Science, Fiction, Life

Category: World Building

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning

They say you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? The title of Ada Palmer’s “Too Like the Lightning” gripped me the first time I saw it, and I knew I had to read the book regardless of what it was about. I only learned later that the title is part of a line from Romeo and Juliet:

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.”
I’ll say up front that although this book is not perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it. The basic premise is that several hundred years in the future, geopolitics on Earth looks radically different from what we have now. Technology is advanced enough that people can hop in a (flying) car and travel anywhere in the world in less than two hours, and this has led to a breakdown of traditional nations. Instead, society is organized into several different groups or “hives” and people can choose which one they ant to be a part of, if any:
  • Humanists: focused on human achievements (athletic, artistic, etc)
  • Cousins: focused on altruism and providing social services to all
  • The Masonic empire: A Rome-like monarchy built on the longstanding rumors of a secret society pulling the strings throughout history
  • The Gordians: Basically a think-tank become a nation, with a focus on understanding the human brain and behavior
  • The European Union: Self-explanatory
  • Mitsubishi corporation: A coalition of former Asian nations now run as a “shareholder democracy”. Owns most of the land on Earth.
  • Utopians: A group of scientists and others focused on the future. They work tirelessly to end all disease, extend human life, and colonize other planets.

Here is a more detailed description of each hive, written by Palmer herself.

This fascinating vision of the future is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is crammed full of other really creative ideas about the future, and that’s what really made me love it. Some are relatively minor, like textiles that project an image of the background on their surface rendering the wearer nearly invisible. Others are fascinating and troubling, like “set sets”: humans who have been interfaced directly with computers since birth, co-opting the neural pathways normally reserved for things like sight and smell and taste, turning them into phenomenally powerful biological computers.

The plot of the novel revolves around a family who play a central role in the smooth functioning of this future world. Their two “set-sets” (along with a massive array of supercomputers) are responsible for the flight paths of the billions and billions of high-speed cars that zip around the world and make the distributed “Hives” possible. (The cars of course, are not driven by their passengers, and crashes are so rare that they make international news when they occur.) Only the small Utopian hive does not use their system of cars. Unbeknownst to most, the family also harbors a boy with extraordinary abilities that I won’t divulge here, and protecting him from discovery is a major driver of the plot.

But really I’ll be honest: this is not a novel about plot. It’s about this vivid and fascinating vision of the future in all of its glorious, messy, detail. The plot serves primarily as an excuse for the main characters to meet and interact with the outlandish characters who lead each of the Hives, and therefore to show the reader another facet of the complicated future world. (And of course, just as has often been the case with leaders of nations throughout history, the leaders of the hives all know each other and are connected by a web of marriages, adoptions, etc.)

In case the intricate worldbuilding didn’t clue you in, this novel is unabashedly smart, and to some it may veer into the territory of “pretentious”. You see, “Too Like The Lightning” is obsessed with Enlightenment philosophy. The writing style of the book is heavily influenced by this time period as well, with a narrator (who is also a main character) who speaks directly to the reader, sometimes even inventing interjections from the reader and responding to them. Palmer does some exposition jiu-jitsu by having the narrator ostensibly relating the events of the novel to a reader even farther in the future, but by explaining things to that future reader, we in the “past” are also able to understand things. Here, it’s probably easier if I just show an example, from where the narrator is explaining why he’s writing in the style of the 18th century:

“You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.”

I suspect some readers might balk at the almost self-indulgent way this book goes on about various philosophers and how their works are relevant for certain aspects of the future society depicted, but I found it refreshing. Usually if sci-fi is going to get self-indulgent about some subject, it’s science (often physics). Most people don’t bat an eye when the brilliant scientist in a hard sci-fi novel gives a big speech explaining special relativity or the chaotic orbits of planets in a multi-star system, or what have you. In fact, books like that are often applauded for their perceived realism. I’d argue that “Too Like The Lightning” is doing exactly the same thing, explaining some point of philosophy that is just as fundamental to understanding the world depicted in the novel as special relativity is fundamental to understanding Tau Zero, for example.

What really impressed me about this book (Palmer’s first published novel!) is the confidence and skill with which Palmer manages to pull off several very difficult things. The voice and narrative style, as you can see in the quote above, are very distinctive and unusual. The world she has created is intricate and complicated and feels organic, which means it is potentially confusing, yet somehow Palmer manages to write in such a way that you always have just enough information to want to keep going to learn more. From the very beginning , it is written in such a way that you trust all will be made clear in due time. Often I lose patience with stories that string the reader along, but “Too Like the Lightning” does it extremely well. In this, it has a lot in common with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which also contains lots of philosophical discussions and likewise provides the reader just enough information to understand but doles it out slowly.

