Amph What defines the SFF greats?

Discussion in 'Archive: SF&F: Books and Comics' started by NYCitygurl, Sep 28, 2010.

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  1. NYCitygurl NSWFF Manager

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    I read the reviews on the back of books when I buy the books (usually just for kicks, and to see how many of the quoted authors I've read) and I've noticed that a lot of authors are called "The next ______." In days gone by, that blank used to be filled with Tolkien's name, but lately I've seen it filled with others. The two most common are Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin.

    It strikes me as a bit funny. Those two are very obviously considered the "greats" by fantasy fans, but they've each only written one epic series (and not much else, IIRC) - and neither of those series are finished (in fact, Jordan died before he could complete his). And yet, they're still considered the greats, even though the work they're famous for could still end appalingly, and we have no idea.

    So I'm kinda curious - why do you all think those two in particular are the "greats"? Do you consider them great? Who else would you name, sci-fi and fantasy? And why? What makes particular SFF authors great? And does popular = great?
  2. Idrelle_Miocovani Force Ghost

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    Feb 5, 2005
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    While my first instinct would be to say that "popularity does not equal great", it's a little more complicated than black and white. I personally do not like Jordan, and I've never read any of Martin's books, so I can't comment about him. In this circumstance of defining literary greatness, I would ask: what have they done to influence and chance the genre? Have their works been inspirational in some way that moves the genre forward? Or have their works moved it backwards, or caused it to stop in one place?

    Certainly, an author that does something incredible for his/her genre would probably be very popular (look at JKR and Harry Potter). On the other hand, we have authors whose works have influenced their genre in a bad way (i.e. Stephenie Meyer and Twilight) and are still really popular. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we could have a really, really great author who does some wonderful things for his/her genre, but those things never take off because they're not popular enough.

    Agh... I'm not explaining this very well, sorry! 8-}

    Basically, if your work manages to influence your genre, most likely your work is popular, but simply being popular doesn't mean that your work is "great."

    There. Nice and succinct. :p Ha!
  3. ezekiel22x Chosen One

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    Aug 9, 2002
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    Greatness doesn't equal bestselling status for me, although obviously an author's influence is an important aspect of defining their legacy. In the case of Jordan, I think he had some interesting ideas, but ultimately I think his prose is terrible. WoT worked for me during book one when it wasn't trying to be too much more than a Tolkienesque adventure. Beyond that I think it's mostly a mess, with maybe two or three good chapters per book trapped inside hundreds of pages of awkward prose, mundane descriptions, infantile characters, etc. For Martin, I recognize that his series did much to help bring the "gritty movement" closer to mainstream, and I definitely count myself a fan of his. The thing that might hold him back for me is that I view Ice and Fire more as a "gripping yarn" than a piece of literature. In other words it has memorable characters, great dramatic hooks, but at the same time compared to other authors I sometimes find Ice and Fire lacking in theme, atmosphere, sometimes even prose (although to be fair I think Martin is a much better writer than Jordan was).

    As for some that I consider great (by no means a definitive list, though):

    - Mervyn Peake. What Tolkien was to epic fantasy, Peake was to the weirder brand best exemplified today by China Mieville. Peake's prose was marvelously dreamlike.

    - Gene Wolfe. Marvelous prose, honest, unapologetic explorations of what god means, and a brilliant builder of narratives that blend SF and F. His complete Sun Cycle is one of my favorite works of fiction.

    - Michael Moorcock. Extremely prolific and influential. He's best known for his Elric-style sword and sorcery tales, but other books like the Jerry Cornelius quartet were key in helping to bring energy and experimentalism to a stagnating genre.

    - Philip K. Dick. Admittedly not the best writer from a line by line prose perspective, but his SF is still massively relevant as far as exploring the nature of reality and consciousness.

    - J.R.R. Tolkien. Responsible for the modern conception of equating fantasy with elves dwarves and all that. Responsible for influencing countless imitators. But his fiction is still great, although I think it's important to remember that Tolkien was a forefather, not the forefather.


  4. Rogue...Jedi Administrator Emeritus

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    Jan 12, 2000
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    Certainly, popular does not equal great. Popularity is, however, a component in what determines greatness - but it is far from the only thing. Throw in critical reviews, longevity (such as the long term popularity of LotR or even series like WoT still being popular 20 years after first publication - as opposed to series that bookstores quit stocking within a couple years after publication), and impact on the field.
  5. Garth Maul Manager Emeritus

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    May 18, 2002
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    I would say that Gene Wolfe is an excellent writer, but his prose and plot are so dense that he's not exactly an easy read. :p

    It depends what you mean by "great", as always. Are you looking for technique? Earth-shattering revelations? A good story? A wholly-realized world?

