Monday, August 10, 2015

Neither Endings Nor Beginnings: The Wheel of Time

It was The Wheel of Time that made me want to become a writer.  I could almost stop writing, right there.  I think that level of impact – to say that a particular book or series of books was what set you off on your life’s course – is pretty much indicative of everything I think and feel about the Wheel of Time series in a nutshell.  But then this would be an awfully short article, and hardly worth reading.  Besides, as I learned from the series author himself, you should never, ever use one word where ten will do.

*             *             *

I remember the moment very clearly.  I only owned the first four books in the series at that point, and I’m pretty sure I was going through my first re-read of the series up to that point.  It was a thing I used to do, as the time spent waiting increased from one installment to the next.  It helped keep me up to date on the ever-growing cast of characters and series of events that occurred.  The author, Robert Jordan (real name: James Oliver Rigney, Jr.), was fond of bringing minor characters and plot points into major relevance later in the story.  You could never be sure what was important (or even if you knew, beyond a scrap of doubt, you still never knew how much), and what was just so much window-dressing.  And there was a lot of window-dressing in The Wheel of Time.

The fourth book in the series is The Shadow Rising, and it’s probably the last one I enjoyed from start to finish with few if any measurable qualms.  I was about halfway through it when I had the sudden wish that I could tell a story about characters and a world that was this absorbing, that would take someone away from their own life, even if only briefly, into something grander and greater-seeming. 

I was fourteen at the time.  At fourteen, most kids believe they really can do just about anything, given effort enough and time.  So the thought went through my head: “Why the hell shouldn’t I be able to tell a story like this?”

I think I stopped reading, pulled out a notepad and a pen, and started writing on the spot, just to see what it was like.  I had never written anything purely for my own enjoyment, or for others to enjoy, before that point.  In fact, prior to that moment, I sort of hated writing.  Writing was something I’d always done at someone else’s command, on someone else’s suggested topics, for school, and it always had to be done a certain way.  I don’t know if schools in Illinois today still have the IGAP format for essay-writing (which, really, was all the writing I ever did until I got to take a creative writing class in high school, and was I ever chomping at the bit for that), but they had it when I was in school.  I’d say it was godawful, but godawful doesn’t really do it justice.  I could go on a good rant about it, but this isn’t really the time or the place.

Whether I’d liked writing or not, prior to this, had been sort of irrelevant because I was somehow relatively good at it regardless.  I’d like to brag, but the plain fact is that this is due, probably, to nothing more remarkable than the fact that I read a lot.

Looking back, I have a hard time articulating why I loved The Wheel of Time so much.  It’s not that I think, today, with the benefit of hindsight and a certain greater amount of maturity, that the books are fundamentally bad.  I’d say that on the whole, my feeling about the series is generally positive (though a little more mixedly so than I’d like). 

Most of the difficulty is that I literally just have not had the cause to articulate my feelings on it one way or the other, period.  At the time I was first reading these books, none of my other friends were really readers.  Later on, when more of the people in my circle of friends were readers, there were few who were really inclined toward reading a book series which now stands at fifteen volumes (fourteen in the main story, plus a prequel that began life as a novella which was later expanded to a full novel, albeit one significantly shorter than the rest).  Those who had, by this point had moved on to the less consistently enjoyable middle of the series, and had mainly given up on it.  So I didn’t have a lot of people to talk about it with, and I’m not mentally damaged enough to start having discussions with myself about it (though I suppose the argument could be made that this blog boils down to exactly that).

But I’ve decided to write about The Wheel of Time anyway, so I guess I can, in fact, talk to myself about this after all.

*             *             *

Nostalgia’s an odd thing.  You read a book when you’re young, and love it, and then one day you’re an adult with a job and a car and a mortgage and a spouse and two cats, and along the way from the day you first read that particular book to this day, when you’ve decided to re-read it, you’ve become a different person.  Not an entirely different person (not usually, anyway), but different enough that the way you viewed the world maybe changed.  Maybe before, you were conservative, and now you’re pretty liberal.  Or the reverse.  Who knows?  Anyway, you aren’t the same person who read that book all those years ago.

For some reason like that, I haven’t revisited a lot of the books I read when I was a kid, and later, a teenager.  I suppose I’m a little afraid.  It’s easier to simply bask in the warm glow of what I remember (probably some of it wrongly, this far removed from that time) than it is to look at it fresh as an adult with all the accoutrements (and baggage) of adulthood, and find out that something’s changed.  Maybe it’s only myself, but I’m never sure whether that’s the more or the less depressing idea.  Sure, it’s probably not as dire as all that, but why take the risk?

I don’t have this luxury with The Wheel of Time, though.

The first book in the series, The Eye of the World, was published in January of 1990.  I would have been eight at the time, and didn’t come to the books until a few years later.  But the final book in the series was published in January of 2013, twenty-three years almost to the day after the first.

These are not, like some other series (Recluce, for instance), different stories within the confines of a shared world or common universe.  The Wheel of Time isn’t even a series of separate stories about the same cast of characters.  No, this is a single story about the same characters from start to finish.  Even the prequel deals largely with characters we’re already familiar with – just not the main ones, and at an earlier point in their lives.  It’s difficult to say exactly how much time passes “in-universe”, that is, in the context of the story.  I think it’s something like three or four years, but it may be little more than two.  The amount of time it ultimately took to tell the story makes it difficult to get a good handle on how much time actually passes in the story.

So, no.  The Wheel of Time series wasn’t something I read once as a teenager, and then came back to as an adult, and felt differently about.  The Wheel of Time was something that, for a long time, I was always somewhere in the middle of.  But more on that in a bit.

*             *             *

I don’t know that J.R.R. Tolkien was necessarily the first author to “sub-create”, to craft a world and a history for the purpose of telling a story or a series of stories.  On the other hand, I can’t say so for sure.  I know Robert E. Howard had at least sketched out a world of sorts for his Conan tales (referred to as the Hyborian Age), though it was nothing nearly so detailed in any respect as Tolkien’s Middle-earth.  And while I know Tolkien’s world was taking shape even as he was in the trenches of World War I, Howard published his stories and died (tragically young) before The Lord of the Rings saw the light of day.  What we can say, pretty conclusively, is that Tolkien was the first to do what he did on the staggering scale that he did. 

If we were to hold a contest, to see who, so far, has built the most complete sub-created fantasy world, Tolkien is undoubtedly in first place.

Robert Jordan is a pretty close second, I think.

If there’s one place where there’s absolutely no dispute, where Tolkien has Jordan undeniably beaten, in terms of depth of creation, it’s in language.  Robert Jordan’s Old Tongue, a dead variation of the modern language which is mostly known by scholars and people who have a reason or a need to sound fancy from time to time, is consistent, and seems to follow some general rules of grammar, but he never (to the best of my knowledge) really built it into a full language.  He created it strictly as needed by the story.  It served much the same purpose in his sub-created world as Latin serves (or at any rate once served) in ours, and was used in much the same way.  This is in stark contrast to Tolkien’s approach, which was to create the several different languages of his invention first, building all the while around them a world to provide context. 

