Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Monday, September 1, 2014

And Ye Shall Likewise


In days past and in lands forgotten - certainly far before either you or I were born - there in that far-away land stood a great kingdom.  And that kingdom was ruled, of course, by the King, a man of great honor and of great love for his people.  This King was a wise monarch, who dealt with his subjects fairly; and so there was peace in the land, prosperity in the markets, and the people there felt safe to leave their doors unlocked at night.

While the castle slept, the King would disguise himself as a pauper and sneak through passages unknown to his guards to the town beyond the castle walls.  He would take with him a wallet of gold coins out of his treasury, and so equipped he would wander the streets of his capital looking for those in need so that, in secret, he might give them comfort.  Orphans, widows, beggars; he would visit each in turn, under cover of night, and when he left they would discover the King's gift.

And it happened one night, as the King was about this business, that his attendants in court learned of their King's absence.  They learned that the King had left the castle, and left it empty, and that now it was theirs.  They learned that the King was outside of its walls and unable to stop them, unable to enforce his reign.  They learned that they could do whatever they wanted.

Now they could be kings and queens.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Speculating on Blindsprings


I recently stumbled on to a web comic called Blindsprings, after seeing a banner ad for it.  Let me take this time to recommend it to you.

Blindsprings is a comic that just went online back in October.  If you go to the website, you can see that not much has happened yet.  As such, it's hard to gauge just what the story is or where it's going.  So far though, surmising from the information available, I think this has the potential to be something really, truly great.  What is also exciting is being able to see the story develop from the beginning.

Plus, the artwork is beautiful.

this was the ad for it
Here's a non-spoilery description blurb of it:

The main heroine is a young girl named Tamaura.  She lives alone in the forest, where she attends to animals and plants trees and performs many other tasks for a shady group known as "the spirits".  It's a simple, idyllic kind of life.  One day she meets a young man named Harris, who has heard a fable of her and came to investigate the truth of it.  The two become friends, and after spending time with her, Harris decides to go off to a place called Kirkhall to study what is called Academic Magic.

The setting is not the standard "medieval" fantasy kind of setting, but something more like early Enlightenment era.  Really, not much of it has been revealed yet, so that's mostly a surmisation.  We are not even finished with the prologue.

Go read it.

After you've read it, come back here and let's talk about it.  There's not much of it (so far), so should be easy.

There are SPOILERS below.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What Do Wizards Even Do?


The Malfoys are very rich.  The Weasleys are very poor.  However, they are not nearly as poor as the inbred and horrible Gaunts.

Why?

This is again part of the same basic problem with the series: Rowling never bothered to figure out her universe from the perspective of the characters who live in it.

How do wizards generate wealth?

As revealed in the books, there are really only so many things a wizard or witch can do professionally.  You can make wands.  You can make magical pranks.  You can manufacture magical candy.  You can sell books or robes.  You can teach at Hogwarts (and there's only a dozen positions there).  You can work for a news publication.  Or you can work for the Ministry of Magic.  That is the entire wizarding economy.

For instance, when the students begin taking their OWLS and deciding their classes for future employment, almost every single job opportunity considered is at the Ministry of Magic.  Harry becomes an auror, but what else was he going to become?  An accountant?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Please Stop Ruining the Hobbit

I just saw the second movie in the Hobbit "trilogy".

The movie itself is a series of pointless sword fighting and action scenes with a cast of a dozen or so flat characters whose stories go nowhere.  I guess if you like Michael Bay movies, go see the Hobbit; you'll love it.

There is precisely one interesting character in the movie, and that is Tauriel.  This is a Peter Jackson original character.  And I'm saying a lot here when I say that Bilbo, Gandalf, and Smaug, the three characters who near single-handedly enchanted my childhood, do not come across as as interesting as some random elf lady practically from legolas by laura, thrown in to appease focus groups.

I've determined that the only way to make sense of the movies is to perceive them as fan fiction.  Extremely expensive, high budget fan fiction.  Peter Jackson is telling his own made-up story using the characters and elements of Middle Earth, and it just happens to vaguely correspond somewhat to the series of events in the Hobbit.  And it's great if Peter Jackson wants to write fan fiction and spend billions turning it in to a movie, but I'm sorry to say that Peter Jackson isn't as good of an author or story teller as J.R.R. Tolkien.

So why is the cinema making the movie about Peter Jackson's fan fiction, and not about Tolkien's story, the one that sold all the millions of copies and inspired all the millions of authors?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Upon Reading "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality"

There's a certain feeling you get when you find someone who has had the same idea as you, and who has carried out his idea with some success and to some amount of fame.  On one hand, it's a feeling of deep camaraderie to see someone else who has apparently reached into your private mental space and shared in your genius.  He, too, has thought as have I; perhaps this is the most basic bond that forms society.  But then, on the other hand, you think, "[expletive]! The [expletive] stole my [expletive] idea!"

