Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blogging de Tocqueville, Part Two

Click HERE for Part One

Glen Beck's revival couldn't have come off more tragic and misdirected. He called the American people to turn back the clock to a time when we were more faithful and pious, as if that would solve all of our cultural, political, and economic ills. Beck is somewhat right--religion can be extremely powerful in operating as a glue that can bind a people together and it has a profound impact on their culture. Late 19th century German sociologist and politico-economic theorist Max Weber described the intrinsic ties between northern European religion and socio-economic culture in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Beck isn't wrong in his assumption that an abandonment of religion (as well as many other traditional mores) has had a deleterious impact on American society.

Beck's detractors have been wont to point out that "turning back the clock" involves the re-imposition of segregation and undoes much of women's liberation. In a sense they're right, but they're also purposely misconstruing Beck's call for revival.

"What's all this got to do with Alexis de Tocqueville?" you might ask.

Simply, Glenn Beck doesn't realize the exact nature of the transformation he's trying to combat. American culture has been experiencing a gradual shift in values and ethics.
"But epochs sometimes occur in the life of a nation, when the old customs of a people are changed, public morality is destroyed, religious belief shaken, and the spell of tradition broken, whilst the diffusion of knowledge is yet imperfect, and the civil rights of the community are ill secured, or confined within narrow limits. The country then assumes a dim and dubious shape in the eyes of the citizens; they no longer behold it in the soil which they inhabit, for that soil is to them an inanimate clod; nor in the usages of their forefathers, which they have learned to regard as a debasing yoke; nor in religion, for of that they doubt; nor in the laws, which do not originate in their own authority; nor in the legislator, whom they fear and despise. The country is lost to their senses; they can neither discover it under its own nor under borrowed features, and are emancipated from prejudice, without having acknowledged the empire of reason; they have neither the instinctive patriotism of a monarchy, nor the reflecting patriotism of a republic; but they have stopped between the two in the midst of confusion and distress.

"In this predicament, to retreat is impossible; for a people cannot recover the sentiments of their youth, any more than a man can return to the innocent tastes of childhood: such things may be regretted, but they cannot be renewed. They must go forward, and accelerate the union of private and public interests, since the period of disinterested patriotism is gone by forever."
De Tocqueville is here describing a transition from the childlike patriotism underneath a monarchical yoke to an enfranchised patriotism in a republican government. His error is that he didn't see that this stage can exist while the government progresses in the reverse order, as happened with the ancient Romans. Much of this has been brought about by a lack of enfranchisement in the political destiny of the nation--which has been stripped from our hands and placed into the clutches of an incredibly small, moneyed minority that concentrates a great percentage of the available wealth among themselves. Now, this does not mean that I disapprove of capitalism or the Protestant work ethic, but instead goes to show that the Protestant ethic is, for all intents and purposes, dead, and nothing Glenn Beck attempts will ever succeed in reviving it.

In February of 2009, The Wall Street Journal's Ian Salisbury invoked de Tocqueville when he wrote an article asking whether excessive pay for executive officers is dangerous for democracy. He posted an interesting comparative chart that is reproduced below.

If the amazing similarities between the pay-scale of the reconstituted French monarchy and the currently United States doesn't surprise and dismay you, I'm not certain what will. I feel it is quite necessary to ask, why, exactly, is the pay-scale this ridiculous? Why does the Goldman Sachs CEO need to pull in 5,267 times more money than a teenage register-jockey at Burger King? I mean, the President of the United States actually has taken a pay-cut over the past 180 years, but he was one of the highest-paid people in the entire country during the Jacksonian era. And I must also ask, what is Lloyd Blankfein going to do with that $69 million that he earned? Likely reinvest it. But that's sound, right?

I won't get into all of the myriad problems with this, but instead get myself back onto track and continue with de Tocqueville's discussion where I had left off. The last thing I had discussed in Part One was the concept that equality and liberty were not synonymous. This was a striking revelation, partially because this key idea sums up a great many problems with the divisiveness of American culture. De Tocqueville seems to believe that diffuse wealth spread among a broad and powerful middle class will naturally give the populace a sense of investment and enfranchisement in the state of the nation and government.

He keys in on the decentralization of a state. Law exists, but its agents of enforcement are invisible--free citizens, through tacit agreement, were the primary agencies of law enforcement. So long as administrative power is decentralized and the impetus exists among the individual and the communities themselves to enforce the laws, the centralized government will always be comfortably weak and removed from the day-to-day affairs of the individual. If the central government ever manages (which it has, by the current time) to amass centralized administrative power at the expense of the local authorities, then the individual will be isolated and subjugated.

De Tocqueville describes an America in which the populace is entirely self-motivated to act for the common benefit. Government undertakings succeeded wholly through the popular support of the citizenry, who saw themselves as enfranchised. Contrary to our current time, the populace was not dependent upon the government for administrative authority, but rather for a more distant, vague sort of guidance. Nowhere is this more evident than in de Tocqueville's description of a criminal investigation.
...A state police does not exist, and passports are unknown. The criminal police of the United States cannot be compared to that of France; the magistrates and public agents are not numerous; they do not always initiate the measures for arresting the guilty; and the examinations of prisoners are rapid and oral. Yet I believe that in no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is, that every one conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the crime and in seizing the delinquent. During my stay in the United States, I witnessed the spontaneous formation of committees in a country for the pursuit and prosecution of a man who had committed a great crime. In Europe, a criminal is an unhappy man who is struggling for his life against the agents of power, whilst the people are merely a spectator of the conflict: in America, he is looked upon as an enemy of the human race, and the whole of mankind is against him.
This makes the argument that the police are an extra- (and perhaps un-)Constitutional entity a compelling argument, especially when they've amassed so much authority and power unto themselves that the common citizen is afraid to question them. This is especially apparent when a citizen is operating a motor vehicle--the sort of terror the average citizen lives with in the back of their mind of being pulled over is the antithesis of the sort of criminal justice system that existed in the Jacksonian era. The phrase "police business" apparently didn't exist--or was at least uttered on remarkably rare occasions--when de Tocqueville visited. Currently, the common welfare is so far from the minds of the citizenry that we are perfectly happy to stay silent and hide while someone else is brutally murdered, screaming for help. That we live in a police state should be patently obvious by now, especially since the news media is only giving the recent trend in arresting camera holders (who happen to be taping police officers making arrests) only a cursory treatment. According to Gizmodo, "cameras are the new guns." This even extends to the military, which is, at this point, subordinate to the paramilitary police organization. The police officers' ability to give an order, and then arresting someone with "failure to comply," regardless of circumstances, feeds into this fear and creates a cowardly American populace that can easily be controlled.

