Neal Stephenson likes to throw weird shit together and see if it sticks. The more recent his book, the more likely it is to resemble a schizophrenic'sNeal Stephenson likes to throw weird shit together and see if it sticks. The more recent his book, the more likely it is to resemble a schizophrenic's curio cabinet. Your average Phillip Pullman will add a little wacky trepanning to his fantasy trilogy for that refined edge of esoteria.
Meanwhile, Stephenson will have an exiled member of Italian royalty who works in 'demolition real estate' and knows Escrima thanks to an intense trepanning session with Horace Walpole, Duke Orford. Which I believe is an accurate summary of the next William Gibson book.
One man's premise is another man's plot.
I liked it better when Stephenson used the bizarre as a spice to flavor a driven, exciting story. Though spices may make a dish delectable, they aren't palatable on their own; you need some meat. I guess what I'm saying is: who the fuck wrote Snowcrash and when will he write something else?...more
This book is about as 'sci fi' as an episode of CSI. Moon basically takes 'Flowers for Algernon' and hacks off the ending. The writing was alright, anThis book is about as 'sci fi' as an episode of CSI. Moon basically takes 'Flowers for Algernon' and hacks off the ending. The writing was alright, and there was some interesting characterization, but I suspect it only got the Nebula and Clarke because award committees love nothing as much as political correctness. This book is the equivalent of an actor making an Oscar bid by playing a mentally-challenged character.
I know Moon is a sci fi author, but in this book, it feels like she just stamped on the 'Sci-Fi' label in order to draw an audience, or perhaps because her publisher refused to authorize a genre switch. I hope that isn't true, because that's always a cheap move. This is just modern pop-fiction, an 'emotionally confessional' book with a veneer of 'vaguely near-future'.
This wouldn't have been a problem if Moon had used this opportunity to explore human psychology, which was how 'Algernon' and 'A Clockwork Orange' treated this same theme, but she didn't. She rehashed half of an interesting idea, and failed to capitalize on it.
Speculative Fiction has always been obsessed with what makes us human, and how much we can change before we stop being human at all. While that should be the main theme of this book, it goes almost unexplored.
The climax is rushed and inauthentic. We never actually see the character change, we don't witness the effects as they happen, instead they are lightly explained in choppy montage at the end. Compared to the rest of the book--an internal, step-by-step presentation of a fairly different mind--this sudden, convenient, external ending is disappointing and jarring.
The denouement following the climax is particularly tidy, with all the subtlety of the end of an 80's college movie where we learn through super-imposed text that "Barry went on to win the Nobel prize" to the strains of Simple Minds.
And it's a shame, because the story leading up to the climax is interesting enough, presenting the psychological workings of autism. Moon researched this disorder much better than Mark Haddon in his laughably flawed 'Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time', but then, Moon's son is actually autistic.
There was also a part about fencing, which excited me at first, being a former competitive fencer and coach, but instead, it was just weird SCA dressup boffing. Not that I have anything against SCA dressup boffing (or do I?).
It's an alright read, goes pretty quick, and it might give you some insight into brain disorders, but it doesn't tie human experiences together; which is really a shame, because other sci fi books have successfully used this topic to ask some very difficult and profound questions about how the future of technology might change the way we think, and about the different ways people process information.
'Flowers for Algernon' tackled the exact same themes and was written sixty years before Moon's less profound attempt. You'd think we'd have something more to say after sixty years of neurology and psychology, but apparently not. It also pales in comparison with 'A Clockwork Orange', another good light sci fi which explores the morality of changing the way that people think.
This book was light and fluffy, especially given its subject matter, and while it will probably make soccer moms feel proud of themselves for reading something so 'different', it doesn't endeavor to change the way they think about humanity, the mind, or the possibilities within us....more
A thriller devoid of pacing or exciting language. A mystery devoid of clues, foreshadowing, or facts. A tell-all of half-truths based upon a forged doA thriller devoid of pacing or exciting language. A mystery devoid of clues, foreshadowing, or facts. A tell-all of half-truths based upon a forged document written by a schizophrenic conman. A character-driven modern novel devoid of character. The second draft of Angels and Demons. Page-turning action thanks to the literary equivalent of pulling out at the moment of orgasm. A spiritual awakening built on new-age conspiracy theory. This book is many things, and none of them good, new, or interesting. However, it is an excellent litmus test for idealistic delusion.
Upon the first reading, I must admit I found it a bit interesting, but then I turned the final page, and there was no bibliography. No explanation of how the author became familiar with all the concepts he claimed to 'faithfully portray'. He wrote this book and pretended it was a history book, and then refused to support it in any way. And any history you can't check up on is a bad one.
He's no better than James Frey. In fact, he may be worse, since I know people who base their religious beliefs on this book, whereas Frey's only crime was wishing he was Scarface. And really, what macho thirtysomething male doesn't?
Brown had good reasons for hiding his sources: they were forged by con-man Pierre Plantard and snuck into the Bibliotheque National in Paris back in the seventies. And it's not like Plantard got away with it, either--the whole 'Priory of Sion' thing was debunked thirty years before this book was even written.
The artistic 'iconography' that figures heavily into the mystery is also completely made-up, and was declared ludicrous by an art history professor of my acquaintance. There are a lot of well-known symbols and allusions in classic art, but none of them resemble Brown's claims. The whole hinge on which the plot turns--the notion that an inverted triangle is automatically symbolic of women--makes about as much sense as declaring that the use of the swastika by 3rd century, BC Buddhists was proof that they were fascists.
The rest of Brown's book is filled with the sort of cliched religious conspiracies you get from your first year as a theology student. Not only that, but these conspiracies were already explored by better writers in 'Foucault's Pendulum' and the 'Illuminatus! Trilogy'.
Well, I've already done more legitimate historical research on this review than Brown did in his whole book, so I guess I'll call it a day....more
My friends call me Senex ('The Old Man') because of my taste in fantasy, or they would, if I had any. It's often been noted that I'll give at least foMy friends call me Senex ('The Old Man') because of my taste in fantasy, or they would, if I had any. It's often been noted that I'll give at least four stars to any fantasy from the Italian Renaissance, and yet rarely give more than two for anything written since the nineteen-sixties. Some have accused me of a staunch prejudice in period, but lo! it is not so.
