Friday, March 20, 2015

Xen and the Art of Badassedness Fakery

Generally speaking I'm not big on guest posts or surveys or anything promotional on this blog. But recently I was sitting here part slogging, part tearing through Sartor Resartus when a not inconsiderable pile of gold coins landed anonymously in my lap along with a note demanding a “critical yet on the whole positive review” of a new fantasy epic they are doing their damnedest to make into a bestseller.

Not being one to take bribes, I hired my good friend Professor Humblesworth, who teaches both economics and literature at [your favorite prestigious university], to give us his two cents, if not a little more. I don't agree with everything he says. I think that Europe and America do more than lord over the world and exploit it. They do offer some speck of knowledge and enlightenment as well. But what he says about ecology is notable.

Xen and the Art of Badassedness Fakery:
Review of the English translation of R.R.U. Schitterend's
The Lord of Spikey Swords and the Hottest S&M Goddess

by Professor Humblesworth

Europe desperately needs to take its mind off its economy. The Netherlands' new grand master of fantasy, R.R.U. Schitterend, is here to help.

Over the past few years, with the rise in oil and food prices, Europe has seen a general decline of its economic badassedness. European Unification was going okay until Germany was forced to shoulder the whole thing, carrying freeloaders like Spain and Greece by the sweat of its own bailouts. Thus Austerity was born—that unhealthy realism that America fortunately has shirked. As a result of Austerity, the Greek government has been forced (quite against its will) to lay off thousands of government workers and cut retirement benefits and other necessary things that its citizens think they want but only need.

The evils of such realism are obvious. They grow more pernicious every year. Who can shake the knowledge that we use four times the amount of oil that we are discovering? That 99% of plastics are made from oil, that 95% of the energy we depend on for food and shelter comes from fossil fuels? Who can easily ignore that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are nowhere near as portable or cheap as oil? Who has the ability to hallucinate that the mean household income in the world is much more than $10 a day? Or that top soil isn't being lost at 25 times its rate of replenishment due to unsustainable farming techniques, overgrazing, strip mining, and fracking that keep Europe and America in fact making more than $10 a day? It would all be enough to make you become an organic-farming peasant or a wild preacher or revolutionary or radical philosopher, except for the fact that none of these professions will make you enough money to maintain your lawn, a requirement for being a decent human being. How will you pay for the seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, riding mower, riding mower gasoline, and meticulous landscaping needed for a respectable lawn if you don't have a normal job and drive a gasoline-burning car to work? Ignorance of reality is indispensable.

Recently, a Radical Left party called Syriza won in Greece, promising to end Austerity and the realism that goes with it. But so far their noble-minded revolt against reality has had the opposite effect. Now all of Europe is wondering whether the Union is realistic at all, whether the whole region isn't in decline, whether their economy isn't a hopeless basketcase.

Stop it, Europe. Just stop it. We Americans, the masters of defying reality, know well never to pit reality against itself. To defeat reality, you need fantasy. England has J.R.R. Tolkien and America has George R.R. Martin. Europe, until now, has been lacking in this department.

America is the most respected nation on earth because it has a strong military, and it has a strong military because it has strong economy, and it has a strong economy because it has a strong dollar, and it has a strong dollar because people respect America. If you cut any single link in this chain the fantasy collapses and we'll slip up like we did in 2008. The secret to confidence is confidence. Whether you're a real badass or fake one is immaterial, as long as everyone believes you are. Europe needs to relearn this lesson, and R.R.U. Schitterend was born to teach it. It is fortunate that Continental Europe, like England and America, now has its Tolkien.
Schitterend describes himelf as “a gentle atheist with a smattering of Xen.”

What is Xen, again? Xen monasteries across the highlands of Asia have honed the art of badassedness fakery for millennia. They've invented countless fake badass martial techniques such as The Flamingo and The Bursting Weasel and The Walking Cat that don't work in practice but deftly intimidate the local peasantry. Several political wars have been won using nothing but Xen-fu, but for most critical applications Xen monks use a psychological weapon known as the Kone.

Kones are explosively illogical stories. For example:

The largest of the peasants came against their oppressor Xen Master Uridu. The large peasant had a large stick and Master Uridu said, “I will grant self-rule if you but listen to two Kones.” 
“Sure,” said the peasant. 
“A student said to his Xen Master, 'Please explain Xen.' 
“'If you listen to these two Kones,' the Master replied, 'I will kill you.'
“The student covered his ears. 
“'And if you do not listen I will kill you.' 
“The student did not hear because his ears were covered. So the Master killed him." 
The large peasant thought for a moment and said. “And your Second Kone?” 
“The largest of the peasants came against their oppressor Xen Master Uridu. The large peasant had a large stick and Master Uridu said, 'I will grant self-rule if you but listen to two Kones.'

