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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 10, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Stormlight, Fast Food Ratings, EVs

I thought, as I read the first two volumes of Brandon Sanderson's magnificent fantasy epic Stormlight Archives, that this was obviously the best candidate to be the next sprawling feature-film-quality series to follow George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones.

Then somebody in a position to know told me that Sanderson plans for this to be a ten-volume series.

Ten? Really?

Since Sanderson is the writer who was engaged to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series of big thick fantasy novels, you'd think he'd be keenly aware of the fact that it takes a long time to write all those big thick books, and nobody lives forever.

Sanderson is younger than Jordan was, and in better health, but there are no guarantees. And a writer who begins an important, finite series -- a single massive work in multiple volumes -- has a responsibility not to bite off more than he can chew.

Or, perhaps, he has the responsibility to make sure he chews up all he has bitten off. If you have a massive story to tell, perhaps you measure it out a bit more rapidly than you would if it were only a single volume's worth of tale.

Though I enjoyed the first volume of Wheel of Time, the pace of storytelling was so slow that I simply gave up. There is such a thing as too much show, not enough tell.

George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, the series of novels on which Game of Thrones is based, moves much, much faster than Wheel. In fact, at times it fairly hurtles along -- the books are so thick not because the storytelling is slow, but because Martin's world-creation is so intense, and there are so many characters whose stories we care about, that it takes hundreds of pages just to cover a few weeks or months of events.

Martin's series has taken so long to complete in part because of his insistence on writing the books at a pace that is comfortable for him. This is actually essential -- books that are hurried in order to meet a contractual date or the clamoring of fans are rarely as good as books composed at the writer's natural pace.

But Martin isn't getting younger. In fact, he's an old coot (I can say this because I have achieved about the same age and degree of coothood). So I'm glad that the production schedule of the HBO Game of Thrones series is pressing him forward in story development.

Martin is an experienced TV series writer, a genre in which deadlines are met, no matter what. So once the TV series uses up the existing storylines, Martin will have to come up with, if not new book volumes, at least enough story to keep the series alive.

If he ends up writing the last volumes as thick novelizations of TV scripts that he wrote himself, I'll have no problems -- there is no question about authorship, because except for the meaningless porn scenes, Game of Thrones is one of the most faithful film adaptations ever -- and also one of the most artistically successful.

So what about Sanderson? He is astonishingly prolific, but this series already had a long delay between the first and second volumes. The intervening book, however, was the final installment of Wheel of Time, so there should be no more such delays.

Unless he thinks of some cool idea that causes him to completely revise the whole storyline.

And at least he has conceived his ten books, not as a single project, but as two complete five-book series. Presumably book 5 will give us real closure, and the second series will be starting anew. This is very thoughtful planning on Sanderson's part.

Sanderson has earned a reputation as a creator of fascinating magic systems, but I hope he never gets confused and thinks that's why his books are good. They're good because he understands human nature, and writes compelling characters into exciting, moving, intelligent stories.

Though his first novels were remarkably good (and I reviewed them accordingly), he is only getting better. His YA novel The Rithmatist is a delight -- who thought geometry could be made exciting? -- and his novella The Emperor's Soul is simply brilliant fiction.

If he had a Spanish-sounding last name instead of a Nordic one, The Emperor's Soul might have been called Magic Realism, and been highly praised in literary magazines.

But there can be no doubt that The Stormlight Archives is meant to be his magnum opus, and deserves to be.

Only two volumes are available right now, The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, but I urge you not to wait until the series is complete before beginning to read them. Each book brings the story to a point of fruition -- though of course they also leave plenty of story issues yet to be decided.

The story takes place on another world, in the midst of a longterm war between the human Alethi and the Parshendi, a usually-humanoid species that can change body shape according to the needed social role.

The war is fought out on "the Shattered Plain," a large region of plateaus divided by deep, narrow canyons. The Parshendi warriors can usually leap across the chasms, but humans can only cross using bridges, which have to be transported overland and laid in place under enemy fire.

All this takes place with a constant awareness of high storms, which come at frequent and fairly predictable intervals. It is almost impossible to remain alive if you are caught in a high storm without substantial shelter; even the plants have evolved to retreat underground, or withdraw their leaves when the wind rises, so they aren't all stripped away in every storm.

But the high storms also recharge the jewels that store up the power of the high storm, and it soon becomes clear that high storms, dangerous as they are, serve also as a source of magical power.

Complicating the warfare is the use of Shardblades and Shardplate, which seem to be left over from an ancient age when the Knights Radiant fought against the Voidbringers. When the Knights Radiant abandoned the human race, they left behind their blades and armor.

The humans who acquired these weapons and armor became almost irresistibly powerful in battle, and though there are perhaps only a hundred shardblades in the world, a single warrior with both blade and plate is enough to turn the tide of a battle.

But this is only one kind of magic. Other kinds were believed to be extinct, but are waking up again in the world, and those who are possessed of such powers can, by taking certain oaths and then living up to them, become like the Knights Radiant of old.

