1977: Lord of the Rinky-dink

Review: The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks


As I have said before, I have a high opinion of Tom Shippey as a literary critic, but that does not exempt him from criticism in turn. At one point in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, he makes what may be the single most fatuous remark I have ever had the misfortune to read on the subject of Tolkien’s imitators. He is discussing The Sword of Shannara, and after giving a long list of the obvious borrowings or plagiarisms of Tolkien in that work, he adds:

The similarity is so close that in a way it is hard to tell how good or bad the result is.

And yet in the very same paragraph he recovers his usual perspicacity, and puts his finger on the secret of Terry Brooks’s commercial success:

What The Sword of Shannara seems to show is that many readers had developed the taste (the addiction) for heroic fantasy so strongly that if they could not get the real thing they would take any substitute, no matter how diluted. [Read more…]

1977: From Zeus’s brow

This is the first in a five-part series on the ‘Fantasy Big Bang’ of 1977. You can find the other parts of the series here:

2. Lord of the Rinky-dink
3. Hero and fool
4. All roads to nowhere
5. Lost tales, unattained vistas


Somewhere or other, I suppose, there are people who would claim that some fundamental change or progress has overtaken the field of ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy in the last thirty years. I suppose they must exist, because nowadays there is no claim so foolish that somebody cannot be found who will make it. In the same way, a century ago, there were those who claimed that England was not ruled by an oligarchy, and it was to these that G. K. Chesterton made his inimitable answer:

It is quite enough for me to know that a man might have gone to sleep some thirty years ago over the day’s newspaper and woke up last week over the later newspaper, and fancied he was reading about the same people. In one paper he would have found a Lord Robert Cecil, a Mr. Gladstone, a Mr. Lyttleton, a Churchill, a Chamberlain, a Trevelyan, an Acland. In the other paper he would find a Lord Robert Cecil, a Mr. Gladstone, a Mr. Lyttleton, a Churchill, a Chamberlain, a Trevelyan, an Acland. If this is not being governed by families I cannot imagine what it is. I suppose it is being governed by extraordinary democratic coincidences. —What’s Wrong with the World [Read more…]

The Emperor’s new depth

Sherwood Smith inquires into the matter of ‘writing deep’, and there is evident puzzlement on all hands about what ‘deep’ means. As you might guess from the title of this essai, I am not much taken with the idea of ‘deep’ writing in fiction. I therefore propose to examine the Emperor’s garments one by one, until I find a windcheater that actually, you know, cheats the wind. This turns out to be a longish task, so I shall take it one heading at a time. To begin with:

1. Armchair philosophizing as a substitute for character development.

This, I suspect, is what most adolescents (and nearly all college students) are likely to mean when they call a book ‘deep’. As in: ‘Who-o-o-a . . . that’s, like, so deep.’ Ayn Rand is so deep, and so are Camus and Vonnegut, and various other hardy campus perennials. Adolescence and early adulthood are naturally given to a kind of ill-focused antinomianism, which, having been trained to do so by its elders in the media and academe, readily expresses itself in scorn poured out upon ‘the metaphysics of savages’, as one of those elders notoriously called what other people call ‘common sense’. We are taught early in life that the earth is really round, though ‘obviously’ flat, and that it is really in motion, though ‘obviously’ stationary, and that ‘obviously’ solid matter is really mostly empty space between atoms. All of these teachings are half-truths, and the short half of the truth at that. [Read more…]

Return of the Champions

Queen + Paul Rodgers, live at Pacific Coliseum, Vancouver, 13 April 2006.


Just got back from an overnight trip to Vancouver (via WestJet) to see the last show in the Queen + Paul Rodgers tour. The trip was a string of almost unmitigated annoyances; I did a lot of walking around Vancouver in the rain, because the buses were not running at strategic points and taxis were consequently unobtainable. None of that matters; I saw Queen. [Read more…]

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, by Tim Powers

Jimmy Akin passes on a tip from Tim Powers on dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s an interesting twist on hellfire-and-brimstone preaching, to say the least; at any rate, it’s an interesting twist on hellfire.

I have read only one Tim Powers book, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, and I cheerfully confess that it sat on my shelf unread for nearly twenty years. I belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club back in the eighties, and they sent me some truly dreadful books. By the time Dinner came round, I was thoroughly browned off by the whole book-club idea, and had pretty much given up reading the selections they sent me. I dropped my membership soon after. And so this bizarre, horrific, but tremendously interesting book slipped through a wormhole in my field of attention, only to surface in the summer of 2005. [Read more…]

The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Contrary to popular belief, this is not primarily a book about God. Sayers wisely does not try to tell us about God directly, but about what is godlike in ourselves. ‘The characteristic common to God and man,’ she says, is ‘the desire and ability to make things.’ She draws a vivid and detailed analogy between the Christian Trinity and our own creative imagination. In working out the details of this analogy, she tells us a great deal about them both; but, inevitably, more about our own minds than God’s. [Read more…]

A Reader’s Manifesto, by B. R. Myers

Even before B. R. Myers lobbed this magnificent stinkbomb into the mailbox of the New York literary establishment, I think most of us knew what this book tells us. Yes, the emperor has no clothes; yes, the book reviews will praise the most ridiculous tripe rather than risk losing an advertiser, and the bigger the author’s name, the more blatantly they will cringe and fawn. And yes, too many ‘literary’ authors today have inherited all the pretentiousness of their predecessors, but none of their skills. After all, why learn skills when attitude is so much easier?

For readers, this is pretty good fun, and Myers’ caustic wit makes the journey doubly worthwhile. But for writers, it is a message that we ignore at our peril. [Read more…]