The progenitor of fantasy literature writes with more creativity and style than his legions of imitators
Lord Dunsany is the grandfather of modern fantasy fiction. Tolkien set the world on fire with fantasy, but he used Dunsany’s torch. The 18th Baron of Dunsany launched his literary career in 1904 with The Gods of Pegāna, in which he constructs an entire cosmogony from whole cloth — a literary first for what is now almost required for any epic fantasy. For those who want their foundational fantasy texts a bit lighter, we’re looking at “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” today, one of Dunsany’s many short stories.
Dunsany uses a well-worn fantasy narrative, but stuffs it with invention
The actual narrative structure of the story is exceedingly simple. Man’s village is threatened. Man attains magic sword. Man hits bad things with magic sword until bad things are gone. The framework is not much, but what Dunsany hangs on it, the sheer inventiveness and substance of the world he drapes around the cheap coat rack of the narrative is what makes him a foundational author. Let’s start with that magic sword: Leothric doesn’t just yank it out of a rock like some idiot. No, he has to fight “the dragon-crocodile who haunts the Northern marshes” and is made entirely of metal, and who has in “the midst of his back, over his spine…a narrow strip of unearthly steel. This strip of steel is Sacnoth, and it may be neither cleft nor molten, and there is nothing in the world that may avail to break it, nor even leave a scratch upon its surface.”
The hero of the story, Leothric, kills the beast and then gets the invincible sword Sacnoth by chucking the body into a furnace until the rest of the dragon-crocodile’s body melts away from it. If you know of a cooler way for a hero to get his magic sword, please comment with it.
Sword won, Leothric heads to his foeman’s castle. He enters the castle, goes from room to room, sees weird things, vanquishes weird things, and then meets with the evil wizard who is creating problems for his village. It’s not in the quality of the plot the Dunsany gets you, it’s in the depth of his world and the strangeness with which he populates it. His vision is potent, and his language delivers it undiluted to his readers.
Any nincompoop can stick a sword in a dragon. Leothric does it with style
What follows is just one example of Leothric’s trials inside The Fortress Unvanquishable:
Outside he felt the night air on his face, and found that he stood upon a narrow way between two abysses. To left and right of him, as far as he could see, the walls of the fortress ended in a profound precipice, though the roof still stretched above him; and before him lay the two abysses full of stars, for they cut their way through the whole Earth and revealed the under sky; and threading its course between them went the way, and it sloped upward and its sides were sheer.
Upon this narrow way over an endless abyss inside a castle Leothric meets and must slay the dragon Thok:
And he smote deep with Sacnoth, and Thok tumbled into the abyss, screaming, and his limbs made a whirring in the darkness as he fell, and he fell till his scream sounded no louder than a whistle and then could be heard no more. Once or twice Leothric saw a star blink for an instant and reappear again, and this momentary eclipse of a few stars was all that remained in the world of the body of Thok.
This one scene can stand in for what Dunsany accomplishes in his entire body of work. Any hero can slay a dragon, but Leothric enters a room in a castle that inexplicably contains an abyss, whose only light is that which comes from the stars on the other side of a depthless hole in the Earth. He kills the dragon, and its corpse tumbles through the endless dark, blocking starlight as it falls. The imagery is deep and rich enough to to make its reality rock-solid, and the contrast between the solidity of his description and the strangeness of what he describes is the key to the delight Dunsany manufactures in each story.
Visual style, an ethical dilemma, and great casting made the original Blade Runner incredible, and Denis Villeneuve built the sequel the same way
The science fiction neo-noir classic Blade Runner is the single greatest book adaptation ever made. It’s laughably divergent from its source material — it picked up Philip K. Dick’s concept of androids and that the world was screwed and didn’t run with much else. Usually, this ends poorly for everyone involved, and the result is less like Lord of the Rings and more like The Hobbit.The film worked because androids, the idea it cuts out of the book like a painting out of a gilt frame, is morally and intellectually the most interesting part, and because it filled in all the holes around that idea with a style so distinct and clear that every frame of the film is a work of art. Also, Harrison Ford’s star wattage doesn’t hurt.
The gulf between an original movie and a 35-years-late sequel is similar to the distance between a book and its movie. Blade Runner 2049 took a different direction with its source material — a direct and respectful homage to its original. The difference between it and something like The Force Awakens is that it stakes out enough of its own turf not to be an artistic failure. Hate to be a buzzkill, and I loved seeing it in theaters, but The Force Awakens was a beat-for-beat remake of A New Hope without a single new idea of its own. So, why is Blade Runner 2049 a success?
Well, before you go any further, take a gander at what you can see in theaters this weekend:
The strengths of the original Blade Runner
The success of the first Blade Runner comes down to its visuals, the stimulating central problem of replicants, and Harrison Ford. Its worldbuilding is the greatest artistic achievement of that decade, and it builds its world with visuals. Everything is gritty, wet, and cramped, either too bright or too dark, except for the Tyrell corporation building which is a soft-lit, wide temple to wealth and power. Rick Deckard’s job in the movie is “retiring” rogue replicants, androids who have begun acting anomalously. The movie spins around the moral core of killing sentient beings just because they’re acting like sentient beings, i.e. seeking freedom. Deckard never seems thrilled to be doing it, and towards the end of the film he not only falls in love with a replicant, but begins doubting whether he is one. Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard is the final style piece of the film — no one has a better put-upon-why-me face, and he’s also Harrison freaking Ford.
