The exotic and the familiar (Part 1)

I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency.

The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’.

For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Real Story

Three times in the last sixty-odd years, a work of fantasy has come along that redrew the whole map of the field; that banished the limits of the publishable, as then understood, as suddenly and thoroughly as Columbus banished the ‘ne plus ultra’ from the Pillars of Hercules. Lately I have been thinking hard about these works, seeing what they had in common with one another, and what set them apart from the other fantasies of their times, to see whether I could account for the magnitude of their success.

All three of these breakthrough fantasies can be described in terms of Aldiss’s ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’. Each, considered thematically, is a collision between two great, or at any rate large, ideas. And when I began to look at them in this light, I found a curious thing: which idea was ‘the exotic’ and which was ‘the familiar’ was not as obvious as it seemed. Indeed, the works themselves tended to familiarize the exotic and exoticize the familiar, so that those whose habits of mind were formed afterwards would never quite see the ideas as their first audiences saw them.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

[Read more…]


So far, I have described my thoughts about ozamataz up to the point where I asked whether one could attract that kind of self-sustaining fan participation, and if so, how. This is also the point at which the Muse, or the Guardian Angel, or the Collective Subconscious, or Something, stepped in. Perhaps it was the Great Oz himself.

Having worked out something of the nature of ozamataz, I asked my brain: ‘OK, brain, what is it that makes some things have ozamataz when others don’t?’

And my brain, without missing a beat, obligingly answered: ‘Legosity.’

I was duly annoyed, for I then had to figure out what legosity was. My brain is cryptic and has no manners, and seldom troubles to explain itself.

The one thing my brain did deign to tell me is that legosity has something to do with Lego. This made sense on the face of it. Lego toys have an ozamataz of their own. They have inspired movies, games, theme parks, and of course, the imaginations of millions of children the world over. The manufacturer’s recent habit of producing specific single-purpose Lego sets like model kits, which hardly fit together with other Lego and are hardly intended to, is most regrettable. These kits tend to take up shelf space at the toy shops and displace the kind of Lego that you can really play with. But the original bricks and doors and windows, Lego people and Lego cars and Lego trees, and so on – those are still available, and you can do anything with them. Nowadays, you can even buy Lego with moving parts and electric motors, and build Lego machines that can be controlled via computer. There are Lego robots in the world, and serious men with doctorates in the hard sciences have been known to play with them.

As the unfortunate history of the kit-model kind of Lego shows, it is not so much the brand name, or even the mechanical ingenuity of Lego that gives the toys their unique quality. It is the concept. At bottom, Lego consists of a whole range of bits and pieces, all designed to fit together easily and without fuss, so that they can be used to build anything the imagination can conceive. You do not have to be a skilled carpenter, or a watchmaker, or know how to build ships in bottles, to build houses and cities and fairy castles out of Lego. The skill in your fingers (especially a child’s fingers) ceases to be a limit on what you can achieve, and the mind is set free to soar.

Even the name Lego is well chosen, and means, I think, more than its inventor intended. We are assured that it comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, ‘Play well’. But it is also Latin and Greek, and in those languages the word has a wide and subtle range of meanings that reach right down into the guts of the human psyche. [Read more…]

To the end of the world (and back again)

This past Friday I received two books from Amazon, and passed the whole night and most of Saturday morning in an orgy of reading. First, as an hors d’oeuvre, I read C. S. Lewis’s collection The Weight of Glory, which is much less known than it ought to be; it contains some of Lewis’s best work. The main course was The Last Dark, the tenth and absolutely last of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books.

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The myth of autarky

Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life.

—George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’

Fantasyland, as the late Diana Wynne Jones showed in her seminal Tough Guide thereto, is an irksome place. It irks me, at any rate, because it is not a world but something more like a film-set; it does not have the working parts to do what it pretends to do. Tolkien was confessedly ignorant of economics, but he at least tried to make sure (for instance) that the Shire was in a naturally fertile clime that could support a large population of hungry hobbits, and that the ‘townlands’ surrounding Minas Tirith were adequate to feed the people of the city. He even threw in a sentence or two about slave plantations in the South of Mordor, around the Sea of Núrnen, to show how Sauron supplied his horde of evil minions. Many fantasy writers don’t even take that much trouble.

