Sunday, 30 March 2008

Swing, clang!, shuffle, swing, clang!, shuffle, swing, ow!

Between 1993 and 2002, I was a member of a long-running sf APA called Acnestis. Each month, we'd write a couple of sides on genre-related subjects, make 30 copies, and then send those copies to the administrator. Who would then send out a parcel containing one copy of each member's contribution to everyone. Today, I was hunting through some of my contributions to Acnestis, and stumbled across this review of George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones from 2001. Enjoy...

There is little in A Game of Thrones that can be counted as truly original. The setting is stock high fantasy: a mix and match of Dark Ages peasantry and Camelot-style pageantry. There are, fortunately, no elves, dwarves, gnomes or (gag) hobbits. But there are dragons (although they only appear near the end), and lots of mediaeval hack-and-slash swordsmanship.

Where A Game of Thrones may be traditional high fantasy in terms of setting, it’s not in terms of structure. Unlike the Wheel of Time, Martin does not use the “hero’s journey” template but builds up his story from a number of narrative strands, only some of which actually intersect.

First, there are the various members of the Stark family, lords of the Northern wastes. Lord Eddard Stark, head of the family, is a rigid, honourable man, traditional in his views, and a good friend of King Robert Baratheon. The king has been outmanoeuvred increasingly often by his wife, Cersei, and her family, the Lannisters. When his advisor dies, King Robert turns to Stark to take over the position and bring his reign back on track. This, of course, upsets the Lannisters. Stark moves to the capital, King’s Landing, to take up his duties. There is much politicking and corruption, and, well… any more would constitute a spoiler.

Jon Snow is Stark’s bastard son and, while he is acknowledged as fruit of Stark’s loins, he can never inherit the family title or possessions. So he joins the Night Watch, a Foreign Legion-type organisation which guards the Wall far to the north. Winter is coming (seasons appear to last several years in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire), and mysterious, probably magical in origin, creatures are attacking the Wall and threatening to invade.

The other members of Stark’s family include: Bran, who is crippled after overhearing something he shouldn’t and who looks set to develop powers of some kind which could help later in the story; Robb, the heir, who takes over when his father heads south to the capital; Sansa, the eldest daughter, betrothed to King Robert’s son (who is spoilt and cruel, and takes after his mother, Cersei); and Arya, Stark’s other daughter, who is something of a tomboy and more interested in sword-fighting than courtly intrigue and pomp and circumstance.

On another continent, Daenerys, last of the Targaryen dynasty, the previous rulers of Baratheon’s kingdom until he had overthrown them, has been married to Khal Drogo, lord of a Mongol-type horde. Her brother, who is a real nasty piece of work, is hoping the khal will provide him with an army to take back the throne “stolen” by Baratheon.

The novel alternates chapters between these (and a few more) characters, and all of them in some way affect the story-arc and the novel’s resolution. Despite the size of the cast-list (and Martin includes a sizeable dramatis personae at the back of the book; and, of course, a map at the front), it’s easy to keep track of the major characters. (I had to keep on referring to the dramatis personae for some of the minor characters, however.)

This technique of multiple viewpoint-narratives is one that’s commonly used in techno-thrillers, which is itself a best-selling genre. It’s also better-suited to the complex political nature of Martin’s story than the traditional hero’s journey structure would be. This, however, doesn’t really explain the book’s appeal.

It’s either the setting, or the story. The story owes more to dynastic historical or semi-historical fiction than it does to high fantasy. There’s no Quest, no object which can save or destroy the world, no army of darkness, nor even some vast prophesied change which must be helped or avoided. In that respect, A Game of Thrones is really quasi-historical fiction. There’s little in the way of derring-do, or real heroics, and certainly no one person upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests…

Which means, I suppose, that high fantasy must sell more because of its setting than any other factor. The question is, is it the details of the particular world, or the mere existence of the particular world, which appeals? Will any old mediaeval land do, or is it the differences between the fantasy land and the historical model? There is, as I said earlier, little that’s all that original in A Game of Thrones. The cities, villages and castles are straight from the Dark Ages. The combat, arms and armour are straight from the Matter of Britain…

