I recently discovered that China Mieville, the world’s least appropriate-looking fantasy writer, has a new book out. It’s his second collection of short stories. I’ve almost finished it, and it’s pretty good. I think the short story is a good format for him, because his ideas are often interesting, but don’t suggest the entire plot of a novel. Also, he’s cut back on the obscure words.
I’ve just handed in an essay about the influence of D&D on fantasy fiction.
The ‘standard fantasy setting’ seems to be quite influenced by D&D. At least, it has a lot of features that are found in D&D, and never or rarely found in Tolkien or other pre-1970s writers.
The main ones I found were:
Fantasy worlds with no connection to the real world That is, they’re not stated to be in an imagined past (like Lord of the Rings) or future, on another planet, in an alternate history etc.
Many species living more or less peacefully in a single civilisation As opposed to Middle Earth, where everyone lives apart, often don’t even know of each other’s existence, and if they do interact tend to hate and kill each other.
Polytheism combined with a setting resembling medieval or later Europe Pretty self-explanatory.
Systematised magic That is, the reader is told the ‘laws’ governing magic. Wizards are often analagous to academics in the real world. The Earthsea series is a partial exception, in that it has systematised magic and a school of magic, and dates from the late 60s.
China Mieville’s Bas-Lag trilogy is an example of a post-D&D setting with all these features, and he’s said that D&D was an influence on him.
He needs to work on his beard.
As I said yesterday, China Mieville once said that Tolkien was “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature.” A wen, by the way, is a cyst on the skin. Mieville is like Tolkien in that he likes using obscure words. Another, more significant, similarity is that he has good guys that are good and bad guys that are bad. I can’t imagine either of them having characters like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who are far from evil, but who arguably do more harm than good, and certainly aren’t fighting for anything other than their own wealth. I also can’t imagine him having a hero appointed by a prophecy.
Similarly, in Mieville’s stories it always matters to the broader world whether the good guys win or not. If Conan was to die his ex-lovers and comrades in arms would be sad, but it wouldn’t cause any great suffering in the general population. The people he’s robbed might even be relieved. But in the New Crobuzon stories the city is always in actual danger unless the heroes win.
However that didn’t stop him saying that
Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
The point about “elves and dwarves and magic rings” is probably one that lots of people will nod their heads at. Of course they aren’t really Tolkien’s original ideas, but it’s true that most examples of elves, dwarves and magic rings in modern popular culture come to us via Tolkien (probably by way of D&D and the computer games that copied it, and by fantasy authors copying all of the above).
However it wasn’t Tolkien who made these things cliches, it was all the people who copied Tolkien. That isn’t a reason to dislike Tolkien, it’s a reason to dislike copying. If Tolkien had never lived, I don’t imagine fantasy fiction would be any more original. There’d probably just be a lot more sub-Robert E. Howard and sub-HP Lovecraft and China Mieville would be talking about “sorcerers ‘n’ barbarians ‘n’ forgotten, slumbering gods” (which, of course, actually are fantasy cliches). Or if those writers had never lived either, “lost valleys ‘n’ dinosaurs ‘n’ Martians”. The lazy, ‘vanilla’ version of fantasy would be different, but just as lazy and vanilla.
In any case, I think talking about Tolkien’s style or ‘literary merit’ is missing the point. The real issue here, I’m pretty sure, is that Mieville doesn’t like conservative Catholicism.
I can sort of see why Mieville dresses up this fairly straightforward argument so that it sounds like he’s complaining about too many dwarves. A lot of people really, really hate the idea that fantasy writing can have a political agenda. Or at least they hate the idea when it’s writers they like, and when they agree with the ideas. I remember having an online debate with James Maliszewski of the Grognardia blog about this, in which he seemed to argue that the Catholic Church has never engaged in politics, and therefore Lord of the Rings has no politics. I imagine that he’d say that China Mieville is trying to drag politics in where they don’t belong, and that this is both evidence that he’s an inferior writer and one of the causes of his inferior writing.
A lot of people, maybe even most, seem to be ashamed to say “I enjoy writing more when I agree with the political ideas behind it”. Perhaps there’s a pervasive idea about ‘great books’ that everyone should prefer, or that good writing is about ‘eternal truths’. Whatever the reason, I think people’s inability to own up causes a lot of ridiculous arguments about books where everyone tries to find another reason to justify their preferences (‘Tolkien is cliched’. ‘No, Mieville is a bitter cynic’).
So I can see why Mieville would want to try and argue around that. However I don’t think you should fight bullshit with more bullshit. Clearly fantasy writers have ideas about how the world works, clearly they use these ideas in their writing, and therefore clearly fantasy has political ideas. Those ideas might not be very interesting or controversial ones in some cases, but that’s partly a function of the society in which they were written. “Black people are savages” was quite an uninteresting and uncontroversial assumption in past decades, and if someone had written with the opposite assumption they would have been the ‘political writer’.
So I guess I’m saying that “I don’t agree with conservative Catholicism” is quite different to saying “Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, and you shouldn’t say one when you mean the other. However a lot of the arguments you hear in response seem to be equally dishonest, because they pretend that Tolkien is ‘apolitical’.
I’ve been reading a fair bit of China Mieville lately, after discovering that my university library had most of his books.
For those who haven’t read him, he’s probably best known for three books set in the city of New Crobuzon and the world of Bas-Lag. New Crobuzon is a ‘big evil fantasy city’ in the tradition of Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork, but much grimmer than either.
He says that he’s influenced by role-playing games (and he actually wrote some stuff for Pathfinder). Perdido Street Station has a brief appearance by an obvious D&D adventuring party. More broadly, the city is one where lots of non-human species live side-by-side with humans, and there are large non-human societies elsewhere. He doesn’t use dwarves, trolls etc like Terry Pratchett. His main non-human races are frog-people, cactus-people, and the most interesting ones, khepri, who are red-skinned women whose heads are giant dung beetles (there are males, but they’re just giant dung beetles and aren’t intelligent). Another D&D-like quality to his work is that magic is common, and magicians are analagous to academics, specifically scientists.
The most distinctive thing about the New Crobuzon books, to me, is that politically powerful figures act like politically powerful figures in the real world, and are condemned as such.
Some examples of what I mean: Fritz Leiber presents the ruler of Lankhmar as borderline insane, but this fact doesn’t effect Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s lives very much and the story sort of laughs it off. It’s part of the picturesque detail of Lankhmar. Terry Pratchett presents the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork as a cold, scheming despot. But, very improbably, he always wants what’s best for the city. And although it’s stated that he tortures and kills people,.he never does it to a main character and it’s apparently not something that you’re supposed to worry about. Whereas when the rulers of New Crobuzon have people murdered, you’re supposed to be outraged, and it’s often part of the plot rather than a background detail.
Similarly he has organised crime, but they do things like deal drugs and murder each other, rather than being a loveable thieves guild.
Anyway he once described Tolkien as “the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, which not surprisingly caused a lot of bad feeling. Tomorrow I’ll get into that.