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Bookish Things for Bookish Folk.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf”–A Critical Review

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The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.

I imagine there will be a deluge of reviews of this book over the next few weeks. The trickle has already begun. No doubt we’ll be subjected to plenty of sentences like this one, penned by the estimable Jeff VanderMeer, “Some readers may be surprised that Marlon James has followed up his epic, critically acclaimed, 2015 Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings with a fantasy novel.” And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be quickly off-put by the vast amount of ink spilled by critics on the topic of (gay) sex in the novel.

Thinking it’s icky that Marlon James would write so much graphic gay sex in his novel is homophobic.

So, upfront, yes this is a fantasy novel. No that is not surprising–A Brief History of Seven Killings‘ first chapter is narrated by a ghost, clearly James has no devotion to what he calls “domestic realism”. Yes there is graphic sex (and sexual violence) in this novel. This is a work of adult literature. Just because it lives firmly in the ghetto of genre does not mean that it is (by any means) suitable for children. Moreover, this is not the first fantasy novel to include graphic sex scenes (and sexual violence). It is not even out of the mainstream in that way–sex plays a crucial role in the novel but only insofar as sex plays a crucial role in any given life. And finally, yes, this is a novel that actively takes from West and Central African mythology rather than the European mythology many readers have grown accustomed to. While what James does with the mythology is new, amazing, and often breath-taking, he is neither the first nor even the first-recently to attempt a radically decolonized fantastic fiction (I’ll append a list to the end of the article, for those interested in further reading). And, lastly, I’m not going to focus on the griot tradition he’s riffing on throughout the novel. I’m not an expert, and I’m not sure I can add anything worthwhile to that discussion. Rather: I want to look at Black Leopard, Red Wolf from an altogether different perspective.

How this book is different from other fantasy novels will be much talked about. Like any so-called “crossover” work, it will be thoroughly scrubbed of all genre taint by well-meaning reviewers and critics. And while that will no doubt boost book sales and allow the book to get the award recognition it mightily deserves, those reviewers will be tragically missing the point: Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only as different from other fantasy novels as they are from each other.

It is not different in kind.

That may seem counterintuitive to the uninitiated. Fantasy can seem monolithic, tethered to the cis-hetero-white-male-heroic-narrative like an ox-Sisyphus forced to plow the same field over and over again for eternity. But this is not the case. From the get-go, fantasy was a chimera, an unstable admixture of different voices, styles, tastes, and interests. Tolkien’s world, while seminal (and vastly misunderstood), was particular to him, idiosyncratic–filled with his interests, obsessions, and particularities like all any great work of literature are (see: whaling in Moby Dick and farming in Anna Karenina). Before Frodo and his party had even set out for Mordor in the summer of 1954, Mervyn Peake was two books into his spectacular Gormenghast series, Lovecraft had produced his entire oeuvre, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were well into their adventures, Robert E. Howard was already dead, and Burroughs had long since completed his “planetary romances” (and was also already dead). The marquee fantasy books of the seventies and eighties drew liberally from all those wells, and many more. And since the turn of this century, we have seen the ascendancy in the genre of voices as varied as they were once homogeneous.

The question is not how Marlon James stands outside this list, but where his place is within it.

Jeff VanDermeer’s review, while it starts out shaky and falls into that sticky homophobic trap (“Have I mentioned there’s a lot of gay sex? There’s a lot of gay sex.” THANKS), does shed some light on a major influence on James’ novel:

The novel isn’t so much heroic fantasy, with noble quests and sacrifices and a traditional story arc of Good versus Evil, but instead becomes an essential part of the canon for heroic fantasy’s no-good cousin: Swords and Sorcery.

The lead characters (after whom the novel is named), Tracker and Leopard do have a queer Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser way about them–if you were to stir in healthy doses of hatred and sexual attraction. VanDermeer sees their reluctant questing as a continuation of the Howard/Leiber lineage of fantasy that birthed the likes of Michael Moorcock and his Elric of Melniboné stories. I can definitely see from where he’s coming on this. Take this interaction, for example:

“You don’t waste time so waste it I will not. Three years now a child they take, a boy. He was just starting to walk and could say nana. Somebody take him one night. They leave nothing and nobody has ever demand ransom, not through note, not through drums, not even through witchcraft. I know the thinking, which you now think. Maybe they sell him to the secret witches market, a young child would bring much money to witches. But my caravan get protection from a Sangoma, just as one still binds you with protection even after her death. But you knew this, didn’t you, Tracker? The Leopard thinks iron arrows bounce away from you because they are scared.”

“There are still things to tell you,” I said to the leopard with a look.

“The child we trust to a housekeeper in Kongor. Then one night somebody cut the throat of everybody in the house but steal the child. Eleven in the house all murdered.”

“Three years ago? Not only are they far ahead in the game, they might have already won.”

“Is not a game,” he said.

“The mouse never thinks so, but the cat does. You have not finished your tale and it already sounds impossible. But finish.”

Here, Black Leopard, Red Wolf feels like an evocation of that nearly dead form. The banter of a job being considered; the mysteries buried in every sentence (Who? What? Why? How?); this is not the epic obviousness of Tolkien. This is the grey-and-greyer mythology of Sword and Sorcery that claims Noir narrative as its closest cousin.

But Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not a Sword and Sorcery novel. It is an Epic. It is an Epic Fantasy–though I’m not sure falls under the “epic fantasy” sub-genre.

The epic it most resembles (for a Western-influenced reader), as another reviewer wisely noted, is Beowulf. Like the classic Anglo-Saxon poem, James’ novel tumbles from one adventure to the next, often without apparent connection. The “main narrative” is–perhaps–the thread that ties the whole novel together; but, like any single thread, it does not represent the tapestry as a whole. The first section of the book (encompassing over a hundred pages) doesn’t even touch on the “main narrative”. Everything in this book is interspersed, tangential, and refuses simple linearity. Beowulf was meant to be spoken, and so–I think–was this novel. I imagine the audiobook will be mind-blowing. But I can even imagine sections sung.

Overall, I found James incredibly liberal with his references and influences. For example: Black Leopard, Red Wolf has an enormous amount of Gene Wolfe’s criminally under-read The Shadow of the Torturer in its DNA. Severian and Tracker have little in common as characters, but their slipperiness–their loose connection to the Truth–makes me believe that they’d get along rather well if they ever met (unlikely). New Weird authors like China Miéville and, in fact, Jeff VanderMeer peek through in parts throughout the novel (esp. descriptions of jungle reminded me of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy). Neil Gaiman too, a bit; though maybe they have more of a sibling-relationship. Both Gaiman and James are preoccupied with stories and, more acutely, the people who tell them. Tracker’s no Anansi, but the Spider’s as important to Black Leopard, Red Wolf as he is to Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys.

