Saturday, March 28, 2015

Professor Tolkien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Middle-earth

I love The Lord of the Rings.

If you have spent any time around me whatsoever, this is not news. But way back when I first started this blog, I promised that I would discuss Professor Tolkien's magnum opus, and have yet to make good on my word. I intend to rectify this right now.

And yet, what is there to say about The Lord of the Rings that hasn't already been said a hundred times, and by much more educated voices than my own? Should I write about how masterfully and subtly J.R.R. Tolkien included Anglo-Saxon and Norse myth and linguistics? Do I point out just how dazzlingly deep and consistent the mythology of Middle-earth is, from the creation of the world up to the final departure to the Grey Havens? Or do I simply go on and on about how every single member of the Fellowship is my favorite one?

At the very least, I'll start with what inspired me to write about Tolkien in the first place. In 2013, my sister insisted that I read A Song of Ice and Fire, because she'd gotten into it in a big way. I don't read much fantasy, but she insisted that it was great and, indeed, it was. I could sense a lot of Tolkien in George R.R. Martin's writing, but the last time I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was in middle school. That had to change.

I set out to read the entire Middle-earth canon: The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. I had read most of the books before at one point or another, but now I had a college degree in writing and a few years' of life experience under my belt. Would it be any different from reading the books as a teenager?

Only about as different as night is from day.

When I was reading the books, I had about a thousand ideas of what I could write about them, but it would have ended up as an entire blog unto itself. A sampling of ideas I had:

- How the origin story in The Silmarillion mirrors the Biblical creation (and how Eru Ilúvatar is technically the same as the Judeo-Christian God)

- An analysis of the House of Fëanor, and what each son represents

- Why Glaurung, Father of Dragons is the best villain in the entire Tolkien canon

- The perfect Greek tragedy of The Children of Húrin, and how the story of Túrin Turambar feels like the direct predecessor of A Song of Ice and Fire

- Musings on the Istari and what the five wizards mean in the larger context of Middle-earth

- Why The Hobbit is the perfect adventure story, and the single most cohesive book that Tolkien wrote

- A breakdown of my very favorite scene in The Hobbit, which might be my very favorite scene in any book ("There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West")

- The similarities described by Tolkien between Dwarves and Jews (no, really) and Tolkien's spirited and noble defense of the Jewish people leading up to and during World War II

- Why the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring is not nearly as boring as you've been led to believe

- On the same note, the virtue of slow pacing when an epic story begins

- Who is Tom Bombadil, and why is he so vital to the story? (And why, even though he would have slowed down the films, the movies missed a lot by not including him)

- How Gandalf facing down the Balrog at the bridge of Khazad-dûm is, perhaps, the single greatest action scene in the entire fantasy genre

- (And the incredible feeling I got, reading that scene on the subway, almost unable to breathe from feeling overwhelmed, then looking up and realizing that everyone else was just going about their commute as if nothing had just happened. It's a difficult feeling to describe)

- Why Gandalf had to die — and why maybe, as Martin pointed out, he should not have come back

- What the movies got wrong about Boromir, and how his Lament very nearly made me cry in public

- How the Battle of Helm's Deep is one of the defining chapters of The Two Towers, and why it was so boring in the Bakshi film and so stupid in the Jackson film

- The parallels between Frodo and Sam's quest behind enemy lines and Tolkien's own experience in World War I

- For that matter, why The Lord of the Rings is not really about medieval England at all — it's a story about the first World War and industrialization, even though Tolkien did not explicitly write it as such

- How Pippin and Merry became fully fleshed-out and vital parts of the party by Return of the King

- Gollum, the role of greed, and the wisdom of mercy

- Whether Aragorn's kingship by divine right is really something Tolkien thought we should emulate — or, to put it another way, why is there no democracy in Middle-earth?

