Fantasy’s New Award — David Gemmell’s Legend

Friday, December 12th, 2008 | Posted by Bill Ward

I’ll admit to not being able to keep up with science fiction and fantasy awards, but I think the newly announced David Gemmell Legend Award has the potential to be something of a milestone. Why should that be, in the midst of swirl of awards for fantasy novels ranging from those the genre shares with science fiction, to the World Fantasy Awards and various regional awards, as well as the more specialist awards such as the Mythopoeic and Sideways Awards? Well, because this award actually takes its cue from heroic fantasy.

For those of you who may not know much about the late David Gemmell, he was a prolific and best-selling British author of some of the purest examples of heroic fantasy seen in the last thirty years. His first novel, Legend, was an instant hit in the UK and has never gone out of print since 1984. Gemmell went on to write some thirty more novels, nearly all of which are heroic fantasy. His style is fast-paced and concise, and he packs a huge amount into his books. Some of his novels contain more action than an entire trilogy of high fantasy, and this at a time when this later sub-genre dominates the market. Gemmell’s books, one of the big exceptions to the heroic fantasy glut, continue to sell like hotcakes.

The first David Gemmell Award will be given in the Spring of 2009 to the fantasy novel of 2008 that best exemplifies the spirit of David Gemmell’s fiction. This is where things get interesting, in my opinion; this is the point upon which the whole thing balances. Looking over the nominees for the award, and the rules for the selection process, leaves me speculating about a how these awards might take shape.

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Reader vs. Reader

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008 | Posted by James Enge

Reading the old guys can be tricky sometimes. After I reviewed Robert E. Howard’s Almuric last week, I got some correspondence accusing me of being “politically correct” (that terrible thing it is so incorrect to be nowadays) because I had suggested, in the mildest possible way, that REH’s depiction of the black-skinned, sexually predatory and cannibalistic Yagas has racist overtones. Well, in my view, it has, and I didn’t draw that opinion from a bank of statements pre-approved by some central committee. If we entertain, for the sake of argument, the idea that I am right about this, what does it mean about how we read REH?

It means we read REH the same way we read anyone else: in two different ways, simultaneously. Umberto Eco famously dubbed these two readers the naive reader and the sophisticated reader. The naive reader wants the hero to kill the bad guy and marry the space-princess (or space-prince, or what have you). The sophisticated reader is muttering, “Yes, this is much like the plot Burroughs used, with overtones of Hamlet and the occasional oblique reference to postmodernism which is de rigueur for self-consciously retrogenerical pastiche, n’est-ce pas?” The naive reader just wants to sit back and enjoy the movie. The sophisticated reader is the guy sitting in the row behind who won’t STFU. More beyond the jump, in which JE does not STFU

The Spider Revival Part 2: City of Doom

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Spider-CityOfDoomLast week, I reviewed the first volume in Baen’s trade paperback reprints of the adventures of Norvell Page’s grisly pulp hero, The Spider. Now, I plunge into the violent maelstrom of … The Spider: City of Doom!

The three novels reprinted in this volume are The City Destroyer, The Faceless One, and The Council of Evil. The City Destroyer, which Page submitted under the title Crumbling Doom, is the earliest of Baen’s reprinted Spider stories, published originally in the January 1935 issue of The Spider. It also appeared in Pocket Books’ reformatted (with pointless modernizing) series in the ‘70s. It ranks as one of the Norvell Page’s best-written works, but it has an ugly timeliness that dulls the edge of the absurdist fantasy and may unsettle some readers. In the opening chapter the villain, decked out with the bland handle “The Master,” steals the secret for a metal-corroding dust. Richard Wentworth thinks the Master plans to use the chemical invention to break into bank vaults, but he should know that his adversaries don’t think that small. Instead of wasting time with piddling safes, the Master uses the chemical to knock down entire New York skyscrapers, killing thousands of people. His first target is New York’s newest, tallest building, and the writing dwells for a few pages on a gruesome depiction of the skyscraper’s collapse and the gory aftermath, complete with fleeing crowds, a dust cloud pluming over the Manhattan skyline, and trapped people trying to escape certain death in a crumbling tower.

Uhm … not a pleasant memory. At times, our world and that of the pulps share tragic similarities. Amidst the Great Depression and staring toward an oncoming second world war, pulp authors occasionally tapped into an insecurity not far removed from our own. The City Destroyer delivers more fear and tension than any thriller you’ll find on the recent bestseller lists, but new readers should be prepared for moments of queasy familiarity. It isn’t much of a nostalgia trip, and even the Spider’s heroics can’t halt an obscene death toll. I would conservatively estimate that seven thousand people perish during this story.

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Life in a kingdom

Monday, December 8th, 2008 | Posted by Judith Berman

I currently live in a kingdom–not a modern constitutional monarchy like Great Britain, but a genuine old-fashioned kingdom. It is not very much like those portrayed in a great deal of fantasy fiction. Of course, I don’t live at court, whether as a palace servant or a knight-in-training or an apprentice to a royal wizard. I live nowhere near the palace, though I have once or twice gotten lost and turned onto roads that have taken me nearby. There is no road sign stating that the large and ornate building is the palace and I only know because someone told me. Someone also told me that the little neighborhood of low-rise houses near the palace, which look newer and cleaner than the housing for most Dubai non-professional workers, is where the palace servants live.

