The Miseries of Mister Sparrows by Matthew A.J. Timmins

sparrows_cover_timmins (1)Picture a cold, damp hut, surrounded by mischievous crows, on the banks of a swollen river, against the backdrop of a smoky, nineteenth-century city awash in crime lifted straight out of a penny dreadful. Add this to the miserable squalor: that the resident of said hut, one Robin Sparrows, serves as office clerk to a predatory law firm whose motto, Lupi pastores erunt, means ‘the wolves shall shepherd them.’ Not exactly the image of a virtuous law practice, although its clerks do command a respect of their own.  It is this dank, putrid, and, yes, miserable world that Mister Sparrows must navigate in order to solve a case that will carry him everywhere from the slimiest sewers to the poshest neighborhoods.

Claudon is the capital city of Albion and a metropolis of a far-stretching empire–quite like London in its Victorian heyday. News of distant wars from the colonies stirs its population into patriotic fervor, the singing of anthems and ballads, and hero worship. One such hero, Captain Dearing, will present a gift to the ambassador of Crocodon, a set of graven images, to help ease tensions following the Crocodile War. Against this backdrop, Sparrows must deliver a mysterious package to the infamous blackguard Kermit J. Tarnish.

The Scoundrel of the Empire, the Shame of His Majesty’s Redcoats, Tarnish committed the unpardonable crime of kidnapping the Crocodon princess. Sparrows’s mission is a top secret delivery to Tarnish’s dark prison cell, but to apply Murphy’s law, not everything goes according to plan.

Dickensian in its squalor and cartoonish humour, each chapter titled with the “In which” of a nineteenth-century novel, The Miseries of Mister Sparrows cannot help but make the reader laugh at its quirky characters and the–need I say miserable?–circumstances into which Mr. Sparrows constantly stumbles headlong. There is some intentional slapstick to the humour at the same time as you feel Mr. Sparrows’s cold plight seep into your bones. Matthew Timmins boldly sets out to pastiche the humour of P.G. Wodehouse, a task at which few have succeeded. Since I myself have never read Wodehouse, I will leave it to the discerning leader to judge his success. However, the playful nineteenth-century style he opens his novel with remains consistent until the end, a real accomplishment that lends a great texture to the novel.

Purchase The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows on Amazon!

 

 

Did you like this book? You might be interested in these:

Perdido Street Station by Chine Mieville: https://matthewrettino.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/perdido-street-station-by-china-mieville/

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: https://matthewrettino.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/neverwhere-by-neil-gaiman/

Matthew A.J. Timmins
Matthew A.J. Timmins

*Disclosure: I acted as proofreader for this novel.

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World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part II: My interview with Charles de Lint

Last week I talked about Guy Gavriel Kay reading from his upcoming historical fantasy Children of the Earth and Sky at the World Fantasy Convention 2015 at Saratoga Springs, NY. This week, I continue my account of the weekend’s events and provide a paraphrase of my interview with Charles de Lint.

First, allow me to talk a little bit more about the events on Friday. I had an engaging conversation in the dealer’s room with Russell B. Farr, an editor for Ticonderoga Publications, which is actually based in Australia, not New England. I bought a Year’s Best anthology of Australian fantasy and horror from his table, but got much more in return in the form of a discussion about Southern Hemisphere fantasy fiction.

I asked if there were any authors employing Maori or Aborigine myths Down Under and Russell talked to me about the anxiety and tension that surrounds issues of cultural appropriation when white authors try to use such cultural motifs in their work. There are other schools of thought that favour white authors who employ indigenous myth, because at least this means the stories get out there. However, for all that, not too many indigenous authors are emerging as fantasy writers, although I should think there are at least a few hidden somewhere. It seems to me a pity that these Pacific myths do not receive wider audiences, but the politics surrounding the “mining” or “exploiting” such myths are significant.

When I asked Russel Farr what made Australian fantasy unique, he gave me an interesting reply. Although these things can be hard to pin down, he claimed that there is less of a tendency to set stories in Australia. Some Aussies employ European myths set in European locales and some write about Aussies living abroad in Japan, London, New York, but comparatively rarely in Melbourne, Sydney, Townsville. This could be explained by the Australian gaze being directed outside of the country because of its geographical isolation from the main centres of Anglophone culture, rather than being focused within itself. I found this discussion highly interesting because my MA thesis will deal with fantasy as a globalized form.

Afterwards I spoke with Janeen Webb, who is an Australian fantasy author with a new book called Death at the Blue Elephant. She has studied fantasy academically and told me about the Australian gaze, how news mostly comes from outside the country, rather than from within, and how this shapes the Australian psyche. This outward gaze blends with an inward gaze, creating a complex self-regard that defines the Australian literary sensibility. Webb directed me to a study she helped edit called Aliens and Savages: Fiction, Politics and Prejudice in Australia that I might look into in order to provide a learned footnote for my thesis.

Steven Erikson in conversation with Stephen R. Donaldson
Steven Erikson in conversation with Stephen R. Donaldson

Another thing that happened Friday was a conversation between two giants of the epic fantasy genre: Steven Erikson (pseudonym of Steve Rune Lundin) and Stephen R. Donaldson. It was entertaining to watch the banter between them and their approaches to certain epic fantasy tropes. Erikson notably wrote one of his novels while subsisting on a Canada Council grant. More recently, a scholar has for the first time looked through his collected papers and notebooks, which must be a strange feeling for an author to first experience! An archaeologist for some time, Erikson has gone on various fieldwork excursions, once getting seriously ill on a Mongolian dig after drinking a poorly-prepared goat’s head soup. He was finishing up his 10-book epic fantasy series Malazan at the time and almost couldn’t finish it because of his illness, he said. When he did complete the series that Wikipedia says is the most significant since Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, he explained to us that he felt like he had accomplished what he had been set on this earth to do and that it was now over. The feeling of completion lasted a mere few weeks…

After this presentation I went to Charles de Lint’s reading of his still in-progress novel The Throwaway Child, a longer adult novel that takes place on a Southwest Indian reserve. After the reading I had the privilege of sitting with Charles de Lint for around 15 minutes next to the fireplace by the registration desk. The following is a paraphrase of that interview.

