Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wolfbane by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

I’m a sucker for used book stores.  I just can’t walk into one without picking up a couple of things that I’ve been meaning to get around to or at least which look interesting.  And since I’ve been attacking over 5,000 pages of A Song of Ice and Fire my slush pile has been building up over a couple of months, and now I’m finally getting to make a dent in it.

I picked up Wolfbane because it’s co-written by C.M. Kornbluth.  Kornbluth was a prolific author, died untimely, and is situationally well-known.  By this I mean that people who don’t read a lot of SF have never heard of the guy the way they would have heard of, say, Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, who are basically household names even to people who’ve never read any of their work.  Among genre fans, though, Kornbluth is frequently mentioned as someone who should be better known, and that’s because he was a hell of a writer.  His solo short story collection, His Share of Glory, easily stands up to the very best contemporaneous work and I’m pretty sure that he would have been one of the greats of the field had he lived.  He was also a frequent collaborator, often with Frederik Pohl (as here), and together they wrote some seminal works, like The Space Merchants, which won (and deserves) a lot of acclaim.

Anyway, this book is okay.  It’s pretty solidly Golden Age stuff, not necessarily chrome-plated spaceships and ray guns but fairly dated.  You wouldn’t be seeing  anything like this put out today, and it’s not as good as Kornbluth’s solo work or even some of his other collaborations with Pohl.  Nonetheless, if you’re a genre fanatic there are a couple of interesting touches here and there.

Also, it’s short at 140 pages.  Let me sing the praises of the Golden Age in this respect at least.  I don’t know what kind of unholy calculus goes on in the publishing industry these days, but I’m going to make an educated guess.  The cover price on new hardbacks is approaching $40 for some of the bigger works and hovering in the mid-$20s for average sized novels.  Now I know that very few people actually pay that much due to retail discounting and so forth, but that’s what it says on the cover.  And again, I know that some of the smaller publishers do paperback releases of new stuff, but even mass-market paperbacks start at $7.99.  Assuming very generously that it takes four hours or so to read a 140 page novel, they just can’t justify selling that much fiction at the price point they want to hit.  The only exception that I can think of recently is John Scalzi’s God Engines, but that was billed as a novella and was a little bit of an outlier anyway.  As much as I like many of today’s authors, they do seem to throw in a bit more material than is strictly necessary.  For instance, Neal Stephenson could probably write a 140 page section about some dude zipping his fly, and while it would include erudite discussion of the development of trouser fastenings and the iPod selections of the Vietnamese day laborer who stitched the pants, it would probably put the main narrative on hold for a while.  Perhaps that’s not the best example because I bet Stephenson really would want to put that pants section in if he’d been reading about the garment industry, but some other authors I think are getting leaned on by their editors to throw in a little extra business to pad the page counts.  I kind of got distracted there, my point is that many of the SF works in the 50s get in, tell the story, and move on to the next project, probably to pay the utility bill.  Still, I can respect terseness if it gets the job done.

The plot is pretty simple.  A rogue planet has come through the solar system and taken Earth with it, to points unknown.  A huge, invulnerable pyramid from the other planet has taken up residence on Mount Everest and appears to kidnap or kill people for unknown purposes.  The moon is now between the two planets and is periodically ignited, presumably by the pyramid aliens, but anyway though unknown means, to provide heat and light to the Earth.  It’s not sufficient, though, so there aren’t all that many people left.  It’s mentioned that the population of Earth was 10 billion before the disaster occurred – a point to Pohl and Kornbluth there, as many SF authors of the era seriously underestimated what population growth would be like.

The main character is Glenn Tropile, described as a “Jack-of-all-Trades”, who is a quintessentially omni-competent 50s SF protagonist, meaning he’s a virile American male (despite there being, apparently, no America any longer), a sharp trader, and a tinkerer.  He’s also a “Wolf”, one of two types of people who exist in this post-apocalyptic wasteland according to some pretty sketchy sociology elaborated by the narration and some of the characters.  Golden Age SF was pretty bad about talking about capital M “Man” and how Man does this, that, or the other thing, and there’s some of that here.

It turns out that the pyramids capture certain humans to use them as biological components in their computer network, to which end they stick them in nutrient tubes while they dream; furthermore an encounter with the deadly pyramids causes the ragtag bunch of humans to have an orgy.  So not only does Wolfbane anticipate The Matrix by 50 years, but the aliens’ scheme here actually makes more sense.  It also turns out that the pyramids aren’t exactly hostile to humanity, more like totally indifferent, if they can be said to have emotions at all.  This is all actually pretty good stuff, even if it is a bit formulaic, and the way the humans end up fighting back against the pyramids is fairly well realized.

Despite the occasional brilliant spot the book is still pretty average, though.  There’s a lot of plot to get through in those 140 pages, and while I’m happy to respect terseness there’s still a fair bit of telling, not showing.  The narrator will just say that a character feels a certain way rather than having the character develop; so all of these characters are pretty two-dimensional despite whatever characteristics they are said to have.  It also suffers from cultural dating, as well.  Many of the Golden Age writers seemed to believe that having conquered flight and the Nazis that we’d soon be stepping on the planets around Eta Carinae – and that the space ship would have a steno pool.  Some combination of over-optimism about engineering challenges and under-appreciation for cultural changes pervades most books of the era and this is no exception, it’s got some iffy gender roles and questionable cultural statements about Asians and Africans.  I’ve seen worse, but that is damning the authors with faint praise.  I’d really just say that they could have done better about this, even in 1959.

