Wednesday 8, June

The Name of the Wind - my first impression

I had to pull the book from the shelf (since I've not yet read it) because I got curious. There was a comment on Malazan Tor.com re-read that basically claimed that Malazan was shallow compared to Rothfuss' work. Despite its troll-ish nature (joining Malazan re-read to say it doesn't deserve a re-read) I'm always curious by how works relate to each other and lately there has been quite a discussion about Rothfuss, with the 2nd book coming out. But from all I read there was a certain consensus that the book had pacing issues and was overlong. Which was exactly the opposite that this poster was claiming:

The degree of depth that's being unearthed in the comments on the Name of the Wind reread thread have felt to me strongly supportive of the notion that the Malazan books are not very dense compared to Rothfuss, fwiw. I enjoy Erikson a lot as entertaining light reading with addictively much plot and world complexity and find the series worth having for that, but my lack of commenting is because I'm really not seeing that much thematic depth; the notions that war sucks and that compassion, integrity, endurance and bearing witness are virtues are neither points that strike me as particularly subtle or innovative nor ones that need so many thousand pages to be conveyed.

See, I'm pretty sure this guy has absolutely nothing worthwhile to say about Malazan, but maybe he has a point about Rothfuss. I'm not interested in a comparison, but I am interested in finding Rothfuss own qualities. The quality of prose is one I've seen claimed the most.

So I went reading the first 30 pages, following the Tor.com re-read in order to see the "degree of depth" that it was "unearthing". Coming right from Erikson the difference in prose is the most noticeable aspect, and beside it, also the approach to the story. These two lines for example wouldn't blend too well in a Malazan book:

Graham, Jake, and Shep nodded to themselves. The three friends had grown up together, listening to Cob's stories and ignoring his advice.

Probably two of the most common lines you can find. There's nothing weird, or stylish, or significant about them, but they set the story on a level of normality. It's contained in a slice of life scene that has nothing special about it and actually draws its point from this notion. And again a corner of the world, life made simple, plot details introduced little by little, bits by bits. Hints here and there about hidden elements. Easing carefully the reader in, the story well measured on that reader.

So yes, I see a certain mastery of storytelling. Every sentence drives its point and wants the reader put under that spell that will keep him turning the pages. Feeling the story, the characters, getting involved. It's a very delicate and caring way of writing, showing passion for the writing itself. It has a traditional air of fairy tales and gives a feeling of safety. The story may include danger, but you know it's done for the purpose of the story itself. The monsters aren't real.

Erikson obviously runs opposite to all this. I said many times as there seem to be no slice of life scenes in the Malazan books. No character leading a normal life, caught up in normal business. That kind of relief and reduction of complexity of the world is absent and all the characters are tossed this way and that, snapping between plots. We'll never know how the Malazan series would look if written from a more relaxed and natural point of view. It's the opposite of what Erikson does, but sometimes I wonder how it would be.

That's how I'd frame Rothfuss work at the moment. I recognize a good style of writing honed for a precise effect. I'd say that it sits safely within a tradition, embracing and nourishing it more than challenging it, but this isn't a "flaw". I'm far more skeptical instead about "depth unearthed". It seems to me more of the kind that Larry calls as the "speculative mills". Meaning that it's all about piecing together mysteries and doing guesswork about what really happened and finding out all the little hints and mentions of this and that.

But it's a kind of activity I find dry. I focus on what the writer wants and says, I always stay within the text and do not allow imagination to fill untold stories and alternate possibilities. I know many, many readers thrive on that, projecting themselves in the story and making it their own. I don't see anything wrong with that, but the "depth" I'm looking for has to be in the text, not in spurious speculation or wishful thinking.

I'm sure I'll enjoy some "entertaining light reading with addictively much plot and world complexity", but that's likely to define more Rothfuss' work than Erikson's.

Friday 3, June

Interior and exterior worlds - microcosm/macrocosm

From Midnight Tides. Thematically linked to "The Tree of Life" and symbolic spaces (see second paragraph, it can't be more explicit than that):

Drawn to the shoreline, as if among the host of unwritten truths in a mortal soul could be found a recognition of what it meant to stand on land's edge, staring out into the depthless unknown that was the sea. The yielding sand and stones beneath one's feet whispered uncertainty, rasped promises of dissolution and erosion of all that was once solid.

In the world could be assembled all the manifest symbols to reflect the human spirit, and in the subsequent dialogue was found all meaning, every hue and every flavour, rising in legion before the eyes. Leaving to the witness the decision of choosing recognition or choosing denial.

Udinaas sat on a half-buried tree trunk with the sweeping surf clawing at his moccasins. He was not blind and there was no hope for denial. He saw the sea for what it was, the dissolved memories of the past witnessed in the present and fertile fuel for the future, the very face of time. He saw the tides in their immutable susurration, the vast swish like blood from the cold heart moon, a beat of time measured and therefore measurable. Tides one could not hope to hold back.

[...]

He sat huddled in his exhaustion, gaze focused on the distant breakers of the reef, the rolling white ribbon that came again and again in heartbeat rhythm, and from all sides rushed in waves of meaning. In the grey, heavy sky. In the clarion cries of the gulls. In the misty rain carried by the moaning wind. The uncertain sands trickling away beneath his soaked moccasins. Endings and beginnings, the edge of the knowable world.

Sunday 29, May

The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick

I watched this movie today (I guess I make a special case, going from writing about Ultraman to this). I was expecting something dense and complexly layered, instead I saw a surprisingly simple movie. Beside the (legitimate and laudable) pretentiousness of these "artistic" movies there's nothing that it's cryptic or hard to figure out here. What it wants to say is clear and straightforward, easily interpreted by everyone, as long one doesn't fall asleep and lets the movie lead and set the flow. It's a movie that rewards a humble, trusting approach.

