Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Game of Thrones/A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

I recently read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I wanted to read the books before I watched the TV show, and people keep telling me to watch the TV show. My only message to all-them is to read the books. They’re amazing.

George R.R. Martin wrote A Game of Thrones is 1996 where it was instantly showered with awards. It won the Locus Award, the World Fantasy Award, was nominated for the Nebula Award, and parts of it won the Hugo Award for best novella. Let me just say that my top 10 favorite books have all won the Hugo and Nebula, or have at least been nominated. It basically guarantees that the book is going to be fantastic. The reason I’m telling you about all of Martin’s awards is because I’m surprised his books were so removed from the public’s radar. Martin is finally getting the recognition he deserves, and I’m sure it has everything to do with the TV show. It’s good to know the old boob tube is good for something.

A lot of people compare Martin to Tolkien. I understand the desire; it is very high praise for Martin. But, to me it seems a lot like saying apples and oranges are similar because they’re fruit and round. The only thing similar about Martin and Tolkien is that they write fantastic fantasy. If there were more supremely talented fantasy writers than Tolkien and Martin wouldn’t seem so similar.

Aside from the fact that their style is very different, I always thought Tolkien was more of a storyteller and Martin more of a character developer. Tolkien’s books are all about the story; they’re about the universe he’s created, the past, the present, even the future. Martin takes character development to the extreme. The most obvious indicator is that the books are written from about nine different points of view at any one time. Additionally, each character is very different. He writes a 10-year-old noble girl as well as he writes a 50 year old ex smuggler with two sons. Somehow he manages to represent the soul of each character in a remarkably believable and subtle way. I’m not sure how he does it, I can’t think of another author who does it as well.

A big theme in A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings is the competing ides of honor, bravery and strength. The fact that the books are written from so many different points of view means that Martin is going to have a chance to represent the ideals of all those characters. In this universe (kind of like our medieval ages) honor is a very big deal. I’m very intrigued how each character represents their idea of what it means in be brave and honorable. For Arya strength means having the power to kill or elude people. She felt like a mouse when she was trapped as a servant, but once she was able to choose three people to kill she felt strong. Her sister Sansa, on the other hand, felt like honor and bravery meant remembering her courtesies even when times got tough. The castle was under siege, she was terrified, and still she was able to say something polite to the Hound, even though she feared and disliked him. Tyrion found his strength in being smarter than other people and controlling them through that knowledge. Cersei used sex to control people, and valued beauty, wealth and political power.

            Another big theme in the books was the duty required to family. Tyrion Lannister would cover up any crime and support any folly of his family for the simple reason that they were family and that’s what you did. Yet he let his contempt for his family be very pain, and didn’t feel the smallest bit of love for them (with the exception of Jaime). Bran Stark, on the other hand, took enormous pride in being a Stark and believed he was held to a higher standard of behavior because of his station. He loved his family and missed them greatly when he was parted from them. It’s all these different ideals that make A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings.

One of the most interesting things about George R.R. Martin’s books is the character he chooses to focus on. He writes from the point of view of character who seem like they should almost be supporting characters instead of main characters. For example, instead of writing from Jamie or Tywin’s point of view he chose Tyroin. Tyroin is by far the most interesting and awesome of the Lannisters, but he is not the obvious main character. Another example is choosing to write from Bran’s point of view instead of Rob the heir. Another example, to a lesser extent, is writing from Ned Stark instead of Robert Baratheon. Martin very cleverly tells the story from the point of view from people who are very interesting rather than the main characters. We actually get a better view of the events because they are being told by less biased characters. If the story was told from Jaime’s point of view, for example, we would think Cersei Lannister was pretty great (or at least really hot) instead of the wack-a-doodle that she is.

The take-a-way message from this long rambling post is that you should read the books. They’re awesome. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment takes it’s self very seriously. It is not an undertaking to be embarked upon lightly. That being said, I did enjoy the change of pace. This is a book I was supposed to read in high school. Needless to say, that pretty much means that it was totally new to me.

Crime and Punishment was a 500-page comment on the effects of social alienation and poverty. What extent can you excuse a person’s actions because they were “pushed too far” or “couldn’t control themselves?” This theme is mostly seen in Raskolnikov, the main character and “protagonist.” Raskolnikov is a former student who has fallen on hard times. For no evident reason, he is fixated on the idea of killing an old pawnbroker he has a slight acquaintance with. He may be motivated by money, but that doesn't seem to be his primary goal. Eventually, he surprises himself by carrying out the murder, but ends up having to kill the pawnbroker’s sister when she comes in and witnesses the crime. Raskolnikov experiences intense mood swings throughout the whole book. One moment he is elated and happy about his crime, the next he is wracked with such guilt that he sinks into deep, overwhelming depression. It’s pretty obvious that he is experiencing a mental break, which would explain the need to murder in the first place. Eventually, Raskolnikov turns himself into the police. Where he (happily) spends his remaining days in jail.

