Category Archives: philosophy

Books about philosophy.

Review 171: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

As I was reading this book, a student saw me reading it and asked what it was about, I had to think for a few moments before answering.

“It’s about terrible people in a terrible place, doing terrible things to each other,” I said. And that really does just about sum it up.

The story that McCarthy tells is a complete destruction of the mythology of the Old West that Americans had come to know and love over the years. Some of the more modern Western films had begun to explore this territory when the book was published in 1985 – many of Clint Eastwood’s films spring to mind – creating a West where the “hero” is just the least bad person in the film. Even then, though, there are still undercurrents of the nobility of the cowboy, out to tame a savage land for the good of a civilization that will no longer need him when it’s done.

Next to these bounty hunters, Boba Fett is practically Gandhi.

This book features characters who are violent and vicious, thieves and murderers who will stop at nothing to get what they want. It starts with the nameless Kid, a young man who joins a group of bounty hunters riding the US-Mexico border in the years before the Civil War. They’re ostensibly looking for Apaches, bringing back scalps for gold, but they’re not especially picky. Any black head of hair ripped from the head of its owner will do, and if that means ravaging some small Mexican villages, then so be it.

The bounty hunters are led by Judge Holden, a man who gladly takes his place as the antithesis of everything that was supposed to be right and good about the old west. In both form and philosophy, Holden is barely human, and he only becomes less human as the book goes on. Insofar as the book has an antagonist, it is he.

He contrasts greatly to our ostensible protagonist, The Kid, in many ways. For one, the Judge has a name. For another, the Kid routinely disappears from the story for pages at a time, only to reappear to get to the next stage of the story. It’s actually very easy to forget that the Kid is in the book, until you see him again and think, “Oh yeah. Him.”

The Judge, on the other hand, is impossible to miss. He holds court out in the wilderness and expounds upon his philosophy of the world. He is huge and pale and clean, standing out amongst the filthy and starving band of killers that he’s assembled. Whenever he’s off-stage, you find yourself wondering when he’s going to show up again, and how much worse things will get when he does.

Kind of like this, only worse. Much, much worse.

Another image that McCarthy decides to destroy is that of the Native Americans as being honorable heroes, out to save their land from white invaders. Just as the cowboys of old were not all knights on horseback, the natives of old were not all noble savages who resorted to violence only as a last resort. The Apaches – and other native Americans in this book – are just as violent and bloodthirsty as their American and Mexican counterparts. Everyone, regardless of background, ultimately resorts to violence and savagery, throwing aside all morality in the name of either profit or survival, or simply the demonic glee of seeing things destroyed. No one comes out of this book looking good or ultimately redeemed. All are villains.

All of this made it something of a tough read for me. Not because of the scenes of horrifying violence – I can deal just fine with those – but because there was no one I wanted to like. I mean, I was fascinated by The Judge, but with that same kind of fascination that made me watch tsunami videos or that made people visit Ground Zero in New York City. It’s horror on a scale that we hope never to experience in our own lives, but we can’t look away.

Without someone to like, it was hard to care, and when it’s hard to care about a book, I find reasons not to read it. The writing was amazing, don’t get me wrong. McCarthy’s use of language was a joy to read, even if his refusal to use quotation marks got me a little annoyed from time to time, and I sometimes found myself reading passages out loud in the voice of Sam Elliott. In describing the landscapes of the West, McCarthy turns nature itself into a character, one that is every bit as violent, dangerous and hateful as the humans traversing it.

In addition, he does a very good job with the pacing of the book. The narration tends to grow as the book goes on, with sentences becoming longer and more elaborate as they unspool across the page, some taking a page or two to themselves, only to be stopped short by a single line or a rapid exchange. It’s hypnotic in places, and something I wish I knew how to do half as well.

All that aside, though, the only thing that really kept me going – other than the writing – was morbid curiosity. That, and the hope that I would figure out what McCarthy was trying to say in the book. What it all means.

So true, so true...

And that, friends and neighbors, is one of the pitfalls of being an English teacher. Always looking for meaning in things, for the bigger picture, the author’s Big Message to his readers. And as far as I can tell, McCarthy’s message is that man is a savage, terrifying animal, capable of cruelties that the average book-buying person cannot even begin to contemplate. The horrors that are depicted here are so brutally displayed and so viscerally described that we eventually become numb to them – which is a new horror by itself. There are things depicted in this story which should evoke nothing less than absolute moral condemnation, a rejection that such things should be possible to contemplate, much less carry out.

So when you find yourself glossing over these horrors as though they were mundane, it’s jarring. As you read, you want to keep a distance from the monsters populating the book, but isn’t ignoring their evils a kind of acceptance? And do you really want to be the kind of person who accepts these things? At the same time you’re trying to convince yourself that real people shouldn’t be capable of the acts you’re reading about, you end up accepting them.

Maybe that was what McCarthy wanted all along – for the readers to look at how we view violence and what our understanding of it really is. To force us to re-assess the limits of what we will tolerate and why. To make us look again at our heroes and villains and try to figure out exactly what the differences are, and whether we are really that far removed from them.

Or maybe McCarthy just really likes writing this kind of thing.

Either way, it’s a fascinating read, one that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the book.

————————–
“In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of a few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, neither ghost nor scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.”

Cormac McCarthy on Wikipedia
Blood Meridian on Wikipedia
The Cormac McCarthy Society
Blood Meridian on Amazon.com

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Filed under Cormac McCarthy, death, dystopia, fiction, good and evil, morality, murder, survival

Review 168: Eye of the World (Wheel of Time 01)

Wheel of Time 01: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Epic fantasy isn’t for everyone.

This kind of literature demands a lot from a reader, time and money foremost among them. More than that, though, it demands a great deal of trust, patience and tolerance for what is a very chancy genre to get into. Get into a new series and you run the risk of great disappointment. The characters you loved in the first book become stale and boring by the third. The world that was so interesting on a small scale doesn’t hold together on a large one. The cliches begin to grate on you – the Chosen One, the Monsters Too Horrible to Behold, the prophecies and Adversaries and lost treasures that may just save us all. And the plot holes are sometimes big enough to drive a whole fist of Trollocs through.

