Epic is who epic does.

I don’t think I’ve stressed enough the point I tried to make in my previous post about Sanderson and his foolishness.

Imagine being 30 years old, and deciding what you’re going to write when you’ll be 60. This is the thing. Epic isn’t the wordcount of the project, epic is the implausibility of the commitment. And acceptance of such commitment. It’s the work required to build an impossible human artifact. A dolmen of impossibility. A monolith. Or an “edifice”, like that other book telling the story of a guy who decides to build a church for no apparent reason. It’s all about seeing past and through what’s possible and sensible. A mission that has no sense, but yet you’re compelled to go through. A writer who isolates himself from the external world to build this artifact.

Another crazy project, but of a totally different typology, is “Horus Heresy”. A literary crossover that tells the story of a pivotal event in the setting of Warhammer 40k, the civil war caused by Horus (and so the titular heresy) versus the God/Emperor.

It’s somewhat like a comics crossover, where an editor has to do the ungrateful and impossible job of coordinating a bunch of writers so that everything makes sense and to build some overall bigger tapestry of events. But what’s surprising is that this endeavor has gone on now for ELEVEN YEARS. A crossover that spans more than a decade. The first book in this saga came out in 2006. We are now at 46 books already out, another out this December, a more planned. They say the end is now in sight, and the overall cycle should be done within 55 or so books.

55 books are a lot, and it’s just one story in the 40k mythos. In the meantime, for example, Black Library released another series of 12 books, already completed, telling another story and set after Horus Heresy itself. It’s called The Beast Arises.

Even Horus Heresy burst itself out of its main cycle. There are also 18 prequels planned (but these are also shorter), and they are actually interesting in the economy of the story, because every book focuses on one “Primarch”. There are 18 Primarchs (or 20, 2 are mysterious or whatever) and they are relevant because when the civil war starts they split in two factions of 9. So knowing the Primarchs before entering the war might give a certain perspective on the whole conflict. It gives the war its broader context, as a kind of convergence.

The average Horus Heresy novel is of course much smaller than Sanderson’s doorstoppers (and written by different writers specializing in their own sub-story-trajectory within the bigger event, and with a significant variance in the quality of writing) but on average we have novels that stabilize around 100k. Some are 80k words, some reach up to 120k or so. In a standard format that’s around 250 pages each book. It’s not much by itself, but now you have to multiply that for those 47 books of original material. And that means that by the time the series is over we’re looking at a grand total of more than 5 million words. It’s quite insane by itself.

And if 50+ books, plus 20 prequels aren’t enough, another publisher is ALSO contributing to the Horus Heresy mythology through pure lore-books + miniature battles, already 7 volumes out, 350 pages each in a big format and looking amazing.

This was all to give some context to the reason why this blog post exists. While looking onto all this stuff I spotted on ASOIAF forums some interesting comments about the significance of Warhammer 40k, under the surface:

Honestly, I think the Warhammer universe is underestimated for its world-building but I got started in roleplaying games before I became a major fan of fantasy so I have a higher tolerance for game-isms than most perhaps. I also think my literary tastes owe a great deal to Warhammer because it’s the system that gave us the word “grimdark” and all the wonderful descriptions it makes.

One thing I’d like to note, though is Horus didn’t ruin the Imperium. The Imperium was an authoritarian militantly atheist totalitarian violent dictatorship ruled by a master race of genetically engineered Psyker warriors. They’re a bunch of scumbags who destroyed innocent cultures, eradicated all Xenos they encountered (the Interax shows coexistence was possible with some), and conquered all humans who resisted the rule of Earth. Horus’ rebellion is karmic, IMHO, because it made sure the Emperor of Mankind didn’t get away with his mammoth amount of crimes.

Then again, I’ve never really been a big fan of Leto II God-Emperors.

Warhammer 40K is a fun setting really for getting into the nuts and bolts of fascism using a fantasy lens. It’s on the borderline between pure and entertainment and art but I think of it as every bit as useful as Marvel Comics X-men for talking about a sensitive subject in ways which the reader might be predisposed to have an opinion on that blinds them to undertones. For instance, with the X-men the issue of prejudice.

W40K, for me, is useful as a discussion of how reasonable people might come to believe militarism and xenophobia are justified by showing the comic extremes necessary to “justify” that kind of attitude in setting. By, essentially, making the ultimate grimdark setting, you expose just how hollow a lot of the justifications for unlimited militarism and absolute prejudice are.

Even then, the books do a good job of showing the justification of the Imperium is often hollow. Gaunt’s Ghosts are cannon fodder despite the fact they’re the most elite, talented, and intelligent group of scouts in the Sabbat Crusade. They’re used wastefully and all of their hopes are destroyed in the meat grinder of its corrupt leadership. Ciaphas Cain hates himself for being a coward and a fraud but he’s in a society which does not revere common sense or preserving the lives of your troops. “Cowardice” in the Imperium is courage to any sensible army.

The Imperium is better than the alternative, which is extinction, but if the better is being a bunch of Theocratic Space Nazi Feudalists (a trifecta of everything working class Brits hate) then how much better is it really?

It’s why, cartoony as it is, I consider W40K to be art.

Like the X-men.

And, a bunch of links that I used to quickly get a grasp of the overall mythos without completely lose my sanity (yes, it’s 4chan derived, yet still quite useful):

https://1d4chan.org/wiki/Warhammer_40,000_8th_edition
https://1d4chan.org/wiki/Horus_Heresy
https://1d4chan.org/wiki/God-Emperor_of_Mankind
https://1d4chan.org/wiki/Roboute_Guilliman
https://1d4chan.org/wiki/Age_of_the_Dark_Imperium

More than three years ago I bought “Words of Radiance” and made a blog post about it. No, not a review. I just rambled about the physical object.

Today my copy of “Oathbringer” arrived, so I’m keeping the tradition. This time I’m a week late because Amazon in Europe got much worse. They now have some kind of protectionist deal with the UK publishers so in the whole of Europe they don’t sell anymore American copies of the books until they are one or two months old. It’s ridiculous. So I had to order the Tor/American copy from a different shop, and that means it takes longer to deliver.

Let’s see what we have.

The most obvious change is the price of the book. The first two were $27.99, Oathbringer is now $34.99, so a +$7 increase that I don’t know if it’s due to prices being raised across the board at Tor, or just trying to milk this particular book.

