Month: January 2013

Boneshaker

BoneshakerI finally finished Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.  It seems like everyone on the planet has already read the novel.  It’s the first in the Clockwork Century series by Priest; the series is already on it’s fifth novel.  Anyway, Boneshaker was published in 2009 by TOR.  It won a lot of acclaim. Specifically:  a Locus Award and was nominated for a Hugo (2010).  A lot of people really liked the cover art as well, which was done by Jon Foster.

This book has a lot going for it.  First of all, it has some very strong female characters. By “strong,” I mean the typical sense:  not wilting flowers, pro-active, heroines.  The entire novel is built around two things:  (1.) the act of Leviticus Blue in building a “bone-shaking drill” by which he commits a robbery; and (2.) the relationship between a mother and her teenaged son (i.e. Briar and Ezekiel Wilkes).    It works well as a first book in a series – but also works completely well as a standalone novel.  There really is no necessity to read beyond this book – in terms of storyline closure.

This is steampunk, I am told.  Probably because there is toxic gas and gas masks.  Also, because they utilize airships and rifles.  However, there is also a smattering of neat inventions, the background of a gold rush, and the American Civil War.  Granted, this is still an alternate reality – things may have the same names (Civil War, Klondike), but they are not the exact same as in our history books.

I like the concept of an artificial walled-city built to keep the toxins in. I like the added bonus of people using the toxins as a type of addictive drug – doesn’t that just seem exactly how people would do it?  One thing I am undecided about is the zombies.  Did there have to be zombies? Did zombies add to or take away from the story? Rotters, if you will.  I am not sure. I am really not fond of the zombie-craze of the last few years. Sure, I’ve seen some Walking Dead episodes. And I don’t hide from stuff with zombies in it, but I do not really go seeking out zombie-stories or whatever.  So, I am not sure about this aspect of the novel.

One thing I had a difficult time with was the movement and description within the walled city. I don’t know if Priest is not good at describing complex, multi-leveled things or if I was just not paying attention, but I could never really grasp in my imagination what was going on with the setting.  Up, down, in the dark, old elevators, stairways, tunnels – this is all reasonable for the storyline, but I could not really picture any of it.

Finally, as a last complaint, well. . . . I found the book a little boring in parts. There were parts where I felt it was dragging and I lost interest. Maybe it was the zombies – or the toxic gas.  The book starts off excitingly and ends semi-predictably, but the middle did not hold my focus.  This is not to say that the writing style was bad.  Somehow, I just got bored in the middle. All in all, though, it is a fairly fast read and Priest does have a different “voice” as opposed to what I have read recently.  In other words, she has a unique voice that comes through her writing.

I’ll probably eventually read the next novel in the series.

3 stars

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Big Planet

Big PlanetI finished Big Planet by Jack Vance tonight.  January is Vintage Science Fiction month – as sponsored and encouraged by Little Red Reviewer on her blog.  This is the second Vance novel I have read.  Big Planet was first published in 1957 by Avalon/Ace.   The novel had some revisions and whatnot and was re-released in 1978.  The copy that I read was the TOR 1989 edition.  I took an actual photo (with my phone) of my two copies – the Ace 1967 and the TOR 1989.  I owned the Ace and then found the TOR for only $2 so decided to use that as my “reading copy.”  The cover art for the Ace is by Ed Emshwiller (very famous) and the TOR art is by David Hardy.  Since it’s Vintage Science Fiction month, I thought I’d read this novel because it’s quite vintage and well known.

Overall, this is a rather ridiculous novel.  It does show it’s age.  There are a couple of interesting moments, but overall it’s nothing fantastic.  I say this having read the novel in 2013.  I don’t know how this read to someone in 1960, let’s say.   The main complaints are as follows:  characters are flat and empty, viewpoint regarding women is decidedly not feminist, and the story reads like an extended Star Trek “away team mission.”

