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    2015 Reading Journey: How To Live in a Science Fictional Universe

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    The story starts off in what seems like a deliberately confusing jumble of well-orchestrated time travel-based technobabble complete with temporal grammatical confusion, alternate universes, and things that never happened.

    I’d like to say it gets better from there.

    Sorry, maybe I should have started with well-done time travel is one of my favourite sub-genres in Science Fiction.

    Confusing technobabble aside, we spent a fair bit of time on character introduction, but we also wait for 40 or 50 pages for it to actually become science fiction and not just a lonely 30-ish year-old man sharing a few disjointed bits of his life, regrets, and memories. Then we wait another 20 or so pages for it to actually become a story instead of just SF-tinged bits of life, regrets, and memories. The tinge is there before this little bit, but it could just as easily not have been and evoked the same set of potential emotions.

    We’re now more than a third of the way through the novel and nothing has really happened yet. And really, we’re closing in on half way through the book before getting what might traditionally be called the “inciting incident”, the thing that breaks the protagonist out of his normal life and sends him to fix whatever is the problem with that life. In this case {spoiler} he shoots a future version of himself, jumps into his future self’s time machine, and gets trapped in a time loop.

    A pretty good inciting incident, really.

    But then there’s another period of “digressive and extemporaneous rambling”, which is a phrase used by the protagonist to describe himself reading the book, actually this book, the same book you’re reading, and the phrase fits for a lot of the text. There’s plenty of circular naval gazing and musing about multiple tenses, especially about the book itself and how it came into existence or didn’t, and about how we’re all passengers in our own lives.

    When we finally get to the story for real (at least, I think it’s for real), we read about the protagonist watching key events in his own life. I don’t see the need for a time machine here. Vivid memories reflected on by an adult don’t require one. The time machine in the story is basically a device for enhanced reminiscing.

    The book copy uses phrases like “razor-sharp”, “ridiculously funny”, and “utterly touching”, but it seems like I missed those parts. Looking back at the reading experience, I don’t recall even smiling, much less laughing, and I did a lot of mental sighing and eye-rolling at the heavy grammar-influenced technobabble and the, at times seemingly endless, repetition and slightly rephrased sentences to make sure that multiple tenses could be used to communicate the same idea. As far as touching, there are moments of emotion in the protagonist’s reminiscing about the failed father-son dynamic he was on the junior end of, but not enough to carry things.

    And there are sentences in this book that span a page or more. Some of them must be several hundred words long, so long that, by the time you get to the end of them, you’ve long since lost the point it started at or the intention that might have been present. Add this to the what seems to be deliberately confusing and recycled text and you get a book that’s actually tiring to read at times, and not in a good way.

    On the whole, there is a story here, but it’s not a novel. But once all of the unnecessary set up, technobabble, and repetition is stripped away, I don’t think there’s much more than a short novelette left and you could tell the same story. Probably without the science fiction trappings, because this is really just a memory reflection piece, which is fine, if that’s what you’re looking for, but this one is wrapped up as experimental literary fiction with a cloak made of time travel tropes, and that’s far less appealing. Especially when there really isn’t much of a resolution, just a bit of misdirection and an appendix that tells you the things that maybe might happen if there were a resolution.

    Overall Rating: 1.5 stars, which I think I have to round down. I didn’t hate it, exactly, but I didn’t find enough to like to give it even a “meh” rating, either. Take a couple of pieces of this—killing your future self in a panic, building a time machine in the garage with your father, and trying to figure out how you screwed up your life—and you’ve got the germ of a good story. You also have the germ of this story.

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    2015 Reading Journey: Spin

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    Spin was published during a period when I was in transition across several jobs, involving massive commutes at times, high stress, and more free time than was good for me, none of it around my small children. Since a big chunk of my time was spent away from them from late-2003 to mid-2005, I spent most of that spare time either feeling sorry for myself or trying to distract myself. Reading didn’t work, so I didn’t consume a lot of fiction during this time and most of what I was reading came from the pile of books I still had after leaving book retail several years before. I missed a lot of stuff published from late 2002 running up close to the end of the decade. That started to shift in late 2008 but it took several years to get back into things in a bigger way.

    So, Spin.

