Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fevre Dream

So, here's Halloween again. I'd like to take this occasion to offer a counterpoint to one of the great scourges of Samhain, the cute/sexy vampire. First off, let's establish that glitter is not an appropriate costume accessory for a ghoulish bloodsucker, no matter what that idiotic farce, Twilight, has taught you. Second, I am in no way maintaining that we can never diverge from the oldest representations of storybook monsters or their first accepted literary interpretations. Bram Stoker's Dracula was by no means a great novel and we need not limit ourselves to it as inspiration. However, it falls on the correct side of the dividing line between staying true to its fairytale inspiration in spirit and simply exploiting a word like "vampire" in a nonsensical but crowd-pleasing fashion.
There have been many reinterpretations of vampirism in the past century or so, based first on Dracula and later on Anne Rice's rapidly-deteriorating book series. Twilight is guilty of picking up where Rice's fame-flustered derangement left off, with its supercharged, sexy vamps and pup-men prancing around like they own the place. Not everything has followed that linear decline however, and in the spirit of Gustave Le Rouge's semi-coherent yet oddly captivating vampires on Mars (sure, why not) I'd like to encourage everyone to read George R. R. Martin's little head-trip about vampires on steamboats. I mean, sure, why not?

Come on. I know "steampunk" is a popular albeit ill-defined trend these past few years and as a long-time George Martin fan I'm constantly annoyed at his newfound fanbase which only knows the sexed-up seven kingdoms and not his older, more thoughtful works. If you can't dredge up much interest in a nearly emotionless albino ecoengineering-warship captain, a dying planet adrift through transience or short stories about people getting swallowed by blobs and shooting a rat, only a rat, then at least give his take on de-mystified vampires a look.

Fevre Dream is an attempt to create a rational, non-magical vampire race, based loosely on the biological explanation of porphyria as the root of the vampire myth itself. And yes, just as the main theme is the meeting point between myth and reason, the setting is the short-lived, transitional world of steam-power and institutionalized slavery along an 1850s Mississippi. It is, amusingly enough, not fantasy but science fiction set in the past, and much like other good but relatively short works of science fiction it suggests a lot more than it states explicitly. One of the trends running through Martin's work over the decades has been a fascination with the mentality and ethics of power or leadership and Fevre Dream does an excellent job of exploring the biological roots of power-mongering, juxtaposing  the racial slavery of the American south with the willing slavishness of pack-hierarchies.

Mostly though, it's about vampires. How they eat, how they think, how they burn, how they bleed. If you want a case-study in recreating an old myth through the lens of science and reason, in rationalizing superstition and the cultural capital it's created, Fevre Dream is as good as any. And the Halloweenish beauty of the whole thing is that it does not abandon vampires' proper role as shadow-dwelling boogeymen. In fact, Martin's vamps are all the more terrifying for being merely dangerous beasts, eliciting a visceral fear of the predator in our monkey brains akin to the timeless image of Dracula, limbs splayed lizard-like, crawling face-down along a sheer stone wall. This primal terror of the hungry beast is so deeply rooted in our primate brains that's it's a pity to dilute it in the more detached, magic-ridden interpretations of the myth.

Give the glitter a rest and read something about real vampires. Let Mr. "Game of Thrones" teach you how to rethink fairytales.

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