Category Archives: meta-fiction

Fiction about fiction.

Review 195: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, on the meaning of life, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Frederich Nietzche said, “If we possess a why of life, we can put up with almost any how.” And Stephen King wrote, “Life sucks, then you die.”

It’ll take a far better philosopher than I to really look at this book from an existentialist viewpoint, but I strongly suspect that it would be a lot of fun to do. After all, one of the major questions that philosophy – and existentialism in particular – tries to address is that of why we are here. What is our purpose in life? What, in the end, does it all mean? For us out here, that’s a question we can’t really know the answer to, and thus a whole branch of philosophy exists to tell us that it doesn’t really matter. That maybe we don’t have a purpose imposed upon us from outside, but that’s okay. We can create our own. We can contribute our own verses to the powerful play of life, as Whitman would have it, and in the end we are responsible for our own lives.

For this guy, going out of existence is probably more important…

But what if we weren’t? What if there was a being that orchestrated our lives, willing them into – and more importantly out of – existence? What would you do with the realization that your life is not entirely your own? And even worse, the realization that the person in control of it doesn’t really care all that much about you?

That is the problem faced by Ensign Andrew Dahl of the Universal Union flagship Intrepid. It is the 25th century, and things couldn’t be better. He has a chance to see new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go… Well, you know the rest. Dahl is at the frontier of science and exploration, and is determined to make the most of it.

If he survives.

Alone among the ships of the UU, the Intrepid loses crew at an alarming rate. Dahl soon discovers a fact that has been known for years by those crew members who are bright enough to spot the pattern: people who go on away missions with the command staff will, almost inevitably, die. Toxic gasses, killer machines, Borgovian land worms – these are just a tiny sampling of dangers that have done in ensigns and miscellaneous crew for years, and no one seems to know why. All they can do is make sure they’re not in the room when the Captain comes in, looking for someone who’ll pop down to a planet’s surface to find out why that mining colony hasn’t reported in recently.

Nope, he’s going to die too.

Dahl, of course, just can’t let himself and his friends die, so he begins digging into the true nature of their lives on the starship Intrepid. What he discovers is a truth almost too mad to be believed: their lives are not their own. A greater power is directing events on the Intrepid, dictating who lives and who dies, and that greater power doesn’t seem to be very good at what it does. So Dahl and his friends have to bet everything on the power of the Narrative, meet their makers and try to find a way to secure their freedom. Or, failing that, a way to see to it that their lives have more meaning than they had before.

As always with John Scalzi, I recommend picking this up. It’s a very fast read – I finished it in under a day – and it has the tight combination of humor, thoughtfulness, and genuine emotion that I have come to expect from his work. From a premise that is incredibly simple – “The crew of a starship realize they’re doomed if they go on away missions and try to change their fate” – he’s built up a multi-layered exploration into the meaning of life and death. The universe he’s given to us is one where people are denied the ability to give meaning to their own lives, and have to rely on an unseen force to do it for them. The fight, then, is to acquire that ability to decide. To gain agency, as it were. They want to be able to control their own existence so badly that they risk their existence entirely.

The corollary, then, is very simple: what are you doing with your life? We, the readers, have that agency. We can make decisions for our own lives and our own purposes. If we succeed or fail, we can do so knowing that we made those successes or failures possible. [1] In a sense, we don’t know how good we have it, something that is brought up in the second of three codas to the main novel. We can choose. We can create meaning in our lives without hoping that some higher power will do it for us. So why don’t we?

For a book that presents itself as a quick, fun read, there are certainly layers upon layers of meaning in it that could be a lot of fun to explore. The only complaint, really, is that it wasn’t long enough. And I don’t mean that he skipped essential scenes, or that he should have opted for a Tolkien/Jordan/Martin-esque style of describing every goddamn thing that showed up on the page, but there were points where I just wanted him to slow down a bit and let us appreciate the moments for what they were. There’s a scene in chapter 21, for example, that should be really emotional and meaningful, but it’s almost entirely dialogue. Good dialogue, yes, but I wanted to linger over it a bit, and that’s true for a lot of scenes in the book. Scalzi writes wonderful banter, and makes his characters sound real, but I want to see things as well as hear them.

Also, to be honest, I expected the last page to just be a picture of Scalzi at his computer, turning to the camera and winking. It would have been hilariously meta, but I guess he’s not as gimmicky as that.

Buy the book and enjoy it. If you’re a fan of Star Trek – which was, given the title, a huge inspiration for the story – you’ll no doubt appreciate it more than most. Even if you haven’t watched every episode of the original series, though, the Red Shirt character is one that has permeated all levels of fiction, and has died many times in order to advance the plots that you love so well. He even has one poor guy who’s not only a Red Shirt, but nearly at the end of his tour and about to get married. There was no way he’d survive. Take some time out for these poor, expendable bastards and give them a chance to shine.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with the song that Jonathan Coulton wrote for the book. Quiet, poignant, and touching. But also really funny.