- Masculinity and Middle-earth, commenting on the dearth of female characters in Tolkien's canon, why Morwen might be the best woman he ever wrote, and how Arwen gets the shaft (but Galadriel is beyond awesome in every single interpretation)

- Why Saruman is the most dynamic villain in Lord of the Rings, and how the movies messed him up so horribly

- Thoughts on the afterlife in Middle-earth; who went to the Grey Havens, who went to the Halls of Mandos, and who went elsewhere?

Maybe if you've read the books, you had similar thoughts. And maybe I'll go back someday and write about one or two of those topics. But the books are so big, so deep, and so moving, that it's almost impossible to read them and not feel immersed, and moved, and touched. To me, Middle-earth is not just another high fantasy world; it's a place as real to me as the apartment where I live, or the street where I grew up.

I wanted to choose a favorite character from the Fellowship so badly, but after three books (seven, really) and months of thought. I can't. They're all so wonderfully real; heroic, but flawed, and fallible, but redemptive. I want to be as clever as Pippin, as devoted as Merry, as cunning as Legolas, as noble as Gimli, as courageous as Boromir, as just as Aragorn, as wise as Gandalf, as loyal as Sam, and as persistent as Frodo.

After I finished re-reading the series, a friend of mine invited me to come and watch all of the Peter Jackson movies (Extended Editions, of course) and see if my opinion of them had changed since I initially saw them in high school. I approached these movies, which I used to revile, with an open mind and hoped that I could finally understand what everyone loved so much about them.

But I couldn't. The Jackson films felt superficial and melodramatic. The subtle artistry of the books was gone, replaced with one-dimensional character, arch plot points, and a world that felt like an excuse for its stripped-bare narrative rather than a fully realized setting where an epic story was underway. Maybe someday I'll understand the appeal of the films, but as movie-version Aragorn would say, "it is not this day."

I'll leave you with a quote from the writer John Rogers:

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Friend Zone

A little background before we start: A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine asked me my opinions on the Friend Zone, whether it's real, and how men generally react when they feel that they're in it. I gave a very thorough reply, but only shared it with a few friends of mine. They encouraged me to share my response publicly, and after thinking it over, I'm happy to do so.

I'll let the letter speak for itself, so please bear in mind that this is its original form, warts and all, save for a few spelling and grammar corrections. Please also note that although I use the term Friend Zone and believe it’s a real psychological phenomenon, I also don’t use it in a dismissive or pejorative sense. 

I understand why many people take issue with it, and why it has the potential to make women out to be the “badguys” in the battle of the sexes, even when they have every right to turn a man down, for whatever reason they choose. To those people, all I can say is that I hope I have expressed myself well, and that we are, in most respects, on the same page.

My views on the Friend Zone don't really line up with either the hardcore MRA or SJW crowds, but I hope that I've managed to address a potentially painful topic with as much respect and consideration as possible. If I have failed to do so, please get in touch with me, and I'd be more than happy to talk it out. Enjoy!


The Friend Zone (™, ®© , etc.) is a mental space a man occupies when he tries to engage a woman romantically and finds that she wants to keep things platonic. The Friend Zone can be a lot of things, depending on what both parties want (never talking to each other again to an actual, genuine friendship), but it's generally accepted that once you hit The Friend Zone, nothing romantic or sexual will happen between the two of you, and you'll never get out of it, either.

This, of course, is not exactly how things always work in real life. Two people can be friends at one time, friends with benefits at another, and romantic partners at yet another. But when a man has been rejected romantically and doesn't see any way of advancing the friendship beyond a platonic one, he's been Friendzoned.

Some men take this with good grace and take the woman's offer to be friends at face value (sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't; for better or for worse, women are conditioned to let men down as gently as possible, which means they may say "Let's be friends" even when they mean "I find you objectionable and would rather not be around you at all" or even "I believe you represent a threat to my emotional or physical safety." Whole other can of worms, that). Other times, they retreat to PUA/MRA message boards and complain about how unfair this particular women was to him, or how unfair women in general are to him. After all, he probably treated her well, showed (or at least feigned) an interest in her activities, tried to make himself available to accompany her places, maybe even bought her things. So why shouldn't he get sex when all those other "jerks" she dates do?

