Category Archives: philosophy

Books about philosophy.

Review 177: The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time 03)

Wheel of Time 03: The Dragon Reborn

Think about this for a moment: imagine there was someone in history who was truly terrible. The stories about him tell that he was personally responsible for destroying civilization as they knew it at the time. Thanks to him, men who could wield immense power went mad and broke the world. He brought down an Age of Legends in a catastrophe from which, three thousand years later, humanity has still not fully recovered. Mothers tell their children stories about him to make them grow up right. He is known as the Dragon, the Kinslayer, and the world fears the day on which, the Prophecies say, he will return. For that will signal the End of the World and the final battle with the Shadow.

Next to this guy, Hitler is a minor-league bully.

HE WILL END US!!!

How would you feel if you found out that you were, in fact, him? In a world where reincarnation is a certainty, it’s possible to find out that you are an ancient hero reborn. Or perhaps a king, or a queen. Or maybe just Joe Peasant, who gets another ride on the Wheel. However it works out, you’ve discovered that you’ve pulled the unluckiest card in the reincarnation deck, and your future is to be hated and feared, and eventually to die in battle against the greatest evil humankind has ever known.

You might go a bit nuts. Rand al’Thor certainly does.

Not the inevitable madness of being a man who can channel, thank the Light, just the understandable mental breakdown that comes with knowing that you’re the doomed reincarnation of one of history’s greatest monsters. Rand is off to the great city of Tear, on the southern coast. In the great, power-wrought fortress that sits at its center, there is Callandor, the Sword That Is Not A Sword, and an object of great power for any male channeler who holds it. What’s more, only the Dragon Reborn can remove it from its suspension inside the Stone of Tear. By taking Callandor, Rand will finally prove to himself and the world that he is the Dragon Reborn.

His friends, in the meantime, think this is a mad plan. No army has ever broken the Stone of Tear, and the city itself hates and despises channelers. Moiraine knows that Rand could get himself killed in Tear, thus dooming the world. So, with Lan, Loial and Perrin, she chases after Rand to try and ensure that he fulfills his true destiny.

These guys will Mess. You. Up.

So it’s not for nothing that we don’t see a lot of Rand al’Thor in this book, despite him being the title character. In fact, except for occasional brief interludes, we don’t get a chapter from Rand’s point of view until chapter 55, just in time for the climactic final battle. I’m of two minds on this decision by Jordan. On the one hand, it frees up a lot of pages for the other characters in the book – Perrin gets a lot of time to shine, and Mat’s healing in the White Tower lets us get to know him a little better and get a better view of the White Tower and Tar Valon. We spend much more time with Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne as they head down to Tear to chase down the Black Ajah, and get a good look at the Aiel, who will become much more important in the subsequent books.

On the other hand, however, we lose sight of Rand during what is a very important point in his character development – coming to terms with and accepting not only his identity as the Dragon Reborn but the horrible destiny that comes with it. In those brief interludes, we see that he’s being hunted by the Shadow, and has to remain on guard against its agents at all times. If we had followed him on this journey, much of what comes after would have made more sense. As it is, by letting him off on his own, Rand’s character suffers a great deal, and the reader’s ability to empathize with him is irrevocably harmed.

But on the third hand, maybe that was the whole point. No one can understand the Dragon Reborn – not Moiraine, not his best friends, not even the reader. From this book on, Rand will always be harder to understand than the other characters in the series, which may have been Jordan’s goal all along.

Another option, of course, is that Jordan wrote several thousand words of Rand’s journey to Tear and realized that just following this one guy all by himself as he tries to keep from going nuts wasn’t as interesting as we might have thought.

So there’s that.

Google Image Search can be a tough place to search for pictures of women in fantasy….

A word, then, on a topic that is central to this series, and I figure it’s better to look at it earlier rather than later – women.

As a genre, fantasy doesn’t have a very good reputation when it comes to female characters. More often than not, women are either objects of the male protagonist’s quest, or they are hindrances to him. Fantasy remains a very male-dominated genre, and for female readers there are slim pickings when it comes to whom you can imagine yourself being. While Wheel of Time is still an andro-centric story, the roles and responsibilities given to female characters are enormous, and Jordan has created a world in which the status of women is far higher than in most fantasy worlds. It is a world where men and women are different, but equal, and neither is presumed to be superior to the other. This is neatly illustrated in the nature of the True Source, the energy that turns the Wheel of Time and thus is the engine of all creation.

