Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Codex - Lev Grossman

Codex is not exactly a prologue to The Magicians, but a nicely constructed intellectual thriller that signals some of Lev Grossman's later work.
Again, the young male protagonist, Edward, is talented and smart, but not quite smart enough to achieve, or even know, exactly what he wants. Moreover, he is inevitably overshadowed, defeated even, by a more capable, or perhaps only more focused, woman, Margaret.
New York is again the setting, and again it is the city and the state's secret places, its libraries, that are the most interesting. Grossman is able to make the territory of the mind as engaging as the city streets - a hallmark of the intellectual thriller with a touch of metafictional conceit.
One thing that makes Codex particularly engaging is the way the story moves between the present-day narrative, the lost medieval codex of the title, and the open computer game-virtual world that reflects and in some ways binds them. All of these imaginary worlds are compelling, though for different reasons, and this is where the ability to create other worlds in books and games is singularly intriguing and a binding theme. And yet, as in The Magicians, the ultimate dreamworld, once achieved, somehow fails to satisfy, leaving the protagonist chastened if not wiser.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Glory Road - Robert A. Heinlein

Only a fantasy novel by a mechanically minded science fiction author could be this dull and literal-minded. It is as if every instinct that enforced verisimilitude, or at least plausibility, in his science fiction oeuvre led Heinlein to over-explain and literalise every potential marvel in 'Glory Road'.

This is a shame, really. I read 'Glory Road' as a teenager and brought away an impression of its action and brisk pacing, and the sense of the adventurer's road across uncountable imaginary realms is powerful and evocative. But, on rereading, I'm left only with a dash of perfunctory action and a great deal of trans-dimensional expository dialogue, sandwiched with cultural-relativism lite.

There's none of the light touch that Fritz Leiber brought to pulp fantasy adventures, and far too much effort extended in making the wonderful seem believable, as though Heinlein had decided to write a fantasy to show that he could, and used all the science fiction techniques at his disposal to show that he couldn't.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Master of Ballantrae - on the toss of a coin

Since the plot hinges on the toss of a coin, the entire novel is a matter of opposites: Jacobite and loyalist, older and younger brother, wanderer and steward, lover and husband, charm and restraint, selfishness and duty. And at the centre of it is a struggle over who merits their place as the hero of the novel: the feckless, charming, amoral and ambitious Master, or his stolid, honourable, introverted and subtly dull younger brother, who through the toss of a coin suffers one side of an extraordinary inversion, becomes the laird, husband and father, while the bold, talented heir becomes a wondering adventurer. Stevenson seems almost as fascinated by testing, or reframing, the very nature of a hero in an adventure plot.

But, the economy of detail, the absolute precision of characterisation through action, is almost perfect. Perhaps only a novel based on chance can be this finely, exactly, constructed and controlled.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The D&D Resurgance

This piece in Salon.com traces the 'rediscovery' of Dungeons & Dragons by middle-aged men (primarily).

We are ready to embrace those nights of unbridled game-playing and storytelling as crucial, formative experiences that were as real and memorable as any heroic feats on the football field...

But, as much as I applaud this renaissance in game-playing, imagination and story-telling (having no slight interest in these myself) I have a few reservations about this 'rediscovery'. These reservations can be encapsulated in three characters: D&D.

I recently returned to role-playing games myself after a hiatus of many years, but my game of choice was never D&D. In my teens, I came into role-playing games with Traveller, the science fiction game, and, after several years of intermittent to non-existent play, went on to play RuneQuest and now its modern compilation, Basic Roleplaying (BRP). So D&D for me, and I suspect many others, was never a system that engaged me (though its worlds no doubt informed a lot of our RuneQuest fantasy gaming).

D&D, though it has many capable and imaginative players and DMs in all its versions (and a fascinating classic or 'old school' movement for enthusiasts), it is still, in all its incarnation, a system with severe mechanical flaws. I won't go into details here, but game mechanics matter in as much as they influence pacing and ease of play, and the kind of play they require. Combat in D&D, for example, is generally slow and uninspiring, and miniatures-based combat seems to be the principle focus of the current edition. And, let's face it, in all versions of D&D you gain experience and level-up by defeating monsters (which usually means killing) and looting exclusively. Of course, you can always house-rule your way around these rules, but at what point do the house-rules accrue to a point where you've really rebuilt a fundamentally flawed game?

