From reading Less Than Zero you'd almost think that Ellis had let himself get sentimental; these characters, while being just as emotionally damaged a...moreFrom reading Less Than Zero you'd almost think that Ellis had let himself get sentimental; these characters, while being just as emotionally damaged as Clay's friends in Los Angeles from Less Than Zero, actually seem to offer reasons as to their serial apathy, interspersing long sections of emotionless anomie with sudden bursts of extremely emotional misinterpretation. The book even offers up something of a thesis for the generation Ellis captured in such graphically disinterested detail, so it almost feels like it has a point, despite all of his attempts to make it seem like there would be none.
Please note that Ellis is a transgressive writer - perhaps a bit less so than some of the big transgressive greats of the 90s, but all the drugs and sex and alienation are still there. The controversial content aside, Ellis' style is fast paced and heavily removed - at times the novel reads more like a plot summary or stage direction than prose - but that serves its purpose rather than just being weak writing. The Rules of Attraction is heavily disorienting, as it should be - Ellis has his characters throw around names of people they see, people they've slept with, people they know but don't really "know," with such abandon that you will quickly lose track of minor characters.
As for recommendations - The Rules of Attraction hits on many of the same themes as Ellis' debut novel, Less Than Zero, which I feel is superior. They're not by any means the same novel, but I'd still recommend reading Less Than Zero first - both as an introduction to Ellis and because it's a better novel. (less)
"The Futurologial Congress" tried really hard to be an excellent book, but there were a few problems that sold it short.
The book's surreal imagery and...more"The Futurologial Congress" tried really hard to be an excellent book, but there were a few problems that sold it short.
The book's surreal imagery and incredibly fast pacing are both a charm and a detriment. While the experience wouldn't feel nearly as authentic without a style that backs up the character's disorientation, that very same disorientation removes the reader a little too much. Much of the book is presented as a series of memoirs, however, it falls prey to one of the most common mistakes of memoir (or mock-memoir) writing: too much is explained. Memoir is not biography. Memoir is not reflection or reminiscence on paper. A good memoir focuses on the specific story being told and lets its theme and all that fall into place, just like a regular story. Some significant events are given little narration, and important characters - including Ijon's "girlfriend" in the future - are never directly narrated at all. Aside from being disappointing, this also makes the book feel short. To be fair, it is; it's definitely longer than a novella but not by a lot. Still, the story doesn't have to feel short.
Still, structural problems aside, Lem's wit, verve, and intellect shine through. While other science fiction authors were busy dumbing down the same old tropes - alien civilizations, the future of humanity, etc - Stanislaw Lem was busy telling us that the future, the truly alien, is truly unknowable. His view of the semantics of the future gave me a headache, but only in the best possible way - the way that rang of intellectual honesty. As Ijon begins to pull back layer after layer of the future society, he discovers paradoxes and literal non-literals and the whole thing is marvelously accomplished. While parts of the story itself are frustrating, the philosophy of "The Futurological Congress" is invigorating in all the best possible ways.
Some readers will probably have contention with the ending. I'll warn you up front - it may seem like a classic, and super-weak, writing trope, but I'd advise the involved reader to step back from it, let it happen, then analyze it. Few books can earn the kind of ending that graces the last pages of "The Futurologial Congress," but I feel Stanislaw Lem has managed it.
I think I've about had it with Heinlein at this point.
"Stranger in a Strange Land" is probably the most polarizing book I've read recently. On the on...moreI think I've about had it with Heinlein at this point.
"Stranger in a Strange Land" is probably the most polarizing book I've read recently. On the one hand, it attempts things that most science fiction doesn't attempt; for that matter, it deliberately bucks social taboo in favor of exploring what's beneath the darker side of our cultural identity, which should be a goal of any true artist. Then, on the other hand, the book is mired in the cultural identity of its time, the prejudices of its author, and just plain bad storytelling.
