Cheltenham 2010

My main complaint about the sf programme at this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival is that I couldn’t spare the time and money to go to more of it. As it was, I spent a very pleasant weekend in Cheltenham, staying with friends, and went to three events over two days. All three were worth attending, if only for the pleasure of seeing serious items at a mainstream literary festival take sf seriously. Of course, though it should go without saying that my recollections are likely imperfect, there were also some frustrations.

Most of those came in the first event, China Mieville and John Mullan, in conversation:

Why is there never any science fiction on the Booker shortlist? Yet why have so many ‘literary’ novelists, from Atwood to Ishiguro, borrowed their stories from science fiction? Where does sci-fi lie on the literary landscape? What are the issues of perception surrounding this genre and its counterpart ‘literary fiction’, and how porous are the borders between them?

This was a follow-up to last year’s brief fuss on the same topic, and as Mieville emphasised more than once, all credit to Mullan for turning up to defend his remarks. Each man set out their stall for about ten minutes, then there was some back and forth, and then they opened the floor to questions. Mieville’s contention was that the Booker prize should do one of two things: either be genuinely open to all types of fiction; or admit that it is concerned with a specific category of fiction, no more or less a category than the many others with which bookshops are stocked. Mullan’s reply, stated with increasing firmness as the discussion wore on, was that literary fiction is a category apart, primarily because it eschews formula.

There were, I think, two problems facing the debate, one embedded in the panel description, the other in the panelists. The former was the assumption — pushed at slightly, but never to the extent that I would have hoped for — that a work published outside the category science fiction, and not stocked in the “special room in bookshops” that Mullan talked of, is not science fiction. So Mullan, for instance, mentioned his surprise at being informed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to his mind the greatest English novel of the last ten years, could have been nominated for a science fiction award; and confessed that although his first thought on hearing that it had lost the Arthur C Clarke Award to Ryman’s Air was to be intrigued, his second was to assume that it must have lost not because Air was a better novel, but because Never Let Me Go failed to meet the rules of science fiction (specifically, he suggested, in focusing on the characters instead of explaining its world). The assumption buried in there did not go uncommented on — Mieville even dragged out sf’s no good/they bellow ’til we’re deaf. But, although I wouldn’t wish to claim that that attitude towards “outsider” sf doesn’t exist, it would have been good to be able to suggest a bit more strongly that Air is indeed a novel very worth Mullan’s time; and to be able to emphasise that Ishiguro is far from the only non-category-sf author to be shortlisted for, or to win, a science fiction award; that David Mitchell, Jan Morris, Marcel Theroux and Sarah Hall have all appeared on the Clarke Award shortlist in recent years, and that a couple of years ago Michael Chabon won a Hugo and a Nebula. If, as Mullan contends, the borders have hardened since he was younger, the hardening doesn’t seem to be coming from the sf side.

The second problem was related to the first, insofar as it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction. His astonishment, for instance, that Mieville could suggest that a science fiction writer — Gene Wolfe, to be specific — might be the equal of JM Coetzee, seemed to be genuine. And it meant that he had no real way to engage with Mieville’s suggestion that different categories of fiction might have different, but equally valid, “aesthetic specificities”; and that one of sf’s specificities might be estrangement, as compared to literary fiction’s preference for recognition. When making his case for the importance of formula to genre it was telling that Mullan pointed over and over again at crime fiction, describing a template detective story. It would have been good to ask: what is the template story of a science fiction novel? The clearest demonstration of Mullan’s inability to consider that the characteristics of literary fiction Mieville was pointing at might be, in their way, as much generic markers as anything in a science fiction novel was highlighted by his description of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — which he’d read as background for a documentary on first novels — as “a send-up of science fiction”, when in fact — with its solipsistic, sadsack narrator obsessed with his relationship with his father — it plays with the conventions of “literary fiction” at least as thoroughly. (And in fact, I’d argue the metaphysics of Yu’s novel are constructed — not even subtly! — to articulate, among other things, precisely the sorts of points about literary categorisation that Mieville was trying to make.)

