Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: storytelling

Review: Game of Thrones Season 8

It’s over! Winter has come, and we know who ended up on the throne, who ended up dead, and how the White Walkers were defeated.

It is strange to be done. Although George R.R. Martin says that there are surprises in store in the final two books compared to the show, the main plot points are bound to be the same. I first read Game of Thrones something like 12 years ago, so I have been swept up in the story for about a third of my life. I named my dog Renly after the Game of Thrones character. I re-read the whole series, aloud, with Erin ahead of the release of A Dance With Dragons.

I remember being in New York city the weekend of the premiere of the show. There were Iron Thrones in a few places throughout the city, and there was almost no line to sit in them and get your picture taken. Most people didn’t know what this show, with the posters of Sean Bean looking sad, was about. I remember watching that first episode in our hotel room, through a very highly suspect, likely malware-ridden site. It was a magical experience, seeing the story that you love come to life on the screen, and what’s more, with such fidelity to the source material.

It is disappointing that Martin was not able to finish the book series before the show. Although quite faithful to the books at the start, as the show went on, it had the luxury of pruning plot lines and streamlining the story for TV, while Martin labors away with the books, juggling an ever-increasing number of plotlines. At times this was a great benefit for the show, and it had moments of brilliance, but as the show got farther and farther from the source material, those moments become more widely spaced. Without the strong foundation of the books, the show lurched from plot point to plot point, and the different writers and directors in different combinations led to an uneven experience. Sometimes, when the writing and directing all lined up, the show was astonishingly good. Other times, for all of its big-budget glamor, the show seemed shallow and lazy, with gratuitous gore and sex as if to say “look what we can do because we’re HBO,” and with characters betraying their backstories or just acting stupidly in order to bring events to a key plot event.

This was never more evident than in the last season. The first couple of episodes were quite good. I especially enjoyed the second episode, which is focused on all of the characters we know and love waiting together in Winterfell for the army of the Night King to descend upon them. It had lots of beautiful, human, character-driven moments. It reminded us of the tangled web of relationships that have been built up over the previous seasons. But after that episode, the rest of the season had the feeling of a homework assignment where the student has a cheat sheet with the correct answers but runs out of time and just scrawls those answers in the blanks without showing their work. Probably because that is almost exactly what happened: the showrunners knew what had to happen because Martin provided them with an outline, but they didn’t have the writing chops to pull it off. Bringing a story this massive and complex in for a graceful landing is more difficult than most people realize. Still, I can’t help but feel like there are some pretty obvious flaws in the final season. Unforced mistakes that, especially with an extra year’s hiatus to work on the final season, were really disappointing. Such a great story deserved better than what we got.

I know a lot of people are upset about the actual end results: who ended up dead, who ended up alive, and who ended up on the throne. I was actually ok with most of it. Let’s consider each of the main characters:

Jaime – It’s such a George R.R. Martin move to take a literal knight in shining armor, make him a king-killing, child-murdering, twincestuous villain, then make you spend enough time in his head to start to root for him, and then once you think he has become the good knight you wish he was, have his old vices win out in the end. The problem, as we will repeatedly see with other characters, is that the show didn’t spend enough time on the character development leading to his final acts. It spent multiple seasons building up his redemption arc, and then Sansa mentions that Cersei might be in danger from the giant armies and dragons headed her way (shocking!), and suddenly he is on the fastest horse south. We needed to see his struggles with his inner demons. We needed to witness his facade crumble in the face of a threat to that which, in spite of his best intentions, he loved most dearly. The show handled it too abruptly, so what should have been a more poignant and tragic end was not fully earned.

Cersei – I was disappointed with Cersei’s ending, but not because she died in Jaime’s arms. Her arc was a sort of mirror image of his: while he appeared to find redemption and then turned his back on it to be with Cersei, Cersei appeared to become even more evil and insane than she started, and convinced herself that she no longer loved him, only to find comfort in his arms at the end. Unfortunately, leading up to her end, she basically just stood around. What happened to the cunning, ruthless Cersei we loved to hate? Part of the problem here may be her bizarre affair with Euron Greyjoy. He was such an outlandish character that his story line sucked up a lot of the oxygen that should have been devoted to Cersei.

Tyrion – Overall I thought Tyrion’s ending was fine. My main complaint was that I had trouble remembering why he was supposedly so devoted to Danaerys that it took a literal holocaust for him to see that maybe that loyalty was misplaced. Him ending up as hand of the king to a Stark has a certain poetic justice to it, and he has the smarts and experience with the conniving politics of King’s Landing to make a very good foil for an overly noble and idealistic Stark king.

Danaerys – Of all the characters, I think Dany’s end was the one that needed to be handled with the most care, and in turn was the one most poorly served by the final season’s rushed pace and weak writing. I think in the right hands, with enough insight into what is going on in her mind, and enough time for her character to develop, her ending is going to be powerful and convincing and tragic. In other words, I am really looking forward to reading the book’s handling of her ending, and I am really disappointed that I had to see the clumsy way the show handled it first. The show skipped the hard work of character development and had her sulk in her room for a few days, and then flip out and nuke a city full of innocents. Tyrion’s speeches to Jon in the final episode tried to make up for the lack of justification leading up to her breakdown, but they were too little too late. There are hints of real insight into how evil acts are done by people who think they are the “good guys” but the poor character development this season prevented Dany’s ending from being what it could have been.

