SUPERVERSIVE Review: “Stardust”, by Neil Gaiman

Tuesday , 28, February 2017 29 Comments

Stardust by [Gaiman, Neil]Neil Gaiman is a guy who I’ve noticed gets a lot of flak around these parts. It is true he has SJW tendencies, but then, most authors do. And he IS immensely popular.

Mostly – and I am going by anecdote here – it seems that people believe that he (along with Ursula Le Guin) is somewhat emblematic of post 1970’s fantasy and science fiction: He is a good pure storyteller but with little depth (like “A Study in Emerald”, a fun and clever Lovecraft/Holmes pastiche that has little to distinguish itself besides its cool premise) even though people act as if he’s wiser  than he deserves credit for.

He is also known for lapsing into stupid SJW propaganda, such as the notoriously terrible story “The Problem of Susan”.  So that gets him a lot of flak from these parts as well.

Still, something about him seems to capture people. I decided I simply needed to find the right book, and picked “Stardust” (the novel version, though I’ll purchase the comic/picture book version soon if I can.

“Stardust” is an excellent book that showcases all of Neil Gaiman’s strengths but also highlights some of his flaws. It is a fairly straightforward story about a half-fairy young man who goes to fetch a shooting star for his beloved in Faerie and ends up falling in love with the star, who turns out to be a beautiful woman named Yvaine. Along the way they are harassed by evil witches who wish to steal Yvaine’s heart and use it to regain their youth. Occurring concurrently is a subplot about the sons of the current, dying king of the kingdom of Stormhold struggling with each other for control of the throne.

The story is very straightforward, which is to its credit. Gaiman set out to write a fairy tale for adults, and that’s exactly what he did. Some sections are simply wonderful, like this bit of dialogue early in the story:

“For a kiss, and the pledge of your hand,” said Tristran, grandiloquently, “I would bring you that fallen star.” He shivered. His coat was thin, and it was obvious he would not get his kiss, which he found puzzling. The manly heroes of the penny dreadfuls and shilling novels never had these problems getting kissed.

“Go on, then,” said Victoria. “And if you do, I will.” “What?” said Tristran. “If you bring me that star,” said Victoria, “the one that just fell, not another star, then I’ll kiss you. Who knows what else I might do?

Tristran Thorn went down on his knees in the mud, heedless of his coat or his woolen trousers. “Very well,” he said. The wind blew from the east, then. “I shall leave you here, my lady,” said Tristran Thorn. “For I have urgent business, to the East.” He stood up, unmindful of the mud and mire clinging to his knees and coat, and he bowed to her, and then he doffed his bowler hat.

Or this:

“He stared up at the stars: and it seemed to him then that they were dancers, stately and graceful, performing a dance almost infinite in its complexity. He imagined he could see the very faces of the stars; pale, they were, and smiling gently, as if they had spent so much time above the world, watching the scrambling and the joy and the pain of the people below them, that they could not help being amused every time another little human believed itself the center of its world, as each of us does.”

That is grade A, classic fairy tale stuff right there. That is exactly what you want and should see in a fairy tale.

The witches, his villains, are also excellent. They are something of a hybrid between the new trend of the seductress witch and the classic crone variety, stealing back they’re youth by capturing hearts – and, we learn, the heart of a star is especially potent. Gaiman ends their story with neat little lesson about how pathetic evil is before we lose sight of them for the last time.

The way my book was written it had a preview of Gaiman’s next book BEFORE the epilogue, so I had stopped reading. I only learned there was an epilogue after I looked up the book online, so I went back and read it later. It provides closure to the story and ends on a mostly positive but bittersweet note just a little bit reminiscent of “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s a nice little coda.

Gaiman explicitly says that the book was meant as a throwback novel reminiscent of Lord Dunsany, C.S. Lewis, and James Cabell, which is all to the good, and he is mostly successful in his attempts to conjure that sort of mood.

The problem – and this gets at, I think, why the old-fashioned Castalia crowd tends to dislike him – is the “adult” part of the adult fairy tale. The truth is that the things that supposedly made it more adult added absolutely nothing to the story. There is a graphic sex scene at the beginning of the novel where we see the conception of our hero, Tristran:

She wriggled and writhed beneath him, gasping and kicking, and guiding him with her hand.

She placed a hundred burning kisses on his face and chest and then she was above him, straddling him, gasping and laughing, and he was arching and pushing and exulting…

There is more, but I trust you get the idea.

And no, it did not have to be there. Contrast that scene with this scene from Josh Young’s story “The Secret History of the World gone By”from “Forbidden Thoughts”:

He was gratified, then, to see a pair of dainty breasts topped by dark nipples and that the dark thatch of hair between her legs lacked the equipment with which he was most familiar.

