Friday, January 22, 2010

Jobs and Politics

Earlier this week, I heard a couple radio guys discuss the rumored severance package for talk show host Conan O’Brien for an estimated thirty million dollars. “If I got a 30 million dollar severance package”, quipped one of the guys, “I’d announce my retirement!” Certainly, many people would stop working if they found their way into a lot of money – a lot of people only work because they need to pay the bills. But I remember reading about people who win the lottery, then their lives are effectively ruined – turns out that even winning a ton-o-bucks can be traumatic and the cause of all kinds of problems. Strange as it sounds, the routine of life gives a person a sense of identity and purpose that affects everything important when it’s disrupted, and so the work we do, even when we don’t like our job, provides us with a sense of who we are and what we are worth. Consequently, the question of whether a person is employed, unemployed, or under-employed is a very important one, beyond the obvious financial perspective.

Imagine you woke up tomorrow and discovered you now had all the money you’d ever need. Doesn’t matter if you won the lottery, an inheritance, whatever, you now have complete financial freedom for the rest of your life. Your kids too, for that matter. Let’s also say that you have done a whole bunch of travelling and vacationing; you have gone every place you were ever curious to see but never had the money or time to do, and you are at peak health and fully relaxed. So, what do you do now with the rest of your life? A lot of people have trouble answering that question, falling back on making more money or doing more traveling. It’s simply too strange to seriously consider living your life with a truly open horizon.

The opposite is also true; the loss of employment or a serious change in your work conditions can create an environment which may well seem impossible to face. While the at-will concept has its virtues, it is pretty much undeniable that the concept makes it possible for employers to treat their people as disposable assets, and some businesses do just that in practice. It’s my opinion that most such businesses doom themselves to mediocrity or worse if you think it through, but that’s small comfort to an employee who is turned out simply because the company chose to cut them loose. The best remedy to that, is to become as close to indispensable as possible. The aphorism that no one is indispensable needs to be linked to the fact that certain people still matter very much. Oddly, while companies are generally careful to consider the value of their property and equipment, it’s all too common to discount the value of the talent and experience of your staff. But that’s getting away from the topic.

Economic crisis causes social tension, aside from the financial stress. For example, the Great Depression not only caused people to lose their businesses, savings and homes, it also forced migration to cities and regions where people believed they could find employment or better financial opportunity. The recession of the 1980s forced the city of Houston to diversify its industries, because the loss of the oil industry as a constant economic anchor had a disparate impact on Houston than the rest of the nation (Hint, that’s how to repair Detroit’s infrastructure – build on more than vehicle manufacture). The industrialization of the United States came to pass in part because of economic opportunities in urban factories that could not be matched in rural communities after the 1870s, a generation of human capital having been wiped out by the Civil War.

This brings us to politics, which finds its way into every human endeavor, and not often in a benevolent manner. The plain fact is, that as much as people dislike having to work to pay the bills, they really don’t like seeing their jobs put in danger. And, hate being the most convenient emotion to conjure in election campaigns, candidates from long history have run on promises of job creation and warnings that their opponents will take jobs away. This is hardly restricted to American politics, nor indeed did it begin here. Even in Ancient Rome, nobles took careful consideration of the public mood, and made sure to couch their plans in terms of the public weal. Taxes were always to be collected from someone else, and the providence of the dear leader, whatever his title or country, was always focused on making sure the people were fed and occupied with work, whatever else was done. Some cynical types have claimed, not without evidence, that wars have been brought about for this reason of giving people an occupation; in more modern times this has become unfashionable, so we have seen the rise of welfare in its place, the problem being that simply giving money to unproductive citizens is not only unsound economics, it fails to provide the occupation which is, in the end, the main point of things.

