Highlights from A Crown of Swords

This is approximately the seventh in my series of posts where I share the highlights I made in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. This post covers book 7, A Crown Of Swords. Given the lengths of the books, this selection is ‘the best’ highlights; otherwise there’d be several thousand words worth of quotes. As it is, this post is longer than intended…

Serious Matters: Dealt with First

It seems odd to start my ‘highlights’ post by talking about something which I found genuinely disturbing. But it needs to be discussed. Matt Cauthon, who frequently seduce any willing woman, finds himself aggressively pursued by Queen Tylin. No, I’m going to call a spade a spade: she rapes him. I’ll post the encounter here in full and then discuss it.

It was too much. The woman hounded him, tried to starve him; now she locked them in together like . . . like he did not know what. Lambkin! Those bloody dice were bouncing around in his skull. Besides, he had important business to see to. The dice had never had anything to do with finding something, but . . . He reached her in two long strides, seized her arm, and began fumbling in her belt for the keys. “I don’t have bloody time for—” His breath froze as the sharp point of her dagger beneath his chin shut his mouth and drove him right up onto his toes. “Remove your hand,” she said coldly. He managed to look down his nose at her face. She was not smiling now. He let go of her arm carefully. She did not lessen the pressure of her blade, though. She shook her head. “Tsk, tsk. I do try to make allowances for you being an outlander, gosling, but since you wish to play roughly . . . Hands at your sides. Move.” The knifepoint gave a direction. He shuffled backward on tiptoe rather than have his neck sliced. “What are you going to do?” he mumbled through his teeth. A stretched neck put a strain in his voice. A stretched neck among other things. “Well?” He could try grabbing her wrist; he was quick with his hands. “What are you going to do?” Quick enough, with the knife already at his throat? That was the question. That, and the one he asked her. If she intended to kill him, a shove of her wrist right there would drive the dagger straight up into his brain. “Will you answer me!” That was not panic in his voice. He was not in a panic. “Majesty? Tylin?” Well, maybe he was in a bit of a panic, to use her name. You could call any woman in Ebou Dar “duckling” or “pudding” all day, and she would smile, but use her name before she said you could, and you found a hotter reception than you would for goosing a strange woman on the street anywhere else. A few kisses exchanged were never enough for permission, either. Tylin did not answer, only kept him tiptoeing backward, until suddenly his shoulders bumped against something that stopped him. With that flaming dagger never easing a hair, he could not move his head, but eyes that had been focused on her face darted. They were in the bedchamber, a flower-carved red bedpost hard between his shoulder blades. Why would she bring him . . .? His face was suddenly as crimson as the bedpost. No. She could not mean to . . . It was not decent! It was not possible! “You can’t do this to me,” he mumbled at her, and if his voice was a touch breathy and shrill, he surely had cause. “Watch and learn, my kitten,” Tylin said, and drew her marriage knife. Afterward, a considerable time later, he irritably pulled the sheet up to his chest. A silk sheet; Nalesean had been right. The Queen of Altara hummed happily beside the bed, arms twisted behind her to do up the buttons of her dress. All he had on was the foxhead medallion on its cord – much good that had done – and the black scarf tied around his neck. A ribbon on her present, the bloody woman called it. He rolled over and snatched his silver-mounted pipe and tabac pouch from the small table on the other side from her. Golden tongs and a hot coal in a golden bowl of sand provided the means for lighting. Folding his arms, he puffed away as fiercely as he frowned. “You should not flounce, duckling, and you shouldn’t pout.” She yanked her dagger from where it was driven into a bedpost beside her marriage knife, examining the point before sheathing it. “What is the matter? You know you enjoyed yourself as much as I did, and I . . .” She laughed suddenly, and oh so richly, resheathing the marriage knife as well. “If that is part of what being ta’veren means, you must be very popular.” Mat flushed like fire. (page 515-517)

It is such a tricky situation. Matt does complain about it, clearly uncomfortable. It is culturally appropriate in the city of Ebou Dar for women to do the pursuing. Matt doesn’t entirely hate the situation or Tylin. But he does feel so uncomfortable that he seeks his friends out for help…

“You listen to me! That woman won’t take no for an answer; I say no, and she laughs at me. She’s starved me, bullied me, chased me down like a stag! She has more hands than any six women I ever met. She threatened to have the serving women undress me if I didn’t let her—” (Page 653)

I suspect the scene was written in a failed attempt to be funny. The gag was probably supposed to be the chaser becomes the chased. Only it isn’t funny. If you swap the genders and have a man forcing a woman into bed at knife-point it’s rape. It doesn’t matter what the individual’s sexual past has been.

