Category Archives: quest

Books about quests.

Review 202: Time Traveler

Time Traveler by Ronald Mallett, with Bruce Henderson

There are a lot of reasons to want to build a time machine. To learn the truth about historical places and events, to see creatures that have been extinct for millions of years, to kill Hitler – always a favorite. You could go to the Library of Alexandria and save the works of great scientists and philosophers that have been lost to history. You could document the Crucifixion or watch the fall of Rome first-hand. You could see Jimi or Elvis or Janice or Kurt in their heyday, watch the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, or talk engineering with DaVinci. With a time machine, the whole of history is open to you, and your options are just about limitless.

All Ron Mallett wanted to do with his time machine was see his dad.

Mastering time travel is easier if you have several lifetimes.

This book is not just about how one man went about figuring out how to travel through time. That in itself would be interesting, since time travel has been a dream of mankind ever since we figured out that time was a thing. There’s a lot of complicated science that goes into not just manipulating time, but figuring out that it can be manipulated, and it takes half a lifetime to master. A lot of popular science books focus on the science, unsurprisingly, and talk about how certain things were discovered and what can be done with them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but this book adds an extra element that’s often missing from other popular science texts. It talks about why.

When Ron Mallett was ten years old, his father died of a heart attack brought about by a combination of smoking, poor dietary choices, and a genetic inclination towards heart problems. Overnight, the man that young Ron loved and idolized was gone, leaving him directionless at an age when having a father can be so very important. With the loss of a beloved parent, it’s entirely possible that Ron could have seen his life crippled from that day onward.

It might have been, if not for H.G. Wells and his famous book, The Time Machine.

After he read this book, the notion that time could be navigated became the center of his life. His first attempt at a time machine – built of pipes and wires in his basement – was unsuccessful, of course. But he was undeterred, and realized that if he was going to make this dream come true, he would have to buckle down and start learning some science. Just the idea that he might one day build a machine to travel through time was enough to give him direction and purpose, and it set him on a course that would go on to define his life.

If he manages to make this work, the UCONN Velociraptors will be unstoppable!

The book is a memoir of his own travels through the world of physics and relativity, moving from one point to another as new ideas and discoveries signposted his route towards a theory of time travel. Initially guided by Einstein, Mallett went from being a young academic to programming computers for the Air Force, to becoming a full-fledged academic at the University of Connecticut. He makes sure that the reader can not only follow all the steps that he took, but that we can also see why he took them. What chance encounters and lucky finds pushed him forward, or what unfortunate incidents slowed him down. He reminds us all throughout the book of why he has chosen to do science, and never lets us forget this motivation.

At the same time, he is sure to tell us about two rather significant obstacles to his progress. The first, of course, was that he felt he couldn’t be honest about why he was studying what he was studying – relativity, black holes, lasers, that kind of thing. For fear that he would be labeled a crackpot and denied the opportunities he would need, he revealed his ambition to build a time machine only to those he felt he could absolutely trust. As far as anyone else was concerned, of course, he was just another theoretical physicist trying to figure out how the universe worked.

The other challenge he faced was that he was African-American in a field that was very, very white at the time. He had to deal with racism in both its overt and covert forms, and work even harder to prove himself to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see past his skin color. He doesn’t dwell on it in this book, since that’s not what this book is about. But I’m sure if he wanted to write about what it was like trying to break into physics academia as an African-American in the 60s and 70s, he probably could.

Ladies and gentlemen, the father of time travel.

What’s most important, though, is that he continually reminds us of why he’s doing what he’s doing. He talks about his father, and the memories he had of him. He keeps his non-academic life in view, letting us in on his personal triumphs and failures, his struggles with depression and his joys at advancing towards his goal. The end result is a book that is not only about science, but about a person. The emotional thread that runs through this book is strong, and even if you can’t quite follow the science, you can still follow the passion that Ron Mallett has for this project.

