Year of Giant Novels Part 7: 2666

I don’t remember how I learned of the existence of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. When it released in English in 2008, it took the literary establishment by storm, winning multiple best book of the year awards. But even so, I’d wager that most people haven’t heard of it. I know I paid attention to these things in 2008, but this wasn’t when I heard about it.

When I started the novel a few weeks ago for the giant novels project, I wasn’t convinced of its greatness. The novel is broken into five large parts, and each of these is broken into little page-length segments. There aren’t any chapters apart from these segments. These little vignettes read almost like Baudelaire stories, and indeed, Baudelaire is quoted at the start.

The first part follows five academics who study an obscure writer. They get into little love triangles and fights with each other. The stories certainly build into a coherent part, but I didn’t really see the point. There was a strange allure that kept me coming back, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything that struck me as particularly interesting or compelling.

The next two parts go off on seemingly unrelated sets of stories. I got 350 pages in, and I started to lose my grounding. There didn’t appear to be any central glue to these disparate stories. I again was reminded of Baudelaire, because something like Paris Spleen is a collection of unrelated vignettes that combine together to give a wider portrait and worldview.

When I thought in these terms, a few threads appeared. Two ordinary people quickly turn to disturbing violence when they beat up a cab driver. An artist’s self-portrait involved a gruesome chopping off of his own hand. A disturbing boxing match. Murder. Violence. The whole of human history consisting of beating each other to death over the dumbest things.

These segments made their appearances so quickly and sparsely so as to almost not be noticed in such a grand and complex novel whose plot revolves around other ideas. But they came and made their impression, and the magnitude of what they pointed to started to weigh as I approached Part IV.

I’m not sure anything can prepare someone for Part IV of this novel. Part IV is essentially 300 pages of graphic depictions of murders of women that all happened in the town of Santa Teresa, Mexico (though fictional, it is based on Juarez, a real place in which over 370 women have been murdered and 400 more have gone missing since the 90’s). To read 2666 is a powerful and changing experience because of this section.

I think we have to take a step back and consider Bolaño’s achievement here. He could have just published Part IV as the whole novel, but no one would read it. I know I would have gotten through the first few, and then put the book down as a tedious and gruesome exercise. But as I’ve pointed out, Bolaño works on your subconscious for those first three parts, and he gets you mentally prepared to experience it. It is a brilliant move to put this section in the middle like this.

The final part gives the reader a chance to decompress after the experience. I wouldn’t say it ties up loose ends or becomes happy or anything. It more gives the reader time to digest and reflect on the horror.

The novel is not a genre mystery where the murder cases get solved. In a sense, this would be offensive to all the victims and their families who don’t get closure in real life. It doesn’t offer solutions. I’d see this as giving false credence to the politicians who oversimplify issues like this and offer clean solutions that can never work.

The book remains complex and difficult, and in doing so, presents the problems and issues in the only mature and realistic way conceivable. This makes it art. The novel is a testament to what great art can be. Tidy, easy stories can still move you, but it takes novels like these to change you. It’s a reminder that “literary” and “experimental” doesn’t have to be synonymous with dull and unengaging. Sometimes breaking the traditional form is the only way shock someone into understanding what you are trying to say.

PC Game Hidden Gems and Some That Aren’t

I had trouble coming up with a succinct title for this post. I wanted to go through some underrated games and some highly rated games that weren’t very good, because it’s been awhile since I’ve done any sort of game review post.

Tactical RPG’s

Underrated: Massive Chalice

Massive Chalice has a similar combat system to XCOM. It initially got some very poor reviews because of this comparison. Many called it XCOM-light or a less deep and easier version of that game. This is an unfair comparison, because most of the strategy and depth comes from the other part of the game.

Massive Chalice has you set up bloodlines from your characters. You know a bunch of traits and character flaws of the characters, and then you must marry them to produce children. There are so many factors and risk/rewards that must go into this.

Do you retire your best fighter so that in 20 years you have several of his children on the battlefield only to find out he couldn’t produce any children? Do you risk a sharpshooter with an alcohol problem staggering around the battlefield? Do you trust the numbers given to you by an overconfident person?

This game might not get you the 200+ hours that many put into XCOM, but put it on ironman hard mode and you’ll be in for a tough challenge. It has a lot of character and humor too. The initial hate it got was unwarranted.

Overrated: The Banner Saga

I know I’ll get hate for this one. This game has overwhelming positive reviews. I think they are unwarranted. This game claimed to have the big three things I’d look for in a game: great story, great art, tactical strategy.

It had one of those; the art is fantastic. I thought the story was thin. It mostly felt like a series of excuses to get to the gameplay. Travel, camp, stop at a town, sometimes drama, repeat. It is very Oregon Trail-like in this respect. I wanted something more than an excuse to be fighting, and that’s all it felt like to me.

The gameplay itself is quite poor. There is a tactical aspect, but it is largely irrelevant. Whether you collect resources or not, you’ll be fine. No matter how you level or play the characters, you’ll be fine. No matter how you position, you’ll be fine. Once I found this out, I stopped trying, and just attacked from wherever I was and won.

