Month: August 2012

Gateway

"Gateway" - F. Pohl; DelRey/Ballantine; cover: John Picacio

“Gateway” – F. Pohl; DelRey/Ballantine; cover: John Picacio

Gateway was published in 1977 by Frederik Pohl.  It won a heap of awards including the 1978 Hugo Award for Best Novel,the 1978 Locus Award for Best Novel, the 1977 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1978 John W. Campbell Award.  The cover of the edition I read is an example of the awesome artwork created by John Picacio.  You should go visit his website and be on the lookout for books with his covers. His artwork is fantastic.

So, how does a novel that won all those awards (won more, was nominated for a bunch more) and have such a beautiful cover suck so much?  I am extremely disappointed in this novel.  For one thing, this was the first Pohl work I’ve read and disliking this work so much does not bode well for future forays into his writing.  Another thing is that I was really hyped to read Pohl since he is considered a “Grandmaster” of science fiction.  After all, look at all the awards this novel and it’s author have won? Surely, if there was a book that was going to rock the house – this has got to be it, right?

Well, and it was a ridiculous chore to acquire this book.  Bookstore did not have it (shock…) and I had to order it. I actually had to order it thrice, and it took about three months to get it shipped to the store.  I am not going to order books from that store location anymore.  Now, I know this has nothing to do with Pohl or Gateway – but it was a sure omen that I ignored.  And, well, it did not help that after finally getting the book in hand I was practically ravenous for reading it. And then WHAM! let down.

The structure of the book is pretty neat. I really like how there are three sections happening simultaneously.  One is the past (but told as if it is still present) which takes place on Gateway and involves all the coolest aspects of the storyline.  One part is the current time in which the main character visits his psychiatrist, Sigfrid. This is unique because the psychiatrist is a machine – a computer.  The third, and lesser, section is the miscellany from the explorations and studies related to Gateway.  These are cool and would be good fodder for the series.

The main character, Robinette Broadhead, is infinitely hateable. I do not mean that I dislike the character – I mean I pretty much despise him.  He’s a whiney, cowardly, selfish jerk.  He only goes to Gateway because (1.) he wins the lottery to do so; (2.) he’s looking for a get-rich-fast scheme to get out of his miserable life.  He has mommy issues, he has girlfriend issues, and he has money issues.  He’s consumed by guilt. Well, I guess it’s not difficult to see why he sees a shrink.

Gateway is a planet that is a portal and space-dock that was constructed by the presumably extinct Heechee alien race.  They left their ships and their tunnels and cleaned up all the rest of the artefacts.  Basically, the Heechee are a big mystery, but the Corporation finances “prospectors” to get into completely uncontrollable Heechee ships and fly out into space.  The ships control themselves to whatever destinations the Heechee have programmed into them.  Most prospectors do not return alive. Some do. Some return with information or artefacts, which the Corporation buys and pays out royalties for. Hence, the prospectors’ get-rich dreams.

I have two problems with this plot. (1.)  it makes humans seem like they have lost all of their technological and scientific ingenuity. Sure, they are attempting to reverse-engineer Heechee things, but throughout the novel, humans seem woefully clueless. (2.)  the Corporation paying out huge sums based on a random rubric for the prospectors’ efforts seems off – humanity is supposedly struggling – hungry or impoverished in general (except for the ultra-rich).  So who is buying/selling the Heechee info and items? To whom? And why? There seems to be a supply/demand issue that isn’t really thought out perfectly. There are options that Pohl could have used, but he doesn’t get into it and it leaves a little bit of a blank there.

For the majority of the book, Robinette mopes around Gateway trying to trick himself into working up the courage to go out in a ship.  His friend Shicky makes the best point in the whole novel:

You don’t need so much courage. You only need courage for one day:  just to get in the ship and go.  Then you don’t have to have courage anymore, because you don’t anymore have a choice. – pg. 233, chapter 26

However, throughout the book in the sections where Robinette is seeing Sigfrid it is presented to the reader that Robinette has become very rich.  By chapter 26, the reader still does not get the how and where. While on Gateway, Robinette blows money left and right at the bar and the casino.

The worst part of the book, which makes it hover a bit closer to a one star rating, is the R-rated sex throughout the book. No, there are not graphic detailed scenes – this isn’t (thankfully) erotica.  However, Robinette confuses sex for love, uses sex to distract himself from his cowardice, taunts Sigfrid with Freudian Oedipal comments, continually is agitated by the character Dane Metchnikov, and, once off of Gateway, runs through girls like they are paper towels.  There is one scene where Robinette gets a bit physically violent with his supposed-girlfriend, and does so in front of a young child.  And there is the last paragraph of chapter 25, which is really horrendous and actually made me want to chuck the book into a wall. Dreck.  None of this wins any points for the novel.  In fact, I mention this here, because there are not too many people to whom I would recommend this novel because of these parts. Some reviewers have commented that this is typical of 1970s mentality – I don’t think so; I have read bunches of books from the 1970s and I don’t really feel like making excuses for this dreck. I suppose the title is supposed to be punny…..

