Thursday, December 29, 2011

Where do I go from here?

I got to thinking about fantasy last night, whilst I was sitting next to Vilde's bed with my mind a-wandering. About fantasy and science fiction and how I grew to regard them with either suspicion or actual contempt. Since I was nine years old, when I picked up my first novel 'Tarka the Otter' and began to read, I loved flights of fantasy and the voyages of the imagination which one finds in fantasy and science fiction. Today however I tend to view both genres with a negative attitude, born of having read the same stories too many times in too many different interpretations. Eventually the similarities became too obvious to disregard and I lost interest with the majority of sci fi and fantasy novels published in the last two decades. There was too much dross and not enough silver.

'Tarka the Otter'
was the first book I read, and looking back on it, was probably my first introduction to dedicated fantasy story telling too. Until then, there had been multiple children's television shows which could be described as fantasy, but in this post I'm thinking of how story telling novels have shaped my mind and I think of television in a mostly visual capacity. 'Tarka the Otter' kicked off a childhood obsession in me for otters, and to this day they retain a small but special place in my heart. It also sparked off a fascination with the 'outsider' characters that proliferate in fanstasy novels and which, as a Danish child growing up in North Western England, in the dreary late 1970's and early 1980's I readily identified with. When I read, and re-read 'The Hobbit' a few years later, I shed a few silent tears when I realised that Bilbo Baggins was not real and that I would never cross mist clad mountains in the strange, fascinating company of Dwarves.

That my life was to be mundane seemed impossible to me in those days, for how could life possibly be mundane? There were mountains to climb, jungles to penetrate and wars to fight. Monsters were real and friends were magical and yet, every so often reality would push its drab monotonous face into view and the fascination of my dream worlds became the horror of mere escapism.

I was thirteen when I discovered the role playing games club at school and by that time, I'd been a dedicated science fiction fan for four years, thanks mostly to a series of weekly science fiction films on television, and to a small but coveted collection of novels I'd gathered from the Boy Scouts charity jumble sale book stall which I had been put in charge of. Amongst these gems was 'Wildeblood's Empire', 'Involution Ocean', 'Roadmarks', and 'A Gift from Earth'. I still have the last three on my sci fi book shelf, where only my favourite sci fi novels are to be found (the rest have been packed away in boxes in case I ever move to a home where I have room for the small library I have collected over the years). Each of these novels was unique to me back then. I didn't know that 'Involution Ocean' was really just 'Moby Dick' in disguise, probably because I'd likely never even heard of 'Moby Dick' back then. I didn't know any of the authors by reputatiion and was quite surprised when twelve years later Oleg leant me a whole collection of Niven novels and I realised that 'A Gift from Earth' was a part of a much larger artistic creation. Lookng back on it all, Niven is still one of my favourite authors, though he also began to get a little repetitious after a while. The trick seems to be to read novels by good authors until you notice their foibles and themes, then stop and move on before they become tarnished. I did that with Arthur C Clarke and I've never regretted it.

I also picked up other odd books in those days, books which I would later put into a broader context but which, at the time, seemed wholly novel and unique. 'Moominland Midwinter' was one such book and 'Duncton Wood' was another. 'Moominland Midwinter' quite literally opened my mind in a way which no other book has ever done. Not even 'The Hobbit' could reach out to me in the curiously personal way this novel did. When I read it, it was as if Jansson was describing my mind in allegory. I was Moomintroll and my life was Midwinter. To this day, this book, and its amazingly powerful illustrations, continues to provoke my sense of self in myriad ways and all I have to do is look though its pages to open a window onto my soul.

'Duncton Wood' gradually faded in importance to me, but for a while it was possibly the most powerful novel I'd ever read. The story is almost Shakespearian in its drama and depth, and yet the premise of the novel, with intelligent moles as its characters, is plainly absurd. In those days I'd heard of, but not seen nor read 'Watership Down', so I had a vague idea of the sub-genre but when I read this book, with its dark and bloody tale, I was fascinated and horrified at the same time. It wasn't the talking moles that got to me, I was used to far more unusual things than that, but rather the story itself with its indirect representation of the stranger aspects of human relationships. I knew of incest, political intrigue, etc, but I wasn't used to reading about them and certainly not in the context of a fantasy novel! Looking back, I wonder why this novel should have stuck out so much as it did, for I'd read other stories back then which also featured horrible and grotesque details, such as 'The Mad God's Amulet'. I suppose the difference lies in the charcters having been moles, which until then I'd probably regarded as cute.

