On J.R.R. Tolkien

 

If you’ve read the subheader of my blog, you’d notice that I consider Tolkien’s legacy to be something of a burden on the genre. Not all burdens are without worth. It’s a burden to carry ten hundred coins of solid gold, after all. It’d be quite heavy, no matter its value. Though I’d hesitate to liken Tolkien to the wealth of a thousand gold pieces, the metaphor still serves its purpose. Tolkien’s influence, the standard “Tolkienian” fantasy, is something that weighs down the genre. It set expectations for fantasy that now limit the range of what gets well and truly popular, particularly from outside the community of people who truly love the genre.

Ultimately, that is very much the point of this blog. To discuss fantasy outside of elves and dragons, but also to discuss why elves and dragons are still completely fucking awesome. Perhaps, however, it would be best to move forward by discussing Tolkien himself, what I love and what I hate.

J.R.R. Tolkien was an author pushed on me early in life. I had just begun to truly love Harry Potter, the series that inspired me to write, when Fellowship of the Ring hit theatres. My father, a fantasy fan, convinced me to see the movie in exchange for taking me to see Big Fat Liar, a film starring Amanda Bynes and that kid from Malcolm in the Middle. And part of me wanted to hate the film on principle. I went through my “rebellious teen years” around the age of 9, so anything my parents liked was pretty much the lamest thing in the world.

And damn if I didn’t stick to it. At first. Oh I hated Fellowship when I was dragged to see it, but something – I think it was Gollum – managed to wear down my resolve in The Two Towers, and I was eager for Return of the King by the time it rolled around. While I had read The Hobbit, again on my father’s insistence, as a child, it was Peter Jackson that made me want to read Lord of the Rings. I loved his films.

I didn’t love the books. They were good. I would never deny that they were good. Beautiful, in their own way. But the text, the heavy prose and Elven poems, tired me. I read all three and set them aside for a few years. During those years, I read a lot of fantasy. Martin, Jordan, Salvatore, every big name author I could get my fourteen-year-old hands on. And no, my parents weren’t great about censoring what material their children were exposed to, so yes, I read Game of Thrones before I entered high school. It was before the TV show. They didn’t know.

Reading Tolkien again when I was sixteen offered some perspective. All of the fantasy I had read was inspired, directly or indirectly, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Just about everything in the genre since Lord of the Rings got big has been. Even China Miéville, a known critic of Tolkien and his effect on the genre, is reacting to Tolkien. By going to the opposite extreme, yes, but the existence of a line at all is perhaps more proof of his influence.

I had also grown a tolerance for purple prose and poorly constructed languages (I’d read Eragon by now), so Tolkien represented… a peak, I suppose. For all that I can say about excessive worldbuilding and elaborate conlangs, nobody who followed in Tolkien’s footsteps ever did it as well as Tolkien. Some told better stories, some had better characters, and some were better written. But nobody can write Tolkienian fantasy like Tolkien.

In the years since, I’ve read The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, and as many of his poems, short stories, and essays as I’ve found. He was a brilliant man, and one I respect in spite of my problems with his prose (and his part in the conversion of a writer I love far more to Christianity).  And I’m damned excited for all three of the upcoming Hobbit films, particularly with Martin Freeman playing Bilbo Baggins. He’ll never be my favourite author, but I do love Tolkien.

I just hate that he’s what people think of when I say the word “fantasy”.

 

[Flashback!] Dinotopia, by James Gurney

 

One of the reasons I love speculative fiction is because I grew up on speculative fiction. It’s been part of my life, from Disney to Harry Potter, for as long as I can remember, and it was part of every medium I’d ever appreciated. Which is why I’m going to take a look at the Dinotopia franchise.

Steep Street, by James Gurney

My first experience with Dinotopia was The Sunstone Odyssey, a video game that came out in 2003. My strongest memory of the game was a Parasaurolophus telling the player character that “the harvest was good this year” every time you talked to him. I think about two hundred other characters said the same thing. It was a terrible amalgamation of bad combat and quest fetches, yet I was in love. It was such a different world. It was… peaceful, in a way I had never seen. And I am not one to protest the inclusion of dinosaurs, a fascination of mine since Jurassic Park.

