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 clichĂ© 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 cafĂ©.

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.