Monday, April 30, 2018

God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World #1

When perennial loser and MMO junkie Kazuma Satou dies trying to save a girl from a runaway tractor, he finds himself in the waiting room of heaven, where, after a goddess roasts him for being an idiot, she gives him a choice. Kazuma can enter heaven, or take a continue in an MMO-inspired world as an adventurer. Kazuma naturally chooses the second option, complete with the customary choice of a starting cheat in the form of a legendary item or skill. Wanting to wipe the smug smirk from the goddess’s face, Kazuma selects her as his special perk. After all, what could be more powerful in a game than a goddess? To her horror, heaven agrees to his request and sends them both to the fantasy world. Now Kazuma and the goddess Aqua must quest to defeat the Demon King before either can return home.
Written by Natsume Akatsuki, the first volume of God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World (hereafter KonoSuba) takes delight in upending expectations in a loving but humorous take on the isekai alternate world and litRPG genres. A loser in life, Kazuma should be an unbeatable hero in the new world, according to the conventions of litRPG isekai stories. Instead, he is stuck with poor stats, an even weaker class, no money, bad luck, and Aqua (the last three are somewhat synonymous). While he is clever, he is forced to kludge desperate plans of last resort based around the foibles of his party, instead of relying on the cheat powers granted supernaturally to other protagonists. But bad luck (and Aqua) keep him at the lowest rungs of the adventurer’s guild. His first meeting with Aqua begs for a Magical Girlfriend subplot, complete with First Girl Wins tropes, as usually happens when a lovable loser tells a goddess he wants her by his side. But neither can stand each other, and their forced cooperation proves burdensome for both sides. Look for latent sexual tension elsewhere. But more importantly, KonoSuba allows its characters, particularity the females, to have faults.
In the 2000s, the conventions of harems, moe endearing cuteness, and erotic visual novels swept through anime, manga and light novels with disastrous effect on characterization. Fully realized characters with talents, foibles, and faults were replaced by inoffensive and non-threatening collections of quirks and impossibly glamorous and complex hair. Maybe a tragic backstory might be added if the audience is supposed to cry. Here, the girls keep their flaws. Aqua is a vain, selfish, spiteful showoff, whose divine interventions only make situations worse for Kazuma and his party. Arch-wizard Megumin is stuck in eighth-grade delusions of grandeur. Sure, this junior higher with an unwarranted sense of superiority puts the Explosion in nuclear explosion, but she can only cast it once a day–and refuses to cast anything else. And while their crusader Darkness is a sturdy and unyielding tank, not only can this centerfold not hit anything with her sword, she’s a Fifty Shades of Grey/John Ringo type of girl, much to the discomfort of everyone around her. For once in an isekai, a protagonist actively avoids romantic entanglements with his party. Perhaps the only character who doesn’t show her faults at first is Wiz, the pretty, kind, motherly, and well-mannered Lich, who serves as a foil for Aqua’s divine folly. But Wiz will soon have problems of her own.
The illustrations that accompany the light novel are subdued when compared to the later anime release. Certainly comics quality, but lacking the contrasts, distinct lines, and fanservice of the animation. And the translation is eminently readable, unlike many mid-tier light novels brought over to English audiences. Having physically recoiled from wonky word order and choppy prose from other professional translations (and a score of fan translations), I am pleased to see that Yen Press continues to set the standard for light novel readability. They certainly preserved the pacing and humor of the original Japanese.
KonoSuba is so wrapped up in spoofing the stories found in OverlordSlayersLove, Chuunibyou and Other Delusions; and Oh My Goddess! that newcomers to the light novel genres parodies within might miss out on the gags. Of course, the audience drawn to light novels is somewhat self-selecting and usually familiar with the tropes within, but other obstacles exist. Despite his flashes of brilliance, Kazuma never escapes the role that the comedy confines him to, that of being a loser. This limits his appeal to many younger readers. After all, what kid wants to look up to a shut-in MMO raider? And the admittedly light litRPG touch still feels like an intrusion, with talk of levels, skills, quests, and guilds disrupting the comedy. Mechanically, there’s not much crunch here, unlike the detailed stat-sheets of American litRPG, but there’s also not much originality to the player parties, as the traditional fighter-rogue-priest-mage setup features prominently. But then, the appeal of KonoSuba is in its characters and humor, not the munchkin-ing of its rule set.
Like many light novels, KonoSuba is for fans by a fan, but at least it attempts something more novel than the traditional power fantasy of male-oriented isekai. Unfortunately, as the series progresses, the originality is slowly smothered by the conventions of isekai litRPG. Veterans know the deal, hot springs scenes, maid and butler play, and the whole pervert’s symphony of misunderstood and compromising situations. These familiar set pieces and stock characters replace the humor more and more as the series wears on. Even as he grows in competence, Kazuma never shakes the assigned role of loser, and the underlying message hammered home by Aqua’s taunting and the fantasy world’s secret history is that if you’re a loser in one world, you’re a loser in all. A subversion of isekai power creep to be sure, but Kazuma consistently gets dragged back from the blessings of becoming an ordinary average guy by the anchor that is Aqua.
If you are a fan of the anime or of similar stories, check out the entire series. But if you are just interested in checking out what the average light novel or foreign pulp reads like, stick to the first volume and pretend KonoSuba is a one-shot.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Elric Vol. 1: The Ruby Throne

Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné has enjoyed a storied history in comics. First portrayed in a 1971 bande dessinee, Elric next appeared in America alongside Conan the Barbarian. Over the next forty-five years and more, he has continued to wander from issue to issue and publisher to publisher to the delight of comics readers. Most recently, Elric returned to bande dessinee in 2014’s celebrated Elric: The Ruby Throne, the first of a projected four volume series. Written by Julien Blondel, this adaptation, in the words of Moorcock, “is the saga of the Albino I would have written myself if I had thought of it first.”
The story is simple, but utterly disastrous for all in Melniboné. After millennia of dominance and centuries of decline, Elric, the prophesied last king of Melniboné, sits in a funk on the Ruby Throne, his strength sustained only by foul arcane magics. As his city languishes in a decadence where lifeblood flows freer than wine, his cousin Yyrkoon agitates to Make Melniboné Feared Again. The massing of viking-like barbarians on the seas bring Elric and Yyrkoon to an agreement of purpose, and the cousins rout the invaders. But Yyrkoon used the invasion as a pretext to drown Elric and seize the Ruby Throne. The sea refuses to claim the White Demon of Melniboné, and Elric returns to his home to take back the throne.
The ensuing fight feeds all the souls of Melniboné, slave and slaver alike, to demons.
The Ruby Throne‘s artwork rates among the best I have had the privilege to review. Most of the previous bandes dessinees I have read indulge in vibrant reds and blues. Colorist Jean Bastitde instead makes grey and gold the standout colors of the palette. The illustrations are a collaboration between Robin Recht and Didier Poli, combining both styles in every panel. Stylized fantasy armor and realistic human figures blend together for disturbing portrayals of the callousness around Elric. Moorcock himself prefers this version of Elric as it best captures the casually cruel decadence of Melniboné. Coming from a creative culture that in the 90s wallowed in shock and in the 00s indulged in a penchant for torture porn, I am amazed at the restraint even as I am disgusted by the cruel indulgence in the suffering of others.
Melniboné is the sort of decadently cruel paradise that gets scourged time and again in recent fantasy, such as Red Seas Under Red Skies and even Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Mostly by writers promoting new moralities that lead inevitably toward Melniboné. Whether known as Melniboné, Omelas, or Canto Bight, this aristocratic paradise built on proletariat suffering reoccurs constantly. But the answer proposed to deal with its evil shifts over time, including the oppressed accepting a place as the new oppressors, getting away from it all, reform from within, and destruction from without. Within the context of these stories, this is framed as virtue struggling against vice. From the audience’s seat, more often these stories resemble little more than turf wars as yakuza replaces mafiosi replaces yakuza in a constant wave of rebellion that never stops to consider what to replace evil with, only who gets to push in whose eyeballs and lick clean the blood. (A scene illustrated inside The Ruby Throne.) Moorcock and Blondel avoid the hypocrisy inherent in most versions of this myth by framing it as a civil war among the forces of Chaos, with no respite from the evils inflicted on the servile. There are no righteous here, not one.
I’ll be honest, reading this was like getting an eyeful of Hell, with evil deeds done by evil men for evil reasons. And I know I’m not supposed to like it and that disgust is the intended effect. Demons exist, often in human skin and the talent of Team Elric is to turn craftsmanship towards repulsion and horror without resorting to the grotesque. The result is to turn Melniboné into a more vivid depiction of Hell in comics than that found in the excellent Sandman: Season of MistsThe Ruby Throne is an unsettling read, made even worse by the revelation that Moorcock was struggling with the weighty issues of Britain’s decline and somehow in his search for answers made 2+2 equal 6. I can appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship of the story and the art, both steeped in canons long discarded by our contemporaries. I don’t have to enjoy it, though.
Like with Barracuda, your own enjoyment may well depend on your tolerance of grimdark. Make no mistake, earlier SFF stories are just as violent and dark. But The Ruby Throne replaces the weighty fear of the unknown with the more personal fear of man, and that is a more harrowing thing. I would freely recommend The Ruby Throne to fans of Elric’s print adventures. To those who are more squeamish, or are responsible for children and adolescents, I recommend flipping through an online preview or library copy before purchasing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Buck Danny: The Secrets of the Black Sea

