Welcome to the very first edition of The Fandomentals Classic Sci-Fi Book Club. We’re making our way through some of the works considered to be essential reading for anyone interested in this genre.
This time we looked at Neuromancer by William Gibson. First published in 1984, this novel helped pioneer the cyberpunk movement and is credited with popularizing many of the ideas that would eventually develop into the world wide web.
Plot Summary: Case is a washed-up hacker who can no longer work because a poisoned neural system doesn’t allow him to enter “cyberspace,” so he spends all his time trying to get high in Japan. Then a mysterious man, who has a technological augmented “street ninja” named Molly working for him, offers him a second chance and a job pulling off a heist that gets him involved with a mysterious business clan of clones, and the artificial intelligences that they created.
What do you think of the world building?
Julia: I suppose the defining feature of cyberpunk is high technology juxtaposed with squalor. But even the high technology feels like it’s probably a little squalid too.
Lisa: It definitely does! It feels dirty and invasive. Grungy, even. The tech Case uses to “flip” feels dangerous and scrappy. I highly doubt the rich of this world tap into the Internet the same way.
Barbara: It was very effective. I felt completely immersed, at times even overwhelmed by the world. It was an interesting contrast with the lack of immersion in the character. And as a small aside, I cannot help but mention that I completely hated the depiction of Istanbul as compared to the other places they visit.
Julia: Oh Barbara, is there any fictional portrayal of Istanbul you DO like? But your point his well taken. And I’ll add in another point about stereotyping with the Japanese Yakuza assassins and the perma-baked Rastafarians. It was almost funny how the black side-kick character just randomly came along on the deadly mission for the climax because… he bonded with Case so much?
I think Lisa is right about everything feeling “grungy.” In my mind’s eye, everything is just dirty and the technology is held together with duct tape. Whenever I think of the Sprawl I just picture used take-out containers and Red Bull cans littered everywhere. And I can almost smell the red, infected skin around half of these cybernetic implants.
This is, probably intentionally, in very sharp contrast with Freeside and Villa Straylight, which seem almost sterile. Like an isolation ward in a hospital. You know that people like 3Jane don’t have any weird mirrors grafted to their eyes, or any such nonsense. Though the weird cloney incest ways of the Tessier-Ashpools and those fake contour tanlines are as gross in their own way as the Sprawl.
Lisa: Totally. Those tan lines are synthetic grunge. Perfectly placed but grimy all the same.
Barbara: Ha, yes, trust me Julia, I remembered my beef with that adaptation of Orient Express when I read Neuromancer as well. I swear it’s not me, it’s every author who thinks Istanbul is the best place to live their Orientalist dreams. But you’re right about the other stereotypes as well, of course, I actually wanted to mention the Rastafarians and forgot about it. Like you, I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of some of it.
I have to disagree about the tanlines though – I want that.
Caroline: To add to the conversation regarding the stereotyping, the word “gaijin” is thrown around a lot when they are in Japan. Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner. I studied Japanese in college and went to Japan as part of an exchange program and, from what the Japanese college students explained to me in 2012, gaijin is often used in an insulting way. I found it weird that the narrative used gaijin so often, seeing as it closely followed Case, and Case himself seems to be a foreigner (I don’t think he’s ever described as Japanese?). It stood out to me during the story. I don’t know how people felt about the word in 1984, or what contact Gibson had with Japan prior to writing this, but it felt sort of forced into the text.
Otherwise, I felt the world-building was thorough but confusing, and definitely reliant on stereotypes! I guess that begs the question: can/how do you build an entire world without using stereotypes as a base?
The political and social aspects of the world building were very vague. What impression did you get of what the world is like in those ways?
Lisa: Maybe it’s just the current climate, but the lack of politics was a bit unrealistic. Is this future society so apathetic that they generally don’t care about their piss-poor quality of life? Most of these people live in “coffins”…it’s hard to believe a whole populace would take that lying down.
The lack of economic structure was weird, too. Besides the random service employee here and there, what does most of the populace do for a living?
Taking all that into consideration, it would seem that this future world doesn’t exist within the confines of any political, social, and even economical parameters that we can really understand. It is a race of people that is nihilistic in nature. The only being in the book that seems to have an innate desire to improve and grow is Wintermute. Everyone (and everything) else is stagnant, simply treading water to stay alive.
Barbara: I felt like the social commentary there was more implicit, but it definitely was there. It worked for me, because I didn’t think Case was very political personally, nor any of the people directly around him. But you’re probably right that from the wider cast of characters, one would expect at least someone to mention something.
Julia: Yeah, I don’t think I got the impression that most people in this world live like Case does. I don’t think it’s usual for entire families to be shoved into “coffins” or anything like that. Though Molly’s rather vague descriptions of her childhood did make poverty seem… not unusual. There was some political content with the Panther Moderns, for instance, that gave the impression of political instability and endemic violence.
Oh, and the offhand mentions of nuclear war. Apparently most of Germany is a radioactive wasteland or something? And, of course, there was a war with Russia that featured prominently in Armitage’s backstory.
It seems to be an SF trope that technology will make us superficial and materialistic. Any human energy towards “self-improvement” seems to be directed towards things like upgrading your implants, or cloning a better granddaughter, rather than towards anything intellectual or spiritual, let alone towards improving social conditions.
I (Caroline!) felt very disjointed throughout the story – the short sections and jumps from scene to scene threw me off for a long time. I definitely struggled getting a grasp on the setting, even with some of the nice descriptions. Did anyone else feel this way? If so, do you think it was intentional? Does a disjointed/jumpy narrative style reflect on themes of the story?
