Thursday, July 25, 2019

Brandon Sanderson and the Power of Delayed Gratification

We live in a culture that demands instant gratification. In a world where we can binge-watch from a selection of thousands of movies or TV shows on our phones, or download and read just about any book with one click on Amazon, we hate to have to wait for payoffs. Ten years ago, I was watching LOST as it aired on TV, and I remember clearly how agonizing even a one week wait could be, between episodes. Yet, there’s something about delayed gratification--about the waiting and the agonizing and the theorizing with friends--that captures the imagination and makes a TV, movie, or book series more meaningful.

Disney and Marvel Studios certainly understand this. One of my summer projects has been to catch up on the MCU movies--no small task, considering that up until a month and a half ago, I had only seen the first Avengers movie. As my wife and I have caught up, one thing that has deeply impressed me is just how patient Disney and Marvel were in delivering payoffs for their epic, overarching story arc. The crossover references started as occasional blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em easter eggs, and the larger infinity gem narrative was indeed a slow-burn, in the best possible way.

A contemporary fantasy author who has tapped into the power of delayed gratification in a similar way is Brandon Sanderson.

Sanderson is an impressive author for a variety of reasons. He has been incredibly prolific over the last decade, juggling multiple separate series of books--Mistborn, The Stormlight Archives, The Wheel of Time, and Skyward, to name a few--and managing to publish at least one book, and sometimes one or more novella each year. While George R.R. Martin’s glacial writing speed may lead a reader to assume that a good fantasy book takes decades to write, Sanderson proves that prolificity need not come at the expense of quality. His books are well-written, his worlds fully realized.

A significant piece of Sanderson’s world-building comes from his knack for crafting engaging and thoroughly thought-out systems of magic in each of his worlds. Sanderson recently wrote an essay in which he discussed the distinction between “soft magic” and “hard magic” in fantasy literature. “Soft magic”, as Sanderson defines it, is magic where the rules are not clearly defined. Sanderson observes that one result of employing a “soft magic” system is that the characters cannot use magic to solve the central conflict of the story--at least, not without the resolution feeling arbitrary and unearned. Instead, in “soft magic” stories, the magic takes on a background role.

By contrast, “hard magic” is magic where the rules are clearly defined and explained, following an internal consistency within the world in the book. Unlike “soft magic”, characters can use “hard magic” to solve significant problems, as doing so requires the characters to develop an understanding and mastery of the magic system, a process which challenges the characters and forces them to grow. Moreover, the obstacles that the characters face are complex and not solvable with a simple wave of the hand. In “hard magic” stories, the magic system is practically a character in its own right.

Sanderson is a skilled “hard magic” writer, and has constructed worlds in which the magic systems function almost as an additional set of natural laws. His magic systems are neither arbitrary nor limitless, and a character’s power is a function of how well they understand the rules of the world’s magic, combined with their inherent skills and personal qualities, and a certain measure of creativity. It was Sanderson’s magic systems--and the edge-of-your-seat action that results from seeing characters use that magic--that first made me a fan of his writing.

What has cemented me as a fan, however, has been the way in which each story works together to form a larger narrative. Sanderson has said in interviews that he is a big fan of sprawling, epic fantasy series, and that he always wanted to write an epic series of his own. However, when he was writing his first books more than 15 years ago, he recognized the risk involved in embarking on an undertaking like that: if the first book in an epic series does not sell very well, the author cannot simply pitch the second book in the series to publishers as a fall-back, and all of the time and effort spent planning out the series would have gone to waste.

Instead, Sanderson began to work on several series that seemed separate from one another, set on different worlds with different magic systems and different characters. That way, if one book did not sell well, he would be able to send something unique to publishers on his next attempt. Yet, attached as he was to the idea of writing an epic series, Sanderson decided to sneak some easter eggs into each book to begin what he called a “hidden epic”, clues that each story and each world had a deeper connection to the others than might have initially met the eye. As his books began to sell and Sanderson gained clout and credibility as a rising fantasy author, he began to make these connections more explicit.