Finally, I found it refreshing to read far-future sci-fi set here on Earth rather than a space opera set in an unknown star system on the other side of the galaxy. Most authors writing this far into the future use the time gap and fictional worlds they’re writing about as an excuse to start with a relatively blank slate. Palmer instead takes the far more challenging route of setting her story here on Earth. That means that her worldbuilding has to deal with the complicated, messy baggage of thousands of years of real history, but as a historian Palmer is up to the challenge and the result is a sci-fi vision of the future that feels far more “real” than the hardest “hard” sci-fi.

I was disappointed at the end of the book to learn that it is really only the beginning of a longer story, but that’s unfortunately par for the course in speculative fiction. That said, I still thought the twists and revelations at the end were very good. As I listened to the end of the audiobook (which has a great narrator) on a plane, I may have said “whoaaah” out loud. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series.


Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and How Film Making Workshops can Help Shape the Stars for Future Filmmakers

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


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. A lot of aspiring filmmakers nowadays seek knowledge from to create amazing films. 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.

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.


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.


Book Review: Feed by Mira Grant


The post-apocalyptic genre usually seems to take an all-or-nothing stance on civilization. Most post-apocalyptic stories either start with the world as it is and progress toward complete breakdown of society, or they skip the first step and begin after the apocalypse is in full swing.

Feed, by Mira Grant (the open pen-name of Seanan McGuire) takes a different approach. It is set in 2040, decades after an unfortunate reaction between virus-based cures for the common cold and cancer created the Kellis-Amberlee virus, which re-animates any mammal greater than 40 lbs as a zombie upon death. But unlike so many other post-apocalyptic stories, society has not completely broken down in Feed. Yes, it has changed drastically, but there are still countries, still governments, and electricity, and technology. There just also happen to be zombies.

I suspect one reason this middle-ground approach is not often taken is that it’s much harder to explore the many ways, large and small, our existing society would change, than it is to burn everything to the ground and start over. Luckily, Feed handles this challenge extremely well. Everything is thought out in great detail, and from a writing perspective, the book is a marvel of making info-dumps palatable. It’s just so interesting to learn how things have changed after the zombie outbreak that I found I didn’t mind the main character taking frequent breaks from the narrative to explain everything from why people don’t eat much meat anymore (large mammals carry the active virus, which will turn you into a zombie), to the landmark court cases related to the outbreak (using zombies or the virus as a weapon is legally considered terrorism), to a thousand other details large and small.

Feed is as much a near-future science fiction story about journalism as it is a post-apocalyptic zombie story. The main characters, Georgia and Shaun Mason, and their friend Buffy, are professional bloggers who are chosen to follow a presidential campaign as part of the press corps. Their reporting is made possible not only by traditional interviews and fact-checking, but a complex web of hidden cameras and microphones and wireless transmitters and encryption. It’s a fascinating speculative look at the future of the internet and reporting. Despite being set in a world that could come across as just a campy horror story, Feed has some important things to say about journalistic integrity, the culture of fear that is such a part of modern cable news, the role of technology and the internet in the near future, and the evolving ideas of privacy and sharing information. The latter is particularly relevant right now given how much the NSA has been in the news lately.

Another thing that I enjoyed was that, unlike many zombie apocalypses, the world of Feed is a world where there were bad zombie movies long before the real zombies arrived on the scene. In fact, the star of bad zombie movies in the Feed universe is revered as a national hero for educating people about how to deal with zombies. Also, Buffy takes her name from “some pre-rising TV show character”.

I listened to Feed as an audiobook, and the main narrator does an excellent job, capturing Georgia’s attitude and voice very well, and doing surprisingly good and distinct voices for the other main characters as well. The narrative voice in the book is full of wit and sarcasm, and it was nice to see it captured so well by the reader. The secondary reader was pretty good too, though not as consistent with his accents and voices.

I don’t have much to criticize about Feed. I guess I would say that it can be a bit verbose at times, and despite the skill with which the info-dumping was done it did sometimes get to be a bit much. And although I understand the narrative purpose behind it, the tedious repetition of security systems and blood-testing that the characters go through got a bit tiresome.  My only other criticism was that the bad guy was a caricature and too obviously bad from the start. All in all though, pretty minor stuff, and I really enjoyed the book.

Bottom line: Feed is a great zombie story and a great near-future sci-fi story. It is, unusually, set in a post apocalyptic world where there is still some semblance of the  world we all know, and the deviations caused by advances in tech and the zombie outbreak are very well-thought out. It’s an exciting read with an emotional and satisfying ending, and the audiobook was very good thanks to a great reader.


