Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock – read
What’s Auntie Reading Now?: Wizardry and Wild Romance (Reread)
Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock – read
Title: Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film
Editor: Lou Anders
Publisher: Monkeybrain Books
Publisher’s Blurb: From Lord of the Rings—called the greatest novel of the 20th Century—to The Matrix—one of the highest grossing films of all time … science fiction and fantasy have proved to be one of cinema and literature’s most enduring and popular genres. PROJECTIONS examines the history and the people, the science and the society, the lives, times and themes, the cultural impact and the critical response of the dynamic genre that is speculative fiction, as seen through the eyes of some of today’s most recognized writers.
There are many thoughtful essays in Projections from great authors including Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, and Mike Resnick. These are authors who love SF/F with the care of a tender lover and who are not unafraid to point out the flaws. They, like so many I have encountered, want better for, and from, genre fiction.
Here’s a look at some of what caught my attention:
John Clute‘s “In Defense of Science Fiction,” still stands well as a demand for better, less bloated, less predictable, SF/F writing. This is a discussion I’ve had a few times with other readers. M. Todd Gallowglas has a wonderful essay called “Why Isn’t Fantasy More Fantastical?” in his book My Journey in Creative Reading. Michael Moorcock, in his famous essay “Epic Pooh,” also writes about demanding better from our genre.
Basically, without getting too much into the weeds about this, for far too long fans have been bullied by others who think of SF/F as an outlying type of literature. In a small-town high school, I was bullied for a lot of reasons, but reading something no one else had heard of was right up there near the top of the list.
Many have had the experience of being shamed by educators for reading SF/F, or even writing it. So as a community, we clung to what we knew and what was available. Which perpetuated this unfortunate Catch-22 of publishers publishing only what’s selling and fans buying it because that’s what’s available.
Clute’s essay is powerful because he delves into many of the reasons genre isn’t better. Some of which have to do with publishers and reviewers and categorizing, and other things which have led us to believe we belong in the far corner of reading and writing in all flavors.
I am here to tell you we do NOT belong in that corner. We belong wherever the hell we want, but we need better writing, better storytelling.
“… we’re going to need all the help we can get to see our way through. We cannot exclude any visions – any way to look at the world – that we humans have invented for ourselves. We are going to need all the ways to look.”
This is the way Clute ends his essay, and he’s right, no one can afford to exclude any vision which will help us survive the madness that is the world as we know it.
David Brin’s essay, “Achilles, Superman, and Darth Vader,” is a beautiful look at how movies have become more about the fancy effects than about story-telling. And he lays this directly at George Lucas‘ and Joseph Campbell‘s doors.
What Joseph Campbell did was point out all the positive themes and rhythms used in every ancient hero tale. George Lucas took all these predictable traits and turned them into Star Wars. Unfortunately, what both Campbell and Lucas did was make good and bad clear cut. By not considering the flawed and dark parts of any protagonist (and opposite for the antagonist), Brin maintains that what we cheer for in these triumphal stories is uniformity.
Know what? He’s right. Further, he’s right in pointing out that elitism gets a pass. Luke Skywalker starts as a humble small-town boy on an out of the way planet, and works himself into the ruling elite (both Jedi and royalty). Anything he does which could have negative consequences gets a pass, because he’s now a part of the elite ruling class, who are the same and believe they know what’s best/right for the rest of the galaxy. No one in the Star Wars universe is allowed to question the status quo.
Star Wars isn’t the only franchise he takes aim at. Star Trek gets a critical look, as do many of the other tropes in SF/F.
This is not to say that neither Brin nor I recognize the importance of these franchises in getting SF/F accepted by a broader audience and to take a crack at elevating story-telling. But I believe that we can both love something and be critical of it without diminishing the thing we love. Critical thinking enhances the way we read, and look, at SF/F, and gives us the tools to demand better from the creators.
My favorite essay in Projections is “The Matrix Trilogy” by Adam Roberts in which he applies multiple literature criticism lens to all three Matrix movies. It’s a thought provoking read. And while I loved the movies, especially the first one, there’s not a lot I disagree with in Roberts’ essay.