Song in the Garden, by James Gurney

The novels are told as the adventure journals of a shipwrecked explorer who discovers this dinosaur utopia. Though the focus is undoubtedly on the science of such a place, where dinosaurs lived past the extinction and exist alongside man, there is an interesting culture to the world. It’s a utopia, a multicultural one at that (as seen in the above image). And, well, it’s honestly pretty beautiful. I’m a pessimist, I don’t believe in a utopia, but Dinotopia is perhaps as close as I’ve ever felt to it.

There was a beauty to the novels that none of the overly action-driven video games could match, as fun as I found fighting dinosaurs with spears and magic to be. And then, there was the movie.

Dinosaur Boulevard, by James Gurney

Dinotopia had a TV series that did so poorly that I never had a chance to see it for myself. I did, however, see Dinotopia: Quest for the Ruby Sunstone, which had an inexplicably star-studded cast, painfully hideous art and animation, and grinding music all throughout. It was truly closer to a ripoff of The Land Before Time than anything previously seen in the series. Reviews of the series attempt to paint it in the positive light by reminding adult viewers that it’s just for kids. Well, fuck that.

The original novels are meant for children, and they are innovative, feature stunning art, and don’t assume the readers are dimwitted and incapable of remembering the most simple of details from the page for. The Dinotopia books are excellent for young readers and parents looking for something to read to their children, and their story could have been translated into film easily. Instead, the budget for this film was seemingly spent on a few actors no child would recognize and licensing the name ‘Dinotopia’ to draw in more customers. It’s a shame.

Still, Dinotopia is a unique franchise, one worth investigating. If nothing else, it’s worth looking into for the artwork. I mean, just look at it! There are dinosaurs buying bouquets and playing games with children. And for all that I love the intricacies and  elaborations on the genre, sometimes it’s important to look at fantasy and science fiction for what brought so many of us into it in the first place: it’s fucking awesome.

 

Review: Anansi Boys (2005)

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Fat Charlie Nancy’s normal life ended the moment his father dropped dead on a Florida karaoke stage. Charlie didn’t know his dad was a god. And he never knew he had a brother. Now brother Spider is on his doorstep—about to make Fat Charlie’s life more interesting . . . and a lot more dangerous.

I am well-acquainted with the works of Neil Gaiman. I’ve read the Sandman comics, Good Omens, Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. I’d call myself a casual fan of his. None of his works are among of my favourites, but they are of excellent quality. I’ve never disliked a Gaiman story, and Anansi Boys is no exception.

Anansi Boys is a whimsical, dare I say folksy, story that has an atmosphere more similar to a romantic comedy about a quirky brother than it does the more typical urban fantasy story. And after I’ve read a hundred or more urban fantasies in my life, I found it refreshing. I always appreciate an author who can bring something new to the table, and certainly this humour was new. Which brings me to the greatest strength of this novel: Spider.

The story opens with the death of Mr. Nancy, Fat Charlie’s father, who we learn quickly is Anansi, the African god. He is, in a Campbellian simplification, a trickster god. His other son, Spider, seems to be no exception. And truly, who could complain about a trickster god’s comedic adventures and meddling ways? The Norse trickster, Loki, has gained popularity in recent years through his portrayals in the TV show, Supernatural, and the Marvel movie franchise, so there is undoubtedly some appeal to this archetype.

When the heavier elements of the story kick in, however, I found the story to fall a bit short. Perhaps not in the grand scheme of things. It is still a very well written book. But when compared to American Gods, the story seems muddled in its own ideas and unsure of where it’s headed. Charlie’s incompetence, while funny when dealing with his trickster brother, became tiring when there was a real threat. In many ways, I think the story would have been stronger if it were simply a romantic comedy, perhaps with a less sinister characterization of Grahame Coats, Charlie’s boss, and a greater emphasis on the relationships between Charlie, Spider, and Rosie.

I don’t think this should be anyone’s introduction to Gaiman, but it is still a novel by Neil Gaiman. It brings a lot of interesting elements into the story, from the trickster antics to a bit of African lore, and it is as masterfully written as any of his other works. If you’re a fan of Gaiman’s, there is no good reason to pass this one up. But if you are uninitiated, I’d recommend reading Good Omens or American Gods first.

