Voldemort vs. Casmir vs. Every Asshat in the Seven Kingdoms — The Villain Problem

Here’s the tl;dr:

Please, HBO, don’t make a bunch of Game of Thrones spinoffs. I’m virtually certain they’ll suck. How about an adaptation of the Lyonesse trilogy? I’m guessing it would be dirt cheap to get the rights.

At its heart, Game of Thrones is vapid

As I watched a collection of “moments” compiled by HBO for prospective viewers of the final season of Game of Thrones it struck me how few of these “moments” had anything to do with characters anyone cares about, vs. the “white walkers” who have no discernible motivations and appear as little more than teasers and shock-vignettes. If you subtract the zombie army and Bran’s entire storyline, what’s really left?

In a nut, Game of Thrones is a story about a bunch of people viciously squabbling over who gets to preside over famine and death in an inevitable mini-ice-age — “whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne”, as Ser Davos puts it — instead of, say, stacking firewood and salting meat. When Jon finally points this out, he is met with disbelief, despite the fact that this has all happened before and is well-documented. Heck, there’s even a standing army devoted to defending against it — of which Jon was commander — but it apparently misplaced its instruction manual.

There are lots of unpleasant people doing horrible things, but in the end none of that matters because there’s an army of zombie boogeymen to contend with, and the fact that none of the interesting (but pointless) squabbling that has filled the last six seasons actually matters much, and HBO wants us to know that we need to remember a few tantalizing glimpses of “white walkers” who have said almost nothing and whose motives have never been explored (nor would they likely stand up to any scrutiny).

I started this piece before the premiere of season 7. As I revise this post before posting it, I’ve just watched the third episode of the final season, The Queen’s Justice. So far, there has been little of consequence in the first three episodes of the final season beyond the use of plot devices to tie off loose ends and weaken Daenerys’s hand for purposes of evening her odds against Circe. In essence, so far Season 7 has been The Euron Show. Euron, a leeringly obvious plot device, who since usurping his niece’s throne perhaps a year ago has assembled the “largest fleet in the world” — on desolate islands with no obvious source of timber, which just goes to show how resourceful he is — and then with stunning intelligence (and we assume favorable winds) fights and wins two massive engagements against Daenerys’s navies (and held a victory procession in King’s Landing) in the space of about two weeks.

Wait a second: shall we pause a moment to recollect that Daenerys is served by Tyrion and “The Spider” — the latter commanding a global spy network — 2/3 of the brains in the Seven Kingdoms (the missing third being Littlefinger) — and yet she seems to have no clue what her enemies are up to nor how to avoid tipping her hand to them (apparently the mysteriously empty castle she walked into with no thought to security is full of spies).

Outside of The Euron Show, Sam discovers a mountain of “dragon glass” and cures Mormont, allowing him back in the game. And Jon finally meets Daenerys and discovers that she’s an idiot. (By the way, do you find it a bit annoying that Jon can sail a single ship from the far north to the far south between episodes, but Daenerys sends two fleets which arrive two weeks apart?) And horrible things are done to minor characters to show how mean various mean people are.

Where’s Tom Riddle when we need him?

Perhaps the best major villain in a fantasy blockbuster is Tom Riddle, a.k.a. Voldemort, a.k.a. “he who must not be named”, if solely because he has two qualities utterly lacking in most major villains these days, i.e. a driving motivation (fear of death), and a goal that at least makes some sense both to him and his followers (run the world, put wizards in charge and enslave everyone else).

It all makes me think fondly of Spike, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who switches sides from Evil to Good because the Evil team wants to destroy the world, and he “quite likes the world”.

I recently finished reading the entire Harry Potter series to my twins, and it was wonderful. As a child I was so proud to read silently “in my head”; to rediscover the joy of reading as a performance later in life has been a revelation. I think that books are actually better read aloud, but it’s quite an effort to do all that reading.

Also, it’s hard to come up with voices and keep them straight (so I usually don’t bother, but the girls prefer it when I do).

