Monday, June 15, 2009

Grokking and the nature of geeks

My little comic book hiatus is at an end - I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land from the library, and will start it later on today.

I know only one thing about this novel, and that is its most well-known contribution to the world of science fiction: the word "grok." The word means to understand a thing as if the thing is a part of you, to truly internalize it.

This is a fantastic word for geeks. I know, there are a ton of people out there glorifying all things geeky, just as there are tons of people who were actually popular in high school who now call themselves geeks - posers! Bear with me - I'm not about to start going on about "oh how delightfully geeky was my Han Solo action figure that absolutely everyone born in the 70s owned." This is about the real geeks. People who know what that thing over C3PO's head is.

Because what do true geeks do? They become fascinated with things, and learn every detail. They memorize the tiniest facts of everything that strikes their interest. This is why geeks are excellent at recalling trivia, obscure characters, and movie quotes that you have no interest in. This is also why they are excellent at, say, creating a computer language.

So the word "grok" perfectly demonstrates the true geek's mindset - a geek does not merely like something, but takes it in, learns it, knows it, until it is part of who the geek is.

I use the word myself (in my head, normally). Normally I use it in the negative form; if I read a book that doesn't grab my attention, I did not grok it. Narnia doesn't count in this regard - I got Narnia, I just didn't like it. When I tried to read The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, however, something didn't quite take. There were things going on in my life, I was distracted, and I couldn't pay attention to the story. I lost track of the plot, and found I couldn't keep reading it. Failure to grok. I will try again later.

So I approach Stranger in a Strange Land with anticipation. It gave us a word that the old-school sci-fi fans have embraced, and so I feel that probably, it has earned its place on the list in other ways as well.

There's a question that I have been asked a few times now, which is "why did it take you so long to finish the Chronicles of Narnia?" Another question that absolutely no one has asked me is "have you devised some sort of plan to prevent yourself from getting distracted away from a book, especially if you don't like it that much?"
Indeed I have. I developed this while reading Narnia, out of necessity. I eventually got a little embarrassed at how long it was taking me to finish Narnia. Not to mention, I wanted to read something else. So I devised a system in which I count the number of chapters in the book, and divide that by the number of days I have until the book is due back at the library.
So as an example: I have 3 weeks until the book must be returned of renewed. That's 15 days of reading - I have found that I don't usually read on weekends. There are 39 chapters in Stranger in a Strange Land. 39 divided by 15 is - well, some number involving decimal points, but basically a number between 2 and 3. So I need to read 3 chapters a day, at least. Obviously, if I stick to this formula I will finish the book early. It also accounts for nights when I don't find time to read as much as I want to - those times that I did meet the goal, or exceeded it, will make up for it.
Yes, its sort of dorky and obsessive to use math to accomplish something that I allegedly want to do for enjoyment. But what can I say? I'm easily distracted, and goals and lists tend to keep me on task.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Farewell, Narnia

I finally made it through The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Last Battle was strange, and violent, and pretty good. It was nice to see numerous characters - both lead and supporting - express the kinds of feelings you might reasonably have if your world was (literally) going to hell.

The end was very Biblical, but Lewis managed to surprise me: there's a race called the Calormene, and they are dark-skinned and live in the desert and worship a god other than Aslan. So basically they are Arabs. We learn that one Calormene has made it to Heaven - I mean "Aslan's Country" - because he was very noble, despite following a god other than Aslan. Aslan basically says that all the good he did in the god Tash's name, was actually done in Aslan's name, which is why the Calormene gets to go to Aslan's Country. Lewis appears to be suggesting that if you are a good person, this is all that counts. That's an unexpected conclusion, considering how Old Time Religion he is in previous books.

Overall, I'm glad to be done with this series. It's not as good as its reputation. But they are such a fundamental piece of fantasy literature, that reading them helps the rest of the genre to make more sense.

Kind of like how the Star Wars prequels aren't that fantastic, but Robot Chicken is much funnier if you have seen the prequels.