The book, while fascinating, is technically unfinished. He has yet to build his time machine, and there’s no proof that the ideas he’s come forward with will actually work, even if the math says they should. As the book finishes, he has a plan, and he lays out the way he thinks his machine should work, but we’ll have to wait to see how that works out. Whether he succeeds or fails, though, he has built up a lifetime of research that has expanded our understanding of space and time in such a way that Einstein – and Ron Mallett’s father – would no doubt be proud of.

——————
“Time stopped for me in the middle of the night on May 22, 1955.”
– Ron Mallett, “Time Traveler”
——————

Ron Mallett on Wikipedia
Time Traveler on Amazon.com
Ron Mallett’s UCONN homepage

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Filed under autobiography, nonfiction, physics, quest, Ron Mallett, school, time travel

Review 197: The Long Earth

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

It is said that the population of the whole world, if packed together into a city of the same density as New York City, would fit into the current boundaries of Texas. This Texan mega-city wouldn’t be a pleasant place to live, and there’s the challenge of infrastructure and living space and waste management, but the point is clear: there’s a lot more space on Earth than we think there is.

True, a lot of it is unfriendly to us – ocean, desert, ice, mountains, New Jersey – but still, despite our habit of packing ourselves into tightly-bound metropoli, there’s a lot of room on this earth to spread out.

Now imagine there was another Earth just a step away. A simple exertion of will, perhaps aided by a small device that anyone could make at home with a potato and some spare parts, and you’re in a new world, untouched by human hands. You’d be standing in the same place you left from, but on another Earth. And if you don’t like that one, well, there’s another Earth just a step away. And another. And another. An infinity of Earths, each one so very slightly different from the one you left, each with its own story to tell.

I’ll take the fifth Earth on the left. It’ll go well with my living room.

With the potential for an entire planet per person, what would that do to the world? Who would go and who would stay? What would happen to the “original” Earth, or Datum Earth as it’s called in this book? The ramifications of the Long Earth are far-reaching and unsettling indeed, as is the quest to map it.

Of the people on Datum Earth, most are able to step with the aid of a Stepper, a small box that they can build from freely available parts using plans that were posted to the internet by a mysterious engineer named Willis Linsay. As long as you follow the instructions properly and to the letter, you should be able to step from Earth to Earth with ease and only a minimum of discomfort.

The first wave of devices were built by kids, prompting an initial missing-children panic as kids popped out of this universe with hastily-built Steppers, completely unprepared for what they were getting into. Soon, though, more and more people were stepping out, eager to explore these strange new worlds.

At the forefront of this wave of colonization were the rare few who could step from world to world without a Stepper. One of these is Joshua Valienté, who was propelled to fame when he rescued children from their first journeys on Step Day. Joshua is hired by the Black Corporation to explore the Long Earth. With the support of Lobsang – formerly of Tibet and now an artificial intelligence – Joshua is going to step as far as he can go and see what there is to see at the distant ends of the Long Earth.

And for every one of you, there is another one with a goatee.

This is a genus of book that I really enjoy – one that takes a simple, straightforward idea and tries to find all the angles of it. To that end, Pratchett and Baxter look at how the people, governments, and businesses of Datum Earth adjust to this new reality. And some of the questions are decidedly thorny. Is America still America on all Earths? If someone commits a crime in an alternate New York, could they be prosecuted by the NYPD? What happens to the value of commodities such as wood or gold when you have a nigh-infinite supply of it? And what happens to a nation when its people start stepping out en masse?

There is a sub-plot in the book, following police Lieutenant Monica Jansson, who becomes the law’s expert on stepping, with all the challenges that come with it. For example, what can you do to stop someone from stepping one world over, taking a few steps to where a bank vault should be, and then stepping back? How do you make a space step-proof against intruders? And what do you do with the increasingly disgruntled percent of people who can’t step at all? That’s to say nothing of the scam artists, the escapees, and the people who just abandon their lives to walk the Long Earth. It’s a concept rife with possibilities.

Each Earth is slightly different, representing an Earth that could have been. Some are steaming jungle, others arid wasteland and still others are lush and perfect for agriculture. There are animals that claim descent from the megafauna of North America, from our own ape-like ancestors, and from dinosaurs, and others still that are unlike anything on the Earth we know. On none of them, however, are there humans – only the Datum Earth has those.