Long movie, two hours and half, without a linear narrative or even a traditional use of language. That's why it can still be a challenge to watch. The scenes are disconnected, like a collection of pictures, a life's album, linked together by their symbolic theme. But this association proceeds linearly, so easy to grasp. Everything that doesn't belong to its meaning is taken out of the picture, so one isn't misdirected toward details and detours. It tells the story of a family, seen always in retrospection. It gave me a similar feel of the last episode of LOST, in particular that final serenity and tranquility while looking back at the dramatic scenes that precede and alternate with those inside the church. Also in this movie every small slice of life scene alternates with pictures and music of "the birth and death of the universe", from cells to galaxies. Think of the flippant, hallucinated finale of 2001: A Space Odissey, and stretch it along a whole movie. A story of a family that alternates with sequences with dinosaurs made in CG. It makes it work, and makes very simple to understand why these sequences are present and what they want to represent. A movie filled with clarity in spite of this attempt to "embrace" everything. The meaning of life within the entire universe.

It is oddly empty of passions. There are some of these slices of life that show the drama of life, but this drama is seen from a quiet and calm point of view. It tries to underline this duality represented by "the father's way" and "the mother's way" (as you can see in official site), but I think the movie itself, maybe Malick himself, is rooted in the Mother's way. It's a movie where grace and elegance are the dominating tones.

It's also a movie unified by compassion. It has been defined as a "prayer" more than a movie, and it is a fitting description. The pieces that narrate the story of the family are not linear. They are memories re-discovered. Often images without dialogue and just a symbolic value. Every object is filled with meaning, like poetry. Words spoken alternate with words whispered, becoming thoughts. Contemporary (to the scene) or contemplative (from a future self, looking back) joined in dialogue. There are three points of view alternating: the mother, the father, and one of the sons (why it's only one should be obvious). All three looking back at their life, trying to understand, grasping for meaning and sense. Trying to fix those moment, understand what they are/were. Why. How they happened. Three points of view and three voices that look back at their whole life.

It's filled with compassion because this look back is completely empty of guilt or blame. Guilt and blame are both part of the story as it is natural, but not in the form of judgement. Neither of the three are judged by the other two. But they are also not avoided, they are observed and understood. Forgiven and embraced.

I could say that this is an "epic" movie in every sense. And from what I wrote you could see that it's very close to what I think Erikson's series also tried to do. These are kindred works, that fully embrace and fulfill what art can and should be.

They try to find meaning in life both in the most specific and universal way. Eye-openers. Without bias and prejudices. In being what they are they also become prayers. And prayers that have absolutely nothing to do with cults or religious aspects. They are prayers that aren't intended for a selected group, and that do not leave out anyone.

P.S.
Reading some comments on the forums. See for example this one and make the connection to LOST finale:

I can't put it into words. Not sure I get the beach scene near the end, except it felt like everyone had died and were meeting eachother in the afterlife, some after a long time, some after a short;

Some other comments collected:

What an extraordinary movie. Such a touching, gorgeous look at, heck, everything. I don't have much to say right now, maybe later, but 'The Tree of Life' shook me to my foundation.

It is an absolute masterpiece, though anyone expecting a "conventional" movie in three acts will be quite shocked, of course. Anyone familiar with Malick should know what to expect.

It felt like going to hear a symphony performed; if you can let it wash over you and its performed well enough, all the meaning and beauty you're looking for will come welling up from inside, not from someone standing on the stage informing us what the composer wants us to feel.

Even if you get nothing out of the film this way (and no doubt thats the case for some), this is absolutely one of the greatest works in cinematography that I've ever seen, and the acting is astonishingly good.

Just came out from seeing Tree of Life, and it was an amazing experience and just flat out breathtaking.

the camera work felt like seeing the world through the eyes of a child. The way the camera moved and interacted with the environment it had such a wondrous gaze, always looking up, curiously watching people and it shows how we learn about life like a child, with a vague understanding of life around us.

This movie is a large portion science/philosophical fiction but it intentionally avoids science, and completely revels in pure subjective visual knowledge.

These aren't commercial "blurbs", there are just spontaneous comments from those who watched the movie.

And something from Ebert:

In my mind there has always been this conceptual time travel, in which the universe has been in existence for untold aeons, and then a speck appeared that was Earth, and on that speck evolved life, and among those specks of life were you and me. In the span of the universe, we inhabit an unimaginably small space and time, and yet we think we are so important. It is restful sometimes to pull back and change the scale, to be grateful that we have minds that can begin to understand who we are, and where are in the vastness.

Saturday 28, May

The idea behind the system (Malazan)

I posted this on a forum. It structures my idea for the "system" to explain the Malazan series as a whole, which has lead me to write it to Erikson. Who confirmed me I nailed it (and then asked me to not reveal it completely).

--
I was writing some comments on Tor re-read, so I thought about asking for opinions here. KEEP IT SPOILER FREE, as I'm not looking for plot details, but just for overall/thematic structure.

The line of thought is this: what is that drives the purpose and meaning of the series?

One of the central themes of the series is that history is continuous and doesn't have a beginning and end. But then to tell a story you have to divide it into discrete pieces, and the way you make this division is the way you decide to interpret it and give it meaning.

So why ten books? As each book tells a relatively self contained story, the whole series, as a collection of ten books, must have a central idea or theme that defines it. A beginning and an end. What is this central idea that drives the whole series and makes it something "finished"? What is the concept, idea, theme or character that unifies it?

The first answer a reader could have is: the Crippled God. The CG is what set the plot into movement, and its fate determines the conclusion of the series.

Is the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" the story of the Crippled God? My idea comes from these questions. I think that the central conflict in the series is another, and that the Crippled God is only one of the pieces involved in a bigger game. An important one, but not the central one. And if I wanted to choose another that is more "representative" then I would pick Paran.

Thursday 26, May

Ultraman

I could say this is a beautiful illustration of Venom or Carnage painted by Alex Ross. But it's not. It's just a screencap from one of the recent Ultraman movies. Hugely popular in Japan. What you see there is an actor in a suit.