I would like to believe the work of Samuel R. Delaney had some influence over the novel as well, though I’m not sure. The authors’ connections are many and varied beyond their race gender and sexuality, though their interests run down somewhat different channels. Their mutual unflattering/unflinching depictions of sex might be blinding me to some inherent difference, but without Delaney I don’t know if there could have been a James.

Finally, there is A Song of Ice and Fire. There has been some talk of Black Leopard, Red Wolf being the “African Game of Thrones“. And I can see an argument for that proposition. Both seek to obliterate tropes, rework a grand narrative for a modern audience, and create a new form of Fantasy for future generations to enjoy. But there are fundamental differences between the two series that I can’t imagine bridged by that shared goal.

Martin’s genius is all in his plotting and characters. Over the course of five books (and a TV series that had, at one point, much to do with those books, but now does not), he’s created dozens of characters that the audience loves, hates, worries over, etc.; all while treating them with the mercilessness their situations requires. Heroes Die, as another criminally under-read SF/F novel would have said. Over the course of the series, Martin’s slipped somewhat in his resolve to create a bleak, realistic version of Tolkien’s medieval fantasy–but still, no one comes close to the detail and seriousness of his world (except, perhaps, Steven Erikson)

On the other hand, while the characters that inhabit James’ world are definitely fully-realized and interesting, they’re not where his genius lies (though Tracker is a marvel). Nor–no surprise here–is the plot. What Marlon James did in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is heighten the language of the genre to a level that only a few other writers have achieved (Susanna Clarke, Kelly Link, Miéville, and John Crowley come to mind). He doesn’t subvert tropes by playing into them then pulling the proverbial rug from under his readers, he simply ignores them altogether. There’s an unstuckness to this novel that feels amazingly fresh. A mental limberness. Often, writers who step into other mythologies will bring the template of European mythology along with them. Even Tomi Adeyemi with her much-acclaimed Y.A. novel Children of Blood and Bone never steps far from the warm stream of contemporary Y.A. narratives (INJUSTICE, PEOPLE HATE MAGIC, ACTION PRINCESS, ETC.). The changes, if you’ll forgive the bad joke, are only skin deep. But it’s not like that with this book. Through some combination of excellent research, seriousness of purpose, and powerful imagination, James leaves us fully immersed in his world–from the speech pattern of his narrator, to structure of the telling:

The third story.

A queen of a kingdom in the West said she would pay me well to find her King. Her court thought she was mad, for the King was dead, drowned five years now, but I had no problem with finding the dead. I took her down payment and left for where those dead by drowning lived.

I kept walking until I came to an old woman by a river with a tall stick sitting at the banks. Her hair white at the sides, her head bald at the top. Her face had lines like paths in the forest and her yellow teeth meant her breath was foul. The stories say she rises each morning youthful and beautiful, blooms full and comely by midday, ages to a crone by nightfall, and dies at midnight to be born again the next hour. The hump on her back was higher than her head, but her eyes twinkled, so her mind was sharp. Fish swam right up to the point of the stick but never went beyond.

“Why have you come to this place?” she asked.

“This is the way of Monono,” I said.

“Why have you come to this place? A living man?”

“Life is love and I have no love left. Love has drained itself from me, and run to a river like this one.”

“It’s not love you have lost, but blood. I will let you pass. But when I lay with a man I live without dying for seventy moons.”

So I f****d the crone. She lay on her back by the bank, her feet in the river. She was nothing but bones and leather, but I was hard for her and full with vigor.

For reference, this scene takes place on page nine. George R.R. Martin might be transgressive, but he’s no Marlon James.

Everything in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is so steeped in mythology, it’s often  impossible to separate research from invention. The world feels lushly real, to an extent only few other authors have ever accomplished (Neil Gaiman, for example).

So, the question remains: where does this novel sit in the great line of its kind?

I think Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a superlative, form-defining novel, like Martin’s series, Tolkien’s, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and John Crowley’s Little, Big. And if I were to draw Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s family tree, likely all of those books would be on it. With two books left to write, there’s a lot of room for improvement/failure, but, if this book is any indication, Marlon James’ series is likely to be one of the great works of literature of this decade. And one of the great works of fantasy ever.

Further Reading:

African-Influenced SF/F–

The Famished Road, Ben Okri

Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi

The Fifth Season, N.K Jemisin

Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor

Rosewater, Tade Thompson

Nigerians in Space, Deji Bryce Olukotun

Some more interesting/non-traditional SF/F (especially by women & P.O.C)–

The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang

Meddling Kids, Edgar Cantero

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar

Jade City, Fonda Lee

Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone

The Changeling, Victor LaValle

Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Kindred, Octavia Butler

etc.

 

 

this is not about books or politics

* gasp* (in reference to the title)

Instead, I want to explore my views on relationships/adulthood/money/time-management.

To be clear: I’m not by any means an expert. And while even the act of ‘writing about’ something puts you in the awkward position of seeming to think you know more about it than other people, that is simply not the case here.

The first part, the part about relationships, is really two entwined first parts that flow seamlessly into the second part and the third etc. The primary interest I have is in friendships–the thornier, less clear-cut of the adult forms of relations. Romantic relationships are the subordinate first part. More an addendum.

Here’s the standard paradigm: friendships are the lifeblood of early adulthood, partly as holdover institutions from adolescence and partly as ways to model your life on the lives of your peers (think Foucault’s panopticon, except you’re looking at everyone else and comparing yourself to them). We define ourselves by our groups of friends, share interests, mold our personalities to fit shared definitions of Right action (and on and on).

But as we age, even slightly, hiccuping toward whatever TRUE ADULTHOOD looks like, we shed friendships like skins. The more we grow and adult the more those friendships feel like constraints. The massive reflective, rooms we built for ourselves in college, in our early twenties, no longer serve to help us mature.

Many of the people in my life are in this skin-shedding phase. I should be too, judging by life stage (getting married, stable, relatively uninteresting). Instead, I find myself attracting new friendships and actively seeking out relationships with the people around me. Not in the nonchalant, ADULT way we imagine our parents’ making friends (we golf twice a month!). But in the immediate, hungry way I’ve always made friends.

I think that’s partly to do with me. I’ve never cultivated an overabundance of friendships. I find myself seeking a sort of equilibrium that hasn’t much changed over my life.

That equilibrium includes my romantic partner (my fiancee). The two competing paradigms in culture for romantic relationships are: you lead separate lives; you have one, shared life. And here again I’ve found myself divergent. Neither really work. Separate lives are unsustainable, financially if nothing else. Two apartments? Two separate heating bills? But even more so emotionally. Yet, the idea of one shared life is a patriarchal holdover, with a secret clause: the life is the man’s (or whoever is in that dominant role), the woman (sub) must give up her life to fucking Vulcan mind-meld or whatever. I don’t accept either option at all.

