Fantasy Series- Recommendations

I believe there is a lot of great fantasy books in the world today. As a result I have collected a bunch of my favorites, with this representing the first of two posts. Here are my favorite series, though, in one case, I only like the first book. There are lots of other good books out there (one of my hobby-horses), and these absolutely represent my tastes more than any sort of objective criterion. There are also other series that I think are great and/or read with zeal, and still others that I am sure would appear on many lists of this sort–for instance, Discworld, which I think is merely OK. I have a long to-read list already compiled, but if there are suggestions I will gladly take them.

The Lord of the Rings [plus The Hobbit and The Silmarillion], JRR Tolkien

In many ways this is the Ur-series for the Western fantasy canon, though Tolkien himself was drawing on the Ring Cycle, Beowulf, and a host of other mythological and Romantic influences. Tolkien also set for invention high for all nerds (said affectionately) who built worlds for games, books, or fun. Call them excruciatingly boring, what with the large number of walks taken, and suffering from the drawbacks of the genre such as unnecessary descriptions of stew, there is quite a bit going on in these series. I am of the opinion that recent years have seen a literary-ization of genre fiction that has linked some of the ideas present in the past books with a craft not before seen, but I still love Tolkien for what it was. The world and the series has plenty of issues, including at times blatantly racist overtones and the general (but not complete) absence of strong female characters, but it does have a lot to give back. I also believe that it offers a better entry into this sort of writing for kids than do some of the more complex modern books.

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson)

Another series that I have a soft-spot for having starting reading it in elementary school. It too suffers from a lot of flaws, but also did a lot to drive the genre forward, including that Jordan helped launch the careers of other fantasy authors such as the fellow coming up next on this list. The Wheel of Time can be tropetastic, but that is the nature of the beast, particularly in a genre which usually has the paradigm of a few intrepid individuals holding the darkness at bay, and suffers for being such a sprawling epic. The same sprawl meant that things changed quite dramatically from early on, for natural reasons, for inexplicable reasons when he was still feeling things out, and perhaps for reasons whispered about on internet fan forums. In that way, The Wheel of Time was one of the earliest book series to generate dedicated online communities–and, sadly, one of the reasons for the perpetual fears over authors dying without finishing the books. I haven’t really said anything about the series itself, but I do like a lot of the characters, and it was one of the early series to play with gender dynamics in that the most powerful force in the land are women.

The Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin

Or, as it is known, Game of Thrones. Ultimately, a re-envisioning of the War of the Roses in a medieval fantasy world where, as they say, Winter is Coming. The environment of the series flips between long summers and brutally long winters where there is a chance of the White Walkers, and perhaps cold gods awakening. There is a core struggle for the heroes to save the world from utter oblivion, whether using magic swords, blood, or dragons, but Martin’s protagonists are usually too busy playing politics and pretending to be heroes to actually get around to do anything about the encroaching doom. Actually trying to be a hero is the fastest way to die. He has said that there is going to be a bittersweet ending, so we assume that we will see spring, but the question is how will people put aside their squabbles long enough to fight back.

Kingkiller Chronicles, Pat Rothfuss

This is my favorite series right now, though I have heard several viscerally negative reviews of it. The biggest determinant, I think, is how much a reader likes the main character, Kvothe, because this series very much is about him. Functionally, the series is a story within a story, with Kvothe’s life, which has become the stuff of legend, is being narrated over the course of three days. Each day is a book, and the driving question behind the story is how did the legendary individual, whose exploits are known the world over, become an impotent innkeeper in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Rothfuss’ writing is (in my opinion) beautiful, and I also endorse The Small Regard For Silent Things, a novella written about one of the side characters in the main series.

Dune, Frank Herbert

I nearly put Dune on my list of standalone recommendations because I found the first book to be such a revelation and the subsequent books to be such disappointments. Herbert sets up a galactic civil war between the Baron Harkonnen, supported by the Emperor, and House Atreides, which gets trapped on the desert world of Dune. The story is simultaneously intimate and cosmic in scale, with a messianic main character who may accidentally set in motion a military-religious tsunami that will overwhelm the galaxy.

Tao x3, Wesley Chu

[Lives, Deaths, Afterlives]. Chu’s three book Tao series is an action-romp where the alien Tao and his host Roen Tam try to save the world (and his family) from being turned into a warm primordial soup. I reviewed the first book in the series, and really enjoyed all three. There were times that I thought the later books were sloppier than the first and a little too on the nose about some contemporary issues, but those were slight irritations to what is an incredibly fun set of books that was really easy to blow through.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

When I recommend a Sanderson series, this is the one, in part because it is just a trilogy. There are a lot of things that Sanderson does to tie his entire oeuvre together as part of the larger “Cosmere,” but what is important for this trilogy is that for most people the world consists of endless drudgery, toiling away in factories and farms in a landscape where both urban and rural features are covered in soot, not unlike an extreme version of the industrial revolution. There is also a strict hierarchy between the nobility, who are tall and more athletic and blessed with magic, and the masses, who are stouter, slower, and duller. The entire system is rigidly enforced by the Emperor, who is also the most powerful magic user, and his servants. Yet, Kelsier, a thief, is convinced that he can bring down the Emperor and takes his friends, including the urchin Vin, along for the ride. Except, as you learn, the Emperor is also a lynchpin that holds the system together and the changes were not just arbitrary. Sanderson is particularly known for his magic systems, which, in this case, involves the ingestion and consumption (and other uses) of different metals, each of which corresponds to a particular ability.