—-
“The [Borgovian Land Worms] were in a frenzy. Somebody was now likely to die. It was likely to be ensign Davis.”
– from Redshirts by John Scalzi
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[1] There are plenty of external, uncontrollable factors, of course, which can all be lumped together under the term “luck,” but you know what I mean.

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Filed under existentialism, humor, John Scalzi, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, space travel, story

Review 150: Otherland 3 – Mountain of Black Glass

Otherland 3: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

This is easily my favorite book in the series, short though the series may be.

Otherland is a strange story, really – it’s like a hybrid science fiction/fantasy tale in that you can easily forget which genre you’re in. It’s clearly science fiction, in that the whole thing is taking place in a massive computer simulation, but on the other hand, it owes a lot to fantasy – especially the world-crossing aspects of it.

Our Otherland heroes have been trapped there for some time now, running through the system with very little understanding of where they are or where they’re going. The whole thing is run by a cabal of the world’s richest men and women in an attempt to foil Death itself, and was built as their eternal playground. Thus, there are countless worlds to choose from. There are places where you can re-live entire historical epochs, where you can fly in rivers of air or play in a cartoon kitchen. You can be a cowboy in the Old West or a Knight of the Round Table or anything that your mind can conceive – and your programmers can work out.

Not every virtual god is a good one, of course.

The complexity of this system is such that it is indistinguishable from real life. It is multi-sensory, so you get the full experience of actually being there, with none of the obvious CGI cues that we’ve come to expect from the virtual world. What’s more, the owners of the system have nearly godlike power within it. They plan to not only live forever, but have absolute power while doing so.

Two of these simworlds – one original, one derivative – are the reasons why this is my favorite book of the series. The original simworld (not based on any well-known work or historical event) is the House. After being betrayed by the assassin Dread, who has been masquerading as one of their number, Renie, !Xabbu, Martine, Florimel, T4b and Emily are stuck in a kind of… unfinished world. It’s a place where the programming hasn’t really been settled, and where the unreality of the whole thing can be deadly.

They manage to escape by following Dread to a new simulation – a great House that is, in itself, a world. It goes on as far as anyone knows, but is home to countless tribes and nations. Our heroes meet runaway lovers – a cutlery apprentice and a girl from the linen cabinets. They are aided by the Library monks, whose expertise encompasses everything from House history to the minute details of plasterwork. They are nearly killed by attic bandits and hunted by nomadic bands of steeplejacks.

You get them abducted by aliens, of course.

Aside from imbuing the House with a deep sense of history and complexity, Williams raises an important point that anyone who has ever played “The Sims” can recognize: what do you do when you start to empathize with a computer-generated being?

During their time in the House, they meet people who seem to be genuinely good, perceptive, interesting people, qualities that we don’t know how to confidently imbue in real humans, much less coded simulacra. The residents of the House have passions and dreams, they love and hate just as “real” people do. They can’t be written off as “just code,” because they don’t act that way. They help and hinder our heroes just as people out in Real Life might.

I don't know the answer, but this young... man seems interested in finding out.

This brings up an interesting ethical problem: while they can’t be sure what their ultimate goal will be, our heroes are pretty sure that the system will eventually have to be destroyed – as far as they know, it is the Otherland system that is keeping them trapped, and their loved ones in comas. Will doing this be, in essence, genocide? By shutting down the Otherland network to save the children in comas, and to save themselves, will they be condemning thousands – perhaps millions – of coded “people” to extinction? Are these “people” really people? After all, the Grail Brotherhood was planning to become immortal code themselves – would they be any less alive than their meat incarnations?

While this is not a problem that we have to grapple with yet, it’s one that may come up eventually. Tad Williams has done a very nice job in this series of predicting technological advancement, so he may have seen forward on this one, too.

The other simworld that makes this my favorite book is a derivative one. This means that it is based on an extant work, much like the Alice in Wonderland world that Paul Jonas goes to, or the bizarre cartoon kitchen from which Orlando and Fredericks had to escape. This world is one of the oldest stories there is, and was the first simworld to be created when the construction of the Otherworld began.

It is The Iliad.

Somehow, I don't have a Sim of Achilles. (Art by NegativeFeedback on DeviantArt)

I’ve read the original poem a few times, and I’m impressed with it every time. It’s a massive story, full of heroes and villains, bravery and treachery, and death. Lots and lots of death. It’s an epic poem, and it deserves the title, as it pits nations, men, and gods against each other in what is ultimately a tragic and terrible ten year war. For Tad Williams to use this as the climax for a novel is nothing short of audacious, but he pulls it off wonderfully.

Not only does he manage to keep hold of the terrible horror of war that Homer put throughout his poem, Williams integrates his characters into the story, putting them in the roles of key figures such as Achilles, Patroclus, Cassandra and Odysseus. They all want to get into Troy so they can find their way to the Black Mountain, but to do so they must go through the war that has served as the archetype for human conflict for the last few millennia. Their choices, freely made, reflect the choices of the characters they inhabit, which are themselves models for heroes of fiction throughout literary history.

