RSS

Category Archives: 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.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Readings

 

The End of Eternity

Ending my recent spate of Asimov reading comes one of his earlier works, 1955’s The End of Eternity. This book was published shortly after the stories that made up the Foundation trilogy. Indeed, I think the same ideas driving Foundation were still very much in Asimov’s mind as he wrote this book, as it also deals with the social sciences – in this case, just called sociology and psychology and not psychohistory – influencing human development. Unlike Foundation‘s psychohistory, though, the sociology and psychology Asimov discusses in this work can predict individual behavior.

The premise of the End of Eternity is simple and very interesting: there exists a dimension outside of space and time called “Eternity” alongside our universe, and humans are taken from the real universe to live in this universe, where they work to help mankind by changing events across all of history to cause the least possible harm. In essence, it deals with time-travel and social engineering on both large and small scales. The main character – who, like most Asimov characters, is rather forgettable – is an Eternal who falls in love with a timebound woman, and risks the existence of all Eternity to be with her. While this romance is painful at times, it serves as a useful plot device to explore all of the problems inherent in a group of outsiders guiding human history to cause the least possible harm. Ultimately, the novel revolves around two questions: why the Eternals can’t access a series of centuries in the far future, after which mankind is extinct, and why there is no significant space travel (and no Foundation-esque Galactic Empire). Both questions turn out to be intimately related, and Asimov’s exploration of them really make this book stand out as well worth-reading. I highly recommend it, and for the sake of not spoiling anything, I will stop here.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Readings

 

Structure, Agency, and Foundation

I think Isaac Asimov secretly wished he had been a social scientist. Though he was a respected biochemist, his works, particularly the Foundation trilogy, privilege social scientists. At one point, Asimov even notes that the physical sciences are more lauded because their results are immediately beneficial, yet ultimately superficial, while the work of the social sciences have little immediate benefit, but in the long run yield far greater results. Asimov’s fascination with the social sciences led him to fuse his physical science training with his idea of social science (particularly sociology), to create the fictional science of psychohistory: the reduction of the collective actions of vast numbers of people into equations, enabling a skilled practitioner to predict future human behavior using advanced statistical techniques. This science is the basis of Asimov’s lauded Foundation trilogy, and to some extent the prequels and sequels (the series was awarded the “best all-time series” Hugo in 1966). This post is only concerned with the first five Foundation books, and excludes the prequels. Thus, I will only discuss FoundationFoundation and EmpireSecond FoundationFoundation’s Edge, and Foundation and Earth.

The premise of the Foundation series is simple enough: in a future so distant that mankind has colonized the entire galaxy and Earth is a mere myth, psychohistorian Hari Seldon perfects the art of psychohistory on the Galactic Imperial capital Trantor. During the process, he discovers that the Galactic Empire is in decline, and predicts that 30,000 years of barbarism will follow its collapse. However, his psychohistory allows him to see a way to reduce this period to a mere millennium by establishing two “foundations” at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve human knowledge and provide the seeds for a new Galactic Empire even greater than before. The original trilogy deals with the people of the First Foundation, a great collection of physical scientists, who follow the “Seldon Plan” and work towards a new Galactic Empire.

Over the course of these first three books (the later two I will discuss later), Asimov comes in on a very old argument within sociology: which is more important in thinking about human society, social structures or human agency? Psychohistory, the physical science of society, is the pinnacle of the structuralist argument, though it leaves room for agency. Seldon uses psychohistory to predict history for the next thousand years, and grounds his predictions on two assumptions (plus an unspoken third assumption key to Foundation and Earth): that people to not consciously know of psychohistorical predictions, and that there are sufficiently large numbers of people to make the predictions from. In Seldon’s model, the individual cannot change history, and social forces will always triumph. However, psychohistory cannot predict the actions of individuals, who can more or less rule their own life. It is only large-scale, macrosocial events that are subject to psychohistorical principles.

Of course, the series would be relatively boring if everything went according to Hari Seldon’s plan. In the second book, an individual gains the power to change history, thus representing the triumph of agency over structure, and destroying the Seldon plan. This triumph was only made possible by a “mutation” that, in a way, made this individual no longer human by giving him the power to influence the minds of others, and thus fell outside of Seldon’s psychohistory. Thus, for the first time, the individual was not a pawn of social forces. As such, in the original trilogy, the struggle between structure, as represented by the Seldon Plan, and agency, as represented by those resisting the Seldon plan (successfully only in the case of the mutant).

