Category Archives: Blog

I spotted this excerpt from a DFW interview. It defines a pattern that can be applied to many different contexts. Politics, for example.

The simple way to put it, I think, is: Writing, like any kind of communicating, is complicated. When you’re writing a document for your professional peers, you’re sending out a whole lot of different messages. Some of them are the stuff you’re arguing; some of them are stuff about you.

My guess is that disciplines that are populated by smart, well-educated people who are good readers but are nevertheless characterized by crummy, turgid, verbose, abstruse, abstract, solecism-ridden prose are usually part of a discipline where the dynamic between writing as a vector of meaning—as a way to get information or opinion from me to you—versus writing as maybe a form of dress or speech or style or etiquette that signals that “I am a member of this group” gets thrown off.

There’s the kind of boneheaded explanation, which is that a lot of people with PhDs are stupid; and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be.

I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. And that’s how in disciplines like academia—or, I’ve read some really good legal prose, but when it’s really, really horrible (IRS Code stuff)—I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously. It’s a guess.

I’ve recently finished reading the manga version in seven volumes of Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s drawn masterfully and one of the greatest stories I’ve read. Miyazaki can be a bit repetitive with his themes and characters (and personal loves, like flight & planes), but one never complains when it’s always up to this level of excellence.

I think the reason why I decided to pick it up is that in April/May I was on Evangelion’s rut and I read that Anno considered the last volume of Nausicaa as Miyazaki’s true masterpiece, and so I was curious not only because of that opinion, but because there’s the theme of how you give a really satisfying closure to these hugely “epic” stories. A climax that is a climax instead of a whimper, as the thing comes crushing down under its own weight.

when Nausicaa was being serialized in Animage Anno used to visit Miyazaki’s office and ask to see the part of Nausicaa currently in progress; Miyazaki wouldn’t let him, so he would go in and look at them when Miyazaki wasn’t there. Anno wished that Miyazaki would stop making anime and focus on the Nausicaa manga. Miyazaki struggled greatly with how to end the manga; now, Anno completely understands how Miyazaki felt. According to Anno, Evangelion ended up being a cross between Devilman and volume seven of the Nausicaa manga. At an “ideological” level, Anno had to arrive at the same answers. Nobi was deeply moved by the Nausicaa movie when she first saw it, but less impressed after reading volume 7 of the manga. The darkness of the manga is eliminated in the film. However, for Nobi, Anno goes in the opposite direction, and is a kind of “black Miyazaki.”

In a way, you could say that Evangelion is an active dialogue with Nausicaa, so Nausicaa also offers an interesting angle to interpret Evangelion. I always do care about these undercurrents that link different works, that’s the real soul of every creative process.

In any case the ending of Nausicaa is actually quite excellent. I found the very last page a little “cheesy” but the important aspect is that the whole last volume is a crescendo that does a number of things right. One is that there actually is that crescendo. I noticed a couple of aspects about it. The first is that there’s a sense of leaving things behind. As characters approach the apex of the story, they lose a lot of what they care about. This gives the ultimate journey a sense of inevitability. And the other aspect is that this sense of inevitability also hooks into a series of progressive revelations that “rewrite” the perception of the world. So the story rises toward its conclusion while it also sheds its mortal spoils. Every step forward manifests the impossibility of ever going back from where you started. This is both story and knowledge. Once you “know”, you can’t pretend you don’t. Life changes, pushes on.

On the other side, though, I think Miyazaki asks all the good questions, but the final answer is the wrong one. Without spoiling so much I’d say the explicit “message” of the manga is about the celebration of life over the controlled manipulations of men. This is essentially at the core of the last volume, with Nausicaa becomes like an “angel of darkness”. Which is obviously a shifting point of view.

Anno: Another [major influence] was the seventh volume of the Nausicaa manga.

Takekuma: That [volume] is incredible. It reversed all the values [that had been in place].

Anno: I felt like it was the same as what I [was doing]. After that I couldn’t help but make [the work into] Nausicaa, to treat the same themes as the seventh volume of Nausicaa.

Oizumi: Nausicaa was unable to live as one of the ancients.

Anno: She rejected coexistence [with them]. She bloodied her hands so that her own people would survive. That was good. This karmic punishment that required [her] to destroy [them] with the abhorred fire of the God Warriors – that was good (laughing). [Good] because the true views of Hayao Miyazaki were expressed, and there, at least, he took off his underwear [and showed himself naked]. In the manga he took off his underwear, and his penis was erect (laughing). I am hoping that he will do the same in Princess Mononoke.

My problem with Miyazaki’s final answer is that the work is presented as the conflict of human beings versus nature. In the end Nausicaa becomes a messenger from Nature itself. She speaks as a goddess (so the messianic undertones). The problem is that once again this brings up the conflict in Cartesian Dualism. Man versus nature. But the point is that human beings rise from that same nature. Scott Bakker put it in a great quote:

the terrifying prospect that they themselves are merely more nature, not nature + x

If we are merely more nature, then we are part of that cycle, not fighting it. Whereas in Miyazaki’s vision men and nature are on two different shores, facing each other. This is the explanatory gap in science and religion. Knowledge and experience. So a vision that is total instead of partial needs making the two into one. If human beings exist it is because Nature is staring at itself. This is an actual quote from Nausicaa (or Nietszche):

if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

But the actual point in Nausicaa is that “life is change” and it can’t be bridled. She literally destroys the gods and refuses their gifts. Even if built with the best intentions and out of idealism, those gods were still a fixed form that, being fixed and unchanging, was contrary to life. She takes down the gods even if accused that hers is a nihilistic perspective that will destroy all life (and it’s not just a threat). I guess one could say that men’s plan can be utterly delusional, but they can’t be considered “contrary” to life. That’s the big picture: either human beings are part of the flow of life and no different from every other life form, abiding to the rules of life, OR whatever “evil” that humans have embedded in them still has to come directly from Nature itself. In Nausicaa instead those are at opposite ends. Men’s plans defy the course of nature, and are to be defied in turn.