So, the bad, first:
Probably first and foremost is the problematic treatment of women in Heinlein's storytelling. There's a feeling throughout that Heinlein is attempting to be progressive; in particular, one character's discussion of the utopian vision of woman being able have sex without needing to regard accidental pregnancy or disease but to have full volition to control her sexuality, full volition to decide when her sexuality will lead to the conception of a child, and fear no threat of sexual violence due to having the power to banish any such threat before it may do any harm is pretty gender-forward, but principally when taken out of context. Many characters refer to female characters in a demeaning or condescending manner throughout, in a way that is casual and often viewed as commmonplace. No female character stands out as being fully self-actualized. Arguably the most important female character, Jill, is given little characterization - and the most important aspect of her characters' changes - from a relatively prudish, "normal" female citizen to a sexually liberated cult member who freely engages in sexual activity purely for the enjoyment of it with no regard to propriety - is not actually shown; the novel skips great periods of time and one of the things that's lost is Jill's character progression. Another scene in which a female character coerces a male character into having sex with her by crying when he refuses is pretty twisted on a number of levels. However, the most telling gender-role problem comes with the Man from Mars' loss of virginity - because the scene, while fully narrated, does not reveal with whom he is losing his virginity. As a matter of fact, the narration pointedly avoids revealing who it was, which sends the implicit message that it actually does not matter who he is having sex with.
A real feminist critique of "Stranger in a Strange Land" would be very long, very thorough, and would likely tear the novel to shreds. I don't feel qualified to conduct such a critique and can only comment on the things that bothered me.
Right on the heels of problematic gender-typing is Heinlein's homophobia. There isn't a ton about homosexuality in the book, other than to present it as off or wrong; in one notable passage, a character postulates that Michael, the Man from Mars, who can detect inherent "wrongness" in things (most notably guns throughout much of the book) would perceive homosexuals as wrong and would not choose to bring them closer into his circle. The novel also pointedly states gay men to be "feminine" and gay women to be "masculine," a glaring stereotype and, at best, massive oversimplification. Despite all the talk about throwing off society's previous code of sexual taboos and liberating sexual conduct for his followers, all relations are still strictly of a heterosexual nature.
Granted, this was being written in 1961, so Heinlein can be pictured as a prisoner of his times, but in a book that is an apparently sincere attempt to rise above the mores of the times to postulate a more perfect, harmonious society, using that excuse is an irony of the most inexcusable sort.
And then there's the storytelling itself. The first half to two-thirds of the book is paced very, very well. Things move along slowly but deliberately, giving the level of examination and narration necessary to give depth to the story. All in all, unless I'm much mistaken, the meat of the first two-thirds or so of the novel takes place over the course of only a couple of months. Then, all of a sudden, the pace changes remarkably - while the narration itself remains at about the same pace, it starts randomly jumping forward in time - resulting in the aforementioned loss of characterization for Jill. At one point, a main character makes reference to meeting another character - something which had happened earlier in the book - and he says that the meeting took place two years previous, which completely threw me.
And then, of course, there's the whole problematic concept of utopia itself. The people in the book are shown progressing into a kind of utopian extended family unit, in which they all love each other completely, empathize with each other completely, share all that they have and are with each other and never get angry or sad or upset at all, really. In particular, main character Ben makes an ass of himself (in the view of the social convention of Mike's group, which is non-mainstream, to say the least) in a way that would presumably hurt Mike and Jill's feelings, however Jubal postulates (correctly, as is proven later) that Mike and Jill will still take Ben back with perfect love and never a question as to why he ran out on them. Instead of seeming to have progressed to a greater level of happiness, they seem to have left behind actual feeling and have become blissful idiots. Which is kind of the definition of utopia; a group of blissful idiots who have managed to subvert their own perception into eternal happiness.
