Saturday, February 18, 2006

Eagles And Canines And Balrogs - Oh My!

Gung Hei Fat Choy everyone! A belated welcome to the Year of the Dog.
I’ve gotta confess: events around Chinese New Year’s celebrations in my neck of the woods this year went to the dogs in some respects, but there was some good mixed in with the bad. Dinner for the holiday with my wife’s family was a dog’s breakfast as usual (had to keep with the canine motif). Imagine 14 people going to a nice restaurant and the uncles in charge only ordering enough food to feed 8 light eaters. And these are only mediocre dishes too. It’s kinda like taking a date out to Morton’s and ordering a hotdog for both of you. They proceeded then to swipe the lai-si away from us as quickly as we could take them out of our pockets, but gave us nothing in return – exploiting the technicality that says once you’re married they don’t have to give you lucky money any more, even though most families continue to give, and if we fail to give them their red pockets, even though they’re married, they’d scream bloody blue murder. I know tradition says it’s good luck to give red pockets and it’s not about receiving them. But this is one of the reasons why my wife refers to them as “the beggar tribe” and refuses to associate with them at any other time of the year. On the up side, the following evening we had an orphan’s Chinese New Year’s dinner for some friends of ours with no family here on BC’s Lower Mainland, and that was a lot of fun. Ultimately, I guess you could say the holiday was in balance, which is very appropriate in a Buddhist sort of way.
And, of course, no Chinese New Year would be complete without a screening of that John Carpenter/Kurt Russell masterpiece: “Big Trouble In Little China”. My wife thinks it’s absurd and refuses to be in the same room when I watch it. I’d like to point out for the record that it is absurd, and that’s the point, and that’s why it’s so good. A movie with action, humor and weird monsters running around that doesn’t take itself seriously is a definite must have. How can you not love Russell’s character Jack Burton as he swaggers around with his bad John Wayne impression that only lasts as long as he’s comfortable showing off and fades like gunpowder smoke as soon as the water starts to rise in the elevator that stops in The Hell Of The Upside-down Sinners. What makes it more interesting is that for once, the swaggering, good-looking, tough-guy, white American is only the sidekick – completely in the dark and playing second fiddle to the wily little Chinese hero Wang who’s in search of his bride-to-be. And I can’t say how many times I’ve seen that movie over the years, but it still leaves me in stitches when the villain Lo-Pan in his “little old basketcase” form snaps at the captive Russell: “You were not put on this earth to ‘get it’, Mr. Burton!” Like Carpenter and Russell say on the commentary track: there are only two kinds of moviegoers, those who love “Big Trouble In Little China” and those who don’t get it and hate it. Sign me up for a big ol’ mug of Egg Shen’s magic potion.
Anyhow, getting back to the title’s topic of beasties in speculative fiction these days, I found myself realizing there’s been a bit of an animalistic theme to my reading of late.
Back in January, just prior to the advent of the Year of the Dog, I was coincidentally going through Kit Reed’s new collection of short stories “Dogs of Truth”. I was looking forward to this book after reading her biting, funny and disturbing attack on the ramifications of modern fitness flexing its muscle on pop culture and self-image in “Thinner Than Thou” this summer. “Dogs” however, was, like an over-bred purebred, somewhat hit and miss. I enjoyed her take on the classic midnight haunting scenario in “The Zombie Prince”, as well as her wry tale of codependency amidst the apocalypse in “Captive Kong”. It’s hard not to like the sense of humor in this author who’s seen every high school movie ever made and who suggests in “High School High” that an individual’s life and personality is formed by their prom night experience. But the writing in “High School High” and “Grand Opening” illustrates a flaw in Reed’s style, because in all too many of her stories, her narrative voice wastes time by stopping the story and talking to the reader. It’s like a car pulling out of a garage with the parking break still on, but the driver does it on purpose. I think one of the reasons I so dislike a narrator talking to me is because it’s rarely done well. Unfortunately, Reed is among those lacking the necessary skill. Her stories without a narrator interjecting like a wino on the bus are infinitely superior for that choice of subtlety of style.
From dogs of truth to birds of prey, I next dove into Jack Whyte’s latest addition to his realistic take on the Arthurian legend: “The Eagle”. It picks up the tale of the man who will be the inspiration for Sir Lancelot. Clothar the Frank is a post-Roman trooper who’s rank of lancerius and skill at hurling his bamboo spears earn him the nickname of “Lance”.