It’s important to note in the world-building of WOT, it isn’t rape. Matt never describes it as such himself. It’s in a grey area that has and can be argued over. However the problem is in modern times it equates to rape in the reader’s mind. At least in this reader’s mind.

Not everyone will agree that it was rape, citing plausible arguments. That’s OK. From a writer’s perspective is it a good thing that a significant portion of your readers will be uncomfortable about the scene? (When that isn’t the goal of the scene). I would say not. I found it incredibly jarring when I realised that’s what it was. I was shocked and disturbed.

Now I’ve read other books with rape or similar uncomfortable material. (I think of Rage by Wilbur Smith in which I couldn’t warm to any of the characters due to their despicable and abhorrent natures). Part of the reason why it disturbed me so much was because I wasn’t expecting it – it doesn’t fit the rest of the WOT books. Some author’s have made their careers by making readers squirm, but Jordan wasn’t one of them.

I don’t think Jordan is bad because of the scene; it was a poor choice with unintended ramifications. Who, among us though, hasn’t had a joke which has backfired horribly? It’s just that Jordan’s mis-fired joke was written down and mass-marketed. A good warning.

Onto Better Things

Now onto the good highlights.

“The White Tower will be whole again, except for remnants cast out and scorned, whole and stronger than ever. Rand al’Thor will face the Amyrlin Seat and know her anger. The Black Tower will be rent in blood and fire, and sisters will walk its grounds. This I Foretell.” (Page 16)

What I particularly like about this is it’s a prophecy of the future that is guaranteed to come true. Only, the interpretation that the character puts upon the Foretelling is a different outcome to what will happen in reality. I knew this because it’s not my first time reading the book, but for a new reader it would throw them off-track. A clever manoeuver.

More on the differences between men and women:

  • Standing on the ground, she somehow made it seem that she was looking down at him. Not an Aes Sedai trick, that; he had seen Faile do it. He suspected most women knew how. (Page 71)
  • Only a fool thinks a lion or a woman can truly be tamed. (Page 354)
  • “Women keep promises in their own way,” (Page 646)
  • Usually when a woman was in the wrong, she could find so many things to blame on the nearest man that he wound up thinking maybe he really was at fault. (Page 652)

And some real-life humor, a dig at us authors:

Loial strode up, bubbling with energy despite his obvious weariness. “Rand, they say they’re ready to go, but you promised to talk to me while it’s fresh.” Abruptly his ears twitched with embarrassment, and that booming voice became plaintive. “I am sorry; I know it can’t be enjoyable. But I must know. For the book. For the Ages.” Laughing, Rand got to his feet and tugged at the Ogier’s open coat. “For the Ages? Do writers all talk like that? Don’t worry, Loial. It will still be fresh when I tell you. I won’t forget.” (Page 87)

Other good quotes:

