The world building is pretty terrible. I never got the sense that the City was in the slightest a work of engineering a...moreThis book barely hit two stars.
The world building is pretty terrible. I never got the sense that the City was in the slightest a work of engineering and not a work of literature with particular constraints designed to serve the story. Even if you wanted a setting that served the same literary purpose, a better and more believable one could have been contrived with a bit of thought. If you are going to write science fiction, you have to do the world building. The fact that you are writing juvenile fiction is no excuse. Good juvenile fiction doesn't mean its unappealing to adults; it merely means its also appealing to and suited to younger readers. If an adult can't enjoy it, it's a waste of time for a child as well.
This book is also proof that a work of fiction can get too didactic even for me, even where I largely agree with the talking points. Again, that this is juvenile fiction is no excuse. Good writing is good writing regardless of who it is pitched to.
But that said, I would have overlooked all of that and even the trite shallow characterization if the author had more merit as a writer. There are just some really basic amateurish mistakes here that really ruin the work. First, the writer uses the first page of the text not to provide a hook, but to provide spoilers. Secondly, the writer doesn't start the fiction at the point where the action actually begins, but rambles on for a while waiting for the story to actually happen. I can't help but feel that this was written to a template provided by 'The Giver' without understanding why that book, which was nearly as infuriating but for different reasons, had the structure it did. At least 'The Giver' actually managed to begin where the conflict begins and tell the story of how the protagonist met the challenge of the conflict. This begins with an arbitrary life experience and largely has the protagonist team idle through most of the story, unable or unwilling to make meaningful decisions. Much of the reason we read a story is to root for a protagonists success, and that requires that the reader sympathize for the situation that the protagonist is in. It doesn't require that the protagonist actually go from victory to victory, but it does require that at least we see the protagonist honestly struggling and trying in the face of the conflict. Through almost all of the story, the protagonists of City of Ember are idle, childish, and lackadaisical in the face of disaster. While that might well be true to life, it raises the question of why the author of this story would choose to tell the story only from their perspective alone when for much of the story, the prospective of the chosen protagonists is simply quite dull.
This is one of the longest short stories I've ever plowed through. The pacing was just so incredibly slow and there was nothing - no depth of character, no beautiful prose, no intriguing setting - to make up for it and excuse our loitering through the story.
Banks seems content to spin out increasingly fractal world building episodes while adopting an ever more and more affected and feathery writing style...more Banks seems content to spin out increasingly fractal world building episodes while adopting an ever more and more affected and feathery writing style filled with qualifiers and digressions and dangling clauses, becoming in each new work ever more tangled in conscious - or perhaps unconscious – imitation of the complicated, ever qualified, speech of his most famous creations, the great ship Minds, whose all-too self-aware multi-layered and consciously ornate dialogue forms the greater part of this novel when it is not devoted to the task of trying to prove that a thousand words will perhaps, if selected carefully and arranged artfully, serve to make a visual effect. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have a lot new to say, though he does indeed succeed in painting some pretty pictures.
At this point, there is relatively little difference between the Minds and your average comic book super-hero in terms of intellectual experience. If you want vicarious joy ride alongside kilometer long cocksure cock shaped high tech super-weapons, then this book delivers perhaps as good as Banks has ever delivered and it's just as good for an adrenalin buzz as watching say the Avengers. Given the extraordinary number of penises in this book, the extraordinary number of penis shaped weapons, and the occasional penis shaped weapon used as a penis, I can’t help but suspect that our author was perhaps lamp-shading his own inadvertent or perhaps altogether calculated even from the beginning Freudian metaphors – or at least, I sincerely hope that he is and he’s not instead poisoned himself with his own rampant testosterone filled fantasies of god-like power always used, as of course it is, in the service of ‘right’ or at least right as certain classes of intellectual see it and that indeed, additionally, he was perhaps poking fun of himself by equating greater and greater intelligence with an ever surer moral compass. I really hope so, or sooner or later I’m going to have to start bringing in the inevitable in depth comparison to Jenny Sparks and her gang and brand of ‘justice’. It’s all in good fun but it does at times seem a real waste of a mind – or Minds.
The closest Banks comes to exploring new turf in his now past middle aged writing years is the character of the ever aged QiRia, who is written with a certain rawness about growing old that suggests that either Banks is putting something of himself into the character, or else, doing a passably convincing immitation of same. From his ennui, I’m not sure anyone with the remotest modern, post-modern, or post-post-modern academic education will learn much new. And once again, I note without elaborate comment, the seemingly compulsive need of a certain class of aging writers of science fiction to write of technological Raptures.
I do hope though that he is building to something more interesting. Some bit of deconstruction or self-criticism would do the Culture, books, and maybe author some good. For example, he’s passed far enough down the progression of ‘Humans and Robots as Peers’ to ‘Humans as the Pets of Robots’ to ‘Humans occupying a relation to Robots rather akin to your relationship with those little monstrous looking mites that live in your eyebrows, where, if you think about them at all, you think, well, as long as they aren’t harming me then I might as well feel a little sense of possession toward them as fellow travellers and indirect though it may be sharers in my life experience’, that I for one would like to see if that’s deliberate and if he’s really comfortable with this progression. It’s at least something worth thinking about, I would think.