After all that, the second event — an interview of Iain M Banks by the editor of the Guardian Books website, Sarah Crown — was thoroughly refreshing for the unabashed enthusiasm for sf that radiated from Banks. Indeed, the first audience question could have been a plant, so completely did it seem to justify every caricature of literary snobbishness ever constructed by sf fans — the guy actually stood up and asked, in so many words because I wrote them down, “I realise this may provoke a fight, but I have to ask: why does Iain Banks, one of my favourite writers, spend so much time wasting his prodigious talent on science fiction?” — and so fully did Banks seize the opportunity to offer a full-throated and crowd-pleasing endorsement of sf as “the most important genre of the modern age”. (It was also rather cheering to hear Banks refer to himself off-handedly as writing “in two genres”…) Surface Detail sounds, in many ways, like Culture business as usual; but Banks did a good job of reminding the audience of how appealing that business can be.

Sunday’s event, also ably moderated by Sarah Crown, was probably the one I went into with highest hopes:

British Science Fiction From H G Wells to John Wyndham, Britain has been home to some of the most groundbreaking and successful classic science fiction writers. Explore past classics and the best of the current crop as authors Iain M Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Moorcock and Guest Director China Miéville discuss this very British tradition.

Inevitably — and not just because three of the four panelists were respondents to the survey! — there was familiar ground covered, but it was covered thoughtfully. So, we had a consideration of how the loss of empire shapes British sf, and the extent to which in some cases it may be an assumed influence, even imposed by expectation rather than springing from within. We had The Politics Question, with the observation that it’s not so much that American sf is right-wing and British sf left-wing, but that American sf has both right and left wings, and British sf, generally speaking, has not heard from the right, plus a discussion of how individualistic vs communitarian philosophies work themselves out at the level of narrative. And we had some discussion of how sf has been positioned in relation to mainstream literature, with Michael Moorcock suggesting (not for the first time, I think) that where American sf has a stronger tradition of writers who express their ideas through sf, British sf has a stronger tradition of writers who seek to express science-fictional ideas: that is, more writers for whom science fiction is not an entire career, for whom the idea comes before the form.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion came when it strayed into what-next territory. Nic, braver than I, raised the topic, pointing out that the recent history of British sf has been a self-described golden age, particularly in the resurgence of space opera, but that other developments, such as the reduction in the number of women writers, suggested a narrowing of the field, and asked which the panel felt was the more powerful trend. Gwyneth Jones suggested, in line with recent discussion here, that British space opera, at least, is no longer a growth industry and may be starting to stagnate; and that women writing sf and feminist sf in general may have suffered for being positioned as “the next thing” in a genre that is always hungry for the next thing, rather than more usefully seen as a an evolution. (Mieville, in turn, suggested that it may be worth looking to what he characterised as an “underground tradition” of British sf — involving Katharine Burdekin, Jane Gaskell, and another writer whose name I forget — for a more congenial reception of women.) And speculating on the next thing, the panel suggested that the sf to look for may be that coming from elsewhere — from the Pacific Rim, or Africa — and may not necessarily be prose sf. Or it may be — and this was the point missing from the earlier debate for me, even bearing in mind Moorcock’s comments — that more and more interesting fantastical writing is coming from writers positioned outside the current category; Mieville cited Toby Litt, David Mitchell and Helen Oyeyemi as writers to keep an eye on, all picks I’d cheerfully agree with

All good clean fun. Perhaps not all attendees agreed, mind you; as we were leaving the panel discussion, an elderly gentleman behind me was heard to wonder why, oh why, do sf writers always seem to be so interested in navel gazing?

Elric

Elric US cover At the start of “The Dreaming City” (1961), the first Elric story, a group of armoured men, soon revealed to be soldiers, are sitting around discussing an upcoming battle. We should attack now, says one; no, cautions another, we must wait for Elric, for it is his knowledge that will ensure our success. It’s a classic, if obvious, ploy to build anticipation for the main character’s entrance, and when Elric finally appears, Moorcock does not stint on the description:

Elric was tall, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. He wore his long hair bunched and pinned at the nape of his neck and, for an obscure reason, affected the dress of a southern barbarian. He had long, knee-length boots of soft doe-leather, a breastplate of strangely wrought silver, a jerkin of chequered blue and white linen, britches of scarlet wool and a cloak of rustling green velvet. At his hip rested his runesword of black iron — the feared Stormbringer, forged by ancient and alien sorcery.

