A fairy tale escapism

Some quotes from a randomly found article.

What does cultural materialism do? It seeks “to allow the literary text to ‘recover its histories’ which previous kinds of study have often ignored” although the “relevant history is not just that of four hundred years ago, but that of the times (including our own)

The cultural materialist is likewise “optimistic about the possibility of change and is willing at times to see literature as a course of oppositional values”—oppositional, that is, to the “structures of feeling” that are the “dominant ideologies within a society” (Barry 183-4). This creates a need to consider “ALL forms of culture” (183), or in other words to climb deeper the way Oedipa does.

Oedipa’s paranoia could well be called optimism, faith that she is not crazy, but that a structure exists in which she CAN find answers. In fact, she can hardly afford NOT to believe it, with so many showcases of that structure materializing around her.

This cultural materialist optimism about “the possibility of change” would suggest, in both cases, that the disinheritance serves the characters for the better, directing them toward a more enlightening epiphany of their place in the world.

In fact, this theme persists in many examples that find room in those branches of that tree. This theme is better defined as a fairy tale escapism, the classic stepping into another world in hopes of a higher understanding. Could it be that, for example, THE MATRIX of the Wachowski brothers has more in common with LOT 49 than just postmodernism?

Like Neo of THE MATRIX, she seeks an escape from isolation and ignorance into a Wonderland where if nothing else she might feel free.

Everything from a rabbit hole and a looking glass to a wardrobe and a vision becomes a doorway into an underworld, or simply ANOTHER world in which the characters at least hope to find clarity.

Wonderland, the Matrix, Never Land, Narnia…these are only advantageous to their guests so far as they can provide a better way for them to see themselves.

This is an escape and indoctrination into a world to the extent that the visitors become “aliens” to their own original setting, no longer contributing to its dominant morality. Alice cannot forget Wonderland, Neo chooses to remain separate from the Matrix, and Oedipa, apparently, cannot continue unless as “unfurrowed, assumed full circle.”

The cultural materialist would best identify with the question Oedipa asks herself: “Shall I project a world?”

In this case, the theory and the texts do not simply validate each other, but instead confirm the structure to which they belong. This structure, in its very essence, seeks to “project” in a variety of ways new worlds by which to interpret reality.

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Beyond Post-modernism

Chasing red herrings in the hope they lead somewhere. But the number of overlapping analogies and returning ideas is quite amazing. As usual, when things make TOO MUCH sense, I label them as “consolatory”, and so unreliable and most likely false.

The journey through Post-modernism led me beyond, then back in, as in a loop. Another starting point was again provided by mass-entertainment, Fringe (the TV series). This time it was a frame, specifically episode 12 of the third series. It briefly shows some books belonging to William Bell (a character in the series). The first and last are too out of focus to recognize, but the others are explicitly shown and one of these two is a recurring book, as it was also shown in LOST. The curious fact is that I also owned some of those books:

– A Separate Reality – Carlos Castaneda
– The Second Ring of Power – Carlos Castaneda
– In the Wake of Chaos – Stephen H. Kellert
– Gödel, Escher, Bach – Douglas R. Hofstadter
– The Tao of Physics – Fritjof Capra

I own “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and a book of Castaneda not on that list: “The Art of Dreams”. The interesting part is the links between these books and some of what I wrote in my previous post. Chasing after magic, spirituality and metaphysics means getting lost very easily, waste a lot of time and get sidetracked without gaining anything really useful. I’ve always been a curious skeptic, and so I’ve dabbled here and there with these kinds of studies in my life, without getting a whole lot out of them. Often they are empty lures. This time I think I have a better orientation system I’ve built. I know where to place things and I can separate better between the garbage and something that has some deeper relevance.

I discovered that “Gödel, Escher, Bach” has now a preface by the author done for the anniversary. My copy of the book is very old and doesn’t have it, but I’ve figured out it can be read online. Amazon preview has it, but it misses some pages, but by mixing the amazon.com preview with the amazon.co.uk one it’s possible to read the whole of it (which now resides complete in a folder on my desktop, in the case they decide to “fix” it). This preface is extremely useful, as it explains concisely “what the book is about”, and its purpose is far more important and pivotal than the title may suggest. It’s a research on consciousness, and perception as consequence (bringing back to the essence of postmodernism, as way to read and portray the world).

This book sits right beside some other studies of mine that are at the very foundation of my (scientific) “beliefs”, and they earned this position. One is Niklas Luhmann, the other, that I discover now, is Heinz von Foerster. Both build a logic system that works like math. It explains the world outside through rigorous rules that are meant to be unassailable, still very close to the original methodology of GEB (the book above). They deal directly with the partiality of the observation. They know human limits and so their systems have to exist wholly within. Systems that recursively observe themselves (which is, the recursion and “strange loops”, where the GEB believes the consciousness emerges). Two books of Heinz von Foerster I have already on the way, another I found online.

A step back to Japanese Anime. Relevant quote:

“How about I observe. Therefore the universe is. Therefore, we can say if the human beings who observe the universe hadn’t actually evolved as far as they did, then there wouldn’t be any observations and the universe wouldn’t have anyone to acknowledge its existence. So it wouldn’t really matter if the universe existed or not. The universe is because human beings know it is.”
— Itsuki Koizumi, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

This will recur. Now follow the trail to this, skip to page 37 (this book was published in 1865 and about the ideas of a philosopher who lived at the end of 1600, someone truly postmodern then):

Everything exists in the mind that perceives it; and apart from the perceiving mind nothing exists. The real place and form of existence is in the idea. The desk I write upon, the paper I feel – they exist in my ideas, and nowhere else; and they may exist in the ideas of all others, if they only saw and felt them, at the same time. If the perceiving ego did not exist, the desk and the paper before me could not have existed. Ideas are objects of perception, and their existence is in the fact that they are perceived. Ideas are different from the mind, and yet they exist in the mind.


If it is not perceived by anybody, it does not exist; for its real existence is in the fact it is perceived by some intelligent mind.

Now something more recent. “Radical constructivism: a way of knowing and learning” By Ernst von Glasersfeld.

