Blood and Thunder

 

I have written in this space before, and discussed it at the S & P podcast, my recent discovery of Robert Howard. I have become something of a bore on this topic, truth be told.

The practical upshot of which is, I’ve started a project I’ve long tossed back and forth in the to-do pile. I’ve mentioned it before. Over this past week I finally sat down and wrote a first chapter.

It’s a draft, but steady reads of Fritz Leiber are improving my mood and feel for it, as are taking the time to draft character sheets and even some name-brainstorming with the wife (I had a name for my protagonist that I didn’t like, but couldn’t think of a better one. I now have one that fits the world and the character). It’s now my primary project.

In The Sword news, I submitted to an agent last week as well. I’ve a few more on deck should I get another rejection. We’ll see how it goes.

The Merry Spirit of War

A Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger is a book so opposite to All Quiet on the Western Front so thoroughly as to be hardly discussing the same war. And in a sense, they are. Storm of Steel is essentially a diary, a recitation of facts and occurrences, held together by the observer. All Quiet, is a novel, which, however much it draws from Remarque’s real life experiences, has the ambition of a social novel: to put the cast of characters as shadows of their social obligation, and make note of who suffers and who profits. Since we’re talking about German soldiers in the Trenches of WWI, it’s mostly suffering. All Quiet, like Siegfried Sassoon’s poems, are less a story than a dirge.

Which is what makes Storm of Steel so bracing. Junger dispenses with being shocked that war is horrible and does what most soldiers in that war did, i.e., gets on with it. Death is not ignored, nor randomness, nor folly, but they are treated with concision and immediacy. Junger’s prose, while evocative, is never purple.

Several times, I murmurd a phrase of Ariosto’s:

“A great heart feels no dread of approaching death, whenever it may come, so long as it e honorable.”

That produced a pleasant kind of intoxication of the sort that one experiences, maybe, on a rollercoaster.

It bears far closer resemblance to a book long forgotten, Over the Top by Arthur Guy Empey. Published while the war was still going on, by an American discharged from the British Army, it has more than a few touches of propaganda, clanging lines about “this great war for civilization” (After being wounded during the Somme, Empey was discharged from the British Army, and served as a propaganda officer in the U.S. Army until he made a speech critical of draftees and was withdrawn. He later had a career writing and directing in Silent-Era Hollywood). But the bulk of the novel is comic, casting the mud and the blood and the bombs in wry terms. It even includes “Tommy’s Dictionary of the Trenches” which takes precisely the Biercean tone it should:

Bayonet. A sort of knife-like contrivance which fits on the end of your rifle. The Government issues it to stab Germans. Tommy uses it to toast bread.

Empey does not cast himself in the hero’s role, but more as a comedic sojourner lucky to come out alive. He does not spare the generals, or pretend that things like shooting deserters by firing squad is not unpleasant business (one gets the overall sense that Empey has little interest in, or respect for, authority, and regards them as a necessary evil). His book gives wonderfully specific details about life in a front-line trench, and the routine of surviving it.

Both of these longer works remind me of C.S. Lewis’ discussion of his time in the trenches in his memoir. Lewis largely preferred the wartime army to public school, largely because one was not obligated to feign enjoyment of one’s time in the first. But his perspective was summed up in his reaction to the first time he heard a bullet crack the air near him. “Oh,” he thought, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

 

Cover Aesthetics

I’m the sort of guy who likes minimalist covers. A single image, one or three colors, something striking, a bold font. I like seeing those kinds of books. I like buying them. One of the things that hold me off from a lot of Fantasy literature, especially the Pulp kind, is the genre of cover art just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m slowly getting over that, however, as I’ve read enough to know that the pulp style is usually an honest display of what’s in the book. That has it’s own merit, even if I still find it too busy for my eyes.

Something like this, for example…

25952316._uy2128_ss2128_

…is perfect. Dark colors suggest mystery, the image is striking and portends danger. And this novel is a Dragon-Award winner, and as good an example of the swords & sorcery genre as you’re like to find. 

Then there’s something like this…

9781513655604

Completely different genre, of course (comedic urban social novel), so it’s supposed to look slightly odd. But again, plain background, so everything is focused on the image, which is suggestive of graffiti and whimsy. I haven’t read it, but I kind of want to.