I asked him my first question: How would you define the social role of the artist, given that so many of your works concern fairies or magical beings interacting with the homeless, the dejected, the marginalized? How do you view your own role in relation to the marginalized? He answered that in his formative years, he was a street kid and that most of the people he knew then were outsiders. He wrote what he knew. Those he knew were musicians and artists, quite like the characters that populate his Newford novels and short stories. He likes to make people realize that everyone has a story.

Having supernatural entities such as fairies, gnomes, ghosts, or pixies interact with marginalized people enables them to have conversations that move the story forward. This is a way around boring the reader with soliloquies. Since these beings are magical, they can appear out of nowhere and such characters can speak to them. It takes the narrative out of these characters’ heads and out into the world.

When I asked what tradition Charles de Lint saw himself as a part of, he talked about the attempts of editors to label his work. He indicated that when his novel Someplace to be Flying came out, he and his editor Terri Windling decided to label it before the markets did, as ‘mythic fiction.’ I was aware of this label from other interviews, but it was interesting to note the relationship between de Lint and Windling, because, as I discovered upon arriving home, her art helped to inspire Dreams Underfoot. I can only imagine the full impact her visual arts have had on de Lint’s fiction.

Talking more about where he would position his own work, and of how he tends to write the endings of his novels, de Lint said that his story arcs don’t tend to follow the arcs of other fantasies. He points to Seanan McGuire as another author who refashions urban myths, of the ‘serial-killer at Make-Out Point’ and ‘suspicious hitchhiker’ variety. Also, he mentioned Alex Bledsoe, whose stories tend to take place in the Appalachians, and the Silver John stories by Manly Wade Wellman. He said he grew up on William Morris, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, James Branch Caball, and J.R.R. Tolkien–through what I presume included the Ballantine adult fantasy series, which republished many early works of fantasy, as Brian Attebery told me at MythCon this year. Every one of these authors gave me a sense of wonder in a different way, de Lint explained. I could sense in de Lint the younger author, searching among these examples for his own voice and the angle he would adopt on the wondrous, a distinct style he has certainly found in himself.

I then asked a more particular question: what prompted you to include the Mafia subplot in Greenmantle? If you read my review of this book, you might have a sense of the incongruity of the scenes that seem excerpted from Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather or Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas appearing next to a plot that involves a sequel to Lord Dunsany’s classic novel The Blessing of Pan. De Lint replied that he was trying to represent the perception of the Mafia, the mythology of the mob, rather than the real Mafia, who are thugs with no code of honour. He thought the Mafia as mythologized resembled elves–an ‘underground’ culture who you have do favours for and who might act benign or malicious depending on their whim. He liked the idea of having ‘elves’ on one hand and then using the myth of Pan on the other. The interesting story here is that his publisher ACE asked him to take the Mafia subplot out of the book. But Charles de Lint stood by his guns and the scenes involving Tony Valenti and the men coming to kill him were included.

My last question was whether Charles de Lint’s literary agent ever influenced the form of any of his novels. Russ Galen is Charles de Lint’s agent and although he had no amusing stories about him, he did mention that for the Wildings series, Galen made a suggestion to target a YA rather than adult audience. Good agents won’t lay heavy hands over your manuscript, after all. However, de Lint’s answer opens the possibility that this suggestion may have (perhaps) influenced the style of the novel in certain ways, so as to better target a younger audience. I think the relationship between agents and authors is frequently an under-examined one that may present many surprises about the way books are written and marketed.

Charles de Lint and I
Charles de Lint and I

This concludes the second week of my report on World Fantasy 2015. Next week, I’ll be finishing with a discussion of the fantasy canon and Sunday’s awards ceremony.

 

Quintessence by David Walton

QuintessenceJohn Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet asks the question, “What if there was more than one history of the world?”; David Walton’s Quintessence, on the other hand, actually explores one of these alternate histories. It is set in a world that follows the rules of known science in the sixteenth century–which means the world is flat and alchemy is possible.

Lord Chelsey arrives from a voyage to the edge of the world on board the Western Star, but his arrival in London is unlike any undergone during the Age of Exploration. His entire crew is dead before they dock and the diamonds, gold, and silver that they brought from the distant continent of Horizon has turned to salt and sand.

Christopher Sinclair wants to find out why. A world explorer with enlightened views of science in a scholastic society that still reveres Aristotle as the final authority of knowledge, he has his eyes set on Horizon, a continent literally situated at the end of the world. In Protestant England he is feared as a sorcerer and a heretic, but he is really an alchemist who employs the empirical methodology of Sir Francis Bacon decades before the founding of the Royal Society.

Stephen Parris, a surgical doctor, is similarly beset by a European culture that misunderstands his work. Cutting corpses open to see how the human body works is considered a desecration of the sacred, but it is what obsesses Parris: the chance to see how illnesses work and find a way to cure them. Both Parris and Sinclair are united in their quest to conquer death using science, but they are at cross-purposes until the Spanish-led Catholics coup the Protestant kingdom and an inquisition descends on them both.

