Neither of these two books contains science or math, not even rudimentarily. So, this post won’t be an analysis of the science or math. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is a fantasy story but mentions basic sciences, chemistry, physics, as well as alchemical studies, sympathy, alchemy, will-power, and naming. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel mentions some small medical science but doesn’t go beyond the concept stage, for example, mutated swine flu virus. All in all The Name of the Wind has more rubber science or rather magic in it than Station Eleven. So, that leaves me with talking about the stories and about the writing.
I chose these two books for this post because they are brother and sister to each other. They are alike and yet not the same.
It’s very difficult to write a book and even harder to get it published unless you are self publishing. And since the advent of Amazon.com it has become harder still to get a book published because the major publishing houses are merging or going bankrupt. However, smaller, boutique publishing companies are sprouting up like mushrooms. So, anyone who writes a novel is to be congratulated. Anyone who gets there novel publish, is to be fêted. And anyone who sells a million copies is to be congratulated, fêted and lauded. Patrick Rothfuss sold 10 million copies of The Name of the Wind. Ms. Mandel got a mid-six-figure advance for Station Eleven.
Having said that, I am not interested in literary criticism. I am interested in science, math and engineering. I am interested in good writing, great characters and even better stories. Novelty is only a small portion of what makes a great story. Believability is a major component of a great character. And seamlessness, for me, is the most important part of good writing. Leaving aside copy editing, beautiful scene descriptions, gripping drama or the choice turn of words, the best bon mot are not enough to carry a story if the story or the writing or both ejects me out of the book.
Let me make myself plain, if I am jarred out of a book, it’s very hard to get back into the flow of the narrative. After all, the science fiction and fantasy writer is building a world, perhaps from scratch. This is no easy thing. As he or she builds up a believable world, they must weave a believable story with believable characters, heroes, villains, anti-heroes, heroines, victims, comic relief side kicks. Every hero and every villain has their weakness. Even Superman had his kryptonite. Without magic and kryptonite, Superman would be a very boring and bored superhero.
As Hildy Silverman puts it in her Gleeble in Space and Time #124 where she discusses the rise of the anti-hero over the hero, “It takes a talented creator to come up with interesting story for someone who always does the right thing, and keep the character from seeming weak or like a sucker when pitted against the evil machinations of their foe.” An anti-hero is a short cut, as she later notes. It’s away of quickly defining an interesting character who will move the plot along. The anti-hero wants the outcome to be for the greater good but will use any means to get there. Not everyone can write an interesting hero and place that interesting hero in an interesting situation. The anti-hero contradicts Lewis’s first law, “Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl.” Using an anti-hero to make your story interesting is just sloppy.
But it is even harder to write ordinary people and make them react in outlandish situations and still make them and the situations interesting. If you want to write comedy, you make the protagonist stupid or as a foil for someone more intelligent, as Wodehouse did in the Jeeves stories. If you want to write heroic fantasy you write about a hero or if you’re not up to that task, you write about an anti-hero. (In my novels, I tried to make Bill and Carey as ordinary as I could.) Emily St. John Mandel has done this very well. Patrick Rothfuss, not so much.
Everything from here on out is a spoiler. Beware.
I will start with the good features of these two books. The most notable is the magic in The Name of the Wind. So much of fantasy magic is a flash and a bang and something amazing happens, no explanation needed, it’s fantasy. When it isn’t flash-bang magic, it’s intervention of a god. “Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it.” Or the magic of a dragon, whether the dragon does the flash-bang magic, or can teleport to any place, anywhere and anywhen, or can simply speak human languages and has super strength and can fly when it shouldn’t be able to. These last are more the attributes of magical creatures than magic qua magic or human magic. And who can fathom gods? They’re unknown and unknowable, Superman without his kryptonite plus omniscience.
In The Name of the Wind, Rothfuss defines magic rigerously but does not make it a science. He gives us just enough of an outline and the rules of each of his magic disciplines to make them real but doesn’t bog us down in detail unless it is necessary to the narrative. Anyone can learn this magic if they are smart enough and apply themselves with diligence. No need to be born into a magical family or have the right amount of midi-chlorians or some other genetic trick. Rothfuss’s magic reminds me of the magic of Darkover. Not science but not actual magic either but an applied philosophy for looking at the world differently.
The magic in The Name of the Wind has the perfect blending of a strong logical framework with the right amount of mystery and the unknown. Truly, it is a masterwork. Bravo, Scriv Rothfuss.
Music. The Name of the Wind has music interwoven throughout the book. Here again, Rothfuss has hit the perfect note. He does not give us entire songs or their exact melodies but enough to know a simple folk song from a serious and difficult masterpiece. His depiction of traveling players is also very good and the life of a traveling musician and acting company is also spot on. Having come from a musical family, I loved these scenes of life on the road and the family life of the Ruh. Idealized, for sure, but still charming.
