Category: Cosmic Dice


In the Company of Ogres GraphicI just finished reading In the Company of Ogres, by A. Lee Martinez1. The essential plot line follows an individual named Ned (called ‘Never Dead Ned’), who is probably what I would consider an “anti-hero.” Ned is pretty much incompetent at everything in his life – he can’t really do anything well, or in many cases, even sub-par, with one exception – he can’t die. Or, rather, he can die (he’s actually pretty practiced at that), but for reasons that become clear later in the book, Ned doesn’t stay dead.

Synopsis

At the beginning of the book, Ned is an accountant for Brute’s Legion, an army of skilled and fearsome warriors. We get the impression that, while Ned isn’t extraordinarily good at being an accountant, he isn’t awful at it, either. He is transferred from this position to a command position in Ogre Company, which is a motley assortment of undisciplined characters that include a fire-breathing salamander, a shapeshifting goblin, several ogres (for which the company is apparently named), a promiscuous siren, and a bloodthirsty Amazon.

Ned isn’t quite sure how to handle this command position, and he is fairly disinterested in being a commander in general. As the story progresses, we learn more about Ned’s past, which leads to a confrontation that could ultimately destroy universes (yes, plural!). Ned is also the subject of essentially two female crushes, although he is oblivious to both of them. This situation adds humor and a bit of frustration to the novel. Frustration is felt by the reader (at least by me) on behalf of Ned’s two lovers’ feelings going not only unrequited, but unacknowledged. Add to this a plot to destroy Ned as a commander (in normal terms, this would mean killing the individual, but since Ned doesn’t stay dead, this becomes quite a conundrum), and there is a whole avenue of ridiculous humor to be explored.

Comparison to Other Works

I think that A. Lee Martinez’s writing style developed significantly in the year between the publishing of Gil’s All Fright Diner2 (his first novel) and In the Company Of Ogres. The writing seems to be more fluid in In the Company of Ogres, whereas in Gil’s All Fright Diner, it seemed to me that the author was still trying to determine his place in the set of amusing and ridiculous fantasy novels. With In the Company of Ogres, Martinez seems to blend well with other authors in this genre such as Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and (in some cases) Neil Gaiman.

One thing I will say regarding the comparison between Gil’s All Fright Diner and In the Company of Ogres is that I actually thought the overall topic of Gil’s All Fright Diner was more interesting. I’m not exactly sure why, but it seems to me that when reading a fantasy novel, especially one that’s set in an era similar in style to Earth’s “middle ages” (e.g. weapons are mostly melee, farming is done by hand, communication done by carrier pigeon or other bird, etc…), magic, demons, monsters, etc… are all just expected. So, the fact that in Gil’s All Fright Diner, a novel set in a rural town in what appears similar to modern America, the two main characters are a vampire and a werewolf, is original and unexpected. Even more unexpected is the fact that nobody seems to give this a second thought!

Review

Overall, I was pleased with the novel. I thought that the protagonist, in this case, Never Dead Ned, was interesting and developed in an unexpected way over the course of the novel. The novel was fairly funny, and it kept me interested throughout the book. I only have two criticisms about the book in general. One is that I thought the idea of the Mad Void – the supposed all-powerful demon asleep in Ned’s mortal shell – was somewhat hard to swallow, given that he had (some) difficulty defeating Rucka (a supposed smaller, or less-powerful demon). The Mad Void is introduced as a character that literally destroys universes for entertainment – that’s how powerful he is. On the other hand, he was somehow bound into a mortal form and trapped, as well as (almost) being defeated by Rucka. This sort of boggles my mind, and it might have been interesting to have a chapter on the back-history of the Mad Void either when he is first introduced, or perhaps at the beginning of the novel. Something that makes it clear how he was trapped in that shell originally, and why the Red Woman was assigned to watch him (rather than one of the magicians that originally trapped him) would have been useful.

The only other criticism I have of the novel is the idea of Ned’s autonomous left arm. I don’t think the idea is bad – in fact, I think it was a great idea that just wasn’t pushed quite hard enough. In the beginning, it’s introduced that Ned doesn’t have complete control over this arm, and my first reaction was “Oh boy, this is going to be funny later in the book.” There are some scenes where it enters in, such as in the pub when Ned first arrives at Ogre Company, but other than that, this plot device isn’t used much until the end of the book. I think it would have been really funny if it had gotten him into some strange troubles. I can see all kinds of jokes, especially given that there were two women chasing Ned, but Ned was somewhat oblivious to both of them. If the arm wasn’t oblivious, and had a mind of its own in situations like this, it would have been hilarious to see the reactions from Regina and Miriam as they get multiple signals from Ned – one of disinterest from Ned himself, but one of innate attraction from Ned’s left arm.

