RSS

Ten Written Works That Changed My Life

As an author and academic, the written word has had a tremendous impact on my life. I spend most of my time, both at work and at home, dealing with the written word in its various forms, whether through writing, editing, or reading, in fiction and non-fiction. As such, it should come as no surprise that certain specific works I have read – whether they be book series, novels, nonfiction books, essays, or short stories – have resonated with me or otherwise drastically affected either how I saw the world, how I interacted with it, or how I lived my life. In keeping with the current trend of making lists, I wanted to then offer you all a list of the top ten written works that have changed my life:

1). The Grey King by Susan Cooper
When I was but a wee lad, my mother read this book to my brothers and me. Though it is the fourth book in Cooper’s Dark is Rising quintet, it was by far her favorite of the series, and at the time one of her favorite books. This book changed my life simply because it is the first book I have a clear memory of reading (or hearing), and it was got me hooked on reading non-picture books. I am certain I read other books when I was younger, and I even remember many of them. However, it is upon having this book read to me by my mother that I got hooked on the written word, and understood how powerful books can be when combined with your imagination. Plus, it’s a great book and part of a great series (I went on to read all five books), and I actually made friends by introducing them to the themes of this work!

2). The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
I read The Lord of the Rings at a very young age, and it remains the first book I actually read on my own (I have no idea why my parents let me do this). It also introduced me to high fantasy, and opened my eyes to the power that world-building can have. I think I can trace my own obsession with world-building as a writer (and reader) back to the influence of The Lord of the Rings. While I have mixed feelings about the writing and characters (and plot), the world of the The Lord of the Rings was the first immersive world I experienced other than this one.

3). The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
Rest in Peace, Brian Jacques. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when I was small, at a book signing. I was too shy to speak to him, but all I remember was a laugh, him commenting on what a nice boy I was, and a signature in The Legend of Luke. I still have that book, which remains one of my most valued possessions because it showed me that authors are people. It was the first experience I had meeting a famous author, and it made me realize that there a person behind the words, and worlds, that I was reading about. Redwall as a book series was also the first extensive series I ever read, and the rodent main characters – and my love for them – were what inspired my mother to make me try the Skaven race in the tabeltop game Warhammer, which had an enormous impact on my lifecourse, as it turned me into a gamer and roleplayer. Thus, I really think I can trace back my earliest desires to write back to Redwall and its introducing me to the world of gaming, as well as of showing me that authors are real.

4). The Dune Series by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson
Dune was the first science fiction novel I ever read, and I still consider it one of the best, if not the best, novel ever written. It turned me onto the dark path of science fiction, from which I never recovered. I did not want to read this book at first, as I thought it looked boring and stupid, but both of my parents forced me to read it. After a chapter, I was hooked. By the end of the novel, I wanted more, and I began reading the rest of the series, including the prequels and sequels (well, most of them, anyway). Dune sparked my first interest in questions about humanity, and not only what it means to be human, but what it means to have a human society. Perhaps here I found my earliest interest in the social sciences, my other passion.

5). The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons
If Dune was my first science fiction novel and series and introduced me to the genre, Hyperion was what kept me interested. To my young mind, Hyperion was everything Dune was, and better, because it was shorter and (at the time) it seemed to me to have such a great sense of scale. I read Hyperion and its sequels before finishing the Dune books, and so I was able to achieve a sense of completeness in it before I ever got that same sense from DuneHyperion was also a beautiful story, in a way that Dune isn’t (Dune is brilliant, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful), and made me rethink the ways in which I saw the world. It instilled in me a sense of wonder and awe (which my cynicism eventually shattered), and also showed me what happens when power is used to destroy mankind’s potential futures. It was Hyperion and its sequels that made me think about what it meant to be human on an individual scale, and what it meant to truly live life, rather than just experiencing it. The Hyperion Cantos remains one of my favorite book series, on par with Dune in many respects, and it introduced an element of humanism into my own thoughts – and eventually, my writing.