To sum up, you may want to check this out if you’re a completionist (like me) or if you like period genre pieces with some unique elements.  It’s by no means terrible and it certainly doesn’t take that long to read, but at the same time it isn’t likely to be rediscovered as a classic of the field.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

I heard about this book because of Disney lawyers.  More specifically, I try to keep up with happenings in the law, and I happened to catch an entertainment law story about the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which has the title of another Tim Powers novel, On Stranger Tides (and which I have not seen).  As far as the adaptation goes it’s got the same title and features Blackbeard as a voodoo magician, but has nothing else to do with Powers’ story.  Apparently, the screenwriters thought it was easier to option the rights rather than deal with a possible suit.  Common enough in Hollywood, I suppose, but I made a note of this because it was also noted as being the inspiration for the Monkey Island series of games and frankly I liked the idea of Blackbeard as a voodoo magician.  At some point I’ll probably get around to reading it, but when I looked up Powers everyone was raving about this one, so it’s where I started.

I came into it with pretty high expectations because of the reviews; there are quite a few people calling it the best time travel story ever written.  Perhaps that’s not the best frame of mind to approach anything, since I found the characters to be somewhat two-dimensional and began losing interest pretty quickly.  Somewhere around the first third, however, I began to get more involved in all the events and was pretty thoroughly hooked by the end.  After all was said and done I ended up liking this book pretty well, although I’m not sure it’s really the best ever.

So here’s the setup:  a couple of magicians in the early 1800s are performing a spell near London.  The purpose of the spell is to unlock the underworld and allow the deities of ancient Egypt to walk the world again.  The magicians don’t really want to do this, since magic as an art apparently hasn’t been working right for some centuries – little everyday spells are fine but big undertakings tend to end badly.  But they have to, because they are bound to the will of some super-ancient magician and this is what he wants done.  One of the two magicians is actually a ka, or a magical copy of the original guy, who is off doing something else.  The one who isn’t a copy does the ritual, which of course goes disastrously wrong.  The magician goes a little bit crazy, but gains the ability to switch bodies with other people; as a downside, any body he inhabits quickly sprouts hair over its entire surface so he finds it expedient to steal bodies frequently lest he be caught, which earns him notoriety as “Dog-Faced Joe”.  The other thing the ritual does is open a number of discrete portals in time and space.

Enter our (sort-of) hero, Brendan Doyle.  Doyle is living in the present (the mid 1980s, anyway, since that’s when the book was written).  He’s an expert on B-list early 19th century poet William Ashbless but also is reasonably knowledgeable regarding  other literary figures of the period, such as Coleridge, and it is in this capacity that he’s hired by a reclusive millionaire.  This individual has discovered how to use the time gates and proposes to charge $1 million to a bunch of literature junkies to go attend a lecture by Coleridge, and he wants Doyle to come along to act as a tour guide and generally class up the process.  Doyle wasn’t the millionaire’s first choice, but the other experts turned him down because it sounded silly.  However, this is a work of fiction and so it turns out to work fairly well.

Soon Doyle finds himself stranded in the early 1800s in London with no money, no particular skills, no awareness of when the next time gate may appear, and a nasty lung disease.  One of the Egyptian magicians wants to capture him because of a misguided belief that Doyle actually knows what is going on, and he recruits yet another magician and his army of beggars for assistance.  Besides all the supernatural happenings it quickly becomes apparent that the millionaire’s motives may not have been as benign as originally advertised.  In Doyle’s corner – sort of, anyway – is Elizabeth Tichy, whose fiancĂ© was killed by Dog-Faced Joe and is concealing herself as a man to try and get revenge.

What was turning me off this book originally is that none of the characters are really all that well developed.  Everyone gets one or two traits; Doyle’s got a sad personal life, Elizabeth Tichy is determined, and so forth.  Most of the magicians are more or less interchangeable.  All of the body switching makes it hard to tell the characters apart even if you know which body is appearing in a scene, and there’s just a bunch of surreal weirdness generally.  Powers obviously did a lot of research of the milieu, which is nice, but at the same time I never really believed that Doyle could adapt as well as he does or that he would really have the skills that he displays.

Nonetheless I kept going and I’m glad that I did, because this novel really manages to keep a whole lot of plot threads in the air like some deranged juggler and still tie it all together.  There are a couple of ways that one can approach a time travel narrative.  Broadly, you can:  1) change the past, causing the future to change in response; 2) create an alternate timeline; or 3) create a stable time loop.  Powers chooses to go through door number 3.  In the hands of an unskilled author this can eliminate all the tension involved in a story, but that’s not how it goes here.  Rather, it plays like oracles did in the Greek myths.  You can cause things to occur by attempting to prevent them from happening, thereby showing that the oracle was right all along.

It’s also pretty funny, not in a laugh-out-loud sense but in a more deeply structural way.  The magicians are pretty scary and surrounded by various horrible monsters.  (In fact, their only weakness is that once someone decides to practice magic they can no longer touch the Earth without pain, so they all have to wear tall shoes or stilts or similar types of gear.)  They assume that Doyle is equally skilled but of course they’re wrong, Doyle is actually mostly a hapless bystander, and so when they go all out to destroy him they inevitably set events in motion which end up causing the ruin of all their own plans.  Sometimes retroactively.  For his part, Doyle eventually thinks he has figured out what is going on and assumes that since a stable time loop is in effect that he can’t die in a particular situation – then he remembers all the body-switching and magical doppleganging and ends up taking action anyhow, which naturally proves necessary.  And there are a lot of little touches that pay off later, especially messages that Doyle leaves and encounters that he has that don't originally make a lot of sense.

