Monday, August 24, 2015

The Local Styles of Clark Ashton Smith

Unless you've been living under a rock, or are perhaps a well-adjusted adult belonging to 99.7% of the general population, you are no doubt aware of the recent Hugo award controversy. After careful deliberation, I've decided to signal my views on this embarrassing public display extremely important, historic debate by blogging about something completely different.

While working on various projects over the spring and summer, I had the opportunity to listen to all five volumes of Clark Ashton Smith's collected stories published by Night Shade Press. I was already familiar with Smith's various settings and stories, and indeed had read certain of his stories many times over. But hearing them all at once, from beginning to end, in the order in which they were written (and not grouped according to setting and internal chronology, as Lin Carter attempted to do), I was struck very much by the extreme variability of his work.

Anyone who knows anything about Smith has heard of Hyperborea, Zothique, and Averoigne. Less well-known are his planetary fantasies, his science fiction stories, and his supernatural tales. Here's rough account of the milieus that appear in more than one story:
  • Xiccarph*: a planet described without any reference to earth or human exploration; ancient, weird, sublime, alien, terrifying, and perverse. Cf. "The Maze of Maal Dweb," "The Flower Women." The one Lophai story, "The Demon in the Flower," is pretty similar.
  • Hyperborea*: a prehistoric Arctic realm of steaming jungles and wicked cities that slowly succumbs to the advance of the glaciers. Cf. "The Seven Geases," "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," "The Door to Saturn," "The Coming of the White Worm."
  • Poseidonis*: the last remnant of foundered Atlantis. Cf. "The Death of Malygris," "A Voyage to Sfanomoë."
  • Averoigne: a fictional province of medieval France filled with mysterious forests and ancient ruins and isolated abbeys and quiet hamlets, and inhabited by monks, bishops, witches, and lycanthropes.
  • California: a state on the western coast of the United States, where stories are typically narrated by one Philip Hastane, writer of fantastic fiction. Cf. "The City of the Singing Flame."
  • Colonial Mars (Aihai): man's colonies on the Red Planet, which are shared with enigmatic aborigines. Cf. "Vulthoom," "The Dweller in the Gulf," "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis."
  • The Alcyone: an "ether-ship" on a voyage to circumnavigate the universe. Cf. "Marooned in Andromeda," "A Captivity in Serpens."
  • Zothique*: the "last continent on earth," a far-future amalgam of the Orient of Victorian romance, mysterious and cruel. These works are classics in the Dying Earth canon. Cf. "The Isle of the Torturers," "The Charnel God."
Most of these stories can be found at Eldritch Dark. Milieus with a star (*) were featured as Ballantine Adult Fantasy editions. There are many miscellaneous stories as well, but most fall under one of these headings.

What I've noticed is that Smith's style varies considerably from story to story, but that the mood and voice of a story seem dictated by its setting. Let me give some examples.

The Xiccarph stories are planetary fantasies with a setting quite different from anything I can think of. They are ornate – bejeweled – but altogether joyless. Their telling is luxuriously sedate and cruel and pointless. There is little climax. They are, in fact, expressions of the ennui bred by indolence and splendor. Which is fitting, given that this is what moves the inexorable protagonist (the sorcerer Maal Dweb) to action. Smith's one Lophai story, "The Demon in the Flower," a planetary fantasy that is dark and ornate but not languorous, seems closely related.

The Hyperborea fantasies are typically told in a tone of lofty irony. Most are dryly humorous. Much of the humor derives from the elevated speech of the characters (reminding one of Jack Vance) and the detached commentary on their actions. The protagonists generally come to some high and unpleasant doom.

The Poseidonis stories are similar in some respects, but typically lack the ironic tone. In "A Voyage to Sfanomoë," for instance, the principals escape the final disaster by voyaging via space ship to Venus only to be devoured by teeming flora, but their fate is presented as weirdly joyous and horrific rather than amusingly nasty. Really the effect is rather hard to describe.

The telling of the Averoigne stories is quite different from any of the above. They're elegant without being ornate or florid. They sound like tales from an old book of romances, and have a certain charming naivety. The supernatural elements are rather ordinary, consisting mostly of sorceresses, werewolves, and vampires. Religion, a matter of dark irony in the Hyperborea cycle, is treated diffidently here. Morality is a matter of concern.

(Averoigne, I have to say, is my least favorite of Smith's invented milieus. I don't know what this says about me, but I prefer votaries of Tsathoggua to Benedictine monks.)

The Philip Hastane stories are written in unadorned prose. The tone is earnest and straightforward, the descriptions vivid, the dialogue commonplace. The descriptions of California are well-grounded in reality. The stories generally concern the irruption of cosmic weirdness into the mundane world. Here I see the influence of British supernatural horror writers like Arthur Machen, Oscar Wilde, and William Hope Hodgson.

