The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Keep reading this book: the first three-quarters seem aimless, and I gave up. What’s at stake? Who gives a damn about this video game? (I also have an anti-video-game prejudice.) But enough people I admire recommended the book that I kept going, and I’m glad I did.

And after The Three-Body Problem, I read the next two which are in some ways structured similarly: somewhat meandering first halves followed by shocking reversals and revelations, culminating in a work of deep time that does not seem to break special or general relativity but does work with them.

The real terror here is not the many monsters of fairy tales, whether ancient or modern, but knowledge itself: “If even an extremely simple arrangement like the three-body system is unpredictable chaos, how can we have any faith in discovering the laws of a complicated universe?” Wang asks about two-thirds through the novel. I will not offer the answer, but I did read Martin Rees’s essay “Is There a Limit to Scientific Understanding?” just before re-starting The Three-Body Problem. One hopes there is no limit to scientific understanding, but that is a hope, not a guarantee.

In the “game” Wang plays in The Three-Body Problem, a civilization keeps being destroyed by perturbations in the orbit of three suns around a planet (hence the title). Each time he enters the world, he needs to observe or solve a problem in order for the civilization to advance—it’s a bit like the computer game Civilization or Age of Empires. Except this game seems to have unnerving, mysterious consequences in the real world.

Not much is explained, and it’s hard to identify the “missing” information pieces in the novel; The Three-Body Problem doesn’t seem to have rules, as other novels do. In a mystery novel, the implicit rules are there, and the killer is human, with human motives and values. He (usually a he, but not always) cannot destroy humanity itself. A mystery novel is like a war using conventional weapons. Unpleasant and miserable, perhaps, but unlikely to be existentially destructive. Nuclear weapons are different: they could be existentially destructive, and war with them is different. Some novels seem to have no internal rules and no guarantee that the good guys will win, or even that any guys will survive. These novels are existentially unsettling, and they tend to be classified as SF; Three-Body is one of them (Blindsight is another).

Initially the novel starts in China’s Cultural Revolution: “During those years, everyone had a special sensitivity for their own political situation. The sense was especially acute in Ye Wenjie. She felt the world around her closing in like a sack being drawn shut, and everything press in on her.” We may think the novel is about politics, and it often is, but science is its bedrock, for reasons I don’t want to elaborate here but that will become apparent over the trilogy’s course. The novel’s world depends on science, but also on the fear of contact with a more technologically advanced society. In Three-Body, Wang finds that “This civilization seems to have developed to a very advanced state.” The implication being, of course, that it may soon be destroyed.

Some spoilers follow. In later books, the possibility of civilization extinction is explored and occurs. The third book in the series, Dearth’s End, finds that one threat had, from humanity’s perspective, “lasted close to three centuries [. . .] yet what took its place was an even crueler universe.” People—in the broadest sense possible—who don’t struggle and win, die. There is no long-term respite from competition.

We don’t often see modern fiction imply this. A nonfiction book like Zero to One may, but most who read Zero to One aren’t seeking its darker depths. Perhaps we should go there.

If you read The Three-Body Problem, don’t give up halfway through, as I did. Often, when the book (and not just the first one) seems like it’s at best dully meandering, something shocking happens. That sense of complacency and direction shattered happens again and again, perhaps as a metaphor for life. I don’t fully understand the extensive metaphoric readings the books could be given, and that’s good news: they’re rich enough for re-readings and many readings, in a way many books aren’t. There are also many sub-genres of science fiction stashed in it, ranging from first contact to deep space exploration to the many-worlds theory.

Some things remain strangely absent—we don’t get AI centuries from now?—but they can be ignored because there’s so much on the page.

Briefly noted: Nexus – Ramez Naam

Read Nexus for the plot rather than the sentences; I’m looking for an evocative sentence to quote by way of example and not finding any, while banal sentences are everywhere. In this world, Nexus is a drug or treatment or process (the “right” word doesn’t exist) can link people’s minds directly together, allowing people to experience what another person experiences—or to invade and control another person’s mind. The protagonist is a grad student who figures out the next technical step in the Nexus process.

One could say that the Nexus drug / treatment will radically increase empathy, with unexpected or unforeseen results. In-group empathy seems to have been important to the evolution of human cooperation, so artificially further increasing empathy could have unpredictable outcomes, just like no one foresaw Facebook as being a central part of the Internet experience for most people. Making empathy radically common could decrease some kinds of violence. But it can also leave people susceptible to predation. But as one character observes, “If Nexus 5 ever gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. Permanent integration means a user only ever needs to procure a single dose for a lifetime effect. You can’t fight that on the supply side.” He’s right about the supply side, as we’ve seen from the supposed “war on drugs,” and he’s right that people will likely want a drug that leads to unbelievable euphoria, sex, and knowledge—but note too that the character resorts to cliché: “it’ll spread like wildfire.” Do things spread in some other fashion? Can we fine something better here?

No:

Kim and William furiously hit keys [. . .]

Sam took her time in replying. “I’m human, Kade”.

Does a person take time “in replying” or “to reply?” And is just saying “paused” easier? These kinds of language infelicities can be called minor but when they recur throughout the novel they become major.

Still, properly read, Nexus may be about the dangers of dual-use technology: “They’d built Nexus OS to give people new freedoms, new ways to connect, new ways to learn. Not to use it as a tool for control or assassination.” The Internet was arguably invented in part for new ways to connect and learn, and now it’s used for virtue signaling, character assassination, and petty rivalry blown up to the world stage. Things have not gone as I once imagined they would. I used to be an Internet utopian. No more. Yet maybe Nexus would be different, though Nexus also raises the essential philosophical question: “What is real?” If another person can reach into your mind and rearrange it, what stops them from planting whatever memories or preferences they want? What, in this scenario, makes an individual an individual? “Nothing” seems to be the answer to that last question.

