Monday, November 16, 2015

What Not To Do About ISIS

My opinion: Everyone pretty much agrees on the immediate emotional response (shock, horror, outrage) to the Paris attacks, setting aside the quibbling over whether to pay lots of attention to other terrorist attacks besides this one. The hard part is figuring out the long-term policy response.

In the New York Times today, an unnamed (of course) senior intelligence official said “This was a game changer… Paris shows they can attack soft targets on any day, anywhere, including in any major American city”.

Bullshit. That’s not a “game changer”. That’s been happening since at least 2008 in Mumbai, if not London 2005 or Madrid 2004, and it’s not unique to ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Everyone has been very well aware of the threat, especially from returning ISIS veterans, for quite some time now and working pretty hard on border control. This is exactly the same threat as we’ve had for a long time now; the only difference is that now it’s not a threat, it’s actually happened. The threat of bad guys with guns and explosives murdering lots of people in the West is otherwise just as bad this week as it was last week, which is to say, it is very out of the ordinary.

If we learned anything from 9/11, it should’ve been not to let our immediate emotional response drive long-term policymaking!

We’re already hearing rumblings about the terrorists using commercial encryption to plan their attack, and how that translates into an argument for more government oversight of the software industry and more back doors with which they can spy. We're already seeing brave, courageous 'governors' like Scott Walker deny safe harbor to victims of terror because one in 10,000 of them might be an enemy, even though they can't do that. And we’re already feeling pressure for America to commit more money, planes, intelligence, and ground troops to fight ISIS; that is to say, for America to take another couple of steps on the path to another long, ugly, costly, indecisive, Middle East ground war that we will not win and will solve nothing.

After 9/11, we let the Patriot Act be passed, we acceded to the Iraq invasion, we allowed Bush and Co. to torture innocent men and detain them indefinitely, we allowed NSA spying on our private communications, we elected a President who has presided over hundreds if not thousands of drone strikes without a declaration of war, we elected a President who has so far killed three American citizens without a trial, and on, and on, and on, and on. It’s been fourteen years and we haven’t reined in the security state yet, and more importantly, the war begun in Afghanistan in 2001 is not yet over!

After Bashar al-Assad gassed hundreds of his citizens, there was tremendous public pressure for America to take a more active role in the Syrian war, because to the public, gassing them was worse than shooting them. Obama, although the “red line” comment made him look weak, didn’t give in to it. The early indications are that he’ll be just as reluctant to put (more) American troops on the ground vs. ISIS after Paris, to which I say, GOOD. Would ten U.S. Army divisions beat ISIS in a straight fight? Probably. Would that solve the problem of why ISIS exists, or stop the next Paris-style terrorist attack from happening? Probably not.

There will always be an ISIS. There will always be terror. We’ve created a lot of terrorists, probably more than we've killed, but right this instant we don’t get to choose whether or not there will be terrorists. We do get to choose how we respond to what they do.  Whatever we decide, let’s do it because we’ve considered it carefully and decided that it’s best in the long term, not because we’re hurt and angry and need to do something RIGHT NOW. And I can’t see how getting into yet another Middle East ground war, or giving back some of our hard-won civil liberties, or denying safe harbor to victims of terror, would work out well in the long term.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Starship Troopers --> Aliens --> Starcraft: Follow the References

It's interesting seeing the relationships between the really influential sci-fi stuff. I haven't studied this, but you can see the lines of thought between Aliens (1986) and Starcraft (1998); the parasitic, human-corrupting Zerg are a lot like the Aliens, and several of the quotes of the dropship pilot ("Heads up--we're in for some chop", "In the pipe, five-by-five", appear in Starcraft. You can also see the loose, undisciplined behavior of the Aliens Marines in the Marines of Starcraft, who likewise cover their armor with graffiti and grumble "How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?", another quote from Aliens. So too the tiny, red “BAR” sign in the Aliens colonists’ base, which is replicated dozens of times in Terran standard scenery. And the iconic shot of the Alien Queen advancing down the hallway towards the elevators is mirrored in the cutscene battle aboard the Terran science vessel, as is the whole close, frantic, chaotic fight against the Zerg in that scene.