The voyages of the Alcyone are recounted with stolid prose and reserved, half-humorous dialogue. I could almost imagine Mr. Peabody doing a voiceover. I've never heard them much commented upon, but find their descriptions of alien life uniquely enjoyable. The unfathomability of alien psychology is particularly well handled. Their plots are pretty similar, each involving a sequence of adventures on some mysterious planet, followed by a narrow escape into space. But it's refreshing to read such quaint (by modern standards) science fiction from the thirties.

To me, the Zothique tales recall Victorian imaginings of the Orient as encountered in works like Burton's One Thousand and One Nights or Beckford's Vathek. Their tone is dark and frequently ironic, but never humorous. It has the slow and somber richness of a grand mausoleum, but here the mausoleum is the world itself. Smith wrote more stories set in Zothique than in any other place. It's a pity that the Ballantine edition is so hard to find.

What intrigues me about all this is the fact that Smith, who invented more settings than any other author I can think of, apparently felt that these trappings were inextricably linked to style. I think he was onto something. I've written in the past about style in fantasy, and in particular the opposing viewpoints of C. S. Lewis and Ursula K. LeGuin. I incline more toward the latter, but in my opinion neither quite gets it right. It's a point I'll have to return to sometime soon.

At any rate, compare this to someone like H. P. Lovecraft, who grew out of his early Dunsanian phase (which owed a large debt to its model) only to settle into the stylistically monolithic Chthulu-mythos phase for which he is most famous. The latter stories are all told in precisely the same voice, even when supposedly narrated by a character. The Lovecraft style is easy to parody precisely because it is so uniform. Taken individually, Lovecraft's stories are much more substantial that most of Smith's, but as a stylist I think Smith can skate circles around him.

It's a shame that Smith is not better known (as noted at Black Gate today), because, for sheer versatility and inventiveness, he has no peer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Battle-Off at Grimdark

In other news, I've entered an excerpt from Dragonfly in the Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off. I don't exactly consider myself a specialist in grim, martial literature, but I do enjoy terse yet vivid action scenes. Perhaps it's a bit impertinent of me to submit my piece alongside those of people who focus on such things, but, as they say, no publicity is bad publicity! I'll enjoy taking a look at the other entries, at any rate.

Really good out-and-out battle scenes are very hard to write. If I were to write a full account of the clash of two (human) armies, I think I'd feel safest hewing close battles I've studied, e.g., those of ancient Greece. I remember my dad, who went through the U. S. Army War College, spending hours upon hours and days upon days reading books and writing papers on the art of waging war. It gave me a lively appreciation for the intricacies of the subject. Of course, the goal is to convince the average reader, not an expert on maneuvers.

As an avid reader of classic fantasy, I find Tolkien's battles thrilling and uniquely satisfying, Robert E. Howard's battles sometimes quite good and sometimes very dull and unreal, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' battles a bit silly but delightful nonetheless. E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, otherwise so meticulous in its description of martial feats (and accoutrements), is curiously reticent when it comes to battles, resorting to a number of subterfuges to avoid them. I wonder if he tried his hand at them but found the results wanting?

So anyway, I see that my battle (involving cyclopes) has garnered nine votes as of now. Alas, the links at Grimdark aren't being generated quite right at this point, and the URL refers to my novel as Firefly, a very different kind of insect, but have no fear, my Dragonfly excerpt is near, a mere two clicks away. You just might have to hunt around a bit.

Albrect Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus, 1529.

A Black Gate Review of "The Scale-Tree"

Fletcher Vredenburgh offers a nice review of "The Scale-Tree" in his July short-story roundup over at Black Gate:
Raphael Ordoñez dives into the blacker depths of storytelling in the “The Scale-Tree.” Zeuxis, a “flying artist and geometer”  and his family live in a tower in Enoch, the great world-city that features in several of Ordoñez’s other stories as well as his novel, Dragonfly. Zeuxis tries to provide for his family by selling his paintings but it’s a constant struggle. 
When he dies in a flying accident his wife and two children wind up in the middle of a tale inspired by the Grimm’s “The Juniper Tree” (think creepy step-parent, a child at severe risk, and a meal you should definitely not eat). This is one of the more unsettling stories I’ve read in months and one of the best. Ordoñez’s writing is rooted in the less genre-bound styles of early fantasy and fairy tales, coupled with a contemporary concern for creating more complex and fully human characters. If you haven’t read any of his work till now, this is the perfect place to start.
I keep up with Black Gate because a shocking number of people who like to read the same slightly obscure things I do hang out there (thank you, Internet), so as always it's a pleasure to have my name appear in its cyber-pages.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bosque-Larios II

Bosque-Larios II, 5" x 7", watercolor on hot-pressed paper.
There is, locals claim, an extensive network of caverns underneath the town where I live. The first I'd heard of it was a few weeks ago, when the newspaper published some old timers' recollections, and others wrote in to corroborate. Apparently it's a town secret of sorts.