The principal hero of the first book is Kaladin, who was raised to follow his father in the practice of medicine and surgery, but who ended up going to war and then being cast into slavery. As he is being transported to his last place of enslavement, he becomes aware of a spren named Syl as an ally who changes his life.

Spren are magical creatures usually thought to have little power. They are usually small, somewhere between nymphs and fairies. They pop up with almost every kind of event or thing. If you have an injury that is festering, for instance, rot-spren begin to hover around. Do the Spren cause the problem, are they created by it, or are they attracted to it?

They usually seem to be mindless, but Syl comes to have more and more intelligence, and is able to converse with Kaladin -- though few others can see or hear her. He comes to learn that she is an honor-Spren -- drawn to someone who fulfils his oaths.

Another hero is the young woman Shallan, who seeks to become an apprentice to a woman of great political and magical power, in order to steal a magical device from her. Eventually her plans change, and in the second volume her story finally intersects with Kaladin's as they each uncover different aspects of the ancient legends and the ways that Knights Radiant seem to be coming back into the world.

This may sound either incomprehensible or foolish, but I promise that all is unfolded in a way that makes them seem natural and rational. Sanderson, like George R.R. Martin, is of the new generation of fantasists who borrow relatively little from Tolkien's Middle Earth and instead do their world-creation according to the principles of science fiction.

Magic is treated systematically, as if it were a science, and as a result, readers begin to understand the rules and limitations under which magic functions. Without such rigor, it's hard to tell a powerful story, because, as Judson Jerome once said to me, "If anything can happen, who cares what does happen?"

Nobody handles magic more rigorously than Sanderson, and as I tell my writing students, the more detailed the rules become, the more story possibilities emerge. Thus the storytelling in The Stormlight Archives is lush and endlessly surprising, yet never feels false or contrived.

I did not actually read these books -- instead they were read to me in the powerful Macmillan Audio recording, narrated by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer. They both do a splendid job, though I wish Kramer made a clearer distinction between short i and short e -- from his pronunciation I thought the spren were "sprin."

Language by its nature invites such slight pronunciation differences; what matters is that Kramer and Reading strike a perfect balance between expressiveness and restraint. Narrators need to perform the dialogue in such a way as to suggest the emotions of the characters without ever indulging in a full-on acting performance.

And the narration must always be under control, reporting the events rather than cheerleading them. I can happily say that the audiobook may be the best way to experience the millions of words of The Stormlight Archive -- since by wordcount, this series will easily reach many millions before it's complete.

And to Brandon Sanderson, I must offer a personal note: Write down or record all your plans for the whole series -- key events you foresee, the probably fate of the important characters, and solutions to the main mysteries about the past and the present which the characters -- and the readers -- are eagerly hoping to resolve.

That's because even though he is free, in the process of writing, to decide to change any of these, if he should not live to complete the series, the more story information he has committed to paper, the better the chances that other hands might yet fulfil his vision in completing the saga.

There are still six weeks of summer ahead of us. Plenty of time to read (or listen) to both of these thick, rewarding fantasy novels. I don't know how you could better spend your reading time.  (Unless, of course, you haven't yet read everything of mine.)

*

The August 2014 issue of Consumer Reports rates the quality of various fast food and fast-casual restaurant chains, and it raises a lot of fascinating questions.

There's a reason why Americans have embraced fast food. The automobile has allowed us to spread our lives over a much larger area. That means we spend a lot of our time getting from one place to another.

This is not because everything was closer together before the automobile. It's because, before the automobile, we didn't even try to get to as many different places in the same day.

In the old days, if kids wanted to play sports, they got up games in their neighborhood. Now we drive our kids to organized sports practices and games -- or to lessons taught in places that our kids can't walk to.

With all this driving around, with all the entertainment options and social obligations we now attempt to accomplish, we often prefer to grab something quick to eat that involves no preparation, no clean-up, and as little time as possible actually rooted to one place while we consume it.

I must confess that my wife and I have converted some of the finest restaurants -- in Greensboro and elsewhere -- into fast-food dining experiences. We pop in at a favorite restaurant before six p.m. on a midweek day, a time when you rarely need reservations. At Green Valley Grill, Fuji Sushi, Mediterraneo, Positano, Southern Lights, or Leblon, we usually know what we want without even consulting a menu.

So we order at once, often asking for everything to be brought as a single course, and we leave the restaurant, having dined on some of our favorite food, less than half an hour after arriving.

But designated fast food or fast-casual restaurants are designed to be even quicker in their service. The question, then, is whether the quality is worth eating at all.

There are fast-food menus that, in my opinion, contain nothing as palatable as eating good-quality packaged snacks or candy. The thought of eating at such places makes me think of skipping the meal entirely as a more attractive option.

But there are other fast-food restaurants that cry out to me in my sleep, their food is so good.

Of course, sometimes what's calling to me isn't the quality of the food -- it's the nostalgia. When I was a child, going to the A&W Drive-in was a highlight of the month. Choosing whether to order a mama burger or a papa burger was secondary only to drinking perfect root beer from a frosted mug, or just sitting in a car eating with my family, enjoying the playful or meaningful conversation.

