Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book 22: Xanth > Harry Potter

Piers Anthony's books hold a strange appeal for me. They have a strange sort of inartfulness, a juvenile feel to them that nonetheless hides a fair share of headier intellectual stuff.

It's not that Anthony's a great writer; he has some really very good ideas -- the Apprentice Adept series remain a high point of fantasy/scifi -- but they're presented in a kind of clunky writing style that's reminiscent of 9th grade literary efforts.

Take Heaven Cent. The protagonist is Dolph, a 9 year old shape-changing magician that goes on a quest to find the missing Magician Humfrey. Dolph, at 9, is virtually indistinguishable from some other lead characters in other Xanth books, both in terms of his personality and in terms of his actually seeming to be 9.  Dolph is basically the same as his father, Dor, who had his own turns starring in two books, and Dor was basically his father, Bink, also the star of two books. It's nearly impossible to come up with a difference between the three characters.

That's the way most of Anthony's Xanth characters are, though: they're more like archetypes than characters: the kid; the uneducated man, the shrewd woman, the aged magician, the noble king; if it weren't that each of these characters has a singular magic talent, they'd be indistinguishable. The men are all good-hearted if slightly slow-witted amiable fellows; the women are all calculating shrewishness on the surface but underneath full of wisdom and love.

Children, in the Xanth books, are especially poorly written. The reader is constantly reminded that Dolph is 9, and that's necessary because Dolph thinks and acts and speaks like a much older person, except when the story requires him to act or speak like a 9 year old -- such as a the end of a dream-sequence courtroom scene when, having acted like a pretty decent defense attorney for most of the chapter, Dolph suddenly can't think or speak a coherent sentence.

Anthony's writing is about 9th grade level, too; he tells more than he shows, and his characters have long ruminating passages where they over explain things and recap what has happened just chapters earlier. The scenes that vaguely relate to anything sexual are dropped a few grades lower (even in the books where all the characters are adults), and the books would easily earn a PG rating.

The plots, too, tend to be simplistic in nature: a character sets out to do something, runs into several distractions along the way, and ultimately realizes that the distractions have helped him/her realize something fundamental about himself, or herself, or Xanth, that then makes it possible to finish the quest.

So with all those flaws, you'd think I'd dislike the Xanth books, dislike them enough that even nostaligia and a need to take a break from heady, depressing, frightening books like the last few. But I don't.  I enjoy them. I've read two already this year and even though this one, like Vale of the Vole, was one I'd read before (albeit one I'd forgotten almost entirely), I still found it entertaining enough, and more entertaining than, say, Armada or The Wall Of The Sky, The Wall Of The Eye, to name two.

I think this is because the books themselves are so innocent. Mr Bunches occasionally writes stories at school, and his stories remind me in a way of the Xanth stories.  Not only does nothing too terrible ever happen in Xanth -- I can't think of a time when a monster or character was killed, and even the bad guys aren't really all that bad-- but the stories themselves have a childlike quality to them: there are pillow bushes and raspberry pie trees and people walk on clouds and nightmares bring bad dreams and ogres make milk curdle by looking at it.  It's like all the really fun interesting parts of fairy tales but put together in a way that you could tell your kids the stories and they wouldn't have nightmares.  It's fantasy without the bloodshed, fantasy run through a 1980s sitcom 'special episode' where everyone is friends at the end and they all Learned Something.

But even with that, the Xanth books cover some heady intellectual territory. One book featured characters working through the prisoners' dilemma, which was actually my first exposure to game theory.  This book had Dolph, at the end, consider the question of whether the ends justifies the means: he and another character were facing trial in the world of nightmares because the other character had interfered with a bad dream. In Xanth, bad dreams are crafted by nightmare creatures living inside a hypnogourd. One of the creatures, a skeleton, had been set to act in a bad dream sent to a troll: the troll had let a human kid go rather than share it with his village, which was starving, and so was supposed to suffer a bad dream, but the skeleton in the dream whispered that she thought he'd done the right thing, and so muted the impact of the dream.

(See what I mean about creativity? There's like four great ideas in that paragraph.)

The skeleton is to stand trial and Dolph is her lawyer, and before they stand trial they need to go through a series of doors to make them think about their stance. The doors pose questions like Would you let a troll die to save a human village?  And then Would you let a human die to save a troll village?   And so on to things like Would you kill a human baby to save a troll village?

These are actually pretty important philosophical questions, along the lines of the trolley problem (in which you witness a trolley, out of control, speeding towards five people on the track. You can pull a lever to divert the trolley but doing so will kill one person on the other track: what do you do?)

Each Xanth book features one or more issues like this, intellectual concepts presented amidst silly fantasy stories, and I think that's the real saving grace for these books, and why I can still read them when I can't really get into Harry Potter anymore. A while back I thought I'd listen to Potter on audiobook but I got bored a chapter in and gave it up.  The Harry Potter books as good as they are, don't present the same kind of intellectual or philosophical underpinning. They're far better written and more consistent and have better characterizations, but in the end they're just... stories.

Some of my favorite books from when I was younger are books that make you think about something other than the story.  The Narnia books, The Phantom Tollbooth, Bridge To Terabithia, The Last Of The Really Great Whangdoodles, and the Xanth books are all books like that: just under the surface of a simple story are some more intriguing concepts to mull over, and it's that which makes books like Heaven Cent have some staying power with me.  I know they're mostly silly books; there's nothing wrong with silly.  But for a silly book to still have a bit of resonance with an adult, it has to make you think a bit, too.

Speaking of philosophical questions, this never fails to crack me up:

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