Thursday, February 5, 2015

Those Who Followed Tolkien Too Closely

There's a cliche that fantasy fiction is based almost entirely on the Lord of the Rings. It's not quite true, but like most cliches there's truth in it. Tolkien certainly shaped the space that fantasy lives in, and if he wasn't the only person to do so, he certainly had a lot to do with where the borders lie and how the terrain is set. For some years, of course, after the books became truly huge (the late 60s and into the 70s) it was much more true than it later became, not only because so many aspiring writers had read the books and were imitating them, but because publishers were on the look out for the next epic fantasy in the mold of Tolkien.

If you look closely at almost all fantasy even into the 80s, you'll see a little Tolkien. You'll see plenty even in today's efforts. But there are some series that tread frightfully close to the Lord of the Rings in one way or another, at least to start. Three come to mind for me right away, one of them the starting volume of a still-continuing series; one the first books from a now much-respected author; and one of them nothing but hackwork designed to mimic Tolkien as if it were a clone grown in a lab.

That last is Dennis McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy. To some degree, it's not his fault that he ended up writing a frightfully precise duplicate of the Lord of the Rings. The story goes that he wrote a sequel to the books and couldn't get the rights to publish them (not a surprise) so his publisher asked him to shift around some details of place and character and then (this is where the problem arises) asked him to write a prequel to his sequel. Because the books he had already were now not anchored to anything, see, so they needed a first series to be based off of. Well, what McKiernan did was buff off the paint of LotR and recreate it, in some cases down to specific sequences (most notably the awful resuse of the Mines of Moria, renamed but very much too-easily identifiable.) He's got little folk (but warlike, so it's different!) and a Dark Lord and elves and dwarves and so on and so forth, in a world clearly meant to be as close to Middle Earth as possible without getting sued. But as I said, it's not really quite the author's fault: he started out to write a sequel, and ended up writing a too-close homage followed by that sequel (and many more books, so he did something right, obviously.) The problem is the Iron Tower books are just unbearable by virtue of being hackishly close to the real deal without in any way being improvements. The writing isn't better--a frequent complaint against Tolkien is that he's not particularly readable; too much exposition, too much dry history--so this could have been a place to take advantage of, but it's not, in this case. I read these books when I was a youth desperately in love with LotR, and even I thought "What is this, and how did it get turned into books?" I haven't read them in years and years, though maybe a decade ago I forced myself through the first book to prove it was as bad as I remembered, as derivative, and it really was.

Better is the Sword of Shannara, founder of a dynasty of books that has climbed into the high 20s as far as total volumes, and which have continued to the present after almost 40 years. Terry Brooks, the author, has ventured very far from the first book, into spaces that are his own (though still within the realm of Tolkien's writing), but Sword of Shannara is a book that lies squarely in LotR-land. With it's motley assortment of men, elves, dwarves and quiet wood dwelling humans (they aren't hobbits, but it's not much of a difference, really), and most especially with Allanon the Druid; with journeys through a Moria/Paths of the Dead composite (what is it with the cavernous city under the mountains that so much captured everyone's attention in Tolkien? It's everywhere, really); with a Dark Lord served by shadowy, flying minions and a magic McGuffin capable of defeating him; it all comes out of Tolkien and though there's a bit more weirdness (post apocalyptic weirdness, mostly) and a bit more active magic (Elfstones!), it's definitely taken from the master. However, it's not completely a copy; it has it's own things going on, and while the writing wasn't the best, it gets better. The next couple of books move into territory that is less Tolkien and more distinctly Terry Brooks: he has weird quests all the time, and heritage is vastly important, and monsters are strange and singular, and his naming conventions become things entirely his own. The series goes on and on, and I've only read maybe ten of them (I act as if that's not a lot) and it gets bogged down in those issues of heritage (how do all these families survive and interact century after century?) but I really remember loving these books greatly as a youth and into my 20s, and when I read Sword of Shannara not too long ago it held up pretty well.

