Lord Dunsany – The King of Elfland’s Daughter

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Dunsany makes it seem so easy. When people think of fantasy, they think of bricks full of descriptions and histories of non-existent worlds. I hear often how people don’t read fantasy because they don’t want a life commitment, because it’s more like studying the history of something rather than actual stories. If Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are anything to go by, they have point.

What’s bizarre is why these type of literature is so popular and so often written. In 1924 Dunsany wrote a simple novel. In terms of difficulty, the only thing difficult about it is that sentences can be long and the language is slightly archaic. Compared to more modern fiction though, the prose flows more smoothly. The story is about a person who seeks out a magical bride and gets astonished by the Huge World Outside. Wikipedia sums up the story in one paragraph and it’s okay. Why didn’t more authors replicate this?

That’s because artists don’t just try to sell a product. They sell importance. Importance in art is important. Rappers keep those crappy Boom Bap beats because it’s important and real, and so people who hate music will keep listening to them. Tolkien’s overlong saga was important, and so every Fantasy author wants to be seen as important and pile on the words. Writing a book like Dunsany’s may be easier, but it doesn’t look as important. Too bad that importance has little to do with musical quality. Manic Street Preachers aren’t as famous as David Bowie, but “Stay Beautiful” is better than anything on Ziggy Stardust.

Writing and storytelling devices serve the themes, not the opposite. Dunsany writes simply because that’s the best way to express his ideas. This novel isn’t fantasy just because the world is invented. ‘Fantasy’ is the theme of this novel. For a generation that explored all physical frontiers, it’s quaint but the sense of wonder Dunsany explores can apply to anything life.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is about seeing something so majestic, so beautiful that we become obsessed. It’s something that we also can never capture. We will continue searching for it and never find it. It’s not just Elfland. Alveric gets party members, each with his own obsession. We’re all mad when the right thing strikes us. No one is exempt from this. Even the people of Elfland, once they see Earth become obsessed with it. Everything is a place of wonder if you look at it from a distance. The constant usage of the phrase “Fields we know” emphasizes this. These fields look ordinary to us only because we know them, and the narrator has our point of view. For Lirazel, Earth is just as wondrous.

The price of such beauty is no satisfaction. You’re either yearning for it, or don’t fit in. Alveric constantly searches. When Lirazel can be in Earth, which is wondrous for her, she can’t find her place and never feels at home. Man is torn by his lust for wonder and his need for a stable home. Notice how Alveric carries a tent on his journey – even while traveling he needs something resembling a home.

Some do try to settle down. Another way to react to these wonders is fear. Alveric’s party have their obsession, but theirs isn’t as concrete as Elfland. When they see what real wonder looks like, they want to back away to their normal lives. Alveric himself despairs a little – that’s another price of seeing wonder. Back in the village we see that settling down doesn’t work. If we don’t go seeking the world, then it’ll just finds its way to us. You can be obsessed with it on your territory or not, but you’ll react to it. Even denying it is a reaction.

All these paragraphs of analysis – and I’m sure others can go something more in-depth – for such a simple book. That’s because Dunsany’s theme come before style and story. There are no digressions, no meaningless paragraphs of exposition. A chapter involving a man with a dark coat may at first seem like a digression, but even without the revelation it’s an exploration of Dunsany’s idea. In that chapter, magical creatures themselves aren’t infallible. They can get obsessed with something and follow it to things unknown.

Dunsany’s world isn’t physical, but is aware of ‘idea space’. His descriptions are always what it feels like, rather than what actually is. Worlds in fiction never exist. Telling me how tall a spire is, doesn’t actually tell me anything. So what? When Dunsany describes palace as “can only be told of in song”, it creates an image more mythic than any other physical description. If Dunsany’s book is difficult, it’s because of how expressive his language is. Nothing is described in direct physical traits, but every description is dripping with expression and poetics. Repetition never dulls the power of these words, because “fields we know” says more about them than anything else could.

He’s one of the few authors who can go off on long descriptions. Sometimes, his descriptions drip with so much wonder and awe that it speaks for itself. He describes flowers, in the same sentence, both as ‘unwithering’ and that time never touches them. Such repetition is redundant, but in the contexts it makes sense. Elfland is so wonderous that you have to traits in it using different ways, and you still wouldn’t capture it.

