Category Archives: Books

Sauron sweeps to victory in Middle-Earth

So I wrote this silly thing and figured I might as well put it up here.

the-eye-of-sauron_3133429b

Our top story today is the shocking upset in this year’s elections as Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, sweeps towards a truly unexpected victory across much of Middle-Earth. The controversial policies of the coalition government, including the use of invasive surveillance programs such as PALANTIR, the privatisation of the Houses of Healing, and the pillaging of the villages of the common folk, seem to have done less harm than expected to the fortunes of Mordor’s candidates.

Not since the First Age and the re-election of Melkor, called Morgorth, the Great Enemy, has an incumbent party seen such a resounding increase in elected seats. The Home Secretary, Shelob the Spider, was overheard clicking her mandibles with glee, while the Witch-King of Angmar promised that under his continued stewardship as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Middle-Earth’s economic recovery would be assured.

When asked for for comment, the Dark Lord Sauron, having yet to re-attain physical form and thus remaining, for the moment, a giant fiery eyeball, repeated his highly successful campaign catchphrase: “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, / Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” The Dark Lord closed his remarks by whispering the words “I SEE YOU” into the very souls of men, before turning his attention elsewhere.

Sauron’s coalition partner Saruman has, however, been dealt a crushing blow. Formerly of the White Council, it was hoped after the last election that the wisdom of Saruman would mollify the extreme rapacious tendencies of the forces of evil. However, the controversies surrounding university tuition fees and the burning of the Westfold have alienated his traditional base in the Gap of Rohan, and polling data suggests his fighting Uruk-Hai have apparently left him behind, instead opting to vote directly for his evil master, Sauron.

More shocking was the failure of the Free Men of Middle-Eath to make any significant headway, and indeed losing their last grasp on the north, as the Men of Dale were routed in the vote by the Dwarven Nationalists. Last year’s referendum on Dwarven Independence, far from drawing a line under the question of the Dwarven Nationalism, seems to have galvanised support for Dáin Ironfoot, who has long claimed that, with the riches of Erebor now regained from Smaug, the Dwarves are capable of sustaining their own economy without direct support from the south.

Questions will no doubt be asked around the leadership of Faramir, son of Denethor, who has been unable to escape accusations of being a ‘wizard’s pupil’. Despite talk of being tainted by the power of the One Ring, there will no doubt be those who wonder if Boromir, Faramir’s older brother, would have been more suited to leadership of the party in this election. Meanwhile, Théoden King, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, was overheard by one insider muttering “Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They are gone, like rain on the mountainside.”

Elsewhere, the Elves have held on to their previous three seats in Lothlórien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens. While the Ents did manage to maintain their presence in Fangorn Forest, their leader Treebeard has released a statement saying that “No one cares for the woods anymore.”

The creature Gollum has also managed to hold at least one seat in parliament. During the election, he was often to be found in his cave, surrounded by kippers, hissing the words “preciousss” and “nasty, tricksy hobbitsesss”. Despite being rumoured to have once been a hobbit-like creature himself, Gollum’s anti-hobbit stance has been central to his campaign, and has gained some traction in former Arnor townships such as Bree, which has seen an influx of migrant hobbits in recent years.

Finally, there have also been unconfirmed reports that Gandalf the Grey, also called Mithrandir and Stormcrow, has been seen on the road from Minas Tirith, gnawing on the brim of his pointed wizard hat. More on this story as it develops.

The Shadow of the Past: ‘The Hobbit’ and the Prequel Problem

Martin Freeman examines his contract with Warner Bros.

Martin Freeman examines his contract with Warner Bros.

Now that the fuss over frame rates and 3D has died down somewhat, at least until the next time around, it seems like as good a moment as any to talk about some of the more fundamental, structural issues surrounding the narrative of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It’ll be fun, I promise.[1]

The Choices of Master Jackson

At its heart, The Hobbit, as a project, is a compromise. This is not inherently a bad thing; all adaptations are compromises. Nevertheless, its status as a prequel necessarily complicates things. It is neither a pure adaptation of the spirit of the book, in all its light whimsy and almost entirely episodic structure, nor is it truly a full conversion of the story into the mode and tone of The Lord of the Rings films. Just compare the excising of Tom Bombadil with the inclusion of the Dwarves’s ‘That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates’ song, or the depiction of the trolls and the Goblin King against their decidedly less loquacious counterparts in the original trilogy.

