25 October 2010

Reading Monday: Prequeloquence

When someone tells the first part of a story, they generally refer to it as "the first part of the story". If that sounds plain, you can dress it up as "part one" or "volume one".

Sometimes, however, the "one" has been prematurely expended when the storyteller realizes it wasn't, strictly speaking, the very beginning. Enter the prequel.

Prequels are a handy way to fill in some back story, expand a created milieu, and make a few more bucks off an established audience after the potential for sequels has been thoroughly exhausted.

Movie prequels stink. Several reasons were discussed in a recent article on cracked.com (a humor site of keen insight and questionable taste). Greggory Basore observes that prequels lack suspense, because the most important outcomes are already known. The unknown details, meanwhile, are competing with some version established in the viewer's mind-- "Instead of getting swallowed up by the film, the audience is passively judging it."

Yet another obstacle arises from the fact that movies stink in general, because producers demand a high level of suckiness before they'll commit money to production. This problem, at least, can be overcome by a well-established and/or stubborn writer.

David Eddings' Belgarath the Sorcerer (prequel to The Belgeriad & The Malloreon) is top-filled with the complete absence of suspense. But the book is intended for readers who've already plowed through ten volumes of the story. What they're getting from Belgarath is a collection of vaguely-related anecdotes and a last chance to hang out with some well-liked characters. Hopefully, that's all they're expecting.

Isaac Asimov's Prelude to Foundation (idem) takes the absence of suspense to even higher levels. The time period covered is already known to readers of the Foundation trilogy, and they already know that nothing really happens. The prequel is at least factually consistent: nothing really happens. This snoozer is a rare dud from the talented Asimov, who produced much more interesting stories with the Foundation sequels, and also with sort-of prequels that were set thousands of years in the past with independent characters and stories (Pebble in the Sky, the robot novels, etc.).

A well-known "rule", as often cited by readers, is that you should read books in published order rather than chronological order. That is certainly true for Belgarath the Sorcerer, which would spoil much of the preceding (following) epic. But one novel that challenges this notion is New Spring, the prequel to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. It was published between the 10th and 11th books of the series, but there is reason to believe that Jordan meant for it to be read first. New Spring re-introduces characters who arrived late in the series (e.g. Cadsuane), and who thus had not been alluded to in any of the early novels. As such, it's kind of a cheap trick (but one of which I approve) for making the series more cohesive. If you ever decide to pick it up, I recommend taking in New Spring sometime after you read the original first volume (Eye of the World) but before you start on the fourth (The Shadow Rising).

Which brings us to another important point. Not all volumes zero are late-game prequels. The most famous exception is Tolkein's The Hobbit. It was actually written prior to Lord of the Rings, and, with a few post-Rings adaptations, it constitutes pretty much the ideal prequel. It incorporates major Lord of the Rings characters in more minor roles (Elrond, Gollum, and Sauron), and visa versa (Bilbo, Gloin). Only Gandalf is a major character in both works, but wizards are mysterious and subtle, so he isn't stretched too thin. It gives the reader an introduction to the realm of Middle Earth, but an introduction which is not vital to the following trilogy. Most importantly, the plot is both highly relevant to Lord of the Rings and almost completely independent. As such, The Hobbit can easily be read before or after the main trilogy. Or you can just keep reading them both in a never-ending circle.

Reading Monday: Mistborn

That part above was a prequel. Get it?

Mistborn is a fantasy trilogy by Brandon Sanderson (comprising The Final Empire (also titled as simply "Mistborn"), The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages). It is set in a somewhat-dystopian realm: Volcanic ash continuously rains down on a brown, desolate world; the peasantry (ska) live miserable lives in grinding poverty, and fear the mists which come out each night; and the immortal Lord Ruler governs with an iron fist, as he has for a thousand years, leaving almost no hope for change.

Sanderson deserves his first kudos for developing an interesting, yet fairly straightforward system of magic. Those with the ability to use Allomancy typically have access to but one of eight specific powers, and the rare "Mistborn" Allomancer can employ all eight (plus one or two more). Right away, the specialized Allomancy provides for a number of distinct characters who have specialized functions (within their respective endeavors). But Sanderson's best accomplishment is to consider the availability of magic (which is notably weaker than in more typical fantasy works) and extend it to its logical consequences. He does not simply throw in some magic to make a scene more interesting. Rather, the inhabitants of the Final Empire employ Allomancy creatively and sometimes ruthlessly, and the ability has profound implications for social status.

My own favorite quality is the mystery. Mistborn: The Final Empire has a perfectly adequate story, with plenty of suspense, involving an attempt to bring about revolutionary change within the Empire. But, running parallel to that story is the enigmatic nature of the Lord Ruler: Who is he? What is he? The book is filled with enough clues that a savvy reader should be able to figure it out (for the record, I did not), and those who don't will have that of-course-it-was-obvious moment of revelation when they reach the end.

So, er... weren't we talking (wasn't I writing) about prequels?

Yes, indeed. Mistborn: The Final Empire is not a prequel, but it could have been an excellent one. Just like The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, the events that happen are vital to the story that follows. But the first volume is not a cliffhanger, nor does it trail off in the incomplete manner of an arbitrarily-divided epic. It reaches a full and satisfying conclusion. Some of the characters remain, and new conflicts arise (and do so in a very organic manner).

If the book has a flaw, we'll need to take a side trip to investigate it.

Sidebar: Immersion, Routine, and Location

Writers, take note. Or come back tomorrow if your brain is temporally compartmentalized.