Anders was in the spring of his manhood, and so it went as such things go.

So why was Gaiman’s scene there? Well, it’s Adult, and you know how the Adults like all of the Sexing! Isn’t he so Adult?

Later, a unicorn is killed and then decapitated in a manner described as gorily and graphically as possible. After Yvaine falls to the earth, she drops the only serious curse word of the book, an F bomb so out of place for both the novel and the character (who never comes even close to cursing again) as anything one can possibly imagine. Again, there is no reason for this; all it does is jack up the rating from PG to R.

So why did Gaiman do it? Why was it important to him to add these sections specifically to create an “adult” fairy tale, and why did his concept of “adult” depend on the additions of sex, gore, and curse words, three things that even the great J.R.R. Tolkien had no use for? I think the answer is interesting, and gets to the heart of the bad taste Gaiman leaves in a lot of the Castalia folks’ mouths: Gaiman is ashamed of fairy tales.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by [Gaiman, Neil]These sounds odd, and even somewhat counter to some of Gaiman’s quotes, so I’ll try and make my case.  In the book’s afterword, written by Gaiman, he describes a time where he had to make a speech at a symposium of academics discussing myth and fantasy. The day before the speech, listening to the conversations, he got angrier and angrier, believing they did not understand the power of fairy tales. The next day, he tells a story to convince them of their power – a story with a twist:

It was a retelling of the story of Snow White, from the point of view of the wicked queen. It asked questions like, “What kind of a prince comes across the dead body of a girl in a glass coffin and announces that he is in love and will be taking the body back to his castle?” and for that matter, “What kind of a girl has skin as white as snow, hair as black as coal, lips as red as blood, and can lie, as if dead, for a long time?” We realize, listening to the story, that the wicked queen was not wicked: she simply did not go far enough; and we also realize, as the queen is imprisoned inside a kiln, about to be roasted for the midwinter feast, that stories are told by survivors.

Do you see the issue? The power Neil Gaiman sees is not in Snow White. He claims it is Snow White, but it isn’t, because Snow White is about something utterly different, teaches a different lesson, has a different hero and villain.

This isn’t the only time he’s done this. See here as well:

Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty in this fairytale mash-up where things are not what they seem. When three dwarfs learn of a sleeping plague spreading throughout the land, they alert their queen. The queen, already feeling that marriage means the end of her ability to make choices in her life, gladly postpones her wedding, grabs her sword, and sets off with the dwarfs to get to the bottom of the magical curse.

This is not somebody with a respect for fairy tales as is, but with an idea for ways to turn them into something they’re not – something that is the opposite of what they should be.

I reject that, and I believe we all should as well.

29 Comments
  • B&N says:

    “So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”
    -Neil Gaiman, commencement address

    “It does mean that we must all look for ways to live and innovate without permission from the ruling class, embracing freedom whether our political masters like it or not.”
    -Jeffrey Tucker, fee.org

  • icewater says:

    I’ve tried to watch the movie few times, never went too far with it. Thing is, beneath its lavish visuals, epic score and attempts to be oh-so spectacular and magical, it was actually rather cold and empty. It is not even like a it was just dishonest or cynical, it is that it felt like it was created by a computer program tasked with creating such a tale.
    Give me 80s take on “modernized” fairy tale, like “Labyrinth”, over that stuff, any time of the day.

  • NARoberts says:

    “…three things that even the great J.R.R. Tolkien had no use for?”

    It was because he was great that he had no use for them.

  • john silence says:

    He is really good at ruining the taste of his fiction. Trying to be clever and ironic, inserting stuff that sticks out like sore thumb, be it explicit sex and violence here or eye-rollingly out of place episode of toilet humor in a grim horror story.

    I saw this on Goodreads, from his newly released retelling of Norse Mythology, and it illustrates this so well:

    “When the all-father in eagle form had almost reached the vats, with Suttung immediately behind him, Odin blew some of the mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.
    No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass.”

    Why? Why is that necessary?

    I actually prefer (well, “find less annoying” would be better) those of his stories that are “wink-wink, ironic, I am being clever” from the beginning, like his Cthulhu Mythos parodies, because you know what you are in for.

    • Anthony says:

      Why? Why is that necessary?

      My guess? Probably in the original myth.

      • icewater says:

        Doesn’t sound familiar to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it originated as a bit of humorous folklore rather than being Gaiman’s own invention.

        • Anthony says:

          The original legend seems to be spit. Why Gaiman went with a fart is a matter of speculation, probably uncharitable.

