Character Sympathy (+10 more rankings!)

Character Sympathy

I’ve discovered that how I sympathize with a lead character heavily influences how much I like a book.

Its not enough to simply to have empathy and understand a character’s reasoning. As I read a book, there is a part of me that wants to be a participant of the story.

*sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them. (the internet)

I value humility and intellectualism. I’m averse is to cockiness and unnecessary heroics. I appreciate complex, flawed characters. I’m dislike infallible characters that dominate their opponents with ease.

This is why I could not stand Ready Player One (and a lesser extent, Name of the Wind). This is why I enjoyed the Dispossessed (and why I loved The Witcher III).

Of course, there are instances where there main character is insufficient, but supplemented by a strong supporting cast. “Kafka on the Shore” has a really amazing supporting cast that helps to promote the coming of age story of Kafka. The zombie book “Girl with all the Gifts” wasn’t really about the main zombie girl Melanie as much as the surviving humans around her.

Ranking 10 Recent Reads

In general, but also from the perspective of protagonist sympathy. These are pretty much all scifi/fantasy, to some extent (if you include zombie books and murakami’s shenanigans

Rank (rating) Book, Author Protagonist Protaganist Description
1 5*The Dispossessed, Le Guin adult scientist adult
2 5* The Fifth Season, Jemisin 1 kid, 1 teen, 1 adult nice kid, sassy teen, seasoned adult
3 5*Old Man’s War, Scalzi adult old grandpa
4 5*Kafka on the Shore, Murakami teen weirdly introspective teen
5 5*Dune, Herbert teen coming of age
6 5* Foundation, Asimov adult pretty normal people, some ‘heroes’
7 4* The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey kid crazy brilliant kid
8 4* The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams adult & alien sassy AF
9 4* Foundation and Empire, Asimov adults pretty normal people
10 2* Ready Player One, Cline teen smart but cocky

1. The Dispossessed, Le Guin (1974)

The Dispossessed is, more or less, a man’s struggles and realizations in comparing a poor but well-run Communist/Anarchist society with an ultra-efficient but highly political capitalist world. From a character perspective, Shevek is a genius physicist that is generally stable but suspect to his emotions.

This is top because I know Shevek story will stay strong in my mind as the books below get reduced to faint abstractions over the years.

The full review is in a previous post!

2. The Fifth Season, Jemisin (2015)

“And since stonelore would be harder to remember if it was full of phrases like ‘watch for the inverted fulcrum of a conical torus,’ we get centers and circles. Accuracy is sacrificed in the name of better poetry.”

I love this because it is the essence of Jemisin’s writing. She trades obscure vocabulary for colloquial thoughts and dialogue – The Fifth Season reads so smoothly that it was over before I knew it.

The characters follow common tropes. The innocent, curious young girl. The prideful, sassy teenager. The seasoned adult. I believe these tropes actually enhanced my experience.

The Fifth Season isn’t about characters taking weird, dark or unpredictable turns – rather it’s how they adapt to a world constantly changing, a world constantly on edge of collapse, and a world where you are the enemy despite how much you want to help. Decisions are generally rational, but people get carried away by emotions. These tropes make people realistic, believable, and their actions easy to emphasize with.

3. Old Man’s War, Scalzi (2005)

Old Man’s War is a mix of hilarity, somberness, and lots of guns. It gets really funky really fast, and once you adjust you realize there’s quite a bit of space philosophy to go with fighting aliens across the universe.

The protagonist is generally jaded, sarcastic and fun to introspect alongside. That being said, I think the character himself wasn’t all that memorable – the excitement of the world & story is what carries Old Man’s War to #3.

4. Kafka By the Shore, Murakami (2006)

Oh man, what a weird book. It starts unbelievably slowly, but Kafka’s story gradually becomes more complex, interesting as it gets weirder and weirder. The novel concludes with a powerful, resounding and emotional finish.

Kafka himself is intelligent, introspective, and conflicted. As a 15 year old dumped into an mystical world, he makes mistakes, suffers, learns, and powers through a cruel Oedipal prophecy.

Also Oshima (the librarian) was an absolute badass. And these fan illustrations are amazing.

5. Dune, Herbert (1965)

Dune was a great story, fun plot, and has all the shenanigans of the modern hero story (loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice, twists, yadayadaya). All around a very solid book but mostly if you appreciate it as the first of its’ kind, as a scifi/fantasy epic. It’s seen to have heavily inspired Star Wars, alongside many other story based science fiction stories.

