Black Gate and Synchronicity

Last weekend I was clearing out a long-neglected corner of our house when I found a letter addressed to me. “Weird,” I said to myself, looking at the envelope. “That looks like my own writing, too.” Then I realized: it was a rejection slip. The postmark was from three years ago. I had gotten it, instantly recognized what it was, and tucked it away in this corner without bothering to open it.

Now I opened it, and saw that it was a rejection for “The Lawless Hours,” the Morlock novella which is out this week in Black Gate 11.

So now I’m using the rejection slip as a bookmark while I read my way through the issue. It’s oddly satisfying, like drinking a toast from the skull of one’s slain enemy. Only not as, you know, morally problematic.

Also synchronicitiferous, I read this morning (courtesy of kythiaranos and “Pat’s Hotlist”) Jonathan McCalmont’s latest screed arguing that fantasy is inherently authoritarian. The synchronicity comes in because (I don’t think this is a spoiler), in “The Lawless Hours” Morlock acts as the catalyst in disrupting an authoritarian regime, though that’s not really what the story is about.

Part of the Politicization of Everything is the way that politics gets treated as the norm of meaningful human interaction. In fact, although politics is necessary for dealing with groups of individuals, it’s a pretty blunt instrument for dealing with the individual (or internal) human interactions that fiction is really about. I would say something like this on McCalmont’s blog, but he’s one of these “But, still…” guys: it doesn’t matter what wealth of contradictory evidence and argument you bring to him; his original position always turns out to be the Only Correct One.

More later, maybe: I’m running late for some human interactions.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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23 Responses to Black Gate and Synchronicity

  1. kythiaranos says:

    I think drinking from the skull of my enemy would only be morally problematic if he still needed it.

    Could you tell McCalmont made me cranky? I had to post about it because the hubby wouldn’t listen to me rant any more.

    • JE says:

      “I think drinking from the skull of my enemy would only be morally problematic if he still needed it.”

      This makes me feel better.

      “Could you tell McCalmont made me cranky? I had to post about it because the hubby wouldn’t listen to me rant any more.”

      Yes, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. And, to be fair, he probably wouldn’t either. He must put things the way he does to irritate people. Mission possible!

    • burger_eater says:

      What if you were really, really thirsty?

  2. sboydtaylor says:

    I know it’s not going to convince McCalmont, but I went over there and called him out for a lack of logic and rigor to his methods, and I pointed out obvious ignorance of the fact that most Epic Fantasy is about the OVERTHROW or DEFEAT of totalitarianism.

    • filomancer says:

      OK, I didn’t read the annoying McCalmont post, but there is one point made by David Brin about Star Wars which I think applies in some degree to too much fantasy. With regard to the latter, it’s the prevalence of the notion a hereditary elite combined with the all too frequent absence of democratic societies. The lowborn, despised hero might not prove to be a missing princely heir who will overthrow the evil totalitarian usurper (replacing the old regime with a benevolent monarchy), but if not he (usually a he) proves to be part of some other elite, that of the wizards or other magical folk. I always think of the contrastive scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the peasants are discussing political philosophy… “What lord lives in yonder castle?”… This is one reason why in my Ish #10 Black Gate story, my princess (in the modern sense of the term) ends up as a scullery maid.

      I’ve been reading and greatly enjoying the first book in the Bartimaeus trilogy with my 7-year-old. Stroud seems to be tackling the class issue head on, first from the standpoint of the enslaved djinn. But the commoners (non-magicians) are shortly to come onstage too, I think.

      • JE says:

        I can’t claim to have read a representative sample of modern fantasy, but I can see how this semi-aware classism (or whatever one wants to call it) might abound. But is it really unique or intrinsic to fantasy? It seems much more central to, say, the “cozy” mystery, and there are smears of it almost everywhere. In Robinson’s Blue Mars, for instance, the Mars-dwellers seem to be superior by some kind of manifest destiny. Asimov’s Second Foundation emerges (in his original trilogy) as a premade ruling class for the Second Empire. I’m not sure what these things prove, but I’m tolerably sure they don’t prove Robinson or Asimov (much less sf inherently) endorsed or promoted authoritarian politics.

        • filomancer says:

          There are elitist narratives from our own history–the Puritan “city on the hill,” Manifest Destiny itself. American exceptionalism. Lots of echoes of those in sf/f from its inception.