A movie that is utterly ridiculous. They start fighting from the first minute and continue till the last, barely speaking a line of dialogue between one scene and the next. One hour and half in total. Of (extremely redundant) fighting.

It's almost an anti-movie. The kind of stuff that is at the same time brilliant and atrocious. The whole movie takes place on CG backgrounds, so it's all done in bluescreen. It's not completely CG, the actors are real, only wearing costumes and 95% of the time expressionless masks. I mean, when you have a CG movie, like those made by Pixar, all the effort goes to build communicative expressions. Here instead the masks negate all form of expression from the only element that in not CG, so you have at best the posturing trying to communicate something. Suits hiding real actors on top of fake backgrounds. There's also something of Fritz Lang's Metropolis as the staff that the bad guy wields makes weird piano notes when he fights.

The plot itself is a cliched hodgepodge of eastern and western plot patterns. The Ultramen are very similar to the Green Lanterns, surveying and policing the galaxy, defending the many planets from oversize dinosaur-like monsters. Their home planet risked to die after the sun exploded (like Superman), then compensated by the construction of an artificial sun that also turned all the population into masked super-heroes. A power that then lures those who are the most ambitious and want it all for themselves. The rest seems like a copy of Star Wars without plot, characters or setting (and budget). Just fights and "impressions". And in between there's also a father-son thing going on, with the son being exiled on another planet with a Yoda-like instructor in order to learn how to resist the lure of power and its responsibilities.

But as I said it has its charm and it should be seen, at least as a weird experiment. I had to research a bit, as the story connects here and there with other material. This is the most concise list of stuff available subtitled and directly connected material, leaving out the main series:

- Ultraman Mebius Side Story: Ghost Reverse (Part I&II) - Two half an hour special episodes that vaguely set-up the first movie
- Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legends - 96 minutes movie, the screenshot is taken from this
- Ultra Galaxy Side Story: Ultraman Zero Vs Darclops Zero (Part I&II) - Two half an hour special episodes setting up the sequel
- Ultraman Zero: The Revenge of Belial - 100 minutes sequel to Ultra Galaxy movie. This one is the one they say it's good and that prompted me to watch from the start, hoping to find some trace of "plot"

Saturday 21, May

Books that produce orgasms by mere touch (it's true!)

Here I serve some book porn. I finally received these two books today, two of the sexiest I ever purchased. The book, as an object, can have its charm too.

Two books coming from the same publisher (McSweeney's) and relatively recent. THE INSTRUCTIONS by Adam Levin was November 2010, A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles was a month ago. Both are HUGE tomes, THE INSTRUCTION is slightly bigger at 1030 pages, and A Moment in the Sun is 960. Same number of lines on the page (38) but A Moment in the Sun has a very slightly smaller font.

Both books thankfully arrived in very good condition, though THE INSTRUCTION comes in fives different colors (or more) and I got this white copy that isn't exactly my favorite pick.

It should be obvious that I have a peculiar love for books with a staggering number of pages and written tiny, and there are a number of motivations. The first is simple fascination that I got since I was a kid. Both Lord of the Rings and The Neverending Story in its own way gave me this fascination for something you could lose yourself in forever. Something that was never over and that kept charming you. The prototypical idea of "THE" Book, the definitive one, the one that could tell you everything that is worth knowing. Then there's a fact that these huge books are achievements. A kind of monument to human intellect and culture. Like climbing the Everest, and reading it you get to share something of the achievement itself. A relevant accomplishment. Other books you can read and forget, but these huge books can haunt you, challenge you from their shelf, and be part of a significant chunk of your life.

Then there's the fact that the number of books out there to read is truly infinite. So if I read something then I want that the writer gave to the book EVERYTHING HE HAD. Writing a book, or a series, has to be something necessary and ultimate. And huge books demand more from the reader as from the writer. They can't be done on the sideline, they pretend a singular commitment (and need to provide equivalent reward).

Obviously the hugeness of a tome draws my attention, but I'm not buying and reading a book just because it's huge, as I don't do that just because I like a cover. The point is: I bought these two books here because I made some research before, and I expect these to be masterpieces. Nothing less. So, regardless of them being sexy or being long, you should be interesting because they are good stuff.

It may be interesting how I found them. I simply got to this blog post. A list of 10 doorstoppers, and a list of books that I at least know rather well if not read back to back. An outstanding list, actually. The last one, though, I had never heard. Not even a slight mention.

So I go and start doing my research. I found another blog, The Year of Difficult Reading, that is rather interesting in its own right and that got another picture of challenging (and significant) books. Or another that made fun at the hugeness of THE INSTRUCTIONS.

Along that I also read a number of glowing reviews and lots of comparisons with DFW's Infinite Jest, my favorite book by far. So I got more and more interested and figured this wasn't just a book that deserved attention, but something potentially great and memorable. Especially, I read that it's not one of those long, slow and difficult books that have no point and are impossible to read and understand. It's instead playful and lively, fun to read and keeping you turning the pages. Something readable in spite of its length and ambitious literary collocation.

I still only read a few pages but I definitely confirm all that. It plays a lot with language and reminds me closely of DFW. It actually gives me more nostalgia than anything. Makes you really miss Infinite Jest and feels like it's only a desolate imitation. It has something of DFW style, but not the spark of pure genius. Yet, despite this "wannabe" intention it also seem to have its own qualities. The idea I get is that the writer is constantly one step ahead of the reader and second-guessing everything. The attention is very much on the reader instead of some obscure and unreachable literary intention. He anticipates your reactions and keeps this sense of self-awareness. It manages, at the same time, to be serious while not taking itself seriously at all. So it's not a book arrogant and pompous, but one that plays self-consciously with itself and the reader. A lively, fun dialogue in its own right, and never going too far only to fail clumsily.

