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Category Archives: Appendix N

Why Contemporary Science Fiction and Fantasy is Godawful

Now, my favorite explanation for why it is that science fiction and fantasy went bad can be summed up into just one word: Commies.

It’s especially hilarious because… it actually no kidding totally for real happened. But don’t take my word for it. Heck, go read Mutation or Death yourself. Even better, go read the completely off the wall letters that got written in to Planet Stories back in the day… and then ponder the implications of how it was that the premises of those complaints would culminate directly into the original Star Trek television series. (Cue Twilight Zone music…!)

You can’t say this in mixed company, of course. And talking about this will persuade no one of any of it. It’s just too danged crazy for people to be able to admit.

I’ll tell you what works though. You can try it yourself and then let me know what happens. Fair warning… it takes a lot of time. And it helps a great deal if you can engage people off the internet and in meatspace.

Find someone that is into science fiction and fantasy and ask them who they like to read and what they like best. Listen to them. Then ask them what they least like about the big fantasy novels of our day. If they read a lot, they will have several examples of fantasy epics that failed to go anywhere or that otherwise insulted the readers with their patently unepic conclusions.

(Note: The problems of contemporary fantasy are immediately obvious, even to non-ideologues and non-connoisseurs. What isn’t obvious to most people is that things were ever substantially different.)

At this point you mention that they should really check out the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Whatever it is that they like or dislike, one of these stories is going to be a perfect fit for this person. Recommend one… talk about how you were surprised at how good they were and how they weren’t what you expected they would be. And then shut up.

(Note 2: On the internet, the argument never stops. In real life… you have to downshift to have an impact.)

A couple weeks later they should have more to talk about. They will be blown away by somethings, left cold by others. Cut them some slack: these sorts of people are taking their first steps into a larger literary world. And holy cow. Think about it. Nothing in this fantasy addict’s life is pointing this person towards the work of Robert E. Howard except you. Which means that you got to be the one to introduce them to Howard. That’s just crazy awesome in and of itself.

I think that’s weird, really. To get to be that guy to someone in this way. But here’s the thing: if you can do it once with an author as significant as Howard, you can do it a half dozen times.

Because here’s you two weeks later: “Oh, you thought Howard was good? Well you’re gonna love C. L. Moore!” But they’re going to tell you they’ve never heard of C. L. Moore. This is where you look baffled. “You never heard of C. L. Moore? How can you not have heard of C. L. Moore?!” Tell them to go read “Shambleau”… and they will come back later to thank you for it.

Wait a couple of weeks and you can run the exact same gag again. “You never heard of Leigh Brackett? That’s insane! She wrote the scripts for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and [the first draft of] The Empire Strikes Back. How can you not have heard of Leigh Brackett?!” Tell them to go read The Sword of Rhiannon.

There are other authors and stories you can drop on them depending on how they handle this. Heck, no matter what thing in fantasy or science fiction that they like best… they have no idea who it was that pioneered its original tropes or just how danged good the old authors were and how well their works stand the test of time.

But these sorts of people… they see nothing amiss in any of this at this point. They have no idea what has transpired within the critical space and the overall commentariat over the past few decades. Right now you are just some guy that has some positively stellar book recommendations which no one else in their lives seems to know about. They can intuit that they are looking at the fantasy and science fiction canon for the first time. They can see the astonishing literary quality of the old stuff. They can see that contemporary authors do not fare well in comparison. This is all self-evident.

What they can’t see yet is that something happened. But these people are in a very precarious position here. What does it take to push them over the edge? Just mention that these books and authors are routinely excluded from top 100 book lists and accounts of science fiction and fantasy history. Even watershed books like A Princess of Mars. What happens next is surprising. They won’t believe you. You can gently reiterate that it’s the case… but they will push back on this. This just doesn’t make sense. As far as they’re concerned… this CANNOT BE.

