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Review 217: The Secret Life of Words

LL 217 - The Secret Life of WordsThe Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

There are many ways to write human history. Most writers of history books tend to go the traditional way – following kings and queens, wars, revolutions and invasions. The history of the world is almost always written in military or political terms, and while that’s certainly a valid way to do it, it’s a little overdone. A truly creative historian might try to look at the progress of humankind through a different lens – the history of art, perhaps, or literature or science.

Hitchings has decided to look at history through the rise and spread of the English language – once an agglomeration of angry noises from a few small tribes in what would eventually become Europe, now a tongue that dominates the world. The English language is used by billions, studied by millions more. It’s the language of business, commerce, politics, law, entertainment and news, and has spread like no other language before it.

Hmmm... What other advantages does English have? It'll come to me...

Hmmm… What other advantages does English have? It’ll come to me…

The big question then becomes, How did this happen? How did English become what it has become? What is the history that led it to span the globe, and what qualities does it have that other languages don’t? In this book, Hitchings looks at the history of English – and by extension the Western world – through the growth of its vocabulary. Where did our words come from, and what does their journey into English tell us about our own history?

A modern English speaker, equipped with a time machine, could probably go back about four or five hundred years and still be confident that she would be able to converse with people. Maybe not with perfect clarity, and it would be an entertaining thing to watch, but it would certainly be possible. Before that, the conventions and lexis that we are all so familiar with will start to be more and more scarce, and by the time of Chaucer, our time traveler would have a hard time indeed. So, as far as languages go, modern English is a fairly young tongue. Over the last half-millennium or so, the sheer number of words available to English speakers has exploded, mainly due to what some would call the language’s “whorish” qualities – English will take up with any other language that comes along, accepting its words and making them its own. By following the spread of English, and the changes that it has made, we can see how people and cultures intermingled in the last thousand years or so.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Hitchings begins at, more or less, the beginning, with the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and its almost immediate conflicts with Norman French and the languages of the invading and pillaging Norsemen. He follows the political swings of English, as the rulers of the British Isles alternatingly embrace and shun the language, until it finally becomes the tongue that defines that tiny island on the edge of the North Atlantic. He looks into Arabic and Latin, Japanese and the languages of the Native Americans. We see the wellsprings of the language of food and music, science, military and law. He introduces us to words that came into English through long and winding roads (one of my favorites is Alcatraz – from the Spanish word for “pelican,” which in turn comes from Arabic’s al-qadus for “machine for drawing water,” which is turn comes from Greek’s kados, meaning “jar” – quite a journey for such a miserable place.) The history of the English language is a fractal history, meaning that in order to understand it you also have to understand the histories of a dozen other languages and then the languages that came before them. To try and put it all down on paper is a monumental task indeed.

The study of English words is fascinating, though. I have recently become enamored of the “Way With Words” podcast, which dedicates itself to unraveling questions about English usage. The hosts are funny and engaging, and manage to give a brief history of words and phrases and all the little tics of English that make you annoyed enough to have to call a radio show about it. It’s a pleasure to listen to, which is probably why I listened to that show a whole lot more than I read this book.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Mr. Hitchings has done an admirable job with this book, trying to cover all the different avenues by which words came into English. The paths that they followed are fascinating, and the stories behind them are the stories of Western culture and civilization. The trouble is that Hitchings doesn’t do all that good a job in making it interesting to the lay reader, i.e. me.

By and large, each chapter deals with a different source of vocabulary or a different time in history, but the narrative that he sets up tends to… wander about. There’s no real narrative to focus on, and while I know this isn’t supposed to be one, Hitchings is trying to tell us a story. It’s a long and complicated one, but it’s still a story, and as such needs to flow in order to keep the reader’s attention.

I can’t fault him for his research or his dedication, but I think he could have given more thought to the organization of the book. Instead of trying to cover as many sources as possible, perhaps he could have narrowed his focus. Instead of throwing out a dozen or so words at a time, he could have given us an in-depth narrative on just a few. Each chapter could probably have been expanded into its own book on the Arabic/Spanish/Latin/German/Greek/African origins of words, and so in reading it you get the feeling that there’s so much more that he’s glossing over. By trying to follow all the twisted paths of the history of English, it’s very easy for the reader to get lost.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

All I kept thinking as I read this was that I had much more fun reading Bill Bryson’s book, Mother Tongue, which covers the same topic but is much more enjoyable to read, and perhaps that was my mistake. By the time I got to the end, and was more or less just scanning pages so that I could legitimately say I’d finished it, I realized that this is not the kind of book that you settle down with and read all the way through. It’s a piecemeal book – pick it up, read a chapter, put it down and leave it alone for a while. When you’re in the mood for more language history, pick it up again and read another chapter. Give yourself time to mull it over and digest, and finish it when you finish it.

