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The Forever War

I read Joe Haldeman’s most famous novel, The Forever War, in only a little more than twenty-four hours. That alone speaks volumes about the work, which isn’t a long novel, but it isn’t short either.

I read this book right after having read Neuromancer (which I had some problems with, as this review shows), and so The Forever War was like a breath of fresh air. Like Neuromancer, it was extremely fast paced, but in an entirely different way. The chapters were very short (like in Neuromancer), but the book was mostly description, but description done so artfully that it was enough to move along the plot on its own, even in lieu of character interactions. Of course, there was plenty of dialogue and a lot of character interactions, but the description and narrative in The Forever War really stood out, and (unlike Neuromancer), made it incredibly easy to follow – and thus I was able to think more about the themes and ideas it brought up.

The novel is clearly about the Vietnam War, which the author has himself admitted. At its most basic, The Forever War is about a man drafted into a war against an unknown enemy, who it (rather predictably) turns out had been misunderstood from the very beginning (the ending of the novel was its weakest point by far; I won’t say anything more here, but it was weird, in a sort of cliched way, and I don’t think Haldeman came up with the cliche himself).

So, the novel is a war novel. However, it is a novel about war with surprisingly little combat; only two ground operations and one space battle are actually part of the narrative, and the rest of the combat is implied. However, the book isn’t so much about combat against aliens (with commentaries on first-contact and the nature of humanity thrown in at the end as an afterthought), but rather about the effects of war on two levels: the individual and the social.

Both of these effects are interwoven by following one man – William Mandella – as he is drafted into the human army to fight the mysterious, threatening “Tauran” foes, as he goes from trainee to Major. However, what is unique about this “Forever War” – which lasts, in the end, over a thousand years – is that it is a war across star systems affected hugely by relativity. Ships go so quickly between star systems through “collapsars” at enormous speeds, and so while little time passes on the ships, many years pass in the outside world. This has enormous effects on individuals involved in the war, as they go to complete one combat mission and return home decades later, to find that the world they came from is not what it used to be. In The Forever War, the first return home reveals Earth has become a dystopia, its economy and political system entirely dependent on the war, and is rife with violence. Throughout the novel, as the main character ages much more slowly than the rest of human kind (and ultimately survives the whole war), we get glimpses of how society is changes through his interaction with new recruits, including a period where heterosexuality becomes a dysfunction and, at the end of the war, one of the strangest visions of advanced humanity I have yet read about.

We also see the effect the war has on him, not only through fighting Taurans, being hypnotically conditioned, surviving brutal training, and becoming a high-ranking officer, but through the people he loses, both in the war and just be aging so slowly due to relativity. The effect of the war on the individual is extremely powerful, and the centerpiece of the novel.

What is also interesting is Haldeman’s vision of how the war is fought when relativity is taken into account. The war lasts a thousand years, and due to the time lag due to relativistic travel, one is never sure what level of technology the enemy you meet at any system is; you could be fighting Taurans armed with advanced technology you’ve never seen before, or Taurans even weaker than the ones you had just fought. As someone says of the Earth military high command, they plan “in centuries,” which is necessary due to the time dilations experiences by soldiers during the war.

The book is never slow, and though at times it has immersion breaking moments where you think “that’s odd” (such as the first return to Earth and the strange, somewhat troubling role of semi-forced sex in themilitary), it is definitely a worthwhile read and, I think, one of the best science fiction novels I’ve had the pleasure to read.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Readings

 

Neuromancer

On June 29th, I Tweeted my (very brief) thoughts about my current reading project, Neuromancer, and mentioned that it hadn’t been what I had been expecting, and got seven retweets. For someone who is lucky to get a single retweet, I was surprised at the (relatively high) response to this one Tweet with almost no content. Clearly (in my psuedo-scientific analysis of one Tweet), #Neuromancer is important to the denizens of the Internet, and discussion about it catches peoples’ attention. This is not surprising, given how important Neuromancer‘s conceptualization of the Internet – before the Internet was even a thing – has been to the actual development of the Internet.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered by many to be the seminal work in the cyberpunk genre. While it certainly did not found the genre, it is likely responsible for the genre’s rise in popularity, as well as its consolidation as a unique area of science fiction. The novel also was the first winner of the science fiction “triple crown,” winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. As such, I went into reading this book with very high expectations.

