Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Book Review: Why Does the World Exist?

Spoiler alert: Why Does the World Exist? doesn't really answer its title question. Rather, the point is the journey, as you might expect from an author with a philosophy background interviewing various intellectuals and putting it together at a "magazine" level of detail. Most of the arguments I had heard before, but Holt allows the physicists and philosophers to use their own words and engages them like a student in one of their classes would. He also lets you know what he thinks about their arguments and why he finds many of them unsatisfying. I learned two things about myself from this book: 1.) My own impression that the anthropic principle is pretty powerful is indeed backed up by a large number of the intellectuals in this book, in their own ways. Although I don't think Holt is hard enough on the multiverse claims. 2.) I naturally resonated with the only two intellectuals with a theistic leaning: Richard Swinburne and John Updike. Probably confirmation bias, which shows why this is such a hard topic to explore semi-objectively, but I appreciated their inclusion in this book, and would have liked to have a few more chapters from those like them. There's a couple of simplistic swipes at theology but not too many.

I really do think theism is dismissed too readily by the modern mind because we assume that personality must be complex. The idea that a universe came from a personality rather than a mechanism is the key dividing line for me. I just don't have a problem with that. I think the irreducible part of the universe is more about personality than mechanism, and lo and behold, the theists make sense to me.  Holt is clearly on the other side of this. Is it that I tend toward stoicism and Holt toward epicureanism?

This book succeeds not because it is completely balanced, but because it is unbalanced, from Holt's point of view and with his questions and his life driving him on. The interplay of life and work is what makes this book succinct. It's not really a detective story, but it's more of a memoir at heart. That makes it work.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: The Night Circus

It's true that I both completely enjoyed this book and yet found it a bit of a letdown. The problem is that I was expecting it to be a completely envisioned historical tale like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. That's not unreasonable, since both are historically set and involve magicians in the real world. In this case, author Erin Morgenstern tells of a mysterious traveling circus that only opens at night, with multitudes of lavishly realized tents and an interesting collection of characters, as well as a clandestine contest with unknown rules lying behind it all. It's fun to explore the tents and to see what Morgenstern's imagination will come up with next. The plot that unfolds is a complex dance of characters, with unexpected outcomes and satisfying conclusions. But where this goes for theme-park-like atmosphere, Jonathan Strange went for palpable realism. I felt like the Night Circus was just an authentically magical Disney Park at times, and the characters were not true turn-of-the-century characters but 21st-century people dressed up in 19th-century clothes. The story feels current, when it shouldn't. This book gives you a magical circus, while Jonathan Strange gives you a magical world, a whole space-time continuum in perfect period prose. I have the hunch that if I encountered this on its own terms without the comparison to Jonathan Strange (one of my favorite novels), I would have enjoyed it much more. Don't get me wrong, this circus is worth a visit, but it's a fine weekend trip. I don't intend to run off and join this circus anytime soon.

The Lost Continent Under the Indian Ocean

There is a lost continent under the Indian Ocean. It's old -- Precambrian, to be precise -- and it's fragmented, but some nifty chemistry helped make the connections that it must be there. Here's the story. Key to the narrative is the fact that they found very old sand on a relatively new island beach nearby. This very old sand is from an ancient continent shattered on the seafloor. The scientists have named it Mauritia, but I think it should be called Numenor. Oh well, I went into the wrong field for naming lost continents.

The reason this is a blast from the past for me in more ways than one is that I just found a self-bound book I wrote in the 5th grade titled Bendiana Stretch and the Lost Continent. It's, um, not very good, but it does show that the romantic notion of a lost continent has all-ages appeal, and it's a funny coincidence.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: To Change the World

To Change the World is a difficult book to critique. It's broad in scope, arguing that the Christian Right (Dobson & co.), the Christian Left (Wallis & co.), and the Neo-Anabaptists (Hauerwas & co.) have all basically got it wrong. Rather than "a pox on all your houses," James Davison Hunter argues that Christians should look to Jeremiah 29 in the context of exile and adopt a posture of "faithful presence" in positions throughout the culture.