So it goes for me with the popular fanfic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

I have always been dissatisfied with the Harry Potter as a work of speculative fiction, because it seems as though absolutely no one in the wizarding community understands their own universe.  Everyone, from the lowliest Squib up to Dumbledore himself, is completely unreflective and unobservant of their situations.  They spend no time analyzing the way magic works and so seem completely baffled when magic does work.  They seem to have absolutely zero common sense.  The creative and engineering aspects of human nature seem entirely foreign to wizards and witches, who do not use their abilities to reverse entropy and violate conservation of energy for anything besides, apparently, making housework slightly easier and playing magical pranks on people.  Some guy actually invented a substance that causes infinite money and eternal life, and no one ever bothered replicating the formula, or even seemed to care that much about it, really.

A friend recently recommended the "Methods of Rationality" to me, telling me about how the obstacle course in Philosopher's Stone is analyzed as being absurd from beginning to end, and that is when I got very excited about it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Norns and the Others

However many summers ago, before the release of the most recent Dance With Dragons, I managed to finish reading up to the end of Feast For Crows, and like most readers I had this frustrated desire to know what the heck is going on.

Who are the Others, what's up with R'hllor, who is the real Prince Who Was Promised, is Dany ever going to get her act together and invade Westeros, etc. etc.

Somewhere on some forum, I managed to pick up the interesting tidbit that the entire world of the series of A Song of Ice and Fire is based on the shorter, finished series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams.  Martin himself has admitted as much in interviews.  The person on the forum claimed that most of the characters have one-to-one analogues, and it is pretty easy to get a feel for where the series is heading by reading the original.

[There are definitely ASOIAF spoilers below, and some minor background details about MST below; there are no story specific spoilers from MST, and I love it too much to tell you anything about what happens to its characters]

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Actually, the World Is Split into Good People and Death Eaters...

If there's one main criticism that childrens' books receive, it is their overly simplistic division of characters in to "Good" and "Evil".

In a children's book, this sort of thing is really necessary to an extent, as part of the goal of any good book for children should be to instill virtues.  Otherwise, it's all cows on farms going moo-moo.  There should be clear heroes who should do clearly good things, and evil jerks who act like evil jerks, so that children can learn the difference between what is valued and what is deplored in society.

In the Harry Potter series, Dolores Umbridge is, for a time, an interesting character in that while she is cruel and heartless, she actually has nothing to do with the Big Bad of the series.  Rather, she comes in with the Ministry of Magic, the primary Government institution for Wizards, and is supposed to represent the alleged good.  Unlike most of the Death Eaters --- who are either in it for the Evulz or who believe in a kind of Nietzschean ubermensh ethics whereby their power as a wizard grants them right to assert their own rules --- Umbridge honestly believes that she is doing what is good.  She believes that she is helping the students by teaching them discipline and to trust the Ministry of Magic - the good guys, that is.

There is a persistent theme in Harry Potter, arguably one of its better ones, that the Government's help isn't worth the loss of freedom it's printed on.  Right in the beginning of Chamber of Secrets the Ministry starts bungling things bad.  In Goblet of Fire, we learn about Barty Crouch; Crouch is trying to destroy the Death Eaters and is actively opposing Voldemort, yet resorts to tactics of law enforcement that leave a little bit of ambiguity as to whether he can really be called good.

Dolores probably represents the height of this.  She is a loyal follower of Cornelius Fudge who appears on his behalf as the new DADA instructor, in part to keep an eye on Harry and Dumbledore.  The latter she believes to be rebellious and trying to undermine the Ministry, while the former, Harry, she thinks just has histrionic disorder.  She wants for the children to stop believing in the lies that are frightening them, and her goal really is just to keep everyone calm.  To ensure this, Umbridge keeps enforcing more and more legislation and acts of the Ministry to give her more and more disciplinary power.  Her biggest fault, really, is probably being an idiot.  Apart from that, she's a self-righteous do-gooder who can't keep her nose out of everyone's business.  She wants discipline, but more so she wants obedience.

I've had plenty of teachers like her.  In American public school, they're ubiquitous.  I had one teacher in Spanish who gave us a vocabulary quiz on irregular verbs.  It was a list of English infinitives, and we had to write down the equivalent Spanish infinitive that corresponded to an irregular verb when conjugated in the 1st person present indicative.  One of them was "to know".  In Spanish, there are two verbs for this, conocer and saber, both of which are irregular in the first person, both of which translate as "to know".  So I wrote down both.  She took off points for me doing that, and when I asked her why, she said that conocer wasn't on the study list she gave us; it's an irregular Spanish verb meaning "to know", but the quiz was about her study list of Spanish verbs and not Spanish, so I have to lose points.  I've had plenty of teachers like McGonagall and Lupin and Sprout, sure, and none like Snape, but definitely lots of Umbridges, too.