Bran – One of the major themes of Game of Thrones is that those who are most hungry for power are those least suited to rule. Also, a failure to recognize how events in the past echo forward to influence the present and future. (It’s almost as if fantasy can have meaningful lessons that apply to real life!) So, a kind man with near-omniscient knowledge of events past, present, and future, with no real desire to rule, and no children makes sense as an ideal king. I’m on board with Bran as king. What is less clear and I think was pretty clumsy is why the nobility of Westeros were suddenly willing to hold a vote for who would be king. (I did love Sam’s attempt at inventing democracy being summarily shot down by the nobles.) As an aside, can we mention the way that the show conveniently skipped the part where Grey Worm found out what happened to Danaerys and somehow did not summarily execute Jon and Tyrion, and furthermore allowed Tyrion to make grand speeches leading to a vote for the new leader? And how the Dothraki seemingly disappeared? That was sure something.

Sansa – My prediction for a long time was that Sansa would end up on the Iron Throne. Her arc, especially in the books, was all about going from an innocent pretty pretty princess to learning to survive and then thrive in the ugly, brutal, real world of court intrigue. She learned from Tyrion, the Hound, Cersei, and most of all Littlefinger. She was clearly being groomed by Martin for leadership. I had assumed that Jon and Dany (Ice and Fire) would die in the climactic battle against the White Walkers and Sansa would be left to rule over the ruins of a Westeros that barely survived. All in all I was not too far off: at least Sansa ended up on a throne, if not The Throne. Her decision not to join up with the other kingdoms under Bran’s rule is a little odd, but not too much of a stretch.

Arya – She killed the Night King! That was pretty great, even though most of the rest of that episode was too dark to see anything. Unfortunately after that, anything else was going to be kind of anticlimactic. I am absolutely on board with her realizing that there is no place for her in Westeros and setting out to do something else, but again, I wish there had been any build-up at all to her decision to become an explorer. You may have heard of Chekov’s Gun. The saying goes: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” To me Arya’s ending is the exact opposite. She is firing a rifle that we didn’t know existed. Where is it mentioned that she has an interest in exploring the world? Where does that desire come from? Why have we not heard of it before literally the last minute? Again, I am totally onboard with Arya, intrepid explorer. I would watch that spinoff show. But as with so much in this final season, the show didn’t do the work to get there. It skipped over the necessary character development, so it all seemed to come out of the blue.

Jon – Once it became clear that Danaerys was going full “Mad Queen” it was obvious that Jon was going to have to kill her. I also think his insistence that he did not want the throne was in keeping with his character. He was always a reluctant leader and ruler. And, although it was not shown, it is also in keeping with his character that even though Drogon showed up, torched the evidence and flew away with Dany’s body, Jon would go and admit to killing her and end up in jail. In the end, he was the most Ned Stark like of them all. I thought him being sent back to the wall was rather anticlimactic, but his arc was a hard one to wrap up. He doesn’t really fit anywhere else but it feels wrong to have him exiled for doing the right thing. Poor Jon deserved to retire to someplace warm, but of course he would never sit still for that. The final shots of the show seemed to imply that maybe the North was thawing and he would found a new kingdom up beyond the wall, which I guess works for me.

So, overall I am satisfied with the main plot points, but I am disappointed in how poor a job the show did with getting to them. Time after time, it didn’t devote enough time to develop the characters such that their endings felt fully earned. I’m sad that I didn’t get to find out the ending by reading the books, where Martin can spend as much time as he wants doing that hard writing work and making each twist and turn feel as powerful as it should be. But that also means that I am hopeful that Martin will finally finish the last two books and that we will eventually get to read the ending as it is supposed to be.

I am also hopeful for what will come after Game of Thrones. The show became a cultural phenomenon and made the entire world realize the kinds of powerful stories that can be told through speculative fiction. Sci-fi and fantasy are thoroughly mainstream now and Game of Thrones played an important role in making that happen. There are already many amazing shows following in Game of Thrones’ footsteps, and I can’t wait to see more.

Orange is the New Black is the best show on TV

Yes, better than Game of Thrones. Those of you who know me and how much I enjoy Game of Thrones will recognize what it means for me to make a statement like that, but I just finished watching Season 4 of Orange is the New Black (OITNB) and it blew me away. Some shows are good at first but fizzle as they use up their source material and have to start inventing their own. OITNB is the exact opposite: Season 1 is easily the weakest because it tries to sort of follow the premise of the book that inspired the show. It focuses on Piper Chapman, the naive young white woman who finds herself in jail for transporting drug money a decade ago.  But it rapidly becomes clear that Chapman is actually the least interesting part of the show.

Each episode, in addition to the multiple different plot threads that are taking place in the present, we get to see the backstory of one of the inmates (and guards). What their life was like, and how they ended up in jail. Episode by episode, characters who at first are just bit parts or stereotypes or antagonists or the butts of jokes are fleshed out into real people. And it’s worth pointing out that most of the characters on this show are women of color. The show is unrivaled in its ability to focus on demographics that are usually neglected in TV and movies, and the ensemble cast is amazing.

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By telling the stories of such a diverse group of characters, OITNB is also able to touch on a wide range of real world issues and transform them from something abstract into concrete, often emotionally wrenching stories. Here are a few of the issues that I can think of off the top of my head that the show touches upon:

  • Privatization of prisons
  • White privilege
  • Racism
  • Drug addiction
  • LGBT rights
  • Mental health
  • Rape and consent
  • Veterans issues
  • Liberal guilt
  • Police violence
  • Sexism
  • Freedom of religion
  • Employment for former convicts
  • Overly harsh sentencing for nonviolent crimes
  • etc.

