Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Summer Reading: Assassin's Apprentice

In general, I don't enjoy the use of the first person in narrative literature. I think this is because many young adult books are written in the first person, and so I frequently associate the technique with the trashy sci-fi compendiums I used to read in elementary and middle school. The first person also tends to give away the ending to a certain extent, since any protagonist who manages to find time to sit down and write a 400-page tome about his adventures (using a quill and vellum, no less) can't have fared too badly in his own tale. How different the speculation around the ending of Harry Potter would have been had the series been written in the first person!

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Assassin's Apprentice, which is written exclusively in the first person, is an excellent book. The story is told by Fitz, the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, the eldest son of the King of the Six Duchies. The Duchies are beset by the Red-Ship Raiders, a powerful group of pirates who are waging war upon the coastal towns of the Duchies. Secretly training to be an assassin for the king, Fitz tries to navigate court intrigue and his own adolescence without ending up dead.

Of the several things I love about this book, I especially enjoy the fact that in the grand scheme of things, not much happens. This is the first book of the Farseer Trilogy, and Hobb seems to think that there will be plenty of time for defeating the bad guys later in the series. She is much more interested, in this first book, in giving us a chance to get to know the world which she has built, and so the plot is mainly centered around the details of the life of Fitz. That's not to say the book is humdrum, however; the life of a royal bastard secretly training to be an assassin in the midst of a war is anything but boring, but the war itself, though important, provides a backdrop, rather than an impetus, for the plot.

Hobb also clearly values poetic writing, and her prose, though not difficult, is refined, with the occasional SAT word ("lambent") to keep readers on their toes. Phrases like "the brittle night sky" and "the hounds of a man's mind" seem perfectly at home within the rest of the text. She has even created a character, the witty royal jester, who exists at least partially to show off her skill at turning a twisted phrase.

The third great thing about this trilogy is that it is actually the first of a trilogy of trilogies, all set in the same world, the Realm of the Elderlings. The first two trilogies, called the Farseer Trilogy and the Liveship Traders Trilogy, have no relation to one another other than that they take place in the same world. Or so I believed, until I was told that the Tawny Man Trilogy ties the two together. I read The Liveship Traders last summer, and the Farseer Trilogy several years ago. Both, as I recall, feature intricate but believable plots, so I am very excited to see how it all fits together once I finish re-reading the Farseer Trilogy to refresh my memory.

Grade: A

Friday, August 3, 2007

Summer Reading: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Published: September 2004
Genre: Fantasy/Alternate History

Novel Recipe: Take the entire set of Harry Potter novels, place in a winepress and squeeze. Strain juice through a filter and discard seeds, skins, and other particulate matter. Cook until condensed into a thick syrup, skimming off the foam constantly. Add a liberal dose of Jane Austen until the mixture becomes loose and drinkable and stir vigorously before pouring into wine bottles. Allow to sit for ten years before serving with a garnish of The Silmarillion and a healthy sprinkle of World-building.

My Thoughts: A book about magic in England cannot be spoken of without the obvious comparison to Harry Potter, and the same is true with Clarke's debut novel. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is The Silmarillion to Harry Potter's The Hobbit. Strange & Norrell is dense reading, clocking in at between 800-1000+ pages (depending on your edition), and reads more like "Literature" than ordinary "Fiction," being written entirely in a style that recalls Jane Austen and sprinkled throughout with liberal footnotes (some of which take up more than half the page). The novel is not for the faint-hearted, but immensely rewarding for those who can look past its "stuffy" style.

Grade: For being a debut novel - A+
If it had been written by a more veteran novelist - A

From the Publisher:
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England--until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell's student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

More Detailed Thoughts (and Spoilers):
I've been wanting to write a review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell since I bought the book a year ago. Unfortunately, due to classes, it took me nearly three months to finish it, and by then my impressions were too scattered to be of any use, and all I could do was insist that people I knew really really need to read it, without being able to explain exactly why. But now that I've read the book over a second time (this time in less than a week), I feel like I can give a coherent review, though it may spiral into the realm of swooning fangirlism before too long.

To begin with, I never heard or saw any of the hype surrounding this book when it was published in hardback. I merely saw the striking covers at the bookstore and thought the cover copy sounded like something I would read. It took another year or so before the book made it to mass market paperback for me to buy it. To give those who haven't seen it a taste of how well this book was received, the back cover not only contains the synopsis given above, but three quotes praising it, as well as a listing of awards Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has won (including the Hugo, World Fantasy Award, and Book of the Year from Book Sense), AND three solid pages of quotations praising it at the front.

Now, normally that much praise would make anyone wary. After all, can a book really be that good? The answer, at least from this camp, is a resounding yes. Susanna Clarke wrote Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in a style reminiscent of Jane Austen, complete with archaic spellings, sarcastic potshots, and social commentary on practically every character. Not only that, but the book contains hundreds of references and footnotes to other fictitious works and stories such that one could believe that Strange & Norrell really is a factual book. While some people might be tempted to skip the footnotes, thinking they are unimportant, I found some of the most witty lines of the entire novel in said footnotes. I think what amazes me the most about this novel is that Clarke's voice never slips in 800+ pages; the entire novel is solidly written in the Austen style. Add to that the fact that this is Susanna Clarke's debut novel, and one should easily be able to see why this woman is now my No. 1 author hero of all time.

And now that all the praise and fangirling has been taken care of, it's time to delve into the plot. As the synopsis states, Mr Gilbert Norrell, a hermit and book-miser, claims to be the first and only practical magician in England (as opposed to theoretical magicians, who sit around reading and publishing about magic) in more than 200 years. After some coersion and a rather impressive demonstration of bringing a woman back from the dead, the British government realizes how powerful a weapon they have in Mr Norrell, and set about having him help in their war against Napoleon. Mr Norrell grows famous for confounding the French Army by blockading all of their ports with illusionary war fleets made of rain among other tasks. As regard for English magic as a respectable profession grows, Mr Norrell finds himself innundated with attention even as he tries his best to continue destroying all other magicians in England with help from his servant John Childermass (who in looks is Severus Snape's doppelganger). Still, he ultimately finds himself a talented pupil in Jonathan Strange, a man who is every bit the charming, tempestuous, and mysterious magician that Norrell is not.

After Strange returns from Portugal, where he helped fight Napoleon at the front lines, he is understandably stifled by his teacher's reclusive tendencies (not to mention his habit of lying to Strange as if Strange were the competition). The two eventually part ways over whether faeries should be used in English Magic, and Strange spends much of the rest of the book attempting to provoke Norrell into an early grave.

Meanwhile, Mrs Pole, the young lady whom Mr Norrell brought back from the dead early in the novel, and Stephen Black, a servant, are placed under the enchantment of a faerie known as the gentleman with thistle-down hair. This gentlemen alternately fears and derides Strange and Norrell, and does his best to hinder their self-proclaimed mission of the Restoration of English Magic. While on a first read it is hard to figure out just how the plots intertwine, everything falls into place in the last third of the book (the volume titled "John Uskglass") with a seamlessness that is really breathtaking.

Historical figures such as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and (of course) Napoleon Bonaparte flit through the book. Many of my favorite lines occur when Strange meets Lord Byron during a self imposed exile from England; the two instantly dislike each other and write to their mutual publisher complaining of the other's shortcomings.

This is not to say that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell doesn't have its shortcomings. The parade of historical figures (especially when concerning the government) can be mindboggling, and the fate of Henry Lascelles feels particularly rushed. However, these are small complaints, and are easily overlooked. Despite all my effusive praise for this book, I will note that it is not for everybody. Many will, no doubt, find it heavy reading. The style and profusion of footnotes are sometimes reminiscent of assigned reading from classes in obscure English Literature, and the book is so very dense that it may require a second or third read to figure out exactly what happened to whom and when.

Still, for those who like their novels almost unbelievably smart as well as well-crafted, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is more than worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Review/Musings on Harry Potter

I used to view the entire Harry Potter phenomenon with a bit of bemusement. I had already been reading fantasy books for years when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released, and while I enjoyed it, I never imagined that it would turn into the international phenomenon it has become. From my perspective, J.K. Rowling was simply following in the footsteps of Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard?, Diana Wynne Jones's Witch Week, among many others. I couldn't understand why people were going nuts over Harry Potter when these other books had been largely ignored, by comparison.

There is no denying that Harry Potter satisfies all of what I think are the requirements for good fantasy (not necessarily an exhaustive list):

  • An engaging, original, well-realized fantasy world

  • Simple yet evocative writing which can be understood after one reading

  • Plenty of action

  • A high "that would be so cool" factor

  • A well-defined objective to be accomplished by the hero

On the other hand, so do both of the titles I mentioned above, as well as thousands of other fantasy novels, for adults and children, none of which have become anywhere near as popular as Harry Potter, and for a long time, I couldn't understand why.

However, after reading all seven of the Harry Potter books in rapid succession this month, I've realized that the Harry Potter books do indeed have something that many fantasy novels lack: compelling characters. Although she frequently defines them with melodrama and outrageous emotional outbursts, Rowling's characters are undeniably human. Harry and his cohorts suffer all (and then some) of the uncertainty, pain, anger and fright that people fighting ultimate evil while simultaneously going through puberty might be expected to feel. By contrast, many fantasy heroes, after being plucked from their humble beginnings, stoically put real life on hold and forge ahead with whatever Herculean task the author has set them without bothering with pesky emotions too much.