But the most important part where this game failed for me was how separate everything was. Story-driven games need to integrate that aspect into the gameplay for a rich and seamless experience. The story and the gameplay were completely separate, which created a disjointed play experience.

Roguelikes

If you are a longtime reader, you’ll know this is kind of my genre, so I’ll do two underrated games. For the most part, it takes a ton of time and feedback to make a great roguelike. This means most aren’t really worth sinking time into unless they are well-known. Here’s two that are well worth the time despite not being talked about as much.

Dungeonmans

This is basically a humorous version of the famous Tales of Maj’Eyal (ToME). To be fair, ToME is a more complicated game, but I think Dungeonmans improves on the ToME idea in several important ways.

First, it has a simpler skill tree system. This makes it more manageable for people who don’t want to spend 100 hours just learning what the different things do. It also has less classes/races, again, an improvement.

Dungeonmans has a randomly generated overworld. This makes repeated playthroughs more interesting than going the same places in the same order like in ToME. It implements an interesting persistence mechanic too. This makes the game beatable for more casual players (but there is an “ironmans” mode for the hardcore permadeath fans).

Longtime fans of ToME might not find what they want in this game (though I did!), but I highly recommend this game for the roguelike-curious who are scared off from giant learning curves like ToME.

Sword of the Stars: The Pit

This is one of the only truly modern roguelikes out there. It is hardcore in the most classic sense of the genre except for ASCII graphics. The game consists of pure dungeon diving. You go to the bottom of the pit to win. What makes the game so great is its inventory management.

Planning ahead and conserving weapons and understanding enemy movement is the key to success. Unlike Dungeonmnans, there is a good chance you’ll never win this on Normal mode (and there are still three difficulty levels above that!).

You have to become really good at the game to succeed. This takes patience and effort. This is what people like about roguelikes. If this sounds terrible, then this game isn’t for you. When you start, you will think the game is too hard to beat, but people who are good at this game can win on Normal more than 90% of the time. It’s not too hard—it’s you.

There is a “recipe” discovery mechanic that is pretty tedious, and this game gets a lot of negative feedback for it. I agree with that aspect of negativity, but it is a small matter that shouldn’t ruin the game.

Strategy

Overrated: Unity of Command

This is a small title, so I’m not sure it’s “overrated.” I saw it pop up numerous times while searching for good PC strategy games. The player reviews tend to be very good too. I could not get into this game at all.

The concept of the game is to advance your front in specific battles while not losing access to your supply line. I’ll admit the concept is clever in how realistic a scenario this is.

The simplification of the war strategy game genre down to its essentials makes getting started easier, but I didn’t find it deep or satisfying. It uses weird turn limits to artificially increase difficulty (more like a puzzle than a strategy game). Randomness plays too big a role as well.

Underrated: Endless Legend

I’m not sure this qualifies as an underrated, because Rock, Paper, Shotgun named it 2014 Game of the Year. Still, the player reviews remain mixed and often negative, so I’m going with “currently underrated.”

This is a 4X strategy game similar to the Civilization franchise. Unlike Civ, this has a fantasy setting on an alien planet. The art is stunning. The backstory for each faction is buried within the game play. This is the type of integration of story and game I was referring to above.

Each faction plays differently. You can choose to enter tactical combat if you wish or you can auto-complete the combat. The large-scale strategy is almost endlessly deep (you see what I did there?) from what to research, whether to build up cities or expand outward, making alliances, spying, attacking, defending, trade routes, trading, marketplace, completing quests, exploring, assigning heroes, and on and on. Any fan of PC strategy games that hasn’t checked this out is really missing a gem with this one.

A Case Study in POV

Point of view (POV) is one of those things that is hardly noticed when done well but can ruin a story if done poorly. Today we’ll examine how POV affects Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Elizabeth Strout’s Abide With Me.

Never have I encountered such perfect novels for this case study. Gilead is widely regarded as a modern classic. Abide With Me is mostly unknown. Yet they both tell remarkably similar stories. Both have Protestant ministers as main characters in small town America in the 50’s. Both authors have won Pulitzer Prizes. They were published a mere two years apart (2004 and 2006). They deal with the same themes. Their lengths are roughly the same. So why the difference in reception? I think it can be completely attributed to Strout’s error in POV usage.

Gilead is told as a sequence of first-person letters from a Congregationalist minister to a son who will not know him. It is deeply personal and reflective to use this POV and serves as an excellent way to delve into discussions of faith in a broadly secular society, religion, theology, disappointment, judgment, fears, and so on. These manifest through conflict the minister has with his small town and what the minister sees as his own personal failings regarding his family.

Abide With Me is told in a very loose, meandering third-person (semi-omniscient) POV. The focus is still on a minister in a small town and his conflicts with the parishioners about theology and personal failings regarding his family. One could try to make an argument that Abide With Me focuses on the town itself as the main character, and this is the point of using a meandering POV. But I can’t get behind this. My guess is that over 80% of the novel is in a close third-person limited view of the minister, so the POV is wrong even for that argument. Also, all of the drama and emotional content come from the minister’s POV. To me, this novel would have been a much cleaner and powerful one if those few POV switches were cut or changed to the minister’s.