His bizarre dress was tasteless and gaudy, and did not match his sensitive face and long-fingered, almost delicate hands, yet he flaunted it since it emphasized the fact that he did not belong in any company — that he was an outsider and an outcast. But, in reality, he had little need to wear such outlandish gear — for his eyes and skin were enough to mark him.

Elric, Last Lord of Melnibone, was a pure albino who drew his power from a secret and terrible source. (14-15)

As character introductions go, they don’t come much more heavy-handed than this: detailed and desperately self-conscious about the outlandish proto-goth-ness of the person it’s describing. (And, indeed, slightly too pleased with itself as a reaction to older works, as the mighty god-king’s re-titling suggests.) But it serves its purpose, and at least makes clear that these are not stories where we need to be worrying about nuance.

The next thirty pages are a condensed epic in which Elric leads the sealords against Imrryr, his home city and the last remnant of a great empire, in order to settle a personal score. Moorcock whips through the various confrontations leading up to the climax with little poetry but — for anyone used to the pace of modern genre fantasy novels — astonishing speed and vigour, and fills the story with wild and scary and shrieking magic, obscene agonies and evil laughs. (“Yyrkoon laughed then — laughed like a gibbering demon from the foulest depths of hell”, 34). It is all more flamboyant and fantastic than anything in Swords Against Deviltry or The Broken Sword, but perhaps the most notable thing about “The Dreaming City”, beyond its historical significance, is the committed bitterness of its ending: Elric betrays just about everyone, usually in such a way as to lead to their death, and swims off into the sunset. The only relationship that endures beyond the final page is that between Elric and Stormbringer. At one point in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, Fafhrd insists that “all weapons are in a fashion alive, civilized and nameworthy”; Stormbringer may be alive and nameworthy, but it is anything but civilized. It is the “secret and terrible source” mentioned above, a demonic soul-drinking blade not without its own will. “We must be bound to one another then,” Elric states, “two of a kind — produced by an age which has deserted us. Let us give this age cause to hate us!” (42)

Elric UK coverThe currently available UK and US editions of the early Elric stories differ somewhat; as the cover picture at the top of this post indicates, I read the Del Rey edition of these stories, which is the first in a series of books that present the Elric tales in the order they were written, rather than (as Lankhmar does) the order of their internal chronology. This edition has one big advantage, for my purposes, over the current UK edition, which, though prettier (left) and also presented in publication order, contains only the stories, whereas the Del Rey edition includes a generous supply of ancillary materials, including cover art, introductions, and letters from old fanzines, which help to fill in (a version of?) the historical context. Moorcock’s introduction, for example, tells us that on these stories’ first appearance, “some readers seemed to be uncomfortable” with the “ironic tone” of the Elric stories, which were “probably the first ‘intervention’ into the fantasy canon, such as it was” (xxi), noting Stephen Donaldson and Scott Bakker as later examples. Later, he confides that “It is a little strange for me to accept that Elric has become part of the pantheon of epic fantasy” (xxxiii). Reading these stories for the first time in 2008 it’s a little strange to imagine a time when Elric wasn’t canonical – Steph Swainston’s Jant is but one prominent descendent of Elric. It’s not just that it’s odd to read about a world in which this sort of fantasy isn’t a huge market segment (“These days,” Moorcock notes in one fanzine letter dated to 1963, “people seem to want information of some kind with their escapism — and sword and sorcery doesn’t strictly supply information of the type required”, going on to contrast it with the success of James Bond. How the pendulum swings …). It’s also odd to read Moorcock’s comments about canonicity and irony because, over forty years after their initial publication, the irony in some of the stories is, for me at least, barely discernible. This is not so much because the scenery of these books has become familiar through over-use, as it has for books like The Lord of the Rings or Neuromancer, although there is some of that — I first encountered the idea of Chaos as a bad guy playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle as a teenager, and although I knew academically that the Warhammer world was intensely derivative, I had no idea how specific some of the borrowing was, down to (it turns out) the multi-headed arrow as the chaos symbol. No, it’s more in attitude and story-shape that I think Moorcock’s influence feels pervasive: the spin he puts on the idea of the magic sword, and the lost empire, and the tortured hero, and the ultimate conflict.

