The Books of My Numberless Dreams

It’s been a while

Posted on: May 7, 2008

How are you, dear readers? If any of you still exist :P. The premature summer heat of spring (which has now returned to seasonal temperatures) burnt away any and all interests in blogs and blogging. I decided to go with it until it ran out. My reading was not similarly effected. I’ve read the first two in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War…series? for he will continue to write for it as long as he is so inclined and sales are encouraging. One of the local stores brought in a pack of John Wyndham releases so I’ve spent a few days, eyes wide open, reading through The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids (whoa, just…whoa) and I hope to be able to share some thoughts with you about them in a few days. Wyndham appears to be fascinated with man’s ability to change and adapt to new ideas, new environments and the consequences of those who cling to static paradigms. And for an old SF writer his female characters aren’t bad at all. (Unlike others of which I recently learned.)

I don’t know if I’ll be able to write anything much on the Scalzi. I found them fun and entertaining (with The Ghost Brigades guilty of some wearying pages long info-dumping) but they didn’t seem to be saying anything. Not that Scalzi is obligated to do so but novels about such a militaristic society complete with very liberal bioengineering kinda beg for a little something but from what I observed he kinda dances around it, dips a toe in, and then jumps into another action plot line. I am unsure of myself, though, because I theorised that my limited SF experience may hinder my perspective, somewhat. For instance it is common knowledge that the novels were heavily influenced by Heinlein fiction but I’ve never read the guy.

How the Dead Dream proved elusive on a first reading so I’ve chosen to reread it again. Worries that it would read too familiar were not confirmed for reasons I have yet to refine. I find Lydia Millet’s characters, her main character at least, eccentric rather than quirky (the silly, unnecessary, waste of space, for-giggles type) because she takes that one extreme feature, places it immediately before, and explicates how it’s an extension of the character’s basic personality in a very non-showy yet arresting manner. She doesn’t try to wear you out with circus tricks. Because of this her humorous moments work a lot better because at first it’s unexpected. And though a critic described those moments as “asides” are more integral and necessary — without them this would be a boring, didactic lecture with unfulfilled potential.

Is it too late to comment on that Slaves of Golconda read? I couldn’t finish it. Cristina García did not seem so much interested in writing a novel as a series of character profiles (complete with headings) strung weakly together by a basic, uninteresting plot. (Uninteresting to me, at any rate. Woo woo Cuba-communist-intergenerational clash-fish-out-of-water-immigrants-in different country. Tell me something I don’t know or at least try and do something different with the damn thing.) Stuck in the middle of that was an amateur YA novel wherein a young girl struggles with her domineering, restrictive mother, giving readers the right dose of teenage rebellion and oh-so-unconsciously deep insights into human nature. Snore. I’ll try to see what the others got out of it as I think I’m the only one who wasn’t enamoured.

Villette: Nope. Sorry, I know some of you are fans but Brontë was in preacher mode far too often throughout the narrative. Things would just start to get interesting and then she would push Lucy Snowe aside to interject some pages long sermon on the follies of Catholicism and the wonders of enlightened English Protestants; also how stupid and frivolous the French are and how smart and noble the English. She even gave that stupid, self-absorbed English doctor — I count it a miracle that she managed to engage in near Austen-like sarcasm every so often — and her precious pet English whateverhernameis a charmed happy ending. Near the end I skipped pages just to see if the prof jumped Snowe or not. If Shirley is anything like that I’ll abstain.

I’d like to say the writing made up for it but some of her passages were uncomfortably close to Emily Brontë’s exhausting melodrama in Wuthering Heights when it came to depicting Snowe’s depression. That is what led to the skipped pages — near the end Snowe woke up in the middle of the night after being ineffectively drugged (I think?) and escaped out of the house wandering the streets. I thought to myself, Oh holy…I’m not going through one of your damn deranged moments again. Do the prof, slit your wrists, or I’ll slit mine. Later on I picked up that whatever festival she experienced during that night was an actual occurrence. No doubt it’s important but you’d have to pay me to get me to read it for any significant thematic developments.

I started The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. (Curse my inability to keep to my F/SF moratorium.) It is the latest fantasy sensation purported to be “one of the best stories told in any medium in a decade…Shelve [it] beside The Lord of the Rings…and look forward to the day when it’s mentioned in the same breath, perhaps as first among equals.” (Name of reviewer hidden to protect the hoodwinked.) I am at chapter eight. Let’s start ticking off the clichés shall we?

  • Famous, brilliant, exceptional assassin tortured about his horrible, horrible past – Check
  • Inn as prominent setting – Check (Seriously? I saw it on the first page and thought, Oh god not another faux medieval European setting, please [insert favourite deity here]. [Your favourite deity] didn’t listen.)
  • Assassin accompanied by best, loyal buddy who is “dark” so of course he had to be graceful, moving like a dancer and blah blah blah. I bet he’s also noble and respects nature? Sidekicks are allowed that much. – Check
  • Ignorant village locals – Check
  • Dull looking sword that belies its true value as it is no doubt really famous and/or powerful – Check
  • Innocent children’s rhymes that turn out to be totally true and significant! No one saw that coming! – Check

All of this would be forgivable — all of it– if Rothfuss made something new with those elements. Take it to a different place. Aforementioned hoodwinked reviewer implied this is what he does as the book is “a brooding, thoroughly adult meditation on how heroism went wrong”. In a 700+ pages it may be too early to expect all of this to pop up by page 63. The problem is that the writing is so mediocre, at times verging on hysterical, that I may not wait long enough to find it. Ursula K. Le Guin (who was no doubt threatened) wrote that “It is a rare and great pleasure to find a fantasist writing…with true music in the words”. Let’s have an example of this musician at work. (All formatting mine.)

Sunlight poured into the Waystone. It was a cool fresh light, fitted for beginnings. It brushed past the miller as he set his waterwheel turning for the day. It lit the forge the smith was rekindling after four days of cold metal work. It touched draft horses hitched to wagons and sickle blades glittering sharp and ready at the beginning of an autumn day.

Inside the Waystone, the light fell across Chronicler’s face and touched a beginning there, a blank page waiting the first words of a story. The light flowed across the bar, scattered a thousand tiny rainbow beginnings from the colored bottles, and climbed the wall toward the sword, as if searching for one final beginning.

But when the light touched the sword there were no beginnings to be seen. In fact, the light the sword reflected [Ed: *&#$$*# sword — it’s the second in 20+ small pages that he’s given us this ” old dull sword” routine] was dull, burnished, and ages old. Looking at it, Chronicler remembered that though it was the beginning of the a day, it was also late autumn and growing colder. The sword shone with the knowledge that dawn was a small beginning compared to the ending of a seas: the ending of a year. [Ed: It shone with what?)

Do you see what he’s trying to get at there? Not me. Something about…no can’t fathom it. For a “thoroughly adult” book he does not think much of our intelligence. I get that fire might something to keep an eye on in the book but if I read one more line about fires snapping, crackling, blazing, flaring, spitting or glowing I’m going to burn…a fake copy of this book because I still have the receipt for the real one and the return window is still open. Whether you like Tolkien’s prose or not it’s difficult to deny that he had a particular style that showed its influences while seeming authentic rather than imitative. There is nothing that stands out about Rothfuss’ prose, much less anything musical. The best thing I can say is that he avoids writing any poetry for the most part, sticking to cute childish limericks.

That’s another thing. The different peoples presented are poorly costumed facsimiles of real world counterparts. So the main character’s people are gypsies with a different name and they meet up on a dour community who are costumed Puritans. I’m becoming quite bored with religious folks being used as the predictable resisters of all joy and intellectual curiosity. Wyndham has them in The Chrysalids but he makes the community’s philosophy work as an understandable, natural reaction to the events rather than a story element he hit with a dart on a story board. It’s FANTASY, Rothfuss. Be inventive! Go crazy! Maybe make the religious folks curious and open-minded, eh? Maybe make the non-believers rigid and unwelcoming? LOTR’s appeal was that while its influences and source material were obvious on a conceptual level Tolkien went to great lengths to make something completely new — or to make it appear so. It’s the difference between the good ol’ days of remixed music when the artist gave it such a different setting that a new side to the music was exposed, a new angle provided — not these days when a “remix” means asking a rapper to add a verse.

High fantasy is not for me. Tolkien and Kay were flukes in a genre filled with flawed heroes spouting cheesy lore. At least in romance the tortured alpha heroes are sexy.


17 Responses to "It’s been a while"

Dull looking sword that belies its true value as it is no doubt really famous and/or powerful – Check

You know it’s a bad sign when a book uses clichés Pratchett skewered two decades ago.

lol-you were on a snarky rampage! I enjoyed David Edding’s high fantasy in middle school and high school, but I haven’t read it in years, so I have no idea if it holds up! Nowadays, I’m more of an urban fantasy kinda gal.

Oh, mercy. I can’t even…

I’ll be the first to admit that I love me some fantasy, and that I will tolerate more bad writing in fantasy than I will in non-fantasy, but THERE MUST BE A LINE! That line has been crossed.

Were those paragraphs consecutive? My brain is bleeding.

Poodlerat I’m hoping against hope that I’m wrong. Perhaps it will turn out to be some kind of subversive satire and the ol’ dull sword will be that and nothing more. It’s called “Folly” after all (engraved on some super special wood). I’d love to be made a fool on at least one of the points I made.

Eva I think I should stop taking fantasy recs from the online community 😉 because this is almost always the result.

raych oh, absolutely. And the chapter title is “Of Beginnings and the Names of Things”. ‘Cause both are very important and stuff!

Sigh. This is the book that has been winning awards up and down the place. And, at 700+ pages mind you, it is only the FIRST in a series of “Chronicles”, God help us.(The cliches continue!) And people wonder why YA fantasy is kicking the adult genre is sales? THIS is the best it has to offer? (Of contemporary writers I’m beginning to think that’s VanderMeer.)

I am tempted to quote more of this musical prose.

I must admit when I read the first page (of the prologue – the bit that goes on about the silence, and the absence of noise, and the silence, blah blah blah), I thought it was dreadful and almost didn’t continue with it. But I gradually get into it, despite the cliches – I find the bits where Kvothe is telling his story are much more enjoyable than the bits set in the inn. I ended up liking it a lot, but more because I really got into the story than the writing or style. I think I really do enjoy high fantasy – swords and heroes galore 🙂

Oh dear. Is the Name of the Wind that cliché? It’s on my “Maybe” list because I keep seeing the reviews popping up all over the net. Thankfully I have no time for new books these days.

“At least in romance the tortured alpha heroes are sexy.” – that’s because you have a thing for Bad Boys, right? 😉

Miss Cee oh, that’s funny, because the silence bit initially impressed me then the execution disappointed. I’m at the point where he’s a street urchin and admit to being caught up in the momentum now — although I can’t give it all to Rothfuss because…you know..street urchins! Who can resist. All the gypsy family stuff before was lame.

Dark Orpheus honestly, it is to me. I’ve yet to see anything that makes it some kind of new classic…it’s not even like LOTR really but more of the D&D stuff that came after with the guilds and shit. !@$#% guilds. If I see one mage I’m throwing it against the wall.

As for romance, ha! IRL I go more for the Bingley types. Probably why I prefer the opposite in books.

“Sweet April showers
Do bring May flowers.”
Thomas Tusser

I too was out during the same time period, we moved again, but I’ve worked all day at typing away. I always enjoy visiting with you through your great site!

Oh Imani, you go! I did enjoy Dreaming in Cuban though I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking in any way. I can’t believe you haven’t read any Heinlein! I haven’t read all of his stuff but I have particularly enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and Job.

MissDaisy moved again you say? I hope you’ll be able to settle down a bit then, at least for the summer. 😀 I always love your comments, thanks for visiting.

Stefanie yes, I agree, and unless I have a soft spot for the writer and/or story I’m not in the mood to waste time with such novels, these days. And I think you wholly underestimate just how unread I am when it comes to SF. I haven’t even read 1984!

All of this would be forgivable — all of it– if Rothfuss made something new with those elements.

In Rothfuss’ defence, all the marketing I’ve seen for the book — I haven’t read it, though I have a copy around here somewhere — has praised his book for proving that familiar fantasy elements in a familiar configuration can still work. I haven’t seen anyone (that I take seriously) arguing that it revisions heroic fantasy with any particular skill.

Wyndham: I look forward to your thoughts. I love me some Wyndham, particularly The Chrysalids, which was the first I read, because I did it at school; the ending is still one of the definitive images I call to mind when asked to define “sensawunda”. I’m less enamoured by The Day of the Triffids — it’s good, but I tend to think that The Kraken Wakes is the same basic alien-invasion story done better. I’m also slightly less taken by his female characters than you are, although I agree they are dramatically better than those produced by many of his contemporaries. In fact, every time I go back to Wyndham I’m a little bit nervous, and he generally holds up much better than I expect.

Millet: not out here until the autumn, but I am impatient.

Oh. Then why is it being heralded as some kind of new LOTR? It was not a familiar book at its time. It did not have cheap Ye Olde England affectations. It followed myths but didn’t trade it on cheap cliches. It was something “new” at the time. Whatever Tolkien’s influences he owned the material. I don’t see Rothfuss doing any owning here…just peddling the same derivative guilds & wizards carp complete with cheesy romance plot. I cannot believe that there aren’t at least 20 other heroic fantasies out there right now that aren’t as passably done — unless this particular area of the fantasy genre is truly awful — because that’s all this Rothfuss book is.

I’m sorry I don’t have the book with me now (but I will quote later) because he even has these really lame attempts at Ye Olde English phrasing which reminded me of a Strange Horizon review in which the reviewer skewered a fantasy novel for peddling that crap and compared it to the writing in “The Children of Hurin” by a guy who actually knew what he was doing.

I bet it’s being praised by the same problem who pummeled the Harry Potter series for being too derivative. The things adult fantasy can get away with. *grumble*

It’s nice to know there’s another Wyndham fan out there as he doesn’t seem to get mentioned much at all (at the SF sites I visit which is not that many) and if he is it’s just some chance reference to The Chrysalids. I was a little nervous returning to that book too but can now say I’m looking forward to going through most of his backlist. I haven’t read Kraken Awakes yet though I’m looking forward to it because a)Tennyson reference and b) sea monsters!

As it relates to its female characters my positive reaction is qualified but it’s basically positive because they are waaaaaay more interesting than the ones I’ve found in (my minuscule intake) of contemporary male SF authors. The two females in The Spin were a psychologically abused, alcoholic wife and mother who didn’t do much except cry and rally for a bit in the end and the typical hero’s unattainable love interest who loses her way until he comes to rescue, hooray! This is only slightly off-set by the fact that the first time we see her she’s doing the saving, but only slightly because for most of the book we get the opposite.

Scalzi’s books has in Jane Sagan (is that her name?) the typical tough female hurtin’ for some loving. (OK that’s not fair, he doesn’t show her as being needy or anything but the phrase rolled off my fingers, so to speak.) I’m glad she’s tough it’s all just…very much smart blockbuster material. (We’ll see how it goes with the rest of the series, specifically Zoe’s Tale.)

Wyndham, on the other hand, managed to write what could arguably be considered a feminist novel in “The Trouble with Lichen”. I’m divided on some points but there’s something to it. A British male in the 60s. So he’s leaps ahead on that score.

which reminded me of a Strange Horizon review in which the reviewer skewered a fantasy novel for peddling that crap and compared it to the writing in “The Children of Hurin” by a guy who actually knew what he was doing.

That would be Adam Roberts, comparing Tolkien to some guy called … Patrick Rothfuss! 😀

Wyndham, on the other hand, managed to write what could arguably be considered a feminist novel in “The Trouble with Lichen”.

I very nearly mentioned Lichen, but that’s one I haven’t read for years, and I wasn’t sure my recollections were correct. Regarding female characters in contemporary sf — well, no, Wilson and Scalzi, much as I like aspects of their work, wouldn’t be my go-to guys for that. I’d suggest Geoff Ryman’s Air or Gwyneth Jones’ Life, for starters.

No! That is too good! Roberts nailed it so much better than I could. He’s so right that this book could have been any kind of adventure tale and one would have gotten the same (limited) thrills. That “time whileawayer” line needs to be a blurb on the next book.

That is an excellent review of Hurin and assessment of Tolkien’s skills — the best of all that I saw published around the book’s release. I even bookmarked it. Funny, how I remember it only for the Tolkien and my only recollection of the Rothfuss tale was that it was crap book. (Gosh, that publisher letter is barforic.)

Thank you for the SF author recs. Ideally, I’d like to simply happen upon such authors and they would provide all that I’d ever want and more. Such moments don’t happen very often.

I feel like you’re holding this book’s awards and favorable reviews too hard against it. It’s like it’s not enough for you to simply criticize the book, but you also seem to like to criticize its large, appreciative audience as well… and that way lies the path of the true book snob.

Rob oh geez, it won awards too? (Oh wait, it was Quills, right? That one doesn’t count.) Anyway, I made it clear that my acute disappointment was partly caused by impossibly raised expectations (and misinterpretation of the reasons for the hype). I’m not trying to hide what’s influenced me. I never do.

However, I’m not sure what you’re getting at with the snobbish charge. Are “large appreciative audiences'” opinions somehow immune from criticism? Such nonsense doesn’t fly on my blog so snob it is.

Edit: Reading over my comments, only last week I remembered that it won awards (and others a part from the Quill too). Yikes. Leaving it as it is.

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