The first two books had a higher quality binding with pages that are folded and sewed together into sections, then glued to the cloth spine. Instead this third volume goes with single pages simply glued to the cloth spine like a normal paperback (or the cheap hardcovers). As far as I know this costs quite a bit less to make.

So we got a +$7 and a reduction in binding quality. I read somewhere the publisher claimed it had to change the binding because the book was “too big”. I’m going to speculate it’s all bullshit. Why? Just remove the soft cover and look at the three books one next to the other. Oathbringer is actually the smallest in size of all the three, and *by far*. This isn’t due to the binding as they suggested: they are simply using a much lighter type of paper.

Oathbringer is about 150 pages longer than the previous book, but by making the paper much lighter they actually managed to have it smaller in size even compared to the first book. So they didn’t have any reason to change the binding as well, it’s just for the money. Sanderson might not be the best writer in the genre, but he’s surely and by far the best when it comes to nourish and grow his fanbase. He has become an “industry” built around himself, and so Tor has won its bet. They heavily invested into Sanderson, and now they are maximizing profits. Sanderson is now their golden boy.

…And he’s also insane. Malazan was insane as well, but the only way you can realistically plan a 10 book series project is the way Erikson did it. A book a year. Why? Because it can only be insane to plan your life around a project that takes more than ten years of continued work and dedication. You are making a promise to stay committed for so long, and that nothing will make you stray from this plan. And even then, how do you guarantee a continuity in the work itself? People change. Taking a deep breath and then diving for ten years might even work, but more?

I think Sanderson’s initial plan with this series was to release a book every couple of years. Book 2 was already late, but the excuse was that he was still busy writing the Wheel of Time. Now I think the plan is to have a book, roughly, every three years. Oathbringer comes more than three and a half years later. With seven more to go we’re looking at a project that will take another 20 years to see its end. And this is the BEST CASE scenario, with Sanderson keeping his output without a single hiccup, and living in a stasis. People might worry that the writer might die before the end, here the risk is that it will be human civilization to come to an abrupt end before this project is over. And of course this 10 book series isn’t even the totality of the project, because Sanderson’s plan stretches WAY beyond that.

I love insanity.

On the other hand, he was smart enough to plan this cycle in two parts. So we’ll have some sort of partial conclusion in book 5. The books themselves continue to be well received and it’s particularly important for two reasons. One is that it’s the middle point of a huge sub-series, so we are at what’s usually the weakest link. But this is what Sanderson’s knows best, being aware and avoiding the common pitfalls. He seems to know exactly what to do.

The wordcounts are crazy as well. The first book was 380k (I’m now using my own counts for all three), and it’s already almost a record for the first volume in a series. Then Words of Radiance was 400k, that represents some kind of mythic boundary that very few writers are able (or allowed) to pass. And now Oathbringer punches through at a rather impressive 450k. And that’s not even the full picture, because of course Sanderson wrote also a novella that is meant to bridge the story between book 2 and 3, and that comes at 40k. So we have Edgedancer + Oathbringer, and 10k short of a half million words.

Or, we are barely at volume 3 in a projected 10 book series, and already at 1 million 270k words. That’s around the same length of all Bakker seven volumes fantasy cycle, or all of Harry Potter, or Stephen King’s Dark Tower.

TL;DR, Oathbringer costs $7 dollar more, is about 50k/150 pages longer, but it also has worse paper and binding. I think between readers and Tor, it’s Tor that got the upper hand. Everything else is pretty much consistent. The pagination is the same. There are 21 illustrations inside, but one is taken from book 1, so 20 overall (and two printed in a way too dark tone), and it’s +1, since the other two volumes had 19 in total. There are also four illustrations for the ‘endpapers’, somewhat like the first book, and the colored map was moved to the back of the soft cover, that I think is kind of pointless. They changed the font of the title, but at least if you remove the soft cover the style remain consistent. I still bet some art director will mess it up before the series is over.

Oh, and they put a typo right in the index. Book Two: Oathbringer

Really? No one could notice that?

Sanderson still plays some weird game with the inner section titles (“New Beginnings Sing” matched with “Defy! Sing Beginnings!”, and “United” matched with “New Unity”), and the cover sucks again as it sucked for book 2. The illustration is slightly nicer but “woman in front of a wall” isn’t exactly my idea for a gorgeous cover.

But… Did you read it?

Nope. When I started “The Way of Kings” the idea was to follow only this series written by Sanderson and ignore all his other output because I’m not such a big fan, so even if I’m a slow reader it was reasonable to think I would read every book before the next came out. And in fact I think I started reading Words of Radiance right away. That was March 2014. I’m… at page 200. I picked it up again a couple of months ago but I couldn’t remember some details, so I decided to restart, and I’m around page 130 or so. Now I have Words of Radiance + Edgedancer + Oathbringer.

I don’t lack the desire to read. I still remember the first book rather well and the second book does what I like already in the prologue. What sparks my interest is this Kabbalistic or esoteric undertone I perceive, where the world Sanderson describes is not the way it appears, but it “conceals” some hidden dimension that overlaps. An hidden layer that looms (and he does this on two fronts, one historical, the other instead pervasive and about the fabric of reality itself). Maybe the depth I perceive is actually inch-deep, but it still carried my interest and in the end it actually fueled the story in a interesting way. I can see certain things coming, but the predictability of this development isn’t a problem. It’s possible that at some point it becomes trivial for me, but Sanderson still strikes a good balance between something accessible and welcoming for a broad public, as well filling it with something meaningful and not entirely shallow and trite.

The books might be insanely long in wordcount, but they are enjoyable. I don’t have problems with the pacing, I didn’t find parts that were slow or pointless. That’s again an aspect why I think Sanderson got so popular. The writing flows well and is lively, characterization is colorful. It’s always about striking that balance between an easy, enjoyable read without falling into the monotony of a commodified product that goes nowhere interesting. There are aspects of the characterization that are too trite and plain, for example with Kaladin, but there’s always something else at play that still carries the page and makes it worthwhile even when it goes through some “scripted”, default motions.

