G. K. Chesterton once quipped that there is only one thing that requires real courage to say, and that is a truism. Based on the blowback I got from last week’s post, I’m beginning to see what he meant!
Not that I set out to be provocative or challenging or even insulting. I just rattled off a few observations about the implications of a set of forty-three selections from classic science fiction and fantasy. It was all the sort of thing that would be taken as being self-evident to anyone that’s read even a fraction of them. Or so I thought. But in some quarters of the internet, not only did my remarks not go over well, but they somehow induced all manner of pearl-clutching and hyperventilation.
This commenter, for example, went the full Skywalker:
Particularly, I take exception to his assertion that there were a handful of fantasists considered on par with Tolkien in the 70s. I think he’s getting the relationship exactly backwards. The 70s was when Tolkien was at the height of ‘unchallenged king of epic fantasy’ and we started to see the rise of big-name Tolkien IMITATORS, such as The Sword of Shannara — published in 1977 and (according to Peter S. Beagle) Judy-Lynn Del Rey gave him the manuscript for a blurb, saying ‘This one’s for people who’ve read the Tolkien book forty times, and can’t quite get it up for the forty-first.’
It’s positively gobsmacking; isn’t it? I mean it’s genuinely difficult for some people today to wrap their heads around the fact that a very short time ago, Tolkien pastiche was far from being the dominant style of fantasy. In fact, if you try to explain what really captured peoples’ imaginations in the early and mid-seventies, it’s very difficult to convey just what it was that was displaced by the impending revolution in publishing. You can’t even get into it, though, because as soon as you get started, they go the full Skywalker on you:
No. No. That’s not true. That’s impossible!
Of course, it’s ironic that this person is surrounded by the sort of people that keep saying “I read that” over and over and that insist that Appendix N is not obscure, that fandom is still up on this stuff, and that “anyone who’s anyone” is hip to these writers. (Except the people that think that these books deserve to be obscure and that fandom has rightly moved on– we’ll get to them in a second here.) These old books have been around for a while, certainly. Nevertheless to a whole bunch of people that act like they know better, they are practically an undiscovered country. And this person is a prime example.
But maybe I’m being hard on her, eh? Well, she’s not alone. This guy also appears to be suffering from a severe Appendix N deficiency:
I’d be hard-pressed to think of more than one or two fantasies that didn’t adhere to the ‘Mediaeval-ish world’ trope in the 1960s and 1970s. The group thing was pretty common too.
Here, let me help with that. If you’d like to see how wild things were before the Tolkien imitators took over, try reading Jack Vance, Margret St. Claire, Roger Zelazny, Lin Carter, and Michael Moorcock. None their works called out in Appendix N were particularly Mediaeval-ish. Fritz Leiber’s stories were about a duo, not a party. Also, much of the derivative swords and sorcery of the time was about a lone Conan clone, not a party. Elric had a sidekick named Moonglum, not an diverse coalition of demi-humans. Cugel and Jack of Shadows were loners. And so on.
The only parties that come to mind from the Appendix N list are in A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool and in Linn Carter’s The Warrior of World’s End. The former are more along the lines of The A-Team than the fellowship of the ring. The latter are more akin to the iconic characters of GURPS Fourth Edition than anything like a D&D party.
It’s almost like this guy is taking assumptions about fantasy that have been formed in the wake of the ascendancy of Tolkien’s imitators and is projecting them backwards. And he is completely unconscious of this, too. But anyone that’s read even a minimal selection of works from 1911 to 1977 would recognize that this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about…!
This person took exception to my statement that “the program of political correctness of the past several decades has made even writers like Ray Bradbury and C. L. Moore all but unreadable to an entire generation.” Here’s her response.
Really? All but unreadable because of PC? Some of what he considers classic maybe unread – some because it just isn’t up to today’s standards, others because they do not correspond today’s society where women are more than housewives, and black and ethnic people exist on the same playing field, and LGBT people exist.
You know, that comes off at first like they’re contradicting me… but it sounds like they are explaining just why the Appendix N books are… uh… all but unreadable to an entire generation. And what’s more, it sounds like she has a set of litmus tests she’d use to pretty well prune the canon of most anything that was published before 1980 or so. Did I get that right?
