Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Steel Remains

So I just recently finished Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and I gotta say I’m going to have to noise him up about not sending me an ARC. Well, wind him up, really. Cause, dude, I’d have totally blurbed this if I had the chance. Not that a blurb from me would really help much given the fact that any weight my name holds is probably with a different and way smaller segment of the fantasy market than this book is targeted at. And with Joe Abercrombie giving his seal of approval who the fuck needs my drip of wax? Heh, I was chatting to Morgan about this at Utopiales last year, actually, and if I recall correctly he said that they had actually considered sending one to me but been reticent about it, thinking it might have been a bit… gauche or something. Like, hey, Hal, you’re *gay*; you might like this epic fantasy book what I wrote, cause it’s, like, got a *gay* protagonist, and obviously, you being *gay* and all, well, that’s like the definitive feature of you as a person, what your life is all about, reading preferences included, so you should like this *gay* protagonistised epic fantasy. I can’t remember what I said at the time, but I hope it was something along the lines of “heh.”

As it is, I did come to the book interested to see how that gay protagonist was handled, though equally interested in the whole idea of applying the noir idiom in epic fantasy. With the first, I was intrigued to see how well a straight male writer, working firmly in the hardboiled school of fiction — an idiom largely notable for its adrenaline (and perhaps testosterone) fuelled action — might succeed at crafting a gay protagonist that felt authentic, identifiable. I had some vague notions, a sneaky suspicion that Morgan might well pull this off quite neatly, for reasons over and above his being a good writer. But we’ll come to that in a bit. With the last, this is stepping into the territory of worldscapes and their aesthetics, territory I’ve written about before; so as well as a matter of how well the approach actually worked in the book, I was curious as to how a noir epic fantasy would sit in relation to the sort of fantasies I described in the “Forces of Strange Fiction” essay in terms of aesthetics —idyllic, baroque, neo-primitive, grotesque and so on. Again I had some sneaky suspicions. Again we’ll come to those.

If you haven’t read the book at all then, a brief précis: In a traditional fantasy elsewhen, Ringil Eskiath is the battle-worn hero of a past war against inhuman monsters that devolved into a very human (and very brutal) politico-territorial struggle between rival cultures (the League, centred on the city of Trelayne, Ringil’s home town, and the Empire, centred on the city of Yhelteth) pretty much as soon as the monsters were dispatched. We meet him years later, languishing in the obscurity of a small town on the edge of nowhere, surviving on his fame in the local tavern, partly because of his disillusionment with soldiering, and partly because this obscurity means he has a certain leeway in a culture that doesn’t look too kindly on his sexual tastes. The League and the Empire are both pretty intolerant when it comes to teh queers — just how intolerant we’ll presently find out.

Anyway, the plot is kick-started when Ringil’s mother shows up in town crowbar him into searching for a cousin who’s been sold into slavery. As Ringil returns to Trelayne and sets out to noise up some of his old connections in the underworld of drugs and deviance, two of his old comrades — a Steppe Nomad called Egar, and Archeth, adviser to the Yhelteth Emperor and last remnant of the technologically advanced Kiriath, who’ve disappeared off into a metaphysical wilderness — are dealing with their own problems. As the quirks of strange goings on slowly become more and more afoot the stage is set for these mysteries to gradually cohere into a Big Picture, bringing these three protagonists together. And that’s really all you need to know right now.

So what’s the result? I mean, what’s the book like as a read? Well, if I were blurbing it I’d probably say it was a “blisteringly ballsy, head-butting, two-fisted, wiry, little motherfucker of an epic fantasy.” It’s got taut prose, a great gallows-humour tone in parts, the gravitas of grim humanism narrowing its eyes defiantly in others, things to say and a plot to say them in, a narrative that grips you with its gradual gathering of mysteries and momentum, all drawing you on towards the bitter bloodbath of the full-steam-ahead finale. As Abercrombie put it, quite rightly, “Bold, brutal and making no compromises — Morgan doesn’t so much twist the clichés of fantasy as take an axe to them. Then set them on fire. Then put them out by pissing on them.” Sadly they dropped the “pissing” line from the cover, (so I guess my pottymouth would have put me in the "thanks, but no thanks" category anyway, as regards blurbage,) which is a shame. It’s also a level of coyness that doesn’t seem entirely apt for a book that might give me a run for my money in the “Most Uses of the Word Fuck in a Paragraph” stakes. Might, I say. I read a review somewhere that classed five fucks in one paragraph of The Steel Remains as extreme. Fuck, man, I could fucking happily use the word fuck five fucking times in a fucking sentence, never mind a fucking paragraph. Whatever, this earthiness is part of Morgan’s general noir approach, part of the no-nonsense hardboiled aesthetic where soldiers talk like soldiers and people fuck like people. Shit stinks, blood is messy, and people don’t just say fuck, they do fuck. Not as often as some of the reviews might have led you to believe, but graphically, vigourously, cock in arse and cumshot included. This is not a book for the prissy. No, I take that back. This is a book for the prissy. Fuck ‘em. They need a good slapping.

