The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie

At the world premier of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Parisians famously rioted in response to the dissonant music and avant garde ballet. Listening now with ears that know what the 20th Century holds in store for music, it’s difficult to imagine what might have shocked the concert goers. A determined act of imagination is required to push back through time and put oneself in the place of music fans used to Chopin or Rachmaninoff to see what all the mayhem was really about. No easy feat, that. Likewise, without a little time travel back to the mid-2000s, the opener of Abercrombie’s debut series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to set off a firestorm. A good book to be sure, but I would not have imagined it to be a genre changer.

To research this post, I started reading up on the history of grimdark, soon disappearing down a rabbit hole of passionate defense and angry diatribe. As I understand things, George RR Martin is the father of grimdark, but it was Abercrombie who really pushed it into the fantasy mainstream. Now, the genre is trapped in an escalating battle of grimness and darkness, with each new publication grittier and more hopeless than the last. It is, apparently, the death of a genre, if not most of Western culture. When we are all scrabbling savages, living in dirty hovels and stewing our mothers to fend off starvation, Abercrombie and his crew of morally compromised characters will be to blame.

Going back to music, it’s very hard to get offended by Stravinsky when I spent high school listening to hilarity like this. Likewise, I enjoyed The Blade Itself, but if someone told me I should be shocked at its depravity, I wouldn’t know how to answer. It didn’t strike me as all that cutting edge. To be very clear, this is not because I have leveled up my grimdark and can out-grit a master like Abercrombie. In fact, I do poorly at the sight of blood, dislike killing bugs, and don’t swear. That’s how gritty I am. I also don’t read enough fantasy to speak authoritatively on the subject, so it’s not that I’ve grown coarse and moved on to even harsher books. We are forced to turn the clock back a bit to interrogate my feelings of being merely whelmed by the rampant darkness (though impressed by the quality).

Others more versed in fantasy will have to chime in here, but I’m very curious why it’s taken until the mid-2000s for this to become A Thing. A confession: I bounced off Game of Thrones several years ago and never tried Martin again, but I guess the death of a particular character is the most paradigm shifting event in fantasy since Tolkien. At least, that’s what several columns would have me believe. And yet, the whole dark and grim thing doesn’t seem to have exploded until the riotous bloodshed and cynicism of The First Law Trilogy did well. Glen Cook has been plenty dark for almost thirty years now, but nobody seems to have noticed. Likewise, Elric, Malazan, Thomas Covenent, and many others have come and gone without defining a sub-genre. It’s only now that epic whingefests about how Abercrombie & Co. are soiling – SOILING! – beloved fantasy tropes are popping up to amuse us with their butthurtedness. Why now?

I’m even more baffled when looking at other genres. SF came to terms with this back in the 1970s, with Hammer’s Slammers and other Vietnam-influenced books. Westerns had their own period of gritty revisionism that probably reached its peak with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Nobody batted an eye at James Elroy’s hallucinogenic noir. I even remember being angry at the hopelessness and lite-nihilism of Steinbeck’s The Pearl when forced to read it in 4th or 5th grade, having heated conversations with my friends that sounded an awful like grimdark’s detractors do now. So why is fantasy up in arms now? Were things really that innocent and heroic for lo these many years?

I’m trying to figure out why exactly Blade generated the heat that it did. Running through the grimdark playbook, is it because of frequent use of an f-word that is not “forsooth?” I thought that the internet and premium cable networks had put an end to that sort of worry. Is it the violence? Abercrombie spills plenty of blood and guts here, but that hardly seems unique to grimdark. In fact, one of the most gleefully and gratuitously violent fantasy novels I can remember is the first Elminster book, from the ever subversive Forgotten Realms tie-in universe. Is it the cynicism? First, I’m not sure how anyone can be aware of current events and not be cynical. Second, did nobody read Glen Cook all these years? Utopian he is not, but nobody attacks The Black Company. (As well they shouldn’t.) Is it the lack of a white-skinned farm boy of destiny, clad in shimmering, prophetic light as he smites the unredeemably wicked and restores some past age of glory? I, er, well, there isn’t much of that in Abercrombie. On the other hand, isn’t that the sort of thing we left behind in, oh, maybe 9th grade? I realize that many of us read to escape the grubbier parts of our own existence, but morally shallow, Disney-esque narratives not only ruin my suspension of disbelief, but insult my sense of reality. Maybe I’m weird.