The difficulty with a book like this is that it is of necessity so large that to be readable it can only criticize summaries, and summaries are going to be straw men in one way or another. As far as the political Right and Left, Hunter makes a very good argument that the very politics they practice underwrites the political assumptions that create the sense of injustice and aggreivance they feed off in the first place. A vicious feedback cycle that gets us nowhere. They need their enemies, and some among them idolize their own ossified positions. I'm with Hunter on this -- hence the irony and tragedy in his subtitle.

Hunter's criticisms of the neo-Anabaptists are more problematic to me. That's quite a diverse group, especially because Hunter includes people like Richard B. Hays, who don't truly belong. Hauerwas does belong, but Hauerwas has produced such a large body of work that I can't help but feel that Hunter is cherry-picking in what he quotes. For instance, if you're going to say that neo-Anabaptists are all about disengagement, you need to look at the counterargument that is Hauerwas's Gifford Lectures, in which he adapts natural theology to his own framework. This and Hauerwas's State of the University are the best things I've read by him, I'd say, and they're not about disengagement by any stretch of the word. So my favorite writings of Hauerwas are nowhere to be found, but how could they be? There's only 300 pages here, and I'd be complaining if there was much more. The truly wrong -- as in, that's just wrong -- quotes come from other "neo-Anabaptists," none of whom I have read. How influential are those?

And yet ... I have the feeling that Hauerwas is indeed incomplete without other people showing where he's not quite all that, and I did find this section one of the most interesting parts of Hunter's book. Just like G.K. Chesterton and Hauerwas create sparks and tension, I'm happy to have other sources of that. I like sparks. Dissonant chords are interesting.

I have to conclude that Hunter's underlying thesis is not wrong. I do think "faithful presence" indeed comes closer than the other three positions as described in this book, and that's what I want to focus on. Mainly, I find elements of "faithful presence" in the non-extreme positions of the other three "wings" of Christianity, in a mere Christianity kind of way. I'll bet Hunter would agree, and I appreciate the positive agenda those two words start to write for us. So this book does just what it can do. It doesn't slay the giants, but I don't think it sets out to. It does point out that changing the world is hard, we can't do it alone, and relying on God with patience, perseverance and wisdom is what's really important. I can appreciate that, and reading this book, I did appreciate it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

From Maureen Dowd to MOOCs

Maureen Dowd just published a column on Sheryl Sandberg's attempt to go from Facebook exec to feminist working-mom icon through her "Lean In" book-web-marketing push. Dowd's words may apply as well to the "online education" evangelists, pushing the Massive Online-Only Courses (MOOCs) mentioned earlier on this blog. Substitute "online education movement" or "MOOC professor" for "Sandberg"/"herself" and "education" for "social movement" and "social idealism":

Sandberg ... doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign. Just because digital technology makes connecting possible doesn’t mean you’re actually reaching people.

People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down. Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.

She says she’s using marketing for the purpose of social idealism. But she’s actually using social idealism for the purpose of marketing.
I think it's fitting to switch around the nouns on this passage because the underlying question is what technology can truly accomplish. It can do a lot. Online technology has great promise for expanding education, but it can not supplant the college experience.
Thousands of "students" in a MOOC imply that the teacher of the MOOC must be better than other teachers -- but what it really means is that the prof in front of the MOOC is at a more-elite, more-connected institution, and, yes, may be a better scholar. But do we really think the best scholars are de facto the best teachers? Was Einstein renowned for his large lecture courses?
Take heed, MOOCs: "Connecting" people is not "reaching" people.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Little Green Meteorite from Mercury

It's not quite the shade of the aliens from Toy Story 3, but it's close:

This odd rock is definitely from outside our planet, and the best hypothesis right now is that it's from Mercury. Its color comes from chromium and there's a lot of magnesium and calcium in it, but the weirdest thing is that it is almost completely devoid of iron. Iron is the most stable nucleus possible and there tends to be a lot of it in our rocks and normal asteroids. Although there's a lot of it around here, there's not a lot of it closer to the sun. Mercury is the best candidate for this profile of elements in the local environs (taking "local" somewhat loosely, of course).

