Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Book Review (page 1 of 4)

Book Review: Heroes Die

Blending sci-fi and fantasy is not really a new idea, but not many books pull it off as effectively as Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. The premise of the book is that in a dystopian future where corporations rule the earth and society follows a strict caste system, the primary form of entertainment comes from “actors” who are teleported to a parallel universe. In this medieval parallel world, called Overworld, magic is real and various fantastical beasts are too. Viewers see through the actors’ eyes as they go on exciting adventures. These adventures are very real: the actors can be killed, and when the actors kill someone else in the fantasy world, it’s a real death. Basically, imagine if when you went to the theater to watch an action movie all the violence was acted out by actual gladiators who really died or killed when that happened onscreen.

The main character of Heroes Die is Caine, an extremely successful actor who, in Overworld, is a badass ruthless assassin. He has assassinated kings, he has turned the tide of wars, he is almost universally feared, all for the viewers at home to enjoy.

Caine is, as they say in action movies, “getting too old for this shit” but he is roped back into one more adventure. His ex-wife, also an actor (she is a powerful mage in the fantasy world – yes, there’s magic there), has unknowingly gone off-line due to a powerful spell that hides her from her enemies. If an actor stays off line too long the signal connecting them to Earth gets lost and they die, messily. Caine wants to go rescue her, but to go back to Overworld, he has to sign a deal with the devil, i.e. the studio executives. They don’t particularly care about saving Caine’s wife. They want Caine to assassinate the new god-like emperor of Overworld who is so powerful that he might actually usher in an era of peace and order which would make the studios lose profits.

What follows is a page-turning over-the-top violent adventure. It reminded me a bit of old sci-fi pulp stories like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, but with the difference that Heroes Die has far better characterization, and is far more gruesome. Much like Caine himself, the novel excels at violence while also criticizing the very same violence.

In the afterword of the book, the author sums this up nicely:

It’s a piece of violent entertainment that is a meditation on violent entertainment—as a concept in itself, and as a cultural obsession.

The book is basically Russell Crowe in Gladiator, when he performs a feat of extreme violence with great skill and then turns to the crowd and says:

It helps that the author is apparently a martial artist so the fight scenes are well done. Yeah, the characters accumulate various wounds and continue to do acrobatic feats of murder, but overall the fights are more convincing than average.

There are so many ways that Heroes Die could have gone off the rails but it doesn’t. Despite the flashy violence and magic and sci-fi tropes, it’s a character-driven story. Even the bad guys are well-developed, especially the God-emperor, Ma’elkoth, who Caine is meant to kill. There are moments where as a reader I was swept up in his charisma and power along with Caine and started to think maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I’m surprised it is not more widely known. If you like speculative fiction and are ok with blood and violence, check it out. It’s quite a ride.

Book Review: Lancelot

I follow a lot of authors on Twitter. This is because authors tend to be interesting people with interesting things to say, and because I like to hear about writing from people who do it for a living, but it also has the benefit of allowing me to hear about new books. A few months ago, I saw a tweet from the historical fiction author Giles Kristian, seeking bloggers who write about books and offering to send a copy of his new book Lancelot. I had already heard good things about the book and it sounded like something I would enjoy, so I responded, and shortly thereafter I received a package from the UK with a signed trade paperback copy of the book!

I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is a really cool book cover that fits the tone of the book perfectly.

So, with all that said, let’s talk about the book! I really enjoyed it. It is a historical fiction retelling of the Arthurian legend, with Lancelot as the main character. It’s set in the years after the downfall of the Roman empire, when Britons are fighting against invading Saxons. For fans of Arthurian stories, don’t expect this book to follow exactly the stories you might be familiar with. In my opinion, this is a good thing: when retelling such a familiar story, it can be tempting to follow the well-worn ruts laid down by previous authors, and end up sounding the same and not really adding much. Kristian manages to avoid this. Lancelot stands on its own, primarily because it focuses on the character of Lancelot, fleshing him out in a way that I haven’t seen before. He’s still the Lancelot that we know and love: obsessed with Guinevere, practically unstoppable in battle, with a “complicated” relationship with Arthur. But that is now supported by a tragic backstory and a fierce (and flawed) personality that fits with the legendary character but humanizes him.