Going the other way, I strongly suspect that James Cameron and friends read Starship Troopers (1959). Hudson's reference to knives and sharp sticks in his weapons monologue to Ripley echoes Sergeant Zim's speech between knife-throwing sessions, and Hicks falling asleep as the dropship descends through LV-426's atmosphere speaks to Juan Rico's habit of falling asleep "if you actually had twenty minutes of your very own... We were always several weeks minus on sleep." Rico even sleeps standing up during parade and trains himself to wake only when he has to move. Hudson also uses the Starship Troopers slang “buy it” to refer to death, AND the Marines ask if this job is “another bug hunt”, which is how Starship Troopers’ troopers call the fight against the “Pseudo-Arachnids”.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rereading with Love: The Wheel of Time, Ten Years Later (Part II)

Welcome back to the Wheel of Time. This is a 14-book (+1 field guide + 1/3 prequel) that runs to about a zillion words and was a high school favorite of mine. I just reread the fourth one and am sharing stuff about how I now find it. If you want the first half, click here. If you simply wanna get into it, read on. Here’s a glossary.

Quick Glossary

Rand: The basically messiah, super-magic user, and central character. Is also ta’veren, meaning he has plot powers.
Mat: His buddy. Also ta’veren.
Perrin: His other buddy. Also ta’veren. Dating Faile.
Faile: Noblewoman in secret searching for adventure. Dating Perrin.
Berelain: Queen of tiny country. Pursuing Perrin.
Moiraine: A magic user who found Rand before he was known to be the messiah.
Aviendha: an Aiel (basically super-Bedouin) who tutors/hates/will eventually love Rand.
Elayne: Future queen, current magic user, has the hots for Rand.
Egwene: Magic user, has dreaming superpowers, used to be with Rand but now ain’t.
Nynaeve: Magic user.
Min: Also in love with Rand.
Thom: Rand’s advisor.
Siuan Sanche: Head of the female magic users.
Lanfear: Rand’s evil ex from a past life. Shut up.

MAJOR SECTION II: How the Characters Work
The Stranger at the Door

Everyone in the series is constantly in the position of being introduced to new things. Rand, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are from a tiny backwater farming town and are totally unsophisticated. We see things from their perspective, and we see a lot of new things; in Shadow alone, Rand is introduced to the extremely complicated culture of the Aiel, and there’s even a whole subplot about how ignorant he is. Perrin constantly reminds everyone that he’s an unsophisticated blacksmith that doesn’t know jack, even as he’s transforming into a leader of men (and refusing to admit it, which is more annoying than I remember it being). Mat’s entire plotline in Shadow is about finding answers related to things that have happened to him in previous books, Nynaeve and Elayne are trainee Aes Sedai who spend much of their time trying to learn new things, and Egwene is being taught by her own bunch of strict taskmistresses.

We rarely see things from the perspective of an authority figure who knows what’s going on unless that authority figure is in the process of wondering what someone else is doing; examples include Moiraine waiting impatiently on Rand in the Stone of Tear, Thom being jerked around by Moiraine in the Stone, and Siuan Sanche being suddenly upended by a rebellion. Moreover, not only are characters constantly learning new things, but the way the world works continually shifts underneath them. Look at the Aiel; the test for becoming a leader of the Aiel is a very intense version of “This is what you thought your people’s history was. Here’s what it actually is, and it cuts to the heart of everything you believe. Now adapt to the new reality, or else kill yourself”. There is a constant sense of shock at meeting people who do things differently, from Aiel in a water-rich country to Seanchan shocked at the mainlanders’ squabbling, and people get over it only very slowly and sometimes not at all.

Eventually the series will begin to shift its tone. The core group doesn’t stop learning new things, but they do gain experience in positions of power and authority, stop being so wide-eyed at the world, and start making decisions that impact the lives of others. However, although the core group and many other characters get a lot more experienced and adept at manipulating people over time, it hasn’t happened in Shadow. You can sort of categorize the Wheel of Time books that way. Books 1-3 show these characters as people who are essentially on an adventure story, traveling unobtrusively and affecting events with deeds of heroism. Books 4-7 move to the level of nations; although there’s plenty of adventure-story individual missions, characters start leading and affecting events on a wider scale, maneuvering with other powerful players. Rand in particular stops being a refugee and begins to affect the destiny of whole nations; this is the last of the table-setting. Books 8, 9 and 10 feel sort of scattered, with new plotlines being introduced and old plotlines stagnating, before the rolling-boulder downhill plunge that begins with Book 11 and carries past Jordan’s death all the way to A Memory of LightShadow, Book 4, is a transitional one; everyone’s still learning, but Rand and Perrin begin to lead, and others will follow them.

