Celebrating 103 Years of REH

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009 | Posted by ScottOden

Today (the 22nd) marks the 103rd anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth.  Surely we all know his biography by now: born in the tiny Texas town of Peaster, the only child of Dr. and Mrs. Issac Howard, a voracious reader who grew into a formidable man — and a legendary writer.  Like Tolkien with epic fantasy, REH is credited with the creation of the modern sub-genre of heroic fantasy — sometimes called sword-and-sorcery.  His stories — action-adventure, sports, westerns, supernaturals, fantasy, and historical . . . well over a million words from his first sale in 1925 until his death in 1936 — have influenced a generation of writers.  Whether it was his intent or not, REH has achieved the sort of immortality the ancient Egyptians craved: a man was accounted immortal if his name outlived the ages.

And so, in praise of Robert E. Howard’s life and work, let us each share our three favorite tales.

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Meet Genre Doe: Definitions of SF/F

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

Once, before I gave up arguing with anyone, I was arguing with someone and I wrote, “Science fiction is just a form of fantasy with stricter (but slightly inconsistent) rules. Fantasy fiction takes place in a world which does not exist, operating on principles chosen by the author; science fiction takes place in a world which doesn’t exist but might, operating on the principles of science as we understand it (with some cheating allowed in the form of time travel, FTL drives, Amazing Mental Powers etc).”

They weren’t impressed, as far as I could tell. Anyway, now I’d alter those formulations a little:

Fantasy is a mode of storytelling where all or part of a story takes place in a world which permits events that are impossible.

Science fiction is a genre of fantasy in which impossible events require some sort of scientific account or rationalization.

Science fantasy is a genre of fantasy that uses elements from science and technology but in which some impossible events are explicitly not given an adequate scientific account or rationalization.

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The Return of the King (1980)

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Barad-dûrThe Return of the King (ABC TV, 1980)

Directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. Featuring the Voices of John Huston, Roddy McDowall, Orson Bean, William Conrad, Casey Casem, Theodore Gottlieb, Theodore Bikel, Glenn Yarbrough, Paul Frees

“Listen as we speak of the fall of the Lord of Darkness, and the return of a King of Light.”

The novel The Lord of the Rings has had an important place in my life even before I actually read it in ninth grade. As a young child, I already loved monsters and tales of fantasy, and my parents were glad to feed my monster obsession. They both knew about the books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (although neither had read them) and told me their pages were filled with dragons and trolls and all sorts of wonderful beasties; they showed me the Greg and Tim Hildebrandt calendars to whet my appetite. At age five, I had my first “Tolkien” experience with the television broadcast of the animated movie The Hobbit from Rankin/Bass. My mother then read the book to me. The moment I was old enough, I read it for myself. The enormity of The Lord of the Rings was still too far off, but there were movie versions to fill the gap. I was confused but somewhat dazzled by the odd, unfinished The Lord of the Rings film by Ralph Bakshi when it premiered on cable, but it was the 1980 animated television movie The Return of the King that really gave me a sense of what the epic novel was about.

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Adventure Fantasy in the Children’s Section: Rick Riordan

Monday, January 19th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

My first encounter with mythology was, so far as I can remember, via an older brother’s copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942). In retrospect the title is presumptuous, as it covers only only the Greek, Roman and Norse mythoi, but at the time I didn’t know how many cultures around the world had traditional stories about gods, monsters, and, sometimes, human heroes encountering them. Moreover, as I later came to understand, her sources for these most familiar versions of the Greek stories (other than Homer) were often the Roman retellings dating to the pomo Imperium–were what we might now call fantastic literature rather than genuine myth. Be that as it may, these were my first myths, and I read all I could get my hands on in the children’s section of our library.

So when I opened Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, it was with a sense of coming home, in the best possible way. The central premise of the hugely entertaining book and its nearly as enjoyable sequels (titled collectively Percy Jackson and the Olympians) is that the Greek gods, and all the monsters of Greek myth as well, are as active today as in antiquity. Since Olympus follows Western civilization around, it currently occupies the six-hundred-and-sometieth floor of the Empire State Building in Manhattan. The Greek gods are still as, er, prone to falling in love with mortal women as ever, with all the resulting demigod heroes/troublemakers you might expect. However, because demigods have such a poor prospect of reaching adulthood, the Olympians have set up a summer camp on Long Island, called Camp Half-Blood, where prospective heroes can learn survival skills and train for heroic quests. Now, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades took a vow after World War II to abstain from unions with mortal women, because their offspring had come so close to destroying civilization entirely. Think they succeeded in their vow? Meanwhile, there’s a prophecy around regarding a child of one of the Big Three, as they are known, such that every monster and minion of Kronos (who is scheming to reassemble himself and escape Tartarus) is out hunting for such a child in order to destroy him or her.