None of the marvel, grand adventure, wonder, or awe that is found in the best science fiction space-going novels.

Two stars is kind of a gift.  This is science fiction. But if someone was looking for great reads in science fiction, I would not suggest this.  Why all the awards? Maybe 1977/1978 was just a really bad year for science fiction novels.

2 stars

The Hunger Games

Hunger GamesIt took quite awhile, believe it or not, for the local library branch to have a copy in stock.  I think they own about fifteen copies in paperback, but these have been borrowed non-stop for months. By luck, looking for other things, I got a copy.  I have wanted to read this, but not in the maniacal way in which lots of people wanted to read it.  Honestly, one of the online book clubs I follow (read: do not participate in) read it.  And then it’s been ubiquitous in the world.  And then I want to see the movie.

I hardly know what to write here because I really do not want to spoil the novel for anyone who has not read it. On the other hand, I feel like everyone has read it and seen the movie.

I read up to page 86 when I started reading the novel.  I knew then that it would be a good read and I could sense why all the hype was so prevalent.  But, I did notice an almost overwhelming amount of suffering, despair, and – more than anything else – guilt in the novel.  The main character in particular is likeable and capable, but incredibly full of guilt.

The so-called world building was quite satisfactory.  Although the novel takes place in some sort of post-apocalyptic America named Panem, I felt that the setting and background were given in sufficient measure that as a reader I was comfortable almost at once with the world.  This is important, because I think this is a challenge for most authors and especially for those writing young adult fiction.  It is easy to “overwrite” and yet also “under develop” settings.  This one seems natural.

Of course, why do I think this?  Because I am old enough to remember being really impressed with the movie The Running Man.  And then, the more recent re-tread, Death Race.  (I also admit to seeing The Condemned which stars Steve Austin and Vinnie Jones.)  And actually, if you think about it, the general concept of the public being entertained by a “game-show”of survival is somewhat common in science fiction.  And, let’s not even begin to discuss the scope of “reality” shows like Survivor and its ilk.

What makes this book work so well is that the main character is really likeable.  One is really pulling for her. The reader can connect with her and follow her adventure.  All readers – from all demographics – can plug in to Katniss Everdeen’s plight.  If the character was in any way not as solidly developed, I think this book would not be able to satisfy all the readers that it has.

Oh, and this is definitely teen-fiction.  Holy cow, there is unending amounts of emotive content. Every other chapter there’s a nail-biter, a disappointment, a tear-jerking scene, a flare of indignation or surprise.  But, you know, it’s also okay, too.  The novel is a young adult fiction work about teenagers dealing with an oppressive dystopia and being forced to kill each other and out-survive each other in an arena where the rest of the country is watching.  So, basically, what I am saying here is that the heaping amounts of emotional stuff seems about right for the context.

I’ll try to find a copy of book two at the library.

4 stars

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov; Vintage

This is the third, and best, novel by Vladimir Nabokov that I have read.  It was finally published in English in 1959.  My edition is the Vintage International 1989 edition.  I have to mention the cover . . . .  before reading and through most of my reading, I thought the pink stuff on the cover was just some flower petals.  I never looked too closely at it.  However, I looked at it today and was creeped out – it’s a blurry photograph pinked out of people screaming or whatever. Distorted faces. It’s disturbing and I don’t like it at all.  I think it is supposed to represent the people who visit the main character in jail.

I do not really like Nabokov. I find that he is an arrogant writer.  I tend to think he was a scoundrel.  Also, I tend to like realism more than surrealism or existentialism.  So, Kafka and Nabokov et al. never appeal to me.  Nevertheless, for some ridiculous reason, I keep reading Nabokov hoping to find a novel I will like. I abhor Lolita and I found Despair to be miserable.  Invitation to a Beheading is actually quite good comparatively.

One of the things that I dislike about Nabokov’s novels is that there are chapters where nothing happens or it gets too obtuse for me to care about what happens.  There are chapters in the middle of this novel that plod along and reality seems to drip away like some Dali painting or something.  The existential questions that hang around in Despair are a little more articulated and contextual here in this novel, though.

I really like the name of the main character; I give Nabokov credit for using an unusual name.  But the fact that Nabokov uses first name and then last initial makes it really seem like he’s copying Kafka or something. I don’t know – my distaste for Nabokov tends to color even the times I praise him.  Anyway, Cincinnatus C. is the main character in this novel and he’s actually the only character in any Nabokov that I even liked a small bit.