6). The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Well, this item certainly changes the tone of the list. The Manifesto of the Communist Party, or The Communist Manifesto, is the first piece of non-textbook scholarly work I remember reading (in freshman year of high school), and it has stuck with me. I have read it countless times now in my work as a sociologist, and while other examples of Marx’s work may illustrate the Manifesto‘s ideas better (The German Ideology and Capital come to mind), the Manifesto remains the best concise work of what Marxism is. While I don’t agree with everything Marx said, a lot of what he did say rang true with me, and it was after reading The Communist Manifesto that I began not only to see better my own role in society, and my class’ role in history, but that I also began to think, for the first time sociologically. As I am now pursuing a PhD in Sociology, the importance of this work should be rather self-evident.

7). Democracy for the Few by Michael Parenti
This was the textbook for my introductory sociology course at university. While I credit my interest in sociology to a certain amazing and influential high school teacher, it was this sociology course on “social problems” and this textbook that cemented my interest in sociology, and led me down the path I am now. This book is what kept me in sociology after Marx’s Manifesto and my high school teacher introduced me to it. Written by a journalist, this book was the first to open my eyes to all of the problems in contemporary American society, and what drove me to want to try and alleviate some of those problems (hubris, I know), and what kindled my interest in sociology as a discipline and a way of looking at the world. I still have this textbook on my bookshelf, and I maintain that, while maybe a bit dated, it is one of the best introductions to what the social sciences can offer society at larger ever written.

8). “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft
While by no means the first work of horror I ever read (Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” win that prize), H. P. Lovecraft’s famous short story has been by far the most influential piece of horror in my own life. One large part of this is because this was the first story by H. P. Lovecraft I ever read, and another part of it is that in it I found an expression of my own growing cynicism, first implanted in me by reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The cosmic standpoint offered in this short story – and in most of Lovecraft’s work – actually made me feel better about my own nihilistic views (at the time), which had come to replace some of the humanist values instilled in me by Simmons’ Hyperion. In particular, the opening passage of the short story still resonates me, and it is sometimes a viewpoint that I still espouse:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism.

Aside from this, H. P. Lovecraft has had a tremendous impact on the themes in my own writing, perhaps more so than any other author.

9). There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

Another work of nonfiction, this book was written by a journalist who followed a family living in the Chago projects for several years, and coupled this work with interviews about the family’s past and, eventually, with work he did revisiting the family many years later. This book is a visceral account of black poverty in modern America, and is hugely eye-opening for a middle-class white American like myself. Other books about race and class could have been hear as well: Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow spring to mind, but both of those, while sound sociological analyses and eye-opening in their own right, lack the imagery and visceralness of There Are No Children Here. This book really made me think about race, class, violence, and poverty in a way I had never thought about before. [Interestingly, I have yet to find an account of gender inequities that had a similar impact on my life].

10). 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
This is by far the most recently read book on this list; in fact, I only read it a few months ago. Despite this, 2001: A Space Odyssey has significantly changed my understanding of the larger universe in which we live. While previously, Lovecraftian themes of insignificance and horrible truths dominated my thoughts, Clarke approached the problem of significance in an entirely different way. Like Lovecraft, he believed that mankind was ultimately insignificant in the cosmos, and 2001 clearly demonstrates this. However, for him, this insignificance is a beautiful thing, not a horrifying one, and somehow he manages to inject a human element into an enormous universe. The universe isn’t horrifying; it’s beautiful. The passage in which Clarke describes the ship’s passage over Jupiter in 2001 is one of the nest descriptive passages I’ve ever read, and simultaneously puts humanity in their cosmic place while urging them to step beyond it. 2001: A Space Odyssey combined the humanism I took from Hyperion with Lovecraft’s cosmic despair and allowed them to both live side by side in me, and gave me a burst of optimism to temper my pessimism.

So there you have it; ten written works that changed my life! Feel free to comment with yours, or of course, to try and read some of the ones I listed above!