I could go on and on and frankly I don't feel like it. Perhaps sometime I'll revisit "Stranger in a Strange Land;" its presentation of frank, if still non-explicit, sexuality at that particular stage of our society merits notice, and its intellectual approach towards social criticism perhaps merits academic interest. For now, I'm done reading about characters wishing that the others "may never thirst." I think I'd rather find some characters who still remember what it's like to be thirsty. (less)
I think, in retrospect, that reading "Jennifer Government" directly after reading "Brave New World" wasn't the most ingenuous idea possible. Jennifer...moreI think, in retrospect, that reading "Jennifer Government" directly after reading "Brave New World" wasn't the most ingenuous idea possible. Jennifer Government, while depicting a horrifying dystopia like Brave New World, does so for a modern audience. It lacks Brave New World's timelessness and is about as subtle as getting punched in the face, but once you step back from it you realize that's part of it's intelligence.
From the beginning, Jennifer Government seemed like kind of an immature book. The writing was passable, in the way that contemporary third person novels that mostly eschew style and only commit to slight variations in voice in the narration often are. The ideas seemed a little adolescent - from changing the word capitalism to "capitalizm" to changing peoples' name structures so that each person's last name is the name of the company they work for, Jennifer Government appears thinly veiled. Add in the oft-times comedic stupidity of several of the main characters (in particular, Billy's complete lack of common sense is reinforced in pretty much every passage he appears in) and you have something that feels like it's trying to poke fun more than seriously analyze or satirize.
But what is the primary issue with a world obsessed with profit and corporate consumerism? Infantilization. In order to make people more susceptible the a world without substance, they are made to be more like children. Shades of Brave New World again, only here - rather than a society designed to be unintelligent by the intelligent - Max Barry gives us a world in which even the upper echelons of society have fallen prey to their own anti-intellectualism. The result? Mass stupidity and a prevalence of egregious personality disorders. In particular, main character John's narcissistic personality is way, way overblown - appropriately, given that he lives in a society where that disorder is not only spawned, but encouraged to grow. Indeed, the more involved in himself John is, the more successful he becomes.
The characterization is a bit difficult to pin down. Many of the main characters experience only peripheral changes - Billy in particular comes full circle, managing to get out of the series of events of which he never wanted to be a part at the end, having learned and changed very little. John, too, is a bit of a wash; he's played up as being evil almost beyond comparison, and is left in a situation that is perhaps meant to be satisfying to the reader but ultimately isn't. And Hayley - spolier alert! - dies extremely soon in the novel, which leads me to believe that she was only narrated so that the reader would develop a connection and so feel bad along with Buy when he was unable to save her life - a case of women in refrigerators syndrome for the literary crowd.
Really, though, it is Buy who is the most interesting character in the novel and whose silly incompetency - attempting to kill himself only to realize he couldn't get the gun to fire, and then calling a Government agent to ask her how to get it to fire - is probably the most forgivable; especially as he later admits it was more of a plea for help than an honest call to find out how to work the gun. His journey - from a mild stockbroker to a suicidal incapable of figuring out how he'd cared about his shallow existence to a loving adoptive father - is the most emotional one undertaken in the novel, and while it isn't terribly deep, his story feels the most complete of all the characters in the novel.
And then there's Jennifer herself. Really the problem with her is that there isn't enough of her in the novel. We get snippets of her backstory and find out - spoiler alert again! - that she'd been a successful marketing executive until she'd gotten pregnant and decided she wanted to keep the baby, which the father, John, didn't want to keep. However, we don't actually see any of that - nor do we really see her as the wunderkid marketing executive she had been, nor do we see any of her transformation from said wunderkid marketing executive to the tough-as-nails, throw-the-book-out-the-window, gun wielding Government agent she is throughout the novel. Too much of Jennifer's story is left out of the novel for her to be a truly effective character. She has her moments, but ultimately, this does not feel like her complete story.
Characters aside, the overall theme of Jennifer Government speaks to the idea of de-regulation in a corporate-controlled world - one in which we already live, by the way, but which hasn't grown to the proportions Barry envisions. Ultimately - spoiler alert, one more time! - the various corporations decide that a completely unregulated market doesn't suit them, because without someone to keep people from running around hurting each other all the time there wouldn't be business, just anarchy. Even small government enthusiasts will have to admit a point here - oftentimes, the idea behind reducing or removing the government is that in doing so, society will self-regulate moral judgments, but a society which has abandoned morality for greed and empty consumerism wouldn't self-regulate at all.