    The book starts off throwing you in off the deep end. Something is really wrong with the world and if we don’t quite understand what it is then we can probably make a good guess from the back cover copy. Great. Make me work a little to figure things out because that will invest me more in the story. Except that then the next fifty or so pages are a flashback. Back to the present for a chapter. Then a bunch more flashback, only a little closer to the present.

    This method of storytelling frequently irritates me, and this one did, but not quite in the usual way. A story told mostly in flashbacks is a weak device and usually says either that the author couldn’t pick the story they wanted to tell or doesn’t care enough about the story originally presented as the primary. If you have to tell most of the story as a flashback, that’s the story you’re actually telling and you should put the rest in its own section or leave it out.

    In Spin, the flashbacks are slowly, through the course of the entire book, catching up to the present until they converge in the last few pages. What that means to me is the last quarter of the originally more linearly-told story has been broken up and sprinkled through the book. Based on the way hints are dropped in the non-flashback chapters, it seems like that’s the way the book was originally designed. It’s almost like there was an editorial choice to deliberately misinterpret the old saw, “start the story as close to the ending as possible”, or maybe to increase the tension through longer delays in cliff-hanger resolution.

    Told in the first person, we have an internal view of the protagonist’s head and how he’s experiencing the events of the story. The thing is, that protagonist is almost a Vulcan. His own emotional reactions are fairly limited, almost exclusively internal. This is by design, and it’s a combination of the character’s personality and how he’s adapted to the world situation the story puts him (and the rest of the human race) in. But it does make him harder to care about than some of the characters seen through his eyes.

    The story itself is full of interesting ideas, which I’ll throw a few of in here, hopefully without spoiling things much, and let you wonder how this can come together in a single book. And these are not just throwaway bits of information in a future environment, but relevant, important items and events in the plot.

    • Closing off the Earth in a time bubble that accelerates it through the universe at 100 million years or so for every year that passes inside the bubble.
    • Terraforming and colonizing Mars.
    • Anti-aging drugs.
    • Artificial life stretching neural nets across the galaxy. Two kinds.
    • Related to that, unknown aliens with incomprehensible motivations and methods.
    • Instantaneous travel across unknown light years of space.
    • New religions and spin offs.
    • The same old governments in a new light.

    There’s a lot going on.

    Overall rating: 3 Stars. I enjoyed the read but every time I had to switch time frames, I also had to avoid rolling my eyes, and that made the switches made for very easy places to put the book down or switch to something else, which I think is the opposite of what you normally want your cliff-hangars to do. It ends in a way that resolves the primary storyline but clearly leaves things open for future stories to be told in the same setting, a whole new world, or two, opening up.

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    2015 Reading Journey: Snow Crash

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    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

    In late 1994, I remember this being a big seller in mass market paperback in the bookstore I worked in at the time (the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, sadly torn down in late 2014). At the time, I avoided it, not being a fan of the Cyberpunk subgenre at the time. Rather the opposite, really. My tastes have broadened since then, and I felt it worth considering something in that (personally) neglected subgenre as part of the decade tour.

    So I jumped in just a few minutes after finishing Howl’s Moving Castle.

    The first thing to notice is that the novel is written in the present tense. If that turns you off, best to walk away now, but you will get used to it fairly quickly if you try. Really.

    Getting beyond that impression, the first several chapters serve as something resembling character introduction and world set up. Normal, but the problem I’m having here is the omniscient 3rd person narrator constantly info-dumping around the little bit of action actually involved. This narrator seems to feel the need to explain everything from pizza university to the tiniest bit of slang. More than once, I found myself wondering why s/he wouldn’t just shut up and let the story be told. Really, I’ll figure out the slang. Honest.

    But it’s a world where governments have lost most of their power and corporations have expanded to take their place, with all of the rampant poverty, advertising, and lack of ethics you might expect. And, in fact, absolutely everything is fragmented and corporately controlled, including the military and intelligence agencies. As a prediction of the future, a clear failure, but thinking about Ursula LeGuin’s definition of SF as thought experiment, it becomes believable.

    It’s also supposed to be relatively near future to when written. A few things, like the apparent age of the protagonist’s father and the note of Boeing 777 planes (which had just started production as this book was originally published), seem to take me to somewhere around now.

