Thursday, April 24, 2014

Westeritis: A dangerous new epidemic in fantasy fiction?

So I was incredibly excited to read Elizabeth Bear's new book The Steles of the Sky, the third book in the Eternal Sky trilogy. Since I've begun it, however, I have found that I just can't get into it at all. I'm sticking with it and hoping I'll get over it, but it's a real slog and I keep putting it down for more engaging things, like Clash of Clans. The problem is, there are just too many storylines and each one is too complicated, so I can't keep track of who's who. It may not be fair, but I am tempted to blame George RR Martin.

Anyone who's either read the Game of Thrones books or watched the TV series knows that you practically need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the characters. If you've read the books and you watch the show with someone who hasn't, you'll find they keep asking you, "wait, who is that again?" I haven't watched all the shows, just part of the first season, and when I read recaps of them I don't remember half the people they're talking about.

Is it fair to say that Bear is imitating Martin in trying to balance all these storylines? Does the Eternal Sky trilogy have a case of Westeritis? Certainly it's not that simple. Martin was far from the first person to make fantasy series that sprawl all over the place. But perhaps if the world of Westeros hadn't set the example her editors might have told her to trim things back a bit.

One might say that this kind of thing works for someone like Martin, but not as well for other authors. But honestly is it true that it even works for him? The main storyline is incredibly engaging but it's hard to care about every single one of his characters. This was revealed starkly in A Dance With Dragons, his most recent of the series, which disappointed a lot of readers by focusing entirely on what most people would consider secondary characters and giving us little time with the people we want to know the most about. Part of Bear's TSoTS's book's problem is that it's been a long time since I read the previous book and I don't remember who everyone is. I anticipate a similar problem when Martin finally stops giving us dribs and drabs of The Winds of Winter and finally puts the book out.

For other fantasy authors overcome by the urge to fantastic sprawl with countless pov characters, I prescribe a two aspirin and a dose of Patrick Rothfuss, whose Name of the Wind is as sophisticated and complex a fantasy book as there is out there with only one pov character. The third book of the trilogy is not coming for a while, but I will have no trouble remembering who Kvothe is.

Monsters, anonymous: Helene Wecker's The Golemn and the Jinni

Must we be who we are?

We like to think we make choices all through our lives, but mostly we make the same choice over and over again. So many of our inclinations are baked into us from before we can remember, and we either surrender to our nature or struggle against it our whole lives. In Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni this dilemma faces not only the eponymous monster protagonists, but the Jewish and Syrian immigrants of turn-of-the-century New York they find themselves among. 

Chava, a golem, was made to be the obedient and faithful wife of a European Jewish man named Rotfeld. But Rotfeld died less than a day after bringing her to life on a boat to America, so she soon finds herself alone in the Jewish community on the Lower East Side. Her nature is to serve and obey, and without a master she is assaulted by the needs and wants of everyone around her. She is only saved when the kindly rabbi Avram Meyer recognizes what she is and brings her home.

Ahmad, a Jinni, springs from a lamp when it is repaired by the tinsmith Boutros Arbeely in the now-vanished Little Syria in the West Village. After more than a millennium of imprisonment under circumstances he can't recall he finds himself in a weakened state, bound by an iron band around his wrist to an unknown master. This goes against his nature, which is to drift in freedom above the desert, with no allegiance to anyone. 

Every monster in a book is at least partially a metaphor for something else. Godzilla was partially the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Lestat was partially a gay man in the time of AIDS. Chava and Ahmad are partially newcomers to America, dropped in a bustling city that is only a little bit stranger to them than to the thousands of other immigrants around them. Among other things, this book is a well-researched portrait of its time and place, reason enough to enjoy it. 

But every monster should also be a monster, something other than human, and Chava and Ahmad are. Even their names are simply conventions to allow them to relate to the humans around them; neither being feels especially attached to this central identifying aspect of the human experience. It is a challenge particular to the author of speculative fiction to create a being that is not human but nevertheless possessed of will and desire and needs that engage the reader and drive the plot. And this is Wecker's real strength.

