County Doctor, a translation of Kafka’s Ein Landarzt for the American West

A man in a suit in the seat of a buckboard. Two horses are hitched to it. It is winter.

Image credit: Neenah History, flickr


The following is a translation of Franz Kafka’s short story “Ein Landarzt” that I did in the summer of 2004. I publish it here so that I have a more permanent home for it on the web. Two notes follow the main text of the story.  

I was in dire straits. An urgent trip stared me in the face. A seriously ill patient waited for me in a small settlement about 10 miles outside of town. In the howling space between us raged a blizzard.

I was ready to go. I had a buckboard suitable for navigating the rough country roads — light framed with large wheels. I was clad in a calf-length sheepskin coat. My medical bag was fully stocked. I stood in the yard ready to get on the road. But one thing was missing — the horse. I had no horse.

My only horse had died of overexertion the night before, a casualty of this icy winter. My hired girl was now running around town trying to scare up a loaner. But I knew it was hopeless. And as the snow continued to pile up, the road becoming ever more impassable, I could only stand there fixed in place.

The hired girl appeared at the gate and waved her lantern. But of course. Who would lend his horse for such a journey? I paced across the yard once more. I couldn’t think of any more options. While agonizing over my situation, I absentmindedly kicked the rotting door of the pigsty, which hadn’t been used for many years.

The door flew open and flapped back and forth on its hinges. The thick, warm breath and smell of horses emerged. A ranch hand, his frank, blue-eyed face dimly lit by a lantern swinging from a rope, crouched in the ramshackle structure. “Should I harness the wagon?” he asked, crawling forward on all fours. I wasn’t sure what to say and only bent forward to see what else was in the sty. The hired girl stood next to me.

“You never know what’s available in your own pantry,” she said, and we both laughed.

“Hey brother, hey sister!” called the ranch hand.

Two horses burst through the door frame one after the other, their legs pulled up against their torso, well-formed heads dipping like camels, only able to push themselves out through a forceful turn of their powerful bodies. But soon they were upright. They stamped the ground, stretching their long limbs and shaking their solid, damp bodies.

“Help him,” I said, and the hired girl eagerly moved to hand him the harness. The moment she was within reach, he grabbed her and pressed his face against hers. She cried out and flew to my side, two neat, red rows of teeth marks on her cheek.

“You beast,” I yell angrily. “Are you looking for a whipping?” But then I remember that he is a stranger, that I don’t know where he hails from, and that he is volunteering to help me when everybody else has refused to.

As if he knew my thoughts, he simply ignored my threat and instead, the horses’ reins still in hand, looks in my direction. “Get in,” he says, and indeed everything is ready. I suddenly realize that I have never traveled with such a fine team and happily climb up on the seat.

“I’ll take the reins — you don’t know the way,” I say.

“Go ahead,” he says. “I’m not coming with you. I’m staying with Rose.”

“No,” she screams and, correctly sensing her inescapable fate, runs to the house. I hear the jingle as she chains the door. I hear the key turn in the lock. What’s more I see how she traverses the entryway and dashes through the front room extinguishing all the lamps, trying to cloak herself in darkness.

“You ride with me,” I say to the ranch hand. “Or I renounce the trip, as urgent as it is. I’m not going to trade the girl for the trip.”

“Giddy-up!” he says, clapping his hands together.

The buckboard jumps forward like a downed tree branch caught in a flash flood. Yet I still hear the front door of my house splinter and burst under the ranch hand’s assault. Then my eyes and ears — all my senses — are filled with a piercing whistling.

But even that is only the blink of an eye. Then, as if my patient’s yard had opened up immediately in front of my gate, I am already there. The horses stand quietly. The snow has stopped falling. Moonlight surrounds us. The patient’s parents hurry out of the house, his sister in tow. They pluck me from the buckboard. I catch none of their confused chatter. The sick room is unbearable — stuffy and smoky from an untended stove. I want to push open the window. First, I will examine the patient.

He’s shirtless, a scrawny kid with empty eyes. He doesn’t have a fever. He is neither cold nor warm to the touch. He raises himself up out of the feather bed and attaches himself to my neck. “Doctor — let me die,” he whispers in my ear. I glance around the room. No one has heard him. The parents stand silently, leaning forward, awaiting my verdict. The sister has brought a stool for my bag.

