If any of my ten or so regular readers are wondering, this isn't the post that paints me in a good light either. I'm still working on that.
I have written before about orcs, although not for this blog, and when I did so I mentioned that Grunts was a disappointing book. However, having thought about it some more I think that I was being unfair on Mary Gentle, and in fact I should probably try to read something else of hers again.
Now, it's true that Grunts isn't great, but it is a serviceable parody even though it stretches its two jokes for about twice as long as they can really stand. The fact that I had to go to one of the biggest book-stores in New York to even find a copy still in print, and even then on a distinctly pulpy imprint should have clued me to the idea that it wasn't something anyone was particularly massively proud of as well. However, it's not any objective qualities that really annoyed me about the book, but the fact that it wasn't the book that I wanted it to be.
The way that fantasy novels, and indeed fantasy readers, approach race really annoys me, because it is still inherently caught up in the politics of historical determinism. The fact that fantasy races are fantastic doesn't take away from their essentially metaphorical role. The message of almost all fantastic fiction is that you cannot help but embody - to a greater or lesser extent - a set of traits that were delineated before you were born. Elves are elves, dwarves are dwarves and orcs is orcs, it's in their nature. This message is depressingly conservative.
Orcs, in this discourse, are a sort of ur-case. As we've got more aware of these tropes people have started going with the 'our elves are different' line, although they still tend to be, within the defined group, definable as elves qua elves, but no matter. Orcs, though, are just the horde. More than that, they are often presented as a manufactured horde, created by dark magic and let loose on the world - a breathing, living embodiment of mindless destruction whose past is not their own and whose future cannot possibly exist. They are the thing that will unmake the world.
Having an undistinguished horde may well be useful for pulpy narrative purposes, but doing so has always struck me as a little too close to the techniques that basically enable governments to prosecute wars between conscript armies - pick any 20th century war and you'll see that dehumanisation in action. We won't even go in to the use against civilian populations.
And so, the book that I wanted Grunts to be, and which it wasn't, was a book which re-humanised orcs, taking them from being a horde (a badly westernised African horde at that) and turned them into differentiated characters, capable of being both orcs and being themselves, being orcs but not defined as such. I assumed that Gentle might be the person to do that, having heard a bit about her politics, but I was projecting, and it isn't her fault that she didn't write that book.
I have read only one book which comes close to doing orcs the justice I think that they deserve, but I'm not going to say what it is because to do so would ruin the impact of the story. I have also been reading the comic Orc Stain, which is mainly a lot of beautifully drawn violence and which still presents orcs as intrinsically brutish, but which does at least present the possibility that this nature is more a habit or a societal norm than a fundamental given, which is refreshing.
I think the real point here is that I need to stop bitching and actually get my act together and write a book about orcs that does what I want to do with them, and does it properly. The problem is, doing so will collapse all of the ideas that I currently have onto paper, where they will no doubt come across either stupidly heavy-handed or awkwardly worded and not meaning what I want them to mean - and I won't have written the book about orcs that I desperately want be written. The one which isn't all small-c conservatism and maybe uses its metaphorical power to tell us how we can maybe relate to different people as they are themselves, and not as we expect them to be based on their physical appearance and genetic history.
Ah, fuck it. This has got too long-winded and earnest. I was originally just going to apologise to Mary Gentle and explain that the real reason I never finished Grunts is that I read it on one of the worst flights of my life, where I was sat all the way back from New York next to a couple where the women repeatedly berated the man for not taking his heart medicine, and then gave him a hand-job under the airline blanket. I just read, for as long as I was able to, just to have something in front of me to concentrate on, and as such, when I got off the plane I couldn't bring myself to pick up the book again, because it was indelibly linked to a place I didn't want to go back to and a feeling I didn't want to experience ever again.