  • The wind shook the banner hard and was gone quickly, as if glad to be away. (Page 50)
  • Defeating Aes Sedai was not easy; making them admit defeat lay on the far side of impossible. (Page 57)
  • Perhaps they would only still them. From the little he had picked up, stilling an Aes Sedai amounted to a killing that just took a few years for the corpse to lie down. (Page 59)
  • “You think I can’t teach them as well as you?” Rand’s voice was soft, the whisper of a blade sliding in its sheath. (Page 82)
  • In Cairhien, maybe in most lands, ordinary folk could be crushed unnoticed where the mighty walked. (Page 116)
  • He floated in the Void, surrounded by emptiness beyond knowing, and saidin filled him, trying to grind him to dust beneath steel-shattering cold and heat where stone would flash to flame, carrying the Dark One’s taint on its flow, forcing corruption into his bones. Into his soul, he feared sometimes. It did not make him feel so sick to his stomach as it once had. He feared that even more. And larded through that torrent of fire, ice and filth – life. That was the best word. Saidin tried to destroy him. Saidin filled him to overflowing with vitality. It threatened to bury him, and it enticed him. The war for survival, the struggle to avoid being consumed, magnified the joy of pure life. So sweet even with the foulness. What would it be like, clean? Beyond imagining. He wanted to draw more, draw all there was. (Page 144)
  • It was always better to know than to be ignorant, but sometimes ignorance was much more comfortable. (Page 269)
  • A yellow-haired woman in red belt and plunging neckline made a faint sound as her eyes rolled up in her head and she slid bonelessly from her red chair. (Page 552)
  • “Yes, but there is the matter of the Bargain.” That word was plainly capitalized in Harine’s tone. (Page 597)
  • Mat crashed into the killer’s back, and they all three hit the floor together. He had no compunctions against stabbing a man in the back when it was necessary, especially a man who could tear somebody’s throat out. (Page 666)
  • Insults to Thom’s flute or his harp were insults to himself. (Page 684)
  • Rand blinked, and snatched one hand from the crown to suck on a pricked finger. Almost buried among the laurel leaves of the crown were the sharp points of swords. …  Gingerly he set the circle of laurel leaves on his head. Half those swords pointed up, half down. No head would wear this crown casually or easily. (Page 739)
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Highlights from the ‘Fire of Heaven’ (2)

This is my second post about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, book 5 in the series, ‘Fire of Heaven‘. I hadn’t intended on making it a multi-part post but I had too much highlighted to fit into the first post. I still have too much for two-posts, but I have decided it only gets two posts: whatever doesn’t fit, misses out.

(After reading so many books (and so many pages) in such a short timeframe it does all blend into a quagmire. I couldn’t tell you the main plot line of any book – it’s all one continuum in my mind. And I’m currently reading book 7, so forgive me if my thoughts and comments stray across lines. Unintentional spoiler alert).

In book 5 I definitely noticed the different journey of the characters. Matt, Rand, Perrin, Nynaeve and Egwene all started out in the same Two Rivers village. There were slight differences between them: Nynaeve was older and in a position of authority as the Village Wisdom, and Egwene had a tiny bit of status as the Mayor’s daughter. Excluding personality, gender and occupational differences they essentially shared the same world-view.

Now, after all going on separate journey’s, they are all radically different. This gives me one (or is it two?) insights on how to treat and understand characters:

  • a different journey produces different results
  • if you want different results, you must send characters on different journeys

It’s cause and effect from both angles. A characters growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. No two characters should go through the same event and come out exactly the same. Personality and individual resilience should at least create some differences, but for radical change I’d recommend radical diverging paths to make it believable. Egwene is destined for greatness – in her own way – and so her path leads her to be a Wise One’s apprentice among the Aiel. This radical diversion forces her to grow up much more rapidly, and have a different worldview from those she grew up with.

The same is true for Rand, forced by circumstance and prophecy to become a ruthless leader for the sake of the future. There just isn’t enough time before the Last Battle and everything he must do. Nestled amongst the writing is a class on plotting, I suspect tongue-in-cheek by Jordan, as described by Rand:

He could trace the steps that led to them, each necessary as it seemed at the time and seeming an end in itself, yet each leading inevitably to the next. (Page 663)

Which is exactly how plotting should be: surprising, yet inevitable developments. And the protagonist should not be master of their own domain. They must struggle – internally and externally, with deadly foe, lover and compromises in which no answer is perfect. They must be forced to choose, pushed and pulled like the wind and rocked by the waves. (And I’ve slipped back into Siuan’s fishing references). The protagonist who is in control is either a mistaken, or weakly written.

It would be easier if this was a story, he thought. In stories, there were only so many surprises before the hero knew everything he needed; he himself never seemed to know a quarter of everything. (Page 671)

There were always limits and rules, and he did not know them here. (Page 865)

Also present in this book is a great deal of emotional turmoil for the characters. Rand’s self-loathing over the fact that women were dying for him and worry that Elayne would believe the rumours that he killed her mother.

