Tag Archives: Robert Jordan

The Rich, Bold Flavor of Full-bodied Storytelling

My recent blog entry on the precipitous decline in quality of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time has me wondering about those moments when a series of books, or a television show, or a film franchise, take that almost inevitable plummet from something we once loved to something that, at best, earns our disinterest, and, at worst, irritates us with how unabashedly its potential was squandered.

The contemporary pop culture vernacular calls these moments “jumping the shark.” This is an idiom whose meaning has expanded and evolved over the years, but it’s always boiled down to being a convenient shorthand for those moments in a franchise that mark the point-of-no-return from when it was great, to when it was not. For those who are not literate in the language of pop culture, “jumping the shark” refers specifically to that infamous episode of the sitcom Happy Days when Fonzie, on water skis, jumps over a shark, definitively marking the point where the writers had run out of ideas and were relying on gimmicks.

But when has something truly jumped the shark, and when has it simply veered into a new but perfectly valid direction that leaves some of its audience behind?

Some claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never the same after Buffy and crew graduated from high school. True, it never was the same, but different doesn’t always equate to worse. Moving Buffy from high school to college, and then from college into the “real world,” allowed Whedon and company to explore other avenues of the show’s metaphorical nature. If monsters and vampires could be metaphors for the turmoils of high school, why couldn’t the show deliver similar metaphors for the confusion and pressures of higher education, or the scary, sobering realities of the responsibilities of adulthood? The arrival of Buffy’s sister Dawn was not a cheap plot twist to introduce a new character, but a clever use of the show’s mystical mythos and magical setting to force Buffy into a parental role. Pairing up Buffy with Spike was not a cynical move to have Buffy romantically involved with yet another vampire, but rather a logical character progression to illustrate how far Buffy had fallen into depression and self-loathing.

Battlestar Galactica didn’t jump the shark when its second season cliffhanger was followed by a four month story gap. It was simply a bold move to shake up the status quo and send the story into new directions. (Though the whole “final five” rigmarole might be a different matter.)

The Chronicles of Riddick was not a bad movie simply because it wasn’t trying to recreate Pitch Black. Say what you want about the quality of the film, but it would have been a mistake to simply emulate the original.

Tales from Watership Down does not fail as a sequel to Watership Down because it doesn’t live up to the epic nature of its predecessor. Quite the opposite. It succeeds because it doesn’t even attempt to capture the same scope and breadth of the original novel.

Unless a story gets completely gutted of its essential traits that made it stand out as something special in the first place, shouldn’t our first instinct be curiosity about where the story is going, rather than a knee-jerk dismissal of anything that doesn’t fit our comfortable status quo? Rather than being bitter about creative change, maybe we should consider the possibility that the creators are simply bold enough to try something new rather than cynically driving a property into the ground through stagnation.

You may prefer that brand of tea that you’ve become accustomed to, but maybe you’ll end up enjoying that mug of thick, hot coffee as well.


The Wheel of Time Keeps on Turning (or How I Was Broken by the Wheel of Pain)

15

Young Conan is prepared for a decade of torture reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.

There’s no denying it, I’m a complete fanboy when it comes to fantasy literature. I’m the kind of gormless sucker who can enjoy just about anything with swords and spells, wands and witches, knights and maidens, or dragons and demons. If it’s fantasy, I can usually buy into it. I love all the tropes and cliches of fantasy. A good story and strong characters and striking prose are why I fall in love with some books, but the trappings of fantasy are always an irresistible draw.

As long as I know what I’m getting into, I can even enjoy the very worst kinds of Dungeons and Dragons novels. You may know the kind of books I’m talking about; the ones that have no seeming sense of story progression or coherency, but instead read like the random adventures of smart-assed D&D players cobbled together into something that’s supposed to be readable, where most of the dialogue sounds like wisecracks that are probably only funny once everyone around the game table has had a couple beers

But that’s fine. A twinkie may be garbage food, but it’s still delicious.

Point being, when a work of fantasy aggressively aggravates me, I tend to become a bit dismayed. I am, after all, such a damned forgiving reader when it comes to the genre.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, my two favorite, actively working fantasy writers were Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. Williams’ trilogy Memory Sorrow and Thorn and Jordan’s series The Wheel of Time both had a vibrancy and breadth of immersive detail that I hadn’t been encountering of late in the fantasy I’d been reading, and they were both populated with a wide variety of distinct and engaging personalities. Following the maturation of young characters such as Simon, Rand, Mat, and Perrin was in turns frustrating, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and it was all wonderfully textured with clashing personalities and the dichotomy between these young heroes and their older, more experienced counterparts.

The climax of Memory Sorrow and Thorn fell a bit flat. It all seemed to wrap up a bit too neatly and easily, and the twist was predictable. But the journey up until then had been so enthralling that a bit of a letdown at the end was, at worst, a minor flaw.

The climax of The Wheel of Time

Well, I don’t actually know. I’ve never been able to get there.