Whenever I read about a Glorious Imperial City of Gold™ on top of a high mountain, or a Decadent Palace of the Evil Sultan™ in the midst of a trackless desert, I always find myself asking: ‘But what do these people live on?’ A writer could, by mere fiat, say that they get their food by magic; yet the magic is never there. Not only do we not see it onstage, we also do not see any of the probable consequences and (as fools and mortals say) ‘side-effects’ that such magic would have on all other areas of life. One day I shall probably write a snarky and contumacious tract on the economics of Faërie, but for now I want to leave most of that subject on one side and tackle one particular issue. That is the attitude of almost religious awe that fantasy writers have for societies based on subsistence agriculture — an attitude that, in my wide experience, only occurs among people who know nothing about agriculture and precious little about subsistence.

This attitude is not only prevalent in fantasy; some people hold it in real life as well. Among these we must number the ‘locavores’, the well-meaning fools who think it somehow unethical to eat any food grown more than, say, 100 miles away. This is nonense, and easily proved to be nonsense; but a hundred proofs are not worth as much as one plausible story. That is why it is so dangerous that so many of our storytellers don’t know the facts of the case and do not seem interested in learning them. People, consciously or not, are forming their views of life from stories that are not based on life at all.

I hope you will bear with me, then, while I tell a little story, and if it is not a hundred-proof story, I hope it may be strong enough drink for the occasion. And if it is drink that we want, I had better put wine in the story, since wine is the drink of the storyteller, except in those far Northern climes where the skalds sing in mead-halls. I have simplified the details, but everything I say about the simple diet of Eucharia applies to our own more complex society as well. [Read more…]

Donaldson on the value of fantasy

Good fantasy (and science fiction) correct an imbalance which exists in most realistic fiction. A man named Pelz (if memory serves) once wrote, ‘Beauty is controlled passion. Passion without control is destructive. Control without passion is dead.’ This is the essential paradox of what Blake called ‘reason’ and ‘energy‘: ‘Reason is the circumference of energy.’ Neither means anything without the other. Well, to put Blake in my terms, ‘Intellect is the circumference of imagination.’ I believe that most realistic fiction these days has lost its potential beauty by sacrificing imagination to intellect. Control crushes passion; reason squeezes out energy. In good fantasy and science fiction, the imagination regains its crucial, energizing role. The result is the single most human thing in the world: beauty. (This is the argument from conviction.) My intellectual grad school friends used to denounce Lord of the Rings because it had no relevance to the ‘real world’. They were wrong. LOTR is intensely relevant to the human heart because LOTR is beautiful. I believe that the ‘escape’ into fantasy is an escape from materialism, dead intellect, and cynicism into humanity.

However, to avoid being misunderstood, I should go on to say that people who sacrifice intellect to imagination are making the same mistake which is killing realistic fiction. ‘Passion without control is destructive.’ The person who uses fantasy to avoid dealing with reality is in as much trouble as the person who uses intellect tou avoid confronting the inner dragons.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, interviewed in Fantasy Crossroads (1979)

A song of gore and slaughter

#9 in a series, following ‘Sock Puppet, son of Sock Puppet’. An earlier version appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.

Prigs, by and large, are euphemists. Although it was Heinlein who invented (or at least publicized) the term speculative fiction, it was the prigs of the field who fastened upon it as their preferred substitute for the indecently descriptive name science fiction. Thirty or forty years later, the prigs of another field, shrinking from the straightforwardness of the word horror, cast about for a suitably pretty substitute and came up with dark fantasy.

Millions of ordinary readers like stories about science, or stories about things that frighten them; they seek them out. To a prig, this will not do; and so he must demonstrate his superiority to the rabble (as Ted Nelson put it) by calling a spade a muscle-powered terrain disequilibration system. Both terms, thankfully, have gone rather out of fashion since their first vogue. ‘Speculative fiction’ was simply too ugly for anyone but a prig to use, and in any case it clashed violently with the older and more useful term ‘writing on speculation’, or ‘on spec’, meaning the nearly universal practice of writing a story before it is sold.

‘Dark fantasy’ was eclipsed for a less encouraging reason: the adjective no longer draws a distinction.  [Read more…]

Teaching Pegasus to crawl

The fourth essai in a series, following ‘Tyrion 13:4’. The original appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


As I said earlier, the choice of an appropriate prose style for a fantasy tale is a decision fraught with peril. We are tempted to choose a style that will convey the proper sense of wonder and adventure, and the air of old times and alien cultures; or would, if we only had the skill to pull it off. If we lack that skill, our stories will sound rather like an untrained singer trying to do the lead in Rigoletto — ambitious, but inept. And this will get us laughed at.

It is safe to say that none of us enjoy being laughed at. So for perhaps forty years past, there has been a reaction in the opposite direction; and I am afraid that is an even worse error. The sensible reaction would be to learn how to produce the effects that we wanted; the real reaction, for far too many writers, has been simply to give up trying and settle for a bland quotidian style. Their stories are inept without being ambitious. And this is worse, for unless they are very lucky, it gets them ignored and forgotten. They may truly be hearing the horns of Elfland in their heads; but they cannot play that music. What they do play is a tuneless mishmash compounded of slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog. [Read more…]

Tyrion 13:4

The third part of the series, following ‘Quakers in Spain’ and ‘Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan’. As with those two, an earlier and shorter version appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


Most readers like formed stories; I have this taste to an unusual degree. I have never lost, or as the sophisticates would call it, ‘outgrown’ the taste for a well-turned plot that I drank in — not with my mother’s milk, for I was raised on cheap commercial substitutes — but at any rate with the oldest stratum of my father’s teaching, with the earliest books (after Dr. Seuss) that he gave me to read. A child is not subtle; a child likes stories to be marked by clear signposts, and would rather have five spoilers than one ambiguity.

Partly this is because a child has not formed a pattern of expectations about stories. Grown people dislike spoilers, I suspect, largely because they have read (or watched) so much fiction that they generally know what to expect: a real surprise, to them, is a rare and precious thing, and if you deprive them of one, you do them a real injury. Every turn in a story is a surprise to a child, and the suspense can become too hard to bear. It was a master-stroke when William Goldman, in the film version of The Princess Bride, had the grandfather interrupt his telling of the tale to reassure his grandson that Buttercup ‘does not get eaten by eels at this time’. To an experienced reader, any peril that threatens to kill off the heroine a third of the way through the book is an obvious bluff. A very young reader has to find out the hard way.

Nowadays, even the average six-year-old has imbibed enough stories, chiefly through the medium of television, to be wise to the obvious tricks; in sad consequence, even a six-year-old may be angry at spoilers. But there are less naked ways to signal the phases of a story, ways that can be made subtle enough (and misleading enough) to please the palate even of a very old and sophisticated reader. One of the best devices for this purpose is the chapter break, with or without a title. [Read more…]

1977: Hero and fool

Review: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson

J. R. R. Tolkien perfectly summed up the critical reaction to his fiction in a clerihew:

The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like you do:
if you don’t, then you boo!

You could say the same for the most ambitious of his early imitators, Stephen R. Donaldson, and his first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Readers and critics are just as divided in their opinions of this trilogy as of Tolkien’s masterwork, though the division is on wholly different lines. Tolkien is dismissed out of hand by critics who sneer at fantasy in general, loathed by the Moorcock-Miéville school of fantasy nihilists, and of course praised to the skies by a third group. The dispute about Donaldson cuts right across these divisions, and is unusually acrimonious even by the standards of the genre ghetto. By a curious kind of foresight, one of Donaldson’s own verses aptly describes the critical reaction to his work:

And he who wields white wild magic gold is a paradox—
for he is everything and nothing,
hero and fool,
potent, helpless—
and with the one word of truth or treachery,
he will save or damn the Earth
because he is mad and sane,
cold and passionate,
lost and found.

It is, I think, worth taking a moment to examine the battle lines, for that may tell us something about the fantasy field itself as well as Donaldson’s place in it. [Read more…]