In one wonderful scene, Sam Fredericks, who is inhabiting the character of Patroclus, is wondering what to do about her sick friend, Orlando Gardiner, AKA Achilles. He cannot fight, but the Argives need him, and throughout their long friendship as online gamers, it was always Orlando who was the hero. Sam was the sidekick, the buddy, but when you made the movie poster, Orlando’s character would always be in the middle of the shot.

But much like another Sam in another story, Fredericks knows that heroism isn’t just muscles and swords and snappy dialogue. It’s about doing what has to be done, even if you don’t want to do it. Nearly crippled by progeria, a debilitating childhood illness, Orlando has nonetheless continued to fight on in the Otherland. Now the hero cannot fight, and Sam realizes it’s the sidekick who has to pick up the burden. Thus, Sam unknowingly fulfills the destiny of the character she is portraying, puts on the shining armor of Achilles, and goes out to inspire the Argives to fight so that she and her friends might live.

Chocolate! It's full of chocolate!

The entire Troy sequence is amazing, and every time I read this book, I feel compelled to read The Iliad again.

But the series doesn’t end there, of course. Suffice it to say we hit a major climax by the end of this book. People are in danger, secrets are revealed, battles are fought… and one of our brave heroes makes the Ultimate Sacrifice. We are brought to the heart of the operating system, the Black Mountain which entombs the Other. The Grail Brotherhood sets their immortality sequence in motion, and the amoral killer Dread makes his bid for virtual godhood. Setting us up for the final book, we are left with our heroes in disarray – divided and lost, dropped into an entirely new environment that is beyond their understanding and forced to cooperate with their gravest enemies for their survival.

You may look at this book and think, “Holy cow. 924 pages. There is no way I’m reading 924 pages.” But you will, and it’ll go a lot faster than you think. Williams has done a great job of making a multi-layered, fast-paced story that you can enjoy on many levels. You can revel in the action and the mystery, you can ponder deep philosophical problems, or you can comb through the great attention to detail and see how much work he must have done to get the Trojan War sequence right.

Hats off to you, Tad Williams.

—————————————————
“Jesus Mercy. There have to be easier ways than this to save the world.”
– Renie Sulaweyo, Otherland: Mountain of Black Glass
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
Mountain of Black Glass on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, existentialism, fantasy, friendship, Homer, internet, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, story, Tad Williams, virtual reality, world-crossing

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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Filed under adventure, children, corporations, culture, existentialism, family, fantasy, futurism, gender roles, identity, internet, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, Tad Williams, technology, transhumanism, virtual reality, world-crossing

Review 120: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Well, here we are. After a long road – longer for some of us than for others – we have finally reached the end of The Dark Tower series. For some of us, it’s been twenty years in coming, so if you’ve only started reading this series recently, count yourself lucky. You don’t know how we waited for this book, the book wherein Roland would finally attain his goal, and we would see if all the sacrifices he made were worth it.

Were they? Kind of.

Art by Eredel on DeviantArt

I’ll get into more detail later, after I dutifully put up the “Here Be Spoilers” sign, but this is the book where everything gets resolved, and our heroes are given their reward for the hard work they have done. The bad guy is beaten, the world is saved, and all is well. Although “well” is a very relative term in this sense, and while the bad guy is beaten, it’s not very satisfying, and the reward that many of our heroes get isn’t necessarily the reward they would have chosen.

If I sound like I’m dancing around the story, that’s because I am. I have an aversion to spoiling books in these reviews, mainly because I know how satisfying it is to get into a good book and discover things. To see old characters appear from the past, and to witness the heroism of the characters we have come to love. To look at the journey they take and see their relentless pursuit rewarded. At the same time, I don’t want your experience poisoned by knowing the drawbacks to a book – the soft spots in the plot, the characterization problems, the disappointments and the heartbreaks. [1]

Art by lilbenji25 on DeviantArt

This book contains all of these, and if I avoid talking about them, then this review will be awfully short. So, Constant Reader, I tell you this: you can stop here. You can click away to another page, perhaps to Amazon to buy the book and read it yourself (I recommend the Kindle edition if you can – I have the hardcover and it is quite the doorstop), perhaps to put off the reading of the book for a while longer. You don’t have to learn things that will taint the journey of discovery that is reading , and you can live on with a vision in your head of how The Dark Towerseries should end, instead of how it actually does.

Would you stay, then? Very well. After this point, there is no turning back. What is learned, as they say, cannot be unlearned.

This is not the book I wanted. It is unbalanced, hard to get through, and disappointing in many ways. There are also some beautiful moments, and some interesting ideas which, upon post-reading reflection, make the whole story more meaningful. But my overall feeling was one of great disappointment. Let’s start from afar, shall we?

Art by DiosBoss on DeviantArt

The structure of this book is rather lopsided. The most climactic event in the book, the battle of Algul Siento, is quite exciting and fun in that it is what we readers expect from a climax – gunfire and death and the saving of worlds. By freeing the Breakers from their work on the Beams, Roland and his ka-tetdo indeed save the macroverse from complete dissolution. They have literally saved the world and, as we learn later, have completely thwarted the evil designs of the Crimson King. The story could end there, the characters could go on their separate ways, and all would be well.

