Saturday, December 21, 2013

AGOT Commentary: Daenerys I

Daenerys I

Character: I thought for a while that I didn’t like Daenerys. Then I realized my dislike started after A Clash of Kings, which I think did her a big disservice. It wasn’t so much that I disliked her, but the way her plotline was being handled. When I first read A Game of Thrones, I did enjoy her chapters. She wasn’t my favorite character, but I didn’t hate her, either. She was certainly the character with the most effectively drawn arc. No wonder Martin could afford to grab her chapters and publish them as a separate book. He did a great job charting her rise from powerless orphan to claimant queen. It’s a staple of fantasy, but I do believe Martin gives it his own spin.

You can draw some parallels between Daenerys and Jon Snow. The vagaries of her life demanded that she become observant, a realist, mistrustful. When she’s being dressed by Illyrio’s servants, the younger girl remarks that Khal Drogo is so rich that even his slaves wear golden collars. Later when she does see a slave, she notices he’s wearing an ordinary bronze collar. She knows better than to take everything at face value, and is always waiting for the other shoe to drop.   

Perception is not synonymous with courage, though. Nor does it give Daenerys the impetus to alter her place in the world. After all, unlike Jon, her only source of containment is her brother Viserys, her polar opposite. While Daenerys has no compunctions against admitting she never felt like a princess, Viserys can’t imagine himself as anything other than a prince. He can’t grasp that he’s lost the kingdom of his forefathers, that he doesn’t have what it takes to win the throne, and that he’s being used by the people he thinks are his friends. His inability to adapt dooms him from the start.  

Viserys has no real control over anything except Daenerys, and he doesn’t have the initiative to remedy that. He thinks the Dothraki will win the Seven Kingdoms for him, but he doesn’t even know the basic fact that Dothraki don’t like sailing, and I’m sure Illyrio didn’t bother filling him in. Viserys takes him at his word because a) he doesn’t have a choice and b) he gets to play the part of king-in-exile hearing news from a trusted loyalist. Anything and anyone that lets him live out his fantasy is a welcome remedy to his beaten-up self-esteem.

Daenerys is a frightened little girl, and what she wants most is for the fear to stop. She longs for the few havens she’s known in life, but more than anything, she yearns for anonymity. She would love nothing better than to lose herself amid the raggle-taggle children in the streets, to not be a part of Viserys’ plan, and who can blame her? But she’s been too long under Viserys’ thumb to imagine something else. And when an alternative is given to her (marriage to Khal Drogo), the cure seems worse than the disease.

Plot: As far as making the story work and creating the most conflict, the key development in this chapter is our new perspective on Robert’s Rebellion. We’re fresh off Catelyn’s viewpoint, where Ned, Robert, and their whole gang are implied to be heroes for deposing Aerys II. Now the tables are turned on us by seeing two victims of that power shift.

Not only is Daenerys’ account of the Rebellion more gruesome, it’s also more detailed and poignant. In Catelyn’s memories there’s no indication of Rhaegar Targaryen dying for the woman he loved, the sack of King’s Landing, or the murder of a baby before the eyes of his mother. Dany is definitely an unreliable narrator, as she herself admits since the backbone of her knowledge stems from Viserys’ perspective. The reader cannot tell right away how much of the story is true, but it helps Dany’s telling that she provides many more details than Catelyn and that her plight is disturbing enough to elicit some sympathy. And since history is always written by the victors, it also makes sense to suspect our heroes’ version of Robert’s Rebellion. This dissonance will stay with the reader for a good chunk of this book and make occasional appearances in future volumes.

Setting: New scenery, including different cultures. More of Westeros is revealed here, though only in the shape of mere names. The Unsullied, the red priests, and the Lord of Light are other new elements that’ll impact the story down the road. The same goes for the Free Cities scattered here and there from beginning to end. Doesn’t make them any less valuable, though.

I do think the subject of slavery bears mentioning, though. I find it riveting that although slavery is illegal in Pentos, the institution is alive and well. This facetiousness will stay with Dany and guide her anti-slavery crusade later in the saga. More than that, I like how Martin has handled the theme of slavery in his books, not shying away from its cruelty, but also not turning the series into a diatribe against it. The widespread acceptance of slavery being an affront to morality is extremely recent in Western history, and works of fiction like this allows the modern reader to see why the institution endured for so long
(and why it still exists in some quarters of the world, openly or otherwise).

Conclusion: I find Viserys and Daenerys to be refreshingly complex characters, and a good indication of Martin’s capabilities. Arguably Viserys is too damaged psychologically to make for much of a morally complex character, but the account of his deteriorating sanity does translate into a powerful and compelling read. It’d be most rewarding to read one day a more in depth story of Viserys growing up between the fall of Dragonstone and his arrival in Pentos, although I probably shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Featuring Daenerys as a terrified girl with no direction home and almost no strengths save for her awareness is an intriguing choice, one that abounds in promise as it steers away from most archetypes. A real triumph.               