Every decision I make involves my partner, often weighing both our needs equally. But they’re still my decisions, just as Rachel’s are hers. We discuss, we confer, but we are not a single unit. There are things I cannot do because of our relationship, professionally, as there are things she cannot do. Choices we make for the good of the unit, rather than the individual. And yet, we still are individuals. Separate together. Fundamentally.

This bleeds into our friendships. Friends we don’t mutually agree on are harder to keep, simply because if we don’t both get along with them it’s harder to make plans. But we each have friends the other doesn’t care for (if you’re reading this, it’s definitely you, watch yourself). And that’s okay, for the most part.

Which brings me to money: the blazing hellfire at the center of my existence. I think about money every waking moment. I worry about it, have panic attacks about it, dream about making more, making it easier, finding it in my jacket. Money defines every facet of every relationship I have. And, the real, honest, cruel part of it is I choose to make as little as I do.

I am qualified for a better, higher paying job. Possibly even in my “field”, whatever the fuck that means. Once again I find myself bucking a paradigm–if accidentally. I’m constantly being told by people who love me, who care for me, that I should be actively trying to get published. I should be making more money. Etc. I want to publish, to be published, obviously: I want to make a living writing. But I don’t know if I’m ready. Or if my work is. I don’t feel the need to rush. Especially not into something as permanent, as ineluctable as publishing.

Right now, I am where I have to be.Which is both frustrating and useful. Terrifying and, I don’t know, hopeful.

But money defines our relationships: can we go out? Can we get drinks? Can we split a meal? Who pays when–how much time can you take off to be with the people you care about? I’m at a place where the answer to that last question is pretty much none. I keep missing important things. Parties. Events. Recitals. Etc. Not because I want to. Not even because I’m working so much. But because if I take off a day, or say I can’t work a day (which, generally, is about the same as taking a day off–if I want to work 4-5 days a week, I have to be available 7 days a week, especially the days I want to have off), suddenly my paycheck looks very different. Ramen and late bills different. It’s mind boggling that I choose to do this, rather than have a job that allows me the freedom to spend the time I want with the people I love. Or have a stable schedule. Or have weekends.

But I have chosen this: it’s a compromise, and the right one for right now.

Which takes me to time management. A skill none of us learned in college.

There is not enough time. Adulthood is the end result of a string of compromises that generally lead a certain direction. We compromise and compromise and compromise toward stability, simplicity, structure. Frenetic = adolescence; or some similar equation.

Except I don’t buy that.

Adulthood is responsibility. Not stability. Not money. Not position or anything like that. That’s why it’s so fucking hard. Adulthood means taking responsibility for your choices. For your friendships, relationships, money, and time.

I struggle with this. So much feels out of my control.

This is me being an adult:

If I miss your party, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be there. It means I’m choosing to be a supportive partner to Rachel by making enough money to pay our bills over doing what I’d far rather be doing.

If I can’t make your recital, or show, or game, it’s not because I don’t want to be there. It’s because–even if I’d prefer to be there–I’d rather be able to afford to see you when I do see you. To be able to buy dinner. Or at least a drink.

Yes: I am choosing not to go. Just as I choose the relationships I maintain. Maybe that’s what defines adult friendships. None exist on momentum or inertia. If you’re my friend, isn’t it nice to think that it’s because we both want it that way? And if I haven’t contacted, or if you’ve not contacted me in a while, isn’t adulthood taking responsibility for that too? Nothing got in the way: I chose not to, not because I don’t love you, but because there are other things in my life that I find to be more pressing. That’s a rougher pill to swallow. But this is me trying to be better.

Part of the value I find in bucking paradigms is the fact that I get to take full responsibility for what I do. I’m not doing what I’m supposed to, what I’ve been told to do. I’m doing what I think is best, how I think it’s best. Part of that means that I have to rely on others. I can’t afford to do this on my own (mentally or monetarily).

That goes against the very American ideal of ultimate self-reliance, but fuck that–having money is not adulthood, making more of it does not mean you’re ‘further along’ than I am. Making six figures is not a metaphor or an implication of worth. Our president is immensely wealthy. Every monster currently destroying our world has more money than I do. Poverty isn’t holiness, but neither is wealth (or, again, self-reliance). Helping others is good, needing help is good. Connection, love, holding each other up is good.

I hope this rambling essay helps. If you’re broke this holiday season, or wondering if you’re on the right track, or just trying to juggle where you are/where you’re supposed to be, I hope watching my own process means something to you. I decided to write it for transparency’s sake. But also because I know how many people are like me.

So yeah.

Chag Sameach, fam. I love you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fantasy Books (For People Who Don’t Like Fantasy)

I’ve put together a list of Fantasy books for people who really don’t like Fantasy. If you’re interested in expanding your literary horizons, consider checking these books out!

Last Call by Tim Powers: No wizards, dragons, or spells; just lots of Arthurian riffs and Las Vegas mobsters. Worth reading for one of the best depictions of Las Vegas in any media. Also Arthurian legends are cool.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman: Now a TV series (and a real good one at that)!  Gaiman’s kinda broken the sound barrier for Fantasy authors and moved into the mainstream consciousness–so I don’t think I have to say too much about this book.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon: What if, instead of founding Israel, Jews all moved to Sitka, Alaska? Add in a hardboiled detective, a couple of Messianic figures, and a miracle or two and voila–a story worth reading.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: Won this year’s Booker Prize. Is about President Lincoln. Also about ghosts with giant erections, too many eyes, and vines growing around them. This is a fantasy novel–it is also one of the best novels ever.

Little, Big by John Crowley: Another one of those “Best Novel Ever” candidates; this one published in 1981. No real good way to describe it, just read it.

There are lots more books that could go on this list, but for now, that’s enough. Enjoy.

 

 

Fantasy in the World of Game of Thrones

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damn

I woke up today to some expected, but unpleasant, news. The Dark Tower, a film based on the seminal Dark Tower Series by Stephen King, is being panned by the critics. I’m not shocked. With a 90 (or so) minute run-time and trailers that brought Roland Deschain out of Mid-World in the first fucking move–well, what else could we really expect. I was willing to give it a chance. I was willing to believe that bringing Akiva Goldsman on as a scriptwriter didn’t necessarily mean that the movie was doomed. But I had my suspicions.

Nerds and fans love getting up in arms about movies ruining great books. I am one of them, and I love doing it, so you can take my word on it. Reading a novel is a long, slow process. You form a close relationship to the text. You form a relationship that, if you truly love the novel, can serve as a bedrock upon which you craft your view of the world. When some outsider comes in and takes the chaotic, massive thing that you love and strips it bare, sanitizes it–well, it can feel like a betrayal. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Everyone knows that movies can ruin great books.