The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tentatively placed here, if you are a reader who likes Sanderson’s other books and Robert Jordan, read this. Sanderson is planning the series more than Jordan did, but his writing is similar and this is in many ways his equivalent set of tomes.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Technically OMW is the first book in a series, so it is included here. Scalzi’s military science fiction series is set in a future where most people on earth live entirely recognizable lives. However, to solve the third-world population crunch, they are allowed to colonize distant planets–no first-worlders need apply. That is, until you get old. Science allows the mapping of minds onto new, genetically enhanced bodies, so the military has taken to recruiting people with an entire lifetime’s experience, giving them enhanced bodies, and sending them off to fight against alien races. Survivors get set up with a new, un-enhanced body and a position in a colony. Each of the books set in the world, including the two collections of serialized stories that I haven’t yet read, are set in this universe, but told from a different point of view. They are well thought out, snappily-written, and action-packed, as one would expect from Scalzi’s work, and well-worth reading.

Sometime later this week I hope to post the list of stand-alone novels in these genres that I really enjoy. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think I am missing.

Drones and fantasy literature

In one of the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo and Chebacca confront a machine with a glowing red eye and multiple, tentacle-like arms. Like a metallic jellyfish, it floats above the icy surface of Hoth, taking readings and observing. It fires at Han, but as soon as it is hit, it self-destructs rather than fall into rebel hands because it has been reporting information back to Darth Vader’s fleet–information used to discover the Rebel base and lead the in Imperial Fleet in pursuit of Luke, Leia, Han, and company.

The probe droid has a sinister look and with good reason. It is the embodiment of state power extended. The state is watching the citizen, even in that desolate wasteland. Big Brother was in the home and this is not that, but, in the (heavy handed) Star Wars universe, the remote state surveillance can summon Star Destroyers.

Nor is Star Wars along. One fantasy trope is that the “bad guys” use carrion feeders or other suspect animals (crows, rats, snakes, etc) to remotely spy on the heroes and normal people. Sometimes there is immediate feedback, sometimes they have to report. Sometimes the good guys make a point of killing those animals whenever they appear, sometimes hiding is a more reasonable option. The common threat is that the bad guys are watching in a way the good guys cannot replicate.

Last week on “Studio 360,” the radio show on PRI that I listen to on podcast, one of the segments was a discussion about drones. It was well worth a listen, [1] but several segments stood out, an artist designing clothing that hides the heat signatures picked up by drones,an interview with people who saw drones in action on the Mexican border nearly a decade ago, and an interview with a former pilot who is now a doctor of engineering. The last suggested that one reason drones live on in the movies and the imagination beyond something like PRISM is the drones–whether in actual shape or looking like the probe droid from Star Wars–are something that people can conceptualize. In this way drones are similar to Big Brother. One doesn’t actually need to comprehend what is going on in order to be taken by the sinister implications.

What struck me was the way in which the popular conception of drones, including the function of the drones and the alignment of the faceless government that dispatches the drones, seems to mirror not just the Empire with its malignant government, but also more traditional embodiments of evil in e.g. Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. These fantasy tropes pre-date drones, although even there the trope is not necessarily novel. The two trends also overlap in movies and television where the scrappy hero is chased by government agencies or people hijacking government property.

I suspect there is an underlying human discontent with being observed, particularly by groups of beings that are out of reach and potentially malevolent. This natural reaction, with the inhuman remoteness of drones and the right to privacy as currently understood in the US constitution mesh to make several simultaneous negative reactions to drones. Drones are also active in a way that PRISM may not been seen to be. The issue at hand is that while drones themselves may be a relatively recent addition to the US arsenal the concept is not new and the use of drones for surveillance against a population puts the government on the wrong side of a lengthy tradition in the popular imagination.

[1] As were the interview with Linda Ronstadt and discussion of Walt Whitman.