Let’s dig a little into why first-person worked so well in Gilead. Here’s a sample:

I get much more respect than I deserve. This seems harmless enough in most cases. People want to respect the pastor and I’m not going to interfere with that. But I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.

We learn so much from this one brief passage. The pastor is modest and sympathetic. We get to hear his voice and see how he thinks. We learn how others see him and how he understands how they see him. He’s funny! His sense of humor comes through, because it is in his voice. When you read a whole novel like this, you feel like you personally know him, and I think this is why the novel resonates so well with people. It’s the POV, not the content. This is why Strout’s novel is not held in the same regard.

But Mrs. Slatin arrived for a visit, and took Lauren shopping for curtains, a bathroom rug, a crib, dishes with apples painted on them. And when Mrs. Slatin left, saying, “Well, you won’t be here for long, dear. This is just temporary,” Lauren said she wanted the horrid old place painted pink, she couldn’t stand it, and so Tyler asked the church, and then painted the walls of the living room and the dining room pink. “Perfect!” Lauren said. “I love you!”

Joy filled him, and trepidation, for the job of being pastor of this church was, for Tyler, an assignment of great seriousness. He was moved by the kindness of his parish, how they sometimes left notes for him by his office in the church, saying how his sermon had touched them.

I chose this passage, because I think it is trying to do a similar thing to the other one: establish how the pastor is received by the congregation and how he understands what they think. Look at that opening, though. It focuses on his wife’s POV. We get some of her character, but we’re kept at arm’s length by this distant third-person narration.

This distance is necessary to easily flow between points of view, but it leaves us feeling cold here. When we do switch to Tyler’s POV, we’re just told how he is received. We don’t get his voice. We don’t feel like we fully understand his thoughts. It is a one-dimensional description of his feelings and lacks his voice.

The whole novel reads this way, and it is a strange choice. I’m not sure why Strout chose to tell such a deeply personal story from such a distant and cold POV. There are few times in published literature where one can point to such a blatant mistake, but I think this is one of those times. I can only imagine what this novel could have been if a more personal POV was used.

Vote for Trump?

I tend to stay away from political posts (I think I’ve done around 5 in my last 800). I have some family members who have caught Trump fever, and when I ask them why they want to vote for him, the arguments confuse me a great deal. I know I’ll probably get death threats and whatnot for this, but here goes: the top five responses I hear when asking why someone should vote for Trump and why they make no sense to me.

Don’t misinterpret this post and say, “At least he’s better than Hilary.” I’m not trying to make a pro-Hilary or anti-Trump post. I’m merely pointing out that I haven’t heard a pro-Trump argument that makes sense to me (I was mostly asking these question in primary season when people presumably saw Trump as an actual good choice rather than a lesser of two evils choice).

1. He’s a great businessman, so he’ll be able to whip a stalled government into a well-oiled machine.

I understand this is the persona he plays, but I’m confused why people take his word for this. Aren’t Trump supporters the ones who say you can’t believe anything a politician says? If we apply this to Trump, we find that all signs point to the opposite.

Here’s a list of businesses started by or run by Trump that have gone under: Trump Vodka, Trump Casino, Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, GoTrump.com, Trump Mortgage, Trump Magazine, Trump University, Trump Ice (i.e. water), Trump on the Ocean, The Trump Network, Trumped! (talk radio show), and Trump New Media to name a few. There are others. Google it.

I get it. Starting a business is hard. Some of these go way back. You can defend a few of these failures using that logic. No one is perfect in their early years. The greatest business people all have embarrassments in their past.

But this only goes so far. At some point you have to look at the record and say: wow, that’s the track record of someone who has no idea what they’re doing. Bad luck alone does not produce that many business failures. Despite what he says, all the evidence points to the fact that he isn’t a very good businessman.

2. He’ll bring people together to get work done in Congress.

Did you just laugh a little? Are you incredulous that people have said this to me with a straight face? Well, they have. Again, I understand this is a talking point, but let’s look past that to the real world evidence.

Trump is so bad at bringing people together that he can’t even bring his own party together. Look at the never Trump movement. He’s so divisive that there’s talk of the RNC stealing the nomination from him. Look at Paul Ryan’s comments. Is that the type of rhetoric we’d expect to see from someone who can unite? He might be the most divisive person I’ve ever seen run for office. How is he going to bring Democrats and Republicans together if he can’t even bring Republicans together?

3. He’ll build a wall.

Let’s tackle the obvious before moving on to the wall. He’s running for the most powerful position in the world. He’s not running for project manager for building a wall, so this argument alone is not a good one for why you want him to be president. Sadly, once I’ve pointed out the flaws of the first two reasons, this is the one that inevitably comes out.

The wall itself is also a problem. The Washington Post estimated the cost to be about $25 billion. That cost will fall to us when Mexico refuses to pay for it (I’m starting to see how those earlier businesses might have failed: build something expecting someone else to pay, they don’t, file for bankruptcy, repeat).