Emotional Intelligence/Communication/Theory of Mind

“Why did you let her go in that way?” [says Egwene].

Puzzled, [Rand] stared at her. “She wanted to go. I’d have had to tie her up to stop her. Besides, she’ll be safer in Tanchico than near me—or Mat…”

“That isn’t what I mean at all. Of course she wanted to go. And you had no right to stop her. But why didn’t you tell her you wished she would stay?”

“She wanted to go,” he repeated, and grew more confused when she rolled her eyes as if he were speaking gibberish. If he had no right to stop Elayne, and she wanted to go, why was he supposed to try to talk her out of it? Especially when she was safer gone.

How hard is it to understand that Elayne wanted to be wanted here? But Rand doesn’t get it, and what’s more, he doesn’t think it over and understand later on. He just chalks that up as one of the unknowable mysteries and moves on with his day. This is something that everyone does, particularly as it relates to gender. Everyone in this entire series has the emotional intelligence of a dog.

And long-running plot threads depend on it, which is really frustrating! Perrin plans to go home and give himself up to the Whitecloaks (who will kill him) so they’ll leave the Two Rivers, which is stupid, but, whatever. So he tries to drive his girlfriend-later-wife Faile away by feigning interest in another woman named Berelain. A) that doesn’t work, B) that fight with Faile lingers for another 250 pages, and C) the subsequent Faile-Berelain-Perrin triangle persists for another SEVEN BOOKS. It could have been resolved with two or three adult conversations early in Shadow, but it wasn’t, was it?!

Oh, does Jordan love his conflicts that are created or exacerbated by a lack of communication and an inability to get inside other people’s heads. The Wheel of Time is peppered with characters observing other characters and saying “oddly”, “puzzled”, “peculiar”, or “for some reason” because they can’t suss out why the other person did something, when the why is glaringly obvious to the reader. What moves it from frustrating to maddening is that characters will muse internally about why someone else is acting that way, hit upon the right answer, and then think to themselves ‘No, that’s crazy, that couldn’t possibly be it’ and abandon the idea completely. It used to make me crazy—it still makes me crazy! Important plot threads that last four or five books are founded entirely on these miscommunications and misinterpretations. When Jordan died and Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time, one of the first things he did was to extinguish most of these slow-burning threads, putting feuding characters in the same locations and essentially writing “And then they hashed it out” half a dozen times.
 Gender Roles

Hoo boy.

In some ways, the Wheel of Time is pretty modern-looking for a series that began in the ‘90s and was written by an old white guy in the pre-Game of Thrones era. Female characters such as Elayne, Egwene, Nynaeve, Siuan Sanche, Moiraine, and plenty of others have political, magical, and personal power of varying degrees. Women lead armies, nations and peoples. When women are not formally in charge, they tend to have soft power that equals the hard power of the men: examples include the Women’s Circle in Emond’s Field or the wives and Wise One advisors of male Aiel clan chiefs, both of whom hold degrees of power over the men who nominally lead. Women pursue dangerous missions, advance within their professions, fight in battles magical and physical, and generally display bravery, spunk, and the desire to be just as much a part of the story as any man.

However, Shadow is still very old-school. Modern feminism, as I understand it, is very much about equal opportunity: women can and should be able to work on oil rigs, in law offices, hold political office, and so on without consideration of their gender. But although both sexes can hold power, Shadow and the rest of Wheel are all about specific gender roles. Sure, women can be powerful Wise Ones, but a Wise One is not a clan chief; that’s a man’s role. Aiel women fight in the warrior society Far Dareis Mai, Maidens of the Spear, but there are twelve warrior societies and the rest are exclusively male. The source of magic, the One Power, is divided in half; men can use the half called saidin, and women the half called saidar, and neither can use the other one’s half without help. Men and women are equal, says Jordan, but very definitely separate.  

The One Ain’t The Other

Saidar and saidin are illustrative in another way, too. To use saidin, a man has to wrestle it into submission; it’s often compared to riding an avalanche. To use saidar, a woman has to surrender to it and open herself to be filled by it; Aes Sedai in training imagine themselves as a slowly opening rosebud. Ignore the uncomfortable sexual resonance for a second. The point is that men are fundamentally wired differently than women; when Elayne and Egwene try to teach him the Power, Rand compares it to a bird trying to teach a fish to fly. And the Power is far from the only area where this is voiced. On practically every other page, a character throws their hands up and declares that they’ll never understand the opposite sex, and they never will. Hey, look, it’s the emotional intelligence thing again! Nobody can cross the gender barrier and figure out the other side because they’re just so freaking different from us. Women are mysterious and desirable in their femininity, say the men; they’re dumb, say women, but we love ‘em anyway. And that’s all.

