It was with interest that I read the review by Paul Raven of the 2007 Book of the New Sun edition, called Severian Of The Guild – essentially a repackaged version by Gollancz.
Paul, despite acknowledging Wolfe’s genius, also describes the problems he has with the allegory and particularly the Christianity in the book. I, like Paul, am an athiest, but I didn’t really find the allegory a problem – I guess I expect authors to not necessarily share my belief systems and to have their own agendas. Also, because the narrative is so dense and complex, it is actually possible to ignore the allegory – it all depends how much you want to interpret I think. It didn’t spoil the pleasure of reading the book for me.
I was also puzzled that Paul grew impatient with the narrative style of the Book of the New Sun:
“Simply by merit of our unreliable narrator Severian, Wolfe is already subverting the modernist notion of novel-as-literal-truth, and there are a number of moments where Severian draws back from the narrative to pass comment on the nature of narrative itself, straying into metafictional territory.”
Narrative games are an essential part of Wolfe’s work, and to be quite frank it can take a sophisticated reader to appreciate them. However, to say that somehow there is a modernist mainstream that Wolfe is subverting is wrong. Post-modernist questioning of the narrator has been with us for a long time – see my previous blog posting on The Wasp Factory and The Tin Drum for instance. With any text that has a narrator in the first person, the reader should beware. Unfortunately a lot of fantasy and sci-fi can be quite unsophisticated and perhaps its readers are missing out as a result. Which means that unfortunately that great writers like Gene Wolfe don’t get the credit they deserve, even from their own constituency – i.e. SF/F readers.
Apparently according to Survival International there are 100 uncontacted tribes existing still in the world – mostly in the area of Brazil and Peru. I found the story over at TED. It makes you think doesn’t it!? Also I was wondering about the possibilities of this as a story idea? The problem is most people wouldn’t believe it!
But this picture taken from a flyover of one of these tribes is very evocative:
Spotted at SF Signal, Pravda interviews Harry Harrison, who calls the USA a fascist state.
While he may have a point it’s a bit rich coming from Russians isn’t it?
I wonder if his comments were taken out of context though or maybe they missed out a bit where he also criticized Russian autocracy and undemocratic principles.
Aside from increased militarism, imperialism in the Caucasus and strong-arm tactics over their energy resources, I think the main example of the rise of authoritarianism in Russia has to be the recent Eurovision competition. Are all of Russia’s neighbours so scared of angering the bear that they have to vote for her in a ‘music’ competition as well! See this video from Sir Terry Wogan.
I found this story from The Economist interesting about a new research project into the biological basis of religion. As part of my world-building exercise this is quite a fascinating subject as I come to grips with the cultural background of my world’s peoples, which includes their religions. In fact I have decided that religious differences will play an important part and mostly leading to violence.
Here’s a quote from the research project’s brochure “Leading experimental psychologists and biologists have suggested that man’s universal religious consciousness results from innate characteristics in the evolved cognitive architecture of the brain. In contrast, the differences stem from variable priming of the cognitive mechanisms through creative thinking, memory and acquired expertise.”
So it seems that humans are biologically predisposed to be religious, or at least believe in something I suppose! I’m an athiest, but must admit that I find religions and their attendant cultural systems very interesting.
I am currently working on the creation of a fantasy world for an upcoming fantasy novel. Having surveyed a lot of the literature and websites regarding world creation I found the following most useful:
Creating an Earthlike Planet – this really takes you through most of the process of creating geography, weather and climates. In particular his section on weather is a well explained, simple but invaluable – see his Climate Cookbook.
Once you have your climate’s sorted out it’s time to think about how these affect culture. I think this is more difficult, perhaps because there’s no accepted historical interpretation – i.e. it’s quite controversial still – see Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.
Culture creation is probably where you have to read around a lot and figure stuff out for yourself. I found that I had to create language alongside. There are a number of good websites on language creation. I would recommend the following:
The Language Construction Kit – includes all the aspects of language creation you are likely to need. I found that having a core 500 or so words was necessary to cover major nouns, verbs and adjectives.