Where de Tocqueville's observations are most painful to the current reader is his analysis of judicial power. He isolates three primary forms judicial authority takes:
  1. Arbitration (such as lawsuits, divorce proceedings, etc.)
  2. Pronunciation on special cases and not on general principles.
  3. Limitation of action only to when it has taken cognizance of an affair.
De Tocqueville was impressed by the American judge's immense political authority, saying, "Americans have acknowledged the right of the judges to found their decision on the Constitution rather than on the laws. In other words, they have not permitted them to apply such laws as may appear to them to be unconstitutional." Assuming that judges serve the common good and not the law, de Tocqueville describes American justices as "at once the most favorable to liberty and to public order." Increasingly, we can observe instances in which judges are legislating from the bench. The ability for a judge to render null any statute that is deemed unconstitutional, once "one of the most powerful barriers which has ever been devised against the tyranny of political assemblies" is being eroded by judicial activism and political loyalties.

In addition, such precedents as jury nullification, which guarantees that justice, and not the law, is served by a jury, has a sordid and suppressed history in the United States courts. Videotapes shown to potential jurors inform then that their duty is not to be concerned with truth or justice, but the law.

De Tocqueville noted that "by minor prosecutions, which the humblest citizen can institute at any time, that liberty is protected, and not by those great judicial procedures, which are rarely employed until it is too late." However, we are all well aware of instances where major corporations have bullied smaller entrepreneurs, wearing them down by paying vast sums of money in attorney and court fees, until the small business or individual is exhausted, whereupon they move in and crush them ruthlessly. The labyrinthine nature of the law in this epoch makes the barrister necessary, and in order to engage in successful litigation, great sums of money are required. This has empowered that class of wealthy aristocrats, mentioned earlier, who are amassing huge sums of wealth.

The entire system has been subverted. However, the American populace doesn't quite realize it. They likely have never read de Tocqueville. Most of the people with whom I discuss politics don't even know who Alexis de Tocqueville is and why his observations and analysis of Jacksonian American democracy and society are so vital to comprehend how devolved we have become.

Unlike the first entry, this entry only focused on a bare minimum of pages. Hopefully I'll be able to write less lengthy and more succinct posts covering larger chunks of Democracy in America in the future.

Friday, August 27, 2010


When legendary science-fiction/fantasy author Fritz Leiber first put pen to paper, it was with the intention to create a duo of fantasy adventurers that were far more realistic than many other, similar characters that could be found in the pulps and novels of early 20th century American fiction. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were birthed in 1939, with the publication of "Two Sought Adventure" (subsequently retitled as "Jewels in the Forest") in Unknown. In the years immediately prior to the American entry into World War II, Leiber went on to publish two more stories, "The Bleak Shore" (1940) and "The Howling Tower" (1941). During the 1940s, only a few more Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories saw print, "The Sunken Land" (1942) and the novella Adept's Gambit (1947).

It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that Leiber began to prolifically produce stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Soon, they became iconic of the post-Tolkien pulp-fiction world of the mid-to-late 20th century. Scoundrels, self-serving, and yet each possessing a heart of gold, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser adventured across the surface of their world, Nehwon, but were always called back to mysterious Lankhmar, the City of the Black Toga, the City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes.

When, in 2000, White Wolf Publishing, makers of now-discontinued Vampire: The Masquerade, decided to repackage and republish Leiber's original stories in slightly different collections, it was tied into the upcoming release of Exalted as a sort of inspiration source for their forthcoming product. Indeed, as inspirations go, the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser provided inspiration to E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in their creation of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (see my entry on Appendix N).

Lankhmar: Tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber
Contained in this volume are only a handful of Leiber's stories. Most were written late in Leiber's career, and as tie-ins to explain the origins of the characters and their purpose for adventuring. Originally collected together in a volume titled Swords and Deviltry, White Wolf also chose to include the first two stories from Swords Against Death. For a first-rate assessment of these first two volumes, check out Justin Alexander's review on The Alexandrian.

The quality of each of the stories varies as much as the tone, but generally, the overall theme is one of sadness and loss.

The collection starts with a map of Nehwon and two poems entitled "The Gray Mouser: 1" and "2," followed by a brief "Introduction," in which Leiber, in fanciful style, describes the world of Nehwon. Its primary purpose is to set the mood and prime the reader's imagination for adventure and exploration.

Then the actual storytelling begins, with "The Snow Women" (first published in Fantastic, 1970). Leiber describes a people that seem an amalgam of Viking and Inuit, merging the piracy and fierceness with simplicity of life and adaptation to a frigid wasteland environment. Fafhrd is introduced as a youth of eighteen years, not yet considered a man, but plagued by his controlling mother and her coven of witch-women. The tale is one of tragedy and liberation, and is brilliantly told. Fafhrd's dilemma between love and wanderlust, between duty and repression, is exacerbated by the treatment he receives at the hands of many of the other tribesmen. In the end, Fafhrd gets his freedom, but at a price, and he learns of deceitfulness and treachery.

The second story, "The Unholy Grail," is much more straightforward, much less full of twists, turns, and is also much shorter than its predecessor. In-all, it isn't as good as "Snow Women," but it succeeds at explaining the Mouser's origin satisfactorily and sets the stage for his meeting with Fafhrd.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" is, perhaps, one of the best stories I've read. Although it was penned quite late in Leiber's career, it is, nevertheless, one of the most iconic adventure stories I've ever read. It is the undoubted inspiration for every sort of cityscape adventure devised for Dungeons & Dragons, and is one of the tales that most likely necessitated Leiber's inclusion into Gygax's illustrious Appendix N. Lankhmar is described more in feel and tone than in actual physical design. The names of streets and the description of the smogs that perpetually blanket the city create a tone and atmosphere at times reminiscent of London, and at other times ancient Rome at her decadent height. Leiber's writing is at its tightest and most solid. There is never a wasted word throughout the story.