What I really love is that while one or another of these issues might take center stage on any given episode, the other ones don’t just go away. This is a show that recognizes that in the real world, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. They are all interconnected, and that makes them that much harder to deal with.

With so many heavy issues, OITNB could easily veer into such a dark place as to become unwatchable. But instead, through possibly the most masterful use of comic relief I have ever seen, it manages to balance its dark and often depressing themes with moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humor. The show is often listed as a comedy, but I would not go that far. It’s primarily a drama. If you’re anything like me, watching this show will leave you emotionally devastated at times. But there is humor there too, in just the right amount.

Especially for someone like me with an interest in writing , OITNB is like a master class. I am seriously considering re-watching some episodes and taking notes. Each episode is crammed with multiple intertwining threads of story, with a host of amazing well-rounded diverse characters, touching on important real-world issues, while also managing to be truly entertaining. And the episodes together form excellent season-long story arcs with dramatic conclusions (and, of course, cliffhangers). I would say its only real weakness is that too many of the guards are pure villains, but even then there are other guards who are well-developed characters so it’s not just that all the men in the show are evil.

If you have not watched Orange is the New Black, I cannot recommend it enough. If you tried a few episodes and stopped, I would urge you to try to get to the second season, where the focus begins to shift away from Piper more. So far every season has been better than the last, and the fourth season was so phenomenally good that I want to grab random people by the shoulders and shake them and make them watch it. Since that would probably not go over very well, this blog post will have to do!

 

Game Review: Walking Dead: Season 1

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You know that feeling when you get to the end of a great novel? Or when the credits are rolling after an amazing season finale for your favorite TV show? Yeah, that’s what I’m feeling right now after finishing The Walking Dead: Season 1.

I’ve been known to complain on this blog about the lack of a decent story in video games. It’s something that always bothers me because so many games could be so much better if they spent just a little effort on the plot instead of filler content so that they can claim there are 100 hours of gameplay. Thankfully, it looks like at least some game designers are realizing this, and Telltale games seems to be leading the way.

Playing The Walking Dead is not like other games. You don’t have much freedom to move around, the controls are frankly pretty clunky, and the graphics are not amazing (but they are cool looking: making the game look like a comic book is a nice shout out to the source material that also allows them to skimp on graphics). The Walking Dead is more like watching an episode of a TV show. The game is even broken into discrete episodes, complete with credits, “previously on…” and teasers for the next episode. But the difference is that it’s a TV show where instead of yelling impotently at the screen when the characters do something dumb, you actually get to play the role of one of the characters (though if you’re like me you’ll still yell at the non-player characters from time to time…).

In The Walking Dead: Season 1, you play Lee, a former history professor who was on his way to jail when the zombie apocalypse occurred (the details of your past are revealed gradually, so I won’t say anything more than that). You end up escaping from the crashed cop car and finding a little girl, Clementine, hiding out in her tree fort to get away from the zombies. You take her under your wing and meet up with an assortment of other interesting characters as you try to survive in the zombie infested world. Unlike most games where killing aliens or terrorists or, you know, zombies, is the main attraction, here the best part of the game is just getting to know the characters. They all are well written, often with their own annoying traits but that only serves to make them feel “real”.

Of course, with realistic characters comes conflict. Disagreements about how best to survive, who is in charge, what to do when someone “turns” into a zombie. In every episode, you are faced with a few tough moral decisions, and these decisions have consequences. More often than not, your choices determine who survives the episode, which can be very difficult because the characters are so well developed. (The game does overuse the “who will you save?” decision a bit.) But it’s not all choices like that. Sometimes it’s the choice between fighting someone or talking to them to calm them down, or what to tell Clementine about whether her parents are alive or not, or whether to trust a newcomer to the group. Oh, and usually you only have a second or two to decide. Of course, the choices don’t alter the fundamental backbone of the story too much: the game’s writers would rapidly end up with a million different diverging stories. But even though the game steers you toward what must happen to advance the story, the fact that you get to make decisions that affect not only the current episode, but all subsequent episodes, means that you get really emotionally invested in the game. The Walking Dead game could easily be set up to just watch like a TV show, and it would be a pretty darn good show on its own. But by allowing you, the player, to make choices and get invested in the characters, it ends up being more powerful than just about any TV show I’ve ever watched. Not to give anything away, but the ending of the final episode had a hell of an emotional impact.

The only negative thing I can say about the game is that one of the episodes was very buggy. I had to restart and re-do a few scenes to be able to get through it. Things like this are especially jarring for a game that otherwise sucks you in so thoroughly.

But other than the bugs, I loved this game. It makes me incredibly happy that there are more “seasons” and that Telltale has quite a few other games out there (apparently they have a Game of Thrones series that I’ll have to check out). I really hope the success of games like this that don’t treat plot and characters as an afterthought inspires other developers to follow suit.

 

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers! Proceed with caution!

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I finally saw the new Star Wars movie the day after Christmas. Prior to that, I had to almost entirely cut down on reading the internet to avoid spoilers, and I’m happy to report that I was successful. All I really knew about The Force Awakens going in was that it was supposed to be much better than the prequels.

So, did it live up to the hype?

Maybe? I have some complicated feelings about The Force Awakens. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like the new main characters, and being back in the Star Wars universe was pure joy. On the other hand, the movie was basically two hours of nothing but fan service, mashing up iconic characters, moments, and plot devices from the original trilogy into something precision engineered to hit older readers right in the nostalgia.

