Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 02:06 on 21-08-2016, Bill
It's amazing how many male British fantasy writers--Moorcock, Pullman, Mieville--at some point go public with their beefs with Tolkien. To go overly Freudian about it, it's as if fantasy writing by British men in the last 50-60 years has been basically an Oedipal struggle with Papa Tolkien.
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at 01:50 on 21-08-2016, James D
Bill, I assume you've read Moorcock's more-famous "Epic Pooh" essay? He goes into more detail about his beef with Tolkien and similar works in that one. I mostly don't agree with him, but he does make some points, most of which apply far better to Tolkien ripoffs than to Tolkien himself.
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at 01:23 on 21-08-2016, Bill
I think there's an enormous difference between saying Orcs are irredeemably evil and saying Jews are irredeemably evil in that Orcs do not actually exist. (Tolkien's own attitude towards Nazism and anti-Semitism is unambiguous--he loathed them.) And I'm not sure Moorcock's work is devoid of unredeemably evil peoples--the Granbretanians in Hawkmoon? For that matter, could one substitute for "Anointed King" Eternal Champion? Moorcock's whole Law-Chaos dichotomy, particularly in the earlier work where Chaos is pretty unambiguously the baddies, also goes rather oddly with anti-authoritarianism. If one reads Moorcock as ungenerously as Moorcock reads Tolkien one can fit him with the proto-fascist brown shirt without too much difficulty. As for Tolkien's belief in the sacred powers of legitimate monarchy, it has more to do with seventeenth-century Jacobitism than with fascism. (One of my problems with the essay is that Moorcock lumps a diverse range of authoritarian philosophies, from Tolkien's premodern sacred monarchy to Heinlein's dictatorship of Competent Men together as "fascism.")
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at 00:35 on 21-08-2016, Adrienne
In re Tolkien vs Mein Kampf - Tolkien does posit certain classes or species of beings as uniquely and irredeemably evil? And the world has to be restored from a Dark Age by an Anointed King? I mean, I wouldn't make the comparison myself but i also don't think it's as much of a stretch as you're making it out to be.
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at 22:49 on 20-08-2016, Bill
His reading of Tolkien (whose name he consistently misspells) is bizarre--I can't even figure out who he's talking about when he says Tolkien's villains (the passage is a bit ambiguous) are "thinly disguised working-class agitators"? Sauron? Saruman?
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at 22:11 on 20-08-2016, James D
That would be fine if Moorcock extended the same understanding you think we should show him to other writers rather than beginning his essay by equating The Lord of the Rings with Mein Kampf.

Yeah, that's a point, and generally speaking I don't think he's on the money about LOTR or Tolkien. He tends to use hyperbole and radical language and sometimes goes too far for dramatic purposes, or maybe to get attention. I don't think that invalidates his larger points about sci-fi and fantasy's reactionary bent, and neither do his failures to consistently rise above the tropes in his own writing.

The fact that he sometimes stooped to writing things he lambasted others for writing is less important, I think, than his observations that many authors were perfectly happy to always write in that mode.

I mean, we could look at other last-generation progressive authors that way - Octavia Butler for example fought against racism and sexism in genre fiction, but did sometimes use racist and sexist tropes herself (which is the reason she later kept Survivor out of print). I don't have more trouble taking her seriously because of that.
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at 21:07 on 20-08-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Hmm, I guess Moorcock wants his readers to implicitly understand that by "radical" he specifically means egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and anti-elitist, which from everything I hear rules out Heinlein. This was probably taken as read in the venues where he originally published it, so perhaps it's all right that he didn't spell this out?