After I put the order for THE INSTRUCTIONS I also checked the book's publisher and noticed another book of them. John Sayles is one of my favorite directors (and if you haven't already, go see all his movies since they are all masterpieces). I saw most of his movies at an independent festival a few years ago and even saw him in person. Now this is an historical fiction which is not something that would make me purchase the book without knowing more, but I know what kind of stuff I can expect from John Sayles and so what I needed was confirmation that he was as good writer as he was as director. Not many reviews out there yet, since the book is recent, but all the comments I found were packed with praises, hinting that this book may be something memorable regardless of Sayle's career.

Today I read an interview with John Sayles that again reinforced all my hopes for this book.

Now Sayles has unveiled his most ambitious project to date in any genre, A Moment In the Sun, a bloody, brilliant, nearly 1,000 page globetrotting epic set at the turn of the last century, a time not so different from our own, it turns out.

Had to keep quoting lines on Twitter because it was full of awesomeness. This is what I liked:

The Rumpus: Your new novel, A Moment in the Sun, is written in—I wouldn’t say English, exactly, because you’ve taken and twisted the language to make it your own. It reads like a tornado of voices.

John Sayles: Every character has their own language, voices and styles. There’s a chapter from the point of view of a correspondent, and it’s written like the correspondence of that time. I read a bunch of those guys, Richard Harding Davis, and picked up on their locutions, which aren’t locutions we use anymore.

Rumpus: You were channeling them?

Sayles: You get into it and pretty soon—when actors play a character on a TV show for a long time, they’ll just get the script back to the new writers and say, My guy does not talk like that, because they’ve internalized it. They know the vocabulary and the rhythm of that character, and that’s how I start writing with this—it’s a dialogue, how the character expresses themselves, so I can find out who they are.

[...]

It expanded, and I just felt while I was writing it that the book had gotten to a size—this happens with things when they get to be the size of Moby-Dick—where it’s not a tight little story anymore, and it’s never going to be a tight little story. This is a book you can walk around in.

Rumpus: So it’s about giving voice to the voiceless—

Sayles: Or just telling the story in a complex and mosaic kind of way and feeling like wait a minute, here’s a whole part of the story that’s not represented and I just at least want one window into it, just one little peak.

Rumpus: And that’s the importance of storytelling, finally, you mean? Whether it’s movies or books, that’s why we tell stories?

Sayles: The minute this turns into a novel and not a screenplay, a couple things happen. One, you can have many more points of view. This book would not make a movie, it’d make a fifty-part mini-series, maybe. But in the process you don’t have that time to structure peoples’ experience. It’s very important in a movie what follows what. This needs to happen and then this happens next. A good action movie is like a rollercoaster ride, whereas a novel like this a long journey down a river. There are some slow parts and some rapids and—oh, shit, here comes a waterfall.

The other thing that happens is that I could do anything in fiction I feel like if I do it well, if I make people think things, wonder about things, feel things. In a movie, you lose that interior monologue.

There’s a couple of reasons people tell stories. Traditional oral storytelling—and I got into this in The Secret of Roan Inish—is about passed on from generation to generation. Sometimes they’re cautionary tales, other times they’re about who we are. We tell the story over and over. I was raised Catholic. There are gospels and these are allegorical stories that tell you about your religion or what we as Catholics believe is our central story or our central being. Native Americans have these stories, the Irish have a lot of these stories. Here’s someone else’s story. Here’s somebody you will never meet—oh, how exotic. Here’s a bunch of stories about a bunch of guys who go and chase whales. And you know what’s amazing? As great an adventure the story is, there’s also some pretty heavy human stuff that you could apply to human beings in general when they get into a dark place. So then what fiction becomes is a way to understand the world and a way to understand other people, and maybe yourself but other people too, and in the end a lot of what I try to do in books and movies is take you into other people’s lives so you can get a sense of how they see the world.

McSweeney's also put a "bonus" page with lots of pictures and notes that John Sayles used as documentation. It's awesome stuff. (and nice pictures here as well)

These two books aren't just two huge and competently published books that look so great on a shelf. But also something special and that would be precious even without awesome covers & packaging & pagecount. Quality stuff, the best around I'm aware of. Apexes of achievement in their own genre. Invaluable experiences.

And they are CHEAP. Amazon.com is selling both of them for half their price. So go and enjoy the privilege while you can:

- THE INSTRUCTIONS
- A moment in the Sun

THE INSTRUCTIONS Vs Infinite Jest:

A random page from A Moment in the Sun:

A page from THE INSTRUCTIONS, it plays a bit with the structure and presentation as you can see:

Sometimes there are also these maps made of words:

And other playful things in the same style:

This is the "prayer" at the beginning of the book:

THE INSTRUCTIONS Vs old Latin vocabulary:

Tuesday 3, May

Three things I left out the review

I'm not really satisfied with The Darkness that Comes Before review. But also not sure how to go in there and change things. There are at least three points I wanted to explain better.

1- The prose. I think Bakker writes well, a good, flowing prose that is easy and pleasant to follow. Stylistically more traditional and so more accessible than Erikson, whose style is hard to digest for some readers. The only problems I could perceive is that sometimes he "overstates" and dramatizes, sounding a bit too dramatic or forcefully "poetic" (the opposite of Glen Cook, if you need a reference). I also had a problem with the description of the battle in the first half of the book. I couldn't pinpoint the relative positions of certain elements (for example what is on this side of a river if I can't pinpoint if the river cuts north to south, or west to east) and so the action developed in a confused way that required a lot of backtracking, sometimes unsuccessfully. Nothing relevant, and this book is still a debut even if I haven't found anything that gave me the idea of writing that still needs to develop.

2- Characters. Their motivations are moved to the front and the story develops from their point of view in a way that is easy to follow and grasp. Though, there are two aspects that make characterization "unfriendly" and likely to turn off many readers. The first is that of the four main PoVs none makes an easy "access point". For access point I mean a "likeable" character that drives the narrative.

