A tribute to Piers Anthony, Xanth, and interactivity in fiction

I write this today to set you all free.

By way of disclaimer, and to start the story, as many of you already know, Piers Anthony did me the great honor of reviewing and blurbing Sword of Fire and Sea. My brief email interactions with him were part of a process I went through after selling Sword that helped convince me I was not a charlatan, and that this whole lifelong-dream-of-book thing was actually happening (and would not kill me).

I actually started a letter to Piers many years ago. In 1999 I sold my first short story to James Richey, who has also co-written a book with Piers, and was publishing his anthology Enchanted Realms through Xlibris, one of the earliest print-on-demand publishers, which Piers had invested in as part of his long and awarded efforts to put more power and control in the hands of authors. When I sold that story, I wrote the first half of a letter to Piers, and planned to write the second half when I sold my first novel. Last year I sold the novel — but life had happened, and my original “time capsule” letter was nowhere to be found. I wrote him anyway, explaining what had happened — and tell this to you all as context for how Piers and his work have been inspirational to me for a very long time.

And now Xanth fans are discovering that blurb, and supporting my work as a result. It’s astonishing and humbling. I had no idea just how many Xanth fans were out there — the answer is, on Facebook alone, tens of thousands! And they, too, love Piers Anthony’s work with a passion, from Xanth to Incarnations to the Mode books and beyond.

Like many readers, and especially writers in the modern genre fiction communities, it is peculiarly difficult to get people to admit that they read and enjoyed dozens of Xanth books. (You all know who you are.) As I’ve dug into this, interesting patterns emerge: male readers are more likely to connect with the Incarnations books, while more traditional, older readers of fantasy and science fiction recall A Spell for Chameleon or The Source of Magic. Source was my first Xanth book and my first genre fantasy (which I picked up — you might want to sit down for this — because it had a griffin on the cover), but through these informal surveys I’ve concluded that I’m part of another generation of Xanth fans, one that connects most with the “third generation” characters from Isle of View, Demons Don’t Dream, and the infamous The Color of Her Panties.

It’s easy to think of any of a dozen reasons to dismiss Anthony’s books, and especially Xanth. Piers himself is notoriously cranky, a self-identified ogre, which gets people incensed (I find him robustly and admirably opinionated); the books were and are outrageously popular, which offends the edgy self-conscious nerd culture of fantasy and science fiction; and, probably most fundamentally, there is something about puns that cause people to go instantly into dismissal mode. They are silly; children love them; neither of these things should cause them to be denegrated, and yet they are. We assume for some strange reason that because puns are so entertaining to children that they must be easy. To anyone who seriously thinks this, my advice is: try it. It’s not as easy as it looks. Because it feels effortless, it feels easy to dismiss — but that very ease is its genius, and it is in fact very hard.

Piers, through Xanth, also had an extremely close relationship with his fans, insofar as one can when one has thousands upon thousands of fans. When I was young — quite young, ten years old or so — I wrote him three letters, and he replied to each. This is rather astonishing and is an example of how he was ahead of his time. Now it is expected that an author so interact and cultivate their fans, and as I understand it a few years ago a critic even referred to Anthony’s Author’s Notes as “blogging”.

The majority of the letters Piers received about Xanth he has always said were suggestions for puns that should go into the books. This started early in Xanth’s history and is actually quite important. It emphasizes how the world itself was always interactive — another way in which he was ahead of the curve. As a kid I sent in a pun — “see weed” — and promptly forgot about it, until my younger brother excitedly told me that I had gotten a credit in Faun and Games. I suddenly remembered that long-ago letter, and how I also thought that Grundy the Golem should get together with Chet Centaur and some reverse wood and use Chet’s shrinking ability in reverse, so that he could be full size with Rapunzel — but I digress.