Caroline: To answer myself, I think there might be a connection or meaning when comparing the narrative structure to the life Case is living. The narrative jumps from place to place in quick slices; Case, likewise, jumps from living in the real world to being in cyberspace, experiencing reality and artificial reality in segments. I think the disjointed structure gives us the best understanding of Case’s brain, even more so than Case or any character development (if there was any…). It seems that the structure reflects the story, or the story reflects the structure.
Julia: Gibson apparently has a reputation for never spoon feeding the word building. He just throws terms and concept out there for the reader to figure out. I suppose that can extend to the story itself as well. Case knows about the whole nuclear war thing, so why would be explain it. He knows what’s going on too, so why should his close third-person explain it?
I can’t say it makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
Did you find the protagonist in any way memorable or distinctive?
Barbara: The protagonist actually makes this really hard to read for me, since he’s a very distinct type of (anti)hero, and one I’m really tired of. It’s obviously unfair to the book, because it was in many ways first in this (though there are inspirations Gibson pulls from), but I couldn’t quite free myself from it…
Lisa: I couldn’t connect with Case at all. I still feel like I know nothing about him (except that he really likes to get high). I think all Gibson’s characters are a bit shallow, if i’m being honest.
Caroline: Agreed. I know almost nothing about Case. At best he is a struggling drug addict; at worst, he’s just a literary device to let us see Gibson’s neato sci-fi world. Neither is abhorrent, but neither is compelling.
Julia: Yes, exactly. I feel like I know nothing about him. There was an attempt, I think, to make us care about him, specifically with the sacs of neurotoxin and Linda Lee (who he’s… mourning?) but I don’t think I at any point actually cared if he succeeded or not. That moment when he was screaming and crying because he thought Armitage was going to take the secret with him as he died and Case would be poisoned again did nothing for me.
Lisa: Nope. No feelings for Case, at all. I felt worse for Armitage!
Molly. Let’s talk about the her role in this novel and her relationship with Case.
Barbara: I can’t get over that first sex scene. Like, what even was that?
Caroline: I know right!
Lisa: Conceptually, it kind of reminds me of Sleeper, a movie Woody Allen directed in 1974. In the movie, Allen and Diane Keaton use an “orgasmitron” to have sex. The couple doesn’t touch each other at all and instead relies on the orgasmitron to stimluate the body to orgasim.
I think it’s a play on the idea that technology makes us less-human. Gibson takes it a step further, in my opinion, by partnering Case and Molly. They way they copulate is strange, foreign, and seemingly robotic, inferring a lack of intimacy. However, even though these two people have been manipulated both intellectually and physically to reflect the hyper-tech world they live in, they still find the need to sleep in the same bed. They still desire companionship, a very basic human need.
Barbara: Well the whole book is intentionally rather low on introspection, you only rarely find out what the protagonists are thinking or feeling, so that’s part of it, I think (and also relates to what you said about not connecting to Case). But that first scene…on one hand I tend to read it as some kind of strange male fantasy – he is in the same space with a woman, so of course she would want to have sex with him – but on the other, it read like borderline rape, given the state Case is in and that the initiative is entirely hers…
Julia: I think I’m questioning the decision of the author to have them have a physical relationship at all. I’m not sure what it adds to anything. It’s like it happened out of some sense of obligation. I’m don’t know if it was Gibson’s sense of obligation, or the characters’.
Lisa: Agreed. I don’t think the sexual relationship is necessary. Neither character is ever driven by their undying love (or even lust) for one another. If anything, the relationship is simply commentary on loneliness.
But I think that’s giving Gibson too much credit. This was written in the early 1980s when sex-scenes in entertainment were rampant. Instead of a time-lapse montage, most movies in the 80s included some kind of sex-scene montage. I think that’s just what audiences wanted back then.
And good point about the entire book being incredibly not introspective, Barbara! Thematically, is that a play on the mysteries of the AI world? We can never know exactly what a machine/computer is thinking?
Barbara: 100% agreed on the sense of obligation. I think it was primarily Gibson’s, and he transferred it to the way the characters acted…
Caroline: Do y’all think Gibson actively thought, “I must have a sex scene,” or do you think it was his unconscious bias about how men and women must interact in a story that led to it? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written because it was just assumed a male (anit)hero has a female love interest, and of course she wants him, too.
Julia: I’m not sure why she would want him. I guess he doesn’t actively creep on her like Peter Riviera does.
Molly’s description of sex work in this world seems particularly disturbing, with the workers not in control of their bodies at all and not aware of what they’re doing.
Barabara: It seems to stem from this idea that sexwork itself is a deeply unpleasant experience that no one really wants to be present for. Because the vibe I got, at least, wasn’t “they force sex workers into this”, but rather “sex workers prefer not being present”, which is very disturbing indeed.
Julia: It reminds me a little bit of the well observed phenomenon of people feeling more free to express opinions they know aren’t socially acceptable on the internet because of the anonymity it offers. In this case, the anonymity is extended to sex. No one has to know about your weird kink, not even the sex worker you’re doing it with.
Lisa: Which plays into the idea of sex, and sexual deviance, as taboo, right? Gibson is acknowledging sexual “deviance” and it’s overwhelming existence in everyday life. This is chillingly similar to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Staying on Molly and Case, how do we feel about the uplink thing that lets Case see things through Molly’s eyes?
Julia: Not good? The Dolyist reason for this is rather obvious, the author wanted be able to see plot things that were happening to Molly without actually having her point of view. And that rubs me the wrong way, I’m not going to lie. Especially given the whole puppet sex worker thing she went through before.
Lisa: I think it’s cheap, too. It would have been much more interesting to write from Molly’s perspective. The uplink/flip could still happen, but from Molly’s perspective, we would have known what it felt like to have Case in her mind like that.
