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Review 195: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

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

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

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

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

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

If he survives.

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

Nope, he’s going to die too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review 120: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Well, here we are. After a long road – longer for some of us than for others – we have finally reached the end of The Dark Tower series. For some of us, it’s been twenty years in coming, so if you’ve only started reading this series recently, count yourself lucky. You don’t know how we waited for this book, the book wherein Roland would finally attain his goal, and we would see if all the sacrifices he made were worth it.

Were they? Kind of.

Art by Eredel on DeviantArt

I’ll get into more detail later, after I dutifully put up the “Here Be Spoilers” sign, but this is the book where everything gets resolved, and our heroes are given their reward for the hard work they have done. The bad guy is beaten, the world is saved, and all is well. Although “well” is a very relative term in this sense, and while the bad guy is beaten, it’s not very satisfying, and the reward that many of our heroes get isn’t necessarily the reward they would have chosen.

If I sound like I’m dancing around the story, that’s because I am. I have an aversion to spoiling books in these reviews, mainly because I know how satisfying it is to get into a good book and discover things. To see old characters appear from the past, and to witness the heroism of the characters we have come to love. To look at the journey they take and see their relentless pursuit rewarded. At the same time, I don’t want your experience poisoned by knowing the drawbacks to a book – the soft spots in the plot, the characterization problems, the disappointments and the heartbreaks. [1]

Art by lilbenji25 on DeviantArt

This book contains all of these, and if I avoid talking about them, then this review will be awfully short. So, Constant Reader, I tell you this: you can stop here. You can click away to another page, perhaps to Amazon to buy the book and read it yourself (I recommend the Kindle edition if you can – I have the hardcover and it is quite the doorstop), perhaps to put off the reading of the book for a while longer. You don’t have to learn things that will taint the journey of discovery that is reading , and you can live on with a vision in your head of how The Dark Towerseries should end, instead of how it actually does.

Would you stay, then? Very well. After this point, there is no turning back. What is learned, as they say, cannot be unlearned.

This is not the book I wanted. It is unbalanced, hard to get through, and disappointing in many ways. There are also some beautiful moments, and some interesting ideas which, upon post-reading reflection, make the whole story more meaningful. But my overall feeling was one of great disappointment. Let’s start from afar, shall we?

Art by DiosBoss on DeviantArt

The structure of this book is rather lopsided. The most climactic event in the book, the battle of Algul Siento, is quite exciting and fun in that it is what we readers expect from a climax – gunfire and death and the saving of worlds. By freeing the Breakers from their work on the Beams, Roland and his ka-tetdo indeed save the macroverse from complete dissolution. They have literally saved the world and, as we learn later, have completely thwarted the evil designs of the Crimson King. The story could end there, the characters could go on their separate ways, and all would be well.

The problem is that this occurs in the first half of the book. It’s followed soon after by a minor climax – Roland and Jake saving Stephen King from certain death by drunk driver – but even that is done a little more than halfway through the book. Stephen King is safe, the New York Rose is safe, and we find out later that not only are the last two Beams intact, they are regenerating and will probably regenerate the other four. Reality has been saved.

But the story goes on, because saving reality was never Roland’s goal. It was only, in the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons, a side quest. There’s a larger quest to be resolved.

This wouldn’t be so bad if there were an even bigger climax waiting for us at the end, but there isn’t, and this is where I feel kind of betrayed. When Roland gets to the Dark Tower, we know he will have to face the Crimson King, who has been held up as the incarnation of death, evil and chaos. He has been the main antagonist throughout this whole series. His reach is long, his power vast, and his hate for Roland of Gilead is as focused as a laser and as hot as the sun. He is as close to the Devil as we can get.

Art by morganagod on DeviantArt

So, when Roland finally makes it to Can’-Ka no Rey, the great field of roses within which the Dark Tower stands, who do we see? A “satanic Santa Claus” who throws explosives from the only balcony of the Tower he’s been able to reach. He’s generically ugly, screams like a madman, and talks in villain cliches – “GUNSLINGER! NOW YOU DIE!” or “YOU DON’T DARE MOCK ME! YOU DON’T DARE! EEEEEEEE!” or “EEEEEEEE! EEEEEE! STOP! IT BURNS!” On top of all that, the Crimson King is finally defeated not by Roland’s guns or some great battle on the physical, intellectual or spiritual plains, but by a guy with a sketchpad. He is simply erased from afar. And thus ends the reign of what was supposed to be the greatest horror of all worlds.

What’s more, their meeting at the Tower was not acually the defeat of the Crimson King – he conceded defeat way back during Wolves of the Calla. We find out that, with the defeat of the Wolves, the King foresaw the end of the Breakers and thus his plan to unmake creation. So, he broke his Wizard’s Glasses, killed nearly everyone in his castle. killed himself by – for reasons I still don’t understand – swallowing a sharpened spoon, and then, undead (which I also don’t understand), rode off for the Tower.

