sábado, junho 24, 2017

Intertextual SF: "The Grace of Kings" by Ken Liu



“Lord Garu, you compare yourself to a weed?” Cogo Yelu frowned.
“Not just any weed, Cogzy. A dandelion is a strong but misunderstood flower.” Remembering his courtship with Jia, Kuni felt his eyes grow warm. “It cannot be defeated: Just when a gardener thinks he has won and eradicated it from his lawn, a rain would bring the yellow florets right back. Yet it’s never arrogant: Its color and fragrance never overwhelm those of another. Immensely practical, its leaves are delicious and medicinal, while its roots loosen hard soils, so that it acts as a pioneer for other more delicate flowers. But best of all, it’s a flower that lives in the soil but dreams of the skies. When its seeds take to the wind, it will go farther and see more than any pampered rose, tulip, or marigold.”
“An exceedingly good comparison,” Cogo said, and drained his cup. “My vision was too limited to not have understood it.”
Mata nodded in agreement and drained his cup as well, suffering silently as the burning liquor numbed his throat.
“Your turn, General Zyndu,” Than prompted.
Mata hesitated. He was not witty or quick on his feet, and he was never good at games like this. But he glanced down and saw the Zyndu coat of arms on his boots, and suddenly he knew what he should say.
He stood up. Though he had been drinking all night, he was steady as an oak. He began to clap his hands steadily to generate a beat, and sang to the tune of an old song of Tunoa:

The ninth day in the ninth month of the year:

By the time I bloom, all others have died.

Cold winds rise in Pan’s streets, wide and austere:

A tempest of gold, an aureal tide.

My glorious fragrance punctures the sky.

Bright-yellow armor surrounds every eye.

With disdainful pride, ten thousand swords spin

To secure the grace of kings, to cleanse sin.

A noble brotherhood, loyal and true.

Who would fear winter when wearing this hue?

“The King of Flowers,” Cogo Yelu said.
Mata nodded.
Kuni had been tapping his finger on the table to follow the beat. He stopped now, reluctantly, as if still savoring the music. “By the time I bloom, all others have died.’ Though lonely and spare, this is a grand and heroic sentiment, befitting the heir of the Marshal of Cocru. The song praises the chrysanthemum without ever mentioning the flower by name. It’s beautiful.”
“The Zyndus have always compared themselves to the chrysanthemum,” Mata said.
Kuni bowed to Mata and drained his cup. The others followed suit.
“But, Kuni,” said Mata, “you have not understood the song completely.”
Kuni looked at him, confused.
“Who says it praises only the chrysanthemum? Does the dandelion not bloom in the same hue, my brother?”
Kuni laughed and clasped arms with Mata. “Brother! Together, who knows how far we will go?”
The eyes of both men glistened in the dim light of the Splendid Urn.
Mata thanked everyone and drank himself. For the first time in his life, he didn’t feel alone in a crowd. He belonged—an unfamiliar but welcome sensation. It surprised him that he found it here, in this dark and sleazy bar, drinking cheap wine and eating bad food, among a group of people he would have considered peasants playing at being lords—like Krima and Shigin—just a few weeks ago.”

In “The Grace of Kings” by Ken Liu.

Goodkind is responsible for the worst thing ever written by a human being; the now legendary evil chicken scene. I still have his books at home. Mea Culpa. That reminds me. I must give them away the next chance I’ve got… the following passage is underlined in my book. To wit:

"Hissing, hackles lifting, the chicken's head rose. Kahlan pulled back. Its claws digging into stiff dead flesh, the chicken slowly turned to face her. It cocked its head, making its comb flop, its wattles sway. "Shoo," Kahlan heard herself whisper. There wasn't enough light, and besides, the side of its beak was covered with gore, so she couldn't tell if it had the dark spot, but she didn't need to see it. "Dear spirits, help me," she prayed under her breath. The bird let out a slow chicken cackle. It sounded like a chicken, but in her heart, she knew it wasn't. In that instant, she completely understood the concept of a chicken that was not a chicken. This looked like a chicken, like most of the Mud People's chickens. But this was no chicken. This was evil manifest."

In “Soul of the Fire” by Terry Goodkind.

He really wrote this. Seriously. Yep, I'm afraid that's a direct quote. Terry Goodkind literally wrote those words. They spewed forth from his brain and onto the page. I still remember throwing book against the wall. For a long time, I stopped reading Fantasy altogether. Recently I’ve been trying to get back to the genre, but I still shudder at the thought I might find stuff akin to Goodkind’s writing. It was with some trepidation I tackled Liu’s epic fantasy starting with the first volume of his Dandelion Saga. I’m a huge fan of Liu’s short fiction. That’s why I dipped my toes in the fantasy genre once again.

