Sunday, August 25, 2013

Perl blog post #17

Well, it’s been about 2 months since I’ve done a technical post, so I decided to put one together for my Perl homies.  This one is on strong vs weak typing, so pop on over if that sounds like something that might excite you.  If it doesn’t, just take the week off.  Perhaps next week will thrill you more.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Grokking the Wheel of Time

I’ve talked before about my affection for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series—even mentioning that I named one of my children after one of its characters.  There are 15 books in the series, which I’ve always felt break up into a quadralogy of trilogies (despite the fact that the math on that really doesn’t work, but we’ll get to that in a second).  So it’s a very long series, both in page count (nearly 12,000 pages), and in terms of years of waiting for the series to be completed (nearly 23 years).  I personally have been reading it (off and on, obviously) for about 40% of my life, rereading the older books when the newer ones come out, poring through the online encyclopedia, listening to the audiobooks on long commutes, even fashioning a role-playing campaign around it once.

So it’s been a pretty big part of my life.  And the series is finally finished: the final volume came out at the beginning of this year.  The Wheel of Time outlives Jordan himself, but thankfully his extensive notes were passed on for completion to a new author, Brandon Sanderson, who was hand-picked by Jordan’s widow.  For some reason, after Jordan’s death, I took a break, and I haven’t read any of the Sanderson books (i.e. the final three in the series).  But, now that they’re all complete and I can finally see how it all comes out, I’m anxious to get through them.  After some consideration, I decided to start at the beginning and read straight through until the end.  But not with the paperbacks, although I own nearly all of them.  Nope, I decided to go audiobook for all the Jordan books (they’d all be rereads anyway, and in many cases several-times-over-rereads), then switch to e-book for the Sanderson volumes (so I can pay closer attention to the ones I’ve not read before).  As of writing this sentence, I’m about 3 hours away from finishing Knife of Dreams, the last Jordan book.  I’ll be starting on the first Sanderson book, The Gathering Storm, within the week.

It should go without saying at this point that I’m a fan.  Although that’s not to say that I recommend the books unconditionally: they do have flaws, and I’m keenly aware of them.  I’ve already talked about Jodran’s tendency to stifle his characters.  Also, Jordan never met a subplot he didn’t like: when he started off book #10 (that is, page 7,382 of the series, not even considering the prequel) by introducing a new character perspective, someone we’d heard of before but never seen in the flesh, in a country which none of the characters which could possibly be considered main characters had likely ever even visited ... well, that’s when I knew he had a problem.  No, Mr. Jordan* was not a perfect author ... but then who is?

There are also criticisms of Jordan that I disagree with.  One such persistent claim is that the series (or at the very least the first book, The Eye of the World) is a cheap imitation of The Lord of the Rings.  The typical defense of this is to bring up Jordan’s own words on the topic:

In the first chapters of The Eye of the World, I tried for a Tolkienesque feel without trying to copy Tolkien’s style, but that was by way of saying to the reader, okay, this is familiar, this is something you recognize, now let’s go where you haven’t been before. I like taking a familiar theme, something people think they know and know where it must be heading, then standing it on its ear or giving it a twist that subverts what you thought you knew.**

See? (say Jordan’s defenders) he wasn’t deliberately trying to steal LotR’s plot; he was, rather, making a conscious choice to borrow elements from it in order to make the reader feel more comfortable.  Totally different.

I have a completely different response to this argument: I just reject it.  How are they similar again?  In both cases, a mysterious magical figure comes to a sleepy backwater village and tells some simple country folk that they are now caught up in the ultimate fight against the personification of evil in their world.  Well, when you describe the plot from 50,000 feet, sure, they do sound a bit similar.  But that’s sort of like saying that Harry Potter is a rip-off of James and the Giant Peach because they both involve orphans raised by unpleasant family members who discover a strange, magical world living in the grim, dreary cracks of the real one.  Does The Eye of the World share broad themes with The Fellowship of the Ring?  Well of course.  All modern fantasy shares broad themes with Tolkien.  He invented modern fantasy.  It’s sort of like wondering if some modern detective in crime fiction bears any resemblance to C. Auguste Dupin—how could they not?

So I never bought the Tolkien-rip-off theory.  It’s crap.  Anyone who has the patience to get through the first book knows that this ain’t your daddy’s Tolkien.  And anyone who doesn’t isn’t particuarly qualified to comment: they’ve read less than 7% of the total story (again, not even counting the prequel).  Even Jordan’s quote above doesn’t much phase me.  I much prefer this one:

Question: I have noticed some similarities to The Lord of the Rings. Was Tolkien an inspiration for for you?
Jordan: I suppose to the degree that he inspires any fantasy writer in the English language, certainly.***

The other thing that Jordan is often criticized for is his pacing.  Yes, it’s true that he describes every little thing: the plants, the dresses, the architecture, the history, the shades of meaning of things translated from the Old Tongue, where the armies are getting their supplies from, how this servant used to serve that one’s mother many years ago, how much this character like his or her horse, etc etc ad infinitum.  Nothing wrong with that, per se.  Description immerses us more fully in the world.  It’s not Jordan’s fault if our minds being to wander while he’s painting us a perfect mental picture.  He built an entire world here, and he’s justifiably proud of it.  Besides, Tolkien was very fond of that too, as are many writers in the fantasy genre—not to mention sci-fi (e.g. Frank Herbert) and horror (e.g. Peter Straub).  He’s also accused of being verbose, which, again, is not a crime in and of itself: certainly Stephen King has been accused of that more than any other literary sin, and I’ve already mentioned that he’s my top literary idol.

No, all of these are just roundabout ways of saying that his pacing is too slow.  It takes forever for anything to happen in a Robert Jordan book.  Now, first of all, I don’t even consider that to be particularly problematic.  After all, Jordan’s pacing isn’t any worse than that of Ann Rice (who is fond of having the first ten and the last twenty-five pages happen in the present, while the thousand pages in between are one giant flashback, or the reading of someone’s diary, or somesuch).  And Ann Rice’s works are genius too (remember: another one of my children is named after one of her characers).  But, above and beyond that, I think the problem is just understandig the structure of the series.

Most fantasy series are trilogies, this being the pattern set by Tolkien.  Book 1: establish the characters and set up the action.  Book 2: create obstacles for the characters; allow the villains some victories, and end with the characters seemingly on the brink of defeat.  Book 3: the characters make a mighty comeback, mostly through sheer force of will, and the villains are defeated for once and for all.  This is a tried and true structure for trilogies—not only does the Lord of the Rings follow it, but so do many other fantasy series (e.g. His Dark Materials, the Riddle-Master trilogy, Drizzt Do’Urden, Bartimaeus, etc etc) as well as things as far flung as the first 3 Dune books, the original Star Wars movies, and the Millenium series.  Typically, if a series is longer than that, it’s either from adding prequels and side stories, or it’s from stretching out the various bits of the trilogy into multiple books.  For instance, if you tilt your head and squint just right, you could see Harry Potter as a triology: books 1 and 2 are Book 1, books 3 - 6 are Book 2, and book 7 is Book 3.

But there are series with more complex rhythms, and I’ve always felt that Wheel of Time was one such.  I think that you need to view WoT as a quadralogy of trilogies, with the addition of a prequel, and the fact that the final book in the final trilogy was so huge that it had to be split into 3 books (which gives you the total of 15).  The overall structure goes something like this:  Trilogy 1: introduction and establishment, and the characters begin to lose their innocence.  Trilogy 2: the characters make some strides, despite heavy opposition.  Trilogy 3: the villains get a lot more organized and dangerous, and the heroes start to discover their limitations.  Trilogy 4: well, I’m hopeful that this is where Good pulls it out in the end, but I haven’t actually finished reading yet, so I can’t say for sure.  But I’m pretty confident.

But within each trilogy, the structure is pretty much the same as a traditional trilogy: establish a situation, ratchet up the tension, and then an explosive finish.  However, what this means in the overall context of the series is that books 3, 6, and 9 (and presumbly the final book) are amazingly exciting, with each one being even more amazingly exciting than the previous one.  But that means that book 4 is a bit of a let-down.  And book 7 is a big let-down.  And book 10 is nearly unbearable.  But you have to pace yourself.  You have to remind yourself that Jordan couldn’t keep that level of excitement up for however many more books you have left to go: your head would just explode.  You need to come back down a bit, and then work at getting back up to those dizzying peaks slowly.  Book 3 makes you happy; book 4 makes you want to sigh.  Book 6 makes you want to laugh; book 7 makes you want to grumble.  Book 9 makes you want to cheer ... and book 10 makes you want to gnash your teeth and start tearing out your hair.  Yes, yes, all that info is important, and I’m sure I’ll need to know it as background for the future action, but, as Monty Python would say: GET ON WITH IT!

But my attitude is: forewarned is forearmed, and now that you understand how the rhythm and flow of the series is going to work, you can be prepared for it.  If you read this series, and you stick with it, you will be rewarded, I promise you.  The world is rich, and full of interesting cultures.  The politics is subtle, and intriguing, and full of factions (and sub-factions).  The magic is different, in both broad and fine ways.  The allusions (not just to Tolkien, but to Arthurian legend, Norse mythology, Samurai culture, and so forth) are rich and subtle.  The characters—even those you want to strangle for not waking up and seeing their own mistakes—are genuinely affecting, and you will come to care about them.  And, there are so many of them that, if there happen to be a few who rub you the wrong way, you won’t have to put up with them for very long before someone else’s point of view comes along.  The story is intricate, with seemingly throwaway minor characters popping back up, sometimes so subtly that you don’t even notice they’re the same person until you reread for the second or third time.  It’s the work of a master crafstman, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

And I’m really really excited to see how it all turns out.

* Yes, I know that’s not actually his real name.  But I shan’t refer to Mark Twain as Mr. Clemens, and I shan’t refer to Lews Carroll as Mr. Dodgson, and likewise I shan’t refer to Robert Jordan as Mr. Rigney.

** from a June 2002 interview, preserved at Theoryland of the Wheel of Time

*** from an online chat on October 21, 1994, preserved at Theoryland of the Wheel of Time

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Yet another week off

Well, this has been a weird two weeks: a fantastic first couple weeks on a new job, coupled with The Mother‘s car being totalled by a drunk driver—while sitting empty on the street, happily.  (Not sure Facebook will let you see, but in case it does work: here‘s what the poor car looked like afterwards.)  So this week I’ve mostly been consumed with work, and shopping for a new car.  Granted, The Mother did most of the work on the latter, it being her vehicle that needs to be replaced.  But still, it hasn’t left a lot of time for contemplation of things such as blog post topics.  Still, I took a stab at it, but I only got a few hundred words in before other stuff distracted me.  So you’ll have to wait until next week to see that.  Try to contain your disappointment.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Cynical Romanticism

Many of my friends seem to think I’m a pessimist.  They’re then quite surprised when I seem to display some trait of stunning (and often naive) optimism.  The truth is that I’m not a pessimist; nor do I have moments where I transition to being an optimist.  I am, in fact, a cynic.  But I’m also a romantic.

I’ve mentioned this dichotomy of mine before (more than once, even).  What does it really mean though?  To understand, it’s useful to examine the roots of both terms.

Cynicism is actually an ancient Greek philosophy.  You remember the story of Diogenes, don’t you?  (Of course you don’t—I shouldn’t either, really, but my mother had an odd idea of what constituted a well-rounded education.)  Anyway, Diogenes was the guy who lived in a bathtub on the streets of Athens.  He carried around a lamp in the daytime, waiting for someone to ask him why.  When they did, he would reply that he was looking for an honest man.  The Cynics were sort of proto-hippies, living “in accord with Nature” and eschewing things like wealth and fame as non-natural.  It wasn’t enough to reject these things, though: a Cynic was required to practice shamelessness (sometimes translated as “impudence”), by which they meant that they should deface laws and social conventions.  So they were sort of in-your-face hippies.

You can vaguely draw the connection from this attitude of telling everyone that they were fools for letting things like greed and conformity take them further and further away from the natural state of living and the ultimate meaning that cynicism has today: the belief that people as a whole are vain, gullible, avaricious, and generally not that bright.  Steve Jobs once said:

I’m an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honorable, and some of them are really smart.  I have a very optimistic view of individuals.  As individuals, people are inherently good.  I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups.

Although I’ve always preffered the version from Men in Black:

J: People are smart.  They can handle it.
K: A person is smart.  People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.

J has no answer to this, of course: he is a New York City policeman.  He does know it.

When I was young, I did the required stint in fast food.  My particular greasepit was Burger King.  I worked there when chicken tenders were introduced, and I lived through the “Where’s Herb?” campaign.  Part of this campaign was to get a particular burger for a dollar by mentioning the fictional Herb’s name.  During this period, I saw innumerable people in Burger King ordering a “Herb burger.”  Yes, that’s right: they had absolutely no idea what they were ordering—just that it was cheap.  I am fond of telling people that we could have served them a shit sandwich and they’d have been happy as long as they thought they were getting a bargain.  I’m also fond of telling people that Burger King is where I first began to lose my faith in humanity.  Looking back, I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I can’t deny that ol’ Herb played a large role in pushing me down that road.  Certainly it’s the place where I learned to appreciate H. L. Mencken’s observation that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the common man,* and surely Mencken is a big a cynic as Twain or Voltaire, two of my most cherished quotemeisters.

So do I have, as Wikipedia puts it, a “general lack of faith or hope in the human race”?  Yeah, pretty much.  My experience with politics, business, financial institutions, organized religion, and even smaller coteries of humanity such as neighborhood homeowner’s associations or Internet forum denizens tells me that, if you expect the worst from people, you’ll rarely be disappointed, and occasionally you get a pleasant surprise.  Which is much better than the inverse: expecting the best yields constant disappointment and the occasional situation where your expectations are merely met.  Thus, I’m entirely comfortable with being considered a cynic, even though I don’t think that’s the same as being a pessimist.  I’m happy enough to consider the glass half-full ... I just remain convinced that there’s every likelihood that someone else will come along and drain the glass before I get any.

Romanticism is also tied to nature: it was ins some ways a revolt against the rationality of the Enlightenment, a way of stressing that one should go out into untamed Nature and stop trying to analyze it and categorize and just feel it.  Romanticism was a validation of strong emotion—be it wonder, awe, passion, or even horror.  Especially for Art.  As one early Romantic German painter put it, “the artist’s feeling is his law.”  This was a movement of rejecting rules, particularly rules about Art, and it led to the Gothic horror tale and luminaries such as Edgar Allen Poe ... it’s certainly no wonder that I would experience a feeling of kinship towards it.

“Romantic” as term implying love came later.  Even before Romanticism, “romance” was a term that referred to knights and heroic quests: Shakespeare’s The Tempest was considered a romance.  From knights to chivalry, and rescuing damsels in distress, plus Romanticism’s emphasis on strong emotions (such as passion), we eventually came to think of “romance” as primarily a love story, which today leaves us with Harlequin and Titanic.  Sort of a step down from Romanticism, if you think about it.  Not that there’s anything wrong with romantic love, of course: just that love is only one small part of Romanticism.

As a would-be-writer who idolizes Steven King (among others), how could I not be attracted to the movement that gave us Poe?  Certainly there is no King (nor Straub, Koontz, Barker or Gaiman) without Poe.  This is a movement that also (albeit more indirectly) gave us Robert Browning, who I quoted in my deconstruction of one of my all-time favorite quotes, and who also inspired King’s Dark Tower series.  Like Cynicism, Romanticism was a rejection of rules, and especially the “rules” of conforming to a polite society.  Throw off the chains of conformity, they both proclaim.  Be an individual.

And that’s the heart of my outlook.  Note how both Jobs and Tommy Lee Jones laud the individual person.  And we don’t have to look far to hear more famous people doing so.  Margaret Mead once said:

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world.  For indeed that’s all who ever have.

How can you not take inspiration from thatPearl S. Buck said:

The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.

So I believe that, despite the fact that humanity in general is close to useless, every individual human has a potential for greatness.  I believe that the universe works hard to put me in good places, and succeeds a surprising percentage of the time, even when the formless churning rat race of mankind is working hard to push in the opposite direction.  I won’t say I’m an optimist—the glass may indeed be half-empty.  But somewhere out there is a person who’s willing to refill it for me.  If I’m fortunate, and if I really need it, I’ll meet them.

This is not a philosophy so much as an outlook.  If you ask me about my philosophy, I’ll go back balance and paradox.  But that theory is how I attempt to make sense of the world when it doesn’t seem to want to make sense on its own.  That’s different from how I approach the world, and what I expect out of it.  When it comes to that, I don’t expect much out of people, but I will never give up my idealism.  The world doesn’t owe me anything, and I wouldn’t expect to receive payment if it did.  But I continue to believe that the universe is a decent enough place, and that there will always enough light to balance the dark, and that what you give out will surely come back to you.  In the end, Good will always triumph over Evil, even if Evil usually gets more votes (and always has better financial backing).

So I suppose it’s a bit like Mel Brooks says in The Twelve Chairs:

Hope for the best.  Expect the worst.
Life is a play.  We’re unrehearsed.

Although I would favor the formulation of Benjamin Disraeli:

I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.

Because I’m not a Romantic Cynic, after all: I’m a Cynical Romantic.  I may start with dread, but I always try to end on a note of hope.

* Technically, what he said was: “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the record for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”