Sunday, 27 January 2008

Temeraire and the Challenge of Ambitious Fantasy

It's well-established that we here at Shades of Caruso love dragons. We love them so much that both of us independently paid money to see Dragonheart in the theater, a movie that features Dennis Quaid playing a hero with a voice reminiscent of a man in the late stages of emphysema, a dragon played by a surly, transmogrified James Bond saddled with lines like "I merely chewed in self-defense, but I never swallowed," and David "Nyeehh" Thewlis nasaling his way through another cringing, effeminate villain role. It might be a significantly less painful experience on mute, actually. Of course, it's bad for lots of other reasons too: terrible writing and plotting, corny "comedy" bits, lackluster CGI, muddy production values... Sure, it's got a talking dragon in it, but he's too busy making pseudo-sexual innuendos about eating people to save the movie.

Of course, the fact that we sat through D-Wars is even more damning proof (we may have even enjoyed it a little), as is our viewing of Eragon on Sky Movies last night (not as awful as D-Wars but infinitely more boring and cliched. The dragon was too cutesy-looking to be cool, and too sassy to be likable). But the truth is that dragon-related entertainment is hard to come by. Well, scratch that -- I should say that good dragon-related entertainment is hard to come by. I have to admit here that I know there are plenty of books about dragons out there that I haven't read (excluding the series I'll be talking about in a moment, obviously), so it's a bit unfair of me to say that; for all I know, there are ones out there that I'd love. It's just...well, take Anne McCaffrey, Dragon Poet of Pern. Here's a partial description I found on Amazon:
In earlier episodes, hero and heroine F'lar and Lessa summoned the captivating dragons and their riders from the remote past to save Pern from a devastating rain of Thread, while the later discovery of Aivas, the artificial intelligence that guided Pern's original human settlers, brought technological marvels like printing to Pern and helped shift the Thread-producing Red Star from its lethal orbit before it self-destructed.
First of all...F'lar? F'lar?? That's the best name you could come up with for your hero? A sound that is most reminiscent of a pirate spitting up a gob of mucous? It has an apostrophe in it, for fuck's sake! (This is a particular bugbear of mine, sci-fi and fantasy writers' insistence on putting random apostrophes in the middle of what are already ridiculous names. After all, what good is a name like Robert when you can invent a character named Ro'outabro'igle?)

Second, devastating rain of Thread? ("Look out! It's multicolored! Auughhh!!") Aivas? "Helped shift the Thread-producing Red Star from its lethal orbit"? I don't have a hate-on for fantasy, but it's these ridiculous concepts that turn me off to a lot of it, and I suspect turn off a lot of other people too. For all I know, those are thrilling stories that, if I read them, I'd end up championing. I love the concept of fantasy, the incredible range of ideas it has access to. But I probably won't read these books, precisely because they sound so silly. I'm sure they have a basis in solid dramatic ideas -- how to build a society, the effect of technology on human lives, the pitfalls of telepathic communication with winged lizards -- but unfortunately the marketing for them tends to be really bad. Plus, I don't know why this is, but they're always about a thousand pages long each and there's about twenty books in every series. Why? Even if the idea intrigues you a little bit, you're immediately put off by the incredible investment required.

Perhaps the core audience doesn't want publishers to pander to what's considered acceptably mainstream, but still, I think a lot of genre books get unfairly ignored because of their covers and their marketing copy and all the rest (I do realize the irony of me saying this, as I'm one of the people who gets turned off by these things). I edit children's books for a large company, some of which are fantasy or sci-fi, so I realize the conundrum here; the stories might draw a larger audience but also have to appeal to the people they know are going to buy them, and be true to the stories within.

Okay, so enough unfocused and contradictory tangenting. The real reason I'm here today is to talk about Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. To go back to my earlier point, I don't think I ever would have picked up these books based on the covers.

They look like standard-issue dragon fantasy novels. Actually that's what the US covers look like. The UK covers are interesting, but I'm still not sure they completely succeed.