Just so we’re clear, Jordan’s approach is far and away the more practical of the two, and Tolkien’s advantage may be somewhat unfair in this regard, or at least one we can’t reasonably expect other people to have.  He was, after all, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford who created his own translation of Beowulf and, as an added bonus, was pretty much single-handedly responsible for getting serious literary types to take Beowulf as a serious literary work.  So, you know, if you ever had to read Beowulf for a class at some point and hated it, now you know who to blame.  What I’m trying to say is that where I and many other rational people ground our teeth all the way through years’ worth of English courses to figure out how our own language works, the one we learned to speak practically by instinct, Tolkien was making up languages of his own purely for the amusement in it.  So when he had to refer to a place or object by some ancient name, he had only to look at his constructed languages and say “well, this place or thing would have been likely named by this particular group of elves, who spoke Sindarin, so its name is such-and-such”, and then he was done.  No span of minutes spent behind a keyboard frowning, chin on fist, desperately, and with mounting frustration, trying to think of a completely fantastical place name that sounds like an actual place while not also sounding corny or over the top, and which also doesn’t conform to certain idiosyncracies in one’s own naming habits – such as, just as an example of no particular personal relevance, a tendency to use the letter A making an “ah” sound (not that I would know anything about this, not me, oh no) – and most importantly, which one hasn’t used before somewhere else.  Interestingly, this did lead to certain linguistic coincidences, perhaps the most readily recognizable of which being the Elvish word Atalantë referring to an advanced island nation whose civilization was destroyed when said island sunk beneath the waves as divine punishment for tremendous hubris (this was an actual coincidence, by the way; Tolkien is said to have been quite irritated when he worked it out, because he felt people would just assume he was deliberately referencing Atlantis).

So, anyway, yes: Robert Jordan had an extremely detailed history worked out for his world.  It becomes clear, as you read, that there are certain sections of its history (for instance, the life and times of Artur Paendrag Tanreall, also known as Artur Hawkwing) of which the author had laid down a detailed chronology, with absolutely zero intent to tell any of those stories (at least, not at the time), just because it was necessary to have that information way, way in the background for verisimilitude’s sake.  Because, see, it was a major event.  The comparison that comes most immediately to mind would be the Crusades.  Not because the wars in which Artur Hawkwing fought were of a religious nature, but because they were a major event that changed the world forever afterward, such that attitudes and ideas and conflicts of the present can occasionally be traced all the way back to those events.

People also look and act differently from each other, depending on where you are.  People from one country talk and dress and act differently from people in another country.  There are, of course, occasionally very clear analogues to civilizations in our world.  The countries of Andor and Cairhien are simultaneously at each other’s throats and yet deeply intertwined politically in a way that can only make you think of medieval England and France, respectively.  The far northern nation of Shienar has echoes of Asia generally, though the Seanchan empire seems to be evocative of Japan specifically, superficially (in many other ways, it is completely unlike any civilization yet seen on Earth).

The sheer riot of invention is impressive.  Unfortunately, after a point, that also becomes the series downfall.

But none of this addresses what the books are actually about.

*             *             *

In the beginning, the series starts off in the typical way.  We have a group of young people in a town at the back end of nowhere.  Three of them, young men all of an age with each other, have a pretty good chance of being the chosen savior of the world, and there is an itinerant magic-user trying to figure out which of them it is, so that she can guard and guide whoever it is.  It’s fairly obvious, to us as readers, which of the three it is, but all of them are important in a way that it takes a little bit of background to understand.

The titular Wheel of Time is a sort of mystical, philosophical notion – I’d almost say it’s a religious idea, but there’s not really anything in the way of religion in the world of the Wheel, but instead just a sort of generalized belief in the Creator (often referred to as the Light) and the Dark One – one of many borrowed from Eastern philosophy and mysticism, which posits that the world is unending, and that there are seven Ages, represented by the spokes of the Wheel, which repeat through eternity.  As the opening paragraph of the first chapter of every book in the series is keen to remind us, there are neither beginnings nor endings to the Wheel of Time. 

(This almost felt like a joke at some point toward the interminable middle of the series.  The beginning of The Wheel of Time seemed so remotely in the past that there may as well never have been a real beginning, and it surely seemed there would be no end.)

Curiously, there is also a different statement made at various points, that the Creator, “in the moment of creation”, sealed the Dark One away in a sort of other-dimensional prison so that he could not work his influence on the universe.  This seems to imply some kind of beginning, despite what the Wheel suggests.  But you know what?  Fuck it.  It’s not as if our real-world religions are devoid of inconsistencies.  Why should our fantastical ones be any different?

Anyway, the force that causes the Wheel to turn is called the True Source, or the One Power.  There are two halves to the True Source, saidin and saidar.  Certain people with the talent to do so are able to channel the True Source in ways that affect the world around them, which is the system by which magic functions in the world.  However, there’s a bit of a catch, in that saidin can only be channeled by men, and saidar can only be channeled by women.  The two forces are alike in origin and nature, but fundamentally different in their use.  Men must grapple with saidin, every moment of its usage being a struggle in which to lose is to be burned to ash, literally.  Women, meanwhile, must learn to surrender themselves to the flow of saidar, like a riverbank which passively contains the flow of the river.

As these two halves of the One Power are so different, men and women who channel are unable to work together without a lot of through-hoop-jumping and other assorted mystical jiggery-pokery.  A man can’t see how a woman weaves the basic elements of saidar together, and a woman is unable to see how a man uses saidin.  Which is just as well, in some ways, because any given task usually has to be done in two very different ways depending on which half of the Power is being used.

In the Age before the story opens, known as the Age of Legends, the Dark One was accidentally released from his prison.  Actually, “released” is putting it too strongly.  His prison was opened only somewhat, allowing him to touch the world and exert his influence on it, without actually freeing him to do as he pleased.  It might seem like very little, compared to how badly things could have happened, but it was enough, and more than enough.

Use of the One Power was common in this Age, and most of those who held power and prestige in the world were users of the One Power.  They were known as Aes Sedai (“Servants of All” in the Old Tongue – which was the common language of the time).

To many of these Aes Sedai who were unsatisfied with their lot in life, the Dark One promised power and favor if they would serve him.  The greatest of these would become known as the Forsaken, and the names they were given as enemies of the Light would be remembered thousands of years later.  The Forsaken drew followers to them, and waged such a war for their new master that they brought civilization to its knees.  In the end, they were beaten, though the price was dire.

