Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
Tad Williams

After getting repeatedly sidetracked, it is time to return to this mountainous bit of fantasy that I finished some time back. As promised in an earlier update, this post is a broader look at the entire trilogy, highlighting bits and pieces that I found interesting. It is not a proper review, but a collection of thoughts and reactions that built up in my overcrowded brain during the almost 3000 pages of story. I will mark spoiler territory accordingly, though we have probably passed the statute of limitations on that sort of thing. In fact, I may be the last SFF fan over 25 to read this.

Regardless, I should probably get review-esque language out of the way first. Lest anyone think that I didn’t like the series or am being overly critical, I will say first off that I enjoyed the books a great deal. I don’t believe I have read a better rendition of traditional epic fantasy. (Tolkien doesn’t count, because his is the original. Instead I am making comparisons to other post-LOTR high fantasy.) Williams hits all the right notes, supplies all the necessary heroes and villains, threatens the world in suitable fashion, and brings it all home at the end with good-hearted triumph. There is nothing subversive or ironic here, just young heroes coming of age, spunky princesses, unspeakable evil, and varying degrees of heroism. Not always my thing, but it clears the palate every once in a while.

Casually scouring the internet for reactions to this trilogy, I was surprised at how polarized the opinions are. I’m not sure I read anything that said, “This book is alright.” Instead, it was “THIS IS THE BEST FANTASY EVER YO!” or “holy crap, that was mind numbing and ponderous.” (Here, for example, or here.) It wasn’t usually the length that put people off, fantasy readers being who they are, but the pace. Not everyone, it seems, is willing to mosey with Tad. I guess I’m the opposite: long stuff is not generally my bag, but after a couple years’ worth of poly sci reading, slow is not an issue. (Recent reviews of, say, Kim Stanley Robinson ought to back up my assertions about slow moving stuff.) These biases laid out, it should be no surprise that I take some issue with the length of the whole thing (in particular the decision to smash what should have been volumes three and four together), but am content to mosey.

I’m willing to stay with an author for 3000 pages if (s)he has something to say that justifies the investment. For the most part, Williams keeps his end of the bargain. There are a few side stories that could be cut without any loss to the text (Rachel’s tale and the rescue in the Wran are two quick examples), but nothing is egregiously superfluous. Indeed, Williams manages to tie everything together in the end, without leaving any of a plethora of plot strands dangling. I was genuinely surprised at this and it demonstrates considerable narrative skill. Not everyone could juggle so much. The pace for me was a non-issue, though I was certainly aware of it. These books don’t follow the typical, Hollywood-style three act structure, with pace and tension increasing exponentially each page. It is more of a freight train experience, starting slowly and reaching cruising velocity relatively early on. Like the train though, there is a hidden inertia at work – 60 mph may not seem all that fast until one steps in front of 100 fully loaded boxcars moving at speed. Thus goes the trilogy, steadily barreling along without ever punching the afterburners. I should note that the only other Willams I have read, The War of the Flowers, moved in a similar way.

My earlier posts, indeed the whole reason I picked this set up in the first place, talked a bit about the Tolkien connection. I’ve mentioned some of these before, but the complete list of Tolkien references that I found includes: Eowyn, Gollum (twice), the Nazgul, Elves (of course), Dwarves (to a point), Helm’s Deep, Saruman’s factory, soul-sucking artifacts of power, the Paths of the Dead, and Sauron. More interesting is the way Williams transforms most of Europe into Osten Ard. Starting in the far north, we come across Vikings, Celts, the kingdom of Prester John, Rome, and at least one Italian city-state. The Catholic Church is in full effect as well, though the author is coy on how all the gods fit together. I have no idea if he chose this arrangement as a comment or critique of modern fantasy, but it is fun to think about.

I should mention that one crucial character set, Simon and Dr. Morgenes, owes much more to Star Wars than LOTR. Of course, Star Wars borrows heavily from Joseph Campbell, which is ultimately what Williams is mining, but Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan are the first to float up from my crowded subconscious. Simon in particular reminds me very much of Luke, though it takes Simon a lot longer to pull his head out. (Luke is awesome by Return of the Jedi; Simon is still saying stupid things at the end of the trilogy.) Simon finally grows into his destiny at the end, when the not-so-surprising twist hits, but this is to be expected. He mostly just needed to get laid, I think.

