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Due to a change in my external circumstances, and the necessity of two hour commute (both ways) daily, I have been glutting myself on imaginative literature in the past few months.  There is a wealth of good stuff on audio, and it is a very good way to ‘catch up on your reading’, if you define reading loosely enough.  Since the commute began, I have been fortunate to acquaint and re-acquaint myself with some of the great names in imaginative literature; JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, George Macdonald, Ursula LeGuin, Stephen King, Tim Powers, ER Eddison, Jack Vance, and many others too numerous to mention.  In a way, it has been kind of an exercise in “comparative fantasy”.

One of the most frequent objections to fantasy literature is that it lacks ‘depth’, that fantasy literature is an endless repetition of a “good vs evil” theme that resurfaces in book after book, series after series.  Usually, the critics blame Tolkien.  The contrast between Good and Evil that Tolkien traces in his epics are as sharp as shadows on the moon. It is not nuanced enough to reflect the “real world”.  Then, to hear some people talk, all writers of fantasy literature written since The Lord Of The Rings have slavishly followed Tolkien down the path of rewriting Paradise Lost according to their own moral vision.

The critics are wrong.  Prior to Tolkien, fantasy literature, what there was of it, was strangely amoral.  James Cabell’s Jurgen was a flighty rascal.  Dunsany’s little fables were as likely to celebrate hashish eating as martial courage.  Mirlee’s Lud-In-The-Mist incarnated no Manichaean vision of good and evil.  The resolution of her tale was a satisfying Hegelian synthesis between the quotidian comfort preferred by her Whig protagonists and the whimsy of the Jacobite fairie folk they so disdained   E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros was thoroughly aristocratic both in tone and aspect, a sort of a High-Tory-on-LSD ‘romaunce’, peopled by proud-speaking haughty grandees entirely dismissive of the pettier sort of folk and their concerns. There was no room for hobbits in Ouroboros.  Indeed, inasmuch as fantasy literature dealt with Good and Evil at all, it was to offer an escape from the stultifying decayed-Evangelicalism public morality of the day into an earlier, more permissive world.

Tolkien’s great achievement was the creation of a morally consistant parallel world.  To me, the single brilliant imagining of the race of hobbits brings his re-creation of the Good into sharp focus.   The hobbits are good, almost Pelagian, although some of them can be better than others.  There are individual hobbits that appear “spoiled” (or ‘bent’ to borrow from Lewis’ mythology), such as the Sackville-Bagginses or the Sandymans.   These two families, however, were introduced as foils for the healthier Bagginses and the Gamgees who good-naturedly suffer their trepidations.  Because the Sackville-Bagginses and the Sandymans are so rare, the Shire appears to govern itself.  The rules are unwritten, all offices are mostly ceremonial, and the canons of good behavior are everywhere acknowledged and practiced.  As fantasist Gene Wolfe  observed in a clairvoyant essay; living under what Mr. Wolfe calls Folk Law in a face-to-face society may be the most salutatory framework for human life, much in the same way that folk tales have the deepest resonance, and folk tunes have the most haunting and unforgettable melodies.

Yet, the Shire is not good in a vacuum.  The hobbits are King’s Men in the very best sense of that word.  The King, although absent by the time of the narrative recorded in The Lord Of The Rings, serves as a locus for the values of The West.  ‘The West’ is shorthand for all those parts and peoples of Middle-earth not yet seduced or tyrannized by Sauron, although it can include more easterly populations such as the Beornings, the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, the Wood-elves of eastern Mirkwood.  Although the King has been absent from the government of the Shire for more years than separate us from the Battle of Hastings, his health is toasted at every meeting of the Shiremoot and his will is followed as best the hobbits can in their political vacuum.

Even the West is not good in and of itself, though.  It is good because of the loyalty of the remnants of the Numenoreans and their allies to that which is Beyond the Sea that ‘the West’ stands as a bulwark to the trepidations and contaminations of Sauron.  The weight of this allegiance is never explicitly explained within The Lord Of The Rings itself, but its presence can be felt in the same way you can tell where the sun is with your eyes closed.  Tolkien’s continual references within the narrative to older, more primordial material; even Gondolin being mentioned in the first few pages of The Hobbit, weave a web of numinosity about his tale whose nexus is the Elder Race, the immortal Elves, who had opposed Sauron (and his greater master Morgoth Bauglir) in the past.

The Silmarillion revealed plainly what The Lord Of The Rings only hinted at.  The Elves are good because they  revere the Valar, the preserving and governing Powers of the World, who came into it at the behest of the world’s Creator Eru Iluvatar, a monotheistic deity.  It is this realm, the realm of Valinor across the Sea, whose values are echoed by the denizens of ‘the West’.

