Angry Nerd Mode: American Gods

A brief story to illustrate … well, me:
A long time ago, I read American Gods. It was okay. Liked the premise, did not care for the characters or world building. All in all, not my favorite book, nor even my favorite Gaiman book, but I continued to buy his work until we got in a Twitter spat about George RR Martin. Thus far, all was good in life.
Occasionally, people would mention that they really really liked American Gods. That’s fine; they’re entitled to their opinion. I personally thought Anansi Boys was better, and therein lay the seeds of many an interesting conversation. All was well with the world.
Then they made a TV show. And they will NOT FUCKING LEAVE IT ALONE. Every time I pick up a magazine, I have to read about how amazing American Gods is. Every time I get in a nerdy discussion, I have to hear how American Gods is the greatest television ever made. It’s on Yahoo. It’s on my Kindle home screen. I go online, and the headline is AMERICAN GODS CURED CANCER IN LAB RATS. I pick up the newspaper, and the lead is AMERICAN GODS WALKED ACROSS WATER TO HEAL AN INJURED SWAN.  They got advertising planes, and I think they may be sending people to my house.
And I am just – enough already. I am aware of the TV show. There is no way, not excluding frontal lobotomy or actual death, that I could remain unaware of the TV show, or the extreme excellence of the TV show. Unfortunately, since TV rarely improves the source material, I don’t think it will appeal to me. So just leave it alone, ok? Stop explaining to me what I am missing as if I just woke from a coma where the last book I read was the novelization for Hawk: The Slayer. I don’t plan on watching it.
But for the next six months, I will have to have everyone tell me how American Gods is the greatest show EVAR and OMG why aren’t I watching it and this Neil Gaiman guy, see, he’s a sign that fantasy isn’t as hokey as it was in 1995 and why aren’t you watching it and OMG it is just so amazing and on and on and on and on until I have to say, “If you mention American Gods again, I will fucking shank you,” and then they go, “why you gotta be that way Don?”
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HPL: Original Hipster

We here at Orange Cat Productions are pleased to announce a new field of lit. crit. theory that we’re calling Experimental Literature.  Not Fight Club kind of experimental, or non-Euclidean poetry kind of experimental (although that would be kind of cool), but the hypothesis-testing kind of experimental.  We may even possibly  bust out some statistical analysis, but not Bayesian statistics, because I’m having a protracted nerd war with a friend over his obsession with socialist postmodern assume-your-conclusion Bayesian foolishness.  (Not that I have any bias there.) Anyway, here’s the theory:  I’m going to make a prediction, and then write a whole bunch of words about what the prediction implies.  If my prediction comes true, then the rest of the words must also be true.  I don’t do this seeking fame and fortune, but for the betterment of all humankind.  Although I wouldn’t complain if a grateful nation rewarded me with, say, a Caribban island.  I’m thinking Curacao.

Ready?

Here goes: Jon Snow from Game of Thrones will live, because Game of Thrones is really science fiction.

Now, at this point in the traditional essay, I’m supposed to seque into the topic by busting out with Webster’s definition of science fiction, but fVck that.  I don’t know why essay writers do that, except to make word count.  Go look it up if you’re that interested, but if you’re reading my blog, I’m guessing you’ve probably already got a pretty good idea what science fiction is.

Anyway, it’s not the definition that’s important, it’s the tropes and storytelling techniques that come along with it.  You might think SF is robots and aliens, and fantasy is elves and wizards.  Or you might not think that, and I just created a straw man for the point of this essay.  Whatever, invisible person.  I have two words for you: Roger Zelazny.

The genre-bending of the 60’s New Wave showed that what a story was about wasn’t nearly as important as how it was told.  Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness is a fantasy novel told in a science fictional way, while Lord of Light is a science fictional novel told in a fantasy way.  Similarly, Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock series is high fantasy grounded in a science fiction setting.

And science fiction’s fundamental premise is about exploration and learning.  There’s a big mysterious universe out there, and we’re gonna go check it out.  Science fiction’s catchphrase might be “there is nothing we cannot know” – while in fantasy, there really isn’t anything to figure out; it’s all magic, which almost by definition, is unfathomable.  Fantasy series may play at the “Laws of Magic,” but really, if you could figure out what made magic work, it would become science.

In fantasy, you have “powers” – the magic sword, the birthmark, the gift of magic, whatever.  In SF, you know stuff.

The crucial, crucial difference between these two is that anyone can learn something.  Heroes are made, not born.

And therefore, the hero in a SF story is the guy (or gal, or robot, or sapient cyborg octopus) who knows what’s going on.  Sure, Kirk gets the Orion girl, but Spock, McCoy, and Scotty are treated by the script with the same level of respect.  (Nor was Kirk, despite memetic mutation, a he-man womanizing moron.  He played 3D chess and quoted Shakespeare.  But I digress.)  The person who can figure out, adapt, and make use of the Cool New Thing is not only the hero, but the superhero – the one who wields seemingly magical powers over the environment.  Think Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger in a Strange Land (a fantasy told using SF tropes.)

