This was a confusing book for me in a number of ways. I really loved the premise (genetically engineered parasites revolutionize medicine in the nearThis was a confusing book for me in a number of ways. I really loved the premise (genetically engineered parasites revolutionize medicine in the near future) and the characters were all well-drawn (I liked that people you expect to be difficult or shady based on every other conspiracy/horror/thriller novel end up being nice, normal people and the ones you expect to be background characters end up being unexpectedly nefarious) so I had no problem reading it and staying engaged.
On the other hand, it had a very peculiar pace and a weird structure based off a central "twist" reveal.
Put it this way: sometimes a reader picks up on the clues a writer is leaving and guesses the end way earlier than they should. That's what happened to me in this book. I guessed what the "twist" was a few chapters in. I knew for sure by the quarter mark in the book. That the rest of it—the whole of the plot, really—hinges on this reveal, meant that I spent a ton of the book frustrated with Sal, the main character, for not knowing what was so patently obvious to me.
And to clarify how central this revelation is supposed to be, it's literally on the last page of the novel. There is no proper ending to this book (it's a series), so the whole thing is a slow build to something I guessed right at the very beginning. And okay, fine, sometimes you get lucky with your speculation as a reader. It's not necessarily a flaw in the novel. Plenty of stories are just as enjoyable when you know the ending as they are when it blindsides you. But in the case of Parasite, I don't think it worked without the mystery. There were too many scenes of people standing around and talking about variations on the same science/research, too many action sequences that weren't tense enough, too much of Sal gingerly dancing around the central premise for the benefit of the reader but at the expense of her well-being.
What I think happened in this case is that for me to really enjoy Parasite the way I could have, it would have needed to be a short story. Condensed down to 8,000 words I think this could have been a devastating commentary on medicine, scientific hubris, the essence of humanity and the role we as humans will play in our eventual extinction. Instead it meanders and feels stretched to meet a specific format. It's not that there isn't a novel's worth of material inherent in the concept, just that the strong short story in this novel should have been the start to the novel in this series.
I suppose the main question at this point is whether I'll continue on with Parasitology. And I think the answer is no. I like Mira Grant's writing and there is enough in here to enjoy for me to check out Feed, perhaps, or some of the other work by this author, but while there is some intriguing ideas in this book and series, it's not enough to keep me coming back....more
What I'm enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it's very best, exploring what it meWhat I'm enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it's very best, exploring what it means to be human through the lens of wild speculation. It's post-apocalyptic and full of invading space aliens but it's not grim, fatalistic or even swashbuckling. It's about relationships, about potential, about sex and gender and adaptation and growing up. It's about change. Change happens all the time, Butler points out, but can we—as humans—ever really embrace it?
Compared to Dawn, I kind of missed the presence of Lillith, who is relegated in this volume to a supporting role. Instead we mostly follow her son, Akin, the first male construct (hybrid oankali/human—basically the new generation of oankali) and the first to look almost completely human, at least in his larval stage. Lillith and the other human survivors introduced in the last part of Dawn have been transplanted to a repaired Earth and though some humans are working and breeding with the oankali, others have splintered off into human-only villages. They are bitter at being sterilized, at being at the mercy of the aliens, and early on Akin is kidnapped by a group of them. Fortunately, Akin is a wonderful character in his own right, and is absolutely the right person to see this chapter in the broader story through.
He spends enough time among the humans to develop a fascination with them, which informs the bulk of the book's conflict. Oankali direct their evolution by "trading" genes with species they encounter. The constructs like Akin will be a merging of the two species but will call themselves oankali. Older branches of the oankali are allowed to continue as part of the alien society, but what of the humans? They are a dead end species and Akin must decide if he should fight to grant them similar protections as outdated oankali branches.
The brilliance of Butler's work is that despite there not being a ton in the way of action or obvious tension, there is a gripping quality to the story. Much of the driving action is a series of small calamities and momentary dangers. But the underlying concerns are as big as they come, full of the sorts of thought exercises the very best SF can ignite. I loved thinking about this book. Did I sympathize with the Resisters? Would I be the sort of person to see the larger vision of the oankali? What would Akin's solution near the end of the book mean to the people who were almost convinced but couldn't get over the hurdle of being forced into breeding themselves out of existence? What did it say about humanity that the people originally selected to be re-awoken by the oankali in Dawn were potentially amenable to re-integration and so many of them chose to be Resisters?
As with Dawn, the set-up is deliberate but fascinating. The ending where things happen is a bit rushed and a lot of the relationships don't develop in a comfortable way, which is to say it unfolds in an unpredictable manner and not all readers are really going to cheer for how it shakes out. Unlike Dawn, which felt like it had room to continue but was complete in itself, Adulthood Rites has a much less self-contained feeling. It's book two of a trilogy, though, so I can forgive it that. Put another way, there's no scenario in which I won't read book three. I'm all in with the series at this point....more
I get the impression a lot of people struggle to get into this book because the first in the series, Oryx and Crake, had a cliffhanger-style ending anI get the impression a lot of people struggle to get into this book because the first in the series, Oryx and Crake, had a cliffhanger-style ending and The Year of the Flood doesn't pick up right where O&C left off. In fact, the characters from the first book aren't even mentioned for a good half of this sequel.
But in some ways this makes The Year of the Flood even more entrancing. Much of the world building done in Oryx takes place in the sort of mad free-association of narrator Snowman's mind. Much of the events that actually drive the dystopia and apocalypse featured in that book happen outside Snowman's direct or even peripheral vision.
Which makes Flood—at first—sort of a companion novel, showing the world Oryx introduced from other, parallel, perspectives. It reveals angles that might have seemed unimportant from Snowman's point of view. It illuminates secondary characters from Oryx in unexpected ways, highlights a lot of the motivations that, as far as Snowman was ever concerned, were unknowable or inscrutable.
All of which means if the world of Oryx and Crake was interesting, then The Year of the Flood makes it even more so.
Of course, eventually the two tales do start to dovetail. And when they do, it's much more rewarding than if Ms Atwood had just picked up Snowman's story from the ending of the first book. The little overlaps, slow at first and then more frequently toward the end, are thrilling.
The bigger question, perhaps—since it's more of a side story in the same world than a traditional sequel for most of the book—is whether it stands alone as a good story. The answer for me was that it nearly is. The rotating point of view characters, Toby and Ren are sharply drawn. The twin points of view are played to terrific effect as they circle around, bounce off each other, divide and reflect. Atwood does an amazing job at showing the clash between external perceptions and internal life by letting Ren and Toby perceive each other and give their own takes on themselves and the events happening around them.
The secondary characters are mostly great as well: Zeb, Amanda, Pilar, Lucerne, all have detailed motivations and interactions with the principal protagonists and they are fascinating in their own rights.
From a plot perspective, the book is a bit scattered. Its role as a companion to Oryx and Crake means readers not picking up the story here will already know the basics about what is happening or what is about to occur. A lot of it mirrors Snowman's story except the direct conflict points (most of which, when not environmental, are a bit tough to swallow as they almost all come down to the same individual from early in the book until late). Still, the familiarity doesn't necessarily undo what this book is trying to do. Only at a certain point very late in the book it becomes apparent this story's purpose is to provide the proper context for what happens next (in MaddAddam, I presume, since this book ends in yet another cliffhanger). And to a certain extent that's both a phenomenal way to handle a middle entry in a trilogy and simultaneously a frustrating sheen to cast over a book. There are some interesting things happening structurally when you put Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood side-by-side, when you consider what might have been if they had been combined into the same book, when you think about what the effect is on the reader to experience O&C and then dive into Flood.
But, as a story, it left me a little tiny bit frustrated. I think,a large part of this stems from the unease I have in thinking that MaddAddam can't possibly deliver on the promises these twin volumes make. There are a lot of contrivances and suspensions of disbelief that have to be made so far in the series, but they can be made at this point because there's no sense of what's coming next. It's not fair to hold a trilogy accountable for what it's concluding entry may or may not be able to pull off, but when the earlier entries don't have real endings of their own, it's all a reader has to go with.
I never modify reviews based on audiobook performance, but it's worth noting that I listened to this book on audio and the readers all did an excellent job. The music that accompanies each of Adam One's sermons are performed rather than read as poetic lyrics. The quality of them varies from song to song but I never found myself wanting to skip over any. In general I don't think the Adam One segments work as well as they maybe were intended to, but they do provide some useful hints about some minor characters, especially toward the end of the book.
Overall, I'm really impressed with this series. Atwood is a gifted writer and storyteller and I appreciate her character development, her dry humor, and her confident world-building. I'm definitely on board for MaddAddam and would recommend this series to anyone who likes some smart, soothsaying dystopian science fiction....more
Emily St. John Mandel's novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it's really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when lEmily St. John Mandel's novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it's really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when life is stripped down to—essentially—bare survival. In that way, Station Eleven ends up being far more hopeful and beautiful than most novels that take place after or during civilization-ending catastrophes.