But I still didn’t read it, and I keep getting sidetracked. I recently bought a book pretty much no one heard about. I spotted it on twitter described as “a 600-page novel about matters theological”, so of course I looked into it. The first few lines of the description captivated me, and I already knew I was going to read it:

When Proctor McCullough decides to desert his comfortable London life to build a church on a clifftop, nobody knows what to make of it: McCullough is not religious. Is it a midlife crisis? Has he gone mad? Is he suffering a spiritual breakdown in a secular age, where identity is shaped by wealth and status? Or has he really been chosen by God for a new revelation?

As A God Might Be

It’s an unconventional setup. The man builds a church, but he’s not religious. And there’s this idea of committing to a project that doesn’t have a clear external purpose. But it is not a “mystery”.

I’ve now read about 30 pages and the writing is sublime. The characterization is magical. The dialogue is never declarative and always about some psychological underpinning. There’s a sense of harmony in every line, in every insight into characterization. It’s at the same time very light and profound, and it deals with the characters in a way that really does feel different to me. From just 30 pages I could take countless of quotes to prove the point, very easily, but I guess I’ll keep that to when/if I write specifically about it.

I was also planning to write about other stuff, but I never get to it. I wanted to write some comments about Erikson announcing that the final volume of the current trilogy is being postponed to begin early with the “sequel” trilogy. And I still have notes about stuff in the first few pages of Fall of Light that I wanted to write since the book was released. Maybe at some point.

I was keeping editing the previous entry, so I decided to keep it separated without cluttering that messy post written across a few days and so already kind of inconsistent in its flow.

What I wanted to add is that the strong statement the show makes, as I explained there, is to crown uncertainty by using that ultimate mystery, and the story Nora tells, as the principal way to deliver that symbolic ambiguity. One ambiguity to rule them all.

The big problem here is that this statement and this type of ambiguity are FALSE. And we are even outside of the dichotomy between fiction and reality I used in my mythological explanation. The message here is directly ludicrous and wrong (and it’s a mistake specific to the TV show since the book doesn’t make it).

It takes the first 20 pages of John Fowles’ “The Aristos” to make a much better statement, without even the need to conjure any “character”. But the nature of our reality isn’t ambiguity or uncertainty. That’s human condition, that’s the observer, not the observed. It’s not reality, it’s us. Whereas in The Leftovers it’s the world itself that declares itself ambiguous. It’s a world embodied into Nora’s story. A world fashioned. Because we receive that ambiguity, but that ambiguity isn’t factual, since Nora knows the answer about whether or not she lied, and Nora is just another human being. So we aren’t facing an ultimate mystery as the nature of our existence. We’re facing a man made one. It’s such a basic epistemic mistake, to confuse a limit we have with a limit of the world.

Here’s a quote from LessWrong, that reads as an answer to The Leftovers, and pertinently titled “Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions”:

ignorance exists in the map, not in the territory. If I am ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself. A phenomenon can seem mysterious to some particular person. There are no phenomena which are mysterious of themselves. To worship a phenomenon because it seems so wonderfully mysterious, is to worship your own ignorance.

The Leftovers (the show) made that ignorance into an idol to worship. I can’t see this as a positive message.

Well, that was 100% unexpected.

While I was watching the season 2 finale I was thinking it was really good. Then I checked and noticed there was a whole chunk left to see, the whole final part. I was satisfied even without that one. So this time I made sure to never check how much was left. And when it was over my reaction was… What? …That’s it?

I’m not a completely cold-hearted guy, there are stories that move me. But even the emotional side of this one felt flat to me. Analyzing, it’s probably because it didn’t ring true for most of it, so there wasn’t enough time for me to connect. Like Nora, I couldn’t believe Kevin arrived in that place at random. But unlike Nora I couldn’t trust the narrative either. I didn’t know if it was just bad writing or if there was an explanation within the story.

So in the end for me it was mostly honest curiosity driving my experience, more than emotional connection. But anyway, that emotional side of the story doesn’t look particularly meaningful to me. Kind of banal? But not in a genuine way either. Too coated in rhetoric even when it tries to be raw and honest. That’s the feeling I have about this whole season. It was interesting and with plenty of good ideas, but it lost most of the genuine emotional side that fueled season 1. It lost authenticity.

I thought I was going to be writing about mythology here, but is there anything to say? I was expecting the finale to make some very wrong move, and be enraged by that, or it to make a brilliant, inspired one, and be awed by it. It was neither. The mythology and mystery just fell off. The finale was not a finale. Well, I’ll be cynical after all. It was sentimental banality. Too gamed to be true, needlessly convoluted too.

But it wasn’t absence of mythology either. There’s the rest of the season to account for, and it’s a gaping hole. Really. This went back to The OA levels of missing footholds. It’s completely arbitrary and pointless, nothing to work with and leading nowhere meaningful. (in fact the always enlightened Jeff Jensen calls it “anti-theology”, it works the same as “anti-mythology” and it’s exactly what we have here, more or less deliberately, where for “deliberate” I mean the intention of not giving anything solid to speculate about, a deliberate absence being built)

What was the point of Kevin’s resurrection powers? Everything else? The theme vanished from the finale. We got one big “answer” as a way to check that one box about what most people wanted to know. But only to show how what most people want to know is utterly pointless. You got your answer. It obviously leads to a complete lack of satisfaction. It’s the most underwhelming revelation ever. And that’s fine, because that really wasn’t the point. It correctly shows that what most people attention is on, is pointless. It’s a good, correct message.

But the rest? It’s all put aside and gone unaddressed. The finale has no suggestive suggestion, no statement either. It just moved on and everything fell away. The OA at least was inspired. This one was carved empty.

Well, it cannot compare to LOST. Despite its mistakes LOST tried to soar high. The Leftovers has lots that is good in it, but most of it is contained in season 1. This was a finale where the stakes are massively lowered instead of raised, maybe for the fear to disappoint, or to stay on what is familiar and proven. Season 2/3 were fun rides with good ideas, but in the end leading to nothing meaningful. Sidetracks. The parts being better than the sum, because the sum disperses what was being built. There’s no arriving place, and, retrospectively, no meaningful journey.

The ambiguity in Nora’s story

Reading now other people’s reactions I notice that some think the finale (and it’s bogus answer) is ambivalent: Nora might be lying. All her story is just a story we/Kevin are supposed to believe, or not. This is seen by people as a way to answer this final question in a kind of open way, because maybe this is just a story she tells us. It’s not ultimately verified. But well, okay? I fail to understand why this ambiguity can be seen as relevant. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to me. It doesn’t seem a meaningful dilemma to think about?

And thinking about it more, I also cannot find any good reason why Nora would lie. Lies and truths are meaningful because of their implication, but it seems nothing is implied here. We have a finale where Nora and Kevin are back together, a starting point, ending on a positive note. It would seem quite pointless if this reunion begins with a big lie, especially because Kevin and Nora’s relationship started on the basis of hiding nothing. So, to me it seems that the overall narrative leads me to “believe” Nora, exactly as Kevin does. In a way, the whole journey has the purpose to lead to trust that story without the need to question it, because of what we’ve been through. We arrived at a point where we don’t need a proof. Then nope, this aspect of the finale isn’t ambiguous. The story the way I received it tells me Nora wasn’t lying, because she couldn’t be lying at this point in the story.

The only good reason to motivate that Nora lied is that her story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (why wouldn’t anyone else come back, then? That they all live happier is kind of silly, even if it seems to be validated by the fact that when Nora returns she decides to live in a “technologically light” kind of town, supposedly similar to how those people live on the other side. Aka: technology is bad, you feel better living the good olde ways, yeah). Heh, might be just the best story the writers came up with and whatever implausibility has to be ascribed to that. The problem isn’t whether or not *I* believe the story, the problem is that the choice of making her tell that kind of story that way feels contrived. The whole thing of these two possibilities to preserve and reinforce this ambiguity is contrived.

She could still be lying, it remains a possibility even if it doesn’t make a narrative sense to me. But the important aspect is that it really makes no difference. Either she found out the world was split, or she doesn’t. Neither case has any explanatory power, or is compelling to consider. It’s dry speculation without consequence.

So why again? No images being shown, as a writing choice. Faithful to the ambiguity that runs through the whole show and that instead of being solved is made into a foundation. THIS is the statement. It rings a bit hollow and artificial, but that’s how I read it. The purpose driving it is the choice the writers made: to crown ambiguity. To keep it open ended. To leave that doubt not as a thing to solve, not as a complex mystery encoded in the story and hard to unveil, but as the ultimate statement. To leave human beings uprooted, ungrounded, nowhere to go beside doubt. Lacking information to be able to choose. But while this is praiseworthy as an ultimate goal, I think this specific theme was handled badly, and it’s one of the weaker parts of the whole show. So making it as the theme that connects and builds the whole thing, well, it’s weak.

Let’s at least discuss what little mythology is there. In the case Nora’s lying, well, we don’t have much. As I said we aren’t juggling real alternatives, so if Nora’s lying we just have nothing in our hands. No theory is offered in the show beside the hidden and unfathomable hand of god. If Nora’s lying it’s because she’s ashamed that she couldn’t go all the way. She’d feel a coward and so she’d close herself from the rest of the world, as we’ve seen. We’re left with nothing in the way of answers to what happened. But if Nora’s saying the truth, then we have a little something, at least indirectly.

In my own schematics I always analyzed this in terms of the boundary of fiction. The threshold. The “event” being seen like a gap that opens and then closes. This is all in accord with the transcendental theme. I imply an inside and an outside. The hand of the god comes in from outside, and the departures go to this outside. But Nora’s story changes all this radically. If that story is *true* then it means the departures only went to some kind of parallel world, not an outside. This perspective changes everything because the parallel world, conceived in this way, is still part of an “inside”. It just became more complex, more differentiated, but still “inside”. It’s a scientific possibility. The event itself becomes normalized. A new event for science, but not outside science. We didn’t break through the “dome”, we just found out another place, still within it. The story is still encapsulated and not breached. Ideally, as in Nora’s story, we can build machines that let us walk between one place and the other. We didn’t move into spirituality or into an afterlife. We just moved into an parallel universe, and that’s well within the potential of science.

In this case the idea that the hand of god comes in, takes some people and moves them to a parallel universe, well, it is kind of silly and far-fetched. Far more plausible would be some rare physical event that created a fracture on the timeline. Something spontaneous but with an ultimate scientific explanation. The god of this world would be identical to ours. An hidden hand, not an explicit one. The idea that god permeates reality, but doesn’t intervenes directly, or tampers with it. It’s the occluded god of Kabbalistic tradition.

It opens a problem, though, and it’s where the whole show has to be questioned. This finale wants to make a statement about ambiguity and uncertainty, as I said, but that ambiguity is what the original book was about, the main theme. And that story was already fully contained and really well adapted through the whole first season. I have commented how season 2 and 3 expanded that story and introduced a new layer. The magic and mystery were featured more prominently, it seemed that the show was leading somewhere else, that it wanted to make a jump. That’s why the finale was a disappointment. In the end season 2/3 didn’t really add anything. The mystery and magic fell off, the theme disappeared and for the finale we simply went back to restate what season 1 already delivered with much more precision, meaningfulness and depth. We got a very long, very interesting sidetrack that ultimately lead nowhere if not backwards. A detour that was fun, but pointless in the Grand Scheme of Things.

In the end The Leftovers denied its own statements. The conflict was solved without producing something new. What worked well was the tension between two writers. In Season 2 we saw Lindelof seizing control, to push the story toward this new place, to embrace more fully its mystery. Season 3 is even more liberating, in the sense that we move further onward into Lindelof territory. But then comes the finale. It’s like there’s a missing piece. It’s like there’s a world between episode 7 and 8, and it’s like during that implied war between Perrotta and Lindelof, the latter lost (LOST). Or better, he surrendered.

This hypothesis is directly validated here:
http://www.vulture.com/2017/06/leftovers-finale-behind-the-scenes-exclusive.html

Lindelof actually pitched early on that they should show the mirror world – which received support, except from book author Perrotta.

“He made it so f**king compelling,” says Perrotta, “and everybody in the room is going, ‘Yeah!’ And I’m sitting there going, ‘No!’ ” Lindelof, comparing his writers’ room to 12 Angry Men, says that “Perrotta became Juror No. 8” — the lone dissenter who brings the room around. Perrotta gave a version of his Leftovers stump speech: “It was always just a given for me that there is this mystery, the same mystery of where do we go when we die, and the idea that there’s one authoritative answer seems palpably ridiculous to me.”