Anyway, if you are familiar with Banks, all the tropes are on grand display. High magic turned technology, god-like Minds with charming names scoffing at mere matter, religion as farce, science as True Religion, and a massive galactic canvas used as a background for commentary about the banal ways people hurt each other again and again; also, with bittersweet coda. He’s done it all better before, but at least here it doesn’t drift into boredom as he’s done several times in the past. (less)
There was a time when Neil Stephenson was fresh and innovative, and this book is just so... not.
So many other writer's have already explored this spac...moreThere was a time when Neil Stephenson was fresh and innovative, and this book is just so... not.
So many other writer's have already explored this space that it already feels over done and tired.
And that's not even to get into how ridiculous I, as a guy who plays MMORPGs, feel the underlying assumptions behind the 'conflict in an MMORPG provokes conflict in the real world' trope happen to be, or to get into how ridiculous I, as a guy who designs RPGs, feel the exploration of game design concepts in this book are.
Dude, it just wouldn't work. Not even remotely. It's not even thoughtful exploration. The stuff in cyberspace adds no value to the real world beyond its value to the players in cyberspace, and there just isn't infinite demand for that stuff in cyberspace nor does it hold any real value beyond its utility as a game piece.(less)
**spoiler alert** A couple of gamer geeks made good.
About 30 pages into this story, I turned to my wife and said, "This guy has done all the same rese...more**spoiler alert** A couple of gamer geeks made good.
About 30 pages into this story, I turned to my wife and said, "This guy has done all the same research I've done." As it turned out, this only makes sense - we are both game masters.
It's hard for me to review this book. I can't separate my thoughts about the book from my biases the way I feel that I am usually able to. I don't know if the book was really a triumph or merely a mediocre space opera that I like more than I should because I'm sympathetic to the setting, authors, and failings of the story. There are so many things to like that I want to overlook the somewhat serious flaws. So, lets start by getting the serious flaws admitted and then I'll talk about my biases and what this book really does right.
One of the most serious flaws in most recent sci-fi is the problem of childishness. By that I don't mean that the writers are childish, or that the genera is childish, but the genera has begun to reflect the trend toward irresponcibility of the larger society. In sci-fi this turns up as the trope that sometime in the near future, whenever it would be hard to solve the difficult problems of space travel, humanity helpfully encounters some alien artifact or species that gives Earth the technological jump start it needs to overcome the more intractable problems. Where once sci-fi celebrated a can do attitude and engineers with thews of steel, we now have space travelers as intellectual and moral coach potatoes waiting around for their parent to do all the hard work for them. It's annoying when it shows up, and though it's a minor element of this book, it still manages to invade this story as well.
Another problem with this book is the basic plot structure can be described as: "An alien species which parasitically infests its hosts is encountered which is extremely lethal to earth life, so much so that it threatens to destroy humanity if unleashed. An attractive female is infected early on, and ultimately it turns out that the real bad guys are a degenerate corporation that wants to weaponize the alien species." If that doesn't sound familiar to you, it should. So, while there is a lot of good research in the story and a lot of creativity on display, ultimately, there isn't nearly as much originality as there should be. It's standard trope bad guys and trope threats and all the twists are rote and predictable.
Lastly, the plot of the story suffers from several glaring gamerism which will probably be jarring to anyone who isn't a gamer, and which breaks suspension of disbelief from time to time for any one who is. One of the most obvious ones is that the protagonists enjoy PC level plot protection that manifests in their ability to cut a deal with any smart NPC because the smart NPC ultimately recognizes the PC's hero status as the only characters capable of saving the world. If you didn't understand that, what it means is that the protagonists though apparantly lowly and unimportant nonetheless are able to on the basis of no real evidence whatsoever convince really important individuals in the setting to trust them implicitly, to hear them out, and to agree to their seemingly fool hardy plans.
My biases in this of course are that as a gamer, I'm fairly willing to forgive gamer tropes. Sure, there are plot holes in the story, but compared to many authors, a writer with a gamer background is going to pay a lot of attention to certain sorts of plot holes and work harder to fill them. The setting is tight, internally consistant, and well thought out. The heroes are cunning and resourceful and the plot doesn't depend on the heroes doing stupid things, and there aren't obvious alternate strategies that the reader wonders why they don't employ. While you can occasionaly see twists coming that the characters in the story are oblivious to, you don't want to throw the book across the room because the characters haven't seen the problem yet because you can sympathize with how the characters are being emotionally manipulated.
There is so much though that the novel gets right. It's smart and often witty with several bits of dialogue that could show up in a Hollywood Summer blockbuster. The characterization is great, and the two principle protagonists are some of the more sympathetic and well realized in all of science fiction. The setting is Earth's glorious solar system, and the technology is believably a few centuries removed from our own in all areas but artificial intelligence (the absence of which is not really explained). The space combat is almost spot on best guess for the available technology level, and the military strategy, economics and physics are well thought out and explained. This is one of the best 'hard' (or at least semi-hard) space operas you'll encounter.