In the Order of the Phoenix where we first encounter Umbridge, there is a scene between Harry and Sirius that I think is supposed to explain her character and open up the story for a deeper development of moral themes.  Dolores has just forced Harry to write over and over and over again that he will not tell lies, which scratches the words in blood upon the back of his hand.  But also, Harry's lightning bolt scar has been hurting more and more, and Dumbledore has not been around to consult about it.  Desperate for someone to speak to, Harry write to Sirius, asking for some advice.

When Sirius shows up in the fire of the Gryffindor common room, this is the conversation that he and Harry have, about his scar hurting and about Umbridge:
"Well, now he's back it's bound to hurt more often," said Sirius.
"So you don't think it had anything to do with Umbridge touching me when I was in detention with her?" Harry asked.
"I doubt it," said Sirius.  "I know her by reputation and I'm sure she's no Death Eater---"
"She's foul enough to be one," said Harry darkly and Ron and Hermione nodded vigorously in agreement.
"Yes, but the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters," said Sirius with a wry smile.  "I know she's a nasty piece of work, though --- you should hear Remus talk about her."
This statement by Sirius is meant to broaden our perspective on the nature of evil.  It isn't just black-robed evil murderer types, but there is also a more subtle cruelty of knights templar protecting us from our own selves.  Dolores might be terrible as a Death Eater, but she's nothing like them.

Except that... well... she is a Death Eater.

This might be one of the worst failures of the series.  Despite Sirius' claims, the world of Harry Potter is literally split in to good people and Death Eaters, and even the character meant to explicitly contradict this, is, in fact, in league with the Death Eaters.

At the moment it's cool and trendy to have "grey" morality in stories, to make sure there is no one good or evil side.  Works like Lord of the Rings or Narnia that do feature clear good and evil get a lot of criticism for it.  I think it is definitely interesting when a book shows things from the villain's perspective, or gives the villain actual motives, or even good motives.  But I have no problem with books that don't.  I like books with clear good and evil just as much as I like books with ambiguous factions.  I certainly don't hate books just because they have black/white morality.

It is one, thing, however, to have simple black/white morality.  It is another to have black/white morality and explicitly criticize black/white morality, to introduce characters to break the mold of black/white morality, and to still cave in to black/white morality anyway.

Every single villainous character in the entire series, from start to finish, is in league with Voldemort.  Even when it makes no sense or isn't necessary.

For instance, consider Draco and the allegiance of House Slytherin to Voldemort.  Draco is introduced in the beginning to just be a bully and a spoiled rich brat.  There's no reason he has to have anything to do with Voldemort or blood purity for his character to be effective.  He can be mean and cruel and be in Ravenclaw.  As it turns out, Draco is in league with the Death Eaters and later becomes a Death Eater, and as it turns out House Slytherin is in league with the Death Eaters and later almost completely takes Voldemort's side in the battle at Hogwarts.  Turns out the school bullies in the clique at Slytherin are black robed wizards of evil.

There are good people (Harry and Gryffindor House) and Death Eaters (Draco and Slytherin House).

Dolores Umbridge, of course, is the main example here.  Dolores is allied to the Ministry and is meant to actually represent a faction fighting Voldemort.  Her purpose is to show how even that can be bad.  Yet we learn of her history of blood prejudice (a Death Eater trait) in the 5th book, which very quickly lumps her in with Draco, Slytherin, Voldemort, and every single other bad guy in the book.

And when Umbridge wishes to organize an Inquisatorial Squad to keep order in the hallways, she doesn't select people like Percy, goody-two-shoes who love order and discipline as much as herself.  Rather, guess who she picks.  Yep, she picks Draco, the other villain, despite the fact that Draco's dad actually works for Voldemort (who she supposedly opposes) and that Draco is mostly a troublemaker who causes fights.

The unity between Umbridge and Draco is bizarre.  The two share almost nothing in common, really, besides that both are enemies of Harry Potter.  And so that is my point, really; every enemy of Harry Potter is a Death Eater, everyone who opposes him ends up, in the end, supporting Voldemort, even people from completely disparate factions.

So now Umbridge, a cruel disciplinarian, and Draco, a troublemaking bully, have joined forces to torment Harry Potter, and it is around this time that Sirius assures us that the world isn't divided in to good people and Death Eaters.

Later, after the fall of the Ministry, Umbridge is seen organizing the Muggle-Born Registration  Committee, enforcing blood-purity laws.  In this capacity she directly works with several Death Eaters such as Yaxley and Travers, doing their work for them.  There's no direct statement that Dolores is in Voldemort's ring of followers, but even if she never puts on a scull mask, it's clear that she's with them.  She supports Voldemort and his followers when he's in power, she does his bidding to suppress muggles, she works hand-in-hand with the Death Eaters.  She does everything they do, with as much cruelty, and in the same organizations, along with them.