The novel takes place in the three weeks Cincinnatus spends in jail between his sentencing and his execution.  His crime(s) are not stated directly, much like Kafka novels.  Sure there are some suggestions, but generally, I interpreted his crime as his being an authentic (existentialist) person.  Throughout the novel, there are sections where Cincinnatus describes his past or the present in terms of his difference from those around him.  Not in detail and specific, but as if he is fundamentally more real than they are.  The other characters (named and unnamed) are parodies and inauthentic.

Overall, Cincinnatus has had a rather miserable life.  Apparently, for most of it he hid his “real-ness” and pretended to be just like the society that he lives in. But, there were times they caught glimpses of him and recognized he was different.  For example, his wife Marthe was really only a slut and cheated on Cincinnatus constantly – and this is even how she manages to visit him in jail.  Now that he has been sentenced to death, he no longer pretends and almost fully welcomes his difference.  He struggles to work with other people on their level – within their false system – but he only meets with frustration.  Most of the people torment him psychologically. For example, his executioner is a real bastard toward Cincinnatus – but the prison director approves and praises the executioner.  They toy with Cincinnatus’ hope and his requests.  The only person that seems to have any genuine care for Cincinnatus is the director’s daughter, Emmie, who is just a young child. What is Nabokov’s obsession with little girls?

I really liked the parts of the writing where Cincinnatus is divided into two Cincinnatus.  What I mean is, the actual Cincinnatus, who is in jail and who interacts with those around him and then the other Cincinnatus, who represents (in imagination) the “real” Cincinnatus.  All of this is like riding a subway or a bus and gritting your teeth when teenagers are being obnoxious, all the while you are imagining yourself standing up and punching them in the head.  Or when you are in a business meeting and it’s very droll and tedious and you act fascinated, but in your imagination you are pretending a giant alien insect is devouring your fellow businessmen.  I think Nabokov could have played these parts out a little bit more, because he does a good job with this.  And then, of course, this ends up being the key to the novel – the ending of how Cincinnatus is executed – or not.

There is all the typical Nabokov symbolism in the novel. Colors, butterflies/moths, and tattoos.  But even with all of this, I only give this novel three stars. I think people who like existentialism would enjoy this novel.  Also, people who really adore Kafka’s works will like this one.  For me, it’s the best of the three I read, but it’s just not that great. Worth a read, if you’ve nothing else to read.

3 stars

Oblomov

OblomovBefore I even think of commenting on the book, I have to say that the Penguin Classics cover here is decidedly not one of my favorites.  I think it was chosen to suggest the character Oblomov.  In reality, it’s a portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin done by the famous painter Ilia Efimovich Repin.  And I do not think that it suggests the character of Oblomov at all.  I suppose the portrait is fine as it is, but I hate that Penguin used it as the cover image. This goes against all the images I conjured in my head regarding Oblomov.

Oblomov was published in 1859.  The author, Ivan Goncharov, deserves a ranking beside Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. Having read a lot of Russian classics this year, I have to say that this novel was by far my favorite.  I love this novel. Oddly, I feel this is the least known of the typical litany of Russian classics.  Why this is, I have no idea.

Very few readers will be able to handle this novel.  I say this for a number of reasons.  First of all, it’s a very slow novel to read. When the main character takes a hundred pages to get up out of bed – you know it’s going to be a long novel.  But there is also another reason why it is a slow novel to read – one cannot read it every day.  Or, at least, I could not.  Sometimes, life is too busy and kinetic to read this novel and if I tried to do so, I disliked my reading experience.  This is all very ironic once you read the novel.   A second reason that a reader may be put off of this novel is that contemporary society seems to have created minds thirsting for hyperactive, extreme, torrid emotional affairs that zoom past.  Compared to the frantic-ness of everything nowadays, Oblomov might seem tedious.  A third reason is that the time period that the novel takes place in is not one that most people can imagine, much less truly feel inside of them.  Sure, facts and statistics and history books seem to explain this time period, but that is not the same as having sympathy and empathy for the time period.

This novel is about (and not limited to):   love, philosophy of life, the gradual passing of the Russian upper-class, the difference between the European metropolitan and the rural Russian, loyalty, patience, and stubbornness.  Also, there’s a bit of pseudo-autobiographical stuff running through the novel by the subtle and insightful Goncharov. The book is simply divided into four parts.  The main cast of characters is relatively easy to remember and follow.  There is symbolism and plenty of traditional Russian settings, artefacts, and sayings.