The reason Raskolnikov is such an extraordinary character is because he presents a real problem to the reader. He is a murder, a lunatic, but yet somehow we end up rooting for him. There isn’t actually anything likable about Raskolnikov, but I found myself sympathizing with him. He felt out of control, hopeless, alone. I think everyone feels like that sometimes. An interesting comment is that the name Raskolnikov is derived from the Russian word raskolnik, which means divided. Divided is a perfect way to describe Raskolnikov’s feelings and actions. 

Crime and Punishment is perhaps the first book I read that so completely switches the role of protagonist and antagonist. Raskolnikov is the protagonist and Porfiry Petrovitch the antagonist. Raskolnikov is a first-degree murderer and Porfiry is the hard working detective who wants justice. Porfiry even goes so far as to apologize for first suspecting Raskolnikov. How does Dostoyevsky so convincingly make the case for Raskolnikov? I’m not really sure. I think it’s because of the bleakness of the book. St. Petersburg is painted as such a dirty, dismal place, and Raskolnikov so destitute and depressed, that somehow unthinkable choices seem more reasonable. 

Raskolnikov’s actions can also be viewed in another way. Immediately after the murder he felt elated, and invincible. It takes a while for him to spiral down into all consuming depression. In the beginning of the novel he viewed himself as above the rules, and better than general society. It takes him a while to realize he is merely another man.  As he feels the affects of guilt, Raskolnikov realizes that he is bound by the same moral code as any other man. He can’t commit murder because he is just like everyone else, and therefore bound by the same rules. This "superman" theory is a popular interpretation of Crime and Punishment. This is the one thing I remember my teacher talking about it high school. Now I see where he was coming from.

Sonia and Raskolnikov represent interesting parallels. They are both sinners, but she sacrifices herself for her family while he sins for his own selfish (and irrational) gains. When Raskolnikov first meets Sonia he assumes that she would understand his motivations because she is living in sin as well. Surprisingly, she does react very well when he admits the murder to her. But it is not because she agrees with what he has done, but because she can find the good in everyone. This ties in the theme of poverty. Sonia is basically an angel by personality but pushed into prostitution and social alienation by poverty.

The whole novel is written in a bleak, depressing tone. I could almost feel the dirt from the streets crawling over my skin. I think Dostoyevsk’s skill as a writer kept me focuses when I would have otherwise grown board of the density of Crime and Punishment. Yet even though it is not necessarily a fun read it’s very interesting. It illustrates the gritty side of humanity all too well. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Whenever I finish a book I usually want to talk to my dad about it. He reads a lot of the same things I do and always has something interesting to say about them. I was in the middle of marveling at how insightful Huxley was when my father looked at me and said, “I know how Huxley knew all those things.” I blinked back at him and smiled a little. I was curious. He simply said, “He’s an alien.”

If I had to choose one person who was most likely to be an alien it would definitely be Aldous Huxley. How else would he predict the horrors of genetic engineering in 1931 when DNA’s role in heredity wasn’t confirmed until 1952? How else would he have guessed that alcohol stunted fetal growth when Fetal Alcohol Syndrome wasn’t named until 1973 and was just beginning to be recognized in 1968? To put it bluntly, the man must be an alien.

But now down to business. Brave New World is work of speculative fiction set in a “utopian” society that is, in reality, more of a nightmare than a dream. It is often compared to Orwell’s 1984. However, to compare 1984 and Brave New World is like comparing a sailboat to a submarine. One floats on water and one dives below it, so they are both boats, but in reality they do opposite things. Orwell’s 1984 is terrifying because it shows how dark society can be, Brave New World is scary because it shows how damaging blissful happiness can be.

The biggest thing I took away from Brave New World is that what someone wants and what someone needs are two very different things. As an individual I want to be happy, but I need to be mentally stimulated in order to feel fulfilled. In Brave New World everyone takes soma to make them happy. This drug creates an “imbecilic happiness” that pacifies society. While soma does make people happy it also “bottles their minds.” John points out that soma makes everyone very childlike. The gratification is instantaneous and therefore meaningless. People don’t need to strive towards something bigger than themselves and so they become childlike, spoiled and ignorant.

In chapter 17, the Controller Mustapha Mond, said that nobility, heroism, war and passion were products of political instability. If you are passionate it means you have a divided allegiance to a person or thing, if you are noble it means that there is a cause you must stand up for, if you are heroic there must be something that needs rescuing. The idea is that in a perfectly balanced society human emotion is unnecessary. Everything is taken care of for you, so there is no need for your life to be interrupted or your peace to be bothered. Extreme passion can only exist if there is sadness too, so if you eliminate sadness you also eliminate the most reverent feelings as well.

I was so struck with Brave New World because it so accurately and tactfully presented a society where everyone was truly a slave to uninterrupted happiness. This was particularly meaningful to me because I consider myself a resilient and unusually happy person. I never before considered the consequences of going too far. I have always thought that the world would be a much better place if everyone could be counted on to be happy. Now I am wondering if that is really the case. The slightly disturbing truth is that out of tragedy come moments of true greatness.