However you decide to get through it, you will certainly have a greater appreciation for the richness and diversity of the English language, so regardless of how interesting it was narrative-wise, Hitchings has achieved his goal. English is an amazing language, and it behooves all its speakers to learn a little bit more about the amazing confluence of cultures that produced the sounds that you speak every day.

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“A new word is a solution to a problem. It answers a need – intellectual, experiential. Often the need is obvious, but sometimes it is unseen or barely felt, and then it is only in finding something to plug the gap that we actually realize the gap was there in the first place.”
– Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words
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Filed under English, Henry Hitchings, history, language

Review 205: Year Zero

LL 205 - Year ZeroYear Zero by Rob Reid

I’ll bet you never thought you would see an intergalactic alien thriller that all centered on the intricacies of copyright law, did you? Well, if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, then this is the book you want to read.

The universe, as it turns out, is well-populated with other civilizations. Some of them are nearly human in appearance, others are so radically unlike us that they’re hard to imagine, much less talk to. Giant snails, two-dimensional beings, foul-mouthed parrots and bio-machine intelligences – all of these and more make up the Refined League, the greatest political entity in the universe. In order to become part of the League, your civilization has to first prove that it can overcome the violent urges that lead so many intelligent cultures to self-extinction. Once it has done that, the League provides it with technology so advanced that it may as well be magic, allowing the new members to completely solve their technological problems and instead focus their energies on creative and cultural works.

Even their reality shows make ours look, well, childish.

Even their reality shows make ours look, well, childish.

And that is where the League shines brightly. Their artistic sense is so far beyond ours that were we to see it in its full flower our brains would likely shut down from the beauty. Their art and architecture, cinema and drama, fashion, food – hell, their calligraphy and paper-making are works of art that make our great masters look like toddlers drawing stick figures in the mud. In nearly all respects, the Refined League outclasses humanity.

Except, as it turns out, for music.

Thanks to some twist in our evolution, we are the only civilization capable of creating truly great music. Indeed, the first music heard by an alien culture – the closing credits song to “Welcome Back, Kotter” – was so amazing and so powerful that countless individuals died from ecstasy overload. As the universe turned its ears towards Earth, they discovered what they had been missing all along, and were soon tapping into our radio and TV broadcasts to get copies of the greatest music ever made. The discovery of Earth’s music was so pivotal to the cultural history of the universe, that the League reset their calendars to reflect it, thus making October 13, 1977 the beginning of Year Zero.

For decades, Earth music was recorded and copied and passed along. And while it did still occasionally kill people with its beauty and glory, those who survived cherished the gift we were unknowingly giving to them. While we were not yet prepared to join the League, we were the center of the universe.

Until the law got involved.

The central governing principle of the League is that indigenous laws must be respected, no matter what. It wasn’t until our songs had been copied over hundreds of millions of times that the League discovered the incredibly draconian and torturous copyright laws that govern music on our planet, and the heavy fines that are imposed for piracy. Under U.S. copyright law alone, it turns out, the universe owes us money.

This doesn't even come close...

This doesn’t even come close…

All the money.

Two of the universe’s biggest stars break through the barrier that’s supposed to protect our planet and approach Nick Carter – not a Backstreet Boy, but a young attorney specializing in copyright law – to try and find a way to fix this little problem. But they’re not the only ones looking to find a way out of the mess the League has gotten itself into. Members of an entertainer’s union – now pretty much defunct since Earth music took everything over – would rather see us gone entirely, so they’re prepared to make sure we find a way to destroy ourselves before any kind of arrangement can be reached. Nick, along with the universally-admired celebrities Carly and Frampton, are in a race against a violent alien parrot and an angry vacuum cleaner to save the Earth and the Refined League both, along with keeping the music coming.

It’s a very fast read – I went through it in a day – and is built on a very entertaining premise, one which undermines a lot of what we’ve come to expect from first contact stories. The author’s experience in the online music industry no doubt gave him a lot of material to work from, and he made it into a fun race against the clock. Part of the reason I bought the book was its premise – we’re all so used to seeing stories about how wonderful aliens are compared to ourselves, and it’s nice to see it subverted in a clever and interesting way.

WHO'S a good Senator? Yes you ARE! Yes you ARE!

WHO’S a good Senator? Yes you ARE! Yes you ARE!

It was also a clear and repeated stab at the way we handle creative property rights in the United States – indeed in most countries around the world. The law firm for which Carter works is so entrenched in the business of protecting copyright that they practically wrote some of the most egregious laws against piracy. They even have their own pet Senator, a thinly-veiled version of Orrin Hatch who is nicknamed “Fido,” who does their bidding in Washington. They’re not concerned with making sure the artists are compensated, or that their music is treated fairly. They’re interested in getting as much money as possible from as many people as possible, and have no qualms about doing what’s necessary. What’s more, most of the legal plot points settle around real U.S. law – the Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999, which mandates fines of up to $150,000 per song.