6. Foundation, Asimov (1951)

This Asimov is one of the original scifi books (written in the 1940s). It is a brilliant story of prediction (psychohistory, which is basically macroeconomics on steroids), political heroism and the world as it could be. It is a sophisticated space equivalent of the Fall of Rome.

Foundation focuses on political relationships and world building, and less on realism/character development. The heroes are brilliant, fallible, but not necessarily complex or developing characters.

7. The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey (2015)

Brilliant storytelling and a cute first person view of a young intellectual zombie 10 y/o girl. I’m not a huge zombie reader, but this really showed how love can play a huge part in people when their brains are getting eaten. It wasn’t extremely special (hence a 4*) but no real knocks and overall a solid book

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams (1979)

This is a truly revolutionary and ridiculous book in the genre of sci-fi, and I am all the better for having read it. That being said, I can’t say it was a either a mind-altering or extremely sophisticated experience. Now I think about it, it’s pretty much the Rick and Morty of the 70s. Solid stuff.

9. Foundation and Empire, Asimov (1952)

The second book of the Foundation Trilogy is a show of inevitability of sociopolitical nature of humanity under certain conditions. It had a solid story and a few great twists, but the characters were mostly static and predictable. I think its worth a read to understand Asimov but there are better books out there.

10. Ready Player One, Cline (2011)

This is probably the single worst book I’ve read in the past 10 years.

On the plus side, it was a great page-turner. Cline crams every possible gaming and pop reference from the 80s in a action-packed “adventure”. Unfortunately, the main character is a cocky teenager that somehow just happens to be the best at every game in the world. There are no real twists, no real complexity in any of the characters (both good and bad), and no real redeeming features.

I was hoping for a book that bathes in its own absurdity. As I hoped my way for two thirds of the book, it became clearer that it was simply oblivious at its own ridiculousness.

The only consolation here is that Andy Wier (author of The Martian) did a spin-off short story called Lacero that is actually good. Give it a read!


Thanks for reading, and let me know what you are reading!

Book Review: The Dispossessed – Science Fiction as Art


The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a time when I was burning through a book every three days, this one took a month to read. And deservedly so. The Dispossessed is not a “fun” book. It is a work of art, a brilliant display of social science fiction.

Every sentence is crafted so perfectly with Le Guin’s idea of morality in a fictional anarchy-communist utopia (which is then compared to a technocratic capitalist world). The Dispossessed reflects upon both a diversity and complexity of themes around science, politics, religion, time, human nature, yadayadaya. It’s not all in your face, and pokes you gently in as you follow Shevek’s journey through the utopian worlds.

What I liked

Content aside, I loved that…
  • Ideas are represented as a discussion rather than fact.
  • Book dialogue between intellectuals seems to be an outpouring of the points and counterpoints inside Le Guin’s mind.
  • The main character is sometimes wrong or flawed, but his thoughts are then supplemented those of his peers or intellectual enemies. 
And then the content is phenomenal. This book is not necessarily perfect”, but  it is absolutely special.

What you might not like

Of course, we already know that this novel is…

  • Slow, brooding, intellectual, etc so if you aren’t in the mood for that you’ll never finish.
  • I also wouldn’t say it is a satisfying” book.
  • If you have one scifi book to read, I wouldn’t read this to start off. Maybe I’d suggest Three Body Problem, Old Man’s War, or Snow Crash which are just as thought-provoking but much more fun.

Finally, there are several things to watch out for.

  • Commenters point out that Le Guin doesn’t really give a fair fight to capitalism and makes them look like quite a snobby, suspicious bunch.
  • Also, it still has some patriarchal overtones (published in 1974), and there is a sexual violence scene that is heavily debated.

In the end, its the quotes that I keep coming back to again and again. They are meaningful in their own right, but even more so in the context of The Dispossessed.

On suffering, pain, and brotherhood:

In an austere society anarchist society, pain and suffering is what makes the society work.

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. 

On Pain:

“Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain.”

On possession and privacy

Privacy is something people have”, and thus don’t need.
…sexual privacy was freely available and socially expected; and beyond that privacy was not functional. It was excess, waste.
A goodreads review says it well  Possession isn’t just about capitalism and material goods. It’s more pervasive than that. Just think about how people refer to each other. My” son. My” girlfriend. My” mother.” When his wife is proud of him:
I confess to being proud of you. That’s strange, isn’t it? Unreasonable. Propertarian, even. As if you were something that belonged to me!