Terry Pratchett's withering response to J K Rowling's assertion that she wasn't writing fantasy is worth mentioning as well. The problem with Rowling is that she's so leaden: the children's response to the discovery of a dragon is not “wow! A dragon!”, but “dragons are against school rules”. Magic as coursework. They are fantasy in that they're as thick as doorstops and chock full of chosen ones and dark lords, but compared to “A Wizard of Earthsea”, they never take flight. Philip Pullman was lucky, marketing-wise, to get what is clearly a “fantasy” series listed as a children's book and thus allowed into the hallowed ground of serious proper books at the front of the bookshop. That reminds me. What Philip Pullman writes is also crap.

I'm not that keen on pure fantasy (all that dragonrider crap), but China Mieville's excellent, when he remembers to give characters a character, M. John Harrison's Viriconium series (some call it anti-fantasy) extraordinary, Mervyn Peake's one of my favourite writers in any genre, and Terry Pratchett's 'Going Postal' was the most enjoyable thing I read last year (when I also finally read 'War and Peace', which was agony).

Has no-one mentioned comics? I used to like Cerebus the Aardaark, until I realised it wasn't taking the piss out of the fantasy genre's macho right-wing misogyny, it was macho, right-wing and misogynistic.

Yes, there are different ways of reading. Some people are clearly only interested in the surface narrative of a novel. Others read more deeply into a text, seeking its poetics. The person who taught me to read beneath the surface began by saying it would be like learning to drive a car - at first we would wonder how anyone could be on the lookout for so many linguistic possibilities at once, but that it would soon become a natural process - and she was right. I'll admit that it was one of the more important discoveries of my life, but it doesn't bother me that some people find it boring.

Those unwilling to let others be themselves are, I suspect, insecure in their own opinions. Do I really have to pose the rhetorical question, "What would life be like if we all had identical tastes?" I read a lot of SF in my teens, for the ideas, not the poetics, of which I then knew nothing. The potential weakness in the genre (which it shares with all fantasy, including "magic realism") is that without any given constraints a writer can be extremely lazy. Not all fantasy authors are lazy writers, but it takes a greater skill to write creatively when there are no boundaries.

At the bottom of all this is the need some people have to label and categorise everything, without which many of these arts blogs would not exist. It's the labeling and ranking I find boring.

As I said, Goodkind is highly irritating, like Donaldson. Both cannot write. I shudder to remember I read them, knowing time is so precious. There is something wrong with the linked series format. It hooks into the collector dysfunction in us. We cannot pick up book six and understand a thing, apart from the language and the action. We must get them all. It is consumerism. We are not supposed to consume books. We read books because we love them, or because we must, but we should not read books because we must love them. It is slavery of a strange kind. In Imperial Rome, a man could sell himself into slavery. With these books, we pay to be enslaved. That is the source, for me, of the discontent that may ground the question raised by the Fantasy genre nowadays. Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series like the above-mentioned Malloreon saga drove me away from fantasy. I just disliked being played for a fool, really.

This long preamble is just to say I’m glad I tackled Liu’s “The Grace of Kings”. Is it a perfect epic fantasy example? Nope. Is it better than most of the fodder out there? Undoubtedly yes. Does it have problems narrative-wise? Sure. But it’s still one hell of a romp, and I didn’t feel I was wasting my precious time reading dross. What did I bring home after having finished this 1st volume? Intertextual SF.  The Odyssey. It might be because I started on this novel after doing a quick skim of Homer’s duology, but I kept seeing shades of both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” in the novel. Sometimes it was in the language. Other times it was the characters: Mata’s Achilles vs. Kuni’s Odysseus, for example. Plus, the fact that they influenced the mortals the same way the gods did in Homer’s work. I know that if this novel might be said to have any antecedents in the classics it’s in these two examples. I can’t help see Homer in it. Of course, I could be over-reading it too, but I tend to do stuff like this all the time.

Minor beef: “I know a mother from Xana who was willing to bear a corvée administrator’s lash to save her son. I know a wife from Cocru who hiked miles through mountains filled with bandits even while she was pregnant and managed to save the man who was sent to save her.” This impassioned speech Kuni Garu gave about women, while standing atop the walls of Zudi, in the middle of a siege seemed forced, out of place and unnecessary. There were plenty of times that character could have lectured his comrades about the role of women in society (including all the times they had visited local bars where women acted as hostesses), but the author chose the middle of a battle, when tensions are high, to have Kuni give that speech. It took me out of the story for a few heartbeats…I shrugged and moved on.

NB: To push my personal agenda a little bit more SF-wise, I''d recommend Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series. Plausible, (well, kind of; Reynolds was an astrophysicist), well-written and hugely entertaining. Beats watching television. The problem with SF was that it is about the impossible, space travel and such. Doubtless, the same criticisms were leveled at Jules Verne with all his crazy talk about 'flying machines'.



2 comentários:

Book Stooge disse...

You say "War and Peace" and "Agony" in the same sentence. Something does not compute here!

