Author Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, "Are You My Mother?" is at once a sequel and reply to the powerful and successful "Fun Home." Both books are c...moreAuthor Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, "Are You My Mother?" is at once a sequel and reply to the powerful and successful "Fun Home." Both books are challenging and intelligent, telling their respective stories with gymnastic flexibility and at times bewildering non-linearity. However, whereas Fun Home was a brilliant tour-de-force, Are You My Mother? is a very mixed bag. Specifically, while Fun Home exemplifies the very best of what literary nonfiction can achieve, Are You My Mother? is instead a cautionary tale of the traps literary nonfiction can set for itself.
A detailed dissection of why Are You My Mother? falls flat requires an equally close examination of Fun Home, which is required reading. The author assumes that everyone has read the previous volume carefully and recently, making no efforts to reintroduce the themes and cast of her childhood. Understanding why Fun Home works and this book doesn't hinges on the author's notion of truth as a literary process.
Fun Home focused on growing up, with a particular focus on her father; indeed the purpose of the first book was to explore his life in order to make sense of his death (and possible suicide). Having a literary mindset, Bechdel's tools for pursuing that investigation into her own past were to juxtapose the events of her early life against points of literary reference. For example, her college years are framed through the lens of Joyce's Ulysses, not necessarily because Joyce provided the best objective lens, but rather because she was reading Joyce at the time, and consequently her understanding of that era of her life is commingled with that exposure. It is an honest and overtly subjective approach that never claims to present the whole truth. This works particularly well because the four acts of Fun Home each play off of a different literary focus, allowing the reader to triangulate.
Contrastingly, Are You My Mother? focuses on Bechdel's adult life, on her relationship with her mother and two of her therapists, and on (confusingly) the writing of both the previous and current books. The crucial and fatal difference is that whereas the first book used four works of fiction as different points of reference, this book uses only one major landmark: The psychoanalytic theories of Donald Winnicott. Everything in this book is passed through the lens of psychoanalysis, and the effect is hobbling.
In the interest of full disclosure: I am a research psychologist by profession, so I speak with some authority when I say that, in the sciences, psychoanalysis is rightly viewed as pseudoscientific bunk. Indeed, the only university department where psychoanalysis still thrives is the English department. This is because psychoanalysis is the art of building webs of spurious association through anecdotal free-association. In other words, psychoanalysis is a 'reader response' version of history, in which analysts and patients are encouraged to build elaborate mythologies, reinterpreting the motivations of others based on faulty memories and suspect dream analysis. The result is at once narcissistic and conspiratorial, where the subjective truth is the only truth worth having, but is at the same time forever suspect thanks to the pernicious influence of the unconscious.
All of this leads to a memoir that could just as easily have been titled Are You My Therapist? Indeed, flip to any random page, and you are as likely to spot a panel in which Bechdel has transcribed entire paragraphs from one of Winnicott's books, or a panel in which she is talking to one of her multiple therapists, as you are to see her mother. The book is also laden with the jargon of psychoanalysis (sometimes defined for the reader, sometimes not), which are best understood as makeshift pseudoscientific symbols: Literary tools masquerading as scientific terms.
In the end, we come away with the sense that Bechdel is someone who, as the result of a lifetime of anxiety, writes her diaries and memoirs as a coping mechanism. He writes what she writes because she must, because it is the only defense mechanism she has mastered. This self-documentation is compulsive: Early in the book, she describes how, during her frequent phone conversations with her mother, she will quietly (and without mention) transcribe what her mother is saying instead of engaging fully in the conversation. This act of recording her own life as a way to inhabit it safely without fully living it is, in practice, what the entire book consists of. We come away with a precise sense of who Bechdel considers herself to be, while simultaneously having only a cursory sense of who her mother is, or how her mother has changed.
Admittedly, Bechdel is working under a powerful constraint: Unlike the subject of her first book, her mother is still alive, and this book's composition reflects the sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit fear on Bechdel's part that her compulsive documentation will sour her relationship with her mother. The twin forces of family diplomacy and making the subject of a work a a participant in its composition both impose real limits on the speculations that Bechdel will entertain; it also makes her honesty all the more brave. The book is also at the apex of Bechdel's graphical talent: The style of the drawings, at once meticulous and unruly (in the literal sense that she does not use rulers), is fully mature, and she certainly deserves credit for having drawn her life so clearly.
