For years, I’ve held an unpopular opinion about this Science Fiction show. With “USS Callister,” maybe that’s over
I’ve disliked Black Mirror since season 1, but there’s so much positive buzz around it each time a new season rolls around that I’m dragged back in to watching an episode or two and being disappointed all over again. The problem is that it casts itself as a serious show filled with original ideas that like, really make you think, maaaan, but it’s more boring than thought-provoking. “Fifteen Million Merits” (S01E02) is the episode where most of society is basically enslaved and a gameshow with absurdly high stakes is used as a method of control. That is not very original at all. There’s also “Nosedive” (S03E01), where your social standing is entirely based on other peoples’ Yelp-like reviews of you, personally. Not as big a sin as the gameshow thing, but still a concept I found about as interesting as yet another “Are iPhones ruining Millennials?” thinkpiece. And then there’s “San Junipero,” whose central concept was uploading your mind after death. This is such a tired and well-tread SF concept that it’s easier to direct you to the TV Tropes page about it instead of giving examples.
There’s nothing wrong with using what came before. There’s nothing new under the sun, and the cultural chiasmata that results from widespread borrowing is part of the fun of Science Fiction. There are two main issues though with Black Mirror‘s lifting of ideas from the ether: one, many reviewers praise it specifically for its imagination, and two, it’s marketed as one hour of self-contained, high-concept television. When you build a show specifically to explore ideas, and people praise your show for how fresh and new those ideas are, the originality of your concepts is important. Season 5 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a great brain-upload virtual universe storyline, and it didn’t land as hackneyed because it was just one element of a character-driven action drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Black Mirror‘s multiple in-episode rants about the State of Society, its completely on-the-nose moralizing, and its self-seriousness disqualify it from the relaxed critical standards that something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. enjoys. Also, much of the dialogue is flabby, a lot of the episodes are either under- or over-acted, and the actual execution of each show is boring. It’s like eating at a white-tie restaurant where the waiter judges you, except all they serve is Quaker Peaches and Cream oatmeal. It does not live up to its mystique. Nothing wrong with oatmeal, it’s just not an interesting food.
The first episode of season 4 is good though, I promise
OK. Wow. Got carried away there, because it’s easier to talk about hating something than it is to talk about something being good. With all the preceding off of my chest, I can cover how “USS Callister” gives me hope for the new season.
The concept, in which the boss makes virtual, fully sentient copies of his underlings to do his bidding, may have been directly lifted from Vernor Vinge’s 2003 Hugo-award-winning novella. Again, unoriginal concepts are only show-ruining if they’re the only leg on your stool. What this episode does, in contrast to the handful of previous ones I’ve watched, is take that concept as a foundation and build something on it aside from self-important moralizing.
The CTO of a virtual gaming company runs a bootleg, offline version of his game, in which he’s trapped sentient copies of people he feels have wronged him. They know who and where they are, but they are forced to participate smilingly in a game-universe Star Trek retread, and they face terrible consequences if they don’t play along.
The Star Trek retread is entertaining. The actors involved in this one are more interesting (especially Jimmi Simpson, whom I love in everything he does). I felt real horror while watching the antagonist exercise absolute control over the people he’d trapped in his own personal world. While watching “USS Callister,” I enjoyed an engrossing TV show. During every previous episode of Black Mirror, I was constantly aware that Art was being Practiced Upon Me for my Edification, obviously and tiresomely.
I have high hopes for the rest of Season 4 if this trend continues. Sorry this ended up being mostly about me hating previous seasons of Black Mirror — you can leave a comment with your favorite episodes if you feel I need to educate myself.
Led by Mark Hamill, the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise delivers science fiction fun and excitement, but there are some problems
Despite everything that will follow this first paragraph, you should go see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson understands what fun is — he effortlessly recaptures the excitement and wonder of the original trilogy. The opening space battle in particular is gripping. In contrast to prequels infested with bad CGI, every shot is visually stunning, well-constructed, and immediately evokes a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. If you go see The Last Jedi, you will enjoy it, because it is a good, fun movie. If you think about it too much, you might not, since it’s also a lazy one.
General Badness. No spoilers.
The Last Jedi’s biggest problem is one it shares with most other modern blockbuster entertainment: everything is constantly hectic and exciting, so there’s almost no space for anything to grow organically. A lack of originality is still apparent in this film. It’s not nearly as bad as in Episode VII, but there are still scenes and beats lifted from the original trilogy with only a slight twist or a different color scheme to set them off. The dominant plot thread is an unbelievably boring framing device (more details later), and it takes up about a third of the total screentime. There’s also a 30-minute side jaunt that could have been cut completely from the film without it losing anything at all (again, more later).
