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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: René Barjavel’s La nuit des temps (The Ice People)

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

French SF is relatively unknown in the United States. Discounting La planète des singes (Planet of the Apes) and Jules Verne, it has not carved out a strong presence in America. It might be that high-quality domestic product is glutting the market, as the only nation ever to put human beings anywhere other than Earth is also kind of a world leader in producing fiction about space and science. Most everyone who cares at all about books knows the names Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick. Let’s repeat that list with some big French SF authors: Jean-Marc Ligny, Xavier Mauméjean, and Pierre Bordage. If the final question at bar trivia had asked about anyone on that second list, would your team have been anywhere close to winning a free pitcher? I understand this imbalance to a certain extent. Having a strong French presence in the American SF market would make about as much sense as California merlot being the best-selling wine in Paris. The weird thing is, there’s almost no French presence in the market. Its profile is so minor that it’s the equivalent of people in Paris not knowing that California exists. It’s not because of lack of quality. La nuit des temps is among the best 1960s SF I’ve read. It’s certainly the best French SF I’ve read since Vingt-mille lieues sous les mers. Its quality derives from a combination of technical inventiveness, delightful early-SF pulpiness, and haunting social commentary.

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America: being amazing since 1776

The opening paragraph of La nuit des temps (translated literally as The Night of Time, sold in Anglophone countries as The Ice People) signals a Big Problem from the get-go:

My beloved one, my abandoned one, my lost one, I left you there at the bottom of the world, I returned to my city apartment with its familiar furniture over which I’ve so often run my hands, the hands that love them, with its books that nourished me, with its old cherry bed where my childhood slept, and where, tonight, I sought in vain to sleep. All of this decor which witnessed me grow up, grow bigger, become me, today seemed to me strange and impossible. This world which is not yours has become a false world, in which I have never had a place.

Already, on page one, the narrator is reflecting upon the loss of his beloved. The reader knows from the start that this story does not end well, and this creates a tension that builds higher the closer the ending gets. The general background of the story is that, during the Cold War, a team of French scientists discover the ruins of an ancient civilization deep under the ice of Antarctica. When carbon dating places the ruins at 900,000 years old, hundreds of thousands of years older than human civilization, it incites international interest and passion. Pretty soon, an international team of scientists and a new research station are assembled at the location. They dig, and they find a buried city filled with wonders. Unfortunately, all of these wonders melt with the ice that held their molecules in place. All except one – the contents of a special Egg. Within the Egg, there is a strange generator and two human forms, male and female, encased in solid helium, preserved in a state of suspended animation at near absolute zero. The scientists decide to revive the female first. She wakes up, and the main narrative takes off. The main storyline is twofold. The first is concerned with international reaction to scientific developments at the station, the interrogation and assistance of Eléa, and the general tensions of the modern world. The second concerns the story of Eléa’s life in her ancient world, which the reader also knows will not end happily because her civilization has been annihilated.

The inventiveness of Bajarvel is a pleasure, and the book is filled with little pieces of technology either invented by the scientists or recovered from the ruins. One of the first that he introduces is the “eating machine,” which supplies Eléa with nourishment. It is a squat dome with buttons. She presses those buttons in a certain order, and the device produces colored spheres. These spheres are perfectly-balanced nutrition, and when the scientific team dismantles the device, they cannot find any raw materials. Eléa says the food is created from universal energy, the use of which her society had mastered through Zoran’s equation (the prospect of plucking limitless energy and materials out of thin air gets everyone on Earth’s attention). Unfortunately, Eléa is not a scientist and does not know the equation.

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This is Zoran’s equation. Yea, the Antarctic scientists didn’t know either.

Another invention is the “serums” of her society, one of which increases the hardiness of the human organism, so much so that the word “fatigue” all but fell out of Eléa’s language. An experimental one that she took in order to survive the freezing process of suspended animation confers biological immortality. Biological immortality means that if you get hit by a truck, you still die, but you’ll never die from old age. Sadly, most futurists predict that, were humans biologically immortal, the average life expectancy would still be only about 200, because shit happens. Anyway, attractive tech. I love the next two examples of technology because they are so blatantly story-enabling. First off, there is a giant computer, the Translator, whose basic function is to provide translation between the many different languages of the international scientific team. Everyone wears an earbud connected to the computer, and the computer takes in whatever is said to the person, converts it to their language, and pipes it back into their ear. The blatantly story-enabling part of this machine is that they feed all the data they have on Eléa’s language into it, and after not really that long, her 900,000-year-old language is one the computer fully understands, enabling communication.