Lindelof was seducing the writing room. The same as season 2 and 3 were seducing the public with its mysterious, magical and crazier elements. Boiling and bubbling up as the seasons progressed. He was winning the war until Perrotta claimed control again.

Lindelof clearly lost. He left while still trying to make a dent, throughout season 2 and 3, but ultimately the finale restates Perrotta’s book without even a little change or addition. It still backpedaled. And I tend to think that Lindelof lost simply because he once again was chasing a trail that he didn’t know what was actually about, and that meant he couldn’t produce good arguments to win that war. That trail lead nowhere, and the show ultimately led nowhere if not back to what was known: the beginning. Restating something that is only superficially convincing and that more than give a closure, it DISTRACTS from closure.

This is my opinion on The Leftovers. A show that was a tension between two writers. Two different perspectives. That is creatively fueled and enlightened by that conflict but that ultimately fails to produce a synthesis or something new. An imperfect work that tries to arrive to a balance, but failing. It’s still immensely interesting, of course, or I wouldn’t write about it here. Maybe third time’s a charm.

My explanation of The Leftovers’ mythology remains valid. The finale didn’t prove it wrong, but it made it pointless. What was the premise for a mythology, even if weak, became a statement for an anti-mythology. The finale not only didn’t produce answers, but ultimately made the questions themselves irrelevant. The answer to mystery is pure doubt. Theories and systems, that are the premise to build a mythology, were made impossible.

Of course you should check out Jeff Jensen’s take, because he always makes things better than they are.

I’m now catching up with the show, with episode 8 ready to go. But first I wanted to write down some notes about the mess that was episode 7. In fact I wrote down some obscure notes so I wouldn’t forget them while being carried by the rest of the story:

Once you master a level you awake, all you’ve learned is lost. New level, new problems. Surf the trajectory. Every new level resets the importance, relevance is contextual.

With only the finale left, I’m peering at the possibilities. For me, right now, the show could go either way. Polar opposites. It could be the best or worst thing ever. I hope it does something clever and consistent, but I have zero faith on this. It could as well be a total clusterfuck that retrospectively ruins everything up to this point. And this episode 7 fits this mold.

It’s not a bad episode, it’s not good either. This whole third season has been pretty much useless, but at the same time it can still be great if they pull off something. It can potentially be great even if these seven episodes didn’t have substance.

So I see the episode and of course the reaction was WTF. Purely that. Nothing makes sense here, nothing is understood. So I go to read those recap that journalists write.

http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/otherworldly-leftovers-kevin-fulfills-his-purpose–256008

It’s a show with an elaborate, layered mythology for those interested in delving into it

WHAT?! Are you fucking kidding me? That’s why I have to write this down, because it seems I’m the only one who’s interested in delving into it. BUT THERE’S NOTHING TO DELVE INTO.

Where is this elaborate, layered mythology? Because of course none of those articles that mention it actually delve into it or even know what it is. They only mention it. It’s no one business.

But first, I’ll point out to the total lack of coherence.

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/28/15701402/the-leftovers-episode-7-most-powerful-man-in-the-world-identical-twin-recap

The Leftovers is still, at its core, what it’s always been: a story about wrenching, deeply personal grief.

To then continue with:

in all of the craziness, we’ve missed something important: The real tragedy is Kevin and Nora’s breakup.

(an aside, I noticed on reddit a comment that correctly said: they didn’t break up, they just were on different pages.)

So, nope, it’s not about any convoluted mythology or fantasy elements. It’s about the characters. Only to then say that “in all of the craziness” we actually lost those same characters. Duh.

And that’s actually correct. The Leftovers has become a mess of a show that in the end does nothing “properly”. It thrives on contradiction. There’s too much mystery and absurdity that get in the way of actual character development, yet that mystery is too all over the place to even begin making sense, or being consistent and generous enough that it makes delving into it a rewarding activity. So BOTH are poorly done.

But as I said at the beginning, it’s extremely wobbly, yet it works. It manages to achieve some form of clumsy balance. Do its own worthwhile thing because it’s at least different from most TV shows. It plays with stuff, might get burnt badly, but it’s still kind of fun and interesting to watch. But it is ALSO a clusterfuck.

Even in the Flood of Nonsense that was this episode, I was able to bring some clarity to myself. It makes sense to me, and that’s why I went to read various recap, to see if other people parsed things in the same way. And they didn’t. They call for that elaborate mythology that everyone points at, but generically and without saying what it is about. Like a looming yet evanescent presence.

So here I am, once again, to explain how it works. Or the way I personally parsed it.

The cardinal point this time is that THERE’S NO MYTHOLOGY. Yes, this is important not as a simple statement, but because it brings actual clarity. And it’s funny that it’s the opposite of what everyone else notices.

What I observe, comparing this episode to season 2’s 8th (International Assassin), is that there are no actual, objective rules. There’s no overarching mythology that has been established, in fact. Where for mythology we imply “systems”. There’s no actual consistency between these two episodes. What instead there’s plenty of is: arbitrary symbolism. It’s very obviously a dreamworld. One example for all, only in this episode we have the seemingly important mechanic of the character transition through reflective surfaces. Yet there were mirrors in the other episode too, they just didn’t have this use.

It’s one element only, but an important one. It says to me that in this world there’s no consistency. It’s not a mythological afterlife with strong rules established and consistent throughout. It’s instead a dreamworld that follows dream logic. Transitions happen by just blinking eyes. Like in dreams.

So where are we? The answer is that we get nothing of an “afterlife”. We are in an afterlife, because Kervin does keep dying and resurrecting, but the nature of this afterlife, its actual mythology, is occluded. We just don’t get to see what it is. Instead we get a simulacrum. The place where Kevin ends up is his mind, obviously. BUT. I also just said he keeps dying, so he is inside an afterlife. The mythology of the show DOES command an afterlife. But it doesn’t reveal it to us.

So where are we, again? We are in an afterlife seen but occluded through Kevin’s mind. We aren’t in that place directly. We are in that place as symbolized by a mind. A place fashioned by a human brain, and so a representation of a place through a mind. A dreamworld again.

That’s why there’s no mythology. A mythology is the sense of structure, of rules. But because this afterlife is entirely occluded, even if it does exists, we can only infer meaning. We can only observe it indirectly the way Kevin’s mind fashions it. And so, because it’s a dreamworld, it follows dream logic.

