Archives: Reading

Happiness and Endings

We look for happy endings. But there are no endings. Except, y’know, death. The story may stop, but it doesn’t end, only the narration ceases at a particular moment, a transition to some other event the author doesn’t record.

Everyone is looking for a little slice of paradise. No one finds it. At best it’s transitory, that blissful stretch in Margaritaville where the beer is too cold and the daiquiri too fruitiful. And then the bar tab arrives and you come back to earth, or the hangover arrives, or you roll over in bed and see that you just might have made a huge mistake.

It’s all cyclical. Every paradise contains the seeds of its own hell. And we’re all capable of creating our own individual circles of the inferno. James Branch Cabell knew this. Read “Jurgen.” Our humble protagonist, the pawnbroker Jurgen, is given a second chance at youth, a chance to avoid all the errors of his life. But of course he simply makes a similar sequence of mistakes, complicit in his own miseries. It’s what we do.

No true story has a happy ending. J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the ‘eucatastrophe’ in which the tides abruptly shift, bringing a wave of happiness. But even “Lord of the Rings” ends on a bittersweet note. “The Princess Bride” (the book, not the film) get it exactly right, cycling from ‘the happy ending’ on to the immediate difficulties that follow.

Of course some seem to like the problems. E.R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros” for example deliberately eschews peace exchange for an immediate reset to turmoil. Less boring, you see. I do see, but I for one could put up with the occasional stretch of boredom for a corresponding length of peace.

But, that’s life. We know it from infancy. Watch a baby through the day transitioning endlessly from delighted wonder to wailing despair. “And they all lived happily ever after” is rightly confined to children’s fables. Stories, if they are honest, reflect the fragile and temporary nature of happiness.

I suppose that’s how it ought to be. Things are defined by opposition. How could we recognize happiness without a bit of misery? What would we have to look forward to, to strive for? In that respect, the emotional cycle is a boon, right?

How’s that for a happy ending?

Is it Ever Mother's Day in Secondary Worlds?

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there. This day got me to considering the relative paucity of mothers featured as characters in science fiction and fantasy. Get rather short shrift for page time, don’t they? This is simply an observation, I’m making no judgments, issuing no call to action for greater inclusion and representation of mothers. Screw that noise. Domesticity and child rearing are seldom prominent aspects of space opera or swords-and-sorcery. That’s just the nature of the beast. If writers found more entertainment value from motherhood they’d write in more scenes for our distaff progenitors.

But what examples do we have of dear old Ma in speculative fiction?

Glen Cook's Fantasy Fiction: The Instrumentalities of the Night

I’ve written before about Glen Cook’s fantasy fiction. But with a writer as prolific as Mr. Cook there is always more to say. I’ve not been shy of pointing out that I’m a fan. His – and Steven Brust’s and Roger Zelazny’s – employment of the first-person smart ass school of fiction was influential in the writing of “Reunion.”

I’m currently reading book four of his series “The Instrumentalities of the Night.” It is classic Glen Cook: fast paced, spare in descriptive detail, full of snappy banter between and among characters (often including extensive stretches without identifying the speaker, which can get confusing if you’re reading at speed and not closely tracking the interchange.)

Absorbing Reading

Victoria Valentina listening to Daddy read his latest story.

Victoria Valentina listening to Daddy read his latest story.

How deeply do you become involved in a story? Are you an outcome based reader? That is, do you read a story only to find out what happens, whodunit, how the plot resolves? Or do you plunge completely into the fictional world? Do you laugh aloud at the jokes and unexpected twists? Do characters become so real to you that you mourn if they die or suffer loss? Do you set the book down and stare blankly at the wall as you absorb the news of a tragedy that’s befallen, imagining the reactions of the characters and the repercussions on the society?

Ever thrown the book across the room?

Book Backlog

I’m hip-deep in unread and partially read books. Normally I wallow happily in such a morass. Today instead  I’m feeling more inundated and borderline panicked.

The release date for event books, books I’ve waited months or years for often clump. At least it seems so. When I reserve them at the library they always seem to come in the same day. Or a long-expected book and a book that caught my eye in a reference in some article or other. I can reserve them months apart. They still await me at the library on the same damn day.

Book Bloat

I’ve been considering book bloat.  Literary logorrhea.  Volume avoirdupois.  The fantasy and science fiction best-seller lists seem increasingly dominated by physically hefty books of  massive page counts, generally installments of on-going series.

Fine.  That is what sells.  Many publishers refuse to even consider a manuscript submission that weighs in at under 90,000 words.  A larger book can demand a higher price.  Series fiction ensures repeat business.  And authors enjoy a large canvas to paint in ever more detail of the their painstakingly crafted universes.