In Zelazny’s Amber series (the drunken love child of SF and fantasy) for all that the story is told from Corwin’s point of view – gothic, poetic, epic Corwin – he’s actually, um … kind of a chump.  He gets used and manipulated by every person he meets until nearly the end of the series.  The ones who really drive the plot are the wizards – Bleys, Brand, and Fiona.  And that’s because while Corwin was off being all Lord Byron, they learned what Dworkin had to teach them.  Amber is, by one way of looking at it, a 5-volume dissertation on the value of education.

Which brings us to Game of Thrones – Martin was a close friend of Zelazny, and I think the same tropes apply.  Westeros starts out as totally non-magical.  And then … magic!  And while politics and force of arms are still the main sources of power, I think this is going to change as the books go on.  As the power of magic grows and its practitioners become more skilled, magic (and by extension, spooky ice people and dragons and stuff) will become unstoppable.  It’s a SF world, and SF rewards the curious.

The three “early adapters” of magic, or at least POV characters who adapted, were Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Caitlin Stark.  None of them are wizards, as such, but Caitlyn became some sort of creepy undead preacher thing, Daenerys has her pets, and Jon Snow …

Jon Snow is the hero of the books because even though he doesn’t actually shoot fireballs, he was one of the first to accept that reality wasn’t what the others thought, and also because he is the most democratic of all the main characters – renouncing his nobility, marrying a wildling, leading by force of character.

I knew there was a reason I wanted to work the democracy angle in earlier, but I forgot ’cause they got a keg of Fall River Brewey’s Kilty Pleasure in at the casino.  Okay, so in SF, if power comes from learning, and not from being born the Seventh Son or being touched by a wizard or whatever, then the unspoken assumption is that anyone can be the hero.  That gives science fiction a fundamentally democratic streak that is the antithesis of most fantasy.

Nobody but Gandalf could be Gandalf.  The same goes for Luke Skywalker, once Lucas introduced those moronic midichlorians.  But while Kirk might be exceptional, he’s still human.  Anyone willing to work hard enough and sacrifice enough has the ability to attain what he did.

And that’s just what Jon Snow represents – not the divine magic of Caitlyn Stark or the luck of the Targaryens, but a willingness to embrace the hidden mystery of the world while treating everyone equally.

Plus, I mean, Caitlyn’s a freakin’ zombie.  No way is she the hero.

 


 

Okay, so what the heck does this have to do with our man HPL?  Well, by his own statements, Lovecraft wrote science fiction.  He wrote that what he wanted to do was instill a sense of “cosmic wonder” in his readers, and horror was the best way of doing that.  He peppered his writing with references to mathematical equations: besides the hoary old “non-Euclidean geometries,” you have the differential equations that so bothered Mr. Gilman in “The Dreams in the Witch House;”  you’ve got scientific expeditions to Antarctica; you’ve got, HPL says quite forcefully, aliens, not monsters.

So if we take him at his word, and look at his work from a science fiction perspective, we need to consider the rules of his world – i.e., man is a worthless speck of protoplasm afloat in a sea of infinite darkness surrounded by unfathomable aliens to whom we are less than insects.

Hang on; writing that calls for a drink of beer.

Okay, I’m back.  We need to consider how his world works, and then look at who knows this?  Who are the early adapters, the ones who see the world for what it is?

Those very same subhuman, mongrelized miscegeneated races he hated!  The swarthy-skinned and shifty-eyed immigrants in Red Hook, the Southern blacks in the Louisiana swamps, rhe inbred hillbillies of Dunwich.

For all HPL hated these people they were, by his own rules, the ones who actually knew what was going on!  They were the heroes!  His own stuffy, straight-laced, tea drinking hyper-repressed professors were as ignorant as the savages they disdained!

You could, in that respect, view HPL’s writing as a way of him coming to terms with the fact that Victorian-era morality was a failure, that the future belonged to those teeming masses who drove him mad.  Indeed, as the scion of a fallen family, HPL might have subconsciously realized he had more in common with Wilbur Whately than Professor Armitage.

I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I can’t help but think that there is an element of tension in his writing because of it.  Perhaps that’s what horrified him about the universe – he loved the fading world of Revolutionary New England and its idealized inhabitants, and knowing it was dying, sought to pollute it in his imagination with monsters and hidden, horrible secrets, perhaps as a justification for its failure?

And the terrible irony of it is that what appeals most to us about HPL are the very same icons that represented what he hated – the monsters, the madness, the gibbering mad modern refutation of tradition and decorum in favor of techno-anarchist chaos …

… because, in the end, maybe we were meant to go mad.  Time and again, Lovecraft’s straightjacket version of sanity is shattered by what, we must more or less admit, is the real world.  We have come to the time when everything he feared has come to pass: non-Euclidean geometries?  I teach them to my students.  Hideous gulfs of space?  The Planck lengths of the atom.  Monstrous cities of stone and nightmare?  They cover most of the world.

And certainly, neither I nor any of my friends have any place within Lovecraft’s lily-white pantheon – perennial outsides, whether by choice or accident of birth, our fates must intertwine, inevitably, with the so-called “monsters” – Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, even Azathoth, who is nothing more than the uncertainty principle given shape.  It is time to realize that, in the end, what Lovecraft foresaw with horror was … the future.  Our future.
The stars are right.  Raise Them Up.