JUNE 18, 2012
FANTASY HAS MANY varieties and as many audiences. In The Devil Delivered and Other Tales, Steven Erikson, best known for his multi-volume, wizards-and-battles epic, the “Malazon Book of the Fallen,” tries his hand at three other forms of the fantastic — or perhaps it’s six, since each is a generic chimera. The three novellas gathered here are, first, the title story, which combines a Native American vision quest with a cyberpunkish eco-catastrophe; second, “Revolvo,” in which an interlocking cast of characters undergo Kafkaesque metaphorphoses in a violent satire on the Canadian arts scene; and, third, “Fishing with Grandma Matchie,” a tall tale with a young-adult feel that turns out to be a retelling of Nordic mythology. There is much to admire here, including the creation of three quite different storytelling styles and enough invention to fill at least three volumes. As an omnivorous reader of many of the branches of fantasy, I expected to enjoy these stories more than I actually did. In fact, it was difficult to keep going at least through the first two: it was like trying to walk against the current in a fast river. I’ll attempt to identify some of the sources of that resistance, though no doubt my difficulties say as much about me as they do about Erikson’s writing.
I should admit up front that epic fantasy is not my favorite form. I’m generally bored by battle scenes and Machiavellian politics, and the kind of magic involved in those battles rings false to me in terms of both its symbolic value and its fidelity to the oral traditions from which fantasy draws its inspiration. I get impatient with writers who won’t wind up a plot at least within the span of a trilogy—it appears that ten installments are the new three. All of this means that I would be a terrible reviewer of the volumes of Erikson’s longer saga. I do, however, appreciate tall tales, apocalyptic science fiction, satiric grotesquery, and the other forms invoked in these three novellas. I like to see the world through the various distorting lenses of the fantastic, and I’m a sucker for mythic references. So why did the complex and elusive science fantasy of “The Devil Delivered” not draw me in, and why did the satire in “Revolvo” fall flat?
In the latter case, the primary target, public funding for the arts, hardly seems worth the brutality of the narrative. The plot of “Revolvo” involves a would-be sculptor who meets up with various caricatures, including a petty-despot Minister of Art and Culture, a self-absorbed poet, and various other bureaucrats and performance artists, all with dismissive names like Brandon Safeword and Annie Trollop. In other subplots, a man self-diagnosed with a “national ulcer … something representational of high unemployment, declining social services, hiring inequities, escalating prices, and so on” gradually transforms into a horned demon; a Neanderthal throwback hunts the streets of the city; and a pet octopus alien escapes from its tank to rendezvous with a flying saucer. Scenes of increasing mayhem ensue: the demon-man goes King Kong and abducts a woman named Faye; the Minister is impaled by a vengeful pigeon; a runaway train plows through the city; and the poet guns down a crowd of critics “in a messy expostulation of flesh, bone, blood, guts and a few bits of brain, along with upholstery and clothing, bits and pieces of shoes and notepads and rotten tomatoes previously stored in paper bags.” None of this violence seems justified by the problem of the “revolving door” that supplies the story’s title: “The track, the pathway. Grants, awards, a lifetime of funding. Round and round and round …” If we don’t buy the premise, we mistrust the entire narrative.
And that is one of the sources of my resistance to this book: narrators who try to enlist us in making judgments that we might not want to make. In “Revolvo,” many of those judgments involve women, who are consistently reduced to sexual objects: the one feature invariably described is their breasts, and one arts administrator seduces the would-be sculptor in order to tap into the genetic memory channeled through her vulva. The narrator introduces the idea that Neanderthal DNA might live on in the human population — a plausible scientific theory — and then portrays the throwback as a savage hunter with no knowledge of human society, ignoring the fact that he must have been born to and raised by human parents, as well as recent evidence that Neanderthals were smarter than their popular image and possibly less violent than their proto-human competitors.
The narrator of the first novella similarly tries to convince us that women are either prostitutes (sorry, saloon-keepers, like Miss Kitty in the old Gunsmoke series) with hearts of gold or vindictive bureaucrats. In the same tale, we are told — admittedly, by that bitch-bureaucrat, but she seems to be speaking for the author here — that all primitive societies are every bit as bad as modern ones:
So-called primitive peoples were involved in endemic, brutal warfare, genocide, resource depletion and cannibalism. There was no oneness with nature, unless you’re prepared to take a decidedly dark but ultimately realistic view of nature, including human nature.
Though it is true that the benevolent, ecologically sensitive, noble savage is a modern fiction, this Hobbesian view is equally a projection. Some pre-modern societies were violent, others peaceful except in times of stress, and many groups of hunter-gatherers worked out ways of life that were well adapted to local environments — Aboriginal Australians managed to live in theirs for 50,000 years without depleting resources.
Erikson’s narrators would be more convincing if the author took more care with language. In the critic-murdering scene quoted above, the repetition of “bits” suggests hasty writing, and “expostulation” is downright wrong. Other words are misused: on two occasions “proscribe” is used as if it meant ordain; monstrous growth is a “burgeoning appearance”; and a rather mild speech is described as “the crimson expellation of her words.” Aiming at something like the linguistic exuberance of a Gene Wolfe or John Crowley, Erikson’s prose more often comes across as forced.
In addition, the narrator withholds information about characters’ motivations or has them behaving in a fashion I find incomprehensible,which is not to say that real people don’t act that way. The hero of “The Devil Delivered” goes off, like the protagonist of Into the Wild, to an apparently useless death in an ozone-depleted “terminal zone.” Academic institutions suppress anomalous discoveries that have no apparent economic or social impact. The combined government that rules the former U.S. and Canada approaches the newly independent Lakota Nation with “multiculture negotiators” while preparing military strikes (it doesn’t work to make fun of political correctness at the same time deploring injustice). Among the characters in the first two novellas, the ones I found most comprehensible and sympathetic were a data-collecting machine called a turtle in the first and the alien octopus in the second.
Many of these issues disappear in the third novella, partly because it is narrated by a bright but reality-challenged nine-year-old boy. His skewed view of human nature makes sense; his hostility toward women (especially his older sister) fits a pre-adolescent pattern rather than seeming to reflect authorial misogyny; his eccentric use of language is a legitimate method of characterization. This tale seems to have less of an agenda than the other two, or perhaps I’m simply more sympathetic to accusations that school systems stifle the imagination than to complaints about vegetarian restaurants, anthropologists, and arts administrators. The boy’s possibly imaginary Grandma Matchie is an engaging tall-tale hero, and the adventures she takes the narrator on gain resonance by virtue of reinscribing the adventures of Beowulf and Thor in backwoods Canada.
Those who are already Erikson fans will be interested in seeing new aspects of his imagination, which is fertile and unpredictable. Readers looking for delicacy and grace might want to pick another fantasy writer instead: Patricia McKillip, say, or Karen Lord. The book as a whole does not encourage me to tackle Erikson’s longer fiction, but if he chooses to follow up on Grandma Matchie, I would gladly give that effort a try.