Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Explorer's Guild: Vol 1: Passage to Shambala.

William Faulkner once observed, "The past is always with us, it isn't even past".  If that's the truth, then it's a problematic fact.  One of the most difficult challenges for modern readers is tackling the past as a subject of study.  This can best be illustrated if one turns to the works of literary fiction from a bygone age.  Part of the problem with the literary writings of the Victorian Age is that there is a particular sub-section of works which can more or less be grouped together as sharing the same generic space.  The trick is it's hard to know just what to call this style or genre of fiction.

That's an ironic fact which critic Gary Hoppenstand is more than aware of.  In the introduction to Perilous Escapades, Hoppenstand notes that "Adventure fiction, a popular form of fiction today, is one of the easiest narrative formulas to recognize and one of the hardest to define specifically (3)".  That's at least a half-truth.  Action is a common trope in most works of fiction, specifically in the movies.  However, to label the types of stories under consideration as "Adventure Fiction" is a bit too narrow.  While the Jungle Books of Kipling and the two novels of Lewis Carroll's Alice are not the same type of story, there is still a sense in which both texts fit neatly together on the same shelf, or in the same generic box.  Because of this, trying to find the right name for the box requires a bit more delicacy than Hoppenstand is able to give it.

Robert Fraser prefers the phrase Victorian Quest Romance.  This term is not without it's problems and caveats, yet it is at least somewhat closer to the mark.  Fraser provides an interesting take on the genre in question courtesy of Sir Walter Scott.  "As early as 1810...Sir Walter Scott had spelled out this equation: 'The mythology of one period,' he had written, 'would seem to pass into the romance of the next, and that into the nursery tales of subsequent ages.'  In other words, so late Victorians came to believe, people had begun with certain beliefs, which they had then embodied in legends.  These were in turn handed down from generation to generation until they 'degenerated' - a word often used by late-Victorian folklorists - into fairy stories.  The relationship between such stories and romance was of paramount importance to nineteenth-century theories of fiction, and determined contemporary thinking about...certain kinds of narrative (5-6)".

If we are willing to follow the genealogy laid down by Scott, the genre under discussion owes it's lineage to various old world myths.  In this light, perhaps a good starting point would be to use a label such as "Victorian Myths".  Such a label is a lot closer to the mark, as many of the stories in this genre are all about the re-discovery of ancient myths, including the lands and cultures that were once associated with them.  This type of setup often involved a group of characters, usually explorers, trekking out into what was once "unexplored terrain", and having all kinds of fantastic adventures along the way.  The works of Kipling and Rider Haggard fall into this category, or sub-section of the genre.

The trouble with labeling these works as "Myths", however, encounters two problems.  The first is that Haggard and Kipling are not composing myths in the proper sense of the terms, they are instead using the 19th century forms of novel and short story to tell their tales.  The second is that I believe the genre under discussion is multi-faceted enough to take in and accommodate more than just a jungle adventure, or lost world story.  If Kipling can share the same shelf with Lewis Carroll, that means the genre also features another type of story.  This one could be considered an early form of what is now known as Urban or Contemporary Fantasy.  This type of story is all about the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane life of modern society.  The big over-arching theme of this particular type of story seems to be one of the breakdown of boundaries, whether between ordinary and extraordinary, or between new and old.  The works of Carroll, as well as the children's books of Edith Nesbit are prime Era centric examples of this kind of narrative.

The one thing that unites such a disparate collection of authors is that each seems to take their inspiration from a combination of Ancient Myth and the Medieval genre known as Romance.  Because of this, Victorian Romanticism, or Victorian Fantasy, are perhaps the best terms to describe the genre I'm talking about here.  It is broad enough to encompass Mowgli's Jungle and Alice's Wonderland, while still leaving room enough for novels set in Ancient or Medieval settings.

In a way, the nature of Victorian Fantasy was summed up best by one of its most famous inheritors.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien, it is "a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold...The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.  In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who report them.  And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys lost (web)".  At the very least, it is possible to grant the professor this much, trying to define the fantastic fiction of the Victorian Age (itself just one among many ingredients in the "Cauldron of Story") can be tongue tying.
As genres go, Victorian Fantasy has been one of those whose influence on future artists is big enough to be ubiquitous.  It's imprint can be found in places as diverse as a children's ghost story by Neil Gaiman, to a free-verse poem written by Stephen King, to the labyrinthine texts of Umberto Eco.  The influence is often so all-encompassing as to be unnoticeable by the great majority.  It's still there no matter how long it goes unnoticed.  Sometimes there will come along a person who does notice both the genre and it's influences.  Sometimes the person who notices will turn out to be an artist.  It can be a curious sight to observe what  happens whenever an artist becomes aware of the Victorian Fantasy, especially if the artist takes it into his head to try and do something in the same vein.
 The Story.

