The Broken Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Ten years have passed since the events in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the world as entirely changed. Sky, once a radiant white city is now bound to the Wold-Tree, among whose roots the lower city is set. The community has a clear hierarchy, with those of greater wealth and status residing higher in the tree. There is, however, a more fundamental change in the world: Itempas has been deposed, cast into a mortal form, and the children of the three, godlings of many stripes, have been allowed to return the world provided that they remain in the city.

Oree Shoth, a blind street merchant selling trinkets lives in this city, among the shadows of the tree’s massive roots. Most people shy away from Oree because of her peculiar visage, but she has made friends among her fellow artists, among some of the godlings of the city, and with one homeless man she found in the muckbin and took into her home. Oree’s blindness is not total; but the only thing that she can see is magic. This gift will prove both a blessing and a curse, when it comes to light that someone is killing godlings—a development that deeply displeases Nahadoth, who has demanded that the killer be brought to justice with in the next thirty days. Present at the time of the latest murder, Oree and her house-guest find themselves at the center of the conspiracy.

The Broken Kingdoms is a worthy follow-up to Jemisin’s debut novel in just about every way. It deepens the series’ world, both in terms of introducing new races and places and by developing the cosmology. The latter remains a play on traditional cosmological tropes: surprise, the three have children! And these children embody fundamental characteristics such as hunger or mercantilism in their interactions withe world of mortals! But Jemisin fleshes these relationships out, developing what happens when mortals and gods mix (hint: they don’t) and how the traits manifest. For instance, the godling whose nature embodies hunger likes both consuming flesh and consuming the longing lost children have for love. Likewise in terms of story, The Broken Kingdoms retains the basic structure of a young woman without a clear understanding of what is happening interacting with the gods and a deadline come much too soon, trading the upper class for a lower one and the genre of political thriller for deadly mystery.

There are elements of The Broken Kingdoms that will come across as predictable for anyone who has read the first book, but this is not strictly a criticism since Jemisin does a good job at layering developments so that even the obvious feel right. Moreover, the mystery plot largely serves to move the narrative rather than being the be-all, end-all the way it might in a traditional detective novel. Looking at it in this respect, the mystery-on-a-deadline lends the novel with a sense of impending doom and makes sure that it does not lag. Its weakness, however, was also evident in that, for all of Oree’s protestations toward poverty, the immediate danger she is in and her wealthy godling friend had a way of blunting any social commentary established by setting the story in the lower rungs of society. Yes, the issues are there, but they take a back seat to the plot and the way our heroine interacts with gods in this world make them seem more superficial than another sub-genre might have done. This is a minor criticism given the constraints within the rest of the story but is something I noticed despite the thoughtful texturing of the book as a whole.

Some aspects of the writing and the world did not feel as fresh as the inaugural novel, but that is to be expected, and I appreciated the use of a blind character to give a new approach to describing the setting. All in all, I am looking forward to seeing how Jemisin finishes the trilogy.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I recently finished reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade about the history of Batman and the comic’s role in American culture and am now reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is the ennu of a small, wooded, backwater kingdom in the Northern part of the world, but has had to give that life up because she is summoned to the Arameri city of Sky, a floating palace from which the world is ruled. Though she has never been to Sky and is woefully unprepared for what she will find there, Yeine is not like other outsiders because her mother, now deceased, was the sole daughter and presumed heir to Dekarta, the ruler of Sky and chosen of Itempas (god of order and ruler of the universe). Now Dekarta is nearly dead and Yeine is summoned to join two of her cousins as his potential heirs and so finds herself thrust into a political conflict that, if she is to have any chance at survival, requires her to learn about Arameri customs, hierarchy, and brutality. Complicating matters further, Yeine meets the legendary weapons of the Arameri, Nahadoth, Sieh, Kurue, and Zakkarn, all gods bound by Itempas into servitude at the conclusion of the God’s War thousands of years ago and beings with their own agenda and know more about Yeine than she knows about herself. The ceremony to anoint the next chosen of Itempas is set to take place two weeks after her arrival and Yeine must uncover Arameri secrets, her family secrets, quickly if she is to be more than simply a sacrificial lamb.

