Archive for the ‘Research!’ Category

The Wise Man’s Fear: Kvothe the Awesome

April 6, 2011

There are so many reasons I love these books. It started when I read the infamous introduction Kvothe gives Chronicler in Book 1. It built as I devoured the rest of The Name of the Wind and lingered over me as I paced back and forth, pulling out my hair waiting for The Wise Man’s Fear (how can a few  years take SO LONG?!). And then the joyful day it was released! Ah! Bliss! It’s been… oh geez, when was the last time I was this excited for a book to be released? Probably not since the first year or so of waiting for A Dance with Dragons. Or maybe the next Locke Lamora book.

Getting ready to re-devour it mmm mmm.

(And only now, reading a couple other reviews to give y’all some links, do I realize… this is Pat Rothfuss’s first published book(s)! I had no idea!)

There are so many reasons I love these books. But I’m just going to pick two for this post, the two that are perhaps most relevant to you lovers of space fantasy.

1. Magic is well-designed.

I cannot tell you how much of a turn-off poorly designed magic is to me. If I’m  engrossed in a book- compelling characters, interesting plot twists, etc- and then suddenly the  main character flourishes some poorly developed spell with no internal consistency, that pretty much just serves as a plot-crutch… auuugh, it drives me crazy! Look, authors: if you throw in some magic just to solve a situation because you can’t think of any other way out… it shows! I’m talking to you, wizards-are-basically-gods-Tolkien!

Pssshhyeah I'm Gandalf! Check out my one-size-fits-all light spell!

(I do loves me some Tolkien. But the magic was always so removed and unapproachable. I didn’t dig that.)

Anyways,  a good magic system? One with structure, laws, consistency? Well… maybe not TOO much consistency. This is magic, after all. But yeah- that kind of magic adds gorgeously to a narrative. (Watch for an upcoming Astroarcane story where Milo nerds out about magic theory.) I like Garth Nix’s Sabriel (the Abhorsen Trilogy): the main character is a necromancer who controls and banishes undead entirely based on the powers related to each of the bells on her belt. Handbell magic! And it works, beautifully, because the rules are sensible and well-defined- though of course there’s room for creativity.

Bells and zombies, yo.

So, back to Kvothe, and the world of the Kingkiller Chronicles. This magic is the most scientific magic I have seen in a book in… gosh, I can’t even think of an example. Most magic is what they call sympathy- you forge a link between a thing and a representation of it, and so whatever you do to the symbol, happens to the thing itself. And the more similar the model is, the higher your energy transfer efficiency is. We see Kvothe making mathematical calculations of how many thaums of energy will be needed to heat an item X degrees given Y metal in the link and… I think you get the point. It’s totally scien-tastic.

(The other half of magic in that world is Naming, which is much more mystical, but also fairly well anchored and consistent.)

So yeah: well defined magic system makes a believable fantasy world.

(I also like magic to have well-defined limits. I like when Milo is running out of mana in his Tome and has to get really creative about using the last of his strength. And I like when Kvothe gets binder’s chills from drawing too much heat out of his own body with a bad transference.)

2. Kvothe is the definition of ballsy.

Okay, I have to admit: the overly confident young hotshot who’s good at everything is usually a great big turnoff for me. I hate when the main character is good at everything and perfect in all ways. Just not interesting to this girl! But somehow… I dunno! Maybe it’s that in addition to being a badass arcanist, he also likes strumming his lute.

What a dork. Image by Kim Kincaid.

Kvothe jumps into these situations where your normal person would just freeze up and die horribly… or even your normal HERO would agonize about the right thing to do… and he just MOVES. Top speed,  fast-thinking, he analyzes the situation and reacts without wasting a second. He’s fearless… but it’s somehow a believable fearless, and it doesn’t set me off.

He’s also completely shameless and makes enemies everywhere he goes because of it. There is a hilarious scene in the most recent book where he’s playing his lute at his favorite tavern, and he does this clever little bit where first he plays a really easy song but hams it up like it’s really difficult, then plays a really difficult song while yawning and acting like it’s the simplest thing in the world. Half the room gets the joke, the others look like idiots for not getting it, and Kvothe doesn’t care in the least. It was brilliant to read and still makes me chuckle.

(Kvothe and Milo should never meet. They would pull pranks the scale of which would never be matched again in the history of the universe. They would collect ALL the enemies.)

I cannot WAIT for the next book.


March 14, 2011

Have you ever spent too much time reading about the Philosophy of Mathematics?  If so, you may have come across the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis first described by Max Tegmark in his paper Is “the theory of everything” merely the ultimate ensemble theory?.  Tegmark postulates that “Everything that exists mathematically exists physically”, and his paper can be seen as a modern defense of Mathematical Platonism.