      • sboydtaylor says:

        Sounds like a fun series. I’ll have to pick it up. 🙂

        That said, the “return of the king” is a motif borrowed from myth; the heir or lost king returning to reclaim a tarnished throne. Orestes or Odysseus rehashed so many times.

        To call all such stories fascist (thus inviting direct comparisons to Nazis and Il Duce) sheds more light on the movies of the analyst than the analyzed.

        • filomancer says:

          I didn’t (and wouldn’t, at least not automatically) call such stories fascist, but maybe the term classist is appropriate in some cases. I assume you meant “motives” rather than “movies.”

          However. As a scholar of myth, I don’t think the fact that some motif or plot-type was common in the mythology of a long-ago society whose social and political arrangements we would now find intolerable, if not incomprehensible, is a reason to use it today unexamined. Myths aren’t Platonic forms existing outside of any historical context, and when they get retold in a new age and in a different culture, their meanings always change. But they also carry what I guess you could call symbolic residues. The “return of the king” stories generally have a very different set of social, political and psychological resonances than, say, versions of “Puss in Boots.” They are inherently conservative to the degree that they are about restoration of a golden age.

          One question would be why the “return of the king” story still resonates today even though we have very different ideologies and political arrangements. It’s a writer’s responsibility to think about why s/he is telling this story as opposed to another one (by which I mean artistic responsibility, primarily, though writers do also have some social responsibility).

          In the interests of full disclosure, I have a “return of the king” element in Bear Daughter. I had complicated agendas shaping aspects of the book, and one of them was wanting a certain degree of historical and ethnographic fidelity, while (a somewhat contradictory one, but arising out of the same impulse) was to draw analogies between northwest coast Native American societies and the valorized culturals ancestral to the West–e.g., Homeric Greeks.

          • JE says:

            “One question would be why the ‘return of the king’ story still resonates today even though we have very different ideologies and political arrangements. It’s a writer’s responsibility to think about why s/he is telling this story as opposed to another one (by which I mean artistic responsibility, primarily, though writers do also have some social responsibility).”

            This is a good question. I don’t think the answer is necessarily classism, but it may be that classism and one impulse towards this kind of fantasy have a common cause. A class-system validates a given individual who belongs to the privileged class(es), irrespective of his/her personal achievements–very comforting to those who belong. People may be drawn to “return of the king” fantasies (or “I was adopted” fantasies) through a longing to be innately okay–innately justified, innately “the right sort of person.”

            I think the myth of a king coming to power through some sort of struggle (as opposed to merely inheriting the throne) acts out a nearly universal psychological struggle, too: obtaining autonomy and a separate identity from one’s birth family (or whatever caregivers one had growing up). Everyone has to do this if they’re going to be an adult; the more struggle it involves (or is anticipated to involve) the more emotion is latent in these images and the more exciting a myth that uses them is going to be.

            Not sure if this makes any sense. In any case, I agree that asking these questions is part of our business. It’s the pat answer or dismissal (by JM and others) that I find annoying and sub-useless, as reader and writer, as fantasist and as scholar.

          • Anonymous says:

            One question would be why the “return of the king” story still resonates today even though we have very different ideologies and political arrangements.

            I’ve always considered it to be, first and foremost, wish fulfillment. For many readers, reading about a protagonist who starts out leading a mundane life, but was born special and will soon be swept away to an exciting, important life is, if not the ultimate in escapism, very high on the escapism chart.

            –Jeff Stehman

          • JE says:

            I’d go along with this: it certainly rings truer than trying to measure a genre’s political allegiance.

            A shrewd writer provides some tension between fantasy/actuality, too, I think. Strider, when we first see him at Bree, is the king-in-hiding–but he wants people to like and trust him for himself, not his pedigree or his letter-of-recommendation. It’s one of the reasons I like “Strider” better than Aragorn.

          • sboydtaylor says:

            I still feel that the reason this myth — and all “Return to Innocence/Golden Age” myths — resonate today is because the “return to innocence” is an *almost* universal drive. Growing up for most of us, at least SOME part of our youth was fun and simple. At some point, we realized that life got complicated and grim and HARD.

            From the archetype of the Noble Savage to the Garden of Eden to G-Man movies of the 30’s and 40’s, the drive to re-capture our lost innocence keeps coming back.