Sanderson’s world-building ability goes well beyond his skill at creating compelling magic systems. Indeed, he has created an entire universe--called the “Cosmere”--in which many of his series take place, a universe whose history, complexities, and conflicts he is gradually revealing with each new book. Sanderson’s books all hold up on their own merits, but the reward for reading everything is the larger “hidden” epic unfolding in the background across his works. It is, in a sense, his “infinity gem” narrative. Perhaps the most notable point of connection shared by all of the books is a mysterious character who appears in every book, sometimes only briefly, and often wearing a disguise. This mysterious character has taken on a more significant role in more recent books, and has undoubtedly inspired many readers to reread the earlier books in an attempt to try and spot each appearance.

Here is a quick overview of the main books and series set in the Cosmere, in what I would recommend as a reading order:

Mistborn Era One
This was where I started, on a friend’s recommendation, and it is where I would recommend others to start as well. Mistborn takes place on the world of Scadrial, a medieval world shrouded in a constant rain of volcanic ash and where an ominous mist settles each night, keeping people indoors. Scadrial has been ruled for one thousand years by the mysterious tyrant, The Lord Ruler, who has stratified society into a nobility class, and a slave class, known as the “skaa”. In the midst of these circumstances, a street urchin named Vin discovers that she has magical powers derived from metallic dust as she is recruited into the most dangerous heist that Scadrial has ever seen.
  • Mistborn: The Final Empire (2006)
  • Mistborn: The Well of Ascension (2007)
  • Mistborn: The Hero of Ages (2008)

Mistborn Era Two (AKA “Wax and Wayne”)
This series is set centuries after the first three Mistborn books, at a time when Vin and her friends have become the stuff of legends. By this point, Scadrial has developed to a mid-1800s level of technology, and this series reads as much like wild west fiction (with pistol duels, saloons, and train-top showdowns) as it does fantasy. This series follows the adventures of Wax, a lawman from the Roughs, and his deputy/best bud Wayne, as they investigate increasingly severe disturbances in Scadrial’s big cities. While I thoroughly enjoyed the first three Mistborn books, the first few pages of Alloy of Law were the point where I decided that I wanted to read everything that Sanderson had written. The tone and style are so vastly different from the first series that, as a writer, I could not help but be impressed with Sanderson’s versatility. I should note that Sanderson plans to write two additional Mistborn series in the future, an “Era Three” set in a Scadrial with 1980s-level technology, and an “Era Four”, which he has described as a futuristic space opera.
  • The Alloy of Law (2011)
  • The Shadows of Self (2015)
  • The Bands of Mourning (2016)

  • Elantris (2005)
This was Sanderson’s first published novel. While it was released to critical acclaim, it does read a little bit rough compared to nearly everything Sanderson has written since, with the characters not quite as well developed, and the writing not quite as polished as his later works. It is by no means poorly written, but Mistborn is a far better sample of what Sanderson is capable of as a writer, and much more likely to hook new readers for the long-haul. Elantris is set on the world of Sel, a world where people would sometimes, seemingly randomly, wake up as Elantrians--superhuman angelic beings--and relocate to the magical city of Elantris. That is, until a cataclysmic event causes people to no longer transform into angelic beings, but rather disfigured and undead beings who are imprisoned in the city of Elantris. Elantris tells the story of a young woman named Sarene, a princess who has just arrived in a new kingdom to be married to its prince, only to discover that the prince has suddenly, and perhaps suspiciously, passed away. The book follows Sarene’s adjustment to life in her new home, and her attempts to crack the mysteries of the neighboring city of Elantris.

  • Warbreaker (2009)
Set on the world of Nalthis, where people derive power from color, Warbreaker tells the story of Siri, a headstrong princess who is suddenly sent to marry the mysterious God-King of an enemy kingdom in the place of her older sister Vivenna, who has spent her life preparing for the betrothal, and Vivenna, who travels into enemy territory in pursuit of her sister.