Lews Therin Telamon, essentially the leader of the forces of the Light, and known as the Dragon, concocted a plan which involved using seven magical artifacts to seal the Dark One’s prison.  This was probably not going to be as good a seal as what had been in place previously, but at the very least, it could buy the world some time to breathe, and to think of a better plan.  So he set out with his Hundred Companions to do this very thing.  The plan was nominally successful.


What Lews Therin had not predicted – what no one could predict – was that at the final moment before the seals were set, the Dark One lashed out, not directly at his attackers, but at their source of power.  Lew Therin’s  Hundred Companions were all men.  And so the Dark One tainted saidin, the male half of the True Source.  The effects of this last vengeful stroke of the Dark One were not immediately felt, though they became apparent soon enough.

Beyond this point, any man who drew on the power of saidin was doomed.  The taint would slowly drive all users of saidin mad, while also afflicting them with a rotting sickness.  It would be easy to suggest the solution of “not using saidin,” except that to use the One Power is fundamentally addictive.  In addition to all the usual benefits ofmagical powers, simply holding the One Power, even without doing anything with it, creates a state of heightened awareness in which all senses are cranked up several notches, and is accompanied by a sensation of general empowerment and euphoria.  Those who have the ability to channel the One Power and who are later deprived of it (it happens, occasionally, for various reasons), often fall into a deep depression and die of sadness and longing, if they don’t manage to simply commit suicide first.

Having half the magic users in the world turn insane in a relatively short period is bad enough.  When you consider that those magic users have the ability to manipulate the very elements of creation, it gets far worse.  What followed was an event referred to as the Breaking of the World, which changed the world’s geography and, as a side-effect, plunged it into a dark age from which, as the story opens, it still has not really recovered.

In modern times, in the section of the world where the main action of the story takes place (known informally as the Westlands), all Aes Sedai are women, divided into seven factions, or Ajahs, each with its own idea of what should be done with the One Power, and thus with a specific task at which they are skilled and for which they are often deployed.  (There are rumors, hotly denied, of an additional Ajah, a Black Ajah, which serves the Dark One.  Naturally, they are all true.)  There are no male Aes Sedai.  Unfortunately, the ability and inclination to use the One Power is not simply learned.  It can be, for some, but for others it’s inborn; they will begin to channel on their own, whether they are taught or not, whether they want to or not.  Some of them, deluded or genuinely mad, proclaim themselves to be the Dragon Reborn, and a few of these have managed to draw followers to themselves and cause serious trouble for the world at large.  Because of this, the Red Ajah of the Aes Sedai make it their mission to find all men who can channel, and stop them by using the One Power to destroy the very faculty which makes channeling possible.  The practice is called “gentling”.

This is getting somewhat far afield, but it needs to be explained at some point, because most of it is relevant later.  But it’s time to get a bit closer to where I was intending to go with all of this.  Back to the Wheel, then…

The lives of everyone in the world, using our Wheel construct, are each a thread, woven together by the turning of the Wheel into the Great Pattern.  The Dark One, meanwhile, wishes to escape his prison completely and destroy the Wheel, thus unraveling the Great Pattern and unmaking the universe, so that he might remake it in his own image.  Periodically (as we’ve seen) he gains the opportunity to do so.  The reasons change with each Age.

To combat the Dark One’s distorting influence, and to preserve the Pattern, the Wheel occasionally weaves in specific threads – lives – and the people who represent these threads are called ta’veren (I’ve forgotten what the word is actually supposed to translate into, but it’s a testament to how often I’ve heard it, reading these books, that I can explain exactly what it means).  Ta’veren are people whose very presence essentially warps the lives of others around them, and sometimes the behavior of objects (vases may fall out of windows several stories up and not break, coins land on their edge, and on one memorable occasion, a character manages to roll the dice and get a one – on two dice, because one lands on its corner) forcing them to conform to the intended course of events.  The people thus swept out of the normal run of their lives are often just as surprised that these things are happening as everyone else.  There are tales of ta’veren in times past who found that their enemies would confess their darkest secrets in the presence of said ta’veren, despite having absolutely no reason to do so, simply because it was required by the Pattern to make events conform to the will of the Wheel.


The three young men from the backwater village are all ta’veren.  Typically, there is only ever one ta’veren knocking about at any given time.  The presence of three at one time, in one place, is extraordinary, but also frightening in its implications, because it begs the question: How badly off are we, exactly – how close to complete disaster ?– that we need three people who are able to bend the very paths of fate around them, just by being there?  The Dragon, Lews Therin Telamon, was ta’veren, and with just the one of him, we saw events set in motion that ended civilization as it was then known, and in which the actual face of the world changed.  What’s coming that could be so bad, it requires three of these to correct the problem, when usually one is quite enough? 

The entire series spends a significant amount of time grappling with this, and it’s fifteen books long because this isn’t the only thing that’s happening.  It’s the main thing, yes, but hardly the only thing.

The Wheel of Time reeks of destiny.  Things happen because they must, because this is how they were intended by the Creator to happen.  Throughout much of the series, we read snippets of an in-universe work called The Karaethon Cycle, which is a collection of prophecies regarding the rebirth of the Dragon, his conflict against the Dark One, and a second Breaking of the World.  Many of these prophecies are maddeningly vague and seemingly self-contradictory.  Attempts to use them to predict events confound all who attempt using them this way.  Rather than predictive, they are confirmative.  They exist not to tell you what will happen, but rather to confirm that what has happened has been part of the overall plan.

But The Karaethon Cycle is not the only work of prophecy.  The Aiel (a desert-dwelling people who are an odd combination of the Zulu, the Bedouin, and the Irish, of all things) have their own prophecy regarding the Dragon Reborn, whom they call Car’a’carn, Chief of Chiefs.  The Sea Folk (go on, guess what they do) have their prophecies regarding their idea of the Dragon, known as the Coramoor.  Even the Seanchan, the descendants of an exploratory mission sent out at least a thousand years ago by Artur Hawkwing, have their own prophecies about the Dragon Reborn.  And as you might guess, none of these sets of prophecies seems to be in agreement.

*             *             *

We have a trio of main characters.  At the forefront is Rand al’Thor, a tall sheepherder turned swordsman who spends much of the early going running from the very thought of what he may be, even as he knows it in his heart.  Yet he is bound by a sense of duty and responsibility.  He hates what he may be, for the destruction and hardship it will bring, and that all of it will be in his name.  Yet at the same time, when the proof is put to him and cannot be denied, he does not hide, he does not run, but faces it squarely, and rises.  He is the most strongly ta’veren, though he would be lost without the help of his friends, also ta’veren.  One of these is Mat Cauthon, a young layabout who probably (before the story begins) spends more effort avoiding work than the work itself requires, who loves pranks and jokes, and later dice and cards and flirting with barmaids, and who is always ready to expound, at length, on how he’s “no bloody hero” even while in the very midst of some of the most heroic fighting the series shows us.  The other friend of Rand’s is Perrin Aybara.  Powerfully built, he is slow and careful in his movements, having learned early how easy it is to hurt people accidentally.  A blacksmith’s apprentice, he’s allowed precious little time to do any blacksmithing as the story goes on, though there’s a memorable scene of it in the third book which is probably one of his early defining moments, and a damned good piece of writing beside.