In a sense, you have a kind of a neo-Platonic universe obtaining in the Tolkien legendarium.  The Elves know next to nothing about Eru, the One, except for what they have learned from the Valar.  The Men of the West have no direct access to the Powers in Valinor.  Everything they know about it has been mediated to them by the Elves, who are abandoning Middle Earth.  The hapless Hobbits, in their turn, would not have survived as long as they had in the rough and tumble of Middle earth without the constant protection and supervision of the Men of the West, the Dunedain.

You can hear all three layers in a musical representation on the soundracks to Peter Jackson’s films, especially in the Council of Elrond.  First, there is the Elvish theme; atmospheric, ascetic, and other-worldly.  Then, there are the virile horns of the theme of the West, vigilant and ready for action.  Finally, there are the homespun strings of the Shire theme.  They blend and fade into each other by the end of the piece.  I don’t know how deliberate that was on the part of the composer, Howard Shore.

Wheels within wheels, indeed.

Immediately post-Tolkien, there were a lot of Good-vs-Evil sagas, most very derivative, retelling Tolkien’s story after him.  Others, like Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, eshewed binary Good vs Evil to create a more nuanced, more Buddhistic unary moral Universe.   LeGuin’s emphasis on “balance”, as if good and evil were polarities like male and female or acidic and basic, came to be echoed in a lot of fantasy worlds, such as the Star Wars universe with its depiction of the Bright Side and the Dark Side of the Force, or the recent popular animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, where all the tension in the series is caused by the Fire Nation getting out of balance with the other three elemental nations;  the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads.  Fire Lord Ozai is not Satan or even Sauron.  Ozai’s opponent is not Avatar Aang, but rather his son Zuko who, through the tutelage of the saintly Uncle Iroh, can restore the Fire Nation’s necessary line to the spectrum that is the Avatar universe.

I didn’t like Star Wars, and although I dearly love the Avatar animated series, unary, “balance”-based moralities don’t seem to produce satisfying eucatastrophes in the same way that fantasists are able to when good is truly good and evil is truly evil.  I haven’t read, or even followed the movies inspired by, the Harry Potter novels, but I think I am correct in assuming that Rowland’s moral compass is more like Tolkien’s and less like Lucas’, which makes the opposition to her tales by conservative Christians even more puzzling.

Finally, there has been a movement within the fantasy genre itself away from a strict good vs evil paradigm and more towards what TV-Tropes.com defines rather pungently as Crapsack World, where all the choices are between real-l-l-ly bad, bad, and not-so-bad-but-still-iffy. I have digested several works of this sort, some of which are very good; China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The City And The City (both of which are brilliant), Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and of course, the Crapsack World to end all Crapsack Worlds, George R. R. Martin’s Westeros.

Funny thing about Westeros, though.  Just when I was beginning to tire of Martin’s unrelenting cynicism, the pointless violence, and the continual betrayal which punctuated life in his series, Martin showed a bright little corner where life was good, men were fair, and decent people could live decent lives.  It was buried deep in Brienne’s arc in A Feast Of Crows, when she accompanies the septon Maribald from the ruins of Saltpans to the Isle of Silence, where a strong abbot has created an island of peace, faith, and rest in the turbulent sea of conflict, cynicism, and blasphemy that was the norm in Westeros.

I read somewhere that George R. R. Martin is the son of a dockworker from Bayonne, New Jersey.  True to his working class roots, Martin teaches us that the good is not something that occurs haphazardly.  It is the result of consistent effort over an extended period of time by people who actively desire to be good and just, and it flourishes best where the eyes of the powerful are elsewhere.  It also seems to me that Daenarys Targaryen’s extended and somewhat tedious sojourn in the Slavers’ Bay is to allow her to learn the difficult lessons in statecraft that will make her the kind of queen Westeros so desperately needs.  As a wise man once told me, good works do not make you righteous the way paying your bills makes you solvent, but  they do make you righteous like exercise makes you strong.

I can live with that.   I can more than live with it, I can applaud it.


The National Public Radio folks have decided to ask their listener base to help them select the greatest works of imaginative fiction.   Their list contains a lot of surprises, but the finalists were selected by the ubiquitous expert panel, and they are inviting fantasy and science fiction fans to vote on which of these 200 or so works are their favorites.