Reading aloud also exposes a lot of weaknesses in a writer that reading quietly in one’s head conceals — e.g. I find Rowling to write dialog very poorly. I often paraphrase her characters for various reasons, but worse I find that she provides the wrong information in the wrong order. E.g. I’m often fooled into thinking person A is speaking when it’s person C (so I find myself having read in the wrong voice), or being told a character is speaking in a particular way too late to do any good (Hermione speaks “shrilly” all the time, a clumsy word and a dubious adverb for a feminist to constantly apply to her best female character).

Even so, my admiration for J.K. Rowling is considerably greater for having read these books aloud. For me, to read aloud as a performance is to pay much closer attention to each word than I ever do when reading to myself, and to feel the rhythm of dialog, and have to actively imagine the emotional takes of each character all the time. I notice and remember many things I missed on previous readings (or reading in this case, since I only ever read each book once before). It’s clear to me that Rowling planned the series carefully and well. I do have a lot of issues with it, but I have a lot of issues with everything. After all, I’m writing a critique of the current holy of holies, Game of Thrones.

Voldemort is, basically, Hitler

Voldemort doesn’t get to kill that many people, but in principle he is a ruthless race supremacist who plans to kill and/or enslave the “inferior” races, and he gathers about him fellow race-supremacists and opportunists. It’s not a subtle construct, but Hitler has about him a great deal more plausibility than most fantasy villains since, well, he actually existed. To understand why people might follow someone like Hitler, one can look at history books, or psychological research such as Milgram’s famous experiment. Hitler didn’t need to use mind control, he followed a well-established despotic populist playbook — presiding over a large scale criminal enterprise with all the usual systems of loyalty and reward. He offered a carrot and a stick. Ordinary German businessmen profited from slave labor (as do businessmen in the South, who use prison labor today, and as does the private prison industry from Trump’s war on immigration).

Even so, Voldemort exhibits some classic villainous behavior that is quite childish. E.g. I know of no evidence that Hitler was personally sadistic. He hired sadists. He created an environment where sadists were able to thrive. He didn’t go around gleefully torturing and murdering people. Indeed, Hitler portrayed himself and saw himself as a good-natured family man (odd though his family was). He understood the value of PR.

My single biggest disappointment with the Harry Potter books is that the resolution depends on only the least of Voldemort’s core failings (he doesn’t understand “love” — awwww) and not his others (e.g. he’s a sociopathic race-supremacist). Indeed, even in the final battle when the House Elves join the fray, it is as comic relief (stabbing people in the ankles with kitchen knives) and ignores their vastly superior magical powers (how about apparating Death Eaters into volcanoes?)

All through the seventh book I couldn’t stop thinking of the climax of Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards where the gnome-like hero faces down his magically overwhelming brother and shows him “a trick mom taught me when you weren’t around”. Harry and Hermione were both raised as muggles, and yet never use their knowledge of the muggle world to significant advantage, despite the fact that muggles have powers superior in most ways to wizard magic (e.g. cell phones, night vision goggles, 9mm handguns). Indeed, zero attention is made to “Muggle Studies” beyond its teacher being one of Voldemort’s gratuitous victims.

Scouring the countryside for evil deeds to commit

There are many wonderful and unique things about Lyonesse as a fantasy epic, but perhaps the single greatest is the central villain, Casmir. (Note that Lyonesse has quite a few antagonists, and of them Casmir is hardly the most “evil”, but none of the villains is as cartoonishly implausible as pretty much every bad guy in Game of Thrones.)

Casmir is an ambitious, calculating, and ruthless medieval monarch. That’s basically it. He’s not a sadist. He’s not a racist. He’s definitely not a religious fanatic. When he does do nasty things, he does it on the down-low because he wants to be loved and feared. Like Voldemort, he’s not a touchy-feely kind of guy, but he’s not even devoid of conscience (e.g. he only carries out unjust sentences to avoid being seen as weak, and he recognizes the truth of accusations against him for his mistreatment of his daughter, Suldrun). He is a competent and diligent ruler (because he thinks it’s important to have the good opinion of his subjects). Indeed, as a ruler he’s distinctly preferable to virtually all of his rivals.

