Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts
This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.
The journey is a sacred trope in the fantasy genre. It dates all the way back to the Odyssey, or perhaps even earlier – the hero’s journey as mirrored in their physical traverse across the hills and dales of their world. Where would fantasy and science fiction be without Frodo’s quest into Mordor, Taran’s quest for the Black Cauldron, Paul Muad’Dib’s journey into the deserts of Arrakis, and so on and so forth?
The hero’s journey, be it quest or ordeal, mirrors something essential in each of us. The metaphor for life here is implicit – hell, occasionally it’s explicit. With every step, we change. Not so many journeys end precisely where you expect them to. As Bilbo once said:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
When we’re young, especially, this journey seems large and imposing. As we grow older, it changes – our journeys still seem long, but less terrifying. Mystery overcomes majesty; we get lost within our own lives, searching for that magical trinket that got us out here in the first place. Maybe we find it, maybe we don’t. In the end it hardly matters.
I’m in the midst of writing a sequel to a novel I haven’t even published yet. It’s perhaps foolish of me, a waste of my time. Yet I cannot help it; Tyvian Reldamar’s story speaks to me on many levels. Alandar occupies such a defined shape in my mind, it is as though I have lived there. How could I not want Tyvian to wander its wagon-rutted roads and gleaming spirit engine tracks, pondering the possibility and necessity of his own redemption? So, I have spent the past 100 pages guiding him across the fractured counties of Eretheria, hatching his plans and keeping ahead of his responsibilities, his friends in tow. His journey is one that asks just how long can we skate through life before deciding to make a stand. Before deciding that something does matter to us and that something in this world is important enough to fight for.
That’s not all it is, though. No journey is so single-minded, just as no college road-trip is ever really about where you’re going. It’s about the friends you take with you, the stories you tell, the secrets you keep among yourselves, and the way you change your perspective on things. To watch Frodo get worn down by the weight of the One Ring is to also watch Sam rise up and grow strong. Conan’s quest for greatness is eclipsed by his longer, more difficult quest for wisdom and understanding. It does not come with the crown of Aquilonia, nor with the loss of that same crown. It comes in the small places, in the quiet moments. It is not in the achievement, but in the struggle.
This, too, can be said of my own journey. This novel I write, the stories I publish, the queries I send – this is the time of growth, of change. This is where it counts. All of us have such journeys, and we must make them. Step out that door; see where you are swept.
Lately I’ve been trying out a variety of contemporary sci-fi authors that deal with various aspects of the Singularity. I think it’s sad to admit, but I have yet to be able to finish one. The last one I tried was Charles Stross Accelerando, a book which I recommend you do not read unless you find long strings of technobabble to be as hip and cool as Stross seems to. My current battle is with David Brin’s Existence, bought when I heard an interview with him online in which he had a discussion about the future of humanity that I found intriguing. I read the description of the book and it also sounded interesting. It is interesting. So was Stross, honestly. So what was the problem?
None of these books seem to have characters. If they do have characters, the characters exist primarily as mouthpieces by which the author can convey all the interesting thoughts they have and that they speak about at length in NPR interviews. The thing is, though, that such discussions, while interesting, do not make for a good story. At least, they don’t for me.
A story is about a person or, more rarely, as small group of people. They can live in as bizarre a universe as you please, but ultimately I, the reader, am interested in them only insofar as I am emotionally compelled by their conflict. The emphasis there is on their conflict – as in the character(s), individually. I am not really motivated by the plight of humanity in general. Am I interested? Sure. Believe me, I have many of thoughts about this myself, but I know that I can’t just write a novel that does nothing but talk about humanity at large without weaving such a discussion into the idiosyncratic problems of a specific individual. To do otherwise makes your novel didactic, preachy, evangelical. It wears on me when I feel that I’m reading a book that’s trying to do nothing more than engage me in debate. If I wanted that, I’d read non-fiction or attend conferences. When I’m reading a novel, I expect entertainment. I expect a protagonist with a problem I want to see resolved, not a series of placeholder people meant to do nothing more than paint a picture of what they think humanity is/will be like.
