Raise Your Gauntlet of Rock

Still Cat Valente here. You must endure a few more days of me and my rambling yet! *cue evil laughter and some sort of machine lighting up ominously*

Ahem.

It’s funny how music terms get appropriated and become general terms–like punk or punk rock. Or like “metal.”

Most of my friends use this word about as often as they use the word “awesome,” which is to say constantly and with overweening enthusiasm. “That’s pretty metal,” Jack will say when he wins a game decisively. And he means it’s good on the level of bone-crunching, passionate, bombastic, anger-filled music that might or might not be from the devil, that has shredding virtuoso guitars and thumping drums you can feel in your pancreas. I dig that as an adjective, especially since, like writing, playing metal is way harder than it seems, and writing fantasy is just as likely to be written off as not real music/literature.

I wonder about the motivations involved in the invocation of punk in our wide and diverse genre. I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday’s post, more or less nonstop. It speaks to me of a deep longing for all that punk represents, and a deep anxiety that as a group, we ain’t got it. Maybe we feel there is something inherently not-very-punk about sitting at a keyboard for twelve hours and writing about ray guns and fairy socio-political constructs. It doesn’t look cool, like playing a guitar, there are no video games to simulate it, and despite the shine the idea of writing has, the reality is so boring that three generations of filmmakers have bent over backward trying to come up with a way to show it on-screen that doesn’t make the viewing public nose-dive into their popcorn and came up with, collectively, a fake nose and a montage. So we invoke people who are somehow ineffably cooler than us, hopeless dorks that most of us were and are. That’s ok–music is usually trying to get itself taken seriously in a literary way, so it’s fair game. But we must want it, god, we must want it so bad if we keep using the word like it’s an amulet against the world. (Secretly, though? Writing IS punk rock. It’s hard fucking core and we are kung-fu lycanthropic nuns with mean hangovers. But don’t tell anyone. There’s only so much depilatory cream to go around.)

But we have to earn it if we’re going to wear it, you know? No $200 ripped skirt with patches pre-sewn on. Even though it’s a vague and subjective thing, what is punk, what is metal, what is not–well, what is not is usually pretty obvious, but what is is often less clear. Insert pornography test here. I’m not sure myself if I know what the hell I’m talking about–someone said to me yesterday that fantasy was by definition not metal, and I killed him with my pen sputtered indignantly for a long while, trying to explain the secret hardcore of fantasy. Though I think, given that musicians have been arguing their own terms since at least 1977, I can be forgiven for not having a Recipe for Metal.

But I have an idea of what the dish looks like when it’s done. It’s something bone-crunching, passionate, bombastic, something so honest it hurts, something hard, virtuoso, thumping, pounding. You feel it in your pancreas.

And somehow, it’s the key to something. Like a pile of mashed potatoes. Something awesome and terrible, something fantasy can be. Something we can be. And my challenge to myself as I work on my sixth novel is, at the end of every chapter, to ask myself:

“Is this metal?”

And move forward only if the big, antisocial, spike-booted, string-shredding, pen-stabbing imp with a steel bar through her face who lives somewhere to the left of my spleen says: Fuck yeah, it’s metal!

I challenge you to do the same.

And you don’t stop.

Comments

  1. Dmitri Z. says

    Here’s why /I/’d be skeptical of applying the term ‘metal’ to fantasy.

    What are some characteristics of metal? It’s angry, for one. When was the last time you read angry fantasy?

    It has speed, power and precision. Which fantasy works have all three of those? (I’m not trying to disparage the genre, I am genuinely curious.) In fact, when trying to think of a novel with /two/ of those characteristics, I have to think to my favorite one (Little, Big — precision and power).

    Maybe those are not fair characteristics to judge writing by. In music, it’s very easy to judge speed and power — the pacing of the beat, the type of instrument, the volume. With writing, those two adjectives are way more subjective. (And precision would be highly subjective in both). And is speed a worthwhile thing to strive for in writing, anyways (Italo Calvino notwithstanding)?

    Two thoughts come to mind. One is — maybe fantasy /shouldn’t/ be metal. Don’t most people turn to fantasy for escapism, anyway? The other of course is, if somebody somewhere has written metal fantasy (or will be writing it), I sure as hell want to read it.