For instance, one of the themes he writes about is how limiting some of those interpretations could be. One of particular interest makes the trilogy into a Christian allegory. “Emphasising [sic] perceived mythic underpinnings in fact takes us away from the specificity of the films themselves.”
And so it goes for other schools of thought and criticism, all of which can be a valid critical view of the movies. But because I like poking holes in religious tropes as applied to non-religious movies and literature, this is what resonated the most with me, “…what if the messiah comes and nothing changes as a result? [sic] If the messiah comes more than once, why only twice?”
::shocked gasp:: I can hear Christians all across the world clutching their pearls and crying “blasphemy!” Roberts has a point, and his explanation for this particular line of thought is one I hadn’t pursued before. Even if you completely disagree with his interpretation, at least admit that’s a thought-provoking theme to explore.
And to all those determined to seek deeper meaning in The Matrix Trilogy, Roberts ends his essay by saying this, “The point is not to see beneath the surface.”
In the interest of brevity (because, trust me I could go on and on), here are a few quotes I liked:
“This is True” by Tim Lebbon
“[the dark will tell someone not to get out of bed but they will have to for some reason] … then a hand will close around their ankle, tug, and they will be dragged beneath the bed to a grisly doom.
“This will happen. I firmly believe it.
“I believe it because the human imagination is a powerful, potent force.”
“Something About Harry” by Mark Finn
In which Finn explains how ludicrous the book selling business is in terms of profit.
“The book industry is the most inept, retarded, backwater, ill-conceived industry in the world.”
“Scientists in SF Films” by Robert A. Metzger
In which Metzger examines the portrayal of science and scientists in film, which always makes them out to be the reason things go wrong in the movies.
“Science is a soul-sucking mistress.”
“The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction” by Jonathan Lethem
Beating my favorite drum about demanding better from the genre.
“Among the factors arrayed against acceptance of SF as serious writing, none is more plain to outsiders than this: the books are so fucking ugly. Worse, they’re all ugly in the same way, so you can’t distinguish those meant for grown-ups from those meant for twelve-year-olds.”
Title: Wizardry & Wild Romance
Author: Michael Moorcock
Publisher: Monkeybrain Books
Publisher’s Blurb: … this invaluable work analyzes the Fantasy genre from its earliest beginnings in Medieval romances, on through the notable practitioners like Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien, and up to the brightest lights in the field today. Insightful and often controversial, this is a book every fantasy reader should have on their shelf.
“Michael Moorcock – Extreme Librarian”
Introduction by China Miéville
“To read something that somebody else has written and have it make better sense of your own reactions than you have been able to, is a momentous thing.” (p14)
Miéville’s central thesis, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is we should all want better, demand “vision and passion” from the epic fantasy we read. Not because Moorcock says we should, but because so much of it has fallen into disrepair. A lot of it is imitative and limited. Fans can get caught in the Catch-22 of reading what’s available which keeps getting written because it’s what sells.
And yes, Moorcock is frustrating. He has a lot to say, all of it supported by citations of his arguments. His prose is dense, his meaning often obvious, but his insistence we should want better is absolutely right. And how in the hell has he read and studied so much and written so much?
“I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” (p 18)
In the first paragraph, Moorcock defines what he’s writing about. Romantic epic fantasy “whose writers invent their own Earthly histories and geographies.” Not, I am relieved to learn, that sentimental love story rubbish churned out by the likes of Danielle Steele.
This too, resonated with me. “I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” I’m finally able to admit to myself that much of what I have read wasn’t bad so much as boring. Too repetitive, unambitious, and often self-congratulatory.
“I believe that critical dissection of the fantasy story into its components does not detract from the story. Rather, it adds a new dimension to it …” This is what I’ve been fumbling around for much of my life, and was what I enjoyed most in my English classes. The many ways to look at a work and interpret it and the richness that adds to it.
Epic fantasy then, loosely defined, are the stories told which feature exotic landscapes from the imagination of the writer, with symbols which evoke strong sensations as a way to escape and discover ourselves. Moorcock references the escape from objective pressure, which can also mean an escape from the inward pressure we place on ourselves to survive an often unpleasant world.
Each chapter title takes on an aspect of Epic Fantasy.
Chapter 1 “Origins” gives a history beginning with 16th century tales deemed Chivalric Romance and its influence on Gothic Romance. Here, romance is defined most succinctly as exploration of the exotic. When Moorcock writes about early epic fantasy he writes, “… their chief purpose was to amaze and shock.” While the prose may not be easily read by contemporary readers, the presence of dragons, magic, castles, ogres, doom and tragedy are instantly familiar.
Chapter 2 “The Exotic Landscape” discusses the landscape of the internal as expressed in the external. The exotic landscape is used to distance the author/reader from reality. In some ways, as though realism is too much to abide.
An interesting brief topic was Moorcock’s discussion of “bachelor-fiction” written by the likes of Lovecraft. “… [Lovecraft’s] more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated …” (p. 55) (emphasis mine)
And then there’s this, “Too frequently one gets the impression that … most practitioners of epic fantasy read only one another’s work.” (p. 77) This continues explaining how epic fantasy can do better by its readers. Don’t just read your peers’ work, avoid the bloat and the boring and the stereotypical by reading works in other genres as well.
Chapter 3 “The Heroes and the Heroines” focuses on the lack of mature, nuanced, emotional reactions in epic fantasy characters. Most are adolescent, immature or “pretend-adult.” A frequent adjective he uses is “infantile.” The men are in charge, all knowledgeable and the women are fundamentally passive, waiting to be taken care of by the man. (This is the trope which made me uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere for my reading pleasure.)
Yet, there’s hope! Authors such as Fritz Leiber, Robin McKinley, and Gene Wolfe whose characters have “genuine passions, adult concerns, and complex motives.”
Chapter 4 “Wit and Humor” discusses the types of humor most suited for epic fantasy. Irony and melodrama, comedy and fantasy, closely bound to one another in showing the fantastic extremes of life (fairies, dragons, etc.) along with the reversals of fate represented in farce (custard pies, or pratfalls).
Comedy adds a dimension to the characters and the plot. Humans are complex, and often use humor to survive the daily grind. So too should epic fantasy characters.
It’s in this chapter, Moorcock explores the idea that fantasy should “have at its source some fundamental compassion, … ambition to show … what human life is actually about.” (p. 116) Further, he looks for readings which help us (as readers) understand how to deal with problems and respond in a positive manner to injustice and frustrations which hound us all.
Chapter 5 “Epic Pooh” is Moorcock’s tirade against authors such as Tolkien who write childish books and parade them as gentler adult books. The authors who preach moderation and politeness. Those who do not explore the harsher and extreme truths of life.
Moorcock’s explanation, “Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down, they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in …” (p. 120) tickles me no end. And while I happen to enjoy Winnie the Pooh, I have no illusions that A. A. Milne wrote anything other than polite, happy nursery rhymes.
Chapter 6 “Excursions and Developments” is the final chapter and deals with the thesis that categorization is destructive. Because it forces authors to pigeonhole themselves in order to sell books and attract an audience. (cf it doesn’t have to be good to sell in Chapter 1.)
This made me ponder how I read. I read books, in search of good stories, not genre. Yes, I like a good dragon tale, time-travel, cyberpunk, etc. but I like other things.
I read John Scalzi because I like his stories, not because he writes military science fiction.
Myke Cole tells the story of a village bullied by the religious government and the teen-aged girl who comes to the rescue. Strong female character (we need Heloise today), story about standing up to the bullies. That it’s categorized as fantasy meant little to me.
The Astronaut Lady series by Mary Robinette Kowal was a ripping good tale which read like the alternate history it is. But I read it for the women who fought for equal rights in the space program.
Wizardry & Wild Romance is rich, dense, and filled with authors I’ve never heard of. It’s also one I will gladly read repeatedly as I learn more about critical writing. Moorcock’s discussion of what is good in epic fantasy, and what isn’t, can be transferred to other genres, I’m sure. Albeit without the dragons and wizards, etc.
Wizardry & Wild Romance – Michael Moorcock ~ read
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