Monday, February 27, 2006

Fantasy Fiction

I read Tolkien in high school and i was completely absorbed into Middle Earth for a while. Although i was a bit too much of a jock to qualify for premier nerd status, i did have a "I'd Rather Be a Hobbit" t-shirt, and a modest command of Elvish runes. Although i read the Ring trilogy a few times through (and i loved the movies), i found the books harder to read as i got older. In my opinion, i think that Tolkien could spin a great yarn but that he wasn't a great writer.

Every other fantasy book i've read since Tolkien has disappointed me. They're so predictable and similar that i imagine it would be easy to write a program to automatically generate fantasy fiction. The problem of course is that most fantasy fiction is an imitation of Tolkien, but rarely does it reach the same level. Many of the cliches of fantasy fiction were not only invented by Tolkien, but he really set the standard. Because of his academic credentials in linguistics and philology, Tolkien's invented words and languages had a satisfying verisimilitude. The races and creatures that he created for his Middle Earth had deep ties to mythologies of western culture and just enough mystery around the edges to keep them fascinating. Every other fantasy author i've tried seems like they're either making stuff up thoughtlessly, or making simple substitutions of their creatures for Tolkien's. I can sort of imagine an author at his or her keyboard thinking "i'll name this guy Baradon. No, Barderon. Maybe Bardon. Yeah, Bardon, that'll work".

There are some fantasy writers i've tried who i think write pretty well (Anne McAffrey comes to mind), but i could never get through a series. Recently though i've heard so many recommendations for George R.R. Martin that i finally broke down and bought one of his books (A Game of Thrones). Martin certainly did not dispense with many of the fantasy cliches: he's got kings and castles and dragons and swords and knights, bastard sons, a warrior order, and there's even a map drawn on the front and back cover pages. He's really gone back beyond Tolkien and borrowed from the traditions of classic romantic fiction (knights and squires and tournaments and maidens in distress).

But to my surprise, it really works. On occasion there's some of that fantasy fiction prose that drops with a thud (" 'Ice' that sword was called... It was Valyrian steel, spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel"). But overall the writing is at a very high level, the plotting and pacing is great, and the characters are imbued with complexity and humanity. Most important i think is that Martin isn't just employing all of the fantasy fiction elements as props. Clearly, he loves this stuff and it comes through in the words.

Martin also seems to be a bit more mature than some of his peers. The political intrigues in the book are realistic and speak of someone who's seen a bit of life, as do some of the sexual themes and scenarios (i don't recall whores ever receiving mention in LotR). Also, people die. Characters are badly injured and characters that don't deserve to die are killed. This is not simple good vs. evil stuff, though there is clear good and unremorseful evil. Though this is clearly fantasy fiction, it also shares motifs with classic tragedy.

Which is not to say that this is soporific "serious" literature. Martin has not invented a new art form or stretched the boundaries of the novel, or any of that other stuff that lit critics get all hot over. He's not trying to be ironic or postmodern or to deconstruct anything. The musician Arnold Schonberg, a pioneer of avant garde music, once remarked that "there's still plenty of good music to write in C major". The same is true of literature; there are still a lot of damn fine stories to be told that are only trying to be enjoyable, meaningful, and exciting. Like my favorite genre fiction authors (Patrick O'Brian, Alan Furst), George R.R. Martin has achieved that on a significant scale.

Friday, February 24, 2006


I spent most of this week with my wife and kids on our first ever snowboarding trip. We went to the Snow Summit ski resort on Big Bear Mountain, in the San Bernardino mountains of southern California. My kids' school districts takes this entire week off for some mysterious reason, but so many families use it as an opportunity to go the mountains, that the teachers refer to it as "ski week".

After a couple of days on the slopes i reached a sort of minimal bunny-slope proficiency on the snowboard. Not surprisingly, my wife and kids progressed quicker. By the end of the trip my older son Nathan and my wife were up to the intermediate runs that started all the way at the top of the mountain. For me it was basically a competition between gaining the necessary skill and destroying my body. After two full days, i felt as if i'd lost a fight. My neck was tweaked, my hips were bruised, my shoulders and forearms were sore, and both of my knees were numb.

I have to admit though, it was pretty fun. I've avoided snow sports for my entire life, because my previous experience with snow in the dead-flat midwestern landscape i grew up in made me think of it as more a medium of punishment than recreation. But we got great weather, and we came on the weekend after a big storm had dropped several inches of fresh snow (though, admittedly, this was a miniscule addition to the man-made snow). Big Bear City, where Snow Summit resides, is a fun place to spend a few days; and i have to admit that, despite being a totally obvious noob, i felt sort of cool hanging out among the rest of the boarders and skiers.

Friday, February 17, 2006


I've been doing "design" work at my job for the last few weeks. There's not much science behind software design, and i'm not sure how much more engineering rigor would help. Design is one of those things i think i want to do until i actually have to do it, and then i find the whole process frustrating and mentally draining.

In any field i think that design differs from art only in that you start with a set of constraints, which aren't usually defined as well as they should be. In other words, you start knowing only what you can't do. There is a set of qualities that you want to achieve, but there's not a clear set of rules that will achieve them. It also seems that desirable qualities tend to come in competing pairs or groups. For example, in software it's usually considered desirable to create a design that has enough abstraction that it can be re-used in multiple projects. However, that abstraction comes at a cost that can only be recouped if the design is in fact re-used in multiple projects (at least three according to a rule-of-thumb).

The hardest part of design for me is that there's no simple criteria for "done". On rare lucky occasions you get an intuitive sense of when something is right, it just feels right. Otherwise you have to check off a list of requirements against the design, which is kind of like cutting boards and then defining their lengths to be your units of measurement. I know that in most people's minds design is an artistic endeavor, associated with fashion and the like, but i for one would be happy if it could be reduced to a set of equations.