The Attempted Murder of Sword & Sorcery
So the good people over at Castalia House have put out a review of the new Gardner Dozois/George R. R. Martin anthology, The Book of Swords. You can read the autopsy of this shitpile here, but I'll just let you know that it doesn't look pretty. This is the same problem they had with their Old Venus anthology, which is that these people fundamentally do not understand the medium they're working in. Either that, or they're actively trying to kill it. They say you shouldn't attribute to malice what could be attributed to ignorance and incompetence, but at this point I'm really starting to fucking wonder over here.
The problem with Old Venus, as expounded on in many places, is that the stories went nowhere and did nothing. They were vehicles for preachy wannabe litfic, not adventure stories exploring the possibilities of Venus as an inhabitable world in the way that the old pulpsters did. So in the interest of showing these wankers how it's done, I wrote a story playing with the concept of Old Venus, and it'll be appearing in Cirsova Heroic Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine this summer. It's called "Slavers of Venus", and you can support their Kickstarter here.
Unfortunately, it looks like we're going to have to do more of this kind of thing, because these people are apparently damned and determined to slaughter everything that used to be fun about these old genres. What really pisses me off here is that there are authors in this new anthology that I actually respect, and they're engaged in this exercise in killing the primary genres that I write in. My opinion on Martin is already well known (for those who don't know, I really actively dislike the fucker, and try to steer people away from his nihilistic celebration of his personal fucked up sexual fantasies), but some of the rest of these people formerly had my respect.
Robin Hobb is one of my favorite fantasists, and I routinely praise her series of books dealing with Fitzchivalry Farseer and the Liveship Traders. She knows how to tell a damn fine yarn, and it's very disappointing to see her be apart of one of Martin's deconstructions and subversions of the genre that she has formerly imbued with so much wonder and so many brilliant ideas.
C. J. Cherryh I'm particularly disappointed about, because I love her Faded Sun trilogy, and I know she's a better writer than someone who thinks the subversion gimmick is any kind of original or even fun. And really? Beowulf? You're going to subvert Beowulf and make him the bad guy? While Grendel was raiding the feasting halls while people slept and devouring entire innocent human beings, the hero who came and stopped the slaughter of innocents was the bad guy the whoooole time!
You're better than this crap, and you know it.
And I know the people running the show know that fiction better than this crap exists, because they published some in that very anthology! The person at Castalia who reviewed it had some very nice things to say about a few of the stories in this book, and more often than not my tastes and theirs' align enough so I know whether I'll like a book or not based on the review. If they enjoyed it, chances are I will as well. It's not enough to get me to buy the anthology, because I'm not paying god only knows how much for 10 stories I'll hate and 3 I'll like. On top of that, I'm no longer in the habit of giving money and time to people that hate me.
So the real question here is this: Is this intentional or is it incompetence?
I know what my guess is, but more importantly this is symptomatic of the slow death of fantasy literature. Everybody wants to be Martin, nobody wants to be Tolkien, Burroughs, Howard, Merritt, Leiber, Vance, et al. Much as I enjoy Tolkien's work, there was only one of him, and all the imitators (slavish or otherwise) since his debut have been a little bit worse. Or a lot worse, depending on who we're talking about. People are hungry for short, punchy, weird, out there, batshit insane, heroic fantasy adventure fiction. This anthology is not going to give it to them.
Instead what it appears to be actively doing is just giving them enough of what they're after to make them want more, but letting them know that what they're after is only a small part of the genre in question. No, the REAL point of fantasy literature is boring think pieces that go nowhere and subversions of heroic tropes so that the characters you've always loved were really the bad guys all along! There are no more exemplars, no heroes, no true adventure, no true monsters, no true fun in this genre.
This pisses me off in particular because this genre is my home. Fantasy adventure fiction has been my bread and butter since I was very young, and continues to be my favorite genre to read and write in today. It pains me on a spiritual level to see these heathens defiling my temple, and I want them gone. They don't deserve your respect, your time, or your money. These people simply do not understand anymore (if they ever truly did) that the entire basis of swords and sorcery is high-flying adventure, dastardly villains, heroic heroes (or at the very least a protagonist who's willing to risk danger for personal gain, a la Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser, or Cugel The Clever), mystical locales, deadly magics, and batshit insane supernatural creatures.
Sword & Sorcery is most definitely not a genre in which to make social commentary the point of your story. That can happen, of course. In "Phoenix on the Sword" REH makes a point about lower taxes making people happy and prosperous, then moves on. In most Drizzt books Salvatore makes a point about racism at one time or another (usually often, and easily spotted), but the rest of the book is an adventure story. In The Dying Earth Jack Vance makes a point about how dreadful the world would be if everybody were solely out for selfish, personal gain.
However, what you notice with all these examples is that the story, the adventure being described, takes primacy. The lesson is merely a throwaway line, or something minor that happens but means a great deal to that particular character. It isn't the overall focus of the story. If you absolutely have to put politics into your stories, that's how you do it. Making the whole story a commentary on racism, sexism, insert your pet issue here, is a fast way to make your story boring as shit. It's the equivalent of making your story all about how much you love Jesus, on the Christian side of things.
Nobody who doesn't really care about your pet issue is going to think it's anything but you preaching, and that isn't what they came to sword & sorcery for. They came here to watch good guys bash bad guys (or at least reasonably okay guys bash bad guys), airship pirates conducting daring raids, wizards of vast and deadly power hurl spells, monstrous creatures eating people, underwater kingdoms threatened by ancient evil, unthinkably valuable artifacts stolen by intrepid thieves, and on and on the list goes of things you could be doing rather than putting people to sleep with your boring message fiction that seems to be trying to take up the majority of fantasy literature these days.
Fortunately for everyone who actually does like this kind of thing, there are people out there working to reverse this trend and bring things back to the golden days of Conan, Cugel, Elric, early Drizzt, Fafhrd & The Mouser, and all the rest. You can find some of them in the PulpRev Sampler (only one (1) single United States Dollar on Amazon in the Kindle store), and we're also beating it up on Steemit under the pulprev and steempulp tags. The stories on Steemit are 100% free for anyone to read, no account required.
If you want to see what real pulp looks like, look us up. Accept no substitutes, because these half-hearted attempts to murder genres like sword & sorcery will only leave a bad taste in your mouth. The indies are where the real writing is, so get some books like the Sampler, or Paragons, or our DimensionBucket Media horror anthology Darkest of Dreams. The big publishing stuff is just a waste of time at this point.