Fortunately, cell phones are ubiquitous enough now that someone can bring up the NPR list. Watch them as they go book by book mocking the more ludicrous entries. If they slogged through Patrick Rothfuss’s stuff, I’m sure they’ll have some choice words when they get to that one. Then watch the reaction when they get to the end and it sinks in that there’s not one mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs anywhere.

That’s right. In a couple of months they’ve gone from never having heard of the classic authors to being outraged that nobody else has.

Ask them to explain justwhat the heck happened? Or more importantly…. what is still happening.

Ask them why this matters.

Ask them why something so seemingly insignificant and innocuous as adventure stories would be worth explicitly being erased from history and the collective conscious.

And listen to them.

The funny thing here is that any theory they might be inclined to offer up to explain all this is going to be anything but milder than what guys like me on the internet going to say at this point. Normal people are exasperated when they are confronted by this sort of thing, no different from how fans of the recent superhero movies react when told that you can’t get an Iron Man comic book right now starring insanely popular Tony Stark. Oh, it comes out in fits and starts. There’s all kinds of rationalizations that people will leap to before they finally give them up. But it all comes down to this: something happened to cause the science fiction and fantasy canon to just plain evaporate. A whole bunch of somethings, maybe. And there’s just no good justification for it.

Can you imagine large quantities of metal fans being unable to direct newcomers to the most significant reference points of their genre? I can’t. I can’t begin to imagine what sort of effort it would take to effect such a thing. But that’s exactly what’s happened in science fiction and fantasy.

Likewise, Jazz musicians don’t dismiss Louis Armstrong out of hand. Can you imagine trying to explain the origins and development of Bebop and The Cool while arbitrarily erasing every major jazz artist from before 1940? You can’t do it. But that’s exactly what happens when hack literary critics jump from the twin pillars of Verne and Wells and then directly on to the supposed “golden age” of exemplified by Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. There’s a decades-sized hole where the real golden age was!

Over at Quillette there is a story on the development of Creative Writing programs and degrees and workshops and so forth that I think sheds some light on how this transition seeped into and ultimately crippled the field of science fiction and fantasy. Check it out:

Creative Writing was a product of the ‘progressive’ educational movement in the late 1920s, which emphasised self-expression rather than tradition, formal discipline, or the mastery of a fixed body of knowledge or skills.

It’s weird to hear someone just come out and say it, but it’s a truism, really: progressives are necessarily in revolt against tradition. But this bit about self expression over discipline and mastery here… it’s happening in the twenties and not during the cultural revolution of the sixties. Note that pulp was protected from these people as being too low brow and too immediately accessible to large numbers of people that just want to read for fun. As such, authors could develop their skills and reference real myth, real history, real science, and real literature as much as they liked without being bothered by some dipstick that would push them to instead do some sort of hippy dippy deep dive into themselves.

Pulp writers were the beneficiaries of a legitimate culture with inconceivably vast assets. Contemporary writers are insular and inward-facing. How do you transition from one to the other…? Well, progressives can do a lot of damage just by sneering a lot and pretending to have their monocles pop off. But for this stuff to really metastatize, they needed to be able to propagate their methods within the higher education system:

Institutional writing programs spread slowly at first. In 1975, there were 52 Creative Writing programs in American universities.  But by 1984 there were 150 postgraduate degree programs (MA, MFA, or PhD) in the United States; by 2004, 350 (with a further 370 offering only undergraduate degrees in Creative Writing). As of 2010, there were as many as 1,269 degree-granting programs in America alone. This explosive growth has not necessarily encouraged a diverse literary output, as is obvious to anyone who attempts to read one of the annual Creative Writing anthologies (The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American PoetryThe Best American Essays, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, etc.) which collect typical, apparently exemplary, samples of what these programs produce. The fundamentally uniform quality of contemporary American literature as represented in these anthologies is startling.

Contrast the astonishing regional and stylistic and ideological diversity among the pulp authors with the stultifying homogeneity of stories following the ascendancy of Creative Writing Inc. It’s not normal. It’s not natural. It’s a disaster.

