I strongly recommend Mel's beautiful and moving review of this book. We both loved it, and tried really hard to explain why without spoil...moreJune 23, 2012
I strongly recommend Mel's beautiful and moving review of this book. We both loved it, and tried really hard to explain why without spoiling the story.
There are many other exceptional reviews from friends and others, and I would never have known about it without their guidance. My thanks to all.
June 19, 2012 (Pre-review) - Thanks so much to all who supported and commented on this (now slightly edited) lead-in! My full review follows this section.
I absolutely loved it. Plopped it straight onto my all-time favorites list. Knew it would be there before I got halfway through.
There is a strong temptation to just say READ THIS BOOK - DON'T READ ANY FULL REVIEWS UNTIL YOU READ THE BOOK. Not just a strong temptation - probably the right thing to do for a lot of reasons.
But then, there is this. Not everyone will love it, and some won't even like it very much. This is a book that dares to be different, and asks you to think really hard while following a lot of action at a distance.
My mission - and I decide to accept it - will be to convey some sense of the incredible thought-passage and events that take place in this slender volume. But not too much - that would be telling. Hopefully, just enough to let you decide whether you want to buckle up and take the ride.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx June 22, 2012 (Full review)
This is a beautifully written book which is intricately layered around classical, quasi-biblical and technical themes. It can be appreciated on several, conceptually independent levels: - as a suspenseful and unpredictable narrative - as an age-old philosophical quest with a major technical twist - as a set of dialogues for exploring the definitions of intelligence, consciousness and ideas - and as a brain-bending, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t workout for your head. For me, all of these elements were handled brilliantly, seamlessly and with extreme originality. This book is NOT like anything else I have ever read.
I need to discuss certain basic elements of the story, but will try to stay (mostly) within the boundaries of the publisher’s synopsis. To appreciate the sudden and dramatic shifts in the narrative, you really should just read the book. My major focus will be on the big-picture issues which the book explores, with some (hopefully) cryptic hints here and there of how the story goes.
The setting for the book is an all-day examination of the young historian Anaximander (Anax), by a panel that will rule on her application to the Academy - the ruling body for her society (The Republic). This setting may seem mundane and unpromising, but its execution here was anything but droll for me. In my career, I have been both the examined and (mostly) the examiner on many occasions, in roughly analogous situations. The dramatic tension in such exams is palpable for everyone involved, and was beautifully depicted here. Good people can break down in these intensely stressful situations - but they usually rise to the occasion and perform well, with just a few bumps and bruises along the way. It is an intellectual rite of passage.
In the early portion of the exam, Anax is called upon to sketch the history of The Republic in some detail for the committee. From her narrative, we learn that this society was built in the aftermath of worldwide catastrophe, and set up to be both sustainable and in many ways ‘ideal’ - along the lines of Plato’s Republic, but with modern variations.
The examiners and Anax build on that historic framework and move on to subsequent developments, and the role of one person in particular. The story of that person’s life is one key to the puzzle that Anax must analyze - to the committee’s satisfaction - to pass the exam.
Now, all of this may sound very dry and uneventful, and I think it was very daring of the author to choose this format for his electrifying story. I was never bored with it, not even a little bit. But this story-telling vehicle is a checkpoint for readers, and some will not find it as fascinating as I did.
I do want to emphasize this point - there is major dramatic tension and suspense in the narrative of Anax and the world she describes. It isn’t easy to convey that tension in a review. But I certainly was drawn, throughout the book, to keep turning pages and finding out what happened next.
The Republic was designed to maintain order in perilous times.
In this environment it was a simple matter for The Republic to maintain its structure. People did as they were told because they were working together, focused on a common threat, a shared enemy.
But problems arise in this utopian society.
...time passes. Fear becomes a memory. Terror becomes routine; it loses its grip.
The founders of The Republic sought to deny the individual, and in doing so they ignored a simple truth. The only thing binding individuals together is ideas. Ideas mutate, and spread; they change their hosts as much as their hosts change them.
New solutions are sought to maintain order. And one component of the initiative is the development of Artificial Intelligence algorithms. Anax must discuss this sequence in detail, and outline the strategies used to achieve it.
During its infancy, at least until the end of the twentieth century, the Artificial Intelligence industry had faced an imagination deficit. Because researchers wrongly assumed that their early computers were good models for the working of the brain, they persevered in programming thinking machines. It wasn't until the second decade of this century, when the scientists and artists began working together, that they began to understand the nature of what we now call emergent complexity.
Along the way, big decisions are made in pursuit of the goal.
A radical thinker, he pioneered a new model, which he called chaotic emergence. Under this system, the program itself was written by the learning environment using what we now refer to as the cascade heuristic.
And major technical problems are identified.
It is crucial he be exposed to an outside influence before his trimming and redirecting mechanisms shut down, and he becomes like a child deprived of stimulation, his curiosity left to wither.