General Goodness. Getting slightly more spoilery.
I would watch Old Man Luke on an island for its own spinoff trilogy. Mark Hamill is hands-down the best thing in this movie: the tension created by an old, jaded Master Skywalker playing counterpoint to everyone’s memories of the naive and exceedingly optimistic young Luke is delicious, and Hamill’s gravelly, tired voice really sells it. Everything we learn about the island, why Luke’s there, and what his current philosophy on the Force is is wonderful — Star Wars’ focus on mythos is what sets it apart from more straight-up sci-fi like Star Trek (another movie series that is extremely entertaining but, like this trilogy, suffering from actionitis). Every shot in the movie is well-put-together — it does a lot for a film when each frame is just fun to look at, regardless of what’s happening in it. Finally, the space battles, when they happen, create the exact same lift and thrill as the originals did. Rian Johnson understands action and how to make sure viewers have a good time. The choreography is a huge improvement over the original trilogy, in which people with vast supernatural powers and laser swords made the same four strikes over and over again, and over the prequels, in which everything was insanely baroque (seriously — in Revenge of the Sith, there was a two-second period in the final fight where all they did was twirl lightsabers in the other’s general direction). The problem is not with any individual scene, but the slapdash quality of the overarching narrative itself.
Specific Badness. Definite spoilers.
The two main plot threads are Rey on the island with Luke and the Resistance fleeing a New Order fleet attempting to wipe them out. The first one is fine, but the flight for survival among the Resistance? It’s not an assault, it’s not a pitched battle — literally all that happens for the majority of the movies’ central narrative is that three Resistance cruisers fly slightly faster than their New Order pursuers. It’s an absurd way to spend movie time. There’s a 30-minute sidequest in which Finn and Rose (new generic engineer character) go to a casino planet to get a “master codebreaker” to infiltrate and disable the tracking system of the main enemy ship. Since they basically just walked into the New Order’s top-secret superweapon in the previous film, this looks and feels like narrative padding, or at best a cheap solution to past criticism. The film would have lost nothing had it been completely removed. The movie still struggles with originality. The final battle is of the rebels holed up in a cave base on a desert salt planet as AT-ATs close in. Salt looks a lot like snow. A conflicted but mostly evil Ren brings Rey to his master. After watching her fight ineffectually against him for a bit, Kylo Ren kills the Emperor. I mean the Supreme Leader, sorry.
The biggest creative sin of the movie, however, is that no one involved has any patience to build anything. Two and a half hours of instant gratification leaves a movie that feels cheap, whose slick look and explosive action are stretched over a hollow core. The writing behind the characters and love stories, the training and development of Force powers, and the direction of the trilogy itself is a rushed afterthought, always taking a backseat to (very well done) action and (less well done) comradely quips.
Han/Leia vs. Rey/Finn — in the original trilogy, Han and Leia cordially dislike each other in Ep IV, have a snarky and increasingly sexually tense relationship in Ep V, ending with the immortal “I know,” and even in Ep. VI, until Leia sets him straight, Han thinks she’s pining for Luke. Their relationship unfurls slowly, and the result is solid and believable because it has been built over the course of years. In the new movies, Finn and Rey become buds after an initial misunderstanding, and now are yearning for each other throughout because hey, the male and female leads love each other because it’s a movie.
Jedi Training — Luke received a few days of training from Obi-Wan and could barely even access the force. Rey has a three-minute conversation with Luke about the Force (and maybe a few days, few weeks of training?) and is suddenly the equal of Kylo Ren. She didn’t work for it. It’s not as fun watching her use those powers because she didn’t earn them — Luke sweated in Dagobah, went into self-training exile between Eps V and VI, and finally, after four years of in-movie time, is kinda-sorta-halfway prepared to face Vader. “She’s just that powerful” doesn’t excuse it. First off, that doesn’t keep it from being bad narrative. Secondly, it doesn’t matter if you are the strongest, fastest human on the planet — if you’ve never seen a basketball before in your life, you are not going to be schooling LeBron in a week. Also, an undertrained, overpowered Force sensitive is, throughout the entire history of Star Wars, the single biggest threat to the balance of the universe. So that’s just being ignored now, since she’s so incredibly powerful? That just makes her more dangerous.
