Thursday, December 13, 2012

The incompetence of third wave fantasy

SF writer John C. Wright takes my previous point concerning the literary need for what is customarily termed sexism and runs with it, introducing the term 'retrophobia' to describe the modernist disease that has infested modern fantasy, ruined most of it, and reduced the genre as a whole to an even less serious, more derivative literary ghetto barely more literate than the third-rate television dramas derived from it.
Modern schoolboys, for a variety of reasons, none of which bear too close an examination for anyone with a queasy stomach, are far more poorly educated than their fathers, and far more indoctrinated into a particularly parochial and past-hating view, which I hereby dub ‘retrophobia.’

The particular quality of retrophobia is that everything about the past is despised. This includes the  remote past, say, AD 50, as well as the near past, say AD 1950.  Some things are despised in  a condescending but admiring way, as one might look upon a child, as they are looked upon as the larval forms of enlightenment which will burgeon into the glorious present day, such as the career of Julian the Apostate, and others are despised in a hostile way, as one would look upon an enemy, or a disease which, after long bouts of fever, one has finally thrown aside, such as the witchhunts of the Reformation Era. The sole exception to the first category is that if the advance toward enlightenment was done by Christians for explicitly Christian reasons, it is either to be ignored, such as the abolition of slavery in the Middle Ages, or is to be used as an example of villainy or absurdity, as the Crusades, in which case its fate is to be not only ignored but misrepresented.

Now, logically, one cannot write fantasy for an audience suffering retrophobia. The painted savages of the Sioux and Apache do not exist in the imagination of the retrophobes, only the kindly Indians, now miscalled Native Americans, such as are portrayed in DANCES WITH WOLVES and Disney’s POCAHONTAS. The modern schoolboy has never read a Norse saga, but he may have seen HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. He has certainly never read any story where a Christian is thrown to the lions by the Romans, but he knows about gladiatorial games from Russell Crowe. Gladiatorial fighting is like a Pokemon match, except with humans!

The second generation of fantasy was not based on history, it was based on Howard and Tolkien and Lovecraft and other authors of the first generation. Those were the images and tropes alive in the imaginations of the audience. Michael Moorcock and Fritz Lieber are still drawing, to some degree, from first generation sources, but Kane of Old Mar is John Carter, and Fafhrd the Barbarian is Conan. Roger Zelanzy inverts the tropes of fantasy in his Amber books by having his main character be a film noir antihero straight out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and having him thrust into a multiverse-wide Elizabethan revenge drama.

The third generation, I can say very little about, since it was about this time that I lost interest in fantasy, or it lost interest in me. There are occasional exceptions, like THE SORCERER’S HOUSE by Gene Wolfe, or the “Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher, but, for the most part, I cannot slog through something like the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordon or THE DEED OF PAKSENARRION by Elizabeth Moon, and not because there is anything wrong with the writing or even the world building  (heaven forbid I criticize authors more skilled than I at my chosen vocation!) but only because the cultural and social assumptions and axioms of their worlds are too close the modern axioms, where the assumption has no reason why it could exist. It breaks the spell of the suspension of disbelief.... the Third Wave of Fantasy, as far as I can tell from a distance, do not have imaginations filled with images from real history, as I do, but instead are filled with an earlier generation of fantasy images, Eowyn dressed as Dernhelm riding to her doom, or Red Sonya dressed in a chainmail bikini.
This theory of literary retrophobia explains why so many mediocre writers like Terry Brooks, JK Rowling, and John Scalzi, and even genuinely entertaining writers such as Charles Stross, exhibit such a powerful inclination for rewriting the works of earlier, more original writers, not only mimicking their styles, but downright strip-mining their works for ideas, settings, and even basic plots.

For example, I enjoyed The Sword of Shannara when I was in high school, for example.  Yes, it was a mediocre imitation of Tolkien, but it had its moments and it was a preferable alternative to re-reading The Silmarillion for the third time.  But after struggling through The Elfstones of Shannara and only making it about a chapter into the third book in the series, I gave it up.  I tried again about twenty years later and didn't even make it that far.

The reason, I belatedly realized, was that without the benefit of working from Tolkien's template, Brooks simply didn't know how to write a fantasy tale capable of holding the reader's interest.  He's not a bad writer; his Demon books weren't bad.  But he simply didn't have any of the deep roots in history or myth that the great genre writers of the past did, and the shallowness crippled the quality of his storytelling.