The story starts out with them running, hiding, seeking temporary refuge where they can, and relying quite heavily on the fact that they are virtual nobodies in the world at large.  They are, of course, of tremendous importance to the Dark One.  The Forsaken, and all the rest of his servants, know that it will be utter defeat if these three are not stopped in time, before they grow in power and stature.  So this is the early part of the story, where the characters are constantly on the defensive, constantly on the run, more difficult for the forces of darkness to find, yet less well able to deal with such threats when they arise, and with the destiny that lays before them all feeling roughly as comfortable as a slowly tightening noose.

But everything changes with time, and our three heroes are no exception.  Inevitably, the forces of darkness fail to stop them at the ideal time, and the characters rise in the world.  No longer constantly on the run, they are in a position to form their own plans, enact their own maneuvers against the power that seeks to destroy them as a prelude to its dragging the entire world down into the dark.

Watching these characters grown and change is one of the more interesting things in the series, and it feels all the more authentic for happening gradually.  But then, again, this is a fifteen-book series.  Nothing in it is happening quickly.

*             *             *

Speaking of writing quality earlier: The series has some truly breathtaking moments.

One of my favorite moments in the series – perhaps the favorite moment, for me – comes relatively early on, in the second book.  

There are a number of great moments, to be sure.  There’s the moment where the companions come to the titular Eye of the World in the first book, a lush, green preserve in the middle of the otherwise corrupt and deathly hostile Blight, situated pretty much on the Dark One’s doorstep.  There’s the encounter in the Stone of Tear, where Rand takes one of the major early steps to embracing – not just accepting, or resigning himself to, but embracing – his destiny.  As I say, there are plenty.  But there’s one that I’ll carry with me for most of my life, and probably spend most of the writing I ever do trying desperately to match.

There is an artifact in this world called the Horn of Valere.  Every so often, the kingdom of Illian puts on a hunt for it, very imaginatively called the Hunt for the Horn.  What happens when someone sounds the Horn is that it summons the spirits of heroes from Ages past to fight.  Said heroes are mostly (if not wholly) ta’veren in their own right.  The Dark One’s forces are looking for it just as hard as those of the Light, no one is quite sure whether the Heroes of the Horn will come to fight for whoever blows the Horn, or whether they’ll only fight for the Light.  No one wants to find out (except the Dark One’s people, of course).  It’s found at the end of the first book, but the second book is the one most concerned with it, being (among other things) an account of the taking and retaking of the Horn by the heroes and the villains alike, until the very end of the book, when Rand, Mat, and Perrin look to be in their most hopeless situation yet (and then the Horn is basically never mentioned again thereafter until literally the last book in the series).

And then, positing that although the Prophecies are quite clear that the Horn of Valere must be sounded at the Last Battle, those Prophecies are also somewhat murky on the question of whether it can be sounded before… one of them sounds the Horn.

A mist rises.  From it stride figures of legend, heroes of hundred stories and a hundred Ages gone, and as many names or more.  They are a small but deathless army whose powers are neither mundane nor of the “magic” of the One Power, but something entirely Other.

There is a warmth to these people, as they come to meet the Hornsounder; they smile, they laugh, they banter a bit.  They’ve spent quite a while together in the time between when one or another of them is called back into the Pattern, and they have been at all of this a very, very long time.  And while they pay their respects to the Hornsounder, they turn and face Rand, stating that there is one whom they must follow, Hornsounder or no Hornsounder.  And it’s at this moment when Rand’s destiny truly begins to fall into place.  He turns to face what and who he is, a man known to these people of legend, for he is one of them himself, and he knows it now at last, and in no scrap or corner of him can there be any more doubt or denial.  From this point forward, and until the end of his life, he will be what he was meant to be.  And so, raising his banner, he and his friends and his army of deathless heroes charge.

Ironically, it is the Heroes of the Horn who do the mundane thing, the liberating of a city and the rescuing of friends.  Rand, initially riding with them, is whisked away to some strange Otherworld to face his enemy, the champion of the Dark One as he is the champion of the Light.  Their battle, and its result, colors the rest of the story.

*             *             *

I do not fail to get tingles down my spine when I read the bit above.  Every time.  Every time.  But sadly, it can’t all be that good.

To be fair, Jordan’s writing is never bad.  It does, however, get a bit excessive past, say, book three or four. 

The first three books are largely adventure stories, with the characters on the run, going to new places, finding new dangers and new allies.  There is a sense of mystery at the very heart of the world, a feeling that there are soft places at the edge of what’s known, where anything can and might happen.  Around book four, the world starts to become a little more known.  We stop seeing new things, and we start seeing things we’ve already seen, just with a different context.  The characters, as I said earlier, become movers and shakers in the world in their own right.

This is not a bad thing.  But it is a fundamentally less interesting thing, to me, than a good adventure tale.  With the fifth book, The Fires of Heaven, it starts to really set in.  And the problem is, along with all of this, the books slow down.  More and more words are spent on less and less happening.  I forget exactly which book it’s in, but there’s one whole book where Rand spends basically the entire time planning and plotting as if he’s going to do one thing, only to do something else instead at the very end, to throw off one of his enemies.  There’s another book which ends with Mat buried under a pile of rubble.  For the entire next book, no mention at all is made of him.  And partly because of this massive drop in momentum, Jordan’s worst excesses either get worse, or they get more noticeable, but either way it amounts to the same thing.

Robert Jordan is a wordy kind of writer.  I don’t mean to say that this is necessarily a bad thing, but he does go on about the details.  Now, I happen to feel that this is somewhat forgivable in fantasy writing.  When you’re writing about things that never happened in places that never existed to people who never lived, you’re essentially building your own context.  A certain greater amount of detail is needed to keep everybody on the same page (so to speak).  And this is fine for the early volumes of The Wheel of Time.

But later on, we get scenes where whole pages are spent describing the wood paneling on the walls and on a desk, the particular clothing styles of the characters we’re speaking to, as well as detailed physical descriptions of the people themselves.  These are, keep in mind, characters we will see only in this one scene.  It’s not even a really pivotal scene.  It feels, at times, as if Jordan took the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” as a tremendously conservative estimate, a bare and frankly shameful minimum, regarding how many words are necessary to set a scene.