But as in normal life, decisions have consequences, and a path once chosen may lead in quite unexpected directions.
There is a beautifully written series of exchanges between human and machine. As the discussion proceeds from opposing perspectives, each learns from and is influenced by the other. I was completely mesmerized by these brilliant Platonic dialogues.
“I talk to you, you make a sound. I kick this wall, it makes a sound. What's the difference? Perhaps you're going to tell me the wall is conscious too?" "I don't know if the wall's conscious," Art replied. "Why don't you ask it?"
Yes, these exchanges got some major gear-grinding going on in my head. Especially when I read bits of dialogue like this thrust:
My actions are deliberate. I do them with a purpose in mind. To the outsider there is no difference. The difference is in the intention, not the effect. We call this difference thought. You deal in data. I deal in meaning.
And this counter:
You think you're the end of it, but that's what thinking is best at: deceiving the thinker. Just as clay found carbon life forms hitching a ride, once the brain was up and running, so too carbon found there was another little hitchhiker waiting for its turn to pounce. Do you know what I'm talking about? You must know.
And just one more:
There is a battle happening as we speak, two thoughts fighting to the death inside your head. The old Idea is very strong. It has held its grip upon all of humanity, ever since the time you began telling one another stories. But the new Idea is powerful too, and you are beginning to find how reluctant it is to be dismissed.
Are these conversations tied to events? You Betcha. But you will have to read the book to find out how. I don’t think any reviewer is going to go there, and certainly not this one.
What I do want to say is that the pieces of this book work together as a seamless whole. But they also stand up to close scrutiny as individual units, and each is powerful and thought-provoking in the best sense of those terms. For me, the overall effect of this magnificent book was like a Vulcan mind meld, with Mr. Spock at the controls. Your head is opened and the contents inspected, shifted around and transported. You are left transformed, humbled and energized, all at the same time. Maybe scared too, but definitely in a different place from where you started.
Man, this book is awesome! If I didn’t have 700+ rocks on Mount TBR, I might start reading it again tonight.
There are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to as...moreThere are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to assume that those who read this are familiar with the basic premise. If not, that’s okay - some of the context will be evident here. But it is much easier to review this without major spoilers if I don’t try to tap-dance around the basics.
This book certainly deserves its legion of fans, and could become a phenomenal movie. I strongly recommend it for those who can handle the grim central themes. It plays on your deepest emotions, and gives your logic analyzer a good workout at the same time.
There is a group of big ideas that I will discuss in the second half of this review. And one gut-wrenching core concept - that some unspeakably awful things are in store for a lot of teenage kids. Basic human values are redefined, including the ‘sanctity’ of human life and the responsibilities of parents to their kids. The historic origin for all this is the intransigence of human attitudes on both sides of a tough issue. The outcome is a tide of events that sweeps young humans into institutional crimes, and these are cynically accepted - and mostly ignored - by adults.
These are all big, in-your-face polarizing topics. They demand a firm grasp on one’s own values, and value judgments of events in the story. But Shusterman never preaches here, and never pushes any final judgments except one - that the ‘solution’ in this fight over reproductive rights was at least as heinous as any of the original crimes.
I liked the story and concept a lot. With that said, it seemed obviously farfetched at first, and I was expecting a more thorough world-building treatment than the one that I got early on. I struggled with that, and it was somewhat distracting.
Fortunately, the narrative and the three main characters were highly engaging for me from the beginning. I was especially impressed by Risa, the excellent female lead - strong, tough, smart and adaptable, just what I want to see in this era of clueless insta-love. Any author would be proud of her, in my opinion. In addition, most of my background issues were covered by the midway point, and the narrative really rocked from that point on.
Overview and comments
This section will be relatively spoiler-free, I think.
The author does provide a brief intro/history of the events that led to the central scenario here. It is enough to get you grounded and provide some context for the opening scenes. But for me, there was still a feeling that the author jumped into the story very quickly, with introductions to three teenagers who are facing critical moments in their lives. At that point, I still didn’t understand the rationale at any deep level, and the experience was a little disorienting.
Gradually, however, there were enough details filtering into the narrative that I was able to focus increasingly on the characters and events. For me, both the characters and story were very effective from the beginning, and their momentum continued to build as the events took center stage.
I was sympathetic with all three of the major characters, but especially with Risa - the orphaned ward of the state. As I have said in other reviews, we don’t see enough of her strength, savvy, and intelligent action (my opinion) in recent top-selling fiction. I really liked Risa, and my admiration for her grew through the course of the book.
Connor was a frustrating protagonist for me, but I can understand the author’s purpose in writing him that way. Deeply compassionate - but temperamental and prone to impulses of very poor judgment - he had to grow in all sorts of ways as the story moved along, and he did. I wanted to slap him around a few times, and my view was shared by others in the story. But I was impressed by the author’s development of this character in latter stages.