Late in the book (and late chronologically; the two are uncorrelated), Bechdel's mother reads her a quotation by Dorothy Gallagher about memoir (a genre Bechdel's mother is repeatedly described as being "suspicious" of). The quotation reads, "The writer's business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to server her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story." It is not unreasonable, in light of other fragments describing that era, that the quotation was read in a veiled passive-aggressive fashion, a way for her mother to defend herself against the then-fresh publication of Fun Home. Bechdel reacts to the quote enthusiastically, as if it is revelatory; we are not given enough context to determine if her mother feels the same way. So it goes for most of the book: Bechdel's focus is so completely and neurotically on herself that her mother is reduced to a psychoanalytic abstraction, a timeless mythological figure whose inner life is no more illuminated than it was at the conclusion of Fun Home. Frustratingly, the answer is to the title's question, Are You My Mother?, is "possibly not."(less)
There's an old saw that science fiction necessarily consists of two kinds of stories: Familiar characters in unfamiliar settings, and unfamiliar chara...moreThere's an old saw that science fiction necessarily consists of two kinds of stories: Familiar characters in unfamiliar settings, and unfamiliar characters in familiar settings. This has always struck me as (a) generally true and (b) fairly uninventive. It is with this in mind that I was really pleased with this collection.
Ms. Bellet has a talent for writing characters who are at once sympathetic and alien (or, often, aliens). These characters then inhabit worlds equally exotic, making for that rarest of combinations: The proverbial "foreigner abroad."
Anyone who enjoys having their imaginations given a good stretch would do well to give this collection a shot.(less)
Red Mars is a book that snuck up on me. It's a massive brick of a book, and at first I was contentedly chipping away at it, absorbing the copious embe...moreRed Mars is a book that snuck up on me. It's a massive brick of a book, and at first I was contentedly chipping away at it, absorbing the copious embedded science and the ensemble cast, letting everything fall into place. It was only about halfway through the book that I began to realize how brilliant it was, because it was at that point that the setup really began to pay off.
What Red Mars does remarkably is inject the human element into what would otherwise be a dry, lifeless treatise on science and engineering. This consideration warps the science by pulling back the veil of objectivity and revealing the scientists to be ideological and passionate, working toward divergent ideals. It further asks not only what the exploration of Mars might look like, but more crucially asks how the colonization of Mars might unfold, with all due historical and economic consideration.
Throughout, the story is told from the perspectives of multiple characters, who see the world very differently. It is easy, as a reader, to imagine that the narration on the page is merely a record of how things are in a story, but author Kim Stanley Robinson expertly contrasts the perspectives of his characters, helping the reader to understand the limits of each of their visions. In this way the author succeeds at showing us Mars and the future through many different eyes.
Mars is itself, of course, the unspeaking companion of each of the narrators. Rendered in colossal detail, it is without question a character unto itself, changing over the course of the novel. Never has a setting been so completely realized in speculative fiction.
In sum, Red Mars may be summarized as follows: Humanity will shape the places it goes, and be shaped by them. As man terraforms Mars, so too will Mars areoform man.(less)
Nova Swing is a semi-sequel to Light, set in the same universe. It is, succinctly, also a much better book than its predecessor.
Like Light, the story...moreNova Swing is a semi-sequel to Light, set in the same universe. It is, succinctly, also a much better book than its predecessor.
Like Light, the story takes place in a bitterly dark far future, full of ambiguous realities, systemic criminality, and fleshly urges. As an aside, Nova Swing will be much more difficult to understand without having read Light first. Also like the previous volume, Nova Swing is an ensemble piece: It knits together well over a dozen characters, many of whom have surprising depth, and relies on their shaky interrelations to provide the scaffolding for an even more uncertain world.
Briefly, Nova Swing is about those living on the periphery of the "Saudade Site," a pocket of alternate reality into which thrill-seekers venture (with black-market "travel agents" as their guides) and out of which other, stranger beings and artifacts emerge. The cast is a cross-section of every part of this strange ecosystem, and the novel is a success in large part because it conveys the entire setting so richly as its own "metacharacter."
This isn't to say that Nova Swing doesn't have its shortcomings. As in Light, author M. John Harrison has saturated his prose with sexuality that is generally uncanny and disturbing. This trend is justified to an extent by the setting, but Harrison employs it to excess, such that he overshadows many of the more important (and more interesting) kinds of relationships that the novel explores.
This is, in fact, part of a greater tension that Harrison seems unable to escape. He at once tries to pull the reader in by writing frankly (or, depending on your tastes, crudely) about the human condition, but at the same time pushes the reader away through his emphasis of the freakish otherness of his set dressings. In the end, Harrison wants us to feel empathy in spite of ourselves, but also wants to show off how refined as sense of Otherness he can portray.
