Friday, January 18, 2008

On Crap

This is an excerpt from an email I sent to a friend, sometime last year. Why am I now digging it up out of its clammy grave? One reason is the surprising (to me) commercial success of the book in question, 'The Name of the Wind" (not to be confused with 'The Shadow of the Wind", which did not suck). The other reason is trickier and harder to pin down. On the one hand, I'm glad and personally grateful for the immense support the science fiction community gives its members. It was that community that gave me hope during my formative years. But if such support is unquestioning, and involves no constructive criticism, the genre which we love and believe in so much will never evolve. We know sci fi and fantasy can be innovative and brilliant and well-crafted; we know we don't have to settle for crap. And while I realize that the following rant, gentle reader, is not actually constructive, I just couldn't help myself.

Why don't people respect fantasy as a genre? This is a question often pondered by fantasy's many bright, articulate fans. The answer lies in such bloated doorstoppers as 'The Name of the Wind', due out from DAW next week. I ended up with an advance copy of this book some months ago. The cover blurb assured me that it was a brilliant first novel, sweeping, original, and blah blah blah. The usual. And it's true, I have (sadly) been unable to quite forget the opening description of the title character - a brooding, worn, but somehow still magnetic man of secrets, who moves, we're told, with the movement of a man who knows a great many things. And there are three kinds of silence. And a pall of shadow hangs over this valley.

I have to confess; I didn't read the whole thing. Mostly I just carted it around, reading choice passages of deathless prose out loud to my roommates. The story is told in flashbacks, taking us all the way back to the Mystery Man's early childhood. Luckily, for the purposes of the plot, our hero is a natural genius with a photographic memory, making it possible for him to know everything about everything, which is very handy for his Struggles with Adversity. Orphaned at a tender age, he makes his way across a typical faux-medieval fantasy landscape, populated by Ye Olde Stock Characters: the tribe of Fantasy Gypsies, plucky bands of thieving children (so popular last year), the wise old wizard (or alchemist, or whatever) mentor/ surrogate father, Dark Riders, etc etc etc. It's a lumbering Frankenstein monster of a book, its limbs cannibalized from books that don't suck. You'll see a bit of Perdido Street Station here, a bit of Lord of the Rings there, a bit of the Farseers trilogy over there.

Even more magical than our hero's staggering genius is the fact that his lonesome, brooding road is strewn with winsome maidens, all of whom find him irresistible. There's the troubled free spirit he meets on the road, the brainy but attractive librarian, the comely student nurse, and even, in a broadminded gesture on Rothfuss' part, an older (but still sort of hot) businesswoman. All of them want to jump our hero's bones, because, as Rothfuss knows, nothing is more appealing to your average female than a teenage boy. Especially one who knows everything in the world. Oh, yeah, and he's on a Quest for Vengeance. Or something.

At 800-odd pages, the book manages to take us, in painful detail, though a whole year of this kid's life. Since he's middle-aged when we first meet him, it's safe to assume that there's a lot of story planned out between now and then. Or at least a lot of pages. A lot of lucrative pages, since this sort of crap seems to sell like mad. For Rothfuss' sake, I hope he is actually being paid by the page, and that he gets to enjoy every penny. Maybe he can take some time off, think a little, and his next book will be a masterpiece. A girl can dream.