The caverns were discovered in the early twentieth century when someone was digging for a well. This was right in the middle of town, about half a mile down the street from my house. A number of adventurers descended into this civic underworld, using candles for light, it being the Great Depression. The explorers found chambers and long passages and lakes and flowing waterfalls. There were abortive attempts to seal off the system because of the dangers it posed, but these came to naught. The fun ended at last when a couple of young men lost their way and had to be rescued. Aunt Polly triumphed, and the hole was plugged with concrete.

And there it sits to this day, a circle of concrete in someone's back lot on the south side of town, forgotten by all but a few. But the newspaper had one old picture of several men in a sizable chamber hung with speleothems. Just to think, that could be right under my feet!

Other people wrote in to say that they remembered a cave mouth in a field up north of town, but no one knows where it's at now. It led to an extensive cavern that was accessible only by rope. It's thought that the systems connect. One person claims that someone once walked underground all the way here from Bat Cave in the hills north of town, but that is a manifest falsehood. Still, the testimony is unanimous that there is a secret subterranean world underneath our houses.

All of which immediately made me think of the girl of the Gueiquesales, whose image I painted in Bosque-Larios I last winter:

Being the romantic that I am, I conjecture that her incorrupt body reposes somewhere beneath the town. The natives doubtless had access to the system from some opening that is now lost.

I painted Bosque-Larios I as the first installment of a series of paintings depicting local legendry, especially that which comes down from the Spanish colonial era. This particular story (which I recount here) is not very well known. I became interested in it after reading a historical marker about the High Mass on the Nueces River.

I've just completed the second installment, Bosque-Larios II, which depicts said High Mass with no particular regard for historical accuracy (see above).  It measures 5 inches by 7 inches and is painted in watercolor on Arches hot-pressed paper. The landscape is typical of the area. In the background we have a cottonwood and a couple of ash junipers; a palo verde (a lovely green-skinned acacia with bright yellow flowers) hangs over the group, and prickly pear, cenizo, and agave occupy the foreground. The slightly crazy perspective is inspired by Henri Rousseau (or so I tell myself), as are various other elements; there's a bit of Diego Rivera as well.

I've been showing my art locally, hence the emphasis on local culture. This painting and others are currently on display in a one-man show at a gallery and community center called Casa de la Cultura, located on the historic Brown Plaza in Del Rio, Texas. La Casa has kindly put me up for a couple of nights in town at a cool retro motel called Whispering Palms Inn, and that's where I'm writing from.

The exhibit has a wall dedicated to Dragonfly art, accompanied by a pedestal with a few Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks and a Frank Frazetta-illustrated copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars and Chessmen of Mars between bookends. It's the first shrine to pulp fantasy in the middle Rio Grande border region that I know of. The show's opening is tonight. I wonder what my fellow citizens will think of it?

I don't live in Del Rio, but it's on the circuit I ride as a professor. I have a lot of good friends here. The people are friendly, the culture diverse, the air hot, and the vegetation sparse. It's a remote place, standing at the eastern end of the longest stretch of U.S.-Mexico border with no crossings. The next crossing is the Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge, which is hundreds of miles away. Between here and there is a whole lot of nothing, and directly west is what's been called one of the remotest places on earth. But, simply put, this is one of my favorite places in the world.

There are no bookstores in Del Rio, and in fact the nearest bookstore on this side of the river is one hundred and fifty miles away, in San Antonio. Perhaps one day that will no longer be the case. It's my hope that, in my own small way, I can help to effect a change for the better.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Charles Saunders and Imaro

I'm very happy this week to find myself enjoying an author I hadn't read before: Charles R. Saunders, seminal writer of sword-and-soul set in a mythical Africa-that-never-was. I first learned of Mr. Saunders' work over at Swords and Sorcery; Mr. Vredenburgh has also reviewed it at Black Gate. I read (er, listened to) Saunders' 1981 fix-up novel Imaro over the weekend, and finished up Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush today.

And, wow. Something about it just resonates with me. I've read latter-day sword-and-sorcery by the likes of Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock, and found it enjoyable enough, but to me it just doesn't carry the bite or freshness of Robert E. Howard or the other old pulp writers. Charles Saunders' brooding Imaro obviously owes a lot to Conan, but the tales of his exploits have a depth and substantiality all their own. For all that they're entertaining adventure stories, they take themselves seriously, and occasionally transcend the genre.

As in the best of fantasy, the Imaro stories are suffused with the living presence of their secondary world. And, to me at least, it's a refreshingly different secondary world. Nyumbani is a beautiful and stirring picture of the soul of Africa and its peoples as seen from within, as opposed to the exotic and alien but essentially flat backdrop of Howard's, Burroughs', or Haggard's Africa.