The story telling is artful. One of the things a good author will do when they know that they have a weak twist is layer the more obvious twists on top of each other so they climatic twist is hidden by the others. This strategy counts on your most sluethful readers to guess the first couple of twists within the first few pages, and then - cocky and sure of themselves - to underestimate the author and to not keep looking. Sure enough, they caught me perfectly in this trap (one I've fell to before, so I should have been looking for it). I was well on top of the twists, but they managed to successfully conceal the last twist not through having a really original twists, but by having enough twists along the way that you aren't looking for the last one until the same time it dawns on the protagonist. I love being outsmarted like that. Thanks guys. You made my day.
It's also probably the best collaborative novel I've read. Normally collaboration on a novel is a disaster, but here it works perfectly and seamlessly. I attribute this to gamer backgrounds of both authors, as they are clearly used to sharing a story with another author and make the most of their collaboration.(less)
I have mixed feelings about this book. Paolo Bacigalupi has a lot of talent but ultimately he doesn't say anything with it. He's clearly trying hard t...moreI have mixed feelings about this book. Paolo Bacigalupi has a lot of talent but ultimately he doesn't say anything with it. He's clearly trying hard to make hip socially relevant commentary; but really, he should probably be trying harder to give his readers a reason to care about his story.
The setting of The Windup Girl is hiply, and predictably, dark and post apocalyptic. In this case, the cries of every liberal Cassandra over the last twenty or so years have gone unheeded and all come to pass. The Earth is in the grips of global warming, the seas have risen and flooded the Earth, religious fanatics have taken over governments and forged brutal theocracies, most of the worlds species have gone extinct, capitalist greed has caused mass starvation, and biological plagues ravage the earth as unscurpulus transnational corporations unleash genetic terrors solely to ensure markets for their sterile transgeneic foods. Oh, and all of this massive unparalleled upheaval has managed to restore the world to the basic social order of 19th century colonialism. It's back to the future, and the future is angry... but not so angry or so futuristic that white folks aren't basically in charge and enjoying their priviledged station while sterotypical asians act like characters out of a 1930's movie. It's enough to make me take a second look at Edward Said.
Ok, may be that would be going to far.
Paolo tells his story - hiply - through the eyes of five main characters passing around his point of view to follow the action. He begins with the figure of Anderson Lake, the dashing executive and corporate spy, and duly protagonizes him with a first chapter action sequence that establishes Anderson's martial prowess. But Anderson can't be Paolo's protagonist because Anderson is a white American from a transnational agriculture company, and so, despite the sympathetic portrayal must ulimately be the bad guy. Or at least one of the many bad guys.
Ultimately, he ends up with a story that has no protagonist and truly no character who we can really empathize with. Not even the titular Windup Girl manages to rise above the level of titilating sexual object either at the level of how she serves in the story or in the meta level of her purpose within the story. However much we may want to see her humanity, she ultimately keeps coming off as a thing, continually pushed around by the whims of one patron after the other achieving independence only in the brief interludes after periods of bestial violence before some other patron comes along and uses her to their generally perverse ends.
I mean, I suppose at some level his characters are believable, it's just they never seemed believable to be anything but characters. You can't invest in them emotionally. I had a hard time seeing myself in any of them. They had all the traits like complexity, flaws, charisma and so forth that go into making a great character, it's just that none of them ever struck me as being someone you'd meet anywhere but in a book. And since I didn't particularly care what happened to them, that's where they stayed in my imagination - people in a book. And naturally, terrible things happen to them. I mean, this is a work of modern fiction, so what do you expect?
While I'm on the subject of hip, apparantly its become the hip thing to have a character conduct a dialogue with a dead character. This is the second book running that featured that trope, and it worked far far better in the previous book because you could see the character's sanity unravelling. Here it struck me that Scrubs had done a lot better job with the trope, and it showed up here as little more than a paint by numbers way to segue into using a hitherto minor character as a viewpoint character. I still didn't much care.
As you can tell from the stars and my normal stinginess with stars, it's not as bad as I'm making it sound. Attempts to be socially revelevant aside, the settings is richly drawn and filled with interest especially if you don't pay too much attention to the science of things like spring loaded machine guns when perfectly servicable chemical explosives are readily at hand. Each character has something of human feeling in them, some reason to see them as more than just sneering villains, and though they tale never really swept me along like a good page turner ought, it never really got unpleasantly dull either. And invoking Sylvester Graham in a somewhat sympathetic way as a middle ground between the West's current two great relgions (Christianity and Environmentalism) was I admit an interesting touch. Most of my angst in this review comes I think from the fact that this book is such a waste of good talent. Anyone that could write this book is capable of so much more than an angsty Luddite ennui filled whine. Seriously, if you are listening Paolo, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt that you weren't just pandering to the opinions of others and that you really want to change the world. Do you think you are going to effect positive change in the world with this sort of decadent woe is us crap that ultimately, if romanticizes anything, ends up romanticizing brutal authoritarianism?(less)
But to me at least, Banks flaws are really beginning to start to irritate.
Banks seems completely unwilling to let a...moreWell, it was better than 'Matter'.
But to me at least, Banks flaws are really beginning to start to irritate.
