Monday, May 27, 2019

The Wheel of Time and the Well-Tempered Plot Device

Sometime back in 2011, I was handed a complete (used!) set of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time Series from a friend who saw me reading A Song of Ice and Fire.  For several years it sat on my office desk, because I got caught up in other writers.  Then it sat on my bookshelf for a few years as I got caught up in work and research, before I finally picked up the Eye of the World and decided to read it last fall.

With a TV adaptation proposed to come out sometime in the near future, I figured now was as good a time as any for a post about it.

About midway into reading Eye of the World, I noticed a particular phrase being used over and over to explain bizarre occurrences and decisions.  I understood what the phrase means, but its application was pretty arbitrary and inconsistent.  But then I made a kind of mental dictionary, and then the book began to actually make more sense.  Whenever you see the following words in Eye of the World, replace them with

The Pattern --> The Plot

The Wheel --> Robert Jordan

Weaves --> Writes

For instance: Why is this gleeman we just met and know nothing about supposed to accompany us on this dangerous voyage we're not supposed to trust anyone to know about?  Is it because the Wheel Weaves the Pattern as it wills?  No!  It's because Robert Jordan is Writing the Plot as he wills.  This is all part of the Plot.

After I made this discovery (and it wasn't until midway into the book when I made it), it became almost impossible to take the book seriously.  I did keep reading.  And I actually enjoyed it.  Or I enjoyed most of it.  But I kept snickering every single time the Aes Sedai woman spoke, because she was constantly using this line to explain the plot developments.

This idea of word-substitution isn't original to me.  There is a famous article entitled "The Well-Tempered Plot Device," originally published in the Ansible back in 1986 (before Wheel of Time) that criticized many fantasy plots as overly-reliant on plot devices such as "plot coupons" and "plot tokens."  The primary diagnostic of an overdone plot device, according to the article, is if it can be replaced with "the Plot" and not make any difference.  One famous example is "the Force" from Star Wars.  Try watching the first movie, and mentally replacing "Force" with "Plot."  The movie won't change very much, and might actually make more sense.

The world of Wheel of Time felt very real to me, while I was reading.  I felt like I was in streets of medieval towns and staying inside medieval taverns and sleeping in hedgerows along old dusty roads.    But any time something happened, we were told by the characters that it happened that way because Robert Jordan wrote it that way.  And that wasn't very fun.

I have all ten or eleven of them on my bookshelf, unread, and they will probably stay that way.  But this is not the reason why I haven't read the other books.

The reason why I haven't read the other books is that the ending to Eye of the World was a total asspull.  It was the kind of ending where the author realized the main character is in a situation where the main character would die, but the main character can't die, so the author causes something completely unexplained and unexpected to occur to rescue the main character in service of the Plot.  Or, as the Aes Sedai would put it, the Wheel Weaves the Fabric as it wills.  The main character just suddenly and without explanation (before or after) manifests magical powers to defeat the BBEG, which leaves the ending feeling very unearned; that, or leaves the rest of the story feeling very pointless.

Another way to put things is that the ending violates Sanderson's First Law.  Which is ironic since Sanderson wrote several of the WoT books.  Magic I didn't understand or even know existed suddenly came up and resolved the entire conflict of the book in about two pages.  Everything before about the characters and their hardships didn't mean anything because unexplained magic solves the story at the end,

If you read the books in high school and loved them, then I get it.  A lot of my friends did, too.  I came to them as a full-grown adult man, and they just didn't do it for me.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

JK Rowling and Sanderson's 3rd Law

The Harry Potter books succeeded wildly, beyond anyone's imagination.  JK Rowling is the top-selling author of all time.  Not just in fantasy.  Period.  I believe the series did so well largely because of the strength of the characters and their relationships.  Modern people want friendships like we see in Harry Potter and Stranger Things.  So there's a lesson to potential authors. The characters and friendships of Harry Potter are incredible, and I can understand why so many people would love the stories on that basis.

Harry Potter succeeded because of its characters and relationships.  But Harry Potter did not succeed because of its imagination.

I've spoken in depth in the past about why I don't like the Harry Potter books.  All of it can be boiled down to a single statement:

The characters of Harry Potter are unaware of their own universe.

But I stumbled on a more authoritative way to say this, in terms of Brandon Sanderson and his "laws of magic."

The first law is fairly well-known: In order to use magic to resolve conflict in a satisfying way, you need it to be understood.  The magic of Harry Potter is very understandable, so that isn't an issue.  You always know what Alohamora is going to do.

The second law is: the limitations are more interesting than abilities.  The magic in Harry Potter does have concrete limitations, which does create interesting conflicts.  You can't use the time turners to change the past, as an example.  So that isn't an issue.

Brandon Sanderson's 3rd Law has been stated most simply:

Everything is connected to everything else.

This is where Harry Potter fails as a series.  It fails to explore the connections that should exist within the world.  It doesn't consider the deeper ramifications of dark lords with million-person-wide global secrets or ten-year-olds with the ability to kill at will.  Many of the characters in Harry Potter seem to temporarily forget that magic exists and don't use it for some crucial purpose, or are surprised when someone else uses it.