The result of such expressive and non-physical language is that Elfland and the Fields We Know feel actually feel real. We don’t experience the world in numbers. The Earth may move around the sun quite fast, but we don’t feel this speed. Fiction is never about displaying facts but about the human condition, since it is, after all, products of human thought. By tapping into how things feel like rather than how they actually are, Dunsany writes like how human beings experience the world.

The book’s only flaw, which must be deliberate, is that its characters can be fairly shallow. They’re clear archetypes, symbols that exist to explore ideas rather than complex human beings. It doesn’t detract too much, since the story is simple and demands such simple characters. Still, it would be nice if Dunsany dedicated a few more paragraphs to how his characters experience the world in their unique ways. He shows us their obsessions, but not how they deal with other things in the world. The book may explore its main topic quite well, but its lack of psychology and other subjects makes its vision too narrow. Great works of fiction have their main topics, but they also tend to dispense some unrelated views. Dunsany already shows great skill, so it makes you wonder what else he has to say.

The small flaws prevent this from being an all-time great book, but everything else makes this a cornerstone of the Fantasy genre. This is the book we should namedrop constantly when we discuss Fantastical fiction. Dunsany’s prose isn’t just beautiful, but his method of ‘worldbuilding’ is more engrossing and meaningful than other famous authors. Beyond the symbolic layer, it’s also a cute romance about two lovers who can’t let the kind-of-dimensional distance between their worlds separate them. Both as a love story and an exploration of human obsession, it’s a great book.

4.5 fields we know out of 5

The Crystal Method – Tweekend

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The Crystal Method has been written off as inferior carbon copies of Big Beat, and also that they did a ‘dumb, American version of it’. Snobbish people had to convince themselves that the Prodigy made profound music involving social commentary and existential questions when in reality they did nothing but really, really catchy noise. At first this label of the Crystal Method is a bit deserved. Their debut is a collection of cool Breaks with some funky Sci-Fi sounds. It had a cool sound, but few songs. Here, though, they truly come together and cement themselves as canonical in the electronic genre. Tweekend is one of the reasons why Big Beat remains EDM’s best genre.

Since by now every artist in the genre cemented their sound – Prodigy with their loud rocking, Fatboy Slim with his smoothness, Chemical Brothers with their genre-bending, Crystal Method had to find some kind of shtick that makes them unique. The whole ‘simple breaks and cool sounds’ was rendered irrelevant in ChemBros’ debut, where they converted it into some of music’s best 30 seconds. So they try to find a new, defining sound here – and they mostly succeed.

They still sound like newcomers, but not in the bad way. It’s obvious their sources of inspiration include the aforementioned artists, not just the genres influencing Big Beat. You get here a more clearer picture of what Big Beat is, and why every soda pop commercial wanted this kind of music. Whereas the Prodigy made Breakbeat fueled by guitar noise, Crystal Method seeked the specific kinetic energy that the genres happened to create. The originators were inspired by other genres. Here, Crystal Method are directly inspired by the originators.

That’s the main distinction between this album and their debut. Now they don’t just want to bang, but to make music that works like a martial arts scene or a car race. It’s music that was made for video games of that era, when violence was cartoonish, cars were fast (and possibly shot rockets) and everything was larger than life. It’s the end of the retro-future. Our image of the future and technological development wasn’t of peace but of combat and lasers, but boy do we like it. The album cover fits the atmosphere of it, watching a world becoming more technological and being okay with it.

At this point you can compare it to Electro-Industrial, and Big Beat always shared similar sounds and influence – and an ability to fit ideally most video games and movies. Oh, and yes, composers were stupid enough not to ask the dudes from Front Line Assembly to score The Matrix. Whereas the Industrial movement was scared of that future, this music jumps into it. It’s inevitable, so we might as well party.

That’s why it manages to have a fairly aggressive, macho sound without copying the Prodigy’s rebel punk antics. A funky bounce is underneath most of the songs, even the noise blast that is “Name of the Game”. There they let Ryu rap about how awesome he is over Morello’s riffing. Aside from being a fantastic idea for a song, the bass is deep and womping underneath all that noise. On some tracks the funk is more prominent – if you can sit still to “Roll It Up”, you may want to check things with your doctor.

It’s funny that they were branded as a dumber American dumbing down, since they actually play more with atmosphere than most Big Beat artists. In fact, they lead back to Progressive House than any other in the genre. “Roll It Up” and “Blowout” have a continous structure and a looping beat that threatens to last forver. There are few actual riffs here, sometimes appearing on songs like “Murder” and “PHD” but serving the beat rather than taking the center stage. Many of the sounds here surrounded and engulf the listener rather than pound into it.

