Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review - The Gnoll Credo by J. Stanton

Short review: A heavy-handed condemnation of modern society coupled with some Randian-style ramblings couched in the guise of a generic fantasy world.

Gnoll society
Superior to human

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Gnoll Credo is a book of libertarian atheistic philosophy thinly disguised as a work of bad fantasy. The idea of examining a nonhuman viewpoint using fantasy sensibilities to do so is certainly an interesting and intriguing idea. Sadly, the nonhuman viewpoint isn't much more than a rehash of some fairly standard libertarian ideas. I generally look favorably on libertarian fiction - I have a large number of Prometheus winners and nominees in my library - but the first requirement of a piece of fiction is to be good fiction and unfortunately, this is more of a lecture dressed up in generic fantasy clothing.

The first problem I have with the book is that the fantasy elements are so very, very generic. Everything is couched in generic terms - there is a generic fantasy city ruled over by a generic Duke, who has troubles with a generic bishopric and funds a generic university, and a generic frontier town that is visited by generic caravans carrying generic trade goods. The various evil denizens are generic: there are lion men, wolf men, orcs, trolls, ogres, and of course, the hyena men, or gnolls. Most of the descriptions of the various humanoid creatures could have been taken directly from the pages of a fantasy role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons. The gnolls, described as hyena-like, appear to be identical in form to those that can be found in the various D&D Monster Manuals. On the whole, the fantasy element of the book reads more or less like the fluff text of a generic role-playing game supplement. Partially because of the incredibly generic nature of the fantasy, the various characters are never entirely convincing as being real, and as a result the reader simply doesn't care about them or their musings on the meaning of life.

This would have been excusable if the story had been a good one, but there isn't really a story here. The book is composed of the fictional scholarly studies on the gnoll race done by the fictional researcher Aidan O'Rourke who interacts with an especially intelligent gnoll named Gryka. The book is mostly made up of little vignettes, each of which is supposed to illustrate some element of gnoll culture that shows how it is superior to human culture. Gnoll culture is presented as an extreme hunter gatherer society, lacking in any religion of mysticism, with a matriarchal structure and a devil-may-care philosophy of life. The gnolls are supposedly completely fatalistic and utterly free of hypocrisy, resulting in a happy bunch of supposedly nomadic tribesmen. This is, of course, contrasted with the humans who are "slaves" to other humans because they are tied to land as farmers that they have to defend (never mind that gnolls are, according to the book, tied to a territory that they will defend). I will digress for a second and recommend Ride of the Second Horseman by Robert L. O'Connell in which he describes what he calls the "plant trap", and why it is beneficial and why it caused warfare, covering this ground more effectively and in more detail. Among many other faults humans are, according to the gnolls, too tied to possessions and too worried about what might happen.

Oddly, at one point the story goes on about how humans are bad hunters. I say this is odd, because the one thing history tells us is that humans are the most effective hunters in our world's history. The book does this by separating humans from the fruits of their intellect, and comparing them to the natural gifts attributed to gnolls. But that's just silly. Humans are ferociously effective hunters because of our prodigious minds, and splitting them up simply misses the point. We are, in fact, such effective hunters that we convinced our prey to live under our protection so that we can eat them any time we want to. This, of course, doesn't fit the philosophical point being made in The Gnoll Credo, so it is taken as yet another weakness of humans that we rely upon domesticated animals. But the human mind, and human imagination which allows that kind to conceive of things that have never existed before, is what allows us to dominate. Oddly, the gnolls in the story are supposedly able to guide the development of their species via self-directed breeding programs (a form of artificial selection mislabeled natural selection in the book), but at the same time supposedly never daydream, or even seem to have any kind of imagination. The contradiction here should be obvious: if you are unwilling or unable to conceive of something that has never been, it is hard to see how one would conceive a way to develop a version of your own race that does not yet exist.