I actually enjoyed Goodkind's first book, Wizard's First Rule quite a bit. And I'm glad I read the whole bloody series because now I know what to avoid in the future.

I find it interesting that you mention several series that turned you off of Fantasy in general. Not because of the series themselves, but the idea that something you liked in the past was changed by an outside force. I would be tempted to say that YOU had changed and the dislike/non-liking was more symptomatic than causal [not sure I'm using those words exactly correctly, but I hope you understand what I'm trying to say].
My second thought in this vein is perhaps you just take your reading more seriously than I do and it has nothing to do with internal changes. I know that I read for almost 99% escapist enjoyment. 1-4 books a year are "learning" books and even those tend not to be "sit down and read and take notes" kind of ones, but general theology kind of things that I can enjoy, remember a little and then move on.

Tv. Man, I agree that most of the stuff that comes across the screen is crap. Even the fun movies [like most of the Marvel universe ones and John Wick] I am finding are not as entertaining as the books I am reading. I am also finding it harder to pay close attention to movies these days, whereas I have almost no problem immersing myself in books like McKillips. Now there is somebody whose writing I can almost disappear into.

Ok, Revelation Space. I am going to ask for a list of books because I'm too lazy to google them. That way I'll look them up at our library and put them on my reading wishlist for next year.

On a completely outside note, I find that I like to ask questions on blogs where I know I can look the answer up myself. I have come to the conclusion that I am NOT really lazy but trying to engage with the poster. I am reaching outside of my introvert shell. So it's not me being lazy but me overcoming great hardships to become a better person and make the world a better place. So basically, you have to answer me or you're a horrible, horrible person who is trying to destroy me *wink*

Man, I love words :-D

Manuel Antão disse...

Thanks for commenting BookStooge.

To paraphrase Tolkien: surely the only people who hate escapism are jailers...?

I think Sturgeon's law applies here. Most fiction is lazy escapist 'crud'.

Any genre tends to become cliched derivative and cozy. Reassuring country-house detective fiction, hard-boiled streetwise crime, fluffy pink romantic novels, swashbuckling sword and sorcery epics, tittilating bonkbusters and full-blooded bodice-rippers, high-octane thrillers, pistol packing Westerns... Yawn.

A good writer can transcend his genre. The 10% of stuff that is worth reading in any genre will have something to say about the human condition and the world we live in, or might live in, and will say it in a new way. Most fiction is pretty much escapist with no originality or grip on reality.

Fantasy as a genre has a name that suggests 'escapism for escapism's sake'. But good fantasy is like de Quincey's "pleasures and pains of opium". It can take us to "terrae incognitae" full of wonder and horror and at the same time explore that strange thing that is the human mind.

It could be argued that The Lord of the Rings explores what it is like to face an enemy bent on the utter destruction of you, your people, and your way of life. (It perhaps doesn't speak as powerfully to those of us too young to have faced the prospect of invasion by Germany in the 1940s, which is why Terry Pratchett is able reinvent the orcs in "Unseen Academicals" as cultured, misunderstood victims.)

I don't see this as a literary fiction vs fantasy fiction debate, though - all literature is fantasy as far as I'm concerned, unless it's the story of my life. But the idea that any fiction is "true" is as absurd as supposing that a documentary maker is "true" - it's all relative.

Personally, it's my impression that if a writer has a story, they should work through it and get that wonderful piece of fiction where everybody can read it. Let them judge for themselves, just ;eave the politics and religious (anti or pro) rhetoric out and let the reader just have fun. Again, personally, it's the romp through the dew-glistened grasses with that mystical companion, the acts of derring-do, and the romance between the war-weary hero and the lovely, innocent princesses that make fantasy the fun that it has been for over a century.

Anyone who thinks fantasy can't be serious literature hasn't read M John Harrison. Nothing escapist there.

That said, I can see why someone wandering through a bookshop seeing stacked volumes of fat fantasy might come to the conclusion that the genre was meretricious shite.

There's always been fantasy that aimed at more than mere escapism (as you know of course). The problem the genre has though is its fans who as a rule shun those works in favour of books the quality of which is measured by the yard.

Fantasy fiction has some of the most undiscriminating fans of any genre - people incredibly tolerant of bad writing and characterisation and who genuinely think a book's better value if it's longer. They let the genre down. Good fantasy isn't ever marketed as fantasy, it's marketed instead as literary fiction with unreal elements.

Pratchett has used his Discworld books to talk about multiple issues in different ways. Sometimes he is heavy-handed, but he generally has an ambition beyond mere escapism. The same for Steven Erikson, whose Malazan series comments on everything from colonialism to the dangers of ultra-capitalism to whether it is right or not to use power to combat tyranny, even at the risk of making things worse. George R.R. Martin's fantasy series is focused on power, responsibility, corruption, consequences and why laws exist when people only choose to listen to them when it suits them.

Climbs off soapbox, walks off into sunset...