The Hobbit: a review (Spoilers for both movie and book)

Perhaps I am reaching a point in my life when a simple chase scene no longer appeals to me, but one of the starkest thoughts I had while watching Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was “wow. Those goblins have some impressive logistical ability; why can’t the dwarves recognize that infrastructure?” I had this thought just after the dwarves had been captured by goblins in the Misty Mountains. They had been taken before the large goblin in a massive open cavern lit by hundreds of torches and some chandeliers of torches suspended from the top of the cave, hung over several stories of pit. Of course, it was all for visual effect and I am sure that Jackson gave no thought to the logistics of the undertaking on a regular basis–the torches only had to be lit for the shoot…unless they were CGI.1 Nonetheless, I was curious. But more on that scene later.

Overall, Jackson did a remarkably thorough job at capturing the bulk of the Hobbit, the accumulated mythology of Middle Earth as created by Tolkien, and matching the story with his Lord of the Rings movies. Admittedly, though, these multiple threads made for a rather different movie than the original book. I had minor qualms with the movie, but unlike with the Fellowship movie where I had very specific issues and solutions, in the Hobbit I could only shrug at the issues and concede that I had no feasible or readily available solution.2 The deviation from the book tended to be in the hope of simplification or, often, because Jackson stitched together so many disparate parts and needed a way to compress and unify the story into one narrative–or several narratives closely enough aligned that they could fit into the same movie. In light of this, I found surprisingly little Peter Jackson bloat–scenes that served little narrative purpose (though there were certainly some that could be been compressed). yes, the complaint may be made that while everyone enjoys walking about in New Zealand, there is only so much that one can take. I may be a wanderer (peregrinans) at heart, but I thought there was only one truly excessive walking scene. The others were just transition scenes and fit the actual story well enough. The three hour time –and even the three movies–actually fits what Jackson is doing, that is, using the extra material provided by Tolkien to give a prequel to the Lord of the Rings in its fullest sense. Thus, he makes little distinction between the rise of Sauron at Dol Guldor, the quest of Thorin Oakenshield to rid the Lonely Mountain of Smaug and the in-fighting of the White Council, while using the story of the Hobbit as a narrative backbone for the larger tale–not unlike what Tolkien did. So far, the movie itself may not measure up to the first three, but it is more thorough and thus (in some ways) more satisfactory.

There were issues, though. Specifically, I had problems with one fight scene, two chase scenes, and one hazardous mountain pass. I will not bother with what I described above as efforts to stitch the stories together, though I will also note several lapses that might have been worth including.

One of the ways that Tolkien sets the stage for his story is that the dwarves each are wearing distinctively colored cloaks when they arrive at Bag End and all are without weapon. Jackson likewise sets his story by their arrival, though most of his dwarves are armed. One reviewere lamented that this undercut the original story by making the dwarves into stalwart warriors. While I do feel this change (and lack of cloaks) diminished the story just a bit, it also served to alert the viewer that this story is a legitimate prequel to the Lord of the Rings, so, of course they would be armed. Jackson did also pay homage to this by drawing distinction between the several warriors in the party while drawing attention to the motley nature of the rest of the dwarves.

The first scene that felt distinctly out of place (and one of the few that did) was a scene where Gandalf uses the excuse of being chased by Wargs to trick Thorin into going to Rivendell. From a broad scope of the revised narrative it did offer a chance to make Thorin and the party chased from the beginning, but it was also drawn out (including (in my opinion) gratuitous scenes of Radagast and his ridiculous bunny-sleigh). Still, I don’t really have an alternative solution…it just seemed wrong.

The second scene, that of the storm giants, was one of the few bloated scenes that went from a minor passage in the book to an exciting scene fraught with danger. This one felt like Jackson had a new toy and wanted to make use of it. Certainly, it was a nice inclusion since it covers about a page in the book, but to make such a big deal out of it was overkill.

The second chase that bothered me was the escape from the goblin cave. In the book it is a frenetic escape in the dark through cut caves. In the movie those hundreds of torches suspended above scaffolding provide more opportunities for cinematography, but I felt as though I was watching a video game level where you have to hit the right levers as you run through it. Yes, Tolkien could do as an author many things that Jackson can’t as a director, but this scene felt overdone to the point of cheesiness.

Before pointing out the climactic scene that bothered me, let me say that Jackson missed an opportunity after that chase. He has Thorin go on a rant about the useless hobbit only to have Bilbo step out and shame him. In the book, though, the dwarves are amazed that Bilbo is alive and gain respect for his as a burglar when he explains how he got past the goblins. The movie worked well enough, but it took another act for Thorin to truly appreciate him. That last act brings me to the final scene that bothered me. In the book, the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo are chased up trees (okay, so far, so good), only to have the goblins attempt to burn them out and a rescue by eagles. But, in the movie, there had to be another fight scene, so when the party is chased up the trees, they throw lit pine cones at the wargs and then, seemingly as a last resort, Thorin goes out to confront his nemesis, only to be saved by…Bilbo? Bilbo’s bravery is what endears him to Thorin. As before, this scene felt unnecessary–as though there needed to be a climax to set us up for part two. This also took something away from Bilbo the burglar, but , once again, the scene was not so much dissonant with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit as with Tolkien’s original.

On the whole the movie was enjoyable and no less because I needed an afternoon distraction when I watched it. My biggest problem with it is a problem with the medium more than with this particular movie. Peter Jackson did a pretty good job with the Hobbit both as a film and a dedication to Tolkien’s original, but it was still a collaboration of Jackson, the actors, etc, interacting with and putting on an interpretation of Tolkien’s world, after which it is relayed to the rest of the world for our consumption. The viewers of the film have little interaction with the story besides being passive recipients. When I read The Hobbit as a book and then seek out the additional material it becomes an interaction between me as the reader and the world created by Tolkien. To a great extent, it is the same reason that I dislike the Game of Thrones tv show–and why I have decided that I will not see any more movies made out of books I like. To put out a viable movie or tv show based on a book is to corrupt that book. Peter Jackson did a good job with his interpretation, but, at the end of the day, I feel as a viewer and as a reader that, somehow, I should have been more involved in conjuring up the story.

1 In Tolkien’s version, the scene takes place in a much more dimly lit cavern and most of the subsequent chase takes place in the dark.
2In part, though, I know the story less well.

Reasons I Hate Hollywood I

One of my main problems with Hollywood is that most movies are bad. Yet, people still pay to see them due to gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence (or they seek a distraction, etc). I don’t really begrudge them what they wish to spend money on, but I am disinclined to do so myself. More than the flat characters, limp plots, and lame dialogue, my main issue to that for all their multimillion dollar budgets and fancy special effects, these movies are (usually) sloppy.

Now, I do realize that no movie truly has an over-mind who can guide all decision and that, in many cases, flaws (some, at least) emerge in the many steps of filming and production, but the basic calculus de-emphasizes a great deal of accuracy often in favor of brighter flashes and louder explosions. The calculus is excellent in the sense that Hollywood is a business, but does little for the artistry of the medium. Yes, snobbery at its finest. Also, note that I am largely talking here about the big budget movies and television shows, such as Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and the Immortals.

1. Lord of the Rings: There are a multitude of flaws (vis a vis the books) in these generally well done movies, but I will focus on one scene in particular. Boromir, son of Denethor, kills many orcs in an attempt to save the hobbits and redeem himself. He dies in the process. This happens in both the book and the movie, but in the book, the send-off (the outline of which is accurate enough in sum in the movie) includes the swords of all the orcs Boromir killed–unseen in the movie. This is a relatively unremarkable issue and a quibble, but something I attribute to sloppiness since the addition of the swords is such a minor added cost (they had plenty laying around, right?) and an easy homage to the richness of Middle Earth that would further demonstrate dedication to a craft. And this is a moment in which the filmmakers chose to follow the book, so the failure in this way bothers me all the more than the points at which they ad-libbed.

2.Game of Thrones: Two words: hair color. George RR Martin makes such a big deal about hair color in the books, so the failure of the show to follow through drove me crazy. Such a small cost, but not one that could be bothered with. Heights were a close second of my pet-peeves.

3. Immortals: This is a legitimately bad movie and I had low expectations, but bear with me. I expected nothing from the characters, plot, mythology, skin color, acting, or effects. Nothing. I was saddened, but not surprised to see the soldiers carrying Roman gladii, the lack of a phalanx, a modern-looking bow, and even the cheapness of the props. What got me was the geography. The movie claims to be Greece, but there is a desert and nothing but high sea cliffs. In short, the terrain is utterly unrecognizable as Greece. Most people likely would not know this, much less care, but it is a never-ending irritation to me. What does a company lose for this? It seems though Greece, utterly picturesque, would look better than that..plastic CGI landscape shown. I’m not asking for total accuracy or for them to film there, just to actually use Greece as a model if you want to say the movie is based there.

One of the reasons that this bothers me, though, is that Hollywood is asking me to spend my money to support their lifestyles that are significantly more luxurious than mine is. In return, they offer me several hours of entertainment, a distraction from whatever issues I face. When I sit down to watch something that feels cobbled together or seems sloppy, I feel cheated by a group of businesspeople who know that they can put out garbage and (often) still make money. Then it is a relief to see a movie or show–of any genre–that is put out by people who actually give a damn.

Yes, movies usually can only show the spine of a story and, usually, are not actually a good medium for story-telling. And yes, I should be more selective about what I watch (usually on Netflix, rarely in the cinema; and no longer watch books I like become movies), but I am often also disappointed in critically acclaimed movies and shows. Perhaps I am just feeling crankier than usual this week, but that does not change how I feel about Hollywood. I also realize that my wish for a change is a pipe-dream, and, frankly, my own discipline to avoid movies I am well aware will disappoint is suspect. Still, it is something that bothers me about media.