Banks seems completely unwilling to let anything actually challenge his precious 'Culture'. The typical story arc is to develop some sort of nominally galaxy threatening challenge to the Culture, which, near the end of the book, he'll reveal to be pathetically overmatched by the most trivial exercise of Culture might which arrives to aid the protagonist in all of its omnipotent dues ex machina glory right at the end thereby killing the tension he developed so carefully as easily as it kills the mustachioed scenery chomping one dimensional villains.
I mean seriously, Banks would hardly be less transparent if he had Gandalf riding in on the back of some giant eagles. I know what Tolkien is trying to say, but what is Banks trying to say?
Banks stories have become so stagnant and the Culture so impervious to change, that I'm beginning to really sympathize with the in story Sublimed that think the Culture needs to get out of perpetual adolescence and finish growing up. Can't we do at least one story that isn't a zero sum game? I mean these are novels written by one of the greats of modern science fiction, and not episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At least, I think that they are. Is this 'Culture' really an end state past which no thought is possible? Can't anything even shake their apparently untouchable assumptions? The stories are even beginning to undermine themselves. Supposedly the Idrian War left half the ship Minds involved in it suffering from some cybernetic Post-Traumatic stress disorder and that's been hitherto one of the series major themes; but, it doesn't seem to me like the current generation of Culture Minds is going to have that problem given the relish that they now have for killing things. Is that or is that not positive more civilized grown in The Culture's perspective indicative of a maturing civilization? And at what point is Banks going to end up being as unreflective as the writer's of 'The Authority' comic books?
I couldn't tell whether or not Banks was deliberately opening up more and more about the true second class citizen status of humans in the Culture in this book deliberately, or whether the fact that the minds really deep down don't consider humanity to be anything more than beloved, potentially disposable pets (not really persons the way Ships are) had ceased to bother him. And for all the fact that he's getting more explicit in his comparisons to the culture and its enemies to modern political systems or beliefs, he seems for me to be more and more deeply muddling his utopia vs. dystopia comparisons. Is that deliberate, or has he simply ceased to question his own framework?
The more he travels from his initial point of humans and AI's working as legal and moral and even in some cases utilitarian equals to humanity as beloved pet, the more lie it gives to the understanding of the character's in the story to how their world actually works. Take the 'given' in the story that the Culture has no currency. We are told again and again that the Culture has evolved past the need for currency. But if you actually try to examine the text to find out how the seemingly informal currencyless, lawless system actually works you soon realize that it is currencyless and lawless only from the human perspective. Much as the family dog may believe that he lives in a communist utopia of share and share alike when really the dog just simply isn't allowed to use the credit card, the humans in the Culture live in a world with a strictly defined currency - they just aren't allowed to own any of it. Granted, humans don’t exactly use their resources wisely, but is Banks saying that what we really need to do is submit ourselves and our resources wholly to the whims of benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient beings?
As best as I can tell, the actual currency of the culture, by which I mean the tokens by which labor is allocated in case anyone doesn’t know what money actually is, is the esteem held by the Minds. Now, in humans, 'esteem' is an abstract concept that can't be usefully traded on. But it's quite clear from the nature of Minds, that abstract concepts are in fact concrete, definable, quantifiable and can be traded on. The Minds in fact appear to conduct economic business under an entrepreneurial free market. It's either that, or else there is a central planning committee out there that can order other minds to exert their labor to create 2000 of these half-psychotic high-tech macho warships according to a standard design. As best as I can tell, ordering minds around would be like herding cats, and there is certainly no evidence of a central planning committee. What is really going on isn't communism, it's a free market barter economy tokenized by concrete measurements of esteem and favor that can be traded and probably even speculated on. The real economy is no more something humans are allowed to participate in than they are allowed to understand the way the Culture's actual legal system works. Humans participate in the real economy only in the way that a dog that fetches his master’s slippers and doesn’t doodoo on the bed may get a bigger bone in his Christmas stocking.
I’m not sure that it is exactly capitalism except maybe as idealized version with near infinite buyers and sellers possessing near omniscience, but it’s certainly not communism either. I can’t actually tell if Banks realizes that, or if he honestly believes that that all it would take is genetically reengineering humanity, producing cybernetic demigods of near infallible reason, and putting them in possession a nearly infinite supply of energy and materials to actually make communism work. Because, if it is the latter, then I’m not sure whether that constitutes a damning condemnation of communism as an economic system, or the thinnest attempt at justifying continuing to adhere to a failed murderous ideology since Holocaust denial.
Incidentally, the legal system is described as a ‘Court of Public Opinion’ but apparently actually also quantifiable by similar measures of esteem and some sort of common law framework so that judgments and opinions can actually be measured or discarded to produce a final binding result. The closest modern legal system to it would appear to be Shia Islam’s kritarchy system. Which, I find really ironic.
Don’t get me started on Banks exploration of religion.
