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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" <ddanehy@siebel.com>
Subject: (urth) Scattered Shots
Date: Thu, 2 Aug 2001 10:13:41 

Replies to various persons in a single email 'cause I"m lazy.

To Jasper: 

Aaargh. I can't _believe_ I left out Alan Garner. (I'm not sure if I'd 
have added Diana Wynne Jones, because somehow I have never read her...)

To Alex David Groce:

> Well, I haven't yet read TGC, but this is pretty common in
> alternate history fantasy.  

TGC is not just an "alternate history fantasy," in which some random
event in the past has historical ramifications. I think most of these
(there are exceptions, like _THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE_) are simply
silly, and almost precisely to the extent that they do the "what
would Richard III or John Calvin have done in this world?" bit. 

(Confession: I once worked out just such an alternate history, in
almost-excruciating detail, beginning with the assumption that Friar
Bacon's researches to prove the nullity of magic had in fact proven
its efficiacy. I wound up making Martin Luther Pope. But for ghod's
sake, that was just background for a roleplaying game!)

But, as I say, TGC is not such a story. It isn't set in a world where
Lincoln survived, or Jesus was a woman, or some other historical 
counterfactual. It is set in a world where human souls exist as 
externally visible beings (which, because they're generally of the
opposite sex of their human, I think of as animae/animi), where at
least some form of magic works, and where polar bears (I don't know
about other kinds) have developed sentience, opposable thumbs, 
glotti capable of forming sounds similar to those of human language,
and a metallurgy capable of forging bullet-stopping body armor.

And we're expected to believe this world has its Oxford, complete
with porters, scouts, and Masters and Rectors; that there's a 
Christian Church, complete with (historical) Popes and Manichees
... Hell, just the assumption that this world is dominated by white 
European culture is damnably hard to swallow, let alone that it's
so similar in so many ways to ours.

Pullman just _does not bother_ to work out the ramifications of
his ideas.

To Tony Ellis: 
N, I'm not daemonizing Pullman; I'm just insisting that he has
failed to do something that would make an otherwise-excellent novel 
also work as an excellent fantasy. 

> The Marriage of Heaven and Hell probably irritated a few easily-
> irritated Christians in its time too, but what it was supposed to
> do was make people think.

Which is fine by me. I don't object as such to anti-clericalism, or
even anti-Christianism. I object to what I perceive as the rather
childish way Pullman does it.

> I would hope that a child reading Pullman's book might be very
> interested to learn that a word used by Christianity to mean an
> incarnation of evil originally meant something as harmless as
> "spirit",  

I'm inclined to agree. Unfortunately, no child will learn that fact by 
reading THE GOLDEN COMPASS. The word is just used with no particular
explanation. (I wouldn't be terribly surprised if it were explained 
when Lyra shows up in our world in the later books, but that doesn't
help this book.) So I can't really accept that Pullman had such a
paedogogical goal.

Given his external statements about Lewis (and, yes, I regard his 
attitude toward the Narnias as quite childish), I think it's pretty
clear that the word "daemon" was chosen specifically for its rather
limited shock value. 

(And I can't help wondering if there wasn't a rather cynical 
commercial motive there, too. Perhaps he was hoping to gain some
notoriety by having right-wing Christian groups ban the book?)

> The Crushed Butterfly theory of time has been tediously fashionable
> in SF writing for a long time now, but it -is- just a theory. 

See above: this isn't an alternate history; it's a world that is 
radically different. (Radically, in the literal and etymological
sense. At the root.)

> If [the conservation-of-history] theory leads to more books like
> or Wolfe's There Are Doors, where the changes are small and
> rather than huge and predictable, then I for one am happy to give "logic"
> miss for a while. :-)

TAD is also not an alternate history but a world different at its root. (It
also quite possibly my least favorite of all Mr. Wolfe's novels, partly
his other-world is far, far too much like ours.)

To Rostrum:

You wrote that the title _The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities_
me want to go out and give him a try." If so, it's even more of a shame than

usual that the damn thing isn't available.

I highly recommend its predecessor, _Stars in my Pocket like Grains of
and indeed most of his work. I find his "pornotopic" novels quite difficult 
to take, and some of his early work doesn't stand up quite as well as it
might. But he's never written a _bad_ book. 

Other good starting points would include _Empire Star_ (quite short, and
the only Delany novel that qualifies as just plain fun); _Dhalgren_ (but
with the caveat that it's extraordinarily difficult, in a very different way
from Wolfe); and _Nova_ (which Algis Budrys once described as a "perfect" 
book, meaning it in a rather double-edged way -- perfection can become
sterile: but which I wish someone with Lucas' resources would film well).

Also, Mandatory Wolfe Content. Regarding TAD, you observe that: "All of 
human history and society would be very, very, very different if men died
immediately after having intercourse ... No man would have more than one 
child!  Every man alive would be celibate."

To be fair, Wolfe does deal with both these issues, by making it clear 
that a woman can store sperm for multiple pregnancies, and by making the
male sex drive stronger in his alternate world. (Failure to deal with
either would have resulted in a world where the population would undergo
rapid, radical, and terminal decline.)

Finally, to Spectacled Bear:

You raise the only objection to my "lousy working out of the fantasy world"
that I can even begin to accept, when you say: 

> Things are a lot more connected than she (or we) would expect. No
> attempt at explanation is made; it's simply beyond our present degree
> of knowledge. I can respect that a lot more than books that simply
> ignore the question.

Moi aussi. It doesn't help TGC as a stand-alone novel, but it isn't 
really intended as a stand-alone. (Hell, it ends with a massive cliff-
hanger. What I've said so far is something like criticising _The 
Fellowship of the Ring_ without having read _The Two Towers_ and _The 
Return of the King_.) If it becomes clear in the later novels that 
the worlds are connected, even though those connections are not 
explained, well, yes, that would help. (I still think that such a 
world would be more radically different than Pullman paints it, but
this puts him within the realm of conscientiously working out his
world rather than just drifting into speculative conservatism.)


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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