Fantasy Literature: depression and globalism.

The whole point of speculative fiction is that it provides an opportunity to mull over ideas, concerns, concepts, and issues, while, hopefully, telling a compelling story along the way–whether that compulsion is light, grave, suspenseful, or terrifying. As Brandon Sanderson’s character Hoid says in The Way of Kings: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

There are dozens of ways in which these stories can be parsed and mulled over, in the same way that any literary criticism can function, but there are two I’ve been thinking about recently: depression and globalism.

Depression
Heroes in epic fantasy are depressed, sometimes. Usually when they are bummed because something did not go their way, but there is no time for wallowing when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. There are things to be done, and a hero is a man or woman of action. If the wallowing goes on too long, a character of greater gravitas, usually someone older but reliant on their wisdom or empathy with the hero to save the world because the hero is fated or “more powerful,” comes along to slap the hero out of whatever funk they are in. Else, something happens to snap the hero out of their funk and get back to doing whatever it is that needs doing. That is just the proper way for things to happen. As Sam and Frodo march headlong toward Mount Doom, they despair of pulling through, but they are not depressed. The trope is that the characters despair and then soldier on against the odds.

There is something told to depressed people as a truism: nobody wants to hear about or spend time with someone who is a sullen downer. People like to be happy and energetic and someone suffering with depression sucks the air out of the room. This idea is used to great effect when a loved one has died and the characters mope about to demonstrate their sadness, and then they die or someone snaps them out of it. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the standard trope.

The second trope is that the powers beyond mortal reckoning that the characters dabble in break the mind of the characters. Most of the time these people are incapable of going on and must either be cared for, die, or become non-entities. Remember, the hero must be an active agent.

Just this evening I finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a story that is part of the same world of his Kingkiller Chronicles, but a non-traditional story featuring Auri, one of the side characters. Auri is introduced in the series as someone who, to be blunt, cracked while studying at the university and is therefore accounted one of the strange curiosities who inhabit the area. Those who are not locked away for their one safety know deep secrets about the world, but aren’t fit to live among humans. Auri is one such. The story is beautiful and haunting, but there was one situation that leapt out to me and, likely, to anybody who (as Pat put it in his author’s note) is a little bit broken. It is a scene where this beautiful, delicate, considerate, kind, and wise creature experiences the world turned upside down. Nothing is right and nothing can be right, regardless of how hard she may wish it was.

Auri is lonely and happy most of the time in the story and a singular panic attack does not sound like a typical experience with depression, but the frame of the story rang true. Being a depressed–as distinct from a despairing or weary–character need not be presented as simply sulking or moping until being set straight. When the world becomes wrong, it isn’t just sadness that arrives, but a panic, and there is an exhaustion in spending energy keeping the world right. Depression and functionality are not mutually exclusive, depression just makes it harder.

[In retrospect, I link depression and anxiety issues here. I grapple with both and find them two sides of the same coin.]

Globalism
One of the features of epic fantasy that has always attracted me is the world-building or universe creation…something which literature of a more limited, local variety simply doesn’t have to grapple with–particularly in historical settings where the interconnected baggage has been already established. A lot of the time, these issues never feature into the stories being told because the events do not have global cache. Series such as George RR Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire and, to a lesser extent, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time have more fleshed out places beyond the immediate setting and have added in global connections accordingly, if incompletely. Jordan’s world, in particular, lets most of the connections between continents or parts of continents fall to outsider-intermediaries and allows that most of these places have fallen into obscure legends. The connections are there, but they are particularly scant. In contrast, Martin’s setting consists of fractured micro-regions, large swathes of which have been reduced to ruin, that it is possible to traverse between if properly supplied or if willing to stop off at nodes in order to change ships.

Other authors have used other approaches. CS Lewis’ Narnia has an edge that leads to God’s kingdom (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), marked as it is by a sea of white lilies. That book bears striking resemblance to the Odyssey, among other things, as well. In contrast, Pratchett’s irreverent Discworld is a disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which stand on the back of a giant turtle. I haven’t really read enough of either or done so recently enough to comment on the internal workings of these worlds, but both take place in a set, confined space. Something along these same lines can also be said about the immediate kingdom that is the setting for Sanderson’s Mistborn, where there may be more out there, but one is led to believe that the kingdom is the extent of the world.

Of course, the setting that set me down this line of thought was Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The reason for this is that there is both the setting of The Lord of the Rings, with its distinctive shape for anyone familiar with fantasy maps, and also for The Silmarillion, which weaves in folklore and historical elements to tell the story of the world from its creation through the Third Age and the start of the Fourth. Along the way, the realm of the gods (and elves) is severed from the realm of mankind when the parallel Atlantis falls. Tolkien also hints at places found on no maps, including the lands in the south with exotic-looking humans. To that same effect, human beings enter into his story when they stumble out of uncivilized land somewhere off the map. The world is bigger than what is revealed and what is fleshed out in his stories. I find it ironic that Tolkien is credited with launching the use of such rich world-building in fantasy when so much of his world is literally terra incognita.

