Ferretbrain Presents the teXt Factor Episode 1 - Monotheism

by Wardog

Look! New thing! (this article description belongs to Jamie)
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(MP3, 95:39, 48 kbps, 32.34 MB)
So quite some time ago now, there was a bit of discussion about the “Tournament of Books” which took the basic concept of a literary awards program and cast it as a no-holds-barred to-the-death cage match. Never one to pass up an opportunity to steal a halfway-decent idea, I thought it might be interesting to try something even more stupid and arbitrary.

As a result, we give you:

Ferretbrain Presents: The TeXt Factor

Starting with a selection of twelve titles, our team of expert reviewers will read one chapter a week, and then vote out the one which we judge to be the worst (or once we have eliminated all the things we hate, the least best).

The books we shall be reading and judging over the next twelve weeks (give or take) are:

Score! - Jilly Cooper: “Many men hated Roberto Rannaldini. Many women, after loving him passionately, hated him even more.”

Angels and Demons – Dan Brown: “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and knew it was his own.”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson: “It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday.”

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett: “Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”

A Kiss of Shadows – Laurell K. Hamilton: “Twenty three stories up and all I could see out the windows was grey smog. They could call it the City of Angels if they wanted to, but if there were angels out there, they had to be flying blind.”

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel: “ 'So now get up.' ”

Furies of Calderon – Jim Butcher: “Amara rode atop the swaying back of the towering old gargant bull, going over the plan in her head.”

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins: “This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.”

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy: “May in Ayemnem is a hot, brooding month.”

The Dreaming Void – Peter F Hamilton: “The Starship CNE Caragana slipped down out of a night sky, its grey and scarlet hull illuminated by the pale iridescence of the massive ion storms which beset space for lightyears in every direction.”

Drood – Dan Simmons: “My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name.”

South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami: “My birthday is January 4 1951. The first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the twentieth century.”

The whole exercise, as you may have noticed, is kind of silly and arbitrary, but the vague kernel of validity in the whole thing is that a lot of our panel of expert judges are the sorts of people who feel really, really uncomfortable not finishing books, and so (we hope) there will be something new and liberating a format that mandates us to put things aside if we don't like them.

In addition (we hope) the serialised format should help us look at old texts in new ways, which might help us see things in the texts we would otherwise overlook.

That's the introduction, we hope you enjoy Ferretbrain Presents: The TeXt Factor

Warning: is quite long (1.5 hrs), contains loud noises, strong language, and nuts.

Vague Sort of Timeline:

00.00 - Introduction, Firstlines, General Preambling
08.05 - Drood
10.47 - South of the Border, West of the Sun
13.25 - The Malteese Falcon
15.57 - The Woman in White
19.20 - The God of Small Things
24.40 - Score!
30.01 - Wolf Hall
38.25 - Angels and Demons
59.01 - The Dreaming Void
1.01.30 - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
1.06.33 - A Kiss of Shadows
1.16.44 - The Furies of Calderon


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Comments (go to latest)
Viorica at 20:23 on 2010-05-09
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

I'll be interested to see if the book is as rapey as the movie. Because holy crap was that movie rapey.
Wardog at 20:30 on 2010-05-09
So far it is merely mind bogglingly tedious.

Bring on the rapes!
Rami at 21:28 on 2010-05-09
Love the theme music.
Jamie Johnston at 23:13 on 2010-05-09
Gawd, I sound ridiculously Radio 4.
Arthur B at 23:25 on 2010-05-09
I am reasonably confident that they're not going to let us on Radio 4. ;)
Rami at 01:54 on 2010-05-10
OK, so I'm listening to this in little chunks when I have the time -- lots of authors I've read and have opinions on in here!
Rami at 01:59 on 2010-05-10
Just listening to the bit where you're all talking about The God of Small Things...

Has anyone here read any of Roy's non-fiction? You get the same sort of thing you guys were talking about: some brilliant uses of metaphor and beautifully constructed language used to convey stark, terrifying situations. Except a bit more so, because it's real life :-(
Rami at 09:02 on 2010-05-10
Also, just a note about the big monotheism bit in the Angels and Demons discussion: yep, in Islam (any sect, even the Ahmadiyya, who are so far outside the mainstream that in Pakistan they're actually banned from calling themselves Muslims) the one truly unpardonable sin is polytheism. And Islam doesn't have "temples" either.

Sounds like Mr Brown confused the Dirty Brown Folk from the Middle East with the Dirty Brown Folk from India.
Rami at 09:13 on 2010-05-10
Oh, and also on Angels and Demons -- in America it was Nestlé Quik before 1999, so at the time of writing, that's fair enough.