This is related to a condition that the Internet calls "Nice Guy Syndrome," although I think "The Nice Guy Fallacy" is a little more accurate. It's a separate topic, but basically, "Nice Guys" feel they are entitled to attention, especially of the sexual variety, from women because they treat women well, or at least "better" than the people she actually dates.

Anyway, to your specific questions: I've already addressed some of them above, but here are my answers:

What's wrong with it? In short, the Friend Zone sucks because you're not getting what you wanted out of your relationship with a woman. When you hit it off with a woman, it's very easy to fall into the trap of "we get along so well, we would make great romantic partners, too." Sometimes, sure, but sometimes not. And ultimately, the person you ask gets final say over that, not you. Not only have you been shot down after putting yourself out there in a very visible way, but there go all those pleasant feelings you had: attraction, optimism, self-confidence, etc.

There's also a profound feeling of unfairness. You just KNOW you would be a good match if she gave you a chance, so why won't you? And besides, look at the people she dated before, or she's dating now, or she's looking to date. You're just as good as those guys (maybe you're better!), so how come they get what you want, and you don't?

If you want my opinion, these are all perfectly natural feelings, and most guys process them and put them in their proper context within a day or two. You WOULDN'T be a good match, because if she doesn't reciprocate your feelings, that would make it a terrible relationship by default. Sharing common interests DOESN'T mean you would click as a couple. And she could be dating other people for any reason. Maybe those people ARE bad for her, but that's ultimately her choice, and you're not going to change her mind by feeling bitter about it.

If you're asking "what's wrong with it" in the larger context, I would say nothing, really. For most men. Where it goes wrong is when some men hold onto these intense feelings of rejection and worthlessness and channel it into misogyny. An even smaller fraction of these men will go on to believe that violence against women must be permissible, because there is no other way to get what they want. This is what happened in the Isla Vista shootings.

Is there any blame attached? Get on the blame train. There's more than enough blame to go around. In general, there are two targets of blame when a guy gets Friendzoned: the woman he wanted, and himself.

Why he blames the woman is easy enough to figure out. She's being so stubborn and stupid and stuck-up and selfish. Doesn't she understand that if she would only give him a chance, she'd see how perfect they are for one another? She's robbing them both of Perfect Happiness, and is going to waste her time and effort pining after some other guy who doesn't even deserve her! Once again, these feelings tend to dissipate once the initial sting of rejection dies down and he can consider the situation logically once again.

Blaming himself goes a little bit deeper. Sometimes it's warranted, sometimes it's not. He feels emasculated and worthless. She wouldn't have rejected me if only I hadn't been so pathetic! If only I'd been thinner/smarter/handsomer/more charming/less awkward! If only I'd come on stronger/not come on so strong/asked her more about herself/told her more about myself/waited longer/not waited so long, then she would have said yes.

This one is harder to analyze, at least from my own personal experience. For the most part, at least from a logical standpoint, there's not much you can do to convince someone to be attracted to you if she's, well, not attracted to you. It has very little to do with you and everything to do with her and her preferences.

BUT (and this is a fairly sizable but, because I like big buts and I cannot lie), sometimes there's some truth to it as well. Maybe you ARE creepy, or out-of-shape, or poorly-groomed, or overeager, or timid. Sometimes your personality or physical appearance needs adjusting — not because it will get you girls, but because you should have some self-respect and be willing to improve yourself.

Where many guys have trouble (myself included) is differentiating between not being good enough in general and not being right for this particular woman. I don't have a good answer for what the right balance is. If I did, I wouldn't have gotten to the point where I felt I had to swear off women forever.

Is there entitlement? ​For the most part, yes. Men feel they are entitled to women's attention and women's bodies simply because they're friendly and attentive. But, as I've said before, being nice to women in exchange for sex is immoral; being nice to women because they deserve your respect could lead to good things down the road in addition to being the right thing to do.