"The Circle Curse" comes off as a brief interlude linking the younger Fafhrd and Mouser to their older versions Leiber wrote of in later stories. The problem is, the story is basically filler with little or no real purpose behind it. Leiber summarizes the characters' first encounters with their curious wizard-mentors along with a montage of places they journey and a few things they witness during the three-year tour of Nehwon they make. Then, they reluctantly return to Lankhmar. Though this chapter serves as a bridge between the prequel stories and Leiber's earlier yarns, it does so by placing all of the dramatic weight at the conclusion of "Ill Met in Lankhmar" on the chopping-block. The character's flight from the city was charged with emotion, but to go from a highly detailed adventure to a brief summary of places and images is just disappointing. Leiber boils three years of travel down to a few paragraphs that leave the reader wanting more than what is given, in the end, leaving him feeling robbed that the majority of events took place offstage.

"The Jewels in the Forest" closes the book on a brilliant note. Being Leiber's first Lankhmar story, originally titled "Two Sought Adventure," it was the 1939 debut of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The tale begins in media res, which serves well, because all of the lead-up to this particular excursion is summarized skillfully in conversation and through the Mouser's own thoughts. The characters come off as extremely archetypal of themselves, which is fitting since this was their first appearance in print. There is a fantastic mix of swashbuckling action, mystery, and exploration to keep the reader engrossed. Leiber scatters clues throughout the yarn that leave the reader guessing until the end--some of the guesses will be invariably incorrect due to a few false clues left by the author in order to ensure the surprise at the end of the tale.

Leiber writes in a style that almost parodies himself and his subject-material. It keeps his stories fresh and entertaining, ensuring that a more lighthearted tone prevails, despite the tragedy the characters might experience. There is a certain humor to the work, especially considering that, though Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser obviously take themselves far too seriously for much of this volume, the author does not. He does not descend to puns or absurdity (such as Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, or Terry Pratchett's Discworld) series. The lightheartedness keeps the pace of the stories in motion. Leiber doesn't let the low-points in the characters' lives encumber him or the reader. Instead, their pain and suffering provides drive and direction to characters' actions.

This theme of tragedy, however, doesn't seem entirely characteristic of Leiber's earlier work, if "Jewels in the Forest" can be judged as typical of his early works. Indeed, although the overall lighthearted tone seems to be at odds with the general aura of misfortune that surrounds the characters, the two flavors don't clash, but instead play off one-another. The overall voice is optimistic; Leiber is leading up to the main events, which are inaugurated with "The Jewels in the Forest." The tragic backstory is a vehicle to provide drive, purpose, and determination for the two rogues, and to explain their deep friendship and camaraderie.

It seems that Leiber is a bit of a misogynist. Women throughout this collection are not depicted in a very positive manner. In "The Snow Women," the women of Cold Corner are depicted as jealous and petty. Fafhrd's mother, Mor, in particular, is especially vindictive, having used her magic to "punish" her husband with death when he climbed a mountain against her wishes. Her ice magic nearly kills her own son repeatedly. She is incapable of bending, and unwilling to see how her behavior is literally driving her son away from her and towards civilization. Similarly, Fafhrd's girlfriend, Mara, is repeatedly overcome with petty jealousy, and sets her brothers to beat (and perhaps kill) him, then regretting her behavior once she realized the danger she had placed him in. In "The Unholy Grail," Ivrian is a weak-hearted, easily manipulated, cowardly girl with absolutely no spine. Once she is paired with Vlana in "Ill Met in Lankhmar," the two women cajole and humiliate Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser into making an ill-advised foray into Thieves' House that nearly kills them (however, it also saves their lives from strangulation). Leibers' females are depicted as fickle, ruled entirely by their passions. They are portrayed as vindictive, petty, jealous, manipulative, or callow, but never as strong, brave, intelligent, or trustworthy.

The development of the main characters themselves is handled brilliantly. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are not static characters. Indeed, as earlier mentioned, Leiber doesn't take them as seriously as they take themselves, and this is nowhere more apparent as in "Ill Met in Lankhmar," which is probably the best story in the entire book. Fafhrd and the Mouser are very insecure about themselves and their relationships, and this insecurity translates into bluster and bravado. The Mouser, especially, takes great pains to try and impress Fafhrd upon their first meeting. Coupled with their beloveds' goading, the two scoundrels attempt to infiltrate the Thieves' Guild. Their cocksure attitudes are fueled by their exceptional combat skills (in addition to Mouser's acrobatics), but it is evident through their behavior that they lack wisdom. The guildsmen see through their feeble disguises, and the Mouser runs off at the mouth where a much wiser man would have shut up and chosen his words much more carefully. The insecurity, bravado, and verbosity is quelled, however, once tragedy strikes, and except for a single comment, the two characters are completely silent for the remainder of the tale, during which they exact what vengeance they are able. This change persists, even into "Jewels in the Forest," where the two rogues are no longer so insecure, and no longer needing the esteem and approval of others, but are obviously comfortable with their skills, more realistic about what they can and cannot achieve, but still a little apt to bite off more than they can chew now-and-again.

This book provides a delightful introduction to two very iconic characters that have had a powerful effect on the sword & sorcery genre since their creation. They were birthed in an era immediately following the demises of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and the retirement of Clark Ashton Smith, and inaugurated a new age of fantasy writing that would generate the likes of Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny.

Lankhmar: Tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber
Style: B
Substance: B
Overall: B

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gaming and History -- The Conspiracy of Catiline

Cicero denuncia Catalina (Cicero Denounces Cataline), Cesare Maccari, 1888

Almost a week ago, Brunomac over at Temple of the Demogorgon posted some of his "alternate time period" ideas for a Call of Cthulhu campaign. Naturally, I was intrigued, because gaming in history is something I've always considered a cool idea I'd never managed to pull off.

