Month: September 2013

Patrick Rothfuss: The Wise Man’s Fear

Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is an amazing fantasy novel. It is the opposite of most of the other fantasy I read these days, as it’s obviously crafted with great time and care. It is the fantasy novel my more refined (and librarian) friends recommend to people wishing to discover new fantasy authors.

However, having started his trilogy with such a spectacular work, Mr. Rothfuss faces the task of living up to the expectations he’s set.

To be brutally honest, he doesn’t.

This doesn’t mean that The Wise Man’s Fear isn’t a spectacular book, it is. It just isn’t more spectacular than The Name of the Wind, and perhaps a bit less so since we know what to expect.

The tale continues, as expected, from where The Name of the Wind left off. As in the first book, the setting is a tavern where the protagonist, Kvothe, retells his life’s story to a chronicler. Obviously things are afoot that tie into the history, but almost all of the writing pertains to the past, and the current time is advanced via brief interludes. Once more, Mr. Rothfuss uses this narrative device with perfect skill.

Unlike works from Patricia Briggs or Wen Spencer, The A Wise Man’s Fear is not a book that kept me up past my bedtime because I just couldn’t set it down. I have been wondering why this would be, and came up with a few hypotheses. Narratively, we know the end point to which the retold tale will lead; Kvothe in his tavern. There is little indication that the real-time thread of the narrative would reach a conclusion in this work either, so that motivation is also not present. Similarly, I suspected that Kvothe’s biographical tale would only proceed another third of the way.

However, there are other aspects as well. I had a slight feeling of dread for Kvothe as I went along; I fully expected horrible calamities and unpleasant events to befall him any moment — to the extent that it detracted from my reading pleasure. Whether this ominous air was Mr. Rothfuss’s intention or my own doing is unclear to me; perhaps others who have read it can chime in. On a more positive note, I was also unwilling to skim ahead or read it with less than proper attention, in fear of missing wonderful language or sayings.

Rothfuss continues with his world-building, introducing the fae archetype and the ascetic eastern warrior archetype, among others. I’ve always been fascinated by sidhe, fae and similar mythos, but even so I feel that Rothfuss has done an amazing job with both. While these are known archetypes, the re-imagining, both in prose, in plot and in world-building are top-notch.

The ancillary characters do not gain much in depth; Kvothe, Bast and Denna being ones that notably come alive. Trying to judge beyond that runs into the many-layered nature of the narrative; the description of the protagonist is one of a young man given by his older self, both of whom are clearly flawed and blind to certain aspects of themselves. Some darker plot elements are introduced, and Rothfuss earns another honorary mention on that account — something occurs in the book, and it is left for the attentive reader to speculate what it means and whether it’s important — and if it is, it will appear later in the tale, without being telegraphed or explained. The same applies to some philosophical aspects, such as the notion of free will in the face of prophesies of omniscient beings.

The book ends on a cliff-hanger of sorts, but a tasteful one that does not artificially hold the plot hostage. It also winds down, narrative-wise, in a sort of epilogue that I found very pleasing.

Summarizing The Wise Man’s Fear is hard. It contains many epic and memorable characters, lines, and ideas. It is tremendously well written. Is paced in a very deliberate manner. My brain is still thinking about the people and events in it, long after I’ve set it down. Perhaps it is like a fine spirit, to be enjoyed in a quiet setting with proper decorum and gravitas, rather than a beverage which allows for a good, raucous party.

Five out of Five. It’s not the best possible book, but it is so far above most of the other things I read in the genre these days, that there’s no point in splitting hairs.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Wen Spencer: Endless Blue

I finished my Wen Spencer binge with a sci-fi novel of hers that I had laying around in paperback format.

Endless Blue is science fiction; it has space ships, clones, genetically altered super soldiers, aliens, shuttles and rail guns. It’s not an amazing literary feat, following the more typical Spencer of very enjoyable prose and plot that moves along propelled by interesting protagonists.