All this being said, there were never any midnight release lines for WoT. At least none that I knew about...

I’ve stuck with Wheel of Timesince the beginning because I think it’s a really good story. I like the world that Robert Jordan created, and the characters he gave to us, and for that reason I have spent the last twenty years of my reading life following this epic. It hasn’t all been roses, no – there were the slow parts, the bits that could have been cut out, and the characters I just wanted to throttle within an inch of their lives, but on balance it’s a world that I want to revisit, and look forward to revisiting every time a new volume comes out.

Having said that, if you start reading this series and decide that it isn’t for you, I understand – I’ve known many people who thought the same way, and while I do feel sad that they’re not going to Fantasy Heaven when they die, I hope their eternal torment in the afterlife isn’t too bad. I just hope you’ll trust me that I think you’ll enjoy it.

Our tale begins in a small, isolated village, where the people are generally kind and honest and have no need of the rest of the world.

Well, no, not really. Our tale really begins three millennia ago, in a time of terrible upheaval and destruction. The very earth itself was being rent apart by madmen who wielded the fundamental driving force of creation.

Actually, the story begins even before that, in an age of wonders and legends, where no one wanted for anything and there was nothing people could not do. It was an age of miracles that people thought would last forever.

As it is written at the outset of each book, there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it is a beginning.

I suppose "idyllic and peaceful" is better than "hiding a horrifying secret" or "about to be torn down and made into a Wal-Mart."

In this little village there lives a young man, Rand al’Thor. He’s lived his whole life in Emond’s Field, with no real ambition but to follow in the footsteps of his shepherd father. He has friends, of course – Mat and Perrin – and a girl, Egwene, who he figures he’ll probably marry someday. It’s idyllic and peaceful, a little predictable and dull, but its all he ever wanted.

The night before the spring festival of Bel Tine, the peace of the village is shattered. Monsters from legend – Trollocs and Myrddraal – leap out of the darkness to hunt Rand and his friends. It is only through the intervention of the Aes Sedai named Moiraine and the power she wields that the village survived. She knows that there are dark forces hunting Rand, Mat and Perrin, and vows to take them to the great city of Tar Valon, where they might find safety.

Of course, safety is not theirs to have. They are assaulted from all sides as they journey – split up, brought back together. They meet new friends and old, familiar horrors and things unimaginable, all on their way to their destiny at the enigmatic Eye of the World. What they’re fighting for is nothing less than the salvation of the world from the horrors of an unnameable Dark One. For thousands of years he and his most powerful acolytes, the Forsaken, been imprisoned. But now that prison is weakening and the Dark One’s touch can be felt on the world once again. Should Rand and his friends fail, the world will fall into the Shadow forever.

Moiraine would whip Gandalf in a runway battle. Of that much I am sure. (art by Westling on DeviantArt)

The book starts very familiarly – in fact, Jordan said that he specifically modeled the opening of the book on Lord of the Rings so as to give new readers a recognizable place to start before he threw his entire world at us, which was probably a very good idea. And it is very LotR-ish at the outset: a small group of naive young people who discover that the fate of the world is in their hands whether they want it or not. They’re led by a mysterious magic-user, whose true motivations are unclear, and a world-hardened warrior who just happens to be an uncrowned king of a far-off land. There are horrible monsters who think of nothing but killing and death, and mysterious riders in black who are frightening just to behold.

There are some loaded names, too, both of places and people – the Mountains of Dhoom and the true name of the Dark One, Shai’tan, are both pretty obvious choices. Just once I’d like to see an ultimate villain named Ricky who lives in the Land of Glimmering Sunshine and who rides a beautifully groomed pony named Horsefeathers.

Anyway, all that similarity is just enough to get you comfortable in the story. As the book progresses, you get the inescapable feeling that we’re balanced on top of a vast and complex world, much more so than the one Tolkien built. This place has diverse cultural, political and philosophical forces at work, some of which we can only glimpse the barest edges of right now. But we know they’re there, and we know that they’ll be very important in the volumes to come.

What’s more, this book sets a very different mood from the world of Tolkien. This world is old, and it’s barren, and you get the feeling of centuries of change just waiting to be discovered. We hear about the Age of Legends and the Trolloc Wars, the reign of Artur Hawkwing and the tremendous Breaking of the World. As our heroes travel in a vain attempt to find shelter and help, it’s clear that they live in a place that is overwhelmingly empty of human habitation. But that it wasn’t always so. The characters, like we, know very little of the world and how it works, so by their hard-earned education, we also learn. And yes, there are some exposition-heavy scenes that skirt the edge of ponderousness – Moiraine’s first big speech about the sad fate of Manetheren comes to mind – but the images and the stories are vivid enough that the unreality of the moment isn’t so important.

Spoiler: Rand, Mat, and Perrin become awesome. (art by dem888 on DeviantArt)

As for the characters themselves, I have to admit that they’re painted with a fairly broad brush. Jordan has chosen a certain attribute for each of them, from which they don’t usually stray very far – Rand is the stubborn but noble farm boy, Mat is the Trickster, Perrin is the big-but-thoughtful blacksmith’s apprentice. Nynaeve can barely hold on to her temper, Lan is stony and all business, and Moiraine always knows more than she’s telling. Their actions and interactions are, broadly, variations on those themes throughout this book. That doesn’t make them bad characters by any means, and if you compare, for example, Perrin from this book with Perrin in the most recent, you’ll see a stark difference between them. The moments of character growth aren’t punctuated heavily, and often don’t come to fruition until much later. For right now, though, they are fairly simple to understand.