Considerations of space prevent me from reprinting a Kone in its full sprawling force.

The most successful authors of modern fantasy have mastered the art of the Xen Kone. J.R.R. Tolkien may be the only significant exception to this. His stories do tend to cohere and resolve. He makes up for this deficiency with hard-to-follow digressions—notably Tom Bombadil's mysterious appearance and disappearance—and endless poetry and songs in invented languages that would take years to master. Most people who begin the Lord of the Rings never finish it and most who finish it go on to spend their lives learning elvish because they are very nerdy. So the result is comparable to that of Xen.

The Lord of Spikey Swords and the Hottest S&M Goddess is 1200 pages long, 2/3 of which is exposition. Most of the rest is footnotes and appendices. But Schitterend's mastery transcends verboseness and density. He masterfully balances spectacle and poignancy, blood and gore, barren sexuality and quirky idiosyncrasy. His plotline is thin almost to the point of plotlessness, his pacing frantic to the point of Expressionism, and his smut and violence so visceral and epic that you find yourself on the edge of your seat without knowing or caring what is going on. At every turn Schitterend frustrates his readers' expectations while satisfying their dirtiest and most secret desires.

The protagonist is a warm, friendly old man being executed for pacifism. On his way to the gallows, pelted by rotten pears and pomegranates, an old hag screams sarcastically, “And the peace-maker shall yet live to be the Lord of Spikey Swords!” He spits his ironic, almost flirtatious retort, “And thou shalt yet live to be the Hottest of S&M Goddesses!” Hearing her inmost wish, she faints. The old man is hung but does not die, and is released “by the unfathomable will of the gods.” When he asks her what she meant by the prophesy she says it was only meant as an insult but that some higher power was clearly at work. So they set out together to realize their joint destinies.

The setting of the novel is “swordpunk” by the way, an innovative new genre that is like fantasy in every respect, except that most monsters and animals are clockwork machines powered by steam. It makes the story feel more urban and edgy and not too naturey or organic. Schitterend does well to discard the outmoded literary imagery of healthy biology and flourishing nature, in yet another way breaking with the stifling ecological conventions of traditional fantasy.

Speaking of shattered conventions, already in the first chapter you have a hero and heroine who are old, ugly, poor, and stupid. It heightens the suspense: How will she become hot if she is so ugly? How will he become a Lord when he's a mere senile old crank? The fabulism of this plot premise is equal to, or perhaps even greater than, the fabulism of Martin's: Who will win this anarchic game of thrones and rule happily ever after? And it is certainly more fabulous than Tolkien's: Who will yet be lord of the rings? Rings? Who cares about rings? Whether you're reading Tolkien, Martin, or Schitterend, the only way to find out what will happen is to read on and on and on, and herein lies the unique brilliance of epic fantasy.

So how is the prophesy fulfilled?

If you had a million chimps each with a million arms each typing a trillion words per second, to stumble on Schitterend's plot would take them almost two minutes. Seriously. This is the most original fantasy epic ever written. Martin excels in shock value and plot twist? Schitterend excels in electrocution value and plot spine-breaking. Who will die? Who will live? Who will fornicate with whom? You can't know until you read it.

The so-called “villain” of the story is the crazed Czar Imperator, who supplies a vast ocean of gore and a giant pile of sex for your hedonistic enjoyment. A Caligula with the heart of a Nero, he finally gives Europeans an outlet for their natural urges of procreation and death without having to move to a Third World country. Not to worry, this X-rated material is brought to you guilt free, because all the people ravished by the Czar (I lost count at 300) are racist sex-offenders themselves. Schitterend's poignant scenarios remain ever-fresh: basically everyone in the kingdom is a politically-incorrect, criminally-minded bigot. Believe me or not, by the end of the novel you are cheering Czar Imperator on. He personally tortures and kills thousands of his subjects and this too is vividly described, morally justified, etc. In short, Schitterend does an superb job of evoking the emotions of queeziness and dislocation any American or European would feel on being transported to a medieval monarchy.

This dark subplot crucially fills out the main narrative. Without it your typical reader would admittedly be in danger of falling asleep. Almost every protagonist in modern fantasy is a warrior or soldier—or as in the case of Frodo close friends with one. In this story the hero and heroine can't fight. They flee from every clockwork monster and disgruntled human that appears. You can't blame them because he's an elderly ex-con and she's morbidly obese and wanted for witchcraft. Nor is the sole chase scene thrilling—she has a bad leg and he's half-suicidal anyway—and from chapter three they hide under an iron bridge with their cyborg goat, where they live on goat's milk and asparagus from the ditch for half the novel.

