Monday, October 24, 2011
FFB special: Beyond and Alongside Tolkien: Among His Peers (more or less) completed...
This was meant to be a quick set of pointers for Jackie Kashian, whom I promised some advice as to whose work to look for for non-Tolkien-derivative work in fantasy and related fiction (particularly science fiction by the same people, since often she prefers sf), inasmuch as she (like most of us) never really needs to read FNORD OF THE THINGS and other heavily derivative work again...there's plenty of Tolkien for that purpose...and while she's familiar with a number of impressive writers who've worked in this and similar modes, it's still entirely too easy to miss entirely too much, given the Well-Organized and Thorough Book Publishing and Distribution Industries, etc. I encourage suggestions of what and where I've completely overlooked someone or something major...you can rest assured that Stephen Donaldson and Terry Brooks have mostly been overlooked on purpose.
Fantasy, as with such arguably later related developments as science fiction and surrealist fiction, of course comes out of mythic traditions, but also requires at least some distance from full immersion in those myths...while there are certainly believers in the supernatural (Tolkien, obviously, was no dithering Christian, and C. S. Lewis even less so; Arthur Conan Doyle is probably only the most famous spiritualist to write a lot of fantasy, even if his most famous character was an utter, if addicted, rationalist) who've written the great works, they almost invariably employ a certain metaphoric distance even in their most blatant allegories and parables (Tolkien doesn't have "traditional" demons running about, but does have at least one hugely famous character who is essentially possessed, among other obvious parallels). So, basically, as fantasy fiction was coalescing as a self-conscious mode of prose fiction, after all the centuries of Homer's and others' poetic epics and folktales of all sorts (including what we often call "fairy tales" and such collections as the Arabian Nights), we see the emergence of satiric fantasy (among the most obvious, Jonathan Swift), and the employment of fantastic tropes as strong vehicles for Transcendence (19th century folks such as William Morris and his literary heirs such as David Lindsay and William Hope Hodgson followed in the paths broken by William Blake, as well as reaching into the folklore of their cultures), for the Decadents (as the knot of folks around Huysmans and Baudelaire in France, and clustering around The Yellow Book and similar productions in England...where, for example, Aubrey Beardsley would publish his illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe's fiction)--also children of Blake, in many ways!--and including such fellow-travelers as Oscar Wilde, who preferred the term "Aesthete" for himself, and the continuing tradition of satirists (such as Samuel Butler with Erewhon, or Twain with his Connecticut Yankee and his Adam and Eve) and those who submerged their satiric or similar messages rather more deeply into their texts or were writing at least some of their fantasies rather blatantly for kids, or both, such as Hawthorne and Kipling and, of course, "Lewis Carroll" and the Alice books and more, and L. Frank Baum, of the Oz series. H. G. Wells, like Mary Shelley before him doing pioneering work in no-bones-about-it sf in this (frequently satirical and/or cautionary) mode, was also particularly fond of writing the kind of fantasy where magical things are happening within the context of otherwise everyday reality..."The Man Who Could Work Miracles" being a rather obvious title in this mode...a mode rather akin to horror fiction and to tall-tale traditions and hoax-stories. So, by the early 1900s, one could find the likes of James Branch Cabell, E. R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, Virginia Woolf (even if only occasionally, with the likes of Orlando) and such adventure-fantasists as H. Rider Haggard all drawing on these traditions and more. Among the best and most popular writers of the fantastic popping-up-in-the-everyday mode was Thorne Smith.
And so, H. P. Lovecraft and his friends, who clustered around the magazine Weird Tales and formed an extended correspondence network, "the Lovecraft Circle," featured such influential folks as HPL (who wrote some early fantasies very imitative of Dunsany's work before settling in to write his existential horror and borderline sf in his more typical quasi-1780s prose), Robert Howard (Conan, and much else), and Clark Ashton Smith, perhaps the best of the three in many ways, a visual artist as well as poet and fiction writer very influenced by the Decadents, who is his turn was the great model (though many of the others above were also strong influences on his work) for my first recommendation for a Tolkien peer, Jack Vance.
Jack Vance has written some of the most deft and acerbic of fantasy, science-fantasy and sf (among other work) to be published over the last century; his first great work might be that which is collected into a sort of novel, The Dying Earth, which saw sequels of sorts in The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous. These might be the places to start with Vance, though it's hard to go too wrong with his work, particularly such arguably overlooked sf novels as The Languages of Pao, his massive Lyonesse trilogy, or such award-winning work as "The Dragon Masters" and "The Last Castle." Michael Moorcock's work in the fantasy field draws on many of the same influences, though his early fantasies were too often written hastily and that is sometimes obvious in the result; later fiction he could take more time with, such as Gloriana, gives a better indication of what the admittedly more mature Moorcock could achieve.