In Nexus, as you can likely tell from what I’ve written so far, the ideas seem more important than the words expressing them, which may say something about the underlying work. The book seems destined for TV, where the quality of its sentences won’t matter. I’m not unhappy to have read the book, but if you’ve not read Blindsight and like SF, start there. Still, I’ll read the next Naam novel after the Nexus trilogy.

Briefly noted: The Magicians, re-read, and the TV show

The Magicians holds up well (and the link goes to my original review). What stands out still is the relentless focus of Quentin on happiness: I’d guess that the word appears at last a dozen times, and maybe more, in the novel—too often for anyone who is actually happy to think about it. Quentin’s melancholia is a sort that, if it can be cured, cannot be cured in the ways in which he is attempting to cure it. Don’t be fooled by the magical trappings: the novel is still primarily psychological.

Between now and then The Magicians has been made into a disappointing TV show; that show has high points and funny moments but it cannot overcome a fundamental problem that is illustrative for other writers: it advances all of the characters’ ages by five to ten years, which defeats much of the point and pleasure of the book. The book is about coming of age. It is stuffed with references like this one, from late in it, when (I don’t think this gives anything away) most of the main characters make it to Fillory: “For all the glory of their high and noble purpose, it felt like they were going on a summer-camp nature hike, or a junior high field trip, with the kids goofing on and the two counselors looking dour and superior and grown-up and glaring them back into life when they strayed too far” (one decent definition of being grown-up is that you are no longer concerned with appearing grown up (or not)). It is hard to feel glorious and “noble” when you are being supervised by adults who’ve really seen the world, as Dint and Fen (their guides) have, or apparently have.

Characters who are in the 22 – 30 age range are less likely to analogize their lives to summer camps or junior high field trips. This may seem like a minor point at first. In the show, the characters are still angsty, but at their age their style of angst no longer makes any sense, as they ought to have decently developed, decently resilient personalities by then. That they do not is the flaw the show never manages to overcome.

To be sure, The Magicians tv show does have excellent individual moments, but they don’t add up to much. The actor who plays Penny in particular is a standout (unfortunately, there is something off about the one who plays Quentin). Mostly, the show is an exercise in showing why HBO is so good at its shows and the SyFy channel is so not good at its shows. The Magicians as a TV show is a weak show with a strong one lurking obviously within it, which may be the most frustrating kind. The ones that are transparently bad are just passing phenomena. The ones that are transparently good offer their pleasures. The ones that could be good pain.

Briefly noted: Leviathan Wakes — James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is defiantly, definitely okay; the biggest problem with it isn’t the novel itself but having already read Blindsight, which its some similar notes but is just a much, much better novel.

Leviathan Wakes is big on game theory, empathy, and political questions. They start early—”The temptation to have an unexplained comm failure, erase the logs, and let the great god Darwin have his way was always there” happens on page 14—and don’t really relent. Still, I dislike the implication that “the great god Darwin” thinks that individuals and small groups are inwardly selfish; evolution has also endowed us with the ability to cooperate, and humans are super-cooperators, alone among animals.

Leviathan_WakesBut the divisions among people may change shape and form, but they always remain, at least as long as we live in a world of economic scarcity. In Leviathan Wakes, Earthers, Martians, and Belters (those who grow up and/or live in the Asteroid Belt) are the primary divisions. I write this in 2016, and in the current European and American political systems there are spasms around divisions that, viewed from the proper perspective, will seem trivial. The other day I heard someone say that Trump has a point about immigrants. I agreed and amplified, suggesting that he do something about the filthy, lazy Irish and Italians, with their Papist ways and mooching dispositions. The guy I was talking to didn’t know what to do with that; the Know Nothing Party may be gone, but its ideas live on for as long as humans have a powerful psychological need to divide ourselves into tribes.

In Leviathan Wakes some descriptions are good (on a space station, “The air smelled beery with old protein yeast and mushrooms” or “The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve”), but the text can usually be described as nondescript. It’s rarely bad but rarely stellar. For example, the sentence after the one about the circle of life on Ceres is “He liked it that way,” which is representative of the novel’s language.

The sense of mystery is strong, though, and mostly excuses the sentences. You’ve read worse. You’ve read better. The plot gets sillier as the novel progresses.

What else? There is a convenient magic drive that gets people from place to place relatively rapidly. It’s hard to imagine that genetic engineering won’t have re-made the human species by the time we develop advanced space stations with room for millions of people. Did people in 1750 imagine that in 2000 we’d still be riding horses and firing muskets? Because imagining 2250 without substantial genetic engineering is hard (unless there’s an apocalypse in the meantime, which is also possible).

Leviathan Wakes is guilty of many of Charlie Stross’s space opera clichés, but I mostly forgive it. I just can’t imagine wanting to re-read it.

My Amazon review of Peter Watts’s Blindsight

People read Amazon reviews and Watts reads his, so I left this one.

Listen to the positive reviews: Blindsight is one of the most stunning and incredible novels I’ve read, ever, and that’s among all novels, not just SF. To describe Blindsight is not to do it justice: Like Ulysses, the plot can be summarized but the texture of it cannot really be conveyed save through the reading itself. Ulysses might be summarized as, “Neurotic man wanders through Dublin, gets stuck in his own head.” In that sense, Blindsight might be summarized as “The link between humans and post-humans encounters aliens, and nothing will ever be the same.

BlindsightBlindsight is on my mind because I just finished Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey. It’s a competent, fun novel. It’s even good at times. But it covers territory similar to Blindsight’s, only less mind-blowing. It’s less developed. One can have literary blind sight and enjoyable read Leviathan Wakes, as I did, but reading them next to each other will show that something is missing from Leviathan Wakes. One needs total vision and a third eye to get Blindsight. To be sure, most people never reach enlightenment. But without reading it, you’ll never know if you can get there, or if you’ll be left at the foothills like most of us are.

