I've been meaning to read Outlander for years. Part time travel, part historical fiction, big best seller... it's also fundamentally a Romance (cough)I've been meaning to read Outlander for years. Part time travel, part historical fiction, big best seller... it's also fundamentally a Romance (cough). This last gave me pause, but finally, after checking out the show (to be reviewed later) I bit the bullet.
It's funny how bestselling series drive against the current of writing "shoulds." This book is long. It's detailed. The protagonist is often adrift without clear "motivation" or "agency." The prose can be highly redundant. There are countless scenes that don't serve the spine of the plot.
But these "problems" also help make for a good read, and a good read it is. Fundamentally this is a novel about interesting, and well developed (if sometimes problematic) characters, caught in an unusual and fascinating blend of setting and situation.
Setup: It's 1945 and Claire Randall is a happily married nurse. On holiday in Scotland with her husband, a circle of ancient stones mysteriously teleports her to 1743. Stuck there, she meets and falls in love with sexy highlander Jaime Fraser against the backdrop of the coming Jacobite rising.
This sounds fairly trite, and it is, but the historical detailing of 18th century Scotland is very well done. The author clearly did her research, and she builds a cast of interesting characters and a rather fascinating world on the edge of war. There is an intrinsic tension between Claire's two lives. Her modern husband isn't a bad guy at all, even if he lacks Jaime's manly-man energy. But she finds herself in this new place and in love -- so what does she do? This dilemma provides for most of the conflict during the first two thirds of the novel.
Let's back up and discuss prose and voice. Gabaldon is a good writer. Her prose is energetic and descriptive, often erudite. The voice is completely first person from Claire's POV. She has an engaging, if a bit overly clinical viewpoint. I had small problems with repetition. Gabaldon often repeats words a sentence later without reason of parallelism and has a tendency to elaborate on a point more than necessary. This is a book where a great deal of the subtext is in the text. Claire spells it out. Sometimes twice. Sometimes thrice. This, by the way, is another of those writing "shoulds." You're not supposed to "tell," but "show" (imply). That's "better writing." But as far as I can tell, bestsellers don't tend to be subtle.
There is a lot of Scottish accented dialog in this book, and it's very well handled.
Claire's POV is generally excellent, but it does result in a few issues. Occasionally (particularly in the later part of the novel) some events occur "off screen" (when she isn't there). Gabaldon then results to gratuitous retellings where other characters relate the event to her in unlikely detail. Occasionally, a briefer recounting leads to some reader confusion. Claire is also hyper aware and overly clinical. As the author likes to handhold us through her thought process, it sometimes feels like exactly this, author handholding rather than genuine cognition. This leads to one of my bigger "motivational gripes" with this generally excellent novel, that Claire often feels fairly selfish and overly analytic. Particularly in the middle of the novel, Claire is nominally still plotting to head back to the future, but this tell feels incongruous with the emotions the author has her "show" toward Jaime.
As I mentioned, the historical details are good. The attitudes of the 18th century men and women are well handled and relatively free of anachronism. Things are properly grungy, sexist, and occasionally brutish. It is occasionally a little odd that Claire herself is not terribly discomforted by this. She points out plenty of good stuff, particularly having to do with justice, medicine, and punishment, but she doesn't really seem to miss toilets, showers, medical care, comfortable clothes, or well preserved food. Perhaps her life as a nurse during WWII was grungy enough to prepare her. She occasionally mentions discomforts flipply, but less than I'd imagine. She never really complains (or seems to suffer) with regard to food, sleeping in haystacks, or walking barefoot across the chilly Scottish moors.
The time travel element is very light SciFi/Fantasy in this first novel at least, but is used to good effect. There is no mumbo-jumbo explanation to gum things up.
