REVIEW: Sword & Flower by Rawle Nyanzi

Friday , 10, March 2017 15 Comments

When I criticize contemporary science fiction fantasy, it is almost entirely from a cultural angle. If something is done almost exactly the same way practically everywhere, I will absolutely light it up. This seems to summon some sort of Greek chorus that has stick up for Hollywood and Big Publishing. Not sure why that is, really. More thoughtful people than me put forth a great deal of effort digging into just where the thing I’m talking about is wrong and where it is really applicable. That kind of nuance does bring a lot to the discussion. It’s not quite as reactive as the other responses, but it still doesn’t go far enough for me. I think… the more people immerse themselves into older stories written before 1940, the plainer this gets. And the stuff I’m calling out really is dumb. Weird. Twisted. Debased. Goofy. Silly. Hilariously and embarrassingly brain damaged.

Here are four examples just so you can know what I mean:

  • Everything about the handling of the romantic elements in the first season of The Flash. Everything. Seriously, don’t get me started.
  • The absolutely bizarre impulse that demands that Finn cannot assist Rey in a street-fight, but rather has to stand there slack jawed as he is swept away by her awesomeness. (Note that episode 2 of The Man in High Castle pulls almost exactly the same beat.)
  • The multiple instances of selling and/or normalizing the idea that rough tough super cool Viking dudes would think it perfectly neato for random guys to sleep with their wives on Vikings.
  • The downright tediousness of how every last stinking superhero movie has to be an origin story. And worse, villains like Doctor Doom and the Joker have to be reworked to have origins that are directly linked to that of the hero. Because there’s just no way to imagine a clash between good and evil without the sort of personal motivations that the makers of John Wick had to waste half a movie setting up.

Now… the one thing that never crosses my mind as I tear into this stuff is that anyone would ever really listen to me. Not that they don’t. I get messages from people all the time thanking me for letting them know how much better the old pulp fiction is compared to pretty much everything being written written. Seriously, these people are ecstatic. Writers look at this and say, “oh I get it, I can do that, too!” But they don’t realize just how blinkered we are today, the way we reflexively say “no” to awesome and substitute in a lack of imagination that we just assume will make things better somehow. In the rare instances where I read something written after 1980, even when it’s a rave review I will almost always find a key area where I feel the author is arbitrarily holding back. (If you need examples, see my reviews for Marina Fontaine and Karl Gallagher.)

So far as I know, only one person has taken this sort of criticism as a challenge rather than as something to quietly let pass. That’s Rawle Nyanzi. Go read his earlier story and then compare it to his current offering. Do you see it…?

How does it work? Well look, I am biased. (Rawle even writes here at Castalia House blog. What do you think I’m going to say?!) But read it. Really, just read it!!! Compare it to his last story. Can you see the difference?

Now granted… you might be distracted occasionally by the writing quality the same way I was with, say, Fred Saberhagen’s second or third published story. Never mind that. That’s completely beside the point. (See how much Saberhagen improves by Brother Assassin and you’ll understand why.) And you might be thinking… how can you possibly get into a story about Solomon Kane Jr. and Super Minmay. (Well that’s what I was thinking when I first picked it up. I didn’t really grow up on anime like the younger set.) You might even be tempted to think, “eh, this is so formulaic” at some point. But don’t give into that! You know darned well that it’s the stuff flooding the market right now that’s really formulaic!!!

Watch yourself as you read this. Watch what happens. Your brain is going to resist it. You’re going to think it can’t work on you. You’re going to think, seriously… what’s the big deal here?! But watch for the emotional response. The chills. The uptick in your pulse. The feeling of “lift”. Watch for the point where you actually start to care. Watch for the feelings that blossom into something like an honest to goodness thrill even. What I want you to think about is… why are you so sure that this can’t work… and why is it working anyway? Why is an amateur having an effect on you… on your actual heart even… that the big studios and publishers and TV shows are absolutely incapable of delivering.

Think about that.

I think this is a big deal.

15 Comments
  • David VanDyke says:

    “…without the sort of personal motivations that the makers of John Wick had to waste half a movie setting up.”

    If you’re talking about John Wick #1, I actually found that necessary and engaging.

    What was a waste of time was the tired “let’s throw away our guns and fistfight” BS at the end of the movie. I’m more of a (from the movie Wizards) “I wanna show you a trick mother showed me when you weren’t around” kinda guy.

    • Andy says:

      Ha, what my mom likes to refer to as “Time for the macho shit”.

    • Dan Wolfgang says:

      I think that trick Avatar’s mother showed him would’ve worked a lot better if he had shown the gun to the audience at some point during the course of the movie. It’s not like he didn’t have plenty of reason to. There were lots of times throughout the picture that that gun would’ve helped him, so it doesn’t make sense why he would only pull it out at the very end of the story.

      I still really love the movie; it’s easily my favorite Ralph Bakshi film that I’ve seen, but that ending could’ve been handled so much better.

    • Jeffro says:

      It hurts people’s feelings and I don’t mind it if you’re into it… but this origin story / personal motivation fetish is just plain godawful. I have a hard time imagining people sitting in the movie theaters and not laughing out loud at the utter absurdity of John Wick and his dead dog.

      • Anthony says:

        One of the reasons “The Dark Knight” works so well is that we don’t know (that) Joker’s origins at all; he has absolutely no reason to particularly hate Batman. This makes his whole personal vendetta with him particularly psychotic and frightening; the Joker doesn’t want revenge or anything. He’s just interested in pitting their philosophies against each other.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Thanks for giving my work a shot, Jeffro; it means a lot.

  • B&N says:

    “villains like Doctor Doom and the Joker have to be reworked to have origins that are directly linked to that of the hero. Because there’s just no way to imagine a clash between good and evil without the sort of personal motivations”

    That’s the best part about Genesis, that it doesn’t begin with a long origin story of the Snake and how he’s linked to Eve.

  • deuce says:

    I’ve never been much for manga/anime-inspired fiction, but this sounds pretty good.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Also, keep in mind that I wrote The Teenage Girl’s Robot Army before reading Appendix N works and the history of the pulps. Those things were a real education, all things considered.

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