Big Planet – a horribly heavy-handed name which states the obvious – is a planet that absorbed the diaspora of cultures from Earth; cultures that were exiled or unwilling to accept Government Rule.  After hundreds of years, the original “culture groups” that arrived on Big Planet spread out, intermingled, and developed.  Thus, the inhabitants are earth-like cultures, but yet they are scattered and have no singular ruling body governing them.  Instead, there is an Earth Enclave, which is presumably a base of some sort where Earth periodically sends commissions to interact with Big Planet and its cultures.  An embassy of sorts, I suppose.

The novel begins with a commission en route to Big Planet.  We meet the characters rapidly and without any finesse.  The ship is attacked (from within) and brought down far from its destination at Earth Enclave.  The survivors find themselves stranded in a village.  It is estimated that they are at least 40,000 miles from Earth Enclave.  Big Planet has many resources, but metal (ore) is not one of them.  Therefore, at least to start, the survivors are relatively wealthy.  However, without much further ado, they all agree to trek off to Earth Enclave.  This is obviously just to get the story moving forth – but let’s consider this further.  Stranded (after a crash landing) in a primitive culture 40,000 miles away from base, with very little in the way of supplies or implements, this group of eight fellas decides that it is a good idea to head out. And, interestingly, the main character, Claude Glystra just assumes command.  He suddenly becomes the leader of the band and not one of the others really even questions this.  We aren’t even given any background on Glystra to help with this.  Perhaps he is ex-military or something – but we get nothing to assist with the suddenness of his command-taking.

So the group sets off. And right away there is this tag-a-long girl who seems really naive and helpless.  Make that a count of nine.  But then not too long after, adventures begin because this group is attacked. Basically, its all a big plot to take down this commission by some dude named Charley Lysidder.  Lysidder employs armies, spies, and religious-types to help him recapture Glystra.  I highly doubt Glystra is really that big of a threat.  Why go to all this trouble? Even if this guy makes it 40,000 battling the natural and exotic perils, what can he possibly do then besides complain to Earth about Big Planet? Ultimately, Big Planet is really beyond the scope of Earth’s rule, anyway. And what does Glystra care?  A moral code is about the only reason he has to stop Lysidder, at first. Finally, a sense of revenge or personal justice plays in.  Basically, the whole premiss of the novel is a bit forced and stretched.

There is one interesting culture that we meet in the novel.  The Kirstendale city is maintained by an interesting populace.  They keep their wherewithal a secret and it takes Glystra awhile to piece it altogether. Nevertheless, it’s an opulent city full of manufactured intrigue and facade.  Ultimately, it would be interesting to investigate this city and expand this into a series of stories or something.  It’s about the only thing creative in the novel, to be honest.

Anyway, Glystra’s group’s numbers dwindle as they deal with threats and peril. Most of the time they are riding on six-legged beasts called zipangotes.  These are like dinosaur, horse, panther things.  They can be used to ride or as pack-animals.  Generally, the “nomadic” races use them to ride around on and raid and terrorize everyone else on the planet.  The other way the group travels is by monoline.  One of the things Vance does in this novel is periodically give us rather intense descriptions of mechanical things.  He uses fairly technical terms and describes them just as if one were seeing them with one’s own sight. Unfortunately, I was unable to really get a picture of any of these things in my mind. I don’t know if I wasn’t focused or if I just could not get the words sorted out. Anyway, Vance clearly had something in mind and tried to get us to understand these mechanical things, too. The monoline is like a trolley that ports people by sail and gravity by “air” across a huge stretch of land. Traders use it, too, and knowing this, the monoline gets attacked a lot by hostiles.

The ending was predictable and the villain was obnoxious and yucky.  I am glad I read the novel, because I love reading and I love science fiction.  However, there is not a whole lot in here that can be recommended to readers in 2013.  It’s a short read. Not very sweet.

