Monday, July 29, 2013

Late-Era Lankhmar and Other Pulp Fantasy

Almost exactly one year ago I blogged about reading Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories for the the first time (in the form of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks First Book of Lankhmar). As I wrote them, that piece was devoted to "lavishing praise on a truly excellent piece of art". The responses ranged from agreement to (paraphrasing) "that's about the most obvious thing you can say about D&D literary traditions". What I think we all agree on: it's really terrific.

After that, I proceeded to the Second Book of Lankhmar -- and while it started off well enough, it turned into something of a monumental struggle. I put it down for a while, and came back months later. And put it down and came back again. Finally, recently I picked it up off my bureau and made the final push on my commutes to finish it. About midway through there's an enormous change in theme and tone that made it achingly painful, and confusing, to get through the rest.

Frankly, this is the same observation that I've made about other pulp-era fantasy writers that I've read in depth: in particular, Asimov (in his Foundation stories), Moorcock (with his Elric stories), et. al. My thesis runs like this:
  1. Early pulp-magazine fiction is in the form of short stories, and they are brisk, imaginative, brimming full of creative ideas, action-packed, and exciting.
  2. Decades later, these authors are motivated to return to these properties, now in the form of more marketable full-length novels that will fit on a bookstore's shelves, and then they are bloated, plodding, boring, dumb, and just a real torturous ordeal to get through.
Maybe if someone had taught these writers how to make a transition from one-beat stories (short stories) to multi-beat stories (novel-length), then things would have worked out better. Maybe. But trying to stretch out a one-beat story to novel length is just wretched for this reader. (Compare: Popular New Yorker magazine articles that get re-written as books; fan-favorite SNL sketches that get stretched into feature films; etc.) Also, perhaps half-a-century after their creation, the writer is simply not as interested, not as connected or hungry, or simply not the same person as when the creations were fresh for them. Money incentive aside.

The interesting thing here for me is that it represents an excellent science experiment in things pulp: Were the early creations really better? When we ask the question in terms of D&D or Star Wars, the argument usually gets tangled up in the issue of, "you're just being nostalgic; you don't remember correctly". But obviously in terms of Asimov or Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser I wasn't reading them in the 1940's; I've read the entire F&GM oeuvre in the span of the last year. And once again let me say clearly: The early stuff is fantastic and leaps off the page. The later stuff is dreadful and exhausting. This is not nostalgia speaking on the part of this reader.

If you think about it, why would this not be the case? In some sense the earliest stuff must be of exceptional quality, in order the "break through" into the wider culture and become some kind of phenomenon. But once that "brand" is established, then later works will have a guaranteed group of fans/buyers who will purchase any new release. The quality can really only vary in the downward direction (because the original was so high), and there is little incentive or pressure to do otherwise (because of the established customer base). See also: Stephen J. Gould's book Full House on populations varying away from some limiting wall (upwards or downwards) over time.

More on Wednesday.


7 comments:

  1. "I've read the entire F&GM oeuvre in the span of the last year. ... The early stuff is fantastic and leaps off the page. The later stuff is dreadful and exhausting."

    "If you think about it, why would this not be the case?"

    I'm not going to disagree, but it makes me wonder how much of this could be down to us as readers, or rather our approach to a body of work. We often read in publication order for example, rather than say, reverse chronological order.

    Re your last full paragraph, maybe we're also doing the breaking through, getting established and enjoying a guarantee? It's reasonable to think we're colouring a set of works by the nature of our reading them.

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  2. Where's you dividing line between "early" and "late"? The series spans 1939 to 1988.

    "Ill-Met in Lankhmar" was published in 1970 and won a Nebula and Hugo award so at least some people think it's good. "The Snow Women" (1970), likewise isn't bad. "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" (1968) and "Sadness of the Executioner" (1973) are pretty good too, I think.

    The only novel in the whole series is Swords of Lankhmar and that is in the latter half, but somewhat early in 1968.

    Given that your basing this on the two collections you mentioned and not the publication dates, is it possible you just don't care for the short stories in Swords and Ice Magic and Knight and Knave of Swords? I'd agree these tend to be the lesser lights of the series (with some of them being flat out made) but it isn't because theiy're novel length or multi-beat over single-beat stories, particularly.

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    1. You're pretty well anticipating my Wednesday post, which includes specific dates and a bit more nuance. Admittedly I have mixed feelings about the stuff circa 1970, even though it won awards. But the real fall-out-of-the-chair date for me is 1975-6.

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  3. Ron Edwards, in his analysis of the S&S genre in the Sorcerer & Sword supplement to the Sorcerer rpg, excludes from the genre both Swords of Lankhmar and Swords and Ice Magic. There is a definite shift in tone in the latter two works. Personally, I too prefer the earliest stuff.
    Same thing can be said about Moorcock; the original Elric stories (they have been published a few years ago by Gollancz in a single volume) are absolutely wonderful and dripping with atmosphere, and can be definitely considered S&S. The later stuff (including the rewriting of Stormbringer)...meh

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    1. Agreed! And thanks for the Edwards reference.

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  4. The padding in novels is insufferable. My mother used to regularly read Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Several times she really enjoyed one, so she borrowed the unabridged version from the library. She was always disappointed. The unabridged version was never as good as the abridged. The people preparing the abridged versions got rid of a bunch of junk, leaving a better story.

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    1. Absolutely. As a further example (in the other direction) my girlfriend gets the New Yorker magazine, and the number of times someone takes a passably interesting 20-page article and later publishes it as a full-length book drives me bonkers. Actually the Gould book above that I read this month has the same problem: it would be a great magazine article, but to stretch it into a book he had to repeat the some pablum dozens of times over ("Later I will explain why .400 batting has disappeared from baseball..." xxxxxx). But the last chapter was good.

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