Firstborn & Defending Elysium – Brandon Sanderson

elysiumAny opportunity we have to see the progress of those we idolize, to humanize our creative deities, is a good thing. I’ve made no secret of my passion/obsession with Brandon Sanderson’s work both on and off the page. His contribution to genre fiction will surely go down in history as the most significant of our time. He’s our Tolkien, or our Bradbury. There are other authors who have made spectacular contributions to genre fiction, and I do not mean to minimize their impact, but I think Brandon Sanderson has made the biggest waves among them.

And yet, he constantly makes his fans feel special. Like each and every individual matters. Like those fans of his who are aspiring writers (like me) have every chance to become great too. A great example of this kind of encouragement comes in the form of Firstborn & Defending Elysium, two novelettes bound into a single tête-bêche volume, written by Brandon Sanderson before he was the superstar he is today.

The reason these matter is because he shares their origin, and the vulnerability of the creative process, and the occasional need we writers face of realigning ourselves to our chosen outlets.

I wasn’t enamored with Firstborn, the first of the two short stories I read. It was his first published short, and it’s a somewhat-lackluster tale of jealousy and betrayal. What it does for me is further humanize Mr. Sanderson. It gives the superhero his origin story. In Firstborn are the kernels of Sanderson’s creativity and sense of scale, his love of classic elemental stories told in far-out settings. Even if I didn’t love it, I’m glad for the opportunity to read it and, through that experience, gain a better understanding of the trajectory of his writing career.

Sanderson’s introduction to Defending Elysium describes a time when he was feeling particularly vulnerable and at odds with the craft. He’d been writing for years, finished a dozen novels, and hadn’t sold a thing. He was lost in the quagmire of writing, but feeling like he wasn’t writing stuff he’d want to read.

What he needed, he decided, was to write for writing’s sake. So while on vacation with a few writer friends in Monterey, he wrote Defending Elysium.

It is an excellent story. The ideas it puts forth are massive in scale, existing in the periphery of the story and giving the universe the feeling of enormity beyond he on-screen events. I always appreciate when a short story does this; it makes it much easier for me to jump into the events of the short story.

The writing is solid, but not the most interesting part of the Elysium reading experience. Brandon was in A difficult and very sensitive headspace while he wrote Elysium, whose protagonist, a blind man who is an agent for the Phone Company (which controls the secrets of FTL communication and is the only group that can freely talk with aliens), sees with the aid of technology.

The world he “sees” is vibrant, with colors as vibrations—which, incidentally, I saw in an interesting in TED talk a while ago—giving him a unique view of the world around him.

Maybe I’m projecting, but I get the impression that Elysium is a story into which Sanderson injected himself, consciously or otherwise. His character is misunderstood, not entirely honest with his peers, and blind. He is good at what he does, but is somewhat disillusioned with it.

Later in the story, he loses his sight for a time, and quickly descends into madness and terror. The visceral description of his horror at his renewed blindness, his fear of every sound around him that he’s unable to parse into an image of the world, is riveting. It swept me up, and my heart raced alongside the character’s. I felt his fear in a way I haven’t connected with a character in a very long time. Sanderson, in the depths of existential creative crisis, wrote a blind character who is nonetheless capable, who then rediscovers the horror of sightlessness, only to gain it back and become more powerful than before. Maybe it isn’t a representation of his issues with writing. Like I said, I could very well be projecting.

Firstborn and Defending Elysium are both short reads—I read both in a few hours—and are well worth getting if you’re a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s work. If you’re not, you can skip it.

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