There are lots of overlapping elements in play, and it's impressive to see it take shape. This is sort of the novel I read and realize it was something I wanted but never would have been able to describe or guess was an unscratched itch. It helps that Mandel realizes this ground has been trod before and doesn't necessarily shy away from the obvious comparisons (The Road, The Stand, Hunger Games, etc) and therefore isn't defined by trying to either mimic or distance from those stories.
I did think the book was a bit slow to get started; the cast is connected by a series of loose coincidences and the book follows a non-linear path so at first it's hard to reconcile the on-stage death of an actor, the photographer who gets wind of a breaking pandemic, the girl onstage during the heart attack who grows up into a traveling Shakespearean performer after the collapse of society, the actor's second ex-wife some who works endlessly on a personal graphic novel project some years before his death—and so on—with, well, much of anything. But as the characters are filled in and revealed, as the things both big and small that unite them and link them to each other become clear, the pacing starts to make sense. By the halfway point I was all the way into the world of the book, and scarcely put it down from that point until I had finished.
There is nothing, I don't think, about the progression of the book's plot that is particularly remarkable. If tracked chronologically, the chapters would tell snippets of stories from various viewpoints about life before, during, and after the end of the world as we know it. The way the book is structured though allows its themes to play off of each other, and allows for Mandel to specifically leave some elements here unresolved in a way that is actually—almost paradoxically—satisfying.
It's a smart, thoughtful, curiously delightful book that has just the right elements of darkness and triumph and beauty and ugliness. Really wonderful work, and highly recommended....more
I mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that myI mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that my personal literary canon over the past couple of years has been rather lily white. The thing about that kind of sampling is that the cultural underpinnings that inform North American/European white authors gets reflected in their settings and characters as a default. For example, most fantasy novels authored by white writers are set in some riff on medieval Europe, presumably because that's where the fairy tales and other genre standards originated, but also I think because that period gets a lot of attention in white-majority primary schools.
So when you read a novel like Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, the cultural sameness of a lot of white-authored books becomes very plain. This is a book set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, magical realism Africa. Even though it's probably not all that divergent from modern Africa (in the sense, for example, that The Road is not that divergent from modern America), just that fact alone makes it feel like this very remote, fascinating place to someone, like me, with limited literary horizons. Ms Okorafor crafts this world with a tender but unflinching hand. The world building is deft, typifying the novel as a whole being, by turns, lush and raw and gorgeous and devastating and ugly and remarkable.
This is not an easy book. There are no light, fluffy sections, no gentle fades to black when the ghastly truths of the setting come about. It follows the tale of Onyesonwu, a child born from the rape of her mother. Her mother's attackers are Nuru; she is Okeke; the results of such violent couplings are distinctive, lighter of skin, freckled, and many superstitions surround those like her. But Onyesonwu is a survivor. She has strange abilities and she longs to find a sense of purpose for those talents such as shapeshifting and healing powers, as much as she longs to find a place in the world that does not accept her.
The fact that Onyesonwu is an outcast both from her parentage and her abilities, the violent assault on her mother, the local coming-of-age custom that involves female circumcision, the oppressive brutality of the setting and the antagonist, even the darkness inside Onyesonwu herself, these things make for grim reading. But what really worked about Who Fears Death is that Ms Okorafor never quite lets it feel bleak. Onyesonwu is fiery, sharp, stubborn. She is rarely self-pitying or whiny, despite having to deal with a great deal of angst. The supporting cast are wonderful foils for the protagonist, the pacing of the action is perfectly pitched to give Onyesonwu and the Okeke the right amount of triumphs amid the setbacks and tragedies to make the ending a genuine question. In most fantasy or hero's quest tales the victoriousness of the ending is basically pre-ordained. But because the world in Who Fears Death is so grim and unsentimental, there is a genuine tension regarding the outcome.
There are so many little details about this book that made it gripping for me to read. The relationships, the fascinating blend of science fiction and fantasy, the characterizations, the breadth of the plot without having to resort to being "epic" (in the pejorative sense), the raw humanity on display at all times; it was all just so tightly woven. The book exhausted me somewhat, emotionally. I don't know that I finished it thinking, "I'd love a sequel to this." But I did finish it wanting to know more about the world Ms Okorafor had created, even if it meant having to make the harrowing trip back....more
The brilliance of Paolo Bacigalupi's book is that he has conveyed the thought exercise of the best speculative fiction: what if…? The what if in thisThe brilliance of Paolo Bacigalupi's book is that he has conveyed the thought exercise of the best speculative fiction: what if…? The what if in this case is what if rapidly mutating viruses, perhaps borne from or merely spurred by genetic tampering, clashed violently with the reckoning we all expect to come from our current state of environmental recklessness? What does a future look like when the piper comes for his payment on all the mistakes we're making right now?
Bacigalupi's answer is something akin to springpunk: a calorie-obsessed world where food and work and health and balance are all as much at the forefront of people's minds as wealth and fame and power and desire. This is an incredibly, richly layered vision of a future Thailand (and Earth, for that matter). The corporate power, the political dynamics, the sense of history and religion and desperation from all factions are tightly woven, scattered with clever and wondrous details that call into question very foundational aspects of modern life such as global transportation and commerce, anglocentrism, innovation, agriculture, even the historical context of our current obsessions and prejudices. The result is that Bacigalupi's Thailand feels like a real, living place. Maybe the last fictional place I read about that felt this genuine was in Frank Herbert's Dune, sometimes cited as the most complete example of world-building in speculative fiction. I mean this as high praise.
The problem, then, is that The Wind-Up Girl suffers exactly where Dune suffered: creating a character—any character—as complete and compelling as the setting itself. Bacigalupi does his level best, but while Bangkok is moving and changing beneath the machinations and unintended consequences of its denizens both powerful and not, the characters struggle to do more than provide some entropy along their established lines. Other than the titular Emiko, I struggled to identify much progression in the other characters with perspective chapters. Perhaps Kanya, but even she seems more driven by external forces than by real shifts within herself.
Still, this is a wonderfully complete work of speculative fiction. It's troubling, often bleak, but full of thought, full of a sort of desperate life, and never predictable. The pace switches from languid to breakneck around the midpoint, and while it's intellectually fascinating before the avalanche starts, it develops into a full-fleged page-turner.
Despite my reservations about the characterizations, I'd be inclined to give this book full marks if not for a couple of nitpicky details that (strangely unlike the character complaints) I can't overlook. The first is that the prose features more repeated words and phrases in close proximity than any other I can remember reading. It's far from infrequent and it just got so distracting after awhile I started to resent the editor of the book for not pushing harder against this kind of thing.
The other is the treatment of Emiko's sexual abuse. This is sort of a tough call because the handling of this facet of the book—and it is very specifically important to the story—is incredibly subjective. But I've started to notice a certain type of depiction of sexual violence that is eroticized, presented in terms or context that is not merely aggressive and raw but seems to filter through a lens where only a minor modification might make it exciting. It creates this sour flavor to scenes and I'm just tired of them. There are two specific moments of abuse against Emiko depicted in this book. The first is the worst example of this, as it largely introduces the audience to the character and it's hard to tell what the act means to Emiko until later. The second is arguably a more wrenching, harrowing sequence, but the justification for its inclusion is clearer (even if not exactly necessary), but it still carries this unpleasant duality and I would have liked the better if the whole facet were handled with a little more tact.
But it's hard for me to really deny the book its effectiveness based on a couple of nitpicks. This is a very, very good book and one I won't stop thinking about for a long time....more
After I finished The Handmaid's Tale, I was impressed with Margaret Atwood's writing. Having now finished Oryx And Crake, I'm falling in love with herAfter I finished The Handmaid's Tale, I was impressed with Margaret Atwood's writing. Having now finished Oryx And Crake, I'm falling in love with her storytelling.
To a certain extent, this is a parallel to The Handmaid's Tale, wrapped in a similar framework of intersecting flashbacks all building toward the action set in the post of a post-apocalyptic (or post-dystopic in the case of Handmaid) world. Where Handmaid fretted about gender roles, Oryx fusses about environmental concerns and genetic/pharmaceutical research gone awry, but they're really two means to the same end. They show a world not too distant from our own right before everything falls apart and then they show the aftermath. The effect in each case is deeply affecting and grim.
Where Oryx And Crake is, I think, a better book, is that the story is more compelling. The central mystery of how the pieces presented in the flashbacks come to result in the Robinson Crusoe-like existence depicted in the novel's opening chapter is deepened by the conflicts that twist around each other like DNA backbone. The central characters of Snowman, Crake, and Oryx are all rich and fascinating. The way the whole thing converges into such a magnificent climax where all the pieces—past, present past, present future, and future—collide is like a master class on How It's Done. It doesn't feel forced that these three are pivotal to everything, it feels right.
