Friday, July 3, 2015

Chicago Nerds: The Goblin Emperor

For the last meeting of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, we discussed “The Goblin Emperor” (2014) by Katherine Addison. The novel is currently nominated for the Hugo Award and, if you've been following the whole kerfuffle this year, is one of the non-Puppy nominees.

“The Goblin Emperor” takes place in an alternate world—not Earth-related—in which the dominant civilizations seem to be in the steam age. There are at least two races—goblins and elves—which seem to be more like human races than your typical fantasy species-like races: relatively cosmetic differences, not reproductively distinct, with many characters of mixed heritage and racial “purity” more of a construct than a reality. There is some magic, of a very practical and effective nature, but it is totally in the backseat to a slightly steampunky/clockworky technology (airships and Industrial-Era-type factories loom large). Our titular character, Maia, is the youngest, essentially exiled son of the emperor of the Elflands, to whom the succession rather precipitously shifts. So we follow a young and largely-unprepared character thrust into the highest level of court intrigues, where he must find his way.

THOUGHTS and, just possibly, SPOILERS BELOW:

Our feelings about the book largely divided into “how well we could deal with/ignore the naming & language issues”--the majority of us liked the book, while pointing out that as an issue, and for a few us the difficulty of following who was who outweighed the good stuff going on here.

So let's just get that out of the way: there are some prohibitive issues with invented language here. And I am not averse to conlang-heavy works: while they can make for a difficult read, they can also pay off in depth of worldbuilding, or in conveying interesting concepts.

Tolkien is the type case—where several well-thought-out languages underlie names and phrases and bits of poetry. One could also point to the slang and neologisms in works like “1984” (Orwell, 1948) or “A Clockwork Orange” (Burgess, 1962). Or—in a very different vein—some of the invented languages in SF works like Cherryh's excellent but difficult “Hunter of Worlds” (1977), which can sometimes have more invented words in a sentence than English, but still make it work.

Conlangs in spec fic are a balancing act—how much burden you're putting on the reader (difficulty of retaining/comprehending brand new words that may not make sense from context) vs. the payoff (worldbuilding, cognitive estrangement, expressing new concepts). And that in turn needs to be balanced against the length and style of the work, how much space readers have to learn new terms. Some of the best SF/F revolving around language—Elgin's “Native Tongue” (1984), Delany's “Babel-17” (1966), Mieville's “Embassytown” (2011), for example--actually use startlingly few conlang words, and they work fine.

“The Goblin Emperor”, unfortunately, doesn't feel very balanced in terms of how many alien words (primarily names) one has to keep track of. It's a wholly invented world, so there's no names based on Earthly traditions. All well and good. But:
  • Characters have surnames & given names. They may be referred to by either.
  • The main character also must adopt a royal name when he is crowned.
  • Characters may also be referred to by their house, position, role, etc—many with their own conlang terms. Totally legit, and the way you find it actually done in actual societies. But:
  • There are a LOT of characters.
That can lead to three or four (or more!) ways that any given character can be called, and, except for our protagonist, we're not given a whole ton of time with them to fix them and all their many names in our head.

Result: intensely confusing in many scenes, with most of a very large cast very easy to jumble together/forget about.

Also, and this is not a criticism so much as a note--"Maia" is an earthly name, a female name connected to motherhood, which perhaps (and perhaps intentionally) contributes to a somewhat feminine reading of the character. Purely a personal note, but my first association for the name is from the children's book "Maia: A Dinosaur Grows Up" by Jack Horner (1989).
Which originally came with a
plush hadrosaur. Now you know.
THAT ASIDE, as I said, many/most of us really liked the novel. There's nothing particularly new here, but nonetheless it's refreshingly different in plotting. There's no big violent plot, not even a whole lot in the way of the way of dramatic reveals--Maia is just a pretty good character, who tries to do the best/smartest thing he can throughout a series of events. That's kind of different, and while some might not like it--it took me a while to realize that oh, there isn't going to be a big standard arc-plot here to carry us through--some of us found that pretty satisfying.

Also: a high fantasy story where problems are not primarily resolved through violence. That's pretty cool.

This book quietly addresses some issues of race, sex, and class. We liked that, but for me it's a little too quiet. I get frustrated with fictional works that recreate an oppressive institution (extreme patriarchal sexism, for instance) and then seem to want us to applaud their characters for fighting/not conforming to that system a little--it's a good sentiment, but why not have a more radical critique? And, if you're not going to radically challenge the "ism" in question, why create a world where it's solidly in power in the first place? Having some awesome female characters front and center would have impressed me more than slightly undermining several sexist institutions (arranged marriage, exclusion from certain branches of military/security).

In a very similar fashion, I became very frustrated with the stratified castes here--or rather, with how much we seem to be meant to like Maia for eschewing them slightly and treating people more equally. It's great that he does that! But it places it in this vein of historical fantasy where servitude and serfdom seem excusable or even good, so long as the masters are nice, and that drives me up the wall. Reminds me of Le Guin's criticism of LOTR: "and there's Sam, who keeps saying 'sir' to Frodo until one begins to have mad visions of founding a Hobbit Socialist Party" ("The Staring Eye", 1974).

Likewise the slight criticism of entrenched classist systems here--especially given the presence of bomb-throwing communist elves (new band name, BTW) and the general historical feel (right before the revolution), I was ready for the fantastic-stand-in-for-the-Bastille to come down. But no go.

At group a lot of us were really keen on some of the female characters--Maia's betrothed, and the glimpses we get of this sort of community of independent female scholars and researchers, and wished we'd had more time with them. We also liked how race was dealt with, the huge number of people of "mixed heritage", but the society largely pretending that one is "either" goblin or elf in a way that, to the reader at least, is clearly hypocritical. Maia's maternal grandfather, the definitely goblin king of the goblins, was one of our favorite characters.

Actually, with some pointy ears
and a skin-tone adjustment,
Dudley would be kinda goblin-y.
In many ways this felt like a YA work, and taking that stance actually makes it easier to approach. It's very much a coming-of-age story, with Maia learning self-confidence etc., and it's a very internally/emotionally focused narrative. There's a kind of YAish straightforwardness to the style--this thing happens, and here is how Maia feels about it, and later that experience helps him to act in this way, and here is how Maia feels about that. And it's a little angsty, but not too much--Maia is just a pleasant character, always wants to do right, never really acts selfishly, may be ignorant but never strikes one as acting unintelligently given what he knows. Depending on one's mood he might be a little saccharine--I overheard that Chi-SF's discussion of this book, which I unfortunately missed, referred to him as Dudley (as in Do-Right)--but after I figured out how things worked in the novel, I found it quite nice. So often the plot of a book relies on characters making really dumb choices and then figuring out how to fix the situation; it's refreshing to have a character just try (fairly successfully) to make the right decision every time.

Good discussion! Also we talked about Daenerys' clubbing outfits.

The next selection for the Chicago Nerds Book Club is Dan Simmons' "Hyperion" (1989).

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