To Err Is…Human?

This is eerie: Kottke.org explains the phenomenon of “miss-mixing,” a growing trend wherein DJs intentionally make mistakes mixing tracks together to show that they’re doing it manually and not using the computer.  Jason’s comments on it are intriguing:

As computers get better at things like DJing, cooking, writing, and the like, imperfection may become a mark of human-produced goods and media. In the future, we’ll be urged to buy not just hand-made but Human Made™ the way people go for American made, locally made, organic, artisanal, or vintage goods nowadays. The problem, as Tyler Cowen notes, is if computers are smart enough to DJ, they’re certainly clever enough to be a little sloppy too.

In William Gibson’s novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, there’s a scene where a former businessman, now living in a squalid tent with a half-naked old man who’s a master at building Gundam models, imagines the point the old man’s work might be making:

Laney has a theory that the old man is a sensei of kit-building, a national treasure, with connoisseurs shipping in kits from around the world, waiting anxiously for the master to complete their vintage Gundams with his unequaled yet weirdly casual precision, his Zen moves, perhaps leaving each one with a single minute and somehow perfect flaw, at once his signature and a recognition of the nature of the universe. How nothing is perfect, really. Nothing ever finished. Everything is process, Laney assures himself, zipping up, settling back into his squalid nest of sleeping bags.

In a world where perfection is achievable through technology, will human imperfection become the ultimate hallmark of quality?  I see this becoming something of an emergent trend across a variety of different spheres–industry, academia, art.  Imperfection is what makes things interesting, and the rarer it becomes–in artwork and products, at least–perhaps the more true it will be.

Confessions of a Lifelong Geek

tumblr_mkwxwmgycY1qbu76do1_1280

I’ve been a geek for my entire life.  I used to get Tolkien paperbacks taken away from me in elementary school because I’d stick them inside my textbooks and read when I was supposed to be paying attention in class.  I had an unhealthy obsession with the Thundercats.  I used to act out Darth Vader’s death scene in Return of the Jedi rather than playing with my friends.  In high school, when other guys were obsessing over girls, I was obsessing over Terry Brooks and Tad Williams and Magic: The Gathering.  I can still hold my own in a variety of geek trivia.  Heck, I’m now a full-time author of fantasy and science fiction.  It doesn’t get much geekier than that.

But there are some skeletons lingering in my geek closet…guilty secrets that weigh heavy on my eager, geeky heart.  And you, dear readers, will be my mother and father confessors tonight.  Forgive me, for I have sinned.

The fact that I spend my days thinking about fantasy worlds and obsessing over things like lightsabers and the finer points of magic systems doesn’t change the fact that there are some areas of geekdom in which I just don’t measure up–and here they are.

  • I don’t get Doctor Who.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  But every episode I watch just confirms my initial impression, which is that it’s an intentionally cheesy, low-budget farce that takes itself inexplicably seriously.  The hardest part to understand is the rabid fandom associated with it–I suppose I could understand watching it late at night when there’s nothing else on, but I can’t really imagine actually being excited to watch it.  Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the Doctor, Time Lords, or Whovians in general. I want to like it.  I just. Don’t. Get it.
  • I have never played Minecraft.  You could add the names of any number of other empire-building, strategy games here and the statement would still be accurate.  I love gaming, but I’ve never been able to get into this particular genre.  I’ve never had the patience for it.  I like my games heavy on graphics and story.  And it’s not that I don’t get the appeal of, for instance, building your own dream castle with adjacent gold mine and badminton park, but no world I’d dream up would look any good all pixelated and Minecrafty.
  • The last anime I watched with any level of real interest was Akira.  Last manga? You guessed it.  Akira, volume one.  Which was awesome.  But keeping up with even one anime or manga series seems like it could be a full-time job in and of itself, never mind staying abreast of all the most popular shows and books.  I guess I just prioritize other geekery, here: if I have to choose between a fantasy or a sci-fi novel and watching an anime, I’m going to choose the book.
  • I have never played Dungeons & Dragons.  This one actually embarrasses me a little.  How can you even consider yourself a true-blue geek if you’ve never played D&D?  It wasn’t for lack of trying; I just never had any friends who were into it.  I used to go into this game store the next town over when I was a kid and look at Dungeon Master’s guides and box sets and just drool.  It seemed complicated and immersive and just fun.  But I wasn’t much of a self-starter when it came to hobbies, and since I never had any kind of D&D mentor I never got around to it–to my ever-lasting shame.
  • I prefer TNG to TOS.  It’s not that I dislike Star Trek: The Original Series.  In many ways, Kirk and Spock and crew will always be the more memorable characters to me.  But as far as quality story-telling goes, I’ve gotta go with The Next Generation.  The world is more interesting, the storytelling is superior, and the issues are far more topical to my own lifetime.  It also has a few more decades of science fiction canon to steal from, so the plots of the episodes end up being a lot more interesting.
  • I think the Star Wars prequels had some redeeming characteristics.  Whoa whoa whoa, stay with me here.  Listen closely.  I’m not saying they’re good.  They are terrible films made by a creatively stunted writer/director that pretty much ruined every Star Wars fan’s internal vision of the backstory of a number of classic characters.  So just to be clear, I’m not saying I like the prequels.  I’m saying that there were a scant few things that Lucas (or someone) did do right.  Ewan MacGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the production design of the films’ universe, and the lightsaber dueling, for example.  Diamonds in the rough, all of them, but worthy of positive mention.  Everything else is just one big fart joke.

