Power and the fantasy genre

Cover of Age of FractureMost fantasy works (also many strains of science fiction, of course) are explorations of power, especially power of the great or unusual variety: where does it reside? How can it be gained? How can it be defeated?
But one of the problems with most fantasy is that it situates power too much in extraordinary individuals (heroes and villains). I chalk that up to it descending from the epic and the fact that the novel, in its popular form, is a form that focuses on individuals.

But as I read the following passage from Age of Fracture by Daniel T. Rodgers, I wondered if the fantasy genre, and specifically fantasy as a secondary world setting, could be deployed to play with, interrogate and explore 20th/21st-century theories of power in more rigorous, interesting ways. In other words: what happens if you write a fantasy novel that takes one or more of the theories of power found in post-modern thought seriously in the way that draws directly on the strengths of the genre?

What then was power? The class theorists on the left and the right had imagined power instantiated in the material structures of class. The neo-Gramscians had imagined it hanging, like a veil over the yes of the many, in the dominant class’s construction of reality. Geertz and the cultural historians had vested it in rituals and theaters of meaning. The rational-choice political scientists had located power in the strategies and resources of individual actors. With the transit of Foucault’s work and reputation into English came a much subtler language of power in all its minute and capillary workings. Power had moved decisively into the spheres of culture, ideas, everyday practices, science. But if power relations were everywhere and saturated everything, not only investing individual subjects but producing them, if power were indistinguishable from resistance, incapable of being held by any identifiable group or institution, unlinked in any sense to “agency,” had not the long, complex search for power’s ever more subtle faces succeeded, at last, in finding nothing at all? (106-107, Age of Fracture by Daniel T. Rodgers)

I’m sure if I looked closely enough at post-1990 fantasy, I’d find that some of it does actively respond to these theories of power (especially Foucault). But my gut tells me that that’s happened more in short fiction than in novel form. Although, of course, China Miéville is the obvious exception that proves the rule, especially with his Bas Lag novels. But because Miéville is so solidly within the Marxist camp, his works (I’m thinking especially about Iron Council and The Scar here) think about power in a specific way. It’s an interesting way, to be sure, and I often like the way his political point of view morphs into metaphor (even when I disagree with it). But I also often find myself wishing that the same settings, characters, metaphors had been approached by an author with different notions of power. Or even the same notions but with a different flavor.

All this, of course, is sidestepping the final sentence in that excerpt, a sentence that, perhaps, explains quite a bit about where SF&F finds itself. On one side the reactionary authors who cling to rational-choice theory. On the other the progressive authors who are always grasping for the elusive. I enjoy works from both, but the more I read in the genre the more I also find that enjoyment is not the same as satisfaction.

Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick

Cover to Sworn in Steel by Douglas HulickIt has now been over a month since I finished Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick, the second novel in his Tales of the Kin series. I wasn’t planning on writing about it because, although I liked it, I was disappointed that Hulick transplants most of the action to the Despotate of Djan. I felt like he was deferring all the fallout from the previous book. After revealing an interesting character in Drothe and an intriguing setting in Ildrecca, I wanted a book two that deepened both of those. And when most of the action got moved outside the city, I wasn’t happy.

But some books take time to digest. And this has proven to be the case for me and Sworn in Steel. A month later, I have come to realize that my initial reaction to the novel was colored too much by the expectations I had set up for the book as a direct sequel to Among Thieves.

It is very much a sequel. Not in setting. And not entirely in situation (the real fallout from Drothe’s ascension to Gray Prince status should arrive in book 3). It’s a sequel in terms of relationships. I had forgotten that what made the first book good wasn’t just Drothe — it was Drothe and Degan. Sworn in Steel is very much about Degan and about the Degans. And all that Degan business did need to get sorted out. By taking the time to do so and by doing so in such a dramatic, interesting way, Hulick sets his characters up for a deeper, more interesting return to the situation within the walls of Ildrecca.