Soon Parris, Sinclair, and Catherine, Parris’ adventurous daughter who is eager for science as well and has made the acquaintance of a mysterious manticore, are off on an epic ocean voyage to discover the remains of Lord Chelsey’s colony. Sinclair leads the desperate crew onward with the promises of wealth and riches, but he really has eyes for only one thing: to discover the secrets of quintessence, the fifth element than binds earth, air, fire, and water.

Quintessence may be called the quintessential historical fantasy, situated as it is at the historical moment where what we consider fantasy is about to give way to rigorous science, as superstition slowly becomes erudition at the end of sixteenth century. Only in this alternate history, the fantasy stays through the dawn of science.

What is truly original about Walton’s historical fantasy, more than the idea of alchemy being real, is his combination of the ideas of quintessence and Darwinism in his explanation of the evolution of magical Horizon creatures. From the leviathan in the great ocean to the iron fish that can transform at will into heavy metal to the memory-sharing manticores, all the creatures on Horizon use quintessence to hunt or protect themselves from hunters in a science-magical ecosystem. Slowly the settlers learn from these creatures’ physiognomies in order to develop new kinds of technology.

Quintessence is a unique mix of historical fantasy that never forgets its historical situation, even if it might introduce Darwinism in all but name, along with other modern ideas–that’s the game of alternate history, after all. It is also unique in being equally a science fantasy. Finally, it’s a fun comment on some tropes of sixteenth century colonization and exploration, such as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Sir Humphrey Davies, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ferdinand Magellan, who were each either lost at sea, brought worthless metals home thinking they were gold and diamonds, founded failed colonies, converted the natives, or made Europeans aware of the true size of the globe.

Archaeological Adventure Fiction II: Uncharted: Poe’s Fortune

Last week’s post discussed the Indiana Jones series and the works of pulp fiction author A. Merritt, who may have partly influenced the movies. One modern (or postmodern) narrative continues the tradition of what I call archaeological adventure fiction: the video game series Uncharted.

Nathan Drake
Nathan Drake

Hero Nathan Drake is a professional thief, who believes he is a descendent of English explorer/pirate/privateer Sir Francis Drake, who is most famous for sailing around the world. Like Sir Francis, Nate travels to various exotic locales in search of treasure. And he has a crew: ex-Marine Victor Sullivan, who is nearly a father to him, Elaina Fischer, a reporter and love interest, Chloe Fraser, a competitive love interest, and Cutter, his Jason Statham look-alike London ally.

The Uncharted series breaks boundaries in the fluidity of its third-person gameplay and in the quality of its storytelling. It is possible to play the game straight through without consulting any level-select menus, for example, and the narrative is supported by many cut scenes that play out almost like a movie. The games offer the pleasure of imagining that there still might be uncharted locales around the globe in this age of satellite imagery and Google Earth. The world has been thoroughly mapped now, but Nate follows in the footsteps of those first explorers like Drake, Marco Polo, and more modern figures such as T.E. Lawrence. Spoilers lie ahead.

The first game, Drake’s Fortune, involves the classic search for Eldorado, which Francis Drake was supposed to have discovered shortly before his supposed death. It is both Nate and Sir Francis’ fortunes that are at stake. Nate discovers Drake’s journal in the explorer’s barnacled, but otherwise empty lead coffin off the coast of Panama, and is soon on the trail after the fabled city, which turns out not to be a golden city at all, but a large statue.

Picking up the trail from where a Nazi U-boat expedition failed horrendously–the crew mauled by some kind of animal–Nate ventures to an island in the Pacific with Elaina. An old forgotten Spanish colony, the island is where the conquistadors must have brought Eldorado. After their plane is shot down, it’s a race to find the statue before some old creditors of Victor Sullivan get their hands on it.

Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake

Evidence emerges that Eldorado is cursed somehow. A ledger reveals that the statue was the last shipment the colony received, before Sir Francis set gunpowder to the town and sank the fleet in the harbour. A precautionary measure to keep people out, or keep something in? Deep in the catacombs, they find Francis Drake’s skeleton, his true final resting place, and are soon swarmed by a race of naked zombies who crawl around on all fours like possessed things.

In the end, the bad guys get the statue, which the leader of the expedition opens, only to find a rotten mummy within. Immediately, he turns into one of the zombies, attacking his own second-in-command in pure instinctual rage before he gets shot through the eyes. It turns out the number-two knew about this strange effect all along and was only waiting for a moment to steal the statue and sell its dark properties to the highest bidder. Nate grabs onto the statue as a chopper hauls it away and later fights the villain on the deck of his ship. The final blow is one of poetic justice: Nate knocks the statue overboard so the rope holding it wraps around his enemy’s leg, dragging him into the ocean along with it. You want your treasure? There, you have it.

A classic move similar to some I might have seen in movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Evil punished for its lust for wealth, so that it gets just what it wants, only too much of it, so that it is beaten to death in a shower of gold like the villain in The Mask of Zorro. Why does this kind of ending prove, on wider inspection, to be such a key part of a good formula across so many narratives?

If you read Drake’s Fortune seriously enough, you discover that it dramatizes the problems associated with imperialism. In fact, I argue that the quasi-supernatural disease that underlies the golden idol of Eldorado is an expression of an anxiety about capitalism. Beneath the luxurious facade of the statue–the treasure par excellence that really did impel so many conquistadors to drive out the Aztecs and Inca and establish their own rule over South America–there lies the hidden reality of exploitation. This unfairness and its accompanying guilt is expressed not directly, but through the metaphors of disease and the zombie.