Now, leaving aside the non-issue of “excessive” swearing, the ubiquity of it might be part of a different problem for a reader, in terms of vocabulary. Morgan has generally selected to have his characters, (at all levels of society,) communicating with each other in an informal vocabulary of yeahs and g’nights and suchlike. Ringil calling his father “Dad,” for example. For the most part — with the three protagonists, say — it’s no big deal. We’re dealing with characters for whom the artifices of social standards are no high priority. But here and there, as a reader, you occasionally run into a clash between your expectations of a higher register and a sense of casual modernity imparted by the language. Where the dialogue of characters like Ringil’s mother or the Emperor sometimes seems absent of any particular sign of their class, or where the word “fuck” slips into the speech of Ringil’s father, or that of Kaad, the enforcer of the rigid moral orthodoxy in Trelayne, there are points where it’s momentarily jarring. But Morgan hasn’t eschewed formality, simply toned it down, applied it selectively rather than slathering it on with a trowel. In the prickish pomp of Kaad or his son, in the Emperor’s more affected moments, you’ll still see a heightening of register indicative of power and privilege. What has actually been stripped away is, arguably, any affectation of archaicism in the prose. There’s no interest here in an artificial elevation of import, in having the characters verbiate in the “grandiose” idiom of the epic VIPs just so we know they’re not proles. But so what? That sort of linguistic window-dressing’s never convinced me, to be honest. Given our beloved Prince Harry’s penchant for words like “paki” or “raghead” I’m betting his namesake at Agincourt wasn’t that much more refined in his speech. So if you’re not going for “mayhap” instead of “maybe”, “verily” instead of “for sure”, and so on, why use “yea” and “aye” rather than the “yes” and “yeah” that are their analogues? Maybe this is just because as a Scot, I can happily read Hamlet’s “Aye, there’s the rub,” as ”Yeah, there’s the rub.” Either way, I think the initial surprise of running into an unexpected “yeah” or “Dad” wore off pretty quick for me, and in the end I found the approach refreshing.

“Yes, noble sir? How may I be of service?” says a character to Ringil at one point.

“Well, you can knock off the ornate honorifics, for a start,” Ringil responds.

This is all part of the injection of noir idiom, I think. The fat of epic is flensed. Window-dressing is just flab, and if you want that narrative to hit the ground running it can’t be carrying that extra weight. No nonsense? Baby, in the aesthetic of noir the whole damn world is nonsense — airs and graces, pipe-dreams and delusions of grandeur around the dog-eat-dog reality. Noir is about the players and the game they’re playing, about making the move, not studying the intricate carving of the chess pieces. You don’t spend a paragraph describing the fussy splendour of a throne. You kick it to one side in a single sentence to see who the power behind it is. So, in The Steel Remains the background is just that, all those splendorous vistas of wilderness and cityscape left for the travelogue tomes that build other epic fantasy worlds. The cultures of Trelayne and Yhelteth may reflect a European history of mercantile city-states and palaces, and we’re certainly thrown into big city subterfuge in Trelayne, court politics in Yhelteth, but there is little of the baroque or the byzantine to the way they’re represented, no fetishization of architectural complexity. It’s not that the worldscape isn’t vivid, just that it isn’t dwelled on. Don’t have time for that, mate. There’s work to be done. Morgan is not Tolkien, and thank fuck for that. No ten thousand pages of the heroes walking through a forest. No five million of them climbing up a fucking mountain. No interminable versification upon the noble ancestry of elves so tediously classy (in all senses of the word) you want to get right up to into their bodyspace, lean in too close for comfort, and say, “You shore do have a purty mouth.”