What the implosion of the movie version of The Dark Tower really brings to the fore for me is the disconnect between what has been going on in the literary sphere of fantasy for the past few decades and its filmed counterparts. Admittedly, this is a tough divide to cross. Fantasy fiction, taken as a monolithic mass, is unreadably huge. I’m a massive fan, I read quickly and voraciously, and I don’t even come close to reading everything that’s published in the genre. The stacks of unread books in my apartment can attest to that fact. As can my cat, who enjoys nothing more than sitting on those stacks. That being said: fantasy literature exists; it can be looked at, studied. While I haven’t read every fantasy novel, I’ve read enough to see patterns and watch the intercourse between novelists running through novels that span decades in publication dates. By being relegated to a place outside of the central literary sphere, fantasy has been forced–along with science fiction–to create its own ecosystem. And in doing so, in conversation with authors and readers and publishers and blogs and every other medium through which an artistic genre can live, it has become a thorny problem for the film industries.

What do I mean by this?

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Dum dum, dada dum dum.

As we can all tell, peak-TV has, over the past few years, attempted to break into this unwieldy, self-referential universe. And to some success. First there was Game of ThronesThen The MagiciansThe Shannara ChroniclesAmerican Gods, and now there’s talk of adaptations of The Kingkiller Chronicles and The Wheel of Time. Which is great! Fantasy is inherently cinematic, and as a fan, I’m psyched to see some of my favorite books and series go through the crucible of adaptation.

But it all comes from the success of Game of Thrones.

And that’s a huge problem.

Fantasy fiction has had a somewhat winding road to where it is today. We can comfortably ignore everything that came before Tolkien (for this conversation, at least) and just start there. It’s unfair to look at The Lord of the Rings in a vacuum, but for many of the fantasy authors that came after Tolkien, that’s essentially what they did. LOTR sat as a big fat stone on the chest of every writer in the genre up until the late eighties. Authors like Michael Moorcock, Glenn Cooke, and Gene Wolfe used that weight to counterbalance the strange and often dark worlds they created; but it was always there. When The Gunslinger, the first novel in King’s Dark Tower Series, came out in 1982, you could see the weight of that stone on every page.

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Unsurprisingly, the author of The Wheel of Time

And Tolkien’s influence reached its apotheosis in The Wheel of Time series. Robert Jordan took the rubric of Middle Earth and exploded it, writing his fourteen book trilogy with a level of depth and complexity that Tolkien would have salivated over. Many people love The Wheel of Time. Many people can’t stand it. But it’s hard to fault Jordan’s ambition. In many ways, by taking the Tolkien brand of High Fantasy to its logical conclusion, Robert Jordan was able to lift the stone and free fantasy from its constraints. And in doing so, he made room for people like George RR Martin to flourish.

I don’t care what Martin says, A Game of Thrones–published in 1996, six years after the first book in The Wheel of Time–was a direct repudiation of Jordan’s project. It was not the first fantasy novel to deconstruct the Tolkien model, but it was the first to fire shots directly across Robert Jordan’s bow. I don’t think that means Martin didn’t like The Wheel of Time, or James Oliver Rigney (Robert Jordan’s real name); but it was a response. Martin likes referring to Tad Williams’ wonderful Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn as the books that gave him hope that there was space left for innovation in fantasy–which is both cool and worth noting; but I can’t imagine him writing A Game of Thrones without some knowledge of Jordan’s work.

The two authors dueled for the identity of fantasy. Jordan wrote a huge sweeping epic of good versus evil while Martin emptied countless printers into an amoral world where the strong and smart survive while the weak and stupid perish. Yet the similarities between the two series are startling. Both authors said they wanted to write trilogies when they first started. Both took increasingly long times between novels. Tragically, James Rigney passed away before his magnum opus could be completed–leaving that duty to the talented Brandon Sanderson. But in their sprawling, complex worlds they fought a friendly battle for supremacy.

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Unsurprisingly, also the author of The Wheel of Time.

And since the late nineties, Jordan and Martin have stood as the two titans of contemporary fantasy. Their acolytes stand behind them, lobbing shots at the opposing forces. From Jordan we have the technical, meticulous fantasies of Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, and–to some extent–Patrick Rothfuss. From Martin comes the darker worlds of Brian Staveley, Kameron Hurley, and Joe Abercrombie. There have been new developments as well–and this is all an unforgivable oversimplification on my part. But there’s a point to what I’m saying.

Fantasy literature is responsive. It’s not static, or simple, or easily taken out of context. When one sees the success of Game of Thrones, it’s incorrect to assume that The Shannara Chronicles could share in that success. Sure, they’re both fantasy. But Terry Brooks wrote the original Shannara books in the late seventies as a clear, unceremonious rip-off of Tolkien. These are the exact kind of books even Jordan tried to ignore. That’s not to say they’re unpopular; or that they’re bad; or that they could never find an audience. But to build their success on the hope of capitalizing on the audience of Game of Thrones is a sure road to failure.

And that’s the problem.

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Pictured: A series that’s nothing like GoT trying to be GoT

Game of Thrones, as a television series, is out of context. The whole world is scrambling to fill the void the show will leave in a little over a year; but it doesn’t seem to me that anyone’s looking at the bigger picture.  It’s impossible to transpose the success of literary fantasy into film and television. Some books will make great shows and movies–depending on the talent behind and in front of the camera–and some won’t. Nothing is really like A Song of Ice and Fire, there’ll never be a perfect fit for its audience; but it certainly isn’t the greatest fantasy series of all time. It’s not even the most cinematic. But, to succeed in adapting fantasy for the screen, studios, writers, and producers need to break free of the curse of Game of Thrones. Not everything needs to be sexed up to be popular. Killing off main characters is only shocking once, after that it’s either derivative or exploitative. The next show that kills its main character is going to be–unfavorably–compared to Game of Thrones. And why do we only focus on fantasy series set in a version of Medieval England with white protagonists? Brian Staveley’s novels are set in a world where to be beautiful is to be dark-skinned. Ken Liu’s gorgeous Dandelion Dynasty books are set in a fantasy analog of Han Dynasty China.  The realms of fantasy are wide open, broader and more diverse than they have ever been before.

All it takes to see the possibilities is to look.

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Not even kinda white.

