Monday, 19 March 2012

On MAR Barker

I've been re-listening to some Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcasts at the gym, and the one I had on today featured Orson Scott Card holding forth on a wide variety of things. (If you've never heard Orson Scott Card giving an interview I recommend you do so: he's good value.)

One of the things he said was that for a very long time fantasy literature was crap, because too many people simply aped Tolkien without understanding Tolkien's genius, or his message - which was not "do what I do" in the sense of creating fantasy worlds full of elves, orcs, hobbits and world-saving quests, but "do what I do" in the sense of creating fantasy worlds that feel real. People looked at The Lord of the Rings and took from it exactly the wrong things - the window dressing - without understanding that the real magic of Tolkien's work was the creation of a genuine secondary world. Instead of providing carbon copies of Middle Earth, they should have done what he had done, which was to create something of their own.

Likewise, when William Gibson was in his pomp around the time his first loose trilogy was being published, Bruce Sterling made a plea for science fiction writers to follow him. What Sterling had meant was that he wanted writers to follow Gibson in creating well thought-out, fleshed out, deep-feeling settings and stories. Instead, loads of people just started writing stories with Gibson window dressing - mirror shades and cyberspace and noir. This resulted in what Card calls one of the most pathetic literary movements ever, Cyberpunk, and I'm inclined to agree. As fantasy writers had done with Tolkien, 'cyberpunk' writers just skimmed the surface and missed the point. They just produced cheap knock-offs of Gibson's work, when they should have been finding their own voice.

The same is true of 99% of RPG setting design, I would say. Where it isn't simply stealing Tolkien's furniture, it's stealing Greyhawk's. People don't really create their own secondary worlds - they create Middle Earth with the serial numbers filed off, over and over again, all around the Western world, day after day, month after month, year after year.

MAR Barker was different. Der Spiegel called him The Forgotten Tolkien, but that was because (whether subconsciously or consciously) he is one of the few fantasists who has ever really understood what Tolkien was getting at: he created his own secondary world, and it was like nothing else that had come before or since. Like Tolkien, in Tekumel he created something genuine, from his own mind: his own consistent, living, breathing thing. He took the real message of Tolkien's legendarium and ran with it. In this, he was different to, and greater than, any other creator of imaginary worlds since Tolkien himself.

People like MAR Barker and JRR Tolkien are extremely rare. One is rightly viewed as a titan (although he is only just now beginning to be recognised as such by the literati), whereas the other is barely known, but it is hard to think of any other fantasy writers that come close in terms of their achievements of imagination. The death of MAR Barker is an extremely sad event and it can only be hoped that whatever small publicity that comes from it is enough to generate some level of elevated interest in his world.

15 comments:

  1. I have enjoyed your blog for a long time. This is one of the best posts you've ever done. Well done sir.

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    1. Thanks - very kind of you to say.

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  2. Hear hear ... Gene Wolfe IMO is up in that pantheon too.

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    1. Yes, although I'd put him down a rung from Baker and Tolkien in terms of world building, because he based his world on Earth, and his language construction is based on English. The secondary world is linked to ours, rather than being truly independent.

      Nevertheless, still one of the best examples in the field of creating a genuine fantasy world. And certainly a much more gifted writer than either Tolkien or Baker. (I think Gene Wolfe is one of the top 5 prose stylists alive today.)

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  3. This is the third blog I have read to mention this gentleman and his work. I now know where my next reading material will be coming from.

    I also echo the previous commentators' words regarding this post; excellent stuff, and sentiments I wholeheartedly agree with. I especially see it in the likes of 'Twighlight' and every other YA wannabe. Not so much wanting to push the boundary, but to snuggle up to it in the hope they too will have their mulch swept up in a frenzy of teen obsessiveness and be the 'next big thing'. Same seems to be going on with Steam Punk? Nothing new there - Jules Verne did it far better.

    Maybe it's just a sign of the times where writers are no longer taken up for their sheer brilliance of mind and creativity, but on the marketability of their work. Now with massive money making hits such as 'Harry Potter' and 'Twighlight', publishers are loathed to stick their necks out for anything other than similar demographically pleasing works. Eventually we could end up with a generic storyline being banged out by YA writers who do nothing but change the character and place names?