And the Illluminati ambigram does only work with a triple-L. When I read this, it was summer and I was thoroughly bored and it was easy and diverting and so-bad-it's-good. So I thought I'd try Digital Fortress. And then I wanted to puke.
Wardog at 09:24 on 2010-05-10
I think I read The God of Small Things many many years ago - when I was like 14 or something, and I totally failed to get it; so this is really my first proper look at Roy's work. She's amazing. *mind blown*.

I think too much Mr Brown would induce nausea....
Rami at 09:46 on 2010-05-10
On The Dreaming Void: I liked it, but I'd read the previous space-opera duology (and Hamilton writes very good space opera IMHO) and was rather sucked in by the universe and the concepts and some of the stuff that turns up later on.
Rami at 10:08 on 2010-05-10
On Furies of Calderon: I am completely unsurprised to find that Butcher's epic fantasy sucks. The bits of the Dresden Files where he takes himself seriously (like the big srs myth-building) are the worst.
Shim at 22:46 on 2010-05-10
Oh, the shame. Clearly, "5/prose" is exactly the opposite of what I mean. In fact, I'm not sure how you'd specify that under older editions, but handily in 4E I could state it as "resist 5 prose".

Also: is that actually what I sound like? Whoa.
Jamie Johnston at 00:26 on 2010-05-11
I have literally no idea what you just said.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 01:56 on 2010-05-11
I have literally no idea what you just said.

Sadly, I do--he's talking about damage resistance, from Dungeons & Dragons.

I've always thought that the 3.5e way is kind of confusing, where you have resistance to everything EXCEPT whatever you specify, as well as magic, silver, epic weapons, and so forth (except Resist 20/Magic is...I don't even know, 3.5 is a wreck.)
Rami at 09:31 on 2010-05-11
Have fun!
Can anyone see this?
(Don't respond, I'm testing a new feature)
Andy G at 21:22 on 2010-05-17
Somebody on this podcast sounds exactly like Mark Lawson, perhaps because it's review-y like Front Row. It's very disconcerting.
Jamie Johnston at 22:06 on 2010-05-17
[Wonders who it is. Has a suspicion.]
Rami at 12:48 on 2010-05-18
Who's Mark Lawson?
Arthur B at 12:54 on 2010-05-18
Someone who presents Front Row and sounds a little like Dan. ;)
Jamie Johnston at 20:29 on 2010-06-03
So when I read Andy's comment above I was all, 'Hmmm, someone sounds like Mark Lawson? I hadn't noticed that. Who can it be? Hmm.' And just now I was looking at old Ferretcast notes and saw my own comment on Ferretcast 2, in which I note '[t]he way Dan occasionally sounds a bit like Mark Lawson...'

Possible conclusion #1: the number of times you have met and talked to Dan is inversely proportional to the extent to which you think he sounds like Mark Lawson.

Possible conclusion #2: my memory is rubbish.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2010-06-28
Slow going, but I'm following as best I can. This is sheer awesome. I was laughing my head off the whole way through.

I also like the little games you play with the theme music (is that from the Carmina Burana?

Just one thing. Because of my computer's crappy sound system, I generally have to listen to this with the headphones on. Which is fine, except that then Carmina Burana comes on at about five times the volume of your voices and nearly fries my eardrums.

Another small issue: any chance of a cast list? I've got Kyra, Dan, Arthur, and Jamie, and someone who've finally identified (tentatively) as Shimmin. And the sixth person, I keep missing her name. “Shanie”? “Shania”? Is she a contributor?

I haven't read most of the books you're reading (though I'm going to have to check some of them out now), so I'll only comment on two of them:

Angels and Demons
I probably would've “yayed” this. I listened to it on audio this past fall/winter and enjoyed it. Not as much as The Da Vinci Code but well enough. I hardly ever recognize awful prose, even when it walks up and slaps me in the face.

Yes, the science is crap, and the explanations are often condescending; seriously, what seventeen-year-old in the industrialized world (let alone a PhD professor of symbology) has never heard of “anti-matter” or “the big bang”? Sure, Dan's worked out that the story apparently takes place in 1978, but this was high school level physics back in the 60s, maybe earlier.

And yes, Vetra's thought of “proving” the events of the Bible could have literally happened as a scheme for reconciling science and religion (guess the Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, and other world religions are still out in the cold) makes about as much sense as a toffee cradle.

