Swordplay and Beer Drinking; The Trouble with Mastery

My friends and I have this game called Shotgun-Shotgun. You take a can of beer, put it on a stump, shoot it with a pellet gun, then run forward and drink the beer spurting out of the can. I can tell you with confidence that I’m good at this game, and although we only play it rarely, I’m unlikely to get much better. That is because it’s really quite a simple game.

In this, it is almost exactly unlike chess. Chess, we are told, takes about ten thousand hours to master, ten thousand hours, mind you, for someone who is already pretty fucking good at chess to begin with. This ten-thousand hour rule seems to apply pretty broadly across the spectrum of complex, multivariate activities, things like basketball and the playing of the violin. To achieve a top level in any of these fields, the evidence suggests, you really need to put in about ten thousand hours of sustained, intentional study.

This is a serious problem for writers of fantasy. Or, to put it more precisely, a serious problem for the characters about whom fantasy writers tend to write.

Take, for example, the hoary old trope of the farm boy who becomes a blademaster. Let’s assume the kid has the necessary natural talent. Let’s further spot him a few hundred hours due to his ability to handle a hoe. He’s still about 9,700 hours in the hole when it comes to the mastery of Kvaaana’va, the glowing, bedragoned, unbreakable antique blade of his people.

Consider the curious case of Rand al’Thor.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

As far as we know, the first time Rand’s ever held a sword is in the third or fourth chapter of The Eye of the World. And yet, by the end of the second book (The Great Hunt) he holds his own in single combat against one of the Forsaken, evidently on the strength of a few dozen lessons squeezed in between a lot of wandering, running away from Trollocs,  and playing the flute. Barely half a year has elapsed since he first holds a sword, and yet he’s capable of battling a full blademaster to a standstill. For those of you not near a calculator, half a year is about 4300 hours, and that’s all the hours in all the days.

Given Rand’s piecemeal, ad hoc practice schedule, a schedule not really suitable for a middle school scrabble club, let alone the martial training of the most important person in the world, it’s more than a little surprising that he gets so good so fast.

Of course, there’s something assholish about totaling up hours and insisting on certain tallies for certain activities. This is fiction, this is fantasy, and I’m totally willing to admit a little flex into the calculation. Rand’s case, however, involves more than a little flex. It strains credulity so violently that the whole fabric of the fantasy is in danger of tearing wide open. If this kid can master a sword in a few weeks, it would seem that anyone can do anything – which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth, given the extraordinary abilities mastered by the other characters. Keep in mind that the whole series, all fourteen books, span just two years. The final eight books cover less than twelve months.

Jordan is far from alone when it comes to this issue of implausible mastery. Part of the reason is that fantasy often doubles as a coming of age story, a fact that puts the writer in a bind. Her first choice is to compress the learning process (whether of sword or magic or bow or politics or whatever) into a preposterous time frame. The second is to dilate the space of the novel in order to accommodate the necessary training. We’ve already seen the dangers of the second approach. Expanding the time frame avoids these dangers, but runs the risk of diluting the narrative urgency.

Of course, writers have found a way to tackle this problem. Anthony Ryan, for instance, in his brilliant first novel, Blood Song, makes use of the frame story, a narrative unfolding in a compressed present, to keep his multi-year tale of training, mystery, and self-discovery from coming apart. Without the frame, Blood Song might seem rambling, unfocused. The frame, however, reminds us that the whole thing is aiming at a clear climax. It gives us a particular lens through which to understand the passage of many years. It’s a smart approach, and Ryan handles it masterfully.

Ursula K. Le Guin does something different in her Earthsea novels. Each book covers a relatively short period of time, a few weeks or months (although Wizard is longer). This gives us the intensity and focus that can be lacking in longer, more wandering narratives. The passage of time, the consolidation and mastery of Ged’s skills, takes place primarily between volumes. The years pass, Ged’s abilities grow, and yet we aren’t forced to witness every step along the path. Instead, Le Guin draws us in for the inflection points, the most crucial forks in the road.