  2. says

    Fantasy as escapism, versus escapism through music? I’m not sure I follow. Isn’t there a lot of escapism in metal too? Also, being a fan of metal dealing with Norse gods and dragons and such, I’m confused how metal is that far removed from fantasy. How many metal bands reference Tolkien? If someone told me fantasy couldn’t be metal, I’d find a good record store and show him Cirith Ungol in the Metal section. Or does it only work one way? Metal can be fantastic, but Fantasy can’t be metal?

  3. says

    *stabs you with a pen, Dmitri*

    Putting aside myself, because that’s polite, I would say that some of China Mieville’s work is pretty angry and precise and powerful, Ambergris is pretty fucking metal–though more in COSM than Shriek, which feels more elegaic to me. Though the fungal war is damn awesome. OH. GUT Symmetries is fucking metal, dude, you cannot deny that. I told you yesterday I felt that the crazy language of Moonwise is punk. Tainaron, too. I think dark fantasy is where you have to look for the anger. Though not all metal is angry, and not all literature fueled by anger is about anger.

    I am not saying that there is an overwhelming amount of metal in fantasy. Hence my saying we need it, we want it, we ought to take it. But to say a genre CANNOT do something is fighting words. I will bust a folding chair over your head, man.

  4. says

    Hah, the person who said that fantasy was not metal has obviously never seen the film “Heavy Metal.”

    It’s true, though, it’s hard to think of “metal” fantasy. Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows comes closest, for me. Maybe R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy, although he doesn’t have the “speed” element. It does seem like fantasy is often behind the beat, while I can think of many more SF novels that play ahead of the beat.

    I don’t think that fantasy should be any one thing, except maybe personal — I think it can be anything. I’d love to see more “metal” fantasy, just so I have the chance to see if I’d like it. I know I like the idea.

    Re: punk, I wonder if, like the music, we’re more likely to see true punk attitudes in shorter forms. “Rats,” the story by Veronica Schanoes in the Interfictions anthology, seemed to do it well: there’s your angry fantasy. (Is it insulting if I suggest that “Dirge for Prester John” was maybe a metal ballad? ;)

    The music analogies are hard though because punk (like the steam age as per your last post) was describing a certain historical moment that we may be able to draw parallels with but cannot reach again. I mean, to some degree aren’t all the “I can’t write anything but transparent prose,” self published so fuck the system Mary Sue & Gary Stu back-to-basics defeat the evil overlord fantasies “punk?”

  5. says

    Totally agree about Rats, and I love the idea of DfPJ as a power ballad. ;)

    I think most of the people you mention forget the power and beauty part of punk, and focus on the anti-establishment part, and that is also incredibly lame.

    Metal as an adjective meaning awesome (meaning arete) is bigger than just a one-to-one musical analogy though.

  6. says

    Yeah, but I don’t see metal as always being angry- I think that it’s just misunderstood. Loud and fast doesn’t have to be angry, it can be sad (like Metallica’s Orion instrumental), it can be happy(like Ace of Spades- that classic Motörhead song)…I just don’t see it always being angry.

    And there are so many subgenres of metal- from the fast and loud thrash metal to the soft and sad Doom Metal, to the retro black sabbath rock styles of Stoner Metal. I wonder if the subgenres of metal could be matched to the subgenres of fantasy :)

  7. says

    Whenever I hear or see the word “punk” one name immediately comes to mind: Sex Pistols . . . which makes Malcolm McLaren one of the greatest fantasists ever.

  8. says

    “Metal as an adjective meaning awesome (meaning arete) is bigger than just a one-to-one musical analogy though.”

    Drat, and we were all having so much fun trying to come up with correspondences!

    I think arete in fantasy can be tough because so much fantasy uses symbols that have existed for so long. Often I’ll read a fantasy book and it’ll be…okay…but I’ll have the nagging feeling that the book could have done more because it used symbols that I’ve seen more/different/better things done with. The most “metal” fantasy for me tends to come from authors who are willing to create their own symbols, use lesser known symbols as their own, or remake known symbols as something new.

    This is also why I think the personal is so important in fantasy: the more personal a fantasy is, the more it need only represent the individual author’s sense of the world in a way that feels true and fulfilling to the reader. Fantasy written without a great deal of personality feels to me as though it must live up to the potential of fantasy in general, as a collective body of work, which is too much for most books to even sniff at.

