Monday, 30 June 2008

Review - The Farseer Trilogy

It took me three years to read this series. After the impressive pirate-fantasy series ‘The Liveship Traders’, I dove right back into Robin Hobb’s work and started the first of the ‘Farseer Trilogy’, ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’. I gave up a third of the way in. At the time I found the pacing to be too slow, the first-person narrative grated on me, and it felt like predictable ‘orphan boy hero’ fantasy fare.

Yet I came back to it, partly on the recent recommendation of a friend, partly because fantasy fans have always waxed lyrical about how great it is, and partly because I needed to read something while I waited for ‘The Name of the Wind’ to come out in a reasonably-priced paperback (it since has and waits on my shelf). I’m glad I came back to ‘Farseer’ but it’s not quite the fantasy tour-de-force reviews claim it to be. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Martin and Bakker.

As always Hobb’s characterisation is terrific. The characters are well-fleshed out, individual, and realistic. They have clear psychological motivations unique to each character’s personality. The perfect character writing is what kept me reading up to the halfway point of the second book: the story didn’t kick in for me until events started to happen halfway through ‘Royal Assassin’ and the only element that kept me involved was FitzChivalry’s interaction with the people around him. While the first-person perspective does mean real character insights are somewhat more limited than in the third-person omniscience of ‘Liveship Traders’, Fitz is so engaging a character that it doesn’t really matter. The Fool is also brilliant, both melancholy and mysterious: a truly unique fantasy character.

The plot - the Red Ship Raiders attacking - felt almost incidental up until Verity left Buckkeep in ‘Royal Assassin’. Only then did it seem to gain any direction. Up until that point the events of the story consisted of Fitz visiting the same rooms in Buckkeep Castle again and again: to Patience, then Kettricken, then Burrich, then Kettricken, then Patience, then the King, then Kettricken... It got a bit monotonous and acted as an excuse for getting the characters to interact. The story really took off in the last book, ‘Assassin’s Quest’. It’s funny that when I started it a few years ago, I chastised it for being predictable but then this time around I only began to engage with the story when it entered into a traditional ‘fantasy-quest’ mould: probably says more about me as a reader than Hobb’s writing.

As the last hundred pages flicked through my fingers, I began to panic. It increasingly began to seem as if there would not be room to wrap up all the loose elements. But ultimately, while the ending did seem a trifle rushed, it was satisfying. In one swift paragraph Hobb managed to explain – and explain well – the mechanism and motivation behind the mysterious Forging. Despite how right the ending felt, I think the editor could have done some pruning to the first half of the third book.

Robin Hobb is a great writer and reading her fantasy is a pleasure. Picking up one of her books feels like settling down by a roaring fire in a log-cabin with old friends. They’re not as engrossing or gritty as George R. R. Martin, they don’t have the intelligence or difficulty of R. Scott Bakker, and the world isn’t as huge or complex as Steven Erikson’s but maybe they’re better for all that. Robin Hobb’s fantasy feels like comfortable Arthurian legend and while she’s not reinventing the genre, she is getting the genre right.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

"Legally, can the Earth be 'stolen' since no-one owns it?"

This week’s episode of ‘Doctor Who’, ‘The Stolen Earth’, left the Doctor – SPOILER ALERT – on the verge of regeneration. He’s now going to take a week to regenerate into a new body/actor. This means one of two things. The Doctor will either:

- Regenerate into a new actor

- Or David Tennant will stay on

My money’s on the latter. While I would like the Doctor to regenerate so as not to feel ‘cheated’, the episode did make a point of showing the Tenth Doctor’s extricated hand-in-a-jar. From this brief establishing shot, Davies could probably write some corny explanation involving Tennant’s biological code or some other sci-fi jargon. Additionally if the Doctor does regenerate successfully it would mean that the BBC can keep a secret far better than any American networks. The ‘Lost’ season finale was leaked days before it was shown whereas days before Doctor Who an article appeared expressly claiming David Tennant was not leaving. While they could conceivably still surprise us, I’ve become too cynical about anyone keeping a secret in this Information Age, particularly about a science-fiction property with the largesse of Doctor Who.

