China Miéville on The Walrus & the Warwolf!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Many of you already hip to the Planet Stories line likely already know about China Miéville's enthusiasm for Hugh Cook, the recently deceased New Zealand author whose capacity for bizarre and captivating fantasy worlds which staunchly refused to leave out any SF element (from magic to tech, dragons to pirates) was matched only by his ambition as an author (in which many thousands of published pages were considered just the tip of the iceberg). And China's not alone—Paizo publisher Erik Mona has spoken long and eloquently on this site before about how much he loved Cook's writing, and how republishing The Walrus & the Warwolf is a lifelong goal of his.

Walrus and the Warwolf
Illustration by Kieran Yanner

As such, in honor of the impact Cook has made on countless fans and authors—and on the world of Golarion itself—Planet Stories and China Miéville have teamed up to offer China's entire introduction to the book here on this blog, for free. It's our sincere hope that, after reading it, you'll understand why we thought this guy deserved to stand alongside better-known authors like Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock in the Planet Stories line. (And as far as we're concerned, if China can't convince you Hugh Cook is worth reading, no one can.)

Warning: Strong language below! But then, what do you expect from pirates?

In Praise of Stupid Boys

by China Miéville

Of Hugh Cook's extraordinary, underrated, bizarre and hysterical decology, Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, The Walrus & the Warwolf has long been a, if not the, reader favourite. Let's be clear: the whole series urgently needs rediscovery—each book (all standalone) for its own specifics, as well as for the astonishing audacity with which Cook tangles them. Not only do they cross over and back and through each other book to book, but like a kind of pulp Rashomon-monger, he might repeat the exact same scene several books apart, described from two contradictory points of view, so only the most faithful readers will get the joke. The hope is that having been hooked by the following story of Drake Douay, readers will go on to The Wizards & the Warriors, The Women & the Warlords, and the later, more arcanely double-W-ing titles (from which paradigm Cook, with the torturous rigour of any Oulipian prankster—like Georges Perec, who wrote an entire novel without the letter "e"—admirably refused to budge. The Werewolf & the Wormlord? Really?).

But while every one is a must-read, it's easy to see why The Walrus & the Warwolf is perhaps the favourite. This epic picaresque of Drake's adventures is astoundingly full of stuff, precisely the stuff that gets our sweet spots. Pirates! Monsters! Wizards! Battles! Pirates! Sex! Pirates! Misunderstood robots from an ancient high-tech past! Really excellent monsters! Etc! Also pirates!

Each of those elements and others deserves an introduction of its own. What follows are a few thoughts only.

On the question of monsters, Cook brilliantly has it both ways. On the one hand, what we want from our fantasy beasts is familiarity. We want to see what an author can do with the traditional figures we know well—the gryphons, the unicorns, the... alright, let's use the D-word... the dragons. On the other hand, especially in these post-Lovecraft days, we want monsters that are completely new, totally alien, without any remembered fabular cognates. These are quite contradictory ways of relating to fantastic bodies, and authors generally simply have to choose one or the other to indulge. Cook, however, refuses to. Instead, he draws a border—a physical border, at the bottom of his map. To the north of it live dragons and their familiar folkloroid compadres; to the south, the Swarm, incomprehensible insecto-alien monstrosities, like the Neversh, of terrifying, carefully described but almost impossible to visualise alien forms. So by a kind of Promethean arithmetic, Cook just adds the new-monstrous to the old.

Sex: this book is filthy. What it is not is graphic: there's very little by way of descriptions of plunging manhoods, secret intimate spots, throbbing members or rosebuds, nor those bits and pieces by any of their more R-rated names. This is not a book designed to get you hot. What there is, though, is much braver: a cheerfully unflustered and en-passant depiction of sexual mores that are very not our own. That does not mean what one might call the "Gor option"—a titillating sprinkle of some sexist middlebrow wank-fodder that a few authors might think would spark up a secondary world. No, Cook considers it much less likely that his locals will dress in fetching BDSM straps than that they will, say, not share our most fundamental taboos. Such as, to mention a memorable scene from early on in the book, the one about incest.