The final one of the three that sprang immediately to my mind is the Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. These are books very different from Tolkien in the actual plot and characters: there are women, and a lot of them; the plot is all over the place, and draws in all sorts of elements that Tolkien might have appreciated but probably wouldn't have touched; and they're actively melodramatic and melancholy both, in a way that Tolkien was too fussy and standoffish to really manage. But here's the thing: Kay was an editorial assistant, or a researcher, or something similar (it's hard to pin down exactly) to Christopher Tolkien when the latter was putting together the Silmarillion. And it shows in every single bit of Fionavar. The Lios Alfar are Tolkien Elves of the Silmarillion or Lorien so clearly and obviously; the Riders of Dalrei are a rusticated Rohirrim complete with a great ride to arrive at a battle in the nick of time; Rakoth Maugrim is so entirely Morgoth that it's hard to believe. The style of the books echoes the Silmarillion very strongly; writing beats are hit that no one else really has hit. But it makes perfect sense, as Kay was quiet young when he got caught up in EDITING THE FRICKING SILMARILLION (his late teens!) and how could that not have overwhelmed his writing for a while? His later books are almost all historical fantasies: books set in places that are clearly based on historical lands and places, but twisted around and changed. And so it can be seen that the first "historical" land he decided to tackle was the one he knew best, Middle Earth, and that he did it well. The books are still very good (a little stilted in language, as noted; a little melodramatic) and I've enjoyed reading them again several times. But they solidly inhabit Tolkien's shadow; the fact that they do and still work well shows it's no bad thing to exist in such a space.

I was not immune to the urge; one of the first things I remember writing, when I was a wee grade school boy, involved elves and an old wizard with a beard and a quest to destroy a McGuffin; there was a good wizard who was secretly bad, and there were things that most assuredly weren't orcs except for how they were certainly and definitely orcs. I think that in the main I've left the master behind (for good or for ill) but I inhabited those places happily enough for a good many years. And I still go back to the originals myself, and I still like when it's clear someone else knows them, and has put just a hint of them, into their own books. But like most seasonings, it's best in moderation.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tolkien's Legendarium

I was recently drawn back to the Silmarillion when I saw an article about the beautiful illustrated handmade version of it. Aside from the beauty of the object, I was reminded I'd not read the blasted thing for a good number of years. As I was a very deep Tolkien/Middle Earth geek in my younger years, this was a sad state of affairs. So I ordered up a copy from the library post haste and set aside the excellent book I was reading to take it up.

It's almost as if I never set it down, to be honest. The names, the relationships (family trees!), the history of it. It's exactly in my sweet spot, the place where fantasy and history meet and dance together and maybe get busy later on in the evening. Most stuff is either history or fantasy, obviously; even when fantasy has a good dose of history it's still mostly fantasy. But the Silmarillion is really a history book, describing a fantasy world. While it has narrative portions (the tale of Aredhel and Eol, or the Darkening of Valinor and the Flight of the Noldor), most of it describes the rise and fall of kingdoms, the battles that occurred, the relations between the rulers, and the migrations of peoples. All good, solid history. Now, that's wrong: it's not actually good history, or solid history. It works because Tolkien wrote it all up and there's nothing to contradict a bit of it, but it's nonsensical. Cities abandoned and left completely empty (though fully workable), entire districts never inhabited because of no particular reason, all sorts of bizarre things. But I still read it, and still love it, very much.

At one point I thought about writing up something similar in nature, a history of an empire I conjured up when I was rather youngish, maybe 20 years ago. I have notes for it: a map, some genealogical charts, a few pages of this and that. And I think on it often, on the priest who became king, on the rivalries between dynastic branches, on the ways the wars shaped the great islands of the nation. If nothing else it would make a good game setting, so I could use it for that.

