Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Who Fears the Romance?

The simple pleasures that can be found in an open and honest love seems to be lost on the sorts of writers and storytellers that infest Hollywood these days.  Guardians of the Galaxy and GoG: Volume 2 are fine movies that fall flat on their faces when it comes to the love of a good man for a good woman, or even the love of a scoundrel for a bitter, but trying to get better, woman.  To continue beating up on Marvel, here's somebody else that has noticed the trend in the print editions of Marvel Comic Books.  After a few minutes of dancing around Buziek's writing the host of this video hits it out of the park when he observes that romance at Marvel is dead.

Manly Wade Wellman has no time for such foolishness, as he knows that romance makes for the best prime motivator in all of literature.

He also knows that there is far more to love than the plain jane “boy meets girl” arc.  In Manly Wade Wellman’s capable typing fingers, that’s just arrow in Cupid’s motivational quiver.  The “will they or won’t they?” question that Hollywood hates to answer with a driving passion makes an appearance, but only as one possible way in which the concept of romantic love can drive a story.

Consider that in Shiver in the Pines, Sarah Ann is the literal girl next door to Clay – everybody knows they will be wed.  When a stranger arrives seeking help in finding a lost treasure, the couple and their respective fathers agree not because they doubt Sarah Ann and Clay, but not until Clay has a proper home for her.  The desire to find lost gold is only a desire for a better life for the couple, and a chance at one heck of a nice dowry.
There was a time when the Sabine Women opening of Walk Like a Mountain was common, even a the giant playing the role of a Roman soldier was motivated in part by a desire to save big Page from a flood.  The shoe changes foot when Page turns out to have a susceptibility to the Florence Nightingale syndrome. 

Sometimes, the romance only makes a last minute appearance as part of a happy ending, as it does in Old Devlins Was A Waiting.  The just reward of a penitent prankster plays a part in ending a generations old curse that had claimed the lives of nearly every member of two sprawling families.  Sometimes, the lovers who were meant to be together just need to resolve lingering familial issues before they can even recognize they were meant to be.

In Nobody Ever Goes There, the town of Trimble knows not to cross the bridge over the Catch River.  What prompts Mark to go gallivanting off to a place he's been warned against his whole life?  The small and slim history teacher with the blonde hair with a spice of red to it, Ruth Covell.  She has more curiosity than sense, treading where even the fearsome Indians dared not go.  They had already been dating a bit, but it's only after their narrow escape from the half-glimpsed shaped across the river - that shared experience of surviving danger - that they acknowledge how perfectly suited for each other they are.

Romance is one of the oldest motivations around, and yet these days all too many storytellers leave that cupid's arrow out of their quiver.  Thank God we still have the example of writers like Manly Wade Wellman to show us how easy and natural it can be to use romance in even the darkest stories.



Monday, July 17, 2017

The Frogfather

As mentioned before, there are two stories included in the Kindle version of Who Fears the Devil? that predate John the Balladeer's introduction in "O Ugly Bird!".  "The Frogfather" is the shorter of the two, a tale following Johnny as he follows Mr. Cuff into unforeseen danger. With the same name, young age, and similar type of story as the older John, one might be forgiven for thinking that this might be one of John's adventures before he went off to war. And so "The Frogfather" got grandfathered into the Silver John stories as perhaps John's earliest adventure.

In it, John and an old Indian follow Mr. Cuff, their company town employer, into the swamps. As John would put it:

"Cuff was going to get a mess of frogs’ legs, which he loved, and which he’d love three times as much because he’d killed the frogs for them."

While in pursuit of their prey, Mr. Cuff demands that they paddle into an area where no sane Indian would dare go, as it is the home of Khongabassi. After Mr. Cuff pitching the protesting old Indian over the side, Johnny and Mr. Cuff head into the neck of water, which teems with frogs. Mr. Cuff gigs one, and out of the water rises Khongabassi, who tips over their boat and drags Mr. Cuff off to his demise. Johnny escapes, meets up with the old Indian, and ponders the strange things in the corners of the world. Afterwards:

“Oh,” said the old Indian, “we shall think of a story, you and I, that explains Mr. Cuff’s death. A story that white men will believe.”

*****

"The Frogfather" is more in line with Wellman's typical Weird Tales offerings than John the Balladeer. It echoes his earlier tales of Western men failing to give the native oddities and spirits the proper respect, such as "The Dreadful Rabbits". And while the location is in the South, "The Frogfather" doesn't sing of the mountains and hollows the same way John the Balladeer does. For Johnny is a boy experiencing things on his own, while John is always a member of a community, helping others and helped by them in turn. And it is these ties of community that enrich the Silver John stories beyond mere horror tales of spooky monsters.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Who Fears the Dark Places?

A common lament bandied about the world of literature for decades revolves around the lack of blank spaces on the map in which to place the otherworldly evils that drive spook tales of the sort found in Who Fears the Devil?  Manly Wade Wellman shows the world that mystery remains, if you know where to find it.

One of Wellman’s strong suits is the timelessness of his tales.  Given the technology and attitudes of characters, we know only that they might take place sometime in the first half-dozen decades of the twentieth century.  That’s a long stretch of time covering everything from pre-WWI horse and buggy backroads to the last gasp of heritage America before the 1964 Immigration Act would shift the culture away from respect for the pioneering spirit and towards the proposition that there are no non-Americans, only those who haven’t yet journeyed to her shores.

Regardless of whether the stories take place in the post-war 50’s, the Depression Era 30’s (my own favorite take), or even the roaring 20’s, the backroads down with Silver John travels lie on the border between civilization and the unknown.  The characters he meets are not the safe and secure Mayberry types, but those simple country folk too poor for middle-class upgrade, too socially clumsy to thrive in more civilized lands, or those who, with a casual disregard for tradition and law, opt to put as much distance between themselves and organized law enforcement as possible.

As a result, many of Wellman’s tales of monsters and black magic and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know take place on these fringes among people who lend an additional air of mystery to the proceedings.  They are tucked well off the roads, down in hollows, in the depths of mines, or way out in the middle of the endless muddy swamps.  Places that are nearby as the crow flies, but hard to find for we land-bound men.

Consider Shiver in the Pines where the haunt who guards a Spanish gold mine.  The opening to the mine lies at the bottom of a dark hollow, and the thing that guards the treasure lurks way down in that hole.

Walk Like a Mountain begins with the line, “Once at Sky Notch, I never grudged the trouble getting there.”  Silver John’s journey takes him over ridges and up a twenty mile stretch of valley river even before the long climb to Sky Notch.  The giant of man who lives even beyond that high destination might as well be on the moon for all that modern man can reach him.

Even a country college like Flournoy seems trapped in a far off Brigadoon-like hollow.  Silver John makes his way up and up and over ridge and over a high saddleback to get his first glimpse of that plain and poor college in Old Devlins Was A Waiting.  Making something as cosmopolitan as a college seem to be a far flung place inaccessible to all but the most determined, but Wellman pulls the trick off with the ease of a stage magician.

