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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Conan The White Supremecist

March 28th, 2008 No comments

I’m very nearly through the first volume of collected Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, and as I approach the end I’m finding myself somewhat disillusioned. While it’s really no great surprise, it’s still a disappointment to see ever more blatant racism creeping into the later stories.

As I mentioned, Howard was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, and the latter was certainly no friend of what he termed “mongrel throngs.” For that reason, Lovecraft’s work can be a teeth-gritting read at times; one occasionally has to stick one’s mental fingers in one’s mental ears and mentally hum “la-de-de, la-de-da.” The racism can’t be condoned, but it can be put in context of the time it was written.

For some reason, I hoped that Howard might be better. And for a while, I managed to fool myself. Sure, the misogyny was obvious enough; aside from Belit the pirate queen, the only women in a Conan story are simpering frails and evil seductresses. (To Howard, you’re either a princess or a slut.) But aside from the odd reference here and there to Conan’s whiteness, racial comments seemed largely lacking.

Then I got to “The Pool of the Black One,” in which the barbarian faced a lost city full of fiendish, black giants. But even here it seemed Howard had left himself some plausible deniability; as he made it clear “these tall ebony beings were not men,” but rather taloned monsters.

All such delusions were shattered in “The Vale of Lost Women,” in which a white woman named Livia is held prisoner by a dark-skinned tribe in the part of Howard’s Hyborian world modeled on Africa. When Conan, who has somehow made himself the chief of a rival tribe, visits the king, Livia sees a chance for salvation:

His appearance was alien and unfamiliar; Livia had never seen his like. But she made no effort to classify his position among the races of mankind. It was enough that his skin was white.


She pleads her case to Conan, who at first seems uninterested in her plight:

“You care naught that a man of your own color has been foully done to death by these black dogs–that a white woman is their slave! Very well!”

Well, it’s certain that Livia is one white sheet from a rally, but surely Conan could care less? What matter the color of a warrior’s skin, to a man who values only the strength of a sword arm? Er, um…

“You said I was a barbarian,” he said harshly, “and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft-gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword’s edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man…”

And there it is. Sigh. For all their enlightened savagery, it seems that Cimmerians have the same hangup about miscegenation as 1930s Texan fantasy writers.

Perhaps it was asking too much to hope for a less repellent racial attitude. Of course, one can chalk it up as a product of the times and try to move on to the next good bit of bloodletting. But damn, it’d be nice to read some early 20th Century fantasy and not feel like a son of a bitch.

Late Night With Conan O’Barbarian

March 21st, 2008 No comments

I’m in the midst of rediscovering Conan, the bronze-thewed barbarian hero created by Robert E. Howard. On a whim, I’d picked up the first trade paperback collection of Conan comics from Marvel’s old black-and-white magazine The Savage Sword of Conan. I’d read Marvel’s regular color Conan comic book for some years back in the day, but never bought the magazine (which, as it didn’t have to adhere to the Comics Code, featured more graphic content). I found myself enthralled by the book and its heady mixture of gut-spilling action, palace intrigues and mostly-naked wenches. Roy Thomas, who was responsible for Marvel’s involvement with the character, did a helluva job adapting Howard’s stories and adding his own.

Here’s a choice page from the book: a surprisingly well-timed bit of humor. (Yes, it’s a bit misogynistic, especially the last line, but in context of the story it’s not undeserved.)

I’m not certain how I first encountered Conan. I saw both of the feature films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger on their initial release. (Who’d’ve thunk that Conan the Barbarian would’ve had such a profound influence on California politics?) I also owned at least some of the popular paperbacks, which I’ve subsequently learned were barbarously rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp. And, as I mentioned, I read the comics for years, mostly during the long period featuring the pirate queen Belit. (Belit appeared in only one Howard story, but Thomas took advantage of a gap in its chronology to greatly extend her involvement in the title.) I’m not certain why I started buying them; it may have simply been part of my Dungeons and Dragons phase. However, I do recall that Conan was the one comic I followed that my mom also read. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve pondered the implications of that.