The Source is divided into female and male, saidar and saidin. While saidin was horribly corrupted by the Dark One, it is repeatedly made clear that neither is stronger than the other, and that the greatest works of the Age of Legends always came when men and women worked together. Even on a non-magical scale, it is shown that the roles of men and women in this world are distinctly different, but occupying a certain stable balance that allows the world to work. In personal relationships too, there is no relationship I can recall where either the man or the woman can be said to be “in charge” (except in cases like Lan and Moiraine, where one has specifically sworn to obey the other). One of my favorite examples: Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have gone to Tear to hunt the Black Ajah. Far away, in Caemlyn, Mat learns that their lives are in danger from the Shadow’s assassins, and promises right there that he’s going to save them. Classic male reaction to a Damsel in Distress.

The women of WoT will have none of this nonsense.

Once he finds them, however, they have pretty much saved themselves – another five minutes or so and they would have done it. Mat’s entire involvement in their rescue from the unbreakable Stone of Tear and the horrifying Black Ajah was to unlock a door. He risked life and limb on a quest to rescue these women, only to discover that they don’t need rescuing. And in classic male fashion, he spends the next few books sulking about how they didn’t thank him for unlocking that pesky door. Well, not all the time, of course, but it certainly comes up again.

It’s not feminist lit by any means – Jordan tends to resort to behavioral cliches more with his female characters then male; women glare or sniff or tug their braids as a kind of neon sign that says, “THIS CHARACTER IS ANGRY NOW.” But I imagine that female readers of this series will have less trouble finding a character to identify with than they would with, say, Lord of the Rings, which has only one female character of any note (Eowyn – Arwen is barely in the books at all). And there’s a lot of “I guess I’ll just never understand women” talk from a lot of the male characters, while the female characters tend to hold themselves in slightly higher esteem. But for all that, I imagine there were plenty of female readers who saw themselves in these books, and who spent more than a little time wondering which Ajah they would choose, if only they could be Aes Sedai.

Of course, I am a man, so I could be completely wrong.

—————————————————-
“Men fight when they should run, and fools fight when they should run. But I had no need to say it twice.”
– Zarine, The Dragon Reborn
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Dragon Reborn at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Dragon Reborn 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, madness, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 174: Dark Lord – The Rise of Darth Vader

Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader by James Luceno

When you think about Darth Vader, many things come to mind. Dark Lord of the Sith. Bane of the Jedi. Throat-Crusher Supreme.

Emo?

No. Or rather, “NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

Of all my complaints about the new trilogy – and there are many – the biggest one has to do with how Anakin Skywalker was handled. I grew up loving Darth Vader. He was a vicious bastard, but by gods he was awesome about it. He was a hard-ass who inspired terror wherever he went, and he was a man who overcame insurmountable evils to ultimately redeem himself. From the moment we see him emerge from the smoke in A New Hope, we know that this is a man to be feared and reckoned with.

He never said, “Yippee,” and he most certainly was never a mopey little emoboi. I despised the choice to make Anakin a whiny little brat who was turned to the Dark Side. And please note the passive voice there – “was turned.” He was manipulated and pushed and pulled, and finally when Palpatine said, “Go murder children,” Anakin just said, “Okay,” and did it. I never got the feeling that Anakin was making his own choices in these movies, or doing terrible things because he truly thought they were the right thing to do.

The title of Darth Vader fit very, very poorly on this wet noodle of a Sith-wannabe, and that, more than anything else, made me very angry about the new trilogy.

So, in comes James Luceno to clean things up.

Set about a month after the events in Episode 3, this book starts Vader’s transformation from mopey to malicious.

“Yoda? Know this ‘Yoda’ I do not.” (from @bonniegrrl)

Despite the best efforts of the Clone Army, some Jedi survived the initial massacre of Order 66. One of those, a Jedi named Roan Shyne, is trying to lead his dead comrade’s padawan to safety, wherever safety may be found. He’s questioning his purpose now, in a world where evil has emerged victorious, and where the Jedi are no more. Should he make a stand and die defending the Idea, or should he obey Yoda’s last orders and go to ground?

Sadly, he’s a principle character in a Star Wars novel, so the Force takes the choice out of his hands. He finds himself drawn ever closer into the mystery of the Empire and the Emperor. And Vader.

Who, I might add, is having issues of his own. The first three pages of his first POV scene are about how uncomfortable the Suit is (Luceno talked to the folks at LucasArts to find out what it was like), and how miserable he is being a nubby lump of burned flesh inside a mobile life-support system. He can’t see properly, can’t hear normally, can’t move like he used to – hell, he can barely walk steady, much less wield a lightsaber like he used to.

Palpatine, being the good mentor that he is, knows exactly how to cure Vader’s blues: give him a project, something to keep his mind off things. Like hunting people down and killing them.