What was seen as ‘dumb American’ is just the band getting the essence of Big Beat, if not exactly making the best album in the genre. Then again their competition includes ChemBros, so it’s by nature difficult. This album distills Big Beat from the outside influence, keeping what’s important – Hip-Hop breaks, a Funk bounce, Techno structures and the aggression of Rock. That still gives them a lot of room to move even if they never threaten to break away, but what great songs – “PHD” with its slower funk, “Roll It Up” in how spacey it sounds, “Murder” gives a badass melodic hook and “Over the Line” shows they can also be beautiful and more introspective. Being raised on albums like these made me wonder why EDM isn’t supposed to be an ‘album genre’. Even the weakest tracks like “The Winner” still bang. Perhaps you can cut a minute here and a minute there, but this is one of those “If you don’t like it, you’re no fun” albums.

3.5 murders out of 5

Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Final Empire

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Sanderson puts an impressive new coat of paint on your typical tale about saving the world. Sometimes he even hints at subversion or deviation. Then again, I must be just a hopeful person dying for a good story. They’re not hard to find, and I constantly find seeds of them in bad or decent stories. At some point, though, I worry that I might be just digging to deep hoping to find dinosaur bones in shallow grounds.

The book isn’t bad, but it’s hard to reconcile the unique backdrop with its horribly ordinary structure. If you’ve seen Star Wars, you know how the story goes. A mentor meets a complete nobody. He helps that nobody discover their hidden powers and it turns out this nobody was actually way more powerful than the rest. A crew of good-natured rebels do some jobs all building up to the revolution that’s only missing some Rage Against the Machine

Mistborn is as cookie-cutter as you can get, yet it’s fun. It avoids nearly every bad trope of fantasy. While not injecting anything too subversive, Sanderson writes with enough energy. By trimming the fat, he managed to write a fun fantasy romp that despite stretching to 600 pages never actually loses steam.

Praising a book for what it doesn’t have feels weird. A good book should be defined by what it makes special. I can praise Sanderson for not writing in a bloated way, for not relying so much on worldbuilding but does that sound tempting? Great works don’t earn their position because they weren’t bad, but because they’re good in a unique way. Bad books fail in many departments. Good books are successful in a very specific thing.

Sanderson’s strength isn’t special, but it’s a rarity in modern fantasy. Despite being praised for worldbuilding and a ‘developed magic system’, the novel doesn’t actually rely on these. The magic system only adds some flash to the combat scenes and the worldbuilding is focused on concepts, not details.

His worldbuilding is strange. The commonly praised method of worldbuilding in fantasy is horrible. We’ve seen in that popular disaster by George R. R. Martin. Pile a lot of details, and all you do is bore the audience. Just because a detail exists doesn’t mean it’s important. Even non-fiction books which should be about facts choose which to present. What was Stalin’s preferred method of eating potatoes is most likely irrelevant in a general history of USSR.

So Sanderson avoids piling on these details. He mentions that a lot of great houses exist, but he never provides of a list of them. He drops some names only to show they exist, but the story is focused around one or two or three. This deliberate refusal keeps the reader’s mind on the story, rather than memorizing all the great houses. Imagine how more energetic Game of Thrones would’ve been if Martin trimmed his fat.

He uses this technique often. Names of cities and of people appear, but they always exist only to inform the reader that the world is big. Sanderson avoids writing an entire encyclopedia of his world in the novel. In the end, you will only know the basics about Luthendel, where the Terrisman live and that’s it. By teasing the reader about the parts that aren’t too relevant to the story, Sanderson makes his world feel actually big and makes you wonder what other stories can take place.

As for his magic system, it’s definitely meant for an RPG game rather than a novel. Sanderson is always on the brink of telling you how much mana points the magicians have left. His deviation don’t mean much, since they’re never explored conceptually. The magic is biological in nature, which makes for an inaccessible class of wizards. We see a little of how their culture exists, but not enough. Changing it from mana to consumed metal is a cool aesthetic and it does affect the world’s relationship with metal, but again we don’t see it enough. In a world where metal is both a source of strength and a weak point for a powerful class, how does it affect people’s view of metal and their relationship with it? Mistings aren’t obscure. Metals are integral to humanity, so integral we don’t question out relationship.