Even then, though, he couldn’t win. In order to enter the Tower he needed either Roland’s guns or Mordred’s birthmark, neither of which he had. So he climbed up into one of the Tower balconies with all the weapons he could carry and just waited. If Roland hadn’t come to the Tower, he would have waited there forever and never harmed anyone again. By bringing his guns, Roland raises the possibility that the Crimson King could still triumph. So, by continuing his quest, Roland endangers all existence.

Art by Michael Whelan

As much as I hate to call out authors on what they “should have” done, I feel like I have to here. A hero is only as good as his villain, and the Crimson King, in the end, turns out to be a pretty crappy one. I wish King had made their meeting worthy of the image he had built up. The same goes for one of our favorite characters, Randall Flagg (or whatever name he chooses to use). He has floated through this series and others like a cancer, bringing nothing but death and pain with him. He’s a charismatic madman who revels in chaos and is probably one of the most enjoyable characters King has created. So how does he die? He gets killed by Mordred, the bastard son of Roland and the Crimson King, of Susannah and Mia. He gets killed and eaten without much of a fight. I think a lot of fans would agree that Flagg deserved better.

And while we’re on the topic – Mordred.

One of my measurements of good characterization is a question: If this character did not exist, could the story have ended the way it did? With Jake and Father Callahan, Susannah and Eddie, with Oy and Flagg and Cuthbert and Susan and Cort, the answer is, of course, No. Each of those characters contributed something vital to the story, something that no other character could have done. To reach the same end without one of those characters would have meant a vastly different story.

Art by Michael Whelan

The same cannot be said of Mordred. Of the people he kills, only two matter to us: Flagg and Oy. Flagg should have been the penultimate End Boss, the final challenge for Roland before reaching the Tower and the Crimson King. And there are many ways to kill a Billy-Bumbler – I think King could have thought of one that gave Oy the same honorable and heartbreaking death that he got trying to save Roland from Mordred. Other than that, Mordred had no impact on the story at all. He just followed Roland, Susannah and Oy, shivering and whining and feeling sorry for himself. He kept telling us that he was meant for great things, but never showed even the slightest hint of that potential. He follows Roland like Gollum follows Frodo, but at least Gollum turned out to be important.

The one thing we do get from Mordred is a frustrating bit of knowledge – that the Crimson King and Roland are both descended from the mythical king Arthur Eld. In that way, their battle is between cousins, and Mordred represents a unification of two bloodlines – demon and human. If their conflict had been framed in that context, it could have been so much more interesting when we finally got to the end.

Speaking of the end. We, like Roland, didn’t know what to expect when we finally got into the Dark Tower. And I don’t think anyone expected that the series would loop around to the beginning again, dumping Roland back in the Mohaine Desert to follow the Man in Black once more, unaware that he had already done so so many times before. It was an unsatisfying ending at first, but upon reflection, it does work, and there are two ways to look at it.

The first is that Roland is being taught a lesson, one which he still has not learned. He’s being taught to value life, to reset his priorities. From his youth, he was so focused on the Tower that he let all else fall aside – his friends, the girl he loved, and the sacred artifacts of his forefathers. He brought death with him, and passed it on to all whom he loved, and ended his quest as alone as he began it. And so, despite saving the multiverse, Roland failed his true quest – to learn how to love others and share who he was with them – and had to be sent back to start again. In appreciation of his effort, however, he was granted a change: the horn of Eld, which he had previously neglected on the field of the last battle of civilization. Perhaps it will make a difference.

The other way to look at this ending is a more metafictional one, something that Stephen King himself finds distasteful. Like it or not, though, one of the overriding themes of this series is the impact that fiction has on reality, and vice versa. To readers, a character might be more real than real people. We learn lessons from them, we have kind or unkind memories of them, and in many ways, our fictional characters possess a special reality. To a writer, this is even more true. Ask any writer and they will tell you about how their characters talk to them, sometimes appear in front of them, or even take over their bodies for a little while. A writer will discover things about a character that she never planned, as if the character himself were revealing them. The Dark Tower relies on this kind of ur-reality of fiction, up to and including fictional characters saving the life of their own writer.

So, by connecting the end of the last book with the beginning of the first, perhaps King is implicating us, the Constant Readers, in Roland’s suffering. Roland cannot rest as long as there are readers reading him, and we are all guilty of making him go through it again and again. While King may have created Roland and his quest, we propagate it, and every new reader ensures that it will never, ever end. [2]

Art by Chesheyre on DeviantArt

In the end, we have a series that started off strong, and then kind of careened to an unsatisfying end. Having been written intermittently over the course of thirty years, I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising. Ideas which seemed like good ones at the time served only to cause trouble later down the road, and loose ends that needed to be tied up took up far more time than they should have. Perhaps with a clearer vision of the journey at the beginning, King could have held it together better. And perhaps without his brush with death in 1999, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to get the last three volumes out as soon as he could.