The idea of balance between the forces of Chaos and Law is in fact introduced in the second, equally direct, story, “While the Gods Laugh” (1961), in which Elric is recruited to seek the Dead God’s Book, in which is recorded “a holy and mighty wisdom” (47). The ending might be a surprise if you’ve never read a quest for ultimate knowledge before — hint: the bitterness of the end of “The Dreaming City” isn’t a one-off, although it is slightly tempered this time — but the journey provides an excuse for Moorcock to let Elric discourse on cosmology and on his philosophy of life with Shaarilla, the woman who enlists him. (And who is the only female character in this book with significant amounts of independence and agency; but more about that later.) “My only comfort is to accept anarchy,” he tells her. This way, I can revel in chaos and know, without fear, that we are all doomed from the start — that our brief existence is both meaningless and damned” (51). The book is guarded by a giant in the service of the Lords of Chaos, who admits to Elric that he is disturbed by the idea that the Book could give either side in the eternal struggle the upper hand; as he puts it, “We exist only to fight — not to win, but to preserve the eternal struggle” (78). It sets the terms for the stories to follow.

And those stories are, in purely pyrotechnic terms, a blast. In his introduction, Moorcock freely admits that the stories are entertainments, not works of art (though he argues that they contain the seeds of much of what followed) but it doesn’t really prepare you for the density of imagination which follows. In part that’s because the length of each tale is also a shock, though a welcome one: the best of these stories are distilled essence of epic. On the downside, the remaining stories that were originally published in book form as The Stealer of Souls — which make up the first half of the present volume — are filled with transparently convenient plotting, a moderately bad case of Fan’t’asy N’a’ming D’sease, some atrocious dialogue (“I had hoped never to have to make use of that hell-forged blade again. She’s a treacherous sword at best” / “Aye — but I think you’ll need her in this business”, 166; although some of the dialogue demonstrates more self-awareness, such as when Elric responds to a speech about the awesome power of a warlord’s fully operational army with an offhand “thanks”), and mysterious and beautiful women. As I hinted yesterday, there is a parallel with The Broken Sword here in that the most childlike of the women, disturbingly, is handwaved into a marriage with Elric that seems to be largely based on his love of her innocence. (In one of the fanzine letters appended to the body of this edition, Moorcock acknowledges the problems with the representation of women, and implies it stems from personal circumstances at the time.) But on the upside, these are tales filled with battles and emotional torment and exotic landscapes and marvels: elementals fighting above a city, drugs, an undead-king (“His heart did not beat, for he had none; he drew no breath, for his lungs had been eaten by the creatures which feasted on such things. But, horribly, he lived …” 156, and it’s the ellipsis that makes it), cat-people from another dimension and, at the end, a dragon-riding set-piece. It also ends with Elric insisting that he is “tired of swords and sorcery” (194) — although significantly, when he tries, he is unable to properly throw Stormbringer away.