So do we have a piece of rock that reflected traveling light ages ago -- a fragment of the messenger of the gods? Not sure yet, but there's several chemical tests to find out, detailed here. More to come ...

The Periodic Table of M&Ms

M&Ms are so fundamentally elemental -- the round shape, the bright colors, even the different things in the middle -- that they lend themselves particularly well to a periodic table parody. This is apparently on the wall at the new M&M store in London:

Cute and local, but not much truly periodic about it. I give it a B. Let's see some more ...

And more periodic table parodies can be found here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: The Secrets of Alchemy

Is it a paradox to say that a book titled The Secrets of Alchemy is open and brisk? Treatments of alchemy to this point have been either rationalist dismissals of the practice and all it represented, or dense historical works that get as lost in the details as the alchemists themselves did. In this book, Lawrence M. Principe lays out a targeted and clear (at least, as much as is possible!) history of the subject. He actually tried to carry out the described experiments, and when he encountered frustration, he persevered (sounds like normal lab work) and eventually it worked like they said in many cases. Not Philsopher's Stone cases ... but he did make a "Philsopher's Tree", which is quite wondrous in itself. If you want to really know about alchemy and what it was, read this book. I can't recommend it highly enough for answering that question.

Because the alchemists were always not quite trusted, and because they did much work in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries as the Enlightenment was emerging and drawing its lines, they have been caught on the wrong side of those lines for a long time. Some deservedly so, but Principe's experiments show that there was some surprisingly sophisticated experimental chemistry going on.

Principe bridges the gap between modern and premodern worlds expertly, and in doing so says some things that align with Owen Barfield about how people literally see differently now than they used to. My favorite part about how premodern or early modern eyes can benefit the scientist comes from this passage about the chymist Paracelsus -- imagine this, the chemist as a co-redeemer, a high calling indeed:

p.128 -129“Paracelsus endeavored to generate an entire world system, embracing the whole of theology and natural philosophy … For him, chymical processes provided the fundamental model for explaining natural processes in the physical universe as well as within the human body. For example, the cycle of rain through sea, air, and land was for Paracelsus the great cosmic distillation. [Long list] were for him inherently chymical processes. God Himself is the Master Chymist; his creation of an ordered world out of primordial chaos was akin to the chymist’s extraction, purification, and elaboration of common materials into chymical products, and His final judgment of the world by fire like the chymist using fire to purge impurities from precious metals. Paracelsus’s system has been called a ‘chemical worldview’ … “
"Some Paracelsians even held that all poison and toxicity entered the world only with original sin. Therefore, by using chymistry to purify now-poisonous substances into medicines, the chymist returned them to their wholesome, pristine, prelapsarian state as they were created by God in the beginning. In effect, the chymical process was thus redemptive, and the chymist participated as a co-redeemer of a fallen world.”

Have iPhone, Will Take Spectra

I've seen apps for scientific communication and even for microscopy. It was only a matter of time until someone wrote an app for an iPhone's camera to be able to separate light into its components: the iPhone spectrometer. The great thing about this is you just need some black construction paper and a diffraction grating ... and an iPhone or iPad. Then you can go around separating the light around you into rainbows that reveal how the light is made. I'm feeling a home science project coming on right now ...

Check it out here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Robert Jordan vs. J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 4: Plot and Endings

[Back to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]

And now we come to the real spoiler-filled part: what does the ending say about the compare and contrast between Jordan and Tolkien?