According to people who actually know about border patrol, securing the border is not as easy as building a wall. There are many ways such a project could actually make it harder to secure the border. But if this is still high priority for you, I’ll admit this reason could play a minor, partial role in a pro-Trump argument.

4. He’s politically incorrect.

Look at my previous posts. I’m as aware of the dangers of hyper-PC culture as anyone. I’ll first push back against the idea that Trump cares about this issue. For the most part, it looks like he just doesn’t have a filter. He says whatever nonsense pops into his head no matter how offensive, racist, or sexist it may be. Then when someone calls him on it, he uses political correctness as a cover.

But let’s grant that he says these things to intentionally dismantle political correctness. The real problem isn’t whether any given individual is PC. It is the growing culture of political correctness stifling honest debate and research and art that is the problem. I don’t see how having a president that says politically incorrect things will do anything but stoke the fire of the PC crowd.

5. He’s self-funding and hence not beholden to big money donors.

Well, this is yet to be seen. It looks like he might turn on the RNC fundraising machine once he has the nomination. But even if he doesn’t, his current “self-funding” is super weird. He is loaning his money to his campaign rather than donating. It looks more like a giant money-making scam than self-funding (for example, if he uses individual donations to pay himself back with interest, he’ll have made money by preying on the hopes of susceptible Americans!).

In any case, this one may turn out to be true, but since it is something we can’t know at this point, I wouldn’t consider it a good reason to be pro-Trump right now.

Let me reiterate, this was not meant to be a case against Trump. If I were to try to do that, I’d focus on his destructive immigration policies, his thoughtless trade policies, the fact that he appears to be lying about the five things people most like about him, and his dangerous ignorance about anything important relating to the job and seeming unwillingness to learn about it. But those are for another post (which I probably won’t write).

Samuel R. Delany on Writing

I made it to June 17 before having to skip a week of blogging. I won’t leave you with nothing, though. I recommend finding a copy of Delany’s great essay “After Almost No Time at All the String on Which He Had Been Pulling and Pulling Came Apart into Two Separate Pieces So Quickly He Hardly Realized It Had Snapped, or: Reflections on ‘The Beach Fire.'”

It covers some advanced and subtle mistakes that even great writers occasionally make. If you’ve never seen this type of thing before, it will be an eye-opening experience. If you have, it is never bad to remind yourself of these ideas.

To get a feel for the type of writing advice it goes into, here is an example. The structure of a sentence must reflect the content of the sentence, or it will create a confusing tension in the reader. This wrecks the flow and clarity of what the author is trying to do.

He gives this as an example. “Bill jumped at the closeness of her voice.” There is a fundamental problem with this sentence. This type of thing appears all the time, and my guess is that many people who consider themselves competent enough to be publishing for money might struggle to figure out the problem. Take a second and try to figure it out. I’ve already given a hint earlier.

If you said that attributive nouns like “closeness” tend to be weak and hence avoided, well, you’re thinking way too small. The mistake is much more fundamental than generic rules like that. The sentence describes “Bill” and “her voice” as being close, yet in the sentence, they are as far apart as a single sentence will allow. This is what is meant by the structure not being in agreement with the content.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 10

“Good prose should be transparent like a windowpane.” – George Orwell

If you’ve listened to fantasy writers talk about their craft much, you’ve probably encountered this idea that Brandon Sanderson heeds the Orwell advice with clean, minimal prose and Patrick Rothfuss uses beautiful, stylized prose to provide added layers of depth to his writing. I’ve probably heard this three or four times from various sources (writing excuses and otherwise). The idea is that neither is wrong; they are just different philosophies.

Today I want to dispel this idea by examining prose from Patrick Rothfuss’s first novel The Name of the Wind. Rothfuss can write in a stylized manner, and I think his novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a prime example of this. But that novella didn’t exist when the meme started.

I’ve discussed this several times in past installments, so I won’t dwell on it here. What the starting quote means is that you shouldn’t see the words. The words merely provide a framing you look through, and the images appear in your mind as you read.

We’ve been told that Sanderson uses a clear window and Rothfuss uses different colored glass to tint the experience. The clear glass means using words that paint the picture in the clearest way. Using colored glass means using unnecessary or less accurate words pictorially that add something else.

Here’s an example showing the difference. He watched he white snow float to the ground. Maybe that paints the picture accurately, but there are other things that could tint the image. The harsh white snow glared into his eyes as it fell to the ground. Words like “harsh” and “glare” and “fell” tint the sentence with emotional content that wasn’t there before, even though the picture is pretty much the same.

Anyway, let’s move on to the actual prose. I’m taking from the beginning of the book just so no one can claim “editorial fatigue” (meaning, maybe he got lazy with the prose in the middle where no one would much notice it anyway).

The innkeeper appeared with five bowls of stew and two warm, round loaves of bread. He pulled more beer for Jake, Shep, and Old Cob, moving with an air of bustling efficiency.

