Thursday, October 29, 2020

Trying to decode The Beginning Place by Ursula Le Guin

 I recently reread this favorite of mine.  My copy is an old, worn paperback I purchased at a used bookstore in the middle of nowhere in Georgia.  The cover art shows the two man characters Hugh and Irena lost wandering in a forest, Hugh dressed in the vest from Tembreabrezi with the ceremonial sword drawn, and Irena in the red traveling cloak the inn lent her.  I've seen other covers for the book, and this one blows the others away.  It is apparently also the author's favorite, because it's the one she shows on her website.

This book, especially with this cover, might make you think this story is in the same genre as Narnia or Bridge to Terabithia.  It is and it isn't.  For one, this book is not meant for children.  It's actually too mature for young adult.  It'd be better for students just entering college.

If you recently read this book and are trying to understand it, or read it long ago but didn't really get it or don't remember much, I'm going to offer an explanation for the story that should help it make more sense.  (Spoilers below)

To enjoy this book, you need to understand that it is not the same kind of book as Narnia.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The witch of Endor proves mediums aren't real

Once you know how cold reading works, it's basically impossible to take mediums, astrologers, palm readers, or any other kind of sooth-sayer very seriously.

Cold reading is a technique as old as civilization. From looking at a person and the details about them, you can guess things about their past and present. 

If someone is from Montana, for instance, you can guess they've ridden on a horse. You can even guess someone they knew fell off of a horse.

If someone is from the South, you can assume someone in their family has diabetes (no offense, but sweet tea).

Almost everyone has a woman close in their life who has suffered a miscarriage, because everyone knows several women and a large percentage of women have had a miscarriage.  So for almost anyone, you can guess they or someone close has suffered a miscarriage.

Now, you the psychic can't just blurt out "Your friend fell off of a horse," or "your wife had a miscarriage", because maybe that's wrong and you'll look foolish.

So instead you lead the client into it: "I'm seeing someone... someone on a horse... there is a bad accident..."

You didn't make a prediction, you didn't state who, you didn't even necessarily connect the horse to the accident. Your hope is the client will say "Oh, that was my best friend Tammy, she fell off of a horse in 9th grade."

Or you begin: "I'm seeing a child... a baby. Very tiny, maybe not even born. The poor child is suffering..."

You didn't make a prediction, you didn't state who the baby is or whose baby it is, you didn't even state the baby died. Your hope is the client will say "Oh, that must be my child. I had a miscarriage 5 years ago." Or "my wife/sister/mother/etc. had a miscarriage."

You the psychic don't actually know anything. Cold reading is going off of general information (like a tragically high number of women have miscarriages) or small details (like this person is from Montana) to make vague predictions to lead the client into filling in all specific details.

The remarkable thing is that even though the client gives you all of the information, when they recall the event, they will think you knew this information.

You knew that her friend Tammy fell off of a horse in 9th grade.

You knew her mother had a miscarriage 5 years ago. 

But how could you have possibly known that?  The client will think you had access to information you should't have had.

That's how mediums and palmisters and astrologers and tarot card readers and others all work. It's how all of them work. They cold read you. If you keep going back then they actually hot read you (where they research facts about you to present as though they were learned supernaturally).

It is at this point that many Christians will interject: that not all mediums and psychics work this way. At least some mediums and psychics have real powers that they get from consorting with demonic spirits. To argue this case, they will bring up the story of Saul and the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28, who conjured up the spirit of Samuel. That, they say, is an example of a real medium who really had power over the spirits of the dead. 

Now, it's the Bible, the Old Testament even, and so it's really old.   Thousands of years old, old. The story took place in the bronze age, around 1000 BC.  People then were not as skeptical as people today.  So maybe you'd just scoff at the idea of using any book that old as a proof of ghosts existing.  Fair enough.

The point I want to make is that even taking the story literally and at face value, it actually shows the opposite. The story actually shows that the witch of Endor was a charlatan who was pretending her entire career and never expected the ghost of Samuel to appear.