Eldorado
Sculpture of Eldorado

If capitalism finds a monstrous metaphor in the figure of the vampire–who sucks the blood of its subjects without producing any blood of its own, the same way the higher classes never work in production but exploit workers–then late capitalism, the socio-economic condition of our consumerist, postmodern society, finds an apt metaphor in the zombie, which is reduced to blind instinct and an appetite for brains. Brains are the very thing that make us human subjects and the zombie’s urge to consume becomes a metaphor for ‘the age of consumption.’ That such a potent symbol lies behind the gold facade of the statue that was supposedly Drake’s fortune, should be read as highly suggestive.

Zombies
Zombies

The Spanish colony being destroyed by the zombie virus further suggests how colonialism, and capitalism more generally, are not sustainable practices. The acquisitiveness of the Spanish–and Sir Francis Drake’s crew–results in their own undoing, their transformation into zombies. This sixteenth-century disaster finds a link to the modern-day phenomenon of neoimperialism in the arms dealer’s attempt to sell the statue in a black market auction. The zombie disease would have not only become a commodity, but a weapon. In a world where ‘Third World’ countries, frequently in turmoil, are exploited and impoverished by wealthier nations, Eldorado would have gone to the very mercenaries who maintain that instability through constant warfare.

On whether or not Drake’s Fortune is fantasy or at least scientifically plausible, it would all have to depend on whether the curse is scientifically explained. In fact, it is not given such an explanation in the game, although the various zombie films in recent years, such as I am Legend and World War Z, have provided now-famous scenarios of a rabies-like epidemics going rogue. Gamers are left, therefore, in an ambiguous state of mind in which science and the supernatural provide competing explanations. Whatever the case, the disease does make a certain moral point that makes such explanations unneeded.

Of course, to really decide on the extent of Drake’s Fortune‘s use of the fantastic, one would have to factor in awkward questions like whether ancient civilizations really had the technology and manpower to construct elaborate temples underground fitted with counterweights, rising platforms, and wall-climbing footholds simply for the purpose of constructing an enormous puzzle. Nate runs into these Legend of Zelda-style temples frequently in Tibet in Among Thieves and in the castles of Drake’s Deception. But the hidden question of who provided the labour to build these enormous buildings–slaves, perhaps?–is elided by the game’s need to make a complicated level.

Continuing on the thought of puzzles, it is worth noting that Uncharted, although filled with similarities to archaeological adventure fiction and the Indian Jones movies, is not so much about archaeology as treasure hunting and antiquities in general. The quests follow an ‘X marks the spot’ pattern rather than one of scientific excavation. All the temples are accessible above ground, even if they later lead to subterranean levels; there is nothing actually buried. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones does dig up the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, but even the fabled city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands in Drake’s Deception, is accessible by a front door shrouded in a vast sandstorm.

The ‘X marks the spot’ formula for an adventure story has a history. “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe tells how Mr. William Legrand, his black slave Jupiter, and his dog methodologically follow a trail of clues to the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe, while mostly known for his morbid first person narrations, is also credited as the inventor of the modern detective story, for example, in “Murder on the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” The same obsessive interest in signs and symbols that characterizes his detective stories leads Poe to develop the treasure-hunter story.

"The Gold-Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe

Legrand is bitten by a golden scarab beetle and might be going mad. He invites the narrator over so he can see his sketch of this scarab, but the narrator sees a human skull instead of a beetle. When the narrator returns some weeks later, Legrand leads him outside in search of buried treasure, and orders him to climb a tree, find a skull resting on a branch, and pass the scarab on a string through the skull’s eye. He uses the place where the scarab touches the ground as an indication of where to start digging. Legrand then elaborately begins to describe how he knew that treasure was buried there. In an extended retrospective speech, he describes how he heated the parchment with the sketch on it because he suspected the skull the narrator saw was a sign of a pirate’s treasure map. He discovers a code written on the parchment and deciphers it step-by-step in one of the first examples of a cryptogram in literature.

The resulting paragraph is still a cypher: “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seven limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out” (95). Upon close analysis, these words are separated into sentences, and then the locations and angles are deciphered.

In this kind of story, maps, cyphers, and old texts hold the signs needed to locate treasure. The quest traces a horizontal line towards a goal, rather than a vertical line into the earth. It is this paradigm of sign interpretation that forms the basis of Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake’s searches after lost cities. Usually a main text, such as a diary of an explorer who has gone before–whether Henry Jones’ Grail diary, or Sir Francis Drake’s lost journal–supplements a map and some kind of key, like the Tibetan ritual dagger in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which can unlock special secret doors. The interpretation of signs on these artefacts–scrawled symbols for example–add hints and clues to the location of the quester’s goals–but also enables the antagonist to steal the items needed to find the treasure. Such maps, journals, and keys almost become McGuffins–items around which the narrative revolves, with all the characters having their reasons for pursuing them. It is no surprise then that Uncharted and Indiana Jones contain not only a quest but a race.

This sense of competition runs strong in Among Thieves, in which Nate must discover Ximbala (aka Shangri-La), where the fabled and unspeakably powerful Cintimani Stone is kept, a legendary sapphire supposedly discovered by Marco Polo. Nate races against the sinister leader of a mercenary army–Zoren Lazarovich–who uses the instability caused by Tibet’s civil war to search for the powerful stone with brutality and impunity. The medieval past of Polo’s voyage becomes the path which Nate must follow through the chaotic world of modern urban warfare. Lazarovich wrecks a Tibetan city, slaughtering resistance fighters while searching for a certain temple that will lead to his goal. He later attacks a peaceful mountain village with a tank, in his extreme obsession to have what he wants.