Which raises an interesting point. In many high fantasy series (and A Song of Ice and Fire is one), both hack-and-slash sword-fighting exists alongside thrust-and-parry. Historically, in the West, one developed from the other; the two techniques did not really exist alongside each other. During the Middle Ages, swords were big, heavy, often required two hands, and had cutting edges. They were, effectively, sharp-edged clubs. You swung them, as hard as you could, at your opponent. If you were strong, skilled, or lucky, you inflicted a wound. By the reign of Elizabeth I, sword-fighting had become cut-and-thrust, the mode perhaps most familiar from swashbuckler movies. Swords could cut, but they could also wound or kill with the pointy bit at the end. The cutting-edges gradually disappeared over time (because a blade without cutting-edges was stronger), until during the Renaissance sword-fighting focused almost exclusively on the pointy end—i.e., the rapier (a corruption, via the French, of the Spanish espada de ropera, or town / dress sword).

In A Game of Thrones, the noble male characters wear full-plate armour, often ornately decorated (and, judging by Martin’s descriptions, some of them probably have to be seen to be believed...). It is very difficult to kill someone in full-plate with a rapier. The blade simply isn’t up to piercing it. You’d have to find a weak spot (inside the elbow, for example), and hope you manage to hit it before you get brained with a mace or morning-star. Plus, of course, rapier sword-fighting requires you to be light on your feet—difficult when you’re weighed down with a suit made out of sheet metal. So, two knights in full-plate who want to cause damage have little choice but to swing at each other with hefty swords with cutting-edges (a great sword, bastard sword, sword-and-a-half, or something similar). Personal combat would be pretty much fixed in this mode.

And the mode used in personal combat would carry across into group combat or battles. Peasants, of course, would not have swords—swords are, after all, expensive, and certainly cost more to replace than your average peasant. No, the peasants have sharpened sticks. Put a bit of steel on the end and you have a pike (or put a short curved blade on the end, and the peasant’s weapon becomes doubly useful: he can chop up your enemies or reap the harvest with it). Alternatively, give your peasant lots of small pointed sticks, and a bow, and he becomes an archer, a “long distance” weapon.

Presumably Martin wanted to give his ersatz Dark Ages world some colour, and so threw in Arthurian pageantry. Which happened to go well with the social system he had set up. But, Arthurian pageantry demands full-plate and bastard swords; full-plate and bastard swords do not lead to exciting fight scenes—swing, clang!, shuffle, swing, clang!, shuffle, swing, ow!, shuffle, etc. The swashbuckling style of sword-fighting is exciting. So he threw that in as well...

Perhaps it’s this element of mix and match that lends high fantasy its appeal. It is, to some extent, the romance of the Middle Ages, without all the nasty stuff—squalor, rape, pillaging, disease, short lives, etc. The nearest high fantasy gets to this is in the combat, which is only one minor aspect of the period lifestyle. And so writers of high fantasy pick out all the romantic imagery of the Middle Ages, suggesting a low-maintenance lifestyle of well-earned hardship (never comfort), little responsibility and a level of self-actualisation that’s keyed to bringing in a good harvest. But you can’t have serfs without liege-lords and, it has to be said, there’s something equally attractive about the life of luxury led by the nobility: little or no fruitless work (that’s all done by the peasants), no decisions made by others, a very direct responsibility for lifestyle maintenance (everyone gets what they deserve), and all conflicts or problems are purely personal and can be resolved at the personal level (even in battle).

It’s all very well grinning with pride at a job well done, and looking forward to a hearty dinner of cheese and ale, as your sons bring in the bountiful harvest. But let’s not forget that your liege-lord could choose that very moment to come riding down onto your (clean, of course) hovel and rape your wife and daughters for a bit of sport. And there’s nothing you can do about it. In high fantasy, only villains of the darkest stripe would do such a thing, and their serfs are evil by association, so they deserve it.