So don’t let anyone fool you into thinking the world lacks dark places.  The dark places are dark because they don’t want you to know they are there until it’s too late.  But make no mistak, they still exist – all around us – you just have to know where to look.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Desrick on Yandro

There were mountain night noises, like you never get used to, not even if you’re born and raised there, and live and die there. Noises too soft and sneaky to be real murmuring voices. Noises like big flapping wings far off and then near. And, above and below the trail, noises like heavy soft paws keeping pace with you, sometimes two paws, sometimes four, sometimes many. They stay with you, noises like that, all the hours you grope along the night trail, all the way down to the valley so low, till you bless God for the little crumb of light that means a human home, and you ache and pray to get to that home, be it ever so humble, so you’ll be safe in the light.

"The Desrick on Yandro," Manly Wade Wellman


In this adventure, John is entertaining at a party when he meets a Mr. Yandro, who coincidentally shares the name of one of his songs. Not content with his riches, Mr. Yandro seeks a treasure on Yandro Mountain, where his ancestor is rumored to have found the gold that made his family's wealth. He convinces John to come with him. At the foot of Yandro Mountain, they run into an old woman who tells of the witch in the desrick house atop the peak, and the strange bestiary that makes its home in the surrounding hills. Seems that the witch fell in love with Mr. Yandro's ancestor, and wants him back--or someone close enough like him. Mr. Yandro scoffs at all but the idea of treasure, and heads towards the mountain. John and Mr. Yandro find the desrick, and the weird creatures swarm, capturing Mr. Yandro. As the rich man is dragged into the witch's house, the creatures allow John to flee.

*****

If there is one theme that sets John the Balladeer apart from his more well-to-do occult investigating brethren, it is the constant chime of the wedding bells throughout his stories. Whether driving away persistent witchy suitors, reuiniting long lost lovers, or giving a couple a nudge towards the altar, many of John's adventures deal with matters of the heart. Thunstone and the Judge deal with more academic puzzles than the Balladeer, although Silver John has just as encyclopedic an understanding of the hidden things of the world as his predecessors. But magical machinations, both mundane and occult, have been wrapped up in romance since time immemorial, and not even John will prove immune to its call.

The haunted house in its many guises appears once more in Wellman's stories. Along with the Behinder, Skim, and Toller, the haunted house is a familiar monster to readers, although Wellman usually puts his unique spin on his creatures.

Finally, also common to John the Balladeer stories is that the rich and the proud usually come to bad ends. As the six foot tall Man says in Matthew 19:24, "I'll say it again--it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" Mr. Yandro and Mr. Onselm are the first to be brought to destruction, and won't be the last. But it is not necessarily riches that destroy, but the lust for power that accompanies them. In one of the flash fiction stories in Who Fears the Devil?, John learns to turn rocks into gold, but he doesn't allow this potential windfall to corrupt him.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

O Ugly Bird!

"O Ugly Bird" is the first true John the Ballader adventure*, published in 1951, and is very much an establishing adventure. As John struggles to outwit Mr. Onselm, a familiar-using hoodoo man terrorizing a small town and a particularly lovely young lady, care is taken to establish John's peregrine ways, his mastery of music and lore, and his quick thinking in the presence of the strange. As Mr. Onselm attempts to press his suit for Winnie's hand, John steps in to confront him. Only John's silver-stringed guitar manages to save him and Winnie from Mr. Onselm's devices, applied percussively to Mr. Onselm's Ugly Bird familiar. With the witch man destroyed, John leaves for the next town and the next song before Winnie can try to claim his affections.

It's a charming little story, wth a vein of horror running through it, but it would be retold better in 1953's "Vandy, Vandy", another tale of a song, a young girl, and a witch man's persistent attentions.

*****

John the Balladeer is the third in a series of Manly Wade Wellman's heroes who face down the hidden things in the world. But where Judge Pursuivant and John Thunstone are well-to-do occult scholars connected to a network of investigators that include real world Weird Tales author E. Hoffman Price and Seabury Quinn's famed Jules de Grandin, Silver John is often destitute and has to rely on his own wits and the material on hand. Occasionally, the three characters would cover the same thematic ground, as John's "Frogfather" adventure bears more than a few similarities to the Judge's "The Dreadful Rabbits." Towards the end of Welllman's life, he had Judge Pursuivant and John the Balladeer cross paths, which makes John the Balladeer a distant member of the Weird Tales family and a black sheep of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Like many of Wellman's stories, "O Ugly Bird" was adapted to screen. Unlike earlier stories, which appeared in The Twilight Zone and other more reputable series, this story became part of "The Legend of Hillbilly John", a Z-grade Sunday School movie more notable for its foot-stomping opening song than its special effects and acting.

*****

*The stories "Sin's Doorway" and "Frogfather" were grandfathered into John's stories, although not every version of "Who Fears the Devil?" includes them. Baen's version, codified by Wellman's friend Karl Edwar Wagner, for instance, lacks theses two stories.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Long Lost Friend

For those in America and serving overseas, have a Happy Fourth of July.

*****

Rather than darken the mood of "King Washington's" victory (see "Vandy, Vandy") with talk of Ugly Birds, Salem witches, and the Frogfather, I instead want to take a look at the folklore in Wellman's writings. Having grown up in Africa and moved to the united States, Manly Wade Wellman drew on a wide variety of folk stories in his fiction, whether from the familiar ward of silver and laughter against evil or that an unburned werewolf would turn into a vampire. He would even create his own monsters and magics in his writing that fit the traditions he wrote about like a glove. The man-eating plant shaped as a house, known as a gardinel, is one such invention, while many of the Indian spirit monsters of the forest may--or may not--have been as well.

What is clear, however, is that the magic and folklore used by Silver John were not among his inventions. Named in that short stories "A Desrick on Yandro" and "Old Devlins Was A-waiting" are two books, The Long Lost Friend and Big Albert, or more commonly known as Albertus Magnus. These actually existed, and serve as a practical manual for Christian magic--or as the pentecostals might now recognize the body of lore among their spiritual warfare books. But while these current manuals rely on confrontation and faith, the classics used a bit more of ritual and charm. In some cases, this is a more modern form of the Christian amulets lining the inside of European museums such as the Rothenburg o. d. Tauber Medieval Crime and Justice Museum.

The website established by Manly Wade Wellman's estate even includes these books as part of their treatment of Wellman's involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos, complete with preferred texts.

