Friday, March 31, 2006
I like Dilbert. If you do not, you will probably not enjoy the book. It is certainly not a 4 for everyone. Most people will read a strip, laugh or not, then not need to look at it ever again. I find Dilbert pretty consistently funny, and books of comic strips are perfect bathroom reading.
Dilbert can be hit or miss. Scott Adams acknowledges this. If you laugh at one strip a week, he calls it a win. It does not take many successes to make a worthwhile body of comic strips when you get another chance every day.
So that is all I have to say. You know what Dilbert is, so if you like it, this is more. If not, not. And if you do not have a bathroom bookshelf, this could easily be a 3.
Monday, March 27, 2006
If On Beauty represents everything I despise in modern literature, Saturday embodies almost everything I enjoy in it. I reserve the right to re-read this in a few years and decide whether it should have been a 4.
We follow Henry Perowne, London neurosurgeon and father of two, on Saturday, February 15, 2003. He witnesses a potential terror attack, gets assaulted, plays squash, visits his senile mother, makes fish stew, and has a family reunion. Saturday is a book of exquisite detail and effortless digression, encapsulating a great deal in a single day. Frequently prosaic, occasionally philosophical, and by turns caring and tense, the stories flows well and compellingly through the day.
Saturday has a bit of everything scattered about the day. There is something for everyone. Henry does not see the value of stories that depict someone's life in detail, nor does he share my fondness for (some) magical realism, but we do see the transformative power of song and poetry. We contrast the powers of the brain and the mind, as Henry repairs the former during the week but cannot help his aging mother keep the latter during his visit. We have war and peace, conflict and concord, aggression and humility.
There is, of course, a bit of cheating. By having everything, we commit to little, which is how we smuggle in transformative literature alongside stolid materialism. Maybe that is just me, feeling like Henry's perspective was cheated at time since the author is an author, a lover of literature. We also slip outside the day in various digressions, perhaps taking that three-page excursion through Henry's readings or a fifteen-page account of family history.
The digressions work. They flow perfectly smoothly and naturally. One detail sends the mind of in some direction, the next one picks up, and we work our way back around to what is in front of us. The language of the book flows like a conversation, or perhaps a bit of stream of consciousness. No matter how far afield of the story we end up, the trip was perfectly natural, just in order, quite right.
The book contains perhaps the most engrossing account of cooking fish stew to be found in literature. Also, I like the way he cooks. I like a lot of things about Henry, which is good. Too much modern literature decides that the way to give a character depth is to make him horribly horribly flawed. It is not enough to have faults: he must be a horrible person, who we will then make into a sympathetic character (or perhaps the reverse order). If nothing is contemptible or disgusting, the book is not done. Saturday is not like that.
The climax is built well. The pacing is wonderful, hitting just the right notes. Block out enough time to read part four at one sitting, if you can. It stands without comment.
I have scarcely touched on the plot or the characters, but that is just as well. The beauty of the book is in the details, the exploration as fine as Henry's brain surgery. So I will leave you to that exploration, whatever day you take it.
PTN book club discussion of Saturday
Saturday, March 25, 2006
If you dislike Dan Savage, you will probably hate the book. If you read Savage Love, this is tamer. If you do not know who Dan Savage is, well, here is something new.
Dan Savage sets out across America to witness and commit the seven deadly sins, in a celebration of the pursuit of happiness in America. He is tired of all the conservative scolds who want to oppress or outlaw all the ways that people find happiness. Beyond live and let live, this is celebrate the sinner.
Or at least that is the plan. We really see only a few places in America, and Dan frequently fails to commit the sins he is seeking. About half the time, it comes off not so much a celebration as a focus on the downside after the necessary nod to yes, this is an okay thing. More, perhaps, of a "Why can't we just admit we're having a good time here?"
We look at one example of each sin, sometimes a stylized way of approaching it. For greed, Dan explores casino gambling. Lust is swinging, sloth is marijuana legalization, gluttony is the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance conference, envy is a resort for the rich (of sorts), pride is gay pride marches, and wrath is a shooting range. Lust is the most celebratory, while Dan has few nice things to say about the NAAFA conference.
Not that Dan is down on fat people, just that he sees the same problem at NAAFA as at the pride marches: dishonesty. NAAFA does not view fat people as gluttons or sinners, or even see any problems with being too large to walk. Gay pride marches are more about fun and frolic than "for the children," whatever the official story is. Dan wants folks to admit that they are taking risk x to gain pleasure y, they are comfortable with this exchange, and you do not have to find happiness that way if this risk-pleasure does not work for you.
