Sunday, August 14, 2016
Book 60: If a tangle tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
There's a definite genre out there of regular folks like you and me fall into a fantasy story. It's called "Portal Fantasy" and is apparently something fantasy writers are supposed to avoid. (Nearly a year ago, Charlie Jane Anders posted on IO9 a list of 10 "rules" they wish SF/F writers would break more often, and the rule "No Portal Fantasy" is one of them.) "Portal" fantasies include Narnia, The Magicians series, the So You Want To Be A Magician, and in part the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was where I first realized that portalling into our world can be a drudge.
In His Dark Materials the first book focuses on Lyra in her world as she travels from Cambridge to the North Pole (-ish) to find out why children are being stolen by a group called the "Gobblers," and it's a phenomenal book. The second one, The Subtle Knife opens in our world with a kid who ends up traveling into a different world, and that alone was almost enough to make me stop reading; only the strength of the first book kept me going long enough to enjoy the second book once I got past that. And it helped that the story picked up pretty quickly.
I think the problem is that often, in setting up how 'real' the world is, writers get bogged down in describing regular stuff, trying to I don't know I guess explain to readers just how awful/boring/drudgeish our world is? We get that, though. We live in our world and even if our world is a lot of fun and has exciting times like mine does from time to time, it still involves dishes and cleaning out garbage cans (one of my chores today, and I can't tell you how much I resent having to clean a garbage can. I need to make a container clean enough to hold the things I throw away. *sigh*.) So spending dozens of pages on how terrible the world is only drags things down.
Anthony doesn't do much of that here, although there's a lot of "I don't want to go back to Mundania!" stuff. Then again, there's a bit of a twist at the end in that regard, so I shouldn't fault him too much because where I thought he was going with this was not where he was actually going with this.
The basic storyline is: Dug and Kim are Mundanes who get to play a computer game that literally has the power to put them in Xanth. They're playing to settle a bet between two Demons, these being the cosmic sort of demons that exist in the far background of Xanth -- some worldbuilding from (primarily) The Source Of Magic that I don't think Anthony gets enough credit for, as I've said before. The demons, Earth and Xanth (denoted with more mathematical writing) have made a bet in their own cosmic game, and it must be played out by Dug and Kim; if Earth's avatar wins, Xanth has to leave the planet and there will be no magic in Xanth.
It's a great concept that is almost entirely wasted here, in that it sets up the story (a story that's actually been building over several books, in the background) and then is ignored until literally the last chapter, where it crops up again -- at which point I'd almost completely forgotten the premise of the story. The reader has no idea who is the player for which demon, so there's no real suspense there as players get distracted from or focus on the game, and the Xanth world beyond has no idea what's going on: they're aware of the game but don't seem to know that it is so important, or if they do they do a really good job of hiding it.
I think it could have been a more epic story, with all of Xanth trying to figure out who was playing for which demon and trying to help or hinder them; but maybe that's not the story Anthony wanted to write. As it is, the lack of connection to the overall purpose doesn't hurt the story, which is pretty solid and got exciting at the end. It's not the greatest Xanth story but it's not the worst, either.
In the author's note, uncharacteristically short this time, Anthony says that he wrote this story because he can't write computer code but wanted a Xanth computer game. (I can attest how hard coding is; I've twice tried to learn how to write code, because I have some ideas for computer games, but after weeks of trying I found it frustrating enough to not continue. I expect if I went back to school for it I might learn, but since I just wanted to do it as a hobby, going to school for it doesn't make much sense.)(Anyway, someday I'll just hire a programmer to make the game.)
I tried to remember if I'd ever heard of a Xanth computer game, and then began to wonder, again, why Xanth hasn't made a bigger hit in pop culture. Lev Grossman's The Magicians has a TV show (and it's really good!), they're making another Narnia movie soon, Ghostbusters got remade, Star Wars has a jillion things going on, every comic book character ever is getting his or her own series and movie, Game Of Thrones somehow still holds people's interests. Why not Xanth?
The book actually got made into a game, in 1993, called "Companions Of Xanth." You can find videos of a guy playing it on Youtube. For 1993 it looks okay: a text-based adventure with still pictures. But that appears to be the only Xanth product ever produced. There's no t-shirts, stuffed animals, cartoons, nothing. There's a Xanth boardgame that you can't buy new anymore and is out of stock on Amazon. And two graphic novels adapting the Isle Of View storyline.
Just like I wondered why Soon I Will Be Invincible hasn't been made into something -- at least an ongoing comic series -- now I'm wondering it about Xanth.