As a comparison, in the state of Connecticut, for example, the fine for a class A felony (murder) is up to $20,000. So if you were thinking of downloading that new Bieber single, you may as well just kill seven people and pocket the extra ten grand. Admittedly, the CDIA doesn’t allow for prison sentences (I think), but a person effectively bankrupted by legal action will probably end up in prison one way or another.

In its way, though, the book does suffer from a common problem that I’ve been seeing a lot recently: the cardboard villain. In this book, the pro-copyright forces are just plain Wrong, and will clearly not win the day. Now I have no problem vilifying law firms and giant corporations – hell, that’s practically a hobby of mine – but I would like to have seen a bit more humanity from them, rather than a giant monolithic force of legal evil. Even the main human avatar of that monolith, Carter’s boss, pretty much abandons her position as soon as she realizes the threat that the Earth is under. We know that these laws are wrong, but how they got so wrong is something that could have added to the story.

Of course, that itself could be a book of great and ponderous length, so I can understand why Reid might have glossed over it.

By Grabthar's Hammer...

By Grabthar’s Hammer…

The other criticism that I have of this book is that it will one day be horribly, terribly dated. There are pop culture references everywhere in the story. Some are subtle, some are not, and it was kind of fun being able to pick them out. Everything from GalaxyQuest to Monty Python to Breaking Bad – if you’ve been paying attention to popular culture for the last twenty years or so, you’ll find these little nuggets buried in the story. And they’re great, as long as you’re reading the book in proximity to those cultural references. I don’t know how well it will hold up for a reader twenty or thirty years down the road, but that may not have been Reid’s intention.

This is a book written for a specific time and reason, in an intellectual climate that the author understands far too well. Perhaps he just wanted to write a book for this moment, and never meant it to last much longer. Whatever his motivations, I hope he continues to explore this kind of writing, and gives us bigger and better in the future.

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“Our legal scholars have researched [the Copyright Damages Improvement Act] thoroughly. And they unanimously agree that it is the most cynical, predatory, lopsided, and shamelessly money-grubbing copyright law written by any society, anywhere in the universe since the dawn of time itself.”
– Carly

Rob Reid on Wikipedia
Year Zero on Amazon.com

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Filed under aliens, copyright, corporations, first contact, humor, Rob Reid, science fiction

Review 200: I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High by Tony Danza

If you’re my age [1], the first thing you think about when you hear Tony Danza’s name is the show Who’s The Boss? Honestly, I remember nearly nothing about that show except that it was set in Connecticut (which I only remember because that’s where I was living when it was on) and that Danza played some kind of live-in… servant? Housekeeper? For a divorced career woman?

Hold on, let me check Wikipedia to see if I even got that much right.

I did? Oh, good.

I really have no memory of this show. That might not be a bad thing.

Anyway, Danza kind of slipped out of my cultural viewfinder for a long while, so I was surprised to hear that he had not only written a book, but had done a stint as a teacher in a Philadelphia high school. Being a teacher myself, I was interested to see what his impressions were. He was, after all, coming to it from a very different background than most teachers, and with a different set of perspectives. On top of that, he had been convinced to do it as part of an A&E reality show – something I certainly don’t approve of. Not just because the business of running a reality show would interfere with the class, or because they take work away from actors like my brother [2], but because I think reality shows are a scourge upon modern television.

After going through training and orientation, Danza was put in charge of a double-period English class in Northeast High School in Philadelphia. It’s a huge public school – about 3,600 students – and is made up of kids from radically diverse backgrounds. Some kids were motivated and hard-working, others saw school as an imposition on their lives. Some kids had stable, supportive families, some kids were being bounced from foster home to foster home. To say that Danza had his work cut out for him would be an understatement. He not only had to find ways to engage the students (a buzz-phrase that he – and every other teacher – would come to resent at some level) and make sure they were all committed to their education, but also handle the byzantine bureaucracy that comes with running a school, the politics of the teachers’ office, union issues, getting parents involved, and negotiating the complex moods and interrelationships of hundreds of teenagers. He very quickly learned that being a teacher not only involves a significant investment of time and energy, but also of emotion.

And this is all I remember about “Of Mice and Men.”

Reading through the book, there were a lot of moments where I nodded in complete understanding. Like Danza, I teach literature in a couple of my classes. He was working on making Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird relatable to his students through constant activities and lecture sessions. I do the same with the books I teach. I might have the kids work on a timeline, or produce a short skit based on the story. They might make a poster or even a movie, if we have the time and the ideas for it.

He often runs afoul of the basic principles of being a teacher in such a large community. For example, there’s a section where he takes the students on a field trip to Washington D.C. It’s a wonderful excursion and the kids have a great time, but when he returns he gets a wrist-slapping because he hadn’t notified any of the kids’ other teachers that they would be gone. As far as the rest of the school was concerned, the kids had skipped class. Danza’s response was, “Well, I just assumed…” And that’s where I felt very close kinship with him. One of the things I learned very, very fast when I started this job was to assume nothing. And that’s hard to do, because the school assumes everything.