Anyway, I enjoyed all the deep onion-like layers of the book and the fact that they didn't seem to have a bottom, but just for a while I'd like the narrator voice in the story to be actually as mature and complex as Banks story seems to be. Here’s to hoping that something will actually happen in the Culture in the future and we’ll get a chance to see a conflict that can’t be resolved by remorselessly and effortlessly blowing things up. (less)
I couldn't get more than a couple chapters into this story. It's very slow. Very very slow. And as much as I am a huge fun of Temple Grandin, I can't...moreI couldn't get more than a couple chapters into this story. It's very slow. Very very slow. And as much as I am a huge fun of Temple Grandin, I can't endorse this book as representative of autism in any way shape or form despite her involvement with the project. Unfortunately, the subject matter and the choice of first person narrator don't really play to Moon's strengths as a writer. I would strongly recommend instead for those that want a bit of window into the world of autism actual biographical works about Dr. Grandin herself. Moon is striving to hard to be empathetic with her character and to make the reader empathize, which in turn for me voids the characterization. There is too much telling and not nearly enough showing.(less)
This stands out as one of the dumbest books I have ever tried to read. I cannot at this time recall a book with a dumber premise, or a less sympatheti...moreThis stands out as one of the dumbest books I have ever tried to read. I cannot at this time recall a book with a dumber premise, or a less sympathetic protagonist. Some fantasy or science fiction books have a wierd premise that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, but once that bit of wierdness is accepted they maintain a coherent narrative within the bizarre framework the author created.
This is not a book like that.
The first major premise of this book is that there is this town in which the men have all developed telepathy, so that they are unable to avoid hearing each others thoughts even if they want to. This is a cool premise and its possible that some better author could do a lot with it. But instead, this author does a mindless paint by numbers sci-fi coming of age story which in context makes no sense whatsoever either in its broad scope or its minor details.
Since the X-Files popularized the technique, one of the most commmon Sci-Fi plots involves presenting the reader (or audience) with some baffling mystery while dropping tantalizing clues as to the nature of the mystery a long the way. Ultimately it doesn't matter that the clues are forgotten, or prove incoherent, or contridictory, or that the mystery doesn't even exist, or when revealed that it isn't nearly as interesting as the tantalizing hints seemed to indicate. By the time you start wrapping up the story, you'll already have sold the product to the gullible audience. Fans of 'Lost' might be familiar with the successful use of the technique. Certain fantasy authors of long-winded series appear to be employing the technique to good effect as well, and one famous one managed to die without having to spoil his epic plot by explaining it.
Well, not only am I calling Patrick Ness on this, but of all the authors that have shamelessly cashed in on the technique, this is that lamest abuse of it. For you see, while the main premise of the story is that there is this town were the men can unwillingly hear each others thoughts, the other main premise of the story is that this town is filled with secrets that have somehow been hidden from the protagonist his entire life. Not only is everything he knows to be true a lie, but everyone else in the town apparantly knows that it's all a lie and somehow the protagonist alone isn't in on it. How the young man has managed to be lied to the whole time without him seeing the lie the whole time is not explained, nor really is anything else in the story.
But ultimately, even if there is some really good answer for all the laughable nonsense that happens in this story while its attempting to be 'dark', 'gritty' and 'real', I just don't care, because TODD is got to be the least sympathetic and least believable protagonist that I've ever encountered. He's such a total moron that I kept hoping that the comicly one-dimensional over the top stock chauvanist villains would put him out of his misery. When he's not being a total coward, he's a murderer. I got about to the point where the too perfect heroine love-interest was praising this worthless peice of human garbage for not killing the afore mentioned over the top woman raping child killers who are threatening the entire world, because you know, that would make him just as bad as they were, and I had to stop myself from throwing the peice of trash across the room (because it was a library book).
There isn't a single redeeming feature to this book. If I had to compose an all time worst list, chances are this would make it. I could go on and on about the wierd gender politics of the book, the laughable paint by numbers political correctness of the story, the dumb cliff hangers, the non-twists at the end, the wierd lapses of logic of virtually every character, or any number of other things but I'll spare you an actual detailed review because it would probably kill brain cells to discuss the text further much less read it.(less)
**spoiler alert** If there are no wrong answers, can we really say that something has any meaning?
It is very easy to start an interesting science fict...more**spoiler alert** If there are no wrong answers, can we really say that something has any meaning?
It is very easy to start an interesting science fiction story. Simply begin with a mystery. Don't explain things to the reader and leave them in a state of wonder. In this way, everything will seem interesting, intriguing, and worth exploring. Tap into the reader’s powers of imagination and allow them to make your story interesting in ways you need not imagine, and perhaps cannot create. This is a good plan for starting a science fiction story. Lots of science fiction stories begin in this way. On television, almost all of them do – ‘X-Files’, ‘Lost’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’, ‘The 4400’, ‘The truth is out there.’ ‘They have a plan.’
‘The Giver’ starts in this way. In the first few pages as the setting unfolded, I was struck by the parallels to China after the cultural revolution – the bicycles, the uniform-like clothing, the regulated life, the shame based culture, and ‘the sameness’. I also thought of China, because I immediately grasped that this had to be a culture which was designed to gently crash its population. There were many clues that the world was heavily overpopulated and the primary goal of the culture so described was to crash the population without descending into society destroying anarchy - the highly regulated birthrate, which was insufficient to sustain the population. To sustain the population, more than 17 out of each 25 females would have to be assigned to be birth mothers, and this clearly wasn’t the case. The replacement rate for a society is about 2.3 live births per female (maybe 2.1 in a society that is safe and careful) – clearly they were implied to be below this ratio so clearly this was a society that was trying to shed population.