He also has an unfortunate habit of describing things (even if only in passing), which need no description, because the audience is already familiar with them.  Maybe a mention or two toward the beginning of the book is necessary to help people get reacquainted with an idea here or there, when it’s been a couple of years between installments, but we hear it all the time.  We get to hear about the sweetness of embracing saidar pretty much every time a woman does it.  Whenever a man seizes saidin, we get to hear about how it’s simultaneously like ice and fire, how it’s deadly dangerous but also exhilarating.  And of course, we get to hear about the taint on saidin.  Oh, God, the taint.  You could fill a regular-sized book with nothing but Jordan’s descriptions of the taint on saidin.  You could probably fill another book with instances wherein one male character, confronted by one or more women, desperately wishes that one of the other male characters were present; they know how to handle women.

Added to that is the way that the pacing of the books seems to change.  In the early installments, there seemed to be a number of minor payoff moments throughout the given volume, little “Ah-ha!” moments or other revelations or minor resolutions to give you a sense that Things Are Happening.  Later books seem to ditch this in favor of one really huge trash-the-set type of climax, but feeling really drawn-out and strained all through the middle.

I remember when I got my friend Steve to start reading the series.  He quit about two-thirds of the way through the sixth book, Lord of Chaos, which comes to a little over a thousand pages in paperback.  When he quit, I told him, “Oh, you can’t quit now; you’re just about at the good part!”  Later, I thought about what I’d said.

In a 1,000 page book (rounding down – yes, down – for simplicity’s sake), two-thirds of the way through is, what, 666 pages, give or take a few paragraphs?  That’s about the size of any two average-sized novels (which may be complete and wholly satisfying stories all on their own).  It’s a lot to endure to get to the good part.  I stopped nagging Steve about reading The Wheel of Time not long thereafter.

Really, there are other parts of Lord of Chaos that are enjoyable, but these things start to feel like they’re building toward something else.  Most of it has an odd feeling of happening on the way to greater and grander things.  In the case of Lord of Chaos, that greater and grander thing is a massive battle which is enjoyable in part due to how many richly deserving people get smacked down in one way or another.

At around this point, I was going to mention one of Jordan’s other writing quirks, which is how he handles relations between his male and female characters.  It’s certainly worth going into by somebody, but it really should be an article all its own, and the somebody in question should ideally have taken at least a couple of college-level courses in gender studies, and therefore be far more qualified than me.  About the best I can do is say that regarding Jordan’s idea of the Battle of the Sexes, I can only shrug my shoulders a little helplessly, and remark that it’s best described, in short, as a weird kind of passive-aggressive trench warfare.

*             *             *

Looking back on the series now, I don’t know if I can recommend it without reservations.  When I started reading, only the first four or five books had been published – maybe six.  The first three were, to my mind, great.  The fourth was pretty good.  The fifth and sixth sort of seemed to fall off a bit, and that was pretty much where things stood for a while.  The short version of it is that the first four books are basically straight adventure stories, and have a major focus on the ancient past of the world, and the secrets hidden in it.  Past that point, the books get more involved with political maneuvering of one sort or another, which is interesting, but does not grip me with as much immediacy as a good adventure tale.

The thing is that, in my own opinion, the series kind of stayed in a “fallen off” state up through the eleventh main book in the series, Knife of Dreams, which was the last one Robert Jordan wrote before passing away.  By that point, there were twelve volumes total: eleven in the main series, plus a prequel, titled New Spring.  The final tally of books in the now-finished series is fifteen.  The final three were written mostly by another author, Brandon Sanderson.  Sanderson was chosen by Jordan and his widow, Harriet McDougal, working from Jordan’s copious notes, and at the very least, the epilogue was written by Jordan himself.  By all accounts, these three books (The Gathering Storm, The Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light) were originally meant to be just a single book, titled A Memory of Light, and it was going to be a whopper.  Even by Jordan’s standards.  He memorably joked that he was only going to write another book in the series, even if Tor had to invent a new printing process to make it.  (He also apparently joked at one point that there was going to be a boxed set of the whole series; it would necessarily come complete with its own library cart).

That boils down to a lot of reading to do, even for someone who loves it, for a series whose individual installments tended to be a little disappointing as often as not.  All of them have their moments, of course, but beyond a certain early point toward the end of the first half of the series, I begin to have trouble placing specific events in the right order, let alone the right book.  Even in the books past volume four where I can still do this, I have a really hard time explaining to anyone why, exactly, it took over nine hundred pages – nine hundred! In hardcover! – to get there.

It helps, though, to understand that I was reading these pretty much as they came out.  Reading only one mildly disappointing book every few years is pretty easy to do.  Reading fourteen books straight through (fifteen if we’re including the prequel), some of which are good and some of which are… less so, is a lot to ask of a person.  Especially when that person may have a job, loved ones, and a pre-existing social life and set of hobbies.

*             *             *

There’s something melancholy in finishing The Wheel of Time.  I began reading it with The Eye of the World, the summer I turned fourteen.  It was sitting there, on my desk, when I came home from summer camp.  I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  I found the series by going over the bookshelves at my grandmother’s house.  I saw the third book first, titled The Dragon Reborn, and got interested.  I thought maybe, knowing the reading habits of my grandmother and my grandfather, this was one of those international espionage or political thrillers that uses certain medieval motifs in their titling for one reason or another, but no.  This seemed to be an honest-to-God work of high fantasy.  And on the cover was the phrase “Sequel to The Great Hunt”.  So I did some hunting of my own, and came up with a copy of The Great Hunt, also sitting on that shelf.  And on the front of that book was the line “Sequel to The Eye of the World”.  I was beginning to wonder how deep the rabbit hole went.  Unfortunately, my grandmother didn’t have a copy of The Eye of the World, but she did have a book that contained its first eighteen chapters, as a sort of promotional item.  She gave me that and the other two, and said she’d get me a copy of The Eye of the World, but would have to order it.  I spent a large portion of that summer in anticipation after I devoured that eighteen-chapter promo copy.

I finished reading The Wheel of Time when I was 32, in the late spring, a few months after the last book had come out.  At the time of this writing, I am 34.  This is a story that I have been reading for more than half of my life.

I stalled out after Knife of Dreams, and was reluctant to start on the final three books, even though I had been buying them as they came out.  I bought them practically as a reflex, because by God I was going to finish reading this series someday.  I’d spent a lot of time reading and re-reading these books over my life, and nothing short of death itself was going to prevent me.  Yet I hesitated.  I read The Gathering Storm, and liked it well enough.  The characters felt all right.  They were a little different from how I remembered them, but that was hardly unexpected, being written by a different author, who was smart enough not to try to mimic Jordan’s style.  Still, they squared well enough with my recollections.  Better than I had expected, honestly; I had for some time been bracing myself for a real horror show.   This was not because Sanderson isn’t a talented author (I wouldn’t have known, not having read any of his work prior to this), but because the idea of one author taking over the meticulously crafted world, all its history and its literal hundreds of important characters, from the original author, sounded like a recipe for disaster, just on basic principles.  That the end product of this was not simply serviceable, but genuinely good, has gone a long way to convince me, if nothing else, that I should try reading some of Sanderson’s books.