In another section, the school is practicing for the big achievement tests that will basically determine the school’s status as a failing or a successful school. During one of the tests he’s proctoring, Danza goes out to get more calculators, and is immediately ripped into by the teacher who’s running the test. This teacher says that if it had been the real test, Danza’s carelessness could have invalidated the whole thing, costing the school time and money, and running the risk of making it a “Renaissance School” (a nice euphemism for a school that’s failing so hard it has to be gutted and re-staffed from top to bottom.) My first thought when I read that was that the teacher in charge clearly didn’t communicate the testing protocols clearly enough – he just assumed every teacher would know what to do.

Oh. An apple. Thanks, that makes everything better.

I think a large reason for this is because of the incredible investment in mental and emotional energy that every teacher must make if they’re going to do their jobs properly. As human beings with puny human meat brains, there are only so many things we can keep track of at any given time, and for most teachers their students occupy the largest chunk of that attention. When you’re thinking about a hundred kids or more, invested in the success or failure of each and every one of them, remembering who does and who doesn’t know about some administrative detail is pretty far down on your list of things to care about. Near the end of the book, when Danza was asked if he would be interested in coming back the next year, he said, “At my age, I’m not sure I want to care this much about anything.” And the teacher he’s talking to just smiles and says, “That’s what it takes.”

And it’s true, that is what it takes. No one else would do it otherwise. Throughout the book, Danza looks at the reality of his colleagues’ lives and compares it to the public perception of teachers in the media of the day. The fact is that teachers are in incredible positions of responsibility, yet they don’t gain nearly as much respect and admiration (and money) as they deserve. When the students succeed, people praise their parents and their homes. When they fail, they blame the teachers, or call them “glorified babysitters.” Programs like No Child Left Behind added to the already unbearable burdens of teachers by creating the constant threat of unemployment should the schools not pass a set of standardized tests that may or may not have anything to do with what the kids are already learning.

You forgot your homework? I can’t work like this! I’ll be in my trailer!!

I could go on, but I won’t, since I have another blog where I bitch and moan about things that make me angry. What I will leave with is this – Danza did this as part of a reality show, one that was just as massaged, ordered, and manipulated as any other, though perhaps a little less than most. He was luckier than most at Northeast – only two classes a day instead of five, and he got the room with air conditioning, thanks to the influence of his network. His kids were chosen for the class, and he did the job without the threat of his career being brought to an ignominious end by some bureaucratic federal process. His experience was in no way representative of the other teachers at Northeast High or in fact many other teachers around the world.

All that said, however, it is clear on every page of this book that he cared deeply about the kids in his class and their progress. He cared about how the school worked, about how the other teachers viewed him, and about how the parents were – or were not – involved in their children’s lives. He almost immediately identifies and begins to struggle with one of the hardest problems in teaching – how to make the kids understand that they must be invested in their education. As easy as it is to tell a teacher that he or she must “engage the students,” it is just as important that the students engage themselves. Throughout the book, Danza looks for ways to do this, and it’s a constant theme.

I also don’t wear a tie – but I do wear a cardigan, so it balances out.

I finished the book with no doubt in my mind that Danza did the project in good faith and with full devotion to duty, just as any other first-year teacher would have done. He struggled and triumphed just as any teacher would do, and his sincerity comes across on every page. The title, too, resonated with me immediately, since that’s exactly what I thought when I started teaching. On top of all that, he cries almost constantly, something I’ve never done in my career, so he’s one up on me.

It’s a fast read, and very familiar to anyone who’s become a teacher or knows a teacher, no matter where you are. Plus, there are a ton of ideas to steal, which is a tradition amongst teachers around the world, so I’m grateful for that.

——
“Teachers and students need help, not accusations and pay cuts. They need to be a national priority, not an experiment stuck into a late time slot and then canceled for underperforming.”
– Tony Danza, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

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[1] ThirtyCOUGHCOUGHCOUGH
[2] What, me? Oversensitive? Never…

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Tony Danza on Wikipedia
I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had on Amazon.com
Tony Danza’s homepage

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Filed under education, memoir, nonfiction, school, teaching, teenagers, television, Tony Danza

Review 182: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Huh? Oh. Oh, man. Wow.

I just had the weirdest dream.

There was this little town, right? And everybody had, like, the same two names. And there was this guy who lived under a tree and a lady who ate dirt and some other guy who just made little gold fishes all the time. And sometimes it rained and sometimes it didn’t, and… and there were fire ants everywhere, and some girl got carried off into the sky by her laundry…

Wow. That was messed up.

I need some coffee.