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    1. His novels are not wonderful in terms of construction, narrative or character - just average, I'd say - but that doesn't matter, because the world is so rich. The story is almost secondary.

      The role playing materials are wonderful.

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  4. That, I have to say, is the best bit of worldbuilding advice I have seen in an age. The most important thing is to create a setting where you could see a life occurring, and go with it.

    I feel that a lot of the innovation we saw from early fantasy and swords-and-sorcery styles came from the period of Weird stories and pulp, then sort of devolved when Tolkien came into the picture. Sadly we're just starting to get to a point where writers are becoming a bit more comfortable with their own worlds, and we are coming into a real rebirth of the Fantasy genre with writers like Gaiman, Butcher, Green, and Martin who either take the world we are given from birth and work within it in new and interesting ways, or those who actually can create something so organic that you feel there.

    I really wonder what your opinions are on these sort of 'combine' settings, where there are so many different disparate elements that then come together into something more. Who are the writers you feel are really going in that direction and helping to bring this sort of thing forward? Cannot wait to hear from you.

    Slainte,

    -Loonook.

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    1. I honestly feel that people like George RR Martin or Steven Erikson do really good pastiches of Tolkien and his successors as far as worldbuilding goes. But they're entirely derivative. (That's not to say anything about the quality of the stories - just the imaginative world creation.)

      It's hard to think of anyone except either Tolkien or Baker who actually created a world that appeared almost afresh (both, of course, took inspiration from real world languages and mythology). You could possible put China Mieville in that category for Bas-Lag, but that world also veers towards the pastiche, because it's so obviously a response to Tolkien as well as its own very different thing.

      Maybe readers of this blog can recommend something. Everything I can think of still seems to a large extent derivative of Tolkien, even when it's trying hard not to be.

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    2. But by the same token Tolkien (that felt weird typing) really derives from various ideas extending from the traditions of Norse mythology, the classical hero myth, language and cultures ranging from England to Appalachia, and some very interesting turns in linguistics and form.

      I honestly feel that Butcher's Codex Alera goes a bit far afield from Tolkien, but by declaring that Martin is somehow derivative of Tolkien seems strange. Song of Ice and Fire lacks additional races, and really established itself as a human-centric novel series, with only the slightest hint of the 'other'. I would like to hear your opinions on how Song is derivative.

      Slainte,

      -Loonook.

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    3. I've not read Codex Alera. Is it worth reading?

      Tolkien used some ideas from Norse and Anglo-Saxon myth, sure, but that became more and more attenuated as time went along. Baker also used the Urdu language and myths from the Indian subcontinent as some of the inspiration for Tekumel.

      But aside from that they were relatively undiluted from the authors' own imaginations.

      However, I feel as if Martin is merely the end of a limb extending from the tree trunk of Tolkien-esque fantasy. It derives from much of the high fantasy that has been written since Tolkien's time, and in particular I think you can put it on the end of a line that goes Lord of the Rings - Wheel of Time - Memory, Sorrow and Thorn - Sword of Truth - Song of Ice and Fire. With each step of the way becoming more human centric, more "edgy", more morally ambiguous, and more gritty/less mythological.

      That isn't to say A Song of Ice and Fire isn't good. I loved the first three books and I'm still enjoying the series, even though I think GRRM needs to be edited much more stringently than he is at the moment. I just don't think it's very imaginative in terms of the world building.

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  5. I think what we need to establish is the differential between high fantasy (elves, dwarves, goblins, etc) and the low fantasy, like the human-centric you mentioned, Loonook.

    But yes, Loonook, you are correct regarding Tolkien's arrival at his fantasy epic, and where was all that basis from? Mythology, ghost stories and tall tales of things imagined once sat round the safety of a blazing hearth fire, whilst the night beyond the safety of a locked door gave birth to such horrors and dread.