And some honorable mentions:

The Uplift Saga by David Brin
American Apartheid by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton
Selections from the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci
“Bureaucracy” by Max Weber
The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Personal, Philosophical Musings, Readings

 

American Gods

In between getting ready to head back to another semester of graduate studies and working on The Eldritch Wastes, I’ve managed to get a little bit of reading for pleasure done! My latest literary conquest has been Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a book I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for a while now. I’ve been a long-time follower of Neil Gaiman online, including on Twitter and Facebook, and I enjoy reading his writing tips and journal, but other than his brilliant I, Cthulhu, until recently I had not read any of his fiction work. I was first introduced to Mr. Gaiman as a conspirator involved in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (their collaborations, I regret to say, I have not read either), and ever since learning of this I have intended to read Gaiman’s solo work (aside from his work in the comics arena). Alas, until now, I have not gotten around to it.

So, when at the library a few weeks back, I picked up American Gods, as it seems to be Gaiman’s most well-known novel. My father warned me against reading it, but I did anyway, because I do things like that. I’m still trying to decide if I’m glad I did.

Don’t get me wrong; American Gods was (and still is) a beautifully written book. What this comes down to is a question of personal preference. While the novel was very well-crafted, it didn’t do much for me as a reader.

The basic idea is that an ex-convict named Shadow (an odd name, especially because you aren’t given another name for him) is released from prison only to find that everything (and everyone) from his former life are gone or dead. He quickly gets a job offer from a “Mr. Wednesday” that amounts to being his assistant while he goes around the US rallying the old gods immigrants brought to the country to fight against the new gods of media, internet, and the like. Scattered among this “main” storyline were lots of little vignettes illustrating the passages of various gods across the Atlantic (or Pacific). These vignettes were my favorite part of the book, but also distracted somewhat from the main storyline; I can see that they were meant to give more context and weight to what was going on, but for me they didn’t work; they functioned more like independent short stories to me.

The novel’s cast, aside from Shadow and his (dead) wife, consist mostly of gods and the inhabitants of a small wintry town Shadow lives in between trips with Mr. Wednesday. The town Gaiman created had a lot of character, and I feel like a whole other novel could have been written just about what was going on there, and it would have been good. Alas, we don’t get that, and instead what the book does is present us with a travelogue of sorts across the United States. All of the locations (and associated gods) were so briefly explored, however, that I left wanting to more and was never satisfied. As a result of the semi-disconnected nature of the main plot and the vignettes, I never grew attached to the characters and the novel seemed unfocused.

My other major quibble with the novel was the metaphysics behind the existence of the gods. world-building is always the most important thing to me, and never knowing what was going on – but feeling like I should know what was going on – bothered me throughout reading the novel. Something also just didn’t click about how the gods worked; Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather tackled the god who is sustained on belief model better than Gaiman did, I think.

That all being said, the writing was brilliant, and the characters, though most appear only briefly, were golden and accurately reflected the myths surrounding the gods. More than one joke or well-placed one-liner made me giggle, and I was drawn into the story, despite my reservations, by the writing itself. However, the writing was very surreal, and fantasy and reality blended together and made it hard to separate which was which – which was doubtless Mr. Gaiman’s intention – and while it annoyed me a little bit, Neil Gaiman executed it very well.

All in all, it was mostly a fun read for the brilliant and fluid writing, but the world-building and fragmented plot bothered me enough to give it my full endorsement. Still, if you want an interesting fantasy travelogue of United States culture, this book might be worth a read, and by no means has the novel turned me off of Gaiman’s other work.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on September 4, 2014 in Readings

 

The Holy Trinity: Character, Plot, and Setting

There are probably as many different answers for what elements make up a good story as there are writers and readers, but I think most of these can be boiled down into what I think of as the “holy trinity” of a story: character, plot, and setting. A story, to me at least, is different from storytelling. Storytelling is the way a story is told, and having a good story is only one part of good storytelling. The language, images, pacing, clarity, and balance also matter a great deal, but in this post I want to focus on the elements of a good story, separated from the art of storytelling as much as possible.