While we’re talking about Simon, we should probably glance at the end. This paragraph will contain massive spoilers. In looking at reactions to the trilogy, opinions about the ending are second only to the pace for divergence and controversy. The trick Williams plays with the swords is clever and unexpected, though it unnecessarily complicates the plot in ways that over-clever bad guys often do. What I really didn’t see coming was the sudden resolution that seemed all too easy. Pyrates, of course, got the horrible end that was telegraphed from early, early in the book, but the Storm King, unbreakable power and all, was undone by the simplest of means. (There was also the matter of a magical backstabbing and an arrow in the heart, but those were sideshows.) I can see what Williams is trying to get at, and I don’t think that this was some sort of deus ex machina, but Simon winning by refusing to hate (and Camaris too, for that matter) was a bit pat. This followed by, holy cow, Simon being the lost descendant of royalty. That said, points to the author for trying something different.

Spoilers are over. My last comment on the whole thing is a bit more flippant, but possibly relevant. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn really needs to be subtitled A Guide to the Tunnels of Osten Ard. I don’t know why, but people in this series just can’t stop themselves from rooting around underground. The reader can’t spit without hitting somebody digging through tombs, lost in tunnels, exploring underground cities, eating slithering creatures and moss because there is no buffet in the dungeon, and more. With all the underground secret passageways, caves, and cities, it’s a miracle that the entire continent doesn’t collapse, like those sinkholes in Florida that randomly swallow houses. By book three I was hoping for either an automap feature to save the poor characters the trouble, or a grue to eat them all.

These comments don’t magically combine in the final paragraph to form any sort of profound statement about either the books themselves or the genre in particular. In many ways, the series is its own statement on the art of high fantasy, with Williams presenting his version of the ultimate epic. Quibbles about pacing and excessive spelunking aside, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is awfully close to the platonic ideal. I feel as though I can go the rest of my life without reading another epic fantasy series, since it’s all likely to be downhill from here. (I probably will read another, and I doubt that everything, without exception, is worse, but one can swear off food after eating too much as well.) Maybe though, I will decide to read the shorter follow-ups to the books. Maybe Williams will find another story to tell and return to Osten Ard. Simon and crew will no doubt be patiently waiting for him.

Rating: The 1994 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy. Straight ahead, by the numbers stuff, but executed at the highest possible level. And very long.

1Q84 Read-Along

May is drawing to a close, so it’s time to get another plan for 2013 in motion. Two Dudes and our partner in crime at this is how she fight start are finally ready to challenge the single most foreboding book on our shelves, one that has glared haughtily down upon us whene’er we sauntered over for something new to read, and long scared the little ones at home. Yes, we are prepared at long last to tackle Murakami Haruki’s 1Q84. (I admit that this is not strictly SF, but we’ve made exceptions for magical realism in the past, and Murakami is one of my favorite writers of all time anyway, so off we go.) We would like to invite any interested readers out there to join us in this poorly planned and totally unstructured project, wherein we read madly through an admittedly heavy and intimidating tome, then post whatever (in)coherent reactions we manage onto various blogs.

I will, once things get under way, prepare a page here cataloguing all posts on any pages that I am aware of. Kamo at fight start and I may elaborate on this plan, but for now we’ll just start reading and writing when the spirit moves us. I have a couple of things to move out of the queue first, so I anticipate a reading start date around June 3-5. If anyone out there would like to join in, please leave a comment and I will know to check in with you as we start. If anyone out there has a particular request or question they would like us to attend to, ask away! I can’t promise interviews or giveaways, but will do what I can for the rest. Finally, if anyone out there isn’t going to participate, but thinks this is something worth spreading the word about, feel free to pass it on!

I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out. For now, everyone get on the wagon, don’t fall down any wells, and beware women with particularly striking ears.

3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan

[Ed. note: Today’s post has nothing whatsoever to do with Two Dudes’ avowed SFF mission. However, after attending a presentation and book signing by Japan expert Richard Samuels on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and then after tearing through his new book about it, I couldn’t restrain myself from writing a lengthy reaction. I have personal stakes in both the disaster and its aftermath, so this remains an emotional issue. I don’t have any other outlet at the moment for this, so for now it goes here, inappropriate or not. To readers not interested, I recommend skipping this long article. There will be no science fiction today.]