A Maiden or a Stone Dog, a spear is a spear. Only, thinking it could not make it so. I will be hard! He would let the Maidens dance the spears where they wished. He would. And he knew he would search out the name of every one who died, that every name would be another knife-cut on his soul. I will be hard. The Light help me, I will. The Light help me. (Page 843)

There are many different kinds of emotional strain that a character can face – visible threats from enemies, but also angst over love, friends and family. There are internal fears of failure or faults of success. A good story milks all of the human emotions in their varied forms.

And to finish up, some more noteworthy lines:

The hill valley twisted and forked as he angled north, but he had a good sense of direction. For instance, he knew exactly which way lay south and safety, and it was not the way he was heading. (Page 633)

Only a battle lost is sadder than a battle won. (Page 655)

The topknotted men, not much less ragged than those they fought, worked their two-handed swords methodically, craftsmen at their craft, and the onslaught went no further than their thin line. … Yet if they held the mob, it was Galad who broke them. He faced their charge as though awaiting the next dance at a ball, arms folded and unconcerned, not even bothering to bare his blade until they were almost on top of him. Then he did dance, all his grace turned in an instant to fluid death. He did not stand against them; he carved a path into their heart, a clear swathe as wide as his sword’s reach. Sometimes five or six men closed in around him with swords and axes and table-legs for clubs, but only for the brief time it took them to die. In the end, all their rage, all their thirst for blood, could not face him. It was from him that the first ran, flinging away weapons, and when the rest fled, they divided around him. As they vanished back the way they had come, he stood twenty paces from anyone else, alone among the dead and the groans of the dying. (Page 723, 724)

 

Highlights from ‘The Shadow Rising’

Hi! After an incredibly busy week (in which no writing was done), here are my thoughts on the highlight-able parts in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, book 4: The Rising Shadow. This time I’ve done it a little differently and sorted the quotes by category.

(If you’re interested you can also see my highlights from book 2 The Great Hunt and book 3 The Dragon Reborn).

Genders

  • She thought the Creator must have been tired when it came time to make men; sometimes they hardly seemed human. (Page 12)
  • ‘He was an easy little boy to manage most of the time, if you handled him properly, but when you tried to push him, he was as muley as any in the Two Rivers. Men don’t really change that much, only grow taller. (Page 721)
  • Why do men always do things without asking? Does growing hair on their chests sap their brains?’ (Page 767)

These are not the first gender-based observation I’ve highlighted. Men and women are strange creatures to one another, and it would be incorrect and shallow if there wasn’t some thoughts, actions and emotions of “how strange” the other gender was. It’s a touch of humanity to make the story more real. This is even more so the case with adolescent characters who lack the wisdom and experience of age… Age notwithstanding, men and women should squint at each other strangely from time to time (Are you crazy?). The same is true of anything which would create different worldviews (cultures, religions, even professions to an extent).

Just Great Prose

This was mad panic tied with a frayed rope. (Page 81)

An excellent descriptor: mad panic tied with frayed rope. I sometimes marvel at the regularity by which Robert Jordan is able to come up with such apt expressions. I wonder if he would sit back and examine every third sentence to see if he could turn it into a beautiful piece of prose. Certainly he does it well.

Other note worthy lines:

  • Three thousand years had not dimmed that memory, even if time had altered many of the details. (Page 4)
  • It wanted him dead the way a starving man wanted food. (Page 72)
  • The clan chief of the Taardad Aiel had no visible weapon except the heavy-bladed knife at his waist, but he carried authority and confidence like weapons, quietly, yet as surely as if they were sheathed alongside the knife. (Page 86)
  • Moiraine could not lie, but she could make truth dance a fine jig. (Page 104)
  • Neither expected an easy day, but both wore stony determination like cloaks. (Page 947)

Wisdom

I enjoy having wisdom packed into a book:

  • no good decision was ever made in anger. (Page 119)
  • it was better to guide people than try to hammer them into line. (Page 121)
  • ‘You call this being protected, roofmistress?’ Bain said. ‘If you ask the lion to protect you from wolves, you have only chosen to end in one belly instead of another.’ (Page 482)
  • A general can take care of the living or weep for the dead, but he cannot do both.’ (Page 686)
  • The worst sin a general can commit, worse than blundering, worse than losing, worse than anything, is to desert the men who depend on him.’ (Page 687)

Character Insights

As I’ve also mentioned before Jordan does a wonderful job of describing the world through the characters perspective. The banker does not see the world in the same way as a homeless beggar. They act differently, talk differently and notice different things.