You can have my gun when you pry it from Anton Checkhov’s cold, dead hands!

As great as the concept is, though, I found myself disappointed by the end of it. It seemed like Pratchett and Baxter missed a lot of good opportunities for the story, failed to fire at least one of Chekhov’s guns, and let the Datum Earth plot line with Monica Jansson go woefully under-explored. Furthermore, while the Big Bad at the end was certainly big, it wasn’t that bad, and it was dealt with in a rather perfunctory and, in my opinion, unfulfilling manner. The ending was flat, with a bunch of loose ends that really should have been tied up, and there was even one question that came to mind that seemed so painfully obvious that I was shocked none of the characters thought of it: the Stepper boxes refer to the alternate Earths as being “west” or “east” of Datum Earth, and are built with a three-point toggle switch.

If there’s a west and an east, how about a north and south? What if you had four choices from any given Earth instead of two? I can understand leaving that option out for reasons of narrative simplicity, but it seems like such an obvious question that I’m surprised it wasn’t even raised.

Overall, I think the book fell under the same curse as so many of Neal Stephenson’s works: an amazing idea, done really well until the authors had to figure out how to end the book. There’s no real climax to it, no sense of fulfillment and achievement. Just a feeling like they had to stop somewhere, so they did.

That said, if they’re clever, they’ll make this a shared world project. I would love to see lots of different authors take a crack at some Tales of the Long Earth, precisely because it’s such a useful idea. There are so many stories that can be told, including the ones that got short shrift in this novel. Let’s hope we get to see that.

———-
[Jansson] opined, ‘Oh.’ This response seemed inadequate in itself. After some consideration, she added, ‘My.’ And she concluded, although in the process she was denying a lifelong belief system of agnosticism shading to outright atheism, ‘God.’
– from The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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Filed under adventure, alternate earth, colonization, quest, revolution, science fiction, Stephen Baxter, Terry Pratchett, travel, world-crossing

Review 195: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

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

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

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

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

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

If he survives.

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

Nope, he’s going to die too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review 188: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks has probably saved your life. If not yours, then almost certainly that of someone you know.

And you don’t even know who she is.

Or, rather, who she was. The original Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who lived near Baltimore, grew up in poverty, worked hard, and died in 1951, overcome by a cancer that started in her cervix and spread out to take over her whole body. She left behind five children, a husband, and a legacy that would forever change our understanding of biology and medicine.

This picture is required to be inserted into any discussion of Henrietta Lacks, for good reason.

When she first went to Johns Hopkins Medical Center and was diagnosed with cancer, her doctor took a small sample of cells from the tumor and sent it to his colleague, George Gey. Gey had long been in the pursuit of what seemed like an impossible dream: to culture human cells and keep them alive in the lab. By doing so, he hoped to create new ways to test medicine and study human biology without all those pesky patients getting in the way. Unfortunately, his work had thus far been a failure. Human cells, no matter how hard he tried, simply would not survive outside the body for very long. Gey tried all kinds of media and methods, inventing some machines that have become invaluable to cell culture research, but he simply watched culture after culture die in the lab.

All of that changed when he got HeLa.

The cells from Henrietta Lacks, which were known as “HeLa,” not only didn’t die – they thrived. They were so robust that Gey and his staff soon had more HeLa cells than they could keep, much less use, so they started sending them off to any researcher who asked. With HeLa, researchers around the world began to make discoveries that would save lives and change the world.

But with this ever-growing cell line – which was baked, boiled, frozen, irradiated, cloned, cut up, and sent into space – it was very easy to forget that there was once a woman named Henrietta Lacks, with a family and a legacy of her own.

Plenty has been written about HeLa in the last fifty years, and any researcher who works with cells is probably well aware of its existence and importance. But very few people know about Henrietta, and it was this oversight that Rebecca Skloot is trying to correct in this book.