So in the end I’m willing to forgive the flat characters because they’re really more plot devices than real people, and the point is to watch Powers end up tying all the various plot threads up into a nice tight bow at the end, which he does in fine style and only just a little cheating.  In the hands of a less capable writer this could have been an unhinged mess and so just pulling it off at all earns him great respect from me.  I can’t say that this is my new favorite book of 2011, or for that matter that I’m running out to finish his bibliography, but I am happy to have read this and will definitely be reading some of his other works eventually.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi

I like nonfiction books too!  But before I say anything about this one let me tell a story.  My wife works in the academic field and so I’ve gotten to proofread dozens of grant applications over the past ten years or so.  A lot of them are detailed and some take months of more or less constant work on the part of multiple people.  This is for several reasons; they want to make sure their money isn’t going to be spent on liquor and corn nuts, they want to know that the applicants are literate and have a reasonable plan, there’s typical bureaucratic inertia, but mostly it’s because there’s a significant amount of money at stake and the foundations and agencies feel the need to justify what they do with it.  So imagine my surprise in 2008 when Hank Paulson demanded that Congress give him $700 billion by the end of the week and gave them basically a three page memo.  I was thinking of this a couple of weeks ago while my wife was working nights trying to put together a grant proposal asking for $15,000 to help some poor children get developmental screenings.  If she’d just ask for a couple thousand times as much there’d be less hassle, apparently.

Enter Matt Taibbi, gonzo economic writer.  He’s pissed off about this double standard and ready to shine some light into the dark corners of finance.  Taibbi pulls no punches and doesn’t avoid low blows.  In a chapter entitled “The Biggest Asshole in the Universe”, Taibbi goes after Alan Greenspan, calling him among other things a “gnomish bug-eyed party crasher”, a “gerbilish mirror-gazer” who rose to the top by “unscrupulousness and political spinelessness” – all by the second page.  Normally I’d say that this isn’t playing fair, but 1) Taibbi throws in impressive amounts of documentation amidst the invective, 2) all these people are more than capable of taking care of themselves, and 3) I’m pretty sure that most of them would do worse if it would make them a buck.

That said, sometimes this book does suffer a little bit from the incessant name-calling, and it is not necessarily that cohesive.  One of the last chapters is a reworking of a previous article that Taibbi had written for Rolling Stone in which he compared investment bankers to vampire squids (if anything this analogy is unfair to members of V. infernalis, which as far as I know keep to themselves and are only a threat if you happen to be a small crustacean.)  Each of the chapters tends to focus on one particular aspect of the current bubble economics that we currently find ourselves faced with without much overarching narrative besides the concept that the house always wins.

One of the best sourced and well written chapters is the examination of the mortgage bubble.  At this point I don’t think there are too many people left who argue that the insane heights of the housing market were based on anything more than wishful thinking and/or outright fraud.  I remember having a discussion in late 2005 with a friend of mine who was living in California and who stated that the whole thing was bound to collapse.  After looking into it, I was in complete agreement.  The idea that no one knew about this at the time is silly, because even during the height of the housing craze you could find articles questioning how people were qualifying for these loans.  And no one at any level seriously believed that people were ever going to pay back these option adjustable rate mortgages for eight or ten times their yearly salaries.  Rather, they believed that the individuals would just roll over into another loan or sell to a bigger sucker.  Not too long ago I read No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolos, which is a story about Bernard Madoff and how no one caught him.  A common theme in all these scandals is that various smart people claim afterwards that they had no idea.  This is a lie.  Instead, everyone knew that there was some sort of fraud going on but figured that they would be able to pass risk along to someone else before they were left holding the hot potato.  Imagine their surprise when the fraud turned out to target them, too!  There was so much grift up and down the whole chain that the real scandal, to my mind, is how the big players are demanding that they get paid back full price.  If they knew what they were doing then they were participating in a fraudulent scheme and don’t deserve it, and if they didn’t know what they were doing then they shouldn’t have been entrusted with that much money in the first place and shouldn’t complain that they get punished a bit.  There were a lot of entities trying to engage in rent seeking who had no particular expectation that they'd have to make good on their theoretical promises, too.  If that came as a shock (and it appears to have) then they shouldn't object to losing their shirts as well.

One quibble that I do have boils down to what is called within social sciences the functionalism vs. intentionalism debate.  In short, when examining a human event with a bad outcome, the question arises whether the event was caused simply by events or whether people purposely pursued the bad outcome.  In most cases it appears that elements of both are responsible.  Taibbi seems to lean pretty heavily towards the intentionalism hypothesis in describing events though; for instance, he claims that Greenspan deliberately encouraged homeowners to take out adjustable rate mortgages and then raised interest rates with the intent of enriching mortgage-holding banks.  Maybe that was deliberate, but I’d be pretty surprised if that was the only reason that he took that particular action.  I felt the same way about the commodities chapter; I’m sure that there was more than a little speculating going on, but at the same time the world is starting to run into some actual supply problems with grain and oil.  For that matter many of the excesses are explainable by the simple fixation on the next quarter’s earnings above all else without bringing deliberate intent into it.  It appears that most of these folks really believe that they’ll come up with something to patch up the balance sheet the next quarter if they can only get through this one. 