The movie’s plot is well-constructed, but it’s not the central component of the movie’s watchability. The action in Blade Runner is understated, almost ponderous, but what keeps the film going is that every single frame is beautiful, is art. It’s easy to watch because the literal act of viewing each frame is rewarding.
Blade Runner 2049, genetics, and inheritance
Blade Runner 2049 is definitely its father’s son. Denis Villeneuve tries to rebuild the same world Ridley Scott constructed in 1982, just adding in three more decades of we’re-screwed. There’ve been several bloody replicant revolutions and a complete ecological collapse. The first bankrupted the Tyrell Corporation (original manufacturer of replicants) and the second was solved by the agri-tech of Blade Runner 2049’s main antagonist, Niander Wallace (who bought up Tyrell’s assets and started making “safer” replicants).
Denis Villeneuve pays the same attention to visual worldbuilding as Ridley Scott did, only it’s a world 30 years more bleak. Urban areas are an industrial wasteland filled with scavengers, rust, and death, and natural spaces are an ecological wasteland filled with cracked earth, dust storms, and dead trees. People live in the middle of these extremes, in a cityscape filled with ever-advancing technology. The interplay of light and dark, the picture-perfect artistry of each frame of the movie is still there, paying perfect homage to the original.
The ethics of the sequel have shifted. Not only has the replicant-as-slave trope been made explicit, with Niander Wallace (tech magnate and the current manufacturer of replicants) stating that “[e]very civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce” and regretting that he couldn’t breed replicants (as slaves were bred), but the main character, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K, starts the movie as an indisputable replicant, the property of the L.A.P.D. Blade Runner’s morality was ambiguous — the inventor of replicants, Eldon Tyrell, was a benevolent creator, and Rick Deckard’s attitude was “I’m killing replicants, ain’t it a shame, but hey, what else can we do?” In Blade Runner 2049, a definite replicant is struggling with issues of identity and morality. An unambiguous member of an oppressed class is at the center of the sequel, which changes the ethical landscape significantly. Not to mention Jared Leto’s amazingly creepy Niander Wallace is, unlike Eldon Tyrell, undoubtedly a Bad Guy (murder, torture, etc.).
Blade Runner 2049 has the same approach to plot as its progenitor — make it good, but don’t make it the center of the movie. The sheer beauty of the world that’s built is what makes the film. Its approach to action is a bit different — in the original, it’s a few short bursts of gunplay and chasing. In 2049, the fight scenes might be rare, but they’re definitely modern. Officer K is literally, as he was built, a killing machine, and it’s impressive to watch when he gets in a corner where the only way out is violence.
Ryan Gosling vs Harrison Ford
How cruel to put any actor up against living legend Harrison Ford, but Gosling does a really great job. Same balance of grim but emotional right underneath, same ratio of acting chops versus sheer ability to look cool. Ryan Gosling might be Harrison Ford for Millennials — good actor, attractive, with the ability to fill out an action movie without being typecast as an action star. Harrison Ford is part of what made Blade Runner great, and Ryan Gosling definitely adds style and charm to 2049. Ford is a legend, but Gosling is a worthy inheritor.
Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel every great movie deserves
Blade Runner 2049 and its predecessor are both primarily visual experiences. The plot of each is clear and strong, but the center of each film is just seeing the world it builds. Each frame, as a still photo, is interesting enough to make you want to see the next one. Preserving and intensifying the central moral quandary of the original and adding Gosling’s star power to the mix just adds more to love.
Blade Runner 2049 is heavily indebted to the original, but that’s by design. What’s important is that Villeneuve had the courage to use everything important about the original film — the stunning visual style and the central moral question of replicants — but still carve out his own original space. It might not be taught in film classes like Blade Runner is (yet), but the beauty of a director making an intellectual property his own is that one-to-one comparisons are no longer relevant. Villeneuve and Gosling made their own thing here, and it stands alone, and it stands strong.
Her inventiveness, her attention to emotion, and her information-dense, fast-paced style build a rock-solid science-fiction story
I have a bad habit of only finding amazing books/series/authors right as they’re about to explode into the mainstream. For example, I devoured A Song of Ice and Fire when the television show was already in production but not released. I did it again with Nnedi Okorafor. She’s been writing award-winning stories for years and years, and only a few days ago, in the midst of all the buzz about her work becoming an HBO show, did I pick up my first one, Binti.
The first pillar is the author’s sheer creativity. This is the most inventive and fresh thing I’ve read in months. Nnedi Okorafor’s novella (the first of a set of three) is not really a happy story, but there’s a lightness and a joy in her creation, from biological interstellar ships that are basically giant star-shrimp, to the main character’s tech, based around “harmonizing,” which is a form of mathematical comprehension of the world so deep it may as well be sorcery. Binti uses harmonizing to optimize the astrolabes her family makes their living on. Astrolabes fit the same cultural niche as our smartphones but are much more powerful and beautiful. All this takes place in an afro-futurist world, where tech is extraordinarily advanced and cultural roots run deep. The conflict between the traditional expectations Binti’s family levies on her and her ambition of studying at the galaxy’s most prestigious university planet is the central emotional conceit of the novella.