Two lines from Jeff VanderMeer’s Authority

Back when I read Annihilation, the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, I posted the line that hooked me into the novel, that convinced me that I was all in for the ride. I didn’t need any convincing when I got my hands on Authority, but I do want to share one of the lines that is both hilarious and creepy and so very VanderMeer:

They had to don white bio-hazard suits with black gloves, so that Control was actually wearing a version of the gloves that had so unsettled him down in the science division. This was his revenge, to plunge his hands into them and make them his puppets, even if he didn’t like their rubbery feel. (123-124)

Alan Jacobs on the emergence of the fantasy genre

The essay needs to be read in full for this quote to be clear, but I feel the need to document it:

But again, the desire for a world resonant with spiritual meaning, of one kind or another, does not easily die — perhaps cannot die until humanity itself does. Technology is power, but disenchanted power. And so the more dominant mechanical and then electronic technologies become as shapers of the social order, the more ingenious grow the strategies of resistance to their disenchanting force — the strategies by which we deny the necessary materiality of power. In the literary realm, the chief such strategy is the emergence of fantasy genre.

– Alan Jacobs, “Fantasy and the Buffered Self” at The New Atlantis

Time and POV in Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Hateship Friendship Munro collectionThere is nothing genre about Alice Munro. The author and her work are one of the key nodes of modern literary fiction. The perfect detail. The minor epiphany. The mundane realism. Even if you’ve never read any of her stories, you know that these things are why Munro is a master of the short story form. I must admit that I had never read her work until recently when the gushing praise after she received the Nobel Prize for Literature finally upped my curiosity enough to give Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories a go (with a seventh month lag, of course: my curiosity is often a slow burn).

So why didn’t anyone tell me about the way she uses narrative structure? I would have read her stories much earlier if I had known. Because as it turns out (and I can only speak to this collection), for all that Munro’s stories are about funerals and family dinners and strained familial or spousal relationships, they also do very interesting things with time and POV. The stories switch among POVs, but not in a regular manner. Most have one primary character that is focused on, but at the beginning or ending (and sometimes in the middle), the POV may be on a different character or characters. And these other POVs may or may not take place in the same time period as the bulk of the story. And they function not as narrative frames because a) they’re usually asymmetrical [not actually frames] and b) it’s not always easy to tell how they relate to the main story.

The effect on the reader, or at least the effect on me (and it simply may be because I’ve been mainly reading SF&F lately), is one that is not foreign to genre, especially science fiction. It’s that pleasant but puzzling confusion. A wondering how all the pieces fit together and the inability to make everything fit. Without that effect, I wouldn’t have liked the stories as much. I mean, there’s nothing new about the story of an academic who commit adultery. But the way Munro messes with the narrative structure of each story adds strangeness to the reading experience.

Which isn’t to say that they are fully weird. Most of the stories in Hateship, Friendship etc. are more or less resolvable, although “Post and Beam” remains a mystery to me. Why does it start there? I still don’t know. But I like it much more than I thought I would, and I hear that other of Munro’s work plays even more with time and memory. Munro intersects with the fantastic much more than I had thought. It’s a welcome surprise.

Reading for Writers: The Tigress of Forli

the cover of The Tigress of Forli While reading Elizabeth Lev’s biography of Caterina Sforza The Tigress of Forli, I realized that I was just as interested in the quieter aspects of Sforza’s life as the big dramatic events and aspects of her personality that she is (in)famous for. As a result, I suddenly felt like both female and male characters in many fantasy novels were one-dimensional in comparison. Clearly, a biography does things that a novel can’t — it’s a more comprehensive narrative that doesn’t require a tight plot. And yet, Lev does provide some fascinating through lines.

The key narrative of Caterina Sforza’s life was her struggle to keep possession of lands in Romagna (that came to her via marriage to her first husband Girolam Riario and after his death, to her son) when the Pope, the large neighboring Italian city states, and the lesser nobility of Romagna all wanted pieces (or all) of the Riario domain. The stories about this are fascinating. The Caterina Sforza wikipedia page does a decent job of covering the basics. Sforza’s wit and guile and bravery (and, yes, beauty) are legendary. Just one example: after the death of Pope Sixtus, as Rome fell into chaos, a pregnant Caterina left her ransacked residence to occupy the Castel Sant’Angelo on behalf of her husband with the hopes of influencing the conclave that would select the next pope. But politics wasn’t her only obsession. She was an avid hunter and knew how to fight with a sword. She was a religious women, who later in life would spend periods of time in a convent. She was also keenly interested in growing herbs and making medicinal preparations with them as well as combining them with other substances to create cosmetics. And, of course, art (including interior decoration) and reading and correspondence via letter were all things she regularly engaged in.