I also feel that the chapter on the health care reform debate and eventual legislation didn't actually acknowledge some of the things that the insurers actually did give up, such as their ability to deny claims based on pre-existing conditions and to cap maximum lifetime payouts on policies.  Maybe this doesn’t outweigh some of the bad aspects of the bill – it’s debatable – but it’s not accurate to say that the insurers got absolutely everything they wanted out of the process.

But this is a polemic, not a textbook, so it’s okay to get outraged here and then find nuance somewhere else.  I think that Taibbi’s underlying point is more or less unquestionable regardless of the details, and that is that the major players on Wall Street have managed to get themselves into a position where they take all the profits from risky behavior and never have to eat the losses.  He’s also pretty convincing in his analysis of government power – that the government that most people experience on a day-to-day basis is actually fairly overbearing and oppressive, but that this reverses for large corporations and big banks.  In one of the chapters he deals with local governments trying to raise short-term revenue by leasing out their infrastructure, which is marginally fair for the people involved who almost always end up having to pay more to use it.  He also examines a housing project that basically exists to create red tape and enrich lawyers and local interests; and he is, given his politics, surprisingly sympathetic to the ordinary Tea Party types who want to get the government out of their business.  He argues that the government actually is in their business and their only mistake is assuming that it's actually as invasive for big corporations and businesses, when in fact those entities get to write their own rules.

Anyway, it’s a quick read and gets the blood up.  I always question why I bother having any investment accounts at all after reading something like this and don’t simply invest in canned goods, bullets and Krugerrands.  It’s probably like the old joke about the man complaining to his friend about the crooked Faro gambling game being run in their city, but later being discovered by the same friend playing in it.  “Gus,” says the second man, “I thought you said this game was rigged.”  “Sure it is,” replies the first, “but it’s the only game in town.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A William Sleator Retrospective

A friend of mine told me that William Sleator recently died.  He’s probably not a household name, although he’s written over thirty novels, mostly focused on young adult readers, and that’s when I encountered him first.   Every reader has a couple of formative book experiences, serendipitous encounters with the right story at the right time that change you and stay with you throughout the years.  Sleator had a powerful influence on me, and I’d like to remember some of his work here.

 I happened to re-read perhaps his most famous book, Interstellar Pig, earlier this year after running across a copy of it at a used book store.  This was the first science fiction book I ever read, and I was surprised how much I remembered about it.  In any event, I was probably about eight years old at the time and hadn’t ever seen anything like it.  I have no idea what possessed me to even read it at the time but I do remember thinking it was completely awesome, and I have to say that it holds up reasonably well even now that I’m an adult.

The protagonist of Interstellar Pig is a sixteen year old nerd with the unfortunate name of Barney who is on vacation with his irritating parents at the beach.  He would have much preferred to stay home and play fantasy board games (I guess if this book were written today instead of 1984 he’d be playing World of Warcraft instead).  They’ve rented a house that used to belong to an old sea captain who, the caretaker informs Barney, had an insane brother locked up in one of the rooms until he died there.  I should mention in passing that, in addition to the SF elements, this book was where I learned about what keelhauling was, a bit of trivia that’s been surprisingly useful over the years.

The tedium gets broken up a bit when Manny, Joe, and Zena show up at the house next door.  These three are impossibly cool.  They’re twentysomethings with lots of cash and are kind of vague about what they do and where they come from.  They also claim to want to hang out with Barney, but he seems to think they’re more interested in the beach house, which is the one they truly wanted to stay in.  In addition, they’ve also got the greatest board game ever, called “Interstellar Pig”.  It’s like the craziest Euro game you’ve ever seen, and the goal is to play one of several alien races and be in possession of the Piggy when the timer runs out.  If you’re not, then you and your home planet are destroyed.  If you’ve ever read anything like this before then you know that these three weirdos are actually aliens in disguise and the game that they are playing is very real.  But if, like eight year old me, you haven’t ever read anything like this before then it’s pretty goddamned amazing.

The three disguised aliens all think that Barney knows more than he’s letting on, and they’re right – he managed to decipher the captain’s insane brother’s scratching and has recovered what turns out to be the actual Piggy.  So each of them comes to him in turn and tries to bribe him with really cool stuff to turn it over.  Zena in particular throws in some additional elements very tempting to a sixteen year old boy (and this went right over my head the first time I read it; good thing that he didn’t accept since she turns out to be a horrible arachnid beast).  When he refuses he’s informed that by doing so he’s entered the game on behalf of Earth and he’d better get ready to have a duel to the death.  This is pretty unfair but I guess that’s just how life goes sometimes.  By the terms of the game they do have to give him some equipment, and it turns out that they’re all mutually hostile as well – they were only cooperating until they had a pretty good idea of where the Piggy could be found.  So at least they’re all trying to take each other out as well, and they don’t think he’s their major threat.

It’s established fairly early on that humans are significantly less intelligent than the three alien monsters (the aforementioned horrible arachnid, a fish-monster, and some sort of floating jellyfish thing), but Barney still manages to spot a logical flaw in the description of the game, namely, how everyone knows that you get blown up if you don’t have the Piggy if there aren’t any survivors to tell the tale.  Everyone’s kinda vague on when exactly the timer runs down or when the last time it happened was.  He takes the somewhat obvious gambit of trying to contact the Piggy itself, which turns out to be reasonably communicative through telepathy.  When confronted, it tells Barney that it actually has bouts of hiccups which manifest as huge nuclear blasts, and that it spread the rules of the game itself so that it wouldn’t be exiled (it gets lonely).  So Barney has to decide if either one of these stories is true, figure out what to do with the Piggy, survive the attacks of three pissed off aliens, and avoid being eaten by the fourth alien race that arrives to try and claim the prize.  Simple enough.