Not that this particular intimate chat between Drake and his sister is pruriently indulged: it is played for laughs. It takes a very unusual kind of narrative confidence to make that joke, and make it work.

It's a similar technique of light-hearted seriousness that gets Cook past a usual dashing-rogue/merciless-baddy dyad with regard to pirates. Running away to sea with a group of swashbucklers is an old fantasy, of course, and its enthusiastic indulgence is part of what makes The Walrus & the Warwolf unputdownable. But this isn't Johnny Depp we're talking about, let alone Orlando Bloom. Piracy means ruthlessness. So when faced with attacking sea serpents, Drake's sincerely admired captain doesn't hesitate, in a scene neither indulged for mawkish horror nor giggled at in sadistic glee but merely mentioned, to throw the ship's women overboard, to drown or be eaten alive. The captain is Jon Arabin, the Warwolf of the title, and he is, in terms of the narrative, not at all a villain. Nor an "anti-hero." What he is is a pirate.

There are countless more elements and complicated sequences of events that go to make up Drake's story. What makes Cook's achievement so extraordinary, throughout the course of this discombobulated epic soup, is the relationship of his protagonist to time, adulthood, and change.

One of the many wonderful things about humans is that, and how much, we learn. Not just in classrooms and libraries, but everybloodywhere, simply as a byproduct of living in time. We change, and that—not counting the physical process, which pretty much just sucks—is wholeheartedly exciting. Writers have long known that, which is why as well as the whizz-bang events of any book, as well as all the helicopter chases, giant-monkey hunts and sexual shenanigans, part of what makes us love a story is watching the characters develop. They aren't static. Character plus time equals narrative.

This matters. It's about more than just entertainment or spinning a decent yarn (with neither of which, of course, is there anything wrong). It's about respect for one's characters, and is a corollary of great emancipatory shifts in human consciousness. There's nothing a powerful status quo likes more than, well, a status quo—the sense that everything will and must stay as it is. Foregrounding a character's change, by contrast, is a threat to tedious homilies of stasis, and it's no coincidence that the emergence of the most highly developed and self-conscious form of this genre was part of that revolutionary ruckus in reason, politics, aesthetics and everything else that we call the Enlightenment. In the second half of the 18th Century, Germany, that indefatigable compound neologiser, gave a name to the radical "novel of development," and it is as the Bildungsroman that we still know it.

This isn't just history, either. Anyone who reads the tale of a boy-wizard to see how he turns out, why, and what happens to him on the way, or who recalls how a callow Tattooine moisture-farmer ends up, several adventures later, a self-possessed Jedi, understands that the Bildungsroman is alive and well—and particularly healthy in its incarnation as the "epic" that SF and fantasy readers love. It's in Fantasyland that kitchen boys tend to become kings, which as well as upgrading your wardrobe has got to mess with your preconceptions. The best stories show us precisely that messy, amazing dialectic of continuity and change—let us watch, in other words, the dynamic process of being human.

Got all that? Hugh Cook does.

You can tell by the brio with which he ignores it.

Like, totally fucking ignores it.

Drake Douay learns nothing. He has no interest in learning anything. He is vehemently antipathetic to the furniture of "growing up." The Walrus & the Warwolf is a magnificent paean to adolescence, in all its sulky, petulant, self-important refusal to defer gratification, or to consider anyone else's feelings for one second.

In one of the most telling of the book's labyrinthine subplots, Drake is infected with nanobots that make him immune to poisons. His response to having become a superman? He is aghast. Because he can't get drunk. "He no longer fell about with rejoicing laughter when one man vomited over another," as Cook puts it. Any block to wilful, convivial stupidity, in other words, is to him an outrageous block on his liberty.

Drake is unerringly faithful to such attitudes. His passionate obsession with Zanya Kliedervaust is totally disaggregated from anything specific about her beyond his ongoing priapic frenzy in her presence. Not only does her profound distaste at the thought of getting involved with him and his early, thankfully cack-handed failure to trick or force her into sex not dissuade him from his efforts, but he sticks at badgering her long enough and with enough idiot rigour that he finally wins her over. This of course is totally fucking absurd. Drake, however, does not realise this, and, crucially, neither does the world he lives in.