The second pillar is Okorafor’s realistic attention to emotion. A general flaw of a lot of classic SFF is its treatment of emotion. It’s either overweeningly mawkish or nearly nonexistent. This is why rereads of Heinlein and Asimov just don’t grab me — the emotion that’s there is either too robotic or too overwrought. In Binti, Okorafor gives emotion its due — presents the concerns and internal torments of her characters in a clear and matter-of-fact manner — and then lets their actions as they navigate their problems do the rest of the explaining. Binti neither denies nor overfocuses on emotion. Okorafor plants the internal lives of her characters firmly, then builds the story around them without letting it get weighed down by them.
The third pillar of Binti’s greatness is the “chunk of meat” storytelling style. There’s a chunk of meat on your dinner plate that you don’t recognize. You ask what it is, but the chef shrugs her shoulders and walks away from your table. You are confused, but the presentation is interesting, and the aroma rising from it is irresistible, so you eat it, still lost but enjoying it immensely. “Oh, the main character can use math to generate an advanced meditative state, cool, great…oh ok, the ship she’s taking to university is a giant shrimp with titanium-hard skin. Cool, sure. Huh. Pass the gravy, this is delicious.” Okorafor’s chunk of meat style puts discrete and not-fully-explained pieces of the world in front of you, and the time she saves not info-dumping everything gives an immediacy to the story that carries you on a great wave, like how the Meduse…well, you’ll find out what that species does when you read the novella.
Binti is fresh and strong, from its powerfully-described world to its extremely relatable, loveable main character. Part of the freshness is its afro-futurism, and the impact of reading about an African spacefaring culture is every bit as refreshing as reading fantasy that’s not chock full of ogres and elves. It’s also a vital piece in building diversity in SFF — this triumphal entry in the field makes it a more inclusive and interesting place.
She hits the big three of SF: detailed world-building, great characters, and compelling plot
Octavia Butler needs no further praise, but she definitely deserves it, so here we go. Parable of the Sower is just one present under a very well-stocked Christmas tree of literary achievement. Her oeuvre is filled throughout with characters who struggle with believable problems in relatable ways, and with powerful new ideas that are not only appealing in an oh-that’s-cool way, but because they go right to the core of how people do live, and how they should live. Butler delivers all of these gifts in a direct, conversational prose that makes opening and enjoying them a deep and simple pleasure. The only person that competes with her for simplicity and clarity of writing is Ursula K. Le Guin.
Where are we when we enter Octavia Butler’s world?
The most striking accomplishment of Parable of the Sower is how believable its world is. Butler makes such small, but ultimately such significant changes to our world. The book opens in 2024, centering around a walled community 20 miles outside of Los Angeles.
The opening has all the shapes of normal life. Children doing chores. A sermon. A minister’s daughter getting baptized. Except the chores include picking fruit and vegetables from the family’s extensive home garden because store-bought food is prohibitively expensive, the sermon happens in the minister’s front room because his church, outside the neighborhood walls, was burned down, and the baptism, which takes place in a friend’s church across town, is preceded by a harrowing bike ride accompanied by armed adults through burned-out streets strewn with the starving and desperate. These details are ubiquitous — the forms of normal life linked with the changes that have already taken place, and those that are coming. Another couple of details: five kids are getting baptized together because all of their families went in together to share the debilitating expense of the gallons of potable water necessary for the ritual, and almost everyone works from home with weekly or monthly in-person check-ins because a daily commute is just too dangerous.
I could keep listing these for another ten pages, but I’m not Octavia Butler, so it would be extremely boring. Butler weaves all of these in so inseparably from the narrative impulsion of the story that each individual one passes notice, but their collective impact builds a world that seems kind of normal but is in constant flux and danger. Any of the trappings of normalcy are willfully imposed by the older generation. The protagonist lives in a gated community, completely normal! The tops of its walls are covered in crushed glass, and the keys to the front gate are jealously guarded by the heads of household. Oh…
Characters are at the center of any good fiction
The key to Octavia Butler’s work is her understanding of how people actually function, how they are. All writers, when they construct characters, are building facsimiles that readers are willing to accept if they’re done well enough. There’s no way to actually capture everything people are in a handful of words, but Butler comes close.
Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist, is a young black girl, old enough to have some responsibility in the world, but young enough not to view responsibility as clinging to the structures of a dying past. Her father is a powerful presence, the neighborhood minister, a sensibly-acting and deep-thinking man who is the main personality actually holding the community together. The central conflict of the early book, aside from survival, is the clash between this strong-willed daughter and her stubborn father. They love each other deeply, but see the world in fundamentally different ways:
“Do you think our world is coming to an end?” Dad asked, and with no warning at all, I almost started crying. I had all I could do to hold it back. What I thought was, “No, I think your world is coming to an end, and maybe you with it.” That was terrible. I hadn’t thought about it in such a personal way before. I turned and looked out the window until I felt calmer.