Ever since the Red Baron's Flying Circus swept the skies clean of enemy planes, readers across the world have been captivated by the exploits of military aviators, real and fictional. When the newspapers weren't singing the praises of Chuck Yeager, Eddie Rickenbacker, Robin Olds, and Duke Cunningham, the pulps churned out flying ace after flying ace, and the movies glorified the Right Stuff and the dogfight. Whether God is My Co-Pilot, The Flying Tigers, the Black Sheep Squadron, or even some whiny volleyball player named Maverick, audiences could not get enough of an impressive parade of tall, handsome fighter jocks. But overseas in France, unknown to many of his contemporaries, the greatest American ace is the comic hero Colonel Buck Danny, United States Navy.

I'll wait a moment for all the old salts to regain their composure.

Despite the odd and distinctly un-naval rank, for seventy years Buck Danny has been flying everything from P-40 Warhawks with Chennault's Flying Tigers, F-104 Starfighters, the X-15, F-14 Tomcats with the Navy, and most recently, F-22 Raptors with the Air Force, always with a Sergeant Major's eye for realistic detail and procedure. A veteran of every American war from World War Two in the Pacific to today's War in Afghanistan, Buck Danny's career has been frequently split between the Navy and the Air Force in pursuit of adventure and the hottest airframes available. It's easiest to think of this Navy recruit as an Air Force officer on loan to the Navy, just like his ever-present wingmen actually are. And in The Secrets of the Black Sea, the Navy sends Colonel Danny as a liaison to the Soviet Union in the last days of perestroika and glasnost, just before the coup attempt that signaled the end of the Soviet Union.

Friday, April 20, 2018


“No mercy! For anyone! Ever!”–Raffy, Barracuda Vol. 1: Slaves
When Captain Blackdog of the Barracuda seizes a Spanish galleon on the seas, he finds a map to the hidden Kashar Diamond, slaves, and his son Raffy’s defeat at the hands of the Spanish captain. Blackdog the arrives in Puerto Blanco to trade loot for provisions for a treasure hunt. Meanwhile, the slaves struggle in their new lives. Emilo, a servant, is saved from the worst depredations by dressing as fair Emilia–or as long as “her” secret remains so. Maria, however, finds her status as a nobleman’s daughter to be no shield, as she loses her freedom, her dignity, her mother, and finally her innocence in one harrowing night. Meanwhile, Raffy tries to do what is right by his father, but is wounded again when he attempts to help a scourged slave girl, and again when his father leave him behind.
“No mercy!” is the refrain of Barracuda Vol. 1: Slaves by Jean Dufaux and Jérémy, repeated again and again throughout its pages, its plot, and its art. For framed inside the search for hidden treasure is a story of how the brutality of piracy grinds down three young adults. Maria by far has the worst of it, sold, stripped, and whipped until all that is left to her is fury. No mercy was shown to her, and so she’ll show none. Mercy leads to Raffy’s woundings, as fate punishes his every deviation from a pirate’s ruthlessness with pain and harm. And Emilo is trapped in his petticoats, unable to show mercy else his secret be exposed. Each young adult hardens during his or her stay at Puerto Blanco, and must to survive. But Barracuda does not revel in their pain. Instead, it traps the trio into their roles. For while the ship Barracuda is away, a storm of intrigue will sweep over the cursed port.
I was sold on Barracuda at the first sight of its striking cover. And the pages within lived up to its promise. The character designs are clean and distinct, even when dealing with the rough wrinkles of aged men. Just like many of its contemporary bandes dessinéesBarracuda creates eye-popping effects with the color red. What sets it apart is that its blues and purples are just as vivid, allowing for just as much detail in night and shadow as in day.
Frankly, I found Barracuda to be intense and uneasy reading. Maria’s scourging is enough to sour me on future volumes. But I will give Jean Dufaux and Jérémy credit: they do not revel in shock factor. Maria’s ordeals are horrible ugly affairs in art and in story, as one would expect a slave auction and public flogging to be. Barracudadoes not spare the horror of these dark events–or of the bloodletting elsewhere–but neither does it glorify the cruelty. Harm comes to all, but never in a gratuitous manner. But rarely cushioned either.
While I’d still take Barracuda over most American comics, whether or not you might like this depends on how much grim you like with your darkness.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Wrapping Up the Look at Style