I couldn’t write grimdark, I’ll be the first to admit, but I enjoy the respect it shows for my intelligence and grasp of the real world. (Or at least good grimdark. Grit won’t save crap.) I am not yet on the Abercrombie-as-fantasy-author-diety bandwagon, but I will finish The First Law. I’m even looking forward to it.

Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

Periodically, as I am out playing music, people ask what the hardest instrument is. “Oh, well, it’s all about the same,” is my usual answer. I say this partly because it’s true; past a certain level of competence, it’s all hard. There is a touch of defensive apology involved however, as those in the know widely agree that the sax, my chosen horn, is one of the easiest to figure out. (Among the hardest are violin, piano, and organ.) I wonder if writing is similar. Writing novels is hard; I understand this well. That said, are certain kinds of novels more difficult to write than others? Science fiction seems like it might be starting from a disadvantage. My claim is bolstered a bit by a Skiffy and Fanty podcast that features Two Dudes favorite Kim Stanley Robinson. He brings up a few points to consider and gives hints why SF might just be the hardest genre to write.

Let’s start with genre differences. Speaking in broad generalizations, and knowing that exceptions and blurred lines exist, I would offer the following as the central point of a genre. At the core, science fiction focuses on extrapolation above all else, spinning out an entire universe based on a small number of “What If?” questions. Fantasy largely depends on imagined geography, with maps, empires, and journeys frequently overshadowing what are often stock plots and characters. For most of the remaining genres, verisimilitude is the order of the day. Stories are set in one or another real, researchable place. (Magical realism bridges the gap somewhat, but my experience suggests that the realism generally eclipses the magic.)

If I want to write a mainstream story, I get to select some pre-existing location and bang away at the keyboard. Choosing something other than suburban America probably requires a glance at a few books, or maybe even a trip, but it’s all there for the taking. Fantasy is a bit more of a stretch, requiring me to create my world, the political divisions and cultures, a few select special locations, and probably some grab bag of real world cultures scrambled around to spice things up. For science fiction though, I need to peek into the future a bit, speculate as to how one or another development will alter said future, create the whole future society, churn out something between one and one thousand worlds, sort out whatever tech is being used, deal with questions of The Singularity/FTL/post-humanism/Earth’s environment/empire and colonialism/etc., and, if I’m feeling really nutty, do it all again with aliens who are probably nothing like us humans. Egad. I realize I’m being flippant about the writing process, but just looking at this list makes my brain hurt.

Digging deeper into this verisimilitude thing, what about issues of realism in writing? Non-SFF is, obviously, tied to the Real. It’s not too difficult to stay in these boundaries, since Real is pretty much agreed upon by everyone. There are boundaries in fantasy of course, a complete lack results simply in chaos, but we’re pretty forgiving. There is a trend towards well thought out magic systems, rational economies, and so on, but there are also wizards, lizardmen, demons, and the like. As long as things are internally consistent and more or less explainable, imagination is the limit. Science fiction, though, is a rather more picky animal. We’re not all dour, Mundane SF apparatchiks, but certain formalities must be followed. Crap can’t just happen, there has to be a reason; we demand our fig leaves! Even Star Wars tries to explain itself now. Hard SF is naturally the main offender here, but almost all SF stripped of its rationality is a strange beast.

As an example, I offer up dwarves. Dwarves in mainstream fiction are not a race, they are people who have a genetic reason for being very small. Dwarves in fantasy are, naturally, bearded mountain dwellers who wield axes and forge things. We care little why dwarves are like this, or what it means about them and their world, they simply are. They probably serve some purpose in the plot, but their existence lies mostly unexamined. In SF though, small bearded men (and women) would have a history, a reason or purpose for being that way, an environment that created and encouraged those traits, and probably their own way of traveling faster than light and/or some puzzle for little, bearded engineers to solve. At each step, the demands escalate.