It's pretty obvious to someone who adulates and emulates the great triumvirate of the pulps (REH, HPL, CAS) that Mr. Saunders is inspired by their works – the first two especially – but with a certain amount of inner conflict. I've written a bit about this on my own account. In one story that I particularly like, "The City of Madness," the first part of Imaro 2, the hero encounters a lost city of white men – a common trope in Haggard, Burroughs, and Howard – where the inhabitants' conquests are celebrated in carvings of lordly white men subduing "apish" (Saunders' word) black men, a dehumanization that deeply angers Imaro. That descriptor is drawn, with heavy irony, from Robert E. Howard, who uses it to describe the black men in his stories. And as for H. P. Lovecraft, whose racial views are well-known, the story concludes with a crude jest at the expense of a cosmic entity with a name not unlike Yog-Sothoth.

But at the same time, this and the other Imaro stories are not "smart" postmodern exercises in deconstructive metafiction. No, they're ripping good yarns told with a straight face, with the zest and aplomb of the best pulp writers. So in Saunders I see someone who genuinely loves the work of HPL and REH while deeply hating the racism that mars it, and who has the audacity and courage to write stories that celebrate the good while critiquing the bad.

Here's another example. Weird horror leaks into the Imaro stories all over the place – as it should in any true sword-and-sorcery tale – and its form is often reminiscent the Chthulu mythos. In "The Place of Stones," the third story in Imaro, the eponymous hero, an isolated half-breed, encounters a sorcerer whose willing commerce with the dark forces of mchawe have transformed his body into something out of "The Dunwich Horror." The parallel seems pointed. HPL's Wilbur Whately is a monster precisely because he is a half-breed. Imaro, on the other hand, is a half-breed pitted against an adversary who has made himself a monster through his own choices. In the former, evil is in heredity; in the latter, evil is in choice.

So there are incisive comments here and there, for those with the eyes to see them. But, as I said, the stories themselves are not commentaries. They don't preach or moralize. They are supremely enjoyable S&S tales, unapologetic homages to REH and the rest. Imaro may pause to brood over bas reliefs, but he then goes into the crumbling city like Conan into Xuthal or Xuchotil to save his woman and thwart elder evils.

This is a writing blog (mostly). When I review books, I do so from the point of view of a writer. As a writer, I think Mr. Saunders will be an inspiration to me in the future.

For one thing, his Imaro books have had a difficult career, to say the least. The first three volumes were published by DAW Books in the eighties, but a cover quote calling Imaro "a black Tarzan" (!?) on the cover of the first provoked a lawsuit from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, causing delays and poor sales. The series was eventually dropped by DAW after the third installment as a financial failure. Attempts to revive the series over the next decade or so proved unsuccessful.

The first two volumes were published in revised editions by Night Shade Books in 2006 and 2008, together with the excellent audiobooks to which I'm listening. But, alas, nothing more came of that for Imaro, when the series was again dropped due to poor sales. Mr. Saunders subsequently published a revised version of the third volume independently, through Sword & Soul Media, and the fourth volume of Imaro finally came out through the same channel in 2009.

Now, okay, I haven't read the third or fourth volumes, but I've read the first two, and found them damn good. It's a shame that Mr. Saunders has had to resort to self-publishing. My natural reaction is: What is wrong with people? Apparently there's no room for Imaro on the shelves of readers or bookstores. Who's at fault? I don't know. Nobody, maybe.

And yet Mr. Saunders has stuck with it all these years. That really says something to me as a writer. He walks a difficult line, writing what he likes rather than what people think he ought to write. I found this on his blog:
I think we need to concentrate on writing good stories with fast-moving plots, compelling characters and intriguing backgrounds. Readers – whether they are black or otherwise – will be attracted to those stories, provided that they become aware of the stories' existence. I should amend that to say some readers. There will always be certain readers who simply don't like a writer's stuff. But there will also be those who love a writer's stuff, and the Internet provides an excellent way to connect with them... 
Meanwhile, I have no time for this "If you don't write about the ghetto, you ain't black" nonsense. You write what you are inspired to write. Inspiration is what motivates you to produce the perspiration necessary to pursue any creative endeavor, whether it's writing, visual art, music, or film-making. If a writer is inspired to write "street lit," then he or she should go for it. But we should not impose limits on our inspirations – or our imaginations. [Audience – Where Are You?]
But he's also caught flack of another sort. When Imaro was issued by Night Shade Books, one of its six stories ("Slaves of the Giant Kings") was replaced by a new story ("The Afua") because the former, Mr. Saunders felt, too closely resembled the Rwandan genocide. This didn't sit well with some readers, and one went so far as to accuse him of having made the change because of "misdirected shame" over the fact that blacks can behave just as atrociously as whites. The comment is offensive for multiple reasons which I'll not try to enumerate. But so there's that kind of thing, too.