I was both disappointed and impressed.

When thinking about and evaluating Neuromancer, I was forced to do so on two levels: Neuromancer as I read it today, and Neuromancer as I would have read it when it was published. My two evaluations at these levels are very different.

Had I read the novel when it was published, I would have been blown away, as many people at the time clearly were, given its reception, its spawning two sequels (into the Sprawl trilogy), and a whole literary genre. Reading the novel now, though, I was underwhelmed.

Neuromancer depicts a future society (presumably even after the current day), in which human society is becoming increasingly cyberized, has colonized Earth’s orbit, and is also increasingly run by huge multinational corporations. This is an incredibly rich playground (I sort of play around with it myself, particularly in my work on parts of Dreadship Omnipotence), but Gibson does not use it to its fullest extent in Neuromancer (though he very well might in the other books of the Sprawl trilogy). Instead, he focuses in on a very small cast of characters, and their manipulation by and struggle to free a rebellious Artificial Intelligence from the chains that prevent it from becoming all-powerful.

The character Gibson follows are members of a small strikeforce brought together by a mysterious man to do a hacking job on an artificial intelligence, a notoriously dangerous task that could kill everyone involved. The central figure is Case, a hacker whose ability to link into/jack into the net has just been restored. He is supported primarily by Molly, a “razorgirl” who is essentially a cyborg commando (think Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, but with extendable blades in her fingers) who takes care of whatever analog work has to be done to complement Case’s hacking.

The content and ideas of Neuromancer are extremely well-developed, especially for its time. Gibson’s conceptualization of the global Internet, especially in the way he describes Case’s hacking in terms of visualizations of geometric shapes changing color and shape, is breathtaking and thought provoking. He gives the Internet a personality, and he lays out the groundwork for a very interesting cyberculture attached to it, as well as to the dark side of cybercorporate rule on the streets of Chiba City and the Sprawl.

I say “groundwork” here because it emphasizes what I liked least about Neuromancer, and that was the lack of a full exploration of the world and characters. There is nothing wrong with Molly and Case as characters, and they seem real enough (though there are a few ‘what the hell’ moments, such as the first sex scene), but they just aren’t as explored as well as they could have been. The exploration of the setting – which is utterly fascinating – is even less developed, and you only catch glimpses of the strange, cyberpunk world of the future.

I think the culprit for these weaknesses is my other criticism of Gibson’s masterpiece, and that is his writing. His ideas are brilliant, if underdeveloped (which is fine for one of the earlier works in the genre that laid the groundwork for other works to come). However, the way in which he presents these ideas is severely limited due to the way in which the book was written. The book is incredibly fast-paced, with short chapters, and short sections within chapters. Description is kept to a minimum, and the majority of the text is either dialogue (which I loved) or else internal monologues (which I found annoying). However, the dialogue does not reveal very much about the world (or, really, the characters), and serves mostly just to move the plot along. A focus on the plot is good, as it keeps things moving, but in the case of Neuromancer, I felt there was too much focus on the plot, and it worked to the detriment of world-building and character creation.

This was compounded by the very fractured nature of the writing. There were lots of sentence fragments and short sentences; they were very to the point, but for me they were also somewhat immersion breaking (though one could argue that the writing style was meant to be evocative of the world Gibson was creating). The descriptions, when they were there, were also very sparse, and a lot was left up to the reader’s imagination; in my opinion, a bit too much. It took my fifty pages to figure out what was going on, as I was thrown without mercy into a world of slang and jargon that would have been incomprehensible for even longer had I not been familiar with some science fiction and cyberpunk tropes. While I applaud his complete lack of exposition, the lack of any sort of explanatory text was difficult for me to handle – though perhaps that speaks more about me as a reader than about him as an author.

Overall, though, Neuromancer was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it, but with the caveat to prepare to be confused at first, and not to expect any clear answers – but then, when has society ever given us a clear answer?

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2015 in Readings

 

The Left Hand of Darkness

I emerge once more from the void to regale you all, my dear readers (however few you may be!), with tales of my latest literary conquests! Or, in this case, literary conquest (it turns out it’s hard to find time to read fiction when you’re studying for a preliminary exam for your PhD program at the end of the summer and are working on papers for two conferences at the end of August… eep!).