The effect is a noticeable tonal inconsistency, even within the province of Peter Jackson and company’s own additions – to give one example, it is somewhat incredible to me that Sylvester McCoy’s clownish Radagast the Brown and his amazing giant hares exist in the same film as the flashback sequence to the Battle of Azanulbizar. Here the decapitated head of Thrór, grandfather of Thorin (Richard Armitage), is prominently held aloft over the raging torrent of a battle which wouldn’t look out of place in a Zack Snyder film. A somewhat similar moment in The Two Towers featuring a slain orc is much less jarring, yet more effective, as the audience is allowed to respond to the image itself rather than the odd juxtaposition of moods.[2]

Gandalf and Radagast

An odd juxtaposition of moods.

Moreover, the attempt to tie the beginning of the narrative directly in to the Lord of the Rings creates a stilted effect on the film’s pacing. Beginning in the ‘past’ (relative the film’s primary setting), jumping to the ‘future’, and the finally settling in the ‘present’, the framework of the film becomes needlessly disjointed.[3] Perhaps intended to add a sense of scope to match the epoch-spanning opening sequence to Fellowship of the Ring, instead these multiple beginnings create a sense that the film is constantly restarting itself.[4] It also fractures the audience’s perspective too early and too obviously.

Flotsam and Jetsam

Things brings us to the main problem: The Hobbit is no longer about a hobbit, and its perspective is not that of Bilbo’s half-reluctant, half-curious naiveté. By expanding the scope to include the experiences of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and even Radagast, the audience is detached from the sense of adventure experienced by one small person. Now, Gandalf is unquestionably the best character in the entire Tolkien mythos.[5] However, that does not mean I consider him to be an effective co-protagonist. The introduction of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) is a key example of this, for here they are introduced as characters familiar to the viewpoint of the audience, by way of Gandalf’s knowledge of them.

Some might argue that this is inevitable. Galadriel and Saruman are, given the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, no doubt familiar to the majority of people who went to see An Unexpected Journey. Reintroducing them as if they were new would be as redundant as, well, an origin story for the ‘No Admittance Except on Party Business‘ sign on the gate of Bag End. However, both the inclusion of a brief backstory for a simple sign and the exclusion of a proper introduction for two key characters are ultimately examples of the same problem: the world of The Hobbit is waiting for The Lord of the Rings to happen.

Saruman

Saruman, waiting for The Lord of the Rings to happen.

The treatment of Saruman is a case in point. In Fellowship, Gandalf speaks of Saruman with reverence and respect before the sudden but inevitable betrayal. Yet in The Hobbit, Gandalf treats the mere appearance of the master of his Order as an obstacle, a bureaucratic hindrance. It is hard to see this Gandalf going to Isengard to seek counsel with this Saruman. The dynamic between them is undone, their relationship becomes more static, and Saruman’s betrayal means that much less to us. And Middle-earth feels that much less alive.

The Last Debate

Now, this is the bit where I say I don’t think the film was bad. So, here it goes. I don’t think the film was bad. The performances were almost all strong, and Martin Freeman brought his best everyman performance to his role as Bilbo. Debates over technical innovations aside, the cinematography was frequently beautiful, and the craftsmanship going into the film’s production seemed to me as high quality as the work put into Lord of the Rings. And most importantly, once it gets going, it’s fun. That’s what The Hobbit is supposed to be, and hopefully with these teething issues out of the way, parts two and three might be less flawed. It’s just a pity that, on this occasion, Jackson and his cohorts so frequently got in their own way, diluting the experience of a world they are so expertly capable of conjuring.

___________________________________________________________

[1] The writer of this post accepts no responsibility for time spent reading this which could have instead been used to a) derive a greater amount of fun from elsewhere, b) make profit, or c) take over the world.

[2] The transition from practical effects to CGI is probably also a factor, but that’s a whole other conversation.

[3] My pet theory is that Jackson is in competition with himself here, trying to match the infamous multiple endings to Return of the King.

[4] Not unlike my old laptop.

[5] This view probably says a lot about me.

Burning bright: Alfred Bester’s ‘The Stars My Destination’

Alfred Bester is not nearly as famous, at least outside the world of speculative fiction, as some of the other authors writing during the middle of the 20th Century.[1] His name does not resonate alongside Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. Perhaps that’s because he spent more time editing magazines, or writing for comics and television, than he did working on his own novels. Or perhaps it’s simply because, through whatever mischance of fortune, none of his works have achieved the indelible mark of a Stranger in a Strange Land, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or I, Robot.[2] However, that simply means the few novels he did write, particularly during the 50s, seem all the more like precious gems.