The problem is that this occurs in the first half of the book. It’s followed soon after by a minor climax – Roland and Jake saving Stephen King from certain death by drunk driver – but even that is done a little more than halfway through the book. Stephen King is safe, the New York Rose is safe, and we find out later that not only are the last two Beams intact, they are regenerating and will probably regenerate the other four. Reality has been saved.

But the story goes on, because saving reality was never Roland’s goal. It was only, in the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons, a side quest. There’s a larger quest to be resolved.

This wouldn’t be so bad if there were an even bigger climax waiting for us at the end, but there isn’t, and this is where I feel kind of betrayed. When Roland gets to the Dark Tower, we know he will have to face the Crimson King, who has been held up as the incarnation of death, evil and chaos. He has been the main antagonist throughout this whole series. His reach is long, his power vast, and his hate for Roland of Gilead is as focused as a laser and as hot as the sun. He is as close to the Devil as we can get.

Art by morganagod on DeviantArt

So, when Roland finally makes it to Can’-Ka no Rey, the great field of roses within which the Dark Tower stands, who do we see? A “satanic Santa Claus” who throws explosives from the only balcony of the Tower he’s been able to reach. He’s generically ugly, screams like a madman, and talks in villain cliches – “GUNSLINGER! NOW YOU DIE!” or “YOU DON’T DARE MOCK ME! YOU DON’T DARE! EEEEEEEE!” or “EEEEEEEE! EEEEEE! STOP! IT BURNS!” On top of all that, the Crimson King is finally defeated not by Roland’s guns or some great battle on the physical, intellectual or spiritual plains, but by a guy with a sketchpad. He is simply erased from afar. And thus ends the reign of what was supposed to be the greatest horror of all worlds.

What’s more, their meeting at the Tower was not acually the defeat of the Crimson King – he conceded defeat way back during Wolves of the Calla. We find out that, with the defeat of the Wolves, the King foresaw the end of the Breakers and thus his plan to unmake creation. So, he broke his Wizard’s Glasses, killed nearly everyone in his castle. killed himself by – for reasons I still don’t understand – swallowing a sharpened spoon, and then, undead (which I also don’t understand), rode off for the Tower.

Even then, though, he couldn’t win. In order to enter the Tower he needed either Roland’s guns or Mordred’s birthmark, neither of which he had. So he climbed up into one of the Tower balconies with all the weapons he could carry and just waited. If Roland hadn’t come to the Tower, he would have waited there forever and never harmed anyone again. By bringing his guns, Roland raises the possibility that the Crimson King could still triumph. So, by continuing his quest, Roland endangers all existence.

Art by Michael Whelan

As much as I hate to call out authors on what they “should have” done, I feel like I have to here. A hero is only as good as his villain, and the Crimson King, in the end, turns out to be a pretty crappy one. I wish King had made their meeting worthy of the image he had built up. The same goes for one of our favorite characters, Randall Flagg (or whatever name he chooses to use). He has floated through this series and others like a cancer, bringing nothing but death and pain with him. He’s a charismatic madman who revels in chaos and is probably one of the most enjoyable characters King has created. So how does he die? He gets killed by Mordred, the bastard son of Roland and the Crimson King, of Susannah and Mia. He gets killed and eaten without much of a fight. I think a lot of fans would agree that Flagg deserved better.

And while we’re on the topic – Mordred.

One of my measurements of good characterization is a question: If this character did not exist, could the story have ended the way it did? With Jake and Father Callahan, Susannah and Eddie, with Oy and Flagg and Cuthbert and Susan and Cort, the answer is, of course, No. Each of those characters contributed something vital to the story, something that no other character could have done. To reach the same end without one of those characters would have meant a vastly different story.

Art by Michael Whelan

The same cannot be said of Mordred. Of the people he kills, only two matter to us: Flagg and Oy. Flagg should have been the penultimate End Boss, the final challenge for Roland before reaching the Tower and the Crimson King. And there are many ways to kill a Billy-Bumbler – I think King could have thought of one that gave Oy the same honorable and heartbreaking death that he got trying to save Roland from Mordred. Other than that, Mordred had no impact on the story at all. He just followed Roland, Susannah and Oy, shivering and whining and feeling sorry for himself. He kept telling us that he was meant for great things, but never showed even the slightest hint of that potential. He follows Roland like Gollum follows Frodo, but at least Gollum turned out to be important.

The one thing we do get from Mordred is a frustrating bit of knowledge – that the Crimson King and Roland are both descended from the mythical king Arthur Eld. In that way, their battle is between cousins, and Mordred represents a unification of two bloodlines – demon and human. If their conflict had been framed in that context, it could have been so much more interesting when we finally got to the end.

Speaking of the end. We, like Roland, didn’t know what to expect when we finally got into the Dark Tower. And I don’t think anyone expected that the series would loop around to the beginning again, dumping Roland back in the Mohaine Desert to follow the Man in Black once more, unaware that he had already done so so many times before. It was an unsatisfying ending at first, but upon reflection, it does work, and there are two ways to look at it.