The story doesn’t follow the legends exactly, but as someone who is pretty familiar with them, it was really fun to see how this retelling portrayed different famous characters and events. There’s a special thrill when you realize that the horse warrior in the shining scale armor that is being introduced is Arthur, or the wiry old druid with tattoos and a cloak of raven feathers is Merlin.  Many other familiar knights of the round table and other characters make appearances throughout the book, and it was great to see this version of them.

This novel walks right on the borderline between low-magic fantasy and historical fiction, which is an area that I wish more authors would explore, and one that I often gravitate toward in my own fiction writing. There are hints of magic at times, and of course the source material is mythology rather than history. But at the same time, the details of the setting are historical. The lingering influence of the Romans is felt in their ruins, and in some cases in the lineage of certain characters. The details of the battles feel authentic (I’m no historian, so I can’t say for sure) even if the battles themselves are invented. Likewise the smaller everyday details that can really make or break historical fiction. Sometimes a little detail will jump out and ruin the suspension of disbelief (I am thinking of one Roman historical fiction book where they repeatedly mention fields of corn, a crop from the Americas), but there was none of that here for me.

If I have one “complaint”, it is that I never really got a feel for the bigger picture. There are a lot of names of kings and kingdoms bandied about, but I never really felt like I understood the geography of where they were or what their relationships were the way I do for something like Game of Thrones. Part of this is because of the unfamiliar names (Karrek Loos yn Koos, Caer Gwinntguic, Cynwidion, etc.), and part is simply because this is really a much more focused story of one man so the bigger picture doesn’t actually matter as much. (I should note: there is a perfectly fine map in the front of the book, but I was lazy and didn’t refer to it much.)

I’ll finish by noting that this book reminded me very strongly of Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” series. Even though Cornwell’s books are set centuries later, the basics of medieval warfare didn’t change very much in that time, and both stories feature a headstrong but extremely skilled warrior fighting for a king who is trying to unite Britain against an invading force.  Both stories  depict a bloody, gritty, world of shield walls and gruesome wounds and personal rivalries. Kristian acknowledges the influence of Cornwell’s writing in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, in particular Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles series, which is its own take on the Arthurian legends. I haven’t read those Cornwell books so I can’t compare directly, but the influence is undeniable. It’s been a few years since I read anything by Cornwall, but in my opinion Kristian’s prose is better: a bit more imagery and flowery language than I remember from Cornwell, but not so much that it is over the top.

Bottom line, I really enjoyed this book, and I really appreciate the author being kind enough to send me a copy! For anyone who is a fan of bloody and gritty fantasy or historical fiction from authors like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell, I definitely recommend giving Lancelot a try.

Book Review: Cryptonomicon

A while back I discovered that I had accidentally accumulated a handful of Audible credits, and so of course to get the most bang for my buck I used them on audiobooks books that were either not available from the library, had a long wait list, or were as long as possible. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson weighs in at a respectable 42 hours, and had been on my to-read list for quite a while, so I bought it and finally started it when I had a long road trip for work back in January.

The book is a huge epic, with a good-sized cast of main characters and two separate but related story lines. Half of the book is set during World War 2 and the main characters are Lawrence Waterhouse, a brilliant math prodigy code-breaker who works with Alan Turing, Bobby Shaftoe, a resourceful marine who ends up in all sorts of interesting situations as the allied powers try to hide the fact that they have broken axis codes, and Goto Dengo, a Japanese mining engineer who ends up involved in a plot to bury tons of gold the axis powers have looted from conquered countries.

The other half of the book takes place in the 90s. The main character, Randy Waterhouse, is the grandson of Lawrence and is a computer hacker who is part of an internet startup trying to establish cryptographically secure internet communications including an anonymous digital currency. He ends up working with the various descendants of the other WWII characters in a plot to recover the buried gold.