From the point of view of ethics it’s hard to see human beings as some kind of alien anti-Natural species. Is it ethical to grasp our power to bend Nature? Either we see human beings as part of the same Natural system, the bigger picture, and so everything in our power still sits within the domain of Nature, it’s Nature giving that power to us and we use it because we are in that system, OR we think “ethically”. Why this distinction? Because either Nature has its own laws and forms, and so, being immersed in it, those laws represent our domain, the dome that we cannot breach even if we wanted to. So we are system, and not anti-system, or extra-system. And so everything we can do is ethical already, because Nature is the law, and whatever we do still comes from Nature and is not distinguished from it. OR, again, “ethics” are not “natural” and are instead man-made. So we personally, subjectively judge. It becomes “choice”, and the responsibility that comes with that choice. We can’t anymore rely on something external that tells us what’s ethical or not, it’s simply our own arbitrary choice.

All this bringing back to the problem of Godel-defying reflexivity. The abyss that stares back at you while you stare at it. The maker is made, the observer is observed. Or: the rules are continuously redefined. The fundamental principles rewritten. A self-changing, adapting thing that is always in flux. But this again risks being just another optical illusions that sees itself as a whole just because it doesn’t perceive all the connections.

So I see all this as a problematic theme in Nausicaa because of the contradiction at the core. But this could also be somewhat addressed within the work itself: Nausicaa is seen as a kind of angel that appears at the right time. She has her mechanical “wings” and she exploits people’s delusions, but even if there’s (almost) nothing magical about her, metaphorically that role fits on her. She becomes just another natural force that appears to oppose what came before, and doing so she celebrates just that spontaneous self-correcting property of life and nature, without breaching the system. She is one life force that restores a balance.

Along all this there’s also the other perspective that is much simpler and more solid: parent/child relationship. In this case the emancipation is really part of life’s process. Parents devise the ideal way for their children to develop, moved by those hopes and idealistic desires about their children and their future. All product of “goodwill” but that can really turn for the worst in spite of it. There’s a moment where the child has to rebel about whatever pattern was imposed on himself, rightly so. You, thankfully, just can’t control this aspect of life.

So, Nausicaa deals with all this and more. It does it excellently for the most part, even if it falls a bit in that Cartesian Dualism explanatory inconsistency. I guess we wait for Scott Bakker to be radical about it.

As it happened last year, this summer I’m trying to finish the follow-up, Final Fantasy XIII-2. This time the developers tried to address some of the many issues blamed on the first part but sadly the result isn’t very good.

From my point of view it’s the design approach to be wrong. The individual parts of the game are well done, but they lack coherence. In particular there’s a really big disconnect between the story being told and the actual gameplay and the result is a very ugly mishmash of parts. The developers tried to improve the individual parts, but this made even worse the lack of cohesiveness. Too quaint gameplay and storytelling.

There is a series of four videos (at the moment) that makes fun of this sort of disconnect (sometimes technically called Lugoscababib Discobiscuits) back at FFXIII part 1 even if sometimes it is a bit long in the tooth:

The premise of the game is actually very good. The previous game ended with a cataclysmic event, and this sequel is built on the “gimmick” of being able to jump between time portals so that the game can show you everything that happened afterward, leaping around in time and place and focusing on the pivotal scenes. Once again, for me the appeal of this game is about the mythology and the way it pushes its absurd ideas and utterly convoluted plot.

There are two ideas that aren’t directly part of the game but they are somewhat suggested by it, as if they didn’t want to push them all the way to eleven. I wonder what kind of game would have come out if they had embraced them:

1- The two protagonists of this game, Serah and Noel, jump between time portals and locations to fix some time paradoxes harrowing the timeline. When a paradox is solved it “disappears”, but there’s the interesting side-effect that sometimes people get stuck in these paradoxes, and when they realize that they don’t “belong” to that time and place, like ghosts, they also disappear. I’ve not finished the game, but I’m fairly sure this particular idea won’t be pushed to its potential. It made me think of Donnie Darko. The point is: what I just described should apply well even to the two protagonists. There’s a goddess, Ethro, that, as in the first game, “plucks out” certain people and forces them to accomplish a task. Serah and Noel mission is abut jumping through the timeline to heal this paradox that had a number of repercussions. It should be consequent, as in Donnie Darko, that when the paradox is ultimately solved also the agents-of-god would disappear with it. It describes heroic sacrifice, that is made even more bittersweet because from the external point of view of “reality” no one perceives the problem, neither the heroism that fixed it. These are heroes forgotten, that never existed. An unheard story of sacrifice. As the “witness!” idea Erikson uses. Which is also the purpose of “art”.