There is a lot I really liked about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is a political thriller set in a fantasy world and like all books that introduce a world, the reader needs to have a way in. The more fantastical the world, the more important this entry is, but, the more time the author spends developing the world, the more he or she may be criticized for caring more about the world than the story. Jemisin does an astoundingly good job of introducing our protagonist (Yeine) who knows some things about the world, but transferring her to a part of the world where she knows nothing so that the reader learns everything right along with her. Combine this with thrusting Yeine immediately into the heart of the action where she must learn about the world in order to survive the conflict and you have a book that is in some ways entirely about introducing the reader to the world without sacrificing the plot for worldbuilding one iota.

The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be taken in two ways: the cosmology and the mundane setting. The novel’s cosmology is a play on a fairly traditional triad of original deities, one who embodies chaos, one who embodies order, and one who embodies change. From these three deities come all of existence, including their children and their creations. In this world, however, the god of order reigns supreme, because in the dim twilight of history there was an event called the God’s War where Enefa, the god of change, was killed and the god of chaos, Nahadoth, along with their surviving children were bound into servitude. Not only do these divine forces act directly upon the world, but some of them are forced to do so by mortals, which brings me to mundane setting. There are (perhaps) a hundred thousand kingdoms in the world, all with sovereignty, but under “benevolent” Arameri hegemony. The Arameri largely reside in Sky, a palace and city that serve as the seat of world power where disputes are resolved. Peace (order, really) is the objective, provided that the lesser powers bow to Arameri demands. Some of these are to a contemporary mind benevolent—no slavery, human rights restrictions—but Arameri guidance is absolute and any opposition is to be brutally crushed. For plot reasons, the world setting largely takes a backseat to the cosmological one, but it nevertheless serves as a clever way to build contrasting views of the Arameri among whom Yeine finds herself.

I had minor quibbles about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Occasional, passing comments seemed somewhat out of place in their addressing of what seemed likely particularly modern concerns. This is not to say I disagreed with the stances taken, but rather that such comments seemed particularly “of their time.” There were likewise a few scenes, including one involving a bathroom, that I found a little cheesy. None of these should take away from what is an enormously entertaining and very thoughtful debut novel. By way of recommendation, I will say that I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy and to pick up Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo Award for best novel.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished reading a history of the city of Odessa (in Ukraine), chosen in part because I have ancestors who came to the United States from there. Next up is probably going to be Stefan Zweig’s Confusion.

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

The Dark Tower – Stephen King

The Dark Tower has been on my to-read list longer than I think any other book. I first considered reading it sometime in high school, but never got around to it until I found a copy in a used book store a couple of weeks ago. It also occurred to me as I made my way through that this is also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read. That leaves me with a lot of catching up to do, on the one hand, but some amount of ambivalence on the other.

A short synopsis: Roland is a Gunslinger walking across a post-apocalyptic(?) wasteland giving chase to the Man in Black, who he blames for having caused the destruction of his home and family. The Man in Black has left traps for Roland and he is briefly waylaid by an orgiastic interlude with Alice and the need to take care of Jake, a lost boy who is from another time and place, but the pursuit continues.

I can see why people like The Dark Tower and I can see why it is a classic. Roland is one of those tenacious archetypes of the lone hero who can’t be deterred from his mission and flashbacks to his upbringing hint at the prodigy of stubbornness. Even his prey is nameless and faceless through most of the book, adding to the archetypes. The world is a post-apocalyptic mashup of the American southwest, medieval Europe, and some added flavor from elsewhere, and, for the most part, the story is solidly crafted to have a surreal aura. Still, I found something lacking. For one thing, it reminded me of a number of 1970s/1980s fantasy novels with pseudo-terrestrial settings that I almost always find jarring. Dystopias where something has happened are fine, but for a book to not really be set on earth yet feature a christianity as the common religion take me out of the setting. For another, I found the first third of the book or so to be fairly jumbled up and somewhat overwritten. It is not that this section was exactly bad (it reveals Roland’s character and gives plenty of setting), but I didn’t understand why I ought to care about any of this. In contrast, once The Dark Tower started to give Roland context through flashbacks, something that both played in- and added onto his archetype, the story got significantly better.