Now, this doesn’t mean I object to stories with defined and discernible points or arguments to be made (I prefer these to the completely ‘pointless’ stories that populate fantasy and scifi), but it does mean I expect your message to be a little more subtle. If I’m reading a book with a rotating cast of 6 main characters, none of whom have anything clearly to do with one another, and all of them apparently present to act as expository mouthpieces for your new universe, I am going to get frustrated. I am not reading speculative fiction for ‘slice of life’ scenes in imaginary worlds; I’m reading it for the exploration of character and conflict in unusual circumstances. This connects, if indirectly, to my frustration with certain long-running fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.) that have decided to put an emphasis on a persistent world rather than on the resolution of conflict. There is only so long I am going to wait for catharsis/denouement before I get bored, no matter how fascinating the subject matter of the fantasy/scifi world. If I suspect that there is no catharsis to be had because there is no dramatic tension to be released (because there are no characters that I am attached to or interested in), I am going to put the book down. If, however, you keep all that stuff in there and weave your issues into that conflict with a degree of subtlety, then you’ve just written a pretty damned incredible book.
Of course, I’m just one guy talking, here. I suppose there are a lot of folks (particularly in scifi) who really love those stories where all they really do is watch the world turn according to the author’s whim and various characters just kind of pop in and out. Come to think of it, I can think of authors who did this fairly well (Asimov and Clarke chief among them), but in all of those instances the plight of the hero was still central to the plot, no matter if the author was less interested in that plot than in the themes they were exploring. Anyway, I’m still fighting with Existence and, to its credit, it’s starting to improve a bit. If I have to keep sitting through radio talk-shows in the novel or attend conferences and actually listen to the speeches the guys are making, I don’t know if I’m making it through. If you wanted to publish a lecture series, Mr. Brin, you could just do that. I’d read it. Just don’t dress it up like an adventure story and expect me to applaud.
Like a lot of writers, I’m really good at doing lots of work on projects that have nothing to do with the project I’m supposed to be working on. It’s a kind of constructive procrastination, I guess, and it has its uses. Lately, while my short story projects are a bit stalled and the novel I’m working on plods along at a moderate pace, I’ve been spending entirely too much time fleshing out the land of Nyxos, a setting for future stories, novels, etc..
The primary, operative element of information about Nyxos is that all the power in this world, all the sorcerous might and arcane ability, finds its genesis in dreams. Dreamstuff can be made into physical objects; dreams can be spied upon, invaded, and even taxed. Some species live more in dreams than they do in ‘reality’ and, indeed, the line between the two is often held into question. A lot of this is really rough, mind you, but that’s the gist of it.
The primary villain in the world is the Oneirarch, the Dream Tyrant, who ‘taxes’ the dreams of his subjects to both keep them in line and to build his own power. He is something out of a nightmare – not seen, but glimpsed in the corners of nightmares. He is a presence felt, but not known. His priests maintain a fleet of dreamships - powerful vessels of pure dreamstuff that sail the skies of Nyxos, imposing the Onierarch’s will through the terrifying violence of nightmares-made-real.
But as I develop these concepts, I’m left with the question: Of what shape should the dreamworld take? The closest analog in fantasy literature I know of is Tel’aran’rhiod, which is from Jordan’s Wheel of Time - a world of dreams that is unified into a coherent, if malleable, landscape that loosely mirrors the real world. This is a kind of ‘universalist’ approach to dreams (i.e. we all visit the same dreamworld while we dream, we just lack the skills to navigate it). On the other end of the spectrum we have the world of dreams as set out by Inception, wherein the dreamworld is not a universal landscape but rather an idiosyncratic construction of an individual’s subconscious. Each dreamer is unique, each dream has its own unique foibles, and each is a reflection of individual will rather than collective belief.