Casmir seems a villain chiefly because of his relationship with his daughter, Suldrun, and to a lesser extent because he has a tendency to quietly murder his former spies (both to save money and avoid risk). He has many admirable traits and a dry sense of humor. In essence, to simply be a competent medieval monarch you need to do a lot of things that seem pretty evil by today’s standards, and he does them with no great gusto. (Aillas, the main protagonist, executes a lot of people, and Shimrod, one of his friends, tortures a man to death.) If we knew nothing of Suldrun, and nothing behind the scenes of Casmir’s reign, we might consider him a capable and ambitious man who had a lot of bad luck. Similarly, if we were to judge him by the people he surrounds himself with, he is not a terrible person.

Furthermore, we can fully understand why people would choose to support Casmir and risk their lives on his behalf, we can picture a world in which he is victorious, we can see why the common people might not care whether he wins or loses, and yet he is an entirely satisfying villain. Not only is this more morally sophisticated than most fantasy novels, it’s more morally sophisticated than most contemporary dramas.

Let’s do a great epic fantasy with a great villain

There are many reasons I prefer the Lyonesse Trilogy to the Song of Fire and Ice. To start with, it’s shorter and much faster-paced. The Elder Isles seem like a place people would generally enjoy living in. The plot is clever but not incomprehensible and the cast of characters large but not unmanageable. The military strategizing does not dominate the story, but the handling of strategy and tactics is both deft and on point. (The competent generals actually care about lines of supply and reconnaissance. Their navies, for example, are not constantly taken unawares.) It also manages to blend historical allusion (it’s set on an archipelago in the Atlantic that has sunk beneath the ocean) with fairytale qualities and brutally plausible pagan practices.

And, not infrequently, it’s also very funny.

Lyonesse is not without flaws — the third book feels rushed (Vance clearly wanted it done with and had worked out the plot arc well in advance), There’s casual and unnecessary homophobia, and there’s no warrior queen in the first book (Ehirme and Glyneth would need to be beefed up, Glyneth could be made a couple of years older, Yane could just as easily be a woman). Vance’s dialog is often hilarious, but over-stylized for some tastes. Nothing a good TV adaptation can’t fix.

But the reliance on faceless, inexplicably and implacably evil major villains who just want to destroy the world, and a motley supporting cast of pointlessly sadistic lesser villains, is the single catastrophic failing of Game of Thrones. I’ll watch it to the end, but seriously. Let’s have a story with actual sides.

The future is not what it was. Accept it and move on.

In the British paperback market, having a gigantic spaceship on the cover of a book used to mean "it's science fiction" regardless of the substance of the story. Suffice it to say that there are no gigantic spacecraft in "The Face" and no indication anywhere in this picture that the artist read the book or had it in mind when he created the picture.

One of my ambitions is to write a science fiction novel. Or two. I have some fairly elaborate ideas sketched out, but I’m a little short of spare time right now. I also don’t think that creative endeavors such as writing are a “zero sum game”. Science fiction is in a pretty dreadful state right now, and it’s no use to me if it withers and dies before I get around to making my contribution to the genre.

Here's the latest printing of the same series (this is volume 1, the second volume is very similar). Note what looks like some kind of space carrier on the cover. Aha, it must be "science fiction". (You can guess how many "space carriers" figure in the series.)

Here’s the basic problem: for a hundred years or so science fiction writers have been pretending that “the future” will involve interstellar travel by faster-than-light travel. Sure, there are notable exceptions who write stories set in near-future dystopias (e.g. much of Philip K. Dick’s work, all of William Gibson’s or Neal Stephenson’s work, or David Brin’s Earth and The Postman), but in large part we haven’t advanced beyond E. E. Doc Smith’s “60 parsecs/hour” via “inertialess drive”. Certainly SF in popular culture, which means TV and movies, is essentially a species of fantasy with spaceships and energy bolts instead of dragons and wizards. (Not that this kind of fantasy can’t be fun!) The flipside of the problem is that most science fiction ignores or negates the advances in technology in fields other than warp engineering. Star Trek features fabulous spaceships but no voicemail.

I’ve complained elsewhere that SF does a lousy job of envisioning a future that grapples with today’s problems. Where is a science fiction setting which addresses energy conservation the way the original Star Trek addressed racism? At least BSG had something to say about the War on Terror, but as a piece of speculative SF it was simply dreadful; we can’t make anything remotely resembling the Galactica, but we have firearms way beyond the crap they were using.