Fortunately, in Nova Swing, Harrison opts for the former at the expense of the latter. That is to say, he ultimately explores humanity rather than exploiting dehumanization, a pleasant reversal of his priorities in Light. As such, while it has its lumps (as well as more mundane pacing difficulties stemming from keeping to many characters active in the story), Nova Swing is a worthy accomplishment.(less)
Having just completed Gödel, Escher, Bach (or GEB) thirty years after it was originally published, I am astonished at how well it has aged. I am not i...moreHaving just completed Gödel, Escher, Bach (or GEB) thirty years after it was originally published, I am astonished at how well it has aged. I am not in the least surprised, however, that the book remains widely misunderstood, particularly among those who sing its praise. In a sense, it having won the Pulitzer is a prime example of a monumental work winning for the wrong reasons.
What every reader can agree on is that GEB is tremendously clever. Despite being nominally a work of "nonfiction," author Douglas Hofstadter has woven a host of fictive and literary elements into the work in both obvious and subtle ways. Because these maneuvers (chiefly found in the "Dialogs" between Achilles, a Tortoise, and others that serve to embody certain principles under discussion) have a necessarily pedagogical objective, they lay out their cleverness for all to see. They are, in a sense, something like a clock that reveals its inner workings to the viewer and invites them to work through how it tells time. And, like such a device, the answers are often difficult. GEB is not an easy book, in that it politely requests that the reader not only follow the argument but be able show their work.
But these tricks (which is all they are, for all their delightful cleverness) are not the meaning of GEB - they are only the tools Hofstadter employs to convey that meaning. The underlying message of GEB is far more nuanced and subversive. Hofstadter builds a meticulous foundation linking formal logical systems (such as basic arithmetic proofs) to the far more slippery concepts of language, thinking, meaning, and self-reference.
I won't attempt to summarize Hofstadter's argument(s), as doing so in such a confined space will inevitably fall short of his own exhaustive (and exhausting) methodology. I will, however, highlight the two conclusions he draws that speak more powerfully to me:
(1) Any conceivable non-supernatural intelligence will necessarily be unable to fully understand itself.
(2) Any formal system that is sufficiently robust to make indirect self-reference is a foundation upon which intelligence may be represented.
The first conclusion, a consequence of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, is the logical instantiation of that clever paradox "This is a false statement." Applied to the brain and to computers, it serves to demystify the positivist notion that complete knowledge is possible through technology. In fact, it is nothing short of a demonstration that omniscience is logically impossible. This 'pessimistic' (or 'realistic') message is plainly evident.
The second conclusion, however, is far more important. It argues, effectively, that intelligence as we know it (as well as intelligence as we cannot know it) can be achieved by systems that are composed of small, simple, "mindless" pieces. It is nothing short of an argument for the epigenesis of meaning, from which stems beauty.
The following passage, from the book's final chapter, captures the interplay of these two notions:
My feeling is that the process by which we decide what is valid or what is true is an art; and that it relies as deeply on a sense of beauty and simplicity as it does on rock-solid principles of logic or reasoning or anything else which can be objectively formalized. I am not saying either (1) truth is a chimera, or (2) human intelligence is in principle not programmable. I am saying (1) truth is too elusive for any human or any collection of humans ever to attain fully; and (2) Artificial Intelligence, when it reaches the level of human intelligence - or even if it surpasses it - will still be plagued by the problems of art, beauty, and simplicity, and will run up against these things constantly in its own search for knowledge and understanding.
For my part, finding this gem atop the Hofstadter's now-immortal ziggurat of reasoning is an empowering conclusion to a very elegant argument.(less)
It's difficult to pin down what the correct yardstick for evaluating a book like Light. In the end, it negotiates an uneasy truce between poetry, conc...moreIt's difficult to pin down what the correct yardstick for evaluating a book like Light. In the end, it negotiates an uneasy truce between poetry, concept fiction, and narrative storytelling, doing so at the expense of all aspects. Light isn't quite a novel, and author M. John Harrison seems perfectly content with this.
If the book fails, it does so to the extent that the author playfully intermixes elements that have a narrative purpose with those that are mere emotional set-dressing. Much has been made, for example, of the book's prominent and generally dysfunctional sex acts. What is galling, however, is how capricious and unnecessary most of them are. They serve little function beyond shocking the reader or throwing them off balance, except possibly conveying a uniformly cynical perspective on sexuality. While the poetry of this is clearly a matter of taste, these spectacles do little to enrich the book's more fundamental themes of prophesy, created life, and revelation.