As I was reading, I was jotting down page numbers for quotes that I liked.  By page 268, I had at least a dozen quotes. Someday, somewhere, I will probably re-read the quotes and smile and nod and make a sage-looking face.  Goncharov is one of the wisest, most intuitive writers I’ve read.

Readers will probably find the first part of the novel amusing and comical.  The second and third parts they may find tedious and here is where they might begin to misunderstand the character Oblomov.  Finally, the last thirty pages or so present the tragedy, vindication, and uniqueness of the character. Whenever I think of misunderstood characters, I shall think of Oblomov.  He’s not the typical tragic character – he, more or less, gets what he wants in life.  But most people begrudge him this throughout his life.  He has enemies, but somehow through Fate or Grace, he escapes their clutches.  Once one is truly Oblomov’s friend, one cannot ever cease being his friend and being loyal even to the end, no matter what.   The end of the novel is spectacular.

There are some minor things I am interested in:  for example, Oblomov’s manservant Zakhar uses the word “pathetic” a bit.  I wonder what the Russian word is and why the translators chose “pathetic.” I am sure that it is a good word choice – I am not being critical – but it’s not pathetic in the usual sense.  It seems to include a hefty dose of pathos and melodrama to it.  Such a minor thing, but something I am interested in.

None of this really shares why this is such an awesome book.  Actually, most of what I wrote so far might be seen as complaint.  It’s pre-emptive complaining – because I can imagine readers really disliking this book, and somehow, this book resonates so much with me, that I cannot bear the criticism. I want to defend Oblomov and Goncharov.  Why?  Because unlike so many mass-produced and trope-filled novels, this book handles the major problems of life with insight and wisdom.  This one gets to the depth of life and makes the reader quit his haste and learn about another way to live that isn’t manipulating others, clawing at the stock market, or flitting to every social event.  This novel is a magnificent tragedy and absolutely not a tragedy whatsoever.  After reading it, I am curious to see if other readers will praise Oblomov, ridicule him, or mourn him.  That’s the kind of novel this is. And every bit of it takes patience and a quiet room to read.

I will someday die a little bit happier – because I will know that I read the best novel. . . . .

5 stars

The Master and the Margarita

The Master and the MargaritaI finally finished this extremely well-known novel.  The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is easily one of the most read and discussed novels since it’s publication in Russian (1967 & 1973) and English (1967).   Interpretations of the novel have been made for graphic novels, stage, film, and various other formats.  There are icons and symbols – to include little statues, postcards, stamps, and all sorts of other artefacts that celebrate or commemorate this novel.

To say Bulgakov struggled a bit in writing the novel is true, but sounds somewhat unfair.  Bulgakov struggles continued from 1929 – 1940.  In that time period, he burnt a manuscript, moved, and made at least four versions.  This was not an easy novel for Bulgakov to write.  Some of that shows through, I think.  I understand that this is a translated version, but I do feel there are sections where the writing grows thicker and jagged.

Overall, the novel is divided into two parts over (in my copy) 400 pages.  There are bunches of endnotes that explain dozens of references that Bulgakov slips into his novel, if the reader is so inclined to learn the details.  I admit that I did this sparingly.  It’s difficult to want to do this in a fiction novel – I feel it interrupts the storyline too much to read a quick entry from an endnote/glossary.

Since the Margarita does not show up as a character until the second part, I feel the title The Master and the Margarita is only one of a number of titles this novel could have been named.  Frankly, I would have named the novel The Ordeal of Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrev.

Anyway, it would be ridiculous to attempt any real plot summary in this review.  Suffice to say, the devil and his entourage shows up in Moscow and upends the place for about four days.  The neat thing is that the devil neither announces his presence nor hides it.  One of the things that I think Bulgakov did an excellent job with is the way he writes the antics of the devil’s lackeys.  It is downright chilling and creepy how easily the devil plays on people’s vices or how easily he leads them toward conclusions that are obviously wrong – but are what they wish to conclude. These parts of the novel are gripping and insightful.

Sure, there are depths of satire and humor here as well.  But it’s almost a darker humor than most Americans in 2012, for example, would be used to.  Still, there are some quite amusing moments.  Without a doubt, there are, too, some very creative scenes – the Ball that Woland forces Margarita to play hostess at is intense and creative.  But the magic show at the Variety Theatre is definitely one of those must-read/must-know chunks of world literature.