The requirements I outlined above make for great escapist writing. If you want to take a mental holiday for a while, then any book satisfying those requirements will do the trick. However, to get people really worked up about something, an author needs to do more than create a world that people care about, he or she needs to create characters that people can laugh with, cry with, yell at when they're being stupid, and fall in love with, and Rowling does this well. Not with very much finesse, but well.

That's not to say that Rowling has a monopoly on inspiring empathy; the success of the Harry Potter series undoubtedly involved a certain amount of luck as well as talent. However, the books certainly had the potential to become wildly popular, not to mention the widest possible target audience, so in hindsight, it shouldn't have been a surprise that they did.

Grade: A-

For adult-oriented fantasy that features emotions, check out George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, and Terry Goodkind.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summer Reading: Recursion

Title: Recursion
Author: Tony Ballantyne
Published: August 29, 2006
Genre: Sci-fi (near-future, kind of)

Novel Recipe: Take one part Tad Williams' Otherland and mix with an equal part of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Add two generous scoops of Von Neumann Machines and blend thoroughly. Strain and finish with a spoonful of 1984 by George Orwell and a twist of lemon.

My Thoughts: A less than interesting world saved by a very interesting character, Recursion is light on the science, but plays well with its fiction. Ballantyne's chosen mode of storytelling makes for a slightly convoluted story that takes some musing afterwards to puzzle together. Overall, not spectacular on its own, but intriguing enough to make me pick up Ballantyne's other novels.
Grade: C+

From the Publisher: It is the twenty-third century. Herb, a young entrepreneur, returns to the isolated planet on which he has illegally been trying to build a city–and finds it destroyed by a swarming nightmare of self-replicating machinery. Worse, the all-seeing Environment Agency has been watching him the entire time. His punishment? A nearly hopeless battle in the farthest reaches of the universe against enemy machines twice as fast, and twice as deadly, as his own–in the company of a disarmingly confident AI who may not be exactly what he claims…
Little does Herb know that this war of machines was set in motion nearly two hundred years ago–by mankind itself. For it was then that a not-quite-chance encounter brought a confused young girl and a nearly omnipotent AI together in one fateful moment that may have changed the course of humanity forever.

More Detailed Thoughts:
One should go into Tony Ballantyne's Recursion knowing that it is not one book. Recursion actually contains three seemingly independent plotlines told in alternating chapters. To make it even more confusing, the stories are chronologically offset by 50-100 years. The best way to describe Recursion is to treat these plotlines separately.

First, there is the Herb plot, which takes place in the year 2210. Herb comes from an old money family, and is pampered and privilaged to the point that he decides to illegally grow a city, convinced that his family's wealth and influence will protect him if anything goes wrong. He does this on an unmapped planet, dropping a single Van Neumann Machine (from here on abbreviated to VNM), which is programmed to use the planet's raw materials to construct copies of itself and then use those copies to create a city of shining towers and airy bridges. Herb, predictably, doesn't debug his code, and the VNMs end up devouring the entire planet. The Environmental Agency (which is Greenpeace, the Thought Police, and The Man all rolled up into one package) decides the best way to punish Herb for planetcide is to send him across the universe to fight an invading force of VNMs which are faster, stronger, and smarter than Herb's. His only guide? A snarky robot.

Second, there is the Eva plot, which takes place in 2051. Eva Rye lives in a world overseen by the agency Social Care, which keeps tabs on every human being, attempting to keep every person happy and well adjusted. Despite it all, Eva is depressed (surprising, right?) and manages to stay off the radar of Social Care long enough to attempt suicide by overdosing on painkillers while on a train. She is revived and sent to an institution, where she befriends three other misfits. Eva and her new friends are all diagnosed with severe paranoia, but they of course believe that they're under the survaillence of a sentient AI dubbed "The Watcher." Eva and her friends attempt to escape the institution while simultaneously trying to decide whether their escape is their own idea or whether they are led by The Watcher.

Lastly, there is the Constantine plot, which takes place in 2119. Constantine Storey is a "ghost," a billion dollar corporate spy whose greatest advantage is his complete and utter unremarkability. Not only are computer subroutines dedicated to erasing all traces of Constantine from any database he encounters, but he is also aided by four separate personalities in his mind, dubbed Red, Blue, White, and Grey. Each personality has its own strengths; for example, Red is observational while Blue is artistic. And yes, before you ask, the personalities do talk and argue within Constantine's mind. Constantine is in Australia on a covert operation, but his world is starting to literally fall apart at the seams.

My favorite of the three is the Constantine plot, which is much less predictable than the other two (the Eva plot is by far the most generic), and contained some interesting twists. Constantine is also an extremely interesting character, though this might be my own NaNoWriMo tainted prejudices showing through. We don't know what Constantine's mission is for a long time, or how his storyline fits in with the others, but everything falls into place within the last 100 pages or so.

As characters, Eva and Herb are less likeable, Eva being a generic "misfit chosen for a Greater Purpose" and Herb being a standard "rich boy who Learns a Lesson." The novel plays with some fairly standard themes of humanity (determinism vs free will, good of the few vs that of the many), but it does so in a completely secular realm, which I found interestingly reminiscent of Asimov's Foundation series. Yes, Asimov did it better, but the world glimpsed in Recursion was interesting enough to get me interested in Ballantyne's later novels, so it does its job well. First novels are rarely perfect. I think it says quite a bit about my enjoyment that even as I review the book, I'm trying very hard not to give away the ending(s).

After a single read, there are still a few points in Recursion that have me scratching my head. Fortunately, the author thought to label each chapter with which plotline is being furthered, so I may do a reread in which I read each storyline separately. I'll report back on whether that changes my opinion of the novel if/when it happens.

A technical note: I came into the novel with a rudimentary understanding of what a Von Neumann Machine is, so I found the sometimes vague allusions to them enough to be believable. However, most people might find them a little too much like magic science.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Review of “Altered Carbon” novel by Richard Morgan


In Richard Morgan’s 2002 debut, cyberpunk is blended seamlessly with hardboiled noir in a futuristic dystopia where the mind can be stored in a mechanical cortical stack and bodies are worn like interchangeable clothes.

Plot Summary:

Six pages into this ~400 pg novel our protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is shot and killed.

Next chapter. Kovacs finds himself downloaded into a new body on Earth, light-years away from his home. His mandatory criminal sentence has been given a six-week reprieve courtesy of Mr. Bancroft, a rich, influential Meth (as in Methuselah, who supposedly lived 969 years). Kovacs has been hired based on his reputation for the sole purpose of solving Bancroft’s own death, attributed to suicide by the local police whose advanced forensic techniques have shown no clues or suspects to the contrary. Bancroft finds the diagnosis impossible, since he lacks motive and was surely aware that the large clone facility he owned would immediately place him in a new body (a process known as “re-sleeving”).

Kovacs must find out what happened in the roughly 48 hours that occurred after Bancrofts last remote backup and his violent death. He has a wealth of experience as an Envoy (an elite, but cruel, military organization akin to a space-age Delta Force) and as a criminal of various trades, but he is a cultural outsider on Earth with little in the way of clues or trustworthy allies.


“Altered Carbon” grafts the style of Mickey Spillane’s amoral criminal underworlds onto the type of dystopic cyberpunk universe recognizable to fans of “The Matrix” or the works of Neal Stephenson. Both halves of Morgan’s well-balanced noir/SF equation merit discussion.

The future-Earth of “Altered Carbon” is informed by the technological, social and pharmaceutical trends available to the culturally literate 21 century writer, an asset that makes Morgan’s book feel viable and contemporary. However, the aesthetic is fairly obvious and familiar by modern standards: neon lit streets (now with ads broadcast directly into the minds of those passing by), unsavory dens of drugs and prostitution, black-clad citizens with biological and synthetic enhancements, etc.

What makes “Altered Carbon” unique is not just the addition of sleeving into new bodies, but the skill with which the idea is executed. The nuances are worked out and plot holes avoided. The background is fed to the reader gradually and in an unobtrusive, highly-integrated way. Most importantly, the implications are fully explored and applied in enough original variations to make the idea seem fresh (although it’s far from new) and sustaining.

The detective/mystery side of the book also draws heavily from its own genre traditions, particularly film noir and the pulp novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Morgan doesn’t quite possess the flowery prose stylization of Dashiell Hammett or the cynical weary rasp of Raymond Chandler, but he has the rawness, directness and attitude of Spillane’s best work. The result is that “Altered Carbon” reads quick and hard, chock full of violence, sex and crime in a way that will alienate or disgust the more sensitive and earn dubious accolades from angsty adolescents.

However, woven into the surface qualities that elicit unsophisticated, but fully earned, citations as “cool” and “hip” is a complicated critique of morality gone rotten. Morgan makes his readers cheer for acts of cold-blooded violence one moment and just as easily makes them realize the disturbing or reprehensible implications the next. Kovacs is a remarkably despicable character who earns our redemption (if at all) more through charisma and determination than by possessing the type of underlying personal code trademarked by characters like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Kovacs is effective at what he does primarily because he is able to lie and trick, not because he possesses the typical array of cyberpunk hero skills like fighting, hacking or even being observant.

The moral ambiguity and instability mounts steadily, culminating in a series of dark revelations. The narrative makes ample use of genre staples like femme fatales, alley chases, crime lords, vicious assassins and even underground boxing but does so with wit, energy and personal style where baseline originality is lacking. The mystery itself, while slow to get off the ground, is a satisfyingly clever and elaborate plot with the undertone of conspiracy and paranoia that accents the best cases. However, Morgan hasn’t quite gotten the knack of inconspicuously slipping in clues and it’s often obvious when something will later be important because he gives an extra paragraph of explanation more than he usually dedicates to innocent details.