Caroline: If a plot device is only a plot device, does that make it a contrivance? I agree with all above – it’s obvious Case’s ability to see through Molly’s eyes was solely for the reader’s benefit to see what Molly sees. I can’t connect it to any themes, etc., at all. I think if a plot device serves no other discernable purpose than its single purpose, it may very well be a contrivance. This felt very contrived and, as pointed out, very cheap.
Barbara: I second all that. Or at the very least they could have had some discussion about it or something, some more in depth exploration of the experience…the degree to which it was waved aside effectively confirmed that it was a plot device. The only moment when it was an issue was when Case felt Molly’s pain. I don’t know if we were supposed to believe this was everyday stuff for Case and so he felt no need to mention it, but I really don’t see what in his personal history would make it so…
Julia: Now that I think about it,God is Molly ever repressed. She spends most of the time she’s uplinked to Case just kind of talking about all her past trauma’s in this oddly detached way. She seems even detached from her own emotional reactions to things. We, the reader, are aware that her trauma with growing up in poverty and being sexually exploited motivate her, especially with things like her hatred for Peter Riviera, but I don’t think she’s much aware of it.
So, I don’t think I want to call Molly a “shallow” character, because that depth is all there, but the narrative didn’t explore it much at all. Which is a little infuriating, because, yeah, Case is that shallow. He wants money for drugs, I think. He has some kind of feelings about wasp nests maybe.
This society seems very afraid of Artificial Intelligence. Do you think the narrative argues that this fear is justified? How do we see Wintermute and Neuromancer as characters?
Lisa: This is one area where I felt Gibson really did well. The fear of AI is very well-depicted and real. Maybe because our society has been afraid of AI for decades…who knows? My favorite scene in the entire book was when Wintermute annihilated the Turing officers that were chasing Case. The way the AI used the environment to decapitate one of them was everything I would expect of an all-powerful sentient being.
Wintermute and Neuromancer were my favorite characters in the entire book. They were incredibly interesting and complex. I found Wintermute to be intellectually stimulating, whereas I wanted to snuggle up in a blanket on the beach with Neuromancer. In a lot of ways, the two AI felt more human than the humans…
Julia: Wintermute is everything Case is not in a protagonist. He’s (?) got that introspective self-awareness that makes him very interesting and just the right amount of mysterious. And Neuromancer is everything thing the humans are not and really should be, as Lisa just said. They both seems to actually care to ask questions about their own natures and how they can be better and grow. They’re like flowers that grew out a of pot of dirt at this point.
Why is Case the protagonist and not Neuromancer?
Million Dollar Questions: Is this book “good”? Did you enjoy reading it? Does it age well?
Lisa: I can see why it turned heads in 1984…the language and the story is incredibly unique. But no, I did not enjoy reading it and I do not think it ages well.
The lack of diverse characters (and the stereotyping Julia mentioned) doesn’t reflect modern day readers. I also think the characters are pretty shallow and unrelatable. I didn’t really like this book at all…
I’ve recently re-watched the Matrix trilogy and in a lot of ways, it’s a Neuromancer rip-off. (The matrix, Zion, uplinking, etc.) But the Matrix has done much better in terms of scale because it’s simple and relatable. There are diverse characters and a clear enemy. (There’s also an unnecessary sex-scene in Matrix Reloaded.)
Julia: Maybe it is just because the concepts, which were groundbreaking in 1984, one assumes, are all so old hat by now, but I didn’t find anything about this book particularly compelling. I don’t think I would have finished it if I didn’t have to for this book club. I suppose it goes to show that even hard sci-fi needs to be character driven.
Barbara: I picked up this book for the first time when I was fourteen, and couldn’t get into it. When I opened it now, I was curious if it would be better…it wasn’t. It was worse, actually, because it hasn’t aged particularly well and I see problems now that I wouldn’t have seen at fourteen. I would say that I enjoyed moments of it (the actual action is done well, in my opinion), but then there were long passages that left me completely indifferent and also bits that were downright unpleasant.
Caroline: I started out liking it – I was impressed by the world building and the sheer number of words Gibson created. But it quickly dissolved into a realization that the book is not particularly well-written, and in many cases is impossible to follow. The fact that the main character is totally unrelatable doesn’t help. I agree that much of it was unpleasant. Perhaps worse, a lot of it was boring. Without solid characterization, I couldn’t care much about what happened. I felt like I was watching the season finale for a show I’d never watched before and didn’t care about.
Apparently this book predicted the internet. Discuss.
Lisa: I’m not sure it was Neuromancer itself that predicted the internet…Gibson first wrote Burning Chrome in 1982. That’s where the term “cyberspace” was born.
Via history.com, “ARPANET adopted TCP/IP on January 1, 1983, and from there researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” that became the modern Internet. The online world then took on a more recognizable form in 1990, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.”
So while, yes, Gibson can certainly be partially credited for “predicting the internet” as we understand it today, but it was in the works before Neuromancer was written. (Maybe ARPANET got their hands on Burning Chrome? Who knows….)
It certainly is interesting that both Burning Chrome and Neuromancer were written while the Internet was being developed/established. It’s highly unlikely Gibson really knew anything about that, right? He certainly familiarized himself with computer components, hardware and software…but where did he come up with the idea of a “network”?? According to Wikipedia, Gibson was TERRIBLE at math…
One thing I personally made note of while reading was that the technical concepts were actually quite difficult for me to visualize. The only thing I can think of is that tech is much more refined now and understanding raw, rough, seemingly archaic tech, is confusing.
Anyone else have that issue? Or was it just me?
Barbara: I definitely agree that it was hard to visualize most of the things he’s describing. It didn’t really bother me, because I tend to skim over descriptions in any case when I read, even when they are descriptions of regular things…but usually I know I could actually imagine it if I wanted to. I think it’s made harder by the amount of made-up tech words he uses. It helps worldbuilding, but makes it more difficult to imagine a scene, paradoxically.