Let's set the backdrop of the story.  Israel used to be ruled by judges and priests, but they have just appointed their first king, Saul. The prophet Samuel appointed him, lending the authority of his office to the new office of king.  Saul was not a very good king.  By the time this story occurs Saul has been rejected by God.  Saul is in a battle for his throne, and he wants to turn to Samuel for advice -- but Samuel is dead. As king, Saul had banished all mediums and other necromancers out of Israel, threatening them with death. But his throne on the line, now he decides to consort with one in hopes of speaking to Samuel. He asks his men:
“Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.”
They reply:
“Behold, there is a medium at Endor.”
The witch in Endor was known even to the men of the king.  She was famous then.  She is still famous today, thousands of years later.  People are still talking about her powers as a medium. She is not just as a medium; she is the medium.

Saul disguises himself and sneaks to her at night.  He's disguising himself so other people won't see who he is -- he's the king who banned mediums, going to see a medium.  Here in the year 2020, I think we can relate to politicians banning things then getting caught doing that same thing.  He goes in, and he asks for her to consult a spirit for him. A specific spirit that he is going to name:
“Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.”
She replies:
“Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?”
Now, when I read this, it sounds to me like the witch knows this is Saul and she is trying to get a promise of immunity without revealing anything.  I think this because Saul immediately promises she won't be punished and she believes him:
Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 
Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
She believed his promise she wouldn't be punished, so she must have believed he had the ability to withhold punishment. She either knew he was Saul, or at least one of Saul's nobles, or some other person trying to entrap her and promising not to.  So she believed him. She offers to conjure up a spirit for him.

Notice her confidence. "Whom shall I bring up for you?" Anyone he wants, just say the name. She's very sure she can do this. Saul is going to say the name of someone, she's going to say some words, and the ghost of that person is going to show up and give her some advice for Saul.

Saul asks her to bring up Samuel.

The very next line says that Samuel appeared.  But let's pause and review.

We have the most famous medium of all time offering to bring up the ghost of anyone Saul wants. Saul wants the ghost of Samuel, so she's going to conjure the ghost of Samuel, the former prophet who anointed Saul. This medium apparently believes she can do it, and she's setting out to do it.  The next thing we should expect to happen is for Samuel to appear.  And yet the next line reads:
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice.
She was going to summon Samuel. Samuel came.  So why does she cry out?

The entire exchange (1 Sam 28:11-14):
Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?" 
He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice.  And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 
The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” 
And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 
He said to her, “What is his appearance?” 
And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.
This doesn't seem like someone who expected a ghost to appear. This is someone who has been pretending her entire life to have the ability to speak to the dead, now seeing the dead.  The witch does not know who this spirit is.   To her it's just the spirit of an old man, and she is terrified.

The rest of the story, the spirit of Samuel approaches Saul and speaks directly to him, condemning him for turning to asking spirits of the dead instead of God, and announcing that God has forsaken Saul, Israel will be defeated by the Philistines, and the crown will pass to David.

Taking this story as a factual description of the history of Israel's first king, and as a factual description of the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel appearing to Saul,  the witch at Endor is still a charlatan. She couldn't actually summon a spirit, and she wasn't expecting to summon a spirit.   She was planning on faking with Saul as she had every other time in the past. To her great surprise, this time a spirit actually appeared.

Samuel appeared, not because the witch summoned him, but to issue a rebuke to Saul as punishment for his turning from God. The ghost of the prophet is sent by God, for God's purpose of ending Saul's reign. After this, the morally defeated Saul goes on to be mortally defeated in battle against the Philistines, and his body afterwards desecrated.

All this to say, it is possible to believe the story of the witch of Endor happened as described in the Bible, and also believe that mediums, psychics and the rest are all charlatans who use cold reading methods to trick clients into revealing information. That's what the witch of Endor was planning to do. This story doesn't teach that the witch of Endor could conjure spirits.  It teaches that she got sent Samuel anyway.