'The Mad God's Amulet' was a short but fantastic novel that was both science fiction and fantasy at the same time. Like so many other of my books in those days, I had probably picked it up at a jumble sale and had little idea of it belonging to a collection of inter-related stories. It had a list of other books in the series on the first page but I disregarded this for years prefering to think of the novel as a stand alone tale. Another novel which was similar in a great many respects, and which also belonged to a larger collection of tales, was 'Marauders of Gor' which I had found in a box of old paper-backs at one of the many traction engine rallies my father often took us to. I remember the Chris Achilleos illustration caught my eye and the subsequent story of Vikings vs giant hairy aliens was sufficiently adventurious to get me well and truly hooked and off to WH SMith's to find more books from the Gor series. Norman's books weren't nearly as baroque as Moorcock's, but they were a similar blend of fantasy with science fiction, and for almost a decade I regarded them as some of my favourite novels. Being a teenage boy I was also captivated by the idea of women as sex slaves, though to be honest, it was the story behind the prudish mysogeny that caught my attention, and my favourites in the series were the first novels when the story carried far more weight than Norman's ridiculous ideas regarding women. You can see which novels are the good ones by their cover art. All the first books were illustrated by Achilleos in his prime.

For one of my birthdays in the late 1970's. Some one had given me a pair of children's anthology books with each chapter showcasing a chapter from some novel or other. These two books, one of which dealt with fantasy and the other with science fiction, formed a base from which I began to range, looking for some of the novels featured (I'm still looking for some of them). The first I found was 'Citizen of the Galaxy' and as with so many other books, I was attracted to the protagonist, identifying with him as only a child can do. As far back as I can remember, this idea of a small and helpless character growing, whilst under the protection of a stronger and wiser character was the primary allure of the fantasy genre for me, but eventually it was also the trigger for my eventual disenchantment. The rot set in with 'The Pawn of Prophecy', 'Dragonriders of Pern' and 'The Colour of Magic', all of which I liked when I first read them, but which gradually became horrendous phantoms of doom as I eventually to put them into the context of the fantasy genre. It didn't help that at the same time I was regularly playing Dungeons and Dragons, nor that my mother was attracted to many of the same books and was readily buying them so we could keep on reading.

'The Colour of Magic' was not one of my mother's favourites, but it was probably that novel which issued the coup de grace. I'd become increasingly hostile to the works of Eddings and McCaffrey, both of which were being brought into my life on a regular basis by my mother's growing addiction for fantasy, and both of which I still kept on reading since there wasn't much else to read in those days, but with 'The Colour of Magic' Terry Pratchett exposed the bare bones of serial novels, especially in the fantasy genre, and he took the piss. With his subsequent production of discworld novels, Pratchett became much like the genre he was lampooning, and this only served to heighten my dislike for the genre and his books even more and eventually I lost all interest in fantasy. Only a few classics of fantasy are left on my shelf and even Tolkien has lost the aura of being something readworthy now Peter Jackson has reduced it to mainstream pap.

When you've been playing role playing games for decades, rather than months or years, you can develop a strong sense for quality in story telling. When you read a fantasy book whose ideas feel pedestrian, then you might wonder at the nature of the genre. When I look back at how I felt reading 'Duncton Wood', and that was just a story about moles, then I wonder at all the long lists, family tree's and complicated geography that has become a staple of the brick sized novels of serial fantasy, and sci fi too, I feel as if I have outgrown the genre entirely. As often as not, I feel that when I am reading fanstasy, I am merely reading some one else's role playing game universe, and as complicated and expansive as it might seem, the simple fact is, all the details and faux facts can't compete with the art of telling a good story.


Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Brilliant post.... we seem to have shared a lot of reading, probably because we grew up in much the same times... the difference is the Science Ficition - I never really got "into" that though I read a fair amount of Asimov.... Duncton was superb, I recommend the Plague Dogs over Watership Down (both are brilliant though); the one big hole I see is Mr Alan Garner - The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was just brilliant...

moif said...

I read 'The Plague Dogs' sometime after we'd moved back to Denmark (so late 1980's I guess). I loved it too, much better than WSD I agree. I saw it as a hauntingly good story with overtones of Cold War paranoia. I especially liked the Tod.

As far as I can recall, I've never heard of Alan Garner. Would you recommend 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' for me?

Oleg said...

I wouldn't seek out Weirdstone of Brisingamen if I were you, but only because you have already given up on the genre.

I have some similar favourite stories, for example 'Hello Winter, Goodbye', and although fine in its way, it would be worth revisiting.

Of recent fantasy (or fantasy / sf), most seems dire, with the occasional 'I suppose this is ok'. I did, however, like 'Hunger Games', and am really hoping that the film won't ruin it for me (I can't see what I'd consider a worthy film version being economically viable, and fear 'Twilight' with more cgis, probably in 3d, and perhapswith a Bollywood song-and-dance routine).
You aren't the only cynical one.

Highly speculative and/or hard sf can still be worth seeking out, but it's mostly swamped by meh.


Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Yes - though I take Oleg's point.. sometimes you go back and are disapointed..... when I read it as a youngster it was memorable - there aren't many books like that!

Oleg said...

The fat fingers of the Dwarves (or possibly Moties) were with me.

I wrote 'it would be worth revisiting'.
I meant to write 'it wasn't worth revisiting'.

About Bisingamen... go for it!

moif said...

I may just buy it and see where it takes me. Afterall I wasn't disapointed when I finally got around to reading 'Gormenghast'.

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

I'll keep you company when I've finished the current book as I still have my copy in the loft...