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Piers Anthony writes science fiction and fantasy novels for young adults and is the creator of the best-selling Xanth fantasy series. Using puns and wordplay, literary allusions, mythical characters, and whimsical satire, he creates works of light entertainment that include a madcap sense of wondrous discovery. Anthony has been praised for his imagination and his inventive brand of philosophical logic that tends toward the humorous.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Pacifism at an Early Age
Piers Anthony is the pen name of Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob, an Englishman who became an American citizen in 1958. ”My major motivation as a writer,” he observes, ”has been my inability to quit writing, and my dissatisfaction with all other modes of employment.” Because of this focusing of energies, Anthony has authored or coauthored twenty-four novels since 1967. Born in Oxford, England, Anthony was brought to the United States as a child. He was raised in the Quaker faith, and the pacifist beliefs of his religion figure largely in his works, which generally condemn unnecessary warfare and aggression. Anthony spent much of his childhood in isolation; he was frequently ill, often bullied at school, and suffered from a learning disability that went unrecognized and caused adults to treat him as if he were below average intelligence. In addition, his parents divorced when he was eighteen, creating much discord within the extended family. Despite these set backs, Anthony was a dedicated reader and developed an early love of books, particularly the genre of science fiction.
In 1956 Anthony earned his BA from Goddard College, submitting as his creative writing thesis his first science-fiction novel. He married Carol Marble on June 23, 1956, and later served in the U.S. Army from 1957 to 1959. Anthony’s moral convictions made military service difficult for him, and, as he says, he ”barely made it through basic [training],” being a ”pacifistically inclined vegetarian.” After eight years of working odd jobs and submitting stories to magazines, Anthony sold his first piece, ”Possible to Rue,” to Fantastic magazine in 1962. In the next several years he worked variously as a freelance writer and English teacher, but finally decided to devote all of his time to writing. His first published novel, Chthon, came out in 1967. It received numerous award nominations and caught the attention of both critics and readers in the science-fiction genre. During this same year Anthony’s Sos the Rope, a revised segment of his BA thesis, won a $5000 prize that allowed Anthony to continue writing on a full-time basis.
Publication became easier at this point in Anthony’s career, and Sos the Rope was only one of three books he published in 1968. Anthony followed the success of his Chthon and Battle Circle series with the well-received Omnivore trilogy, which provided a forum for Anthony to further his exploration of the dangers humankind continues to inflict upon itself. It also introduced his support of vegetarianism. Anthony, writing during the Vietnam War and the Cold War—a period marked by the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the United States and the Soviet Union—used his alternative universes as allegories for the state of man and the dangers of technology. The Battle Circle series, for example, speculates on the possible state of the world in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.
Anthony’s next novel, considered his best by many readers, was Macroscope (1969). The mechanical invention of the title is a device that permits man to see the entire continuum of space and time. The novel focuses on the effect such a machine could have on a humanity that finds itself diminished in relation to the vastness of the universe; in doing so, it becomes an allegory on the fate of the individual diminished and possibly destroyed by mass society.
The Universe of Xanth
Throughout the 1970s Anthony continued to write science fiction novels. In 1977, however, he published his first fantasy novel, A Spell for Chameleon. The novel marked the beginning of Anthony’s immensely popular Xanth series, which would include over twenty books written over two decades. The novels in the series are generally less complex and easier to read than Anthony’s earlier works, and they appeal to younger readers as well as adults. The land of Xanth closely resembles Anthony’s longtime home state of Florida in size and shape, and its place names are often wittily twisted versions of Floridian ones. In Xanth, everyone and everything has a magical talent, except its protagonist, Bink. A Spell for Chameleon follows Bink on his quest to discover his talent or face exile to the boring, powerless land of Mundania. In the process, Bink gains not only knowledge of his talent but emotional maturity as well.
Anthony continues to write and publish novels and is known for his loyal readership among adults and adolescents alike. Recently, he has put aside fantasy and returned to science fiction in his Cluster and Tarot trilogies. These series, however, carry the same message of pacifism as do his earlier writings and exhibit a similar linguistic style. Writing in Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, Lesa Dill concluded: ”While entertaining his readers with his inventive word play, numerous literary allusions, apt symbolism, humorous satire, and wild adventures, Anthony effectively conveys his personal convictions about man’s responsibilities in and to the universe.”