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An overlooked gem

Sunday, January 18th, 2009 | Posted by Theo

The Panther\'s HoardMedia tie-in and brand series novels are rightly viewed somewhat askance by many fantasy readers.  While they’re valuable for piquing the interest of those who come to fantasy literature through other mediums, the quality of the fiction within them seldom rises to the average level of the genre.  For example, while the original Dragonlance Chronicles and the Dragonlance Legends trilogy are good, solid fantasy fiction, very few of the great mass of Dragonlance-branded books, most of which were written by authors named neither Weis nor Hickman, make for interesting reads. (I must make an exception here for the three Dragonlance Dragons anthologies, however.)

It’s not unreasonable to overlook those writers who are chiefly known for their sharecropping of fertile intellectual properties, but it’s not always justified.  Lovers of low fantasy in particular would be remiss to dismiss one such writer to whom long-time readers of Black Gate will not be unfamiliar.  In 1994, Nancy Varian Berberick, who contributed the story “Scatheling” to Issue 4, published an excellent novel entitled The Panther’s Hoard which revolved around the same character who features in the Black Gate story, the dwarven skald Garroc.

It’s not an easy book to find on the shelves, and its relative unavailability forces one to conclude it did not sell terribly well, but then, this has been the fate of many a lesser book.  Berberick is, quite simply, a much better writer than most in the field, and her mastery of Old English lends her fictional world a versimilitude that is often lacking in most books of this sort.  Both the cover art and the title of The Panther’s Hoard are perhaps a little unfortunate, as they tend to lead the casual observer to expect a rather different sort of book than one in fact encounters.  But, one can safely say that no fan of either low fantasy or adventure fantasy is likely to be disappointed should he take the time to track down Ms Berberick’s excellent work.

Obits and Chicks

Saturday, January 17th, 2009 | Posted by Soyka

By now, you probably have heard of the passing of Ricardo Montalbán and Patrick McGoohan. I was never into Fantasy Island, which struck me as the usual lame TV schtick. But Montalbán notably helped resurrect the Star Trek franchise with The Wrath of Khan, perhaps the best of all the Star Trek movies. This was all the more remarkable because it followed the disastrous muck of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was, well, a lame amalgamation of the lame schtick that characterized much of the original television series.  (Please don’t send me any nasty notes; after the first season, which borrowed from actual science fiction stories and had some interest, everything just got a bit silly.  The only thing sillier is people who dress up like the characters and invest pseudo-philosophical religious significance in the whole pointy ear thing.)  Supposedly in real life, Montalbán was just as classy a guy as he seemed on the screen.  Here’s hoping they line Ricardo’s coffin with fine Corinthian leather, he more than deserves it.

Now, what was decidedly not the usual lame television dross was McGoohan’s contributions as the star and creative force of The Prisoner, which I noted in my inaugural post to this blog. (Of course, it’s coincidental that McGoohan died shortly thereafter, though this isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to me. As a fledgling journalist during the height of the jogging craze in the late 1970s, I did a story about a man who had taken up marathon running after suffering a number of heart attacks. The day the story ran, the guy dropped dead of a massive coronary. And, yes, while running. Though I can only think of only one other better way of going.) Like the character of Number Six, McGoohan seemed to be someone who lived by his principles, regardless of what what was more popularly embraced by the masses, and there’s something we don’t seem to hear much of these days.  In addition to turning down the chance to play James Bond, McGoohan also refused to depict any kind of physical relationship on screen with a woman, evidently for moral reasons, which is kind of funny in light of The Prisoner’s seeming celebration of 1960’s countercultural values.  Also, according to one remembrance, McGoohan turned down the screen roles of Gandalf and Dumbledore! He would have been perfect for both.
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A Look at Planet Hulk

Friday, January 16th, 2009 | Posted by Bill Ward

I’m not what you’d call a comics guy — I don’t have a set of first editions in acid-free bags in the closet, I couldn’t tell you who the Fantastic Four are, or even distinguish between Marvel and DC (though I’m pretty sure Spiderman is in one camp, and Batman in the other). But I’ve always liked and respected the medium, and the rise of the graphic novel has made sampling the best of what comics has to offer convenient for casual fans like me. So, when I spotted a recommendation in an online forum for Planet Hulk, a graphic novel in which the big green superhero takes on the role of John Carter in a sword and planet epic, I was intrigued, and made an impulse purchase. I’m glad I did.

Planet Hulk is a compilation of Hulk #92-105, with further material from other special releases, and a wealth of supplemental art and background info rounding out a hefty hardcover. Lifted straight from the comic, Planet Hulk is clearly a slice of the ongoing story of the Hulk; a story of which I was wholly ignorant before jumping into this graphic novel. But that didn’t prove to be a problem.