I was really inspired to run some sort of game during the Roman Empire period (probably during the Flavian or Antonine dynasies, approx. AD 70-190), and being something of an amateur know-it-all in the early empire, its economy, politics, and military (I won't be an expert until I finally get a PhD), I've got tons of books with lots and lots of pictures lining shelves in my parents' house back in the States. Pictures are great for helping GMs get across a lot of features that might be difficult to describe, like architecture, coinage, art, jewelry, and clothing.

I like my worlds to feel "lived in" and real. That's one of the reasons I am such a lover of The Forgotten Realms campaign setting. I'm very much about immersion, and there's so much that a player can immerse him/herself in with ancient Rome. I was originally inspired when I read Thomas Harlan's The Shadow of Ararat. The book is actually pretty decent as fantasies go, and Harlan makes decent use of Rome as a setting, especially with Maxian's covert experiments into the nature of the magic that cloaks the city of Rome. I read those sections with great enjoyment, but I also really liked the segments where Thyatis and her cadre of commando troops raided an enemy base, infiltrating it through the cisterns of Constantinople. There was some really exciting stuff there, and it gave me a million ideas about running a game set in Rome.

So when I finally got around to reading Sallust's Conspiracy of Catiline, something crystallized inside of my head. I realized that I didn't want to run a game set in the early empire, but during the late Republican period--a time when the republic was decaying, and the costs of empire were eating away at the social fabric of the Roman people.

A conspiracy is a fantastic centerpiece for a campaign, and Republican Rome would be a great and immersive place for players to explore--provided I had the wher ewithal to accurately stat it up and obtain/draw accurate maps. I mean, I know, Hollywood doesn't care all that much for accuracy so why should I? Just get any-old map of Rome and use that. I mean, who is going to know the difference?

Actually, everybody who plays and has a brain. I mean, sooner or later, somebody is going to be walking around the Basilica Ulpia and look up at Trajan's Column and say, "Hey, DM, what's this doing here? If Trajan was an emperor, and we're playing twenty years before Caesar gets killed, then... how the heck is this here? It shouldn't have been built yet!"

Indeed. That's kind of like running a game set in America in 1812 and have characters talking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Its anachronistic. Now, some anachronism is going to slip in anyway, it's unavoidable. But with some research you can cut down on it. Books from the Osprey m ilitary history series, complete with illustrations, can help with a lot of accuracy issues, as can Peter Connolly's The Ancient City for architecture and maps. Players may need some prepping, too. The Flavian Amphitheater (aka. the Colosseum) hasn't been built yet, so gladiatorial games are much more small-scale. There aren't any emperors yet. Caesar's invasion of Gaul hasn't happened yet. The state has finally recovered from Sulla's abuses, purges, and death. There will be a few things the players will have to adjust to not seeing, because they're so used to them from movies and TV.

But these aren't arguments against the game, but just little things that I'd have to take into account if I was prepping such a campaign. The real challenge would be the players adapting to the setting through their behaviors. When in Rome, do as the Roman s, especially in character. Venerate your ancestors, be patriotic (even if it means you have to kill your sisters), sacrifice to the gods, and take omens and curses very seriously. It shouldn't be too difficult, but I've run into many a player who doesn't feel like reading a single iota of setting material and just wing it. These players are the ones who would often end up asking questions like "what's a lares?," chase and/or kill one of the Capitoline geese, and try to kiss one of the Vestal Virgins. (HINT: That last one is something you seriously, seriously, seriously don't want to do). As a GM, I hate having to pause the action in the middle of a game and deliver an infodump. It slows things down, and for some gamers, that's enough for my game to descend into absolute boredom for them (gr anted, they usually don't care much for descriptions of buildings, pictures of Gallic warriors, or types of coinage, and they usually don't stick around in my games for long either). If it is something your character should know, then I'd like you to know it. Granted, when we're talking about ancient Rome, there's a lot there to know and it is honestly not worth the effort to compile a 250-page book of Roman culture and society so the player can immerse himself and effectively role-play. That's just absurd, and it's a great way to alienate players.

But I digress--why does playing in the time-period of the Catiline Conspiracy intrigue and excite me? Simple--it's tailor-made for a great campaign. The existence of a conspiracy in ancient Rome is a simple plot idea that's a lot of historical weight. Intrigue, cunning, assassinations, and double-crossing can make this an interesting game. It also gives characters the opportunity to change history. What happens if, instead of stopping Catiline, they try to help him succeed? What happens to Roman history then? The characters can participate in elections, campaign for offices, get involved in the seedy criminal underworld, and establish a relationship with one of Rome's powerful patrician families as clients--or perhaps become novi homines themselves. The political nature of the game can lead them on paths to greatness in the seats of government or in the military. There's no reason the game has to be stuck in the Eternal City, either, but can range far and wide, into Gaul, Egypt, the ruins of Carthage (where the ghosts of dead gods and angry generals may lurk) or even the far-off Partian Empire. Riots can erupt as the plebian masses revolt against the abuses of a corrupt Senate. Players can visit a thermopylaeum and buy some cheap fish stew for lunch, or make a fortune by mastering how to make garum, or even ship new works of incredible technology over from Greece.

But the conspiracy itself is rife with opportunity for fantasy/horror elements to creep into the game, darkening Rome's streets and alleyways. The Romans believed in magic and curses, so there will be ample opportunity for spells and dark pacts. The sewers are large and mysterious, a perfect place for dungeon crawls in pursuit of shadowy deals, thieves, buried secrets, hidden entrances to buildings, or forgotten tombs and buildings covered by time. A huge necropolis exists outside the city, and it would be intriguing to investigate someplace like the Tomb of the Scipios for evidence of necromancy. There's just so much opportunity for adventure. I can see Roman conspirators in the shadows of a ruined villa outside of the city, making pacts with dark gods and elder things that would be better left sleeping beneath the seas or drifting between the stars.