The book has its share of small triumphs as well. Because it adopts a three-protagonist alternating-viewpoint style, it it able to play with themes and references in clever ways. Many of its secondary characters display surprising richness. Concerned as it is with spectacle, it frequently paints tableaux rich with interesting ideas, even if many of these ideas prove to be superfluous. Many reader, I suspect, will come to favor particular storylines on the basis of which ones have the characters and ideas that successfully strike a chord, although I imagine few readers will find all three equally fascinating.
Overall, I'm satisfied with the book as a Work, to the extent that it challenges the reader to pay attention and rewards efforts to work things out in advance. But just because I'm willing to let a few such books sit on my shelf doesn't mean I need too many more of its ilk to follow.(less)
Widely praised, Connie Willis' Doomsday Book is a rare bit of time travel fiction: it tells a raw, powerful, and believably realistic story with a ver...moreWidely praised, Connie Willis' Doomsday Book is a rare bit of time travel fiction: it tells a raw, powerful, and believably realistic story with a very minimal appeal to the "speculative fiction" toolbox. Collins takes the principles of time travel outlined in To Say Nothing Of The Dog and uses them to outline a far more grave and ambiguous story, departing from the farcical comedy of the preceding novel to address the grim subject of epidemics, particularly the Black Death.
The story follows two tracks, one in the 14th century and one in a very familiar 21st century. Both stories focus on epidemics, but do so with the striking contrasts. In the 14th century, the time travel canard permits us the perspective of epidemics in a context of total ignorance and surprise; in the near-future, a state of almost-overpreparedness for contagion reigns. At the same time, the events of the 14th century are known to us despite local ignorance, while the outcomes of the near future are totally uncertain despite advanced epidemiological techniques.
The tone of the book shifts markedly as time passes. It begins innocently enough, having the lighthearted "British comedy of errors" flavor that the author employed in To Say Nothing Of The Dog. This, is appears, is really a means of getting the reader involved in and invested in the medieval and modern characters, whose social networks are appropriately convoluted. The consequence is that when the respective epidemics finally reach full swing, the many resulting deaths have a great deal more impact. While this is arguably a manipulative technique reminiscent of Cerebus Syndrome, my opinion is that it is likely the most effective method to convey the grief and hardship of terminal disease outbreaks. Collins is not trying to betray the reader, in this regard: she is instead trying to be honest about an awful reality. When people get sick and die, especially before their time, it is tragic at a personal level no matter what the statistical size of the outbreak.
That said, the book is not perfect. Its later chapters are emotionally exhausting (which is as it should be), but leave a number of crucial points unresolved. In addition to its shift in tone, the story traffics in red herrings to heighten suspense, which is perhaps necessary to raise the stakes for the reader, but feel a tad overmanipulative in retrospect.
I felt that the book is deserving of the praise it has received, in that it achieves something few works of genre fiction manage: it conveys universally understood human experience in a rich, believable way. The challenge of telling a story about characters on the one hand and about something has wide in scope as disease on the other is no easy task, and Collins' success should be lauded. However, that balancing act requires sacrifices, and in some (arguably small-scale) ways, the strongest human elements of the book suffered for it.(less)
Michael Chabon's most famous (and Pulitzer-prize-winning) novel comes so preceded by a miasma of hype that it seemed, when cracking the book for the f...moreMichael Chabon's most famous (and Pulitzer-prize-winning) novel comes so preceded by a miasma of hype that it seemed, when cracking the book for the first time, impossible for the actual work to live up. Happily, this is one book that fully deserves the near-universal and almost fanatical praise it has often received.
In plain terms, it tells the story of a Brooklyn Jew and a Czech Jew (cousins) living in New York during a span ranging from pre-war to post-war America. This two-man team, composed of Sam Clay (the American, and a writer) and Joe Kavalier (a Czech artist trained in magic and escape artistry) join forces to create a comic book character named The Escapist, who stands in the golden-age superhero company of the likes of Superman and Batman. This collaboration is the foundation for their joint stories, as the inexorable currents of their lives are filled with triumph and tragedy.
The novel's central theme is that of "escape." Throughout, all of the characters seek fervently to escape from various difficulties, some beyond their control and some of their own creation. To go any further into the nature of those escapes (successful and otherwise) would rob the story of much of its impact, so I will say nothing more specific. The writing has considerable emotional power, and that forcefulness is all-the-more-powerful without a clear picture of what lies on the horizon. The structure and the ending are unpredictable going forward, but makes perfect sense looking back, a rare combination.
However, Chabon's writing is excellent precisely because of its ability to give us a sense of the future. Like an excellent soundtrack, Chabon's ability to use foreshadowing gives us hints about events about to take place. Nothing in the book is truly surprising (in that the reader is shocked when it happens) because Chabon hints at each twist as it unfolds. The result is a narrative that flows in a way that is deeply intuitive, even as it is also realistically chaotic.