It doesn’t help that the few writers who have taken a stab in this direction, e.g. Pamela Sargent’s Venus series and Kim Stanley Robinson’s horribly overrated Mars trilogy, have written ridiculously overlong and generally dull doorstops.

I’d like to see a speculative science fiction setting (on network TV or in a decent series of novels, say) that is not near-future (e.g. Star Trek timeframe or beyond) and does not go beyond our Solar system. Ideally, it wouldn’t make stupid assumptions about, say, the rate at which we can realistically terraform other planets, but let’s not expect miracles. I’d also like to see a speculative science fiction setting that involves interstellar travel using some kind of plausible technology and deals with the implications rather than wishing them away.

I have two fairly solid ideas for settings that satisfy these constraints (I think I have an actually brilliant idea for the second); what I don’t have is a good idea for a plot. Maybe I’ll just steal something from Shakespeare.

Review: This is me, Jack Vance!

Jack Vance image (found on Wikipedia) -- Vance has loved boats and travel his entire life
Jack Vance (found on Wikipedia) -- he has loved boats and travel his entire life

This is me, Jack Vance! is an odd title for a pretty odd book. I have been a fan of Jack Vance for over thirty years, and for most of those years I have considered him my favorite writer by virtue of a single gendankenexperiment — suppose every writer in the world were to have a new book released, which one would you pick up and read first?

Overly analytical readers (if you haven’t introduced yourselves, please do — since we may be kindred spirits) will observe that this experiment does not necessarily discern what one might consider the “best” writer. Greater writers may be prone to writing difficult or lengthy books, and while one might admire their works greatly, one would not necessarily reach for them at any hour of the day for light entertainment. Vance’s books are not, to use a phrase that was in vogue when I was younger, “deep and meaningful” — they are generally both slim and entertaining. One evening many years ago some friends of mine and I (all of whom I had successfully hooked on Vance) were arguing over the names of the planets in the Rigel Concourse (part of the setting of Vance’s “Demon Princes” series) and — in an attempt to settle the argument — I resorted to the text, found the answer, and promptly reread all five books before going to sleep. Of more modern SF writers, Iain Banks — say — is equally light, but hardly so economical.

Well, that is more than enough of me. This is me is a sketch outline of an autobiography that comprises, roughly speaking, three parts. The first covers Vance’s early life, looking for and generally finding work pretty much anywhere around California during the Great Depression. This part is interesting chiefly in that it gives you some idea of the sources of several story threads repeatedly figuring in Vance’s novels — childhoods surrounded by mystery and tragedy (an improbable number of his classmates came to sticky ends, including one unsolved murder), the child raised by one parent, the well-born character who finds himself hard up and struggles to earn back a more comfortable place in society, and the scheming and cheating of relatives (unpleasant aunts in particular). It’s clear that Vance is no stranger to tough, even dangerous, work, and exactly the kind of cautiously self-reliant character who is often the hero of his stories. Several of Vance’s most amusing anecdotes are self-deprecating accounts of his misadventures in the California mining industry.

The narrative goes into fast forward when Vance joins the merchant marine — in large part to avoid the draft — and aside from some sketches of certain port visits tells us little of how he spent most of WWII. We learn almost in passing that his writing career began, in essence, with the enormous amount of spare time available to seamen.

Things slow down again when Vance returns to California, enters university, courts various women, and eventually meets and marries Norma, who becomes both his life and career partner. Vance’s account of married life becomes more-or-less a travelogue (he did much of his writing “on the road” when money was available, and travelled extensively in Europe, the Pacific, Asia, and Africa) omitting any detail of his life in the US, unless it is parties or visits to other parts of the country. The travel stories are interesting (again, Vance’s descriptions of food, strange lodging places, and dishonest innkeepers are frequently hilarious and — it seems clear — based on extensive personal experience) but even they are very sketchy.

When Vance goes blind in the 1980s, his life — in the narrative sense — ends, since he cannot travel, there is little more for him to say. The final part of the book is a very cursory discussion of his work habits and writing ethos. There’s probably little more that he could reveal about his writing than he does say (he himself has little time for writers who write about writing) — perhaps the most enlightening information for me was that, for as long as he could see, he wrote longhand (Norma typed his longhand drafts, he then revised them by hand, she retyped, he checked, and they submitted).