The Overall Trilogy — Where are these movies going? What is their point? In the originals, there was a clearly delineated if simple hero’s quest: farmboy discovers inner strength, develops it, suffers setbacks, but eventually rises to defeat the Empire. In contrast, the new trilogy goes back and forth so often it becomes muddled — we’re the Resistance but actually we’re funded by the New Republic but oh whoops the splinter terrorist group the New Order killed the entire Republic in two minutes and now they’re the Empire and we’re the Rebels lol! This is happening because no one on this project cares about delivering consistency as much as they care about delivering thrills.
Specific Good. Still spoilers.
One of the greatest moments in all of Star Wars is when Kylo and Rey defeat Snoke, Rey is ecstatic about having saved “Ben” from the Dark Side, and then he’s all like, “Join me, we’ll rule together. Have you not been listening this whole time? I’m evil!” A+ Rian, great job.
Also, because it can’t be said enough, angry Luke wandering around an island. Would watch forever. His entire redemption arc is the best thing in the movie.
Does nostalgia play a role in my higher estimation of the original trilogy? Absolutely. I can’t deny that Ewoks happened. Neither can I defend a desert planet rube being cleared as a fighter pilot for an assault on the most advanced battle station in the Galaxy. The difference is that the original trilogy took its time and actually paid attention to narrative structure and character development. The trilogy-long arc of Luke’s struggle to become savior of the galaxy is believable. I cared what happened to Han, Luke, and Leia. I knew them well. The main character traits of this new crop are how powerful they are, how good they are at flying X-wings, or how quippy they are — they don’t have time to be anything else. The new trilogy has done so much so well. If they slowed down and actually put in the writing work to get the story to where they needed it to be (instead of just declaring THINGS ARE LIKE THIS NOW and expecting the audience to follow along), they could be truly great.
I do not have a monopoly on movie opinions (unlike Disney now has on movie making). Feel free to tell me how I’m wrong and I might even agree with you. The only problematic take I see is the idea that those who didn’t love The Last Jedi are hidebound purists, clinging to their original trilogy with gnarled fingers, terrified of change. Look, I didn’t dislike The Last Jedi because it was different. Hell, I didn’t even dislike The Last Jedi. I’m not mad. I’m disappointed in how much better the film could have been. If I’m eating a pulled pork sandwich and you replace it with bologna, I’m not disappointed because I fear change. I’m disappointed because now I have to eat a fucking bologna sandwich.
Original and fearless, it answers the question “What would happen if we mixed Terminator with Pineapple Express?”
Future Man is, without a doubt, the greatest janitor-centered time travel comedy of 2017. The concept is straightforward: Josh Futterman, a custodial worker at a biolab, lives with his parents and spends his free time playing Biotic Wars under the moniker Future Man. When he beats the game (the first person to do so), he discovers that it’s actually a recruitment/training simulation. Two future warriors straight out of an 80s B-movie materialize in his bedroom and tell him the Biotic Wars are real and he’s humanity’s savior.
Here it is: https://www.hulu.com/grid/future-man. It’s unfortunately only available with a Hulu account, but you need to be watching A Handmaid’s Tale anyway, so it shouldn’t be that painful.
The show takes a little time to get off the ground. The first couple of episodes are rough because it’s so clearly wish fulfillment — the loser with a dead-end job gets to hang out with Time Marines. As it becomes more and more clear that any easy tropes Future Man uses are there to be subverted, the narrative becomes more interesting. By episode 5, the rightness of the war against the Biotics is called into question, and what was a goofy, fun sci-fi romp becomes a goofy, fun, sci-fi romp filled with moral ambiguity and existential doubt. It’s an amazing turn — one minute you’re laughing at Rogenesque (Seth is a producer) dick jokes, and the next you’re asking what reality is. The skeleton of this show is a time-travel comedy, but it’s fleshed out with writing that trusts the audience, true character development, and really careful attention to plot.
Entertainment is the defining feature of each episode — every one is laugh-out-loud funny. This ranges from dumb, crude jokes (the instant the soldiers materialize in Josh’s bedroom, he’s masturbating) to extremely complex and rewarding long-arc humor — grizzled warrior Wolf discovers a hidden talent for cuisine and spends the rest of the show conflicted between his persona as a Michelin-level talent and a man who can rip someone’s head off with his bare hands.
