Thursday, July 28, 2011

Something Besides Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CXIV

So, what else have I been reading?  Well I did finally finish "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" and "Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer," and I'm more than half way through "The Guns of August."  Traveling to Ohio and California for three weeks has slowed the literary machine down a bit, but there's also a collection of short stories called "The Mammoth Book of Fantasy" to add to the list.  Basically, it's a survey of the development of Fantasy literature in the 20th century.  Practically, it's given me a chance to explore various important fantasy authors without having to hunt down out-of-print books and expensive collected editions.  In other words, it saves time, and if I don't like an author I can move on without having blown a wad of cash.

That said, I thought I'd offer some thoughts on the various short stories in the collection.  I'll post the title of each one in bold, so that if you haven't read it and want to remain spoiler free you can just skip a bit.  I don't know if I'll be able to review all the short stories in the collection, but I'll give it my best shot.

The Wall Around the World by Theodore R. Cogswell

This story is a sort of Harry Potter before Harry Potter with its misunderstood orphan, magical prep-school, and broom-stick riding.  With these superficial similarities, however, the likeness ends.  Mr. Cogswell sets out to tell a very different kind of story in his world of wizardry than Rowling with her Hogwarts.  Rowling's world is a metaphor for our own while Cogswell's is a plan for the scientific society of the future.  In Rowling's world, manipulating people for the purpose of achieving power is evil, while in Cogswell's world it is the essence of human advancement.

Briefly, "The Wall Around the World" tells the story of the orphan boy Porgie who lives with his stern but well-meaning Uncle and Aunt and malicious cousin.  Unlike Harry, Porgie already lives in the land of magic and spends all his time dreaming how to get out.  Porgie is obsessed with the thousand-foot wall that encircles his world and that no one has ever seen the top.  Filled with a longing to know, Progie begins using forbidden science in conjunction with magic and is punished for his attempts by his aunt and uncle and the scoolmaster, Mr. Wickens.  In the end, Porgie is able to construct a glider and get to the top of the wall where he finds Mr. Wickens disguised as a gate-keeping boogie man.  Wickens informs Porgie that he is pleased with the boy's success and that the outer world is run on scientific principles.  The world inside the wall is an experiment where people are raised knowing only magic in the hope that they will perfect it and so provide humanity with complete mastery over the universe.  The people who inhabit the walled community are of course ignorant of this.  Porgie, as a sort of kwisatz-haderach, is then admitted into the bright and glowing world of science which he will presumably enrich with his magical abilities. 

The fact that Cogswell does not even try to problematize his world of human lab rats is particularly disturbing. It's as if Voldemort where to meet up with Harry and slap him on the back then offer to team up with him since he's such a clever boy with Rowling's hearty approval.  I hope there is a layer of narrative irony that I'm missing here.  It is possible to read "Brave New World," for instance, and miss the fact that Huxley is revolted by the society and characters he narrates.  If not, then the moral one really walks away with seems to be "isn't it fun to be special and to be able to treat average people like ants?"  That seems to be the exact opposite of what we learn from Rowling's Harry Potter.

Darkrose and Diamond by Ursula K. LeGuin

Let me begin by saying that I love Ms. Leguin's work.  You should now know where the review is going from here...

The tone, world, and plot of "Darkrose and Diamond" is all flawlessly Earthsea and as such makes for an enjoyable read.  It was in the moral of the story that I found something lacking.  To be blunt, it was trite.  I could have learned the same thing from a Disney movie: women are good, men are offish and confused but usually mean well when they're not stuck in a chauvinist rut, and it's always best to follow your heart.  Thank you baby boomers.  We've got that message down.  Still, if you like Earthsea, this one's worth it for the fun of returning to LeGuin's richly imagined world.

Coming up next: "The Valley of the Worm" by Robert E. Howard and "The Horde of the Gibbelins" by Lord Dunsany

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