I open the bag and dig through my instruments. The boy continues to nag me about not forgetting his wish. I grab a pair of tweezers, examine it in the candlelight, and place it back in the bag.

“Yes,” I think blasphemously. “This is the way the gods help. Send the missing horse. Add a second to hasten the trip. And go overboard and throw in a ranch hand to boot.”

And now, for the first time, my thoughts turn to Rose. What shall I do? How can I save her? How do I pull her out from under the ranch hand when I’m ten miles away with horses I can’t handle harnessed to my buckboard?

Speaking of the horses, they have somehow slipped out of their harnesses and unlatched the window from the outside. Each pokes its head through and, undistracted by the family’s outcry, peers intently at the patient.

“I’ll go back right now,” I think, as if the horses had summoned me for the return trip. And yet I let the sister, who seems to think I’ve become overcome by the heat, take my coat. A glass of whiskey is placed in my hand. The old man pats me on the shoulder as if to make me feel better about my supposed condition. Only his devotion to his treasured son excuses this intimate gesture. I shake my head. The old man’s limited thought processes sicken me, and I decide to not drink the whiskey.

The mother stands near the bed and beckons me. I walk over to it. As I lay my head on the boy’s chest, one of the horses begins to neigh to high heaven. The boy shivers upon contact with my wet beard. It confirms what I already know: He is healthy. His blood may be a little thin — undoubtedly his mother has over-hydrated him with coffee — but he is healthy and should be rousted out of bed with a swift kick.

I’m no do-gooder so I let him lie where he is. I am employed by the county, and I more than fulfill my duties — sometimes to the point where it becomes almost too much. Although poorly compensated, I still am generous and ready to help the less fortunate. But it’s Rose whom I must attend to now. Then the boy can have his wish granted him, and I — I too will want to die.

What am I doing here in this endless winter? My horse is dead and no one in town would loan me one. I have to draw a team out of a pigsty, and if there hadn’t had been the lucky accident with the horses, I would have had to have been pulled by pigs. That’s just the way it is.

I give the family a deliberate nod. They don’t know a thing about all this and even if they did, they wouldn’t believe it. Writing prescriptions is easy, but coming to an understanding with people is quite difficult.

Now here is where my visit would normally come to an end. Someone has needlessly bothered me yet again. I’m used to it. The whole county tortures me with the aid of my night bell. But that this time I have to also give up Rose — for years this beautiful girl has lived in my house barely noticed by me. It’s too much of a sacrifice. I pause and gather my thoughts. I need to subtly make sure that I don’t alienate this family, who couldn’t give me Rose even if they wanted to.

However, as I close my bag and gesture for my coat, the family stands in unison, the father taking a sniff of the glass of whiskey in his hand, the mother most likely disappointed in me. What do these people expect of me? Then the sister, tears filling her eye, biting her lower lip with concern, waves a handkerchief soaked with blood, and anyhow, under the circumstances, I am ready to admit the boy might be sick.

I go to him. He smiles at me as if I was bringing him some remarkable cure-all — and now both horses neigh. The alarm bodes well. The heavens are undoubtedly arranging to make the exam easier. And now I find that the boy is indeed sick. A palm-sized wound has opened up on his right hip.

At first glance the wound is several shades of rose-red. Darkest in the middle, it grows lighter as it reaches the delicate edges. Blood has collected in places and the entire thing is as open as a mineshaft. Upon closer examination, another complication appears. Who can see such a thing and not let out a soft whistle? Worms the size of my little finger — rose-colored like the wound, both from their own pigmentation and also because they are coated in blood — wriggle their white heads and multiple legs. They have attached themselves deep in the wound.

Poor fellow. Nothing can be done for him. I have found his great wound. Yes, this flower in your side will send you to an early grave.

The family is happy to see me acting in the manner of my profession. The sister says so to the mother; the mother to the father; the father to a few guests who are tippy-toeing in through the open door along with the streaming moonlight, their arms outstretched to keep their balance.

“Will you save me?” whispers the sobbing boy, almost blinded by the life teeming in his wound.