I like Dan Savage. He usually writes well. The book ends up being a series of seven related essays, each going in an entirely different direction. The frame story is about politics, conservative scolds, sinners, and the pursuit of happiness; the meat of things is what goes on in each story.
I found the frame to be an irritant. Dan's political writing is not his best stuff. There are people who are better at making left-wing screeds, and despite being the ostensible point of the book, they take away from its value. Also, in the few years since it was published, most of his specific targets have faded into obscurity. People still know who Buchanan and Buckley are, but they are not important figures on the right. Buckley might make a comeback, Bork is still relevant in a specific circle, and the media figures have held on, so perhaps it is not all irrelevant. Falwell is still being a jackass.
Ultimately, you may not want to trust me because I am sympathetic to his case in this book. I have no grudge against gaming, swinging, marijuana users, eating, wealth, homosexuals, or guns. I have little participation in that list, but I have a strong sense of "live and let live." If you are morally offended by swingers' clubs, you may not be mollified by the story of the orthodox Jewish couple who think it deepens their marriage. Or maybe you will. Personal anecdotes affect some people.
Also, these is a good bit on primatology and evolutionary biology in the lust chapter, and who can get enough of that? Again, maybe that is just me.
Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
And so our circle finishes. After seeing the first woman and the first man, we end with the first ooloi, which will make no sense to you if you have not read Dawn yet. Specifically, we have the first human-born human-Oankali hybrid ooloi, which is surprisingly a first-generation child of human and Oankali parents rather than coming from existing hybrids. We see the first generation of our new species repeated many times, but there is no indication of their children advancing towards a more permanent status as a separate species.
Perhaps to balance our increasing distance from humanity in the character, we spend most of our time surrounded by other humans. There are few Oankali. Jodahs, our main character, is sufficiently alien that he needs nothing else to set the scene.
This is also the only one of the three set in the first person. Dawn and Adulthood Rites are in the third person, and Adulthood Rites does not always restrain itself to third-person limited, as we spend a little time away from Akin. Another tool to help us achieve some relationship with our protagonist, to get past its alienness?
In many ways, the ooloi are the Oankali, so this is the view of them from the other side. Jodahs is deliberately humanized, though, raised on Earth from human parents, so we have a relatively human perspective from the inside of an alien people, in a different way than Lilith gave us.
If Lilith was the Judas goat, bringing humans into the Oankali trade, Jodahs is the completion of that project, seeking out the last humans and bringing the project to its fulfillment. Hence his name, hence the book's name. It embodies the human-Oankali trade and seeks to further it.
Lilith remarks in Dawn about her fascination at seeing the first time an ooloi seduces a human. We see a bit of that here, and a lot of other sexual tension. Adolescence for the Oankali ooloi is apparently a very high hormone period, and Jodahs identifies a literal physical need for humans in that way. It believes it would have died without human mates. You can think on that one the next time you contemplate teenagers: Jodahs would literally die without sex, such as it is for him.
So we spend a lot of time on the notion of seduction. To the ooloi, Earth and humanity are endlessly seductive, dangerous and vital. They hunger for our genes, the taste of us. Which is somewhat disturbing, in the frequently predatory terms this approaches. Perhaps this is good for male readers: we have seen frequent mentions of male predations on females in these books (as elsewhere), with mentions of how men feel disquieted by the sexually aggressive ooloi. Welcome to how the other gender feels? Are both genders equally uncomfortable about (being participants in) tentacle sex? Anime does not get into the psychological details... Anyway, seduction. Jodahs wants it, wants humans, wants mates, wants everyone he touches. It is a barely contained ball of lust.
Jodahs is also caring, sensitive, and very much alone. Again, our continuing theme of alienation, in this case literally being the only person like himself on the planet, probably in existence. He gets along very well, perhaps because he is designed to. It is physically impossible not to like him, it seems, and he is built for the union of human and Oankali. While different from everyone, he is able to connect to everyone and everything in a very personal, intimate way.
And thus we are reborn into a new species, our destiny in the stars to extend for millions of years.
I am tempted to wonder about the long-term development of the Oankali. They seem to be safely beyond natural selection in any meaningful way, barring racial suicide. They have no predators, can consume anything, and could exist indefinitely. Standards for success and failure of a new species, post-trade, must be completely self-defined. By fiat, relatively centralized planning of an entire species via ooloi works, which is a conceit that all known history might dispute, were it not for the unusual nature of Oankali consensus. Since I am focusing on reviews here, rather than discussion, I will just leave you to the book, wherein they describe the nature of Oankali consensus and how it is formed. Perhaps that overcomes the vast problems we have found with centralized planning, since they really do have a way to aggregate everything.