But note how the ax is laid to the root in this wasteland:

A competing (or complementary) influence is popular culture. Contemporary American literature recognises no established ‘canon’: the reader’s knowledge of Shakespeare and the Bible (for example) will not be taken for granted. On the other hand, readers are assumed to be intimately familiar with the same films, television programs, and pop songs as the writer.

The obliteration of canon goes far beyond the key reference points of fantasy and science fiction. It goes deeper… down to the level of broader Western canon. Ironically, pulp authors are necessarily and fundamentally more literate than anyone within the Creative Writing school.

In contemporary American literature, self-expression takes precedence over invention.  A writer’s thoughts, memories, and experience will form the main bank of material for poets, essayists, and fiction writers alike. Invented narratives and characters are associated with scripts for television and film; whereas short stories and novels must have a firm basis in historical research or recent journalism, or else must be rooted in personal experience.

And that is how we got “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love.” And why pulp writers from Burroughs to Brackett could so effortlessly invent, create, thrill, and induce wonder. This is where that smarmy, unctuous personal tone comes from… as opposed to the many and varied writing styles that are intended to actually be read by normal people. For fun.

The people that imbibe the stuff in these programs and workshops…? Everything they say is uniformly stupid and detached from reality. This is where the patronizing remarks about Lovecraft being a poor wordsmith hail from. This is where losers are taught to make insipid remarks about people having “workmanlike prose.” It’s all voiced by people that are merely dabbling in writing… and that have been programmed to neither be fluent in nor to recognize the canonical figures that wield a broad and ongoing influence over the field.

No wonder they can’t create. And no wonder the pulp era is the revelation that it is.

h/t to Nathan Housley for providing the link to this article over on Google+.

Also: you can buy my survey of some of the most influential books in fantasy and science fiction here.

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Sturgeon’s Law, Battlestar Galactica, and Feet of Clay

Over at The Practical Conservative’s site, Jane Sand feverishly scrambles to prop up the embarrassingly stupid claim that is today known as Sturgeon’s Law:

As for your opinion regarding the stories of the 10’s through the 40’s being superior to those of the 70’s – well, that could be for an abundance of reasons. One might be that comparing the best of the harvest of 4 decades to the best of the harvest of ONE decade gives a slightly unfair advantage to the longer time period, with its benefit of longer evaluation and discussion in hindsight. Or, as you say, you might find the cultural difference of the Good Old Days to be more appealing to you than the latter ones.

According to Jeffro’s recent column, it’s because the writers of the later decades had the bad taste to DARE give the heros feet of clay. Apparently he prefers his heros to be flawless Marty Stus. He forgets what Oscar Wilde (a Dead White European Male writer par excellence, and a great fantasy writer to boot) said: “It is the feet of clay that make the gold of the image precious.”

First off, the quality of the average pulp story is quite surprising to most of us that end up going back to see for ourselves what things were actually like. I know people that only ever read, say, Robert Jordan’s Conan stories. When they go back and read Robert E. Howard they are astonished. I know people that are already hip to Lovecraft and Howard, but have never heard of Merritt. If you take Sturgeon’s Law for granted, there shouldn’t be too many more giants operating in the pulps this period… but Merritt is arguably superior to both. When you get done being blown away by C. L. Moore and Many Wade Wellman, it’s suddenly an open question as to how many superlative authors were actually frequenting the pages of the pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties..

And about this feet of clay thing…. I just watched a few episodes of the third season of the Battlestar Galactica reboot:

  • Admiral Adama is about to get an award from the president for saving humanity. But… it turns out that before the war… he violated the neutral zone treaty they had with the Cylons. The genocide of his people is actually his fault!
  • Cat is in the process of committing suicide by subjecting herself to too much radiation. There are plenty of pilots that could do the job and the fleet desperately needs pilots like her… but she is despairing because she lied about her identity to become a pilot. Worse… she was a criminal in the bad old days and she actually helped smuggle Cylons into key cities. The genocide of her people is actually her fault!
  • Helo is head over heels in love with a Cylon. When Adama concocts a means to put an end to this mortal threat to humanity, he sabotages it. The then puts the fate of humanity at stake in an insane plan to get his half-human half daughter back from the Cylons.
  • Apollo and Starbuck have the hots for each other. They are also married and cheating on their respective spouses. The writers then have Apollo’s wife rescue Starbuck from the Cylons.