Despite her vast sales success, it must be remembered that Rowling is a largely derivative writer of Wright's third generation.  She simply took the juvenile English boarding school, of which P.G. Wodehouse was a past master, and inserted conventional fantasy magic into it.  There is a reason Harry Potter was rejected so many times by so many publishers; it isn't a very good book and Rowling isn't a very good writer except for her ability to create fairly memorable characters.  She is entirely incapable of building a coherent world, as the rules of Quidditch alone will suffice to demonstrate.  None of that mattered when it came to selling vast quantities of her books, of course, but then, I have yet to hear anyone claim that Katie Price is one of the greatest living authors by virtue of having published more bestsellers than Rowling, including no less than four autobiographies by the age of 34.  The increasingly inept nature of the  Harry Potter series became more and more evident over time, until by the end, the books were virtually unreadable.  This was no surprise to me; I expected as much after slogging through the third book.  As those who read George Martin have learned, the larger the story grows, the more difficult it is for the author to keep under control.

Now, I always enjoy laughing at the antics of John Scalzi, who has been a vocal opponent of ever mine since some of the screechers in the SFWA were having a hissy fit about this WND column in 2005. But that's not the issue here, more important is the way the SFWA president is, almost literally, the poster boy for the inevitable consequences of retrophobia.  Even more than Rowling, he is a quintessential third generation writer, as his works are pale shadows of Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, H. Beam Piper, and now Star Trek, of all things.  He is a stunt writer; attempting to provide clever spin on X is his basic modus operandi.  He doesn't even try to write anything that isn't derivative, presumably because his hopelessly PC ideology and audience combines to prevent him from being able to draw upon any ideas or events from the past that will not pass muster with all of the various activist groups and their highly prejudiced - and often competing - views of history before which he must genuflect.

But whereas Scalzi's mediocrity means that his inability to write original material is no great loss to the genre, what is more troubling is the way retrophobia cripples the careers of genuinely creative talents such as Charles Stross and even Neal Stephenson.  Now, I admire both writers, I own most of their books in hardcover, and I consider them to be among the finest writers of our generation.  I consider myself fortunate if I ever happen to write novels that are as good as I believe many of theirs to be.

And yet, their works are hollow at the core.  There is a pointlessness at the heart of their works that tends to undermine their creative visions, a moral vaccuum that leaves even the most admiring reader feeling somewhat cheated.  No amount of literary pyrotechnics or creative brilliance can entirely obscure this.  They are merely very good and very entertaining when they should be great.  That may be why the works of China Mieville, for all his servile Marxian incoherence, retains a certain depth and power that is more remniscent of the second generation writers than his peers; his moral sense may be warped and he may hide his forbidden influences under a thick veil of New Weird, but he is still connected to the living heart of the genre, pumping life through its mystic connections between the writer and the true myths of history.

51 comments:

Anonymous said...

How come no one mentions the Malazan series by erikson? When they discuss the fantasy genre

Daniel said...

Philip Jose Farmer mashed all of history together and he ended up with one or two good character swimming in soup.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go proves that the abstraction of fantasy from its historic roots creates a fiction that may move, but ultimately goes nowhere.

Daniel said...

To understand the opposite thesis (that the past is bunk and fantasy exists in a vacuum), the key is to believe (very strongly) and insist that all fantasy literature is a simple math problem:

A + Not A = A

TLM said...

.....such as are portrayed in DANCES WITH WOLVES.....

On a trip to the Black Hills & Badlands of SD, the locals despised the Indians. I mean they hated em. And they unanimously agreed that Dances With Wolves was nothing but horse-shit.

asdf said...

I read Anathem for Neal and really liked it. Then I tried to read his first book with the Samurai programmer or whatever. My God it was the worst book I ever read.

Bruce Charlton did a great job writing about the underlying Christians messages in Harry Potter that made it such a strong series. But as you've mentioned its still just a watered down version of those themes.

happycrow said...

I actually had no problems with the Paksenarrion works by Moon. Not "convincing" fantasy by any means -- they're "DnD novels" and the author admits it openly -- but she has good bits here and there.

Otherwise, I tend to agree. My own self-published novel (no, I won't flak it here, I have taste) hews VERY strongly to the sensibilities of second-gen fantasy. One of the things that 2nd gen was very serious about was avoiding pointless wish-fulfillment. If the protagonist ends the novel by getting to become a wizard and flying away on the spaceship with the princess....it's probably 3rd-gen (or worse, a 3rd-gen sharecropper story).

kh123 said...

"DANCES WITH WOLVES....."

Kevin Costner's a piece of work. This autofallatic interview is a performance all in itself, complete with false humility and left-field rants/justifications for why Waterworld or The Postman were actually great films. The guy can't stay in his chair half the time while he recalls how much he's done for everyone.

Especially check out 20:34; Dances With Crazy starts up here in earnest.

horseman said...

Who are the fist generation fantasy writers? Jules verne I suppose. Myths themselves seem sort of like fantasy. The epic of gilgamesh and stuff like that. I need to get my hands on some norse mythology.

Cail Corishev said...

My reaction to the first Potter book was much like my reaction to the first Shannara book (I didn't continue with either series): "That's it?" Both were such obvious genre knock-offs. Capably enough written, I suppose, but adding nothing new of interest. After growing up on Donaldson, Eddings, Saberhagen, Zelazny, Glen Cook, and others, it was just plain depressing to hear people raving about Potter and thinking it's great fantasy.

I liked Brooks's Demon books too, but didn't love them. There's just something thin about them; I can't remember much except the main two characters and the basic story line. I never thought about why before, but maybe you're right: without a Tolkein-ish universe to build on, he doesn't really create much depth beyond what's necessary for his characters to act in.

It's interesting that he likes the Dresden Files, because they're loaded with modern tropes, starting with the Spunky 5' Girl Cop Who Kicks Ass. (TvTropes.org has a whole wing devoted to the series.) On the other hand, it references all sorts of old myths and history, from archangels to old faerie legends. That makes it a rich universe, especially once the Knights come into it. Without that depth, it'd be like reading Buffy comics.

Stephen Donaldson is a favorite of mine. His Gap series is a sci-fi retelling of Wagner's Ring cycle. It's extremely brutal -- especially the first book -- but excellent. His Covenant series may be my favorite series ever, and it draws from a lot of old sources that I wasn't even aware of when I first read it.

I've been meaning to try Erikson, because Donaldson recommends him highly.

Loki of Asgard said...

I need to get my hands on some norse mythology.

The Norsemen were unmitigated perverts. Just look at all the disgusting stories they made up about me.

Would I lie?

Unending Improvement said...

If you haven't read the entire link VD posted about, you should.

You really should read it before reading this post.

Matt Springer said...

...retrophobia cripples the careers of genuinely creative talents such as Charles Stross and even Neal Stephenson

I have to call you out on this, at least with respect to Stephenson. Some of his recent books have contained barely-disguised paeans to:

1. Medieval Catholic monasteries.
2. The social structure of Victorian England(!)
3. 17th century English Puritans(!!)

zen0 said...

You gotta have heart.

Miserman said...

When I read the first book in the Wheel of Time series, Eye of the World, I was mildly excited to read about three young men about to begin an adventure in an world of awakening evil. Then a third of the way through the book, it became feminist romance fantasy and the feminine imperative absolutely swallowed what could have been an entertaining story. And then I noticed similar patterns in most stories I had read.

VD said...

I have to call you out on this, at least with respect to Stephenson.

You're missing the point. Stephenson isn't a retrophobe. If I recall correctly, he even wrote The Baroque Cycle with a quill pen in part, or something like that.

But for all his knowledge of, and respect for, history, he is still identifiably modern in many ways. His characters in particular tend to reflect this, and that weakens his otherwise excellent writing.

Moreover, although he writes better concerning religion than nearly anyone else, he doesn't quite get either it or intersexual relations. His men are always being surprised by the hot girl who inexplicably decides to have sex with him without warning; one therefore presumes he was of low socio-sexual rank during his formative years.

VD said...

You're missing the point. Stephenson isn't a retrophobe.

Let me restate that. Stephenson isn't a retrophobe himself, but he nevertheless shows signs of retrophobic influence in some of the tropes he utilizes.

Stross, on the other hand, most certainly is. But he has too much literary integrity to let it overshadow his plots.

tz said...

Would better integration help with the calculus of derivative works to differentiate them?

They don't even rise to the challenge of great evil. Lovecraft is terrifying - but to the root of that word. Not the roller-coaster simularcum. Saw N or Final Desrination N at least tried. Evil should be interesting and not banal. If you cannot achieve even that, you should find a union factory job. Oh, wait...

Redlettermedia.com shreds star wars and star trek with cheap shots, but aimed at a debased currency. You know you scrape the bottom when satire exceeds the epic.

VD said...

You gotta have heart.

Even more so, you have to have soul. And the third generation writers are, by their own confession, soulless. It should be no surprise that their characters and stories are as well.

Gilbert Ratchet said...

That "women can't think" article really hurt my feelings. You should be ashamed of yourself. How dare you say such hurtful things? It is unacceptable!

Matt Springer said...

His men are always being surprised by the hot girl who inexplicably decides to have sex with him without warning; one therefore presumes he was of low socio-sexual rank during his formative years.

That is definitely, hilariously true. I'm not sure he's ever written an under-40 female character who acted remotely like a human woman. Eliza was just about the biggest nerd wish-fulfillment fantasy I've ever read. (I liked her.)

