Discovering Fantasy Through Science Fiction: Mr. Modesitt and Me

Welcome back to the eBook Club! December’s pick is The Towers of the Sunset, the second book in L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s epic fantasy series The Saga of Recluse. Below, please enjoy an encore article from June of 2011, detailing one fan’s initial dismay at Modesitt’s turn away from science fiction…

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. was the second professional writer I ever met. I first met the man I still mostly think of as Mr. Modesitt in, I think, the winter of 1990, or maybe the fall of 1989. He and his family had recently moved to New Hampshire, and his daughter attended my school. He came to talk to an afterschool club I was a member of, and eventually he and I started corresponding—I know it was before the summer of 1990, because he sent me an advanced copy of the cover for The Ecologic Secession, which was released in July 1990.

For a summer job, I usually worked at the Plymouth State College Bookstore, stocking the shelves for the coming semester. That fall, Modesitt would be teaching an intro to lit class, and I vividly remember putting his books onto the shelf—including, I believe, Gordon Dickson’s Soldier, Ask Not and Sherri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. Seeing those books alongside big intro to lit anthologies and books by folks like Shakespeare and Kafka warmed my heart.

And then came The Magic of Recluce. I had known Modesitt was working on a fantasy novel, and I had been disappointed at this news, because at the time I considered science fiction to be the only thing worth reading. I had tried reading Tolkien, I had tried reading L’Engle, I had tried reading Moorcock, and none of it interested me.

When The Magic of Recluce was published, my parents gave me the hardcover as a gift, and I started reading it with teeth gritted in disgust. The righteous disgust of a 15-year-old is a powerful force, but it was a force Recluce overcame within fifty or sixty pages. What Harry Potter has been for millions of young people, The Magic of Recluce was for me—a book that obliterated everyday reality, a book whose words expanded to vast worlds in my imagination. It’s a good thing I’d gotten the book in hardcover; I read and reread it so much, the paperback would have fallen apart.

Soon after Recluce was released, I came across a copy of the venerable fanzine Niekas, published in nearby Center Harbor, New Hampshire. The many book reviews in the back fascinated me, and for some reason, I thought, “I could do that!” The problem was, I could never afford to buy books new, and none of the local libraries bought much in the way of new SF, so I doubted I could ever become a book reviewer.

Except I now had a brand-new hardcover of The Magic of Recluce.

I probably have a copy of the issue of Niekas that includes my review of Recluce, but if I do, it’s buried in a box somewhere. I’m not going to go out of my way to find it; it’s one of those things best left to memory. What I remember is that it was, of course, positive, and that I worked very hard not to gush. My impulse was to write something along the lines of, “This is the greatest book written in the last 25 years, and if you disagree with me, you are an IDIOT!”

Thankfully, I didn’t write that. I liked reading book reviews, so I knew it was best not to gush. I tried to sound reasonable. I struggled the hardest to try to identify a flaw, because I thought that my praise would be taken more seriously if I could prove that I didn’t just worship the book. I struggled against my sense that this novel was a work of perfection, and finally realized there was one thing I could complain about. I’d had some difficulty imagining the geography of Recluce, and I was then, as I remain, fond of maps, so the one complaint in the review is that the book did not contain a map.

When later Recluce books started including maps, I felt a bit like King Gama in Princess Ida when he sang,

Oh don’t the days seem lank and long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong;
And isn’t your life extremely flat
With nothing whatever to grumble at!

When the second Recluce novel, The Towers of the Sunset, came out, I read it with great excitement, but it would never be the same excitement as The Magic of Recluce had provided, because such experiences are fleeting and rare, fostered by a perfect convergence of mood and material. My contempt for fantasy had been the key; the first book had shattered that contempt and opened new worlds of wonder—at best, the second book could only extend that wonder. It did, but I was still disappointed. I wanted a lifetime of first times.

One thing that amuses me now about my first reaction to The Towers of the Sunset is that I was perplexed and annoyed by its present-tense narration. Present tense narration is not a particularly avant-garde technique—indeed, the great experimental writer and critic William Gass even published an essay in 1987 called “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense“—but I struggled with it. I needed some hook on which to hang my disappointment that no book would be for me what The Magic of Recluce had been.

Soon after The Towers of the Sunset was released, the Modesitt family moved west. It was mostly my mother’s fault. She worked at Plymouth State, and one day at lunch happened to introduce Lee to a brilliant music and voice teacher named Carol. Eventually, they were married, and then Carol got a job in Utah.

And twenty years have passed. It certainly doesn’t feel it. I’ve published a lot of book reviews since that first one, and I now find myself teaching at Plymouth State University and assigning Shakespeare, Kafka, and science fiction to undergraduates. I remember first opening The Magic of Recluce as if it were just a few weeks ago. Somehow, in those few weeks, fifteen other Recluce books have been published.

Magic, I tell you, magic….

Top image: Cover art for The Magic of Recluce, illustration by Darrell K. Sweet.

Matthew Cheney’s work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including Weird Tales, One Story, Locus, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and the anthologies Interfictions and Logorrhea. He is a regular columnist for Strange Horizons and BSC Review, and his blog, The Mumpsimus was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005.


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