Still, I find the idea of spontaneously generating random matter/anti-matter pairs by just flooding a room with a shitload of energy rather compelling for a story premise.

I find Brown handles tension pretty well; his stories are exciting. I also appreciate his characterization. I always liked Doctor Kohler—sure he's grouchy and over-the-top (and, as Arthur points out, unrealistic), but I wouldn't compare him to Emperor Palpatine.

I especially find Brown's villains compelling. He does a lot better than many authors at making his villains genuinely understandable and sympathetic … with the unfortunate exception of the hashashim. There, I can't argue with anything you've said—it's racist and awful. I must have been blocking out all the implications of his portrayal in order to enjoy the story. Which is the recourse of the coward and the enabler, of course, but it is one that I do resort to at times. I guess it's a coping mechanism to help me deal with living in a world with as many messed-up things in it as, e.g. our own.

I think it'd be interesting to compare the Villainous Minority Assassin from the next book, The Da Vinci Code. Silas is an albino, but he's a lot more sympathetic and likable than the hashashim; he recognizes his actions are horrible, but you can really understand why he believes them to be necessary for the greater good. It's probably still pretty un-PC, but maybe Brown has improved in that regard … somewhat.

The God of Small Things

I wouldn't rate it any higher than a “meh.” Roy and her nonfiction writings have a pretty high standing among the far-left circles I habituate in the US. That, plus the book's acclaim raised my hopes for it when I finally got it on audio from the library a couple months ago.

Granted the narrator probably did a rotten job (I didn't even notice all the lovely prose you all rave about), but even so, I couldn't get into the characters or even really find the plot, much less enjoy it. All of which probably goes to show how much I Just Don't Get It, but there you are. Now I suppose I'll have to go back sometime and read the bloody thing on processed tree bark as nature intended and see if I do any better.

Rami: Has anyone here read any of Roy's non-fiction?

So far, only one essay from An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, but I look forward to more. I'm still excited by her non-fiction, even if her fiction so far leaves me cold.

(Fun fact: I actually finished listening to this episode about the time "Part 3" came up. The intervening five weeks were taken up by drafting this response.)
Jamie Johnston at 23:02 on 2010-06-28
You know, I can't for the life of me remember why, but I was thinking just the other day about how The god of small things would work as an audiobook and I ended up feeling that it probably wouldn't work at all well. On the one hand sometimes when we read bits of it out on the show* I notice special effects like alitteration that I didn't spot when reading, but on the other... I don't know, I can't really justify it, I just feel like it's one of those books that demands to go unmediated into one's head and take root there. So I'm afraid you may be right about trying the paper version.

*('On the show' - check me out talking like a media personality!)
Arthur B at 23:22 on 2010-06-28
I have to agree. Especially when it comes to the smushed-together words, which if you were listening to someone say them would just sound as though the reader was going too quickly for some reason.
Dan H at 23:31 on 2010-06-28
Still, I find the idea of spontaneously generating random matter/anti-matter pairs by just flooding a room with a shitload of energy rather compelling for a story premise.

Umm, you realize that this is almost exactly how particle accelerators work in real life? You take two beams of particles, and smash them together at high speed, and some of their kinetic energy gets converted to matter, which appears in the form of random particle-antiparticle pairs.

As Mr Brown would put it: FACT
Robinson L at 03:02 on 2010-06-29
Yes, Dan, vaguely. I guess I just really like the mental image of flooding a room with Pure Energy and spontaneously generating large particle of matter and anti-matter, and then taking the latter and storing it in a bunch of vacuum-canisters.
Arthur B at 12:05 on 2010-06-29
Oh, on the cast list thing: there's Dan, Kyra, Shimmin, Jamie, and me, who have all contributed articles, and Shani, who (as the About page mentions) contributes to all articles on Ferretbrain by drawing a green margin to the left.

<---- Like that one.
Robinson L at 13:36 on 2010-06-29
Arthur: Oh, on the cast list thing: there's Dan, Kyra, Shimmin, Jamie, and me, who have all contributed articles, and Shani

Thank you, Arthur.
Wardog at 16:28 on 2010-06-29
Yes, sorry about the super loud Carmina Burana - I guess I just got too excited.
I figured the ridiculously loud theme showing up so many times was a funny joke.
Rami at 20:28 on 2010-06-29
Yeah, I assumed it was intentional too :-)
Wardog at 12:00 on 2010-06-30
Well, yes, it was *intenetional* but it wasn't meant to ear-breaking. Just ... err ... preposterous :)
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2013-05-09
Thread necromancy (exactly three years later - serendipitous anniversary, woot!) because I recently watched a video of Brandon Sanderson lecturing about writing, and he said at one point that Jim Butcher essentially wrote Furies of Calderon and its sequels on a dare.

