Friday, January 9, 2015

Leiber vs. Moorcock - Part Two

As mentioned yesterday post, Fritz Leiber's Swords and Deviltry ("SD") introduces the reader to the Farfhd (a variation of the barbarian prince) and the Grey Mouser (a variation of the classic thief - with a wizardly twist).  Meanwhile, Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion ("EC") features a regular joe named John Daker from the 20th Century - who basically wakes up one day in another time, as "Erekose", the Champion of Humanity.  Like John Carter, he's a man lost in another world, but with newly found powers.  
Fafhrd - from his Deities and Demigods entry.
These books could both be called "Fantasy" literature, but they're quite different.  First, what I see as the similarities:
  • Both books were published, in the forms in which I read them, in 1970.
  • However, both books were based on previously published stories. 
  • Both books mainly involve swords and, well, a bit of sorcery.  But neither of them are dominated by the sorcery elements.
  • Both book authors are on Appendix N.    
That's all I got.   

Right then, the key differences as I see them:
  • Sub-Genre.  If I were to characterize the sub-genres of each, I'd call SD "low fantasy" or "urban fantasy" - though I'm no expert on either.  I'd call EC "weird fantasy" I suppose.
  • Literary Inspiration.  SD reads like a great Conan story, an action-filled ripping yarn.  EC is based very much off of the more boring parts of the John Carter series (right down to the princess angle), but at least John Carter had the good sense to get over the fact he'd been magically pulled through space into a new planet (so the reader could too).  EC can't stop pondering the inexplicable plot device that kicked off the story.  
  • Voice.  SD is written in the third person, while EC is in the first person voice.  That allows Erekose a lot of time to wonder to himself about stuff, like the meaning of life (in particular his life, which is apparently of paramount importance to the entire planet), and death, and war, and space and time, and other post-existentialist fluff.  Without having to narrate their own stories, Grey Mouser and Fafhrd are free'd up to steal stuff and score with the ladies.   
  • Structure.  SD has three separate tales (one introducing each character alone, followed by a third when they first meet).  Each of the stories starts off with a great action hook to draw you in - they'd make great movies.  Leiber is adept at using the standard short story format - character, problem, character attempts to overcome problem, problem gets worse, then a twist, etc.  EC has one long story arc, but doesn't really get readable until half-way through it.  Once the fighting breaks out, it's a quick read.  But getting to that point is a slog.  And, there's a twist, but it's hard not to see it coming.
  • Author's Motivation.  SD's reason for existence is simply to tell a great story.  EC's purpose seems to be to deconstruct the fantasy genre in order to explore the philosophical questions of life and war.  But the story never goes beyond depths typically mined in a freshman dorm room at 2 a.m.  I don't want to be too judgmental, but while reading EC, I kept thinking of an interview I saw in which Tom Clancy insisted that Jack Ryan was, in fact, based on himself.  Or, Clive Cussler who uses his book income to live a life of adventure like one of his characters.  I got the impression that Moorcock was imagining himself as Dekar - there's a great and powerful man inside him, he just needs something to magically transport him from boring-old-everyday-land to somewhere he will finally be appreciated by the masses - and be given an opportunity to show them all just how superior he really is.   
  • Heroes.  Grey Mouser and Fafhrd are human - heroes, sure, but human.  They eat, drink themselves stupid, fall for sweet-talking ladies, fight, get beat up, steal stuff, and wake up the next morning hung over and filled with regret.  They hide in the shadows.  No one would miss them if they died.  Erekose, on the other hand, has superhuman strength, a radioactive sword no one else can hold without dying, drinks only to dull his angst-filled dreams and wakes up less hung over than everyone else.  Then he goes and fights wars that span continents, earning the adulation of all humanity.   If you like Indiana Jones, SD is for you.  If you dig the way Superman wrestles with large ideas, then EC is probably more your cup of tea.
  • Character Motivations.  SD's two heroes live for today, seeking girls and gold (and wine) while trying to not get themselves killed.  Erekose serves some great, but unknown purpose (and he keeps changing his mind about what that purpose is).  Per the title, he is eternal - so he's got a lot of time to dwell on his purpose in life, but he lacks two of the great motivators - fear and greed.  Sure, he's got love - but he's fickle and, a bit too chaste, to make love a driving motivator in his actions.  All too often, his motivation seems to be nothing other than to move the plot towards the last chapter, to make some grand philosophical point.  
  • Setting.  SD introduces the reader to the town of Lankhmar - a shadowy, soot-filled city, with decrepit buildings, sinister characters and dark alleys, in which the characters fight and interact.  I could imagine a hundred stories written in the city alone.  EC paints an entire world with a broad brush, obliquely detailed great cities, in which great wars are fought - with little information beyond some simple military strategies.  There simply is no place to hang one's hat.
Tomorrow, I'll wrap up, including my thoughts on the gaming implications of both books.