Works in Literary Context
The Cold War and the Threat of Nuclear Holocaust
Anthony began his writing career in the after math of the Vietnam War, and his works exhibit an anxiety over the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. As rival superpowers, the United States and the USSR stockpiled enough nuclear weapons in the 1970s to destroy civilization, should war break out. The two nations also engaged in a space race, competing with the most advanced technologies that would allow them to claim and colonize outer space. Anthony is most clearly influenced by the Cold War in his Battle Circle trilogy. Set in America in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, the novels contrast a tribe of nomadic barbarians named for the weapons they use with a group of technologically oriented humans. To avoid another holocaust, the ”techies” maintain the warlike nomads as an outlet for human aggression. Anthony thus illustrates the need to acknowledge aggression as a part of human nature. The novels also speak against the dangers of centralized civilization and overpopulation.
Many critics have pointed out that Anthony’s pacifism may be linked to his Quaker upbringing and his experiences of growing up during the Cold War, when human aggression reached the capacity—through nuclear weapons—to destroy the planet. Throughout his works, Anthony deals carefully with the theme of pacifism, intimating that the balance between aggression and passivity requires the ultimate honesty in an individual. In The Ring, for example, he questions the aggression of a youthful hero in quest of justice and vengeance, this time on an Earth ruled by the morally questionable ”Ultra Conscience.” The enslaving Ring of the novel’s title introduces an important moral question in Anthony’s fiction, for the Ring ”makes a man a pacifist when the world is a battlefield.” For Anthony, the will to moral activism is one of the distinctive marks of being human, and pacifism can be a negative quality when it is used as a facade for moral complacency, be it in speculative fiction or international politics. In Anthony’s best fiction, questions of man’s place in the ecology of the natural universe blend with considerations of the individual’s role in providing satisfactory and humane answers.
The thematic concerns of Anthony’s fiction are often reflections of his own ardent vegetarianism. His story entitled ”In the Barn,” for example, features female humans on an alien planet who are kept as animals, as ”cows” for giving milk. By exploring the relationship between man and alien, Anthony collapses the distance between human and nonhuman and provides an allegory through which readers can reevaluate their own relationships to animals.
Likewise the Omnivore trilogy deals with the ethics of animal-eating. Critic Michael Collings observed, ”Omnivore deals with control—specifically, with controlling the most dangerous omnivore of all, man.” Within the series three interplanetary explorers, the herbivorous Veg, carnivorous Cal, and omnivorous Aquilon, play out Anthony’s views. The three journey to the planet Nacre, and must report and justify their actions to a far-away scribe.
Works in Critical Context
The Xanth Series
Critics generally agree that Anthony’s Xanth series represents his most accomplished work. Richard Mathews contends that the Xanth series ranks with the best of American and classic fantasy literature.” Among the most revered novels in the series are The Source of Magic (1979), Centaur Aisle (1982), and Dragon on a Pedestal (1983). Critics have lauded the books’ attention to environmental concerns, and they have also pointed out that the puns and language tricks of the novels heighten the reader’s entertainment. Writing in a fairy-tale tone, Anthony portrays a world populated by such creatures as ogres, magicians, and zombies. ”In Xanth,” Michael Col-lings noted, Anthony incorporates much of this interest in language in furthering the plot and in establishing the essence of his fantasy universe.”
Macroscope, described by Michael Collings as one of Anthony’s most ambitious and complex novels,” seeks to place humanity in its proper context within the galaxy. The publication of Macroscope was a milestone in Anthony’s career. In a Luna Monthly review, Samuel Mines observed, Macroscope recaptures the tremendous glamour and excitement of science fiction, pounding the reader into submission with the sheer weight of its ideas which seem to pour out in an inexhaustible flood.”
- Anthony, Piers. Bio of an Ogre. New York: Ace Books, 1988.
- Collings, Michael R. Piers Anthony. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1983.
- Dill, Lesa. Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1994.
- Platt, Charles. Dream Makers Volume II: The Uncommon Men and Women Who Write Science Fiction. New York: Berkley Publishing, 1983.
- Searles, Baird, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin. A Reader’s Guide to Fantasy. New York: Avon, 1982.
- Searles, Baird, Martin Last, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin. A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction. New York: Avon, 1979.
- Mines, Samuel. Review of Macroscope. Luna Monthly, September 1970: p. 22.
- Atkins, Holly. ”Fantasy Flourishes in Florida Forests.” St.Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), March 11, 2002, p. D4.
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