This is not a matter of the writers giving each and every character feet of clay. These characters are head-to-toe iron mixed with miry clay. And there’s nothing DARING about any of it.

Where do you look if you’d like to have more of the gold, silver, and brass…? The answer right now is… in the crumbling pages of a battered old pulp magazine! (I recommend A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar as a prime example of everything contemporary authors are incapable of doing.)

The Real Reason Why Luke Skywalker Was Cut Out of Force Awakens

So you remember sitting through The Force Awakens and you get to the end and there (finally) is Luke Skywalker… and he just turns around and says… nothing. (!?) It’s a completely weird scene to begin with, especially when you consider how much Luke Skywalker concept art was done for the movie.

Well, it turns out that J. J. Abrams originally pushed hard to have Luke Skywalker made into a first class element of the film… but they just couldn’t make it work. Here’s why:

“Early on I tried to write versions of the story where [Rey] is at home, her home is destroyed, and then she goes on the road and meets Luke. And then she goes and kicks the bad guy’s ass,” Arndt said. “It just never worked and I struggled with this. This was back in 2012.” Apparently the issue was Luke’s presence was always upstaging everyone in the script. “It just felt like every time Luke came in and entered the movie, he just took it over,” Arndt continued. “Suddenly you didn’t care about your main character anymore because, ‘Oh f–k, Luke Skywalker’s here. I want to see what he’s going to do.’”

Well, that can sure got kicked down the road. You can almost pity Rian Johnson for having to deal with it. And even his solution to this almost begins to make sense. If the real Luke Skywalker shows up at all, the new sub par characters are shown for what they are: empty imitations with a veneer of Star Warsy stuff slathered over them. So the new “Not Luke Skywalker” has to come out of nowhere, drinking milk hot out of the space cow and behaving completely out of character.

Pulpy, old school adventurers are so appealing and so engaging… they had to wreck a four billion dollar franchise rather than give people a glimpse of an actual hero. It’s not because they didn’t try, either. Their concepts of how myth and storytelling work are fundamentally incompatible with the film series they were tasked with building off of.

There’s no way that what they wanted to do could work. And they didn’t know it until it was too late!

(h/t Bradford Walker for this video The Decline of Star Wars Part One— the Luke bit cited above is mentioned at the nineteen minute mark.)

The Buffalo Bill – Madame Mandelip Connection!

The word is in from the Appendix N Podcast. A. Merritt’s Burn Witch Burn might lose a few political correctness points due to its stereotypical Italian mobster and comic relief Irish Beat Cop. And yes, sensitive readers will experience a brief moment of triggering at the the mention of how women were put away for “hysteria” in the bad old days of prohibition. If you thought that there just wasn’t anything in here truly worth getting offended over, then think again. Because Burn Witch Burn is danker than you think!

Check this out from the podcast: One of the things that did stick out to me though is actually something that I still see today but was especially common as recently as the nineties is this idea of the gender non-conformist as a villain because here Madame Mandelip is like this big masculine woman with this hairy upper lip and these like big hands and like I think using this masculine woman as an equivalent to villainy is also kind of the same way that you see effeminate men and dandies as a way of standing for decadence and evil often times in Conan stories but even in like Disney cartoons….

Mind. Blown.

This one went right past me when I was reading. Sure, I was vaguely conscious of the “big hands” bit. Mainly, I was too horrified by the thought of a woman that ugly having the ability to appear unfathomably beautiful… and going around seducing unknowing men for her nefarious purposes. It’s fundamentally, rivetingly horrible in a way that very little of contemporary storytelling manages to attain.