Legend of Korra, the Season 1 Finale [Review]

Avatar: Legend of Korra tells the story of the next Avatar, a water tribe girl by the name of Korra, as she fights a nonbending underground revolution called the Equalists, learns the powers of the Avatar line, and deals with typical teenage drama. I haven’t liked this show as much as I liked the first series, for a number of reasons, but I have still liked it. Today, though, we’ll be discussing the two part season finale. There will be spoilers.

The theme of this review is consequences. But first, some things I liked:

Bumi! Iroh! I like these characters, even if the former was only on screen to remind us of his namesake. I hope both make a return in Season 2. I also liked that Amon was the son of Yakon for one small, simple reason: Korra had visions of Yakon after encounters with Amon. Before, this seemed… odd. Out of place, were they related to Tarrlok (or at least, specifically Tarrlok). But having Amon be a bloodbender gives these earlier scenes a bit of retroactive clarity. I appreciate that. Amon is also incredibly attractive. That’s an irrelevant point, but I just wanted to make it. Asami is fierce, and her fight with her father in a mecha suit made her the greatest. Mako, you are factually wrong to leave her for Korra. Just sayin’.

Now onto the problems I had. This will be a bit more than one paragraph.

Amon. I never supported his methods, but I was open to his views. In a world where Mako’s firebending aids him in his factory job and the elite police force is made up entirely of earthbenders, it is clear that bending, even in an industrial world, is advantageous. There are jobs for nonbenders, but there is a divide. There are jobs that only benders can do, and there are jobs that benders can simply do better. While some might argue that technology evens the divide, as we see with Hiroshi Sato’s many devices, it is clear that in many ways, it creates new splits between the two. A single firebender is more efficient than two or three nonbenders shovelling coal. Sato’s mecha suits were designed with a metal unusable by metalbenders… but now that he has been captured, what are the odds his designs will be reused to create sleeker, metal creations for the metalbending law?

There is a divide between benders and nonbenders, and nothing illustrated this better than the betrayal Amon’s Lieutenant felt when he learned that Amon was a bloodbender. Because he genuinely believed Amon’s rhetoric. He wanted the world that Amon promised. A lack in a charismatic leader might hurt the movement, but those feelings aren’t likely to fade.

But where can they go in Season 2? Amon and Tarrlok’s death, while stunning and questionable for a Nickelodeon show, is an end to an arc. There are unanswered questions about their motives. Amon’s origins explain his power, and they explain the roots for his feelings, but there is a missing step. Tarrlok’s reluctance to bloodbend in his youth seems in direct contrast to his willingness to do so in the last few episodes. But they’re both dead, so where can their stories go? With Amon dead and Korra fully capable of restoring everyone’s bending, what did Amon accomplish? His movement died with him and there are no consequences to his borderline genocide, since it can simply be reversed. The potential for the next season to revolve around restoring bending both to Korra and Republic City is lost.

The people are angry, but without Amon to lead them, they are disorganized. A few chi-blocker attacks, no worse than the bending crime lords we saw at the beginning of the show, angry protesters in the park, and nothing being done. In other words… right where we started. Perhaps Amon’s Lieutenant will reign in the Equalists and reform the movement. Perhaps the benders who lost their powers will feel resentment towards nonbenders and justify the discontent of the Equalists. Many things could come from this, but with the season finale, many of the consequences of season one were resolved in the final five minutes. Those last five minutes solve everything.

Korra. Introduced as a talented bender of three elements, with a lack of spiritualism, a necessary tool for airbending and activating her Avatar state. Her arc has been a bit lacking, as the love triangle between her, Mako, and Asami, and the actions of Tarrlok and the Equalists dominated the story, to the point where her training to be an airbender bordered on an incidental, abandoned plot line. Her unlocking her airbending works well for me, though the reason for it (Mako’s endangerment) is perhaps a bit contrived. Her bending being restored and sudden spirituality, however, is another rushed out plot point that needs to be addressed.

Aang was raised as a monk. Spirituality may as well have been his last name. The idea that hitting your lowest point is functionally the same as ten years living in a monk society is… questionable. Unless, of course, we must assume that Aang also must have hit that low point, at which case I ask, when? Was it him drowning in that storm, one hundred (and seventy) years ago? That’s really the only point it could have been, but there is no hint of that in either series..