Henrietta finally gets a gravestone

She began her quest with a simple question: “Who was Henrietta Lacks?” The fact that she got the right name was surprising enough, actually. HeLa had previously been identified as Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane, and Helen Larson in various publications. Skloot believed that there was more to the story than just a bunch of immortal cells, and was determined to find Henrietta’s surviving relatives and learn more about this woman who had somehow become so important to the world.

Skloot wouldn’t be the first, however. A writer for Rolling Stone, a con man, and the BBC had all attempted to look into the life of Henrietta before, and found that the surviving Lackses were not only unaware of what their mother had become, but largely unaware of why it was important.

The children and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks had grown up in the Baltimore area, mired in the poverty of being black in the end of the twentieth century. Drug abuse, alcoholism, and a lack of education meant that their lives were full of hardship and struggle, and not likely to get any better. When they found out that Henrietta’s cells were not only unique to science but being sold all around the world, this was news that they weren’t all prepared to cope with. Some saw it as a religious visitation, others as a massive conspiracy, and still others as just a way to make money off some poor black folk from the city.

Deborah Lacks

The center of Skloot’s narrative is Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter and the one Lacks who seemed most determined to find out what had happened. Deborah wanted so hard to find out what had happened to her mother that it almost killed her. The stress of not knowing – or, even worse, knowing but not understanding – took a heavy toll on her physical and mental health, and she was reluctant to talk to anyone at all about her mother. But it was Deborah that Rebecca had to convince if she was going to write this book, and in order to do that, she had to promise that the book would be about the woman Henrietta was, not just the cells she was famous for.

That’s probably what makes this book as readable and engaging as it is. While the science is handled well and smoothly, it’s not nearly as fascinating or emotionally gripping as the stories that she tells about the Lacks family. She shows us a family that is held together by the strength of their faith in their God and each other, and who are desperately trying to understand their place in the world and how Henrietta came to be what she was.

HeLa cells, as seen stained under a microscope

When the original cells were taken from Henrietta, it was done without her consent. She also had no say in what happened to those cells and how they were used, nor did any of her family find out the truth until years later. In an era long before the phrase “informed consent” was even coined, the medical establishment made massive scientific and financial gains, and in the meantime the Lacks were mired in poverty. As several of her children note, Henrietta has changed medicine forever, but her children can’t go see a doctor.

The struggle to understand must have been enormous. One of the moments that was most surprising and illuminating to me was when Henrietta’s son Zakariyya asked Rebecca, “What’s a cell?”

Just like Rebecca, I had to take a moment to absorb that question, and it put into sharp perspective the vast assumptions that I had made, coming from a well-educated white background. I thought that everyone at least knew what a cell was, but that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. Deborah and her family are people of minimal formal education who are trying to understand a topic that people study for their entire lives. Their dedication to this quest is so strong, and the struggle is so great that their attempt is nothing less than heroic, to my way of seeing things.

The Lacks Family

The story is still unfinished. HeLa is still out there, making news and causing trouble. The Lacks family is still living in poverty, although the new generation has been able to go to school and are aiming at a brighter future for themselves. And while patients’ rights to control what is done with their bodies and their tissues is improving, the law is still on the side of the doctors and hospitals. Medical ethics is a lot better than it was, but the fight is fierce, especially when there’s money involved.

This book is not just the story of cells or of science. It’s the story of a woman and her family, and how sometimes people get lost in the inexorable movement of scientific progress. Some parts are infuriating, some are heartbreaking, but the book is an illumination into what is sometimes sacrificed in pursuit of a better world.

—–
“When I saw those toenails, I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
– Mary Kubicek, assistant to George Gey

Rebecca Skloot on Wikipedia
Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Amazon.com
The Henrietta Lacks Foundation website
The Lacks Family website
Rebecca Skloot homepage

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Filed under biology, disease, family, nonfiction, quest, Rebecca Skloot, science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“It would be easier if this was a story.”
– Rand
——————————————————–

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Fires of Heaven at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Fires of Heaven at Amazon.com

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

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

Review 181: The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time 04)

Wheel of Time 04: The Shadow Rising

This one is all about history.