The fact that the world is so taken in is the big surprise. The only feasible and reasonable attitude to adolescents should be kind, eye-rolling, impatient patience—we know, after all, that the universe will ultimately disabuse them of their unshakable belief that they are the most important thing in it. To indulge the cliché, even their endless arse-aching moans about how no one understands them and that authority figures are oppressive fascist bastards and that everything is so unfair are predicated on a self-important sense that the world conspires to stand in the way of their rightful greatness.

Annoying this might be, but it's also kind of winning. Hugh Cook has Drake's moans be, if not less self-indulgent, less deluded. Gouda Muck, the adult with authority over him is, in fact, unfair towards him. "Unfair," that is, in that he fixates on Drake as the harbinger of all evil, dedicates his life and resources to finding and killing Drake, propagates a religion predicated on the holy certainty that Drake is the personification of evil, and succeeds in making it the state church of Drake's hometown. There really is a conspiracy.

Of course this is terrible for Drake, and leads to some dramatic politicking and narrative intrigue. But, but, but. Such a religion is also, of course, immensely flattering to its devil-figure. Was ever there so total a vindication of teenagers' self-aggrandisement as the revelation that the world is in fact out to get them, that the guardians of power really have constructed their entire moral code purely to undermine them, that avoiding getting caught by their parental figures—joining a pirate crew and spending years exploring arcane continents here an extended remix of sneaking out of the bedroom window—really honestly totally is a matter of life and painful ritualised death? It is a brilliant rebuke to our rebuke to adolescence.

Drake Douay is an adolescent who refuses to learn the lessons of life and still gets to be the hero. Who succeeds, as he repeatedly and hilariously does, not by wisdom, experience or nuanced thinking, but by luck, doggedness and that astonishing crossbreed of idiocy and animal genius, that virtuoso dumbness, in which the teenager specialises. The sheer affection in which this book holds its heroically stubborn naughty-boy hero is terribly affecting, and terribly humane. Sure, there was a time when stressing change and development was the progressive thing for narrative to do: but lord knows that has its own moralism, too, and it's become a tedious norm. Things would never be the same after that Summer. Now, in the debris of ten thousand sub-Oz codas—what have we learnt, Dorothy?—it is impossible not to cheer at the sight of a Dorothy who learns not a damn thing, and still tries for an angle to avoid being grounded.

Hugh Cook has created the anti-Bildungsroman. The coming-of-age-refusal. The novel that celebrates, vindicates and world-creates according to the spirit of adolescence, without wagging a finger, without talking down, and in which the most wince-inducing, embarrassing, hare-brained schemes of the young somehow work.

Meet Drake Douay, as the slogan has it, and you'll never be the same again. Unlike him.

"In Praise of Stupid Boys" © 2010 by China Miéville

James L. Sutter
Fiction Editor

More Paizo Blog.
Tags: China Mieville Hugh Cook Kieran Yanner Planet Stories Walrus and the Warwolf

Wow! That's a spicey ... er meaty preview!

Oh China! You rock!

Trust Paizo to forge such a great working relationship with such a great author and mensch...

heh... my first impression of the cover was, "DUDE! ALIEN RIDING A SNOWMOBILE! AWESOME!" but it now appears to be merely looming over a sailing ship. oh well.

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
drow wrote:
heh... my first impression of the cover was, "DUDE! ALIEN RIDING A SNOWMOBILE! AWESOME!" but it now appears to be merely looming over a sailing ship. oh well.


Gorbacz wrote:
drow wrote:
heh... my first impression of the cover was, "DUDE! ALIEN RIDING A SNOWMOBILE! AWESOME!" but it now appears to be merely looming over a sailing ship. oh well.

I have read most of the W - W books, they are well worth reading. They are refreshing in their originality. Cook bends the usual fantasy tropes 90 degrees and comes up with the most insanely wicked and funny stories.

There is much, much more interesting stuff than Aliens riding snowmobiles in the books.

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