Tolkien & Me

The spark for this short memoir comes from the recent speculation that Amazon’s new Tolkien-based show will be set during the Second Age of Middle Earth; a sort of “Young Sauron” if commentators who know far more than me are to be believed.  The speculation seems based on the inclusion of certain locations on the teaser map that Amazon has released; places that were gone by the time of the Third Age (in which The Lord of the Rings was set).  I find this announcement both exciting (who wouldn’t) and scary (as I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do).

I’ve managed to get through life up until now, knowing virtually nothing of the vast history and mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien created for Middle Earth over the course of his career.  I read The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve years old, in the summer holiday between primary and secondary school.  It took me a month, reading for many hours each day.  I enjoyed it hugely – certainly it made a lasting impression on me and helped shape the person I am today.  But I never developed the urge to get into Tolkien any deeper.  I never even read The Hobbit – having come to Rings first, I filched enough of the backstory from there, for me not to want to.

There are two reasons that the rest of Tolkien passed me by – the first is that almost none of the Middle Earth background was available at the time (and my budget copy of LotR came without all-but-one of the appendices that had seen print).  The Silmarillion, the first post-Tolkien standalone door wedge, didn’t come out until four years later.

The second, and probably more compelling reason is that a bare six months after reading LotR, come that Xmas, I’d started playing Dungeons & Dragons, when one of my school friends obtained, hot off the presses, the Original D&D rule books from the US (indeed it’s only recently that the penny has dropped that I was without doubt, one of the very first D&D players in Europe).  As an adolescent, what attraction is there reading the dry history of balrogs, when you can fight your own?!  And for many years after, balrog was slang for ‘toilet paper’ in the circles I moved in, the word being almost but not quite ‘bog roll’ Spoonerised.  Adolescent indeed.

So for me Tolkien has stayed largely at arm’s length.  Shortly after LoTR, I did read some of his smaller pieces; Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of HamTree and Leaf, et al.  The very attraction of these was that they were more Langland than Lothlórien.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the Bored of the Rings parody (the tolls payable at the ford and the hairy-toe-besotted elf maiden still make me chuckle today), been impressed by the Ralph Bakshi animated movie of the first half of the story and loved Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the whole.  Almost mirroring my choice of decades earlier, I steered well clear of Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy that followed it.

Relatively recently, I have become somewhat more familiar with other aspects of Tolkien’s life and works.  When I was researching for my biographical sketch of Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes, for example, I delved into the world of the Inklings, and from there received my first, gobsmacking revelation of Middle Earth’s initial raison d’être, as a kind of vast philological laboratory.

As an aside at this point, I might add that like most critical thinking fantasy aficionados, I dismiss as ludicrous the oft-quoted assertion that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien.  I don’t care how much time Martin has spent on world building (and less than we think is the probable answer, given how much the Westeros fan base seems to have to keep him on track) it can surely be only a drop in the ocean, in terms of both scale and intellectual rigour, as compared with what Tolkien engineered for Middle Earth.  Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a huge fan of Martin’s series, I just think this particular comparison is unjustified.  As I’ve written elsewhere before, if the Seven Kingdoms has an antecedent, it rather inhabits the low magic, high political intrigue world of E.R. Eddison’s Three Kingdoms, the setting for his Zimiamvian trilogy.

Tolkien’s Weltanschauung was profoundly shaped by two world wars and he was a vocal opponent of Nazism.  So it makes me sad, these days, when the authoritarian bigots who increasingly plague our hobby, seek to denounce Tolkien as fascist or racist: presenting his great tale as an alliance of northern white Aryans, doing battle with all of the peoples of colour, united under Sauron.  And don’t get me started on what some assert the appearance of the eye of Sauron says about Tolkien’s attitude to women.


Ten of the Best. #5: A Cave Full of Blind, Trigger-happy Pirates.

Beatrice Grimshaw (born 1871, Co. Antrim – died 1953, New South Wales, Australia) had one of the most extraordinary lives of any Irish writer of speculative fiction.  On reaching the age of twenty-one, she ran away from home to the South Seas, supporting herself through travel journalism and fiction writing.

