Living through the Hermetic Millennia

Warning: This might rival the length of the book.  I’ll at least divide it so spoilers will be limited to after the rating.

“My instructions reached a halt-state.  Since I was unable to decide whether to wake you or not, I had to wake you for instructions on whether to wake you or not.”

That line – spoken by an AI – made me laugh so hard it covers over a multitude of sins. (I think my exact thought when reading it was: ‘Well I see Windows survived into the future.’)  Then the author posted a section from the book that I was going to so I am thankful he saved me the trouble as that is my second favorite moment.

Unfortunately, the ending of the book commits such a horrible narrative sin that not even these shining moments can cover them.

My fellow nerds, it is with heavy heart that I bring the charge of ‘Mass Effect 3 conclusion’ against this novel.  It is with a heavy heart for our community has not had such a grievous charge since ‘One More Day divorce’ and ‘the Phantom Menace treachery’.  However, I urge the jury to consider two factors to sway them towards leniency in ruling whether the author shall be banished.  1) This is not the conclusion to the series as a whole and 2) it might be the fault of the publisher having left off the last chapter or epilogue.  Thus as the prosecution, I’m only asking for his wife to make him sleep on the couch for one month or for him to hand deliver a reprint of the book with the missing chapter to every dissatisfied customer.

Let me see if I can explain the ending without spoiling it.  Imagine you’re watching Star Wars.  Luke heads down the trench, we see Darth Vader and his wingmen following after – END!  Or the Best of Both Worlds.  The Enterprise is staring down the Borg Cube.  The screen comes on and we see Locutus walking forward and – END!

I mean I’m not opposed to cliffhangers.  Yes they make me angry, but it’s the good kind of anger (sort of like how some go to horror movies to be scared, it’s a good kind of scared) and there is a rhythm to it; moments you’re supposed to end on.  Now John to cliffhangers is what Shyamalan is to twist endings (that time I mean it a compliment).  But this?  No, bad form.  I’d hate to say it but if you like the quote above (or the passage I linked to), I almost recommend waiting for book 3 to release.

Otherwise this is a very good story.  It’s told backwards in a Momento-style which is a lot of fun.  It also expects the reader to think and half-participate through it.  I had numerous pages marked which I would flip back to as I read to be sure I was following all the threads which is another plus.  Religion is treated with some respect in it and probably with the most realism I’ve seen in a long while – it’s not two dimensional in a positive (like many evangelical stories) or negative (like many atheist ones) way.  As a whole as if you didn’t figure out from the link, the examination of humanity itself is a very realistic mix of cynicism and silliness (how like man).

Now let’s say I was given lots of anti-matter and was Master of the World.  Of course I’d leave most of it alone and instead devote my power and resources towards the production of fine art (maybe if we bring back Firefly the Hyades armada would spare us) like… adapting this book?  Well I’ll have to change my original plan of a movie.  Instead the first book would be a season long show on HBO (it and the 2nd have enough violence and nudity to meet the HBO quota I think).  Then a mid-summer miniseries (2-4 episodes) following the protagonist at the book’s opening.  Then each following season would cover a moment during the following six millennia (or at least 5, one of them may have to be excluded) when the protagonist intersects with history (yes, he would be a guest star each season).  Then the 8th season would bring back the protagonist and his adventures that we mostly see here and what will probably follow in the sequel.

Objectively speaking… this is at least the equal or better than the previous book, but I still have to dock a shell for that ending.

UPDATE: I almost forgot, there are a few typos in this, but not as bad as in the print edition I have of the first book and certainly nothing you can’t read around.  Well… there might be some typos in some of the “technobabble” (and I use that term loosely since I know John is using actual science in here – as far from some of Trek’s worst instances) and long titles, but I usually just skim over those.

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Spoilers!

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There’s two key moments to the narrative: When the antagonists divide up allotments of time to test their pet theories and the next time we see the protagonist wake after it.  In that scene, MM (I can’t possibly spell his name without looking it up so I’m just going to abbreviate through here) uses that metaphor the favorite of all epically awesome and silly pretentious writers everywhere: Chess.  In particular, he makes reference to a particular match known as “the Immortal Game”.  Now pretty much from there we – the reader – are looking for that one moment: the moment someone goes “checkmate” (whether literal or figurative).  I mean think about it: Why do we even say “checkmate” in a chess game?  Can’t the other person see it just as well?  Because it is a way to give humans closure, a sense of finality.  Saying something out loud helps our brains to accept and realize the truth.  But the ending… it really comes off like the author is trying to have his cake and eat it to; to convince us there is a “checkmate” while trying to leave open a “ah ha!  reversal!” for a sequel.  Here’s why it doesn’t work (also, i apologize for how far I’m about to stretch this poor metaphor but it’s the best way I can explain it):