I really love the fantasy genre, but the corollary of this is that I hate most fantasy books, because of how they mistreat that which I love. Whenever I am called to task for loving old books and despising new ones, I give a silent thanks to China Mieville for writing a book within the last decade that I can, with all honesty and aplomb, say is both eminently enjoyable and well-written.
There are so many rich veins that run through the history of fantastical literature, from the epics, the matter of France, and fairy tales to metaphysical poetry and the pulps; and yet today, the core of the genre is content to keep digging deeper into a spent shaft. Mieville's work shines because he divines more unusual sources of inspiration and then carefully prises, polishes, and sets them.
One thread Mieville draws on are the 'Weird' authors of early century pulp, who combined horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and didn't delineate where one ended and the other began. Science fiction cannot just sit on its laurels like fantasy, if only because it is constantly outstripped by new science and technology.
Lovecraft fantasized Verne, LeGuin fantasized Doc Smith, and Mieville has a whole new world of bursting technologies to draw from. The information and biotech boom led to an entirely new vision of the future, completely unavailable to writers of the Silver or Golden age, one which was snatched up by the young, hungry, dirty Cyberpunk writers.
If there were an easy way to sum up his work, you might say Mieville has written a 'cyberpunk fantasy', concentrating on the same flawed, sprawling cities, plucky heroes, and confirmation that knowledge is more valuable than martial puissance. Not since Snowcrash have I read a book that was as fun as it is intelligent. Both authors have worlds that are underpinned by ideas and philosophies.
For Stephenson, it was the social theory of Jaynes, but for Mieville, it's economics. As an economist, he can't help but enumerate the world; for him, events unerringly lead back to fundamental causes like need, supply, gain, and zero-sum games. This isn't overt in his books, it's merely the mechanism that underpins the drive of his plot.
Perhaps this explains why he was drawn to a setting reminiscent of the Victorian and not the Medieval, since economic historians suggest that, before this period, economics could hardly have existed as a science, since the fundamental questions which underpin it had no answer in a system based on guild and fealty. But once economics bloomed, it did so grandly, such that economics could be the basis for a fantasy or a farce.
Yet Mieville's particular economic views are not the theme of the story. He is not a moralist, but a cynic, capable of representing the failure of good ideas (even one he believes in) and the success of harmful ones. His 'gritty realism' is not merely a collage of pointless sex, violence, and cruelty (like some other fantasy authors I could name), but a representation of necessary evils, difficulties, and desires.
But he is not merely a Cyberpunk author dabbling in fantasy, any more than Lovecraft was a fantasist who wrote about space aliens. Indeed, Mieville takes notes from Lovecraft, remembering that the most interesting magic is that which is only vaguely explained, and which suggests a strange and interesting world beyond the characters' understanding. I still recall the throwaway line "some plankton from a huge brine dimension" in The Scar sparking my imagination more than entire books by other authors, and of course, evoking the colliding branes of String Theory.
The mindless 'grey goo' antagonists are equally Lovecraftian, but Mieville does more interesting things with The Weaver, an unfathomable huge spider who exists between space and time. So many authors after Lovecraft tried to bring the Mythos closer to human understanding, giving the unknowable beings dialogue and motivation, but nothing kills frighteningly alien creatures faster than poorly-written dialogue; indeed, I would have said giving the creatures any level of comprehensible consciousness ruins them, but I'm glad to be proven wrong.
The Weaver is neither ally nor antagonist, nor does his dialogue bring him down to our level. If anything, it makes him seem more uncanny, since it is easier to shrug off some silent terror than to discover something that almost seems to make sense, but the truths it dances around suggest a world we would not wish to understand, because it is inconceivable, overawing, and deeply ironic.
But then, that is the scientific lesson from which Mieville profits: on both the micro- and macro-levels: the universe seems to flaunt everything we take for granted. The spider could be telling men about Heisenbergian concepts of non-causality and total existence failure and be no less right nor any less unnerving.
And yet, for all Mieville's gravitas, there is something undeniably frivolous and delightful about his characters. They never get so bogged-down in their difficulties that they lose the fundamental vivacity with which he endows them.
It is rare to find an author who deals with such vibrant surrealism, and yet is capable of reigning it in before it overwhelms the story. Mervyn Peake might be the master of using carefully-rationed absurdism to create a world more realistic and believably than any stark vision of Post-Modern Realism. Like Peake, Mieville's characters and setting are always strange enough to seem unusually real.
Some have suggested that this frivolity undermines the very serious questions and ideas he presents elsewhere, but I, for one, am glad to find him capable of reveling in joy, for Nietzsche once observed that "excess is not the result of joy, but joylessness".
I compared Mieville favorably to Snowcrash, but Stephenson's other books simply cannot measure up to his first success, and it is because they are joyless. They delve passionately into ideas and minutia, but do not revel in the characters, the place, or the events. I would rather an author dance lightly across his treatise than for a moment begin to imagine that what he writes is portentous and grandiose.
Nor does Mieville err too far on the other side of the fantastical: for all the implausible absurdity of his setting and characters, he never gives in to the temptation to turn the book into a nonsensical fever dream. Unlike Calvino's Invisible Cities, Mieville does not lose himself in the false profundity of metaphysics, and never once suggests the meaningless New Age aphorism that "I am remarkable precisely because I know that I am ignorant". What is remarkable in the mind of man is the cusp of knowledge, not the unknown that lies beyond it.
His story is infused with the search for knowledge and understanding, which plays through all his economic causes, his scientific metaphysical exploration (no less far-fetched than M-theory, and considerably more accessible), and, of course, the pseudo-scientific interests of his characters. What prevents this from dragging down into the sort of detail-mashing explanations that can kill a good book (or a good idea), is that Mieville is more interested in the love of discovery than in stagnating over what is already known.
Every book should be as concerned (and excited) with discovery: as readers, we are always discovering, always mulling over, always seeking to turn the next page and renew ourselves with an unexpected turn or the final arrival of some foreshadowed conclusion.