The sinews of thy heart

The Stars My Destination is, nominally, a revenge story – The Count of Monte Cristo in the 25th Century. Gully Foyle, a proletarian everyman, the personification of unfulfilled potential, is alone and adrift in a wrecked spacecraft somewhere in the wide void between Mars and Jupiter. When another vessel passes by instead of rescuing him, Gully Foyle finally discovers the ambition he had lacked all his life, ambition powered by rage, by the desire for vengeance. Thus, with a desperate act of self-preservation, does Gully Foyle’s journey – and new life – begin.

Gully’s name is not an accident. Bester deliberately touches on Jonathan Swift as well as Dumas, and the name of the wrecked ship, Nomad, further implies a connection to Swift’s legendary wanderer, Lemuel Gulliver. The comparison is significant, given the opposite trajectories of the two characters. The original Gulliver, a surgeon and an educated man, famously develops into a misanthrope after spending time with the entirely rational Houyhnhnms, who treat the human-like Yahoos as vermin. Then there is Gully Foyle, a base and violent man, a man capable of terrible acts, of torture and rape – and then slowly, almost by accident, he discovers within himself a kind of moral humanism.

Tyger Tyger

Though the plot and the protagonist  may be inspired by the prose of Dumas and Swift, the thematic imagery of the novel has another source, the poetry of William Blake – specifically, ‘The Tyger’. Bester is not subtle about the relationship. The first verse of the poem serves as the novel’s epigraph, the original title was Tiger! Tiger!, and then there’s Gully Foyle’s appearance. Early in the story, Gully encounters a primitive cult which inhabits an old research base in the asteroid belt, ironically calling themselves the Scientific People. They tattoo him with a pattern that resembles the stripes of a tiger, and when he later attempts to have the tattoo removed, he is left with a series of damaged blood vessels where the pattern once was, which show up whenever Gully feels particularly angry or otherwise emotional.

It’s a visual representation of the transition Gully has to make in order to survive and, ultimately, better himself. He has to learn how to control his emotions, to act based on thought rather than gut feeling. To reason, to plan ahead, rather than reacting like a caged animal. Bester is not arguing for the pure reason and cold distance of the Houyhnhnms, his vision has more complexity than that. Gully Foyle may no longer be the everyman by the conclusion of the novel, but he is still human; increasingly so, in fact. By consciously taking responsibility for his actions, for himself, and by encouraging other to do the same, Gully achieves not redemption, but a transcendent humanity.

In what distant deeps or skies …

Gully’s world is sorely in need of such humanity. Society on Earth is run by corporate clans, a kind of commercial aristocracy. The economic exploitation of colonists in the outer solar system has led to war between the Outer Satellites and the Inner Planets. While this conflict is not the main concern of the story, it provides context for Gully’s struggles and those of the characters he encounters, heightening the stakes and giving a sense of consequence to the decisions Gully is forced to make.

However, the most unique feature of Bester’s already fascinating exercise in world-building is the concept of ‘jaunting’, not necessarily because of the idea itself – it’s essentially teleportation through psychic power – but because of his handling of the implications of that idea. This is a world where traditional forms of communication and transportation (not to mention the penitentiary system) have become obsolete, and using such antiquated methods is a sign of extreme wealth. The basic rule of jaunting is that you have to know where you are, and where you’re going – hence, teleporting through outer space is considered impossible.

Did he smile his work to see?

As fascinating as the ideas behind the novel may be, however, it’s impossible to capture what exactly makes The Stars My Destination a great novel without some mention of Bester’s style. The story is blisteringly paced, ranging across continents and planets at the turn of the page. Yet neither the action or the exposition are confused or muddled, and the disparate elements are all the more memorable for the immediate contrast they have with each other. It’s a mad, carefree blend of ideas that only seems possible in a time before the boundaries between sub-genres were fully aligned – and it truly has a hell of an ending, the kind that makes you marvel in the moment, then step back and re-assess everything which has gone before.  The Stars My Destination may not be remembered as well as some of its fellow science fiction classics, but it surely deserves to be.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Within that world, Bester is well known and highly respected. With The Demolished Man, he became the first ever winner of the Hugo Award, and writers from William Gibson to Neil Gaiman have payed tribute to him.

[2] Of course, Clarke had a bit of help from Kubrick with regard to 2001‘s cultural prominence.[3]

[3] Not a lot of footnotes on this one, for some reason. Of course, given my recent Sherlock Holmes ramble had seven, this is probably a good thing.