That was roughly how I felt after reading this book. This is really the only time I’ve ever read a book and thought, “You know, this book would be awesome if I were stoned.” And I don’t even know if being stoned works on books that way.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which is such a fun name to say) is one of those Writers You Should Read. You know the type – they’re the ones that everyone claims to have read, but no one really has. The ones you put in your online dating profile so that people will think you’re smarter than you really are. You get some kind of intellectual bonus points or something, the kind of highbrow cachet that you just don’t get from reading someone like Stephen King or Clive Barker.

Marquez was one of the first writers to use “magical realism,” a style of fantasy wherein the fantastic and the unbelievable are treated as everyday occurrences. While I’m sure it contributed to the modern genre of urban fantasy – which also mixes the fantastic with the real – magical realism doesn’t really go out of its way to point out the weirdness and the bizarrity. These things just happen. A girl floats off into the sky, a man lives far longer than he should, and these things are mentioned in passing as though they were perfectly normal.

This is not a recommended way to read this book. That’s not to say it doesn’t work…

In this case, Colonel Aureliano Buendia has seventeen illegitimate sons, all named Aureliano, by seventeen different women, and they all come to his house on the same day. Remedios the Beauty is a girl so beautiful that men just waste away in front of her, but she doesn’t even notice. The twins Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo may have, in fact, switched identities when they were children, but no one knows for sure – not even them. In the small town of Macondo, weird things happen all the time, and nobody really notices. Or if they do notice that, for example, the town’s patriarch has been living for the last twenty years tied to a chestnut tree, nobody thinks anything is at all unusual about it.

This, of course, is a great example of Dream Logic – the weird seems normal to a dreamer, and you have no reason to question anything that’s happening around you. Or if you do notice that something is wrong, but no one else seems to be worried about it, then you try to pretend like coming to work dressed only in a pair of spangly stripper briefs and a cowboy hat is perfectly normal.

I’m not saying this happens in the book, but I’m not claiming it COULDN’T.

Another element of dreaminess that pervades this book is that there’s really no story here, at least not in the way that we have come to expect. Reading this book is kind of like a really weird game of The Sims – it’s about a family that keeps getting bigger and bigger, and something happens to everybody. So, the narrator moves around from one character to another, giving them their moment for a little while, and then it moves on to someone else, very smoothly and without much fanfare. There’s very little dialogue, so the story can shift very easily, and it often does.

Each character has their story to tell, but you’re not allowed to linger for very long on any one of them before Garcia shows you what’s happening to someone else. The result is one long, continuous narrative about this large and ultimately doomed family, wherein the Buendia family itself is the main character, and the actual family members are secondary to that.

Colonel Aureliano Buendía could have made his fish from ice and saved a lot of time…

It was certainly an interesting reading experience, but it took a while to get through. I actually kept falling asleep as I read it, which is unusual for me. But perhaps that’s what Garcia would have wanted to happen. By reading his book, I slipped off into that non-world of dreams and illusions, where the fantastic is commonplace and ice is something your father takes you to discover.

——
“[Arcadio] imposed obligatory military service for men over eighteen, declared to be public property any animals walking the streets after six in the evening, and made men who were overage wear red armbands. He sequestered Father Nicanor in the parish house under pain of execution and prohibited him from saying mass or ringing the bells unless it was for a Liberal victory. In order that no one would doubt the severity of his aims, he ordered a firing squad organized in the square and had it shoot a scarecrow. At first no one took him seriously.”
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
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Gabriel García Márquez on Wikipedia
One Hundred Years of Solitude on Wikipedia
One Hundred Years of Solitude on Amazon.com

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Filed under family, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, magical realism

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 180: The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale

The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale by John Scalzi

In Old Man’s War, John Scalzi brought us a new future, vast in scope, amazingly advanced and yet horribly familiar at the same time. Humans have spread out through space, snatching up habitable planets as fast as they can and setting up new colonies to thrive or perish. Back on Earth, most of the population is fed just enough information about the greater universe to ensure a steady supply of colonists and soldiers, but not enough to make them aware of all the cool stuff they’re missing.

HELLO NEIGHBOR! DO YOU HAVE A CUP OF YOUR CHILDREN’S BLOO – SUGAR! SUGAR WE COULD BORROW?

Unfortunately, we are not the only ones out there who want this real estate. Dozens of alien species are out there, and most of them want the same worlds that we do. We – and they – will fight tooth and nail to get and keep the precious few worlds that will support life. Existence out in space is much like existence on Earth – a constant struggle for scarce resources, and the species who is best adapted to get and keep planets will be the one that, for lack of a better word, wins.

To keep human colonists alive, the Colonial Union has created the Colonial Defense Force. These soldiers, taken from senior citizens of Earth, are given new, superhuman bodies, terrifyingly effective weapons, and just enough training to make sure they can defeat the horrifying things that they are sure to face. John Perry, a widower from Earth, joins the CDF and becomes one of the few Earthlings to learn about the wider universe into which humanity has spread. Sarcastic and quick-witted, Perry learns a lot more than he bargained for – among other things, that his dead wife’s DNA had been used to make the Special Forces soldier called Jane Sagan.