By seeking out strange and varied inspirations for his work, Mieville has shown once again that an author is only as good as the works he draws from, and only as original as the ideas he adopts. He rejects Tolkien's empty wilderness and ancient stone palisades for Henry Mayhew's London and Gibson's Tokyo. He invests his magic with alchemy, quantum theory, and transhuman biotech. He replaces heroism and escapism with economic theory and passionate individualism.
He has more world, more character, and more plot than most fantasists, and yet it is not overwrought, it is all a romp, all a vivacious and unapologetic adventure. Most genre writers not only have higher literary pretensions, but fail to deliver on them, while at the same time having less fun doing it. Mieville puts them to shame. I can only hope fantasy authors of the future will be inspired by him, and save this genre from itself and its ponderous, long-winded Old Guard.
This is my favorite installment of the quintessential modern bildungsroman. Nevertheless, it has its problems, familiar to any reader of Rowling's.
SheThis is my favorite installment of the quintessential modern bildungsroman. Nevertheless, it has its problems, familiar to any reader of Rowling's.
She never seems to gain control of her writing, which spirals out into thousand-page doorstops filled with unimportant side characters and rambling plots. The story is moved along by arbitrary plot devices, often magic. Instead of using the magic to make her world seem more strange and wondrous, she uses it to cover up plot holes. Why write a consistent plot when you can just put in a spell or two to fix the problems?
Likewise her world is poorly defined. She did not start by constructing the 'wizarding world' and then base her stories off of it, rather she changes her setting to fit whatever she needs at the moment. This constantly shifting setting means the world doesn't make much sense if you take the time to sit and think about it.
Her fractured plots are not the result of 'realism', which some authors use to create a sense of a 'real world', separate from archetypes. Rowling is just trying to fit in all the disparate ideas and characters she has in her notepad. She becomes so attached to her characters and ideas that she is unwilling to sacrifice them for a more streamlined book.
She has problems connecting the many dots of her story, but uses her magical 'plot devices' to keep us from noticing that the scaffolding behind the facade is rather bare (indeed: crumbly). Her rabid plot movement points away from the cracks in her storytelling: "move along, nothing to see here".
I find it somewhat ironic that Rowling wants to 'graduate' from Potter to writing adult mysteries. A mystery needs to have a tight plot, based not in the characters but in the events surrounding them. Though many people tried to 'figure out' the Potter books and predict them, in truth there is nothing to figure out.
Rowling's foreshadowing is vague and unsupported, and there are just as many clues as red herrings. The only reason some of the elements seem predictable is because there was a crack team of several million people making every guess under the sun.
Combine that with the fact that the final book introduces completely new elements to finish the plot, and we can see that Rowling is not really in charge of her own pen. She is a slave to her own sentimentality. Then again, so are millions around the world.
The only thing which makes these meandering plots move along at a reasonable pace are her characters. They connect us to the magical world, so that even if it doesn't make sense, at least we can see how it might work for the people who live in it.
Her characters are vivid, emotional, motivated, and archetypal without being banal. They may not be psychologically deep, but for a monomyth like this, that is hardly the point. Most people aren't that complex, either.
In the series, this book gets the prize for the most psychological depth and also the most consistent mood. Before this, Rowling was still trying to get her footing, figuring out what exactly she was writing, and trying to explain the world to her readers.
She finally hit her stride in 'Prisoner of Azkaban', and got much of her unsure world-building out of the way in 'Goblet of Fire'. This is before she started feeling the pressure to wrap things up in a neat package, which again begins to take its toll on her consistency. This is the first, and really the last of her books where Rowling is able to write without being overly concerned with either the beginning or ending of her series.
Instead of placing a scattered plot over her characters, Rowling was instead able to let the characters travel through their own path of growth and self-exploration. The change is the most apparent in Harry himself, and though his transformation is somewhat sudden, it is still honest and believable for the character.
By focusing chiefly on her strength--character building--and escaping the constraints of the monomyth, if only for a moment, Rowling is able to avoid her weakest points as a writer and turn out her strongest book.
Are you the sort of person who hears other people discussing books and finding yourself wondering how they can even form opinions on stories? I mean,Are you the sort of person who hears other people discussing books and finding yourself wondering how they can even form opinions on stories? I mean, either you like it or you don't, right?
Well, if that's you, then read this book, The Giver, and Siddhartha (if that sounds like too much, substitute Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the latter). Once you've done that, you'll feel all sorts of strange emotions and ideas swirling around inside you and you, too, will be able to talk about how a book made you think.
Then, you should watch Donnie Darko (which will become your favorite movie), and you can talk about how movies made you think, too. Soon, you'll be readin' and thinkin' and talkin' up a storm. It's just like a dog who eats grass so he can understand horses.
This book may seem impressive if you don't have much experience with philosophy, history, sociology, or theology, but the ideas in this book are about as complex as what you'd find in a college freshman's paper. And Quinn has an agenda: he wants to convince you, so all of his ideas are simplified and mixed up to support his conclusions. Whether he did this deliberately to convince the reader, or accidentally in the process of trying to convince himself isn't really important. Which one is really worse?
For example, in his retelling of the Cain and Abel story, he completely conflates Hunter Gatherer societies with Pastoral Nomads, which makes his entire argument murky. It's just another example of the 'Noble Savage in balance with nature' thing, which is terribly naive. Native cultures often transformed the land around them and drove animals to extinction, as evidenced by the way mammoths were hunted until none remained.
One archaeological team on the West Coast of America discovered that the local tribe had been systematically killing and eating all the animals in the area. Looking through the piles of discarded bones, they'd find the tribe hunted and ate one animal until there were none left, then moved on to a different animal. Eventually, the diseases brought by Europeans reached them and their population was greatly reduced, and then the animals began to flourish again.
The whole notion that humans used to be 'in balance' but no longer are is a fuzzy dream, and not useful for anyone trying to look at the world and the problems we face. Humans are not the first animals to cause extinction, we're not even the first to cause mass extinction across the world. It is a gross oversimplification, like all of the arguments in this book.