The best way to describe the Explorer's Guild is to call it what it is.  It's a form of one of those old gentleman's social clubs that used to populate the landscape during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  These cubs were mainly a product of the upper classes, and served as little more than a gathering place where that same class could mingle among it's own kind.  By and large the real world was a puzzle that proved more alarming than inviting to the members of these places, so a space of their own proved a welcome change from reality.  That is just about all there is to tell of clubs of this sort, for the most part.

What sets the Explorer's Guild apart is that it's members posses an almost unflagging desire to get out and, as the club's title suggests, explore the world for all it has to offer.  Many of the Guild's members are recognizable names, and some of them have even managed to expand the world's knowledge with an undiscovered country here or there, and by shining a light on this or that unremarked, and out of the way corner.  In this regard, the Guild's members could be said to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo or Columbus.

Another curious difference about the Guild is it's willingness to open its doors to outsiders.  Many people from all over the globe have applied for, and received the grant of membership to this curious club.  It seems like the only real qualification is that the applicant should prove to be one of those types with an itch that makes them easily bored with the workaday world.  This Romantic streak should also be enough to make them strike out on their own in search of whatever is over the next horizon.  With such an arrangement, it shouldn't come as too much of a stretch if some of the Guild's newest members have yet to carve out a place or name for themselves.  Indeed, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that sometimes a new recruit can find it all too easy to give in to a familiar form of indolence.  A perfect example of this is Arthur Ogden.

The product of English wealth, young Mr. Ogden would seem to be the last sort of person to try and apply for membership in a Guild of Explorers.  Indeed, the young man's bohemian temperament and penchant for anything in the way of comfort might have pegged him as a more fitting candidate for places like the Ritz, Savoy, or the Garrick.  Of course, the barriers to such places are often difficult to scale.  This is compounded by the fact that young Arthur may have had little in the way of influential contacts to put in the necessary good word for him.  Still, men like Arthur are on less than good terms with reality, so, any port in a storm, as the saying goes.  The luck of the draw meant that the Explorer's Guild was that port.

Still, Arthur is in his element (albeit of a particular type he's never known much about, though even here the general rule of "Birds-of-a-Feather" still applies, at least as far as Arthur is concerned), and the Guild is not without it's charms.  The exoticism of the club and it's members is enough to satisfy the more poetic strands of his nature, and the billiard hall, fireplace, and ample supply of liquor are enough to satisfy his sense of creature comforts.  Indeed, Arthur might have been content to spend out the rest of his days as a minor figure in the background of the Guild's life, if it weren't for his cousin.

Ever since they were boys, Arthur's cousin Cyril has had a way of getting under his relative's skin.  It is this annoying habit that has driven Arthur clear across the pond and the supposed safety of the Guild's  New York chapter.  This is a fool-proof plan until Cyril turns up one day in New York for a visit.  Cyril's needling ways are enough to drive his American cousin to declare in a fit of rashness and insecurity that he will set out on his own expedition of discovery to the Antarctic.  His plan is to either make a genuine discovery there of some sort, or else to enjoy a nice vacation and claim a fake discovery which is inaccessible of man's reach.

Of all the men who embark on that expedition, Arthur Ogden is the only one who comes back.  He found something out there in the wastes.  It was a place, a town, maybe even a whole city.  If that's what it was, then it wasn't quite like any known in Ogden's philosophy.  For one thing, this city, according to the young man's account, was situated somewhere near the Arctic Pole, and yet from the brief glimpse Ogden had of it, the entire place sat basking in the sunshine of a mild Spring day.  It also didn't help that this Spring Sun was visible under a healthy layer of ice, where light can't reach under normal circumstances.  The best way to describe the whole spectacle might be to say that the stately pleasure domes of Xanadu had somehow managed to find their way out of Coleridge's poem and make a spot for itself right in the middle of nowhere.

As is the usual routine, the moment Arthur was able to find this grand place, he lost it.  Ever since then, Arthur has been obsessed with relocating this other world, which he has labeled Shambala after various accounts of the same phenomenon left behind by others.  There are members of the Guild who swear that the young man's obsession is really a form of madness.  If this should be the case, the trouble seems to be that it's the kind of madness that is impossible to stop once it's sphere of influence has grown far enough.