The setting is thick with tropes, and few if any novel ideas are introduced. And again, Spencer manages to bring an interesting fresh angle at the material. The familiar criticisms are still there — as interesting as the character concepts for the protagonists are, they don’t ever quite develop the depth I’d like. The plot is self-contained — the book begins and ends within its covers — but towards the end it seems like the author woke up from all the fun she was having writing and had to quickly start tying up loose ends. It also engages in Marty Stu/Mary Sue fantasy with its protagonists.

For all its hard sci-fi setting, Endless Blue is about the relationships between the characters and how they define themselves and each other, their actions when they’ve been yanked out of their comfort zone, and musings on equality and humanity as a whole. While cinematic, some touches of the world seem unnecessary for the plot. There are also occasional plot clues revealed only shortly before they’re used, which annoys me a bit, having grown up with the proper British mystery novel tradition.

Deux ex machina is the novel’s strength and Achilles’ heel. The unlikeliness of some of the events and setting are explained by it. On the other hand, the divine hand is elevated to a central element of the setting and left mysterious, giving the work and its events a lot more depth. Just what was preordained, what was free will? What was human nature, and what was human nature being made into the image of something else?

The setting could easily support a multitude of further novels with different protagonists, and as a credit for her world building I still find myself trying to imagine the visuals and wondering about just how certain things would work and develop.

Much like a lot of Spencer’s books, I feel that it shows great promise, but only wish it had been worked and finished with a lot more patience and care. Nonetheless, it was a book that was readable, made me think of deep, existential issues, and successfully convinced me that sleep could wait, and for that I’ll award it four out of five stars.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Syria

Over the last months as events in Syria have continued to spiral from bad to worse and show no sign of reversing course, I’ve been reflecting on what happened, and why.

The Arab Spring

After the revolution in Tunisia in 2010/2011, it looked like people’s desire for self rule, and possibly even democracy, was going to transform the Middle East from a authoritarian, repressive region to something altogether new and better. It was a very inspirational narrative, one of hope and optimism for the future. It is not how things turned out, but I refuse to call those hopes wrong or even naive, because we must have hope. I am convinced humanity can do better.

Things have gone disastrously wrong. Instead of uniting under national identities and solidarity and self-rule we have sectarian violence, often fanned by outside interest, foreign fighters and weapons. Syria is the most extreme case, but Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and altogether depressingly too many other states suffer from the same malaise. After the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans, both of which occurred in the context of a modern world, the same kind of strife continues in the Middle East, and we appear unable to stop it.

I cannot begin to explain the reasons behind the violence, although cold power games are not helping. Nor can I devise a magic solution.

Men, Women and Children

Someone, almost certainly Assad’s troops, used nerve gas and killed over a thousand people; men, women and children. The United States, France and Great Britain have demanded or are planning military retaliation.

On a superficial level this makes sense: someone (Assad) does something revoltingly inhumane — commits a crime against humanity — and so the international community of civilized states will rain down punishment on the perpetrator.

Once one thinks about it, though, the situation becomes a lot more complicated. The fighting in Syria has already killed, by some accounts, over a hundred thousand people. One could well argue that the latest horror is but a footnote in the mass slaughter, and the current outrage is but a strange form of hypocrisy.

Why do chemical, biological and radiological weapons elicit such an immediate and strong reaction? Partially I suspect it’s that an international norm has successfully been set against their use. Reacting to their use in this case would reinforce that norm, and that is a positive. These are weapons that work extraordinarily well against civilian populations, who have little protection from them. They are indiscriminate; if there are rebel fighters in a part of town, they will kill the rebels and everyone else. They are strange and frightening and alien, you may not see or smell them. They can produce particularly agonizing deaths and there is relatively little that can be done to save an affected person.

Chemical weapons should remain a normative taboo, and that norm should be strengthened. The problem is how. If Assad — or anyone else — finds them to be of great utility in clearing out entrenched urban rebels, troublesome civilian populations and creating terror among his enemies, the penalty for using them needs to be greater than the benefits. That can be difficult to achieve, though. Bombing urban areas, no matter how smart a munition, still results in civilian casualties and ruthless regimes can make sure they are maximized by co-siting humanitarian shelters with military targets. It is difficult to justify an action that kills civilians as just punishment for killing civilians. As Saddam Hussein’s and Osama bin Laden’s long escapades demonstrated, it is surprisingly difficult to truly impact a determined, well resourced opponent with bombs and missiles.

The Enemy of my Enemy…

There’s also the larger context. Disturbingly, not all members of these “civilized states” are interested in punitive measures, let alone military ones. If major, well-established nation-states are not prepared to bolster some of the most non-controversial norms out there because they conflict with their national interests, what can we make of that? But yet, if there is no international consensus or legitimacy for a punitive action, attacking another sovereign state with military force is, no matter how you bake it and no matter the motives, a war of aggression.

That’s a slippery slope. If the United States finds that it can unilaterally, or with a few of its allies, punish another state for unacceptable behavior with military strikes, ignoring sovereignty and the most basic principles of the United Nations, what is to stop China, for example, of using the same logic against Tibet? Or Russia against its former states? Doing this makes violation of sovereignty and unilateral military action more acceptable, and that’s a change in norm that is clearly not good. A similar door has already been propped open with the dubious definitions of fight against terrorism and drone attacks, and we’ll be dealing with the unpleasant things crawling in soon enough, I predict.

The United States attempted to forestall the use of chemical weapons in Syria by declaring it a red line — cynical reading would say this means that slaughter by any other means was acceptable. Ultimatums in diplomacy have a tendency to backfire. In this case, one has backed the United States into a corner. Not to act would mean weakness and lessen any subsequent threats and attempts to influence the behaviors of others by means of diplomacy. But acting will bring with it countless negatives as well. Even worse, there are actors, such as Russia and Iran which clearly benefit from the weakening of the United States, and therefore might have a motivation to encourage behavior or events that lead to such a no-win scenario. I’m not saying any of them did, but from a cold power calculation, it stands in their interest.

A Kinder, Gentler… What?

There are precious few non-military options left either. The regime is already an international pariah, and is fighting for its survival, so any additional sanctions would barely register. In any case, as long as some countries are not interested in playing along, and the regime can get the goods it wants or needs, such measures are moot. Summoning those responsible in front of international tribunals is logistically impossible during a war, and again there is a considerable lack of consensus for the legitimacy of such mechanisms. Threatening Assad’s future comfort is unlikely to sway him from trying to survive by any and all means a war fought today.

How Did it Come to This?

Rolling the clock back even more makes one wonder what, if anything, could have been done to prevent events from progressing to this point. Maybe promoting democracy, self-rule, human rights, co-operation and discouraging authoritarian regimes would be the safest thing to do, no matter the immediate political costs, to forestall future disasters like this one? Aggressive use of diplomatic and economic power to engineer more interconnected and democratic countries and institutions is expensive, long-term, and often thankless, but a determined push could well have an effect in a generation or two.

Fear Thy Neighbor

A central piece of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which is often forgotten is this: to discourage countries that do not already possess nuclear weapons from acquiring them, the nuclear powers agree to disarm and guarantee the safety of the non-nuclear nations. The argument “you do not need powerful weapons, we will make sure you’re safe from attack” works just the same for biological and chemical weapons. If countries do not have to fear existential threats, and if there are strong international norms against certain kinds of weaponry, it makes sense for them to not develop them.

Unfortunately, the reality is the opposite. States, whether enemies (Iran, North Korea etc.) or allies (yes, I mean Israel) do face existential threats. Based on history, they have little faith, rightly so, that the nuclear club or the international community would intervene on their behalf as was promised. Arming themselves remains the only logical option, and matching this arms race remains the only logical option to their adversaries.

Again, had the world been able to hold itself to the principles of the NPT, things might look different today.

Where Do We Go from Here?

I don’t know. I’m afraid I agree with many pundits and analysts who predict that there’s no stopping the carnage. Sectarian civil war will rage for years. We can care for the victims, we can protect the helpless, we can work to keep outside entities from pouring gas on the fire, we can try to do our damnedest to mediate and help diplomacy have a chance, and hope that it is enough to allow us to look ourselves in the mirror.

And we can think about these things, and pray to get the wisdom to learn from our past.

Posted by Toivo Voll