Granted, as with Handmaid, the ending is abrupt to the point of absurdity. Unlike the earlier novel, Oryx has a couple of sequels so hopefully at some point there is a real resolution. But it's not a complaint, it's more like a promise....more
Richard Matheson's dark and chilling account of a vampire apocalypse chronicles protagonist Robert Neville's solitary quest for survival and understanRichard Matheson's dark and chilling account of a vampire apocalypse chronicles protagonist Robert Neville's solitary quest for survival and understanding. This is a strange, lonely book full of pathos and gritty exposition. Neville is neither hero nor anti-hero, inhabiting a kind of character space that inspires a certain degree of sympathy but managing to hold readers at a distance for not being the kind of plucky survivor one might find in other post-apocalypse settings. He works occasionally to understand the cause of the vampirism that took everything from him but life, he drinks a lot, tries to bury his past, struggles with his physical urges, spends a lot of time getting angry at his situation, at himself, at the vampires in general. Somewhere in there emerges a sense of realism; in under 200 pages Matheson manages to chronicle the malestrom of internal conflict that would likely typify the lot of the last man on Earth.
And this is a deeply troubling story. The famous black-as-night ending is horrifying in its implications and tragic language; the triumphs that either permit Neville to continue surviving (or at least fail to give him sufficient reason to give up) are wafer-thin while the ongoing devastations he endures begin to feel oppressive by the two-thirds mark. This is a horror story not because it is frightening in the sense one might expect from a story about vampires, but because it is ruthless in its willingness to break Neville's (and the reader's) heart with unflinching matter-of-factness. It sounds weird to say so, but I kind of loved Matheson for that.
It surprised me that the story didn't feel more dated than it did; this is a book that considers the mid-to-late 1970s as the future so it could have felt like a relic. It was anything but. There are a few references that might be lost on younger audiences and at least one casual use of a term long considered to be a racist relic, but by and large this is an impressively timeless work. I haven't read Matheson before this but based on the strength of this book, I will definitely be reading more....more
As far as superheroes go, Thor has never really even caught a whiff of my favorites list. Even in the recent slate of largely successful Marvel movieAs far as superheroes go, Thor has never really even caught a whiff of my favorites list. Even in the recent slate of largely successful Marvel movie adaptations, I thought Thor was among the weakest of the bunch. But I kept hearing about Thor: God Of Thunder and how good it was. And by "kept hearing" I mean incessant and repeated praise-singing.
So, lest if be said that I was mired in my preconceptions, I broke down and picked up the first five issue collection from the newish Marvel Now! line. I'm really glad I did. Up front, it needs to be said that Esad Ribic's art is really wonderful in this book. Even the little choices like not digitally inking all the blacks (you can see the color-in sectioning which gives heavy shadows a particular textured look) and the subtle design differences, especially between the three incarnations of the title character, are wonderful.
And then there's Jason Aaron's story. The idea of a serial killer who targets gods is creepy and gives Aaron a lot of room to have some sadistic fun with what is usually a sort of one-note character. Thor isn't Batman, so he's not really into the whole detective thing, but Aaron does a good job of not making this feel like Thor is shoehorned into someone else's story. The overall arc is appropriately cosmic, the antagonist (Gorr) is terrific, the sweep of drama is exhilarating.
I can probably find a few small quibbles such as the fact that this is printed as a full arc but it doesn't have much in the way of a satisfying conclusion. It also includes a bunch of fights with Gorr's minions that are kind of unnecessary (though I understand that mainstream comics often feel like they have to meet some "action quota"). Still, this trade ranks up there with Saga, Volume 1 for collections that inspire me to transition to the monthly book because there's no way I'm going to be able to wait to find out what happens....more
I suppose the trouble with a super hero who relies on just-past-cutting-edge technology is that the writers must constantly take stock of the characteI suppose the trouble with a super hero who relies on just-past-cutting-edge technology is that the writers must constantly take stock of the character and permit the tech to advance, at the very least, as rapidly as it does in the real world. Warren Ellis's take on Iron Man is marvelous because it incorporates that aspect of the Iron Man character into the plot of a tight six-issue mini-series collected here in this graphic novel.
The earlier issues of the series are slower paced, with Ellis not feeling compelled to throw Iron Man's alter ego Tony Stark into the suit to rough up secondary antagonists just to qualify as an issue of the comic (in fact, Stark never even dons the suit in part two). Which is not to say it's boring, by any stretch. The central question of whether Stark is Iron Man (i.e. a hero) without the suit or if the suit is the reason for Stark raises some interesting points, but Ellis is confident enough not to belabor the point and instead focuses on telling a really good story.
My only real complaint with the graphic novel is that the antagonist, Mallen, isn't really fleshed out as well as he might have been. Other than a flashback sequence and one very memorable aside with a rebellious teen outside a small town, there's never really enough depth granted to him to push the narrative over into the next level. I think this is directly responsible for my only other minor gripe which is that it isn't ever really clear why Stark is so reluctant to simply kill Mallen during their climactic battle.
Nevertheless, a wonderful take on the Iron Man character (notably there are almost zero of the traditional supporting cast present, which is probably why this book isn't being directly adapted into the Iron Man 3 film, though I feel that's kind of a shame) and worth a read for Ellis's writing alone, although it should also be noted that Adi Granov's artwork is superb throughout....more
There are some obvious parallels to make between Veronica Roth's Divergent and The Hunger Games: both feature a spunky young female protagonist who teThere are some obvious parallels to make between Veronica Roth's Divergent and The Hunger Games: both feature a spunky young female protagonist who tells the tale in first-person present tense of a fragmented, dystopian society. There is also a progression that includes a dawning clarity of what the world they inhabit is really like, a coming-of-age tale intertwined with the science fiction trappings and more than a little violence in both. But Divergent isn't quite as direct of a parallel to The Hunger Games as, say, Battle Royale, it is more of a spiritual similarity. Where The Hunger Games might be thought of as kind of an action/adventure take on some of the same concepts that are present in Divergent, this book is more of a thriller/conspiracy entry into the young adult dystopian fantasy.
So I'll do my best herein to avoid drawing all the connections and comparisons to The Hunger Games. To me, Divergent is just the right kind of coattail rider in that it appeals to fans of the more popular (and earlier) series by filling that same narrative niche but it has its own perspective, its own world building and its own perspective on how such a society might look and what could come from it.
Divergent takes place in a future variant of Chicago, where society has been divided into five factions, each of whom organize their tasks and daily activities around a principle characteristic that they hold most dear: Abnegation believes in selflessness; Candor holds honesty as the highest virtue; Erudite value knowledge; Amity elevate pacifism; Dauntless hold courage above all else. Each child is born into a faction, where they stay and try to uphold the defining principle until they turn sixteen. At that point they are given an assessment test to see where their personality might be best suited and then are allowed to choose to stay with their families in their birth faction or switch to align with the results of the assessment.
(As an aside, it struck me as funny that the book almost seems to have been written with the idea, "Let's make a story that shows young readers how awesome thesauruses are!" That's not a criticism, really, the faction names are good words to know, it just made me laugh.)
Enter Beatrice. Abnegation by birth, she struggles with the faction's insistence on forgetting the self, but fears the prospect of abandoning her family. In spite of her society's adherence to the mantra "faction before blood," she knows it would crush her parents and her very Abnegation-like brother if she abandoned them. Then in her assessment she gets a curious result: inconclusive. The test giver describes her with an unfamiliar word, along with a dire warning never to reveal it to anyone: Divergent.
A conflicted Beatrice doesn't know what it means or what she is supposed to do. At the last minute she chooses to switch factions (this isn't a spoiler, although I'll refrain from revealing where she transfers to; it would be a very dull book if it chronicled the initiation process in Abnegation) and the majority of the book describes her initiation into the new faction, her inner turmoil over her decision, the fear she retains over the test results, and the frightening, possibly dangerous new Divergent label she carries.
I will say here that I really enjoyed this book. Roth's pacing is rapid and her protagonist is likable, flawed and has a clear voice. Some of the supporting characters are less well developed and harder to identify with, though a few (mostly the ones who matter) are nicely rounded. The revelations here don't come all that quickly, Ms. Roth seeming to prefer to pack them all in at the end, which is breakneck and tense. This is not to suggest the book is dull or pointless before this point, but the development of the characters and the world takes precedence for about 75% of the novel and I get the sense that the deliberate tempo through the first three-quarters will be welcome as the series unfolds since the situation the characters are left at just before the drop-off cliffhanger ending seems to not leave much room for additional background on the world or the principals.
A couple of small nitpicks: there is a certain morbidity to the book in that by the end the body count of significant characters gets pretty high and there is a bit of casualness to the violence that I wasn't all that crazy about. Also the central romance is less effective than in other, similar books. Thankfully there is no love triangle to speak of but the relationship between Beatrice and her object of affection lacks that "root-em-on" element that other authors have been better able to capture.