3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan
Richard J. Samuels

On the morning of March 11, 2011 (Pacific Standard Time), I arrived at the office, logged onto my computer, and absently opened Firefox in a side window while I brought up the day’s work. Then I realized what had happened in Japan and ignored that work for the rest of the day, instead staring in increasing horror at the news playing out on my monitor. I watched the earthquake and tsunami, and later the nuclear meltdown, bring not just my second home to its knees, but the region I refer to as “my Japanese hometown.” (I will spare the personal details, except to say that at least one former residence was assuredly washed away.) Some weeks later, I wondered publicly if this would be my generation’s Black Ships, the event that would finally shake Japan out of its inexorable decline and galvanize the populace to face boldly their problems, as Commodore Perry’s arrival and the end of the Pacific War had done before. I was not the only one.

Richard Samuels is one of the foremost Japan experts of his generation, widely respected and hugely influential in the Asian Studies community. By his own account, he shelved a long running project in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, arranged a sabbatical to Japan, and commenced his year of research there fully expecting to document the profound change that must inevitably follow a catastrophe of this magnitude. 3.11 is his account of what is actually happening in Japan, detailing the political change, or lack of it, as the Japanese struggle to make sense of the tragedy and define a narrative that both explains the paths leading to the disaster and a way forward. It is not, to me, a hopeful tale, but does contain a few bright possibilities.

Samuels focuses on the three political arenas most affected by the quake: the status of the Self Defense Force (SDF; Japan’s euphemistically named military), energy policy, and the relationship between federal and local governments. The first two were my bread and butter in grad school; the last I hadn’t thought much about. Each of these areas had advocates forming three camps; Samuels labels them “put it in gear,” “stay the course,” and “return to the past.” (In common terms, these are progressive, conservative, and reactionary, respectively.) Undergirding these are three major tropes of Japanese self-image: Leadership (or the lack thereof), Vulnerability (“Japan is a small island nation poor in natural resources yada yada yada”), and Community. If this seems like it could get confusing in a hurry, rest easy. Samuels’ organization and narrative keep everything clear from start to finish.

To illustrate, let’s look at how two people fit into this bracket. First, me. The SDF is one of the few institutions that left Tohoku almost universally praised. Their bravery and reliability in helping the disaster victims were above reproach; I am happy to see the Japanese finally accept that they have a military that can be something other than power-crazed xenophobes. This does not mean that I support further expansion, a move towards more aggressive policies abroad, or any such saber rattling, but I do think that the Japanese can put their troops to good use in peace keeping and relief operations. This puts me firmly in the “stay the course” camp, not advocating any particular change in policy.

Energy is even more complex. I grew up near the world’s first nuclear power plant, so I am pretty sanguine about that sort of thing. I realize that Japan’s industrial might, and thus its economic well-being, is based primarily on nuclear power, with the only reasonable alternative to import and burn more fossil fuels. On the other hand, regulatory failure and corporate malfeasance are as much to blame for the Fukushima meltdown as natural causes; the subsequent disintegration of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was both deserved and gratifying. Clearly, Japan needs to fire up its renewable energy efforts by resurrecting policies that self-serving corporate interests have stymied. This puts me just barely into the “put it in gear” crowd, favoring as I do the progressive approach to energy, even as I am comfortable with the reality of nuclear power.

Finally, local governance. I don’t really have a horse in this race, beyond a vague loyalty to the Kansai area in opposition to whatever stupidity Tokyo might be exporting at the time. I’m not much of a States’ Rights advocate, but neither do I deny the relevance of the locals. Toss me into “stay the course” again, since I don’t really know what else to do. (Note that my ambivalence here is not universal. Samuels introduces many people who care very deeply about this, and who have very good ideas. There is a rousing debate about this subject going on, I’ve just never been a part of it.)