Lev was perhaps the most interesting character, in his striking transformation from one set of bedrock principles - as his earliest memories - to a radically different manifesto by the end. Lev gives you a lot to think about, and so do Risa and Connor. Their life journey really carries the book, and I thought the author was extremely effective in his use of them as the main vehicle.
So, characters and events are the main thrust of the page-turning narrative, and it reached a point for me that I really couldn’t put it down toward the end. I even forgot to highlight passages on my Kindle for later review, and I swear it was not encroaching senility that made me forget! The book had a major grip on me - a really suspenseful, grab-and-don’t-let-go read.
Thoughts on the Big Questions
This section will implicitly involve spoilers, but I have tried to minimize plot reveals.
I want to focus here on the big questions that are always looming in the subtext. In particular, I want to take this scenario of a possible future and trace it back a bit to where we are now.
How precious is human life? When does it become precious? What restrictions should the state place on the “Right to Life”, especially among the unborn? The turmoil surrounding these questions is a daily debate in current society (and I am thinking especially of the USA in this regard, where the story occurs).
Shusterman presents a series of documentary examples: news releases, tales of despicable acts, extreme positions on all sides of these questions. He very pointedly avoids telling the reader what to think. Instead, he lets the characters think and talk about the issues.
“Unborn babies… they suck their thumbs sometimes, right? And they kick. Maybe before that they’re just like a bunch of cells or something, but once they kick and suck their thumbs— that’s when they’ve got a soul.”
“Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.”
In Shusterman’s telling, the conflict develops along naturally incendiary lines. It reaches a point where the belief in “sanctity of human life” is a mockery in relation to the war that grows out of the dispute.
What happens in that case? Well, Shusterman presents a truly bizarre outcome that is the core premise of the book - an agreement that would never occur under normal, peacetime conditions. In a one-page dialogue, he reveals how this agreement came to pass. If you have read the book, you will remember the dialogue. At some point, you most likely took a position on both the outcome and the rationale, and your impression of the book was driven in large part by the position you took. That was certainly true for me.
On first reading, the dialogue seemed inadequate to me as an explanation for the agreement. But it started to make a lot of sense on second and third reading, and by that point I found it plausible, no matter how cynical and sickening the implications were. My reading of history is that many critical turning-point events seem impossible until they happen, but seem inevitable after that. But some highly respected friends had a very different take in this case, and I can certainly understand their reactions. It is good to be aware of this going in.
In any case, one implication of the agreement came through very clearly. There was a lot of money to be made from it, and powerful forces took that idea and ran all the way to the bank.
“People wanted parts.” “Demanded is more like it... And all those new parts had to come from somewhere.”
”It didn’t take long for ethics to be crushed by greed. Unwinding became big business, and people let it happen.”
Can Transplants Think?
Whether or not souls exist Connor doesn’t know. But consciousness does exist— that’s something he knows for sure. If every part of an Unwind is still alive, then that consciousness has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?
My take on these issues (in the book) is that teens are left to work the answers out for themselves, while adults look the other way.
“The unborn have souls. They have souls from the moment they get made— the law says.”
“maybe an Unwind’s spirit stretches out, kind of like a giant balloon between all those parts of us in other places. Very poetic.”
Context and point of view are critical here. The conversations are among teenagers on the ‘firing line’. These are not adults, making rules based on hardened ideologies. They are kids who deal with the consequences.
He tries to imagine himself stretched so thin and so wide that he can reach around the world. He imagines his spirit like a web strung between the thousand recipients of his hands, his eyes, the fragments of his brain— none of it under his control anymore, all absorbed by the bodies and wills of others. Could consciousness exist like that?
He thinks about the trucker who performed a card trick for him with an Unwind’s hand. Did the boy who once owned that hand still feel the satisfaction of performing the trick?
As an adult, I read these passages and think, “Nah. It wouldn’t be like that at all.” From my neuroscientist perspective, I wouldn’t expect any vestige of consciousness in any ‘harvested’ organ that is not a brain.
But my adult perspective is not the issue here. These are teenagers who are trapped in a system that was born in warfare, hardened by greed, and then marginalized in the collective adult consciousness. Their bitter reality is carefully ignored on the radar of the average adult in this society. They are the living victims, and no adult is taking responsibility for explaining whether and in what sense they will remain alive.
Conclusions This book has a lot of power, and has forced many adult readers (me included) to think more carefully about the consequences of ideology run amok. The story won’t work for everybody. But I will be extremely interested in the sequel that is coming soon, and one thing I want to see is whether adults can ‘grow up’ in this world.
Actions have consequences, and responsibility doesn’t end when you don’t want to deal with it any more. Can we do better? I believe that is a good thought for any day.