The story was set aside while the men tended to their dinners. Old Cob tucked away his bowl of stew with the predatory efficiency of a lifetime bachelor. The others were still blowing steam off their bowls when he finished the last of his loaf and returned to his story.

This is pretty much the first non-introductory, non-dialogue chunk of text in the novel. Let’s hunt for any description that might tint the glass a certain way. I see: warm, bustling, predatory. In context, the only one of these words that could maybe do double duty is “warm.” This is because the inn is portrayed as a warm, comforting place these people come to.

Honestly, this is a stretch in my opinion, because the loaves of bread were warm. It could be an unintended coincidence. The other two color words both modify efficiency (something I think Rothfuss would have changed if someone had pointed out the proximity of this word to itself). The two words are descriptions of individual people, so it would be bad if these tinted the overall picture of the scene. We certainly aren’t supposed to feel any sort of predatory sense at this stage (unless it is foreshadowing).

I have to conclude that Rothfuss, at least in this segment, also uses clean, transparent prose without the tinting many claim he does. This isn’t bad at all. I like this type of writing. I just wanted to point out that this idea is mostly a myth.

For comparison, let’s look at something from the beginning of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson:

It’s really happening, he thought with mounting terror. This wasn’t a drill in the camp. This wasn’t training out in the fields, swinging sticks. This was real. Facing that fact—his heart pounding like a frightened animal in his chest, his legs unsteady—Cenn suddenly realized that he was a coward. He shouldn’t have left the herds!

At first glance, the sentence structures are much more complicated. This already adds a layer of opacity to the windowpane that the Rothfuss passage didn’t have. We get color words like: terror, pounding, frightened, animal, unsteady, coward, herds. These all tint the glass in the same direction. The fighting is terrifying and the people like a herd of animals.

I’ve actually read both of these books recently, and they both continue along these lines, making the convention wisdom pretty much reversed. I can explain it, though. The prologue to the Rothfuss is quite abstract and poetic and colorful. So I think this is a mistake of first impressions. Everyone remembers how the prologue goes, and then remembers the rest of the book being the same way. I think Sanderson has shifted his style significantly toward this more opaque and stylized writing and people only remember his early works.

The Ethics of True Knowledge

This post will probably be a mess. I listen to lots of podcasts while running and exercising. There was a strange confluence of topics that seemed to hit all at once from several unrelated places. Sam Harris interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson, and they talked a little about recognizing alien intelligence and the rabbit hole of postmodernist interpretations of knowledge (more on this later). Daniel Kaufman talked with Massimo Pigliucci about philosophy of math.

We’ll start with a fundamental fact that must be acknowledged: we’ve actually figured some things out. In other words, knowledge is possible. Maybe there are some really, really, really minor details that aren’t quite right, but the fact that you are reading this blog post on a fancy computer is proof that we aren’t just wandering aimlessly in the dark when it comes to the circuitry of a computer. Science has succeeded in many places, and it remains the only reliable way to generate knowledge at this point in human history.

Skepticism is the backbone of science, but there is a postmodernist rabbit hole one can get sucked into by taking it too far. I won’t make the standard rebuttals to radical skepticism, but instead I’ll make an appeal to ethics. I’ve written about this many times, two of which are here and here. It is basically a variation on Clifford’s paper The Ethics of Belief.

The short form is that good people will do good things if they have good information, but good people will often do bad things unintentionally if they have bad information. Thus it is an ethical imperative to always strive for truth and knowledge.

I’ll illuminate what I mean with an example. The anti-vaccine people have their hearts in the right place. They don’t intend to cause harm. They actually think that vaccines are harmful, so it is the bad information causing them act unethically. I picked this example, because it exemplifies the main problem I wanted to get to.

It is actually very difficult to criticize their arguments in general terms. They are skeptical of the science for reasons that are usually good. They claim big corporations stand to lose a lot of money, so they are covering up the truth. Typically, this is one of the times it is good to question the science, because there are actual examples where money has led to bad science in the past. Since I already mentioned Neil deGrasse Tyson, I’ll quote him for how to think about this.

“A skeptic will question claims, then embrace the evidence. A denier will question claims, then deny the evidence.”

This type of thing can be scary when we, as non-experts, still have to figure out what is true or risk unintentional harm in less clear-cut examples. No one has time to examine all of the evidence for every issue to figure out what to embrace. So we have to rely on experts to tell us what the evidence says. But then the skeptic chimes in and says, but an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy and those experts are paid by people that cause a conflict of interest.

Ah! What is one to do? My answer is to go back to our starting point. Science actually works for discovering knowledge. Deferring to scientific consensus on issues is the ethically responsible thing to do. If they are wrong, it is almost certainly going to be an expert within the field that finds the errors and corrects them. It is highly unlikely that some Hollywood actor has discovered a giant conspiracy and also has the time and training to debunk the scientific papers that go against them.

Science has been wrong; anything is possible, but one must go with what is probable.

I said this post would be a mess and brought up philosophy of math at the start, so how does that have anything to do with what I just wrote? Maybe nothing, but it’s connected in my mind in a vague way.