After plowing through the first volume of The Savage Sword of Conan, I decided to go back to the source material and purchased one of the newer trade paperbacks of Howard’s original texts. I have not been disappointed.

One thing that has struck me about the short stories is just how much they have in common with the horror work of H.P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft were contemporaries and correspondents, and it’s obvious that Howard started off aping him, especially whenever he refers to “cyclopean ruins” and “the nighted gulfs of space.” (However, so far in my reading he has yet to use the words “rugose” or “squamous.”) While Conan’s foes are often giant snakes or ape-like creatures, a great many of them are straight from the Cthulhu playbook: shapeless horrors derived from degenerate civilizations or from beyond the stars. However, Howard is a much better wordsmith than Lovecraft, and he does a terrific job bringing the lusty Hyborian world to life.

Conan himself is a curious figure. Make no mistake, he’s a mercenary, a thief and murderer a thousand times over, but he also adheres to a moral code and inevitably defends the weak against the strong. It’s also clear that Howard sees his barbarism as morally superior to the behavior of so-called civilized men. But man, you do not want to piss him off. As Howard notes in “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

I’m about halfway through the first short story collection, and have waiting for me a second volume of The Savage Sword of Conan. By Crom!

Two Down

March 21st, 2008 No comments

I’ve been feeling bad that I didn’t react more quickly to the passing of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. In my teens, he was one third of my literary holy trinity, what I thought of as “ABC”: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. I wrote a lengthy high-school essay on what was then my favorite book, Childhood’s End. While I’ve never been fond of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, I loved the novel and its immediate sequel, 2010. And if there was ever a short-story collection I reread more times than his The Nine Billion Names of God, I can’t think of it.

I eventually fell out of touch with Clarke (as well as Asimov and Bradbury) thanks in part to a spate of disappointing follow-ups to Rendezvous with Rama and 2001. When I saw the TV news text crawl about his death, I had a “oh yeah, I’d forgotten he was still alive” moment.

That shameful admission out of the way, I want to give the man his due for his part in fueling my youthful interest in the future. And even though we missed traveling to other worlds by 2001 (and, at the rate we’re going, will be lucky to get there by 3001), there’d be a lot fewer people still considering such a voyage without his influence.

First-Level Spellbook

October 31st, 2007 No comments

Here’s something that may not be your own cup of polyjuice potion, but which tickled me: The Practical Guide to Monsters. Turns out that game publisher Wizards of the Coast has a kids’ book imprint called Mirrorstone which, among other things, publishes several series of youth-oriented novels aimed at the Harry Potter crowd. This particular volume is a sequel to their Practical Guide to Dragons, which detailed the spectrum of Dungeons & Dragons drakes.

What’s nifty about this book is that it draws on D & D‘s intellectual property without calling attention to the RPG tie-in. All of the critters within are straight out of the various Monster Manuals, but the book itself is written as if it’s something one might find in the Hogwart’s library, with an informal style and even scrawled margin notes.

I’m a big fan of “in-universe” sci-fi/fantasy reference books: volumes that appear to have been published within the fictional worlds they profile. I enjoy being pulled that little bit deeper into the fantasy.

Overall, I was very pleased with the book. Thanks to the wider variety of subject matter, it avoids being as repetitive as the Practical Guide to Dragons. While it does occasionally snitch previously-published Monster Manual artwork, most of the illustrations are new. I’m especially fond of the depictions of the creatures’ lairs; as a kid, I loved maps like that, with labyrinths of rooms to fuel my imagination.

Well, I Certainly Missed That Subtext

October 29th, 2007 No comments

Not that I could possibly care, but…Dumbledore is gay? Wha?