It's probably the case that a certain Nerd contingent will feel as though the book is written especially for them (and some of the obtuse references Chabon presents are undeniably nerdy), but being completely ignorant of the world of comic books and pulp writing should present no difficulty to a mainstream reader. The focus is on the characters and their inner worlds, which are vibrant in their humanity. While comic books are uniquely suited to the themes of the novel, this is a book anyone can enjoy immensely, and everyone should.(less)
On the surface, there's a lot to like about Pirate Sun, the third of Karl Schroeder's Virga books. Unlike the second book (Queen of Candesce), which s...moreOn the surface, there's a lot to like about Pirate Sun, the third of Karl Schroeder's Virga books. Unlike the second book (Queen of Candesce), which seemed to progress orthogonally from the plot of the first book (Sun of Suns), this new installment picks up loose ends established early in the series and resolves many of the driving conflicts that were established from that onset. However, upon closer examination, Pirate Sun begins to have the musty aroma of a formula.
The Virga books are well-described as "high adventure driven by hard-nosed science fiction." In this regard, the world in which the story takes place remains interesting and compelling. As in previous volumes, Schroeder keep throwing new twists into the setting, expanding on the foundation of reasonable science to catch the reader off guard and reveal the quirks of his distinctive world. Unfortunately, the number of "aha!" moments inevitably diminishes with each book (as the setting is further fleshed out), and soon the "high adventure" element of the narrative must support itself under its own weight.
In this important regard, Pirate Sun begins to sag a little. Schroeder's characters remain archetypal, to the point of being cliched, and unless they are able to surprise the reader, the excitement of the writing increasingly depends on getting the next "fix" of setting weirdness. To make matters worse, Virga's two most compelling prior characters (Hayden and Venera) are largely absent and the new protagonists are conflicted in such simple ways that they do not propel the story forward with the same kind of urgency.
This is not to say Pirate Sun is bad, by any means. Many of the underlying concepts are sophisticated, highly strange, well worth serious thought. These are merely set dressing, however, for what is quite obviously popcorn fiction: not too filling, not too nutritious, but easy to eat and superficially (if predictably) tasty. Schroeder more cleverly concealed this superficiality in his earlier Virga books, but is less successful in this case. Without either an infusion of striking new ideas (the first book's strength), or a deepening and complexifying of the protagonists (the second book's strength), the Virga books may have officially gone into decline with this volume.(less)
Anathem is the story of a world in which most academic scholarship (including most pure science and most philosophizing) is done not by institutions o...moreAnathem is the story of a world in which most academic scholarship (including most pure science and most philosophizing) is done not by institutions of higher learning, but by unisex monasteries that shut themselves off from the world to degrees. In this world, the preservation of knowledge is considered not on a scale of years or decades, but rather on a scale of centuries or millennia. Largely shut off from the world, these scholars keep the flame of knowledge alive while civilizations rise, fall, and rise again outside their walls. Until, that is, the monastic protagonists are swept up in a series of events that threaten to change the world as they know it.
On its face, Anathem seems like an impossible proposal: a science fiction epic about a bunch of monks who study Platonic philosophy. To make matters worse, it's one of those speculative works that insists on having its own vocabulary. The title, for example, is a term that fuses the words Anthem and Anathema. And instead of merely having a new meaning, it has multiple meanings, ranging from technical to colloquial. The book is riddled with this special vocabulary, and when combined with the weighty philosophical tangents, the book seems as though it should fall flat.
For some readers, in all likelihood, it will. But I found it fascinating. Instead of inventing scores of terms for no reason, Stephenson (in typical fashion) has a master plan, and his deviations from normal reality are all part of that plan. Because he is trying to build an entire world from scratch, the author's attention to detail rewards a very close reading. More than a novel, Anathem is a puzzle wrapped in the cloak of a novel.
Anathem also rewards readers who have a liberal arts education, particularly knowledge of philosophy and the humanities. This will sadly lock away some its cleverness from many readers. Seeing, for example, that a rule of thumb called "The Steelyard" is actually a disguised version of "Occam's Razor" will amuse and delight those readers who are in on the joke. Those who are not may appreciate the idea, but lacking insight into its source would seem to me to potentially diminish the impact of the book's ideas.
These factors, combined with the kind of methodically slow pacing (especially earlier in the book) that one would expect from a story narrated by a monk, will turn off many readers. It's tempting to say that Anathem is "too smart" a book for such readers, but it is unfair to conflate intelligence with the sort of "classical intellectualism" that the book resonates with.