Kellhus is a super human, or non-human. He's not "evil", but he's described in a way that makes him somewhat unnerving. It's a fascinating character, but not a pleasant, comfortable one. Cnaiur, well, he's a barbarian done without compromises. He is brutal and what he does to Serwe can be considered plain rape. Not sweetened at all. So not exactly a character you're going to sympathize with. Esmenet, well, she's the best character in the whole book from my point of view. But she's also a prostitute whose role is again not exploited to make the reader pitiful and compassionate. In more than one occasion she acts in a way that the reader is going to "condemn" (but the narrative wants this). Achamian is maybe the most "safe" PoV. There are a few dark spots here and there, but they aren't underlined and so he comes off as the most sympathetic one.

The other problematic aspect of characterization is an undertone that affects all characters, but it is more evident with Achamian and Esmenet. It is this tendency of the writing to be slightly "above" the narrow PoV. I've said in the review that Bakker undoes the characters to show how they work (and in this he goes further than what other writers would find comfortable). It means that there's a space between character and reader. You aren't "in there" because the text makes you aware of a character's shortcomings. It shows them as broken toys, their mystery torn open. Sometimes reading about them make you cringe because you know what are their limits. Bakker shows you some of that "darkness" that drives them and that chains them. Both Esmenet and Achamian are prisoners of themselves and their obsessions. They are so well described and so feel real, but since everyone is trapped in delusions there's a certain claustrophobic feeling, and you see those characters not respond to the higher level of awareness that the reader has. For example you're trapped inside Esmenet's own desperation and see her plunge deeper in her misery. This, again, doesn't make a comfortable, friendly experience.

3- Themes. Religion and philosophy aren't a turn-off (just) because of their nature, but because they demand that you engage with the text and share at least a fascination for those ideas. You don't sit back and enjoy the movie passively. You have to grasp the ideas the book spins, think about them, absorb them for what they tell about you. Fantasy, as in Erikson's case, is not used by Bakker as a way to build a barrier between this and another world. It's instead a way to bring down the world to a level that is more deeply connected with the human being. We do not understand through math and science, but language. Our level of perception is the symbolic one, and Fantasy speaks on that level without any filter. It can be truer than what we perceive a real. It's a description of the world that comes from within, a better connection with ourselves. So all the religion and philosophy that Bakker brings or develops in the book is not to give the illusion of truth to a made-up world that does not exist, it's not "fictional" and distant, it's instead a mean to be significant and go deep, to what is that really moves things. But the typical reader who's a fan of the genre as "escapism", or to lose himself in the plot can be turned off by these themes and the "serious" tone. It's not easy and safe entertainment that can appeal to a wide public.

There would be also a fourth point that is problematic but that I consider quite ridiculous. It's about the names. Lots of readers have a problem with non-anglophone names, especially those that are long, with odd accents or nestled vocals: Anasûrimbor Moënghus, Cnaiür urs Skiötha, Skeaös.

I personally love Bakker's names :)

The Darkness that Comes Before - Scott R. Bakker

This is a controversial book. One that does not play safe or is written for comfort. It's a vertical climb, it is ambitious and audacious. Especially, it shrugs off everything that doesn't belong to these adjectives. After all the recent discussions about nihilism and the lack of strong, edifying moral messages in Fantasy, what's written in this book ridicules and disregards the simplicity of the framing of those passing judgements. It goes beyond. The fabric of this book is made of "delusions" and "revelations" locked together in a system with no end: a revelation only becomes set-up for a much bigger and crushing delusion. It's when one thinks of leading that he's only lead on a leash.

The basic idea is contained in the title: The Darkness that Comes Before. It's this concept that originates the locked cycle. It creates a pattern that can then be recognized in different themes. The first described in the book is an anthropological idea. Men create their belief systems, their gods. Before/after signify a position of cause/effect ("what comes before determines what comes after"). If gods are man-made, it means that men "came before". Like a tool created for a purpose, the tool comes "after", is built/created by someone. But the complexity of the world is unattainable, so men created the gods in order to frame and explain what was beyond their grasp. They created the gods and put them "before". They confused what came after (the gods they created) for what came before. This is the first way to interpret that title, the "darkness" is the unknown, the unrevealed gods that created the world and everything else.

This same pattern then "returns" in a context that is more unsettling, because it is far less impersonal as it tears down the barrier of "fantasy" that keeps these stories away, and us safe on this side. It's about every one of us: if a man is the movement of his thoughts (so the fact of being "conscious"), but what he thinks and does is not cause, but consequence of a myriad of influences, a chaotic complexity beyond his grasp, how can he be certain that his thoughts are his own? Hence the "darkness" again, coming before. Because we have only the illusion of control of ourselves, while in truth we are being moved, like puppets caught in winds. Mockery of conscience. The "delusions" are not one of possible conditions, but the true space we live. We sleep.

This is not the first book of Scott Bakker I read, but the founding idea returns even when he does not write Fantasy. It is not repetition or redundancy, but, not unlike Erikson, it becomes a study, the same idea seen always from different angles. It's the major theme Bakker writes about and it reminds me a similar obsession and desperation for the need to cling to a sense of awareness that can be found in David Foster Wallace work. Only that Bakker's revelation is that there's nothing to cling to, as we live entirely within the illusion, and there's only horror in the realization. You can't stay "aware" because you can't wake up, or see through.

Yet what drives the writing is a desire to show. To awaken. As for "Disciple of the Dog", Bakker tries to shake the reader, address him personally (metaphorically) so that the book won't leave one indifferent. It tries to reach through the page, grasp you by the throat, and pull you down in. It's not the comfortable, lulling, immersive experience of traditional Fantasy, which is why you should read this book. At 577 pages in a large font it is far more "concise" than other epic Fantasy. It is an important trait because this book is extremely focused, determined, ruthless and brutal. While the plot has an "epic" range, it doesn't sprawl at all. There's no decoration or elements that aren't strictly necessary. Worldbuilding is usually seen as a basic and important characteristic of epic fantasy, this book can stand proudly among the very best, yet basically nothing is there to add detail and flavor. Necessity drives every word.

I'd say, thematically it covers a similar space of the Malazan series. It also has a similar approach, mindset. I've even read that some readers consider Bakker a "subset" of Erikson to the point that they consider him (Bakker) superfluous to read. This is true to an extent, as I said that they have areas that overlap and do some similar things, and it's also true that Erikson has more tonal variety in his writing, plays with humor and the song is usually "richer", with more notes and ranges, a far more vibrant palette. But to me, for my preference, they stand equal. And I wouldn't do with just one or the other, meaning that reading both actually ADDS to my satisfaction. Bakker is more extreme and ruthless than Erikson, in a few cases outclasses Erikson in what Erikson does best. If one is richer and has more range, the other can thrust deeper.

That was thematically, what the books are about, how they feel, what they want to say and how (and why). Instead stylistically, meaning how they are written, Bakker is at the extreme opposite of Erikson and much closer to, say, Martin. It means that one doesn't really need to adjust to the style, which is more traditional and accessible. A good (but occasionally over-dramatic and "turgid"), flowing, descriptive (but without any redundancy) prose. In the first 100 pages only an handful of characters are introduced, and even less PoVs. You have only what is sensible of the story, and time can pass without describing every move of the characters (it's not Jordan). Beside a few occasional pages, there are five or so major PoVs that drive the narrative. The structure maybe resembles more to "The Way of Kings", meaning that these PoV don't regularly alternate, but follow more directly the need of the story, so a PoV may hang suspended for more than a hundred of pages. Thankfully without resorting to cliffhangers, so when a PoV closes it usually doesn't frustrate the reader and leave him wanting.

The structure of the plot may remind of Lord of the Rings. The wider frame of the narrative, not the content. There was a big war (the First Apocalypse) some two thousands years before the current events, only leaving the trace of a lingering legend in present times, like something remote and unreal, basically forgotten (which from this broad level can be considered a trope of the genre). Then patterns that re-emerge, hinting that something on that scale is coming again. "The Mandate" in this book fits a similar role of the "Night's Watch" in "A Game of Thrones", with the difference that Bakker thrusts deep in the mythology to drive the full impact of his themes. As the plot develops more layers are revealed and what is set into motion is obviously going to gain momentum without endless delays. What I mean is that there's a sense of being right in the heart of the whirlpool of the events, instead of edging indefinitely at the periphery, waiting for something "big" to happen as can be typical of the genre. In this first book you are already there. It's still the first of a trilogy, also letting you see where things are moving, but it didn't give me the impression of waiting for something else.

Characterization, another of those fundamental axis that one typically uses to judge these books, is the best I've seen. From my point of view Bakker has no contenders. His characters are very distinctive without losing anything of realism and plausibility. They are defined extremely well and viscerally, in a way that respects them, while also using them for the purpose of the story. There's far less "wishful thinking" than in Martin's work. Which is also a problem when it comes to accessibility and reaching out to a wide public. Martin's books have a wide appeal because there are plenty of hooks for a reader. Even if the characters are complex and not "pegged" into roles, they still exploit and rely on the sympathy/empathy of the reader. Bakker instead seems to take no prisoners and not look in the face of anyone. There are no easy and ready "access points". I said he's ruthless, and uncompromising. This means that his characters aren't done to win the reader the easy way. They are not sympathetic and in some cases even those characters that are the hinges of the book seem to spit right in the face of the reader. Another aspect of characterization to point out is that part of Bakker's style is the habit of "undoing" characters, of unfolding them. Usually writers keep a mystery and "magic" that helps the identification, as we chase after our feelings without truly grasping them. Instead Bakker disassembles some characters directly in the text, also meaning that sometimes they appear "broken", non-functional, showing the cogs inside and provoking more a sense of pity than sympathy. Maybe even shame. The book is challenging and defies who's reading. The very opposite of accommodating. You'd risk of dozing off, while Bakker wants that you wake up.

In the end this is the true value of this book. I have this contradicting habit of delaying the best stuff. I read this book after years I've bought it, left the best last. Expectations were met. For me Bakker and Erikson both are the APEX that Fantasy has to offer, and between them and all the rest there's a certain gap. Neither of them are easy to recommend and and to enjoy. Both are challenging for different reasons, and due to completely different writing style it's also possible that one could hate one but enjoy the other and vice versa. If you read this is because you want to explore or even breach a genre instead of being caged within it. You don't read this book because you're looking for more of the same. That's what it offers, something challenging and uncompromising. Something that cuts deeps and that can't leave one indifferent.

The problems are choices. There's not a trace of comedy or lighter, relaxing scene (or none that stick out). The only humor is through a harsh and cynical perspective. Abrasive and scornful. No kind, loving words, if not ones that are meant to deceive. The book is brutal, there's violence and sex, most often without any romance in both. There are no filters or censorship about what is "proper" to show and what to leave unsaid. You have to come without prejudices of any kind, or the book refuses you (metaphorically speaking). But it is important for me to underline that violence and sex in this book do not have a "pornographic" intent. They aren't artificial stratagems to be edgy and gritty, or to titillate. Or to shock and gross the easy way. They are part of the nature of the story, which you have to trust. It's not entirely grim and monotone, though. There are exceptions that are meaningful as they shine so much in the rarer occasions when sentiments are true and without hypocrisy.

EDIT: A follow-up.

Saturday 30, April

The Machine

They just showed this picture and called it "The Machine", or "The System".

Sunday 17, April

The Fantasy genre, Malazan, and postmodernism

Yeah, other than that bit it was pretty much Ulysses but with undead-dinosaurs-with-swords-for-hands and shapeshifting zombie wizards.

Quoting Bakker:

For some reason these Inrithi, who had nothing tangible to gain or to lose from one another, all spoke with their fists closed—fatuous claims, false concessions, mocking praise, flattering insults, and an endless train of satiric innuendoes.

I'm going to respond about this claim of post-modernism that has stirred more than one discussion and it is now added to the group of "satiric innuendoes" used against Erikson.