The simple fact of the matter is that you're not entitled to anything that another person possesses that he or she doesn't want you to have. Not her time, not her money, not her body. You can grouse about how unfair this feels all you want, but men have to remember that Western society is constructed in such a way that they generally have to pursue women, rather than the other way around. If the tables were turned, men would not want to feel obligated to have sex with every woman who was nice to him — hell, no self-respecting man should feel obligated to have sex with every woman who's nice to him, even as things stand!

I think maybe that's part of the problem: We are conditioned, to some extent, to view every woman as a potential sexual partner (see: When Harry Met Sally, Seinfeld, etc.), even though most people have an average of 10-20 partners in their lives, and we meet WAY more than 10-20 people of the opposite sex. The math doesn't support our delusion, but I guess that's why it's a delusion in the first place.

This is why I take the Middle Path and maintain that while The Friend Zone is a real and often very painful place to be, it's still not the worst thing in the world or indicative of women's attitudes in general. If you get Friendzoned by every woman you approach, well, maybe there's something wrong with you, or maybe they're just the wrong kind of partner. It's hard to tell, and I think that uncertainty is what makes the Friend Zone such a confusing place, and why it drives some people to the extreme conclusion of "all women treat men unfairly." It doesn't make sense under strict scientific scrutiny, but it's a much more comforting thing to believe than "I am at the mercy of a ton of intra- and interpersonal factors, only a fraction of which I'll ever even be aware of."

That was pretty heavy, so next time, we'll talk about some Tolkien. See you then!

Follow Marshall on Twitter or get in touch with him on Facebook.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Tough Call

Before we get to the meat and potatoes of this post, let me start with a story. Don’t worry; I promise it’s relevant, and it’s about video games. Here goes:

When I was a senior in high school, widespread digital distribution for PC games was still a distant pipe dream. Sure, every once in a while, you’d get a developer who wanted to sell a title directly, and piracy via torrent was always an option, but generally speaking, it was discs or bust.

There was a game I wanted to play called Spellforce: The Order of Dawn. For those of you not familiar with the series, Spellforce is a hybrid RTS/RPG from a small German studio. It’s not great, but it has its charms, particularly if those are you two favorite genres. I could have bought the initial game in the States, but its two expansions were only available in Europe. So, I gathered up my funds and imported the three games, obscene shipping costs and all.

There was only one small problem: the game wouldn’t work. For some inexplicable reason, whenever I booted up the game, I would see the loading screen and get kicked right back to my desktop. When I checked task manager, the game’s process was still running, but the actual game just wasn’t there.

Well, I’m no neophyte when it comes to getting recalcitrant PC games to run, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I trawled Internet forums. I e-mailed the developer. I cross-checked every process running on my PC, every update to every driver, and every possible hardware incompatibility. I stayed up late, left my homework till the last minute, gulped down meals in as few bites as possible, and let all my other hobbies fall by the wayside. I was going to have fun, damn it, no matter how hard I had to work at it.

This process went on for about a week before I thought to myself: “Just how much misery am I willing to endure for the sake of fun?” In the end, I shrugged my shoulders, dusted my hands off, put the games in a drawer, and bought something else (Battle for Middle-Earth, if memory serves).

In the end, I learned an important lesson from those games: After a certain threshold of driving yourself absolutely up the wall, something you want — even something you want very badly — is just not worth it. It’s time to apply that lesson again.

Here’s the problem: I’m a straight male, and have known since I was 13 that I wanted a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. The only problem was that 13-year-old me was very bad at attracting women. Then again, 13-year-old me was just finding a solid group of friends and taking some pride in himself for the first time in his life, so we can cut him some slack for not having much success.

High school followed, and the same thing happened. No matter how many times I got up my courage and actually asked someone out, I got rejection after rejection. There were exceptions, of course: rare moments of success when the stars aligned and I got a coveted yes instead of a no. But nothing ever panned out, and as always, the sheer numbers were against me.