What is radical constructivism? It is an unconventional approach to the problem of knowledge and knowing. It starts from the assumption that knowledge, no matter how it is defined, is in the heads of persons, and that the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience. What we make of experience constitutes the only world we consciously live in. It can be sorted into many kinds, such as things, self, others, and so on. But all kinds of experience are essentially subjective, and though I may find reasons to believe that my experience may not be unlike yours, I have no way of knowing that it is the same. The experience and interpretation of language are no exception.

Heinz von Foerster follows similar ideas:

”Objects and events are not primitive experiences. Objects and events are representations of relations. Since ‘objects’ and ‘events’ are not primary experiences and thus cannot claim to have absolute (objective) status, their interrelations, the ‘environment’ is a purely personal affair, whose constraints are anatomical or cultural factors. Moreover, the postulate of an ‘external (obective) reality’ disappears to give way to reality that is determined by modes of internal computations.”

Only he clings more to mathematics and sometimes the (my) brain can’t compute:

Assume a finite universe, U0, as small or as large as you wish, which is enclosed in an adiabatic shell which separates this finite universe from any “meta-universe” in which it may be immersed. Assume, furthermore, that in this universe, U0, there is a closed surface which divides this universe into two mutually exclusive parts: the one part is completely occupied with a self-organizing system S0, while the other part we may call the environment E0 of this self-organizing system: S0 & E0 = U0.

Bu lets keep it to ideas that the brain can try to grasp. This from another book (whose name fits: “The Dream of Reality“):

The constructivism of Heinz von Foerster is concerned with the convergence of two central themes: 1) how we know what we know, and 2) an abiding concern of the world and its humanity. For the constructivist, the dreams of reason denote a common denominator running through our language and logic, manifest as a wish for what we call “reality” to have a certain shape and form. The wish has several dimensions.

First we wish reality to exist independently of us, we who observe it. Second, we wish reality to be discoverable, to reveal itself to us. We wish to know its secrets, i.e., how it works. Third, we wish these secrets to be lawful, so we can predict and ultimately control reality. Fourth, we wish for certainty; we wish to know that what we have discovered about reality is true.

Radical constructivism challenges this wish, thus taking on the unpopular job of shattering the fantasy of an objective reality. Constructivists argue that there are no observations — i.e., no data, no laws of nature, no external objects — independent of observers. The lawfulness and certainty of all natural phenomena are properties of the describer, not of what is being described. The logic of the world is the logic of the description of the world.

Constructivism identifies, for all who care to look through the lens of its epistemology, the limits of what we can know.

But is this “bias” just the result of subjective, limited perception (and so the impossibility of breaking the shell and see what’s outside), or there’s a method to it, a purpose? That’s exactly the point that divides science from metaphysics. But it is the science itself leading to that edge and then leaving you alone. Science has a direction, it leads there and then surrenders. So I make this leap and cross to a less orthodox book: Initiation Into Hermetics, by Franz Bardon.

Man is the true image of God; he has been created in the likeness of the universe. Everything great to be found in the universe is reflected, in a small degree, in man. For this reason, man is signified as a microcosm in contrast to the macrocosm of the universe. Strictly speaking, the entire nature manifests itself in man.

It forms itself a loop, a recursion. Bringing back to that pivotal idea of conscience revealed by the GEB. The “strange swirl”. It is in nature and it is in us.

Kabbalistic ideas essentially rely on the same tenet.

These ideas can even be brought to their limits. For example by von Foerster himself:

”At any moment we are free to act toward the future we desire. In other words, the future will be as we wish and perceive it to be. This may come as a shock only to to those who let their thinking be governed by the principle that demands that only the rules observed in the past shall apply to the future. For those the concept of ‘change’ is inconceivable, for change is the process that obliterates the rules of the past.”

And while I’m unsure to what extent he intends this, there are some (tapping from Kabbalistic ideas, that are at the foundation of reality as a “fake” illusion) that intend it literally: Neville Goddard.

The Power of Awareness

I AM is the self-definition of the absolute, the foundation on which everything rests. I AM is the first cause-substance. I AM is the self-definition of God.

I AM hath sent me unto you.


Be still and know that I AM God.


Can man decree a thing and have it come to pass? Most decidedly he can! Man has always decreed that which has appeared in his world and is today decreeing that which is appearing in his world and shall continue to do so as long as man is conscious of being man. Not one thing has ever appeared in man’s world but what man decreed that it should. This you may deny, but try as you will you cannot disprove it, for this decreeing is based upon a changeless principle. You do not command things to appear by your words or loud affirmations. Such vain repetition is more often than not confirmation of the opposite. Decreeing is ever done in consciousness. That is; every man is conscious of being that which he has decreed himself to be. The dumb man without using words is conscious of being dumb. Therefore he is decreeing himself to be dumb.

When the Bible is read in this light you will find it to be the greatest scientific book ever written. Instead of looking upon the Bible as the historical record of an ancient civilization or the biography of the unusual life of Jesus, see it as a great psychological drama taking place in the consciousness of man. Claim it as your own and you will suddenly transform your world from the barren deserts of Egypt to the promised land of Canaan.

But in his own thinking this omnipotent “free will” is not everything. Beside “The Law” (what I’ve quoted), there’s another part: “The Promise”. “Not one shall be lost in all my holy mountain.” Meaning that there’s a purpose that drives all things. In the end God is waiting at the end, waiting that you learn and go through that path, however long it will take you (another idea coming from Kabbalah).

And this idea, of two kinds of perspective (and realities), one short term, the other long-term, recurs into that wonder that is The Red Book, by Carl G. Jung (this requires youtube).

The overall theme of the book is how Jung regains his soul and overcomes the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation. This is ultimately achieved through enabling the rebirth of a new image of God in his soul and developing a new worldview in the form of a psychological and theological cosmology.

