Monday, 1 May 2017

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

I finished this book over a week ago, before I was away and busy and stressed for a week. I left myself just one note in the draft file for the book review, and it reads: "oh my god, having characters that do not care about anything is not interesting!"
That...pretty much sums up how I feel about this book as I try to recapture my thoughts after a week away, through a haze of extreme exhaustion.   The world is not really interesting enough to capture attention when you have very little happening in the book, and a main character who doesn't seem deeply attached to anything - well, maybe to the one woman he helped kill (and dear lord, women are another problem in these books, which I'll get to in a moment), but other than that? Not very damn much.

In some ways, this feels like a template for the unfortunate pattern that George R.R. Martin has fallen into, of having people constantly travelling and not getting where they're going, with things coming up along the way that less advance the plot than they just slow the characters down. But at least I feel like Martin's characters fucking want something!

I'm going to digress to roleplaying. Years ago, we were starting a Firefly game. Since a previous Firefly game we'd played had had problems with everyone wanting to play a Jayne-like character - rough and tough and not really caring about a lot - Bill, from the start of the character creation, had one requirement.

We could create any character we wanted. But we had to have something we couldn't walk away from. Something we cared about. Something that he could use to engage us. (Of course, none of us played Jayne and perhaps gave Bill more caring-about-things hooks than he'd anticipated, but the question is excellent.)

So I'd like to pose the same question to Severian, the main character of this book: what can't you walk away from?

It's not the torturer's guild - he walks away from everything he's ever known
It's not the people he travels with - after being briefly captured, he seems little to care if he ever sees them again
It's not the woman he professes to love now - he had pretty much the same reaction when he was captured and did not try to find her again
It's not really the woman he professed to love then - he does run off and put himself into danger when he thinks she's alive, but given that she's really truly dead, it doesn't give him much to not walk away from now.

And most fucking notably, it's not the revolutionary that we are told that Severian is deeply, fundamentally attached to. We're told over and over that Severian believes in Vodalus' cause. (Even though we, as readers, are never let in on what that cause is, what goals they'd like to achieve, or what tactics they're using to get there.) But then Severian meets Vodalus in person, more or less by accident (because seeking him out would be too goddamn active, no doubt). And within the course of a day, decides, you guessed it, he doesn't really care about Vodalus after all.

This is not good storytelling. Or good drama.

Good drama comes from people wanting something badly. Good storytelling is bringing the reader into that want through a well-paced set of events. It can take a long time to come to fruition, or happen almost immediately. BUT IT SHOULD NOT BE ABSENT.

I don't care how "realistic" people think this may be. Real life does not necessarily make good drama! And most people I know in real goddamn life do, in fact, want something! It may not be galaxy-changing, but they want something.

I'm so frustrated, and I know the next book was also nominated for a Hugo, and so I will read it even though I may not want to. But come the fuck on.


Oh, and I said I'd mention the women - they're terrible. Cardboard at best, and all of them, whether they hate, love, or are indifferent to, Severian, sleep with him. (I'm serious - it happens at least once with each kind.)  Look, this is how bad the writing about the women is:

"Jolenta shrugged, making the simple movement seem an exquisite ceremony. “I ran away too.” She cupped her huge breasts with her hands. “But I don’t think I’m well suited to running, do you?"

I rest my fucking case.

What these books need is not such a terrible way of writing women, and a main character who fucking wants something. Is that really so hard?

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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