Should people be nice to each other? Yes. Should we destroy the things that keep us alive? No. We all know that. We don't need Quinn to tell us. And we all know that solving problems is harder than saying that things could be better. I just went as deep as this book goes, and I didn't even need to give you lectures from a magical talking monkey....more
Lowry's book is a piece of nationalist propaganda, using oversimplification, emotional appeals, and dualistic morality to shut down her readers' mindsLowry's book is a piece of nationalist propaganda, using oversimplification, emotional appeals, and dualistic morality to shut down her readers' minds. More troubling is that it is aimed at children, who don't yet have the critical faculties to defend themselves from such underhanded methods.
Unsurprisingly, Lowry adopts the structure of the monomyth, equating a spiritual journey with a moral one. Her Christ-figure uses literal magic powers to rebel against his society. This rebellion and the morality behind it are presented as 'natural', to contrast with the 'abnormal morality' around him.
Lowry doesn't seem to understand that we get our morality from our culture, it isn't something in-born that we 'lose'. This is the first hint of Lowry's misunderstanding of the human mind. She assumes her own morality is correct, and then builds her story to fit it.
She also makes the character act and think like we do, despite never adequately explaining how he came up with such unusual notions. It's the same trick many historical fiction authors use, leaving us scratching our heads as to why a Fourteenth Century French peasant speaks like a second-wave feminist. I'd suggest that Lowry falls to this fault for the same reason they do: she has no talent for imagining how others might think differently.
Lowry's book ends with the standard nonspecific transgressive spiritual event that marks all monomyths. Since the book is not a progressive presentation of ideas, it does not suggest any conclusion. Instead, the climax is a symbolic faux-death event (symbolic of what, none can say). Confusingly, Lowry later redacts the ending in the sequels, undermining the pseudo-spiritual journey she created.
Though some call this book 'Dystopian', it's closer to the truth to say Lowry borrows elements from the Dystopian authors, attempting to combine the spiritual uplift of the monomyth with the political and social deconstruction of the Dystopia. What she doesn't recognize is that the faith of the one conflicts with the cynicism of the other. She draws on ideas and images from many other authors: Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell, Burgess, but doesn't improve upon them.
These authors created novels that reflected the world around them. They based them on the political events of the times, presented with realism and careful psychology. Though they presented the struggle between the individual and the society, they portrayed morality as grey, and suffering as the result of individual human faults, not political systems. Lowry doesn't realize that the best way to critique Fascism or Communism is not to present it as 'evil', but to simply present it as it was.
But Lowry's world is not based in reality, it is symbolic and hyperbolic. Instead of writing about how poverty makes the world seem small and dull, she has the characters magically unable to experience life. Instead of an impersonal government, she presents a sort of evil hippy commune.
The only political system it resembles is a school, which is a neat little trick to get the kids interested. The idea that 'school=unfeeling totalitarian hell' is not an uncommon one, but it's one I'm surprised teachers would support. The book also suggests a creche, but lacking similarity to any real-world system, it doesn't work as a political criticism.
Lowry creates this artificial world to suit her purposes, but it is not a symbolic exercise like 'Animal Farm'. We understand that the pigs of animal farm are symbolic, because there are no talking pigs. Lowry's world is more insidious, since its oversimplification is hidden. She builds an artificial world to support the dualist morality that she's pushing. She presents the same knee-jerk fears about euthanasia and abortion that people use against Women's Rights or Health Care.
Worse than these Straw Man arguments is the fact that she never deals with the economic causes of totalitarianism. Tyrants don't just rise up and take control by their own force of will, they come into power because of the socioeconomic situations that surround them. Lean times produce strong, fascist leaders while profitable times produce permissive, liberal societies.
Strong, centralized leadership simply doesn't self-propagate in cultures where everyone is clothed, fed, and housed. The Holocaust was socially about some ideal of 'change' and 'purity', but it was economically about the transmission of wealth from Jews, Poles, and Catholics to Germans (and more specifically, to those Germans who had elected the new ruling party).
The atrocities of war are, for the most, part committed by normal people to other normal people. By presenting the power structure as 'amoral' and 'inhuman', Lowry ignores the fact that people will willingly cause others to suffer. Painting the enemy as 'evil' and 'alien' is just an unsophisticated propagandist method.
She contrasts her 'evil' with the idealized 'goodness' of emotion, beauty, and freedom. This is nothing more than the American dream of 'specialness' that Mr. Rogers was pushing for so many years. We are all special, we are all good, we all deserve love and happiness. Sure, it sounds good, but what does it mean?
Where does this 'specialness' come from? If it is just the 'sanctity of human life', then it's not really special, because it's all-encompassing. If all of us are special, then none of us are. There's nothing wrong with valuing life, but when Lowry presents one mode of life as valuable and another as reprehensible, she ceases to actually value humanity as a whole. Instead, she values a small, idealized chunk of humanity. 'People are good, except the ones I don't like' is not a moral basis, nor is it a good message to send to kids.
If the specialness is only based on fitting in with a certain moral and social guideline, then Lowry isn't praising individuality, she's praising herd behavior. The protagonist is only 'special' because he has magic powers. His specialness is not a part of his character, it is an emotional appeal.
The idea of being a special individual is another piece of propaganda, and its one kids are especially prone to, because kids aren't special: they are carefully controlled and powerless. Giving a character special powers and abilities and then using that character to feed a party line to children is not merely disingenuous, it's disturbing.
There is also a darker side to universal specialness: giving a child a sense of importance without anything to back it up creates egotism and instability. Adults noticed that children with skills and friends had high self-esteems, but instead of teaching their children social skills and knowledge, they misunderstood the causal relationship and tried to give them self-worth first.
Unfortunately, the moment unsupported self-worth is challenged, the child finds they have nothing to fall back on. Their entitlement didn't come from their skills or experiences, and so they have nothing to bolster that sense of worth. Instead, any doubt sends them down a spiral of emotional instability.
A single book like this wouldn't be the cause of such a state in a child, but it does act as part of the social structure built to give a sense of worth without a solid base for that worth. People like to believe they are special, kids especially so, but being a remarkable person is not a result of belief but of actions. If the book had informed them, then it would leave them better off, but giving them a conclusion based on emotional appeals does nothing to build confidence or character.
Many people have told me this book is good because it appeals to children, but children often fall for propaganda. Children develop deep relationships with pop stars, breakfast cereals, and Japanese monsters. This does not make them good role models for children.