And the best path I see, and the one most likely to give successful adaptations for both fans and networks, is to deal with the stories we adapt on their own terms. Pitching a show with a statement like, “It’s like Game of Thrones, but…” will inevitably lead to failure. David and Dan broke through mainstream culture’s aversion to High Fantasy by really digging into the world in the first few seasons. People love mysteries, they love complex stories, and they love escape. Most decent fantasy novels provide all three in droves. No matter what the executives think, no one has spent over sixty hours of their life watching Game of Thrones for the tits. It’s an ancillary benefit, but it’s not the draw. Deadpool didn’t succeed in the box office because it was R-Rated, it succeeded because it was made by people who deeply love and deeply care about the source material.

That’s the secret sauce. Care. Attention. Love. Accuracy.

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Oddly: A Hero.

So that’s why I’m so fucking disappointed in The Dark Tower. Stephen King’s series had the potential to be a unique, immersive cinematic experience. They were talking about doing a cross-platform deal, with a TV series to bridge the movies and delve into the history of Mid-World. It would have been revolutionary, a single story told across multiple platforms. It would have built on the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but, instead of trying to copy it–like DC has tried and failed at doing–it would be a new form of highly serialized story-telling. And it would have fit the books. The Dark Tower series is an outlier in the genre. It melds Tolkien’s High Fantasy with Westerns, Arthurian Legend, Science Fiction, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, and post-modern fiction. So I can see how it would be hard to adapt. But there was no time constraint. Books don’t rot or go bad. It took nearly fifty years for there to be an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. It took a visionary whose love of the novels was so absolute that he would risk his career on their success in an uncertain medium. David Benioff and D.B Weiss begged George RR Martin to let them adapt his novels. And it took years of constant nagging (and a well-placed leak) for Ryan Reynolds to finally get the chance to play the Deadpool he wanted.

There’s a pattern there.

Everything that comes after Game of Thrones will be saddled with its influence, like fantasy was after Tolkien. There’s nothing to do about that. The best we can hope for is that the studios will let people who really love what they’re adapting put that love on the screen. We can go broader, we can be more inclusive, we can expand the horizons of fantasy on television and film. The casting of Idris Elba as Roland Deschain was a bold and brilliant choice. He would have been perfect for the part in a better world. But he doesn’t like fantasy. He couldn’t even summon up the will to say he liked it in a recent interview he did with Seth Meyers (link). That’s a far cry from someone like Christopher Lee, a great and classic actor who loved LoTR so much that he went on a pilgrimage to meet Tolkien while he was still alive. Or even someone like Viggo Mortensen who studied Elvish to play Aragorn. The only way for fantasy to stay culturally relevant after the end of Game of Thrones is to let the people who love it do it. The more passionate creators we have, the better the products.

So we’ll see.

 

 

Let’s talk:

I think the most prevalent narrative I hear from cis-white authors trying to promote optimism about our “situation” online is that not every single one of Trump’s supporters are racist, misogynistic bigots.  It’s a fair point. I think we can all agree that even though every single one of them voted for a racist, misogynistic bigot, they are not all bigots. I won’t even say that most of them are bigots. But let’s crunch some numbers.

How many people does it take to burn a black church?

How many people does it take to rape someone?

How many people does it take to scrawl a swastika on my door, or my parents’ door, or the doors of my friends?

How many people does it take to kill the people I love as they’re walking home from work at night?

Those people weren’t born in the last year and a half. They weren’t made racist by the candidacy and election of Herr Donald. But the argument that the world is the same today as it was before the election is fundamentally flawed.

Take–for example–chocolate ice cream. I love chocolate ice cream. I’d probably eat it every day if I could. But I know, because people in positions of power and respect have told me, that it isn’t good to eat a daily pint of chocolate ice cream. My parents. My doctors. My girlfriend. My friends.

What if someone came a long and told me that they’d all been lying to me. That taking away my chocolate ice cream was a form of oppression instituted by people I already despise. Maybe I wouldn’t believe him. Maybe I’d trust the people around me. But what if they started to agree with him too. One by one they all changed their minds about chocolate ice cream. Would I still hold back?

That man didn’t make me like chocolate ice cream. Donald Trump did not invent racism in America. He just made it mainstream. He just told all the racists in the country that they shouldn’t have to be “politically correct” (which is such a fucked up term I don’t even have the mental capacity right now to deconstruct it). The pass phrase is “telling it like it is”. Whenever someone says that, what they’re really saying is “validating the hatred I felt but didn’t feel comfortable to voice”.

So I’m really glad some people are whipping away the tears and going back to the fight. Calls for this country to come together are fine and good. But it’s not people of color, on the whole, making those calls. It’s not the most vulnerable members of our society leading the charge. And that’s because they know what this means.

The thin veil of polite protection that has built up over of the last fifty years or so is being washed away, a little more every day. Electing Herr Donald was taking a power hose to it. It doesn’t take many racists to change the country. It doesn’t take 48% of the people who vote to make us all unsafe in our own cities and homes. It just takes a couple, emboldened by an election that proved to them that their feelings were justified and agreed with.

I’m tired of reading conciliatory words. Trump supporters hate being called racists. Soon they won’t. Not many of us remember a time when being called a racist was less an insult but a statement of fact. But that time’s coming back. It’s already happening across the country. In my last post I put pictures of what’s going on, but I can’t do that here. I can’t look at any more of them.

As a Jew who has seen more new swastikas drawn in the last day than I have in the ten years that preceded it, I think I have the right to be afraid.

A few more things:

Calling Hilary Clinton a liar is misogynistic. Saying that you voted for Trump because “at least he tells the truth” is misogynistic and racist. Hilary Clinton has lied in her life, she probably does so regularly: so do you. Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton, Bush, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus of Nazareth, Plato–all liars, all evil liars unfit to be president, according to the standard Hilary Clinton was put to. A standard that I held her to for far too long. Thinking that Donald Trump “speaking his mind” is anything but a normalization of hate speech is fucking madness. I don’t understand how people could say that but ignore all the times he blatantly lied about things he had said. He would say something terrible, then lie about it. And people would say that he “spoke his mind”. Isn’t lying about what you’ve said being “politically correct”? If it’s not–if lying about what you truly believe to get yourself elected into office–is not “political correctness” then that phrase means nothing. But if it is, the people who laud Herr Donald for being the least “politically correct”candidate ever just elected the most “politically correct” candidate in living memory.

Stephen Colbert, a person that I love and respect, put a graphic on his show multiple times on election night. He wanted to make the point that both sides are afraid of the other side. I get it. I myself have called people out for divisive rhetoric and ad hominem political rants. Fuck, it’s a central platform to my belief system. But I like logic. So let’s talk about false equivalences.

Take Tom: Tom is a forty-five year old married white man in a rural suburb of St. Louis. He lost his job a year ago and has been living on food stamps and his wife’s meager income while raising three children under the age of fifteen.