No doubt. I should have specified I was replying to that reading list in the book of interviews of anarchist writers and why someone would put Heinlein there, who by some works could be considered anti-establishment and against state authority. But then again, in some cases not. I wonder about Tolkien and Herbert though. But a wide net is probably smart, given that radical or even anarchist are not unambigious terms.
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at 18:30 on 20-08-2016, Robinson L
Yeah, Moorcock himself invites this kind of critical engagement with his works in the article, when he mentions his own works which feature lords and ladies and aristocrats and the like. The defense he gives is different from the points James raises: he says the important thing is to look at how these tropes are used and to what ends. This suggests to me he thought he was doing something subversive with those stories, though he doesn't go into detail to explain what, or how.

I've only read his original Elric stories the once, and on the strength of Arthur's recommendation, probably won't ever check out Hawkmoon or Corum. Those Elric stories didn't strike me as particularly anti-establishment, but I'm not the best at reading between the lines. I'd be interested to get Arthur's perspective on Moorcock's fantasy works.

There's also a subplot about an aristocrat who's also a Robin Hood shout-out in The Coming of the Terraphiles, the only other Moorcock book I've read to date. I found this a little difficult to reconcile with Moorcock's stated contempt for Robin Hood in the article, especially since his character doesn't even rob from the rich and give to the poor. Anyway, the subplot is all about this good-natured but impoverished aristocrat who wants to persuade a nouveau riches to give or sell him back his family's ancestral planet of Sherwood, so that he can set everything right with it again and put a Virgin King on the throne. The end to this subplot is that Sherwood ends up going to the guy's best chum after said aristocrat himself has gotten caught up in the obligatory NuWho noble sacrifice climax. Again, if there's anything subversive going on in this subplot, it went straight over my head - it read more like a straightforward English upper-class comedy of manners a la Wodehouse (but much less entertaining) than anything else.


@Janne: Hmm, I guess Moorcock wants his readers to implicitly understand that by "radical" he specifically means egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and anti-elitist, which from everything I hear rules out Heinlein. This was probably taken as read in the venues where he originally published it, so perhaps it's all right that he didn't spell this out?
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at 18:23 on 20-08-2016, Bill
That would be fine if Moorcock extended the same understanding you think we should show him to other writers rather than beginning his essay by equating The Lord of the Rings with Mein Kampf.
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at 16:59 on 20-08-2016, James D
I find the bad faith of everything Moorcock writes on the relationship of politics and literature so overwhelming that I can't take him seriously even when he does have a good point.

Well keep in mind we're examining the views of a human being across a career that spans 50 years. He changed his mind sometimes, he wasn't always careful about what he wrote or said. The problem with his potboiler heroic fantasy stuff was that it typically sold much better than his more politically-minded works - The Ice Schooner, The Black Corridor, the Colonel Pyatt and Jerry Cornelius series - so he absolutely made concessions in his politics for money and fame. Arguably, however, it was all to fund and find an audience for his politically radical fiction, which is what he's been focusing on almost exclusively during the latter part of his career.

Let he who is without compromise throw the first stone.
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at 13:12 on 20-08-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
That is a valid observation. One wonders, whether this focus on the aristocratic class is a result of Moorcock wanting to adhere to some of the tropes of the genre in order to tell a different take on it. Or was he adhering to those tropes because the work was more marketable in the market that way? But I think you could interpret it to come to a different conclusion as well. In Elric's case, for example, the Melniboneans are thoroughly corrupt and fading away, their original power having originated from an unholy alliance with the gods of chaos. And Elric gets his strength from equally unholy alliance with Stormbringer.