For my tastes, though, this is not my favorite Russian classic.  I really liked the opening sections of the novel – with Berlioz and Ivan at Patriarch’s Ponds.  The chapters there and following are awesome.  As I said, I loved the Variety Theatre show.  But I lost a lot of attention and care with the sections dealing with Margarita and (more or less) anything after Chapter 25.  Margarita (self-sacrificing? devoted? courageous?) is still not a likeable character (to me) and I had a difficult time caring about her and the Master’s relationship. The last chunk of the novel is where the reader is supposed to start piecing together how thorough Woland has been, the morals of the entire storyline, and the connections between the manuscript of the master and the thoughts and dreams of Ivan Nikolayevich.   However, it lost a lot of steam for me – got a bit too slow, or uninteresting, or something. I really do think it’s because I am not a Russian in 1940.    Sometimes, Woland seems lazy and maybe gets more credit than his due – his lackeys seem to cause more havoc than he does.  Woland is a brooding sort of devil.  Overall, four stars for the majority of the book.

4 stars

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick; Mariner

This is the second Philip K. Dick book that I’ve read.  It was first published in 1957, but I read the Mariner Books 2012 edition.  Previously, the PKD books were published by Vintage – and they had really colorful covers.  I do not recall ever seeing Mariner Books before, but their new covers for the PKD books are somewhat. . . dull or uninspired.

I want to say, right off the bat, that I only gave this novel three stars – the same rating I gave the other PKD novel that I read.  However, I think of all the books that I have rated on this blog, PKD books are probably the most difficult to rate.  I definitely believe that overall, all things considered, the PKD novels are only three star novels.  Nevertheless, somehow PKD novels are in a category of their own and reading them (or not) based on a rating is not the best method.

Eye in the Sky has a hurried and cruddy ending.  The last few pages are just dumb. The main character, though smart, is often churlish.  I don’t really understand the purpose of the character Silky, and don’t like her in any case. These are the main complaints that I have about the novel.

Now the good stuff.  I love PKD’s writing style.  I have nothing to compare it to in order to give an example of how PKD writes.  Technically, this novel is written without overwhelming descriptions.  The whole thing takes place in California – a setting PKD was himself familiar with.  I wonder if he picked this location just to cut down on the amount of work he would have to do regarding the setting or if he picked it because he is always writing something autobiographical?

This whole novel is almost a reflection on an incident that happened to Dick and his wife:  in 1955, he and his second wife, Kleo Apostolides, received a visit from the FBI, which they believed to be the result of Kleo’s socialist views and left-wing activities. The couple also briefly befriended one of the FBI agents.  In the novel Eye in the Sky, Jack Hamilton is fired from his high-tech-for-government job because his wife, Marsha, is suspected of being a Communist.

A group of people on a guided tour of a new particle accelerator have an accident as the structure they are on collapses while the accelerator is running.  Somehow this forces their consciousnesses into one, so that the group experiences reality as it is understood and fantasied about by various members of the tour group.  Obviously, this is an awesome laboratory experiment in fiction playing with concepts of subjective reality. So, while the group is in a reality created by only one of their number, the rest struggle to return to their original “real” world.  Because now, the group has to consider what is “real” and what is better or worse about the worlds their consciousnesses are creating.

The first “world” is the most intriguing, in my opinion, and I feel that PKD develops this one the most.  In this world, created by an older solider who was on the tour, the group falls into a reality which is extremely theocentric.  In fact, this is so much the case that it seems everyone carries around with them a copy of the book Bayan of the Second Bab.  Sins and good works are punished or blessed in the same moment as the act, and prayer is responded to immediately.  It makes the act of prayer seem superficial, but also all of the actions of people are obviously under some statistical rubric which determines the what/how of the response to their actions.  PKD’s incorporation of elements of Babism (not sure if it’s the Persian spirituality or the re-evolved Bahai movement) is fairly interesting.  Everyone in this subjective reality tends to be fanatical believers and the main character finds this world the easiest to assimilate – even if he does consider himself a dedicated empirical scientist.  There’s a lot of neat stuff in this chunk of the novel.

The other realities of the consciousnesses of the tour group are not as developed as the first.  One is absolutely downright creepy and horror-film worthy.  One woman on the tour was a paranoiac.  And her reality expresses the constant press of fear and conspiracy that her worldview generally has.  The other characters are forced to resort to extreme measures to escape this particular fantasy-reality.  However, I think some of the elements in this “reality” are very scary and telling about the author.

Besides the character of Silky, I don’t really know what to say about the character of Bill Laws.  Laws is a black man who graduated with a science degree.  Throughout the novel, though, he alternatively blames and befriends Hamilton for his successes and failures.  Laws sometimes seems under the control of the “fantasy-reality” and sometimes it seems like he is faking the effects of the events (for example, his dialect which he seems to engage and disengage at random).   At one point Hamilton tells Laws that he’s the most “neurotic sonofabitch” he’s ever met.  Laws saves Hamilton’s “life” in one of the realities.  In another, Laws uses Hamilton as an example of how a privileged white man did not have the same experiences in college and has more career prospects simply based on skin color.  One of the reasons I don’t know how to interpret this character is because he is constantly shifting – even as much as all the realities are shifting.  In a lot of ways, Laws is Hamilton’s doppelganger.  But what PKD was trying to get across to me as a reader through the character….. I have no idea.