2- The other crazy-idea-that-is-not-there is about a possible link between this sequel and FFXIII that would have baffled the mind: what if the nonsensical plot of the first game was actually caused and manipulated by the events in the sequel? What if the fal’Cie gods are man-made and created by the same paradoxes that Serah and Noel actually triggered? As if in FFXIII-2 we are not seeing a “sequel”, but actually the origin story that will cause FFXIII, whose truth will be revealed at the end of the game. This is not in the game, since time travel only happens in the world post cataclysmic event, but it would have been interesting if this sequel would have embraced the whole breadth of the timeline, as a way to look at FFXIII convoluted plot, with reinterpretations and new shocking revelations. Those gods behind the plot of the first game, would become themselves the time paradox. Like in LOST the paradox about the compass. The objects loses its origin point, becomes recursively self-contained. Richard gives the compass to Locke, telling him to give it back to him when he’ll see him again. Locke gives Richard the compass in the future, then Richard goes back in time and gives Locke the compass. Where is the compass coming from? The origin is lost. Similarly, FFXIII plot may be nonsensical because of a privation. Some missing piece that was erased because of a paradox, and now can’t be retrieved. It’s like a story that lost one half and is caught in a horrible, unsolvable lack of certainty.

All this is interesting because of how one idea mirrors the other, if you think about it. Look at patterns. In the first idea the “real” world loses the story. The paradox itself is excised so that everything “makes sense” linearly. The trace of that paradox is also erased. No one will ever know that story. Instead in the second idea the opposite happens, it’s the story that makes sense that is excised by the paradox, and what is left is a timeline that can’t be explained, because the essential part is lost, not accessible. Like a book missing the most important chapter. So the two patterns fold together into one.

You thought the Malazan or Wheel of Time books all piled up are an impressive sight. Now look at this Epic Stack:

Edit: I just found out this picture is outdated. Three new volumes came out and should be virtually added to the top. They go, 1000, 712, 840 pages respectively. The Otaku Tower just grew some more. Also a fourth new book was announced and it’s another 1000+ pages.

While not “technically” one series, it’s still a story in the same setting written by one guy, and what you see is not even close to being done since the upper half is, accordingly to its writer, just 1/4 of the planned whole. The first half, from the bottom up and including the first bigger volume, is the first completed “series”, a sort of prequel, then from that point all the way up it’s a new ongoing one.

These being Japanese “Light Novels”. Or what you could (vaguely) consider as the Japanese version of “Young Adult”. Most of anime these days are either based on light novels or on visual novels (also of fairly epic length, but these exist on a computer).

Usually they are dialogue-rich (terse on prose) and tell exactly the kind of stories you’d expect from anime. So school life mixed with fantasy stuff and so on, but also from all kinds of genres. Being very long series with many volumes is the norm, though it’s rarer that the volumes are as big as some of those in the picture and you could expect the norm being around 60k words. Lots of these are also good, or at least fun to read. And many are also available in English, one way or another (though it’s only a tiny amount of the total Japanese market).

One way for example is the Haruhi Suzumiya series, which is one of the most popular. The series is currently at 11 volumes in Japan and it will be complete even in English within this year. These are from “Little, Brown Books” and rather cheap even in the hardcover version (about $13 each). But in this case these are smaller “novels” of about 200 pages. Or ranging from 40-90k words. Basically the size of Neil Gaiman last “novel”.

The other way instead is thanks to fan translations:

For example all 30 volumes of very popular “Toaru Majutsu no Index” are fully translated, available for free in a number of formats. Other stuff like the series written by NisiOisiN has instead more “literary” ambitions and harder to translate, especially because of excess of wordplay.

The bottom line is that while it’s all stuff targeted to a specific public, it also has a kind of fresh and insane creativity that you probably can’t find in any other medium. Though you’d probably have better luck going through the Visual Novel side, like Fate/Stay Night (expect about 60 hours of your time), or Ever17 (closer to 30).

About the Epic Stack above, here’s a page attempting an introduction to the world, even if I think it’s more from the anime side, at least it gives an idea of the kind of crazy to expect:

This is the cover of one of the last volumes, which I won’t comment:

And this is another slightly more proportioned…:

If you instead are ready to begin reading it, you can start from that tiny volume at the very bottom of that huge stack, right here:

That’s about 80k, for the first volume. Multiplied for the height of the whole stack it’s (conservatively) about 3 million 800 thousand words, in English. Not quite impressive as one could think, but still kind of baffling ;)

This was originally posted on Westeros forums. The interesting thing is that it spawned a discussion that turned down into racism and dismissing the whole genre of Light Novel as rubbish. Which is interesting because, once you take out the specifics, it’s the exact pattern you can see with “genre” versus “literature”. That’s the kind of effect I expected to trigger, and it did. Sadly a mod didn’t like it and wiped the whole thread. You can’t have subtle discussions on the internet, or even address that kind of racism. This is stupid. We HAVE TO talk about sensitive matters. Not simply ignore them like dust under a carpet. It’s EXTREMELY important to underline how prejudices we get toward “genre” are the exact prejudices that (many) “genre” readers have toward other stuff.

WE ARE NO DIFFERENT. We are no better. We just exchange one set of prejudices for another. We just belong to a different tribe, not a better one.

Anyway, this was my conciliatory post where I was tying back it all to the discussion of “genre” Vs “literature”:

Out of prejudices and expected canons, there’s surely a kind of dangerous line.

Most of these products are indeed filled with tropes, and they are targeted to very specific “genres”. There are hundreds of technical terms defining every possible variation, classifications of plots and characters. The “taxonomy” of these Japanese products would be alone an extremely fascinating topic to analyze. It’s like a whole sub-culture.

That said, you also can’t find anywhere else a similar amount of creativity and mixing of elements. There’s absolutely NO medium I know in western culture that comes close to the broad range you can find in anime (and by extension mangas, VNs, LNs). So that’s the dangerous line. It’s all filled to the brim with tropes and the rich taxonomy, but it also contains so many different elements that it surpasses every other medium.