    Info dumps abound, many of them on ancient Sumerian mythology (though there are other topics), slowly turning Enki into an hacker using a “metavirus” that manipulates the deep structures of the brain to set mankind free from its virally programmed origins – of course, he doesn’t figure this out right away, but we get big swaths of things throughout the story and he synthesizes it (across many pages, actually several chapters), and how it relates to the current crisis, for the highest ups of several organizations near the end of the book. Okay, got it, you did a truckload of research for this story and want the reader to know. But that research is supposed to lead us in the direction of understanding that someone has figured out how to tap into that deep structure and rewrite human minds.

    There’s your big bad. And as much as I’m going to spoil things except for noting the big eye roll moment, and I’ll just say that has to do with radio astronomy and seems completely unnecessary.

    I think it’s also worth noting that the book ends very abruptly. A little clean up to make sure the surviving characters were going to be okay and the world was going to be just a little bit better. Dealing with the fall out, I guess is what I’m looking for. There’s none of that. The bad guys are done, Hiro and his girl are staring off into the sunset, and Y.T. catches a ride home with her mom. I spent a lot of the last couple of chapters wondering how everything was going to wrap up in the few remaining pages. It did, but it didn’t. Resolution but not satisfaction.

    Overall Rating: 3 Stars. The present tense is something that might shock your reading sensibilities for the first little while, though that’s just because it’s not used nearly as often as the past. You get used to it. What you don’t get used to so much are the info dumps disguised as conversation and the periodically intrusive omniscient narrator. S/he doesn’t go away but keeps popping up through the whole book, mostly with commentary as the info dumps fade. It’s a stylistic device that may work for some people, but to me it comes across as the author commenting on the coolness of his own story.

    But as a thought experiment, the story works. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. I actually come down on the side of like and mainly because of the main characters, Y.T. and Hiro Protagonist (yes, really, but it’s a deliberate choice by the character as a self-promotion tactic). Between the two of them, they make the tale. They drive the action and the action drives them. Working around the info dumps.

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    2015 Reading Journey: Howl’s Moving Castle

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    Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

    I had to go fairly far afield to look for something in the 80s I hadn’t read that I wanted to. For reference, I turned 10 at the end of 1980, sending me to university in 1989 where, for another four years and change, I continued to add to my library through the systematic looting of local used bookstores. The 80s were my prime reading time as much as they were (and are) my prime music time.

    And, unlike for a couple of the previous stops on the journey, I’ve seen the movie this got made into, the spectacular animated feature by Studio Ghibli headed by Miyazaki-san, and loved it. Still, I know what frequently happens to books made into movies: things get changed.

    So, what kind of surprise lay in wait for me?

    I should probably say mixed, but I’m going to go with pleasant overall. The movie borrows liberally from the book, though it doesn’t tell quite the same story. The book is short, but not as short as it seems while you’re reading it, and packs a lot in.

    Though not a lot of description. There is some, but just enough to give you the flavour of the world you’re reading in. The focus is far more on the characters, mainly seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Sophie. In the book, we get Sophie’s sisters her impressions and the growth of the people and events and places around her. We get Sophie’s growth as a person and as a witch/wizard and we get her learning about herself and making the people around her better than they were, often without even knowing it.

    There’s a fairy tale feeling to the book, but far more clever than the average bash you over the head with the moral fairy tale. This isn’t about listening to your parents or not going into the deep, dark forest, or telling the truth. Howl’s moving castle is about discovering yourself, and this is true for whatever character you’re looking at, though admittedly some of the minor characters have a particularly easy time at it, or at least seem to while having their personal journeys off screen.

    The writing also often assumes that the reader has a brain, which is very untypical of fairy tales, giving you enough information to understand what’s going on but leaving it up to you to fill in little gaps to paint a complete picture. This is something I feel is missing in a lot of contemporary fantasy, letting the reader have some imagination involved in completing the world. A lot of stuff has too much description porn and doesn’t leave enough space for me to help build the world. Howl’s Moving Castle gives me that space, and that helps invest me more in the story.

    The magic system, if there is one, exactly, is never clearly spelled out (pun intended) but, aside from the fire demon Chalcifer taking care of the castle itself, most of the magic is actually incidental to the story. I do wonder if it will become more important in future volumes because yes, this is the first book in a series. It isn’t written that way, but does leave things open for future tales to be told in the world. I think there are six books altogether.