It was OK, though, they told me (“they” being friends, teachers, and family). High school girls often don’t appreciate good guys, they said, but wait until I got to college. Then, they’d see all that I had to offer.

And, boy, in college, did I have a lot to offer! I got in shape for the first time in my life. I learned how to bartend and got rid of my last vestiges of social anxiety, killing two birds with one stone. I was in an a cappella group. I took a ton of interesting classes, read lots of great books, attended fascinating lectures, and explored the sometimes seedy, sometimes charming city I inhabited. I got out to parties and events every weekend so that I could meet exciting new people. And, by and large, I still got nothing but rejections.

It was OK, though, they told me. College is such a chaotic time that you can’t really expect to find a satisfying relationship. Just wait until you get out into the world and have a steady job, and girls will see how responsible and accomplished you are.

So, I went out and got a job. At first, I didn’t expect much, since I had a horrible retail job, and had to live with my mom to make ends meet. But then I got a less horrible office job. And then I got a real editing job. And then I got my own place. And then I got a freelance journalism job. And then I got a full-time journalism job. And then I got money to spend and money to save.

In terms of career and monetary success, the last five years have been an unparalleled success for me. I have broken into a very difficult field, and excelled in it. I live very comfortably in one of the toughest cities in the world, with a nice apartment in a stellar neighborhood. I’ve continued studying martial arts to improve my mental discipline and stay in excellent shape. I have interesting hobbies, interesting hangouts, and interesting people in my life.

But, for all that, I still get almost nothing but rejections from women. Every. Single. Time.

I can’t really speculate as to the reason why. If I had an answer, I would have found a solution long ago. I’ve read an awful lot of dating blogs (particularly the excellent Paging Dr. Nerdlove), and the recurring theme seems to be that if you can’t find a date, you have to look inward and fix the things you don’t like about your own life first.

That, however, is where I run into a problem. I like myself. I like my job, and where my career is going, and the state of my health, and where I live, and my money situation, and my family, and my friends, and just about everything in my whole life, except for the fact that I can’t find a woman willing to give me a chance romantically. I feel I would be a good partner; they feel differently. That’s fine. That’s their prerogative. But “fixing” something about myself won’t help if I’m happy as is.

Nor have I been derelict in trying to find women to date. I’ve tried meeting people in person, meeting people online, letting friends set me up, and even gimmicks like speed-dating. I’ve tried asking out good friends and women I’ve just met. I’ve tried being absolutely straightforward and completely coy. I’ve tried every strategy I can think of short of engaging in repellent PUA tactics and approached every attempt with all the confidence and optimism I can muster.

Not only have my attempts failed, but they have actually gotten worse. Last year around this time, I was devastated because ten women in a row had rejected me. At this point, I have lost count of how many times I’ve been rejected since my last successful date, but I would not be surprised if it were triple that amount. I don’t know how, but women have actually found me less attractive as my living situation has improved. I always thought the opposite would be true.

I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t know how to fix it, and honestly, my friends and family don’t, either. I’ve asked good friends, casual friends, total strangers, and my closest family members what’s wrong with my approach, and no one has a solid answer. I have come to believe that this is because there is no solid answer.

The realization hit me when I was reading a post in Paging Dr. Nerdlove’s blog. Some men, he said, no matter how smart or handsome or successful, will just never find anyone. They may be perfectly viable mates, but if you run the numbers, some men (and some women, of course) just never find anyone. It’s the luck of the draw.

This was possibly the most freeing thing I’ve ever read in my life. For the first time since I was 13, I realized that the problem isn’t me; it’s just statistics. Yes, I’ve been dealt a bad hand (well, really, 14 years of bad hands), but it wasn’t my fault. I can’t change the fact that women don’t want to date me, but I can change my attitude about it. That’s why I’m officially taking my hat out of the ring.

