I started reading the Culture series based on a friend's recommendation, and I am glad I followed his advice to start with Player of Games instead of...moreI started reading the Culture series based on a friend's recommendation, and I am glad I followed his advice to start with Player of Games instead of diving in with Consider Phelbas. I did like the first book in the Culture series, but Player of Games is a better introduction to Banks' well-developed post-scarcity society.
Phelbas' strongest point is that it's a first-hand account of the Culture-Idiran War, which is discussed several times in other Culture books but in an off-hand way. Banks does an excellent job in portraying how interstellar post-scarcity societies can engage in a conflict based on principles that is more frightening than many more primitive conflicts. The destruction visited on planetary scales with such demonstrated ease is awe-inspiring as the scale of the war Banks describes.
I was particularly enthralled by how much of the war Banks was able to describe while remaining dedicated to the relatively narrow viewpoints of his characters. The mission described in Phelbas is important, but it is only a tiny grain in the war's proverbial beach. However, I did think this became a bit problematic in the book's conclusion. The last third of Phelbas is almost painful to read as it drags on in comparison to the well-paced--almost thriller-esque--action of the first two parts of the Changer Horza's adventure. My frustration with how elongated the end was ultimately undermined my appreciation for the rather touching tragedy Banks constructed for several of the protagonists.
Phelbas is also a bit of science fiction that wears the time it was written in on its sleeves. Banks' conclusion is an overt product of the Cold War's final zenith during the early 1980s--taking place in the massive fallout shelter of a civilization that destroyed itself. It's a ham-handed bit of scenery and contrast that does not appeal to my personal aesthetic. The allusions to the decades-long struggle is sometimes a bit too prevalent in the annals of science fiction, and I did not like how it became a means for Banks to undercut the otherwise complicated Idirans into some sneering, psuedo-Soviet villains to conclude the book.
The Culture series is definitely one to be read in its entirety, but I will concur with my friend that Consider Phelbas is a book best saved for later. It allows you to appreciate how far Banks has come with his creation, but in the end its other values are suspect. (less)
The Crazed was the first of Ha Jin’s books I read after stumbling across it as a new release when working at a public library. I did not remember much...moreThe Crazed was the first of Ha Jin’s books I read after stumbling across it as a new release when working at a public library. I did not remember much about the book other than a considerable feeling of disappointment and a few of the main characters. After re-reading War Trash (which has become my favorite of his novels), I decided to revisit The Crazed as well.
The Crazed shares many common themes with the better known Waiting. Both novels mix a detailed look at domestic China (complete with the mixed views on post-Mao communism) with a bitter love story--or a series of bitter love stories in the case of The Crazed. However, the rich vividness and vitality of Waiting is oddly missing in Ha Jin’s later novel. The Crazed is a more heavy-handed affair with readers being repeatedly reminded of the distressing excess of communism in even the most mundane ways from prohibiting students the use of electric stoves to the banal stupidities of local political corruption. Ha Jin never relies overtly on scenery and place, but this seemed to be a Conrad-esque character of a landscape. It cheapened an already less evolved narrative and a highly limited cast of character. Ultimately, there are pieces of The Crazed that are still stunning, but they are wed to an overall novel that is just not as powerful or subtle as Ha Jin’s other works.
There was an element that remained just as striking in my second reading as it was in my first, although I do not know if it is entirely intentional. Ha Jin demonstrates the overwhelming geographical scale of China quite effectively, a feature often lost in literature that turns frequently to the equally large scale of China’s population. He does this by keeping the student protests and the Tiananmen Square massacre at the fringes of the novel throughout the book. They are both forces at work in the society of The Crazed, but their presence can be described as minor echoes until Jian, the protagonist, makes an ill-fated decision to join some of his fellow students in a trip to Beijing to join the protestors. Even accounting for official efforts to suppress the scale of the protest movement, the world of The Crazed is equally removed from the popular stirrings by them simply being too distant for much practical impact other than driving action among already dissatisfied local radicals.
Overall, I am sort of amazed I picked Ha Jin back up with this book being my first exposure to him several years ago. He has far better books to his name, and I recommend either Waiting or War Trash to those wanting to make a first encounter.(less)