In typical Neil Stephenson style, Cryptonomicon is prone to long-winded asides about a wide variety of technical topics, particularly computers and cryptography, but also other stuff, such as completely unnecessary parametrization of things in daily life into systems of equations. I guess this is supposed to dazzle readers with how smart the characters (and the author) are, but I often found it tedious. I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse if I was not already familiar with a lot of the topics covered. Some of these asides are interesting, or at least charming, and many that seem irrelevant at the time end up being relevant later on.  Some of these asides have also aged quite poorly. The book was written in the late 90s, and so it has a number of breathless explanations of computer-related things that the reader is clearly supposed to be amazed and impressed by, which nowadays are just normal boring parts of life.

There are also a few that have aged poorly for other reasons. One in particular stands out: Randy is at a dinner party with his (soon to be ex) girlfriend’s academic colleagues. The girlfriend is a caricature of the “bitchy feminist” and her colleagues are (shudder) social scientists (who are, the text makes clear, lesser forms of life compared to hard science, math, and computer geeks). Randy gets in an argument with a dude who has become famous for raising difficult questions about the rise of the internet, and in particular how inequality in society means that poor people will not have the same chance to benefit from the internet as rich people. Instead of responding to the actual (very valid and still very relevant point), Randy leaps to the defense of the internet by criticizing the “information superhighway” analogy and  flaunting his impressive credentials as… a UNIX sysadmin I guess? I guess we’re supposed to be impressed by that? The “best” part of the chapter is when the academic points out that Randy, a white male from a long line of well-to-do math whizzes, has benefited from privileges that others may not have shared, and Randy (a) claims the he doesn’t have privilege, and (b) it’s clear that the reader is supposed to side with him.

That one chapter basically turned me off from Randy and his whole story line. These days it’s just not that fun to read a story glorifying tech-bros who are inventing bitcoin (even if that story improbably leads to all sorts of adventures in the jungles of the Phillipines). I mean, all due credit to Stephenson for linking cryptography and the potential for digital currency back in the late 90s: that’s some good sci-fi future prediction, even if Cryptonomicon is naively obsessed with the need for a gold standard to back such a currency. But too often I found that the book, especially the modern story line, seemed to glorify white male nerds in a way that doesn’t sit quite right nowadays, when stereotypical white male nerds, especially those obsessed with “individual liberty” and cryptocurrency have become one of the most toxic segments of the population on and off the internet. (I should also mention that Randy’s interactions with and thoughts about women do not help the situation. There’s a “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” vibe that doesn’t age well. I found his romance with Amy Shaftoe extremely far-fetched: at some point in the book she goes from strong, independent woman to emotional and needy potential girlfriend, and it’s entirely unclear why she would be interested in him.)

On the other hand, the WWII storyline is really good. Still prone to long, often gratuitous, tangents, but I enjoyed the characters and the story much more. Lots of interesting people jetting around the globe, getting into and out of trouble. And it also focused on a part of the war that I did not know much about, the southeast Pacific, so I learned at least a little real history mixed in with the fictional parts.

When I finished this book, I wavered on how to rate it on Goodreads. I love giant doorstopper epics, and it has some great moments and memorable characters. It tells a heck of a yarn, and the way the past and “present” story lines are interrelated is pretty well done. But it also has the issues I mentioned above. In the end I went with three stars. I think there is a four or even five-star book buried in there, but Cryptonomicon is badly in need of an editor willing to mercilessly wield her red pen to trim down the considerable bloat and improve the modern storyline. Lacking that, it’s uneven and too-long. I’m glad I read it, but I’m always disappointed when a book isn’t as good as it could have been.

 

Book Review: Norwegian Wood

I picked this book up because over on the book suggestion subreddits, Haruki Murakami’s books are constantly being recommended so I figured I’d give one a try. People are constantly praising Murakami for his beautiful prose and poignant writing, two things that I tend to enjoy so I had high hopes. Unfortunately, as you’ll see, I was pretty disappointed.