As was shown in one way with the heroic charges at the end, always coming when all hope (or some amount of said hope) is lost, a formula that Tolkien even formalized as the "eucatastrophe": both books are eucatastrophic in multiple ways, which requires dense, precise plotting. It's one of the joys of the genre. Tolkien obsessed over making sure that his entire plot fit together neatly, so that when, for example, Frodo and Pippin are looking "at each other" across the expanse between them without knowing it, the time and phase of the moon work out precisely. Again, for all his historically-based fulmination about industry, Tolkien has a place for detail and even mechanism in his stories. Jordan's story is, if anything, even more mechanical. Min, for example, seems like a fairly useless character who becomes elevated to a particular role in the Seanchan all of a sudden and then is able to use her "fortune-telling" power to out a spy. Even the non-warriors, the Ogier and the Tinkers, have a role in the Last Battle. Some of the build-up is incommensurate to the pay-off -- I'm looking at you, Padan Fain -- but how could it be truly commensurate? After all, Sanderson's already expanded Jordan's timeline by three books that are all faster-paced than the 11 previous books. I'm just happy to be done and gain surprises like Min's where appropriate. That was fun.

In fact, Jordan's mechanisms are, if anything, too obviously mechanical at the end. I don't blame Sanderson for this; I blame Jordan for imagining he had only one book left to write when he truly had four or five, "condensed" into three by Sanderson. I would have loved to see Jordan's full treatment about how all the nations could be brought together by Rand as a treaty, for example, or the Seanchan realizing they owe fealty to Rand (although I really wonder why they didn't figure this one out before, it's awfully obvious to me). One of the hidden joys of these books is the very detailed procedure that at first glance looks boring, which is presaged famously in Tolkien by The Council of Elrond. This happened when Egwene was elevated to the Amyrlin Seat and in some ways in Elayne's ascent to queenhood as well, but there just wasn't time for it when it mattered most. This is not Sanderson, because Jordan himself did not allow time for it in his own 12-book plan. Another testament to just how amazing Tolkien was in orchestrating his storylines in three books: on an overall basis, it's a close call but I judge that Tolkien is still the king of plot.

Earlier I mentioned how I didn't really know how to assess Jordan's entire work till I saw how he ended it. I would have loved for Jordan to have "pulled a Tolkien" with his ending, with an element of Tolkien's world that not many people know about. Let me explain, and yes, this does involve the Silmarillion. Wake up, now!

The way I read it, Tolkien's world used to be flat and is now spherical like ours. It happened like this: Numenor was the great continent of men that could see all the way to the Blessed Lands in the West (if you squint). But Sauron preyed on their pride and they tried to assult the Blessed Lands by force, which of course failed, but to make the failure really concrete, the Valar literally severed the Blessed Lands from the rest of the world and made the world wrap around itself. They made the world spherical, so I guess the directions to the Blessed Land change from "go west young man" to "go west and UP." This is one of the way the Fall happens in Middle Earth.

Since in Jordan, time itself is circular, I was hoping Rand would throw a fast one by literally breaking the Wheel of Time and making it linear again. Is this unexpected enough? It would have been to me (at the point at which I began to half-expect it, that is). Instead of the world breaking, the cycle of revolutions would be broken and redemption would be possible. The cycle of re-births would also be broken, making each life more independent and in my view, important. I like the theological implications of all this too.

Despite my detailed and well-reasoned plans, Jordan didn't do any of this. He kept time in a wheel and the Dark One in a bottle. The only moderately interesting theological "debate" was whether the Dark One should be destroyed or not. Leaving aside the implications of how a human could destroy a god, the only question seems to be, would a world without evil be any good? The scenes of a world with too much evil, and with too much good, are mildly interesting but nowhere near as richly realized as the world itself. Some passages says Shai'tan is a personified force, but the whole confrontation depends on Shai'tan being a force-bearing personality. The whole philosophical side of this has the complexity of a late-night bull session in a dorm. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Because evil is necessary it must be imprisoned rather than destroyed, and, um, what does that really mean? Death is ultimately a friend, not an enemy, and in my opinion no true redemption is possible. Which fits because time is still stuck in a wheel. Alas. Conversely, in Tolkien, evil is defeated by the humble, the patient, and the suffering as was as the noble and heroic. In fact, the heroes come to the point of sacrificing themselves so that the hobbits may sacrifice themselves! This carries a deep echo that maybe, in real life, evil can be defeated with the same spiritual judo move. That's a better ending than Jordan's solution: returning to square 1 while, this time, actually caring about all these people who are dying for you while you get off just fine in your enemy's mortal flesh. The death of Lews Therin is more resonant for me than the post-battle life of Rand al'Thor.

