Thursday, September 27, 2007

Sick Day.

Ooog. I caught Sarah's cold during our getaway this weekend, and all my running around yesterday just brought it down on my head like a sack of doorknobs. I feel like crap, and I've got a ton of homework dangling over my noodle. And yet, I just spent the last hour reading and commenting on an AV Club blogpost about fantasy and sci-fi novels. I'm a firm believer in double-dipping, and here's what I wrote:

Wow! This thread's got legs!

I feel like I'm reading a forum on my non-school reading from the past few years. Stephenson, Donaldson, Jordan, Gaiman, Mieville, Pratchett, Adams... An embarrassment of riches!

Before I get into my own nerdy list of loves and hates (and indifferences), I want to direct the attention of the assemblage to this article about the curse of World-Building, courtesy of boingboing.net:

boingboing.net/2007/04/14/whats-wrong-with-wor.html

This, in my opinion, explains a lot of what frustrated me no end with Jordan, especially, but also folks like Stephenson, and even the too-inventive-for-his-own-good Mieville: they get too wrapped up in conveying the world, and the story (to which the setting should be subordinate) suffers as a result. I don't think anyone would disagree with my opinion that the Jordan books would be a shit-ton better if he'd done the same arc in six books and spared us a ton of tedious and unnecessary scene-setting and clothing description.

Same thing with Stephenson. I read Cryptonomicon and enjoyed it a lot, then went backwards to Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, and then tackled The Baroque Cycle. Whoof. I'm not trying to argue that he didn't spend a lot of time on the worlds (the same world?) in Snow Crash and Diamond Age, but the plot zips and twists pretty nimbly, and all the obvious MacGuffins are clever enough that you forgive him. But man, I trailed off halfway through the BC, when Half-Cocked Jack and Eliza are up in the mountains with Leibniz learning how to mine for freaking ever, and Stephenson's just going on and on with the describing everything down to the smallest detail...I marvel at his imagination, and they seem like valuable books if you want to get a feel for the facts of living at that time, but ...the ...story ...just ...plods ...and drags ...and sags ...until ...you ...put the book down and don't pick it up again. Snow Crash moves. Even Cryptonomicon, which is somewhat ponderous, has a certain swagger. You'd think an epic about Colonial America, the Enlightenment, pirates and such would have a little more zip, but Stephenson seems to care more about elaborating all the clever little ideas rattling around his clever little head. It seems like he's bought into his own hype, and has transcended the bounds of normal human editing.

I just finished Perdido St. Station, and while parts were legitimately creepy, and the whole thing was neat, on the whole I never got a sense of the city as place. It seemed like an agglomeration of every clever idea that had popped into Mieville's head during the past three years, stitched together with maddening deliberateness and over-description. It would have been much more effective for me with 75% less scene-setting. Trust your reader. It means less work for you as an author, and it makes your work that much more engaging. That said, I really liked Perdido St. Station...I liked it enough that its flaws stood out in particularly sharp relief. His Re-Mades twisted my stomach in a way it hadn't twisted since reading that issue of Uncanny X-Men where Wolverine fights Lady Deathstrike in the construction site in the blizzard...oooh! Creepy cyborgs!

I read my first DiscWorld book at the same time as Perdido, and man! What a difference! For one thing, the Pratchett books are like a fraction of the length of any of the books I've mentioned above. For another, they contain at least as much cleverness and imagination, if not more. And most importantly, they move! The pacing is great--zips along without feeling glossed-over--with enough description that you don't even think about how many blanks your brain is filling in. Very satisfying. Icing on the cake: the shit is hilarious. Douglas Adams level hilarious. I hadn't cracked up while reading anything (except The Onion) in some years. It felt really good.

Stephen R. Donaldson is a great writer, but not someone I'm sure I would want to spend any time with. I love (LOVE) his Gap Cycle, but holy shit, the first three books are grim. GRIM. But the payoff in the last two really, um, pays off. Great stuff. Of course, I am a sucker for Norse mythology, and the Wagnerian echoes in the Gap books are not there by accident...

I got sucked headlong into Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell last summer--high recommendation for anyone looking for a magical, creepy, Napoleonic yarn.

Two final recommendations that I (surprisingly) haven't seen up here, before I completely run out of steam:

Octavia Butler, may she rest in peace. I've only read her Parable of the Sower, and I'm resting up in preparation for delving further into her catalog. A persistent theme in the comments seems to be the Anglo- and Andro-centricity of most fantasy, and I think Butler is a great antidote for that. Not to essentialize her, because she is far more then the sum of two portions of her identity, but she is a Black woman author and that informs her work. All you complaining about the absence of strong female characters should check out Parable of the Sower. Just be prepared to be shaken--it takes place in a near-future California that is a little too plausible for escapist enjoyment.

Finally, for the tween/teen set, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books. I loved these as a kid, and came back to them as an ostensible grown-up to find them much richer and deeper than I knew at the time. Again, a rehashing of The Chosen One dynamic, but I guess I don't find that quite as tiresome as a lot of y'all. What I love about her books is her understanding of evil. It's not a Sauron, or a Shai-tan, or an unimaginable alien force bent on our subjugation, but rather that part within each of us that judges and stereotypes, that feeds bias, prejudice and racism. It's a force that doesn't want to destroy humanity, but rather to bring out the worst in humanity, and let us destroy each other. What Hanna Arendt called the banality of evil at the Nuremburg trials. Great stuff that is being turned into what looks like an unbelievable piece of shit movie, coming this Christmas! Nathan Rabin's feelings on 1999's The Grinch remake in his recent MYOF entry on Cat in the Hat echo my own regarding the upcoming The Dark Is Rising: a fascist film made by Nazi's bent on raping my childhood.

Okay, I think I'm spent. Thanks, Jason Heller, for a great blogpost, and an even awesomer comments thread. I really appreciate that you are a presence in the comments--kind of gives the whole thing a sense of unity and purpost.

Vitamin K1 out!

1 comment:

Andy said...

I'll pre-empt anyone who's thinking of it:

You're a huge nerd, Karlson!!!