The “dwenda” being Morgan’s elf-analogue, (by way of Moorcock’s Melnibonéans,) an ancient race long-since absconded from the world, shrouded in myth and legend, revered by some, feared by others, what are Ringil’s first words to the lightning-fast, lithe threat of the dwenda Seethlaw, gracile and mysterious, beautiful and powerful, subject of whispers and rumours of pure awe that have built him up even before his first appearance?

“Come on, then, you pixie-faced piece of shit. You think you can take me?”

This is not hubris on Ringil’s part. Rather it’s the pugilistic, humanistic recognition of the hubris of all those who would normally be the overlords of the epic idiom, heroes and villains alike. It’s the single-blow sucker-punch that might not deck the self-important but, fuck it, it’s worth a shot. The noir underdog sees through the sham, smells the bullshit. They’re not as big as they think they are.

What others have picked up on, in comparing the effect of all this “cut the crap” cynicism to those fantasies of Lieber and Howard etc. that are not so much epic as heroic is, I think, the fact that noir isn’t actually an alien aesthetic to fantasy at all, but rather has been there from its roots, in what I tend to label a “neo-primitive” aesthetic. In “The Forces of Strange Fiction” I described the way the secondary world “may well be rationalised as another planet, a prehistoric past or a post-apocalypse future. And there's a corresponding slide from the wonders of the idyllic and the baroque here, to a sense of the world as existential wilderness, the moral vacuum of a wild world, all too human kingdoms ruled by all too human powers. The Epic quest is replaced by Heroic mission(s), the narrative structured as episodic adventure, focused on the Romantic hero as noble savage or honest rogue. Ultimately this is deconstructed in the New Wave by the full-on anti-heroism of Decadent protagonists, writers seeking to directly critique the reactionary politics of the genre, the fascism of power-fantasy, or even, in Harrison's case, the whole aesthetic foundation of secondary world fantasy.” Much of Morgan’s book fits that pattern. Rationalisation? We have: the world’s sky strewn with a “band” that appears to be our shattered moon; magic that suggests it might unravel to technology; ruined structures that indicate a past deep enough it could be our future. Existentialism? There’s no romance to nature, no sense of intrinsic Good or Evil, inbuilt meaning, just the sort of raw territory that we live in here and now, mud and stone, squabbled over by slavers. Quest or mission? Ringil’s search for his cousin is a rogue’s errand, a private eye’s investigation, the heroism of the sword-for-hire. Heroism itself? Time and again The Steel Remains asserts the modernity of its outlook, the fact that what it really all comes down to is survival… and living with yourself after you’ve done what’s necessary to achieve that. The only black and white in noir is in the film stock; morally speaking, everything is shades of grey, the grey of a concrete sidewalk or cigarette ash. In the neo-primitive aesthetic, it’s the grey of a stone outcrop at dusk or the grey in the hair of a war-veteran. It’s the same grey though. I like that Morgan’s epic fantasy, in many respects, sits better with heroic fantasy or swords & sorcery. It’s not that injecting a bit of noir into the genre is new (or original, innovative, genre-shaking, boundary-breaking, blah blah fucking blah). It’s that it’s honest.

Which brings us to the whole gay protagonist thing. Because the treatment of homosexuality is bloody refreshingly honest. Now, as much as it’s nice to see a queer central character in this kind of solidly mainstream genre fiction, it’s not the fact that it’s there at all that pleases me. And while I’m entirely happy to read graphic portrayals of gay sex acts, it’s not that I celebrate the openness itself, for representing some kind of political affirmation or pornographic pleasure. And for all that I think Morgan has done an excellent job in presenting a gay protagonist without stereotyping or falling into any of the potential traps of well-intentioned misrepresentation, crafting a thoroughly plausible Ringil whose sexuality doesn’t define him in some essentialist way but whose experience of, and reaction to, the treatment his society metes out on gays has had a profound effect on how he relates to it — as much as I hereby stamp my patented Elders of Sodom Seal of Approval on Ringil as a rounded portrayal of a protagonist-who-is-gay, it’s not even that I find most refreshingly honest. Although all of these things are sort of related factors.