            I believe the reason any myth has power is that it resonates in its audience at a primal, psychological level.

          • sboydtaylor says:

            The “return of the king” stories generally have a very different set of social, political and psychological resonances than, say, versions of “Puss in Boots.” They are inherently conservative to the degree that they are about restoration of a golden age.

            This is also McCalmont’s line of reasoning. It sounds remarkably reasonable at first.

            Rather than accepting this on face-level, let’s dig into it. I can agree with you that a “return of the king” story** is a “Restoration of the golden age”. However, I find your alignment of “Restoration of a Golden Age” with “conservatism” rather jarring. Since I am far-and-away politically liberal, I even find it rather insulting — as if you’ve thrown tar on a jewel. This is the innate danger of trying too hard to politicize everything. Life is not politics!

            The “restoration of the Golden Age” is a pile of widely varying myths, everything from the Garden of Eden to the Second Coming to the Noble Savages (including Native American societies and the Homeric Greeks you mention in your book.) All of them, including the Noble Savage, are a depiction of our own — personal — loss of innocence, and a desire for a simpler time. The sad truth is that no time was simpler, so we push these archetypes further back and look for Gardens of Eden or Wisdom from the Ancients.

            I’ve spoken at length on David Brin’s forum, deconstructing the Noble Savage archetype. Here’s a copy I kept for myself, with links to Brin’s site:

            http://nikwdhmos.livejournal.com/136016.html

            The same logic can be turned around and used to eviscerate the entire myth of the Golden Age. Look at it very hard. Look at your Garden of Eden. Look at your Second Coming. Look at your Noble Savage. They are all, really, about us growing up — losing our innocence, and wanting it back.

            When you are done with it, all of these myths — in all of their shapes — end up looking inside each of us, delving deep and giving us hope that our lost innocence is not so lost after all. That is why they resonate.

            Not because of Fascism or Democracy or even Kings or Queens. Because of little boys and little girls being overwhelmed by the world.

            ** I don’t know if this class of story has already been identified in mythological/anthropological circles; I invented this name for ease of discussion — forgive me if I’m re-inventing the wheel

          • filomancer says:

            Life is not politics!

            No, although politics at some level is part of any gathering of people.

            I was speaking about art, not life. In fiction, as you point out, story elements can have multiple functions, and the reader through identifiying with the hero gets to experience the hero’s psychological journey.

            But I don’t think stories have only one domain of reference. Even the most escapist fantasy is also at some level also about the external world. What readers find to be escape changes over time–it’s escapist because it’s addressing anxieties which are specific to time and place. (Some works more so, some less.)

            Myths from other times and cultures resonate for us because we only take from them what we find meaningful. The meanings those myths had for their original tellers can be harder to get at. A perennial problem for studying Native American myths is that the great majority of written versions available were re-told by cultural outsiders who dropped and distorted what they didn’t understand. But in cultures where myths are still true stories about the world, the psychological resonance is only one dimension. They are about politics and religion, the creation of the world and the ordering of social institutions. Myths are effective components of shamanic healing because they put the patient into the primordial era where (in the story) all those things were combined in the root metaphors of the culture.

            I originally took “return of the king” to mean something along the lines of LOTR–Aragorn is not the protagonist with whom we are primarily identified. In stories of that pattern, the hero aids in the restoration, but the king (usually a king; Diana Wynne Jones has some choice words on Queens in Fantasyland) is an august, elevated sort of person whom we view from more of a distance.

            The Poor Boy Becomes King story pattern has a different psychological resonance for me… but still raises some of the same issues. There’s a way in which such stories, at least many of them, tend to treat the notion of acquiring power and achieving adult status naively. It’s about rising in the hierarchy of the world more than about achieving sufficient maturity to set aside the psychological (and political) notion of hierarchy. I always loved the character of Colm in The Book of Three and its sequels–the great warrior now happily puttering around his garden and raising pigs. Admittedly it’s not as thrilling a trajectory as Taran’s, assistant pigkeeper to High King, but it’s closer to how I’d rather end up (minus pigs).

            Puss in Boots is interestingly close to the pigkeeper-into-high-king story trajectory, but it’s a very ironic treatment of rising in the hierarchy. What people take to indicate hereditary nobility is shown to be possessions, attitude, and the careful maintenance of illusion. Which is also one possible view of adult status today as defined by society.