Future Man actually shows how deeply crippling it is to grow up in a world where the only choice is to become a super soldier or die
The attention to character is a big part of what gives the show real substance. Tiger and Wolf are parodies of 80s action heroes, and they absolutely are everything you’d expect as a result: trained killers, strong, direct, and unversed in 21st century niceties. Unlike the 80s movies that inspired these two, Future Man actually shows how deeply crippling it is to grow up in a world where the only choice is become a super soldier or die. At one point, Josh attempts to kiss Tiger, and she almost throws up. She asks why he would want to put “ratholes” together (“What else would you call the hole you stuff rats into?”), revealing the deep intimacy issues created in a kill-or-be-killed world. In addition to a realistic portrayal of the dark side of being a badass future soldier, the show shepherds each of the leading characters through personal development. Josh becomes more dedicated, more confident, and more able to work towards his goals. Tiger becomes more willing to express emotions, and Wolf (in what is possibly the best episode of the series) moves from being an unquestioning grunt into pursuing personal fulfillment to the hilt. It’s a goofy comedy, but its serious attention to true human emotion keeps it from being only that.
[E]ach change they make in the past has unpredictable, upsetting, and permanent results
The time travel in Future Man is the most painstaking exploration of the concept to make it to any type of screen in the last few years. The central conflict involves going back in time to assassinate the inventor of the super serum that creates the genocidal Biotics. The show is mainly a catalogue of how the multiple attempts and failures of the main trio shred the timeline more and more irreparably. Actions have consequences, and that is such an important quality of good narrative. For example, the most disappointing thing about Doctor Who’s decline in the post-Tennant years is its creeping but inexorable movement away from time travel having rules. In Doctor Who, if something is broken beyond repair, the Doctor can literally just scream I’M THE DOCTOR, completely ignore all rules of internal narrative consistency, and change everything to suit him. The writers make no reference to previously unbreakable rules, to commonly accepted time travel tropes, or even a decent explanation of exactly what it is the Doctor is doing. The absolute lack of consequences has transformed Doctor Who from a show written with kids in mind to a kids’ show. Future Man is on the other end of the spectrum — each change they make in the past has unpredictable, upsetting, and permanent results (the funniest and most trivial of which is Josh accidentally making his parents name him “Joosh”). The explanations for how time travel works don’t necessarily make sense because time travel itself doesn’t make sense, but the writers never insult the audience with hand-waving — they stick to their internally-consistent guns and explore consequences rationally.
While the show doesn’t get its feet under it until about episode four, it is impressive once it gets going. The writers chose what they wanted this show to be with no consideration for who would want to follow, no focus-group simplification — they just went for it, and the resulting joy of creation translates into a palpable energy in every scene. The contrast at the center of the show is constantly stimulating — it’s very much a goofy bro sci-fi show, but it explores its morals and characters with the utmost seriousness. Even if this show had no other saving graces, the montage where Wolf falls in love with the 80s is, by itself, worth the Hulu subscription.
The latest entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series cements his reputation as the king of high-octane fantasy
There are three reasons to read Brandon Sanderson: the size and originality of the worlds he builds, the scientific rigor of his magic systems, and the river-in-flood irresistibility of his action sequences. The Stormlight Archive, his projected ten-volume magnum opus, is magnificently ambitious (ten volumes, ~1200 words each, should be done when I’m in my 50s), and coming later in his career than his wildly popular Mistborn series, it’s more sophisticated. The writing is smoother, the action is tighter, and the actionless parts are more interesting. He’s better at making characters you really care about, and the mythology of the world they live in approaches many actual religions in complexity.
In Oathbringer, the ancient evil that has haunted Roshar for millennia returns. The Everstorm has raged across the continent, transforming parshmen, an enslaved humanoid species, into a standing army bent on the eradication of humanity. The Knights Radiant, an ancient order gifted with magical powers for the defense of human civilization, have begun to return. Normal people manifest powers seemingly at random, and the ex-general Dalinar, the former soldier Kaladin, and the noblewoman Shallan Davar are frantically trying to collect these new Knights and to forge the countries and kingdoms of the world into an organization that can resist annihilation.