I’m not getting my hopes up about next week’s season finale: Russell T. Davies has hurt me too many times in the past. Davis has a habit of writing brilliant penultimate episodes and then ultimately failing to deliver on that promise. See the season 1 finale and the season 3 finale. Last year the Doctor escaped from the clutches of the Master because the human race wished he would. Then he floated over and hugged John Simm. The scene might as well have been a black screen with the words “deus ex machina” written across it. Same goes for when Rose magically vanished the entire Dalek fleet. Davies’ writing is flamboyant, filled with plot-holes, and often completely nonsensical. He can set up but he can never knock things down.

Steven Moffat on the other hand is the great white hope for the future of Doctor Who. His episodes are clever, poignant, well-crafted, and respectful to the fans. He has written the best episodes of Doctor Who over the past four years and his two-parters don’t have the disappointing conclusions that are the hallmark of Davies’. ‘Blink’ was magnificently clever and is still the only episode to take time travel seriously. That said Moffat’s writing can make too much sense. ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘Forest of the Dead’ made coherent sense together; so much so that from watching ‘Silence’ I was able to accurately and completely predict where the story was going. It was a good story – very Philip K. Dick – but it didn’t surprise me because everything made sense and so everything was predictable. The Doctor magically reverting back to his younger self and the Earth moving back a year on the other hand did not make sense and so, while totally unpredictable, it was deeply unsatisfying on a narrative level.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope Davies can pull it out of the bag and deliver on the promise of his bloated, fan-service-filled set-up episode. I hope there are no cheap tricks and that the Doctor regenerates into a new actor. I hope Billie Piper can stop mumbling. I hope Moffat delivers a great season in 2010.

Time will tell.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Review - The Brothers Karamazov

A character in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ claims that Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ contains everything there is to know about life. While it may not reach that lofty goal, it’s still amazingly insightful.

Sometimes it seems that there’s a prejudice-without-a-name that people participate in: the irrational belief that people in the past were stupider or generally less knowledgeable than we are now. Looking down on people from the past as ‘simple people’ from ‘simpler times’. It could be called timeism or pastism. Anyway, it’s a tendency to see people up to a hundred years ago as being less intellectually sophisticated than humans are now. This is of course absurd because people were, are, and always will be, idiots.

One only has to read a novel like ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ to see that timeism can be wrong in certain exceptional cases. Dotted throughout history like rare blueberries in a muffin there are astounding individuals with such keen sight and brutal honesty that they are able to change other people’s perception. Dostoevsky’s masterpiece really is one of the most insightful books the world has ever seen. Dostoevsky succeeds in articulating philosophical, religious, psychological, moral, sociological, and literary ideas in the space of only 800 pages. Some of the insights to be discovered may not be new but they are all real, in the sense that they are written in a realistic way. The morals of the story don’t force themselves on the reader but come across naturally. It’s a subtle work, often taking a long time to establish characters, define motives, and describe the backdrop before events even occur. A little like ‘Catch-22’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘The Brothers Karamozov’ lingers for long periods on ancillary characters and events. This could serve as a distraction to the main story but the stories-within-a-story of the side characters are interesting by themselves and as such ultimately make the novel richer and more realistic. The clever pieces of thought within in the text are buried like blueberries in a muffin. But, like blueberries, they’re worth it once they’re found. Dostoevsky even takes pains to express both sides of arguments such as the case for the Christian church with Father Zosima’s chapter and the case against the church with The Grand Inquisitor chapter.

At the novel’s heart there is an underlying theme of choice - the central pillar of existentialism. All of the characters struggle in some way against their past which they feel constrains their present and future choices; Dimitri is constrained by his father’s mistreatment of him and his financial concerns, Ivan is constrained because his time at university has made him “one of those modern young men of brilliant education and vigorous intellect who has, however, lost all faith in everything...”, Smerdyakov is constrained by the facts of his birth. Dozens of other side characters mention being constrained whether by their social status, their character, or their money. They’re forever blaming circumstances or background for the state of their lives. The only character who doesn’t blame external factors for his position in life is the ‘hero’, Alexey Karamazov. Alexey just keeps plodding on, making his own choices, defining his own existence, and feeling how he wants to feel: he’s an existentialist, although to call him that does seem rather crass and against the point. The Karamazov family is said, during the court scene, to be a family of “two extremes” and this is manifested in the brothers. Ivan the intellectual represents the Freudian superego, Dimitri the impulsive represents the id, and Alexey the in-between represents the ego. A family containing the extremes of reason on one hand and intuition on the other with Alexey perfectly at ease in between, free to choose, and not blaming his past for shaping his future.