It’ll probably never be on a Hugo short list but it’s entertaining, and it was enough of a formative influence on me that I remembered most of the details pretty well after nearly 25 years.  There are plenty of ostensibly better books that I didn’t remember as fondly or as well.  Apparently, Sleator wrote a sequel to this book much later, but I’ve never read it.

Sleator’s best-reviewed book is probably House of Stairs, which I read a couple of years after Interstellar Pig.  This was probably the first dystopian book I’d ever read and it scared me silly.  The protagonists of this one are also sixteen year olds, this time taken from orphanages and placed into a weird governmental facility from which they can’t escape.  There’s no outside human contact.  Instead, there’s a food dispenser which gives them food pellets (at intervals) and water (on demand).  There’s no disembodied control voice or anything, but gradually the dispenser only works when the teens engage in coordinated choreography.  The characters eventually figure out what they’re expected to do through trial and error, which means that if they don’t do what the machine wants then they’re in danger of starving.  Eventually it expects them to commit acts of cruelty against each other.  I had no idea what operant conditioning was at the time, but it’s a pretty harrowing story, especially since none of these kids will be missed if something terrible happens to them.  The overarching theme here is something that Terry Pratchett made explicit in one of his Discworld books – that every human being ultimately has the power to say “no” and take the consequences.  Rather than comply with the increasingly sadistic demands of the unseen controllers, two of the characters choose to starve themselves.  In any real life situation where the government is doing this sort of thing they’d probably end up actually dying or getting a bullet in the back of the head, but nonetheless they get a reprieve in the end.  It’s still pretty intense, and I was actually scared to read anything else by Sleator for some years as a result.

Eventually I did, though; some of them are pretty good (I remember The Green Futures of Tycho with great fondness) and all the ones I read were of at least above-average quality.  The best of the remainder was probably Singularity, in which a sixteen year old (again!) twin finds that his late uncle’s shack contains a spatial anomaly which creates a time dilation effect – time passes much slower in there than it does to an observer outside.  Since he’s tired of being overshadowed by his more confident and outgoing twin he decides to spend an entire year in the shed, during which time only a single night will elapse to the rest of the world.  Also, if you fill up the sink in there you can see a horrible creature getting closer and closer.  It turns out to be friendly, or at least benign, but mostly it’s just a psychological study of why he’d want to do such a thing and how he accomplishes it.

With their mix of hard science and space opera, most of these novels are far above the curve for what you generally see in juvenile fiction generally and juvenile SF in particular.  For whatever reason, I haven’t read any of his work written past the early 1990s, which is apparently of varying quality; Sleator apparently suffered from some personal issues and health problems in later life which affected his writing (but not his output, admirably).  So rest well, William Sleator.  I’m sure many other people have as fond memories as I do.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Contains spoilers for The Magicians.

It may be good to be the king, but there are also some pretty big downsides.  Not least of which, a monarchical system degrades morality by making it a virtue to tell the king what he wants to hear rather than what may actually be useful to know.  Not to mention the fact that kings are expected to dispense justice while avoiding temptation to favor one faction or another, and there’s really no appeal from a king’s judgment.  Of course the downsides don’t show up much in fantasy.  The Pevensie siblings reign for 15 years in Narnia following The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, while dealing with exactly none of these issues.  Peter was High King, but apparently didn’t have to worry about his siblings usurping any of his authority.  They weren’t surrounded by scheming courtiers or evil counselors.  Despite the fact that Susan in particular received a lot of propositions from neighboring kings (and was somewhat receptive) and despite the importance of dynastic succession, there were no marriages.  Also, no children, not even illegitimate ones, as you might expect noblemen attempting to curry favor with their sovereigns by introducing them to their daughters, not to mention the daughters themselves taking matters into their own hands.  For that matter, despite knowing nothing of Narnia the Pevensies apparently manage to rule totally fairly and do not advantage any particular faction.  They avoid all this while still managing to engage in brutal military campaigns where they could easily be killed.  It would be easy to say that these are children’s books, but Lewis clearly knew why monarchies are so bad – look at the neighboring-but-one country of Calormen.  There you’ve got shifty viziers and young girls being married off against their will to creepy older but powerful dudes.  For that matter the king of Calormen is sufficiently worried about his oldest son’s ambition that he allows him to engage in a dubious military venture on the theory that success might get it out of his system and if he fails then there are other, less dangerous sons to replace him.

I’m not trying to pick on C.S. Lewis particularly here, but Fillory is heavily inspired by Narnia so it’s the obvious comparison.  There are plenty of novels which deal with the concept that even a good person can’t deal with monarchical power without becoming a slave to that power, but most fantasy novels, Narnia included, pretend that somehow good people can become good kings.  This in turn feeds the desire of many otherwise sane people to become kings.  And it’s perhaps that sort of desire that led Quentin Coldwater to cast aside his sinecure and go be the king of a fantasy realm.