I'm only part way through the book just now; the Long Peace is ended, and the kingdoms of the Noldor and the Edain are scattered and broken, but there's still some strength in Men and Elves, and there's still hopeful moments to come. Fingolfin has just died, but died a hero. It's not all dark and doom and gloom yet, but soon enough. I know already all that's going to happen, and  yet this time I hope I'm wrong. I suppose that's what is best about Tolkien's history: even knowing the worst, you still dream it will be less bad this time around. But it never is. If his fiction was inherently hopeful and ended well, such is not the case with his legendarium. It always ends badly there.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's

I used to throw New Year's Eve parties. Well, I used to throw a whole bunch of parties, for whatever occasion. For a while, I had a party season that I did, eight or ten theme parties in a year. But no matter the year, there was always a party on December 31st.

A few years ago I fell in love and moved out of the party house that I had lived in for a dozen or so years. And that was the end of it. All the NYE parties were done. I think there was one the year after, hosted by the last remaining roommate of my tenure and some other people I barely knew. Maybe I'm inventing that? But I'm entirely out of the NYE thing now. I never did go to bars before I threw parties, so I don't want to do that, and I'm rather a homebody these days, and so...last night, I went to bed by 11 pm, after having champagne at 10 while pretending it was midnight.

It's a weird change, but it's pretty relaxing, I have to admit.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Old is New Again

I kind of love it when I find something I wrote a while ago and like it. Started writing, I should say. I only wrote about 20 pages or so. But it's a very good, very entertaining (to me) twenty pages. A rather long time ago, I wrote a short story I really did like (that I never did anything with) and this is the novel length adaptation of that story. It's about a girl who wishes for nothing more than to be a soldier like her entire family, but ends up having talent as a magician, and needing to go with her rather doddering great uncle to the temple/school/monastery that he lives in, and train up in a completely alien tradition to all her hopes and dreams. I'm adding to it now, a few pages a day, and maybe I'll actually finish it this time? Well. Get more than another twenty pages, at least?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Reread: Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin

When I was a youth, and part of the Science Fiction Book Club (Still a Thing! Impossibly Still a Thing!) I ended up with an omnibus edition of Robert Asprin's first few Myth books.

[Side note: I really do miss those omnibus editions. They still pop up in the SFBC (which I'm not part of any longer) and some older books get reissued in that format (as for instance Glen Cook's Garrett Chronicles) but mainly you're on single books now. Mostly, I think, because the era of skinny books easily compiled into an omnibus is mostly over? Anyway, I miss them.Now, back to the reread.]

I thought, as a 12 year old or whatever, that these books were the best. They were kind of silly, but kind of violent, too: like Xanth with a more adult sensibility, I guess? By more adult, I mean the sexiness was more literal than implied and slightly grotesque (Piers Anthony might have issues. He might not, but...there's a lot of smoke for there not to be any fire, you know?), the violence was brutal at times, the jokes were still mostly puns but they were more clever, more pop cultural. Which of course means they're terribly dated now, where Xanth's puns, while awful, still make perfect sense in the main.

The Myth books, to sum up, are about a human youth who is apprenticed to a wizard and not very good at being an apprentice, and then, through a series of mix ups and practical jokes, ends up apprenticed to another, different wizard from a different dimension, of which there are many. The books involved the characters trying to make a living (growing competency of the apprentice being a major plot point; his master has lost his powers but still has his knowledge and his reputation, and they have a cast of secondary characters of all sorts, cohorts and opposition and sometimes both.) As it went along it became burdened with too many odd bits and bobs, too many jokes that grow very tired. But the first book is kind of zippy, and if you ignore the real groaners of jokes, it works all right.

Fully adult me doesn't really like it that much, though. It's goofy, is the problem. Too goofy but not funny enough. It wants you to laugh, it really does, but it's like a bad kid's party clown: here's a joke, are you laughing? No? Well, here's another? Is that a grin I see, kind of? Well, all right, let me do that thing again. Why aren't you laughing?

The magic actually isn't bad, the main relationship (if I remember rightly) grows in depth, and the books become about growing up and making your way in the world, though that theme is explored very briefly in each book, so that only time allows it to become meaningful as you read six or eight books and get to actually dig into that.

