Monthly Archives: October 2015

Top Twenty Fantasy Series [2]

Here follows the second part of my Top Twenty Fantasy Series list, the first of which ended with Mary Gentle’s First History Sequence.  Already, as I surmised, I made some edits and my initial list has been somewhat changed.  Originally I had planned to include Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy (as well as its connected novels into one larger series), but then I remember Felix Gilman, who was writing around the same time, and chose to push Abercrombie from this list.  To be fair, this is not a decision that came without some hemming and hawing: I think Abercrombie is the best example of the now overly represented “grimdark” subgenre – and I definitely like how the First Law Trilogy functions as a critique of the tropes of Tolkien-inspired fantasy, just as I like how some of the connected novels (especially Red Country) expand the genre concerns – but in the end I felt that: a) I’m already representing “grimdark” with books that existed before this subgenre was named (i.e. Mary Gentle’s books), and; b) the substitution of Gilman’s work is necessary because Gilman is, in many ways, a superior fantasist.

But okay: on with the list!

11) Caitlin R. Kiernan: Threshold, Low Red Moon, Daughter of the Hounds (2001-2007)

When I first encountered Kiernan it was with her novel Silk (which was also part of a small series) and I was so annoyed with the asinine preachiness of this novel that I would have never read anything else she wrote had it not been for an online friend (shout out to Adri!) who convinced me otherwise.  I mean Silk was that kind of urban fantasy-horror that was crafted for maladjusted goth and emo kids to convince them that they were so hard-done by for being white.  Blah-fucking-blah.  Then I was told (by Adri) to check out Kiernan’s Red Tree (which is neither part of a series, nor is fantasy proper), which scared the shit out of me more so than any book since Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, so I decided to give her other books another chance – and I’m glad that I did.

The series that is composed of Threshold, Low Red Moon, and Daughter of the Hounds is urban fantasy (with a strong dose of eldritch horror) at its best.  That is, urban fantasy without wish fulfilment bullshit and intersecting with elements of horror that were truly frightening.  Ghoul societies, djinn magic, and uncomfortable reconfigurations between the three books.  Lovecraftian not in the sense of the mythos where a bunch of people write either Cthulhu stories or thinly veiled Cthulhu stories that are just knock-offs of that racist sunovabitch, but in the sense that Kiernan really channels (as my old online friend Adri once argued) a feeling of something that is horrifically alien and other.  And the prose, especially by Daughter of the Hounds, is pretty fantastic.

Too bad that Kiernan, despite being a trans woman, really fails when it comes to race in the real world.  Back during the Requires Hate online controversy in the SFF community, she sided with the supposed “white victims” [search “Kiernan” in the article for the links and analysis], and her books have primarily concerned a very white (despite being queer and/or trans) subjectivity.

12) Steph Swainston – The Castle (2004-2010?)

At one point Swainston announced that she was quitting writing to become a chemistry teacher – this announcement was precipitated by her complaint that it was difficult to be a woman writing non-conformist fantasy.  But then she wrote another book in The Castle series (Above the Snowline) which, to be honest, I still need to read since, prior to 2010, I was under the impression that this series was simply a trilogy.

What can I say about The Castle series?  It is definitely something that became possible because of “Battleship Mieville” – which is why Swainston has an entry in the New Weird collection – but is also its own unique series.  Swainston’s “Fourlands” fantasy setting (not to be confused with Brooks’ Shannara “Four Lands”, thankfully) is a world where a humanity ruled by “the Castle” is, in the first book, besieged by a super-insect invasion.  The main character, Jant, is an emissary from the Castle (who has wings and can fly), and part of a quasi-pantheon… but also a drug addict.  Oh yeah, and his addiction allows him to enter an alternate world called “the Shift.”  The interesting thing about The Castle series is that it feels both immodern and modern at the same time: it is mythologically feudal, while at the same time its main characters wear jeans and t-shirts with slogans.

13) Catherynne M. Valente: The Orphan’s Tales (2006-2007)

Honestly, between this duology and Valente’s Prester John series it was a toss up… I ended up choosing The Orphan’s Tales because it was more elaborately and intricately constructed.  These two books are the best example of the Arabian Nights influenced “stories within stories” kind of fantasy, more elaborate and beautiful than anything I’ve encountered.  Also, the writing is beautiful… probably because Valente spent years writing poetry and prose poem novellas before tackling The Orphan’s Tales.

The frame tale concerns an orphan girl with hundreds of stories intricately tattooed around her eyes; she requires a boy to read them all in order to break a curse.  The two books are divided into four story sequences, each of which contains stories-within-stories-within-stories-within-stories.  People within each story begin other stories, and they move into and out of the multiple frames over and over until each sequence is completed.  Nor are all of these stories standalones since they all have common characters – uniting each sequence and showing up in other sequences – who together produce a larger mythology that also concerns the main frame tale.  Indeed, the construction of the book is so intricate that Valente must have developed a complex flow chart to plot out her book and keep it on track.  The subject matter of the stories is the kind of fantasy that is drawn from the weirder fringes of every world mythology and, often combined with a critical political awareness, moves into the terrain of the New Weird.  A surreal and poetic example of world-building.