“The quest for the Grail is not archaeology,” says Sean Connery, playing Henry Jones in The Last Crusade. “It’s a race against evil.” What begins as a simple quest to retrieve a valuable treasure becomes a race to prevent Lazarovich from becoming unstoppable. The Cintimani Stone lends whoever holds it the power to subdue all their enemies. An elderly German in the village, Carl Schaffer, tells Nate that Genghis Khan held a mere fragment of the stone and conquered all of Asia with it. The Nazis had been searching for it too, but Schaffer, seeing the power of the Stone, shot the SS who were trying to discover it. Lazarovich leaves a path of destruction in his wake, demolishing statues and flattening buildings–everything that stands in his way. Just when Nate feels like turning back from finding Ximbala, Schaffer, echoing Henry Jones, tells him he cannot simply walk away.

The archaeological themes fall away when the story becomes about good versus evil. Although Nate and his companions are thieves who work for various clients, they have no pretension of being archaeologists like Indiana Jones in the first place. They are not necessarily highly educated, although Nate does know Latin from his Catholic boarding school upbringing. This sidesteps the problem of representing archaeology as a romantic profession, while focusing on the explosive central conflict. The quests in Uncharted are therefore “Gold-Bug”-style treasure hunts with pistols, rifles, and RPGs that retain the Jones movies’ themes about evil’s lust for power, wealth, and dominance.

Whether Nazis, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Communists, as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, or the arms dealer in Drake’s Fortune, Lazarovich in Among Thieves, or the occult secret society in Drake’s Deception, evil represents the forces that seek too much power for themselves, who are willing to use objects considered sacred, cursed, powerful, or simply valuable for their own selfish and world-destroying ends.

There is a connection between antiquities and power expressed by these narratives. Something is being expressed about how society imagines history and the deep past–as a place of wonder and yet of danger. Cheering on Indy and Nate as they fight, we are hoping to preserve the past from those who would corrupt or destroy it. Archaeological adventure fictions symbolically resolve tensions about capitalism and imperialism, while imagining the defeat of the bugbears of history such as the Nazis, from ever claiming possession of the past.

In light of the recent advance of ISIS into Palmyra, the site of awe-inspiring Roman ruins, and their explosive demolition of the ancient cities of Babylon and Nimrod, I hope I am not alone in observing who the bugbears (the Nazis, the Commies, the Lazarovitches, the Genghis Khans) of today are. Their so-called ‘caliphate’ is a real-life force bent on destroying the past. They wish to obliterate all memory of pre-Islamic antiquity, and have, like Lazarovich, brought ageless statues to dust, although they do it for the additional reason of abolishing idolatry. If only there could be a hero, we might pray, who can come around to stop them.

Roman Theatre in Palmyra
Roman Theatre in Palmyra

Picture Credits

Nathan Drake: http://leaperoffaith.deviantart.com/art/Uncharted-3-Drake-s-Deception-209006700

Sir Francis Drake: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sir_Francis_Drake_by_Jodocus_Hondius.jpg

Eldorado: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Dorado

“The Gold-Bug”: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Gold-Bug.jpg

Palmyra: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Scene_of_the_Theater_in_Palmyra.JPG

Zombie: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zombie_%28folklore%29

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Gold-Bug.” Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales & Poems. New York: Castle, 2002

Shaviro, Steve. “Capitalist Monsters.” Historical Materialism 10.4 (2002): 281-290.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Video Game. Naughty Dog.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Game of the Year Edition. Video Game. Naughty Dog.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Video Game. Naughty Dog.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Script. Courtesy: dailyscript.com.

Archaeological Adventure Fiction I: Indiana Jones and the Genre of Enlightenment

“Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth. […] So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. You do not follow maps to buried treasure and “X” never, ever, marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading. We cannot afford to take mythology at face value.”

These words were rather hypocritically spoken by none other than Harrison Ford, in his role as Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, to a classroom of eager archaeology students. The funny thing about this speech is that it accurately describes the real study of archaeology, which has nothing to do with chasing Nazi caravans through the desert or running away from massive, rolling boulders. Yet the Indiana Jones series pretends to be about archaeology and the discovery of the past.

The romanticized view of the archaeologist tends to reduce the real work associated with the profession–including excavation, survey, applying for funding, and all that library time–to what amounts to a treasure hunt. A certain set of clues leads Jones to a particular location, where the Grail or the Ark awaits discovery. Rather than reading soil samples, Jones reads his father’s diary and the inscription of a knight’s shield, which tells him exactly where he has to go.

What this does is speed things up to the pace suitable for an action movie. It also makes the plot more linear. It eliminates any scientific processes that would stretch out a long search for an ancient city over months and years. In short, it makes the archaeologist’s journey into a quest instead of a complicated search for evidence.

Archaeological quests imply something else than the analysis of dry data. Quests bring the archaeologist into the search for truth, and not just fact. The cities they discover become more than remains scattered in a certain area of land; their job ceases to be about conducting empirical analyses of whatever they might find. It becomes a journey towards a specific goal. In The Last Crusade, that goal is none other than the Grail, a modern-day medieval romance, heavy with incident.

A Merritt
A Merritt

The Indiana Jones movies belong to the genre of ‘archaeological adventure’ that finds precedents in literary works. Published in Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, an anthology that republished some long-unknown pieces of fiction, A. Merritt’s novella “The Moon Pool” involves a band of scientific adventurers who attempt to map the ruins of a fallen Pacific Islands civilization, only to be haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force that eliminates the members of the expedition one by one. Merritt wrote in the early part of the century. Several of his works were turned into films in the 1930s.

The editors, Hartwell and Cramer, confirm in their description of the novella that “this kind of pulp fantasy is the source of such contemporary off-shoots as the current [1988] Indiana Jones movies” (540). The novella creates an “aggressive blend of what we now call science fiction with the fantasy, using scientists and professionals to heighten the contrast between the scientific present and the magical past, mysterious and wonderful and very dangerous” (540).

