Interesting, if old, post by M. John Harrison

edited March 2010 in Story Games
...of Viriconium fame. I thought about posting this in the "stuff to watch" thread, but it's nine years old, so...
http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/viriconium/

Two passages that might be of interest to us as gamers and designers:
The commercial fantasy that has replaced them is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else’s metaphor, or realise someone else’s rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images.
Viriconium manipulates map-to-ground expectations to imply a depth that isn’t there. Tolkien does the same thing. Or do you think that Tolkien somehow manages to unload an actual landscape into your living room? If you believe that, get treatment.
Thoughts?

Comments

  • Obviously literature and games are doing different things, but they do overlap, especially in the idea of transporting the participant.

    MJH is a fan of negative capability, it's a core concept in his approach to writing. And there's quite a lot of discussion about this article on the Forge and elsewhere in gaming circles.
  • I've written about this quite a bit on my blog. I'm of a mind to say that part of the glory of fantasy literature in general and fantasy gaming in particular is that:

    a) It's a broad church. There's a spectrum running from Viriconium or Mythgard on one side to Middle-Earth, Westeros etc. on the other, and in the end you don't have to choose which you like best. I love the undiluted poetic power of Viriconium's images, but I also like arguments about whether balrogs have wings. You can have both;

    b) There's a tension in fantasy between the desire for awe-inspiring, unlimited imagination expansion, and the desire to catalogue, systematise and 'banalify' the amazingly creative things the mind can come up with. That tension provides a lot of what's compelling about the genre.

    M. John Harrison's a great writer but on this I think he's way off.
  • And here's the Forge discussion.
  • We ourselves had a discussion on another bit of similar cruft from this idiot, I mean thinker.
  • I think that's unfair. His project is different from that if gamers and his point of view, in literary terms, is no less valid.
  • Posted By: GB SteveI think that's unfair. His project is different from that if gamers and his point of view, in literary terms, is no less valid.
    It's not right for him to denigrate something that people enjoy doing, though. There's not much difference between what he wrote in that link and standing in a school playground and pointing at somebody while yelling "Nerd!"
  • There is a vast gulf between bad art and bad entertainment. Harrison's claim is that a particular strain of fantasy is bad art. That doesn't make it not entertaining.

    I expect he's more or less right about the pernicious influence of systematization and concreteness on fantastic literature as literature. There may possibly be (I've seen some evidence of it) a similar impact on RPG play that caters to the same impulse - it becomes pastiche rather than creation.

    But then again, most RPG play is much more about entertainment than art. And that's fine.
  • A part of play is exploration. Finding answers. We play roleplaying games so that we can pursue the answers to things that interest us and explore the results of character actions that we choose. So, I don't think that we can compare roleplaying games to literature in terms of how Harrison is discussing it. I don't think we can possibly have a roleplaying game that doesn't do what Harrison describes.
  • Posted By: GB SteveI think that's unfair. His project is different from that if gamers and his point of view, in literary terms, is no less valid.
    Well, I mean, the guy basically says "Victor Hugo? Fuck that guy, I mean, fuck Victor Hugo, that's basically what I'm saying, and also Dickens and Balzac and all those assholes. Scrooge didn't look like anything, right? And what's all that shit in Moby Dick about whaling?"
  • edited March 2010
    Posted By: JDCorleyWell, I mean, the guy basically says "Victor Hugo? Fuck that guy, I mean, fuck Victor Hugo, that's basically what I'm saying, and also Dickens and Balzac and all those assholes. Scrooge didn't look likeanything, right? And what's all that shit in Moby Dick about whaling?"
    Harrison is specifically talking about SF and fantasy, and in particular 'high' fantasy, so your examples don't fit.

    I understand his point. High fantasy is based on the numinous, as in Ursula Le Guin's dichotomy between "Elfland" and "Poughkeepsie". And the point of Tolkien's story "Smith Of Wooton-Major" is that, if you've been to the real Fairyland, you're not going to be able to remember what it was like when you return to the real world.

    Roleplaying fantasy is certainly valid. It's just not the same thing as a fantasy story. And RPGs that try to emulate existing high fantasy worlds make me uncomfortable, specifically because of the "category error" Harrison describes. I'm not ruling out all high-fantasy RPGs; just that you'd need to make up your own world, and the rules should ideally be very low-crunch high-storytelling, like Mortal Coil.
  • Posted By: snejHarrison is specifically talking about SF and fantasy, and in particular 'high' fantasy, so your examples don't fit.
    Well, but the thing he identifies about fantasy that compels his position is that it's metaphorical. There isn't a "OH COME ON" that is loud enough to reply to this.
  • I am still in complete agreement with Harrison.
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