The first is that Roland is being taught a lesson, one which he still has not learned. He’s being taught to value life, to reset his priorities. From his youth, he was so focused on the Tower that he let all else fall aside – his friends, the girl he loved, and the sacred artifacts of his forefathers. He brought death with him, and passed it on to all whom he loved, and ended his quest as alone as he began it. And so, despite saving the multiverse, Roland failed his true quest – to learn how to love others and share who he was with them – and had to be sent back to start again. In appreciation of his effort, however, he was granted a change: the horn of Eld, which he had previously neglected on the field of the last battle of civilization. Perhaps it will make a difference.

The other way to look at this ending is a more metafictional one, something that Stephen King himself finds distasteful. Like it or not, though, one of the overriding themes of this series is the impact that fiction has on reality, and vice versa. To readers, a character might be more real than real people. We learn lessons from them, we have kind or unkind memories of them, and in many ways, our fictional characters possess a special reality. To a writer, this is even more true. Ask any writer and they will tell you about how their characters talk to them, sometimes appear in front of them, or even take over their bodies for a little while. A writer will discover things about a character that she never planned, as if the character himself were revealing them. The Dark Tower relies on this kind of ur-reality of fiction, up to and including fictional characters saving the life of their own writer.

So, by connecting the end of the last book with the beginning of the first, perhaps King is implicating us, the Constant Readers, in Roland’s suffering. Roland cannot rest as long as there are readers reading him, and we are all guilty of making him go through it again and again. While King may have created Roland and his quest, we propagate it, and every new reader ensures that it will never, ever end. [2]

Art by Chesheyre on DeviantArt

In the end, we have a series that started off strong, and then kind of careened to an unsatisfying end. Having been written intermittently over the course of thirty years, I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising. Ideas which seemed like good ones at the time served only to cause trouble later down the road, and loose ends that needed to be tied up took up far more time than they should have. Perhaps with a clearer vision of the journey at the beginning, King could have held it together better. And perhaps without his brush with death in 1999, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to get the last three volumes out as soon as he could.

It does, however, gift us with some wonderful characters, a rich and brilliant world, and a fictional cosmology that holds together all the worlds that King has created thus far. It’s an examination of the importance of fiction in our lives, and the way that stories can reach out and touch so many more people than the storyteller ever intends. If you are a fan of Stephen King, and you haven’t read this series yet, then you should. For all that the last couple of books disappoint, there is still much good to be found in the whole series, and the first five are generally really well done.

Art by Deviata on DeviantArt

There is more to read, if you’re interested. King’s assistant, Robin Furth, has put together an excellent Concordance, detailing pretty much everything you want to know about the series – characters, places, history, language and concepts. She has also written a series of graphic novels for Marvel Comics which detail Roland’s youth, starting with the events told in Wizard and Glass and going up to the terrible battle of Jericho Hill. So if the original series leaves you wanting more, there’s certainly more to be had.

That’s it, then. Long days and pleasant nights to you all.

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“Even when you were in the shadow of death there were lessons to be learned.”
– Jake (narration), The Dark Tower
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[1] To be fair – this book was published back in 2004. If you haven’t read it by now, I doubt you’re really going to be chuffed by some spoilers, and you have no one to blame but yourself if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

[2] A third option is suggested by his short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French” from Everything’s Eventual, wherein a woman riding with her husband in a car on vacation keeps re-living a terrible accident. It is implied that she is dead, and that hell is the eternal repetition of one’s mistakes. It is possible that Roland is dead, and that this series is his Hell.

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Review 116: Song of Susannah

Song of Susannah by Stephen King

I think that every long series has to eventually include a book like Song of Susannah. It’s the weak book, the one that you have to have, but would rather you didn’t. The one that pretty much exists to get you from Point A to Point B, which resolves some earlier issues and sets up some later conflicts, but which – by itself – isn’t nearly as good or as much fun to read as the books that either preceded or followed it. I call it a “bridge book,” and I suspect that they are somewhat inevitable.

But before getting into all the heady analysis ‘n stuff, let’s see what this book is about.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

Directly following the end of Wolves of the Calla, our ka-tet is split. Susannah, possessed by that strange spirit who calls herself Mia, has taken the supremely powerful Black Thirteen and used it to open a magic door to New York. It is there that she hopes to have her child and have the raising of it, before it grows up to destroy the world. Everyone else, of course, is concerned for her safety, but there is one other thing that needs to be done – the vacant lot in Manhattan and the rose that grows there must be protected. This rose represents one of the two Beams that remain to hold up the Dark Tower (and thus all of existence), so its safety is paramount.

The other Beam just happens to be Stephen King himself. But we’ll get to that….

Roland’s party splits up – Roland and Eddie go to rural Maine to find Calvin Tower and secure proper ownership of the vacant lot. Jake, Oy, and Father Callahan follow hot on Susannah’s heels to New York City to try and save her from the horrible death that no doubt awaits her there. Horrible death awaits all of them, truth be told, but one does what one must in pursuit of the Tower.