I’ve written about The Magicians before here, since it was one of my surprise favorites of the past five years or so.  At the time I said it wasn’t entirely clear that a sequel was warranted, but here it is anyway.  I can’t say that I enjoyed The Magician King as much as The Magicians, but at the same time I’ll say that it’s probably the better written and more textually coherent of the two.  I certainly don’t begrudge it any time.

In terms of structure this is very much a sequel.  There’s something of an executive summary at relevant points, but characters do tend to just show up out of the blue.  I’ve read The Magicians recently and remembered who everyone was, but if it’s been a while or if you’ve never read it at all then some of the references to past events and to development of characters may fly by.

There were several ways that Grossman could have approached this story.  Since The Magicians was basically an examination of what more realistic people would do in a situation where a magical school actually existed, this one could have explored more realistic fantasy politics in its Narnia-esque land of Fillory.  Something like The Borgias or A Song of Ice and Fire, perhaps.  And actually this was the sort of book I was expecting and even thought was coming in the opening sequence, where Quentin and his fellow monarchs are out hunting a magical beast because it’s a nice change of pace from their usual schedule of feasting, drinking and making extremely minor edicts.  Fillory is a magical land that doesn’t need that much governance, as it turns out.  But the hunt doesn’t end up that great and they end up with an ominous and ambiguous prophecy out of the deal.  There’s something that might provide an adventure but they decide that it’s too dangerous and go back to the castle instead.  Quentin notes that he’s been putting on weight recently and starts to wonder if the kinging gig is really all it’s cracked up to be.  And at that point the real nature of the narrative kicks in, as Quentin decides that come hell or high water he’s going to have an adventure, and we get to follow along with him as he undergoes a very traditional hero’s journey.

It’s not a super ambitious adventure at first.  Eliot (the High King) points out in their council meeting that some flyspeck island out in the middle of nowhere hasn’t been paying their relatively nominal taxes in some time.  Since he’s straining at the bit to actually accomplish something Quentin volunteers to personally go collect the taxes and he volunteers Julia, one of the queens of Fillory, to come with him.  There’s really no pressing reason for him to do this, as even he will freely admit.  He also doesn’t have to hold a fighting tournament to choose the best swordsbeing in the realm to come on the journey, but he does that too (the winner is a somewhat depressive man with the unfortunate name of Bingle).  And since he’s the king he can have any ship of the Fillorian navy – making his ultimate decision on craft an exercise in royal prerogative.  This whole fitting-out process is the comic highlight of what is otherwise a fairly dark tale, and might have been my favorite part of the whole thing, especially when Eliot points out that funding the expedition is becoming far more expensive than simply ignoring the taxes altogether.  This plot should be familiar to you if you’ve ever read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Prince Caspian takes out a ship and goes on a quest that wasn’t strictly speaking necessary.  Like in that book they take along a talking animal, but in a subtle dig to the hyperactive Reepicheep they end up with a sloth who doesn’t really much care one way or the other about the trip.  Nonetheless they set off on their voyage and suffer from severe anticlimax, until the border guards suggest that maybe there is an interesting artifact just over the horizon somewhat.  Then things get pretty intense very quickly; it turns out that the fate of the world is at stake (or rather that it already was and everyone just now noticed.)

Unlike The Magicians, this isn’t solely Quentin’s story.  Interspersed with the main action is a study of the hedge witch queen Julia, starting just after she failed her exam to Brakebills.  When someone doesn’t make the grade they’re supposed to have a mind wipe, but in her case it doesn’t entirely take, and she realizes that she’s got two sets of memories of the afternoon.  Julia believes that she was wrongly denied admission, but the book suggests that she’s wrong about this – for one thing the desire to learn magic or at least about magic fractures her psyche straight across and she goes into the depths of major depression and possibly schizophrenia.  I don’t know what experiences Grossman has or hasn’t had, but her struggles with powerlessness in the face of the betrayal of her own mind is moving and form the emotional center of this novel for me.  In any case Brakebills appears to have detected her inherent fragility and decided that she wasn’t cut out for the magical life.

While Quentin was off getting his first rate magical education, Julia was slumming it in the fringe world of hedge magicians.  Brakebills graduates consider most of these folks to be charlatans and the best of them to be dilettantes, with good reason; the hedge magicians think that a Brakebills education makes you arrogant (probably correctly) and that they are just as good (very, very mistaken).  Quentin at one point observes that Julia is probably in trouble and that every time he wonders how much trouble he has to revise it upwards; and her story is indeed very strange and sad.  She does have actual magical abilities, after all, and she falls in with probably the most skilled and powerful of the non-Brakebills crowd.  They’re still no match for what we’ve seen Quentin and his friends to be capable of, however, and since they’re deprived of a lot of magical theory they end up dabbling into what can only be described as applied theology.  Julia herself questions whether this is such a great idea, but its efficacy may be determined by the simple fact that she’s the equal of Quentin in magical ability, something that shouldn’t even be possible given their training.  In any event her desires burn like a dark flame, and she doesn’t even know what she wants to achieve.  She’s warped and dangerous and more messed up than Quentin ever was.

