Category Archives: identity

Books about establishing or discovering identity.

Review 222: Sourcery

LL 222 - SourcerySourcery by Terry Pratchett

Yes, I know – I’ve gone on a Discworld bender. Just one, I thought to myself – I’ll just read Lords and Ladies and that’ll be it. But then I saw Small Gods just sitting there… looking at me. Next thing you know I’m halfway through Sourcery and I don’t know how I got there. I may need professional help…. What am I supposed to do, though? They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re entertaining! I promise, though – after this, I’ll leave the Discworld alone for a little while.

If I can.

The Discworld, being a flat world that is carried through space on the backs of four elephants, who in turn are standing – rather patiently, I think – on the back of a great turtle, is, understandably, a world awash in magic. There are magical creatures on the Disc – trolls and dwarfs and elves – and people who know how to use the magic that infuses the world. People like wizards.

There are other ways to be a wizard, but they're not recommended.

There are other ways to be a wizard, but they’re not recommended.

If you want to be a wizard, there are ways to get there. The best thing you can do is to be the eighth son of an eighth son – that type is almost certainly destined for the more arcane arts. Once you’ve become a wizard, you dedicate yourself to one thing: magic. And late lunches, comfortable robes and your pointy hat, but mainly to magic. Wizards don’t marry. Wizards certainly don’t have children.

Except for one wizard. Ipsalore the Red, the eighth son of an eighth son, broke this law of wizardry. He fell in love, ran away from the University, and had sons of his own. Eight of them. His youngest son, Coin, was the carrier of a great power. He was the eighth son of the eighth son of an eighth son. Wizardry squared.

A Sourcerer.

Back in the old days, when the magic on the disc was much wilder, there were sourcerers everywhere. They built great castles and fought horrible wars of magic, the effects of which still scar the Disc to this day. Modern wizardry is a pale reflection of those days, and for good reason. If wizards continued to battle as the sourcerers did, the disc would be broken beyond recognition. Every wizard knows this.

And yet, when young Coin comes to the Unseen University of Ankh-Morpork, bristling with power and holding a staff possessed by the ghost of his father, the wizards are more interested in the power he can give them than the responsibility they have. A sourcerer has arisen, and a new age of magic has come, with all of the terror that implies. Coin reminds them of what wizards used to be, and the power they used to have. Through him, old men who could barely manage a simple illusion are now able to re-shape the world with their wills. With a sourcerer behind them, there is nothing these wizards cannot accomplish.

Not quite Hogwarts material.

Not quite Hogwarts material.

Only one man can stop them. His name is Rincewind, and he really, really doesn’t want to get involved.

Rincewind is a wizard (or, if you go by his pointy hat, a “Wizzard”), although he is so deficient in magical talent that it is believed that the average magical ability of the human population will actually goup once he dies. He wants nothing more than to be left alone to live a boring, mundane life. The universe, it seems, has different ideas. Together with Conina – the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian – and Nijel the Destroyer, Rincewind has to figure out how to stop a sourcerer from destroying the world.

This book is one of the early volumes of the Discworld series, and so it doesn’t quite have the depth that later books do. Oh, there’s certainly a message to be found in it – mainly on the subject of identity. Rincewind identifies himself as a wizard, despite having all the magical talent of a lump of silly putty, and cannot conceive of being anything else. The sourcerer Coin, on the other hand, has been told who he is to become, mainly by the spirit of his dead (and rather monomaniacal) father. Conina has the blood of heroes in her veins, but her dream is to wield nothing sharper than a pair of beautician’s scissors. And Nijel the Destroyer – who looks almost exactly the way his name sounds – desperately wants to be a barbarian hero, despite being about as muscular as a wet noodle.

Yes indeed. Be yourself. Whatever that may be.

Yes indeed. Be yourself. Whatever that may be.

Despite all of this, however, the characters succeed when they decide for themselves who they want to be. The ones who suffer the most are the other wizards – the ones who allow Coin to tell them who they are. They invest their entire sense of self in the inflated image fed to them by the sourcerer – an image of power and strength – and when it all comes crashing down around them, they are only left with shame and disappointment. In the end, they remain who they always were, and that is the tragedy of their downfall.

So if there’s a lesson to be had in this book, that’s it: know who you are and be it, as hard and as loud as you can. Other than that, it’s a rollicking little adventure. Enjoy.

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“It’s vital to remember who you really are. It’s very important. It isn’t a good idea to rely on other people or things to do it for you, you see. They always get it wrong.”
-Rincewind, Sourcery
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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, identity, Terry Pratchett, wizardry

Review 201: Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate sports.

I know this may come as a surprise, since I studiously avoid all but the most cursory acknowledgment of current sporting events. I finish the paper when I hit the sports section, and the sport report on the news is, for me, time to wash the dishes. I have no favorite teams of any kind, no players I look up to, and no interest in following play-offs, bowl games, championships or derbys. Hell, even with the Olympics my interest plummets after the opening ceremonies.

But I don’t hate sports.

You see, in order to hate something, you have to actually care about it. And that’s the thing about sports – I just don’t care.