And then the larger complaint: I don't know that I fully buy the premise of the dystopia here. I'm willing to overlook a lot of the questions I have about the whats and whys of this fictional society because Ms. Roth simply doesn't reveal enough about the world's history or the social constructs that prop it up to make a determination about its plausibility. But I see a potential for great narrative disaster in forthcoming installments if she doesn't manage to inject some believability into it at some point. The fact that young members of the society can (even if its considered somewhat rude) switch factions carries a number of implications that aren't addressed well enough here to determine if they hint at a grand social experiment gone awry or a core social structure that is doomed, even at the conceptual level, to failure. It's not a fault inherent in Divergent, because this book skirts the issues, but it is potentially problematic down the road, and I hope Roth has a clever plan in place to make it pass the smell test when revealed. I suppose it might be possible to continue to avoid the issue and never reveal how it all came about or what (might have) gone wrong. But there are enough hints throughout this volume to suggest that won't be her approach and I wish I could say I was more confident that when all is explained it will still permit suspension of disbelief.
Still, this is a very good novel, tons of fun, a quick (if not blistering) read and a truly effective launch into a new series that had me picking up the second book, Insurgent, before I had even turned the last page so I could continue reading about Beatrice's exploits right away....more
This is the moment in geeky space opera type storytelling where it is so good to be in the audience. That delicious part where wild things are happeniThis is the moment in geeky space opera type storytelling where it is so good to be in the audience. That delicious part where wild things are happening and crazy cool action is breaking down everywhere and there are hints of how this universe fits together and works but it's still fresh, new and filled with pure discovery. It's the first time the roar emerges from the jungle in Lost. It's petite Princess Leia staring defiantly up at the ominous figure in the black cloak and armor at the beginning of A New Hope. It's wandering around your chosen starting zone in World of Warcraft.
And it's the entirety of Saga, Vol. 1.
Granted, sometimes these early moments where you're absorbing the world through the experiences of the principal characters don't pay off into the rich, lasting narrative wonders we hope for. Stories can go off the rails. But I keep returning to these kinds of stories because I love the exploratory beginnings so much and because when they do unfold just so… well, that's why geekdom and über-fans exist, right?
Brian K. Vaughan's Saga is just starting out, but already within this volume which collects issues 1-6, I'm completely smitten with his characters, his world and his remarkable sense of pacing. Combined with the vibrant, lively art of the incredibly talented Fiona Staples, I don't think I've been this instantly enamored with a fictional world since 2002's Firefly.
What's most impressive though is that with all the elements Vaughan crams into each chapter, by issue/chapter three, you start to feel like this is all familiar, almost as if Vaughan welcomes you into the world, allows you to join in Marko, Alana and Hazel's quest to keep their family alive and together. It doesn't stop the book from being always surprising, from retaining that wonderful sense of exploration, but he very quickly acclimates you to the universe and its central tenets so it's not a one-trick pony of strutting his fabulous ideas in front of you all the time, he lets you feel like you understand where he's going, even when you truly don't.
It's perhaps worthy of note that I sort of loathe following monthly comic books: the expense, the commitment, the frustration if you miss an issue, I've done it all before and I just prefer to stick to graphic novels or collections. But I may not be able to stomach the wait for Vol. 2 and I've already moved on to Issue #7 because I couldn't wait to see what happened next....more
When I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest iWhen I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest in the creepy stories of King's early work was part of an effort to deal with the anxieties I labored under. Books were safe, salvational, and though titles like It, Carrie, and Pet Sematary were terrifying, there was something about them that I could confront where trips to the Halloween store and VHS copies of horror films were overwhelming. I read a lot of King's work between the ages of about 12 and 19, basically everything he published under his own name (I think the only Richard Bachman work I've read is The Regulators) up through 1996 (the only major novel release from that time period I skipped was Rose Madder). Since then, I've drifted from King's work, with a few exceptions like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and On Writing.
The reasons for me branching out don't have all that much to do with the quality of King's work (although the Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne era found me not really loving what he was putting out toward the end of my obsession there), and more to do with the fact that I no longer needed to prove myself capable of conquering literary fear and I transitioned to getting my chills and thrills from a long back catalog of horror movies while my reading preferences drifted into epic fantasy and other genres. Eventually my fascination with all sorts of macabre stuff faded along with my sense of invincible youth and the prospect of gaining entertainment value from death and terrestrial horror (regular humans doing despicable things, as seen in trash like Hostel and Human Centipede, perhaps influenced by similar subject matter in the less effective King novels around the time I stopped lining up for each new release) so I never really went back to the Stephen King well. And admittedly a big part of my inability (or unwillingness) to keep up was tied to the copy of The Dark Tower IV Wizard and Glass, which came out so long after I had finished the previous entry that I had trouble keeping up and frustrated me.
11/22/63 then is the first novel I've read by King, then, since probably 2000, and there are two key factors that did it: time travel and JFK. I don't think it mattered who wrote a novel that incorporates these two elements, I would have been intrigued either way; the fact that it represented an opportunity to re-visit an old favorite author was just a happy coincidence. So I picked up a copy of the 850-page brick that is 11/22/63 and re-acquainted myself with Mr. King.
The first thing that stood out to me—something I had forgotten—was what an easy, natural storyteller King is. His prose isn't jump-off-the-page spectacular, but he has such a way of drawing the reader along through even his epic tales that it never feels like you're reading a near-thousand page monster. He's particularly great about doing this kind of baldfaced foreshadowing thing where he doesn't allude to the significance of an early event, he plainly spells out that it matters, but he doesn't connect the dot right away, instead circling it in yellow highlighter so that the tension mounts as the chapters fall toward the front cover leaving the reader anxious to discover why that particular event matters.
11/22/63 is the story of Jake Epping, a divorced high school English teacher who stumbles across a sort of wormhole in the back of his friend Al's diner that he can pass through and come out in the same spot only in 1959. Each time through the portal, the world in 1959 is reset, but the effects of Jake and Al's actions in the past can have ripple effects so that when they return to 2011 (always two minutes later than when they went in, no matter how long they stay in the past), things may be different. Initially, Jake tests this theory by saving a family doomed to a horrific fate he knows about from a janitor pal at the school he teaches in, and though he is successful, he realizes there is sufficient uncertainty in the outcomes due to the oft-cited butterfly effect. But Al is convinced that the risks are worth it for one big intervention, one key opportunity to improve the past and create a better future: Stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Yet Al is dying of lung cancer and his final attempt sees his illness progressing too rapidly for him to make it to 1963, so he implores Jake to take up the cause. Thus begins the main thread of the narrative where Jake travels to the past for a four-year stint in which he is determined to find Lee Harvey Oswald and stop his plans. Under the guise of his past (King refers to it often as The Land of Ago) alias, George Amberson, Jake returns twice, once to stop the janitor's fate and check the outcome, and once to push all the way through to 1963 (if necessary) and do whatever it takes to prevent the death of the president.
The principal antagonist in the story is what Jake (and King) refer to as "the obdurate past," which in the world of 11/22/63 means that the past resists efforts to change it. And though Jake/George is determined to succeed in his mission, the obdurate past requires careful planning and patience to execute any sweeping ripple effects. As Jake's time in the early sixties drags on, he makes his way through by carefully manipulating the details he knows about, betting on sporting events to provide cash, lying smoothly to most everyone he meets, and he begins to sort of fall in love with the simpler times of Ago. Then, he falls in love with a woman, Sadie Dunhill.
The threads of Jake's existence in the past begin to twist themselves together, propelled along by that not-foreshadowing trick, the careful pacing squeezing tension deliberately like a snake slowly wrapping itself around prey, only tightening uncomfortably at the moment when it is too late. Sadie and George (Jake) have a cheer-them-on kind of romance, though George's secretiveness threatens their happiness, you see the bond they share working behind the scenes in what has got to be Stephen King's best depiction of love and tender romance that I've come across. Of course, this is Stephen King, so an ominous cloud hangs over them throughout, further dragging readers through the pages wondering how it will all work out.
There is an awful lot to like about 11/22/63, from the clever but simple mechanics of his time travel, the fun fanservice-y tie-in with his earlier novel (and one of my favorites), It; even the portrayal of life in the 60s through the lens of a modern man is impressive. Jake himself is a likable character, full of self-doubt and occasionally self-importance, but with a sharp wit and a not-too-schmaltzy big heart.
Late in the book there is a point at which the mounting tension hits a break point and King makes a specific decision that sets the stage for the dramatic climax and it was here that I remembered the other thing about Stephen King: he really struggles to find endings that leave readers—or at least me—feeling satisfied. I've wondered for a long time if King's books tend toward the epic in length because the author doesn't really want the stories to end, that he has more fun creating the worlds than making them change. If you've read a few of his novels, you can start to recognize where this process begins and King tends to make a particular decision that will define the context for the final push to the end and in 11/22/63, the point comes at just past the three-quarters mark in the 842-page book, (view spoiler)[when Jake's association with shady bookies catches up with him (hide spoiler)].