And thus are the people in this county. Always they demand the impossible from the doctor. They have lost the old faith. The priest sits at home and idly picks apart his vestments, one after the other. But the doctor should perform everything with his gentle, well-trained hand. This is how things stand at the present: I have not resigned from my position. They use me up with holy errands. And I let them. What can I change, an old county doctor deprived of his hired girl?

And they come — the family and town elders — and undress me. A choir of school children lines up in front of the house, and, under the direction of a teacher, sings (to a simple tune):

Undress the man, he’ll heal us then
And if he can’t, we’ll shoot him dead
You’re only a doctor, a county doctor

Then I am undressed. I quietly give these people a stern look, my hand pressed to my bearded chin, head slightly tilted.

I am perfectly composed, above it all, and will remain so, yet this fact doesn’t help me at all for now they take me by the head and the feet, carry me to the bed, and lay me on the side closest to the wall, the side with the gaping wound.
Then they all leave the room. The door is closed. The song grows quiet. Clouds pass in front of the moon. The bedding wraps me in its warmth. The horses sway their shadowed heads in the open window.

“You know,” I hear whispered in my ear. “I have very little faith in you. You were whisked here with the storm. You didn’t come on your own two feet. Instead of helping, you crowd my deathbed. I would love nothing more than to scratch your eyes out.”

“Quite right,” I say. “It is an utter humiliation. I am only a doctor. What am I supposed to do? Believe me — this won’t be easy for me either.”

“So I should be content with this excuse? Oh, I suppose I must. I must always remain content. I came into this world with a handsome wound. It was my entire inheritance.”

“Young friend,” I say. “Your mistake is — you have no perspective. I, who have been in sick rooms far and wide, tell you: your wound isn’t that bad. Created by two neat strokes of the axe. Many offer up their side and scarcely hear the axe in the forest, let alone that it is creeping silently closer.”

“Is that really true? Or are you trying to take advantage of my fever and deceive me?”

“It’s true. Take the word of a Harvard-trained doctor.”

He took it and grew still.

But now it was time to think of how I could save myself. The horses still stood faithfully in place. Not wanting to delay myself by dressing, I gathered up my clothes, coat and bag. If the horses hurried like on the trip here, I’d be able, in a manner of speaking, to jump out of this bed into my own.

One of the horses obediently drew his head from the window. I tossed the bundle of clothes onto the buckboard. The sheepskin coat flew wide, but one of its sleeves snagged on the end of the wagon and lodged there. Good enough. I swung myself onto the horse.

Loose reins dragging, the horses barely roped together, the buckboard wandered forward, the coat trailing in the snow. “Giddy-up!” I said, but giddy-up they didn’t. The horses pulled us through the snow-covered wasteland as slow as old men.

Behind us the distant sounds of children singing a new, inaccurate song rang out:

Dance with joy — all you patients
The doctor has lain beside you

I will never make it home like this. My flourishing practice is lost. My successor robs me — but without profit for he cannot supplant me. That revolting ranch hand rages in my house. Rose his sacrificial victim. I don’t want to think about it. Naked, exposed to the frost of this disastrous age, in an earth-bound wagon drawn by unearthly horses, I meander forward like the old man that I am.

My sheepskin coat lies behind me.

But I can’t reach it. And not one of the rabble — not even the most agile of my patients — lifts a finger to help! Deceived! Betrayed! Once a false alarm in the night is answered — it can never be made right. Never.

Notes on the translation:

1. In this translation I carry over a crucial aspect of the original German: a tense change that occurs part way into the story, one that has been omitted from most (if not all) of the older English, traditionally published translations. 

2. I claim that this is a translation for the American West. I made some of the details of the story explicitly so because I feel like modern American (and other) readers might be tempted to read this as more fairy tale-like and less situated in time and place, and, most specifically, in the bureaucracy of the state, as I think it is.

Reader expectations and Ancillary Sword, Hawk, The Peripheral and The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Reader expectations are a blessing and a bane to both readers and authors. To authors because they can either productively constrain or unproductively overwhelm the writing process. To readers because expectations can either heighten or warp their experience of reading a book. It might be nice if they didn’t exist at all, and, of course, they vary widely across an author’s readership. Which is why authors shouldn’t worry about them at all. Except I suspect that they do even as they try not to. And the more I write fiction, the more I suspect that the worst reader expectations authors have looming over them is not the readers out there in the world, but the reader in their own head.