Some people think mathematical objects are inherent in nature. They “actually exist” in some sense. This is called Platonism. Other people think math is just an arbitrary game where we manipulate symbols according to rules we’ve made up. I tend to take the embodied mind philosophy of math as developed by Lakoff and Nunez.

They claim that mathematics itself is purely a construct of our embodied minds, but it isn’t an “arbitrary” set of rules like chess. We’ve struck upon axioms (Peano or otherwise) and logic that correspond to how we perceive the world. This is why it is useful in the real world.

To put it more bluntly: Aliens, whose embodied experience of the world might be entirely different, might strike upon an entirely different mathematics that we might not even recognize as such but be equally effective at describing the world as they perceive it. Therefore, math is not mind independent or even universal among all intelligent minds, but is still useful.

To tie this back to the original point, I was wondering if we would even recognize aliens as intelligent if their way of expressing it was so different from our own that their math couldn’t even be recognized as such to us. Would they be able to express true knowledge that was inaccessible to us? What does this mean in relation to the ethics of belief?

Anyway, I’m thinking about making this a series on the blog. Maybe I’ll call it RRR: Random Running Ramblings, where I post random questions that occur to me while listening to something while running.

Year of Giant Novels Part 6: Seveneves

Seveneves is a giant sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson. I use the term novel loosely here. It isn’t so much a novel as a history textbook about an event that didn’t happen: the moon exploded. I say this because there isn’t really story or characters in the traditional sense.

The sense in which these elements exist is the same as a history textbook. The facts are presented in sterile, detached fashion. The main characters exist in the same way that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. are “characters” in a history textbook. History texts don’t really have character development, but the figures still go around doing things.

Another parallel is that the story often completely stops for huge, in-depth descriptions of important inanimate objects. I think of this as similar to how a U.S. history text might go into great depth on how a cotton gin, or some machine from the industrial revolution, worked. These might be important in preserving certain historical moments, but it is a terrible way to write a novel.

There was a time in my life where I would have praised this type of thing. I would have talked about how brilliant it was for him to break with standard novel writing conventions to record this alternate history of Earth in history textbook form. I would have actually considered this harder to do than to write a more traditional novel. Oh. The pretentiousness of my youth.

Nowadays this novel strikes me as a huge ego trip by the author (or laziness; I’m not sure which is worse). He’s written the first step of an SF novel and now expects everyone to read it just because he’s famous enough to get away with it. Every great SF writer produces 250,000 words worth of material about their world and story as the first step. It is such a common thing to do that it even has a name: worldbuilding.

What Stephenson doesn’t seem to realize is that when he reads a 90,000-word novel that doesn’t contain all 250,000 words of excessive detail about every little thing, it isn’t because the author didn’t think of it, it’s because that author actually did the hard step of writing and producing a novel from their worldbuilding notes. You don’t publish the notes to the novel just because you wrote them.

The reason I say this is ego rather than just laziness or confusion about what writing an SF novel entails is that he breaks other golden rules of SF “just because he can.” (I don’t know why I put quotes there. He didn’t actually say this.)

If you go to any of the famous print SF magazines, you’ll usually find a list of terrible things that will get you an automatic rejection. One thing that appears on all of these lists is basing a story on a random, major, unexplained event. In this case, the moon explodes. And what caused this? Eh. He seemed to want to write the book, needed this to happen, but couldn’t come up with a reason, so he left it out.

The reason this golden rule exists isn’t arbitrary. Stephenson is writing hard SF. To put some mysterious event in like this turns the genre into paranormal or supernatural or worse. You may as well use as your starting sentence: And Sauron came out from hiding and told the inhabitants of Earth that he would, in two-years time, bombard the surface of the Earth with fireball spells for thousands of years.

Then write a hard SF novel after that. It is deeply unsatisfying and lazy. The Sauron start would change absolutely nothing. It is effectively equivalent to the opening we actually get, except more honest. To use the moon exploding feels like a shady trick in an attempt to pull one over on the reader into thinking it is an explainable event.

For some reason, he thought he was above this (hence ego) and went ahead and wrote a book that wouldn’t have any chance at being published if by a lesser name. I can almost see the board meeting where the publishers are talking about this.

“Should we tell him this isn’t okay?”

“No. He might go with someone else. This book will make us tons of money. Who cares if it violates standards we’ve set for other writers.”

“Okay. I guess you’re right.”

Ugh.

I didn’t mean to bash the book this hard, but while I’m at it, I may as well continue to air my complaints. The second most important event is also weakly justified. The moon fragments keep colliding until there are millions (billions? irrelevant to this discussion) of them. At some point, their orbits will decay and start pummeling the Earth, killing everyone on it.

So much of this is left a mystery, despite the fact that smart minds in the book have all worked out these calculations. This is hard SF. I want this explained better. I couldn’t care less about a several page description of how treadmills work on the International Space Station.

The fact that anyone predicted this is astonishing. The insane accuracy with which their models predict it takes this out of the realm of SF for me (they were within a few days). It was only a model. First rule of science: all models are wrong. Surely some of the parameters they thought they had nailed down were really wrong. I actually kept expecting a major twist of the book to be that the hard rain never came. That would have been cool. But it did come, just like the models predicted.