Moving to more modern times, the short version of things is that Democrats have presented themselves as the champions of the employees, while Republicans have presented themselves as champions of economic freedom. Of the two, voters have traditionally resonated more easily with the Democrats, ignoring the cost of Democrats’ taxes and bureaucracy – it’s not often considered, for example, that besides raising tax rates far more than Republican administrations and Congresses, Democrat administrations and Congresses have established costly and burdensome bureaucracies, such as Medicare and Social Security which, while perhaps useful in concept, have greatly increased their cost far beyond projections not only in financial terms, but also in legal complexity and burden of compliance. However, the Democrats have focused on the sense that voters have that they stand at a disadvantage when their jobs are in peril, that the Democrats are more concerned with protecting their specific jobs. Republicans have forfeited that advantage in order to press the more holistic condition, that the nation as a whole can ill afford cumbersome rules and tax rates which always go up. Republicans understand that the overwhelming majority of businesses are small businesses, especially one-owner businesses, and that the overwhelming economic base for employment comes from protecting the freedom of economic opportunity. All other arguments aside, this moral position explains the reason why Republicans are generally opposed to taxing Carbon Dioxide and other harmless gas emissions. The Democrats are concerned with creating an industry in compliance with government programs, economically, while Republicans are concerned with protecting businesses from the absurdity of paying for release of a harmless gas, and taking resources that could be used to grow the business and pay productive employees, and waste them on frivolous hobbies of politicians. To put it another way, Democrats focus on the immediate short-term benefits of an action on a minority of citizens, while Republicans focus on long-term economic costs and effects of an action on the nation as a whole. In the short term, the appearance of this contrast benefits Democrats, as their programs are served well by sound bites and local appearances, where those benefited by their proposal can be seen and heard, while those who pay the longer cost are invisible to television. However, when such programs are taken to excess, such as the ill-conceived and worse-executed Stimulus Bill promoted by Barack Obama, the long-term effects become apparent more readily and the lack of proportional benefits also becomes obvious. When that happens, the Democrats tend to lose credibility and Republicans are – for a time – in the ascendency.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Continued Chronicles of Amber? Thoughts on Zelazny’s Unfinished Masterpiece

WARNING – This essay contains spoilers from the first ten books of the Chronicles of Amber, and speculates on the intentions of the late writer Roger Zelazny, had he written a third cycle.

In late 1991, Roger Zelazny published his tenth book in the Amber saga, “Prince of Chaos”. The book completed the second five-book story arc in the series, the first five addressing Prince Corwin and the second five his son Merlin. The first five, originally published between 1970 and 1978, were originally considered collectively as the ‘Chronicles of Amber’, but when the second series started the first five became known as the Corwin Cycle. The second series, known as the Merlin Cycle, were originally published between 1985 and 1991, and continues where the first series left off, but with a different focus on events and characters. Most fans of the Chronicles prefer the first series over the second, for its complex imagery and character development, but generally anyone who reads the first book of the collection will make his way through them all. And the books hold up well to re-reading and time; there is a timeless quality to the Chronicles which makes it genuinely great literature, as I see it.

Roger Zelazny passed away on June 14, 1995, from kidney failure associated with cancer. The news shocked the literary world and his fans have for the most part never found someone worthy to fill Roger’s place. This is important, because of a crucial question – would the series continue? John Gregory Betancourt began a new series of Amber stories in 2002, but they failed both critically and in sales; fans simply found the stories incomparable to Zelazny’s level. I think they failed for another reason, which I shall address in the next paragraph. There is also Roger’s clear statement that he did not want anyone else writing about Amber, which at first may seem a bit of selfish proprietorship but upon reflection I think it was a wise proscription, one his family should have heeded.

There are a number of reasons, however, why many fans believed that the Amber saga should continue. In the first place, a number of mysteries and questions were unresolved at the end of “Prince of Chaos”. But more, Roger himself began to indicate he was headed towards a new series. After “Prince of Chaos”, Zelazny wrote six short stories between 1994 and 1995, of which five were linked in a clear continuation of events following the end of “Prince of Chaos”. Those short stories introduced a new villain and chief conspirator, implied drastic changes in Merlin’s relationships with his friends, family, and even the prime forces of Order and Chaos, and reintroduced Corwin’s role in the supernatural conflict, now being acted out between Dworkin and Suhuy as agents for the Absolutes. It was certain that Zelazny planned to conclude his Chronicles with another series, once beginning where “Prince of Chaos” ended. This, by the way, is one reason Betancourt’s series failed – he set his stories as a prequel, focusing on Oberon and frankly failing to show in that character the progenitor of Eric, Corwin, Benedict, and the other heroes of the family. The new series by Betancourt also demonstrated the difficulty which any author would face in continuing the story – the Zelazny touch is singular, priceless, and frankly inimitable. Even if an author got all the facts right as Roger would have had it, the style would be impossible to mimic perfectly. It would simply sound ‘off’, no matter who attempted the venture.

So then, are we doomed to never resolve the questions or to unravel the mysteries? Perhaps not. I am hardly able to read the mind of Roger Zelazny, but I can read a map, and he laid out his stories in a way which points to certain places to go. Like Merlin’s instructions to Ghostwheel when seeking the Logrus, certain indicators are laid out which tell you a general direction to turn, and so give a hint of the picture. This writing is an attempt to consider those hints.