One of the things that makes the world of Wheel of Time so attractive is that it is clear from the outset that Robert Jordan put a lot of work into the world of his story before he actually started the story itself. I get the feeling, reading these books, that he could tell you everything that happened here for the last four thousand years, if not more. In detail, with names and dates and places, all off the top of his head. Or at least from his copious sheafs of notes.

Your name is a killing word? Kinda hard to say your name with an arrow in your throat… (art by Jeremy Saliba)

In this book, the emphasis on history is most clear when Rand goes out to meet the Aiel. For those of you with a taste for classic sci-fi, the Aiel resemble the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. They’re desert people, and unsurpassed warriors, with a complex system of honor and obligation. There’s where the similarities end, of course – in these books there is no Spice, there are no sandworms, and no one in this would would ever think they could conquer the Aiel. Twenty years prior to the start of the series, four of the twelve Aiel clans crossed the mountainous barrier into the “wetlands” with the singular purpose of killing King Laman of Cairhien. Those four clans alone broke every army that stood against them, and only returned to their desert because they got what they wanted – Laman’s head on a pike.

No one knew why they had done this. Prior to the Aiel War, the nation of Cairhien had exclusive rights of passage through the waste, a gift that they didn’t understand, and ultimately didn’t fully appreciate. But without those rights, and without the offense that King Laman caused, and without the Aiel retaliation, this story never would have begun.

Reading this book, you start to get a better view of the historical context in which it is placed, and nowhere is that clearer than in Rand al’Thor’s trip into Rhuidean, the forbidden city of the Aiel. Any man who wants to become a clan chief, or any woman who wants to become a Wise One, may go there, but only once and twice, respectively. What they learn is their final test – the true history of their people. Those who cannot face the truth do not come back. Stronger men and women go on to become leaders, but never speak of what they saw. In order to fulfill his destiny, Rand must learn the history of the people he was born from, and by doing so, change the world.

It’s a fascinating sequence, actually – it’s the history of the Aiel from the day the hole was bored into the Dark One’s prison, through fifteen generations of the Aiel as refugees until the establishment of the city of Rhuidean itself, only told backwards. We find out why they never touch swords, why they veil their faces, and why they believe they are punished for sinning against the Aes Sedai. We get to see the incredible changes that occurred in only three or four hundred years, and then reflect that the time span we see only covers a small portion of the time that has elapsed since the Breaking of the World. We truly begin to understand how broken the world was and how hard life became, once we compare the hardened warrior Aiel to their Da’shain Aiel ancestors. It’s a fascinating and moving story, and it serves as an excellent centerpiece to the novel.

He’s not all fun and laughs.

History rests in other places as well through the book. Mat gains the memories of two thousand years, in a surprising exchange with otherworldly entities in a land beyond a twisted red doorway. We learn that the Sea Folk are looking for their Chosen One, just like everyone else, and Elayne and Nynaeve are pretty sure it’s Rand. They’re off to Tanchico to look for an artifact that could prove Rand’s undoing if the Black Ajah or the Forsaken get their hands on it first.

In fact, speaking of history, there has been a lot of speculation over the years on how the world of this book is related to our world. There are clues scattered about that suggest it is our extreme future – fairy tales about Anla, the Wise Counselor, Materese, Mother of the Wondrous Ind, and Lenn who rode to the moon in the belly of a fiery eagle (who could be Ann Landers, Mother Theresa and John Glenn, respectively). Jordan never came right out and said whether this is our world’s future or not, but a short passage in this book dropped a pretty big hint. While looking around a palace in Tanchico for the artifact that could harm Rand, Nynaeve travels the Dream World into a museum of antiquities. There, she sees many things that amaze and baffle her – fossils of extinct animals, for example often with some kind of emotional resonance. In her search, she finds this:

A silvery thing in another cabinet, like a three-pointed star inside a circle, was made of no substance she knew; it was softer than metal, scratched and gouged, yet even older than any of the ancient bones. From ten paces, she could sense pride and vanity.

If that ain’t a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, I’ll eat my library.

