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Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”
Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”
The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:
Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.
On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her. “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says. I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers. There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic. Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.
It is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture. The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins. Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler. There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food. This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer. We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes. We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.
Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:
[There is a] problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable
Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary. The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel. Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.
with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms. I’m sorry, but those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters. That just is not so. Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences. It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself. If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.
Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:
First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be. The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in the nimbus of his halo. In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself. There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern. I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.
But there is an important point I would like to make: For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature. It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice. There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world. Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace. In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns. They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.
In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets. Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district. Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings. However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city. The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma. His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.
In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world. We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes. We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished. In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated. If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly). If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers. In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away, can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative. Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.
Many times during my long lifetime of reading imaginative literature, I wondered why Tolkien spawned so many imitators in English, but not in other languages into which The Lord Of The Rings had been translated. Now, anybody even cursorily familiar with The Lord of The Rings can see that would be a difficult work to translate, but that didn’t keep people from trying. The first Dutch translation came out only a year after the final volume was published in the UK. It is considered to be an adequate translation, and has been retained despite a revision by Tolkien’s publisher. Since then, The Lord Of The Rings has been translated into more than thirty languages, and the difficulties were such that Tolkien himself before his death published a guide for prospective translators.
Indeed, the conceit behind The Lord Of The Rings is that it is supposed to be a translation itself, from the invented Westron, to modern English. Tolkien excelled in finding, or creating, place-names that were redolent of an older world, such as ‘Rivendell’ for the Sindarin Imladris, “Valley of the Cleft”, and, of course, his wonderfully evocative Hobbit family names; Baggins [Bolsón in the Spanish], or Brandybuck, or Took [Berkova in Slovak]. Tolkien the linguists made certain that his place-names and his family names had an etymological depth to them which is not matched in the works of his imitators and followers, although I think George R R Martin’s “Winterfell” ( along with the felicitous Spanish translation Invernalia ) and Joe Abercrombie’s “Adua” come very close indeed.
Now, it may be that there are a multitude of derivative works in other languages, just that I am not familiar with popular literature in all the other languages of the world. Usually, genre literature does not attract much attention, and the only works that are likely to become well-known outside their own speech communities are the works of major writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Garcia Marques, or Nakagami Kenji. When I googled for obras literarias de fantasia en español [literary works of fantasy in Spanish], I was surprised that so little material turned up. Of course, even mainstream Latin-American literature has a strong undercurrent of the fantastic, as anyone familiar with Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa or Jorge Amado would know. However, the only reason that Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s little volume La Kalpa Imperial seemed to come up was not because of its own considerable merits, but because it had been recently translated into English by a great fantasist who writes in English, Ursula LeGuin.
I was delighted to find that La Kalpa Imperial was available to me in its original Spanish through interlibrary loan. Having worked my way halfway through, I find this little gem equal to anything produced since Tolkien in English, and better than most. Most of all, I wanted to see how a non-English speaker would handle the issue of “fantasy names”. There is a lot of faux-Elvish out there. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but you can get seriously tired of Elves named Eldemar , Dwarves named Darmûk, and Orcs named Yog-Ar-Ghazh. There are no non-human races (yet) in Sra. Gorodischer’s La Kalpa Imperial,but the names of her humans are delightful – the trickster Loo Löo, the tragic Hehrehvontes dynasty. Indeed, the silent Spanish ‘h’ does yeoman’s work for fantastic names in this story. In this, she learned well from her great predecessor and, I suspect, ascended spiritual master Jorge Luis Borges, whose imaginary lands Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius have tantalized me ever since I first heard of them.
Borges’ fingerprints are all over this slender volume. I would have been more surprised it they weren’t. Gorodischer isn’t as coy as Borges, nor is she as metaphysically deft. Knowing something of the recent history of Argentina, I expected La Kalpa Imperial to be more political than it is. That is not surprising. Tolkien abhorred allegory, and it doesn’t actually play well in fantasy literature unless the readers are far enough removed from the situation being allegorized to disregard it. Sra. Gorodischer’s poetic parables, for that is how the story of the fabulous Empire of Kalba, the “greatest empire that never existed” is narrated, is more mythopoetic, and say as much about the power wielded by the storyteller as about that wielded by an Emperor. The history of Kalba is recognizably the history of our own world, but ever so much more so. I haven’t seen LeGuin’s translation, so I don’t know how the story of Kalpa plays out in English, but if the Spanish is any indication, it is worthy of wide acceptation.
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.