I wouldn’t dare to speculate on the internet genesis topic, but I do find it interesting to see – as I often do in sci-fi – what he did not imagine. Like how the way the protagonist searches for information is so much less efficient than, you know, Google. Partly because he just doesn’t imagine encyclopaedias being made specifically for that kind of medium. It probably goes with the atmosphere, too, that things must be, as Julia said, squalid. Wiki is too tidy for that.
Julia: I think that it was easy enough to predict the concept of a global network that one can access regardless of physical location, but no one was able to predict how we were going to use it. It integrated into our society, rather than taking it over. All these concepts had a network that was totally immersive, “a consensual hallucination,” as this novel famously says, a mode of existence rather than a tool. And one one predicted that there would still be this focus on the written, rather than the spoken, word that the internet still has. And I certainly don’t think that we could have predicted that I could be writing a collaborative piece like this, with three other people in two other countries, while I was making breakfast.
Caroline: I agree with the point about the difficulty of imagining the technology. The fact that Gibson uses his special sci-fi lingo from the jump doesn’t help much either – it took quite a while for me to figure out a lot of the terms. In a way it adds to the immersion, but without an idea of what those things are, it just leaves big gaps in the mental image of the story. This is a place where written science fiction may falter while a visual adaptation would succeed. For instance, the “transporter” in Star Trek is explainable by watching things step onto the pad and disappear, reappearing somewhere else. This is much harder to explain in a written format, since so much detail is needed to convey that idea. A lot of Case’s jumping around from Molly’s eyes to cyberspace elsewhere is confusing because of how much detail he’s really seeing, as opposed to what we’re presented on the page.
I can’t make a determination one way or the other about the internet thing. Looking at it now, I’d like to say it’s not hard to imagine a network like the internet – but then again, I can’t predict what new technology will come out next year. I think we’re able to imagine concepts in technology, things we want to have – transporters, food replicators, robots, cell phones – but of course we can’t get the specifics down because it’s all speculative. Case’s experience with cyberspace is very different from a modern experience, I think (I don’t think he watched any funny cat videos during the story…), but the base concept remains the same.
Next Time: The book that put the OG in “Oh god, what have I done!?” Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Who was an eighteen-year-old when she started writing it. No, really.
This should be awesome.
Featured image: Neuromancer by Josan Gonzalez
The Tower of Cirith Ungol
“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” shares an unenviable position with “The Taming of Smeagol” and “Minas Tirith” as book openers. They are all responsible for taking a narrative speeding along at full steam, halting it in its tracks, rewinding, and starting something else. It’s a necessity for how Tolkien chose to structure his story but a tricky business, particularly after the strength of Book V. “The Taming of Smeagol” and “Minas Tirith” managed to overcome the disadvantages their positions by introducing a new, immediate dynamism. Smeagol and Gondor reorient both stories, creating near-immediate newness and momentum that propel their books forward. “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” doesn’t do this—we’re at the point for tying up loose ends, not creating them.
That’s for the best, but it does mean that “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” drags a bit as an opener. It’s not bad, by any means—we’ll get to the good stuff in a bit—but it does have a tendency to rehash older thematic and emotional beats that were conveyed more emphatically in “Shelob’s Lair” and “The Choices of Master Samwise.” Sam’s horror at what’s happening is affective, but not new. Evil sowing the seeds of its own destruction is a solid Tolkien theme. But its articulation here—as Shagrat and Gorbag tear each other apart, leaving a clear path for Sam—is more convenient and less potent than in an established, nuanced character like Saruman. And the reminder that Mordor keeps people in rather than out is an ominous one, but again, nothing new.
That said, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” does have some moments that work really well, and it serves as a nice, tender reminder of how kind Tolkien’s sense of heroism is at its heart.
Visions of Power
“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” is one of the loneliest chapters of The Lord of the Rings. Sam spends the first two-thirds of it, as Tolkien tells us, “utterly alone.” Merry and Pippin have flirted with loneliness earlier in The Return of the King but neither were ever really in a position of comparable isolation. Sam starts off Book VI by walking into Mordor by himself. His panic-induced adrenaline has worn off, and he first catches a glimpse of Mount Doom while standing small, cold, and afraid.
Tolkien repeatedly referred to Sam as the central “hero” of The Lord of the Rings throughout his letters and “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” is right in the middle of the chapters where he most explicitly acts out this role. He just maybe-murdered a giant spider of numinous darkness. He’s storming a presumably orc-ridden tower. He’s about to carry Frodo and the Ring up a mountain. And amid all of this, there’s an interesting examination of what Sam’s heroism is and isn’t. First, there is simply the question of power, as Sam faces his main temptation from the Ring around his neck.
As Sam stood there… he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: for forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it; and to challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.
As in other cases, Sam’s rejection of the Ring requires a voluntary abdication of power, even power with the intention to do good. Gandalf, as Tolkien mentioned, would have been far worse as a master of the Ring than Sauron precisely because of his good intentions. Sam—thanks to that solid hobbit common sense—is able to realize that benevolent garden tyranny is still a tyranny of its own.
The interesting thing about this chapter, though, is that Sam is also repeatedly saved by the power that he abdicates. He knows that “the one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm.” But at the same time, he is also saved in the Tower by the Ring’s transformation of his appearance into “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at its breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom.”
There is a sense of tension present throughout The Lord of the Rings around this question. The peace and simplicity of the Shire, its utter disregard for power and conquest, form the core of hobbit courage. But the question of how—and whether—such things can be maintained without force nearly always bubbles below the surface.