Being a romance, and a fairly erotic one, this is also a novel full of sex. Jaime and Claire go at it like rabbits -- and things are often fairly explicit, at least in a literary way. I have no problem with most of this, as it's actually pretty hot, and I imagine that for many women it's insanely hot (see, word repeated deliberately for effect!). But there are aspects to the sexuality in this novel that are weird. Two huge ones (spoiler alert):
1) In the middle, after Claire disobeys him, Jaime "punishes" her by strapping her bare ass (to put it bluntly). To tell the truth, his reasoning is perfectly typical by 18th century standards, but comes off as a bit twisted by ours. And some readers will be bothered by the otherwise very spunky Claire's fairly rapid absolution of her wife-beating lover. In fact, it's clear that Gabaldon has a bit of a "thing" for corporal punishment as it's a constant theme in the book. Jaime goes way overboard to emphasize how much hiding her turned him on.
2) More disturbingly, Gabaldon probably isn't the biggest fan of Homosexuality. The novel's villain (Black Jack) is not only gay, but she goes to great lengths to integrate his evil tendencies and his sexual proclivities. Otherwise, he's actually a rather excellent villain, but she goes big time overboard in Jaime's recounting of the intensely odd and twisted "final hours" between Jaime and the menacing Black Jack. It's pretty darn nasty and twisted. This, along with a retelling of an older encounter between Jaime and a gay Duke feels like an overzealous attempt to demonize... to quote the novel: "poofters."
Overall, this is an excellent novel. None are perfect, and it's engaging throughout. The place/time is vividly depicted, and the characters are boldly executed. Both stay with you -- which is no small feat for any author.
It's no secret that I'm a huge Apple fanboy. I owned an Apple II+ back in January 1981, a first generation Mac, and countless Apple's since. As of latIt's no secret that I'm a huge Apple fanboy. I owned an Apple II+ back in January 1981, a first generation Mac, and countless Apple's since. As of late 2011 there are no less than five Macs, five iPhones, and two iPads in my house. I use no PCs and even my router is an Airport Extreme! I even owned a Newton and, one summer, used a NeXT as my primary computer!
But there was more to the experience of reading this book than pure fanboydom. As a technologist, programmer, and all-around nerd I lived every detail of the personal computer revolution. So except for the very beginning of this book, set in the late sixties and early seventies (before my coherent time) I remember the launches, products and moments first hand.
This biography is primarily a character study. It seeks by detailing the man's actions to try and quantify and qualify the traits that made him the iconoclast that he was. The hero of this book is not a particularly likable man or even that rational. He was a fierce demon of passionate opinion, amazing taste, and an extraordinary instance of talent at the intersection of technology and art. Steve was willing to look beyond the baggage of how things have been done and see the way in which people actually approach products in their everyday life. His passion lead him to place the fulfillment of his product vision -- from top to bottom -- above nearly everything else in his (or those around him's) lives.
This certainly worked out pretty well for the products, although it did take about twenty years for him to really get his groove on and learn from some of his earlier mistakes and excesses. But he never lightened up. Still, since most of us didn't have to live with him, but do get to live with his products, hundreds of millions came out winners.
There are tremendous lessons in the book about designing great products. About focus, about integration, about simplicity and usability. About not painting your factories funny colors or shipping with far to little memory or a ridiculously slow optical drive. There is what feels like a very detailed portrait of the personality. The prose is top notch and pulls you along effortlessly without getting in your face. Isaacson certainly had extensive personal access to the man (and his colleagues). It's a good read.
But for me it was a bit lacking in detail. Mostly I think this came down to length and an emphasis on character. The book isn't short, but the man's life -- despite ending tragically early -- was full. Steve did a lot. A lot. So none of it is nearly as specific as I -- with my extreme interest in the subject -- would like. You can read this book and really have very little idea what the hell NeXT was doing for 10 years. I do. I used several of them. Wrote some code on them. Followed them from founding through launch and beyond. Shook my head at the product (too slow -- too expensive -- too incompatible!) and read an entire book just on the topic. So if you want to read this book to understand exactly how Jobs got ousted from Apple, or how he wrangled his way back into its boardroom -- it's there -- but the details are compressed. Even things as major as the LaserWriter are given about two sentences in passing. I might go find some books that detail the blow by blows of the product decisions because... well... I guess I care.
Still, I highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in products, creativity, technology, or even the psychology of forceful individuals. Likable or not, Steve was the defining idea-man of the computer age.