The end of an age

Last night, a rather significant era in my life ended. And it’s the end of an era that I am sharing with a lot of people all around the world, though when they experience it wasn’t necessarily last night. For some, it probably ended a week or two ago. For most, it’ll probably be in the next few months.

I suppose “significant” isn’t really that true in the grand scheme of things. But it is something that has definitely influenced one part of my life for at least the last 15 years. So, what happened last night? I finished reading A Memory of Light, the final book in the Wheel of Time series. For those of you who know the series, you understand already the significance, even if you’re not a fan of the series. For the rest of you, let’s just say that this is a moment that a lot of people didn’t expect would ever occur.

Robert Jordan began writing the Wheel of Time in the 1980s, and the first book, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990. Five more books followed, each one year after the previous. Book 7 slipped to a year and a half. Number 8 to two and a half. Book 9 took two morw. Book 10, just over two. With each book at least 650 pages, and most over 800, this is a prodigious amount of writing that Jordan accomplished. And the world he created was understandably complex. The initial cast of three expanded quickly to dozens and the plots expanded even more so. Corralling all of this made it understandable when book 11 took 3 years (though Jordan also publish a short prequel in 2004). By this time, a lot of people had already began to feel that the story was suffering because of its complexity, that a lot of nothing was happening in all of the pages being written. Two months later, in December 2005, Jordan was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy, a disease with no cure. The twelfth book Jordan promised, would finish the series, even if it had be over 2,000 pages long. He died just less than 2 years after his diagnosis, book unfinished. But he left behind extensive notes, hoping that someone would be able to finish the story for him. Jordan’s wife and his publisher chose Brandon Sanderson to be that someone in December 2007. Sanderson is a prodigious and prestigious fantasy author in his own right. But even so, it was a year and a half before any real update on the final book, A Memory of Light, was given. In early 2009, it was announced that the finale to the series was going to be split into three books! The first of those came out six months later in October 2009 and part two just a year later in November 2010. But A Memory of Light itself was not released until just ten days ago, January 8, 2013. 22 years, 358 days after the publication of The Eye of the World.

My introduction to the series came around 1996 or 1997. My mother, wonderful woman that she is, got me the first 6 books in the series in a pair of box sets for Christmas. I tore through the books in just a few short weeks. I devoured the world that Jordan created. The adventure, the magic, the new ideas and depth of the history, cultures, mythology, and characters all combined in a way I absolutely loved. While the later books attenuated some of that love as the story became overly complex and slowed down, I still have those first six paperbacks, and the number of times I have read them has worn their bindings down and leaved their pages. When each of the new books came out, I usually re-read the whole series from start to finish. The characters became very well-known to me. When the first of the Sanderson finished books was coming out in 2009, I reread the whole series of 11 books in the span of a month. That was almost three and a half million words.

I picked up A Memory of Light last Sunday and I reviewed brief plot summaries of the last three or four books just to remind myself where things stood before I began reading it on Tuesday. I’m still not sure how late I stayed up that evening, but I was somewhere between a third and two-fifths through it. Yesterday after work, I did very little other than read and finished the book around midnight. And I experienced moments of joy and happiness as the characters achieved great things and moments of hurt and sadness as they suffered or died. 16 years of familiarity and wondering “What next?” and “Will they survive?” was finally brought to a resolution. But I know that A Memory of Light was not the ending to my relationship with these characters or novels. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was an ending.

Review: Bug Jack Barron

So I just finished up reading Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, a rather curious novel dating from the New Wave era of science fiction. And dated it definitely is. The plot follows a fascinating pseudo-detective storyline centering on the titular character, Jack Barron. Barron is a civil rights activist turned television talk show host of a show on which every day people call in and “bug” him with their problems which he helps bring to the larger public’s attention. In the course of one of his shows he takes on the issue of a piece of pending legislation which would grant monopoly rights to a company which has perfected cryogenic storage. This leads him into a conflict with that company’s President and Chairman, Benedict Howards, who has secretly developed a process for human immortality, and hopes to use Barron’s influence with the public to manipulate Congress. But because of Barron’s ideological opposition to fat-cat power brokers, Barron attempts to find out the secret behind the process.

That all seems pretty standard and would work well if someone wanted to make it into a movie, but it’s the societal background which Spinrad has created that puts the story into an odd world for the modern reader. The highly racially divided, socially liberalized society is a direct reflection of and a potential future from the late 1960s when the book was written. Barron was the founder of a civil rights-focused political party, the Social Justice Coalition, which is almost completely supported by southern blacks. (Republicans are a second class party, almost entirely beholden to big business, and the Democrats aren’t much better, and are tightly tied to Howards’ influence.) Marijuana use is legalized and sexual relationships are very reflective of the lifestyle of the summer of love. However, the way Spinrad depicts the women makes them all very subservient — both professionally and sexually.

