Further frustrations with modern SciFi/Fantasy

Before I start, I just want to point out how much I just dislike some things. Trying to do a little research on this blog entry, I went to amazon.com and looked up a book that was the inspiration for what you will hopefully read. The listing for the book in question appears and there is this nice, tan bar right beneath the main amazon bar. It tells me that I purchased the item on August 2nd of this year and asks me if there was a problem with the order.

Being a technology person, both personally and professionally, I know how easy it is to do exactly what amazon is doing, but it still creeps me out to see it. I know I purchased the book. I’m reading it aren’t I? What I have a hard time with is the fact that amazon only accounts for about 25% of my book purchases, the rest being impulse purchases or buys from the remainder section at the local independent bookseller. That means that 75% of my book collection, more like 95% if we count all my books, not just the ones that have been purchased since I became an amazon shopper, is something beyond the realms of knowledge amazon has about me. Why on earth do you put this bar there that tells me about only 5% of the books I actually have? What if I browse an item that I already own, but did not procure through amazon? A lot of good that bar does me in this situation.

Of course, amazon would argue that I could save myself the hassle and expense of personally keeping track of what I have purchased, if I sold everything I have now and then repurchased them all through amazon. While that would probably only bump up their earnings $0.0000001 in the next quarter, it would most likely cost me most of the equity in my house to do such a thing. But wouldn’t it be cool then? Wouldn’t it be great if amazon started putting that kind of stuff up where everyone could see it? Then we could see who is the biggest book-nerd in the world by having the biggest personal library.

Not really, amazon. Mine my data all you want, but for heaven’s sake, do NOT shove it in my face that you are doing it. Please let me remain ignorant that you have algorithms that track what I’ve purchased v/s what I’ve looked at v/s what others who have purchased/looked at the same things I have, and then use all that data to make poor recommendations for me. Forget that a monkey tossing darts could probably do a better job of figuring out what I want to buy. Just keep me in blissful ignorance. Thank you.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post…

As NaNo is quickly approaching, my search for a subject for this year’s writing orgy is starting to become frantic. Having selected, studied, revised and then discarded as crap about a dozen ideas now, I figured that I needed some professional help to get me on the right track. Since most of Card’s books have pleased me, reading his book on writing can’t be all bad. In fact, it has been quite a good thing. While I have not really learned anything new, it has helped to focus me in on the activities which should occupy the majority of my thoughts at the present time. An unintended consequence of this reading, as Card gives examples of what he considers to be excellent works in each of the topics he covers, has been that I am looking at my favorite authors and discovering what they do not do well.

Lets start with my historically favorite author, Robert Jordan, versus what Card refers to as the MICE quotient, meaning Milieu, Idea, Character and Event story types. Here’s a short description of each:

Milieu = The story is about the place. There are characters and a storyline, but ultimately it is about the realm in which the story takes place. The Wizard of Oz is an excellent example of this type.
Idea = There is a central question that is asked at the beginning of the story and resolved at the end. People and the realm are secondary to that question. 2001: A Space Odyssey exemplifies this category.
Character = All stories have characters, but this type defines the changes, or lack of changes, and why those happen to a character, or characters. Card suggests The Barretts of Wimpole Street as a classic of this type of story.
Event = The world was perfect (relatively speaking), something bad happened and something was done to fix it. The fix may not be perfect, but it is always better than the bad thing. Most epics like Beowulf and Dune, fit in this category.

Most stories have one or two of these, if not all, to some degree, but there is almost always one that is significant throughout the entire story. If not, Card explains, then the reader will be lost as to exactly why the author is taking the story in the direction it is currently going. If you start out talking about some idea, asking some big question, but digress into focusing on the characters and never resolve the question, then the reader has no conclusion to draw at the end of the story. Why did the author even bring up that question in the first place?

So, Robert Jordan admits that the first 100 pages of his tWoT series is based on Lord of the Rings, thus making it an Idea story. However, after those first few pages, and especially after books five or six, it is nothing but a character and milieu story. Yes, the Idea is still there, lurking in the background, but it has not taken center stage now for over half the book. I’ve complained about the author ‘chasing rabbits’ for the last half of the series and now I have a name to put with the action.

Well, a name besides 'crap.’

Once Jordan derailed onto milieu and characters and left behind his ultimate question, the series lost a lot of what made the series so magical when I read it. I believe that he will come back to that question at the end, but he has already said that he will not wrap everything up. At one time, I thought that to be a great idea, but now I begin to revise my thoughts on it. He is not leaving openings for other follow-on books, but because he is unable to fully wrap everything up because it has become something other than an idea. The only way he could put a 'period’ at the end of a character novel is to get them to a stable place, but Jordan has consistently refused to ever put any stability into any of his characters. They may go flat, but they do not stop.

Moving away from Mr. Jordan, lets move on to George RR Martin. With his A Song of Fire and Ice series, I really wonder if he even knows what kind of story he is telling. There never was any big question at the outset of the first book, other than the kingdom was unstable and Ned Stark was going to stabilize it. Ned died and the kingdom just got worse. But that always seemed a background issue to the characters themselves.

So aSoF&I is a Character story? Maybe Character stories? The problem with this, just as in Jordan’s book, is that there are too many characters. True, some are more important than others, but you get the sense from both authors, but especially from Martin, that they don’t want to put their story in any one persona, so if one is good, and two is great, a few thousand must be incredible.

While I enjoy the characters that Martin crafts, his complete disloyalty to them all, his total willingness to kill off anyone and still move the story forward, shows he does not have a character driven model.

The last options would be milieu and event. The realm is very complex, but given how much time he spends on the character interactions, it is hard for me to say that this series really is about the world itself. A good friend of mine once referred to aSoF&I as 'Medieval Dallas’, something that says a lot about the story itself. Its nothing but a soap opera set in a different realm. Who is screwing who? Who is screwing who over?

Left to us is event, but other than the question of who will be king, if anyone, is the only possible question I can pick from this mess. That is a very unsatisfying answer, given that we did not even have this potential question appear until nearly the very end of the first book, another of Card’s no-no’s, I cannot in good conscience believe this to be an Event story.

Martin and Jordan both seem to be picking their way through a realm without a lot of thought as to exactly what it is they are trying to write. At least, their stories do not fit the classical categories as espoused by Card. That is not necessarily bad, but I wonder if they have truly thought through the impact such a change has on their audiences. As each series has grown in girth, the discontent with the readers has grown in proportion. If they continue, will they have any willing readers left? I know the only reason I have stuck with Jordan this far, especially after the flaming piece of crap that was book 10, was I just want to see it done. I’ve invested 14 years of my life reading these books and want closure. I want to see him pull it off, to put a pretty bow on the top of that massive shelf of hardbacks. Sadly, I do not believe he has the ability to actually pull that off.

That last statement seems harsh, I know, but it is extremely honest. I see no possibility of me flipping the last page of either of these series, closing the book and sitting there with a smile on my face for hours, just basking in the glow of something that was phenomenal beyond all ability to express. I am not suggesting, as some have done, that if either author had merely shortened the series it would have been better. I disagree because the problems in their series are of a more fundamental depth, that neither of them can truly decide on how to tell their particular story.

Maybe time will prove me wrong, but I cannot believe that it will. Maybe they will be the original pioneers of a new, fifth category of story. Lets call it the 'mishmash’ because that is really what it is. Take the elements from the other types and push them together in an amalgam that breaks the standard roles for a story. I’m all for a new type, but I would prefer one that made at least a bit of sense in the telling.