In the first novel Quentin was a whiny dick.  He’s outgrown that somewhat and I found him to be finally likable here, but perhaps this may vary by the reader.  At a minimum he’s fundamentally decent, as especially illustrated in a well-crafted action sequence where he and his companions assault a fortress to recover a mystical artifact they need in order to complete their quest.  At this point Quentin lets it all hang out and reveals himself as a full-fledged sorcerer who is both great and terrible.  He can fly through the air dealing death with a word.  Fire won’t burn him, weapons won’t bite him, he can kill with direct spells or entropy or simply sucking all the air from around his enemies.  And yet it never occurs to him to do any of those things until someone actually stabs him in the neck.  He’s got incredible capacity for destruction and for evil but he simply never would use them for personal advantage.  Quentin is no longer an adolescent and he’s making grown-up decisions.  He did save the world in The Magicians but in that case he was the pawn in a game being played by Jane and Martin Chatwin, this time he’s making his own way.  This book could also have been about him having angst that being a king wasn't good, but it didn't take that approach at all.  He might, in a few years, have gotten to that point but he was trying to make the best of his situation and accomplish as much as he could.  A younger Quentin would have managed to screw up the job or at least complain about it to no end.

That’s not to say that The Magician King is without flaws.  I felt that the use (or non-use) of Janet was unfortunate.  She was somewhat responsible for the death of Quentin’s girlfriend and she’s also the most willing to abuse her personal authority based on what we know of her character and her issues from the first novel.  Eliot and Quentin mention this in passing a few times but it’s never really gone into; for that matter you really have to wonder how she and Quentin can possibly get along after all the events of The Magicians.  And it’s a little inexplicable that Quentin doesn’t stop and ask a few more questions before making bargains with supernatural agencies.  Perhaps he’s still overconfident in his abilities, but at the same time there’s a lot of examination of how little all of these people truly understand; in addition he’s repeatedly warned time and again that heroes pay personal costs and those costs can be high.  The structure of this novel also seems to railroad Quentin onto a very traditional path, there's nothing that unique about the adventure he has.  And the subject matter of this novel gets very intense, almost too much so given the somewhat informal nature of the writing style.

I would almost never bring this up but the first sentence really threw me off as well.  It is:

“Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.”

My eighth grade teacher would have written in the margins, “why does it matter what the socks were named?”  Fortunately there isn’t a whole lot of this but Grossman’s style can occasionally dip into sloppiness if he’s not careful.

The Magicians was somewhat narratively disjointed and seemed like two or three stories that didn’t necessarily join together all that well.  This one is totally coherent but somehow lacks the adolescent charm and some of the magic that the first novel had.  Also, while The Magicians ended with a perfectly workable sequel hook it would have worked fine without one.  The Magician King essentially ensures another sequel with its structure.  Still, I wouldn’t mind spending a little more time with Quentin Coldwater and I just hope he continues to grow up.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

Standard warning – spoilers ahoy.  Possibly more than usual this time.

Here it is, the long-awaited fifth book of A Song of Ice and Fire.  Given that it’s what I’ve been reading recently it was all fresh in my mind and I didn’t have the six-year wait that so many despaired of.  Overall I’d say it’s as good as the fourth book, probably a little better as it does resolve some loose ends and deals with major characters, but it doesn’t reach the levels of the first three.  It also suffers somewhat from the fourth book’s flaws and doesn’t resolve as much as it could have.  This is probably a result of its creation as a joint book with A Feast for Crows, but perhaps there are other issues.

Let’s talk prophecies.  For all intents and purposes an author is God of his creation, and whether or not the author knows when every sparrow falls the reader doesn’t know unless we’re told.  But the author knows what’s coming, and can make the characters know what is coming to a greater or lesser degree.  The trouble with prophecy is making it organic to the plot; otherwise the prophecy becomes the story and the characters are chained to a course of action even if they’d probably rather be doing something else given what the reader’s been told about them.  By this point in A Song of Ice and Fire, there are a large and ever-increasing number of oracles, visions, greendreams and foretellings that are threatening to kill the movement.  Sure, many are vague and trying to chase prophecy can burn you but it’s apparent that at least some of them are going to come true and they constrain what can happen.

At this point Martin is setting up all the characters for the epic and awesome climax of the series.  The only problem is, they aren’t necessarily where he needs them and they aren’t necessarily up to what they need to be doing, so to a greater extent than the previous novels, many of the characters don’t seem to be behaving properly.  The plot is tugging them along rather than their organic actions driving the plot, and to the extent that this contradicts what we’ve been previously told about them it makes their behavior inexplicable.  This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “carrying the idiot ball” and it can be the bane of otherwise well plotted and excellently written fiction.

For instance, consider Tyrion Lannister.  He’s possibly the most wanted man in Westeros.  His sister wants him dead because she blames him (correctly) for killing their father and (incorrectly) for killing her son.  She’s got the resources to put a huge bounty out on him.  So it makes perfect sense that he falls in with a crew of revolutionaries; after all, he’ll never be able to go home again unless he gets a royal pardon for his actual and perceived crimes, so he’s got to be involved with regime change since his immediate family holds the throne and he’s burned that bridge pretty permanently.  Furthermore he’s an extremely clever person with a well-honed sense of self-preservation.  So what on earth possesses him to get incapacitatingly drunk in a brothel by himself in an area where Westeroi are fairly common?  He’s a dwarf who had his nose cut off, it is difficult to think of someone more conspicuous, and you’d think he would be keeping a low profile (no pun intended).  For that matter why would his companions allow it?  If he got taken by an agent of the queen rather than a bounty hunter then they might ask him some serious questions about who was hiding him and it could ruin their entire scheme.  Of course he gets captured, but fortunately it’s by someone he was very unlikely to meet who doesn’t immediately kill him and thereby puts him where the plot needs him – notably at one point alongside someone who points out that he’s appallingly conspicuous and he needs to stay out of sight.  Nonetheless, he does manage to display all the qualities that make him so beloved as he is forced into worse and worse situations.

