Monday, September 17, 2007

The Wheel of Time Turns: RIP Robert Jordan



As I was doing my daily internet routine yesterday, I came across some sad news at SF Signal. James Oliver Rigney, Jr., known by most as Fantasy author Robert Jordan, died yesterday of complications from primary amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy. For his fans, this news is devastating enough, but I think this also ranks as a major blow to Fantasy fiction.

In defending that statement let me say, that while I have read all of the published "Wheel of Time" books, I have never been a devoted fan of "Robert Jordan's" fantasy tales. I have been in many conversation with others who were critical of the series and usually agreed with their criticisms that the series was "derivative" and did little that is new in speculative fiction. I have also been frustrated by the long wait between novels and the apparent attempt by the author to leave no narrative strand resolved. Each book added new complications while rarely resolving the complications of prior books and each book was so convoluted that I often had to reread the entire series when a new book came out just to know what was going on in the most recent book.

Those words above don't seem to be those that would be written by someone who believes that the loss of Rigney, at a relatively young age I might add, is a tragic loss to the Fantasy genre. But that is exactly how I feel.

Though I primarily read the books so that I could discuss them with friends who were more devoted, and enthusiastic, fans than I, I read them and as I did so I noticed something magical about the works.

What's this? Magic in something I found flawed? Yes, magical.

These were books which were wonderful introductions, surveys if you will, to the entirety of speculative fiction. By using the most common trope, the young boy on a quest, as the foundation of the story and adding elements from across speculative fiction, Rigney created a series that was the perfect gateway series into the hobby. His series was the perfect "second series" to recommend to potential Fantasy fans who wanted to know what to read when they were done with Lord of the Rings. Yes, his "world" borrowed liberally from the tropes established in that canonical series, but he also introduced tropes from other sf/fantasy tales. Do you want a series that makes Dune less daunting to the new reader? Explain to them how the Bene Gesserit are similar to the Aes Sedai and that Paul Atreides is similar to Rand al'Thor, heck there are even devoted bedouin tribe awaiting the arrival of a messianic figure. "Wheel of Time" borrowed from Dune as well as The Lord of the Rings. The list doesn't stop there. It could include Milton's Paradise Lost, the whole King Arthur ouevre, Susan Cooper, Ursula LeGuin. Name an author of speculative fiction, and Rigney probably melded some of their concepts into his fiction.

This was intentional. The "Wheel of Time" was supposed to be a "collective myth" which mirrored all other possible myths. In writing this series Rigney created a sampler of the fantasy and science fiction genres. If you could read and enjoy "The Wheel of Time," you would most certainly enjoy the fiction of other, arguably more proficient, writers of speculative fiction.

"Robert Jordan" was a gift to the fantasy field. He was a regularly best selling author whose works pointed to other works by which one could expand their appreciation of speculative fiction. At least he was when I talked with my friends. I have never been one to criticize my friend's tastes in fantasy, only to find what they enjoy and to use those as springboards for new adventures. In conversations with my friends who are fans of "Jordan," I found near limitless opportunity to recommend further readings. Friends who read "Jordan" on a lark, because he was a best selling author, became long time fans of sf/f after discussing the novels with me.

That is a great gift to the genre and one which I am sad to see go. This leaves two authors who have left unfinished fantasy sagas in the past year. David Gemmell passed away before he could finish his exciting retelling of the Trojan War, and now it appears that "Robert Jordan" has passed away before finishing his epic saga.

You can discuss your thoughts regarding this and other topics with me on my radio show geekerati tonight at 7pm pacific.
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