Finding Depth in Unexpected Places and Matthew Stover

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The things we read as preteens are not the same things we read as adults. Thank God. As for me, I read “Star Wars” novels. A lot of them.

I didn’t realize until recently how formative this had been. Right at the time when my notions of what is just–what is meaningful–were being formed, I read “Shatterpoint” by Matthew Stover. When I was fascinated by the interconnected nature of good and evil, I read “Traitor” by Matthew Stover. In these books, Stover takes complicated philosophical and ethical concepts and puts them into the Star Wars universe. How do we face existential crises? What do we do when good and evil become hard to distinguish from one another? When all there is in the world is darkness, and we are alone, what decisions might we make?

These two books–and, to a lesser extent, Stover’s other Star Wars novels–formed my mind in ways I was not expecting. There is, reading them now, unexpected depth to them. They were powerful then, and they are powerful now.

Not that all Star Wars novels are up to Stover’s standard. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be hurt every time someone dismisses “Star Wars” as silly, or meaningless. There is the surface…and then there is the depth. Not everyone sees the depths, and that’s just fine. There’s nothing wrong with not going deeper. Everyone has to find the stories that work for them, that resonate with their own beliefs. But let’s try not to judge one another so hard.

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A Cautionary Tale: Never Let Me Go and the perils of watching the movie first

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I saw “Never Let Me Go” years back. Can’t remember why. I can remember a few scenes, a few scattered bits and pieces. That’s all.

But it still wrecked the book for me.

I’m not giving the standard complaints here: I didn’t mind that things were spoiled. The art of a great novel is a joy in itself–when reading, a good reveal makes for a fleeting satisfaction, while the crafting is makes for lasting.

It’s just that I couldn’t stop trying to imagine the actresses I remembered from the movie. I couldn’t stop trying to force them into the novel. Couldn’t stop wracking my brains to remember whether this scene occurred in the movie too.

That’s the real reason to read a book first. Because the movie will force itself on the book in a way that just isn’t possible in reverse. Reading a book first enhances the enjoyment of a movie: you see an interpretation different from your own, and you can appreciate the whole thing in a new way. But when you see the movie first, that interpretation has already become “the only one” in your mind. It’s hard to get away from that.

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Politics and Young Adult Novels

Is it wrong that I keep getting annoyed at the way politics is skimmed over in young adult novels?

I know young adult novels are supposed to be about more personal topics, and that political stuff is often just trappings, but some novels do in fact tackle politics very well. Is this an acceptable area to blur in young adult books, or is it cheating? Spoilers ahead!

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In “The Thief” by Megan Whalen, Turner, the only living heir to the throne of a country is sent on a potential suicide mission into enemy territory, to secure a prize which will, ultimately, lead to a new heir being born. But in the meantime, he’s the only heir–so what the hell was anyone thinking sending him on a mission that insanely dangerous?

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In “Tehanu,” a king has at long last come to unite Earthsea. And he basically just goes and unites the country. Pretty much everyone is happy to have him, and only evil people oppose him–and only a little. There hasn’t been a king for centuries, but apparently there’s been a king-shaped hole that the new kid can just walk into.

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Finally, one of the things that ticked me off the most about the ending of “The Hunger Games” books was that they casually held an election in the background of Katniss’s grief. It’s like one sentence. A country with no history of representation was apparently able to hold an election in no time flat. This is actually worse than just skimming over politics–it actually exonerates the heroine’s murder of the leader of the revolutionaries, since in real life this murder would be far more likely to plunge the country back into chaos, leaving Katniss responsible.

The Wisdom of Earthsea

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There’s a lot of wisdom in these books, and though much of it is dropped on the reader like an anvil labeled WISDOM in big flashing neon letters, that doesn’t mean it ain’t true.

A Wizard of Earthsea:

Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shad-  ow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and  joined, and were one. 

“To hear, one must be silent.” 

The Tombs of Atuan:

What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a  heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not  easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard  one. The road goes upward toward the light; but the laden traveler may never  reach the end of it. 

The Farthest Shore:

An act is not, as young men think, like a rock that  one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it.  When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier.  When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or  falls the universe is changed.

Only one thing in the world can  resist an evil-hearted man. And that is another man.

The word must be heard in silence; there must  be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow  place, above the terrible abyss

To refuse death is to refuse life.

Only to us is it given to know that we must die. And  that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we  must lose, what we are willing to lose. . . . That selfhood which is our tor-  ment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is  gone, a wave on the sea.

There are two, Arren, two that make one: the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises  out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each oth-  er, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn. And with them all is  reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In  death is rebirth. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, ever-  lasting, eternal? What is it but death—death without rebirth.
There is only one  power that is real and worth the having. And that is the power, not to take,  but to accept. 

Tehanu:

“Is it different then, for men and for women?” “What isn’t, dearie?” “I don’t know, it seems to me we make up most of the differences, and then complain about ’em.”

“Women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves.” “Are they every taught to trust themselves?”

Tales From Earthsea:

Injustice makes the rules, and courage breaks them.