So Dolores is in league with Draco who is in league with Slytherin who is in league with the Death Eaters who are in league with Voldemort.  All of the bad guys make one big group, versus Harry Potter.  They're all together.  Anyone not a good person, no matter what their sympathies or allegiance, in the end, is actually a Death Eater.

Again, this wouldn't be a problem if she didn't make it a problem.  Rowling pointed out that there is more to good and evil than Death Eater/not-Death Eater.  Then, I guess, forgot, and made all the bad guys Death Eaters.  Rowling is the one who made separate factions of bad guys, then Rowling is the one who collapsed all of the factions into a single one.

So, there you go.  Despite what Sirius says, actually the world of Harry Potter is split up, into good people, and Death Eaters, depending on how you get along with Harry.

Why Doesn't Everyone Believe in R'hllor?

One of the more interesting points (to me) about A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a Game of Thrones) is the role that religion plays in the series.

The principal religion of Westeros is called simply the Faith, and it is belief in the Seven.  This religion, in many ways, mirrors the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, what with monks and nuns and priests and a pope, and in some other ways, such as the prevalence of ceremonies and shrines and points of dogma.  The theology of this religion, in terms of their being seven gods who are one god, was supposed to mimic slightly the Christian notion of the Trinity (which, btw, it doesn't, but that's neither here nor there).  Even though the seven gods are all said to be one, there are in fact seven of them, and they are seven gods, making this religion polytheistic.  The seven gods are the Father, the Mother, the Maid, the Crone, the Warrior, the Smith, and the Stranger, each of which is meant to represent some aspect of human life.  The weirdest of these, most definitely, is the Stranger.  Holders of the Faith are often afraid of the Stranger; his image on a wall in a sept gives Catelyn chills during her prayer to the Seven.  The Stranger represents, amongst many other things, death and dying, and for this reason is worshipped at the House of Black and White.  Midway in to the fourth book, the Faith undergoes a kind of Protestant Reformation as the Sparrows lead and uprising to kick out what they see as corrupt septons and put in place their own High Septon to make reforms and turn back to a more pious worship of the Seven.

The next most influential religion is usually called just the old religion, and is a belief in the old gods.  These gods are worshipped at the weirwoods which it turns out have psychic time-travel abilities that can allow particular people to view and interact with the past.  This was the original religion of the Children of the Forest (a.k.a the Singers of the Song of Earth) that they taught to the First Men, and it is still retained mostly in the North.  The Starks hold to the old gods, as do most other Northmen, even the Wildlings.  This religions is also polytheistic, or animistic, or maybe pantheistic; the old gods have no names, and really no distinguishing properties, besides that they are worshipped at trees.  As you will find out, the old gods are mostly wargs like Bloodraven and Bran communicating with the past by controlling the weirwoods

The only other religion with any sway in Westeros is the one of the Iron Islands, the belief in the Drowned God.  This is a dualistic religion; there is the Drowned God who died for the people of the Islands, to save the from the Storm God, who sinks their ships and kills their men at sea.  The good deity of this religion is believed to have literally drowned and died to defeat the evil Storm God.  So far as I remember, the Drowned God is actually dead, but due to being dead he is stronger; what is dead cannot die.  They have a ritual very similar to baptism, involving a symbolic "drowning" that youth and converts undergo, whereby they also drown and die and then come back to life.  In more moderate versions, this is similar to sprinkling at infant baptisms, done to newborns on their name day.  In the more extreme forms, such as those practiced by Aaron Damphair, converts are literally drowned until they die, then a crude form of CPR is performed to resuscitate them to life.

Those are pretty much the only religions on Westeros, with maybe some slight difference.  However, due to the travels of various characters to Essos, we learn about several other religions.

The most prominent of these in the series is the worship of R'hllor, the Fire God, worshipped by the red priests such as Melisandre and Thoros.  But as I want to make a much longer point about R'hllor, I'll come back to this.

The Dothraki practice a kind of animism.  Their gods are horse spirits and the spirits of conquering kings.  Animist religions don't tend to have a lot of theology as a rule, and if the Dothraki have any at all then it isn't mentioned.

The Shepherd people practice what is arguably the only form of monotheism in the series.  They worship the Shepherd, of whom we are all children and sheep.  The practitioners of this religion are described as peaceable and unwarlike, preferring to just be alone and look after their sheep, similar to how the Shepherd is believed to watch after them.  Even though they're described as peaceful and unwarlike, the Shepherd people are known to fire their arrows at raiding Dothraki, and so are not actually pacifist.  Maybe I'm being self-flattering, but to me this religion had the most parallels with Protestant Christianity.

