Tuesday, April 4, 2017

April is the Cruelest Month

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
– T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"
The more I read genre fiction, the more I realize that I'm not so much drawn in by any genre per se as by certain styles and artistic visions. One writer will click while another leaves me frustrated with myself for not enjoying what so many others esteem so highly.

One thing I find myself drawn to is the attempt on an author's part to make their invented world out of whole cloth. I don't mean that I like vivid descriptions and attention to detail, though these are fine when called for. What I mean is, I don't much like works that rely heavily on genre conventions, that bank on the reader's familiarity with common settings and tropes rather than building up an independent vision. My eyes just glide right over stuff like that. It's not that conventions are bad. All writing has abbreviations and shortcuts. But not much of truth or beauty, of strangeness or wonder or epiphany, is going to be found in an insubstantial tissue of borrowed elements.

I was recently introduced to the works of M. John Harrison through Fletcher Vredenburg's Black Gate reviews of the Viriconium books. What he had to say made me eager to read them, and an insightful older post by Matthew David Surridge at the same site piqued my curiosity even more. Thus far I've completed The Pastel City (1971) and A Storm of Wings (1980).

Here are stories that make their world out of whole cloth.

They're dying earth tales, it is true, and as such have something of a heroic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery "feel" while remaining what many people would call science fiction. That's what I like about the genre; that, and its peculiar blend of hopelessness, ennui, and hilarity, which the Viriconium books certainly embody. They paint their own picture, however, and it's a picture that's vivid to the point of painfulness but almost aggressively lacking in nuts-and-bolts world-building. About which more in a moment.

China Miéville has called it an injustice that Harrison hasn't received a Nobel Prize. I'm not competent to comment on that, as I rarely read the work of Nobel laureates. I do have to admit that I enjoyed the earlier and less ambitious Pastel City more than A Storm of Wings. I suppose I just gravitate toward the concrete, and A Storm of Wings is rather nebulous, with a weirdly drifting narrative and long passages describing the characters' perceptions and motivations.* I don't object to a book's being elliptical, mind you, and The Pastel City is certainly that. But it also kept me turning the pages to see what the resolution was going to be, and it's hard to think of a fantasy novel that's had that effect on me recently.

I think Mr. Vredenburgh puts the differences between the novels very well:
Despite sharing a similar structure with its predecessor, A Storm of Wings, is a more potent book, filled with headier feats of prose and narrative gameplaying. While The Pastel City remains an excellent heroic fantasy tale, I'm now able to perceive it best as the template for Harrison to build on and spin off from mad, wild, meta-fictional constructs. In an interview, Harrison said: "A good ground rule for writing in any genre is: start with a form, then undermine its confidence in itself," he says. "Ask what it's afraid of, what it's trying to hide – then write that." Too much heroic fantasy relies on a lazy adherence to simple tropes – the hero, the obvious enemy, etc. In this book, he is clearly taking it to task for that, and while you may agree with that, or not, it's hard not to hear and engage with his argument.
Both books are rather beautiful and rather melancholy. They revolve around ineffective protagonists who don't rightly know what they're doing or why. The tone isn't jocular like the Cugel stories, but there's some humor to go with the sadness and horror of slow decay. The style is broad, full-bodied, and poetic, with a painter's sensitivity to color. There are echoes of Jack Vance and The Dying Earth, but I think the books owe the greater debt to "The Waste Land," itself formed (like the world of Viriconium) of the incomprehensible detritus of ruined civilizations.**
THE river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

In his first review, Mr. Vredenburgh links to two thought-provoking essays by Harrison: "What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium" and this essay on world-building.*** The latter begins with the following assertion, with which I wholeheartedly concur:
Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.
Amen to that! Harrison goes on to say a number of other things with which I sharply disagree, however, including this rather dumb statement:
The whole idea of worldbuilding is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It's a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world's a watch & God's the watchmaker.
Why is that dumb? (1) It employs the pejorative BS blanket term "fundamentalist Christian" and (2) it calls the watchmaker analogy a "fundamentalist Christian" view when it's actually more of an already-secularized Deist view. I mean, the history of the analogy is complicated, but I would hardly call people like Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton "fundamentalist Christians." Still, Harrison might have a point about watchmaking and world-building. Unfortunately, he goes on to this even dumber statement:
Worldbuilding is the province of people who, like Tolkien, actually resist the idea it's a game, and have installed their "secondary creation" concept as an aggressive defense of that position.
Tolkien resisted the idea that it's a game? In "On Fairy-Stories" he practically defines secondary creation as a game. Actually – and I suspect that this is the sticking point – it's defined as something of a divine game. Tolkien viewed fantasy much as his contemporary, the Catholic theologian Romano Guardini, viewed the liturgy of the mass, that is, as play. The self-deprecating yet gentle and hopeful tone of his essay's companion myth, "Leaf by Niggle," makes it pretty clear how he regarded his own world-building and its cosmic (in-)significance. His philosophy of fantasy bears little resemblance to the flattened caricature subjected to Harrison's procrustean bed.