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A Bout of Aboutness: Urban Fantasy and Sword-and-Planet

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

The Zeitgeist has been tying its ectoplasm in knots lately about urban fantasy. Here’s Lilith Saintcrow, underdefining the genre in a recent guest column at Pat’s Hotlist (with a followup at her own site):

Chicks kicking ass. Well, leather-clad chicks kicking ass. Leather-clad chicks kicking ass in an urban environment where some form of “magic” is part of the world. There. That’s about it.

But that’s not all there is to it.

Certainly not, but that really may be the central genre-defining element. I was thinking about this while reading Justina Robson’s excellent Keeping It Real recently. The book kept reminding me of sword-and-planet–with the gender polarities reversed.

I was reading buckets of sword-and-planet last year (some of which I reviewed in this space) and it constantly occurred to me that the aboutness of these books is concerned with male identity: they present idealized images of the lone male adventurer. For Edgar Rice Burroughs, the idealized image was that of an immortal Virginia gentleman. For Robert E. Howard, a man somewhere midway between the barbarism he considered man’s natural state and the aspirations of human intellect. For Otis Adelbert Kline, he’s a down-on-his-luck member of the American aristocracy. For some other three-initialled author the idealized image might be somewhat different, but they share some core similarities.

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On DVD: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

First things first: Happy Birthday, Clark Ashton Smith!

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
Directed by Rob Cohen
Starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang

On my own blog, I’ve done a set of weekly reviews surveying all the movies in Universal’s classic Mummy franchise. Just as I finished up this lengthy project, the most recent entry in the second Universal Mummy franchise, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, arrived on DVD, so it seemed an ideal time to take a look at it.

Except… no mummies appear in this “Mummy movie.” The film earns the first part of its title because it features ongoing characters from the two legitimate Mummy flicks that proceeded it, The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001). But there’s no Egypt aside from a bar called “Imhotep’s,” and no mummified anything. We instead have an immortal Chinese Emperor/Wizard who breaks free from a terracotta shell, but that isn’t a mummy in my definition. The visual effects try to give him a mummified appearance when he’s still in his clay-like form, but sorry, still not a mummy.

But then, the second series of Universal mummy movies were never about the particulars of the classic horror-movie undead Egyptian, but about copying Indiana Jones, old adventure serials, pulp magazines, and adding wiseacre humor to attract the widest audience possible. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is perhaps the most pulpish of the four films in the series (I’m including the 2002 sword-and-sorcery spin-off The Scorpion King), and fans of pulp fantasy will find it interesting.

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More Thoughts on Realism and Fantasy

Monday, January 12th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

Though I’ve understood since childhood that not everybody shared my love of the fantastic, it wasn’t until quite a ways into my adult years that I realized this must be in large part due to differences in how people’s imaginations operate. One spur to this realization was an on-air comment by a local arts-and-culture talk show host that she couldn’t get into a book where things happened that couldn’t in real life (yes, a statement we could unpack at length). At the time I was observing my young son discover stories. It was clear to me that he derived some of the greatest pleasure from precisely those things that never could happen in real life. Moreover, the stories he invented to tell me from two years onward (which I wrote down whenever I could) were gleefully fantastic: night being stolen, his father putting on breasts, the street sucking our house off its foundations. From watching his friends I also was able to see that not all kids do love the fantastic equally; he was close to one end of some bell curve. When the differences show up so early, they start to look like something innate.

The term mimesis is sometimes used to describe techniques of realistic fiction–as imitation, in other words, of something that already exists. All kinds of questions occur here with regard to how people, whether adults or small children, form judgments about what real life consists of and what constitutes an imitation of it, or a violation of its principles. Many of these principles are culturally constituted. Laura Bohannon’s much-anthologized article, “Shakespeare in the Bush,” describes how the Tiv rejected Hamlet as unacceptably unrealistic, on the basis of, among other things, the motivations of nearly every character. Others arise out of an individual’s experience. For those born with synaesthesia, there would be nothing at all unreal about descriptions of numbers possessing color, or (my own case) sounds having a tactile component.

According to Wikipedia, imagination is a “term is technically used in psychology for the process of reviving in the mind, percepts of objects formerly given in sense perception.” In this view, in other words, imagination is mimetic in the purest sense–it “revives in the mind” what one has already experienced. I suspect that the psychologists initially formulating this definition shared the type of imagination described by our talk-show host. For others like my son and myself, the mind is just as prone, or more so, to gravitate to things that one hasn’t experienced, that violate the expectations and principles of real life. The Calvin cartoon in which he has to fend off an attack by his breakfast oatmeal is iconic for me in this regard.

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