All this leading to my interpretation of the whole episode, its meaning. The important line for me is:

“You just do what they tell you to do…. What do you want?”

That’s Evie to Kevin. Evie keeps herself in character all the way through. She doesn’t “awake” inside the dream. She doesn’t “wink” at Kevin the same way Patti does. Kevin tries to shake her out of her reverie, in order to deliver the message. But she stays in character. The delivery of the message is a failure because the message cannot breach her character. The message doesn’t reach her.

Yet, what she says works anyway, the same as the speech with god worked in the episode on the boat. Layers. Evie describes Kevin the way he is. He’s doing stuff he doesn’t understand just because he has faith on the fact it works. It still makes no sense. It’s still absurd that he accepts of going through this insane ordeal. But he does, blindly.

That’s why it all does make sense to me. What we’ve seen in this episode is a total failure. Kevin wasn’t able to deliver the message to Evie, because Evie wasn’t awake. And he also wasn’t able to figure out the mystery of the kids without shoes, he got no answer. And he also didn’t get the song from the guy. All three of these missions he had were a complete failure.

Yet it makes perfect sense. It’s a dreamworld. It’s personal even if it’s connected to an afterlife. The only one who can benefits from facing those “demons” is Kevin himself. The owner of the dreamworld. You don’t get to fix someone else problem by telling them what you dreamed the last night. Dreams are personal affairs. What’s deeply meaningful to you is useless to someone else, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen here: Kevin learning something about himself, but powerless to fulfill others’ “tasks”. It’s his dreamworld, it has power on himself. For everyone else it’s useless. The afterlife is completely occluded and you cannot take away anything that wasn’t already buried on this side of the threshold. This afterlife/outside exists within the show’s mythology, but it cannot “speak” or reveal itself, if not through what is already manifest: Kevin’s own demons.

That’s how it makes sense to me: Kevin comes back empty handed. The message is clear: you have to fix your own shit without any divine intervention. No magic tricks. You tried going through, but you just hit your head against an hard wall. Rejected.

The show’s central mystery stays unsolved, because that threshold did open once. We now know, simply, that the afterlife delivers no answers or solutions. It’s just an echo chamber.

Not really a review of any kind but I’m going to write a few disconnected comments. Here’s the poof that when I don’t actually care about a book I end up reading faster. I read the last 2/3 of this in just a few days, while the first 1/3 I had read a month or two ago before being sidetracked toward JR by Gaddis (that’s just a hint of my erratic patterns).

I had this book years ago, when it was very popular. I read some 50/60 pages, as I usually do, then shelved it. I didn’t like at all the writing, all the characters were caricatures, all the plot was filled with simple tropes, and I did feel an intrusive “wind” in the form of the writer trying to unsubtly push reader’s emotions where he wanted them. It felt artificial and clumsy. But the guy at ofblog loved the stuff and he has a kind of sophisticated taste. I knew this was part of a bigger project of four books, and I’m always curious when an author drives toward some kind of “higher purpose”. This cycle is complete now, in Spanish, in Italian, it looks like the English version isn’t coming until 2018.

So this time I began reading the book with more determination to see it through, the whole first book to have at least a good idea about what it is all about, and what it wants to drive to. For the first 1/3 I found nothing different than the first time. The book failed to engage me, the silly tropes are pervasive. There’s just too much effort making every single character into a quirky, eccentric figure because otherwise they’d be boring and not fitting the pages of a ‘book’. It just feelt an elaborate but ultimately fake and grotesque stage.

But then it started to get good. It didn’t become any different, it didn’t become any more than that, but the recipe started to make sense and work. For the first 1/3 not only I didn’t like it, but I also couldn’t figure out why it was so widely appreciated. Reading the rest of the book made me understand more that part. The story becomes a fair bit more dense and complex but, more importantly, it mixes a lot of genres and does it fairly well. It’s good in the sense that it gets engaging and quick to read. “Mystery deepens” is the driving mechanic. There are various “blocks” that are dropped and that build and build, so you want to keep turning the pages. It works because instead of keeping a mystery out of reach until you get to a final revelation, in this case instead the flow of knowledge builds up relentlessly through the whole second half of the book. It’s one huge, constant info-dump. Very dense. But it works and isn’t tiring because it’s all still steeped into intense emotions and the tragic lives of multiple characters all together in a tangle of plot.

All of that is done well. It’s just obvious the incredible amount of work behind the book. The sheer amount of stuff packed in, and the intense tragedy that keeps a reader locked in, driving toward a “surface”. It’s a fun, engaging read and gets you in the center of this whirlpool of characters. But? But, while fun, it isn’t very meaningful to me. One thing is why and how I enjoyed it, another is my opinion now that I’ve finished it. I think it’s all pre-digested stuff. The book is all built around tropes coming from different genres, sprinkled with a gothic, surrealist atmosphere. As I said, it’s well done, but it’s also nothing more than that. It feels to me like the writer really loved these books he read, and wrapped them into this story he built. But I doubt that this mixture he made is anything more than an “homage” to authors he loved to read. Nothing more that this book has to say beyond this sort of nostalgic love.

I’m (binge)watching Twin Peaks for the first time now, sorry for the forced parallel but Twin Peaks shares a somewhat similar intent and I think shows the difference. When the post-modernism works it takes what came before, all the ingredients, but spinning them so everything moves at a different speed, and the result is completely different. To me Twin Peaks is nothing more than parody of soap operas used to make fun of the public who loved them. Public that then proceeds to take it seriously, and so falling completely in the trap. Becoming a laughing stock because Twin Peaks, really, is just trolling. But Twin Peaks also takes *itself* seriously (having a cake and eating it too). Enough to create its own new dimension. Enough to make people forget its derivative-ness, and make believe Twin Peaks STARTED something new. The mix of old tropes creates a whole new level. Knowing the old to make the new. Today Twin Peaks re-emerges, and no one even remembers it was just a parody. Transfiguration.

