Saturday, September 4, 2021

Just How Important is Douglas Adams?


So, I've been reading on a biography of the late great Douglas Adams as part of my mulling over a claim I'm thinking about making to the effect that Adams is arguably the most important science fiction writer of the last few decades (say from about 1977 onwards). And as an offshoot of that, the importance of someone whose impact largely came through novelizations (of the original radio scripts) suggests that during the modern era science fiction has increasingly been dominated by media (unlike fantasy, which has been thrived in both print and film/series).

I don't have any explanation of why this is so, but the more I think it over the more it seems to be the case. The long-awaited SILMARILLION came out in 1977, about a quarter century after it'd been promised, and was on the NYTBR bestsellers list for twenty-one weeks in a row. Shortly afterwards the era of the Tolk-Clones got well and truly underway.  I can't really make myself believe that THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS, which seemed to be on the verge of publication in 1979, wd if published about a quarter century later in circa 2004 wd have been seen as anything but nostalgic, a summing up of an era that was long past.

 --John R.

--current reading: about the dancing bears of Numenor (NoMe .335)


David Bratman said...

I doubt very much that the publication of The Silmarillion was what set off the era of the Tolclones. For one thing, if its popularity had been directly responsible, the Tolclones would have resembled The Silmarillion much more than they did.

For another, the first two major Tol-Clones pre-dated the publication of The Silmarillion. The Sword of Shannara was published in April 1977 and the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in June; The Silmarillion did not appear until September. And, of course, both these books would have been in preparation for some previous time.

I suspect the cause involved the continuing popularity of The Lord of the Rings over the 1965-77 period. But more important and direct was the advent of the fantasy editor who was responsible for both these Tolclones, and many other of the new breed of fantasy books: Lester del Rey, who was hired by Ballantine Books in 1974. (source: It was clearly Lester del Rey's long-term project to develop popular successors to Tolkien.

That these books, and others like them, succeeded in the long run, might have had some indirect relationship to the publication of The Silmarillion, insofar as its appearance led to a renewal of vigorous interest in The Lord of the Rings. But that's both indirect and secondary.

Paul W said...

I don't think its really fair to describe either the The Sword of Shannara or the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as 'Tol-Clones.' Shannara has some superficial similarities, but ultimately is a very different work. And Covenant has no similarities at all, it is a fairly unique work, certainly not Tolkienesque and not sword & sorcery either.

In fact, I've only come across one actual 'Tol-Clones' - Dennis L. Mckiernan's The Iron Tower series.

I know a great deal of market was (and still is) devoted to claiming author X is "the next Tolkien" but but other then writing fantasy, very few of the ever share even superficial resemblances with Tolkien's work, IMO.

I often think this is a shame, I think i might enjoy a decent Tolkien pastiche if such existed.

David Bratman said...

Paul W,
Don't confuse the name with the thing. If you consider the actual term "Tol-Clones" unfair, that's one thing; but that Brooks and Donaldson were the prominent inaugural entries of a long sequence of fantasies in conscious imitation of Tolkien, where such things hadn't existed (at least notably) before, is indisputable, even if they weren't literal copies as McKiernan's was.
And, in fact, there's an impressive amount of direct borrowing from Tolkien in both Brooks and Donaldson, even if it's not as whole cloth as McKiernan. So I think the term "Tolclone" (as I prefer to spell it) is justified.

John D. Rateliff said...

Good point about the timing, David. I'll have to go back and re-check some of the sequencing as it affected influencing.

Doug Anderson made an interesting post not long ago on his blog that's directly relevant to this discussion :

Wednesday, June 23, 2021
"Ubiquitous Fantasies of the late 1970s"

--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

Paul W.

For me, SWORD OF SHANARA is the very epitome of a Tolk-clone.

As for the Donaldson, his first book, LORD FOUL'S BANE, is by the dot derivative (except if I remember right his Gollum figure had gained possession of his Great Artifact). Derivative or no, it's a truly dreadful book. He got better in this second and better still in the third. The fourth book is by far his best and the one I'd recommend anyone thinking about reading S.R.D. to read first: he not only found his voice but THE WOUNDED LAND recaps everything of importance from the original trilogy

Dennis McKiernan's work is an abomination before man and god. Especially the duology THE TREK TO KREGGAN COR/THE BREGA PATH.

--John R.

Paul W said...

I accept the point about the name, and I agree that Brooks has a great deal of borrowing, and McKiernan is whole cloth borrowing as you said. I suppose I just assume "Tolclone" would apply more to McKiernan style whole-cloth borrowing. The Shanarra borrowing is unmistakable, though I believe the post-apocalytic setting and the nature of the Sword's powers set it apart quite distinctly from Lord of the Rings.

I guess I should reread Lord Foul's Bane, I never noticed any borrowing from Tolkien. But i only read it once. I admit, The Illearth War stuck with me more, the idea of a blind man being a military genius because time/distance factors were simply abstract numbers to him was intriguing to me.

But as much as McKiernan's work is hard to slog through, I did enjoy his description of the Warrow archers fighting the wolf like creatures in the opening of The Dark Tide.

David Bratman said...

He's got elves, he's got dwarves, he's got ents, he's got Nazgul, he's got orcs, he's got a Dark Lord ...

Ed Pierce said...

Someone gave me the first three Thomas Covenant books for my birthday when I was a boy, since they knew I was a Tolkien fan. I only got a few chapters into Lord Foul's Bane before I gave up; I didn't find it compelling at all. Even in those first few chapters I saw characters that seemed modelled on Gollum, the Ringwraiths and Sauron. And a character named "Berek Half-Hand"? C'mon.