Jake, Oy and Callahan’s story is the far more straightforward one. They go to New York and follow Susannah/Mia’s psychic trail to Black Thirteen, which they dispose of in a manner that should bring a grim smile to all 21st-century Americans. They then go on to the Dixie Pig, a restaurant-slash-portal to a dimension of hell and pain, where they expect to be gunned down the moment they go through the doors. Pretty cut and dried, really.

Roland and Eddie, however, have the much more mind-bending task of meeting their maker. Literally.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

As a side-quest to securing legal possession of the vacant lot, they learn that King lives nearby and decide to pop in and pay him a visit. This kind of freaks King out, but rightfully so. To him, Roland is a character who haunted his mind, and a few pages of a manuscript that has languished in storage for years. King had given up on The Dark Tower, and never expected to pick it up again. Until, of course, its main character showed up, insisting that his story be finished.

To me, this was the most interesting conceit of the entire series. The idea of characters breaking through the fourth wall and entering “the real world” is nothing new, nor is having them ask some rather pointed questions of their creators. But it’s another thing for those characters to not only meet their creator, but to do so before he’s actually written about them up to the point where they’re meeting him.

(re-reads that last sentence)

Right.

In short, not only is King the embodiment of one of the last Beams holding up the Dark Tower, he is also an avatar of Gan, the primal force of order and righteousness in the universe. Through King, and the story of Roland and his ka-tet, Gan is trying to keep the Tower up against the forces of Discordia, as embodied by another King, the Crimson King. These two Kings – one unknowing, the other knowing – are locked in a fight to the death, with the universe at stake.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

Throughout all of this, Susannah is having her own troubles in New York. Mia has gained control of her body – to the point where she is able to manifest the legs that Susannah lost long ago – and is determined to have her child. She has an appointment to keep with the agents of the Crimson King, and she believes that she will finally achieve that holy state for which she had gladly given up her immortality – motherhood. Susannah, on the other hand, knows that whatever is brewing in Mia’s belly is a threat to Roland, and will do whatever she can to stop the birth, or at least turn Mia against her chosen destiny.

Depending on the kinds of books you like reading, Song of Susannah will either be tolerably good or downright unpleasant, and this is mainly due to its rather fractured structure. The three plot threads don’t intersect directly once everyone leaves the Calla, and don’t have any kind of resolution once you get to the last page of the book. As a friend of mine put it, “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

The other volumes, like most standard-issue novels, has a resolution at the end. You can close the book and be able to tell people, “The characters achieved this, and it was fairly conclusive and interesting.” Of course, a series always has a greater conflict – the series-level conflict – that won’t be resolved until the last volume, but each individual book needs to have its own setup, conflict and resolution, with enough loose ends to get us into the next book.

Song of Susannah doesn’t really do this. The matter of the vacant lot is a fairly simple legal matter, which is not only easily resolved but also kind of dull, once you compare it to everything that has gone before. The problem of Black Thirteen is done away with pretty easily as well, which doesn’t really befit an artifact that we have been told possesses immense evil power. And while Susannah doesn’t prevent Mia from making her appointment at the Dixie Pig, she does manage to plant the seeds of doubt in the woman’s mind.

Art by Klaimko

In short, what is achieved in this book is not up to the level of what we have come to expect. The dramatic escape from the decaying city of Lud, the horrible tragedy of Roland and Susan in the Mejis, the valiant stand against the Wolves – all of these are proper climaxes and proper resolutions. The sole purpose of this volume is to bridge the gap between Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower, and the only reason it ended where it did was because, well, you have to end it somewhere.

Having said all that, I enjoyed reading this book, and tore through it at record speed. I thought Susannah’s chipping away at Mia’s confidence was well-handled and made a lot of sense. Jake, Oy and Callahan preparing for their Last Stand and their likely deaths was great, and the whole meta-fictional issue of characters meeting with their creators is just the kind of thing that really digs into my brain and gets it going. And while the book may have been less carefully focused than the other editions of the series, it must be remembered that I am a long-time veteran of the Wheel of Time series, which has so many sub-plots, side-plots, secondary plots, divided parties, prophecies, histories, secrets, societies, ancient enmities, mythical forces, Artifacts of Unimaginable Power, questionable plot elements and unanswered questions that it makes The Dark Tower look like one of Aesop’s fables.

So I do have an unfair advantage.

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“I don’t think he needs to be immortal. I think all he needs to do is to write the right story. Because some stories do live forever.”
– Roland (speaking of Stephen King), Song of Susannah
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Review 111 – Wolves of the Calla

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Okay, before we get into this book, let me take a little survey: Have you ever seen The Seven Samurai? How about The Magnificent Seven?

The Three Amigos? GalaxyQuest?

If you’ve seen these movies, and any number of stories like them, then you know the basic outline of this book. Say it along with me now….