*****

For another meaning of long lost friend, here's a story told by Wellman's friend and fellow science fiction writer, David Drake:
After he returned from Columbia in the late ’20s, Manly worked as a crime reporter for the pro-Democrat newspapers in Wichita. The wife of a small-time grifter whom Manly knew (I vaguely think he may have been called Rabbit) took up with the local drug lord. Wichita was on the route that brought cocaine up from Mexico. One day the drug lord was shot to death in bed by a rival gang; they killed the grifter’s wife also. 
They wanted a picture of the girl for the front page (this is 1930, remember), so Manly hared down to Rabbit’s two-room shotgun house. The front door was ajar. He knocked and called; no reply. He stepped into the front room, looked around, and then went into the bedroom. It was empty too, but there was a silver-framed photo of the woman on the dresser. 
Manly stepped to the dresser and grabbed the picture. As he did so, he heard the click of a gun cocking behind him. He turned to see Rabbit in the doorway, ‘looking at me over the sights of a .38 with the hammer roostered back.’ 
“Oh, Rabbit!” Manly cried. “I came as soon as I heard. I’m so sorry!” 
Rabbit lowered the gun, blubbered, “Manly, you know she was no good but I loved her. She was so beautiful!” And threw himself into Manly’s arms, crying. 
They commiserated for some while. At the end of the discussion, Rabbit gave Manly the photo. Manly swore he’d pull strings at the paper to get it printed on the front page so that all Wichita could see how lovely Rabbit’s late wife had been. 
And they did.
*****

 Tomorrow, we'll look at an ugly bird...

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Stray Puppy: Almost Infinite Complexity, 37-49

So we have a puppy straying into the next month for a bit,

On the heels of Scratch's offer, everyone wants Cooper, from the journalist trying to expose him to the policeman wanting an arrest. Even with Thisbe taking her place in Scratch's furnace, she still manages to be the cause of many a misunderstanding, this time from those close to her--or those who just wanted to. Dean steals the notebook, Cooper gets exposed as a hack, and, finally, after getting fired, he agrees to take over the family business from Scratch. One "suicide by cop" incident later, the deal is permanent, and Cooper is danmed.

Hell is much like Canada, except now most of Cooper's friends somehow got redeemed in the change of ownership, leaving him all alone in its frozen wastes. Fortunately, some helpful angels provide some useful tips to freshen up the place...

...and, in India, away from the madness, an equation of almost infinite complexity is perfected...

*****

I'll keep this one short, to keep from acting as a broken record as all the previous comments, from Mulrooney's wordcrafting to the casual flashes of wit, still hold true. If you can get past the rough beginning where the set-up is being constructed one laborious brick at a time, you many find that it turns into a quicker, more rewarding read. It's like a roller coaster, before you can get to the fun stuff, the train must first struggle up that giant hill. Unlike a Tom Clancy novel, at least this hill doesn't take most of the book.

I wouldn't have picked An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity on my own, but sometimes stepping out of the routine can be rewarding.

July Puppy - Who Fears the Devil

"There’s a traveling man the Carolina mountain folk call Silver John for the silver strings strung on his guitar. In his wanderings John encounters a parade of benighted forest creatures, mountain spirits, and shapeless horrors from the void of history with only his enduring spirit, playful wit, and the magic of his guitar to preserve him. Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John is one of the most beloved figures in fantasy, a true American folk hero of the literary age. For the first time the Planet Stories edition of Who Fears the Devil? collects all of John’s adventures published throughout Wellman’s life, including two stories about John before he got his silver-stringed guitar that have never previously appeared in a Silver John collection. Lost, out of print, or buried in expensive hardcover editions, the seminal, unforgettable tales of Who Fears the Devil? stand ready for a new generation ready to continue the folk tradition of Silver John."

July, the month in which we Yanks celebrate our 1776 edition of Brexit, makes the perfect month to read the most American fantasy book that I've ever read.  Although, I must confess a nostalgic love for the trippy Ballentine cover.  Note that back then, the name had top billing, not the title.  We readers have so lost our heritage that even the sort of voracious reader who starts an on-line book club had never heard of Manly Wade Wellman until reading him by way of Jeffro by way of Gygax.  It's time to dust off this American treasure and bask in its New World charms.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 17-36

Perhaps all this needed was a little change in mood. After muddling through the set-up, I was treated to an attempt at a hostile takeover of Hell, a tour of the suburbian Hell, a hopeless romantic with a bad case of one-itis for his Dulcinea, Cooper's arrest, a fluke discovery of the almost infinite;y complex equation, Thisbe's death, and Old Scratch offering Cooper a real job--manager of Hell. With the exceptions of Thisbe's bumbling investigation and Gormley's antics, this middle section held my interest.

Thisbe comes off as an idiot. Granted, this isn't because of lack of intelligence, but because of lack of perception. She leaps to a conclusion based on her obsession with Dean. After all, the guy she likes couldn't be at fault, so the sinister man must be the loser chasing her. Everything afterwards comes from the rationalizations used to justify her false read on the situation. And, frankly, the effect makes her look stupid. But then there are reams of quotes online talking about how easy it is to fool the smart. It's almost a relief when she's removed from the board.

Not that all Thisbe's problems would go away if she turned her affections to Cooper. Thisbe's a bit of a bum magnet, and none of the choices available to her are good ones, especially the pedestalizing Cooper. It's her own fault, really, and tragic in the proper moral sense. But then she is bait to damn Cooper's soul, as Old Scratch waves the possibility of reuiniting with her in front of Cooper to sweeten the job offer. Of course, Cooper, the romantic idiot, is drawn in.

I've enjoyed the little nuggets of wisdom hidden in the text, whether it is the skewering of religiousity, or pointing out the insane love for science by those who have never fired up a Bunsen burner in anger--echoing my own experience with the IFL Science crowd.  Most of these little aphorisms are short enough that skimmers will miss them.

The dialogue is a little too natural at times. As JWM pointed out last time, people actually do talk like this. Because of the sequential nature of storytelling, most dialogue is streamlined, removing the verbal punctuation, excessive grammar, and constant interruptions that characterize a conversation. And, as linguist John McWorter has pointed out in his lectures and books, most speakers don't wait their turn, but instead talk over each other. Equation captures many of these elements, and, in the process, also illustrates why most dialogue is idealized. Because many speakers really do work their mouths while their brains think...

What's left? Well, the Devil's bargain is on the table; time to see what the fine print is hiding...

Friday, June 23, 2017

An Equation of Almost...There

My earlier post on An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity took the book out behind the woodshed, but in all fairness, J. Mulrooney writes like a boss.  My enjoyment was hampered by the central conceit of the book (i.e. personal politics and a cast of characters all trying to get one over on each other).  Which says nothing about how well written the book might be.

As Nathan has mentioned a few times, J. Mulrooney has a gift for turning impressive phrases.  He also manages to spend a few chapters setting up some great scenes.  His characterizations are deft as well.  Every character has their own specific personality that suffuses every scene.  Even relatively minor characters like the Indian mathematicians are presented as separate and distinct with their own goals and motivations. 

Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying this specifically Canadian novel.  The Canuckness of An Equation goes well beyond, "it's set in Canada, so...hockey I guess".  Their judging respect and contempt for Americans.  Cooper's iron-clad politeness, and even the relative amicableness of Julius in the face of Thisbe's constant hypergamy, ring true to many of the Canadians I've encountered (and as a Michigander that number is higher than for most Americans).  The weather, the governmental processes and the interplay between the local PD and the RCMP, they are all nice departures from the usual LA or NYC or NO setting of most literary type novels.

Speaking of great one liners, here's a few of my favorites:
  • To judge by the number of Holocaust movies, the world is now seventy-five percent Jewish.
  • It was as if the baby boomers, after a lifetime of careless destructions of all the good and lovely things in the world, finally admitted that Elvis Presley was only someone whom they had pretended to like because he annoyed their fathers.
  • And, although he did not know the Baltimore catechism as well as his father did, Maconachie nonetheless knew enough to disapprove of devils using hellfire to heat their homes.  At the least, there was a zoning violation.
Good stuff.  I'm actually looking forward to Mulrooney's next book based on the strength of his writing in An Equation...etc.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Professor Housley's Lectures - Geek Gab

Last week our very own Nathan Housley, Pulp Archivist and literary critic par excellent, was recently interviewed on Geek Gab: On the Books.  So full on insight are he and the injustice Gamer that one episode couldn't contain it all, and the clock ran long without anyone noticing.

Is he a man either wise beyond his years, or an old man full of youthful exuberance?  It's a mystery (appropriately enough, given the subject matter).  Listen, and decide for yourself!

 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 10-16

Cooper gets the job, and now has to produce. As he crams in as many odd actuarial equations into a spreadsheet in the hopes of reproducing the results of Gormley's book, he is given two quants to help him. He distracts them by making them build a computer database. They return, job finished, in awe of Cooper's methods. The math is trash, but it works as a predictive model, so it's awesome.

Old Nick Scratch fires Gormley, and bides his time. Cooper owes the devil a favor, but either Satan is playing the long game, or, as he puts it, humans are so inventive at damning themselves, so why work? Gormley lands on his feet and becomes yet another of Cooper's assistants

Thisbe fends off Gormley's wandering hands and Cooper's fumbling advance while she chases after Dean. She makes a complete hash of reading the situation and thinks Cooper is blackmailing Dean, so she starts needling Cooper. Eventually, she tries to sabotage him by proving his death record wrong.

Finally, someone breaks into Mr. Scratch's basement. The cops arrive, question Cooper, and leave, but not before the devil hints that there has been another death on his premises...

Folks familiar with Game will recognize Thisbe as the classic Alpha Widow, or the woman who was once loved by a high-status man and, now discarded, can't let him go. She does get another hit of her drug here, but her obsession with Dean distorts the lens through which she sees the world. If Dean is all that and a bag of chips, why would Cooper hold any blackmail against him? Dean also occupies a position at the pinnacle of the Game hierarchy, while Cooper's place is much lower but not yet pinned down. We'll know for certain when things go south on Cooper...

So far, Mulrooney is a master of exquisite sentence-smithing, with subtle constructions, negations, humor, and rhetoric, but, like a stick figure mosaic made of jeweled tiles, the parts are greater than the sum. It's a bit of a slog through modern literary fiction--good sentences, a leavening of SFF tropes, and all the unlikable characters you can shake a stick at. It might be time for another Reader's Manifesto...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

July's Puppy: Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman

Where I've been is places and what I've seen is things, and there’ve been times I’ve run off from seeing them, off to other places and things. I keep moving, me and this guitar with the silver strings to it, slung behind my shoulder. Sometimes I’ve got food with me and an extra shirt maybe, but most times just the guitar, and trust to God for what I need else.  
I don’t claim much. John’s my name, and about that I’ll only say I hope I’ve got some of the goodness of good men who’ve been named it. I’m no more than just a natural man; well, maybe taller than some. Sure enough, I fought in the war across the sea, but so does near about every man in war times. Now I go here and go there, and up and down, from place to place and from thing to thing, here in among the mountains.  
Up these heights and down these hollows you’d best go expecting anything. Maybe everything. What’s long time ago left off happening outside still goes on here, and the tales the mountain folks tell sound truer here than outside. About what I tell, if you believe it you might could get some good thing out of it. If you don’t believe it, well, I don’t have a gun out to you to make you stop and hark at it.
With these words, Manly Wade Wellman introduced John the Balladeer, also known as Silver John, and the strangeness of Carolina mountain hollows and Pennsylvania folk magic. With naught but his silver six-string, John walks the Appalachians in search of a good tune, encountering witch men and folk monsters along the way. Whether driving off a son of the Salem witches, challenging a Biblical giant, or escaping the snares of the house-like gardinel plant, John rises to the occasion with his command of folklore, music, and good old horse sense. After all, with a little homespun faith, a good song, and a jingle of silver in your pocket, Who Fears The Devil?

Please join the Puppy of the Month Club in July as we read Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil?, exploring the works of one of America's celebrated fantasists.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 5--9

Let's see, two chapters of how Thisbe followed the Approved Girl Power College Life Checklist into unhappiness before being swept up into a whirlwind romance that ends abruptly when her boyfriend sells his soul to the devil, a misspelling on a sign leads Cooper to try to free Keiter from the furnace of Scratch using hops-free beer, Old Nick himself hands Gormley's Death Note little black book of Death's appointments to Cooper in hopes of pushing him closer to the titular equation, and Cooper uses Death's book to bluff the insurance company even further, fending off Thisbe's attempts to scuttle his project. Finally, Cooper has dinner with Thisbe, where they recall old friends and old college-day embarrassments.

I fear that I've made this sound more amusing than it really is.

The air of the Hitchhiker's Guide has departed, leaving a rather dry ramble through flashbacks and history with an occasional step towards the delivery of the Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. There's a few clever moments, but not enough to really enliven the read. And while Gormley does evoke Discworld's Death, he lacks the charm of the ONE WHO SPEAKS IN CAPS.

Perhaps this book is too subtle for me.

But I'm still waiting to see just how Cooper's lies fall apart on him

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bad Puppy! Bad Puppy!

I feel a need to apologize for selecting An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity as this month's selection.  Of all the books we've read over the past year, it definitely ranks among my least favorite. 

I'm a huge fan of the unreliable narrator trope, particularly when it's used to present a point-of-view character who isn't nearly as smart as the reader.  One of my all time favorite books is Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al, that makes a tremendous amount of hay out of this idea.  Lardner makes it work by using a deft touch and a character who is actually and in point of fact dumb.  In An Equation, most of the characters are presented as smart in one way or another, and then behave in ways that don't fit with an actually intelligent person.  They ignore obvious social cues, never think to do obvious actions, and generally make a hash of everything.

Add to that the issue that all of major characters are unlikable, and most of the minor characters as well.  Every single one is so caught up in their own miserable lives they can't stop and think for a moment.  They use and abuse everyone around them in ways that make no sense.  They have inflated senses of self-import, they blunder through the plot, they all remind me of Ignatius P. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces, and I don't like spending time with any of them.  These are the sorts of people that I avoid like the plague in real life, and if it wasn't for my guilt for inflicting them on my fellow Contributors, I'd have - as Nathan so aptly puts it - walled this book a dozen chapters ago.

