Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Hero of Ages

heroofages
Sanderson’s books are puzzling. Take their surface, their visual ideas and the overall story and you’re left with a rollicking adventure that occasionally goes deep. Add his stilted, unoriginal prose and method of solving conflicts and you’re left with a generic Fantasy book that doesn’t insult the reader. After reading his essays and his view on the genre I’ve come to the conclusion he’s an awful writer who stumbled upon some great ideas.

The problem with Sanderson isn’t the story itself, but his approach to storytelling. He views his stories as a mechanical process, with the purpose of everything is get to the end. Characters, magic and objects have meaning which is determined only by how much they can solve conflict.

If we’re talking reality, this view can make sense. Life is full of conflicts and we need tools to solve it. Literature and Philosophy can be such tools. The difference is in the nature of conflicts in real life, and conflicts in fictional world. The conflict in real life is imposed on us. By that, I mean we don’t fully control it. We can instigate, but never design it from scratch. I can go out and start a fight with someone I don’t like, but I don’t control all the elements – our personal histories, which influence the conflict, are out of our control. The other person’s reactions and choices are also out of my control.

Fictional conflicts are the opposites. You build them from scratch. This is something many people forget when they talk about stories. Authors fully control their work. Authors can – and should – impose laws on their work, but even those laws are something the authors can control. Creating a problem just so you could solve it is like the brilliant Useless Machine. It’s a contraption that you turn on so it would turns itself off. If the purpose of everything in your story is that you’d solve the conflict, why create the conflict in the first place?

Sanderson’s parts fit nicely, but I see nothing admirable about that. Complexity doesn’t equal depth, and depth is what matters in fiction. Compexity can be engaging in activities that are thinking for thinking’s sake, but Chess also involves human interaction and a real conflict whose elements you don’t fully control. Reading the Mistborn novels is like playing Chess against yourself, only with a fancier dressing.

It was so disappointing when Sanderson took an important symbol and turned it into the final plot coupon. Sazed’s story is absorbing. It is the existensial crisis made physical, questioning what the hyper-intellectual who only researches, instead of providing answers and doing things, will do when the world is ending. The idea is sometimes explored, but Sazed mostly stares off into space and ruminates. By the time he takes the center stage, he realizes all his knowledge is the last screw to seal the Bad Ending’s coffin.

Too many scenes are about doing Allomantic stunts. Sanderson writes them like they’re a blow-by-blow account of a role-playing game. Even in those role-playing games, they are the most boring parts. No one cares about Fallout‘s battle systems. Planescape: Torment is a towering achievement because of the writing. These games can employ a battle system, because the person experiencing the art actually gets to use them.

Fantasy authors often forget that the position of the reader isn’t like the writer’s. The author may feel like he’s discovering a new land when writing. For the reader, it’s all laid out, no exploration of thought needed but just an info dump. The author may feel like he’s using a complex system of game rules to solve conflicts, but the reader only gets to observe it. The reader doesn’t actually use these rules. Imagine if a sports caster told you exactly how the basketball player’s legs work.

All these details in those big fights don’t matter. They don’t affect anything. Remove them, and the battle will be slightly shorter. In general, battles don’t work in literature. Violence is visual and immediate, something that’s hard to replicate in the relatively calm activitiy of reading. It’s also swift, so exact descriptions of it come off as silly. People don’t experience violence like Sanderson writes about it. It’s always over before we know what happened. He never once tries to capture the thrill of violence.

The story is more focused this time around. Stalling, the defining feature of the second book, is gone. Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to structure stories. He never gets lost, never rambles too much or digress. He understands epicness doesn’t have to come from how many miles your characters walk, but the scope of the conflict. So making his story about stopping the end of the world is a good idea, and there is an energy in the final scenes, the emotionally appealing concept of the world torn between creation and destruction.

I want to hear Sanderson tells such a story. He can tell it without losing track, but when it’s covered in dull prose I lose hope. Many a pointless sentence fill the book. Inner thoughts drown the books in obvious or unnecessary details. I truly don’t understand why authors do this so much. I sometimes edit out of kindness prose of young writers, and they do it all the time. Are they afraid that nobody will understand? So long as you don’t write like Hegel, we can understand you just fine.