'We deal in lead, friend.' - Vin

Calla Bryn Sturgis, a small farming village on the far end of the world, is notable for a few things. Its rice, its peaceful people, and its abundance of twins. The farmers of Calla Bryn Sturgis want nothing more than to live their lives in peace, but their idyllic existence is threatened by invaders from the east.

They come from the evil town of Thunderclap, once a generation – the Wolves. Armored and cloaked in green, riding identical deathless gray steeds and armed with terrible weapons, the Wolves come to Calla Bryn Strugis to steal one child from every set of twins. They take them to their dark city, and when the children come back, they come back as damaged goods. “Roont,” the Calla-folk call them, and it’s an apt word for they are ruined indeed. Over the years, these children, whose minds have lost all of their intelligence and humanity, grow into pain-wracked giants, and then die horrible deaths years before their time.

No one knows why the Wolves come, and no one has ever even considered trying to stop them. Until now.

Word has come that Roland and his ka-tet – Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy – are in the area, and if anyone can stop the Wolves, it would be Gunslingers. If the people of Calla Bryn Sturgis can convince them to help, and are willing to fight alongside them, then they have a chance to repel the Wolves once and for all.

If only it were that simple.

'Once more, we have survived.' - Kambei Shimada

Interlaced with this this pretty straightforward tale is, of course, the larger story of the quest for the Dark Tower and the fight against those for whom the Wolves are merely agents. A new warrior in this fight is Father Donald Callahan, whom we last met way back in ‘Salem’s Lot as a broken and ruined priest, damned by a vampire king and sent out into the world to live or die as he pleased. Through his damnation, Callahan has found himself able to see things he shouldn’t be able to see, including the various classes of vampires and the Low Men – agents of the Crimson King who serve His interests in the various levels of the Tower. Callahan discovers a knack for traveling through the Americas along secret highways. In his ramblings from coast to coast, looking for peace – or death – he slips from one version of America to another, never knowing how or why.

In the end, he brings himself to the attention of forces far greater than himself. It leads to his death and reappearance in Roland’s world, but more importantly it puts him in possession of an object of great power and even greater peril – Black Thirteen, an inky sphere that could be the black eye of the Crimson King himself, and which has the power to send its bearer through a door to any point in space or time.

Roland and the others are going to need that door, too. While they’re busy planning their battle against the Wolves in Calla Bryn Sturgis, they have another fight to win, in another world. In New York of 1977, there is a vacant lot, and in this lot is a rose. The rose must be protected at all costs, for it is the other end of the Tower – one axis upon which all the worlds turn. This lot is in great peril, and it is imperative that our heroes keep it safe. By whatever means necessary.

'Oh GREAT!!! REAL bullets!!!' - Lucky Day

It’s a really good tale, and one that is actually better than I remember it being. The first volume after King’s near-fatal accident, it’s all put together very neatly, while getting us set up for events to come, even if some of them aren’t entirely clear, or seem a little random at first glimpse. For example, Roland discovers that he’s beset by the Dread Foe Arthritis. As it is now, it’s making him kind of achy, but should it spread to his precious shooting hand, then it’s all over for him. Why King decided to afflict Roland with something as mundane as arthritis isn’t entirely clear (although to be fair, Roland is technically over a thousand years old and could be considered due for a few of the ravages of old age).

Perhaps it is a sign of Roland’s encroaching humanity. In The Gunslinger, mention is made of his ability to detach himself from his body somewhat so as not to feel thirst. In that book, he is largely mechanical, only showing any kind of real emotion when he finally faces the Man in Black. Over the course of the series, Roland has become more tuned into what it means to be a person and to feel, y’know, feelings and things. This gives him the bond with his ka-tet that he needs, but it also comes with a price. Perhaps the arthritis is the first price he must pay for allowing himself to feel.

Mention must also be made here of poor, beleaguered Susannah. I mean Detta. Odetta. No, wait – Mia.

'Never give up, never surrender!' - Jason Nesmith

Out of the seething cauldron that is this poor woman’s mind, a new personality has emerged. Mia, Daughter of None is still something of a mystery to us. As far as we know, she has only one ambition – to protect the child growing in her belly. This child was not fathered by Eddie Dean, Susannah’s beloved husband, but by the cold and unnatural demon that Susannah held at bay while the two men pulled Jake from his world to theirs. Growing within her now is something horrible, something that Mia was born to protect, even at the expense of the body she inhabits. Right now, that’s all that she is, and her greater purpose is yet to be revealed.

King does a pretty good job of juggling the various plot lines in this book, making sure that we aren’t left hanging for too long on any of them. Of course, they feed into each other as well – Father Callahan’s tale interweaves itself with the story of New York in ’77, and its ultimate conclusion allows the plot to progress through this book and into the next. I actually enjoyed Callahan’s story a great deal, and thought it would have made for a wonderful stand-alone short story. Not a novel, as there’s a whole lot of “I walked around for a few years and did manual labor” in there, but the story that he told to Roland and the others would have stood on its own quite nicely. He’s an interesting, complex character, and I look forward to seeing what awful thing happens to him next.