There but for the grace of god go I…

I wasn’t always like this, of course. When I was a kid, I tried all kinds of sports. I tried (deep breath) baseball, basketball, skiing, swimming, sailing, soccer, tennis, golf and judo. And those were after school. In PE class we had all the usual PE things – volleyball, softball, track and field, running, archery, field hockey, dodgeball…. What it came down to was that I had no natural talent for sports [1] and, more importantly, I never had fun. I never saw the point of the whole thing, so I pretty much said “Bugger this,” and turned to other areas of entertainment, thereby sealing off the sporting world from my interest forever.

A lot of my friends do love their sports, though, so I try to keep a cursory understanding of things – you know, how many touchdowns there are in an inning, that kind of thing. I mean, there’s nothing more disappointing than trying to talk about something you love, something for which you have great passion and enthusiasm and having someone just ignore you, right?

RIGHT??

Anyway, I’m telling you all this so that you can correct for it when I tell you about Unseen Academicals, one of the latest of the Discworld books. If my attitude seems kind of lackluster or disinterested, keep in mind that it’s probably not Sir Terry’s fault.

The book, you see, is about football. Not the sissy-pants American kind where the guys are so afraid of grievous bodily harm that they wear protective armor all the time, but the good, old-fashioned British kind, wherein people get their heads cracked open by cobblestones and die on the streets. You know, fun for the whole family.

I believe the English refer to this as “a jolly good time.”

In the great and exciting city of Ankh-Morpork, footy is a tradition. It’s a lifestyle, in fact. Where you live determines who your team is, and who your team is tells you with whom you can associate and mingle. A supporter of one team wandering into the territory of another is a person asking to be beaten to death by enthusiastic and drunk hooligans. “Suicide,” I believe the police refer to it as. It’s a game that goes beyond the simple description of “rough and tumble.” It’s a substitute for war in a time where war is neither profitable nor productive. It’s a channel for long-standing feuds and grudges and aggressions, and is practiced religiously in the streets of the city every weekend.

So obviously what this grand, injurious tradition needs, then, is the introduction of wizardry.

The wizards of the Unseen University are forced, through a clause in a long-forgotten honorarium, to put together a football team and play a match. Despite most wizards having the athletic ability of an overstuffed beanbag chair, it’s either play the game or lose so much money that they’ll have to cut down to only three meals a day. So, with the help of the son of one of the greatest footballers in the city’s history, two cooks from the Night Kitchen and a young Orc who is trying to find value in his life, they put together a team and oh gods, I’m bored already.

Seriously, I couldn’t care less about football. The book’s not really even about football, to be honest. It’s about identity and self-image, two things that are inextricably tied up in sports and sports fandom. The book is a lot less subtle than usual, pretty much hitting you over the head with a mallet and saying, “You are who you choose to be!!” over and over again.

Actually, what gets said over and over again is a variation on “A leopard can’t change its shorts,” a kind of humorous eggcorn that loses its humorous value after about the fifth time it gets used in the book. But it’s pretty much the theme of the book – what is identity, and can it be changed?

How… romantic?

To explore this, we have, for example, Trevor Likely, the son of a famous (dead) footballer who has sworn to his (also dead) mother that he will never play football again after what happened to his father. He’s introduced as a young layabout, a lazy grifter who works very hard at not having to work, and desperately doesn’t want to live up to his responsibilities. Unfortunately for him , he falls in love with young Juliet, a beautiful – if somewhat dim – young woman who works in the Night Kitchen. Standing in the way of their love, however, is the fact that they support opposing teams, and her family would never allow her to see the young man if they knew.

Hmmm. Trev and Juliet. Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

Also mixed up in this is Glenda, the head of the Night Kitchen, whose identity as a below-the-stairs cook is so ingrained into her head that trying to become something else is almost unthinkable. The wizards themselves face an identity crisis as well – the Dean has gone off and accepted the Archchancellor’s position at another university, and has now come back to try and stand as an equal to Ridcully, the head of the Unseen University.

At the center of the book is Nutt, a strange young person who possesses a mysterious past. He looks a little odd, has an enormous intelligence, and harbors an unshakable desire to acquire self-worth, even if he’s not entirely sure what that means.

All of these people are trying to figure out the same thing – who they are. Some of them are surprised by what they find, others dismayed. Nutt discovers that he is an Orc, a race of creatures so hated and reviled that he could be killed on sight. Juliet discovers that her beauty is her path out of the kitchens, Glenda that her desire to control others can be focused into something productive, and Trevor that the destiny he has avoided for so long is what he always should have been.

Threaded throughout all this is the love of the game, the dedication of these people to their football. Indeed, the identity of the game itself comes into play here as well – will it remain a violent street game, wherein the only rule is that there are no rules, or will it gain a sense of purpose and order? How will the old-school, bare-knuckle footy fans deal with the changes imposed upon their game by Lord Vetinari and the Wizards?

He’s really just misunderstood.

It’s hard for me to filter through the sports aspect of this book, which is disappointing because it’s something that a lot of people will probably enjoy. There’s something about the devotion to a sport or to a team that is very important to most people that I just don’t get, and so my general lack of interest in this book is entirely my fault, and not Terry’s. I enjoyed the identity theme, of course – that’s always a rich seam of storytelling material. Watching Nutt come to grips with his identity as an Orc, or Glenda realize that her entire sense of self has been culturally imposed upon her, well, that was fascinating. It’s just that there was a whole thematic element to the book that I couldn’t identify with and didn’t care about.