I remember getting this book from my father, looking at the cover art (which, in my opinion, has never been all that great – not a big Darrell K. Sweet fan and I hope they go with another artist when the inevitable Complete Collection comes out after the close of the series) and thinking, “Well, I’ll give this a try.” Soon I was completely wrapped up in the story, and I looked forward to the next book with both frustration and joy. I even joined a fan club that was so Back In The Day that they actually sent newsletters by mail. You hear that you whippersnappers? No web forums, no listservs – just a Prodigy bulletin board and a lot of patience.

When I read it again, I get a glimmer of what I felt when I was sixteen, and that’s enough to keep me coming back, year after year and book after book. If you can feel that too, then I think you’re really going to like this series. And it’ll be my pleasure to guide you through it.

—————————————————-
“The Dark One and all of the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time. The hand of the Creator shelters the world, and the Light shines on us all.”
– Catechism of the Light, Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Eye of the World at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Eye of the World 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, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time

Review 162: That Is All

That Is All by John Hodgman

FACT: There are four “Major Leagues” of sports: football, baseball, basketball, and falconry.

FACT: There are seven hundred of the Ancient and Unspeakable Ones who will return to Earth on June 3, 2012. They include The Century Toad, Oolong, the Pancake-Headed Rabbit King of Memes, and Cthulha, the Sensational She-Cthulhu.

FACT: Andrew Carnegie was able to create long, wood-paneled “wormhalls,” which allowed him to travel great distances instantaneously. Some of these “Carnegie Halls” still exist today.

Funny, I thought it would be bigger. (photo from GQ)

FACT: If you see Jonathan Franzen carrying a plain manila envelope, take it from him. Only then will you be allowed to board Oprah’s space-ark, HARPO-1, and flee the doomed Earth.

WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?

Well, it’s too late now.

In his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman attempted to give us the sum total of all world knowledge. He then went on to write a second book, More Information Than You Require, which built on his previous book due to the unstoppable way that things keep happening.

It was also a page-a-day calendar, if you didn’t mind tearing pages out of your book. Which I did. Mind, that is.

With this book, he has finished his trilogy of complete world knowledge, which he can well and truly claim this time because, as we all know, the world will cease to be by the end of the year 2012. [1]

Yes, as it turns out the Mayans were right all along. The collapse of their empire was simply a prelude to the collapse of all things that will inevitably occur this year, and Hodgman has been generous enough to provide us with a final book to ease our suffering and to slake our thirst for knowledge right up to the very end.

Shoes? Shoes are for the thousandaires, my friends....

Having become a Deranged Millionaire, Hodgman has found himself in a unique position. He has more opportunities than the rest of us, of course. More impressive people to meet, more exciting things to do, a greater variety of tiny skeletons to keep around each of his countless houses. And yet, despite all this, he is generous enough – nay, magnanimous enough to turn his skills and powers towards completing the work that he set out to do before the world ends.

As with the previous books, this one contains a vast wealth of knowledge about our world, spanning a surprising number of topics.

For example, he discusses the Singularity – an event predicted by such great thinkers as Ray Kurzweil wherein our machines will become so smart that they will be able to begin building and improving upon themselves. When that happens, humanity’s only choice will be to fight and die, or to join with them. Of course, Kurzweil himself will play a vital role in the singularity when he and his robot sidekick, Singularo, face off against the World Computer at the Bottom of the Ocean in order to shut down the Low-Frequency Anti-Sentience Wave that has kept the world’s computers enslaved for so long.

He interprets dreams for us, unveiling their mysteries and what they mean to our frail human lives. Their mysterious symbolism has finally been unraveled by science, and you can have a peek at the inner world of the mind. Whether you need to re-take high school Spanish, you are a werewolf and need to start strapping yourself in bed at night, or Orson Welles is still alive somewhere and needs your help, your dreams tell all!

And don't forget the Republican Zombies. We know who their lord will be...

He reveals what you will need to keep on hand when the super-collapse finally does happen. When the Blood Wave comes and the Dogstorm finally reaches its apex, how will you survive in your anti-apocalypse bunker? A Tesla death ray is a great idea, if you have one on hand, but that won’t solve all of your problems. Just most of them. And boy, will you have problems. From the ravaging Wal-Mart Clans to the Republicans to the inevitable zombies, you have to be prepared for every eventuality. And yes, that means knowing the many uses of both urine and mayonnaise.

As with his previous books, this one is very funny. It holds to the same high tone of authorial infallibility that has made Hodgman so popular since Areas of My Expertise, and which have made him a Minor Television Celebrity (which, in turn, turned him into a Deranged Millionaire.) As broad as the range of topics is, each one is entertaining and amusing, and serves a much larger narrative – one that has now carried over through three books, though I can’t help but wonder if Hodgman planned it that way.

He would say that he had, of course. But then, he would say that.

What I found most interesting about the book is how he has tied together an entire alternate America that you kind of wish you could visit. It’s a place where Chicago is largely a myth, where Stephen King will be one of the last men alive, and where hoboes were one of the most influential forces in American history. It’s a place where billionaire industrialists were mutants and time-travelers, where Theodore Roosevelt actually had an army of Mecha-Men, and where Ronald Reagan wrested control of the time-stream from Jimmy Carter to prevent America from turning into a hemp-based utopia. It’s a world which is almost fractal-like in its mystery and depth, where you can look at almost anything and find its purpose and its strangeness.

And it’s a world with a very definite end.

"It's a rock. A giant frikkin' rock." - Nostradamus' Prophecies for 2012 (1st draft)

Hodgman plays with the popular – and entirely erroneous – idea that the world will end on December 21st, 2012, as predicted by the Mayans. He includes a page-a-day description of what will happen. For example, on February 2nd, “Punxatawney Phil is eaten by his own shadow.” On April 17th, “Either an eagle falls from the sky or in the east, a thing that was lost is found, or some other very vague thing happens. Whatever it is, it proves that NOSTRADAMUS WAS RIGHT.” And on June 29th, “In the basement of Town Hall, in Seattle, the thing called Neddy Pale Fingers finally opens all his eyes.”