Over in the White Tower, history is being made as Siuan Sanche becomes only the third Amyrlin Seat in history to be deposed in a move orchestrated by the hardest of the Red Ajah, Elaida a’Roihan. And all around, the shadow is indeed rising – the Forsaken are out there, building their power and waiting for Rand so that they might defeat him before he battles their master, the Dark One.

But the best part of the book, in my opinion, is none of these. The best part centers around Perrin Aybara, the young blacksmith who was one of the original three young men to travel out of the Two Rivers on that spring night long ago.

Hi. We’re the forces of evil, pleased to meet you. Nice village you have here…

Back in The Great Hunt, the vile Darkfriend Padan Fain challenged Rand to meet him – failure to do so would result in pain and suffering brought down on all those whom he loved. Through circumstances not entirely under his control, Rand never got to meet Fain, though he did manage to cause him great inconvenience nonetheless. Fain meant to keep his promise, though, and in this book that promise is realized. The Two Rivers has been under siege by creatures from the Shadow – Trollocs and Myrddraal – and less Dark, though still not very nice Children of the Light, an army of zealots who sees Darkfriends in everyplace they look. Rand can’t go home to help – his destiny lies in the Aiel Waste – and Mat’s destiny lies with Rand. Egwene has to go to the Waste as well, to learn Dreamwalking from the Wise Ones, and Nynaeve is off to Tanchico to hunt the Black Ajah.

That leaves only Perrin, who goes back to his home to find it a very different place. He and Faile, the Hunter for the Horn whom he loves, along with Loial and three Aiel, travel back to the Two Rivers and Emond’s Field to put paid to the Trollocs and see that the people there are safe. In the process, Perrin the blacksmith’s apprentice finds himself becoming far more than he ever thought he would be.

This sequence is one of my favorites in the series thus far, and I’m including all the books that come after this one. It’s written with such depth of character, and the relationship between Perrin and Faile is built with such care that every scene between them resonates with emotion and meaning. In one book, Jordan has taken a character who had been the least interesting of all the protagonists, and made him into the one you care the most about. It’s not for nothing that Jordan gave Perrin an entire book off in The Fires of Heaven.

No matter which era we’re looking at, no one will be as creepy as Padan Fain. (art by Seamus Gallagher)

The historical insight we have gained here will help us along through the rest of the series, as we take a broader look at the world as it is in the present. Every character, not just Perrin, is changed and moved forward, if not always in likable ways, and we get the real sense that a new history is being made right now. We know that stories will be told of Perrin Goldeneyes for generations to come in the Two Rivers, that Elayne and Nynaeve will become legends among Aes Sedai, though whether as heroes or object lessons we can’t be sure yet, and that the fate of the future rests not on Rand’s back alone. He makes the Aiel face their past, and those who can survive the ordeal will be the shapers of the future.

The thousand or so pages of this volume can drag, if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. The history of Rhuidean is a good example – the first time I read it, I was really confused and didn’t really see the point of the whole thing – I wished it had focused less on the post-Breaking history and more on the Age of Legends, with its jo-cars and hoverflies, the Nym and the Ogier and the Da’shain Aiel working together. But once you give it thought – why it was vital that the clan chiefs and Wise Ones remember, and how the events of nearly three thousand years ago directly led to the birth of Rand al’Thor and the very story we are reading, it goes from being a slog to an adventure.

Still, I recommend taking notes.

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“Rand al’Thor may be lucky if the next Age remembers his name correctly.”
– Thom Merrilin
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Shadow Rising at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Shadow Rising 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, history, quest, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 179: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End by David Wong

There are really only so many things you can do with horror these days. I think we’ve all been somewhat desensitized by the ever-increasing variety and imaginativeness that has come with the horror genre in recent years, and so you know that sooner or later you’re going to find yourself yawning theatrically at someone being forced to devour their own brains with a spoon made from their still-living child’s hollowed-out sternum and say, “Seen it.”

There are always new avenues for horror…

As that moment approaches, the aspiring horror writer will need to start worrying less about the mechanics of the whole thing – the inventiveness of their devices and the goriness of characters’ ends – and more about how their story will stand out among an ever-broadening field. David Wong has chosen to use two interesting techniques in the writing of his book: comedy and wondrous incomprehensibility.