It’s kind of like listening to Mozart and wishing someone would just shut all those bloody violins up.

So, if you’re a fan of Discworld, pick this up. If you like sports, pick this up. If you don’t like sports, well, you take your chances. As a Pratchett completist, there was no question about reading this book. But I don’t think it’ll be one that I come back to very often.

It’s not you, Terry. It’s me.

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“It seems to me that we have a challenge. University against university. City, as it were, against city. Warfare, as it were, without the tedious necessity of picking up all those heads and limbs afterwards.”
– Lord Vetinari, Unseen Academicals
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Now give me one of these…

[1] I think I made it to first base once in my Little League career, and actually got hit on the head by a fly ball – which, I am given to understand, are the easiest to catch. I nearly drowned myself repeatedly trying to learn how to sail. I used to knock myself over trying to kick goals in soccer, my trick ankles pretty much meant that tennis and basketball and any other activity involving quick stops and starts were out, and I got tired of being thrown to the ground real fast in judo. If there was ever such thing as an anti-athlete, I was it. I feared to shake hands with the jocks because I thought we’d both vanish in a cloud of photons.

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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, identity, sports, Terry Pratchett

Review 186: Supergods

Supergods by Grant Morrison

There is this interesting mental phenomenon, which you have probably experienced, called paradoelia. Briefly put, it is when our brains find a pattern where there is no pattern, making us believe that we see something that just isn’t there. It’s why every now and then, someone sees Jesus in a water stain in their basement. Or there’s a cloud that looks almost exactly like a dragon. Or when you wake up at four in the morning, and you’re squinting against the light and the toilet looks like a face and it’s laughing at you STOP LAUGHING AT ME!

Um. Right.

Humans are meaning-seekers. Whether it’s a song or a painting or a piece of toast, we want to find meaning everywhere we can. We are experts at it, world-champions, even when there is no meaning to be found.

ATREYYYUUUU!!!

When we turn these marvelous pattern-seeking brains towards places where there is meaning, well, that’s where things get interesting. Grant Morrison is a master pattern-seeker, which is probably what has helped him become one of the most interesting and important writers of the modern age. His area of interest is not philosophy, however, or literature or world affairs. He does not dissect the works of great masters of classical art or intricate mathematicians. Grant Morrison’s passion is something that many people believe they should give up by the time they leave their teens.

He loves superheroes.

That’s probably the only real point of overlap between me and Morrison, which is a pity because he seems like someone with whom it would be awesome to hang out. In the nearly seventy years since the dawn of the superhero, very few people have done as much thinking about them as Morrison has, nor have they followed the complex interrelationship between the superheroes and the world that brought them to life. Supergods attempts to answer a question that seems simple, but turns out to be mind-bendingly complicated: what do superheroes mean?

Yeah, I can see it…

He starts where it all began, with Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the debut of Superman. He spends several pages discussing the iconic cover alone – from its composition to the promises it makes to the reader – and uses that as a guide to all that will come after. The cover “looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now – a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rogue car.”

Superman, who began his career as a protector of the people against the corrupt and the powerful, would be joined by Batman, who prowled the night looked to avenge a crime that could never be avenged. Together, they embodied the hopes and fears of their readers. They spoke to our nobility and our need to see that justice was done. They spoke to that haunting voice that told us that some things can never be made right. They were us, writ larger than life and yet printed on pulp paper and sold for a dime.

Together, Batman and Superman formed a template that nearly every other superhero would either conform to or react against. Over the next seventy years, superheroes would undergo massive changes – become light and dark, be parodies of the real world and terrible reflections of it. They would be funny, they would be grim. They would explore uncountable hyper-realities that were normally confined to the acid dreams of mystics, and they would face the most mundane and everyday problems that bedevil the man on the street.

Over the course of the book, Morrison looks at the history of superhero comics, charting their changes and mutations and looking for the underlying meaning behind each new iteration of the art. He tracks it from its pulp and populist origins, through the wartime years when the People’s Heroes suddenly became agents of propaganda, the age of the Comics Code, which forced writers to go to more and more ridiculous lengths to come up with stories, and the era of the realistic, where the heroes tried to cope with the problems of the readers’ world.

Don’t get punched by a Kirby character if you can help it, no matter what day it is.

He looks at the iconic moments in superhero publishing, such as the explosion of creativity brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, the editorial guidance of visionaries like Julius Schwartz, who sought to make comics a tool of education, and the masterstrokes of creators such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller, whose singular contributions to the genre are still reverberating clearly today.

Interlaced through all of this is Morrison’s own history, both as a reader and a creator of superhero comics. Much like the superheroes that he loves, Morrison gives us his secret origin as a young reader of comics, moving into a creative adolescence that found him searching for his own identity as both a creator and as a person. Like many of his heroes, he changed costumes and modes, went for a grittier, punk look for a little while, and proceeded to reinvent himself as one might reinvent a half-forgotten character from a title that was cancelled years ago.

As the history of superheroes intersects with his, the narrative becomes less a creative examination of how comics have evolved and more a story about how he evolved with comics. Not only did he become the equivalent of a rock star comic book writer, he managed to reach across the boundary between comic books and real life, crossing from one to another as one of the world’s first fictionauts.