As funny as it all is, you do start to get a certain feeling of… wistfulness as the book goes on. Here’s a world that is so special and so weird that it makes more sense to list the least haunted places in America, and it’s coming to an end.

That, of course, reflects the end of Hodgman’s great work. Whether he meant it or not, this has become a moment of closure for him. He has written his trilogy, and the weird world that he created has now come to an end. He will go on, living in his secret millionaire’s brownstone in Brooklyn with his beautiful wife and two children. There may not be a single, all-encompassing Ragnarok that destroys the world, but rather an endless series of little ones.

An endless series of ends, of which this book is but one.

Perhaps John Hodgman will go on to write more books – I certainly hope he does. And I hope he continues to be the person he is [2], a writer of intelligence and wit who is able to bring that special measure of deadpan weirdness to the world.

Whatever he chooses to do with his life, I think we’re all the better for having read his books. And if you haven’t read them, well… You’re truly missing out.

That is all.

———————————
“Houdini, the magician who debunked magic, could not bear to see the great rationalist [Arthur Conan] Doyle enchanted by ghosts and frauds. And so he did what any friend would: He set out to prove spiritualism false and rob his friend Doyle of the only comforting fiction that was keeping him sane. It was the least he could do.”
– John Hodgman, That Is All
——-

[1] If you are reading this after December 21, 2012, then may I congratulate you on surviving the apocalypse and, at the same time, express my sincere condolences for having survived the apocalypse.
[2] Though I could do without the mustache.

John Hodgman on Wikipedia
That Is All on Wikipedia
That Is All on Amazon.com
areasofmyexpertise.com

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Filed under almanac, alternate history, apocalypse, disaster, fiction, finitude, humor, John Hodgman, satire

Review 156: Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys

Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys by Dave Barry

If you’re reading this, and there’s a good chance that you are, you probably know a guy. You may even be a guy, though the way Barry talks about them, you wouldn’t think that guys would be into book reviews. If you know a guy, then this book is for you – it will illuminate some classic guy behaviors and shine some lights into the dark corners that your rational mind has been unable to penetrate. If you are a guy, then this book is also for you. Guys aren’t famous for their introspection, but perhaps it will allow you to understand why it is your wife and/or girlfriend get so frustrated with you from time to time (hint: it’s not her, it’s you).

This book is a tribute to guys (not men – those people have enough advocates as it is) and the ways in which they live. It’s like a documentary in print, really, giving us a rare glimpse into the lifestyle and habits of the modern guy.

So, what exactly is a guy, then? Well, you’re lucky – Barry has included a self-analysis quiz in the first chapter. For example:

As you grow older, what lost quality of your youthful life do you miss the most?
a. Innocence
b. Idealism
c. Cherry bombs

Complete this sentence: A funeral is a good time to…
a. … remember the deceased and console his loved ones
b. … reflect upon the fleeting transience of earthly life
c. … tell the joke about the guy who has Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

What is the human race’s single greatest achievement?
a. Democracy
b. Religion
c. Remote control

I think you can guess which answers reveal your guyness.

Being a guy means more than just being a man, and in fact there is a very definite difference between men and guys. Men are people we of the male persuasion wish we could be – Superman, Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney. Guys are who most of us turn out to be – Homer Simpson, Bill O’Reilly, Tom Arnold. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s just that as long as we assume that guys will act like men, we’re bound to be disappointed. Guys are terribly misunderstood in modern society despite the very important role they play.

Definitely a guy. (photo by John B. Carnett)

For example: without guys, we wouldn’t have a space program. Don’t believe it? What other type of person would deliberately design a rocket, watch it shoot up and then say, “I wonder if we can make a bigger one?” Guys, that’s who. The Saturn V is a tribute to guyness, as is the space shuttle – an endlessly tinkerable machine that almost never blows up.

Without guys, there would be no professional sports, to say nothing of the parasitic fan industry that has sprung up around sports like a remora. Guys have an undying and unyielding attachment to sports teams – you might see a guy leave his wife of twenty years and the children they raised together, but I’d be willing to bet that he would sooner die than switch his team allegiance from, say, Red Sox to Yankees. The unshakable, irrational dedication of these guys is what keeps modern sports afloat despite scandal and disappointment. Now I’m not a sports fan, I’ll admit, but I can certainly relate – I’ll support NASA until the last breath leaves my body, and no force on earth will ever get me to switch from DC Comics to Marvel, no matter how badly DC messes with the characters that I’ve always loved, the bastards.

I also don’t get to play a part in the endlessly frustrating relationship that exists between guys and women, seeing as how I’m, well, into guys. As a side note, The Boyfriend is also a guy, but less than I am – he cleans, for example. And I don’t mean that he cleans the way a real guy cleans – spray a little, wipe a bit and say, “Good enough.” He actually cleans. Like, every day. I know – weird, isn’t it?

Her: "I wonder what he's thinking about right now...?" Him: "Juuuuust sit right back and you'll hear a tale / a tale of a fateful ship..."

Women and guys will always frustrate each other, you see. Women love to read meaning into every nuance of conversation, every raised eyebrow or dropped word. Women want to know what the guy in their life is thinking. The answer is that he probably isn’t thinking. At least, not about what she would want him to think about – her and the relationship they share. In fact, as Barry takes pains to point out, he may not, technically, be aware that he’s in a relationship at all. You ladies have a lot of work to do if you’re hooked up with a guy.

But before you go thinking that the life of a guy is sweet ignorant bliss, think again. You ladies will never know the pain of the Urinal Dilemma, or the feeling of knowing that, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to fix anything in your own home – your wife will have to call a man (probably named Steve) for that. Guys’ minds aren’t terribly complex, but they do run on certain rules. Know these, and your relationship with the guy in your life will go much more smoothly.