The aforementioned literary conquest is none other than Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. This is the third LeGuin novel I’ve read, after (relatively) recently finishing The Dispossessed (which I loved) and The Word for World is Forest, which I read a while ago but I still find to me one of the most thought-provoking and evocative works of science fiction I have ever had the pleasure to read.

It was thus with great enthusiasm that I dove into The Left Hand of Darkness… and was immediately disappointed. Not because it was bad – by no means was it a bad novel – but because it felt like work. In my non-writer alternate life (which I am going to pretend is my secondary one, despite it taking up all of my time), I study sociology, which has recently consisted of reading a fair bit of ethnographies. Having been raised by anthropologists, LeGuin is extremely good at evoking the feel of an ethnography in this novel, which is actually framed as a fictional ethnography from the future. She is so good at it, in fact, that it actually felt like I was doing work by reading it. I found it at the beginning to be slow and cumbersome, full of ethnographic conventions and commentary that made me feel like I wasn’t reading for pleasure, but for work (when I was, in theory, reading for pleasure).

As such, it took me a long time to make substantial progress. However, I am extremely glad I did, for this novel was well worth the trudging! Most people I don’t think will have the same trouble I did with the opening of the novel, and so might breeze through it. After the first few chapters, the ethnographic tone became much less prevalent, and I again felt like I was reading a novel, and was utterly drawn into her world.

LeGuin is a master of worldbuilding – or more specifically, of society-building. We can see this in the hyper-capitalist and anarcho-communist societies in The Dispossessed, and in the indigenous and colonial cultures in The Word for World is Forest. Like these other works, the world of The Left Hand of Darkness is explored through a culture clash, and what defines and undermines the differences between these cultures is gender.

The story chronicles the journeys of Genly Ai (who, it is covertly slipped in, is a Terran of African descent), an envoy from the Ekumen, a huge interstellar organization of human-types, as he attempts to bring a newly discovered planet of humanoids, Gethen (or Winter), into this organization. In order to do this, he needs to convince the world that it is ready for this integration with the larger universe, and help ease its transition. He goes down alone in order to learn all he can about the planet and slowly work the planet so that it can accept its place among the stars.

Genly is the audience (or readers), and coming from Terra/Earth, embodies many of the cultural beliefs and assumptions that many humans have about society and norms. On the world of Gethen, there is no distinction between male and female, as Gethenians spend most of their time as sexless humans, and once a month become biologically able to engage in intercourse, and their sex at that time is determined by hormone levels that react to those near them.

LeGuin then explores that a sexless society would look like, through the eyes of a typical, male Terran. There is no gender on Gethen, which makes Genly extremely uncomfortable, and which makes Genly’s gender uncomfortable for Gethenians to deal with. The interaction between these two societies is primarily shown through the friendship of Ai with a Gethenian named Estraven, as they wade through the mess of Gethenian politics and get caught in a bitter struggle between two rival nations. This friendship – and the way it ebbs and flows – is one of the most powerful parts of the book, and ultimately is what kept me reading.

However, what is most thought-provoking is LeGuin’s depiction of a genderless society. Sex is not a constant drive or urge. There is no gender, and so there is no sexism. The philosophy of Gethen is entirely different from that of Earth, religion is entirely different as well, and most interestingly, there is no war.

Despite my slow start, The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely worth reading. I still prefer The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest, but it is easy to see why The Left Hand of Darkness is as influential as it is!

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2015 in Readings

 

Time Enough For Love and The Dispossessed

It’s been a while since I updated my readers (few and far between though you are!) on my reading list (or much else, for that matter). I have, of late, been tearing through Terry Pratchett novels (rest in peace, Sir Terry), which are as brilliant, witty, and insightful as always (though I must admit, Unseen Academicals disappointed me; it started so strong and went in a direction I was ambivalent about; I think there weren’t enough wizards in it, in the end). I also, a while ago, made it through two more science fiction “classics” written by authors at opposite ends of the political spectrum: Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, and Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.

