The Ship of Ishtar, part three

Wednesday , 25, January 2017 7 Comments

Walk through the aisles of any Barnes & Noble and you see the same cover concept over and over: a brilliantly dressed female hero, standing around… looking cool! It is the very antithesis of dynamism. Nothing is at stake. Nothing is happening. There is no danger. There is nothing to thrill or titillate. Decades ago, paperback covers would promise all manner of wonders and adventure. Today’s books offer little more than a mirror to an essentially effeminate audience. And judging a book by its cover really is a safe bet in this case. After all, how often do we have to be told by secondary characters that a heroine really is heroic and admirable and inspirational…?

Heroism in the age of the participation trophy is merely just another term for protagonist. And there is no consciousness of just what is lost when traditional archetypes are given arbitrary sex changes. The only reason this is possible is because contemporary tellings of old style adventure stories have quietly redefined, dumbed down, or cut out entirely anything related to men and manhood.

That sounds crazy, but it certainly explains the bizarre things that are done when iconic characters are translated into film these days. In The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn has travelled the world and served in the armies of two nations. He has spent decades fighting fell things in the North and discreetly protecting the Shire. He knows himself and he knows what must be done. His only doubt pertains the question of when and how. In contrast to this, the Aragon of film is all about “becoming”… and he even has to be scolded by his future father-in-law in order to get on the right track. A character which is the very picture of maturity is reduced to the sort of identity crisis that is beneath even the most immature hobbit.

From Unforgiven to Superman Returns and on to Elysium, we are presented with heroic looking figures that don’t even rate a steady girlfriend. I’m not exaggerating when I say this, either: Samwise Hamfast was twice the man of any of them.

And that’s why picking up an old classic is as shocking as it is. For many of us, this is going to be the first time we see men portrayed in fiction with anything remotely like normal, real-life motivations. Consider:

“Sigurd, Trygg’s son, am I! Jarl’s grandson! Master of Dragons!” His voice was low, yet in it was a clanging echo of smiting swords; and he spoke with eyes closed as though he stood before some altar. “Blood brotherhood is there now between us, Kenton of the Eirnn. Blood brothers–you and I. By the red runes upon your back written there when you thrust it between me and the whip. I shall be your shield as you have been mine. Our swords shall be as one sword. Your friend shall be my friend, and your enemy my enemy. And my life for yours when need be! This by Odin All-Father and by all the Aesir I swear–I, Sigurd, Trygg’s son! And if ever I break faith with you, then may I lie under the poison of Hela’s snakes until Yggdrasill, the Tree of Life, withers, and Ragnarak, the Night of the Gods, has come!”

I love this. In the first place, you have this Norseman dropped into the story straight out of legend and myth. The situation in this book is just so out there, too: a magic ship, unfamiliar Babylonian goods, weird magic. And Merritt just drops in one of the most iconic characters out of all history, myth, and legend just because he can. In a similar vein, the invocation of Ireland here is oddly comforting– an example of contrast that is lost when a fantasy presented as a self-contained Never Never Land with no connection to the real world. But there’s more: Loyalty. Brotherhood. Dreadful oaths. Invocations of gods and fathers and grand-fathers!

Is it fair to say that contemporary film is short on this sort of thing…? Well, maybe there are some exceptions. The trend I’m seeing lately in everything from The Fast and the Furious to The Flash television series is ensembles made up of characters that don’t have families and that don’t aspire to form families to refer to refer to their group of adventuring buddies as their “family.” Rather than the sort of edge that you see with old Sigurd here, you get some airy sort of sentimentality. Maybe I’m sort of throwback or something, but that sort of thing just doesn’t strike me as corresponding to reality. It certainly doesn’t resonate with anything that really drives me. It’s awkward. Fake. Cringeworthy.

Men are of course motivated by a strong desire to maintain honor and win respect. If your aesthetic requires you to treat them as being interchangeable with women, you’re necessarily going to lose that. And there is more to men that just that, of course. There is also the matter of the acquisition of female companionship. The strangeness you tend to see on that point are the countless men in the media that placidly accept their place in some shade of romantic exile. That is by far the most off-putting aspect of everything from Luke Skywalker to Ender Wiggin to Superman to Finn. And let me tell you: it wasn’t like that in the twenties. 

No, when Merritt was writing those sorts of bloodless mannequins would have been the exception rather than the rule. And the resulting drama when they actually went after what they wanted was downright explosive:

“What will this liar, weakling, and slave gain if he kills the black priest for you?” he asked bluntly.

“Gain?” she repeated blankly.

