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Scott

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Stuff [Jul. 2nd, 2012|09:55 pm]
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My latest guilty pleasure reading recommendation for fantasy-lovers: The Name of the Wind. I know everyone else has already read it like three or four years ago, but I managed to miss it until now. Actually, I know exactly how I missed it - inexplicably, I confused the book with Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. I'm going to be the first person to admit there is no reasonable explanation for this. But every time I saw it recommended somewhere, I thought to myself "That book by the Brazilian author about the pyramids? Nah."

The point is, I finally read it and it was really good mindless enjoyment. I classify it along with the Vorkosigan Saga and Methods of Rationality in the "a kid is much smarter than everyone else takes on adult society in clever ways" genre, on whose fringes lie books like Prince of Nothing (not a kid), and Ender's Game (doesn't really take on adult society).

I know that these books are status pornography, where you identify with the main character and then watch with glee as he proves himself better than everyone else in every way and brings down the pompous authority figures in his life - whom it's oh so easy to identify with the pompous authority figures in your own. But the whole point of pornography is that it's harmless, right?

People claim, with varying degrees of probability, that the normal sexy kind of pornography can harm people by giving them unrealistic expectations about sex ("oh no, my breasts aren't the size of basketballs! No one will ever love me!") I have no opinion on that, but I do worry that status pornography can give people unrealistic expectations about how awesome they have to be. And by "people", I mean "me".

Kvothe, the hero of Name of the Wind, is a master musician, speaks at least four languages, is proficient in several schools of magic, knows most plays and songs by heart, practices medicine better than most doctors, can pick locks and pockets, and is the only westerner to study his world's equivalent of kung fu. By the time he's twenty. And because it's a good book, the novel plausibly builds up all these skills and doesn't just present him as a Mary Sue, but after a while I start to notice I have a lot more in common with the helpless tradesmen he's usually stuck saving, who have somehow managed to live their entire life as a tailor without learning how to assemble an arquebus from household materials.

This is even worse in another series I read recently, David Zindell's Requiem for Homo Sapiens. Although its hero Danlo isn't quite as omnicompetent as Kvothe - his only world-class skills are musicianship, wilderness survival, meditation, eidetic memory, mathematics, sculpture, and being a starship pilot - Zindell makes up for it with this awful emphasis on mysticism where anyone who isn't sufficiently mystically advanced is Not Truly Human (TM). Danlo will go to some planet where everyone lives in concrete boxes and doesn't "commune with the sky", and notice how everyone seems stooped and unwilling to meet each other's eyes and speaks with quavering voices and doesn't know what they truly want and hides from genuine openness with other people and whose "love" is a tepid thing of convience and occasional bland sex and who sleepwalk through life without ever truly examining their own minds instead propelled by pride and inertia and...

And when I read this, it's hard not to think "Hey, I've never had a mystical experience in which I gain intuitive understanding of my own deepest self. And my voice kind of quavers when I hear it on recordings. And do I walk with a stooped posture? God, what if my posture is kind of stooped? How would I know?"

(Fact: it's almost impossible to type the word "stooped" quickly in a sentence without accidentally typing "stopped" instead. Try it!)

We all judge ourselves by comparison with people around us, real or imagined. That's why middle-class people in a poor neighborhood self-identify on surveys as "well-off", and middle-class people in a rich neighborhood self-identify as "poor". It's why people who watch pornography doubt their own sexual prowess. And it might be why, when I look at myself, I think "Aak, I'm 27 and I can't even play the lute!

It might also be why I'm so into lucid dreaming these days. After reflecting on it, I realized I feel inadequate as a person unless I have at least one magical power.

My other theory is that there's an equal and opposite genre of media that works solely by exposing us to stupid people so we can feel better than them. I'm pretty sure all reality television and most talk shows work like this. I'm entertaining the idea of watching an episode of Jerry Springer every time I read a book about a wizard, just as mental counterbalance.
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