    Overall rating: 4 stars. I really enjoyed this story, perhaps in part because I love the movie, but the movie is clearly an adaptation and there’s definitely more to chew on here. Anyone who enjoys themes of growth and discovery should enjoy this story. It’s worth noting that there are also a few call out references and easter eggs hidden for those who might want to look for them. They’re not necessarily subtle, but slide into the text unobtrusively. The ones I caught all made me smile.

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    2015 Reading Journey: Man Plus

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    Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (1977)

    This was a substitution when I finally decided I couldn’t finish Dhalgren. I’ve read other work by Mr. Pohl (notably Gateway and Jem), and enjoyed it, so figured this was probably a safe bet and a good place to move after my other 1970s experience this year. Also, Man Plus was nominated for the Hugo and won the Nebula in 1977. I made this pick before I’d fully decided on the ongoing award-winning novel quest that starts next year. Published in 1977, this likely would have fallen into 2017’s reading journey, close enough to now that I’m not going to read it again.

    Early on, Man Plus is more than a little bit info-dumpy. We get brief bits of history on how the human race perceived Mars, a little bit of planetology on what that world is really like (to the state of understanding in the mid-1970s), and even a little bit of orbital mechanics. But at least this all came after the introduction of the main character, the current state of earth, both politically and economically, and the idea that, whatever year this happens to be, crewed solar system exploration has gone far beyond the moon.

    International politics, human failures, and human stupidity mark the end of the setup portion of the story, which actually takes just about exactly one quarter of the book. I think a lot of this would be chopped if published today, or heavily rewritten so that there are more actual events and more foreshadowing that doesn’t just involve chapter titles, things that aren’t just information you need to understand the world you’re reading in.

    But when the setup is over and our main character is now (spoiler alert) the one going to Mars with his body heavily modified, there’s a whirlwind of scientific and engineering activity, and we don’t get to experience it with him. Rather, we watch it done to him, still with a taste of national and international politics in the background.

    Worth noting is that this isn’t a novel about the colonization or even exploration of Mars. This is a novel about what happens when you reengineer a human being on the fly to survive unaided in an environment completely hostile to the one they evolved for, never mind that the world is hostile enough in its own way with the cold war still in heavy swing and tension escalating almost moment to moment. The novel lives and breathes in the reactions of Roger Torraway to what’s being done to him and the reactions of the people around him as it happens. Roger seems odd as an astronaut, almost passive through a lot of the things that happen to him from the outside, but seething about some things on the inside. And this only gets more intense as his mind adapts to the new body he’s wearing.

    The bulk of the story is told with Roger as the POV, but we get brief moments with other people as well, plus some odd point of view confusion beginning in Chapter 7. Throughout the narrative after that, sometimes we get a few sentences or paragraphs in the first person plural (“we”) to interrupt the standard third person. I found confusing to begin with and irritating after a while. At the end of the book, the “we” turns out to be “machine intelligence” – the network computers have been guiding things all the way along, having figured out that a human nuclear war will take them out as well. And it’s the computers who have manipulated data and analysis in order to create the Man Plus project to ensure the survival of their own species and, not quite incidentally, the human species as well. Unfortunately, this turns the last few pages of the book into an info dump as the computers explain themselves, always using the collective “we”.

    Almost lost in that blunt realization is the one that comes just before, the first real vision of the internet that we might recognize: “All major computers are cross-linked to some extent.” Only for us, it’s closer to all computers. That crosslinking is also what appears to allow them a collective mind and the ability to act together, even if there are strong hints that they have their own evolved intelligence separately.

    And the book ends on a question, as if Mr. Pohl may have had a sequel in mind. (He did, but Mars Plus didn’t publish until 1994.)

    Overall rating: 3 stars. Conceptually, this is a very interesting book, and I did enjoy it, but overall, it doesn’t quite work for me. Looking back over the story, I think my problem is at a fundamental level, with the very premise that it rests on: in order to even go to Mars and have a look around, we have to rebuild the astronaut from the ground up. Especially considering the rest of the team who goes does the normal space suit thing. There’s just one member, the main character, who has to be built to survive Mars unaided. I don’t quite buy into it, but it’s still a good story.

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    2015 Reading Journey: Dhalgren

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    Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1976)

    I had Dhalgren in the back of my mind as a mild reading concern ever since I decided to include it in my journey this year. If you look at reviews, many people seem to agree it’s an important book, but the split on it is very strange. Either it’s one of the most brilliant things ever written, or it’s the most impenetrable pile of words ever published. Some reviewers consider it both.