For contrast, I will cite my wife. She is in many ways very typical of a large segment of Japan. My wife has no use for violence, weapons, the military, power projection, American bases, the works. The SDF might have been valiant in disaster relief; if so, she might say, let’s turn them into engineers and farmers and send them out to help that way. Article Nine of the Constitution (the part that outlaws war) is basically holy writ and should be held inviolate. These opinions are a text book “return to the past” viewpoint, one that advocates returning the SDF to its pre-Nakasone and/or Koizumi state. The Tohoku disaster is a clear illustration of what the military should be used for, not a case for more cruise missiles and Aegis destroyers.

Nuclear power fares similarly. My wife was galvanized by the anti-nuclear protests and wants to see the whole program shut down. When I explained that Japan can’t power itself any other way, she responded that maybe it’s time for Japan power itself down. To her, if Japan must import power or rely on obviously dangerous technology, maybe the Japanese need to find a quieter lifestyle that can be sustained purely by native resources. Again, “return to the past.”

Her opinions about local governance are about as strong as my own, but the idea that the communities have gotten too big, too spread out, and have lost that Special Something that binds a neighborhood together seems to hold a certain allure. I’m not sure that she goes far enough to join the “return to the past” crowd, but she’s certainly not on the front lines of change.

The genius of 3.11 is the way Samuels maps this grid over a vast array of actors, through politics, business, the non-profit sector, the media, and everyday people. Veteran Japan observers will have no trouble keeping up, but newcomers will also be fine if they trust in Samuels’ narration. The Japanese political continuum is baffling if one comes at it from a US left-right perspective (the two might as well be mutually incomprehensible), thus the necessity of the three tropes of Leadership, Vulnerability, and Community to act as guideposts along the way.

The very heart of the book is also clearly illustrated by the examples here. My position on each issue is almost exactly what it was before the earthquake. My wife’s is too. In fact, Samuels finds only one person in the entire book, Prime Minister Kan, who changes his mind on anything. Certain voices have been amplified and certainly some positions have evolved, but by and large, everyone in Japan is precisely where they were before any waves crashed down on Tohoku. In the end, when all of the power vectors are added, subtracted, and averaged out, Samuels finds that Japan is firmly in the “stay the course” camp for each issue. To many of us hoping for so much more, it is a discouraging conclusion, but after reading cover to cover, I don’t see how it could be any other way.

In spite of all, Samuels is consistently upbeat. (This holds true for his other writing as well.) Where I see a country utterly bereft of leadership, an educational system incapable of producing bold thinkers, and an electorate too self-absorbed and apathetic to take action, Samuels sees incremental change and gradual progress. I wish I could share his optimism, but we may yet both be right. The Tohoku disaster nudged public opinion and catalyzed some action, but its greatest effects appear to be in those topics Samuels covers. The biggest problems facing Japan, a looming demographic implosion and the social institutions exacerbating it, will only be changed by a grassroots-based tidal wave of opinion, not an actual tidal wave. It is my own fault that I got carried away in my initial exuberance for progress.

3.11 is not a theoretical or conclusive work. It is not here to put forth analytical frameworks or give authoritative answers. (Too soon for both, though for different reasons.) I consider it an essential book in 2013 however, because I doubt there is any other English source that even approaches the stupendous amount of research and information that Samuels marshals. For the time being, it is the definitive account of post-quake Japan; any book challenging for 3.11‘s crown in the near future will be hard-pressed to survive even the first round. It is a must read for anyone even remotely interested in Japan.

Moms in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Moms in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I took a random and perfunctory look at lists of mothers in SFF, what with today being Ma Day and all. (My grandma’s term for the holiday.) Below are the three that I found. I even dove into the comments sections, hoping to avoid the usual twits and get some more ideas, but there were more of the former than the latter. Unfortunately, most of the lists start with Star Trek and end with Harry Potter, usually with a stop in between at Sarah Connor and/or Eleanor Ripley. Not a lot beyond a very superficial and commercial collection. I will give credit for those that suggest Lady Atreides (Dune) and the Wired list that includes Cordelia Naismith (The Vorkosigan series).

