The Wizard of Lemuria

The fantasy community has always had a schizophrenic response to Lin Carter. Mention his stint as the editor of the justly renowned Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and you’ll hear plaudits (from readers of a certain generation at least.) Carter was the man responsible for bringing a bunch of neglected classics back into print. He had a hand in kickstarting the great fantasy boom of the 1960s. Mention his own fantasy writing, on the other hand, and you’ll be greeted with much shaking of heads.

It has to be said that the head-shaking is, for the most part, justified. The overwhelming impression left by Carter’s work is of the wholesale appropriation of other writer’s characters, prose styles and plots.

If Robert E Howard wanted to be Conan, Lin Carter wanted to be Robert E Howard ( or H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs or whoever else he happened to be channeling that day.) Therein lies the difference between the two writers. Howard was expressing his own vivid inner fantasy life. Carter did not have the sort of neurosis from which the authors he admired derived so much of their writing’s power.

The thing you can’t deny about Carter is that he had a deep and abiding love for the genre. He did his level best to express it in the enormous number of books he wrote. His most interesting work came during the times when he attempted to fuse the styles and subject matter of a number of his influences. The Thongor of Lemuria series is like that. The elevator pitch for The Wizard of Lemuria is simple. Imagine if Conan was the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series.

The Howard influence is revealed in the steel-thewed figure of Thongor of Valkarth, barbarian warrior from the North with his elemental distrust of civilisation and magic. Thongor’s world, like Conan’s, is Earth’s ancient past, the primordial supercontinent of Lemuria.

The rest of the trappings are cheerfully lifted from Edgar Rice Burroughs. There are the kingdoms that are really city-states. There are gravity defying airships. The names and terminology (Karm Karvus, otar of a hundred) could have come straight from Barsoom. Dinosaurs stalk those primordial jungles that would have been at home in Pellucidar. There are beautiful princesses and noble swordsmen and villains who would twirl their mustachios if they had any.

The writing is often awful. At one point during The Wizard of Lemuria we are told that Thongor’s blood “quite literally froze in his veins.” We are often informed things like “for the mighty barbarian to think was to act”, when there is no evidence that any thinking is going on at all. Carter’s way to emphasise the horror of the perilous situations in which our hero finds himself was to write in italics, preferably with exclamation marks!

The sets, like the characters, are purest cardboard. The plots creak along on an endless treadmill of hairsbreadth escapes, cliffhangers and fights.

The Wizard of Lemuria opens with our hero being forced into a duel with the cheating dishonourable scumbag who is captain of his unit. The man practically forces Thongor to dispatch him despite being given every opportunity to do the right thing by the honourable barbarian.

In short order our hero is imprisoned to await execution, escapes, steals the prototype airship with which the local dictator plans to conquer the world, and flies off with it. He then decides to have a nap while the airship thunders through the night. He awakes, having avoided flying into a mountain, to find out that not only is he way off course, he is being attacked by giant pterodactyls.

During the course of this single chapter he is knocked out (again), dangles from the end of a safety rope over the jaws of a gigantic mutated T. Rex and is stranded in the jungle, his newly aquired airship wrecked.

We are only three short chapters into the book and the main plot has yet to kick in. Soon our hero will be recruited by the titular wizard, Sharajsha, to take part in a collect-the-coupons quest to reforge an ancient magical sword and prevent the summoning of the Lords of Chaos by the loathsome pre-human reptile men known as the Dragon Kings. There’s a lot going on in a volume that is less than 40000 words long.

It’s as if the author had decided that the pace of Howard and Burroughs was just too slow and the solution was to strip out anything that was not action. It reads like the write-up of a particularly violent old school D&D game. Its the sort of pulp fiction that does not get written any more, and thank God for that, most people are likely to say.

And yet…

And yet, there are times when it is just the sort of thing I want to read. I admit those times are rare but the Thongor books provide a sort of comfort food for the mind. I want to read them in the same way as I want to eat the stodgy Scottish food my grandmother used to cook for Sunday lunch when I was a boy.

I genuinely like the setting. Somehow, by ransacking the works of Howard and Burroughs, Carter manages to create something original. The super-science separates his primordial world from Hyboria and gives it an odd Universal Studios mad scientist movie feel.

There is something in the sheer pulpiness that appeals to me. Carter’s love of his subject shines through. You can tell that here is a man writing exactly what he wants to be writing, even if its not exactly what you want to be reading.

You could say the books were precisely the sort of thing calculated to appeal to unsophisticated teenage boys back in the day, but you would be being unfair to unsophisticated teenage boys. Even as a thirteen year old I was aware of the flaws. I just did not care. I mean, come on! Beautiful princesses, dinosaurs, flying ships, slimy Dragon Kings plotting to return ancient Lovecraftian deities. What’s not to love?