(I'm only three-quarters of the way through this book after three weeks of effort, and keep getting distracted by other things to read.  For example, there's this interesting book in my queue called Dangerous Gamers that I really want to get to soon.)

It's also strange how the fantastical parts of the story feel so bolted on.  It's the tale of Death losing his appointment calendar and the machinations of those who would use that knowledge for power and money.  Yet somehow, it feels like an Oprah style workplace drama novel.  It's frankly surprising to me that this wasn't a stronger contender for a Hugo, given how very much it feel like one of the novelettes that were nominated this year.

The last quarter of this books is going to take some time and effort for me to get through, but I'll soldier on and let our faithful readers know whether or not Mulrooney pulls a last minute save out of his hat.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 1-4

When an expected cash-out lawsuit falls through, Cooper finds himself without money, with mounting bills, and a ton of laywer's fees. At his lowest point, Mr. Scratch, as his next-door neighbor prefers to call himself, throws a party. The devil offers him a deal--a lucrative position as a creative actuary for the Seals Insurance Company. 

Cooper flubs the interview.


To save his prospects, he boasts that he can calculate to the very moment when an individual will die. By bluffing his way through with lies overheard from other actuaries, he cons his way into the job.


Now he has to deliver on his boasts. But events continue to distract Cooper, such as meeting the beautiful Thisbe, discovering that Death lives with Mr. Scratch, and finding that Mr. Keiter, a man Death killed at Mr. Scratch's party, now exists as a 12 inch spectre burning away in Mr. Scratch's furnace...


***

I'll admit, I'm not a literary type, and Vox Day, the editor of Castalia House, is far more enamored of literary fiction than most of us who blog for Castalia House. (He's also far more into gonzo. Check out Loki's Child by Fenris Wulf some time.) So I was a little hesitant to dig into An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. However, the madcap idea of a dude bluffing his way through a job offer from the Devil by promising to create what amounts to a psychohistory of the individual caught my attention. You just know that a Faustian deal is around the corner.

But that deal is slow in coming. The Devil makes no coy attempts to hide who he is from Cooper, who seems to be living within a huge Somebody Else's Problem Field. Rather, we are treated to a rather droll party, where the height of amusement is watching Cooper trip over himself as he attempts to muster the courage to interact with Thisbe. Well, that and Mr. Keiter's death and discovery in the furnace below. It's a dry humor, trust me, like watching Arthur Dent bumble through the Hitchhiker's Guide universe, although An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity is spiritual fiction instead of science fiction.

The story is strange, outside my comfort zone, but has potential to develop in a myriad of ways. Let's see where it goes.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Vance and the supernatural

In "The Miracle Workers" Jack Vance plays with an odd philosophical experiment: a society where "magic" is rational, deductive, and logical (but not scientific) and what we know as science is seen as superstition. Some fantasy writers have attempted that, especially as a way to justify why in their worlds there doesn't seem to be any scientific progress, but I believe Vance is the only one who managed to pull it off. "Superstition" here doesn't just mean "we don't know how it works." The jinxmen (the "wizards") know perfectly well what empiricism (science) means and what they mean when they say that empiricism is superstition. 

In the preface of "Jack Vance's Treasury," Vance mentions that The Miracle Workers was sent to Astounding because "John Campbell, the editor, had a predilection for unusual ideas." And unusual it was. The jinxmen, with their hoodoo and mental magic, are, indeed, the "rational" ones in the story. When they say that their "magic" is deductive and rational, Vance isn't joking (well, at least, he is doing more than that,) or merely saying "here magic is science, because reasons." He has built a whole justification for that.

The jinxmen know the laws behind their magic, how it works, and why. They may not know the ultimate cause, but who cares really? They are not "superstitious" because they know when their magic is not going to work and why. The process has a deductive logic to it, whereas science is... just playing around until some "effect" is discovered.

But the limits of jinxmanship are what sets the story in motion; it's the appearance of an enemy they are unable to influence. But unlike other stories where this would have been used as an excuse to present the magic-users as mired in superstition, trying to work their useless magic again and again until the Science Man appears, here the jinxmen (from the start) admit that their Art isn't going to work with those aliens. And if they are reluctant to explain so is because the source of their Art —and, therefore, their power and status— depends (partially) on people believing in it (it's not simple placebo, though.) Their power is described as such:

"What happens when I hoodoo a man? First I must enter into his mind telepathically. There are three operational levels: the conscious, the unconscious, the cellular. The most effective jinxing is done if all three levels are influenced. I feel into my victim, I learn as much as possible, supplementing my previous knowledge of him, which is part of my stock in trade."

The jinxmen deal in irreducible qualities, emotions like fear, hate, rage, pain or bravery, which is why they describe their trade as "logical," because to a considerable degree it is. If the foundations are known, there is no need for "empirical speculation" like "from where do the demons come?"

Everything can be deduced from first principles. But what happens when you are trying to hoodoo a race of aliens with a collective mind which may not even have words for those feelings (or those feelings in the first place.) You cannot empathize with them, and at no level (conscious, unconscious, or cellular.)

From their point of view, science is some bumbling baboon playing with things he doesn't understand. Scientists, therefore, become "mystics," people who don't have answers but search for them anyway, who toy in their laboratories, mixing this with that, trying to see if something happens. That "empiricism," however, is what in the end (even if through sheer luck) ends up saving the humans.

"Undoubtedly the ancient were barbarians. They uses symbols to control entities they were unable to understand. We are methodical and rational; why can't we systematize and comprehend the ancient miracles?"

By "symbols," I presume, he means mathematics and scientific notation, and by entities, he means the laws of nature. That may seem like a preposterous way to define science, but compared to jinxmanship, the charge is not unfounded. Who understands gravity or quantum physics? We can control and manipulate physical phenomena, of course, but our "understanding" of them is unlike our immediate, irreducible, and unavoidable understanding of our own feelings. It makes sense that a society based on such magical performances would have problems understanding (or caring) about "Science." Hence, hoodoo is rational and logic, empiricists are miracle-workers and mystics who toy with strange mathematical entities and write down bizarre arcane formulas.

In the previous post, Nathan Housley says that he feels the story shrieks of message fiction. I can see how that may seem to be the case, but I don't think it is. The setting is purely speculative, and "progress" doesn't appear as the inevitable march of history against superstition (empiricism here IS superstition), but as a fortuitous stroke of luck against an enemy they can't understand. 

From what I know of him, Vance seems to have had a distaste for intellectual blowhards, obscurantism, and certain brands of organized religion or theology (he pokes fun at lying priests and religious manipulators on many occasions.) However, I don't think this is a message/ideological work to attack such things because I believe the goal of this story was to play with an idea, something to which he was going to return again and again with his "magic system" in the Dying Earth setting, which apparently is some sort of highly advanced mathematics that works in many dimensions and levels at the same time or somesuch. I have noticed that Vance usually tries to "explain" the supernatural in his stories, how it works or how it may work assuming it was real.