  9. Jesse says

    As other have noted, the range of subgenres and sounds marching under the Metal banner implies that music-wise, assuming one likes both Metal and Fantasy, it requires little effort or imagination to view the relationship as symbiotic rather than one way. Even if we abandoned the singular M and narrowed things down even further into such rigid classifications as Recently Produced Viking Themed Metal, there would remain the issue that two such bands, Leave’s Eyes and Amon Amarth, sound nothing like one another. While in the steampunk post someone was a sour-blanket about the use of sub-genres and the insistence that labels are arbitrary, etc., in terms of scouring out what you like amongst the infinite possibilities lumping disparate things under one heading is, to me at least, a necessary evil. Certainly some of the best of the best in terms of music, books and on and on are those which contort out of the molds of their genres into others or indescribable amalgamations of several…but you have to start somewhere.

    While Helloween is most assuredly not my idea of a good time, they are indeed correct that Heavy Metal Is The Law–or so I subscribed in High School, and to some extent today. Rather than Anger, I would argue that Excitement is one of the key characteristics of most Metal, and good Fantasy is rarely unexciting. By which I’m speaking of Metal the abstract and Fantasy the genre. Muddled though my thoughts clearly are on this, I firmly believe that the specter of Robert E. Howard would get down to some Dio.

  10. Mike V. says

    As fantasy-oriented heavy metal is one of my guilty pleasures, I can’t help but agree with this comment. From 3 Inches of Blood to Rhapsody to Iced Earth to Running Wild (and on and on and on…), the metal/fantasy crossover is pretty well-trodden ground. Now I won’t say that it’s sophisticated metal or sophisticated fantasy in a lot of the cases, but I don’t think that this conversation is about judging quality so much as qualities, if that makes any sense.

  11. says

    I have to agree with Paul Jessup: metal is not always about anger or fantasy. Metal is about energy, it’s about adrenaline, it’s about the violent release of energy, of emotion (not necessarily of frustration)–just check out the burgeoning Christian metalcore scene for evidence.

    Cat’s reference to Perdido Street Station caught me, because, for me, that reading experience was closest to listening to metal. Not, though, because of anger, or frustration, but because of the sense of urgency, the mad dash of text across the page, the level with which it insisted its own existence into my headspace. In many ways Perdido is a mess of a novel, it’s certainly one of Mieville’s loosest structurally, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s SO GODDAMN METAL. Metal is a mess. You can’t release like that without it getting messy. The trick is to make the mess part of the art. The mess is, as Cat says, often the result of careful planning.

    Writing should be like metal because metal is insistent, it refuses to be ignored. Love it or loathe it Perdido and its effect on the fantasy landscape can’t be ignored. After all the sweat and blood, who wants their writing ignored?

  12. Veronica says

    I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this. And on the one hand, yeah, you’re right, writing is fundamentally boring and uncool. But I think that the activity of writing itself is the wrong place to direct our attention. As much as I adore Joe Strummer, I’m not necessarily convinced that sitting around a rehearsal studio watching him stretched out prone on the floor as he scribbles lyrics down on the back of an envelope or something would necessarily be more compelling than watching me sitting on the subway chewing my pen and scrawling things in my little black notebook. Except insofar as Strummer was just a completely compelling and amazing human beings, and watching him breathing was probably wildly more fascinating than watching me breathe, of course. But the physical and intellectual act of writing itself is always kind of…dull.

    Coolness, excitement, to a real extent, punk and rock’n’roll in all forms is in the performance. And I do think that writers should do more performances, or as we call them, readings. But that leads to another question, namely:

    Why are so many readings so goddamn boring?

    We’ve all been there, right? At a poetry or prose reading during which the reader(s) mumble in a low tone, keep their eyes fixed firmly on their papers, are clearly wearing old jeans and a crumpled gray t-shirt just because they happened to be on top in their dresser drawers. Writing would be cooler if we acted like it was cooler. And you know what else we need? Alcohol. And those dinky little plastic cups with three inches of cheap red wine in them are not cutting it. I think matters could be improved if all writers had to knock back two shots of bourbon before going on at readings and if all readings took place at bars.

    But ultimately, music has a lot that writing doesn’t have, and that we can’t get. A more urgent, direct, visceral connection to emotional experience and passion. A beat. And the chemistry inherent in a band. Music is almost always the result of several people creating together, feeding and sparking off each other’s energy, but writing is usually such a solitary process, and I think that keeps us from the kind of exciting spontaneity that makes music catch fire.