A Wizard of Earthsea

I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea again recently when I was on holiday. I have read it every few years since I first came across it in the children’s section of Stranraer public library at the end of the 1960s. I encountered it in my first surge of enthusiasm for SF and Fantasy. Indeed it was probably responsible for it. I am convinced it is one of the enduring classics of 20th Century fantasy.

It has stood the test of time and repeated rereading. No matter what decade of my life I have read it in, I have always enjoyed it. A whole world unpacks in somewhere around 40000 words. A setting as dense and convincing as Middle Earth emerges from a thin volume. As a working writer I looked to see how this was done, and my answer is damned if I know.

It has something to do with the way Le Guin breaks so many of the rules bludgeoned into modern authors. There is a lot of telling not showing, but the information is conveyed entertainingly and brilliantly. The narrative voice is one of the book’s characters. We are listening to a native of Earthsea telling us the tale of Ged as a young man. The narrator slips in all the background we need to know deftly as we need to know it. This is not a story told from inside the heads of a scene’s protagonists, and it is all the stronger for it.

Then there is the compression. Le Guin encapsulates in single chapters what most writers would take a book to do. The training of a Wizard at a school for magic that takes up volumes of Harry Potter is there in one chapter. The thrilling confrontation with the Dragon of Pendor and its children is only part of another, and in many ways not the most emotionally resonant part. This compression adds to the power of the book, as does the fact that stories sprawl out of it. The tale of the two old people abandoned as children on a desert island haunts me. Yet it is just there, unresolved and all the more potent for it.

There are a lot of seemingly unnecessary details– every island has its tale, bits of history are woven around tiny shards of rock in the sea. Entire tragic stories are alluded to in the passing. Of course, none of those details are really unnecessary. All of them add something to our understanding of the world, help convince us of the reality of the place we are entering. We feel an alien culture around us, a place where magic is woven into the fabric of society and the world in a matter of fact manner. This is a world where myths and stories are true.

The other thing that strikes me is that it is a very personal story. It is the tale of a young man coming of age. The world is not at risk. The ring does not need to be thrown into Mount Doom. The Dark Lord does not need to be defeated. A boy must hunt a shadow across the face of this intricate world and in doing so become a man.

Once thing has changed for me since I read the book as a child. It is no longer quite so terrifying. I remember being utterly petrified by the vision of embodied darkness at the heart of the narrative. The whispering shadows and the idea that some evil thing could eat you from the inside out and take over your body kept me from sleep when I was a boy. The book remains tense and taut but I am quite pleased that I no longer find it so scary.

The writing is beautiful and of a piece. I don’t think I have ever come across anything in a fantasy novel quite as evocative as the quote from the Creation of Ea that opens the book, and in many ways contains its essence. Just like the book, it still thrills me every time I read it.

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.

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The Age of Re-Reading

I am at an age now where I find myself more likely to re-read books I loved when I was young than to seek out new authors. I am not sure exactly why. I suspect that it is because when I was young I read everything much less critically which gave the love a chance to grow. These days I read with a more jaundiced eye particularly towards people working in my own genres. I am much more aware of the tricks used and am much more easily bounced out of my willing suspension of disbelief. I do not for a moment believe that writers working today are less skilled than the ones I used to read, I can actually see that in some cases they are much more so. It’s just that these days I set the bar much higher. That’s my theory anyway.

Of course, there are some writers I have come back to again and again all of my life anyway. I re-read The Lord of the Rings every couple of years. I go through the collected works of Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. There are a number of books by Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock I keep coming back to and all of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books. I endlessly recycle Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett and Dickens and Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky too.

Of late I find most of the books by writers I am unfamiliar with I read are non-fiction. This is a trend I have noticed among many of my friends as well. I am far less likely to try new fiction than I once was. It shames me to admit it but it is so. Perhaps I have become more risk adverse as I am older. Over the years I have spent a lot of money on books I could not get through the first twenty pages of. Re-reading books I know I enjoyed but which I read long enough to have forgotten the details seems to be my new risk adverse strategy. This has some surprising results sometimes.

Some writers you grow with, you come back to them as you get older and you get more out of them and see more in them. Some are a sort of comfort food of the mind. Some are as unsettling as when you visit the street your childhood home was on and find everything changed. They are not at all what you remember them as being. You find the book you recall bear absolutely no resemblance to the book you are reading.You find writers you admired when you were a teenager seem like total nobs when you read them in middle age (Jack Kerouac I am looking at you.)

Right now, I am re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series from start to the current novel. I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn a while back and was sufficiently impressed to want to try his completion of the series after Jordan’s tragic early death. Currently I am at Book Seven, Crown of Swords.

It’s been an odd experience reading these books back to back so close together. One friend asks me why I am subjecting myself to such a cruel and unusual punishment. It is not. It’s a pleasure. A lot of baggage surrounds Jordan. Everyone talks about the info dumps, the braid tugging, the endless soap opera. There’s some truth to this, obviously, but it fails to address the obvious strength of the man’s work; that he can tell a story. He can also create memorable characters. The thing that struck me most strongly re-reading the first few books was the sheer scale of the man’s ambition. So much is promised, so much delivered. Events are foreshadowed that do not occur until a couple of thousand-page books later.