Dostoevsky expresses doubts at the beginning as to whether the reader will find Alexey “remarkable” as a hero. To be sure, Alexey isn’t one of our modern ‘larger-than-life’ heroes like Solid Snake or Iron Man. He is rather an everyday hero – a calm acceptance of the absurdities of life, a defining of his own path despite what other people say, and a casual persistence in the face of abrupt and unconsidered existence.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

"Whereas McCain only suffers an association with delicious potato products..."

The 2008 Presidential Campaign in America has thus far seen a lot of sniping, smearing, and in-fighting. The Democratic nominations for a candidate alone took up months upon months and gave out a lot of sexism and racism. Barack Obama won which is a good thing because he’s a better choice than Hillary Clinton and yet a bad thing because the citizens of the Red States will never, NEVER, vote a black man into office and so the Democrats will lose the presidency and the world will have to watch for another four years (if we’re lucky) while a Republican America continues to be the playground bully of the world stage.

It doesn’t help Obama’s case that the right-wing media (read as: anything owned by Rupert Murdoch) of the USA is constantly pointing out the fact that he is black. The reasoning appears to go as follows for many Americans: Obama’s skin is the same colour as many terrorists’ skin therefore he must be a terrorist. E. D. Hill on Fox News referred to Obama’s fist bump with his wife as a “terrorist fist jab”? What does that even mean? That’s not a colloquial name for a fist bump. There is absolutely no reason to insert the word ‘terrorist’ in there at all except to incite tacit suspicion into the minds of simple-minded American voters. Over the past seven years, Americans have become psychologically conditioned to jump at the word ‘terrorist’ and incidents like this are playing to that sad Orwellian reality.

It’s also been claimed that Obama is a ‘secret Muslim’: that he’s not really a Christian at all and follows the Islamic religion instead. Rationally of course there’s no reason being Muslim would stand against him – on the contrary, followers of Islam tend to be more disciplined, devoted, hard-working, and dutiful than their Christian cousins. But rationality is not a factor in the American mainstream media and so ‘Muslim’ equates to ‘terrorist’. They’ve also been asserting this nonsensical claim despite reporting on the Rev. Wright scandal a few months ago. The news media has managed to scandalise both Obama’s being a Christian and his not being a Christian within the time of a few short months: a tremendous display of cognitive dissonance.

Then of course there’s the fabulously infantile practice of criticising his name – a factor which he had no control over, which was not his fault, and which says nothing about his character anyway (much like his nationality). Barack Hussein Obama II has the unfortunate coincidence of having the middle name of a dictator whom America had killed and a last name which sounds a little like the first name of the most wanted man alive. Some people in South Carolina noticed this and decided that the separation of religion and politics wasn’t for them. This problematic resemblance of name will surely cause some irrational Americans to undergo some sort of association between this simple boy from Hawaii and America’s most-hated enemies.

It seems that this presidential race is being fought a lot dirtier than previous races. Maybe it’s purely because Obama is the first African-American candidate, maybe it’s because the news networks have nothing to fill their time up with. If it suggests, as it looks like it does, the implicit racism of the American people and the right-wing media networks, then it’s disgraceful. If it merely suggests that the American media is heavily biased against the Democratic party, then it’s disgraceful. I don’t remember these kinds of accusations being thrown at John Kerry - although there were plenty of jokes made at Bush’s expense. Bush did get elected so perhaps some abuse isn’t too bad: then again, being a white male Republican he already had a definite advantage.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

"Even worse will be the Tintin Purists..."

Among the many groups of humanity that I don’t understand, there are a few that I feel I ought to be able to understand and concordantly I understand them least because my lack of understanding is beyond my understanding. One of these groups is Tolkien Purists. These are people who adore J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and despise Peter Jackson’s movie interpretation.

The Lord of the Rings movies made a lot of minor changes to the flow of the story and the tone of some characters. ‘The Two Towers’ is especially notorious and this is because the changes were more major than in either ‘Fellowship’ or ‘Return’: no-one cried when Tom Bombadil was left out. Rather, purists take umbrage with Gimli being used as comic relief, Faramir being momentarily tempted by the ring, the Elves at Helm’s Deep, and dozens of other things. The main polemic seems to be that if Tolkien didn’t write it, it shouldn’t be in a movie with his name attached. Tolkien purists are people who love the books, love the characters, and don’t want to see them bastardised by Hollywood.