Now Take Martha: Martha is a twenty-three year old transwoman of color living in Chicago. She works at a marketing firm and is working on her JD at the University of Chicago.

Tom is afraid that if Martha’s candidate comes into power, he won’t be able to work to feed his family. He saw that his job was shipped overseas by a big multinational firm and his community has been devastated by the loss of those good middle-class jobs. Tom doesn’t consider himself a racist, but he’s never really been around people who don’t look like him. He is a devout Christian and believes in the biblical ideals of marriage: a woman serves a man. Period. Abortion is a sin. Homosexuality is a sin. Men are men and women are women. Everyone thinks he’s a nice guy, and if you asked anyone who knew him if he was a racist or misogynist they would be shocked by the question itself.

Martha is afraid that if Tom’s candidate comes into power, her rights will be stripped, and she will be brutally and violently murdered within the next year by people who supported Tom’s candidate.

Tom has some real concerns! But let’s look at them. His job is not coming back. That’s entropy, pure and simple. Things change. I’m sure buggy drivers and beeper makers were hurt when their industries became irrelevant, but that’s just life. I feel for Tom and his family, and I think that he does need help, but a candidate that promises to bring his job back is lying. So: while I understand his feelings of fear, they’re based on lies. Tom’s social issues are all fine and good, but they’re based on narcissism, racism, and misogyny. If you believe abortion is a sin, that’s fine. But if you believe that you have the right to force people not to sin, you are a narcissist (and, in this case, a misogynist). Free will in Christianity was granted to give all people a choice of whether or not they wanted to seek God. If you’re a Christian, good on ya! But to be a Christian, it makes no sense to me that you would refuse others the right to choose.

Martha’s fears, on the other hand, come from fact. Transpeople are harmed and killed in disproportionate numbers. Putting into power a demagogue who further demonizes her population only further puts her life in danger. Fact. Not lies. Facts.

That is called a false equivalency. So when I’m told that I need to bridge the gap, that everyone’s hurting and we all need to come together, I find myself wondering what world those people live in. Herr Donald will not bring back Tom’s job. He will–at best–snatch back the rights of people that Tom doesn’t know and has never met (but hates and fears) to assuage Tom’s anger about being poor and unemployed. He will–at best–turn back the clock a little in terms of what Tom can say and feel publicly about people who are different from him.

Martha’s candidate would have protected Martha by further enacting laws that help her and refusing to ratify laws that don’t. Tom would likely still have been poor and unemployed under Clinton. Maybe her economic plans would have helped, either way we know Trump’s won’t (those are just two links I found in seconds of googling Trump’s economic policy–there are so so so so so many more).

It’s all fine and good to talk about bridging the divide. But let’s not forget that they won’t do it because they hate us and what we stand for, while we won’t do it because we’re terrified for our fucking lives. It’s not the same.

Stop saying it is.

If you’re still reading this (wow–really?) and haven’t read the other things I’ve said about this catastrophe in the past few days, here are some links.

 

 

 

What Happened Today

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I’ve never seen faces change so slowly, the incremental drop we all felt glued to our televisions as the world held its breath and thought through ways this was not going to happen. A bullet ripped through my heart in slow motion and I was paralyzed for the whole thing. “Historic night” was a phrase thrown around a lot, dropped into our laps pre-wrapped by the news networks to fit any outcome. The election of Hilary Clinton would have been a historic night, the election of Trump was ahistoric. We are now living in an alternate reality, a parallel world, a universe in which something that did not happen did. Our real selves woke up today, saw it was sunny out and went for a walk.

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Our real selves aren’t afraid for their lives. Mine woke up early–the election coverage was finished before the West Coast results were in–to get breakfast out. New York was electric, alive with excitement, fresh-eyed and smiling. The train was packed, which would have bugged him on a normal day, but instead felt congratulatory. Almost illicit. A lot of people’s man lost last night, that person thought to himself. They’re really hurting in the fly-over states. But he didn’t dwell on it. President Clinton isn’t perfect–she’s probably going to make a lot of them happier than me some of the time.

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Breakfast was great, the bacon was cooked perfectly, the bread toasted but not burnt. After he was satiated to the point of almost being too full, he went back home to get to work. He spent the day making calls, laughing on the phone with people, everyone talking about what an amazing election it had been. How strange and surreal. But it all turned out for the best–right? Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. America came out and in one loud voice proclaimed it would not be taken in by liars and fear mongers. Hatred would never triumph over love. Nostalgia for the past would never match the power of hope for the future. My real self smiled a lot today. My real self didn’t feel blasted out and hungover. My real self remembered just how much he loved his country.

I did not.

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Every second an infinite number of possible universes branch out from this one. An infinite number of each of us go an live our lives ignorant of ourselves doing the same elsewhere. Each of us think we live in the real timeline, the history as it really happened. We see it as a bold line with thin branches coming off it and going into infinity. We’re on that bold line, and our others selves are on those branches.

I do not.

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This is the wrong timeline. Maybe Marty McFly fucked it all up for us, I don’t know–but Biff isn’t president. Biff can’t be president.

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My real self kissed Rachel goodnight and went back to editing a story he was really proud of. He forgot that people were terrified in Nebraska and Oklahoma, that red hats were being trashed or put away in garages–never to be worn again. He scrolled through his Facebook feed to find ecstatic posts from all the women in his life and many of the men. A lot of them weren’t originally going to vote for Hilary, but seeing a woman elected into the highest office in the land swept them up like a tide and made them feel like part of something historic.

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No swastikas were painted on store windows. No young women were assaulted on buses. No muslims were attacked on subway platforms. No men were overheard saying “We can do anything to women now, Trump is president”. No mothers chain-smoked in apartment hallways wondering what would happen to their children.

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My real self is still awake, typing away at edits he’s really excited to show people. He thinks that maybe he’ll send this story in with his grad school application. Maybe he’ll send it to a few magazines and see if it could get published. He’s drinking a glass of diet coke and occasionally checking news sites to see if President Clinton has posted anything about what she is going to do in her first hundred days.

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He wonders if anyone thought it was strange that there were two President Adams. And two President Bushes. A lot of pairs for such a young country. He thinks that, hopefully, this election will open the door for more candidates of oppressed classes–just like President Obama’s election did for her. President Obama looked so happy with Michelle and his daughters on the stage. The Javits Center last night was packed and crazy. Maybe this means we’ll never have to hear from Trump again!

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I wish I could meet the real me and tell him how lucky he is. I wish I could tell him how fragile his world is. How close to the brink he came. I wish I could look him in the eye so I could see what it would have looked like–even for just a moment–to be in his world.

But I cannot.