I love PKD’s writing – it’s incredibly fluid and smooth.  The pages turn and the story progresses and it all makes reasonable sense when you’re in the novel.  There is this ease with which PKD’s writing seems to have that makes me jealous – no one should seem to have such an easy time writing.  And of course, he probably did not – however, reading the finished product, it seems so fluid and easy.  I will definitely read as much PKD as I can – and I will probably still rate the novels three-stars.  And I will probably still marvel at how good a writer PKD is.

3 stars

The Lure of the Basilisk

The Lure of the BasiliskThe Lure of the Basilisk by Lawrence Watt-Evans is the first book in The Lords of Dûs series.  It was first published in 1980 – the copy I read is the 1987 edition.  The cover art was done by Darrell K. Sweet.

There is actually quite a lot that is enjoyable about this book.  There are a few minor issues, but it was really nice to read a decent fantasy novel that did not involve elves, was under 10,000,000 pages, and did not describe every blade of grass in the country.  There were a few typos in my edition, which honestly should have been corrected by this printing – nothing major, just “It” instead of “I” and “faithly” instead of “faintly.”

The story begins in a cave with a warrior type character speaking to creepy Wise Women.  The character is imploring the women for information on how to become famous – in essence, for his name to “live forever.”  I did not really take a good attitude toward this character at this point because it seems arrogant and obnoxious and I really felt this was going to demonstrate the standard story of how glory-seeking ruins a warrior. Honestly, his request seems rather absurd, but I decided that I did not have to agree with the desire of the character in order to read the book.

This character is Garth.  He’s an overman – a race of human-like creatures who live in Ordunin – a northern peninsula. The whole novel focuses on Garth and his quest.  We next meet him in Skelleth, a rundown barony where he meets the Forgotten King in a tavern/inn.  This is where the Wise Women told him to begin his quest – he should speak to the Forgotten King and obey him.  Garth is not exactly welcome in Skelleth.  Nevertheless, the Forgotten King is a mysterious old man who hangs out in the tavern.  The Forgotten King tells Garth that he will help Garth attain glorious fame, but first he has a “trial” quest for Garth.  Garth is to travel to Mormoreth and capture the basilisk that dwells in the crypts there.

The cover depicts the scene where Garth arrives outside of Mormoreth on his warbeast (Koros) and is demanding entrance from the ruler of Mormoreth:  Shang.  The warbeast is, like the overmen, a genetically bred animal that is like a panther.  It’s trained to follow basic commands, although it did not even have a name for half of the book.  The relationship between Garth and Koros is actually kind of unique – Garth views the animal in terms of utility and pragmatic ways.  I am used to reading books where there is this overbuilt bond between characters and their animals.

In fact, much of the goodness of the novel is because Garth is actually a fairly unique character.  He shrugs a bit too much.  But he’s nearly seven feet tall, strong as an ox, a skilled warrior, and very durable.  He also doesn’t make the trope-mistakes of most fantasy characters.  It was actually interesting and fun to follow Garth through the castles, crypts, and city streets on his quest. Also, though a fierce fighter, he usually chooses not to give in to bloodshed and he tends toward more honorable actions – even though he confesses many times that he doesn’t quite understand the traditional emotions, values, and actions of humans.

The ending ties a lot together, which makes the novel feel complete.  However, there are a few things that are left open-ended so that the series can continue to the next book.  I enjoyed this book, the writing style is so fluid and comfortable that I was able to read it in about a day and a half.  I admit that four stars is probably a bit of a gift, but I did really enjoy every chapter.

4 stars

Foundation and Empire

Foundation and Empire

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov; Del Rey Ballantine

This is the second novel in the famous Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.  It was originally published in 1952; the copy I read was the 1983 edition.  The cover art for my copy was done by Darrell K. Sweet.  The novel is actually two parts – quite distinct, but related in a general timeline sort of way.  The first part, The General, explains how the Empire is falling, but a bold General launches a mighty attack on the Foundation.  This is the section that most folks connect with Asimov’s reading of Ancient Roman history.  The second part of the novel, The Mule, deals with events that occur roughly one-hundred years after the events of the first part.

