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.

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