The Stormlight Archive:
This is Sanderson’s series with the most epic scope. I read it immediately after finishing Bands of Mourning, and while I really enjoyed it, I would definitely recommend holding off on this series until after reading Elantris and Warbreaker, as the background from those two books will enrich one’s reading of Stormlight and make many easter eggs that I completely missed the first time through much easier to spot. Sanderson’s plan is for The Stormlight Archive to be a ten-book series, with each book weighing in at 1000+ pages, each book focusing on a different character. The Stormlight Archive is set on the world of Roshar where weapons and armor are charged with special power by the violent storms that regularly sweep the landscape. The first book opens with the murder of King Gavilar by a mysterious, gravity-defying assassin dressed in white, and the series follows Gavilar’s brother, the renowned warrior Dalinar, Gavilar’s son Elhokar, who takes the throne after his father’s death, Gavilar’s daughter Jasnah, a brilliant scholar who has been accused of heresy, Dalinar’s sons Adolin, a skilled duelist and eligible bachelor, and Renarin, a sickly youth who lives in the shadow of his father and brother, a young soldier-turned-slave named Kaladin, a young artist named Shallan who wishes to be tutored by Jasnah… the list could go on.

Although each book features chapters from the perspective of each main character, each book focuses on one character with flashback chapters mixed in. For example, The Way of Kings features Kaladin’s flashbacks. I’ll stop there as even revealing whose flashbacks feature in a given book would be a minor spoiler. I will warn readers that The Way of Kings takes a while to get into, and with good reason: it is essentially a 1000-page prologue to the series, and Sanderson spends most of the book laying essential groundwork that will pay off dividends in Words of Radiance and Oathbringer, which are my two favorite books by Brandon Sanderson, hands-down. Character development in this series is hard-earned, and Sanderson never cuts corners. Characters grow through grueling setbacks, pain and suffering, and Way of Kings features its share of such growth in order to place the characters where they need to be at the start of Words of Radiance. This is delayed gratification in action!
  • The Way of Kings (2010)
  • Words of Radiance (2014)
  • Oathbringer (2017)

Honorable mention:
  • The Emperor’s Soul (2012)
This is a novella and not a full novel, but it is an excellent sampling of Sanderson’s style and a good alternative entry point to Sanderson’s writing, particularly for anyone who does not consider themselves a fantasy reader, or for anyone who feels like starting a full novel or series is too much of a commitment. Set on Sel (the same world as Elantris, but in a completely separate country), The Emperor’s Soul tells the story of Shai, a thief and magical forger who is tasked with forging a new soul for the emperor after an assassination attempt leaves him brain-dead.

There are a number of other short stories and novellas that contribute to Cosmere lore, but I will leave those to the reader to find and read if they so choose. Bear in mind that each book or series (even the mammoth Stormlight Archive) can be read and enjoyed on its own, without any knowledge or awareness of the greater lore, and in fact, I did not start to recognize that greater lore until I was seven books in. That said, if you have the time and patience to read everything, you are in for a real treat. Sanderson’s hidden epic is nearly 15 years in the making, and he is not even halfway finished telling this larger story. If you want instant gratification--if you need answers and you need them now, these books are not for you. However, if you revel in the mystery, the agonizing, the theorizing, and the waiting, pick up Mistborn or The Emperor’s Soul. You will not regret it.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Expecting Catastophe

My heart raced.
Sweat poured.
Every nerve in my legs screamed in pain.

This is it, I thought.  This is how I die, here and now.

"Here" was Victoria's Peak in Hong Kong; "Now" was 1:00pm, March 26, 2009.

I staggered to a payphone and dumped a handful of change into the coin-slot.  I was not sure how much money I put in, but I knew it was the most expensive phone call of my life.  It didn't matter.  Money and materials do not matter when you're dying.

My mom picked up the phone in Washington State at 10:00pm March 25.  Thank God--I wouldn't have to break the news to my parents through voicemail or a Facebook post.

"It's me.  I'm sure I'm having a heart attack.  I'm freaking out."

My mom, who walks a perpetual tightrope between her role as a mother and her role as a doctor, offered a quick diagnosis:

"You do not sound like someone who is having a heart attack."

Geez, I need a second opinion.  If I even have time for a second opinion, that is. 

"I really think I'm dying.  My heart won't stop racing, and I'm getting shooting pain in my legs."

"Are you at your hotel room right now?"

"I'm calling from a payphone at the top of Victoria's Peak."

"Have you eaten lunch yet?"

I had eaten lunch, as a matter of fact.  I was in Hong Kong for a 3-day trip to reset the tourist visa that was allowing me to volunteer at the Christian Academy in Japan.  I had always wanted to go to Hong Kong, and particularly Victoria's Peak, ever since seeing a picture of the cityscape in a special Places of the World edition of TIME Magazine as a kid.  So, that morning, I had made my way by foot from my hotel to the trolley that would take me to Victoria's Peak.  I had walked for more than three hours, only to find that the fog had rolled in, completely obscuring the view of the city.

By then, it was lunch time, and I had settled at a window-side booth in an Indian restaurant that probably had a panoramic view of the city, most of the time.  I had only recently been introduced to Indian curry for the first time, and was feeling adventurous that day.  The last curry on the menu, advertised only as "very spicy", came with a health advisory notice, cautioning pregnant women and people with heart conditions against ordering it.  How spicy could it be? I thought to myself.  I decided to give it a try.

About halfway through the meal, I swore off spicy foods for the rest of my life.  I don't feel that any adjective I throw out could adequately capture just how spicy this curry was.  Suffice it to say that at one point, I felt like I could not only see--but understand--the concept of eternity.  I had ordered an iced tea with my curry and one refill quickly became half a dozen or more.  Soon enough, I had put out the fire, but left some burning embers behind.

As I was new to overseas travel and restaurant etiquette in different countries, I was shocked to learn that there was no such thing as "free refills" at this restaurant, and that I had spent the equivalent of $15USD on my iced tea alone.

It was about five minutes after leaving the restaurant that I had started sweating and my heart had started racing, and I knew with all certainty that I was going to die then and there.

My mom listened to my story as she would have listened to a patient history.  Then,

"Yep, that curry was probably a mistake.  Doubt you'll do that to yourself again, given how easily you get heartburn."

"But it's not just heartburn, my heart is racing--"

"Because you drank eight tall glasses of iced tea.  I'm assuming it wasn't herbal tea."

"But my legs--"

"You spent the entire morning walking, probably on concrete for most of the time.  You don't usually get this much exercise, so I'm not surprised you're feeling sore."

After the conversation had ended, I made my way back to the hotel in a stupor.  So I wasn't dying, after all.  Physically, I still felt miserable, but I felt like I had been snatched from the jaws of death.

After a nap back at the hotel, I made my way up to Victoria's Peak again that evening.  Second chances are a wonderful thing, and on this second trip, I found that the fog had cleared, giving me a beautiful view of the city lights.

I do not consider myself a pessimist, but over time, I have learned that I am a pro at expecting catastrophe.  Unbidden, I find myself leaping to the worst conclusions or envisioning the most dire scenarios based on little to no evidence.

It's all too easy to let my mind imagine the worst and then look for any reason to confirm those fears.  Disaster lurks around every corner; malice hides in every pleasantry; death awaits in each ache and pain.  Soon enough, I'm having a heart attack and wondering whether I'll die on Victoria's Peak itself, or in the ambulance.

Bracing myself for the worst, I forget the truth: that more often than not, it's just spicy curry and too much iced tea.