3 stars

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the HHI cannot tell you how pleased I am to be reviewing what I consider to be a five star novel as the first book review of 2013.  After a smattering of so-so, also-rans, and sub-par reads, I was recommended this novel by someone in my family. (Not something that happens often.)  I ordered it from Amazon and got it sometime after Christmas.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog ( L’Élégance du hérisson ) was first published (in French) in 2006 and was translated into English in 2008.  I did not know this for a fact until after reading the novel, but the author, Muriel Barbery, is a philosophy professor.  I say “for a fact” because as I read it – I probably knew this in some subconscious level. After all, what other profession could keep me amused, enthralled, and at points ready to argue.  I have a lot to say about this novel, so settle in!

First of all, it seems there are a lot of people out there who have read the novel and find it pretentious.  They use this word to describe it and then go on to pontificate about how much they disliked it.  I wholeheartedly agree that it is pretentious as heck.  And that is merely one of the reasons I love it.  There are lots of “pretentious” books out there. Let me give some examples:  Wicked by Gregory Maguire, Embassytown by China Mieville, One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell, Persuasion by Jane Austen.  I consider these novels to be in the category of BADLY pretentious, which please note, is not a charming self-assured pretentiousness.  In order to be pretentious in a good way, one must also be arrogant – but, like Kid Rock sings, “It aint braggin’ – if ya back it up.”  Frankly, Barbery can and does “back it up.”

One clue that a philosopher wrote this:  there are direct, short, brutally assertive sentences. Only the mad and confident philosopher dares (particularly in the modern world) to write sentences that actually assert things. None of this wishy-washy ambiguity. No political correctness.  No hedging, weasling, or whining. It’s so refreshing to read – and so comfortable for me to read.  Barbery makes assertions in the sense of she states it how it is and does not care to coddle readers who may disagree. And we are talking about topics like the divine, Art, beauty, and humanity.  You do not have to agree with these bold, frank assertions, but I sure did enjoy reading them for their clarity, brevity, and staunchness.

Throughout the book there are plenty of positions taken by the characters to lead the reader to want to disagree at times with everything.  There is a feeling of nihilism.  I think readers rebel from the bold assertions (and criticisms) leveled from autodidact characters.  And the whole thing offends every sensibility our egalitarian social slumber has forced upon us.

Moreover, this is why the novel had to be French. Only the French (and a philosopher) could possibly have written this work.  Because throughout there are direct criticisms of humanity and social classes.  Indeed, there is a direct complaint against a specific class of people:  namely, the yuppie, the nouveau riche, and the pretentious.  This class of people is presented as inauthentic, insufferable, obnoxious, and self-absorbed in foolishness.  And the fact that these complaints come from a member of the lowest class who is self-taught in higher intellectual pursuits, clearly is reason to annoy readers.  My personal suspicion is that we can discern a great deal about the readers themselves based on their reaction to the book. Naturally, the yuppie (interestingly to whom this book is actually marketed!) will despise it with great rancor.

I’m a blueblooded elitist. I’m a professional philosopher. I harbor a lot of distaste for the yuppie-class.  I absolutely loved this novel.

Do you see what I did there? I described myself in direct assertions. I used words to describe positions that are, at best, uncommon and at worst vex everyone in society. It’s not “polite” or deemed “acceptable” to be a blueblood. Or a philosopher. Or an aristocrat. Or an elitist. I know that. But I am what I am and I would rather not lie and say I am other than I am.  However, I am not foolish enough to think that being a person of these traits is well-accepted in the USA in 2013.  It conjures all sorts of images of Boss Tweed, conservative, Establishment things that irk the WASP who was grown to love American concepts of society and the Protestant Work Ethic.  That being said, yeah, I do not go about flaunting and putting on airs and exhibiting any of these opinions and positions of mine.  I mention this because many reviewers of this novel were unable to fathom why a person would pretend to be dumb or hide their intelligence.

