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Books about survival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review 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.

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“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 142: Otherland 1 – City of Golden Shadow

Otherland 1: City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

Let me just start by saying this: the first time I finished this series, I immediately went back and started reading it again. I can’t think of any other series that I’ve done that with.

This is one of Tad Williams’ “economy-sized manuscripts,” similar to his fantasy classic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Similar in size and scope, anyway – four giant tomes chock full of all things awesome. It’s a series of grand scope, amazing scale and great imagination, well worthy of your time. It’s a complex, interweaving of tales, full of vibrant characters, implacable enemies, and important questions about destiny, identity, consciousness and the very nature of reality itself.

Seriously, top-shelf stuff here, people.

Mind you, Second Life's dreams aren't all that big.

It begins in a near-future world, and it begins with the children. Renie Sulaweyo, a teacher in South Africa, has a brother in the hospital. He, like many other children around the world, has gone into an inexplicable coma, the causes of which defy medical science. The only clue she has is that the outbreaks of these comas coincide with the availability of access to the Net – a virtual reality internet that is what Second Life dreams of becoming. Here, depending on your equipment, you can live in a virtual world that is more vibrant and exciting than anything the real world can offer. And you can do it in full sense-surround 3D.

Renie’s brother, Stephen, engaged in the usual mischief that any kid with access to his own virtual universe might do, and finally got caught. Something shut him down, and Renie was determined to find out what did it. With the assistance of her student, a Bushman named !Xabbu, Renie uncovers an amazing virtual world, something that puts the best virtual reality to shame. It is the Otherland, a playground for the obscenely wealthy. And it may hold the secret to what has afflicted her brother.

And if you think WoW is nuts now? Imagine it fully immersive. Okay, nerds, get back to gold farming...

That’s the short version, and since Renie is the one we’re introduced to first, it would be easy to think of her as the protagonist of the story. That would be highly inaccurate, though. There’s a lot of other storylines going on in there as well. There’s young Orlando Gardiner, who compensates for a crippling illness by being the baddest barbarian on the net. His best friend, Sam Fredericks, has stood by him for many years in an online game that makes World of Warcraft look like pen and paper D&D. They and others are lured into a deadly quest by a vision of a great golden city, more realistic and magical than they ever thought they could find.

Out in the real world, there’s little Christabel Sorenson, upon whose earnest desire to help the funny-looking Mister Sellars the entire future of the Otherland rests. There’s the aptly-named Dread, an assassin extraordinare whose strange “twist” gives him an edge in all things electronic. And, of course, there is Paul Jonas, a man trapped in an imaginary world, whose escape threatens the greatest dreams of the richest men the world has ever known.

All of this, as the series title suggests, centers on the Otherland project, a virtual reality of monumental proportions. It’s a digital world that is more real than the real world is, a world of computer-created, but very deadly, dangers. The slightest misstep could spell disaster and death – die in the Otherland and you die in real life.

This doesn't happen in Otherland, by the way. Lucky them.

And just FYI, Otherland predates The Matrix by three years and, kung-fu aside, is a much better story. So if you’re thinking, “Man, this is just a Matrix rip-off, you’re very, very wrong.

It’s a daunting series to begin. After all, it’s four books, each one clocking in around 800 to 900 pages. There are at least fifteen major characters, and the Otherland itself shows us seven different “worlds” in this book alone. There’s a lot to take in, and on top of all that, there’s a whole world happening outside the story – each chapter is preceded with a small news blurb that tells us about things that are going on in the world. Cops rounding up homeless kids in lethal “snipe hunts,” homicidal artists, legislative representation for the industrial sector of America – this world is both familiar and alien at the same time.

Then again, neither does this. Tad Williams does have his limits.

The good news is that it is a lot of fun to read. The pacing is very good, so you never get too bored watching any one character for a while. What’s more, Williams pays homage to some of the greatest fantasy and science fiction the English-speaking world has to offer. At one point, even the characters admit that they seem to be caught up in a very familiar story. So my advice is to just dive right into it. Once you get going, things clip along at a good pace and you’ll find yourself on page 943 in no time flat.

The really fun part is re-discovering things in this series. There are some things I remember very clearly, but other little details that pop up and make me think, “Oh yeah, I forgot all about that.” I enjoy seeing Williams’ prescience – after all, he wrote this just as the internet was really becoming popular, and a good ten years before things like online gaming and social media took over our lives. His vision of an immersive, VR world may have seemed a little wild and out there back in the mid-nineties, but not anymore.

So, make a sandwich and find a comfortable place to sit. This’ll take a while, but I guarantee – it’ll be worth it.

