We all have preferences, but what I’ve come to realize is how blind we are to those preferences.  We know we prefer certain things, but we often make the mistaken assumption that we prefer them because they’re superior choices, rather than products of our own unique outlooks and expectations.  Life is asymmetrical, and to really appreciate it, understanding the beauty and importance of asymmetry is vital.

It seems to be a human desire to rank and order everything.  And I do mean everything.  In recent years, I’ve grown annoyed with Best Of lists and Top 10 whatevers.  It’s all so arbitrary and diminishing.  How can we honestly compare an animated musical fantasy like Frozen to a live-action blood soaked western like Django.  You can’t.  Other than to try and judge them by their own efforts.  Yet we continue to do so.  We literally have an award called Best Picture which takes all the great (and wildly different) films of the year and crowns one of them The Best.  Even in the years when there are nominees I’m interested in, I still find it absolutely bizarre.

The Academy Awards (and, honestly, all awards in the entertainment industry) are just so much advertising and self-congratulatory nonsense, and yet, the average person can be just as invested as the people in the industry.  As a novelologist, I’d love to win a Nebula or Hugo because it would open doors of recognition and commercial success.  I would even appreciate the award.  But to think of anything I wrote (or anything anyone wrote) as a singular accomplishment among the thousands of fantasy books written in a given year would be impossible for me to take seriously.  I’d be reluctant to dismiss other great books as not as good simply because someone had to get an award and that someone happened to be me.

A misunderstanding of asymmetry is why (among other reasons) a lot of people don’t understand natural selection.  Rather than viewing the ecosystem as a complex web, we tend to think of it as a ladder, and we put ourselves at the top of the ladder.  But natural selection is a massive multiplayer battle where winning isn’t about how smart you are or how many bombs you can build.  Bacteria and invertebrates didn’t end up where they are by accident.  Well, they sort of did, but they continue to thrive because they found a niche and made it work for them.  We should respect that more and not just in nature.

It’s why I always have a hard time dismissing often maligned works like Twilight.   I see a thriving creation that has entered the collective imagination and spoken to a hell of a lot of people.  It’s not anything I’d write or ever want to write, and I might even argue that it’s romance for teens and people with arrested development.  That’s a criticism, but it’s not a dismissal.  There’s a niche there, and it’s been filled with resounding success.

A lot of video games and board games are built on asymmetry.  League of Legends has dozens upon dozens of characters to play, each with their own unique flavor.  RPGs, both online and off, are founded upon the idea of a disparate group of individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, banding together to form a stronger team.  But what is most interesting to me about this is how so many people dislike this notion.  They want the characters to fit onto a ranking list, and by some astounding coincidence, the character types they like are the best ones while the ones they don’t like are either too weak or overpowered.

We all have our preferences, but by assuming those preferences are superior, we run the risk of missing out on things we might otherwise not notice and dismissing the preferences of others unduly.  It doesn’t mean we can’t discuss those preferences critically.  I stand by my assessment that Man of Steel is a pretty rotten interpretation of Superman, but I also acknowledge that for a lot of folks, it’s the interpretation they were waiting for.  And though I am a tabletop game fan, I have never particularly enjoyed Settlers of Cataan or Ticket to Ride, both staples of the gaming hobby for most other people I know.  I know as a write my novels that not everyone is going to like them or even get past their preferences to give the books an honest shot.  But to complain about that would open the discussion to the truth that some people are going to like my books for equally arbitrary reasons.

Asymmetry isn’t pretty, but acknowledging that the world isn’t a nice little compilation of Top 10 lists is eye opening.  It allows us to see the world as the messy, incomprehensible collection of stuff that it is.  It might be frustrating at times, but like an H.P. Lovecraft protagonist, it’s necessary to get to the truths that lay in waiting in the greater universe.  I can practically guarantee you won’t go mad from the revelations that it brings.

(Guarantee void in the lost city of Carcosa and the Plateau of Leng.)