Although the Jones movies do not emphasize science so much, the ‘science versus magic’ dichotomy reflects the contrast between Jones’s rigorous attention to fact in the classroom and his experience of the healing power of the supernatural Grail at the end of the film. Jones’ inner journey is towards what his father, Henry Jones, played by Sean Connery, calls “illumination.” A new faith that facts are not all what’s important.

Dr. Throckmartin, Merritt’s protagonist, encounters what appears to be the supernatural, but always finds a way to rationalize it, at least until the very end of the tale. The fantastic in Merrit is more dangerous here, however. Madness waits for Throckmartin if his rational faculties fail, if he lets himself be taken in by illusions.

A giant door opens to an inner temple–triggered only by the light of the moon. The natives claim that the ani, or spirit, opened it. But Throckmartin says, “The assertion of the natives that the ani had greatest power at this time might be a far-flung reflection of knowledge which had found ways to use forces contained in the moonlight, as we have found ways to utilize forces in the sun’s rays” (567). A mysterious sleep befalls the adventurers. But this might “have been some emanation from plants or gaseous emanations from the island itself” (567). The adventurers seek out scientific causes of the effects they must endure. They enact the kind of demystification of nature that Sir Francis Bacon outlines in his treatise on the Great Instauration: the depersonalizing of nature and the reduction of forces to matter that acts on other matter. Everything explained, no mysteries, and above all, nothing beyond or above natural causes.

“The Moon Pool” also illustrates certain themes of imperialism. Throckmartin’s request for white men to join his team rather than natives might appear racist to modern audiences, but he justifies himself saying the white man is less superstitious. Scientific men who hold no irrational fears of haunted places make better workers. This dynamic of the archaeological adventure reflects the politics of imperialism, which accompanies enlightenment. The white man has science, while the natives are ignorant animists who believe in spirits and carry prehistorical or medieval beliefs. Yet, the white man is at a certain disadvantage: he is ignorant of the dangerous secrets the island stores for him, while the natives are more familiar with these dangers–and are wise for avoiding them. The result is an encounter of the white man with the unknown supernatural other, a conflict that threatens to undermine the certainty of empirical discovery and rational explanation.

I would like to speculate that the imperialism of “The Moon Pool” is reflected to some extent in the Indiana Jones movies, in which a highly educated Western archaeologist–American no less– ‘discovers’ the secrets of the East, while the East remains incapable of discovering its own treasures. To an extent, I find this dynamic replicated in certain of Lord Dunsany’s Orientalist fantasies in The Book of Wonder, in which the object of wonder is usually a valuable gem or other glistening item that becomes a target for thieves. When Jones steals the golden idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, no one asks if he has the right to steal what the natives clearly worship and value. It seems like an act of American imperialism in the name of increasing the collections of Western museums.

Returning to the dialectical tension between science and magic in “The Moon Pool,” it is interesting to note how this dynamic strongly reflects one definition of fantasy that Brian Attebery provides in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” He suggests that fantasy might simply be the “meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10). An older world (historical materialists would say, an earlier mode of production) meets the empirical, ‘rational,’ and capitalist present. The result is a conflict between the epistemologies and beliefs of ancient and modern societies, whose systems are thrown into conflicting simultaneity. The archaeologist does not unearth the past as a past, but encounters it in the present, where it can affect and change him.

The powers of the Grail and the Ark of the Covenant may not be explained away by Doctor Jones. But the continuity between the movies and this novella by Merritt is there, suggesting that there does exist an archaeological fiction genre, little named or acknowledged, that possesses a certain set of rules that distinguishes it from fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction. The tension between conflicting epistemologies in this genre could make it a fascinating object to excavate and survey more deeply, as a way of discovering how they encode ideas about enlightenment and imperialism.

In the twenty-first century, there is one return to archaeological fiction that explores the dynamics of science and magic in popular culture: the Uncharted video game series. With its placing of importance on old diaries and maps, rather than on archaeological excavation, and given its obvious debt to the Jones movies, I would like to discuss aspects of this series next week. Also, I will speculate about how Edgar Allan Poe may have influenced this genre since its inception, in one of his short stories, “The Gold-Bug.”

Continued next week.

petra

Works Cited

Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Lantham and Robert A. Collins. Westport: Greenwood, 1995.

Hartwell, David and Kathryn Cramer. “The Moon Pool.” Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Script. Courtesy: dailyscript.com.

Picture Credits:

Merritt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Merritt

Petra: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Jones_and_the_Last_Crusade

Part II: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

The following is the second part of a presentation I gave for this year’s MA colloquium. I have included the accompanying PowerPoint file as well.

 Historicizing Moonheart Presentation

A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

[…]

MoonheartThe narrative structure at work during Mal’eka’s seige is part of a larger rhetorical structure in Moonheart that produces a colonial dynamic between the Otherworld and the mundane world. Farah Mendlesohn calls this structure the “intrusion fantasy”: “In intrusion fantasy the fantastic is the bringer of chaos. […] It is horror and amazement. It takes us out of safety without taking us from our place” (xxi-xxii). An intrusion implies that the fantastic comes from outside and invades the mundane world. Since this dynamic sets the denizens of the mundane world against the evil forces invading from the Otherworld, the intrusion fantasy maps the inside/outside conflict of Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality” (73) onto the fantastic/mundane binary.