            Personal empowerment is pretty high up on the list of themes I’m interested in, both as a reader and a writer. But I’m just wondering what it means when we attach such a theme to symbols of, for example, authoritarian power. I just saw the King Tut exhibit here in Philly and was reminded yet again about the way Egyptian art depicted the importance of people through relative size. I think we all do that psychologically–some people are huge in our imaginations and some people are the size of the dancing girls. And for many people one’s self is the hugest, the pharaoh, the king. Most of us at some level want the outside world to treat us accordingly, but that fantasy extended becomes one of narcisisstic indulgence, which I would not equate with the quest for personal empowerment.

            I’m just musing here, not laying down what I think are some kind of laws, and generally speaking, I think that the better a story is, the harder it is to pin down. LOTR has indiputably conservative and classist aspects, but that doesn’t exhaust what you can find in it.

          • sboydtaylor says:

            LOTR has indiputably conservative and classist aspects, but that doesn’t exhaust what you can find in it.

            This I agree with, to an extent. England was (is) very classist, and a certain amount of it was bound to be reflected. That said, there is very little upper-class about the Hobbits — and they become heroes on par with (the noble-class) Legolas and Aragorn. Perhaps Frodo can be made out to be a middle-class hero, but Perrin, Merry, and Sam are definitely working-class. Once again, when analysis comes into play, it becomes easy to ignore information that doesn’t fit the theory.

            I guess I view myth the way I view archetypes: not as outlines, nor even skeletons for building a story — but as tools to find a deeper meaning and/or refine something that has already been written.

            Perhaps I’m not against “political analysis” of myths at all, but rather “political attacks” on myths. Sorry if I sound like a broken record, but calling a myth or a class of stories “fascist” — as McCalmont did — causes an emotional reaction rather than a logical one. With the term fascist, you are one association away from “Nazi”. And I doubt he or you could justify calling the entire fantasy genre that.

            A classist complaint may be very reasonable, but a fascist complaint is… well… excessive hyperbole. No, it’s not even that — it’s fabrication.

            That said, I believe that most fantasy writers in America have originated from the working classes or below (such as myself), and a close examination of them will find many Han Solo-type common-man heroes alongside the Aragorn-clones.

            Also, just because someone is destined to save the world, they’re not necessarily destined to be rich or powerful.

            One thing that annoys ME about fantasy writing is the Calvinist pre-destination that seems to float through most of it. The prophecy tells you who will win, and the rest of the book is confirming the prophecy. This is a tradition I would dearly love to shatter and grind into sparkling dust.

          • filomancer says:

            Since I failed to read the original McCalmont post until last night, I didn’t understand where your reaction was coming from. I certainly was not defending his point of view, to which he is entitled but which seems both extremely literal and wilfully ignorant about both fantasy and fascism. Philip Pullman (author of The Golden Compass, and other fantasies) has said some very worthwhile things about the antagonism of authoritarian societies (theocracy, fascism, etc) toward reading. For example, “[T]he theocratic cast of mind has low expectations of literature. It thinks that the function of novels and poetry is to present a clear ideological viewpoint, and nothing else.” Substitute “correct” for “clear” and it starts to sound a bit like McCalmont…

          • JE says:

            Yes, the McCalmont post was something I’ve been calling “destructive interpretation,” where the interpreter quarries some repellent meaning out of a text, and then blames the author for it (as if the interpreter played no role in the interpretation).

          • sboydtaylor says:

            where the interpreter quarries some repellent meaning out of a text, and then blames the author for it

            That is, indeed, precisely what he’s done…
            Although I might replace the verb “quarries” with “fabricates”.

          • Anonymous says:

            something I’ve been calling “destructive interpretation,”

            That’s a good term for it. I mean, if you don’t want to call it the David Brin school of critiquing. 😉

          • sboydtaylor says:

            Ooh! Thanks for sharing the Pullman link. 🙂

            I will cogitate upon it.

  3. JE says:

    I feel that, the less we clean the house, the more interesting it becomes, and this was strong evidence endorsing my point of view. There is another way to look at this, though, I guess.

    Good luck with JM. I may wander by to read the comments, but he does seem like someone who always ends up where he starts.

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