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** QUEST FOR DECAY **
As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin,
Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands. Dreaming of dragon-hood,
Fantasy has puffed itself up with air like a Mojave chuckwalla. SF's
collapse had formed a vacuum that forces Fantasy into a painful and explosive
Short stories, crippled with the bends, expand into whole hideous
trilogies as hollow as nickel gumballs. Even poor Stephen Donaldson, who
struggles to atone for his literary crimes with wet hippy sincerity, has been
forced to re-xerox his Tolkien pastiches and doubly insult the public. As
Robert E. Howard spins in his grave, the Chryslers of publishing attach
rotors to his head and feet and use him to power the presses.
But the editors have eaten sour grapes and the writers' teeth are on
edge. Fantasy, for too long the vapid playground of McCaffreyite
unicorn-cuddlers and insect-eating SCA freaks, has some new and dangerous
borderlands. Suddenly, perhaps out of sheer frustration, fantasy has
movement and color again. It is the squirming movement of corruption and the
bright sheen of decay.
** Some Examples **
NIFFT THE LEAN by Michael Shea. DAW, $2.95. Jack Vance's acolyte,
author of the apprentice work QUEST FOR SIMBILIS, Shea has suddenly and
fearsomely come into his own. This astonishing work shows a furious
imaginative concentration that is impressive and even appalling. The
legitimate heir of Vance, Leiber, and Clark Ashton Smith, Shea rips aside the
polite, smirking ironies of these polished writers and shows us a crawling,
boiling vision of the demonic. He is a Fender Stratocaster to Vance's
For those familiar with Vance's work, the effect is odd and
disquieting, like seeing a favorite uncle stumble in, blasted on bad acid and
mumbling cosmis obscenities. There are supernatural horrors here that make
Cthulhu and his boys look as tame as pinstriped bankers. Hell itself, its
denizens and environs, are captured with a revolting nicety of detail and
expression that makes you wonder for the author's sanity.
Shea is doing for the outworn tradition of heroic fantasy what
Swinburne did for the tradition of romantic poetry: namely, piling it up in
a heap and setting it on fire. And, like Swinburne, he does it with so much
insight that he renders the tradition obsolete. Heroic fantasy is already
moribund; Shea's book is, strictly speaking, a work of decadence, even of
necromancy. This is an important, even crucial book, with the lurid
brilliance and craftsmanlike discipline of a Bosch canvas. Not to be missed.
RED AS BLOOD by Tanith Lee. DAW, $2.50. The morbid smirk of the
stereotyped fantasy damsel on the Michael Whelan cover of this book
personifies fantasy's new decadence. Lee's talent has always threatened to
overwhelm the narrow limits of her innumerable cape-and-thick-ankles
bodice-busters, and this time she has the bit between her teeth and takes off
for parts unknown.
She has returned to fantasy's roots -- the 4/4 beat of Grimm's fairy
tales -- and ripped it up in a way that Ramones fans might find eerily
familiar. This is a very punk book -- all red and black -- and it has some
of the end-of-the-world energy of a '77 Pistols gig. These stories are
TWISTED -- tales of bloodlust, sexual frustration, schoolgirl nastiness,
world-devouring ennui, and a detailed obsession with Satanism that truly
makes one wonder.
Casual readers may find some of these stories dense and opaque.
Lee's prose has a cryptic, involuted quality, which creates the impression
that she is hinting at matters too blasphemous to speak of openly. It's a
peculiar style, alternately annoying and frightening.
Some of this apparent awkwardness is the result of a refusal to
compromise. It is the sign of an artist struggling to explian her visions in
what amounts to a private dialect. Even the failures are a left-handed
tribute to her integrity. She is uniquely gifted.
If you are the kind of fan who wants to have a dragon for a friend
and loves small furry animals, stay away from this book, because you might
die from it.
LYONESSE by Jack Vance. Berkley, $6.95. This latest effort has all
the qualities Vance devotees cherish: vivid clarity in description, clever,
colorful protagonists, fully realized societies complete with Vance's
trademark footnotes, and headlong, exciting plotting that has footloose
freedom without becoming slipshod.