Feeding 'specialness' to kids along with a political message is no better than the fascist youth programs Lowry intends to criticize. The obsession with individuality is just another form of elitism. It's ironic that people in America most often describe themselves as individuals when pointing out the things they do to align themselves with groups.
But banding together in a community is not a bad thing. For Lowry and other 'Red Scare' children, any mention of 'communal' can turn into a witch hunt, but we all give up some personal rights and some individuality in order to live in relatively safe, structured societies. There are benefits to governmental social controls and there are drawbacks, and it's up to us to walk the line between the two. Anarchy and Totalitarianism never actually exist for long: we are social animals.
It's not difficult to understand why Lowry is so popular, especially amongst educators. The message she gives aligns perfectly with what they were taught as kids, from Red Scare reactionism to the hippy-dippy 'unique snowflake' mantra. These ideas aren't entirely misguided, either. It's good to recognize the benefits of difference and the dangers of allowing other to control our lives.
If a reader believes that fascism and socialism are inherently wrong and that their own individuality is their greatest asset, they will likely sympathize with Lowry's work. However, this doesn't make the book honest, nor beneficial. One of the hardest things we can do as readers is disagree with the methods of authors we agree with ideologically.
It makes us feel good to find authors who agree with us, but this is when we should be at our most skeptical. Searching the world for self-justification is not a worthwhile goal, it simply turns you into another short-sighted, argumentative know-it-all. 'Yes men' never progress.
Lowry is toeing the party line. She does not base her book around difficult questions, like the Dystopian authors, but around easy answers. She doesn't force the reader to decide for themselves what is best, she makes it clear what she wants us to think. Her book is didactic, which means that it instructs the reader what to believe.
Even if her conclusions about Individuality vs. Community are correct, she doesn't present arguments, she only presents conclusions. Like rote memorization or indoctrination, she teaches nothing about the politics, social order, economics, or psychology of totalitarianism or individuality. The reader is not left with an understanding, just an opinion.
The baseless 'individuality' of the book lets the reader imagine that they are rebels--that they are bucking the system even as they fall into lock-step. By letting the reader think they are already free-thinking, Lowry tricks them into forgetting their skepticism.
She is happy to paint a simple world of black and white, and this is likely the world she sees. I doubt she is purposefully creating an insidious text, she just can't see past her own opinions. She writes this book with a point to make, and makes it using emotional appeals and symbolism. She doesn't back it up with arguments because she doesn't seem to have developed her opinions from cogent arguments.
In the end, she doesn't show us that the structure of this society is wrong, she says nothing poignant about individuality vs. community; instead, she relies on threats to the life of an innocent infant. Yet nowhere does she provide an argument for why communal living or the sacrifice of freedoms for safety must necessarily lead to infanticide.
In politics, making extreme claims about the opposing side is called mud-slinging, it is an underhanded and dishonest tactic. It works. Arguing intelligently is difficult, accusing is easy, so that's what Lowry does.
She is another child of WWII and the Cold War who hasn't learned her lesson. She quickly condemns the flaws of others while failing to search out her own. Even after the Holocaust, there are many racist, nationalist, violent Jews; conflict rarely breeds a new understanding.
America condemned the faceless communal life of the Second World, and yet America created The Projects. We critiqued strong governmental controls, but we still have the bank bailout, socialized medicine, socialized schooling, and socialized charity. America condemned the Gulags and Work Camps, and yet we imprison one out of every hundred citizens; far more than Stalin ever did. Some are killed, all are dehumanized.
As a little sci fi adventure, the book isn't terrible. It's really the pretension that goes along with it. Lowry cobbles together religious symbolism and Dystopic tropes and then tries to present it as something as complex and thoughtful as the authors she copied. Copying isn't a crime, but copying poorly is.
Like Dan Brown or Michael Crichton, she creates a political pamphlet of her own ideals, slaps a pretense of authority on it, and then waits for the money and awards to roll in--and they did. Many people I've discussed this book with have pointed to those awards as the surest sign of this book's eminent worth.
Award committees are bureaucratic organizations. Their decisions are based on political machinations. This book is a little piece of Nationalism, and so it was lauded by the political machine that Lowry supports. The left hand helps the right. If awards are the surest sign of worth, then Titanic is a better movie than Citizen Kane.
What surprises me is how many of those who brought up the award as their argument were teachers. If a politically-charged administrative committee is the best way to teach children, then why do you take umbrage when the principal tells you that bigger class sizes (and fewer benefits) are fine? Listen to him: doesn't he have award plaques?
The other argument is usually that 'kids like it'. I usually respond that kids also like candy, so why not teach that? Some people also get angry at me for analyzing a book written for children:
"Of course it's not a great book, it's for kids! If you want a good book, go read Ulysses!"
I prefer to give children good books rather than pieces of political propaganda (even if they agreed with me). Children can be as skeptical, quick-witted, and thoughtful as adults if you give them the chance, so I see no excuse for feeding them anything less.
Kids aren't stupid, they just lack knowledge, and that's a fine distinction. It's easy for adults to take advantage of their naivete, their emotionality, and their sense of worth. Just because it's easier for the teacher doesn't mean it's better for the child.
When we show children something that is over-simplified, presenting an idealized, crudely moralizing world, we aren't preparing them for the actual world. If you give a child a meaningless answer to repeat, he will repeat it, but he won't understand why.
Why not give the child a book that presents many complex ideas, but no rote answers, and let them make up their own minds? If they don't learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff and form their own opinions early, in a safe, nurturing environment, what chance will they have on their own as adults?
In all the discussions and research regarding this book, I have come across very little analysis. It's especially surprising for a book with such a strong following, but there aren't many explanations of why the book is supposed to be useful or important.
This lack of argument makes sense from a political standpoint, since there is no reason to analyze the worth of propaganda: its worth is that it agrees with society and indoctrinates readers. Analyzing it would defeat the purpose; political diatribes do not stand up to thoughtful attention.
Perhaps someday someone will create a thoughtful, textual analysis of this book that will point out its merits, its structure and its complexity. I've gradually come to doubt it. I never expected when I wrote my original review of this book that it would garner this much attention.