In fiction, characters are often one or two things. And oftentimes the second thing is not all that unique or interesting. Caterina Sforza was a politician, hunter, rider, herbalist, alchemist, mother, wife, widow, lover, correspondent, interior decorator, fashion plate, warrior, religious zealot and philanthropist. She was hated by many, admired by many and loved by a few. There are obviously differences between real lives lived and fictional characters on the page, but after reading about Caterina Sforza, your standard fantasy character, especially your standard female character in epic fantasy, seems slight in comparison. The solution isn’t to write a Caterina Sforza (although I’m sure that’s already been done), but rather to think about the characters we write as more than just plot functions or character types.

Lev’s book isn’t perfect, although I can’t judge as a biography because it’s a period of history that I am not well-acquainted with. For all I know, it may be a little too on the side of the subject, but Caterina Riario Sforza deserves the sympathetic treatment, especially considering her accomplishments and how she was depicted by some of her contemporaries (particularly Machiavelli) and those who followed their lead. Even so, there were moments where you felt Lev stretching to get inside Sforza’s head or to include a piece of research. And even though it’s a popular history, it also would have been nice to have more of Sforza’s actual words (from letters) included in the text. We get very little of that. And yet what we do get is more than enough for me to declare The Tigress of Forli as essential reading for writers.

Where I wish Redshirts had gone

Cover of Redshirts by John ScalziIn trying to identify where John Scalzi’s Redshirts went wrong for me as a reader, I should first establish that at some point it was going right, which means owning up to the fact that I went into the book with a certain skepticism–not strong skepticism, because I enjoy Scalzi’s online authorial persona, and because even though I have never been active in Star Trek fandom, I have viewed at least 200 episodes of the series (with the bulk of those being TNG) as well as most of the films–but I did go in with a thin barrier between me and the text, created (as best as I can recall) by some of the reaction to Redshirts winning the Hugo Award for Novel. That skepticism stayed with me through the first few pages, but then it began to fall once Dahl encounters Captain Abernathy in full narrative mode. And then when Dahl goes on his first away mission and comes back and (in chapter five) confronts the rest of the team in the lab, and they explain the “Sacrificial Effect” and the tracking system that helps them avoid away missions, I was fully sucked in, the skepticism gone.

To go further: I really like the way Scalzi sets up the key problems and themes of the novel and Ensign Dahl’s reaction to them as well as the reactions of his fellow new crew members on the Intrepid. This consonance between author (Scalzi) and reader (me) continued on into the meeting with Jenkins (a character who figured out the fictionality of the situation and set up and manages the tracking system) and into the next away mission so that when we reach chapter 12 and have this exchange, it was hitting the sweet spot where metafiction becomes both humorous and creepy:

“Finn turned to Kerensky. “So, what’s the plan?” he asked. “Plan” Kerensky said, and blinked. “If there really is a Narrative, it’s not on him right now,” Dahl said, about Kerensky.

I was even into it when Dahl decides to take action. This response to Jenkins (which comes part way into chapter 13) is fantastic:

”Why me?” Jenkins asked. “Because you know this television show we’re trapped in better than anyone else,” Dahl said. “If there’s a solution or a loophole, you’re the only one who can find it. And soon. Because I don’t want any more of my friends to die because of a hack writer. And that includes you.”

But then, as chapter 13 progresses, things went very wrong.

Scalzi decides to link Dahl’s narrative with the real world–with our world. Star Wars and Star Trek get specifically mentioned. The plan to break the grip of the Narrative involves an intentionally ridiculous method of, naturally, inducing time travel. Characters travel to mid-2000s L.A. and meet their doubles—the actors who play them on the television show. Producers and writers get involved. All the original tension vanishes, but the metafictional aspects that layer on, that, to some extent, raise the stakes instead goes all gooey and referential (but not in a good way).