So if you measure it all by quantity over quality, sure, it’s an ocean that is very hard to navigate. But it still has that fresh, wild creativity that makes it a very powerful medium. Targeting with very little prejudices, constrictions or filters the largest audience possible.

I was coming from one of the latest post on Bakker’s blog where he goes again with the debate about “genre” Vs “literature”:

The bottom line is that genre readers have the tendency to be more eclectic with their reads, and coming from all sort of backgrounds (whereas “literature” secluded itself into predictability, rehash and complacency, getting dusty in their tightly compartmentalized world).

I simply generalized: a medium that closes itself (from the general public, also) becomes stale and can’t say anymore something relevant. It just rises its walls of canon and dies there. And that’s why I see the Japanese “young” market as extremely interesting. Its diversity is unrivaled if you pay attention at the whole range, and all its elements boil together in a huge pot, and so it all gets constantly mixed. A very good and innovative product can have a huge influence and produces an endless list of clones for many years, but the market is always ready for something that sets new trends again.

I’m just being coherent because I see how prejudices against “genre” aren’t that different from prejudices (or even simple difficulties at “getting” these strange products) thrown toward the eastern market of anime/manga/light novels/visual novels.

I personally come with no prejudices and do my best trying to “get” different things and markets. If I fail I blame myself, more than calling “shit” something I’m not getting. It doesn’t mean the stuff I linked here is “quality” and deserves your attention. At all. Most of everything is always mediocre regardless of what you’re looking at, and this is still a very commercial genre with an extremely broad (low? young? unpretentious? uneducated?) target, conceived for entertainment.

While the specific series in the image above looks at least like an interesting “mess”, I haven’t personally read it. So I can’t comment on its merits or lack thereof (though it looks dealing more with fancy battles than fancy boobs, as the covers would make you believe). I’m just pointing at an interesting medium because of how it’s built and how broad its public is.

As many others, I also had a few exceptional teachers. One of them used to say that religions are “cartoons”. Yet often they can offer very good ideas. Not intrinsically bad. The real problem is that in modern times religions often offer models that are too juvenile and that can be replaced by better ideas. So if we get better models, why not?

I’ve mentioned Kabbalah a number of times, as well as my neutral stance toward it. I keep having an interest in it because it can offer many useful (and even “powerful”, with explanation powers) ideas. More often than not at least.

In the previous post I was underlining an universal pattern that applies to the general debate of literature, but not only. Openness is generally a good thing, positive for life in general.

Today I stumbled on a video about Kabbalah that explains this ideas of openness from their point of view. The basic (and maybe simplistic) thesis is that “Nature only knows how to progress through suffering”, but we can also choose to willingly go toward our destination, and so achieve that goal minimizing the suffering. Along with the maybe less directly believable idea that when you bring change to your personal life then this small change will also create a huge ripple through the whole world (a sort of inverse of “as below, so above”). In their view Kabbalah is the willing path that leads to evolution, minus the suffering.

It’s interesting what they say about the idea of “Jews”. You can take it literally or metaphorically. Metaphorically everyone is a “Jew” as long you share that Kabbalistic message and spread it. The “race” is only what you see if you look at the finger instead of the moon. But literally the idea is that Jews were “meant” to spread around the world, through a forced diaspora, so that they would then give the example of this connectedness and openness, so that the whole world would understand and willingly adopt it.

Since I come without prejudices, I believe that the core concept of Kabbalah, this idea of openness and connectedness, is a positive one. Not just in literature, but in all things.

So here’s the video where some of these ideas are explained in layman terms:

I should also point out that in all these lessons they put out, the specific aspect of “jewish mysticism” is almost completely absent. Mysticism means conscious experience of the spiritual realm, meaning that you access that type of dimension RIGHT NOW, in this physical life, instead of in some future spiritual incarnation. This idea is still present in modern Kabbalah, but certainly it’s not where they put the emphasis.

I’m at about 140 pages into Martin’s A Storm of Swords and once again wondering about the causes of its popularity. I know that this third book is considered by far the best in the series, and that I have to expect things slowing down quite a bit in the next two books, so my expectations here are set very high, maybe that’s why I’ve found those first 140 pages not as the best prelude to the best book. The plot is stuck at the end of the previous book, and Martin needs all those 140 pages merely to go through each PoV to make a summary and set a new starting point.

That’s how you can write a huge 1000+ pages book and still give the impression that not much happened. The structure is rather simple, you have an average of 10-15 pages for each chapter/PoV and it takes about 150 pages to return to one. In the end this produces a 1000 pages book where a single PoV has about 100 pages of available space to tell its story, and 100 pages is the bare minimum to show some development, especially with the kind of detail that Martin writes in. That’s the formula to write these epic sized fantasy books. Just an high number of PoVs, fragmenting the story, but also offering that big breadth one expects precisely from this genre.

My question is why Martin and Jordan series were able to reach a huge popularity and the answer I offer is that both do something similar but from two different angles. I think the keyword is “accessibility”. Martin is popular because his series is what you can easily recommend to all sort of readers. That’s why it’s successful: because it’s a genre novel accessible (and written for) all kinds of readers. You don’t need to be a “genre” reader to engage with Martin story, and so this series can tap into the large audience of general readers.