If I speak in the spirit of this time, I must say: no one and nothing can justify what I must proclaim to you. Justification is superfluous to me, since I have no choice, but I must. I have learned that in addition to the spirit of this time there is still another spirit at work, namely that which rules the depths of everything contemporary. The spirit of this time would like to hear of use and value. I also thought this way, and my humanity still thinks this way. But that other spirit forces me nevertheless to speak, beyond justification, use, and meaning. Filled with human pride and blinded by the presumptuous spirit of the times, I long sought to hold that other spirit away from me. But I did not consider that the spirit of the depths from time immemorial and for all the future possesses a greater power than the spirit of this time, who changes with the generations. The spirit of the depths has subjugated all pride and arrogance to the power of judgment. He took away my belief in science, he robbed me of the joy of explaining and ordering things, and he let devotion to the ideals of this time die out in me. He forced me down to the last and simplest things.

The spirit of the depths took my understanding and all my knowledge and placed them at the service of the inexplicable and the paradoxical.

To note that Jung was convinced that what he wrote and drew was not a product of his own conscience and imagination, but that it was some kind of alien or external knowledge that seeped in, to the point that he questioned his own sanity.

In 1913 at the age of thirty-eight, Jung experienced a horrible “confrontation with the unconscious”. He saw visions and heard voices. He worried at times that he was “menaced by a psychosis” or was “doing a schizophrenia.” He decided that it was valuable experience, and in private, he induced hallucinations, or, in his words, “active imaginations.” He recorded everything he felt in small journals. Jung began to transcribe his notes into a large, red leather-bound book, on which he worked intermittently for sixteen years.

In the end, he believed that this book came out of the “collective unconscious”, or Akashic Record. Make of this what you will, but it is interesting how many ideas in it recur and resonate with the rest.

All this oddly brought me back to Malazan and Erikson’s work. Because that’s not truly “fantasy secondary world”, but more an internal, symbolic landscape. Something of the mind. And in particular, it is not “alien” or fabricated as we may naturally intend it. It mimics and reflects more our world than what one assumes. One tenets of that work is about the disparate number of mythologies and beliefs specific to each population. “Systems” that seem quite hard to conciliate with each other. Appearing contradictory. And often things reveal a common root, that was disguised by limited, blind perception. More often than not, those branches are revealed having shared origins.

Without thinking how all this applies to the Malazan world, lets think to how it applies to ours. We also have as many “mythologies” and belief systems as different populations. As this blog post makes a meager example, culture develops outwardly. It ever expands, seemingly limitless and infinite. The more you know, the more you perceive how much you miss. But counter to this outward expansion there’s another force. Which returns. You can study Castaneda’s spirituality, Yoga or other eastern philosophies, Hermeticism, the Kabbalah or whatever else, and there are often ideas that essentially recur and are only slightly refracted and distorted from one mythology to the other. A sort of common root that gives me the illusion (or possibility) that there’s a “point”. That consolatory sense of “purpose”, or idea of “God” ordering the world and having a “plan”.

The patterns of culture move outward, following an idea of progression, ever expanding knowledge. But in the end they have to return, as this Grand Design has a center, and that is “man”. We cannot transcend ourselves (as illustrated above). And through ourselves we perceive everything. Sometimes I imagine the world as an endless loop. It (itself) recurs. And every cycle is some desperate attempt to reach a “solution”. I have this idea that if God created the world, then there are essentially two possibilities. The first is the cynical one. The aquarium. The world is created to amuse. A quirk. The other is that if God created something, it is because he wished to be surpassed and not simply obeyed. That what he created could be better than himself. As a father hoping his son will have something more than he had. And so this idea of the looping world set in motion by God, trying to find the answer, and carefully programmed for that task.

Which brings back to Fringe. One theme is how the “wounded”, broken Walter is a better man. Because he’s vulnerable and so is able to better weigh his choices and their consequences. This leads to another general idea about the pains and difficulties of the real world. Without them we would all live in stasis, because there would be no stimulation (Infinite Jest also uses this theme at its core). The rules and boundaries are needed to give things a structure and establish a reaction. Relationships that bring you forward, sometimes forcefully.

I was reading Proust yesterday and this particular idea was strong. What Proust became and what made him write “In Search of Lost Time” was the product of “wounds” and weaknesses. He was suffering for the death of his mother and for his illness. But that “heightened awareness” is what gave him his sensibility and why we remember him today. Something similar could be said about David Foster Wallace. They were both great men because they were broken. Neither of them feeling privileged because of this, obviously. But this leaves also this consolatory idea of progress. That the world outside hurts so that we can eventually be “aware” and learn. It seems there are infinite paths through this kind of journey, but it is also possible they all lead to the same destination.

Proust’s work is also a world, an internal landscape with incredible complexity. Itself a microcosm explored through involuntary memory.

(here I’m doing a translation of a Preface and Proust’s words, so excuse the suckyness)

He was then choosing isolation, after his life deemed to leave him alone; he was withdrawing from the world, so that another, the internal one, would freely take shape; he was shutting himself, like Noah, inside an ark, to save himself from the Great Flood outside, but also to be able to observe and understand better what was outside. He was examining obsessively a number of themes about his soul and his body, memory and oblivion, waking life and dreams, will and inactivity.


He had to cohabit with his illnesses. After all, if that intermittence of death, presented to him as suffocation, was stealing from him the hope of life, it is also true that it was giving him a kind of second sight that let him see what others couldn’t. “Only pain lets you observe and learn and break down those structures that otherwise you wouldn’t understand. A man that, every night, would fall asleep like a stone on his bed and wouldn’t live till the moment he had to wake up, would that man think of making, if not big discoveries, at least some small observations about sleep? He’s barely aware of the act. Some insomnia wouldn’t be useless to appreciate sleep, to throw a ray of light in such darkness. A memory without flaws wouldn’t be a powerful stimulant to study the phenomena of memory.”

So seclusion and sickness, freeing him from the world and social life, offered Proust the occasion to analyze his life and the human passions. And the moments of oblivion, the emptiness, the confusion of the past, far from thwarting the memory, would infuse it a new impetus and a rare expansive strength.

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This is The Malazan Book of the Fallen

After I wrapped up “The Curse of the Mistwraith” I went back to read “Midnight Tides”. Brew green tea, sit down. Read ten paragraphs or so, then… think for the following hour and half without reading another line.

That’s what it does to me. More and more characters give voice to my own thoughts and feelings. Blurring, because I can’t say anymore if I developed a line of thought on my own, or sparked by something I read. Often I find characters say something I thought a moment before, and often I go to reread some old page and find again some thought I believed my own.

