Thursday, September 30, 2004


Elizabeth A. Lynn's "The Silver Dragon" in the anthology Flights reminds us that "traditional" fiction takes as much or more skill than what we consider edgy or cross-genre. It's a brilliant take on epic fantasy in the pseudo-medieval mode. But, as indicated, traditional doesn't mean "simple" or somehow lesser than what's currently in vogue.

The tale begins with directness and becomes subtle as it progresses. The opening places the reader firmly into a realistic and comprehensible setting:

This is a story of Iyadur Atani, who was master of Dragon Keep and lord of Dragon's Country a long, long time ago.

At this time, Ryoka was both the same as and different than it is today. In Issho, in the west, there was peace, for the mages of Ryoka had built the great wall…and defended it with spells. Though the wizards were long gone, the power of their magic lingered in the towers and ramparts of the wall. The Isojai feared it, and would not storm it.

In the east, there was no peace. Chuyo was not part of Ryoka, but a separate country. The Chuyokai lords were masters of the sea. They sailed the eastern seas in black-sailed ships, landing to plunder and loot and carry off the young boys and girls to make them slaves. All along the coast of Kameni, men feared the Chuyokai pirates.

In the north, the lords of Ippa prospered. Yet, having no enemies from beyond their borders to fight, they grew bored, and impatient, and quarrelsome. They quarreled with the lords of Issho, with the Talvelai, and the Nyo, and they fought among themselves. Most quarrelsome among them was Martun Hal, lord of Serrenhold.

Note the excellent opening sentence, which serves to lock the reader's attention in on the story's ultimate focus, followed by the opening up of the world Atani lives in, followed by the narrowing of attention from countries, to people, to one person: Martun Hal, who will be the sand that makes a pearl of the story. By the end of the first page, we've been immersed in Lynn's invented world, and can see it as clearly as if we'd been given a map. (Yet Lynn also doesn't care to explain all of the place names and terms, leaving some sense of adventure to come. It's a device used equally well in a radical work like Harrison's Light.) This investment in detail upfront--not being afraid to slow the story's pace long enough to set the milieu and make it believable--pays off for Lynn later in several ways.

I was struck by the contrast between Lynn's (admittedly longer) story and both previous examples of "heroic" fantasy in Flights: Catherine Asaro's "The Edges of Never-Haven" and Robert Silverberg's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Silverberg gets close-in to his character to begin "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," giving us mostly a contrast of the current city setting with the main character's prior digs. This makes sense for the story, in that the focus is firmly on one person throughout, whereas Lynn's story jumps from character to character. But it does rob the reader of a means by which to get a concrete sense of Silverberg's setting. In part, because (I think) Silverberg's writing in his Majipoor setting, he may assume readers already are familiar with it, or he's so familiar with it that he didn't realize he needed to include more detail. In thinking about "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" again, I believe one of my problems with the story is the setting--if it had been less generic, if it had seemed more real, I might have bought into the characters a little more. And the characters might have seemed more influenced by the setting.

In Asaro's case, she's made the choice to jump into the action of the story immediately, with just two sentences of description before we follow a hard-running Denric Windward Valdoria being pursued by demons: "The city of Never-Haven encircled a central plaza, where a circular fountain spewed up arches of water. Orb-houses filled the city, all round." It's not a bad idea as a short-term strategy. But the problem is, Asaro never goes back and fills in any appreciable detail. Which leaves the reader flailing around for a rock or a balcony or anything to hold onto.

If you go from the Asaro to the Silverberg to the Lynn story, you receive a nice creative writing lesson in the difference between one-dimensional, two-dimensional, and three-dimensional settings. You also get a sense for the pitfalls of using a close-in point of view main character in a heroic fantasy short story (as opposed to a novel). And you can see how vital this element is to heroic fantasy--it's the difference between success and failure. (It's also worth noting that in the body of the story, Lynn describes individual places--rooms in castles, etc.--in brief paragraphs; by not investing much in those descriptions, she can interject the macro descriptions of place that fuel the story's plot without fatally slowing the pace.)

But Lynn is doing a lot more in "The Silver Dragon" than just building an effective and believable setting. She also, in the preliminary pages of the story, gives us nice little glimpses of all the main characters, while using Hal's disruptive actions to hook us while we're being introduced to them.

Before long, fully grounded in setting and the various characters, major and minor, we're following Joanna, the daughter of a powerful lord, as she tries to visit Iyadur Atani, the master of Dragon Keep and the main character in the story. Joanna is convinced she will marry Atani, a man who can change into a dragon.