Consider these snippets from an  autobiographical sketch that she wrote:-

  • I had so many adventures that they cease to seem adventures. In the New Hebrides, I was caught in a forest fire, and barely escaped into a valley where bones of a recent cannibal feast lay blackening in the smoke;
  • On the Sepik, I had my narrowest escape when a body of headhunters urged me to come and see their village, all by myself, because their women wanted to look at me. It came rather closer than was pleasant to my seeing nothing any more; because the headhunters, when they had brought out two or three old and terrified women as a bait, began to bar me into the house… …I got away by backing down the track and making signals to invisible (and non-existent) friends. Headhunters are nervy folk, jumpy and undecided until the moment when they strike. Before they had made up their minds, I was round the corner; going slowly, afterwards I ran; 
  • I had a house built on three huge war-canoes, moored in the sea; I loved that house until it became a meeting-ground for crocodiles who lived in the surrounding shallows and bellowed like bulls at night.

Most of her fiction falls into the adventure genre.  Two novels cross the boundary into the realm of the fantastical – The Sorcerer’s Stone (1914) and The Terrible Island (1919).  The latter is a favourite of mine.  First of all, I love its sense of place: where else can one read contemporary accounts of the expat life in New Guinea, a hundred years ago?

Secondly, I love the set up, with probably the most useless MacGuffin in all fiction – a horde of supposed treasure that is effectively worthless (on account of the tiny geographical area and the very limited market in which it might be spent), located on ‘Ku-Ku’s Island,’ somewhere out beyond the Lusancays, and guarded by ‘pigeon devils’ that will blind any intruder. [Spoilers Ahead!]  In Scooby-Doo-like fashion, the supernatural element turns out to be grounded in reality, the blindness being caused not by infernal birds, but through consumption of the tasty looking fruits of the finger cherry (Rhodomyrtus sp.) that grow all over the island.

But best of all is the terrifying set piece that Grimshaw is able to establish, on foot of this scenario.  Shortly after her protagonists first set foot on the island, they blunder into a cave full of blinded and very jumpy pirates, who are also looking for the treasure and who are armed to the teeth with guns 😀  Satisfying chaos ensues.

Stark Enigmas

The best SF short story I read in 2018 was Chike Deluna’s Stark!!! 

Picture this: an implacable spider god, the Lady Genevieve Desdemona, lounges in the bowl of a communications dish, idly watching a cat-burglar go about his business on a neighbouring skyscraper. She sees the thief successfully break into an apartment before, once inside, triggering an impossibly fiendish booby trap, a melange of pendulums, pulleys and automatons called the “Stark Enigma,” that will surely kill him…

It’s a great set-up, and the means by which the thief thereafter cheats death is satisfyingly memorable.

The path by which I reached this point, lounging in front of the fire at home, reading an e-copy of Deluna’s Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, is almost as fascinating.

Many on the Irish SF scene know that from time to time,  I assist the Michaels Scott and Carroll in curating the Irish SF, Fantasy & Horror Writers Pinterest board.  The qualification for inclusion is simple: writers either Irish born or resident in Ireland.  Even so, George Chyke Udenkwo (b. 1967, Newry) is one of the more enigmatic entries, the author of one work, Golgotha Falls: Genesis (2008).

The first thing you notice about Golgotha Falls: Genesis, when you start googling around, is how consistently good the star ratings are.  They hit percentages uncommon even for the big boys and unheard of for most bargain basement self-published doorwedges.  My curiosity was officially piqued.  Coming to the book cold, my first instinct was to expect a little Hiberno-Nigerian Afrofuturism but Golgotha Falls (the titular city) is rather a classic science fantasy setting: an ultra far future megalopolis, ruled by gods, yet with the sort of near future noir vibe more associated with Blade Runner.  The overarching theme of the interlinked stories is the interactions between the human denizens of Golgotha Falls and the implacable spider god Lady Genevieve Desdemona…

As the Lady Genevieve D. does over Golgotha Falls, so Udenkwo leaves clues about himself at various locations over the Internet, in particular a nice little biography here.  From these traces one can glean both that he was dissatisfied with the production quality of the  initial release of Golgotha Falls: Genesis and that he was writing further volumes.