Equally clearly, this was a society that engaged in widespread euthanasia for the most trivial of causes, which hints at a culture which doesn’t value life because people are in such abundance that they can be readily disposed of. I suspected that ‘Release’ was euthanasia almost immediately from the context in which it was introduced, and this was almost immediately confirmed when it was revealed that infants were subject to ‘release’. Clearly, infants can't be meaningfully banished, so clearly release was euthanasia. So I was intrigued by the story. I wanted to see what happened to Jonas and his naive family who had so poised themselves on the edge of a great family wrecking tragedy in just the first few dozen pages of the story. I wanted to receive from the storyteller answers to the questions that the story was poising, if not some great profound message then at least some story that followed from what she began.
But it was not to be. The first clue that the whole construct was to eventually come crashing down was that Jonas clearly didn’t understand ‘release’ to mean ‘euthanasia’. Nor in fact did anyone seem to know what ‘release’ meant. This shocked me, because in the context of the setting it was virtually impossible that he and everyone else did not know. I could very easily imagine a stable society where human life was not prized – after all, societies that believe that human life is intrinsically valuable are historically far less common than ones that don’t. We know that the society is life affirming, both because we are told how pained and shocked they are by loss and by the fact that Jonas responds to scenes of death with pity and anger. What I could not believe in was a society which held the concept of ‘precision of language’ so tightly and so centrally that the protagonist could not imagine lying could in fact be founded on lies. That’s impossible. No society like that can long endure. Some technological explanation would be required to explain how the society managed to hide the truth from itself. If release took place in some conscious state of mind, then surely the dispensers of Justice, the Nurturers, the Caregivers, and the sanitation workers would all know the lie, and all suspect – as Jonas did – that they were being lied to as well. Surely all of these would suspect what their own future release would actually entail, and surely at least some of them would reject it. Surely some not inconsequential number of new children, reared to value precision of language and to affirm the value of life, would rebel at the audacity of the lie if nothing else. Even in a society that knew nothing of love, even if only the society had as much feeling as the members of the family displayed, and even if people only valued others as much as the Community was shown to value others, surely some level of attachment would exist between people. Soma or not, the seeds of pain, tragedy, conflict and rebellion are present if ever the truth is known to anyone.
Nothing about the story makes any sense. None of it bears any amount of scrutiny at all. The more seriously you consider it, the more stupid and illogical the whole thing becomes. We are given to believe that the society has no conception of warfare, to the point that it cannot recognize a child’s war game for what it is, and yet we are also given to believe that they train pilots in flying what is implied to be a fighter craft and that the community maintains anti-aircraft weapons on a state of high alert such that they could shoot down such a fighter craft on a moments notice. We are given to believe that all wild animals are unknown to the community, yet we are also given to believe that potential pest species like squirrels and birds are not in fact extinct. How do you possibly keep them out of the community if they exist in any numbers elsewhere? We are given to believe that technology exists sufficient to fill in the oceans and control the weather and replace the natural biosphere with something capable of sustaining humanity, but that technological innovation continues in primitive culture. We are given to believe that they are worried about overpopulation and starvation, and yet also that most of the world is empty and uninhabited or that this inherently xenophobic community lives in isolation if in fact it doesn’t span the whole of the Earth. We are given to believe that this is a fully industrial society, yet the community at most has a few thousands of people. Surely thousands of such communities must exist to maintain an aerospace industry, to say nothing of weather controllers. Why is no thought given to the hundreds of other Receivers of Memory which must exist in their own small circles of communities in the larger Community? Surely any plan which ignores the small communities place in the larger is foredoomed to failure? Surely the Receiver of Memory knows what a purge or a pogrom is?
How are we to believe that Jonas’s father, whose compassion for little Gabriel is so great that he risks breaking the rules for his sake, whose compassion for little Gabriel is so great that he risks face by going to the committee to plead for Gabriel’s life, whose compassion for little Gabriel is so great that he discomforts himself and his whole family for a year for the sake of the child, is the same man who so easily abandons that same child at a single setback when he has witnessed the child grow and prosper? Doesn’t it seem far easier to believe that this same man, who is openly scornful of the skills and nurturing ability of the night crew, would more readily blame the night crew for Gabriel’s discomfort? I can only conclude, just as I can only conclude about the illogical fact that no one knows what release is, that everything is plastic within the dictates of the plot. Jonas’s father feels and acts one way when the needs of the plot require it and feels and acts in different ways when the needs of the plot require something else. What I can’t believe is that this is any sort of whole and internally consistent character or setting. Every single thing when held up to the light falls apart. There is not one page which is even as substantial as tissue paper.