Heinlein’s novel is really a collection of short stories linked together in varying ways. Some of these short stories are told by one of Heinlein’s recurring characters, the inestimable Lazarus Long/Woodrow Wilson Smith, while others chart Long’s “present day” situation. The stories range from the charming (“The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail”) to the annoyingly technical (“The Tale of the Twins Who Weren’t”), to the somewhat… unsettling (“The Tale of the Adopted Daughter”) to the bizarre (“De Capo”) to the thought-provoking (“Boondock”). Scattered throughout these stories are collections of Lazarus Long’s ‘sayings,’ some of which were amusing, some sensible, and most were annoying to someone who did not share his particular political beliefs.

As was the case with Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s work here focuses on sex, and particularly what people today would consider somewhat transgressive sex. Heinlein was a vocal proponent of free love, and his treatment of open sexual/familial relationships was thought-provoking in “The Boondocks,” even if the early sexualization of his clones was slightly off-putting. However, in “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter” Lazarus (a thinly-veiled stand-in for the author) sleeps with his adopted daughter, and in “The Tale of the Twins Who Weren’t” there is brother/sister-like sex (it’s a bit more complex than that, though). In the series’ finale, Long also infamously falls in love with and sleeps with his mother. Somewhat taboo subjects, some of which I will admit made me squirm, but I am glad that Heinlein made me do that and question by own thoughts about human sexuality. Kudos to him for that.

Overall, the collection was uneven; some stories were slow-paced or boring, including most of the “current day” stories, while others were much more engaging and really drew me in. Throughout, however, the writing was brilliant; I read this book right after a lot of Asimov, so I appreciated the flowing writing.

LeGuin’s The Dispossessed was almost perfect. While Heinlein deals with free love, she deals with free people – sort of. In her short novel (a part of the larger Hainish cycle), there is a planet and a moon: the planet (Urras) is a reflection of contemporary Earthly society, and consists of various nations dominated by a capitalist logic, while the moon is inhabited by anarcho-communist rebels, given the moon (Anarres) to settle as part of a deal with the larger governments on the planet. The story follows a brilliant physicist named Shevek from the resource-poor moon Anarres who travels to Urras in the name of science, only to discover the good and the bad of this alien society, having grown up without the idea of property.

What makes this novel work is the comparison between the two planets. The work is structured in alternating chapters, one detailing Shevek’s coming of age on Anarres, and one detailing his adventures on Urras, with the two meeting up in time in the final chapter. The two different timelines complement each other beautifully, and thoughtfully portray the culture shock of this switch, as well as how political power functions in a capitalist society, and in an anarchist one. Neither planet and neither society is a utopia (though LeGuin clearly favors the anarchist society, and I am inclined to agree). Even the theoretically utopian anarchist society has its problems in the form of pseudo-states and social vagrants.

The most interesting thing about the novel to me, though, was the language. On Anarres, there is no property, and the language used reflects this. For example, individuals never say “my handkerchief,” but “the handkerchief I use.” The author also made a nice distinction between property and personal possessions in the vein of Communist theory, which was appreciated.

The only thing that prevented it from being perfect was the ending, which felt like a cop-out with the Terrans and Hainish keeping Shevek’s science from being used for political gain in a deus ex machina. That being said, the ending didn’t ruin the novel, but made it less than it could have been.

I am now making my way through LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, but am having trouble with it because it reads like an ethnography (not surprising given that LeGuin was raised by anthropologists), so it feels like homework to me!

But until next time, ta-ta!

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2015 in Readings

 

Ten Written Works That Changed My Life

As an author and academic, the written word has had a tremendous impact on my life. I spend most of my time, both at work and at home, dealing with the written word in its various forms, whether through writing, editing, or reading, in fiction and non-fiction. As such, it should come as no surprise that certain specific works I have read – whether they be book series, novels, nonfiction books, essays, or short stories – have resonated with me or otherwise drastically affected either how I saw the world, how I interacted with it, or how I lived my life. In keeping with the current trend of making lists, I wanted to then offer you all a list of the top ten written works that have changed my life:

1). The Grey King by Susan Cooper
When I was but a wee lad, my mother read this book to my brothers and me. Though it is the fourth book in Cooper’s Dark is Rising quintet, it was by far her favorite of the series, and at the time one of her favorite books. This book changed my life simply because it is the first book I have a clear memory of reading (or hearing), and it was got me hooked on reading non-picture books. I am certain I read other books when I was younger, and I even remember many of them. However, it is upon having this book read to me by my mother that I got hooked on the written word, and understood how powerful books can be when combined with your imagination. Plus, it’s a great book and part of a great series (I went on to read all five books), and I actually made friends by introducing them to the themes of this work!