Ultimately, “Altered Carbon” can not really be considered the most important, original, stylish, strange, believable, dark, thoughtful or well-written novel but it scores well across all criteria. Morgan is the type of talented late-comer that re-invigorates material with the Tarantino-type sixth-sense for knowing what to borrow and how to spin it.

Altered Carbon’s release in 2002 stirred quite a bit of hype and a touch of controversy too. It won the Philip K Dick Award and had its film rights snatched up almost immediately for a hefty sum, but received backlash from intellectual quarters such as Inchoatus, whose reviews I usually respect. Make sure to read the accompanying rebuttal.

To cover for my personal bias I’m presenting a more fluid scoring this time around.

My Grade: A+ (not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a personal favorite)

More objectively: A

If you don’t care for one of either cyberpunk or noir: B+

If you don’t care for both cyberpunk and noir: B-

Review of “Hothouse” novel by Brian Aldiss


Hundreds of millions of years in the future mankind, indeed animalkind, is in the decline. Humanity is evermore eclipsed by vegetable life, which thrives in the endless sunlight of an earth that has long since stopped revolving.

Written in 1962 as a series of five short stories and later republished as a contiguous novel.

Plot Summary:

Lily-yo is the leader of a matriarchal band of feral humans struggling to survive a merciless existence in the mid-canopy of a distant-future jungle where the entire sunlit surface of the earth is covered in interconnected Banyan trees. She soon abolishes the tribe sending the children off on their own and leading the adults on a ritual/journey/suicide in seedpods bourn into space.

Meanwhile, the children led by the in-fighting Toy and Gren head on a journey to establish a new colony. They are in for far more then they expected and soon encounter the various predatory vegetables writhing throughout the jungle, an intelligent morel (fungus) with an agenda of its own, several disparate animals competing for an ever-diminishing number of ecological niches and much more. To spoil the intriguing locals visited along the journey would ruin much of the fun, but suffice it to say that Aldiss adequately explores the possibilities of his influential, compelling landscape.


Aldiss has a powerful propensity for imagining and developing environmental extremes and his greatest strength lies in his imperturbable ability to evoke a sense of wonder and otherworldliness. In the first segment of the book Aldiss appears to explore and exhaust so much of his initial premise that the reader might begin to panic and worry that no material (or purely redundant material) will be left for the rest of the book. Fortunately, the author’s imagination is up to the task of generating original and interesting new niches for life to blossom.

That being said, the later sections aren’t quite as powerful and evocative as the early locals and the serialized, episodic nature is conspicuously choppy in terms of narrative flow.

Aldiss succeeds best at evoking grand imagery, but he doesn’t seem to have the patience for clear and expressive descriptions. The result is quick-sketched moments of beauty and wonder that lack specificity and atmosphere. (see Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for an example of vividly realizing a jungle setting). For instance, aural and olfactory qualities are rarely mentioned. There are few visceral description of the heat or textures nor is there much mention of the complicated dappled lighting that must inevitably have made life in the mid-canopy a perpetual twilight. The physiological reaction of the characters to their environment fails to make the reader feel physically present. In a particularly sloppy twist about a third of the way into the book, Aldiss gets around to mentioning that humans have shrunk to a fifth their original size, but never mentions whether the measurements he uses in his descriptions are relative to the characters’ size or the reader’s size (inches, feet and yards were all based on length of bodyparts). He seems to switch between the two scales inadvertently throughout the book.

This fits with the general style of the novel which clearly lays out a pattern of soft science. I think more rigorous thought and technical acumen could have only improved the novel, but it is first and foremost and globe-trotting survivalist adventure and not a scientifically grounded planetary survey. In fairness, Aldiss can often reasonably fall back on the built-in defense of his characters primitiveness and logically limited knowledge to explain away the lack of technical detail and the speckling of unplugged plot holes.

On the other hand, the author tends to use the prehistoric (or posthistoric in this case) savagery of his protagonists as too easy an excuse to avoid character development, dialogue and realistic reactions.

If I seem to be rather harsh, I should mention that taken as a whole, Hothouse is a remarkable and awe-inspiring novel with an exciting adventure at its heart. I found it to be a condensed, if less matured, alternative to Aldiss’s Hellconia series from the 1980’s which revisits similar themes but with a sluggishness that often overwhelms the scenes that should fill us with wonder.

Grade: B

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Sarantine Mosaic

I'm sure that by now Brian is regretting his decision to visit the cesspool of uncouth boorishness that is Vienna, but I'm holding down the fort here by posting a review of The Sarantine Mosaic, a two-book series by Guy Gavriel Kay, which is made up of the books Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors.

This series, while not as strong as some of his earlier works, such as The Lions of Al-Rassan, Tigana, or A Song for Arbonne, is still characteristically Kay. Like all Kay books, the two in The Sarantine Mosaic feature an epic scope, richly detailed settings, complex and well-developed characters, tortuous plot development, and a pseudo-historical setting; in this case, a fantasized, slightly magical version of the city of Constantinople (Sarantium) during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I (Valerius II). I'm not going to give a plot summary because if you want a general overview of the events in the book, you can simply read up on the life of Justinian I. Kay only maintains historical accuracy when it suits his purpose, however, so browsing Wikipedia (or whatever other source you choose) won't reveal any secrets.

If this sounds like a lot to pack into two books, it is. The Sarantine Mosaic is a demanding read, with every one of its over 1,100 pages packed with information. None of the characters, descriptions or events are throwaways, and anyone who thinks otherwise will soon be kicking himself for not paying closer attention to the description of the Emperor's handwriting style when it becomes important 300 pages later (not an actual example from the book, but similarly minute items are given prominence quite frequently).

Kay does a good job of giving the reader subtle hints and reminders when he references events or people that haven't been mentioned for a few hundred pages, but it is still tough to empathize with all of the dozens of characters comprising his cast, and that makes some of the poignant moments fall flat. Kay forces you to pay so much attention to the smallest details of his writing that sometimes the emotional effect of his text is lost as you try not to miss significant word choices.

I want to let Kay speak for himself a bit here, because the back of Lord of Emperors contained an excellent essay by Kay on his writing process and his views on the fantasy genre, which I think it will be helpful to share:
"Fantasy has never been in its essence about constructing elaborate magical systems for dueling sorcerors or contriving new versions of an enchanted ring or further variations on the use of hypens and apostrophes in invented names. Fantasy is—at its best—the purest access to storytelling that we have. It universalizes a tale, it evokes wonder and timeless narrative power, it touches upon inner journeys, it illuminates our collective and individual pasts, throws a focusing beam on the present day, and presages the dangers and promise of the future. It is—or so I have argued for years—a genre, a mode of telling that offers so much more than it is usually permitted to reveal." (560)

Kay's writing perfectly matches his views. When the current Harry-Potter-induced fantasy craze ends, and all the books written by 15-year-old kids who were following the "sorcerers + magic rings + weird names = bestseller" formula that Kay denounces are forgotten, mouldering in dusty basement boxes across the country, Kay's books will still be on bookshelves, well-loved and well-read.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Secret Influences of Harry Potter

Over the last ten years it has been very much in vogue to trace the many literary influences that are “borrowed” by J. K. Rowling in her popular “Harry Potter” series. Usually these analyses focus on Tolkien fantasy and Greek mythology. This essay will delve into a less frequently cited but equally influential subgenre that has shaped the Harry Potter novels: the myth of England.

England is a fictional island nation replete with kings and queens, carriages, castles and crumpets. As a genre, readers usually refer to its elaborate mythology as “English literature” or “English history,” terms that I will use fairly interchangeably even though hardcore fans insist upon a subtle distinction. Like many successful franchises, an entire convoluted “universe” developed with central classic works and innumerable spin-offs, each with ardent fans and skeptical critics.

Like Tolkien fantasy and its self-evident lineage from the J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, scholars also tend to look for a foundational English literature work although they disagree with rather it should be found within the subgenres of Arthurian legend (popularized by T. H. White in his “Once and Future King”) or in Shakespearian literature. Clearly English literature borrows heavily from both and even evolved a smattering of Steampunk elements when later fabulist authors such as Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters introduced the “Industrial Revolution” or “Victorian” cycle.

Speculation as to where Rowling would have been able to come into contact with English literature ranges wildly. The period between 1980 and the present was certainly an era where English literature had fallen out of a favor with the public and was rarely seen except in specialty stores. Nevertheless elements of Rowling’s novels show undeniable traces of the English mythology.

Consider the bizarrely structured Hogwarts School with its subdivision into competing, strangely named “houses” complete with a highly stratified division by year, housemasters and exotic impractical rituals. Often thought by poorly-read critics to be a product of Rowling’s imagination, an observant reader can spot suspicious similarities to earlier institutes ingrained in the mythology of England such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Once the idea takes hold, the scholar can find a myriad of references, nods and outright plagiarisms. The train which travels to the school is right out of the Industrial Revolution cycle, with a little of Steampunk’s back-cast eye towards how a primitive society might develop technology parallel to our own. Hagrid’s cottage and the nearby town of Hogsmeade are both clearly modeled on English cities, architecture and society. Other critics have pointed out the similarities between the Quidditch, with its nearly incomprehensible set of arbitrary rules, and the reoccurring English fairy tales about cricket and polo.