Whereas Jordan retains a similar level of accessibility. His series also taps directly onto a huge pool of readers: all kinds of adolescent readers. The Wheel of Time has the power to engage all sort of “younger” readers. It’s like a LotR where uncool, clumsy Hobbits are replaced by young future heroes destined to conquer and change the world, becoming celebrities. Because of how it’s built, its strength is about tapping onto a certain audience, in a specific age-range but regardless of whether they are “readers” or not. Or even genre readers. The WoT can convert someone, making him a “reader” in the first place, and a “genre” reader as consequence. It does so because it offers characters and themes that appeal directly to that age-range, it’s the call of the adventure and the writer taking the reader’s hand, offering one of the most immersive and engaging experiences. It’s the stuff younger readers dream about, and it fully embraces it. It gives them the time of their life.

That’s why I used that distinction between “adult” and “young” fantasy. Martin’s series can be seen as representing “adult fantasy” that is extremely popular and successful because it can CONVERT adult readers into “genre” readers. On the other hand Jordan’s series is also hugely popular and successful because it converts readers, but in this case it’s more carefully aimed at an age range. What ASoIaF does for a more adult public, the WoT does for younger readers, recruiting them into “genre”. In both cases, these two series can rise so much in popularity because they draw from a huge pool of readers that aren’t limited by “genre”, and that’s why I’m putting the focus on “accessibility” and “conversion”.

There’s finally another element that plays an important role in all this. It’s usually the writer’s job to engage the reader and make him “care”, keep him reading and turning the pages. But I think this is an illusory description because it overestimates (and romanticizes) the writer’s power and ultimate goal. I think in the best case the writer can only work on the illusion of directing and manipulating the reader’s interest, while it’s probably more correct to say that the writer merely taps and rejuvenates interests that have always been there, with the reader. Like suppressed memories that seem to resurface unbidden. It’s a much more subtle touch, and far less powerful. More sleight of hand than magic.

So why is this sharing of interests important in the case of popularity of these series? Because it’s the real hook that makes possible to reach for that huge pool of readers. Think to Martin’s series. Or even “Fantasy” in general. The common response you get from non-genre readers is: why should I care? Why a normal adult guy who has more immediate concerns should waste hours of his life reading “fantasies”? That’s why the common answer is about conflating Fantasy with “escapism”. It’s the most immediate reaction. But this is also the key to interpret how Martin’s series can be so hugely successful at engaging readers who usually “do not care” about Fantasy. What’s the First Mover in Martin’s series? Family. If you think about it, that’s the whole core. That’s where his series sets its roots. That’s the link to readers who aren’t normally genre readers or have zero interest in reading genre fiction. Its strongest theme is immediately familiar. All the priorities of each characters are simply defined by where he’s born, that will then also define what place he’ll have in the Big Game. Martin has an archetypal grasp on what everyone cares about, and so the possibility to connect with all readers. The first generalized hook that powers the series is about family concerns, mothers worrying about their children. It’s universal even if it’s encased in “fantasy”, and it can immediately engage readers because of its familiarity. The “adult” aspect is merely related to a style. Martin’s series is built on PoVs and these PoVs are selected on a wide range. It’s “adult” because it requires to shift these projections, have interest in this wider range of perspectives, in their breadth and diversity. Adolescents are usually more narrow-minded and self-absorbed to care about what happens outside of themselves (and the WoT reflects this). Then Martin builds the structure of his game by giving voice to different sides, creating contradicting feelings in the readers since there’s not a privileged side the reader can be on (though this is mostly a well crafted illusion).

Compare all this to Jordan and you see why I brought up the “young” angle. The WoT targets younger readers exactly because it selects its PoVs within the narrower range of its expected audience. It more immediately offers PoVs that the reader can recognize and identify with, offering themes that are strong specifically for that audience. And then it at least tries to follow those readers as they get older, by trying to broadening the range of the story. So the WoT is the ideal journey, recruiting and converting “young adults” into faithful readers, and then trying to walk with them into their adult age. That gives enough universal power to explain the popularity.

Now consider Tolkien. In this case Tolkien wasn’t writing for a pool of readers already waiting in potential. He just chased his own interests. This is important because “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t an “accessible” book at all, and so this seem to break the pattern I described above. It’s true. LotR is actually way more “niche” and less accessible than both ASoIaF and WoT. It’s far less easy to pick up and enjoy. And it’s also not a book that easily converts readers that do not have a specific interest in the genre. So why it’s still so hugely popular? Just because it came first? I don’t think so. The reason why Tolkien remains so popular while not being accessible is, the way I see it, because there’s a huge cultural push that overcomes Tolkien’s accessibility issues. His world is now part of mass culture, and being so it means EVERYONE is exposed to it. There’s pressure that comes from general culture that goes in Tolkien’s direction, and so all kinds of readers are pushed in this direction. Works like The Silmarillion are still extremely popular if you consider how nigh inaccessible the book would normally be, impossible to sell commercially. But this happens solely because there’s a general culture push that makes readers overcome those barriers.

Consider Malazan. Malazan, compared to ASoIaF, isn’t easy to recommend at all. It has humongous accessibility issues. This is usually blamed on the “medias res” style of the first book, but I think it’s a wrong angle. The problem with Malazan accessibility is that it’s much harder for a new reader to care about. It takes maybe two chapter in ASoIaF for the reader to figure out what it is about. One chapter in the WoT. Only the Prologue in LotR to set the style. With Malazan the reader feels like hiding in the shadow and chasing after someone on his own obscure agenda. Erikson doesn’t take the reader’s hand and gently leads him on the journey. There are no immediate rewards. You just follow with your own determination, if you want.