In The Ghost Brigades, we follow Sagan through the shadowy and violent world of the Special Forces. Where the regular CDF soldiers have bodies that would make them superheroes on Earth, the special forces are on a whole other level. Grown from the DNA of people who did not survive to become CDF soldiers, the special forces are where the newest and most interesting genetic modifications are tried out. Better vision, faster reflexes, a nearly telepathic connection with their squadmates, and even in some cases whole new body plans are all options for the Special Forces soldier. They are single-minded, deadly, and proud, knowing their purpose in the universe almost from the moment of their “birth.” What they lack, however, is the years of living that ordinary humans have and all that comes with that. This makes the Special Forces even more separate from the rest of the CDF – human, but not quite, yet essential to the survival of humanity.

Jane Sagan is one of the people trying to find Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist who has vanished, taking a dangerous amount of information on the CDF’s mind transference process with him. Their worst fear – that Boutin will try to sell that technology to their enemies – isn’t even close to how bad the truth is. Boutin hates the Colonial Union with a passion and devises a plan that will make all human colonies everywhere completely vulnerable to attack. When he dies, the only thing Jane and her squad can do is escape, but not before saving Boutin’s young daughter, Zoë, from the terrifying Obin. More on them later, though.

It’s… It’s a space thing.

Their days of adventuring over, Perry and Sagan marry, creating a partnership that sounds impossible, if you stop to think about it for too long – a man well into his 80s, with the body of a 30-year-old, marrying a woman cloned from the DNA of his former wife, and who is technically still too young to get a driver’s license. They love each other, though, and are willing to bring Zoë into their family. Following their discharge from the CDF, they got new, normal bodies and accepted a position on the oddly-named colony world of Huckleberry. In the town of New Goa, John is the ombudsman, which means having to deal with all the petty problems that come with a small town, and Jane is the constable. They live with Zoë and her two Obin bodyguards in what could certainly be considered a good life.

So you know that won’t last.

They are tapped to lead a new colony – a new type of colony, actually. Whereas previous colonists had all come from Earth, the new colony of Roanoke will be founded by representatives from ten of the oldest human colonies. It’s a second generation colonization, which would be a fantastic milestone if it weren’t for one tiny little detail: the Conclave.

Having been willing to fight pretty much everyone in their area of space, the Colonial Union hasn’t made many friends. In fact, they have damn few. Their enemies, sensing a common threat, have banded together into an organization called The Conclave, which is working to end interplanetary war through a representative government of sorts. One of their first acts was to forbid colonization by any non-Conclave members. Unauthorized colonies that resist the Conclave are vaporized.

Humanity, always the contrarians, wants to flout the Conclave’s rule and undermine its presumed authority. Thus begins an intricate web of deception and misinformation and scheming that all centers around the colonists at Roanoke, who know nothing of what’s going on over their heads. There are a few clues, though, and when John starts pulling at loose threads, a whole tapestry of intrigue is revealed to him. Roanoke may be vital to the survival of humans in space, but that doesn’t mean that the colony itself has to survive.

The reason I’m putting these two books together is because they’re really one book. The Last Colony is a fantastic read, where every time the plot turns it’s like a punch in the gut. The tension never really lets up, and every time we think things are going to get better, that’s the cue for them to get a whole lot worse.

Taking narrative shortcuts makes the Baby Jesus cry, Johnny!!

After finishing the book, however, Scalzi got a light wrist-slapping by his readers for taking a few shortcuts. One is that an indigenous, intelligent life form is discovered on Roanoke, which cause the deaths of several colonists… and then they vanish, never to be seen again. From the description, they sounded pretty cool, and I was disappointed that Scalzi had just let them kind of drift away so quietly. The other problem was with Zoë – Perry comes up with an interesting end-run around the Colonial Union, one which involves Zoë pulling rank with the Obin, who revere her as the daughter of the man who gave them consciousness. She gets sent off with her Obin bodyguards, partly to get help and also to get her out of harm’s way, and returns twenty pages later with a piece of alien technology that just happens to be exactly what they need to win the final, climactic confrontation against the Conclave. The author knew he couldn’t put all that into the book without producing something of doorstop proportions, so he “did a little hand waving and hoped [he] wouldn’t get caught.”

This is what you get for cultivating an intelligent readership, Scalzi.

The other reason for writing Zoë’s Tale, of course, was that Zoë was a really interesting character. The daughter of a man who would have betrayed humanity, and at the same time brought consciousness to the Obin – a species that had been uplifted long ago to have intelligence without consciousness. The Obin revere Zoë, and would do anything to protect her. Under these circumstances you might think that she would grow up kind of weird, but she actually ends up pretty cool. We get to see her in action a few times during The Last Colony, and those few times are more than enough to make you want to read a whole book about her.