An obvious question to ask, however, is: "What system should I use?" Well, right-off-the-bat, I'd have to nix Dungeons & Dragons almost entirely, unless it's been heavily, heavily house-ruled. Old-school style leaves the magic-using characters far too weak for my tastes, especially since I'd want to throw a lot of stuff at them to do. I mean, one spell per day is not really enough, and given the entire treasure + defeating monsters = experience system that it employs for XP, the rate of advancement would be too slow, especially since the game would focus more on role-playing and interaction with the environment. I'd consider 2nd Edition, if it weren't for the fact that 3.0 and 3.5 just streamlined so much. But 3rd Edition and Pathfinder make the classes far too powerful, what with all the different kinds of abilities the different classes get. Rome should be magic-light. In addition, the massive glut of feats, items, powers, spells, and whatnot is absolutely overwhelming--far too overwhelming for a game set in ancient Rome.

Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu might be a good choice, and I've considered Cthulhu Invictus. White Wolf's World of Darkness system doesn't really do enough for mortal characters, and I dislike how they've changed the system in the past decade. GURPS could be a good system, though I don't have GURPS: Rome. But, believe-it-or-not, I'm leaning most heavily toward the D20 Conan: The Roleplaying Game or The Riddle of Steel. They're both very gritty, brutal, with magic that fits the feel of what I'm after far better than Dungeons & Dragons, Palladium, or White Wolf.

By-the-way, Sallust's house was preserved in Pompeii when Vesuvius' eruption buried it. Check it out below.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Robert Jordan and Brain Damage

I lament that I missed Ray Bradbury's birthday, but that's what happens when you live on the opposite side of the planet from everyone else. Speaking of science-fiction/fantasy authors...

I stumbled across an incredibly interesting and humorous series of reviews of Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time by British science-fiction writer Adam Roberts. Roberts and I both agree that much of Jordan's work is utter garbage. There's a kernel of a great, epic, sweeping fantasy amid all of the unnecessary bloat that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. It is almost as if Jordan were being paid by the word in Dickensian fashion. Entire forests have been sacrificed on the altar of Jordan's The Wheel of Time, and I sacrificed approximately a year of my life in high school reading everything up to the sixth book in the series--a year I could have spent reading something else, like Don Quixote.

Indeed, I think Roberts' greatest objection to Jordan is that the reader could have spent all of that time reading something else:
This, it seems to me, has a number of deplorable consequences. One is that, since the market becomes saturated by rubbishy fat volumes issued on the strength of the authors' long corroded reputation rather than any intrinsic merit, good books get crowded out. ... The people who should be reading that are instead picking up Wotx. It's a shame for [other authors]. It's a bigger shame for [the readers], even though they don't realise it.

The other consequence is even more insidious: good young writers, noting the commercial success of the series, conclude that this is how Fantasy must be written. Their writing becomes infected, their originality degraded, and a kind of malign self-perpetuaing miasma of rubbishness settles over the whole field.
That last bit not only should apply to burgeoning writers, but also readers. Now, some years ago, there was a huge stink on The Forge and other forms when noted game designer and intellectual Ron Edwards posited that playing certain role-playing games (specifically Vampire: The Masquerade) caused a sort of "brain damage" to the player, akin to psychological trauma, especially since the player is young and their brain is still formative. (Here's his original post on Vincent Baker's site.) He likened it to the psychological damage done through sexual abuse in a podcast interview. He got a lot of flack for his opinion, but I think, despite the bleeding-heart reactionaries who cringe at politically incorrect parlance (no matter how scientifically or logically correct it may be), he's right, by-and-large. The brain damage he speaks of in specific is the inability to perceive, understand, and appreciate stories.

Similarly, I'd like to posit that reading Robert Jordan at a young age can severely damage a young person's development because, should they enjoy Jordan's work, they will naturally cultivate a taste for his style and learn that it is "how fantasy" or perhaps even "how novels/literature/English prose" should be written. The sheer volume of pages that the person would have to read so skews the representation of writing as "Jordanian" in the reader's mind that at least some of this horrifically mistaken sentiment insidiously infiltrating his/her psyche is almost inevitable.

The average reader that I've encountered who reads Robert Jordan is usually female, though often males read the series too (but more often get sick of it and throw it down). Many of them, when queried as to why they enjoy the work often respond, "I love the description."


Read this:
"Her eyebrows climbed as she directed her gaze back to them, eyes black as her white-winged hair, a demanding stare of impatience so loud she might as well have shouted." --The Path of Daggers, p. 47
That's... just... bad. As Roberts' blog points out, Jordan's description is unnecessarily boring and often descends into pure tedium. And what's worse, young readers enamored of Jordan's overwrought prose are being conditioned to think that his prose is ideal. But it's not. First, its a run-on sentence with numerous subordinate clauses. The imagery invoked is a study of contradictions, as Adam Reynolds points out in his review of The Path of Daggers. Her eyes are as black as her white-winged hair? A wordless stare that is "so loud she might as well have shouted" is inelegant and overly-wordy. "Brevity is the soul of wit," said Shakespeare, a man who knew when and how to be verbose far better than Jordan.
"Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.

"'Men shall die for this," he said coldly." --Robert E. Howard, "Red Shadows"

Robert E. Howard conveys far, far more in this simple paragraph. In the same amount of space, Solomon Kane stands, cleans his hands, wears an unhappy expression, and says nothing. Through his silence, Howard conveys the heavy weight of reason and self-control covering a roiling turmoil of emotions. He punctuates it by adding "Men shall die for this." This excerpt has far, far, far more impact than just about anything that Jordan writes.

But utilizing random excerpts isn't quite fair, so lets get something more specific--combat.
"He recognized the forms the High Lord used; they were a little different from what he had been taught, but not enough. The Swallow Takes Flight met Parting the Silk. Moon on the Water met The Wood Grouse Dances. Ribbon in the Air met Stones Falling From the Cliff. They moved about the room as in a dance, and their music was steel against steel.