Incidentally, I enjoyed "The Afua" considerably. I wasn't aware that it was a newer story while listening to it. The titular image, worshiped by a forest tribe, is a mute, enigmatic figure covered with golden spikes, reposing in a shrine remote from the rest of its village. It possesses a strange, creepy magnetism, and serves as the center that binds the community together. When the people are robbed of it they are robbed of common purpose and life's meaning. Disorientation and despair overwhelm them. Ultimately they meet a haunting fate in the deeps of the jungle.

I recently visited an African exhibit at a museum of fine arts. I looked at the artifacts carved of wood and decorated much as this Afua, and wondered what gulfs must separate my mind from their makers'. What was the world like to them? Was it a good place? A frightening place? What does an image like Afua mean to the person who venerates it? The term idolatry that a Westerner might be tempted to apply hardly seems sufficient, or just. For a people dwelling at the dawn of man (in state if not in time), enclosed by the dark womb of nature, the universe is a sublime and terrible place, and just because their instinctive movement toward latria can't be codified doesn't mean that their practices, though strange to our eyes, are mere simple-mindedness or superstition. I don't know if it is possible to really say what Afua means to them.

So you see, these are the kinds of things that occur to me while reading the Imaro stories. Elric of Melniboné sparks no such speculation. I intend to follow up the further adventures of Imaro in volumes three and four once I get around to ordering them, and may try Saunders' other work as well.

Thank you, Mr. Saunders, for continuing to write original, honest-to-goodness sword-and-sorcery. You are an inspiration, sir.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"The Scale-Tree" Reviewed

Lois Tilton has reviewed "The Scale-Tree" at Locus Online. It's thoughtful and appreciative, which is as much as any writer can ask.
The traditional fairy tale has a flat narrative and characters who tend to be types rather than fully-realized individuals: there is the King, the Witch, the Stepmother. One advantage of retelling these tales is the opportunity to add dimension. So that instead of a generic city, we find ourselves in “Enoch, the world-city that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega”—not only a neat image but an example of the way the text mixes words from the Hellenic and Hebrew. Here live Zeuxis, an artist who takes aerial photographs from a sort of ultralight flier, and his wife Helen, who, like many aging couples in the tales, want to fulfill their lives with children. They perform a rite that brings them a son and a daughter. All is more or less well with them until a brute happens to see a picture of the daughter, Philomena, and immediately covets her. Before long, Zeuxis is dead, the brute has become Mena’s stepfather, and we know his intentions. 
I like the twist of giving the usual stepmother a male guise. The story mingles several classic fairytale tropes, including some that go very far back indeed, but I have to say that the conclusion, which follows one well-known story almost word for word, is rather a disappointment after the creativity of the earlier elements. What I like best here, though, is the well-imagined cosmology behind this world, and the views of Zeuxis on the artist’s life:
“We’re conduits. When we stop the outflow, no more can flow in, and we stagnate. We die daily to live. It’s the flow that matters, not the possession of what’s not really ours anyway.”
Check out the review here. Incidentally, the dialogue about art mentioned by Ms. Tilton comes from a conversation I had with my six-year-old son, who was very angry at me last summer for selling some of my paintings. I'm still somewhat anguished about the selling process myself, and the story was written partly as a way of coping with my first public exhibition, partly as a symbolic exploration of abstraction in the visual arts, which I pontificated about in Part II of my post on The Arts of the Beautiful. Paul Klee had a lot to do with this story.

In related news, I'm pleased to announce that my story "At the Edge of the Sea" will appear in the upcoming Beneath Ceaseless Skies year's best anthology. Stay tuned for further details.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two Hundred Million A.D.

As I've mentioned several times, A. E. van Vogt, the famous "pygmy with a giant typewriter," is my favorite golden-age science fiction author. His best novels bear multiple readings, partly because they're so rich in ideas and settings, partly because they're damnably confusing. They're bold yet weirdly naïve, headlong plunges through time and space, peopled with dunderheaded supermen and strong-minded beauties and towering arch-villains, littered with unbearable solecisms and unmotivated actions, touched with sweeping grandeur.

I just finished a repeat visit to Two Hundred Million A.D. (a.k.a., The Book of Ptath), serialized in 1943, published as a novel in 1947. My copy, shown to the right, was printed in 1963.

One thing that strikes me upon this re-reading is that, from a stylistic point of view, the book is very badly written. To wit:
…for a moment he had an enormous, an almost owlish conviction that he had picked a fatal flaw in the whole story.
An owlish conviction? What does that mean, exactly? We seem to be talking about a conviction that is enormous, yes, but, what's more, it's so very enormous that it's almost owlish. As in…like unto an owl?

And then there's this:
These rebels were right, basically. No group had ever been braver, defying an unkillable woman and a religio-slave set-up of temple potentates more powerful than anything that had ever existed anywhere.
An unkillable woman and a religio-slave set-up. That made it into a published novel? It sounds like something I'd use as a placeholder in a rough draft for a rough draft, hoping I wouldn't die before I could revise it.