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Did someone say implausible but plot-essential translation skills?

The other piece of tech that’s more narrative trickery than a machine is a brainwave reader. This is a device that, when put on the head, transmits thoughts. Its intended use is to pair it with another such device, thus allowing two people to communicate directly by thought. The scientists modify it so that it broadcasts to a television, meaning that, instead of Eléa having to talk about her life, she just puts on the circles, and up it pops on the Jumbotron. After they recover her, communicate with her, and turn the inside of her brain into quality TV programming, the narrative switches directly to describing what happens on the screen as the scientists watch. It explores the ancient civilization, which leads to a lot of the delightful pulpiness of the book.

First off, Eléa’s country is called Gondawa. It existed on Earth during a time when there was really only it and one other country, Enisor, on the same technological level with a few weaker nations scattered here and there (sound familiar?). The majority of their country was leveled by nuclear bombardment from Enisor, so they lived in extensive and beautiful underground cities, filled with plants and animals bioengineered to subterranean life. There are factories on the lowest levels of each city, factories which use Zoran’s equation to manufacture tools, structures, and implements from nothing. A central computer calculates the GDP of the country each year, and disburses an allowance equally to each citizen, to be used to purchase clothing, transport, and housing, and whatever other luxuries they might need. Very few people spend through their entire allowance, and it disappears at the end of every year to prevent the accrual of wealth. All of the machines and services are activated by a special ring worn by all citizens after their Designation ceremony. The Designation is a rite of passage from child to adult, at which citizens receive their numerical identification (Eléa’s is 3-19-07-91), their rings, and their partners. Yup, there is no dating in Gondawa. The central computer matches personality profiles of children to each other, finds ideal pairings, and designates them. This is probably the most utopian dream of the book, as the pairings result mostly in great happiness and sometimes in ineffable joy. Even bad matches are amiable and peaceful. Eléa had one of the second kind of matches, the perfect, soul-shatteringly intense level of love. The tragedy and pain Eléa feels from the second she regains consciousness is that as far as she knows, the love of her life, Paikan, has been dead for nine thousand centuries. The modern narrative circles around her inability to recover from this, and the ancient narrative circles on the development of her relationship with Paikan. The pulpiest parts of the book come from this relationship, which is high-octane, high-emotion, crowd-pleasing idealism. It is Romeo and Juliet, except the two people involved are not separated by a misunderstanding, but by the death of a civilization. The personal tragedy of two lovers is just one casualty of worldwide destruction, which forms the basis of this novel’s social commentary.

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in ROMEO AND JULIET

Their match.com profiles were 95% compatible!

There’s the standard advanced-civilization-versus-ours dynamic at play here, in which our society seems barbaric by comparison to the society of the visitor, but little things like Eléa not understanding why nudity is such a big deal (1960s male SF writer, folks) are not the main punch of the commentary. The frightening social commentary of La nuit des temps, doubly frightening when it was published at the height of the Cold War and when the collective insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction was in vogue, centers around the fact that an ancient humanity existed on a world with two superpowers and that there is now almost no trace left of that civilization. I will not get into specifics, but the Gondawans, in an attempt to avoid another war, built “l’Arme Solaire,” the Sun Weapon, as a deterrent. The function of the Sun Weapon is to concentrate the Sun’s rays on Enisor and basically melt the entire country. It backfired, both as a deterrent and as a weapon. The civilization that gave birth to it was wiped from the face of the Earth. Terrifying stuff to read, in 1968 especially.