Book Re-Read Review: Shogun


For those of you living under a rock, Shogun is an epic historical fiction novel about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in the year 1600 and goes on to become a samurai and adviser to one of the most powerful lords in feudal Japan. I first read Shogun about 5 years ago and loved it. I don’t re-read books very often, so it has to be a very special book for me to want to read something again. (Warning, this review is slightly spoilery. If you haven’t read Shogun, go do that. It’s awesome, and it has pirates fighting ninjas. But I repeat myself. If you like giant epics that you can fully immerse yourself in, with lots of political intrigue and a large cast of characters, then you will like Shogun.)

Last time, I read the book the way most people do: silently, to myself. But this time, I convinced my wife to come along for the ride. We read aloud before bed, and have tackled books of similar epic proportions (for example, the full Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire series), so we knew what we were getting into. Years ago after I read the book, we had watched the miniseries, but it did not do the source material justice, and I wanted to experience the book again.

I’m happy to say that Shogun remains one of my favorite books, and serves as the Platonic ideal in my mind of what historical fiction should be. It is so huge and intricate and detailed that it really sweeps you away to feudal Japan. The plot is a familiar one, shared by Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, Avatar, Fern Gully, and many others. But for all of the problematic aspects to this plot template, I still love it because, when done well, it introduces the reader to a culture that they are not familiar with, and helps them to understand and sympathize with that culture.

Of the examples of this familiar plot, I think Shogun succeeds the best. The book is long enough and detailed enough that the reader comes to understand the Japanese culture along with Blackthorne. At the beginning of the book, the Japanese people that he encounters are strange and brutal and utterly different from what Blackthorne views as “normal”. But by the end, it is almost painful to ride along in Blackthorne’s point of view as he reunites with his former crew and realizes how rude, filthy, undisciplined, and pitiful they are compared to the Japanese characters we’ve just spent 1000 pages with.

What impresses me about Shogun is that the disturbing parts of the Japanese bushido culture are not swept under the rug. They are just put into context. So the first merciless killing of a peasant by a samurai early on is horrifying to both the reader and Blackthorne, but placed into context, with the strict codes of conduct that are a part of feudal Japanese culture, such killings begin to make a sort of sense, even as they remain disturbing to western readers. This cognitive dissonance is one of the more interesting parts about reading Shogun.

Of course, Shogun is fiction, and it would be foolish to think that it is a purely accurate depiction of feudal Japan. I, sadly, don’t know enough to say which parts of Shogun are accurate and which aren’t, but as I understand it, much of it actually holds up pretty well. In writing this post, I came across the interesting site Learning from Shogun, which has a nice (free) book in PDF form written by scholars in Asian studies and history as a companion to the novel, just before the 1980 miniseries came out. In the introduction to the book they write:

“In sheer quantity, Shogun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War.”

In fact, it is sometimes odd while reading Shogun when the author takes time to define Japanese terms which are now so commonplace that the definition is superfluous. For example, he has to spell out what samurai, katanas, and ninja are. Shogun is not solely responsible for this increased knowledge about Japan, but there’s no denying it played a big role.

I think one aspect that saves Shogun from some of the pitfalls that plague other works of fiction that follow a similar plot is that the white, western main character is very much just a pawn in the great political game that is being played. Although he does gain in power and prestige over the course of the novel, Blackthorne is still at the mercy of the daimyos he is working for, particularly Toranaga. Even having read the book twice now, some of the political intrigue was still over my head. Let’s just say that if you want to be Shogun, you need to have a deep understanding of your rivals’ family trees and how to use them to your advantage. Winning battles is the easy part.

Re-reading the book, and particularly in reading it out loud, I was struck by one aspect of the writing that I did not even register the first time I read it. Clavell is constantly jumping around with the point of view. Not many books (at least not many that I read) do this successfully, but in Shogun it feels very natural. It’s a clever trick to allow to reader to get to know many of the dozens of characters much better than if the point of view had been stuck inside Blackthorne’s head.

My main complaint after re-reading it, is that the book is really extremely long and could probably lose 200 pages and still be great. The length was fine when reading it to myself, because when doing that I could go much faster and so I never felt like the book was slow. But reading out loud, and particularly because our out-loud reading was disrupted for a few weeks, it started to feel like a drag toward the end until we got to the final climax. I strongly recommend reading this book silently to yourself rather than listening to it as an audiobook or reading it out loud, just because that way you it won’t seem to drag as much.