I like the dragon-and-boats thing -- pretty accurate, and a bit more in the direction of "this might just be serious literature WITH DRAGONS IN IT OMFG" -- but the paperback covers look a bit too much like Jane Austen-esque beast-friendly chick lit, which is schizophrenic and sexually confusing. I appreciate what a tough job the designers have, though, and I like the idea behind the attempt. Part of the problem is that on none of them do the dragons look friendly -- they look like attacking war-beasts who could very well be ripping apart our society. This is a bit of a problem for Temeraire (the dragon of the title) in the book, but I don't think that's to a marketer's advantage -- but then how do you make the dragons look cool without making them too cutesy? The one I like best is the UK omnibus edition:

It's still a a bit too cheap-fantasy cover for me, but it's an arresting image -- I'd stop and stare at that cover much the way Masticator would at a picture of a woman on a magazine cover thrusting her bottom at the camera. But as I said, I didn't get the books because of the covers -- I read a review of them in Entertainment Weekly in which they were highly praised and I think described as a kind of Patrick O'Brian with dragons, which was enough to intrigue me (I haven't read any O'Brian, though I loved the film of Master and Commander, but the blending of genres sounded great). Meanwhile Admiral Neck heard that Peter Jackson bought the film rights for the books, and when they arrived from the States (they weren't published here until a few months later), he immediately grabbed the first one before I could. Damn you, Admiral, and your insatiable dragon love! He raced through the first book, though, and soon we were both staying up till four to read them. The first three were published all at once, and while I know I complained earlier about the length of fantasy series, these weren't too long (300-400 pages each), and the world they described was not too different from our own. In fact, the only difference was that this alternate universe contained talking, intelligent dragons. Can you imagine anything more awesome? I didn't think so.

Novik came up with an incredibly clever, simple idea -- what if dragons existed, and were used as a line of England's military defense during the Napoleonic Wars? She also started us out with a protagonist as green to dragons as we were -- Captain Will Laurence (note lack of apostrophes), a seaman in Her Majesty's Navy, who accidentally ends up with a very valuable Chinese dragon egg when he captures a French ship. The egg hatches some weeks later, while Laurence and his crew are still out to sea, and though Laurence knows almost nothing about dragons except that they need to be harnessed when they hatch (so that they can bond with the person who will become their captain in England's Aerial Corps), he ends up becoming the choice of captain for the egg who hatches -- the dragon he will name Temeraire.

The first book in the series largely concerns Laurence's gradual acceptance of his fate as an aviator -- he was a respected captain in a prestigious profession, happy with his life, and he is at first reluctant and resentful of his duty to Temeraire, who, despite this, takes to him instantly. We follow the pair as they embark on training and learn about life in the Aerial Corps, which is very different from the life Laurence knew. Aviators are the shabby black sheep of the military, treated by the rest of English society as something of a joke, their dragons feared as dangerous beasts. This despite the fact that dragons are as intelligent as humans -- perhaps even more intelligent; they show an incredible aptitude for math and science, and Temeraire in particular is something of a savant. At first Laurence thinks his growing bond with Temeraire is unusual and that the other aviators think of their dragons as mere war beasts, but he soon learns that the bond between a dragon and his captain is one of the closest relationships a person may ever experience.

Initially Laurence is a bit unlikable -- stiff and proper, with a rigid inclination towards what's considered right and mannerly by society. It's only when he meets Temeraire that he begins to soften, to become less self-serious. It's to Novik's credit that she doesn't entirely soften Laurence, though -- though he grows to love Temeraire more than he can express, he is still concerned utmost with what is right and good, with being an honorable man, with following society's strictures. Temeraire himself is a very intelligent innocent, always questioning why society is the way it is, why people are afraid of dragons when there is so clearly nothing to fear (he is often hurt and offended when people show fear at his enormous, 20-ton physique). This sounds like it could be simple and didactic, but it never is; it comes from character and not as a lecture. The push and pull runs through the series as a constant, with each party softening to the other's argument as they grow to love and depend on each other more.

Subsequent books have Laurence and Temeraire being forced to travel around the world -- to China, Turkey, Germany, Africa, and back to England to fight Napolean, whose ominous presence runs through the books like a harbinger of impending destruction. It's a clever idea to have the pair travel the world -- not only because there's only so much you can write about English battles against Napolean's army but also because it allows Novik to explore how dragons are treated all over the world.