“Jo Rowling calling any Harry Potter character gay would make wonderful strides in tolerance toward homosexuality,” a Potter site webmaster is quoted. Sure, and it would’ve been an even bigger stride if she’d done it anywhere in her 4,195 pages of prose rather than a Q&A three months after the final book was published.

Just seems like it would’ve been worth mentioning.

UPDATE: Time columnist John Cloud generally sums up my feelings about the “outing” of Dumbledore, except that I’d add that doing so well after the hype of the final book died off seems uncharacteristically gutless for Ms. Rowling. Plus, by withholding this information from the text, it plays right into the fears of those who believe that closeted gays are after their teenage boys.

Harry Potter and the Copious Backstory

July 30th, 2007 No comments

Hey, did you hear about the new Harry Potter book?

I kid. I was pretty excited myself about the publication of the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the High-Voltage Fence. Vic and I actually planned our trip to South Carolina to coincide with the release date so that we’d be able to read it to each other on the road home. While my dad’s sudden illness kept us from finishing it together, I did reach the end by Tuesday evening.

A young wizard from the midnight release party we attended at a South Carolina Barnes & Noble.

Happily, I managed to do so before anyone spoiled it for me. Well, except for Stephen Colbert, but I thought he was kidding when he said that Hermione was a dude. Fortunately, no one tipped me to the other big reveals, such as Hagrid’s preference for women’s underthings or Luna Lovegood being crowned queen of the house-elves. And I was completely unprepared to learn that Rita Skeeter is secretly Aunt Petunia in disguise. Oh, I’m sorry, you haven’t read it yet?

While there were some kids at the party, I was floored by the number of young adults (one wearing a “Mrs. Amber Weasley” button) and goths.

To be serious (if only for a moment), I was truly riveted by the book. While the middle section dragged a bit–even the characters complained about too much time spent in a tent getting nowhere–it was bracketed by fast, furious and deadly action. (I especially loved the “Sigourney Weaver moment” involving Bellatrix Lestrange; you’ll know it when you read it.) In addition to the early chase sequence involving dozens of characters, there are two “big heists” and a huge battle involving virtually the entire cast. That last fight is going to make for a very expensive film.

Make no mistake, this book is a bloodbath. In an attempt to keep the stakes high in what is, after all, a war of ethnic cleansing, J.K. Rowling mows down secondary characters left, right and center. After a particularly unexpected death about midway through the volume, I declared “This woman is bloodthirsty!”

Catching a few zees beneath the bargain books.

Some of my pre-release speculation turned out to be right on the money. I was correct about the fates of the major characters, as well as Snape’s allegiance. One thing for which I have to give Rowling credit is that she resists any impulse for a last-second, Darth Vader-esque redemption of Snape. (Don’t worry, that’s not as much of a spoiler as it might appear.) And while Dudley Dursley and Draco Malfoy have their moments of humanity, neither entirely comes around, as I half-expected.

One thing about which I was completely wrong regarded the mysterious archway from Harry Potter and the Side-Order of Phoenix, into which Sirius Black fell after being fatally cursed. I had assumed that this was one of those soap-opera “we never found the body” things that would allow for a surprise resurrection, but it seems that to J.K. Rowling, dead is dead.

Our friend Christine and my wife Vic feign enthusiasm when their numbers are called.

My criticisms of the book–aside from all the time spent in a tent–are few. I still think that Rowling relies too often on entire chapters of exposition. There isn’t nearly as much of Snape as I believe was warranted. And finally, a vital revelation during the big throwdown between Harry and Voldemort relies on the reader recalling a specific event in Book Six, and therefore left me scratching my head at a crucial moment.

That said, I’m still satisfied by Harry Potter and the Contractual Obligation. Everything that really needs to be wrapped up has been, and the epilogue left me feeling good. I’m glad that I made it to the end of Harry’s adventures, though I’m hoping that Rowling will one day write a spin-off. Might I suggest Luna Lovegood and the Crumple-Horned Snorkacks?

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