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Edit: Now with more swastikas…

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I am afraid

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

-Martin Niemöller

Outside it’s raining. I see people walking with bags in their hands and under their eyes. I live in a place in a borough filled with diverse people, faces, races, religions, hopes, dreams and all of us were told–loudly–that we don’t belong.

Make America Great Again means to make us all disappear.

I can’t go back to yesterday, to before, to my life. Even thinking right now is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Trying to make is making me ill. Trying to breath and calm down is making me panic.

I am afraid for my safety.

Some people believe that it’s a time to fight back, to protest and rally together; but all I see is flashes of the past, images of broken windows. I don’t know that I will be targeted, but I am different, and I am loud, and I am scared. I’ve never been scared like this before. I’ve never looked at my friends, at the people I love, and seen images of their bodies swinging from trees, burned, made inert and lifeless by a movement that doesn’t have a name. I have had the privilege of living in a time when that was a historical fact. But it might not be historical anymore.

My neighbors are afraid.

Uncertainty hurts markets, but it can kill minorities. Emboldened by a charismatic leader spouting torn out pages of Mein Kampf I don’t know what people are going to do. I don’t know if everything will return to an uncomfortable equilibrium. I don’t know if people will rally together and come after those most vulnerable. I see burned out buildings, I see empty apartments, I see the smoldering wreckage of a place that I love.

I am afraid.

There is no American historical precedent, so pretending there is is madness. But I see bodies and I need to go. Others can fight this war. Others can rally together. Others can speak truth to power and spit in the face of a monster.

I see the rotten core of slavery leaking into this country. The gaping wound at the center of America has festered. The cancer has metastasized and become president. Even writing this makes me afraid. Look what has happened to those who have spoken out in the past? People always say that it could never happen here. That it’s different now. That things have changed.

But I am afraid.

They won’t come for me first. It will be immigrants and Muslims. Then it will be my brothers and sisters in the LGBT+ community. Then it will be black people and non-white latinos. It won’t look the same way it did before. It’s already been happening, stemmed to only a trickle by a population scared of their own hatreds and afraid that the soul of this country had left them behind. Last night the country told them that it was okay to hate. It told them in no uncertain terms that the feelings they kept hidden in the darkest corners of their hearts are mainstream. Maybe it will be diffuse, micro-aggressions grown steadily more macro by the day, incremental changes in the way we’re viewed and treated, so slow and steady that it’s hard to detect. People will call us crazy for pointing at it. People who cannot believe this would happen will say that it’s just not the same.

I know that I’m supposed to rally. I know that I’m supposed to pretend that this country will go on like it always has. I know that I’m supposed to love the country I was born to. But, for the first time in my life, I can’t. I can’t rally and act like what has been broken can be fixed. I can’t pretend that this country will keep going like it did before. I can’t love a country who has screamed at the top of its lungs that it hates me. It hates everything I believe in and stand for. It hates all of my heroes, all the people I look up to. I can’t fight a beast from inside as it devours my soul.

I am afraid.

How many people can’t flee? How many millions of my brothers and sisters have no escape from what might be coming? It’s selfish of me to want to leave. I’ve been taught my entire life that I must fight for what I believe in. I’ve been told that to enact change I must be willing to put my body, my soul on the line. But I can’t. I can’t raise my children in a country that hates them for who they are. I can’t live every day of my life glued to a screen, checking statistics to see if hate crimes are creeping toward my population, my group, my tribe, my city, my neighborhood, my loved ones, my friends, my life. I am selfish. I am weak.

I am afraid.

I’m Right, You’re Wrong.

Disclaimer: I am voting for Hilary Clinton.

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Pictured: The State of American Politics.

I don’t often write about politics. I find it a murky realm that, in many respects, I am under-qualified to speak on.  I don’t comment on people’s political posts on Facebook or get drawn into ALL CAPS arguments about one candidate or another. That’s not because I am better than people who do, or because I don’t hold strong opinions. It’s merely due to the fact that I find it all rather befuddling and infuriating.

So, what I want to talk about now is a non-partisan issue– or, more accurately put, an issue that encompasses both parties equally.

Let’s begin with a thought-experiment. Frank is a business owner in Middleburg, Arkansas. Frank is a devout follower of the Church of Godliholirightness. That Church has two idiosyncratic tenets: the first being that left-handed people are evil and should be shunned, and the second being that marriage is between a man and a fruit. Frank refuses to serve left-handed people in his business, and is currently married to an avocado name Felicity.

What should the government do about Frank?

As a Liberal, I believe he should not be able to refuse service based on a person’s dominant hand. Left-handed people are a minority group who have historically been treated as second-class citizens. Their rights should be protected. On the other hand, I believe that, if Felicity consented to the marriage, Frank and Felicity should be given all the rights and privileges accorded to Gay, Lesbian, and Straight couples under the law. That an avocado can’t consent– in this thought-experiment– is irrelevant. Let’s say they can and move forward.

Social conservatives would disagree with me on both counts. The right to practice one’s religion openly is a deeply fundamental part of the American experiment, and to hamper that right goes against a core principle of this country’s foundation. And, as a nation steeped in Judeo-Christian morality, the definition of marriage should follow those moral guidelines.

Why am I right? I feel like I’m right, I think my arguments are better, but in many ways they’re not. I do want to refuse Frank his ability to practice his religion openly. I can couch that desire in circumspect language, but that doesn’t hide the fact that I find his right to religious freedom subordinate to a left-handed person’s right to equal treatment under the law. And, in the same way, conservatives can talk around marriage equality all they want, but they’re really just feel a bit squiffy about a man marrying a fruit. These are facts. I, and most other liberals, don’t really like your religion and would prefer it kept out of my face. Conservatives don’t really like my way of life and would prefer I conform to their highly specific standards.

So why am I right? I can make an utilitarian argument for fairness and equality, but I’m going to slide down into brute facts eventually. I’m going to have to claim that equality is better than inequality, which is unsupportable philosophically. Someone could just as easily claim that the state of nature, which preferences strength and vitality über alles, is the only true basis for morality. What one can take, one should. Neither of these claims carry the heft of truth, they’re both equally shaky. Anyone can claim anything, support it, and refuse to budge on their claim. That’s the way arguments work.

And, to go yet further, any political claim is going to require– once deconstructed– some sort of brute fact backing that would make the claimant blanche. Religious fundamentalists, actually, have a much easier time making the sort of claims we all have to make because their arguments can rest comfortably on God. I, on the other hand, have to search out premises that seem right, even if I can’t support them. So, by that metric, conservative arguments, though deeply circular, are stronger. I don’t believe that all people are created equal. I think that some people are better than other people. Most people agree with me. I think kind people are better than intelligent people. I think that openness and honesty are superior traits to shrewdness and confidence.  Yet, I must use the idea that “all people are created equal” (which, itself, comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Hobbes) to make any of my arguments hold water.