The Grand Finales of The Earthsea Cycle

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Perhaps the most famous TS Eliot quote is “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” Ursula LeGuin in her Earthsea books eschewed both bangs and whimpers (I really am not meaning to make puns, so I’m just gonna power through) for climaxes and conclusions that are full of peace, that are fast-paced without being action-packed, and that are all beautiful.

The Earthsea books are, ultimately, about facing the darkness and shadows within ourselves. People are stripped of everything they have ever been and forced to discover themselves anew. Great men drown in shame; children forget their names and refuse to remember.

Shadows and darkness are, ultimately, as much a part of life as light is. Both exist together. This is a fancy way of saying that death is necessary to life. The third Earthsea book discusses this, without methaphor, at length, so I’m not going to go into it here. What interests me is the final book, which weaves a somewhat more subtle and far more beautiful tale about accepting death. Not only accepting death and loss as an inevitable, as something we just have to have even though it’s terrible. Embracing it. Living with it. Maybe that’s what all great young adult literature is really about: learning to live with your own death.

And maybe not.

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The Usefulness of Sexism in the “Earthsea Cycle”

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The world of Earthsea is very, very sexist. Women are relegated to very low-level jobs, they are essentially chattel, and they have very few options in life. What could be the most powerful position for a woman–that of witch–is undermined by a culture of misogyny. And make no mistake: this is blatant, unveiled misogyny. Multiple men throughout the books say things like “everything women spew is mindless poison,” “you and all of your kind are despicable,” or “women’s work is beneath me and without value.”

Obviously, Ursula LeGuin herself is not sexist. Although one could say she is not without sin: she did knowingly make all the women characters in “A Wizard of Earthsea” into stock treacherous seductresses. But that’s beside the point.

What she was trying to do in these books was deal with the sexism of the real world through its reflection in Earthsea. She intensified what she had gathered from reading history and fantasy, and from living in the world of the mid-twentieth century, and created a world of rampant sexism.

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What I can’t help but wonder is: was this at all useful? You see, this mode of “intensifying” sexism in Earthsea implies that what LeGuin sees in our world is misogyny. It claims that the root of sexism is hatred of women, and that it must be dealt with on those terms.

But most of the men of our world–and indeed, perhaps the majority of men of the past–did not have these attitudes. They might claim that women cannot be as smart as men, but they be unlikely to insist that every single woman is stupid. They can call women’s work “less,” or of lower status, but they wouldn’t say it is without value. After all, they had to eat too–they can’t call their food valueless.

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Today, what are considered the most sexist societies on the planet insist that they honor women. The Saudis claim that women’s beauty is too powerful to be shown in public, Qataris believe their women are above the world and should be kept away from it. Eastern Asian societies demonize working mothers by celebrating motherhood itself. The Christian extreme right insists that women are pure and beautiful, and thus must be protected. And this is far from a new phenomenon: throughout history, societies have celebrated the “women’s role” and kept the woman confined to that role.

Arguments can be made that this is just a way of disguising misogyny. But I would wager you’d be hard pressed to find a man who doesn’t love his mother, even among the ranks of the worst sexists int he world. Can a man who loves his mother truly be a misogynist? If the answer is yes, how do we change anything?

I don’t have the answers. But maybe the fact that Earthsea has me asking the questions at all is the whole point.

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“A Wrinkle In Time” Quintet: From SciFi to Fantasy

The first book in this series, “A Wrinkle in Time,” was recognizably science fiction.

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There were certainly many fantastical elements, but it was understood in the book that these were covers, cloaks over higher truths. It’s mentioned at one point that the three otherworldly ladies at the center of the novel are “just playing at being witches.”

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The second book was arguably even more scifi. Aliens abounded, people traveled into the microscopic level of the human body. Again, the fantastic was knitted through, but the strong implication of this novel in particular was that the universe is fundamentally a place of order. Hierarchies and knowledge were organized, choices were made along previously demarcated paths (although there was power in seeing how to step off the path).

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The third book was a time travel adventure, and the science elements got a bit more…fuzzy. For instance, while Mr. and Mrs. Murray’s research had been a huge part of the plots of the first two books, it’s barely mentioned here. Meg and Charles Wallace maintain a psychic connection through the book. And the fate of the world hinges on who the descendants of ancient Welsh kings have babies with. Also, it’s worth mentioning that Charles Wallace spends the novel flying around on a unicorn with wings.

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By the fourth book, the science element was approaching total breakdown. Angels wandered around turning into mosquitoes and camels. Unicorns appeared, but they disappeared if you stopped believing in them. Noah and his family were clearly pre-homo sapien, a nice touch–but Noah was having face to face conversations with God, and there’s no way 4 related couples could repopulate the planet. The twins were delivered to Noah’s time by essentially typing in a magic box.

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The fifth book seemed like it might go back towards scifi–it was another time travel adventure, and the Murray parents returned–but really it was entirely fantasy. Whereas in the early book an alien would arrive and explain why something was happening, the time travel in this book remained essentially unsystematized and unexplained. The reasons behind events were never fully revealed. A lot of time and worry is spent on how to make it rain in prehistoric New England. And random ancient people can perform psychic healing.

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