Here are some things that are awfully familiar:

  • A hero who lives in poverty on a desert planet who happens to be a great pilot.
  • The hero encounters a scrappy droid who speaks in a series of cute noises, and that droid is carrying information vital to the rebellion, who are battling against the forces of evil.
  • The hero meets an ally and escapes from the desert planet in the Millennium Falcon, after taking down some TIE fighters using the Falcon’s Anti-Aircraft-style blasters.
  • Han Solo and Chewbacca have to talk/fight their way out of a confrontation with some shady characters.
  • The good guys go to a cantina filled with an assortment of exotic aliens with a catchy tune playing in the background.
  • A cute, diminutive, thousand-year-old alien dispenses wisdom to our protagonist.
  • The enemy has a super-weapon capable of destroying entire planets. However it has a single weak point that can be taken out by sending a strike force down to the surface to disable the shields, allowing a squadron of fighters to fly in and destroy it.
  • The bad guy wears an expressionless black mask that modulates his voice.
  • He is related to a main character and the two have a confrontation where he is called to turn away from the dark side.
  • He is controlled by a shadowy figure of pure evil who often appears in the form of a holographic projection.
  • He has a red light saber.
  • Han Solo and our young male hero go on a mission inside the enemy base to rescue the female hero who is being interrogated.
  • Storm troopers are highly susceptible to Jedi mind tricks.

And there are many other tiny nods to the original series.

And really, there basically had to be. What we all really wanted was to feel the same way we did when we watched the first trilogy, so I can’t complain too much about the new movie delivering that in spades. I worry, though, that it was so very very similar. Sure, some nods and fan service here and there are fun, but major sections of the plot were basically copy-pasted from the original movies. I guess it’s fitting because Star Wars itself was a mashup that borrowed scenes practically verbatim from previous movies, but it does make me worry about where the series will go from here.

But I’m also very optimistic about where it will go from here, and what that will mean. As I said, I think the new main characters are excellent. Fin’s origin as a stormtrooper deserter is fascinating, and Rey is just about everything you could ask for in a strong female protagonist. Poe Dameron, the hot shot fighter pilot, is also a fun character: imagine that, a great pilot who is not strong with the force!

Also, The Force Awakens, despite (or perhaps because of?) basically being a mash-up of the original trilogy, indicates to me that the folks in charge of the Star Wars franchise now know what it is that fans like about Star Wars and what we don’t. I was really relieved that they brought back comic relief in the form of witty banter rather relying entirely on sight gags and slapstick. Of all the things in the prequels that I didn’t like, I think it was the awful attempts at humor that bothered me the most.

Some of my favorite parts of the movie were the early establishing shots of Rey scavenging in the wreckage of a massive battle (and the later dogfight among the wreckage). What battle led to a field of Star Destroyer and AT-AT walker wreckage in the desert of Jakku? It is not explained and it never should be. J.J. Abrams and his team know that the greatest part of Star Wars is not the tip of the iceberg shown on screen, but the hints of a bigger universe full of stories waiting to be told.

All in all, I enjoyed the Force Awakens and I think it achieved what it set out to do: it brought back the feel of the original trilogy (although I wish it hadn’t copied quite so blatantly), and it laid the groundwork for new stories. I just hope going forward that the next movies can move ahead into new territory instead of endlessly rehashing the old movies. I’m cautiously optimistic on that front. If that happens, then I think we have a lot of great adventures to look forward to.

 

Some final assorted observations:

  • I’m glad Han Solo got killed off (and totally saw it coming). From the small number of interviews I’ve seen with Harrison Ford, he seemed completely bored and borderline annoyed with how excited everyone was about Star Wars being rebooted (I got much the same vibe as I get from Peter Dinklage’s interviews about Game of Thrones, like the actor is annoyed that this of all things is what they’re going to be remembered for). Also, killing Solo was a nice mirror image of Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi.
  • Boy those bad guys sure are Nazi-like. Star Wars is not known for its subtlety.
  • What exactly is the rebellion rebelling against now? The Republic is the main government now, right? And they’re the good guys, right? So shouldn’t the “rebellion” actually just be called the Republic’s military?
  • Star Wars bad guys need to hire better engineers who have heard of redundancy to avoid single points of failure.
  • I thought it was a nice touch that when Starkiller Base was destroyed, it just turned back into a star (though the size was all wrong)
  • The x-wings flying low over the water gave me all sorts of nostalgic feels about playing Star Wars video games.
  • I was amused that Kylo Ren’s light saber was all raggedy, as if his evilness just couln’t be contained.
  • I also enjoyed how many of the familiar ships from the original Star Wars were slightly tweaked, as if technology had changed, but only slightly, since the events of the earlier series.
  • I really hope that Rey is not a long lost relative of the characters we know and love, and that she’s just an awesome, capable woman who is strong with the Force. There were thousands of Jedi back in the day, and they’re not all related, so Rey doesn’t need to be a secret Skywalker or Kenobi, or whatever.

 

 

A martian’s review of The Martian (book)

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As someone whose day job can be summarized as “zapping rocks on Mars with a laser” and who is interested in writing speculative fiction, I know you will be shocked to learn that I have some opinions about the novel The Martian by Andy Weir. I will now share these opinions with you!

The premise behind this book is as simple as it is compelling: Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after his crewmates believe that he has died in a violent sandstorm and are forced to abort the mission. Watney has to survive on the surface of Mars with limited supplies and equipment, until a rescue mission can come get him. It’s basically like Castaway, but on a planet that is extremely hostile to life instead of a tropical island.