Which brings me to the second half of Elric: Stormbringer, your classic fix-up, published as stories in 1963 and 64, and in book form in 1965. As a novel-length inevitably had to do, Stormbringer raises the stakes. To this point, Elric has mostly been wandering around one continent; now he becomes aware of a great army massing across the ocean, that may pose a threat to the safety of the Young Kingdoms. (Intriguingly, the first map of Elric’s world, reproduced along with a number of magazine covers, is dated 1967, suggesting it was retrofitted to the stories. That would at least explain why the forces of darkness seem to insist on travelling East across the ocean, rather than making what one assumes would be a land voyage Westwards …) The army in question hails from the island of Pan Tang (Moorcock’s sensitivity to racial issues in these stories is on a par with his sensitivity to gender issues), and has allied itself with Chaos: which makes them more despicable than Elric’s people, for all that the Melnibonians are nominally chaotic themselves, because, says Elric, “These newcomers, more human than we, have peverted their humanity whereas we never possessed it in the same degree” (232). By the end of the first story — Stormbringer is climax on climax — we have learned that (no surprise) Elric’s sword, and he with it, have a greater destiny than he previously realised; and in a conversation with a Dead God, Moorcock confirms what has been implied since the beginning of the series, that Elric is living in our remote past. “The Earth’s history has not even begun,” a Dead God tells Elric. “You, your ancestors, these men of the new races even, you are nothing but a prelude to history. You will all be forgotten if the real history of the world begins” (264).

It’s the original magazine versions of the four stories that make up Stormbringer which appear here, which leads to some redundancy in the text, but increases the book’s value as a historical resource. Something those repetitions also help to make clear is that the evolution of Elric and the cosmology of his world was not a natural and inevitable progression; rather it was one of improvisation. Even as the forces of chaos advance — “iron and fire beat across nations like an unholy storm”, 247; one of the things Stormbringer does very well is develop an atmosphere of gathering darkness — Moorcock is building his world as fast as he’s tearing it down. We learn more about the past of Elric, and of Melnibone, and more about the geography of the world, than we ever needed in the earlier stories. And yet Moorcock picks up pieces of continuity from the earlier stories — a character here, a magic item there — and weaves them into his tapestry.

The extravagant visions of Chaos seem to bring out the best in Moorcock, too. Our first sight of the Dukes of Chaos is all abstractions, “suddenly ragged colour, shrill sound, and disordered matter” (308). And here’s a portrait of the Camp of Chaos, set in a landscape that is itself becoming unstable and messy:

No mortal nightmare could encompass such a terrible vision. The towering Ships of Hell dominated the place as they observed it from a distance, utterly horrified by the sight. Shooting flames of all colours seemed to flicker everywhere over the camp, fiends of all kinds mingled with the men, hell’s evilly beautiful nobles conferred with the gaunt-faced kings who had allied themselves to Jagreen Lern and perhaps now regretted it. Every so often the ground heaved and erupted and any human beings unfortunate enough to be in the area were either engulfed and totally transformed, or else had their bodies warped in indescribable ways. The noise was a dreadful blending of human voices and roaring Chaos sounds, devils’ wailing laughter and, quite often, the tortured shout of a human soul who had perhaps regretted his choice of loyalty and now suffered madness. The stench was disgusting, of corruption, of blood and of evil. The Ships of Hell moved slowly about through the horde which stretched for miles, dotted with great pavilions of kings, their silk banners fluttering; hollow pride compared to the might of Chaos. (377)

There’s plenty that’s bad about this paragraph — the imprecision about who’s doing the observing in the second sentence; the proximity of “perhaps now regretted” and “perhaps regretted”; the fairly pedestrian way it proceeds through the senses and describes each in turn. Nevertheless, for me at least, it has enough energy and cumulative power to overcome such flaws. Moorcock notes that “the landscapes of my stories are metaphysical, not physical” (438), something that becomes unavoidable towards the end of Stormbringer and, by all accounts, the later-written stories.

The structure of Stormbringer presents the relationship between Elric and his sword with a series of tests: Stormbringer weighed against the life of Elric’s wife, Stormbringer weighed against Elric’s devotion to his patron demon, Stormbringer weighed against Elric’s friend. Moorcock is explicit about the nature of the relationship: Elric calls for Stormbringer “as a lover calls for his betrothed” (318). That Moorcock takes this relationship as far as it can possibly go is to his credit, undeniably ironic, and perhaps the one aspect of the stories in this book that still seems truly transgressive. After all, you can’t get much more contrary in fantasy than to give your series an ultimate, unbreakable, unsequelable ending. (Even if you go on to find other ways to write about the character…)