“What will you pay me for it?” he said.

“Pay you? Pay you! Oh!” The scorn in her eyes scorched him. “You shall be paid. You shall have freedom–the pick of my jewels–all of them–”

“Freedom I shall have when I have slain Klaneth,” he answered. “And of what use to me are your jewels on this cursed ship?”

“You do not understand,” she said. “The black priest slain, I can set you on any land you wish in this world. In all of them jewels have value.”

She paused, then: “And have they no worth in that land from whence you come, and to which, unchained, it seems you can return whenever danger threatens?”

Her voice was honeyed poison. But Kenton only laughed.

“What more do you want?” she asked. “If they be not enough–what more?”

“You!” he said.

“Me!” she gasped incredulously. “I give myself to any man–for a price! I–give myself to you! You whipped dog!” She stormed. “Never!”

Up to this Kenton’s play with her had been calculated; but now he spoke with wrath as real and hot as hers.

“No!” cried Kenton. “No! You’ll not give yourself to me! For, by God, Sharane, I’ll take you!”

He thrust a clenched, chained hand out to her.

“Master of this ship I’ll be, and with no help from you–you who have called me a liar and slave and now would throw me butcher’s pay. No! When I master the ship it will be by my own hand. And that same hand shall master–you!”

“You threaten me!” Her face flamed wrath. “You!”

She thrust a hand into her breast, drew out a slender knife–hurled it at him. As though it had struck some adamantine wall, invisible, it clanged, fell to her feet, blade snapped from hilt.

She paled, shrank.

“Hate me!” jeered Kenton. “Hate me, Sharane; For what is hate but the flame that cleans the cup for wine of love!”

Finally.

A character that’s like me!

A guy with emotions like mine, motivations like mine, and with drive and tenacity and daring to spare. And while all of us have varying degrees of style when it comes to execution and delivery, there is no doubt: this really is the baseline for normal when it comes to men.

And that sort of thing is just gone.

It’s the absence of this sort of thing that explains the static nature of today’s fantasy and science fiction book covers. Because if guys like this are on stage, there will be a reaction. There will be something at stake. Anything could happen really, but one thing is sure: the stock standard fantasy heroine will not be able to get away with just standing around… looking cool.

That just isn’t an option when guys like this are around.

7 Comments
  • deuce says:

    Yeah, the Kenton/Sigurd dynamic is great. The Persian and Gigi are pretty awesome as supporting characters as well.

    Sharane is no shrinking violet. She’s fought the priests of Nergal for, literally, thousands of years. She and her handmaidens are effective archers. Noblewomen have been trained to the bow for millennia. What they are NOT is shock troops for close combat. Close reading of “Queen of the Black Coast” shows that Belit was an archeress, but no swordswoman at all.

    Sharane, like Belit, is all in for her man once she decides he is the ONE. Which is how it should be.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I had forgotten all about Sigurd. It has been too long since I read this book, and I think I loaned it to someone. Bugger.

    Deuce, I see what you mean about the elements in Queen of the Black Coast that Howard took from Merritt’s classic.

    Damn but Merritt was good at this.

  • Jill says:

    The sort of cover you lambast has become a blur. I spend too much time with writers, seeing their cover reveals, yawning. I love those o!d sci fi covers. They started out as paintings, a lot of them. Some horrible, some weird, but always an interesting dynamic going on.

  • [] says:

    To offer some defense of Card, Ender was shown as a sad failure for reasons including his lack of a family. Savior of the human race, and he winds up raising some studly xenador’s kids on Planet Brazil, and it is shown as a sad thing. When his soul is given freedom to choose, he chooses to abandon his hermitage with Novinha and be with Peter, in effect abandoning the feminine side of his personality (and allowing Jane to claim hers) for the adventures of Peter and Wang-Mu. Miro is another example of a hero who gets the girl, and he has to climb over a torture fence to do it too.

    It’s notable that the core Ender saga ends with a double wedding.

    • Jeffro says:

      Card’s treatment of romance is completely off the wall.

      You’ve got this universe-saving hero brought down to the level of having to join some kind of religious order just so he can be near… his wife, right? How many chapters of that level of cringe does it take before something like this is beyond defense…?!

      Now… Card is not actively subversive like Heinlein was. But his inability to imagine anything remotely like a healthy outcome for his best-loved character is subversive all the same.

      • [] says:

        You’ve got to look at the context. Ender’s never a universe-saving hero to himself. He feels like a GMO hero, a steroid-induced fake hero, when he was always just this sensitive boy that happened to be really smart. He ends fights not by manfully beating his opponent and then making friends with them, he ends fights by making sure they’ll never get up gain. This is, let me posit, a bad thing. He’s not really a hero, because obliterating the Buggers was never a heroic thing, only the best of a list of bad alternatives.