Ardalambion is a site dedicated to the constructed languages of J.R.R. Tolkien. This is really inspirational and shows what can be done.
I strongly believe creating your own languages for your fantasy world can really enrich them. In my novel I am looking for my characters and cultures to have strong identities that are not based on slightly altered version of medieval earth. We’ll see if I achieve my aim!
Imagine my surprise when I realised the last story in Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly seems to be about a lesbian vampire who is the guest in an Austrian castle high in the wooded mountains of Styria. Very hammer horror in dead.
Le Fanu lends the scene where we first guess at the woman’s sexual persuasions a deal of eroticism, which must have been very racy for his Victorian authorship:
‘She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear … And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.’
And the erotic tension is raised a page later:
‘…breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyse she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.”‘
We are not told that she is a Vampire, but Le Fanu knowingly lays all the clues for the reader. The pleasure is not in the mystery as such – we know roughly what the outcome will be – but in the languid pleasure of it’s telling.
I guess you could call this story horror – vampire’s and spirits are generally classified so. What is the difference between horror and fantasy – both deal with things are not supposed to be real?
Below is an article by me that was published in The London Magazine many years ago now. I don’t believe it is available anywhere else and certainly not on the internet. Should be of interest to anyone interested in Iain Banks’s first book!
The Wasp Factory and The Tin Drum, two books separated by twenty-five years. One is a critique of German consciousness during World War II, and the other is a seemingly amoral horror story. At first glance nothing much seems to link these two books: one is an acknowledged post-war masterpiece, the other (according to most critics) is, at best, a well-written and disturbing debut.
The reputations of books are, unfortunately, shaped by successive generations of critics. The Wasp Factory, in comparison to The Tin Drum, is still in an initial stage of critical appreciation. It is still cited as Iain Banks’s controversial debut and not much more. However, in the future it may be seen as his real masterpiece. Perhaps it will be considered, as Grass’s Tin Drum is viewed, as a work which is better than anything he has written since. The Tin Drum went through the same stage when it was published. Initially the critics were just as critical and dismissive. The Tin Drum is now seen as a major work of literature, meriting whole chapters in academic tomes. The Wasp Factory, meanwhile, languishes as an introductory note in newspaper articles on Banks’s latest sci-fi books. Contemporary critics of The Tin Drum used similar language as those critics who commented on The Wasp Factory. Their language is often insulting and damning. Zeisel described Grass as an ‘author of the worst pornographic obscenities’; Philip Toynbee said it was an ‘inhuman’ book; Peter Hornung described it as a rebellion of stupidity. The criticism of the Wasp Factory is of a similar tone: ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’ according to the Irish Times. For The Times it is as if time had stood still: the reviewer objects to the avant-garde nature of ‘the crassly explicit language’ and ‘the obscenity of the plot’. The Wasp Factory can hardly be called avant-garde if it is borrowing themes used by Grass thirty years ago. For The Times reviewer avant-garde must mean anything which smacks of the traditions of European literature.
It took years for more complimentary appraisals of The Tin Drum to be reached. Angus Wilson described the Tin Drum in 1965 in the Observer as a ‘heaven-sent answer to the wide-spread fears and doubts about the novel’s future.’ The Wasp Factory, too, arrived at a point when the English novel was in crisis, lapsing into parochialism. The shock of Banks’s book obviously had a staggering effect on the critics of Literary London, many of whom found the book distasteful but still well-written: ‘one of the most brilliant first novels I have come across’ (Daily Telegraph), ‘a minor masterpiece perhaps’ (Punch), ‘If a nastier, more vicious or distasteful novel appears this spring, I shall be surprised. But there is unlikely to be a better one either’ (Mail on Sunday). Reviews of these two books were similar in tone. Whether positive or negative, all critics agreed that both of these books were deeply shocking.
Apart from a similar critical reception, what links these two books? Surely the topics are completely different. One is about a stunted drummer and wartime Germany, while the other focuses on an adolescent murderer in mid 1980’s Scotland. Banks as always playfully helps his reader and lays clues for us. Fifty-one pages into The Wasp Factory we are told that the film of The Tin Drum is playing at Frank’s local cinema (as is Myra Breckinridge, a book that provides one of the themes of The Wasp Factory, but not its underlying influence). Frank tells us that he is not going to see it because his father gave him the book, but he never read it. This piece of information immediately alerts the knowledgeable reader to the nature of Frank and the meaning of the book. The reader (and, one suspects, Frank’s father) knows more about what is going on than Frank does, the narrator and protagonist of the tale. Frank has become an ironically unreliable narrator at this instant. The reader knows much more than he does about the nature of this story. The link with The Tin Drum acts as a comment on Frank himself, as we begin to suspect that he is similar in many ways to the main character of Grass’s book.
Both Oskar and Frank are unreliable narrators, yet firmly convinced of their identity and their interpretation of the world. Oskar is convinced, for instance, that his father is Jan Bronski, a belief that is mistaken. Frank, also, is convinced of his place in the world: he is strongly masculine in his actions and beliefs, yet we learn later that his true nature is different, unbeknown to him. Similarly Oskar is forced by circumstance to admit that Jan Bronski is not his father and during the narrative he gives up his reliance on the drum and so begins to grow again. Both protagonists create fantasies for themselves about the world around them by constructing complicated rituals and system of symbols, which are ultimately discovered to be wrong. Both books are named after the symbols which are most important in guiding the two characters. Frank’s Wasp Factory is a machine that prophesies the future for him and shows him what he must do. Oskar’s drum, similarly, allows him to release his emotions and helps him to interpret the confusion of the world around him. These symbols are a way of creating a detachment from the real world. This detachment is eventually proved to be impossible.
It would seem, however, that Frank’s murderous tendencies and the horror of Banks’s book do not correspond to anything in The Tin Drum. The Tin Drum is not without its grotesque moments – the horses head being consumed by eels is quite stomach turning. Oskar, like Frank, kills no-one with his own hands, but his actions cause the death of both his supposed father, Jan Bronski, and his actual father, Matzerath. Oskar and Frank also share a destructive tendency, Frank destroys dams of sand after spending hours constructing them, and Oskar breaks windows with his voice. However, they do not judge their actions by the same standards as does society. They both seem to have a feeling of superiority to others because of the intelligence that came to them at an early age. Frank tells us that ‘I was wise in my childishness even then, at the tender age of five’; Oskar: ‘I was one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is complete at birth.’ Their actions are detached from the reality of society’s moral code. Instead, Oskar and Frank have established their own codes of behaviour based around the central symbols of the two books. As Irene Leonard tells us in her book on Grass, the drum encompasses all realms of human experience: art, love, politics and religion. Oscar’s drum sets up an alternative perspective that criticises all dogmas-from fascist to communist, and through to the materialism of the post-war years.
Frank sees himself as a city full of differing views and so relies on the Wasp Factory to make decisions for him. The Factory can encompass all possibilities, just as Oskar does everything through his drum. Both of them use props to give them power. Frank: ‘The rest of me knew this sort of thing worked. It gave me power’.
Fundamentally both books are about the problem of identity in modern society. Frank and Oskar attempt to define their own identities outside the strict norms of the world around them. They both fail. Oskar is judged insane and Frank’s beliefs are turned upside down in a cruel twist to his story. Their views of life are shown to be out of synch with the rest of society. So far out that they are unable to live in society without either changing themselves or being institutionalised, which shows that modern society cannot accept anything which it does not understand.
It could be argued that to copy someone’s ideas while placing them in a different context is not the work of genius, and that for this reason The Wasp Factory cannot be regarded as a masterpiece. Banks successfully adapts Grass’s ideas about the individual in society to a modern setting, but there are no great outrages for his character to be opposed to; Frank’s life seems to take place in a moral vacuum. Banks’s real success is his ability to play with these themes of identity and morality by borrowing from other books, including Myra Breckinridge and The Lord of the Flies, and so creating a work which merits greater critical attention than it has been given. By going back to an old German novel, Banks had pushed the British novel forward by producing a book which was shockingly new to its readership.