What does "Imago" mean?
Amazon link (collected edition)
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
Another first! Last book, we saw the first woman, this time we see the first man. Akin is the first human-born human-Oankali hybrid male, the biology of which is perhaps clearer if you have already read Dawn. Go ahead, read it, I can wait.
Okay, back? This one is worth reading, too.
Welcome to the new species, the one that is going to replace us. Akin is surprisingly human, given that. We see some thoughts from the Oankali perspective, and those are pretty human, too. Hmm, I expected it to get a bit more alien, but maybe that is why we are following the human-born hybrid. He is more human, so we human readers can connect to him. Convenient, that.
I suppose this is more transitional, really. We spend about half our time with the humans, half with the Oankali. Well, maybe a bit more with the humans, since we saw them so little last time. We are transitioning away from our species, and this is our chance to see why they deserve to die out. Again.
The human species is not coming off pretty well. The Oankali get the sin of arrogance, and we seem to get the rest. A lot of wrath. The Oankali seem to be keeping humans around out of habit for interbreeding, rather than just taking the genetics and running. Their method of re-establishing humanity on Earth seems to have eliminated all the valuable parts of the culture.
This is coming off more cynically than I might like. Akin is a keen-eyed and forthright observer of the humans around him, and an ardent advocate as the book advances. He is sensitive in both the human and Oankali ways. He probably has the most accurate and fair impression of humans of any character in any of the books, in their good and evil, their hopes and prospects.
Akin is most reminiscent of Bean from the Ender's Shadow books, or perhaps I should reverse that since Adulthood Rites was written first. Still, I love Bean, so Akin cannot be entirely bad. He lacks Bean's spirit and fatalism, but he has more idealism.
We are again the outsider, outside both human and Oankali societies, although Akin is more linked to each than Lilith was. She was connected to each but pushed away; Akin starts from the difference and finds how close he is to each side. Where Lilith brought us away from each species as we came to see them more clearly, Akin takes us...somewhere else. Not necessarily closer, but in another direction.
Which is where the Oankali and the new hybrids are taking us. So that works.
Amazon link (collected edition)
I really want this book to be a 4, because it is an excellent, well-written book. I recommend it highly, and it is more than worth the time to read it. I cannot rate it at 4, however, because I do not think I will feel compelled to re-read it. There are certainly a few scenes that I will return to, since I already own this copy, but a borrowed copy would otherwise suffice.
Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it (collected edition))
After further consideration, I will definitely be re-reading this book at some point. I do not know that I was sufficiently taken with Lilith to feel compelled to return to her story, but the story is worth another read at some point. It is a compelling tale that weaves alienation and fatalism without leaving the reader in despair. [/end edit, original review follows]
An aptly named Lilith awakens on a starship after a great war has devastated Earth. An alien race has saved the remnants of humanity, one that uses the genetic code the way humans use tools. These Oankali want Lilith to prepare the awakening humans for a return to Earth, along with a plan to inter-breed their two species into a new one.
With the recent death of Octavia Butler, I saw several commentaries on her work that focused on the word "outsider." Lilith certainly fulfills that role, a human alone amidst an alien race, returned to humanity when she is sufficiently alienated to be an outsider to them. (There is surprisingly little culture shock, given that whole "devastation of the planet, near-extinction of all life on it, utterly controlled by aliens" thing. Way to adjust, humanity!) Lilith is useful as a newcomer to the Oankali, so that they can explain everything to her, and hence the reader, and then as a sounding board for the variety of human reactions as the others awaken. Lilith gets to be immersed in everything, so that it affects her, but separated enough to give us some perspective.
Also, she is bitter. I like that. It especially seems appropriate, given that whole global holocaust-extinction thing I alluded to earlier. This is not necessarily humanity's best day. I suppose being short-sighted is a natural reaction for many of the characters, given the horrors of the broad view.
The Oankali are interesting, opaque yet attempting to teach. They feel alien, not like humans in makeup. They are not just one facet of humanity taken to its logical extreme; Butler has given us a uniquely separate perspective, and any failings in developing or explaining that alien mindset are at worst the shortcomings of a difficult and worthwhile project, done well. One downside: we see relatively little of the failings of the Oankali as a people, outside of a lack of respect for humanity (which they should have why?). They make few mistakes, although you might expect a few more to be acknowledged given that people would be looking for them and they mistakes they do make are pretty severe. Maybe it all just got rolled into one, "Oops, we'll do better next time."