I still welcome comments and thoughts, but if your comment looks roughly like this:
"You should read this book again, but this time, like it more. You think you're smart but you aren't. You're mean. Lowry is great. This book won awards and kids like it. It's meant for kids anyways, why would you analyze what its about? I bet you never even read the sequels. Go read 'Moby Dick' because you are full of yourself."
I've heard that one before. If you do want to comment though, you might check out this article; I find it helps me with presenting my ideas....more
Sometimes truth isn't just stranger than fiction, it's also more interesting and better plotted. Salinger helped to pioneer a genre where fiction wasSometimes truth isn't just stranger than fiction, it's also more interesting and better plotted. Salinger helped to pioneer a genre where fiction was deliberately less remarkable than reality. His protagonist says little, does little, and thinks little, and yet Salinger doesn't string Holden up as a satire of deluded self-obsessives, he is rather the epic archetype of the boring, yet self-important depressive.
I've taken the subway and had prolonged conversations on the street with prostitutes (not concerning business matters), and I can attest that Salinger's depiction is often accurate to what it feels like to go through an average, unremarkable day. However, reading about an average day is no more interesting than living one.
Beyond that, Salinger doesn't have the imagination to paint people as strangely as they really are. Chekhov's 'normal' little people seem more real and alive than Salinger's because Chekhov injects a little oddness, a little madness into each one. Real people are almost never quite as boring as modernist depictions, because everyone has at least some ability to surprise you.
Salinger's world is desaturated. Emotions and moments seep into one another, indistinct as the memories of a drunken party. Little importance is granted to events or thoughts, but simply pass by, each duly tallied by an author in the role of court reporter.
What is interesting about this book is not that it is realistically bland, but that it is artificially bland. Yet, as ridiculous a concept as that is, it still takes itself entirely in earnest, never acknowledging the humor of its own blase hyperbole.
This allows the book to draw legions of fans from all of the ridiculously dull people who take themselves as seriously as Holden takes himself. They read it not as a parody of bland egotism but a celebration, poised to inspire all the bland egotists who have resulted from the New Egalitarianism in Art, Poetry, Music, and Academia.
Those same folks who treat rationality and intellectual fervor like a fashion to be followed, imagining that the only thing required to be brilliant is to mimic the appearance and mannerisms of the brilliant; as if black berets were the cause of poetic inspiration and not merely a symptom.
One benefit of this is that one can generally sniff out pompous faux intellectuals by the sign that they hold up Holden as a sort of messianic figure. Anyone who marks out Holden as a role-model is either a deluded teen with an inflated sense of entitlement, or is trying to relive the days when they were.
But what is more interesting is that those who idolize Holden tend to be those who most misunderstand him. Upon close inspection, he's not depressive, not consumed with ennui or an existential crisis, he's actually suffering from 'Shell Shock'--now known as 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder'.
The way he thinks about his brother's and classmate's deaths--going over the details again and again in his mind, but with no emotional connection--it's not symptomatic of depression, but of psychological trauma. He is stuck in a cycle, unable to process events, going over them again and again, but never able to return to normalcy.
It takes a certain kind of self-centered prick to look at someone's inability to cope with the reality of death and think "Hey, that's just like my mild depression over how my parents won't buy me a newer ipod!" It's not an unusual stance in American literature--there's an arrogant detachment in American thought which has become less and less pertinent as the world grows and changes. As recently as The Road we have American authors comparing a difficult father-son relationship to the pain and turmoil of an African civil war survivor--and winning awards for displaying their insensitive arrogance.
Perhaps it's time we woke up and realized that the well-fed despondence of the white man should not be equated with a lifetime of death, starvation, war, and traumas both physical and emotional. And as for Salinger--a real sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress who was one of the first soldiers to see a concentration camp, who described how you can never forget the smell of burning flesh--I can only imagine how he felt when people read his story of a man, crippled by the thought of death, and thought to themselves "Yes, that's just what it's like to be a trustafarian with uncool parents". No wonder he became a recluse and stopped publishing....more
With Crichton, it is always a gamble whether whatever strange and new idea has latched onto will overcome his overbearing personality. His assurance tWith Crichton, it is always a gamble whether whatever strange and new idea has latched onto will overcome his overbearing personality. His assurance that science will always go wrong makes for easy potboiler plots, but you do get the feeling that if he were a caveman, he would mistrust a sharpened stick.
Crichton's sensationalism and misuse of scientific concepts has made him untrustworthy as a guide on any serious issue, but in the case of runaway dinosaurs, we do not need to heed his warnings about the 'dangers of cloning'; we can simply enjoy an idea that was ridiculous before Crichton ever touched it.
At least we are spared the author's libelous personal attacks in this book. If you have a plane ride and a love for dinosaurs, pick it up. The movie's better, though....more
Gary Paulsen writes in only two emotions: fine and vomit-y. Someone may want to tell him that there are other ways to provoke a response in a reader tGary Paulsen writes in only two emotions: fine and vomit-y. Someone may want to tell him that there are other ways to provoke a response in a reader than going right for the gut, so to speak. This book could have done with some fear and suspense, perhaps some gratification, depression, or joy. I do not mind a tragedy, nor do I balk at watching the man beaten down. I am a fan of Chekhov's.
If your idea of suspense is mosquito bites on your nipples, meet your Stephen King....more
This book is a response to the flawed and disappointing underbelly of humanity, revealed for author Bach in Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, the baThis book is a response to the flawed and disappointing underbelly of humanity, revealed for author Bach in Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, the battles for Civil Rights and Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution. Unfortunately, it is not a work which embraces or explores those changes, but seeks an escape from the difficult questions of the world.
Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the author would want to escape the everyday anxieties which mark the changing world. There is a sort of blind optimism in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the sort you get when you take ancient and complex philosophy and distill it down into meaningless fluff. It is from this feel-good denial that the whole New Age movement springs, giving hope without guidance, and adding self-help to our self loathing.