From the outset, Clothar, despite being an uncouth outlander, is the man closest to Arthur and yet he’s doomed to be kept at a distance. As the High King’s most skilled knight commander and one of his wisest advisors, Clothar is dispatched to the north and later home to Gaul, where Arthur intends him to stay permanently to train cavalry for the Gallic kings as a first line of defence against the threat of the rampaging Huns. Whyte does a brilliant job of conveying the Lance’s frustration as he’s torn between his duty to the king’s orders to serve as ambassador and military advisor on the mainland, and his desire to return to Britain and help his ailing friend hold his realm together.
While Clothar does, in fact, have Gwinnifer for his own by the novel’s conclusion, Whyte sidesteps the sappy melodrama of the French tradition of the legend, and does not embroil the knight and queen in a treacherous extramarital affair against Arthur that tears the kingdom apart. Instead, Gwinnifer remains a loving and loyal wife, mirroring Arthur’s own love, and Clothar stays their dutiful friend. The union of Clothar and the former queen comes only after Arthur and the dream of Camulod are nothing more than memories. Even Mordred is portrayed in a better light, having no part in his father’s downfall.
But it is Clothar’s distance from the events that bring Arthur and Camulod down that show the depth of skill in Whyte’s writing, even if they are a little exasperating to readers who naturally want to see every detail of the kingdom’s collapse. We truly experience Clothar’s frustrations by not seeing those events first hand, caught-up as we are in his own efforts to brace the Gallic kings against the barbarism to come, and in his journey to his roots on Lake Geneva. As Clothar hears of events in Britain only through increasingly infrequent dispatches from Camulod, so are we limited in our knowledge – there is no smug omniscient narrative to spoon-feed the reader with all the details poor Clothar is not privy to. Being as much in the dark as he is makes him more real to us.
It also heightens the feeling of the speed of Camulod’s collapse. While hundreds of pages can be devoted to Clothar’s travels and political machinations and military adventures in the course of his duties, the dispatches he receives are not day-by-day experiences, but short summaries of many events occurring over months or years. Having witnessed Britain slip into darkness so quickly from so great a distance away, we find ourselves like Clothar, regretful and feeling powerless. This distance from those events also adds to the sense that they are somewhat unreal – we see the foundations of myth being laid in actual events only heard about through the fog of time, location and individual interpretation. This is most blatantly illustrated by Clothar’s sifting through and discarding of the various versions of the tale that have come to him over the years – the popularized versions where he and the queen cuckolded Arthur, or where Mordred was his father’s bane.
And in the aftermath, as with any good story, the reader who’s soldiered through all nine books in the series is left wondering, “What happens now? Will the author ever fill in the blanks and tell me what I missed?” Sadly, but appropriately, the answer is no. The tale now passes into myth and speculation. Whyte begins his author’s note at the end of the book by saying this was the last book in his saga. Clearly then it is Whyte speaking as much as Clothar at the end of the tale when the knight writes of how eventually all of the people who made Camulod great eventually died and how he will miss all of them. As will the rest of us.
So what to read now?
R. Scott Bakker’s “The Thousandfold Thought”, the third book in his “Prince of Nothing” series has finally hit the shelves and I’m trudging through it now (as I write this, I’m through the first quarter) and feeling like his Inrithi crusaders as they dragged themselves through the desert in the last installment. I want to like this series because it’s a large-scale fantasy that’s been thought-out in great detail, and because the author’s from London, Ontario and there’s a bit of a patriotic drive to support a Canadian with a vision and the guts to try to get his story published, and because London’s not too far from my old hometown.
But I just can’t bring myself to say it’s more than mildly interesting.