So, whether you chafe at D&D's restrictions or revel in them, I'd prefer to celebrate the rediscovery of all RPG's without tying it down to one particular exemplar in the shape of D&D.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Magicians, Lev Grossman

The Magicians succeeds because Grossman tells a compelling story with psychological depth and great pace and verve, but it seems to me that it is based on two conceits that could have stood independently as novels in their own right, and somwhere between these two strands it leaves a central concern of the novel unresolved.
In the first place, The Magicians is plainly a Harry Potter for adults, replacing the magical boarding school with the magical college, and hence teenage angst with early-adulthood self-realization. Of course the young magicians are also college students, but here they get drunk, sleep with each other for the wrong (and right) reasons, suffer identity crises, ennui, career doubts, and generally fumble their way towards adulthood. Grossman captures their competitiveness and anxiety nicely, recasting apprentice magicians as essentially the top-tier of ivy-league students on competitive scholarships. The risk here (as it is in Harry Potter) is that the magical education systematizes and hence literalizes magic, turning it from an art to a craft, from a technique to a technology. Fortunately, Grossman mitigates this by revealing that there are depths beyond depths in the magic his students explore.
In itself, this advanced Harry Potter, the dealings of a hidden class of magicians in upstate New York would be intriguing, but here Grossman avoids engaging in this by introducing a second, though not unrelated strand.
This conceit is one of adult entry into a child’s world of wonder, specifically a faux-Narnia named Fillory. Here, adults with adult concerns attempt to discover and remain in a world of essentially childish magic and wish-fulfillment. The corollary to this, of course, is that one must be careful what one wishes for.
My main dissatisfaction with The Magicians is that when Grossman moves his characters from the subtle conflicts and perplexities of upstate New York into the childishly fantastical world of Fillory, he fails to answer the question that arises so compellingly for the graduate magicians: what is magic for? In mounting the quest into Fillory, he demonstrates that magic and fantasy of themselves cannot bring happiness any more than money or success, and that the regression into the child’s fantasy world can have destructive outcomes. Where magic comes from can remain a mystery, but how to use magic, and how to use it for the good, remain unanswered, and by the end Grossman seems to waver awkwardly between the possibility of renouncing magic altogether and the open-ended conjuring of higher, stranger planes of fantasy, a little like a Dungeon Master seeking even wilder adventures for his already over-powered players.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Christchurch Earthquake

On the 22 of February, in the early afternoon, the city of Christchurch, where I spent the first part of my life and began my writing career, was struck by a second serious earthquake, shatteringly energetic, which with a horrifying loss of life damaged or destroyed many of the elegant old buildings that defined this city of graceful neo-gothic stonework, broad avenues and gardens.

Although I no longer live in Christchurch, many of my stories are informed and inspired by its cityscapes and climate, the deep language of place and attitude that we take from long association.
If anything, a ghost is a collection of memories and attitudes; that is, a structure or a pattern resonant in time when the substance has passed. Cities, therefore, also have their ghosts, as architecture is embedded in space and history. The city is invoked in an outline of a door, the line of a window, a turn in a lane. Christchurch will be rebuilt, but the ghost of the city that was will remain, in the flash of sunlight on a window, in the line of a spire in the rain, in the angle of a branch and a carved lintel, in memory, irrevocably.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

SF in the Booker prize?

The Guardian has posted an interesting piece asking Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon?

The short answer is No. Not yet, at any rate.

The article makes a case for many considerable works of literature produced in SF and by SF writers, and points to the ongoing strength of SF, particularly in the UK, over the last decade.

Whether SF can break into the literary canon, however, raises too many questions to even be contemplated here (not the least of which is that, based on the evidence, it has already). Perhaps the more critical question is can the literary canon break into SF? Is it enough to stalk the boundaries between genres, or is it possible simply to thread one within the other, imperceptibly?

Monday, January 31, 2011

I'm working on - The Raven's Seal

The Raven's Seal is the novel I've been working on since late 2004. In fact, the first few lines were written in the winter quiet of Uris Library, at Cornell University.
What is The Raven's Seal? It's an historical mystery, but it's a mystery in the Dickensian sense, in that the characters find themselves thrown into the centre of a mystery that they must navigate and survive as much as investigate.
It's set in the late-eighteenth century city of Airenchester (my own invention, in the tradition of Cloisterham), and in particular, in the precincts and surrounds of the Bellstrom Gaol, where the protagonist, Thaddeus Grainger, is falsely imprisoned for the murder of his rival.
For me as a writer, the device of the mystery, with more than a nod to the Victorian novel of urban mysteries, gives The Raven's Seal a more open, flexible form, encompassing the prison narrative and the novel of society. The mystery (I hope) is an experience, an entertainment, not simply an exercise in detection and deduction.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