The original purpose of this style series was to weigh in on an off-hand comment elsewhere about using Shakespeare and the King James Bible as a basis for contemporary style. The reasoning behind that comment is that Shakespeare and the King James Bible were the basis of Modern English, so its time to return to the source. My initial objection rested upon the linguistic shift and the subtle differences between Shakespeare's Early Modern English and today's Modern English. (Oh what a difference fifty years makes.) But as I poked into various elements of style, I realized my objection was based on a realization that any discussion of style would only add to the initial selections of Shakespeare and the King James Bible instead of offering alternatives. Fortunately, the investigation proved profitable.

I am in no way suggesting that writers should not read Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Saying that would be attempting to defend the indefensible. Basic cultural literacy demands familiarity with both. And the core claim that Shakespeare and the King James Bible created Modern English is indisputable. My objection rested solely on how the Great Vowel Shift that occurred while Shakespeare was writing tended to obscure the rhyme, meter, and, occasionally, meaning. But I soon learned that rhythm and rhyme were not the only aspects of style.

While exploring rhetorical devices, it soon became clear that Shakespeare and the King James Bible would be excellent sources for learning these advanced grammars. After all, these foundational English works are used time and time again to illustrate specific rhetorical devices. There is more to dynamic language than just cadence, after all.

And if I think that Shakespeare and the King James Bible should be lifelong studies instead of for a season, the distinction is so slight to not merit argument in this matter.

The question now becomes what Modern English works to augment this impressive canon with. Unfortunately, I now have more questions than answers.

I first turned to Poe, as he is the father of contemporary short fiction and an example of the Romanticist roots of pulp. Between Castle of Otranto and Poe's detective fiction, I had been viewing the Romantic period through rose-colored lenses. For while modern mysteries and fantasy originated during this time, so did the simplification of style that led to today's terse, transparent style, sometimes called Hemingway's even as it lacks his longer sentences. B. R. Myers pointed out that the inability to construct the long sentence is one of the leading challenges for today's style-minded writers, unlike in the period between Shakespeare and the Romanticists. Then, the fashion of long, complex sentences nested in series of successive clauses thrived in an era where beauty on the page was unencumbered by the demands of performance and oration. The Romanticists' issue with this style echoed Harrison Ford's complaint about Star Wars' script: "You can type this shit, but you can't say it." Now, thanks to 200+ years of literary fashion, the written word needs to reflect everyday speech. Reconciling the demands of the long sentence with those of the spoken word is now the fundamental challenge of the would-be stylist. And, as the current age continues to be shaped by texting, chat programs, and other social media, to learn complex language, one thing is clear:

You have to go back.