The plot, on the other hand, is fairly incomprehensible. Restrictions on action shift from paragraph to paragraph. Characters make bold, arbitrary resolutions, then abandon them on the next page. Time crawls by, and then, between two neighboring lines of dialogue, a month elapses. Plot holes yawn like black abysses, unsuspected by their author. Plot points emerge like ships from a dark, foggy night, and vanish vaguely to aft. The whole thing hangs together with a kind of murky dream-logic, not making sense if you look at it as a whole, but seeming to make sense from page to page. Kind of.

And yet, I like it. Honestly, I'd rather read it than a lot of things that make more sense. In Imaginary Worlds, Lin Carter gushes about it on pp. 85 – 86, winding up by calling it van Vogt's "single best novel." He gets a number of details wrong, in typical Lin Carter fashion, but gives a good overall summary. I can't say I agree with his assessment – certainly I'd rank the Null-A books, the Weapons Shops books, Slan, and The Voyage of the Space Beagle as far superior – but it's definitely worth a read.

There's the setting, for one thing. The action spans two continents and the isthmus joining them, moving through jungles, rivers of boiling mud, smoking volcanoes, and stupendous cities, two hundred million years in the future. The earth, it's suggested, is exhausted of ores. Battles are fought with crude weapons of varnished wood and carved stone, but high technology is also present. The human population is in the tens or hundreds of billions. Once-human goddesses pit armies of loyalists and rebels against one another in a strange game where mastery is the prize. In a curious reversion to geological antiquity, the southern supercontinent, where most of the story takes place, is known as Gonwonlane (Gondwanaland), and the sea adjoining it, Teths (Tethys). The armies employ prehistoric-seeming beasts like elephantine grimbs and leather-winged screers.

As a matter of fact, I'm struck by how many material elements of The Book of Ptath remind me of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. I wonder if it served as a partial inspiration?

The protagonist is the god Ptath, returned to the present from a sojourn among the humans of the past, his most recent incarnation being Peter Holroyd, a soldier and casualty of World War II. At the opening he is blank-minded and physically inexorable; later on the Holroyd psyche takes over for some reason that I don't quite understand.

Ptath's age-long merging with the human race has something Christ-like about it, in a Gnostic sort of way, an attempt to grow in compassion and root out the sort of divine cruelty that has conquered the goddess Ineznia. But religion, though the source of Ptath's power, is treated in a coldly scientific, utilitarian way. "Religion is fear," he says on the penultimate page.

Power accrues to the three divinities through the use of prayer-sticks, but only women can pray to the god (Ptath), while men pray to the goddesses (Ineznia and L'onee). This god-power consists of the ability to possess other people (though only of the same sex) and, eventually, depending on the piety of the populace, the ability to transport oneself bodily through space. No, it doesn't make sense to me, either. And van Vogt is, as ever, on the side of the superman.

But still, look at the sheer number of ideas we have thrown together here. Any one of them could have been the basis for an entire novel. As usual, I find myself slightly frustrated that van Vogt didn't develop his speculations more fully or make a better attempt at narrative coherence. But it's hard to think of another science fiction author so useful to steal from, or (for me at least), so enjoyable to read.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Love in the Isle of the Combinators": Free Fiction

This is my first published story. It originally came out in The Colored Lens, but their rights are non-exclusive now, so I'm placing it here for whomever might be interested. You can still buy the magazine from Amazon.
The ghulim around which the story is centered play a role in my stories, particularly in Dragonfly and "Witch of Anûn." They represent some theological / psychological / biological speculations on my part. 
I see rationality as a black-and-white trait: an organism either is or is not rational and self-aware. This is a philosophical view. It accords well with modern biology, though, because inheritance does seem to be "digital" rather than "analog," characterized by genetic on-off switches, Punnett squares, and the rest, not by gradual continuous changes.
So, what if rationality in mankind began in only a few (say, two) individuals? What of the other members of the species? Scientists have recently told us that mankind could not have stemmed from a single female, and, perhaps with a similar motivation, children at parochial schools have for untold years delighted in asking their teachers whom Adam and Eve's children married.
Well, perhaps the rational soul was passed on as a "dominant trait," so that the offspring of a human being and a beast in human shape would be another true human being, not a "mixture" of the two. And perhaps the force and/or forces (I'm trying to be ecumenical here) responsible for the awakening of these anthropoid apes tasked them, not only with the care of the earth and the naming of the creatures, but also with the husbandry of their fleshly kin, treating them, not as equals, but not exactly as animals, either, with the possibility of "intermarriage" as a kind of religious vocation akin to celibacy.
The state of grace would then be characterized by the gradual diminution of the sub-rational population, which would continue to be nurtured with the dignity due their station until only rational descendants remained, while the fall from grace would be characterized by the persistent presence of the sub-rational and their treatment as animals or chattel. In such a fallen world, the dominant culture might regard inter-couplings as taboo, and the stature of a man might be measured by the dignity with which he treats his fleshly kin, though all such dealings would be tainted with "original sin." 
My ghulim are inspired partly the sub-rational deep-sea mermen glimpsed by Ransom in C. S. Lewis' Perelandra, partly by Mike Flynn's amusing and thought-provoking essay "Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice," and partly by my own reading of Thomas Aquinas and Etienne Gilson. But they have been filtered through the turgid medium of my wayward brain, so I wish to emphasize that none of these authors bear any blame for what is to follow.
The text has been lightly edited so as to accord with the current state of my invented terminology. It has also been made slightly less crass. It's a story about true love in a cracked world. I hope you enjoy it.