    And, hey, MattD, that was exactly what I was going for and wanting in “Rats,” so reading you spontaneously bringing it up made my damn day.

  13. says

    The term Heavy Metal when applied to music comes via Sandy Pearlman in the late Sixties who swiped the words from William Burroughs and his Heavy Metal Kid. So there’s a direct lineage there between metal and sf if you accept (as I do) that Burroughs was writing his own brand of sf. It always gives me a sly chuckle when I run across any homophobic teens who love metal music but have no idea who inspired the name of the genre they obsess over.

    Despite that lineage, I’d be wary of applying “metal” as a description simply because it’s such a conservative genre. John Peel once compared metal to country and western since they were both popular with people living outside cities and both forms of music assume that nothing ever changes. Punk had the same energy but–for a time–was a lot more open and experimental, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle were ostensibly punk to begin with yet had nothing to do with rock. (They were both inspired by William Burroughs as well.) Energy and breaking the rules: however you label it, we can always use more of that.

  14. Erika says

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned gender yet, seeing as how metal has got to be just about the least gender-balanced genre of music there is. Metal captures the fears and dreams of marginalized masculinity. Most metal looks backward, and what it’s trying to reclaim most of all is *power* — personal power. Speed, strength, flair, swagger, heroism: the ability of the individual to make his mark on the world. Metal is conservative in its artistry, too; metalheads worship virtuosity. Like John C. says above, punk, in contrast, embraced experimentalism to the point of questioning the very nature of music. But metal knows exactly what music is, and what a goddamn guitar is, and if you want respect you’d better learn how to play it exceedingly well.

    All if this is not to say that women can’t and don’t love metal, because clearly they do, just the way that women like me love sword-and-sorcery (the most metal genre of writing, for my money). But there’s something extra poignant about being nostalgic for something that your gender never had much opportunity to participate in in the first place.

    Finally, since some people mention China Mieville upthread, I think it’s interesting to examine Perdido Street Station in light of my analysis of metal. The book is supremely metal in its style (speed, strength, swagger, virtuosity…), but anti-metal in its soul, since it pretty much denies the efficacy of personal heroism and exposes it as a myth. True power resides in systems, and always has. (If I’m reading it right.)

  15. says

    Re: China. His first novel, King Rat, is fuelled by the drum’n’bass scene isn’t it? Just as much energy and excitement as metal but comes out of black music, specifically dancehall reggae and breakbeats. Electronic music has shown itself to be perfectly capable of providing the power and fury of rock while sidestepping the cliches that plague the rock world.

    Erika: UK punk had a lot of women up front as well: Siouxsie, Poly Styrene, The Slits (all-women group), The Raincoats (another one), Gaye Advert, Eve Libertine, etc. All the UK metal scene of that period produced was Girlschool who were a good band but were regarded as an exception that proved the rule of male dominance in the metal world. UK Punk was slightly more tolerant sexually (it came out of the Roxy/Bowie/Iggy glam axis) and a lot more tolerant racially with numerous ties to the London reggae scene.

  16. Ren says

    John– I think it’s not the quality of the scene’s female participants that is at stake here (though you certainly do put forth a good selection). It’s that metal in a lot of its forms does indeed look backward nostalgically on a pastoral neverland, created and recreated for a minority of people, and is specific about its desire for power and heroism. Power and heroism, in fantasy and in real life, are not something usually achieved by women to much male fanfare. To take that hypothesis further, I would even say that women creating metal and fantasy can bend and even turn the genre into something new by creating it with eyes that are not the normal target audience.

    It’s a question of who metal and its literary cousin fantasy are being written for, and who they get written by, and who they are about. No prizes for guessing the three. Now none of this kind of rigid gender bordering is so pressingly relevant, not with Bradley and Le Guin and the mainstreaming of female-created fantasy, but it it completely fascinating.
    Actually, don’t read this and re-read Erika’s post, she got it concisely.

    As for Perdido– what an interesting thesis. I think I read it that way too; the story isn’t about the individual characters so much as it is about conflicting systems of culture and government. That’s really what I love about good fantasy. Its ability to evoke entire cultures succintly and with great imaginative power is what keeps me reading.

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