It is perhaps timely that an author should revive an interest in such an antiquated and romanticized subgenre as the myth of England. After all, Rowling’s broad adventure-chocked simplifications and chummy schoolmate camaraderie are a welcome break after the fractionalization and variety of late English literature creations. One had literally to rely upon the supplements of intricate maps, character charts and timelines just to follow the main plots, not to mention the billboard hierarchies, intricate politics and endless rise-and-fall-of-an-empire wars. Die-hard, socially inept fans had even retreated into private languages like British English, Cockney and Scottish which will remind social scientists of similar phenomenon with Tolkien’s Elvish and Star Trek’s Klingon. The diversity of authors each writing offshoots and spin-offs aimed at obsessive specialty audiences had introduced a plague of contradictions and created an exclusionary subculture nearly as vast as Star Wars.

Traditional English literature has meanwhile lost its shine, wallowing in an endless repetition of chipper street urchins, gnarled misers and sexist depictions of powerless women. Its canon of worn clichés perpetuated by its “classic” authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf have been replaced by more exciting and culturally relevant authors.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Review of “The Ticket that Exploded” novel by William S Burroughs

William S Burroughs takes experimental literary techniques and controversial subject matter to their ultimate extremes. Cutting and pasting pieces of other works, his earlier books and previous paragraphs within the novel, Burroughs creates a patchwork of non-linear, non-narrative sexual obsession and mindless babble.

Plot Summary:
An entity known as Mr. Bradley cavorts about vaguely in a skin-tight spacesuit having sex, getting raped and experiencing drug-trips. The pattern repeats in rather abstract recombinations. Eventually we are introduced to the “main story” involving the Nova Police and their criminal rivals, the Nova Gang, who uses sex, drugs, media and more to control dupes and marks.

However, don’t be misled by the fact that a few narrative straws can be grasped at: there is no plot.

Due to a strange coincidence, I went from one descendant of John Dos Passos’s influence (“Stand on Zanzibar”) to another (“The Ticket that Exploded”). The results could not have varied any more. Brunner uses the cut-up technique in a figurative way to provide a prismatic array of information formats and alternative angles that challenge the notion of objective knowledge even as it seems to inundate us with more information than we can digest.

Burroughs has a much more avant-garde take on the cut-up technique, literally wielding scissor upon the works of other authors, his earlier career and his own book and then pasting the pieces back together in semi-random order. He also develops a "fold-in" technique whereby he merges two halves of seperate texts and transcribes the resulting nonsense sentences. The finished gibberish is a total disaster, failing (as I think it intends) to tell a story and only marginally limping along with a stagnant atmosphere (where it presumably hoped to succeed).

Burroughs’s finds his artistic possibilities trapped inside the narrow focus of his own sexual obsessions and limited vocabulary. His dense non-sentences only rarely rise to inspiration (as in the diary style chapter) above the surging tides of interchangeable imagery. After twenty pages of mindless saturation, all emotion, insight and even shock value are dissolved by the endless repetition (exacerbated by the cut-and-paste technique’s further duplication) of drug-colored homosexual encounters and discussions of amorphous mutable body halves. The same visual cues (white smoke, phalluses, green skin), olfactory descriptions and textures are cycled for dozens of iterations. Burroughs’s bare themes repeat like a broken record.

The disturbing Freudian transparency only makes me appreciate Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream” yet more.

There is hardly anything here to recommend except that the length is mercifully short. Worse than simply a bad book alone, it makes me realize that Burroughs’s imagination is painfully limited, casting new doubts on my previous experience with the author’s work (“Naked Lunch”). My skepticism in his talent increases as my fascination with his legend plunges.

In Burroughs defense, I read his original 1962 version, never released in the states. The revised 1967 Grove Press edition is generally considered superior. I don't have the will power to confirm.

Grade: D-

Friday, March 2, 2007

Review of “Stand on Zanzibar” novel by John Brunner

Drawing influences from the experimental British sci-fi New Wave, the “cut-up” technique developed by John Dos Passos and the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Brunner created the first classic of multi-perspective world-building SF. The book was written in 1968 and runs 500+ pages with information interweaved from two central plots, short 5-minute glimpses into the lives of minor characters, newscasts, contextual data, local legends and more.

Plot Summary:
I used to think that Brunner’s novel was a military SF work, extrapolating from the title that some desperate last stand was taking place on the tiny island of Zanzibar. In truth, the enigmatic title refers to the idea that if the 7 billion citizens alive in 2010 were given a 1-foot by 2-foot plot of land to stand on, they would all fit onto the title island. By the end of the story, many must metaphorically be treading water near the shore.

As the title concept suggests, Brunner tackles overpopulation as his primary target. In the dense urban chaos of 2010 strict eugenics legislation restricts couples to a maximum of two children and only if both parents are free from congenital disorders. As the book opens (in an exhilaratingly confusing sequence of difficult mixed-media passages), color blindness is being added to the list of restricted items. Jealousy of reproductive rights and the extreme crowds, often prone to spontaneous riots, have led to outbreaks of muckers: regular citizens who fly into berserker rages and kill as many people around them as possible.

As the fabric of society begins to deteriorate, two roommates (African American Norman House and WASP Donald Hogan) find themselves drawn into the inextricable mess of foreign policy. House becomes involved with the struggling, anomalous African country of Beninia while Hogan is sent against his will to the controversial communist island nation of Yatakang (both fictional countries). A third major character, Chad Mulligan, is introduced through his works as a cynical gonzo sociologist.

House and Hogan provide approximately a quarter of our knowledge about this future earth (comprising the chapters labeled “Continuity”). Other chapters are classified as “Tracking with Close-ups” (brief peeks into the lives of a variety of random citizens), “Context” (background information from encyclopedias, reports, books, songs, etc) and “The Happening World” (patched together streaming data similar to modern day RSS feeds, blogs and news tickers).

There is no doubt that much of Brunner’s concept for the book was far ahead of his time. This includes his innovative story structure with the division of multiple sources as described above. His attempts to use any and every medium at his disposal (and many that he makes up, effectively predicting modern technologies and sources of information) to build a virtual future with believable culture, politics, communication, economy, legislation, history, fashion and more are highly successful and foreshadow many of the techniques in postcyberpunk.

However, it is probably not surprising to find that most of the book’s other elements don’t always measure up to the ambitious structural achievement. The primary plot threads of House and Hogan run fairly slowly and without local climaxes, very steadily rising until all the action explodes in the final third. While the conclusions of both threads are well-developed, intriguing and thematically relevant, the first two-thirds of the book are forced to simmer on the backburner so that all the best narrative material can be served in the finales.

While the auxiliary stories, sources and perspectives are fully interesting and worthwhile, Brunner is hampered by occasional short-sightedness and sometimes runs against the limits of his creativity and talent. There is a certain question as to whether an author should be retroactively judged on the accuracy of his predictions and in general I think this is mildly unfair. (Certain cases are gratuitous. A further discussion can be found at the first “Dos and Don’ts” article.) Nevertheless, Brunner’s 2010 is often mired in 1960’s trends with the cold war still cruising along, racial tension still running high and computers restricted to super-powerful machines that understand human grammar and are only owned by rich meta-national corporations.

Brunner does tend to be more right than many of his contemporaries, my precious Philip K Dick and Vonnegut amongst them. His futuristic fashion trends are actually quite believable and interesting; his supercomputers have correctly been miniaturized even as they improve in speed; his interest in genetics remains curiously apropos in our present society.

Only two aspects regularly induced cringes: Brunner’s woefully cheesy 60’s-inspired future slang (he ain’t no Burgess) and alarmist attitude towards a population of 7 billion. It will have to get a lot higher before we see the phenomena the author predicts. Nonetheless, “Stand on Zanzibar” is easily one of the best books to deal with population issues.

What had a more significant impact on my final grade for the book is that Brunner’s reach often exceeds his grasp. Though I can’t fault him for trying to mix in every format and medium, he isn’t quite as creative as he thinks he is, leading to some songs, poems, commercials, social commentary and humor which fall flat or feels amateurish.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Review of "Traumnovelle" ("Dream Story") by Arthur Schnitzler

Hello. For my first contribution to this blog, I'm going to start with a work of Austrian fiction that most people familiar with the work know only because it was adapted into "Eyes Wide Shut" by Stanley Kubrik. In case it matters, let it be noted that I read the work in the original German, where it is titled "Traumnovelle", which means "Dream Novella", but it is usually translated to "Dream Story" for some reason I don't understand. I think for now I will borrow Brian's basic pattern of reviewing.

Plot Synopsis:
If you've seen "Eyes Wide Shut", then you already have a fairly good idea of the plot, although, like every adaptation, there are differences. In any case, the plot traces the exploits of a married doctor, Fridolin, over the course of one night and the following day. After realizing that he is disappointed by his marriage, he goes in search of something interesting or adventurous in the Viennese night. Eventually meeting an old friend, he goes to a masked ball of the most unnatural sort, and things truly get interesting.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Traumnovelle", largely because the story really is so dream-like yet somehow believable. (I may have enjoyed it on the additional level of having the pleasure of living in the same city as the novel's setting, but even excluding that it is still enjoyable.) Schnitzler works to compose a portrait of an environment where seemingly anything is possible in the night, and in a sort of dream-like reality love and sexuality are continually thrown at Fridolin's feet. Not to give too much away, but an actual dream sequence goes on to show that Fridolin's night is tangled somewhere between dreams and reality, and a fruitless following day proves that it is only in night that these things can happen. There is a weird sense that as unreal or randomly lucky the night is, it is not entirely unreal or impossible. There is a certain connection between all the events and a well-established parallel between the night and day.
While other works by Schnitzler ("Reigen" ("La Ronde" or "Round Dance"), "Anatol") have also focused on the liberality of sexuality throughout all classes of Viennese society in the fin-de-siecle period, only "Traumnovelle" delves so strongly into the dreamworld. Perhaps taking cues from Freud, Schnitzler was clearly interested in what dreams can represent and the worlds they can hide. "Eyes Wide Shut" is a less obvious but perhaps better title for the story, although I would say that the novella is still a better work than Kubrik's film adaptation. In the end, "Traumnovelle" is a fantastic piece of literature and, assuming that the English translation does the work justice, one that is quite worth reading. (It's just a novella, after all.)