I can't bring myself to read any more, though. Twelve year old me is saying I should, because I have good memories, and some problems like the ladies being mostly just arm candy get a little better as the series goes on.

If the internet can be trusted (it's can't, but I'll let it slide this time) the series never ended. Asprin kept writing more books until he died, and there were plans for more at that point, at least one of which was written by another author he worked with on the last couple books he wrote before death took him. I stopped reading some decades ago, which puts me rather out of the loop, though almost all the books written were written before I stopped reading; his output slowed greatly as he got older. I can't imagine the effort needed to dig through all that mass of books. Fortunately, I don't need to, either.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Great Pumpkin's War

Last night they showed It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown on tv. I've watched the special most years since I was a kid (sometimes I have no idea when it's on and I miss it.) There's a weird interlude in the middle where Snoopy, as a WWI flying ace, has a dogfight and goes down behind enemy lines. He creeps through ruined farmhouses and down the trenches, and it's a five minute tour of some very basic World War I imagery.

It's a strange historic artifact preserved in an evergreen children's cartoon special. Charles Schulz was born in 1922 and grew up in the shadow of the Great War; a goodly amount of the adult men he knew would have fought in the war, and everyone would have known all about it. Forty four years after Schulz was born, when the Great Pumpkin was being made, he put those memories and stories into the special, and now they're probably the only way most people ever interact with the War to End All Wars.

It's been almost fifty years now that the Great Pumpkin has been failing to appear for Linus, that Charlie Brown has been getting only rocks in his sack, that Violet has been throwing a Halloween party for all the kids. And still Snoopy is fighting that war that was over long before the Peanuts strip was created, and still kids see it and must wonder what exactly it's all about. I suppose they wondered the same thing even back in 1966, and maybe their grandparents would explain to them. Such a strange thing to be transmitted through history in such a strange venue.

By the by, it's my choice for favorite Peanuts special; although I like A Charlie Brown Christmas, it's not as good as the Great Pumpkin.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Games!

Since I'm not currently working on writing a novel or anything (boo!) because my agents are shopping around the new one starting this week (yay!) and I don't want to work on the sequel to a book that's going to mutated out of all proportion by edits (ugh!) I am instead devoting some time to one of the passions of my life.

I'm a gamer. Not a video gamer (I do not have good hand/eye coordination, and in the moment, I usually just forget what particular buttons do: very little muscle memory, I guess?). Instead, my preferred games usually occur around a table, with either a board and cards and figures of some sort, or with books and dice and pencils. I've been at it a while (since I was a wee sprog of about 7 or so, which was 5 dog years ago, and you can do your own math) and still love to play games of all sorts.

Now I'm actually starting to work on a game. Well, several, but mainly one: a tabletop roleplaying game I'm calling Bronze & Bone, a game of adventure in an Ancient Greece overrun by the dead. It's pretty fun, designing a game. I will admit I've tried before, several times, with no particular success: a thing called Rats Among The Gods about humans living in alien spaceships as vast as moons; a thing called Lif's Children about what happens after Ragnarok. I tried to play those a couple times, got frustrated, stopped. I may go back to them at some point, since I really like the concepts. But right now, it's all about mythical/pre-classical Greece (almost the same thing), and figuring out what works and doesn't. I'm getting a lot of help from various folks over at rpg.net, which is a cool place for gamers and has the bonus advantage of being firmly moderated so it doesn't turn into a cesspool. 

Currently I'm fussing over the systems for the game: how many dice to use at a given time, how easy it is to succeed, how combat works, stuff like that. The setting I feel pretty good about, and what I've done with it, but there's still a good bit of work to be done as far as those danged rules. It's a bit of a slog, but it's getting much, much better with every time I open the document.

It's a lot of fun. If I ever finish the thing, I'm going to just make it available for free (because it's even harder to make money as a tabletop game designer than it is as an author) and start on another. Third try, maybe I can actually put it up for sale, but that's not for a while. So now, back to it.