But, of course, it isn’t all. In some ways women have plenty of power, but in other ways they fall into the kind of norms or male-gaze-ness that would make several of my exes tear their hair out. Heteronormativity is almost absolute, minus some talk about “pillow-friends” that appears in later books, but a) it seems to be only women (remember this) and b) I don’t remember any openly gay or lesbian characters, much less trans ones. Everyone is set in their sexual and gender identity. More to the point, in traditional fantasy style, nobody is single or casually dating; everyone has a Love Of Their Life that they wind up with. Women (Elayne and Min, probably Aviendha, Egwene, Nynaeve, and several others) fall in love with their men immediately upon meeting them. And, well, this happens.

Bechdel Dies

“Perrin Aybara belongs to me,” [Faile] snapped. “You keep your hands and your smiles away from him!” She flushed to her hairline when she heard what she had said. She had promised herself she would never do this, never fight over a man like a farmgirl rolling in the dirt at harvest.

Berelain arched a cool eyebrow. “Belongs to you? Strange, I saw no collar on him. You serving girls—or are you a farmer’s daughter?—you have the most peculiar ideas.”

[Faile fumes internally about being raised at Court in Saldaea]

She was surprised to see the knife in her hand; she had been taught not to draw a knife unless she meant to use it. “Farm girls in Saldaea have a way of dealing with women who poach others’ men. If you do not swear to forget Perrin Aybara, I will shave your head bald as an egg. Perhaps the boys who tend the chickens will pant after you then!”

It goes on like that. You see? These are two strong-willed women. One of them runs a country, the other will be revealed as a noblewoman who’s had all sorts of battle training. But they’re in this conflict because of a man. Berelain’s trying to hook a member of Rand’s entourage so he will think well of her country, and Faile is old-fashioned-ly in love with Perrin. If this was Jordan’s idea of strong female characters, he misses the modern idea so hard it’d make Bechdel barf.

Most female activity in Shadow fits this pattern on a macro level. Nynaeve and Elayne are ostensibly on an independent mission, but they’re acting to remove a danger to Rand. Moiraine is presented as this wise and unknowable figure who wields immense power (and boy, do they talk about avoiding her manipulations A LOT), but almost all she does in Shadow is bitch at Rand and follow him around. Ditto Aviendha, who is made to act as his tutor; ditto Lanfear, who holds off on killing him because she is still in love with him. He is the basically messiah, and part of his power is that all sorts of people are pulled towards him without knowing why, but… man. There are women doing things for their own sake—Egwene studying Dreaming with the Aiel Wise Ones, for example—but they are far outnumbered by the ones doing what they do for men.

Male Gaze

I mentioned the male gaze up above. Jordan was kind of a dirty old man, and there aren’t many circumstances where men are told to get naked in his books, but women?  In Shadow alone, we see topless Sea Folk women, naked Aiel women plus Moiraine, Aviendha and Egwene, naked Moiraine and Aviendha going to Rhuidean (an Aiel holy place), naked Seanchan servants (men and women), Egwene in her bath (and Aviendha naked again in the same scene), Nynaeve and Elayne and their friend Egeanin in revealing nightclothes (multiple times), Elayne falling out of her dress to impress Rand, and I’m sure there are plenty of others I’m forgetting. It’s delicately done and never explicit—Jordan will say “She wore not a stitch” and leave it at that—but it’s also damn near omnipresent.

Even as a teenager I noticed this (I mean, of course I did). Often in-book it’s at a female-only ceremony, like the Aiel sweat tent that Egwene visits, but the overwhelming sense is that it’s for straight male readers to be titillated by—remember the female-only pillow-friends? And of course there’s sex. I think the first sex scene comes in Book 5, and many others follow. Mind you, Jordan usually cuts away from the action, but will describe the afterglow in fairly rapturous detail. It’s hard not to conclude that these books are written precisely for the sort of teenage me that found them, blending sword-and-sorcery stuff with naked this and naked that while throwing in enough strong (ish) female-ness and sanctimonious cutting away to maintain some respectability.