(and all three of my current interests, The Leftovers, Twin Peaks and The Shadow of the Wind, all three seem to have a central mystery that actually isn’t there at all. Just a lot of clever and less clever misdirection)

The Shadow of the Wind doesn’t seem to emerge from its homage, from its borrowed love for the things past. It loops back, but it closes itself. Its energy is borrowed energy. A shadow of things past that produces no new life. And it matters because its plot and structure would suggest exactly the opposite, and it fails, so radically, at the true heart. This central idea of the book that you can “redeem” a story in the past gone wrong, with a story in the present that goes well. The finale distributing trivial sweet candies to every minor and major character. Characters all used as tools and then discarded through convenient, momentary compassion so that the one adopted by the readers can have his sweeter implied future. It feels to me so hypocritical. To suggest you can clean it all. The world is bleak and full of pain, but hey, there’s a shadow writing hand here taking care of its characters and making sure it all ends in positivity. The new life that the book produces explicitly (metaphorically) just isn’t new life that the book produces for the reader. It’s a book made of ashes. A mix of tropes that is well done, but that produces nothing new or meaningful. A well done mimicry, but I don’t feel is any more than that. And the overall message? It rings hollow and false to me. It doesn’t in ANY way address the tragedy shown. It simply dismisses it through rhetoric, through the fact this is a book, indeed a fake stage where things were pre-arranged to make a point. A point that has no substance or meaning. Theatrics.

Though I wanted to read it also to figure out what the overall cycle of four books would be about, this part eludes me. The first book is complete. There’s really no element of the story that might suggest there’s more to it. It closes even too neatly. I have absolutely no idea how the author plans to wrap this in an overall larger story because it seems it’s already all squished to nothing. And so I don’t really know if I should care to read more, if there’s something that might interest me. In fact, since this book offers nothing in the overall trajectory points to the possibility there’s more substance ahead. Who knows. For the time being I’m content. I’m not rushing to read the next book.

Meaningless mind games, right? Devoid of significance. Nothing but self-indulgence, and for that vast audience out there – the whispering ghosts and their intimations, their suppositions and veiled insults and their so easily bored minds – that audience – they are my witnesses, yes, that sea of murky faces in the pit, for whom my desperate performance, ever seeking to reach out with a human touch, yields nothing but impatience and agitation, the restless waiting for the cue to laugh.

And so the Malazan saga ends… What? This 360k fat tome wasn’t the great finale? You say there are four more, even fatter books (and more)? That’s impossible because the whole world already fits comfortably into this book.

Oh, I’m sorry. It truly took me an insane amount of time to finish this one, and the book’s size, or its ambition, weren’t the cause. I just have an unexplainable compulsive habit that makes me delay the things I’m most invested in. A compulsive desire to accumulate and preserve the best stuff and lock it away in a treasure room for some later ideal time that never comes. And as with all compulsive habits, it takes a great amount of willpower and perseverance to defeat it, at least for a moment. I *have* succeeded a little, I’m up to Malazan #6, after all, and to add to that there’s Forge of Darkness and four novellas. But since reading this one book truly took me forever, it’s harder to gather all the pieces scattered through the months and *years*. I’ll try anyway to gather some thoughts, and then I’ll change the recipe, from now on (well, maybe).

This is Malazan #6, then. It marks the middle point of the overall cycle and its structure reflects it. It seems people’s opinions shift with time, but originally this specific book wasn’t a favorite among Malazan readers. The reason was that it had to gather everything from the previous five books, and not simply in a linear way because there are at least three separate “blocks” of story that until this point had been kept distinct within the confines of one dedicated book to each (more or less). So all five of these preceding volumes have to flow into this one, passing through a kind of choke point. And then readers also didn’t like that this volume doesn’t have a proper conclusion, as instead happened with the preceding ones. The overall impression was that this one was working like a transition, like an impossibly huge chariot that Erikson struggled to set once more in motion, so that it would then keep going for the second half of the series. A sort of typical middle book in a big series, that has to do the heavy lifting to reposition properly all the pieces and gain momentum once more.

But it’s not so rare that these days readers point at this one as their favorite book, instead, or close to the top. And that’s the book I actually read. The objective breadth of the thing indeed defies that of preceding books, but I didn’t notice a struggle. Page by page, right from the beginning, it feels Erikson is simply having fun, and that the movement, despite the load, is a breeze. As if he pushed aside all the pressure of having to lock together these two halves of this giant series and instead was focused on making the best of every scene. In my opinion, it has a vitality that is unprecedented and makes the most of what made the fifth book a different but good one. It’s… the first Malazan book, and the last. Maybe it’s not even a good thing, but I felt as if Erikson gave it all here. It didn’t feel like “let’s do a laborious, meticulous build up”, it felt instead as if Erikson went *all* in, without sparing anything. Who cares if there’s nothing left, this might as well be the last day on earth, give it all you have. Till the last drop.

As with all the greatest things, the context is reflected in content. Erikson knows the pressure of the series. That pressure is higher exactly at the middle point (and then again at the end, I guess). And Malazan pressure is of a kind that cannot be sustained by anyone. But that’s Malazan, the spirit. Going, with a mad grin, against all odds. And that’s why it’s fun. Because Erikson knows there’s no other way, it’s all a gamble. It’s all a leap of faith, invigorating and blissful. The brink of the world. And you cannot take it seriously. It’s important that you don’t take it seriously. This is the spirit of the characters, and the spirit I feel in the writing. It’s fun, it’s lively, it’s inspired. It doesn’t suffer at all for being a middle volume in a big series.

Things were not well. A little stretched, are you, Ammanas? I am not surprised. Cotillion could sympathize, and almost did. Momentarily, before reminding himself that Ammanas had invited most of the risks upon himself. And, by extension, upon me as well.

The paths ahead were narrow, twisted and treacherous. Requiring utmost caution with every measured step.

So be it. After all, we have done this before. And succeeded. Of course, far more was at stake this time. Too much, perhaps.

Writing, as in shadow. What you see is all there is, and the shadow warren is metaphor. A world that constantly shifts. Delicious metafiction!

Emerging from Shadowkeep, he paused to study the landscape beyond. It was in the habit of changing at a moment’s notice, although not when one was actually looking, which, he supposed, was a saving grace.

Concretely speaking, the structure is a mess. But why not? It works. Erikson seems to have recognized that fans liked the third book best, and so decided for a similar recipe. Instead of having a prolonged build-up, leading to a big convergence that ties everything together to blow it up all at once, here one can recognize two “apexes”, one coming relatively early in the book, and another to the end (but is not the end). But these two focus points aren’t actually accelerations that follow slow build up, because the rest of the book has a myriad of big events, high points that are worthy enough of a series finale, in different contexts. Something big is constantly going on. Cities explode, the sky falls. In Malazan it might as well be the routine, but not to say these events are downplayed or lack a relevant heft. It’s all a whirlpool of constant awe.