"Disappointment and disgust faded from Turak's dark eyes, replaced by surprise, then concentration. Sweat appeared on the High Lord's face as he pressed Rand harder. Lightning of Three Prongs met Leaf on the Breeze." --Robert Jordan, The Great Hunt

"Ba’alzamon struck with the staff, as with a spear. Rand screamed. As he felt it pierce his side, burning like a white-hot poker. The void trembled, but he held on with the last of his strength, and drove the heron-mark blade into Ba’alzamon’s heart. Ba’alzamon screamed, and the dark behind him screamed. The world exploded in fire." --Robert Jordan, The Great Hunt, p. 666

"The fighting madness of his race was upon him, and with a red mist of unreasoning fury wavering before his blazing eyes, he cleft skulls, smashed breasts, severed limbs, ripped out entrails, and littered the deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood." --Robert E. Howad, "Queen of the Black Coast"

"Robb shouted, "Winterfell!" and kicked his horse. The gelding plunged downt he bank as the ragged man closed. A man with an axe rushed in, shouting and heedless. Robb's sword caught him full in the face with a sickening crunch and a spray of blood." --George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones, p. 405

"Kellhus struck first, but his blade recuiled from the mail beneath the Nonman's cloak. He crouched, deflected the powerful counter-stroke, swept the figure's legs out from beneath him. The Nonman toppled backward but managed to roll effortlessly back to his feet. Laughter rang from the helmed face.

"'Most memorable!' he cried, falling upon the monk." --R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness that Comes Before, p. 29
Now, this is, by-and-large, a matter of taste. But I prefer Howard's density of prose. He packs as much imagery into a brief segment of description which leaves the impression that Conan (the character in question) is a whirlwind of death and slaughter as he wades through blood across the deck of this ship. The recent writers approach combat from a more cold, tense, clinical perspective, reporting the events without any real special sense of joy or exhiliration. Howard's combat is exhilarating, while Bakker's and Martin's is gritty. Both are soaked in blood, but only Howard seems to get a rush from battle. (NOTE: The greatest irony in all of this is that Jordan got his start in fantasy writing Conan pastiche. It's not that bad as pastiche goes, but it is not Howard's character or world by any mean stretch.)

Jordan, on the other hand, is almost totally detached from the narrative that he laboriously hammers forth. In the above excerpts, Jordan shows Rand in a fight with a blademaster, and describes the combat in the most boring manner possible, using contrived bladeforms that he dreampt up for the purposes of his story. While the bladeform names do add to the setting, he never actually describes what the bladeforms are, nor does he give us any sort of reference in his glossary.
"I tried a head-cut, which he parried; and I parried his riposte to my heart and cut at his wrist.

"He parried this and kicked a small stool between us. I set it aside, hopefully in the direction of his face, with my right toe, but it missed and he had at me again.

"I parried his attack, and he mine. Then I lunged, was parried, was attacked, and parried again myself.

"I tried a very fancy attack I'd learned in France, which involved a beat, a feint in quarte, a feint in sixte, and a lunge veering off into an attack on his wrist.

"I nicked him and the blood flowed. --Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber, p. 96
This is a much better example of detailed combat description, using mostly real fencing terminology. The author, Zelazny, actually knew a great deal about fencing, and his description benefits from his knowledge. Each paragraph is brief, terse, and reflective of the tension in the fight. It climaxes with a series of real moves that can be looked up in a fencing book or intuited from the text, which rapidly build until first blood is drawn. Compare this to the long list of obscure move-countermove that Jordan recites during the duel between Rand and Turak. Jordan's dialogue during the above combat sequences are stilted and unimpressive, while the banter between Zelazny's Corwin and Eric is much more emotionally charged. It lacks Jordan's overwrought melodrama because the tension between the two characters feels natural, and we've been building up to this duel for nearly a hundred pages.

The purpleness of Jordan prose, however, may have a certain hidden source. Lets compare the following except and see what we can discern:

"...a huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot, leaped into the chamber; behind him his followers clustered in the doorway. His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red; he wielded a great spear. With a thrust of his huge hide shield he turned Boromir's sword and bore him backwards, throwing him to the ground. Diving under Aragorn's blow with the speed of a striking snake he charged into the Company and thrust with his spear straight at Frodo. The blow caught him on the right side, and Frodo was hurled against the wall and pinned. Sam, with a cry, hacked at the spear shaft and it broke. But even as the orc flung down the truncheon and swept out his scimitar, Andúril came down upon his helm. There was a flash like flame and the helm burst asunder. The orc fell with a cloven head." --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 365

Obviously, Tolkien must certainly be a source of inspiration for Jordan at some point. Tolkien's been accused of being overly descriptive, just as Jordan, but the comparison is simply not there.

To push the point home, I'm going to excerpt the entire description of Moiraine from the first book, just to demonstrate what I mean:
"Rand's gaze fell to the woman who had spoken. She, too, had been watching the flight of the raven, but now she turned back, and her eyes met his. He could only stare. This had to be the Lady Moiraine, and she was everything that Mat and Ewin had said, everything and more.

When he had heard she called Nynaeve child, he had pictured her as old, but she was not. At least, he could not put any age to her at all. At first he thought she was as young as Nynaeve, but the longer he looked the more he thought she was older than that. There was a maturity about her large, dark eyes, a hint of knowing that no one could have gotten young. For an instant he thought those eyes were deep pools about to swallow him up. It was plain why Mat and Ewin named her a lady from a gleeman's tale, too. She held herself with a grace and air of command that made him feel awkward and stumble-footed. She was barely tall enough to come up to his chest, but her presence was such that her height seemed the proper one, and he felt ungainly in his tallness.

"Altogether she was like no one he had ever seen before. The wide hood of her cloak framed her face and dark hair, hanging in soft ringlets. He had never seen a grown woman with her hair unbraided every girl in the Two Rivers waited eagerly for the Women's Circle of her village to say she was old enough to wear a braid. Her clothes were just as strange. Her cloak was sky-blue velvet, with thick silver embroidery, leaves and vines and flowers, all along the edges. Her dress gleamed faintly as she moved, a darker blue than the cloak, and slashed with cream. A necklace of heavy gold links hung around her neck, while another gold chain, delicate and fastened in her hair, supported a small, sparkling blue stone in the middle of her forehead. A wide belt of woven gold encircled her waist, and on the second finger of her left hand was a gold ring in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. He had certainly never seen a ring like that, though he recognized the Great Serpent, an even older symbol for eternity than the Wheel of Time.