Anti-Conclusion Conclusion

I didn’t write this to render a judgment or draw a grand conclusion on Shadow or on the Wheel. Sometimes you go back and read a thing from childhood, or see a TV show or watch a movie, and think Man, I can’t get into this now. I tried watching Jackie Chan Adventures, which used to be my favorite Saturday morning cartoon, when they put the whole series on YouTube. No dice. It’s paced too slow, the jokes fall flat on adult ears, and Jade is somehow right about everything because preteen girls always are. Even in a movie like Mulan that’s still enjoyable, the jokes tend to be just a little slower, telegraphed a bit more so that young eyes will catch them. And it’s depressing because you know you’ll never again like it as much as you did; it'll never have that special magic that once caught your eye. “By the time I got back to music, the season had passed,” says Daniel Baker in Collateral.

The Shadow Rising doesn’t hit me like that. Sure, I probably wouldn’t be into it today. Somewhere along the line I lost my taste for epic fantasy; I couldn’t finish even the third book in Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series, and while I enjoyed A Song of Ice and Fire, I didn’t get into it in the same way that I did the Wheel of Time. I have friends who know every name of every minor House, get into all the fan theories, have instant memory recall of every half-glimpsed prophecy. Nope. When I was 16 I spent hours on arguing with chat room denizens about who killed Asmodean or whatever; it was my first experience in an online community. Even though Reddit exists now, I haven't come close to doing that today.

My point is that Shadow makes me think. Reading it over again makes me think about the me that read it nine or ten years ago, and the me that’s reading it now, and how I’ve changed. A book is like a time capsule that way, or maybe a mirror. The words in the book stay the same no matter which you is reading them. And if it’s a good book, you’re going to get a different meaning from it every time you try. If you’re reading it like I did with Shadow, you end up reading yourself, too. This is what I used to value. I missed this, but I caught that. This is what the book meant to me then, and this is what it means now. It’s like the old saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Rereading With Love: The Wheel of Time, Ten Years Later (Part I)

When I was in middle and high school, my favorite books were Robert Jordan’s old-school epic fantasy, the Wheel of Time. Before it was over, there were 14 books (three published after Jordan’s death), a prequel and a companion book. The series is about a reborn savior who comes of age and leads the world in a struggle against the Dark One, as with many fantasy books, and I just loved it. What do you want. I own all but the last book and read the series (the books are often around 1,000 pages) at least five times, but I hadn’t reread it in half a decade and hadn’t touched any of them since A Memory of Light capped the quattuordecology in 2013.

At a used bookstore the other month, I spotted a copy of The Shadow Rising (book #4), which had always been my favorite. I bought it on a whim, took it home, and re-re-reread it. Several things that I never or barely noticed a decade ago jumped out at me repeatedly in the book, so I wrote ‘em up below. Briefly: the prose is incredibly florid, the world is so complicated that Jordan spends half his time explaining what came before, the book is incredibly long, everyone has the emotional sensitivity of a Martian, everyone is constantly surprised by everything, and the way women are portrayed is not nearly as progressive as I thought it was.

Quick Glossary

Rand: The basically messiah, super-magic user, and central character. Is also ta’veren, meaning he has plot powers.
Mat: His buddy. Also ta’veren.
Perrin: His other buddy. Also ta’veren. Dating Faile.
Faile: Noblewoman in secret searching for adventure. Dating Perrin.
Berelain: Queen of tiny country. Pursuing Perrin.
Moiraine: A magic user who found Rand before he was known to be the messiah.
Aviendha: an Aiel (basically super-Bedouin) who tutors/hates/will eventually love Rand.
Elayne: Future queen, current magic user, has the hots for Rand.
Egwene: Magic user, has Dreaming superpowers, used to be with Rand but now ain’t.
Nynaeve: Magic user. Angry a lot.
Min: Also in love with Rand.
Thom: Rand’s advisor.
Siuan Sanche: Head of the female magic users.
Lanfear: Rand’s evil ex from a past life. Shut up.

MAJOR SECTION I: How the Book Works

The Prose

Robert Jordan LOVED descriptions. Oh my God. I confess I used to skim these, but this time I made a conscious effort to read each paragraph carefully and take in its meaning. Doing this, I noticed for the first time just how much description is really in here. Take for example Rand’s bedchamber in the Stone of Tear, a fortress he conquered at the end of Book Three.