Race is the key mover behind the story though, playing a large part in the conflict between Howards and Barron, and driving associated story arcs which tie in to the primary drama. The associated class differences and social limitations on blacks (unashamedly referred to as niggers, while whites are frequently called ‘shades’) are best shown though Lukas Greene, Barron’s good friend and Governor of Mississippi, a state which is depicted as being almost entirely populated by blacks living in abject poverty, despite the efforts of the SJC to revitalize the economy and population.

The story itself is quite interesting though, despite the moments of realization that this is an alternate future which never came to be and which probably can’t happen in our future which occasionally draw you out of the story (for instance Lukas Greene’s internal monologue in which he says that he knows a black man can’t be president). Stylistically, Spinrad is clearly influenced by the free association and lyrical prose of the beat generation. But that style is also cross-pollinated by the rise of commercialism and television advertising.

In all, it’s definitely an book worthy of reading to see the diversity of New Wave science fiction. I could definitely imagine the story being adapted to the modern era, or an updated future one, and turned into a movie. The conflict between the common man and big money/big business set against a backdrop of social and class divisions is one that is going to have a long life in literature and film.

Review: Wise Man’s Fear

In the land of fantasy literature, fans are pretty much guaranteed of a few things. Rule number one is that if they really, really, really like a series of books, they are going to have to wait longer than they originally expected for the next book in the series to be published. Another good rule of thumb is that it is pretty safe to assume that when a new book comes out, it is going to be a rather oversized tome (gone are the days of the less than 200 page novel).

For the average person, this phenomenon is best seen in the Harry Potter series. For the folks who are more invested in the fantasy literature genre, over the last 10-15 years two names have been synonymous with big books and long waits between them: Robert Jordan and George RR Martin. Four years ago, Patrick Rothfuss quietly introduced himself to the fantasy genre with his novel Name of the Wind, and it definitely fulfilled the second of the two characteristics of fantasy lit. And the name of that book was passed through the fan community almost as quickly as the wind itself, propelling it onto the NYT bestseller list. And fans of the book quickly learned (told by the main character of the novel, no less) that it was the first book in a trilogy. And Rothfuss told the world that the rest of the story was already written. More or less.

That’s where rule number one comes into play. Fans were hopeful that book two would be out within a year or two, because it was “already written”. But two years turned into three. And three years turned into four. And a wind rose in the backwoods of Wisconsin, and the wind was a beginning, but it was not the beginning. Er, sorry there, started channeling my inner-Jordan. The name of that wind was the anticipation that mounted and mounted over the publication of Wise Man’s Fear. It is safe to say that the only more anticipated fantasy novel is George RR Martin’s A Dance With Dragons (recently announced to have a July 11, 2011 publication date, 6 years after the previous book in the series), and depending on who you ask, they may argue the point.

Well, let me tell you something folks, Rothfuss delivers. In spades. In buckets and buckets of stew. Released on March 1, I swung by one of the two Barnes & Nobles in DC. I knew that the book was going to be popular, so I skipped trying a local store, because I figured that B&N would have copies in stock. No dice. Sold out in two hours according to the employee I talked to, who called the other store which was also sold out. So I tried one of the local stores. Also sold out. So on the third I called up B&N to reserve a copy and picked it up on my way home.

I got home around 6 and read until 2. I was only about halfway through the book. That tells you 1) the size of the book (there’s that other pesky rule of thumb again), and 2) the density and quality of the writing. (In comparison, I knocked off the last book in the Harry Potter series in 6 hours.) Rothfuss’ writing is complex, but clear; engaging and absorbing. I need to break out a thesaurus to be able to describe his ability to produce quality dialogue (clever and sparkling), descriptions of the world (elaborate and elegant), characters (multidimensional and necessary) and societal behaviors and political intrigues (inventive and detailed) without repeating myself.

And all of this is combined in a narrative that, despite the length of the novel, is so tightly wrapped and bound together that it doesn’t seem that a single word is wasted. The interweaving of the external narrative of Kvothe and Bast and Chronicler and the story which Kvothe is telling are producing a world which, while we, as readers still lack the full story, is extremely well-developed and hints at the story which we don’t yet know. In itself, the anticipation it creates for the resolution of both Kvothe’s story and the larger narrative and how the two are connected is almost maddening.