"Fancier than any feastday clothes, Ewin had said, and he was right. No one ever dressed like that in the Two Rivers. Not ever." --Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World
Now compare this to Tolkien's introduction to Aragorn:
"Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits." --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 177
Then another paragraph of equal length involves Frodo asking Butterbur about "Strider"/Aragorn and getting some information about his comings, goings, and that he is long-legged (as the nickname might have suggested). Meanwhile, Jordan meanders for several paragraphs, describing Moiraine's appearance, clothing, and the overall impression Rand and others have of her, punctuating it with the quaint and almost adolescent "No one ever dressed like that in the Two Rivers. Not ever." Defenders of Jordan will insist that the author is trying to impress upon the reader as much as he can about Moiraine, as well as the effect she has on others without even saying a word. While I can understand this, I have to insist that the axioms "less is more" and "show, don't tell" are being completely eschewed by Jordan.

We can see through the following dialogue Rand has with Moiraine that she makes him feel nervous, stupid, and ungainly, and we can easily infer from the reactions of the characters and the richness of her clothing that no one in the rustic Two Rivers would ever dress like her. Indeed, the combat sample from The Fellowship of the Ring above illustrates my point fantastically. Tolkien, in the space of one paragraph, creates an orc chieftain, swiftly sketching him in our minds with stacatto images ("His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red."), then shows us how mighty he is by having him knock over Boromir and pin Frodo to the wall before Aragorn fells him. There's so much going on in that paragraph, and, what's more, Tolkien's writing has a rhythm and pacing that underscores the events of the narrative with a sense of urgency. Even though he's describing the events and it takes about 30-45 seconds to read the entire thing, the reader is left with a sense of overwhelming suddenness and surprise, realizing that all of that took place in two or three seconds in the story.

Comparing Tolkien to Jordan is an exercise in futility. Jordan does not possess the poetic style or skill that Tolkien exercises throughout The Lord of the Rings. Jordan's prose isn't dense, it's bloated, overwrought, and fluffed beyond all reasonable length. Length alone isn't terrible, however, so long as it carries enough weight. I must reiterate that showing trumps telling, and if Jordan wanted us to feel like Moiraine and Lan made the people of Emond's Field uneasy, doing it through dialogue (which he did, ironically) or character actions (which, again, he did, also ironically). So why heap unnecessary sentences upon one-another? It's a waste. Let the reader put two-and-two together.

This isn't the only complaint one might have about the series. As Roberts noticed, the Aes Sedai seem to be drawn directly from the Bene Gesserit sisterhood in Frank Herbert's Dune series. Herbert did little to disguise the sisterhood as anything less than a conniving, byzantine, treacherous society that sought to manipulate events from behind the scenes. It is true that Herbert's universe was certainly intrigue and realpolitik, but the Bene Gesserit were rightly feared and hated as "witches" by many because of their ability to manipulate others so skillfully. Frank Herbert was also known to be a blatant misogynist, and the Bene Gesserit were modeled after his Catholic aunts (there's a reason why "Gesserit" sounds so much like "Jesuit").

Which leads me back to Robert Jordan's Aes Sedai and his treatment of women in the series. I cannot understand how so many women fail to be insulted by Jordan's bland, flat, chauvinistic treatment of women without concluding that those women who actually identify with his two-dimensional caricatures of female stereotypes are just as flat and banal themselves. But thankfully, I'm not the only one who noticed how Jordan's work is so misogynist. At least Herbert's females were also brilliantly cunning and not simply flat, uninspired cardboard cutouts of howling shrews.

As one critic put it on everything2.com, "The Wheel of Time has collapsed under the weight of its own bloated corpse." Despite all of the defenses that have been put forth trying to justify or rationalize the incredible plethora of word bloat, there are at least three books in this massive series that don't even need to exist and do very little to advance the story, setting, or characters whatsoever. I would like to point the aforementioned attempt at defense to the works of such authors as George R.R. Martin, Steven Erickson, Tad Williams, and R. Scott Bakker, and not just J.R.R. Tolkien, as examples of fantasy in which the series are long, complex, highly detailed, densely populated with characters, but also rarely bog down and leave the reader in literary doldrums.

Jordan writes a soap opera (which may explain why so much of his fanbase is female). The characters never behave entirely rationally and quite often do things that simply make no sense. Jordan employs the idiot ball far too often, sometimes resorting to plot induced stupidity simply to keep the books coming. The end result is generally an idiot plot. Again, it's nice to know that I'm not the only one who noticed these things.

For example, it Lord of Chaos would have been far more interesting had Rand:
  • Trained the Black Tower for combat against Aes Sedai.
  • Told the Aes Sedai that there's no longer a need for the Red Ajah.
  • Said that any Red Ajah attempting to capture/gentle an Asha'man would be summarily executed.
This would have made for a really interesting plot. I mean, right off the bat, Jordan's got lots of opportunity for conflict between both White Towers and his own Black Tower. But Jordan's plot usually ends up getting bogged down by little intricacies and wheels within wheels.

I mean, imagine if, in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, Stannis and Renly Baratheon never tried to confront one another through the entirety of the War of the Five Kings. That's basically what Jordan does with his plots on a regular basis--the obvious conflicts that should develop never do so Rand can sit through book and think about how Alanna Mosvani (who bonded him against his will) is off somewhere crying again.