Fritz Leiber was both a member of the Lovecraft Circle, joining with his wife Jonquil on her initiative not long before Lovecraft's death (and it's notable that Leiber and the other most junior member of the Circle, Robert Bloch, were the most innovative and important writers to pick up on Lovecraft's development of existential horror fiction, and explore its implications in many ways better than Lovecraft himself could), and an occasional professional actor whose parents owned a touring Shakespearean company; Leiber was thus particularly influenced by such Jacobean playwrights as John Webster as well as the folks already cited. He began publishing in the pages of Unknown Fantasy Fiction (a magazine devoted particularly to the H.G. Wells/Thorne Smith mode of fantasy, but by no means exclusively), Weird Tales, and Astounding Science Fiction, the most influential and sophisticated of fantasticated pulp magazines of their time, and his work from the beginning was challenging, innovative, and influential. His fantasy series, begun as almost a role-playing mail game with his old friend Harry Fischer, the stories of Fafhrd (the Leiber character) and the Gray Mouser (the Fischer), became a consistent thread in his work throughout his long life; some of the F&GM stories are weaker than others, but the three included in the "origin" volume, which verges on a novel, Swords and Deviltry (in its original Ace editions with the Jeff Jones cover; the White Wolf repackage, with the Mike Mignola cover, takes its title from the third story, "Ill Met in Lankhmar"), are among the more brilliant. He wrote three horror novels, one at the beginning of his career (Conjure Wife, 1943, in one issue of Unknown), one a little less than a decade later, when his influence was already being widely felt, You're All Alone (short form in Fantastic Adventures magazine, 1950), and one toward the end of his career, Our Lady of Darkness (a short form, entitled The Pale Brown Thing, was serialized in two issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1977). And he wrote a number of good to brilliant sf novels, though perhaps none of those had quite the impact of such short stories as "Smoke Ghost" (Unknown, 1940) or "Coming Attraction" (Galaxy sf magazine, 1950), which can be reasonably said to have revolutionized their respective fields. His play in prose, The Big Time, might be the best of his science fiction novels.
Avram Davidson began publishing fiction in the Jewish-American magazines in the early '50s, first appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction with the superb "My Boyfriend's Name is Jello" in 1954. He would contribute extensively to the fantasy, sf, and crime-fiction fields, and occasionally to other fictional traditions, as well as becoming one of the premiere writers of true-crime histories in the country, work which garnered him awards and also served as the contemporary setting for his great, very funny early sf novel Masters of the Maze, in which a more typical "men's sweat" writer finds himself responsible, in part, for foiling an invasion of the Earth by a kind of crustacean-like aliens, the Chulpex, who in their turn are very well drawn, as one of a long line guardians of a sort of gateway between worlds, the maze of the title, which has been traditionally been guarded by a sort of Masonic organization throughout history. Davidson thus lightly touches on the kinds of conspiracies of history Robert Anton Wilson, among many others since, have churned out megabookery about. Davidson's most ambitious work, a fantasy sequence about Vergil Magus (the folkloric reimagining of the poet Vergil) that begins with The Phoenix and the Mirror, is sadly less fully-realized than Davidson clearly wanted, though it is magisterial in its own right; far more fully-evocative of what Davidson could do are the series of linked stories collected first as The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy, and later, with newer stories (some a bit lesser) added, as The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy, which I think will satisfy anyone who tends to prefer novels, even in its necessarily episodic structure. Eszterhazy is a polymathic troubleshooter in a section of what very much resembles the collapsing Austria-Hungary of the turn of the 20th century, who is usually brought in to deal with the fantastic and outre threats and difficulties faced by and within the kingdoms; the stories are so brilliantly witty, erudite and elegant at their best that they almost beggar description. As with Jorge Luis Borges, Davidson relished scholarship for its own sake without stuffiness or any sort of turf protection; he was here to show us all the world's wonders, and those apparently beyond he could find. Further examples of Davidson's work, aside from the brilliant short fiction (including such crime fiction as "The Lord of Central Park" which will nonetheless reward any fantasy reader who seeks it out), that come close to these peaks include his first novel (a collaboration with the undersung Ward Moore), the historically rich fantasy Joyleg; and his last to be published during his lifetime, a collaboration with his ex-wife and executor, Grania Davis (an accomplished fantasist in her own right), Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty, and the collection of fantasticated essays, Adventures in Uhhistory.
Jorge Luis Borges never wrote a novel, nor as far as I recall attempted to, but his short fiction helped revolutionize world literature at least as much as all the other 20th century folks mentioned so far, and he actually got some credit for that (it perhaps helped that he wrote primarily in Spanish, and while first published in English in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the 1940s, was more flashily published in bulk by the university and avant-garde presses of the earliest 1960s, which made his excursions into the fantastic "safer" to admire among the literary establishment of the time. And well they might admire the work collected in such volumes as Dreamtigers and particularly Labyrinths, which play with literary form and reintroduce more sophisticated forms of the literary hoax as well as playing with mind-expanding concepts ("The Library of Babel," for obvious example, the infinitely vast library which includes volumes that include all the possible combinations of letters and words, and what the implications of that are...); and, even more than any of the others here save Davidson, Borges was drawn to worldwide traditions to explore, very much including the Arabian Nights and other related material. As with Leiber, Borges also was frequently willing to fantasticate his own life in fruitful and challenging ways; he embarked, as a fluent English speaker, on a program of translation of his own works for Dutton in the late '60s with Norman Thomas DiGiovanni which are, for the most part, the definitive translations of his work, and the best of those volumes is probably the one with the long autobiographical essay, The Aleph, and Other Stories: 1933-1969; unfortunately, some financial shenanigans with the contracts for these translations, giving DiGiovanni a disproportionate share of the revenue, has led to the Borges heirs keeping these out of print in recent decades, and the comparably atrocious current Penguin editions of new translations, in such volumes as Collected Fictions, average much worse than both the Borges versions and the early translations by James Irby and others in the early volumes such as Labyrinths.
Joanna Russ, as I've noted earlier in this blog (in eulogizing her and otherwise), had a career which in many ways paralleled that of her friend Fritz Leiber; they both began their professional writing careers, having had a strong grounding in dramatic arts (Leiber primarily as an actor, Russ primarily as a playwright and scholar of drama at university), as mostly writers of horror fiction, though by no means exclusively; they soon added important science-fictional work to their resumes, often controversial work that, particularly in the case of Russ's best novel, the playful, innovative, yet devastatingly satirical The Female Man, managed to find audiences well beyond frequent sf readers; Leiber was a pacifist and pro-feminist even as his career began, if usually not too stridently so, while Russ became a strong voice for feminist thought from early in her career, becoming perhaps the most prominent voice for such in fantastic fiction, or at least alongside such others as Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter, Judith Merril and eventually Alice "James Tiptree, Jr." Sheldon, along with such folks at the periphery of fantastic fiction as Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood. And, like Leiber, Russ had among her personal analog figures in her writing a fantasy (near anti-) hero, the thief and troublemaker Alyx, in a series of short fiction and a novel, Picnic on Paradise, which has been collected in the omnibus The Adventures of Alyx, which I can recommend to any fantasy reader...along with such major fantasies as "My Boat" (and such deft horror as "Come Closer" and "There is Another Shore, You Know, On the Other Side") from her three other collections of short stories (Alyx and Fafhrd, the Leiber analog from his series, each appear in one story by the other writer, as well, in their respective series; at least as charming a grace note as when Robert Bloch and H. P. Lovecraft wrote stories in which each had the other killed, many years before, published in issues of Weird Tales magazine.)
Ursula K. Le Guin, of course, is probably the best-selling (at least in English) and the most widely-respected (probably after Borges) of the writers I've chosen to highlight in this post, and probably needs little introduction for almost anyone likely to see this...but (as she notes in the essay included in the Beagle-edited anthology pictured at the head of this post, which I finally got around to reading this morning, or after writing all up through the Leiber passage) she is not above a little irritation at the remarkable notion that a novel aimed at young adult readers and easily readable by adults as well, about a school for young wizards, might be taken for a remarkably new vision when offered by J. K. Rowling when it's also the matter for the first in Le Guin's most famous series of novels, A Wizard of Earthsea. If Russ was perhaps the most devoted feminist among the writers I highlight, Le Guin vies with Atwood as the most famously so in fantastic fiction (setting aside for the moment such foremothers as Mary Shelley and Charlotte Perkins Gilman), as well as the most famous anarchist, which are among the factors which have helped shape the fantasies she has written, relating to Earthsea and otherwise, as well as such major sf novels as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. Le Guin, also like Russ (and Leiber, though his work thus remains mostly uncollected, and of course Tolkien and Lovecraft), has also been a major essayist about fantasy fiction, with such collections as The Language of the Night being necessary reading (and it's amusing, as I hope to note further in a future review here, the small degrees to which Le Guin's essay disagrees with the other collected in the Beagle anthology, by David Hartwell, though both are matched in insight by Beagle's own introduction). Such other occasional fantasists as Algis Budrys, Barry Malzberg, Damon Knight and James Blish have published similar collections of reviews and related essays, theirs usually more focused on sf (as their writing careers were, as well). Also worth mentioning in this context is the literary-historical and biographical work of L. Sprague de Camp, as controversial as some of the latter is, which he began in the early 1970s as supplement to his work about folklore and history (such as Lost Continents) and his own fiction, which on his own and in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt is also at least as impressive as that of many of the folks cited so far...though I've enjoyed his posthumous collaborations with Robert Howard less (though he was better at this than such other pickers at the scraps of Howard's work as Lin Carter, with whom De Camp also collaborated thus); Fletcher Pratt on his own also produced notable historical nonfiction (the Civil War history Ordeal by Fire, most obviously) and epic fantasies such The Well of the Unicorn and The Blue Star which can stand alongside such other midcentury work as Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy and T. H. White's Arthurian fantasies, collected eventually as The Once and Future King, and that of Tolkien's fellow Inklings C. S. Lewis, Roger Green and Charles Williams--among the work I'm slighting here!
Jane Yolen, more than any of the other folks mentioned so far, has been a serious scholar of folkloric traditions in a way that rivals such folks as Jack Zipes and Italo Calvino; like Calvino, but perhaps to not as wide acclaim, she has also been a first-rate writers of fantastic fiction, often drawing heavily on the folkloric traditions but bringing to them fresh insights and contexts; among her best work at novel length for adults (for she has been one of the most important of children's writers over the last several decades as well, for a while the head of her own imprint) being the jarring, elegant Briar Rose, which takes interesting liberties with story structure (thus not too different thus with Calvino, famous for doing similar things in his more personal work, and like Yolen's often set as if being orally told to the reader) as it mixes the Sleepy Beauty folktale with the experiences of a survivor of the Polish WW2 extermination camps and her family in the present day. Along with her collections and anthologies of folktales, she has also published at least one sf novel, Cards of Grief (which, as she notes, still "feels like fantasy"). The similarly brilliant writer William Kotzwinkle has had a somewhat parallel career, with a large following in children's literature (not least for his antic Walter the Farting Dog books), seemingly straddled borders with his grim animal fantasy Doctor Rat and lighter, satirical The Bear Went Over the Mountain, and work that despite accessibility to younger readers is thoroughly adult, ranging from the grim timeslip fantasy The Exile to the charming, heavily illustrated The Midnight Examiner and such collections as The Hot Jazz Trio.
And then, as I note below, there are such other major creators in the field as Sylvia Townsend Warner (who in addition to her own impressive work in novels starting with Lolly Willowes and in short fiction, notably collected in Kingdoms of Elfin, also wrote a biography of T. H. White),
the foremothers of science fantasy in the pulps, Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore, with Brackett augmenting her basically serious and graceful space opera (such as that collected in Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories) with more soberly extrapolative sf, such as The Long Tomorrow, and several crime fiction novels, the first of which, No Good from a Corpse, led directly to her being hired to adapt Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep for film as part of a team including Jules Furthman and a bitter, drunken William Faulkner), the beginning of screen career that would include the solo adaptation of The Long Goodbye and one of her last works, the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, the least bad of the Star Wars films. Moore, initially on her own and then in partnership with her writer-husband Henry Kuttner, produced the Jirel of Joiry series of female freebooter science fantasies, and the Northwest Smith series (leaning a bit more, with its male protagonist, into traditional sf adventure), but also such definitive sf work as "No Woman Born" (almost certainly a key influence on Anne McCaffrey's work) and "Vintage Season." Moore and Kuttner were so enmeshed as writing partners that it has become both a parlor game and a scholarly grail to try to tell where one left off and the other began in such major stories under their joint pseudonym "Lewis Padgett" (best known for the classic story "Mismy were the Borogoves"), and even the work each signed just their own name to, that such matters are unlikely to ever be clearly settled. Brackett, too, was married to a major sf/fantasy writer, Edmond Hamilton, but their literary careers were rather more distinct, though they did collaborate on occasion. Gene Wolfe has been one of the most productive of the more complex writers of science-fantasy, since getting his start professionally in fiction in 1966, lavishing his frequently dense and allusive prose on matters of moral ambiguity and the state of humanity, most clangorously in The Book of the New Sun, a novel published in four volumes that has now seen both pendant books and sequelization at nearly as great length. And Peter Beagle was perhaps the "purist" of US fantasists to not be shunted into category publication throughout the first decade of his career, at least, as he began with A Fine and Private Place (1960), and his shorter work was published in The Atlantic Monthly and other relatively, if not actually hostile, than often fantasy-indifferent markets. Perhaps his most famous novel remains his second, The Last Unicorn (1968). His career since has ranged from Star Trek: The Next Generation scripting to Tolkien biography to further award-winning fantasy, though rather as with the adult work of William Kotzwinkle, much if not most of his publications over the last two decades have been tagged and marketed as fantasy fiction. Among other major writers of the era to mostly work in short form, mention must be made of John Collier (Fancies and Goodnights), Roald Dahl (Kiss, Kiss), Joan Aiken (The Green Flash), Harlan Ellison (Deathbird Stories), Ray Bradbury (Dark Carnival), Keith Roberts (Pavane and Anita) and Theodore Sturgeon (E Pluribus Unicorn), all of whom have done brilliant work in fantasy and horror fiction, and all of them have produced novels, though aside from Collier's three fantasticated novels, most of the relevant work by all these writers has been in novels for young readers, crime-fiction novels, or in Roberts and Sturgeon's cases sf novels (with only Sturgeon's last, controversial work, Godbody, being a straightforward fantasy).
And as I noted when I had to break off previously: Wow...this was meant to be a short take, a briefly annotated list, but the work will take over (I'll have to edit it down, eventually!). And I meant to cite some particularly undersung examples by each writer, though that's pretty tough for Leiber...a collection such as Shadows with Eyes or Night Monsters might have to be the example here (though certainly even The Book of Fritz Leiber has been out of print too long...it was notable how Leiber was perhaps the only writer in fantastic fiction to have three, arguably four career retrospectives published in the 1970s with little if any overlap: The Best of FL, The Worlds of FL, The Book of FL and its sequel, The Second Book of FL...and all of these have been out of print for far too long, not quite supplanted by further retrospective volumes since.
This will have to be continued, with the following writers to be particularly highlighted:
Ursula K. Le Guin
Jorge Luis Borges
Jane Yolen, with many others cited...
...or, at least, that's my plan...
Here's what I ended up posting on Friday over at Jackie Kashian's The Dork Forest, in response to Maria Bamford's interview of Jackie (the second of two turnabout episodes):
At my blog, I finally tried to get down today the Quick and Dirty list of fantasy (and at least some sf) from people who were comparable to, and not imitative of, Tolkien, only to find myself beginning to write a long essay...but the writers I chose to suggest boil down to:
FRITZ LEIBER...book to start with, SWORDS AND DEVILTRY (or ILL MET IN LANKHMAR, in its revised edition); alternate/sf novel to start with: THE BIG TIME (borderline horror/fantasy to start with, in the Kafka/Philip Dick mode, only before Dick started publishing: YOU'RE ALL ALONE).
JOANNA RUSS...book to start with: THE ADVENTURES OF ALYX; alternate/sf novel to start with: THE FEMALE MAN.
AVRAM DAVIDSON...book to start with: THE ENQUIRIES OF DOCTOR ESZTERHAZY (or THE ADVENTURES OF DOCTOR ESZTERHAZY, in its expanded edition). Alternate/sf novel to start with: MASTERS OF THE MAZE. Alternate historical fantasy, written with his ex-wife Grania Davis, MARCO POLO AND THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.
JANE YOLEN...novel to start with: BRIAR ROSE. Alternates to start with...nearly any of her collections (she does tend to excel in short forms).
JACK VANCE...book to start with: THE DYING EARTH and its three loose sequels, starting with THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD; alternate sf novel to start with: among so many, THE LANGUAGES OF PAO. The LYONESSE trilogy is definitely worth looking into.
URSULA K. LE GUIN (seems particularly unlikely you haven't given her a spin, but just in case)...book to start with: A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. Alternate sf to start with: THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Alternate science-fantasy border straddler: THE LATHE OF HEAVEN.
JORGE LUIS BORGES...book to start with: well, the closest things to novels this extraordinarily influential writer offered were the collections of linked stories in THE UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY and, with Adolfo Bioy-Casares, SIX CASES FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI (the latter parodic, slightly fantasticated crime fiction). But the stories in such collections as LABYRINTHS and THE ALEPH AND OTHER STORIES: 1933-69 are often mindblowing.
I should at least add Leigh Brackett and Gene Wolfe...(Ms.) C. L. Moore and Peter Beagle...Sylvia Townsend Warner and Italo Calvino...you know how it goes.
For more conventional book-recommendation essays, please see the links and examples at Patti Abbott's blog.