    Someone like Stephen King isn't an incredible writer in terms of technique and prose, but in terms of making up suspenseful page-turners, he is a genius.

    As far as SF (speculative fiction or science fiction), I would label the following authors as greats, but this is no definitive lists and is simply based off my own readings:

    Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov - the early greats, visionaries
    Ursula K. Le Guin - humanist, philosophic SF
    Philip K. Dick - absurdist, non-linear thinker
    William Gibson - known as the "cyberpunk" author, but really a sociologist looking at where we are right now and what it means in the near future
    Dan Simmons - the best "far future" SF I've ever read - where is humanity likely to be in 5000 years?

    There are many other authors who have written some "great" novels, but those are probably my favorites.

    For Fantasy, Tolkien is in a league of his own as far as overall quality, world building, etc. The definitive fantasy work of the 20th century.

    For world-building, I'd include:

    Robert Jordan
    Terry Brooks
    Steven Erikson
    Steven King (the Dark Tower and related novels)
    CS Lewis (Narnia)
    JK Rowling

    For quality of prose and style, I'd include:

    George RR Martin
    Stephen R. Donaldson (the Thomas Covenant novels)
    Guy Gavriel Kay
    Gene Wolfe (Book of the Long Sun is incredible)
    maybe Tad Williams

    Again, plenty of other authors who are well on their way to becoming legends (China Mievelle, etc.), but these are long-time authors who have proven their "greatness" in one form or another.


    And Nat, as far as book quotes, I think it used to be authors like Terry Brooks, Steven King and Tad Williams who would recommend novels. ;) I used to wonder how they had time to read all these novels.


    As far as why Jordan and Martin, I assume without checking that they are probably the 2 best-selling non-Potter/Twilight authors in the last 10-20 years.

    Robert Jordan, IMHO, has taken the traditional "high fantasy" concept of The Hero's Quest to its ultimate apotheosis. He's made a classic world and some classic characters, along with more or less clearly-defined heroes and villains. I guess in some ways you could call this the "Star Wars" of high fantasy. For the first 5-6 books, he was on his way to becoming a legend until he became the 2nd Coming of Charles Dickens and extended the series for waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long.

    George Martin wasn't the first to subvert the high fantasy tropes (Donaldson, Wolfe and others had been doing this for decades), but I think he came along as part of a paradigm shift in popular fantasy to a more gritty, political, "realistic", adult style. Heroes die, they don't last for 10 novels. People betray each other. Violence is nasty. Living conditions in medieval times can be nasty. He's also a pretty decent writer, although now there are so many plots and subplots going on you need some kind of a flow chart to make sense of it. :p

    Well, that was definitely an epic fantasy length response. 8-}

  6. NYCitygurl NSWFF Manager

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    Well, that's part of what I want to know - what do you think great is?

    I agree that popular doesn't equal great, but I think to be great in the genre, you have to be popular, if that makes sense. And I haven't come up with a good definition for great (which is why I wanted to see what you all think :p ).

    And I also have to add that of my, say, top 5 or so favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson is the only one I consider a potential great. The others I personally love, but that doesn't make them great within the genre.


    As a side note on that authors thing - a book like by Lynn Flewelling (The Bone Doll's Twin - very good, in case you want to know) has about a dozen recommendations for her various books written by other authors in the front (you know, those short quotes that are supposed to give it credance without actually anying much about the story itself) and I get a laugh every time because I've read books by most of the authors and recognized the rest, which doesn't usually happen. (And also in case you're wondering, I don't have the book on me so I don't remember who the authors were, though I think Stackpole is one of them.)
  7. Garth Maul Manager Emeritus

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    May 18, 2002
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    I'm sure Stackpole is one of them. [face_laugh]


    To achieve the levels of popularity of Rowling, Jordan or Martin, or even, dare I say it, whoever wrote Twilight, there must be something there that a bunch of people find interesting.

    I find the concept of sparkly abstaining pubescent vampires to be laughable, but millions of teenagers have obviously found something there. :p

    How do you determine "great"? Again, depends on what you're asking. Certainly for the all-time greats, I suppose you would have had critical respect, stories that define the genre, influence other authors, etc.