On freedom and promises in physics and society

What is freedom in a world where you have but one goal?
So he worked. He lost weight; he walked light on the earth. Lack of physical labor, lack of variety of occupation, lack of social and sexual intercourse, none of these appeared to him as lacks, but as freedom. He was the free man: he could do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it for as long as he wanted to do it. And he did. He worked. He work/played.
If a promise restricts your behavior, how can it be resolved with freedom?
though it might seem that her insistence on freedom to change would invalidate the idea of promise or vow, in fact the freedom made the promise meaningful.
How is a promise related to time and physics?
To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future.
(Full quote) How does ethics play into the causal reality of physics? 
“. . . chronosophy does involve ethics. Because our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.” 

On social behavior

On dealing with social outcasts in Annares (anarchist place)…
A person whose nature was genuinely unsociable had to get away from society and look after himself. He was completely free to do so. He could build himself a house wherever he liked (though if it spoiled a good view or a fertile bit of land he might find himself under heavy pressure from his neighbors to move elsewhere).
On being a potential social outcast:
“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
When discussing decision makers:
Intellectuals are always being led astray, because they think about irrelevant things like time and space and reality, things that have nothing to do with real life, so they are easily fooled by wicked deviationists.

On government

On revolution compared to capitalism (buying and making)
“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”
As Shevek walks through a beautiful park with lovely trees:
Wasn’t all this extravagant foliage mere excess, excrement? Such trees couldn’t thrive without a rich soil, constant watering, much care. He disapproved of their lavishness, their thriftlessness.
In a social anarchy, customs rather than laws start to govern” behavior.
The only security we have is our neighbors’ approval. An archist can break a law and hope to get away unpunished, but you can’t break’ a custom;
On government and science:
“You put your petty miserable laws’ to protect wealth, your forces’ of guns and bombs, in the same sentence with the law of entropy and the force of gravity? I had thought better of your mind, Demaere!”
Snide and representative comments on freedom:
We have complete freedom of the press in A-Io, which inevitably means we get a lot of trash.
The Urrean (capitalist world) scientist’s view on Annares (anarchy world). In many ways he’s right.
The Odonian society called itself anarchistic, he said, but they were in fact mere primitive populists whose social order functioned without apparent government because there were so few of them and because they had no neighbor states.

On the meaning of life

When Shevek asks the Hanish commander(high tech civilization) why he wants to go to Annares (anarchy):
“My race is very old,” Ketho said. We have been civilized for a thousand millenia. We have histories of hundreds of those millenia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?” 
If you are into scifi, politics, science, anything, I wholeheartedly recommend The Dispossessed as a nice, slow, and thoughtful read.

“Scifi & Fantasy Week” on Goodreads! (for what it’s worth)

Turns out BLEACH has made its way to Science Fiction canon

As much as I hate Goodreads, I enjoy that they went through the trouble of ordering their top rated Scifi books and named it “Scifi & Fantasy Week“. The week just ended.

Considering how annoying it is to run those filters right now (X+ rating, Y+ review count, deduplicating series) on the website, this is actually pretty useful!

However…

What I thought was cool was they hosted an Interview with N.K. Jemisin, author of “The Fifth Season”. Some good quotes:

(On art education)

“Probably my least-favorite interview question is the one I get most often: “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve tried repeatedly to figure out if there’s an easy way to answer this question that doesn’t come off as patronizing or glib, and there just isn’t.”

“Here’s the thing: When people ask this question, I think they’re actually asking something else. See (gets out soapbox), there’s a fundamental failure to understand art in American society. This is partly because we’ve basically eliminated art education for all but our wealthiest class, but some of it is just endemic to a capitalist society that views everything in terms of commodities. “

(On how ideas are a dime a dozen. Sound familiar in SV?)

“News flash: Artists don’t need other people’s ideas. Why? Because ideas are everywhere. At any given time, all of us are drowning in them. The measure of an artist lies in the ability to encapsulate these ideas and give them form in a way that others can share. “

These are all very timely, since I picked up Fifth Season on sale last week. I also picked up Red Mars, which is happily on Andy Wier’s list of top space colonization books. Looking forward to both of them!

(OH SHOOT, WAS SCIFI WEEK CONNECTED TO THE SALE LAST WEEK? hmm…)