If not even the witch of Endor was a real medium capable of actually conversing with the dead, how much less are any of the modern pretenders today.  They don't consult with spirits, neither demonic or otherwise.  They cold read.  If you know what to look for, you can actually see them do it.  Look up one of these medium shows, and pay close attention to the statements they make, vs. the statements the audience makes.  You'll immediately see it, and you'll never be able to take it seriously again.  A great  example for contrast is a guy called Tyler Henry the Hollywood Medium.  What makes him such a great example is he does both hot and cold reading.   You can find videos of him hot reading celebrities, and contrast with him cold reading audience members.  Is it that the ancestors of celebrities can speak more clearly, or is it that he's using two different techniques?  Now that you know what to see, you'll see it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Orcs are evil

Orcs are a fantasy monster.  While Tolkien may have standardized them as the basic low-level mook hounding the protagonists, the idea of the orc goes back millennia before.  The word "orc" is an Anglicization of the Italian word "orco", which is a kind of monstrous demon of Italian fairy tales that feeds on human flesh.  This is identical to "ogre" in classic French fairy tales, which became its own type of monster in the modern era.

The orco takes its name from Orcus, one of the Roman gods of the underworld.  Orcus was particularly associated with torment and punishment, and therefore also associated with evil and demons.  He was normally depicted as a giant hairy monster.

Tolkien's orcs are likewise demonic monsters who eat human flesh.  Tolkien never settled on one particular explanation of their origins.  The movies actually show us two of his proposals: one, as corrupted elves who were bent by Sauron's dark powers, and another as monsters created by evil magic and birthed from pits of mud and slime.  In the Hobbit, orcs are just very large goblins.

Orcs cannot stand sunlight.  They hide from daylight in caves and holes underground, and only emerge during the dark of night to slaughter and plunder, and drag their victims back to their lairs to be devoured.

Whether demons of a dark god of death, or spawned from a wizard's slime pit, orcs are evil.  Orcs are inhuman monsters.  Orcs don't exist in the real world; but if they did, orcs are exactly the thing humans should hate and kill.

Orcs are more intelligent than the wolves they partner with.  But not much.  Orcs can use weapons and tools and battle tactics and have fighting prowess equivalent to a man.  This is arguably what makes them such an ideal opponent in fantasy.  They offer the challenge of killing a human-like foe, but without the moral ambiguity of murder.

Because you can't murder an orc.  You slay an orc.

Orcs are irredeemable monsters of bloodlust, hatred, and violence.  They have nothing to offer to people, except the adventure of slaying them.

Orcs are a projection of something even older than the word, something older than Tolkien, something older than the Romans, something living in the human psyche.  Orcs are a manifestation of the notion of evil monsters dwelling in darkness and emerging only at night to steal, kill, and devour.  They are the thing from your childhood nightmares, put into a certain form, to entertain you in fantasy escapism.

Why am I saying these mean things about orcs?  Because that's the way orcs "are".  Obviously orcs don't really exist, and therefore "exist" only in a kind of tertiary sense.   But in so far as orcs are postulated in fairy tales and fantasy, that is what orcs are.

Now.  This topic of orcs and their portrayal is currently trending on twitter.  So if you just read any of the things I said about orcs, and your thought was "how dare you say that about black people"... then you are a racist.

And I can hear you back-pedaling.  No no, you don't mean that you think of black people when you hear those descriptions (even though you made the association...).  What you mean is that the kind of language I am using to describe an inhuman monster, is the same kind of language used by racists in the past to dehumanize people.  When books or games describe orcs, they lean on racist language used in the past.  It's those other people (whose thoughts you can read) who are thinking of black people when they describe orcs.

But that assertion has the order of things reversed.

DnD isn't using racist language to describe orcs.

The reality is that racists use orcs to describe other humans.

Racists often try to cast their fellow man as an orc, as a savage monster without a conscience.  Racists try to pretend that another group of humans are creatures from fairy tales and nightmares.  Racists want it so that when you think of their particular pet group of people to hate, they evoke in your mind the fiends that will drag bad children into the darkness to be eaten.

It is dehumanizing language.  It is dehumanizing language precisely because orcs are not humans.  Describing people as orcs is literally describing people as inhuman monsters, because that is what orcs literally are.

If you think you can counter racist descriptions of black or brown people, by portraying orcs as favorable depictions of minorities, then you are doing what the racists wanted.  You are linking a group of humans to the thing lurking in my childhood closet.  You are strengthening the association that the KKK wants us all to have.

When you try to portray orcs as peaceful, thoughtful souls with a beautiful and rich culture of oral histories and excellent pottery, you aren't doing anything other than saying you think some group of humans are a reasonable stand-in for inhuman monsters... but inhuman monsters that have your sympathy.