In the end, Barry doesn't explore the social repercussions of the novel's events at all. It definitely feels like a more character driven parable and that's reinforced by the lack of exploration of the aftermath - I was left wondering how society and the Government rebound from everything, but there's nothing really to speak to it.
If you're looking for a fun read - Jennifer Government is pretty fun. If you're looking for something universal, look elsewhere - Jennifer Government is pretty firm in it's politics and, despite my statements above, will probably offend the more laissez-faire crowd at some point. And lastly, if you're looking for something deep - you're probably not going to find it here, but if you dig a little you can appreciate what Barry was doing. (less)
I saw this collection in a tiny bookstore a year or two ago and bought it, largely because it's called "Alien Sex" and I felt like even if it turned o...moreI saw this collection in a tiny bookstore a year or two ago and bought it, largely because it's called "Alien Sex" and I felt like even if it turned out to be crappy, the novelty of owning such a collection would be worth the few dollars it cost.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be an extremely excellent anthology. Among other things, "Alien Sex" has cemented me as a fan of Ellen Datlow, whose eye for good science fiction has created several other anthologies I've liked quite a bit.
Highpoints of the collection are Scott Baker's "The Jamesburg Incubus," K.W. Jeter's "The First Time," Connie Willis' "All My Darling Daughters," (the latter two being some of the most disturbing fiction I've ever read), James Tiptree Jr.'s "And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill's Side."
That isn't to say the rest aren't good. Larry Niven's infamous essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" humorously explores the mechanics of Superman trying to have sex with a human woman in an academic fashion. Harlan Ellison's "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?" takes the most original and authentically humorous stab at the end of the world since Douglas Adams. Philip Jose Farmer's "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod," presents what Tarzan would have looked like had William, not Edgar, Burroughs written it - with predictably chaotic results.
Even the collection's less striking stories - such as Pat Cadigan's "Roadside Rescue," Rick Wilber's "War Bride," Lisa Tuttle's "When the Fathers Go," and Lewis Shiner's "Scales" - are solid and entertaining reads, each well worth their time.
The Castle of Otranto is one of the those academic pieces that's almost impossible to rate upon completion. On the one hand, at no point during the bo...moreThe Castle of Otranto is one of the those academic pieces that's almost impossible to rate upon completion. On the one hand, at no point during the book was I swept away by the brilliance of the language, the themes and imagery, or the plot. On the other hand, the book is without a doubt the progenitor of Gothic literature, and while I don't believe necessarily in "forgiving" a work for weakness due to coming before a work which "perfected" a style or genre, I also cannot find any particular grievances with which to attack Walpole's novel.
The novel is without a doubt a transitory work. While many of the core elements of later Gothic novels are present - inexplicable supernatural acts, ominous darkness, overwhelming and insanity-inducing feelings of passion and shame - the language and plot still feel fairly rooted in Elizabethan literature. There's more than a little Shakespeare in Walpole's characters, in particular in the conniving Manfred and the amorous, doting sisterly characters, Isabella and Matilda. Somehow, between these two styles, the novel still feels relatively simple, which may be a symptom of its short length.
Drawbacks aside, The Castle of Otranto is an engaging read, and definitely something to check out for fans of Gothic literature. (less)
My reading of Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, is a perfect example of why you should never entertain expectations going into reading a book you...moreMy reading of Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, is a perfect example of why you should never entertain expectations going into reading a book you know almost nothing about. Carmilla is most often hailed as having been written twenty-five years before Dracula, and so I went into it expecting a short, proto-Dracula tale. That's not exactly what Carmilla is; Carmilla more closely resembles a fable than a gothic short story or novel. I think maybe if I'd known that going into it I'd have liked it more, but, who knows.
The copy of the book I read was 106 pages long. The main character doesn't begin to guess that Carmilla might be a vampire until around page 90, which means that the great majority of the story is devoted to Laura being "very surprised" at all of Carmilla's odd behaviors. To be honest, that is the whole story - Carmilla acts odd (and comes onto Laura a couple of times, although Laura either doesn't know or doesn't want to acknowledge what's happening), Laura finds it peculiar, but then goes back to talking about how disarmingly beautiful Carmilla is.