As I said myself to Erikson, discussing what is "post-modern" and what is not is already complex because there's not a strict definition of "post-modern". It's a relative term, so it's used in relationship to something else: "modern". And in a genre like Fantasy there's no established convention on what can be considered "modern", even less on what POST-modern could be. If someone has an idea of what those terms mean he should also be aware that they depend on context. So, for example, post-modern could mean the breaking of tradition as it can mean a return to it.

So, since we do not have an agreement or an established convention on what "modern" and "post-modern" mean in respect to the Fantasy genre, we can stick to the canon and see if there's something in common: Michel Focault. We can agree it's a name that represents postmodernism the most. Now, on the widest level possible, postmodernism is itself a point of view toward reality. It deals with morality and truth, and how the two mingle. It's about how men position themselves in the world, how they perceive it, how they draw meaning from it. (1)

Men and environment.

Already at this point it should be obvious to Erikson's readers how his work is closely related to the most classic idea of postmodernism. But let's continue.

Extrapolating again, I'm taking this quote from a review where the writer does some "destructuring" of Lovecraft, but the specific quote, I think, summarizes what Postmodernism is at its core:

Indeed, part of what drives Lovecraft’s characters insane is the realisation that not only the falsity of everything their believed to be true but also the truth of many things they assumed to be false. Their insanity is the product of their emotional and philosophical investment in the existence of a hard line between truth and falsity. However, from the likes of Foucault onwards, postmodern Theorists have sought to undermine this belief by stressing the social construction of our received truths.

In bold I highlighted the core idea of postmodernism: again the relative perspective (POV) of men within an environment, and the way they see "truth" and draw meaning from it.

Society is a point of view, an observation and a system of meaning (see the works of Niklas Luhmann if you want insight on this).

Erikson himself stated as much in a recent interview:

Anthropology is the study of human culture: empirical observation over generations of study seem to have established certain continuities of behaviour, best described as a society's relationship with its environment (it all goes back to environment).

There are, however, endless variations on that theme, but in context they all possess psychological consistency - even the fucked up ones, as with, say, the Aztecs). At the same time, every anthropologist knows that they can never truly understand a foreign culture, inasmuch as we all struggle to understand even our own; and that, to compound matters, cultures are in evolution (even apparently stagnant ones) and by nature protean.

Another technique that exists at the foundation of the whole series that Erikson writes is: metaphor made real.

The examples you give bring to mind the notion of imprisonment as a state of mind (Karsa); the restless past (the Forkrul Assail, Calm, and the T’lan Imass in TTH); and the injustice that can be committed upon innocent people (Trull). They’re all motifs of the human condition, I suppose. People can feel trapped in their lives (see above, metaphor made real).

Reiterate long enough the principles of "men and environment" mixed with "metaphor made real" and you'll have the whole Malazan series remade in front of you, block by block (or page by page).

It's not just a tool or device to use in a story, it is a mean to go at the symbolic core of what you are representing. What Erikson specifically writes, and what Fantasy, as a genre, represents in potential, is the symbolic power. Or: the world as seen from the human perspective. A symbolic world. Made of language and meaning.

If you study some Wittgenstein you'd know that the world does not exist outside language. And, to not lose the link to postmodernism, this is again about reality seen as a social construct. A symbolic system of meaning.

Let's move to Jung and James Hillman (I'm using only wikipedia's quotes, so you can see I'm not making them up). Read the following quote while considering Erikson's "metaphor made real".

According to Hillman, “polytheistic psychology can give sacred differentiation to our psychic turmoil.…” Hillman states that

"The power of myth, its reality, resides precisely in its power to seize and influence psychic life. The Greeks knew this so well, and so they had no depth psychology and psychopathology such as we have. They had myths."

[...]

They studied how the hierarchy of ancient gods, polytheistic religions, and archetypal ideas found in tales might influence modern life with regard to soul, psyche, dreams and the Self.

Aristotle described an archetype as an original from which derivatives or fragments can be taken. In Jung's psychology an archetype is an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic imagery derived from the past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious.

Malazan's pantheon of gods is a "metaphor made real". That relationship, between men and deities, is the "true" theme of the series. The message buried within. Gods are a manifestation of systems of meaning.

See Niklas Luhmann:

Furthermore, each system has a distinctive identity that is constantly reproduced in its communication and depends on what is considered meaningful and what is not. If a system fails to maintain that identity, it ceases to exist as a system and dissolves back into the environment it emerged from. Luhmann called this process of reproduction from elements previously filtered from an over-complex environment autopoiesis (literally: self-creation), using a term coined in cognitive biology by Chilean thinkers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.

This should remind you of the cycles within the Malazan world, how the gods disappear or are replaced in cycles, how they transform.

Janny Wurts, in regard to the Fantasy genre, says:

Imagination, creativity, pretending, all those things rely on projecting ideas that do not exist, yet. No change can occur, no inspired solution can happen, if no mind dares to frame the bold questions. Fantasy throws us out of the box of all that we know, and think we possess. I prefer the label, Myth, to view the activity of imaginative storytelling.

Everything anyone says or writes attaches to their beliefs. Beliefs, by their nature are limitation in action. Fantasy challenges those boundaries. It doesn’t matter if one reads to “escape” the rigidity of current possibility, or to relieve stress, or to indulge in a freedom of thought unavailable in the embodied moment. Never to step out of ourselves is to condemn the human spirit to stagnation. The whole philosophy of “adult maturity” that insists that we “come down to earth” and “put our feet on the ground” excludes the magic of exploring ideas.

For those who are threatened, or feel the ridiculous need to play the exclusion game, using labels – they can keep on blindly fumbling to pin the tail on the donkey, while the rest of us walk right past, go straight for the good stuff, and claim the prize at the edge of the envelope. Groups evolve to foster security, and pack mindset security NEVER innovated anything, but only drew lines to perpetuate boundaries, and stay in the flock.

Fantasy allows discussion of sensitive topics with the gloves off.

