Friday, November 24, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 4: The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone

We’re through my fairy story touchstones now, so as NaNoWriMo winds down, let’s look more broadly at the stuff that is super exciting and worth your reading and thinking, and that I am trying to plunder as I write. Max Gladstone’s craft sequence is not the easiest to explain. He’s provided a help page on how to pitch the books. I’d say they were post-industrial fantasy with flavors of the new weird, and that the plots are legal/financial thrillers similar to John Grisham, if lawyers were necromancers, money was souls, and cops were terrible divine avatars. What they certainly are is smart, exciting, tightly-plotted, lushly-described, completely-original, and stunningly enjoyable fantasy books. You should read them. Go ahead, this blog will keep.

Okay, here’s what I think I can make off with before he gets back to the shop and calls the cops:

Important victories can’t be won in a fistfight. Fantasy can very often be said to have a violence problem. I’m far too steeped in the depiction of violence in fiction to have detached take on that big picture, but I certainly think fantasy has a problem with the idea that violence is a frequently useful and successful problem-solving method. Gladstone really, really doesn’t fall into that trap. Like real people in a real society, his characters often don’t like resorting to violence; they often face consequences for doing so; they always want things that can’t be gotten by punching or stabbing the people in their way. (while it may be possible in Gladstone’s world to stab the concept of the panopticon, that really doesn’t address the issue in a useful fashion.) That’s not to say that Gladstone’s books don’t have wonderful fights in them: they do, and he knows how to make a fight emotional and character driven, it’s just that the scenes of careful negotiation and fraught legal argument wind up being as compelling as the flash of swords and scent of magic. Gladstone’s books are a primer on how to build tension and emotion over office work and coffee.

Issues that seem dry and boring can be thrilling, and certainly are important to the heart of people’s lives. In rough order, the central conflicts of Gladstone’s books revolve around: zoning, utilities/watershed management, bankruptcy court, hostile takeover, offshore tax-havens, and living in the surveillance state. I read the watershed one in three days and hated every time I had to put it down. Gladstone makes what seem like dull minutia present and exciting and real. He shows the high stakes these things have for people’s lives. Magic just makes it a little faster, demonic invasion as the failure state instead of a major city slowly sinking into drought. There is a brilliance and power to these stories that center things which most fantasy world-building completely ignores, and Gladstone has a boundless compassion for the people caught in the uncaring wheels of government and business. He takes the legal and the erudite and makes it personal and potent.

Institutions and the individuals that make them up both matter terribly. The Craft Sequence spends a lot of time on institutions: law firms, church-governments, water-utility-governments, police forces, investment banks. Gladstone spends time on the construction of those institutions, their idiosyncrasies, obligations, ethics, and rules. He shows how the structure matters. I know it’s made me think much more carefully about the governments and businesses of my own settings. He shows with flair and tenderness the ways institutions hurt, and how they could be better. Both good and harm can come from the structures, but also from the individuals who direct and shape them. Even when the police are shadow-monsters possessed by the lobotomized revenant of a fallen god, the personalities of individual officers matter. The prejudices of a ruby-eyed skeleton CEO/king can’t help but infect the business he runs, even when they’re not written into any contract. I may have trouble fitting Gladstone’s brilliant balance between big ideas and personal stakes out the door, but I’m giving it a shot. It’s too nice to leave sitting here.

Knowledge is power, and not just for magical secrets. The idea of knowledge a power is pretty-much omnipresent in fiction with wizards: if the knowledge is how to shooting lightning with your mind, there’s no question it’s very practical and direct power. Gladstone goes farther than that, and shows how, even in a fantasy world, quite mundane knowledge is so often the key to success: details of legal procedure, the best shortcut through the alleyways, The history of a neighborhood, where the poets come to read and drink, game theory, risk management. It all matters, and even when magic permeates the world, everything else is still important. Gladstone doesn’t let the magic run away with story, or paper-over any of incredible complexity of human experience and society.

Late capitalism is devouring hell-scape which we must all fight to escape. Gladstone’s work is unapologetically allegorical for many of the worst parts of our globalized, finance-driven political and economic system, and he is not shy about pointing out how terrible all of it is: how unethical professors and debt can trap students in servitude; how the most basic necessities of life become commodities; how business uproots and displaces the poor and marginalized to make more room for the wealthy and privileged; how finance is stained by complicity with the criminals who abuse it, how the police serve the state and not the people. Gladstone’s characters do not shy from fighting these injustices, and his work inspires me each time to think more about what I can do in my personal life, and how I can better use my writing to aim at the issues of today, no matter how fantastical or distant the setting.

The Craft Sequence novels, in order of publication, are Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, Last First Snow, Four Roads Cross, and Ruin of Angels. They are, in any order, well worth your reading time.

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