Why should a clueless reader care? What’s the big motivation that makes someone pick up a so huge series and overall commitment? But that’s just one aspect. Another crucial one is that all Malazan qualities generate big contradictions. The first book already presents things on a scale that dwarfs most other fantasy series, pulling out all the stops. Then by the time one reaches the third book that scale grew EXPONENTIALLY to levels that are utterly unimaginable. Just unprecedented and with no parallels. And yet, this is counterbalanced by another side that’s deeper, serious and incredibly ambitious. Giving the idea of something that takes itself very “seriously”. This creates different angles that can explode into a strong contradiction. On one side you have readers who engage with the most overt aspects of the series, the breakneck pace of the plot, the insane power levels, great battle and big scale spectacular stuff. The more mindless fun and shiny stuff on the surface, if you want. And then there are readers who instead find all that childish genre reading and instead expect something more “adult” in ASoIaF style. Ideally, one would say that Malazan is a distillation of the best of both worlds, and then even goes its own way to achieve something completely new. But far more commonly readers come with their own set of expectations and what happens is that the average reader is killed in the crossfire of contradictions. “Adult” readers can barely suffer through few pages without branding it as nigh incomprehensible childish fantasy gibberish, while those who are in for the “fun” and immediate pay off felt bogged down later on when the story reveals a depth and requires the reader to engage with more than just the surface. This ends up giving a general and immediate picture of having the WORST of both worlds. It wants to be serious and pretentious, while instead being juvenile and terribly chaotic and rambling. A puzzle that can’t be assembled.

How could Malazan be more successful? Why should the average reader care? It’s definitely NOT aimed to readers who aren’t already “genre” readers. You could maybe picture some serious-looking university professor reading a copy of Martin’s series, but could you imagine him reading Malazan? You need to be part of that inner genre group to even be a potential reader. This already makes the pool of potential readers exponentially smaller. It’s already a niche with a niche interest. And then you can imagine where potential readers come from. Maybe they read on some forum some readers who say how Malazan is so much better (it’s rare, but it happens), and so they approach Malazan expecting something that can compare to ASoIaF. And are immediately turned off by how “genre” Malazan is. Ultimately it engages with a number of themes that aren’t exactly that broad in appeal. There’s very little of those immediate and familiar feelings that give ASoIaF its strength. Malazan is less a traditional narration sprinkled here and there with fantasy elements, the way ASoIaF is. It grasps and deliver what the epic genre is, and why its powerful. It knows where it comes from, and has no identity crisis, or narcissistic pretenses of being appreciated by “everyone”. But then it requires a reader with a very open mind, who can take the challenge of the big commitment and that doesn’t ultimately jumps to conclusion because the book betrayed this or that expectation. The wider the range of interests, the more chances to appreciate Malazan in all its aspects. But this really ends up producing readers who are me, you and a few others. You have to have already developed an interest on that stuff, and the open mind to fully enjoy the “young” and “adult” parts without the feel that they clash horribly with each other.

Finally R. Scott Bakker. He suffers even worse from what I described about Malazan. Even more you have to share the writer’s interest on those specific themes and angles he brings up. Even more his series is precisely aimed, with a very strong thematic focus. This focus is nowhere what you expect to reach a general public, the same as you don’t expect the general public to read his blog because of the content he puts in it. It’s simply stuff not planned or meant to tap onto a big pool of potential readers. If it becomes popular it’s simply because it’s so unique and exceptional that it becomes easily recognized, and so not swallowed in mediocrity.

But what happens then? That lots of readers, all kinds of readers, hear good things and so try Bakker’s books. If they don’t have a serious interest in those themes Bakker offers then they end up noticing just the violence. The violence becomes the point. The edginess, grittiness and all those things that are today negatively branded as “grimdark” as well epitomizing all the problems about misogyny and whatnot. This produces an overall hideous image of Bakker’s series. Seen right now on a forum: “It’s an endless parade of fantasy name salad combined with massive ruminations and internal monologues.” And that’s a positive side. Otherwise it becomes an accusation directly to Bakker of being an horrible human being. Why does all this happen? I think because once you “remove” that deep layer that Bakker engages directly (and it happens whenever a reader “doesn’t care” about that stuff) then only the violence and the ugly remain. They become the one aspect monopolizing the attention, without understanding that all that is built IN SUPPORT of the rest. One element observed in isolation from everything else, and the result is readers who end up feeling offended by what they are reading.

All this to say that it’s all a matter of aims. How big is the pool of readers you try to reach. And matters of “quality” don’t even prominently come up. Only huge cultural pushes can overcome a narrow aim, like in the case of Tolkien. Another example is Neal Stephenson. He also has a very narrow target, writing for those who must already have a serious interest in the things he deals with. Yet he can be so successful because the kind of “geekdom” that makes his public nowadays is so common and widespread that it also became a “general public”, creating a cultural push that isn’t so far from what I described about Tolkien. It’s a wider movement of general culture that makes niche themes become more widely shared.

But I think that at least for the foreseeable future the very big splashes of success (here I think even about the Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games) will come from traditional and familiar narratives sprinkled by “genre” elements. Ending up with a broadening of the genre, indeed, but also reducing the genre to innocuous window dressing. That’s always the risk when some smaller cultural movement is swallowed whole by the mass culture…

Late to the party, but I’ve only seen this movie yesterday. I think that it’s honestly one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen but online it seems the complaints are mostly directed toward the nonsensical plot, while I think instead the plot is more or less straightforward. It’s just a really bad movie. It’s bad as an action movie, visually is only average and doesn’t have a single memorable scene, it’s overflowing with cliches of every kind, and it’s utterly predictable up to its last frame. I just can’t find a single redeeming quality. It’s supposed to ask “big questions” but all its themes are shallow, juvenile and surpassed by average sci-fi. It’s Hollywood at its worst. Big budget spent with zero inspiration whatsoever and a screenplay entirely written by cutting & paste every other Hollywood script. Dull, stupid, naive and clumsy.