On the Shores of Cevalon – New Story in the Works

I have often mentioned my interest in epic fantasy, and that I have been working on my own homebrew world, in fits and starts, for a long time. I have put in some drawing time using the aforementioned Fantasy Maps drawing guide, and I’ve already started constructing a story on my new map. It’s part of the overall world of Cevalon, which I’ve been expanding to include more lands beyond its shores and a more clearly spelled out mythology & history.

And as part of getting myself back into actually writing in the world, I’ve outlined a new small project to start on for the new year. I actually started it without an outline, then junked the start and went back and did the scut-work. I was trying for a first-person narrative, which is usually fun, but for some reason didn’t work for me. A bit of Robert Howard (“The Black Colossus”, to be specific) and I decided to avoid a self-overhearing ironic approach, as is common to the Drunk Vampire Hunter stories (which really need a post of their own), and play it a little more straight. It’s kind of an experiment in world-building.

What’s it called?

The King’s Ransom.

What’s it about?

A bastard prince finds redemption in rescuing his full-blood brother, the King, from fiendish enemies. A trio of scheming princesses round out the family as a kingdom beset by enemies human and demonic dances on the edge of chaos.

It’s got the shape of a novella at this point, but who knows. I’ve got an outline.

Dan Simmons Demonstrates There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

Apparently he committed thoughtcrime by criticizing Little Angry Climate Girl, whereupon the usual gang of Two-Minute-Haters jumped up and down, whereupon his most well-known book shot up to #1 on Amazon. Larry Correia has the details.

Now, logically speaking, we must stipulate that Correlation is not Causality, so it’s entirely possible that the Legions of Woke were not the cause of Dan Simmons’ thirty-year-old book getting purchased by everyone who wearies of the Legions of Woke.

But if something else were the cause, then that might be even worse for the Neo-Puritans. Because that means their *INTERNET RAGE* had no power to derail … whatever that cause was. Incompetence or irrelevance, take your pick.

This reminds us that, absent a real armed struggle, the perpetually angry only have the power that you grant them. And once people realize that, realize that there are plenty of people who are sick as they are of the endless noise, then the noise retreats accordingly. As Rotten Chestnuts has it:

once the revolutionary fervor passed away with the first generation of fanatics, Puritanism was unsustainable.  In Massachusetts, for example, they were hanging witches in 1693; by 1698 Cotton Mather was being openly mocked, and by 1700 everyone was pretending that the whole sordid business never happened.

Stand Your Ground seems to be the operant principle.

 

Considering John O’Brien

The author of Leaving Las Vegas pretty well fit the cliche of the alcoholic writer. He embodied it so well, in fact, that it killed him.

O’Brien had been a hardcore alcoholic for much of his life. His sister, Erin O’Brien, said of his drinking: “John’s drinking problem started as soon as his drinking started. By the time he was 20, he was taking a clandestine flask to work. By the time he was 26, he was chugging vodka directly from the bottle at morning’s first light in order to stave off the shakes.”

In popular culture, it is often written that Leaving Las Vegas was the author’s suicide note, perhaps to try and make something ugly a tad bit prettier. His sister takes exception to that. “That story was the fantasy version of John’s exit,” says Erin, “The man who goes to Vegas and fades away in his sleep with a beautiful woman at his side? John’s death was nothing like that.”

Erin O’Brien has spent many years being the keeper of her brother legacy. “John was profoundly misunderstood by most people,” she told me. “There has been very little intelligent commentary out there on him and his work.”

This is relevant not just because Leaving Las Vegas is a masterpiece of prose style, albeit one that has drifted off the cultural radar in the last 20 years (virtually everything does, and if I can discover the novel 20 years later, there’s no reason anyone else can’t), but because of the promise destroyed. O’Brien had the talent to become a major American author, perhaps the best of his generation. Instead, he became the embodiment of what became his magnum opus by default. The true artist should always be larger than his work, not bound by it.

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Space Opera

If you define fantasy as “a story that cannot occur in the real world”, as this web site does, then you can include sci-fi in that, as sci-fi takes places in worlds unseen and with technology uninvented, and any technology sufficiently advanced functions more or less like magic in the minds of many people.

But I’m not quite sure about that.

There’s definitely a link between sci-fi and fantasy, as both tend to be adventure stories. But Fantasy is by definition “unreal”, while sci-fi is “could be real”. Technology can seem magical, but it isn’t magic.

Which is why people tend to say “Sci-Fi and Fantasy” rather than just “Fantasy”. Related, but not a subset of. Because you can mix them, and the result is known as “Space Opera”.