But  after The Gathering Storm, I stalled.  I wasn’t sure, at the time, where my final bout of hesitation had come from.  Some of it was the plain reluctance to slog through another couple of mammoth door-stopping novels.  Even given the quality of Sanderson’s first effort in the series, there was still that to consider.  And there was still time to fuck it all up.  He had two whole books – two whole Robert Jordan-sized books, which is like four or five regular books – to flame out in a blaze of glory.

“But this is everything you’ve been waiting for!” part of me cried.  “This is it!  This is the final bit of mystery, the final piece of the puzzle!  This is what all the parts of the series you loved have been leading up to!”

And all of this was entirely true.  And all of that was part of the problem.  Still, eventually, I did break down and decide that it was time to put the story to rest.  To bring myself to the end of things, once and for all.  To throw the dice and see how they came up.

It’s a strange thing when you’re reading a story for years.  You really aren’t reading it for all of that time, not unless you’re some kind of obsessive nut, but you sort of inhabit it for that time.  The characters and events and places all exist in a corner of your mind.  Even when there’s no more forthcoming for a while, you can go back and re-read, find new information, new pieces of the puzzle, new wrinkles in the pattern that you missed the first time around.  And because there’s no end written, you get to wonder, to imagine.  There is a fascinating feeling of potential to it that lends it a kind of life.  Even in the lull between volumes, that thought of “what if?” gives the story a feeling of life and an illusion of forward movement.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, the story was still happening.  It was always happening, constantly.  I was still there.

Then it ended, and I came home.

*             *             *

I occasionally go to anime conventions.  The first one I went to was AnimeIowa, in 2000.  I went with my friend Wade, and connected with a few of my other friends while we were there, people I didn’t see much outside the college I went to.  It wasn’t an especially large convention, as these things go, but it was the first one I ever went to, and it seemed like a huge thing at the time.  To parallel The Wheel of Time somewhat, there’s a scene relatively early in the first book where the main characters, coming as they do from a village at the back-end of nowhere, come to their first big town, called Baerlon.  To them, Baerlon is huge.  To the rest of the world, it’s a hick mining town out in the sticks, barely worthy of being called a proper city at all.  The difference is all a matter of perspective.

The thing about AnimeIowa, and a lot of the larger conventions I went to afterward, is that there’s a sort of carnival atmosphere.  Even if you’re just going to panel discussions and viewing rooms, and taking photos of the occasional really impressive costume, the level of energy can be tremendous.  There is a feeling of being constantly “on” that I have a hard time describing, because I don’t often feel it in quite this way.  The best I can do is to illustrate a thing that happened.  On one night of the convention, I needed to take a break for a little while and just hang out in our hotel room.  So I did.  I read a little bit, and later I put together one of the models I’d bought.  And still, it was as if I could feel the convention going on, several floors below me.  It wasn’t any noise or commotion, but a simple feeling.  It was like a radio wave in the air, and I couldn’t tune it out.  It was as if all the people involved in it had come together to make some new kind of life, and it didn’t matter at all where it was or where I was.  Since it was in a hotel, they could go around the clock, and they did.  While it was happening, I was a part of it. 

I had never felt anything like this before.  It was amazing.

Then it ended, and I came home.

When Wade and I left the convention, I fell into a deep melancholy.  I didn’t want to do anything, because nothing seemed to be really worth doing.  What I did want, which was of course impossible, was to be back at the convention.  The fact that the convention wasn’t going on any more only made me dig in my heels and get angry with reality.  I wanted the convention to run longer, another day or two, a week maybe, I didn’t know.  It needed to still be happening, is what needed to happen, and I needed to be there in it. 

I’ve felt things that affected me more.  I once stood on a mountaintop and looked down at other mountaintops, lesser peaks and ridges, and felt at once how tiny I was in the grand scheme of things, and somehow also exalted, just to be able to be in that moment, at that peak, and have that realization.  But this feeling of loss, coming home from my first convention, which was supposed to be just nonstop fun and excitement (this happened when coming home from others, later in my life) was wholly unexpected.  I dubbed it “convention withdrawal” and left it at that.

I say all of this to help try to describe what I felt when I finished reading The Wheel of Time.  The exact causes of the feeling aren’t the same, but the basic nature of it is. 

For most of my life, this story had been happening.  I had been inhabiting that story, ruminating on its characters and events, wondering at the truth of what had happened, and at the things that were yet to occur.  Because it was unfinished, because I was in it, it was on some level of my mind still happening.  When I finished it, all of that changed.  It was no longer a thing that was happening.  It had passed into the territory of things that had happened.  I had come through to the end of it finally, and there was no more, and would be no more.  Even if there was, it would not change the fact that this story, which had not only been with me for most of my life, but had helped in some ways to shape that life, was now done.  Over.  Finished.  Through.

You can, of course, point out that re-reading is certainly something I could do.  And I probably will, at some point.  At the very least, I want to have a better and more complete understanding of what happens in that foggy stretch between books six and eleven.  But it feels different to read a thing – to experience any story, in any medium – for a second time, even for works that encourage and reward it.  Re-reading always feels different.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you.  I once mentioned to my wife, when I started to re-read The Magic of Recluce, many years after I had first read it, that it was a unique joy to read something that I had enjoyed once many years ago, but had since almost completely forgotten.  There was still the wonder at what exactly was going to happen, with the comfort of having some sense of it already, and tinged with a general sense of known enjoyment.  But as enjoyable as this is, few things match the raw excitement of diving headlong into unexplored territory.

*             *             *

There’s a music playlist I usually listen to while I write, which is mostly 90s alternative rock I heard on the radio from around 1994 (when I first found a station I liked) to about 2000.  There’s a lot on there that I don’t hear any other way.  Maybe a local station will play “Nineties at noon” or something, and I’ll hear a song I haven’t heard since more than half my life ago.  Even if I didn’t care all that much for the song then, there’s often the strong, almost tidal pull of nostalgia, and suddenly I have to track down a copy for myself.  That’s largely how this list got put together.  There are songs on there by The Cranberries, by Seven Mary Three, Dishwalla, The Gin Blossoms, New Radicals, etc.  There are two things I remember doing – two things I specifically remember doing, several times, to which this music provides a soundtrack.  One of those things is reading The Wheel of Time.  The other is writing. 

It’s not strange, to me, that these things coincide.  The former inspired the urge for the latter, after all.  I love The Lord of the Rings, and believe it’s still the better story.  But it wasn’t there when I was fourteen.  When I was fourteen, Frodo’s adventure with the Ring of Power felt stuffy and rigid; it felt inaccessible; I couldn’t find the warmth in it. 

A lot of people have taught me how to write. 

