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It's a trap!

Been doing a little reading in the sword-and-planet sub-genre.  I'll go ahead and name names:  The Grey Prince by Jack Vance, and Earth in Twilight by Doris Peirschia.

I'll also go ahead and give a little backstory.  I picked up both of these books from a used bookstore near my house; they are the yellow-spine DAW books from 1978 and 1981, respectively. 

To be blunt, both of these books are mediocre. 



Grey Prince has great setting and alien/foreign cultures and an interesting plot.  In fact, if you've ever played the game STAR FRONTEIRS, I have the feeling that they were reaching for the "feel" of this kind of book.  The mix of technology, the strange human cultures, the stranger alien cultures, the frontier world, and all of it in service of a fairly simple plot.  Not that there is anything wrong with a fairly simple plot, in fact I think the world needs more of them. 

But, Mr. Vance does all this, he sets it all up, and starts to play in it, and then... well, it's like he doesn't have a main character at all, and he just begins to rush from one set-piece to another.  Vastly complex governmental decisions are hashed out in a matter of a few paragraphs.   The fallout of battles and raids are covered, again, in a few paragraphs. 

Now,  I'm all in favor of moving things along, but sometimes it simply strains believability, or worse (toward the end), you get the feeling that he's getting bored with it all and wants to move on to the next thing. 

Earth in Twilight is much, much, worse.  I picked it up mostly because it was written by a woman in the early 80s other than Ursula LeGuin.  ...I should have stuck with a known quantity.  Head hoping POV, info-dumps (and again, I'm not against info dumps as such, but they must be used judiciously), lame  humor, outright wrong science, continent-sized trees (... I'm still not sure what that means). 

You know, a lot of writers (and I include myself in this) get this idea that they "could do that" at some point in their lives.   And it occurred to me that if you grew up in the 70s through the 90s, then books like this were probably littering the shelves in your house or your library and you probably read them, and having little experience in such matters, they seemed fine to you.   And here's the thing, yes you could do that- you could hammer out mediocre fiction with the best of 'em, but after about 1994 or 1995 it would not matter-- the bar was raised. 

I don't think that either of these books would make it in today's publishing world.  First off, they are simply too short.  Grey Prince might get a look, maybe a personalized rejection letter, I doubt if Earth in Twilight would even get that much. 

Now, mediocre fiction is easy to do, but (and this is pretty counter-intuitive so stick with me), great fiction tends to look easy to do, too.  The Hobbit (to use a popular example) seems so simple, so easy, so basic (although the jury is out as to whether it would get published today, but I think the odds are in its favor).  Like a great athlete, a writer at the top of their game makes it LOOK easy.  Same with the original Robert Howard Conan stories-- Howard had already been making a living as a writer for five years or more before he ever penned the first one.  He was already very good at what he did.

There are very few good pieces of sword and sorcery that are good but don't look simple-- if it looks hard if you can see the writer working, then the writer is no longer invisible and that's a big problem.  I suspect that some of Neil Stephenson's books (which are, I think, SF) get away with doing this.  Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist might, too. 

So a lot of new writers probably find themselves stuck.  They are imitating the kind of fiction that wouldn't cut it these days, or they are trying to imitate the master-works at a really mediocre level-- either way, they are out of luck.

Something to think about.

-Adrian Simmons



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