Consider briefly just some of the means of transportation within the Wizarding World of England:
  • In the Wizarding World, everyone is able to get on a broom and fly.  This is already an extremely effective form of transportation, far more effective than ground transportation.
  • In the Wizarding World, there is a special train with its own rail to carry students to and from Hogwarts, because they aren't allowed to fly there.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists at least one flying car that you aren't allowed to fly, or at least not to Hogwarts.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists at least one flying motorcycle that you don't even have to use magic to fly on.  You are allowed to fly this, even to and from Hogwarts.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a magic powder that allows you to instantaneously teleport between fireplaces anywhere in the world by speaking the name of the desired location.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a double-decker bus that drives around late at night just in case a wizard gets lost and doesn't have a way home.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a spell to turn any mundane object at all into a transportation key that instantaneously teleports you to anywhere in the world.  This is a different spell from the fireplace one.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists an old wooden boat that travels underwater.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exist carriages drawn by invisible death horses.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a spell that instantaneously teleports you (and a friend) to anywhere in the world, without a mundane object or a fireplace.  This is a different instantaneous teleportation spell from the other two.
Now, I can understand how it might be that all of these might exist: Wizards find better methods over time.  I can't understand how it is that all of these are commonly used at the same time.

This is a failure to consider the connections between one kind of magical transportation over here, and another kind of magical transportation over here.  The lack of connections between the elements of the world make the world flat and unbelievable.

One of my strongest points about the flat worldbuilding is the Wizarding economy, which is completely one-dimensional.  You either work for the government, or you teach at Hogwarts.  Or you pretend to be a chair and squat in a Muggle home.  Those are basically the only jobs.  However, there are all kinds of implications that the existence of magic and magical goods should be having on the economy.  Hermione goes to work at the Ministry of Magic doing something with elf rights, when Hermione could have gotten in to Oxford and become top-of-her-field in any subject she wanted to.  There are people who know how to fly and transmute matter and cast illusions, and they work retail hours stocking books in a magical bookstore.  Wizards just don't do anything, and don't interact with the real world.  There is no connection between one an the other.  And yet we frequently see wizards connecting with the real world.

Hogwarts itself is flat.  There are four houses.  There are four houses because traditional boarding schools have four houses.  One house is good, the other house is evil.  The other house is... I dunno, really smart, and then the last house is...  um... all the rest!  We just need four houses.  All the rest of Hogwarts outside of Harry, his friends and his enemies remains essentially a Potemkin Village.  Hermione should be in Ravenclaw and Neville should be in Hufflepuff, except those are the good guys, so they aren't.Slytherins are evil, Griffindors are good, everyone else is whatever.  The evil professors are Slytherin, the evil students are Slytherin, the evil founder is Slytherin, the evil dark lord is the heir of Slytherin, the evil wizards who help the dark lord are Slytherin.  All of this is to reinforce that Draco = Slytherin = eath Eater = Voldemort = Bad.  Even Dolores Umbridge, the goody-two-shoes who should fit right in at Griffindor, later joins the Death Eaters, and while at Hogwarts uses Draco and his goons -- who are known to be trouble makers that start fights -- to act as hallway patrol.

It doesn't make any sense, because the implications and connections of the school and its four houses were never truly worked out.  Griffindors just are good, Slytherins just are bad, and Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff just are.

The first book can essentially be summed up as "the most powerful wizards in the world continually forget that magic exists."  The most precious treasure in the world, being sought after by a powerful murderous dark wizard, is guarded at least in part by a simple locked door.  There exists a spell, Alohamora, that can unlock doors, and there exist doors that cannot be unlocked by Alohamora.  But the wizards protecting the philosopher's stone only did not use such a door to guard the entrance to the stone.  They did use such a door to guard the stone, just not at the entrance, and then placed the key to the only unopenable door in the same room as the unopenable door, along with a broom to chase it down.  Two of the guards for the treasure are living creatures which can immediately and even effortlessly be killed with the death spell.  The other puzzles can largely be flown over if only you had a broom, and you do have a broom because we left one in the room back there (where we also left the key to the only door you can't unlock with magic).

The denouement of Philosopher's Stone can basically be summarized as the most powerful and evil wizard in the world tries to hold down a 10-year-old boy with his hands because he forgot there are spells that do it better, and decides to perish in his insistence on not using magic to defeat his nemesis.

The connections between the magic being used to defend the Philosopher's Stone, and the magic we know exists in the world, were never formed.

The issues continue.  The characters routinely behave in ways that would only make sense if they did not know that they lived in a world where magic worked.

All of this to say, I now know how to articulate my main complaint against Harry Potter, and have the authority of Brandon Sanderson's name to back me up.  The Harry Potter books violate Sanderson's 3rd Law of Magic.  They fail to contemplate the way that everything is connected to everything else.  They fail to make the connections across the different spells, across the different houses, across the broader world.