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Reading recommendation update, Alcatraz Smedry series [Jun. 16th, 2012|03:30 pm]
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[Current Location |Ann Arbor, Michigan]
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So, remember way back in 2009 when I posted a recommendation of Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson, and then later I wrote a follow-up concerning the sequel, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones?

I have now read books three and four in the series, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia and Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens.

And I have to say, they were a bit of a let-down.

I mean, they were fun and kind of quirky and kind of clever. But, well, they were fun and quirky and kind of clever in very similar ways to the ways the first two books were. They feel a lot like retreading old ground, and though there are some really cool moments, on the whole they just felt okay; not bad, but not amazingly good, either.

Knights of Crystallia suffered particularly from a weak middle section which the protagonist spends mostly faffing about not getting much done, and also an overabundance of new supporting characters. The mystery of the traitor among the knights gets far too little development – he only appears in two scenes; Sanderson practically invites the reader to suspect him by having the characters comment on how nice and upstanding he seems, while still treating the part where he shows his true colors as some sort of major revelation; and even worse, there's no attempt to give him an actual motive for betraying the knights and the Free Kingdoms, either before or after the fact. That's a pretty frickin' huge plot hole there. (Also, while I'm kind of glad Bastille's mom did not turn out to be the traitor, 1: despite being cliché, it still would've made for a better twist, and 2: it means that yes, she really did get captured by the villain of Scrivener's Bones just that easily.)

The title and cover for the book are also horribly misleading. In the two previous books and the one which follows, “Versus” translates into Alcatraz getting locked in a life-or-death struggle with the titular organization; in this book, “Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia” translates into Alcatraz getting into a serious disagreement with members of said organization over their desire to kick Bastille out of the clubhouse. Unless we're supposed to take it to mean Alcatraz Versus That One Rogue Knight of Crystallia, which still doesn't really work because he doesn't even do anything seriously bad until the climax of the book, at which point it's Bastille, not Alcatraz, who takes him down. The battle between Bastille and the treacherous knight – no, I can't be bothered to remember his name – is depicted on the front cover and, combined with the title, reinforce the misconception that Our Heroes are picking a fight with the Knights as a whole, rather than a single traitor.

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens was less stupid than Knights of Crystallia, though pretty unmemorable except for one chapter where the dialogue consists entirely of quotations from Hamlet. Did I mention fun and quirky and kind of clever?

I'm also growing increasingly aware of a particular strand of logic running through this series which creeps me the hell out. I believe I've made passing allusions to elitism in the first two books, but ye gods the elitism in this series is getting downright scary.

In Knights of Crystallia, it's all hobnobbing with kings and nobles and the likes, and it turns out the Smedries used to be monarchs, too, only they gave up their rulership some years ago while retaining their regal perks like a vote on the council of kings, and the ability to perform marriages and give evidence in court and the like. The problems I have with this scenario are 1: political decisions in the “Free Kingdoms” are made by a class of unelected, hereditary aristocrats, 2: these aristocrats enjoy many special privileges which are denied to ordinary citizens, and 3: this set-up is supposedly better than the deeply flawed arrangement we have here in the “Hushlands.”

Oh, but it gets better. At the end of Knights, Alcatraz's father Attica sets off for somewhere or other, convinced that he's close to realizing his dream of giving everyone in the world Smedry Powers. In Shattered Lens, Alcatraz has a conversation with his Librarian mother Shasta, who tries to convince him that Attica's plan is a very bad idea which the two of them need to thwart by working together. Now, I really like the idea of the hero and the villain teaming up to stop another hero from unleashing catastrophe through good intentions, but the nature of the disaster, well …

It turns out that the lost civilization which the books sometimes allude to was destroyed by an overabundance of these powers, and the first Smedry saved the world by limiting Smedry Powers to just his own family. This convinces Alcatraz that his mother is right, and his father's plan—though noble in intent—will bring untold ruin upon the world.

He offers the analogy of a nuclear bomb to explain why giving these powers to anyone and everyone would be a bad idea: most people, he argues, you could entrust with a nuclear bomb without worries, because most people are decent and responsible and not inclined to do anything catastrophically stupid. But a small minority of people are not decent or responsible, and it only takes one such person with a nuclear bomb to do a lot of damage.

The only reason the Smedry Powers haven't already caused monumental harm, according to Alcatraz, is that they've been restricted to his family, who have managed to avoid dangerous, irresponsible outbursts of Smedry Powers because of their inherent virtuosity or something. So what Sanderson is saying here is that the best way to handle terribly destructive power is to limit it to a group of congenitally nice people, and everything will be OK.

This is one of those many ideas which are nice in theory, if only human beings actually worked that way. However, there's an elementary truism of politics which Sanderson overlooks, namely that power corrupts. This, as I understand it, is the point of H. G. Welles' The Invisible Man: given unchecked power, any human being will at some point succumb to the temptation to abuse it. Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin made the same (somewhat prescient) point a decade or two before Welles when he said: “Take the most radical revolutionary and place him [sic] on the throne of all Russia or give him dictatorial power, and before a year has passed he will become worse than the Czar himself.” Or to bring things back to Sanderson's analogy, no, I wouldn't trust anyone with something as dangerous as a nuclear bomb, because even the best of us have our bad days.

While I can understand the grave concern shown at the prospect of everyone in the world having access to Smedry Powers; I cannot sympathize with the proposition that the world is better off with those powers under the sole control of an unaccountable genetic elite. All right for Sanderson's fantasyland, but in the real world this would be a sure-fire recipe for disaster. (A cursory look at the history of nuclear weapons and how many times this planet has come close to nuclear war since 1945 – and especially the times it's come close to nuclear war since 1991 – will bear me out on this one.)

