Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Gene Wolfe - The Book Of The New Sun


I am thrilled to announce that I've written an article for Fantasy Faction, one of my favourite websites. Just had my first article published by them today, about an old favourite of mine, Gene Wolfe's The Book Of The New Sun. This will hopefully be the first in a pitched series about overlooked classics of Fantasy. It's so exciting to see a piece of my writing up on a website that's so obviously run by and for a passionate community of fans, and I'm looking forward to contributing more articles in the future.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Patricia A. McKillip - The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld (1974)

"Sybel, there must be a silence deeper than the silence of Eld between those stars; shall we go listen to it?"

"The giant Grof was hit in one eye by a stone, and that eye turned inward so that it looked into his mind, and he died of what he saw there."

'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' is a gorgeously told tale of love and the human cost of war and revenge. It has a love of riddles, inventive magical beasts, and a well-drawn cast of believable characters with a strong, engaging female protagonist. However what truly elevates the book is Patricia A. McKillip's poetic language. Her command of striking imagery and finely balanced phrases places 'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' in another category altogether from the faux-archaisms employed by Lord Dunsany and his imitators, a high Fantasy that almost qualifies as a prose poem.
   'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' takes a stock character that is usually a villain in most high Fantasy stories, the ice-queen wizard alone in her mountain fortress with only her enchanted animals for company, and turns her into a sympathetic, believable protagonist. Sybel is the descendant of a line of wizards with the ability to summon magical animals: the falcon, Ter, Gules Lyon, the Cat Moriah, the Dragon Gyld, the Black Swan of Terleth, and the Boar Cyrin, who answers all riddles save one. Her attempts to summon the White Bird Liralen are complicated when Coren of Sirle turns up at her gates, asking her to care for the baby Tamlorn, the son of King Drede. As Tamlorn becomes poised to fall between the rebel forces of Sirle and Drede's armies, Sybel finds herself drawn away from her hideout on the mountain of Eld and into the world of people, of which she wants no part.
   What follows is the story of the isolated, lonely Sybel learning to interact with people, as she becomes a mother figure for Tamlorn and negotiates the affections of Coren and Drede. This could be a standard, if wonderfully told, romance plot, if not for the nuance and depth. McKillip is fully aware of the depth and complexity of love, but also of the negative end of the spectrum of human emotions, how fear, hatred and jealousy can consume people. 'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' works so well partially because of how well grounded it is in real emotional depth.
   This is demonstrated in the book's treatment both of its villains, and of its protagonist as she makes more and more questionable decisions. There is no question that Drede's plan to have Sybel magically brainwashed so that she will love him and not attack him is monstrous, but Drede is not portrayed as a monster. He is shown to be a person who, because of the rumours about his wife's betrayal of him and his unsteady grip on power due to the forces of Sirle, is utterly hounded by fear, to the extent that he makes decisions that he knows are horrific. Even the wizard Mithran, who he hires to do the job, is revealed to be a bitter, lonely old man who has let his own lust for power consume his life. None of this excuses either characters' actions, but because we can understand where their motivations come from, and because we can believe that these people could end up like that, it makes the whole situation much more believable.
   Drede's plan is portrayed as the horrendous violation it is, and whilst neither Drede nor Mithran succeed, the event still clearly traumatises Sybel, and the book realistically explores the fallout from this. Sybel marries Coren so that she can move to Sirle and plot with his brothers, the Lords of Sirle, and her magical animals, to get her revenge on Drede. However, she soon becomes so obsessed with utterly destroying Drede that she stops thinking about what will happen to Coren, whom she has grown to truly love, and Tamlorn, who is now living with his father Drede and clearly loves and admires him. This is made worse by the fact that, in her desire to protect both of them, and to keep her revenge for herself, she refuses to tell either of them what happened. The book never condones Drede nor suggests that he doesn't fully deserve his comeuppance, but it does portray how Sybel's entirely understandable desire for revenge starts to consume her and cut her off from the people she loves.
   The book becomes increasingly morally complex as it goes along, exploring how good people can be driven to do bad things through entirely understandable motivations. This is illustrated by Cyrin's riddle about the giant Grof - the idea that we sometimes hide our own true motivations from ourselves, and to truly look into them can be painful. This is also symbolised by the Blammor, the ugly and frightening aspect of the Liralen that manifests to Sybel, Coren and Mithran as a cloud of smoke with ice for eyes that reflects back your own worst fears. Mirthan is too corrupted to survive his experience with the Blammor, but both Sybel and Coren have to face their own worst impulses before they can happily be with each other. As Coren says to Sybel,

"What do you think love is - a thing to startle from the heart like a bird at every shout or blow? You can fly from me, high as you choose into your darkness, but you will see me always beneath you, no matter how far away, with my face turned to you. My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it, or let it wither and die."

The complexity of the book's view of love, as something that ties the couple together but that can also be twisted and subverted into something damaging and ugly, is refreshing. In the end it is not just their love that pulls Coren and Sybel back from the brink, but knowledge, wisdom and self-awareness. Both Coren and Sybel, having looked into themselves, can see something of Drede in themselves, a man who let his feelings for his wife be twisted into something unpleasant and destructive by his fear and jealousy. Coren and Sybel first have to reject their own destructive, violent impulses, before they can return to each other purified, as symblised by the Liralen shedding the aspect of the Blammor to take its true form.