    I vote… actually, I’m not sure what I vote. I don’t vote for brilliant, certainly, but I can’t vote impenetrable murk, either. The reading is easy enough, except that nothing makes any sense because most of it doesn’t have any context. So, I think I have to vote Waste Of Time.

    But then, does my vote really count? After all, I didn’t finish the book.

    A large number of reviews seem to quote the first couple of sentences of the book. I’m going to continue that tradition, not because it’s traditional, but to help me find my point.

    To wound the autumnal city.

    So howled out for the world to give him a name.

    The in-dark answered with wind.”

    Um, right.

    There’s a bit more, leading into the next paragraph, which is a long one, filled with random images and moments. From there, the prose improves on a sentence level, sort of. It drifts away from poetic through stream of consciousness, into unconnected events and scenes. And a lot of those are unconnected to the main character, or at least not connected to him, even if he’s there. And it’s hard to call that main character protagonist or even a POV, since things shift and drift so much in the early pages.

    So the premise, as far as I get from reading the book as opposed to researching it, seems to be that there exists a city, somewhere in middle America, where some kind of apocalypse or major disaster has occurred, something that no one outside seems to remember. In that city, the few remaining inhabitants can do, say, or be whatever they want, and if it affects anyone else, to damned bad because they should have done something about it when it was happening. Anarchy with elements of flower child commune.

    The main character, who only ever seems to have the nickname Kid because someone gave it to him, wanders into and around the city, meeting various odd characters and having various odd memories. In between Kid having sex of various flavours with various random strangers, we’re treated to surreal and bizarre scenes, confusing passages, and words sprayed across the page.

    Even when things are happening, nothing actually happens. We get no real insights into any of the characters that aren’t transient and only attached to the moment that they’re part of. There’s no real conception of how the city functions or even exists. Things are basically one big, blurry mess.

    Overall rating: 1 star. I don’t know how I made it 200 pages into the book and don’t know if I should be impressed or surprised that I did. This is my first, and hopefully only, DNF for the year, and I know I somehow made it to the end of A Voyage to Arcturus, but Dhalgren took me to a whole new level of “time I’ll never get back”. Not all of the New Wave was good. Actually, a lot of it was mediocre at best, in my reading. But whether this book counts as New Wave or not, I’m going to come down in favour of Sturgeon’s Law here, and put Dhalgren in the 90% for me. It’s not impenetrable and it’s not brilliant. But it’s also not worth reading.

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    2015 Reading Journey: The Left Hand of Darkness

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    The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)

    Okay, I was supposed to post this last weekend, but…

    Published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness picked up both the Hugo and the Nebula in 1970. It’s the first award winner on the 2015 Reading Journey and what’s even more odd is that I’ve never read any of Ms. LeGuin’s science fiction before.

    I’ve read all of her Earthsea stories, but the only SF of hers I can remember reading is the novella “The Word for World is Forest”. And that’s strange to me at the moment. Since next year’s reading journey starts on my quest to read all of the Hugo, Nebula, Aurora, and World Fantasy novel winners from the inception of each award, I’m going to encounter more of her work and based on past history, I’m likely to enjoy most of it.

    But, this is about The Left Hand of Darkness.

    Starting at the beginning, I love the introduction where Science Fiction is discussed not as the traditional “if this goes on” but as thought experiments by its author, whoever that author might be. And Ms. LeGuin presents a strange thought experiment in the story that follows: a society of genderless individuals. Okay, not exactly. More a society of individuals who only take on true sexual characteristics for a few days each month. Not everyone fits into that mould, the narrative even states that there are 3-4% who are “perverts” in several fashions, but most do. In general, the humans of Winter (Gethen, in its own language) are only gendered, and only sexually active, for a few days each month. The rest of the time, they are all the same gender, or the same non-gender, depending on how you want to look at it. It’s probably worth noting that they don’t all have those few days at the same time. Society would shut down.

    This is a weird story.