Daenerys is only a young girl but she has to carry the idiot ball most of all, poor thing.  If her eventual goal is to make herself queen of Westeros, she’s headed in a pretty roundabout way.  (More prophecies.)  At this point she’s got three dragons that are probably ready for combat, a good sized army, access to ships, connections in Westeros, and what she does is . . . wait.  She does do some things in this book, but her primary function is to be a lure to a vast number of other characters who want to meet up with her and meet their own agenda checklists (sleep with her, marry her, advise her, steal her dragons, etc.)  Some of those folks arrive, some are still on the way, and some decide to give up and go do something else.  Daenerys is an autocrat, she demands respect for her personal authority by divine right of birth.  She’s personally ordered the deaths of hundreds, occasionally through torture, burning, or other brutal means.  And she has indirectly caused the deaths of thousands or even more throughout her various campaigns of conquest.  Given all this, her sudden overweening desire to watch over the freed slaves in a city she’s conquered but has no personal connection with doesn’t make all that much sense.  She’s made hard decisions which cost lives before.  Her indecision in dealing with her enemies is also uncharacteristic, as is her “solution” to her dragons becoming increasingly large and aggressive.  Also, she has a long and ever-increasing list of powerful people who are threatened by her or who have a personal grudge against her, so staying put in a city whose population is ambiguously loyal is not a wise choice – she’s no stranger to assassination threats and of course there are more.  It’s probably time to make her move but instead she’s got to wait for a prophecy to come true before she can.

Cersei doesn’t personally make many uncharacteristic moves, but everything around her in her subplot doesn’t ring true.  At the end of the fourth book she’s about to be on trial for her life, and that situation is not resolved in this book, she’s still about to face that trial.  So why not simply face trial for all the accusations and avoid the rather nasty business she goes through?  Furthermore, why would her family allow it?  I understand that they want to limit her personal power but the way they go about humiliating her makes them look bad and it undermines the king too.  It’s not a good idea, and I can’t help but think that Martin wants to make her go through the wringer because she is such a terrible person rather than because it’s something that her uncle would agree to based on what we know of them so far.

Anyway, that’s all character business.  This book is mostly as well written as you’d expect given the consistent high quality of the series.  Something that did creep into my experience this time was a lot of repetition of phrases.  Remember that Jon Snow knows nothing?  It’s not just Ygritte who says that.  As I mentioned above, Daenerys is only a young girl and it seems like on every other page one character or another notes that [character] was not wrong.  I was able to overlook this and it’s not entirely unprecedented in the series, but for whatever reason it stood out for me a lot more this time.

The death toll is somewhat similar to A Feast for Crows as opposed to the crazed bloodletting of the first three volumes, probably because it’s a pain to keep creating new characters, and it really does seem like the final two volumes are going to really burn through at least some of them.  Nonetheless, I’ll present the guide to cliffhangers:

1)    If someone is not stated to have died, they are alive.
2)    If someone is stated to have died or been killed offstage, they are probably still alive.
3)    If a POV character ends a chapter in a situation when they are in mortal peril and would realistically be expected to die, they will be alive in the next chapter in which they appear.  Unless they are in a prologue or epilogue.  Then they are screwed.
4)    If a character is claimed to have died and their head and/or other parts are produced as proof, then the character is dead only if the part presented would prevent someone from living if they didn’t have it and it is affirmatively recognized by other characters who actually knew the person.  Otherwise, the character is still alive and the head belongs to someone else.  This rule is also applicable to public executions if there is any way that the person being executed could actually be disguised.
5)    A character who unquestionably sustains a grievous injury, is treated for several days and dies in front of witnesses is probably dead.

Oh, and if a character does happen to die then they might not stay dead any longer.  Part of what made the first volume in this series was the tension that anyone could die at any time, and the constant fake-outs, healings, and resurrections are removing some of the tension.

This book together with the fourth is pretty obviously the calm before the storm.  A lot of the power of Westeros burned itself out in the first rounds of the civil war, but there’s new blood and some new claimants, and by the end the new war has begun.  There is a great deal of tension-ratcheting but not a lot of release of that tension in this novel.

Because of the dual structure with the fourth volume, the plot seems more constrained than in the previous novels.  Daenerys can’t lead an airborne dragon assault on King’s Landing at the beginning of the novel because we saw King’s Landing in the last book and that didn’t happen.  So there’s something of a limitation on who can go where and what they can do while there.  Nonetheless there are a lot of interesting plot elements in this novel that you don’t typically see in fantasy.  Daenerys and Jon Snow are trying to wage peace and bring change to massive institutions, with all the pushback you’d expect from such an endeavor.  The series has dealt heavily with power, who wants it, what they will do with it, and so on.  This book suggests that making peace is at least as difficult as making war and requires no less skill.

So, I certainly don’t regret reading this book but I feel that it’s an excellent extended trailer for the sixth volume rather than being a completely satisfying read on its own.  Once the narrative got past A Feast for Crows it picked up considerably, although most of the characters ended on some sort of cliffhanger.  Nonetheless it seemed static in parts and probably could have tied up a few more plotlines.  Hopefully the sixth one will be here before 2017 and live up to the promise shown here.  And now I can move on to something shorter.