The less said about what Deadpool means for us, the better.

It’s hard to overstate how much thinking Morrison has done on this topic, or how far he is willing to go to defend the heroes that he has not only grown up with but who have made his fortune for him. He sees superheroes not as a pleasant diversion or a corrupting force or as an unnecessary fantasy, but rather as in imperishable idea. They are a meme, a reflection of ourselves – both who we think we are and who we wish to be. Over the decades, Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men and all of their costumed comrades have raised generations of readers and instilled in them some of the highest values to which we aspire. Despite being derided, dismissed, and very nearly outlawed, there has been something about the superheroes that has called out to us, and we cannot help but respond.

In an age where fiction and reality are nearly interchangeable, and where the imagination can produce something real in almost no time at all, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the superheroes as entertainment for nerds and children. Perhaps it’s time to see what the heroes have to teach all of us.

—–
“Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.”
– Grant Morrison, Supergods

Grant Morrison on Wikipedia
Supergods on Amazon.com
Grant Morrison’s homepage

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Filed under autobiography, comic books, culture, DC Comics, Grant Morrison, identity, Marvel Comics, media, memoir, nonfiction, super-heroes, supervillains, writing

Review 185: The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time 05)

Wheel of Time 05: The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

One of the criticisms often laid at the feet of this series – and not unfairly – is that it is splintered.

Read any epic fantasy, and you’ll see that at some point, the author splits the party up. This is an almost guaranteed way to create more action, more storylines and, if you’re being paid per word, more money for the author. Tolkien, the grandfather of modern fantasy, did a nice job of splitting the Fellowship up into three branches at one time, and then brought them back together at the end. Since then, the technique has been a stock tool of any writer who is dealing with an ensemble cast in her work.

This pretty accurately describes the plot structure from here on out…

Jordan has taken this technique to its extreme. He used the standard method back in The Eye of the World – split the group into three, bring them all back together just in time for the climactic ending. Pretty boilerplate plot construction right there. From The Great Hunt, however, we began to see that having all of our main characters in one place at one time will be more the exception than the rule – while it starts and ends with everyone together, the beginning of The Dragon Rebornstarts us off with the party split again, bringing them all together only at the very last minute.

By my count, there are eighteen different point-of-view characters in this book, occupying four different major plot threads, only two of which actually manage to come together by the end. And it just gets more complicated from here on out. From my research, there is yet to be any point in the series where every plot thread manages to come together in one place at one time.

For some readers, this is supremely annoying, and I can’t say I blame them. You find yourself going back and forth from character to character, keeping up with storylines that are superficially unrelated, all in the hopes that they’ll pay off eventually. The circus interlude in this book is an excellent example. In an attempt to hide from the Forsaken Moghedein (whom Nynaeve seriously pissed off in the last book) and to get safe passage to the rebel Aes Sedai after the breaking of the White Tower, Elayne, Nynaeve, Thom and Juilin find themselves traveling with a circus. The logic behind this is that no one would ever look for them there, and I suppose they’d be right. I certainly didn’t see it coming.

I’m not sure why this never caught on as a dominant fantasy trope.

There’s a lot of good old-fashioned circus wackiness that goes on – Elayne puts on tights (which just scandalizeNynaeve) and learns to walk a tightrope. Nynaeve ends up being the target for Thom’s knife throwing and battles her own distaste at the skimpy clothes she has to wear versus the fact that she thinks they look pretty. Now I’m not saying that nothing important happens during the circus interlude – lots of things do. It’s just that there’s no reason they had to take place in a circus.

And there’s no reason they couldn’t, either. After all, who’s the multiple-bestselling author, Jordan or me?

As opposed to a single POV series, such as Harry Potter, where you know where the important action is and who it’s happening to, Wheel of Time requires its readers to observe a world of characters. And I think that’s the key to how these books are structured. The events that are happening here aren’t just happening to one small group of people, or one kingdom. It’s happening to the entire world, from the edge of the Aiel Waste all the way to the shores of the Aryth Ocean, from Seanchan to Shara. Rand al’Thor may be the Dragon Reborn (or the Car’a’carn or the Cooramoor, depending on whom you talk to), but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has things to do. In order for the Last Battle to be won, a whole lot of things have to happen, and not all of them are going to be centered around our main protagonist.

I’d hang out with this guy, no question… (art by Seamus Gallagher)

In this book, for example, we have two groups looking for the Aes Sedai who fled the White Tower when Elaida became Amyrlin (I hope you’ve been keeping up, otherwise that last sentence makes no sense whatsoever). Siuan Sanche and Leane Sharif, the former Amyrlin and her Keeper, are traveling with Min (a young girl who can tell the future from people’s auras) and Logain (a former False Dragon whose ability to channel was severed by the Aes Sedai.) And then there is Elayne and Nynaeve, who were both out of the Tower when the rebellion took place, but who hate Elaida more than Siuan, so they’re trying to find the rebels. These two plot threads eventually merge, but it takes fifty chapters before that happens.