    It’s a richly imagined world and society, though the author throws you in off the deep end and expects you to catch up by the hints she drops in the narrative through speech and action and odd bits of history. It’s a difficult read for a while, until you actually start to understand that society, or at least get to the point where you know you’ll never really understand it. Either way, you get to a point where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

    This genderless world has produced a variety of societies where anyone can do anything (worth noting that gender issues were big issues when this story was written as much as now, and if we’ve made progress since then, you’ll see it in your reaction to certain statements made by the character in the story who has a gender full time, the offworlder). And while there are many of the usual problems and crimes, there are some absent, including larger scale conflicts and wars. At least for the moment, and as far as recorded history goes on Gethen, but well before the middle of the book, there are strong suggestions that’s about to change.

    Told in the first person, the main POV character is an offworlder and male, which is easy to keep hidden or at least unnoticed under the heavy clothing typical of a world locked in the grip of a long ice age.

    We’re presented with two different societies in the book, the ones about to fall into war. In one, we have a strange monarchy everyone is completely responsible for their own actions and figuring things out on their own within a barely comprehensible social hierarchy. The other is very strictly regimented and controlled, but its citizens don’t seem to mind all that much, being all equal in every way at the beginning and end of their lives and making of things what they can in between as wards/employees of the state, a totalitarian state masquerading as the ultimate bureaucracy.

    But both states, both societies, seem to have their own game of shifgrethor, coming from an old word for shadow in the local language, and meaning a wide variety of different things all packaged up into one word, perhaps (over)simplifying to a combination of face, pride, relationship status, and social authority. And even oversimplifying, I can’t simplify it enough to make a concise statement, but it does eventually make sense in the context of the story.

    And I said main POV because there is more than one. The switch of POV in Ch 6 is jarring, and not just because it’s moving from one first person to another, but because there’s nothing to immediately identify the new POV. There are hints dropped early in the first chapter and, considering events early in this one, it’s a fairly simple thing to figure out whose head we’re in now. But it’s a surprise, and that’s probably the point. There are other POV changes, and they’re all in the first person, but the rest aren’t as jarring. I think this is mainly because those start out with a reference to a folk tale of the planet or a report from someone who spent time there and reported back. Like most of the rest of the book, the intention is probably to make the reader think and figure things out.

    The themes I pick up through the book may all be based around gender, how its lack or fluctuation might affect societal evolution in isolation, and what it might do to personal interaction in such a society. There is an unfortunate amount of sexism from the only male POV character (whom I consider the main character), but that character is forced to re-examine what he considers normal through the course of the story. But most of that is so artfully woven into the story that it’s just naturally part of things. Gender is rarely discussed openly in the text, though we do have one instance of that gendered character trying, without much success, to explain the differences between men and women to the un-gendered, ambisexual character.

    And considering the recent political tone on our continent, I found it interesting to see both early elements of the politics of fear in the narrative, and commentary on totalitarian control as well as monarchy and how it affects social development and “normal” sanity.

    I do find it amusing that anyone is still using Fahrenheit, Pounds, and Miles tens (hundreds?) of thousands of years in the future on another world. That’s more an ease of understanding thing considering where and when the story was written, but in a book otherwise filled with odd concepts and genders, it stands out as odd to me.

    Overall rating: 4 stars, leaning towards 4.5. This is SF that makes you think and more or less right from the first page through to the ending. If that’s not your thing, I’d probably advise you to stay away. If it is, dive in and enjoy, but try not to drown, because it’s very dense and very solid and very thought provoking.

    And very good.

    It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” (Near the end of Chapter 15.)

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    2015 Reading Journey: I Am Legend

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    I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

    Did it help me that I’ve never seen any of the movies? That’s partly why I picked it for the 1950s stop on the journey. This book has been turned into a movie four times, but I’ve never managed to see one of them. I may have to remedy that.

    The last book in the decade sequence I really enjoyed is several decades back, and the crisp, clean prose of I Am Legend paired with the slow reveal of the protagonist’s situation had me from the first chapter. It’s fair to say I dove right into this book, picking it up in odd moments but trying to take at least a chapter at a time when I could. Those chapters are mostly quite short, so that was easier than I’d expected going in.

    I am Legend seems to have been billed as horror, but I only agree with that label in the same vague way I agree with the original Frankenstein being horror: some of the scenes and imagery are horrific, but there’s an undercurrent of reality and science almost from the beginning of the story. In fact, it we don’t even see the word vampire until the third chapter, though we’ve been led steadily in that direction since the first page.

