mirrorshard: (Default)
[personal profile] mirrorshard
Now that makes me think there should be a Church of the Subgenre. Though the term "subgenre" seems to me to imply a semi-exclusive category rather than an arbitrary slice through a continuum, which is a better term for the kind of books that sparked this particular idle, bootless reflection.

It occurred to me earlier that one thing a lot of my favourite books - I'm confining this to the fantasy genre for the moment, or as [livejournal.com profile] nou refers to it "pixie shit" - have in common is that they are to a greater or lesser extent books about Stuff. Now, I realise almost all books have Stuff in them to some degree (and now I'm trying to think of some that don't) but the ones I'm thinking of are solidly grounded in real things, items and architecture and landscapes, going into symbolism and craftsmanship too.

It looks like time for some concrete examples, so let's see what I have handy in the way of inductive reasoning.

  • K.J. Parker's books, starting with 'Colours in the Steel' get very detailed with the engineering and workmanship, but not in a mystical glamorous way - this is real engineering, dirty, sweaty, and messy, with kludges and finicky precision and industrial accidents.
  • Charles de Lint's 'Trader' is about a guitar-maker, and the whole idea of making, building, carefully acquiring your skill over years and making something real and lasting, is central to the plot.
  • George RR Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' books make a great deal of heraldry and insignia, probably as part of the whole "picking sides" theme. It's good to have that symbol, though, rather than just the names.
  • Terry Pratchett, of course, uses clothing and armour as signifiers for what sort of person someone is. Cf. "shiny armour" passim.
  • These two might be more coloured by my early readings, I'm sure I had a more vivid imagination in those days, but Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley - Pern and Darkover are still two of the most vividly realised imaginary worlds I've been in. Bradley's certainly very good at the material differences between her cultures, and Dragonsinger has, again, a lot of crafts ideas.
  • Honourable mention has also to go to Kipling, passim, despite not fitting into the genre restriction.

Mind you, from a few of those randomly selected examples, it could just be a preference for grown-up writing, which is sadly not as common in the genre as it should be. And - particularly if you extend it a little too far into SF - you risk falling into the trap that leaves so many people, even grown men, writhing and thrashing as they moan, "Oh, god, it does what? Ahhh... gravity laser... proton torpedoes, proton torpedoooooooooooes... AH AH AH FULL AUTOMATIC!!!11!!"

I do think, though, that it's an identifiable theme and philosophy in fantasy & SF writing - that Stuff, ordinary nonmagical nonsupertechnological nonpsionic Stuff, is important and has a meaning and power all of its own. It could be that it's a reaction against the older fantasy paradigm of magic rings and powerful artifacts (seriously, when was the last time you saw a magic sword in a fantasy novel published in the last decade? Most of the supergizmo crap comes from people who totally misunderstood Tolkien's worldview anyway) and fits in with the general postmodernist trend of denying the importance of individual heroes and kings, and pointing out the value of mass movements, socioeconomic ideas, and ordinary people doing their thing. Now, if only someone could pound a stake through Goodkind's heart... we'd have to resort to something else for our point-and-laugh fodder, but that's not such a bad thing given the advantages.

Date: 2005-11-15 09:03 pm (UTC)
kake: The word "kake" written in white fixed-font on a black background. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kake
I'm not entirely clear on whether you're expressing a preference for the everyday over the epic, or the material over the intangible - or both?

I'm confining this to the fantasy genre for the moment

This is a cop-out. I dare you to find some examples - and counterexamples - outside fantasy.

Date: 2005-11-15 11:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
I'm not entirely clear on whether you're expressing a preference for the everyday over the epic, or the material over the intangible - or both?

Well, partly I'm expressing a preference for avoiding grand terms and theories. Part of the general postmodernist thing involves pointing out that there really isn't much difference between everyday and epic - the two terms are both social constructions, and the only really important thing about social constructions is who is doing the constructing. And when you find what looks like a dichotomy, look at the similarities rather than the oppositions.

As for material vs intangible, I've found that most works of literature which explicitly concentrate on the intangible, without reifying it or providing some concrete handle on it, tend to be sweeping and over-generalized. Perhaps this is partly a remnant of years of creative writing workshops, where I learnt a lot about clarity, focus, paring away handwavey fluff and looking at real things before thinking about meanings.

It may be a cop-out, but it's also a fun exercise to look at a narrow field and play with that on its own for awhile, within its own paradigm. Mainstream examples... alright, let's see then.

Kipling, as above - I'm thinking particularly about his Limits and Renewals collection.
Chesterton, because he almost always goes with Kipling (and cf. also George RR Martin above).
Tibor Fischer's The Collector Collector, actually told from the viewpoint of a pot.
Plays - why do you think Shakespeare offers so much richness for interpretation, and needs so much? It isn't all about the language, though that's almost all you get.
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things.

The canonical counterexample, of course, is the entirely-wonderful Miss Austen - though she more or less uses a meta version of the same theme. I'm not going to comb through the books to check this, but it's my feeling from memory that if someone refers to, or is referred to with, an object then they're most likely one of the silly or foolish characters - for instance, Lydia's new hats and ribbons, or Mr Collins's obsession with fireplaces and rooms. Landscapes, on the other hand, are Good Things. I was about to say, so are books, but they're complicated there - we've got Mr Collins again with his book of sermons and his disdain for novels, but we've got Catherine who absolutely adores them. Elinor's a reader, and Anne Elliott loves poetry. Bookishness seems to be a good attribute in a man, too, if also one that betokens a certain amount of withdrawal and declining to engage with life as much as he should - Mr Bennet, for instance, and Captain Benwick.

Now I'm wondering if part of the reason for this part of the general postmodernism thing is due to the sheer amount of Stuff that exists these days, and the normal reaction-reinterpretation-backlash process.

Date: 2005-11-16 07:23 pm (UTC)
owlfish: (Default)
From: [personal profile] owlfish
I read a book with a magic sword it in about a week ago - and the book was published within the past year. (Although it's possible that when the sequel comes out, it'll turn out that the sword is possessed by a demon or something. That may or may not still count by your definition.)

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