Month: December 2014

The Name of the Wind: When Formula Trumps Story

Ah, the holiday season, time to get stuck into that doorwedge you’ve been meaning to, for years like.  I had very high expectations of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, an extravagantly praised debut fantasy novel of some seven or eight years ago, that won awards.  A few days on and I’m a third of the way through and desperately disappointed.

Like anyone, I enjoy a good story but it would be remiss of me not to confess my ulterior motive – as the author of a similarly-sized debut fantasy and currently engaged on the Sisyphean task of finding a publisher, I was eager to dissect an example of what had worked; something that had got through all the hoops, to see what I could learn from it.

The first quickly becomes obvious; Rothfuss writes seemingly effortless, lovely prose.  On a technical level The Name of the Wind is a joy to read.  My own prose, by no means bad, is going to take a lot of years to reach that level – this alone makes the book awe-inspiring.  The plot is (so far – I’ve only read a third mind) utterly formulaic. To someone who has been reading a lot of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abecrombie this was somewhat of a disappointment – one becomes habituated towards looking for the twist that turns the norm on its head.  Nevertheless, formula done really well is a rare thing, to be cherished when you find it and for the first hundred pages or so, Rothfuss nails it.  Then it all falls apart.

After Kvothe’s family is murdered he ends up a beggar on the streets of Tarbean, where it takes him an age to learn the ropes of begging and how to cut purses, whilst he lives rough, loses treasured possessions and gets beaten up a lot.  This is supposedly the same, mega-bright Kvothe who has, over the preceding narrative picked up all manner of difficult skills in minutes or hours that should take mere mortals days or weeks.  Really though, this is just not the same character at all.  This nonsense goes on for fifty pages or more, by which time my sense of credibility has been buried up to its neck in the desert, doused with honey and sprinkled with army ants.  Rothfuss then starts to give us some half-hearted and totally unconvincing guff about Kvothe being traumatised by the murders and not of his normal mind.  Too little, too late mate.  I’m sorry but for me the story has already gone forever.  At this point it’s touch and go whether I’ll even finish it and I try to always complete a book, on principle.

Once upon a time that would have been that but my own baby steps down the writing path have maybe given me a bit of insight on what went wrong that I would never have had before.  It seems to me that in The Name of the Wind formula has been allowed to trump story.  What I mean by that is that formula tells us that our orphaned, would-be avenger is going to have to hit rock bottom before he starts to claw his way up again.  The story, as written up to that point, on the other hand, tells us that twelve year old Kvothe already has the resources to never ever hit rock bottom, no matter what situation he has been thrust into.  Rothfuss fatally warps the story so as to stick to the formula and loses me in the process.

For me the greatest thrill of writing, on my short path to date, has been those moments where the story dictates something different to your original idea.  Little details accrete unnoticed until they reach a critical mass, at which point your character must deviate from your grand plan in order to remain true to the story that has emerged, quite unbidden and outside of one’s (conscious) design.  As a systems analyst I might call these the emergent properties of the story. Other writers talk of their characters developing a life of their own.  Whatever you call them, I live for these moments.  In The Name of the Wind, for me at least, this would have required Kvothe to quickly make a go of thriving in Tarbean.  What was the editor thinking?  Beguiled by the breathtaking prose in all probability.

After formula has trumped the story like this other little things start to unravel too.  The random and mostly insipid place names, which one might otherwise have forgiven, start to grate.  You irrationally begin to wonder why Rothfuss called his spider monsters scraelings, which is what the Vinland vikings called native americans.  I could go on.  But like I said, it’s gone for me at the moment.  Should I stick or twist?

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Irish Speculative Fiction Writers: Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862)

Fitz-James O’Brien is almost certainly the only Irish speculative fiction writer to have died of injuries suffered in the American Civil War.  Cork born, he emigrated to the US in his mid twenties and started writing for publications such as Harpers soon after arriving.  Having at one time served in the British army it is perhaps no surprise that he enlisted in the 7th regiment of the New York National Guard, soon after the Civil War began.  He was shot in the arm during a skirmish in February 1862 and having contracted tetanus in the wound, died in Cumberland, Maryland a month or so later.

His speculative fiction reputation rests upon a number of short stories, the most well known of which is The Diamond Lens (1858).  A curious mix of microscopy primer, Poe and Dr. Seuss, with a dash of the gleeful anti-Semitism that marks it of its time thrown in for good measure, it tells the tale of self-taught microscopist Linley, who obtains the design of the ultimate lens from Leeuwenhoek, no less, via a séance.  When opportunity knocks, he coldly murders Jewish jeweller Simon to obtain the large diamond he owns, covering his tracks via a locked room subterfuge.  He then constructs the eponymous lens and with the resulting instrument, discovers the world of a microscopic ‘woman,’ whom he names Animula.  Needless to say, he becomes obsessed and it all ends badly.

His other stories include What Was It (1859) – one of the very first treatments of invisibility; From Hand to Mouth (1858) which critic Sam Moskowitz called “the single most striking example of surrealistic fiction to pre-date Alice in Wonderland;” the Lovecraftian The Lost Room (1858)which plays out a bit like The Outsider in reverse and last but not least, The Wondersmith (1859).  This egregiously racist, madcap yarn, tells of a group of Grinch-like super villains who plan to take over the United States at Christmas by killing all the children with animated, envenomed toys.  It reminded me of Paul Feval’s Les Habits Noirs series which dates from 1863.  One wonders if Feval knew of O’Briens tale.

O’Brien’s early death undoubtedly robbed the literary world of someone who could have gone on to write much more in the vein of Poe and Lovecraft.  There is plenty of evidence from his few stories that in his treatments of obsession and alienation and in his handling of the tropes of horror, the policier and science fiction that O’Brien would have matched them in what he achieved.