The world is very different from ours in key ways but doesn’t yet have AI; before Firefall, Siri Keeton, narrator, who is supposed to have no feelings and only observation, is doing this:

I’d been liaising for a team at the Kurzweil Institute, a fractured group of cutting-edge savants convinced they were on the verge of solving the quantum-glial paradox. That particular log-jam had stalled AI for decades; once broken, the experts promised we’d be eighteen months away from the first personality upload and only two years from reliable Human-consciousness emulation in a software environment. It would spell the end of corporeal history, usher in a Singularity that had been waiting impatiently in the wings for nigh on fifty years.

But it hasn’t arrived. Not yet. Not in Blindsight’s world, which is also Siri’s world. To us it’s an odd one:

You hire people like me; the crossbred progeny of profilers and proof assistants and information theorists.

In formal settings you’d call me Synthesist. On the street you call me jargonaut or poppy. If you’re one of those savants whose hard-won truths are being bastardized and lobotomized for powerful know-nothings interested only in market share, you might call me a mole or a chaperone.

He works in “the rotational topology of information and the irrelevance of semantic comprehension.” Oddly, that may be what a lot of us do: understanding surfaces without understanding depth, if “surface” and “depth” have any meaning at all. That’s one of the (many) question Blindsight asks (Leviathan Wakes asks political economy and cooperation questions). To restate many of them would take many thousands of words. That is another way the novel is like Ulysses.

Echopraxia — Peter Watts

Echopraxia is among the best books I’ve read, ever, and is as weird and good as its predecessor, Blindsight. If you haven’t read Blindsight start with it.

Like Blindsight, I had only some idea about what was happening throughout the first read and less about why. Why that is is itself an interesting: The characters in many books about “smart” people—let’s take Harry Potter as an example—seem like dumb people’s ideas of what smart people are like. In Science Fiction that’s often less true, and in Echopraxia it isn’t true at all. The novel is a smart person’s idea of what intelligence beyond human comprehension but still observable might be like. Too few novels have characters who feel intelligently intelligent, as opposed (possibly) to emotionally intelligent, or simply unintelligent. In many thrillers and detective novels characters are cartoonishly intelligent, through unearned insight; in this respect they have more in common with characters in, say, romance novels than with those in Echopraxia. That is a less popular subject than who is doing what to whom. References in Echopraxia range from Plato’s cave to Dawkins to imaginary future scientists. Minds are often analogized to computers, as in this moment the start of the novel, when vampires rebel against their jailers and creators:

She towered over Sachie like an insectile statue, motionless, even her breathing imperceptible. Moments from death and with nothing better to do, some subroutine in Sachie’s head ticked off the morphometrics: such inhumanly long limbs, the attenuate heat-dissipating allometry of a metabolic engine running hot.

echopraxia_coverWhat is “better to do” moments from death? And are subroutines the right metaphor for the brain? I don’t know, but Echopraxia asks what, if anything, is essential for “humans” (or whether “humans” are essential). The novel takes place fourteen years after the Firefall from Blindsight, but “Fourteen years is a long time for a species raised on instant gratification.” In this world zombies are real, some viral and some surgical: every consciousness is trying to get on top of and sometimes overwhelm another consciousness. Watts is fond of the third-person plural “they” without distinguishing who “they” are in a given moment or situation.

The form of the narrative mirrors the mental state of Brüks—that is, characters are continually having epiphanies that the readers must catch up with later, if we ever do (Why exactly is the Bicameral order being attacked, again, and, more importantly, by who? I think I can answer but am not entirely sure). This is disorienting and at least for me doesn’t stop being disorienting throughout the novel. Was it equally disorienting to write Echopraxia, I have to wonder?

The lack of pronoun referents goes deeper than an observation. One could see Watt’s novels as an extreme version of a theory from the introduction of Umberto Eco’s The Open Work:

[Modern open work] through its lack of conventional sense and order [. . .] represents by analogy the feeling of senselessness, disorder, “discontinuity” that the modern world generates in all of us. Thus, although open works are not the only kind of art to be produced in our time, they are the only kind that is appropriate to it; the conventional sense and order of traditional art reflects an experience of the world wholly different from ours, and deceive ourselves if we try to make this sense and order our own. (xiv)

In Echopraxia the structure of the book is not precisely shocking—it proceeds more or less chronologically through time, and its narrator is not as far as I can tell trying to be deceptive. But if the present has increased “the feeling of senseless, disorder, ‘discontinuity,'” then the post-human and fast-paced technological future will increase that sense further and faster, especially if and when humans create beings (I use the word because I lack a better one) incomprehensible to humans. The future’s experience in this reading will be a “world wholly different from ours,” and imaginative art is one way to prepare for the possibility of that future. For much of human history technology has been a positive force (though anyone caught in the battle of the Somme, or by Russia’s secret police, or by Agent Orange will have reason to disagree), but past returns are no guarantee of future returns.

Technology, Echopraxia implies, can turn myth or nightmare into fact. I did not catch any references to Pandora’s Box, perhaps because such a mythic allusion is too obvious in a book that eschews obviousness at virtually every level, but the applicability is obvious. In The Open Work, Echo writes that “Art knows the world through its own formative structures.” So does consciousness. But what if consciousness is in turn limited by its own formative structures? Verbal and written expression are already tremendously limited, which is part of what gives both, and especially written language, their powers. Addressing those limits in words themselves is a serious and perhaps impossible challenge.

Still, some points recur. The word “gut” appears at least three times that I counted, and maybe more. There is much discussion of “the species” and what traits or habits maintained it in the past but might not be useful in the distant future. There is no such thing as “nature” or “natural life,” and there are no guarantees that humanity as we know it will survive. That there is no real fundamental “you” or “me” is an ancient fear, and Echopraxia terrifies and confuses by saying: “Maybe this fear will yet come to pass.” One reading of the novel is as a description of the transition point from human to non-human. Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles engages similar themes but without overt death, and without the psychological manipulations of Watts. The Elementary Particles does not have the same kind of biohacking and especially viral biohacking. Echopraxia feels more about emergent phenomena and how difficult they are to control—which may explain why Jim Moore’s son Siri Keaton needed, for reasons essential to the story, to experience what he did.