    • Nathan says:

      Like Pratchett, sometimes the scaffolding needed to construct Gaiman’s stories has not been shrouded well enough from the reader. And, yes, he does have a tendency to do the shock jock thing of 90s comics.

      • NARoberts says:

        I think I can almost grasp what you are saying but I need an example. Which elements do you think Pratchett showed his hand in utilizing?

        • Nathan says:

          I’d have to go back and read Thief of Time to point out specific examples. If I could sum it up, though, its that Pratchett puts so much thought into Discworld and its events that the story doesn’t always obscure the outline.

          • B&N says:

            “There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: This glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.
            “The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!”
            Terry Pratchett, The Truth

  • LD says:

    Neil Gaiman: Skilled writer; Vapid dumbass.

  • Rod Walker says:

    When reading Mr. Gaiman’s work, Rod Walker’s reaction is either “this is amazing” or “this is horrible and frankly disturbing.” There seems to be no middle ground.

  • deuce says:

    I’m with Mr. Walker. For me, Gaiman’s flaws outweigh his genius. It’s maddening, because he’s ALMOST there, almost to where I could read him regularly and stomach the parts I hate. Almost, but not quite. Sad, really.

  • Ostar says:

    Gaiman is better in his short stories I think, because there is less space (figuratively and metaphorically) to squish in the jarring and annoying bits like people have mentioned above.

    • Laurie says:

      I’d say the same about his comics writing, that’s where he shines. I only recently finally read Sandman and have enjoyed it immensely.

      On Stardust, yes, I was kind of Meh about it – I think it’s his first novel. I found the hero and heroine uninteresting and I didn’t feel the hero earned his victory. But I loved all the secondary characters and would have happily read a book just about them.

      I don’t mind the “adulting” of it, that’s pretty common in a lot of fantasy, though yeah, I’d have preferred it not be there. And upside-down takes on traditional fairy tales is almost its own genre, so I have no problems with that at all (he is not the first to suggest that skin-white-as-snow, lips-red-as-blood sounds like a vampire, Tanith Lee did that in the 70’s, in a book that was nothing but new takes on fairy tales, which I found a lot of fun). (That said, could we please stop doing new versions of the Wizard of Oz?)

      The only novel of Gaiman’s I’ve read that I’ve really enjoyed is American Gods, but that’s an odd one – Gaiman himself admits it’s a big rambling journey, but that’s how it came out. I think he does one of the best takes on old-gods-in-the-modern-world.

      I thoroughly enjoyed his latest Norse Gods book, it’s not deep, but I think it’s meant more for all ages reading. It reminds me of my childhood favorite, D’Aulaires’ book of Greek myths. (And yes, he’s drawing from the original myths, and he tones them down a lot.)

      (BTW, my favorite modern version of ancient Norse gods is Diana Wynn Jone’s Eight Days of Luke, one of those middle grade books that adults can enjoy.)

    • deuce says:

      “Tanith Lee did that in the 70’s…”

      Tanith Lee is unfairly forgotten these days. She should be far better-known than Gaiman, IMO. She’s been memory-holed by the current crop of SFF feminists.

      Tanith (RIP) didn’t have an axe to grind, she just loved to tell stories.

      • caleb says:

        As with CL Moore or Leigh Brackett, that enough speaks volumes of her work.
        For all their whining about neglected female authors of yore, they will gladly ignore every single one whose fiction doesn’t contain feminist didacticism.

        It’s like that in every corner of genre fiction: one horror author just blogged about that “women in horror month” crap, how nobody involved even mentions numerous female authors of ghost and horror stories who were active in 19th and early 20th century. No matter how good some of them might have been, it is as if they never existed as long as their stories lack “proper” sort of message.

  • Anthony says:

    The funny thing is, this was actually a really positive review of “Stardust” itself, which I thought was pretty great.

  • His speeches are better than his books. He reminds me of George R. R. Martin, whose books glory in defiling all fantasy’s conventions. Sort of like a feminist in a brothel.

    • B&N says:

      “But when told how to think or what to say or how to behave, we don’t. We disobey social protocol that stifles and stigmatizes personal freedom.”
      -Charlton Heston, Harvard Law School speech

  • deuce says:

    Gaiman’s a gifted author who — apparently — is compelled by his worldview to write Western “fantasy” with a postmodernist slant. Those two things usually combine about as well as broccoli and Cool Whip.

  • […] Much like with “Stardust”, Gaiman simply can’t seem to help messing up otherwise excellent stories with moments that slap you across the face like a dead fish. […]

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