Crown Prince Hamdan

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The appeal of adventure fantasy

Sunday, December 7th, 2008 | Posted by Theo

I have been asked to contribute to group blogs before, but had never seriously contemplated actually accepting an invitation to join one. I already have a perfectly fine blog, after all, and there’s not exactly a shortage of interesting discussions taking place on a regular basis in the comments there. However, I have long been a Black Gate subscriber and I very much admire John O’Neill’s determination to sustain the art of the adventure fantasy as well as the literary talent of certain writers he has published in the magazine. So, it was with no small degree of enthusiasm that I decided to unearth the olde leather armour and join this small, but intrepid band of adventure-bloggers.

One thing that five years of blogging has taught me is that the number of people interested in discussing fiction is surprisingly small given the obvious fact that everyone in the blogosphere is more or less literate. Non-fiction not only tends to outsell fiction, but discussions about current events, celebrities, politics, sports, and other forms of entertainment tend to draw far more readers than discussions of fiction, let alone fiction that is not in the form of a current, best-selling novel that is in the process of being made into a movie.  A post reviewing a great novel won’t draw one-twentieth the comments of one criticizing the public statements of a media personage.  And yet, for all that it is a sub-genre within a disreputable literary ghetto, adventure fantasy remains surprisingly influential outside of the historical book world.

Summa ElveticaIn addition to being an author – my latest novel is Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controvesy – I am also a game designer. And I have to admit, I scoffed when two years ago, a friend of mine told me that he was involved in the development of an MMO based on Conan. I can remember telling him that while the IP was both well-known and chock full of content, I didn’t think it was much of a license upon which to build a very expensive game. I thought EA and Mythic had the right idea with Warhammer, since that was a brand that was still active, with which people were not only familiar, but which drove them to annually purchase millions of dollars worth of minis, books, and diverse other products. But Conan? Who cared about Conan? He was retired and governing California these days, he wasn’t lopping off Turanian heads while rescuing curvacious, sloe-eyed princesses anymore.  One successful MMO launch and 750,000 Age of Conan subscribers later, my friend enjoyed a good laugh as I admitted that my pronouncement of inevitable doom had probably been just a bit misplaced. This is not to say that AoC did not eventually run into a few difficulties or that it cannot eventually go the way of Tabula Rasa, but these issues are totally unrelated to the fundamental level of interest in low fantasy in general and the Hyborean Age of Conan in particular.

Whilst I tend to favor high fantasy as a writer, I have long harbored a genuine affection for the grimmer and darker nature of low fantasy as well as the romantic swashbuckling of adventure fantasy. Nor am I alone in this; Umberto Eco’s very literary novel, La Misteriosa Fiamma della Regina Loana, contains a long section of sentimental tribute to the favorites of his long-vanished youth, including Salgari, Dumas, Flash Gordon, and the Fascist adventure strips of Il Corriere dei Piccoli. Adventure fantasy may be dismissed as inherently childish by those who would rather read about the boring miseries of modern adults, but if that is the case, we who still take pleasure in a ripping good adventure should be thankful that some small portion of the innocent past has survived in our stained and jaded souls.

The Prisoner

Saturday, December 6th, 2008 | Posted by Soyka

I just became aware that there is a 40th anniversary edition of the cult classic television series The Prisoner. I don’t know what this edition offers that wasn’t available in the previous DVD release a few years ago, though I am certain there will eventually be 45th and 50th edition versions to continually repackage the same content. I’m actually old enough to remember when the series first appeared on American television in the summer of 1968. If you aren’t, you might not appreciate what it was like to not only have original programming in a realm of reruns, but programming that was actually truly original. While the program definitely reflects the counter culturalism of the period, in both garb and attitude, this doesn’t distract from it (as it does with say, the original Star Trek). Like The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner deals with themes that are as relevant to the Internet culture today, maybe more so, even while some of its visual references may be at times painfully archaic.

For more of my own observations on this one-of-a-kind (so much so that efforts to “re-imagine” the program as either a movie or a television series have failed; one reason why a remake like Battlestar Gallactica is so good is because the original was so bad, which is not an advantage you’d have here) you can visit here and here and here and here.

‘On Thud and Blunder’ — Thirty Years Later

Friday, December 5th, 2008 | Posted by Bill Ward

. . . writers who’ve had no personal experience with horses tend to think of them as a kind of sports car.

Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson

It’s been thirty years since Poul Anderson wrote his essay on the need for realism in heroic fantasy, ‘On Thud and Blunder,’ which you can read in its entirety at the SFWA site, and I think it holds up well even though the genre — and the perception of it — has changed greatly. ‘On Thud and Blunder’ originally appeared in the third installment of Andrew Offutt’s classic anthology series Swords Against Darkness; though it was in the excellent, if unimaginatively named, collection of Anderson’s called Fantasy that I first encountered it. But already at the time of my reading a whole generation of writers had made a name for themselves by following the dictates of realism and common sense in designing their fantasy worlds.