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted December 11, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Well they do have an Animated Film award so Frozen doesn’t have to compete with 12 Years a Slave or something like that. It is too bad a comedy or sci-fi movie is pretty much ruled out from consideration because of its genre. It’s akin to the Heisman Trophy in college football where anyone who’s not a quarterback or running back is pretty much ruled out unless they’re really spectacular–or go to Notre Dame. But then the people at the Academy are probably mostly old farts who still remember paying a nickel to see Gone With the Wind when it came out. I think I noted when an online friend posted the box office receipts of each year in the last decade or so that after LOTR won the Best Picture Oscar the Academy largely went turtle again in picking smaller dramas most people hadn’t seen until then.

    BTW, the Onion’s AV Club lists Man of Steel as the 4th-worst movie of the year. They must read your blog as they make a lot of the same points.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      The Animated Film category is no better. It simply lumps a medium together in a single arbitrary mess. Animation is a medium, not a genre.

      And my point is that, regardless of how they choose to divide it up, it’s still pretty damned silly. That’s okay since awards are a nebulous and arbitrary thing anyway, but creating a sub-category isn’t a concession. It’s just more of the same.

  2. Mark
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    I have always thought that the only way to objectively judge art and entertainment is measuring how well it succeeds at what it was trying to do. For example, Die Hard, The Iron Giant and The Shawshank Redemption are all nearly perfect movies in my opinion, because they all achieve their individual goals so well, and they all are very enjoyable to watch. I do think Top 10 lists can be fun and interesting as a ways of seeing what other people think and celebrating excellent work, but not as a meaningful judgement of one thing being better than another.

    I think it’s funny how many people who are not professional critics are determined to judge every book, movie or show as soon as they watch it. It seems like everyone is more interested in comparative criticism than just responding to things on an emotional/visceral level. If I ask someone what they thought of a movie, I just want to know if they enjoyed it or not, not whether or not they it was better or worse than something else. If every time I went to see an action/adventure movie my only concern was whether it was better than Raiders of the Lost Ark, I would have a lot of disappointing trips to the movies.

    I am genuinely surprised you don’t like Ticket to Ride, since you are the first board game fan I have encountered that didn’t really enjoy it.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 12, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Excellent points all around.

      I don’t hate Ticket to Ride, but find it dull. I have a theory why, and it has to do with the many reasons people play games. I’ll share it on my blog one of these days, but it basically comes down to being a game that’s mostly about memorization, that requires some concentration, but not enough to be distracting from hanging out with friends.

      It’s certainly not a bad game, but nothing I ever end up playing very often because I have a lot of other games I can usually talk people into instead.

      • Mark
        Posted December 13, 2013 at 1:45 am | Permalink

        Totally reasonable, and those definitely are some of the reasons I like Ticket to Ride. The best thing about it, to me at least, is that you don’t know who is winning until the end, which keeps everyone involved. Games are definitely a great example of something where preferences are as important as quality when it comes to enjoyment. I personally don’t particularly like cooperative games, which I know a lot of people think are more fun.

        Thanks as always for the great blog posts and engaging with your fans.

  3. Posted December 20, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    This comment has nothing to do with the above, but before you attack me with an open mouthed, seven headed alligator, please understand I’ve looked in Monster, on your website, searched, looked at Wikipedia, and STILL can’t figure out which books go in the Monster series.
    Hubby and I snagged the book at a used bookstore (looked similar to Monster Hunters Inc, which we loved). Hubby read it and requested the other books in the series. So I ordered everything on Amazon, and STILL can’t figure out which are in the series.
    Christmas is coming, and Santa isn’t answering my queries either (though I got a rather snarky response from an elf).
    Please help.
    Or is it a con? Is Monster really a stand-alone, but pretends to be part of a series?
    Thanks for your help, and please refrain from beating me senseless with a chainsaw.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 21, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      Monster is not and was never intended to be part of a series. It’s funny that you should think so since I feel like the setting shifts so radically at the end of the story. Also, Monster is a character I think would quickly wear out his welcome.

      None of my novels so far are connected, just to let you know though I am very flattered that you liked the book that much.

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