That seems like a great feat of speculative fiction to me, to think "let's assume supernatural powers are real" and then work out a Universe whose laws would allow it, and then see what happens. This short story is an example of that, and he pretty much says that its Afterword (which appears in Jack Vance's Treasury.)

"Strange things happen. Almost everyone has had some sort of brush with the paranomal, even the most resistant and skeptical of persons. [...] In olden times angels and demons were held responsible; to date no one has produced a more reasonable explanation. Phenomena such as telepathy and poltergeist may well be manifestations of different and distinct principles; there may be two, three, four or more such realms of knowledge, each at least as rich and intricate as physics or astronomy. There is little systematic study. Conventional scientists shy away from the field because they are, in fact, conventional; because they fear to compromise their careers; because the subject is difficult to get a grip on; because scientists are as susceptible to awe and eeriness as anyone else. So: the mysteries persist; the lore acccumulates, and we know for sure no more than our remote ancestors, if as much... 'The Miracle Workers' [has a] definite psionic orientation, and [makes] at least a superficial inquiry into certain aspects and implications of telekinesis and demon-possession. I can't pretend to offer enlightenment; there isn't any to be had. The [story], in any event, [was] not conceived as [as] argumentative [vehicle], but simply [reflects] my own fascination with the vast and wonderful reaches of the unknow."
                   

                                                                                                       Jack Vance 1970.

[I have no idea why there are so many [ ] there]

I'll be honest, that text came a bit as a surprise to me even if I had sometimes suspected it as much. Vance's fascination with these subjects snf his constant attempts to mix science with "magical" elements always seemed too... methodical to me, always going to the extremes of building weird but detailed explanations and philosophical points to justify why such phenomena may occur or how they may work.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Miracle Workers

Sixteen hundred years after his ancestors hid from galactic war on the out-of-the-way planet Pangborn, Lord Faide is finally uniting the planet under one rule. His. Aided by master jinxmen, his men are fearless, his demons terrible, and the hoodoo at his command unbeatable, as Lord Ballant soon finds out. However, the First Folk have waited for the opportune time to sweep mankind out of Pangborn's forests and into space or the grave. As his once victorious army is smothered by foam and stung by venomous insects, Lord Faile fights a long retreat back to his keep. With his jinxmen rendered powerless by the aliens' minds, all hope relies on Sam Salazar, a failed apprentice jinxman with a talent toward experimentation and empiricism.

As the Frisky Pagan pointed out, this is an almost identical story to The Last Castle. Both worlds are rocked by unthinkable revolts of once pacified people. In each, human society is saved only by the actions of an unorthodox youngster who embodies one of the virtues of modern man.
The proud and the arrogant suffer in both The Miracle Workers and The Last Castle, while the humble and the unorthodox are exalted.Vance keeps the story fresh, not only by crafting a new world, but by varying the perspective. The Last Castle followed the unorthodox Xanten as he seeks to learn how to save his people. The Miracle Workers instead tell the story of Lord Faide and his jinxmen as they watch (and hurl abuse at) Sam Salazar. This allows Vance to examine the situation from both the unorthodox and the orthodox views, and he extracts different lessons from each.

Honestly, this shrieks of message fic. The jinxmen are set up originally to be technical wizards, at least in the realm of telepathy and psychology. This mental technology has been honed to a mature, even a plateau, level. But their hoodoo reeks of superstition, and therefore must give way to the completely immature empiricism of Sam Salazar. The appeal of the nascent physical sciences compared to the mature parapsychology hoodoo of the jinxmen is overstated, with the latter abandoned way to easily by people who have had a lifetime of evidence that hoodoo works. But, hey, science is modern, and therefore better. Right? At least The Last Castle was clear that the social ills that had to be abandoned for humanity's survival were the same ills that caused the Meks' revolt. The Miracle Workers lacks that consistency of cause and effect. At least Vance follows Harlan Ellison's maxim that says that a story must entertain before it can educate. Personally, give me instead Edgar Rice Burroughs' idea that entertainment is the sole purpose of fiction.

That said, The Miracle Workers shines with more life than many of today's works, refuting the claim by many that the works of the past 15 years are more accessible than their predecessors.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Last Castle

I won't lie; Vance has been by far the most challenging writer yet featured by the Puppy of the Month Club. I have repeatedly tried to start The Dragon Masters only to bounce off it. This is not because the quality of Vance's writing is poor. Rather, like Gene Wolfe or John Wright, the writing is erudite and requires a closer read than normal. In the case of The Dragon Masters, the introduction of a sacredote in his cell required a fair bit of concentration to fully appreciate, often more than I could bring to the work. Fortunately, the volume the Frisky Pagan selected this month has a trio of Vance's stories, and the planet-wide slave revolt and siege of  The Last Castle proved to be more accessible.

On an Earth far enough in the future to be depopulated and recolonized by the survivors from other worlds, nine castles are the sum total of civilization. Through technological marvels and a hierarchy of subordinate slave species, humanity rules its homeworld as feudal lords. Occasionally, the younger men would break from the unceasing pageantry of the castles to adventure among the Nomads, the indigenous survivors of Earth's fall. This decadence is bourne on the backs of the Meks, a humanoid species from another world who builds and maintains the technologies that fuel the castles' war and pleasure machines.

One day, the Meks leave. All of them, leaving the castles bereft of the technological support needed for civilization. The castles limp along, until their slaves return and besiege the castles. One by one, the citadels fall until only Castle Hagedorn remains. Finally, the Meks levy their full might against the surviving remnant of civilization.

In this short story, Vance poses two conflicts. The action conflict is simple: can Castle Hagedorn survive the siege? However, it is clear from the eight fallen citadels that the existing social order cannot win against the Meks. So the more important conflict is whether necessity will drive the humans to radically reorder their society or if the inertia of tradition will rule. And even if necessity wins, it might be too little too late to ensure the castle's survival.

The answer, of course, is for humanity to give up its slave races and abandon the castle, trapping the Meks inside. With the besiegers now the besieged, humanity's survival is assured. The Last Castle, with its aristocratic decadence, still falls, and every man now lives by the sweat of his own brow.

The characters are stock, but the worldbuilding shines. From the various slave races to naming conventions to the Nomad tribes, Vance brings to life a strange future Earth full of wonders. The setting enlivens the formula of a last stand forcing social change that will reappear in The Miracle Workers.

All in all, this made a more accessible introduction to Jack Vance than the other stories I tried this month. I wish I had started with this one at the beginning of the month.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Dragon Masters and their beasties.