At the same time, there’s Rand, Mat and Egwene, who are leaving the Aiel Waste for Cairhein, hot on the trail of the Shaido Aiel, who are murdering and pillaging everything they can find. The Shaido are a “rebel” clan, who refuse to accept Rand as the Car’a’carn (the Aiel’s Chief of Chiefs) and have decided that the best thing for them to do is to kill everyone who isn’t an Aiel. Rand and friends chase the Shaido all the way to Cairhein, where they engage in a fierce battle to save the city from being ravaged by war for the third time in twenty years. Even within this plot thread, Mat, Rand and Egwene occupy their own strands, staying apart more often than they get together.

The fourth plot thread is a thin one – Queen Morgase of Andor, who has been gulled into complacency by the Forsaken Rahvin (who is posing as “Lord Gaebril,” the queen’s lover) has finally come to her senses, and escapes from her own castle. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or who will help her, but she’s intent on regaining her throne and seeing Gaebril hang. Lucky for her, Rand manages to take care of her little Forsaken problem by the end, although she’s unaware of this.

Meanwhile, the whole world is falling apart. The White Tower has well and truly split, something that the new Amyrlin, Elaida, is desperately trying to keep from the world. There is war and strife across half the continent, men who believe that the existence of the Dragon Reborn means that all bonds are broken, all social contracts annulled. The Prophet Masema – a man from the northern nation of Shienar – is preaching absolute devotion to Rand al’Thor as not only the Dragon Reborn, but as the source of all that is good. The coming of the Dragon brings not only a great battle with the Shadow, but great upheavals in civilization itself.

No, no – Wait! Don’t go! It gets better!

So, to say “there’s a lot going on in these books” is a bit of an understatement, and it’s Jordan’s fondness for creating new plot threads and then following them to see where they lead that has probably led to this series going on as long as it has. Had he just centered on Rand, it all could have been over in half the time. But it would have been far less interesting in the long run.

The characters of this world are fond of using a certain metaphor to describe life – the Great Tapestry. “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” they like to say, and they believe that each person’s life is a figurative thread in a greater system. Some characters, like Rand, Mat and Perrin, are more important than others, and they tend to bend other threads to follow theirs. But you cannot make a tapestry out of only three threads, and the end of the world in this series is something in which everyone may participate. Without the actions of the myriad minor characters, Rand wouldn’t be able to be the person he needs to be, and the story wouldn’t be able to be as rich and as complex as it needs to be.

So, give this some thought. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to stick with one character or group of characters throughout a series; if you don’t like having to keep notes on who is doing what and where; if you’re not the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to note all of the different major characters, with color-coding and hand-drawn graphs…. Not that I have, mind you…. If that’s not your kind of read, then you may not enjoy this series. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s good to know what you’re getting into.

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“It would be easier if this was a story.”
– Rand
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Fires of Heaven at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Fires of Heaven at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, death, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, identity, madness, military, quest, Robert Jordan, survival, travel, Wheel of Time, wizardry, women

Review 184: Ender’s Shadow

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

This book made me wish I could forget that I had ever read Ender’s Game.

Not because it was necessarily a better book – though it is longer – but because the two books offer different views of the same events from two distinctly different perspectives.

Ender Wiggin is brilliant and empathetic, a boy torn apart by his own doubts and fears and driven to greatness by a government that sees him simply as a means to an end. It is only his ability to understand and come to love those around him that gets him through his trials, endure his isolation, and which ultimately allows him to put together the team that defeats the Buggers. Ender seems to be more human than human, and not in that ironic Blade Runner sort of way, but in a way which makes us want to see him succeed and do well.

Bean, on the other hand, is about as different from Ender as it’s possible to get. He’s introduced in Ender’s Game as a foil, a character designed to show us how far Ender had come in the short time that he had been in Battle School. When we meet Bean, Ender is using the same techniques of isolation and constructive abuse that were used on him, making us wonder if Ender will turn out to be just a copy of the adults who were tormenting him. We learn that Bean, like Ender, is brilliant, but he is also strong-willed and ambitious and takes well to the atmosphere of Battle School. In the end, Bean shows himself to be a vital part of the team that Ender assembles to stop the Buggers and cement humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Ender’s story is all about empathy and self-understanding and his desire to be the person he wants to be, rather than the person humanity needs him to be. He has to give up some of his essential humanity in order to save the world.

Bean’s story comes from the opposite direction. More brilliant than Ender, Bean learns to find his humanity. He has to learn to see people as people, rather than a means to an end or a puzzle to solve. The hard lessons that he learned on the streets of Rotterdam as a small child were vital in preparing him to become a commander, but they have to be put aside if he’s to become a human.

Bean’s story is much bigger in scope than Ender’s, which gives the book as a whole more depth than Ender’s Game. We start out in Rotterdam, which has become a center of poverty and violence among rival gangs of street children. Bean, tiny and starving, manages to prove his worth to one of these gangs by suggesting strategies by which they can get more food and more respect. He gains the attention of Sister Carlotta, a nun who is working for both God and the International Fleet, and she is the first to see his full potential as a student in Battle School. But in the course of trying to understand Bean, she learns that his origin is one of horror, and that his future is even worse.

As a character, I liked Bean more than I liked Ender, possibly because on a scale of Complete Misanthrope to Bodhisattva, Bean and I are pretty close to the complete misanthrope end of the spectrum. To be fair, though, Bean has a lot more reasons to feel that way, and he’s a lot worse than I am. As we meet him, Bean views people as means to an end or as problems to be solved. He doesn’t reform the street gang culture of Rotterdam because it’s the right thing to do – he does it because he needs to eat. When he does experience attachment or fondness for others, he doesn’t know how to deal with it, and turns it into just another problem to be solved.