AGOT Commentary: Catelyn I

Catelyn I

Character: Everybody knows Catelyn gets a lot of hate. Hell, I wasn’t her biggest fan for the longest time. But if there’s one thing that all my historical readings and literary examinations have taught me is that, if you look deep into a person’s psyche, his/her principles, phobias, expectations, terrors, etc. it is possible to understand anybody. Not necessarily condone, grant you, but the point of such analyses is to understand, never to pass judgment. Literature is a communicative effort, an exercise of empathy. Just when you believe you understand someone, a new bit of information crops up that turns your perspective 180 degrees.

This is a short chapter, and plot-focused at that. There is not much Catelyn does other than deliver a message to her husband and provide some nominal comfort to him.

But there is this one fragment:

“Catelyn had been anointed with the seven oils and named in the rainbow of light that filled the sept of Riverrun. She was of the Faith, like her father and grandfather and his father before him.”

A small bit, almost insignificant on the surface, but that’s the first indication of Catelyn’s core nature, a hint that’ll bear out in chapters to come. Catelyn is a dutiful, family-conscious woman, a traditionalist. The Tully words are Family, Duty, Honor, and she’s made them her mantra. All personal wishes must play second fiddle to her familial obligations.

Put in a different way, she’s Cersei’s antithesis. Whereas Cersei places her selfish desires above the welfare of her family (and pretty much everybody else’s), Catelyn finds the very idea blasphemous. This philosophy guides her every action, but, like many high principles, it can also be a source of great conflict and grief. We’ll see examples of this as the story gets going.

The purpose of tradition is to provide comfort and stability (or our lives would be as shaky as……as…a fiddler on the roof! If you know where that comes from, I love you). It’s not a bad thing of course, but because tradition fixes on the notion that things can be one way and one way only, it can become an albatross around your neck in a time of crisis, and the War of the Five Kings will be one such time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that Catelyn is a more instinctive woman than her husband. She takes the direwolf dead by a stag’s antler as an omen, while her husband doesn’t give it a second thought. She’s also superstitiously afraid of what might be found beyond the Wall. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. All her life she’s been taught that her elders (male elders, primarily) know what is best and always have a hand on the tiller; there’s always somebody in control, in other words. Lifelong convictions--like her devotion to family--that have never been undermined cement the belief that everything happens for a purpose. With this in mind, one can guess where George R.R. Martin will be aiming his guns next.

There’s a little more insight into Ned’s mind, as well. It’s evident that he’s a dutiful and selfless husband, if something of a cold fish. But there’s no denying that he’s a loving man. He cares about his children, and is quick to realize Catelyn would like to console her sister in her grief.

He’s a hard man; too, shaped by the difficulties he’s had to endure. Ned had to grow up fast and shoulder responsibilities he never thought should’ve been his. He knows that life doesn’t care how young and inexperienced you may be; when it drops the hammer, it drops it with a vengeance. That’s why he wanted Bran to be present at the execution; that’s why it concerns him to hear Rickon is afraid of something, even though he’s only three.

Winter Is Coming, are the Stark words he’s so fond of repeating. Winter certainly came for him when he lost his father, his brother, and his sister due to the whims of an insane king. Like any good father, all he wants is to prepare his children for life, and for him life has been needlessly cruel. As far as Ned is concerned, the sooner you learn that, the stronger you’ll be, and the harder it’ll be for life to take you down.             

Plot: Chapter is very light in this department. It’s mostly Catelyn delivering the message of Jon Arryn’s death, and giving us a glimpse of hers and Ned’s marital life (how Ned worries first about her instead of himself, for example). Things are being set up for later in the book, like Brynden Tully, the trip to the Eyrie, and the Lannister-Stark enmity.

It is interesting that the King-beyond-the-Wall (Mance Rayder) is mentioned again. Obviously Rayder is not a small-time bandit if even Eddard Stark, the Warden of the North, knows who he is. An interesting thread that wouldn’t be picked up again until Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall a book later. Still, it’s good that he’s mentioned, even in passing, to prove this is an important figure that will merit some attention later on. 
Setting: Two worldbuilding elements stand out. There is another marker of the North-South cultural divide, this time along religious lines. The South is all about organized religion and its attendant rites, a throwback to the Catholic Church in our own Middle Ages, while the North is more animist and therefore pagan. I’m not certain so much exposition was the best way to explain this given that it took up almost two pages. I wish I could remember my first impression of reading the opening pages, before the dialogue started. My enjoyment of these two pages is usually predicated on my mood. If I enjoyed it last week, it doesn’t necessarily mean I will this week. But it’d be foolish to deny Martin’s gift for simple and evocative language to bring a setting to life.