Interesting side note: As we were nearing the end of the book, we decided to get a bottle of sake to sip as we read the final chapters. I had only had sake once years ago so I wanted to try it again. Turns out I really like it a lot! Erin doesn’t, but that just means more for me!

Bottom line: Shogun is awesome, if a bit long. The plot is a familiar one, but it tells a great story and you will learn a lot about Japan in the 1600s even if the book is not 100% factual. Also, there are scenes where pirates and ninjas fight. If you have not read this book, you should probably go do something about that.



Worldbuilding in GIMP

It’s no secret that I like to write (hence this blog), but what you may not know is that I have a long-standing interest in writing fiction. Note that this is different from actually writing fiction: I rarely do so, for a variety of reasons that really deserve their own post. But several years ago I did manage to successfully participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), churning out 50,000 or so words of rather awful fiction. One of the key steps in preparation for NaNoWriMo that year was doing some basic worldbuilding.

I have a really hard time writing a story if I don’t know the lay of the land…literally. If my characters have to venture off into an undefined world, then I don’t know what their options and limitations are and so I am paralyzed with indecision. A map provides the framework on which the events of the story can play out, and I find that the constraints that it provides are crucial for understanding everything from the placement of cities to the boundaries of nations to the history of empires. So much is influenced by geography that without it I’m lost.

I am trying to get back into fiction writing: I have had the nebulous idea for a novel rattling around in my head for years but to really write it, I needed a world. For my NaNoWriMo map, I used the program AutoRealm which had some nice capabilities, but didn’t make very attractive maps. So for this new worldbuilding effort, I decided to use a proper image editor: GIMP.

GIMP is an open-source program similar to Photoshop. I use it all the time for work to make figures, so I know my way around it, but I haven’t used it much to just draw. And to be honest, I didn’t want to just draw continents because it’s actually quite difficult to draw natural looking coastlines. I needed something more random.

After searching online, I found an excellent site called the “Cartographer’s Guild”, where lots of worldbuilding enthusiasts share their tips and tricks in very helpful tutorials. I won’t duplicate all of that effort here, but I will point to their helpful collection of tutorials. In particular, I found the one entitled “Using GIMP to create an artistic regional map” very helpful.

It turns out GIMP has a tool that renders a cloud-like texture, and by stretching the black and white levels on randomly generated cloud textures, you can make random continent-shaped blobs. For most people, this would be enough, but since I know way too much about planets, I wanted to make my random cotinents more realistic, with things like island arcs and shapes that could conceivably come from plate tectonics. So I made several sets of random blobs ranging in size from continents to islands, and selectively merged them together to make what I thought were more realistic (but still mostly random) continents. Here’s what the end result looked like:



I played around with some of the other tips in the tutorials to make attractive oceans and land colors and got this:


From here, the next step was adding mountains. I went back and forth on whether I wanted to try to make realistic looking mountains or line-drawings like you might see in a map in the front of Lord of the Rings. In the end, I decided to go with the line drawing option. I alread had some idea of where I wanted my mountain ranges, the trick was drawing the actual mountains. I am too lazy to draw them individually, so I looked up how to create a brush in GIMP that cycles through a set of simple images with each click. The term for this is an “image pipe” and it’s actually pretty simple: you just make a small image in GIMP with multiple layers and draw a different image on each layer. They you save it as the appropriate file type and voila! Choose that brush and then each click draws one of the layers. Here are my mountain layers as an animated gif:



With mountain ranges in place, the next logical thing to add was deserts. So I thought a bit about what the prevailing winds are like on an Earth-like planet, and the placed deserts in the rain shadow of mountain ranges. I also added some nice white shading toward the poles and gray shading around mountain ranges.

At this point it was looking pretty good if I do say so myself! The main missing natural features that might be relevant to any stories set in this world are forests and rivers. For forests, I decided to just use one of the built-in brushes in GIMP, along with the “apply jitter” option to paint scattered dark green specks for trees. Rivers were a bit trickier. Just like the continents, I didn’t want to hand-draw them because they would not be naturally random enough. For this, I found a simple free program that can draw fractal lines and export them as vector graphics. I drew a bunch of fractal lines then loaded them into my GIMP project, colored them blue, and placed them where it seemed appropriate. The end results? Realistically random-looking rivers! Here is the final map:



I’m pretty happy with this map, and I’m eager to start adding cities and countries and figuring out how the geography that I’ve created here influences the seed of a story idea that I am trying to develop. And even if the story that I write set in this world doesn’t end up being very good, I learned a lot of fun GIMP tricks in the process of making this map!


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