The real killer, though, isn’t the science or world building. After all, that’s what attracts both readers and authors to SF in the first place. What puts SF over the top is our demands as contemporary readers. Long gone are the days when clunky dialogue, cardboard characters, questionable race and gender presentations, and stock plots are acceptable. We want more! There are still books out there about competent white men solving engineering problems, but they are generally scorned as relics of a faded era. Literary sensibilities have subtly invaded the genre and undermined many tenets of the past. I am just as guilty of the next reader, of course, seeking out books with engaging characters and a modern awareness in addition to exploding spaceships. I read Hard SF from the past and give it a pass as a product of its time, but expect more of people writing now. The sense of wonder remains a formal necessity, but it must now be accompanied by most of what we regularly lionize in mainstream literature.

I think we are in a golden age of science fiction, with the synergy between literary values and SF tradition producing an unending stream of future classics. This is fabulous as a reader, but must be death as a writer. Considering the requirements for scientific and futuristic literacy, world building creativity and rationality, and literary qualities of craft, character, and theme, I’m amazed that so many authors clear the bar. As a passable scribbler of non-fiction and overall dunce with fiction, I give today’s SF authors my highest regard.

Series Continuations

Series Continuations

Offered as a counterpoint to last week’s post, I will now congratulate myself for striding boldly through a few of my to-complete series. Not as many as I would like, but I am slowly checking off a small selection of reading goals.

Starship (Mike Resnick) – All five volumes of this one done! It was alright. I think the series peaks in book two or three; after that, both the author and the main character realize that they have painted themselves into corners and things go downhill a bit. There are hilarious moments, a few bits of worthwhile SF insight, and some good characters. The narration is breezy and fun, though very rarely does anything actually challenge the hero. It would be nice if there was some way to take all of the good parts of this series and pair them with a story that isn’t outlandish, since the continuing pointlessness of the hero’s quest cuts this one off at the knees. These should probably be read after an extended period of grimdark, in case an antidote is needed.

The Third Lynx (Timothy Zahn) – Volume Two of the Quadrail books picks up right after the first ends. I like the world that Zahn creates, with the FTL train system and cool aliens. Lynx is very much a middle book though. With the Bad Guy revealed, the mystery loses some of its fun, and the absence of pace found in a final book means that this one somewhat lukewarm. Most of the plot beats are crime fic staples – “Yer off the case, Compton!” – leaving things almost wholly reliant on the setting for any sort of variety. I’ll keep reading for now and hope Zahn puts enough surprises in later books to keep me engaged.

Deepsix, Chindi (Jack McDevitt) – McDevitt is the Honda Accord of science fiction – sturdy, reliable, and never getting the attention of flashier models. I’m now three books into the Academy series, one of his two essential sequences. (The other is Alex Benedict.) Neither of these books really carries on the main arc from the first book, instead spending time with the central character and exploring McDevitt’s universe. I preferred Chindi, with the galactic gallivanting and escalating sense of wonder, but both books are typically solid McDevitt. I suppose he’s technically Hard SF, though there is a sympathetic, human core in each of his novels that make them warmer than much of the usual “white engineers solving problems” stereotype. I will say that I’m looking forward to book four, when the galactic menace from Engines of God returns.

The Neutronium Alchemist (Peter Hamilton) – One might wonder how much over the top Hamilton can get with this series. After all, the first book involved marauding Satanists, the dead coming back to possess living bodies, galactic empires on the brink, mass murderers, and gargantuan, sentient habitats. I expected the author to hold the line, but not to escalate. Then Al Capone returned with a fireball-shooting tommy gun. Don’t get me wrong, The Night’s Dawn trilogy is rampant fun. It’s not at all what I expected, completely subverts the invading alien menace trope, and kicks out a steady stream of memorable scenes and characters. It also out-pulps the pulps, just barely staying on this side of absurdity. Hamilton is also one of the few authors I know that says, “Here we are on page 2000 of a series; it’s time to add some new plot lines!” Utterly fearless, and he’s never met a background detail he didn’t like. I’ll have to wrap this up sooner rather than later, since there’s no way to keep everything straight in my brain with a long layoff.