2). The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
I read The Lord of the Rings at a very young age, and it remains the first book I actually read on my own (I have no idea why my parents let me do this). It also introduced me to high fantasy, and opened my eyes to the power that world-building can have. I think I can trace my own obsession with world-building as a writer (and reader) back to the influence of The Lord of the Rings. While I have mixed feelings about the writing and characters (and plot), the world of the The Lord of the Rings was the first immersive world I experienced other than this one.

3). The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
Rest in Peace, Brian Jacques. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when I was small, at a book signing. I was too shy to speak to him, but all I remember was a laugh, him commenting on what a nice boy I was, and a signature in The Legend of Luke. I still have that book, which remains one of my most valued possessions because it showed me that authors are people. It was the first experience I had meeting a famous author, and it made me realize that there was a person behind the words, and worlds, that I was reading about. Redwall as a book series was also the first extensive series I ever read, and the rodent main characters – and my love for them – were what inspired my mother to make me try the Skaven race in the tabeltop game Warhammer, which had an enormous impact on my lifecourse, as it turned me into a gamer and roleplayer. Thus, I really think I can trace back my earliest desires to write back to Redwall and its introducing me to the world of gaming, as well as of showing me that authors are real.

4). The Dune Series by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson
Dune was the first science fiction novel I ever read, and I still consider it one of the best, if not the best, novel ever written. It turned me onto the dark path of science fiction, from which I never recovered. I did not want to read this book at first, as I thought it looked boring and stupid, but both of my parents forced me to read it. After a chapter, I was hooked. By the end of the novel, I wanted more, and I began reading the rest of the series, including the prequels and sequels (well, most of them, anyway). Dune sparked my first interest in questions about humanity, and not only what it means to be human, but what it means to have a human society. Perhaps here I found my earliest interest in the social sciences, my other passion.

5). The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons
If Dune was my first science fiction novel and series and introduced me to the genre, Hyperion was what kept me interested. To my young mind, Hyperion was everything Dune was, and better, because it was shorter and (at the time) it seemed to me to have such a great sense of scale. I read Hyperion and its sequels before finishing the Dune books, and so I was able to achieve a sense of completeness in it before I ever got that same sense from DuneHyperion was also a beautiful story, in a way that Dune isn’t (Dune is brilliant, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful), and made me rethink the ways in which I saw the world. It instilled in me a sense of wonder and awe (which my cynicism eventually shattered), and also showed me what happens when power is used to destroy mankind’s potential futures. It was Hyperion and its sequels that made me think about what it meant to be human on an individual scale, and what it meant to truly live life, rather than just experiencing it. The Hyperion Cantos remains one of my favorite book series, on par with Dune in many respects, and it introduced an element of humanism into my own thoughts – and eventually, my writing.

6). The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Well, this item certainly changes the tone of the list. The Manifesto of the Communist Party, or The Communist Manifesto, is the first piece of non-textbook scholarly work I remember reading (in freshman year of high school), and it has stuck with me. I have read it countless times now in my work as a sociologist, and while other examples of Marx’s work may illustrate the Manifesto‘s ideas better (The German Ideology and Capital come to mind), the Manifesto remains the best concise work of what Marxism is. While I don’t agree with everything Marx said, a lot of what he did say rang true with me, and it was after reading The Communist Manifesto that I began not only to see better my own role in society, and my class’ role in history, but that I also began to think, for the first time, sociologically. As I am now pursuing a PhD in Sociology, the importance of this work should be rather self-evident.

7). Democracy for the Few by Michael Parenti
This was the textbook for my introductory sociology course at university. While I credit my interest in sociology to a certain amazing and influential high school teacher, it was this sociology course on “social problems” and this textbook that cemented my interest in sociology, and led me down the path I am now. This book is what kept me in sociology after Marx’s Manifesto and my high school teacher introduced me to it. Written by a journalist, this book was the first to open my eyes to all of the problems in contemporary American society, and what drove me to want to try and alleviate some of those problems (hubris, I know), and what kindled my interest in sociology as a discipline and a way of looking at the world. I still have this textbook on my bookshelf, and I maintain that, while maybe a bit dated, it is one of the best introductions to what the social sciences can offer society at large ever written.