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Review of “The Handmaid’s Tale” novel by Margaret Atwood

The popular dystopic subgenre crossed with modernist feminism.

Plot Summary:
In the near future a totalitarian patriarchy has replaced the United States democracy and forced women into a devil’s choice of specialized slave-roles: wives for the conservative and cooperative (dressed in blue), cooks and maids (garbed in green) and child-bearers known as handmaids (robed in red). Most men serve as soldiers, spies or administrators and hope to earn the right to keep their own stable of subservient women. The women are not allowed to read, travel or fall in love and even independent speech and thought will quickly lead to harsh punishment or death.

Though much of this premise seems abstract and political, ripe for epic rebellions and courageous revolutions, Atwood restricts our point-of-view to Offred, a lone handmaid who has little idea about what goes on in the world outside her prison/estate. We soon discover that she is both intelligent and articulate and her observant inner monologue provides the bulk of our reading experience.

Margaret Atwood follows in the tradition of such great dystopic nightmares as “We,” “Brave New World,” “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” but with her distinct prose and psychologically realism she supercedes all but perhaps the celebrated “1984.” Her undeniably compelling feminist angle remains several notches above the only other female-authored dystopia which comes to mind, Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” (which, to be fair, is more in the dated tradition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and takes as its enemy communism rather than patriarchy).

The novel takes an acutely limited first-person perspective that flows with a stream-of-conscience ease between memory, rumination and the everyday activities of the protagonist. The resulting delicate balance manages to generate vivid realism and thematic punch without being “preachy” or “man-hating.” The possible downside for some is that the book is paced leisurely and gradually with no artificial action. Rising tension tends to replace rising action, which makes sense in an environment where passivity and inaction are enforced on women implicitly (as today) and explicitly.

It helps that Atwood is such an excellent author. There are almost no negatives to point out and no plot holes to cite. While the premise seems simple, new ideas and wider implications are always being explored and rarely does a chapter go by without a valuable insight. The positive and negative potential of the individual and the society are of equal interest to Atwood’s piercing mind. A final epilogue even brings into question academia and historical attitudes. I suspect “A Handmaid’s Tale” will remain relevant for many decades to come.

Grade: A+

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Postmodernity Scorecard

The Postmodernity Scorecard:
I designed this scorecard for measuring quantitatively the level of postmodernity in a novel. Alternatively, it can be used to measure high modernism or pretentiousness.

Take a book of your choice and read each question. Score the amount shown in brackets if the answer is yes.

Here are some example books I measured, with their respective scores:

"Survivor" by Chuck Palahniuk, 56

"Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, 62

"Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino, 76

"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller, 76

"Naked Lunch" by Willaim S Burroughs, 80

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner, 87

"The Watchman" by Alan Moore, 94

"Pale Fire" by Vladimir Nobokov, 99

"Ulysses" by James Joyce, 117

Characters: (consider "narrator" to be generally interchangeable with "protagonist")
Are there multiple narrators or points-of-view? [3]
Is at least one narrator speaking from beyond the grave? [3]
Is at least one narrator an animal or plant? [3]
Is at least one narrator inanimate or merely a concept? [5]
Is at least one narrator unreliable? [5]
Is at least one protagonist unlikable or villainous? [5]
Is at least one protagonist physically handicapped? [3]
Is at least one protagonist mentally handicapped? [5]
Is at least one protagonist angst-ridden, depressed, traumatized or neurotic? [3]
Does the protagonist(s) ever directly address the audience? [5]
Does the protagonist(s) have superhuman or supernatural powers? [4]
Do characters speak in accent or dialect? [2]
Do characters use fictional slang? [4]
Do characters have ridiculous or symbolic names? [2]
Do characters have ridiculous or symbolic jobs/roles? [3]

Does the book open in media res? [2]
Do fictional and non-fictional characters interact? [3]
Do fictional characters interact with non-fictional (famous) historical events? [2]
Does the plot contain any of these controversial subject matters (for its day)?
Explicit sex or sexual situations [1]
Explicit language [1]
Extreme violence [1]
Drug use [1]
Non-traditional gender/sexuality issues [1]
Does the plot show an irreverence towards traditionally serious subject matter? [3]
Is the book anti-clerical? [1]
Is the book anti-government? [1]
Is the book anti-war? [1]
Is the book anti-art? [1]
Does the protagonist see a psychiatrist? [2]
Does the plot reference at least three items from any of the following categories:
Other works by the same author but not the same series [5]
Works by other authors [3]
Famous works of art (music, paintings, sculptures, films, etc) [2]
Does the book borrow its plot explicitly from another work but change key elements? [6]
Is the plot told out of chronological order? [5]
Are multiple mutually-exclusive versions of the same event(s) offered? [7]
Is the ending unresolved or ambiguous? [4]
Does the book end with the title of the book? [2]
Does the book end with the same lines or situation as the beginning? [5]
Is there some form of an extended story-within-a-story? (subnovella, play-within-a-play, parables, recitations, flashbacks from secondary characters) [6]
Does the book recognize its own nature as a book? [5]

Writing Style:
Is stream-of-consciousness used? [10]
Are there passages described abstractly, obtusely or only partially? [6]
Is the average sentence length less than 12 words? [3]
Is the average sentence length greater than 25 words? [5]
Is the average sentence length greater than 50 words? [5]
Are significant passages inspired by drug episodes, hallucinations or dreams? [3]
Is the book undivided by chapters? [3]
Is at least one chapter a single page long? [1]
Do chapters begin with a diegetic quote? [5]
Do chapters begin with a non-diegetic quote? [4]
Are any of the following types of rules violated frequently and intentionally outside of dialogue:
Spelling [3]
Grammar [3]
Punctuation [3]
Capitalization [3]
Does the author intentionally use multiple, clearly-distinguished styles? [10]
Do portions of the book make use of verse, rhyme or heavy alliteration? [6]
Does the book contain original riddles, puzzles or philosophical concepts? [3]
Does the book include fictional footnotes or ancillary materials? [4]

Properties of the Physical Book:
Is unconventional numbering used for parts, chapters or page numbers? (e.g. reverse order, gaps, fractions, repetitions, non-sequential patterns) [10]
Is the shape of the book or dimensions unconventional? [10]
Are the properties of the text frequently unconventional? (size, color, alignment) [8]
Does the book use multiple formats? (CD, website, brochures, comics, etc) [8]
Is at least one cover image a clever reference, clue, illusion or allusion? [5]
Is at least one cover image a post-modern artistic image in its own right? [3]

Total [250]

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Review of “Timescape” novel by Gregory Benford

In 1980 Gregory Benford took the concept that time is symmetrical (a landscape more so than a river) to heart, and looked equally far into the past as he did into the future. Two parallel stories, one in 1962 and another in 1998, detail a story of all-too-human scientists who may have found a link between the past, present and future.

On the verge of ecological disaster in 1998, Cambridge professor Renfrew attempts to send Morse code messages back in time using tachyons. The disturbances are picked up in La Jolla, California by Gordon Bernstein in the 1960’s, who struggles to interpret the fragmented data.

The Good:
“Timescape” became somewhat of a cross-over classic, managing to combine hard science with human insight in a realistic and appealing manner. The characters are all living, thinking people with varied personalities and perspectives (not just clones of a single persona or broad stereotypes) and individual talents and flaws. Their interactions are very human and believable in a genre not often recognized for characterization, dialogue and sociological depth.

More rare still, is that such writing ability would be combined with a solid mastery of science in a single author. The complicated theory, the detailed physics, the background of biology and astronomy and the in-depth knowledge of experimental procedure are all thoroughly grounded in fact, even as Benford uses them as a springboard for fiction. It becomes hardly surprising that Benford is a professor of physics and has had direct experience teaching, lecturing and researching in both California and London.

As a story, Benford covers a lot of ground. Both time periods are brought to life gracefully, the characters experience gentle arcs and the science proposes some serious questions. With several profound strokes (though not quite flourishes) the story is brought to an interesting climax and closes with a few sly ambiguities thrown in for fun.

The Bad:
My minor complaint about “Timescape” primarily extends from its major strength. There comes a point when Benford rigorous loyalty to depicting the repetitions, failures and triple-checkings of experimental procedure become fairly tedious. The scientific community skepticism that accompanies Gordon Bernstein’s initial discovery leads to a long swathe of tire-spinning as Benford tries to get the plot of the rut he’s created for himself. It is hard to overlook the fact that almost everything interesting about the initial premise is set-up in the first hundred pages and all the riveting action, twists and revelations are saved for the final hundred pages (of a 500 pg novel). The story survives in between on the strength of the aforementioned human element, but even this falls into a certain predictable rhythm on occasions.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Review of “The Stars My Destination” novel by Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester opens his novel with a chapter describing the history of jaunting: the ability to teleport oneself soling with thought. In the distant future of the 25th century, this ability has long since changed the way society works, eventually leading to a war between the IP (inner planets) and the OS (outer satellites). Set within this richly conceived universe is a seemingly average spaceman, Gulliver Foyle, who wakes up in the wreck of a spacecraft desperately trying to shore up his remaining supplies of air and food. After being passed by the Vorga, a ship that could have rescued him, Foyle is driven to inhuman strength by the wish for revenge. What follows is a fast-pace adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo” that is shorter to read than it is to summarize.