The heart of the issue is that Fantasy allows us to "experience" a story from a level we can relate to. A linguistic, symbolic level of myth that is truly human. It's not a factual description of the world (the world is in truth unattainable, because our minds aren't made to perceive complexity, but only to reduce it).

Bakker:

What makes Epic Fantasy so fascinating, so culturally significant, and, yes, so pregnant with literary potential is the way it out and out violates all the norms of literary content–the way it’s self-consciously premodern. It provides wish-fulfilment characters, morals, settings, as well as action. And–most importantly–it’s immensely popular among baseline readers. Small wonder so many literati consider it the very antithesis of the ‘literary.’

And yet, in a very real way, it is the genre that best exemplifies who we are. Why? Because it maps the worlds that complement our souls (rather than mapping, ad nauseam, worlds that deny our souls). It says who we are in a way that ‘modern literature’ simply is not capable, given its prohibitions on content. And it says it, most importantly, to heterogenous audiences.

Why in the world would anyone want to abandon such a vehicle to the apologists? What kind of healthy literary culture could do such a thing?

"Fantasy" is how we see the world from a point of view that is within us.

Quoting Bakker again:

the ego is but one psychological fantasy within an assemblage of fantasies.

We are made of that symbolic, mythological level whether we are (or want to be) aware of it or not. So "Fantasy" allows to deal with it directly, with the "gloves off", or through "metaphors made real".

Take another signature idea of the Malazan series: the T'lan Imass. What defines them? They are undead and immortal, yes, but another core idea is that they share one mind, the ritual made all them connected and linked together. See this:

Collective consciousness was a term coined by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) to refer to the shared beliefs and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society.

Durkheim argued that in traditional/primitive societies (those based around clan, family or tribal relationships) totemic religion played an important role in uniting members through the creation of a common consciousness,

Metaphor made real.

And you can see that rule being repeated, for example in the T'lan Imass sense of humor. They are one mind. Single-minded. If you read the books you'll know how Erikson plays with this. Not only the T'lan have only one mission (kill all Jaghut), but the "arrogance" is born of "certainty". They have no doubt. And in having no doubts they also can appear as quite stupid, which triggers the sense of humor in certain scenes though the book.

Erikson plays with those levels. The "seriousness" and drama of the T'lan, as well as the comical absurdity (Toc calls them "laconic dessication on two legs").

And what are the Jaghut if not another metaphor made real? Ice. Absence of movement. Time that stops. Absence of life. And then also opposite forces of nature in a war.

We use to think that Fantasy = the past, and Sci-Fi = the future. But the point here is that the Fantasy Erikson writes is not "before" or "after", it's above time. It's, if you want, the Platonic level of ideas. It describes the human condition OUTSIDE TIME. As in: always valid because archetypal true. we can't escape it as we can't escape mortality or the adversity of the world outside.

The point is entirely symbolic, the meaning universal. And in general the Fantasy genre "enables", if you want, to deal directly with myth. Myth seen from the perspective of human creation of meaning and morality. The world reduced to the human level. The war with the environment.

Bakker:

"Some say men continually war against circumstances, but I say they perpetually flee. What are the works of men if not a momentary respite, a hiding place soon to be discovered by catastrophe? Life is endless flight before the hunter we call the world."

Men and environment. Men and truth. Men and meaning. A war made of pain.

So there are two levels that I'd recognize as postmodern in the Malazan series. The first is about the universality of the message, its being removed from a time, made symbol of. The second is about dealing with the "social construction of truth", or the relationship of men and environment, seen from the perspective if its (human) symbolic value. It's a description of the world from within (what Bakker calls worlds that complement our souls).

The other day I was watching on TV a dialogue between a movie director, a painter and a philosopher. At some point they started to discuss how their works were received by the public. All three agreed that their best and deepest works were not understood or not as well recognized as their most superficial ones. They said that the public will always pursue the shortest path. The least resistance. They glide over. If a story has more than one layer of meaning, the great majority will stop at the first level and go as far as refusing the existence of more layers. The majority approach a work with the certainty of their superiority. People look at the surface and will judge on what they see there.

Erikson is in a problematic position because his series unashamedly embraces its RPG origins and Fantasy tropes. It's blatantly a work of Fantasy, as opposed to other writers who step on the edge and are too scared to be lumped in the ignoble, low genre. On the other side Erikson also pushes Fantasy outside the "escapism". All the things I've written above are a fundamental part of the text as the sorcery conflagrations and flying mountains.

That position is problematic for the audience, because from a side the "literary" guys will look down and downright refusing to read something that has fireballs and dragons, while the other side doesn't want to read all the boring philosophical drivel and "padding" that distracts from the awesome, over-the-top battles.

The privileged ones, and I feel one, are those who can appreciate, without prejudices or mental fences, the freedom and power of the mix of "high" and "low". For sure I don't consider Fantasy as a "guilty pleasure". I'm very proud of reading it.

So let's have a discussion, if you want, about whether Malazan can be truly defined postmodern or not. But in order to join this kind of conversation you have to drop a lot of prejudices and snobbism, so to recognize themes that are indeed there for a specific reason and not to pad the text.

As Janny Wurts said: "The genre label is just the current convenient excuse for dismissal."

“It is said the stars are without number, and are in eternal motion,
and that the heavens forbid all comprehension. It is said that
the universe breathes as would a bellows, and that we are now
riding an exhalation of a god immeasurably vast. And when all
these things are said, I am invited to surrender to the immensity
of the unknowable.

“To this I do rail. If I am to be a mote lost in the abyss, then
that mote is my world. My universe. And all the great forces
beyond my reach invite neither despair nor ennui. In what I
am able to measure — this is the realm of my virtues, and here is
where I must find my reward.

But if you would mock my struggle, crowd not close. The
universe is without measure and the stars are without number.
And if I invite you to explore, take no offence. Be sure that I
will spare you a parting wave as you vanish into the distance,
never to be seen again.”