I suspect that even though it’d be nice for authors to not have to deal with reader expectations at all, for most of them, it’s more than just a necessary evil. For one, most authors do want a readership and understand that with readers come reader expectations. For another, expectations give authors something to tease and play with and subvert — not for capricious reasons, but because literature is a conversation and most authors — especially the four I’ll be talking about below — want to further that conversation is interesting ways.

I’ve been thinking of reader expectations quite a bit lately because of the nature of the SF&F novels I’ve read over the past couple of months. I found myself becoming more aware than normal of the expectations I had as a reader for these novels and then trying to figure out what those were, why I had them, and how they varied. I’ve come to realize that my expectations form a sort of benign tyranny that I can’t escape (although modifications may be possible).

Please note that this is not exactly a review of these books which means there are spoilers ahead, although (as often is the case with my writing on genre fiction) I won’t be spoiling the entire plots or the endings (how’s that for setting up reader expectations?).

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Cover of Ann Leckie's Ancillary SwordLike sophomore albums, sophomore novels are notoriously laden with anxiety and expectation. When your sophomore effort is the sequel to a debut novel that swept the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Clarke and Locus awards? Those are some heavy expectations to live up to. And yet, my perception is that reader expectations for Ancillary Sword were not miles high. I think readers knew that there was no way that the second Leckie novel could surpass or even live up to the first — not in terms of the quality of writing and plotting but in relation to the way the first swept in and dominated the conversation.

But even with those more realistic expectations, Ancillary Sword seems to have been met by many with readers with “yeah, it’s good. It’s not as good as the first.” I had absorbed a little bit of that feeling by the time I read it, but largely came in, I think, with a different set of expectations. I was not looking for epic-scale extension of the first. I had not been as disoriented by the sole use of female pronouns and so didn’t see it as much as a novelty and a gimmick. And I was more interested in the personal dynamics of the characters than the over-arching political machinations within which they collided.

Which is why I think I like the novel more than a lot of other readers. Here’s what I mean by that:

Ancillary Sword is a mystery novel where we have a fairly good sense of who did what and possibly even why. The real mystery is: how are the key characters going to react to the events and personalities set in motion by the mystery? And specifically: Breq (who is the remnants of a ship AI in its only surviving ancillary [human body]), Seivarden (who is a military officer and aristocrat who had been in cryosleep for 1,000 years), and Lieutenant Tisarwat (who had been implanted with an AI copy of Raadch emperor Anaander Mianaai and is trying to cope with the that copy being removed and who she now is). In other words, we have three characters all of whom have reasons to be considered core to the Raadch empire and its socio-political structure, but who also are all alienated from it and its technologies and all of whom have different levels of awareness of each other on both an emotional and technological level. Most specifically: because Breq had been an ancillary of a ship, when she is made captain of Mercy of Kalr she gains more access to the ship AI and through it her crew than a “normal” captain would. This means that from a narrative standpoint, we’re getting something different than in Ancillary Sword — something between the simultaneous awareness of Justice of Toren and the complete isolation of Breq. I was expecting Leckie to do something interesting with that and she did.

To put it succinctly: Leckie delivered on furthering the socio-cultural and political aspects of the situations she created in Ancillary Sword. This worked for me because that’s what I like best in her work. Readers who were more interested in the more space opera elements of the series were likely more likely to feel let down.

I think a sidenote on the use of gender pronouns is also in order: whereas I wondered at the outset if it was going to become annoying, I found Leckie’s insistence on using only (what is in English) the female pronoun even more effective in this novel because of the sexual and social dynamics that explode. It made even more of a feminist statement in that the sexual power dynamics resisted what normally would have made for the most lazy of gender stereotyping. For me, it underlined the strength of that initial decision.