Oathbringer is a glorious mess. Glorious is a well-earned adjective, and mess might be unfair. It’s got all the goodies people expect from Sanderson, but it does stumble a bit. It’s so much slower than the previous entries. Many sections are overdescribed (not to Robert Jordan levels). For example, there’s an entire chapter about a soldier making soup. His comrades are training in the background, and the frame serves as a window into the bonds among the group. At the end of the chapter, you know more about the characters and the world. It’s worthwhile, but it’s really hard to forget that you just read an entire chapter about making soup. There’s also only one mega-climax at the very end of the book (instead of a series of smaller, but still epic, conflicts throughout the book, like midseason cliffhangers). There is action, and there are fights, but they feel more like skirmishes, scraps unworthy of the explosive finale. Finally, the amazing powers Kaladin and the other Knights Radiant began to master at the end of Vol 2, Words of Radiance, are used for mundane tasks for a lot of the book. There are exceptions, but Kaladin mainly uses his powers to fly from point A to point B. Compared to the very first pages of the very first book, where the Assassin in White uses his powers to engage in one of the most impressive fight scenes in all of fantasy literature, it pales. The finale more than makes up for it, but that doesn’t change that for most of the book, Kaladin’s Windrunner powers were basically a supernatural Greyhound bus.
This book is still great, and you should buy it now. Sanderson deepens the mythos he set out in the first two books, and each new facet adds more beauty and interest to the gem-like clarity of what he’s built. Sanderson has such an innate sense of place that what he describes is tangible. Mystical mountain keeps, overcrowded markets, barren wastes, all of it is there as a solid presence, not just a series of descriptions. Also, when the hundred-page climax comes, it is jaw-droppingly good.
This review ended up being more negative than I expected — I loved this book. I read it in three days. I guess the bad is sticking out here because Sanderson so reliably delivers greatness that it’s become background — invisible because it’s expected — and the less-great stands out because it’s so rare. I think Sanderson’s ambition is behind a lot of the issues I had with the book, but it’s also what makes it the greatest action-centered fantasy currently being written. There’s so much happening that sheer inertia makes the story hard to steer — it takes a lot to get anything moving in a different direction. Sanderson is a man dragging a boulder uphill. He might stumble, he might be a little red in the face, but he still gets it to the top, and when it rolls down the other side, it crushes everything in its path. The final battle of this book is mind-blowing. Everything that felt a bit awkward as it was moved into place throughout the rest of the narrative is exactly where it needs to be by the end, and it’s amazing because there is so much dovetailing so perfectly.
The newest entry in the anti-fascist franchise brings the fight to America
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is about one thing — killing every lowdown, dirty Nazi you see. It really doesn’t need a plot — the momentum of that overwhelming prime directive is enough to carry the game. The gameplay is basic point-and-shoot, but the customizability of weapons loadouts lends engaging variety to the simplicity. The character-level plot is pretty fuzzy and choppy, but the creepy, believably-crafted alternate history setting is strong enough to power the overarching plot: Nazis won World War II, they’ve annexed the United States, and your job is to set off a revolution that will burn Nazism out of America forever.
This is somehow a controversial political stance in today’s America. I wasn’t in the market for a shooter, but I picked up this game because there was an alt-right backlash, an actual backlash, against this tweet: https://twitter.com/wolfenstein/status/916075551382585344. It’s a basic promotional tweet, but the phrase “Make America Nazi-Free Again” ruffled some feathers on the internet. This ridiculous outrage, plus Bethesda’s response to it (uh, guys — we thought the “Are Nazis Bad” question was settled 70 years ago) made me decide to pick up the game, in which I spent 20 hours Making America Nazi-Free Again.
Everyone rips off The Man in the High Castle
Nazism is one of the great universally agreed evils (or at least it was) in the world. The USA built its modern mythos off of our actions to help topple a genocidal maniac and our assistance to a war-ravaged Europe in the postwar years, but the world of Wolfenstein takes that from us. We didn’t win. We don’t get to claim we helped save the world — the Nazis get to claim they own it. The proofs of this throughout the game are so visceral — from a nuked and crumbling Manhattan to a prison-city New Orleans, with Nazi machines of war patrolling to keep undesirables in check. The destruction of a major metropolis and the systematic genocide of American citizens, the construction of concentration camps on American soil, the colonization of the United States by the Reich — all of it feels real, constructed out of the surreal yet solid plausibility of nightmares.
Nazi parades and prison cities
The plot really is just to kill all Nazis, to systematically eliminate high-ranking targets in order to advance the interests of the rebellion, but the world of The New Colossus gives more than enough weight to the story. The artistic interest in the game isn’t so much what you do, but where you’re doing it. The vision of an America complicit in the Reich is stomach-churning, and supplies all the narrative impetus necessary to get you through the game. It’s in the details, like when you go to a Nazi parade down the streets of a small American town and overhear a German soldier berating a fawning Klansman for his atrocious pronunciation of the German he’s learning. It’s in the reaction of the propagandized citizenry to who you are — you’re not B.J. Blazkowicz, Polish-American hero of the ill-fated World War II, you’re Terror-Billy, indiscriminate killer and scourge to all upstanding American citizens. It’s in the casual complicity of those American citizens who are powerful — stand with the Reich, and the Reich will stand with you.