Tenderness and Heroism
Yet despite altered appearances and some surprising handiness in spider fights, Sam’s heroism is of course rooted almost entirely in love. When I read Tolkien as a teenager, I was always aware of a strong contingent of shippers who were deeply invested in the idea of Frodo and Sam being a couple. I doubt this was intentional on Tolkien’s part, if for no other reason than because The Lord of the Rings as a whole is a remarkably asexual work. But I also am not surprised by it in the slightest, because the relationship between Frodo and Sam is intimate and tender in a way that feels unique in the depiction of male fantasy heroes. There is hand-holding, spooning, and so many tears!
He lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when the night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand. Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness; but it was not allowed.
It’s such a non-toxic version of masculinity that—from my perspective—feels very refreshing. Touch and affection are embraced as healing and strengthening. Tears are a mark of empathy and not of weakness. Sam couldn’t quite pop up on Steven Universe, but it’s also not that much of a stretch.
But now the vision had passed. There was Sam kneeling before him, his face wrung with pain, as if he had been stabbed in the heart; tears welled from his eyes.
After his more traditional heroic role in “The Choices of Master Samwise,” Sam here is heroic in the inverse. He sings, he cries, he hugs, he doesn’t fight anyone. I do wonder, to a certain extent, if Tolkien manages to be so old in his views here that he feels new. In any case, it does feel like another indication of the wobbly foundation for claiming Tolkien as the grandfather of modern fantasy. It’s hard for me to think of subsequent fantasy author who treats emotion in anything approaching a comparable way.
- The first paragraph I wrote for this review described the chapter as “rocky.” It occurred to me that this could be read as a pun in relationship to the landscape, and that seemed so terrible—lampshaded or not—that I just deleted the entire paragraph and started over.
- I’ve always been really into the Watchers and I’d forgotten how small a role they actually play. I apparently just had a thing for frightening boundaries as a child, between this and the Sphinx Gate from The Neverending Story.
- As a kid I also made up a melody for Sam’s song in Cirith Ungol and would sing it to myself when I was by myself because I was a neeeeerrrrrrrddddd.
- I like that Ring-ravaged Frodo is often indistinguishable from a nihilistically-depressed millennial on tumblr: “Here, take this elven-cake, and drink that last drop in your bottle! The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s not good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.”
- Was momentarily but deeply baffled to discover Tolkien talking about the orcs “fighting over the swag” in Cirith Ungol. Swag, though, has a long and fun etymological history you can start reading about here. The use here probably comes from 17th century English thieves’ cant.
- Poor Frodo. He tells Sam that “two great brutes came and questioned me, questioned me until I thought I should go mad, standing over me, gloating, fingering their knives. I’ll never forget their claws and eyes.” Sam, who believes in the power of tears but not psychotherapy, tells his best friend to lock that shit up in his mind vault and never think or talk about it again. No wonder Frodo has to sail off the face of the earth away from his problems.
- Prose Prize: Not a highlight for prose, to be honest. Everything’s perfectly fine but there aren’t a lot of standouts. I do quite like the ending of the chapter though. The drama of what’s occurring pairs nicely with a simplicity of prose. The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. Then they ran. Through the gate and past the great seated figures with their glittering eyes. There was a crack. The keystone of the arch crashed almost on their heels, and the wall above crumbled, and fell in ruin. Only by a hair did they escape. A bell clanged; and from the Watchers there went up a high and dreadful wail. Far up above in the darkness it was answered. Out of the black sky there came dropping like a bolt a winged shape, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien does it for me this time! He mentions that it is March 14th, just a bit before the Rohirrim arrive at the Pelannor. By the time they leave Cirith Ungol, the Battle of Pelennor Fields is well under way. As with the beginnings of the other books, Tolkien does make some (at least token) efforts to reorient the reader to the new narrative stream.
Art Credits: Film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of Sam approaching Cirith Ungol is courtesy of aegeri.
Politics in Polgara the Sorceress
Only two of the books in this series list both David and Leigh Eddings as co-authors. It’s fitting that they are Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress. This duology shows the way that POV shapes history and politics. The 1997 Polgara the Sorceress wraps up the entire series. It showcases the moments Belgarath wasn’t there for and the hidden moments where he was. This book is a fitting conclusion to their longest collaboration, and to their own hidden metaphor.
Spoilers for all of Polgara the Sorceress and the Eddings’s previous works.
So, What Happened?
Birth to Beldaran’s Death
Polgara starts with Ce’Nedra and Garion’s arrival at Polgara and Durnik’s farm. Ce’Nedra asks Polgara to tell her side of the story, and Polgara refuses. Ce’Nedra manages to manipulate Poledra into thinking it’s for Geran and the future to know ‘the truth’. Poledra then manages to convince Polgara that it’s a worthwhile task.
Polgara’s biography starts before Poledra gives birth. Poledra and Aldur shape Pol and Beldaran’s brains to better suit them for their tasks. Then, it details Pol’s grudge against Belgarath, and her adoration of Beldaran. When Belgarath arranges Riva and Beldaran’s wedding, Polgara protests and goes to live in the Tree for a time. They arrive at Riva, Polgara ‘pretties up’, and starts playing adolescent games with young courtiers.
After Beldaran’s wedding, Poledra and Belgarath educate Polgara in magic separately. When they return to Riva for Beldaran’s son’s birth, she also learns about medicine. After Daran’s birth Polgara and Beldaran go visit the Mrin and Darine prophets. Eventually, Poledra summons Polgara to Riva, because Beldaran was dying. Polgara can’t save her because the priest of Belar sabotaged any attempt to give Beldaran medicine. He’s a member of the Bear Cult. Belgarath puts Polgara and Daran in charge and leaves. Polgara and Daran accuse the priest of witchcraft and eventually exile the members of the cult. Eventually, she returns to the Vale of Aldur, and studies the prophecies for several centuries.