For that matter I enjoy reading some of these encyclopedia length series.  A large book, a long series, allows for greater immersion.  Of course I am reluctant to pick up a book if the cover indicates that it is ‘part one of an ongoing series.’  I’m already committed to enough of those.  And frankly, some of them smack of pay-check cashing or hint at the author’s drift, lack of focus, or growing boredom.  I fear many of these are begun without a definite end in mind.  That suggests a violation of the unspoken agreement with the reader.

Autumn Reading

So, that’s it for summer then.  The first storm of autumn is rolling in from the Pacific, hammering the trees with wind gusts and dumping the contents of a few medium-size rivers onto Portland.

Perfect reading weather.

OK, it is always perfect reading weather, but humor me.  Does reading get more pleasant than being curled on the couch before a fire, a warm mug of tea at your elbow and a book in hand?  Rain may lash at the windows and drum on the roof, but when you are absorbed in a book the inclement weather either adds to the atmospherics or passes without notice.

Romance

Romance and marriage are atypical subjects of speculative fiction, usually either consigned to the B-plot or give short-shrift if included at all.  That’s fine: not every book must contain every possible element.  Absence of a wooing, dalliance, or long-term relationship should not be grounds for legitimate criticism of a work.

Tolkien wrote a romance without a great deal of romance.  What romance did reach the page was chaste, the courtly romance of the troubadours.  This is perhaps better exemplified by Gimli’s love for Galadriel than the decades long trials and courtship of Aragorn and Arwen.  That is the story the Good Professor was writing and it worked.

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont managed a rare feat: they transformed their role-playing game campaign into a series of interesting and readable novels.  It’s a trick worthy of remark.  Some of the novels Steven Brust and of China Mieville show evidence of a similar exploit of literary legerdemain.  But given that most role-playing games are, by nature, a distillation of existing tropes, a deliberate homogenization, it is truly impressive to see something unique emerge, a story that doesn’t appear to be the equivalent of a fourth or fifth generation photocopy.

The seams do on occasion show through in Erikson and Esselmont’s books.  While they’ve rebranded the demi-human races as laid down by the Ur-RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, an observant reader can get glimpses of the original product beneath.  “Edur” instead of “Eldar” (or elf.)  “Trell” instead of “Troll” (or some form of ogre/half-ogre.)  The clues are there, though in fairness they’ve rendered such archeology a pointless exercise; their creations are essentially sui generis.

The magical systems are fresh, showing no evidence of derivation from the Vancian system employed by D&D.  But at least one character wears his class openly on his sleeve.  Karsa is quite clearly Erikson’s effort to explore the Barbarian class as well as taking Robert E. Howard’s ruminations on barbarism versus civilization out for an extended exploration.

The books provide plenty of evidence to refute those who still claim that fantasy is “merely”* escapist fiction, with no greater merit.  The books explore philosophy, archaeology, historiography, religion, politics, war, psychology.  In fact the very depth, and the fact that the two writers show no hesitation to throw the reader deep into the woods without map or compass, dissuades some readers from tackling the pile of doorstops that comprise the still-ongoing series.

Well, I’m not dissuaded.  I may not agree with the Erikson or Esselmont on certain points of politics or the ideal aesthetic of the female figure, but I’m sold on these novels and I’m in for the long haul.  In fact, after writing this, I need to return to “Blood & Bones.”

Happy reading.

*See J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous remarks on escapism.

Choices

The wife and I watched “This is 40” the other night. I’m glad we’ve several years of marriage under our belts, a solid relationship, and an appreciation of coarse humor. I wonder if anyone saw that on a first or second date. If so, was there a follow up date or did the flick provide too much fodder for speculation and second-guessing?

Picking the right movie for the occasion is more art than science. I can’t claim I’ve made the right call across the board. I once took a first date to a Sick and Twisted Animation Festival. What the hell was I thinking?

Choice is a mixed blessing, though the mix is overwhelmingly weighted positive. I remember a s a kid getting dropped off at the mall with a ten-dollar bill in my wallet. I’d head straight to the Walden’s or the B. Dalton’s and browse the science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks, searching for the title and cover that most captured my imagination. $2.75 or $2.95 would leave me with enough for a meal at the food court and a few bucks in quarters for the arcade. Choices and more choices, all of the good.

I find that selecting a new book to read now requires more consideration than it used to. My reading time is more constrained by the demands of life, and I am more aware now of the finite limits of my existence. The moments spent reading one book can never be recovered, selecting one book has eliminated another somewhere down the chronological road.

That makes book reviews important. Even more valuable, I think, is knowing the sort of think you like. Know what authors appeal to you. What general type of story pushes your particular buttons. A blurb indicating that author A writes in a style reminiscent of author B can help. A recommendation from a favored author can help. Check out the book store’s Staff Picks.

There are no guarantees but you can try to stack the odds in your favor.

I know that I have in the past advocated reading widely. I hold to that. I don’t see a contradiction. A well-rounded interior life provides plenty of room for multiple interests and preferences. You can read widely AND choose wisely.

Consolation – you can always learn from your mistakes.