    Take the role playing genre - it's basis all stems to Tolkien: the goblins, the elves, the dwarves, etc, and this gave rise to the popular belief that fantasy must be like Tolkien, and nothing else.

    If you look at Robert E. Howard's 'Conan' stories, there is only mention of larger than man ape-like creatures, tribes of Pict-like warriors, Nomads, Pirates and the odd dragonesque monster. Admittedly there are one or two off-the-wall creations in terms of humanoid opponents, but by and large his fantasy was fairly basic and still well constructed and believable. So where did Howard draw his influences from?

    Any thoughts?

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  6. Howard was drawing his influences from the news stories in the early 1920s, especially the various warlord conflicts in central Asia, and a whole corpus of writing about barbarian warlords of the Roman period, a lot of which had been written in the years running up to the first world war on the back of nationalist movements looking for heroes.

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  7. " It derives from much of the high fantasy that has been written since Tolkien's time, and in particular I think you can put it on the end of a line that goes Lord of the Rings - Wheel of Time - Memory, Sorrow and Thorn - Sword of Truth - Song of Ice and Fire. With each step of the way becoming more human centric, more "edgy", more morally ambiguous, and more gritty/less mythological."

    This is definitely true but it's interesting to see Sword of Truth on there, because while I certainly read it that way as a kid (as in line with extreme vigilante superheroes who aren't afraid to walk the line) in retrospect it's even more morally black and white than the others, just with an essentially fascist morality (I know the author's an objectivist but once you add in unquestionable dictators and the disposal of moral degenerates well...). And you could say ASoIaF is less morally ambiguous than the WoT- there's a trade of between ambiguity about who's right and wrong vs ambiguity about what's right and wrong. A lot of fantasy is kind of amoral in the second way, which is what makes Goodkind's fascism just seem like extreme, edgy maverick-who-gets-results variant of the same.

    Anyway I think the bigger gulf separating Tolkien from his successors is the myth thing- LoTR is well thought out yeah, but it's a well thought out mythology/history, not a well thought out imaginary world. There's bits where Tolkien says "we don't know what happened here" and "I'm not sure about this". Card's kind of missing the point by saying to create imaginary worlds, because the thing that set Tolkien apart is that he didn't do that directly, but rather approached Middle Earth like a historian. Like the whole Bombadil episode is something you'd never get if you were dead set on making a totally real world, but it's exactly the kind of thing you get in mythology, where there's an episode that's an in-joke or a parody or a refugee from another story (in this case, Tolkien's bedtime stories) stuck in that doesn't make any sense. The thing that makes it feel totally real is that it's not limited to what Tolkien can imagine, it's a book about a world he could only partially grasp.

    Barkers an interesting comparison in that respect, approaching the setting like an anthropologist.

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  8. I think you're doing a bit of a disservice to fantasy writers. Admittedly, Tolkien is a bomb going off, akin to say Lovecraft in weird fiction. It was a pop sensation.

    I think there are a lot of good works of fantasy out there. Something like Roger Zelazny's Amber series surely can be considered original. Moorcock's extended series. Jack Vance. Andre Norton. (and a bunch of other people I'll feel stupid for no mentioning once I look at my book shelf.) They may not sell as well as Tolkien, or for that matter be as meticulously crafted, but they're still original.

    However, consider the shift of Mary Stewart's vision of the Arthurian legend, from that of T.H White or Mark Twain. Although perhaps better realized in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, either is an attempt to make a more real or modern view of Arthur. They aren't alone, as Poul Anderson's Last Viking series or King of Ys series goes for this sort of fantasy. History with a little magic.

    Personally, I'd love to see someone put out an RPG of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, as it is one of the best historical fantasies I've read recently and in quite the unexpected era.

    Even someone like Orson Scott Card has come up with a somewhat original fantasy world in his Alvin Maker series, only instead of borrowing from Scandinavian and German myths, Card borrows from the "myth" system of the Mormons. From folklore, if you will, over mythology. His myths are based in the some of the oddities of the 18th and 19th century American frontier. Just as say Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories did in his tales of hill folk.

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