Love in the Isle of the Combinators

Linimer's fingers caressed the brass dial. Six plus four minus one choose four. The engine rang out its answer, one note in a mechanical symphony. Sixty combinators danced along the face of the machine, up and down the Hall of Computation.

Nine choose four and nine choose five is ten choose five. Six hundred fingers flew over the cogs and stops. Slanting sunbeams streamed through the high windows, making gnomons of the workers and gold dust of the whirling motes. It was evening.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"The Scale-Tree" at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, MigrationMy newest story, "The Scale-Tree," is out at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, together with "The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew and an audio podcast of "Stone Prayers" by Kate Marshall. On the cover this month is Migration by Julie Dillon.

As always, it's an honor to have my work appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a wonderful venue for literary adventure fantasy, and the first and only magazine I really aspired to when I started trying to get published.

My story is inspired by brother-and-sister fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Juniper Tree"; as I've mentioned here several times, my evenings are often spent reading Andrew Lang's collection of many colors to my kids. I'd seen The Night of the Hunter for the first time not long before writing it, so that's doubtless in the mix as well. It also goes somewhat more deeply (and elliptically) into the mythological-topological underpinnings of the world in which my novel, Dragonfly, is set.

I hope you read and enjoy my story, and the others as well.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why Final Fantasy IV Is So Great

The Characters of Final Fantasy IV, Square Enix, Airi Yoshioka
I recently made a video game purchase. It's the first such purchase I've made since…oh, 1996 or so. Yeah, I've been out of it. The problem is not that I don't like video games, but that I like them altogether too much. If I have them around, I play them. I ditched the game console and the TV at the same time, and have never regretted the decision.

Except that I miss some of the RPGs I used to play back in the day. Most especially, I miss the 1991 game Final Fantasy IV, released for the Super NES in the United States as Final Fantasy II in a super-easy version with truncated options and a dumbed-down script. This version is the one I came to know and love as an eighth-grader. Later on I acquired the original Japanese version with an English-language patch (the so-called J2e version), which made me realize how much I'd been missing (including, among other things, that porno mag in the basement of the dwarves' castle). The game has been remade and rereleased several times since then. When I became aware that the iOS/Android version (itself a port from the Nintendo DS remake) had been ported and released to Steam for playing on Windows, I knew I had to have it.

In my younger days I played various other Square RPGs for the SNES, including Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu III, and Chrono Trigger, and, for the Gameboy, Final Fantasy Legend II and Final Fantasy Legend III. (Yes, this is a post that could just as well have been written in 1997, because I basically went into cryo-sleep with regard to certain aspects of pop culture then.) But Final Fantasy IV was the first, and remains dearest to my heart.

Various things about the Steam version, controls- and graphics-wise, are less than optimal, of course. It's a port of a port, so what can you expect? I'm still used to the extremely crude SNES version, though, so it wows me every time. I mean, you can actually move the sprites diagonally – uh, they still call them that, right? – and tell that they represent people. Amazing! The music is awesome, and the 3D rendering of the overworld and towns and dungeons is quite lovely. My teenage self would have swooned with delight.

As to the plot, the characters, and the settings, the Steam version preserves and amplifies everything I love about the original. To wit:

Things I Love about Final Fantasy IV


The Spiraling Plot

The main character of FFIV is Cecil, who begins his story a black knight and conscience-stricken airfleet commander. From there the story literally spirals around the world, introducing the player to its geography bit by bit, exposing ever wider narrative vistas, with little side-plots coming and going at intervals. Once the upper world is largely explored, the action shifts to the plains of the underworld, and eventually the moon, with the biggest reveals saved for the very end.