8). “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft
While by no means the first work of horror I ever read (Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” win that prize), H. P. Lovecraft’s famous short story has been by far the most influential piece of horror in my own life. One large part of this is because this was the first story by H. P. Lovecraft I ever read, and another part of it is that in it I found an expression of my own growing cynicism, first implanted in me by reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The cosmic standpoint offered in this short story – and in most of Lovecraft’s work – actually made me feel better about my own nihilistic views (at the time), which had come to replace some of the humanist values instilled in me by Simmons’ Hyperion. In particular, the opening passage of the short story still resonates with me, and it is sometimes a viewpoint that I still espouse:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism.

Aside from this, H. P. Lovecraft has had a tremendous impact on the themes in my own writing, perhaps more so than any other author.

9). There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

Another work of nonfiction, this book was written by a journalist who followed a family living in the Chago projects for several years, and coupled this work with interviews about the family’s past and, eventually, with work he did revisiting the family many years later. This book is a visceral account of black poverty in modern America, and is hugely eye-opening for a middle-class white American like myself. Other books about race and class could have been hear as well: Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow spring to mind, but both of those, while sound sociological analyses and eye-opening in their own right, lack the imagery and visceralness of There Are No Children Here. This book really made me think about race, class, violence, and poverty in a way I had never thought about before. [Interestingly, I have yet to find an account of gender inequities that had a similar impact on my life].

10). 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
This is by far the most recently read book on this list; in fact, I only read it a few months ago. Despite this, 2001: A Space Odyssey has significantly changed my understanding of the larger universe in which we live. While previously, Lovecraftian themes of insignificance and horrible truths dominated my thoughts, Clarke approached the problem of significance in an entirely different way. Like Lovecraft, he believed that mankind was ultimately insignificant in the cosmos, and 2001 clearly demonstrates this. However, for him, this insignificance is a beautiful thing, not a horrifying one, and somehow he manages to inject a human element into an enormous universe. The universe isn’t horrifying; it’s beautiful. The passage in which Clarke describes the ship’s passage over Jupiter in 2001 is one of the best descriptive passages I’ve ever read, and simultaneously puts humanity in their cosmic place while urging them to step beyond it. 2001: A Space Odyssey combined the humanism I took from Hyperion with Lovecraft’s cosmic despair and allowed them to both live side by side in me, and gave me a burst of optimism to temper my pessimism.

So there you have it; ten written works that changed my life! Feel free to comment with yours, or of course, to try and read some of the ones I listed above!

And some honorable mentions:

The Uplift Saga by David Brin
American Apartheid by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton
Selections from the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci
“Bureaucracy” by Max Weber
The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Personal, Philosophical Musings, Readings

 

American Gods

In between getting ready to head back to another semester of graduate studies and working on The Eldritch Wastes, I’ve managed to get a little bit of reading for pleasure done! My latest literary conquest has been Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a book I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for a while now. I’ve been a long-time follower of Neil Gaiman online, including on Twitter and Facebook, and I enjoy reading his writing tips and journal, but other than his brilliant I, Cthulhu, until recently I had not read any of his fiction work. I was first introduced to Mr. Gaiman as a conspirator involved in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (their collaborations, I regret to say, I have not read either), and ever since learning of this I have intended to read Gaiman’s solo work (aside from his work in the comics arena). Alas, until now, I have not gotten around to it.

So, when at the library a few weeks back, I picked up American Gods, as it seems to be Gaiman’s most well-known novel. My father warned me against reading it, but I did anyway, because I do things like that. I’m still trying to decide if I’m glad I did.

Don’t get me wrong; American Gods was (and still is) a beautifully written book. What this comes down to is a question of personal preference. While the novel was very well-crafted, it didn’t do much for me as a reader.