But to where and when?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Myth of Melniboné

Ever since the Canto Bight scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I've been aware of a recurring set piece in fantasy: the destruction of the paradise of the rich. But it wasn't until writing today's review of Elric: The Ruby Throne at Castalia House where I began to put this fantasy into nearly sixty years of context:
Melniboné is the sort of decadently cruel paradise that gets scourged time and again in recent fantasy, such as Red Seas Under Red Skies and even Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Mostly by writers promoting new moralities that lead inevitably toward Melniboné. Whether known as Melniboné, Omelas, or Canto Bight, this aristocratic paradise built on proletariat suffering reoccurs constantly. But the answer proposed to deal with its evil shifts over time, including the oppressed accepting a place as the new oppressors, getting away from it all, reform from within, and destruction from without. Within the context of these stories, this is framed as virtue struggling against vice. From the audience’s seat, more often these stories resemble little more than turf wars as yakuza replaces mafiosi replaces yakuza in a constant wave of rebellion that never stops to consider what to replace evil with, only who gets to push in whose eyeballs and lick clean the blood. (A scene illustrated inside The Ruby Throne.) Moorcock and Blondel avoid the hypocrisy inherent in most versions of this myth by framing it as a civil war among the forces of Chaos, with no respite in the evils inflicted on the servile. There are no righteous here, not one.
Also of note is that the epic retribution intended in each of these scenes falls considerably short, for a rogue is never a crusader and the shades of gray that cloud these tales never clarify into black and white.

It is easy to dismiss this myth of Melniboné as a mere Leftist revenge fantasy, but Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice puts the decadence of the myth of Melniboné in context. A contemporary novel to the Elric stories, You Only Live Twice finds Tiger Tanaka and James Bond discussing declining empires over sake. Tanaka says:
"Now it is a sad fact that I, and many of us in positions of authority in Japan, have formed an unsatisfactory opinion about the British people after the war. You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands...Further, your governments have shown themselves successively incapable of ruling and have handed over effective control of the country to the trade unions, who appear to be dedicated to the principle of doing less and less work for more money. This feather-bedding, this shirking of an honest day's work, is sapping the moral fibre of the British, a quality the world once so much admired. In its place, we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure--gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world."
With an outsider's clarity, Tanaka describes post-war Britain in terms that match in kind to that of the Dragon Isle of Melniboné. This cements the myth of Melniboné as a myth of the decline of the British Empire and a criticism of the malaise among its people, spread by the very trade unionists who were ushering in the malaise. Again, it is common for those attempting to use the myth of Melniboné as a warning to be of the same people creating the myth of Melniboné in real life.

It should be a warning sign that "the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world" wallow nostalgically in the gossip of the doings about American nerd culture.

What Fleming doesn't explain is why a British myth of decline is so loved by the triumphalist American fantasists of the past 50 years. While I have railed against the stain that 1940 left on science fiction, time and time again I return to the 1970s as an even more pivotal and destructive period in science fiction and fantasy. And replacing the Lone Gunman with the myth of Melniboné during that time has replaced good meat with thin soy gruel.

Reclaiming quality and fun in science fiction and fantasy not only depends on Pulp Speed and telling better stories. It will also involve challenging these new myths and showing them to be as impotent, unimaginative, and boring.

It's time to gore some sacred cows.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"Tommy" By Rudyard Kipling

Last month's conversation over style brought a renewed interest in poetry to PulpRev authors and critics. Unfortunately, that meant I came back to what is a stumbling block for me. Poetry needs to be heard to be properly appreciated. Unfortunately, there is something about the schoolhouse that turns the reading of lively and playful language into rote doggerel. So I was glad to find a reading of one of Kipling's best-known barrack room ballads that not only sounded like actual speech, it also sounded like many a grousing heard standing in formation.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Long John Silver: Lady Vivian Hastings

He is a child of ink and quill, the figurehead of R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. He has lived on crimes and dreams, knows the galleons of Madeira, the sack of Maracaibo, and the buccaneer uprisings. He will mix gold and blood to seal his destiny, deep inside the lost kingdoms of the Amazon.

He is the last prate. He is the legend, Long John Silver.