All in all, though, the book is definitely worth reading. I’m excited to see Martinez’s development as an author, and I’m looking forward to reading his other novels soon.

[1] In The Company of Ogres.
[2] Gil’s All Fright Diner.

Recently, I’ve finished the book The Magician King1, by Lev Grossman. It’s an interesting book, although, in my opinion, not as interesting as his first book in the series, The Magicians. The series is like a combination of Harry Potter and Narnia, except significantly darker, with some mature content. One of the things I always liked about the Narnia series is that it brings up interesting philosophical points of view. In this respect, both The Magicians and The Magician King don’t disappoint.

One of the most interesting areas of philosophy in The Magician King is a conversation between the main character, Quentin, and his rival/friend, Penny, regarding a super-being they are witnessing performing a task that will remove magic from their world:

“Maybe we should talk to him,” Quentin said. “Maybe we can change his mind. We could, I don’t know, prove ourselves worthy of magic or something. Maybe they have a test.”

Penny shook his head.

“I don’t think they can change their minds. When you get to that level of power and knowledge and perfection, the question of what you should do next gets increasingly obvious. Everything is very rule-governed. All you can ever do in any given situation is the most gloriously perfect thing, and there’s only one of them. Finally, there aren’t any choices left to make at all.”

“You’re saying the gods don’t have free will.”

“The power to make mistakes,” Penny said. “Only we have that. Mortals.” 2

This brings in a new and interesting idea that I hadn’t considered before: What if the very nature of how a deity exists prevents such an intelligent, all-powerful being from having free will?

Let’s consider this for a moment based on the faith of Protestant Christianity. (I’m not trying to be offensive here, this is merely for the sake of argument, and is based entirely on my own knowledge faith, which happens to come in the form of Lutheran Christianity). There are a few assumptions that are made by most Christians regarding God:

  1. God is Omnipotent (all-powerful).
  2. God is Omniscient (all-knowing).
  3. God is absolutely good.

Note that #3 doesn’t actually mean “all-good” for an individual. That is to say, what could be good for the universe as a whole, might not be good for me individually. This is usually phrased along the lines of “God has a plan” or “God works in mysterious ways” – indicating that we can neither expect that His plan is individually good for us, or that we can even understand His plan.

Now, if we take the logic that Penny was talking about in the snippet, and apply it, along with these axioms, we come up with the following train of thought (note that ‘virtuous’ and ‘good’ would have to have some definitions in this context. I save the definition of ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ as an exercise for the reader): If God is all-knowing and absolutely good, it means that He will always take the most virtuous course of action, given a set of actions. Given a set of actions, there is always one action which is more good than the other actions. However, some actions are outside of the abilities of the one making the choice to act. Since God is all-powerful, no actions are outside of his abilities. Thus, there will always be a single choice, given a set of choices, which is absolutely good and virtuous, and which is within God’s power to act upon. It is therefore inherent in these axioms that God has a single choice which He will make at any juncture. Thus, it is impossible that He can choose to do anything aside from these choices. This is pretty much the definition of lack of free will. Thought of another way, since God is perfect, there is, at every juncture, only one perfect choice, given all possible sets of all possible actions. This leads us to the same conclusion as before, only with ‘absolutely good’ replaced by ‘perfect’ in this context.

So, I found this incredibly interesting. More so, because we, as Christian Protestants believe, are created from God. But, we (seemingly) have free will. So, how can an entity that lacks free will create an entity that has free will? Talk about a mind bender. (Of course, there is the possibility that we don’t have free will, and that everything is, at least for us, pre-destined. Perhaps this is a slightly different way of looking at Shakespeare’s famous quote, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”).

There are a couple of flaws (that I see) in this philosophical argument. One is that we can’t know for certain that there is only one perfect choice. What if there are an infinite number of perfect choices? I suppose, when you’re operating on a plane where you are a supreme being, given a set of infinitely perfect choices, one must ultimately pick at least one of them, and thus, at some level, the deity would require free will.