I do give him credit for not digressing too much. Scenes do gel together for a coherent story. One arc does feel like it’s separated from the main story, but Sanderson tells it like it’s self-contained, with its own conflict and resolutions. It doesn’t exist just to add details, but as an actual story. His descriptions are often to the point.

His exploration of themes is particularly bad. He wants to say something, and his fairly sparse story means ideas emerge clearly. For all the talk of worldbuilding, there aren’t too many details to keep up with. When the ideas emerge though, they’re just there. Sanderson does nothing with them. The secondary arc is about the evils of revolution, but all it has is a bunch of extremists using the government for their own selfish needs. There is no understanding or insight or sympathy towards them. It doesn’t reveal anything about this archetype, but perpetuates an empty pattern. The final antagonist also stands for nothing but death’n’destruction. It’s fun enough in a simple story, but Sanderson aims higher – a complex machine which has no reason to exist but to turn itself off.

Occasionally, it’s fun and it concludes. Mostly, it’s a Useless Machine, but not as amusing and not as offensive as George R. R. Martin. I understand some people dig epic fantasy, but this is 700 pages. Dunsany wrote a brilliant novel with only 230 pages, and reading it three times will keep revealing new things and is a better usage of my time.

2 heroes out of 5 ages

Advertisements

Brandon Sanderson – The Well of Ascension

mistborn-_the_well_of_ascension_by_brandon_sanderson
Just like that, Brandon Sanderson has turned into George R. R. Martin. A more appropriate title would’ve been ‘The Hell of Continuaton’. There’s no excuse to write such a dull, plodding sequel to a fairly exciting fantasy adventure. What happened? Imagine if a Grindcore band released a twinkly Post-Rock album but kept the noise and the screaming. Actually, that sounds too ambitious. If a Grindcore band did that, it’ll be a push towards new territories. Sanderson had no money for an editor.

Static paragraphs are a disease, especially in adventure stories. These are paragraphs in which literally nothing happens. All we get is the rambling of the narrator or of the character. Since the narrator is often 3rd-person omniscient, we don’t really care about its thoughts. This narrator doesn’t even exist. If it’s the rambling of the characters, a question arises. Why not just write in first person?

It’s a symptom I see in many rookie writers who lack confidence. They don’t see the reader’s point of view or understand what is necessary to them. They don’t understand art is an experience, not a collection of facts. Paragraphs teasing what will happen, what could have happened, what the characters are like litter the pages. As notes, they might be useful. By writing down who your characters are, you have a solid idea of what you should be writing. By writing down what might happen, you have a solid idea of what routes you can take. As a technique to avoid ‘just write the next scene’ writing, it’s brilliant.

These are just notes for a novel, not a novel itself. Bands don’t put all their jam sessions and demos smack in the middle of a song. Imagine if, in the middle of “One Step Closer”, Linkin Park put a random jam session that later gave birth to the chorus of “Numb”. Sure, it’s interesting but what is it doing in the middle of a punchy Nu Metal song? Any time an author puts rhetorical questions in a 3rd person narrative, he’s being a horrible author.

Narrative questions are always answered, so asking us ‘will he be able to save her’ is pointless. We’ll see in a few pages. As for philosophical questions, they must not appear since fiction is expression of philosophy, not an essay about it. I did put some rhetorical questions in this review. The purpose was to make you imagine, to focus your attention by varying sentence structure and expressing disdain at such techniques. In narrative prose, they make zero sense.

What’s odd is that it’s the only bad technique Sanderson falls into. In all other aspects, he remains fine. His story is still shallow, but he avoids the long-winding descriptions of Martin or his misogyny, or his multiple plot threads that go nowhere. Sanderson describes rooms using, at best, 3 sentences. It’s never profound, but he emphasizes the right details. The plot is also tightly focused, with a small arc inside the gigantic save-the-world one. The book was padded to 700 solely because of these static paragraphs. If Sanderson got rid of them, we would’ve been had 300-400 pages of a shallow but exciting story. Did Sanderson pad it so it would look cool on the Fantasy shelf?