It's true that Vance has only one voice: a carefully crafted,
mock-archaic one. Vance characters, from wizards to galactic effectuators,
always speak with the same sense of antiquated, polite calculation. In
LYONESSE, a pair of housecats are given the power of speech, and when they
immediately pipe up with a uniquely Vancian courteous peevishness the
effective is irresistably (and deliberately) hilarious. It's a voice that
has served Vance well, and has even been borrowed wholesale by Michael Shea
without becoming tiresome.
Vance's works have always had a veiled darker side; they are replete
with wine-sipping perverts whose sidelong glances and polite insinuations
hint at unspeakable vices. Vance is a writer of rare perception; although he
created many of the parameters of modern fantasy, he is clearly aware of
their exhaustion. His answer, like Shea's, is to turn up the amps.
Thus we have a female character whose suffering innocence almost
reminds one of deSade's Justine. There is a definite, quiet cruelty in this
book that is presented with an alarming sense of relish. Characters are
blinded, tortured, branded, buggered, thrown into wells and left to die.
Women and children especially are singled out for torment; one long section
is a Tanith Lee-esque black fairy tale, and its peculiar viciousness is
cynically funny. At last Vance even turns on the reader, for the book's
ending is a cruel joke. It hints at books to follow, but since Vance's
languorous attitude toward sequels is legendary, his audience is probably
doomed to a long session on the tenterhooks.
THE FLOATING GODS by M. John Harrison. Timescape, $2.50. This book
is called IN VIRICONIUM in Britain, but was stupidly retitled for American
release, presumably because Timescape believes we are boneheads. It's the
third book in a sword-and-sorcery trilogy that includes THE PASTEL CITY and A
STORM OF WINGS.
It's clear that a different but allied form of decadence has struck
Across the Water. Its trademark is not perversion, but exhaustion. PASTEL
CITY rejoiced in such sprightly characters as Tomb, "the nastiest dwarf that
ever hacked the hands off a priest," whose rotten malevolence was a welcome
relief from Harrison's sometimes stifling meditations on spiritual decline.
FLOATING GODS has no such characters. It is set in a city smothered
under a nebulous Plague Zone. Possibly Harrison has spent too much time in
Brixton. Despair seems to have been printed across his eyeballs in letters
of fire. THE FLOATING GODS is a relentless exercise in total, stifling
futility; it is one long, gray, debilitating dream.
Harrison's extraordinary talent merely crams the reader's head more
firmly into the bucket. It is impossible to read this book without
considering suicide. It is painful to read; painful even to think about.
Let's hope to God something happens soon to cheer him up.
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These new editions are readily available at your local
smokestack-industry chainstore bookstand. You could do a lot
1. SOFTWARE Rudy Rucker. Ace, 2.25. Pyrotechnic work by deranged math
professor. The hottest thing going in contemporary SF.
2. UNIVERSE 10 Terry Carr, ed. Zebra, 2.50. Fine anthology reduced to utter
penury. Should be bought for the good of the genre.
3. PAST MASTER R. A. Lafferty. Ace, 2.50. Classic Lafferty. His most
decipherable SF novel.
4. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS Ursula K. LeGuin. Brilliant LeGuin from her
pre-didactic era. Has modern intro with words like "semiotic" and
5. THE IRON DREAM Norman Spinrad. Timescape, 2.95. Biting parody of
fascistic SF power fantasies. Genuinely bizarre.
6. THE MONSTER OF THE PROPHECY Clark Ashton Smith. Timescape, 2.50. Curious
archaeological relic from the Golden Age. Outrageous, clotted prose.
7. THE KING IN YELLOW Robert W. Chambers. Ace, 2.50. What fantasy was like
before its prostitution.
8. A WORLD OUT OF TIME Larry Niven. Del Rey, 2.50. Heartening indication
that Niven may escape total artistic collapse.
9. CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS Roger Zelazny. Avon, 2.25.
Self-indulgent pastiche of his best work. Flashes of brilliance. Beats
being smothered in amber.
10. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK Mike McQuay. Bantam, 2.50. Surprisingly decent
novelization. Makes more sense than the
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