Anyway, this...

Stephenson isn't a retrophobe himself, but he nevertheless shows signs of retrophobic influence in some of the tropes he utilizes.

...I can at least see where you're coming from. Still, on the continuum from Tolkien to Scalzi, he's definitely closer to the side of the old literary masters.

Rantor said...

@ horseman, Seamus Heaney's Beowulf is the one to start with. It is a brilliant translation.

VD said...

I can at least see where you're coming from. Still, on the continuum from Tolkien to Scalzi, he's definitely closer to the side of the old literary masters.

No argument from me there. Recall that I have repeatedly described him as the finest author of my generation, with Mieville probably my top candidate for second place.

rycamor said...

Stephenson at least manages to sneak his alpha males in as secondary characters (Shaftoes, both in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle), and they provide a certain amount of perspective.

It has always been rare for a protagonist in sci-fi/fantasy to be a true alpha male. I attribute this not only to the likelihood of the author's own experience but the fact that he has to sell books. There is big money in nerd wish-fulfillment.

I think another part of this might just stem from the need for a character to experience a personal journey towards something, and perhaps too many of these authors assume alpha male as the destination, rather than a beginning. After all, if a character is already an alpha male, able to easily bend those around him to his will (especially women) where is the story to go from there? It's evidence of an adolescent philosophy of life, or a paucity of imagination, assuming no deeper thoughts or conflicts would trouble a man of that stature. Of course, to the modern irreligious humanist, what more could there be in life?

Nate said...

Glenn Cook. 3G is not a total waste.

Nate said...

Black Company doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves. For my money... its top 5.

Houston said...

"The particular quality of retrophobia is that everything about the past is despised."

Joseph Sobran noted this phenomenon many years ago. He observed that liberalism's harshest insults were temporal (medieval, neanderthal, etc.), and he wryly commented that whereas an angry religious man might verbally condemn his foes to hell, the incensed liberal condemns his enemies to the past.

Lucas said...

VD,

Nice post.

Not my place to say this, but isn't this post more adjusted for the VP blog?

Cheers.

Lucas said...

Oh. Forget it. I saw it on VP.

rycamor said...

Unending Improvement said...

If you haven't read the entire link VD posted about, you should.

You really should read it before reading this post.


The best rant I have read all year. Sums it up with

Political Correctness damns all past history as being nothing but prologue to the wonderfulness that is us.

And

The past, for all its flaws and faults (and let us not romanticize nor underestimate the drawback and even horrors of life in times past) still had cleaner and clearer truths found among them. In this case, the truth about men and women.

jack said...

I tend to agree with VD that Stephenson is one of the modern generation greats. I also agree that that first book leaves something on the floor. For some reason I never have started the Baroque cycle. I think I prefer my writers not to get too deeply into alternate history, except, perhaps, as some sort of minor plot device. I do know that Reamde, crytomocron, and, of course, Anathem were totally enjoyable. The only reason I have not reread them is page length.
It's going to be interesting following the comment ladders concerning the latest Vox book, 'A Throne of Bones' Read it in two days and can't wait for the next in the series.

Desiderius said...

I can't recall the particulars, but REAMDE sticks in my memory as being pretty savvy about female attraction triggers.

Anathem is flat-out retrophilia, and utterly unfliching in its savaging of our present ignoramous clown princes.

The general diagnosis of non-Stephenson writers is very close to the truth, but I'm skeptical that the problem is fear of the past per se, so much as fear of the light a clear understanding of the past might shed on their present inadequacy.

DaveD said...

@Horseman, check out "Children of Odin". Its a good collection of Norse tales. I would think George MacDonald would be 1st gen.

DD

alphamission said...

Very interesting Vox. By the way, what is some top notch fantasy to look into? I.e. pro masculinity/non feminist

F said...

I'm not sure what generation you're classing Gene Wolfe in, but he's one of the few authors whose books I've become really passionate about in the last decade. And although his work isn't explicitly Christian, it's undeniable how it informs his work.

A said...

alphamission,

If you go to Vox's blog and search Blackgate, on the second page of posts he has a list of his top 50 SF/F books. I recommend copying that list and starting there.

Sojourner said...

Nate beat me to the Black Company by Glenn Cook that certainly steers clear of the problem discussed here.

Unending Improvement said...

"The best rant I have read all year. Sums it up with

Political Correctness damns all past history as being nothing but prologue to the wonderfulness that is us.

And

The past, for all its flaws and faults (and let us not romanticize nor underestimate the drawback and even horrors of life in times past) still had cleaner and clearer truths found among them. In this case, the truth about men and women."