Butler is so good at people. They can fight and yell and disagree and love each other deeply. Lauren is in the midst of a big fight with her dad, and almost loses control and cries because she contemplates the death of the person being so antagonistic to her.
The most rewarding part of the early book is this relationship: strong, intelligent Lauren Olamina clashing with the man who raised her to be strong and intelligent. She recognizes her debt to him even as she hopes for an escape from his strictures:
I love him. He’s the best person I know, and I care what he thinks. I wish I didn’t, but I do.
Earthseed: the world’s going to hell, why not start a new religion?
As Lauren navigates this conflict, she logs everything in her journal. In fact, that’s the book. The Parable of the Sower is a series of Lauren’s journal entries, sometimes with a day between them, sometimes a month. The confessional style matches well with Butler’s vivid and conversational prose — the accessibility of the writing mixes with the emotional immediacy of the journal to cook a completely satisfying, easy-to-consume meal. As easy and fun to eat as McDonald’s, as nutritious as a kale salad. Another key function of the journal is it’s where Lauren starts building her new religion — Earthseed. Again, the entire world of the book is built on the linking of the completely normal (teenage girl journaling) with the new and strange (she’s journaling about her homegrown religion). Here’s verses 1 and 3 of Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Olamina’s religious text:
All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth Is Change.
God Is Change.
We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God. With forethought and work, We shape God. In the end, we yield to God. We adapt and endure, For we are Earthseed And God is Change.
This is what drives Lauren through the story. God is change, and it’s humanity’s job to shape God, to accept, anticipate and influence change. It weaves over and around all that happens in the story: Lauren’s acceptance of and attempted control of change, from growing up in a civilized island in a sea of lawlessness, to surviving the fall of her neighborhood (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s pretty clear from the get-go that this has to happen), to traveling coastal California attempting to find a better life. God is Change.
The Big Three of Science Fiction
The Parable of the Sower is everything that’s great in SF. All the science fiction I love shares three traits: well-built characters, a detailed world, and narrative impulsion. Without believable, relatable characters, what is there to care about (ahem, Asimov)? Without a detailed exploration of the world, how the world came about, the anthropology of the society, then the otherworldiness of the SF is just a gimmick. And without narrative impulsion, where each page gives you a reason to turn to the next one, what you have is a boring book. The characters and world of Butler are built with a loving attentiveness to detail, and once you care about the characters and how they move through the world, that’s half the narrative impulsion right there. What provides the rest is the suspense Butler creates in describing Lauren moving through increasing danger towards her goal: is she going to get there? Oh no that was close! I have to find out! Octavia Butler is a champion, and reading her is a privilege.
Jemisin brings it to a close with The Stone Sky and demonstrates exactly why the previous two books needed Hugo Awards
N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is a masterful finish to the most groundbreaking (ha) series of the past decade. Seriously — you can argue about all-time greats, but this is hands-down the most impressive post-millennial series I’ve completed. The world she builds, the characters she creates and how she makes them interact, and the falling-free man-the-ground-sure-is-coming-up-fast gravity of her plotting all combine and balance each other to make this book a place you want to be, filled with people you care about, moving through a plot that satisfies and builds anticipation in alternating cycles until the final payoff. After turning the last page, I felt like I’d been evicted. It was a physical place, with such weight that it left an emptiness behind. The last time I experienced that was 19 years ago in 7th grade, having finished reading about Frodo going off to the Grey Havens. I’d spent a month somewhere, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to be there anymore. Jemisin’s world-building alone is Tolkien-level, but she isn’t heavily indebted to him, as a lot of contemporary fantasy is. This is a can’t-miss series for the vivid and original worldbuilding alone, but there’s so much more to recommend it.
If you want to get a small taste before you commit, Jemisin wrote a short story set in the same world a while ago (available in text and audio for free, because Clarkesworld is awesome):
You can’t have epic fantasy without a map, so where are we?
The Stillness is a single supercontinent that is supernormally tectonically active, criss-crossed with rift lines and volcanoes, all floating precariously atop the anger of the Earth. The extreme inhospitability of this world leads to something called Fifth Seasons, where seismic events create winter conditions for at least six months due to ash blocking the Sun, but they can last for years and have much more interesting effects, such as during the Fungus Season, where extended darkness occurring during monsoon season created a crop-destroying fungal bloom over 20% of the continent, or the Season of Yellow Seas, in which an unknown bacterial agent toxified the seas, causing decades of famine in communities which relied on fishing for sustenance.
The most essential people, without whom humanity would have succumbed to ash and darkness generations ago, are the orogenes, too despised to belong to any caste, but too useful to exterminate. They can perform orogeny, the etymology of which makes me twitch in pleasure. Oros is Greek for mountain, so orogenyis mountain-making, and sweet sassy molassey, that’s exactly what they can do! Magic in this fantasy epic is the manipulation of the heat and kinetic energy of the overactive Earth in a way that allows orogenes to explode volcanoes, raise islands, and create city-slaying earthquakes. It’s this last feature that makes the “orogenically-afflicted” into feared pariahs.