At times I felt like I must be reading a different book than everyone else: The prose was fine but really nothing special. I’ve read authors who deploy metaphors and similes that light up my mind and make me pause in admiration. Instead, most of Murakami’s writing seemed to fall into the category of “invisible” prose for me, where it flows nicely but nothing really jumps out. The overall melancholy tone was good, and there were occasional moments where the prose got a little more poetic, but even then I wasn’t particularly struck by it. I also found that a lot of the dialog didn’t quite scan for me: there were a lot of what seemed like non sequiturs, which I suspect is at least partly due to something lost in the translation from Japanese to English.

I was underwhelmed by the story and characters too. The main character is just about the most boring person I can imagine, with no real goals or motivation in life, and his primary love interest is a girl who is somehow even more boring than he is. The supporting characters are at least more interesting, but one of them (the second love interest) is an embodiment of the manic pixie dream girl trope (seriously, the description at that link could have been written specifically for her, right down to the hair dye). For some reason, despite being an incredibly boring and unremarkable guy, all the female characters in the book are in love with him and think that his every banal statement is amazing. Even the most interesting character in the book, an older woman who is at the same mental institution as the main love interest, and is a lesbian (and statutory rapist of an underaged girl – which is its own can of worms), ends up sleeping with the main character at the end of the book for no apparent reason. As for the plot, it was almost nonexistent, which is unfortunately pretty typical for a “literary” novel.

I guess I can see how a book about a young guy who mopes around aimlessly and yet for some reason has attractive women (of all ages and sexual orientations!) falling all over themselves to be with him might appeal to some readers, but I really don’t see why Murakami is such a literary darling known for gorgeous prose. Suffice it to say, I think this book just didn’t work for me. Maybe there is some aspect of it that went over my head that I’m not appreciating, but whatever the reason, it just didn’t connect.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

I first heard of George Saunders when I stumbled upon a series of short writing advice videos that he was in. He had a reputation as a master storyteller, and I made a note to try reading one of his books some time. When I saw his novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” popping up on recommendation lists, I decided to give it a try.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew basically nothing about the book other than the title and that the author had a good reputation. Lincoln in the Bardo turned out to be a very strange book that only partly worked for me.

The book is centered on Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died of Typhoid fever at age 11. As advertised in the title, the book is about Willie’s ghost as it lingers in the “bardo” – the in-between realm between the world of the living and death. Willie’s ghost encounters a cast of other colorful ghosts, who tell him their stories and try to convince him to leave the bardo and be at peace, while refusing to accept that they themselves should do the same.

Interspersed between fictional chapters are chapters that are composed entirely of little snippets and quotes from relevant historical accounts. I don’t know that all of the quotes were real, but at least one of the sources was “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which I know is a real book.

The book is definitely on the “literary” or even “experimental” side of things. There is sort of a plot, but it is pretty thin, and much of the book is side stories about the various ghosts and their various lives and reasons for lingering in the bardo. Some are funny, some are sad, some are just bizarre.

For me, the best parts of the book were when the two main ghosts, Bevins and Vollman, who serve as narrators, actually enter into Abraham Lincoln’s body as he is visiting his boy’s grave. They get a glimpse of his thoughts and feelings, and the result is a handful of very powerful and moving passages reflecting on grief, the impermanence of life, the helpless feeling of a parent who looses a child. These thoughts, in Lincoln’s mind, shade into thoughts of the war, or the thousands of other sons who have died or will die, and whether the price is worth it. These passages alone made the book worth reading, but they’re surrounded by a lot of weird stuff that didn’t connect as well with me.

I listened to this as an audiobook, which was interesting because it was done with a full cast. The two main readers were Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, and they did a very good job, especially Offerman. But many of the minor characters were also voiced by famous people: Lena Dunham, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, etc. However, some of the very minor parts, especially among the dozens of snippets and quotes, were read by people who were clearly not trained actors (indeed, I noticed the cast listing seems to have Saunders’ entire family, for example). It’s amazing what a difference it makes when you go from a trained voice actor to a regular person who reads without any inflection.