I was first reading the books as they saw print, eagerly awaiting each new volume. The first book, The Eye of the World, was a blatant and deliberate riff on Tolkien, but I was hooked by Jordan’s world, his characters, his magic system and they way it was reflected in his societies and gender relations. The second and third books were great reads, with Jordan feeling free to abandon his emulation of Tolkien. The fourth and fifth books were entertaining enough, though they were starting to feel more like separate adventures rather than progressions of the overall story. The sixth book, Lord of Chaos, felt like a book where not much happened. Hundreds of pages going nowhere, salvaged only by a gripping and cathartic climax. It was the seventh book, A Crown of Swords, that broke me. I got about halfway through, wondered why I was still reading, and never picked the book back up.

A couple years ago I decided to give the series another go with a marathon read of the entire series, the plan being to be ready for the releases of the final post-humous volumes. Maybe I had missed something the first time around. I managed to get a couple chapters into the sixth book before giving up again.

I chalk my failure to get even halfway through this immense, fourteen book series to a couple factors.

1. Boredom: The early books, even though they were dense with minutiae and loaded with dozens of characters, always seemed to be actively moving the story forward. Rand was always moving one step closer to madness and one step closer to his ultimate destiny. The characters were always learning and growing, and new revelations were always being made. But as the books progressed, they became more and more weighed down with filler and pointless diversions. It was like Jordan, having created such a well-developed world, was happy to use his world and characters as an all-purpose plug that he could jack into the socket of any new fantasy story about quests for magical artifacts. Nothing carried any import, because nothing was really happening.

2. Characterization: I could have lived with the characters becoming somewhat stagnant. If you continue to steadily grow and evolve the characters over such a long span of books, you risk ending up with characters who bear no resemblance to themselves. But it’s terribly frustrating when this stagnation leads to the characters becoming cartoonish caricatures of themselves. Rounded, complex characters were suddenly being presented as flat and stale, defined only by their most distinctive trait and their inability to get along with the opposite sex. Rand was angry and a bit crazy, Mat the consummate smart-ass and contrarian, Perrin the slow, methodical thinker. None of them understood women, as the reader was constantly being reminded. The women fared even worse, coming across as spiteful, ridiculously myopic harridans. What had once been an engaging fantasy epic with interesting character dynamics was now reading like a bad parody about the battle between the sexes.

Both points, of course, are simply symptoms of the real problem with The Wheel of Time, which is that the Wheel kept turning, and turning, and turning, until it had worn such a smooth, deep groove that it couldn’t gain any more traction, so it was left to pointlessly spin, spin away. It’s tough enough to maintain quality, keep things fresh, and meet expectations within a single story or novel. Forget about trying to pull it off with fourteen 900 page novels.

I do feel a bit guilty about my inability to finish Jordan’s magnum opus. Even though I’m no longer a fan, it always bothered me that Jordan passed away before he could finish the series, and as a result I feel a bit dirty even now when I criticize his work. I hope his fans were pleased with the work that Brandon Sanderson did to turn Jordan’s extensive notes into the series’ three final volumes. They deserve a good payoff after the loyalty and patience they graced Jordan with, and Jordan deserved to have his story be complete.


Neverending

I have favorite book series that I’ve never finished reading, entire seasons of favorite television shows I have yet to watch, and favorite writers whose body of work I’ve only partly explored.

Sometimes I leave something unfinished because its quality has devolved and degraded so much that I can’t be bothered with it anymore. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books are a perfect example.

Sometimes I simply “outgrow” something. I’ll probably never read another Piers Anthony book, because I’m not a 12 year old boy anymore.

Sometimes I just don’t have the time to get to all the entertainment I want to consume. I’ve only watched the first season of Breaking Bad because I can’t watch it when the kids are around, and because I’m also trying to catch up on dozens of other shows and movies.

But there are those special occasions when something is so good, or I’m enjoying something so much, that I stop. I could have long since devoured every single Ray Bradbury story, but then I’d be sad that I’d never be able to read a new Ray Bradbury story.

When I finally got around to watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, I stopped halfway through the first season. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever seen, but I was impressed that an American animated series was telling an unabashed fantasy story via a limited, cohesive narrative with beginning, middle, and end. And it was doing such a damned good job of it that I didn’t want to burn through all three seasons. I wanted to be able to savor and look forward to continuing the story.

The worst that could happen is that I never get around to finishing it, but that just means that it gets to live as an endless story in my imagination.

This must be why ambiguous and open endings usually don’t bother me too much. It’s certainly one of the reasons why Doctor Who appeals to me like no other franchise. The older I get, the more I realize the truth of the adage “it’s not the destination that’s important, but the journey.”

At the very least, it’s a mindset that helps numb the sting of premature cancellations a bit. A little bit.

One day I’m sure I’ll turn the page on my last Ray Bradbury story, enjoying the sense of satisfying melancholy that always accompanies such moments, but I’m not in any hurry.


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