  • Part of where the “checkmate” would come from is the role of Simplifiers.  If they are pieces on the board, which side are they on?  Of course it’s always assumed that they are working for the bad guy (nicknamed “Blackie”, thus, they’d be black chess pieces, clever huh?) but it’s never confirmed.  Heck right towards the end, there’s even further doubt – they might actually be MM’s “pieces”.  At the end of that first wakening we see, MM mentions that he’s going to try and “replant” humans onto earth so I was assuming through most of it that the Guardians of the Galaxy blue guys were that result.  I mean it is silly to assume autonomous beings you create are going to automatically be on your side (see: the Bible) but it’s equally silly to assume they’re going to automatically be on the side of your enemy too (see: the Bible again).  There needed to be at least SOME confirmation of the Simplifiers’ identity and/or loyalties.
  • Then the “checkmate” is supposed to come when the tombs are finally broken into.  Any minute they’re going to have confirmation of MM’s location.  Except… I already had that sensation: a chapter or two back when we learned that the water in all its forms they were surrounded by were actually nano-machine components of digi!Blackie (in this case digi=digital, not a japanese cartoon show).  That was my “oh shit” moment.  All this time MM is concerned about spies when, spies have been all around him.  So when he’s panicking over the final break-in, it feels like the character is just now catching up to where the audience reached an hour ago (or however long you take to read).  I can’t yet figure out any excuse for why MM doesn’t react to this “pox, I’m surrounded” news that doesn’t require “It’s In The Script”.  The person revealing it mentions that the tombs are the last territory for the digi!Blackie to conquer and we shortly thereafter learn that it was a laser on the freakin’ moon that first “broke into” the tombs.  So even if there’s some sort of size difference that’s supposed to hide MM, digi!Blackie should logically be focusing all of he/its attention on that spot.  (sort of like how you become focused on an infected thumb)
  • All the “white” pieces just disappear.  Once you get towards the end of the book and you put together all the clues from the aforementioned chess-referencing scene, you realize that everyone who are in the camps pretty much have to be because MM picked them.  Which makes a lot of sense.  If you were in charge of huge cyro facility and had to pick some people to potentially fight along side you, wouldn’t you pick one like… Washington, Bruce Li, Patton, etc.  Yet at the end of the book, they just all disappear.  Why?  Not explained.  Now to return to the chess metaphor, for a checkmate to work, we have to see the pieces leaving the board per the rules of the game.  If however we say… blink and suddenly half of white’s army is gone and black has checkmated, we’re not going to be impressed, we’re going to assume some shenanigans have gone on.  Now of course this is different from real life which is messy and can have unexplained happenings but it doesn’t work here mostly because this is the equivalent of magic.  Say you went to work one day (like me, maybe you walk).  Work 8 hrs, you get out, then when you walk outside the building, no one’s around.  Now unless you live in the middle of nowhere or work nightshifts, there’s only a handful of explanations possible, and even fewer that could explain why you didn’t notice anything (like say… the entire city evacuating).
  • Plus, we know that at least some allies of MM are in fact waiting in the tombs.  What happened to them?  Shouldn’t their presence have some impact or hindrance on the ending “checkmate”?
  • Not to mention that a good portion of the book is spent formulating this “prison break” plan.  MM gather’s allies, puts things into place and… nothing comes of it.  We don’t even get to see the attempt fail (if it did).  It kind of makes the reader feel like large segments of the book were just a waste of their time.

Any one of these mystery factors could, properly set up, make for a working cliffhanger at the end of this book.  If say… every story can be metaphored as “alice & bob try to get home”, then those with cliffhangers are when the characters turn down a dead-end alley.  How are they going to get home?  Where can it go from here?  This book doesn’t end with that dead end.  It ends like you’re driving down the interstate at 175 miles per hour and suddenly slam on the brakes.  At least if the characters turned down that alley and slammed into the wall at the end you’d partially see it coming and have some closure to sate you.

Enough about the ending.  I admit I am a sucker for the “tales of history” format of storytelling (heck, sometimes I can spend hours on wikipedia just reading plot synopsis rather than bothering with the source) but it was quite enjoyable seeing an active contrast between the person that is (our protagonist) and the legends that grew up around him, the “Judge of Ages”.  Quite frankly, at some points I got to wanting to hear more about the JoA and his life/legends than actually watching MM’s (the JoA himself) adventures.  Now one has charged John with making a bit of preachy book.

“Some of the early bits with the variant humans were interesting, but they turned out to be kind of stereotypical when they got more screen time. Also, apparently they were all innately evil because they didn’t adhere to monogamous Christian 1950s-small-town-America values.”

I have to admit, that isn’t necessarily an unfair charge.  I don’t think the author intended such a message, but stories often end up with more meaning than storytellers intended. (here’s the trope)  However I will make two arguments in defense of the author here.  First, he’s not one-sided like many hack lesser authors.  The “stereotypes” are given a pretty fair account of themselves and it’s only the viewpoint character (the Judge of Ages) that condemns them.  Or rather, condemns the mores of their times.  Whether you find them to be evil or nor is really up to you.  Second, how the heck do you define these things as “stereotypes”?  We are shown 1 representative of 1 era in detail in each instance.  (There might be more of them in the book, but they’re typically background/redshirts.)  Imagine… you’ve never been anywhere outside of your home town.  Then one day, you meet a black fellow who grew up in Africa and moved to America.  So you asked him to tell you all about Africa (that’s right, the entire continent).  Would you say as you got to know him that this guy was “kind of stereotypical”?  How could you possibly know?  See how nonsensical that statement is?  It’s not a stereotype, it’s a sample size.

Besides, considering the sheer wealth of media that is produced which describes anyone as innately evil because they don’t adhere to the current CA/NY values, now you know how the rest of the country feels going to a lot of movies, watching TV, etc.  That’s right, you’ve had to deal with 1 sucker punch.  Many have to deal with 1 sucker punch every half hour.  Get over it.

Everything else: good.  If you want to give your imagination a work out, I highly recommend this.  Just watch out for the sudden halt at the end.

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2 thoughts on “Living through the Hermetic Millennia

  1. I kind of disagree – in the middle of a six part series, you almost *have* to have a cliffhanger ending. All the open questions are exactly the stuff hanging – where did everybody go? How did Franz pull this off? Where did Oenoe and Soorm get to? Who’s side are they on, anyway? All that and more IS the cliffhanger.

    Now, if I didn’t know there were 4 more books, then I’d be pissed.

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