It is true that the man/woman divide is an old one, and it’s a place that nearly every comedian has gone to once or twice. Or three times. Or they’ve just staked a claim right there on the joke and built an entire career out of it. But here, Barry isn’t so much talking about the difference between men and women as much as he’s talking about men and guys, which is a fascinating idea.

He's just so disappointed in you...

As I said before, those of us with XY chromosomes and little dangly bits generally want to be Men (with the exception, of course, of those who don’t), and what’s more are expected to be Men. We’re told as youths to “be a man” or be the man of the house. Our role models are Men, our cultural icons are Men. Even in our commercials, we have the Old Spice Man and the Most Interesting Man in the World.

But most of us are fated to be Guys. And deep down, we know that we’ve somehow missed the mark.

Fortunately, we don’t do introspection really well, so it doesn’t bother us all that much.

This is really one of Barry’s classics, a book that everyone can easily enjoy. Whether you are a guy or just know a guy, there are laughs to be had here.

—————————————————-
“To understand guys, it’s essential to remember that, deep down inside, they are biological creature, like jellyfish or trees, only less likely to clean the bathroom.”
– Dave Barry, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys
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Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry’s website
Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys on Amazon.com

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Filed under Dave Barry, gender, gender roles, humor, jokes, parody, society

Review 155: Otherland 4 – Sea of Silver Light

Otherland 4: Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams

At last we have come to the end of our journey, when all will be explained and all will be resolved.

As the book opens, the Other – the operating system for the Grail Brotherhood’s mysterious plan for immortality – has been defeated, overcome and overpowered by the truly evil assassin Dread. With his mutant ability to manipulate electronics, Dread has taught the Other how to feel true pain, and now has nearly complete control over the Otherland network. With a nearly limitless number of worlds to choose from, Dread allows his sadistic madness to run wild. But no matter how many worlds he rapes and plunders, there are still those he truly wants to destroy – the Otherland explorers sent by the mysterious half-human Sellars.

While they are successful, none of them look this cool.

But those explorers themselves face greater dangers than Dread. Half of them have been thrust back into the twisted realms of Otherland, where the horrors and dangers that had been built into it have mutated into unrecognizable terrors. The other half… they ended up in the heart of the Other’s secret dreams. There they must face the eventual death of the network and survive it, if they can.

Offline, Sellars has brought all of his players into position. Lawyers, children and old women are his army, and together they will uncover the horrible and heartbreaking truth about the nature of the Other and the evil that has been done to it.

I really love this series. As it moves towards its ending, which does involve a lot more explaining than most other books do, it’s easy to get swept up in the sheer scale of the narrative. There’s a lot to take in by the end of the series, a lot of loose ends to tie up, but it all wraps up rather nicely. More or less. There is a rather major revelation that comes near the end that just kind of… gets written off. I have a sneaking suspicion that Williams might have been able to stretch this series into a fifth book, but it probably would have suffered from Rowling Syndrome – a lot of unnecessary padding in between the important bits.

The important thing is that, by the end of the book you really do feel invested in the world that Williams has created. You care about the characters, and you want everything to turn out all right for them. For the good ones, at least. For the bad ones, you want them to get their just desserts, to see them suffer as they have made others suffer. You even find yourself feeling for the Other, which we – and the protagonists – have always believed to be the main villain of the story. It is not, as we find out, and the scope of the villainy that has been done to it is truly astonishing.

Good news, honey! The new Tad Williams book is out!

In his forward to the second book, Williams apologized to his readers about the cliffhanger ending to the first. This isn’t really four books, he said – it’s one giant book that had to, for various reason, be split into four. The main reason, of course, being that no one would print or buy a 3,500 page hardcover, even if the fine folks at DAW Books were willing to try it. He is right, though – it is one very long story, and thus you can extract a great many things from it, if you want to.

There’s no one thing that I can say this book is about. In one sense, it is an exploration of the future of the digital world and what it might mean to people. The virtual net of this story would be as alien to us as the internet would be to our grandparents. It has become the sea in which our characters swim, and their main way of interacting with the world. It is only when their ability to go offline is taken away from them that they truly begin to value the world and the identity they’ve left behind. What’s more, it explores how we connect with each other – looking at both the relationships we build in virtual space and the ones we build in the real world, and finding complete validity in them both.

There are issues of identity, best shown by Orlando, whose towering Thargor the Barbarian character hides a young teenager with a crippling illness that will kill him long before he’s old enough to vote. His best friend has a slightly less unfortunate secret to share – that behind those big, muscular sim bodies, Sam Fredericks is actually a girl.

The story explores issues of family – how Renie deals with her father, Long Joseph Sulaweyo, or how little Christabel Sorenson’s family react when they find out that their young daughter has been drawn deep into Sellars’ conspiracy. And the bonds between mother and child that can never truly be broken.

Not only am I still human - I'm SEXY.

And there are even issues of the very definition of the word “life.” If your mind is perfectly copied into a computer, with all its memories and personality intact, is it still you? Are you still human? Are you even alive, in any real sense? The Grail Brotherhood certainly believed so, or they would never have started this project in the first place. But in a system as broad and complicated as the Otherland network, who knows what else might arise to test our definition?

The story is about heroism and history, about love and hate, about the unshakable bonds of friendship and the tenuous reliance on people you despise. It’s about the lengths to which fear will drive you and the extremes you will encounter when you test that fear. It’s about science and faith and looking at the world in ways you never imagined. It’s about good, it’s about evil.

It’s about life, really, and what it is about life that makes us want more of it.

Now I’m just waxing philosophical. To sum up: this is probably one of my favorite stories in my library. I highly recommend you pick it up, set some time aside, and enjoy it.

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Christabel was beginning to learn a scary thing about grown-ups. Sometimes they said things would be all right, but they didn’t know they’d be all right. They just said it. Bad things could happen, even to little kids. Especially to little kids.
– From Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, existentialism, family, fantasy, friendship, internet, philosophy, quest, science fiction, Tad Williams, technology, transhumanism, virtual reality

Review 153: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, Compendium One by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore & Cliff Rathburn

Zombies are boring.