From that point on the book is not quite as delightful, and the event comes across as an obvious writer-tool to set up a race against the clock to try and avert the assassination. I didn't hate the turn the story took, but I felt it could have been executed more subtly or at least in a less formulaic fashion. Another side effect of this choice is that a book that has been... well, not exactly light-hearted, but at least fairly upbeat until the turning point. From there, the last quarter of the book passes by under a grim, dark shadow. I can't quite decide if this is an effective note to hit or if it feels uneven, though I lean toward the latter. There is something off-putting about the hasty final chapters that doesn't quite spoil the experience of the whole thing, but left me with a sense that at some point King decided the party just needed to end so he shut off all the lights and screamed, "Get Out!" It's not a bad ending, it's merely one that falls short of the promise shown in the first half. For a book that I loved for that long, to end with sort of a depressing sense of, "Yeah, sure, okay" was a disappointment.
(view spoiler)[One thing I did appreciate about the ending is the way that King—without stuffing it into your throat—points a spotlight on the fact that while it's easy to find people who bemoan the present, who wistfully speak of "the good ol' days," to even get the sense from reading a daily news site that things are tough all over, modern society has a lot going for it. There is a hard-to-spot undercurrent of hope in the bleak closing chapters which has no bearing on Jake at all, but says something larger about the way that we view the past and the way we might be best served when looking at the future. I liked that. (hide spoiler)]
In spite of a lukewarm sense about the end, I will say that it shouldn't stop anyone from reading the book. Stephen King may not be my favorite author anymore, but he remains a master storyteller and this book is a showcase for what happens when you give a great storyteller a great story to tell.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I noticed something interesting in reading Neil Gaiman's 2001 short story collection: I read these kinds of collections a lot more slowly than I mightI noticed something interesting in reading Neil Gaiman's 2001 short story collection: I read these kinds of collections a lot more slowly than I might a similar length novel. I suspect it has something to do with the regular clear stopping points which resist the "okay just one more chapter tonight…" phenomenon, because despite it taking me nearly a month to get through, I really enjoyed this collection. In fact, if I had one main complaint with it, it would be the way he handles the little tidbits of behind-the-scenes info for each story. They are included in the introduction which struck me as odd because I read them all before beginning the stories but they really need to be read after finishing them. I think it would have been better to include them at the end. I wound up bookmarking the intro page and flipping back to each blurb after I finished the associated story but it was, I thought, an unnecessarily clunky way to handle it.
There are quite a lot of stories within so I won't bother mentioning each one, but instead I'll highlight a few of my favorites and mention a couple that don't really work.
The Price - A fascinating depiction which, if the intro blurb is to be believed, is more fact than fiction making it all the more intriguing. As a premise, this one is simply top notch and Gaiman executes to perfection.
Changes - This is a gripping true-Science Fiction study of gender that makes me wish Gaiman would write more full-on SF.
Tastings - An erotic tale with a dark supernatural edge, which is something that felt fairly unexplored to me. Quite good, if you aren't prone to blushing while you read.
Murder Mysteries - In a way, I kind of wish the story-within-a-story depicted here were fleshed into a fuller standalone story, but on the other hand I love the framing device. Creepy, powerful, richly imagined, I think it's probably the best of the whole lot.
Snow, Glass, Apples - I admit it took me a while to catch the original source of this retelling and when I did it was kind of a sucker punch. But even on its own merit this is a fantastic short story.
The few that stand out as not as great are Babycakes which is the kind of over-exaggerated fable that makes me roll my eyes for its intellectual contrivances; Virus both because it feels dated and because I didn't quite get the juxtaposition Gaiman was aiming for until I read the background (which shouldn't be necessary); and Desert Wind, which isn't bad just bland and forgettable.
I should also mention that there are a number of narrative poems which it took me until about the third one to realize are lacking in rhyme and structure but not necessarily meter and rhythm, of which they each have their own. They are subtly different from straight prose and it's an interesting device that I'd be interested to see other examples from or find out where it originated....more
Usually when I'm going to review a book, I'll start writing it around the 2/3rds mark. By then, I have a pretty good handle on the plot, the writing sUsually when I'm going to review a book, I'll start writing it around the 2/3rds mark. By then, I have a pretty good handle on the plot, the writing style and I can get my initial impressions down, so that when I finish the book, I simply do the edit/rewrite and add the conclusion based on how it all turns out. But with Anne McCaffrey's Restoree, I hit that point and realized I had no idea how I felt about the book yet. Then I read to about the 75% mark and still wasn't sure how I felt. It wasn't until I was maybe a dozen pages from the end when I finally started to get a sense for where the story was going or have some investment in what was going to happen (or what was not).
Restoree is the tale of Sara, a lonely New Yorker who is kidnapped by aliens and loses all but flashes of her memory between the abduction and her coming-to, when she discovers she has been made to perform rote caregiver tasks as a sort of mindless drone on behalf of a comatose man. As an act of self-preservation she maintains her facade of witlessness until she discovers that there is a sinister purpose for her state and that of her ward, so she hatches a desperate plan to escape the situation and in the process discovers that the man she's been attending to is the Regent of a faraway planet. This planet, Lothar, has been under constant threat of attack by an invading alien force known as the Mil, and following several decades of relative peace, the planet has fallen under political turmoil. The majority of the book deals with the Regent, a man named Harlan, and Sara trying to escape and right the plot that put Harlan into a drugged stupor under Sara's care.
Through the story Harlan and Sara fall in love, and Sara has a knack for getting herself into sticky situations since Harlan suspects her of being a Restoree, which is a condition punishable by death, so her origin cannot be revealed. But Sara is ignorant of a lot of Lotharian custom, history and geography so there is some tension about whether or not she will reveal herself at the wrong time, increasing as she gets ever more entangled in the politics of the planet while she tries to reveal the plot against Harlan and re-instate him as Regent.
I think the main issue I had with Restoree is that it's kind of directionless, and for a short, 250 page book, it really wanders and meanders and takes forever getting to the stuff that really matters to the reader. A lot of the decisions in the writing process are very odd ones, to me. For example, the book reads a bit like a romance between Sara and Harlan, but there is very little romantic tension here. Sure, there are some for-show complexities as Sara becomes a means for a Warlord-elect to undo some baseless rumors which makes her ability to be with Harlan somewhat complicated, but the end result isn't really a divide between Sara and Harlan, but simply a lack of public declaration. At no point is their relationship really in question or in jeopardy. Additionally, the key plot point of Restoration and Sara being a Restoree is hinted at throughout but isn't really explained until very late in the book at which point all the fears about it that Harlan hints at end up being more or less unfounded which cheapens a lot of the tension that propels the book forward, such that it is.
There are parts of the book that really work, such as the initial chance encounter that leads Sara to the palace without her allies where she has to resourcefully find a way to make the right friends and navigate the unfamiliar social customs. Additionally an astoundingly late-breaking subplot (which serves also as a very convenient contrivance to interrupt a potentially difficult tribunal) involves a military action that takes place remotely. The effect is like a story told about a space shuttle mission where the point of view never leaves ground control. The level of tension, aided in large part by the lack of concrete knowledge of what is really happening out on the battlefield, is gripping. But these segments only fill a few dozen pages. Way too much time is devoted to things like hatching a scheme for Sara to infiltrate the palace—a plan that is almost immediately scrapped, after it's been mapped out in great detail over five or six pages—or to Sara expressing dismay over certain people or events while everyone around her says, "Nah, don't worry about it."
Sara herself is a well-realized, admirable heroine. Harlan is a bit too superman-ish, but he's a reasonable foil for Sara. My biggest problem with the rest of the cast is that Ms. McCaffrey chooses too many names that are similar to others: Jessl and Jokan, Sara and Fara, Gleto and Gorlot. It gets kind of confusing and is just unnecessary.
I didn't dislike Restoree, but it had too many weird tangents and too little focus for me to really enjoy. I liked McCaffrey's style and her imagination and attention to certain details that might have been overlooked by other authors (the technology level of Lothar was particularly interesting and novel) indicated there is enough promise on display here for me to want to dive into some of her other work. But I just can't give more than faint praise for a book that reads a bit too much like a first draft. ...more
The stylistic decision making process in literary fiction interests me. This is probably due to my aspirations of writing, but I think even without thThe stylistic decision making process in literary fiction interests me. This is probably due to my aspirations of writing, but I think even without that I would find it intriguing to note what the selection process is among those who write as a means to not just convey happening. Literary writers seem to want to convey poetry, rhythm, implication, dynamism and other less tangible elements than might be strictly necessary for storytelling.
I can see why it is done, certainly. I think to one degree or another all writers are trying to use language to convey more than just the meanings of the words, but the line that separates exposition from aesthetic depends on what the writer is choosing to focus on. What pushing off of mere conveyance of ideas toward something more ethereal facilitates, though, is obviously to elevate what might otherwise be a simplistic narrative. For instance, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale: the story within of a dystopian, feminist's nightmare world where literal biblical interpretations have segmented a society into female objects and male people, is familiar enough in set up. Comparisons to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or George Orwell's 1984 are ready and appropriate.
But what Ms. Atwood performs is a feat of linguistic inflation, using her stilted, meandering prose to create more than just a satirical rebuff of modern society. She manages to define a multilayered dissection of gender roles, sexual politics, the passivity of modern first-world disconnection, the role of dissent in structuring societies, moralism (and its associated relativity) and the character archetype of the reluctant survivor.
The Handmaid's Tale unfolds like a mystery, casting the reader as the detective trying to wade through a frustratingly obtuse narrator's account of events that are not necessarily unreliable but disjointed and incomplete, especially through the first third of the book. What carries the novel in this early portion is the staccato, thoughts-to-page style of the writing and the curated curiosity that demands at first an answer to "what is going on here?" but rapidly shifts into the far more pertinent, "how did it get this way?" Eventually Atwood does begin to peel back the layers and the protagonist, Offred, recalls the key moments in the societal collapse (it's worth noting that Atwood or perhaps just her narrator seem to frame the establishment of the fictional setting Gilead as a construction, a building process, when as a reader we can see it as plainly destructive).
Early on what is most fascinating is to see Atwood carefully constructing her sentences in fragments, tangents, callous declarations, cagey deviations and avoiding some core mechanical crutches like quotation marks or leaning heavily on others like metaphor and simile. Later, the plot thickens and the style fades to the background, which is both where the book starts to be a bit more enjoyable but also where it loses a bit of its luster. Some of the contrivances to explain the establishment of Gilead are suspicious or perhaps just overly convenient, and the mounting tension as Offred worms her way into a state of agitation seems incongruous with the amount of time that she indicates she has been laboring under the new regime.
All of which builds with mounting momentum to the brilliant/baffling conclusion. It's not a spoiler to say that this is perhaps the first novel I've ever read that had a non-ending the way a short story might. In fact, I was reminded of several of the Raymond Carver shorts from a book I read last year, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in the way the narrative ceases without any sort of closure whatsoever. In a way, I like this, and the epilogue, which is out of character and distinct from the rest of the book, worked well enough to me to re-contextualize the whole story and make it seem somehow historical. To the writer in me—the guy who watched Atwood pepper the first two dozen pages with semicolons and intentional sentence fragments with sly approval—this was pretty great. To the reader in me—the guy who just wants a good story—it was really frustrating, as if I'd read a 300+ page psych-out or had tried to read the second book in a trilogy all by itself.
But still, The Handmaid's Tale has lingered with me, and I suspect it will for a long time. It wasn't a particularly joyful book (then again, when are dystopian satires fun?) so it's not something I can say I'd be dying to read again, but it is the kind of book that really makes you think, the kind that you want to find others who have read it so you can discuss your perceptions of certain things. It is the kind of book that I find occasionally makes me wish I still had a legitimate excuse to go back to college and take a bunch of contemporary literature courses. For a guy who can only stomach the occasional bout with picking through the weird styles of literary fiction authors and whose study habits are legendarily poor, that's much higher praise than it may seem on the surface....more
Despite a near universal loathing for the ridiculous concessions writers force upon audiences of time travel tales, I love them. I'm not even sure whyDespite a near universal loathing for the ridiculous concessions writers force upon audiences of time travel tales, I love them. I'm not even sure why since I so often find myself annoyed when the logic—even the story's internal logic—stumbles, but something keeps me trying them over and over. H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, written over 100 years ago, is probably as deft a treatment of the subject as I've yet encountered.
In large part this is accomplished by avoiding the messy paradoxical elements of visiting the past (other than returning through time to the origin point, all time travel occurs to the future in this novel), and focusing instead on a nineteenth century scientist/scholar visiting a far-flung future in which the evolution of humanity has branched into a parable of class division and a political dissection of, essentially, socialism.
Politics aside, this book does what most good speculative fiction does which is frame a particular thought process into a fantastical story which is both entertaining and thought-provoking at once. I read the entire 128 page book in a few hours which speaks to its readability and found myself enchanted by the descriptions of the Morlocks and the Eloi, the struggle for the narrator (referred to only as "The Time Traveler") to escape his uncertain fate and the reactions by the crowd of dinner guests who form the audience hearing of the Traveler's tale. The bulk of the book is devoted to a quoted first-hand account by the Traveler of his eight-day adventure with the Eloi and Murlocks, but the framing of the story as a spoken-word tale amongst society gentlemen works well to create a particular sense of setting and atmosphere, such that it feels a lot like a valiant campfire tale.
In particular I found the end of the book to be remarkably unkempt—satisfying while being fairly open-ended instead of trying, as too many time travel tales do, to draw to a conclusion a narrative that almost by definition defies beginning and end. It seems almost comical to me that one of the earliest and most drawn-upon sources for time travel fiction turns out to be one of the best but I suppose there really shouldn't be much surprise there. Of course, this is all only true if you focus solely on the nuance of plot and the intrigue inherent in the story itself. The main flaw in the book is that Wells scarcely bothers to create much in the way of character (perhaps this is obvious of a writer who doesn't even bother to name the protagonist); the most well-rounded character of all is an Eloi female named Weena who herself is remarkable only for her devotion to the Traveler. Additionally there is a fairly unnecessary sequence late in the book where the Traveler proceeds beyond the year 802,701 AD and watches as the sun dies, a sequence that defies some commonly understood modern scientific notions and doesn't really add much to the overall tale.
Still, I enjoyed The Time Machine and found it to be, especially for a beleaguered time travel devotee, a pleasant reminder of why this particular subgenre holds fascination in the first place, coming straight from one of the original inspirations....more
Ernest Cline's Ready Player One isn't a perfect novel, and not one I would recommend to just anyone, but it is the most fun I've had reading in a veryErnest Cline's Ready Player One isn't a perfect novel, and not one I would recommend to just anyone, but it is the most fun I've had reading in a very long time. I typically read with a sort of substrata of emotion, wherein I experience the humor, joy, sorrow, tragedy and sentimentality internally, not usually allowing my external person to reflect these shifts of mood. I consider a writer extraordinarily successful if they can break that crafted illusion and evoke such a strength of feeling that I cannot help but laugh or smile or scowl or cry. There isn't much heavy heartbreak in Ready Player One, but there is enough unchecked glee—for a bookish nerd whose formative years were in the 1980s—present to plant an unyielding smile on my face through most of the book.
Ready Player One follows Wade Watts, an introverted orphan struggling with daily life in a future some thirty years on. An energy crisis has made the planet unstable and governments have practically collapsed, but the world has found escape in a mega-MMO called OASIS, which is so immersive, so all-encompasing that it has nearly replaced real life for many, if not most people. The creator of OASIS, the enigmatic James Halliday, passed away five years prior to the events in the book. As his final legacy, he coded an elaborate scavenger hunt into OASIS, consisting of three keys to be found, three gates to be opened, and three challenges to be overcome. The prize to the player who wins the contest: an easter egg which grants control of OASIS and the company behind it. Fame, fortune, power, all up for grabs. Wade is part of a group of dedicated egg hunters, known as gunters, who have dedicated themselves to trying to win the contest, but for five years no one has been able to even locate the first key, much less make any progress on the contest's empty leaderboard.
One thing all the gunters know is that the contest is rooted in Halliday's life, and his passions for 80s pop culture: movies, TV shows, music and most of all classic video games. Then, almost by accident, Wade finds the first key and becomes an instant celebrity when his name shows up on the leaderboard.
This book is a love letter to the children of a particular era. Atari-loving, Goonies-watching, Robotech-quoting, John Williams-humming, arcade-haunting kids and teens will see their youthful passions elevated here to a ridiculous canon wrapped inside a internet and tech-loving über-World of Warcraft framework that is practically ready-made for the current crop of post-social nerdlets. As a card-carrying member of this group, Ready Player One spoke to me like no book since Snow Crash.
Let me make one thing clear here, though: This is not speculative fiction of the cerebral order that authors like Neal Stephenson can conjure. This is less engineer-nerd manifesto as it is pop-culture-geek fairy tale. And that's okay, because I think it means Ready Player One is more accessible to a broader audience that has grown to embrace the labels that once haunted them as opposed to existing in a marginalized niche. But the result of this is that while Stephenson seemed to be predicting the future, Cline is clearly writing for the present. Certain modern-day shout outs cement this notion, with references to YouTube and Wikipedia marring an otherwise standalone universe. It's possible those services will continue to exist in some form in 35 years, but their inclusion and others like it seemed to drag me out of the novel's world and back into my own unnecessarily.
The plotting is undeniably powerful, as this is a ridiculously compelling and readable book, but some emotional resonance (beyond the grin-fixating nostalgia and triumphant underdog victories) is bypassed in favor of the breakneck pace. A dramatic scene fairly early in the story, for example, indicates either a certain emotional callowness either on the part of Wade or Cline (it's not clear which). The central emotional hook does manage to work despite this same threat looming over it, mostly by virtue of the characterization prowess on display, but there is potential for this to be an even more resonant book, perhaps even a more memorable one, if Cline had taken just a bit more time to nurture a couple of key interactions.
And overall this is the central difficulty I have in determining a final opinion on Ready Player One. A part of me wants to note that there is room for improvement and this isn't quite the novel it ultimately could have been. But there is another, much larger, part of me that just wants to hug this book and let it wash over me again with its conjurations of saturday morning cartoons absorbed over giant bowls of cereal, surrounded by armies of action figures and endless days exploring fantastic digital worlds drawn to my television by a rotating cast of game consoles. What ultimately seals the final analysis is that I realize I can't recommend this book to just anyone. People like my wife, who shared the time period but had dramatically different childhood experiences, may enjoy the book on a base level but they won't appreciate it like I did. My parents, also, are unlikely to find the particular marvel that Ready Player One represents for a subset of readers.
But my childhood friends, my brother, people I used to sit with on schoolyards and park swings and play "what if," this is the culmination of all that crossover, culture-drenched daydreaming. And for those it is intended, it is triumphant. For everyone else, I suspect it is a fun ride, perhaps a touch trite, but still worth a chapter or two just to see if you can get into the rhythm. If your experience mirrored mine, this is a hands-down, five-star, gotta-read-it-now novel. For everyone else, I'd say it's a solid and joyful celebration of a particular time period framed in a light morality tale. I'm content in the end to split the difference and note that more than most books, your individual mileage on this one, may vary....more
For the first few hours after I finished Mockingjay, the final chapter in the Hunger Games trilogy, I thought I just hated the ending. But as I reflecFor the first few hours after I finished Mockingjay, the final chapter in the Hunger Games trilogy, I thought I just hated the ending. But as I reflect more on it, I think the entire book was disappointing, even leading up to the final 50 or so pages.
I won't spoil the end, but here's the problem I have with it: Up through the finale of Catching Fire (as stunted as it was), even though we see all the events through Katniss's eyes, her own negative self-image is not what is reflected back from the supporting cast. Throughout the first two installments even when she loathes herself and struggles with her own actions, we see what others see in her, the good they find, the inspiration she ignites. There is a great scene in Catching Fire where Peeta teases Katniss because she can't see the purity in herself that others do (and occasionally find resentful). In that moment we understand what Peeta is talking about, even when she can't. Katniss is a survivor and she does what she has to to protect her family, her loved ones, even herself. But she's motivated by more than just cold self-preservation, she also wants to do the right thing and her actions—even murderous ones—are never beyond the reader's ability to sympathize.
Where Mockingjay breaks down is that it transforms Katniss from desperate survivor, justifiable murderess, into a stone sociopath. The key is that at some early point in the third book, I stopped rooting for her. She spends an excessive amount of time in the book convalescing which destroys the frantic pacing that made The Hunger Games and Catching Fire so ridiculously readable, and while Suzanne Collins makes an effort to repeat a situation similar to the arena for a third time, it fails. I was able to forgive the Quarter Quell for being a contrivance because it had internal consistency and a suitable lead-in but with Mockingjay the motivations are all wrong and the stakes are too far removed, creating a forced atmosphere. The rest of the story involves the war against the Capitol, but it's not a war novel—it maybe should have been.
Broadly speaking you can see that sense of Collins reaching desperately to write herself out of a corner throughout the novel. Characters change drastically because they need to in order to maintain a rough similarity to the structures established in books one and two (the love triangle, the conflicted protagonist, the life-or-death stakes) but that need exists only in the author's head. And even with all that effort, it's still wildly divergent from the previous entries. The result is a book that tries to split the difference between maintaining what the reader has come to expect from the series and needing to be broader in scope to best serve the story. The tepid middle ground results in a muddled, unfocused plot leading to the unsatisfying conclusion.
It's bad enough that the ending results in a main character that is nearly impossible to care about, what's worse is the fact that it feels like an alternate ending from the special features on a DVD: The "dark" take that is interesting in a curious sense but didn't play well with test audiences. You're intrigued by what it could say about the characters, but it doesn't fit well with what we've learned about them so far, leaving you relieved that they stuck with the better, lighter conclusion. Except here, this is the only ending we've got. And there are so many things wrong with it (again, no specific spoilers, just generalizations): Katniss's breaking point could have been handled in a dozen different ways but Collins goes for the jugular and as a result undoes everything that matters not just to Katniss, but the reader as well. She never explains Katniss' actions sufficiently, never contextualizes them so we can get a sense of whether she was justified or maybe will be in the future, never even attempts to make sense of it. And perhaps worst of all, the resolution of the love triangle that has been such a pivotal part of the story until the final pages and epilogue is whipped by in a blur as if it were an afterthought, a non-issue. It's so incredibly flippant that it made me irritated that I had even cared which suitor she would choose to begin with.
Obviously I have affection for the books, the characters and the series as a whole. If not, I wouldn't care the way I do about how it ended. But it reminded me of two other trilogies: One is The Matrix movies, where my low opinion of how the story drew to a close affected my overall perception of the earlier movies that I liked so much. The other is Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy (since expanded), which did the opposite by letting the books change the world without trying to return to the hook from book one, allowing the story to happen naturally. I don't have a problem with Collins choosing to go a darker route with her finale than Westerfeld did (though his isn't exactly a comedy either), but there's dark and then there's dismal. Even worse, it feels rushed and incomplete while being dismal.
What I feel is the most frustrating part is that I don't even feel that a similar outline of this book, expanded differently, would have been as disappointing: Even if the same key events took place with minor revisions it could have been done in a satisfying way. Instead this feels too much like an early draft, one an editor needed to draw big red lines through and say, "Less moping, less grim-for-grim's-sake, more intrigue, more vitality." I still recommend the series, and I'm probably more generous with this entry than I should be on the strength of the first two, but I can't help but warn others that this isn't the conclusion I wanted from a series that I loved for 700 pages and then resented for about the last 200. ...more
For an author who I've heard of spoken in such reverent tones for so long before finally acclimating myself to, my first exposure to Salman Rushdie'sFor an author who I've heard of spoken in such reverent tones for so long before finally acclimating myself to, my first exposure to Salman Rushdie's work was not at all revelatory. In retrospect, starting with Rushdie's first novel, Grimus, and one the author himself has spoken ill of, may not have been the most prudent way to experience the work of a storied novelist. And, truth be told, literary fiction as read voluntarily is kind of a new engagement for me though my initial choice to try Grimus (as opposed to, say, Midnight's Children) was based on the fact that Grimus is marketed as science fiction, the sort of genre book I gravitate toward. But that first couple of pages nearly stopped me before I'd really begun.
I'll say these negative things up front, to get them out of the way: Form-wise and mechanically, I think the choices made in Grimus (which I understand now may be much more common in this vein of novel than I realized) are pompous and unnecessary. The eschewing of standard quotation marks in favor of initializing dashes and then mixing narrative with dialogue, the flipping of perspective and point of view without consideration, the excessive use of the semicolon—all probably nothing more in the end than stylistic choices but ones which I feel detract far more than they add to the prose. The lyrical nature of the writing and the deft hand at description suffice (eventually) to reveal that this is not an unaccomplished writer struggling with basic composition but rather someone altogether too bored with convention to be concerned with trifles like readability. That's both a criticism and a praise, because the truth is that Rushdie does display great skill in crafting this novel, but his willingness to force readers to work harder than they should in order to identify this skill is little more than ego-stroking.
Yet, Grimus did eventually win me over. The story chronicles Flapping Eagle, an outcast from his people because of circumstances beyond his control surrounding his birth. He becomes immortal. He spends a lot of time sailing, living, man-whoring, eventually deciding he wants to die. He arrives via inter-dimensional travel in a place called Calf Island and meets two ugly people, living in a hut near the sea. He disturbs their lives, and is lead to the town of K, where other immortals congregate. He disturbs the town there, as well. It's difficult to summarize the plot exactly because Grimus is less about what happens as it is about the people it happens to and the reactions of all the other characters to the spectre of Flapping Eagle as he moves destructively in and through their lives.
At its core the novel is symbolic, high-minded and a book to make you consider things. Things like death, things like certainty, things like obsession. Rushdie plays with language, plays with names, plays with constructs of time and perspective. There is fun in the book, with notions of pan-dimensional stone frogs called Gorfs who play a game with order, with fleeting romances and quests that seem sort of heroic but really aren't. There is plenty of tragedy in Grimus, because there is tragedy in Flapping Eagle, and tragedy in K, and tragedy in immortality. There is a worrisome amount of sex, too, elevated at times into an enduring and unified force which seems to contain power and motive and a destructive power that nearly rivals Flapping Eagle's existence. Perhaps Rushdie is trying to say something about the weight, the heft we lend to sex. Perhaps he just likes writing about people getting it on.