To some extent, this seems to find us floating between the poles of none other than Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. These two giants of psychoanalysis explored the importance of dreams in our psychological landscape, and while they share many of the same ideas, there are key differences. The most significant, perhaps, is the fact that Jung sees dreams as plugged into a kind of collective subconscious – an amalgam of myth and religious folklore that permeated the subconscious of all people and was shared between them. This, of course, is more in line with Tel’aran’rhiod than the dreamscapes of Inception. Freud, meanwhile, sees dreams as reflections of problems felt by the dreamer in the waking world (and these problems he saw as frequently sexual in nature). Jung agrees with his former teacher to a point (i.e. that dreams reflect waking problems), but takes it one step further to insist that the dream isn’t mere wish-fulfillment caused by some conscious issue in need of resolution, but is itself an entity worthy of independent consideration. To paraphrase this paper by Brlizg on the matter, whereas Freud might wonder what caused a dream and how to fix it, Jung wondered what the dream itself meant on its own terms.
This connection between dreams and the real world and the connection between one person’s dreams and another’s is something worthy of personal reflection as well as a direction for fantastic extrapolation. It’s something I’m going to need to study at greater length, at any rate, before Nyxos is ready to go.
Now, back to more pressing writing projects.
Is it just me, or are there a lot of magical educational institutions in the fantasy genre? I mean, it makes sense – if you have a world where there’s a wizard in every town, they all have to learn their trade somewhere, right? What I find odd, though, is the extent to which we, the readers, always find ourselves there, going to classes, worrying about tests, and the rest of it. Now, while I do enjoy a well-rendered magic school scene as much as the next guy, I feel like this particular trope of the genre is getting worn out. I mean, consider all the magic schools out there:
- Hogwarts (naturally)
- The Jedi Academy
- The University (Kingkiller Chronicles)
- Brakebills (The Magicians)
- The White Tower of Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)
- Roke (Earthsea Trilogy)
There are more than this, too, and there are also those other fantastic schools we see that, while they don’t teach magic, they do teach rather off-beat things like mutant powers (Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) or high-tech strategy (the Battle School in Ender’s Game) and so on and so forth. My own world, Alandar, has a magical school, too (the Arcanostrum of Saldor), and I’d bet there are at least a thousand other first novels out there all brandishing their own version of how to learn to throw fire from your hands and tell the future with a dish of water. And, while I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to figure that stuff out in their fantasy world, I am getting a little tired of having to take the curriculum myself.
I don’t want to go to class with these kids. I don’t want to meet their teachers. I don’t want to see their tests or worry with them over their tuition or any of that. It’s becoming exhausting for me – I feel like I never get the chance to graduate from these places. Once I’m out of one, I’m enrolled in another. It’s starting to drive me crazy. I have now forsworn ever writing any further magic school scenes that deal with the troubles of students learning the mystical arts (I have done it in the past, but no more). Why? It’s done now. Beat to death.
Now, there are some very good reasons why this trope has infiltrated so much of the genre and, honestly, one of the reasons it bothers me is that I, myself, am a teacher and reading this stuff just makes me feel like I’m at work to some extent. Most simply, though, the primary reason we keep seeing magical schools is that so much of this genre is targeted at kids who are still in high school or college. Hell, the Young Adult Fantasy genre is almost exclusively concerned with an audience for whom a major (if not the major) source of conflict in their lives is their experiences in school. I would bet that adults like these things because they, themselves, enjoy the nostalgia that comes with being obsessed with the troubles that come with school (which, kids, if I may pull my Old Man Card here, are wonderfully simple problems compared to the Real World). Even beyond audience appeal, they also serve as excellent ways to introduce a reader to the magical scheme of the fantasy world in question – as they learn, so do you.
In all those senses, I get it; I understand why we keep going back to these places. Can we shake it up, though? Can we tell the story of a teacher instead of a student? Can we follow a student who finds school easy but their personal life hard (though I suppose Grossman does this in The Magicians to some extent)? Can we follow a student who is so terrible at school that he isn’t any good and he drops out and then finds something else to do with his life? What about not having a school, but just a master and apprentice? This has been done, yes, but hardly as often and not with as much detail. What about somebody who’s just plain old self-taught? What about somebody founding a school? What about a school that gets dissolved?