Another flaw is if there isn’t a single entity – but rather, multiple deities operating in concert (or competition) with one another. In this case, if a deity is going to act, it must perform the most perfect choice available, unless another deity has already made this choice irrelevant (either by performing it itself, or by making a move which would make the previous ‘perfect’ move obsolete). In this case, we get more into a game-theory based philosophical argument. Really, it isn’t a lot different, though, because if the deities are all-knowing, then they will know the moves of one another in advance. It simply eliminates that as a possible choice, and they are back to choosing the most perfect of a set of reduced choices.

Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors, has written a lot about gods3 – stories about how gods are really products of human worship, rather than human worship being the product of their actions. I don’t remember seeing an argument to the effect of lack of free will in any of his stories (alebit it may have been treated in passing as part of the existence of The Endless in his Sandman novels – they each have a very specific role, although they don’t seem to lack free will). It would be interesting if he wrote a story or book on this concept.

At any rate, I realize this argument is a bit like the Omnipotence paradox4, but it definitely struck a chord in my mind while reading it. I would, for certain, recommend reading the novel. Although, I really hope Lev Grossman makes the series at least a trilogy, as the ending of The Magician King leaves quite a bit to be desired (in the way The Empire Strikes Back leaves you thinking, “What? That’s the end of the movie!?!?”).

I’m always interesting in a good thought-provoking novel, and in that respect, The Magician King definitely doesn’t disappoint.

Notes and Bibliography


[1] There are some spoilers in this post, and I have tried hard to minimize them, but if you have an intention of reading The Magician King, I would recommend doing so now, then coming back to this post at a later date.

[2] Grossman, Lev. (2011). The Magician King (pp. 303). New York, NY: Viking.

[3] If you’re interested in reading more on the existential question of deities, I highly recommend The Sandman graphic novels, as well as American Gods and Anansi Boys.

[4] Omnipotence Paradox (Wikipedia Entry)

Decisive Moments

Dennis Hopper died Saturday, May 29, 2010.  As part of a tribute to his work, National Public Radios’ Fresh Air replayed a series of interviews Terry Gross did with him.  During the course of the conversation, Hopper talks about a period of his early career in photography where he went through what he termed a “decisive moment period.”  He explains that a “decisive moment” is that moment just before something is going to happen.  These elusive moments are frozen frames in time, such as an image of two guys throwing a ball, and the second before one of them catches the ball.  Another example would be a drop of dew, captured just before it falls from the tip of a leaf.    Capturing decisive moments is difficult.  I’m not a photographer, but I would think it requires immense patience, as well as a sort of intuition that comes only from experience.  Almost a prescience, in fact.  Or a message from the universe that only those specifically tuned to a particular extrasensory frequency can receive.

After contemplating this for a while, I began to ask questions.  What if the dew drop that appeared to be falling from the leaf in the picture didn’t actually fall?  Would our world be any different?  Would we know it if it was?  A photograph is a single, frozen moment in time.  The person or people who view that photograph do so out of context – there is no possibility of viewing that time either before or after that single moment.  Just that single millisecond.

In a way, it’s somewhat like a Zen koan:  “If a tree falls in the forest with noone around to hear it, does it still make a sound?”  Does a single moment in time, captured at a crucial juncture, depend on the moment before or after itself?  Physicists might argue no.  By somehow miraculously jumping back up onto the leaf, the dew drop would be defying gravity.  Even if it were able to do this, possibly as a result of a strange local gravity well, this would have no impact on other aspects of our world.  But – is this really true?  Chaos theory states that even minute changes in things surrounding us will have impacts much greater that what can be measured or anticipated.  And, to argue in the vein of Schrödinger himself, do we not change the outcome simply by observing it?

In addition to the philosophical question, there’s a human question.  I am reminded by the famous scene at  the Appomattox Court House, where, after surrendering to the Union forces, the general Robert E. Lee calmly takes off his gloves on the porch of the court house, looking out over the horizon.  I’ve heard that scholars have often wondered what he was thinking at that moment.  But if we consider a human thought – taken at any moment, we are essentially considering a single frame of a very long string of frames – a photograph.

Does a single moment in time make a difference to the outcome of life, the universe, and everything?  Probably most people would probably say yes.  But, how does one determine which moments are important or crucial and which are mundane?  The photographer skilled in capturing “decisive moments” knows how to accomplish this.  Dennis Hopper describes the search for decisive moments is essentially the search for the beauty in the mundane.  But, does simply recognizing something and singling it out make it more than mundane?  Does it make it crucial and important?  Does this make all other moments less crucial or important?

I believe the skill in seeing these decisive moments is in understanding that every moment is decisive; you just need to tune your mind to the frequency of different levels of decisiveness.