Some of my favorite fast-food restaurants are standalones. They may be part of a small chain, but I usually know only one restaurant by that name. I think of Hires Drive-in in Salt Lake City, Burgers Supreme in Provo, Utah, the brilliant Poquito Mas, Chin Chin, and Fatburger chains in the LA area, and Pie Works and Cookout in Greensboro.

Being a national publication, Consumer Reports dealt mostly with national or large-region chains. They combined information from customer surveys, lab analyses, and systematic taste-testing by experts to come up with their list of best and worst.

(Try not to picture their experts eating fast food in a parking lot, their car windows tinted so no one will see them chewing up the food ... and then spitting it out in "spit jars," as wine tasters do in order to avoid overindulgence.)

If you want the full list, then of course you must buy Consumer Reports -- always a good idea, since they are supported by sales rather than advertising. Their well-deserved reputation for integrity is sustained by the fact that they never have to compromise their reviews in order to avoid offending a potential advertiser.

The problem is that even with professional taste-testers, experiences as well as preferences vary from person to person and from store to store.

For instance, I know several people who think the Five Guys burger chain is brilliant, and Consumer Reports rates it well enough (except on their list of most and least healthful, where it's in the bottom five).

But when, on the recommendation of friends, my wife and I tried Five Guys, I found my burger to be so greasy that before I was half done with it, the bottom bun had dissolved into a mass of greasy goo, at which point it was no longer, in my opinion, either a hamburger or edible.

Yet that very greasiness (translated as "juiciness") was one of the things our friends valued most. So a particular restaurant or menu item might get lots of survey votes while being quite vile to someone with different tastes -- and vice versa.

Del Taco, for instance, is not even close to the top in CR's quality lists, but I know a retired gentleman for whom Del Taco is a favorite daily ritual. The staff know this genial man so well that when they spot him pulling into the parking lot, they often have his order waiting for him by the time he reaches the counter.

For him, Del Taco is a valued experience -- though if he didn't enjoy the food he would never have become a "regular" in the first place.

There's something about being cheerfully greeted at a restaurant that makes you glad you came -- and helps you forgive occasional lapses in quality.

So it may be that when we think of a name like "Chipotle Mexican Grill" or "Subway" or even "McDonald's" or "Chick-Fil-A," we're not so much thinking of the national chain as of the particular restaurant that we most commonly frequent.

Many of the CR comparisons are between menu items that I would never select anyway.

Still, I was pleased to see In-N-Out Burger (another small chain) got a high rating, as did better-known chains like Chipotle, Firehouse Subs, and Baja Fresh.

The CR comparisons include ratings of clean surroundings, healthiness, and taste, and unless you never eat fast food, it's worth buying the issue and comparing your own experiences with their ratings.

Seeing Chick-Fil-A rated highest in taste for the chicken category stabbed me a bit, because I agree completely, but for the past few years I've had to swear off Chick-Fil-A entirely, because everything on the menu is cooked in peanut oil. There are reasons why peanut oil is an excellent choice for delicious and healthful deep-frying (if "healthful deep-frying" is even a meaningful concept), but that doesn't help those of us with peanut allergies.

And my wife can't even enter an Arby's, though it once was a favorite, because during her first pregnancy she had a craving for an Arby's sandwich but then returned it to the open air in a dramatic and unpleasant way. Pregnancy-sickness regurgitation can hardly be counted against a fast-food restaurant, even if it permanently removes it as a dining option.

But even restaurants that are not at the top of the lists can still be favorites, if that's what you're in the mood for! About twice a year, I have to have a Big Mac. So sue me.

And there is no better fast-food breakfast than the Sausege Egg McMuffin, as long as you're in the South, where the sausage they use is spicy.

*

Every time I start thinking I'll buy an electric golf cart and drive it around on local errands the way the characters do in Cougar Town, I have to remind myself that the TV show takes place in Florida, which is flat, and I don't know if golf carts could deal with Greensboro's ubiquitous (and iniquitous) hills.

Nor do I know whether people would be patient with golf-cart speeds on roads where everybody breaks the speed limit, like North Elm or Pisgah Church or Cone.

Is it even legal to drive a golf cart on the road? I'm pretty sure they're forbidden on the freeway, but ...

Reading CR's report on electric and part-electric vehicles makes it plain that we're not quite ready to convert to all-electric vehicles that conform to our ideas of what a "real car" should be.

Which is a shame. I'm ready for electric now. I just need the technology to get good electric vehicles (Evs) into my price range. Which the Tesla definitely is not.

*

Last week I told the students in my annual writing workshop that in manuscripts, you always use underlining instead of italics, because it's so easy to overlook italics during the editing stage.

Now the editor for the book I just completed tells me that my publisher far prefers to have italics rather than underlining in the computer file I'll be turning in to them.

Oh well. Things change, and I'll now change what I tell my students.


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