14) Alan Campbell: The Deepgate Codex (2006-2009)

Another series that fits within the New Weird subgenre, or at least does so because of Mieville’s influence. Unlike Valente or Vandermeer, however, Campbell’s Deepgate Codex is new weird epic fantasy – or maybe “new weird meets grimdark” or maybe “steampunk fantasy” – that is so epic that the folks at TV Tropes love the shit out of it.

The first book, Scar Night, concerns a city that is suspended by chains over the entrance of Hell where a corpse-eating god guards the gates of hell, and a nearly invulnerable psychotic angel that, on certain nights of the year, goes on a killing rampage.  And then shit gets serious, the whole city falls into Hell, and the next books concern the broader fictional universe and a war the God of Hell is having with his siblings.  And there is a flying ship pulled along by a chained man called Anchor, cyclopean mecha constructions fueled by the souls of dead gods, time travelling, blood that fuels an army of the damned… Well, yeah, you get the point.

15) Felix Gilman: Thunderer, Gears of the City (2007-2008)

It was a toss up between this duology and Gilman’s fantasy western series (Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City).  In some ways I think the latter is superior, since Gilman’s quality as a writer developed, but in other ways I gravitate towards the former because I remain uneasy with the way in which Gilman depicted colonial usurpation in his weird western fantasies.  So Thunderer and Gears of the City it is!

These books concern Arjun who travels to the city of Ararat to search for the god who abandoned his people.  Ararat is an infinite space-time city, with an eternally expanding interior, that is a magnet for dying gods.  In Thunderer Arjun eventually discovers that the Ararat he is initially shown (a chaotic city-state where various internal fiefdoms contend for power) is just the superstructure of a multi-dimensional city that is fought over by a variety of people, particular one (and his parallel versions), who know how to move from all the possible time-variants of Ararat.  Some of the prose is quite lovely as well.

16) Kate Elliott: The Crossroads Trilogy (2007-2009)

Elliott’s original plan for the setting and story was a set of interlinked series, with what became The Crossroads Trilogy initially intended to be a single book connecting an earlier and later series.  I guess that, when she was plotting out the series as a whole, she felt that the middle narrative was more interesting, focused on it, and turned it into a trilogy that took into account what she wanted to do with the prequel and sequel series.  Considering that it has almost been seven years since she ended this trilogy, I think it’s fair to say that she’s not revisiting this fictional universe and considers its story finished (though I’m quite probably wrong).

There is a lushness to this trilogy, and a depth of cultural construction and historical grounding, that I feel is missing from a lot of fantasy. Driven by an ethical sensibility that eschews simple moralisms, Elliott plays with exoticisms: how different cultures encountering each other exoticize the other but how, in encounters that are not yet (but eventually will be) imperialist, this exoticism tends to lurk at the level of banal ethnocentrisms that say more about each culture’s own particular failings than the veracity of their judgments.

Beginning in a mode of production that is slave-based – but that has no problem justifying its slavery in relation to others who don’t hold slaves but who have terrible gender politics – the series opens in the middle of a history gone awry, a time when the supernatural guardians of the land have disappeared and slipped into myth.  Soon it becomes clear that these guardians have been subverted, are the reason for the violence descending upon the land, and only the violent encounter between this society’s internal struggle and a rebellious scion of an expansionist Empire from elsewhere, will be its salvation.  Except it’s really not, and Elliott concludes by subverting all the saviour tropes of the “good empire”, and true-love-conquers all bullshit.

17) Aliette de Bodard: Obsidian and Blood Trilogy (2010-2011)

Urban fantasy noir in pre-contact South America, at the height of the Mexica Empire.  While colonial historiographies have described this culture [“Aztec”] as primarily barbaric, and while [some] equally piss-poor counter historiographies have tried to claim that it was liberatory, de Bodard takes the critical middle path by depicting this culture as no more or less barbaric than medieval Spain.  That is, as a woman of colour author, she seems quite aware of how romanticizing a tributary mode of production is not the best way to disrupt eurocentrism; rather, it makes more sense to describe it as a class-based society of humans no better or worse than people living in societies elsewhere, a complex tributary formation that is burgeoning with its own contradictions.

But, since this is a fantasy series, as with urban historical fantasy based in European historical space, she crafted a fantasy that functions according to Mexica mythic categories.  The result is something that feels both modern and alter-modern at the same time.

18) N.K. Jemisin: the Inheritance Trilogy (2010-2011)

Despite being called a “savage” by the reactionary Vox Day – one of the fuckers who worked to game the 2015 Hugos because of the recognition women of colour had received – Jemisin is part of vanguard of non-white women authors who are taking fantasy by storm… And she really does deserve all the awards she wins, as should be obvious except for the fact that there are all these internet assholes (like the kind of fuckwits who complain about the fact that there are black protagonists in the new Star Wars) who are bizarrely under the impression that her recognition is some kind of PC plot.  Chances are they haven’t read her books (and probably, because they’re crypto-nazis, won’t) because otherwise they would understand (one would hope) why she received so much recognition.