Hawk by Steven Brust

Cover of Hawk by Steven BrustNow that we’re 13 novels into the Vlad Taltos series, what does a reader expect from the fourteenth novel Hawk? I think we expect:

  1. That it will be witty and amusing.

  2. That it will relate to the house that the novel is named after.

  3. That it will offer something clever in terms of narrative and/or plot structure — something clever in the telling.

  4. That the overall storyline will be furthered.

And I think we have now come to be rather confident that Brust is going to deliver on all four of those expectations. But I think for readers of the series, myself included, something more specific was expected of Hawk: it’s time for Vlad’s situation to change. That Brust knew this as well shows how good he is and how in tune he is with his core readership. Even more lovely is that he uses techniques 1-4 above to make it all happen. And in doing so he squeezes out extra dread and pathos. It’s not easy to bring deftness of prose and structure and humor and even odd whimsy to a story and still bring the sense of danger and the underlying, well, sadness and sense of loss.

And that’s why this is such a Hawk Hawk. Why it’s such a Daymar novel even if, though he is crucial to the plot, he doesn’t pop up all that much in the story. I’ve always found Daymar to be a fascinating character — perverse not in a perverted way. Capricious and oblivious but also knowing and because of that knowing tinged with darkness. So it’s fitting that this be the book where Vlad takes on the fact that the price the criminal organization the Jhereg has put on his head has for much too long ruled his life and his relationships. And it’s fitting that Daymar be the mechanism by which he attempts to do so.

This many novels into a series, the expectations are that Brust give us what we want but also give us something new. He does that with Hawk. Just like he has in the past. There’s a level of trust Brust has developed with his readers that goes beyond simply expectations. It’s a beautiful thing and even more beautiful when it’s used in such an interesting, renewing way.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

Cover of The PeripheralWhat expectations to have for the latest Gibson novel The Peripheral? I know that I’m not the only fan who enjoyed the Bigend novels but hoped that he would return to work that was more science fictional. What messed me up is that somewhere in something I read the term “time travel” got attached to the book. I hate time travel. Compounding that fact, Gibson is at his most spare, most techno self which means readers are thrown into the thick of it without much scaffolding at all, which meant I started to get impatient a few chapters in. My expectations were both too high and too low. I was prepared for disappointment. And yet there’s also a respect there that no matter what it’s worth sticking with just to see if he delivers and so in spite of my wariness and my confusion about the settings as the novel beings what kept me going is the prose is just so good. Smooth and buttery with just the right hints and weird details to show that this isn’t the present. It’s the future. Or futures. And so when we hit page 68 in Chapter 18 and the alternating POVs we’ve been tracking get explained in relation to each other, I was hooked (sidenote: the chapter titles are a spec-fic story in and of themselves, a little added pleasure to the reading experience).

This, perhaps, has led me to overvalue the novel. Twisting expectations can do that if the ways in which they get twisted are effective and pleasurable. It’s nice when an author delivers when, at first, you think they aren’t. And this really shows why authors are so at the mercy of reader expectations: there’s no reason why Gibson deserved my wariness. Or at least no good reasons.

I won’t spoil the ending. But what’s fascinating about The Peripheral in relation to our (my) expectations of Gibson’s fiction is that he lets go of some of the cool-ness we had come to, ahem, expect from him. There’s a strange tenderness to how he seems to feel about the characters (or at least how the implied author feels). I’m not sure if I completely buy it. I’m not sure if Gibson has changed those things that drive his authorial persona. Or to put it more grandiose: is he really that optimistic? I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t trust that ending. But it has changed how I view the author quite a bit. Whatever the ultimate success of The Peripheral (and I’m still ruminating on that point) it completely, successfully messed with my readerly expectations but all in ways that are, if not old-Gibsonesque, are quite possibly new-Gibsonesque. It’s also messed quite a bit with my expectations for his next book. He’s added a new dimension to his conversation, and it’s one I want to continue.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Cover of The Slow Regard of Silent ThingsIf Leckie gets allowances, Brust trust, and Gibson a measured respect, then what of my readerly expectations for Rothfuss? Wary is perhaps too mild but it’s the most complete single adjective. Look, I enjoyed Rothfuss’s prose in the first two titles in The Kingkiller Chronicle and some of the characterization, but there were episodes in both books that annoyed me. So why bother with The Slow Regard of Silent Things? Because I enjoyed the Bast story in Rogues and because I’m curious about Auri and because I do like his prose style. So there’s wariness and curiosity and then Rothfuss has to go and directly address reader expectations in a foreword to the novel. It’s not so much the “You might not want to buy this book” that annoyed me. It’s the “it’s only fair to warn you that this is a bit of a strange story” and “it doesn’t do a lot of things a classic story is supposed to do”. It gets exactly why I’m frustrated with him as an author because I see so much promise in his literariness but have been burned by those elements that play to whoever he’s warning in this foreword (or even worse explaining to in the endnote) or perhaps to those aspects of how he relates to his authorial self that require those additions.