Now that I am embarking upon my own professional novelist career, such as it is in the modern novel market, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it was that made Xanth so powerful. And how it was that a writer with such powerful idea stories — because if you look back into Piers’s earlier publications you see intense old school idea stories of the stuff that science fiction was originally made — could live so long in a world that seemed so comparatively simple. But the extraordinarily clever thing about Xanth is that it is not simple at all. It engages with the fundamentally interactive bones of story and plays with us as readers. It constantly dances between expectation and reversal. There is a deep, whimsical logic to Xanth — a childlike logic of our hearts, one that fulfills our abstract expectations while surprising and delighting us (a breadfruit tree that grows loaves of bread, cherry bomb trees, the concept that everyone is born with a completely unique magical talent). There is a resonance with my binge-reading of Oliver Sacks — a resonance with symbolism and the metaphorical thinking that is actually far more natural to us than “realism” is. And oh, man, if you only knew how complicated the cognitive processes that produce these patterns are! It is the stuff of the wildest, most complex science fiction.

Xanth also captures one of those obvious but strangely elusive qualities of a fantasy world in that it is a place you want to go. I printed up the beautiful painted map of Xanth from its mid-90s hardcovers when I was a kid, put it up on my wall and dreamed of what I’d do if I ever went there (survey says: track down Magician Trent and get him to turn me into a winged centaur). And he did this not once but multiple times, from the fractal worlds of the Mode books to the amazing dual scientific and fantasy worlds of Proton and Phaze from the Apprentice Adept series. Those books in particular I suspect will become increasingly classic over time, powerfully symbolizing as they do the tension in our modern world between the technological and the pastoral.

For years Piers has, in asides, lamented that he has never been appreciated by critics or awards committees (though he does have quite a large pile of Hugo and Nebula nominations). And without question this hasn’t hurt him in the marketplace. Readers love his worlds, and that is one of the highest compliments in our craft. What he has created will live long past his mortal shell and the memories of a list of award recipients.

But these are the lessons that remain hard to learn: just because something is “fun” does not mean it is “simple”; just because a ruleset is “intuitive” does not mean it is “easy” (especially to create!); and just because an audience feels compelled to interact with a form does not mean that it can be well made by a committee. In fact, the opposite is almost always the case. And it takes both great skill and great enlightenment to reach out and become vulnerable to one’s audience, and to ordain their ideas by making them a part of the work.

I love Xanth, and I will never apologize for it.

A small bouquet of updates

Of the publishing variety. “Whatever Shall Grow There, Dear” is now live in the current issue of Lone Star Stories, along with other excellent fiction and poetry that you should imbibe immediately. Take a look at [info]sovay‘s “Firework-Makers”, and the poems of [info]papersky and [info]seajules. Everyone seems to be on LJ these days. 😉

While you’re at it, head over to Schezerezade’s Bequest, the online edition of Cabinet des Fees, and check out [info]sovay‘s lovely “Bonny Fisher Boy”. And before you conclude that I am stalking [info]sovay, I say this as segue to the update that SB has recently accepted my poem “The Fall of Fairy Castle” for their September issue.

When you’re done doing that, you should hie yourself out and purchase a copy of the first issue of Tales of Moreauvia, containing as it does [info]jsridler‘s very excellent “Engine of Desolation”, as well as a story by the habitually skillful and entertaining Rita Oakes. Can’t lose.

Last but certainly not least, feast your eyes upon the snazzy page that is Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which will be debuting this Fall under the steady hand of Scott H. Andrews.

Being that I’ve been in Albany and New York City in the last week, I was in range of the Kindle’s Whispernet, and boy did I use it. The Kindle can in fact be used to surf the web and check email, but what got me in trouble was the ease with which I could download free book samples. I’ve also downloaded books from Project Gutenberg and piped them onto the Kindle; I have not yet attempted [info]boonofdoom‘s clever notion of reading slush on it, but plan to soon. It has already caused me to purchase three books I would not have otherwise, and sampled over a dozen I likely would not have picked up anytime soon. I suppose I should be lucky I was only temporarily exposed to Whispernet. In preliminary conclusion, the Kindle is not quite the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, but it is clearly Australopithecus to that line, and I remain both impressed and frightened.