That hyper-analytical way of looking at the world makes Bean a much more aware character than Ender as well. While Ender spends most of his book wrapped inside his own head, Bean is constantly testing the world, analyzing it and trying to figure out what’s really going on. So while Ender was exploring the computer fantasy game, Bean was crawling through air ducts in the Battle School. While Ender was researching the battles of the past, Bean was learning how to spy on his teachers.

In the end, just as Ender is learning to put aside his humanity for the common good, Bean discovers a deep well of compassion that he never knew he had. Ender becomes more isolated, and Bean becomes more connected to others. The two characters come at each other from different directions and view the world in vastly different ways, giving us a kind of parallax view of the same events, to use Card’s preferred terminology.

Most interestingly, many of the revelations that were revealed to Ender in his book were discovered by Bean in this one, which creates a whole different reading experience.

And that’s why I wish I could delete my memory of having read Ender’s Game,, or at least put it away for a while. Reading this book, I constantly compare what’s happening to Bean with what happened to Ender, looking for those scenes that are shared between the books and others that we only get to see once. Whether it’s the early days of Battle School or Ender’s fight with Bonzo Madrid or the climactic end, there are enough similarities and differences to make each book worth reading.

But at the same time, I want to read each one for the first time, without knowing what’s going to happen next. I want to share Bean’s ability to see plans unspool before him without already knowing what those plans are. And then I want to read Ender’s Game the way I read Ender’s Shadow and have those wonderful moments of revelation as new light is shed on topics that were only briefly mentioned before – like Locke and Demosthenes, or the true fate of Mazer Rackham.

Card has done a difficult job very well in this book, and I can’t imagine it was easy at all. As he noted in his forward, a dozen years passed between the first book and this one, and a person changes in that much time. He learned new things and gained new perspectives, and that naturally had a great influence on how he chose to write this story.

And then there’s the enormous popularity of his other Ender books. Between Game and Shadow, he wrote Speaker for the Dead in 1986, Xenocide in 1991, and Children of the Mind in 1996. That means he had a much more solid understanding of his world by the time he got around to Ender’s Shadow in 1999, and a much larger fan base as well. Writers will always say that they write for the story, not for the fans, but every writer wants in their heart of hearts to have people love what they write. Revisiting your most famous work and exploring a popular character brings great risks with it.

Fortunately, I think Card succeeded with this book. It both compliments and contrasts with Ender’s Game, offering enough new information and new viewpoints to merit a second novel, while being faithful to the story that fans had come to love over a decade and a half. What’s more, it feels like the work of a more experienced writer. The scale is larger, the characters have more depth, and he takes more chances with the story than he did with Ender’s Game.

All in all, if you were a fan of the first, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t read either, you really should. And if you start with this one, let me know how it goes.

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“Ender was what Bean only wished to be — the kind of person on whom you could put all your hopes, who could carry all your fears, and he would not let you down, would not betray you. I want to be the kind of boy you are, thought Bean. But I don’t want to go through what you’ve been through to get there.”

All images are from Marvel Comics.

Ender’s Shadow on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Shadow on Amazon.com

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Review 183: Habibi

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Here’s the thing about comics, and it’s an unfortunate thing: when you tell people that you read comics, the first thing they’re likely to think about is superheroes. You can’t really blame them, seeing as how superhero comics make up so much of what’s being printed these days, nor can you blame them for thinking that superhero comics are kind of lowbrow entertainment. A lot of it is, but that shouldn’t be surprising when you’re looking at a profit-driven entertainment industry that works on a tight deadline every month. I have a co-worker who can’t believe that I, a man of thirty-[COUGHCOUGH] still reads comics, because her vision of what comic books are and what they can do is stuck in that mode that says, “Comics are for kids.”

There are some superhero comics that exceed our expectations, of course, and show emotionally-charged, well-written stories with deep and interesting characters, masterful writing, and a keen insight into human nature and behavior. They’re more often exceptions than the rule, of course, and if you want the really good stuff then you have to go beyond the monthlies and the Big Two. You need to look at the work of someone who is working not so much because he has an editor or a company that’s directing his work, but because he has a story to tell.

Enter Craig Thompson and Habibi

It’s hard to encapsulate this book in a single sentence, much less a concise review. I can either go on for far too long or find myself lost for words and not say enough. I will say, however, that the moment I laid eyes on it I would say the word that probably best sums up the experience of reading this book: Wow.

The story takes place in a semi-fictional Middle East, the land of Wanatolia, and it begins the way all comics begin – with a drop of ink and the flow of words. We are introduced to Dodola, a girl of nine at the start of the book, who is married off to a wealthy scribe. Through her, we are introduced to this strange and exotic world and the dangers it holds. She ends up living on a boat in the desert with a young boy named Zam, and together they survive in a world all their own. He finds water and she finds food, and they fall asleep to stories every night.

This continues until Dodala is taken by travelers, leaving Zam to fend for himself. While she is made into a concubine for the rich and powerful Sultan, Zam is looking for her among the poor and the dispossessed of Wanatolia. Over the years, their paths diverge terribly, until good fortune brings them together again, neither of them the same as they were, but at least finally able to be together as adults who have loved each other for a very long time.