--from the back cover of Long John Silver: Lady Vivian Hastings, by Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray

In 1785, Lord Byron Hastings drives his men to collapse in search of Guiana-Capac, a lost city of gold said to rival El Dorado. On the other side of the world, Lady Vivian Hastings, his wife, has taken to amusing herself with dalliances, rationalizing the trysts with claims of widowhood. But when actual word of Lord Hastings' death arrives, Lady Vivian faces penury, pregnancy, and the convent instead of a happy marriage to her paramour. Faced with the unraveling of her schemes, she tries to commandeer her brother-in-law's expedition to Guiana-Capac. For that, she needs sailors--and the help of the dreaded Long John Silver. To get her wealth and her revenge, Lady Vivian and Silver take advantage of the contract for the Neptune, the vessel bearing the expedition. For the expedition's master shall supply half the crew, and the owner of the ship the rest. So it is time to force an old Ottoman sailor to see the light of reason--or the flames of Hell. Set many years after Treasure Island, when Long John Silver stepped out of its pages into legend, Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray draw up a new web of deceit for Silver in this bande dessinée bearing his name.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Electric Duel

I recently came across "The Electric Duel" by Hugo Gernsback while trawling the internet. The science fiction community's relationship with the man who created it is a bit rocky, given Gernsback's agenda and unwillingness to pay writers on time. After reading this, I think there was more to it.

"The Electric Duel" starts as a secondhand recollection of two Italian university students settling a grudge. Rather than using pistols or small swords, they decide to use electrified poles to Airman Larry each other. The end of the duel turns out to be so shocking that the narrator then says he woke up and resolved not to eat before going to bed.

Short fiction is known for the twists and punchlines that upend a reader's understanding of the previous story. "The Electric Duel" is an example of what not to do. For the "it was all a dream" punchline robbed this nightmarish and novel conflict of its gravity and even its story. It's a cheat that, while it fits the formulas and tropes of the time, left me unsatisfied as it betrayed its initial premises.

If Gernsback selected stories like the one he wrote, it is no surprise that science fiction transitioned from a flavor of general fiction to a ghetto of genre underneath his watch. And it would not be the first--or the last--questionable decision by editors of Amazing.

Trying Out a New Toy

Trying out a new blogging toy.

Friday, April 6, 2018

"A Reader's Manifesto"

In his 2001 "A Reader's Manifesto", B. R. Meyers takes five of his contemporary writers to task over how stylish affectations destroyed clarity of thought. While most of his article consists of pointing out just how the sentence cult had poor sentences in technical detail, several of his general observations merit consideration by any student of style--if not outright warnings of future pitfalls. Below are some of Meyers' observations that resonated with me. The entire article is worth reading.


It has become fashionable, especially among female novelists, to exploit the license of poetry while claiming exemption from poetry's rigorous standards of precision and polish.

The decline of American prose since the 1950s is nowhere more apparent than in the decline of the long sentence. Today anything longer than two or three lines is likely to be a simple list of attributes or images.

I doubt that any reviewer in our more literate past would have expected people to have favorite sentences from a work of prose fiction. A favorite character or scene, sure; a favorite line of dialogue, maybe; but not a favorite sentence. We have to read a great book more than once to realize how consistently good the prose is, because the first time around, and often even the second, we're too involved in the story to notice.


Anyone who doubts the declining literacy of book reviewers need only consider how the gabbiest of all prose styles is invariably praised as "lean," "spare," even "minimalist."


At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter's sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison's reply was "That, my dear, is called reading." Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing.

Clumsy writing begets clumsy thought, which begets even clumsier writing. The only way out is to look back to a time when authors had more to say than "I'm a Writer!"; when the novel wasn't just a 300-page caption for the photograph on the inside jacket. A reorientation toward tradition would benefit writers no less than readers. In the early twentieth century it was fashionable in Britain to claim that only a completely new style of writing could address a world undergoing an unprecedented transformation—just as the critic Sven Birkerts claimed in a recent Atlantic Unbound that only the new "aesthetic of exploratory excess" can address a world undergoing ... well, you know. For all that Georgian talk of modernity, it was T. S. Eliot, a man fascinated by the "presence" of the past, who wrote the most-innovative poetry of his time.


The emphasis in the last is mine. Not only does Meyer reinforce canon, he offers hope for the various SFF reformers looking back to the past of Piper, Campbell, and the pulps. To go forward, look back.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

It Ain't Necessarily So...

