Sunday, February 18, 2018

Tweeted by a Tolkien Scholar!

So, a super cool thing happened to me about two years ago . . . and I didn't notice until just the other day.

Back in 2016, I published an article in The Journal of Tolkien Research about Saruman, rhetoric, and Plato's concept of thumos. Well, what I noticed the other day was that Dimitra Fimi, one of my favorite Tolkien scholars, actually tweeted the link to that along with a compliment. I always read her work whenever I come across it, and I even had the pleasure to review her edition (co-edited with Andrew Higgins) of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, so that tweet just tickled me pink.

It took me two years to notice that tweet, btw, since I so rarely use my twitter account. I should probably use it more, though, especially as the forum has been kind to me. Within my first week of opening my account, as a matter of fact, I saw the CFP for a festschrift of. Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff, and that actually turned out to be one of my first official academic acceptances.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Wow -- N. K. Jemisin

I first encountered Jemisin through her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I didn't care much for it, I remember. Really, I only read it because she seemed to be earning as much praise for being an African-American fantasy author as for writing good books,*** soI was curious about her work. But, although the book wasn't good enough for me to continue the series, it was nonetheless good enough that I didn't mind giving her most recent series, The Broken Earth, a try. I read The Fifth Season (2015) about a year after it came out, and it utterly absorbed me.

Now, over the last week, I finished The Obelisk Gate (2016) and The Stone Sky (2017).

Let me say -- well, damn. Wow wow wow. Words fails me. The term "masterpiece" can be thrown out too cavalierly, but I don't know if even that quite cuts it here. It's been a long time since I read something so original and so gut-wrenchingly powerful. 

Part of me cannot help wondering how more deeply I would have reacted to the book had I read it twenty or even ten years ago, when the sense of grief the books articulate would have been even more poignant for me.

I won't mention my thoughts on the series here -- I suspect it'll take me a long time to process them completely. The experience of having read The Broken Earth is still too raw, Jemisin's themes too complex and deeply layered. I had a similar experience reading Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, although Jemisin's series is longer and more immersive. For now, though, I think it safe to say that this may be one of the best works of speculative fiction ever written -- maybe even a landmark of modern literature period, no matter the genre categorization.

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***At least, that was the case in the online articles where I first encountered her name.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Blake Charlton's SPELLWRIGHT

Just finished this one, and it's one of the few books that's simultaneously provoked a "wow, cool!" and a "meh" response.

The book has Charlton's magic system to thank for its Cool Factor. Basically, all spells are written in language that has taken tangible form -- size, weight, color, the works. As such, there's a ton of fun puns and concepts in here. For example, the main character casts a spell in a purple-tinted magical language, which opens him to the accusation -- made quite seriously, mind you -- of engaging in "adolescent purple prose." To censure a magician is to prevent them from casting spells. Ghostwriting is when a spellwright casts a spell to create his own ghost. Likewise, a subtext is a spell that no one can see.

Just as fun for rhetoric nerds like myself, one of Charlton's spellwrights can tell another's identity by the high frequency of double appositives in their magical prose. 

My favorite reference, though, comes when Charlton describes the perils of the Disjunction, where demons threaten to break the tradition linkage between signifier and signified -- a good dig at deconstructionism always makes my day.***

Also, another cool element is simply Charlton's basic smarts. The dangers of changing a word's spelling, for example, recalls the debate about evolution -- slight changes can be beneficial, some are neutral, but most changes create destructive disasters. Likewise, most of the characters are terrified of completely cacaphonic (nonsensical) languages, which strikes akin to the fears over posthumanism where "nature" is no longer a valid measuring stick. (Charlton didn't actually develop that theme, but I think some critical legwork could find the implications there.)

Unfortunately, and I hate to say this, despite all these cool things, I found Spellwright to be relatively off-putting. The plot is .  . . okay, I suppose. Somewhat convoluted, and skim-read large swaths of text. The teacher-magician figure is moderately amusing but hardly memorable. Nicodemus Weal, the protagonist, is a rather dull "child of prophecy" without much personality outside his dyslexia. In fact, speaking of prophecy, I was a bit surprised at how much I disliked the author using that old fantasy trope. Although Charlton does attempt to do something slightly new with it (i.e., putting the whole idea in doubt), it was too little and too late for me.