That book, then, is Zoë’s Tale, a re-telling of the events of The Last Colony from the perspective of the most important teenage girl in the known universe.

This is what I imagine being a teenage girl is like. How’d I do?

It’s hard enough being a teenage girl here and now (or so I’m told), so imagine how much harder it must be when your father is one of the greatest traitors to humanity; when your adoptive parents are ex-soldiers, and your mother is technically younger than you are; when an entire species depends on you as a model of what it means to be a conscious, self-aware being; and when you suddenly have to leave your home to start a new colony on a world that no one has ever heard of.

That would be enough to mess anyone up.

Fortunately, Zoë is a tough girl. She’s bright, resilient and sarcastic. She enjoys a deep inner life, knows how to taunt boys, and keeps her head in a crisis. In short, the kind of teenage daughter we would all want to have, if we wanted to have teenage daughters. She and her friends do what teenagers do best: push the boundaries of their new home, have fights, fall in love, and feel big feelings about everything. Through her, we learn a lot more about the indigenous life forms of Roanoke, and we find out much more about the universe at large when she is sent to find a way to save her family and friends.

While Zoë’s Tale was very enjoyable, I find it hard to evaluate fairly. I love Zoë, and her friends are great characters as well. Scalzi does a fantastic job at writing the intricate webs of angst that make up our teenage years, fraught with emotional land mines and exciting new feelings. Her relationship with her boyfriend Enzo is very well handled, as is the ever-shifting dynamic of friendship between her and the other teens of the colony. There are some beautiful, raw moments of emotion in the book that made me – the man whose heart was long ago replaced by a spinning, cold lump of stone – stop for a moment and say, “Wow.”

What I can’t fairly say is whether or not Zoë’s Tale works as a stand-alone book. As I read it, I was constantly filling in gaps from my knowledge of The Last Colony, which made everything make sense. If I had my way, I would wipe my memory of both books and then read them again in reverse order to see if they still worked. Perhaps one day, if Scalzi has a lot of free time, he will integrate the two into a larger single volume. I wouldn’t envy him that work, but I think the resulting book would be a brilliant read.

One of the things I like about the work of John Scalzi is that I can always recommend him without reservation, so I’m doing that now. If you like good science fiction, an engaging plot and wonderful characters, pick up The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale. You won’t regret it.

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“Being from Earth in this universe is like being a small-town kid who gets on the bus, goes to the big city and spends his entire afternoon gawking at all the tall buildings. Then he gets mugged for the crime of marveling at this strange new world, which has such things in it, because the things in it don’t have much time or sympathy for the new kid in town, and they’re happy to kill him for what he’s got in his suitcase.”
– John Scalzi, The Last Colony

“You and I are so totally going to be best friends.”
“Are we? I don’t know. What are the hours?”
“The hours are terrible. And the pay is even worse.”
“Will I be treated horribly?”
“You will cry yourself to sleep on a nightly basis.”
“Fed crusts?”
“Of course not. We feed the crusts to the dogs.”
“Oh, very nice. Okay, you pass. We can be best friends.”
“Good. Another life decision taken care of.”
“Yes. Now, come on. No point wasting all this attitude on ourselves. Let’s go find something to point and laugh at.”
– Zoë and Gretchen, Zoë’s Tale
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The Last Colony on Wikipedia
Zoe’s Tale on Wikipedia
The Last Colony on Amazon.com
Zoe’s Tale on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog

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Filed under aliens, colonization, coming of age, family, humor, John Scalzi, revolution, science fiction, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 178: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

There are times when I hate having grown up to be a fantasy fan. Most of the time it’s when I pick up a book that seems promising – maybe because it’s from a familiar author, or because you heard from a friend of a friend that it was good – but it turns out to be disappointing. Stock characters, old and tired plotlines, and a world that’s basically Tolkien with some greasepaint and false noses added on. Given the number of people who write fantasy, the odds of coming across a truly interesting world with compelling characters and a story that has some surprises is difficult indeed.

Fortunately, it looks like Sanderson has managed to pull it off.

None of them, to my knowledge, say “Hey! Listen!”

The world of Roshar is a strange and tempestuous place. The seasons come and go in unpredictable ways, sometimes bringing with them great highstorms that are so powerful that even the plants of this world have evolved ways to hide from them. It is a world filled with spirits, ubiquitous beings called spren, which pop up for almost any reason. There are the spren of nature – windspren, firespren, rotspren, riverspren and the like. There are spren that seem attracted to humans, like alespren, gloryspren, anticipationspren and logicspren. No one really knows what they are or why they exist, but they are everywhere in this world.

The greatest kingdom in Roshar is that of Alethkar, which is barely a nation at all. A loosely bound alliance of ten high princes, the people of Alethkar are a hostile, ambitious, violent folk whose first and greatest love is battle and winning. Since the assassination of their king by the savage Parshendi, they have been involved in a seemingly endless siege of revenge on the great Shattered Plains.

