Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Library: Piers Anthony

Some of you may recall that Piers Anthony used to be an author. Nowadays he uses excuse plots to string together a few thousand puns and softcore porn that wouldn't raise eyebrows on daytime television. Once upon a time, though, he was a decent writer, creating creating interesting worlds and then running them right into the ground. That he's also a heteronormative, gender normative, mildly misogynistic dirty old man never really helped things. Still, you can rest assured that the first three books in any series he wrote will be decent, and then the rest will be more of the same.

You wouldn't know it to look at any of books four through thirty, but Xanth started dark. Pretty much everyone agrees that it went off the rails somewhere, but it's hard to judge where exactly that is. Still, Anthony's been churning them out at the rate of one a year for longer than I've been alive.

  • The Premise: In a magical land (roughly the size and shape of Florida), every person is born with one magical talent, ranging from "spot on the wall" inconsequential talents to literally earth-shaking talents of epic proportions.
  • Where It Started: A story centered on Bink, a young man with no talent who is exiled for it. He has to walk across Xanth to leave it, and along the way he meets the living embodiment of Anthony's misogyny, an exiled king returning at the head of a barbarian army, and many of the dangers of Xanth that will become standard to later books. It's a dark, fairly epic fantasy and a pretty good read.
  • Where It Went Wrong: Later books started throwing in puns. That's not really a problem. The landscape became more magical and, indeed, cartoonish. Still not really a problem. Anthony started taking recommendations from readers for talents, puns, and plots. Problem. He tried rehabilitating the books somewhere in the mid-teens (the mid nineties, say), which worked well, but then gave up and went back to milking the cash cow. It's very popular with teens, with good reason, and the list of attributions at the end of each book takes several pages.

Bio of a Space Tyrant
What can one man do in a large solar system? If that solar system is basically the 80s in space (The US is Jupiter, with South/Central America as its moons and the USSR is Neptune. And Mars is the middle east.), not much. Unless, of course, that man is a Mary Sue. A kid escapes with his family from Space Cuba on a raft (actually a space bubble made of phlebotinum). After trials and tribulations, he makes it to Space USA and freedom! Then he takes over the solar system.

It takes a while, because first, of course, he has to escape Cuba (and have sex). Then he joins the military (and has sex). He becomes a ludicrously successful general (while having sex), and even pacifies the pirates of the asteroid belt (by having sex). Then he runs for President (while having sex) and wins, but the incumbent refuses to step down, so he stages a military coup and rules as a tyrant (while having sex). After he steps down from tyranny, he becomes an elder statesman and secures the future of the human race (while having sex).

Have you noticed a theme? There's nothing you can't do while having sex, and you can probably solve your problem by having sex with it. What's the hero's name? I don't remember. I just remember that he's Space Napoleon (only tall, Latino, and handsome). Women want him, men want to be him, and he has a supernatural talent for reading people, telling them what they want to hear, and making them fall madly in love with him. Oh, and he's smart and capable at everything.

The surprising thing is that it's not a terrible series. Mary Sue and (still/again) rampant misogyny aside, Anthony actually tried with these books and they're pretty good. Or so I recall. It's been a few years.

Apprentice Adept
Of all his books I've read, these are the ones I still have on my shelf (I could probably dig the rest up from somewhere). At least, I still have the first three. The second three weren't as good. Nor were the last three. Like I said. Right into the fucking ground.

So you have a rigid caste system on a fabulously wealthy planet (space Dubai, more or less) where a few thousand fabulously wealthy people keep naked slaves who, when their terms of indenture are up, are thrown off the planet to be fairly wealthy elsewhere. And on this planet you have Stile, a naked slave. He's smart, and handsome, and incredibly good at sports and games of skill, and luck, and talent, and smarts, and athleticism, oh, and he's the best jockey on the planet. But fore stay your accusation of Mary Suism! He's not perfect! He has a flaw! He's short.

Seriously, that's it.

Then Stile, when someone starts trying to kill him, accidentally discovers that this fabulously wealthy space utopia has a mysterious other half, a beautiful land of magic with unicorns and demons and stuff. But the two halves are rigidly separated, and what works in one won't work in the other. Good premise: sci-fi and magic get to mix in limited amounts and you can create problems endemic to each that only work in one but which inform the other.

Turns out Stile's the most powerful magician in the other world.

So the Mary Suedom is firmly entrenched. It's still a pretty good story. Sword, sorcery, and author appeal.

One interesting bit is that Anthony definitely shows his age. He was born in '34, so for him a really wildly weird thing would be a woman who hates men! (Yes, he wrote this after feminism. Why do you ask?) She shows up early and is a prominent villain for the first two books. Thing is, she got Anthony lambasted for a pitiful understanding of lesbians, so he decided to include a lesbian in some of the later books in the series. Turns out she was turned into a lesbian when she was raped as a young woman. Yeah, Anthony doesn't really get it.

Anthony's an incredibly prolific writer, publishing several books every year. Although you might have serious issues with the themes and assumptions in his works, and he's not really a top tier author, a lot of his stuff is solid, B-grade material. Especially his older stuff.

Next up: Robert Lynn Aspirin
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