Eco also says that “nowadays, in our technological civilization, objects have become so pervasive, so sophisticated, so autonomous that we feel threatened by them.” The distinction between “objects,” “life,” and “humans” is slowly breaking down. To take one personal example, I, like millions of other humans, have a piece of plastic inserted in my body. In my case, that plastic mimics bone. What happens when it mimics brain? What happens when the greatest threat from pervasive objects is not visible? The answers may be a long time coming and may not involves aliens or vampires.

Science fiction is different from most fiction in that most plots in most fiction devolve to posturing for wealth, sex, status, or political positioning. Echopraxia is particularly different, because it imagines a world so far from our own, and it imagines what a transition point from humans to non-humans might look like, both from the humans’s perspective and, to the extent possible, from the perspective of non- or trans-humans who wish to explain themselves, to the extent they can, to humans. Language is a funny thing; it relies on some level of shared referents in order to work, and trans-humans may come to utterly lack shared referents. Humans may bootstrap trans-humans into being—both because humans want to, and, as Echopraxia and Blindsight imply, because perhaps we must: we must keep advancing in order to try to save ourselves from ourselves.

There is much else to write about Watts. If a novel is a machine for generating interpretations, Echopraxia and Blindsight generate more than most. They are also beautiful, weird, and like no other books I’ve ever read.


Here is The LA Review of Books. Here is Watts on Reddit. Here is a Locus Online review. I don’t remember who first inspired me to read Watts but if I did I’d thank them.

Shaping Things and Bruce Sterling's technoculture

Design is hard to do. Design is not art. But design has some of the requirements of art. The achievement of greatness in art or design requires passionate virtuosity. VIRTUOSITY means thorough mastery of craft. PASSION is required to focus human effort to a level that transcends the norm. Some guitarists have passion, especially young ones. Some have virtuosity, especially old ones. Some few have both at once, and during some mortal window of superb achievement, they are great guitarists.

That’s from Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, and I admire the distinction between design and art, which overlap to some extent but not totally; his point about “passionate virtuosity” is one I’ve seen elsewhere but is worth repeating, because it seems like so many seemingly different fields require the same thing. Certainly writing does, and one sees too many people with the passion or the virtuosity but not both.

Another sample:

I do write a great deal about technology. That became my theme as an artist. The human reaction to technological change—nothing interests me more. I want and need to know all about it. I want to plumb its every aspect. I even want to find new words for aspects of it that haven’t as yet been described.

I would guess artists, especially of narrative arts, are going to have to pay steadily more attention to technology: it informs too many lives too much to ignore, and people have as many disparate response “to technological change” as they do to love.

The book itself—Shaping Things—is interesting without being captivating. It needs more examples and case studies, and fewer grand pronouncements; it resembles a lot of literary theory in this way. If you get a physical copy, you’ll also find terrible design, with all kinds of doodads, weird fonts, random backgrounds, and so forth, all of which distract from readability in the name of being weird (those capitalizations in the blockquote above are in the text). It’s a kind of anti-Apple product.

The book’s design is distinctive, but distinctive is automatically good, and as a mechanism for transferring ideas via text Shaping Things isn’t optimal because of those distractions. Nonetheless, the idea density is high, and I’m going to keep my copy, at least for the time being. Like Sterling, I’ve become steadily more interested in design and what design says about people and culture. I’m not sure how that’ll work into my fiction, but long-simmering ideas and interests tend to emerge in unpredictable ways. For example: I’ve thought about a novel in which a camera shows an emotionally stunted photographer—along the Conrad and Houllebecq lines—who thinks in the language of photography itself what the photographer takes to be the future. Or is it? Photographers have a rich array of metaphors to draw on, and they have to be attuned to light, shapes, and the interplay of things and colors. Cameras themselves are technologies, and in the last 15 years they’ve become computers, with rapid advancements from year to year and all of the technolust that implies.

I don’t know where this idea might go, or if it will go at all, but I’ve been mulling it for a long time. A character like the one or ones I’m imagine would be reacting to technological change. I won’t say “nothing interests me more,” as Sterling does, but human reaction to technology is certainly up there, as I increasingly think it has to be, for people in virtually any field, if one wants any real shot at understanding what’s going on.

Shaping Things and Bruce Sterling’s technoculture

Design is hard to do. Design is not art. But design has some of the requirements of art. The achievement of greatness in art or design requires passionate virtuosity. VIRTUOSITY means thorough mastery of craft. PASSION is required to focus human effort to a level that transcends the norm. Some guitarists have passion, especially young ones. Some have virtuosity, especially old ones. Some few have both at once, and during some mortal window of superb achievement, they are great guitarists.

That’s from Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, and I admire the distinction between design and art, which overlap to some extent but not totally; his point about “passionate virtuosity” is one I’ve seen elsewhere but is worth repeating, because it seems like so many seemingly different fields require the same thing. Certainly writing does, and one sees too many people with the passion or the virtuosity but not both.

Another sample:

I do write a great deal about technology. That became my theme as an artist. The human reaction to technological change—nothing interests me more. I want and need to know all about it. I want to plumb its every aspect. I even want to find new words for aspects of it that haven’t as yet been described.

I would guess artists, especially of narrative arts, are going to have to pay steadily more attention to technology: it informs too many lives too much to ignore, and people have as many disparate response “to technological change” as they do to love.

The book itself—Shaping Things—is interesting without being captivating. It needs more examples and case studies, and fewer grand pronouncements; it resembles a lot of literary theory in this way. If you get a physical copy, you’ll also find terrible design, with all kinds of doodads, weird fonts, random backgrounds, and so forth, all of which distract from readability in the name of being weird (those capitalizations in the blockquote above are in the text). It’s a kind of anti-Apple product.