What are your geek confessions? What are your responses to mine?  Feel free to explain my wrongheaded thinking; I’m willing to be educated.  This inquiring mind wants to know.  I promise I won’t judge your own confessions…too harshly.

So I’ve Got a Facebook Page Now.

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 2.29.09 PM

You should go like it.  Seriously.  Great fortune will be bestowed upon you if you do.  Breathtakingly beautiful women will smile at you in the street.  Your paycheck and your television will double in size.  You will lose belly fat.  You will achieve nirvana.  Your abs will ripple like moguls on a double black diamond.  Your IQ will shoot up thirty points.  You will be the unexpected recipient of a large sum of money from a Nigerian prince.  Friends and colleagues will worship you, and look to you for guidance, advice, and approval.  You simply cannot understand the benefits that come from liking Jim’s Facebook page until you do it.  ACT NOW.  LIKE MY FACEBOOK PAGE.  The first hit’s free.

What ‘Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn’ Means to Me

whelan_medium_the_dragonbone_chair_cropped_tad_williams 2

It’s been said that there are certain books you have to read at the right time in your life in order to understand them completely, novels that speak to particular age groups or circumstances.  The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace come to mind, for example; maybe The Sun Also Rises.  All great works of fiction at any age, but particularly powerful when read as an adolescent (the Salinger and Knowles novels) and as a young man (the Hemingway).  This seems axiomatic to me, and no work of fiction proves it more strongly than The Dragonbone Chair.

SF-Signal’s Larry Ketchersid recently wrote an article entitled “The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams and Its Place in the History of Epic Fantasy,” a timely retrospective on the 1988 fantasy classic written in anticipation of the forthcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard.  Reading it made me want to talk about what The Dragonbone Chair and its sequels mean to me, as their impact on my life has been significant.  Spoilers abound.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, the trilogy of which The Dragonbone Chair is the opening volume, is one of the seminal works of modern fantasy, and Tad Williams, its author, has become a household name for those interested in speculative fiction.  But when I first laid eyes on a Tad Williams novel, I was 12 or 13, just about the same age as the protagonist of the trilogy, Simon, and just as lost in the world.  It was in a bookstore in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and the book in question was the paperback version of To Green Angel Tower, Part 1.  I bought it based on the cover art and blurb, under the mistaken impression that it was the first book in the trilogy.  Suffice it to say I was surprised and disappointed to learn, a few pages in, that there was a reason I didn’t have any idea what was going on.  What can I say, I was 12.  I didn’t pay too much attention to front matter.  I was even more disappointed to find out I was not going to get a second ride to the bookstore that night.  I was still fascinated by what appeared to be a very interesting story, though, and if I remember correctly, when I went back to the bookstore they didn’t have The Dragonbone Chair in stock, and had to order it.  I waited impatiently for several days, and then after school one day I finally had it.  In the car on the ride home, I entered a world that has stayed with me ever since (I am 32 now), a world that not only proved a source of personal joy and adventure but was integral to my own growing dream of becoming a writer.

Fantasy was a welcome escape, at the time: I was a chubby, unpopular kid whose parents were in the end stages of a difficult divorce.  I had just moved to a new neighborhood where friends were few and far between, to the extent I wanted them anyway.  I had discovered Tolkien a few years before, in the fourth grade, and had devoured every other bit of fantasy I could get my hands on since, mainly books with the names Brooks and Eddings on the covers.  I was in between worlds when I found To Green Angel Tower, exploring the Science Fiction/Fantasy section at the bookstore in that glassy-eyed trance that is both frustrating and exciting–frustrating because you haven’t found that next favorite book yet, exciting because you might be about to.

stoneoffarewell

That excitement was nothing compared to what I felt when I started reading.  The trend in fantasy these days is to start in media res; the prologues and long first acts of more traditional fantasy are often deemed old-fashioned and unnecessary.  But I’ve always loved epic fantasy that comes to a slow boil; I’m one of those odd people who loves the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, the way it takes its time meandering through the world of the Shire and building tension.  By the time Frodo actually sets out, Tolkien has cemented the reader’s relationship with this odd little fellow, and you start seeing the world of Middle Earth from a distinctly hobbitish point of view, which is no doubt precisely what the master intended.

The Dragonbone Chair shares a similar pace during its first act.  We meet the aptly named Simon Mooncalf chasing bugs, and from that unassuming and distinctly boyish introduction to his exciting escape from the Hayholt, the seriousness and tension slowly builds until the kettle’s ready to scream–a good two or three hundred pages later.

Simon, or Seoman, is, I think, one of those protagonists who means more to you if you happened to read him at the right age.  I’m not saying he can’t be appreciated by an adult–quite the contrary–but it’s sort of like a good Pixar movie: kids see one movie, parents see another one entirely, and both come away satisfied.  As a troubled, pubescent child, Simon just made sense to me: his day-dreamy absentmindedness, his self-absorption, his raging hormones–and, of course, his well-developed sense of self-pity.  Simon’s a good person at heart, as he shows at various points, but he’s still a kid, and an immature one at that.  His quest is a coming of age that neither pulls its punches nor exaggerates the abilities or the learning curve of a 14 year old boy raised in a kitchen.

Simon doesn’t strike out on his own to find himself capable and independent, he narrowly escapes death time and time again due to a string of friends and mentor figures who take pity on his incompetence.  He survives the debacle at the Hayholt because of his benefactor Doctor Morgenes’ wit and self-sacrifice, and even then almost manages to kill himself escaping.  The reader discovers along with Simon that it’s not nearly as easy to survive on one’s own–whether you’re in a primeval forest or middle school–as it appears to be.  The adventure stories lied.  You don’t suddenly turn into Robin Hood just because you spend a few days in the woods.

The realism of Simon’s character arc was unprecedented: rather than the farmboy-cum-superhero who learns the sword overnight and discovers grand wizardly powers that save his skin, Simon discovers that he knows far less about the world than he thought he did, and survives only because of the charity and skill of others.  Even the Bagginses had the benefit of maturity and experience, however slim and narrow, by the time they set out on their respective quests; Simon, on the other hand, truly is a sheep among the wolves.  The fact of his parentage, when revealed, really only becomes relevant when Simon has proven able to endure to the end; if he’s learned anything by the end of the trilogy, it’s that keeping your wits about you, having a conscience, and listening to those wiser than yourself is more kingly and useful than any amount of gallantry or skill.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was ahead of its time in many ways.  The realism of its characters and its world presaged the gritty, grimdark imaginings of writers like Abercrombie and Martin, the latter of whom has stated publicly that the trilogy influenced the creation of A Song of Ice and Fire.  The world of Osten Ard might not be quite as bleak as Logen Ninefingers’ homeland or the Seven Kingdoms, but the politics and history are decidedly darker than the black and white conceptions of Williams’ contemporaries.  Yes, roughly speaking, it’s a quest story starring a boy who would be king, but it’s one in which neither kingdom nor quest turn out to be quite what was promised.  Erkynland, the supposed apple of Osten Ard, turns out to be more than a little rotten, built on a legacy of greed and its own in-world version of white privilege and racism, and the quest itself–for the eponymous trio of magic swords, believed by the heroes to be the key to defeating the trilogy’s big bad, the evil Storm King–turns out to be the greatest ruse of all time.  The Storm King’s rage, if not his methods, becomes increasingly understandable as the true history of the land becomes clear.

Williams’ facility, too, with taking the tropes of traditional fantasy and twisting them to his own ends foreshadows the postmodern era of fantasy we seem to be going through now.  Seeing as how Tad Williams was also responsible, with this selfsame work, for helping establish many of these tropes, it’s rather astounding that he was this far ahead of his time.  In an introduction to a new edition of the book in 2004, Williams commented on his intentions when he set out to write it:

I had wanted to write these books, this story, in part because I was so irked by all the pseudo-Tolkienalia floating around (and guess what–it’s still going on to this day!)  So why would I want to do the same thing as everyone else?

For all its ingenuity, the characters shine through warm and pure and real; there’s a simple beauty to them, even in their flaws.  The fact that the novels preserve a familiar archetypal framework makes them all the more powerful when the story strays outside of it, and allows it to serve as an excellent bridge between Tolkien and his copycats and the legion of innovators writing today.  But the reason it’s important to me is because at its core, it’s a morality play, a fairy story in the truest, most laudable sense; a celebration of choosing the right even when your choices are black and gray.  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn taught me that the question of whether or not the world is a benevolent one is less important than choosing to have faith in the idea that it ought to be.  That friendship, love, and hope can prevail over conflict, hate, and despair if we believe they can.  That life is a journey, and it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important.  It’s a story that is confident enough in its own merits to have a happy ending, a rarity these days.  Call me trite, but I think these are the things that call to us most clearly and weather the test of time the easiest.

GREEN_S

It comes as no surprise to me that experts now say that the Harry Potter books might be teaching kids empathy: I learned about loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, and courage from Tad Williams as assuredly as millions of millennials learned it from J.K. Rowling.  The Dragonbone ChairThe Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower form a tale for the ages, a story that will always welcome you home, no matter how long you’ve been abroad.  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is like a favorite chair, cushioned with eiderdown: ever comfortable, but apt to poke you in sensitive places with the sharp quills of wisdom and adventure before you drift off.

Coming to the very end of the tale, we hear the author’s voice, just audible beneath Simon’s, inviting us to come again:

“Simon gently took his arm. “Now come, please. Come and join us. Up the corridor you have a room full of friends, Eolair—some of them you don’t even know yet!”
He led the count toward the dining hall. Firelight and the sound of laughing voices reached out to welcome them.”

The Broken Empire

3cover2

Mark Lawrence writes grimdark epic fantasy the way Wes Anderson writes dialogue: with a wink and a nod.  The wink is intense and the nod grave, bespeaking a hideous sense of irony underlying the story.  It keeps you turning pages.  This isn’t to say that he can’t be deadly serious–the three novels of The Broken Empire trilogy are some of the darkest, goriest fantasy I’ve read–or that he takes his subject matter lightly–his work questions the very nature of humanity and its tendency toward violence, drags its characters through the latrine pits of the human condition, and brings them out with all the baggage you’d expect.  The horror might be knowing and darkly funny, but it’s never absurd.  Absurdity connotes uselessness, and everything that happens in these books is useful to someone, if only someone’s inner demon.  But for every horrific act his protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, commits, there’s an unspoken meta-textual question.  Dare I? the author asks.  (He dares.)  Do you want me to, dear reader? (NO!  Don’t!  Yes yes yes yes yes do it, please do it.)

The first two books of the trilogy, Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns, end with explicit challenges from the narrator, who tells the story in the first person: you want reasons, come take them.  You don’t like what I’m doing, come stop me.  It’s a powerful bit of dialogue, almost Socratic in its directness.  Jorg Ancrath is the ultimate antihero–the villain, set not only on revenge but on acquiring power for its own sake, whom you root for even when he’s committing atrocities.  For every person that stopped reading one of Lawrence’s books because they were too graphic or shocking, there were three others who found themselves inevitably drawn in by the sheer, bold humanity of Jorg’s voice.  Evil is much more challenging to us when it’s self-aware: Jorg knows he’s a sinner, knows he’ll always take blood and chaos over peace and order whenever the choice is presented to him, sometimes because it’s necessary and sometimes simply because it’s his nature.

One thing that makes it all so much fun is the fact that Lawrence’s prose proves more than equal to the task at hand: these are some of the most quotable books I’ve read in recent memory.  How can you not love a man who can write “The biggest lies we save for ourselves,” or:

“I’ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It’s the silence that scares me. It’s the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.”

The fact that the Hundred Kingdoms are presented as a far-future, post-apocalyptic version of future Europe, set a thousand years after a massive nuclear war, only serves to underline the point Lawrence seems to be making.  Men are violent, apt to destroy themselves.  Destruction comes in cycles.  Sometimes it takes a violent man to end a destructive cycle.

To focus too much on the violence of the story would be to miss the point, however: the final choice Jorg makes in Emperor of Thorns, however violent in its own way, is fundamentally different from all of the others.  It’s just as self-aware, but entirely unselfish.  And it’s what ultimately makes him a hero, despite his tarnished soul.

I loved these books, loved the twisted future they portray, loved the extremity of the characters and the surprising magics they wield, loved the ghosts that haunt them and unchanging humanity at the heart of it all.  Read them.  I dare you.