As for the story itself, it’s just as shallow as the previous one. All hints of something deeper, more original are gone. As a role-player, I noticed there’s a scale between games heavy on playing a pesonality and games playing on skill. The latter are elaborate puzzle games with a bit of pretending, whereas the former are an improvised theater. The former are more fun, since they’re more emotionally engrossing and memorable. Whenever I jump into a game I always aim for that direction and find myself not doing anything. My character has a lot of skills which I’m supposed to use but forget about. I don’t care how good the paper says I am with a sword. I want to understand my character, get into his mindset and interact with other characters.

Sanderson comes from the opposite tradition. His magic system exists solely for RPG’s, with instruction manuals and technical information but little meaning. This is a world where people can influence emotions, store attributes yet the psychology of this never appears. I don’t buy the excuse that they all had to go into hiding. That’s just Sanderson avoiding confronting the meaning behind his magic. As a role-playing system, it seems exciting. Reading about it is dull.

All these details about what they push, how they push, how they recover strength is so dull. When someone tells you their character in their RPG has 80 STR, do you care? Does it make you want to play the game? The problem with writing about fictional fighting is that it’s so arbitrary. Sanderson dispenses a lot of physical facts about non-physical objects. Non-physical objects don’t have physical traits. All fiction is symbolic since in the end it’s just some ink on the page. The action scenes consist of unimportant physical information with nothing symbolic. Conflicts are elaborate chess games, with enemies having a weak point you need to use V.A.T.S. to target. One scene even features a dungeon crawl. To his credit, the final confrontation had some emotional depth.

His characters remain his strong point. Even if by this point they won’t ever have a complex psychology, they have personalities and distinct dialogues. His dialogues are the most excited parts and not just because dialogues are exciting by nature. He gives his characters obvious quirks that affect all of their speech patterns. Even when Ham isn’t musing philosophically, he has a more thoughtful tone. Breeze’s conceit is always apparent, sometime more and sometimes less. That’s why even if Sanderson’s story is, at its heart, shallow his characters are alive enough to make it exciting.

His story mode also eschew the typical long journey story mode for a more static one. Most of it is spent waiting for the big climax, but by sealing our characters in a small area he gives them a lot of room to interact. His story is less driven by action and more by character interaction. If there was any opportunity to launch his story into something truly special, it was here. Sadly, it padded by a lot of static paragraphs. The ending is also disconnected from the main story. Whereas the novel’s center is the siege, the ending brings back the Hero of Ages myth. Sanderson isn’t very good at splitting his books and dividing them into individual stories. That’s sad since they are here. He only needed to finish the book when the siege was over.

Sanderson doesn’t deliver on the promise of Mistborn. Then again, I heard this was typical, run-of-the-mill fantasy. Sanderson’s storytelling is more energetic, more character driven and his writing isn’t so stiff. It helped make the first book an exciting adventure, but this one is a good writer in search of an editor to help his writing give shape. I’ll still tackle the final book but I’m worried.

1.5 failed ascensions out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Children of the Mind

children of the mind.jpg
‘Children’ is an appropriate word in the title. As for the ‘Mind’, not so much. Card’s finishes his quadrilogy – which started with two classics – on a ridiculous low. It’s not that the novel is bad, but that the flaws are brand new. Card succumbs to all the flaws he avoided when he first started.

Why did the two books split up? Considering how much Card had to say in Speaker for the Dead, it makes sense. His intelligence and complex philosophy still shines through. Instead of shining through storytelling, it’s one essay after another. Sometimes it’s inside the characters’ heads. Sometimes they ruminate and we get the whole thing, uncensored and unabridged. If this was part of a style, fine. It’s not. Rather, it’s a collection of notes – events, ruminations, extended dialogues that all should’ve been trimmed down.