    But that doesn't mean that everyone is going to like The Foundation series.
  8. Qui-Gon_Reborn Manager Emeritus

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    Dec 11, 2008
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    I hate to say it, but I think luck plays a huge part in both greatness and popularity. Tolkien is both great and popular because he was born during an era in which a particular genre did not exist, and he was able to create and define it simply because it wasn't there. He became a legend because he was the first to do it. But anyone could've done it anytime, and it was bound to happen sometime. :p Was he great? Well, greatness is a point of view. From my point of view, no, he wasn't great. But I pretty much hate epic fantasy. So there. :p

    However, there are a few science-fiction authors that I consider to be great, and they're not necessarily popular. Dan Simmons, for instance. To me, his greatness lies in his ability to transcend all genres. Isaac Asimov. Like Tolkien, he defined and created a type of novel that has been imitated but never realized to the extent that he was able to achieve. Then again, I actually like his brand of sci-fi, whereas, like I said, I deplore epic fantasy. ;) I'm tempted to say Orson Scott Card is great, but when you start to read a wide variety of his work, you might start to think that he just gets really lucky sometimes. And since luck routinely produces greatness, we end up with something like Ender's Game, which is brilliant, even if its author may not necessarily be very brilliant.

    Popularity is defined by time, while greatness is unchanged by time. For instance, Twilight may be popular now, but I can guarantee it's going to be long forgotten while people are still reading and obsessing over Lord of the Rings, Foundation, and (dare I say it?) Harry Potter. ;)
  9. Garth Maul Manager Emeritus

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    May 18, 2002
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    That's why all conversations involving art eventually end up "well, that's your opinion". [face_laugh]

    Which many people on these forums don't seem to understand.[face_peace]
  10. Havac Former Moderator

    Member Since:
    Sep 29, 2005
    star 7
    I don't think anyone but Tolkien could have done that. It's not just that his ability to craft stories is unparalleled, but that he had such a clear, ambitious vision of what he wanted to do -- create an entire legendarium, this parallel universe of myths, and give the English language the epic saga it was missing -- and he had not just the magnificent artistic sensibilities, but the knowledge and scholarship and total mastery of language and history to actually go about doing that.

    Could someone else have tried, theoretically? Yeah. But why didn't anybody? The countless authors who are doing Tolkien ripoffs today -- would they be doing this, could they be doing this, in a world where Tolkien had never existed, where they didn't grow up reading a genre -- reading Tolkien -- to put the ideas in their heads?

    I don't think this is the kind of thing that can simply be attributed to luck. It's not just that Tolkien happened to be the first guy to think of doing fantasy stories -- it's that Tolkien basically created modern fantasy as a genre by writing the Holy Grail of the entire genre, the fantasy bible, creating an all-time great achievement that blew people's minds and jump-started thousands of people into playing with the genre he had defined.

    I realize Great Man theory is no longer popular, but not everything can come back to luck. There's more than just "anybody can be the first guy to think of it." It sells short the people whose talents, work, and insight made them the first and sells short just what they accomplished. Some things, sure, can be mostly chalked up to luck. You can make an argument, say, that there were dozens of ambitious pilots out there in the twenties, and attempts being made, and it was just luck that Charles Lindbergh happened to be the one pilot who made it across the Atlantic solo first. All kinds of people were making for the top of Mount Everest, and if Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay hadn't gotten the right weather and the right breaks to get there first, someone else would have in the next five or ten years. Some historical things are like that -- the success of the Reformation depended on changing social conditions a great deal more than it did on the particular personalities involved. Not everything's because you're the greatest ever. But not all accomplishments are of that type. Artistic accomplishments, accomplishments that depend upon personal qualities, demand more than just the right time and place. "Anybody" can come up with a theory that there's a mutual attraction between objects called gravity, but not just anybody can be Isaac Newton and revolutionize physics. "Anybody" can write a constitution; not just anybody can step into 1787 and write the Constitution of the United States of America. Anybody is deceptive; he's undefined enough that we're willing to imagine he can do quite a lot, but when it comes down to it, there's a very particular set of qualities necessary for a lot of intellectual accomplishments, and I think Tolkien is a prime example of exactly the kind of situation where Anybody falls short. Anybody can't be Tolkien. Only Tolkien can be Tolkien.
  11. Gonk Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jul 8, 1998
    star 6
    No Roger Zelazny?

    I just finished the first Amber series. Very good at world-building, but the descriptions of relatively unimportant details got somewhat annoying, with so much narrative just devoted to travelling.

    And Harlan Ellison is one of the true greats: although that's it the short-story medium.
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