So that's the ending, but it's not the very ending in Tolkien. In the very ending,Tolkien has the scouring of the shire, one of the most enduring parts of the book (at least in my experience of multiple readings) in which the hobbits truly grow up and Frodo's persistent wound and unfitness for the world is clear. In its place, Jordan ends abruptly instead of lovingly. I have this vision of Sanderson collapsing on the floor with exhaustion unable to write another word. Rand rides off into the sunset alone with three women contentedly pining away in the background. After all the wounds that won't heal and taints and tragedies inherent in power in Jordan, it's all washed away by reversion and we are back where we started, and the wheel continues to turn. I guess saidar is cleansed, that's something. But how was it cleansed? Some very powerful magic that has no emotional or personal equivalent beyond requiring male and female cooperation and a really big ter'angreal. In Jordan, the world is saved to be back where it was. In Tolkien, the world is saved for the new healer-king to rule and the one who saved it is not fit for it anymore. I have to tell you, one of these resonates more with me, and it's not the one with the women left behind. It's the one with the women ruling alongside their spouses and healing the land itself. Jordan's ending is, indeed, too happy. It does not ring true, and I only teared up a little, once. When reading Tolkien I couldn't even finish when Frodo sees the white sands at the end ...

So, in the end, the very end, a very good place to end: as I've grown up Robert Jordan has grown in my estimation and is now my second-favorite fantasy author. First place used to be Tad Williams but as you can tell, with time and seasoning he dropped to third place (I still don't think he's topped To Green Angel Tower). As you can tell, in my reading, Tolkien's genius endures and grows with depth the more it is explored. Long live the tweedy king.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: Bad Science

Ben Goldacre is a name I had not heard till I found this book in the staff recommendations for Seattle Public Library. My loss. Goldacre is a science writer from the UK who targets shoddy science in all its forms save academic fraud. That means nutritionists, homeopaths, big pharma, and especially vaccine deniers get skewered by his clear, bracing prose. I think he's very much right on very most of the issues he specifically talks about. His second chapter on the placebo effect I found to be absolutely fascinating on a theological level -- what is the natural theology of the placebo effect, considering it is very, very strong and in its own way effective? -- but then he'll drop in a needless materialist "Dawkinsism" (NMD) equating theologians with liars or something like that and he'll lose me for a few pages while I grumble back at him.

His clarion call at the end of the book for the goal of good science writing stirs my soul too, and his suggestion for clear numbers like "natural frrequencies" is a bandwagon I'm wholly behind. I will try to do some of that in my own writing. But I wonder at the end of the book, since all his cases are clear and forcefully made, why does his argument add up to be less than the sum of its parts? Why is he such a lone voice in the wilderness in the sense that MMR vaccine deniers will get halfway around the world while he's still putting his shoes on? Let me be clear, I am on his side, and enroll my children in vaccine trials, for crying out loud. As a convinced reader, I want him to be more convincing than he is to the unconvinced.