So, an "A" in magical systems, a "B" in general world-building, but a "C" in plot and character.

Charlton also gets an "A" is Being Totally Awesome As A Person. Apparently, he overcame severe dyslexia as a kid with the help of fantasy fiction, graduated summa cum laude from Yale, and is now a doctor with several medical publications in addition to his Spellwright trilogy. The s.o.b. is even the same age as me, the jerk.

Incidentally, I checked out Charlton's website, and he has a cool blog post about language in Tolkien. It can be found here.

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***Incidentally, nothing marks this book as fantasy like how Nicodemus Weal is excited to teach a group of young students "composition."

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Avoiding Writing . . .

 . . . is one of the best ways to get a lot of reading done.

In the last 8 days, I've managed to get through four novels:

The Heritage of Hastur by Marion Zimmer Bradley (350 pg)
The Spell Sword by Bradley (150 pg)
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs (150 pg)
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (650 pg)

Ever since I started college, I thought authors who wrote long novels (i.e., 500 pg+) were guilty of bad manners against poor, time-constrained scholars, but by gosh if I didn't breeze through that Sanderson. (Of course, prior to formally re-starting school in 2003, I loved excessively long novels -- re-read them multiple times, even.) So, 1300 pages in 8 days is a pretty good rate for me nowadays, especially as its mid-semester and I'm still teaching. 

My all-time record, as far as I can remember, was during my MA comps, when I read 1600 pages in 8 days -- both Elliot's Middlemarch and Thackeray's Vanity Fair. At 200 pages a day, reading maybe 40 pages an hour, that's 5 hours of reading per day, which doesn't sound like a lot but, somehow, for me,  always has been, at least day after day like that.

Indeed, back during my undergrad and Master's program, I used to keep semester logs of my reading productivity. I generally averaged 70 pages a day throughout the semester. My all-time best came one semester when I averaged 100 pages a day, although that was supplemented by breezing through all the Harry Potter books, which seems a bit like cheating since that productivity record also included critical theory and postmodern novels.

I haven't kept those logs since 2009, however. They're impractical anyways, at least given how I studied during my doctorate. When you "gut" a book of literary criticism for its main ideas, you only read a fraction of the actual sentences written. That's why reading novels actually takes me much longer now than reading books of criticism.

Still, I don't want to become one of those Ph.D who stop reading after their official schooling is over. The temptation's there -- reading for fun almost seems like a waste of time, especially when you're teaching full-time and married. But I try to remember why I started on this academic life in the first place.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Addendum to "How Many Novels P.E. Zimmer Wrote"

So, I just double-checked Marion's introduction to her brother in the Greyhaven anthology -- the place where she gives him credit for helping with The Spell Sword. (The detailed blog post on Paul Edwin Zimmer's author credits can be found here.)

On one hand, she says Paul wrote completed "chapters" of text and that she splits royalties from the book evenly with him. That seems to suggest that PEZ deserves a (secondary) author credit for the book. 

That "chapters" bit, though, seems like an exaggeration. At best, though only about 10-15 pages of The Spell Sword (out of 160 total) are devoted to fight scenes that would have required PEZ's expertise. And we also have the fact that, whereas Marion explicitly states that PEZ deserves an author credit for Hunters of the Red Moon, she's silent about The Spell Sword. Surely, if she felt he deserved credit on the Darkover novel, she would have said so? Especially as Marion isn't the sort of begrudge credit where it's due.

All of makes me lean against attributing The Spell Sword as one of PEZ's "nine" novels, and instead thinking Marion had placed the unpublished The King Who Was of Old among those nine.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Requiem in pace, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Sad news -- Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the classiest ladies in sf&f, just passed away this evening. She instantly catapulted into one of my top 10 favorite authors after I first read The Dispossessed in one sitting almost two decades ago, and her literary sensibility and poise has always truck me with awe. Long may her works prosper.

The Greyhaven Writers -- where's the love?

So, one of the research questions I've been pondering is, "Why isn't Marion Zimmer Bradley a bigger academic deal?"  