The surface of the water seems calm and glassy from afar. The ripples almost insensible. It is tempting to hope that the whirling eddies of hate, the tumult of inequality, and the maelstroms of fear do not persist beneath it. We shall someday find, when we must navigate Scylla and Charybdis, whether we have melted down our statues and our cannons both to build a monument to the lost....more
I usually like historical fiction, but this particular example has been so mitigated by the poorly-hidden didactic tautology of its too-many-cooks legI usually like historical fiction, but this particular example has been so mitigated by the poorly-hidden didactic tautology of its too-many-cooks legion of anonymous authors and editors that it was rather difficult to enjoy. It also fell into a similar trap to the somewhat similar 'Da Vinci Code', in that it utilized a lot of poorly-researched materials and claimed them as fact.
A lot of the data matched up poorly with other historical accounts, especially when it came to numerical data. It seems that the authors of this book had a need for an epic beyond epics, and several bodycounts beyond the capability of a pre-modern war.
There was also a problem with the moral and ethical position presented by the book. Normally, I'm not one to nit-pick about such things, since the exploration of ethicism is an important and interesting philosophical task; but, again, this book went in so many different directions with it that it was difficult to keep up. Though the intermittent noir-ish first-person narrative made a lot of moral claims about peace and justice and acceptance, the actual actions depicted by the self-same 'protagonist' were often in complete contrast, such as when he killed all the people in the world except one family.
In fact, the entire book seemed to be filled with sensationalist violence, sex, and incest. It's surprising that I haven't heard more crimes blamed on this book, which often orders the reader to kill people by throwing stones at them (I've heard the sequel, the Qur'an, is even worse).
Eventually, I began to suspect that the book was some sort of in-joke. I think that when all of the editors and writers saw what the other ones were writing, they decided to take their names off the book. Eventually, I guess they just decided to pull a sort of ultimate 'Alan Smithee'; but of course, once all culpability is gone, I think a lot of the authors lost their will to make this into a good book, and so it just got published 'as is'.
I know there are a lot of fans of this book, which makes sense, I guess, since it is really a lot like that Da Vinci Code book, which was also a bestseller. It is pretty fantastical and has a lot of really strong characters, like Jesus (though he's a bit of a Mary-Sue, isn't he?) and Onan. One of the main reasons I read it was because there's this really awesome Fanfic this guy Milton wrote about it, and apparently a lot of other authors were inspired by it, but I have to admit, this is one case where the Fanfic is a lot better than the original.
I guess it's like how sometimes, the first example of a genre ends up not really fitting because it feels so unsophisticated and erratic. I know that it can take a long time to try to get these ideas down pat. Maybe someone will rewrite it someday and try to get it to make some sense. Then again, it wasn't that great in the first place.
There was some really great writing in the book, though. Some of the poetic statements were really cool, like 'do unto others' or 'through a glass darkly', but I heard that those parts were stolen from Shakespeare, who stole them from Kyd, so I'm not really sure what to believe.
I think this is one of those cases where the controversy surrounding the book really trumps the book itself, like 'The Catcher in the Rye' or 'Gigli'. In fact, the Bible is a lot like Gigli....more
Like the bloom of critically-successful Native American novels of the late seventies, this book does not come from an alien culture. It does not repreLike the bloom of critically-successful Native American novels of the late seventies, this book does not come from an alien culture. It does not represent an original or alternative storytelling tradition. This is literature that has already been colonized. It has already moved from the oral to the written. Achebe wrote it in English, and gave it the form of the quintessential Western novel.
I don't mean to say that it fails to represent the African cultural experience, but in Achebe's book, it is a culture already colonized, already subjugated; the waters have been muddied. Normally, when I read a book about another culture, it is full of surprising details which show the differences between that culture and mine.
Whether a Japanese Novel, a Mayan myth, or a Hindu epic, there are always parts which show an alternate way of thought, and of life. I know that the many cultures of Africa are no less complex: they have their own vast histories, empires, and philosophies. Sadly, they kept no written histories that we know, and archaeological efforts have been foiled by harsh terrain and political unrest, so we have only scant details of those numerous great traditions.
But I did not find in Achebe's work any hints of a great, unique culture. Everything in the story was recognizable, more familiar in style than great foreign works, more familiar than other African stories I have heard, more familiar even than the works of other Western cultures, such as Greek Drama, the politics of Tacitus, or Medieval dream analysis.
The book takes a recognizably tragic form, with the inevitable fall of the centrally-flawed man as featured by the Greeks and Shakespeare. It is a tale of personal disintegration representing the loss of culture, and of purpose. It is an existential mode seen in Arthur Miller, Joseph Heller, and J.D. Salinger.
Achebe shows his hand a bit with the title, taken from one of the most famous poems in the English canon. Achebe reminds us that he is the consummate western man of letters, educated in the style of the West, and the story he tells should be familiar to us. Ever since Socrates drank the hemlock, the west has had a complex relationship with its remarkable minds. They are held up one moment, and destroyed the next.
Likewise, the experience of Achebe and Africa is not new--it is the same exertion of religious and moral dominance that was forced upon Ireland and America. The same dominant force of any power that sought to extend itself, and to absorb its new subjects.
Like James Joyce, Achebe writes of the struggles both of his culture and of himself as an artist. His existentialism is remarkable for its completeness. There is no character who is wholly sympathetic, nor wholly vile. There is no culture or point of view which is either elevated or vilified.
Achebe is extremely fair, presenting the flaws of all men, and of the organizations under which they live, be they Western or African in origin. Like Heller or Miller, his representation of mankind is almost unfailingly negative. Small moments of beauty, joy, or innocence are always mitigated. They exist only in the inflated egos of the characters, or the moralizing ideals of the culture.
Unlike Miller, he does not give us the chance to sympathize. There are not those quiet moments of introspection that make 'Death of a Salesman' so personally tragic. Unlike Heller, Achebe does not contrast the overwhelming weight of loss with sardonic and wry humor. This is not the hyperbole of Belinda's lock, nor the mad passion of Hamlet.
Achebe's characters are not able to find their own meaning in hopelessness, nor do they struggle to find it and fail, they cannot even laugh at themselves. They persist only through naivete and escapism, and since the reader sees through them, we see that this world has only despondence and delusion.
The constant reminder of this disappointment makes the book difficult to connect with. Since all the hope we are given is almost immediately false, there is little dynamic possibility. Everything is already lost, we only wait on the characters to realize it.