But none of these problems are really about “plot holes”, or the movie being too obscure and mysterious. Or complex. This is nothing more than juvenile sci-fi that doesn’t even have the qualities of the Golden Age. Pretentious without doing anything pretentious. That’s why I think that the plot is actually rather straightforward and makes sense. And that’s why I’ll explain some of its mythology, since I’m always interested in figuring out things. Even if in this case there aren’t any worthwhile mysteries to discover.

What’s the “black goo” substance?

That’s one of the most asked questions on the internet, and one I actually didn’t ask myself at all. For me it was so immediately obvious that I never considered it a “mystery” at all. The black goo liquid is just the vehicle of a mutation. Think of a syringe, and how it can contain a poison or a medicine. If you showed a movie to an alien who never saw a syringe and show him a scene where this syringe is used to kill someone, then the alien would naturally associate the idea of the syringe with that effect. But we know that the syringe is merely a tool that can hold different stuff. The black goo works on a similar principle: it’s just how these alien “Engineers” perform their mutations.

In the Prologue scene we see an Engineer, alone on a planet, drink black goo and suddenly collapse, falling in the water (not a coincidence, since life is symbol of the source of life). The black goo carries the mutation itself. In this case the body of the Engineer is first dissolved, and then used to rebuild a new form of life: human beings as we know them. It’s not even necessary to pinpoint if this was the specific case of Earth, what the Prologue shows us is the custom of these Engineers: seeding life on different planets according to their own plans.

The black goo that instead they find in the alien chamber, later in the movie, doesn’t obviously carry the exact same type of mutation agent. It’s the same tool/vehicle, but carrying a different effect. What happens there, and probably a sign of what happened during the “outbreak” that killed most Engineers, is that, as shown in the Prologue, the black goo becomes active when it gets in contact with the air. The room was isolated, but then is opened by these curious human explorers, the black goo activates and there’s a scene showing one of those tiny worms going right into a pool of black goo. Off screen it begins to transform into that bigger snake thing that will kill the two dudes later on. So the pattern is always: black goo + host = new species. This merely to explain logically why we have a difference of effects.

Why does David the android infect Shaw’s love interest (Charlie)?

This is an important plot point with lots of implications. The main (and only) true purpose of the Prometheus mission was to find a way to keep alive the decrepit old Wayland guy. The one who actually pays for the mission and is on the ship in incognito. Before the android starts to play with the black goo we have a scene showing him interacting with Wayland, so instructing the android what to do next. When David is then confronted by Charlize Theron he tells her they have to “try harder”.

Try harder simply means that Wayland cares nothing about secondary purposes, or even the good health of his crew. Like in EVERY OTHER Hollywood movie, we got the powerful rich guy who’s selfish and arrogant, and will do everything to obtain what he wants, even if he has to kill everyone else. That’s what we see. As far as he’s concerned the black goo may be well the elixir of eternal life, so why not test it on one of the crew, especially one who has outlasted his purpose?

That’s the main “plot” reason, but there are also stronger thematic implications. The first is obvious and about the dramatic tension. At that point of the movie we are meant to question the android behavior. Does he knows something we do not? Is he following some hidden agenda? Is he going out of control all HAL 9000 on the crew? All these are essentially dead ends, but they add that shallow ambiguity and mystery this movie aims to.

The second thematic implication is much more important. If you notice David asks Charlie’s “consent”. He explicitly asks how far he’s willingly to go in order to discover the truth about those who “created him” (the Engineers). Charlie’s answer is: “anything and everything”. That’s what David takes as consent. By giving him the black goo and infecting him with it, he gives him that “first contact” with his “maker”. A truth that could even kill him. But there’s an even more important exchange. David first asks why humans made androids (so replicating the pattern of creator/created, father/son, or Engineer/human being) and Charlie answers: “because we could”. David replies: “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be to hear the same thing from your creator?” This is just the most obvious foreshadowing, but it’s important to notice how every character always has that forced and annoying patronizing tone and constant sneer toward the android. For the whole length of the movie. When this happens in a Hollywood movie it’s because they really want to ram on that point.

Why does the awakened Engineer kill Wayland and almost destroys David?

Because once again simplistic THEMES take control of plot. This is a movie called Prometheus, showing a mission called Prometheus, that very openly plays with the Prometheus myth. The myth describes a typical “tabu”: the desire to be like god.

In the specific case of this movie, the tabu is “eternal life”. The ultimate desire of Wayland. So that scene with Wayland in front of the Engineer is a very obvious archetype of a man facing his god and DEMAND he gives him eternal life. Notice how Wayland is portrayed through the whole movie as the arrogant, selfish guy. His stance doesn’t change even when he faces his maker. He’s just there pretending his wish fulfilled.

Now you have to realize this is a movie made by human beings (Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof). Human beings have this tendency to take Big Unanswerable questions in fiction to try answer them. The typical solution is to make a perfectly legitimate question (why I have to die) into a tabu. An holier-than-thou. A sacred unanswerable thing. Being Holy means that you either accept it, or end up committing a SIN. It’s the typical non-answer. Holy means: righter than you. So if you oppose it, you automatically lose every right, authority or legitimation.

So what happens in fiction when a character demands eternal life? That he’s killed. It’s part of the archetypal script Prometheus is cut&pasted from. Also consider the non-irrelevant fact that, as seen in the Prologue, an Engineer is ready to sacrifice his own life to seed a planet with new life. This means they value evolution far more than personal preservation. Here we have instead Wayland pretending to be given immortality, a very selfish desire, and it’s very obvious that it’s considered by the Engineer the violation of everything he believes in.