You should give French SF a chance. Sure, if you search “Best French SF” on Google, the entire first page of results consists of the highest quality French restaurants in San Francisco, but you can always go to the French science fiction wikipedia page to look for good stuff. It is a vibrant and inventive branch of the genre. It produced La nuit des temps, which is a great novel filled with a heart-wrenching love story, fear-inducing social commentary, and a rewarding exploration of an extremely advanced society.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Haruki Murakami has an awesome how-I-became-a-writer story. His parents expected him to snag a job with Mitsubishi and find a nice wife once he was secure. He married young and started a jazz bar, the Peter Cat. One: That is an awesome jazz bar name. Two: Something about saying “fuck stable employment, I’m going to open a jazz bar” seems like an especially risky thing to do in Japan. He continued running the bar until, at 29 years old, he saw a player hit a home run at a baseball game, and he suddenly knew he could write a novel. A lot of people say “I can write a novel!” to themselves. Not a lot then immediately go home and write an award-winning one, which is what Murakami did. At 65, he is one of the foremost practitioners of the post-modern novel of the weird. He usually builds the reality of his book out of the materials at hand, i.e the real world, but then takes those parts and subtly bends them until the world he bases on this one becomes haunting, unsettling, and strange. The proximity of the completely normal, unassuming world with the depths and strangenesses Murakami weaves through it creates a tension that is central to most of his work. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, that dynamic is in full play, but he more explicitly includes science-fiction and fantasy in the mix.

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I desperately want to travel back in time to the Peter Cat Jazz Bar.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World comprises two interwoven narratives, one science-fiction and one fantasy, that play out in alternating chapters. In the SF world, a data encryption specialist gets in way over his head. In the fantasy world, a newcomer with no memory of his self gives up his shadow in order to enter a strange town. The weaving itself is impressive – one of the signature Murakami pieces of weirdness is that these narratives are connected in a strange and unknown way that is very hazy at the beginning of the book. What is extraordinary is how perfectly Murakami hits the tone of each genre in the alternating chapters. In the SF chapters, Murakami creates a gritty, slightly grim world of loneliness and serious men doing serious things reminiscent of cyberpunk, and in the fantasy chapters, he perfectly captures the importance of place and the sense of timelessness that permeate a lot of the genre.

In the SF chapters (Hard-Boiled Wonderland), the narrative follows a man as he gets more and more involved in a dangerous conspiracy that he does not understand. The main science-fictional element of this world is that the main character is a Calcutec, an individual who has undergone brain surgery and training to transform his subconscious into a data-shuffling device. He takes a series of numbers, puts a pencil in his hand, goes into a trance, and then when he wakes up, he has run the data through his subconscious and shuffled it into a new, nearly-uncrackable code. Something about the uniqueness of each person’s consciousness and the chaos of the human mind make this the most secure form of data encryption – without the key, there is almost no way to decrypt the information. This is important, as the System, the giant data-protection agency which fields Calcutecs, is battling the Factory, an underground organization composed of Semiotecs whose main motivation is finding, decrypting, and selling top-secret information. The protagonist is hired by a mad scientist to protect his cutting-edge research. He does his normal thing, encrypts the data, but then people who desperately want that data make his life difficult. The main conflict in the Hard-Boiled chapters comes from the protagonist’s desire to stay safe and discover what is going on and why people are chasing him.

In the fantasy chapters, the narrative follows a newcomer around a mysterious town as he tries to figure out what is going on and reunite with his shadow. There are many magical elements to The End of the World, such as the protagonist having to give up his shadow, which becomes a separate, autonomous entity. There are unicorns that wander around the town during the day and are sent out the West gate at night. The central magic of these chapters, however, is dreamreading. The protagonist is assigned a job, as all inhabitants of the town are assigned a job. His is dreamreading, which consists of going to the library at night, going into the stacks, which contain shelves of unicorn skulls, taking them down, tracing the glowing lines on each skull with his fingers, and attempting to read the thoughts and dreams contained within. The point and method of this process is just as mysterious and unknown as the data encryption in the SF world, and each protagonist is just as confused and lost as the other. In addition to the magical aspect, another trait that makes these chapters a strong example of fantasy is Murakami’s attention to maps and places.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It ain’t fantasy without a map.