Context: Apparently, Butcher was in an argument on a message board with a person who insisted that great ideas are what makes a great story, with Butcher rejoining that what makes a good story is mostly the execution. To make his point, Butcher challenged his opponent to give him the two worst story ideas this person could think of, and then he, Butcher, would write a story from that prompt. The ideas were "Pokemon" and "the lost Roman legion," and the result was Furies of Calderon.

Sanderson clearly views this as a success story (apparently, the books sold really well). Not having read anything from the books myself, I'm in no position to comment.
Arthur B at 10:06 on 2013-05-10
Apparently, Butcher was in an argument on a message board with a person who insisted that great ideas are what makes a great story, with Butcher rejoining that what makes a good story is mostly the execution.

See, that's correct in principle, but to do a proper test of that idea you need an author who's actually good at the whole execution thing and uh...
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2013-05-10
Yeah, I kinda suspected you would have a rather different take on that story than Sanderson.
Dan H at 15:11 on 2013-05-12
It's one of those examples that could really cut both ways, isn't it. You could say "a skilled writer can make any idea work, as long as they execute it well" or "fantasy readers are so undiscerning that will read anything, no matter how ludicrous the premise."

Also, is it just me or has Jim Butcher *never* written a book because he actually wanted to. The Dresden Files was him imitating Hamilton as a writing exercise (but then *ohmygosh* somebody *totally* decided it was good enough to publish which was totally *not* what he was aiming for) and Calderon was just a *bet* that went far *too far*.

It's almost like the guy is afraid to actually take responsibility for his own writing. I mean seriously, have the courage of your convictions and write about something you're genuinely interested in.
Melanie at 17:56 on 2013-05-12
You could say "a skilled writer can make any idea work, as long as they execute it well" or "fantasy readers are so undiscerning that will read anything, no matter how ludicrous the premise."

Well, it's not just fantasy readers, though? I mean, think of all the action movies (for example) that have plots that are completely ridiculous if you actually lay them out in a bare-bones way, and are/were still very popular. There's an entire genre (superhero comics/movies) where a ludicrous premise is practically required.

I don't think there's anything wrong with liking something with a silly premise at all; it just seems odd to me to single out fantasy readers specifically.
Dan H at 18:27 on 2013-05-12

I don't think there's anything wrong with liking something with a silly premise at all; it just seems odd to me to single out fantasy readers specifically

Fair comment, I think it's just because Furies happens to be a fantasy series. Also, as well as having a silly premise, Furies of Calderon is *just bad*.
Melanie at 20:15 on 2013-05-12
Also, as well as having a silly premise, Furies of Calderon is *just bad*.

Haha, yes. I think I probably have a little bit of a double-standard there. If I dislike something, then it having a silly premise is an additional mark against it (maybe because my suspension of disbelief is already shot and being asked to suspend my disbelief "too far" irritates me?), but if I like it then the premise can even be a point in its favor (novelty! fun! seeing how they can make it work! etc.).
Cheriola at 00:23 on 2013-05-13
Since this site is an echo chamber with regards to Jim Butcher, you'll probably rip my head off for this, but... whatever. *shrug*

I liked the Codex Alera books. Were they high brow literature or particularly well written stylistically? Were they terribly original or were the early plot 'secret' reveals at all surprising? Will I re-read them again and again? No. But the books were entertaining me well enough on first read through, they had engaging and consistently ethical protagonists on the good side (unlike, say, Harry Potter), and they didn't require me to pull out a dictionary. That's all I ask for sometimes and Butcher never gave me the impression that it was supposed to be more than easy-reading fluff (unlike, say, Tolkien, which made his black-and-white narrative annoying after a while). I appreciate a hero whose heroism consist of making peace between warring cultures, making a decent attempt at improving the gender/class politics of his society, and who at least tries to solve diplomatic conflicts with brains and guile instead of military power, because the enemies are people, too. (Yes, it reads like an After School Special sometimes. But with YA fantasy, I think that's important. You don't want something like Doctor Who to go all grim-dark and cynical.) And I think Roman culture + elemental bending + non-tolkienesque fantasy races was an interesting change from the standard high middle ages + magic + elves or modern city + magic + vampires setting. Tavi was also one of the least sexually focused teen/twen male protagonists I've ever encountered outside of a Pratchett novel. He's got a steady girlfriend with very little romantic drama and that's it. As an aro-ace reader, I appreciated that. Plus, the books feature a few decently characterised female POV characters who struggle with the severely patriarchal nature of the culture they live in, among other political issues. Yeah, I kept rolling my eyes at the way both major female protagonists went on about the broad-shoulderedness, physical strength and emotional steadiness of their respective love interests, and the 'babies for everyone' ending was a bit much, but... Meh. At least the women got half of the plot focus, had a few opportunities to be sufficiently badass, and the male love interests attached to them weren't creepy assholes. That doesn't make the books particularly recommendable, but it raises them above what I'd call "bad".