Though developments like the internet have heralded a new sort of globalization since Tolkien wrote, it is foolish to say that he wrote in an age before global considerations–he was born in South Africa, after all, and came of age in England during the waning days of the British Empire. Perhaps, though, more leisure time and more opportunity for long-distance interactive communication has resulted in books being picked over in ways never before imaginable.

Worlds have names. Rothfuss’ world is known as “Temerant,” though there is a line between naming a world and having the characters themselves know the name of the world (particularly when one of the key ideas in the series is the power of names). Authors have also done wonders when it comes to subverting tropes, such as in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon where the setting is middle eastern, with an old, out of shape hero. I love all of these books and, at some level, the world building has to remain incomplete because the world itself is a sandbox in which to tell stories. However, tropes remain. The worlds contain ruins of long-dead, glorious civilizations and, often, there is either too much of a monoculture or a variety of cultures whose practices and societies are so radically different that it is as though they were created in a vacuum and then placed side by side.

I like textured worlds that feel deep and lived-in and I like stories that provide issues to think about–something that good fantasy is adept at precisely because the constraints of the real world are lifted. But I believe it is misleading to say that a global, interconnected world is solely a product of the modern age–when I teach students about the ancient world I try to show that every culture is part of a larger system. What has changed about globalism, to my mind, is that as production and consumption are more intimately and immediately linked–i.e. as the world has shrunk–people have become more concerned about their place in the system. Issues that have really always existed concerning immigration, jobs, allocation of resources and capital, etc., have become more immediately present in public discourse, rather than the shipping of gold to India being a complaint that only a few Romans were aware of or concerned about. Creating a premodern world should not be an excuse to avoid these questions, particularly when the world itself becomes foregrounded in the course of a series. Epic fantasy grapples with issues, but nostalgic elements of epic fantasy are often used to avoid thinking about issues of globalization rather than wrapping them into the world in provocative ways.

The NFL, NCAAF, Tithonus, Ganymede

I’ve been baking today, almost a week after the NCAA football championship game and the day before NFL playoffs. The baking is neither here nor there, but it has allowed my mind to wander and one of the topics I’ve been idling on has been why I like NCAA football more than NFL football, and generally why I prefer college athletics to the professional equivalent. Along the way I was struck by a mythical parallel, which I will get to in a moment.

The first issue here is why caring about one rather than the other matters in the slightest. Other than college football being the inspiration for innumerable think-pieces about the corruption of the academy, this doesn’t matter. Football has, for a variety of reasons that I will point to in just a moment, been the most contentious of these sports for academics and for the public at large and, as ESPN’s Keith Olbermann puts it some people just have a college football gene, while others do not. There is overlap in the fan bases, but NFL and NCAAF are consistently among the most popular television events in the country–not to mention that fantasy sports are a billion dollar industry that the leagues are trying so hard to get into themselves that the NBA commissioner has spoken openly about legalizing gambling on sports. The sports are popular. I grew up watching and playing sports and often find that watching sports is the only activity I can focus on at the end of a long day of writing, even if I want to read a good book. But sports are also big businesses, government-sanctioned monopolies, and, like many other big businesses, they rise above moral ambivalence into the realm of moral bankruptcy.

The popularity of both the NFL and the NCAA are really only rivaled by their corruption. The NFL has, arguably, been in the worse straights of the two over the course of the past year. There was scandal surrounding Ray Rice’s punching of his fiancé, caught on elevator video, that the NFL so thoroughly butchered in its handling that Rice could reasonably claim to be a victim; another incident with Adrian Peterson’s “disciplining” his children, the NFL 49ers relationship with local police such that one helped cover up a domestic abuse issue, which is just part of the NFL’s domestic abuse epidemic. The league has also been under fire for years for its failure to address its concussion problem and it has a collective bargaining agreement created such that the players who are literally placing their health on the line every week have only minimally guaranteed contracts. In comparison (not exactly a contrast), the NCAA allows schools to offer non-guaranteed scholarships to players and has created a business model where the schools and the institution profit from the players’ likenesses. Under the curtain of “amateurism” these players are minimally paid (though not in real money), work full-time schedules, while also being expected to be full-time students and cannot have agents or sell autographs or memorabilia without being made ineligible, which, for most, is a major hurdle to actually reaching the professional ranks and profit from the skills they spent the majority of their young lives honing.

[note: I am not here to vilify everyone affiliated with the institutions, since many, if not most, are probably funny, intelligent, thoughtful, caring individuals; the same cannot be said of the institutions and what they support. To wit, the NCAA just restored previously vacated wins for a former PSU coach who was at best negligent when it came to an extended issue of child abuse.]

I am not here to debate which of the two is more moral or a better experience. People spend a great deal of time griping about the problems with sports and how much money athletes make, even though, by nearly every account, athletes in every sport make too little of the money. But why might people prefer college football to the NFL, even though the injury issues of football are the same at every level? There are many reasons, including the lack of a local professional team, but I think there is something a little more subtle, that is the difference between Tithonus and Ganymede.

Sports are considered a young person’s activity. They consist of games of physicality, conditioning and skill. Even for those physical marvels whose bodies are big, fast, and strong enough to play on the highest level, their bodies peak in their mid-twenties. Most are done with the game by their early thirties and those who played into their forties are few and far between. No NFL player has ever played past fifty. Aging curves for other activities are far different and there are only a few where the highest proportion of any age group practicing it is in elementary school–for instance, learning the alphabet. Playing sports is a young man’s game any way you cut it, and there is an almost unconscious association of those few who go pro with doing a youthful activity. The emotions of watching sports as a child also burn brighter, and it is easy to recall youthful impressions of players and have athletes as childhood heroes.

Now for Tithonus and Ganymede. Both are figures from Greek mythology and they are the two paradigms for immortality. Tithonus was the human lover of Eos (Dawn), who is immortal and therefore fearful of watching her beloved grow old and die. Therefore she appealed to Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality, but forgets to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonus ages in perpetuity and shrivels into immobile, inconstant old age, and eventually becomes a cicada. In contrast, Ganymede is abducted by Zeus and becomes the cupbearer of the gods because Zeus granted him both immortality and eternal youth. In this metaphor, the NCAA system is Ganymede, while the NFL is Tithonus, while the audience is the older figure who wants the beloved to last forever. The individual players themselves age, grow old, and retire, as do all people, but the players on college teams are perpetually youthful and it is possible to forget that the same injuries that ravage their bodies in the pro game are already taking place, but the effects don’t appear until they have moved on to a different league. New players come into the professional league, but when players leave it is because they are done with the game.

This is not a rational decision to prefer one paradigm to another, and neither is it a moral judgement, an indictment of players, or analysis of the styles of how the game is played. It is merely an attempt to articulate one of pieces of underlying infrastructure that appeals about college athletics.

A Thought on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

When I want to just watch a movie, to be engaged by the twists and turns of a narrative without being concerned with literary quality or artistic merit I usually turn to a good action film. Within that genre, some of my favorites have been the adaptations of Tom Clancy’s books such as The Hunt for Red October, Sum of All Fears or Patriot Games. I disagree with Clancy’s politics most of the time, but his books have an engaging, cinematic quality that translate well to the screen.

Largely for this reason, I decided to watch Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, despite having heard how it is a bad film. And it is not a good film. Chris Pine takes up the mantle held by Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford, and Alec Baldwin, by playing Jack Ryan, a marine, PhD, and CIA analyst. All the hallmarks of the character remain intact: his doctor (soon-to-be) wife, his helicopter accident and subsequent fear of flying in them, his insistence that he is an analyst. villainous Russians. However, the entire setting has been moved into the contemporary moment, so the helicopter accident took place in Afghanistan, and Russia has joined the ranks of the capitalist nations. Not unlike the Bond franchise, Jack Ryan: Shadow Report takes the core elements for the character and then reboots the story in a contemporary setting without too much concern for continuity.

This brings my thought. JR:SR suffers from a large number of problems, including pacing and that, twenty three years after The Hunt for Red October, and several decades in the future, we now get to see the introduction of Jack Ryan’s relationship with his bride-to-be. The larger issue, to my mind, is that JR:SR fundamentally changes the type of movie these were. Instead of a film where much of the action is carried out by other characters and culminates in one action scene where Jack Ryan wields a gun, usually as a last resort when he himself is attacked, he spends a lot more time actually doing action-hero-y type of things in this film–despite the mandatory statement that he is “just an analyst.” Perhaps I should have expected this change based on the title, but it was an unwelcome change because that is emphatically not the type of character Jack Ryan was. At least Clancy was able to create a standardized background for Ryan and, as long as the movies were based on the books, that background loosely matched up.

December 2014 Reading Recap

A bit later than I intended, but things happen. Vacation isn’t really a vacation.

the Feast of the Goat – Mario Vargas Llosa
Reviewed here, an excellent historical novel detailing the collapse of Trujillo’s reign in the Dominican Republic.

Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh
Rarely do I read a book and come away flummoxed by what I read. I did with this book. Happenstance causes Paul Pennyfeather to be expelled from university and without other recourse he becomes a school teacher. Error after error leads him all the way back around. The synopsis on the back cover described Decline and Fall as a good nonsense novel, but I think the unfamiliar (to me) setting caused the nonsense to be exacerbated beyond comfort. It had its moments, but I liked Scoop much better.