        So let’s run with this idea of Ender being a high-fructose corn syrup hero. He feels so bad about annihilating mankind’s enemies that he uses his talents and his exclusive interview with their survivors to turn mankind against him, pretty much starting a future white people buddhism kind of pseudoreligion. Not a heroic thing to do, because Ender’s not heroic.

        Meanwhile he interviews Peter and gives him the same treatment. In other words, Ender sees Peter as the ideal human, the ideal man even. Peter had the same talent as Ender but was rejected because he was too harsh – as a child, before anyone saw his potential. Peter does the same sorts of things as Ender but he actually unites humanity, takes enemies and makes them friends, the same thing Ender wishes he could do. Ender has a hard time making friends, but can come up with eulogies like nobody’s business. Very sad person.

        So the more heroic character from Ender’s Game isn’t really Ender, it’s Peter. Pretty subversive to tell Ender’s story instead from that view, if you’re only looking at the context of one book.

        Speaker for the Dead brings us this twisted Latin love affair story, but a very pure character comes out of it, Miro. Ender’s hanging out with Miro’s family because Ender is a stunted child and his only human companion, Valentine, stayed behind on Trondheim to be an ideal wife and mother. Peter is the ultimate man, Valentine is the ultimate woman. Ender’s stuck in between and he’s nobody, he’s an industrial production unit tuned to “Alexander the Great,” he’s pink slime that wins battles really good.

        Anyway, Miro. Miro is a hero. He spends the novel trying to understand the Piggies so they don’t also get xenocided, braving danger to do so, and eventually he makes the ill-thought-out decision of climbing the pain fence. His goal is to run away with the girl. Miro is a hero. Getting the girl is a crucial function of heroes. But this is too early, and it’s not the right girl, and even though he’s got heart he’s not really savvy yet. So he’s paralyzed.

        On to Xenocide. Miro’s in a wheelchair, the fleet’s coming to neutralize the Descolada, the natives are growing restless, there’s tension everywhere. Jane and Quim invent thought-teleportation and discover the Outside. Miro gets on board the first ship, as does Ender, and in the moment their desires are able to be realized they both make new bodies. Miro gets his old one back, because he’s a hero and miracles happen to heroes, but Ender’s a stunted child so he makes his brother and sister.

        There’s that theme again, of how trying to mix Peter and Valentine didn’t make much that was worthwhile. We now have head-Peter and head-Valentine out in the world, behaving as Ender’s ideals of them, but it’s one soul in three bodies so there’s all kinds of trouble.

        One more thing. All through Xenocide there’s the OCD China subplot going on, giving valuable background info for the Hundred Worlds and setting them up as a real threat, and also mirroring Ender’s struggle. Qing-jao is smart enough to sniff out Jane but she’s too smart, she’s only smart, she’s not balanced. Her servant Wang-mu is as smart as she is but she’s wise. Qing-jao mourns out the rest of her life tracing floorboards because she worships the floorboards more than the heavens. Wang-mu gets to leave Path and have adventures.

        On to Children of the Mind. This is a heroic novel. Nobody gets punched, but heroic things happen. Peter, that’s Ender’s ideal, who he wishes he was, goes planet-hopping with Wang-mu having adventures. Miro, a home-grown hero who was always more of a man than Ender, goes planet-hopping with Jane having adventures. The climax of this book is Jane’s shutdown and apotheosis, when she learns she can be hosted in the mother-trees and also in head-Valentine, who’s falling apart because she’s just a Valentine-shaped glove for Ender.

        Ender meanwhile is gardening. He can’t sustain himself, because he’s busy being Peter, who he always wanted to be. He finally gives up his old body, gives up the stunted child, and becomes Peter, becomes a swash-buckling tiger-like curly-haired wunderkind that men want to be and women want to be with. Jane gives up her less-than-ideal Internet body and becomes a woman, the womanly ideal of her best friend, even.

        To show off the triumph of the masculine and feminine over the sexless and industrial, the whole saga ends on a double wedding. Not many SF series do that, especially Niven/New Wave crossbreeds like this one. If you’ve made it this far I’m arguing that the Ender saga is superversive, but only when you realize it’s not about Ender.

        • PC Bushi says:

          Interesting analysis! Kind of reminds me of my line of thought about the Witcher’s superversiveness in some ways…

  • Leave a Reply to Jeffro Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *