planet.
Pep: Also true!
Jose: Whether or not that is a good thing is to be determined. But as a general function, Gene Wolfe does things in the Book of the New Sun [not really read much of his other stuff] that I think most fantasy authors should take serious notes from.
Pep: I haven’t read anything either, but need to. Most current fantasy doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t get Martin, never got into Rothfuss, won’t touch Sanderson because he’s a BYU product.
Jose: Fantasy wants to be mainstream. It’s yearning for the accolades of the Protestant pulpit as it were. I think basically Erickson is the sole author carrying the torch right now.
Pep: He might be.
Jose: Pinto was awesome, but his book [s?] descended quickly into “I want to write about gay relationships.” But the first 250-ish pages had a.) people getting killed, b.) weird blood rights, c.) strange fantasy aliens, d.) best of all, opium trips. Then it descended into happy happy homosexual relationship land, which, while not a problem, became sort of preachy.
Pep: I haven’t read those, but Hal Duncan was the same. I’m ok with gay characters, but am not happy with manipulation via gays. I wish I had more fantasy names to throw out there, but I just haven’t read a lot. I get a craving once in awhile, then I end up reading something weird like Hal Duncan and have to get back to space opera for awhile
Jose: I think the perfect mix is always a combination of hard sci-fi and fantasy. You want the ability to manipulate the rules via unobtanium; things like magic do that.
Pep: Midnight at the Well of Souls.
Jose: But it has to be about the environment and the world; NOT some goofy David Eddings rip off. Because let’s be frank, the Belgariad did protagonist-based fantasy better than anyone else.
Pep: Har. THERE’S someone I don’t dare return to. Can’t ruin my childhood memories.
Jose: Actually, it holds up pretty well. You can sort of see the artifice when you return, but it works well and he knows it works well. To this day the 1500-esh page romp of the Belgariad is probably the best protagonist based fantasy I’ve read. The Mallorean is good too, but mainly because it doesn’t suck and it’s fun to watch Belgarion yell at people and throw lightning bolts. Other than that, Eddings is awful,
though the Redemption of Athalus is pretty much the greatest book for the first 500 pages, and then the worst book for the last 300 pages.
Pep: Hmm. You tempt me to retry those sometime. I loved those books like you wouldn’t believe, so I’m scared to touch anything he’s done now. See, Belgarion and the Dragonlance crew pretty much defined my childhood, up until the time (partway through Tad Williams) I gave up fantasy and moved to Hard SF. I knew Dragonlance was silly, so it didn’t hurt to reread it and know that it was bad, but I don’t want to lose those happy memories of Garion, Polgara, et al.
Jose: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is amazing. If you haven’t read it, you have to. It’s really that good.
Pep: It’s on my list. That’s the one I gave up partway through. Of course, he wasn’t finished writing it at the time and I just ran out of fantasy steam.
Jose: Its 4,000-esh pages of awesome, though it takes time to get into.
Pep: I do need to sit down with a butt kicking fantasy soon.
Jose: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is a good choice. Simon has some very good moments, like attacking a dragon.
Pep: It’s been on my list for awhile, though of course I don’t move methodically down that list.
At this point, talk turned elsewhere, then wound down for the night.