They also take a few walks in scenic locations; these scenes mix descriptions of gothic architecture with classic romantic countrysides.
Ultimately, Carmilla is the first gothic story I've ever read that honestly felt overwritten. Le Fanu's diction is excellent, but his narrator is so flat a character that interesting word choice just doesn't make up the difference. Also, Carmilla - who is a halfway interesting character - isn't given any regard once it comes out that she's a vampire. She's dismissed as a viable character, her attraction to Laura is dismissed as just being part of what vampires do to ensnare and torture their prey, and she's executed - notably without Laura being present, so Laura, who is telling the story, can only provide cursory details.
And then it's over.
Don't read Carmilla if you're looking for a good story, with deep, engaging characters, philosophical questions, or even a great deal of aesthetic value. Do read Carmilla if you're interested in the history of vampire literature because, if nothing else, Carmilla has been very influential on the subgenre. However, don't expect to be particularly impressed.(less)
A truly outstanding collection of advisory essays from writers who know what the heck they're talking about. This is not a "How-To" writing manual, bu...moreA truly outstanding collection of advisory essays from writers who know what the heck they're talking about. This is not a "How-To" writing manual, but more a set of tips and observations from established, excellent writers. Definitely worth a read.(less)
An extraordinarily academic work, Victor Pelevin's "The Yellow Arrow" is a far more subtle book than I was expecting it to be. Pelevin proves himself...moreAn extraordinarily academic work, Victor Pelevin's "The Yellow Arrow" is a far more subtle book than I was expecting it to be. Pelevin proves himself to be a worthy successor to the classic greats of Russian literature, through his outstanding use of descriptive language, liberal application of social satire, and multi-layered use of subtext throughout. Above all that, though, "The Yellow Arrow" has a kind of universality to it that was surprising and compelling, and the way in which depicts life spent entirely on an endless train is both exciting and frightening. Despite the undeniable hardships faced by the train's passengers - which are the main focus of much of the book - I found myself rather wishing I lived on a train like them.
As discussed in the introduction, Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time" is one of the first examples of Russian prose, and as such it has a slightly undeve...moreAs discussed in the introduction, Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time" is one of the first examples of Russian prose, and as such it has a slightly undeveloped, experimental air to it - it reads like a book by someone who wasn't entirely sure how to go about writing a novel and didn't have a blueprint to follow. That's not meant as a condemnation; much of the structural oddity that one finds in "A Hero of Our Time" has a clear connection to the structural genius of Dostoevsky and Nabokov.
"A Hero of Our Time" is a series of interrelated stories that are all about a singular, Byronic hero, Pechorin. Over the course of the stories, Pechorin gradually resolves from a vague, slightly mysterious figure into a character with incredible depth. While the book should definitely be enjoyed as a whole, each story is individual to itself (for the most part), and as such there is definitely a standout - that being "Princess Mary," in which Pechorin undergoes much of the rigorous character examination which makes him so rich.
"A Hero of Our Time" is a necessary read for anyone interested in Russian literature, but that aside, it's just a good book, period. Pechorin's ennui and blunt acknowledgement of his own amorality make him a character who is, curiously, both ahead of his time and a perfect representation of his time, and his meditations on his own mind are insightful and wonderful to read.
Possibly the most wonderful aspect of the novel is that, despite Pechorin's view of himself as evil, and despite the fact that his actions manage to harm every single person who gets close to him, he still comes through as sympathetic; he is, as he muses, just as maligned by the world which seemingly won't allow him to escape his own boredom, to utilize his intellectual and physical gifts to their fullest potentials, as his victims are maligned by his actions.
While the language utilized isn't up to the caliber of the later Russian greats, this may have been an issue of the translation which I read, and even if it isn't, the book's forthright prose fits its main character well.
I'd definitely recommend picking up a copy if possible.(less)