The golem and the jinni have desires and needs, but they are not people's desires. Neither, however, are they stereotypical straightjackets, for each questions and struggles against their urges, just as all the other characters struggle with their own. They each have superhuman strengths and weaknesses, and they fight not to be confined by them. Most of all they live in danger of their inhuman natures being revealed.

Ahmad, a being of fire, can melt metal at a touch, quite a useful skill to the the tinsmith Arbeely. But he has an artistic temperament and struggles against the boredom of day-to-day craftsmanship. His free spirit constantly leads him to put himself in danger of being discovered as an inhuman being, for example when he seduces an uptown socialite.

Chava, a being of clay, has no such urges. She has a boundless work ethic and endurance and puts it to work as a baker and a seamstress. She has to resist the urge to work all night, which would reveal her own superhuman nature. Her drive is to serve and obey anyone, and she instinctively knows what everyone wants. Worse, she has the potential to go into a killing golem rage which would be catastrophic given her superhuman strength.

As the book progresses Ahmad and Chava find their stories intertwined with each others and many other people, among them a demon-possessed doctor, a passionate social worker who has rejected the faith of his rabbi father, a mysterious rabbi-magician and a mute orphan. In addition to being a portrait of its time and place the book engages us in the life of each of its characters, while also plotting them tightly into a fast-moving adventure which unfolds with mysterious secrets about the past of each monster.

The balance that keeps the book alive is that neither of the monsters is entirely bound by their nature, but nor do they entirely escape it. And in that way they are human after all.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

One, two, three... WOW! Those are Fibonacci numbers! (Nymphomaniac)

So I waded through the misanthropy of both parts of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, and I now hate humanity almost one tenth as much as von Trier does. But I didn't want to talk about the whole movie, I just wanted to comment on one element that annoyed me spectacularly: the shallow fake intellectualism of the character Seligman.

The movie is basically a sex addict named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounting her penis-filled life story to an asexual bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard - no, I'm not looking up the HTML code for that 'a' with the circle on top character) after he finds her beat up in the alley. A central theme of the movie is Seligman saying something supposedly smart and intellectual after Joe recounts some sexual encounter. The problem is, most of the 'intellectual' things he says are in fact really stupid.

An example is when Joe says that the first time she had sex, her boyfriend Jerome humped her three times in her vagina and five times in her ass. "Those are Fibonacci numbers!" says Seligman, and goes on to say some hand-wavy stuff about how they're connected to other mathematical things, like the Golden Ratio and such.

While it's true that they are Fibonacci numbers, this is an incredibly trivial and stupid observation to make when confronted with the numbers '3' and '5,' considering there are only two numbers, too little to imply much of a series, especially when these two numbers are part of countless other significant sets and series (the odd numbers, the prime numbers, the smallest Pythagorean triplet, and so on).

A humanities equivalent would be see the letters 'e' and 'a' and then to say 'Amazing! Did you know those are two letters in the name of the name of Ezra Pound, a writer of poetry, an art form also practiced by the great thinkers Rumi and Samuel Taylor Coleridge?'

It might be a little less idiotic if Jerome had humped her 13 and then 21 times, but I'm not sure that Joe could count that high; stupid as Seligman is he's still an intellectual titan compared to her.

In the second movie, when Joe tells  Seligman she lost her ability to orgasm, he tells her something like "you were just like Xeno, who could never reach his goal!" Even Joe gets annoyed here, though not because she recognizes that this is even stupider than the Fibonacci thing. For her situation to resemble Xeno's Paradox she'd have had to tell him that she got asymptotically closer and closer to an orgasm but never quite reached it (a not unheard of situation). Instead, she lost all sexual sensation whatsoever; she never even crossed the starting line. She's more like the Tortoise in Godel, Escher, Bach and the Charles Dodgson dialogue on which the dialogues on that book are based. But I doubt Seligman could get past the second page of that book.

It has occurred to me that von Trier might be doing this on purpose. Maybe Seligman is supposed to be a fool who is convinced that he is a genius. But I don't think so; the stuff he says about fly-fishing are clearly meant to sound really brilliant. No doubt if I knew more about fishing those would look just as dumb to me.

But did you realize that the first word in 'fly fishing' has three letters, and that three is the first digit in pi?