A war amongst the gods results in one god, through deceit and murder, becoming supreme and forcing his opponents into slavery, relegated to living weapons of the victorious god’s chosen people: conscious fantasy atom bombs for every culture that dared to challenge the nation that had supported the victorious god.  The first book functions to shatter the hegemonic false mythology, reverse the power dynamic, and release a host of gods back into the world.  The second and third books function to question the complexities of this reversal, the very function of gods in the world.  A fantasy variant of the need for counter-history, but conscious of the contradictions that a history of gods and their offspring permit.

[I really wanted to place Jemisin’s current series on this list, but that would be disingenuous.  I haven’t yet read the first and only book of this series, The Burning Season, though I just grabbed it from a close friend, so I’m only assuming that it is going to be awesome.  Give me a year or two and maybe I’d alter this list with its inclusion.]

19) Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death, Book of the Phoenix, ?? (2010-??)

Although I debated adding this series to the list due to the fact that the prequel, Book of the Phoenix, functions in some ways to explain the fantasy elements of Who Fears Death as the residue of science that was forgotten in an epoch of post-apocalyptic Africa (where extremely advanced technology is misconceived as magic), I ended up choosing to include it because Book of the Phoenix does not explain away the fantastic elements due to the fact that is still incorporated in a fantastic frame tale.  Also, Who Fears Death was enshrined as “fantasy” when it won the World Fantasy Award.

A female sorcerer goes out into the world to confront her rapist father, who leads a genocidal culture, and rewrite the dominant cultural narrative.  An engineered being, created at the end of the a society approaching apocalypse, becomes part of the mythology that this female sorcerer is struggling against.  Problematics of gender, war crimes, and racialization function to produce a complex narrative.

Oh yeah, and Who Fears Death is a reference to a statement by Lumamba…

20) Kameron Hurley: The Worldbreaker Saga (2014-??)

Also known for her awesome science fiction Bel Dame Apocrypha, Hurley’s epic fantasy series is punch in the skull.  Indeed, one of the editors of Angry Robot (its eventual publisher) declaimed that he would “knife fight” for the honour of getting this series on the publication list.

A fantasy world of living forests, multiple genders, magic attuned to alien astronomy, and the confrontation between one world and its parallel universe other.  Grimdark meets some variant of the New Weird, fantasy unbounded… I’m annoyed by the fact that I’m going to have to wait until 2017 (unless it is extended further) for this series to conclude.

Advertisements

Top 20 Fantasy Series [1]

A friend suggested, after discussing Sci-Fi Fantasy World’s [unofficial] list of the top twenty fantasy series, that, due to my complaint about the poverty of this list, that I produce my own.  Initially I balked at the idea because I felt that: a) in no way could my list ever be comprehensive (I would forget things, it would be out of date in a decade with the production of more literature); b) I don’t think “best of” lists are ever accurate since, even if we do except that there are standards of literary quality (which I do) all we can do, in my opinion, is speak of general categories of excellent books and the category of “best of” (if we can indeed establish this) will possess entries that will be much greater than a limited list and might not be entirely comparable to each other.  His suggestion, though, was to make a tentative and non-definitive list that would still provide a counter list to the one we were discussing.

My problem with SFFWorld list is that, with several exceptions, it was filled with the kinds of books that I either was or would be into when I was in grade eight.  That is, most of the entries by-and-large represented the tastes of a very particular online fan community, the tastes that the people behind the Puppies slates advocate for: Tolkien inspired, world-building over writing quality and characterization, anti-literary, typically fantasy, and masculinist wish-fulfillment narratives.

True to form, the SSFWorld list completely ignored what I take to be one of the most exciting developments in fantasy literature in the past two decades: the emergence of marginalized voices, particularly women of colour, who have been crafting very brilliant, and critically acclaimed fantasy novels. (Note: I’m not arguing that a “best of” list should fall prey to some positivist empiricism that seeks to balance diversity just for the sake of it – the truth is that, since these writers are still emerging from marginalization, they proportionally are producing far less, and that, despite the large amount of women who have been writing in the field since its early days, women of colour are still largely underrepresented when it comes to actual publishing.  But recognizing that they have emerged to produce very good works, and ones that I think are far better than the standard fare, is necessary.) Sure you can argue that fantasy is a popular genre, and that we should thus treat the “greatest” works as those that have been the best-sellers, but you can also argue that: a) we don’t have to choose great works based on some lowest common denominator populism (if this was the case then everyone who studies literature is a fool, The DaVinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey are just as good as Crime and Punishment), even not in fantasy; b) things that possess literary acclaim can also be best-sellers.

Some qualifications before getting to my top twenty list, which will be split into this post and the next.  First of all, I have limited myself to fantasy rather than science-fiction, but fantasy broadly understood: where, even in the case of cross-genre elements, the fantastic aspects dominate; where, even in the case that the fantastic is vaguely hinted to be misunderstood remnants of technology far in the future of social collapse, the characters within the fictional universe still function according to fantasy tropes.  Secondly, like the SFFWorld list, I limited myself to fantasy series: this ends up excluding some great standalone novels (such as Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger In Olondria, which I think is the best fantasy novel written in the past twenty years, if not one of the best novels) but, as with the first qualification, if it was about listing twenty books I would find it impossible to produce a list I was even marginally happy with.  Thirdly, I have included some series that are not finished: while this might not permit an accurate assessment of the series’ strengths, since the SFFWorld list did the same (what with its inclusion of Song of Ice and Fire and The Dresden Files) I figure I can do the same.  Fourthly, I will try to avoid the kind of fantasy that is inspired by (and usually derivative of) Tolkien: hell this list won’t even contain Lord of the Rings (shocker!) because, while I enjoyed Tolkien in grade six, most of the fantasy I care about, and that I find inspiring in the way that I find Joyce or Dostoevsky inspiring (but for different and incomparable reasons) is usually neither Tolkien or Tolkien-esque.  Fourthly, rather than listing the books according to some hierarchy of best-to-worst, I have chosen to list them chronologically, based on the publication of the first book in the series.  Fifthly, I have done my best to provide a list that balances high literary and popular styles of writing because I’m of the opinion that: i) that good writing can be either of these stylistic approaches (based on the inverse that we know what counts as bad writing of both – pretentious prose that tries too hard versus pulpish writing that sounds like shit when you read it aloud); ii) some of the “non-genre” classics have, in their own time, represented a variety of styles ranging from ornate to simple prose (i.e. Dickens was a popular writer); and iii) it’s good to provide a variety, to show the breadth of fantasy writing.

1) Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast (1946-1959)

A gothic, grotesque, sprawling fantasy epic of manners.  Titus Groan is the 77th earl of a degenerating fiefdom centred around a ruinous castle in the midst of a fallen landscape.  A laborious and ornately written masterpiece, the Gormenghast books are a chore to get through – but then so is Tolstoy.  The brooding atmosphere and examination of feudal decadence and disintegration was influential for many of the fantasies that did not find their inspirational basis: Moorcock, Harrison, and Mieville, for example, all cite Gormenghast as an inspiration.

2) Ursula K. Le Guin: Earthsea (1964-2001)

Here’s one of the few on the SFFWorld list that I agree with.  Le Guin’s YA fantasy series of the Earthsea archipelago not only predated Rowling’s Wizard School with a special Wizard (Ged) going from underdog to super awesome wizard guy (it’s hard not to see how Harry Potter borrowed some of the DNA from Wizard of Earthsea), it eventually subverted this by adding other characters, making Ged less important, and getting rid of magic altogether.  Oh yeah, and all the characters were people of colour – a decision intentionally made by Le Guin so that non-white readers could have characters that looked like them in a time where fantasy and YA fiction wasn’t providing such representation (predictably the publishers illustrated the characters as white on the covers, regardless of how they were described inside).  Added bonus: Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli did an Earthsea movie, which partially corrected the terrible made-for-TV Earthsea series that pissed off the author.

3) Michael Moorcock: The Swords Trilogy (1971)

Leave it to Moorcock, who was cranking out pulp for multiple magazines in the 1960s/70s to write an entire trilogy in a single year.  (Angela Carter, friend and fan, once joked that she didn’t know of anyone who could pump out as much fiction as Moorcock.)  Although this trilogy forms a part of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythology, I thought it was best to treat it as a standalone since I feel the entire Eternal Champion sequence is, as a whole, quite uneven.  Also, on a purely subjective level, this trilogy (as I’ve discussed before) is part of my personal nostalgia.

In any case, The Swords Trilogy (which is written in a plain and popular style) was “grimdark” before that category existed, as violent as it was strange, and eschews the Tolkien categories, or even traditional moral categories.  Focused on a protagonist (Corum), the sole survivor of a pre-human race that was genocided by a particular violent group of humans, the trilogy is primarily a revenge narrative where Corum is attempting to hunt and murder those responsible for the genocide.  His revenge quest ends up getting him drafted into a war between the gods of Law and Chaos where he is initially a knight of Law intent on killing the gods of Chaos (the eponymous Sword gods) who directed the genocide of his people.  After enduring horrendous trials, and travelling between multiple times and dimensions, he not only achieves his revenge but does so by also killing off the gods of both Law and Chaos because, Moorcock being an anarchist and all, “no gods or masters!”

[Bonus: my other favourite series by Moorcock is his Second Ether trilogy, which is much more denser in terms of literary style and focus and experimentation, but I think it is also less representative of what Moorcock is known for.]

4) M. John Harrison: The Viriconium Cycle (1971-1984)

Beginning like pulp fantasy, the Viriconium Cycle eventually reveals itself to be a “dying earth” narrative, but not in that shitty “it was earth all along” kind of way that marks, say, the Shannara Books.  It is just too weird and grotesque for that.  Especially in the second novel where some alien race of locusts descends upon the disintegrating world, or in the third novel where Viriconium is revealed to be a fiction and the metaphorical fourth wall is shattered.  Indeed, the style progresses from popular pulpish writing to experimental fiction through each book. (It also makes you feel bad, by the end of the third book [and in some of the short stories] for liking sword and sorcery.)  Harrison is often credited as being one of the inspirations for the so-called “new weird” subgenre, and when you read this series you can see why.

[Harrison’s Kefihuchi Tract Trilogy is also amazing, but it is definitely science fiction.]

5) Samuel R. Delany: Return to Neveryon (1979-1987)

First, let’s get out of the way the fact that the initial publication of some of these books witnessed some of the most horrendous covers in pulp fantasy history, making it look like all four of these books were akin to John Norman’s reactionary Gor novels.  Thankfully, they have been republished with better covers so you don’t have to feel guilty reading them in public, unless of course (like me) you happen to have picked up some of the older versions for cheap at 2nd hand book shops.

The Return to Neveryon series is set in a “dawn of history” sword and sorcery setting, a deconstruction of Robert E. Howard’s Hyperborean Age (and other similar settings).  All four books are fragmented further according to eleven stories, all of which share characters here and there, and function as connected literary exercises. “For sword and sorcery to be at its best,” Delany argued, “one needs a landscape that is ‘on the brink of civilization’ in an almost scientifically ideal way. It is only here that one can truly play the game.” And this game playing consisted of sword and sorcery meditations on different aspects of literary theory, which was why you could find quotes from theorists such as Said, Spivak, and Foucault beginning each of the eleven stories.  But this kind of critical take on pulp fiction is what one would expect from a sci-fi/fantasy author (although this was Delany’s only work of fantasy) who was black and queer.

6) Kaoru Kurimoto: The Guin Saga (1979-2009)

Full disclosure: I have only read the first five books of this series because are the only ones, so far, that have been translated into English.  The greatness of Kurimoto’s fantasy series, though, lies in the fact that she conceived of an epic mythology that would span 100 novels!  Yes, in 1979 she decided: I’m going to write a fantasy epic that is 100 books long and plan for it.  Turns out she ended up going over her planned length by thirty books!  Due to the popularity of the series other writers have decided to keep writing more Guin books after she died, but since the author planned this series with a beginning and ending, I think it’s fair to say it ended in 2009 with book 130.

So even though I cannot, due to only five books being available in English, comment on the quality of the series as a whole, what I have read I have found impressive, even if (like Moorcock) it finds its roots in pulp fantasy.  As a kind of Japanese fantasy “occidentalism” that conceives of a West European world through the lens of the East, and thus mimics but also distorts, Western style fantasy, it is amazingly rich.  The eponymous Guin is an amnesiac warrior with a leapard mask/helmet magically fused to his head roaming a violent world trying to recover his memories and the reason for their loss.  The Guin Saga inspired Kentaro Miura’s Berserk manga… which, being a fan of the original anime adaptation of Berserk, is how I found out about Guin in the first place.

7) Jeff Vandermeer: Ambergris (1996-2009)

The first book in the Ambergris series, City of Saints and Madmen, is a collection of short stories, the earliest published in 1996, which exist to make the fantastic city-state of Ambergis the main character: stories of artists, counter-histories a la Howard Zinn, glossaries, and literary theory about fictional art works – the whole thing is very Borgesian.  Ambergris is a fungal city-state on the sea, obsessed with squid and the suppression of subterranean horror.  The second book, Shriek, is the memoir of Janet Shriek, a curator and art theorist, interposed by edits by her missing brother, the revisionist historian Duncan Shriek.  The third book is noirish detective thriller that takes place after the city is reconquested, a la Spain, by its ousted people: fungus guns and fungus surveillance, along with neo-Lovecraftian horror!  The writing styles of each book (and short stories within the first book) are wildly different, but everything demonstrates a high literary aesthetic in fantasy.

[I also love Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the first of which Alex Garland is in the process of adapting into a film, but again this series is more science-fiction than fantasy, inspired by the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic.]

8) Steven Erikson: Malazan Book of the Fallen (1999-2011)

Epic fantasy consisting of ten doorstop novels.  The first book is sloppy, both in style and characterization (and even has some stunning discontinuities for later books), but the second is bizarrely worlds beyond the first and it just gets better from there.  Concerning an epic upheaval in two fictional hemispheres, with the birth of an Empire and its discontents, Malazan is significant in that it is an epic war fantasy become a social novel: there are hundreds of point of view characters, representing all classes and ethnicities and races (so many strange fantastic races as well), who struggle in various areas of the world and even against each other, and no point is valorized as more culturally superior than another.  Hell, in the second novel we get a point of view narrative from a rebel historian in the Malazan Empire who wants to write a book from the point of view of the common people – a common people engaged in a desperate death march across a desert as they are ejected from the city and harried by their enemy – and who ends up getting executed.

