Monday, 8 April 2013
On Brian Sanderson's "The Way of Kings" and masculinity.
Some years ago, I used to be more involved in the SF/F genre, mostly as a reader and as an amateur writer. I still am, to some extent, but the current degeneration of the genre and indeed, publishing industry as a whole has driven me away from the old stacks which I used to wander amongst on a regular basis. For the record, I still have no idea why librarians insist on classifying paranormal romance under fantasy, since there're entire tags for paranormal and romance, but hey, it just means I get to snerk even more at the silly book blurbs on some of those knock-offs.
Anyways, most people will know Sanderson because he was picked to finish Robert Jordan's Waste of Time series, which I've never really bothered with in the first place. I first found him through his novel Elantris (2004), and followed him through his Mistborn books (which I'm somewhat so-so about), but today I'm going to be talking about his novel, The Way of Kings (2010).
Why'd it make such an impression on me? First and foremost, it shows raw, unadulterated masculinity at its finest. I don't know if Sanderson has been reading The Way of Men on the sly, but the concepts found in Jack Donovan's work, such as the need for men to form gangs and the division of the world by a perimeter - when I think back on it, they're shown in a positive light, as good things, when what you usually get in the popularised portions of the genre are the Scalzi-and-Hines-esque degeneration of such virtues. Can't say much for paranormal speculative fiction in general, either - in their haste to copy Harry Dresden, everyone's turned their male characters into simpering little blobs. Either that, or they're Ken doll rip-offs in Super-Hypergamous-Supernatural-Slut-Porn-#94837.
Consider this. The central point-of-view character, Kaladin (I doubt the name is coincidential), finds himself in the uneviable position of being betrayed by his own military superiors and is sentenced to be part of a bridge crew, the lowest of the low in Alethkar's military, comprised of slaves and convicts. Officially, bridge crews lay down bridges that allow the rest of the Alethkar troops to effectively do battle in the fissure-strewn lands of the Parshmen, Alethkar's current enemies. Unofficially, they're meatshields for the projectiles the Parshmen send at the Alethkan armies, and mortality rates for the bridgemen extremely high.
Throughout the course of the thousand or so pages, Kaladin builds a gang from the small bridge crew he's been sentenced to work in, leading by example one by one winning over the fifteen or so individuals that make it up, trying to keep everyone alive and hopeful despite the fact that the only way to leave is death. He institutes simple masculine bonding rituals such as a communal supper, first paid out of his own meager pay, then as his gang grows, more and more people chip in. And throughout his point-of-view chapters, when I think back on it, Sanderson actually worked in a lot of manosphere concepts as to how men work and behave, such as the natural tendency of men in a gang to quickly fall into a heirachy; challenges from those on lower rungs to higher, and so forth. Of course, I didn't know it at the time, but it was nevertheless fascinating.
Of course, Kaladin's superiors hate that he's trying to change things for the better. They hate that his bridge crew is surviving assault after assault with minimum casualties when the point of a bridge crew is to be sacrificial lambs, they hate that he's trying to improve the way things are done, and most of all, they hate that his bridge crew is giving other bridge crews ideas. Dangerous ideas, that the lowest of the low might actually have some dignity and refuse to expire when their usefulness has come to an end, that they're not replacable cogs to be sacrificed.
And now when I hear Autini and Cappy Cap talk about men not giving a damn because their baby boomer bosses are actively suppressing them, when I hear about the corporate structure holding down excellence for fear of shaking things up, that tasks which could be done so much more efficiently remain that way because people are punished for not doing their jobs suckily enough...
I don't know if Sanderson sympathises with us, but he hit the nail on the head some time ago.
By the end of the first book, Kaladin has won the respect of his comrades in the birdge crew; they follow him unflinchingly, not because of fear of punishment like the rest of the Alethkan army, but because they love Kaladin and know he would die for them, just as they would for him.
Another point of view character is Dalinar Kholin, uncle to the current king of Alethkar who together with his brother, managed to unite the kingdom to what it is in the day of the novel's setting. Naturally, thanks to the despicable and degenerate state of prosperous Alethkan society, Dalinar is reviled because he doesn't buy into the popular progressive state of mind and instead clings to archaic traditions such as noblesse oblige and the Code - a set of traditions which govern how men, and especially military officers, should conduct themselves.
Where the rest of Alethkan nobility treats the war with the Parshmen as a game for political gain, Dalinar speaks of a need to end the pointless hostilities. Where the rest of them gorge themselves on food and fucking, he acts with temperance. Where he conceivably could easily have taken the place of his degenerate nephew after his brother's death and arguably would have made a far better ruler, his respect for the laws of royal inheritance stay his hand.
In short, he's a moralfag in a world of degenerates.
And so the noblemen sneer at him, the noblewomen shun him, and all spread the word that he is getting weak and indecisive in his old age. Yet for all their sneering and claims of Dalinar being inconsequential, an outmoded relic of another age, the nobles of Alethkar plot to eliminate him. Like modern-day progressives, they simply cannot stand someone who dares to hold himself above the filth they wallow in, to aspire to something greater. Dalinar's very presence is a reminder of their own shortcomings, and so a light in the darkness must be extinguished, a flower in the desert must be crushed.
The way I see it, Dalinar's role in the novel is one of self-reflection, especially when he begins having visions and believes himself to be going insane, subsequently preparing to step down from his duties if that should truly be the case. A reconciliation between his desire to turn Alethkar away from its path to self-destruction, and the morality of remaining loyal to his borther's memory and his oath to the king.
Of course, this being a novel, there is a somewhat happy ending, while we know out here we don't have that luxury.
Seriously, though. If you have any interest in the genre at all, go and read this book. It's a breath of fresh air in a genre which Vox Day notes has become polluted with all sorts of PC, weakness-glorifying crap.