Luceno handles the transition from brat to demon very delicately and very smoothly. By the time the book is over, Vader still isn’t the avatar of evil that he will one day become, but he’s certainly over the hump. In addition, the advantage of writing a prequel story is that you can boost the power of events that happen later on, giving them much more significance. When Vader finally kills Palpatine at the end of Return of the Jedi, for example, the moment is a little richer and more powerful for having seen what Palpatine put Vader through in his early days.

Dammit. Just… Dammit.

In this book, we get a good look at the Master-Disciple relationship of the Sith, and the precarious balance that it requires. The Master works his hardest to break and subjugate his disciple in order to make him strong enough so that he will one day exceed his master. The problem is that, traditionally, the disciple usually kills the master at that point, finds a new disciple of his own, and the cycle begins anew. Palpatine is looking to avoid that, if at all possible, and Vader is just itching for a chance. The key is that power is an end unto itself, and the cycle of murder is just a part of that.

But at the end of Jedi, Vader kills his master for the benefit of another, something that is antithetical to the core philosophy of the Sith. Vader gained no power by killing Palpatine, at least not in the sense that he understood “power” up to that point.

Star Wars purists might stay away from the novels, and that’s certainly their right. I think this one is worth reading, though. It’s an excellent move away from the horrorshow that was the new trilogy, and does a very good job at helping us rediscover the Darth Vader that we all came to know and love.

——————————-
“The old system is dead, senator. You would be wise to subscribe to the new one.”
– Darth Vader

Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader on Wikipedia
James Luceno on Wikipedia
Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader on Amazon.com

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Filed under coming of age, good and evil, James Luceno, science fiction, Star Wars

Review 172: The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time 02)

Wheel of Time 02: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

Excerpted from the White Tower Guide to Channeling, Section Four: So You’re a Man who can Channel:

There comes a time in every young man’s life where he begins to notice some changes – maybe you have new feelings about the Girl Next Door, or you may want to spend more time away from your parents. And there will of course be changes in your body, that’s for sure. Yes, it’s all part of a young man’s journey into becoming an adult!

Some of these changes might be a little embarrassing – acne, wet dreams, or, in some cases, channeling the One Power.

Yes, some unlucky boys may find themselves able to move objects without touching them, light fires with their minds, or make the very earth under their feet shake and crack. If you have experienced unusual happenings, followed by feelings of sickness, euphoria or general unease, you may be able to channel the tainted saidin that drove Lews Therin and every male Aes Sedai of the Age of Legends horribly insane. If left alone, your future does not look good.

This is Jimmy. He started channeling when he was eighteen years old. He didn’t want to, and he tried to stop, but the Wheel Weaves as the Wheel Wills, and in one night he killed everyone in his village with a raging firestorm. Unfortunately, the Aes Sedai couldn’t get to him in time, and he hanged himself before his twenty-first birthday.

This is Freddie. He started to channel when he was twenty, and managed to hold it off for five years. Then the wasting disease set in. We would show you the other side of his face, but trust us – it’s not a pretty sight. If Freddie had gone to Tar Valon earlier, he might have avoided this terrible fate.

Billy here was one of the lucky ones. When he started to channel, he was quickly found by the diligent sisters of the Red Ajah. He was rushed to Tar Valon where he was gentled, making him a threat to society – and himself – no longer! Put on a happy face, Billy! You’re a productive member of society again!

So if you’re a young man experiencing the dangerous thrill of channeling saidin, rush to the White Tower today! Your life – and the lives of those you love – may depend on it!

Unless, of course, your name is Rand al’Thor and you happen to be the Dragon Reborn. In that case, you have a lot more to worry about.

Rand is caught in a bind. After the events in The Eye of the World, he has discovered that he’s able to channel saidin, the male half of the One Power that drives the Wheel of Time and thus underpins the universe. Unfortunately for him, saidin was tainted many years ago by the Dark One, as a final revenge against those who trapped him in his prison. The result is that any man who channels saidin is doomed to go mad, waste away, and die.

This thing is no end of trouble...

But Rand is not just any man. He is the Dragon Reborn, the man who is fated to face down and defeat the Dark One during the Final Battle. He is the reincarnation of one of the most powerful Aes Sedai of the Age of Legends, Lews Therin Telamon, the man who led the mission against the Dark One that ended in the Breaking of the World. If he were to go mad, it would be a Very Bad Thing, thus all the Capital Letters.