The quadrilogy has philosophical weight, but in the end these novels aren’t pure philosophy. There is an engaging story beneath them about saving the world and what it means to be human. The constant ruminations are like a decent guitar solo extended for 10 minutes. One or two profound phrase is okay since it helps us focus on the themes. When there are whole paragraphs where nothing happens, that’s when you know the editors were dead.

If Card is so against destroying other species, why are the editors extinct? This is a flaw I encounter a lot when reading works by unpublished writers. They’re confused, not sure entirely what their story is about and afraid the audience won’t get them. The fear is justified considering how everyone loved Fight Club for the wrong reasons. So they fill their stories with character thoughts and speculations.

When I get these stories fresh from the oven, I don’t mind. Nobody has gone over them to trim the unnecessary stuff and what should remain as notes. A story doesn’t come fully formed from our minds. We must write it down, see how it looks like on paper and then play around with the pieces. You don’t really know how your story works until you actually write it down. If I read a story where half of it is notes the author should’ve kept to himself, that’s fine. They needed to write this to get the information out of their heads, to acknowledge it exists.

When I read a story filled with notes by a published author, I get angry. Card doesn’t show ideas. He doesn’t even let characters’ personalities filter them. Philosophies are the main characters now. The novel is filled with philosophical conversations and ruminations, and it’s all so disconnected from the story.

Philosophical essays contain ideas, but fiction is how we imagine them taking from. We need literature because that’s how we imagine the effect philosophies have on our live. I can write an essay about how everyone should have assisted suicide easily available for them, but through fiction I can imagine how such an idea might impact society.

The danger of piling philosophical conversations and ruminations in your novel is this. If they overpower the story, they lose connection. We no longer see the ideas in action, so we no longer see the importance. A good story doesn’t just give me insight into an idea, but makes me care about it. By having an emotionally engaging or thrilling story, I get emotionally invested and see the importance of the idea.

The philosophical conversations have no element of humanity in them. They rarely inform us about the characters or their big worldviews. Watching them is like watching a discussion on CMV-Reddit. You see the ideas isolated from a person dissected, analyzed and evolved. That’s fascinating, but that’s not a story. Moreover, CMV has an abundance of people. This novel written by one person. It’s really one long monologue in disguise, which is a shame. A monologue by a person – especially a talented writer like Card – could’ve been fascinating.

Children of the Mind isn’t an unrestrained novel. It’s a novel without purpose that jumps from topic to topic but in the end goes anywhere. We shouldn’t kill other people. We should try to understand people. Haven’t we heard this all before? Wasn’t it more convincing when characters were either morally grey, or when we saw the weight of heroism? The absence of Ender makes his character duller. Without him to show us the weight of his virtues, everyone just opens up a fanclub.

Everyone also acts like douchebags towards each other. Suddenly 21st-century internet lingo caught on and characters swear. Dirty words don’t offend me, but their sudden appearance is odd. Even more similar to stereotypical internet talk is how many dialogues go. So much belittling, being sarcastic and condescending you have to wonder why these people are doing with each other. Nothing actually happened between this novel and Xenocide, so when did everyone started swaggering like Tarantino?

The basic idea behind the ending couldn’t have been better. It ties the novel directly to the first one, but it’s still anticlimatic. Besides that tie to the first novel, nothing actually happened in that ending. The conflict was solved, events happened but no conclusions reached. The people of Lusitania may feel better and may be able to expand their colony, but I’m in the same place.

Children of the Mind gets by only because it’s a part of the Ender Saga. There are interesting ideas, but Card is trying hard to push himself when he ran out of things to say. It even lacks the occasional outrageous moment of Xenocide. That novel was empty, but you could trim it to a decent novella. A kind editor should’ve told Card that he’s writing a story, not a hodge-podge collection of conversations with self, ruminations and the occasional encounter with aliens. At least the first two books are constructed well enough they stand on their own.

2 children out of 5 minds

Orson Scott Card – Xenocide

xenocide.jpg

Don’t we all want to believe in the myth of the free artist? If only we break the chains of record labels and publishing companies! A truly great author doesn’t need a pest of an editor. Their glorious minds just spill diamonds on the page. Really, this is an attractive fantasy. It means we can just write whatever the hell comes to our heads and it might be brilliant. We don’t have to actively seek criticism and feedback, since that will soil our purity.