It seems to me that writing longhand perhaps imposed a discipline and brevity on his work that typing might not have. Indeed, when he switched to using a computer system to accommodate his failing eyesight the resulting books (notably Lyonesse and Cadwal) are suddenly much longer — although I think most readers would count five of the six books among his best work (the third Cadwal book is relatively weak and almost unnecessary).

Overall, I’m happy to have read This is me, but I found it a very melancholy experience — perhaps because its dedication immediately impresses upon the reader that Norma — the love of Vance’s life — died in 2008. Vance says somewhere that he always avoided dictating his books, but this is how he wrote This is me, and it seems to have turned out all right. It’s interesting that his authorial voice is a constant — I would not have guessed that Lyonesse was written by a nearly blind man working at a computer while the books just preceding it (e.g. The Book of Dreams) were written in longhand and This is me was dictated.

The only hints of changes in methodology are the creeping in of uncharacteristic errors in his very late works (e.g. This is me repeatedly states that he could not stand the title given to To Live Forever, and a footnote explains something or other the second time it appears in the narrative rather than the first). It’s easy to see that, as a writer, Vance is remains a consummate professional and composes each sentence carefully in his head before committing bits to memory.

There’s very little in This is me that the close reader of Vance’s books would not have guessed, barring particular details. Indeed, I had even guessed some of the particulars (e.g. The Gray Prince — perhaps Vance’s most “deep and meaningful” book — was published very close to the time the Vances travelled in South Africa and Rhodesia — which he drily notes was subsequently renamed by native people not wishing to memorialize Sir Cecil Rhodes). I wonder if The Anome coincided with a visit to Thailand — he was certainly in the area at roughly the right time, but he makes no mention of the book or any such visit.

So, it’s an entertaining book (modulo the general air of sadness mentioned earlier), but neither enormously enlightening nor compelling. There are no salacious details — indeed Vance has nothing nasty to say about anyone (the closest he comes is a matter-of-fact account of transactions with a Greek landlady, and perhaps the side-by-side descriptions of Poul Anderson and Frank Herbert, which tend to leave the latter in a poor light). Oh, and there’s one extremely funny non-account of Norma’s reaction to mixing Guinness and liquor. If you’re not a fan of Jack Vance, I doubt this book will turn you into one — and if you are a fan, I doubt it will add much to your mental image of The Author. Like everything by Vance, it’s beautifully written with his trademark concise-but-evocative descriptions and wry humor, but like most of his later works — i.e. everything since Cadwal — it feels underdone and unsatisfying, almost as if he got tired of the exercise before he was really finished.

Vance has said both in This is me and elsewhere that this is his last book, and that there are no more stories left in him. If so, farewell Jack Vance, and thank you.

Interstellar Navigation by Dead Reckoning

Aside: so much for YouTube. Lousy job of encoding and it lost my soundtrack. So I rustled up some quick code and voila.

My favorite science fiction writer wrote a novel in 1967, give or take, called The Killing Machine in which the hero is attempting to locate a planet without precise coordinates, but has the assistance of a native of that planet who can remember the constellations of the night sky. The hero gets to what he believes is the correct “region” of space and asks her to look for a familiar constellation, because that will be direction to the star system in question.

This may seem far-fetched, but it’s actually extremely practical (insofar as anything involving interstellar travel is practical).

I’ve never really looked into the technique in detail, but there’s some discussion right now of a clue that the obsessive fans of Battlestar Galactica (the new series of course) who have noticed in the latest episode The Ties That Bind the constellation Orion showing up in several space shots. This would indicate that they must be getting close to Earth…

Now some folks have dismissed this, saying that it’s bad science and they’d need to be incredibly close to Earth to recognize any constellations. These folks are just dead wrong. The two brightest stars in Orion are Betelgeuse and Rigel which are extremely bright and distant stars. The belt, similarly, is composed of distant stars. Orion would be easy to recognise from a considerable distance — if you were looking straight towards Sol.

The video I’ve attached demonstrates all this using the wonderful free program Celestia. The upshot: Orion is easily recognizable from over one hundred light years out from Sol (assuming you’re on the far side of Sol from Orion) and every other constellation is distorted beyond recognition.