He loves his friends, but fears for their safety. He wants to leave the keep at Fal Dara along the border of the Blight, but he can’t. He wants to be free of Aes Sedai, but he soon finds himself before the Amyrlin Seat, the woman who leads all Aes Sedai. He cannot stay and he cannot go, and the pressure is starting to get to him, to the point where he tries the classic trick of trying to distance himself from his friends by making them think he doesn’t like them anymore. Mat and Perrin know something is up with their friend, but they don’t know what. As for as they know, Rand is just putting on airs and letting the fame of finding the fabled Horn of Valere go to his head. If their disdain is enough to protect them, of course, then Rand is willing to encourage it.

All of this is put on hold, however, when Padan Fain, one of the darkest Darkfriends in the world, escapes from his cell in Fal Dara’s dungeon and steals both the Horn and a cursed dagger that is linked to Mat’s soul. Without it, Mat could die within weeks. So, they go off on a great hunt for Fain and his co-conspirators, hoping to find the Horn before it is blown and the spirits of the greatest heroes in history are forced to serve the Shadow.

Though not quite as much trouble as this.

Elsewhere, Egwene and Nynaeve, two women from Rand’s village, are on their way to Tar Valon to start their training to become Aes Sedai. There they meet Elayne, the daughter-heir of Andor, and become entangled in a plot by the Black Ajah – a fervently denied secret group of Aes Sedai that serve the Dark One. The women find themselves in the coastal city of Falme, where they face an army of nightmares. The Seanchan have come from across the sea to reclaim the rights of their ancestors, and any woman who can channel the One Power is forced into horrible slavery.

It’s a dense book.

There were several times during the book where I looked at the diminishing pages in the back and thought, “Wait, isn’t there more that happens here?” The answer, of course, is yes, but what takes up comparatively little space in the book looms much larger in my mind. The events at Falme, for example, with Egwene’s captivity and the plot to set her free, to say nothing of the Seanchan occupation itself and Rand’s rematch with the horrible Ba’alzamon, only take about 120 pages. The ramifications of those events, and their importance to not only this book but the series as a whole, seems to overshadow the brevity with which they’re told. And so I found myself surprised that so much happens in so little space, without it feeling horribly rushed.

And not nearly as much as this.

That’s a common feature of these books, which usually – but not always – comes off without a hitch. Jordan jumps between character groups, spending a few chapters here and there so that we never forget who’s doing what, and with whom. There are the occasional interludes to show the wider world – in this case, the activities of the Children of the Light, a fanatical, quasi-religious group that are a classic example of how people can do evil in the name of goodness. But the information is laid out very carefully, so that once you get to the climax of the book, you know everything you need to know so that the action can move as quickly as possible.

Of course, our world starts to expand as well. We not only get to see a few new places – Cairhien and Falme in particular – but we get a look inside the way the White Tower works, with Nynaeve’s test to become Accepted and Egwene’s new life as a novice. We get to see more of the Whitecloaks, who will do anything to preserve what they believe to be The Light. And we get a new view of history, especially with regards to Artur Hawkwing, one of the greatest rulers of the world after the Breaking, who is a constant presence throughout the book, even if he only shows up at the end.

The overarching theme of this book, at least as pertains to Rand, is leadership. As the Dragon Reborn, Rand is going to have to lead the nations of the world in the last battle against the Dark One, something he doesn’t feel particularly confident about. But that’s destiny for you, and what he wants doesn’t really have anything to do with how he’s going to end up. So this book is about Rand coming to terms not only with his identity as a leader of men, but also as the man the world has hoped for and feared for so long – the Dragon Reborn.

And the less said about this, the better. Even the Dark One pauses...

If you’re reading the series, then you don’t need my encouragement to go pick this up. If you’re still unsure if you want to commit yourself, however, be assured that this book does exactly what it should do – it propels the story forward, keeping the energy of the first book and giving us more questions than answers. It ends with what turns out to be a surprisingly emotional sequence. As many times as I’ve read it, I’m still moved by Egwene’s rage, Rand’s determination and Ingtar’s redemption.

For as much as this is Epic Fantasy, which isn’t so much about the characters as it is about the world in which they live, Jordan has created great characters here. People you want to know better and feel for as you read. You fear for their safety, not just physically but the safety of their very souls. When they triumph, you share their joy, and when they fail, you share that too. As big a story as this is, it’s all about the characters at this point, which makes for excellent reading.

Enjoy.

———————————————-
“Rand al’Thor. It does not sound like a name to inspire fear and set the world on fire.”
– Siuan Sanche, The Amyrlin Seat, The Great Hunt
———————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Great Hunt at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Great Hunt 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, madness, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry

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
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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.

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“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
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[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.

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“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