Seren longed to hold on to that long view. She desperately sought out the calm wisdom it promised, the peace that belonged to an extended perspective. With sufficient distance, even a range of mountains could look flat, the valleys between each peak unseen. In the same manner, lives and deaths, mortality’s peaks and valleys, could be levelled. Thinking in this way, she felt less inclined to panic.

From Deadhouse Gates:

What see you in the horizon’s bruised smear
That cannot be blotted out
By your raised hand?

The Curse of the Mistwraith – Janny Wurts

This book, and series, is particular to begin with because it’s very rare to see discussed in the usual places. It could appear as some old series buried and forgotten, written by a writer that was well known at one point but didn’t quite make into the Big Names that continue to be relevant. Instead this is a series “in the making”, right now. Series’ name is “The Wars of Light and Shadow” and will be completed (it will) in 11 volumes. The 9th comes out in October of this year and usually one can look forward to a two-years gap between each volume. I tend to have quite a bit of trust in the writer as I’ve read in her forums and interviews that she never strayed from her original plan and is strongly against series that “sag or sprawl”, as well as cliffhangers at the end of the book. In fact this series is structured in five different arcs, with each giving closure to the story at hand (this is true for the first book, that makes a single arc on its own).

It wasn’t in my reading queue as I had never heard about the writer, but curiosity took over. I certainly like Grand Plans in literature, akin legendary human achievements, and the more I started to gather information the more curious I got. Especially because of what I read in a interview, about the approach to the writing and the series. The name already gives a good idea about the central conflict that builds it. A war of “light” and “shadow”, mirrored by two brothers, opposite in nature and natural magic proficiency. The 800 pages of this first book are quite focused, the two main characters are the two brothers and the PoV rarely drifts away from them. The setting is broad and sprawling (at the periphery, since only a small chunk of the landmass shown in the map is actually explored) but there are only a dozen or so characters that gravitate around the two brothers. So the story is rather railed on its way and doesn’t sprawl. After 200 pages or so the course is set and one has the idea of the type of story that is shaping up. More confusing at the beginning, there’s a short opening page written from a point “out of time” (relatively, meaning an epoch distant from the one where events take place) that already frames this primary conflict, filling it with foreboding.

The story then opens not in some isolated farm or village at the periphery of the map, but outside the map itself (with me wasting a lot of time to find the location in the almost illegible map in the minute paperback, location that obviously wasn’t there). Another world, in fact, linked by portal. Only after the first 100 pages the two brothers get exiled and actually enter the “world” where the rest of the story will take place. Here the two brothers are immediately “rescued” by the “Fellowship”, a group of seven wizards that waited for this arrival for a long time, and that have already woven them tightly into their own plans (the “free will” is an important theme here). Athera, the world they come to, is plagued by some sort of curse in the form of a mist that completely obscures the sky, keeping this world in a permanent gloom, without sun or starry skies. The premise appeared to me quite ridiculous and fancy, but this superficial level is not the deal, and there’s indeed an interesting world hidden below (the mist).

Lead by prophecies, the first task that the Fellowship appoints to the two brothers/mages/future kings is to join forces, and powers of “light” and “shadow”, against this unnatural mist, so that Athera will be able to see a clear sky again. But this also becomes the trigger for the main conflict and the origin of all woes. The Fellowship’s plans and reasons are given a full exposure. They aren’t treated like an hidden manipulative organization with shady purposes. You can see the conflict of their motivations, of cause and effect. Be there when they decide the next move. Through a sort of “mage sight” they can “scry” all possible future events, and then decide which course to take. But the Mistwraith, the mist that covers the world and that arrived through another of the world portals, is an element “outside” the picture that doesn’t follow their know rules, and so can easily avoid prediction and distort the outcomes.

That element, and quite pivotal being the seed that sparks the whole conflict, is the part I liked the least. The first part of the novel is a very good description of the conflicted relationship between the two brothers. It opens amidst war and Arithon (the “shadow” brother) is taken prisoner. From this point onward the two brothers face each other directly, and slowly come to understand each other. The conflict is eased, almost resolved. But this is only the early part of the book and one is already well aware that the rest of the series is founded on this particular conflict. That’s the problem. This precise and deep, solid characterization is taken over by an escamotage. Essentially the whole conflict is sparked again by magic possession. It’s not truly convincing and it disrupts the work on characterization that precedes it. There’s some justification of what happens that surely grounds it better, but never coming off as so convincing:

Where opening did not already exist, the creature could not have gained foothold.

…But it certainly gives the decisive shove. The fantastic element becomes strength and weakness. The weakness I already described (the conflict has its root in magic, and magical unbalance) but it is also a strength in the way Janny Wurts builds this setting. The fantastic element is always a delicate part in fantasy novels regardless of who writes them. For many readers who prefer to stay away from the genre, the “fantasy” is something that opens a wide gap and so feels not relevant. Something alien or too estranged from a reality that is actual and matters. So a way to mystify truths, an excess of decoration. A fancy dress for a trite, juvenile argument. But here also lies the difference between the greatest fantasy writers and the rest: they use the “fantasy” not to dress but to strip reality of its layers. To reveal instead of hide. To go at the root of things, to understand deeply and without hypocrisy. As Janny Wurts said:

Fantasy allows discussion of sensitive topics with the gloves off.

That’s also the aspect I tend to criticize in the work of much bigger names in Fantasy. Martin being an example, being somewhat wary or suspicious about the “fantasy” element, and so keeping it almost off the page, far at the periphery, because it would upset the natural balance of a novel. And then without really understanding it and without knowing how it can be used once the series moves in that direction (a brilliant review of ADWD deals with these aspects).

This romantic idea of a world covered in mist, the plausibility of it and acceptance of the reader, are then the purpose of fantasy. Not to embellish or narrate of worlds that do not exist. But to speak intimately about ourselves. The inner world. The fantastic element is not a decoration or a veil that hides, but the coming of the revelation, a veil that comes off to let one see. It deepens the perception. And that’s why fantasy has the responsibility to stay grounded and cling to something that has to be meaningful and necessary. Not consolatory wishful-thinking, but language that is powerful and ambitious in its purpose.

I put Janny Wurts in the wide area of Erikson or Bakker for these reasons. Writing the “pretentious”, ambitious fantasy. Writing in the genre as a strength instead of a liability. With a clear vision of what they are doing and why. Janny Wurts has a far more classical/romantic style that keeps her more apart, even if not shying away from the brutality of the fight that closes the book. She keeps all the sharp, “gritty” edges, not blunted by romantic undertones (that are still there aplenty). The book has the vague feel of the Wheel of Time, but written from an adult and “serious” perspective. It has the strong classical feel and embraces the fantasy element, but the setting is solid and realistic, perfectly nailed and one of the best described in the genre. So is the magic, I’ve never seen (or thought possible) to describe magic in a so vivid way. It’s tangible. Whereas magic is usually kept vague and abstract, only dabbed in description, Janny Wurts describes minutely the details and behaviors, managing to make sense of it and keep it consistent. Often compared to the complexity of music and its rules, that can then be analyzed through great effort and manipulated:

a loophole in the world’s knit that hinged on a theoretical blend of fine points

The Fellowship, the group of powerful wizards that take care of the world, is not kept distant from the reader. The book offers their PoV directly and so the description and interpretation of their use of magic. They even behave as you’d expect of people wielding that kind of power and awareness: by manipulating directly every event in a brutal, arrogant way, yet coming off as the “good” guys. Even if in the end their actions become self-serving, and their attempts to restore their own power triggers all sort of cascading disasters. Relatively “good”, as this is another series that pivots around the idea of “gray” characters only driven and justified by their motivations. In the same vein of “modern” fantasy that “doubles” and opposes the PoV, treating equally both sides caught in a war. In this book this is the real driving theme, as the conflict between “light” and “shadow” is driven by respective flaws. It’s a story about making hard choices, accepting compromises that imply costs impossible to tolerate, and yet taking responsibility for all of this.

Whose cause took priority? In this world of divisive cultures and shattered loyalties, no single foundation of rightness existed.

But beside all this, it’s really a weird book and not one that I can easily recommend. The prose is an aspect I left on the sideline but that is the most important when it comes to decide whether or not to read this book. It is so lush and thick that it’s almost impossible to extricate (feels like work). I can’t even imagine how it can appear to those who use to “skim read”. It requires a lot of attention to keep track of things and there’s the constant risk that the eye glazes over, so you always have to keep that control and not sink whole in the prose. Beautiful, beautiful prose, surely, lush descriptions and minute, chiseled characterization and psychology, but it requires an effort.

Amid that graveyard of ravaged splendour, of artistry spoiled by war in a cataclysmic expression of hatred, arose four single towers, each as different from the other as sculpture by separate masters. They speared upward through the mist, tall, straight, perfect. The incongruity of their wholeness against the surrounding wreckage was a dichotomy fit to maim the soul: for their lines were harmony distilled into form, and strength beyond reach of time’s attrition.

A prose that soars, but in a way that often risks to become a huge yawn. The reader is only human, and attention has always the tendency to slip off. Not all that much brisk dialogue that feels like a chilly breeze. You often have to wade through beautiful, but thick, paragraphs of intricate description (of both psychology and landscape, treated equally). And yes, the book is SLOW. There’s a point where I draw the line, though. I don’t feel that the book meanders or overindulges in description of stuff that is not relevant. This prose is not opaque or rhetoric or redundant. Under there there’s some impressive characterization and masterful control of storytelling. As I said: it’s not a fun, brisk pageturner and it demands and clear, focused mind, but the purple prose is not superficial decoration and has always the root into something meaningful. Which is why, despite the effort, I also kept the determination.

Oh, and the fanciest of sex scenes:

In the sunwarmed air of their sleeping nook, he allowed her quiet touch and hot flesh to absorb his bitter brew of sorrow.

Another potentially problematic aspect is that despite a neutral approach to the characters, it’s Arithon to lead the way. He’s the one who retains a certain awareness, and the one that is most sympathetic. But he’s also the one with a supernatural sensibility and comes off as the “emo” type. Maudlin, always contemplative, with a Christ-like spirit of sacrifice (that brings its own flaws). You share with him all his thoughts, psychology and development, and this also takes its toll if you don’t like to indulge in this kind of analysis. On the other side Janny Wurts writes this kind of character splendidly and never falls into a boring or redundant cliche. It brings back to the essence of the writer, that is: to care. The quality of being born many times, and so become different characters. Be in their place. To feel. So this book demands a similar care and patience.

This makes a kind of slow, contemplative writing that is not for everyone. What I’m saying is that this “mist” or noise is still well rooted into something meaningful that made the effort worthwhile in my case. I’m looking forward to see the story open up and expand, less constricted by a relatively formulaic first book that is only the spark that sets the fire. From the first pages of book two (that opens the second cycle) it seems that there’s a gap of at least five years, so the story will surely grow from its premises and I’m curious about where it will go since the writer has said that every step has a point in the Grand Scheme of Things, and everything will converge for the closure of the series.

Bonus, the french covers. That are both beautiful and pertinent to the content of the books:

ASOIAF & LOST, similar shortcomings?

Just some superficial comments, as I’m far behind reading ASOIAF while still following how the opinions develop on the internet.

One reason why I appreciate ASOIAF without being a huge fan is because it’s to my eyes limited in some way. I recognize the mastery of the craft of writing and plotting, but it’s as if this craft is not in the service of something worth it. As if the pagecount is proportional to skill, but not to ambition. A great story, a great experience, but lacking a certain purpose or absolute necessity. It lacks a dimension.

All this contained in its structure. A song of ICE and FIRE. But five books in, the Winter is still coming. Fire and ice have yet to meet. What is at the periphery is still there, creeping in but still away. There’s lots of plot, but it’s like suspended in a stasis, with only the illusion of movement. And in two books all this is supposed to come in with a bang and then be resolved. It has yet to begin, but it’s already almost over. A very, very long prelude.

A step further, it seems to me that Martin doesn’t know what to do with the more “fantasy” elements of the story. They are atmospheric but not meaningful or done in an interesting way. Not dealt up to their potential. I’ve read the Prologue of ADWD because it received specific praises and was a self-contained story, but I didn’t find any particular inspiration in it. From the beginning, and with a precise intent, Martin has kept these fantastic elements subdued. They were only a spice, adding a certain flavor to the real meat of the story, which was about intrigue and family matters. But as the focus is supposed to shift, those “fantasy” elements don’t seem to be hiding a greater depth, and the story loses its steam.

Specifically about LOST what got my attention is trying to narrow down how mystery and mythology can be done well. From my point of view LOST finale was met with some disappointment because of a focus shift. It started in season 1 as an mystery/horror, then moved to mystery/sci-fi/pseudoscience and finally “dropped” its mythology to go fully mystic. The first transition worked, the second didn’t not go equally well.

The fact is that LOST in the beginning kept the people watching because it had a good rhythm and tension. It wasn’t the good ideas that kept the audience, but the execution. In fact I believe pretty much everyone started watching feeling quite skeptical. It then “earned” some faith as it started to give the illusion that everything that was shown wasn’t random but part of a cohesive vision that could eventually make sense. A vast, intricate mythology/puzzle that would give an unitarian vision to the disparate parts. While, with the last season, this huge mythology was essentially put on the sideline as if it became suddenly superfluous and uninteresting. In that way, it betrayed some expectations.

So what is that “worked” and that then didn’t live up to those expectations? From my point of view it’s about the core idea of the “hatch”. The “hatch” represented a pattern of mystery and mythology done 100% successfully. It felt compelling and satisfying. Opposed to the later developments that instead felt dry. The distinction between mystery done well and it being disappointing lies on whether or not it opens a window on a new scenario. The hatch is a good example because it became the pivotal axis of the first season. Everything revolved around that big mystery, and people came back for the second season to finally see what was beyond that hatch. A door opening onto something. An hole in the veil of mystery. The revelation did not disappoint. Why? Because it wasn’t a dead end, but it lead up to disclose a big new dimension of the mythology (The Dharma project and all it contained). The mystery felt compelling and satisfying because it branched out, it was a seed for something far greater. A box to open to discover a new world.

Back to ASOIAF, so I can make the link. What characterizes this series are the shocking, unexpected events, like a certain death in the first book, which remains like a signature. Yet that specific event “worked” not simply because it was unexpected and shocking. There were two main reasons why that specific event was so successful: (1) because a “way out” was already explicitly traced and readers believed it logical and true, a plausible development. The shock arrived because the death wasn’t the culmination of a scene filled with danger, but because it arrived once the danger felt already behind. (2) Because that death wrestled the plot in a whole new direction. It works because of mind-boggling consequences and repercussions it has on every level (characters and plot). It “opens up” instead of being just a dead-end and miserable death. It’s not a conclusion, but the true starting point. It becomes the spine of all that follows.

So there are these similarities between the successful (and unsuccessful) mysterious/mythological aspects of LOST and the successful (and unsuccessful) unexpected turns of plot that keep readers reading ASOIAF. The mystery/revelation chain works when it becomes a seed delivering a greater picture. Or comprehension that unifies disparate pieces of the puzzles. Same as in ASOIAF where it’s not an unexpected death to be compelling, but how the reader is directly engaged with its consequences, the opening and closing of possibilities.

If someone tried to replicate the success of ASOIAF following the widespread idea that “no one is safe”, then he’d only end up in failure. Because what works isn’t in that pattern of simply doing something unexpected, but in giving the new perspectives and knowing how to kick the story up to a higher level.

One wonders if Martin knows, with two books left, how to close the story in a meaningful way as he was able to do with its beginning, instead of being squeezed in that pinch made by fire and ice, that seems to have no real way out.

The Name of the Wind – my first impression

I had to pull the book from the shelf (since I’ve not yet read it) because I got curious. There was a comment on Malazan Tor.com re-read that basically claimed that Malazan was shallow compared to Rothfuss’ work. Despite its troll-ish nature (joining Malazan re-read to say it doesn’t deserve a re-read) I’m always curious by how works relate to each other and lately there has been quite a discussion about Rothfuss, with the 2nd book coming out. But from all I read there was a certain consensus that the book had pacing issues and was overlong. Which was exactly the opposite that this poster was claiming:

The degree of depth that’s being unearthed in the comments on the Name of the Wind reread thread have felt to me strongly supportive of the notion that the Malazan books are not very dense compared to Rothfuss, fwiw. I enjoy Erikson a lot as entertaining light reading with addictively much plot and world complexity and find the series worth having for that, but my lack of commenting is because I’m really not seeing that much thematic depth; the notions that war sucks and that compassion, integrity, endurance and bearing witness are virtues are neither points that strike me as particularly subtle or innovative nor ones that need so many thousand pages to be conveyed.

See, I’m pretty sure this guy has absolutely nothing worthwhile to say about Malazan, but maybe he has a point about Rothfuss. I’m not interested in a comparison, but I am interested in finding Rothfuss own qualities. The quality of prose is one I’ve seen claimed the most.

So I went reading the first 30 pages, following the Tor.com re-read in order to see the “degree of depth” that it was “unearthing”. Coming right from Erikson the difference in prose is the most noticeable aspect, and beside it, also the approach to the story. These two lines for example wouldn’t blend too well in a Malazan book:

Graham, Jake, and Shep nodded to themselves. The three friends had grown up together, listening to Cob’s stories and ignoring his advice.

Probably two of the most common lines you can find. There’s nothing weird, or stylish, or significant about them, but they set the story on a level of normality. It’s contained in a slice of life scene that has nothing special about it and actually draws its point from this notion. And again a corner of the world, life made simple, plot details introduced little by little, bits by bits. Hints here and there about hidden elements. Easing carefully the reader in, the story well measured on that reader.

So yes, I see a certain mastery of storytelling. Every sentence drives its point and wants the reader put under that spell that will keep him turning the pages. Feeling the story, the characters, getting involved. It’s a very delicate and caring way of writing, showing passion for the writing itself. It has a traditional air of fairy tales and gives a feeling of safety. The story may include danger, but you know it’s done for the purpose of the story itself. The monsters aren’t real.

Erikson obviously runs opposite to all this. I said many times as there seem to be no slice of life scenes in the Malazan books. No character leading a normal life, caught up in normal business. That kind of relief and reduction of complexity of the world is absent and all the characters are tossed this way and that, snapping between plots. We’ll never know how the Malazan series would look if written from a more relaxed and natural point of view. It’s the opposite of what Erikson does, but sometimes I wonder how it would be.

That’s how I’d frame Rothfuss work at the moment. I recognize a good style of writing honed for a precise effect. I’d say that it sits safely within a tradition, embracing and nourishing it more than challenging it, but this isn’t a “flaw”. I’m far more skeptical instead about “depth unearthed”. It seems to me more of the kind that Larry calls as the “speculative mills”. Meaning that it’s all about piecing together mysteries and doing guesswork about what really happened and finding out all the little hints and mentions of this and that.

But it’s a kind of activity I find dry. I focus on what the writer wants and says, I always stay within the text and do not allow imagination to fill untold stories and alternate possibilities. I know many, many readers thrive on that, projecting themselves in the story and making it their own. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but the “depth” I’m looking for has to be in the text, not in spurious speculation or wishful thinking.

I’m sure I’ll enjoy some “entertaining light reading with addictively much plot and world complexity”, but that’s likely to define more Rothfuss’ work than Erikson’s.

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Interior and exterior worlds – microcosm/macrocosm

From Midnight Tides. Thematically linked to “The Tree of Life” and symbolic spaces (see second paragraph, it can’t be more explicit than that):

Drawn to the shoreline, as if among the host of unwritten truths in a mortal soul could be found a recognition of what it meant to stand on land’s edge, staring out into the depthless unknown that was the sea. The yielding sand and stones beneath one’s feet whispered uncertainty, rasped promises of dissolution and erosion of all that was once solid.

In the world could be assembled all the manifest symbols to reflect the human spirit, and in the subsequent dialogue was found all meaning, every hue and every flavour, rising in legion before the eyes. Leaving to the witness the decision of choosing recognition or choosing denial.

Udinaas sat on a half-buried tree trunk with the sweeping surf clawing at his moccasins. He was not blind and there was no hope for denial. He saw the sea for what it was, the dissolved memories of the past witnessed in the present and fertile fuel for the future, the very face of time. He saw the tides in their immutable susurration, the vast swish like blood from the cold heart moon, a beat of time measured and therefore measurable. Tides one could not hope to hold back.


He sat huddled in his exhaustion, gaze focused on the distant breakers of the reef, the rolling white ribbon that came again and again in heartbeat rhythm, and from all sides rushed in waves of meaning. In the grey, heavy sky. In the clarion cries of the gulls. In the misty rain carried by the moaning wind. The uncertain sands trickling away beneath his soaked moccasins. Endings and beginnings, the edge of the knowable world.

The idea behind the system (Malazan)

I posted this on a forum. It structures my idea for the “system” to explain the Malazan series as a whole, which has lead me to write it to Erikson. Who confirmed me I nailed it (and then asked me to not reveal it completely).

I was writing some comments on Tor re-read, so I thought about asking for opinions here. KEEP IT SPOILER FREE, as I’m not looking for plot details, but just for overall/thematic structure.

The line of thought is this: what is that drives the purpose and meaning of the series?

One of the central themes of the series is that history is continuous and doesn’t have a beginning and end. But then to tell a story you have to divide it into discrete pieces, and the way you make this division is the way you decide to interpret it and give it meaning.

So why ten books? As each book tells a relatively self contained story, the whole series, as a collection of ten books, must have a central idea or theme that defines it. A beginning and an end. What is this central idea that drives the whole series and makes it something “finished”? What is the concept, idea, theme or character that unifies it?

The first answer a reader could have is: the Crippled God. The CG is what set the plot into movement, and its fate determines the conclusion of the series.

Is the “Malazan Book of the Fallen” the story of the Crippled God? My idea comes from these questions. I think that the central conflict in the series is another, and that the Crippled God is only one of the pieces involved in a bigger game. An important one, but not the central one. And if I wanted to choose another that is more “representative” then I would pick Paran.

Books that produce orgasms by mere touch (it’s true!)

Here I serve some book porn. I finally received these two books today, two of the sexiest I ever purchased. The book, as an object, can have its charm too.

Two books coming from the same publisher (McSweeney’s) and relatively recent. THE INSTRUCTIONS by Adam Levin was November 2010, A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles was a month ago. Both are HUGE tomes, THE INSTRUCTION is slightly bigger at 1030 pages, and A Moment in the Sun is 960. Same number of lines on the page (38) but A Moment in the Sun has a very slightly smaller font.

Both books thankfully arrived in very good condition, though THE INSTRUCTION comes in fives different colors (or more) and I got this white copy that isn’t exactly my favorite pick.

It should be obvious that I have a peculiar love for books with a staggering number of pages and written tiny, and there are a number of motivations. The first is simple fascination that I got since I was a kid. Both Lord of the Rings and The Neverending Story in its own way gave me this fascination for something you could lose yourself in forever. Something that was never over and that kept charming you. The prototypical idea of “THE” Book, the definitive one, the one that could tell you everything that is worth knowing. Then there’s a fact that these huge books are achievements. A kind of monument to human intellect and culture. Like climbing the Everest, and reading it you get to share something of the achievement itself. A relevant accomplishment. Other books you can read and forget, but these huge books can haunt you, challenge you from their shelf, and be part of a significant chunk of your life.

Then there’s the fact that the number of books out there to read is truly infinite. So if I read something then I want that the writer gave to the book EVERYTHING HE HAD. Writing a book, or a series, has to be something necessary and ultimate. And huge books demand more from the reader as from the writer. They can’t be done on the sideline, they pretend a singular commitment (and need to provide equivalent reward).

Obviously the hugeness of a tome draws my attention, but I’m not buying and reading a book just because it’s huge, as I don’t do that just because I like a cover. The point is: I bought these two books here because I made some research before, and I expect these to be masterpieces. Nothing less. So, regardless of them being sexy or being long, you should be interesting because they are good stuff.

It may be interesting how I found them. I simply got to this blog post. A list of 10 doorstoppers, and a list of books that I at least know rather well if not read back to back. An outstanding list, actually. The last one, though, I had never heard. Not even a slight mention.

So I go and start doing my research. I found another blog, The Year of Difficult Reading, that is rather interesting in its own right and that got another picture of challenging (and significant) books. Or another that made fun at the hugeness of THE INSTRUCTIONS.

Along that I also read a number of glowing reviews and lots of comparisons with DFW’s Infinite Jest, my favorite book by far. So I got more and more interested and figured this wasn’t just a book that deserved attention, but something potentially great and memorable. Especially, I read that it’s not one of those long, slow and difficult books that have no point and are impossible to read and understand. It’s instead playful and lively, fun to read and keeping you turning the pages. Something readable in spite of its length and ambitious literary collocation.

I still only read a few pages but I definitely confirm all that. It plays a lot with language and reminds me closely of DFW. It actually gives me more nostalgia than anything. Makes you really miss Infinite Jest and feels like it’s only a desolate imitation. It has something of DFW style, but not the spark of pure genius. Yet, despite this “wannabe” intention it also seem to have its own qualities. The idea I get is that the writer is constantly one step ahead of the reader and second-guessing everything. The attention is very much on the reader instead of some obscure and unreachable literary intention. He anticipates your reactions and keeps this sense of self-awareness. It manages, at the same time, to be serious while not taking itself seriously at all. So it’s not a book arrogant and pompous, but one that plays self-consciously with itself and the reader. A lively, fun dialogue in its own right, and never going too far only to fail clumsily.

After I put the order for THE INSTRUCTIONS I also checked the book’s publisher and noticed another book of them. John Sayles is one of my favorite directors (and if you haven’t already, go see all his movies since they are all masterpieces). I saw most of his movies at an independent festival a few years ago and even saw him in person. Now this is an historical fiction which is not something that would make me purchase the book without knowing more, but I know what kind of stuff I can expect from John Sayles and so what I needed was confirmation that he was as good writer as he was as director. Not many reviews out there yet, since the book is recent, but all the comments I found were packed with praises, hinting that this book may be something memorable regardless of Sayle’s career.

Today I read an interview with John Sayles that again reinforced all my hopes for this book.

Now Sayles has unveiled his most ambitious project to date in any genre, A Moment In the Sun, a bloody, brilliant, nearly 1,000 page globetrotting epic set at the turn of the last century, a time not so different from our own, it turns out.

Had to keep quoting lines on Twitter because it was full of awesomeness. This is what I liked:

The Rumpus: Your new novel, A Moment in the Sun, is written in—I wouldn’t say English, exactly, because you’ve taken and twisted the language to make it your own. It reads like a tornado of voices.

John Sayles: Every character has their own language, voices and styles. There’s a chapter from the point of view of a correspondent, and it’s written like the correspondence of that time. I read a bunch of those guys, Richard Harding Davis, and picked up on their locutions, which aren’t locutions we use anymore.

Rumpus: You were channeling them?

Sayles: You get into it and pretty soon—when actors play a character on a TV show for a long time, they’ll just get the script back to the new writers and say, My guy does not talk like that, because they’ve internalized it. They know the vocabulary and the rhythm of that character, and that’s how I start writing with this—it’s a dialogue, how the character expresses themselves, so I can find out who they are.


It expanded, and I just felt while I was writing it that the book had gotten to a size—this happens with things when they get to be the size of Moby-Dick—where it’s not a tight little story anymore, and it’s never going to be a tight little story. This is a book you can walk around in.

Rumpus: So it’s about giving voice to the voiceless—

Sayles: Or just telling the story in a complex and mosaic kind of way and feeling like wait a minute, here’s a whole part of the story that’s not represented and I just at least want one window into it, just one little peak.

Rumpus: And that’s the importance of storytelling, finally, you mean? Whether it’s movies or books, that’s why we tell stories?

Sayles: The minute this turns into a novel and not a screenplay, a couple things happen. One, you can have many more points of view. This book would not make a movie, it’d make a fifty-part mini-series, maybe. But in the process you don’t have that time to structure peoples’ experience. It’s very important in a movie what follows what. This needs to happen and then this happens next. A good action movie is like a rollercoaster ride, whereas a novel like this a long journey down a river. There are some slow parts and some rapids and—oh, shit, here comes a waterfall.

The other thing that happens is that I could do anything in fiction I feel like if I do it well, if I make people think things, wonder about things, feel things. In a movie, you lose that interior monologue.

There’s a couple of reasons people tell stories. Traditional oral storytelling—and I got into this in The Secret of Roan Inish—is about passed on from generation to generation. Sometimes they’re cautionary tales, other times they’re about who we are. We tell the story over and over. I was raised Catholic. There are gospels and these are allegorical stories that tell you about your religion or what we as Catholics believe is our central story or our central being. Native Americans have these stories, the Irish have a lot of these stories. Here’s someone else’s story. Here’s somebody you will never meet—oh, how exotic. Here’s a bunch of stories about a bunch of guys who go and chase whales. And you know what’s amazing? As great an adventure the story is, there’s also some pretty heavy human stuff that you could apply to human beings in general when they get into a dark place. So then what fiction becomes is a way to understand the world and a way to understand other people, and maybe yourself but other people too, and in the end a lot of what I try to do in books and movies is take you into other people’s lives so you can get a sense of how they see the world.

McSweeney’s also put a “bonus” page with lots of pictures and notes that John Sayles used as documentation. It’s awesome stuff. (and nice pictures here as well)

These two books aren’t just two huge and competently published books that look so great on a shelf. But also something special and that would be precious even without awesome covers & packaging & pagecount. Quality stuff, the best around I’m aware of. Apexes of achievement in their own genre. Invaluable experiences.

And they are CHEAP. Amazon.com is selling both of them for half their price. So go and enjoy the privilege while you can:

A moment in the Sun


A random page from A Moment in the Sun:

A page from THE INSTRUCTIONS, it plays a bit with the structure and presentation as you can see:

Sometimes there are also these maps made of words:

And other playful things in the same style:

This is the “prayer” at the beginning of the book:

THE INSTRUCTIONS Vs old Latin vocabulary:

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