I’d like to start by re-examining a common contention made by fans of the saga, that the Merlin Cycle is inferior to the Corwin Cycle. What strikes me about that claim, is the question of why that should so, assuming that is correct? Some fans have claimed that Roger knew he was dying and wanted to finish his books before he died. However, that claim has problems, including the fact that Zelazny lived for four years after “Prince of Chaos” was published, and “Prince of Chaos” left a number of important questions hanging, something Roger would not do if he just wanted to wrap up the saga. Also, on a personal note, I was once told that I was likely to die from my abdominal cancer, a form known as Pseudomyxoma Peritonei. The oncologist who said so was, it turned out, not up to speed on the treatments available for my form of cancer, but at the time it did give me a sharp recognition that my life was not unlimited, and that there were certain things I had better get done soon if I expected to complete them. My point there, is that at no time did I decide to rush off a sloppy job just so I could say it was done – if I was going to die soon, the last things I did were things I wanted to get done as perfect as I could. I would want my last work to be my best, not some sloppy effort. I can hardly imagine that Roger Zelazny would care less about what he considered his final work.

If this is true, however, it brings us back to ask why the Merlin Cycle appears to be less satisfying then the Corwin Cycle. Some of that comes down to Zelazny being fifteen years older when he started the “Trumps of Doom” from when he began “Nine Princes in Amber”, but I also think it comes down to the fact that Zelazny wrote the Corwin Cycle, he knew there would be five books but was not sure whether the series would prove popular enough to continue the story. He had a lot of back-story, but could not know in advance how much demand there would be, to learn more about Grayswandir, about Dara, about Merlin and the Courts of Chaos, about the nature of the Pattern and the structure of his universe. When he started the Merlin Cycle, Zelazny knew that the market would bear not only the second series, but another after that, and I believe that from the start of the second series, Zelazny was thinking not just about books six through ten, but all the way through to the end of the saga. Look through the first ten books, and you will see any number of references or comments which point to doors for plot departures. While some of those were used, I believe, to counter any sense the reader had of omniscience in the story and to provide Roger the means to drop in plot surprises when he pleased, I also think they were there to be used in later parts of the story. Merlin’s decision to spare Corwin the first time they met in the Courts of Chaos, for example, foreshadowed Merlin’s determination to find and save his father in “Prince of Chaos”.

And that is part of the dance, as well, the matter of sensing which themes and events are meant to reflect others in the story. Certainly Zelazny pointed this out in a number of places, that there is a balance and a certain continuity to things, a literary yin/yang balance if you will. Zelazny noted, for example that the royal family of Amber was in constant chaos, while the royal family of Chaos was serene. Therefore, we do well to consider the themes and lessons we have already seen in play during the first two cycles, as they will be repeated or continue in the same manner in the third series.

The first cycle focused on Amber. The second cycle focused on Chaos. The third, then, will focus on Shadow.

The first book of each cycle featured the imprisonment of the main character. So will the third.

The final book of each cycle saw the death of a King, and a new King. So will the third.

Corwin was betrayed by a love. So was Merlin. This will happen in the third cycle as well.

Corwin depended on his magic word, Grayswandir. Merlin depended on his shadow computer construct, Ghostwheel. The protagonist of the third cycle will depend on a similar artifact specially suited to his person.

In each of the first to cycles, the hero grew through the books from a self-centered person to a duty-focused person. So too in the third cycle.

All through the books, we saw that people were not as they seemed. Carl Corey discovered he was really Prince Corwin, his buddy Ganelon turned out to be his father Oberon, Dara was Corwin’s lover and the mother of his son Merlin, but she never loved him and wanted Amber destroyed , Merlin’s best friend Luke tuned out to have attempted his murder several times, his girlfriend Julia became his nemesis Mask, and his brother Jurt, who spent his whole life trying to kill Merlin, in the end became his ally and helped him free Coral from the Pattern and the Logrus both. So moving into the last series, we should expect to not only see new characters added, but also see some surprises from the cast in place. Especially from Mandor, Fiona, and – wait for it – Bill Roth. Yep, good old “mortal” Bill, Corwin’s lawyer buddy from shadow Earth. There’s things to chew on regarding this guy, and more than a few suspicions. Consider how many times we see this guy throughout the stories. Bill Roth out-lives several major characters and turns up in all kinds of important places.

When Corwin got stabbed in “Sign of the Unicorn” and was bleeding to death, who found him and got him to a hospital? Bill Roth.