Fast forward to 2012 and another ephemeral website and horror and fantasy author Chike Deluna is offering, inter-alia, several volumes of the adventures of Lady Genevieve Desdemona, the first of which is Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, the content of which, including the short story Stark!!!, corresponds to approximately the first half of the material in Golgotha Falls: Genesis.   The other volumes comprise MotW: The White Book, MotW: The Red Book and MotW: The Blue Book.

Fast forward again to 2018 and Chike Deluna, now based in India, appears to have cracked this self-publishing lark and is offering six or seven excellent looking horror and fantasy novels (but not, so far as I could tell, the Mistress of the Web series) for sale from a shiny new website.  Fair play indeed.  I must add The Cosmic Foot Masseur to my reading list.

Now I can’t say for certain that George Udenkwo and Chike Deluna are the same person.  For all I know, the latter discovered the decomposing remains of the former in an alley somewhere, clutching a portmanteau stuffed with thousands of manuscript pages of the adventures of the aforementioned Lady Genevieve D.  But whatever the truth of it, I did have fun unravelling the thread.  And reader, do yourselves a big favour in 2019 and track down a copy of Golgotha Falls: Genesis or the Mistress of the Web ebooks and get stuck into some of the finest science fantasy out there.


Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney

I’ve been to some great stuff at the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival (CJAF) over the years: the puppet show The Man Who Planted Trees, and 3epkano, live playing their soundtrack to accompany The Golem, particularly spring to mind.  So it was with high hopes that I went to the world premier of Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney last night, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I didn’t know quite what to expect.  The festival programme billed the piece as a …unique blend of new music and spoken word… …commissioned by leading uilleann piper David Power, and written by New York-based composer Dana Lyn… [and] …performed by Power together with acclaimed string ensemble the ConTempo Quartet. Interwoven with the music, actor Barry McGovern reads excerpts from a translation of the ancient story… This sort of mélange could go several ways; what was served up was very much a straight contemporary music concert and none the worse for that.

Bookended by two other short works, the 45 minutes or so of Buile Shuibhne consisted of seven passages read from the poem, each followed by a musical recapitulation of the action described.

The story of Sweeney was new to me.  In summary, Sweeney, the pagan King of Dál Riada, offends Saint Ronan the Fair, who is erecting a church in his territory without permission.  As a result  Ronan, curses Sweeney to wander about the world naked and in madness until he should die by spear point.  And so it transpires, with much blood letting along the way, giving the lie to the notion that in Ireland the transition from paganism to Christianity was bloodless, as David Power noted in his introduction.

The one jarring note in the tale is Sweeney’s death-bed embrace of Christianity at the end.  Presumably this is the authorial propaganda of the time.  It is rather the implacable Ronan, with his lack of compassion and his cursing, that radiates the evil as the action is unfolding; Sweeney is merely headstrong.  There seems to be no good reason why his repentance should be accompanied by a spiritual cost.

I found the full text of J.G. O’Keeffe’s 1913 translation of the poem on-line.  I’m not sure if it was the same text used for the performance, but it seems very similar.  Here’s an excerpt of the story contained in the opening movement:-

Suibhne was greatly angered and enraged, and
he set out with the utmost haste to drive the cleric from the
church. His wife Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht,
in order to hold him, seized the wing of the fringed, crimson
cloak which was around him, so that the fibula of pure white
silver, neatly inlaid with gold, which was on his cloak over
his breast, sprang through the house. Therewith, leaving his
cloak with the queen, he set out stark-naked in his swift
career to expel the cleric from the church, until he reached
the place where Ronan was.