After reading articles like the ones previously mentioned, I can’t help but spend a few moments, while taking notes in Physics class, pondering about the implications of modeling a physical system with mathematical equations.    When my professor asked the class to figure out where to aim our hypothetical catapult so that we could hit a hypothetical falling object, I entertain the idea of solving the equations in such a way that the constant of gravity is the variable I could manipulate.  This is certainly possible, but proves to be a mostly useless endeavor because manipulating gravity is beyond the means of most scientists.  However, if Max Tegmark and his Radical Platonism cronies were to see this post, they would assure me that if I can represent it mathematically, then is surely exists in some alternate reality.

Other Univserses with differing amounts of dimensions.

When I’m presented with these kinds of unexpected assertions about reality, I try to speculate what strange consequences could be implied.  If I were to derive an equation for the catapult problem in Physics class that was absolutely perfect in modeling the system, could I then alter reality by changing the physical constant of gravity?  Because surely reality has to match my perfect mathematical model.  This isn’t quite what the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis claims, but I like to direct my speculations towards outcomes that include gaining super powers.

The most important part of a super hero costume.

By now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with Astroarcane.  Writing from the perspective of Milo forces me to consider how a Wizard accomplishes feats of Magic.  I imagine that magical theory is very similar to my modified Mathematical Universe Hypothesis.  Magical metaphysics exist in a pure form in some higher realm (the ether), and dictate how reality behaves for all the inhabitants of the universe.  Wizards can create formulas that allow them to temporarily manipulate reality, which is what makes it Magic instead of Science.  The better a formula models reality, the more control a Wizard would have.  No wonder Wizards spend so much time reading!  Consider the advice of Master Strub, “Remember class, balancing the input of Mana with the expected output of the formula will improve the working efficiency of the Runes.”

So the next time you’re sitting in Physics class imagine you’re studying equations for the purposes of manipulating reality.  Lectures will be a lot more engaging and you’ll feel less awkward at graduation when you have to wear those funny robes.

(Personally, I feel that mathematics models reality, and that reality follows it own natural laws that exists separate from mathematics.  Simply put, mathematics is a human invention, albeit a very useful one.  I think of science and mathematics as constantly improving the model to be closer and closer to reality, which is in some ways the inverse of Tegmark.)

- Brian

Barsoom, starring John Carter of Mars

February 28, 2011

Hello lovely fans,

It may surprise you to realize,  but Brian and I didn’t actually invent the genre of space fantasy.  No, actually, there may not be a lot out there now, but science fantasy has definitely been around since the pulp magazines of the early 20th century.

Lately we’ve both been reading the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs (yeah, the guy who wrote Tarzan!).  Burroughs wrote the stories serially between 1912 and 1943 (he died in 1950 at age 74). They were later collected into novels, and eventually rolled into public domain- nowadays you can  totally download the ebooks for free from any of a number of sites.

I find the books totally charming on a number of levels- they reflect that early-twentieth-century notion of Mars as a dying world, its seas dried up and its people hardy warriors with a strong sense of honor and nobility. Resources are limited, struggle and warfare is almost constant, and overall it’s just a great landscape for heroic adventure.

John Jusko painting of the Barsoom cast of characters. John Carter and Dejah Thoris in the middle there. Beautiful romantic dying Mars!

Those esteemed literary scholars over at Wikipedia label the Barsoom series as “sword and planet”, which honestly is a good description. It’s set on Mars, and they use laser pistols and flyers and such, but they also fight with swords and lances and ride massive brutal mounts called thoats. There’s no -and-sorcery attached to that sword, though all Martians are telepathic, and later on in the series a few more weird abilities come to light. And the plots tend to follow the same formulaic fantasy plots of hero meets heroine, love love love, heroine is captured by villain, hero battles villain, hero and heroine get together.

Beautiful 1976-era Boris Vallejo version of John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Damn, he so manly.

(Brian and I agree that our Astroarcane stories are the flipside of sword-and-planet: space-and-sorcery. Yeah, maybe we made that up, what of it? ;-) )

I’m also in love with the language: everything is gorgeous trappings, elegant this and that, fearsome beasts. And this delightful quote, which pretty much sums up heroic John Carter:

I verily believe that a man’s way with women is in inverse ratio to his prowess among men. The weakling and the saphead have often great ability to charm the fair sex, while the fighting man who can face a thousand real dangers unafraid, sits hiding in the shadows like some frightened child. (A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs)

Babes abound. And monsters.

Anyways, yes, it’s a really unique universe, with many gripping adventures, and each of them is a quick read. I am pretty sure that if John Carter was in the Astroarcane Universe, he would use his rocket boots inappropriately. And that Gahan of Gathol (Chessmen of Mars) would totally duke it out in a wizard duel.  So hey, check Barsoom out, and let us know what you think!