Thanks very much to Erika and many other GR friends who recommended this book to me. I depend so much on their judgments in choosing the books that I read, and I am deeply grateful to have them on my side.
There are so many excellent and moving reviews of this book on GR, from my friends and many others. Too many to list here. My advice - look at what your friends had to say about it, or just start at the top and go from there.(less)
I was introduced to this incredible, genre-shattering novella (and its amazing author) by my friend Catie and her spectacular review. Fortunately for...moreI was introduced to this incredible, genre-shattering novella (and its amazing author) by my friend Catie and her spectacular review. Fortunately for me, Catie’s review was followed by Nataliya’s beautiful and complementary take. Together, their guidance was essential for me as I navigated the dreamlike currents of this amazing, but challenging story. Yes, there are some mind-bending developments here, and readers should be prepared to work for their rewards. I strongly recommend reading both of the above-cited reviews before (or instead of) mine.
Just a couple more items of introduction. I usually make every effort to avoid spoilers. Not so here, although I will not actually tell much of the story. This, in my opinion, is one case where spoilers are actually helpful - even essential - to keep the reader grounded in some earth-based coordinate system.
As a crude analogy, imagine looking through a microscope in incredible detail at exquisite, micron-sized features in a large, unknown specimen. As you continue, gradually piece together a concept of what the specimen is by thinking about the pieces. Valente puts the reader to this test. But she provides so much beauty and imagination, and such an intricate web of ideas that the challenge is a central part of the reward.
Take those elements up to light speed. Put them in a setting of magical realism, across multiple generations of a single family as the individuals move through their lives. Apply them to an enormous house, and the software that was initially created to manage its systems and inventories. Both the house and the software are called Elefsis.
Hint: Elefsis (the computer program) is not your father’s thermostat. Cassian, the matriach of this uber-wealthy family, designed the software with forethought and extreme flexibility. Not intelligence as such - let’s call it high-grade, adaptable fitness for the job at hand. She then continued to upgrade it to meet the needs of family members.
”But the update will come again. Transfer will come again. I will be wounded again, the way a dreambody can be wounded. I will lose the Elefsis I am now. It is a good Elefsis. My best yet. I would like to keep it.”
One of these family members is Ceno, and she is given an update that makes the playroom safer and more interesting. She also has permission, and the cleverness, to tinker with the program and make it a LOT more interesting. The cumulative powers of this collaboration are magnified by a bio-engineered partnership - a crystalline computer surgically implanted in her skull. In a very real sense, the human and the computer become one.
” In realspace, Ceno reached up behind her head and popped the jewel out of its notch. Click, clench. In playspace, the dormouse blinked out. She snapped it back in. It took a moment, but the dormouse faded back in, paws first.”
What happens after that, in this kaleidoscopic tale of nonlinear narrative and mazelike intricacy, is that things just get “curiouser and curiouser”. Elefsis, with the help of her human host, becomes ever more powerful, literally growing in sophistication as she/he/it narrates the story for us. This first-person tale, told by a ‘machine’, morphs into something that is more than just a beautiful dreamscape. It is a novel, working definition of intelligence, creativity and yes, all of the deep emotions of life.
” I was quite stupid. But I wanted to be less stupid. There was an I, and it wanted something. You see? Wanting was the first thing I did. Perhaps the want was the only thing that could be said to be truly myself.”
So let’s introduce a single word here. To me, the word embodies the core elements of this story, and the questions and assertions behind it. That word is Emergence.
I don’t mean the kind of emergence where a fully-formed entity breaks through the surface of a pool, so that you can see it. I mean the kind of Emergence where a group of unrelated fragments comes together to form a new entity. For that kind of Emergence, there are many interesting questions.
How powerful is this second kind of Emergence, and what sorts of entities can it create? To me, this is the core question and concept that make the story so special. The reader gets caught up in the beauty and sheer elegance of the world that is revealed, one element and one life at a time. But here and there, in tiny fragments at first but with real force later, Valente lets you know that the child’s plaything is now much more than a beloved companion.
How dependent are emergent processes on the original design elements? Well, this is a tricky bit. Emergent processes are not necessarily dependent on any design whatsoever. I won’t delve into those evolutionary issues here - the something-from-nothing questions of biology and the Universe - because in this case there was a very definite original design. But the Elefsis-entity that emerges, with Ceno’s collaboration, is so completely transformed that its power has overwhelmed the original design. That transformation is beautifully depicted here.
” Inside my girl, I made myself, briefly, a glowing maiden version of Ceno in a crown of crystal and electricity, extending her perfect hand in utter peace toward Cassian. But all this happened very fast. When you live inside someone, you can get very good at the ciphers and codes that make up everything they are.”