He found the cleric at the time glorifying the King of
heaven and earth by blithely chanting his psalms with his
lined, right-beautiful psalter in front of him. Suibhne took up
the psalter and cast it into the depths of the cold-water lake
which was near him, so that it was drowned therein.

And this from the second movement:-

Thereafter, at the end of a day and a night, an otter
that was in the lake came to Ronan with the psalter, and
neither line nor letter of it was injured. Ronan gave thanks
to God for that miracle, and then cursed Suibhne, saying:
‘Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord,
that even as he came stark-naked to expel me, may it
be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying
throughout the world ; may it be death from a spear-point
that will carry him off.’

The playing of the ConTempo Quartet was impressively lively and inventive.  I particularly enjoyed the musical depiction of Sweeney leaping across the land, pursued by five severed heads.  The one weak moment was the one weakness of the piece itself, the unpromising opening of the first movement, which doesn’t immediately snare the listener, drawing them in, but rather threatens a difficult evening ahead.

David Power’s pipes surprised me.  I enjoy uilleann pipe music, but most that I’ve listened to has had a more ringing character.  Here we had a lower and more plaintive sound – I kept thinking of the shepherd’s pipes in the third act of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  I know nothing of the technical capabilities of the instrument, so presumably there are variations of chanters with other pitches and different tuning methods one can apply.  Perhaps this was a choice made so as not to swamp the string quartet.  That certainly never happened, though there were a couple of passages where the quartet threatened to overwhelm the pipes.

The readings were nicely done by Barry McGovern.  I found the overall narrative somewhat disjointed, but O’Keeffe, in the introduction to his translation, suggests that this is an inherent characteristic of the poem.  If so, it’s a good reason to structure the piece the way it was, with seven passages and seven movements, rather than trying to have the words and music flowing more into each other.

I think the performance is touring to other venues over the summer.  If so, it’s well worth catching up with.  I hope they make a recording.


My First BristolCon

I’ve been aware of BristolCon for some years; the word-of-mouth that it’s a small, happy, friendly convention having reached even the Atlantic shores of Munster.  Having been unable to attend Belfast’s TitanCon earlier this year, a slot in my annual con-going roster had opened up and I was able to break my BristolCon duck as a result.  I’m very glad I did.

It’s nominally a one-day event but a BristolCon Fringe open mic the evening before pleasantly extended the con vibe, even if attendees at that were a little sparse because the local Waterstones had arranged a competing event, offering free beer.  Nevertheless, I was able to read the scene from A Coarse and Violent Gesture, in which the King of the Fairies gets an unwelcome visit from the local paramilitary commander.  It’s one of the stories in my Irish Tales collection, due out next year and seemed to go down well.

One of the best things about BristolCon happened well in advance of the event itself.  A great long list of possible panel topics was sent to attendees, who then voted on the ones they wanted to see at the con.  Whoever came up with this, deserves a medal.  It’s become the norm in recent years, for cons to solicit volunteers for panellists on-line, which has too often resulted in platforms being given to the worst kinds of egregious self-publicists, axe-grinders and authoritarian bigots. Who has made it to the end of an EasterCon in recent years, for example, without wanting to slash their own wrists, having been assailed from all directions by three-and-a-half days of relentless, po-faced negativity?  Giving the members this sort of control over the panel topics is a great way to mitigate the worst excesses of this trend and to celebrate instead the very many positive aspects of our hobby.

The things I enjoyed most about my first BristolCon were the following:-

  • Some actual second-hand books in the dealers’ room (yay!);
  • The brick-out room – a throwback to the old ‘fan room’ which used to be a staple of every con but which has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent years.  This one had lego and free coffee.  How about adding an MC next year, to orchestrate impromptu stuff?
  • The free book swap table – every con should have one;
  • Making some great new acquaintances.  This is one of the best reasons to move outside of your regular fandom orbits and go to a new place;
  • The wild west panel, which covered loads of ground but still managed to leave a lot uncovered – ample evidence of the richness of the topic – thereby engendering much discussion in the bar later.  I can feel a blog post coming on to recap some of this, plus to air some of the angles the panel didn’t have time to cover.  On thing I was mulling over was whether there was any (near) contemporary wild west writing containing fantasy, horror or SF elements.  The opening yarn in Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895) came to mind and also some Verne, notably The Mysterious Island (1874), which opens with an American Civil War balloon-hijack prison break and The Golden Volcano (1905), set during the Klondike gold rush.