Trying to humanize orcs means asserting that a man-eating monster birthed from slime pits with barely more intelligence than a dog could properly belong to the category of "human being."

Orcs are evil.  They do not represent humans.  Their depictions as savage monsters stems from areas deep within the human mind and the common childhood fears we all share, expressed in myth, legend, and folklore.  It does not stem from white supremacist language or colonialists.  Orcs are equal-opportunity butchers, who murder and devour humans of every race equally alike.

Portraying humans as orcs, or orcs as humans, is wicked and racist.

But no one needs to apologize for portraying orcs as orcs.

Monday, April 20, 2020

How I came to DCC and the Old School of Gaming

Smaug, from the only feature-length adaptation of the Hobbit
My dad is a Tolkien nerd who grew up in the 70s.  Therefore my dad played DnD as a teenager.

I also grew up a Tolkien nerd, watching the Rankin/Bass version of the Hobbit (which is still the only movie version of the Hobbit) until I was old enough to read it.

One day, between about 8 and 11 years old, I discovered my dad's copy of Gary Gygax's original DMG for AD&D (the one with the metal-girded demon abducting a maiden), and his copy of Dr. Eric Holmes' Basic Ruleset (the blue cover with the dragon on his hoard of gold).

I was immediately sold.

Cover of Holmes' Basic Rules
I had no idea how to play this game I was reading about, or who I would play with it were I to play, but I spent whole afternoons locked in my room reading over different traps and fantastical items in a dungeon, the horrific monsters
lurking in the shadows, the powers of these beasts and what items players should use to defeat them.  I was even mesmerized by the opening discussion of bell curves vs uniform distributions with dice.

Most of all, I loved the art work and the maps.  I loved the skull mountain view.  I loved the thief left to die in a pit trap by his companions, and the lizardman rider.  I loved the rat caves and the underwater rivers.  I loved the gnome abducted by the ghouls.  Even without playing the game, the books stole me away to these magical worlds, where I became lost in it all.

Eventually I thought I had absorbed enough of the gist of the game that I tried to play with friends.  My version was extremely simplified, and had my own modifications, and my dungeons were linear and nonsensical, but it was still fun escapism at its best.

Eventually we moved, and I had trouble making friends.  I tried to get games together, but none of the people I hung out with were really interested in the game.  Most of my friends throughout middle school and high school weren't nerds, but the sort of bubblegum punk scene that was the style in the 00s.  I went through most of high school without getting my hands on the game, except maybe for the sort of second-tier experience afforded by Neverwinter Nights.

When I got into college, I finally had enough friends (and close enough friends) willing to play that I started trying to get a game together.  By this time, the game was in the 3rd edition.

3E was a radical change to the game.  Many of the changes persist, and many of the changes are objectively better.  Changes like ascending armor class instead of tables and THAC0.  No matter how much I read, I never ever understood what THAC0 was, until after I had a math degree and a masters in physics.  I'm not saying descending AC is wrong, just that it's more work to explain and keep track of and an immediate conceptual hurdle.

Many of the changes in 3E were better.  But some of the changes weren't better.

There were tons of major changes.  There were lists of skills and feats, and rules for selecting feats, and special abilities, and all these new races, and all these new classes, and so many things to consider.  I tried to get a handle on it, but it was too much to keep track of.  I felt like I needed a computer to keep track of all of these rules and conditions in the game, and this game was supposed to be the more immersive alternative to playing games on a computer.

The rulebook was also like $60 and I couldn't afford it.  I had to get my information from free d20 resources on the web.

We tried playing, and got a few sessions in, but this wasn't the same game.  It was too much like a video game, and not like structured imagination.  We stopped pretty soon.  It was too much effort, and I didn't bother putting together any new games.

I tried again later in college, after I transferred to a state university (from a community college).  The rulebooks were still ridiculously overpriced and there are like four of them, but the box set claimed to be all you need to get started, and was pretty affordable.  So I got it.  The cover art was redolent.  I planned on getting a game together.

This was the era of the much-maligned 4E.