An ambivalent politics surrounding the intrusion fantasy also appears in what Brian Attebery calls “indigenous fantasies,” a genre that appeared in the 1980s but that rarely involves “indigenes” (Mendlesohn 147). Such novels, according to Mendlesohn, bring “the fantastic into the cities” in order to add “complex historical layers” to modern America or, equally often, they use European folklore simply to say, “The modern world is boring, there must be something more than this” (147). The indigenous fantasy can be subversive when merged with a rhetoric of intrusion. Mendlesohn claims that such fantasies construct “consensus reality” and “then [render] the walls of the world-story translucent” to reveal lurking presences (116). This rhetorical mode is called “latency” (116). Indigenous fantasy is set squarely within a familiar, identifiable world. For example, De Lint situates Tamson House, in which the fantastic is generally latent, in a locatable area of Ottawa, invoking street names like “Patterson Avenue,” “O’Connor Street,” and “Clemow Avenue,” a series of firm anchors to geographical reality (24). These spatial descriptions bring the fairy tale framing device of ‘once upon a time’ into the ‘here and now.’ To quote Michel de Certeau, they begin the story to “authorize the establishment, displacement or transcendence of limits” (“Stories” 123), to establish the reality that fantasy transgresses. This non-realist violation of consensus reality is a tactic of what Henri Lefebvre would call “representational space” (Production 33), against the strategies of realist depictions of space.

Contemporary, indigenous fantasy presents a restorative vision that contrasts with realist representation. Fantasy can be a “literature of vision,” a body of work that makes us, according the Kathryn Hume, “feel the limitations of our notions of reality, often by presenting one that seems more rich, more intense, more coherent (or incoherent), or somehow more significant” (82). The Otherworld is one of these more coherent spaces, what Christine Mains calls a “representation of the enduring moment of colonial encounter” (342). Crucially, a literature of vision enters “our consciousness not as verbal argument to be accepted or rejected on logical grounds, but as a vision” (101). Through the mode of fantasy, Moonheart thus mediates multicultural interaction between Celtic, First Nations, and modern cultures in order to depict a convergeance of the supernatural within the real, a tactic of representational space that creates an enchanting literature of vison. These presences gain political resonance when they are associated with indigenous peoples, who have been repressed historically by colonialism and by Canadian “neo-colonialism” (McPherson and Robb 11).

The Otherworld’s colonization of the mundane world counters the imperialism of state-produced, scientifically-defined space. Henri Lefebvre describes how the state’s production of space creates a homogeneous order that can be reduced to its visual nature: “Through its control, the state tends to accentuate the homogeneous character of space, which is fractured by exchange. […] In modern space, the body no longer has a presence; it is only represented, in a spatial environment reduced to its optical components” (“State” 88). Moonheart’s literature of vision opposes this optical reductionism by making characters and readers aware of realties beyond the visual and by making distant history present within contemporary spaces.

Historicizing de Lint’s new fantasy reveals how Moonheart is constituted by the liberal mulitcultural ideology of its time, a progression from the imperialist tradition of fantasy, but nonetheless a position biased in favour of an Anglo-Canadian reading public. The imperial past is represented in a romance narrative by an ‘evil’ spirit, against the ‘good’ forces representing more tolerant and hybrid cultural identities. In presencing this Other as an invasive entity, de Lint creates a potentially subversive situation where supernatural creatures representing First Nations beliefs counter-colonize the colonized space of Canada. Fantasy proves subversive to the modern state’s production of homogeneous and optically reductive space by introducing a literature of vision that proposes, through a rhetoric of latency, that there are realities beyond the visible—including certain historical realities, the memory of which the state attempts to render invisible. In opposing realism, modern fantasy opposes the carefully constructed consensus reality associated with empirical, mostly Western systems of knowledge. For as long as realism maintains its hegemony, contemporary fantasy will continue to look for tactical victories to modify representations of reality and to look for roads that might lead from fantasy to utopia.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

Works Cited

Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Lantham and Robert A. Collins. Westport: Greenwood, 1995.

—. Strategies of Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Forms of Time and of the Chrontope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics.” The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas, 1981.

Bastien, Betty. “Indigenous Pedagogy: A Way Out of Dependence.” Aboriginal History: A Reader. Eds. Kristine Burnett and Geoff Read. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2012.

Bechdel, Gregory. “The Word for World is Story: Towards a Cognitive Theory of (Canadian) Syncretic Fantasy.” Diss. U of Alberta, 2011.

Brydon, Diana. “The White Inuit Speaks: Contamination as Literary Strategy.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1994.

Clute, John. “Contemporary Fantasy.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

—. “Crosshatch.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

—. “Oriental Fantasy.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

—. “Otherworld.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

de Certeau, Michel. “Spatial Stories.” The Practice of Everyday Life. 1984. Berkeley: University of California, 2011.

—. “On the Oppositional Practices of Everyday Life.” 1980. Cultural Theory. Vol. I. Ed. David Oswell. Los Angeles: Sage, 2010.

de Lint, Charles. Greenmantle. New York: Ace, 1988.

—. Moonheart. New York: Ace, 1984.

—. Svaha. New York: Ace, 1989.

Dewing, Michael. Canadian Multiculturalism. 2009. Library of Parliament, 2013.

Frye, Northrop. “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada.” 1965. Mythologizing Canada: Essays on the Canadian Literary Imagination. Ed. Branko Gorjup. New York: Legas, 1997.

House-Thomas, Alyssa. “The Wondrous Orientalism of Lord Dunsany.”Mythlore 31.1 (2012): 85-103.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Irvine, Alexander C. “Urban Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. 1981. London: Routledge, 2002.

—. “The Politics of Utopia.” The New Left Review 25 (2004): 35-56.

Lefebvre, Henri. “Space and the State.” 1978. State/Space: A Reader. Eds. Neil Brenner, Bob Jessop, Martin Jessop, et al. Malden: Blackwell, 2003.

—. The Production of Space. 1974. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Mains, Christine. “Old World, New World, Otherworlds: Celtic and Native American Influences in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart and Forests of the Heart.” Extrapolation 46.3 (2005): 338-350.

