Monday, February 27, 2017

Knight & Megapon Ants

Knight ants are a special caste of ants dedicated to defending their colony’s home.  They grow particularly wide heads to protect their colonymates, who also benefit from the greater coordination signaled by the knight ants’ pheromones. 

Megapon ants, meanwhile, have the rare distinction of being (in the editions I own, anyway) the only Bestiary species I’ve seen to not merit a description.  (Heck, I can’t even Google a good definition for megapon.)  But at CR 6, they’re nothing to sneeze at; they can carry prodigious amounts of weight; and their Strength-sapping poison suggests the sting of a fire ant or some aggressive, prehistoric lineage.

A clan of dwarves uses alchemical scents to tame and coax behaviors out of their ant livestock.  A local war calls most of the clan elders away from the hold, and when they return they discover that the artificial scents have spoiled.  Their knight ant guards now bar the way to the lower levels, no longer recognizing the dwarves as friends.

A martial arts master with some training as a druid believes in basing his forms and stances off of those in nature.  In order to learn his specialized skills (in game terms, teamwork feats), adventurers must study knight ants in the tunnels of their hill—without killing a single one.

Adventurers are racing through the canopy of the great god’s-home trees, fleeing cannibals hot on their trail.  They come across a column of megapon ants using their bodies to create a bridge for themselves and their giant aphid thralls.  If the adventurers can find a way to sneak across the ant bridge, they will easily lose their pursuers.  Otherwise they might have to fight the enormous ants and the kuru-maddened cannibals at the same time.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 27

I recently relistened to the audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, read by the outstanding Simon Prebble.  I first listened to it during a massive, speeding ticket-filled, two-day road trip from San Francisco to Portland via Crater Lake several years ago.  I’m happy to say I loved it then—so much so that in my hunger for more I discovered Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin books—and I loved it now—so much so that I accrued $28 in overdue fines because I had other books checked out and didn’t want to give any of them back.  (If you throw in the speeding tickets, that’s compelling evidence that good books make me make bad choices, apparently.)

JS&MN truly is an extraordinary book—all the more so because it’s a first novel.  (Neil Gaiman’s quote about a fragment from one of Clarke’s early drafts—“It was like watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time and she plays a sonata”—still holds up.)  The true-to-the-1800s language, the sense of place, and the treatment of academic arguments as being as important as a battle are nearly perfect.  I love the characters; I love the world; I love the faerie lore; I love almost everything.

Because I love it so much, certain things still drive me nuts.  Most of these little things are insufficiently answered (to my mind, at least) questions or breakdowns in verisimilitude: How can Mr Norrell justify obstructing the progress of all other magicians if he publicly claims to want to restore English magic…why does Childermass remain with Mr Norrell for so long even after the meanness of his master’s character is revealed…why do Lady Pole and Stephen Strange’s maladies go so long undiagnosed, even with a faerie glamour to blame…things like that.  In reality, the book may be better for not answering these questions, but they still leave me fidgety with agitation.

A second listen did also confirm a major beef I had the first time I listened to it, though: It is a figure eight of a work, its whole shape constantly circling around two black holes of noninformation. 

The first is that the actual working of magic is barely shown and never explained.  Clarke has said that she “really like[s] magicians,” but weirdly she seems willing to gloss over the magic they do almost entirely.  (Early in the book this is amusing—even the characters are impatient to see magic done—but by 2/3s of the way in it’s infuriatingly coy.)  We almost never get a sense of how it feels for the magicians to do magic, or why these two men have succeeded where almost no one else has.  (That they were prophesied doesn’t cut it.)  It’s a staggeringly strange omission, especially to a fantasy fan audience used to reading about how it feels to come into one’s power, whatever that power may be.  Strange in particular stumbles into magic and then the narrative curtain closes; when it reopens he is already a thaumaturgical Mozart.  That is, as the South Park kids would say, some total BS right there.

The second problem is that this is a work of alternate history that refuses to share its alternate history.  True, the novel purports to be written by someone from Strange’s acquaintance only a generation or so later, so much of this knowledge is assumed to be held by the reader.  But despite all its many, many, many footnotes, the book barely gives us a coherent alternate timeline, and so much of how the novel’s history diverges from our own is unclear.  (For comparison, Philip K. Dick is a downright clumsy author compared to Clarke, but I can tell you more about the history of Man in the High Castle, and it’s a mere pamphlet next to the Bible-fat JS&MN.)  I don't need much more detail, but I do need more.