What was wrong with 3E, was magnified in 4E.  There were too many rules, too many special powers to keep track of, so much specialization and special builds.  Moreover, there was a complete change in... tone... in feeling... in theme.  The artwork was very high quality.  Yet it lacked the heart and soul of the amateur line art I remembered.  The races and classes I remembered were straight out of the books I read growing up.  I could point to them in the pages of the stories I loved.  Now there were all kinds of things whose origin I didn't understand; they seemed contrived just for the game.

I couldn't even understand HOW to play.  Do I have to get rolls of giant grid paper and draw giant table-sized maps of extreme detail?  I need figurines for every monster I want to include?  I don't have time or money for that, and if I did I'd just play Warhammer.

I tried yet again when I was in grad school.  I had some highly nerdy friends who were very close.  It would have been perfect.  I started arranging a campaign, I realized I could just use the basic d20 SRD (and avoid 4E), and I started making my own campaign world that stayed far away from all the campiness of 4E and later 3E materials.  But it was still too much.  There were too many rules, and I spent too much time just trying to figure out how everything works and we never got to play the campaign I planned.

It was a few years ago, on a whim, that I found myself in a friendly local game store.  And I saw on the shelf an absolute tome of a book, covered in tie-dye colors with a heavy-metal wizard glaring out from the spine.

As soon as I opened the book, I knew what I was looking at.  I was back again in my childhood home, reading about the fantastic worlds of magic and might and the rules that governed them.

The rules were a vastly simplified form of d20.  It kept many of the benefits, but threw out all the chaff.  Skills became a single mechanic: your starting occupation.  Feats, necessary to give the fighter some power, became a single mechanic: roll this one die every time you attack.  The magic became, once again, magical.  It was twisted and arcane and absolutely other.  The departures from the usual vancian system all worked to make it even more unreliable and powerful and align more perfectly with the archetypes of legend.  Even the funky dice, imagining polyhedral solids beyond the standard eight, brought up the memory of the first time I saw my dad's icosahedral d10, with one side painted red to be a d20.

I was immediately sold.

Of course, DCC is just one example of games comprising the OSR, the Old School Renaissance.  It's not a true card-carrying OSR game because it isn't a mere retroclone, and instead sticks fairly close to d20.  But I see in it the same game that enchanted me as a kid reading his father's books, now perfected with the design benefits of the d20 system for simplicity of play.

The part that caused me to freeze up and never play in my past forays -- the overabundance of rules -- was explicitly absent.  I was expected and encouraged to make up my own rules, and run things however I wanted.  I didn't have to memorize lists of things like Mighty Cleave and Flurry of Blows and Hit the Guy Twice.  If I didn't know how grapple worked, I could just make it up.

That is how I ended up in DCC and the OSR, after years of trying to get back to the game I used to play as a kid.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Letter for the King: just adapt the book, not your fanfiction

I recently watched The Letter for the King on Netflix, and thought I'd offer a small thought on the series.

I should preface all of this by stating that I have never read the book.  I had actually never heard of the book.  I looked up the book later on Wikipedia, after watching the first episode.  I might actually read the book.

That out of the way, let me list some positives of the series.  The child actors are great.  I can't say the same about whoever it was playing the puppy-kicking prince, but the others made great performances.  The visual effects were great.  The costumes and props and sets were great.  A lot of people clearly put a lot of effort and thought and care into the series.  It shows through.

But some other people didn't put any effort in.  Namely, the writers.  The writers did not care.  That also shows through.

From episode one, the series is on fantasy autopilot.  It opens with whispered prophecies of dark lords and the chosen one, then cuts to some angsty dark prince doing his best teenage Anakin impersonation.  I half-expected him to rant about sand.  And it stays there resolutely until the final scene of the final episode.  The series is nothing but cliche after cliche.  It plays like A Tough Guide to Fantasy Land put on the silver screen.  You can call what will happen twenty minutes before it does.  Within the first five minutes, I already knew what this was going to be, and was ready to just turn it off.

The writing is crappy.  But it's based on a book.  Maybe the book uses a less heavy hand, and elaborates better on some of these confusing points?  Maybe the book could help me appreciate the screenwriting better?

So I looked up the book.  Apparently, several characters and places from the series have similar names as in the book, and the main character needs to deliver a letter to a king in the book.  And there end the similarities between the series and the book.