I do it all the time.  One cannot go around being truly intelligent – it rubs people the wrong way. And, of course with great predictability, they call it being arrogant or pretentious. Sort of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.  You cannot use an extensive vocabulary with your waitress, the gas station attendant, or the cashier. I know – I’ve tried; and gotten the blank looks, misunderstood glare, and the horrible dullard grunts of “hunh?”   So you have to speak the language of the culture you are in. Sometimes, right wrong or indifferent, if you want to function in society – you have to be a chameleon. Among the working man, you blend in and get along.  Don’t worry – it goes in reverse. When among the yuppie nouveau riche one has to be a certain way as well, lest one usurp and undermine their fragile edifice of self-importance. Gradually, with astute care, you can use clues and hints and discover more about your interlocutor – and then adapt and open up the conversation to a broader and more developed one. But it’s a subtle give and take.  Don’t just march up to people speaking without slang. I have a tendency of using archaic words, but they are familiar and commonplace to me. I get a lot of stares of non-comprehension.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I wrote a poem about this. Maybe I’ll share it. We’ll see. I was young and silly. But it makes the point better than anything I’ve said so far.

Anyway, the point is that the novel offends people. Because, I think, only rueful, thick-skinned, intelligent, and witty people can “get” this novel for what it is. After all, before everyone starts calling the author and her characters “pretentious” or “holier-than-thou” or “high & mighty” – there are several places wherein the characters even hack on philosophy/philosophers.  If you don’t have thick skin, stay the hell home. Philosophers are used to twisting words at each other and critiquing everything. We can take it – can you?

All of this aside, I really enjoyed the theme of the novel. I enjoyed the setting, the characters, and the storyline. I enjoyed the writing above all.  Barbery is so dang witty, she had me laughing aloud at several points.  I knew this was a five star novel because I was actually jotting down quotes.  I cannot stop myself from sharing them here!

Ripping on phenomenology (which I, too, dislike) the main character says (pg. 63):

But enough of phenomenology:  it is nothing more than the solitary, endless monologue of consciousness, a hard-core autism that no real cat would ever importune.

…..and another reason I adore this novel is because of the plethora of animal characters. Barbery also understands animals – really understands them (not like yuppies understand anything). And I am an absolute sucker for animals.

On page 92, the young character says this considering her father’s morning breakfasting ritual.  She concludes her thesis a few pages later:

In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life:  you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together it is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.

What do we do in the morning?  Papa reads his paper while he drinks his coffee, Maman drinks her coffee while she leafs through catalogues, Colombe drinks her coffee while she listens to France Inter and I drink hot chocolate while reading mangas.  Just now I’m reading Taniguchi mangas; he’s a genius, and he’s teaching me a lot about people.

And another witty and fun quote is from the main character on page 220:

What toilet paper does for people’s derrieres contributes considerably more to the abyss between the classes than a good many external signs.

Now, although as you read the novel, you may feel it is really just a false setting/personae dramatis so that the author can make bold assertions.  It can be accused of that – and I am okay with it. But there is a deeper theme:  that of meaning of life, of Fate, and of Beauty.  And if you don’t pick up on these threads, heaven help us, you will be writing a negative review soon after finishing the novel.  The novel has a somewhat “tragic” ending – but a good tragic. I do not want to give anything away, but know that the ending is both happy and unhappy.  It’s actually a pretty good ending – that you should see coming a few chapters beforehand.

And beyond all that I have already said here:  do not take this novel too seriously.  I mean it. If you do, you are guilty of falling prey to the typical French trickery.  Just like with the Italians, there is emotion and content and bold assertion:  but we are still going to finish our bread and tea and smile like goofy children at the end of it.  WASPs really aren’t gonna like this novel.  Don’t take this too seriously. For your own sake.

Reading this novel has decided that this year will be the year of French.  (Last year was the year of Russian.) I will, obviously, still continue the Russian path, but I really love the French and their constant wrangling and defining of social classes, politics, and society. Vive la France!

5 stars