I don’t think that was the intended effect. I think it’s all supposed to make readers see the characters as more complex and more closely tied to all those involved in the production of the television show they are stuck on. And I believe Scalzi’s overall point is that minor characters have rich, full lives too, and creators and fans shouldn’t be so cavalier about killing off such characters. Death shouldn’t be used as a cheap device to move plot forward. There may also be something about the power of narrative to heal–that seeing other versions of ourselves can help spur us to become better version of ourselves. All correct notions. But I found myself resisting the delivery of them.

The problem is that metafiction doesn’t deepen reality. It creates irreality or surreality. Playing with questions of authorship* points to the ir-realness of authorship and of any attempts to force narrative on the “real” world. Bringing in the “real” world doesn’t make the fictional world seem more real–it shows the artificialness of narrativizing the world and our experiences of it, especially by doing so via fiction.

If Scalzi had confined the “Sacrificial Effect” to the textual world the characters were in and had them find ways to resist (or not) within that world (or even meta-textually above it [but without explicitly brining in the "real" world]), I would have been much more in tune with what he was trying to do. I thought that Scalzi set up an interesting philosophical problem. Then it turned into something very different. That seems to have worked for many readers. It did not work for me.

  • Which Scalzi doesn’t do–he plays with notions of authorship but it’s a fictional author within the narrative whose metafictionalness comes in the form of him asking for help from both fictional and nonfictional authors who use metafiction. And, indeed, the only author who responds is a fictional creation of Scalzi’s. In other words, the metafiction stays contained within the world of fiction. The only moment of author-level metafiction may be in the Acknowledgements where Scalzi claims: “Redshirts is not even remotely based on the television show Stargate: Universe. Anyone hoping this is a thinly veiled satire of that particular experience of mine is going to have to be disappointed.” If he is telling the truth, then all my comments in the post above apply; however, if Scalzi is lying here, then the metafictional aspects of Redshirts take on a new dimension and the whole project becomes much more interesting. Successful metafiction is all about finding the right layers and how to apply them to the narrative substrate.

How Elizabeth Bear is like LeBron James

Elizabeth Bear writes fiction like LeBron James plays basketball. Note the presence of the verbs there. I’m not saying that Elizabeth Bear is the LeBron James of SF&F. James is a four time NBA MVP, two time NBA Champion and Finals MVP, two time Olympic gold medalist, 10 time All Star and the list goes on. Plus professional basketball is a game with rules and teams and a league and competition. But the way LeBron plays the game is similar to the way Bear writes fiction.

LeBron is unusual in the way that he has such a complete game. He can play almost any position on the court and do it a high level. He can shoot (and score) from almost any range. He passes well and receives passes well. He sets or runs through picks and screens. He can post up or step back. He can drive to the basket or catch and shoot. He plays amazing defense and is an impressive shot blocker. And he does all that with smoothness and physicality and with energy and confidence.

Bear does the same with her fiction. She can write almost any genre. She is very good at style, character development, setting and plot. Her prose has a smoothness and physicality (or muscularity) and confidence to it that reminds me of the experience of watching LeBron play. The Eternal Sky trilogy is like a triple double in the way that it shows versatility, dominance and an overall high level of play. This metaphor may only may make sense to me but when it popped in my head there was no denying it.

Appreciation: Katherine Addison’s emotional precision in The Goblin Emperor

Cover of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine AddisonNow that I have read it, the rave reviews of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) seem less like hype and more like documentation. The novel is beguiling in large part because it features such a guileless main character in Maia, the exiled goblin-elf half-breed heir who assumes the throne of Ethuveraz when his emperor father and before-him-in-succession brothers die in an airship disaster. Maia is naive, ill-equipped to navigate the formalities, prejudices and machinations of the Untheileneise Court. But he is not without his own resources, in particular, his sincerity and intelligence, which are both strengths and weaknesses in the hot-house of imperial pageantry and politics.

Addison has to tread carefully here. It would be easy to make Maia too emotionally intelligent or too charismatic or too adolescent and thus drain out the tension in the plot. That she succeeds is because of emotional precision of her prose. By that, I don’t mean that Maia spends pages and pages in angst-ridden internal monologue. Rather Addison’s genius is in always reaching for just the right moment, detail, word, reaction and knowing when to go deeper into what Maia is feeling and when not to. I’m sure there are readers who will find this calibration off, wanting either much more or none at all. But count me among those who think she succeeds beautifully.