The Holy Trinity are all interconnected and reinforce each other, but they do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. A good story has strong characters, a well-developed plot, and a well-thought out setting, but many writers specialize in one, or two, of these areas. Some authors, particularly in the realm of science fiction, do very well with one or two of these elements, and are noticeably lackluster with regards to the other. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, for example, have brilliant plots and settings, but their characters are extremely forgettable. Going further with this example, I would say Asimov specializes in setting, and Clarke in plot, and that their proficiency in these areas helps make up for their deficiency in character.

That being said, it is important define exactly what I mean by characters, setting, and plot. Characters are the agents in the story, who the reader can identify with and who give the story a soul. Good characters are consistent, well-thought out, and understandable. They need to feel human, even if they are not. If they’re not human, then even though the alien/inhuman characters are characters, they do not contribute to the character element of a story; instead, they contribute to its setting, as they function as part of the larger world instead of as characters.

So characters give a story soul.

What, then, does plot give a story? Plot gives a story mind. While characters breathe life into a story, it is the plot that gives it intelligence. A plot does not have to be complex to be good; indeed, overly complex plots are the downfall of many stories (I’m looking at you, Moffat’s Doctor Who). An intelligent plot, like a character, should also be identifiable, and it should allow the reader to think about what is going on. It should be understandable, but also thought-provoking; the plot should present situations that the reader could envision themselves in, and can think of their own solutions to. If your characters are well-done, then hopefully their reactions to the plot won’t be the same as the readers, which can lead to tension.

If characters give a story a soul, and plot a mind, then the setting gives the character a body. The setting contains both the characters and the plot, and yet is also separate from them. It is the medium on which the other two exist, and it is what gives the characters context and the plot meaning. The setting is what fleshes out the story, and gives it a feeling of reality – or alternate reality. The setting consists of all of the background, the places, the social structure, the laws of physics; the setting is what allows you to feel as if you are no longer a reader, but an inhabitant of this other place.

But which of these elements is the most important to a story, I hear someone ask (or is that the voice in the back of my head)? All three are important, and what is the most important depends entirely on the reader or writer’s opinion. I recently watched a show (the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica), and was somewhat underwhelmed by it, much to the shock of the show’s fans who had recommended it to me. A discussion on the relative merits and demerits on the show led me to realize my opinion of the show was so different because I watched the show differently. I watched the show differently because, to me, setting is paramount, plot second, and characters last. The fans in question, however, viewed characters as paramount, and on further reflection the character development was very good, but because characters don’t matter as much to me as setting or plot (which was not nearly as well-thought-out or consistent as the characters), the show fell a little flat for me. So, in the end, it is up to the reader or writer to decide what is most important, though keeping all three in mind is always good.

For me personally, though, because I view setting a defining both the plot and characters, I see it as the most important. For me, setting can make or break a show. Plot, to me, is almost as important because it usually makes me think more than the other elements, and that thinking is why I like to read (and write). Characters are the least important to me, and I am more than happy to tolerate bad characters if the setting and plot are phenomenal. Of course, this is personal, and I don’t claim that any of the trinity are intrinsically better than the others; I just value them differently.

As I said before, all of the three are interconnected, and when done well reinforce each other. Minor characters, while part of the characters, are also often part of the story’s background and thus contribute to its setting. Major characters drive the plot forward. Mysteries and secrets woven into the setting can allow a plot come into being, and events in the setting’s past can motivate a character to do whatever it is she wants.

Sometimes, one element of the story can trump the others, and yet still bring the others to high heights. One way of creating a plot is to choose a setting and put the characters into it and see what happens. A writer could develop a plot, match it to a setting, and then fill it in with the appropriate characters. One could also develop a character and create a plot around his life. Another way – my way – is to create a world with some fundamental aspect that is either unknown or that changes, and then build a plot around that element, and create characters to fill the necessary roles in the plot. One could also come up with a neat idea for a plot, fill it with characters, and then decide where the plot would best fit in.

I believe most writers start with one element, and then match the other two to it. All writing starts with an idea, and the nature of this idea is what defines the beginning element, the story’s seed, and often its strongest aspect. An idea along the lines of “what if the world looked like this?” is often a setting seed. One that sounds like “what if this happened?” is often a plot seed, and an idea like “what would someone like this do?” is a character seed. All three beginnings are equally valid, and yield great results.

And so I think that all stories begin with an idea seed, and that thus all stories contain an idea at their heart. This idea is what makes a story interesting, and is what makes it resonate (or not) with the reader. For me, the interesting ideas lie in setting (doubtless an influence of my historical and sociological training), while others may find plot or character ideas more interesting. It’s all up to the reader.

In the end, the point of this long-winded ramble is that I think all stories begin with a seed based around a setting, a plot, or a character, and that the other elements grow from there to form a full story. While no part is greater than the other, different readers and writers value them differently. And I shall leave you with that, and welcome any comments.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Writing

 

Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge is one of my favorite authors; his Zones of Thought books are brilliant (especially his depiction of the Tines and the spiders of the world circling the OnOff star, both in terms of individuals and societies) and his Realtime/Bobble series is some of the best science fiction ever written. Thus, it was with high expectations that I turned to his 2006 novel Rainbows End, set in an alternate version of his short story “Fast Times at Fairmont High.” The short story and the novel have many similarities, including the same characters (Juan Orozco and the Gu family, though the names of the father and mother changed in the novel) and a similar fascination with what reality really is and the social effects of an internet carried to its extreme. While the short story is interesting, it really pales in comparison to the novel, which expands upon everything “Fast Times at Fairmont High” had to offer.

Rainbows End centers around the Gu family; in particular, world-renowned poet Robert Gu, who after having barely survived Alzheimer’s, is now learning how to live in a world where the real and the virtual are blended together. Almost everyone uses special clothes and contacts to be constantly wired into a global internet made possibly by a series of localizing nodes, and they can overlay various realities over what really exists. Essentially, everyone’s reality can be tailored to their own preferences, and people can work together to create larger “belief circles,” which are large virtual realities often based around works of fiction.

This whole idea of everyone having their own reality was the most fascinating part of Rainbows End, but alas it was not fully explored. Instead, Vinge set this as merely a backdrop for a more personal story about an old man trying to find his place in the world, a young woman trying to keep her grandfather out of trouble, a young boy trying to pass his classes, a conspirator trying to make the world a better place by less-than-savory means, and a rabbit intelligence whose power is only hinted at. This plot is well-done for the most part, though a bit complex and at times confusing, but to served to distract from a more thorough examination of a society firmly embedded in multiple clashing virtual realities. These clashes are hinted at, but never realized, as the book gets a little bit lost in its personal stories and plot. I think, in the end, it suffered from trying to do much.

Still, the book was very well-written, very engaging, and while a bit confusing, really made me think. I wish some aspects of it had been explored more thoroughly, and I hope that his probably sequel will do exactly that. It didn’t live up to my expectations, but it is still well worth a read.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Readings

 

The End of Eternity

Ending my recent spate of Asimov reading comes one of his earlier works, 1955’s The End of Eternity. This book was published shortly after the stories that made up the Foundation trilogy. Indeed, I think the same ideas driving Foundation were still very much in Asimov’s mind as he wrote this book, as it also deals with the social sciences – in this case, just called sociology and psychology and not psychohistory – influencing human development. Unlike Foundation‘s psychohistory, though, the sociology and psychology Asimov discusses in this work can predict individual behavior.

The premise of the End of Eternity is simple and very interesting: there exists a dimension outside of space and time called “Eternity” alongside our universe, and humans are taken from the real universe to live in this universe, where they work to help mankind by changing events across all of history to cause the least possible harm. In essence, it deals with time-travel and social engineering on both large and small scales. The main character – who, like most Asimov characters, is rather forgettable – is an Eternal who falls in love with a timebound woman, and risks the existence of all Eternity to be with her. While this romance is painful at times, it serves as a useful plot device to explore all of the problems inherent in a group of outsiders guiding human history to cause the least possible harm. Ultimately, the novel revolves around two questions: why the Eternals can’t access a series of centuries in the far future, after which mankind is extinct, and why there is no significant space travel (and no Foundation-esque Galactic Empire). Both questions turn out to be intimately related, and Asimov’s exploration of them really make this book stand out as well worth-reading. I highly recommend it, and for the sake of not spoiling anything, I will stop here.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Readings

 

Structure, Agency, and Foundation

I think Isaac Asimov secretly wished he had been a social scientist. Though he was a respected biochemist, his works, particularly the Foundation trilogy, privilege social scientists. At one point, Asimov even notes that the physical sciences are more lauded because their results are immediately beneficial, yet ultimately superficial, while the work of the social sciences have little immediate benefit, but in the long run yield far greater results. Asimov’s fascination with the social sciences led him to fuse his physical science training with his idea of social science (particularly sociology), to create the fictional science of psychohistory: the reduction of the collective actions of vast numbers of people into equations, enabling a skilled practitioner to predict future human behavior using advanced statistical techniques. This science is the basis of Asimov’s lauded Foundation trilogy, and to some extent the prequels and sequels (the series was awarded the “best all-time series” Hugo in 1966). This post is only concerned with the first five Foundation books, and excludes the prequels. Thus, I will only discuss FoundationFoundation and EmpireSecond FoundationFoundation’s Edge, and Foundation and Earth.

The premise of the Foundation series is simple enough: in a future so distant that mankind has colonized the entire galaxy and Earth is a mere myth, psychohistorian Hari Seldon perfects the art of psychohistory on the Galactic Imperial capital Trantor. During the process, he discovers that the Galactic Empire is in decline, and predicts that 30,000 years of barbarism will follow its collapse. However, his psychohistory allows him to see a way to reduce this period to a mere millennium by establishing two “foundations” at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve human knowledge and provide the seeds for a new Galactic Empire even greater than before. The original trilogy deals with the people of the First Foundation, a great collection of physical scientists, who follow the “Seldon Plan” and work towards a new Galactic Empire.

Over the course of these first three books (the later two I will discuss later), Asimov comes in on a very old argument within sociology: which is more important in thinking about human society, social structures or human agency? Psychohistory, the physical science of society, is the pinnacle of the structuralist argument, though it leaves room for agency. Seldon uses psychohistory to predict history for the next thousand years, and grounds his predictions on two assumptions (plus an unspoken third assumption key to Foundation and Earth): that people to not consciously know of psychohistorical predictions, and that there are sufficiently large numbers of people to make the predictions from. In Seldon’s model, the individual cannot change history, and social forces will always triumph. However, psychohistory cannot predict the actions of individuals, who can more or less rule their own life. It is only large-scale, macrosocial events that are subject to psychohistorical principles.

Of course, the series would be relatively boring if everything went according to Hari Seldon’s plan. In the second book, an individual gains the power to change history, thus representing the triumph of agency over structure, and destroying the Seldon plan. This triumph was only made possible by a “mutation” that, in a way, made this individual no longer human by giving him the power to influence the minds of others, and thus fell outside of Seldon’s psychohistory. Thus, for the first time, the individual was not a pawn of social forces. As such, in the original trilogy, the struggle between structure, as represented by the Seldon Plan, and agency, as represented by those resisting the Seldon plan (successfully only in the case of the mutant).

In the end, Asimov explores the structuralist argument more, and when agency does come up, it is treated as an aberration that can (and maybe even should) be corrected. As such, I think Asimov tends to side with the structuralist argument more than the agency argument. That said, I’m not sure his idea of structure is completely devoid of agency. During periods of “crisis” in the Seldon Plan (which are part of the plan and only apparent crises to the First Foundation’s existence, which are resolved by the social forces already set in motion), the First Foundation is supposed to do very little and let social inertia solve the crisis for them, thus rendering individual action useless. Yet, despite his characters saying this, individual agency seems to matter; the first great Mayor Salvor Hardin and the great Merchant Hober Mallow both use what seems to be agency to solve their crises. Granted, they both make use of existing social forces, but especially in the case of Salvor Hardin and the Anacreon crisis, it seemed to be Hardin’s ingenuity and clever use of these social forces that won the day, rather than the social forces themselves. Sure, maybe if Hardin hadn’t done it someone else would have, but I am not so sure. The structure/agency question is a complex one and still the topic of much debate, and Asimov does portray this complexity well in the trilogy.

