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.

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