This brings me to what I really wanted to say.

The Letter for the King was originally written in Dutch, titled De brief voor de koning, by Tonke Dragt back in 1962.  It has sold over a million copies, and is on its fiftieth print edition.  It has been translated into several languages, including Danish, English, German, Greek, Estonian, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Czech, and Spanish.  It was chosen as one of the the best Dutch books for children in the 20th century.  (Or so the 'Pedia says)

The personal fanfiction of the series writers... isn't any of that.

Back in 2018, Netflix went and acquired the screen rights to adapt De brief voor de koning into an original series.  That's why they are able to call it The Letter for the King, and include so many characters with similar names.

They had to pay money for these rights.  I need to stress that.  I need to stress that because Netflix could have merely made their own original fantasy movie about a child on a magical quest and given it a different name, and not have had to pay money for the rights to De brief voor de koning.

But the executives at Netflix determined that being able to adapt this particular story was worth shelling out the money for.

Presumably, they decided this because De brief voor de koning has sold millions of copies and been in continual print for sixty years, translated into dozens of languages, and is remembered by millions of readers.

Unlike -- and again, I have to stress -- unlike the personal fanfiction of whoever wrote the plot of this series.

Which makes me have to question why?

Why would you pay good, solid money to adapt an internationally beloved children's story, and then not adapt the internationally beloved children's story?

Why adapt crappy fanfiction into a movie, when you have a solid, award-winning story right there on hand?

I can kind of understand why calling the movie The Letter For the King when it wasn't might have been a "good" business idea in the past.  Basing a movie on a pre-existing story allows you to capitalize on the fame and fanbase of the original product to sell tickets.  By the time you piss off the fanbase, it's too late; they already bought their ticket.  The worst they can do now is grumble.

It's similar to how certain food companies would put sawdust in sugar bags if they could get away with it.  Imagine if food distributors could pay sugar companies for the right to put the word "sugar" on their sawdust bags.

Well, food companies can't, but movie companies can.

But today, when every idiot has their own blog, when there are automatic review aggregators and sites for fans to leave comments and everyone and their grandma can sound off on their facebook, I don't get why you'd do this.

The series is currently rated at around 5/10, and very many of those low reviews are from angry fans of the book.

You should never underestimate angry fans, and especially not today when they know your twitter handle.  They will review-bomb your film, brigade your facebook page, and send you death threats on twitter.

I have to imagine that many of those angry fans might have watched a children's fantasy flick regardless of its title, and they would have measured it against itself, or against other children's fantasy movies, and it would have fared okay.  But Netflix didn't tell them this was any old fantasy movie; Netflix said this was a fantasy movie based on De brief voor de koning.

Netflix did not have to piss these people off.  They didn't have to call their movie that.

Netflix paid for the rights to adapt the book.  Netflix did not adapt the book.  Netflix instead made a movie based on Will Davies' fanfiction.  This angered fans, and gave the movie a lower rating.

In no uncertain terms then, Netflix paid money to have angry fans write them negative reviews on IMBD.

But Netflix paid for the rights to adapt the book, and therefore they could have just adapted the book.

Okay, if you don't have sugar and only have sawdust, you might write "sugar" on the bag anyway and try to sell it.

But Netflix did not only have sawdust.  Netflix had the actual sugar.  Netflix had the book that they paid the money for.  The book that won all those awards and sold all those copies and has all those millions of fans.  The book whose popularity Netflix wants to use to get eyeballs.  Netflix could have adapted that book into a movie.

Because that book has a coherent and engaging plot that people have loved for decades.

Unlike -- and I stress again -- unlike the fanfiction that Netflix made.

Netflix had sugar to put in the bag.  But Netflix put the sawdust in the bag anyway.

And I really don't understand why they would.

Why not just adapt for us the book you paid to adapt?

I first noticed this with the Hobbit, which is arguably a drastically more egregious case of paying huge sums of money for the rights to an internationally beloved movie with a huge and autistic fanbase and then adapting the writers' fanfic instead.

Just put the sugar in the bag.  Just adapt the movie you paid for.  Everyone will thank you for it.  Even the shareholders.  Especially the shareholders.

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.