Brian Aldiss - The Malacia Tapestry (1978)

"'Somebody told me that Satan has decided to close the world down, and the magicians have agreed. What would happen wouldn't be unpleasant at all, but just ordinary life going on more and more slowly until it stopped absolutely.'
   "'Like a clock stopping,' Armida suggested.
   "'More like a tapestry,' Bedalar said. 'I mean, one day like today, things might run down and never move again, so that we and everything would hang there like a tapestry in the air for ever more.'"

'The Malacia Tapestry' is a lyrical Fantasy about a stagnating magical city. Following on from his experimental New Wave works 'Report On Probability A' (1967) and 'Barefoot In The Head' (1969) but before his re-invigoration of hard SF with the Helliconia trilogy (1982 - 1985), Brian Aldiss turned to Fantasy to explore his usual themes of degeneration and decay. Like the later Viriconium novels, the only other books it much resembles, 'The Malacia Tapestry' forgoes traditional plot in favour of atmosphere, generated by some of Aldiss's finest prose. The impoverished actor Perian de Chirolo undergoes a series of misadventures in the city of Malacia, cursed by ancient magicians never to change, and the course of these events reveal the life of the city, in which myth and superstition have mingled inseparably with very real magic. Malacia is rendered in hyperreal, magical realist intensity, its languid decadence allowing Aldiss to reflect on the nature of art and the necessity of change.
   Much of the distinctive flavour of 'The Malacia Tapestry' comes from its invocation of the grotesque and the grime, something it shares with Viriconium but descends back to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books. Perian and his actor friends are all heavy-drinking, philandering lowlifes, as comic as they are tragic, and the image of the plague-ridden corpses being airlifted through the sky on inflatable balloons to infect the camps of the invading Turkish army is equally ridiculous and horrifying. As well as creating a compelling tone, this approach allows Aldiss to ground the novel, making Malacia feel more real and lived-in than your standard high Fantasy setting, which in turn allows him to blur the line between magic and myth within the story. Malacia features winged humans, dinosaurs, (called 'ancestrals' by the Malacians), and magicians, placing it firmly in the realm of the fantastic. However, the magicians don't use their powers to fight evil, but sell fortunes and perform tricks for bored tourists by the side of the road, the winged humans are not angels but are just another kind of people, who interbreed with normal humans to have children with vestigial wings, become frustrated housewives, and lose their ability to fly as they get older, and the dinosaurs are either used as domestic animals or hunted for sport by the upper classes. Thus Aldiss subverts the fantastical elements in the story by making them mundane.
   Aldiss then goes on to explore the interaction between the magical elements and the myths and superstitions of the Malacians. The city of Malacia has its own distinct culture, which is different from ours partially because it has been shaped and molded by these fantastical elements, however the ambiguity between what is real and what is myth makes it difficult to tell by how much. Malacian cosmology is an inversion of the Christian creation - they believe that the world was created by Satan, and that God appeared later to rebel against him and act in the interest of humans. Magicians, who worship Satan, and symbolise stasis, coexist with priests who worship God, who symbolises change. Thus the people of Malacia live their lives caught between these two opposing forces not of Good and Evil, but of Law and Chaos. Malacia's ancient curse preventing change symbolises the encroaching victory of Law, a society sliding into its own decadence. However, how much of this is the result of the magicians' curse, and how much of it is the ruling elite of Malacia and its council brutally preserving their own power at the expense of the downtrodden and exploited working class, is left to the reader to interpret. Aldiss hints at how seriously we shouldn't take the Malacian's own traditional views in the use of 'ancestrals' to describe the dinosaurs, and Perian's father's research into the Malacian's evolution that suggests they are descended from the dinosaurs, despite the characters' blatant mammalian natures.
   All of this hints towards the political thrust of the book. Despite the best efforts of the ruling council, rebellion is fermenting in Malacia due to the horrific conditions faced by the city's large, working class population, whose exploitation keeps the aristocracy of Malacia in power. Aldiss explores how the feudal societies standardly depicted in Fantasy would be fairly miserable for the majority of the population, and the necessity of social change to give more power to the people. The Malacian aristocracy are all portrayed as hopelessly decadent, self-absorbed and manipulative, whilst the working class cast of Bengstohn's play are much more sympathetic, their anger stemming from the struggles they face trying to make the best of life in a system that is unfairly stacked against them. Bengstohn hopes that his play, captured by the new medium of his innovative photo system, will spread his message that the ruling classes are morally bankrupt and prove a useful tool for bringing down the whole stagnant system. Thus, the actors in his play will play a part in bringing change to Malacia, ironically by standing still for long stretches of time while his device captures the image. Aldiss also explores how resistant people are to change, and how insidiously the forces that maintain the status quo enforce themselves on people's world view. Perian, as an actor with an academic father and a well-married sister, codes as middle class, but to all intents and purposes he lives in comparable poverty to the rest of Bengstohn's workers. However, his greatest desire is not to overthrow an unfair system that does him no favours, but to become part of the ruling class himself, improving his lot but doing nothing for anyone else. Perian complains that the plot of Bengstohn's play is unoriginal and cliche-ed, its moral too obvious, but he remains impervious to its message until he lives out the plot in exact detail himself. It is this alone that is sufficient to awaken the revolutionary instinct in himself, rather than the message in any art.