The greatest warriors of Alethkar – or any nation – are those who wield the amazing shardblades. Swords that seem to condense out of mist, the shardblades can cut through anything, though if they cut through a person their effects are a little more subtle. A warrior armed with a shardblade, wearing shardplate armor, can use the incredible power of stormlight to achieve feats that no normal man could survive. Bound within glowing gemstones and restored by the howling winds of the highstorms, stormlight is Roshar’s greatest treasure.

Within this world we follow an ensemble cast which, while adhering to certain fantasy archetypes, still is made interesting and worth watching. Dalinar, the brother to the dead Alethi king, is searching for a way to hold together the weak nation that his brother formed. He has been learning of the old ways, the teachings of the vanished and reviled Knights Radiant, in the hopes that they can help hold his people together.

Concept art for Kaladin. Man, I wish I had someone who’d draw concept art for my characters…

On the other end of Alethi society is Kaladin. Once a promising young surgeon, Kaladin joined the army in hopes of being able to fight on the Shattered Plains. He made it there, but not as a soldier – as a member of a bridge crew, one of the most expendable resources in the entire war. He became the lowest of the low, forced to find a reason to stay alive.

In a city far from the fighting, young Shallan Davar has fought to become the ward of the great heretic scholar Jasnah Kholin. While she has ostensibly come to learn from the woman, her true purpose is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a device which, if used properly, can turn something into something else – stone into smoke, glass into blood, a man into fire. With this, Shallan hopes to revive her family’s flagging fortunes after the death of her father. What she discovers with Jasnah, of course, is far, far more.

Then there’s Szeth-son-son-Vallano, truthless of Shinovar. Poor, poor Szeth. From a race of people known for their peaceful and easygoing natures, Szeth is the most powerful assassin the world has seen. He can harness the stormlight to manipulate gravity, making him able to do the impossible while he uses his shardblade to cut down anyone in his way. In truth, though, Szeth wishes only one thing – to find someone who is good enough to kill him, and end his tormented life.

As you may have guessed, it’s a complicated tale, and Sanderson doesn’t hold to this whole “Give the reader time to get used to it” style of writing. If you’re not paying attention from the beginning, you are likely to be very, very lost within the first chapter or so. But once everything settles down, the story turns into a fast-paced, multi-leveled adventure that takes place in a world that is imaginative and fascinating.

Seriously, you have to feel bad for Szeth, as awesome as he is…

The characters are enthralling, too, with many levels and – most importantly – flaws. While Kaladin is a brilliant organizer and leader, he has to fight continually against the despair of realizing what his life has come to. The easy thing would be to allow himself to die, but he knows he can’t let himself do that. Dalinar, plagued by visions of what might be Roshar’s ancient past, is fighting centuries of Alethi martial tradition by trying to bring the high princes together and end the war, rather than allowing it to go on. He’s pulled between the love of his nephew, the king, and his frustration that the king won’t be strong enough to do what needs doing. Shallan, who left her home with a clear purpose, is finding that nothing was what she thought it would be. Jasnah isn’t an evil woman, despite being a heretic, and her plan to steal the soulcaster becomes less and less certain the more she learns.

All of these characters are at the front edge of thousands of years of history, much of it shrouded in uncertainty – legendary Knights Radiant who fought Voidbringers before giving up their duty and turning against mankind. What actually happened is unknown, and perhaps won’t ever be known. But the effects of those events echo to the present day, causing problems which our characters will eventually have to deal with.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to Sanderson is that when I finished the book, I immediately went back to the first page and started reading again. There are very few books that have inspired me thus, but this one did – especially after the cascading Big Reveals at the end, which explain a lot, and cast a new light on a whole lot more.

Definitely the climax of the book.

What’s more, I found myself wishing that I had access to an animation studio while I read the action scenes. Fights can be hard to do in written form – there’s a tendency to either describe too much or too little, and very often the reader gets slowed down trying to visualize what’s happening in the story. Sanderson is very, very good at writing action, something I first noticed in Towers of Midnight. Even when Szeth is hopping from floor to ceiling to wall, flinging people around like toys, the action was very clear in my mind’s eye, and it’s something I would love to see animated, if not done in live action.

And yes, to get back to why I hate being a fantasy reader sometimes, it is the first book in a series, which means I’m likely to be following it for quite some time. There’s nothing truly wrong with that – there are plenty of series that I’ve followed in my day – but I never look forward to the waiting game that you have to play as the author works on the next book. To be fair, though, Sanderson is busy right now finishing up my favorite series, The Wheel of Time, so I think I can give him a little latitude.

In any case, if you’re looking for a dense, fun new series to read, definitely pick this up. I plan on getting into some of his other books, mainly in order to have something to do while I wait for the next one of these.

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“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that.”
– Hoid, The Way of Kings

Brandon Sanderson on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Amazon.com
Brandon Sanderson’s homepage

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Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, family, fantasy, war