Here's what I think FFIV has to teach us about plot construction in fantasy writing:
  1. Maintain reader interest by holding back information, settings, and characters until the proper time. Keep new plot points coming at regular intervals. Never dump too much at a time. This contributes to re-readability as well, which to my mind is just as important as readability. When I read a favorite old book, there are always parts (settings or characters) to which I constantly look forward; but with some books, I run out of those things too soon, and feel dejected when I realize that the rest is just a resolution of stuff that's already gotten under way against a backdrop that I'm already familiar with. As often as not, I stop reading at that point.
  2. Spiral out from your starting point, revisiting old problems and old scenes but with ever-increasing "radius" from the center, letting the complexity build up on its own. Let the end get way out there while still tied to the earliest parts of the plot. Certainly FFIV, which begins with a medieval castle and an errand to a nearby village, and ends with a cosmic battle at the core of the moon, gives us something to aspire to.
  3. Meander a bit, while keeping it tied to the main plot. Obstructions are your friends: no obstructions, no plot. Always try to do something other than what's expected. Case in point: Cecil journeys with his friends via ship to Baron, with the plan of sneaking in to steal an airship. But they're attacked by Leviathan en route. Edward disappears. Rydia is swallowed by the beast. Yang leaps overboard in an effort to save her. Cecil is washed up on the beach of a land in which he once committed atrocities. The party eventually gets to Baron, but everything is different from the player's expectations, and the characters have grown and changed. It's a sleight-of-hand trick, really: build up expectations with one hand, while preparing to spring something on the reader with the other.
  4. Reveal something major toward the end (a la The Empire Strikes Back) to make the reader say aha! or oh my! and come back to savor the sudden recognition. This is a matter of style: it's not as important to keep them guessing as to build up to the point without belaboring it. Even a well-worn story can "surprise" every time if it's handled properly.

The Restrictions

One thing I like about Final Fantasy IV in comparison to subsequent Square games is the extent to which each character has his or her unique abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. You're forced to figure out how to make them work as a team. The characters in the next couple of Final Fantasy games are too customizable for my taste. Most egregiously, every character in Final Fantasy VI can be transformed into a magic-using demigod through judicious use of magicite, eroding their distinctiveness and rendering their unique abilities superfluous.

Everything good in life has restrictions. Restrictions add color and variety and structure and romance. It's the Morlocks of the world who want to do away with them, because their aim is to make everything formless and gray. FFIV has many restrictions, and that's what makes it such a cool game.

Furthermore, being a romantic at heart, I generally play RPGs for the story. FFIV is very structured (with some optional side quests available toward the end), which allows it to have a powerful, poignant story. A game like Seiken Densetsu III, in which the resolution depends on what characters you're using, or even like Final Fantasy VI, in which the complete freedom to choose your own party in the latter half reduces character interaction to generic conversation, has much less narrative impact.

The Seamless Combination of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Elements

Here is a world in which swordsmen and magic-users travel around in hovercrafts and whale-shaped space ships, in which ninjas and lunarian mages sneak into giant robots brought to the earth via interdimensional elevators, in which dwarves fend off airships with tanks and fighting monks destroy giant cannons in high-tech quasi-biblical towers reaching from the underworld to the stratosphere. Cool.

But I'm going to stop right there, lest it become too obvious to my readers that I owe more to a 16-bit video game than to Conrad and Melville.

Let me just say, though, that I can't stand genre restrictions on material elements. The work should define the elements, not vice versa. Writers should be bold and take risks. Once something gets labeled, you have to worry that it's on the way to the grave.

The Allusions

There are lots of beautiful mythological elements in Final Fantasy IV: Greek, Hindu, Semitic, Norse, &c. The Four Fiends of the Elements are named from Dante's Inferno. Somehow they're all knit into a fairly coherent whole. These are fairly obvious. But revisiting it now after many years, I'm delighted to find a fierce lunar feline named after A. E. van Vogt's coeurl ("The Black Destroyer") and an allusion in the Feymarch library to the wonderful archives in Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Incorporating elements from my favorite sci-fi authors is a sure way to my heart.

The Characters

Final Fantasy IV has a girl with green hair, Rydia the Summoner, my favorite character. Her mother dies at the hands of the protagonist, but she forgives him, overcomes the tragedy in her life, and grows up (relatively quickly, thanks to differing time-streams) into a formidable sorceress with gods and monsters at her beck and call. She also wields a whip and, as a grown-up, wears a slinky green dress.

Mostly, though, I just like her green hair. What is it about green girls? From Orion slave girls to The Green Girl of Jack Williamson to Marvel Comics' Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy), pop sci-fi is sprinkled with attractive green-hued females. It's hard to think of other colors so singled out in this way.

But the other characters are also memorable: Cecil, the dark knight who undergoes a personal purgatory to become a paladin; Kain, the cool yet conflicted dragon knight; Rosa, the kind-hearted white mage loved by both; Tellah, the rash and angry old wizard; Edward, the soft and sad yet tenacious spoony bard-prince; Yang, the modest and disciplined fighting monk; Palom and Porom, the lovable wizard twins; Cid, the crotchety airship engineer; Edge, the sanguine and virile young ninja; Fusoya, the lunarian mage.


Final Fantasy IV appeared on Steam with little or no fanfare last fall. If you like such things, go check it out. It'll set you back just $15.99. Worth every penny.

While you're at it, peruse these seven lessons to be learned from old-school RPGs over at Black Gate.