There is brief mention of a pacifistic people who worship a Butterfly god.  While the Shepherd people will use violence to defend themselves, the inhabitants of the island worshipping the Butterfly god will not.  One of Dany's scribes came from the island of these people, and she claims that the Butterfly god looks after them and keeps the slave ships from landing on their island.

The ancient Valyrian's believed in a pantheon of gods, some of whom are named in the series, but as Valyria is dead and their empire destroyed, little of that religion remains.

Then there is the House of Black and White.  This is set up as a temple to Death.  People come there to commit suicide, or to hire assassins to murder people.  The adherents of this temple honor death in all of its forms, and worship it in all the ways it has been worshipped in all religions.  One of their chief philosophies is that in all regions, in all times, people have honored Death as a god, and that as death claims everyone, death is the chief god worth serving.  Their temple is full of statues depicted various forms of death gods in various religions.  One of these is the Stranger from the Seven, along with many others.

So those are the various religions in the series, or at least as many as I can remember.  The Free Cities practice freedom of religion and there are innumerable gods and religions honored in them, so there are certainly many more even if not explicitly mentioned in the series.  Still, that's enough for now to make my point.

Let's go back to R'hllor.  I skipped him earlier.

R'hllor is the principal god of the religion of the red priests, which is arguably dualistic.  R'hllor is the god of fire, and thereby heat and thereby life and light.  He is in battle against the evil god known only as the Other, the god of cold and darkness and death.

The first believer in R'hllor that we encounter is arguably Thoros.  Of  course, Thoros isn't exactly the paragon of piety and so we never hear about the god of fire from him in the first book; Thoros is described simply as a red priest from the East who likes to set his sword on fire during tournament battles and get drunk.  I didn't even realize he was a different religion from the Faith until the third book.

But in the prologue of the second book we encounter Melisandre.  Most people hate her character (mostly because she's fervently religious), but I find what she represents highly intriguing.  She first comes on to the scene being challenged by an old Maester of the Faith, who attempts to poison her to save his beloved king Stannis from falling in with the unknown demon she preaches about.  The Maester wants to sneak poison in to her goblet, but failing to do so, he places it in his own and invites her to the center of the room to drink from his in a toast of friendship.  Uncannily, Melisandre knows what he is doing, and offers to let him back down, but she takes his challenge, chugs the poison, then offers the cup to him; he drinks it and dies with one sip.  She can drink poison and not be harmed, as well as know the intentions of people trying to kill her, and, as we learn, do many, many other things.

She leads the people on Dragonstone in burning their statues of the Seven and converting over to R'hllor, and in this she declares Stannis to be Azor Ahai Come-Again, a prophesied hero of legend who is destined to return and slay the Other.  While most readers very quickly grew to hate her (because, as I said, she's fervently religious), readers also really latched on to his idea of who is the real Azor Ahai.  It's pretty clearly not Stannis, despite what Melisandre believes, so who is the prophesied hero of legend?  Is it Dany?  Is it Jon Snow?

Then we go back to Thoros and the Brotherhood Without Banners, led by Beric Dondarrion.  At this point in the book, I was all about Dondarrion, and I'm kind of disappointed at where this went, but now I see how it was necessary. Beric has been leading the common people in revolt against the nobles who are murdering them and pillaging their villages, and we find out that in fact Beric is dead, and has died many times since.  Each time, Thoros, the red priest, calls upon the fire god R'hllor to revive Beric and Beric actually comes back from the dead.  That's how the BWB are able to keep fighting, even when their valiant leader is slain on the field, and is a constant source of confusion with the enemy.

And here is where there is some ambiguity.  Everyone hates Melisandre (and really, considering her shadow demons, she's pretty horrifying) and can't stand her prattling about the "Lord of Light", but by this point Thoros is using the power of R'hllor to revive one of the more honorable people in the series to destroy the wicked noblemen and their cruelty to the small people.  Same religion, same god.

As we keep going, we learn all of the things that red priests can do.  Beric can slit his hand on his sword and turn it in to a blade of burning fire.  Thoros can bring back the dead by breathing in to them.  Melisandre especially can drink poison, see the future in the fire, curse people to literal death by throwing leaches in to a fire, and birth terrible shadow monsters that can assassinate others.  The red priest on board Victarion's ship is able to cure Victarion's wounded hand that the other Maester was going to cut off, and replace it with a blackened, burnt cinder that is even stronger and more capable than the original hand.  The red priests have such incredible power, they know what ship to get their guy on so that he winds up shipwrecked in a storm and floats by in front of the boat that is going to bring him to Dany, who they suspect may be Azor Ahai.

Here's my point, really.  As interesting as the Seven and the Drowned God and the Shepherd may be, there is a clear winner here.  Even if you hate Melisandre and even if you hate Victarion, and even if you hate everything the red priests stand for, R'hllor is real.  In the world of Westeros, there is in fact a deity named R'hllor, who is worshipped by the red priests, who in fact has actual power as demonstrated again and again in the series.