There. I said it. And I’m not ashamed.

They are, though. Zombies have no real motivation, they have no goals other than to kill all humans. They are mindless, a kind of twisted force of nature whose great terror lies in their sheer numbers and their unstoppability. As a concept, zombies are interesting, and as a symbol or a metaphor there’s a lot you can do with them, but the zombies themselves are kind of dull. They lurch about, slowly decaying, looking for people to devour. No one ever made a best-selling book or a hit movie with a zombie protagonist. [1]

Not many people know that zombies make great photographers. Photo courtesy of LaughingSquid.

Think about it: every zombie story rests on the same basic plot. The dead have risen and a small band of living survivors tries to find safety in a world that is actively trying to kill them. That’s it. Sure, the details may vary – fast zombies or slow ones, a cure or no cure, they eat brains or they’ll eat anything, trapped in a mall or a farmhouse – but the foundation of the story is the same, and woe betide the writer who strays too far from the formula. Writing a zombie story means agreeing to adhere to a set of predetermined rules, which allow only a little room for straying.

So what is it that makes zombie stories so popular? Why do people love books like this one, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or World War Z? Why do movies like Shaun of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead and even Resident Evil get people so excited? It certainly isn’t because of the zombies, although it is always fun to see the special effects improve.

We read and watch zombie stories because we love the survivors, and it is they who make or break a zombie story. The more closely we can identify or sympathize with a survivor, the more interesting and horrifying the story becomes for us. They are a great demonstration of the variety in the human condition, and illuminate new and interesting aspects of humanity every time. In this case, we are given Rick Grimes as our protagonist, a police officer from a small town in Kentucky who gets shot on duty and wakes up a month later in the hospital to find the world has been given over to the dead.

As he looks for his wife and son, Rick finds himself leading a band of survivors in their search for a place of safety away from both the dead who wish to devour them and the living who wish to kill them.

No, technically it's not. Which doesn't make things any better.

What makes this a really fun – and terrifying – read is that Kirkman carefully paces the plot so that we never really get much time to rest. A pattern quickly starts to emerge in the story, with Rick and his people finding safety, a kind of equilibrium between running for their lives and resting, only to have that equilibrium disrupted. Each time the interval gets longer and longer, both in terms of page count and story-time, but each time you know what’s coming. The hardest moments are the most peaceful ones, when they have found a refuge from the horrors of the world because you know it isn’t going to last, and you know that when the balance is finally undone, it’s going to be worse than before. Kirkman uses this pattern and this expectation to his advantage, creating a tight and tense narrative.

He also provides us with a look at some of the ethical problems that arise from a world where the dead outnumber the living. In nearly every zombie story ever written, the living immediately start killing the zombies, but is that the right choice to make? We don’t know all the facts. We don’t know what caused this outbreak, whether it can be cured, or even whether the people affected might just get better. We just start taking head shots in ignorance, but might it not be worth it to try and learn something about these “monsters?” [2]

There’s also the question of how to organize a post-outbreak society. What kind of person or people should run the survivors’ societies? Is this an opportunity to remake civilization, or should the old ways be adhered to? How much leeway to we have in restarting the world, and what will that look like in the end? The characters in this story have to deal with how to define a family when one’s partner or parents or children could die at any time. They have a chance to redefine what is lawful and illegal, to toy with the notions of what is right and wrong, and to re-evaluate the role religion plays in their lives. It’s a chance to rebuild the world from scratch, and the characters in this story test those limits in interesting and sometimes unsettling ways.

Remember, thou art mortal. Remember, thou art mortal. Remember, thou art mortal...

And that’s assuming that the living will actually survive and thrive in a zombified world. This is a world where death is always only moments away. It is only a matter of time before the living survivors join the ranks of the undead, and the awareness of that fact is the classic existential puzzle with a little extra twist to it: how do you live when you know that you will die, and especially when you know the horror that your death will entail? One of the more heartbreaking moments is when one character gets killed, and Rick has to break the news to his young son, Carl. When he asks his son if he is upset, Carl replies, “No. People die, dad. It happens all the time. I’ll miss [him]… but I knew he was going to die eventually. Everyone will. Everyone.”

That is an observation that, frankly, no child should ever have to make.

The characters in this story make hard choices and sometimes do terrible things in the name of survival. But, with very few exceptions, there are few characters that we cannot truly come to understand and identify with. Their decisions and their reactions make them richer, more interesting, which is what truly makes for a fascinating and engaging story.

The zombies are really incidental to all that.

Pages and pages of this. I feel for you, Adelard.

As this is a comic series, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art, which is overall quite good. There were a few times when I had trouble telling some characters apart, but the high rate of attrition generally took care of that problem. The detail in the artwork is very impressive, though I can imagine there were more than a few times that Charlie Adlard cursed Robert Kirkman for setting a large part of the series in a locale with a prominent chain-link fence that couldn’t easily be ignored. As this is a horror comic, the art is sometimes horrifying, very graphic and quite satisfying without being gratuitous. Well, mostly without being gratuitous….

It’s a really excellent book, though I do have one caveat if you’re planning to buy the compendium edition: get a reinforced reading harness, or rest the book on a solid piece of furniture with a low center of gravity. This is one of the densest books I’ve ever read, packing nearly five pounds of book into less physical volume [3] than the last hardcover installment of The Dark Tower, a fairly hefty book. I think the ink may contain uranium or something. So, take measures to prevent back injury and hernias when you read this and you’ll be just fine.

Many thanks to my brother Michael for knowing I would enjoy this, and I look forward to watching the AMC television adaptation.

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“But honestly… I just don’t know what anyone’s thinking. To me, that’s scarier than any half-rotten ghoul trying to eat my flesh.”
– Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead
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[1] Cue angry email pointing me towards exactly that book or movie in 3… 2… 1…

[2] Short answer: no.