Being feared might kill you, but being feared and useful will lead to the subjugation of your people and an endless cycle of generational misery. Government-trained orogenes who pit their will and power against the fury of the Earth are the only reason humanity is still alive. Untrained orogenes are slaughtered. Trained orogenes who are disobedient are disciplined. If they don’t improve, they are slaughtered. A caste called Guardians does all the disciplining and slaughtering — one example is that, without exception, Guardians break the hands of young orogenes. If they have enough control to keep from causing an earthquake in their fear and pain, their reward is the setting of the bones in their hand. If they don’t have that control, the Guardian kills them. This dichotomy continues throughout their lives — stay useful and be allowed to serve; cease being useful and die.
The solidity and originality of Jemisin’s magic system, the immediacy of danger in the Stillness, and the intricacies of the society that lives there all contribute to making this world feel real. The last bit that does it is a trick used to great effect by Tolkien (and Jemisin): have your story take place on the surface of a depthless past. Most stories evaporate when you shut the book because their thread of narrative is all they have — in LOTR and The Broken Earth, so much happens off-screen that what’s on screen feels much more textured and deep. Stuff has been happening in the Stillness for millennia, and you can feel it. Each chapter ends with a sample from a historical text. Sometimes it’s simple survival stonelore:
Set a flexible central beam at the heart of all structures. Trust wood, trust stone, but metal rusts.
–Tablet Three, “Structures,” verse one
Other times, it’s heftier:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the physical integrity of the Stillness–for the obvious interest of long-term survival. Maintenance of this land is peculiarly dependent upon seismic equilibrium and by an imperious law of nature, none but the orogenic can establish such. A blow at their bondage is a blow at the very planet. We rule, therefore, that though they bear some resemblance to we of good and wholesome lineage, and through they must be managed with kind hand to the benefit of both bond and free, any degree of orogenic ability must be assumed to negate its corresponding personhood. They are rightfully to be held and regarded as an inferior and dependent species.
–The Second Yumenescene Lore Council’s Declaration on the Rights of the Orogenically Afflicted
Each time, it helps build a larger world for the single narrative to live in. The second example is especially effective because it mirrors reality so well. With a few changes here and there, it could pass for what was written not so long ago in the United States: the specious stuff used to justify slavery in the antebellum South — why, this is for their own good! Why, the good of Society must be our primary concern!
OK, so the world is great, but what’s actually happening in it? (Spoilers Follow)
In The Broken Earth series, the main plot is that a massive, continent-spanning rift has opened, setting off the Season to end all Seasons. Ash starts falling from the sky, raiders start riding across the landscape, and people buckle down and hope. By the time The Stone Sky opens, Essun, a mother searching for her daughter, is helping the community of Castrima migrate to a better location in the hopes of surviving. She’s also committed to appeasing the Earth (who is sentient — I don’t have time to explain, just read the books) by bringing back the moon, whereas her nihilist daughter is planning to use her powers to slam the Moon into the Earth, ending the old bastard once and for all.
This untenable situation — a mother desperately trying to find her daughter and redemption for the awful decisions of her past, a daughter currently making awful decisions in reaction to her mother’s, the overwhelming knowledge that if they could just get together and talk it would all be okay OH MY GOD WHY AREN’T THEY TOGETHER YET IF ONLY THEY’D TALK IT WOULD ALL BE BETTER.
The twin motivators — Essun and Nassun have to meet again! and How the hell will they pull this off? Are they going to be able to catch the moon? — keep the pages turning fast and without fatigue. It’s easy to get lost in a world that’s so big when you are deeply invested in what happens to the characters and how the fuck-up of this civilization will be put right.
The amount of information Jemisin gives us about the world in the finale is another reason to keep turning pages. The stone eaters are what? Orogeny was designed? By whom? In addition to creating the forward impulsion of Nassun/Essun // Apocalypse/Peace, Jemisin uses the third installment of her series to answer every single question we have about it, mostly through the flashback chapters about Syl Anagist, an ancient solarpunk city that spanned the world. It gives complete explanations for why the Earth is so angry, why some inhabitants of the stillness have superpowers, and what the hell stone eaters are. Nevermind the explanation of mysteries that have been following us the entire series: it’s a joy to explore the ancient city with Jemisin at the helm. Full of arrogance, far too satisfied with their own power, true, but look at all the cool stuff they had. Another benefit is that it takes this already fully-fleshed-out world, a world you’ve lived in for days (or weeks or years, depending on when you read the books), and makes it just the remnant of a 40,000-year-old far-future society, further increasing the depth and breadth of the world Jemisin built. The resolution in the novel is not just the resolution of two humans, mother and daughter, but of a 40,000-year-long war between humanity and the Earth. Epic doesn’t begin to describe it. The story itself is super cool, but another really interesting thing Jemisin does is make all her main characters awful people. No, seriously.
Oh man these people make bad choices, but who are we to judge?