For every brilliant album like The Fragile, you get a book like Xenocide. Actually, Dr. Dre was invovled in “Even Deeper” so maybe even that album isn’t a product of a single, untamed genius. Human beings are flawd and social animals. Without feedback or criticism, our ideas don’t improve. Becoming intelligent is no different than working out. You have to practice. You have to up the ante and you have to try new things and hear the words people different than you.

Card is clearly intelligent or else he wouldn’t be able to write the two previous novels. They were vastly different in style and were self-contained. There was an overarching story but the books weren’t separated just so it would be easier to sell them. They had a beginning and an end, different prose styles and different structures. That’s all before you get into how Card explores his ideas, how he focuses on characters and refuses to demonize everyone. These things are here too, only Card has no one to restrain him.

Lack of an editor doesn’t mean Card’s good habits can flow freely. It means he sinks to the sin of overwriting, joining the ranks of authors like King and R. R. Martin. He rambles on for most of the books, talking to himself and writing down notes. There so many passages that fit more a stream-of-consciousness narrative but this clearly isn’t one. The narrator is omniscient and the stream of thoughts don’tm provide any psychological insight. It’s a reptition of things we already know.

He’s similar to R. R. Martin not just in the rambling style, but in how the rambling holds the book back. When ramblings aren’t poetic or insightful, all they do is fill up the page and cause build-up. Build-up isn’t a good thing. There’s no reason to tease the readers with ‘something will happen!’ when it’s possible to write interesting things that are happening right now.

Only in the last 100 pages things are actually happening. Until then, people mostly speculate. Although there are many characters, the speculations aren’t patricularly varied. People mostly think about what happened, what may happen and what are the odds of something happening. It’s an author not sure how to move his story, so he writes neutral, meaningless things.

It’s tempting to write these paragraphs. Looking at how many words you wrote brings a feelings of satisfaction, of having done a work. Lying bricks in an order doesn’t automatically lead to a house. Writing a lot of sentences doesn’t automatically lead to a story or an essay or insightful philosophical musings. Card’s prose is more nimble and easy to read than other ramblers, but making it more pleasant doesn’t make it any less of a ramble.

The worst sin Card commits is lacking any purpose to his story. What’s Xenocide about, in the end? What does it add to the world of Ender? We shouldn’t judge other people too hastily. People may seem immoral to us but perhaps their value system is vastly different and we need to find a bridge. There’s no progression of ideas here from the previous novels. For all of its philosophical musings, the novel is empty. The only thing that happens is that the characters confront a virus, discover faster-than-light travel and start to rise against Starways Congress. Does that sound like a story that needs 600 pages?

The novel was apparently meant to go hand-in-hand with Children of the Mind but they were split in two. Whenever a book needs to split up because it’s too long a red flag rises. That’s a sign the story doesn’t actually end in the book itself (Here, it hardly concludes) and that the author found themselves writing a little too much.

The usual strengths are here. Although Starways Congress are the first actual antagonist in the series, Card generally refuses to paint people as wholly evil or wholly good. Characters are conflicted. People do horrible stuff and later Card makes us understand them without justifying it. The idea of ‘varlese’ is pretty brilliant – accepting that sometimes we have to kill a different species because we fail to communicate but not because they’re evil. The novel never develops these. We don’t get anything like the piggies’ radical view of death.

There’s also more techno-babble this time around. Expect a lot of ramblings in the last 100 pages about Outspace and Inspace. It’s good he doesn’t pretend this is hard science and the philotes are more of a philosophical concept than a scientific one. But Card spends more time telling us how it works and none of it is barely cool enough for Stoner Rock lyrics. Again, it’s an author whose pen are getting away from them. No editor was here to cut off the fat and leave the substance.