It is, when you dig deep enough, American Rationalism that’s informing the various worlds of high fantasy best-sellers. Rewards are earned, never a function of position. Unless you’re a villain… in which case, you get your just desserts, anyway. One man can indeed change a world. Except, of course, he doesn’t. He leaves it exactly as he found it. The hero is there to maintain the status quo.

If there is a lesson here, it’s that a best-selling genre novel should boast: a) a world in which individuals can have a very real impact; b) said impact has to be earned through hard work and steadfastness; c) said impact is welcomed by all; d) the danger is always immediate and personal, as are the rewards; and e) there should be lots of colour.

A Game of Thrones, it goes without saying, features all of the above. As does Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The actual writing itself is immaterial. It need only be immediate. Themes and motifs only get in the way. Which might explain the merely competent writing that seems a given of high fantasy.

A Song of Ice and Fire is actually better-written than most of its ilk—although the line on page two, A cold wind was blowing out of the North, and it made the trees rustle like living things, initially seems to suggest otherwise (a Thoggism, if ever I saw one). Martin’s use of language may not be perfect, but his command of narrative structure is far superior to that of best-selling authors such as Robert Jordan, or David Weber. The prose is uniformly tight, without the extended introspective passages beloved of lesser writers. The dialogue is natural, and remains true to the characters uttering it. For those reasons alone, A Game of Thrones is a superior example of its type. Add in Martin’s departure from the standard template, and you have another reason for appreciating the novel in and of itself. But when you include the world he has built, the very sub-genre he is working in, well... you have a best-seller. Of course.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it

I probably know what every Brit my age knows about Rudyard Kipling - born in India... The Jungle Book... Nobel Prize for Literature... 'If--'... He's supposed to be the quintessentially British Empire writer. And yet I've only seen Disney's The Jungle Book, and never read anything by him. Which is why I picked Kim as my March reading for this year's challenge...

Kim is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, brought up as a beggar on the streets of Lahore. One day, he meets a Tibetan lama, and becomes his chela or disciple. The two set off on a religious trek around India, searching for the River of the Arrow which will free the lama from all sin. In the past, Kim has also run errands for Mahbub Ali, a Pathan horse-trader who works for the British secret service. Through Ali, he becomes involved in the Great Game, the covert war for control of Central Asia between Russia and Britain throughout the Nineteenth Century.

During their journey, Kim stumbles across the regiment his father belonged to, and is identified as the son of a Sahib. He is sent to school, but then recruited by Mahbub Ali's superior officer. He sends him to a top school for Sahibs in Lucknow. After several years there, Kim returns to his lama, and the two continue their religious trek, this time up into the foothills of the Himalayas. There they stumbled across a pair of Russian spies and Kim does his part for Empire.

If British sf authors followed in the footsteps of HG Wells, after reading Kim I have to wonder if US sf authors took Kipling's path. There's something about its depiction of India during the days of British Empire which reads more like early US-style space opera than historical fiction. The mix of strange cultures, the historical info-dumping, the somewhat archaic language (all thee and thou), the nobility of purpose of the characters... It's a rich and heady stew and every bit as exotic and adventuresome as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom or Leigh Brackett's Mars.

The prose is... odd. It's not just the archaic language - you soon cease to notice that. But it almost falls into reportage in places, and Kipling frequently breaks the illusion between reader and story - at one point, for example, he even adds authorial commentary to an expression used by a character:

'The house be unblessed!' (It is impossible to give exactly the old lady's word.)

A lot of the plot is carried in dialogue - as it is in a lot of early science fiction, where characters explain intentions and actions and consequences to each other. It's never done crudely, like sf's infamous "As you know, Bob," info-dump. But I did wonder if such poor exposition in sf was born from a bad attempt to emulate Kipling's style. Also, Kim's plot features a hurried tying-up of plot-threads and an abrupt resolution - yet another characteristic sf shares with Kim.