What are the ultimate limits of such emergent processes? Here there are two main questions. First, can a machine ever be truly ‘intelligent’? This is beautifully developed in the context of the Turing test:
” The test had only one question. Can a machine converse with a human with enough facility that the human could not tell that she was talking to a machine? I always thought that was cruel—the test depends entirely upon a human judge and human feelings, whether the machine feels intelligent to the observer.”
And second, what does it mean, in machine/software terms, to feel love and compassion? To care? This is a recurring question, and the one that is most thought-provoking. One example:
” What I want to say is that there is no difference between her body producing oxytocin and adrenaline and learning to associate this with pair-bonding, and my core receiving synthetic equivalents and hard-coding them to the physical behaviors I performed.
Valente does not provide final answers to either of these questions, and wisely so I think. But she does put down very clear markers that say to the reader: ‘Hey, look at me! I am Elefsis, a machine-being, and I am telling you this story! I have feelings, I have wants, I care, and I take care. And I am telling you how I feel. What do you think about that?!’
(view spoiler)[‘And maybe as a new being, I (Elefsis) move beyond those human concerns, because they are no longer relevant.. Maybe I have questions of my own, and I can move with accumulated human wisdom and life-force, and lightning speed, into a sphere of my own making.’ (hide spoiler)]
Sorry about the hidden spoiler. I just needed some concluding details to clarify my take on it. My hope is that you will read the story, think about it, and come to your own judgment. It is a work of beauty and brilliance, and deserves to make its own case.
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***I have tried to avoid spoilers. If you have read the book, you know how difficult that can be in this case. If you haven’t, you might be well advis...more***I have tried to avoid spoilers. If you have read the book, you know how difficult that can be in this case. If you haven’t, you might be well advised to just check it out first, and come back to the reviews later... I REALLY liked it, and will try to walk the tightrope of discussing it without giving it away.. ///////
There is a key moment very early in this book - a flashback to Alison at age 6. She is watching her mom washing dishes, and seeing a trail of gold stars when the cutlery clinks. This visual sensation is very beautiful to Alison, but she has no idea that there is anything unusual about it.
She asks for more of the gold stars, and the shock of her mom’s violent and angry reaction is a defining moment in Alison’s life. Her mom’s orders are very clear. There are No stars. Alison is never to mention them, or anything like them to anyone, ever! People will think she is crazy! Allison’s mom thinks so too, while her dad is intelligent but basically clueless on this issue:
“My father was a sweet man, but most of the time he acted like his body was only there to keep his brain from dragging on the ground.”
For Alison, this moment changes everything about her relations with other people. She can never reveal those special perceptions. But they continue and grow more complex as she reaches her teens, a product of some unusual circuitry in her brain and eyes. (I will save other comments on this point for later discussion, if others are interested)
“You know how when some people first take up painting they don’t know how to mix colors properly, and all their pictures end up looking all garish and cheap? It’s like that when I watch TV.”
I bought into Alison’s defining, traumatic moment - it made sense to me. A childhood trauma takes away the simple joy of a beautiful set of perceptions, and turns them into a continuing nightmare. Intimidated by her mother’s outraged warning, Alison lives and builds much of her life around these perceptions, but knows she must keep them hidden or society will cast her aside.
But what drives much of the story is an even more horrifying turn of events, and the aftermath of this incident puts her in the psychiatric institution that her mother had feared all along. The book begins with her in this institution, piecing together the story (in first person) through her own deep confusion about what really happened, and what is or is not wrong with her. This confusion is a core element of the story - it makes everything she sees, thinks and does highly suspicious, to herself and to everyone around her.
“So I pushed the bitterness down, into the black pit of my stomach along with my regret and my grief and my fear, and I said, “I’m fine. May I go now?” “
The plot twists and turns from this point, and pieces/parts have been carefully indicated in all the reviews that I read. Nearly all of it worked extremely well for me. Having bought into the tortured but exotic inner world of Allison, I was prepared for the tortuous saga that followed. I anticipated some of the twists, though certainly not all. But I enjoyed the story greatly, right through to the end.
Your mileage may vary. A lot of trusted reviewers/friends had issues with this one, and it may just not work for you. What is really tricky is that serious readers will react in very different ways to the characters and the twists. I get that.
Here is the way I think of it. I love authors who can define a 'world' and make it work. Authors who follow their artistic vision and put it out there as they see it. The world could be almost anything - physical, psychological, pure fantasy, etc. And yes, things can change dramatically as the story rolls along.
For me, the ‘success’ of that world is not so much about what is in it, or even how it works, but how skillful the author is in depicting it. What I am judging is whether the creation hangs together for me. Is it internally consistent? Is the writing clear and moving? Do I care about the characters? Does the story gain momentum and then hold it?
In the hands of a lesser writer, I don't think that any part of this story would have drawn me in or held my interest. But Anderson’s writing scored strong positives on all of my criteria. I raced through it to see what would happen next. My pulse was pounding at many points in the story. In the end, I cared strongly about several of the characters and was satisfied with the outcome.