To go into more detail about what I would have like explained, why did these billions of chunks of moon orbiting Earth mysteriously start to fall to Earth? How small are the chunks at this point? Clearly they aren’t so small that they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but they’ve crossed some critical size that they lose orbit. This, again, just strikes me as something Stephenson wanted to happen, couldn’t figure out why it would happen, and so just left it a mystery.

I think what’s frustrating about this is that if Stephenson had just written a 90,000 word novel that drew out the story, it would be a much more compelling read and simultaneously fix every one of these complaints. As I pointed out in my previous post, tonal consistency is important in SF. Stephenson goes into painful depths of science on some things, but then glosses over highly improbable other events. This inconsistency would be fixed if he let go of all the excessive description and focused on the story.

Now that the above 1,000-word rant is over, I will say that the book isn’t that bad. It’s an interesting thought experiment that goes on way too long. Prepare to be bored to tears by some excessive, irrelevant descriptions. Prepare to be frustrated to tears by other things that have no (or implausible) explanations.

You won’t connect to any characters. It isn’t really a novel. Once you get over all that stuff, you can start enjoying it. I never felt like quitting for any of the reasons I’ve given, and that’s better than some books I’ve read recently *cough* Ulysses *cough*.

Tonal Consistency in Fantasy Writing

Today I’m going to discuss a topic that ranges from extreme, blatant violations to subtle, accidental slip-ups and why they matter. The language of fantasy writing is much harder to get right than many “literary fiction” writers give it credit for. In fact, I’d say it is much, much harder than novels set in modern times on Earth.

Let’s start with Shannara, because I recently decided to watch the MTV series based on The Elfstones of Shannara.

Major spoilers for the books; minor spoilers for the TV series.

Shannara puts a clever twist on the fantasy setting. Instead of it being some mystical past, Terry Brooks made it a futuristic world. The implication is that a nuclear war happened, destroying technology, and then the radiation mutation of people became elves, gnomes, goblins, humans, etc. I think this is described in one of the “prequel” trilogies/books, but I never read them to be sure.

The number one concern when doing something like this is consistency. Some people might not like this change up because it violates genre conventions, but I could care less. If something is done consistently, then you should be allowed to do it.

The series does a pretty good job at keeping everything consistent with this setting. For example, the hero has to journey to a place called Safe Hold. We find out that this is the Sa(n) Fr(ancisco) (G)old(en Gate Bridge), where the sign has the letters smudged out and disfigured to create the words: Safe Hold. This is a pretty neat discovery, fully consistent with the setting.

But consistency of setting isn’t the only type of consistency. There is also something I’ll call tonal consistency. Despite being the future, the tone of the series keeps to a traditional fantasy tone. This means no guns, no modern music, and so on. This is where the TV series is at its worst. When guns appear in an episode, it is big shock that totally pulls you out of the tone up to that point. When modern music and a video projector appear, you lose the suspension of disbelief for the tone.

As I’ve already said, you can put all of this stuff in your fantasy setting if you want. The problem isn’t the breaking of a genre convention. The problem is that the reader/watcher has experienced hours of this world and seen no evidence that such things exist. There must be consistency from the start (or done for very deliberate and good reason).

These types of errors occur in a lot of period fiction, but no single example is usually enough to ruin anything. The problem is that you can only lose the tone of a work a certain number of times before you get pulled totally out of the atmosphere it tries to create. It’s mostly a subconscious thing that you probably don’t even notice until it’s too late to get back into the mood.

Let’s talk about some more subtle examples that are the reason this is so hard to do well. The language itself can be the source of these consistency problems. One obvious one is using the word “earth” when the characters don’t know about the planet Earth.

It is so easy to accidentally do this (not actually from Shannara): “Wil dug into the ground and felt the warm earth fall between his fingers.” You can pretend that the narrator has “translated” this for the reader. The word here is technically synonymous with “soil” or “dirt” and not referencing the name of the planet. But then why take the risk? Just use “soil” or “dirt” if that is what you mean. If the characters haven’t heard of Earth the planet, then they wouldn’t be using the word “earth” ever. Period.

The way this usually sneaks in is with similes and metaphors. “The pieces fit together like clockwork.” Wait a minute. Does this world have clocks? Are they precisely put together? “An emotional roller coaster.” Really? This world has roller coasters? Idioms can be problematic as well. “When hell freezes over.” Does anyone in the setting believe that hell is normally full of fire and brimstone?

Those ones slip in but are usually pretty obvious and easy to catch if you’re paying attention to it. The truly nefarious ones are when a word is perfectly ordinary and not a noun referring to something that doesn’t exist, but it’s etymology contains something that doesn’t exist. Wow these are subtle, but a great fantasy writer will make every effort to weed these out as well for consistency of tone.

Here’s one: quixotic (this is actually used in The Scions of Shannara, which I started reading, inspired by the show). It means foolishly impractical in the pursuit of ideals. But wait a second. The only reason it means that is because of Don Quixote. So if this book doesn’t exist in your setting, this word also doesn’t exist.