Next up, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I'm waiting for my library of choice to get the copy they ordered. While I wait, I'm taking a little break to read the Fables comics that I bought with my birthday gift cards.

Gratuitous violence, Jesus, more gratuitous violence

The Last Battle is actually pretty awesome. I was not expecting that.

Right away, a unicorn kills someone with its horn - something that there is just not enough of in fantasy novels. I mean, it's a horse with a horn. It should be killing folks, right? Later, the unicorn wants to go on a dwarf-killing rampage, and talks about skewering 10 of them at a time on its horn, which would have made a fantastic cover-illustration. The king commands him not to, which is too bad. The dwarfs have it coming, considering they are all off on the sidelines shouting racial slurs (yes really, racial slurs. The "D" word. Which starts with "Dark". And ends with "ie").

There's a lot of religious stuff, which feels extremely forced. But whatever, as long as there are kill-crazy unicorns wanting to stake racist dwarfs, it's totally worth it to be occasionally told "all of this has something to do with God."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Getting closer to the end, in more ways than one

I finished The Silver Chair, and it was really good. This, like The Horse and His Boy, turned out to be a good adventure story primarily, with much less allegory. Yes, I had to deal with children learning things again, and that was all pretty dull. But then Puddleglum endeavored to teach the children to be gay by watching him, so it all worked out.

I'm two chapters into The Last Battle, and already the allegory is thick and soupy. Spoiler alert! The Last Battle is based on the Book of Revelations. Actually, I take that back; spoilers are situations in which something not commonly known is revealed, and if you know anything about C.S. Lewis at all, then you know that obviously, the final book in a series by him will have to be the Book of Revelations. That's like saying "spoiler alert! On Family Ties this week, Meredith Baxter Birney is going to sing."

The Book of Revelations is tricky. There are numerous interpretations of it, and little consensus over exactly what it means. And no wonder, because it's a very strange text.

And so very early in the story, the dogs are barking and the peacocks crowing. Everyone seems to have a symbolic name that I haven't figured out the meaning of, like Shift the ape, or Puzzle the donkey, or Jewel the unicorn. Perhaps later on they will be joined by Motorcar the manticore and Tetrahydrocannabinol the girl with hippie parents.

It seems to me that a children's book based on Revelations can only be fantastic or awful. Once the verdict is in, I will let you know.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Oh good, you're reading my blog. Most likely, the radiation levels from your monitor are giving you cancer.

I finished Dawn Treader, and now I'm working on The Silver Chair. After that it's The Final Battle, and then I get to read something else. Hooray! I'm told that in The Final Battle, the allegory really goes over the top. Apparently Aslan comes around and says "just in case you haven't noticed - I'm Jesus." Way to go, C.S. Lewis. What an amazingly subtle style you've developed.

But let's not go there yet, shall we? Dawn Treader, as it turns out, was not an awful read. I liked the courageous mouse Reepicheep, who insists that our adventurers seek out every challenge. The view from Chapter 7 is also pretty good in The Silver Chair. I like Puddleglum, the mopey host to the children from that Other World. He's the sort of character that says things like "here we go on our quest, though I expect nothing good will come of it. We'll probably argue along the way and kill each other with knives." See, that's what the other books have been missing, a guy who says "oh finally, a running stream. We so need a cold drink. Of course, I'm sure it's contaminated. We'll all die of dysentery, mark my word."

In the middle of reading Chronicles of Narnia, my progress really slowed down. That's because I became obsessed with the Series of Unfortunate Events on audiobook, and spent every spare moment I could afford listening to those. I think that, above all, describes my dislike for Narnia: I prefer the Beaudelaire orphans (children who are very smart and resourceful, although sometimes plagued by despair at the very awful situation they are in) to the various Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve (not very smart children, with an unrealistic amount of tolerance for starvation, exposure, and exhaustion). This is why the series is regaining my interest with good tertiary characters.