For readers who are up to the task, however, Anathem rises to the occasion. Stephenson strives to present us with a world perhaps more perfect (and certainly stranger) than out own, and his careful attention in constructing this world is all the more striking when the reader takes a step back and considers the scale on which he is working.(less)
Shadows Over Baker Street presented me with a real dilemma, because I felt as though such a scattershot mix of stories couldn't really be boiled down...moreShadows Over Baker Street presented me with a real dilemma, because I felt as though such a scattershot mix of stories couldn't really be boiled down to one rating. In the end, however, the sheer number of bad stories simply tipped things in favor of a two-star rating.
For the uninitiated, the book is a collection of short stories in which the formulaic "mythos fiction" of H.P. Lovecraft and others collides with the world of Sherlock Holmes. We are, in principle, to expect Holmesian deductive reasoning to be pitted against unfathomable eldrich forces, a face-off that (while hardly literature) promises to at least be good 'popcorn' reading.
To be clear, a handful of the stories are actually excellent. The principle piece ("A Study In Emerald") is very strong, but it can be acquired for free elsewhere in a much classier format, weakening the case for the anthology somewhat. While a number of other stories rise to the occation ("Tiger! Tiger!", "The Weeping Masks", and "Art In The Blood" were all entertaining), most are mediocre or worse.
The crux of the problem is that "The Mythos" and "Holmes Fiction" are two very specific sub-genres that follow well-established patterns. The cliche of Holmes deducing the character of his client at a glance during the opening is well known to fans of the Detective, as is the horror-narrative-told-through-the-lens-of-a-diary trope familiar to Mythos fans. These create expectations on the part of the reader.
It is, for example, easy to tell a Sherlock Holmes story wrong, which a distressing number of stories included do. The Holmes formula requires the story be told by Watson in the first person: failure to do so simply feels wrong. A clever story can dodge this bullet and innovate, but a clumsy story cannot.
At the same time, however, having to satisfy both formulas simultaneously presents a different problem: overly predictable storytelling. If you're familiar with the Deep Ones, you'll know the ending of various stories even as they begin. Indeed, the very approach Lovecraft took in his writing (slowly, through implication, building up to a shocking and otherworldly reveal) has largely been abandoned by writers who make the crucial mistake of re-using the same monsters and gimmicks. Few stories have that element of surprise precisely because the fans who will be drawn to this premise will be the best-equipped to identify the tired old monsters that have been recycled well past the point of horror, into the realm of cartoons and mockery. Or, for more than a couple of stories, the lowest tier of fiction: fanfic.
(As an aside, I feel I should point out that Lovecraft himself relied on a narrative formula rather than a consistent setting. He rarely used the same antagonist more than once. Consequently, most of his imitators in this collection and otherwise have spectacularly missed the point of "cosmic horror.")
The bottom line is that this collection is, for the most part, a team composed of cripples, with the exception of a handful of genuine athletes. Finishing the collection (a requirement I held myself to before reviewing it) was a chore, and not one I would wish upon others. Absolutely, read "A Study In Emerald" (available from the link above, or in the collection Fragile Things), but otherwise give this bundle a pass.(less)
Kurt Busiek has done something unusual with Astro City. Unlike workaday comic book authors who treat their subject matter as trivially as much of the...more Kurt Busiek has done something unusual with Astro City. Unlike workaday comic book authors who treat their subject matter as trivially as much of their readership does, Busiek is interested in what superheroes mean as ideas. With this, the first entry into a superhero setting of his own creation, he can get right to the guts of the superhero metaphor.
Life In The Big City tells six separate tales, each from a different perspective. Most strikingly, only two of the stories are told from the viewpoint of the heroes themselves: the rest are told through the eyes of victims, journalists, lowlifes, and other spectators. Instead of asking us to suspend disbelief (as most superhero comics do with their over-the-top action and avoidance of day-to-day life), Busiek forces us to put his world under a microscope.
While the execution isn't what I'd call perfect, I was still floored by the grace and fluidity of Busiek's storytelling. Unlike so many other talented authors in superhero comics, Busiek's objectives aren't subversive or cynical: he wants us to use his narrative to ask moral questions without treating the negative as a foregone conclusion. While he may be eroding the simplistic idealism or nostalgia of old comics, he does so only to replace it with something more serious and heartfelt.
The bottom line is that Astro City's first volume speaks of enormous potential. I recommend it highly to anyone who thinks superheroes are more than Saturday-morning cartoons.(less)
Queen of Candesce is the direct sequel to Sun of Suns by the same author. And, like a solid Hollywood sequel, it provides a very similar experience t...moreQueen of Candesce is the direct sequel to Sun of Suns by the same author. And, like a solid Hollywood sequel, it provides a very similar experience to the first volume.