It is almost impossible to draw meaning from nonsense, so it is no wonder that people have wondered at the ending. What happens? The great virtue of the story as far as modern educators are probably concerned is that there are no wrong answers. What ever you wish to imagine is true is every bit as good of answer as any other. Perhaps he lives. Perhaps he finds a community which lives in the old ways, knowing choice – and war and conflict (which probably explains why the community needs anti-aircraft defenses). But more likely from the context he dies. Perhaps he is delusional. Perhaps he gets to the bottom and lies down in the deepening snow which the runners can no longer be pushed through and he dies. Perhaps he dies and goes to heaven, maybe even the heaven of the one whose birthday is celebrated by the implied Holiday. Perhaps it is even the case that he was sent to his death by the cynical Giver, who knew his death was necessary to release the memories he contained by to the community. Perhaps he didn’t just die, but was slaughtered as the sacrificial lamb – killed by a murderous lie from the one he trusted too well. For my entry in the meaningless answers contest, I propose that the whole thing was just a dream. This seems the easiest way to explain the contradictions. A dream doesn’t have to make sense. And the biggest clue that it is a dream is of course that Jonas sees the world in black and white, with only the occasional flashes of recognized color around important colorful things as is typical of that sort of black and white dream. Perhaps Jonas will wake up and engage in dream sharing with his family, and they will laugh at the silliness and then go to the ceremony of twelves. Or perhaps the whole community is only a dream, and Jonas will wake up and go downstairs and open his Christmas presents with his family.(less)
One of the problems with alot of science fiction is that it can revel to0 much in didacticism. Some authors that I...moreI read this book a few months back.
One of the problems with alot of science fiction is that it can revel to0 much in didacticism. Some authors that I like are particularly prone to this. For example, half of the dialogue in a Heinlein novel is a thinly disguised lecture. Sometimes, the disguise isn't even that thin, as for example his tendency to set characters in classrooms and let the lecturer lecture. Neil Stephenson is prone to do this in entirely different ways, launching into chapter length descriptions of Touring machines, cryptography, the birth of finance, and so forth.
Mostly, I tolerate this pretty well. The ideas and information is often interesting, and the stories are generally interesting and exciting enough that I don't always mind the digression. Science fiction is after all, above all, about ideas. In the case of Heinlein, one of the attractions is that he's more subtle than you might initially give him credit for if you read only one work. This is after all, the same author that wrote both 'Starship Troopers' and 'Stranger in a Strange Land'. Heinlein seems to have the ability to treat his ideas as toys, and to finish - as in the end of 'Starship Troopers' - with sufficient jingoism that it seems to serve to question his own jingoism. Heinlein and Stephenson don't seem to write angry, they hold novel positions that seem to be their own, create interesting arguments even when I don't agree with them, and it doesn't hurt - I admit - that I often agree with many of their ideas.
McDevitt is nothing like that. He's preachy and he annoys me. He seems like he's writing angrily, scornfully, and his ideas are pretty much the opposite of novel. He's predictable. He isn't inventing some future ideology or exploring ideas; he's writing the politics of the moment into his stories and he isn't even particularly persuasive about it.
It's not that I can't enjoy writers that hold McDevitt's position. I don't imagine that his politics are all that different than Charles Stross, Kim Stanley Robinson, China Meiville, or my current favorite Sci-Fi author Iain M. Banks. It's just when I don't particularly enjoy the work AND don't agree with the ideas, the in your face shallow strawman didactic rants leap out and get annoying.
Omega isn't a bad work. The prose is generally good, and the characters sufficiently interesting that I was able to get through it. I might give it three stars without the preachiness. But even ignoring that, it has problems that make the preachiness hard to ignore. The most glaring of these is that the central mystery of the work surrounding the 'Omega Clouds' seems a little dumb to begin with, holds no surprises for you over the course of the novel, and has no really interesting twist at the end to justify going through the motions. The other problem is that the story tends to drag compared to the number of ideas it presents. About three quarters of the way in, I was just ready for it to be over and only finished because I'd invested so much time and wanted to find out how it ended. Ultimately, it really didn't end in any satisfying way.(less)
After digesting Stephenson's latest 937 page tome, my response basically boils down to "Meh."
Ok, maybe not, "Meh." exactly. Maybe more like, "Hmmm." I...moreAfter digesting Stephenson's latest 937 page tome, my response basically boils down to "Meh."
Ok, maybe not, "Meh." exactly. Maybe more like, "Hmmm." I wish I could say something more elegant about it, but the problem is that there isn't a lot to say about the book as a whole because the book as a whole isn't really that good or that interesting. The book as a whole is difficult to describe, because so much of the book seems like a digression from even itself that instead of a book, it's more like a lot of separate little works on a unifying theme.
That unifying theme is science, and Stephenson has a lot to say about science. And he says it, almost like he was a heretic espousing some radical concept the orthodoxy would be offended by, in code. Not only just in code, but in the form of a fictional dialogue as if he needs his own voice and opinions to be deniable. Of course, here the problem isn't so much deniability, because I'm not sure Stephenson ultimately says much of anything fresh or radical or likely to get him in trouble with the orthodoxy, as it is convincing people to read his opinions in the first place. You probably couldn't get a lot of people to read a frequently dry 937 page text on the material Stephenson is covering, but you might could if you dressed it up in the form of a science fiction story about an alternate world where the schism between science and religion occurred at the dawn of Western Civilization and both retreated to cloisters to observe their respective discipline.