On one hand, her career ticks off many of the major "canon" points that commonly help the reputation of speculative fiction writers:
  • Signature series? Darkover -- check.
  • Signature best-selling book? The Mists of Avalon -- check.
  • Part of a literary circle? The Greyhaven writers (Diana L. Paxson, Paul Edwin Zimmer, Jon Decles, and a few more) -- check.
  • Significant influence on other writers? Check. Bradley initiated the Swords and Sorceress anthology series, now in its 32nd volume (!!), and she lent her name to an important publishing venue for fantasy writers, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. In fact, you can tell just how proud MZB was to have provided the first publication to many important fantasy writers.
  • Cornerstone themes? Check -- tons of feminism, a fair engagement (post-Stonewall) with homosexual themes and characters.
  • Interesting personal views: Check. Although not my bag, MZB was heavily involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism and, more importantly, a major West Coast influence on neo-paganism / wiccanism, which tended to emphasize the Goddess figure. 
Just about the only major checkpoint missing is a voluminous personal correspondence, but even that lessens in important as letter-writing gradually grows obsolete (although contemporaries like Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanne Rust had their share). 

Yet there's no biography of Bradley -- or Paxson, for that matter. A MLA International Bibliography search on MZB pulls up a bare few dozens mentions, and only one short monograph devoted solely to her. (Paxson comes up with less than a dozen hits.) 

This lack of attention just seem apart of how drastically fantasy criticism, historically, has lagged behind sf criticism. Although many MZB novels are relentlessly mediocre, that's hardly unusual for writer who grew up with and around the pulps. She's also not a stylistic experimentalist -- although, again, that's hardly a disqualifier among speculative fiction writers, especially those on the fantasy spectrum. She does seem orthogonal, however, to the SF New Wave.

I've often thought that writers are only as good as their critics, and literary reputations, especially posthumous ones, require really good critics. To put it simply, MZB simply hasn't "lucked out" to have found many such critics for her work. I haven't quite read enough of MZB yet to attribute her lack of attention solely to bad luck, but it's an intriguing hypothesis for now.

I also wonder if her lack of high-brow literary ambition might not have been a problem, either. In an afterword to The Spell Sword, she notes (1) she's not that worked up over world-building inconsistencies between her Darkover novels [Tolkien would have been horrified], and (2) she considers herself mostly an "entertainment" writer. Again, being an entertainment writer describes nearly everybody in the pulp tradition, but even good literary critics need clues from the writers themselves as to their own important. MZB's afterword ends with a telling passage:
"If the books have any message at all, which I personally doubt, it is simply that for a man nothing of mankind is alien" (158).
Well, that's deflating. For the moment we'll ignore her clear humanism, a vast unpopular viewpoint in an age of politics-orientated criticism and postmodern/poststructuralist theory.  Let's focus instead on her lack of a "message." Tolkien, too, disavowed any message. When writers say something like that (usually accompanied by a faint tone of scorn), they mean that they're not addressing some current situation in politics, life, or culture. Still, Tolkien's many interpretors have adequately uncovered the extent of his literary ambitions in regards to English literary history. MZB hasn't been as lucky in her disavowal, it seems to me. Rather than simply ignoring it, perhaps critics have simply thought, "Well, straight from the horse's mouth -- nothing to see here," and moved on to other writers.



Sunday, January 21, 2018

So, how many novels did Paul Edwin Zimmer write?

This shouldn't be a tough question, one would think, but it is. For this problem we have his many collaborations and the demands of the publishing industry to thank. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database clearly lists eight novels in total. But PEZ's brother, Marion Zimmer Bradley, also says that Zimmer wrote nine novels in her introduction to his story in Sword and Sorceress XV, and she would know, right?  Problem is, I'm having a hard time getting my math to add up. So here goes . . . . 

The novels that unquestionably belong to PEZ are, of course, those books with his name on the cover. But even these aren't that simple. Let's start with his solo works:


#1 & #2: The Dark Border, vol. 1 & vol. 2

  • The Lost Prince (1982)
  • King Chondos' Ride (1982)
#3A Gathering of Heroes (1987)
#4Ingulf the Mad (1989)

These are all PEZ's Dark Border novels, and technically we got 4 books here. The tricky part is that The Dark Border is actually one novel split into two parts -- his publishers refused to publish a 700-page novel by a first-time novelist, so split them up. The same thing happened to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, albeit for different reasons -- Unwin wanted the extra set of reviews on a work he felt sure would be a money-loser. Anyway, we'll just count The Dark Border as two books cuz that seems easiest.