Despite the great ideas and beautiful Galaxy-building Asimov does, the Foundation trilogy does have some problems, and I think is vastly overrated. Asimov’s writing is not terribly good, and at times his grammar, phrasing, and pacing made me wince. Furthermore, his characters are utterly forgettable, and are largely the same few cardboard cutouts rehashed again and again. He also only includes two named women, Bayta and Arkadia Darrell (other women are present, but only as unnamed male attachments). However, despite these deficiencies, the original Foundation trilogy is a brilliant series that covers hundreds of years of human history, and are well worth a read.

The sequels to the trilogy, however, are an entirely different story. While the first three Foundation books more or less read like a collection of linked short stories and novellas and take place over the course of centuries, the second two feature the same cast and take place over the course of about a year. This gives Asimov more opportunity to develop characters (and, since these were written about twenty years later, his writing also improved – but not all that much), and he does. However, the characters are still a bit unconvincing and feel like cutouts, partly because they are written somewhat inconsistently (especially Trevize).

Now, I have no problems with this, but this gives the latter two books a vastly different feel. However, I strongly feel that Asimov should have left Foundation at the original trilogy and let it stand there. However, under pressure from readers and editors for a sequel, Asimov committed a cardinal sin: he tried to combine the Foundation trilogy with his other works – most notably his Empire and Robots series – into a single universe, and thus twisted the underlying plot of the latter two books almost beyond recognition, in the process destroying everything that made the original trilogy as good as they were. He destroys and dismisses psychohistory, renders meaningless all of the events of the original trilogy, and introduces several deus ex machinas and inexplicable plot phenomena to move the story along. While these two books would have made fine standalone books (with a little editing), the fact that he tied them to Foundation ruined a lot of the work he had already done, and thus I prefer to think of them as not really counting (these two sequels have also turned me off of the prequels he, and others, wrote).

So in the end, I highly recommend the original Foundation trilogy, despite its flaws. I cannot in good conscience recommend the other books in the series, but perhaps familiarity with the Empire and Robot sagas would help a reader there. If you haven’t read Foundation yet, do it, and think about Asimov’s application of structure and agency, which I feel to be at the heart of what makes Foundation so (relatively) timeless and so fascinating.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 4, 2014 in Readings

 

Megamind and Women

I recently had the pleasure of watching Megamind – I know I’m behind the times, but it didn’t appeal to me when it first came out. I was very glad I decided to watch it, though, as it was extremely funny, quirky, and while often cliched and predictable, it still managed to be clever. The main characters were well done and I sympathized with or understood all of them – all of them, that is, except the sole named female character, Roxanne. In a movie that was all about subverting cliches, the one cliche they didn’t subvert was that of the damsel in distress. In and of itself, that’s fine, but then Roxanne never rose beyond the role of damsel in distress. She was introduced as clever and confident, but these traits mostly vanished as we got to know her better and she got used by pretty much everyone. She had so much potential and was so well-positioned to actually affect the plot, but she never did; she always went to Megamind or his alter-ego for help. She did almost nothing on her own, though she was clearly capable of doing so!

Other than her, the world they inhabit seemed to be entirely made of men, except for a few women who pop up in the large crowd scenes. As such, it’s a crime that they didn’t take advantage of the one female character they included, and then even more of a crime when the damsel in distress trope was pretty much the only one to survive unscathed. It was extremely frustrating to watch her miss out on all of these opportunities to do something, when it was perfectly in character, and soured an otherwise phenomenal movie.

Sorry for the little rant, but that aspect of Megamind really bugged me. Still, though, if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 18, 2014 in Watchings

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,938 other followers