The other element is a crucial bit of backstory. Last chapter indicated there had been a different dynasty in command of the Seven Kingdoms before Robert took over, the Targaryens. Now we get to see there was a good reason for casting Mad King Aerys II out of the saddle…at least from Catelyn’s perspective. We finish this chapter with the subconscious certainty that the Targaryens got their comeuppance. That is the perfect frame of mind before getting to know the last two survivors of that dwindling line: Viserys and Daenerys.

Other minor elements are the first mention that the Starks were once kings, setting things up for Robb’s proclamation at the end of the book, and our introduction to the weirdwood trees and the children of the forest, all of which is brought forth incidentally.

Conclusion: It always disturbed me to find vituperative and typically groundless accusations hurled at characters for the stupidest of reasons. Catelyn gets her share, but she is not the only one. To me that beats the purpose of reading about well-drawn characters. Understanding, if not necessarily sympathy, should be the order of the day. I’ve never been a big believer of the quote “To understand all is to forgive all.” Then again I don’t believe fictional characters are worth getting worked up about, either. The reader needs a degree of connection to the character in order to germinate interest, but I don’t see the point of taking that emotional involvement outside your private reading time.

When discussing characters, I appreciate the more objective and cool-headed discussions than the puerile “x sucks because he/she did this and that.” Getting to know what makes a fictional character tick is a superb exercise that helps you do the same with real people--you know, the kind that is worth getting worked up about. That is literature’s greatest gift. Taking it to sports-fan levels of adoration or disdain is simply a distraction.                   

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

AGOT Commentary: Bran I

Bran I

Character: First chapter of the book…and it centers on a seven-year-old boy. That raised some flags at first. I’m not the biggest fan of children in literature or any other medium for that matter, which is why it surprised me how quickly I hit it off with this character.

It must be because the chapter starts with a rite of passage that introduces young Bran to death in all its prosaic bloodiness, and sets it off against his hearth tales of ghouls, giants, and the Others. As a kid I was always interested in adult stuff, because even at seven I could tell that the stuff we kids were allowed to see, read, etc. wasn’t the whole tale. There was a wealth of mystery screened off by the curtain of childhood, and I always wanted to get a peek behind it. Makes sense why Bran grew on me so quickly. At his age, I also would’ve loved to be there for the execution, not out of morbidity, but from the “nervous excitement” of being deemed old enough to partake in an adult activity.  

After the deed, Bran and his father, Ned Stark, have what I call a morally exciting conversation. Any such conversation involves questions and answers that tax our moral compass and makes us reconsider our beliefs with emotional or logical arguments, or both. The whole situation, the execution of a man whom the reader knows has a good reason to be insane, is consequential enough that it touches every character one way or the other. Let’s look at them one by one.

Martin does an excellent job contrasting Jon Snow and Robb Stark, both physically and mentally, and he does it through dialogue and action. Jon understands pressure and the need to please others, so he counsels Bran how to act in order to please their father. There’s the ostensible message of Jon caring about his younger brother, and his underlying need to spare others unnecessary discomfort. He may come off as cynical when he and Robb argue over how Gared faced death (scared out of his wits or with courage respectively), but we soon learn this is simply Jon’s acute observation skills at work. No one who goes out of his way to counsel his younger brother and willingly separates himself from the trueborn Stark children to save the pups can be considered cynical.

By contrast, Robb is a more starry-eyed, carefree character, which is nothing to sneer at, but does make him less astute and caring than Jon. Robb is not mean; he’s just too comfortable in his enviable station as Heir of Winterfell to have a need for Jon’s well-developed empathy. That’s a trait Robb shares with Sansa, his sister.

Ned Stark gets a spotlight shined on his psyche, as well. He wishes to make all his sons understand what it means to take the life of another man, to make sure they don’t become too far removed from the act of murder and its implications, even when it becomes necessary. Later in the series, we get to see his teaching wasn’t in vain.

After all, Ned is very well acquainted with the consequences of powerful men killing for the pettiest of reasons. His father and older brother were murdered by the Mad King Aerys II, a man who hid behind executioners and took obvious pleasure in the suffering of his victims. Remember that Bran said King Robert had a paid executioner? Ned immediately links the position with the Targaryen kings, a blatant condemnation. Not something you may appreciate on a first read, but it’s the kind of tidbit that makes these characters feel real.

It’d be wrong not to say a few words about Theon Greyjoy. If there’s a true cynic in this party, it has to be him. He kicks Gared’s chopped-off head away like a football and laughs about it, he’s quick to draw his sword to kill the direwolves, and mocks Jon’s albino pup. Considering he’s a very secondary character in Book I, his characterization is still vividly drawn, and proof that Martin’s work in the prologue wasn’t a fluke.

The only downside is that Bran is given a short shrift after the dead direwolf is found. From that point on, Bran is relegated to witness status, there mainly to convey what everybody feels and does, with little indication of how the events are affecting him emotionally, except for his reaction to Jon’s selfless (and ultimately subverted) sacrifice.

Plot: As to the larger picture, the showpiece of this chapter is the discovery of the dead direwolf and her pups. If you’re into omens, prophecies, and what have you, it’d be worth mentioning the stag’s antler that killed the direwolf as prefiguring the Stark’s grim future. But I’m not into omens or symbolic foreshadowing. If I wanted that I’d read religious texts, thank you very much. Maybe in future books we’ll get confirmation of whether someone (Bloodraven, I presume) sent the direwolf to the Starks and why. I can’t say that I’m dying to find out, but I do appreciate how this discovery brings out certain traits from the characters: Ned’s severity, Robb’s gung-ho approach to everything, Jon’s solidarity and proneness to self-sacrifice, and Theon’s irreverence.

Setting: Kudos to Martin for accomplishing so much in so few pages. In the first paragraph there’s mention of the lengthy nature of seasons in Westeros, later there’s the direwolf banner of the Starks. Almost in the same breath there’s our introduction to Valyrian steel in the context of the upcoming execution. All of which is deftly handled, but my favorite is Ned’s pronouncing the sentence of death, when he lists not only his formal title and King Robert’s, but the three ethnic groups that make up Westerosi culture. This knowledge doesn’t come into play right away, but it’s another subtle and effective method of injecting life into a fictitious world. And again, it doesn’t mess with the rhythm of the story.

Conclusion: Bear in mind this chapter started with Bran undergoing a rite of passage, an initiation into adulthood. That’s the first half of the chapter. The second half sets that aside in favor of the direwolf and its pups. One approach is about venturing into the uncertainty of life; the other is about retreating to the safety of fantasy. Here’s the first indication of Bran’s arc branching off in a completely different direction from the main storyline, embracing a more fantastical avenue after an attempt at something different. As we’ll see in future chapters, Bran’s arc vacillates between the fantastical and the down-to-earth, but these pages make it clear which one is going to win in the long run.


AGOT Commentary: Prologue

Warning: I’m about to try something incredibly hard. There’s even a chance I’ll end up diving headlong into an empty pool. So at least if I screw up, you’ll get a good laugh out of it. No need to thank me.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a chapter-by-chapter commentary of A Song of Ice and Fire for a long time now. The inspirations behind this project are Goose-Goose’s Half-Life 2 commentaries, and MrBtongue’s hitherto unfulfilled project of doing the same for the Mass Effect series. If you don’t know who these YouTubers are, I suggest you stop reading and go check out their work right now. (Note to myself: delete last line before posting).

So how am I going to stand out from the dozen other people who are doing something similar? This would be the part where I waste everybody’s time with a self-important tirade, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, I’ll skip the talk and go straight for the walk. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my A Song of Ice and Fire commentary. Hope you know how to swim, because we’re jumping in choppy waters. God help me; I’m really doing this.


Character: In future installments I’m going to dedicate this space to sharing my impressions on character development for the people featured in the chapter. Since all characters in the prologue die less than twenty pages into the book, I can’t do that now. (By the by, did I mention there’d be spoilers in these commentaries?) 

What I can do is tip my hat to George R.R. Martin. All the prologue POV characters (with maybe the exception of infodump Varamyr) are as interesting as any of the full-time characters, which is no small feat.

Having said that, Will in the prologue is somewhat overshadowed by Waymar Royce and Gared. Will does little more than watch for most of the sequence, letting Royce and Gared create most of the conflict.

The argument between Royce and Gared--greenhorn and veteran, lord and commoner--is impeccably constructed. Enough that it’s a bit hard to take sides. Gared fears the weather is worsening and that they might get caught in an ice storm, so he urges his commander to ride back. Royce is determined to fulfill his mission for reasons of pride, but arrogant and bullying as he is, he’s not stupid. He puts paid to Gared’s theory of the wildlings dying from exposure by pointing out it hasn’t been cold enough for that. He takes Will’s observations with a grain of salt because his tale of dead wildlings doesn’t add up, but he does ask for a full account before making a decision when he could’ve just flown blind.

He’s also right when he warns Gared not to build a fire that might give away their location to the enemy. Gared’s idea of making a fire is not without merit, however, since temperatures are guaranteed to be really low at night. I’m guessing the previous nights they survived by making Dakota fire holes (or firepits, as Will calls them in his rundown of the wildling camp). Gared’s intention was to make a larger, more visible fire to ward off animals, though, which would be a bad idea on enemy turf.

On the other hand, Royce makes his points by ridiculing his subordinates (mocking Gared for losing his ears to frostbite, for instance), he brings the wrong kind of horse to the expedition, wears clothing that’s liable to catch on branches or bushes, and wields a sword in an environment where there isn’t enough room to swing it.   
The key for creating first-rate conflict is to give both sides of the discussion sensible arguments, and I believe Martin hit the nail on the head with these two.