Jemisin doesn’t shy away from making her characters awful people, and it makes them much more believable. Awful people is maybe too harsh, but they do make awful decisions. Essun, the main character who has been searching for her daughter since Book 1, raised her daughter Nassun in such desperation and fear that she only ever trained her, only ever showed disappointment in weakness, because weakness meant death. Her love was the desperate love of the hunted — never free from the harsh drumbeat survive survive survive. Both mother and daughter are powerful orogenes, in grave danger if they ever reveal what they are. Essun even breaks her daughter’s hand in a horrifying parallel to what her Guardian did to her. It is a cruel torture, but it does ensure the victim has control. Without control, Nassun would be found out and killed. Essun does what is necessary to make sure her daughter lives, to the exclusion of everything that Nassun might see as love. She’s not a bad person. She’s a great mother in one very specific way, and a terrible one in another.
Nassun, ten years old, ripped from her home by a horror she can barely understand, stumbles through a destroyed world until she meets Schaffa, an ex-Guardian seeking redemption. She’s either physically or emotionally estranged from her entire family, and Schaffa (more on him later) gives her the unconditional love she’s craving so desperately. She falls deep into this dependent love, and it leads her to make some problematic decisions. When Schaffa brings her to a Fulcrum (a branch of the organization that sanctions orogenes) she literally kills every single one because, having figured out her mother is a trained orogene, she blames them for making her mother so cold and unfeeling. She goes on to ever-increasing acts of genocide, infected by the absolute nihilism of a ten-year-old who has lost everything she ever cared about. By the end of the book, she is willing to end the world to end its pain, an ambition beyond all but the most accomplished supervillains, but the magic of Jemisin’s writing is you understand exactly how she got there and are reluctant to pass judgment.
The dominant relationship in The Stone Sky is a bizarre cross-time triangle between Essun, Nassun, and Schaffa. Schaffa is the Guardian who broke Essun’s hand, who tortured her for her own good, who hunted her when she ran away. It is horrifying to watch Nassun fall deeply in daughterly love with her mother’s tormentor. The years (ahem, spoiler centuries) he spent instilling dependent love in others as a Guardian makes it a hard habit to break. Here’s the thing though: as toxic as his love is, and as dangerous as he is, he truly does love his charges, at least by his own lights. That makes it so much creepier.
You understand each and every character, from the most saintly to the most despicable, what their motivations are, and what they’ve done. My favorite quote about literature is George Saunders’ about fiction being an empathy-generating machine, and Jemisin’s machine is ticking over nicely. I might be horrified by some characters’ actions, but I understand why they did them, and that’s a luxury most readers don’t enjoy.
Go get The Stone Sky, and get it now (or the whole series, if you’re behind)
There is so much I couldn’t say here. I try to keep these under 1500 words, and I’m over 2,000 right now, but there’s so much greatness in these books that, if I tried to explore it all the result would be unreadable. The balanced, clear writing? How Jemisin pays attention to racial differences in a way that most fantasy doesn’t (most fantasy just assumes everyone’s white)? How badass the fight scenes are? Exactly what Guardians are and where they get their power? How orogeny is actually just magic and much more than rock-throwing? How freaking cool stone eaters are? This work is too big, too expansive, to discuss everything that’s in it in a single blog post, and my inability to discuss it comprehensively is the single greatest indicator of it being literally epic, as in “heroic or grand in scale or character” dictionary-level epic. It’s too big to talk about. I can’t share it with you here. You only have one option. Go read it!
My mother loved the Queen of Crime Fiction, and for good reason, it turns out
Agatha Christie has been outsold by two people: Shakespeare and God. The only books to outsell hers are Shakespeare’s plays and the Bible. Despite that popularity, I was not impressed by my first foray into her works, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I was even less impressed by The A.B.C. Murders. While the first was enjoyable, and played with the conventions of mystery novels in one very particular and striking way, it didn’t grab me. The second I found gimmicky and empty. I rather agreed with Raymond Chandler, who characterized what happens in English detective stories as “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.” As happens so often, actual knowledge of something is all that’s necessary to kill disdain for it. I crossed that barrier with The Murder at the Vicarage, the book I buried with my mother.
My mother loved reading. It was her defining hobby, and she loved Agatha Christie especially, having read every book she wrote. So, in the surreal logic of grief, I decided to put one copy of Christie’s work in the ground with her, so she’d have something to do. The copy was The Murder at the Vicarage, for the simple reason that it was one of the first to come to hand when I reached into her massive Agatha Christie cupboard. Once I was home after the back and forth and tumult of the funeral, I turned all my energy to consuming that book as fast as possible. If it was worth burying with my mom, surely it was worth reading, right? I read it on my phone while waiting in line, listened to it in my car while commuting, and spent a lot of time reading it normally at night. It was my last goodbye, and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved. The result was going at breakneck speed through the work of a master craftswoman. She’s pretty amazing, y’all.
So, what is TheMurder at the Vicarage actually about?