    No, this starts out as post-apocalyptic Science Fiction with a vampiric twist, but the science sneaks in and becomes harder almost unnoticed. And that science is critical to the story.

    In the world before vampires, Neville was a factory worker. In the world after it, as maybe one of the last humans on the planet, the last human, at least, in his little section of the planet, he goes through cycles of self-abuse, emotional instability, and survival at all costs. He’s a carpenter and a craftsman and a survivalist and a vampire hunter.

    And then he sets out to figure out the whole vampire thing. How they came about, how the plague happened. I Am Legend was written in the 1950s and takes place in the 1970s. Neville uses a library to learn. Starting with the mythology and history of vampires and all the things they’re supposed to be able to do and not like. He eventually connects the plague with germs and teaches himself basic biology, and the mechanics of microscopes. His workshop slowly transforms into a lab, he gathers samples, and he investigates.

    He discovers a bacterium.

    From there Neville quickly works out a rational explanation, growing from his understanding and studies, of how the plague of vampires of 1975 came to be. The realization that there should be two distinct kinds of vampire, the living and the dead, comes fast.

    Of course, he’s still got a lot more investigating to do in order to explain things completely, and emotionally, it’s not exactly healthy to think you might be the last human alive trying to solve the reason for your species’ death. It’s a long process.

    And then there’s the dog. By the time we meet the nameless mutt, Neville has been alone for a year and has barely even heard the sound of his own voice in that time. Trying to tame the dog, trying to have a pet, a friend, something to care about, almost breaks him several times.

    There’s still more story, as Neville adapts and learns, and the change of the world is no less jarring and enjoyable for flowing completely logical from the story. And the ending is both tragic and poignant, but I’ll avoid spoiling it completely. Of all the books I’ve read on this tiny historical survey, this is the first one I’m going to say, “Go read this,” and you don’t need spoilers.

    Overall rating: 4.5 stars. I Am Legend is a short novel. In fact, by official standards, at 25,000 words, it isn’t a novel, but a novella. When published, it was a book on its own. You can still buy it that way, I think, a slim volume among the bricks, and I’m fine calling this a book regardless, but I’m getting side tracked again. I Am Legend has a clean, character-driven story and easy prose that gives you just the right amount of verbage and description to pull you through on the strength of the author’s words with a little help from your imagination. It’s really good writing and it’s one of those books I hoped to find when I started this leg of the journey.

    And I’m wondering which of the movie adaptations I should start with.

     

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  • Reading

    2015 Reading Journey: Titus Groan

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    Titus Groan (The Gormenghast Trilogy, Book 1) by Mervyn Peake (1946)

    I selected this first book of the Gormenghast trilogy for the 1940s leg of the journey for a couple of reasons: it was on a large number of “must read” classic spec fic lists, and nearly all of the reviewers seemed to love it. I selected it in spite of the numerous comparisons and contrasts with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I cut my reading teeth on Tolkien’s work and LotR is likely what hooked me on Fantasy as a child. So I had some concerns.

    Those concerns were both ridiculous and valid.

    It’s not the same kind of fantasy.

    In the beginning, it was very hard to like Titus Groan.

    On page 78, the narrative itself tells me we just finished introducing the relevant characters. Really? Eighty pages into a five hundred page book and now we can actually start the story? Granted we’ve learned that we’re inhabiting a small corner of a world that’s so locked into tradition and the way things have always been done that there’s no room for personalities other than the stereotypes we’ve been introduced to. But maybe stereotype isn’t a fair word. If the world is really so closed, so insular as the author brings to us, then it’s entirely feasible that only stereotypes are possible.

    Which doesn’t make it easier for me to read farther into the story.

    And yet slowly, ever so slowly, the writing, with its lavish descriptions and odd similes, long conversations about nothing and just the barest hint that this may be a world of fantasy rather than a slightly rippled version of our own world, the writing draws you in.

    The plot is fairly easy to summarize, and there isn’t much of one: Escaping the kitchens on the evening of the next Earl of Groan’s birth, a young sociopath begins his rise to power in an enclosed society crippled by a bewildering array of senseless and ridiculous traditions. (That sentence was written almost half way through the book, and I changed “a bewildering array of” from “many” when I finished it.)