Despite his foibles, Royce does get his moment in the sun when, rather than be cowed by an enemy who is clearly supernatural, he gives battle. There are several ways to read this. For one Royce is courageous and seems to truly believe in his vows, enough that he is willing to die for them and country (remember his “For Robert!” warcry). On the other hand, the wisest course of action in the face of something utterly unknown might be to flee to fight another day. You fight only when they back you into a corner, but Royce had a chance to escape before he was surrounded.

Did he stay because he was a fool for glory? Did he sincerely believe that a knight should put his duty above fear? Or did he simply fail to realize he was way out of his league until it was too late? There are many ways to approach these questions, which is one hallmark of a tridimensional character. Their intentions aren’t always clear-cut, and thus are applicable to our own distinct worldviews.

If there’s one thing I’m sad about is that Martin killed Royce off so early in the story; he could’ve made a remarkable foil for Jon Snow at the Wall. But if nothing else at least he and Gared served as good indicators of Martin’s gift for writing strong characters.    

Plot: Not the most original piece of work, but gripping by a long mile. It’s apparent that the Others will play the role of “long-forgotten evil that rises after millennia of slumber.” That’s not bad when the villains are intriguing, and the Others are certainly that. Their voices like the cracking of ice, color-shifting armor, inhuman patience, and magical swords give the Others a distinct identity and aura, promising much excitement for later in the story.
That they have yet to be the focus of the series as this prologue suggests is another issue. By itself, the prologue is the promise of a terrific if not particularly original story. After five books, though, I can’t help but also think of it as a forgotten footnote in a story that’s gone in an entirely different direction.

Also, I’m having a hard time understanding the exact nature of the three rangers’ mission. Why are they tracking down this band of wildlings? And what are they supposed to do after they find the raiders? Three rangers can’t be a match for eight well-armed wildlings, even less when you consider the Haunted Forest is wildling territory and the odds are stacked in the raiders’ favor. Maybe Royce is reckless enough to go through with this, but I find it hard to believe Jeor Mormont would dispatch anyone on a goose chase.

One chapter in A Clash of Kings may hold the answer. Remember when the Night’s Watch expedition finds the abandoned wildling village? I don’t believe the village was that far from the Wall, yet the empty dwellings surprise them. Perhaps the Watch’s knowledge of the Haunted Forest isn’t as up-to-date as it should be, and Royce’s mission is an attempt to rectify that. It’s an idea, at least.

Setting: Worldbuilding is essential to any fantasy novel, and I’m happy to say Martin has a talent for it that can only be measured in tons. He brings the Haunted Forest to life with simple but evocative language that would make a turtle race sound epic. Much of the Haunted Forest is described in ways that convey its eeriness and the difficulties of traversing it, but don’t disrupt the flow of the story. Setting must blend in with the action; it should never stick out like a sore thumb. Martin has definitely mastered this.    

Speaking of killing two birds with one stone, keep in mind a setting is only as effective as its culture is extensive. Notice Will referring to Waymar Royce as a “southron.” This stacks a cultural divide on top of their class conflict, and inserts the first hint that North and South in Westeros are two different cultures. Will’s past as a poacher insinuates that the Night’s Watch acts as a penal colony of sorts, and it reveals Westeros’ feudal culture in a passage that ties character development with world building. The submission of two seasoned rangers to a rookie by dint of his station is another marker of feudalism, and it’s all brought up in service of the story, not as filler.  

Conclusion: Was the prologue immersive, thrilling, and unforgettable? Absolutely. Was it necessary? I don’t think so. I started thinking this way ever since I read Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for good writing, one of which is to omit prologues on the grounds that they’re backstory.

I can see his point. There’s nothing in these opening pages that is not touched upon later in the book: the decadence of the Night’s Watch, the wildling threat, the cultural divisions, and the Others’ undead minions.

True, the Others themselves don’t show up again until A Storm of Swords, but I’ll argue that it would’ve been more constructive to reveal the Others in Book III. Think about it, without the prologue we’re introduced to the idea of something dangerous lurking beyond the Wall first by the disappearance of Benjen Stark, then by Tyrion and Jon looking over the dark forest from high atop the Wall, by the zombie attacking Mormont, by Craster’s sacrifices, by the attack on the Fist of the First Men, and finally by Sam killing an Other. There’s a sense of natural progression this way.

Remember the Monster from Lost? Regardless of what you think of it, there’s no denying that the writers paced the reveal of its true nature masterfully, taking their time but giving the viewers enough tantalizing pieces to keep the puzzle fresh and exciting. Revealing the truth in the first five minutes would’ve ruined it right there at the start (instead of six years down the line like it happened).    

There’d still be the disproportion of pages given to the War of the Five Kings storyline and the Others’ plotline, but that’s another problem altogether. As it stands, this prologue is a teaser in all the wrong ways, setting up a conflict that, five books into the series, has yet to move into high gear. Maybe when the saga was in its embryonic stages it was a good idea to insert this prologue. Now, I wonder if the story wouldn’t be better served with its omission.         
Addendum: I’m beginning to realize that the whole purpose of this commentary is not to praise A Song of Ice and Fire or take it to task depending on the situation, though I’ll be doing that. I simply want to share my thoughts on what I think makes a story work. This exercise in pinpointing will hopefully make readers more demanding for quality material and prospective writers more invested in meeting those demands. I hope you’ll tag along on my journey to find out how to raise the bar of storytelling. It’ll be a surprise as much for me as it’ll be for you. 

Thank you, and God save the Queen.    

Sunday, December 8, 2013

When Ivan Meets G.I. Joe

Did you ever spend sleepless nights wondering what makes a good story work? Did you ever pound your chest in a rage at not being able to define the components of an excellent drama?

No? Well, I’ll tell you anyway.

Part I: I Get the Nobel Peace Prize for Rediscovering the Wheel
Why not start with characters? See, it doesn’t matter if Timmy had his parents killed, his sisters raped, his brothers maimed, his dog stolen, and his house burned if you don’t give a rat’s ass about Timmy. You’re invested in a story in the same degree you are invested in the characters.
It doesn’t help if Timmy looks like a circus reject, either.

You might be thinking, “Well, that was easier than my high school girlfriend.” Thing is there’s a second factor, and that is the plot. See, all characters have to be tested somehow, and that’s where the plot comes in. The harder it pushes your characters, the more engaging they’ll be. Characters are boring if the plot doesn’t put them to the wringer, and the plot is irrelevant if it doesn’t affect (and is affected by) interesting characters.

Part II: The Cold War Was Actually Pretty Hot
Now that I’m done pretending I made a major discovery, I want to reintroduce the idea of using history as a basis for epic fantasy. See, fantasy thrives on big canvases and life-or-death stake. It makes sense to exploit history to build plots that’ll put characters through the most skin-thickening crucibles imaginable.

Allow me to use an example from recent history to show what I mean: The Cold War. You know, the war which taught us that Tom Cruise’s career would be the most schizophrenic thing since James Joyce’s entire literary canon.

Remember what Faulkner said about the only kind of writing that matters is the one about the human heart in conflict with itself? (And I did read that speech long before I knew who George R.R. Martin was, thank you very much.) The same applies to civilizations. Characters in a story are riveting when they act in ways that don’t conform to the conceptions they have of themselves.

If the USA and the USSR were the main characters of the Cold War, how did they come into conflict with their own ideologies?

Funny you should ask, because I happen to have the answer. Let’s go step by step.

The United States:
1)    First one is actually a team work. In 1951, the nationalist Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, directed the Iranian Parliament to vote for the nationalization of the oil industry, challenging the authority of the Shah (or king, if you will). The pickle is that he also stepped on the toes of the British. See, at the time, most of the Iranian oil industry was in the hands of the British, who pocketed the bulk of the revenues. The British felt they had a right to do that. After all, they had discovered and exploited the oil with technology and talents that they brought to Iran.

Winston Churchill, the old-school imperialist who once again assumed the role of Britain’s Prime Minister in 1951, convinced the United States that Mossadegh was moving Iran toward communism. The CIA wasted no time. The agency created a situation of instability by bribing army officials, criminals, and politicians, and by staging protests and riots in Tehran, the Iranian capital. The chaos took its toll. In 1953, Mossadegh was arrested by the army and the Shah was restored to the throne. 


For its efforts, the United States got a share of Iran’s oil and continued to sell weapons to the ever more hated Shah and his SAVAK, the Iranian secret police.

So next time you see Iranians burning the American flag you might understand why they’re so pissed off.

2)    This one is closer to home. In 1951, another nationalist, this time one Jacobo Arbenz, became the democratically elected president of Guatemala. This in a time when a small handful of landowners owned about 70 percent of the land. Like in Iran, foreign interests (in this case the US) owned most of the economy, so the actual wealth ended up going abroad. The United Fruit Company alone used little more than 15 percent of the land they owned, leaving the rest uncultivated.

Arbenz nationalized unused land in defense of Guatemala’s national sovereignty, trying to curb the power of foreign conglomerates. To the CIA, this smacked of communism, so they supported rebellious and opportunistic elements in the Guatemalan army that carried out a successful coup against Arbenz.   

Guatemala went to hell in a hand basket after that. Brutal military regimes tried to keep things quiet with an iron fist. The more infamous of these enforcers was General Efrain Rios Mott. On his orders, the army murdered 70,000 of their own people, primarily Mayan peasants, and burned down thousands of villages in a move that wasn’t far removed from genocide.
 But hey, at least he was a Born-Again Christian.

3)    The 1973 military coup in Chile is probably the most infamous example of US interventionism in Latin America. Chile was the first country to democratically elect a Marxist president in 1970. Salvador Allende proceeded to nationalize the nitrate and copper mines, extend land reform, and raise the workers’ wages.

The CIA supported the Chilean military in deposing Allende, thus helping institute one of the bloodiest military dictatorships in South America. Augusto Pinochet, the general who took over the government, was the driving force behind Operation Condor, an underground alliance of military strongmen in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay in which members pooled resources and intelligence to track down and terminate opponents in Latin America, the United States, and Europe. 

Courtesy of Brazilian artist Latuff2

It was in 1973 that President Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, proved that the Nobel Peace Prize is an even bigger joke than professional wrestling. Kissinger, the recipient of one such award, had given his tacit approval to the Chilean coup by stating “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible.” He also knew about Operation Condor and said nothing against it, thus enabling the Dirty War in Argentina and scores of “disappearances” throughout Latin America.

His partner-in-crime, Nixon, is also infamous for stating that the plan against Salvador Allende should make the Chilean economy scream. 

The screaming bit wouldn’t stop with the economy, though.

The Soviet Union and China:
1)    You would think revolutionaries stick together, but if you truly believe that then you haven’t been paying much attention to history. In 1949, the Chinese Civil War finally came to an end. The Communists under Mao Zedong finally defeated the Nationalist government and took the reins of China. Was the Soviet Union (specifically Stalin) happy to have a fellow communist nation right next door?

Not in the slightest.

Stalin had signed a treaty at the end of World War II recognizing the Nationalist Chiang Kai-Shek as the legitimate ruler of China, never mind that the Chinese communists had been fighting Chiang for years now. Stalin even advised the communists at some point not to fight the Nationalists, because they didn’t stand a chance of winning. It wouldn’t be out of place to imagine Stalin might have been much happier with a weakened Nationalist government in his back yard than with the revitalized, gung-ho Communist government he got instead.

You could almost feel the love.

2)    One of the myths of the Cold War that the United States believed all the way to the end was that any and all communist insurgencies in the world originated from the Soviet Union. And as much as the Soviets would’ve loved to say that was the case, it wasn’t. The myth led to the belief that all communist governments worked together to further the communist cause across the globe. The US went on believing this myth even when evidence piled up that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
     Take Vietnam. Who you think proposed the idea that Vietnam be divided into north and south in the first place? The Western powers? Well, it seems it was actually Zhou Enlai’s idea--the foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China. The Soviets found the idea attractive, too. The West jumped at the chance to divide Vietnam rather than let the whole country go communist. Zhou Enlai let it be known that he would have been fine with a permanent division of Vietnam, letting ancient ethnic divisions trump the ideal of communist fraternity.

When Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev came to power, the Soviet Union was a formidable fortress around which the United States was building spheres of influences. Khrushchev was not going to let the USSR be encroached upon by their enemies. In order to stay in the fight, the Soviets would have to become global players, as well--even at the expense of their ideology.       

The first client state they adopted was Egypt, ruled by Gamal Abdel Nasser. So what if Nasser was an anti-Communist, had shut down the Egyptian Communist Party, and didn’t balk at jailing communists? The Soviets needed a foothold outside Eastern Europe.

Man wasn't shy about smiling, either.

Things get even murkier when Indonesia comes into the picture. Still hoping to expand their sphere of influence, the Soviets began selling weapons to the Sukarno government. The Indonesian Communist Party, the third most powerful communist party in the world after its Russian and Chinese counterparts, voiced some complaints, but they died down when the fledgling Sukarno was forced to rely on the Indonesian communists to keep his government afloat.

The problem came when Sukarno was deposed by a rival, Suharto. Using the well-armed Indonesian army, Suharto launched a bloody purge that eliminated half a million of suspected and real communists alike, destroying the Indonesian Communist Party and those “guilty by association” in one fell swoop.

Part III: I Ramble a Little Longer

See, as people we have expectations of how the world should be and how our actions contribute to or diminish that idealized vision. The same goes for nations, only on a much larger scale and with many more players involved.

There’s nothing shocking about what the United States and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, not if you’re familiar with history, at least. Whenever a culture is strong enough to influence others, it will exercise that power. Individuals and nations will be caught in the crossfire; that’s the way it’s always been.

It’s not history’s job to pass judgment, though. It exposes facts as best as it can and tries to fit everything into a bigger picture. It helps illustrate what it means to be human by giving an account of cultural interactions.

The questions that rise from these studies can be the launching pad for wonderful fiction, however. They stem from the core conflicts that have underpinned humanity since the advent of civilization. They’re as compelling and relatable now as they were two thousand years ago, and they deserve our attention.

Epic Fantasy is the perfect platform to explore these questions at leisure, because the genre buffer resets our biases to zero and allows us to concentrate on the historical questions themselves, not on what these questions mean to us as Americans, Russians, Chinese, Guatemalans, or whatever. It’s about what they mean to us as human beings.      

Stay tuned for more.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Quick One


Yeah, there’s no getting rid of me. That’s the inevitable consequence of having no job and an ego the size of Russia. It’s also the result of trying to cover as many facets of a problem as fairly as possible. Today I want to discuss the flipside of last entry’s topic: the skillful use of magic to avoid damaging the verisimilitude of a story. For that, I’ll be using a pivotal moment from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek spin-off with probably the most stellar and ambitious episodes of the saga.

Give or take a few.

Part 1:  In the Hands of the Prophets
The franchise began adding fantastical elements to the Star Trek universe with the character of Q. The writers made sure that the episodes in which Q appeared were self-contained, comical, or character studies, because if they allowed Q to play a bigger role, it’d be a matter of time before his omnipotence interfered with plot mechanics.

They also made sure to get rid of all stupid headgear.

…for a while.
DS9 tried something similar with the Prophets. In DS9’s first episode, the protagonist, Commander Benjamin Sisko, is identified as the Prophets’ Emissary, a Moses-like figure, the man whom the Prophets have chosen as their spokesperson and corporeal agent.
It was easy to forget this aspect of the show since the writers devoted one episode a season to it during the first half of the show’s run. This was most likely a manifestation of the same common sense that guided the writers of TNG. You don’t want to give divine entities too much time in the spotlight or make the plot too dependent on them. In the words of Ronald D. Moore: “The wormhole aliens/Prophets have to be used sparingly or they’ll become too pedestrian.”

Too bad he didn’t follow his own advice on Battlestar Galactica.

The ultimate test for this approach came in season six, at the climax of “Sacrifice of Angels.” In this episode, the Federation’s expansionist counterpart, the Dominion, is on the point of bringing in reinforcements that will turn the fortunes of war against the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Just as everything is headed for the crapper, Sisko flies his one ship to tackle the large Dominion fleet inside the wormhole where the Prophets live. Rather than let their emissary die, the Prophets intervene and make the Dominion fleet vanish into thin air, assuring Sisko that, eventually, he will be punished for forcing their hand.

But it was we who were punished.

As much as I always loved that episode, the nagging part of me couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t some blatant deus ex machina. You can read Ira Steven Behr’s thoughts on the matter. In fact, you should read his two cents on the matter because we happen to have the same opinion: it isn’t a deus ex machina.

In order for it to be one, it would have to be unexpected and contrived--that is, constrained by no laws to speak of. As I said earlier, the special relationship between Sisko and the Prophets was established right off the bat. It was thanks to Sisko that the Prophets allowed interstellar travel through their wormhole. In Season 4’s “Accession”, when Sisko started shying away from his religious role, the Prophets saw to it that he quit balking and embraced his religious authority once and for all. He, in turn, stepped up to the plate a year later during the events of “Rapture”, when he used his clout as Emissary to keep the Bajorans (the alien race that worships the Prophets) from joining the Federation, thus saving them from destruction at the onset of the Dominion War.

When chance allowed the Prophets to do away with the Dominion reinforcements in “Sacrifice of Angels” it was only natural for Sisko to demand they intervene and for them to oblige (however grudgingly). Any other outcome would have run contrary to everything that had been established so far. Everything followed logically from what had been established throughout the series’ run.  

If the writers had decided to end the war with this story arc (as they originally intended), I would have been less forgiving. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. The war went on and had to be won through sweat, tears, and blood, as any other war.

Don’t read this the wrong way, though. Any scenario that includes Prophets, Q, or whatever divine entity you prefer is very delicate, and even when you handle it with kid gloves, it takes something away from the story. Part of me wishes that the writers had come up with a different way to handle the reinforcement fleet. I’m sure the Americans would’ve loved that God or whoever had winked the Germans out of existence at Omaha, and that the Soviets would’ve welcomed the same miracle at Stalingrad or any other engagement on the Eastern Front. That they prevailed over impossible odds with sheer stamina, ingenuity, and bits of luck is what makes their accomplishment all the more fantastic.

And their losses all the more tragic.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There is nothing wrong with using magic, but you can’t simply spring it on the readers to resolve plot complications. It should be regimented so it doesn’t spin out of control. That way the author can shine a light on what is truly magical and awe-inspiring in any plot resolution: the human spirit meeting a challenge with strength and ingenuity. Arbitrary solutions cannot and should not be a substitute for that.

Part 2: Weren’t You Supposed to Be Talking About History, Too?

Yeah, I haven’t forgotten about that. But I needed to get the introductions out of the way first. From now on, I’ll be devoting one part of the blog to covering historical topics and another part to commentaries on A Song of Ice and Fire and probably The Wire to compare and contrast distinct storytelling approaches (focused on execution and content as I described them before) that can make or wreck a long-running series.

The historical pieces will illustrate what I said in my first entry about using history as a source of terrific content for the fantasy genre. So if you guys thought I’d already gotten started, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Epilogue:  All fans of DS9 owe it to themselves to check out Abigail Nussbaum’s retrospective on the show. Trust me, you won’t regret it. She’s guaranteed to have spotted things you never even considered.  She’s also written a handful of first-rate essays for you TNG fans out there.  

These essays are priceless and well worth the read.