The Murderat the Vicarage is narrated by a village vicar, Leonard Clement. He’s married to a much younger wife, Griselda Clement. After a few introductory pages, a man that everyone in the village despises to varying levels, Colonel Protheroe, is found shot through the head in the vicar’s study. The book after that point introduces many characters, all who had a reason to dislike the insufferable Colonel, and explores various scenarios under which they could have killed the victim. The only person who can see through all the chaff of misdirection is Miss Marple, in her first outing as one of Christie’s best-loved sleuths. Maybe she’s the reason why this ended up being the book I chose from among the handful I pulled off my mother’s bookshelf — the detective is an old lady of hidden depths and impressive intelligence (hi my mom was like, smart as hell).
Why Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries are so good
Agatha Christie is escapist literature, definitely, so long as the people using that term aren’t dull enough to think it’s shorthand for less-than or non-literary. She’s one of the most impressive craftsmen I’ve ever read. She builds plots like the Swiss build clocks — everything is tiny, seemingly insignificant, but it all fits together in clear and important ways once the work is done. Through and around all the logic puzzles and plot twists, there is strong, clear writing and an impressively deep understanding of human nature.
For people who are addicted to Agatha Christie, a good portion of the fun is figuring out whodunnit. I’m abysmal at this — I had not the least suspicion of the actual evildoers at any point throughout any of the three Christie books I’ve read. Dad tells me that mom got to where she could get it right about half the time. The thing that seems almost unfair, paradoxically, is that Dame Christie gives you everything you need to know exactly who murdered whom. The mystery is built perfectly — the answer is hidden, but each detail on each page of the story fits seamlessly with all others to point to only one conclusion — if you’ve got the skill to slot them together in the right order. I do not. In this particular book, the narrator runs across the killer carrying a rock. This is damning evidence, but neither the narrator nor I has any idea. Generally, you’re not smart enough to figure it out, but there’s a lot of pleasure in the examination of every little occurrence and the formation of your (in my case) inevitably wrong theory. This exercise completely occupies the mind, and pulls your brain more fully into the book than with other escapist literature. It’s half small-town dialogue and half LSAT logic puzzle.
The sheer strength and clarity of writing is a joy to read. It’s the style of writing that many of the best use, where you don’t even realize how powerfully that style is building a world around you, putting you exactly where it wants you. The powerful can make you do or feel what they want, but the truly powerful make you do it without even realizing it. It’s so strong it doesn’t need to be showy. Just an example, without further commentary:
“You see,” she began at last, “living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby. There is, of course, woolwork, and Guides, and Welfare, and sketching, but my hobby is–and always has been–Human Nature. So varied–and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study.”
This is the source of Miss Marple’s power. Sure, her template is just that of the nosy old neighbor, but add to that her keen intelligence and singular understanding of human nature, and she’s a dangerous adversary. There’s something so delicious in an unassuming old lady, ignored by most and feared by none, having the perspicacity to pierce through to the truth and undo all the careful plotting of the murderer.
Another of Miss Marple’s quotes, savage to the extreme, was on the subject of her modern novelist nephew:
“His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the essence of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people leading lives of surpassing dullness.”
Unassuming old lady, able to tear the heart out of anyone who doesn’t impress her. I also particularly love this quote because it’s so true. I love modern fiction on the level of Midnight’s Children or Infinite Jest, but so much gets a pass as serious literature simply because it’s boring and miserable, which must mean it is Important. The 100 pages of Franzen’s The Corrections to which I had the fortitude to subject myself is some of the worst “literature” I’ve ever read. Unpleasant people and lives of surpassing dullness, indeed.
Agatha Christie, my mother, and me
Agatha Christie gives you plenty to chew on in this novel. The frantic fitting together of every little detail as you read, hoping to prove to yourself that you’re smart enough to figure it out before the big reveal. The satisfaction of the big reveal itself, as the intricate structure of everything she’s built up to that point becomes apparent. The deep understanding of people, what they want, and how they act. Christie pulling all this out of a small village in the middle of a quiet old English county is perhaps the most impressive thing she does. It reflects actual life so well — no matter how little is happening, no matter how boring something appears to be, there is always depth to it, like a drop of water under a microscope shows an entire unimagined world, teeming with microbes.
It helped me grieve for my mother because while I was reading it, she was right there with me. I’m so much like her that she won’t be gone until I stop breathing, and it’s comforting to be reminded of that. After I type these last words, I’ll stumble off to the kitchen, make myself salmon with shishito peppers, and watch The Defenders, continuing to lead a motherless life. While I’m writing this, and while reading TheMurder at the Vicarage, I’m not motherless. Reading and writing are so much of my inheritance from her that doing those things brings her back. She’s with me, not in a mystical sense, but because she built who I am.
Anyway, TheMurder at the Vicarage is a good book, and you should probably read it.
I just read one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s first short stories, and it was so perfect it completely derailed my original plans for this post. I have to write this love letter to my favorite author. No one alive comes close to her flawless creation of whole worlds from a handful of sentences, and no one has a deeper speculative-anthropological interest in what humanity is and should be.
I don’t remember the first time I read one of her books — it happened in that post-high-school flurry of absolutely unbound devouring, where you’re no longer reading what you feel you “have to” to be taken seriously, but what you want to — the rubber-band snapping of freedom is disorienting, but it’s wonderful to no longer have to pretend you understand Gravity’s Rainbow at 17 years old.