As an aside, one of the elements that repeatedly pulls the reader out of what little story there is the constant insertion of somewhat anachronistic elements. Aidan, for example, refers to the Goidelic heritage behind his name. The characters talk about the theory of evolution by natural selection. Late in the book, when the author seemingly feels the need to beat the reader over the head with his point, references are made to Orwell, Islam, and the internet. And there is copious amounts of modern profanity. At some points the page is littered with "fuck", "cock", "ass", "shit", and so on. This is not in and of itself a problem, but most of the profanity seems to be added merely out of a desire to seem edgy and daring for its own sake. Instead, it comes off as slightly pathetic. At one point there is even a version of "in Soviet Russia, the dice roll you" in the book. This sort of incongruity makes the characters in the story, that were already not particularly convincing, even less so.

So what are we left with? Basically the book is an extended lecture on how screwed up human society is because we have farming, and civilization, and religion, and fantasies (which is odd, because if we didn't, then this book would not exist), and how much cleaner and purer the hypothetical gnoll society is. Over and over Aidan is stunned to silence by the supposedly great insights Gryka confronts him with. The only real conclusion a reader can come to is that Aidan is seemingly pretty easy to stun. After making his argument not very subtly, the author adds an epilogue in which he repeats his argument in a didactic manner, beating the reader about the head and shoulders with his point. But the point, that humans are called by their blood to be hunters, and we would be happier (and presumably better off) if we discarded civilization and emulated the gnolls as hunters is simply unconvincing. The argument is something of an extreme form of libertarianism that only works for the strong and the lucky. But who would really want to give up modern dentistry, modern medicine, music, art, literature, heated homes, indoor plumbing, and all the other fruits of civilization in exchange for the joys of the freedom of the hunt. It is not enough to say some people do not enjoy these benefits, the answer there is to work towards a society in which they do. Yes, we are hunters by evolutionary heritage, but that does not mean that is all we are, or all we can be.

Finally, lurking on the edges of the argument is the idea that religion and mysticism is a frippery that humans have that the clear headed gnolls have eschewed. I am not particularly in favor of religion, but what it reflects is the vast imagination of humans, and I contend that this vast imagination is the foundation of human civilization and no thinking creature can exist without such an imagination. It is the ability to conceive of a thing that does not yet exist that allows for the creation of innovative things - even things as simple as a stone cutting tool. Our imaginations are so powerful that under their influence we put spirits in the trees, pictures in the sky, and gods behind the mountains and then convince ourselves that they are real. Gnolls, supposedly lacking in such thinking, would be unable to do any of the things they are depicted doing in the book. As a result, the argument made in the book simply does not stand up on its own merits.

In the end, The Gnoll Credo is simply a mess. It is mostly inoffensively bland as a fantasy story, and entirely unconvincing as a philosophical piece. With only two real characters in the book, it is telling that they remain little more than cardboard mouthpieces for the author. While this book might be of some modest use for someone trying to play a fantasy role-playing game who wanted some sort of in-depth treatment of a hypothetical gnoll society, as a piece of fiction or a piece of philosophy it is simply not that good.

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  1. I actually do find your view bias, I found the book to be a rather refreshing change of pace from the doldrum good-guy vs bad-guy that almost every fantasy book churns out. I liked that it was done in a scholarly view vice a hero/villain view and there didn't seem to be any antagonist really. Moreover I disagree with your assertation that the book was lopsided in view of the gnolls being superior, it stated on multiple occasions that gnolls just had a simple and effective view on the world, I think that's something that many people would like in their own lives.

  2. @Anonymous: I don't think you understand the context in which "bias" is used in the disclaimer. Some people think that getting a free book will predispose a reviewer into giving a book a favorable review. The disclaimer states that I don't think that getting the book for free biases my review, and as you can see, it didn't seem to incline me to giving this particular book a favorable review.

    Having a bias, and having an opinion are two very different things. All reviewers have an opinion. Many have biases. I do have some biases, but being influenced to write good reviews for books just because I was sent them as review copies isn't one of them. I definitely have opinions - and a review wouldn't be very interesting if it was written by someone who did not have an opinion on the book. That's more or less what a review is: the reviewers opinion of a book.

    Now, given that you seem to have misunderstood things as basic as that, what do you think the chances are that I will give the rest of your complaints much, if any, consideration?