Together with the help of his brother, Major John Ogden, Arthur has set a course for uncovering and conquering this city of nowhere, and learning as much as he can about why it has come to obsess him.  The trouble with this arrangement is that Arthur is not the only one on a similar quest.  There are other parties with a vested interest in Shambala.  Some of them might even be called organizations.  Many of them are the sort one could describe as "dangerous customers".  Some of them will stop at nothing to make sure this nowhere sanctuary falls into no other hands but their own.  Anyone foolish enough to stand in their way, such as our young Mr. Ogden and his brother, might find themselves in a great deal of trouble.

To Recapture a Bygone Age. 

The first false note comes right at the midway point, during a lull in the action.  The worst part is up till then I could at least say that things were getting interesting.  Everything began on more or less the right note.  We are tossed into the middle of situation we know nothing about.  We are then provided with a surrogate character who could act as a stand-in for the reader, Corporal Buchan ("pronounced Buck-an").  The Corporal then proceeds to guide the audience into an intriguing setup.  There is someone the Corporal must look for.  That person, Major Ogden, must be put under arrest.  We then proceed to follow Buchan through a landscape somewhere out of the Arabian Nights, complete with Shahs, ancient, ornate middle-eastern palaces, and all the kinds of brigands and rough customers one expects to find in this kind of scenario.

The Corporal does, of course, manage to find Major Ogden. As usual, instead of arresting the man, Buchan joins forces with Ogden's Dragoons as they set off looking for clues to the whereabouts of Shambala.  These scenes remain the best part of the work.  It helps introduce millenial readers to an entire imaginative landscape that has almost fallen off the map.  As we are -re-introduced to the world of Victorian Adventure Fantasy, we are given bits and pieces of the background plot against which the current actions takes place.  We begin to learn of Major Ogden's brother, and the discovery he makes in the Arctic.  We follow Buchan and Ogden along through one exotic locale after another, collecting snippets of info or clues as they go along.  Sometimes these clues are mere scraps of paper.  Other times they are individuals who, like Arthur Ogden, have had their lives altered by a brief glimpse of Shambala.

This initial setup contains all the necessary ingredients for what could have been a decent enough B-Movie adventure plot.  It could have been either passable entertainment, or else an intriguing and thought provoking callback to an earlier form of storytelling.  The forward momentum of Ogden's trek across the deserts of the world are interesting enough to rope the reader into wanting to know what happens next, and the mystery of what they're looking remains enough of an enticing maguffin that we are at least interested enough to wonder if the characters will get there.

Then the author makes the mistake of bringing everything to a stop and having all the characters introduced thus far re-group and the pace comes to a skidding halt from which the whole story never fully recovers.  By the time the action is set in motion again, there has been a sea-change.  Events start to move forward, yet there's an artificiality about it all that keeps an unfortunate amount of distance between the narrative and its audience.  Characters who at first sight appeared interesting and mysterious, like a set of Chinese puzzle-boxes which must be unraveled one delicate strand at a time, are instead reduced to just one dimension as they are set about their designated tasks, as opposed to the characters making discoveries on their own.

The unfortunate conclusion is that the author lost the story somewhere along the way.  Everything that happens after that moment is just so much wasted ink and paper.  Even the big reveal of Shambala comes off as less impressive than it sounded at the start.  The final showing of the place that everyone has been trying to get to just comes off as a knock-off of the Shangri La of Hilton's Lost Horizon.  However, it all comes off as a strangely corrupted version of that mythical paradise, and the whole result is an off-putting note of moral ambivalence that doesn't seem to do any favors for the narrative.  It doesn't help, for instance, that a group of characters who are introduced as villains holding children captive as a kind of slave-labor are later revealed to be the good guys.  The whole thing smacks of a kind of mistake that should have been rethought.  That's the real problem of this book in a single sentence: it wasn't given enough thought.  This lack of inspiration and planning is even more apparent when you have a chance to watch an interview with the authors.
The Explorer's Guild is notable for the first time reader by the fact that Kevin Costner is one of the names sharing an author byline on the cover.  It's one of those sights that can be off-putting while still managing to grab your attention.  Reading through the book doesn't tell you who wrote what.  For that you have to turn to publicity interviews by Costner and his two partners in crime.  If you look hard enough, pretty soon you may find out that the initial concept and idea was the sole work of Jon Baird.  It soon becomes apparent that Baird is perhaps more than a bit in over his head.  In the course of the talk, Baird admits  that the actual idea came from a time when his wife was visiting in New York.  While there, she found out about an actual Explorer's Club in the city.  This encounter was the impetus for asking, what if you could tell a story, or series of stories such a club and it's members.

