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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/14/15) 12:16am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The Conquering Sword of Conan [audiobook]
Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>

The Conquering Sword of Conan [audiobook] by Robert E. Howard
This is the third volume of a trilogy that comprises all of Robert E. Howard's stories of  Conan the Barbarian.  I've been listening to it as preparation for Savage Swords.

It's interesting to read this after appearing in shows based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft and the classic 1930s pulp serials, because Howard's Hyborian world neatly splits the difference between the two.  Like the Lovecraftian tales, a Conan story usually has the Cimmerian encountering some ancient and supernatural evil over the course of the narrative.  But whereas Lovecraft ends with "the hero passes out and has to live out his days knowing that this terrible thing exists", Howard ends with "and then Conan kills the elder god with a big sword," and that's always good fun.

As far as I can tell, all the classic pulps have a massive structural problem: the heroes are too powerful.  Nearly every pulp story I've encountered feels like a 19-year-old got hold of a cheat code and now has a ridiculously-maxed-out character stomping through an MMORPG.[1]  This leads to very dull storytelling, as your hero dispatches one henchman after another with no consequences, physical or emotional, and no real cliffhangers, because nothing is ever threatening.  It's fascinating to see how Howard deals with this.  He's clearly writing circles around most of his contemporaries, but his storytelling is hobbled by that same steady, predictable, "my hero wins everything all the time always."

But still, the Conan stories are good reads -- you aren't just staring over that 19-year-old's shoulder as he demolishes a Conan RPG.  One of the main surprises of the Conan literature is that Conan is actually a very smart character -- and moreover, Howard is good at *writing* a smart character.  Lots of pulps feature "geniuses" of various sorts.  You know this because, in the exposition, the pulp narrator *tells* you that these heroes are geniuses.  And, lo and behold, the hero always knows the exact piece of data that will let them win every one of their confrontations handily.

But with Conan, it's different.  Howard presents his hero with very difficult situations, presents the readers with all the available information, and then shows Conan come up with a brilliant solution -- say, slaying the dragon at the start of "Red Nails", or handling the byzantine pirate negotiations[2] in "The Black Stranger".

We rarely get to the right answer straightaway.  Usually people alongside Conan suggest various wrong answers -- like Valeria suggesting fleeing the dragon along the forest treetops -- and Conan bats them away.  The funny thing is, Conan would probably look smarter if he *himself* came up with wrong solutions, thought through them, and cast them aside.  As several standout sequences in (of all things) Dark Force Rising demonstrates, you actually make a character look *smarter* by taking your readers through their thought process, step by step by step.  When the hero just magically has the right answer instantaneously, it feels less like "the hero is smart" and more like "the author has given the hero a cheat code".

In any case, these challenging scenarios make the story more interesting, even if Conan wins every time all the time.

And all of this happens against some really strong world-building.  The Hyborian world does the "misty mountains" thing very well[3], where the setting is full of details that are just barely touched on, but still serve to imply a vast scale and history for the fictional world.  It's also a world with a philosophical point of view -- Howard's outlook on the civilized world versus the barbaric world may not pass muster with an anthropologist, but it's still an outlook that leads to interesting conflicts, character types, and settings to explore.  Howard is no Tolkien, but the fact that one even entertains that comparison speaks well of him.

On the minus side: his work is dated, and it's dated in ways that are pretty rough going for a modern reader.  It's arguably more racist than Lovecraft's work, and that's saying something.  Nearly every story in this volume identifies some group of 'black' or 'brown' people who are all uniformly terrible and subhuman.[4]  The stories' treatment of women is more nuanced.  You can tell the author wants to create female characters with power and agency, and that's actually quite a relief -- most of the pulps were wholly a boys' club, with women just hanging around as imperilled love interests.[5]  But at the same time, he's clearly (amusingly, even) trying to work in awesome, salacious cover images for Weird Tales.  So the women are nearly-constantly objectified, mostly-scantily-clad, and invariably need saving when things go pear-shaped.

None of this makes them bad stories, and none of these dated tendencies are dangerous ideas that my fragile mind needs to be protected from.  And frankly, I'm so well-insulated from being on the receiving end of racism and sexism that these missteps aren't painful triggers for me -- but all that said, even for me, it's an aspect of the work that I have to kind of slog through to get to the stories, and I could imagine it being nearly insuperable for many readers.

For next week: I'm watching season 3 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I've also been watching Fullmetal Alchemist and reading The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker's disquisition about the macro-scale historical decline in violence.  I'm steadily watching all the films from the Coen Brothers, so I'll have a lot of writing to catch up on next week.

[1] This analogy courtesy of J. R. Zambrano.
[2] It turns into a bizarre variant on the
"fox, goose, and beans" logic problem.
[3] I wish I could find the original screenwriting article that mentioned this -- the term comes from some characters in one of the Lord of the Rings movies (books?) who pass by a distant mountain range, allude to it and its legendary history, and then *keep going to where they're headed*s.  The detail has no relevance to the plot, but suddenly you're in a world with old, legendary mountain ranges in it.
[4] The exception here being the Picts, who are white, but are basically described as "not really white" because they're such vicious, heartless fighters.  (Adding another brain-twisting level of complexity: the Picts are basically Howard's stand-ins for Native Americans.)
[5] Whew -- thank god modern mass media has moved beyond that.  Yuuuup.  No problems here.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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