In that frenzy of consumption, something of hers was tossed in, but where she really grabbed me and never let go was with The Dispossessed. A piece of Science Fiction so perfectly balanced, so perfectly human, serious without confusing being serious with being boring and grim, that I have never forgotten it. It fairly and clearly represents the benefits and flaws of a capitalist and anarchist society (two different planets locked in co-orbital positions, one desert-anarchist, the other lush-capitalist). Capitalism is not all subjugation of the poor (although that is an unavoidable side-effect, if not a planned feature), and anarchism is not all lighting fires and throwing stones — all anarchy means is the absence of hierarchical power structures. UKL shows there’s beauty and flaws in both systems because both systems are run by inherently fallible people.
Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards
She’s a bona fide hero. If you need proof, here’s her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:
In a room filled with book publishers, at an event sponsored by Amazon, she took the industry to task for “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant” and said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, but so did the divine right of kings.”
That was UKL the doyenne of American SF. This story is from Ursula K. Le Guin, the barely-published writer, and she already had the magic.
The Word of Unbinding: a ten-minute story packed with everything Ursula K. Le Guin would become
In The Word of Unbinding, we already see all the elements that make UKL who she is as an author. Language as simple and clear as a forest stream. The ability to plant twenty words, step back, and watch them grow into an entire vivid world. A focus on the importance of balance, acceptance, and doing the right, the human thing. Before going further, please read the story. It’s two dollars and will take you ten minutes. It is without a doubt the most worthwhile thing you will do today — doubtless more worthwhile than reading this blog.
The Word of Unbinding is an exceedingly simple story. A wizard is trapped in a dark well, guarded by strange creatures and magics, and he tries and fails to escape until there is only one way out. Like all of UKL’s writing, it is simple and straightforward, but so incredibly dense. Not in the James Joyce/Thomas Pynchon sense, but in the sense that each word is so carefully chosen and placed it’s like setting stone on stone. Here’s the first line:
Where was he? The floor was hard and slimy, the air black and stinking, and that was all there was.
She accomplishes everything she needs to in twenty words. The protagonist is lost and confused, something bad has happened to him, bad air, hard floor, and that’s it. Before there’s any chance of remotely understanding what’s going on, there’s a rock-solid sense of where the story is. Next step is explaining who the protagonist, Festin, is:
Lately, in these lone years in the middle of his life, he had been burdened with a sense of waste, of unspent strength; so, needing to learn patience, he had left the villages and gone to converse with trees, especially oaks, chestnuts, and the grey alders whose roots are in profound communication with running water. It had been six months since he had spoken to a human being. He had been busy with essentials, casting no spells and bothering no one.
UKL’s conception of how magic works and what its practitioners should be is the most compelling in all of literature. This isn’t clear from the excerpt, but her system is almost entirely based on naming. Everything in existence has a True Name, and innate power wedded to study and discovery of these names gives a wizard their abilities: just like a writer, they use language to call forth miracles, to change the reality around them. What is clear from the excerpt is what a wizard should be: Festin has not cast a spell in half a year. Magic is not about fireballs and parlor tricks, but about balance. Each and every wizard has a responsibility to maintain and protect that balance — that is what makes them a wizard. The upsetting of that balance is the source of evil, in this story as elsewhere in Earthsea (UKL’s fantasy territory).
A wizard reaver named Voll goes from island to island, destroying towns and enslaving people, disrupting the natural order. He seals the protagonist in a dark well-tomb. Festin, confident in his power, attempts to escape repeatedly. First as a creeping mist, then as simple air, then as a falcon, then as a trout. He is successively foiled with a blast of hot air, a storm wind, an arrow, and a fisherman’s net. Broken, cold, and kept on the edge of death, he begins wondering why his enemy will not kill him. After due consideration, he takes the last path out of his situation — the word of unbinding:
So Festin made his choice. His last thought was, If I am wrong, men will think I was a coward. But he did not linger on this thought. Turning his head a little to the side, he closed his eyes, took a last deep breath, and whispered the word of unbinding, which is only spoken once.
Festin, seeing his situation and a possible way to restore balance, makes the human (in its least cynical definition) decision and accepts the change required to set things right. Once in the land of the dead, a land of hard obsidian lava flows, black grass, and unmoving stars, he discovers Voll is long dead but has somehow returned to the world. He chases his enemy back to his corpse, forces him to re-enter it, and then sits vigil at the point of origin for the imbalance, guarding against further upset.
Festin saves the world through acceptance of the most human fact there is: all will die and turn to dust. If he had attempted to avoid what must be, he would have remained trapped and ineffective, unable to bring battle to Voll on any plane that mattered.
Cultivating imbalance for personal gain unerringly leads to evil and is set right through courageous acceptance of what must be.
This story floored me not simply because it was so perfect, so small yet so powerful, but because this is one of the first things UKL ever published, and she was already a master. She further developed her talent over a decades-long career, but everything she needed was already there: the power and clarity of her language, the strength of her perception of the world she’s creating, and the strong philosophical attachment to balance. Not to mention it’s a super fun wizard adventure story, written 53 years ago and still wonderful and fresh today.