The trouble was that Baird had the suggestion of an idea, not a cohesive narrative.  "We didn't know what it was," Baird admits in the interview, "it just kind of languished."  A great amount of his time was taken up "nights and weekends just spinning up this story.  This is where some of the characters and sort of the pillars of the story emerged."  His problem was "we just kept seeing the mountain get bigger and bigger".  "At the same time, we didn't really have a pitch" to make for investors or publishers.  Baird even goes out of his way to admit that he's not as good at such efforts as Costner is.  This is where the actor's chief contribution seems to be.  He was brought on board to provide both clout and support for a struggling author.  In this regard, I have to hand it to the guy, he's willing to go to bat for others.

The sad part is I don't know that it makes much difference to the overall quality of the book.  Baird reiterates that he "did not have a pitch.  There was art involved, there was animation involved, but sort of as the delivery system for the writing."  The trouble was Baird seemed to have a bit of difficulties in finding out just what the writing was supposed to be.  "I think generally the idea is you sit down and you walk someone through A to Z, what the story is.  And we didn't even have that".  In essence, what we do have is the author admitting that either the task was to big for him, or that he just wasn't well equipped for it.  To me it sounds more like there wasn't enough inspiration left for any real plot to go around.

I've seen this phenomenon before.  Someone may come up with the germ of an idea, and yet they are never able to develop it in any interesting direction that would grab the audience's attention and hold it till the last reel or page.  The best example I know of is controversial in that it's The Secret of Nimh.  In that movie, what you have is a series of setups.  We have this character, her dilemma, and a cast of characters she meets as she goes along.  The catch is that none of it ever really goes anywhere interesting, and hence none of the characters or plot elements feel like they have as much depth as they should have.  This is pretty much the same predicament that Baird is in.  At some point he just looses the narrative thread of Ogden's quest, and a certain narrative distancing takes place between the audience and the action.  I'd say the reason for this outcome is because this same creative distance, or dissonance, happened to the author first.  The engine ran out of gas, and the story vanished somewhere off in the distance, leaving the author stranded in the middle of the road.  The net result is that I just found it hard to care about either the characters, or what happens next.

The basic problem then, with The Explorer's Guild, is that all it is is just a series of buildups with little in the way of an actual, satisfying dramatic payoff to even things out and provide a proper end note.  A better creative course of action would be to keep things more compact and mysterious.  Let the action be centered on Buchan's point of view as he observes the Ogden brothers on their trek towards an already pre-arranged destination.  The journey to that destination should be arduous, and as long as the author remembers to keep his eyes on the prize, there could still be room enough to introduce a certain amount of events, characters, and whatever local color that could help provide the necessary atmosphere to make the plot work.

One possible approach would be for the author to start out small and work his way up the ladder as the story goes along.  At the beginning of the tale, perhaps everything should be relatively normal and the settings and characters the main protagonists meet should be kept within a minimal level of the seeming prosaic.  After a point, however, it should be possible to introduce just a small, intriguing sliver of the fantastic into the proceedings.  Maybe they stumble upon an impossible clue, or catch sight of a mirage or vision of the city in a cloud-cluster or something like it.  Whatever the nature of this fantastical sliver, from there it makes narrative sense for the otherworldly potential in this type of story to build up one on top of another, until near the end it seems as if the characters have wandered into the land of the Thousand and One Nights.  When they reach Shambala, everything should be kept as mysterious as possible.  The two brothers vanish into the strange city, and hence into thin air, leaving Buchan as the sole survivor to make the lonely trek back to civilization and tell the whole story.

This is at least one possible alternative path Baird could have chosen.  As the novel itself stands, all we are left with is unfulfilled potential.  This is a shame because there is a sense in which the feat Baird and company attempted is very much worth doing, and can be a whole lot of fun if done right.  It's been a long time since even some of the best authors have displayed their awareness of the bygone age of fantasy adventures.  We're a long way off from Mowgli's Jungle or Dorothy's Oz.  Perhaps rediscovering some of the old spots on the map would be good for our artistic health.

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