The plot is relatively simple. The structure allows us space to explore the aliens, humanity, and assorted emotions and ideas. The Oankali have a straightforward plan; the humans have none. I tend to like a bit more reason and less emotion, but the Oankali need not share their reasoning and the humans do not seem to be engaging in much. They are just reacting to a fait accompli. Author's choice, and it works perfectly well in the story.
Hmm, should I dispute that one? Our characters exhibit almost no sense of agency, and to the extent that they do, they are self-destructive at best. Humanity seems to be trying to prove that it deserves to die. The range of agency is naturally limited, as they are in a controlled environment and in ignorance. It is unclear how much anyone could do outside of violence to self or others, but it might have been more clear if anyone had thought to do anything else. The Oankali want human culture too, but they seem to have effectively eliminated anything beyond sex and violence.
We could also use a bit more about the Oankali, and luckily there are more books to follow. They are good; I read through all of them before stopping to write this, which is as strong an endorsement as I can gather at present.
Amazon link (collected edition)
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
The Warlock Series, book 2
Rating - 2: not worth reading (skip it)
A return to genre fiction, just not a great example thereof. The sense I got from reading the first Warlock book was that of watching an episode of "Charmed": not a great piece of Art, but an amusing diversion of its sort. This would not be one of the better episodes.
We return to the story of Rod Gallowglass, sci fi crusader for democracy on a fantasy world. This week's foe is the beastmen from across the sea, raiders who freeze men with the Evil Eye and slaughter them as they stand helpless.
The author gets credit for recognizing the weaknesses in the original story. The first version of the book was called King Kobold, and the opening comments quote Lester del Re y saying, "It isn't a bad book, if you don't expect too much of the evening spent with it." Ouch. That sounds like a 2 on our scale. When reprint time came, Stasheff rewrote the thing; sadly, the book is still a 2, although a decent enough one that I read the whole book, and I will try the next one in the series (since I have the stack of them).
The central conceit of the story is fine. The futurist anarchists and totalitarians provide a convenient foe, although how you defeat anyone with a time machine could use a bit more consideration. The background on the beastmen is fully adequate, and the witches and warlocks bit takes us at least half-way into coherence, assuming a healthy suspension of disbelief.
The problem is that the characters do not work. The book became a 2 when Yorick first appeared, and it never recovered. Maybe I just lost my suspension of disbelief when they tried to explain that he speaks with no comprehension of what he is saying; the Chinese Box puzzle against strong AI fails for a variety of reasons, and trying to build it inside a caveman's skull does not help things.
Angry Agatha never becomes a sympathetic character, despite obvious attempts at emotional appeal. Galen is intentionally distant, a deus ex machina. Brother Chillde never receives more than the most basic sketches, despite playing an important role in the story.
Combining these three with Magnus raises obvious questions about the putative science behind the espers of Gramarye. If you are going to pretend to mix science and sorcery, you need to keep the science behind the sorcery clear. You get a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from sci fi and another from fantasy; here, we see enough science to toss out the suspension from fantasy, but not nearly enough to re-establish it under sci fi. Just try not to think about what is supposed to be happening when the magic happens. Normally, that is fine: magic works, end of story. If magic is supposed to work for scientific reasons x, y, and z, but then you violate y and z, you have issues. If I am actively aware of suspending disbelief and making an effort of it, something is wrong. You only mention suspension of disbelief when it fails, so the number of times I have used that phrase in this review should highlight the problem.
What about our returning characters? They exist on the strength of their characterizations from The Warlock in Spite of Himself. There is no real development for them, nor do they demonstrate much if any depth. Brom O'Berin would be the worst example, an occasionally useful plot device with few lines and no noticeable character (in this volume).
Finally, what about that anti-witch preacher? When faced with a two-fronted battle, at home and abroad, you cannot just fight the battle abroad and drop the other out of the story. When time-traveling anarchists nearly slaughter the hero and his strongest allies, ignoring them is probably not a good option for the characters or the plot.
My immediate notion is that the scope of this book must be limited by later titles in the series. The authors' hands were bound by what he had already written. The story needs to fill the slot that King Kobold did in its original edition, without revealing later books' revelations or taking characters in incongruous directions. Prequels and stories inserted into the middle can be problematic unless you (1) have everything figured out at the start, (2) can revise everything, or (3) are okay with contradictions between the books. See the author's introduction to Orson Scott Card's The Worthing Saga collection on the issue of rewriting earler work.For a better version of fantasy told with sci fi justification, check Black Sun Rising by C. S. Friedman.
Amazon link (seems out of print)