One could split hairs and discuss the pluses and minuses compared to Sun of Suns. Queen of Candesce mostly (but not quite fully) abandons the multi-character storytelling that helped make Sun of Suns a page-turner. Instead of leapfrogging all over the exotic setting, the author tucks in for a detailed examination of a specific slice of that world. Some of these innovation make Queen of Candesce a better book by virtue of its more coherent story arc, but also detract somewhat from the sheer unpredictability that made the initial offering so engrossing.
However, two of Karl Schroeder's book in a row now have made me more aware of the common elements than of the distinctions. The author is telling a very specific kind of story, populated by lively (if flat) characters and moving forward with relentless vigor. Reading this book is very much like a roller coaster ride: you know what you're in for right away, and the experience is reliable and exciting. At the same time, if you take a step back and look at how it's built, the way it works is completely obvious.
This is not to say the book is bad. I found it very entertaining. But it's also the least challenging novel I've read all year. I read it in a single sitting and came away with the same feeling I get watching a marathon of TV-on-DVD: satisfied but hardly awed.(less)
Schroeder's Sun of Suns bears the trappings of hard science fiction, but in reality it belongs to a much older genre: "Adventure." Like great popular...moreSchroeder's Sun of Suns bears the trappings of hard science fiction, but in reality it belongs to a much older genre: "Adventure." Like great popular works of yestercentury (such as Treasure Island or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea), Sun of Suns takes a compelling premise and applies continuous leverage to the plot. On the short side, I finished Sun of Suns in one sitting precisely because I couldn't put it down.
The story is set in an extremely unusual setting: a planet-sized bubble of breathable atmosphere, in which hundreds of floating cities are warmed by dozens of artificial suns. With its focus on airships, air pirates, and, territorial politics, the book feels remarkably like it was inspired by the critically acclaimed video game Skies of Arcadia, albeit intended for a more mature audience.
Like Skies of Arcadia, the book's characters are passionate, textured, and one-dimensional. We all know the archetypes well enough (the orphan-seeking-revenge, the ruthless-conniving-vixen, the bureaucrat-assassin-sociopath), and Schroeder demonstrates adeptly that working with archetypal characters lets the story drive forward unrelentingly. The story's roller-coaster pacing is facilitated by the simplicity of the characters, as relatively little time is spent on exploring the characters and far more is spent on accelerating the story.
Sun of Suns is a very entertaining read, and its unique setting guarantees that it will be remembered. While it is unlikely to inspire much soul-searching, it will keep any but the most demanding reader turning pages from start to finish.(less)
Viriconium is, nominally, a series of short stories and novellas set in (or related to) a city of the same name. In practice, the author is trying to...moreViriconium is, nominally, a series of short stories and novellas set in (or related to) a city of the same name. In practice, the author is trying to more than that, and unfortunately the result is that the collection is somewhat the lesser for it.
The first novella, entitled The Pastel City, is an entertaining adventure in a land far past its prime. The standard hero tropes are in play, albeit set against a more dark backdrop (reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth), and the story does a good job giving the reader a sense of familiarity with the setting. This first story is also the last in the collection that "plays by the rules."
The second novella (entitled A Storm Of Wings) is dense, deeply confusing, and seems at odds with the initial setting. The author's descriptive style is radically different, and slightly surreal twists that introduced us to the setting explode into a phantasmogoric stream of consciousness so vivid and unsettling that it wasn't until about halfway through that I was able to figure out what the hell was going on. Subsequent stories show a similar character to the second novella, albeit to a more controlled degree.
What Harrison is trying for in the first novella is obvious: a standard science fantasy romp with heroism, peril, and skullduggery, flavored with postmodern nihilism. What he trying for in the rest of collection is a more devious game. By his own admission, Viriconium deliberately frustrates the reader. Tired of the "fantasy tourism" made popular by Tolkien, Harrison sought to write a world that was always familiar but never the same. Making repeated use of the themes of a world in transformation, Harrison's protagonists are usually as confused as the reader.
From a literary perspective, Harrison's efforts are probably laudable. Speculative fiction is an oddly stagnant genre in which most authors introduce us to their various worlds in the same ways. The literary is often overwhelmed by the "escapism formula" and Harrison's world is difficult, textured, challenging, and rich.