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“If you have found this, then you have escaped. Know this – you were a prisoner. You are not in the world in which you were born. Nothing around you is true, and yet the things you see can hurt you or kill you. You are free, but you will be pursued….”
– Sellars to Paul Jonas, Otherland: City of Golden Shadow
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
City of Golden Shadow on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, brothers, fantasy, fathers, friendship, gender, gender roles, internet, quest, science fiction, sisters, survival, Tad Williams, transhumanism, virtual reality, world-crossing

Review 130: The Wave

The Wave by Susan Casey

Okay, I want you to do something for me. Close your eyes.

Wait. No, that won’t work. Open your eyes again.

Eyes open? Good. Now imagine you’ve closed your eyes, but don’t actually close them because that will rather impair your ability to read this review.

So, you’re imagining that your eyes are closed. Now imagine you’re on a cruise ship. It’s a lovely place – blue water, blue skies, the faint scent of salt in the air, the waves lapping up against the hull of the boat in a soothing rhythm. It’s a perfect way to spend a vacation.

You get a daiquiri and lean on the railing, looking out towards the horizon. This is nice, you think. Just what I –

Wait. What is that?

You shield your eyes from the sun to get a better look and see what looks for all the world like a shadow on the horizon, stretching long and with flecks of light shimmering off its top. As it gets closer, it gets bigger, and you can feel the boat drop under your feet. The water gets higher and higher, and you know this can’t possibly be happening because for the wave to be that high, it would have to be at least sixty or seventy feet. In thirty-five foot waters.

Hokusai wasn't kidding around....

A shadow is cast over the boat as the wave crests above you, and the last thing you think before the top comes down, shattering the cruise ship like it was made of so much balsa wood, is, “I wonder what it would be like to surf that….”

It has often been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our own oceans. I have no idea who first said it, or in what form it was said, but reading this book drives home that it is absolutely correct. What’s more, that ignorance may well kill us. The oceans are full of relentless mysteries and hypnotic beauty, but also terrors and dangers the likes of which we shorebound humans have trouble understanding. The sea has always been a dangerous place, really. We know that. What we don’t know is what all of those dangers are.

Tales of giant waves have been around since antiquity, but until recently, people didn’t really believe them. It defied everything that was known about the ocean – to say nothing of common sense – to have waves appear out of nowhere, rise to heights of up to a hundred feet or more, wreak havoc on oceangoing vessels, and then vanish. These were the tales of sailors, whom everyone knew could not be trusted to tell the truth about their journeys.

"First Mate! Fetch me my brown pants!" (photo by MyFram Expedition blog)

Perhaps that is why Casey chooses to open with a scene from a research vessel in the North Atlantic. The RRS Discovery was on a routine mission to gather data about the sea between the British Isles and Iceland when it found itself under attack by the ocean itself. The ship was hit over and over again by waves reaching up to sixty feet, then dropped down into the void between waves and lifted up again, over and over for five days. Things that weren’t bolted down flew in mad directions all over the ship, and many things that were bolted down – like lifeboats – were ripped off their moorings. It was so terrifying that the scientists on board, after they had gotten home, wrote one of the very few research papers that included a note at the end thanking the captain for bringing them back alive. Only great skill and good luck saved that ship from oblivion in waters that seemed to have risen up for the sole purpose of destroying it.

No one – no weather forecaster or meteorologist, oceanographer or climatologist – no one thought that waves of that size could exist under those conditions. And yet there they were, and the Discovery’s instruments captured it all.

Scientists who study the oceans are just beginning to understand how waves work on the ocean, but the almost infinite number of variables that contribute to making waves is so overwhelming that it’s hard to conclusively predict where and when these rogue waves will appear. Other people who work with the sea – salvage operators, ship captains, insurers – know that this kind of thing is possible, and that the sea carries risks with it that no other form of transportation faces. Every year, dozens of ships are lost, and with them go many lives and countless dollars worth of merchandise. Some of these losses come from human error, but others come because the ocean is an inherently dangerous place for us to be. It is vital for our safety and our economy that we know how the ocean works, but we are nowhere near being able to do that.

What’s worse, the onset of climate change could make current models obsolete as the seas become higher, rougher, and more unpredictable. We are racing against the clock – and losing.

But for all the scientists who are trying to map the behavior of waves, there is a community of people who seek them out. People who know the waves intimately, even if they can’t write an equation to tell you what it is they know, exactly. These people are the surfers, and if there was ever a group of people more attached and attuned to the sea, they’d have to be mermen.