Who helps Corwin with the disposal of his house on Earth in “The Hand of Oberon”? Bill Roth.

Who wrote the terms of the Patterfall Treaty between Amber and Chaos? Bill Roth.

When Merlin decides to deal directly with whomever is trying to kill him in “Trumps of Doom”, who does he talk to besides Luke and (unknowing) Nayda? Bill Roth.

Merlin talks again with Bill Roth in “Sign of Chaos”, he even runs across Bill Roth in the Hall of Mirrors, and when Merlin looks into Suhuy’s pool in "Prince of Chaos" to consider candidates for the throne and people who are playing a role in that conflict, one of the people Merlin sees … is Bill Roth.

If Roger Zelazny had written a third series, Bill Roth would be a major surprise character, someone much different than he appeared to be all along. Some readers will remind me that Bill Roth is just a mortal human, but to that claim I would remind you that the claim came from Bill himself, and we have no proof whatsoever that Bill Roth is just what he claims. In the Merlin Cycle we discovered that Luke was not what he seemed, nor Coral, nor Julia. So Bill Roth, I strongly suspect, is a ringer.

Let’s go back to a nagging question that a lot of readers had in the Merlin Cycle: How, exactly, are we supposed to believe in Merlin as the new King of Chaos? Merlin himself admitted that he was far from qualified, yet at the end of “Prince of Chaos” it sure looks like he got the job. Why, exactly? OK, I get that Merlin is from the royal houses of both Amber and Chaos, but again, why should this impress us? Where has he shown special qualities that would explain both the Unicorn and the Serpent wanting to sign up Merlin as their figurehead?

Merlin regards himself as a dime-a-dozen sorcerer, a decent but unexceptional swordsman, and an utter neuf in matters of state and politics. So how does he get the crown? We know from “Prince of Chaos” that Merlin defeats both Dara and Mandor, and with the help of Ghostwheel he even seems to force the Logrus to accept his terms, after an earlier confrontation with the Pattern which seems to have been 90 percent luck on Merlin’s part, and a healthy assist from Luke for the rest of it. But Merlin does not accomplish this with skill or brilliant planning – he basically carries around the magic version of a handheld nuclear power plant and simply uses force until the obstacle is removed. And Merlin did not create or develop the Spikard – it was given to him! We find out from Bleys that there are nine of these rings, and it so happens that Merlin gets to carry out a second ring, which previously belonged to King Swayville and which was enchanted by Mandor and Dara in hopes of controlling Merlin. So OK, what are the odds , if you’re Mandor, say, that you come across an artifact of fantastic power, so much so that the bearer is all but unstoppable, and your thought is not only to not keep it for yourself, but hand it off to someone you plan to control, on the assumption that if things don’t work out you can still regain the upper hand? Isn’t it a lot more likely that you’d find more than one of those, so you had a power source of your own, should you need it? But of course, when Merlin dueled Mandor, he won. Odd. But I noticed something there.

Merlin mentioned that Mandor was fond of carrying around a group of small iron balls, which he used as an idiosyncratic magic aid. This is important for two reasons – one, in the short story “Hall of Mirrors”, Zelazny confirms that two of the spikards were turned into swords – Grayswandir and Werewindle, as a matter of fact. So there’s no reason that Mandor could not have transformed his spikard into three magic iron balls. And reason two, when Merlin abruptly confronts Mandor, he catches him by surprise. Mandor is led to believe that he is in control of Merlin through the spell on what he thinks is Merlin’s spikard, and in that section we never see Mandor use his magic iron balls. Guess Mandor picked a bad day to leave them at home or send them on an errand, huh?

By the way, in the short story “The Salesman’s Tale”, we find from Luke that he can summon Werewindle to him by way of a Trump. This lets us know that the spikards can be manipulated in the same way, and also oh by the way this answers a lot of questions about how Grayswandir shows up in various places seemingly on its own, such as Merlin being able to use in the land-underneath-Shadow in “Knight of Shadow”. Being able to call up artifacts on cue makes things a lot more fluid in the third cycle, hmm?

Before moving on, I also found ”The Salesman’s Tale” an important revelation on another score – Vialle’s ability for prophecy. One valid criticism of the first cycle was the limited value placed on the women in the stories, especially the Princesses of Amber. Zelazny’s discussion of Vialle’s prophetic powers is not only consistent with her legacy from Rebma, but a welcome acknowledgement of her value in her own right as a person – Queen in substance as well as name.

to be continued