I mean, of the reviews I’ve seen that have noted the gay sex angle, it seems like there are two various opinions around those issues. Some have treated the use of a gay protagonist as important in and of itself, innovative even. Some have pointed to other gay protagonists in mainstream fantasy to question just how innovative it is. Some have considered the graphic nature of the sex right-on, it being only just for Morgan to treat gay sex the way he would straight sex. Some have found it excessive, suggesting that political idealism or shrewd controversialism have led to the boat being pushed out further here than it would be with straight sex, to the detriment of the work. Most have, from what I’ve seen, praised the characterisation of Ringil as a full-formed human being. To my mind though, they've all kind of missed something that struck me immediately — that there’s a quite rare portrayal (outside gay fiction by gay writers) of the carnality of gay desire, the degree to which it is a damn sight more physical than most of the fundamentally anodyne representations of male-male desire that render it as some sort of romantic yearning. At its worst this is the "written by women for women" model of slash -- gay men as emasculated aesthetes, with desires rooted, no matter how graphic the sex is, in the heart rather than the cock. It’s about the aesthetic and emotional attraction, not fucking, and even when it’s done with the best of intentions and the greatest of skill, it’s just too damn sensitive. I mean, I’m sure it’s an accurate representation of one aspect of gay desire, but that’s just it: it’s one aspect. It’s a very positive aspect. But that just makes it a fucking safe typification, all moonlight and no meat.

As a flipside of heteronormativity it’s like there’s a sort of homonormativity, a fantasy that the carnal desires of gay men are not, by definition, a subset of the carnal desires of men, and an assumptive characterisation that grows out of this fantasy, that the flipping of sexual attraction goes hand-in-hand with a flipping of all those social behaviours and attitudes centred around sex. Even where feminism tells us to get past the heteronormative notion that straight men’s hormones make them all about the conquest and straight women’s make them all about the romance (and it can quite as easily tell us to question if maybe that’s a valid generalisation of psychology and we therefore need to deal with its political ramifications,) we seem to work on the principle that gay men must be from Venus cause they’re attracted to those Martians. They like musicals and shopping and fashion and gossip. They love the theatre and the arts, not sports and cars. They’re so much more sensitive. Hell, a lot of this stereotype may have a huge wad of applicability to it. But when it comes to sex it’s all about the body parts.

This is more than just not making him effete or falling into an artificed roleplay of butchness just to make it clear that teh gays can be manly too. Ringil captures, for me, a stereotypically "masculine" aspect of potential gay identity: that straightforward, shameless, follow-the-direction-your-dick-is-pointing mentality that's ascribed to straight males but neglected when it comes to gays -- despite the fact that what we're basically talking about is guys who fuck and / or are fucked by guys. It’s not overstated. We don’t see him as a tom-cat out on the prowl. We don’t see him being a dog to some one-night-stand who was expecting more. But he’s a breath of fresh air amid the cosily affirmative representations of gay desire as a lovely thing which happens when one lovely man feels a lovely love for another man who he thinks is lovely. Which is to say, the way Ringil desires, the honest lust of it, the easy severing of ties afterwards, the — to put it crudely — getting your end away vibe of it rings true for me in a way a lot of other gay characters don't.

So it’s not that Ringil has sex that matters. It’s how he has sex. See, Ringil is a cocksucker. He admits this freely, asserts it defiantly. He sucks cock. In the passing references to his sexual behaviour early on, it’s left vague as to what role he has played in these casual encounters, but his self-characterisation is generally as a passive partner, and in a languid scene of post-coital playfulness with an old contact in the underworld, Milacar, the overwhelming implication is that Ringil has just given his old friend a blow-job. Note the words “references” and “implication” in that sentence. The cum-splattering is not lurking round every corner. The hardcore sex doesn’t happen as often in the book as some readers seem to think it does — as if the intensity of the representation has seared an after-image on their retina, left them with the impression that we see more than we do. In fact, it’s only when Ringil hooks up with one particular character, a good way into the book, that we get two fully-fledged sex-scenes. We see him getting his cock sucked and his ass fucked. Then we see him, in a very brief scene that takes up no more than half a page, fucking.