The first novel in the Foundation series was a conglomerate of short stories that depict the unfurling of the Hari Seldon crises for the Foundation in relation to the Empire.  Much of that book dealt with the development of the Foundation and it’s survival and growth into an “empire within an empire” on the edge of the galaxy.  The short story-like structure of the parts of that novel made reading it a bit difficult and I know that many readers were unimpressed because of the seeming discordant style.  Also, many readers hated the extreme lack of character development in that novel.  Because of these two things, I do not think many readers move forth in the series.

Foundation and Empire definitely has more character development – however, these are still not necessarily books about characters, but rather they are books about big concepts.  Specifically, Hari Seldon’s psychohistory theories drive both novels.  The lack of character development is probably the largest complaint from readers.  I understand this complaint – particularly in the first novel – but I do not think that it is the great criticism that it purports to be.

We are used to dramas on television, in movies, and in novels, that center on individuals.  Readers have become acclimated to pages and pages of characters being described in their thoughts, deeds, and circumstances.  In theory, this is supposed to make the characters seem realistic and form a bond between the characters and the reader such that the reader is invested in the character’s personhood and life.  However, just because this has become the common way of doing things, does not mean it is the best or even only way.  I actually appreciated reading a novel wherein I was not forced to struggle alongside the characters, examine their motives and feelings, and watch them grow from young adults to seniors.  Nevertheless, there is quite a bit more “character development” in this novel and I feel it’s just the right amount.

This novel is less episodic.  However, the events that we learn about – another opening of the Time Vault, the fall of Foundation – happen quickly and without a whole lot of build up.  The last half of the novel involves a fairly exciting chase across the galaxy as two unlikely heroes race to Trantor/Newtrantor to either communicate with the Emperor and/or to learn as much as they can about Second Foundation.  I like how Asimov keeps the story focused on the concept of Seldon’s psychohistory – that individuals are unpredictable and maybe somewhat insignificant in terms of the statistics generated. Seldon developed psychohistory to predict the actions of large groups of humans.  And so throughout the novel the actions of the individuals are presented as conundrums compared to the actions of large populations. Of course, much can be discussed regarding Seldon’s theories and the actions of The Mule.

Their enemy, The Mule, is a famous “villain” in science fiction.  And I think Asimov handles this character splendidly.  It’s actually really a great job done by an author of hiding and presenting a villain.  And this villain, by the way, is both easy to hate and love and pity.  He’s also responsible for the fall of Foundation.  He conquers in a unique way with an intense method that makes the ending even more poignant.

I gave Foundation 4 stars because of the “big idea.”  The fairest rating would have probably been something like 3.5 stars.  But this novel? Definitely four stars – unreservedly. I really want to read the next novel, Second Foundation, because I have to see the timeline continue and play out.  I know this series is not for everyone, but I honestly am really enjoying it.

4 stars

White Cat

White CatWhite Cat by Holly Black is the only book I’ve read by the author. It was published in 2010 and is a young adult urban fantasy.  I picked up a hardback copy from a bargain table for $3.  I read this in one day.  I do not usually read young adult (or, really, urban fantasy for that matter), but it was an okay read for an afternoon wherein I just did not want to tackle anything but relaxing and lounging.

It’s actually the first novel in a (I think) trilogy. I believe the second book is published, but I have not actually seen it – but I cannot say I have really looked for it, either.  I picked it up for the price and because the premise seemed vaguely interesting. From the website:

“Cassel comes from a family of curse workers — people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they’re all mobsters, or con artists. Except for Cassel. He hasn’t got the magic touch, so he’s an outsider……”

Ultimately, it was not entirely as expected – which is both good and bad.  I was interested in the concept of curse workers because it seems a bit more unique than the standard “I have magic powers” that permeates much of urban fantasy.  Also, the main character who is written in first-person is male and the author is female – so I was interested to see if the author could pull off a convincing voice.  Further, the title has cat in it – and I do love cats. Sucker, I know….

Cassel is the main character – he’s one of three brothers in a family that is well-versed in utilizing their “curse worker” skills to con, assault, and thug their way through things.  Cassel, unfortunately, does not have the “worker” power.  Naturally, he’s marginalized in his family because of this.  Cassel, though, strives very hard to be normal.  In fact, that’s the subplot of the entire novel – Cassel’s effort to live a normal life among normal people; distancing himself from the antics of his family.  Unfortunately, one of the main things that holds Cassel back from normalcy are the skills he picked up from his mother, who is in jail.  His mother is the consummate con artist.  Also, Cassel struggles to deal with the memory of having killed his best friend, Lila, several years back.

Characters wear gloves to prevent purposeful/accidental touches by “workers.”  Some of this made sense, but some of this seemed forced. I am not sure it works entirely with the concept of curse workers (i.e. I am sure there are loopholes/problems that astute critical readers might discover), but I just accepted the element and read onward.