And we sort of already know this, too.  I don't think there are many readers who consider the prophecies about Azor Ahai to be bunk; nearly every fan speculation I have seen operates as if the prophecy is absolutely going to happen, Azor Ahai is absolutely going to be born again (most likely in the timeframe of the series) and is totally going to defeat the Other.  We all know that R'hllor is real, and even if we hate all of his followers, we know that his prophecy is about a good guy who is going to do good things, probably either Dany or Jon Snow.

When you compare this to, say, the Seven, who can't do jack, you have to wonder why there is anyone at all in the world who does not believe in R'hllor?

Like, seriously.  It is reported in 1 Kings 18 that Elijah the prophet challenged the priests of Baal to a competition; the god who could send fire from the sky to consume an offering was the real god.  When the Baals fail despite their best shouting and cutting of themselves, and when God sends fire that consumes the sacrifice, the point of Elijah is immediately and clearly made; there is one God, Yahweh, and he's real, while the Baals are fake.  If this sort of thing happened with any regularly, there would probably be much fewer atheists and many more Christians and little need for religious dialogues or debates.

And this is what Melisandre does; she drinks poison and the Maester drinks poison, she lives and he dies, and then she burns the dumb and silent statues that are supposed to be gods and can't even save themselves from a fire.  Maybe you think that's mean, or intolerant, but she has a point; R'hllor is real and the Seven are just worthless idols.

Are the Seven real?  Davos Seaworth, close to death, reports hearing the Mother speak to him, asking him to avenge them.  And maybe he really did hear her, or maybe he imagined it, but Melisandre can flippin' throw a bug in to a fire and kill Davos where he stands.  Even if the Seven are real, there is a clear winner here.

You would think that the red priests would have a much easier time spreading their religion, given their powers and abilities; in fact, almost anyone who sees what they can do does quickly join on in belief (such as Stannis' men or Victarion).  But this isn't a new religion; so why haven't they spread further?  Why are their people in Volantis who openly reject what is arguably the only real deity with any obvious displays of power in the entire series?

I think that to answer that, you need to dig a bit deeper in to what the House of Black and White believes.

I mean, arguably R'hllor isn't the only god with power.  The members of the HoBaW have some abilities as well; it's what helped them escape slavery in the fire mines, and it's what helps them assassinate today.  And among the various forms of Death worshipped at the HoBaW, one of them must be the Other, the evil god opposed to R'hllor.  The Other, pretty clearly, has some connection to the Others; after all, there's the name, but also the Others are associated with cold, darkness, and death, just like the Other, and just the opposite of the traits given to R'hllor.

I'm just hypothesizing, but I think that the Stranger, or the Other, or whatever other names exist for him, might also be real.  I don't think we know enough to know the full extent of what the Stranger is, or his connection to the Others, or his connection to the Children of the Forest, but I suspect that it goes back much deeper than is currently obvious.  The other six of the Seven likely aren't real, the stuff about the great Shepherd probably not either, and who knows about the Butterfly god; but R'hllor is real, and therefore his enemy the Other must be real, and the Other is almost identical to the Stranger.

To cut to the chase, when it comes to why more people don't worship R'hllor, I think the answer is this: R'hllor is the evil one, the Great Other is the good one.

The Prince That Was Promised... was not promised to us.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Harry Potter and the Council of Rejects

The second book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is the only one of the series that I read when it first came out, which was when I was 11.  When the third book came out, I felt less than eager about reading it.  So I didn't.

Rowling maintained throughout the entire series this notion of how incompetent the Ministry of Magic is.  They are a bunch of paper-pushing bureaucrats who mindlessly follow rules and ordinances, and they have a tendency to insulation and confirmation bias, in particular Cornelius Fudge's refusal to acknowledge the return of Voldemort.

But I don't think Rowling ever realized just how incompetent the Ministry really is.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Literature Review Process, or So I Understand It

I'm in the bookstore, and a book catches my eye.  More often than I'd like to admit, it's because it has a pretty cover illustration, or a very respectable binding.   Or maybe it was misplaced on the shelf by a previous browser, or maybe it had a special display rack for itself.

Anyway, somehow, by some means, I've got the book in my hand, and I want to know: should I bother reading this?

Of course, I can't trust the reviews on the back of the book.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: Why Can't Kvothe Do Magic?


There's a certain type of book series that offers the reader the chance to be a detective; the entire world of the series is a mystery whose origins lie shrouded in a mist of narrative, yet enough light pierces that veil to allow the attentive reader to glimpse the nature of things.