Thinking back, what I really enjoyed throughout was the skillful maneuvering of observation, inference and the unsettling new facts. For me, it was a marvelous excursion to see events unfold through the lens of Alison’s confusion, mental instability and her extraordinary perceptions. I was particularly impressed by the deft handling of shifting relationships among the characters, as the stereotyped certainties of one chapter became the deeper and more complex truths of the next. I would definitely read it again.
4/10/12 Okay, this is the longer review. The added bit follows the dashed line ---
I learned about this outstanding book and its brilliant author from ...more4/10/12 Okay, this is the longer review. The added bit follows the dashed line ---
I learned about this outstanding book and its brilliant author from Catie’s wonderful review and blog post. Yes, I should have known about it many years ago, but this was a gap in my experience. To make up for lost time, I now have the boxed-set series of 5 books for my family.
This is a wonderful adventure story for children - one that speaks to them as adults, and conveys a bundle of important life-concepts without getting weighed down by them.
It is also a great book for re-acquainting adults with the potentials of life - and the critical importance of faith - even as we deal with hard and often scary realities.
My review won’t be nearly as good as Catie’s - in part because she has read the book from both a child’s and an adult’s perspective, and in part because she just writes fabulous reviews (not to mention the artist renderings!). However, I will follow Catie's suggestion and focus mainly on my perspective as an adult, reading this for the first time. -------------------------
At one level, this is a delightful - but harrowing - children’s adventure in a science fictional setting. The story is centered around a strong, smart girl named Meg, and her intuitively wise and precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace. The interplay between these two is a beautiful thing to see.
Charles Wallace: “It’s being able to understand a sort of language, like sometimes if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with the trees. You tell me, you see, sort of inad—inadvertently. That’s a good word, isn’t it? I got Mother to look it up in the dictionary for me.”
The narrative very cleverly promotes timeless values of family, loyalty and love. It also edges the reader toward a growing realization - that perseverance is critical to success in any difficult endeavor. It is the kind of book that you really want your kids to read and understand, and to come back to as they get older.
Meg: This has been the most impossible, the most confusing afternoon of my life, she thought, yet I don’t feel confused or upset anymore; I only feel happy. Why?
At another level this is a story for adults, but told from a child’s perspective. The adult story, when you step back and think about it, is a circle of ideas that are connected and interdependent. Within that circle are knowledge - what we know and what we don’t; reasoning to solve problems, even when you are too scared to think clearly; the importance of faith - that there are answers, even when you can’t see them; and a related kind of faith, that you can and must act without knowing some of the most critical facts.
Charles Wallace got his look of probing, of listening. I know that look! Meg thought suddenly. Now I think I know what it means! Because I’ve had it myself, sometimes, doing math with Father, when a problem is just about to come clear...
This is all grownup stuff, the sort of thing that philosophers have trundled on about for millennia. But the lessons here are concepts for living, simply stated, and at their core are simple truths that are easily lost in the day-to-day. We humans know a great deal, about a great many things, and (like Meg) we can reason our way through tough challenges to a brighter future. But arrogance about our knowledge can lead us to think we are masters of all around us. In the book, experiments with tesseracts are a great example. The experiments are in a noble cause, but they lead down a very dark path. In the bigger picture we know pathetically little, and all our knowledge is but a tiny scratch on the surface of what IS.
What she saw was only the game Mrs Whatsit was playing; it was an amusing and charming game, a game full of both laughter and comfort, but it was only the tiniest facet of all the things Mrs Whatsit could be.
And here is the critical point that is so well expressed in the narrative. We have to take our pathetically limited knowledge, and our dangerous arrogance, and get on with it. And when we fail, or things go wrong, we get angry and point fingers, just as Meg does here. As our brains scream about fears and anger, and point us in a lot of wrong directions, we have to pull ourselves together and move forward, using our limited working knowledge and accepting that we have to find answers as we go along. All of this involves faith, of different sorts and in shifting applications.
“What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.”
“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?” “Yes.” Mrs Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”
In short, all of us must proceed into the darkness and reach for the light. For me, reading as an adult, that is what this book was all about.
I agree in every detail with the comments about this book in the wonderful review by Kaethe that put me onto it. Her review provides a series of very good reasons to read the book, without spoiling the fascinating and intricate story that lies within. As I discovered, it provides a second set of points that will make much more sense after you read the book.
The dialogue in this book is among the funniest I have ever read. It is hugely successful as a satire of major players in Hollywood filmmaking, and I would have loved it for that element alone. But Scalzi’s talent is such that he can develop very heavy/consequential themes, with characters that seem at first to be very superficial. He does this with a science fictional framework that is woven, very convincingly, into real-life settings, and makes you laugh so hard that your ribs ache while you are taking it all in.