Honestly, Cassel is a fairly likeable character. The author does pull off a decent male voice.  One of the fun nuances that enlivens [sic] Cassel is his love for coffee.  It’s little tidbits like this that develop characters and make them seem 3D. So, kudos to the author for that.  However, the girl who Cassel supposedly killed – she’s awful. Most of the time, reading this book, I disliked her and I truly do not understand why a decent chap like Cassel would even be slightly in love with Lila. She’s hideous.  She’s also the daughter of the big crime Czar of the Zucharov family.  Yes, they’re Russian.  This is something that the author does not pull off convincingly – a Russian crime family.  It’s a little hokey and none of the Russians have that “Russian-ness” that one would expect.  The problem with this is that it makes it seem like the author just made the family Russian because she could and it might make the novel seem a bit “exotic.”

Overall, three stars.  I am really not great at rating young adult novels. This one was something different than I expected, but it was not wretched and I was fairly entertained throughout. Definitely for youth 15+.

3 stars

Embassytown

Embassytown

Embassytown by China Mieville; Del Rey

Embassytown was published in 2011.  It is the second book by China Miéville that I’ve read.  Honestly, I was not overly impressed with this novel.  There are some readers who adore everything that Miéville does, just because he does it.  I have expressed similar sentiments regarding the popularity of Grant Morrison and his work.  Miéville is very educated and he deserves all the praise in the world for writing intelligent books.  He takes very academic and intelligent concepts and creatively (and easily) develops novels around them.

In this particular novel, Miéville is working with philosophy of language.  I’ve done my share of PoL, and I have never been wow-ed by it.  Since, 2002, perhaps, it’s become all the rage in philosophy departments, though. I suppose it’s the end result of analytic philosophy and the ostracizing of traditional metaphysics. Derrida, Ricouer, Gadamer, N. Salmon, Donnellan, Kripke – all of these PoL heavyweights would probably be very interested in Miéville’s novel.  However, I am not an analytic philosopher and, generally, find PoL tedious and something that lives in its own little bubble. It’s obvious that Miéville pulls from Ricouer’s works (for example: The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning of Language).  The main character herself plays a massive role as the narrator in this work, which can be analyzed in terms of literary narrative tone, but also in terms of the hermeneutics of the narrator.

Miéville has great skill in utilizing concepts usually banished to classrooms by instantiating them into a fictional world.  And not just any world – he develops worlds that are foreign, fantastical, and futuristic.  It takes a great deal of effort to succeed in doing what Miéville does.  Indeed, his books would be enjoyed by philosophers, but this novel also takes some of the concepts that those very philosophers work with and then forces the non-philosopher reader to learn, understand, and cope with these concepts, too.  That’s no small task.  On the other hand, Miéville is probably lost on a lot of the reading public – who do not have the aptitude for or interest in PoL concepts, etc.

Sometimes I feel like Miéville is showing off how smart he is.  I do not feel this way all the time, but sometimes. And at those times, I wonder who, exactly, he would be showing off to? The philosophers won’t really be impressed and the work will be lost on those without any training/aptitude.  And frankly, this novel qua novel is not very good.  The characters are all very bland and flat.  In fact, many of them seem downright toxic in their inability to affect the reader.  The plot is basic and not at all original in science fiction.  But my biggest issue was that most of the chapters repeat and repeat and repeat the same information – stalling out the storyline.  Some chapters, really, just repeat the chapter before or after.  I feel that towards the end of the novel, Miéville kept telling us over and over about Ambassadors committing suicide – but he tells us this so many times, that I feel there were literally billions of Ambassadors for that many suicides to have to be mentioned.

And here’s an example of a great idea – the “twins” (used loosely) or “doppels” of people created to be “Ambassadors” to the Hosts (read: non-humans) is a concept that is really science fiction/psychology/philosophy.  There’s so much food for thought (Self, schizophrenia, telepathy, brain function, etc.) that could be developed. But the Ambassadors are all very uppity, weird, and impersonal that it ruins some of the awesome idea that Miéville has.  Even Bren or Vin (the two most developed Ambassador-types) are still just distant characters.

I feel that the ideas and concepts that Miéville uses in this novel are awesome and intelligent and well worth giving five stars.  However, the novel itself is really not more than two stars.  The storyline could be told in about 200-fewer pages.  And the characters were really unimportant; the idea of the characters far more important.  But, this is not a thesis on PoL.  This is a novel.  There’s a difference [sic] and that difference is not simply a matter of perspective, semantics, and hermeneutics.  When Miéville is able to write five-star novels with five-star concepts/ideas – he’s going to write books that will never be equaled. Until then, Embassytown is a tough read, but better than many books out there.

3 stars