Did BristolCon live up to its friendly brand image?  Most certainly.  Would I recommend it to anyone else?  Absolutely.  Will I go again?  Definitely; indeed next year.  Apart from anything else it was significantly cheaper for me than attending Octocon, due in no small part to the cost of accommodation in Bristol being around 50% of that for a comparable room in Dublin.

Returning to the wild west theme, here’s a quiz question for you: which SF writer, whom I have previously featured in my blog posts, died from wounds received during the American Civil War?

Irish Speculative Fiction Writers: James Stephens (1880 (or 82) – 1950)

The heart of James Stephens’ speculative fiction lies in five works, written over a dozen years, during the most turbulent period of Ireland’s history.

Two distinct strands run through them: Irish mythology and folklore in Irish Fairy Tales (1920),  Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924) and the interactions of gods and men in The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914).

Stephens, a colossus in his heyday, is almost forgotten today outside of our airports, where The Crock of Gold lurks, waiting to be snapped up by those kinds of tourist who cherish video-footage of their spouses taken at the leprechaun crossing around the back of Torc Mountain.

This encapsulates part of the reason for his fall; the perceived cod-Oirishery of The Crock of Gold, came to be seen, a la Darby O’Gill, as an insult to a would-be modern, forward-looking independent state.

In reality of course, The Crock of Gold is nothing of the sort; it represents a truly magnificent attempt to write the ultimate fantasy tale of the passing of the old order to the new; of the magic going away.  Ultimately it fails, just as the faerie instauration fails, because even today people still cannot see beyond the leprechauns.  But it is an heroic failure of the highest order.

The Demi-Gods revisits this territory; the eponymous threesome descending to Earth to visit a tinker and his daughter[1].

On the Irish mythology and folklore side, Stephens was a considerable scholar and it is his total command of his subject that sets works like Deirdre and In the Land of Youth a country mile apart from all the other volumes of “retellings” that every republican mover and shaker around that time felt it necessary to have on his or her CV.  Well that and the fact that he was a very fine writer indeed.  Here’s an excerpt from Deirdre (the culmination of her fateful encounter with Naoise):-

They stopped perforce, with that feeling of tremendous discouragement wherein passion sinks back upon itself, where desire ceases and nothing is instant but weariness.  His hand yet held her, but it gripped no longer: it lay on her arm a dead weight: she had only to move an inch and it would fall away: she had but to turn and he would not follow her even with his eyes; but the energy which had drained from him flooded into her in one whirling stream, and when his hand fell away hers took up the duty it relinquished.

To my mind, it’s the greatest Irish fantasy novel of all time.

As for the rest of the reason for Stephens’ fall, like so many other staunch republican Protestants, Stephens was marginalised and ultimately excluded by the profoundly Catholic character in which Pearse and his supporters clothed the Rising and its aftermath.   It is no wonder that in questionable health and with a young family to support, Stephens threw in the towel and decamped to England in 1925.  After a decade-long struggle to earn a living lecturing he later compounded his ‘treachery’ by going to work for the BBC at a time when it was still seen as the mouthpiece of the ‘enemy[2]’.

Postscript: Bitches Have Nothing To Do With It, Mr. Gaiman

Before finishing with Stephens, its worth commenting on a parallel with a current fantasy controversy.

When James Joyce was writing Finnegan’s Wake he made a deal with Stephens (Joyce had just read Deirdre and was hugely impressed by it) to complete it for him, if he (Joyce) should die before finishing it.  I don’t believe Joyce was thinking about his readers: all he cared about was safeguarding his literary legacy.  Of course the readers get a finished book out of it but that’s nothing to do with the reason why Joyce made the arrangement with Stephens in the first place.