And given your usual complaint about Butcher: I honestly don't remember that these books were more focused on the sexual attractiveness of the female characters than any other fantasy series (excepting Discworld, and even those have had some really embarrassing covers). I remember Isana having some body image issues, and one of Tavi's friends being a bit of a womanizer, and Kitai coming from a culture that doesn't believe in the notion that women should cover up more than men. But maybe my filters for this kind of thing have just gotten so strong that I don't notice it anymore. It was too exhausting to react with "verisexual people are weird" to virtually everything I read and watch, no matter if it was written by a man or a woman. You start to accept it as something alien that other people pay a lot of attention to but which you'll never understand, like a person born blind reading descriptions of colours, and so you just tune it out. Besides, it would be unfair of me to argue that verisexual people shouldn't get their fan service just because I can't appreciate it and feel alienated.
Robinson L at 12:36 on 2013-05-14
@Cheriola: Personally, I've only read the first three Dresden books, and I found them, on the whole, decent fluff (though with significantly more sexual content than you describe in "Codex Alera," and all of it highly juvenile). In fact, I'll even go to the wall for Butcher's ability to dig his protagonist in deeper and deeper and making his situation look utterly hopeless (multiple times in the same book, even), and then pulling him back out without resorting to Deus Ex Machina. Granted, I often got frustrated by just how bleak it got sometimes (it undermined the whole "disposable fun" aspect for me), but I can't say it was effective.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2018-09-05
Thread necromancy several years later. I still haven't reread The God of Small Things, and have no near-term plans to do so. However, this summer I read Ms. Roy's second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Well, I say I read it - once again, I listened to the audiobook, in a set of files I borrowed from the library and loaded onto my iPod. No doubt, as with the first novel, I missed several uses of language. Moreover, I listened to the book over a period of a couple weeks, as is my habit, and I lost track of several plot points and supporting characters over the course of the story - not helped by the way the narrative jumps around in time and space, less than in God of Small Things, but still quite a bit. And I wasn't sufficiently invested to take the extra time and energy to go back and figure out what I missed.

But all that said, I didn't dislike Ministry like I did The God of Small Things. In fact, my feeling on the book overall is quite positive. I enjoyed it. True, it's quite long, and the narrative dragged for me in some places. But I got genuinely invested in the characters and their goals and their struggles, and in the events unfolding around them. I didn't get nearly as invested in them as I've gotten with characters in other books of unquestionably lower artistic quality and merit, but enough for me to care about the story and keep me going all the way through. (I'd rate it at about the same level of investment as I feel for the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire - make of that comparison what you will.)

Once again, Ms. Roy tackles some extremely heavy topics in the novel, including the experiences of trans/intersex people, the occupation of Kashmir, and Hindu nationalist terror. She certainly doesn't pull any punches, but her handling of difficult topics felt a lot more deft to me and less heavy-handed in this book as opposed to The God of Small Things. While the latter book had its bright points and seemed to want to have a message about treasuring those moments in a world that generally sucks, the main feeling I remember coming out of God of Small Things is, well, "everything sucks." I suppose - in my bountiful reverse snobbery - that's a suitably literary message, but the take home attitude I get from Ministry is more complex. There's despair, and hope, failure, and triumph, sorrow, and joy; and yeah, things are pretty bad in many ways, and they're going to keep being bad for a while, but the book leaves the door open that they could change for the better, someday.

I should also note that, in contrast to the unknown-to-me narrator of the version of God of Small Things I listened to years ago, the Ministry audiobook was read by none other than the author herself. I've heard Arundhati Roy's lectures and commentary on podcasts and the like several times over the years, and she has a good speaking voice and reading voice, and I liked her narration a lot more than the woman who read the first novel.

Still can't speak for The God of Small Things beyond my first reaction to it from about eight years ago, but I enjoyed The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and can absolutely recommend it to anyone who thinks it might be their kind of book. Heck, maybe even Shim would like it.
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