Station Eleven also does a beautiful job of describing The Traveling Symphony, a traveling musical and Shakespearean acting company, in a post-apocalyptic world. Mandel’s traveling company is very believable and perfectly done. Music, acting, and celebrity are wound throughout this book and used as the binding thread in what is basically a book of vignettes. Theatre and performance ties these disjoint vignettes into an exciting whole. The Arthur character binds the whole book together.
Ms. Mandel’s characters are ordinary. Her situation is also ordinary other than it is a post-apocalyptic world that has been wiped out by a generic super-virus. It’s in its own genre. But the book is well written and the story well told. The ending for me was unsatisfying. But this just means that I hope she comes out with a sequel. If you want a good science fiction or fantasy read, this is not it. If you want a good post-apocalyptic read and are tired of the Hunger Games, this is definitely it.
My one criticism of this book is that Ms. Mandel keeps switching POV (point of view) of the 3rd person limited narrator but she does it so well and ties the vignettes together so beautifully, that it is seamless. She hops and skips between characters but does no head-hopping, thankfully.
Patrick Rothfuss also changes not only POV continuously but also person. He switches form a 3rd person semi-omniscient narrator, to a first person limited narrator, to a 3rd person limited narrator, and changes POV between some characters. All this changing of POV gets discomforting, doing it on the same page, but it is well done and he doesn’t do any head-hopping.
One of my complaints with this novel is that he spends several; chapters setting up a story line, which he abandons by using the cliche of telling the Kvothe’s (main character) story to a scribe. And by abandon, I mean abandon for most of the book. About 85% of the book is one big annoying flashback. It’s as if he started writing one story and then changed his mind. But even this I can overlook because the story is well told and he does resume the main storyline at the very end of the book. (By which time, I had forgotten what the main storyline was.) He does not bring the main storyline to any sort of conclusion but that just sets up his sequel.
But what I can’t abide are stupid characters or rather brilliant character that do willfully stupid things. Kvothe is painted as a genius. Not just any genius but a super-genius. However, he is young and naive. And this works in the beginning of the novel. When Kvothe tries to use sympathy to make the wind blow by binding the wind to the air in his lungs, after which he cannot breathe, it works beautifully. Because he’s tied the whole of the wind to the air in his lungs, his diaphragm isn’t strong enough to move all that mass. Mr. Rothfuss beautifully respects the character, who has done a stupid but precocious thing, and the shape of the magic he has created. In the end, Abenthy, his mentor, has to call the name of the wind to get him breathing again. So, at this point, we know that Kvothe is well meaning, has no self discipline, and is brilliant, legendarily brilliant. We are well set up to see that Kvothe is impetuous and will get himself into trouble. But he is brilliant enough to be sent to the University even at his young age.
But then, his whole troop gets killed by the “demons” while he is out in the woods. He is then homeless and has to live for 5 or so years by his wits alone. He is beaten. His possession taken. He lives on the street as a scavenger. But when he finally is able to set off for the University and continue his journey, what does he do when he gets there, he makes an enemy of a very powerful man, Ambrose Jakis, who is part of the aristocracy. I understand why Kvothe defended the girl who Ambrose was trying to seduce, but then he can’t seem to leave Ambrose alone. You would think that he had learned something in his years as a homeless, destitute gamine but no. He’s still too full of himself. For being a brilliant boy, he is willfully stupid and gets into (unmotivated) trouble continuously. His stupidity is unmotivated and completely out of character. And this I cannot abide.
Also, I’d like to say something about the political system that Mr. Rothfuss creates. It just doesn’t hold together very well and doesn’t seem well thought out. First of all, the political systems seems very democratic, egalitarian even, unless it isn’t convenient for the plot, then it becomes very hierarchical. In any case, it isn’t consistent and is annoying. Either they are in a low tech, feudal society, with corresponding politics, or they are not. And I am not just speaking of the university environment but also the towns around the university and the towns their troop visited on their travels.
Finally, the technology is uneven. True, the biggest technology is magic but they are also well versed in chemistry and physics and yet it is a horse powered society when it doesn’t have to be. Mass production is unknown. Advanced technology is unknown. Given the egalitarian sentiment of the people in the novel, you’d think that both magic, science and technology would have been more integrated in society.
These things, but especially Kvothe’s idiotic behavior, shook me out of the world the novel was building. However, in the end, I still enjoyed reading it. I’m not sure I want to read the sequel but I might just anyway. Mr. Rothfuss is a good, solid writer.
Both of these books are about traveling musicians and a post-apocalyptic world, one on a grand scale and one on a very personal scale. Both are about ordinary people put into extra-ordinary situations. Both have an extraordinary main character. Both have magic in them. One is the magic of the stage and one is a well thought out fantasy magic. Both have characters with funny names. In one, the name of their instrument, in the other, semi-made up names. Both have interesting political landscapes. And both are equally well written.
However, neither of these two books are the books I am looking for. I want real science fiction stories with real science, real math or well thought out rubber science and math. I also want Tolkien level fantasy or at least George RR Martin level fantasy. And I want good writing, believable characters and exciting stories. These books provided two out of three. Which two, depends on the book.