Yet, their main problem is that they focus on the little things Jackson changed rather than the big things he didn’t. The underlying story is essentially the same: a Hobbit takes a ring of power to Mordor in order to destroy it defying the minions of the Dark Lord Sauron along the way. The message and theme of the story is still intact and expressed wonderfully by Sam in a scene from ‘The Two Towers’ (ironically a scene that seems to be cut in the Purist Edit). Most importantly, the movie gets the tone of high fantasy right: Jackson succeeded extraordinarily in depicting a world with Elves, Ents, and Orcs, and making it seem realistic. Jackson’s vision on screen took the tongue out of the cheek of fantasy movies. It has opened the door for projects like the HBO ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series and maybe even aided the prevalence of the MMO, ‘World of Warcraft’. The honest and realistic depiction of a fantasy world has led to a change in the public perception of fantasy literature (admittedly aided enormously by J. K. Rowling). Fantasy books, previously a niche genre, are getting public recognition and even (sadly, especially) children’s fantasy fiction is creeping onto bestseller lists. The fact that ‘The Return of the King’ represented the first time a ‘fantasy’ film has won an Oscar cemented this public acceptability.

Sadly the Tolkien Purists don’t see this; all they see is Gimli the clown and Aragorn falling over that cliff. This animosity between Tolkien Purists and Tolkien Revisionists stems from a propensity prevalent in many human beings: the urge to focus on small details to the neglect of the larger picture. This focusing on the small can be seen in many places but especially in Christianity. Many Christians will go on marches and protests based on one tiny passage in ‘Leviticus’ condemning homosexuality; this ignores the overarching theme of the entire Bible (New Testament if not Old) – ‘treat others as you would want to be treated’ / ‘Love Thy Neighbour’. Sadly I think that many people focus on the small because they just can’t see the larger picture. People focus on their own culture, their own values, their own petty morality, because they are unable to see humanity’s true place in the cosmos or even their place in larger human society. Like Tolkien Purists, people will niggle and fuss over the smaller details while the larger questions and the ultimate themes of existence go ignored.

Despite all my pontificating and judging of humanity, I too find myself to be all too human. While I am able to focus on the larger picture, my blood boils and I am pulled back down to a paltry level of simple existence when I hear that Jack Black has even been considered to play Bilbo Baggins. Maybe I understand the Tolkien Purists more than I think.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

"Hidden Worlds."

Geocachers refer to non-geocachers as ‘muggles’. Since Harry Potter first came out, groups have been known to refer to non-members as muggles but in the case of geocaching, it seems particularly apt. Discovering the fact that geocaching occurs is very similar to the experience of Harry in the first book; his revelatory moment of realising that all along there has been a hidden layer just beneath the top layer of reality; that you just need to scratch the surface of your world a little bit to find that there are things you never knew existed and they’ve been right under your nose. So these people, muggles (or geomuggles) can’t see or are unaware of the other layer of meaning which can be laid on top of their perceptual experience.

Geocaching is a free treasure-hunting game. Various people go out into secluded (generally countryside) locations and plant waterproof caches containing items, paper, or whatever. They then upload the global co-ordinates of that cache onto the internet and others are able to go out and find them. The co-ordinates can be found using either a GPS locator or just printing a map off Google Earth. However these devices only get you within twenty yards or so of the cache and once out there it’s more difficult than you might imagine to find them, particularly the well-hidden ones. The point of the game is pure fun – no material gain or acclaim – just fun, which makes it all the sadder when sites are found to be ‘muggledie. tampered with by geomuggles. The whole game exists for the sole purpose of helping individuals to go out and generate their own adventures.

Chances are if you’ve been on a country walk, you’ve walked by one of these caches without even realising it – probably just a yard or so away, perhaps hidden in a fake rock or beneath some undergrowth. There are even caches in Manchester Piccadilly somewhere which thousands of people walk past each day. All these geocaches are hidden out in the open and yet relatively few people know of their existence. It’s fascinating that there could be a secret sport going on right in front of someone and they’d never know it. These treasure hunts go on everyday and doesn’t that fact just make the world a little bit more exciting?

It makes one wonder what other layers of reality are out there, hidden in plain sight. Philosophy represents one layer; a different way of looking at the world to the established societal ‘norm’. Geocaching is another, albeit more physical, tangible, and fun than philosophy often is. What else could be out there right in front of us that we are unable to see? What layers of meaning do others impose on the world that most of us aren’t even cognizant of? How much more is out there?

The real world can be so much better than the everyday natural attitude would have you believe.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – ‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare.