30 December 2009

Digital Manipulation

A great technical walk-through of detecting various changes to a certain Victoria's Secret ad, ranging from subtle to obvious.

28 December 2009


A Pixar employee flew to the Huntington Beach home with various Up tie-in toys and a DVD copy of the film. The child could not open her eyes, so her mother described the film to her scene by scene. The young girl died approximately seven hours after the screening ended.

19 December 2009


The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer is terrible. I read the books recently, and even though I had been expecting a grim experience (I'd already seen the two movies), I was still surprised by how bad this series is. I don't have a lot of experience with young adult fiction, so I don't know if they are par for the course. I hope not.

First of all, the writing is terrible at the most basic level. Most criticisms about writing quality focus on the description or the like, but Meyer's work contains more than the usual purple nastiness. She fails at simple mechanics, as well, and I have to hope that her editors have been fired (doubtful). She misuses words frequently and has terrible grammar. And this is not “bad grammar” in the sense that she has dangling modifiers or similar nitpickery. Instead, she will compose sentences that barely make sense, with ambiguous pronouns and pointless clauses slopped around like a drunk's last beer of the night.

Consider this passage from Twilight:

I read carefully through the descriptions, looking for anything that sounded familiar, let alone plausible. It seemed that most vampire myths centered around beautiful women as demons and children as victims; they also seemed like constructs created to explain away the high mortality rates for young children, and to give men an excuse for infidelity. Many of the stories involved bodiless spirits and warnings against improper burials. There wasn't much that sounded like the movies I'd seen, and only a very few, like the Hebrew Estrie and the Polish Upier, who were even preoccupied with drinking blood.

Only a very few... what? “Movies”? “Spirits and warnings”? No, wait, “few” must mean “stories”!
Naturally those things can be puzzled out, and any reader will solve the problem in a moment. But such poor composition occurs on almost every page, and make the books difficult to read smoothly. An abandonment of technical regularity is certainly not an unforgivable sin in a book if it's for a purpose, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for this devolution in this case. Meyer has poor grammar and her mistakes were not corrected, plain and simple. It's painful.

The poor writing is only the start of the problems, though. It continues with the characters, who are one-dimensional enough to be paper dolls. They are defined simply and immediately, and never grow in any interesting way (with a single exception, addressed later), with their identity and evolution easily expressed in a sentence without any loss. Bella is clumsy and introverted, and in love with Edward. Edward is handsome and good at everything, and in love with Bella. Jake is non-threatening and mildly exotic, and becomes a werewolf.

You'll notice I don't say “spoiler alert” or the like. And that's because no one with two brain cells to rub together could fail to see any of the plot coming. Oh, wow, the boy Jacob, who tells about the legends of his people who become wolves, and then briefly disappears and changes strangely... he's a werewolf?! My goodness! I see now... that wolf in the forest whose eyes reminded Bella of Jacob- that must have been Jacob himself!!!!!exclamationpoint

If we leave aside the writing and the lifeless, puppet-like characters, then we are still left with the worse thing of all: the ethics.

Bella's entire life revolves around her the men in her life. She has only a single aspect to her character other than her all-consuming adoration for Edward: she's clumsy. More text is devoted to how much she worships him than any other subject, with their exchanges always crammed with expressions of how beautiful and perfect he is. And when Edward leaves her, Bella breaks down so fundamentally that the word “catatonic” is thrown around. The totality of her shutdown is expressed by Meyer by having a series of blank chapters, representing passing months of nullity.

This is not, of itself, a terrible thing. Many romances have tried to express the depths with which two people can feel for each other in a similar way, and the devastation that can come from subsequent loss. There's nothing wrong with it.

But what is sad is that she only returns to life when another boy enters her life and fixes her. While trying to reconnect to her vanished man-god, Bella makes friends with the nice Jacob. And soon Jacob's kindness and male presence has restored her back to life. She has a huge hole and woe is her, naturally, but she is a functioning person again.

In other words, Bella needs a man in her life or else she can't function. She may have inherited this from her mother, who on the first page of the novel is depicted as being completely incapable, but who will be okay now that she is remarried to her second husband. In the same way, Bella's life completely revolves around having a man in her life, and she can't exist otherwise.

And what manner of relationship do Bella and Edward have?

Consider that this is a man who is not just older than her, but almost a full century older than her. He is world-traveled, highly skilled at everything, very intelligent, godlike in appearance, and a supernatural mind-reader to boot. Yet he is attracted to Bella, and starts a relationship with her. This is a girl who is a minor and a fraction of his age; he is literally six times older than her and infinitely more sophisticated.

Further, Edwards constantly yearns to hurt Bella – in fact, he wants to eat her and kill her. It is a strain for him not to do so, and he comes close to it quite often. It's not his fault, of course... he just naturally has those impulses and desire.

When they meet, he is cold to her. He's so attractive that she will easily and immediately forgive him her behavior later, but for some time after their introduction he is distant and cruel. We find out later, though, that he has been breaking into her house at night to go through her belongings and watch her sleep. Before they even have a conversation, he is climbing into her room to stare at her and listen to her slumber.

So what do we have? A violent old man who stalks a little girl, and a little girl who can't function without a man in her life. And through her books, Meyer portrays this as entirely normal and reasonable behavior – no, more: it's something to emulate. It's not dangerous or misguided or sick. It's romantic.

Think about if you knew a man of sixty years who wanted to date a seventeen-year-old. You would wonder what was wrong with him. And if he broke into her house to watch her sleep, you would (hopefully) think it was insane and creepy. The excuse of “We're in love!” wouldn't cut it. You would rightfully think that guy was a disgusting monster. It wouldn't matter if he was pretty.


18 December 2009

Terry Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" is terrible

The “Toasted Toads Truth” About Terry Goodkind's The Sword of Truth Series

A. Bizarre Plots
B.  Terrible Lessons
C. Strange Fascinations

              The Sword of Truth series is a set of nine fantasy books written by Terry Goodkind.  The series follows the exploits of Richard Rahl and his allies in a fictional world of magic and war.  Richard is the Seeker of Truth and a war wizard, wielding the titular “Sword of Truth” in protection of his wife Mother Confessor Kahlan Amnell and mentor Zeddicus Z'ul Zorander.
              Terry Goodkind is a self-proclaimed Objectivist, a follower of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and his books show this in many places.  But more than this, they also demonstrate a series of reprehensible moral lessons and just plain poor writing.
              The series consists of Wizard's First Rule, Stone of Tears, Blood of the Fold, Temple of the Winds, Soul of the Fire, Faith of the Fallen, The Pillars of Creation, Naked Empire, Debt of Bones, Chainfire, Phantom, and Confessor.  I've read them all, but I'll mainly be using examples from the first few books.  The others are all the same, I assure you.

A.  Bizarre Plots

              Terry Goodkind is not a very good writer.  He resorts to the same plot devices over and over, utilizes wooden characters of little depth and self-admitted Mary Sues[i], and has strikingly little creativity for a fantasy author.  The popularity and strength of his work seems to rely on a few well-crafted strengths:

  • He is extremely effective at melodrama and writing ever-increasing – almost hyperbolic – villains and atrocities.
  • His philosophy of Objectivism is shown off to great effect by the straw-men[ii] opposition in the series, giving it the same fascinating sense of rightness and simple morality that gives Ayn Rand herself such appeal.

              Goodkind's skill with exponential threat is easily evident in the books.  He has a distinct pattern with monsters, for example.  A fearsome creature is foreshadowed by a secondary set of characters, who will whisper some warning to Richard.  Then there is an attack by that creature.  Then Richard fights the creature, manages to overcome it by his willpower, and wins.  Thereafter, that creature will probably never be mentioned again.  If it is mentioned, it will be only once or twice as an aside.  On occasion, the creature will attack again en masse with companions before being abandoned.  Heart hounds, living shadows, skreelings, skrins, nambles, and so on all suffer this fate.  They generally just have one particular trait that is intended to menace, and almost always are so dreadful that no one near Richard could imagine him winning.  Usually he will have been the only person to kill one in two hundred years, or three thousand years, or ever.  Each monster is scarier than the last – or so Goodkind tries to imply, with ever greater and more hyperbolic reactions on the part of his characters.
              This tend towards unimaginitive, exponential threats also occurs with the nations and wars in the books.  Westland is a tiny country, magically bordered by the larger and dangerous Midlands. Both of them together are a tiny country, magically bordered by the larger and dangerous D'Hara.  Later, all three are the New World, a tiny country magically bordered by the larger and dangerous Old World.  This also happens on a small scale, continually throughout the books.  Galea and Kelton, Aydindril and the Midlands, the capital of the Jangang's empire and the empire itself... the only way Goodkind knows how to develop menace is with greater and greater underdog status and greater and greater magical threats made worse than their predecessors by nothing but fiat.
              This happens in every aspect of the new menace, of course.  Each new army camp is more massive and disorderly than the one before it.  They leave more victims and greater destruction than the last one.  Each new group of elite warriors is bigger and more muscled – this latter tendency leading a reader to imagine the final group of elite warriors topping out at twenty feet tall and with knives sprouting from their eyeballs.  It seems more like a video game than a plot.

              The other draw of the series for readers – the philosophy of Objectivism explicated – is handled with a similar heavy hand near the end, but fortunately it starts off a little more subtly.  Initially, the ethics of Objectivism as Goodkind sees them are imparted on a small level with little parables.  They're not central to the plot, but are inserted fairly organically.
              The first Objectivist theme is the justness of capitalism.  In Stone of Tears, Kahlan spends much of the book with a group of tribesmen from the series' analog for aboriginals, called the “Mud People.”[iii]  These tribesmen are ignorant of the basic workings of the greater society around them, and so Kahlan must explain such things as the concept of money to them.  She discusses how goods and services are exchanged for something of rarity and innate worth, and can thus be traded for other items.  Intriguingly, from this exchange and later ones it seems as though Goodkind opposes “fiat currency” like many other libertarians and Objectivists, but mistakenly gives the denominations of currency as gold, silver, and copper – even though copper does not appear to be particularly scarce.  It's hard to imagine that this system could work in any other context but Goodkind's absurd world, but the conflict is not addressed.
              Kahlan and the tribal character also discuss the justness of total war, thus signaling the start of the other major philosophical theme: justifiable violence.  Goodkind has Kahlan concisely sum up almost the whole of his beliefs on the matter with a brief slogan: “If war is brought to you, then it is incumbent upon you to show no mercy.”[iv]  This will later be elaborated on, at extraordinary length and with extraordinary repetition.  Just like with capitalism, Goodkind devotes entire books to driving home the justness of total war with ridiculous straw-men and flimsy moralizing.
              Eventually, subtle parables[v] and asides give way to grander approaches.  Near the end of the series, Richard is transported by a magical and senseless plot device into an enemy society, which uses a version of socialism.  Over the course of a couple of books, he demonstrates through heroic efforts the benefits of capitalism and individuality to the members of the society.  Richard's lone example as an artist (and later as a soccer player) inspiring entire nations to rebel against their whole way of life, abandoning their culture, economic basis, religion, and government.  In any other context, this would be difficult to believe, but Goodkind makes sure that Richard and his allies are so tremendously superior in every way to the bumbling and incompetent opposition that it instead seems like the simplest inevitability.
              It cannot be overstated how vicious and foolish are the villainous societies in the books.  Their clear inferiority is the only thing that makes the success of the heroes anything like credible.  It is as if we are presented with a society based entirely around the idea that wheels should be triangular, and the brave and noble Terry – sorry, Richard Rahl – then appears and demonstrates how virtuous and good it is to have round wheels instead.  It's a compelling story of a seemingly noble virtue succeeding through heroic efforts, and appeals to many readers.

              Once one gets past the two draws of the series, it's hard to see much good about them.  For one thing, the heroes of the series cause almost all the problems they must later solve.  In most cases, everything would have worked out fine if only they hadn't meddled in the first place, but had quietly had tea and waited for their enemies to die.
              In the first book, the evil Darken Rahl puts the magical Boxes of Orden in play, committing himself to opening one of them before winter.  However, he only has two of the boxes, and all three must be in his possession before he can open any of them.  A wizard named Giller hides the third box and manages to put it out of Rahl's reach by giving it to the girl Rachel, the only person able to evade the security of the castle where the box is kept.  Later, Richard and his friends take the box from Rachel and give it to Richard's brother, who then gives it to Darken Rahl.  It is only then that there is any real threat from Rahl, who otherwise would have died at the start of winter.  If they had left Rachel alone, the same spell that had been protecting the box from detection would have meant that everything would have worked out fine.
              In the second book, the peril is caused by the magical Stone of Tears and a “skrin bone,” which when used by the spirit of Darken Rahl could set the Keeper free from the underworld to destroy the world.  The Stone of Tears wouldn't be in the world if it hadn't been for Richard's actions in the first book, and even more importantly, Darken's spirit wouldn't be in the world if Richard hadn't called a magical gathering and brought him back.  Even though he was repeatedly warned specifically not to call a gathering, he does so and again puts the world in danger.  If he had left matters alone, then no one could have destroyed the world and everything would have worked out fine.
              In the third books and beyond, the Old World is intent on conquering the New World.  The Old World is ruled by Jagang, the main villain of the series, who is only able to launch his war because Richard destroys the boundaries separating the Old and New World.  Jagang couldn't have brought the magical boundaries down on his own.  So the whole reason that the war occurs and the menace to the New World exists because Richard causes it.  If he had left matters alone, then no one could have destroyed the world and everything would have worked out fine.
              It's hard to cheer for a series which consists of heroes cleaning up after their own errors.

              There are numerous other annoying tendencies and plot holes that crop up throughout the books.  An exhaustive list would be larger than the series itself, but some of the most prominent are:

              Richard discovers new powers constantly and without studying.

  • In most situations, he solves the looming problem simply by discovering a new power.  He's the Seeker, a wizard, a war-wizard, a prophet, the Seeker who can turn the blade white, the only one who can enter the Temple of the Winds.... and so on.  In almost every book and at every turn, the reader can safely assume that everything will be fine just as soon as Richard gets there and solves it.  He kills hundreds single-handedly with his sword, he can fire arrows to within millimeters from miles away, he can destroy buildings and is the only one foretold by prophecy who can blah blah blah blah.  If there is some quality that separates Richard Rahl from a demigod, it's not revealed.
  • What is worse, he never has to work for these powers.  Throughout the series, the only thing he must work to acquire is a knowledge of the language High D'Haran.  Otherwise, he innately possesses the powers or gains them by wishing really hard.  It's a strange trait for a hero dedicated to individualistic self-achievement.

              Characters will often display unrealistic knowledge.

  • Chase, a Westlander who has never been out of his country, nonetheless knows the geography of the Midlands and D'Hara.
  • Chandalen develops and strategizes about military engagements between two huge armies, even though prior to the same hour he had never never conceived of numbers of people greater than “thousand.”  It's as though someone who just discovered fire went to work smelting titanium the same hour.

              There are circumstances that just seem blatantly impossible. 

  • Even though we are told there are only five wizards in the Midlands, we are also told that the dozens of Confessors never went anywhere without a wizard companion.
  • At one point Richard knocks someone out with the flat end of his sword, something that is a little hard to picture.

              Kahlan is incredibly stupid.  Often.

  • When she offers him tea and tells him that she heated it with the candle, he is “surprised by her inventiveness.”  While Richard is most attracted to the intelligence in her eyes when he first met her, even he seems to realize she's not very clever.  Talk about damning with faint praise.
  • When they find a poor little girl with ragged hair in the Midlands – a land where we are often reminded that hair is a symbol of social status, and Kahlan's home from birth – Richard cuts the girl's hair neatly and then explains to an astonished Kahlan that ragged hair meant she was marked as property.
  • Kahlan rides alone into the army camp of the first Imperial Order encountered in the books, even though she is warned that it's stupid and admits such to herself.  Predictably, the army attacks her after she speaks to their leaders and tells them she is declaring war on them.  She manages to kill the wizard throwing fireballs and ride out of the camp by... riding her horse in a weaving motion.  This mistress of warfare is the same woman who had to be told, a few days before, that it is important to be able to shoot an arrow straight when distracted.

              Goodkind uses the same expressions.  All the time.  To exhaustion.

  • Richard brushes his fingers through his thick hair.
  • Everyone isn't making a request.  They're giving an order.
  • “Bags!”, “dear spirits,” and “Nothing is ever easy!” are used so often they cease to be catchphrases and become as ubiquitous as punctuation.

B.  Terrible Lessons

              We are assured by commentators and by Goodkind himself that he is a libertarian – specifically, an Objectivist.  This is made increasingly more explicit as the books wear on, with simple lectures in the way trading and money works progressing to moralizing speeches on the ethics of war and eventually in full-fledged John Galt philosophizing.  But even the most cursory critical glance at the actions and structures of the books are sufficient to expose Goodkind as the worse kind of authoritarian.
              The best examples of this are the political systems and societies set up by the various characters; we can examine the ways these societies are described and the actions they take.  Setting aside such artifacts as the basic injustice of the feudal system and a dichotomy between the magical and unmagical, which are arguably an intrinsic part of the setting, we still see some astonishing politics.

              The Midlands
              The Midlands, located in the New World between Westland and D'Hara, is generally held up as a well-meaning but impotent federal system.  The heroes of the series pay it's ideals lip service, but generally condemn the way it works at the time of the books.  According to Wizard's First Rule, the Midlands are a set of independent kingdoms of varying sizes, which have their own laws and administer themselves, but make major decisions through the Central Council at the wizard-city of Aydindril.  The exact nature of the Council's decision-making process is not explained, but presumably the different nations each get some sort of representation at the Council as long as they are large enough.  The smaller nations and the magical ones are represented by a figure called the Mother Confessor, who also is accorded great respect by the Council and is the nominal leader.
              That seems to be what Goodkind intended to portray the Midlands, anyway.
              In actual practice, it is shortly revealed that the Midlands is a dictatorship, run by the Mother Confessor[vi] with the other Confessors and the wizards as her allies and enforcing their wishes on the rest of the Midlands.[vii]  Kahlan Amnell, one of the heroes of the series, is an absolute dictator, and suborning this role is portrayed by Goodkind as pure villainy.
              For all her protests about being the advocate for those who have no voice, in short order we see Kahlan threatening to dethrone a queen if the national justice system isn't reformed.  And in her history of the Confessors, she mentions how when they came to power, they removed all rulers who wanted independence, keeping them as “little more than slaves.”  She can declare war on behalf of all the Midlands at will.  And of course she coolly informs Richard that queens bow before her.
              Now, one can imagine a justifiable dictatorship in libertarian or Objectivist terms.  An elected leader, or an emergency sovereign (like ancient Rome) could possibly be necessary and just.  But Kahlan is the benefactor of a hereditary dictatorship that only keeps its place because of its military power!  She is the Kim Jung Il of the New World!  Immediately after Kahlan no longer has a wizard to back up her rule with force (literally the very first day she attends a council meeting without a magical thug), the kingdoms under her dominion rise up and conspire to kill her.  Goodkind presents these rulers as evil and corrupt, and the loyal rulers as intelligent and kind, of course.  Opposing the military dictatorship which makes your country pay taxes to support their wizard-city and which determines your policy at will means you must be some kind of immoral sociopath, it seems.

              By the time Jagang threatens the New World with invasion (thanks to Richard's actions, for which Jagang is appreciative in Blood of the Fold), Richard inherits his own kingdom.  D'Hara is another kingdom with a hereditary autocrat in charge, although the one doesn't even have a pretense of independence for its lands like the Midlands.  Richard is not culpable, perhaps, for the nature of D'Hara: he doesn't set up the government and is never in any position to engage in meaningful reforms.  But he is most certainly responsible for his subsequent conquests, when he annexes the entirety of the New World for D'Hara, dissolving the sovereignty of each individual land and incorporating them into his autocratic empire.
              As mentioned a moment ago, when the Central Council of the Midlands finds Kahlan without a wizard with which to enforce her will on them, they seize the opportunity to try her for various false charges and have her executed.  Her actions probably didn't help matters, such as when she decided a personal slight by a delegate from the country of Kelton meant that she could suspend their delegation's diplomatic immunity and threaten them all with death.[viii]  Those who vote to convict her are presumably evil and corrupt, since they manufactured a set of trumped-up criminal charges, but then it's hard not to see it their way: when the dictator makes the laws at will and uses them to ensure her own power, it's hard to see how they could win their freedom in any other way.
              Shortly after Kahlan's removal from office and escape, Richard arrives in town as the new leader of D'Hara.  D'Hara, at this point in the story, has been invading and butchering the inhabitants of cities throughout the Midlands under the previous king, Darken Rahl.  The new king, Richard Rahl, proceeds to kill every member of the Central Council, executing them for their legal (if immoral) trial and sentencing of his fiance.[ix]  They don't stand any more chance before his magical sword than they would have before the magical fire of a wizard.  A new magical dictator is in town.

              The D'Haran Empire, under Richard, proceeds to demand every land in the Midlands submit to his rule.  Taking control and residence of the Confessor's Palace (seat of the previous tyrant), Richard's army confiscates the weapons of every foreign power in the city of Aydindril – a city where he has no legal rights to speak of, since D'Hara was never even nominally part of the Midlands! - and requires capitulation.  As he tells the assembled representatives of many sovereign nations: “Surrender is the price for peace.”[x]  Those nations that don't immediately capitulate will be forced to pay triple the normal tax to D'Hara for thirty years, presumably for doubting the good intentions of the D'Harans, who until the week previous had been murdering and looting their kingdoms.
              For a self-avowed Objectivist and libertarian to have his hero forcibly disarm his enemies and demand they submit to a foreign dictatorship is irony so great it can scarcely be believed.  It's hard to see how Goodkind failed to see this, but perhaps he was caught up in the story, like so many of his readers. 
              Richard declares his intentions of conquest, and dismisses protests about the traditional rights of the Midlands and possibilities of a similar federation with a wave of rhetoric: "The Midlands is fragmented, and cannot be made whole again, or I would instead join with you. What is past, is past, and cannot be returned.”
              To be sure, Richard doesn't seem too interested in returning it.  He only sees one way to defend the New World: if everyone does what he says, on penalty of death.  Somewhat later, Kahlan will return as Mother Confessor and deed the whole of the sovereign nations of the Midlands to her new husband in D'Hara, but that legal fiction is a later invention.  At the beginning, it's just a man with power disarming his enemies and demanding their surrender.