The Good:
Like Bester’s other key work, “The Demolished Man,” completed five year earlier, “The Stars My Destination” is first and foremost a supernova of ideas. This time around they come faster than before, nearly at the rate of one inspiration every two pages. Not just the quantity has increased, however, and Bester’s research really shows in his ability to generate truly thought-provoking gems that all feel fitting and exciting even at their most outrageous extremes. The narrative is unashamedly science-adventure with a dark, witty and often maniacal tone that must have been shocking to casual readers in the 1950’s. The plotting, propped up by the new ideas at every turn, is a racing, rocketing, ever-escalating series of action sequences, jaggedly sketched set-pieces and bizarre twists. The end result is infinitely sugary and addictive, making a short fast read with enough of an afterglow to reward hours of contemplation.

Despite the many possible strikes against it (see below), the book remains a rightful classic of the 1950’s.

The Bad:
The main problem with “The Stars My Destination” is essentially identical to my complaints about “The Demolished Man”: there is no development of the ideas or their wider implications. This book does a better job, not the least because the lightning pace leaves little room to think out the details, but one still feels the weight of contradictions, plot holes and loose ends building up in the wake the adventure. Still, compared to his previous novel, the ideas are sewn together better, the society rendered more deftly, the ending more satisfactorily wrapped. Unfortunately the sense of a seamless reality never quite materializes.

Interestingly, it struck me that although Norman Spinrad considers this novel to be one of the most important in the genre, it is clear that it falls victims to the issues satirized by Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream,” so much so that I suspect that “The Stars My Destination” might be one of his highest profile targets. These problems include a progressively more ominously ruthless hero myth, disturbing amounts of violent sexual undertones (and overtones) and a sexist streak a mile wide. Though there are three strong female characters, their strength is depicted as essential evil (more so even than the merciless anti-hero) and they function narratively as tools for the hero to use and dispose. Many of the women in Bester's future are kept in windowless locked rooms to avoid the risks that jaunting poses to their chastity.

Grade: A

Friday, February 2, 2007

Sci-fi Do’s and Don’ts Part I

While writing reviews of science-fiction novels, I naturally notice certain trends in what I like and dislike about sci-fi books. Beyond that, I’ve discovered that there are some reoccurring types of “mistakes.” These aren’t just subgenres or archetypes I dislike, but unintentional errors that strike me as just plain poor writing.

I’m not particularly keen on “rules” for artistic expressions (they always beg to be broken in creative ways), but I’d like to open some discussion on suggestions for the genre. Sort of “Sci-fi Do’s and Don’ts.”

To start off, I’d like to stamp a big “DON’T” onto the idea of writing about the future through a narrow and overly-specific lens of one’s own time. This goes beyond scientific or technical limitations like Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis describing the canals on Mars.

For example: Why would any author think that the slang in their own period would exist 500 years or even 10 years into the future? Painfully dating too much sci-fi literature are words and phrases like “You dig?”, “Gee whiz”, “Foxy”, “Groovy” and worse. You still see it happening today in literature (“Cool”) that will be dated within a decade. It is fine in books set in the very near future or when there is a specific reason (a regressed community, a future society with a craze or fetish for a “classic” era of the past, a linguistic theme, etc). An excellent solution is the development of an original fictional slang. “Clockwork Orange” does this to great effect but less extreme examples or common.

Similarly, fashions change. I think authors should consider that everything from clothing to architecture changes significantly with time and that they should not expect their contemporary taste to be an eternal constant. Bad examples of this include the way spaceships conceived in the 1950’s are modeled explicitly on 50’s cars, complete with fenders, fins and ultra-sleek designs. These visions of future ships fail to take into account either functionality (For instance, spaceships that never enter atmosphere and aren’t worried about radar don’t need to be aerodynamic or sleek. Army camouflage designs would be unlikely, while pure black paint would be considerably more effective for stealth. Stationary guns and view-screens that are locked into place facing “forward” doesn’t make sense for a ship in 3D space where direction is arbitrary) or changing taste (Extraneous fins are not likely to stay in style. Egg chairs are not space efficient or particularly comfortable. Space outfits do not look good with flaring collars nor do they need them in the absence of wind.).

I get frustrated when characters in far-flung futuristic worlds just happens to be listening to the same music the author enjoys from his or her own time. This is possible but pretty unlikely. We tend to fall into the trap of thinking the music/TV/fashion/etc of our own time is the best, most enduring or never-to-be-rivaled “Golden Era”.

This is perhaps the most common “narrow lens” problem in futuristic literature. References, descriptors, quotes and metaphors from our present or recent past would probably not be used in great quantity in the distant future (and especially not in an alternative or alien civilization). It destroys the illusion of a vivid reality for the reader, a reality where the book is just one cross-section of fully functional independent universe. This doesn’t apply to books narrated for an audience explicitly in the present day (H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” as one example) but it applies doubly for first-person narrations by futuristic characters and omniscient third-person glimpses in the thoughts of such characters. A solution, in my opinion, is to make a statistically proportional number of fictional references to made-up people, organizations, places and events. You can always footnote them or add a glossary to explain them in detailed terms. This provides a chance to flesh out the context of the history leading up to the novel and culture of the contemporary happenings.

Other qualities tend to lose their sheen with time as well, and the author might want to keep that in mind. Shock value especially fades quickly. Imagine what your novel will be like if the topic you consider controversial and shocking becomes commonplace in the real world? Or a cliché in literature? Will your novel still be as powerful? Will it still have merit as a story, a work of art or social critique? It’s something to think about.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Thoughts on Our Postcyberpunk World

In 1998 Lawrence Person wrote an article called “Notes on a PostCyberpunk Manifesto” (originally from Nova Express linked from its reprint on Slashdot). He defines postcyberpunk as a genre the evolved out of cyberpunk, a transformation centered around leather-clad, motorcycle-riding anti-heroes being replaced by productive average members of fairly functional society.

Person was clearly onto something, although it is tough to say whether the distinction from cyberpunk was enough to merit a new genre. The setting is pretty much the same (futuristic metropolises dominated by technology) and the themes overlap quite a bit (cybergenetics, genetic engineering, technology affecting society, information at the fingertips of anyone, etc). Only the characters have made a significant change of type and this is the key. What Person fails to do, is to contextualize (or historicize if you prefer) this shift.

The construction of the protagonist is, with few exceptions, the window into the ideas, opinions, beliefs and observations of the author. Even anti-heroes define a world-view through what they oppose and unreliable narrators tend to be confused about the very things that the reader (or sometimes society as a whole) also are confused about. Problematic protagonists help define the belief systems of the age they were written in through the very qualities that get them dubbed “problematic.”

When one looks at the shift from the 1980’s into the late 1990’s, we can see many of the changes that are echoed in the literary characters of science fiction. The technology junky, the nerd, the computer user, the programmer and the videogame player all moved from the fringe of society to the center (the motorcyclist and the criminal are left behind). No longer outsiders or anomalies, these figures became commonplace elements of a broad middle-class. The archetypical image of a computer user went from the reclusive, anti-social hacker to the suit-and-tie office worker and the well-adjusted student on a laptop in a café.

That science-fiction urge that has been around for centuries, the desire to picture ourselves and our society in the future, simply followed the current trends as it often does.

One place that Person doesn’t go is into the structure of postcyberpunk, an area that shows as much development as characterization and deserves as much attention as setting and theme. Of great interest is the way that science-fiction has reached out to the technological advances in our society and incorporated them directly into its form. Authors are able to tap the immense amount of data on the internet for research and inspiration. Readers can communicate with each other and provide feedback to the author over long distances in real time or at leisure on discussion groups. Postcyberpunk books even tend to make use conventions borrowed from computer code, emails, discussion and news groups and other means of communication.

Blurring has occurred at the boundaries between mediums (not to mention genres). Evidence of this is visible in internet literature (such as Geoff Ryman’s “253”), manga, graphic novels, videogames, digital artwork and book websites. An emphasis on the interactivity has arisen particularly in highly literate videogames that contain novel length amounts of detail, dialogue and description. Players are given an ever increasing amount of freedom to make choices and customize their experience. The “worldbuilding” to which Lawrence Person refers to has found a new peak in massively multiplayer online games with their own internal societies and economies. Immersion for even conventional literature material is enhanced by television, movie and game adaptations creating multi-media, in-depth story-universes like “Star Trek” and “Ghost in the Shell.”

Immersion into online communities, games and globally popular story-universes has changed from being escapism to involvement. Those people who continue to reject technology are the ones being cut off from society. This is as much a matter of mass communication (cell phones, email, AIM, news sites, digital cameras, uploading) as culture (literature, art, shows, movies, games).

While many of these changes are not the sole property of the 90’s and 00’s (the 80’s saw the rise of “synergy” and cross-media marketing tie-ins), it is postcyberpunk material that seems to most frequently reflect these changes. While early science-fiction literature was showing the dangers of technology and dystopia, it tended to set literature in opposition to or in rejection of the future (think “Fahrenheit 451” or the reduction of vocabulary with double-speak in “1984”). In cyberpunk literature the protagonist is fully complicit (and often ahead of the curve) in the onrush of technological progress. The character has willingly given up the page for the computer screen, the physical for the virtual, and has found freedom (both artistically and literally) in a technological expression. Now, in the postcyberpunk era, it is the author and the reader who are undergoing these same changes. Society has begun to accept technological advances as less of an inevitable threat and more as a logical extension of scientific and social possibilities. The literature community, particularly the science-fiction community, has likewise come to accept technology as enabling their artistic freedom rather than destroying it.