In a previous entry, Jon Mollison mentioned the races in The Dragon Masters. He's correct, and the main weapon used in the conflict between the two human kingdoms and, later, between humans and the "Basic" (or Grephs) are living organism, selectively-bred from the original stock of their enemies. The humans use grephs, and the grephs use humans. 

This genetic arms race and its panoply of creatures may be a bit confusing. Jack Vace had a knack for descriptions, but there is a limit to what words can convey, not to mention that in this story Vance doesn't seem to have bothered giving detailed descriptions of the creatures (perhaps he knew someone was going to draw them?) Luckily, there's another way! 

The original story was published in Galaxy, August 1962, and it was supplemented by awesome drawings of the various creatures. I can understand why so many (now famous writers) young people mentioned this story as the reason they fell in love with Vance, but it wouldn't surprise me if the drawings by Jack Gaughan also helped a bit.

Use these sketches as a visual aid if you are reading (or rereading) The Dragon Masters.

-The Basics (or Grephs): Space-faring and technologically advanced. They look somewhat insectoid/reptilian and are gray or "pearl-pallid"



-The Spider: they serve as mounts for the humans.

"A few minutes later Joaz Banbeck appeared on Banbeck Verge riding a Spider caparisoned in gray and red velvet."


-The Striding Murderers: Described as the cousins of the Long-horned Murderers. In one sentence they are described as "silken." From the description of a battle,  they seem to have the function of "light cavalry."



-Long-horned Murderers: If the Striding Murderers were "light cavalry," these are clearly the equivalent of Heavy Cavalry.

"Long-horned Murderers, their fantastic chest-spikes tipped with steel.[...] steel-spiked and crested with steel prongs; [...] Banneck's long-horned Murderers came circling, struck from the flank into Carcolo's Striding Murderers, goring with steel-tipped horns, impaling on lances."




-Other beasties:

1. Jugger: They are massive, brutal, well-armored, and not very intelligent.

2.Blue Horror: Intelligent, massive, agile, quick, and good climbers.

3.Fiends:

"black-green [...] useless on the cliffs [...] low to the ground, immensely strong, tail tipped with a steel barbel [...] Flanking the Juggers marched the Fiends, carrying heavy cutlasses, flourishing their terminal steel balls as a scorpion carries his sting."



-Termagaunt: apparently, the most common "dragon."

"the rust-red Termagant [...] the fecund Termagant [...] Ervis Carcolo turned away, pretended to watch a pair of Termagants exercising with wooden scimitars. [...] small active dragons with rust-red scales, narrow darting heads, chisel-sharp fangs.

"A man pitted against a Termagant stood no chance, for the scales warded off bullets as well as any blow the man might have strength enough to deal"

Termagant is an odd word. According to wiktionary, it means:

1.A quarrelsomescolding woman, especially one who is old and shrewish
2.(obsolete) A boisterous, brawling, turbulent person, whether male or female. 

Perhaps it's another Vancian joke. 

In any event, Warhammer 40K fans might recognize the word because one of the Tyranid creatures is called Termagaunt. I suspect this is not a coincidence because the Tyranids use all sort of bio-weapons and also engage in some kind of genetic engineering (with themselves, though,) not to mention that this is how Vance's Termagant looks, compared to how W40K Termagaunts originally looked.






But the Basics (named like that by the humans because they are the basic template for all the other creatures*) also practiced their own form of selective breeding. In fact, they probably started it and it seems it's part of their species worldview or "political" ideology. Their goal seems to be to "integrate" the other species they encounter, to make them into slaves, weapons, and so on. Of course, the book only mentions their conflicts with the remaining humans, so we don't know what else are they doing out there, but I like the theory that they are doing this with all the intelligent species they encounter.




Really, after seeing these images, I think these creatures would be a great addition to any D&D campaign or, even, to some tabletop wargame. I mean, the Dragons are almost begging to be converted into miniatures.


*Ironically, the Greph probably see themselves as the Basic or original creature too, but for different reasons and with another meaning in mind.

Monday, May 15, 2017

June Puppy - An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity

The passage of the 2017 E. Pluribus Anus rules changes coupled with the Sad Puppies breaking the leash and wandering away from the Hugo yard means that there really aren't a whole lot of official Puppy options to choose from these days.  You probably noticed that already, given how the Club's selections run more toward the Appendix N end of the spectrum than the Puppy end.  Well, now you know why.

But that's an explanation, not an excuse, and there's really no excuse for not selecting the ONE best novel nomination by either camp.  Which means that J. Mulrooney's An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity, the Rabid Puppy selection for best novel, is now the Puppy of the Month selection for June.

This is one of those fun novels that I fully intend to dive into completely blind.  All I know is that if it's good enough for the Supreme Dark Lord, it's good enough for the Club.   

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Dragon Master Races

The second quarter of this book opens things up in the races department.  We've already been introduced to the default (point of view) race of which Joaz, Phade, and Ervis are members.  We've heard of the Basics and their human-slaves, who seem to be altered genetic through means either natural or foul.  We've seen the airy aloofness of the sacredotes.

It turns out the sacredotes are a sub-race of humans.  Cave dwellers who take vows of honestly answering any question posed to them, but forbidden from otherwise interfering in the affairs of man.

Do I have this right?  The dragons are the degenerate Basics, cross bred to serve the Valley People?  If so, that implies that there's a genetic war going on in which the Basics and the Humans steal each other's progeny to create the weapons used to fight the next cycle of war.  It's war by janissaries on both sides.

Either way, the limited geography of the story combined with the science fiction setting strongly reminds me of a Traveller post by Jeffro.  In an old issue of Space Gamer one of the grognards of Traveller explained how he turned Lieber's "A Pail of Air" into a full session adventure for a randomly rolled planet.  You could very easily use "Dragon Masters" in the same way.  The planet's denizens are stuck at the bottom of the gravity well, but they know all about the old interstellar empire.  They have their own aims and goals and squabbles, and no ability to leave their home world.  Which is not to say they aren't dangerous.  Which makes this the perfect sandbox for a sci-fi game.




If the players crash landed on the surface of this planet, and needed one of the sacerdotal prayer sculptures to repair a vital ship's component, a decent GM could milk that premise for weeks of playtime.  Just figuring out how the place works and discovering the hidden back story could fill up several sessions of play.

This neatly resolves one of the problems that always niggled at the back of my mind when it comes to exploratory sci-fi.  If interstellar travel is possible, how do ships like Enterprise constantly stumble onto planets that don't have space ships?  It's clear that most planets are inhabited by near-humans - why didn't those near-humans find the Enterprise?  We usually see this from the point of view of Kirk and Spock and Bones, and the rationale for why the Roddenberryverse works that way is generally glossed over.  Vance's inclusion of a possible Golden Age of Man to which the people of Aerilith aspire.

Jack Vance writes this story from the point of view of the planet-bound society, and that society is one that is incapable of, and largely uninterested in, space travel.  They know its up there.  They know its dangerous.  They know they need bolt holes, but with nothing particularly valuable for the star-farers but their own bodies, they figure they can just hide until the aliens get bored and leave.