A third approach, quite common in the genre, is to start the story with a young character whose training is mostly behind her or him, who is just at the cusp of a major breakthrough. N.K. Jemisin uses this approach quite skillfully in her beautiful, gut-punching novel The Killing Moon, where Nijiri has already mastered the bulk of his training before the book opens. This allows Jemisin to focus on the crucial final steps, the last lessons imparted from master to student (and dredged up from the depths of the student’s own being) in the story itself.

I’m sure there are other ways to handle the dual issues of training and time. I’d be curious to hear from other readers and writers on the subject. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my own ten thousand hour apprenticeship. If only Lan al’Mandragoran could make me a master of writing in half a dozen quick lessons squeezed in between beer drinking and sledding.

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Why My Penis?: Fantasy Worlds, Coherent and In-

Remember that time in grade school when you thought it would be awesome if all the mosquitoes in the world would just die, en masse? It was a childhood utopian dream – long summer days and no bug bites, no maddening whine in the ear, no itching all night long…

But then some smug prick said something like, “If the mosquitoes all died, then the frogs would die of starvation, and if the frogs died, then the black flies would thrive, and they would bite the shit out of you.” To which you sensibly retorted that the black flies could die along with the mosquitoes, because while we’re wishing, why not wipe out all the little bastards? But then, because of this irritating thing called the food web, it turned out that if you wiped out the black flies and mosquitoes both, you’d also wipe out cows, or turn Iowa into a dust bowl, or create a famine that would allow Nazis would take over the world, or some sort of horrible thing that seemed utterly unrelated to biting insects. But there were graphs and flow charts, studies of population density, and so eventually you just had to say, “Fine, I’ll deal with the fucking mosquitoes,” because you didn’t want to be the asshole who wished for a hamburgerless world of sand dunes and dust bowls run by the Nazis.

Writing fantasy is like that.

After all, the point of fantasy is to create a world that is, in some fundamental way, different from ours. Perhaps there are no mosquitoes. More likely, there are invisible swords, unbreakable swords, glowing swords, swords that are portals to another dimension, swords that talk, swords that think, swords that carry inside themselves the souls of the gods. And that’s just the swords. Don’t get me going about the talking animals, and wizards, and immortal elves.

This is, of course, the awesome thing about fantasy. For instance, there is a remarkable scene early in Elizabeth Bear’s outstanding novel Range of Ghosts. A character is flying on a bird “east, into the setting sun of the Uthman Caliphate, until they crossed the broad but bounded waters of the White Sea, and the sun was abruptly behind them, setting in the west.” When you read this, you either say, “Holy shit!” or you didn’t read it right. The sky itself is different in different parts of the world she has created: different sun, different planets, different constellations. It’s a stunning, brilliant idea, exactly the kind of thing that draws us to fantasy, but Bear has, as all fantasy writers must, killed off the metaphorical mosquitoes. She has changed a fundamental aspect of the world.

For some readers, perhaps most, this is fine. They are happy to luxuriate in a slightly foreign world sans bug bites. They know that the cover to a fantasy novel is a door to a different world, and they check their questions and their disbelief at that door. There are other readers, however, who like to ask questions, the most dangerous of which are: How? And Why? And But If… Then…?

Consider the handling of seasons in A Song of Ice and Fire: they are unpredictable and decoupled from the passage of years. For most readers: great. But if you think there aren’t people kept awake gnawing on the physics behind this, take a look here.

A writer of fantasy can’t avoid these questions – it’s built into the job description. But how to handle them? I can think of four basic approaches.

Just Smile and Pretend it’s Normal: This is more or less the method used by Martin with his seasons, or by Tolkien with his magic. There’s no explanation at all. The characters accept the changes to the world as normal. The narrator doesn’t dwell on them. The reader isn’t invited to speculate on them. It’s sort of like being at a dinner party where your host announces, in all seriousness, that he is the latest incarnation of Lao Tzu. You smile, have another three or four drinks, and pretend like it’s normal, in the hope that, with enough pretending, everyone will forget that it’s not normal.

Talk Louder and Faster: You may recognize this approach from the your yearly motor vehicle inspection. You take your car in for an inspection and the mechanic comes out to tell you it needs three thousand dollars worth of work. Alarmed, you ask what’s wrong, and you get something like, “Well, your IAC motor’s just been grinding the hill holder but the thing is… well, you’ve only got the four cotter pins, and shit… that tappet head might as well be a gnarled piston.” Whatever the hell that means. This goal of this kind of language isn’t really to explain anything – after all, if you understood all this, you’d hardly be bringing the car to a mechanic in the first place. The goal is to convince you that the mechanic knows what’s up, and to get you to fork over the three grand already. Fantasy writers can use the same trick, except substituting “old power” for “tappet head” and “ancient evil” for “IAC motor.”

Acknowledge the Unknowable: There’s a great moment in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Having intuited early on that giving the Aes Sedai the power to fly will really screw up his plotting in the early books, Jordan moves decisively to squash the idea. Moraine just says it: Aes Sedai can’t fly. Someone (citation here, anyone?) asks why not, and she just sorta shrugs: no idea. Just can’t. In some ways, I think this is the most effective approach to the Whys and the Hows, circumventing, as it does, all further questioning. The trouble is, it’s not always entirely satisfying. Which leaves…

Explain: This is the bravest and most dangerous approach. Brave, because the writer must imagine levels of depth in her created world that are not necessary to the immediate function of the story. Brave, because every answer will spawn a dozen new questions. Brave because making shit up is, after all, what fantasy writers do. And dangerous? Well, have you ever talked with a two-year-old?

“Why my penis?”

“Because you have a Y chromosome.”

“Why Y chrome zome?”

“Because [mumble mumble] meiosis [mumble] gametes.”

“Why my o sis?”

Etc…

Infinite regress is, unfortunately, an invincible rhetorical strategy.

So, what’s the best approach? I suppose it will depend on the work in question, or the particular moment in the work. It will probably vary from reader to reader, and even from mood to mood. What have I missed here? How else can we murder the mosquitoes without destroying the world?

Is That a Mast Between Your Legs?; the Role of the Fantasy Cover

I love judging books by their covers. I will look at a cover and just judge the shit out of it. “Boob armor,” I’ll scoff, and toss the book contemptuously away. “That dragon looks like a lobster.” Gone.

Is this an effective method? Not really, but I count on the internet to keep badgering me about the shittily-covered books that are really great. This is why we invented the internet, right?

When I first saw my own cover (check it out here), however, I started feeling a little less blasé. Fortunately, I love it, but it got me thinking about the role of covers and the messages they carry. Never one to pass up a little side-by-side comparison, I decided to take a look at the old cover (OC) and new cover (NC) of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World.

The Original Cover

The Original Cover

First, the stats:

Weaponry

OC: Three swords, one axe, and a helmet. Don’t tell me that helmet’s not a weapon.

NC: A piercing blue stare.

Elements of Vague Menace:

OC: Night, dead trees, agitated horse.

NC: Weather, possibly inclement.

Possible Magical Shit:

The New Cover

The New Cover

OC: One staff, elegantly carved.

NC: Something gleaming yet indeterminate in the middle distance. (I know this is the tower of Genji, rabid Jordan fans, but I wouldn’t if I was looking at the book for the first time.)

Serious and Immediate Threats:

OC: An airborne, malevolent, human-stalking bat creature.

NC: Falling off the mast?

Coed Fellowship of Like-Minded Heroes:

OC: Eight strong.

NC: Conspicuously lacking.

Clothing:

OC: Armor, gown, jerkins, capes.

NC: Lush, billowy shirt. Immaculately laundered.

Phallic Imagery:

OC: Minimal.

NC: To the max.

Based on the new cover, someone unfamiliar with the novel might reasonably expect a coming-of-age tale about a young man with impeccable laundry service, who goes to sea, then secretly pines for the love he left behind, yearning for the day when they will be reunited. Not a lot, in other words, about trollocs slaughtering villagers, or the impending destruction of all creation.

And it doesn’t matter! The new cover doesn’t need to convey anything about the actual substance of the book because The Wheel of Time has been around for decades. The book has been vetted. The role of the cover art now is not to convince the hard-core fantasy fans to read it, because the book, even if you hate it, is already an inevitable part of the fantasy canon.

So what’s this new cover doing? Two things. First, trying to broaden the appeal of the book beyond fantasy’s traditional readership. I know heaps of people who look down on or sideways at fantasy, people who are always starting sentences, “The thing most readers don’t understand about Proust is…”, people who would hesitate to so much as glance at the old cover. Too many swords, too much horseflesh.

The new look, though – Oho! Who’s this strapping young man striking the type of implausible pose usually reserved for models from clothing catalogues? Who does his laundry? Is he pining for his lost love? And that sky! Evocative of someone famous… maybe Turner?

Which brings me to the second goal of the new cover: dressing up the book. This is related to point one, but transcends it. If the old cover says, “Hey, I’m sorta trashy, but I’ll show you a good time,” this new cover is all buttoned up. This is the kind of book you could read in front of your in-laws. Or in church. If you read in church. Which you probably shouldn’t.

That’s my interpretation, anyway. The folks at Tor have their own explanation, which, given that they’re the ones who commissioned the new look, might have a slight edge over mine. The thing I’m curious about, though, is this: If you knew nothing about the book, which cover would prove more enticing?

Dating Rand Al’Thor: the Crappy Boyfriends of Epic Fantasy

*** My wife, Johanna, wrote the following post so I could keep cranking away on Book Two of Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. I thought she might write something nice about me. Oops. ***

I am so happy to be married to my husband.

But, man, was he bad at dating.

Brian, in case you don’t know, has a degree in poetry. He has seen Love, Actually dozens of times. He cries at weddings. Clearly, he’s the kind of guy who knows all about romance. Except, he doesn’t know anything about romance. It’s like some supernatural force replaced the romance center of his brain with a yawning void of infinite nothingness. “Wait,” he’ll protest after smacking my butt in public or letting me pick what movie to rent. “That wasn’t romantic?” It’s not hard to guess how many candle-lit dinners he planned during our years of courtship…

The staggering thing, though, and my central point here, is that Brian actually looks good at romance compared to some of the central heroes of epic fantasy.

Rand al’Thor: I should admit before we go too far, that I could not make myself read past Book One of the Wheel of Time series. I think in most fantasy circles, that makes me a heretic. But even with my tainted history, I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

(I just read that last paragraph to Brian and he tells me that by the end of the series Rand has three girlfriends! I knew he was a goon, and I didn’t even get past the first book.)

Aragorn: Tromping around the known world like a dirty hobo, constantly brooding on his inferiority complex, and the ring he’s focused on isn’t even for his lady love? She’s giving up immortality for this guy, and he can’t even buy her a proper dinner? Good thing Arwen can see into the future and finds out that even though he’s terrible as a boyfriend, he does pretty well at being a husband. Without that little bit of knowledge, would she have put up with him at all?

FitzChivalry Farseer (spoiler in this paragraph): By the end of Assassin’s Quest, one wonders what Molly ever saw in him in the first place. The amazing thing is that he knows he’s a bad boyfriend, admitting that he is “the man who had lied to her, who had left her with child and never returned, and then caused that child to be stolen from her as well…” Yes, he fulfills some prophecies and saves the world, but why, considering this excellent resume, can’t he muster anything more impressive than a few late-night booty calls and some serious dead-beat dad jackassery? Because he’s an epic fantasy hero, that’s why!

To be fair, there are a few fantasy heroes that I would consider good boyfriend material. Nijiri’s dedication to Ehiru in N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon made me cry. Ingrey’s bond with Ijada in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt was sweet and passionate and contained a minimum of bad boyfriend behavior (once he managed to stop trying to kill her in his sleep). But these guys, despite being heroes, aren’t really epic. They don’t save the whole world from all-encompassing evil, exactly, even though they do their part.

Most epic fantasy heroes would have a hard time getting past the first date with a sane partner. Why? Is the lack of viable romance in fantasy something that writers should be thinking about? Do the epic heroes of past masterpieces have a bad influence on the heroes (and writers) of today’s fantasy, or do they teach valuable lessons in how to juggle effective wooing and saving the world? I’m inventing a new genre: epic fantasy couples counseling. You’re welcome.

Those Lazy Writers of Fantasy

Writers of fantasy have been seriously slacking. Here we were, thinking they’d been inventing whole new worlds, imagining undiscovered lands, conjuring up hitherto undreamed of vistas and cultures and religions and vegetables and hats when, as it turns out, they’ve just been ripping shit off. These so-called writers have been taking places and people from the real world, from real history, tossing this stuff in their books, giving it new names, and hoping we would never notice!

And I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take much digging to find the real referents here, not when you’re clued in to the trick. Anyone else notice that Khal Drogo’s title sounds a lot like Khan, that the Dothraki are essentially Mongols? Or that Robert Jordan’s Caemlyn looks a lot like England? Or that R. Scott Bakker’s plot (in The Prince of Nothing) draws heavily on the Crusades? Or that N. K. Jemisin’s Gujarreh is modeled on Egypt? Or that Daniel Abraham’s entire map (in The Dragon’s Path) is just Europe scrunched up a little bit? What horseshit!

I’m joking, of course. Not about fantasy writers ripping shit off – we do that all the time – but about the idea that these cultural borrowings are either lazy, secret, or deleterious to the works in question. They are not.

In fact, far from diminishing the effect of these novels, I’d argue that such borrowing and modification, skillfully handled, is a boon for author and reader both. After all, when I sit down to read Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, she tells me right up front in the author’s note that the names and geography are essentially Egyptian. This sweeps aside a whole lot of work for both of us. I’m already imagining deserts and the Nile, monumental architecture and loincloths. She describes these things, of course – the world is well and truly fleshed out – but she doesn’t need to start from the ground up. Instead, she can dig more quickly into plot and character, confident that the reader, clued in to the cultural shorthand, will fill in any missing details more or less correctly. I usually enjoy reading fantasy in which the writer modifies a pre-existing culture because I feel I can focus on the important details instead of pausing every few seconds, muttering, “Wait, they live in straw houses and eat what again?”

There are, however, some dangers here. Most obviously, the writer will want to depart from the historical model in places. This is what makes the book fantasy and not historical fiction. However, the momentum of shared cultural assumptions can obscure these points of departure. If the whole book I’m reading draws heavily on the culture of medieval Japan, it’s going to be more difficult for the writer to steer us out of the relevant assumptions when such steering becomes necessary. The familiarity of the known becomes a sort of prison.

Of course, part of the fun has been to establish what seems to be a familiar cultural paradigm only to subvert it. “Look,” the author says. “This place is just like medieval Arabia. Load it up with your assumptions. Keep piling them on! You’re doing great!” And then, because the book is fantasy and not history, she pulls the carpet out, forcing us to realize that a) this place is not medieval Arabia, but something altogether stranger and more wonderful, and that b) maybe our assumptions about medieval Arabia weren’t all that dialed-in to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that all writers employ these methods. The shelves are piled with fantasy novels that eschew any obvious borrowings, geographic, linguistic, cultural, or religious. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is an obvious example, as is Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. I find both worlds fascinating and disorienting at the same time, refreshing for their refusal to draw on any givens, but daunting for the same reason. These are, in a way, the purest fantasies, and I find myself amazed by the ambition and ability of both writers. Still, it’s useful here to remember that the root of “amazed” is “maze,” as in delusion, bewilderment, perhaps drawn from the Norwegian mas, meaning “exhausting labor.” In other words, writers who build their worlds from the bedrock up require a lot more work from their readers. The payoff from Le Guin and Erikson is so great that I don’t hesitate to put in this work, but it’s important to note the costs nonetheless; a lot more people have read The Wheel of Time than The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I’m curious to hear from other readers and writers. When does the sort of cultural shorthand I’ve been trying to describe work well, and when does it seem lazy or derivative? Would you rather read books with lands that are vaguely familiar, or plunge into something altogether new?