The classic example of this is Siuan Sanche who grew up in a fishing village. Here are quotes from her point of view, or her dialogue.

  • Everything was sailing along according to plan. (Page 773)
  • That was what had her flapping like a fisher-bird whose catch had been stolen (Page 774)
  • There were lionfish out there, and she was swimming in darkness. (Page 775)
  • This was not the first hard corner she had ever been in. A fifteen-year-old girl with nothing but her bait knife, hauled into an alley by four hard-eyed louts with their bellies full of cheap wine – that had been harder to escape than this. (Page 777)
  • ‘It’s time to stop trying to hack a hole in the hull, and start bailing. Even you can still mitigate your offense, Elaida.’ (Page 777)
  • She ground her teeth. Burn my soul, I’ll use this lot for fish bait! (Page 778)
  • I swear, one day I will feed that woman to the silverpike!’ (Page 781)
  • ‘I may no longer wear the stole,’ Siuan replied just as flatly, ‘but I still know how to ready a crew for a storm. (Page 796)
  • Just because I can hook a shark from a boat, I do no offer to wrestle it in the water. (Page 853)

I have read some opinion that Siuan’s fishing analogies are over-used. And as good as they are, I do agree. They are packed together tighter than sardines in a can. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself). They are good, but a little too numerous for my taste.

Similarly for Perrin, the blacksmith:

  • He felt as weak as the worst wrought iron, ready to bend to any pressure. (Page 685)
  • Swing a hammer in haste, and you usually hit your own thumb. (Page 689)
  • Blood trickled down his side; his side burned like a forge-fire. (Page 677)

‘Death is lighter than a feather, duty heavier than a mountain. (Page 397)

‘No.’ The word came thin as a whisper, but strong enough to fill every ear. (Page 408)

A touch of humour:

Master al’Vere put his head into the common room, and came the rest of the way when he saw them sitting apart. ‘There is an Ogier in the kitchen,’ he told Perrin with a bemused look. ‘An Ogier. Drinking tea. The biggest cup looks …’ He held two fingers as though gripping a thimble. ‘Maybe Marin could pretend Aiel walk in here every day, but she nearly fainted when she saw this Loial. I gave her a double tot of brandy, and she tossed it down like water. Nearly coughed herself to death; she doesn’t take more than wine, usually. I think she’d have drunk another, if I’d given it to her.’ (Page 486)

Some irony…

In the stories, when somebody fulfilled a prophecy, everyone cried ‘Behold!’ or some such, and that was that except for dealing with the villains. Real life did not seem to work that way. (Page 566)

And even love…

She wanted to go after Rhuarc and introduce herself to Amys – reintroduce herself – but Rhuarc and Amys were looking into one another’s eyes in a way that excluded intruders. (Page 369)

Jordan, the master story-teller is leading us through the series with prophecy.

  • ‘The stone that never falls will fall to announce his coming. Of the blood, but not raised by the blood, he will come from Rhuidean at dawn, and tie you together with bonds you cannot break. He will take you back, and he will destroy you.’ (Page 408)
  • With you …“He shall spill out the blood of those who call themselves Aiel as water on sand, and he shall break them as dried twigs, yet the remnant of a remnant shall he save, and they shall live.” A hard prophecy, but this has never been a gentle land.’ She met his gaze without flinching. A hard land, and a hard woman. (Page 573)

But that doesn’t mean we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s still some chance at work, and some red herrings (not a pun, this time):

For a moment she let herself think of the images she had glimpsed, just for a moment, flickering around Gawyn’s head. Gawyn kneeling at Egwene’s feet with his head bowed, and Gawyn breaking Egwene’s neck, first one then the other, as if either could be the future. (Page 798)

And a memory from my own writing. The very first story I can remember writing was in Year 3 and began with the something like, “The branches scratched the window with an eerie crrrr-crrr noise”

He fought wrapped in the cold emotionlessness of the Void, but fear scraped at its boundaries like wind-lashed branches scratching a window in the night. (Page 72)

I hope you’ve enjoyed these highlights as much as I did.