But let’s be honest, the problem here is that everything is too easy. The second season could have been a spiritual journey for Korra, unlocking her chakras, speaking with the Avatars of the past, and making sacrifices. Do you remember when Aang was told he had to give up Katara to unlock the last chakra and control the Avatar State? Imagine that Korra had to go through the same journey, with her own Guru Pathik expy, to restore her bending and perhaps the bending of Republic City. Imagine if she made the opposite choice, imagine she decided to let go of her feelings for Mako.

Instead, we have Korra handed energybending without the spiritual journey Aang had to go through to find it, and her bending restored by means of depression. It’s too easy. And speaking of easy, let’s talk about our final player in the finale:

Mako. What a truly terrible character he turned out to be, beginning as a cold yet loving brother and turning into… Mako. The tension between Mako, Asami, and Korra came to a boil in the episode before the finale, then fizzled out with an awkward good-bye between Mako and Asami that I can only assume was meant to be a break up and a kiss I think was meant to echo the series finale to Avatar: The Last Airbender, though it did so quite poorly. This love triangle has brought the series down significantly for me, consuming entire episodes in a relatively short season and dragging everyone in it through the mud in the process.

But Mako… in this episode, he went from that guy all the girls like even though they’ve got better men all around them to a Mary Sue. Able to break Amon’s bloodbending when nobody else could, able to bring out Korra’s airbending, and able to get away with being in love with another woman, a woman his brother also happened to be in love with, without having to really apologize. Heck, he can even use lightning, and in the original series, that talent seemed to be a bit rare. Mako’s entire character degraded in quality over the course of the series, but in this episode, he became… poorly written. His actions before now could be chalked up to him being a jerk, the actions of his character, but now he is simply a series of poor choices by the writers of the show.

He didn’t have to suffer for a day without bending, because Korra learned to airbending just in time to protect him. His love life just sort of set itself straight in spite of Asami having vocalized problems with him (which he ignored and they went away) and Korra never lost interest or went after Bolin. Amon just happened to lose his focus, something he’s never done before, and Mako just happened to be strong enough to fight it, even though Korra could have used that chance to go into the Avatar State (as we know Aang did with Yakon) or even do a bit of bloodbending back, as she is likely a skilled enough waterbender to have used it. Mako didn’t suffer, and frankly, I just kind of wanted him to.

As I said, the theme here is consequences. What are the consequences of anyone’s actions? What are the consequences of this entire season? Korra has a boyfriend, a couple of nice friends, and has learned to airbend and energybend. Asami will presumably take over the company. Tenzin has a fourth kid. But when season 2 starts, what else is there? Korra, Mako, and Bolin going back to probending? The villains are both dead. The revolution is going to be subdued to at least the point it was in the beginning, if not to even less. Wouldn’t be surprised if Lin Bei Fong gets her job back, too, given how easy everything was in the end. It all just seemed… pointless.

It was disappointing, but hey, at least Season 2 won’t be plagued with episodes about the love triangle.

Worldbuilding: Where to begin?

After last week’s post on the necessity of worldbuilding, I addressed the potential range of worldbuilding, from making things up as they are needed to spending decades of your life creating a language or a nation’s history. My perspective is somewhere in the middle. Most stories are better told in a world as rich as our own, but the story and the characters always come first. Not every story works this way. A haunted house story requires more time and more emphasis on the setting, the haunted house in this case, than on the people living in it or the ways they die. And certainly there are some stories so character or story-oriented that there isn’t a line to spare to discuss the minutiae of currency. But let’s be honest, most of us are writing adventures or coming-of-age stories where a balance of the two is best suited for the tale.

Worldbuilding is a daunting task, and jumping into it blindly often leads to abandoned novels and half-filled composition notebooks. Guides like Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions can make you consider things you may not have thought of on your own, but are generally not useful for story-oriented worldbuilding. Remember, even Tolkien put fuck all work into Middle Earth’s economy. So where should you begin?

Consider what your story is about first. An adventure across the seven continents may need a map, but a story of courtly intrigue in a single palace likely does not. A story about a young dragon rider will need some creature building – sorting out how your dragons work. These are the details that will dictate how the rest of your world is built. A society with dragon riders would likely have dragon stables, a history of lore about dragons (particularly if they are sapient), and a deeper understanding of dragons – perhaps even scientific understanding, advancing their understanding of anatomy and biology.