It does, however, gift us with some wonderful characters, a rich and brilliant world, and a fictional cosmology that holds together all the worlds that King has created thus far. It’s an examination of the importance of fiction in our lives, and the way that stories can reach out and touch so many more people than the storyteller ever intends. If you are a fan of Stephen King, and you haven’t read this series yet, then you should. For all that the last couple of books disappoint, there is still much good to be found in the whole series, and the first five are generally really well done.

Art by Deviata on DeviantArt

There is more to read, if you’re interested. King’s assistant, Robin Furth, has put together an excellent Concordance, detailing pretty much everything you want to know about the series – characters, places, history, language and concepts. She has also written a series of graphic novels for Marvel Comics which detail Roland’s youth, starting with the events told in Wizard and Glass and going up to the terrible battle of Jericho Hill. So if the original series leaves you wanting more, there’s certainly more to be had.

That’s it, then. Long days and pleasant nights to you all.

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“Even when you were in the shadow of death there were lessons to be learned.”
– Jake (narration), The Dark Tower
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[1] To be fair – this book was published back in 2004. If you haven’t read it by now, I doubt you’re really going to be chuffed by some spoilers, and you have no one to blame but yourself if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

[2] A third option is suggested by his short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French” from Everything’s Eventual, wherein a woman riding with her husband in a car on vacation keeps re-living a terrible accident. It is implied that she is dead, and that hell is the eternal repetition of one’s mistakes. It is possible that Roland is dead, and that this series is his Hell.

The Dark Tower on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
The Dark Tower on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, Dark Tower, death, existentialism, fantasy, good and evil, meta-fiction, quest, Stephen King, time travel, world-crossing

Review 05: The Princess Bride


The Princess Bride by William Goldman

If you haven’t read this book, then all I can tell you is to go out, get it, and read it. Now. Don’t bother with the rest of this review, you’ll thank me later. It has:

Fencing.
Fighting.
Torture.
Poison.
True Love.
Hate.
Revenge.
Giants.
Hunters.
Good men.
Bad men.
Beautifulest ladies.
Snakes.
Spiders.
Beasts of all natures and descriptions.
Pain.
Death.
Brave men.
Coward men.
Strongest men.
Chases.
Escapes.
Lies.
Truths.
Passion.
Miracles.

For a start.

It’s one of the greatest love/action/revenge stories ever abridged by a modern author. Well, it seems that Mr. Goldman felt that the original story, as written by the immortal S. Morganstern, was a little too dry for public consumption, as well as damaging to treasured childhood memories, so he went through it and put together this “good parts” version, and the world is a better place for it. [1]

Of course, the big gag is that there never was an original version of the book. There never was an S. Morganstern, the greatest of the Florinese writers. Goldman’s father may have read books to him as a child, but he never read this book to him. The entire thing is a fiction, beginning to end, but Goldman sells it really well. He tells the tale of how he blossomed as a boy – going from being a sports-obsessed disappointment to a ravenous bookworm, all thanks to this book. He talks about trying to give the same gift to his son, who manages to make it through one chapter before giving up in exhaustion. He talks about the great shock of discovering that his father had done something utterly brilliant – he had skipped the dull bits and left the exciting parts intact.

Knowing that all of this is false certainly doesn’t detract from the story. It’s a story about a story, and the effect that a story can have on a young mind. Or any mind, for that matter. It’s about how stories can teach us lessons that only later we understand – such as how life is not fair – and how stories can change us in ways that we never expected. It’s about our relationship with fiction, and with the world around us. In his fictional childhood, Goldman learned more about the world from the process of watching the story unfold than he did from the story itself. And so this book is a story about stories. The actual story is just bonus.

Which brings me, of course, to the film. Let me say that this is one of the very, very few instances where I will put the movie up on par with the book. 99.9999 repeating percent of the time, the book is better than the movie. This is one instance where they are equal in nearly every measure. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with the fact that Goldman wrote the screenplay for the film, so not only is the story intact, but a great deal of the dialogue is almost verbatim from the book. It was gold in print and gold on the screen. The hardest part about reading the book is trying not to hear Andre the Giant, Christopher Guest, Robin Wright and all the other fine actors and actresses in your head as you read.

So, whether you read the book or see the movie, you’re in for a treat. And as you read, just remember the books that molded you into who you are today. Think about the stories that taught you life’s lessons before life got around to doing it. Think about them and appreciate them, and remember that every book is a lesson, one way or another….

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“I’m so stupid. Inigo has not lost to the man in black, he has defeated him. And to prove it he has put on all the man in black’s clothes and masks and hoods and boots and gained eighty pounds.”
– Fezzik, The Princess Bride
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[1] This is a fun type of meta-fiction, writers writing autobiographically about writing about books that never existed. I find it interesting that The Princess Bride can sit comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with House of Leaves.

The Princess Bride at Wikipedia
William Goldman at Wikipedia
The Princess Bride at Wikiquote
The Princess Bride at Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, fantasy, humor, made into movies, meta-fiction, romance, William Goldman