Normally these are the worst flaws a book can commit. Offend the reader, but at least be interesting. Boredom cannot be forgiven. Boredom merely kills the reader’s time and no one lives forever. Yet Xenocide is, overall, a bearable book. It’s not very enjoyable, but it’s never offensively boring. The rambling prose fattens the novel, but it never becomes a struggle to read. When things do happen, they’re interesting.

That’s thanks to Card’s great foundation. He always comes off as a compassionate, wise person in his novels instead of a homophobic conservative. The world is still dominated by concepts and ideas, rather than trying to predict hard science. There is still no main character, but a wide cast. Some get more focus than others, but each is given a rational basis for their actions (Although Quara is a bit dramatic). Card never demonizes anyone.

Such tiny merits manage to make the book fairly pleasant, if not great. It’s a huge step-down from Speaker for the Dead and makes me wonder if this is where the series ran out of steam. Still, Card manages to ramble and focus too much about build-up and avoid writing a horrible book. That takes some skill. There’s nothing here unless you really loved the first books, but if youd did the ride may be pleasant. Hopefully the sequel is worth it.

2.5 xenocides out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation

Isaac Asimov_1951_Foundation
Foundation is another novel where two styles clash. Unlike others, though, Asimov manages to make them merge. It’s especially impressive because these are two styles which shouldn’t work together. Asimov is a much better writer than people give him credit. He may not understand human beings, but few authors are so bullshit-free. Despite not even trying to create characters, there’s nothing that hides what works.

You can dub it ‘Space Opera’ all you want, but if you read a Robot book then you’ll settle into the format just fine. Asimov’s style consists of creating a puzzle and have the characters solve it. This is a pure intellectual exercise. There is no emotional weight there. There’s not even Saw’s cheap, either solve it die cliche. It’s as humane as a Rubik’s Cube.

The puzzles have pieces that sound profound, sure. Asimov just doesn’t try to explain why they’re profound. Among the pieces Asimov plays with include whole civilizations. There are video games that also deal with whole civilizations. Chess seems to tell the story of one kingdom conquering another. If you were an individual in those kingdoms or civilizations, you would care. Yet how much do players care about a single soldier in Warcraft III?

That’s Asimov’s weakness. He puts different names on the pieces, but they’re just pieces to play around with. Since there is no real character depth, not even one-note characters it’s hard to get to the bottom of Asimov’s ideas. Asimov has a lot to say about big things, like history and religion. Such a profilic author should have a lot to say, but the novel isn’t a good form for him to deliver his ideas.

They show you Asimov is smart and knows a lot, but that’s it. His treatment of religion is especially interesting. He confronts the claim that a lot of people believe scientists like they believe religious figures. A scientific theory, after all, is supposed to predict results. Doesn’t that sound close to being a prophet? The idea of a man seeing into the future, and then guiding humans how to cope with it is found in the Tanakh.

What is he trying to say by showing this common ground between religion and science? Science works, but the only people who are aware it’s science and not superstition are the scientists. Should scientists be a majority rather than a minority to prevent this? He doesn’t say. The Foundation survives because it’s a minority and keeps important knowledge to itself. It is the future of humanity. There doesn’t seem to be much criticism of it in the novel.

The novel doesn’t fail, again, thanks to Asimov’s bullshit-free writing. For a man who’s known to be important in ‘hard Sci-Fi’, he’s a great storyteller. He lays his interesting puzzles and finds interesting solutions to them. Even if they are shallow, Asimov’s puzzles are unique enough. Even when it’s clear there’s no depth and he’s just writing ‘civilization’ on a game piece, the illusion its important is entertaining enough, in and of itself. He doesn’t put anything else there but the bare bones, and so he lives to the promise of any good pulpy novel. It does weaken a little in the end, where Asimov gets more ambitious and the stories get bigger. They also get less coherent.

Foundation isn’t much of a great novel in terms of depth, but it’s a very entertaining story. It’s odd how the attempts at being profound neither elevate nor ruin the novel, which they often tend to do. It’s not the brilliant classic people say it is, but good, bullshit-free storytellers are rare. Asimov deserves some fame just because of that.