Callandor sat undisturbed, a sword seemingly of glass, hilt and blade, on a stand as tall as a man and just as wide, the wood ornately carved and gilded and set with precious tones. The furnishings, too, were all gilded and begemmed, bed and chairs and benches, wardrobes and chests and washstand. The pitcher and bowl were golden Sea Folk porcelain, as thin as leaves. The broad Tarabon carpet, in scrolls of scarlet and gold and blue, could have fed an entire village for months. Almost every flat surface held more delicate Sea Folk porcelain, or else goblets and bowls and ornaments worked with silver, and silver chased with gold. On the broad marble mantel over the fireplace, two silver wolves with ruby eyes tried to pull down a golden stag a good three feet tall. Draperies of scarlet silk embroidered with eagles in thread-of-gold hung at the narrow windows, stirring slightly in a failing wind. Books lay wherever there was room, leather-bound, wood-bound, some tattered and still dusty from the deepest shelves of the Stone’s library.”

 The whole scene is like this, rich long paragraphs of description, reaction, or internal monologue that are broken up only occasionally by rather stilted dialogue. There’s more conversation as the book goes on (this is only 76 pages in), but when he’s introducing the world, Jordan lays it on thick. He moves majestically over the Aiel Waste (desert) or the lush Tairen countryside, peppering his characters’ observations of the scenery with political observations, internal musings, and peoples’ actions that splash the landscape with color. Just read this:

“One night lions killed two of the Shaido packhorses, roaring in the darkness as they were driven from their prey to vanish in the gullies. A wagon driver disturbed a small brown snake as they were making camp the fourth evening. A two-step, Aviendha called it later, and it proved its name. The fellow screamed and tried to run for the wagons despite seeing Moiraine hurrying towards him; he fell on his face at his second stride, dead before the Aes Sedai could dismount from her white mare. Aviendha listed venomous snakes, spiders and lizards. Poisonous lizards! Once she found one for him [Rand], two feet long and thick, with yellow stripes running down its brown scales. Casually pinning it under a soft-booted foot, she drove her knife into the thing’s wide head, then held it up where he could see the clear, oily fluid oozing over sharp bony ridges in its mouth. A gara, she explained, could bite through a boot; it could also kill a bull. Others were worse, of course. The gara was slow, and not really dangerous unless you were stupid enough to step on it. When she flung the huge lizard off her blade, the yellow and bronze faded right into the cracked clay. Oh, yes. Just do not be stupid enough to step on it.

That is never going to be relevant in the entire rest of the series, but Jordan doesn’t care; he’s not about narrative streamlining. He’s building a big sprawling open world with lots of raggedy edges.

The Complexity

Let me sum up just the world. Never mind the history, never mind the politics by the time of Shadow, never mind how magic works, etc. I’ll just list all the major groups at the start of the series.

On the main continent where everything happens, there are these nations: Saldaea, Arafel, Kandor, Shienar (these four are called the Blightborder), Cairhien, Andor, Arad Doman, Tarabon, Amadicia, Murandy, Altara, Illian, and Tear. (I named those from memory and thought I got ‘em all, but left out li’l old Ghealdan and irrelevant Mayene. I’m a bad fan.) There are also unincorporated territories or cities, such as Almoth Plain or Far Madding. Cairhien and Shienar abut a mountain range that separates the main continent from the Aiel Waste, which has thirteen clans of Aiel, a desert people. That’s to the east. To the south is the sea, which is populated by the Sea Folk, dusky traders of great renown. To the north is the Blight, the abode of evil where no humans live. To the west is the Aryth Ocean, on the other side of which is an empire called Seanchan, who will invade the mainland in Book 2. On the other side of the Aiel Waste is Shaara, an entirely different continent about which little is known but trade is conducted.

Oh, you thought we were done? Various groups and societies operate within the main continent. Female magic users band together in a group called the Aes Sedai, which acts as a guiding hand for the rest of the world and is country-independent; they’re run from the White Tower in the city of Tar Valon. Amadicia is run by the Whitecloaks/Children of the Light, an ascetic society dedicated to hunting down Darkfriends, which are exactly what they sound like and pretty much everywhere. Tinkers, peaceful nomads, wander through the world in their caravans in search of the song that will bring about a new age. Ogier, a nonhuman race, keep to their homes (called stedding) and interact only occasionally with humans. Creatures of evil called Trollocs and Myrddraal exist, although they’re not usually seen below the Blight.