The Castaway analogy works, but the best description of The Martian I have heard (and I forget where I heard it, sorry! Edit: someone pointed out that it was this xkcd. Because of course it was xkcd). is that it’s like that scene from Apollo 13 where they have to get the square CO2 filters to work in a round hole, but it goes on for an entire book. If you loved that scene, you will love The Martian. If you don’t remember that scene, then you may not be as excited to read page after page of how Watney figures out how to grow potatoes in Mars soil, or how he manages to create hydrogen by catalytically breaking down rocket fuel.

I know you are now bracing yourself for a few thousand words of pedantic nit-picking from the Mars scientist who wants to correct every little scientific detail in the book, but surprise! I’m not going to do that for two reasons: One, it’s boring. Two, the book was actually pretty good in terms of science. I have two main technical things that I’ll complain about but then I’ll move on to some other non-sciencey things to nit-pick about instead!

The main technical problem in the book is that it vastly overestimates the violence of a martian dust storm. In fact, it repeatedly calls them sand storms. The problem is, Mars has a very thin atmosphere, so while you can get very fast winds, they don’t have much “oomph” behind them. They certainly are not going to dismember a communications antenna and send it hurtling like a javelin into a hapless astronaut. And you’re not going to end up with the drifts of sand that are described when Watney wakes up from his almost-fatal impaling. Sand does move on Mars, but not in huge amounts like that.

I actually heard an interview with Any Weir yesterday, and he brings this up. He says that he actually knew that this was inaccurate, but that since the book is basically a Man vs Nature story, he wanted Nature to land the first blow. And he also pointed out that scientists like me are now coming out of the woodwork explaining to people that the winds on Mars aren’t actually that strong, and so the net result is probably that the public knows much more about the strength of wind on Mars that they would have if he had gotten the science right. So ok, I can live with that.

My other main problem is that Watney has to drive an absurdly long distance across the surface of Mars. It’s just not realistic to have someone drive halfway around the planet. I get that he’s in a giant rover, and so can traverse across obstacles much larger than the robotic rovers could. But he certainly wouldn’t be doing that at 25 kph. And just as importantly, for most of the time he is unable to communicate with NASA or the orbiting satellites, so he doesn’t have high-resolution images to help him plan his route. I can tell you that even with 25 cm per pixel resolution to help us plan where the current robotic rovers drive, we are still surprised by obstacles sometimes.

But really, other than the inciting event and one of the major plot points, I thought the science was pretty good. That sounds snarky, but it’s true: those are both places where the Story takes precedence over being realistic, and that’s ok. For the rest of the book, all the technical details were about right. There were countless places where I put the book down and yelled at Watney “No! Don’t do it that way! This way would be much better!” or other comments along those lines. And then in the next line, he would realize exactly what I was thinking. These were not cases where the technical details were wrong, they were places where Watney was being deliberately slow so that typical readers can follow along with him as he figures things out.

In reality, upon being stranded, an astronaut would probably sit down and figure out in a few hours and a few pages of calculations what it takes Watney weeks, and lots of trial and error, to sort out. But that would be awfully boring to read, and amazingly, Watney’s struggles are not! To me that is the great accomplishment of this book: it manages to make long, detailed descriptions of technical problem solving not only palatable, but actually engrossing. This book is a page turner!

The book is so readable because of Mark Watney’s voice. His personality is finely-honed to be extremely charismatic, likeable, funny, and relatable. The Martian is a spectacular example of the power of voice to make a piece of fiction readable and exciting. If Watney didn’t have a compelling voice, nobody would be able to tolerate the long passages of technical details. At times, I found the degree to which Weir tries to make Watney a relatable everyman a bit annoying. In particular, whenever Watney is making cracks about how nerdy those guys at NASA are. DUDE. You are a mechanical engineer slash botanist astronaut on Mars. I’m pret-ty sure that qualifies you as one of those nerds at NASA!

This spilled over into some of the scenes on Earth as well. In order to make the scenes on Earth understandable to a normal audience, everything had to be explained in great detail. So you end up with lots of scenes where one character has to come across as clueless so that the other character can explain things to them (and to the reader). This is not how normal conversations between people at mission control would go. Realistic conversations would be nearly incomprehensible to someone who is not an expert, thanks to all the shorthand. People wouldn’t be explaining things in great detail, instead other people would be cutting them off mid-thought, already seeing where they are going and jumping to the next logical conclusion. Believe me, when I first got to participate in rover planning meetings as a baby graduate student, everything was just a confusing jumble of acronyms and jargon. Heck, sometimes it still is!

So, I totally understand why all the Earth scenes had to be the way they are so that readers can follow them, but I still found it a bit annoying. (In fiction there’s a term for conversations between two characters where one of them explains something to the other, when both of them already know it. It’s called the “As you know…” trope.)

Anyway, on to my biggest complaint about this book. You will notice that up above I said that Watney’s voice was extremely compelling. I was careful to say “voice” and not “character” because in my opinion Watney is an extremely poorly-developed character. I know, I know, this is going to be an unpopular opinion. But hear me out. Over the course of an entire novel, what do we learn about Watney? He’s from Chicago, he likes to crack jokes, he hates disco. We get a few mentions of his parents. We learn what his areas of expertise are (the better to buy into his ability to come up with MacGyver style hacks). But even though it is abundantly obvious that Watney has TONS of free time as he sits around on Mars, we never see any depth to his character. We’re supposed to believe that he just sits around and watches bad 70s TV in all his copious free time and doesn’t do things like, say, reminisce about all the people and things he misses on Earth. He apparently has no friends, no significant others, no pets. He barely even thinks about his parents. Where are the emotional scenes where he is missing the ability to step outside and feel the breeze on his skin, the warm sun on his face? Where are the dark moments where he almost gives up hope? Why doesn’t he seem to be fazed by more than a year of absolute isolation? Nope, hardly any of that. He just watches TV and makes bad jokes during all his free time.