E-books and the classics

One of the odd convergences of technology and content around e-books is the availability of many classic authors as free texts through Project Gutenberg, and even the commercial e-publishers themselves. Being free and easy to download, there’s a certain attraction to these works over contemporary (paid) titles.
Will this lead readers back to the pre-modern and early modern classics in the most high-tech context?
To be sure, the typography and text flow of Gutenburg texts leaves a lot to be desired. But then, the conventions of modern pages, such as spacing and the punctuation of speech, are also forms that developed over a considerable period, and were once much looser.
But, more importantly, what happens when readers rediscover writers like Dickens, Wilkie Collins, H.G. Wells, Conrad or Robert Louis Stevenson, in a perfectly cheap and accessible form? Stevenson, for example, in the short stories collected in New Arabian Nights, creates deft literary adventure stories. There’s no sense with Stevenson that adventure and entertainment are at odds with literary sensibility, or that narrative momentum is incompatible with compelling characterisation. Are these the stories the e-book could bring us back to, or invigorate for the future?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Microdungeons, art, writing

This post is one of those occasional gaming pieces, although curiously, I think it bears on writing and fiction as well.
A few months ago, I came across Tony Dowler's intriguing blog Year of the Dungeon, and in particular Dowler's collection of what he calls microdungeons.
I've dabbled in scenario design for roleplaying games, and published one for BRP Adventures. Dowler's microdungeons are hand-drawn sketches for these scenarios, comprising a small map, some suggestive text and labels, sometimes a random table, and very little else in terms of rules, descriptions or directions.
The microdungeons can be literal dungeons, tombs, small mazes, or they can be libraries, quarters of fantasy cities, or even abstractions, devices, mundane objects reinterpreted.
From a gaming point of view, they are like the sketch of a scenario or location, with a great deal of room left for conjecture and development. Inspirations rather than handbooks for play, they can be adapted to any rules that are at hand.
From a writer's point of view, they are almost like a new literary form. They are short stories without plot or character, resolved into setting and perhaps a hint of incident. Or they are primarily a visual form: illustrations or diagrams with a suggestive gloss. They're intriguing because if you think of them in a particular way, they really do create a space for the play of imagination.

Monday, January 10, 2011

G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: from thriller to Narnia

Part of my reading over the Christmas break...
The Man Who Was Thursday begins as a police-thriller, as a hunt for anarchists. This is Joseph Conrad’s territory in Under Western Eyes or The Secret Agent, where Conrad has a pitiless, sardonic view of the shabby grandiloquence and moral illusions of the anarchist and the secret policeman. Chesterton, for his part, unveils a nice irony, as one by one each member of the anarchists' council is revealed as a secret policeman. At first this is the source of an elegant, uncanny effect, but as each perceived antagonists is uncovered as a hero, the technique becomes predictable, tiresome even.
Incrementally, the novel switches genre, turning from the uncanny to the fantastic to allegory, as Sunday, the ultimate antagonist, is revealed as The Sabbath, God: it’s like travelling from a spy-thriller into Narnia, when the anarchist’s chairman is unmasked as Aslan. This is a provocative, innovative, even perplexing, turn, but I must admit to the feeling of being sold an elaborate sermon in the guise of a narrative.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Stories" - some impressions

The new short fiction anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio is labeled (somewhat redundantly), rather than titled, Stories. The collection brings together works from a variety of genres, many of which are themselves hybrid forms, combining elements of speculative fiction, literary fiction and the Gothic.

Gaiman himself provides a remarkable and energising introduction, writing that:
"I love the word fantasy for example, but I love it for the almost infinite room it gives an author to play: an infinite playroom, of a sort, in which the only boundaries are those of the imagination…. There was so much fine fiction, fiction allowing free reign to the imagination of the author, beyond the shelves of genre."

Presenting fine fiction beyond the restrictions of genre is a goal the anthology mostly meets. There are strong pieces, such as Gaiman's own "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" and Joe Hill's formally experimental "The Devil on the Staircase", and other stories of murder, guilt and retribution, like Joe Landsdale's harrowing "The Stars are Falling". There are several tight, mordantly imaginative thrillers, and a smattering of lighter pieces. Diana Wynne Jones and Kurt Andersen bring a welcome lighter touch in tone and theme.

Some don't quite work. "Juvenal Nyx" seems like the introduction of a character for a longer piece or series. "The Therapist" becomes predictable when it moves from a suggestive premise to a more literal explication of the central idea. And Michael Moorcock, a creator of innovative, energetic fantasies, produces a more mundane relationship drama when he steps away from fantasy in "Stories" (that is, a story, in Stories, called "Stories").

Yet, interestingly, Moorcock makes reference to "a 'two way street' to reunite junk, middle-brow, and highbrow fiction." I don't know if Stories is quite the classic of this "new literature of the imagination" the back cover trumpets (isn't all literature a product of the imagination?), but it is certainly an intriguing, innovative and highly readable journey along Moorcock's two-way street.

Friday, January 7, 2011


'Have you ever felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve.'

Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Seville Communion

Well, not quite. This blog is just getting started, although the action is elsewhere on the board. But I'm interested in writing, literature and genre, especially that messy edge between popular and literary forms, and this blog is intended for all those displaced pieces of thought, work or speculation that don't quite fit anywhere else.