The Kingkiller Chronicles is just such a series, perhaps the best such series.  It is written by a very talented writer, and it is already finished; every twist in the plot is already written in a manuscript, and Rothfuss is largely just fixing diction at this point (which is still taking him agonizingly long).  Further, the future of the series is already known; we know the end of the story, where Kvothe becomes the humble innkeeper of Nevarre and the world is torn apart by demon spiders, and we know that the rest of the story is going to explain how all of this happened.

So, as I have done in the past, I would like to take a moment to wildly speculate about the series.

There are, of course, SPOILERS.  Please do not read this until you have read the first two books, and thoroughly.  Try to piece things together for yourself, or you're missing half the fun of the series.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Why Travel to Hyperspace Would Instantly Kill You

So, I've wondered a lot about a way to construct a "system of magic" (as often appear in modern fantasy works) from a collection of physical laws.  And until I got carried up in classes last semester, that was one of my main focuses of attention.

I was thinking that, in an alternative universe, there's no reason why they should have the same number of spatial dimensions as us.  So why not four, or five, or ten?

Because if you traveled to four-dimensional space, then you would find your skin insufficient to contain all of the air, blood, half-digested food, and maybe even internal organs that now find an extra degree of freedom within which to diffuse.

Five and higher dimensions makes it worse; the many things inside of you that keep you alive would disperse and splatter even faster.

So far I have discovered that to have any sort of meaningful adventure in a parallel universe, it must have the same number of spatial dimensions as we do (namely 3), it must have at least one time-like dimension, the electromagnetic interaction must exist and must recognize and interact with your electrons and protons.  Gravity would be nice, and I don't know enough about weak and strong interactions to know if they would be necessary.
http://abstrusegoose.com/457

There are most likely other limitations and dangers in such fantastic travel that have not yet come to mind.

In short, the inter-universe questing of children from our universe can never be to any world truly alien from our own.  Which is very sad.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Quick Thought After Seeing "The Hobbit"


I just saw the new Hobbit movie.

I liked it.  It was good and enjoyable and done very well.  The story was wonderful, the animation was wonderful, and most thankfully of all the hobbit protagonist was an actual masculine hero and not a mincing whiner crying all over himself for three solid hours.  You should go see it, too.  It's well worth the ticket price.

But then after you've seen it and gotten over how awesome it is, come back and I have to ask a question.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Ending that Would Have Made Harry Potter


I've spent a lot of time criticizing Harry Potter.  Just before the last book was movie-fied, I watched all of the movies on some HBO marathon special with my family, and spent the next several months abusing the series to anyone who would let me talk about it, for about as long as they'd let me talk about it.

I have recently finished reading all of the books (thereby eliminating that excuse for fans to ignore me), and my opinion of the books was elevated slightly.  It was.  The people who pestered me in to reading them have convinced me that Rowling put a good story together with good characters.

The books will obviously be around for a while, essentially owning their own table at Barnes and Noble, and may get inducted in to the Fantasy Hall of Fame with Tolkien and Lewis, and so no matter what I say the books are already a classic.  And no matter what I say, Rowling is the millionaire author with seven books and eight blockbuster movies, while I just have an internet connection.

But I think she really dropped the ball in the last book.

The ending we got was, basically, the ending that everyone would have expected from the very first chapter of the first book; it's the ending we would have expected from only the knowledge that it was about a prophesied chosen one and a powerful Evil Wizard set on destroying the world - no further details needed.  Spoiler alert: the prophesied chosen one wins.

Which obviously isn't bad.  I like the archetypes in fantasy fiction, otherwise I wouldn't read it.  I like "orphan farmboy runs away on adventure, becomes knight, kills dragon, rescues princess, rinse, repeat."  I would not get tired of it, and that's precisely the point of these archetypal stories.

But I think Rowling had the opportunity to do something completely, stunningly mind-blowing with the ending to her seven-book series that would have made even me swear by the series.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Who Don't Understand Magic


So I've blogged before about how Harry Potter; in particular I've blogged about how the Sorting Hat is either intentionally destroying the wizarding world or completely incompetent, but also a more general point on the nature of the series.

The first book is unmistakably a children's book; when it came out I was 10, and it was the hottest thing at that time.  I was actually in the same grade as Harry Potter when it came out, and all my friends were reading it.  Yet in just the same way the 7th book is unmistakably not a children's book.  For one thing, the later books are all well over 500 pages. They also touch on such topics as death, torture, and making out.

In children's books it is okay that adults are blundering idiots, that kids get away with nearly dooming the entire world to destruction, and that villains and heroes both time their moves exactly with one another.

Yet in adult books, all of that is inexcusable.