The Dark Tower ends by answering one of the questions it starts out with, but also opening up the setting for the rest of the books in the series. I don’t know that I will read them, though I have been told that the next few, at least, are worth reading. I liked The Dark Tower well enough, but King’s writing and the story didn’t grip me the way other series sometimes have and I have a lengthy to-read list that includes a number of fantasy books by authors I like a lot more.

Δ&DeltaΔ

I finished reading Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms this morning and will write up some thoughts about that at some point. Next up is Leonardo Sciascia’s mystery novel To Each His Own.

The Dresden Files

I have now, as of two weeks ago, read the first three books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and thought it would be an apt time for some reflection of the series, which I have described as pulpy, but fun.

Harry Dresden is the only publicly-listed wizard in America, with his advertisement appearing in the phonebook. He doesn’t do love potions or the like, but works as a supernatural private eye, with most of his income from a standing retainer with the Chicago police department. Lanky and dressed in a duster, with a silver amulet, staff, and hammer-action pistol, Harry strides into battle against vampires, were-wolves, ghosts, demons, and evil wizards; in this line of work he has seen–and done–some stuff that would make most people flinch. Around him are his cat Mister, the spirit Bob, the knight Michael, Detective Murphy, and the reporter Susan. Most people, including Susan and Murphy, don’t really know what is going on and Harry goes out of his way to shelter them from the worst of it.

Butcher has created a magic system that is simultaneously well thought out and ill-defined. For instance, magic has a tendency to cause technology to fail, so Harry uses the simplest guns, cars, and other technology available, but neither is there a guarantee of failure, so it can just happen to happen at the most inconvenient points. The rest of the system is built along similar lines where there are rules to how various sight abilities (eye contact, etc.) work, and how spells are constructed (circles need to be completed, potions use three ingredients that are linked to the outcome), but the specifics are often unclear even to Harry, who always wishes that Bob, the ancient spirit, was around to tell him how to make something. This mix gives a consistent feel to the books, but also allows for a great deal of variance based on the story. I also assume that Harry is leveling-up, as it were, but the general lack of specifics in that regard make it a little hard tell.

The first three books each dealt with one particular case Harry investigates, but their greatest virtue is that they serve to populate the world of the story with a growing cast of characters. This is something that typically happens as series develop, but one of the things that stood out in the first book was how few actual characters existed. Sure, there were plenty of things that needed to be attacked or dealt with and a number of individuals standing around in the background of the story, but there were really only about four real characters [plus Bob and Mister] and only Harry was actually central. Part of this falls back to the noir frame for the story, since Harry is the detective out on a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets, so to speak. I got the impression early on that urban-fantasy, noir procedural was actually what Butcher was setting out to write, what with its observant first person narrative and shadowy investigations, but in the next few books noir has become more garnish than substance. In the same span, Butcher has begun to flesh out a slightly, and I do mean slightly, larger cast of characters, both those who are meant to be heroes and those who are villains in order to build a multi-book story-arc.

I like this series, but, after three books, I am still not sure how much. There was enough foreshadowing in the most recent book to suggest that they may be ready to transition into something a little more substantial than procedural, but I really don’t know. They are fun and easy to read, in contrast to some of the denser things I either have to or choose to pick up. At the same time, I am three books into a very long series and the number of actual characters is very small, particularly given how close the point of view is to Harry himself. I will probably read the next book in the series, but I can’t say when. Right now, these are feeling like change of pace books–fun, but not insistent enough to demand to be read.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Liu’s debut novel, the first in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is a revelation in the field of epic fantasy. Instead of being modeled on the tradition of Lord of the Rings (and The Wheel of Time and like stories), with reluctant or unlikely heroes destined for greatness going on a quest, Liu models his story on Chinese epics, telling the tale of an imperial dynasty, corrupt courtiers, vengeful couriers, devoted servants, and a man determined to help a realm that groans under the weight of the nobility. All the while, the gods, siblings who oversee the islands, meddle in human affairs and choose their champions.

On the archipelago of Dara there have historically been seven Tiro kingdoms, endlessly squabbling, until the kingdom of Xana conquered the other six. Instead of ruling wisely, the new emperor brutally suppressed opponents, ran roughshod over tradition, and laid out heavy taxes and impositions on the new subjects in order to create ever greater monuments to the emperor. But the emperor dies and rebellion breaks out, giving opportunity to the likes of Kuni Garu, the dandelion, and Mata Zyndu, the chrysanthemum. The two, who are the closest the story has to traditional protagonists could not be more dissimilar. Kuni Garu is a poor man from a poor family, who flirted with being a bandit and a local thug, before finding a calling with civil service, where he demonstrates both efficiency and an ability to inspire others to success. Despite the humble origins, Kuni promises his wife Jia that their life will always be interesting. Mata Zyndu is the scion of a noble house, an eight-foot tall unstoppable warrior with two pupils in each eye and a burning desire to avenge his family and his country for the wrongs suffered during the conquest. His loyalty is to traditional honor, traditional nobility, and glorious battle. The two come to declare themselves brothers.

Yet, fate and the gods scheme to drive them apart and fuel the continuation of wholesale slaughter until only one man remains standing.

This brief synopsis of the narrative doesn’t do justice to the rich tapestry that is The Grace of Kings that spans the length and breadth of the realm, a large number of characters, and dozens of years. Liu’s writing is beautifully formal in the style of epics, but is moving, the setting itself deeply conservative and the narrative optimistically progressive. Every character is flawed, but a precious few are irrevocably so. To wit, the straightforward and rigid Mata is a villain of sorts, but his motives are genuine and there is real hope that he could indeed be a hero, while the upstart Kuni makes mistakes and blunders but has a nobility of spirit that even Mata recognizes. Most of all, Liu doesn’t rely on fantasy’s traditional story structures where the reader learns about the world through the growth of the characters and increasing the complexity with each book, yet he is able to inject poignancy into the interactions between characters, particularly Kuni and his wives. Everyone is engaged in one schemes, even against those closest to them, but there is real affection. The Grace of Kings is a soaring epic that blends political intrigue, romance, honor, and gender roles. The gods intervene, but by indirectly meddling, encouraging people’s behavior rather than acting directly so as to keep their pact.

At the conclusion I don’t know where the story goes from here. The story is set for dynastic intrigue, but, if the first book is any indication, there is going to be something more ambitious than just that.

I loved The Grace of Kings and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes epic fantasy.

What is rebellion for?

How do you get demographics that normally skew toward the Democrats and toward progressive values to buy into Tea Party ideology? Give them a hero who is pithy and dashing whose inner morality is equaled only by his hatred of authority. How do you get the Tea Party to condemn it outright? Set the story in space.

I am kidding, of course, but the best jokes all contain a kernel of truth. Roguish characters, presented as flippant and charismatic, come off well in all sorts of adventure tales, but particularly science fiction and fantasy. Many of these stories also capitalize on the story of a rebellion. But what is the goal of these rebellions? Usually the goal is to replace the extant state with a more liberal, more generous, and less bureaucratic society, although the final goal is practically impossible. I would suggest, though, that there is at least one example of this sort of story where the goal of the rebellion is presented not as the replacement of the government, but by its elimination and that this goal is shortsighted and naive.

Perhaps this realization is an argument against watching these shows while teaching students about Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, but I also found this it frustrating for my own enjoyment of the show.

The core story in Star Wars is that one of the Senators perverted the traditional and eternal Republic, corrupted the state religion, and ruled roughly the same territory with an iron fist. He is resisted by a small cadre of Senators and Knights and is eventually overthrown by Maximus Luke Skywalker. Eventually the Rebellion is able to restore a new Republic based on the traditional mores and with the support of the knight-priests who are a force for good in the galaxy. It is cliche to point out the ironies of Star Wars. There are shirts that claim “I had friends on that Death Star. It has been pointed out that the fundamental a small rebellion against a legitimate government funded by old money and with the aid of a robed desert mystic espousing an ancient religion targets government installations.[1] In response to a Wired symposium about the Battle of Hoth Timothy Burke offered the Longue Duree of the Galactic Empire, saying that the Rebellion (and thus focus on Hoth) is treated as a “priviliged mode of dissent” during the empire and suggesting that there would have been nothing remarkable about Hoth except for the charisma of the participants to set it off from other comparable events.[2] For the moment, though, leave aside the Roman parallels, the derivative story, and that books set in the Star Wars universe frequently grapple with many of these issues.

One constant element in Star Wars is that the protagonists do not want to eliminate government. They want to restore the government of yesteryear, which means taking out the guy in charge and whatever government employees continue to support him.[3] The Old Republic is a galactic confederacy, though. There is an elected Senate and a leader of the senate, but, until the rise of Palpatine, there is only a limited executive and basically no military, while sovereign members have their own armed forces that can be used for more than just self defense.[4] The changes made by Palpatine and the threat of a not-yet-defeated Empire mean that the New Republic is closer to an actual Republic than was the old. There is a stronger executive branch and the fleet of the Rebellion remains a standing military force. For the good guys to win in this fantasy they must recreate the government. A government with a standing army (the apparatus of tyranny), a government for the people, and to protect the people from each other and from threats abroad, but a government nonetheless.

Now flash to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Malcolm Reynolds is your captain. He protects his crew and is an honest businessman. He salvages abandoned goods, is a smuggler, and will kill people, but, while illegal, these actions are not against his personal code of ethics. Mal was a Browncoat, a soldier who fought for the Independence movement against the Alliance, an exploitative, totalitarian bureaucratic and military establishment. From his point of view, the Alliance crushes the individual and tries to bend the population of the galaxy to civilization. Mal and his fellow Browncoats were defeated and he goes further out to the fringes of the settled world so that he can be free of the government. In the original pilot Mal goes so far as to state: “that’s what governments are for… get in a man’s way.”

One trope of the space shows and movies, much like it is in the Western genre, is to explore what happens to people beyond the reach of central governments or when governments collapse, or what happens when a central government encroaches upon anarchy muted by inchoate forms of society. In Deadwood there is interest in joining the United States. Dune has a galactic kingdom where the government rules by restricting access to resources, balancing out competing interests, and an elite Janissary force. Star Trek has multiple galactic entities with different levels of bellicosity and cooperation. Ender’s Game has military cooperation among humans to destroy an alien race that once threatened Earth. Old Man’s War has genetically modified soldiers to protect space colonies that alleviate the population stresses in third world areas of Earth. But one constant is that there is some necessity for government.

In Firefly, though, there is government. There are both local and central governments, but governments are universally described as a hindrance to ordinary people. Mal’s worldview is that everyone would be a lot better off without government. An inner morality, or people with an inner morality and guns, will ensure that the galaxy will be a place of opportunity for everyone. Except that the majority of people Mal interacts with have guns, but they do not have the same inner morality he does. His quick wits and true aim ensure that he is able to dispatch malignants and protect his crew, as well as being able to limit the conflicts of interest between individual crew members, but the general populace is not so fortunate.

The crew of Serenity accept Mal as their employer and passengers respect him as the captain. The crew and the passengers work together to survive [5] and Mal’s sovereignty is certainly more benevolent and human than is the bureaucracy of the Alliance. But, if civilization crushes the identity of an individual, liberty constantly threatens to kill him.[6] Most people are not the hero. Most people need the protection offered by civilization.

I like Mal and I enjoy the show. My issue is this: the government supplies necessary goods and creates the very terra-formed worlds on which people live. The galaxy the show is set in has both extreme, subhuman anarchy (Reavers) and more limited human corruption sprung up from violence, hardship, greed, ambition, avarice, etc, but the leader of the heroes, himself both a present and past holder of command positions, detests government. The Alliance does not come across well in the show, but the proposed solution is an extension of anarchy rather than the reform the government.[7] The Alliance has its issues, but even in the show it is presented as having benefits, whatever Mal might say.

Fiction in general and science fiction and fantasy stories in particular allow people to vicariously live out otherwise impossible fantasies of all sorts. Sexual and violent fantasies may be lived out in a safe environment [8] and, likewise, rebellious fantasies can be lived out in a safe place. The curious thing to me is that most of these instances presuppose that the rebellious fantasy is meant to improve government, to fix what is wrong with the state. Firefly, at least in the show, seems to be the exception. In this instance there is rebellion because all government is irredeemably bad.


[1] Against a dictator who had been granted extraordinary powers in a time of crisis. He never relinquished them, but, technically, they were bestowed upon him by the legitimate government. We as an audience know that he manufactures the crisis and goes on to commit plenty of other atrocities, but, if I remember correctly, the given reason for the Jedi attacking him is that he is a Sith and therefore evil. If one does not subscribe to polarities of human alignment as posited in fantasy and role-playing tropes, then the Jedi were way out of line and Palpy was justified in banning them. Killing the kids was stepping over the line, but that hasn’t stopped the US drone program from doing the same. The big difference there is that I don’t think Joe Biden is trained for that sort of job.

[2] Be that as it may, charisma of the participants will get them into the movies and the history books alike.

[3] Plus collateral damage, but working for an evil guy makes one complicit.

[4] The workings of government oversight, travel, and intragalactic relations seem more reasonably fleshed out in both Star Trek and Dune. Of course, I was never a trekkie and some of the coherence of Dune is in its very limited scope in the early books.

[5] Mal and the crew also see an uptick in random bullet wounds after getting a doctor. Perhaps safety makes them reckless, perhaps there is a sloppy-yet-all-powerful narrator.

[6] Another trope is that there must be danger and an absence of laws for a person to reach his or her full potential. But another precondition also exists–the natural ability of that individual. Even then, the absence of law is an opportunity to excel, not a surety. Further, it is the except that a hero is capable of exceling without doing so at the expense of others, [6a] as happens in The Name of the Wind as far as the story has progressed, although we know that Kvothe feels that his actions caused suffering for everyone. Even in The Hobbit, Bilbo the burglar benefits at the expense of Gollum/Smeagol, a character who is not per se evil. Strong personal morality helps and it is necessary that the ambitions of the exceptional hero be personal: get home, remedy a specific injustice, or combat true evil. [6b] When the exceptional character extends those ambitions or even has to expand the scope to remedy injustice, he becomes a Mr. Kurtz or a Paul Atreides. His personal capabilities, whether intentional or not, result in his oppression of others.

[6a] The others here being defined as bystanders or otherwise innocent people, not jerks, punks, or people are trying to put down the common man.

[6b] True evil, of the sort that appears in stories that are in some way descended Christian of Gnostic (etc. etc.) concepts about the perfect goodness above and the perfect badness below, or vice versa that construct the realm of human existence a middle arena, a locus of competition between the two extremes. True evil, irredeemable evil exists in these setups because creatures (only rarely human) actually manifest themselves in the existence. People toss the concept of evil about in reference to humans in order to explain all sorts of “evil” (vicious, cruel, malicious) or “sinful” actions. On one hand, some of these labels are borne of constructed moralities, on the other, “evil” may be the product of upbringing, abuse, mental or chemical imbalances. The case can be made that a Sauron or Balrog is evil by nature, not by choice and therefore people who have mental imbalance or are the product of abuse are not excused for not having control over their evil, but this, too, is a constructed morality. It is more accurate to suggest that actions, not people, are evil.

[7] Until, arguably, Serenity.

[8] The debate about video games such as Grand Theft Auto causing rape and violence notwithstanding. There probably is some link between the two, particularly for people who already have some other issues, while the majority of people can play violent video games without lashing out at the people around them. Now, if it is possible to link the popularity of violent video games, violent movies and tv shows, the large numbers of guns as part of a “violent American culture,” then you might be on to something.