At least his system isn’t overly complex. As a way to dress up action scenes and make them more fun, it’s good. The brevity is integral to the action scenes. They consist of set-pieces that connect instead of a blow-by-blow account that’s hard to follow unless you’re a WWE fanatic. He mines the technique of pulling and pushing steel objects for some cool scenes, but they display the weakness of action scenes in novels. Action gains its strength from the visual. Seeing a person getting hit is more affecting than reading “A fist hit a person”. While there’s thrill to hear about a tornado of metal objects, it sounds more like the cure for Hollywood’s sorry state of action movies.

What Sanderson does get right – and what’s pretty confusing – is his characters. There are some archetypes, but they’re distinct. One of the most arresting scenes is between Elend and Vin-as-Valette, and that’s solely because each has subtle speech patterns. The dialogues are engrossing because they feel so real. Breeze and Ham and Kelsier may not be deep, but even the dialogue between Breeze and Kelsier is different. Both are arrogant, but Sanderson lets snobbishness into Breeze’s speech whereas Kelsier talks like he believes himself to be a rock star.

This is why the book works, despite not containing anything extraordinary. It avoids all the flaws of a typical Fantasy novel, but its live characters make its adventure fun. How similar the structure to Star Wars is irrelevant when the characters are completely different but the novel has that same focused narrative. Mistborn isn’t amazing, but it’s something we need – a Fantasy story about saving the world with entertaining characters that’s actually fun.

2.5 mistings out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Children of the Mind

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‘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

Shinsekai Yori (From the New World)

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This is a story where the antagonists are the main characters. Either that, or it flips up the romanticized notion of revolution. Wouldn’t it be awesome to just go guns ablazing into Washington DC? Wouldn’t it be fun to kill all the powerful people that dehumanize us, make us work in low wages and study in their jails called schools? Only we forget powerful people also bleed. Beautiful people suffer from rape, and famous actors develop anorexia.

If only we could change.

Our relationship with beauty is odd. Although political bands make money off hating rich people, beautiful people may have more power. That’s thanks to the Halo Effect. If we perceive a good quality in a person, it makes all other qualities look better and the bad qualities look a little worse. Throughout the anime, we see a bunch of pretty kids/teenagers do their stuff. They fall in love, they have a lot of sex and they have fun out in nature.

Compare them to the queerats. It’s not that they don’t look human. They look ugly. They’re desexualized, have rough voices and do manual work. Surely, such stupid and ugly creatures deserve their place. When hundreds of people die, we can’t help but despise them. It’s not like the people of the villages are evil. They’re perfect, stick-thin intelligent people who care for the order of society.

“but they all forget somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets” – BioShock.

The anime is, at its heart, about power imbalance. Its way of exploring this idea is by deliberately making the powerful people sympathetic and appealing. There are two reasons for this. Evil people don’t really exist. There’s a coherent theory behind the oppression of the queerats. Also that often we won’t rise up against powerful people because we love them. It’s easy to hate the rich fat dude, but what if it was a beautiful women who enslaved people or send them to the gas chambers?

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The faction you side with tells a lot about your preferences. The story is the basic old tale of the oppressed rising against their oppressors. If you’re siding with the villages, then maybe justice isn’t in your priorities. The villages are more appealing, more like how we want to be. If you side with them, you just might be a victim of the Halo Effect.

If you hate the humans and relish all the death and destruction, then you also missed another point. There’s no difference between dehumanizing people for being powerful and dehumanizing them for being ugly. The anime makes the villains appealing both to reveal how the Halo Effect can make forgive terrible things, but also how people who do terrible things have their reasons for doing so.

Underneath all these philosophies of power there’s also an emotionally engrossing sci-fi story. Shinsekai Yori is a great argument for how sci-fi can be about human relationships and drama, not just showing off about possible technologies. Sci-Fi isn’t about predicting possible technologies – how a car works isn’t a story. It’s about how our society might look like if a certain technology emerges.

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It’s about what would happen if we’d become too powerful for our own good. If I were an expert in Japanese culture, I’d say there are parallels to the atomic bomb. The Cantus is a genetic mutation that gives human beings ridiculous amounts of power, but you can replace it with any possible mutations – super-strength, super-intelligence – that will cause a power imbalance.