The Alteration– Kingsley Amis
What if Arthur Tudor and Catherine of Aragon had a child? What if, also, the reformation never took place, but Martin Luther successfully purified the church and himself became Pope? According to Amis, the church rules, science is a dirty word, and technological development has stalled. This is the setting for The Alteration. Hugh Anvil is ten and has the most divine singing voice in Europe–and the pope would like to keep it that way. There is only one way to keep Hugh’s voice from breaking, but as he becomes aware of what he will give up in service to the church, he decides that he would like to live life. The Alteration is a marvelous work of alternate-history, working in references to other alternate-history works such as Man in the High Castle and historical personages such as Heinrich Himmler and Lavrentiy Beria. Unfortunately I preferred the world to the story.

The Professor’s House– Willa Cather
Pitched as an exploration of introspection, a man in crisis at the onset of old age while at the height of his intellectual powers. There is an element of truth to this and the professor is in a crisis about his move from his old house to a new one and finds respite in working in his old office. But the heart of the story and the root of his family’s crisis is his former student Tom Outland, whose charisma and brilliance create the money and the jealousy that are tearing his family apart.

By far, my favorite of the four was The Feast of the Goat, which is going to appear on my updated favorite novels list. I am currently reading The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk.

The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa

From 1930 to 1961, the Dominican Republic was ruled by a military strongman named Raphael Trujillo, also known as The Goat. Contradictions defined Trujillo’s rule. He established environmental protections and allowed a middle class to prosper, but eliminated personal liberties and brutally punished any dissent. He granted refuge to European Jews fleeing the Nazis, but promoted a racially-charged anti-Haitian ideology that culminated in the slaughter of thousands of Haitians. He restored Dominican pride in themselves and independence from US occupation, but oppressed them. Political opponents were killed outright or disappeared, their bodies never found, yet Trujillo was a staunch ally of the United States first against Hitler and then Communism and the D.R. was a charter member of the United Nations. Trujillo’s family in particular flourished, despite their mistakes and flaws. This period is known as the Feast of the Goat.

Llosa’s novel is an exploration of these paradoxes and memory, centered on the last year of Trujillo’s reign. The narrative consists of three distinct timelines, two from 1961 and one from 1995, with the later arc forming a frame for the overall story.

Thirty five years after Trujillo’s death, Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of The goat’s most loyal ministers, returns to the D.R. for the first time since she left as a teenager and is immediately swept back into the trauma that precipitated her exile and her excommunicating her family. Those events and thus her memories fit into the context of the other two narratives: Trujillo’s desperate bid to cling to power against internal dissent, international pressure, the incompetence of his family, and the inevitability of aging; and the assassins on the night of their coup. Llosa slowly weaves these three timelines together, bringing them closer and closer until they meet in the assassination of Trujillo, the purges that followed, and the subsequent creation of the modern Dominican state.

Like another of Llosa’s book, The War of the end of the World, the core events of The Feast of the Goat really happened and could be considered more appropriately the province of non fiction. however, Llosa is not primarily interested in causation or change or social structure. His story is much more visceral. Llosa’s tale evokes the experience of life during Trujillo’s dictatorship and the transition, examining the processes and changes on a personal, extremely limited level and thereby bypassing the events as a historian would look at them. Llosa builds on the internal contradictions of Trujillo’s D.R. through the medium of memory in order to explore the characters. Trujillo dies, but it is hard to say the story has a happy ending. Everyone suffers.

I knew nothing about Trujillo and little about the D.R. (other than baseball) when I picked up this book, but am looking forward to reading Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of Butterflies, which focuses on one of Trujillo’s particular atrocities, the assassination of the Mirabal sisters.

As I said in reviewing The War of the End of the World, Llosa is an incredible storyteller and, with Orhan Pamuk, is one of my favorite currently-living high literature authors. The added caveats are for simplicity’s sake. I am currently reading Pamuk’s The Black Book and wanted to take a moment to compare the two nobel laureates, whose subject matter and writing styles differ wildly, but whose interests in identity and memory overlap. Llosa is the easier author to love. He paints with every color of the rainbow in sharp, graphic quality every experience and image from the most grotesque suffering to the most titillating encounter to the most poignant loss. At his best, both here and in The Bad Girl, Llosa meshes all three into a single scene. The story can be understated, but the writing itself is not. Llosa’s style tends toward the straight forward and brash, drawing the reader forward with the sheer charisma of the characters. In contrast, Pamuk’s style is understated and subtle. Other than in My Name is Red, where bright colors are central to the story itself, he prefers the muted and the drab. Not shabby, but shades of gray that make colors all the more potent when they appear. His stories give the reader nothing certain, with a path to follow and the answers eternally a step into the darkness.