What really amazes me is the way that Rothfuss is able to take various standard tropes of fantasy literature and adapt them and turn them on their head. Sure, we’ve got the “hyper-competent” boy hero, but we see his doubt, his failures, his innocence. And we see him learn to overcome them and begin to grow from boy to man; it is a true process, not just a sudden “thing” which is so common. And how many of these other things have you seen before? He goes to a school for magic. He searches through an excessively large library. He trains with a special warrior society. He dabbles in palace intrigues. Yet, all of these are turned on their heads. But I’m not telling you how because I don’t want to ruin the story and the surprises.

What Rothfuss did in Name of the Wind was to introduce himself to the fantasy literature world by slapping it upside the head with a sea bass and saying, “I love this genre and a lot of the things about it, but dammit I’m doing it my way.” And he has definitely continued in that vein. A week or two ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha over the state of fantasy literature and it’s supposed degradation from the glorious high fantasy of Tolkien to the blackened, rotting husk of authors such as Joe Abercrombie*. No one can read Wise Man’s Fear and accept that claim as true. As good at Name of the Wind was, Wise Man’s Fear is even better. I don’t like to rank “best” books, so I can’t really tell you where it places, but Wise Man’s Fear is easily one of the best fantasy novels of all time. And if The Doors of Stone (book three’s working title) improves as much on Wise Man’s Fear as Wise Man’s Fear did on Name of the Wind, I will be hard pressed to find a better fantasy novel.

*I love Joe Abercrombie’s work and am reading through his most recent novel now.

An excerpt

George said:

“You know we are on a wrong track altogether. We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can’t do without.”

George comes out really quite sensible at times. You’d be surprised. I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.

How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, and with–oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! The dread of what will my neighbor think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

It is lumber, man–all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness–no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the sombre-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchids, or the blue forget-me-nots.

Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed only with what you need–a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.

You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water. You will have time to think as well as to work. Time to drink in life’s sunshine–time to listen to the Aeolian music that the wind of God draws from the human heartstrings around us–time to–

I beg your pardon, really. I quite forgot.

Well, we left the list to George, and he began it.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!), Jerome K. Jerome

Book Review: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

[Originally posted January 9, 2009]

I had seen this book prominently displayed at several different bookstores last year, and happened upon a couple of reviews of it which all spoke highly of it. It is a rather hard book to classify because at it’s heart it is a classic noir style detective story, but although the technology in it is not any different than what we currently have, it is set in an alternate timeline. As such, you’re most likely going to see it in science fiction sections, and indeed, it won both a Nebula and Hugo award for best novel as well as the Locus award for best SF novel. But if you’re not a regular science fiction reader, I highly suggest you pick this up anyway.

Suppose that after WWII the state of Israel lasted only until 1948 when it was defeated its neighbors and the Jewish population was expelled from that territory. Michael Chabon imagines a world in which those Jews, and others, ended up settling in an area of Alaska which was set aside for them by the US government. An idea which is based on a little known historical fact; that the US Congress considered just such an option at the end of the war. Now, 60 years later, that land is about to revert to American control. Against that back drop, the main character, Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic homicide detective on the Sitka police force, goes about solving the murder of a man who lived in Landsman’s own apartment building.

It’s a fantastically told story, weaving elements of classic detective novels, Jewish culture, and a fully developed alternate history together seamlessly. Having just read Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music which is another Chandlerian detective novel in the science fiction realm (blended with the surrealism of Philip K Dick as opposed to Chabon’s dropping his detective into a world inspired by Northern Exposure) I definitely appreciated the chance to ride along with Landsman, who yo-yos between being brilliant and exceptionally effective and being completely lost and adrift in currents of corruption, religious fanaticism and general corruption that run from Landsman’s own family, to a group of super-Orthodox Jews who have formed their own mafia and all the way over into mysterious figures in the American government. The writing is well-paced and clear, and as a reader, you never feels cheated on information, even when you aren’t familiar with certain Jewish customs and beliefs that play into the storyline as Chabon explains them quite understandably. (And he even includes a handy little glossary of various Yiddish terms which he has adapted to the unique situation of his novel. For example ‘sholem’ which means ‘peace’ is used to mean ‘gun’ as ‘peace’ is a pun on ‘piece’, which is of course American slang for ‘gun’.)

My rating: 5/5 stars

Side note, the Coen brothers are returning to their cold Fargo roots as writers and directors of a movie adaptation of the novel.