Jordan's narrative is filled with introspection and repetitive soul-searching that could easily be left on the cutting room floor. Chapters are spent where the characters ponder their actions. For example, Rand gradually grows obsessed with all of the women who died during his adventures, deaths for which he blames himself. This angst gradually turns into melodrama because Jordan keeps revisiting it time and time again. I keep using the word "overwrought" throughout this essay, but I can think of no other word that better captures almost every aspect of his writing style. There's no meter, rhythm, or pacing to his prose. The fluffy descriptions are contradictory and nonsensical at worst, flowery and unnecessary at best.
"What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about till you find the exact words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect with come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning." --George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," A Collection of Essays, p. 169
Jordan definitely let the words flood into his prose and overwhelm it. The narrative suffers from word bloat of such ostentatious enormity that it is literally programming an entire generation of readers into thinking that such work is good. After spending a year in high school reading Jordan's laborious prose, I actually and bemusingly had difficulty getting into writers like Moorcock and Howard because their writing was so rapid-fire, terse, and too the point. The writing styles of Tolkien, Melville, Joyce, Orwell, and Hemingway were only rescued for me by age and distance from fantasy, a heavy dose of remedial instruction in college courses. To think I had once found writers like Hemingway or Steinbeck boring when, a decade later, I would find myself teary-eyed at the end of A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, and Of Mice and Men... .

Jordan's turgid prose also spells everything out for the reader, as if he/she was an imbecile. Perhaps it would be helpful to remind ourselves of Hemingway's Iceberg Principle. If a writer is good, he can omit 90% of what he's trying to say, and the reader figures it out. Hemingway illustrated this when challenged to write the shortest short story ever and responded with: "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn." To twist Jordan's own quote above, it is silence that may as well have been a shout. This also reflects back to the principle of showing, not telling. Jordan basically explains everything to the reader, leaving nothing up to their imagination or their own thought processes, tremendously lessening the emotional impact of the series.

Rand's isolation as Dragon Reborn could have been a fantastic study in the sort of alienation experienced by those who acquire vast amounts of power. But Jordan never allowed it to be so. He submerged all of the literary merit that his books could have had beneath a sea of purple prose and uneventful narrative. When the entire series is finished, I would actually love to see someone go through the series, combing carefully, separating the wheat from the chaff, and excising all of the unnecessary fluff, chapters that meander and go nowhere, and pointless conversations that fail to develop the characters or advance the plot. Somewhere inside Jordan's 11,000-page mistake is the 2,500-page heroic epic and meditation on the alienation and responsibility that comes with ultimate power. It's just a darn shame that it's not really all that worth digging through the other 8,500 pages to reach it.

I don't hate Robert Jordan as a person. Indeed, I sympathize with him. I found the initial volume, The Eye of the World, to have been rather epic, self-contained, and well-resolved. It felt like events were moving apace, and I imagined that the following novels would be just as good. At the point that I first discovered him, only The Shadow Rising (volume four) had thus far been released. But he is, in a way, a victim of the same trends that had been developing in fantasy fiction since the Tolkien-craze of the 1970s.

The New York Times' cover blurb on The Eye of the World states that "Jordan has come to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal." Locus also compared Jordan to Tolkien on the gender issue in the cover blurbs, and their statement that Jordan took "familiar elements and make them his own" is doublespeak for saying that the book was derivative. Indeed, Adam Whitehead over at The Wertzone said review of The Eye of the World, "The first half of the novel is modeled very closely on the opening of The Lord of the Rings, but the novel stretches the line between tribute and parody to the breaking point." Indeed, between The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Shannara, and The Belgariad I had come to believe that it was actually a key element in fantasy fiction that a small, rustic provincial be forced to face down a monolithic force of cosmic evil that wanted to cover the world in darkness beneath a tide of goblinoid creatures. But tropes and cliché aside, Jordan's opening volley was fun and felt like it was going somewhere.

I imagine what happened to Jordan is the same thing that happens to so many other fantasy authors--they can't stop writing stories set in their own world. They become trapped. As I wrote in my essay on Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, much of the blame must be placed on the fans and on the publishing companies that feed the demand for more Middle-Earth. The fans of Tolkien in the 1970s didn't want the story of the Hobbits in Middle-Earth to end, although Tolkien had pretty definitively put the lid on its coffin to focus on The Silmarillion. This disease has led to book-bloat for some authors (such as Raymond E. Feist, who just can't seem to leave Midkemia alone), Terry Brooks, and Terry Goodkind. Tad Williams, thankfully, chose not to return to Osten Ard, but to explore different vistas. R. Scott Bakker's The Second Apocalypse series is, supposedly, planned out, and his forays into science-fiction and suspence/thriller attest to his ability to resist getting locked into one single series.

The rank-and-file fan wants the story to continue forever. Yes, I admit that when I first read The Lord of the Rings, I was sorry that it ended because I had enjoyed it so much. I was also in fourth grade and highly impressionable. Tolkien's tale was escapism, but it was an enriching form of escapism, and his prose was challenging. Jordan's books, in a large number of places, devolve into adolescent fantasy (another thing that Reynolds discusses in his reviews). By identifying with the young-adult protagonists, teenagers will find themselves indulging in escapism; as an adult, however, I find the over-sexualized and yet paradoxically overly-puritanical tensions throughout the books to be annoying at best, frustrating at worst. But the addiction to the escapism and the association of purple prose with good writing will damage the readers' ability to appreciate actual good writing and distract them from all of the other things they could be reading.

And that's the tragedy. You could be reading William Morris' The House of the Wolflings, E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, Robert E. Howard's Hour of the Dragon, and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (including The Hobbit) and still not have reached the final page-count that Jordan's series will eventually achieve once A Memory of Light is released. There is a lot of stuff out there that one could be reading that is great fantasy, and when you realize that there's so much philosophy, history, and other literary works that a reader could be absorbing, it becomes absolutely criminal to waste one's time on Jordan's drivel. The reader will become accustomed to Jordan's style, and come to think that is how prose should be written. It would be enough to kill George Orwell with apoplexy had he not already been dead.

Had I never recovered from the trauma that had damaged my appreciation of literature, I would never have been able to read, comprehend, or appreciate books like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Harold Bloom should not be leveling his criticism against J.K. Rowling. Her fad took only about five years to reach its zenith and is now rapidly receding. Robert Jordan's fanbase has grown for two entire decades, and its readers are fanatic and prostheletyzing.