The essay begins with a satire of the genre that features a barbarian cleaving through armor with a fifty-pound sword and riding a horse as if it were a motorbike, among other ridiculous things. It’s the kind of thing that gave heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery a bad name, and perhaps the sort of thing that meant it would soon be eclipsed by a rising tide of ‘high fantasy’ in the eighties and nineties. But, in 1978, hf — as Anderson terms heroic fantasy in an abbreviation that seems to have never caught on — was an emerging star:

Today’s rising popularity of heroic fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery as it is also called, is certainly a Good Thing for those of us who enjoy it. Probably this is part of a larger movement back toward old-fashioned storytelling, with colorful backgrounds, events, and characters, tales wherein people do take arms against a sea of troubles and usually win. Such literature is not inherently superior to the introspective or symbolic kinds, but neither is it inherently inferior; Homer and James Joyce were both great artists.

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Forgive Me, Steven, For I Have Sinned . . .

Thursday, December 4th, 2008 | Posted by ScottOden

“Man, you have got to read this book!”  The words came in a breathless rush, from a friend whose opinion I trusted.  “It’s better than Gates of Fire!” he said, thrusting a rather thick volume into my hands.

Now, most everyone who knows me understands that I have two literary idols, one dead and one living: Robert E. Howard and Steven Pressfield.  They are the prophets of my personal pantheon; their words, their stories, have no equal.  Thus, for him to come up to me and say he’d found a book better than Pressfield’s Gates of Fire was pure heresy, like taking a tinkle on the Bible.  “Impossible!” I replied, holding the book away from my body as though its touch was enough to cause spiritual pollution.

“Read it! You’ll see!”

Color me skeptical . . . and more than a little eager to prove my friend wrong. I accepted his challenge and dug into it that very afternoon, expecting I’d call him up in an hour or so and curse him for taking Pressfield’s name in vain. But I couldn’t. That book had sucked me in.

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Sword Against Slug: Robert E. Howard’s Almuric

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008 | Posted by James Enge

In the old days, when sheep were sheep and ewes were embraceable, genres tended to ossify pretty fast. But no genre-formula became so formulaic so fast as sword-and-planet. Burroughs set the pattern with A Princess of Mars: a lone American (not a Canadian–not a Ugandan–not a Lithuanian–an American) is mysteriously plunged into an exotic other world which is both more advanced and more primitive than the earth he knows. He conquers all by virtue of his heroism and marries the space princess. In the inevitable sequel the pitiless author will somehow compel him do it all again, sometimes under another name. This sounds like mere mockery, and of all subgenres sword-and-planet may be the most mockable (one has but to mention the magic syllable “Gor” to banish all useful thought), but when well-done it can be a blast. Burroughs’ Barsoom books are still being read, are still being filmed and name-checked in other media, and not because of his melodious prose style or his thoughts on the eternal verities; somehow the pattern he hit on (and partly appropriated) rang people’s bell, and continues to ring it. Figuring out why wouldn’t be a waste of anyone’s time, even if the books are not a matter of high seriousness.

In this genre or subgenre, Almuric is of special interest, because it is by one of the greatest fantasists of the pulp era, Robert E. Howard. It’s also interesting as one of REH’s few booklength works and, it seems, his only experiment at building an entire secondary world. Although the story (like much of REH’s work) is now in the public domain and available online, I read the novel in Planet Stories’ new edition and I recommend that anyone really interested in the book do the same. I say this not because the publisher has paid me an enormous illicit bribe (although I will accept one if offered). The online texts are mostly poor transcriptions littered with many obvious proofreading slips (e.g. “forward” and “foreward” for “foreword”; “premediatated” for “premeditated”, etc.–and that’s on the first two screens of this one). In contrast, Planet’s text is clean and readable; there’s an interesting introduction by Joe Lansdale and a great cover in the Jeff Jones tradition by Andrew Hou.

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The Spider Revival, Part 1: Robot Titans of Gotham

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

spider-robot-titans-of-gothamIf you have never met the most notorious of all pulp magazine heroes — The Spider, Master of Men! — then Baen Books has a deal for you. After a long absence from mass market paperbacks, the Spider returns in two Baen collections The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham and The Spider: City of Doom. The two volumes pack together five of Norvell Page’s best Spider novels, plus a bonus yarn from his madcap typewriter.

(Update: Now there’s a third volume, The Spider vs. The Empire State.)

If you’ve previously met the Spider, you might have read some of these adventures from reprints in the Carroll & Graf series. Buy these new books anyway; I want Baen to feed us more.

As for you newcomers, I feel obliged to give you fair warning about the Spider. Otherwise you might wonder after reading one of these stories, “Was Norvell Page completely insane?” No, he was a professional pulp writer. Which may come down to the same thing, when you consider the deadlines. But even for the crazy world of the cheap paper story magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, the zenith years of this lost world of fiction, Page’s tales of the Spider are so overloaded with outrageous violence and fear, and so under-stocked with logic and elementary structuring, that it seems the author wrote them after shooting more heroin than Popeye Doyle confiscated in The French Connection.

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