From now on, no more dating for me. No more romantic entanglements with women whatsoever. Will this hurt? Of course. It hurts already. I’ve been near tears several times just while writing this post. But I also know, in my heart of hearts, that it’s the only healthy way for me to live.

As much as I tried to frame a romantic relationship as the one thing missing from my life, the truth is that it’s just Spellforce all over again. I tried and tried and tried to solve a problem without an obvious cause, and all I got in return was frustration. Except getting rejected romantically no matter what you do is much, much worse than failing to run a video game. Instead of frustration, you have heartbreak. Instead of wasted leisure time, you have doubts about your worth as a human being. I can’t live like that, and no compassionate person would want me to.

A friend of mine told me (correctly, I think) that if I wrote this post, people would see it as attention-seeking. Maybe it is, but it’s also incredibly cathartic. I had a problem that literally kept me up at night and drove me into paroxysms of intense misery on a regular basis. I have now solved it — admittedly in the most extreme way possible, but solved it nonetheless.

Does this mean that I’ll never know the intense satisfaction of a healthy romantic relationship? Yes. But I’ll also never have to deal with the constant, soul-crushing despair that goes with getting rejected at every turn and never being able to figure out why. Given the choice between a slim (and rapidly diminishing) shot at happiness balanced with an overwhelming helping of despondency, or a perfectly even keel, I’ve decided to take the even keel.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. From where the sun now stands, I will date no more forever. The only thing I can offer by way of advice is to be kind and respectful to the women in your life, even if you’ve suffered rejection like I have. Learn to let go, and you’ll both be happier for it.

Follow Marshall on Twitter or get in touch with him on Facebook.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review: The Great and Secret Show

The Great and Secret Show
By Clive Barker
HarperCollins, 1989
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Marshall Lemon

I should let you know up-front that The Great and Secret Show is a tough nut to crack. It's imaginative but constrained, sprawling but unfocused, and epic in scope but surprisingly subdued in delivery. It might appeal to horror fans, even though it's not really scary, and it might appeal to fantasy fans, even though its magic is grotesque and grounded in the real world.

It's hard to sum up the plot briefly, but it goes something like this: While working in a dead letter office, unassuming paper-pusher Randolph Jaffe discovers that there is a small, well-hidden world of magic users scattered here and there across the United States. He wants this power for himself, and eventually becomes a creature of darkness called The Jaff. This sets off a chain of events that lasts over 20 years and involves ten or fifteen major characters, eventually culminating in a struggle to stop a world of darkness from engulfing our own.

The setting is the strongest part of the book. Although the story mostly takes place in a California suburb, as Jaffe discovers, there is more going on than meets the eye. Barker creates a system of magic that is more reminiscent of medieval heraldry than the wizards and demons of the traditional high fantasy canon. Throughout the course of the book, the characters encounter an atomic bomb in a Nevada desert time loop, a Mexican cemetery full of vengeful undead spirits, a lake that springs out of a mysterious sinkhole, and a world of bizarre creatures from beyond our own dimension.

One thing that Barker does better than anyone is creating absurd, disgusting creatures, and that talent is on full display here. The Jaff has the ability to create monsters out of people's worst fears, and some of the results are fittingly disconcerting. You'll see plenty of things with scales and legs before the end of the day, but the most vile creatures actually come from another villain, Kissoon. The Lix are snake-like demons that arise from a combination of bodily fluids, and are roughly as unsettling as they sound.

The creatures and places they inhabit are a delight, but the story and characters that give rise to them are unfortunately much more lacking. The story takes forever to get going, and changes protagonists with such regularity that it's easy to wonder if Barker was just making up characters as he went, getting bored with each one.

At first, Jaffe's rival, Fletcher, emerges as a likely contender for protagonist, but is quickly replaced by Fletcher's son, Howard. Howard turns out to be ineffective, however, as he slowly surrenders the story over to reporter Grillo, and Grillo hands it off to his friend, Tesla, who ends up doing most of the heavy lifting towards the end of the book. The characters actually don't interact with each other much, meaning that the final result feels much more like five or six separate novellas than a cohesive story.