Maybe it’s because the story hasn’t yet convinced me that it isn’t anything more than a Tolkien knock-off with a crusades angle to it. Maybe it’s the deliberately overwrought tongue-twisting names. Maybe it’s because I’m getting tired of the author’s overuse of pronunciation marks on his vowels (Bakker does love his umlauts, doesn’t he?). Maybe it’s because as I read it I get the sense that if the author was reading it aloud he’d be using weighty, highly significant tones to indicate edginess and the portentousness of every sentence - like truly pretentious people often do when they read the sputum they regard as their own brilliance (and I should know, having had that flaw on occasion – we can smell our own). Maybe it’s that extremely pretentious picture of Bakker on the rear fold of the cover, half in light, half in shadow with that just-on-the-verge-of-a-sneer oh-boy-aren’t-I-ever-so-intelligent-and-cool-and-now-all-of-your-who-mocked-me-in-the-junior-high-locker-room-will-have-to-deal-with-your-shame-at-my-success stare affected on his face.
But I think it’s really because I’m not satisfied with his portrayal of his warrior-prophet, mega logician, uber psychologist Anasurimbor Kellhus. It seems (and who knows, I may be proven wrong by the end of the book/series) that Bakker’s taking the easy way out and casting Kellhus in the role of “The Chosen One” (insert an orchestra’s thunderous Da-da-DAAAAAAA!!!! music for effect).
Wouldn’t it be so very much more interesting and complex for this armed Aristotelian monk to actually be a fallible human being, and for the other human beings around him to be that much more fallible for falling under his spell?
Wouldn’t it be far more sophisticated if Kellhus made a mistake in his incessant calculations, as Cnaiur (anyone else slip and think/say Conan on this one?) the grasslands destroyer did during the battle of book two?
Wouldn’t it be refreshing for Kellhus to have to deal with a serious personal crisis that he wasn’t equipped to handle, much as he forces others around him into introspective nightmares? To be sure, Cnaiur is the voice of doubt in Kellhus’ infallibility for readers. But Bakker subverts that by undermining Cnaiur’s doubts at every turn and conveniently driving Cnaiur mad with his inability to reconcile the truth of Kellhus’ might (yawn). And yes, Kellhus does have the threat of his jedi-esque popeish father looming in the wastelands ahead. But Bakker never turns aside from his portrayal of Kellhus as the cold and controlling next step in human evolution destined to either defeat “the evil power” or (maybe he’ll throw in a bit of a twist, though not unexpected) and supplant it.
In maintaining this course, Bakker utterly fails at creating a three-dimensional character who, heavens to betsy, might actually be interesting. Man-plus had its day of SF chic, but that’s long gone. It’s not like he’s merely an alien figure who we never get to ride along with and thus never get to know and who provides a backdrop for a study of the humanity of the characters around him who the story is truly focusing on – Kellhus’ point of view is imposed on us, reinforcing that he is infallible, and consequently a bore. Paul Muad’dib Atreides may have seen the roadmap of possibilities laid before the people of Dune, but he had his doubts and moments of weakness, which is why we, as readers, give a damn about what happens to him.
Sounds kinda stupid then that I keep buying his books, doesn’t it? But there’s that whole bit about wanting to support Canadian SF authors. And part of me keeps hoping Bakker will pick up a little more skill in his storytelling and, like Kellhus, truly win me over. Hasn’t happened yet.
With that in mind, I’m planning ahead to something that I will thoroughly enjoy once I’m done with the Book of Nothing. Lots of choices on the old bookshelf. We’re in the middle of a curiously clear cold snap here on the Wet Coast right now, and granted, it’s not the real cold that squats like a sumo wrestler over the rest of the Great White North every winter, but –10 is cold enough for these parts. The biggest surprise has been no rain for the past week. And that’s afforded me a rarity in the BC winter – a view of the stars. That’s got me to thinkin’ it’s time again to walk with the elves beneath the stars at the dawn of Middle Earth. Time to crack open Tolkien’s Silmarillion again. I tend to read the good professor’s works in cycles, alternating from year to year between “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Hobbit”, and the afore-mentioned collection of tales about the formation and early years of Middle Earth and the dwindling of the elves. Once in a while I’ll pick up “Tales From the Perilous Realm”. It’s been decades since he first put pen to paper, but no one beats Tolkien. Someone once asked me why I bother rereading books, since I already know the story. My response was that’s the true test of how good a book is, whether you can read again and still love it. Even if you’ve read it a few times and mined all the possible meanings and subtleties out of it, if you can still appreciate the crafting of it, and most importantly, get the same emotional charge out of it, the book’s worthy of an honoured place on the bookshelf and worthy of the time and attention to reread it.
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