It sounds like damning with faint praise to say you are impressed by an author’s skill at logistics but I do not mean it that way in the least. As someone who has written a couple of longish, multi-book series I know the difficulties involved better than many, and I am gobsmacked by the way Jordan keeps all the balls in the air. If you think what he does is easy, I would respectfully suggest you try it sometime. Someone sufficiently skilled makes even the most difficult things look easy. It is the mark of being skilled.

Scale is the major mark of Jordan’s work, of course; the thing everyone remembers. It is also the thing that leads to the accusations of endless info-dumps. Having gone through a number of the books, I can’t say as I noticed these. Given how much he needs to tell the reader once the backstory has grown, I thought Jordan handled these well. There are very few really noticeable ones and the information is usually skilfully woven into the ongoing story.

I find the characterisation for the most part sympathetic and Jordan handles his themes of power and responsibility well.  Jordan actually fought in a war (was decorated in it too) and had clearly thought about what it means to kill and to lead. He handles the guilt well. The scenes where his young heroes return home to by idolised by those who stayed behind and don’t understand are haunting.

Of course there are flaws, the first few books in the series have tremendous narrative drive but the plotting feels chaotic. Characters appear out of nowhere, climaxes just happen. As the series progresses the narrative pace slackens but the writing becomes more skilled. On balance I am enjoying this exercise hugely. I’ll report back when I get to the end!


Some of My Favourite Things: the Kindle

I love this device. I really really do. Even though I bought it from Amazon US and a month later Amazon released a more powerful UK version at about half the price I paid for mine (including postage and import duties) I still feel like I got my money’s worth.

Why? It lets me carry a library around in my jacket pocket. It’s light, its battery lasts for a month if I switch off the wireless connection and it lets me buy a new book or even get one for free pretty much wherever I am in the world. I am one of those people who dreads being without something to read. I will read the back of a Corn Flakes box if there is nothing else. This device saves  me from that awful fate.

I have been reading ebooks for a long time, starting with my first Palm organiser over a decade ago. With the Kindle, ebooks really came of age.

What makes the Kindle different?

Well, when I buy a book I don’t need to transfer it from my computer. It just appears on the Kindle. That does not sound like much but there is a level of convenience here that really changes things. There’s no messing around with cables or transferring books to SD cards. I can get straight down to reading.

The second thing is that when you buy a book for the Kindle you are not just buying it for the Kindle. Amazon has provided a whole range of software that will let you read your book on a Windows PC, a Mac, an iPhone or an Android phone. The only thing missing is a Linux version, so get with the program Amazon! This is a rare oversight on  the company’s part.

The books will appear on these other machines in the same auto-magical way they appear on your Kindle. Not only that the software will synch your place across all your books. You can read a few dozen pages on your Kindle, open the book on your phone and start reading again where you left off.

Another thing is that the books are stored in Amazon’s cloud along with your local devices. If you buy a new device, you can immediately have access to your library. If you lose the device, you still have the books and this is important because eventually the books will be worth far more than the reader.

Weekend Reading

At the weekend I downloaded Tarzan At The Earth’s Core onto my Kindle and sat outside in the sun and read it in a few hours. This was a book I loved when I was fifteen. It involves Tarzan joining an expedition to the hollow world at the Earth’s core, the dinosaur haunted setting of Burroughs Pellucidar novels to rescue David Innes from the clutches of the Korsars. It’s an odd book which features a lot of running around, cliff-hanger endings and prehistoric monsters. It ends abruptly as if Burroughs had reached his contractual word count for the project and just shut the whole thing down. There is no real structure, very little characterisation and the writing is clumsy. And still, I not only finished the book, I enjoyed it, even though I was aware of all these things. Some of it was nostalgia for sure but some of it was the sheer efficiency of Burroughs method and some of it was the pure pulpy joy of reading about adventures in a stone age world full of dinosaurs and sabre-tooth anachronisms. I downloaded this book for free from Feedbooks.

On Sunday evening I downloaded Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (available for free direct from Amazon). This was something entirely different. The opening drew me in, the characters large-scale but complex feeling and the descriptions of the landscape astonishingly evocative. I’ve only read the first few chapters and I am gripped.

I spent part of Sunday afternoon reading The Ubuntu Linux Bible as part of my ongoing attempt to educate myself about the operating system. This is the sort of book I skim, dip into and re-read in chunks just to make sure I understand what it is saying. This version of the books covers the 10.04 Long Term Service release. I am waiting to see how the whole Unity thing turns out so I haven’t moved to 11.04. I suspect I will probably wait for Gnome 3 and the 12.04 LTS release before I upgrade.