March 8th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

What I've Been Reading Lately

S. T. Joshi, H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West was something I let Amazon.com's recommendations talk me into buying a couple of months ago when I bought Harms & Gonce's The Necronomicon Files (previously reviewed at length). It seemed like the kind of thing I'd find interesting, and the only review it got on Amazon was favorable. Bleah. This is a vivid example of why most people hate post-modern literary criticism. It tries so hard to put Lovecraft in historical context, and draws so heavily on his private letters and so little on his published fiction and essays, that it comes across as powerfully uninteresting and tendentiously dull. I can't finish it.

Kristina Borjesson's updated edition of Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press was something I checked out from the library. It offered concrete examples of three trends, two of which I've commented on at length myself. For one, the rise in "professional journalism standards" (which they attribute historically to the rising corporate ownership of the press in cooperation with the Columbia School of Journalism; in the old days, journalists were English majors or people with practical experience, not people with journalism degrees) has created a standard where journalists aren't allowed to take a stand in any news article; they must report both sides without any judgment as to which one is telling the truth and which is lying. This leads to a second trend, namely over dependence on official sources and public relations firms to tell them what the current news stories are. The third one, one I'd heard of but underestimated the importance of, was the legal verdict that the Food Lion grocery chain won over news coverage that was proven to be true, but defamatory and obtained by reporters operating "under cover." Apparently this, even more than a history of libel suits and libel law, made journalistic outlets even more paranoid about being sued. The bulk of the book, the middle two thirds, consists of a whole bunch of journalists putting forth what really amount to well-sourced conspiracy theories. They show how their personal journalistic research showed that something that was reported widely in the news, based on official sources, was in their opinion just not true, and what confluence of forces caused their editors and managers and corporate lawyers to stop them from reporting their findings. Some of their stories saw the light of day in smaller newspapers, but even then the same forces caused even the smaller, more independent newspapers to shut them down before they could follow the story all the way through to a conclusion. It's very forceful stuff. Even if you don't agree with all of the conspiracy theories, the forces that were applied to stop these journalists from publishing their findings are pretty disturbing when you see them in action.

I have a terrible confession to make. Even though it's considered a crime in local science fiction fandom not to worship all local published science fiction authors, I can't stand any of Mercedes Lackey's books. Because I'm a huge fan of fantasy in the modern world, I forced myself through the first three Diana Tregard mysteries, but some factual inaccuracy or bigoted opinion or other in each of them ticked me off so bad that I wanted to throw them against the wall. The rest of her stuff, like the Valdemar series, struck me as the kind of painfully generic fantasy that I avoid because it bores me. So the following came as a huge surprise to me:

Mercedes Lackey, The Fairy Godmother was something I borrowed from alienne because I was short of stuff to read. I've had pleasurable experiences with updates/retellings of classic fairy tales and myths before, especially C.L. Moore's "In the Garden," Gregory Maguire's Wicked, Morgan Llewelyn's Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish and most especially even more than the others Sheri Tepper's Beauty. So I decided I'd give it a try, and if it was as unreadable as all her other stuff, I wasn't out anything but a couple of minutes time over lunch. I ended up reading it almost entirely in one sitting. It was shockingly, amazingly fantastic stuff, possibly the best piece of fiction I've read in years! Needless to say, I'm completely boggled.

It has the most original, most unique theory of magic I've seen in fiction since the Liavek shared-world anthologies. In the 500 Kingdoms, there is a powerful semi-sentient magical force called The Traditions. If anything about your circumstances of life is similar to one of the classic fairy tales or stories, then The Traditions wants very much to mold your life into another version of that same story. It takes the efforts of hundreds of wizards, sorcerers, sorceresses, witches, and especially fairy godmothers to nip in the bud any stories that are impossible to fulfill, and to subtly steer the stories within their adopted kingdoms towards happy endings, despite the greed for power of an almost equal number of evil magicians who want to tap the power of unsuccessful and unhappy story endings. So when a hard working young girl named Elena's mother dies, and her father remarries a cruel woman with two daughters of her own, she's fated by The Traditions to live in the cinders, meet her fairy godmother when she turns 16 or 18, and through magic and virtue obtain a marriage to the prince. But unfortunately for this Ella Cinders, her kingdom's prince is 11, and none of the nearby kingdoms have marriageable princes, either. So eventually her fairy godmother rescues her, all right ... for a much, much more interesting life than she would have had as a princess! It's great stuff. I won't tell you any more, just read it yourself.