If I had to say one thing it's that, even though his byline is "it's a bit more complicated than that", that he simplifies human experience too much. Reading this book, it seems like it's easy to do clear science and that the only real obstacle is widespread ignorance, which makes the questioning reader not just wrong but stupid, and I presume they stop listening (like my example with his swipe at theologians). Ignorance is very much a factor, but reading Bad Science so soon after reading the incredibly nuanced and back and forth arguments of how cancer therapies historically developed found in the Emperor of All Maladies, I'm left finding the latter book (formerly read) as more educational about "real science", more emotionally resonant and therefore more persuasive for many of the very same things Goldacre argues for. The full frontal assault that is a clear argument like Goldacre's is sometimes unfair because science is not all built from the best science. Some scientific bricks are imperfect, as shown in Emperor of All Maladies, but they still produce progress. I would have liked this book much more, in other words, if it drew out the fascinating implications of the placebo chapter and spent less time piling on to the already discredited. But I'm also listening in on this conversation: it's really for a UK audience and as a US reader I have different priorities.

At the end of the day, how many more flies do you catch with honey rather than vinegar?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Robert Jordan vs. J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 3: People and Heroes

One huge difference, perhaps the largest, between Tolkien and Jordan is in the way they write people. The differences are evident in the population of the world: Jordan's is clearly more "human" in focus. Of non-humans, the evil creatures are the diverse ones (Trollocs, Myrddraal,  Draghkar, Gray Men, the entire ecosystem of the Blight), although we understand more of Tolkien's orc society than we ever do of the evil non-humans in Jordan.  Don't even start about the Aelfinn and Eelfinn, they're just plain weird. As for good creatures, you have the Ogier, and I suppose the weird Seanchan beasts, but really all the diversity is in the human culture itself. Jordan's people are truly distinct, almost a little too distinct in that if you've seen one Domani, you've seen them all, and there's so many permutations of hairstyles that I lost count. Two of Jordan's greatest creations are the social structures of the Aiel and the Seanchan. And then there's an entire other people, the Shara, who drop in without warning to make the Last Battle a fair fight for the bad guys. Only in Robert Jordan can the reader forget an entire subcontinent.

This societal diversity in Jordan's world is mirrored by racial diversity in Middle-Earth: elves, dwarves, two (three?) kinds of orcs, trolls, dragons, Balrogs, and of course hobbits. There's a few nations of humans but who can tell them apart? One of them likes horses and mead-halls. The interesting thing here is that there's more fluidity between Tolkien's races than there is between Jordan's societies, in that you have the half-elven and the fact that orcs were made in imitation of (and if I recall correctly, FROM) elves. The Rohirrim and the Gondorians have many deep connections. Much of Tolkien's emphasis on race rubs 21st-century sensibilities the wrong way, but the barriers are not as strong as they seem on first glance, even between species. I do wish we knew more about the Harad men and Easterlings, because after all my Tolkien study they still seem like crudely drawn stereotypes to me, in a way that even orcs do not. Of course, we spend time with orc companies on two occasions and we never see the other human countries except in battle.

As for the "made male and female" form of diversity, Robert Jordan clearly has the edge in obvious, strong female characters. All the wizards are women, at least at first, and they do fine at taking care of themselves, thank you very much. One of the most resonant parts of Jordan is the limitations on men, the "taint" on male saidin magic that means all the magic power goes to the women of his world. This "taint" is like its own substance and is driven out with power. This is quite the opposite of Tolkien's version of corruption (the ring, but also the dragon-sickness and the dwarvish greed for vengeance), which is more a subversion of the will and seems to come from within rather than be imposed from without.

Jordan clearly has the edge on female charcters that are believable and important. Yet I still want to point out that in the context of Beowulf, the kind of story Tolkien was trying to write, the female characters in Lord of the Rings stand out from that just as much as Jordan's women stand out from Tolkien's! And for all the strength of the female characters, in Jordan, it's really the male characters that we follow and that run the show: Rand, Mat, and Perrin. One of the aspects of the Wheel of Time that continues to bug me is Rand's harem, that somehow he's such a ta'veren that he makes three different, strong women fall in love with him and share him without issues. I remember when that kind of thing happened in the Old Testament and I don't believe it was too stable of an arrangement.