This is perhaps Novik's cleverest idea of all. By far the greatest strength of genre fiction is the way it allows its creators to approach all the ordinary issues of domestic drama from unusual angles, usually through metaphor. Where an ordinary drama would tell a story as a standard teenage-daughter-hates-her-mother story, The Exorcist compares puberty to demonic possession. The interesting-but-flawed Ginger Snaps does much the same: a young girl getting her period for the first time realizes she is also becoming a werewolf, and the movie charts her wrestling with her newfound power and sexuality. Buffy, of course, worked on a throughline of a high-school-as-hell metaphor, and Battlestar Galactica gets us to sympathize with Iraqi insurgents by placing its characters in a situation where they are colonized by an oppressive regime.

The Temeraire series explores issues of feminism (a certain breed of dragon -- Longwings -- only accept female captains, to Laurence's surprise and profound comic embarrassment), racism, slavery, the question of animal intelligence, dragons as a metaphor for how we treat outsiders and minorities -- all without being didactic. In England, dragons are kept away from society at large, and are generally treated as if they were large, winged horses. Their captains and crews love them, but they have no autonomy, and they are generally not treated as intelligent beings. Laurence and Temeraire don't realize there's any other way to be -- until they journey to China and find out that there, dragons are independent and have their own lives and professions (ferrying people from one place to the other, doing manual labor, etc), eat cooked meals instead of raw cows and sheep, and live in sheltered, warm pavilions instead of making their beds on the ground. And some -- like Temeraire, for he is an extremely rare and special breed known as a Celestial -- are revered as thinkers and scholars, and spend their time in the life of the mind instead of being charged with defending the country as a mere unthinking tool of war.

As we go through each country, we find how each one treats its dragons, and with each book Temeraire grows more and more anxious about the way dragons are treated in England and feels more and more that he must do something to change it. Laurence too wants only the best for Temeraire, and for dragons as a whole -- he wants them to be happy above all -- but he knows the harsh reality he's afraid to confront his friend with; he knows how unlikely the possibility of change is, especially in a time of war.

The most touching thing about the books -- in which much is touching, as Novik has a deft hand with melodramatic but never mawkish storylines -- is obviously the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire, but it is also the way Laurence is changed by his love for the beast. Temeraire is part precocious child, part confidante, part comrade and colleague -- a true life partner and probably the closest relationship Laurence will ever know -- and he gradually opens Laurence's tightly closed and rigid personality. For me, good drama happens when we as an audience are torn between two points of view -- when two sides of an argument are presented as equally valid, and we empathize with and understand the views of those on either side. I find nothing more riveting than this three-dimensionality of character, and good drama always has it, no matter what the genre. And in this series, Laurence and Temeraire are always fascinating, always people we want to know.

The fourth book, which I read a few months ago (and am belatedly writing about, obviously), was a tiny bit disappointing in that it was a kind of transition book -- Novik is clearly building up to something exciting, but she has to get through certain story mechanics to get there, which is not so much her fault as just the way the story happened to fall. Getting the first three books at once spoiled me, and now I'm stuck anxiously waiting for the next story as she finishes it. I have no doubt it will be just as fascinating as the others.

I'm also anxiously waiting for Peter Jackson's film version and get more anxious every time he announces another unrelated project. OMG stop taking on goddamn Lord of the Rings movies! How many more drunken homoerotic hobbit songs can we suffer through? (I should explain that -- I think Jackson is an immensely talented director and that he is the perfect person to do justice to Temeraire. I just really don't care about the Lord of the Rings as a story, though I think they're beautifully made movies and he did the best job he possibly could have with them.) (Yet more heresy on this blog! What kind of anarchic free-for-all is going on here - Neck)

When July arrives and Victory of Eagles comes out, I will be first in line, brandishing my nerdy fantasy book with pride.


sjwoo said...

While you're waiting for the next book to come out, you may want to quench your thirst for all things dragon by checking out the DragonLance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Mind you, it's been years and years since I read their books, but the first series was quite good -- they all start out with "Dragons of..." The first one was Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and well worth your time.

Jaredan said...

Oddly enough I read the Dragons of Autumn Twilight again last week for a nostalgic interlude.
It has dated since I first read it voraciously and is obviously co-written by someone who has spent most of their time writing Dungeons and Dragons adventures (Hickman).
Yet still I enjoyed it, for some reason I have a severe case of sentimentality for the first trilogy (I struggle to care less for what followed) and I'll most likely read the rest of it soon.