Every human in the villages is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Despite the peaceful exterior, danger is ever-present. It can coming from inside – one of us loses their mind and goes berserk. It can also come from above. The masters can take you away because they consider you a danger.

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We humans have a hard time building an honest society. We feed our children a lot of things they later have to unlearn – there’s no tooth fairy, the people in TV aren’t your friends and schools don’t teach you anything. The ‘growing up’ the kids do is realizing that the world isn’t peaceful and cannot be. The Cantus is part of human nature. Reality is hostile from every direction – your servants can rise up, one of you can go berserk and someone from above can erase you from reality. You learn similar lessons when you grow up – the job market is cruel and being a programmer isn’t enough, rapists can be sexy and you might get sent off to war.

Like any other organism, we’re constantly trying to remake the environment in our own image. By constructing a peaceful environment, we could ensure our survival. Utopian fiction often portrays these environments as a jungle of machinery and wires. So the main lesson we learn is that technology is evil, savages are noble and we all should be one with nature. The villages are ‘one with nature’. Technology hardly exists there yet the world is still hostile. Cantus isn’t just a genetic mutations. It’s a physical manifestation of the power we hold over each other. Organisms by nature are dangerous. No amount of sex or being one with nature or creating a class of ugly people can solve it.

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Shinsekai Yori is so good that talking about the technical side is pointless. It’s fantastic in how it explores its themes and anime like this are why I put so much effort into writing reviews in the first place. Every year a thousand works of fiction come out, and books or live-action movies may seem more mature but I doubt many come close to the lows of this anime. It’s at once simple, emotionally engrossing and explores its themes to the fullest. There isn’t a reason for anyone to skip this.

If only we could change.

4.5 Queerats out of 5

Hal Gold – Unit 731: Testimony

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In the anime Paranoia Agent, the state of victimhood rescues people. People suffer from all kinds of stress – sometimes personal, sometimes moral – and and an American-looking dude hits them with a baseball bat. Once they get hit and fall unconscious, no one really cares about their past life. It’s all about helping the poor victims.

I don’t know how much the creator knew about Unit 731, but that anime is obviously tied to the atom bomb. Saying the atom bomb rescued the Japanese from admitting their war crimes may sound obscene, but isn’t there some truth to that? How many people know about the atomic bomb and how many know about their aggression in China in general? For example, in Israeli history students learn about the atom bomb but not one thing is said about the rape of Nanking or Unit 731. We see movies about the Holocaust often. Is there an internationally recognized day for the victims of Japan?

This isn’t about whether America should’ve bombed Japan or not. It’s an interesting, difficult discussion we mustn’t avoid – but it belongs in a different book. It’s about understanding what can drive people to do such horrors. The book doesn’t relish the gore on display. there are some juicy details – babies being bathed in frozen water, a person being constantly executed and somehow never dying, diseased people forced to have sex and then give birth. The point is more about shocking you that yes, people can do these things.

Haven’t we learned this lesson from the Nazis? Yes, we did. The difference is, the Nazis were losers and were the villain. Stories about the Holocaust may horrify us, but we often distance ourselves by painting the Germans as a bunch of villains smokin’ cigars and laughing maniacally. Japan were supposed to be victims. When one country – and the losing country at that – does it it’s just villainy. When a people that are supposed to be victims do it and the winners sweep it under the rug, it becomes scary.

When people object to the ‘tyranny of science’, they may sound like a bunch of crazy luddites. The scientific theory is one of the integral pillars of civilization. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without science. No idea is safe from corruption, though. The idea of people torturing and inflicting pain in the name of science may seem like recipe for a cartoonish villain in a Hollywood movie.

That’s reality, though. One reason Unit 731 was allowed to remain hidden was because the data was precious enough. The scientists were given immunity if they handed over all the information they received. Many of them went to acquire high positions in Japan, especially academic positions. Even the history of something as great as science is stained by blood.

It’s a perfect example of how horrible war is. Since the data from Unit 731 was pretty useful for biological warfare, many of the masterminds could go on with their lives, being scientists if they handed their data. In a way, they got redeemed because of the action that demands redemption. Imagine if Dr. Mengale was given a high position in a university because he made some scientific discoveries.

The history is fairly brief, since the main role of the book is to deliver the testimonies. It’s a good piece of history, but not a very detailed one. As an introduction into the topic though, it’s good enough. The writing is precise, not too filled with jargon and the story is fairly easy to follow. The book creates a unique niche of itself in the literature of Unit 731 – by providing an easy introduction and a more personal look.