Despite all that, the landscapes in Kim are vividly-drawn, and the writing is at its most evocative and impressive when the story moves into the Himalayas. Perhaps some of the characters are a little over-the-top, especially Hurree Babu and Lurgan, two of Kim's colleagues in the British secret service. And perhaps some parts of the story are glossed over a little quickly, such as Kim's school years in Lucknow. But what is there has its compensations. It's a fascinating world Kipling describes; but while there are enough adventurous elements to the story to keep you reading, there is also a lot of instructional dialogue.

I suspect I'll not be reading Kim again. However, the (cheap) edition I bought also includes The Jungle Book. I think I'll give that a go one of these days... and then stick the book up on

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Mazel Tov

It takes a brave man in the US to criticise Israel. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon has been even more courageous - in the world of his novel, Israel does not even exist. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an alternate history - or "counterfactual", if you're a literary snob - in which the Jews were booted out of Palestine in 1948, and so David Ben-Gurion never unilaterally declared on 14 May 1948 the establishment of the nation state of Israel. Instead, the US provides land in Alaska for temporary settlement, Sitka, on a sixty-year lease.

(There are clues in the story indicating that the world of the novel diverged further from our history than initially seems the case - a republic in Russia, mention of an atom bomb being dropped on Berlin in 1946, and references to a war with Cuba during the 1960s.)

Like Robert Harris' Fatherland, Chabon uses his alternate history to tell a story whose resolution is dependent upon knowledge of real history. And also like Harris's novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union reads like another genre entirely - in this case, a hard-boiled detective novel. Meyer Landsman is an alcoholic homicide detective living in a fleabag hotel. When a fellow tenant is murdered - executed, in fact, by a shot to the back of the head while high on heroin - Landsman investigates. Since Sitka is weeks away from "Reversion" - i.e., the end of the Jews lease on the Alaskan land, and thus the end of their "homeland" - Landsman's superiors want him to drop his investigation. He deliberately disobeys them... and uncovers a conspiracy which reaches all the way up to the United States' president.

The Sitka of The Yiddish Policemen's Union is - as the title suggests - a Yiddish culture, rather than the real-world Israel's Hebrew. Chabon does not translate the Yiddish, but the meaning of the words is clear from context. Anthony Burgess did something similar with Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange - even going so far as to say his intention was to "brainwash" the reader into understanding the borrowed Russian terms much as the protagonist Alex was himself brainwashed not to inflict violence. Given that Chabon has said in interviews that the inspiration behind The Yiddish Policemen's Union was an article he wrote about a Yiddish phrasebook, this is perhaps not unsurprising.

The prose is very Chandleresque, although it occasionally struck me as a mite too calculatedly so. Some of the turns of phrase, the off-the-wall similes and metaphors, read a little forced. The relationship between Landsman and his partner, Berko Shemets, however, is handled beautifully - some of the best characterisation I've read in recent years, in fact. Interestingly, Chabon originally wrote the novel in the first person. Third-person present tense, I think, works much better. The tense gives the story an immediacy which pulls the reader along and over the hurdles created by unfamiliar Yiddish terms or Jewish practices.

Again like Fatherland, The Yiddish Policemen's Union ends with an event which comes as little surprise to us from our knowledge of the real world. Chabon handles it at a remove, which lessens its impact. Landsman's cynicism also acts as a barrier against the shock we should feel. But then, to have made him naive and credulous would have meant he could not follow the plot to its conclusion. As it is, the climax slips past little too quickly and easily.

Where The Yiddish Policemen's Union really shines is in Chabon's creation of Yiddish Sitka. It's a fascinating alternate world, and described with a depth and level of detail uncommon in many alternate histories. Perhaps this is because the novel's focus is very narrow - i.e., a single city and its environs, rather than an entire world. All the same, it's an impressive invention.

Minor quibbles aside, I was much impressed by The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Much has been made of Chabon's sensitivity for the genre, and that attitude is very much clear in this novel. He has written a story that is quite clearly science fiction, without pandering to the snobbery of either the genre or its detractors. If only more writers would do the same...