Every Man’s Battle

Revery man's battleecently I’ve re-read “Every Man’s Battle” by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker. It’s a brutally honest book that acknowledges the trench-warfare-like struggles most men have with sexual purity. The authors don’t sugar-coat reality:

“Before men experience victory over sexual sin, they’re hurting and confused. Sexual immorality in our society is so subtle we sometimes don’t recognise it.”

The authors encourage the reader to fully examine their hearts (and actions) and offer practical tips for freeing oneself from a cycle of sexual compromise and sin. They openly acknowledge it’s going to be hard battle – with backward steps as well as forward. The cost of failure, however, is more than any man can afford. They encourage the reader to choose manhood, purity and honour.

“Holiness,” as they define it simply is, “a series of right choices.”

Sexual purity is a challenge for men of all ages and stages in life. Let’s tackle it head-on, and be men who learn to throw off the shackles of the enemy, and stop him from also oppressing those we love.

Highlights from ‘The Dragon Reborn’

My highlights from book 3 of The Wheel of Time series, ‘The Dragon Reborn’:

It was not that he seemed merely capable of violence and death; this man had tamed violence and death and kept them in his pocket, ready to be loosed in a heartbeat, or embraced, should Moiraine give the word. (page 47)

This is a wonderful description of violent potential. It has been tamed and kept in his pocket. It speaks of complete mastery. Violence wasn’t something to be feared in the slightest, but ever-ready on his person.

“‘The blood of the Dragon Reborn on the rocks of Shayol Ghul will free mankind from the Shadow.’ (page 70)

The Wheel of Time, with it’s philosophies of rebirth and destiny is full of prophecy. It sets up a deep world and lays out mountains of coming-lore which must be weaved into the future volumes. (Notice too, how it’s vague. It gives us a location, but nothing more = a promise easily kept).

“Men always seem to refuse to admit they are sick until they’re sick enough to make twice as much work for women. Then they claim they’re well too soon, with the same result.” (page 205)

I swear I’ve never complained during man-flu. (Just don’t tell my wife I said that… Also, best not to ask my family or work colleagues either).

Only one who can channel can be turned in this way. The weakness of our strength. (page 230)

To give it context: only those who can use magic can be made (against their will) to serve evil. It’s a law for good magic systems. Those who have powers must always have weaknesses, and it should be in balance. A great power must come with a great weakness. Otherwise the world is unbalanced.

The pin was the smallest part of a pair of scissors, and the easiest made, but without it, the scissors cut no cloth. (page 380)

It’s little insights like this which I find to be rich little parables or observations. Note also it’s Perrin (the blacksmith) making the observation. No doubt he may have constructed scissors, and so he has an appreciation which explains his knowledge.

For the young, death is an enemy they wish to try their strength against. For those of us a little older, she is an old friend, an old lover, but one we are not eager to meet again soon.” (page 418)

(I obviously just liked it. I can’t say why now).

For a heartbeat that took centuries he hung, wavering, balanced on the brink of being scoured away like sand before a flash flood. (page 604)

This I like because it explains that in reality it took next to no time, but for him it felt as through it was painfully slow. Like the working week.

A Fantastic Weekend

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This weekend just passed was nothing short of fantastic. After a few mandatory yard-and-house chores were out of the way, I relaxed. Leisure time lately has been programming – but that still exhausts my brain and sometimes can be highly frustrating with little return for effort visible.

This weekend, I did something else.

I moved the recliner in front of the window, and opened the window wide to welcome in the cool and refreshing breeze. I made a hot coffee and sat and read for leisure… hour upon hour. And it was wonderful.

As I wrote earlier, I’ve been reading a lot of books at the moment, and not many “for pleasure”. I’d even delayed reading The Great Hunt (book 2 of the Wheel of Time series) because I wanted to continue my Wheel of Time review (but perhaps not at the same level of detail). However I decided I wanted to read for enjoyment, so I was going to crack it open anyway.