As for the testimonies themselves, what Gold says in the introduction is true. They’re messy, sometimes a bit incoherent. That’s okay since they’re speeches by people who are trying to remember a horrible event from a long time ago. The messiness of it also comes from how the people in the unit didn’t know what they were doing. The testimonies come mostly from low-level workers. The masters weren’t going to risk their position in Japan.

Some testimonies are better than others, but I understand the inclusion of them all. Unit 731 was destroyed. Everything was blown up and footage and pictures were hidden or destroyed, too. We will never have access to the full story, so we must make do with the little we have. Don’t expect to get a coherent story out of these. It’s a collection of anecdotes, but fascinating ones.

They’re presented with a minimalism that’s frightening. Imagine if Raymond Carver wrote a collection of short stories about people in a laboratory conducting these experiments. Then again, what other way is there to tell these stories? They’re blunt. Details aren’t gory, they’re just there. Some horrors cannot be painted with any language. You cannot express being horrified and you can’t tell the full details. Just saying they forced diseased people to have sex is enough to cause a shock.

It’s soaked in pain. Reading this book is both easy and difficult. The language is as minimalistic as a hard-boiled thriller, but to know so much pained was caused by human beings can be too much. As harsh as they are, we need these stories of pain. This book is an anti-war book. If there was no war, it’s possible Unit 731 wouldn’t have existed.

Now, I don’t think we can just lay down our arms and war would be over. Both sides need to lay down their arms for this to happen. Yet what will cause them to do it? At some point, I don’t think ideological or territorial conflicts matter much. We need to stare at the abyss without blinking, without romanticizing it or dramatizing it. We need the cold, hard facts of how much pain war causes. It really doesn’t matter whether Japan should be hated for what they did, or be forgiven because they got the atom bomb. What matters is we humans are capable of producing such pain, but no one wants to suffer through this. Until all of us – and I’m including every single continent, since the narrative is of ‘Evil West’ is too easy to swallow – are horrified by war, it won’t stop.

Reading about Unit 731 is essential. This far into human history, it’s time to know exactly how much pain war causes. War doesn’t only result in people shooting each other. Civilians are murdered in their homes. Great ideas like science are being abused. Schools today preach a lot about the glory of programming and getting your own start-up company. I don’t think this is what will prevent another Unit 731.

4 out of 5

Ransom Riggs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The world has its outcasts. They often have unique talents, like creating fire out of nothing or transforming David Bowie’s music into worthwhile. This gives them power. Emma can burn you down, and Marilyn Manson has sold a lot of records. Power makes people to react to you in funny ways. Some hate you just because you’re weird, others because you’re a danger. Some follow you, either because they’re afraid or they think you’re some sort of badass God.

How the outcast manages their situation is a question for many authors to answer. After all, not all powers are the same. The hatred people have for Justin Bieber is vastly different than the hatred people have for Manson. People hated Manson because he ruined kids, told them God isn’t real and that they should remain weird. As for Justin Bieber, people hated him because girls loved him. How does this work I don’t know – maybe they were simply jealous. The X-Men series is supposed to be an exploration of this question. It’s about two factions with two different views on their position. Riggs’ novel features almost direct copies of these factions.

Now, the common platitude of “everything’s been done before!” will rear its head if you’re inexperienced in literature. That’s not how originality works. Copy a template, fine. Just fill it with different materials. For a while, Riggs is successful at that. His characters, in a way, live up to their ‘peculiar’ title. Their powers are small, often coming off as genetic defects. The levitating girl doesn’t control her levitation. She’s like a balloon and has to wear weighted shoes so she won’t slip off. The invisible person takes advantage of that, but it’s a radically different life when people can’t see you.

For a while, Riggs is interested by what being an outcast is like. Our hero is thrown into that position and everyone around him calls him mentally ill. They either feel sorry for him or reject him. He’s too confused in that position, so all he can do is shoot everyone including himself. His only solid connection is with his grandfather who’s an outcast like him. He can only connect to peculiar children like him.

There’s an interesting parable here to mental illness. Look at subreddits like Sanctioned Suicide. Many mentally ill people can only connect deeply to people in the same boat as theirs. Pro-ana communities develop their own culture and jargon. We’re so quick to judge them. X-Men was meant to parallel the struggles of LGBT people, but mental illness is different. Even with social acceptance, anorexia and suicidal thoughts and self-harm are weights people carry. Even with social acceptance, peculiar people are a minority. No amount of acceptance will give the floating girl the ability to control her power.