Here is the list.  My choices are in bold:
The Acts Of Caine Series, by Matthew Woodring Stover
The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks
Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
Armor, by John Steakley
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Black Company Series, by Glen Cook
The Black Jewels Series, by Anne Bishop
The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Bridge Of Birds, by Barry Hughart
The Callahan’s Series, by Spider Robinson
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut
The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
The Change Series, by S.M. Stirling
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Children Of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson
The City And The City, by China Mieville
City And The Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
The Coldfire Trilogy, by C.S. Friedman
The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F. Hamilton
The Company Wars, by C.J. Cherryh
The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison
The Deed of Paksennarion Trilogy, by Elizabeth Moon
The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Don’t Bite The Sun, by Tanith Lee
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
Earth, by David Brin
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
The Eisenhorn Omnibus, by Dan Abnett
The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Eon, by Greg Bear
The Eyes Of The Dragon, by Stephen King
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Faded Sun Trilogy, by C.J. Cherryh
Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser Series, by Fritz Leiber
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
The Foreigner Series, by C.J. Cherryh
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
The Gaea Trilogy, by John Varley
The Gap Series, by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Gate To Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
The Gormenghast Triology, by Mervyn Peake
Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, by Haruki Murakami
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hollows Series, by Kim Harrison
House Of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Incarnations Of Immortality Series, by Piers Anthony
The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
Kraken, by China Mieville
The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
Last Call, by Tim Powers
The Last Coin, by James P. Blaylock
The Last Herald Mage Trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
The Lensman Series, by E.E. Smith
The Liaden Universe Series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
The Lies Of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler
Little, Big, by John Crowley
The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
The Manifold Trilogy, by Stephen Baxter
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Memory And Dream, by Charles de Lint
Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams
Mindkiller, by Spider Robinson
The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov
The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, by Robert J. Sawyer
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The Newsflesh Triology, by Mira Grant
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton
Novels Of The Company, by Kage Baker
Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Otherland Tetralogy, by Tad Williams
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
Parable Of The Sower, by Octavia Butler
The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
The Pride Of Chanur, by C.J. Cherryh
The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy, by R. Scott Bakker
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Saga Of Pliocene Exile, by Julian May
The Saga Of Recluce, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
The Sarantine Mosaic Series, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
The Scar, by China Mieville
The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
The Shattered Chain Trilogy, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner
The Stand, by Stephen King
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stations Of The Tide, by Michael Swanwick
Steel Beach, by John Varley
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
The Swordspoint Trilogy, by Ellen Kushner
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card
The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
Tigana , by Guy Gavriel Kay
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
To Say Nothing Of The Dog, by Connie Willis
The Troy Trilogy, by David Gemmell
Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin
The Valdemar Series, by Mercedes Lackey
VALIS, by Philip K. Dick
Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout/Philip Jose Farmer
The Vlad Taltos Series, by Steven Brust
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Vurt Trilogy, by Jeff Noon
The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
Watchmen, by Alan Moore
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Edison
The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
1632, by Eric Flint
1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne

I was glad to see both Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series in such august company.   Both Earth Abides (Stewart) and Lord of Light (Zelazny) are close to perfect works of science-fiction.  Unfortunately, Stewart never wrote another book, and Zelazny fell off precipitously after LOL.  Amber wasn’t nearly as good.

I am not surprised that A Voyage To Arcturus didn’t make it onto this list.  It is very poorly written and hard to parse, but it does have a sticking power that many better works lack.  I was surprised to see that nothing by Lord Dunsany made the cut, nor was James Cabell represented, nor George Macdonald, nor Jack Vance.  In the mean time, you can amuse yourselves identifying the pictures off to the right.


I have finally worked my way through the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s series The Book Of The New Sun, The Shadow Of The Torturer, and I have to say that I am thoroughly intimidated.  His prose is as tightly packed with information as a DNA strand, and it took me about twice as long to finish as I thought it

The Master at a Conference

would.  I had to reference backwards and forwards in the book continually,  and read several passages multiple times before I felt as though I had a handle on what Wolfe was trying to say.

The plot was unusually thin considering the considerable wordcraft that went into the book; others have commented at length about Wolfe’s portmanteaus, so I won’t go into them here.  It is sufficient to say that anyone who knows a smattering of Latin and Greek, and a little medieval French as well, will not be baffled by any  of Wolfe’s idiosyncratic vocabulary.  My favorite by far was Wolfe’s elegant euphemism for ‘executioner`, “carnifex”, that is, someone who turns a living body into just so much meat.

The novel is a bildungsroman, the story of a young man growing up and making his way in the world.   If I have any criticism of this work, it is that Severian appears to mature too quickly in the two days between when he is exiled from the Torturers’ Guild and when he arrives at the city wall with Dorcas in tow.

Of course, Wolfe packs a lot into those two days; the discovery of sex,  a duel to the death, a lecture on light and relativity, and a visit to the distant past (our own era?).  Still, this isn’t enough to explain the change in Severian from an uncertain and hesitant boy to the confident man he becomes by the end of the novel.

Agia and Severian at the Botanical GardensI have heard, on the other hand, that Severian, the novel’s protagonist, is not a trustworthy narrator, that he is propagandizing, relating a self-aggrandizing version of the story of his rise from obscurity to Autarch.

Somebody said somewhere, I don’t  remember who or where, that all writers should have ceased to write  after Finnegan’s Wake, or Light In August, or Gravity’s Rainbow. The same sort of thing is said about Gene Wolfe.  Now, I haven’t read anything yet by Joyce, Faulkner, or Pynchon (they are on my to-get-to list), but it is obvious that there has been plenty of writing since the publication of those masterworks.

But I understand the sentiment.  Anybody writing in the urban fantasy/science fiction is going to find that Gene Wolfe has set the bar very high indeed.

CURRENTLY READING

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams