Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We Are Not (Exploding) Things

I want one of these so much.
*Here be spoilers*

I finally managed to see Mad Max: Fury Road at the weekend, and man, does it live up to the hype - both as a feminist manifesto and a balls-to-wall action thrill-ride. I don't think I can overstate how beautiful I think this film is. It's fantastically shot, the stunts and vehicle design are outrageous, and it is the most - hell, only - emotionally powerful action movie I've seen since Inception.

Lots of people are complaining about this movie. Mostly because they're the sort of people who like to complain about things they don't get. Usually it's Men's Rights Activists moaning that Mad Max is forced to play second fiddle to bunch of slimy girls, and whinging that the film tries to force them to - shock and horror - see said women as equal to men. Or it's traditionalists who are infuriated by the shifting of focus away from Max himself and onto other characters. To be perfectly honest - to my mind - these two arguments are more or less inseparable, but let's address them separately for the sake of fairness.

1) Ugh! Female characters with agency who aren't just there to be damseled or raped!
- Go fuck yourself.

2) This isn't a Mad Max movie. Mad Max isn't even the main character.
- Well, maybe he isn't, and that's a good thing. It's worth remembering that Beyond Thunderdome almost didn't have Max in it at all. It was a completely different story about the kids, and Max was merely inserted in on the suggestion of a producer. So we've established George Miller wants to tell different stories. Does that make him the bad guy here? Max's character arc is already well established. It would be boring as hell if Miller didn't introduce some new, memorable characters.

Speaking as a fan of the first three movies (In order of preference: Road Warrior, Thunderdome, Mad Max) everything about this movie makes perfect sense in the context of the series. Mad Max shows society crumbling, The Road Warrior shows the survivors picking over the scraps, Thunderdome highlights the challenge and pitfalls of rebuilding civilisation, and Fury Road shows us that the greed and messianic entitlement that doomed the world in the first place is alive and well, even in the wasteland.

The film illustrates this point through the juxtaposition of two generations of characters. Immortan Joe, the weakened dictator, obsessed with his own legacy and greedily hogging all of the resources in the wasteland, represents the blind leaders and 1%ers who doomed the world in the first place. Then there's Max, the cynic, for whom "hope is a mistake" and Imperator Furiosa, who says she wants redemption - but revenge might be more accurate. If you contrast those three with Joe's "wives" - who've been through hell but still haven't lost that hope that Max denies - and Nux, the indoctrinated boy soldier, who gets a crash course (no pun intended) in self-determination, you see a beautiful contrast.

That's why the complaints about the feminist ideology of the movie annoy me so much - what holds true for the female characters also holds true for the male ones. "We are not things" says Splendid. The girls, with Furiosa's help, are taking the first steps towards establishing their personhood. Nux, coming face to face with the falsehoods he's believed his entire life does the same thing. And then you have Max, who's been essentially reduced to a thing - as much an animal as the two-headed lizard he snacks on at the beginning of the film. He can't tell Furiosa his name until the dying moments of the film because it's not until then that he truly regains his identity.

This is a theme that we've seen time and time again in the Mad Max movies. In The Road Warrior the grown-up Feral Kid tells us that the wasteland was where Max "learned to live again." All through the movie we see the person he once was fighting to come back to life, from the half-smile that flickers across his face when he finds the music box, to his burgeoning friendship with the Feral Kid and the Gyro Captain. In Thunderdome, we've got an embittered Max, but again, one who risks his life to protect a group of innocents. Mad Max is the story of a survivor. But it isn't water or gasoline that helps Max to survive. It's the kindling of these small flames of hope for a better future that keep bringing him back from the edge.

The Feral Kid approves this message.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fantasy Sucks Episode 1 - The Way of Kings

I've decided I'm going to start doing book reviews on this blog. I figure it's a good way for me to mentally organise myself while I'm doing the first draft of the new novel - if I can figure out here what I like and what I dislike in other people's work, perhaps I can keep on track without descending into to my habitual 7-year timeline of endless plot revisions. I'm not George R.R. Martin. This isn't a new Guns N' Roses album. If I'm going to make this work for me as a job (obviously not my only job) I'm going to need to be finishing a 100,000 book every 12-18 months. Of course, I should really concentrate on selling the one I've got, but that's another story. In the meantime, my new strategy is to have a clear idea of what I'm doing before I start, and then just write it.

Which brings us to The Way of Kings, which is a phenomenally successfully fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson. Since I'm trying to write a phenomenally successful fantasy novel, this seems like a good place to start, right?

I have to admit being a bit slow in picking up this first volume in the Stormlight Archives series. I also have to disclose this belated review is perhaps coloured by the considerable sprain in my hand from carrying this BRICK of a novel around with me everywhere for the last couple of weeks. And it is an immense book, clocking in at around 1,000 pages, acceptable for a fantasy author but damn right unforgivable for anyone else.

The length is one of the main problems I have with this book. There are three main perspective characters: Kaladin, a surgeon's son forced into slavery; Dalinar, brother to the murdered king, who is plagued by strange visions; and Shallan, an apprentice scholar trying to steal a valuable artifact. The problem is that these three stories are spread out over 1,000 pages and don't really go anywhere. Sure, Kaladin wins his freedom at the end of the book after gallantly rescuing Dalinar, but Dalinar's visions are left unresolved, and Shallan's theft - when it does come off - doesn't really lead to anything.

Any good editor would have cut half of this book. Half. 500 pages.

It's not like there's a tremendous amount of world building that goes into Sanderson's world, either. Sure, we get a sense of the different nations, different cultures - that stuff is actually very well done - but really there are only two locations we see in any depth, the warzone of the Shattered Plains and the city of Kharbranth (the former much more than the latter, since that's where two of the three protagonists are located).

My beef is that the character's arcs are unnecessarily convoluted. Kaladin - who it seems is being set up for a tropey sort of 'chosen one' arc - begins as a defiant slave, fails to escape a bunch of times, then experiences a loss of hope. Then he has a change of heart, and decides to help save his team of expendable "bridgemen". Unfortunately, then he has another change of heart and spends about a quarter of the novel moping about how it's all pointless. Somehow, the men who now follow him still look up to him, and when he finally decides to care again he throws away their escape plan to help Dalinar, who rewards them by making them his personal honour guard. Suspending disbelief for a moment that bunch of malnourished slaves who had never held a spear before could fight better than regular soldiers, there's a long wait in this story for very little in the way of payoff. Kaladin's attitude to his plight is up and down like he's riding an emotional pogo stick.

Likewise Dalinar's story. In the beginning, he's suffering from apocalyptic visions, which he doubts. Over time, he comes to believe there might be something to them. Then he abruptly changes his mind and decides to abdicate in favour of his son. Then he changes his mind again, and decides not to abdicate. Then his visions are proven to be true, but misleading. So he ends up in the same place he started, wracked with doubt. The visions aren't explained, except that they come "from the Almighty" (I didn't know that Sanderson was mega religious until I read his wikipedia page today, but it makes sense given the world he's created, and the vaguely messianic implications of Kaladin's storyline).

In addition, the plot twists (with the exception of one, which came out of nowhere) are too predictable. Although we don't see the reason for Kaladin's enslavement until the final chapters, by the time we get there the reader has likely already figured it out. The same with Shallan's "crime" that she continually alludes to. By the time she says it out loud, you've already known for quite some time.

There are bright spots though - the fight scenes, of which there are many, are an utter joy. The concept of Shardblades and Shardplate - essentially semi-corporeal mythic weapons so powerful that they can allow one warrior to literally turn the tide of a battle - is intriguing and Sanderson has a lot of fun with it. There's certainly a lot of poignancy to Dalinar's disgust at his own actions in battle, using his super-powered armour and sword - which basically turn him into a human tank - to slaughter hundreds of enemies at a time. The best though, is the gravity-flipping magic used by the assassin, Szeth. Epic fights are even more epic when they are performed on the ceiling, or when they involve flipping large boulders into your adversaries by simply persuading the rock that down is that way.

Will I come back for the second volume in the series? I have to say, I might not, and my OCD rarely allows me to neglect reading an entire series. I guess I'll have to read some reviews and see if the characterisation problems have been ironed out. What I'm really concerned is that Sanderson might have ruined the Wheel of Time, a series I genuinely do enjoy, for all its faults. Time will tell, since there are like 800 books and I'm only one book four.