Inadvertently, the last two posts here have provoked reflections on how I fell out of love with fantasy (and a somewhat lesser extent science fiction) – so this review continues that theme. I really enjoyed this anthology, in case it isn’t obvious.
David Drake’s illuminating, affectionate introduction to this anthology, another of the superbly presented anthologies Tachyon have publishing for some time (see my previous reviews here of Kafkaesque and Future Media, both orientates the uninitiated and provides enough interested for the aficionado to draw the reader in. Drake recounts Manly Wade Wellman’s “most vivid childhood memory… the day a ten-year-old herdboy faced the leopard which was stalking his goats and killed it with his spear. That night there was a banquet in this honour. He was seated on the high stool with the leopard’s skin, fresh and reeking, draped over his shoulders. From his place of honour the boy doled out a piece of the cat’s flesh to every adult male. When they had eaten the meat… the men each in turn chanted a song of praise to the enthroned hero, recounting and embellishing his accomplishment. He has vanquished the monster which threatened our lives and our livelihood! Behold the hero! Hear his mighty deeds! This is storytelling as the Cro-Magnons practised it; and this is the essence of sword and sorcery fiction.”
Hero tales are the oldest tales, and yet like Rodney Dangerfield contemporary writers in the heroic mode can’t get no respect. While it is still sometimes used as a term of lit crit abuse, “science fiction” has largely completed the gentrification process of achieving literary respectability. The dystopian fictions of Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy, the genre bending of David Foster Wallace and Johnathan Lethem, the elevation of J.G. Ballard into something of a patron saint of British literature, Philip K. Dick achieving the canonical landmark that is inclusion in the Modern Library edition; all have combined to render SF-nal elements acceptable (albeit often quarantined within an appropriately “literary” frame) in quarters formerly forbidden. Kingsley Amis could see this coming some decades ago, and mourned the passing of the distinctive flavour of the Golden Age, popular magazine based SF culture and the advent of the glummer, more self-consciously artistic stories of Ballard and Brian Aldiss.
Despite the enormous success of Tolkien, and more latterly the impact of George R..R. Martin, fantasy is still far from being taken entirely seriously by the literature crowd. Perhaps this will change; the various examples in the opening paragraph illustrate that readers of the last few decades are accustomed to genre and literature divisions being porous if not invisible (although one wonders if an unintended consequence of the digital revolution in publishing may be for the echo chamber effect to re-Balkanise reading patterns)
All of the above is in some ways preparatory throat clearing on my own part before embarking on this review. I would consider myself reasonably well read in literary fiction in general, and for the purposes of reviewing for SF Site in certain areas of science fiction as well — at least to such an extent that I have a reasonably good mental map of the territory. I know, or at least have an idea, what I don’t know. All this helps in contextualising, even for myself rather than explicitly in a review, where a particular text fits in with other texts.
As an older child (about ten or so) I devoured The Lord of the Rings, and I would have read the Narnia tales with reasonable enthusiasm — although I remember them now much less vividly than Tolkien’s epic — at about the same age. In my early teenage years I tried various multi-part epics but nothing compared to Tolkien. I vividly remember, aged I think 13, buying discounted copies of a Terry Pratchett book (I think Guards! Guards!) and Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana. Not only did I find the Pratchett unfunny (trying too hard) but the effect of its parody of fantasy conventions combined with a hedonistic enjoyment of Greene’s sophisticated “entertainment” was to turn me decisively away from fantasy reading.
On reflection, the above may make me a perfect reviewer for David G. Hartwell and Jacob Weisman’s anthology. This is a book which will appeal to the confirmed fan of the genre, especially one who wishes to gain a sense of the historical development of the sword and sorcery hero. It will also appeal to those like me, curious, all but unaware until they pick up the book that Conan did not spring from a screenwriter’s but from Robert E Howard’s imagination.
Howard was one of those protean, short-lived figures (like Lovecraft) whose prolific output and prodigiality of wild imagination marked out a literary territory all their own. The Conan story included here, “The Tower of the Elephant,” is an excellent adventure story with a hint of surrealism. Reading this and many other stories, especially the somewhat older ones (C.L. Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss” is an even better example) I was reminded of the distinction made by Freud (so how “scientific” this is anyone’s guess) between primary process thinking and secondary process thinking. Our everyday, “rational” experience and communication exhibits secondary process thinking, the thinking of the “reality principle”; primary process thinking is that of the “pleasure principle,” and is seen in dreams and fantasies. “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Black God’s Kiss” have a kind of hallucinatory, dream-like quality; their characters, too, are archetypal, exemplary, allegorical. C.L. Moore’s story in particularly, with its overtones and undertones both Christian and erotic, and utilisation of the almost too-Freudian symbol of a journey via tunnel to a magical, malignant realm, haunted me after reading it.
Drake in his introduction discusses the popularity of Conan in the 60s and 70s, “as big a thing in publishing as zombies are today.” This “had the genuinely good result of making room on the fringes for historical/fantasy adventures which weren’t trying to rehash Conan but which would have been (re)published if Conan hadn’t created a category.” While Howard’s prose is open to parody (“In the Maul they could carouse and roar as they liked, for honest people shunned the quarters, and watchmen, well paid with stained coins, did not interfere with their sport”) the later stories anthologised here illustrate the thematic and stylistic range of sword and sorcery fiction.
Karl Edward Wagner’s “Undertow” is a particularly brilliant story, with the malignant figure of that anti-Conan, Kane, in what initially reads like a sort of serial killer/police procedural story set in a fantasy universe. My other favourites were Charles R. Saunders’ “Gimmile’s Songs” with its imaginative altered-Africa setting giving a sense of reaching back to what most have been the very oldest stories from our common ancestral original home, and the witty paranoia of Michael Swanwick’s “The Year of the Three Monarchs.”
Perhaps the one wish I had from this anthology was a stronger sense of the pre-Howard precursors of the genre. From Gilgamesh to La Morte d’Arthur and the Gothic and Romantic eras of lone heroes and indeed the thought of Friedrich Nietszche, there were many waymarkers on the path to what we now know as sword and sorcery fiction. Perhaps, however, it is enough that the editors have produced this volume which re-ignited this reader’s interest at least in the genre.