Friday, April 25, 2014

Tricks of the Trade

And now at long last let us complete our dialogue with the last three chapters of Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds. Previous posts are here and here. The eleventh and final chapter is entitled "Tricks of the Trade: Some Advanced Techniques of World-Making." Let's begin!

The chapter is divided into four sections, the first being about magic. Lin here gives the oft-repeated advice that magic without limitations gets a bit dull. I've written about this before. Different people find different things dull, I suppose, but what I find dull is stories with magic "systems." To me the issue is one of style, and is best attended to by careful word choice and presentation rather than the invention of ingenious "rules."

He cites several examples. The most illustrative is Jack Vance's Dying Earth, in which a magician can seemingly hold only so many spells in his skull at one time. To me, the stories in The Dying Earth are enjoyable chiefly for their mordant humor, and the magic system contributes to this by putting the protagonists in potentially embarrassing situations.

Another example is Tolkien.
Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, Professor Tolkien* faced the problem of Sauron, a black magician of such immense power that he long ago transcended mortality to become virtually indestructible: he is described as almost a god of evil. Now, any hero, no matter how gallant, is obviously going to be helpless against an antagonist of such strength. Tolkien anticipates the objection by having the greater part of Sauron's power center about his possession of an enormously potent talisman, the "One Ring"; his entire plot revolves around the dual problem of keeping Sauron from obtaining the ring and, if possible, destroying it before he does gain possession of it.
Sigh. Where to begin? Didn't Lin write Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings? Did he not even read the book? Yes, he boasts on page 115 that he read it three times. Three times! And that's enough to write a book about it? No, apparently not. At any rate, his description might apply to a Ringwraith, but certainly not to Sauron, who, it is quite clear from the book, never was a mortal. He is, in fact, quite literally a "god of evil," if we are to take the Valar and Maiar as gods, as man in his darkened wisdom often does. If anything, Sauron has fallen by becoming dependent on physical forms; the legends from the end of the Second Age show him to be discomfited by the destruction of his corporeal "vehicle." You don't have to have read The Silmarilion to know all this; you don't even have to have read the Appendix, which Lin certainly could have done. It's alluded to a number of times in the text.

The point about the limitations imposed on Sauron by the One Ring is well-taken, but this is more like the checks and balances one finds in fairy tales than the hocus-pocus rules of Jack Vance. I notice that no limitations are made explicit concerning Gandalf's magic tricks, which seem to consist of lighting things on fire, making his staff glow, and (occasionally) casting bolts of lightning. No, Gandalf is more like Geoffrey of Monmouth's Merlin, who's nine parts prophet and one part thaumaturge, and simply goes places to make things happen. But Tolkien wisely makes his stories about hobbits rather than wizards.

The second part Lin calls "The Problem of Realism." He dwells on realism of presentation as opposed to realism of content. Sharply rendered, crisp little details draw the reader into a fantastic story. C. S. Lewis'** Experiment in Criticism is cited to good effect, and one of Lewis' examples is the dragon that sniffs along the stone in Beowulf. Lin adds several of his own, but his, alas!, are all of the sugar-icing variety he so delighted in, like the mounted unicorn head in the study of Malygris the Magician, or the gate made from a single piece of ivory in "Idle Days on the Yann." They're quite the opposite of what Lewis means. He lists commonplace details used to make the fantastic "real," while Lin lists fantastic details used to make the commonplace fantastic.

The third part, "The Problem of 'Business,'" continues this theme, by dwelling on the little fripperies that abound in Eddison and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and the like. Best if used sparingly, and with reason!

The fourth section is about flora and fauna, and treats of the critters one finds in fantasies. For one thing, should stories set in other worlds or olden tymes feature horses as mounts, or some other creature? What I say is, if the mood of the story calls for horses, horses let them be; otherwise, give me emus or biarmosuchians or thoats. Just be consistent, and don't make things up as mere stand-ins for commonplace creatures. Burroughs is cited, and certainly the thoats, banths, and zitidars of Barsoom are quite effective. For the record, the horses in Eddison's Mercury have never offended me.

I'm sure other people have complained about this, but the horses in a lot of fantasies are rather lacking. Writers seem to take them for a species of hooved moped. Now, I know a bit about horses and their handling, having ridden them in my youth – this is Texas, after all – and I hate them with a passion. Yes, I hate horses, and I look a little suspiciously on horse people, who when I meet them on the trail seem to regard themselves as a higher grade of being, looking down on me from their restive, smelly mounts, ordering me to scuttle this way or that, wearing their little white helmets like crowns.

A horse nearly bringeth Sir Percival to destruction.
Note the knowing eye, the demented grin.
I once went on a week-long cavalcade (I'm on a tangent, I know) through the Davis Mountains of west Texas, led by two lazy, supercilious, self-regarding "cowboys" from Pecos. (Needless to say, no cows were in evidence.) My horse was named Crazy Alice, and she more than earned her modifier. She hated mules – not donkeys, not horses, just mules – and would lay her ears back and charge if one came near her. I had to show myself her master there, but if a mule was in front of us in line she had a way of secretly nipping its buttocks with her teeth. She would also never take a step when a flying leap would do, and once fell over on my leg, the stiff stirrup fortunately protecting my bones as she tried to scramble to her feet again. (I kept my seat like a pro, though, and everyone else told me I looked like a rodeo rider, something I was not a little proud of.)

So, you see? I read horsey fantasies, with horses that move as though on little wheels, and never take craps or kick their riders in the knee or need their girths tightened or try to roll around while they're crossing a dry riverbed, and my eyes just kind of glaze over. Then again, horses are probably more exotic to a lot of people these days than thoats. I guess that's why we've got urban fantasy now.

Well, this concludes my discussion of Lin Carter. If I seem a little hard on him, don't think it's because I'm not fond of him; I am. As I've said many times, I certainly owe him a great deal, for having given me something to sink my teeth into when I discovered that Terry Brooks and Katharine Kerr weren't going to satisfy the craving awakened by Tolkien and Lewis. He loved what I loved, as few people do. Requiescat in pace.

* I've resolved that, once I'm a famous novelist, I'm going to be known as Professor Ordoñez, because I am, after all, a math professor. This may be difficult, though, because I wear embroidered guayberas rather than ornamental waistcoats, and I don't smoke at all.

** Not Professor Lewis! No waistcoat or pipe!

Thursday, April 10, 2014


My story "Misbegotten" (see the sidebar) appears on the 2013 Locus Recommended Reading List. It is in truth an homage to Flannery O'Connor's "Temple of the Holy Ghost," which is in itself (it seems to me) an homage to the Dumb Ox.

If you like that story, then you may consider voting for it in the Locus Poll and Survey. The deadline is April 15. You might also consider casting a vote for Beneath Ceaseless Skies, where I am honored to have my stories appear. What other pro journal devotes itself so exclusively and successfully to literary adventure fantasy?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

At the Edge of the Sea

I'm pleased to announce that my story "At the Edge of the Sea" has been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was inspired by Rachel Carson's books about marine life, Adolf Portmann's Animal Forms and Patterns, and Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur. I already wrote a bit about it here.

At any rate, the podcast is coming soon. BCS is one of the only venues for the kind of fantasy I like to read, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have my work appear there.