More than anything, 'Anathem' reminded me of 'The Young Ladies Illustrated Primer' from 'The Diamond Age' (particularly the part where in the narrative where it illustrates fundamental concepts of computer science) only without the illustrations or the interactivity. Far more than it is a science fiction novel, the text is a primer seemingly aimed at young people most of the time, introducing concepts from philosophy, math, and science in what can only be described as a somewhat entertaining and slightly subversive way.
The most salient feature of the text to me turned out not to be the much discussed alternative language, but the fact that Stephenson had choose to tell the story in the first person - which seemed to me to be a bit of a departure - and employed what struck me as a highly unreliable narrator. Erasmus, our protagonist, is a highly naive, incredibly sheltered, idealistic, impressionable, nineteen year old to which the appellation 'man' would seem to be dubiously applied. He's essentially a physics monk, and yet he serves as our sole window the world of Stephenson's creation which colors the events with all of Erasmus's biases and naivety. I often wondered what things looked like through the eyes of his sib, or his mentor, or any number of other characters.
The second most salient feature of the text is the frequent employment of invented technical jargon - SF bullshyte, if you will - as it is employed by the residents of the world of Arbre, and in particular, the cloistered Mathic world of Arbre. This was disappointing to me, because I went based on reports I'd heard expecting a full blown invented language on par with say the street slang of Burroughs 'Clock Work Orange' or even the elvish languages of Tolkien. Instead, what I got was a really thin 'code', full of in jokes and sly references some of which I got immediately and most of which I didn't feel compelled to track down if I didn't. In most cases, they are just bullshyte (another of his jargon words, if you are wondering) relabeling of famous real world scientists and philosophers or their theorems or philosophical schools. (For example, Thelenes for Socrates; 'Thelenes' = 'The Hellenes' = 'The Greek'.) This might be fun reading if you are in to cracking the code, but I had enough of the gist of it that there seemed to be no need. Besides, Stephenson absolutely spoon feeds the reader with definitions, both in chapter headings and within the text, to the point that not only is it full of annoying exposition, but much of the fun of deciphering the text is immediately lost. Thus, the author ends up gaining very little except where it relates to his twist, such as it is (and which you can see coming three or four hundred pages away). It seems to me that if you are going to pull this sort of thing, you shouldn't talk down to the reader but trust them to understand you. But the whole book seemed a lost opportunity for depth and creativity to me, so that was par for the course.
There is little more to say about the book as a whole except that it is generally anticlimactic at every point along the way. None of the little story arcs have particularly worthwhile payoffs, and whenever you think that the story is about to become interesting it collapses again and simply pitters out.
I probably making this sound worse that it is. Bits and pieces are in isolation really interesting, and I made it through the book easily enough. But Stephenson has raised the bar for himself pretty high in my estimation, and this is I think far from his best work.
Anyway, some other random observations:
Provener: It's a beautiful building, but considering how much time the author lavishes on the details of its layout and construction, you'd think it would play a more central role in the story.
Apert: Just once I'd like some legends introduced into a story that don't turn out to be factual and central to the plot. Of all the story digressions, I'm not sure that there is one that is more frustrating than throwing Erasmus in a cell while the story advances around and without him.
Anathem: The first great crisis, which leads to Erasmus's next two quests - neither of which turn out to be all that important or interesting or even necessary except perhaps to Erasmus's peace of mind.
Voco: Pause for scientific investigation.
Peregrin: After 300 pages of exposition, the story commences in haste, if by 'haste' you mean meanders about for another 600 pages. Still, some of the best lines of the story occurs here, if you'll pardon the minor spoilers:
"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor." "Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and peice of string." "That would be great."
I try to avoid spoilers, but for the record, the above lines and the conjectures that they contain turn out to be not strictly true, and even more importantly I think, and ironicly, the point of writing lines like that is somewhat undermined by later events anyway.
Feral: Something must be wrong. We are having an actual adventure here.
Orithena: Don't expect any satisfying answers here.
Inbrase: Pause for scientific debate. This, ultimately, ends up leading to: more debate.
Messal: You know that you've arrived as a successful and respected author, when just as you are reaching the climax of your sci-fi adventure, you can get away with dropping an 80 page conversation into the text and still get your novel published.
Advent: Stephenson finally returns to form. Some more trade mark Stephenson adventure... with a trade mark Stephenson let down when we reach the expected climax. Also, does anyone else find it odd how often in their stories supposed ‘hard’ science fiction authors resort to magic and techno-religions (that is to say, gods, demigods, eternity and/or heaven as brought to reality by mastery of Gnostic sciences)? Talk about putting your Faith in reason.
Reconstitution: How sweet.
Calca: Did anyone else get the impression that these were originally part of the text, and that Stephenson had been forced to put them in the appendix solely because his editor finally showed some backbone and called him on it?
I suppose I should actually discuss some of the issues Stephenson raised, but I can’t manufacture enough excitement to hold a separate Suvinian Dialog (which given a pedagogue like me, ought to tell you something), so if anyone wants my take on a particular idea, they’ll have to do some prompting. (less)