Wong (not his real name, for reasons he makes clear in the book) is a writer over at Cracked.com, a humor site on which I have spent many a good commute. Wong’s work there tends towards video games and social issues, generating columns such as, “9 Types of Job That Will Destroy Your Soul,” “5 Ways to Tell You’re Getting Too Old for Video Games,” and one of my favorites, “How Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.” He and Cracked are part of one of my favorite archipelagoes of the internet, where pop culture is analyzed with more seriousness than it deserves, and where many of the ideas that we take for granted are put under the microscope. Yes, it tends to reduce issues and oversimplify things from time to time, but they’re fun reading.

His years of writing humor have allowed him to create a very distinctive voice for the narrator of this book, also named David Wong, who is telling his story to a reporter – the story of how David and his friend John came to be able to peel the lid off the universe and peer into its dark, black, pestilent heart. Through the use of a bizarre drug that they call Soy Sauce, they are able to see through time, to communicate over great distances through unconventional means, and to observe phenomena that no one else can see.

This is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. It turns out that there is a whole lot of stuff out there that we can’t see, and most of it is truly terrifying. Forget simple things like ghosts and other spookiness. We’re talking seven-legged spiders with bad blonde wigs, tiny corkscrew insects that scream as they infect their victims, red-eyed shadowmen that remove you from having ever existed, and, watching all of this from his own adjacent universe, Korrock. And the less you know about him, the better.

The dark god Khi’kho-Ma’an is a harsh and unforgiving master.

Where you and I, having seen what cannot be unseen, might just do the rational thing and kill ourselves, David and John go along for the ride, trying to figure out where the monsters are coming from and doing their best not to become them. This universe, you see, is a fundamentally bad place, in more ways than we can really understand. But it’s only bad from our very restricted point of view, as if that really made any difference. David and John are afforded a bit of a better perspective, thanks to the Soy Sauce, but it doesn’t help much. They fight against the darkness, all with a certain rough, adolescent wit that will keep you moving forward even through the rough patches in the book.

And there are certainly rough patches. This is Wong’s first novel, and he’s chosen to make a very ambitious start of it, telling a story that is not only one of embedded, non-linear narratives and vast, hyper-real situations, but with an unreliable narrator to boot. The story straddles vast levels, from the interpersonal to the interdimensional, and it’s being filtered through someone who isn’t entirely sure that he can explain what happened. The reporter he talks to is the avatar of the reader, a hard-boiled, heard-it-all-before type who has to be dragged and convinced every step of the way before he starts believing these tales of wig monsters and doppelgangers. And through it all, Wong drops hints of the horrors to come, the fact that his story isn’t finished yet and that it almost certainly will not end well.

That kind of structure would be tough for any writer to pull off, and Wong does a reasonably good job at it. The dialogue between David and John is quick and funny, tending towards penis jokes, pop-culture references and the occasional bad pun. They play off each other in the way that only old friends can, and they help keep the reader grounded in a story that is fundamentally about being completely uprooted. And even with all the heavy-handed foreshadowing, Wong makes sure that all his promises to the reader are kept.

Well, all but one. But I won’t tell you which one that is.

This is probably one of the more normal parts of the story.

So long as you don’t take too long in getting through the book, you should be fine. I read about a hundred pages and then, for a variety of reasons, had to put it down for a week or so. When I came back to it, I realized that I had no idea what had happened before and had to start again. Much like David and John, your only good option is to barrel ahead without reservation and just hope that everything will turn out okay in the end.

And does everything turn out okay? Well, considering that Wong is hoping to write more books in this particular line, and that JDatE has been picked up as a movie, I would say that “okay” is a fair assessment. The world is still a weird, messed-up place which, if we truly understood it, would crush our fragile psyches like a peanut under a tractor tire, but it does seem a little bit more manageable.

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“Son, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world there was only one of him.”
– Marconi, John Dies at the End

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, David Wong, demons, disaster, doppelgangers, good and evil, horror, humor, madness, mystery, quest, world-crossing