One of the guys on the show unironically ponders what it is that people will look back and see that is so “problematic” about the stories of our day… as if we are all just going to continue to get more and more refined and more and more sensitive to an even more comprehensive list of horrible awful no good things over time. And of course, there’s no way to tell what the next big offensive thing will be. And that is true… in a sense.

This stuff is scary if you think about it, because the only sure thing in this is that we are all being extremely problematic even without meaning to and without knowing what it is that we’re doing that’s do awful! Imagine living like that. I mean really, honestly living like that. Being vaguely aware that everything you build is founded on the shifting sands of a fickle and opportunistic ideology. Not having any way to even conceive of being genuinely “okay”, but remaining in sort of a permanent defensive posture at all times because you know that you can fall afoul of the collective determination of whatever the next scandalously problematic thing is supposed to be.

The only way you would be able to cope with that would be to publicly and loudly join up in some sort of weird cultural police force, doing the public a service by alerting them to dangerous people and materials at all times. Stoking and feeding the general hysteria with nearly every social interaction in order to keep attention on people that are noticeably more problematic than you… but knowing that still in spite of all your efforts the mob can still come for you at any moment!

It can’t be healthy.

At any rate, yes… traditional notions of witches and witchcraft are “problematic” today. Most contemporary treatments of them are necessarily eager to invert, sacrifice, or dilute age old mythical elements in exchange for a very tenuous brand of virtue that has an explicit expiration date right on the package. I wouldn’t be surprised if the early twenty-first century fails to produce much in the way of timeless classics. The spirit of this age is opposed to such things on principle.

Fletcher Vredenburgh on A. Merritt’s Burn Witch Burn

At last! Sword and sorcery junkie Fletcher Vredenburgh has finally relented and done a good turn to his own self by reading a masterwork by the great A. Merritt:

I read somewhere that Merritt wrote with “lush, florid prose,” but that wasn’t the case in Burn, Witch Burn. However he may have written his other books, that’s not the case here. He writes, yes, with occasional overwrought flourishes, but with precision. His prose rushes the reader along, winging him deeper and deeper into the story’s nightmarish events.

With the nighttime arrival of a patient who seems to be suffering from no known malady, accompanied by his mobster boss, Merritt kicks the book off at full speed. With each ensuing chapter, the tension builds and Lowell and his compatriots’ fear increases. Gradually, the action moves from crisp and clinical corridors of Lowell’s hospital to the druggy, psychedelic chamber of Madame Mandilip, highlighting the fight between reason and unreason. Slowly the curtain obscuring the villain is raised, until we see her in her full, dark horror. Merritt knew how to grab you by the lapels and keep shaking you with increasing ferocity to the very last page.

Read the whole thing!

Fletcher’s assessment is completely on point here. Merritt’s writing is among the best of the best… and yet much of the commentary on him seems carefully engineered to steer people away from the guy. As another example, that same source that Fletcher mentions there regarding Merritt’s supposedly “lush, florid prose” neglects entirely to mention that he was known as The Lord of Fantasy.

And while you can maybe wrap your head around the fact that some guy you never heard of held that distinction in the twenties and thirties, you may not be able to grasp just how long Merritt was able to hold on to that particular appellation. As Deuce Richardson points out:

…Merritt’s title of “Lord of Fantasy” went unquestioned here in the States from the 1920s until the 1960s. I’ve spoken with numerous pulp scholars and all agree that Merritt’s sobriquet went virtually unchallenged during that period. Donald Wollheim, the most important publisher/editor in the history of SFF, repeatedly called Merritt by that moniker for decades. Tolkien’s reign is only now reaching the longevity that Merritt’s enjoyed.

That’s right. A. Merritt was as central to the definition of fantasy before 1970 as Tolkien was after it. He’s that big.

If you haven’t read his works already, you really owe it to yourself to check him out.