It is difficult to court the reader's sympathy when there is nothing left to be hopeful for. With no counterpoint to despondence--not even a false one--it is hard to create narrative depth, to reveal, or to surprise. Trying to write a climax through such a pervasive depression is like trying to raise a mountain in a valley.
No matter how hard they try, there is no visible path to success. Nothing is certain, and the odds against are often overwhelming. Achebe felt this doubly, as an author and a colonized citizen. He succeeds in presenting hopelessness, sometimes reaching Sysiphean Absurdism, but with too few grains to weigh in the scale against it, his tale presents only a part of the human experience.
Though we may know that others suffer, this is not the same as comprehending their suffering. The mother who says 'eat your peas, kids are starving in Africa' succeeds more through misdirection than by revealing the inequalities of politics and the human state.
Achebe presents suffering to us, but it is not sympathetic; we see it, but are not invited to feel it. His world loses depth and dimension, becomes scattered, and while this does show us the way that things may fall apart, particularly all things human, this work is more an exercise in nihilism than a representation of the human experience....more
I've met Louise in polite company before, which I found quite a treat. I'm glad it was her I got to meet, and not contemporaries like Momaday or SilkoI've met Louise in polite company before, which I found quite a treat. I'm glad it was her I got to meet, and not contemporaries like Momaday or Silko, since I'm better at hiding an abiding respect than a piqued disdain....more
The closest this book gets to touching nature is the sweet sappiness of the story. Though the author put the story forward as true, he was not actuallThe closest this book gets to touching nature is the sweet sappiness of the story. Though the author put the story forward as true, he was not actually a Native, but a racist con-man who fought to keep segregation and was a member of the KKK.
But this revelation shouldn't be that surprising, since the book is hardly insightful or sensitive in its views. Carter's characters are old, romanticized cliches of the colonial 'Noble Savage'--poor Indians beset by the white man's greed trying to eke a peaceful and natural existence out in the wild of nature. It should remind us all that an overly rosy view can be just as racist and condescending as a negative one.
Carter is just another in a long line of people who tried to make themselves more mysterious and interesting by making up a distant Native ancestor and then claiming it gives them some kind of spiritual and moral superiority. I guess I should mention here that it's overtly racist to imagine that a fully-formed culture can be propagated through blood, as if Native peoples were magic elves.
But people like to individualize themselves, and if that means they have to create a culture from whole cloth to belong to, that isn't going to stop them, whether it's someone bringing up their '1/16th Cherokee blood' or a Wiccan who doesn't realize they're following Christian mysticism, conspiracy theories, and some stuff that was made up by delusionals and con-men.
And if that wasn't enough to tip us off, there's also a lengthy sambo slapstick scene almost as insulting to blacks as Martin Lawrence in a fatsuit. It just goes to show that it's easy to fool people with over-the-top cliches and over-romanticized characters. Even Oprah was taken in, featuring this book in her reading club--but perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that one purveyor of ill-informed saccharine melodrama should be taken in by another.
In the end, we get a sort of literary version of the blackface minstrel show, depicting Native life with a quaint nostalgia that has nothing to do with the real experience of Natives or their history. Instead, everything is boiled down into a simple little story--almost a fable--of how the colonial mindset would prefer to see Natives: as fundamentally separate in vague, mystical ways.
They are so oversimplified (as heroes or villains) that they no longer resemble real people; instead, they are reduced to a subspecies of man defined by a set of universally shared traits. Their identity is primarily communal, primarily traditional, incapable of change, learning, or individuality.
It's hard for me to think of a more pointed definition or racism than 'assuming that a group of people, similar in appearance and ancestry, all share a series of invariable traits which make them fundamentally and inescapably different from every other individual and people group'.
Like 'The Kite Runner', this is just another book that assuages white guilt by making white readers feel that, in just picking up a book, they have become worldly, understanding, and compassionate--despite the fact that neither book really reveals the culture it set out to depict, and could not provide any real insight to anyone who was in the least familiar with how those cultures actually work....more
An entertaining story, though the historical factuality is somewhat questionable as Welch romanticizes the Native American lifestyle and is also infecAn entertaining story, though the historical factuality is somewhat questionable as Welch romanticizes the Native American lifestyle and is also infected by the Western anthropological perspective. ...more
Falls prey to the flowery/boring prose problems of most contemporary American authors; and unlike in Harry Potter, there is no driving plotline to keeFalls prey to the flowery/boring prose problems of most contemporary American authors; and unlike in Harry Potter, there is no driving plotline to keep the reader's interest. However, I will say that Welch's prose is often rises from his ilk and actually spins together an interesting metaphor or underlies a moment of subtle emotion....more
Momaday's now-famous book has more social and political importance than literary. Like the genre it ushered in, it may have been positive for the writMomaday's now-famous book has more social and political importance than literary. Like the genre it ushered in, it may have been positive for the writer in general, but often relied upon a cliche racist/anti-racist dichotomy played through vague and often meaningless metaphor.
The author's busy mind has made a complex work, but not one with any central point or in-depth exploration. The 1970s New Age movement was a combination of many different world philosophies, attempting to find some common ground for humanity that might soften the Hegemonic West. Unfortunately, without a rhetorical basis, this movement provided us with mere watered-down generalism.
It is now a popular personal philosophy because it is so vague that it can be used to support any concept and ideal. Momaday falls into this same trap with his erratic and varied text, which started out as a poetic series.
This all ended in Momaday's premature Pulitzer, and he's sat steadfastly on that laurel ever since, and given us no more reason to presume he deserved it. The prize committee was clearly interested in following civil rights with a politically correct investment in 'diversity'. The only problem is that Momaday's work is as fundamentally colonized as Kipling's.
His presentation of 'native' themes and storytelling methods is a fairly thin veil over what is not as much a Native American novel as just an American novel. The Native culture Momaday represented was already overwritten by the dominant western culture.
Though Momaday tried to inject some cultural understanding and 'oral traditions' into his book, in the end it is little more than a descendant of Faulkner's. Not a badly written one, but neither is it focused enough to represent some cultural 'changing of the guard'....more