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Friday, April 23, 2010

International SF/F: Does it get an out from the "cliche" argument?

I've been meaning to talk about this subject for a while, and it is result of an experience I had a few weeks ago when the fine folks over at Tor sent me Alexey Pehov's Shadow Prowler.

I am, by all accounts, somewhat more critical of fantasy for its lack of originality than I am of other genres. It's not an unusual position to take, since so many arguments launched against various fantasy titles typically include terms like "derivative" or "Tolkien-esque" and so on. The genre is saturated with familiar tropes. But, as I've argued many times before, a good writer can take a fairly cliche idea and make it good. Additionally, Sometimes the way a book presents itself (i.e. via the cover and the cover synopsis) can alleviate a lot of the knee-jerk reactions readers may have when they discover a new fantasy title. It is this reaction that I want to talk about here.
When I received Shadow Prowler in the mail, I was immediately pleased by the cover (see above), which led me straight to the text on the cover jacket. That is where the problems started. The description of Pehov's story is, to put it mildly, about as cliche as it gets. Read for yourself:
After centuries of calm, the Nameless One is stirring.

An army is gathering; thousands of giants, ogres, and other creatures are joining forces from all across the Desolate Lands, united, for the first time in history, under one, black banner. By the spring, or perhaps sooner, the Nameless One and his forces will be at the walls of the great city of Avendoom.

Unless Shadow Harold, master thief, can find some way to stop them.
Epic fantasy at its best, Shadow Prowler is the first in a trilogy that follows Shadow Harold on his quest for a magic Horn that will restore peace to the Kingdom of Siala. Harold will be accompanied on his quest by an Elfin princess, Miralissa, her elfin escort, and ten Wild Hearts, the most experienced and dangerous fighters in their world…and by the king’s court jester (who may be more than he seems…or less).
Great. Another novel about some Nameless One with elfin princesses and a city so cleverly called Avendoom (ha ha ha, get it, Avendoom...and the city is threatened by the Nameless One). But then I read this and my reaction changed:
Reminiscent of Moorcock's Elric series, Shadow Prowler is the first work to be published in English by the bestselling Russian fantasy author Alexey Pehov. The book was translated by Andrew Bromfield, best known for his work on the highly successful Night Watch series.
Something about the explanation of the texts' origins caused me to pause. A Russian fantasy epic originally published in Russian? A link to another fantastic series by another Russian SF/F great? Suddenly I was interesting and a little inner dialogue shot off in my head:
Me: Oh, well, he's a Russian author writing fantasy. That's interesting.
My Head: So?
Me: So, I want to read it.
My Head: But a minute ago you rolled your eyes and sighed because it sounded too cliche.
Me: Yeah, but that was before I knew he was Russian.
My Head: So, if you're Russian, you can get away with it?
Me: Apparently.
My Head: You realize how stupid that sounds, right?
Me: Quiet, you. You're just my head talking.
While the dialogue didn't proceed exactly as described above, it does provide a basis for the complete turnaround I had when I discovered the novel's origins: translated from Russian. I even gawked at my own idiocy. Why was I suddenly okay with a novel that sounds horribly cliched? Why did the fact that it is an international book change my mind? Stranger yet is the fact that I am/was fully aware of the long tradition of genre fiction in Russian history, dating back centuries. But, there I was, suddenly excited about a novel that only moments before I was about to toss onto my "likely will never read because it's too cliche" pile. Maybe it's a good thing, though. Maybe more reactions like this should happen so that novels like Shadow Prowler don't get lost in the sea of English-based fantasy titles loaded with just as many cliches. Something about that makes me feel strange, though.

To end this, I have a few questions:
--Does international SF/F get an out from the "cliche" argument simply because it is international? (apply this to any international SF/F, not just Russian)
--Is it a good thing that one can go from being annoyed to being excited about a book due entirely to the discovery of its international origins?

I feel uneasy saying yes to the first question, simply because of the stages many developing or developed nations go through in terms of genre fiction (you can, largely speaking, trace the same general literary developments in science fiction in just about every nation, with some exceptions). And, I feel uneasy saying no to the last question, because excitement for any text is a good thing; if my interest in this text leads me to read it and, perhaps, love it, it might engender a willingness to open my mind to more fiction in this particular vein and more fiction from international venues (which I'm already fairly open to, though I don't go out of my way to find the stuff, with exception to Caribbean SF--more on that some other time).

What do you think? Am I insane? Has this ever happened to you?

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  1. For me, I scrutinize foreign authors even more because of all the hype they get for just being foreign, like that is a qualification to write good fiction. So I'm not exactly the same, but it does change my outlook on a book.

  2. That almost seems unfair to the writers, Adam. I guess my position is equally unfair, since I seem to scrutinize writers of my own literary universe (which encompasses writers from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand), and give an out to writers from non-English backgrounds and countries.

    The differences are strange, though.

  3. That's an interesting issue. I'd say "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second. Like you said, it's always nice to be eager to read something, and it says something good about your openness if an international writer is exciting for you.

    I'd probably give the book a shot because the writer's Russian as well, just because that might mean he's doing something new WITHIN the cliche, or the cliche itself is handled differently, or whatever (obviously culture plays a role in making tropes, after all). But if the book is cliched dreck, then it's cliched dreck.

  4. intertribal: Hopefully when I read Shadow Prowler it won't be another cliched garbage bin. I hope the author brings in some Russian folklore or something. But we'll see.

    Thanks for the comment :).

  5. My admittedly limited experience with foreign sf has been to read Russian. One I couldn't finish, and I won't mention here; and the the Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko was fantastic. The thing about the latter stories was that, even though is was a rather typical urban fantasy setting, the prevailing attitudes of the characters were different enough, and their take on life and the events unfolding were different enough that I found it very fresh and interesting.

  6. writtenwyrdd: Night Watch was quite good. The movies were decent. I haven't finished the novels yet, though. I agree with you that what set those novels apart was absolutely a cultural difference. I disagree that they were typical in terms of plot, though (for urban fantasy, anyway), but I might be wrong there.