McLaren, Peter. “White Terror and Oppositional Agency: Towards a Critical Multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

McPherson, Dennis H. And J. Douglas Rabb. “Indigeneity in Canada: Spirituality, the Sacred, and Survival.” Aboriginal History: A Reader. Ed. Kristine Burnett and Geoff Read. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2012.

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2008.

Miéville, China. “The Conspiracy of Architecture: Notes on a Modern Anxiety.” Historical Materialism 2.1 (1998): 1-32.

Reid, Michelle. “Urban Space and Canadian Identity in Charles de Lint’s Svaha.” Science Fiction Studies. 33.3 (2006): 421-437.

Steven, Laurence. “Welwyn Wilton Katz and Charles de Lint: New Fantasy as a Canadian Post-colonial Genre.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Eds. Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. La Bossière. Ottawa: U of Ottawa Press, 2004.

Tonkiss, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Vol. III. Ed. Chris Jenks. London: Routledge, 2004.

King of Egypt, King of Dreams by Gwendolyn MacEwen

20150129_232323Gwendolyn MacEwen’s historical novel King of Egypt, King of Dreams was published in 1971 and as far as I know, it is out of print-except by online order from Insomniac Press. Nonetheless I am fascinated to review it, because it stands as a powerful testimony to the tragedy of those who own a unique, transcendent vision of the universe, when faced by the demands and adversity of a society that has rejected them. This description can be applied to Akhenaton, the pharaoh known as “the Criminal” who forms the center of MacEwen’s novel, and to MacEwen herself.

Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, Shadow Maker, tells about how the poet died of alcohol poisoning in a suspected suicide in 1987. Part of her despair sprung from her depression at the failure of her audience to bring her the success she had hoped for. Although she anticipated that her vast research into ancient Egypt, while on a Canada Council grant in Cairo, would result in a historical novel that would make her financially independent, King of Egypt, King of Dreams was greeted with a poor reception.

Perhaps this was because she had difficulty adopting to the form of the novel. MacEwen was primarily a poet. She could not make the transition from poetry to novel that Michael Ondaatje made with The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. By the 1980s, the period that Joel Deshaye in The Metaphor of Celebrity calls the “era of celebrity” in Canadian poetry was at a close; the novel was now the dominant form.

MacEwen’s vision of the poet as a magician did not successfully make the transition into the world of the novel. However, King of Egypt, King of Dreams testifies to the uniqueness of her vision. The story of Akhenaton becomes replicated in some ways in MacEwen’s own life–at least, it is tempting to see it that way. As the landscape of genre in Canadian literature did not accommodate her writing, changing times undid the visionary pharaoh Akhenaton.

Akhenaton begins life as the sickly son of the powerful, but aging, Pharaoh–the living god, Amenhotep. Greatly disappointed in his offspring, the god regards his son with anger and bitterness, causing Akhenaton to be terrified of him and develop a stutter. But after his father’s death, a new, golden man arises from the frail body of his former self.

It is not long before Akhenaton shakes up the court with his new religious vision–monotheism. He believes that there is no god but the Aton, who is lord of all that the sun’s disk surrounds. The names of all the other gods, he orders erased from inscriptions. Wherever a god’s name is recorded on the tombs and temples of the land, it is to be destroyed. Those who refuse him or challenge his judgment encounter the uncanny look of his gaze–but do his eyes reveal divinity, or madness?

Although MacEwen seems to treat Akhenaton as an example of the suffering visionary, a position with which she was no doubt in sympathy, his monotheistic religion leads to the collapse of his empire. MacEwen’s poetic career testifies to a belief the harmony found in oppositions, a more pluralist philosophy that is at odds with the Pharaoh’s conception of a single god. One man who is close to the king, and yet is distant enough from him to see how he angers his subjects, is Akhenaton’s servant It Neter Ay, the Father of Horse. From his perspective, we see Pharaoh ignore the rebellion of his empire’s tributary states, name his would-be assassin a high priest, and found the temples that he hopes will serve as testament to the glory of his god.

MacEwen’s writing style is particular and with a texture distinct from contemporary historical novelists. She writes in a poetic style that has a curious combination of mysticism and humour. Justifying her approach, she quotes from Guillaume Ferrero’s Les Lois Psychologiques:

“It is a very common belief that the further man is separated from the present in time, the more he differs from us in his thoughts and feelings; that the psychology of humanity changes from century to century like fashions or literature. […] And indeed, man does not change so quickly; his psychology at bottom remains the same.”

Occasionally the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of Akhenaton, It Neter Ay, and the king’s wife, Nefertiti, might appear peculiarly modern, but MacEwen always roots their characters firmly in the cultural milieu of ancient Egypt. One example of the mundane in the ancient past, is the casual, realist description of Ay slicing a cucumber while he ponders what Akhenaton’s ‘true nature’ is. This attitude of continuity with the past might demonstrate MacEwen’s own self-identification with these historical characters–Nefertiti’s kohl-painted eyelids are not so different from MacEwen’s, who was famous for appearing like an Egyptian at Toronto poetry readings.

Like the historical fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay, there is but a sprinkling of the fantastic in King of Egypt, King of Dreams–but it is enough that it can be considered a historical fantasy, if Akhenaton’s divinity and the glowing presence of his body is read literally.

Together with her T.E. Lawrence Poems, this novel is also the consummation of MacEwen’s lifelong interest in the Middle East’s history and its mystery. It is also a psychologically and intellectually invested accomplishment, in which she confronts questions about visionary experience that define her career–and its untimely end.

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of King of Egypt, King of Dreams
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of King of Egypt, King of Dreams