Then we have a few clearly marked collaborations:


#5: The Survivors  (1979) w/ Marion Zimmer Bradley

#6: The Blood of Colyn Muir  (1988) w/ Jon DeCles, pseudonym of Don Studebaker

Okay, so we're clearly up to six. To this list of collaborations we can also add


#7Hunters of the Red Moon (1973) w/ Marion Zimmer Bradley


PEZ's name never appeared on the original 1973 cover because DAW books only wanted Bradley's name on its, but Bradley later said -- in her brother's intro in the Greyhaven anthology -- that PEZ wrote about 1/3 of it and deserved an author credit. Anyway, most people acknowledge this collaboration; it appears officially on the ISFD under Zimmer. I've seen remarks that Hunters was later reissued under both writers's names, but I've been unable to track it down. Interlibrary loan couldn't help, and Amazon doesn't have it. (I did order a book that claimed it had both authors listed, but this turned out to be inaccurate.)


So, what are Zimmer's final two novels?


Well, as sketchy as it may be as a novel, we could probably add the following:


#8Woman of the Elfmounds (1980)


Of course, that's a chapbook, maybe even a short novella, but by no stretch of the imagination should it be considered a novel. Nonetheless, it seems to be part of Zimmer's alleged nine. ISFD certainly counts it as such. Anyway, for the sole purpose of getting up to "nine," we have to go with it.


None more problems emerge, though, ISFD, as mentioned, stops at eight -- and we've mentioned all eight. A website called fantasticfiction.com does cite nine novels written, the last one being a collaboration of Stormqueen! with Bradley. I'm skeptical, though, since it incorrectly states that PEZ edited the Greyhaven anthology, and I could find no independent verfication.


My best guess for the ninth alleged novel, then, is this:


#9The Spell Sword  (1974) w/ Marion Zimmer Bradley


In the Greyhaven anthology, Bradley very clearly states that PEZ helped her with the fight scenes in this novel. Cut and dry, right? Well, it should be, but then again I don't understand why nobody ever lists or discusses that novel as a collaboration. Unlike Hunters, which multiple sources have confirmed is a collaboration, absolutely no one outside Bradley in that one introduction mentioned Spell Sword. We could say, perhaps, "Well, Bradley thought Paul deserved a writer's credit on Hunters but thought that his contribution to Spell Sword was substantive enough."*** But then why did she state he wrote nine novels in the S&S anthology?


It's a bit of a puzzle. Still, I'm pretty confident we can stick with this list of nine.  Only . . . well, according to a wikipedia entry presumably written by someone close to Zimmer, PEZ apparently left a novel unpublished upon his death, The King Who Was of Old.


So I wonder if that might not be part of Bradley's "nine"? She might have been jumping the boat a bit, assuming King would find a publisher. This idea is nice, since it means we wouldn't have to count PEZ's chapbook as a novel. 


Or, maybe, Bradley was counting King Who Was of Old and Woman of the Elfmounds as novels, but excluding The Spell Sword. This theory is nice because (1) I can't find anything that states that Bradley believed her brother deserved an author credit, and (2) nobody among the Greyhaven circle seems to credit PEZ as an author for this work.


So, ultimately Zimmer between 7-10 novels, depending on if:


(a) we count The Dark Border as one novel or two

(b) we count Woman of the Elfmounds as a novel instead of a chapbook
(c) we count The Spell Sword as a collaboration*****
(d) we count the unpublished The King Who Was of Old as a novel.

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***Possibly bolstering this point is the Spell Sword came out a year after Hunters, implying that Bradley was comfortable giving credit where credit was deserved. Still, her Greyhaven introduction seems to suggest that, while Spell Sword was published a year after Hunters, it may have been written prior.

***** Actually, I'm now leaning against The Spell Sword as an official PEZ novel, and now I'm more inclined to attribute The King Who Was of Old as one of the "nine" novels Marion said her brother wrote. My reasoning can be found in this addendum.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Woman of the Elfmounds (Paul Edwin Zimmer)

As part of my research on Paul Edwin Zimmer, whose Dark Border was my favorite book as a teenager before encountering The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I've been tracking down all his published writings. Much of this isn't easy, Decades have lapsed since much of it last saw print, but Amazon is brilliant for finding out-of-the-way short stories collections and novels. This entry, though, is about the miracles of interlibrary loan.