C. L. Moore is unreadable because of political correctness…?! Of course people don’t read her. Her works are politically incorrect now!
Keep talking, sister. I mean, if you go on long enough… you might give away the game.
This guy has another angle on why these books are now unaccountably obscure:
But he doesn’t understand how time works. People tend to read things written recently. Although we read back, the further back you go the less we read. Things from the last 20 years are read more than things 50 years old are read less than things a century old. When Gygax chose the works in Appendix N, many of them were recent authors for him. Few were more than 40 years old. But everything on that list is more than 40 years old for us. The idea that the pulp fiction of the last century is a canon we must be familiar with is silly.
Edgar Rice Burroughs started writing in 1911. Merritt, Lovecraft, Howard, and Weinbaum were writing in the thirties, a solid forty years before Gygax engineered AD&D. That is a significant chunk of Appendix N. All of these guys were still major players in the seventies. But never mind that. When I ran my post last week, one of my points was that “there was a sense of canon in the seventies that has since been obliterated.” And just like the previous commenter, this guy is hellbent on making my points for me.
What can I say, really, except, thank you. These people make my case for me far more forcefully than I would choose to do so myself.
Hell, just reading the little blurbs from ‘important’ authors on the backs of old paperbacks from the 60s and 70s makes the case for “considered on par with Tolkien” Leiber’s books all have quotes from Harlan Ellison & others basically calling him the Jesus of Sci-Fi, and Swann has Theodore Sturgeon praising him as one of the greatest fantasists of the age.
I don’t get Leiber’s obscurity. I really don’t. I feel betrayed by the people that insisted that Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke were the end all be all of sf.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of the stuff I’ve read this year, but those earliest Fafhrd & Mouser stories really left me with that “how have I never read this?” and “why hasn’t everyone read this?” feeling, and I just wanted to fill a trenchcoat with copies and hand them out to middle schoolers. “Hey kid, I think you’re gonna like this!”
If you replaced Asimov and Clarke with Eric Frank Russell, you’d have a much better overall collection IMO.
There is a continual rewriting of history to make what is currently popular with the in-crowd to be The Best Thing Ever (for whatever values of “Best” are currently popular with the in-crowd.)
The pronoun usage in the Ancillary books is praised as being new and groundbreaking, which requires people to ignore that Samuel Delany did it in “Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand” which was published in 1984.
All fantasy before the current crop has to be dismissed out of hand as being derivative of Tolkien (and Tolkien dismissed as irredeemably racist, sexist, cis-normative, and so on), which means ignoring Jo Clayton, Ursula K Leguin, Kate Wilheilm, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Andre Norton, and so on, all of whom were writing and publishing in the days when the SF/F market was supposed to be impossible for women to break into.
To go back to Chesterton, in Orthodoxy he talks about the fear of the past, that the insistence on the primacy of modernity is based on an unwillingness to be judged against the greats who have gone before. In SF/F circles I think that’s very literally true–it’s easier to simply dismiss everything than came before than to try to live up to it. (Can you imagine “Redshirts” winning a Hugo if it had been up against “Dune” or “The Left Hand Of Darkness”?)
Your Appendix N series exposed the myth that everything before now is unworthy of consideration. Naturally you’re going to get people who want to shout you down.
William Shakespeare is going to be seriously put out that no one reads him anymore because he’s so pre-1990! It’s a pity that’s “how time works.”
These people clearly demonstrate a clear lack of reading comprehension skills, but speak as though their thoughts on reading are important? Check your illiteracy privilege, people!
They view everything through the lens of identity and/or victim politics and thus have no ability to comprehend that many millions of us simply do not care about their alleged “sufferings.” Even more, they will compare their “sufferings” to being veterans in a hot war or the real sufferings of people in poverty and disease stricken lands even as they toddle off to Starbucks for their celebratory frappe for having told us knuckle-dragging red necks how wrong we are about everything. And they will ignore the swimming pool of irony and lack of self-awareness they are wading through as they do so.
Frankly, I despise SJWs, in every respect, deeply and thoroughly. They are a canker on the ass of society.