To find this picture, just Google "Laird Hamilton" and "Oh my god"

Casey spends a lot of time with surfer Laird Hamilton. I wanted to say “the famous Laird Hamilton,” but I didn’t know the man existed until I read this book, which makes him one of those people who is very famous, but only to the kind of people who would find him famous. Now that I know more about him and his community, though, I can certainly understand why he has the prestige that he does. Among big-wave surfers, he is a legend. And that takes some doing.

To ride a regular wave, you see, you get out there with your board, get behind the point where the waves start to break, and paddle to catch up. With the big waves, though, they’re moving much too fast for a paddler to get into position, so the big-wave riders have someone on a jet ski to pull them along. Once in position, the jet ski goes down the back of the wave while the surfer heads down the front where, hopefully, he won’t be killed. If he falls off, his partner has to come in, find him, and get them both out before the next giant wave – and where there’s one wave there are always more – comes in to crush them both. Regular surfing has its share of dangers, but the perils of big-wave surfing are orders of magnitude worse.

There is a whole community of surfers looking to ride these great waves. They travel across the world on the mere possibility of great surfing, heading to places with names like Jaws, Mavericks, or Egypt, all in the hope of catching the biggest waves. Injuries are common, and sometimes terrible. Death is always an option. But they come anyway, just for that moment of zenlike awareness of the Eternal Now that you can only truly achieve when you’re riding down the face of a wave and trying not to die.

Bronze surfers are surprisingly successful. Just not at surfing. (photo by atomicity on Flickr)

I don’t like the ocean, myself. I find it too big, too impersonal. It’s a place that could swallow you whole and leave no trace you were ever there. It’s a place that cares nothing for us puny humans and will, on a whim, try to destroy us. I certainly appreciate the ocean and what it does for us, and it’s nice to look at. But I certainly don’t trust it, and this book really didn’t help in that regard. From tales of ships crushed by rogue waves south of Africa to waves so large and so powerful they could strip the bark off the trees they uprooted, it was a testament to the fact that the moment we underestimate the ocean is the moment it kills us.

What’s more, with climate change being what it is, our problems with the ocean are going to turn into new and different ones. The models we have now – good though they are – are incomplete, and the changes that are coming in the future will keep scientists on their toes for years to come. As Casey notes, wave science is a very young discipline, but it is one that needs attention if we’re going to safeguard our coastal cities and global commerce.

This book is an exciting read about a topic you’ve probably never given much thought to. You fear for both the surfers and the scientists, and in the end realize just how much there is about the ocean that we still don’t know. I don’t know about you, but it kind of freaks me out….

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“If you can look at one of these waves and you don’t believe that there’s something greater than we are, then you’ve got some serious analyzing to do and you should go sit under a tree for a very long time.”
– Laird Hamilton
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Susan Casey’s homepage
Laird Hamilton on Wikipedia
The Wave on Amazon.com

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Filed under climate change, disaster, environment, nonfiction, oceanography, oceans, surfing, survival, Susan Casey

Review 116: Song of Susannah

Song of Susannah by Stephen King

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

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

Book art by Darrel Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

Book art by Darrel Anderson

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

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

(re-reads that last sentence)

Right.

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

Book art by Darrel Anderson

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

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

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

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

Art by Klaimko

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

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

So I do have an unfair advantage.

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

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

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

The Three Amigos? GalaxyQuest?

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

'We deal in lead, friend.' - Vin

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

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

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

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

If only it were that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it....

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

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

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

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“First come smiles, then comes lies. Last is gunfire.”
– Roland, Wolves of the Calla
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Review 66: Life of Pi


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn’t nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.

The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, “I think you’d really like it.”

He was right.

It’s one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you’ve finished. It’s one of those books where people see you reading it and say, “I read that – it’s really good, isn’t it?” It’s one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we’ll get to that….

It’s a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it’s the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine – who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name – develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.

He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India’s political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.

Until the ship sinks.

Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship’s sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can’t forget the tiger.

Pi’s mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There’s only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other’s company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest – a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don’t want to be controlled. Pi’s ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.

But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It’s also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It’s about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it’s about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, “The author is cheating,” and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn’t have.

The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It’s the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.

It’s kind of a modified version of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal’s idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you’re right, then you’ll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you’re wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you’re wrong, again, no harm, no foul.

There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, “I believe I am losing brain function” lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think it’s an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don’t believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth – a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip – born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don’t need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.

But Martel’s isn’t about what is provably true.

Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi’s adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi’s story, because it’s fascinating. We don’t sit there and think, “This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze.” We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, “true.”

So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is “true,” because it’s a more interesting story. And Pi’s adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn’t to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn’t care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that’s the better story.

The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi’s conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.

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“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
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Yann Martel on Wikipedia
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Filed under death, fiction, gods, memoir, story, survival, Yann Martel