What’s more, there’s a wonderful meta-fictional element to this book as well, and it introduces that idea of a story that is aware of itself being a story. For example, in the beginning of the book, Eddie notices that time has started up again. While it is true that time, like everything else in this world, is unreliable, I found it interesting that he should make mention of it at that point, right when their story starts up again after a break (from our point of view) of six years. From the characters’ points of view, on the other hand, the time between books is indeterminate, but Eddie notices that they don’t seem to really do anything in that intervening time. It made me wonder about what happens to fictional characters when they’re not being written about, a train of thought for which I am not adequately medicated.

Think about it....

More importantly, the impact of real-world fiction becomes painfully obvious in this book. For one, Stephen King is established as an as-yet-unseen character, which comes right on the heels of a very serious existential crisis for Father Callahan. The Wolves themselves are explicitly noted to be rip-offs – er, homages to fictions ranging from Marvel Comics to Harry Potter. Whatever else Roland’s world is, it has a very close connection with the fiction of our world, and that connection may offer important clues as to the true nature of their quest.

So, what purpose does this book serve in the greater series? Well, there are many out there who see Roland’s quest as being not so much for the Dark Tower as for redemption. After the loss of his love, his friends, his family and his homeland, Roland made himself into something that was only technically human. Over these books, he has had to learn how to re-connect, first with individuals, then as a small group, and now with a community. In this book, Roland has to come to grips with Calla Bryn Sturgis not just as a hired gun but as their leader, if only temporarily. He has to see himself as part of a greater whole, thus becoming – as I mentioned above – more human. Each book forces him to be more and more connected with those around him. The only question is if he can hold on to this new humanity before his quest for the Tower destroys him.

All in all, a good read, which moves ever-so-smoothly into the next book….

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“First come smiles, then comes lies. Last is gunfire.”
– Roland, Wolves of the Calla
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Review 05: The Princess Bride


The Princess Bride by William Goldman

If you haven’t read this book, then all I can tell you is to go out, get it, and read it. Now. Don’t bother with the rest of this review, you’ll thank me later. It has:

Fencing.
Fighting.
Torture.
Poison.
True Love.
Hate.
Revenge.
Giants.
Hunters.
Good men.
Bad men.
Beautifulest ladies.
Snakes.
Spiders.
Beasts of all natures and descriptions.
Pain.
Death.
Brave men.
Coward men.
Strongest men.
Chases.
Escapes.
Lies.
Truths.
Passion.
Miracles.

For a start.

It’s one of the greatest love/action/revenge stories ever abridged by a modern author. Well, it seems that Mr. Goldman felt that the original story, as written by the immortal S. Morganstern, was a little too dry for public consumption, as well as damaging to treasured childhood memories, so he went through it and put together this “good parts” version, and the world is a better place for it. [1]

Of course, the big gag is that there never was an original version of the book. There never was an S. Morganstern, the greatest of the Florinese writers. Goldman’s father may have read books to him as a child, but he never read this book to him. The entire thing is a fiction, beginning to end, but Goldman sells it really well. He tells the tale of how he blossomed as a boy – going from being a sports-obsessed disappointment to a ravenous bookworm, all thanks to this book. He talks about trying to give the same gift to his son, who manages to make it through one chapter before giving up in exhaustion. He talks about the great shock of discovering that his father had done something utterly brilliant – he had skipped the dull bits and left the exciting parts intact.

Knowing that all of this is false certainly doesn’t detract from the story. It’s a story about a story, and the effect that a story can have on a young mind. Or any mind, for that matter. It’s about how stories can teach us lessons that only later we understand – such as how life is not fair – and how stories can change us in ways that we never expected. It’s about our relationship with fiction, and with the world around us. In his fictional childhood, Goldman learned more about the world from the process of watching the story unfold than he did from the story itself. And so this book is a story about stories. The actual story is just bonus.

Which brings me, of course, to the film. Let me say that this is one of the very, very few instances where I will put the movie up on par with the book. 99.9999 repeating percent of the time, the book is better than the movie. This is one instance where they are equal in nearly every measure. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with the fact that Goldman wrote the screenplay for the film, so not only is the story intact, but a great deal of the dialogue is almost verbatim from the book. It was gold in print and gold on the screen. The hardest part about reading the book is trying not to hear Andre the Giant, Christopher Guest, Robin Wright and all the other fine actors and actresses in your head as you read.

So, whether you read the book or see the movie, you’re in for a treat. And as you read, just remember the books that molded you into who you are today. Think about the stories that taught you life’s lessons before life got around to doing it. Think about them and appreciate them, and remember that every book is a lesson, one way or another….

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“I’m so stupid. Inigo has not lost to the man in black, he has defeated him. And to prove it he has put on all the man in black’s clothes and masks and hoods and boots and gained eighty pounds.”
– Fezzik, The Princess Bride
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[1] This is a fun type of meta-fiction, writers writing autobiographically about writing about books that never existed. I find it interesting that The Princess Bride can sit comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with House of Leaves.

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