First Books in Popular Series

First Books in Popular Series

Steven Brust
Agent of Change
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
The Tyranny of the Night
Glen Cook

Despite my stated intention to finish multiple ongoing series, about all I have accomplished this year is to start several new ones. Go me. In my defense, those looked at here are two long-running series that come highly recommended and a third by a very trusted author. The Vlad Taltos books have been on my radar for awhile, so I was happy to find the first two volumes at a library sale. The Liaden Universe must be doing something right, since it’s well into twenty books by now. (Or maybe more. I lost count.) Finally, anything Glen Cook touches is gold, so The Instrumentalities of Night pretty much has to be good, especially with that name. I suppose this means that series completion will have to wait for another day, so let’s all bow to the inevitable and enjoy my irresponsibility.

Jhereg (Steven Brust) – Lots of people rave about these books and Vlad appears to be a favorite of the fantasy crowd. I’m sure he’s not the original super-cool, slightly rebellious but actually a nice guy assassin type, but he does pre-date the widespread subgenre shark jumping that followed R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt, and that counts for something. Jhereg came out in 1983, about five years before my serious fantasy reading commenced, but somehow escaped my notice at the time. While I don’t know enough about fantasy to accurately place Brust in the assassin/thief subgenre continuum, as best I can tell, he was writing the stuff before it was cool. This makes Jhereg hipster fantasy; all it needs is a dapper hat and ironic facial hair.

I digress. The story itself is light and fun. It’s the Chips Ahoy cookie of fantasy, if one makes a bizarre comparison of a literary genre to baked goods. It goes down quick and easy, doesn’t require a big investment of time or money, but comes up a bit lacking in depth when placed next to something more challenging. I have no real complaints with the book, but I wouldn’t use the word “weighty” to describe it. Oddly enough, one can see plenty of meatier themes on reflection: there is a lengthy and complicated history in Brust’s world and everything moves against a backdrop of ethnic conflict and discrimination. The plot is a jaunty caper though, skipping lightly across the surface with flashes of sarcastic wit and wry narration.

I will definitely continue this particular series, even though the first book didn’t come across as one for the ages. I liked it and want to read more, though I don’t think Brust is hitting his stride yet.

Agent of Change (Sharon Lee and Steve Miller) – Both this book and the series it opens seem to be the SF counterparts to Vlad Taltos. Popular, multi-volume series that somehow stayed off my radar, fast paced and frothy opener, promise of later greatness….Again, there isn’t much in the first book that makes me expect a demand for twenty follow-ups. Agent of Change was a fun read, but it didn’t seem like a book to launch a major franchise. I guess that’s why I’m not an acquisitions editor for a major publisher, because Lee and Miller have built their careers on the Liaden Universe. That alone guarantees that I will keep reading; I want to know what all the fuss is about.

I should probably offer a more intelligent mini-review, but alas I haven’t retained a whole lot of this one. I keep mixing up in my head with Catherine Asaro’s first book, for no discernible reason. Curious readers can expect more incisive commentary when I get to the second book. I promise.

The Tyranny of the Night (Glen Cook) – Does anyone out there write fantasy that sounds more like Scandinavian death metal records than Glen Cook? Seriously, anything with major characters called “The Instrumentalities of the Night” is begging for gaunt Swedes to record sprawling and pompous concept albums about it, especially if they are signed artists for “The Black Company” or something. I need to make this happen.

However, Cook’s novel is nothing of the sort. It is about 12th Century Europe, if 12th Century Europe had magic, angry elder gods, and an impending ice age. I noticed many parallels while reading, and even more when checking out reviews by bloggers more informed than I. Those parallels help the reader navigate the early infodumps and prevent drowning in the deep waters Cook tosses us into. I expect this series to amp up the butt kicking as it goes on; for now a lot of things feel introductory. There’s a lot of ground to lay before everything explodes, so Tyranny requires a little patience. There are still severed heads and flying limbs, but not before much ink is spilt in exposition.

Cook also writes very short sentences. And fragments. It’s very distracting. Most of the time. I have no idea why he chose to do this, as I didn’t notice the tendency in any other of his books. I found it annoying, but maybe there are artistic reasons. They don’t get completely in the way of the story, though I found it hard to tune the writing style out. It’s not a deal breaker though, since everything else is plenty entertaining.

I will also continue this series, because I trust Glen Cook. If this is half as good as the other Cook books I have read, it will be well worth the time. I hope that the investment pays off in later books, since this first one could be a bit of a slog. I think it will though.