This got me to thinking, “What other moms are there worth mentioning?” I couldn’t think of very many. This may be a reflection of my reading habits, or it may be that SFF is low on moms. I have a lurking suspicion that fantasy might have more than science fiction, especially the Hard SF and space opera that I favor. It may just be that the sorts of epic adventures SFF tends to focus on are generally undertaken by those without a reason to stay at home. Perhaps I can revisit this question on Ma Day 2014 and see if my list has expanded. For now:

1) Hiroko in Robinson’s Mars Trilogy – While there were plenty of moms in that one, Hiroko and her brood may have had the greatest influence.

2) Eunice Akinya in Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth – Technically a grandma by the time of the book, Eunice overhauled science, built a commercial empire, and made at least two or three of the biggest discoveries of that book’s era.

3) Chrisjen Avasarala in Corey’s Caliban’s War – Another grandma here, but grandmas were moms once too! Avasarala is a foul-mouthed, high-ranking UN officer from South Asia who holds the fate of billions in her hand, but is also a very nice grandma.

4) Several characters in Aliette de Bodard’s short stories – a number of these count, so I recommend picking up pretty much anything out there. Any Nebula nominee list from the last couple years will have a few.

So there’s an assortment of mothers that stood out in my recent reading. I’ll have to think more deeply about this next year, as I’m sure there’s an actual worthwhile post buried in here somewhere. Finally, the other lists I found:


To Green Angel Tower

To Green Angel Tower
Tad Williams

I have finally finished the last book of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. My brain is still processing the entirety of it all; it doesn’t seem fair to post a lengthy examination until everything settles. At the same time, the reading list waits for no man, so I feel like I should say a few things about this before some other book takes over that space in my brain. Looking back over past writings, the questions I asked of Stone of Farewell are equally valid for To Green Angel Tower. With just a couple of adjustments, these should tide us over until I push out a more detailed reaction.

1. Is Simon still a pantywaist?
2. Does the third book maintain the momentum of the first two?
3. Does Williams wander off on too many tangents for his own good?
4. Can we still spot the ghost of J.R.R. Tolkien marauding o’er the land?
5. On a scale of Errrrghgh to Magically Fabulous, how does this hold up?

1. Surprisingly, yes. Much better by the end, of course, but he is still a surly teen. To Simon’s credit, he is usually only a donkey’s behind when the ladies are involved, so I guess we can forgive some of it.

2. If by “momentum” we mean a similar pace to the rest of the series, the answer must be yes. Even at the climax, I would still consider things to be stately rather than hurtling, but the inexorability of the prose does drag the reader along. I have to wonder whose idea it was to split this book into two parts, and whose idea it was to put them back together. Did the trilogy format have some magical power back then? Was it unthinkable to have four books? At over 1000 pages, and with a convenient break midway, this really should have been two separate volumes.

3. Well, to be honest, Williams pulls everything together at the end in a way I can only admire. Every Chekovian gun gets fired properly, every jot and tittle of the prophecies are fulfilled, and none of the characters are red herrings or filler. More than one side story could have been trimmed with no loss to the whole, but basically everyone has a reason for being there, a specific piece of the plot to carry out, and a proper resolution to the respective personal conundrum. I remain surprised that I can’t tease out more loose ends or irrelevant digressions.

4. Yes, and it gets stronger the closer we get to the cataclysmic battle. While Simon remains more Luke Skywalker than Frodo, Gollum analogues pop up, the swords weigh heavily on their bearers, something quite like the Nazgul appears, Saruman’s factories make an cameo, and so on. There are of course massive departures, distinctions, and elaborations, as well as liberal borrowing from other sources. Williams gets credit from me for his world building and plotting, because I feel like he owns these books fearlessly. The echoes are there though, and inescapable.

5. If I loved fantasy, I would love these books. If I was Younger Me, before I burned out on fantasy (oddly enough in the middle of this very trilogy), I would love these books. Older Cynical Me was impressed and moved by the series; I would recommend it without reservation. I’m a little too crusty to be enchanted by much, but I recognize quality when I see it and I admit to feeling a certain melancholy when I knew that I would never read about Simon, Miri, Josua and crew again. The fact that I get up more for spaceships and cyberpunk is not Willams’ fault, so I don’t ding him in my ratings. It’s the highest, epic-est of fantasy, for those who are into that sort of thing, but readers should expect sore arms and wrists unless they get an ebook edition. This sucker is heavy.