Stephen King taught me it’s okay to swing between formal and portentous, and informal and even crude.  That it’s okay to say “Fuck outlines!”, queue up a blank page, and just go, and get lost in the fire of creation, in the pure joy of the act.

T.H. White taught me to take my time, to treat my characters with respect, and be clear in what I write, and that even people who do things that seem awful can do them for good reasons, and aren’t wholly irredeemable.

Reading about how J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, I learned how a single seemingly minor change can send your story off down an entirely different path, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re willing to follow your characters where they’re inclined to go, and that sometimes the best lines of prose come to you while you’re in the bath.

I like to think I would have been drawn to writing anyway, because it’s what there is in me to do.  But I’m never sure, and so I’ll always be indebted to Robert Jordan for that.  You can’t get lost in the fire of creation if it isn’t burning in the first place, and it was Jordan who set that particular blaze alight.

As I said quite a while ago, The Wheel of Time is what made me want to write.  You could strip all the rest of this away, or argue about every point I’ve made in this long, ridiculous, rambling mess, and that one fact will always remain.  And that’s no small thing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

From the Ashes - Gears of War, the Series

I am not always a good judge of the things I will like or won’t like.  I had this problem with Halo, a few years ago, as I mentioned in a previous post.  I had it again with Gears of War, somewhat more recently.

I used to think, judging largely by the artwork and some snippets of dialogue I’d heard, that this must be the most meat-headed, frat boy douchebag series of games in existence.  Just a bunch of lumpy, over-muscled dudes shooting things with stupidly huge machine guns and swearing a lot.  And the machine guns have chainsaw bayonets.  Chainsaw bayonets.

But then the original Gears of War came up for free on Xbox’s Free Games with Xbox Live Gold promotion one month, and I thought “What the hell?”   So I downloaded it and gave it a shot.

I wound up buying the rest of the series not much later.

Turns out chainsaw bayonets are fun.

*             *             *

I don’t know of a better way to say this, except to say that Gears of War doesn’t take itself seriously, but is still somehow a mostly serious game.  The story throughout the series has moments of real emotion and impact, and it sets these up and handles them well enough that they come across as genuine and natural, rather than forced.  The characters look like a sort of winking satire on the grizzled, armored military guy trope (which is a broader expression of the “bald space marine” trope that occupies so much of western gaming).  Main character Marcus Fenix, in particular, seems to embody this, with his do-rag, his soul patch, his jutting jaw that could actually break rocks, and his “Ah, not this shit again” attitude.  But rather than crank it up beyond believability, they just kind of let it be what it is.  The characters pretty much just do what they would do, given who they are and the context in which they exist.

The characters are really sort of brilliant, in the sense that their designs match almost perfectly with their personalities.  When you watch Marcus move, listen to him speak, and see the things he does, the way he interacts with other characters, it all fits so well it’s actually a little bit scary.

I mean, here’s a guy who’s grim, gruff, and mostly quiet, and doesn’t really seem to like anything or anyone in this hellhole of a world he finds himself in.  He often expresses satisfaction with, and appreciation for, various skillful maneuvers (well-timed weapon reloads, managing several headshots in a row, etc.), but this is at best a sort of diagonally adjacent emotion to real happiness or enjoyment, which seem utterly foreign to him.  Pretty much everything that’s first apparent about his character – his looks, his posture, his movements, his voice – makes all of this seem right in line with who he appears to be.  It isn’t predictable, necessarily, but it doesn’t exactly come out of left field, either.

And this is true of pretty much any character with a unique personality, who is in any way a mover or shaker in the story.  They all look and talk in such a way as to immediately telegraph who they are.  The characters play to particular tropes and archetypes (without leaning on them too heavily) in such a way as to provide a sort of quick sketch of who they are, a sense of immediate familiarity.  This way, the game doesn’t have to spend minutes at a time dwelling on who all these people are and what they’re all doing, when it could instead be throwing you back into the action.

*             *             *

The action is one of the other areas of Gears of War which is surprisingly intelligent. 

The original Gears of War was one of the pioneering titles of the cover-based third-person shooter genre.  It’s not necessarily the first game in the genre, mind you.  There’s probably an argument to be made that Resident Evil 4 was a major contribution to its development, but there are games before this that had many elements of the genre in one way or another.  My own first experience with these game mechanics would probably be the original Mass Effect, which in retrospect might not be the best ambassador for this style of play.  The first Mass Effect is a game that, if you love it, you love it despite a number of minor-to-middling problems.  The parts where you’re moving and shooting are sort of mushy and awkward, to be honest, if still ultimately serviceable, and at least make for a decent example of the basics (the sequels are much better in this regard, but we’re not here for Mass Effect today).

Unlike a lot of franchises out there, Gears of War got it pretty much right on the first try.  The sequels have mainly just focused on offering more.  More explosions (and more things to shoot and blow up), more  challenge, more weapons, more areas to travel through (and, in all likelihood, destroy, intentionally or otherwise), and more colors.  The first Gears of War is a very, very grey game, you see.

Sure, it’s not as if Epic Games (fun fact: I’m old enough that I still think of them as Epic Megagames, and have to consciously correct myself), the original developers of the Gears of War, are any strangers to high-quality games where you blow stuff up real good.  They did make the classic first-person shooter Unreal, after all, and they’ve been around since well before then.  But the level of polish on display for Gears of War is pretty remarkable when you stop to consider that it was the first entry in a new series, in a relatively new genre, in the early days of a new piece of hardware.

Mechanically, the game is smarter than it appears.  Despite the gung-ho, “Fuck yeah, let’s kill all the enemies!” attitude it seems to have, in reality it encourages intelligent play.  Attacking head-on is a great way to find yourself getting mulched by a hail of enemy gunfire.  Instead, the games encourage you to outmaneuver your enemies.  Flank them or take them from behind, where they can’t easily find cover.  If you don’t, they’ll surely try to do it to you.  And like Halo before it, Gears of War requires you to acquaint yourself with a variety of weapons.  While it’s more generous with some weapon types, all the weapons and ammunition you find, you find in the environment, either dropped by fallen foes, or left behind by defeated allies who previously occupied the area.  Metal Gear Solid would call this OCP (on-site procurement), and it means you’re never in full control of your arsenal.  It means you have to learn how to use all of the game’s weapons to at least a basic degree of proficiency, and learn which weapon types work best in which environments, so that you don’t waste ammunition using the wrong tool for the job.

Rather than a point of frustration, I personally find this makes the game more interesting.  You’re not always doing the same thing over and over again.  The various weapons work best at varying ranges and rates of fire, and require different tactics for effective use.  It keeps you constantly on your toes, constantly thinking, constantly paying attention and therefore constantly engaged.  You fall into a kind of rhythm after a while, but it’s never mindless; it’s never habit.