Overall, I’d say this was worth reading for its occasional beautiful and poignant moments, but was a little on the strange side for me. I’d like to give some of Saunders’ short stories a try. They’re what he really is famous for, and I suspect I will like his short form writing better.

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning

They say you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? The title of Ada Palmer’s “Too Like the Lightning” gripped me the first time I saw it, and I knew I had to read the book regardless of what it was about. I only learned later that the title is part of a line from Romeo and Juliet:

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.”
I’ll say up front that although this book is not perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it. The basic premise is that several hundred years in the future, geopolitics on Earth looks radically different from what we have now. Technology is advanced enough that people can hop in a (flying) car and travel anywhere in the world in less than two hours, and this has led to a breakdown of traditional nations. Instead, society is organized into several different groups or “hives” and people can choose which one they ant to be a part of, if any:
  • Humanists: focused on human achievements (athletic, artistic, etc)
  • Cousins: focused on altruism and providing social services to all
  • The Masonic empire: A Rome-like monarchy built on the longstanding rumors of a secret society pulling the strings throughout history
  • The Gordians: Basically a think-tank become a nation, with a focus on understanding the human brain and behavior
  • The European Union: Self-explanatory
  • Mitsubishi corporation: A coalition of former Asian nations now run as a “shareholder democracy”. Owns most of the land on Earth.
  • Utopians: A group of scientists and others focused on the future. They work tirelessly to end all disease, extend human life, and colonize other planets.

Here is a more detailed description of each hive, written by Palmer herself.

This fascinating vision of the future is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is crammed full of other really creative ideas about the future, and that’s what really made me love it. Some are relatively minor, like textiles that project an image of the background on their surface rendering the wearer nearly invisible. Others are fascinating and troubling, like “set sets”: humans who have been interfaced directly with computers since birth, co-opting the neural pathways normally reserved for things like sight and smell and taste, turning them into phenomenally powerful biological computers.

The plot of the novel revolves around a family who play a central role in the smooth functioning of this future world. Their two “set-sets” (along with a massive array of supercomputers) are responsible for the flight paths of the billions and billions of high-speed cars that zip around the world and make the distributed “Hives” possible. (The cars of course, are not driven by their passengers, and crashes are so rare that they make international news when they occur.) Only the small Utopian hive does not use their system of cars. Unbeknownst to most, the family also harbors a boy with extraordinary abilities that I won’t divulge here, and protecting him from discovery is a major driver of the plot.

But really I’ll be honest: this is not a novel about plot. It’s about this vivid and fascinating vision of the future in all of its glorious, messy, detail. The plot serves primarily as an excuse for the main characters to meet and interact with the outlandish characters who lead each of the Hives, and therefore to show the reader another facet of the complicated future world. (And of course, just as has often been the case with leaders of nations throughout history, the leaders of the hives all know each other and are connected by a web of marriages, adoptions, etc.)

In case the intricate worldbuilding didn’t clue you in, this novel is unabashedly smart, and to some it may veer into the territory of “pretentious”. You see, “Too Like The Lightning” is obsessed with Enlightenment philosophy. The writing style of the book is heavily influenced by this time period as well, with a narrator (who is also a main character) who speaks directly to the reader, sometimes even inventing interjections from the reader and responding to them. Palmer does some exposition jiu-jitsu by having the narrator ostensibly relating the events of the novel to a reader even farther in the future, but by explaining things to that future reader, we in the “past” are also able to understand things. Here, it’s probably easier if I just show an example, from where the narrator is explaining why he’s writing in the style of the 18th century:

“You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.”

I suspect some readers might balk at the almost self-indulgent way this book goes on about various philosophers and how their works are relevant for certain aspects of the future society depicted, but I found it refreshing. Usually if sci-fi is going to get self-indulgent about some subject, it’s science (often physics). Most people don’t bat an eye when the brilliant scientist in a hard sci-fi novel gives a big speech explaining special relativity or the chaotic orbits of planets in a multi-star system, or what have you. In fact, books like that are often applauded for their perceived realism. I’d argue that “Too Like The Lightning” is doing exactly the same thing, explaining some point of philosophy that is just as fundamental to understanding the world depicted in the novel as special relativity is fundamental to understanding Tau Zero, for example.

What really impressed me about this book (Palmer’s first published novel!) is the confidence and skill with which Palmer manages to pull off several very difficult things. The voice and narrative style, as you can see in the quote above, are very distinctive and unusual. The world she has created is intricate and complicated and feels organic, which means it is potentially confusing, yet somehow Palmer manages to write in such a way that you always have just enough information to want to keep going to learn more. From the very beginning , it is written in such a way that you trust all will be made clear in due time. Often I lose patience with stories that string the reader along, but “Too Like the Lightning” does it extremely well. In this, it has a lot in common with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which also contains lots of philosophical discussions and likewise provides the reader just enough information to understand but doles it out slowly.

Finally, I found it refreshing to read far-future sci-fi set here on Earth rather than a space opera set in an unknown star system on the other side of the galaxy. Most authors writing this far into the future use the time gap and fictional worlds they’re writing about as an excuse to start with a relatively blank slate. Palmer instead takes the far more challenging route of setting her story here on Earth. That means that her worldbuilding has to deal with the complicated, messy baggage of thousands of years of real history, but as a historian Palmer is up to the challenge and the result is a sci-fi vision of the future that feels far more “real” than the hardest “hard” sci-fi.

I was disappointed at the end of the book to learn that it is really only the beginning of a longer story, but that’s unfortunately par for the course in speculative fiction. That said, I still thought the twists and revelations at the end were very good. As I listened to the end of the audiobook (which has a great narrator) on a plane, I may have said “whoaaah” out loud. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

 

Book Review: Blood Meridian – or – The Evening Redness in the West

I have mixed feelings about this book, which I am pretty sure is exactly the idea. Like other Cormac McCarthy books, the prose in Blood Meridian is great, as long as you can tolerate lots of arcane and antiquated uses for words and don’t require frivolous punctuation like quotation marks and apostrophes. The book is full of evocative descriptions of the desert southwest, from the details of tiny Mexican villages to the size and desolation of the desert. However, that same gorgeous prose is used to describe some of the nastiest violence and depravity that I’ve ever read, so it is absolutely not a joy to read.

The book follows The Kid, who wanders west in the 1840s and gets caught up in a gang of men roving the Mexican border killing and scalping Indians. They quickly realize that it’s awfully hard to tell whether a scalp comes from an Apache or a Mexican, and end up just killing indiscriminately. They go from being hailed as heroes to hunted as monsters.

As far as plot and characters go, this book is pretty weak. The plot is pretty repetitive, and in some places barely makes sense, and most characters are little more than names. In fact, most don’t even have names. Even the Kid, technically the main character, is basically only there to provide a point of view on the events. The only real character is The Judge, fascinating and monstrous both in physical bearing and in deed, who by the end of the book is revealed to be more a symbol than an actual character.  The whole book, even though it is based on real historical events, is written in such a way that it feels freighted with symbolism and half-perceived meaning.

When you get down to it, this is less a novel than a treatise on the human love of violence in the guise of a novel so that it is more “palatable” (which, to be sure, is a generous term to use for this book). It is a sort of dialog between the author and the reader that goes like this:

 

Author: Do you like westerns? Cowboys and Indians? You like the idea of a past when men were men and the frontier was there to be settled by those who could handle its hardships?

Reader: Yes, that sounds great!

Author: Ok, here you go.

Reader: Oh. No, no, that’s horrible! So much death and cruelty. And really, dead babies too? Was that necessary? Why are you showing me this?

Author: You say it’s horrible, but you’re still reading.

Reader: Well, there is some great writing here. But there’s something wrong with you.

Author: The reader dost protest too much, methinks. I think you like it. I think you know you’re supposed to say you hate this but it also excites you. If there’s something wrong here, is it with me, or with you? Or both of us?

This is not a fun book. Both the plot and the characters are lacking. But despite that, having had a few days to reflect on it, I think this is a very good book because it forces the reader to have that internal conversation. This book would probably reveal hidden symbolism and meaning with a second read through, but I don’t have the stomach for it. Heck, I don’t blame people who can’t make it through a first reading. It is not for everyone. You don’t read this for fun, but if you do read it, it sticks with you and makes you think.

 

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

For the majority of popular authors out there, especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, it’s all about the plot. Prose exists to tell you what’s going on and otherwise its job is to get out of the way and try to be as “invisible” as possible. That’s why it was so refreshing to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The prose in this book is the opposite of that bland “invisible” utilitarian prose that is so common. It’s so good that it is hard to even find the words to convey it. The difference between other authors’ writing and the writing on display in Kavalier and Clay is like the difference between those sleepy ponies that give kids a nice safe ride at the state fair and a thoroughbred racehorse on a straightaway. You get so used to safe, easy, invisible prose that when a book comes along that really shows you what the English language can do, its power is breathtaking and exhilarating. Seeing it used to its full potential relieves a tension you didn’t even know was there.

There’s so much to gush about when it comes to Chabon’s writing, but one of the most noticeable things for me was the skill with which characters are introduced. Even for minor characters who are present for a scene or two, he somehow manages to deploy the perfect metaphor, the perfect few details of their appearance and demeanor, so that in a paragraph you not only know what the person looks like, but you know their backstory, their motivation, their family life, their aspirations and disappointments in life. You feel like you know the person, like you’re pretty sure you’ve met the person in real life.

It’s not just the descriptions of people, it’s all the descriptions. Chabon manages to find the perfect words every time so that it’s not just a description, it’s a visceral feeling. It’s familiar even if there’s no reason it should be. And somehow this is done without feeling like the prose is bloated. The only complaint I have is that he does have a tendency to use an unusual word when a more common one would do fine. It’s a fine line to walk: sometimes the less common word has shades of meaning that are missing from the everyday one. But sometimes it just sounds pretentious. And I’ll admit, there were a couple of times, for some reason both involving violent events, that the word choices and figurative language was so unusual I didn’t actually understand what happened except by context clues. But for the most part, I think the writing falls on the correct side of the fine line.

So what’s the book about? It is nominally about two Jewish cousins, one from New York, one a WWII refugee from Czechoslovakia, who team up to create a superhero comic. I was never much of a fan of comics, but I am enough of a SFF fan that I have absorbed some comics knowledge through osmosis. One of the coolest things about Kavalier and Clay was seeing Chabon use the strength of his prose to convey the power of the story being told by the comics in such a way that an adult reader gets the same feelings as a kid reading the comic.

But comics are just the surface veneer. The main theme of the story is “Escape” and whether it’s a good thing or not, ranging from the escapism of comic books, to escaping the War, to escaping the city to settle for living the American dream in the suburbs, to escaping from that sterile and boring suburban life to be who you really are, etc. I’m not doing it justice of course: it is very well done, perfectly walking the line between ham-fisted and too subtle.

I also found it interesting to see many familiar threads appear in Kavalier and Clay that I recognized from Chabon’s collection of personal essays “Manhood for Amateurs.” Comic books and magic tricks, of course. But also a lot of melancholy and wistful reflections on growing up and nostalgia for childhood, fraternal (or in this case, cousinly) bonds, and the relationship between father and son.

It’s not a perfect book. I found the first half to be much more engaging than the second, as if once he was done introducing new characters, the writing lost some of its initial spark. That said, it was still excellent. The prose in Kavalier and Clay makes you feel things in a way that very few other authors are capable of, and it certainly cements Chabon’s place among my favorite authors.

 

Book Review: The Sheep Look Up

It’s strange to call a book that was published in the 70s “timely” but The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner is just that. It is a dystopian sci-fi novel about a world where there are no government regulations on pollution, so corporations are freely poisoning the air and water, making the planet unlivable. The president of the United States is an idiot who, when he can be bothered to get involved in current events at all, mostly delivers short, simplistic, often xenophobic quips that indicate that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Race and Class relations are tense and the incompetent government and ongoing environmental disasters only exacerbate them.

In the novel, the skies are perpetually overcast because of all the smog. People have to wear filter masks whenever they go outdoors, and rain comes down filthy and acidic. The Mediterranean sea and the Great Lakes are dead. Rampant pesticide use has led to an evolutionary arms race and there are now nearly-indestructible pests that destroy most crops, not to mention the resistant fleas and lice that infest the slums. Likewise with antibiotics: resistant diseases are widespread, and combined with the many diseases caused by all the pollution, most people are constantly sick with multiple ailments. All of this causes political and geopolitical unrest that grows out of control over the course of the book.

Like his other famous novel, Stand On Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up is written in an experimental style, telling a larger story through lots of small, disjointed sections. A page or two about one character, then a news report, then a few advertising jingles, then a poem, then back to a few pages about some other characters, then an emergency government bulletin, and so on. It’s an effective way to give an overall feel for events in the country and wider world, but it makes it very difficult to keep track of main characters. By the end of the book I recognized some of the names as people I’d heard about before, but had completely lost track of who was who. It doesn’t help that they are all written in basically the same 1970s slangy voice.

I remember enjoying Stand on Zanzibar, but I read it much faster (while on Christmas break in grad school) rather than the slow pace that was forced on me for The Sheep Look Up by a new baby, work, and occasionally having to return the ebook to the library because someone else put a hold on it. I almost didn’t finish, but decided that the book was so timely that I might as well power through.

The Sheep Look Up is an unusual and challenging read, and definitely feels dated, but at the same time is frighteningly relevant to current events, and for that reason I’d still recommend checking it out.

 

Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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I like home improvement projects and work trips that I can drive to because they both provide me with multiple hours during which I can listen to audiobooks. In the last couple of weeks I have been working on re-tiling a bathroom, and I had a trip out to Los Alamos, and the audiobook I chose to accompany all of that was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

This book falls into the same genre of nonfiction as 1491 and 1493, two of my favorite recent nonfiction reads. Basically, the “big picture history” genre, where the focus is not a single person or war or event, but rather a wide-ranging look at the disparate factors that shape the course of history.

Sapiens is about as “big picture” as you can get, starting off with the evolution of homo sapiens and the long period of time during which we shared the planet (perhaps not peacefully) with other humans such as neanderthals, progressing through the development of culture, agriculture, religion, to the development of empires, science, colonialism, and capitalism, before finally concluding with a speculative look toward the future of our species as science allows us to edit or augment our own genomes or create artificial intelligence.

It’s a fascinating book that touches on many different topics, but it has one core theme, which is the idea that the main thing that gave homo sapiens an advantage over other early humans, and what underlies most of human achievement, is our ability to talk about and collectively believe in things that do not actually exist. Harari argues that this ability led to humans who could work together in large groups, and that is the key to our success. Examples of these things that exist only because we collectively agree that they exist are nations, gods, money, corporations, and human rights, and each of these (and many others) are discussed in considerable detail.

As you might be able to tell based on that list of imaginary things, this is a book that seems to strive to make everyone feel a little uncomfortable at some point. For me, I can nod smugly as he talks about why religion is an imaginary (but nonetheless powerful) human construct, but when he starts talking about how human rights also don’t really exist, or how scientific progress has been inextricably tied to brutal colonialism and heartless capitalism, things become less comfortable.

At times, the book can get somewhat speculative and tends to make grand, weakly-supported assertions and reductive statements that set off some mental warnings for me (and, apparently, for Charles Mann, the author of 1491 and 1493). But despite that, there’s no denying that it is thoroughly thought-provoking, and on the whole I found it to be a fascinating read that presents an interesting way of looking at the history of our species. Also, simply by touching on so many disparate topics (human evolution, politics, science, history, philosophy, religion, economics, etc.), it also serves as an introduction to any of those topics and situates them within the bigger picture of human history, which in my opinion definitely makes it a worthwhile read.

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