I’m torn on whether this is appropriate in Shannara. Since we know the book did exist, it seems okay. But still, it seems to conflict with the tone, since the prequels hadn’t been written yet, and we aren’t supposed to know it’s okay.

Measurement tends to be a judgment call. I could go either way. English and metric units definitely ruin consistency of tone, but this might be one of those “lesser of two evils” situations. If there is an easy way out, for example, use “two-day walk” instead of “eighteen miles,” always go with that. Sometimes you have to get creative enough that it ends up causing more confusion than it’s worth. My rule is to avoid precise measurement in that case, but there may be situations where it is needed.

As a final note, I’ll say this can go too far. Every writer has to decide for themselves where the cutoff is. Is “stoic” okay even though it originates from the ancient Greek school of philosophy Stoicism? I draw the line with these cases by allowing a third person narrator to use them if that narrator is clearly not someone in/from the world. A character is not allowed to think or say words that originate from a culture that didn’t exist in their setting.

Along the same lines, what about “philosophy?” The word itself is borrowed from Greek, and so if Greece doesn’t exist on their world, does this break tone? I’d say that’s going too far. Both narrators and characters are allowed to say borrowed words as long as the word isn’t in reference to a concrete person, place, movement, etc. You have to realize that most words in English are borrowed or have pretty clear traces from other languages, so you can’t remove all of these for practical reasons.

Anyway. Sorry for spoiling anything. The series got me thinking about this topic, and I realized I had never written about it.

Year of Giant Novels Part 5: Ulysses

In the previous posts in this series, I’ve taken off with the assumption that most people reading will have a familiarity with the giant novel. This time I’ll start from the basics. Ulysses is one of those books that many people have heard of but probably still can’t tell you much about.

Ulysses takes place over a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom. In fact, June 16 is called Bloomsday, and celebrations happen around the world in commemoration of the novel. I went into Ulysses knowing this much. What I hadn’t realized is that Stephen Dedalus, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is given equal weight as a main character.

It is written in stream-of-consciousness style. People have probably heard this novel is “unreadable,” and this is the reason why. It’s not so much that the events of the day are mindnumbingly boring (this is true!), but that the prose itself is impenetrable. I’ve worked my way through many, many works of literature people have called unreadable and never found them to be so. This one actually is.

Unlike Proust, whose stream-of-consciousness prose is thoughtful and elegant, Ulysses fully embraces the utter chaos that is the human mind. Here’s a sample:

Proudly walking. Whom were you trying to walk like? Forget: a dispossessed. With mother’s money order, eight shillings, the banging door of the post office slammed in your face by the usher. Hunger toothache. Encore deux minutes. Look clock. Must get. Ferme. Hired dog! Shoot him to bloody bits with a bang shotgun, bits man spattered walls all brass buttons. Bit all khrrrrklak in place clack back. Not hurt? O, that’s all right.

And on and on and on it goes: for 260,000 words. There are ways to ground yourself though. And that’s what I’d like to spend the rest of the post talking about.

The name of the book is Ulysses in reference to the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. The novel is divided into sections, and one can supposedly correlate sections of The Odyssey with sections in Bloom’s day. But why? And should you care? We have to take a step back and put the book in context to answer this question.

Ulysses is often considered the perfect culmination of all modernist literature. Modernism as a movement is sometimes considered to have started all the way back with Madame Bovary (1856) but didn’t fully come into realization until the devastation of World War I.

There was a vast turning inward. The classics like War and Peace or The Odyssey or Great Expectations all had grand sweeping plots, rigid forms and structures, and a focus on beautiful language to show these things. Modernism rejected these notions.

I think it’s very hard for us to understand the feeling in Europe after WWI, but once can try to empathize with the sense of futility. We’re all small. People’s lives didn’t seem to matter. There weren’t heroes. There weren’t illusions of being able to change the course of history. The classic form of the novel probably seemed a dangerous fantasy. The world was chaos and unpredictable not structured and clear.

All right. So what on Earth does this have to do with Ulysses? The one takeaway from the title is that this novel is self-aware of what it is doing. It says: Bloom’s ordinary day is the heroic journey of our time. Maybe in the past, people could be worried about saving the world. In our time, an ordinary person trying to make it through an ordinary day is just as grand a struggle.

Depressing. I know. For me, the only way to make it through this book is to get rid of trying to figure out how individual sections parallel The Odyssey. Also, give up on there being any sort of plot to follow (though the wikipedia page is quite helpful on this front). The main thing is to dive into the difficult prose and think: yes, this is how real people think, it is chaotic, and somehow we manage to get through it everyday.

So is this novel worth it? In my opinion: definitely not. As a perfect embodiment of the modernist movement, it is an extremely important historical work. As a work for scholarly study, it will give endlessly. As a giant novel people should read, it is a nightmare.

If this type of thing interests you, read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf instead. It is the exact same idea, an ordinary person’s ordinary day in the modernist style, but it is infinitely easier to read and much, much shorter.