Now there are interesting points that emerge out of all those very specific details of exactly who is doing what and to whom. For a good while, because of the general drift of assertions, vague references and specific implications, I was wondering if Morgan was doing something really sharp here in subtly specifying Ringil’s tastes as passive, making him a bottom. Because there’s not just gay, you know; there’s catchers and pitchers, tops and bottoms, active and passive. And much of what we see or are clued in on, might well leave you with the impression that he fits the latter category. This, of course, gets to the core of a certain aspect of homophobia (as evident in the institutionalised rape of the Academy) where it’s all fine and dandy to be the “man”, the “dominant” penetrator, fucking or having your cock sucked by your “submissive”, feminised, sexually-subjugated “bitch”. I was wondering for a while if Morgan was pointedly addressing that sexual dynamic, in terms of its erotic reality and ramifications: how that passivity may factor up into social relationships (with Ringil under Milacar’s wing in the past); how the aspect of role-play to it all means those relationships may not be straightforward (with Ringil happy to suck Milacar’s cock in the present but quite socially and emotionally independent of him, possibly even more empowered by the subtle control gained in being the pleasure-giver); how it may not factor up at all (with Ringil as a decidedly active individual, not just a soldier but a leader); and how and where it comes into conflict with moral prejudice (with Ringil’s traumatic loss of the man he loved to a pointedly penetrative execution). This sort of specificity earns you far more brownie points in my book than an indifference to any distinctions.

This isn’t quite the way it goes though… but that’s not a bad thing. When we see Ringil get his cock sucked it’s an indication that he’s not wholly a bottom, and the final sex scene presents him as being eminently comfortable in the role of top, so it’s ultimately not as simple as “Ringil’s a bottom but let’s see how that doesn’t make him anyone’s ‘bitch’.” Ultimately, like a large proportion of gay men, he’s versatile, happy to be either top or bottom. Still, in Ringil’s self-characterisation as a cocksucker, Morgan addresses all those themes by giving us a Ringil who knows precisely what the issue is for many moralists and sees that as exactly the territory to make his stand. The dynamics is still understood, dealt with; it’s just that Ringil doesn’t fit into either of the more distinct types. He’s just full-on about his right to play that role if he fucking well wants to. And entirely in keeping with Ringil’s pointed purpose in bringing it down to the nuts-and-bolts crudity of the forbidden act, Morgan gives us his key sex scene as a blunt reality that puts the whole power-differential through the wringer — in the more complex sexual dynamic of one gay guy seducing another, blowing him not just as a submissive “bitch” but as the one in control, pleasuring him, playing him, preparing him, and then topping him to fuck him up the ass. And from the perspective of the guy it’s happening to. Because that’s what it’s all about — not the right to be what you were born to be, not the right to be what you want to be, not the right to make love to whomever you want, but the right to fuck whomever you want, and as much, if not more so, the right to be fucked by them.

And again, the graphic nature of it all is essential in its honesty — that second scene, where Ringil is the top, stamping its authenticity with the fact that it’s entirely about the flesh, the physical rather than emotional connection, right down to the specific detail of Ringil being brought to orgasm not just by the sensation of his cock in someone else’s arse, but by the feel of their cock in his hand. He gets off on the fact that he’s getting someone off, physically; there’s a sort of deep communion there, yes, but it’s of sensations rather than souls. And partly he just gets off on the feel of a hard dick in his hand, like the bona fide cock-loving, cock-fetishizing gay guy that he is. Where Morgan, from a straight male perspective, could have just mapped the orifices, understood gay sex on the principle of comparable sensations in comparable locations, that little detail captures a subtlety of desire so neatly I just have to take my hat off to him. That, above all else, is what makes Ringil thoroughly authentic.

So, all in all, I may be a little biased, appreciating The Steel Remains for its successes in these particular respects that I’m not really interested in judging it on other grounds. I’m pretty sure some of that contemporary-flavoured dialogue will be seen as a flaw by many readers and that other effects of the whole noir/neo-primitive aesthetic will cause problems for some. I’m sure I could find something to niggle about myself, if I looked hard enough but I really don’t care to. I just enjoyed the hell out of it and will be happily waiting to see where Morgan takes us with the next one.


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