The Town itself is a major character of the fantasy chapters, and one of the major differences between the two narratives is how much more important not just what is happening but where it’s happening is important to this one. The Town is a community which stands at the End of the World. It is surrounded by a gigantic, perfect wall, with only one exit: the West Gate, which is tended by the Gatekeeper. These locations are primal: There is only the Library, the Woods, the Pool, the Barracks, et cetera. Each location is just the capital-letter archetype of what it represents, and there are no clear place names. This adds to the haziness and nonspecificity of these chapters. All of the characters here are named for their occupation: the Librarian, the Colonel, and the Dreamreader, in addition to the Gatekeeper. A mildly sinister tone is set in the first chapter when the protagonist has to give up his shadow, and when the Gatekeeper starts seeming more like a warden than a keeper. The main conflict in The End of the World chapters comes from the main character’s desire to find out what the secret of the Town is and to reunite with his shadow.

The greatest success of this book is the flawless interweaving of each separate narrative into a cohesive, if jagged, whole, and Murakami’s masterful switching between tones and styles each chapter. To give an example of the perfect and nuanced difference in style, following are two excerpts from the book.

First paragraph of first SF chapter:

The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was not telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know? 

First paragraph of first fantasy chapter:

With the approach of autumn, a layer of long golden fur grows over their bodies. Golden in the purest sense of the word, with not the least intrusion of another hue. Theirs is a gold that comes into this world as gold and exists in this world as gold. Poised between all heaven and earth, they stand steeped in gold.

In the SF opening, the focus is on the thoughts of the narrator as he interacts with a piece of technology – an elevator. Rational, analytical thought dissecting all possibilities of movement and speed for the elevator he is riding to his job. In the fantasy opening, the focus is on rich, mythical description. The narrator describes the autumn coats of the unicorns, and they are not just gold and pretty; their coat color is a Platonic form of gold, “poised between all heaven and earth.” The focus is not so much on the analysis of the mundane as it is on the observation and experience of the mythical. This slight but powerful stylistic difference reverberates throughout each narrative, keeping them distinct even as the reader discovers how they are connected.

The main pleasure of this book comes from the dense accumulation of small, vivid details. The SF narrator spends a lot of time drinking whiskey, listening to jazz, and reading books. The fantasy narrator spends a lot of time going on long walks within the town walls. These sound boring, but Murakami’s descriptive power makes it pleasurable to read about the SF narrator eating a sandwich or the fantasy narrator walking to the Library looking at the sky. That is, Murakami’s talent makes his book interesting in parts that a lesser author would make unforgivably boring. Another strong point of this novel is its deep meditation on the nature of self. As the narratives cycle more and more tightly around each other, the major thematic focus of the novel shifts to questioning who each narrator actually is, what the significance of self is, and what identity means. The SF narrator becomes more and more preoccupied with who he is and what motivates him:

Once, when I was younger, I thought I could be someone else. I’d move to Casablanca, open a bar, and I’d meet Ingrid Bergman. Or more realistically – whether actually more realistic or not – I’d tune in on a better life, something more suited to my true self. Toward that end, I had to undergo training. I read The Greening of America, and I saw Easy Rider three times. But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.

Everyone deals with constructing their own identity, trying to modify themselves either by strengthening their identity or trying to get away from it, and Murakami profoundly captures the futility and beauty of the struggle with that amazing line, “I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.” In addition to these discrete thoughts on self and identity, the narratives begin spiraling around each other in a way that structurally supports meditations on what existence is – I can’t really get into that part of it without hitting spoilers.

If you’ve been hearing buzz about Murakami for years but have not yet read anything of his, this is the place to start. It is not as long and sprawling as 1Q84, is more plot-driven than The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and is a great book all on its own. The creation and sustainment of two distinct but intertwined worlds, the depth of detail he creates in each narrative, and the shattering profundity of the final reflection on what selfhood means all mark this as a book well worth your time.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Images: Map from here and Jazz Bar from here.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Gravity is a space film. It is also the winningest movie of the 86th Academy Awards, bringing home seven Oscars. It deserves every single one. It took me half a year to actually watch this, which is strange considering how I prioritize my media consumption mostly by putting anything that involves spaceships on the top of the pile. What I watched when I finally got around to it was a sparse, tightly-woven film about what happens when something minor goes wrong in an extremely hostile environment. Gravity is devastating in its simplicity. After a fairly brief intro period, there is only one character, and her only enemy is the title of the movie – the force of gravitation.

Gravity’s great! It keeps you from flying off the face of the Earth! Wonderful! However, if you are in orbit, your relationship to gravity becomes markedly less benevolent. Orbit amounts to controlled freefall. In orbit, you are falling at an exact velocity and an exact trajectory that maintains you or your craft in a circle around the planet. At the end of the day, you are still just falling, so if anything at all goes wrong, your orbit will turn into a more everyday type of fall, and you will catch fire and burn to death in the mesosphere. In addition to the falling problem, Earth’s gravity keeps an impressive amount of space debris in a cloud around the planet (19,000 discrete pieces over two inches). It’s fine if it’s just sitting there, but if it or you is moving fast, there is a significant collision danger. The International Space Station orbits at around 17,000 mph. Imagine getting hit in the face with a professionally-thrown baseball (90 mph). Now imagine one or many baseball-sized things hitting your orbital craft at 200 times that speed. This is basically what happens in the first fifteen minutes of Gravity.

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Each white dot is something that could kill you

The initial destruction caused by space debris leaves Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) completely alone in space, desperate to find a way back home. Well, a survivable way back home. If she lowered her standards, she could get home by simply pushing off in the general direction of Earth. In addition to the general destruction of devices and networks meant to keep humans alive in low Earth orbit, communications satellites are also down, which means Stone is alone not only physically but psychologically. With absolutely no communication with Houston and the nearest human being about 200-300 miles straight down, Bullock’s character becomes the most isolated individual in human history. This isolation and Stone’s lopsided struggle with a hostile and decaying environment combine to make one of the cleanest, most perfect pieces of suspense fiction of the past few years.

With only one main character bouncing around in a terrifying situation she neither asked nor prepared for, all the the viewer’s chips are in one pot, so to speak. In Aliens, everyone around Ripley just dies and dies and dies, and that only serves to ramp up the tension for Ripley’s own survival. In Gravity, you only get one, and if you break it, that’s it. From almost the beginning of the conflict, this dynamic forces a stronger level of investment in the character and results in a higher level of terror. The total focus on one character also allows the deep exploration of that character’s psyche – she talks to herself because there is no one else to talk to, and she talks about her daughter, her life, her hopes, and her fears. Following her on her journey from space installation to space installation in her desperate quest to survive is one of the most enjoyable narrative achievements of the past year.

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Probably the best-done female character in all of science fiction

Gravity is billed as a science fiction film, and an interesting question is why? There is no futuristic technology, no aliens, no psychic powers or mutation. This film uses no technology that does not exist, so why is it science fiction? SF is about more than the future, time travel, and warp drives. It is about technology, the changes engendered by it, and the relationship of humanity to it. One of the best science fiction novels out there, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, has at its core cryptography and information science. The science fictional aspects of the book focus on a well-developed technology that has existed since time. It specifically explored its use and misuse in WWII and the 1990s. As the pace of change and technological development increases, science fiction becomes more and more just normal fiction. It is not the milieu into which we project our imaginations, but the milieu in which we live. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the life the grandfather led was the life the father led was the life the son led. My grandfather started a family when color television was a pretty swell new thing, my father started a family when personal computers could process text, process numbers, and play Snake, and now I’m living in a world where this single machine on which I am typing gives me access to more information than I could process in my entire life, videophones are a reality (FaceTime and Skype), people walk around with mobile computers in their pocket more powerful than the NASA computer that sent men to the Moon, medical professionals can literally print human organs, and human beings temporarily live in space. We cannot escape from SF as the basis of many of our stories because the future arrived yesterday, and continues arriving yesterday every time the sun rises. It is simple to build an entire narrative from the basic theories and problems of space habitation as they exist now.