I’ll tell you my theory: the author was afraid that getting too negative would bum people out and make them stop reading. So instead we get a protagonist who is so freakishly optimistic and cheery that it removes the emotional core of the story. There are lots of cliche sayings about not being able to appreciate the good without the bad and the like, but I think they really do apply here. As it is right now, The Martian is a pretty good book. If Weir had been willing to dig a little deeper and allow his character to explore some of the actual emotions that a person would go through during years of solitary confinement on a hostile alien planet, it would be a great book.

But all my nitpicks and complaints aside, I should make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it. Is it great literature? No. But it is awesome science fiction, with a heaping dose of accurate scientific fact. It’s an exciting page-turner, and it is likely going to do more to inspire people to be interested in space exploration and teach people about Mars than NASA could ever dream to do with all of its public outreach and press releases. I have no doubt that there are kids in high school right now who will be inspired by this book (and/or the movie) to go on to become engineers and scientists. And for that, I’m willing to overlook some minor flaws and get swept up in a good story with everyone else.

 

 

Book Review: Hero of Ages

Hero of Ages is the third volume in the Mistborn trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson and it picks up some time after the twist ending of the second book, The Well of Ascension. I can’t really talk about Hero of Ages without spoiling the other books in the trilogy, so here’s your warning: Spoilers for ALL THREE books in the trilogy. Read on at your own risk!

Here’s my short, non-spoiler review: I have mixed feelings about this book and series. On the one hand, the magic system (certain metals give certain people special powers when eaten in powdered form), and premise (what happens after the Dark Lord wins?) are both interesting, and this third book brings things to a pretty satisfying ending. But on the other hand, the writing and character development was not great. This series is worth reading, but is most enjoyable if you don’t think too much about it.

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Still here? Ok. So, here’s the thing. Brandon Sanderson is a prolific and popular fantasy writer, and his books tend to get very good fan reviews, so I had high hopes for this series. Problem is, it never quite worked for me, and what’s even more frustrating is that it’s hard to even put my finger on why. I have some ideas though. So, this is going to be less a review and more me trying to work out why these books didn’t fully work for me, which requires going through some of my complaints. I should note up front that despite my complaints, I think on the whole the books are pretty good. Not classics, but good, fun reads. I’m glad I read them. I just found some aspects of them frustrating.

Gripe the First: Elend

First of all, let’s talk about Elend’s character. Earlier in the series, he is an uncertain scholarly type, who ends up as a king but is not really leadership material. His heart is in the right place but he is too timid and idealistic. In the second book, he meets Tindwyl who puts him through leadership boot camp, which basically was: wear nicer clothes and don’t be such a pushover and everyone will follow you. He eventually follows this advice and it seems to work. Now we get to The Hero of Ages, and some time has passed since the end of the last book, when (No, seriously, Spoiler Alert!) Vin saved Elend’s life after he was stabbed at the Well of Ascension by turning him into a mistborn. Here’s what bothered me: Throughout the beginning of Hero of Ages, the reader is beat over the head with the fact that Elend is now a great leader, a manly man who is manly, and oh so handsome in his white uniform, and also, he is not just a mistborn but an extremely powerful mistborn.

For example:

[Elend arrives at a city that is about to be attacked and takes command]

“Open the gate and bring my horse in,” the newcomer said. “I assume you have stables?”

“Yes, my lord,” the soldier said.

Well, Fatren thought with dissatisfaction as the soldier ran off, this newcomer certainly knows how to command people. Fatren’s soldier didn’t even pause to think that he was obeying a stranger without asking for permission. Fatren could aready see the other soldiers straightening a bit, losing their wariness. This newcomer talked like he expected to be obeyed, and the soldiers were responding. This wasn’t a nobleman like the ones Fatren had known back when he was a household servant at the lord’s manor. This man was different.

I think this bothered me for two reasons: first, he’s basically a completely different character, and second, this is pounded into the reader throughout the beginning of Hero of Ages. It seems pretty clear that Sanderson realized that he needed a character who had all of these attributes for the plot in the third book to work, and so spent much of book 2 trying to transform the character to that the third book would be plausible. But then it was like he didn’t trust that the transformation was complete, so book three starts after some time has passed and we’re just told over and over again how handsome and leaderly and powerful Elend is, just to make sure we got it. I mean, character growth is great, but I guess what bothered me was that this was more like character replacement.

While I’m complaining about Elend, I should also mention the complete lack of chemistry between Elend and Vin. Basically the only indication that they’re in love throughout the book is when the narration states that they love each other. There’s one chapter where their personalities actually come out and there is some banter and playfulness between them, but otherwise in most scenes with Vin and Elend they have about as much chemistry as Anakin and Padme in the Star Wars prequels.

Gripe number 2: This is my Worldbuilding Let Me Show You It

Throughout Hero of Ages, each chapter begins with an excerpt written by Sazed that is relevant to the events of the chapter. These excerpts are almost always pure info-dumps, serving to explain some aspect of the worldbuilding. Without these little explanations, parts of the book would be hard to understand, so they’re important. But I found myself getting annoyed at Sanderson’s apparent need to explain every last thing. Like, I get that you worked out lots of details about the Mistborn world and magic system. But as with all research for writing, just because you did it doesn’t mean it belongs on the page. It was like, after the first book, Sanderson went through and made a list of things that people had criticized about the worldbuilding, and then wanted to show that he had found an explanation for all of these things. Also, these excerpts made some of the “twists” that come later in the book extremely obvious. Maybe the reader was supposed to figure them out before they happened, maybe not. It was kind of fun to be able to say “Ha! I knew that would happen!” But at the same time, I think it would have been more fun to be surprised. I read somewhere that the best twists in fiction are those that the reader doesn’t see coming before hand, but afterward it’s clear that there is no other way things could have happened.