And that's the mesmerizing thing about Grimus: You don't really know which parts are significant and which are insignificant and which are just there. It's, in a way, like Waiting For Godot, trafficking in literary negative space enough that you can find meaning in small passages or decide that moments which seem to be pivotal to the plot are disposable. As much as I disliked the way Rushdie's mechanical style forced effort on my part to parse the text, I loved that his writing forced effort to discern what was being said behind what was being described. Is he saying something about modern society when he describes the way the citizens of K use obsession to drown out the maddening din of the Grimus effect? Is the Grimus effect a symbol for information overload? For technology? For spirituality? I think the answers to all are both "yes" as well as "no."
The heaviest complaint I have with Grimus is that its ending is weak and entirely too convenient. Not convenient in the sense that the characters all get off scot free (quite the opposite in fact) but in that it provides a nice little bookend, and everyone kind of accidentally gets what they want. It's not "and it was all a dream," because it neither re-casts the narrative in the light of irrelevancy nor tries to shock the reader, but it's almost as bad in the way it takes all the interesting ideas and symbolic food-for-thought and suddenly makes them mere constructs, un-symbols that are now literal facets, of and exclusive to the world that Grimus creates. And Rushdie takes those elements which are no longer applicable to the real world the reader inhabits and tucks them away on a shelf and seems to simply ask, "Did you like the story?" Which, to me, misses the point entirely....more
As much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, the conceit that these brutal gladiatorial contests involving children would go unchallenged by the populace feAs much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, the conceit that these brutal gladiatorial contests involving children would go unchallenged by the populace felt forced. Having now read the sequel to that novel, I see that the bigger failing of Suzanne Collins's first entry in the series wasn't the notion of the Hunger Games, but the sense of how oppressive the ruling bodies of Panem really are. I think perhaps if a more directly sinister, power-mad aura had been conveyed (as opposed the a sort of generically uncaring, faceless regime that comes across in book one) the suspension of disbelief wouldn't have been as difficult to achieve.
The great news is that book two eradicates all that by building the tension—which was already feverish through most of the first installment—through a process of thoroughly vilifying the Capitol. The indignation Katniss feels is palpable, and her impotence to affect the plight of the populace, a plight she begins to feel responsible for through a very convincing transference process, is transferred in parallel to the reader. Collins makes every travesty sting, and she even gives a human face to direct the loathing in the slimy character of President Snow. By the time Katniss is drawn back into the arena for an unprecedented victors-only edition of the Hunger Games, it doesn't even feel surprising, much less unreasonable that the Capitol would casually throw its beacons of hope back into the fire.
Catching Fire basically takes everything that was not quite perfect about the first book and fixes it, then blows the doors off the whole concept. Gale becomes a much more well-rounded character here, as do several other secondaries like Haymitch and Cinna. Even some of Katniss's reluctance toward Peeta, which felt a bit discordant in book one considering how much of the rest of her perspective was effortlessly transmitted to the reader, gets a bit more rational in feel. There is even more of the breakneck pacing than in the previous book and four hundred pages fly by as if it were a magazine article. This is how escapist reading should feel: Visceral, emotional, exhilarating.
Two teeny tiny complaints that don't truly detract from the book are that it does suffer from second-in-a-trilogy syndrome in that it doesn't even come close to having a proper conclusion, worse even than the cliffhanger ending of The Hunger Games. The second is that there is a touch of one-upsmanship happening where events from book one are mirrored here only (supposedly) bigger and more spectacular. In a way that isn't unwelcome in the least since after finishing the first book I was saying, "More, please!" But occasionally there is a sense, especially once Peeta and Katniss end up back in the Capitol preparing for the next games, that this is rehashing what we've already experienced.
Still, the narrative motivation for the parallels are clear enough and it serves the development of the characters and the story so it's picking nits. This series has been great so far and is just getting better, I can't wait for the last chapter. ...more
There is a tricky bit of narrative navigation required to enjoy The Hunger Games, which is the notion that at some point an entire society would eitheThere is a tricky bit of narrative navigation required to enjoy The Hunger Games, which is the notion that at some point an entire society would either be so put-upon by an oppressive government or have evolved such a dearth of basic human instincts like protecting our children that they would succumb to the notion of an annual kill-or-be-killed television event featuring kids as young as twelve years old. Suzanne Collins attempts here and there to weave that dichotomy into the prose but by the end it comes across as flimsy and ultimately unrealistic. The rewards to the victors aren't high enough, the penalty to the losers is too unthinkable. Principally, the whole psychological control angle that seems to be designed to suffice as explanation for everyone's pliability is flawed because it wouldn't really be in any government's interest to try to elaborately encourage the oppressed to enjoy the instrument of their oppression, which is how The Hunger Games are presented.
Nevertheless, if you can simply accept that the premise is somehow realistic (or, as I suspect, that revelations in later books will indicate that the passive acceptance portrayed in this volume is not at all uniform), there is something amazing happening within the pages of The Hunger Games.
Collins's novel follows Katniss Everdeen, a tough, no-nonsense teenager who hails from as close to the bottom rung of society as possible. She makes herself an outlaw just by the simple act of trying to feed her family, by hunting outside her district boundaries with her partner Gale. Her world is all about survival: Getting the next meal, hunting enough extra to trade for other necessities and keeping her mom and beloved little sister safe. But the reaping is coming, the day when each district draws the name of one unlucky girl tribute and one unlucky boy tribute to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a brutal contest that pits the dual tributes from each of the twelve districts against each other in a fight to the death.
Katniss ends up as District 12's girl tribute, along with an enigmatic boy named Peeta whose past is intertwined with her own. She feels she owes the boy an un-repayable kindness but she is reluctant to let her emotions enter the picture because she knows that if she is to survive, it means Peeta has to die. Typically, being a tribute is a death sentence. But as her training begins and Katniss sizes up the competition, she begins to wonder if she might actually be able to pull of the unthinkable. But then there's the problem of Peeta and what it means for him if she's to emerge as the victor.
The plot is nothing particularly new, but that's okay since it's all in the execution with The Hunger Games (pardon the pun). Katniss is a believable and likable protagonist, she's flawed and conflicted but fierce and scrappy. Her tendency to get sucked up in pageantry and struggle with self-loathing afterward rings genuine, and her impotent bitterness at the system reflects the reader's own. Other characters are remarkably well-realized as well, considering the story unfolds entirely through the eyes of Katniss.
What's most remarkable is Collins's ability to make readers truly care about the other characters despite a relative lack of time devoted to them in the text. Katniss's sister Prim, the young girl from District 11 that reminds Katniss of Prim named Rue, the talented stylist that shows Katniss compassion and humanity and even the drunken mentor that is Haymitch. The fates of these characters feel like they matter with just a few pages devoted to each and the result is that when the book turns grim—and because of its nature it is bound to eventually—the tension and emotional investment is extremely high. Largely this is achieved through Collins's ability to let the reader experience the world of Hunger Games vicariously and empathetically through Katniss. Her triumphs become the audience's triumphs, her losses are ours. This is, a lot of the time, an incredibly emotional book.
The one aspect, and perhaps the most critical, that does struggle a bit with reader connection is the complex relationship that develops between Peeta and Katniss. It is occasionally difficult to reconcile the internal tug-of-war Katniss has over her feelings (or lack thereof) for Peeta considering we have the exact same information she does and it's the one instance where it's not easy to empathize because the audience falls for Peeta long before Katniss, if in fact she ever does (it's not really a spoiler to say the relationship is left un-resolved). Some effort is made to frame the relationship as a love triangle with the third point being Gale, but he's such a minor character throughout that it's hard to really see him much as competition with the affable and devoted Peeta.
As a whole work, The Hunger Games is primarily a gritty but gripping tale which does a surprisingly good job of having a social message without ever being preachy or overt about it. Katniss's description of her daily struggle to survive and the offhanded marvels she finds when she's brought to the Capitol to compete in the Games raise some difficult questions about the nature of decadence and casual regard for basic necessities so long as they are plentiful while conveniently ignoring the people who aren't so lucky not just in Panem, Hunger Games' fictional country, but in our own modern world. The contrast between first world excess and third world brutality is brought into relief by the Capitol's largess and the lower Districts' poverty.
A book that manages to elicit strong emotions (a particular sequence about halfway through the arena section nearly moved me to tears), forces one to ask difficult questions (I'm certain the concepts of wastefulness and greed in our everyday lives that the book forced into my mind will linger with me for weeks to come) and is just a captivating tale to boot (I tore through the book in about a day and a half) is one that shouldn't be missed, even if you have to force the suspension of disbelief just a little. ...more