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Pictured: the OS mission control used during the Apollo 11 flight

Cuarón built Gravity on the theory of gravitation (sure) and the problem of the Kessler syndrome. I’ve already discussed the problem of orbit as a controlled fall, but the Kessler syndrome is a very real concern of space agencies today. Basically, there’s so much crap floating around above us that one little explosion or impact could cause an ablation cascade, wherein the fallout from one event then collides with and destroys other objects, the fallout from which then collides with and destroys more objects, on and on until everything upstairs is well and truly fucked. NASA’s main concern with this possibility is that it could take out many of our satellites and render space unusable for generations, but in Gravity, this ablation cascade directly threatens the main character’s life. Bonus: due to gravity, she gets to deal with 17000 mph debris circling around the Earth and returning for another hit every 90 minutes! The danger, isolation, and unknowability of space come to the fore in this film. Terror in the face of the unknown or in the face of forces much larger than we could control or comprehend is a main theme of SF. Gravity shows us that we do not need to go to Alpha Centauri to find those forces – one of them exists right here, keeping our feet firmly glued to the ground.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Warning: While I wouldn’t really call anything I discuss a big spoiler, absolute purists may want to tread lightly. I discuss some general plot points.

The Wise Man’s Fear has generated a lot of excitement in fantasy circles in recent years. Book Two of The Kingkiller Chronicles, it continues the story of Kvothe, master wizard, musician, and warrior. The framing device for The Kingkiller Chronicles is that Kvothe, the titular kingkiller, has gone into hiding as an unassuming innkeeper in a nowhere town. He has taken the name Kote and spends his time pressing apples for cider and cooking mutton for guests. A chronicler happens upon the inn, recognizes him, and asks to take down his story. Kvothe obliges, and the story starts. It’s an appealing bildungsroman, underdog-against-all-odds type of tale. At the time that Kote/Kvothe is telling his story, he has achieved legendary fame, accomplished a ridiculous amount even by the standards of heroic fantasy, and then retired. When I say “accomplished a ridiculous amount,” maybe I would best make my point by quoting the beginning of his account of his life:

“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.”

Also, here’s a map. I don’t think you’re allowed to write fantasy without a map.

Kvothe was a big problem for me for a very long time because Rothfuss would hammer down the “Kvothe is so cool!” nail relentlessly throughout the entire first book. The strongest criticism against the character is that he’s a definite Mary Sue. He’s an underdog because he’s a poor orphan, but he is anything but poor talent-wise. He breezes past his magic school entrance exams, grows extremely powerful in magecraft, and is a master musician. The problems Kvothe confronts in the first book seem contrived. Oh, he’s really poor? That must really suck when you’re the most powerful young magician in the entire freaking world. After finishing the first book in the series, I did not come back to it for years, as I’d read in a blurb somewhere that he meets Felurian, an ancient sex goddess who either kills men or drives them insane with her vulvic talents. He escapes, because it turns out that he is so naturally good at sex that he impresses a five-thousand-year-old GODDESS OF SEX with his skills. As a virgin. This was a breaking point for me, as Rothfuss seemed to be building a character like you used to build characters when you were sub-10 and playing superheroes: OK, he’s as strong as Hulk, as fast as Flash, also he can breathe underwater and shoot fire from his hands. And he can shoot ice like Subzero, too. The Penny Arcade guys love this series, but even they take Rothfuss to task for this:

With all that being said, the Mary Sueness is improving. In The Wise Man’s Fear, he’s still way too good at everything, but at least he has some believable flaws. His ego is causing serious problems for him, he is struggling in some of his classes, and there are many things he does not know. Even his meeting with the sex goddess Felurian went down differently than the blurb made me think – he didn’t sex her so good that she fell in love with him. He was almost killed but fought with pure will and magic until he achieved victory. He still learns sexomancy from a lust fairy, but the problem was not his talent, it was that he was extremely talented at just about anything he tried. Him besting Felurian is fine, because he did it with unbelievably impressive magic, and being unbelievably impressive at one thing is fine as long as it’s not all the things. His character is easier to swallow in The Wise Man’s Fear because he faces more real struggles and he’s not just the absolute best at everything. Well, not every single thing. The Mary Sue problem still exists, it’s just no longer unforgivable. The thing is though, as an American reader, I can’t help but think of Superman. He is the most famous comic book character in the world for a reason, and one could argue that he’s way too talented – barring exposure to an extremely rare radioactive element, he’s unstoppable. The Kvothe of The Name of the Wind is insufferable, whereas the Kvothe of The Wise Man’s Fear is merely stuck within a Superman complex – over the top, but not story-breaking.

Fuck plot armor. I’m explicitly unkillable!

The strength of The Kingkiller Chronicles lies in its reverence for the art of storytelling. The framing device for the whole book is the protagonist telling a story about himself. Within that story, there are a lot of common, insignificant myths that do a lot to increase the texture and weight of the world. There are stories about religion. Travelers pass the time around campfires in telling each other tales. These range from rumors and gossip passed along on the road to old creation stories. In addition, the main quest of the series is Kvothe’s desire to find a group of seven immortal demons. Most people think these seven, the Chandrian, are just a silly children’s tale, but that’s because these monsters have spent the last few millennia obliterating any trace of themselves from the stories of men. Kvothe’s father begins researching them, and they show up and murder Kvothe’s entire family. Kvothe’s main motivation throughout the books is to gain enough knowledge and power to find and kill the beings who made him an orphan. His search for knowledge explores the beautiful patchwork nature of human storytelling – he manages to find a piece here, a sliver there, but all the stories are slightly different, the names added to or worn away by time, minimized or aggrandized by whichever culture acted as the story’s steward from the time it was created to the time Kvothe found it. Why did the Chandrian work so hard to make these stories so few and far between? It has something to do with the magic system of the book – knowing the true names of these creatures would give Kvothe some measure of power over them.

Pictured: The most powerful weapon in the fight against evil

One of the standout features of The Kingkiller Chronicles is its compelling magic system. Magic systems are important. They define the way mages can influence the world around them, which is a major concern of most fantasy. Rothfuss’ is inventive and intricate. The author includes many detailed, rule-bound systems and schools of magic, but all of these different techniques are children playing with matches compared to the roaring conflagration of Naming. Naming as a form of magic used to be widespread, but now only a handful of extremely talented people can manage it (Kvothe is, of course, among them). Naming consists of being able to intuitively know and call the true name of different things – wind, fire, rock, even blood or bone, even people. If a Namer calls something by its true name, he or she can control it. This is much more powerful than the other forms of magic. A Namer can break a hole through a thick stone wall by speaking to it. He can kill by calling the name of the wind and sucking the breath out of the lungs of his enemy. Naming, the true and accurate use of the perfect word at the perfect moment, is the most powerful form of magic in this world. This, along with the lovingly crafted myths that permeate this narrative, emphasizes the importance and power of writers and writing. The right words can kill an enemy, burn down a forest, or break through a wall. This focus of The Kingkiller Chronicles will appeal deeply to lovers of words and stories.

Wearing one of these is a really, really bad idea in this world.

Ironically, for all of its care and focus on the nature and power of stories, The Wise Man’s Fear has taken a lot of flack for its own storytelling. One of the main complaints is that, although it’s book two of three in The Kingkiller Chronicles, there is yet to be a kingkilling. Many are concerned with the pacing of the story – with only one book left, how will Kvothe kill a king, find his parents’ murderers, and bring the story he’s telling up to the present day? Another major criticism of The Wise Man’s Fear is that it seems like a mass of stitched-together short stories about Kvothe instead of a cohesive novel. Kvothe at school, Kvothe hunting bandits in the forest, Kvothe in the Fae realm, Kvothe with the desert swordsmen, et cetera. I see the point of this complaint, but I don’t care because all of these stitched-together stories are entertaining and well-written. Rothfuss has a gift for vivid, clear, and immediate writing, and he’s very good at describing knuckle-whitening fight scenes. Honestly, as a fantasy writer, if you can describe a duel involving magic, swordplay, or both with energy and deftness, you can be forgiven for a host of other niggling complaints.

In conclusion, the book is flawed but well worth a read. I’m a strong believer in the phrase “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” and just because this novel is not perfection does not mean it’s not enjoyable. Sure, the main character is Mary Sueish. Sure, this book consisted of what felt like a bunch of sidequests. Here’s the thing though – the character is driven and compelling through the sheer force of his skill. The sidequests are engrossing and fun standing by themselves. Also, the pure power of the narrative is a roaring river – hard to resist. I read this book for hours at a time. Finally, the languorous love affair with tales of any and all kinds that Rothfuss builds into the book, along with the idea of writer as Namer and words as power, serves to forge this series into a paean to the strength and gift of human communication and storytelling, which is a worthwhile accomplishment.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Image sources: Wiki, Penny-Arcade, and io9

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Europa Report

Andrew Findlay

Science fiction is a rich and varied genre. There are many different ways to put together a good SF story. There’s far future SF like Banks’ Culture series, in which everything is so advanced that almost anything is possible. There’s future past like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, in which the story actually happens in the far future, but there’s been some sort of cataclysm that has reduced everyone to a semi-medieval style of living. Future past has a fantasy feel to it, as many powerful artifacts are lying around from the past that may as well be magic. There’s also science fantasy, where works like Star Wars exist: The jedi are spaceship mages. The niche that Europa Report fills is the near-future space exploration subgenre. We are advanced beyond what we currently have, but not by much. We are interested in exploration and colonization of our own solar system, but it’s still really difficult. Finally, there’s a gritty realism that may not be present in some of the other subgenres.

Europa Report is a movie about a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is an ice moon, and there are indications that there is a liquid ocean underneath the ice. As such, it is one of the best locations to search for extraterrestrial life. The cool thing about this type of SF is everything I just said is simple science – there is no fiction yet. Scientists really do think there could be life under Europa’s ice. The fictional bit occurs when a privately-funded space exploration organization puts a team of humans on a ship to Jupiter to figure all of this stuff out.

This movie is a little terrifying. The problem with exploring space is that it’s dangerous as hell. Even Nixon, who presided over the moon landing, hedged his bets and had an oh shit speech prepared just in case Aldrin and Armstrong got stranded in the Sea of Tranquility. Astronauts are people who agree to strap themselves into a small room on top of 500 tons of explosives, have those explosives lit, and ride that small room away from an environment where they can live and breathe and into an environment that can kill them through freezing their blood, popping their blood vessels, or suffocating them. The only thing between them and death is a layer of titanium. Astronauts are insane. If something goes wrong with the propulsion system halfway to Jupiter, you just sit in space until you die. If your transportation breaks on the highway, you curse, get out of your car, take a deep breath to sigh in frustration, and call AAA. If your transportation breaks in space, going outside will kill you, taking a deep breath will exhaust your tenuous oxygen supply even faster, and no one can get any assistance to you.

Yes, the top of this cone of flame is the most rational place for me to be right now.

This danger, the risk and nobility of accepting a long-term space mission, is the central focus of this movie. To borrow a line from Nixon’s speech, space explorers are willing to “[lay] down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.” Yes, astronauts are insane, but I love that Earth produces a class of people for whom the pursuit of knowledge is worth the sacrifice of their lives. The tension created by the constant risk in this movie is explored through cramped, short camera shots. There are a lot of closeups on faces and the set design is a nest of tiny rooms that all look very similar and give a mild claustrophobic effect. The structure of the movie itself emphasizes the danger inherent in space travel – the framing device for the narrative is found footage cut with a press conference with the space company’s CEO explaining what went wrong with the mission. This device is an interesting way to tell the story, but one drawback is that I was not really sure what exactly was happening for the first half hour of the movie.

The characters are appealing, but not very well fleshed-out. A week after watching the movie, I do not remember anyone’s name. There’s no-nonsense captain man, bubbly and excited science girl, loving father man (played by Sharlto Copley), and grizzled Russian engineer. The cardboard nature of the characters does not detract from the story itself, as it just underlines the fact that these people have subjugated themselves entirely to The Mission. It does exacerbate one issue with the movie – the camera shots are clean and spare, everything looks great, and the concept of the movie is interesting, but I found myself getting more and more bored as the movie went on. More in-depth characterization and better dialogue would have done a lot to alleviate this problem.

If you like space, you should watch this movie. Its editing can make it confusing, the characters are as empty as the space that surrounds them, and the pacing could have been tighter, but it looks good, attacks an interesting concept, and carries one of the most important themes in art: the pursuit of knowledge is the greatest good, and we do not matter in the face of that. The sacrifices explorers have made throughout history have bettered mankind. The drive to explore and push the physical bounds of what we know is one of humanity’s greatest traits, and this movie glorifies that impulse.

Image sources: Wiki