In response to yesterday's post, The Frisky Pagan takes the received wisdom on Hemingway out to the woodshed:
Now, I don’t think this is the style of today’s popular literature. If anything, Fitzgerald is closer to what is now popular (because it’s more natural) than Hemingway. There’s really nothing natural or short about Hemingway. Oh, sure, he did write some (very famous) short sentences, and you can’t write a whole book only with half-page sentences anyway, and he did play with sequences of short sentences, then followed by unholy, 200-word abominations, but he did NOT write in journalese or like a “telegraph.” It’s true, however, that he had a DIRECT style (and a phobia of commas, I guess,) with little to no abstraction, emotions, or introspective digressions. Perhaps from there his fame of writing concise, direct literature comes from, but you certainly can’t jump from there to “he wrote short, simple, clear sentences, like today’s bestsellers.“
He provides a few examples from Hemingway's writing that do torpedo the claims made yesterday. Or at least show that some strange telephone game happened between what Hemingway's actual technique and what everyone thought he was doing. It isn't the first, and as the Frisky Pagan brings up, it isn't the last:
It’s also clear that writers like those (and there are many) are constricted, terrified of something, so afraid of breaking some unnamed writing law that they mutilate their texts and don’t allow them any freedom. And it gets even worse when action scenes kick in since some fool once said that short sentences enhance the immediacy and strength of action, and now everybody writes stuttering, two or three-word action-scene sentences.
(That fool might be Mary Robinette Kowal.)

The focus on such things is First and Second Things all over again, with good writing using technique, so the use of technique means that this should be good writing. But, when second things get placed first, you don't get first or second things, which explains why, in an age where technique is bandied about online so readily, there's precious little good writing. Here at my blog included.

Anyway, thanks to the Frisky Pagan for setting the record straight in an article well worth reading.

Monday, April 2, 2018

How Did We Get Here?

This long series on style was kicked off by the growing discontentment within some parts of the PulpRev over the current style of invisible prose currently used. So, before I start defending the indefensible this week, let's take a look at how English fiction prose got to its current state. And, like most of the social upheavals of the past century, this change has its roots in the 1920s. Tom Simon explains:
In fact, the most successful experimental writer of the 1920s and thereabouts is not even recognized as experimental anymore, because his experiments succeeded too well. That was Ernest Hemingway. The essence of his genius was to apply ‘telegraphese’, the compressed and allusive language of the transatlantic cable reporters, to the short story and the novel. Look at any of Hemingway’s novels side by side with his contemporaries, such as Fitzgerald, Woolf, or Joyce himself, and then with a randomly chosen bestseller from any later period up to the 1980s or thereabouts. You will probably find that Hemingway’s language is much more like the latter-day bestseller than any of his contemporaries. They were still writing the self-consciously ‘bookish’ language of the Victorian novel, allowing of course for the changes of dialect over time. Hemingway wrote a compact and elliptical language that showed more than it told, and hinted at more than it showed, and derived its patterns of grammar and diction from spoken rather than written English. Few later authors could equal the pith and force of Hemingway’s style, but they imitated it as well as they could, until it became the default ‘transparent’ style for even garden-variety commercial fiction. Heinlein’s enormous reputation as a science fiction writer rests partly on his being the first writer to successfully apply the Hemingway technique to SF.
In short, it's Hemingway's world, we all write in it. But the trend towards "patterns of grammar and diction from spoken rather than written English" did not start with Hemingway. Like all American fiction, it finds its roots in the Romantic age's return to nature. Prior to them, written English was dominated by the fashion of layers and layers of clauses--hypotaxis. Unfortunately, the trend towards spoken English in prose has been accompanied by the drive towards realism in fiction and the subsequent decay of rhetorical devices in prose. Somehow, reflecting what people actually say turned into reflecting what the People say, even though no version of the People actually resembled the man on the street.

Curiously enough, Hemingway's style is an outgrowth of poetry: From reading Rudyard Kipling Hemingway absorbed the practice of shortening prose as much as it could take.  It mixes "'declarative sentences and direct representations of the visible world' with simple and plain language." But what is unsaid matters, too:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon
One could easily say that the prevalent style is a mimicry of Hemingway's simple and plain language divorced from Hemingway's discipline. For while there is an app to teach the mechanics of Hemingway's style, his iceberg theory of composition is usually honored in the breach.