The magic goes away, by Larry Niven, was a short, fun read. I’d read Ringworld a year or two ago and liked Niven’s style, which is one selling point. I also learned that Bruce Galloway, primary author of the brilliantly demented game Fantasy Wargaming was inspired by this novel when he developed the magic system for that game. He adopted Niven’s use of the Polynesian term ‘mana,’ and the basic idea that mana is a limited resource, but not the central conceit of the novel — that the world’s mana is being depleted by vain and selfish wizards.
So, yes, The magic goes away is sort of a satire or allegory of the 1970s energy crisis, as well as a loving parody of sword & sorcery novels, but it does have some fairly serious undercurrents. The story is a running commentary on man’s shortsightedness, and there is also a straight-faced critique of religion. But most importantly, it is entertaining, and presents a plausible ancient world, not quite our own but not so alien either. Niven basically assumes all the old myths and legends are true, it is just that the loss of mana has caused magical creatures to die off, lose their fantastic qualities, or simply disappear (“go mythical”). The main characters are a trio of wizards and a remorseful swordsman, and while they aren’t terribly deep, neither are they cardboard cutouts.
There is an afterword, of sorts, written by Sandra Miesel, that traces some of Niven’s influences and attempts to categorize fantasy novels into several broad categories: high fantasy (Eddison, Tolkien, Morris, & Le Guin); eldritch horror (HPL, CAS, Derleth); sword and sorcery (Howard); and logical fantasy. Niven and de Camp & Pratt are considered the exemplars of logical fantasy or “rivets and sorcery”. Miesel describes this genre as taking a playful attitude toward the fantastic, treating marvels matter-of-factly and says such writers generally treat their fantasies as intellectual games. (Avram Davidson’s The mirror and the phoenix must fall in this category too then.) So as an attempt to categorize fantasy using a new label, this is an interesting essay.
I should also mention the illustrations. This novella is stretched to short novel size by the addition of some really cool pen and ink drawings by Esteban Maroto that do a great job bringing the characters and events to life. I understand a graphic novel was also made of this story and that makes perfect sense. Maroto has become a fairly well-known comics artist.
The only fuck up in the package is the Boris Vallejo cover. I kind of have an axe to grind with Boris anyway because long ago, as teenager, I asked for a Frank Frazetta art book one birthday, only I couldn’t remember his exact name … I said “Boris Frazetta,” confounding the two… I ended up with a Boris Vallejo art book, which was OK but you quickly notice that Boris uses the same models over and over again, and makes no effort to conceal that he is the hero of almost every painting, and he also tends to use the same women in every damn painting. It’s a little thing that doesn’t you bother you when you see his works in isolation, but put them all into a book and ugh. (I’m not going to comment on the fact that his later work gets increasingly obsessed with bodybuilders, male and female.) Also, now that I have read a number of the books he painted covers for, I notice that he must have been barely familiar with the books themselves; whether he holds them in contempt or just isn’t a reader, he can’t be bothered to get any details remotely right.
Take this cover, which presumably is depicting two of the characters — Orolandes, a Greek mercenary, and Mirandee, a sorceress. Orolandes carries exactly two weapons over the course of the story — a broken Greek sword and another straight sword — he chooses the straight sword over a similar curved one because it will fit in his old scabbard. Not a scimitar. And what’s with the Viking boots? Mirandee’s most distinctive attribute, remarked on repeatedly in the book, is her hair, which varies from pure white to black with a prominent white streak (it gets whiter in low-mana areas). Ahem.
It’s a neat painting, but it has basically nothing to do with the story it was commissioned for, apart from having a man with a sword and hot chick. You could use that to illustrate, I don’t know, 50 million other fantasy novels.
Anyway, there is a ‘sequel’ of sorts; The magic may return, which includes an earlier story by Niven, and several other stories, by a variety of S&S writers, all also set in the same world. Niven’s story “Not long before the end” is pretty good. It is a prequel to The magic goes away, and features one of the characters from that book. Fred Saberhagen’s “Earthshade” is just OK. It kind of reinforces the themes from the first book but seems unnecessary. “Manaspill” by Dean Ing (who I’m not familiar with) was pretty good, and a nice example of Bronze Age fantasy. “…But fear itself” by Steven Barnes (a frequent collaborator with Niven) was very good. It moves the setting to a folkloric Africa. Apparently he’s recently written a couple of books in a series called “Ibandi,” which I am guessing expands on this story, as it features the same tribe called the Ibandi. The last story, “Strength,” by Poul Anderson and Mildred Downey Broxon (I’m not familiar with Broxon either), was my favorite. It depicts a town that relied on magic for almost everything and a man who practically has to force them learn to survive.
The second book is also illustrated by a very different artist I’m on the fence about, Alicia Austin. A lot of her characters look like clones, especially in the first couple of stories, but the style is very clean, and sort of reminiscent of early 20th century fairy-tale illustrations — dream-like and gentle, even when they depict violent scenes. Click her name above to see some of her art — I couldn’t find any samples of her work from this book. It’s funny that you don’t see a lot of books illustrated like this — now that graphic novels are so popular, I would think there would be more interest in illustrated adult fiction.