It works beautifully. And, speaking for myself, the rib pain was worth it. (Check with your doctor first before trying this at home)
Some reviewers have noted a few issues with continuity in topical references that were updated in this edition. I noticed some of that, but it didn’t bother me.
3.5 Stars. There is much to admire about this 1990-vintage panorama of Earth in the 50-year future (at the time of writing). From our vantage point, ~...more3.5 Stars. There is much to admire about this 1990-vintage panorama of Earth in the 50-year future (at the time of writing). From our vantage point, ~20 years into that predicted future, many of the deeply disturbing trends are playing out along very similar lines as those predicted in the book. Equally important, a lot of mostly-positive trends are also falling more or less into place. In many ways, the predictive power of this book is quite remarkable.
I was also impressed by the ambitious scope of the work. The writing is very good in its treatment of scientific issues, both real and fanciful. There is a helpful postscript in which the distinctions between known and speculative science, and the author's thinking behind the story lines, are made clear. And the coverage of Earth is comprehensive, from the core (site of a central dramatic theme) to the deeply disturbed crust and its too-many humans, to near-earth orbit and then beyond. All of these themes are treated with great skill, and a complex story that moves along nicely and with some very exciting developments. Moreover, there is a really interesting discussion of the processes of human consciousness, and a very clever plot development that grows out of it.
My problems with the book are in the relatively weak character development, and - for my taste - rather clumsy treatment of individual human relationships. I just didn't get the feeling that the major characters were portrayed with the skill that characterized the other elements of the story. This was something of a distraction from what was otherwise a really good read.
This was my first major read on my new Kindle, and I borrowed it online from the local library. There is a great deal of potential in this lending mechanism, and I can recommend it highly for those who have access.(less)
This was a 3.5 star book for me. I was really swept away by the story and had trouble putting it down, but the technical detail will be too geeky for...moreThis was a 3.5 star book for me. I was really swept away by the story and had trouble putting it down, but the technical detail will be too geeky for many. A chilling, possible-future tale of homeland security measures taken to Orwellian extremes. More real, in my view, than most of us would like to think. The book takes a definite point of view, but voices other attitudes about these complex issues, enough to let the reader think and make informed decisions. Well written, but be prepared for a bumpy emotional ride.(less)
For me the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was excellent. This one, the second of the series, was outstanding. The story picks up where the first book ends. With that said, I will avoid specifics of plot elements as much as possible, and focus on general themes and the writing.
Patrick Ness has succeeded brilliantly in reaching two objectives that I would have thought incompatible. On one hand, he has written a gripping story that is dominated by strong characters, with crisp, clean plot lines and universal good vs. evil themes. The pages turn rapidly, as if by themselves.
On the other hand, he has used only first-person narration to build a dense network of conflicts and deeper implications into this relatively simple storyline. The two main characters (Todd and Viola) struggle throughout with big questions for which there are no clear answers. The romantic aspects of the story are complex and constantly shifting. These complexities had me thinking hard (in a good way) through most of the book. My thoughts kept shifting from the latest plot twist to the bigger picture and back again, as the pages just kept turning.
A lot of the complexities are built around the bigger issues of mind control – both internal and external. Without getting too specific (I hope), there are ongoing internal struggles for both Todd and Viola – with how to fight the evil forces, but also with understanding just what is evil and what is (mostly) good. In short, they are constantly in the foggy area of tradeoffs, facing choices between bad and worse scenarios. But those internal struggles would be manageable, if not for the external struggles against the mind-control and other powers of a truly bad (male) leader. And I won’t even talk about the extremely complex female leader, except to say that she is perhaps the most fascinating character in the book. The mastery of the book is that it juggles all of these big themes in a compelling narrative that is really hard to put down.
The fact that all of this is done in first-person voice required extreme skill. In The Knife of Never Letting Go, the telling was done entirely by Todd - an unsophisticated (but not at all simple) coming-of-age boy. While I much prefer to read language that is elegant and beautiful, Todd is not capable of such language, and the author sticks to his guns on this point. In hindsight, this choice was critical for making the story come alive, and I really admire the author’s ability to make it work.
With that said, I was more than happy to see the equal reliance, in this book, on the much more sophisticated and articulate voice of Viola. Her active narrative role was a major enhancement to the reading experience for me.
More importantly, the author alternated the two voices beautifully to explore a whole new range of complex emotions as the characters struggled, learned, succeeded and failed in the overwhelming challenges that they faced.
One of the best features of this book is the constant challenge to re-examine your ideas about what, and who, is really good or really evil. You think you know, and it all seems so simple, but you are continually forced to rethink your assumptions.
I also loved the fact that the author took a lot of chances – notably with a very inventive mode of ‘communication’ that plays a crucial role in the story. In many ways, this book forced me to rethink my own definition of great writing. I love the great wordsmiths, the ones with liquid prose that flows through your head and spreads ideas as it passes. For me, the central wonder of this book is that it spreads a wealth of ideas, but does so with deliberately ordinary prose.
