When I first heard about The Shannara Chronicles, I will admit to probably being too optimistic. I mean, we were still talking about MTV, after all. But I wasn’t the only one, and I had some good reasons. The Smallville guys were writing it, the Iron Man guy was producing it, and Terry Brooks, the author of the series on which it was based, a man famous for refusing to let movie and television people get their hands on his story without damn good reason, was personally involved in the creative process. Beyond that, as previously mentioned, the book being adapted was The Elfstones of Shannara, arguably the best novel in the entire series. There was reasonable cause for hope.
Still, it took me over a year to get around to watching the first episode. During that time, I learned that the show had been greenlit for a second season, which was good. I also learned that it had made its way to Netflix disturbingly quickly, which was bad. Finally, at long last, I convinced my fiancée to sit down with me and watch that first episode, practically praying that it be good enough, at least, that she’d consent to watch the next one.
As it turned out, that wasn’t in any way a concern. Because I myself had no interest in watching the next episode, still haven’t, and probably never will.
There was a time (a very short time) when it looked like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series was finished way back in the 90s. In 1997, after the release of the stand-alone prequel The First King of Shannara, Brooks departed the world he’d spent 20 years building for a different trilogy, which came to be known as The Word and the Void. It was his first true work of so-called urban fantasy, a story that certainly involved magical creatures and events, but was set in the modern United States as opposed to a fictional world like Shannara. It was also written on the smallest scale Brooks had ever used, forsaking the “traverse the lands and fight the all-threatening evil” motif of high fantasy in favor of one person’s relationship with a hidden magical universe and the people who, like her, are aware of its existence. The heroine is Nest Freemark, an incomparable female protagonist, and even Brooks’ trademark time-hopping is confined to a few years instead of decades or centuries, as Nest ages from book to book, going from 14 to 19 to 29. It is a phenomenal trilogy that, more than anything else, demonstrated Brooks’ ability to write outside the confines of Shannara or epic fantasy in general. With the original Shannara trilogy and follow-up Heritage series having been seemingly capped off by the prequel, The Word and the Void seemed to indicate that Brooks was finally moving on.
I’m moving right along through Heinlein’s Double Star, but during the break between Hugo essays, it’s time for this blog to take its maiden voyage into one of my personal great literary loves: high fantasy. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, and the launching of a fantasy series that remains ongoing after four decades.
If you’ve never heard of the Shannara series, I can’t say I’m surprised, particularly if you’re on the younger side of the fantasy reader spectrum. Brooks and his work haven’t gotten a whole lot of love during the Internet Age. I’d like to believe that there’s a large constituency of fantasy nerds who read that first book, didn’t like it, and never read any more, but the truth is probably that there’s a large constituency of fantasy nerds who never read the first book, but heard it was a Tolkien rip-off that had never been turned into a popular movie or TV show and dismissed the entire series out of hand. As a result, mention that you’re a Shannara fan in most online fantasy circles and you will invariably be shouted down by people with suggestions for the good fantasy series you should read instead.
To indulge in the sort of profanity I usually try to avoid on this blog: Fuck those people. Over the course of this week, Universes of the Mind will be celebrating Shannara’s 40th birthday as only a lifelong fan could, and it’s only appropriate to start with an explanation of why it’s the most important fantasy series you’ve never read.
As previously discussed, the question of why Mark Clifton’s They’d Rather Be Right won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1955 is one that has a few different answers depending on how you look at it – though I believe the connection between editor John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard’s pseudoscientific/quasi-religious doctrine of Scientology to be the most likely culprit. A somewhat more straightforward question, however, is why science fiction fans are so dumbfounded by its victory in the first place.
My copy of They’d Rather Be Right cost me one dollar. Wait, no – less than a dollar. A dollar was the total price for the Kindle download of a book called The Second Golden Age of Science Fiction MEGAPACK: Mark Clifton. It’s a collection of Clifton’s work that happens to include a Hugo Award-winning novel, as the book cover loudly proclaims. While I think the works of Mark Clifton are probably worth more than a buck American, I’m certainly not upset that I didn’t pay more. They’d Rather Be Right wasn’t awful, necessarily, but it sure as hell wasn’t good. I have officially managed to power through it in pretty good time, thanks to a combination of actual narrative enjoyment (“Hey, I really do want to know what happens next”) and growing impatience with the author’s endless pseudoscientific diatribes and contradictory proclamations about the nature of humankind, both dripping with made-up jargon that is never satisfactorily explained. It’s probably needless to point out that, while the former shouldn’t be discounted, the latter formed the bulk of my experience.
But we’ll get to that soon. For now, I thought it appropriate to begin with the first question anyone ever asks about They’d Rather Be Right, which is, “How the hell did this win a Hugo Award?”
I caught the live broadcast of WWE Elimination Chamber tonight. I mention this for three reasons. First, They’d Rather Be Right is kind of boring so far. Second, I did promise at one point (both to myself and to an unspecified and completely theoretical audience) that I would spend time between books doing some actual real person blogging about things that are not award-winning sci-fi. Third, as a UOTM reader (or maybe just “Mind reader”), you deserve to be reminded from time to time that the person behind this blog is a somehow simultaneously a political leftist and a professional wrestling fan who watches one person get a predetermined victory over another person and thinks to himself, “I wonder how this fits into the long and sordid history of race and gender in the wrestling industry?”
Fahrenheit 451 is basically a work of prose poetry, beautifully written but lacking most of the qualities that traditionally make up a novel. There are no fully-realized characters, and to be honest, there’s barely even a functional plot, as the events of the book unfold in dream-like, ambiguous fashion in an attempt to drive the reader promptly from one allegorical point to another. Understand that this is not criticism; I’ve never been a huge poetry reader, but if a writer as good as Ray Bradbury wants to write a novel-length poem, who am I to argue? But it is a poem, and it’s written in such a way that neither the plot nor the characters are rich enough – distracting enough – to get in the way of the message being delivered.
But what is that message, exactly? When I first started writing about Fahrenheit 451, I spent some time on the fact that it is considered an essential classic, having become known over the years as THE book about censorship. That’s where it exists in the cultural consciousness – if you don’t believe me, type “books about censorship” into Google. Fahrenheit 451 is the first and most prominent result, with almost all the others being either controversial books that were censored, or non-fiction works about the history of censorship. Fahrenheit 451 is and will always be the Great Anti-Censorship Novel.