On Palm Sunday, the HBO network will broadcast the first episode of their much-anticipated adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones, which is the first volume of his fantasy epic A Song Of Fire And Ice. Since I didn’t want the television series to be my first introduction to the work of a writer that many have called “the American Tolkien”, I decided to burrow my way into this massive narrative. Currently, I find myself in the middle of the third volume, A Storm Of Swords. The whole opus so far consists of four books, A Game Of Thrones, A Clash Of Kings, A Storm Of Swords, and A Feast For Crows. A fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons, is supposed to be published this summer. It has been since 2005 that the last volume had been published, and Martin’s fans have been remarkably patient.
So, how does A Song Of Fire And Ice compare to its great predecessor? Like The Lord Of The Rings, Fire and Ice starts in media res. The narrative opens to the north of the Great Wall that protects the kingdom of Westeros from an unnamed and undescribed threat. A petulant lordling leads a group of reluctantly celibate lay brothers from an order known as the Night’s Watch deep into the northern forests in search of “wildling” raiders. They find a zombie-like threat none of them are ready to face. Immediately, Martin jumps a thousand leagues to the south, to Winterfell, the seat of House Stark. The Starks are the northernmost of the great baronal families that govern Westeros under the Iron Throne, whose current occupant, King Robert Baratheon, arrives at Winterfell to celebrate with his good friend Lord Eddard Stark.
Like Tolkien, Martin draws on an enormous canvas, and you learn about the complex history, geography, and anthropology of Westeros bit by bit, in much the same way as Tolkien introduced his backstory into Middle Earth. Martin is a masterful writer. He braids his tale from separate strands, yet never drops the thread. The pace is leisurely, and there is a lot going on at any particular time.
Martin accomplishes his remarkable feat by weaving third person viewpoints from nine or ten separate characters. Martin’s characters are where his genius really shines forth; the plot is fairly pedestrian, albeit ambitious, and the setting of Westeros is just medieval Britain written continent-size. There is a civil war between several baronial families, highlighted by the conflict between the conservative and honor-bound Starks of the North, and the arrogant and wealthy Lannisters of the West. It is the characters, especially Martin’s wonderful female characters; dreamy Sansa, masculine Brienne, resourceful Arya, compassionate Catelyn, troubled Lyssa, that hook you and drag you into the story.
In many places, I was reminded of Tolstoy’s War And Peace . Martin’s characters are that internally consistent. He excels at getting you to sympathize with morally shaky characters such as Jaime Lannister the Kingslayer, or rigid Stannis Baratheon. Without any doubt, however, his masterpieces are the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and the last of the deposed Targaryens, Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons. The books crackle with excitement when they take up the story. I especially look forward to seeing Peter Dinklage portray Tyrion the Imp, which has to be a dream role for this talented actor.
If I had any complaints about this series, there would be three. First, Martin doesn’t seem to have any problem killing or maiming a character even though it doesn’t further the narrative. Bran Stark’s paralysis, Lyssa’s madness, the loss of Jaime’s hand, the deaths of Ned Stark, Daenerys’ husband Drogo, or Renly Baratheon leave the reader with a sense of uneasiness. It kept me from getting too attached to any of the characters lest I should find them ripped away from me without a moment’s notice.
Secondly, Martin creates a baker’s half-dozen intriguing faiths, but no one ever seems to believe in any of them. The gods (and there are a lot of gods) never intervene in the narrative, never work any miracles, never answer prayers. The best they do is to offer psychological support for the handful of devout characters that stand out from the general agnosticism. Of course, clerics are usually portrayed as venial and self-serving, so in that Martin is crafting a very up-to-date fantasy indeed. I know it isn’t fair to fault an author for not being interested in what interests the reader, but a glimpse behind the scenes of the fate of Westeros would have added a lot to the story. Competing gods would have made it a lot like The Iliad.
There is sex. Overall, I think this is a good thing. There are some R-rated scenes concerning whores, bawds and bastards. This is fantasy for the whole man, including below the navel. However, I didn’t find myself objecting to that so much as to the overall tone of the series. If you are going to write heroic fantasy, there should be some heroic figures in it. I do not foresee a eucatastophe for poor, sad, war-torn and zombie-plagued Westeros. There will be no Fall Of Barad-Dûr, no crowning of the True King, which is a shame, because Westeros could truly use one. Martin, though, appears too wedded to his post-modern viewpoint. I hope he proves me wrong. I really do believe he has it in him, but I also wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that “valar morghulis” turned out to be Old Valyrian for “shit happens”.