When your friends tell you they have a crush on Czar Imperator, you need to be able to tell them what bastard from the novel you think is even hotter. Or maybe you're not into blood-crazed Imperators or poor elderly fugitives of the law? No worries! I'm throwing in my dearly-prized critical acclaim to help this book vastly ennoble your coffee table.

Ah, you're still reading. So. Drought sets in, the asparagus dies, coal prices skyrocket, and their steam-powered goat runs out of steam. A herald announces that the Czar will fix things by relaxing regulations on fracking but destroying the environment takes time and they begin to starve.

Enter a prophetic street guru named Deusex Machina, very unlike your conventional Yoda or Gandalf who tend to suggest moralisms like “do or do not” or “we must destroy the ring.” (Destroy? A power like that? If Sean Bean hadn't predictably died before he could get his hands on it, Tolkien's Xen would have become unlimited.) No, Deusex once again breaks every convention. The guru that takes them under her wing is young, female, sassy, and full of useful advice.

She explains that the best thing to do is get an organic goat so their lives aren't dependent on low coal prices.

Okay let's pause here because I know this sounds too real, like maybe an allegory about our fossil fuel dilemma. Not to worry. At the end of novel, with mere paragraphs to spare, Schitterend elegantly sidesteps the economically-fatal flaw of moralism. The Xen is strong in this one. Read on for spoilers on how. (Or just buy the book.)

In response to this advice the old bums laugh for a long time. The sassy rather sexy guru is like what and checks her makeup, and they say no you obviously know your stuff, and she's like then what is it, and they point to a nearby coal-price sign. Prices have already dropped from all the fracking (still too real? bear with me) and there's not going to be another crisis for at least another 15 years and look how freaking old we are we'll be dead.

The sassy guru gets angry and curses them both and they metamorphose into little children never to age. Gracefully done, Schitterend, you've both advanced the plot and shown us there is no black or white, as it often seems only critics know, but rather shades of gray. The sassy guru cackles. Our heroes' now-youthful neurons become sparkly and psychotropic and frolicky and learny again, as Schitterend chromatically mosiacs over the next 250 pages. (I would accuse Schitterend of offering a symbolic allegory of the 60s here, but I mean, really, symbolic allegory in a 21st century novel written by a white male?) But then the sassy prophet saunters off forever and they come to their senses and unfruitfully scour the city for an organic goat. Oh the irresolution, if not suspense!

Luckily we get a couple of chapters of Czar Imperator killing, fornicating, etc. etc.

To avoid making “breaks with convention” a cliché (yikes the paradoxical horror) let's just finish off the review like this:

Here are the remainder of the ways in which this novel annihilates all fantasy-writing custom:
  1. They just buy an organic goat at the store, rather than undertaking some insipid quest to find it.
  2. Czar Imperator's violence attains ever-sublimer peaks of biological-instinct-satisfying intensity, instead of becoming some kind of edifying satire. As these scenes reach their climax, Schitterend's deft literary imagery really sparkles.
  3. Coal prices do skyrocket but luckily they find an unused piece of land and start an organic farm, and even more luckily Czar Imperator whips the snot out of his scientists until they develop cold fusion. Sure the hero and heroine had already gone organic but at this point Schitterend has spent about 500 pages explaining how grinding their poverty is under the boot of the Czar's taxation and how their neighbor suggests a strike but they just laugh because is he some kind of communist or worse, anarchist? One is tempted to compare this portion of the novel with Rickshaw or Oliver Twist or some other outdated preachy novel but in the end Czar Imperator is the real hero because he gives everyone a cold-fusion-powered goat.
  4. Is it “happily ever after”? Thankfully the two eternal children come down with polio and are crippled and poverty-stricken once more. The Czar flaunts his shades of gray by not giving a damn about it. And the original prophesies that they will become Lord and Goddess never come true, rather than predictably satisfying our expectations that they will.

No epic fantasy more original has ever been accepted for publication. Granted, some of its “originality” is a bit hard to swallow. Come on, cold fusion? In a fantasy novel? But ultimately, in fantasy as in economics, plausibility is far less important than style. As one award-winning sci-fi magazine puts it in their submission guidelines, "Style is substance." What says style like teasing your reader with would-be messages like “fossil fuels are running out” or “go sustainable” or “violence and rape are not cool even during a collapse of civilization” and then showing that in the end who cares? What could be more fantastical? We may yet succeed in saddling Europe with the kinds of heart-pounding, brain-quieting illusions that provide the U.S. economy its self-confident grace.