              Naturally, almost all who oppose Kahlan and Richard are villains or fools of the crudest sort.  They are in the pay of the enemy, addled by foul magic, or misguided by patently absurd philosophies.  But on occasion otherwise good characters usurp the righteous actions of Goodkind's heroic dictators.  For example, at one point Galea's rulers decline to help Kahlan in her fight against the Old World and instead choose to seek terms with Jagang.  Galea's queen, Cyrilla  (Kahlan's half-sister) suffered incredible and poorly-described agonies in a rape dungeon earlier in the series, and it is suggested that the trauma drove her mad.  But whatever the reason, Cyrilla opts to sue for terms rather than fight, opposing her to Kahlan.  Cyrilla or her emissary (and brother) Harold aren't shown to be evil.  They simply are wrong and foolish, because they disagree with Kahlan and Richard, the heroes.
              Kahlan's reaction to this opposition is nightmarish.  She declares that she will lead the army that will destroy Galea, and then declares that when she kills them all, she will personally throw her half-sister back into the rape dungeon!  And why?  In order to intimidate other nations into joining her rather than attempting to sue for peace as well!
              It's hard to imagine how this justification came to be.  Even if it were taken for granted that the nations should rightfully listen to their magical dictator, and even if the necessities of war dictated sparing no troops to defend a neutral nation, what manner of person could threaten to throw her enemies into a rape dungeon?  And what manner of person would write their ideal hero in such a way?
              As Kahlan says, “'Just as the Mother Confessor is the final arbiter of truth through her magic, she is also the final arbiter of power. The word of the Mother Confessor is law.'”  And a hideous law it is.

              It is worth noting that the heroes of the series never seek this power or resultant violence for its own sake.  This is carefully pointed out each time they rise to a new position of authority, and we are reminded of the fact at every available turn.  Richard doesn't intentionally set out to rule D'Hara or the Baka Ban Mana, it's an accident that results from his ignorance of some of the consequences of his actions.  And while he does aggressively seek the rule of Westland and the Midlands, joining them to his own D'Haran Empire, we are assured that this is because there is no other way to fight the approaching Jagang.  Kahlan is born into her rule of the Midlands, and Zedd is forced to rule in another capacity because of his inborn magical talent.

              While the threat of the rape dungeon is terrible, it's not even the worse exhibit of monstrous behavior by the heroes.  They frequently engage in behavior that goes far beyond what most reasonable people would consider to be moral, becoming more and more extreme as the series progresses and the philosophy illustrated by Goodkind becomes more heavy-handed.  Later in the series, for example, Richard leads an army that massacres and destroys an unarmed group of peaceful protestors.  It barely seems credible to present this is a just action, but in the context of the book these peace protestors are undermining his rule and leadership and so they deserve to be slaughtered.  They are getting in the way of his cause and his total war.
              Only in the most twisted view could this be seen as justifiable.  It does, however, hearken back to the writings of Ayn Rand.  At one point during her bookAtlas Shrugged, a trainload of people die in an explosion.  Rand tries to paint them as all being in some way responsible for their own deaths.  One individual, for example, is a teacher who instructs that selfishness is wrong and competence is evil.  Another is a mother who tells her children similarly wrong-headed ideas.  In Rand's eyes, this means that they deserve their death.  Extrapolated and transported to a fantasy environment, where normal structures of right and wrong no longer exist, it is perhaps only a step farther to say that a peaceful peace march is similarly deserving of death - for being mistaken and wrong about the righteousness of the war at hand.
              This concept of “total war” is one frequently revisited by Goodkind.  When one character describes a war in which they wiped out every single member of the enemy tribe – which we are told even extends to the children of the enemy, who are killed en masse – they are reassured by the hero Kahlan that “[i]f war is brought to you, then let there be war like your enemy has never imagined in his most frightening nightmares. Anything less, and you hand victory to your foe."  This is a message to which Kahlan will later stick, with terrible results.  When she leads Galea against an Imperial Order army, she tells her soldiers that those who wish to leave before the battle may go.  After they leave, she orders them hunted down and killed.
              But it is her husband, the moral paragon Richard Rahl, who orders his army of D'Harans to travel to the enemy homeland and kill the women and children.  He orders his men to collect their ears.  To Goodkind and to his characters, not only is mercy a weakness, anything less than the most egregious war crimes are an immoral mistake.

              As is common in fantasy fiction, the heroes are presented as always doing the right thing.  When they engage in these terrible actions, slaughtering protestors and collecting the ears of children, they are only challenged by secondary characters with the flimsiest of protests, easily reasoned away and dismissed.  A rational bystander – not written by Goodkind, in other words - might be tempted to be less kind in their protests.  But the only people around to challenge the heroes' actions are always suitably unimaginative and unintelligent.
              At one point Zedd finds an object that he knows will be sought after by evil wizards and the Keeper (a Satan analog) and so on.  This object, the Stone of Tears, is the most recent magical device around which the plot will hinge (similar to the Boxes of Orden, Temple of the Winds, and so on) and is of course immensely dangerous since it can destroy the world.  So what does he do with the Stone?  He gives it to a little girl to keep safe.
              The little girl has a formidable warrior as a protector, of course, but most people would still see this as an incredibly stupid and immoral thing to do.  Indeed, Zedd's companion Adie is incredulous and challenges him on the wisdom and ethics of giving a dangerous object that needs to be protected to a little girl.  Zedd's defense is that he thought it would be safer if someone without magic had it, and that if he had just hidden it someone could have tortured the location out of him.[xi]
              A rational bystander would probably reply that there was nothing to prevent him being tortured and telling who and where the little girl was, but even further might point out that even if he had to give it to an unmagical person to keep it safe, it might be somewhat better to give it to an unmagical adult.  Adie, however, just complacently agrees.

              So in summary, Terry Goodkind's series presents us with heroes who are absolute dictators and who wage war to expand their rule, who believe that the ends justify even the most monstrous means, and who never hesitate to snatch away basic rights and diplomatic customs whenever it's convenient.

              There are numerous other examples of questionable morals, but a short list of some of the most terrible examples:

              Mild racism.
              Goodkind often backs himself into a corner when it comes to the rarity of magic, which has the unfortunate result of some racist implications.  Early in the series, he declares that there are no more wizards, quite broadly and irrevocably.  While this makes the status of Zedd and Richard all the more impressive, it also means that it becomes increasingly harder to find anyone to menace the heroic wizards.  Accordingly, Goodkind gives various groups and individuals magical powers.  But to be consistent, he has to make it a special kind of magic that won't threaten the heroes' monopoly on magic.  The end result is that all the “civilized” groups are held to the “no wizards” rule, while the tribal peoples such as the Mud People, the Nagtong, the Si Doak, the Baka Ban Mana, and so on all have their own special racial magic.  Even when members of those peoples are described as “having the gift,” it's carefully qualified to make sure the reader doesn't confuse them with civilized and proper wizards.  When one reflects that, historically, the “tribal” peoples of the modern world have generally been black or brown or red in skin tone, and the “civilized” peoples have generally been white, there is a distasteful whiff of racism about the “witch doctors” of the tribal peoples in Goodkind's work.  It would seem, though, that this is more an artifact of his poor abilities as an author than any real evidence of racism.


C. Strange Fascinations

              Of the many, many problems with this series of books, some of the most disturbing ones have to do with a few repeated themes that turn up throughout their run: pain and rape.  These are also some of the most obvious problems, since they turn up in almost every book multiple times.
              Goodkind seems to have a strange fascination with the infliction of pain, described in ever-increasing levels of extremity, as well as the rape and desecration of women.  At least once or twice in every book in The Sword of Truth series, Kahlan comes close to being raped repeatedly.  There are only three ways in which these situations resolve:
                  Kahlan saves herself with her magical power, but in a way that requires her to be overtly sexual to her attacker.  It is a ruse of one kind or another, and we are assured it is contrary to her true inclinations, and yet - somehow - saving herself always means acting slutty for her rapist.
                  She turns the impending rape into a beating, by taunting her rapist into being sufficiently angry to forget their lust.
                  Richard rescues her.

              When it comes to less important women than Kahlan, Goodkind feels free to unleash himself.  This begins with allusions in the first book to the fate of Confessors caught by the “quads”, but soon the author discards tact and begins describing the fate of the women in his fiction in ever-worsening ways.  In the second book, he spends an unusual amount of time detailing the destruction of the Galean town of Ebinissia, by their enemies the Keltons.[xii]  Given Goodkind's  methods and the number of conquering armies rampaging through innocent cities, it's no surprise that this scene is repeated over and over in escalating fashion.
              Such descriptions become more aggressive and more lurid as the series continues.  Throughout the latter half of the series, the rape tents of Jagang's Old World army are used often and with a heavy hand as a threat or a punishment.  Their actual use is usually reserved for the villainous Sisters of the Dark, who in many ways absorb the grim violence bestowed on Goodkind's women.  Sometimes this is in extremely graphic ways.[xiii]

              Pain is never under any restrictions.  Unlike rape or violence, it doesn't get meted out in proportion to the victim's villainy.  Instead, it is inflicted constantly on everyone.  And more than anything else, it soon extends into hyperbole.
              It begins when Richard is tortured by a Mord-Sith, one of a group of women who command Agiels, magical devices that inflict pain.  Through comparisons and vivid description, we are told that the pain the Agiel inflicts is beyond all ken and all reason, and that it's only because of its magical nature that the victims do not simply die or go insane in short order.  Thus, the pain Richard suffers is beyond anything a person in the real world would ever encounter.  Naturally our hero he manages to defy this torture and remain unbroken, albeit through a magical technique that still leaves him mentally scarred.  And this is only in the first book.
              In the succeeding books, new levels of pain are inflicted on Richard and on others.  Even the Mord-Sith, who suffer the same levels of pain for long years rather than the few months Richard endured, are incapacitated at times with pain that proves far beyond their ability to cope.  It only takes a few escalations before one begins to lose track - “pain like he has never known” should never be a phrase used so frequently.  The torture continues and increases ceaselessly, and no one is immune.

              It's tempting to speculate on what these fascinations of rape and torture mean to Goodkind.  But it's too facile to say that he somehow has some sort of fetish for this behavior.  It seems more likely that it's just an easy tool for him to manipulate the emotions of the reader.  It's an old trick, of course, and an extension of his lack of imagination – rape makes us instantly revile a villain to a greater degree than nearly anything else.  Rather than some key to his psyche, it's just a reminder that he's not a very good writer.  All too often, he resorts to increasing previous evils by another exponent, rather than thinking up something new.  At his most imaginative, he merely switches out rape for pedophilia.

              Even though these images of misogynistic cruelty may not have implications for Goodkind's secret fantasies, it does mean that the series becomes more disturbing to read once the reader realizes that this is it: there are no more twists coming.  Once we see the first looming rape of Kahlan and the first rampage through a city and the first extended torturing and the first scene of brutality against “evil” women, we've seen everything Goodkind has to offer.  That is it.  From then on, it's just a question of increasing degree and new magical devices.  He is not a good writer.

              So that's what there is to The Sword of Truth.  A few manipulative turns at melodrama put forth by truly terrible writing, communicating a message of authoritarianism and “ends justify the means.”  There are some positive themes, like a briefly empowering theme of sexual empowerment in Temple of the Winds, but for every good thing there are a dozen rape tents.
              Avoid these books.

[i]A “Mary Sue” is a character clearly intended to be a stand-in for the author.  They have no real personality, always do the right thing, and are about as interesting as that sounds.
[ii]A “straw man” is a character or viewpoint set forth in the weakest possible manner, making it easily denied or contradicted.  Any opposition to Goodkind's philosophies comes in ridiculous forms that his heroes righteously decry.
[iii]Seriously.  The Mud People.
[iv]              “For every one of the Mud People, there were five Jocopo. At first, they were not afraid of us, because of their numbers. We killed Jocopo when they hunted food, when they tended their crops, when they cared for their animals, when they went for water, when they went to squat, when they slept. Any Jocopo. Every Jocopo. We did not try to fight them; we only killed them. Until there were no more Jocopo in this world, only in the spirit world.”
                            She wondered briefly if he meant that they had killed the children, too, but she knew the answer; there were no more Jocopo. Something else her father had taught her came to mind: If war is brought to you, then it is incumbent upon you to show no mercy. Surely you will be shown none, and you will be a traitor to your people and as good as their enemy if you let any clemency slip its bounds, for your people will pay for your mistake with their lives.
                            “I understand, Chandalen. Your people did the only thing they could. Your grandfather did what was necessary to protect his people. My father also taught me, 'If war is brought to you, then let there be war like your enemy has never imagined in his most frightening nightmares. Anything less, and you hand victory to your foe.'”
                                          Stone of Tears
[v]              “It didn't start that way, though. I started by myself, working, struggling, for years. Tending my trees day and night, trying to produce the best fruit anyone ever tasted. Many of the trees failed. Many times I failed, and went hungry.  But I finally was able to do better. I saved every copper, and bought more land in the years I could. Planted, tended, picked, hauled, and sold it all by myself. Over time, people came to know my fruit as the best, and I became more successful. In the last few years, I've hired people to tend things for me. But I still keep my hand to the work, so that it lives up to what people know me for. Would you hope for any less success, in your work?”
                                          Stone of Tears
[vi]              Well, the Central Council rules the Midlands …”  She cleared her throat as she looked down at her hands in her lap. “... and the Mother Confessor rules the Central Council.”
              His arms came unfolded. “You mean to say that you rule all the kings and queens? All the lands? You rule the Midlands?”
              “Well ... yes, in a way, I guess. You see, not all the lands are represented on the Central Council. Some are too small, like Queen Milena's Tamarang, and the Mud People, and a few others are lands of magic, the land of the night wisps, for example. The Mother Confessor is the advocate for these lesser lands. Left to their own wishes, the council would decide to carve up these smaller lands. And they have the armies to do it easily. Only the Mother Confessor stands for those who have no voice. 'The other problem is that these lands are often in disagreement. Some have been bitter adversaries for as long as anyone can remember. The council is often deadlocked as rulers or their representatives each stubbornly demands his own way, to the detriment of the greater interests of the Midlands. The Mother Confessor has no interest but the good of the Midlands.”
                            Wizard's First Rule
[vii]              "No one holds claim to Aydindril. No ruler would dare to lay claim to it; they all fear it, fear the Confessors and the wizards. All the lands of the Midlands contribute to the support of Aydindril. They all pay tribute. Confessors are above the law of any one land, much the same way the Seeker is ultimately above any law but his own. Yet at the same time, we serve all the people of the Midlands through the Central Council. "In the past, arrogant rulers had thought to make the Confessors submit to their word. In those times, there were farsighted Confessors, now revered as legends, who knew they must lay the foundation for our independence, or forever submit to domination; so the. Mother Confessor took the rulers with her power. The rulers were removed from their thrones, and replaced with new rulers who understood that Confessors were to be left alone: The old rulers, those who were taken, were kept in Aydindril as little more than slaves. The Confessors took these old rulers with them when they traveled to the different lands, made them carry the provisions and luxuries of travel. Back then, there was more ceremony surrounding the Confessors than there is now. Anyway, it made the intended impression."
                                          Wizard's First Rule
[viii]              “Guards!' She screamed down toward the doors. The men in uniform looked up as they came running. 'Diplomatic privilege is suspended! If I see that Keltish pig or any of his personal guard in this palace before the council session tomorrow morning, I will personally skin you all alive after I kill him!'
                                          Stone of Tears
[ix]              'I am Supreme Councilor Thurstan!' the one in the center, at the tallest chair, said. 'I demand to know the meaning of this intrusion!' Richard was still coming.
                            'Be there one of you who did not vote to sentence the Mother Confessor to death?'
                            'She was sentenced to death for treason! Legally, and unanimously, sentenced by this council! Guards! Remove this man!'
                            Men came running across the vast floor, but Richard had already closed on the dais. The councilors drew knives. Richard leapt to the top of the desk with a scream of rage. The blade cleaved Thurstan in two, from ear to crotch. A swing to each side took off heads. Several of the men tried to stab him. They weren't close to fast enough. The sword found every robed figure, including the ones who tried to run. It was over in seconds, before the guards had made half the distance.
                                          Stone of Tears
[x]              "The Imperial Order wishes to rule all of D'Hara and all of the Midlands. They have lost D'Hara; I rule D'Hara. They have lost Aydindril; D'Hara rules Aydindril.
                            "You had a chance at unity, and you squandered it. That chance has passed into history. You now have but two choices. Your first is to choose to side with the Imperial Order. They will rule with an iron fist. You will have no say, and no rights. All magic will be exterminated, except the magic with which they dominate you. If you live, your lives will be a dark struggle without the spark of hope for freedom.  You will be their slaves.
                            "Your other choice is to surrender to D'Hara. You will follow the law of D'Hara. Once you are one with us, you will have a say in those laws. We have no desire to extinguish the diversity that is the Midlands. You will have the right to the fruits of your labor and the right to trade and flourish, as long as you work within the larger context of law and the rights of others. Magic will be protected, and your children will be born into a world of freedom, where anything is possible. "And once the Imperial Order is exterminated, there will be peace. True peace.
                            "There will be a price: your sovereignty. While you will be allowed to maintain your own lands and cultures, you will not be allowed to have standing armies. The only men at arms will be those common to all, under the banner of D'Hara. This will not be a council of independent lands; your surrender is mandatory. Surrender is the price each land will pay for peace, and the proof of your commitment to it.
                            "Much as you all paid a tribute to Aydindril, no land, no people, will bear all the burden of freedom; all lands, all people, will pay a tax sufficient to see to the common defense, and no more. All will pay equally; none will be favored."
                                          Stone of Tears
[xi]              “And where would you have had me keep it? In my pocket? In the pocket of a wizard? In the pocket of one with the gift, where the Keeper is sure to look first? Or perhaps you would have had me hide it, in a place only I knew, where, if a baneling gets his hands on me and somehow makes me talk, I could tell him it would be, so he could go and collect it?”
                                          Stone of Tears
[xii]              Kahlan stopped at various beds, her back stiff, her head held high, her jaw rigid, as she reluctantly cast her eyes down at faces she knew. Juliana, one of the youngest, had always been self-confident and assertive. She knew what she wanted and wasn't timid about going after it. She had always been smitten with young men in uniform: soldiers. One time, it had brought her to grief with her chaperone, Mistress Nelda. Kahlan had surreptitiously interceded on her behalf, informing Mistress Nelda that despite Juliana's dalliances, the Aydindril Home Guard were all men of impeccable honor, and would never lay a finger on a queen's lady. Her wrists were now tied to the headpost, and by the way they had bled, looked to have been that way through the whole of her ordeal. Kahlan silently cursed the spirits for their cruel humor in giving the young innocent what she had thought she wanted.
              Little Elswyth was in the next blood-soaked bed. Her breasts had been stabbed countless times, and her throat slit, as were many of the rest, like hogs at slaughter. At the end of the room, Kahlan stopped at the foot of the last bed. Ashley, one of the older teenagers, had each ankle tied to a footpost. She had been strangled with a curtain tieback. Her father was one of the Galean aides to the ambassador in Aydindril. Her mother had been thrilled to tears when Queen Cyrilla had agreed to take Ashley on as one of her ladies-in-waiting.
                            Stone of Tears
[xiii]              It was a namble. One of the Nameless One's minions. Oh, dear Creator, she prayed fervently, please protect us. Growling in a low rumble, its powerful muscles flexing, its haunted eyes glowing orange, the namble edged like a huge cat toward the woman on the ground. Head low, it crawled between her legs. In a state of ragged fear, the woman still stared up at nothing. The namble sniffed at her crotch. Its long tongue flicked out, running over her. She flinched, making a small jerk of a sound against the cloth in her teeth, but she kept her legs open. Her eyes did not move. She did not look at the namble. The Sisters in the circle began a soft chant.
                            The namble licked her again, slower, grunting this time as it did so. She squealed against the rag. Beads of sweat shimmered on her flesh. She kept her legs wide apart. Rising up on its knees, the beast gave a throaty roar to the black sky. Its pointed, barbed, erect phallus stood out, plainly silhouetted against the candles beyond. Muscles bulged in knotted cords along its arms and shoulders as the namble bent forward, putting a fist to each side of the woman. Its tongue licked out around her throat as it gave a vibrating rumble of a growl, and then it lowered itself, covering her with its massive form. Its hips hunched forward. The woman's eyes winced shut as she screamed against the cloth in her teeth. The namble gave a quick, powerful thrust and her eyes snapped open in a panic of pain. Even with the cloth clenched in her teeth, her screams could be heard over the chanting each time the beast knocked the wind from her, adding more force to the shrieks. Margaret had to force herself to take a breath as she watched. She hated these women; they had given themselves over to something unspeakably evil. Still, they were her Sisters, and she could hardly bear to watch one being hurt. She realized she was shaking.
                            She clenched the gold flower at her neck in one fist and Jedidiah's arm with her other as tears streamed down her face. The beast thrashed at the Sister on the ground as the three Sisters held her. Her muffled screams of torment ripped at Margaret's heart. The Sister holding the cloth finally spoke. 'If you want the gift, you must encourage him to give it to you. He will not surrender it unless you overcome his control - unless you take it from him. You must win it from him. Do you understand?' Crying, her eyes shut tight, the woman nodded. The Sister pulled the cloth away.  “Then he is yours now. Take the gift, if you will.”  The other two released her arms and the three of them returned to their places in the circle, taking up the chanting with the others. The woman let out a wail that turned Margaret's blood to ice. It made her ears hurt.
                            The woman flung her arms and legs around the namble, clutching herself to it, moving with it, moving with the chanting. Her screams died away as she panted with the effort. Margaret could watch no longer. She closed her eyes and swallowed back a wail of her own that tried to force itself from her throat. But even with her eyes closed, it was no better. She could still hear it. Please, dear Creator, she begged in her mind, let it end. Please let it end.
                            And then, with a husky grunt, it did. Margaret opened her eyes to see the namble still, its back hunched. It shuddered, and then slowly went limp. The woman struggled to breathe under its weight. With strength that seemed impossible, she at last pushed the namble off her. Chest heaving, it rolled to its hands and knees and slunk back to its place in the circle, folding itself into a dark bundle.
                            The chanting had stopped. The woman lay on the ground for a time, panting, recovering.
                                          Stone of Tears