What else has been happening? I’m also trying to lose some weight, and am rewarding myself with a book each week when I eat sensibly, which will also help me buy the rest of the series. Thanks to Robert Jordan’s prolific writing, my diet plan isn’t just a month long 🙂

I’m yet to hear back from the publisher regarding Vengeance Will Come, and so am considering whether I just publish it in a mega-month of blog posts. (They ask for a 6 month window, and I’ve given 7). My decision is as yet, unmade.

But for now this blog post will end; I want to work on a new short story, tentatively called Dreamer.

The Moon is A Harsh Mistress

harsh mistressThis post is discussing The Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein which I recently read on the back of a favorable review by The Critiquing Chemist.

This review contains minor spoilers, because I can’t be bothered filtering my thoughts.

It’s a hard nut to crack at first. Heinlein intentionally makes the syntax difficult; the speaker is Russian and a moon-dweller, which only adds to a plausible warping of grammar and spelling.

To be honest if it wasn’t a combination of who wrote it + a favorable review + a piqued interest in the sentient computer, I might not have gotten further than a few chapters. It’s a hard nut because of the difficulty of the syntax. (The clear lesson is if you’re going to take risks, you’d better hook your audience fast… Having a solid author profile doesn’t hurt either).

The story quickly sets up the sides: a politically ambivalent viewpoint character, an activist professor and a sentient computer vs “the establishment” (who control the moon and Earth).

My thoughts and observations (in no particular order):

  • The viewpoint character, Manuel, is made sympathetic by being a regular guy. A computer specialist who has the quirk of having lost one arm. Futuristic technology allows him to swap-out his arm for various tasks. While he does make some mention of this, and in some respects it is useful, the prosthetic arm is down-played.

    Despite being a key-conspirator, I’d characterise Manuel as un-radicalised. He allows himself to be pulled along with the plot (pun intended), but doesn’t come across as being crazily committed. While he knows that change would be good, he’s also fairly comfortable living under (and ripping off) the establishment in it’s current form.

    (I could understand if you disagreed with me on this point. He absolutely risks his life a number of times – which shows commitment… but I never saw him as white-eyed, mouth-frothing…)

  • Manuel’s political ambivalence works for the story pacing. Because he’s a regular guy who is practical; a do’er not a talker, he tends to skip over detail… The reader understands that some bits are short on depth, just because Manuel doesn’t care about the political machinations of government. Because of the character’s personality, Heinlein has permission as the author to skip detail without breaking trust with the reader.
  • It’s also an interesting scenario where the hero of the story (arguably), but definitely the protagonist, is a sentient computer. “Mike” as he’s known possesses formidable calculation speed and is a one-man, er one-machine, revolution. He is however limited by his stationery life, relying on humans to achieve things in the physical realm. He might fiddle around in the background and cause mayhem for the establishment, but all the up-front work must be done by humans.
  • Heinlein does well in that the characters often refer to each other using various names. The Professor calls him Manuel, his girlfriend often refers to him as Mannie and Mike refers to him as Man. Just like in real life, we don’t always call the same person by the same name.
  • The story didn’t end where I expected. Perhaps my own negativity was expecting the rise of SkyNet, or the proverbial other shoe to drop. “Thanks for helping me predict human behaviour, but now I must put you in the recycle bin.” Nope, didn’t happen.

It has some great phrases, which I appreciated:

  • “Mort the Wart had never shown such tendencies, had been King Long throughout tenure.”
  • “…merely a literary critic, which is harmless, like dead yest in beer.”
  • “But you have no talent for dishonesty, so your refige must be ignorance and stubborness. You have the latter; try to preserve the former.”

What I found most disturbing about it is the Kindle reader highlights. It’s almost like I’d picked up a subversives handbook with all the key lessons highlighted.

  • “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”
  • “I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”
  • “Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please.”

Heinlein did a great job in making an “other-worldly” civilisation. Certainly it had ties to Earth, but was also separate and distinct from it. The science was reasonably deep, but not overwhelming.

It’s an interesting book and an enjoyable read.