Every important aspect of your story can create an entire world around it. A warrior woman character who has to fight against sexism must live in a sexist society. A mute magician must mean that magic does not need magic words. Further, if you have an idea for your world first – such as a world inspired by Ancient Egypt – you can do the same with characters. What sorts of people were interesting in Ancient Egypt? I’m quite fond of the scribes and the female Pharaohs. That’s two characters right there to build alongside the world.

Finally, let’s discuss the adage: write what you know. Certainly I know nothing of living in Middle Earth, nor do I know any dragons personally, but in the broad sense, I know food, gardening, literature, philosophy, and theatre. So why not use those things you know and understand to add that spark to your world. Will you write a story about cooking? Probably not. But it’s details like a famous novel or a dragon thigh pie that give your world a sense of depth. A sense of something more than what we see.

The rest of worldbuilding is deciding what you need at all (few stories need detailed cosmology) and drawing it all together. Making the details work with one another and tying them into something cohesive. Apply the idea of a sexist society from your warrior woman to the dragon rider plot line. Can women be dragon riders? If those dragons make the bond instinctively, do they only bond with male humans? That is, in many ways, the art of worldbuilding. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but bringing eighty of them together and making it work, making it seem real, is the challenge.

Worldbuilding: Is it necessary?

Worldbuilding is the process of creating the setting for a fantasy or science fiction story. This can involve mapmaking, language creation, and the building of cultures, histories, and religions to fill the world with. In a broader sense, however, it specifically entails a degree of detail many writers give their worlds so that they exist, in some sense, beyond what is written on the page. They write notes on religion when only one character is religious, they draw dragons that went extinct five hundred years before the story begins, and they do the math to chart the stars so their hero never once looks up at the sky.

Some writers have created worlds as grand as our own through this, while others have created worlds contrived and bogged down by its own details. And some writers don’t do it at all. Rather than just spout my own thoughts, I’ve collected some quotes from respected authors of the genre.

I don’t do world building. I tell stories. The places exist because they serve the narrative. I don’t sit about drawing maps and working out the GNP of Melnibone. Indeed, I’m rather inclined to consider that the death of imagination. – Michael Moorcock (x)

Moorcock, author of the Elric sequence, has perhaps the strongest statement against it. The details form as they are needed for the story, and any inconsistencies is worked out in the post-production. The story drives the world. While I’d hesitate to call mapmaking “the death of imagination”, I find his ties between his setting and his narrative to be the highlight of his works, and something sorely missing in many fantasy works.

Tolkein, obviously, was one of the first modern fantasy writers to create a real immersive secondary fantasy world. One of the things that made his world seem so real is that you catch glimpses of other stories that aren’t explained in the book. I learned that lesson from him. – Patrick Rothfuss (x)

Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicles, brings up one of the strongest arguments in favour of detailed worldbuilding. The richness of the world. The flavour. A statue in the centre of town that depicts the general of the last great war. A small detail that adds history to the city. While knowing the details of that war may be unnecessary, knowing that it happened gives readers a sense of depth.

No, I haven’t been building a guidebook, though I do make ad hoc notes. I think this is a dangerous trap for fantasy writers. You can get caught up ‘worldbuilding’ and end up with all sorts of amazing detail and no story. I actually tend to make up only as much detail as I need for the story as I go along, though I do try and give the impression that there is much more there. I just don’t know what it is unless I need it for the story later, in which case I’ll work it out. I believe a fantasy novel should be like an iceberg. You can see some of it all the time, but you know there is much more, lurking dark and mysterious beneath the surface. – Garth Nix (x)

Nix, author of the Abhorsen trilogy, makes the excellent point that you can also give off the illusion of depth, that same hint of something more, without knowing what that ‘more’ is yourself. A skilled editor or note taker can keep these details straight without having to draw timelines or write entire novels worth of history.