But I know I’m right, and I know they’re wrong. I know that women are equal to men. I know that minority groups need to be protected from the power of privilege and the tyranny of the majority. I know that the accident of my birth cannot make me inherently superior. But I can’t, in good conscience, support these claims.

And therein lies my point. Democrats love pretending to be the party of reason, but we’re not. Reason is a chimera, an easy out to tough questions. Every argument comes down to the interlocutors’ ability to agree on terms and brute facts– which, in this political climate, is impossible. Republicans claim to be the moral party, but that’s equally ridiculous. The Democratic platform is steeped in moral language. Democrats want to legislate morality as much as Republicans, they just think their morality is inherently better. On economic issues, I will not speak, but– in many ways– the fundamental divide there comes down to the exact same problem.

I’ve been drawn into too many conversations lately with people who “agree with me” but think that our “opponents” are assholes trying to legislate their bodies. I’ve been forced to bear witness to conservatives sermonizing about the evils of liberalism just as many times. There are evil people in both parties, but evil is not the issue here. The issue is the entrenched belief that “I’m right, you’re wrong”. When we can finally rid ourselves of that belief, evaluate the backings our arguments require, and search for commonality, we can begin once again to converse like human beings.

This election scares me. It should scare all of us. The state of the world scares me. It should scare all of us. And it’s the courage of our convictions that’s causing these horrible problems. Everyone is party to that failure. Search through the great catalogue of things you believe, find one that’s shaky, and start down the path of questioning and self-doubt; because, if each and every one of us doesn’t do that, this world is only going to get worse.

Michael and Rachel’s Fantasy Top Ten

Methodology

In ranking these novels, we are taking into account four factors: world building, plot, character, and prose. Each factor will be scored on scale of 10 and the novels with the highest average scores will be counted on this list. While this is not exhaustive (we haven’t read all fantasy novels ever), we believe our ratings to be sound.

Without further ado, our list…

  1. Lord of the Rings (9.25)
  2. Kingkiller Chronicles (8.75)
  3. The Magicians Trilogy (8.75)
  4. Neverwhere (8.75)
  5. The Craft Sequence (8.75)
  6. Song of Ice and Fire (8.5)
  7. The Dark Tower Series (8.25)
  8. Declare (8.25)
  9. The Stormlight Archive (8)
  10. Tie: Embassytown (8) and The Lies of Locke Lamora (8)

On “this census-taker”

this census-taker by China Mieville

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“Every word ever written is written to be read and if some go unread that’s only chance, failure. they’re like grubs that die without changing.” (p.30)

I was walking through the Strand, not looking for anything in particular. I was there with my friend who was from out of town. I like taking people to the Strand. If there’s any place in New York I feel comfortable, its surrounded by perilously high stacks of books . So, there I was. I’d picked out a few books and was heading to the register when I glanced at the New Fiction table (as I always do). For the past few months I’d passed China Miéville’s short story collection on that table, considered it, and set it down. I like short stories fine, but not enough to pay thirty dollars for them. I tend to wait for the mass-market paperback for short story collections, as a rule. So when I saw his name on a book whose cover I didn’t recognize, I somewhat freaked. How had I not known this was coming out? What else had the internet forgotten to tell me? What use was reddit if it didn’t warn me about things like this??

Needless to say, I set down most of the books I was buying (more than one, less than ten), made some quick calculations, and picked up this census-taker without hesitation. A new novel by Miéville is something I’m not going to pass up. Especially a short novel (with Morning Star coming out tomorrow, I didn’t have time for one of Miéville’s weighty tomes this week). So I took it home, set down what I had been reading, and devoured it.

 To review it would be a mistake. I’ve only read it once, and a book like this begs for rereading. But, still, I can make observations– neither keen nor cutting– that may be useful in deciding whether or not you should pick up this novel.

First, this is by any metric a China Miéville novel. If you’ve read him and don’t like him, this might not be for you (might be, if you only kind of didn’t like him). If you’ve read him and love him, than run– don’t walk– to your nearest bookstore and pick up this novel. And if you haven’t read him yet, this point is meaningless.

But, even if this novel is obviously in his style, I think it his most accessible to date. It eschews the hallucinogenic fireworks of his earliest novels for a quieter form of scene setting. His prose is restrained to the point of obliqueness– which, I feel, is very much the point. He shows in this census-taker a control of his own tendencies that was hinted at in Embassytown but never fully realized (though that is my favorite of novels). So if you’re looking for an entrance point– here might be a good place.

Early Miéville can be characterized as a brilliant writer testing just how far he can go. this census-taker is that same brilliant mind, older, smarter, with less to prove. He expects you to know he’s brilliant. He’s gotten down to the business of telling stories, and that’s a huge step in the right direction.

The second thing I noticed was just how deeply felt this novel is. I’ve never found Miéville’s writing to focus much on his character’s feelings. He has always been about the sets he constructed and the worlds he wrought; not about what the little characters in his worlds thought and cared about. But here he shows a deep understanding of each and every one of his characters that was refreshing and somewhat heartbreaking.

This too is part of his maturation as a writer. I won’t speak to anything to come (though he has another, longer, novel coming out this year), but if he stays on this path, he will quickly become the best novelist working right now full stop. Speculative fiction has a huge amount of talents. From Patrick Rothfuss and Lev Grossman to Neil Gaiman, to young authors like Max Gladstone and Peirce Brown, speculative fiction has probably the single greatest collection of working writers in any genre. If you include the authors known to dabble in it, like Kazuo Ishiguro, then that fact’s incontrovertible. But– if he keeps getting better– China Miéville will easily leave them all in his wake. Already he’s one of the best. I can’t wait for that to change.

And, finally, this is a novel about childhood. I wouldn’t call it a children’s book by any means. But its about trauma seen through the eyes of a child. With The Graveyard Book and– more aptly– The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I thought Gaiman had that market cornered, but I was wrong. While Gaiman’s work is amazing in this arena, Miéville brings his immense control of the syntactic aspect of language to bear on the problem and creates a sense of dread with a shift from first to third person that Gaiman had to build with images and plot. It’s startling how much a narrator shifting tenses and points-of-view can do for atmosphere.

This linguistic wizardry has always been present in Miéville’s work, but– maybe for the first time (except Embassytown and possibly The City & The City)– it’s not just for show. In Embassytown, language was the core issue of the novel, so it made sense that how the novel was written was important. But in this, the language serves an atmospheric and psychological purpose that he’s never been able to wring out of it before. It sets scenes where words fail, and it does so in ways words never could.

So, let me say this. If you’re looking for something to read, read this census-taker by China Miéville. And if you’re not, do it anyway.