This example is less meaningful without prolonged exposure to the layers of character and narrative Addison builds in the book. But it’s one that I can share that doesn’t spoil the plot at all:

Ulis was a cold god, a god of night and shadows and dust. His love was found in emptiness, his kindness in silence. And that was what Maia needed. Silence, coldness, kindness. He focused his thoughts carefully on the familiar iconography, the image of Ulis’s open hands, the god of letting go was surely the god who would listen to an unwilling emperor. (302)

The progression of those three adjectives in that sentence fragment are perfect — fitting but also surprising, worldbuilding in the service of emotional precision. The Goblin Emperor is filled with such moments.

Six observations on Vatta’s War by Elizabeth Moon

The five books that form Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series are enjoyable in the way they combine capable female characters with a fast-paced plot and familiar space opera setting with just enough unique features to hold interest. The following six observations contain spoilers for the entire series, although only a few general things and two major plot points. So if spoilers truly spoil a reading experience for you, it’s probably best to move on. If you’re like me and a couple of reveals (and really there is a ton that happens that isn’t mentioned at all below) don’t ruin a reading experience or you’ve already read the series, then read on.

  1. The abundance of female characters at the core of the narrative are both there because they are female, but the fact that they are female is not their primary/dominant attribute, which is cool. In other words, they come across as strong female characters because that who they are rather than that is what the story needs them to be. In addition to Ky Vatta, the lead character in the series, we get a substantial number of POV characters from Ky’s cousin Stella and her aunt Grace. They are the three family members who keep Vatta Corp. a viable enterprise. They are able to do so because of ingenuity, bravery and luck, but also because they were underestimated by their enemies who focused on killing the overt [rather thank covert [Grace/Stella] or emergent [Ky/Stella]) leaders of the family, all of whom were men. My only complaint is that Stella fades a bit in the later books. I would have liked to her have a slightly larger role, although I understand why the focus so much is on Ky, who is the main character in the series.
  2. I enjoyed the mix and scope of commercial and government entities. The Vatta-verse largely mirrors our own in the way that the private and public overlap and collide (productively or not) with each other. Justin Landon’s comments about the way politics and economics are dealt with in the first book is what originally led me to read the series, and I agree with his comments. I’d also note that it seems correct to me that an inhabited sector of the universe that is connected only by FTL jump points wouldn’t have strong cross-system government entities (a fact that the terrorists in the novels leverage) but would have a corporate monopoly for communications. Distance (and thus time) creates fragility.
  3. The first time a male authority figure worries about Ky Vatta being influenced by a possibly untrustworthy man because she might be sexually attracted to the cad, I thought that Moon was saying something interesting about sexism and patriarchy and how male authority figures are reluctant to grant full agency to precocious young women in command (like Ky [precocious because she is young to be a ship captain]). But then it happened again and then again and again, and it became such a tic that I don’t know what to think now.
  4. I also don’t know what to think about Moon’s psychologizing on those who are capable of killing and get a certain thrill out of it. It becomes a secret between some of the main characters in the book. Moon seems to be saying that it can be a necessary pathology of those fighting on the part of good (so long as it is kept in check). Ky is ashamed or scared of it at first, but as it manifests in other characters (Rafe, Grace, etc.), Moon appears to destigmatize it but at the same time seems to see it as a necessary condition of those who can be ruthless. Now I don’t doubt that people—even good people—can get a rush from killing a bad guy. But it is mentioned so often—but not complicated enough by Moon—that it comes across as a natural law or something. There are killers and then there are not. I don’t know enough to disagree, but this was another thing where it came up so often it seemed like a writerly tic.
  5. This is again something that I don’t know a whole lot about, but the way Moon handled Ky’s PTSD-triggered breakdown (due in part to all the trauma she experienced, but also to the haphazard way in which she had received her command implant) and the treatment of it struck me as realistic, interesting and inevitable.
  6. I also really like that as much of the action is about building resources and allies and dealing with government and commercial entities as it is about fighting bad guys in space.

at the intersection of the literary and the fantastic