In large parts, this is a story about boundaries and borders. For one thing, Wanatolia is a place that seems to straddle ancient and modern, fantastical and real. While we have girls sold into sexual slavery, camel-driven caravans and a sultan in an extravagant palace – harem included – we also have automobiles and motorcycles, garbage-clogged waterways, and a great dam that blocks the river and provides electricity. It’s hard to hold the two truths of this place in your mind, because they’re so completely opposite. Even when they appear in the same panel, it’s still hard to believe they’re the same world.

The last part of the book straddles the boundaries between the developed and developing worlds. Wanatolia has a great river that’s been dammed, and is a city-state that is growing fat on oil money. There are great skyscrapers and modern condos, but they’re built alongside astonishing poverty and filth-clogged waterways. The great and mighty live a scant distance away from people who proudly hunt for garbage in order to stay alive. It’s horrifying to look at, but at the same time you know that places like this are not unknown in our world.

It’s about the boundaries between the mystical and the mundane. Early on in the story, Dodala gives Zam a talisman to wear around his neck. It’s a piece of paper folded into nine squares, on which are written nine Arabic letters. Together, they represent a magic square, and rest on the foundations of the Koran. With this talisman, Zam will be protected from the demons and the djinn – as he goes outside to pee.

The Koran, of course, is hugely important to the story, and Thompson tells some of the most iconic and important stories that feature not only in the holy book of Islam, but in the Torah and the Bible as well. Dodala tells Zam about Abraham and his sacrifices, about Job and his plagues, about Noah and his ark, and about Solomon and his riddles, and those tales go on to inform the larger story. They also tell of cleverness and sacrifice and submission to a God that can barely be understood by such people as they.

It’s about the boundaries between men and women as well. For a while, Dodola and Zam live very comfortably on their desert boat together, seeing as how he’s a boy and she’s a young woman. She treats him more like a son or a little brother than anything else, and it’s adorable. But as he ventures into his teens, their relationship becomes a lot more complicated and confused. Zam’s emergent sexuality provides him with nothing but trouble, and even when he and Dodola are no longer together, she has a great effect on how he views himself as a sexual being.

And of course, there is the Sultan and his harem, which has plenty to say about the man-woman divide. The Sultan is both the master of and a slave to his women, constantly looking for novelty and entertainment from them and constantly being disappointed. In Dodola, he sees not only a woman who can pleasure his flesh, but who can engage his spirit. Alas, he turns out to be just as terrible to her as we might expect from a Sultan, and all of her feminine wiles nearly lead to her death.

That does get us to one point of criticism: while Dodola and Zam are interesting, deep, and complex characters, they are pretty much the only ones. The others – from the Sultan to the trash-fisher – are fairly flat and seem to have been created by an Arab Character Generator. Mind you, the number of authentic Middle Eastern communities I have been to could probably be counted on the fingers of a snake, so I’m really in no position to make many judgments on this. But if I were writing a story and needed an Arab character as either an antagonist or a background character, I might have made some of the ones that are in this book.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of writing, really. After all, the story isn’t about them – it’s about Dodloa and Zam. They are the two who need to be well-rounded and interesting. But it does open the door to discussions of racism in Thompson’s storytelling. Did he make the Sultan a power-mad misogynist because that’s who the character is, or is it because of Thompson’s own ethnocentric biases? Is Wanatolia full of calligraphers and robed assassins and street vendors with camels because Thompson wanted to instill a feeling of unease in the reader, not being able to reconcile the true nature of the kingdom, or is that his preconceived notion of what life in the Middle East must be like? How much of what he’s included is realistic and how much is assumption?

I have no idea. As I said, my knowledge of the Middle East is frightfully deficient, so I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge. What’s more, my knowledge of who Thompson is as a person and as a writer is informed pretty much by this book. I have no other way of knowing how susceptible he is to his own biases or how much he tries to subvert his own preconceptions. I will leave that up to people who are better situated than me to do.

What I do know, however, is that he did a ton of research to make this book, and it shows primarily in the art and the stories that are told as the book progresses.

The art is, in a word, stunning. It is full of intricate, byzantine calligraphy, mathematically precise and almost obsessively detailed. Every page is full of brilliantly planned drawings, and where the pages are blank, they call attention to their blankness and to those things that are being left undrawn. There were so many places in the book where I just stopped reading for a while so that I could just look at it and admire the time and the planning that must have gone into drawing something of this scope. The art alone is worth spending a day or two admiring.

It’s a deep and complicated book that rewards multiple reads. The more you know about the story, the more you find out when you read it again, and if you get tired then you can just admire the artwork for a good long while. The work that Thompson has produced here is nothing short of monumental.

On top of that, it’ll look really pretty on your bookshelf.

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“If all the trees on Earth were made into pens, and the ocean supplied the ink, augmented by seven more oceans, the words of God would not run out.”
– Koran, 31:27

All illustrations by Craig Thompson

Habibi on Wikipedia
Craig Thompson on Wikipedia
Habibi on Amazon.com
The Habibi homepage
Craig Thompson’s homepage

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Filed under alternate history, art, Craig Thompson, fantasy, friendship, gender, graphic novel, identity, Islam, religion, sexuality

Review 146: Otherland 2 – River of Blue Fire

Otherland 2: River of Blue Fire by Tad Williams

When last we left Our Heroes, they were caught in the Otherland – an immense virtual reality program built by people with more money than God – with no idea where to go and no idea what to do. They were lost, confused and had no way out.

