Personal bias ever surfacing (Ascendancy in the Malazan series)

See my eyes rolling in consternation again.

I enjoy reading Larry’s reviews, no matter what he reviews. Then he links a forum I’ve never seen and I check there from time to time to read other points of view on his reviews of Erikson’s books. Guess who’s posting also in that place? Werthead. There’s no place on the internet even vaguely related to fantasy and SF where you don’t see him strutting about.

Which is actually a good thing. He spends quite a bit of time everywhere evangelizing about the genre, and you can’t have enough of that. We should be grateful. There’s nothing negative about answering questions and making people aware of this or that less known writer or book. Nothing negative at least till what he’s spreading is somewhat accurate and honest, but there are certain instances that are not, and so he goes on spreading some twisted and inaccurate interpretations that can’t be in any way useful.

This is a recurring habit of him with Erikson in particular, it seems he can’t write a comment without putting some venom or spite in it. It just can’t be helped. I point your attention in particular to this reply he writes. Someone asks some specific questions about Malazan and he’s kind enough to answer. The reply he writes is actually good and to the point, helpful. Only he had to let some of that venom of him seep through, and so we get this:

People ‘Ascend’ when they become unstoppably badass. That’s about the only criteria that can be found. When they become powerful enough they will ascend to become Ascendants, who are effectively demigods.

That’s exactly the moment when my eyes went rolling, especially because this is a recurring bad habit of those who try to diminish Erikson as a writer by drawing a parallel between his series and role-playing games. I don’t need to discuss the association because I’ve done it already in the past, the point here is that, no matter how you see it or personal opinion about Erikson as a writer, what he says there is simply inaccurate and WRONG. Yes, there’s always this argument that says I don’t qualify to comment since I haven’t read the whole series yet, but now I’ve read some 3400 pages, I guess I should have an idea about how this thing works.

In those pages I read there are plenty of cases of individuals becoming ascendants. We see the process in various instances. Yet I can’t remember A SINGLE ONE that went in the way Werthead described it. Not only there’s not a pattern like the one he described, but there’s not even a single case that went like that.

If one has to define a pattern (and a pattern is not easy to find here for deliberate reasons), it’s one that is the exact opposite of “becoming badass”. In most cases people in the books “ascend” after they went through some extreme suffering, or suffering that can be interpreted in some symbolic way. Saying this would still be imprecise and limited, but THIS is the only generalized criteria that one could honestly deduct.

When I think about this I remember these words by Erikson that I quoted recently for something entirely different: the flaw is one of sequence.” Indeed. People become badass AFTER they become ascendants, as a consequence. They do not become ascendants BECAUSE they are badass. This happens because ascendancy is in general the process of creation of myth in the malazan world. This process includes different typologies because it’s here that Erikson deals with the entire spectrum of myth, from pragmatic and concrete gods, to religious beliefs. What in the beginning seems to have the most disparate origin is then shown to have a shared one. And this is a rather broad and deep theme that is already expanded and explored from various perspectives in each book.

This process draws directly not from the fantasy genre and its canon (even if these are used to play some tricks), but from REALITY. The process of creation of myths and gods is, in the Malazan world as in our real one, entirely symbolic. The meaning as a sign. Or a sign that evokes meaning. This is why it’s possible in the Malazan world that gods appear disguised or take the place of other gods to deceive and twist followers. This kind of “game of thrones” is a game of ambivalence of meaning. It’s a disguise of power, through meaning. Take for example this revelatory part with Heboric from House of Chains:

Then another voice spoke, louder, more imperious: ‘What god now owns your
hands, old man? Tell me! Even their ghosts are not here -who is holding on to you? Tell
‘There are no gods,’ a third voice cut in, this one female.
‘So you say!’ came yet another, filled with spite. ‘In your empty, barren, miserable
‘Gods are born of belief, and belief is dead. We murdered it, with our vast
intelligence. You were too primitive—’
‘Killing gods is not hard. The easiest murder of all. Nor is it a measure of intelligence.
Not even of civilization. Indeed, the indifference with which such death-blows are
delivered is its own form of ignorance.’
‘More like forgetfulness. After all, it’s not the gods that are important, it is the
stepping outside of oneself that gifts a mortal with virtue—’
‘Kneel before Order? You blind fool—’
‘Order? I was speaking of compassion—’

The only gap between the Malazan world and ours is that Erikson makes the process concrete and tangible. In the same way, for example, in Lost the players make the rules (and make them real) as they go, here the representation of a god makes it real. “Meaning” that dresses itself as tangible power. Meaning that transforms itself into magic. Accepting and embracing meaning makes it real and part of the factual world.

‘It is believed,’ he said slowly, ‘by the bonecasters, that to create an
icon of a spirit or a god is to capture its essence within that icon. Even the laying of
stones prescribes confinement. Just as a hut can measure out the limits of power for a
mortal, so too are spirits and gods sealed into a chosen place of earth or stone or
wood… or an object. In this way power is chained, and so becomes manageable.’

‘Do your bonecasters also believe that power begins as a thing devoid of shape, and thus
beyond control? And that to carve out an icon – or make a circle of stones – actually
forces order upon that power?’

Understanding this leads to understanding how ascendancy works, and define a pattern if we really want one. In most cases, people don’t become ascendants, but they get picked by a god. In most cases (all) without their consent. The relationship is not a simple one, because it’s reciprocate influence, and in order to use powers, the gods are subject to influence from the outside.

How does a god choose an ascendant? Through symbols and convenience. Again I say that “combat proficiency” never came to play in the choice in all the examples I’ve seen. What comes to play and defines the choice is “likeness”, “kinship”. Gods pick their ascendants through symbolic analogies. Through some kind of reflection between themselves and those they choose. Some kind of abstract link. This is why for example the Crippled God (Chained One) picks his followers among those who suffered and were chained in ways similar to his (in the same way in Lost the black smoke tries to find allies by exploiting some affinity with them). Gods make ascendants through affinity of spirit, or in some twisted interpretation of it. And this is why Heboric himself, cripple and blind, also is chosen. A man who only felt miserable and whose only escape from suffering was through drug. Are you telling me that his transition to ascendancy happens through badassness? Come on.

I don’t think Erikson would have any interest in creating a magic system or a pantheon established on arbitrary assumptions. What Erikson puts in his books is definitely “fantasy”, but always grounded on something real and true. The fantastic element is purely of transformation. Metaphoric. But in the end, it needs to connect back to something true and real in order to be relevant and meaningful. Which all makes me think about Brandon Sanderson “bragging” for his The Stormlight Archive series how “there are thirty magic systems in this world, depending on how you count them”. Which is cool, but just “fluff” (as Dan Abnett would define it) if these magic systems are not used as narrative devices with some purpose. Thirty magic systems, or sixty, or one, or zero. Who cares? It’s what you do with them and why, to matter. What they represent, what is the message. It’s a book that you’re writing, not a role-playing gaming system.

Which is the point.

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