This makes me a snob. But I think it’s clear from his front and back matter that Rothfuss is one. And here’s the deal: we meet in our snobbery in this story. Which is a good thing and I wish he’d indulge this snobbery more often and without the self-consciousness. And his prose is the best it’s ever been and the strangeness (which shouldn’t be warned against) is quite lovely. Expectations exceeded. I’m totally sucked into Auri’s world and the voice Rothfuss has developed for her. Except the wariness is still there. And it was right to be. Because, although subtle, the story still ties into some of the key issues that disrupt my experience of reading his work. Nicolette Stewart explains it at Book Punks better than I can,  but as the story progresses, I find myself foundering on the fact that Auri can’t just be Auri, she has to be herself in relation to Kvothe and she can’t just be who she is because of who she is but it has to be because of what was done to her. And it makes me gnash my teeth because if Rothfuss can’t let go of those things that make me wary with a book like this then what hope do we have of meeting each other’s expectations in the final novel of the trilogy? And it makes me sad because it seems like I should be one of his readers — that there’s room for a reader like me in his work. But we can’t quite seem to meet up. And that messes with how I approach each new story of his because each time I go in, I go in expecting that divide to be there. That’s not fair to me or Rothfuss. Which means that someone is going to need to get me to completely rethink my reader expectations before I will feel like it’s wise to pick up his next book. In retrospect, I should have seen Rothfuss’s attempt to set reader expectations as a sign that as much as it seemed that he was playing to me, he couldn’t quite let go of the expectations of his larger readership.

The Benign Tyranny of Reader Expectations

We all have our unique set of reader expectations that vary by author and work. Those can establish a benign tyranny in a reader that shade how we experience what we read in ways that aren’t necessarily under our conscious control. But those are also why the conversation can be so interesting. They lead to a variety of experiences and hearing each other’s experiences can help us re-visit our own and influence our reading experiences yet to come. What bothers me in Rothfuss may not bother other readers. What delights me in Brust may not seem quite as delightful to other readers. How I approached Ancillary Sword is clearly not how some other readers approached it. And I really have no idea what expectations other readers have of Gibson (talk to me about it in the comments even if you haven’t yet read The Peripheral).

What gets us in trouble is when we don’t examine our expectations and don’t articulate those when we make claims about the merits of individual novels and other works of narrative art. This doesn’t mean that we should self-consciously lay those out every time we talk about a novel. That could get quite annoying. Rather, it means that as we enter the conversation we should realize that literature is not a game of like or dislike, on an author’s side or not, and let that knowledge of the tyranny of our own readerly expectations not cause us to attempt to foist that tyranny upon others both in how we articulate our own experience and how we react to what others have to say about their own reading experiences.

Guest post at Bookworm Blues, etc.

I have a guest post at Bookworm Blues today that’s on three fantasy novels from 2014 that reward patient readers. I’m delighted that Sarah was willing to give me a slot on her blog and hope you all enjoy it .

This blog has been quiet of late. That’s because:

  1. I’ve been writing fiction more steadily.
  2. The day job got really crazy during the month of September.
  3. I keep reading interesting novels but then don’t get around to writing about them before I have to return them to the library.
  4. I’ve been feeling the need to write longer pieces (similar to the post at Bookworm Blues) that either engage with several works at once or go in-depth with a particular work, series or author.

I’m not ready to commit to longer (even more infrequent) blog posts, but it is an option I want to explore. So I may still pop up with a quick thought or quote every so often, but I’m going to give long-form a go and see if I can make that happen while continuing the momentum of my fiction writing.

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.