The structure is STILL a mess and the thing groans and wails under its pressure. You forget about characters, because they might as well disappear for 300 or more pages. They might return, perfectly timed, or maybe their personal journey is over in this book, you don’t know. But you also don’t care, because the attention is on what is present. In the moment. And that’s always fun or spectacular, or intense or troubling. Page by page, I don’t think anything is wasted here. It’s the specular opposite of bloat, it’s a compression of every story, of the whole world.

It might be a problem? It might as well be. This is compressed Malazan. All the things I know about Malazan. You can read around the internet complaints about all the “philosophizing” and I recognize a symptom here. The symptom is that all “big” Malazan themes return, from all the angles, all the different, ambiguous faces. I was joking at the beginning, but it does feel like this book *exhausts* itself. When you zoomed back the view to encompass the whole world there’s nothing left to say or see. This book circumnavigates the Malazan world. There’s nothing left to say, because everything is already contained. Between the lines or in the lines. Every digression is a conclusion. Full stop. Silence.

Rock was bone. Dust was flesh. Water was blood. Residues settled in multitudes, becoming layers, and upon those layers yet more, and on and on until a world was made, until all that death could hold up one’s feet where one stood, and rise to meet every step one took. A solid bed to lie on. So much for the world. Death holds us up. And then there were the breaths that filled, that made the air, the heaving assertions measuring the passing of time, like notches marking the arc of a life, of every life. How many of those breaths were last ones? The final expellation of a beast, an insect, a plant, a human with film covering his or her fading eyes? And so how, how could one draw such air into the lungs? Knowing how filled with death it was, how saturated it was with failure and surrender?

Heboric fought on against the knowledge that the world did not breathe, not any more. No, now, the world drowned.

Malazan triumphs and is most agile under pressure because Malazan already broke all the reasonable rules. This book has “flaws”, but because it refused to comply. You are on board or you aren’t, at this point. Malazan can only be judged in respect to Malazan. You can take different angles of analysis. I did, as usual. But I also realize it doesn’t matter. You’re either on board or you aren’t. Malazan taught me to think. To see the whole range, the breadth of the world.

Is characterization good? I’ve read along the years plenty of complaints about Malazan and characterization. There’s always some validity, but Malazan did change the rules. Here a character can be as well a comedic relief, and not much more. Does this give justice to the character? Nope. It doesn’t feel like a true character, it doesn’t feel true. It’s not perfectly grounded, it’s not perfectly believable, all-around. There’s a fantasy-like floaty-ness, of “let’s pretend”, and plots too neatly aligned for an effect. It betrays that necessary(?) feeling of solidity and meaningfulness. There’s plenty to analyze and criticize if you bring with you your categories and criteria. That matters too, but in the end Malazan refuses to comply. What I noticed is that this book uses characters as walls to bounce a ball. You might think this diminishes those characters, but it’s a way to hold up a wider story. Each bounce creates a contrast. When you move from a scene to another, somewhere else, you notice there’s a thematic link, that these scenes talk to each other, speak to the reader. It’s a ray of light bounced around, transformed in its color and angle. A contrast to show you, the reader. You don’t stay with a character. You go in, step out, plunge back in. It’s a constant, deliberate movement so that instead of *closing* the perspective, it opens another. That’s why I said it taught me to think, because it refuses to stay static and affirm itself. When point of view affirms itself, authority follows. Being inside a character can mean being walled in. Trapped in that manipulation. Malazan gives a feeling of sublimation, of transcendence, because those characters aren’t an end to themselves, but they build toward something more, explicitly, the reader. And this doesn’t feel like a betrayal to those character, it feels the need to find meaning in a world where there’s none. The famous “witness”. The book of the fallen.

The world, Ahlrada Ahn knew, was indifferent to the necessity of preservation. Of histories, of stories layered with meaning and import. It cared nothing for what was forgotten, for memory and knowledge had never been able to halt the endless repetition of wilful stupidity that so bound peoples and civilizations.

Muted, from the streets of the city outside, there rose and fell the sounds of fighting, of dying, a chorus like the accumulated voices of history, of human failure and its echoes reaching them from every place in this world.

There is nothing left to understand. This mad whirlpool holds us all in a grasp that cannot be broken; and you with your spears and battle-masks; you with your tears and soft touch; you with the sardonic grin behind which screams fear and self-hatred; even you who stand aside in silent witness to our catastrophe of dissolution, too numb to act – it is all one. You are all one. We are all one.

We are all one. One ray of light, distorted by perspective. You learn to think not when you close yourself in your point of view. Neither you do when you move within another, to get caged there. You learn when you step back, when you free yourself of those chains. Not to deny point of view, but to breathe deep and face whatever there is. Out of pure self-interest chained by necessity. Reality pushes you there into that unavoidable necessity, a book can make you step back and embrace something larger than your immediate howling needs. You cannot find meaning without creating it.

If Game of Thrones can feel like a brutal survival game where you just cross the names of those who die to see who survives to win what’s left, in Malazan who dies is more important than who survives. Eyes wide open. There’s only legitimate rage against an unjust world, and whatever momentary relief you salvaged. It’s already all fucking lost, all gone. And it’s because it’s all gone that it’s important you remember. That defiant look in the face of the impossibility is the purest Malazan’s soul. That mad challenge of Human versus God. Meaning versus emptiness.

Malazan #6 is easily the best book in the main series, because it builds on what came before and because it keeps delivering as if this were truly the Grand Finale. I’d still somewhat put Forge of Darkness on top, but because of personal preference for the writing and tone. FoD is Malazan, but also different. For this sixth book I was expecting a marathon that was going to validate itself at the end. Or a laborious climb necessary to reach lofty ambitions. I feel it’s the opposite. It constantly renews itself, page after page, line by line, it’s lively, *fun* to read and meaningful.

It also did take me up to book #6 to realize that Fiddler is a bard, and that “The Malazan Book of the Fallen” isn’t actually a book, but a song. (and, with Malazan, it’s never about the revelation, it’s about the implications)