There’s a lot of stuff to be done here, but I feel like we keep running in the same circles. We got the same talented kid who has some trouble in school but overall does impressive stuff who has a teacher s/he likes, a teacher s/he hates, a group of plucky friends, and a headmaster who makes a good mentor. They go through their adventures, get their degree, and there the story stops. This I find deeply ironic to some extent since, as all adults know, that’s the point where the story really starts.
This is probably going to turn into a rant, but before it does, let me first and foremost say that I recommend Patrick Rothfuss’s novels, In the Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. The main character, Kvothe, is brilliantly drawn. It’s been a while since I’ve been so attached to a protagonist that I literally cheer on his accomplishments while reading. I still haven’t finished Wise Man’s Fear yet (life has gotten in the way, as has writing), but I expect to soon, and I am still enjoying the series a good deal.
I do, however, have one incredibly annoying problem with the book: Denna, the love interest.
Denna is not attractive to me. Denna is worse than unattractive, I find Denna actively repulsive. I would flee from this woman like she had cholera. I honestly cannot stand her; she drives me bonkers. And yet Kvothe, whom I adore, is madly in love with her. I find myself screaming at the text “Kvothe you moron! THE GIRL IS BAD NEWS! MOVE ON!” It’s like witnessing a good friend of yours going out with a complete zero and you knowing you have no real control over it (it’s their life, etc.), but it also seems to occupy your every thought during every conversation you have with them. It’s an eyelash in your eye, an eggshell in your omelette.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, Denna is, essentially, the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope from modern film. If you don’t know who I mean, think Natalie Portman from Garden State, Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, of even Catherine from the classic French flick, Jules et Jim. The MPDG was defined by film critic Nathan Rabin when he said:
“[The MPDG is] that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
The MPDG is flighty, free-spirited, and playful. She is in need of a man to give her stability in life, but refuses to submit to a man’s authority. The man, conversely, needs the MPDG to teach him to love and laugh and grow. They feed off one another, they banter and they play, and ultimately complete each other in a kind of perfect love.
This sounds nice on paper, I suppose, but only if you assume the MPDG is some kind of puzzle piece and not an actual human being. MPDGs would be, in reality, emotionally damaged people. They cannot trust and are afraid to love due to deep-seeded psychological issues that only they (and perhaps a licensed therapist) can repair. They are not relationship material, no matter how quirky or fun they appear. This is not to say, of course, that quirky and fun women are automatically bad news in real life (far from it!), but when that quirkiness is really just a shield for self-destructively low self-esteem and emotional unavailability, well, it’s not good.
Denna fulfills this trope well – she is mistrustful, flighty, and the rest of it. Rothfuss (through Kvothe’s narration) portrays this as wonderful and enchanting and intoxicating, which drives me bonkers. No, Kvothe, it is not charming when Denna gives you a little wink while on the arm of another man. It is hurtful to you, to her, and dishonest to everyone (especially the guy whose arm she is on). It’s emotionally destructive behavior. Denna keeps secrets and dislikes inquiry into her past (WARNING FLAG, Kvothe!), she refuses to pursue Kvothe or be pursued by him for fear of being hurt. She can’t take criticism. She is unreliable.
As if this wasn’t aggravating enough, Rothfuss parades a variety of far more attractive women (at least to me) under Kvothe’s nose. There is Fela, the intelligent, well-spoken, honest, courageous, generous classmate at the University. There is Devi, the confident, talented, street-smart, and curious loan-shark. Hell, there’s even Felurian, a faerie princess and the most beautiful woman in the world. Granted, she isn’t human and would eventually devour Kvothe with her affections, but at least the woman would supply some degree of emotional satisfaction to the poor man before his heart gave out.
Now, it may well be that Rothfuss is perfectly aware of what bad news this Denna girl is. He is making the series out to be somehow tragic, anyway – maybe Denna is part of it. All I know is that it’s been two books now of Kvothe mooning over a girl who, were he a real guy and my friend, I would do my best to dissuade his interest. Denna is bad news, man. For Tehlu’s sake, ASK OUT FELA!
I’ve been thinking a lot about vengeance lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the poor 8-year-old boy who was killed in Boston in the Marathon Bombing. More accurately, I’ve been thinking a lot about his father. The family are neighbors of mine and, while I don’t really know them at all (met them once or twice, seen them around the neighborhood, etc.), their loss has weighed heavily on me. You see, I, too, attend the Marathon sometimes. I, too, have small children.