There are traveling entertainers called gleemen, firework-makers called Illuminators, traders and peddlers galore, and of course nobles in every nation who try to gain influence, money, or power. We can’t forget the Forsaken, the Dark One’s thirteen hand-picked evil emissaries, who are all loose in the world (mostly in disguise) and scheming various schemes to advance their own causes. And I’m not even counting the groups that are created or become relevant during the series, such as the Shaido Aiel, the Black Tower, the Kin, the Two Rivers, the Band of the Red Hand, the Dragonsworn

Every single one of these things will become relevant during the series. With the exceptions of Arafel, Kandor and Shaara, there will be major plotlines that take place in every nation and with every group, and even those three are connected to cross-national plotlines. What I’m trying to say is that this is a complicated place. And so even at the tender age of Book 4, the first 200-300 pages of Shadow are riddled with explanations, because they have to be! You can’t go three pages without tripping over a long expository paragraph because there’s so damn much to expose.

I think in later books Jordan kind of throws up his hands and says, the hell with new readers, this is unmanageable, because I don’t remember there being as much description of the basic elements of the world in the last seven books as there is in, say, Shadow. But it’s shocking to read again, especially since I skipped the first three books and haven’t been introduced to all this stuff gradually over the previous 3,000 pages. The first 200-300 pages of Shadow are like a master class; even though a lot of it won’t be relevant to the rest of Shadow, he wants you to get a feel for the world and its history. Did I mention that I didn’t mention the history at all, and there’s over 3,000 years of it? Oh, man, I didn’t mention the World of Dreams, or the wolves, or the snake-people and fox-people, or…)

The Length

So between the description and the exposition, you can see how these things balloon. We’re 350 pages in before the main characters all go on their separate expeditions from the place where they started the book, which is stunning to reread, especially since a lot of that 350 pages is various characters wondering what’s about to happen next. The main characters also spend a lot of time internally weighing their options, making comparisons, expressing wonderment or bafflement (we’ll get to this), or simply observing the world.

There are four main plotlines. Rand goes to the Aiel Waste to prove himself as king of them in fulfillment of prophecy, Mat seeks answers to life’s persistent questions, such as “Who ate my memories?”, Perrin goes back to their home to deal with a Trolloc/Whitecloak invasion, and Elayne and Nynaeve go to Tarabon to snuff out a plot against Rand. There are other storylines that get a few chapters each, such as a civil war in the White Tower or Egwene honing her Dreaming talents, but those are the main ones. Some, like Rand or Perrin, are told almost totally from Rand’s perspective, but we get Rand’s thoughts on Mat and vice versa as well as Mat’s own story, and we get six or seven perspectives on the Tarabon storyline. It’s all very nicely balanced; Rand’s story is the most prominent, and Elayne/Nynaeve gets more time as the book goes on, but it never feels like one storyline is overwhelming any other.

It’s just that there are so many storylines and sub-storylines. Take Perrin’s story. He’s learning his power to talk to wolves and enter the World of Dreams, he’s growing from a simple blacksmith into a savvy leader of men, his people are organizing themselves as a military force, he’s trying to avoid being manipulated by Aes Sedai, he’s fighting with the woman he loves and later marries in Shadow, and so on. (All of this happens in Shadow alone.) And all of this interacts with the stories of people like Aram, the Tinker who renounces their nonviolent beliefs for Perrin, Aiel traveling companions Gaul and Chiad, and the Whitecloak commander and his evil advisor, both of whom Perrin has a history with. Now scale this out to Rand and Mat and Elayne and Egwene and Nynaeve, and all the people they know. And then imagine all the new characters and major storylines that will be introduced or expanded upon in the subsequent ten books. 

One of the core principles of the Wheel of Time universe is the Pattern, the semi-mystical/semi-real sum of all human decisions that binds everyone together in its fabric. You can see that in Jordan’s writing. Everything’s connected, and everyone has to take everyone else and their beliefs into account before doing anything, so every step in everyone’s story is taken very deliberately and with much internal reflection. All of these stories progress together, even the ones that are only hinted at and whose specifics must be guessed. And that makes even Shadow, which by Wheel of Time standards is a very fast-moving book (see the virtually plot-movement-free Crossroads of Twilight), stretch out to a thousand pages because you’re not just dealing with a single plotline, you’re dealing with several major ones and dozens of smaller ones that all hook together.

Speaking of length, we’re 2,100 words in, so come back tomorrow for the other three things! If you care!