The thing with having the central character be someone of higher class might have an explanation in expediency, as well as a hidden desire for conservatism in the social order. A character who is of higher class has more opportunities for different plots on the face of it, much like affluene in real life allows more choice in life decisions. If you want the character be educated, or free from some societal constrains without wanting to spend narrative effort to explain the situation, the conventional choice is a higher class male, which might be something that a great many writers of educated, upper middle class backgrounds think they understand and identify with better. Which of course brings with it all sorts of unfortunate implications which might easily overshadow anything else the narrative is ostensibly trying to achieve.
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at 12:03 on 20-08-2016, Bill
I'll agree that not all of Moorcock's heroes are aristocrats, but I was referring specifically to the fantasy potboilers--the Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon stuff, all of which center on aristocratic characters and treat the aristocracy as the only important class. (I know Robert E. Howard is unpopular around here, mostly for excellent reasons, but Conan's arc from barbarian to king based on the strength of his sword arm rather than his pedigree is far more egalitarian than anything in Moorcock's fantasy.) As for special destinies being bad news, that idea is very common in aristocratic cultures, where aristocratic suffering is treated as more meaningful than that of the ordinary people. I find the bad faith of everything Moorcock writes on the relationship of politics and literature so overwhelming that I can't take him seriously even when he does have a good point.
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at 11:00 on 20-08-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Yeah, Moorcock's Special Destinies are usually bad news and the heroism of the protagonist is rarely straight-forward.

On the subject of reactionary vs. radical authors, one thing to consider is the relativity of one's own political position and also to the different interpretations of what it is to be radical or reactionary. Since if radicalism is taken to be the willingness to change society in deep and (most probably) disruptive ways, which is the original meaning of being on the left(in the context of the French revolution) and of being radical in its political aspect, it is possible to consider Heinlein to be radical, since he can be considered a libertarian or a right leaning anarchist.

Carrying from this definition of radicalness, or being on the left, it could be argued, that those arguing for the dissembling of states and the absolute freedom of the markets are quite radical and on the left, since they are aiming at disrupting the society as it is to create something better, no matter what the short term costs are.

Of course we could then start to dissect whether this free market ideology, call it what you will, is really all that new and it is arguable that it is only reheated classical liberalism with problems raised by the socil liberals and socialists handwaved away and sweeped under the rug of impressive sounding (but ultimately too idealistic and unrealistic) economical theories and political philosophies from the start of the 20th century and especially those that were in their context just very strong reactions to the rise of the Soviet Union in the 20s'.

But getting from that back to the idea of relativity, what we consider reactionary or radical depends very much on our own position politically. If we think that the difference between reactionary and radical is not a discrete thing, but rather a continuous spectrum from one end to the other, with a middle point a sort of mixture of both positions, it seems to me by my own experience, that if one is very radical, everything towards reactionary is reactionary to a degree, even if on the spectrum it is still nearer to the radical end than the reactionary end. It might be a bit too abstract a way of considering it, but I tend to think that it is part of why social democracy was often considered a form of class betrayal by stalinists or why in the american political discourse (and to a degree elsewhere) being on the centre right or social liberalist can be called socialist or communist and there are plenty of people who accept this sort of simplification.

That was a bit long. Apologies.
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at 07:26 on 20-08-2016, Adrienne
Bill - Arthur B can certainly speak to Moorcock's oeuvre better than I can, but afaik, while his novels are mostly about how some people have Special Destinies, those people are neither (necessarily) aristocrats nor AT ALL exalted in any way by said destinies. Having a Special Destiny in a Moorcock novel is generally a recipe for grinding efforts toward getting anything done at all.

Moorcock has a lot of problems -- not least of them that his name is, as Metafilter would say, eponysterical -- but he's always been pretty unabashedly anti-establishment.
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at 18:00 on 19-08-2016, Robinson L

Ah yes, I remember when that essay was first linked in this site years ago. It's not a very structured argument, bouncing from topic to topic and back again, but the content and the slightly histrionic writing style keep me engrossed.

The central argument: most "classic" science fiction and fantasy is fundamentally reactionary, and so are its writers, seems to me at this point uncontroversial. I have no illusions about Tolkien's politics*, but I must admit I find his storytelling much more engrossing than, say, le Guin's (heresy!). And I could run down a whole list of others, encompassing most of my favorite fantasy and science fiction works, Star Wars certainly included (I have no expectations of radicalism from Pratchett, either, but he still sometimes manages to shock and disappoint me, especially in his last few novels). Then again, we could justly lay charges of sexism and xenophobia against several of the the authors Moorcock holds up as exemplars of radical fiction (mirroring the historical and contemporary problems of sexism and xenophobia and a host of other -isms in radical movements).

*Then again, there's always this, and this.

I'm not nearly so well- or widely-read as some genre fans, but to my knowledge there hasn't exactly been an explosion in far-left sci-fi/fantasy since Moorcock published that essay (though there have been some notable works: The Fifth Sacred Thing being a standout example both in terms of its political sensibilities and its literary quality, by my reckoning). Then again, radical politics are, by definition, a niche interest, and it seems to me the height of silliness for anarchists, communists, and other radical leftists to search for hidden left-wing messages in "classic" and mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Far better, it seems to me, to accept that most of these stories - as with so much else that we interact with on a daily basis - is going to be at odds with our values and sensibilities to a lesser or greater degree, and consume them or not based upon whether we derive enjoyment from them. There, was that really so hard?

(As a sidenote, I recently read a book of interviews with anarchist fiction writers - including Moorcock, natch - with a glossary of other anarchist fiction authors at the back, and another glossary of authors who were not themselves anarchist but were still of interest to anarchist readers. Included among the latter were Frank Herbert, Heinlein, and Tolkien. The book seemed to take a "big tent" approach, not subjecting its candidates to rigorous screening for political and ethical acceptability. Given the penchant of leftists to disown and denounce each other over the most minuscule points of doctrinal or strategic disagreement, this was likely the best approach, but it means some truly puzzling figures made it through the net.)

Also of interest, there's this more recent, more coherent, and less hyperbolic - also much longer - essay by David Graeber on the underlying political sensibilities of the Superhero genre.
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at 15:36 on 19-08-2016, Bill
Is that the same Michael Moorcock who wrote endless reams of fantasy potboilers built on the premise that persons of noble, or better yet royal, blood have SPECIAL DESTINIES that exalt them over the rest of us peasant shlubs?
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at 07:41 on 19-08-2016, Adrienne
I had totally forgotten about this Moorcock essay, which may be of interest to some other folks around here. :)
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at 15:00 on 12-08-2016, Robinson L
The other day, I saw a report where apparently, they're working on a television adaptation of Patrick Ness' "Chaos Walking" trilogy. Given Ness' storytelling sensibilities*, I would suggest Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat as ideal candidates for scriptwriters. Especially when you consider Ness is writing scripts for the Doctor Who spin-off show, Class - it's only fair they return the favor.

*i.e. melodrama up to eleven
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at 23:36 on 02-08-2016, Orion
@Robinson,

When I was at University of Chicago, Westboro Baptist once came to campus. My Episcopalian friend met them with a "God Hates Figs" sign (Mark 11:12-14)

I'm not sure if they noticed him though, because apparently the fraternity brothers had also decided to counter-protest, by stripping to their briefs and blasting "It's Raining Men" on the boom box.
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at 03:30 on 26-07-2016, Robinson L
I haven't been following Pokemon Go, not my kinda thing. I only really found out what it was yesterday. So I don't understand all the details of how it works, including gyms and their protectors.

However, it seems that one player with a social conscience and a sense of humor has bequeathed the notorious Westboro Baptist Church gym with a Clefairy (fairy-type, natch) named LOVEISLOVE as its Pokemon guardian. Ah, sweet Schadenfreude.


As a sidebar, this story has gotten me thinking, and now I want to attend a Westboro Baptist Church rally with a sign reading

GOD HATES:

*People who wear any kind of blended fabrics
*Anybody who touches a woman while she's menstruating
*People who use the wrong kind of shingles on their roofs
etc. (those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head)
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at 22:59 on 25-07-2016, Shim
"Like Innsmouth, but with more rape" seems to be a distressingly common approach. I just read one by Brian Stableford, there's that whole Alan Moore thing.