Barker also does not have a very good grasp on heterosexual relationships, but insists on shoehorning them in whenever possible — once between Howard and supposed rival Jo-Beth, who fall in love instantly and never do anything proactive for each other, and once between Raul, an enchanted ape-like entity, and occasional hero Tesla. It's about as weird as it sounds, and not much comes of it.

You'll probably never read anything quite like The Great and Secret Show, although whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your own tastes. For what it's worth, I wasn't a big fan, but I'm glad I read it just the same — it's chock full of an equal number of good and bad ideas. If you want more traditional horror, I like Salem's Lot by Stephen King, but who doesn't?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: Catch-22

By Joseph Heller
Simon & Schuster, 2010
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Ty Dobbertin

Catch-22 is one of those odd books, not unlike The Catcher in the Rye, that if you didn't read in high school, you likely never will. This is a shame, as while Catcher is kind of a self-important ode to nothing, Catch-22 is a wickedly funny novel. Unfortunately, it's also an incredibly long, bleak one. Which one of these traits you remember more probably depends on your tolerance for pitch-black humor.

The story takes place in Italy during World War II. Captain John Yossarian is a bombardier during the last days of the Allied campaign in Italy, but he seems to be the only soldier who can see through the incompetence of the military command. Yossarian is afraid of dying - scared to death of it, in fact - and will do whatever he can to get out of the war. However, a vicious rule called Catch-22 prevents him from leaving: Any pilot who refuses to fly combat missions is deemed sane, and sane people must fly.

The most remarkable thing about Catch-22 is its humor. The book embraces every kind of humor, from jokes the soldiers tell one another to over-the-top dialogue to situations that push absurdity to its limits. Vignettes about commanding officers who insist the soldiers clock time on a skeet shooting range (which really improves their ability to shoot skeet) or march in parades serve to highlight how ridiculous the military chain of command can get.

While the book's humor rarely falls flat, it will almost definitely cross each reader's personal line of good taste at one point or another. One chapter involves a soldier organizing a bombing run on his own troops - complete with casualties - because he stands to make a lot of money from it. Others involve soldiers beating up prostitutes, threatening to slit a friend's throat open, and slicing a man in half with a propeller. There is definitely humor in these situations, but the book lacks any real pathos. As such, the black humor can get grating or depressing without any kind of contrast.

Still, none of that should take away from the brilliant writing, hilarious situations, and razor-sharp dialogue. The social critique of war as pure stupidity is apt and still relevant today, while the ending is just uplifting enough to redeem some of the book's bleaker moments. I don't have any solid recommendations for satirical books about war, but there is a lot of the same gallows humor and absurd wartime situations in Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O'Brien. For other examples of "political system taken to its extreme," 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell are, of course, the logical choices.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book Review: The Forever War

The Forever War
By Joe Haldeman
Ridan Publishing, 2012
Buy it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Brian Capaldo

When I started this project, I wanted the results to be anything but predictable. I wanted to embrace whole new genres and discover a few flaws in the speculative fiction niche in which I’ve grown comfortable. However, like Hyperion before it, The Forever War has confounded my goals in the most insidious way possible: It’s proven to be an absolutely unimpeachable classic of science-fiction canon.

The story centers on Sergeant William Mandella and Corporal Marygay Potter, two soldiers fighting in humanity’s first conflict with an alien opponent. The book begins in the 1990s (which, in retrospect, had very few alien encounters, but the book was written in the 70s), but due to relativistic physics, each foray into alien territory takes William and Marygay further and further from the Earth and way of life they’re familiar with. As technology changes, war rages on, and becomes the only way of life either one can tolerate. Think The Hurt Locker, but with spaceships.