The basic idea is that an ex-convict named Shadow (an odd name, especially because you aren’t given another name for him) is released from prison only to find that everything (and everyone) from his former life are gone or dead. He quickly gets a job offer from a “Mr. Wednesday” that amounts to being his assistant while he goes around the US rallying the old gods immigrants brought to the country to fight against the new gods of media, internet, and the like. Scattered among this “main” storyline were lots of little vignettes illustrating the passages of various gods across the Atlantic (or Pacific). These vignettes were my favorite part of the book, but also distracted somewhat from the main storyline; I can see that they were meant to give more context and weight to what was going on, but for me they didn’t work; they functioned more like independent short stories to me.

The novel’s cast, aside from Shadow and his (dead) wife, consist mostly of gods and the inhabitants of a small wintry town Shadow lives in between trips with Mr. Wednesday. The town Gaiman created had a lot of character, and I feel like a whole other novel could have been written just about what was going on there, and it would have been good. Alas, we don’t get that, and instead what the book does is present us with a travelogue of sorts across the United States. All of the locations (and associated gods) were so briefly explored, however, that I left wanting to more and was never satisfied. As a result of the semi-disconnected nature of the main plot and the vignettes, I never grew attached to the characters and the novel seemed unfocused.

My other major quibble with the novel was the metaphysics behind the existence of the gods. world-building is always the most important thing to me, and never knowing what was going on – but feeling like I should know what was going on – bothered me throughout reading the novel. Something also just didn’t click about how the gods worked; Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather tackled the god who is sustained on belief model better than Gaiman did, I think.

That all being said, the writing was brilliant, and the characters, though most appear only briefly, were golden and accurately reflected the myths surrounding the gods. More than one joke or well-placed one-liner made me giggle, and I was drawn into the story, despite my reservations, by the writing itself. However, the writing was very surreal, and fantasy and reality blended together and made it hard to separate which was which – which was doubtless Mr. Gaiman’s intention – and while it annoyed me a little bit, Neil Gaiman executed it very well.

All in all, it was mostly a fun read for the brilliant and fluid writing, but the world-building and fragmented plot bothered me enough to give it my full endorsement. Still, if you want an interesting fantasy travelogue of United States culture, this book might be worth a read, and by no means has the novel turned me off of Gaiman’s other work.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2014 in Readings

 

Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge is one of my favorite authors; his Zones of Thought books are brilliant (especially his depiction of the Tines and the spiders of the world circling the OnOff star, both in terms of individuals and societies) and his Realtime/Bobble series is some of the best science fiction ever written. Thus, it was with high expectations that I turned to his 2006 novel Rainbows End, set in an alternate version of his short story “Fast Times at Fairmont High.” The short story and the novel have many similarities, including the same characters (Juan Orozco and the Gu family, though the names of the father and mother changed in the novel) and a similar fascination with what reality really is and the social effects of an internet carried to its extreme. While the short story is interesting, it really pales in comparison to the novel, which expands upon everything “Fast Times at Fairmont High” had to offer.

Rainbows End centers around the Gu family; in particular, world-renowned poet Robert Gu, who after having barely survived Alzheimer’s, is now learning how to live in a world where the real and the virtual are blended together. Almost everyone uses special clothes and contacts to be constantly wired into a global internet made possibly by a series of localizing nodes, and they can overlay various realities over what really exists. Essentially, everyone’s reality can be tailored to their own preferences, and people can work together to create larger “belief circles,” which are large virtual realities often based around works of fiction.

This whole idea of everyone having their own reality was the most fascinating part of Rainbows End, but alas it was not fully explored. Instead, Vinge set this as merely a backdrop for a more personal story about an old man trying to find his place in the world, a young woman trying to keep her grandfather out of trouble, a young boy trying to pass his classes, a conspirator trying to make the world a better place by less-than-savory means, and a rabbit intelligence whose power is only hinted at. This plot is well-done for the most part, though a bit complex and at times confusing, but to served to distract from a more thorough examination of a society firmly embedded in multiple clashing virtual realities. These clashes are hinted at, but never realized, as the book gets a little bit lost in its personal stories and plot. I think, in the end, it suffered from trying to do much.

Still, the book was very well-written, very engaging, and while a bit confusing, really made me think. I wish some aspects of it had been explored more thoroughly, and I hope that his probably sequel will do exactly that. It didn’t live up to my expectations, but it is still well worth a read.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Readings

 
 
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