Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Book Review: The Steel Remains

I'm as big a fan as the next person of the modern "difficult and grim" fantasy novels, but at some point I feel like the authors may be trying too hard to be the new bad boys of fantasy. We get it, violence is bloody and brutal, soldiers and quasi-medieval societies are unlikely to have cosmopolitan views on sexuality, and sometimes people die horrible, undeserved deaths. You don't have to beat me about the head and shoulders with how in touch you are with the grittiness of (fantasy) life.

All this is to say that I really, really wanted to like The Steel Remains, but it came across as very strained. The protagonist, a gay former miltary leader and disowned member of the aristocracy, gets called a "faggot" regularly. We are treated to lovingly detailed descriptions of impalement. An entire city is razed and destroyed based on a silly misunderstanding. All this makes it more psychologically challenging for the escapist reader, but is not cause to turn back.

You might consider turning back because the book doesn't make the challenge of reading worthwhile. The plot trips along a cliched path for much of the novel (tough guy with a past investigating a woman's mysterious disappearance that is more than it seems, conspiracies rise up to block his way). One of the characters is like a less interesting version of Cnaiur. The motivations of the villains are nonsensical, which we are expected to wave aside on the ground that they are insane and alien creatures. Godlike beings pop out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, to save the main characters from the mortal puppets of other godlike beings acting out of similarly inscrutable motives. The writing is pretty fast paced, but this is sort of a bug, not a feature---I got almost to the end and became frustrated at the realization that the author wasn't going to be able to tie all this together in a satisfying way.

Perhaps the main thing that bugged me, though, and maybe this will not be a problem for others, is that this isn't really a fantasy novel. It's being marketed as the entry into fantasy by an established sci-fi author, but, like Matter, it's really a science fiction novel in thin fantasy trappings. This of course spurred a long and rambling meditation on my part in which I tried to figure out why this bothers me and how you can class something as fantasy or science fiction in the first place.

They're both genres with established conventions. What aspects came into play here?
  • Races: There are a variety of different non-human races (push) but they appear to differ from humans in that they have extremely advanced mechanistic technology (scifi) or are bestowed with magical-seeming powers through their manipulation of probability fields (scifi). Some implication of space/dimensional travel by other races (scifi).
  • Social and Political: Empires based on slave labor (push, slight edge to fantasy). People fighting with non-light-saber swords (fantasy). Lost civilizations of more advanced beings (push). Invasions of giant lizard creatures/dragons (push).
  • Mores: Generally medieval sexual morality (fantasy). Pretty low value on human life (fantasy). Stark gender divides (fantasy).
  • Philosophical: Not a lot of interest in mulling over interesting problems of human society or conducting thought experiments (more common with fantasy). Clearly you can have fantasy that's engaged with exploration of philosophical problems, either implicitly or explicitly (I actually prefer it), but fantasy is generally more escapist.
How do you class something as fantasy versus science fiction? What separates your wise old elves from your Vulcans? Is it just that it's INNN SPAAACE? Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and sufficiently-far future timelines may provide settings eerily like the medieval ones typically found in fantasy.
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