What can you say about a Neal Stephenson novel? Really. The man is a bit like J.R.R. Tolkien, he feels the need to go out and re-invent the wheel simply because he can. As a result, no amount of critical analysis, commentary, or old fashioned smack is really able to do his work justice. If you want to experience a Stephenson novel, you just have to go read it.
So it is with Anathem, a book about a place which isn’t Earth and a time that isn’t now. Though it certainly feels like both. Anathem is s a big book which contains big ideas: the observations of classical philosophers, rules of logic, and ultimately a polycosmic theory of connected reality. You know, light reading. It’s also a brilliant though extremely frustrating piece which simply defies any attempt at summary. The first third is spent drowning in detail, the middle third in quiet contemplation, and the last third in monumental disillusion.
One of the best parts of having a blog is the ability to speak directly to and interact with readers. This is true even on such a small and under-read blog as Apolitically Incorrect. In the past few weeks, I have received a number of fascinating e-mails from readers who took some issues with an essay that I published, entitled "Eragon Shadeslayer: Sociopath." In this essay, I looked at how the principal hero of the Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini, had progressed from a hero archetype toward something else: a dangerous sociopath.
As might be expected, this particular topic proved to be somewhat controversial and generated a surprising amount of e-mail. My opinion on one of Eragon's actions in particular, the murder of a young soldier who was begging for his life, evoked some particularly strong responses. While some of the correspondence was hostile, more often the letters were extremely thoughtful and asked all kinds of excellently difficult questions. While there were various writers, nearly every letter raised at least two common questions which I would like to try and give an answer to. First, why am I so hard on Christopher Paolini's notions of good and evil? Second, why should we attempt to cling to moral absolutes and high minded ideals in an amoral and relative world?
While the timeless struggle between good and evil has been at the center of Western literature for nearly three thousand years, modern psychology has given us an insight into why some people devolve into heroes and others into villains. One important framework is provided by the mythology of the sociopath. Sociopaths are marked by several important characteristics: impulsivity, irritability and aggression, deceit or manipulation, lack of concern for the safety of others, irresponsibility, or being unconcerned about hurting or stealing. Sociopaths have lost their conscience and soul. They are evil because they can be. Sociopaths don't come with baggage, don't need a back-story or some greedy motive. They just are.
In Christopher Paolini's, Brisingr, we get something rather unexpected: a sociopath in the role of hero. Brisingr's author never explicitly states that Eragon, the novel's main protagonist, is an unfeeling void; quite the contrary, actually. The omniscient narrator, the cast of supporting characters, and even his dragon laud Eragon's actions as careful, considered, and just. A careful reading, though, doesn't reveal this. Rather, nearly every action shows either rash judgments or cold calculation. This represents somewhat of a departure of Paolini's earlier work (Eragon and Eldest). Despite the weaknesses of the earlier books, the character of Eragon was at least likable. Of course he was brash and headstrong, but he at least tried to do and say the right things.
In Brisingr, however, we are presented with another person. Eragon has little mercy or understanding for anyone around him (either friend or foe). This trend only gets worse as the novel progresses. Steadily, we proceed from actions which are merely foolish to those which are profoundly disturbing. Consider how Eragon acts in the first few hundred pages of Brisingr. In the opening chapters, Eragon commits genocide. He later circumvents justice in order to condemn and abandon a man in the desert. Last, he kills a child in cold blood while the boy is begging for mercy. In this essay, we will look at these three scenarios in detail and show that Eragon has lost his way, his conscience and his soul.
In their heart, storytellers are liars. They take the boring details of a mundane existence and make them interesting. Storytellers fold and rip apart reality, giving it an interpretation, angle, or even direction. While most might don the storyteller hat (at least for a little while) when they spin yearns of office conquest, the encounter with the co-worker they don't like, or the latest fight with their boss they typically embellish or embolden. Yet, there is an enormous difference between someone who occasionally bends the truth and the masters who revel in their own deviousness. Masters storytellers are more than liars, they wear deceit the way most people wear underclothes. They don't just wrap up existence or give an interpretation, angle or direction; a master storyteller can use their lies to tell the Truth. This places them within the realm of the gods. They can create, destroy, and instruct.
William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, and Robin Hobb are masters of their craft. Inside their stories we find the reality of our own world reflected back at us. Lady MacBeth, Frodo Baggins, Prince Caspian, Shadow and Fitz feel like real people who walk in a world that might fall off the page. Rather than a lie which has been sloppily papered over with the truth (the realm of reality), we get truth that has been masterfully and regally clothed in lies (the realm of imagination).
The Truth has been given many names (of which archetype and allegory are only two) and while the names may shift, they still convey the same idea; underneath the style and glamour, there is something inherently correct and right about what is being portrayed. Truth is beautiul, but only as long as it remains pure and ... the Truth. There is nothing quite as dangerous to Truth as an "almost truth." We often, euphamestically call the untruths, "White Lies" or "Half Truths" and they are deadly.
Big lies hold about as much danger as a bear that has been painted neon green and mounted with enormous strobe lights and warning sirens. Sure, they can still eviscerate and do awful things to the various bits that you should probably keep on the inside; but you can see and hear them coming from a long way off. The smaller lies much are more subtle in their nefariousness. They can have a presence similar to that of your best friend … right before he pushes you in front of a bus. They can can be beautifully seductive. Sometimes they are things that we wish were true and merely shatter our faith when we learn they are not; but more often they are as dangerous as a deeply flawed keystone at the moment that it accepts weight and shatters under the load. For these reason, half-truths are much more dangerous than their bigger brethren. Unfortunately, they don't come equipped with the helpful entourage.
There are some books whose influence and impact stay with the reader long after the last page. The ideas, stories and possibilities continue to haunt the imagination like so many restless specters. JRR Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" is one such work. It fills the head with ageless elves, far-away places, and terrible villains. Christopher Paolini's Brisingr is also such a work. Unfortunately, the ghouls it conjures are of a different type than those that haunt Tolkein's.
Brisingr is the third book in Paolini's "Inheritance Cycle." Once believed to be a trilogy, with Brisingr at its conclusion; the Ineritance Saga will likely be a quartet with Brisingr as its penultimate volume. In trying to review the work, it is probably best to start with the "short" and then proceed to the "long." E.A. Salinas' provides a nice summary on Amazon.com:
"Brisingr" may be the "ancient language's" word for fire, but Christopher Paolini's third novel doesn't really have any. Awkward, plodding and lacking a real plot, this flame was out before it even started.
If you haven't surmised, the short is this: the book is terrible. For those that have already read Brisingr, my sympathies. For those who are wondering if they should, there is far better work, even in the realm of trash fantasy.
Paolini commits all the stylistic sins of consequence: he's boring, long winded and trite. The main plot is particularly egregious, as the novel doesn't really have one. The subtitle of the book tells you nearly everything you need to know: "The Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjatskoler." Brisingr moves from one promise to the next without a central storyline to connect them. The novel might have been more effectively organized as a volume of "loosely connected" short stories, since it essentially reads like one.
Paolini's commits a far more serious sin than being scattered or dull, however. Brisingr struggles to be "Literature" and in the process sags under the weight of politicking and pretentious moral preaching. While many of the questions Eragon ponders barely rise to the level of interesting cocktail banter, there are some issues to which Paolini's characters come to surprisingly disturbing conclusions. One of Tolkien's greatest accomplishments was using his writing as a medium for moral thought experiments. It is somewhat ironic, then, that someone who compares himself to Tolkien spends much of his time contradicting the values and ideas which make The Lord of the Rings great literature. Some of these "ideas" so greatly bothered me, I felt the need to more directly wrestle with them.
To understand the great weaknesses in Paolini's work, it's first necessary to understand the small ones. Let's start with the minor sins before looking at their heavier brethren. As I alluded to above, there isn't much to enjoy in this novel; not at a technical, literary, or philosophical level. While some of the linguistic errors might be resolved with a good editor, many of the other errors are stylistic or structural and are much more intractable. Paolini devotes pages to unimportant minutiae, drowning the narrative in lengthy and ponderous description. At one point he spends twenty-two pages to describe the forging of his sword from space metal. Twenty-two pages!
Following Paolini's prose is an effort which isn't made any easier by the moded style that he has chosen to adopt. Rather than sounding timeless or like "the lyrical beauty of Tolkien at his best and Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf," the language is pretentious and stupid. Good writers use complex language to provide illumination. Paolini sounds like he is attempting to get off using his thesaurus. If the prose is pretentious, the dialogue is even worse. It fails to approach realistic much less elegant. Consider one example where Eragon and Roran share a particularly gag inducing conversation prior to assaulting the Ra'zak, "Even we, who were boys but a short while ago, cannot escape the inexorable progress of time. So the generations pass …" Paolini continues on like this for another ten pages.
While listening to the audio book version of the work, I often wondered if the narrator (Gerard Doyle) needed to pause and ask, "Did Paolini really write that?" There are telling transitions in the narrative where the sentence begins in one tone and ends in another. While such moments were obviously due to the combination of different edits, each awkward combination practically begs the question, "Did Doyle just lose it?" As a listener, I could barely stomach the prose. I can only marvel at the discipline required to record it.
As goes the language, so goes everything else. In typical Paolini style, Eragon skirts from one misadventure to another and from one useless subplot to the next. Fans of Paolini's might be better served reading the first 100 pages and the last 100 pages. There isn't much of interest in the middle. Better yet, read the Wikipedia entry and save yourself the pain completely. This might just save you from wondering if Paolini gets paid by the pound for his books.
I saw this last night and thought that it should be passed on. But I need to give some sort of explanation as to why it is so cool. In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to be a published writer, and while I am (after a fashion); I am not aware of many who daydream of writing scientific treatises. Such daydreams usually focuses on a carreer as a novelist, playwright, or journalist. Even though my writing as a more, non-fiction bent, I have a great deal of respect for those whose stories are not so firmly nailed down.
It probably wouldn't surprise you to know that I enjoy reading, audiobooks and just about everything related to the written (and spoken) word. I have a particular wakeness for fiction and have filled my various cellphones (and now iPods) with thousands of hours of programming (thank you to Audible subscription program!). I am also an absolute whore for podcasts and recordings which tell stories well. Some of the very best of these come through this thing called The Moth. If you don't already subscribe to their podcast, you really should. As in ... You. Really. Should. It is that cool.
Once a year, the Moth has a get-together called "The Moth Ball." They also have an auction. So, I am going to give a shameless plug. One of my absolute favorite authors is a Brit by the name of Neil Gaiman. He wrote Neverwhere (which is absolutely brilliant), Stardust (which is really cool), and American Gods (which is simply amazing).
Apparently, he is up for auction. Or ... an afternoon tea with him at The Players is. This is one of those things that you should bid for. It's a great cause and an even better prize. If you don't want to go, you could always bid and give it to me!