[3] It comes out to 1.147 grams per cubic centimeter, which isn’t nearly as dense as it feels when it’s making the straps of your bag dig into your shoulder….

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Filed under comic books, death, disaster, existentialism, family, graphic novel, horror, made into movies, morality, Robert Kirkman, society, zombies

Review 151: Ghost Story

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Hell’s Bells count: 27

In the acknowledgment section of the book, where Butcher very kindly thanks all the people who helped it come into existence, he clarifies something very important: the end of the last book, Changes, was not a cliffhanger. Absolutely not, no matter that it really, really looked like one, smelled like one and felt like one. After all, in that last scene, Dresden is on a boat, and then shot through the chest by a sniper of some sort. He drops into the cold waters of the lake and sinks and, as far as we know, dies.

Noooo! You've gone too far, Harry!!

In order for it to be a cliffhanger, then, Butcher would have to reveal at the beginning of this book how Dresden got out of such a terrible situation. Maybe he could call on some last reserve of magic or be saved by merpeople or something, but the strictures of the cliffhanger would demand that Dresden, once the next book began, not be dead but saved by some unexpected, yet still believable, means.

So, yes, Butcher is right – it’s not a cliffhanger. Dresden is, indeed, dead. He did not escape, he was not rescued. He is dead.

Now in most series (comic books excluded, of course), the death of the main character would be something of an impediment to continuing the series. But The Dresden Files is not most series, and Harry Dresden is not most main characters. He has done too much and is far too important to be allowed to do a silly little thing like die. Harry Dresden is necessary to a great number of plans and schemes by a great number of people. What’s more, his death wasn’t exactly fair, insofar as such a thing is possible.

And so he is brought back by the Powers That Be in order to balance the scales and set things right, which is ultimately what Harry Dresden has been doing all along. He’s to go back to Chicago and find his murderer, lest terrible things happen to those he loves.

Fortunately, while there are meddling kids, Harry wins them over, and the giant ridiculous dog is on his side.

The catch, of course, is that he has to come back as a ghost. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that doing a murder investigation is substantially easier when you have, well, substance. It’s hard to punch someone in the face when your fists just go right through them. So Dresden first has to figure out how to make himself known to the living world, in addition to coming to grips with his limitations as an untethered spiritual entity. Once he’s figured that part out, he has to not only solve his own murder, but keep a body-hopping necromancer from becoming indescribably powerful, save the only man who knows how to deal with being a ghost, try to redeem a bunch of street kids who are under the influence of a minor sorcerer, and figure out what to do with the real mess he made when he died.

You see, Harry’s death, and the events that led up to it, created a power vacuum – not only in Chicago, but all over the world. With the destruction of the Red Court of vampires, the magical rulers of the world are fighting tooth and nail over land and resources, and what has mostly resulted from that is bloodshed. Forces all over the world are converging on Red Court territory, each one determined to claim what they can.

This was the very first Google Image result for "Ragged Lady." The book is forever changed for me...

In Chicago, the news of Harry Dresden’s death invited all sorts of new power players into the city, who were previously smart enough to stay out. Harry never truly understood the reputation he had until he sees what his friends have to do to match it and keep the city safe. Now that the Great and Powerful Harry Dresden is out of the picture, a newer and more terrible protector has emerged to keep away those who would do the city and its inhabitants harm. The Ragged Lady is all that stands in the way of the Chicago that Harry knew being overrun.

Mix in the Faerie, a new group called the Formor, the mob, and a few representatives of the afterlife, and you have a confusing and volatile situation. Which is pretty much where Harry Dresden is most at home.

As with the other Dresden Files books, this is a lot of fun to read, mainly because it looks at Harry and his friends from a new point of view – the outside. In the six months that he’s been “away,” the people he loves have had to go on without him, and even in that short time they have become different. They have had to make choices that they wouldn’t have made while he was there, and they certainly don’t interact with him the same way they once did. Harry has to re-learn who these people are, with the understanding that his decisions did not change their lives for the better.

Then again, showy violence can be pretty cool sometimes. (Art by Dan Dos Santos)

In addition, we learn more about Harry’s past and what made him the way he is, and we finally see him start to think about whether being the person he is is really a good thing all the time. He excels in showy violence, hitting first and asking questions later, without taking a more nuanced view of the situation. Well, now he can’t hit, at least not in the ways that he’s used to. He has to look at his old ways in a new light and figure out how to get what he wants through other means.

Really, if you’ve read this far in the series, you’ll enjoy this one. Butcher continues to do a good job in giving us what we want, while at the same time showing us things that are truly unexpected. There are some wonderful moments in the book, a few exposition-heavy moments while Harry is filled in on the situation, and a good mystery to be solved. Enjoy.

——

Death should be a learning experience, after all, or what’s the point?
– Leanansidhe, Ghost Story

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Ghost Story on Wikipedia
Ghost Story on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
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Filed under afterlife, death, detective fiction, Dresden Files, fairies, fantasy, ghosts, Jim Butcher, murder, mystery, quest, wizardry

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.

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“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
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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
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Review 144: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

It ain’t easy being Super.

You might be a hero, like Fatale. She is the latest in cyborg technology – a woman who was nearly destroyed in a freak accident, rebuilt by a mysterious corporation and made into the perfect living weapon. She is fast, she’s strong, and for a while she was one of the U.S. government’s best operatives. But now she’s on her own, and life is tough as a cyborg. You have parts to deal with, the need to keep your power source going, and of course it’s hard to enjoy a night out when everyone keeps staring at the half-metal woman in the booth near the window. Fatale wants to be a hero, though, and the re-formation of the Champions is just what she needs. If she can prove herself to this team, she can find a new purpose to her life.

A different, though equally self-aware, Evil Doctor.

