Back in my professor days, when I taught Psycholinguistics, I’d begin the semester with the premise that acquiring our native language was the most cognitively complex thing that human beings manage in their lifetime, and we’ve pretty much got that done by age five. Really, it’s all down hill from there. As a corollary to that, the most powerful thing we do with language is use it to craft metaphor, in a curiously recursive regimen of enhancement. Other forms of figurative language—by which I mean to include hyperbole, idiom, personification, and of course simile—share in ratcheting up the depth and breadth that language makes possible, but a good metaphor, one which maps the detailed and varied facets of one thing onto the orthogonal aspects of another, manages to both ground and transcend language at the same time.
Having grown up on Tolkien and Peake, voyaged to Arcturus and Earthsea, and done my time with unicorns, scarecrows, and dragons, I have little interest in most fantasy literature any more. Nothing puts me off a book faster than a cover blurb with the phrase “in the epic tradition of…” And too, I’ve had my fill of both the roleplaying retreads and the endless invocations of Joseph Campbell. And while Plato had it right that there’s nothing new under the sun, genre fiction has never had a problem trotting out fresh suns. Hence, we return to figurative language. A metaphor can make the old new again, put a fresh perspective on the familiar, and restore one’s faith in the fantastic.
Which leads me, starstruck and intoxicated, to Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence.
On the surface, the metaphors he employs are straightforward. Wizardry is business. Magic is commerce. It’s contracts and negotiations, laws that are legislated rather than universal. As every courtroom drama on television has taught us, winning your argument is as often as much about the charisma and perspicacity of the lawyer as having the law on your side. And so it is with Craft. The perks, the corporate structure, the manifestations of status are all the same. What makes this fantasy—as opposed to Wall Street fan fiction—is the underlying, thermodynamic trope that regardless of how effortless it appears, magic has a cost. No one in Gladstone’s books makes it to their equivalent of Carnegie Hall without the requisite years of practice. And even then, that’s just to get to the point where one can step onto the great stage and perform.
The power behind Craft has a cost. There are no Chosen Ones, no lucky individuals with bonus midichlorians coursing through their blood, and we can all be thankful for that. But unlike traditional fantasies, not only is the raw stuff of magic not arcane and mystical, it’s ubiquitous and commonplace, as simple as the change in your pocket or the line of credit you’ve worked out with your bank. It’s referenced on the local exchange and it is subject to arbitrage and the shifts in the market. This is the real heart of Gladstone’s metaphor, and it works because of it is both comfortably familiar, and easily enjoyed. It achieves what so many attempts at metaphor fail to accomplish: it’s accessible. So much so that if the tone of these novels were lighter, the metaphor could almost be ignored as a gag. But it’s not, and Gladstone knows it. He leaves the obvious, grosser elements of his metaphor on the table, almost as a distraction, and proceeds to probe deeper.
A good, no, a great metaphor not only has many facets, its facets operate on many levels. In the Craft Sequence the stuff of magic is currency. And just as one doesn’t need to be a banker or a stockbroker to make daily use of money, so too is magic ubiquitous in the lives of everyone in these books. For every Craftswoman arguing in the courts there are thousands of ordinary folks struggling to pay their rent. For every post-morbid walking skeleton, there are a million citizens buying groceries. And the thing they all have in common is the coin they use: call it soulstuff or cash. Magic/Money makes the world go round. If you’re not completely sucked in by Mina’s desperate use of an ATM to replenish her deleted soul in Last First Snow, then you need to put the book down and walk away.
For many authors, that would be enough. Generating a successful and engaging metaphor that revitalizes fantastic storytelling deserves our attention. But a great metaphor provides both gross and subtle influence; it permeates beyond the surface and soaks into the subtext. And if I haven’t implied it strongly enough, let me state outright, Max Gladstone has a great metaphor here.
If, as is often said, the insight of science fiction is to use the alien to understand ourselves, then I would argue that the insight of fantasy is to use the structure of magic to offer an understanding of how we relate to one another. A popular view in contemporary psychology would have us believe that all relationships can be described in terms of costs and benefits, or more simply that one chooses whom to befriend or love based on the balancing of how few resources you have to contribute compared with how much you can wring from that relationship. It’s as cold as a Craft user’s blood, and in the larger sense of looking at modern society it has a lot of face validity. And that’s the real source of the underlying conflict that drives the storytelling. It’s not about the plots of old gods or past wars or even rival ideologies clashing. Rather, the metaphor of the corporate business model that defines the characters’ lives runs up against their very humanity, over and over again.
We see it in with Tara’s decisions regarding Abelard in Three Parts Dead, and Caleb’s choices in his relation with Mal in Two Serpents Rise. It’s at the heart of Kai’s attempt to save her godly creation in Full Fathom Five, and rises to epic proportion in Temoc’s struggle to balance the complexities of his relationships with his wife, his son, and the people in Chakal Square in Last First Snow. And it’s not just the main characters, but all of the characters. Over and over again, the Craft Sequence holds up the balance sheets of its characters’ lives, points to the obvious choices that should be made if we are to keep our shareholders happy, the corporation solvent, and our ledger in the black, and yet almost every time it redeems our nature by choosing heart over power. To the stunned amazement of the accountants back at the corporate office, humanity wins again. And while that victory may come at a cost—there’s that metaphor again—the coin we pay with is Gladstone’s soulstuff, aptly named indeed. Our decisions of life and death, our choices of integrity, are purchases that defy the predictions of economic theory. More simply, Gladstone’s characters speak to us, regardless of their situation or decisions, because each demonstrates that despite the expectations imposed by his world, the worth of a thing never comes down to its price, and its cost will almost always surprise you.
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, and is a certified hypnotherapist. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. His new novel, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, arrives from Tor Books this December.