In the fantasy genre (and much of science fiction), you not only have to immerse the reader in the story, you have to immerse them in the world. Most obviously, this is necessary so they can appreciate the impact that the created world has on the plot. In this regard, Sanderson does an outstanding job. The reader is constantly aware of what kind of world the story takes place in, and how its nature affects the actions and attitudes of the characters.

Less obviously, the reader should have a general impression of how the characters are living their lives when not involved in the immediate plot. I see this routine living as the rhythm and/or harmony, over which the melody of the story is played. Establishing the rhythm is a valuable aid for humor, romance, and character growth. It's one thing to say "Hank practiced casting spells every day", but you can get a lot more mileage out of that if you say "Hank practiced casting spells every day after lunch", and then proceed to tell the rest of the story in the context of Hank's day. One day, you could write a detailed scene where Hank enjoys lunch with Sir Barney, "and then went to practice spells" (adding nothing more to the spell part). The next day, you could begin writing with "as he was leaving his afternoon spell practice, Hank was attacked by an ogre." The magical practice gets established as a rhythm, and the reader has a sense that it is continues without the writer having to invent a series of detailed practice incidents.

Let's take a quick look at some of the techniques used to establish rhythm and/or immersion:

The Robert Jordan method: Detail Jordan (Wheel of Time) achieves immersion by virtue of sheer volume. In a story that spans several years, he often devotes a chapter (or more) to a single day. If there is a Hank who practices spell-casting, Jordan will show several practices in detail. If he cannot establish Hank's routine by virtue of Hank having a routine, then Jordan will give medium- and short-length descriptions of Hank's renewed practice efforts while at the West Wall Tavern, then again on the road to Zakoland, again while Hank is hiding out in the Swamps of Sloth, etc.

The Quest method: Hiking & Riding The most common technique is to keep the characters on the move, as happens in Lord of the Rings, for example. Once it's established that Gimli and Legolas are traveling together, the reader's mind fills in the daily rhythm of conversation and walking. It is not necessary to say, "Legolas and Gimli spent ninety minutes discussing fish and various cuisine; Gimli said he liked pepper. Then they rowed to the banks of Anduin and made camp for the night. Legolas dropped a few hints about the making of Lembas, but did not give away any secrets." Bleah. You just write they made camp for the night, throw in a few key incidents, and when it's later revealed that Gimli and Legolas are now close friends the reader should be thinking "well, duh... after all that time together".

The Harry Potter method: Famous for its popularity, archetypal myth, and utterly silly controversy, one of the most powerful literary tools of J.K. Rowling's Potter series has been largely overlooked: Location. Harry doesn't go on lengthy quests (in the first six books), and if you consider the ratio of text-to-time, there isn't much detail. Instead, Harry has the two-five-one* of classes, Quidditch practice, and hanging out in the Gryffindor common room.

With a fixed location, the ongoing plot developments can be easily scattered at various times in Harry's routine. In this way, the reader always has the sense that a lot of things are happening, and that certain things happen repeatedly, without having to dredge through repetitive descriptions. Furthermore, any given day can (and often does) proceed without Harry encountering mortal danger or a life-changing experience, but with the implied themes continuing in the background. These "ordinary" days provide a forum for character growth, humor, and exposition.

End sidebar.

In Mistborn: The Final Empire, the lives of the ska are so darned depressing that you wouldn't really want to follow the story from their point of view. There is a plot line that follows the protagonist through some of the routine lives of the nobility, but most of the main characters don't fall into this category either. They're a group of rebels and thieves, living significantly better than the ska, but without a notable daily rhythm or any location of interest.

If this constitutes a weakness in story, I hesitate to call it a failure on Sanderson's part. In this case, the story dictates the available tools. Mistborn has a plot that moves at a steady clip, and one that's relevant to the entire world in which the characters live. The most notable consequence of this lack of routine is that the entertaining banter among the characters sometimes seems forced, as Sanderson has to create or extend scenes to squeeze it in.

Okay, enough of that. Some more of the goodies: The book is full of action. Some of that is fighting, but there's also plenty of chasing, running, maneuvering, and sneaking, all enhanced by the setting's established magic. It has some excellent character development exploring themes of trust, vengeance, romance, prejudice, and purpose, all without coming across as emotive or overly introspective. There's only one strong female character in the first volume, but she's the main point-of-view character, so it's hard to fault it for gender balance. And the banter I mentioned previously, when it does come out, can be downright hilarious. Finally, to reiterate, the laws governing the world's magic are very thoroughly developed, and, far from being a gadget to make things more interesting, they are central to the main plot.

If you're a big fan of fantasy, or a slight fan of fantasy who likes action, I highly recommend Mistborn. I've given it the highest honor in literature, which is to inspire the name of my 2010 Fantasy Football team (the "Allomancers"). Previous laureates so honored include Asimov ("Auroran Automatons", from the robot novels), Tolkein ("Hothnar", meaning "fire horde" in Quenya), and A.A. Milne ("Kanga, Pooh, Owl & Roo").

I'd say it's in good company.


* Yes, that's a deliberately obscure allusion. I'm curious to see if anyone gets it.


M.J. Nicholls said...

Jason, these posts are huge bombs of awesomeness. I'm blown away at your logical reasoning analytical brilliance. Keep up the genius.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

Prequel to the Foundation was quite a dud, wasn't it? That was one of the very few Asimov books I almost didn't want to finish. Why did the man who first ended the trilogy in Second Foundation, then opened it up again and closed it effectively with (was it) Foundation Edge, and did the same thing again with Books 5 and 6 not come up with a better prequel.

Specially since the books in the Elija Bailey series were so effective as virtual prequels.

And no, I did not get the two-five-one reference. Care to elaborate?