But there's another but to this but: Egwene. I would never have predicted this, but in the last 4 or 5 books of the series, basically since she became Amyrlin, she became my favorite character. And (I TOLD YOU THIS WOULD HAVE SPOILERS) it seems incredibly fitting that she dies in the end. She is the youngest Amyrlin seat, and believably wields authority. She fights back against incredible odds, politically, in taking back the White Tower. My biggest surprise from Jordan is that my favorite sequence involves how this young magic-user negotiates the politics of sacrifice and endurance to plausibly defeat her enemies from within, without "firing a shot" of magic power in her own defense. I thought my favorite sequence would be the last battle, but it was Egwene winning the White Tower. Even her role in the Last Battle is one of my favorites, as she figures out anti-balefire and self-immolates in the light, stamping the entire ending with an entirely appropriate sense of loss. I thought that would be Rand, and perhaps it should have been Rand too. But in that scene, I think Egwene did what Rand also should have done. At least someone did it.

Which brings us to the heroes of the Last Battle. Jordan gets what Tolkien also got: battles are about heroism, not tactics. The key part of the Battle of Pelannor Fields is the charge of the Rohirrim and the arrival of Aragon in the ships of the Corsairs, the thrilling turns of the tide. There's enough of that in Jordan but it's more on the personal level, at least in the Last Battle, than it is on the level of surprise tactics. (The surprise tactics in the Last Battle include ambushing people with gateway cannon, which just seems unsporting and downright non-heroic, though still kind of a cool idea.) The sequence of attacks against Demandred, beginning with Gawyn riding off on a doomed march with the bloody Seanchan rings, and running through Galad, Logain, and finally Lan, is just what heroism is about. I do wish more of them had died, actually. Lan's ending move to defeat Demandred was obvious but perfectly fitting in that obvious kind of way. I only think it would have been more perfectly fitting if he had indeed lost his life in taking Demandred's. For a series that is fully ending, A Memory of Light was a little light on the body count. But, really, so was Lord of the Rings.

The best moment of the Last Battle? Olver blowing the Horn (something no one expected, thinking it would have to be Mat), all alone, almost ended, and then ... his old friend rides up as one of the resuscitated Heroes of the Horn, back from the grave to save him one last time. That little moment with that (literally) minor character, perhaps because it caught me off guard, was my favorite of that 200-page chapter. That's what heroism is about.

On the whole, I think Jordan's people resonate with me more, but I also have to remember that, while Jordan took all the time he could to make his characters detailed and relatable, Tolkien was looking for a bit of distance in his people and how he wrote them. Tolkien deliberately made his characters stilted (except for the hobbits, of course) and made them say things like "alas" and "behold" and all that. Tolkien just didn't place as high a priority on humanizing his characters, because he was consciously writing an epic, not a novel. So there's certainly more humans in Jordan, but I do wonder if, in 50 years, that will seem as archaic and odd as Tolkien's -- only not deliberately so. And all those heroes did what they did, but none literally walked through the valley of the shadow of death like Aragorn on the paths of the dead. Hard to be more heroic than that.

[Next in Part 4: Plot and Endings]

Friday, February 1, 2013

Robert Jordan vs. J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 2: Science and Magic

The worlds Jordan and Tolkien have created are built out of the ordinary atop a substrate of extraordinary. I'd like to look at the invisible forces first, that is, how their worlds are constructed and the forces, technological and magical, that manipulate each one.


Both Jordan and Tolkien have an implicit direction of technological advancement. This is obvious in Jordan, with characters who invent cannons, gunpowder, and steam engines. I like those details, it gives the books a steampunk vibe that is different from Tolkien's vision. True, Jordan's visions of the distant past include flying vehicles and other futuristic images, but it's never clear if those are magic or science (or, in Clarke's famous quote, both?). Whatever happened in the Age of Legends, for the current age, science and mechanism is providing a way forward.