Absolutely. There is no "End of History" or other such Whigish, Hegelian BS.

The "Blank Slate" crowd is dead wrong. If they were right, it would be so easy for me to get past my Approach Anxiety.

Derrick Bonsell said...

I've actually flirted with a fantasy story that is not Tolkienesque "lowly hero on a quest."

It is also NOT one with a warrior woman. That's not to say that the female characters aren't courageous, I'm convinced many women are more spiritually courageous than any man. They just exercise feminine power, not masculine power. So think Cersei or even Galadriel.

I haven't figured out magic or anything like that, if so I want to keep it as mundane as possible.

It's basically about a noble's son, and his rise through the Kingdom's politics.

Billy Brown said...

Interesting take.

It always amazes me how ignorant modern fantasy writers tend to be about the most basic elements of their settings. I can't count the number of times I've seen low-tech, no-magic settings that somehow have modern medicine, birth control and general wealth levels just because the author can't conceive of things being any other way.

krauserpua.com said...

Agreed.

I look at so much of modern cultural output and I see tremendous creative and technical ability utterly hamstrung by anachronistic insertion of modern ideology into contexts it couldn't possibly fit.

Retrophobia is a great label.

I take it you are aware of how the Robert E Howard renaissance of 1970s was based on versions of his stories reedited to smooth of the harder non-PC edges?

Anonymous said...

David Drake's latest fantasy trilogies are as good as Poul Anderson's. Though, I liked Drake's Vettius and Dama stuff better. And Stephenson's Mongoliad looks like 300 pages of fight scene per book.

Anonymous said...

It has always been rare for a protagonist in sci-fi/fantasy to be a true alpha male. I attribute this not only to the likelihood of the author's own experience but the fact that he has to sell books. There is big money in nerd wish-fulfillment.

Hmm. John Carter of Mars - alpha or not?
Tarzan - alpha or not?

There are others. All from first wave or earlier SF.

I think that the rise of the beta male as protagonist in SF perhaps is a post WWII phenom.



Dator Sojat

Anonymous said...

The hero of David Drake' space opera series starts as an alpha male cockhound who'd never look at a woman one year older, incredibly connected politically, brilliant starship captain, tough with a length of pipe. In the first book the alpha female stands up to his alphaness and gains his respect, then shoots one uppity beta, stands up to another beta, and is rescued by an older alpha female who respects her- Drake has found feminism's clitoris. In later books the alpha female crushes beta males left and right, gaining a deep mutually respectful relationship with the alpha hero- Drake has fingered out feminism's G-spot. In the latest book she humiliates a regiment of macho betas, shoots a few more for fun, then holds a big impressive ceremony where she publicly humiliates a beta who said something insensitive. 2 in the pink, 1 in the stink, Drake is whirling modern feminism's highest ideals around his head before bowling them at his mortgage payments for a STEEE- RIKE!!!

Um, I liked the space opera battle scenes.

Anonymous said...

"When I read the first book in the Wheel of Time series, Eye of the World, I was mildly excited to read about three young men about to begin an adventure in an world of awakening evil. Then a third of the way through the book, it became feminist romance fantasy and the feminine imperative absolutely swallowed what could have been an entertaining story. And then I noticed similar patterns in most stories I had read. "

kinda like most TV series that interested me.

Tony said...

I have just read the first two Rigante books by David Gemmell. Not a single bad ass warrior woman in sight. What does everyone else think of Gemmell?

papabear said...

"That's not to say that the female characters aren't courageous, I'm convinced many women are more spiritually courageous than any man. They just exercise feminine power, not masculine power."

Still looks like pedestalizing.

Derrick Bonsell said...

"Still looks like pedestalizing."

Which amuses me that you think so, because I ripped that entire concept from someone in the manosphere.

But please tell me how Alpha ladykiller you are.

papabear said...

A lot of feminists post remarks in the manosphere - doesn't mean that somehow their remarks are thereby magically made correct. Save the ad hom, if you can't handle a characterization of a statement you made (which entails a claim on my part that women are not more spiritually "courageous" or that they are not spiritually better than men by nature), then reread what Vox wrote about heterotopic discourse and rhetoric and decide in which camp you lie.

retrophoebia said...

Huh. I didn't know my handle had devolved to a SF subgenre. I took it from Finnegan's Wake.

Cail Corishev said...

If Glen Cook is third wave, then I guess I don't understand the concept at all. Is first/second/third wave just a question of time frame, or does it depend more on style (as I thought)? Guess I need to do some research.

Anonymous said...

Did no one here know that the Wheel of Time is technically set in the future?

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