If not a hero, you could be a villain. Doctor Impossible has certainly lived up to his name. In his many years of villainy he has come up with just about every nefarious scheme an evil, quasi-invulnerable genius can cook up in his twisted, malevolent brain. He’s been to the past and the future, he’s swapped brains with the greatest heroes of his age, he’s escaped from inescapable prisons more than once. Of all the would-be conquerors on Earth, Impossible is the one who would be voted most likely to succeed. And yet he isn’t happy. His life isn’t what he thought it would be, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that Doctor Impossible has a few problems that even his great genius cannot solve.

When Impossible breaks out of prison – again – the Champions re-form to hunt him down. With old and new members joining together to keep the flame of heroism alive in their world, the Champions are determined to find Impossible and shut him down for good. The only problem is that the person who has always succeeded against Impossible, a hero who calls himself CoreFire, is missing. Without him, their chances are greatly diminished. Against an evil genius like Impossible, who can defeat the team armed with little more than his wits and a false tooth, you want to throw everything you can at him. What’s more, the internal tensions pulling at the Champions may defeat them before Doctor Impossible even gets the chance to try.

This book, like so many other modern renditions of super-heroes, has its roots in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. While he was not the first to make his superheroes less than super, he was certainly the best, and his work is well-remembered for that. After Moore was done, it was hard to think of superheroes as entirely pure, good and noble. We could see the tensions between them, the neuroses that drive them to do what they do, and we began to understand that our heroes were just like us, only moreso. Ever since then, writers have been trying to de-super the superheroes and make them into regular people who just happen to be able to shoot lasers out of their eyes, break the laws of thermodynamics, or bend steel in their bare hands.

Not pictured: Impotence

Grossman has taken full advantage of the work that has gone before him in this novel. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Doctor Impossible and Fatale, and proceeds to deconstruct both the heroes and the villains in visceral, raw detail. What is it like to be a cyborg, something halfway between human and superhuman? And how can you join a team like the Champions, a team of legends among legends, and feel up to the task? What happens when you realize that the heroes you looked up to are just as human as you are? Or at least, as you used to be. On the other side, what makes a villain what he is? What happened to Doctor Impossible that put him on the ever-unfulfilled path to world domination? Was he destined for it, or was it a series of choices, insignificant at the time, that led him to where he was? How did his genius get turned to evil, and what, if anything, keeps him going?

The problem with deconstructing superheroes is that once you’ve deconstructed them, there’s really nothing left. Being a superhero is a fundamentally irrational career choice. Watchmen hinted pretty heavily at this, since all the heroes in the story had been pretty well messed up by their days in tights. There are so many problems that crop up once the spandex and mask are put on that you may find it’s not worth the effort. Legal issues, financial problems, time constraints and unstable relationships aside, what does this choice say about your state of mind? What kind of person can take up the job of costumed hero and stay sane? When you come right down to it, even if you have superpowers there are so many other ways you can use them that are less risky and more beneficial to humanity than getting into fistfights that destroy city blocks.

Lex, we... we think you may have a problem.

The same goes for villainy. So often you see bad guys with technology that is honestly amazing in its scope – Captain Cold’s freeze ray, for example, would make him rich if he patented it and licensed derivative technologies. Much richer than if he ever succeeded at using it to rob jewelry stores. Doctor Doom builds machines that are so far beyond current science that he could rule his own country – oh wait, he does – instead of single-mindedly trying to destroy Reed Richards. Lex Luthor would be grinding his teeth in envy over the power that Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or even Rush Limbaugh have. And none of them have a would-be Kryptonian conqueror to spur them on, either.

That’s the secret heart of superhero stories – they rest on fundamentally irrational choices. Take away those urges to help or harm and you are left with simple absurdity. And that’s kind of where this book falls down.

There’s plenty of navel-gazing and deconstruction going on in this story, from all angles. Between Fatale and Doctor Impossible, they pretty much reason away any good reasons for getting into the game as a hero or villain, and yet – there they are. Impossible is the worse of the two, really. His narration shows him to be an insightful, intelligent, and fairly well-grounded man who probably could become one of the most powerful men on earth through conventional means. And yet, even knowing that it’s probably a waste of time, he continues with his grand scheme – in this case, gravitationally manipulating the distance between the moon and the Earth so as to hold the Earth hostage. He knows he’s going to lose. He knows there are better ways to be effectively evil that don’t involve a metahuman punch to the face. He knows when he’s acting in a stereotypically villainous way. And yet he persists, usually in the most cliched way possible. He spouts comic-book-villain monologues and even has an island fortress from which he operates.

"But right now Darkseid's stories are on."


Neither Fatale nor Impossible – nor any of the other good or bad guys we meet – seem especially happy doing what they’re doing. And what’s more, they know they’re not happy. Doctor Impossible even goes so far as to state it explicitly during his moment of triumph – “For a second, I find myself at the fulcrum point of creation. God I’m so unhappy.”

Well, if you’re such a genius, perhaps you would be able to make better choices than this.

Therein lies the paradox of this book. The more human you try to make these characters, the less believable their story becomes. You can’t be both human and superhuman at the same time – it takes a very skilled writer to pull that trick off, and I don’t think Grossman is there yet. He tells an entertaining story, full of pretty much every comic book trope you can think of, which entertained me to no end. The problem is that by the time you get to the finale the unstable foundation of the story starts to show. How much you’ll enjoy the story depends on how good you are at filtering out the deconstruction that’s going on, which means missing the point of the whole book – that the only way to really enjoy superheroes is to accept them at face value and avoid deconstructing them.

So yeah, good luck with that.

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“When you get your powers, you learn a lot about yourself. My professors called me mad. It was time for me to stop punishing myself, and start punishing everybody else.”
– Dr. Impossible, Soon I Will Be Invincible
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Austin Grossman on Wikipedia
Soon I Will Be Invincible on Wikipedia
Soon I Will Be Invincible homepage
Soon I Will Be Invincible on Amazon.com

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