Another aspect of the over-explanation that bugged me through all three books was the need to explain the fight scenes to death. A side effect of the ever-increasing complexity of the magic system (by the end of the third book there are three inter-related systems of magic that characters are using) is that all fight scenes have to be explained in great detail to know what’s going on. The reader needs a lot more information than in a normal fight scene. To Sanderson’s credit, he manages to make some very complicated fights comprehensible, but in doing so, the fight scenes tend to become tedious descriptions of metal reserves and the side effects of newton’s laws as the characters push and pull on various metal objects.

Also, speaking of physics: There are a few instances where the worldbuilding tries to get scientific. These are almost inevitably painful to a science-minded reader.

Gripe Number 3: On Atheism

This is a more personal gripe that probably won’t bother most people. One of the plot lines in Hero of Ages deals with a character who is struggling to find faith in any religion after the death of someone he loved. He spends many chapters moping around, despairing that all of the religions that he knows so much about have logical inconsistencies. On the one hand, this character’s distress at not being able to find a suitable religion makes sense: he’s spent his life preserving memory of ancient religions and now he can’t find one to help him through a difficult time. But on the other hand, it seemed almost as if these scenes were the author’s way of saying that life without religion is awful and pointless and unbearable. As someone who is not religious, I can say that it’s possible to handle grief and find meaning in life without relying on a higher power, and it made me uncomfortable to read these chapters that seemed to imply otherwise.

Also, it was jarring to read about Sazed freaking out about how all his religions are wrong, and then go to a chapter where a character is, literally, talking to a god. Like, that’s one of the things about being a non-religious person: If there were overt evidence of a god, then everyone should obviously believe in that god! It was hard to separate what I knew as a reader from what Sazed knew, but it sure seemed like he had a lot of evidence pointing to there being actual gods to worship.

Other gripes:

Heavy Handedness – Look, I get it: Elend is worried that he is no better than the Lord Ruler he overthrew. I GET IT. Could we not repeat the same introspective agonizing over this every single Elend chapter, and have this theme pop up in Vin’s chapters, AND have Elend’s enemies point this contradiction out to him too? It’s great to have a theme and all, but readers are smart. No need to hang flashing lights on the theme every time it appears.

Spook’s sacrifice – HE SHOULD BE DEAD. His story arc was over, and it ended with him sacrificing himself to save his friends. I actually yelled at the book when it was revealed that he was still alive. I mean, I’m not expecting a George R.R. Martin level body count here, but his arc would have been much better if he didn’t survive.

Vin’s orbital dynamics – Vin becomes a goddess and moves the planet closer to the sun, and then realizes that the sun is too strong and is going to burn everything now that the ash is gone. So she turns the planet around so the other side is facing the sun. How does that solve the problem? That just burns all the people on the other side of the planet. But I guess they’re not characters so we don’t care, and setting half the planet on fire will not have any negative effects on the other half of the planet. Why didn’t she just put the planet back where it belonged? Sigh.

Ok, so those are a few of my complaints. On the other hand, there were some aspects of the book that I thought were quite good. The plot is quite strong and the ending is satisfying. Also, I really enjoyed the chapters about the shape-shifting Kandra (although when TenSoon had to traverse the breadth of the empire I can’t figure out why he didn’t turn into something that could fly rather than running the whole way). And for all my complaints about it, the worldbuilding is very thorough and unique.

So, we come back to the main question: why did I have so much trouble getting into these books? For some reason, I found myself unable to fully suspend disbelief, and so what would otherwise be minor problems became major distractions. Part of it is probably that Sanderson and this series are so popular that I read with extra scrutiny, but I don’t think that’s the main reason. After putting my various gripes down in writing, I think I can see what the real problem was: the author and the story structure were too obvious. Picture a story as a living creature: it’s skeleton determines its basic shape, but then that skeleton is fleshed out to become a healthy animal. This story, I could see the bones peeking through. And once I noticed them, they threw me out of the story, and being less than fully-immersed meant that I noticed more bones, and so on. All stories have underlying structure, all authors make choices the emphasize certain themes or develop characters to suit the story they are writing. But for some reason the Mistborn series the author’s choices were more apparent to me than for other stories, making it harder to sink into the fictional world. On the bright side though, it was quite educational from a writing standpoint.

All in all, Hero of Ages and the whole Mistborn series are definitely worth reading. I just had trouble getting fully immersed, and so didn’t enjoy them as much as I might have liked.

 

Storytelling Lessons from Ira Glass

Last night my wife and I went to see Ira Glass in his stage show “Reinventing Radio”. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Ira Glass is the host of the radio show This American Life, which is one of the best shows on radio (I’d say its only real competition for the top spot is RadioLab). It is great because it tells great stories, and the stage show that we saw was basically Ira Glass talking about how they put together a radio show that is interesting, touching, and nearly impossible to stop listening to. Many of the points that he made apply to written storytelling too, so I though I’d list a few that stood out.

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1. Dark and serious is not the same as realistic

Glass spent some time discussing what makes This American Life different from typical broadcast journalism, and to do so he played a clip from CNN, reporting on the war in Afghanistan. It had everything you would expect: Very Serious reporters, epic music in the background, and everything about it just screamed “this is very important and serious”. Glass pointed out that this is all a stylistic choice. That broadcast journalism has sort of built up this standard tone that focuses on the serious, but in doing so they exclude humor and amusement and friendship and a wide swath of the human experience. In short, Glass said, the tone that broadcast journalism has self-imposed excludes “everything that makes life worth living.”

As a contrast with the CNN clip, glass played a clip from when their reporter was on the aircraft carrier that was running sorties into Afghanistan. They were interviewing a young soldier whose job 12 hours a day was to fill the vending machines on the aircraft carrier. It was a cute little moment of humor in an otherwise really serious setting, and made for very interesting radio.

Anyone who pay attention to popular culture is aware of the recent trend toward “grittiness” and gray characters and moral ambiguity in movies and books. There’s a whole subgenre of fantasy called “grimdark” now because of this trend. I think there is the assumption that by going “gritty”, the stories told are more realistic. But Ira Glass makes the really important point that this isn’t so, that life is a complicated mix of serious and funny, nasty and wonderful. If you only focus on the grimdark side of things, you’re not giving a realistic picture of life.

2. All stories ask questions

Glass also talked about the importance of plot. He quoted someone (whose name I unfortunately forget) who said that all stories are basically detective stories: they get the reader/viewer/listener to ask questions, and the desire the find the answer to those questions are what make you turn the page, or sit in the car with the radio for just another minute. Glass said that even just laying down the bare bones of the plot “this happened, and then this happened…”, if done right, gets the reader asking the question “Then what happened?” and that’s enough to keep people hooked. He also pointed out that this happens on all different scales in a story. There’s the big questions that stretch across the whole story arc, but there are also small questions that resolve themselves in moments. His example was “a figure stood in the doorway”. You’re immediately wondering whether this new arrival is a friend or foe to the protagonist. A few lines of dialogue, and you know the answer to that question and there is a small feeling of resolution. A great climax to a story is when a single event resolves lots of different outstanding questions.

On a related note, one thing that came up in the Q&A was that someone asked him about the pauses in the radio show and if they are deliberate. And the answer is yes, of course they are. Glass joked about how this person’s favorite part of the show was when he just shut up and let her think, but what clicked in my brain is that the short pauses that they intersperse in the radio show are actually examples of narrative tension on the sentence level. Just a short break in the flow of words lets the listener (a) think about what was just said, and (b) build suspense for what is about to be said.  The exact same principle can be applied in writing on multiple scales by varying the pacing of a scene or a chapter, or even by the placement of words and punctuation in a single sentence.

3. Sometimes “seeing” more lessens the impact

Glass began and ended the show by discussing the intimacy of radio. He made the point that, for some of their stories, if they had been filmed there would be so many visual details that distract from the point of the story that it would be almost impossible to have the same effect. Viewers would see the people and the setting and subconsciously (or consciously) think “that person isn’t like me” and therefore might not empathize quite as much with the people being interviewed. They would automatically judge the person onscreen and in doing so, distance themselves from the actual story. For example he talked about a very detailed piece they did on an inner-city school in Chicago, and he said that one of the main goals was for listeners to get beyond their preconceptions and, when they hear the story of the kids whose lives are full of gangs and shootings, realize: “That could be me” and “I would do the same thing in their shoes”.

I think the idea that the lack of visuals in radio can have this power to make a story more intimate can carry over to written stories and fiction. Of course, when writing you need to include some visual details, but choosing those details judiciously and allowing the reader to fill in the rest is an important part of getting the reader to buy in to the story.

4. What’s the point?

This is another aspect of the need to relate to the characters in a story. Glass pointed out that, when you’re telling a story to a friend, you don’t generally just stop, you wrap it up with a statement that just comes right out and says “this is the point of the story.” One example he gave was a really captivating piece they did about a girl in New Zealand who has been bitten by a shark. She was taken to the doctor and stitched up and the doctor told her parents that she would be in a lot of pain but not to worry about it, she’ll get better. But overnight, she gets worse and worse (it turned out the bite had punctured her intestine and she was getting peritonitis and close to death). She tries to convince her parents that things are really bad, but they don’t believe her, thinking of the doctor’s warning that it would be painful, but not to worry.

Gripping story right? You want to know how it is resolved. But what Glass said was that what really makes the story resonate is that it is the most extreme example of something everyone experiences: being a kid and trying to convince your parents of something that you know to be true, and they don’t believe you. Now for most of us, this experience is more about monsters under the bed or the importance of high school drama rather than a life-threatening shark bite. But Glass’s point was that every story that is any good has a key point that links it to the listener’s own personal experience, and that getting the people he interviews to focus in on this key point is a big part of conducting an effective interview. He said that basically the goal is to get someone to come right out and say what the point of the story is.

This can be tricky to do in fiction, but I think the idea is still valid. Even if you don’t want your characters to stand up and tell the reader “this is why you should care about this story”, it makes sense for the author to be keenly aware of this central idea that the reader can relate to.

5. It’s a volume game

Multiple times, Glass mentioned that “it’s a volume game”, meaning that to get the good stuff, you have to work through and discard a lot of junk. For the stories included in the show, he said that more than half of the stories that they start never air because they aren’t good enough. And for stories that do air, most of the interviews never air.

During the Q&A at the end, someone asked how Glass can do radio so much and stay “authentic”, and he responded by saying that it takes a lot of practice to be good enough to be yourself. This segued into something that I had heard him say before in the excellent video clip below. Basically, the only way to become good enough is to do a large body of work:

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