    I understand Mr. Peake spent time in the court of Imperial China, a ritual-heavy environment that would have seemed bizarre and impenetrable to a western outsider. The inspiration for the huge castle of Groan and the bizarre and unintelligible traditions that bind everyone’s every waking moment (especially the Earl) are clear, but I think are less coherent than he would have found in the reality of the Chinese court. Still, the traditions make it impossible for you to mistake being in a world that isn’t ours, and the previously mentioned young sociopath, Steerpike, finds tremendous advantage in conforming to the rituals and traditions outwardly while doing whatever he pleases in his quest for power.

    Characters in the book are mostly not particularly complex, not one dimensional, but not with any great depth to them. You get hints here and there that they would like the world to be different, that they have hopes and dreams and fears, but they all feel both loyal to and bound to the way things are. Especially the Earl of Groan, whose nearly every moment is ruled by some ritual or another. Again, Steerpike seems to be the exception. I’d be likely to flag him as the antagonist of the tale, if there were a protagonist.

    I feel like it’s worth nothing that there are a couple of stylistic switches the author pulls that completely threw me out of what little story there was.

    Somewhere close to the ¾ mark in the book, he changed tense from past to present. This can work when it’s done well and the writing is in the first person. In a sort-of-omniscient third person, it’s less palatable and far more jarring. I think I’m supposed to assume this change is to convey a sense of immediacy, but I actually found it jarring and kept waiting for him to switch back, which distracted me from the narrative. When he finally did switch back, an odd feeling of discomfort disappeared.

    Then there was a series of stream of consciousness “reveries” at “The Breakfast” (a celebration for the next earl, young Titus Groan, for whom the book is named but is barely a character. This is probably a matter of taste. If you like unpunctuated stream of consciousness drivel, then maybe this set of mini-scenes will work for you. I don’t, and it didn’t. As the POV is something between 3rd person omniscient and a travelling 3rd person limited with viewpoints switching at the author’s whim, I don’t see the point of this other than the author wanting to see a small scrap of scene from multiple viewpoints and not wanting to choose which to write or include.

    So, with all of the things I don’t like about this book, it might be surprising that I give it an overall rating of 2 stars, maybe squeaking towards 2.5 at times. It was okay, but not okay enough for me to pick up the next story in the trilogy. Insufficient story, insufficient character development. While the level of description, lavish and world-building as it is, paints a detailed picture, that picture is dull and uninteresting. Mr. Peake’s writing is so description-heavy that he can (and does on at least one occasion) take several pages to tell the reader that nothing is happening, in part by telling us all of the things that aren’t happening.

    But description doesn’t make a story on its own, as much as this book tries.

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  • Reading

    2015 Reading Journey: Shadow

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    Shadow by Amanda Sun

    Shadow is a prequel novella to Amanda’s Paper Gods trilogy. I have read it before, when it first came out, but when I wrestled Storm (the final volume) away from my oldest daughter, I decided I’d like to read the whole set of stories as a single, continuous tale. I don’t do re-reads very often, and I haven’t done a trilogy in one go more than a handful of times as an adult, but I thought I’d like to do real reviews of each story in the sequence, and that makes Shadow a good place to start.

    So, taking it as the first piece of the story, Shadow introduces the two primary characters of Ink, Katie and Tomohiro, and it’s told in the first person for both, in thirteen alternating chapters plus both a prologue and an epilogue. The bookends are both from Tomohiro’s perspective, and we begin with a nightmare in progress. For Katie, we start with a different kind of nightmare, at the gathering right after her mother’s funeral.

    After that, the two stories run in parallel. Katie starts to come to terms with her mother’s death, makes the move to Japan to live with her aunt, and starts school there. Tomohiro takes steps to remove himself further from the social life of a normal (Japanese) teenager and begins to make an effort to understand his dreams. The stories don’t quite come together, but do brush up against one another near the end, with the first day of school welcoming ceremonies.

    Overall rating: 4 stars. Translation: this is a good establishing the background and character introduction story. It makes a nice prequel to Ink, but would have thrown the pacing of the novel off completely if it had been included. But since Ink is told entirely from Katie’s point of view, we also would have lost Tomohiro’s journey. You don’t need to read Shadow before Ink to enjoy either story. Actually, you don’t need to read Shadow at all to enjoy Ink, but if you’ve liked any of Ms. Sun’s other writing, you owe it to yourself to check it out. And, as of this writing, it’s available free in a couple of places.

    Be well, everyone.

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