So when characters in the 5th book refer back to the events of the 1st book, they should be able to refer back to them and see how they acted completely oblivious to the existence of magic or of magicians who could perform magic, and how the three kids then lauded as heroes actually came inches from handing the key to immortal life to the most evil wizard in memory.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we meet Harry and follow him to Hogwarts where he learns magic, and watch as he tries to uncover the mystery of what is hidden in the forbidden wing and who is trying to take it.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On Reading "His Dark Materials"


I originally wrote this February, 2011 on a different blog, but decided to repost it here.

Lyra and Iorek
This week I read the entire His Dark Materials series.  I started with Golden Compass idly at about ten last Sunday just to give me something non-work-related to do before I went to bed.  I finished the Amber Spyglass yesterday evening sometime.  I put aside work and school and sleep (I slept in my office one night to get more reading time) and to some extent eating as I read through the series.

It's a really, really good book.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I Hope It Doesn't Have Gears on the Cover...

Note from Reece: this is a guest post by one of my friends, explaining his position in a running debate between ourselves.

That's how you know a book isn't worth reading; if it's got gears on the cover.

A close friend of mine and I have a running bet on the nature of steampunk. I think the premise of steampunk as a genre is inherently flawed whereas my friend thinks the genre has potential to be good, if done right. It seems like a somewhat unfair bet; If he can provide one example of a good and well written steam punk novel he wins the debate, while I can only be right if from now until the end of time no one ever creates a steampunk masterpiece.

I am fairly confident in my chances of winning.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Sorting Hat Is a Jerk


I've posted before summarizing, briefly, why Harry Potter is terrible.  Essentially, it is this: she took a kids-book fairytale world and slowly moved it in to the realm of adult speculative fiction.  Plot elements that existed for no other reason than to entertain and light up the imagination now were expected to conform to some kind of sense, so some kind of sensical explanation was fabricated post-hoc, and those explanations fail to explain.  Partly they fail because the explanations don't really make sense if looked at, but they primarily fail because characters in earlier books behave as though they are entirely unaware of the way that their own universe is supposed to work.

Total Jerk
Let's look at one of the more iconic characters in Harry Potter, the Sorting Hat, which (who?) is charged with sorting first years in to their respective houses.

Either the Sorting Hat is objectively bad at its job, or the Sorting Hat is an actively malicious and evil entity bent on destroying the wizarding world.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fantasy Fiction is Broken


A friend of mine recently "read" The Sad Tale of the Brother's  Grossbart.  I use scare quotes, because he put the book down in to the third chapter, it was just so abhorrently tasteless.  I respect his opinion a lot; he's the one who got me started on fantasy with recommends like the Game of Thrones.  He and I regularly trade opinions on books we've read, and he has yet to steer me wrong.

This book, he gave the much coveted award of Worst Book Ever.

Friday, July 20, 2012

From The Magicians

I recently read The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  The story is sort of a commentary/deconstruction of childhood fantasy novels, especially Harry Potter and Narnia.  I suppose I have more I could say about it, but I was really struck by this quote:

Penny chose Oslo -- not even New Oslo, just Oslo, as if they thought they came up with it first -- for its total lack of anything that might distract him.  He arrived in mid-September and had no trouble renting a small farmhouse on the outskirts of town on a one-lane rural route.  His landlord was a retired schoolteacher who handed him the keys and then fled to his winter in South Carolina.  Penny's nearest neighbors on either side were a congregationless one-shack Pentecostal church and an out-of-session summer camp for disturbed children.  It was perfect.  He had found his Walden.

He had everything he needed: silence; solitude; a U-haul trailer packed with an enviable library of magical codices, monographs, chapbooks, reference books, ad broadsheets.  He had a sturdy desk, a well-lit room, and a window with an unscenic view of an unmown backyard that offered no particular temptation to gaze out at it.  He had a manageable, intriguingly dangerous research project that showed every sign of maturing into a genuinely interesting line if inquiry.  He was in heaven.

But one afternoon a few weeks after he arrived, as he sat at his desk, his watery blue eyes trailing over words of consummate power written centuries ago with a pen made out of a hippogriff feather, Penny found his mind wandering.  His large, usually lineless brow crinkled.  Something was sapping his powers of concentration.  Wa he under attack, maybe by a rival researcher?  Who would dare!  He rubbed his eyes and shook his head and focused harder.  But his attention continued to drift.

It turned out Penny had discovered in himself a weakness, a flaw he never would have suspected himself of in a thousand years, an age to which, with a few careful modifications that he would look into wen he had the time, he had every intention of living.  The flaw was this: he was lonely.

The idea was outrageous.  It was humiliating.  He, Penny, was a stone-cold loner, a depserado.  He was the Han Solo of Oslo.  He knew and loved this about himself.

This describes me almost perfectly.  Sometimes I want cloister myself off and just read and study and solve problems, free from the oppressive burdens of human interactions... but I just can't.  I can go with very little human interaction, but very little still isn't none.  And it has been interesting to learn of my own possession of the weakness of needing human interaction.