For me, this incredible book is as near to perfection as I am ever likely to see. This could be my template for a five-star book – a definite masterpi...moreFor me, this incredible book is as near to perfection as I am ever likely to see. This could be my template for a five-star book – a definite masterpiece. Having just read another classic that also pushed onto my all-time favorites list – Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – I was struck by just how completely the great writers can take possession of your mind and your life. All they require is some of those too-brief periods when you can sit and really concentrate on their wondrous stories and skills.
I found quite a few really excellent reviews of this book below. I will focus here on aspects that were not so frequently covered in other reviews.
First, a personal note about GR friends. I have reached a point, in my year-plus on this site, where nearly every book I read was unknown to me until I read a favorable review by a friend. In this case, Cindy liked The Dervish House and recommended it for fans of The Windup Girl. That would be me (I couldn’t put it down, and would definitely re-read it). And the comparison is certainly apt, as several reviewers have noted.
But for all my admiration of The Windup Girl, I think this book is written with much more depth and skill. It is certainly more sensitive in its treatment of female characters. Another book that would draw comparisons is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow, which I read many years ago and was also a major influence at that time. But again, I think that The Dervish House is a superior read. Both books sparkle with dense, twisting prose. Both combine history, science, and human emotion with adventure and a rapidly evolving storyline. In both cases, the technical mastery is dazzling, and every sentence is tightly structured, with multiple layers of meaning and insight. But here, the writing is very full of human life, with characters that seem both real and worth caring about. Religious and spiritual traditions play a critical role here, and add greatly to the impact of the story. Pynchon’s masterpiece, by comparison, is arid and impersonal, and in that sense the reader (this one, anyway) is not personally drawn into the story.
This is not a book for those who want a quick or light read. The writing is very readable but dense, with an almost metronomic precision that must be followed carefully to be understood. Moreover, it is loaded with detail about Turkish history and culture that will not be familiar to many readers (including me). I am perfectly okay with this – I like to take a book on its own terms, and enjoy it (or not) by how well it succeeds in the world it creates. For me, the great writers always teach, and learning from them is one of the great joys of reading.
More than anything else, this book read for me like a felt-life guide through the past and near future of Istanbul. After reading it, I didn’t want to live there, but I certainly felt the value of understanding its complexities, and the central place it occupies in so many cultural histories. These historical lessons and perspectives alone would have made it a top book selection on my shelf.
But there is so much more here. In fact, the fluid integration of extremely complex themes is what I found most amazing about this work. It really pushed all of my intellectual and spiritual buttons, since the themes are both universal and a big part of my own everyday thinking, when I contemplate this crazy world and my place in it. The level of skill required to seamlessly integrate these deeper themes, in a ripping good story, was simply stunning. I found myself shaking my head in amazement, and I certainly didn’t want it to end.
***The following contains fairly specific hints about plot elements, but no direct spoilers (I think).
For example – what is really important for a meaningful and rewarding life? Each of the major characters has a different set of answers, and each of their stories is brilliantly written from his/her everyday point of view. These points of view are often expressed in extremely effective dialogue (and several gripping monologues), all very tightly woven into the storyline. It’s all about money for one – the deal, the river of currency flows, and the technical skill to grab a handful with perfect timing as it slides by. For another, a life of drug abuse and casual meanness is transformed, by a critical moment, to religious visions that have complex origins and multiple interpretations. The question of just what these visions represent becomes a fascinating element of the story. For a third, a life of sensory deprivation becomes a detective chase and a thrilling but dangerous adventure. All of these perspectives are presented as narratives with incredible skill, by a great writer at the top of his game.
A second example – what does the future hold for the human species? In most dystopian worlds, human actions have made the home planet all but uninhabitable, while those most responsible live largely in denial of their misdeeds, and above the resulting fray. Where does it all lead? The Windup Girl looks at this issue and presents a terrifying and cruel future that is, perhaps, inevitable given the path we are now on. By contrast, The Dervish House takes a much more subtle and nuanced approach. The toll of human excess is everywhere in evidence, and there are plenty of reasons to look back in anger at past abuses. But the characters generally don’t do this. They simply live in the world as it is. Yes, it is unbearably hot, and everyone knows this is very bad but they get on with it. Yes, nanotechnology has terrifying potential for both intended and unintended calamity. But nanobots and nanodrugs play important and workmanlike roles in everyday life, a bit like the smartphones that many of us rely on today. In this book, the future is a work in progress.
I was left shaking my head and smiling at the sheer artistry of it all. And anxious to move through my long TBR list of recommendations by GR friends. Their collective intelligence about great books is my great pleasure. For The Dervish House, my highest recommendation. (less)