Friday, May 1, 2015

On Fantasy (And Other Things)

A very happy May Day to you all!

April sped by in a haze of work, some of which was actual Work (The Curse of Roc-Thalian is chugging along, the first draft just topping 80,000 words). I've also been hacking away at Duncan, revising a decade-old manuscript the contents of which I barely remember. This has yielded some unexpected pleasure, insofar as the writing is fairly good, often funny, and consistently surprising. I don't have a set date on the project as of yet, but barring the amputation of all my limbs (hmmm...perhaps I shouldn't tempt fate?) The Curse of Roc-Thalian will be available sometime around Halloween. Perhaps even on Halloween; the contents certainly warrant such a juxtaposition.

I've been reading a lot. This isn't uncommon, but I recently had a barrage of really intense input from three sources. First, I finally read the Castle Brass books by Michael Moorcock, effectively resolving the 21-book saga of the Eternal Champion (no spoilers, but the end was both magnificent and maddening). I then hopped into Destination: Void by Frank Herbert, which is one of the most bewildering and enlightening hard-sf books I've ever read. Essentially the entire text is made up of four people attempting to gestate an artificial intelligence while having recursive metaphysical debates on the nature of consciousness, all while their spacecraft crumbles about them. It's the first Herbert book I've read that actually surpasses Dune (humble opinions abound, of course), and I strongly recommend it, though the diligent reader is advised to keep a bottle of ibuprofen at hand. The third and most recent book, which I'm almost done with, is Dragons of an Hourglass Mage by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. It's a Dragonlance book, the second-to-last produced by Wizards of the Coast before they pulled the plug, and I find myself enjoying it immensely.

Now, I haven't said much about Dragonlance on here. It has been, at various points, a somewhat shameful secret that I read over 75 of the mass-produced TSR tomes in my youth, speeding away from Ursula LeGuin (whose Earthsea books were the first true fantasy I read; I consider myself very fortunate in this) at a comet's pace, embroiling myself in a half-nonsense world of high fantasy shenanigans. At the core of this obsession was the writing of Mrs. Weis and Mr. Hickman, who (though they are perpetually clumsy stylists who feel the recurrent need to infect their writing with high-vaudevillian scenarios) are very, very adept at creating characters. This is a truism I've fully reabsorbed while reading Hourglass Mage; though it is written by a somewhat faded duo, they still have the uncanny ability to bring people to life.

During the Dragonlance period I was aeons away from weird fiction and early fantasy, both now active obsessions for me. I tried some of the older stuff as a kid, but Dragonlance seemed somehow more refined, more fast-paced - and it is. It is a spectacle that could only have been produced at the height of high fantasy's reign, and is an amalgamation, a transmutation of all the fantasy genres and tropes that went before (moreover, it goes without saying that any fictional universe produced by a company to make a profit should damn well entertain). However, in my latter years (personally I wish I'd hopped to it a decade ago) I've been more and more drawn to the phantasmogoric, the elegant, the eucatastrophic, and the perverse. Just today I finally stumbled across a collection of stories by Clark Ashton Smith (one of the three major players in the Lovecraft circle); I've flipped through it, and find his language to be dense and beautiful, the elegant blossom of a corpse-flower. And yet, here I am still reading Dragonlance, still pining for one more journey through the sweet-smelling airs of Krynn.

Now, much of this obsession centers on the duo of Raistlin and Caramon. Without revealing too terribly much, they are twins born of a vision-seeing mother and a woodcutter father in the backwater town of Solace. Caramon is strong and robust, even in infancy; he will become a great but (seemingly) slow-witted warrior. His brother Raistlin, sickly by disposition and powerful of mind and will, has the gift of the magic. Over a series of books (pulling them all together I think there are twelve novels, plus some short stories) we get to experience the brother's pained, agitated relationship: Caramon, overweening and protective, subject to his brother's will; Raistlin, weak and powerful simultaneously, envious of his brother's charm and physical strength. It sounds like the perfect recipe for codependence, and it is, save that the brothers truly love each other. Oh, it's a twisted, fractious love, a love that ultimately drives both of them to make unbelievable sacrifices, but it remains one of the most inexplicably vital fictional relationships I've ever encountered, in or out of the realm of the fantastic. Of course there are other characters and others stories: Tanis Half-Elven remains quite loved, Flint and Tasslehoff's endless bickering still brings an oafish smile to my face. But it is Raistlin and Caramon who (for me) remain at the heart of Dragonlance.

It was years before I read Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Indeed, I actually saw Peter Jackson's Fellowship movie before reading either, though I grew up obsessively watching the Rankin-Bass animated adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King. It's only been in the last half-decade that I've branched out, delved back into LeGuin with gusto and begun exploring the work of the pulp-era fantasists and sci-fi prophets. I've read Philip K. Dick (did you know Dick and LeGuin graduated from the same Oregonian high school? It's true, though they didn't know each other), Lord Dunsany, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, James branch Cabell, Lovecraft (very extensively), Frank Herbert and Michael Moorcock (also quite extensively), among a plenitude of others. I find myself suddenly a student, albeit an eager, voracious student; I've yet to read any Mervyn Peake, E.R Eddison, Frank Belknap Long, Arthur Machen, Ambrose Bierce, the aforementioned Mr. Smith and, again, a plenitude of others. The road promises to be long and nourishing, but every so often I find I have to wander back to the Inn of the Last Home for a mug of ale and a plate of Otik's spiced potatoes.

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