The problem is not an easy one. It's the difference between what makes a cool kid in high school and what makes a nerd or loser or however your school described the people who were not cool. (This isn't about whether that's right or wrong and largely I take the stance that people who had a great time in high school probably peaked there as the skills required to maximize high school fun are skills that do not translate easily to the adult world). A review in Salon in 2000 described reading Piers Anthony as fun but 'not cool.' That same writer said she "like everyone" read Harry Potter, but asserted that critics look down on series authors and poorly review or don't review such books. That will come as a surprise to JK Rowling, George R R Martin, and the guy who wrote His Dark Materials as well as the Narnia books. She also said that Anthony's skill in consistently delivering a book in his brand made critics dislike him. Tell that to John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, JRR Tolkien, etc etc.
It's not just that the Xanth books aren't all that serious on the surface. Invincible was a "serious" superhero book, ripe for pop-culture taking. And Armada wasn't "serious" at all but is already being made into a movie.
It's possible Anthony just didn't want to develop Xanth into a larger phenomenon. Bill Watterston wouldn't let Calvin & Hobbes be merchandised, and Doonesbury didn't get into merchandising until 1991. (Even then, Gary Trudeau held out and tried for street cred: he donated all profits from that early merchandise to charity. It's hard to say if he licenses anything now; I couldn't find anything on Amazon, though.) But Anthony seems to have wanted wider distribution.
In 2004, they announced a Xanth movie would be made. They had a director and everything, and that seems to be as far as it went. In 2013 the blog Signature ruminated on why Hollywood didn't discover Xanth yet, although apparently Hollywood had, and decided that Xanth wasn't cool enough to sit at its table. That same blog said that On A Pale Horse, the first book of Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality (where regular folks become Death and Time and the like) had been optioned for a TV series -- another one that never happened.
Some people carp on Anthony's attitudes; apparently a lot of critics or readers find him sexist or antifeminist, which I don't really get (but I'm a white male, so I don't get lots of stuff. White males don't get how it feels to be someone who is not a white male. Every movement you see for equal rights or equal pay or anything is essentially that group of people saying please treat us like you treat white males. White males don't work for 70 cents on the dollar, don't get shot by cops just for existing, have bathrooms set aside for them, and make up 99% of the presidency, 3/4 of the Supreme Court, and most of the Senate and House of Representatives. We don't get discriminated against, because we run things. So it's harder for guys like me to understand how a woman or minority might feel reading Xanth. [Which, I should point out, got its first African-American character in this book, Sherlock, a member of the "black wave," a group of African-Americans who moved to Xanth to settle.]. Other people find the books to be creepy, like this Reddit thread where they discuss the obsession with 'panties' and similar problematic (in their opinion) things. I think some of that is in the eye of the beholder, like when authorities arrest parents for pictures of breastfeeding or bathtime.
Other people (my mom when she was alive) think the books are too silly, and aren't worth reading, to which I reply: Harry Potter had a character eat a candy that was booger-flavored. Besides, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is getting a TV series this year, and Adams' Hitchhiker books got made into a movie that apparently only I thought was okay.
There is a built-in audience for Xanth. They're at 39 books and counting, the last one having been published in 2014. Anthony placed 135th on this list of all-time best selling SF/F authors, at 2,000,000+. (Although that's 2,000,000+ over nearly 40 years; Hugh Howey's Wool is over 1,000,000 even though it was originally self-published not all that long ago.) So it's possible that Xanth is just a niche book series.
When I was a runner at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel back in the early 90s -- when Demons Don't Dream was published -- I was a fan of Arena Football, which never got reported on in that paper. My area (runners don't get desks they get areas) was right next to sports, and one time I got into a debate with a sports writer about why they didn't write about Arena Football.
"Nobody cares about it," he said.
"But if you wrote about it people would start to like it," I said. He laughed and said that's not how it works.
I sometimes wonder if I were to put a million bucks into advertising one of my books, would it matter? Would I make $1,000,001, at least? People say advertising can't make you buy something, but there is an almost-direct relationship between advertising money and sales, so people are, in a word, wrong. But that's direct advertising: selling this thing to the public. Indirect sales are a bit harder. To get a movie, a product, a cartoon, a comic book, made, you've got to sell your idea to a very limited audience, which requires you to get their attention first, and then show them how they can make money off of you. Anyone can put a book on Amazon, but not anyone can get a book on Stephen Colbert's desk, or into the hands of a head of Sony or Disney.
It seems likely that anyone with 2,000,000+ sales could get a meeting with someone somewhere to sell this product; they've got to want to take it and re-sell it to someone else. If they look down on the product, it'll never get re-sold, unless they can perceive a market for it despite how uncool it is. (Fifty Shades Of Grey might not have been picked up by a major publisher had it not been perceived as a book popular among 30-something housewives, the same people to whom romances are marketed, and romances are a big deal.)
Anthony's problem (if it is one for him) may be what the critics say: He's just not cool. Just like in high school, what that means is mysterious. Why Harry Potter and Fifty Shades are okay for adults ot love, but Xanth is not, is as open to guesswork as why some kids in high school spend all their time on the fringes of the lunchroom.