The book’s design is distinctive, but distinctive is automatically good, and as a mechanism for transferring ideas via text Shaping Things isn’t optimal because of those distractions. Nonetheless, the idea density is high, and I’m going to keep my copy, at least for the time being. Like Sterling, I’ve become steadily more interested in design and what design says about people and culture. I’m not sure how that’ll work into my fiction, but long-simmering ideas and interests tend to emerge in unpredictable ways. For example: I’ve thought about a novel in which a camera shows an emotionally stunted photographer—along the Conrad and Houllebecq lines—who thinks in the language of photography itself what the photographer takes to be the future. Or is it? Photographers have a rich array of metaphors to draw on, and they have to be attuned to light, shapes, and the interplay of things and colors. Cameras themselves are technologies, and in the last 15 years they’ve become computers, with rapid advancements from year to year and all of the technolust that implies.

I don’t know where this idea might go, or if it will go at all, but I’ve been mulling it for a long time. A character like the one or ones I’m imagine would be reacting to technological change. I won’t say “nothing interests me more,” as Sterling does, but human reaction to technology is certainly up there, as I increasingly think it has to be, for people in virtually any field, if one wants any real shot at understanding what’s going on.

The Magician King — Lev Grossman

I love The Magicians. I like The Magician King.

The Magician King has many of the qualities that made The Magicians special: twists on standard fantasy tropes; impressive language in many sentences, although not quite as impressive its predecessor; and a consistent willingness to instill a sense of wonder about the world and about what the characters might be able to accomplish. Happy endings aren’t foreordained, which is to be admired.

But The Magician King lacks the surprising urgency of The Magicians and feels like another lap after the race is over. Consider a passage from page six, after Quentin, Julia, Janet, and Eliot have returned to Fillory as benevolent if distracted monarchs. They’re hunting a magic hare who can see the future, which sounds like a bum gig; life’s excitement comes from not knowing what happens next:

The point wasn’t really to catch the hare. The point was—what was the point? What were they looking for? Back at the castle their lives were overflowing with pleasure. There was a whole staff whose job it was to make sure that every day of their lives was absolutely perfect. It was like being the only guests at a twenty-star hotel that you never had to leave.

Does this sound familiar? If you read The Magicians, it should, since The Magicians is endlessly concerned with the questing for meaning that can’t be imposed from without. I’m going to spend the next couple paragraphs looking at similar rhetoric from The Magicians; if this sort of thing bores you, skip to the paragraph that starts with a series of bolded words. Rhetorical comparisons aren’t everyone’s forte, but they’re essential for understanding how The Magician King is too often a rehash of the same problems presented in The Magicians but without a new angle on those problems.

In The Magicians, Quentin thinks:

You just had to get some idea of what mattered and what doesn’t, and how much, and try not to be scared of the stuff that doesn’t. Put it in perspective. Or something like that. Otherwise what was the point?

“What was the point” is a decent question for someone with an adolescent temperament. Quentin spends the rest of the novel ineffectively trying to answer the question. He doesn’t answer it, not perfectly, but somewhat understands that you make the “point” for yourself. You make meaning for yourself, because meaning can’t be imposed by external social forces, and death itself gives meaning to life. One would think the sheer realism of The Magicians’s end would show Quentin as much. When the party reaches Ember’s Tomb at the end of The Magicians, two large, evidently hostile animals charge, and we find our hero panicking: “Oh my God, Quentin thought, this is really happening. This is really happening.” You don’t make something merely by saying it, although the prospect of death wakes him from the upper-middle class reverie where he’s been living. Death, especially violent death, is not beautiful or noble—it is terrifying and shocking. It reminds you of why so many people move to the quiet suburbs and get jobs in middle management. Beats the hell out of getting the hell beaten out of you.

The repetition of “This is really happening” is like a refrain designed to keep Quentin awake. He watches the death of the Ferret and thinks, “He wasn’t ready for this. This wasn’t what he’d come here for.” He wasn’t ready then and he never will be—unlike Alice, whose maturity contrasts with his throughout The Magicians. She says, “[…] don’t talk to me about death. You don’t know anything about it.” She’s right. The disappointing thing is that he still doesn’t in The Magician King. He hasn’t internalized the central fact that death is connected to finding meaning because death and its predecessor aging can’t be avoided. I am not opposed to characters who don’t realize this; I am opposed to characters who don’t realize this, have a series of events that should cause an epiphany, appear to realize it, and then forget that they’ve realized it in the next novel.

Early in The Magicians, Quentin is still in a mostly mundane reality and thinks that

He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world—he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the overwhelming evidence that it in fact was. He wasn’t going to be suckered in just like that. It was like finding a clue that somebody you’d buried and mourned wasn’t really dead after all.

And now, in the time of The Magician King, he’s a king in Fillory and still dissatisfied. You can’t get no satisfaction, Quentin, but the problem eventually shifts from the world’s fault to your own. He is still “looking for something else. He didn’t know what it was.” You were looking for something else in Brooklyn and now you’re looking for something else in Fillory. No one, not even a Seeing Hare, can tell Quentin. Whenever “Life was good” for Quentin, it was time to fuck it up for no particular reason. Seeing someone fuck up a perfectly good life through understandable hubris and dumb social dynamics is thrilling and sickening once, as it is in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Seeing someone do so twice is just daft.

In The Magician King, Quentin is still in awe of where he is: “You really knew you were in a magical fantasy otherworld when a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy dress made of leaves suddenly jumped out of a tree.” But he’s been seeing magic constantly for, presumably, years. Are talking animals not enough? Still, the novel’s fidelity to the bureaucratic grit of life is impressive—Janet says of Dryads, “I spend enough time listening to them bitch about land allocation.” Ruling Fillory becomes associated with petty zoning squabbles of the sort you can find at City Hall if you’re so inclined. That Grossman includes such ideas is part of what makes The Magicians and its sequel special. But it also raises expectations, and when he includes something that’s wrong, it’s disquieting, as with this:

Fillory wasn’t England. For one thing the population was tiny—there couldn’t have been more than ten thousand humans in the whole country, plus that many talking animals and dwarves and spirits and giants and such.