Arendia to Vo Mimbre
Poledra summons Polgara to Arendia, and tells her that Ctuchik was planning something. Polgara proceeds to stop three Murgo plots. She tells the Duke of Waconia that his advisor is a Grolim. The Duke of Asturia proves incompetent, and she initiates a rebellion against them. She then collaborates with one of Mandorallan’s ancestor’s. They prove to the Duke of Mimbre that the supposed ‘Tolnedran Legion’ on his banks is a fake.
She remains in Arendia for the next several decades. Polgara rescues the son of the Wacite Duke from the nephew of the first Asturian Duke. The three Dukes then give her the Duchy of Erat, which then becomes Sendaria. Polgara spends a great deal of time guiding Sendaria into competency. A tournament to name the Duchess of Erat’s champion leads her to Ontrose. Ontrose is the only man Polgara loves before Durnik. He’s the quintessential knight: intelligent, sensitive, powerful, and handsome. Eventually, Ontrose’s friend betrays Erat and Wacune to the Asturians, and they destroy Vo Wacune.
Belgarath drags her back to the Vale to keep her from fighting. However, she works through factors to protect Erat, the survivors of Waconia. For the next several centuries she protects Erat, as it becomes Sendaria, bartering with Tolnedran Emperors and Alorn Kings to keep it free.
This persists until the death of Gorek, whereupon she takes charge of protecting Geran and the line of the Rivan King. She apprentices various heirs to artisans, and then eventually buys out the shop of their childless teacher. They occasionally flee from Murgos and move around Sendaria and Aloria. Then comes the Battle of Vo Mimbre, which progresses as Belgarath described it. Poledra and Polgara spy upon Torak and Zedar in the form of an owl. Poledra helps Polgara defy him when Torak confronts Brand.
Gelane to Garion
From Vo Mimre, Polgara resumes her task of protecting the Rivan heirs. Gelane, the heir during Vo Mimbre, proves slightly troublesome. He knows who he is, and Chamdar, or Asharak the Murgo, finds him, and controls him. Belgarath and Polgara break this control and move the family away from Sendaria.
Things continue peaceably from there, with Polgara making a side trip to Nyissa at one point. She meets a former Salmissra, and prevents Chamdar and Ctuchik from manipulating her into causing problems. After educating and befriending ‘Sally’, Polgara returns and moves the Line to Annath, where Garion will be born. There’s a short trip to Nadrak, where she meets Yarblek and Drosta, when Poledra realizes that they’ll be significant.
Geran and Ildera, Garion’s parents, meet and get married in the usual fashion. Then tragedy strikes. Darrel, Geran’s father, is killed in a rockslide. His wife forgets that he’s dead, her mental health deteriorates, and Polgara and Ildera care for her. They later discover that Asharak engineered both events, as well as Alara’s madness. Alara wanders off on Erastide, and Polgara goes to find her. Ildera gives birth, and Asharak kills Geran and Ildera. Only Belgarath’s timely arrival prevents him from stealing Garion. Polgara heads to Faldor’s farm and establishes herself there.
The epilogue shows the life of Geran, Garion’s son, one winter in Riva. He plays with his baby sister, and Ce’Nedra reads to him from Polgara’s book. Ce’Nedra then fully realizes the impact that magic had on her life as she puts her son to bed.
Women vs. Women
One of the persistent problems in Polgara the Sorceress is how women are pitted against each other. Their relationships prove adversarial, except for sisters, mothers, or mentors.
Even then, Polgara spends a good portion of her childhood trying to be ugly. She never combs her hair, bathes, or changes clothes unless forced. Polgara rationalizes it by saying, “Beldaran and I were twins, and we should have been identical. The master changed that, however.” (p. 28). Polgara compares herself to Beldaran and finds herself wanting. Only when Beldaran and Riva fall in love does Polgara clean herself up. She looks at Beldaran when she enters and thinks, “I’d rather hoped to see just a twinge of envy there.” (p. 59) Beldaran remains nonplussed, to Polgara’s mild disappointment.
The precedent of comparing women to other women based on looks and pitting them against each other continues. At Riva, Polgara joins the other young courtiers and sets about breaking hearts. She captures the attention of all the young men based on her looks. Polgara remarks that, “quite a few of the ladies pled headaches and quietly left the room. It might have been my imagination, but after they left I seemed to hear a gnawing sound — a sound that was remarkably like the sound of someone eating her own liver.” (p. 70). She enjoys the pain she causes other women because of her conquests.
The competition between women continues even between Olane and Alara, Geran and Ildara’s mothers. The wedding planning devolves into one-upmanship between the two. Women can compete against each other, yes, and they frequently do. The fact that only the sparse mentoring and familial relationships remain free of competition makes this problematic.
Men vs. Women
Another thread in this book shows how men try to force women to submit. Polgara rebels against this, of course, and tries to help other women, but it proves slightly outdated in this respect. At Beldaran’s wedding Polgara notices something. “I idly noticed in passing that all the rights fell to the groom, and the duties and obligations were the bride’s domain.” (p. 85). This thread of spousal submission continues in the book’s discussion of spousal abuse.
After Beldaran’s death, Polgara helps Daran try a case where the husband abused his wife. The families quarreled over some land. Daran dissolves the marriage and then punishes the husband further by whipping him in court. When Polgara leads Erat, she establishes laws that harshly punish spousal abuse.
“A man who’s stupid enough to beat his wife isn’t likely to listen to reason, so I instructed the constable of each village to ‘persuade’ wife beaters to find another hobby. I did urge the constables not to break too many bones in the process however.” (p. 358).
While abusers seldom listen to reason, removing the victim from the range of the abuser would be better. Polgara created schools, hospitals, and an informal lady’s academy. She could easily create a system to remove the victims from their abuser’s reach rather than leave them at the continued mercy of their husband.
Men vs. Polgara
Polgara just notes these events in passing. She dwells more on the instances where men attempt to personally control her. Lathan, the man who betrays Erat and Wacune to Asturia, committed treason because he couldn’t possess Polgara. He hoped to beat Ontrose and be her champion. As Polgara says, “Arendish literature positively swarms with improprieties involving highborn ladies and their bodyguards, and Lathan seemed to be well read.” (p. 362). His loss to Ontrose led him to betray Wacune and Erat.
Torak also desires to control Polgara. When Poledra and Polgara spied on Torak and Zedar before the battle, they learned of Torak’s plans.
“She is not fond of me, but, truly, I shall much enjoy bending her to my will. She will obey me—nay, even worship me. … My brothers have cast me out, so now must I father a new race of Gods to assist me in my domination of the world. Who of all the women of this world is fit to share my throne—and my bed?’ ‘Polgara?’ Zedar asked incredulously. … “I will have Polgara to wife, and will she, nil she, Polgara will be mine.” (p. 563).
Torak wants to possess both the Orb of Aldur and Polgara. The Eddings’s frame the two in the same light. Torak with the Orb would control the Purpose of the Universe. With Polgara, he would further disrupt that purpose.
The Eddings’s use of gender politics showcases the biases when they wrote. They recognize the evil in spousal abuse and the submission Torak wants. But they don’t understand, or properly convey, the strength that women can give each other. It’s to their credit that they address these issues, and I strongly suspect Leigh’s hand in it. But time has outstripped their understanding in the past 21 years.
Politics, Economics, and Our Metaphor
We discover Polgara’s enjoyment of politics in Polgara the Sorceress. She attended the first meeting of the Alorn Council and established the Arendish one. Both of these events occur because of pressure by the Murgos and Grolims. The arrival of the Murgos, Nadraks, and Thulls on the Western Continent precipitated the Alorn Council. Polgara’s foiling Ctuchik’s plots in Arendia led to the second.
The Alorn Council grows into a pseudo-United Nations, and it began with the intent of preventing Angarak influence in the West. The parallels between the Cold War barely need to be drawn. It reads as the Red Scare all over again, except with less cause. With the Arendish Council, it’s more along the lines of the Middle Eastern Cold War-era conflicts. The guerilla warfare fits Arendia better than the political machinations in the United Nations. Also because the Arendish Council dissolved after Haldon’s betrayal.
Another aspect of politics in Polgara the Sorceress lies in duty. After Gelane’s seduction by Asharak, Polgara gave him a lecture. “There are two sides to nobility, Gelane. Most people only see the fine houses, the fancy clothes, and all the bowing and scraping by lesser nobles. The other side’s more important, though, and much simpler. Duty, Gelane, duty.” (p. 631-2). Polgara teaches Gelane that lesson because it proves the most important one to the Cold War. The politicians refocused on preventing nuclear war and considered that more important than everything else. Polgara’s treatise on duty to Gelane keeps him and his family safe, and it leads to Garion and the end of the cycles.
Polgara the Sorceress also showcases the only example of unrestrained capitalism in the entire series. We saw it through metaphor. But now, in her stewardship of the Rivan line and her shepherding Sendaria, we see it firsthand. She lectures Ontrose, and he repeats her lesson, economics 101, back to her.
“For certes now can [the emancipated serfs] purchase such goods as previously were beyond them quite. The merchant class prospers, and their share of the tax burden doth lighten the load borne by the landowners, thy vassals. The prosperity of the former serf is the base upon which the economy of the entire kingdom doth stand.” (p. 364)
Polgara spends centuries hammering that principle into the heads of her vassals. That shapes the national character of Sendaria and ensures it’s prosperity. Despite the archaic speech, it speaks truth in linking the economy on the spending of the masses, rather than the hoards of the wealthy. The fact that Polgara’s economics leads to a healthy Sendaria, the most sensible country, furthers the metaphor.
In addition, Polgara threatens to create a mall to some vulture-like merchants after the death of a Rivan heir. “Then, when the new widow is virtually out of her mind with grief, they make ridiculously low offers for the family business. … I told them quite casually … I was seriously thinking about expanding the business. … They wouldn’t have to spend whole days wandering around town to buy what they needed. … [they] bought me out at about three times what the smithy was worth.” (p. 520). In doing this, the Eddings’s take what’s normal to their audiences, a mall. Then, they insert it into their fantasy world, and in doing so, normalize the conditions and systems that create such things.
At the very end of Polgara the Sorceress, we discover that Geran dreams about Zandramas and remains terrified of her. It shows the very slow steps out of institutionalized fear of the enemy. Geran thinks, “if he refused to think about them, they’d go away entirely.” (p. 745). All of this plays into the final metaphor, because now the cycles are over. They just need to ignore the nightmares, and it’ll all go away.
The end of Polgara’s story undercuts that, however. Her history ends with Belgarath, Garion, and herself at Faldor’s farm, hiding from Asharak. The Eddings’s later pointed out that Polgara completed a literary cycle. You can go straight from Polgara to Pawn of Prophecy. This proves especially ironic because their entire metaphor counted on the breaking of cycles.
The entirety of this book, and this series relates in so many ways to its cultural context. No one could not write this now, because the events that underlie the plot and philosophy of the book. Despite the undercutting via the literary cycle, the metaphorical one is complete.
Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books
An introduction to Goblin Emperor
This week, I received some interesting news. A book I’d thought to be a rare standalone fantasy work will be receiving a sequel! I am talking about Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. The sequel is still a long ways off… but it’s also a good opportunity to introduce this book to our readers.
An unlikely Emperor
The titular “goblin emperor” is our protagonist, by the name of Maia. He is, in fact, half-goblin… which brings us to the first peculiarity of the setting. It takes place in Ethuveraz, also known as elflands, an elven empire. Maia is the son of the previous emperor, but his mother was a goblin.
Unlike in most fantasy, though, goblins and elves differ physically about as much as different human ethnicities. Goblins have dark skin, where elves are pale, and their eyes have different colors, but that’s about it. They can mix freely, with many people of mixed heritage appearing all over. Needless to say, political and ethnic tensions happen and in fact play a major part of the story.
When we meet Maia, he’s living in Edonomee, a manor in the middle of nowhere, where his father, Varenechibel IV, had placed him. You see, while a son of the Emperor and thus technically an heir to the throne, Maia wasn’t exactly his father’s favorite. His father married Chenelo, Maia’s mother and the daughter of the goblin ruler, for political convenience and wanted little to do with her afterwards.
When she died, Maia remained in a nigh-empty manor with only a handful of servants and Maia’s abusive, alcoholic cousin (whose placement there was a punishment) to look after him. Maia met his father exactly once, at his mother’s funeral, at which point the emperor remarked that “the whelp looks just like his mother.” Let’s just take a moment to pity poor Maia.
That is, until His Imperial Serenity Varenechibel IV and his three sons die in an airship crash leaving the half-goblin son he barely acknowledged as the sole heir to the throne. Maia is suddenly torn away from his dreary, unhappy home and thrust into the robes of the emperor, despite having no clue whatsoever what it involves.
Indeed, Maia is as clueless as we are about the workings of the Ethuveraz when we begin the story. His father’s concern for his education was even less than his concern for Maia in general. Ending up in a position you have no idea how to fulfill is stressful for anyone anywhere, and poor Maia’s sudden position is that of an emperor. Of an empire that’s not any nicer than empires generally are.
A very thick setting
This is unfortunately where the book’s first flaw comes in. We are introduced to many facts about the Ethuveraz at a break-neck pace. This puts us in the same state of acute confusion Maia is, although of course we don’t get his crushing anxiety, near-constant state of at least mild panic, and a deep wish he were anywhere else. This is realistic, but from a reader’s perspective feels a bit like cramming for a history exam the day before. The names of the people, their titles, the buildings, and the functions all blur together.
Of course, litanies of excessive world-building aren’t exactly an uncommon thing in fantasy, are they? And here at least we have a protagonist as ignorant as we are, so we learn at his pace. Which is considerable. Maia is a clever kid, but this is just too much for him.
But what do we find out as we explore the elven empire with Maia? As I said, it’s not a particularly nice place. It’s rife with social inequity – from the rich, ambitious noble houses to the masses of laborers breaking their backs to support them. It’s deeply patriarchal – a woman is her husband’s property in all but name. Finally, it’s racist – goblins and people with goblin heritage are looked down upon as barbarians.
A somewhat unusual feature of the setting is that it’s industrial. Ethuveraz is full of somewhat steampunk technology, such as the airships. There’s also some sophisticated clockwork contraptions – a fairly major plot in the books is an attempt to build a collapsible bridge. Unfortunately, it also means that the condition in factories and workshops are inhuman… or is it inelven?
Needless to say, the ascension of a half-goblin kid to the throne shakes things up considerably. Maia is ignorant, of course, but he is also not sheltered by the massive wealth and privilege that the noble houses live in. Moreover, he is simply a good, kind person. He wants to be friends with people around him, but unfortunately, to them he’s the emperor now.
Once Maia realizes that he can’t be friends with people around him, though, he never stops thinking in ways that are largely alien to the imperial court. To the highborn, the servants, workers, and commoners are background at best. They enable their lavish lifestyle and political ambitious but deserve no further consideration. Not so with Maia. He sees them as people, which shakes things up more than anyone expects.
I should note here that the message and atmosphere of the book are ultimately optimistic. While Maia goes through many hardships and his attempts at doing good often don’t work, eventually they do. While I obviously won’t go into detail about how it happens, it’s something to remember. Maia is a good and caring person who ends up in the center of a system of privilege, oppression, and tradition. He’s not going to upend it in a day, but he works to face it on his terms.
No humans in evidence
You may have noticed that while I’ve mentioned elves and goblins, I haven’t mentioned humans. That’s because there are none. There’s some mention of another race of people who don’t seem to be elves or goblins, but they apparently have sharp teeth, so they don’t exactly sound human.
You might wonder, why even have elves and goblins if they might as well be just human ethnicities? I think it does add some flavor to the story, myself. It’s a way for us to realize it’s not quite what we’re used to. One feature both elves and goblins display is their expressive ears. They’re described as moving to display their owners’ emotions, such as lying flat on their heads if they’re upset or distressed.
If it’s fantasy, you may ask, is there any magic? There is, but it occupies a curious role, a minor one. There are people who we’d call wizards, but in the book’s copious internal glossary they’re referred to as “mazei.” They do cast spells, but we only ever see one spell, with another one happening off-screen. Nonetheless, one of the emperor’s two bodyguards is a magician (the other one is a soldier). The emperor has four bodyguards, actually, but they take shifts. Two of them must attend him at all times. Including when he sleeps. Or, yes, when he consummates his marriage with his empress. If this sounds incredibly awkward to you, just imagine how Maia feels about the prospect.
Much more important to the plot is the ability to speak with the dead, which a priest of the god of the dead displays. It’s not exactly reliable, but enough so that his visions are legal testimonies (even in one case where he really wishes they weren’t). Does it mean the gods the elves and goblins worship are real? We don’t really get to find out.
Goblin Emperor shows us a fantasy world and a great empire, warts and all. It’s the story of how someone everyone thought was the worst possible person in the worst possible place turned out to be the right person for the job after all. What will the sequel show us? It will apparently take place during Maia’s reign, but he won’t be a viewpoint character. I won’t be surprised if the latter is the case; the first book mostly finishes his character arc. So, I am eager to find out where the next one takes us.