What most people don't realize is that Tolkien has a more tragic, less mechanical vision of progress, but he has a vision nonetheless. Although he's vague on these points, Tolkien at times told others he intended Lord of the Rings to be our own myth, in our own past. As such, it shows the ascent of man and the departure of the elves. The dwarves, ents, and even the Astari/wizards are also clearly on their way out. The closest thing to a mechnical inventor is Saruman -- Tolkien clearly has a less "mechanical" vision of how humans should progress! -- but the return of the King is leading to a world of less magic and more humans. I can imagine someone inventing a cannon in the future. Anybody care to write fan fiction about cannon vs. balrog?


Jordan's magic is divided up into five elemental-like substances (the four usual suspects + spirit) consisting of the One Power. The male/saidar and female/saidin components of this are separate classes as well. Then, in a move that I'm still not sure is exactly parsimonious, he introduces a different power, the True Power, in the later books that is part of the "Dark One's Essence". Does that mean Shai'tan is being tangled around when one of the Forsaken weaves the True Power? Whatever is going on there, it's a bit like chemistry in that magic-users combine elements and, well, make reactions go, like fireballs or Healing. It's a nice system that conveys complexity and the need for skill in determining the power of different magic-users. You even have specializations in that Nynaeve can Heal well and Androl can make gateways but do little else.

The gateway magic itself seems to be something that Jordan only graadually realized could be so powerful, but it certainly became perhaps the hallmark spell of the series. Not only gates to transport or see new things, but spinning Deathgates were invented. Some of the rules seem arbitrary (thank goodness Trollocs can't go through Waygates) but there's an empirical process of discovery and trial and error in which the reader, and presumably the author himself, figures out the implications of these magical gates as we go along. In this way the magic is like science, and is somewhat technological as well.

Tolkien's magic is never emphasized the way it is in the later examples of the genre he founded. We never find out what it really is, or what constitutes strength in a field, or what makes it go. What we do see is usually explainable by other means, such as Gandalf's delaying the trolls till the sun comes out, or the mano-a-mano confrontation of Gandalf and Denethor. It's important to remember that Denethor is in some senses an equal of the great wizard Gandalf, so magic and political power overlap at least somewhat. Also, the political power of King Elessar is combined with a healing hand, another way in which social power and medical power overlap. Tolkien is saying something about the healing of all of creation, in which body and soul are joined and a good king is also a good doctor.

As you get into the story, Tolkien's magic seems more real and Jordan's less so. The fact of the matter is that fireballs are cool the first time and after a few go-rounds seem just like fancy cannonballs. Think of the difference between the way magic feels at Dumai's Wells and in the Last Battle. Even balefire becomes normal with overuse. The more powerful a detailed magic element is, like balefire, the less easy it is to work out its implications. What makes something disappear vs. lose a bit when balefire hits it? Shouldn't there be a popping sound when air is balefired out of the Pattern? (Note that Perrin finds out that creating a vacuum prevents the propagation of sound at one point in the last book!) Strength in Tolkien's magic is closely related to the human will itself, something that I think in our 21st-century enlightment we discount or even forget.

Perhaps Jordan's magic is ultimately mechanical and Tolkien's is organic, growing from life itself and the ties that bind creature to environment. Tolkien never forgot that "spell" means "word" at its root, and the very act of speaking and persuasion is therefore a form of magic, useful for healing or destruction. That makes Tolkien's magic more enduring, more relevant, and more real. The persuasive powers of Saruman's voice constitute a magic spell ultimately more chilling than balefire.

Next up in Part 3: People and Heroes

From Owen Barfield to Wes Anderson

At the end of the Responding to Barfield series (see sidebar), I felt left with the question, what does it look like to "put things back together"? Some hints of that have been found in other books by Barfield, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings may be the best example of it, but I want more. I want examples, diagrams, panoramas. This excellent essay by Michael Chabon shows how the films of Wes Anderson may show us something about that. The best example of this, and Anderson's best film, is Moonrise Kingdom. Now I need to go back and watch those other films again ...