It also has a history that goes back hundreds of thousands of years, sometimes with alien characters who are that old, that puts other attempts at world-building to shame.  Indeed, every setting in the Malazan books feels loaded with history; it is archaeologically dense.  Also, characters die a lot, much more than in Martin’s books: by the fourth book, all of the principle characters of the first are dead.  The problem, though, is that with so many characters both living and dying, it’s often hard to keep track of who is who and who did what, which is why the who’s-who glossaries in each book are bigger than what you would find in War & Peace or Brother’s Karamazov or Bleak House.

9) China Mieville: Bas-Lag Trilogy (2000-2004)

Personally, I think the fact that this series was not included in the SFFWorld list demonstrates why that list was primarily conservative.  These books, beginning with Perdido Street Station crystallized the “new weird” subgenre, thus garnering recognition for writers such as Vandermeer and Valente, which is more than a lot of fantasy – especially if it is just “feudal lite” (Mieville’s term for Tolkien derivatives) or “feudal hard” (what I would classify Martin as) – can claim.  And it was still bizarrely best-selling, pumped out by DelRay, charting the lists of mass sellers… Which was why Harrison, in Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s edited New Weird collection, referred to Mieville as “Battleship Mieville” due to his ability to bash through the walls of genre for fantasy’s misanthropes.  And the fact that his books were guided by an unabashadly marxist sensibility (unfortunately Trotskyist, but oh well) is also enough to make these pedestrian-conservative lists to cringe from the horror this wild series elicits.

When I first picked up the paperback edition of Perdido Street Station in 2004, right before I was married, I had a “what-the-fuck-am-I-reading” moment in a good way.  Not because of the literary quality of the novel (it had its problems, but these would be rectified in later works – both in this series and after), but because it was entirely mad in a very, very good way.  Fantasy setting with magic and impossible races, but in some distortion of the late nineteenth century… but a steampunk fantasy nineteenth century?  Still with magic?  And what’s with those bug people and Insect Aspect?  And AI constructs? And worker unrest?  In The Scar there was an entire floating pirate city and that guy with the “possibility sword”… oh yeah, and fucked up mosquito people.  In Iron Council there was a stolen train run with magical-genetically remade convicts, golem magic, and rebellions that concluded with the adaptation of Rosa Luxemburg’s last statement, before she was murdered – only changed about to fit the fictional universe.

10) Mary Gentle: First History Sequence (2000-2007)

Oh, Mary Gentle: one of the only authors who takes multiple Masters degrees in different areas of history as research for her novels.  That’s fucking dedication, and you can feel that dedication in the books she produces – especially the First History Sequence, which consists of Ash: A Lost History and Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, both of which were divided (in the US) into a variety of smaller novels due to their initial size (over 1100 for Ash, 600 for Ilario).

Since I already reviewed Ash way back on my other blog, I’m not going to bother re-explaining the setting of this alt-history fantasy here in great detail.  Suffice to say it’s yet another example of “grimdark” before the term was coined, as visceral as it is fantastic.  Also, with both books (or series of books, since the US publication divided them), the play with gender and sex is quite progressive.

[It was a toss up between Gentle’s First History and White Crow sequences, the latter being a decade earlier and now incorporated into the so-called “new weird”.  In the end, however, I think First History‘s literary merits, on all levels, surpass those of White Crow because I often felt that the latter novels ended up becoming too obscure and confusing in both style and content.]

*

I want to conclude this first entry of my top-twenty list by noting that I reached the end of the 1990s before the end of the first ten – and I think this is important.  Although I began reading fantasy in the 1980s, before the age of internet SFF fandom, I think it is significant that the majority of series I’m placing on this list were written in the 21st century whereas, inversely, the list produced by SFFWorld primarily references series that originate before the 21st century.  Personally I believe that, with the exceptions above, fantasy as a genre really doesn’t come into its literary worth until the 21st Century… it needed to shed a lot of the worst excesses of its pulp origins, its sublimation in mythology, and its conservativism.  I see authors such as Moorcock, Le Guin, and Delany as figures that represented a turning point – particularly with Moorcock’s advocacy of the speculative New Wave – that were trying to push for a “getting beyond” both Tolkien and sword-and-sorcery pulp (while still playing with these origin points) in order to let fantasy breath for itself.  While the kind of fantasy I dislike (theoretically, I still enjoy consuming brain candy) will continue after the 21st century, at least we’re finding a critical awareness of a kind of fantasy, even world-building epic fantasy, that wants to explore larger vistas of imaginative potential and/or bring literary/poetic discipline to bear on the prose.