I wonder, if a modern author began writing fantasy in the vein of the older pulp material — in all its compelling, wild and wooly, polychromatic fantasy + sci-fi + horror glory — how people would react. Would the usual crowd be aggrieved and appalled? Would non-ideological readers embrace the weird? Would the writer be shunned as too strange for modern tastes, or embraced as the CREATOR of such excellence, by those who forgot the past (much as Lucas and Spielberg were for resurrecting laser swords and the adventuring archaeologist)?
I’d LOVE to see someone try.
Just a few quick observations:
John C. Wright is doing it. In fact is that his “Parliament of the Beasts and Birds” is very much in the same vein as C. L. Moore’s “Fruit of Knowledge”. (Moore is technically not Appendix N, but she’s certainly in the blast radius.)
If you look at what made the guys at Tor.com recoil in horror when they did their Appendix N series, I believe you will have a reliable indicator of what type of story elements will trigger pointing and shrieking today.
Appendix N is very much full of 180 page novels and short stories. That format is just not how people do things anymore– I mean, the market genuinely seems to not want that. But John C. Wright’s version of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” was very much in line with the sort of tale an Appendix N addict would expect.
But no one could write a Leigh Brackett or A. Merritt type story today where the hero seduces the femme fatale, betrays her, and then lives happily ever after with a truly “nice” girl. Not with a straight face, anyway. The culture has changed too much. But that was the norm up through the sixties.
More comments as I read more…!
You should keep an eye out for the zine I’m launching. We’ve got angry mushroom men, a talking gorilla with a ray gun, a nearly naked Neptunian sorceress, time travelers, dinosaur riders and more!
Man, I really dropped the ball there…. But hey… you are privy to inside information that I don’t have…!
Hey, it’s no problem. I think one of my favorites is the one where the Earls of Leicester are pyromancers who use fire magic against lightning-wielding Spanish monks…
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Okay, I try to avoid posting on comment threads, but, since I can’t find any way to send a private e-mail, and since it would be unconscionable of me not to share this, I’ll break my rule for once.
So here’s my own encounter with the Canon Gap: Earlier this year, I submitted my Arthur C. Clarke homage/riposte “With Royal Beauty Bright” to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, on the theory that the 60th anniversary of the publication of “The Star” would be a fitting time to publish a story attempting to answer its closing question. And I can still recall my shock when the editor rejected it, not on the grounds that it wasn’t up to IASFM standards – not even on the grounds that science fiction ought not to feature supernatural phenomena such as prophecy – but quite bluntly on the grounds that IASFM couldn’t expect its readers to be familiar with “The Star”.
“The Star”, if you please. The story that placed 15th in the SFWA’s famous survey to select the masterpieces of pre-Nebula sf, and only missed inclusion in “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” because another Clarke story (“The Nine Billion Names of God” – speaking of supernatural phenomena) had placed 11th. The story that put the C of sf’s ABC in the first “Hugo Winners” volume, and that was chosen, along with a handful of others, to represent his work in the Grand Masters anthology. *That* story, the readers of IASFM couldn’t be expected to know.
So thanks, Jeffro. It’s a pretty rotten thing to learn, but thanks, all the same, for putting an otherwise mystifying personal experience in its historical context. You’ve put a name to the problem; now it’s just a question of fixing it.
(Oh, and, just in case anybody’s curiosity’s been piqued: You can read “With Royal Beauty Bright” on Fanfiction.Net’s Arthur C. Clarke subcategory. Look for story #10810834, or just use the search engine; it’s at the top of the list when you enter its title. Merry Christmas.)
It’s too bad that you didn’t submit that story to to Sci Phi Journal instead…! It’s especially interesting given that Clarke’s story is so effective, it almost seems unanswerable. Fascinating.
Actually, Jeffro makes a good point — you SHOULD try submitting it around more. We need more “age appropriate” fiction for us old geezers (and the youngsters who appreciate it too)! ;-)
Seriously though, given that the classic story is freely available on youtube read by the iconic author his own self, some other reason needs to be given to disqualify it.
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Zelazny’s Amber series was sort of medieval-ish, kinda, but not in a Tolkien-ish way.