Bullets, bullets, and more bullets
This being a Wolfenstein game, the solution to this problem is to find all the bullets you can and fire them as quickly as you can. The enjoyment of the actual weapons use was a welcome surprise here. Bethesda treads a careful line between simplicity and variety — the choices aren’t overwhelming, but the customizability of each weapon and the ability to dual-wield mixed types makes it easy to match your exact loadout to how you want to play. I went with a LaserKraftWerk in my left hand, and a fully-optimized shotgun in my right. The first is a one-shot kill laser gun that’s a little bit touchy to aim, and the second is, well, a shotgun. The laser cut through all the distant opponents and all the heavily armored ones, and the shotgun obliterated close enemies and took care of cleanup in case of my poor aim with the laser. One issue with the game is, if you want to really buy in to the mythos of Terror-Billy, you might want to play on an easier setting. I eventually got the hang of things, but I spent a good half of the game getting absolutely brutalized by grunt soldiers, which really didn’t fit with the idea of B.J. Blazkowicz as an unstoppable killing machine.
The game is not a must-play, but it’s fun as hell. If you’re craving a shooter, I strongly recommend picking this one up. The horror of its alternate reality is plausible enough to hit you in the pit of your stomach, the gunplay is fast and engaging, and the game is a good reminder that yes, Nazis always have and always will be a Very Bad Thing.
The first entry in The Book of Dust returns to one of the most solidly realized worlds in fiction
La Belle Sauvage is a wonderful, waterlogged fever dream built on the bones of a palpable reality. Readers who were transported by the original His Dark Materials trilogy should read it, without a doubt.
Pullman’s most impressive talent is how painstakingly he can build a place without letting boredom seep into the details. The first half of the book is an introduction to the world of Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent if unassuming 11-year-old, an innkeeper’s son who does odd jobs for the nuns across the river just outside Oxford. Pullman describes anbaric cars, naphtha lamps, and Protestant nunneries who serve Geneva instead of Rome, all those little pieces of difference from His Dark Materials that add up to a jarringly strange and exciting world. He also describes Yorkshire pudding, kitchen chores, school lessons, and reading — the standard building blocks of normal life.
For a good chunk of the book, Malcolm’s life is slow and sedate, but the things he does and where he goes are so powerfully described that it’s not boring, and suspense is always hissing at the edges of the narrative, whispering here and there like a fire just starting up — there’s no blaze yet, but the heat is there, and the first questing tongues of flame are licking the edges of the logs.
Without imagination, literature is nothing
The sheer joy of Pullman’s imagination is in full force here. The strength of his fantasy is its matter-of-factness. He grounds the fantastic so deeply in the everyday and uses it so sparingly that when it hits, it’s got the brightness of the strange but the weight of normalcy. The main action of the narrative is fleeing down the Thames in a canoe to bring Lyra to safety. Within a pile of mundane concerns — evasion of pursuers, feeding and changing the baby, protection against the weather — suddenly Malcolm and company meet a minor river-god who allows them to pass, or a child-sick faerie queen who attempts to steal Lyra. There’s the general background radiation of the bizarre — daemons, an ascendant and monstrous Church, alternative terminology (anbaric instead of electric, naphtha instead of oil lamps) — but outbreaks of the truly weird are rare, thus more powerful and believable. Pullman does not abuse the suspension of disbelief, so he can go farther when he invokes it.
Without realism, fantasy is nothing
The greatest feature of Pullman novels is that he treats children as children — that is, as complete people capable of experiencing pain, loss, courage and fear. Kids in The Book of Dust have to deal with the Real World, just like kids here do. When Malcolm is being pursued by someone who would hurt him, he beats him to death with a paddle, he feels each horrifying, grisly stroke, and he watches the blood pool out of his victim’s head. By contrast, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most courageous thing the Pevensies do is follow Aslan around until he pounces on the White Witch for them. Narnia is about the complete abdication of personal responsibility to a higher power, and The Book of Dust is about the terrifying responsibility of making human decisions in an inhuman world. There’s actual gristle in the challenges Pullman’s pint-sized protagonists face, and the solid reality of his characters’ struggles makes this an appealing book for readers of any age or genre affiliation.
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.