From there, we're immersed in military actions, a kidnapping, a quest to find a wizard, a relationship both personal and political, and much sacrifice, Lynn brilliantly balancing the need for each of the main characters to occupy center stage. Lynn also knows that for us to care about someone in a story, it doesn't matter what the character, no matter how beautiful/handsome or intelligent, says, but only what that person does. And how much that person is willing to give up for what they care about.

I'm reluctant to go into the details of the plot, or to quote any more from this story, since presumably some or many of you will read it for yourselves. However, I must say that from the general detail of the setting, zeroing in on the characters, and then exploring the relationship between Atani and Joanna, Lynn manages to achieve an emotional catharsis I would not have thought possible at the story's beginning. Yet, in retrospect, it is precisely her willingness to let the story unfold at its natural pace and to ground the story firmly in its setting, that allows for such a reaction from readers.

It's easy to think that New Weird or Interstitial or Whatever means "better" rather than "different." Lynn's novelette (novella?) puts the lie to that particular assumption. It reminds us of the complexities inherent in traditional storytelling, if the storyteller is good enough. It makes us think, too, about what grounds good fiction and good characters: a sense of place, a sense of purpose, a sense of pathos.

(Evil Monkey, sitting on my shoulder, poses the question: "Do writers of experimental fiction need to prove they can tell a good story before they start experimenting?" Evil Monkey also reminds me that the L.E. Modesitt, Jr. story "Fallen Angel" that follows the Lynn is so slight and falsely talky as to warrant little if any discussion.)


At 6:18 PM, Blogger Matthew Cheney said...

Interesting Evil Monkey question. I've been wondering similar things recently -- wondering if there are some writers who are insightful, brilliant, wonderful, whatever in nonstandard forms, but who couldn't write a standard, traditional story even if offered tons of money and eternal bliss. And are there writers who have been successful at both? Hmmm. (It's an abstract question for me at the moment, so I don't have any examples in mind, though I'm sure I'll think of some.)

At 7:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My own case is pretty clear--I started out telling traditional stories, with a horror emphasis, culminating, probably, in "The Bone Carver's Tale." After which time, I began to experiment more with structure, form, exploding tropes (which can be painful), etc. But I couldn't start experimenting successfully until I felt I had a solid foundation in traditional storytelling. Or, perhaps, I should say "tale telling," since many of my early pieces were rather baroque/stylized. The other thing that entered my fiction with experimentation was humor--another element that I could really relax into until I felt comfortable writing stories. Then, of course, as soon as I began to feel a little *too* comfortable, I had to move in some new direction for fear of stagnating. I don't know what other writers' have done in this regard--I think it's probable that someone like Barth always was experimental, but could tell a good story at the same time. Nabokov definitely began as a traditional author of emigre fiction and the metamorphosed into the godfather of postmodernism.


At 5:38 AM, Blogger Rajan said...

It is an interesting question. As someone still starting out as a writer, my natural inclination is to stick to more traditional stories until I feel comfortable with them. I've often wondered if that's the best way to go about things, and I worry sometimes about 'getting stuck', but until I feel that I can confidently tell a story, I'm not sure that I would feel very comfortable venturing out into the unknown. Still, maybe that would force me to grow as a writer, and I do believe in taking those kind of risks, but right now I find myself focusing on more basic skills and assembling my toolbox so later I can select which tools to use.

At 6:18 AM, Blogger JP said...

Is it even possible to tell a *good* experimental story if you aren't inherently capable of telling a good story at all?

At 6:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You'd think not, wouldn't you? But it depends on your definition of "good". If I was willing to be insulting, I could rattle off a list of writers of experimental fiction who, to my mind, never learned the basics of how to write before turning to the experimental--they turned to the experimental because they failed at fiction, basically. Some of them get quite a lot of praise. In experimental fiction, even more so than "regular" fiction, I think it's difficult to ascertain what's good and what isn't. Because often you're looking to subvert storytelling itself. And the other thing is--even failed experiments are valuable. Anything that pushes the boundary line makes it easier for the "renovators" who come after to operate.


At 11:37 PM, Blogger Tessa said...

Making wide spread generalizations, I'd say yes - you need to learn the rules before you can break them. But then, no one has much control over where their individual strengths lie.

I got a real kick out of "The Silver Dragon". Got to the end and thought "now that was a damn satisfying read."

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