This is why I think we can expect postcyberpunk literature to continue growing in output and popularity. For the time being, at least, we live in a postcyberpunk world.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Review of “Way Station” novel by Clifford D Simak

Enoch Wallace fought in the American Civil War. In the 1960’s he is still alive, living reclusively in a mysterious house in Wisconsin, still looking like he is in his thirties. Eventually this attracts attention. After several initial changes in perspective, we settle into Enoch’s point of view; a humble man trying to manage a secret space depot for aliens while worrying about a potential nuclear war. Think of it as a bucolic “Men In Black with the tone of a quiet picnic.

The Good:
Enoch Wallace is an instantly likable character, an intelligent country man who keeps mostly to himself but is friendly to all and generally means well. Hearing about Enoch’s minor adventures (which generally come to him, because they almost all occur in or around his house) is consistently pleasant. Through Enoch’s way station, Simak conveys his unadulterated humanism and his belief that humankind understands only the tiniest of all fractions of the universe and so should be humble and treat things in their proper proportions. Without preaching, Simak gets across the heart of his simple story in a well-mannered and steadily-paced classical story.

The Bad:
Though occasionally refreshing in its old-fashion Midwestern style, Simak’s novel is a little too simple and easy when it comes to big issues such as: How should we achieve world peace? Does all life have a soul? Are violence and death necessary to civilization? What defines a “good” person? Etc. Reducing these questions to easy answers deprives the reader of deeper engagement and robs the topics of their fascinating nuances. Ultimately one feels that Simak achieves his humanist paradise by wishful thinking, a problem exasperated by his use of several last-act coincidences culminating in a total dues ex machina. This “victory,” too easily bought, feels cheap.

That laid-back prose fits the story with its lack of pretension or artistic self-consciousness, but feels flat viewed today, 40 years later. The optimistic tale where the protagonist is an isolationist throwback to a century earlier and the antagonists are all far away and vague (only forming into a character to be challenged at the last minute) seems fearful of confronting the genuine reality of a fast-changing, highly-turbulent and diverse society.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Review of “Bring the Jubilee” novel by Ward Moore

In an alternate history where the South wins the Civil War (here called “The War of Southern Independence”), a young farmer’s son named Hodge sets out to seek his fortune in New York. He finds the city, in the 1930’s, to be alive with the wonders of steam cars, pneumatic mail and household telegraphs.

The Good:
Writing in 1953, Moore does an astounding job visualizing an alternative history (a genre he virtually invented) of surprising detail and wit. His world is fully believable for the purposes of the story and yet so littered with wicked ironies that there is plenty of room for keenly-observed social commentary and occasionally humor. Hodge is the perfect sci-fi protagonist for such a story, a man who is “always a spectator” and never a real participant. He is a likable character even as his flaws become more and more readily viewable. The supporting cast has some Dickensonian characters, but never outright single-trait clichés. Moore takes a fairly progressive attitude on race and gender and subverts his own somewhat sexist protagonist on more than one occasion.

The Bad:
Though an excellent book in terms of its world-creation and over-arching story, one seemingly important subplot (a military-conspiracy angle which build quite a bit of momentum) is left curiously forgotten and unresolved.

Grade: A

Monday, January 29, 2007

Review of “The Drowned World” novel by J. G. Ballard

Similar to the movie “Waterworld” in premise, “The Drowned World” opens in a future where the temperature has risen so high that the icecaps have melted, sinking most of the major cities and forcing the surviving humans to live in the now-temperate arctic bands. Kerans is a scientist conducting studies in a flooded, abandoned London on changes in the flora and fauna. Insidiously affected by the isolation and environmental dislocation into conditions similar to the Mesozoic era, Kerans begins to drift into a curiously regressive psychological state.

The Good:
J. G. Ballard manages to write an apathetic protagonist in an admirably interesting way. The author is equally talented at plumbing the depths of the human psyche as he is in exploring the “Heart of Darkness” style brooding jungle that pervades the future-lagoons of London. The atmosphere and imagery is dark and intense despite Keran’s tendency to view it with boredom and detachment, a combination which sets a very unique and effective mood.

The Bad:
Half way through the book, Ballard semi-awkwardly introduces a very traditional over-the-top villain, an element fully unnecessary given the power of everything that precedes it. Perhaps because this was Ballard’s first novel, he felt compelled to draw clearer good/evil lines and to move towards a more tradition “strange new world” type adventure. While he does it fairly well, it hardly advances the book thematically and backs off of the psychological nature that distinguished the book from its contemporaries.

Grade: B+

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Review: Robert A. Heinlein's The Door Into Summer

I read The Door Into Summer a few weeks ago over our winter break, but in the interest of getting my inaugural review up here as quickly as possible so that Brian doesn't feel lonely, I decided to write about a book that I have finished already.


It's tough to summarize this book without giving away too much; I think that even the two-sentence Amazon.com summary reveals too much information. A modern reader, familiar with many of the sci-fi conventions which would have been new when this book was written, will quickly unravel what Heinlein probably fancied to be an elaborate plot twist if given more than just the basic details. I doubt that you will be surprised by any of the turns the plot takes, so I suggest that you keep yourself in suspense as much as possible so that when the twist occurs, it will be a bit more unexpected and therefore more enjoyable.

Here is my plot synopsis, scant on information though it is:
Dan Davis, an engineer who invents housekeeping robots, is suckered by his business partners and loses control of the company he founded. They force him to enter suspended animation for 30 years, and when he wakes up, he wants his revenge.

Yep, that's all I'm going to tell you. If you want more, you'll have to read it.


As I noted above, this is an old (or, if you prefer, "classic") sci-fi adventure novel. It features a rugged male protagonist, outmoded views on gender roles, plenty of smoking, boundless optimism about the imminent triumph of technology over pretty much everything, and an idealization of the "engineer" as a super-genius proficient in any and all things related to the field of "engineering" that could only have come out of the 1950s.

None of those characteristics are really disadvantages, however, because this novel doesn't try to offer astounding philosophical insights or remarkably prescient versions of the future. Instead, it is simply a rollicking good adventure combined with a love story involving a 12-year-old. It has a straightforward revenge plot that is nicely turned on its side when Heinlein provides the protagonist with a powerful new tool with which to exact his vengeance. Again, I don't claim that you will be shocked or amazed by any of the turns the plot takes, but the way Heinlein stitches the whole novel together is a delight.



Review of “The Iron Dream” novel by Norman Spinrad

In an alternate universe, Adolf Hitler never becomes chancellor of Germany and instead, writes popular science fiction, winning the 1953 Hugo award for his “Lord of the Swastika.” This work, Hitler’s final before dying, is reproduced in full with an afterwards to the second edition by a fictional professor. “Lord of the Swastika” is a science-fantasy adventure in which Feric Jagger rises to become a world leader and sets out to purify the world of the mutants spawned by an ancient nuclear war.

The Good:
Spinrad wisely chooses not to make fun of Hitler or popular fiction in a petulant manner, but instead crafts a work which is at times rousing and compelling, while at the same time frequently reprehensible and underscored by subtext that is troubling both psychologically and ideologically. Such a juggling act is nothing short of brilliant, and it succeeds in being a major work of social criticism (aimed as much at male-marketed popular fiction as a whole than just science-fiction). The achievement is all the more impressive because of the believability that it really could gain a cult following. The scary part is that many of its elements such as hyper-masculinity, gratuitous violence, gross-out shock tactics and the absence of a female voice of any type, have been frighteningly predictive of modern trends. The detached academic analysis at the end of the book is the perfect conclusion, with several touches of well-placed dark humor.

The Bad:
There is a certain amount of paradox in reading a book where enjoying it makes you feel guilty and complicit and not enjoying it is, well… not much fun. Spinrad has too perfect of a shield to hide behind since anything bad about the book is “intentional,” but that being said, the repetition and formulaic-ness of the story gets to be a little much to trek through at times.

Grade: B+

Review of “The Glamour” novel by Christopher Priest

“The Glamour” is a highly literate, post-modern take on a popular sci-fi subgenre (which won’t be spoiled here), although nearly the first third of the book is done with no overt violations of present day reality. The story follows a cameraman who is recovering his memories after a car accident with the help of a woman who claims to have been his lover. Nothing remains the way we first perceive it and each of the book’s chapters provides further insight into the truth. The reader’s ability to trust memory, identity and even the stories authorship is gradually eroded.

The Good:
Priest combines masterly story-telling with a wickedly inspired formal structure to create a novel that is both engaging and thoughtful. The perfectly paced story balances elements of normality and classical fiction prose with frequent twists and shifts that completely change the reader’s perspective on everything that has come before. Priest manages to revitalize a subgenre that has been stagnating for decades and creates what I think is easily the finest entry.

The Bad:
Confusing ending tends to work decently as a thought experiment and a thematic finale but seems unsatisfying on the level of the characters and narrative.

Grade: A

Review of “The Final Programme” novel by Michael Moorcock

Although Moorcock’s most popular sci-fi novel, “The Final Programme” comes off as steadfastly average and nearly instantly forgettable. With 1/3 heist thriller, 1/3 cross-country adventure and 1/3 doomsday chronicle all the groundwork potential seems to be there for a stirring, gripping vision of a near future but nothing really comes together like it should. Definitely a skip for all but Moorcock fans.

The Good:
Interesting story framework with hints of buried insight. Early example of a bisexual protagonist.

The Bad:
Each of the three sections in the book fails to capture the interest they should. Handfuls of tangents to the main plot are tentatively mentioned but none of the best ideas are explored or brought to life. Subplots involving a technological maze security system, a vast secret abandoned underground Nazi bunker, a psychologically troubling incestual romance, an underground network of criminals and revolutionaries with a world-changing agenda, a censored copy of an astronaut’s final log and many other intriguing lines dead-end or get abandoned by the author with little explanation. Instead, the majority of the pages are expended on standard plodding chapters of well-worn sci-fi territory and a dated “ultimate party” final act. The ending, which is clearly meant to seem shocking and progressive, also feels dated and plagued by a total sense of underdevelopment and randomness.

Grade: C-

Review of “Rogue Moon” novel by Algis Budrys

Dr Hawk is one of the world’s smartest minds, and he’s dedicated his life towards exploring a bizarre lunar structure that is millions of years old. Using a teleporter (actually a long range atomic duplicator), he can allow terrestrials to enter the structure, but no one survives for more than five minutes. For the time the victims exist inside the phenomenon they share their consciousness with their originals on Earth, but the originals are driven insane by experiencing the death of their copies. Only one man, uber-dare-devil Barker may possess the drive and bravery to undergo the mapping of the mysterious enigma.

The Good:
Budrys doesn’t waste time getting to the big questions about life, death and identity and his book shines brightest when crashing the readers against the monumental scope of his ideas, emotions, locations and mysteries. This book is sure to make you think on some weighty issues and to feel the impact of the character’s quandaries.
Hawk and Barker are both intentionally larger than life, and they make good stand-ins for the extreme limits of mankind’s abilities and drives (although they don’t always materialize as fully fleshed nuanced characters). Budrys gives us occasional anecdotes from the character’s past that are, at first, somewhat off-putting due to their tangential nature, but provide some needed depth and character complexity.
Burdrys’ pacing is blindingly fast, and we hardly have time to digest the magnitude of what we’ve read before something new and important takes place. The rush continues even through the climax and the deliciously intense coda.

The Bad:
Minor characters are left noticeably on the wayside, especially Hawk’s girlfriend who is left without a single speck of characterization or detail although we are asked to share an emotional connection with her. Barker’s girlfriend is every 50’s/60’s sexist sci-fi cliché but at least her character provides some interesting comments on humankind. Even the main characters never let us inside their heads and the readers must content themselves with gaining insights from their actions and well-written, highly-observant speeches.
The climax is actually one of the weakest moments, feeling somewhat more drug-inspired than profound, but this is one book that isn’t short on profundity.

Grade: B+

Review of “A Case of Conscience” novel by James Blish

A Jesuit biologist in charge of evaluating the potential of a planet inhabited by tall reptilian aliens finds that the planet’s fate may be a moral question more so than a scientific one. The book is divided into two main sections, a shorter part in the beginning detailing the last few days of four scientists on the new planet and the second part focusing on Earth in the succeeding months.

The Good:
Blish starts his novel with a fairly heavy dose of hard science (backed by an appendix at well) which seems fairly impressive for the 1950’s and only occasionally dated. The future earth Blish depicts is well-insinuated, hinging on his conception of a “shelter war” which amounts to a defense-based next step to the Cold War. Additionally the blend of science and religion in the protagonist is deeply interesting, leading the man to make some surprising decisions on questions where the right answer is left ultimately (and smartly) ambiguous. Plenty of food for thought is cooked up by Blish and he wisely lets the reader come to their own conclusions in fascinating ending.

The Bad:
Blish never really manages to delve into the psychology of the protagonist deeply enough and thus he misses the opportunity to explore the central core of his own themes. Just when the reader would most like to get into the Jesuit’s head, Blish pulls back and shifts into a more vague macroscopic tone that focuses on larger world events and a far less interesting fish-out-of-water story. One can’t help but think that a more literary author would have given key attention to the characterization and internal perspective of what is certainly a compelling sketch of man and his science-vs-religion dilemma.
Another noticeable problem is the way that the hard-science dries up about 80 pages in, switching to a more mundane and vague style that does little to inform or entertain. Questionable, too, is the central premise that a mere four scientists who don’t even get along and immediately divide up would be sent to single-handedly determine the fate of an entire planet and the intelligent life-forms on it. No ambassadors, diplomats, linguists, military advisors, psychologists, survivalists, exploration teams, surveyor teams, construction crews or support staff are sent…

Grade: C+

Review of “The Demolished Man” novel by Alfred Bester

Ben Reich wakes up each day after terrifying dreams of “The Man with No Face” and is finally driven by them to kill his business rival and arch nemesis. However, it isn’t quite so easy in a world policed by Espers, telepaths who can sense murderous intention before the crime and guilt afterwards. The book presents the story from both sides: Reich’s planning, implementation and consequences and the police’s investigation, lead by 1st class Esper Powell.

The Good:
Bester’s key strength is the way he brims with ideas and keeps a steady stream of interesting concepts rolling out, providing plenty to moll over throughout the book. The pacing is fairly taut with only occasional lags and since the book is short it reads lightning fast. The gripping pace is shown off best in the film’s best chapter (8), a two-layer battle of wits as the police are thwarted by Reich’s enormous organization at every turn. The chapter operates like cross-cutting montage in film and was likely inspired by Fritz Lang’s “M”.

The Bad:
Much like mid-level Philip K Dick, Bester goes for quantity of ideas and not thorough development. Not enough care has gone into answering the reader’s inevitable questions about Espers and society with them and in general no really solid believable image of the novel’s universe ever forms. Having failed to flesh out the details of telepathy and mind-reading early in the novel, Bester continues to introduce new elements only as it suits the plot and one constantly feels like he is cheating the reader and introducing inconsistencies.
These problems are symptomatic of poor plotting on a wider scope and this is really my major complaint. Inconsistencies and plot holes litter every other page (a particularly obvious one is the fact that we are told repeatedly that no success premeditated murder has occurred in over 70 years but later in the book, when murders are taking place surprisingly frequently we learn that there is an organization of professional assassins…).
After a strong first act, the book heads steadily downhill, culmination in a long, pretentious final act with several predictable revelations. Especially hampering the final 80 pages or so is a mounting level of Freudian psychobabble with dates the book as 1950’s (as does the sub-standard dialogue) even as it delivers a pair of twists that, while probably original and clever at the time this book was written in 1952, happen to be the two of the most cliché twists known to modern readers/film-goers.

Grade: C

Review of “The Blind Assassin” novel by Margaret Atwood

“The Blind Assassin” is a lengthy fictional biography primarily concerned with tracing the life of Iris Chase, an upper-class Canadian woman, and her sister Laura Chase. The book interweaves three interrelated stories: Iris Chase’s final days in 1999, her life from birth until the end of WWII, and a novel-within-a-novel entitled “The Blind Assassin.” This embedded novel is about a controversial romance and itself contains a story-within-a-story which is a science-fiction tale also titled “The Blind Assassin.” The book opens with the line “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Shortly after Laura dies, her novel, “The Blind Assassin” is discovered and published to great acclaim. The bulk of the book concerns the biographical details of the Iris Chase in the past and present with a gradual sense of mystery and anticipation building as the full story behind the Chase family and the opening car accident are revealed.

The Good:
Atwood is a master of characterization and above all else, this is what really shines throughout the book. Iris Chase is rendered brilliantly, a fully three-dimensional, realistic character whose life appears equally tangible and marked by personality at the age of 18 as it does at the age of 80. Perhaps what is most impressive is the sense that Iris is hardly exceptional, her life has been eventful but not earth-shattering and she rarely controls her own destiny. Atwood captures the means by which a person can slip into the easy routine, always doing what they think is best and yet gradually becoming more passive and unhappy. Similarly, Laura Chase makes the perfect enigma for jaded 20th century readers, a naïve and yet somehow admirable figure quite out-of-place in the era she lives in.
Also notable is Atwood’s writing style, which tends to make some of the slower, overly long passage more palatable. Her frequent vivid use of metaphors and similes gives narration a highly literate and cunning edge with a heavy, healthy dose of cynicism.
As for the story, I found it to be realistic, fairly engaging, occasionally profound and brilliantly concluded. However the plot is really only the sugar on the cake and isn’t the reason this book should be read. Even if the reader has guessed all of the plot twists far in advance (as most readers likely will) Atwood still delivers her revelations with intensity and eloquence.

The Bad:
Despite advertising the science-fiction element of the book as comprising 1/3 of the story, it really amounts to less than 1/12 and it is easily the least satisfying aspect of the book. One is tempted to accuse Atwood of possessing disdain for classical science fiction but it is more likely that it is actually her characters which treat it dismissively. The novel-within-a-novel is ultimately too weak to stand on its own legs (one finds it hard to believe it was met with cult success) and it is merely relegated to its relevance with regard to the primary plot.
The other minor problem I have with the book is its fairly hefty length. Atwood seems to struggle with whether or not she is making a classical modernist novel or an experimental post-modernist novel and so lets elements of both bloat up beyond what is necessary. Despite an ever growing sense of anticipation within the last third of the book, the first two thirds are simply too lackadaisical and often dull, with plenty of well-written prose but nothing new occurring or changing.

Grade: A-