In any case, we’ll conclude this list in the next post…

On The Poverty of Revisionist Westerns (Or: “I Saw Bone Tomahawk When It Was Called The Burrowers”)

The upcoming release of the horror-western Bone Tomahawk has reminded me that, despite decades of so-called “revisionist westerns”, I have rarely seen one that was thoroughly critical of the western genre.  Okay, maybe Django, but that had all the problems of a Tarantino film: it gets points for mocking Birth of A Nation and detourning The Searchers (and thus show-casing Tarantino’s awareness of film history, as usual), but it was not a very deep meditation on the settler ideology of the western.  Television series such as Deadwood and Hell on Wheels, though possessing moments that demonstrate some critique of racism/settlerism and western expansion, still fall short of the mark – they generally fall on the side of “everyone is shitty and there’s no heroes” than unveiling the genocidal roots of western expansion.  Indeed, Once Upon A Time In The West, one of the canonical revisionist westerns, already did a far better job of pushing this kind of “revisionist” view of cowboy triumphalism, and the rise of railroad industry, than, say, Hell On Wheels.  Really, the only truly critical western that I can recall seeing is A Bullet For the General (written by Franco Solinas, who also wrote the screenplays for Battle for Algiers and Burn), which dealt with an agent of US imperialism being sent into Mexico to assassinate a peasant revolutionary – but this was limited to a critique of the frontiers era in Mexico rather than the landscape of US western expansion.

url

And it stars Kurt Russell!

Although I have yet to see Bone Tomahawk, the trailer makes me suspect that this film will also fall short of the mark.  To be fair, since I haven’t seen it, I can’t really justify these assertions, but from both the trailer and reviews I’ve read I doubt I’m going to be surprised to find a film that is more than a horror version of The Searchers, but one that tries to transcend the explicit racism of that film by reifying colonial violence.  That is, the plot of Bone Tomahawk is something like this: a settler’s wife is abducted, four “cowboy” types go in search of the culprits under the assumption that they are “Indians”, the abducters are revealed to be sub-human murderers who actually are not part of any Indigenous nation (but some sort of “troglodyte” literal inhuman grouping of tusked monsters), as the wise Indigenous supporting characters have already warned.  Hence the explicit racism of The Searchers narrative is offset by the revelation that the settlers aren’t really hunting natives, and maybe that they were stupidly racist to think so, but something else entirely.

Before thoroughly discussing what I take to be the problem with this narrative – i.e. that it doesn’t at all produce an actual critical revision to Western tropes but in fact sublimates them – I feel that it is worth examining as background, since I haven’t seen Bone Tomahawk, that this approach to The Searchers‘ narrative was already done in The Burrowers.  Same frame tale, from what I can tell: people attacked and abducted, racist settler posse sets out to catch the Indigenous peoples they think responsible, a non-Indigenous primordial evil (one that also preys on Indigenous people) is encountered.  Now, as a film in dialogue with The Searchers (which is the iconic racist western, in both its racism and its importance in cinematic history), The Burrowers was not without its merits.  On the one hand it functioned to convict the settler protagonists with their racism – if they hadn’t been so convinced that they were hunting natives, and indeed brutalized an Indigenous person that could have helped them, they wouldn’t have ignored a host of signs that could helped them.  On the other hand, there were moments of solidarity between the captured and beaten Indigenous character and a former slave.  Still, as much as I found this film interesting (and indeed quite frightening), I still found its critical potential squandered for the same reason that makes me wonder about Bone Tomahawk, which feels like another take on the same proto-Searchers narrative.  And it is because of The Burrowers, and my feelings after watching that film, that I found myself immediately suspicious of Bone Tomahawk.

220px-Burrowersposter08

Can someone tell me if this is the same effing film?

Honestly, I think that connected the western genre with the horror genre could result in a truly critical western (or an anti-western, perhaps) and might in fact possess a lot of untapped potential.  There is nothing more horrific, after all, than the actual historical facts of modern colonialism.  As I noted in my review of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the horrific lies at the heart of US western expansion and it was notable that McCarthy emphasized this fact… His problem, of course, was that such a recognition would fall far short of an actual “revisionist western” since he ended up implying, in typical Hobbesian form (which is now part of a cynical reactionary understanding of history), that the natives were just as bad as the settlers, that all of the horror was part of some state of nature where humans are equally brutalizing other humans, and thus it makes no sense to complain about the horrors of colonialism when the colonized are equally vicious but simply “losers” in their viciousness.  Even still, there were moments when McCarthy depicted settler violence that felt like revelations, an uncovering of a horror movie that lay at the heart of the founding of USAmerica, that could have been more critical had he embedded it within an anticolonial ethos.

Unfortunately, the horror approach to the western that is focused on a rearticulation of the Searchers narrative does not really succeed in foregrounding the horror of colonialism during US western expansionism (not that there wasn’t horror prior to this period in modern colonial history, only that the western genre is concerned with this period).  This failure is due, in my opinion, to the fact that this Searchers narrative is morally loaded.  That is, the problem with The Searchers is not simply its obvious racist affectations (i.e. John Wayne’s daughter was taken by Indigenous “savages” and turned into a “white squaw” because the colonized are essentially rapists and murderers who must be, as the logic of colonial superiority dictates, exterminated), but also its more pernicious ethical claim: that honest settlers are being harmed and abducted, that they are victims who would otherwise live and let live, and that the law of the frontier simply exists to protect “honest folk” (that is, colonial farmers) from being harmed.  In The Searchers there is never any question that John Wayne’s character, and the people he represents, have done anything wrong: whatever violence they express is simply in reaction to a violation of their right to subsist upon the land.