So yeah, apart from getting decreasingly brilliant and awesome, the series is growing increasingly creepy and wrong. Plus, I've been learning a bit about Sanderson's real world politics lately, and some of them are pretty icky (warning for heterosexism, and some discussion of same in the next two paragraphs of this entry).

Brandon Sanderson is a heterosexist – he admits it upfront in that article there. He believes that he knows better than queer people what's best for them, and he compares queer people acting upon homosexual impulses with someone like him acting on heterosexual impulses towards people who are not his wife in terms of behavior which is wrong. (Whereas in my view, there's nothing inherently wrong about someone like Sanderson sleeping around with people other than their spouse, so long as both parties have already agreed to have an open marriage.)

[Edit: several weeks later. Okay, I just now realized there's a very obvious, highly mean, and probably unfair joke I could make at this point, what with Sanderson being a Mormon and all. I'm too classy actually to make the joke, but I'm not too classy to point out that it's there to be made. Is that hair-splitting on my part? Probably. Do I care? Maybe, but only a little.]

Sanderson specifically praises J. K. Rowling for depicting Albus Dumbledore as a gay man who we can imagine never had sex except maybe with Grindelwald (a relationship which went pretty sour in the end) – one of several points which the folks on Ferretbrain took her to task over precisely because of its reactionary implications.

On the other hand, Sanderson also takes on the myth among his fellow heterosexist conservatives that homosexuality results from bad parenting, and that if they only raise their kids right, they'll be wholesome heterosexuals. To these people, Sanderson says in no uncertain terms “no, you're wrong, that's not how it works; homosexuality is something people are born with, and no amount of 'good parenting' will change that, and furthermore, if you fixate on that idea, then you'll be unprepared to relate with your child compassionately if s/he does turn out to be queer,” in terms which would qualify as some pretty good ally work if not for the whole “homosexual activity is inherently wrong,” thing. Even so, I think there is some use in having even this level of awareness-raising among social conservatives, although it absolutely doesn't – from a queer positive perspective – go far enough.

I also think Sanderson raises an amazingly good point that if you really believe in the correctness of your own position, then it ought to be able to stand up alongside the strongest counter-argument anyone can make. In context it's extremely skeevy, because he's talking about other people whose innate sexual behaviors (by his own admission) he considers morally wrong. As a general principle, though, Sanderson's argument is fantastic and I wish more authors on both the left and the right would take it to heart.

And all that aside, to me, in this piece Sanderson comes off as just an incredibly charming person. Yes, a significant amount of what he has to say is vile, but he says it in such an amiable, good-humored, self-deprecating way that I can't help liking him. He strikes me as someone I could have a serious political discussion with where we'd disagree on almost every major point, and still come away from it on very friendly terms.

So, uh, yeah, long story short, Brandon Sanderson has some really, really messed up views about homosexuality, and arkan2 has conflicted feelings over Sanderson and what he wrote.

As for Sanderson's Alcatraz Smedry series, well, it's still pretty good, but the magic has almost entirely gone out of it. I expect I'll get around to reading and writing about the final book … someday.

Before I sign out, though, I might as well share a few quotes I pulled from Knights of Crystallia and Shattered Lens. The first one is just a line which I find incredibly funny, when our protagonists are hanging around their Free Kingdoms transport – which, when not made of glass, are apparently animals with passenger compartments; and so we come to a point when Alcatraz, Bastille, and one of the new supporting characters are on a mission, and Bastille has taken charge for the moment, saying:

You two, get in the pig. We're on a tight schedule.

Sanderson also has a habit of poking fun at J. K. Rowling – affectionate fun, if that essay on Dumbledore's sexuality is anything to go by, but it's still pretty good. For instance, there's the point where a number of the supporting characters (including defected Librarian Himalaya) are telling Alcatraz about the terrible Librarian ambassador, whom they refer to in an … interesting way:

“She Who Cannot Be Named?” I asked. “Why can't we say her name? Because it might draw the attention of evil powers? Because we're afraid of her? Because her name has become a curse upon the world?”
“Don't be silly,” Himalaya said. “We don't say her name because nobody can pronounce it.”

Ha! And speaking of shoutouts, there's Sanderson's penchant for multiple epilogues to his Alcatraz Smedry books, which in Knights of Crystallia culminates thusly:

No we're not done yet. Be patient. We've only had three endings so far; we can stand another one. Both of my other books had afterwords, so this one will too. (And if we need to send someone to Valinor to justify this last ending, let me know. I'm not going to marry Rosie, though.)

Heh. But this last one from Shattered Lens is my favorite – I guess I just appreciate a really good meta-joke better than is probably healthy for me, and this one's certainly right up there. (I also happen to be one of those many tasteless people who greatly enjoys the Wheel of Time series.) So, anyway, here's Alcatraz's early confrontation with his mother Shasta, before she persuades him to team up and stop his father from giving everybody Smedry Powers:

I walked up to where Shasta stood, far enough from Aluki and the other guard to be out of earshot. I suspected that she wanted me away from the other two so she could manipulate me into letting her go free.
That wasn't going to happen. I hadn't forgotten how she'd given Himalaya up to be executed, nor how she'd sold me—her own son—to Blackburn, the one-eyed Dark Oculator. Or how she killed Asmodean. (Okay, so she didn't really do that last one, but I wouldn't put it past her.)

Brandon, Sanderson, you cheeky little bastard.

Later everybody. Peace out.