Worse yet, not only has Clarke created a fictional northern England with a fictional Raven King that we don't know enough about, but she also seems to have fallen a little in love with him.  (Strong evidence of this is that the characters positively won’t shut up about him; he even gives his name to the novel’s third act.)  It is dangerous to fall in love with fictional people or settings, and doing so is a surefire way to undermine the story.  (Notice, for instance, how Tolkien burns the Shire, and how J. K. Rowling—whose writerly smarts are often underrated—is careful to get her characters out of Hogwarts after the love letter to it that is The Order of the Phoenix.  Now compare that to, say, The Name of the Wind, which struck me as loving its central character just a bit too much, or the insufferable anime Clamp School Detectives, whose love for its own impossible setting is a veritable fountain of onanism (see what I did there?) that eventually feels like a taunt to the viewer who will never attend there.  You can’t love your fictional children too hard, and Clarke loves John Uskglass.

So as I said, a great novel, but a figure eight thanks to these two crucial holes.  Do not under *any* circumstances let these prevent you from reading it though!

Unfortunately, a new qualm came up as I was listening this time: the novel’s hagiography of Englishness.  In a 2005 interview with Locus, Susanna Clarke practically quoted Tolkien word for word in her lament that England did not have a myth of its own.  (Sidebar: English culture is odd in that its most famous legend, Beowulf, takes place in Denmark, a divorce of a people from its mythic geography that seems to really bother certain writers.  In fact, this lack is responsible for both The Silmarillion and JS&MN.  King Arthur doesn’t work for them for some reason; he’s either too British rather than English—a distinction too arcane for my American mind, but there it is—or too Welsh, and his legend has definitely become too French.  Robin Hood doesn’t work either, for some reason, despite his being safely nestled in the East Midlands.  The tl;dr of all this is that there is no understanding the English mythic imagination when you’re a fat Yank git.)  So Clarke fills JS&MN with her love for England—its people, its cities, and its countryside, especially the North, where she revels in its preindustrial wildness.  And Englishness as a laudatory attribute fills nearly every page.  (More on this can be found over on Wikipedia, but don’t go there until you’ve read/listened to the book, because it’s spoiler central.)

The thing is though, Clarke is smart enough to know that glorifying England, Englishness, Englishmen (emphasis on the “men” there), and king/queen and country has caused a lot of pain for other folks in the world.  So she works very hard to undercut this worship of Englishness, giving strong roles to women, nonwhite, and poor characters, and amplifying their voicelessness in the society of that time through the narrative.  It’s all a genius balancing act, and it all serves to intentionally undercut and deflate the project of England worship that the novel is busily engaged in…

…And yet, Englishness, in the end, wins out.  England remains the hero.  The English countryside itself in instrumental in turning the tide in the final encounter.  Lovely, lush green, hilly, moor-covered England is still the hero.

Which should be all well and good, but…  Well, I’m just not on board with cheering for England right now. 

I’m a Top Gear fan.  And I watched Jeremy Clarkson’s no-one-is-better-than-us casual racism—as an American I’m spared the overt racism of his other appearances—wax stronger with every season, slowly curdling my affection.  And I watched Brexit throw my expatriate scientist friends’ careers into a tumult and imperil their research.  It was also, more to the point, a triumph of Englishness over the needs of Britishness. 

And here on this side of the pond, I’ve watched a similar dynamic play out, as many Americans have taken to celebrating America—or at least, their mean, small-minded, and resentful notion of it—to the point that pride of place and race have become more important than the principals that make America work.

So I still love JS&MN.  And I think you should read and even love JS&MN.  And zero of what I’ve said in the previous two paragraphs is Susanna Clarke’s fault.  But in JS&MN, a country is a character—the protagonist even.  And right now, in 2017, loving a place more than people doesn’t feel that good.

So I’m going to return JS&MN back to the library for another 7 years or so, or maybe for longer.  And the next time I get it out, I hope I’ve fallen back in love with England and America. 

Because that is the magic I most want to see.

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