Plot-wise the movie hammers on a particular point, in the way you realize it wants no-question-asked. There are two plot-points that are bluntly hammered by the movie. One is about establishing Charlize Theron as non-android (no one really asked until the movie did). The other is the out-of-the-blue revelation that the stone cylinders contain some sort of mass destruction weapon that was then meant to destroy life on earth.

Plot-wise, again, this means the Engineer really shouldn’t have any sympathy for human beings. But more in general it’s the theme of the android/human relationship that carries the action: the same way human beings show no respect or compassion or even consideration for David, throughout the movie, so happens when the pattern is repeated between humans/Engineer. The Engineer shows no compassion.

Why did the Engineers decide to destroy the human life that they themselves seeded in the first place?

This is one of the open ended questions. Those questions that the spectator should interpret his own way. More specifically, this is a question very obviously meant to be answered in a planned sequel.

Without a sequel, my interpretation is that the Engineers didn’t really want to destroy life. They just carry on their quirky experiments. If we accept the fact that the alien ship, carrying the xenomorph goo, was headed for Earth, the purpose here is likely about the experiment itself.

As a weapon of mass destruction the xenomorph aliens aren’t that efficient. You’d guess that aliens that can manipulate genetic code could wipe off a planet far more easily than sending down creatures in hand-to-hand combat. So if they wanted to use the black goo it means they wanted a genetic experiment. Like crossing the genetic code of those aliens with the one of humans, to obtain some hybrid. Or maybe even as a Darwin test, to see if human beings became good enough to survive an invasion: let’s see between humans and xenomorphs who deserves survival.

Btw, this whole deal of thematic depth about the origin of life seeded by aliens and relationship with god is obviously a very shallow and juvenile reproduction of what we have already seen in 2001: A Space Odissey. It’s that plot, made into a Bad Hollywood Movie, that doesn’t even add anything worthwhile to the Aliens mythos.

Btw part-2, Apocalypse, a character from the X-men comics, looks rather similar to the Engineers, and you could say he has their exact same agenda. Including reappearance through history to check on human evolution.

Was Charlize Theron’s character an android?

This could have two answers. If there’s a sequel, it’s possible that she was an android and so would reappear. The movie made clear she’s not one, but her death is a bit suspicious since we only see the ship falling and a whole lot of smoke. Maybe as an android and thanks to the sandy terrain she could survive the impact and play a role in a sequel.

Without a sequel instead it’s very clear she NOT an android. We see her shoving David against a wall, but this is not a test of strength. David has absolutely no reason to harm her, she’s Wayland’s daughter even if Wayland doesn’t have much regard for her. So the scene doesn’t really mean much. Still, it’s very possible that Ridley Scott has this kink for androids who pretend to be human, and so added some ambiguity simply because it’s what you expect from him.

Was that Acheron, the same planet of the first movie?


Why in the classic Alien the alien things come off the egg shaped organic things, whereas in Prometheus the “eggs” are made of stone and contain black goo?

Because the stone cylinders are very obviously not “eggs”. What you see in Prometheus is how Engineers do their job of seeding life. We don’t know if they engineered the xenomorphs, or if they simply took inspiration and copied them, but the black goo is the artificial creation, that embeds with an host and mutates it. Whereas the “eggs” are how living xenomorphs reproduce. The Alien queen lays eggs, it doesn’t build stone cylinders, obviously.

Take the “Chicken or egg” dilemma. This is an obvious transposition. The Alien we know is the chicken, who then lays eggs to reproduce. But how did it come to be? Who laid the first egg? The answer here is: first come the Engineers, who do their job of breeding and crossing species through their “black goo” technology that they put into stone cylinders. So we have (1) stone cylinders -> (2) Alien -> (3) egg.

The layout in the Prometheus ship “mimics” the layout of the eggs simply because the Engineers pay homage to it. The same as they paint the murals. It’s just their xenomorph’s shrine.

That’s pretty much everything worth commenting. As I said the movie is shallow and doesn’t even have some good themes. The most ridiculous thing, and where the movie drops the ball without ever picking it up again, is right at the beginning. It’s directly framed as creationist/evolutionist debate and instead of actually grasping that theme we’re given: “it’s what I choose to believe.”

That’s how you give the most idiotic answer in an idiotic movie. The real power of science, as everyone knows, is about going AGAINST your personal choice and desire. Otherwise we would still believe in the whole universe orbiting around Earth. We see Science as a tool to discover “Truth” exactly because it gives answers that aren’t subjective or that follow one own agenda or personal preference.

Yet it’s very obvious that this movie celebrates blind faith. By being a believer that main character is rewarded with survival. Everyone else dies, obviously because no one else had a necklace with a cross. Protected by god.

It’s not that I’m anti-religion. It’s how this movie uses religion in the shallowest way: it’s Plot Armor by way of religious power. That never enters the picture. You are just rewarded for blind faith in some arbitrary mythology.

This should tell you how simplistic and shallow this movie is.

I should mention that all Alien movies after the second suck. Is just the Alien franchise being so bad? Nope. Dark Horse long ago published comics made as direct sequels to the second Alien movie, written by Mark Verheiden (who also worked on Battlestar Galactica), that are very good and answer pretty much all questions in the Aliens mythos, including the “space jockey”. Ridley Scott could have made an EXCELLENT movie if he just stuck to these much better stories, believe me.