It is cliché, but having children changes you. It changes you in surprisingly odd ways, sometimes – things you just don’t anticipate. Prior to becoming a father, I could not imagine a circumstance that would lead me to such a passionate state where I might kill in a fit of rage. Now, I know it is a very real possibility for me. After Sandy Hook, I was a walking raw nerve if I was with my daughter. Not so much for her safety, per se, but I knew that I was not in complete control of my own rational faculties. I love her so much that, should some fiend harm her in even the slightest way, there would be no power on this earth that could prevent me from destroying them. This is a harrowing self-realization, and not one that I am especially proud of.
I have felt this surge of anger and anguish now in places I never knew it could exist before. I now find watching Aliens almost unbearable, as Newt looks a *lot* like my little girl, and the thought of her frightened and alone in a dark facility full of monsters is the literal stuff of my nightmares. I encountered it again in a movie I’d seen before but never been struck by. The movie is Minority Report, which tells the story of cops that can tell the future, but more importantly tells the story of John Anderton, a cop whose little boy was kidnapped right out from under his nose and who he never saw again. That scene in the public pool hurts even to think about. I empathize with the character on a deep emotional level.
Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but the man is a fine actor. For evidence, I give you this scene, in which Anderton finally catches up with the man who kidnapped his son (don’t worry–I’m not spoiling anything major here. Still, spoilers nevertheless):
This moment, ladies in gentlemen, is a heroic one. A heroic one on a scale I cannot wholly fathom – something that makes Liam Neeson’s murderous rampage in Taken pale in comparison. It’s a pity the clip cuts off where it does, because to watch Anderton Mirandize the killer of his son is magnificent – the moment where reason and civility overcomes emotion and barbarism. The triumph of human decency over all in us that is indecent. My God, is that hard. That is so, so hard. I cannot say that I would be able to do as Anderton does. I hope that I could, though I even more fervently hope that I never have cause to find out.
Minority Report is a lot about free will and about predestination. Science Fiction is, by its nature, awash in such stuff – we writers of SF/F are in the business of imagining humanity’s future and depicting what we believe humans will become (or are). We are usually wrong, thank God, as the world is a better place than we think. This, in the wake of last week’s bombing, is important to remember, so I will repeat it: the world is a better place than we think. We can prove it, too. We can choose.
This is going to be a sort of companion piece to my recent post One Hundred Realms. In that article I discussed the various genres and sub-genres within the fantasy field. I think that most people would agree that, whatever type of fantasy novel you're writing or reading, an intricately detailed world is likely to be at its heart. Indeed the very act of world-building - i.e.
A tough week to be a Bostonian. To be honest, I don’t really want to talk about it; that’s not what this blog is for. I am angry, though, which makes it hard to do other things. I want revenge; not justice, no, I want revenge. That’s the wrong thing, I know – vengeance solves nothing. Justice, while not a ‘solution’, per se, is something that salves the pain and doesn’t spread it further. It’s an elusive thing, justice; I worry about it’s existence sometimes. It seems a phantom ideal, something which we as a species have fought long and hard to define, and yet have never once agreed upon.
All in all, I find myself thinking back to a post I wrote last July in the wake of the Aurora Colorado shootings. It is both tragic and terrible that I need ever revisit that place, but here we are again. I link to it here because I can’t bring myself to write it again. It’s about geeky stuff, of course (that is what this blog is about), but it’s also about this past Monday at the Boston Marathon and all other days like it. Here:
Coincidentally, the trailer for the new Superman movie is up, and it echoes certain sentiments in the article I wrote there. I won’t lie, it made me choke up a bit. We all need a hero like that. I feel fortunate that I live in a city full of them; a city where, when the bombs exploded, more people ran towards the danger than away from it. That is the sentiment I want to hold on to. I want to drown my lust for vengeance in it. As has been said many times, darkness can never drive out the darkness – only the light can do that.
Be safe. Be well. Be good.