Hence, as with The Searchers, films like The Burrowers receive their moral impetus from the abduction of innocent settlers.  The reason why the settlers are there in the first place is not really interrogated (though, at least with The Burrowers, there is the occasional, but extremely ephemeral, glimmer of an understanding), the ethical function of the frontiers family is not examined. I am not arguing that every family engaged in western expansion was rabidly committed to Indigenous genocide and thus deserving abduction – as an historical materialist I’m less interested in what people imagined themselves to be than what their function was as part of a structural moment – only that this discourse of “abduction” is highly problematical.  In the context of a push for US expansion, following a rejection of the qualifications of the Treaty of the Paris, what a particular settler family thought about its role in the nation is far less important than what the ruling class, and the ideology it promoted, recognized: that western expansion was indeed, as Theodor Roosevelt would later defend, a necessary violence in order to establish civilization against the “barbarism” of sub-human natives.

Hence, in this period, every family involved in the expansion was, regardless of how they thought of themselves, part of a settler garrison.  Indeed, Sakai defined settlerism as a “garrison” mentality, and there is evidence that many of these frontiers families, would have indeed themselves as part of a civilizational garrison expanding against a state of nature (that included Indigenous peoples) that was resisting the right of civilization – the common sense ideology of the time would have guaranteed that this understanding was normative.  Even still, if these families weren’t conscious of this ideology this doesn’t really matter: they were, regardless of how they conceptualized themselves, part of an intensified colonial putsch.  So in this context, to treat them as the ground of moral action –the settler is abducted, all violence against the kidnappers is justified – obscures the prior ethical crime of colonialism.  This is not to say, of course, that such abductions were common (this is yet another colonial trope that The Searchers normalizes) only that the discourse of settler abduction functions to obscure colonialism by creating a story where the settler, and not the native that the settler exists to displace, is the primary victim.

If movies like The Burrowers attempt to rectify this narrative by displacing the crime of abduction on kidnappers who are inhuman, all this does is reify the claim made by The Searchers: the settler still remains the primary victim, violation of Indigenous peoples is simply a mistake on the way to rectifying the original crime, and the barbarism attributed to natives is projected upon a mythical space.  The supernatural entities in The Burrowers, known by native nations, are also hypostatized versions of native tribes: they are also indigenous, though supernaturally so, and the colonial hinterlands remain hostile to settler infiltration.  Here we find a repression of colonial chauvinism, a sublimation of the colonizer-colonized contradiction, that is driven by the recognition that now it is morally wrong to characterize Indigenous people as kidnappers.  So the problem is these “other” savages, which exist in a mythic space, and that still represent precisely what the racists of the 19th century said that Indigenous peoples were: inhuman monsters, demonic pagans. Does it really matter if this film works hard to demonstrate that the enemy is not Indigenous when it represents everything that Indigenous people were said to be by common sense ideology in the period of westward US expansion?  And in this context, the abducted settlers are still the basis upon which moral practice rests: the entire film is motivated by their innocence, by the violation represented in abduction, and that this abduction is immediately understood (though wrongly) as performed by the colonized.

Which is why I have little faith in Bone Tomahawk to correct the mistakes of The Burrowers, especially since it feels both derivative and less aware of itself within the genre.  According to the reviews, an Indigenous person appears rather early in the film to inform the protagonist searchers that they are ignorant “pale-faces” [yes, this is the term used, a stereotypical way of speaking] for assuming that the enemy is “indian” – as if this enough to off-set the allegiance to the Searchers narrative… in fact, it seems designed to function as a defense mechanism: see we’re not racist even if we’re drawing on a racist narrative!  Here, the problem is not that the true enemy of the colonizer is some savage other – the real savage that threatened the colonizer, a monster that only masqueraded as Indigenous – but that the colonizer itself is the monstrous other, the alien presence upon the landscape that typified western expansion.  Any horror-western that is capable of actually drawing on the authentic horror of that period, and upsetting the narrative of mainstream westerns, must locate its horror in the figure of the settler rather than a variant of the native… For this was the literal horror of history, the axis upon which genocide was accomplished, and to proclaim otherwise is to align oneself with horror itself, to proclaim a rejection of ethics altogether.

All of this is to say that there needs to revitalization of the western genre that is properly critical of this genre’s conceits rather than concentrating on a few symptoms, repeating certain narratives that are in themselves problematic.  An actual “revisionist western” must begin with the fact of colonial genocide and slave-based settlement, especially according to the attitudes of this context in the nineteenth century where the traditional western is supposed to take place, and seek to intentionally disrupt the ideological intersections in which particular colonial narratives locate their existence.  It is not enough to detourne The Searchers, which might be incapable (after at least two tries) of being detourned; the task is to produce a western that begins with the horror of colonization.