A population that small wouldn’t be sufficient to get Fillory into medieval-level specialization; at best, 20,000 people could support a slightly elevated hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Plus, why is the land so infertile that it can only feed 10,000 people? Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the Malthusian paradox ensured that populations grew to approximately the size of the agricultural capacity of the land itself. With only 10,000 people and 10,000 magical non-people, there couldn’t have been much arable land, and certainly not enough to sustain any kind of specialization network (for more on similar topics, see, for example, Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy and Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, along with the vast corpus of economic and historical literature about historical development patterns and the Industrial Revolution). Fillory is big enough to have a navy. Countries of 20,000 don’t even have an army, and the knowledge necessary to grow a ship-building industry must span thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. Suddenly, I’m jolted out of a fictional universe and into the various economics textbooks I’ve read by a seemingly trivial detail.

And this isn’t the only scene of questionable economics. Quentin goes on a quest to collect taxes from an outer island with a single-digit population, and while there an uncanny resident says:

Tomorrow I’ll take you out to see the gold beetles. They’re amazing: they eat dirt and poop out gold ore. Their nests are made of gold!

If a source of apparently infinite gold is available via a short ship ride from the mainland, the logical thing to do is to begin farming and set up a trading route. Why hasn’t anyone done so? The Spanish imported so much silver from the Americas in the age of colonization that some economists believe it caused inflation in the European economy. People are very good at acting on incentives and exploiting commodities. Why aren’t the Fillorians? It could be because the novel states that there’s an abundance of everything, again for reasons that aren’t obvious, but that’s not a terribly satisfying explanation.

You could get over these errors and others by waving your hand and saying, “It’s magical”—Quentin says “Magic was part of the ecosystem”—but it still rankles in a book devoted to showing the “real” side of magical living. These are minor details, but they stand out in a book devoted to realism.

Quentin has a small-l liberal, educated, and modern knowledge of how group formation works (a hilarious sample of his liberalism: “If I were a Fillorian I would depose me as an aristocratic parasite”), as shown by his unwillingness to identify with the putative patriotism embodied in a tapestry

that depicted a marvelously appointed griffin frozen in the act of putting a company of foot soldiers to flight. It was supposed to symbolize the triumph of some group of long-dead people over some other group of long-dead people whom nobody had liked, but for some reason the griffin had cocked its head to one side in the midst of its rampage and was gazing directly out of its woven universe at the viewer as if to say, yes, granted, I’m good at this. But is it really the best use of my time?

“The triumph of some group of long-dead people over some other group of long-dead people:” your own fears, prejudices, and beliefs will one day probably appear the same way to many others. Are your beliefs so strong and important that the issues they represent will still be important 100 years from now? Five hundred? A thousand? Or will you be another long-dead person of limited importance, with ridiculous but firmly held allegiances to minor causes that turn out to be historical blips?

Many parts of The Magician King are funny: “Quentin had some idea that Australians were fun-loving and easy-going, and if that was true he could see why Poppy had gotten the hell out of Australia.” Quentin draws his sword, but he has trouble: “Nothing made you look like more of a dick than standing there trying to find the end of your scabbard with the tip of your sword.” Although The Magician King is, alas, less sexed than its predecessor, one doesn’t need Freud to realize Quentin is talking about more than a sword, especially when he thinks: “Let somebody else be the hero. He’d had his happy ending” (if that isn’t enough, Eliot also makes a sword-related double entendre on page 29). I guess it takes a while to recharge after a happy ending, even for a king.

The humor both conceals and reveals vital truths. Quentin has never really been the hero, so thinking he should let somebody else be the hero is presumptuous. This is played for comedy, and successfully. The comedy naturally and appropriately falls away as the novel progresses into darker days, much as it does in The Magicians, but the jokes make the novel fun. So do the moments of self-recognition, like this one:

Quentin couldn’t think who Benedict reminded him of until he realized that this was what he had probably looked like to other people when he was sixteen. Fear of everybody and everything, hidden behind a mask of contempt, with the greatest contempt of all reserved for himself

Quentin’s diagnosis the problems of others more easily than his own: “Maps of places, rather than actual places, were obviously where young master Benedict preferred to live.” Replace “Maps of places” with “The Internet” and “actual places” with “the real world,” and you’ve got a decent description of a lot of contemporary adolescents. The novel is very good at these mappings onto the real world.

The “good,” however, is not consistent; even the novel’s first line has an “almost, but not quite” feel: “Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.” Is Dauntless the name of the white socks or the gray horse? The context makes it obvious, but I had to double check. There are also reflections of contemporary society—the quartet, who are listlessly hunting a magic rabbit, “moved in silence, slowly, together but lost in their separate thoughts.” Rather like people and their cell phones: if you look around, you’ll often find couples or groups all of whom are looking into their phones, as if searching crystal balls for answers. Do they find them? I sometimes want to ask. But I don’t. Usually.

There aren’t as many of those spectacular sentences as there were in The Magicians; there are some, like this: “Casually, like she was calling over a waiter, Julia summoned a tiny songbird to her wrist and raised it up to her ear.” Nice: the metaphor makes magic seem normal, a part of her life, which contrasts with Quentin’s continued shock at magic. The magic blends with the technological; a paragraph later, Quentin notices how Julia “was always giving and getting little secret messages from the talking animals. It was like she was on a different wireless network from the rest of them.” Talking animals and wireless networks correspond to fantasy/fairy tale and to science fiction / literary fiction, but these two sentences join them. If you’ve ever accidentally tried connecting an 802.11b device to an 802.11n network, you’ll understand the frustration of knowing that everyone around you can use, theoretically, up to 130 Mbs / second while you’re stuck at 11 Mbs / second (Grossman makes the technological metaphorical; I extend the metaphor). A few days ago, my class was talking about James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” and I wrote on the board that music functions like TCP/IP. Did anyone notice? I’m not sure.

The wireless network comparison reminds me of this description from The Magicians, of Eliot: “That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” The equivalence between hitting someone and starting a blog, which one senses many do because they wish they had the courage to hit someone, is so biting, so surprising. More surprising than the wireless network, however appropriate the wireless network comparison is.

Grossman hides a lot in a small space. The Magician King opens in Fillory while The Magicians closes in New York. That gap is filled in swiftly: “But then he and the others had pulled themselves together again and gone back to Fillory. They faced their fears and their losses and took their places on the four thrones of Castle Whitespire and were made kings and queens.” There’s a whole novel in those lines. The passage is also strange because pulling themselves together has never been a strong suite for the collected magicians; they seem much better at tearing each other pointlessly apart.

You could argue that much of this review consists of quibbles, small points, and things easily ignored. You’d be partially right. Taken on their own, many of the things I’ve written about are unimportant. Taken together, they begin to form a pattern. I don’t expend this kind of energy on every good but somewhat disappointing book that comes my way; most I don’t write about at all, let alone at this length. I’m writing about this one because of how good The Magicians was. You don’t hold a college athlete, even an accomplished one, to the same standards as an Olympian, and The Magician King should be competing at the Olympic level but instead settles for keeping one eye on the NCAA rankings, hoping to make it to Nationals. That’s not quite ambitious enough, however impressive competing at the college level might be.

In The Magicians, Julia was an object of Quentin’s misdirected adolescent lust at the start and reappeared at the end, riding a broomstick and rescuing Quentin from himself. Quentin does need to be rescued from himself routinely; this pattern holds in The Magician King. Hell, Julia even says, “Sometimes you just have to do things, Quentin [. . .] You spend too much of your time waiting.” Yes. We know.

Her story takes up a large narrative chunk of The Magicians, which is really two threads in two separate time registers: Quentin’s, moving forward on his self-conscious quest, and Julia’s regarding her progression as a magician outside the Brakebills track. But her story lacks urgency. In an interview, Grossman said: “It was almost an engineering project to retrofit that particular timeline. Because in Magician King, we go over the same period of time that happened in The Magicians, and we fit Julia’s story in there.” The engineering shows where it should be hidden, and, more than that, it feels. Since you—the reader—already know Julia becomes a magician, there’s not much narrative tension until the scene where she loses some of her humanity (which I won’t describe further here, though it’s shocking and powerful). Otherwise, she’s going through a bizarro-world version of what Quentin has already done. Since we know she learns magic, the means of getting there aren’t all that important. Neither are the various somewhat arbitrary hoops she goes through, which resemble the spiraling downward of despair one sees in drug addiction narratives. The culmination of the narrative is strong, but the getting there is too long and feels too much like padding. Or engineering, if you prefer.

More on that in the next section.

Don’t read the rest of this post if spoilers irritate you. A friend wrote to say this, and only this, in an e-mail with the subject line “Just finished the Magician King:”

Magical fox-rape cum… really???!!!

The worst.

I’m actually not opposed to the scene my friend is referencing: it is hard to read and vile, but then so is rape, and rape is part of the world, and the world should be the novelist’s subject. I think my friend is fixated on a scene she would’ve respected or accepted in a different context—a context that was a main story, not a subsidiary one. The scene is the culmination of Julia’s powers and makes us understand what she’s given up, so to speak, to get where she is. It’s a powerful point. But the temporal shifting of the scene, from Julia’s distant past to her present, isn’t as important as it should be because it’s grafted onto Quentin’s saving Fillory quest. The Julia story should’ve been told in its own book, with its own details and tensions, and the larger Magician King story should’ve been a third, standalone novel. Conflating them makes an awkward chimera of a novel.

So we get a somewhat ungainly hybrid, with the false crescendo of the fox-God rape being a prelude to the true ending. It doesn’t work as well as it should. Which isn’t to say the scene doesn’t work at all: it does. It’s only disappointing because of the sense that the scene and its story could’ve been so much better—like The Magician King itself. The novel is good. As I said in the first line of this review, I like it. But The Magician King doesn’t have that essential feeling, that power, that grip that made me say to friends who like fantasy or want book recommendations, “Heard of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians? No? Get a copy.” Now those friends have heard of Lev Grossman, and they want to know how the new ones is. I tell them it’s okay—and it is—but I also ask: have you already read Philip Pullman? Ursula K. le Guin? Tolkien? Elmore Leonard? If not, start there. I wish Quentin had new problems. The world is full of unmet needs and desires. Why can’t he realize that? Read The Magician King if you have the time and inclination. But literature is very big, life is short, and sometimes incredible writers don’t produce the book you most hope for.

People like A Game of Thrones? The novel, I mean?

The writing in George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones ranges from pretty good to indifferent to pretty bad to silly: it’s filled with cliches, the characters all sound the same, and I can’t figure out why we should care if one bunch of schemers rules the realm instead of another bunch of schemers. In the end, the peasants are still covered in shit. The politics are complex, but they’re complex in the way of corruption everywhere, with people mostly out for their own interest. This sort of thing led to the U.N. and democracy in the West and Japan.

Presumably the world of A Game of Thrones will head in that direction if it hits an industrial revolution, and you could have a lot of fun grafting contemporary parallels on the world. As this description shows, it’s somewhat hard to take this sort of feudalism seriously.

Corruption can be fun to read about, but the prose doesn’t work in A Game of Thrones. The book can’t decide on a faux medievalism or a relatively current register, so it goes for both. With most sentences, you could remove a sword, drop in a gun, and still have the same basic idea. The language remains modern while the nominal concerns are medieval; this is the problem so many fantasy novels have that Tolkien doesn’t. These problems start early; on the second page, “Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear.” Using “perilous” instead of “perilously” is the kind of thing that might could for style, but the sentence itself is still cliche. How many times has something been so close or immanent that a character could taste it?

The inverted word order is also evident early: “All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not.” The last few words are equivalent do “didn’t love him,” and they’re okay on their own, I suppose, but such inversions are as far as style goes. You don’t have to be Martin Amis to find this tedious after a while (Another example, this time in dialogue: ” ‘Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,’ muttered Hullen, the master of horse. ‘I like it not.’ “). A few pages later, we skip to the point of view of Bran, who “rode among them, nervous with excitement,” another description that I’ve never seen in a novel before. There are repeated appeals to honor throughout, as on page 4: “The order had been given, and honor bound them to obey.” Honor appears to bind them to do things so stupid that they die for them.

Then there are “as you know, captain” speeches: “The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Blood the first man might have been original before the numerous references to the blood of Numenor in Tolkien. By now, appeals to genetic similarity dictating present behavior grow tiresome, along with anger flashing in eyes, “I was born a Tully and wed to a Stark [. . .] I do not frighten easily,” and so on.

Viserys Targaryen gets introduced early too, and in case you didn’t really know he was the bad guy, tells his sister than he’d let a 40,000-man barbarian horde rape her to regain his throne, and he also gives her a terrible “titty twister,” (also known as “purple nurple“) which is a term I don’t think I’ve heard or thought about since middle school. Are these phrases insanely juvenile? Absolutely, but a book like A Game of Thrones calls them forth. The dialogue is precisely what Francine Prose described in Reading Like a Writer:

This notion of dialogue as a pure expression of character that (like character itself) transcends the specifics of time and place may be partly why the conversations in the works of writers such as Austen and Brontë often sound fresh and astonishingly contemporary, and quite unlike the stiff, mannered, archaic speech we find in bad historical novels and in those medieval fantasies in which young men always seem to be saying things like, ‘Have I passed the solemn and sacred initiation test, venerable hunt master?’ “

Prose is parodying bad fantasy novels, but the parody is hardly a parody: most fantasy writers haven’t figured out how to make their characters’ speech work on multiple levels or how people vary their listening and speaking according to status. People assume a great deal; as Prose shows elsewhere, they assume a great deal about their audience, speak obliquely, are riven by multiple desires, and so on. When we read the ponderous speechifying so popular in fantasy, it breaks the very fantasy it’s trying to accomplish for anyone who knows how people actually speak.

There are some good sections but they’re intermittent and relatively simple changes could lead to tremendous improvements.

One thing I like about The Magicians is that it doesn’t succumb to this kind of speechifying: the characters often talk past one another, and they are constantly interrogating themselves. Quentin’s major flaw is his narcissism: he’s so wrapped up in his own misery, and then his own relationship with Alice, and then the consequences of the his-and-her cheating set, that he sets himself up for the pain that follows. Too bad. If you like standard sword-n-sorcery fantasy, you’ll like A Game of Thrones. If you’re looking for something different, like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, you’ll be disappointed. Martin might admire Tolkien, but he doesn’t have Tolkien’s consistent command of language to make his work comparable.

Since people can’t be reading Martin for the writing itself, what are they reading him for? The most obvious answer is plot, since it’s fun and fast-paced. The novel demands careful reading if you’re going to follow who’s killing whom and why, if not for the quality of its prose. Even if you are following the reasons for murder, expect to be confused at points (in this respect, and only this respect, does A Game of Thrones resemble John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor). It’s surprising: in the fist novel, a seemingly major character dies. There are three more published. Maybe other characters will get the unexpected axe too. According to “Just Write It!: A fantasy author and his impatient fans” in The New Yorker, “Martin transgressed the conventions of his genre—and most popular entertainment—by making it clear that none of his characters were guaranteed to survive to the next book, or even to the next chapter.” This is refreshing and a major improvement.

So are the other virtues mentioned:

Martin’s characters indulge in all the usual vices associated with the Middle Ages, and some of them engage in behavior—most notably, incest—that would shock people of any historical period. Characters who initially seem likable commit reprehensible acts, and apparent villains become sympathetic over time. [. . . ] “When Indiana Jones goes up against that convoy of forty Nazis, it’s a lot of fun, but it’s not ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” he explained. He wants readers to feel that “they love the characters and they’re afraid for the characters.”

They’re true, but the article wisely avoids focusing on the sentence-level of each story. The big difference between Martin and a lot of fantasy writers is his relatively realistic depiction of sex: lots of powerful royals aren’t particularly nice to their partners and use their positions to further their sexual agendas, a bit like they did (and do) in real life. Not everyone views life in a realpolitik fashion, of course, and the Starks form the moral center of the show, which is especially important in large-scale works where most people are simple schemers. After all, in tit-for-tat style encounters, people who behave honorably consistently will tend to eventually win out over those who don’t.

There’s not a lot of humor in A Game of Thrones, and what there is is mostly courtesy of the martini-dry Tyrion, a dwarf in a world without the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, who cares who sits on the throne? In The Lord of the Rings, the return of the true king symbolizes a wide array of both restoration and advancement. In A Game of Thrones the game is supposed to be a metaphor, since nothing real is at stake in most games. Instead, it feels real, in the sense that a game has no important consequences once it terminates. Does it matter whether one set of schemers or another sits on the throne? Not to this contemporary reader: they have far fewer substantial policy differences between them than, say, Republicans and Democrats.

Still, this doesn’t necessarily bode ill for the much-advertised HBO series; the first two seasons of True Blood rose above their source period through their tongue-in-cheek campiness. One doesn’t often get to say, “The movie was way better than the book,” but for True Blood it was true. I’m hoping for the same in A Game of Thrones. At the very least, it’s unlikely to be worse than Camelot.


Slate’s Nina Rastogi does like A Game of Thrones, although he doesn’t talk a lot about sentences. Here’s the most amusing comment so far in a review of the TV show: “One scene, luxuriantly offensive, involves what is either a gladiatorial rape tournament or a Jersey Shore homage.”

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: