Social Commentary and the World of Malaz Part 1

“Discipline is the greatest weapon against the self-righteous.  We must measure the virtue of our own controlled response when answering the atrocities of fanatics.  And yet, let it not be claimed, in our own oratory of piety, that we are without our own fanatics; for the self-righteous breed wherever tradition holds, and most often when there exists the perception that tradition is under assault.  Fanatics can be created as easily in an environment of moral decay (whether real or imagined) as in an environment of legitimate inequity or under the banner of a common cause.
Discipline is as much facing the enemy within as the enemy before you; for without critical judgement, the weapon you wield delivers – and let us not be coy here – naught but murder.
And its first victim is the moral probity of your cause.” – Steven Erikson, The Bonehunters

“I appreciate your honesty Trell.  Consider this: when inequity burgeons into violent conflagration, the gods themselves are helpless.  The gods cease to lead – they can but follow, dragged by the will of their worshippers.  Now, suppose gods to be essentially moral entities – that is, possessing and indeed manifestly representing a particular ethos – well, then, such moral considerations become the first victim in the war.  Unless that god chooses to defend him or herself from his or her own believers.  Allies, enemies? What relevance such primitive, simplistic notions in that scenario, Mappo Runt?…We are…as the soil and the sea…Driven by unseen forces, forever in motion, even when we stand still….For all that the contestants proclaim that they are but soldiers of their god…All that they do in that god’s name is at its core profoundly godless….And the truly godless – such as you spoke of earlier – cannot but see such blasphemers as allies.” – Steven Erikson, The Bonehunters

The book the above quotes came from.

Steven Erikson is, as an author, a master of crafting an intricate, complex, and involving story while inserting copious amounts of social commentary.  Erikson’s social commentary is vast touching on everything from economics to politics, to morality and equality, to the nature of truth, reason, and academia, although this is understandable in a novel series which spans 10,000+ pages.  Above are two brief examples of Erikson’s religious commentary from The Bonehunters, the sixth book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series.  I am ashamed to say that I did not start writing down quotes from the books until almost finished with Midnight Tides and so I am going to have to reread the first five books of the series to tease out quotable passages.

Erikson presents religion, religious people, and the nature of deity with a profound degree of complexity.  The two quotes above give two distinct examples of religious commentary, the quote on the bottom dealing with the problem of free will, the question of how a deity reacts to its followers.  While the quote on the top deals with the need for self-control and level-headedness in religious people.  I must note here that Erikson’s books are full of social commentary of every kind and he is in the habit (whether good or bad depends on the patience of the reader) of presenting a question and then inserting five hundred pages+ of story before coming to a conclusion.

Sometimes entire books stand between the first introduction of a moral or philosophical question and it’s answer.  For instance the first quote is on page 937 of The Bonehunters (sixth book in the series), however the question to which it applies was first introduced, perhaps, in Deadhouse Gates (second book in the series).  If Deadhouse Gates is taken as the first introduction of this issue then somewhere close to four thousand pages stand between the issue’s first introduction and this quote.  The second quote comes from page 790-791 of The Bonehunters and I have yet to see a continuation of this conversation in the book.

Another great book in this amazing series.

In my opinion this is a masterful technique for the natural insertion of social/philosophical commentary into Erikson’s story.  He allows the story to develop naturally, he allows the characters to say what he wants to say in their own way and time.  This allows him to introduce social commentary without interrupting the flow of his story or distorting the development of his characters.

In this area Erikson’s development of his religious characters, and he has many religious characters, runs the gamut from true believer, to hypocrite, to fanatic, to peacemaker.  The scope of his religions span belief in what one can see and touch, to belief in existent and active gods, to cultic worship of fallen heroes, to belief in the absurd and notions which are blatantly untrue.  His ‘real’ gods range from beings which care for their followers and do their best to protect and preserve, to beings which use their followers as tools and toss them aside when broken, to beings which are indifferent to worship and pay their followers no attention at all.

Through his books the reader is treated to a deep and involved examination of the nature of religious belief (among many other things) with all of its successes and all of its failures.  The same can be said for political association and an examination of several philosophical issues.  All in all Erikson’s social commentary is well reasoned and very well supported through his characters.  He also has the habit of presenting multiple viewpoints on a single issue through different characters, something which I appreciate.  The last thing Erikson’s work can be called is propaganda.

The problem with Erikson’s social commentary is that it is spread over ten books which average a thousand pages a piece.  The series is mammoth, one of the largest cohesive fantasy series in existence, and a deep, hard read.  While the Malazan Book of the Fallen has become one of my all-time favorite fantasy series it is not for everyone…perhaps not for most readers…and simply taking it up is a daunting task.  What I always tell people who are considering the read is that this is not a series you read through in a few months or even a year.  This is a series you take years to read while reading other things in between.  I have taken many breaks from the series since I started reading it in 2007 but I have always come back.  It’s just that good.


About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on February 12, 2011, in Educational Resources, Social Commentary, Steven Erikson, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I love the fact that this series is so unexpectedly funny. This kind of sly, straight-faced humor is my favorite.

  2. Heh, yeah. I’ve just gotten to the part in the Bonehunters where the Adjuncts army has taken to ship and met the Perish. The conversations between Kalam and Quick Ben are hilarious. Although I think my all-time favorite comic characters are Tehol and Bugg.

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