Zimmer's first published solo prose work was a chapbook called Woman of the Elfmounds (1979). After an unusual several week delay, the U of A library got it for me just the other day, and I quickly saw what took so long. Basically, they had to import it from Canada -- the University of Alberta, to be precise).

Well, Elfmounds was published by Triskell Press in a series edited by the Canadian paragon of urban fantasy, Charles de Lint. According to the front matter, Woman was actually Triskell's first book in that series. Nice little volume, actually, with Celtic illustrations -- the story tells of a culture class between culture clash between barbaric man and highly civilized elves, the Tuatha Dé Danann or elves of Irish folklore, although they're never named as such in the text. The Tolkien influence is strong; one of the Elves references sailing off to the lands of the "Ever-Living," and it's worth noting that the group of writers associated with Zimmer, the Greyhaven writers that included Zimmer's sister Marion Zimmer Bradley, named their communal house Greyhaven in honor of Tolkien. The Tolkien-esque theme of mortality and immortality also plays a significant role in this chapbook, not to mention his other writings. Woman ends with a powerful image of a semi-delusional men chasing an image of his own death.

Also interesting in this Triskell Press chapbook is its introduction by Evangeline Walton -- perhaps more noteworthy in showing Walton's friendship with Zimmer (she also did a blurb for The Dark Border) than anything she actually says, which like most intros by other authors is more courtesy than illuminating. Since the U of A actually has her papers -- like Barbara Kingsolver, Walton was a long-time Tucson resident -- I may have found another avenue for potential information on Zimmer and other Greyhaven writers. It might fulfil an idle day of library research, anyway.

But back to Zimmer.

Eighteen years after the Woman of the Elfmounds chapook, Zimmer revised it for publication in Elf Magic, a 1997 collection of stories edited by Martin H. Greenburg. I'd originally thought, before reading the Triskell version, that this later revision belonged to the Dark Border corpus -- the hero's name, Conn Mac Cathla, has a similar structure to names in A Gathering of Heroes. The Triskell version, however, convinced me otherwise. While the name is suggestive, the Elves in both Woman of the Elfmounds stories lack the same qualities as his Dark Border Elves -- no references to "elf-shock" and so forth, although the elves' special antagonism with wolves remains.

Zimmer's revisions are themselves focused only on style and length. Remaining the same is the plot and the special inventions (names, items, spellings) remain exactly the same. 

For the most part, I actually like the prose better in the original version, but the revised version generally had well-chosen deletions. Some of those excisions may have been been editorial demands by Greenburg for Zimmer to meet a maximum wordcount, and some were usual -- for example, Zimmer removed all but one reference to "Druids," and I'm not sure why. More importantly, though, Zimmer excised the section concerning the Elves' motivation in meeting Conn Mac Cathla, creating more uncertainty about the Elves and giving greater credence to the claims by Conn's tribe about them -- just enough, in fact, that the reader shares Conn's hesitation as he's caught between two worlds, heightening the tragedy of the ending.

Getting Ready for ICFA 2018

Egads. Well, just spent an obscene amount of money for my upcoming trip to the 2018 ICFA (International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts). I went last year and had one of my best times ever at an academic event; it came one week after my dissertation defense, and Martina and I capped it off with the trip to Disney World.

This year, though, I'm a bit floored by the sticker shock. Part of that is that I no longer qualify for student registration rates -- another part that U of A grants no funding to lecturers for conference travel, which surprises me. A third part, admittedly, is that M. and I are splurging a bit. This year we're spending two nights at the conference hotel, which is about twice as pricey as the hotel we got last year, just three miles away. The hike, though, is a bit much for Martina; she's also had a rough year so deserves a bit of pampering. All that, combined with a few other odds & ends, means this might be my last ICFA for a while. These conferences don't help me as a lecturer (outside my job description as a writing instructor, doan y'know), and adding a few more national/international conferences to the c.v. really won't bestow any added benefits in my search for a permanent TT job. 

Still, I am immensely excited about the ICFA this year -- not only because it rocked so hard last year, but get this: on my panel is a scholar named W. A. Senior. My paper's on Stephen R. Donaldson, and Senior's wrote far and away the best monograph on Tolkien to date. His critical study's actually one of the first works of literary criticism I, way back as an undergrad at Kent State, ever read for fun. So it'll be a treat to present my paper alongside him.