Of course, it's arguable that Tolkien's "game," being in earnest rather than metafictional, isn't the kind of game Harrison likes to play. Still, I don't see how anyone could see Tolkien the author as some sort of demiurgic control freak. Is Middle Earth really such a closed system? If that's so, where do elements like Tom Bombadil fit in? Not even the characters of The Lord of the Rings are certain.
I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it. But many have found him an odd or indeed discordant ingredient. In historical fact I put him in because I had already "invented" him independently (he first appeared in the Oxford Magazine) and wanted an "adventure" on the way. But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out. [Tolkien, in a draft of a letter that wasn't sent ("it seemed to be taking myself too importantly"), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, pp. 187-196]
The same letter contains a number of other interesting admissions. E.g.,
The tale is after all in the ultimate analysis a tale, a piece of literature, intended to have literary effect, and not real history. Thus the device adopted, that of giving its setting an historical air or feeling, and (an illusion of ?) three dimensions, is successful, seems shown by the fact that several correspondents have treated it in the same way – according to their different points of interest or knowledge: i.e., as if it were a report of "real" times and places, which my ignorance or carelessness had misrepresented in places or failed to describe properly to others. Its economics, science, artefacts, religion, and philosophy are defective, or at least sketchy. [ibid.]
Is that very different from the things Harrison has said about his Viriconium books? Actually, Tolkien's impatience with certain kinds of fans is familiar to anyone who's read his correspondence. In Tolkien's view, there is a broad difference between secondary creation and the kind of commercial world-building represented by this handy-dandy SFWA tips sheet, two approaches that Harrison appears to conflate.

Curiously, however, I believe that the other essay, "What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium," gets it exactly right from beginning to end.
The commercial fantasy that has replaced [the great modern fantasies] is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else's metaphor, or realise someone else's rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, "Yes, but what did Sauron look like?"; or, "Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?"; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien's images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them.  Literalisation is important to both writers and readers of commercial fantasy. The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes – their appearance of being a whole world – is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over "Tolkien's World."
With far greater concision and profundity than my skills allow, this says something I've been trying to get at since I started this blog, and perfectly expresses my attitude toward commercial fantasy. The provenance of the two essays isn't altogether clear to me, and I find it puzzling that Harrison, who wrote "What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium" first, later transferred his judgment of the sandbox-building revisionists and their readers to Tolkien himself.

But here let us take our leave of M. John Harrison for the time being. I shall continue to read his Viriconium stories because I think they're good and well worth the effort, and his provoking essays have provided some grist for the old blog-mill, for which I thank him.

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* It has occurred to me that, whatever its artistic value, the use of postmodernist deconstruction in genre fiction is potentially a very clever commercial ploy. People nowadays have little patience for the less-than-consistent, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants serials of yesteryear. Well, if carefully cultivated, a postmodernist pose lets the genre writer get away with pretty much anything in the way of self-contradiction, and critics (genre critics) will laud his or her work to the skies and gush about how close it is to real literature. That reflects what I'm always saying, which is that fantasy, when it tries to stop being itself and hobnob with high society, just ends up appropriating a bunch of outdated fashions. There's something absurd about genre writing that festoons itself with the trappings of what the cool kids were doing decades ago and calls itself "literary." Not that I think The Pastel City or A Storm of Wings fall into that, exactly...

A little deconstruction is a fine thing in a genre story. It adds bite. But you see what I mean? It's as much a material element as any of the little tricks Lin Carter recommends in Imaginary Worlds. Readers tolerate it, or even enjoy it, so long as it's subordinated to the end of the story. Deconstruction as an end in itself is a pursuit for the literati. In genre fiction, it's just a narcissistic (!) betrayal of readers. It's also as pointless, derivative, and time-bound as Lin Carter's clumsiest pastiche.

** T. S. Eliot was famously inspired by Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance. His poems are referenced repeatedly by Apocalypse Now, and From Ritual to Romance – the very same edition I have on my bookshelf, as a matter of fact – is visible in Kurtz's dwelling at the end of the film. What I'm saying is, I could have worked all this into my last post, which also touched on The Valley of Gwangi, hollow earth theories, Pellucidar, Kong: Skull Island, "Heart of Darkness," colonialism, weird German conquistador movies, and various other things, but I didn't.

*** "What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium" was (so far as I can discover) written in 1996 and subsequently published in a fanzine. The other essay appears to have been copied from an archived version of a blog post. It's possible that they were both typed by dogs with keyboards. That's the Internet for you.