It feels so point-missy, it reminds me of Dan's Tam Lin argument. Like someone's going "You know what would make the panic-inducing confusion of slowly realising you are stranded alone in a strange place surrounded by people who view you as an alien intruder and plot your horribly-unspecific doom for reasons you don't even understand but vaguely associated with mysterious cults, and whose unknowability gradually unfolds into not actually being human at all, even more terrifying? If they also do ordinarily horrible things for ordinarily horrible reasons."

On the other hand I have never read any Brian Lumley to my knowledge. I actually quite enjoy both pastiche and the pulpier end of weird fiction, partly because I actively shy away from genuine horror. Still, what I've heard of his work so far hasn't managed to enthuse me.
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at 19:53 on 24-07-2016, Arthur B
Brian Lumley is a subject which I'm pretty touchy about. I think his contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos have been at best pulpy disposable trash (1) or irritatingly trite and reductionist (2), at worst either utterly asinine and point-missy (3) or actively doubling down on some of the worst aspects of Lovecraft's writing (4). A lot of his non-Mythos stuff I have found similarly disposable.

Necroscope I remember being something of an exception, but not much of one. The first novel mashed up Cold War psychic espionage with a pretty unique body horror-type conception of vampires, and that was quite fun. But at the series went on he just tacked on more and more stuff until it became this totally ridiculous, unwieldy cartoon which entirely lost the atmosphere of the first book. (There is an entire sub-series that is basically set in a fantasyland run by vampires.)

I don't think he's quite as bad as Robert E. Howard, who I felt never really wanted to write horror so much as adventure fiction with horror affectations because he really didn't want to write about situations of helplessness (see how Howard's protagonists can get out of most situations with their fists, with only occasional exceptions), but I think Lumley does tend to slip into adventure fiction mode if he isn't careful, which is a shame because there's glimmerings of him being able to really deliver the goods on the horror front but I feel that he rarely (if ever) has, with the first Necroscope book being as close as he's got.

But I hasten to add that it's been years and years since I read the series. It'd probably be good fodder for a Reading Canary article.

(1) The early Titus Crow stuff was OK in a August Derleth/Lin Carter cheap pastiche sort of a way.
(2) The idea that Azathoth is just a nuclear explosion, for instance.
(3) Like Kthanid, Cthulhu's good twin brother - you know he's the good twin because he's sparkly!
(4) In particular, I seem to remember him writing a bunch of stuff that took the whole Shadow Over Innsmouth premise and doubling down on it, entirely failing to consider how racist the idea is and adding a whole bunch of rapey stuff in the bargain.
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at 07:30 on 24-07-2016, Craverguy
So...the Necroscope books. Are any of them any good, or is it a "not even once" type deal? Inquiring mind want to know!
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at 23:23 on 08-07-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
I don't think that there is much antipathy towards former Soviet (or eastern block) countries either, but my cautious guess is that if you want your mooks to be a bit different than your basic bratva setup, you get the same effect from using other nations from the Soviet block. That is, they are considered tough and callous, because of the Soviet history and there are lots of economic hardship and conflict to go around in addition to the reputation of organized crime. Chechens get more points because the audience might remember the two wars and the purported terrorism. Going by my memory of Person of Interst alone, I think there was at least two mentions of chechens there, one of them a terrorist cell, as well as Polish, Bulgarian and Ukrainian organized crime. In addition to the oft-portrayed Russian mobsters. Perhaps a list could be made.

On Star Trek, the biggest obstacle to a good show in the tradition of Star Trek might be that it is such an established franchise that the product is seen as something that money can be made of, which means pandering to the supposed audience, which might lead to conventional and "safe" content and avoiding any meaningful progressiveness or social commentary. On the other hand, it is made for the small screen, which might very well mean that they will get more freedom to push the envelope and make something not seen before and courageous. Courageous from the point of view of those people that always think the audiences want something safe and uncontroversial. In other words, will they just go for the nostalgia button or will they actually try and make something new?
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