Worlds are too big to build, or to know, or even, almost, to live in. A world is going to be compelling at least as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does. Nothing is more drably undermining of the awe at hugeness that living in a world should provoke than the dutiful ticking off of features on a map. ‘World-Building’, at its worst and most compulsive inexorably means the banalising of an imaginary totality. How fucking depressing is that? Surely we want culture shock, which is about not understanding, rather than understanding. And we can get culture shock at home, too. – China Miéville (x)

Miéville, author of the Bas-Lag novels, is certainly not a stranger to worldbuilding. The universe of his Bas-lag novels was a project of his for decades, and the detail in them is perhaps the greatest part of his writing. He is, however, critical of the process that so many writers go through to achieve that richness. Worldbuilding is a process that should be enjoyed, not one done out of necessity to the genre and not to build a world we’ve seen a thousand times, like another Middle Earth ripoff.

The so-called “soft” sciences are just as crucial to worldbuilding as the physical and natural sciences, and this applies equally to fantasy as well as science fiction. This is the literature of ideas, sure — but those ideas can and should include people, not just technology or magic. – N. K. Jemisin (x)

Jemisin, author of the Inheritance trilogy, reminds us of scope in her quote. Often when we discuss worldbuilding, we discuss mapmaking (a process she avoids in her own novels), conlanguages, and the greater picture – but it is often the smaller things, like how we interact and how we perceive our world, that give us the greatest sense of a world. For all the dragons and castles we may craft, they mean very little without people who are the product of such a world.

The main thing, overall, that I learned would simply be that: there are a thousand ways to create a place and a thousand ways to portray it, but if you follow your characters, honestly and to the end, the place will become real around them. – Jeff VanderMeer (x)

I think that says it all, really.

Fiction and Folkore in Fantasy Worlds

A topic that has always fascinated me is the topic of fantasy fiction… in fantasy fiction. A show within a show, perhaps, but expanded upon. In our world, elves and dragons and witches are creatures of folklore and fiction. They are our gods, our devils, and the cause of everything we cannot explain, from our husbands sleeping with the young bar wench to the disappearance of a dozen cows. No matter how much fun our sword and sorcery epics are, the origins of our genre are in myth and legend.

Fantasy writers often take for granted that there are answers to everything. If the characters worship a god, then there is a god. If that god has a creation myth, then that is actually how the world came to be. In fantasy, our answers for the unexplained are simply the correct answers.

Which is fine. A potential relationship with a physical god is an interesting concept. But the likelihood of the unexplained – that’s what fascinates me. I want to see a religion in a fantasy world that is, simply, false. There are no gods – or if there are gods, they aren’t the ones being worshipped – and there are is no soul. I want to see a world where magic exists, but that still doesn’t explain why some years the crop is bad and love doesn’t always last forever.

Further, we have the limitations of magic itself. In most stories, magic can do… basically anything, under the right circumstances. If you have enough people, enough artefacts, enough power – it’s doable. Sometimes, though, magic has clear boundaries. I like narratives, however short, about those boundaries.

A fun example of one comes from Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show in which magic is defined primarily by the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. In “The Fortuneteller”, the main characters meet a woman who reads the clouds, bones, and other forms of fortune-telling to predict the future. Sokka, the non-magic user of the group, is sceptical of her from the start, and surprisingly, he’s not portrayed as incorrect for his scepticism. In spite of living in a world with a spirit world, chakras, and elemental bending, Aunt Wu admits that her fortunes come true more through the person’s will, a self-fulfilling prophecy, than predestination.

The nature of fantasy literature within these worlds is interesting, as well. The writer, artist, and director protagonist is popular in fiction, but rarer in speculative works. What would a world of magic see as magical? When it is written, often the answer is: our world. Perhaps quite skewed, the country names all bastardized in the way we write fantasy names as Nzz’rtl instead of something sensible. But a world without magic. One must wonder, though, if you considered magic to be such an omnipotent force – like biology or physics in our world – if you could conceive of a world without them.

What would be the next step beyond a magical setting? Perhaps the closest we could imagine is surrealism. These are the sorts of things I think about to occupy my time. Fantasyception and whatnot. It adds a certain depth to the worlds, I think. As the creators of these worlds, we know everything there is to know. People draw starmaps and timelines of their worlds, but unless your world is relatively modern, odds are they don’t know every planet in their solar system, or the reason an apple falls from a tree. And their reasons for it in the mean time may be just as absurd – just as magical – as ours.