At the same time, however, Harrison's writing is often pretentious, overwrought, and stultifying. As a work that is entertaining, Viriconium often stumbles. There's something annoying about a story that is written to make a point, but the point that it's making is a reflection on (or criticism of) the reader rather than anything to do with the story itself. Like the artist who presents a blank canvas as art just to see the reaction of patrons, Harrison is writing a story while implicitly shaking you at the shoulder and shouting "You get it? You get it?"(less)
It's difficult to convey how important Tufte's work is, given the extent is it relatively unknown. Consider the following: every time you open a newsp...moreIt's difficult to convey how important Tufte's work is, given the extent is it relatively unknown. Consider the following: every time you open a newspaper, or watch television, or go on the Internet, you're likely to see some graphical representation of data. It might be a map colored according to party politics, or a line chart showing the latest dip in the Dow Jones, or a pie chart about procrastination. These 'visualization' have become so ubiquitous that we largely take them for granted.
Tufte wants you to know two things. First, these kinds of displays are historically new; 200 years ago, they were essentially unknown, and graphs of this kind represent an area of still-feverish innovation. Secondly, mos graphs you see present the data they encapsulate poorly, or in a misleading manner. We've had hundreds of years to refine what "good writing" means, but only a scant few generations to start really thinking about graphs. In short, society is still getting used to this notion of visual data, and still mostly suck at it.
Tufte's Visual Display Of Quantitative Information is nothing short of the first volume of a Bible of visualizations. Tufte lays down a list of core principles for understanding and designing visual data to maximize the elegance and clarity shown. Mixing the sensibilities of a graphic designer with the rigor of a mathematician, Tufte cuts away the fat and lays down the law on how to make graphics that naturally convey (rather than obscure or distort) the data they represent.
This doesn't come across as an especially sexy or fascinating topic to many, I would imagine, but Tufte is the sort of pioneer who may largely go unappreciated in his time. As the complexity of the modern world is laid out before us, the need for intuitive, truthful visualizations is steadily increasing. Already, we see it shaping how we think politics, commerce, and demographics. Mastery of these topics will require mastery of data-handling in general, and Tufte boldly carries his beacon into the hinterlands and beckons us to follow.(less)
Author Terry Pratchett may be the modern day Mark Twain, one of the most prolific satirical authors in genre fiction. The world he spins his elaborate...moreAuthor Terry Pratchett may be the modern day Mark Twain, one of the most prolific satirical authors in genre fiction. The world he spins his elaborate metaphors is that of Discworld, a setting in which he has successfully parodied everything from opera to religion, from currency to war, from morris dancing to mall proliferation. But before Discworld was a template upon which all things modern could be parodied, it was simply a parody, and a mediocre one at best.
Pratchett's humor is similar in many ways to the humor of the late Douglas Adams: it relies heavily on description and implication. Pratchett's ability to tell a coherent story is relatively recent, but his talent for hilarious description in service of a theme stretches further back. With The Color (or, more correctly, Colour) of Magic, Pratchett is only just learning his trade and is still wearing the water wings.
Don't mistake this for a negative review: The Colour of Magic is certainly funny, especially if you've read more Dungeons & Dragons spinoff novels than you're willing to admit in public. But it's a lot less funny than almost any other book set in the Discworld, of which there are currently a staggering 36 volumes.
If you're the type who must read all the books in a series and must do so in order, here's a (slightly outdated) guide. If not, you may be better served by first learning how awesome the Discworld is ( Small Gods and Reaper Man are especially good) and then figuring out how completely you want to explore it.(less)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was originally pitched to me as "the best murder mystery told from the perspective of an autistic bo...moreThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was originally pitched to me as "the best murder mystery told from the perspective of an autistic boy ever written." It's a very accurate pitch.
Protagonist Christopher John Francis Boone is an intensely autistic 15-year old boy, who tells the story from his perspective, capturing his own lack of comprehension in evocative terms. Christopher's autism causes him to see the world in extremely literal terms (largely devoid of social clues). This, combined with his powerful memory and proficiency with mathematics, makes him uniquely (if not particularly well) suited for investigating the irrational behavior of the normal adults around him, centered on the murder of a large black poodle.
When author Mark Haddon's gimmick works, it is gripping, and it works for most of the story. As Christopher pieces together what he's seeing, we in turn must piece together what's happening based on his unusual view of the world - a puzzle within a puzzle that keeps the reader engaged. Haddon's depiction of autism is also highly plausible (though it should be noted that Christopher has a fairly severe case), making it a good book for anyone who wants to understand autism better.
Unfortunately, what keeps this book from being great (rather than merely very good) is that the gimmick has limits. As the story winds down, it becomes clear to the reader that the plot itself is extremely simple. Indeed, it can hardly be otherwise: anything more complicated and the reader would have difficulty piecing it together from Christopher's descriptions.
This is a mild criticism, however. The book is a very fast read and highly enjoyable.(less)