Or is it? Here’s Tor.com working themselves into a later on the virtues of Space Opera, but holding off on really defining it (or refuting the statement that it’s Fantasy in Space). They talk about color and style, and poetry, but that seems to me a question of style, which is not really ontological.

To me, Space Opera means that there are elements of the universe that rely on speculative technology, space travel, and other Future Tropes, and also elements of the magical and supernatural. Star Wars is the most commonly known expression of this, but I think Dune qualifies even more, because with Dune the mystical/supernatural stands apart, plot-wise, from the tech. The Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilaxu are the institutional expressions of the cleavage.

What’s operatic in Dune is the struggle of Paul to understand himself, as well as the struggle against the Emperor and the Harkonnens. The remainder of the novels deal with the consequences of that struggle through the generations, as the metaphysical singularity represented by Paul is worked through by his son, Leto II, the God-Emperor.

The spice is real, and has a life-cycle, but it’s no less magic for all of that. It enables a mind to fold space and time, to see without seeing. The Worm is God.

If you keep the spice and lose the space travel, you have a struggle amid houses for dominance of the magic thing, which will play out much like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you keep the space travel, and lose the Spice, you have a sci-fi story about assassins and feudal regimes, with human enemies instead of aliens. The elements of each make make the other greater, while remaining distinct.

dune-1159937-1280x0

George R.R. Martin is Seriously Starting to Bore Me

In the last issue of UJ, I penned an essay about how I felt regarding the end of Game of Thrones. In that essay, I argued that the spirit of Martin’s work is essentially pagan, and the influence of Robert Howard is far more present than that of Tolkein, who filled his work with a Catholic ethos. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Beowulf is at least as pagan as it is Christian (anyone who argues that it’s basically a pagan worldview with Christian seasoning won’t get much argument from me), and it’s a rich epic. But it ends on a down note, one of death and fear and cold. So does Game of Thrones, which has its one incorruptible hero cast aside like trash, basically so the show could pull one more sucker punch.

And here’s Martin, in his notablog, barbering on about this years Hugo awards, as if anyone cares:

I am not a believer in any afterlife, and I don’t think that Gardner was either… so as nice as it would be to think that he was looking down on us from the Secret Pro Party in the Sky, I can’t.

And there you have it, really. Death is a sleep. The Void is King. Jon Snow was always going to become Nothing, because there’s nothing out there to become.

Which makes me start to doubt about his commitment to finishing. Especially since he’s teasing his fans as to the damn prequel series for HBO. In some part of his mind, A Song of Ice and Fire is already finished, and the idea of putting in the work to actually finish it feels like a gigantic slog. This whole thing was over the minute the series overtook the books.

Garbage Pseudo-Psychology? Possibly. Despair? Definitely.

Doesn’t mean I’m wrong, though.

Some Books to Check Out

Since I mentioned it the other day, you can pick up a copy of Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful on Kindle for 99 cents.

It looks, based on the sample, to be properly formatted, too.

Additionally, the micro-press whose podcast I’ve been following, Dead Rabbit Books, has launched their first title, Emerald City by founder Brian Birnbaum. It’s something of a social novel and something of a thriller.

Just in case you’ve got nothing to read on a Tuesday.

What Even is a Novel?

A Novel is a book in most people’s minds. Saying “I wrote a novel,” and “I wrote a book” are synonymous with most of the population. Thus, saying “I wrote a novella” indulges in jargon, and jargon always sounds mildly pretentious to those outside of the group that invented it. Also, it sounds like “lesser novel”, which is what it is. Which is why I may start describing my novellas as “literary doodles”. It sounds more fun.

Dictionary.com ontologizes it as “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” I’m a bit skeptical of the last bit, as that seems to be a trait of the literary or social novel. But then how much realism is “some”?

And the “of book length” seems to ask as many questions as it answers. How long is a book? If a book isn’t long enough, does it cease to be a book? Did Dr. Seuss write bookellas?

The word “novel” derives from the Latin for “new”, which suggests a focus on current things. This may be the reason Sir Walter Scott distinguished the novel from the romance, which was supposed to be about matters marvellous in nature. This would mean that The Lord of the Rings would properly be termed a “romance”, which would no doubt please Tolkien. However, other european languages, such as French, use the word “roman” (or its equivalent) to mean “novel.”

So we’re back to Long Prose Fictional Narrative. Which is what most people mean. I love it when a plan comes together.