Too bad all these ideas are blended with a dull mix of genres. If Riggs wanted to write a multicolored story, hopping from genre to genre for fun then fine. It never feels like this. He never throws the story convincingly into the elements. There’s some conviction when he dabbles in horror. The spooky monster remains shrouded in mystery for a while, and even pushed aside for some pages. Focusing on the uncertainity of the spooky monster makes the horror aspect more convincing. Unknown things are pretty scary.

All mysteries dissolve when a character just spits out exposition. In fact, no information is actually discovered or figured out. People just hand over the answers to the questions when it’s time to advance the plot. It’s like a Game Master telling you the background and name and disposition of every NPC. The knowledge descending on your character makes it stronger, but also makes the game more boring.

The bad guys want to take over the world and subjugate humanity. That’s fine, since a lot of people in real life actually did that. Why, though? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Caligula were real people. They had philosophies, personalities, and inner lives. They didn’t laugh maniacally when they ordered massacres but saw their vision of their bright future taking shape. The villains may view themselves as right, but we never get the philosophy behind their desire for power. The reason they want power isn’t because power is attractive, but because that makes them evil and useful antagonists.

Their disease infects all other characters, too. Very few characters have unique reactions or talk style. Some are silly quirks that can’t be taken seriously. The two rapper dudes are straight out of a horrible John Green novel. The natives of an island talk with broken English because that’s how people in the sticks must talk like. Others fare a little better, but Enoch’s cynicism is never elaborated upon.

He’s a great potential wasted. His power is to put actual hearts in material and make it kind-of alive. That’s the sort of power that leads one to view the value of life differently. He can bring back people from the dead but only halfway. He uses hearts as tools. Enoch often slides into a cynical, detached speech. Even among the peculiars he’s an outcast. Yet Riggs never expands on that. What is his philosophy? To which kids he relate to more, to which less? What kind of things did he do besides building a miniature army?

The protagonist is the worst insult to character development. Again, there are seeds of something worthwhile – a little cynicism, insecurity and pessimistic worldview that might lead to something. It plays instead like a side-quest in a cheap RPG game. Person meets dying man, dying man leaves some clues and person goes on to explore these clues to discover a bigger mystery. Video game protagonists are rarely well-written since it’s the player doing all the acting. Fifty pages or so into the novel, Jacob loses all personality and follows clues. He’s sometimes not sure whether he can do something, but the only drive for his decision is the reader’s desire to know more. There’s even a silly romance there that doesn’t pretend to be profound. Green mined the trope of weird girl loving a skinny dude who’s sure he’s ugly (despite skinny people being all over magazines), but Riggs merely puts a few make-out scenes. It’s too boring to be creeped out by the fact the girl is actually 80 years old or so.

The last pages of the book are a long-winded action scene. This is too sad to talk about, because it makes the book seem entirely worthless when it isn’t. The idea of a loop is quite brilliant. These kids may live long but they haven’t matured a bit, and here you have a chance to mediate about time. Riggs occasionally paints a pretty picture in his prose. The few paragraphs about the bombs and reset have enough to suffice for a short story. Why does he fill the last pages with chasing the bad guy, shooting people and a cliffhanger that relies on reading the rest of the trilogy?

Riggs’ prose is easy and pleasant enough. It’s fast, sometimes slides into introspection but never too much. That makes a decent story bearable. It’s not offensively boring, just kind of ‘there’. If Riggs did something wild with his ideas and failed, fine. He barely tries since it concludes in info dumps and shoot-outs. The photographs are actually real, which is cool but doesn’t add anything. Riggs intergates them by saying “here’s a photograph” and showing them. It’s like illustrations, only pictures instead. Maybe if Riggs tried to write a single short story surrounding them, he’ll have a safer but wider space to work his ideas.

It’s not a terrible book but not a great one, either. Maybe, as a distraction, it’s good enough. There are good ideas that may stick around and the prose is pleasant. Life is too short for distractions, though. If you like X-Men or stories about hidden strange worlds just beneath our own you might enjoy this. It’s too inoffensive for me to tell you to avoid, but also too unremarkable to offer it to anyone.

2 photographs out of 5