Oh yes – back before Neo got his clock punched by Agent Smith, Renie, !Xabbu, Orlando, Fredericks and all the other Otherland explorers discover that they are in more danger than they realize – if they die on the network, then they’ll die in real life. And, almost right out of the gate, people start dying. Whether they’re tiny biologists living among the ants or a lifetime gamer warring against the different factions of a twisted Oz, they die in unpleasant and, ultimately real ways. And it’s up to our heroes to not only avoid death themselves, but also to figure out what the hell they’re supposed to be doing in there.

It's just like this, only different.

One of the things I like about this series is that Tad Williams openly admits to stealing – er, paying homage to the great writers of the past. At the end of book one, when all the main characters have been gathered together and are being told about the great dangers they will face, and how they are part of a plan to defeat the Grail Brotherhood and their Nefarious Scheme, most of the people there want nothing to do with it. It’s up to Orlando Gardiner, our young barbarian warrior-slash-progeriac teenager to say, “Hey, this the the Council of Elrond! We have a mission here!”

Unfortunately, while the Fellowship of the Ring gets a clear mission before leaving Rivendell, the Otherland explorers are scattered before they know what to do, and their main goal is to run for their lives. As this book progresses, they start to learn more about the vast Otherland network, what its nature is and why it was made. They also learn that it is unstable, and possibly a living thing in its own right.

Almost immediately, the group gets split up. That is, as all ensemble writers know, the best way to really build a meaty story, and it works really well here. Unfortunately, while there are three groups, the strongest and most interesting characters get put into two of them. Orlando and Fredericks get sent off into a world more bizarre than any online gaming ever prepared them for; Renie and !Xabbu end up in a horribly twisted version of The Wizard of OZ, if Oz had invaded Kansas, taken over, and started a three-way fight between the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man.

No adorable wisecracking robot, though. Can't imagine why.

This leaves us with the third and largest group being somewhat less interesting than the others. Not completely, of course – we have a blind woman who can sense the information flow of the simulation, a teenage net-freak who only speaks in online slang, a campy death-clown named Sweet William, a Chinese grandmother and an abrasive German woman. They’re not bad characters by any means, and each one is special in his or her own right. It’s just that most of them were introduced later in the first book, and so we’ve had less time to get to know them. Putting a more familiar character in that group might have made them more interesting, or it might have overshadowed them. Who knows? The good news is that they do become more interesting and engaging, so there’s really nothing lost by their being new to us.

One thing that the third group has, however, is a secret – one of them is not who he or she appears to be. One of them has been co-opted by the sociopathic assassin, Dread. The only one with the freedom to go on and offline at will, he has nearly godlike power at his fingertips. And he intends to use it.

I can imagine that Tad Williams had a great deal of fun working out these novels, mainly because he created a concept that allowed for incredible freedom in world-building. After all, on a super-powerful VR platform, any conceivable simulation can be created. So whether it is the mythical land of Xanadu, a cartoon kitchen where the groceries come to life at night, a world where people fly like birds, or the legendary land of Ithaca, the settings in these books are only limited to what Williams can think up and work with.

It's like, I'm in the story and I'm reading the story... Woah. Dude.

What’s really interesting is that he seems to take great pleasure in reminding us that we are, in fact, reading a story – he goes so far as to have one character reflect on exactly what kind of character he is. People are reminding themselves that they’re not in a story, even though they are, and at the same time recognizing that the entire structure of their virtual universe is patterned on the rules of fiction. It’s a strange type of meta-fiction that rewards the careful reader.

So, as the book comes to a close, we have some new threads to follow. The Otherland explorers begin to find their purpose and learn about their situation. We’ve met a strange type of character which exists in many worlds at once – the beautiful, birdlike woman who tries to help Paul Jonas and Orlando Gardiner find their way; the horrible Twins, whose only job is to pursue Paul Jonas wherever he may go. These people can be found around any corner, and the outcome of meeting them is always uncertain.

Slightly less complicated than this, but not for lack of trying.

Offline, real-world investigations into the mysterious comas that afflict children begin to bear fruit – a young lawyer named Catur Ramsey is trying to help the parents of Orlando and Fredericks find out what happened to their children, and the search leads him to a strange woman, Olga Pirofski, who may have a vital clue. Renie’s father involves himself with some very dangerous people indeed. The police in Sydney find themselves working on a five year-old murder case that will eventually lead them to the malicious assassin/hacker Dread. A mysterious group called The Circle makes itself known to a select few, and reveals its mission – to oppose the Lords of the Otherland and their relentless pursuit of immortality. All through this, those Lords of the Otherland struggle amongst themselves to see who will ultimately control it.

The tale becomes stranger with the telling, but I can guarantee – you’ll be good and ready to jump right into book three….

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“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shores of the Nonastic Ocean. I watched magic blunderbusses flash and glitter in the dark near Glinda’s Palace. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time… to die.”
– The Scarecrow, Otherland: River of Blue Fire
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
City of Golden Shadow on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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