It works.  And like so much of Vances work, it's worth filing away for potential use at your game table.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Idle Musings and Disjointed Thoughts on the Dragon Masters

I might be reading the wrong copy of this selection.  It doesn't look like the image Frisky used in his announcement.  Mine seems to contain nothing but The Dragon Masters itself, and looks like this:



Not to scale

As a man coming into this work having only read the Dying Earth series, the inclusion of a map surprised me.  I skipped it – the Kindle reader for small Android phones is not kind to graphics – thinking that it wouldn’t be necessary.  Jack’s a fine writer, and I trust him to bring me into the important parts of the geography as necessary.  This assumption proved out for the first quarter of the book, anyway.
Vance really is a master at the slow lead-in.  The first character on screen is a naked, hairy sacredote – a term not defined until Chapter Three, a full chapter after the first long term exposure to the odd religious/mystic hermits.  It’s not until the second chapter and the history of Happy Valley and the basics that we learn this isn’t a fantasy world, but a low-tech science fiction world.  Both happen at the same time as we see Vance’s gift for describing alien cultures.
The…’negotiation’ for lack of a better term…between Kergan Banbeck and the Weaponeer was delightful.  As a confusingly bizarre interaction between two alien minds, it’s one of the best I’ve encountered.  Kergan and his counterpart both use words that the other understands, but those words are the arms of blind men flailing for an elephant that might not even exist.  The introduction of the sacredote and his observation that they are talking past each other doesn’t help matters at all.  It just makes me wonder if the sacerdotes aren’t so wise after all.
The introduction of alien beings - the Basics - didn't really surprise me, despite coming into this story completely unaware.  Vance has a reputation for flouting genre conventions in this manner, and hanging out with well-read nerds has prepared me for just this sort of trick out of the great man.  It's still nice to read a story that so effortlessly bridges the gap between fantasy and sci-fi.
The confined nature of the setting makes it easy to see why Vance is required reading for RPG enthusiasts.  You have two major factions, separated by a ridge, a few hidey-holes, a vague and repeated existential threat to the world.  It’s everything you need for a tight little sandbox campaign, all tucked into the pages of a relatively short book.  It would be a trivial matter to grab the map from the first page, advance the clock by four generations and have Kergan Banbeck II warring with Neddry Carcolo, and hey look, it’s a brand new campaign complete with dungeons, dragons, and political intrigue.
Oddly enough, Vance’s gift for nomenclature rings off-key for me in this book. As a long-time (and sadly lapsed) college football fan, Happy Valley will always be home to the Nitanny Lions to me, and I cannot read Kergan’s name without thinking, “There can be only one.” The fault is entirely mine, but there it is.

Friday, May 5, 2017

A perambulatory commentary on Jack Vance and his epigones.

Jack (John Holbrook) Vance (San Francisco, August 28, 1916 - Oakland, May 26, 2013) is one of those authors whose influence is felt, but it's sometimes not admitted or openly spoken.

All influential artists have followers and detractors, but Vance is one of those few that have no open enemies or anyone trying to "subvert" them. There are anti-Conan characters or anti-Tolkien writers, but I don't know of anyone trying to improve, correct, or subvert Vance. Why would anyone do that if his successors and imitators are still attempting to write like him? For similar reasons, I have yet to find someone saying, "Vance? Yeah, I've read him. Meh, nothing especial, really. There are dime a dozen like him.

That cannot be because he is an unknown author. Sure, he isn't as popular as others, but he wasn't a two-bit writer either. During his life, he wrote around 60 books, received multiple awards, and those who knew him had only positive things to say about his work and style. My guess is that he is one of those hidden giants whose presence is an intimidating force. Something magnified by the fact that he always tried to stay out of the spotlight.

Although there are strong and passionate communities of Vancians, most sff fans probably know of him indirectly, through the influence he had on Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps they have also heard about his Dying Earth books and their baroque language. 

In the famous AD&D Appendix N, Vance was one of the authors that had the "et al." abbreviation, meaning that Gygax believed all their works were important as a source of inspiration. But even that would downplay the importance Vance had for Gygax, as this article he wrote in 2001 shows:

"Need I say that I am not merely a Jack Vance fan, but that he is in my opinion the very best of all the authors of imaginative fiction? Well I am and he is!"

Gygax, mostly known as a game designer, was probably the most open and public about his awe and debt to Jack Vance,  but he wasn't the only one.

This excellent article, The Genre Artist, by Carlo Rotella, dedicated exclusively to Vance, also mentions many other Big Names who became immediate fans of Vance the first time they read him. These include Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, and even a young Ursula K. Le Guin is mentioned. And these are the ones who are open about it. Truth is, the fan letters sent to him were probably full of (now) famous rabid fans sending him their undergarments. 

To reiterate, when I say "fans," I don't mean just people who "like" him:

"Among them are authors who have gained the big paydays and the fame that Vance never enjoyed. Dan Simmons, the best-selling writer of horror and fantasy, described discovering Vance as 'a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James. Suddenly you’re in the deep end of the pool. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly turned language. If he’d been born south of the border, he’d be up for a Nobel Prize.' Michael Chabon, whose distinguished literary reputation allows him to employ popular formulas without being labeled a genre writer, told me: 'Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If ‘The Last Castle’ or ‘The Dragon Masters’ [both are in this month's anthology] had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he’s Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there’s this insurmountable barrier.'

Vance may not have been a proper pulp writer (his style is too unique, and his first published story, The World-Thinker, was written in 1946) but the curse of being considered a low-brow writer followed him, as it inevitably does to anyone who writes "fantasy" (writers of "magic realism", whatever that may be, are forgiven.) Not that he seemed to care, though. In fact, he probably liked it that way.

One of the most obvious traits of Vance's work was his distaste for fame, attention, and blowhards of all kinds. People who live in mental castles of their own creation are routinely mocked in his stories, perhaps because he knew he could have become one of them. From the Jack Vance's biographical sketch at the Vance Museum:

"'By the age of 15, I had read ten times the books an average person might read in a lifetime. [...]  
Vance entered high school at age 11 and graduated at 15.  He described himself at the latter age as bright, arrogant, introverted, and lacking in social skills. Then his grandfather died, the family was broke, and it was the bottom of the Great Depression.  College plans were set aside and, for the next several years, Vance ranged the state of California, working at a wide variety of jobs: fruit picking, canning, construction, surveying, bell-hopping.  He described this period as a metamorphosis: “Over a span of four or five years, I developed from an impractical little intellectual into a rather reckless young man, competent at many skills and crafts, and determined to try every phase of life.'”

I wouldn't describe that as "anti-intellectual" stance, since Vance stories have many deep intellectual themes, but these are seamlessly weaved into the story in such a way that many readers believe they are just enjoying a story of simple, pure, and unadulterated adventure. And that's probably one of the best compliments anyone could say about a SFF writer.