And the cutscenes, once the game really gets going, are generally just long enough to get the point across, but short enough not to screw up the momentum too badly.  Epic understands that when you play a game, you generally want to be playing a game, not listening to the game natter on and on about things while you interact with it at intervals.

*             *             *

I was wrapping up Gears of War: Judgment last night, and my wife was lying on the couch behind me, half-watching and half-listening to me play.  Gears of War is absolutely not a Katie sort of game.  Testosterone-heavy aesthetics aside, there’s the fact that she doesn’t really get into third-person shooters that much, with the exception of Mass Effect, the mechanical problems of which I touched on above.

After explaining the story to her, and some of the backstory, she paused for a moment, and then said, “You really like games where humanity is pretty much fucked, don’t you?”

“No, no… I… don’t,” I said, and then I paused, thinking for a moment.  “Do I?”

I thought for a few minutes more about a lot of the games I’d been playing lately, and a lot of the games I really like.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter sees humanity fucked over by their own stupid choices resulting in environmental destruction, forcing them to retreat to a single subterranean habitat until someone can muster the courage to open the door after a few thousand years and see just exactly what’s out there. 

Assassin’s Creed, at least up through the third game, sees humanity fucking itself over by way of the constant squabbling of the game’s two main factions, which blinds them to the fact that there is a major solar flare set to wipe out most life on Earth, and that they actually could have been prepared for it centuries ago if they hadn’t been so obsessed with wiping each other out. 

Destiny sees humanity being fucked by way of the invasion of at least four separate races of beings driven to try to wrest control of our own solar system from us for one reason or another, with humankind reduced to such numbers that we basically only populate a single city on the entire planet Earth (yet the tone is somehow overall hopeful).   

Halo sees humanity fucked by being on the losing end of a genocidal war against an alliance of alien religious fanatics who believe us to be an affront to their gods.  This at least sounds moderately more hopeful than the first two examples, in that we at least haven’t done all of this to ourselves, except that’s somewhat deceptive.  Dig into the backstory of Halo even a little, and you’ll find that the entirety of human-controlled space was embroiled in an insurrection ready to explode into full-scale war before the Covenant showed up.

In all of this, Mass Effect is the outlier.  While, yes, humanity does appear to be pretty fucked in Mass Effect, this is actually just because space-faring sentient life in general is fucked, as part of a fairly regular, cyclical process; humankind is only one part of that.  And while, being newcomers to galactic society, the general feeling is that humankind has a long way to go to get its collective shit together, it seems to be at least doing that shit-together-getting before all hell breaks loose.

In turn, this put me in mind of a conversation I’d had some years previous with my friend Captain Overkill, who introduced me to a friend or acquaintance by saying, “he likes grimdark stuff”.

I objected to this pretty much immediately, because I don’t tend to think of myself that way, and then stopped, and thought about it for a moment.

Among my favorite anime, we have Tsukihime: Lunar Legend, Rurouni Kenshin: Remembrance, Fate/Stay Night, Berserk, Evangelion, X (the TV series and manga, not the movie), Kara no Kyokai: the Garden of Sinners, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Revolutionary Girl Utena.  That last one doesn’t seem to be very dark at first blush, but like most fairy tales pre-Perrault, there is an undercurrent of something dark and unpleasant running through it, and it’s not buried nearly as far below the surface as you might like.

So I guess I like dark, heavy stuff, wherein humanity is pretty seriously fucked.

And let’s be clear: Humanity is pretty badly fucked in Gears of War.

A lot of this isn’t really explained in the main game, because the characters’ dialogue is written to sound like real (if occasionally cheesy and often low-brow) talk, which means it doesn’t often do double-duty as lazy exposition for the player’s benefit.  But it doesn’t take much digging into information about the setting to find out that, prior to the main conflict (which, as of the main character’s release from prison in the beginning of the first game, has already been going for some 14 years), there has been an older war on for some 80 or so years.  This war, on the fictional Earth-like world of Sera, is roughly equivalent to what might have happened if our own Cold War had gone hot, minus the nuclear weapons.  Around the time this conflict (called the Pendulum Wars) was winding down, a new enemy appeared.  Referred to as the Locust (and more often, derogatorily, as “grubs” due to their pale skin and preference for subterranean living), they seem bent on the destruction of humankind for immediately apparent reason.  Despite their burly, muscular appearance and fondness for savagery, they are more intelligent than they appear, and have the added advantage of their movements being almost impossible to track.

The Pendulum Wars were already well on their way to turning the world into the bombed-out, ash-choked ruin it appears to be in the first game in the series.  The Locust really just took the first steps toward finishing the job.  Between the drain on resources, the destruction of infrastructure, and the devastation of the environment (shockingly, dropping an entire city into the ocean has consequences), the survivors of the human-Locust conflict are going to have a battle for mere survival on their hands when (if) the dust settles.  And it becomes apparent, as you go through the series, that the Locust aren’t just mindless aggressors.  Their emergence, and their war on humanity, are happening not because they simply have it in for humans (though they wouldn’t be entirely unjustified if that was all it was), but because they’re on the run from something else that also lives underground, and they don’t think they can win against it.

It gets to a point where, contemplating victory, Marcus Fenix asks (not just rhetorically), what kind of victory is even possible?  The world – the idea of civilization – is already done for.  What’s left, in the end?

*             *             *

Mentally, I tend to wind up comparing Gears of War to Halo.  There are just enough surface similarities that it almost seems like a valid comparison.  But there are major differences, too, and one of the greatest is in tone.  The difference in tone between Halo and Gears of War is about the same difference in tone between high fantasy and low fantasy, between Lord of the Rings and, say, Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan of Cimmeria and Kull of Atlantis. 

Of course, in itself, that’s a frustrating comparison to make, because the qualities that define each are largely similar, but set apart by their context.  Like the difference between erotica and pornography, it’s tempting to simply say “I know it when I see it” and leave it at that.  But it isn’t a very helpful description for the reader.

If pressed, I’d probably say that high fantasy is best defined by its inspiration, which seems often to come from myth and legend, and its overall tone, which tends toward the optimistic and hopeful, however grim, and it reflects who we believe (or hope) we are.  Low fantasy, meanwhile, tends to get its inspiration from history, and tends to be grittier and more cynical, a reflection of who we fear we really are.

But still, gritty and cynical, there is room for hope.  It just helps to remember that hope is not always a light and happy thing.  It can be grim, and desperate, and shot through with fear.  As much as it can be uplifting, it can be a burden as well, a weight as much as a motivation.  Hope can be a sort of duty. 

I often find that this kind of hope is the more realistic kind, in that it allows for a more balanced view of the world.  It’s the one I often ascribe to, and I think that, aside from its solid mechanics, its great graphics (because, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, all of these games look fantastic, even the first one), and its surprisingly interesting characters. 

It has a view of hope that resonates with me.