Fast forward ninety years or so to George R.R. Martin; the ‘American Tolkien,’ one of Time‘s top 100 persons a couple of years back and the man more than any other who put the gritty realism and grey ambiguity into fantasy.  It’s an entirely legitimate question, therefore, to ask one of such stature what he is doing to plan for the completion of A Song of Ice and Fire if he should die first, thereby safeguarding his literary legacy.

The fact that we can’t ask this question to him, is because it is now inextricably linked with the issue of reader gratification, thanks to an ill-thought-out intervention by respected commentator Neil Gaiman.

The question is nothing to do with bitches, Mr. Gaiman; Martin should be planning for this for the same reason Joyce did and no other – to safeguard his literary legacy.  That the fans get their fix too is nothing more than happenstance.

[1] It achieved notoriety more obliquely, being one of the subject panels of Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window, one of Ireland’s greatest works of art, in any medium and of any era, which was notoriously disowned by the State and now resides in a private collection in Florida.

[2] The late Terry Wogan spoke of receiving the same vilification almost thirty years later.

Time for Some E.R. Eddison

It’s a constant source of amazement to me that in a time of big screen Tolkien and Narnia adaptations and quality fantasy all over our TVs, the third corner of England’s big ‘between-the-wars’ trinity should remain so unexplored.

One can understand why E.R. Eddison’s books have had a limited readership over the years; some readers find his faux-archaic prose difficult, others fall asleep within seconds of Doctor Vandermast opening his mouth to deliver another philosophical treatise, still more have a job getting their head around characters that seem to morph into each other.  Well, it seems to me that these are all reasons for adapting his stories for the screen rather than the opposite.  Coupled of course with the fact that they’re amongst the finest fantasies ever written.

The opening of The Worm Ouroboros is famously lame.  A narrator dreams his way to Venus and is quickly forgotten.  Thereafter it is fantasy gold,  describing a glorious war between the witches and the demons, with an ending to die for, all delivered in flawless cod-Elizabethan; a device which after the first fifty or sixty pages, you’d think you’d been reading your whole life.  Don’t believe me?  Try it!

If Worm is Eddison’s masterpiece, then the later Zimiamvian trilogy (Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, The Mezentian Gate) is the most heroic of failures.  A book is hardly the best medium with which to pull off what Eddison is attempting but he almost manages it; maybe if he had lived to complete the third volume, he would have done so.  The plot is simple enough – an early twentieth century English industrialist escapes the tragedy of his own life to live out a second life as an adventurer in a fantasy world that intersects with ours.

The masterful trick that Eddison pulls off is that he makes Lessingham (same name as the narrator of Worm but maybe not the same guy; Zimiamvia is mentioned in Worm as being visible in the distance from the high mountains of Impland but those two links are as far as the connection with the trilogy goes), the hero we’re clearly to root for, into the brilliant, incorruptible and courageous right hand man of one of the principal villains.  For Lessingham to triumph, the good guys have to lose and Eddison finds a classic bittersweet way of resolving this.

What makes the trilogy complicated is that the principal heroes and heroines are archetypes who can become inhabited by the gods.  Thus when Lessingham  notices the similarities between Mary and Fiorinda, he is seeing the common characteristics of the goddess who inhabits them both.  When he sees himself through Barganax’s eyes he is seeing what the god, who can inhabit both of them, is seeing.  It’s a difficult philosophical trick to pull off through the written word – it aches to be filmed.

The Zimiamvian trilogy has a wonderful ready made tag-line – Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey – that alone ought to be enough to get it made.  The Three Kingdoms of Zimiamvia pre-date the seven of Westeros by fifty years as the original low-magic, high political intrigue fantasy world.  Boy-king Derxis of Akkama makes Joffrey Baratheon look like Peter Pan and the Vicar of Rerek could out-Tywin Tywin with one hand tied behind his back.  As for Vandermast, just think Pycelle on acid, constantly surrounded by a bevy of nubile lycanthropes in vintage underwear.

Eddison relates the Zimiamvia story backwards, so a good ploy might be to tell it in straightforward chronological order instead.   And of course any adaptation would have a lot of work to do fleshing out the big parts of the third book that only exist as Eddison’s outlines.  And as for those difficult characters who blur identities with each other from time to time – well just ask David Lynch to direct.  Problem solved.

The Name of the Wind: When Formula Trumps Story

Ah, the holiday season, time to get stuck into that doorwedge you’ve been meaning to, for years like.  I had very high expectations of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, an extravagantly praised debut fantasy novel of some seven or eight years ago, that won awards.  A few days on and I’m a third of the way through and desperately disappointed.

Like anyone, I enjoy a good story but it would be remiss of me not to confess my ulterior motive – as the author of a similarly-sized debut fantasy and currently engaged on the Sisyphean task of finding a publisher, I was eager to dissect an example of what had worked; something that had got through all the hoops, to see what I could learn from it.

The first quickly becomes obvious; Rothfuss writes seemingly effortless, lovely prose.  On a technical level The Name of the Wind is a joy to read.  My own prose, by no means bad, is going to take a lot of years to reach that level – this alone makes the book awe-inspiring.  The plot is (so far – I’ve only read a third mind) utterly formulaic. To someone who has been reading a lot of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abecrombie this was somewhat of a disappointment – one becomes habituated towards looking for the twist that turns the norm on its head.  Nevertheless, formula done really well is a rare thing, to be cherished when you find it and for the first hundred pages or so, Rothfuss nails it.  Then it all falls apart.

After Kvothe’s family is murdered he ends up a beggar on the streets of Tarbean, where it takes him an age to learn the ropes of begging and how to cut purses, whilst he lives rough, loses treasured possessions and gets beaten up a lot.  This is supposedly the same, mega-bright Kvothe who has, over the preceding narrative picked up all manner of difficult skills in minutes or hours that should take mere mortals days or weeks.  Really though, this is just not the same character at all.  This nonsense goes on for fifty pages or more, by which time my sense of credibility has been buried up to its neck in the desert, doused with honey and sprinkled with army ants.  Rothfuss then starts to give us some half-hearted and totally unconvincing guff about Kvothe being traumatised by the murders and not of his normal mind.  Too little, too late mate.  I’m sorry but for me the story has already gone forever.  At this point it’s touch and go whether I’ll even finish it and I try to always complete a book, on principle.

Once upon a time that would have been that but my own baby steps down the writing path have maybe given me a bit of insight on what went wrong that I would never have had before.  It seems to me that in The Name of the Wind formula has been allowed to trump story.  What I mean by that is that formula tells us that our orphaned, would-be avenger is going to have to hit rock bottom before he starts to claw his way up again.  The story, as written up to that point, on the other hand, tells us that twelve year old Kvothe already has the resources to never ever hit rock bottom, no matter what situation he has been thrust into.  Rothfuss fatally warps the story so as to stick to the formula and loses me in the process.

For me the greatest thrill of writing, on my short path to date, has been those moments where the story dictates something different to your original idea.  Little details accrete unnoticed until they reach a critical mass, at which point your character must deviate from your grand plan in order to remain true to the story that has emerged, quite unbidden and outside of one’s (conscious) design.  As a systems analyst I might call these the emergent properties of the story. Other writers talk of their characters developing a life of their own.  Whatever you call them, I live for these moments.  In The Name of the Wind, for me at least, this would have required Kvothe to quickly make a go of thriving in Tarbean.  What was the editor thinking?  Beguiled by the breathtaking prose in all probability.

After formula has trumped the story like this other little things start to unravel too.  The random and mostly insipid place names, which one might otherwise have forgiven, start to grate.  You irrationally begin to wonder why Rothfuss called his spider monsters scraelings, which is what the Vinland vikings called native americans.  I could go on.  But like I said, it’s gone for me at the moment.  Should I stick or twist?

Taking the Pith

I’ve not, so far, been a massive Steampunk aficionado, though that said, I was probably reading and hugely enjoying Blaylock’s early Langdon St. Ives novels before the genre even had a name.  Anyway, to try and gen up a bit, I went to a Steampunk panel at one of the cons I attended earlier in the year.  This was a mistake; what I wanted was Steampunk 101 but what I wandered into was more like postdoctoral fare.  If I found the panellists a po-faced and humourless bunch, therefore, that was probably my fault more than theirs and though I tried my best to tune in, ninety percent of it went right over my head.

One thing rankled though.  A bald proclamation that pith helmets should be banned from Steampunk cosplay because they were offensive symbols of colonial oppression.  Even in the real world my instincts suggest to me that this measure is a little over the top, even if the reasoning behind it might bear a grain of truth.  I recall a trip to Addis, where the gate to the egregious Sheraton compound was guarded by a pair of haughty, be-pithed gatekeepers.  Arriving there for a meeting in the smoke-belching, Lada rustbucket I had chosen for a taxi, my driver and I were detained for some minutes by these goons while they tried every excuse not to admit us and thereby sully their oasis.  Eventually, to stop their increasing humiliation of my driver, I had no option but to play the irate white boy card and take them down a peg.  It worked and I then made sure I used that taxi for every other trip to the Sheraton that week.  So yes; a grain.

Notwithstanding my earlier remarks, I’m not an expert in colonial history and if the historians are really putting it that strongly, then I’m happy to stand corrected and bow to their knowledge.  However.  Yes there’s a however.  Our steampunk worlds tell alternative histories. They have clockwork rayguns, marvellous goggles and fantastical airships.  Are we really saying that while we can change history to introduce these wonderful devices, the symbols of oppression from the real world are immutable and have to convey the same message in our alternate worlds?  Not very alternate then, are they?  So far as I can see it’s just one more example of political correctness gone mad.

It makes me want to write a Steampunk story about a valiant adventurer, the pith-topped Matt Helmet, who patrols the Congo river in his spiffy submarine the Tigerfish, righting colonial wrongs, a symbolic pith helmet carved onto the verandah of every vanquished villain, before he melts once more into the night.  And in the mornings when the people see it there, they cheer!

World War I: Some Fantasy and SF Connections

A few days ago a nice copy of Talbot Mundy’s Hira Singh, illustrated by Joseph Clement Coll, dropped onto my mat. Published in 1918, it’s a novel inspired by the true story of some Sikh troops who were captured by the Germans in Flanders in 1915, imprisoned in a Turkish PoW camp and who then escaped that, to trek overland back to their depot in India.

As it’s the 100th anniversary, this set me thinking about what other fantasy and SF connections to WWI I had come across. What follows is not intended to be exhaustive; it’s just a survey of a few things I’ve come across over the years.

Mundy, of course, did not see active service, having a few years before emigrated to the USA. His most direct connection with WWI was with its aftermath in Palestine, which he visited in the early 1920s. He became a friend of Faisal I, who featured in his novel The King in Check (aka The Affair in Araby), one of several works Mundy wrote to try and expose British and French duplicity towards the arabs.

One of the most eminent genre writers to die in WWI was horror master William Hope Hodgson who was killed by a shell at Ypres in April 1918. Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, whose output included a number of mystical and mythological works also died at Ypres, in July 1917. Lord Dunsany was his patron. Dunsany himself served in the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers, spent time in the trenches and later wrote propaganda for the War Office. His experiences fed his 1918 collection Tales of War, which included the short story The Road, written as a tribute to Ledwidge.

One of my favourite WWI works is Letters to Helen by Scottish artist and illustrator Keith Henderson, who later did the marvellous illustrations and decorations for Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. The work intersperses the (often extraordinary) paintings he made as an artist serving on the Western Front, with the letters he sent home during that period.

A very eminent SF writer who took part in WWI was Olaf Stapledon. As a quaker, he objected to combat and so served as a driver in the Friends Ambulance Service. He later wove these experiences into his episodic, visionary novel Last Men in London.