Although the story only has two big action scenes (and a third small one in the middle), the characters and dialogue are more than engaging enough to pull the narrative across over a thousand years of conflict. Watching human society evolve and change into something unrecognizable is downright frightening at times, although the ending provides a satisfying conclusion that makes the entire story worthwhile.

The writing itself is also far beyond reproach. In addition to having a great ear for natural, engrossing dialogue, Haldeman is a master of providing clear, detailed descriptions for the bizarre alien worlds, futuristic technology, and strange customs that the human race comes across. Initially, Haldeman wrote this book as an antiwar allegory for the Vietnam era, but its message still rings true today: War is senseless and ultimately pointless, but if you breed a whole generation of people for it, they won’t know any other way of life.

Of course, the book is not perfect, but most of its criticisms are nitpicks at best. The first forty pages or so contain some good action scenes, but much of the exposition necessary to understand them doesn’t come until after the fact. The middle section of the book can drag, as an event happens about 2/3rds of the way through that makes it seem as though the rest of the plot will be bleak and pointless (thankfully, the ending disproves this notion). There is also some uncomfortable and dated commentary on homosexuality, but it’s not malicious, just a little jarring.

If there’s a better military sci-fi story out there than The Forever War, I am not aware of it. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein is arguably just as good, although if you want something closer tonally, go with The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. This is also a fictionalized account of an author’s experiences in Vietnam, except without the science-fiction veneer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon
by Jim Butcher
Roc, 2001
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Mike Thompson and Mike Grace

Fool Moon is the worst kind of book to review. As much as I want to tear it to pieces on a few technical levels, I just can't because I had so much fun reading it. Then again, if you've ever read a Jim Butcher novel before, you pretty much know what you're in for.

If not, here's how Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series works: Harry Dresden is a wizard in modern day Chicago. In fact, he's the only wizard-for-hire in town. While Harry has great magical talent, his business sense is lackluster, so he's always taking odd jobs either for the local police force or the occasional wealthy private citizen. His adventures put him at loggerheads with dark wizards, demons, and the criminal underworld, while exposing him to an ongoing love triangle between a beautiful journalist and a scrappy police lieutenant.

As you can imagine, Harry's adventures are pulpy at best, trashy at worst, and  the kind of book you could very easily read in one sitting if you have a few hours to kill. 

For what it's worth, Jim Butcher is a fairly talented writer, and has a real knack for action scenes, strong characters, and natural dialogue. He's also highly educated and shows it off at regular intervals with references to Shakespeare, Germanic opera, and pop culture from Dracula to Star Trek. Both Butcher as unseen director and Harry as narrator have appealing voices and amiable personalities.

The plot, this time around, involves a series of grisly murders that Harry must investigate, aided by the Chicago police force and an adversarial FBI team. Due to the murders' proximity to the full moon and a number of canine imprints on the bodies, Harry suspects a werewolf as the culprit, and the investigation begins. As expected, there are good guys, bad guys, betrayals, plot twists, and plenty of sex and violence along the way, but it's nothing you couldn't figure out once all the major players have been introduced.

The biggest problem with Fool Moon - and let's not beat around the bush, it's a fairly sizable problem - is with Harry himself. Harry is a bit of a Mary-Sue. He's not an egregious offender, of course - he's not all-powerful, he loses plenty of fights, and he gets banged up pretty badly during his investigation. However, he often keeps the truth to himself, withholding vital information from friends - especially female ones - that, by all rights, might save their lives, or the lives of others. However, Harry feels justified in every deception and rule-bend. If this comes back to bite him in later books, feel free to disregard this whole paragraph, but Harry's dishonesty in the name of chivalry is not a great character trait when played as a positive quality.

Still, Fool Moon is an enjoyable read from start to finish, and keeps the momentum going for The Dresden Files series at large. Since urban fantasy is not my forte, all I can say here is that if you're interested in the genre, you could do much worse than Jim Butcher. Start with Storm Front, as it's the first entry in the series, and should give you a good idea what to expect.