In the end, Asimov explores the structuralist argument more, and when agency does come up, it is treated as an aberration that can (and maybe even should) be corrected. As such, I think Asimov tends to side with the structuralist argument more than the agency argument. That said, I’m not sure his idea of structure is completely devoid of agency. During periods of “crisis” in the Seldon Plan (which are part of the plan and only apparent crises to the First Foundation’s existence, which are resolved by the social forces already set in motion), the First Foundation is supposed to do very little and let social inertia solve the crisis for them, thus rendering individual action useless. Yet, despite his characters saying this, individual agency seems to matter; the first great Mayor Salvor Hardin and the great Merchant Hober Mallow both use what seems to be agency to solve their crises. Granted, they both make use of existing social forces, but especially in the case of Salvor Hardin and the Anacreon crisis, it seemed to be Hardin’s ingenuity and clever use of these social forces that won the day, rather than the social forces themselves. Sure, maybe if Hardin hadn’t done it someone else would have, but I am not so sure. The structure/agency question is a complex one and still the topic of much debate, and Asimov does portray this complexity well in the trilogy.

Despite the great ideas and beautiful Galaxy-building Asimov does, the Foundation trilogy does have some problems, and I think is vastly overrated. Asimov’s writing is not terribly good, and at times his grammar, phrasing, and pacing made me wince. Furthermore, his characters are utterly forgettable, and are largely the same few cardboard cutouts rehashed again and again. He also only includes two named women, Bayta and Arkadia Darrell (other women are present, but only as unnamed male attachments). However, despite these deficiencies, the original Foundation trilogy is a brilliant series that covers hundreds of years of human history, and are well worth a read.

The sequels to the trilogy, however, are an entirely different story. While the first three Foundation books more or less read like a collection of linked short stories and novellas and take place over the course of centuries, the second two feature the same cast and take place over the course of about a year. This gives Asimov more opportunity to develop characters (and, since these were written about twenty years later, his writing also improved – but not all that much), and he does. However, the characters are still a bit unconvincing and feel like cutouts, partly because they are written somewhat inconsistently (especially Trevize).

Now, I have no problems with this, but this gives the latter two books a vastly different feel. However, I strongly feel that Asimov should have left Foundation at the original trilogy and let it stand there. However, under pressure from readers and editors for a sequel, Asimov committed a cardinal sin: he tried to combine the Foundation trilogy with his other works – most notably his Empire and Robots series – into a single universe, and thus twisted the underlying plot of the latter two books almost beyond recognition, in the process destroying everything that made the original trilogy as good as they were. He destroys and dismisses psychohistory, renders meaningless all of the events of the original trilogy, and introduces several deus ex machinas and inexplicable plot phenomena to move the story along. While these two books would have made fine standalone books (with a little editing), the fact that he tied them to Foundation ruined a lot of the work he had already done, and thus I prefer to think of them as not really counting (these two sequels have also turned me off of the prequels he, and others, wrote).

So in the end, I highly recommend the original Foundation trilogy, despite its flaws. I cannot in good conscience recommend the other books in the series, but perhaps familiarity with the Empire and Robot sagas would help a reader there. If you haven’t read Foundation yet, do it, and think about Asimov’s application of structure and agency, which I feel to be at the heart of what makes Foundation so (relatively) timeless and so fascinating.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 4, 2014 in Readings

 

The Gods Themselves

Of all of the hundreds of novels he wrote, 1972’s The Gods Themselves was Isaac Asimov’s favorite. Having picked it up after reading the first three Foundation novels (a review of that whole series will be coming once I finish all of the one’s he himself wrote), I can understand why it is. The book is divided into three parts, aptly entitled “Against Stupidity…” “…the gods themselves…” “…contend in vain.” The line, as mentioned in the book, is taken from the play The Maids of Orleans by Friedrich Schiller, and each title corresponds very nicely with the contents.

The first bit, “Against Stupidity,” details the struggle of a physicist-turned-somewhat-historian chronicling the invention of the “Electron Pump,” which produces free, unlimited energy with no downsides that is generated by exchanging matter with a different universe with different physical laws. The Pump’s inventor more or less stumbles into inventing it, and most of the technical work was supplied to him through mysterious beings in the other universe, about whom nothing is known, with whom communication is nearly impossible, and without whom the pump will not work, as they are the ones exchanging material.

Naturally, the man credited with inventing unlimited energy becomes an academic giant who rules the academic world with the iron fist of patronage, and much of the first third of the book is a criticism of academia (and particularly its patronage system) and human greed (which causes people to ignore danger when it is easier to deny it). The young scientist who stars in this part of the book, who finds out that the physical laws of the two universes are leaking into each other with disastrous consequences for mankind, spends the first part struggling in vain against mankind’s stupidity and illicitly contacting the “para-universal” beings on the other side of the pump.

The second part was the centrepiece of the book and by far the most interesting and fascinating. The para-beings on the other side of the Electron Pump are, compared to mankind, technological gods. The second part of the book focuses on these “gods,” and takes place in the other universe, focusing on those beings exchanging matter with mankind. What makes this part so brilliant is Asimov’s ability to create utterly alien races and at the same time make them very easy to relate to. One of the unnamed races he described have three sexes that interact in fascinating ways, and I shan’t say more about them as it would absolutely spoil the absolutely brilliant twist that forced me to put down the book for a good twenty minutes to get my bearing. It was simply the best twist I have ever encountered in television or on paper.

The third part, “…contend in vain,” is back in our universe, and takes place on the Moon. It deals with many “hard science” aspects of life on the moon, and brought the anime Planetes to mind in its discussion of native Lunarians (to borrow the Planetes term). In the last third of this very short book, Asimov touches on a lot of the sociopolitical issues of colonization, while simultaneously tying up the loose ends in the first two parts. The title fits a little less well here, as they in the end are not contending in vain, but perhaps the title refers to the lie that the chapter is exposing.

The fact that this book was originally serialized as three stories is rather obvious, as the three parts are rather disconnected thematically, and are only connected by the Electron Pump, which is the focus of part one, more fully explain in part two, and then resolved in part three. Each segment, though, also has its own important aspects of social criticism: part one criticizes greed and academic patronage, part two criticized greed and presented a fascinating alien society and parallel universe, and finally, part three dealt with issues of power and separatism on a colonial holding.

As in his other work, Asimov’s writing can be a bit clunky, and his individual human characters are somewhat flat, but his alien characters absolutely shine, as well as his spot-on presentation and analysis of various social problems that continue to plague us today. The book is well-worth reading, and definitely would be high on a list of science fiction books everyone should read.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 17, 2014 in Readings

 

Stranger in a Strange Land

Hello, Internet! It’s been a while It turns out doctoral programs are a lot of work and a lot of stress. So, I’ve been neglecting my creative side a bit and my blog side a lot over the past… well, year. I’m going to start remedying that, however. I have a backlog of reviews to do, and then some new updates on WIP’s! No new WIP’s this time; I have vowed to finish everything I have started before I go onto anything new, and keep those plot bunnies in check! But for today, I want to turn your attention onto the subject of this review: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

This was my second Heinlein book, after his teen/young adult Tunnel in the Sky, which I loved as a kid and recently reread only to find myself cringing at the writing (though the plot was wonderful and amazingly structured and complex). Stranger in a Strange Land, though, is most definitely not a children’s book. When I started reading it my father warned me about the orgies. I didn’t believe him. I should have.

For those of you who haven’t read much Heinlein, this book is not abnormal for him. Heinlein seems to have a strange fixation on human sexual practices, and loves exploring the violation of sexual taboos. He does have a point; as one of my professors has said on many an occasion, Western society is built around sexual repression. Heinlein breaks the walls of this repression and lets his raw sexuality come out. I bet you didn’t think you’d ever read that on a science fiction site.

In all seriousness, this book is about connections. Heinlein addresses several themes in this book; what it means to be human, what it means to die, the purpose of religion, and most centrally, what it means to love another. Heinlein throws out the idea of separation between romantic and any other type of love, and I think argues that all love is the same, and can be expressed in the same way. This expression of love is not only sex (in Heinlein fashion), but through what is called in the book the “sharing of water.”

The premise of the plot is simple: mankind sends an expedition to Mars. Everyone dies except one, who is raised by the Martians, who are a fantastically alien species ruled by their dead (it makes perfect sense in the book, I promise). When another expedition to Mars pops along, they bring this human, Mike, back to Earth, where he has to learn to be a human again. This is a fascinating way to examine how silly a lot of what we humans do really is, and Heinlein does this wonderfully for the first half of the book. Mike’s curious exploration of Earth and his naive acceptance of everything, including murder and death (remember, he was raised in Martians where the dead rule the living) is really well done and very powerful. Heinlein hit the nail on the head here.

All the while, of course, Mike is having a profound influence on those around him, who see his influence and wonder at the world, and begin to grok (this is where the term comes from; I interpret it as along the lines of “to understand deeply”) him. He becomes more human, and they become more Martian. This was also a good touch, though at first I thought that Heinlein was going to push human thought as superior. Boy, was I wrong.

I found second half of the book  lacking, but others may disagree. Mike eventually comes to accept what he is and rejects both pure Martianism and pure Humanism in favor of his own combination. However, he does not stop at the halfway point of both; I would argue that he retains much more of his Martian learning, and indeed the point of the book is ultimately that he had an enormous transformative effect on Earth through the religion he found and through the real “miracles” he is able to perform. I was not a huge fan of Mike being able to actually have almost magical powers, as I felt it weakened the symbolic power Mike had, but I was willing to accept it. I was willing to accept Heinlein’s critique of religions as trying and failing to grasp at some universal truth; hell, that’s what I believe in a sense.

What made me dislike the second half of the book was Heinlein’s exploration of sexuality. This is not because I’m an enormous prude. I rather enjoyed his early explorations of sexuality and the symbolism humans attach to it in the beginning. I enjoyed his exploring it as a connection between people, and his trying to define what it means to be connected to others. However, his exploration of sexuality I found incredibly misogynistic. I don’t think it was just me, either. At one point, a woman mentions that “9 out of 10″ times, a woman wants to be raped. I did a quadruple-take at this and had to re-read it several times. Then I kept reading, and learned that women liked to be objectified as sex objects. It was how all women expressed their sexuality. And all men expressed their sexuality by objectifying women. It was, as Mike noticed, how things should be.

This was a little hard for me to swallow. If you don’t believe that this was in the book, go back and read the scenes where Mike is traveling the country, and his nurse-friend (whose name eludes me at the time of writing) is working as a showgirl. It’s all there, and all very disturbing (the same misogyny is also present in Dr. Stinky, the Muslim pilot’s, relationship with his wife, as well as in the way Jubal Harshaw relates to his secretaries). Once the blatant misogyny came out, I noticed it everywhere. It truly tainted my perception of the book and of Heinlein himself. He didn’t ever question his misogyny once; it just came out and was portrayed as natural. I ultimately read the book as celebrating the objectification of women, though I doubt Heinlein saw it that way.

Furthermore, I didn’t know what to make of the scenes Heinlein wrote about angels talking in heaven. They confused me, added nothing to the plot or themes, and I think ultimately underlined the symbolism. The idea there, I think, was to show that religion is what we make it and that all of them have part of the truth, but it wasn’t done very effectively, I don’t think.

The book wasn’t a total loss, though. I truly enjoyed most of the first part; the interaction between two utterly alien cultures (and they truly are utterly alien; Heinlein did that very well) was brilliant, and his initial explorations of sex and love as connection were beautiful. Then he ruined it with his misogynistic trumpeting and, I felt, lackluster ending.

Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. It is a classic of science fiction for a reason, and does make one think. If I was allowed, I would recommend the first half, and then tell you to stop. Because that would be bad form, though, I’ll just recommend you read it, but with a jug of salt.

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 12, 2014 in Readings

 

Domechild

I recently had the pleasure of reading the novel Domechild by Shiv Ramdas. A quick reading of the blurb would lead you to believe that you were going to read another dystopian science fiction novel, in which machines rule over mankind, which has become impotent and degenerate. The first pages reinforce this belief, and I had almost consigned it to that overused trope. But I read on, and then everything changed. It quickly became apparent that Domechild was not about machine-human relations in a dystopian future. The future Ramdas describes in the novel is certainly, by all definitions, dystopian, but it is fundamentally about human relations with each other.

After disabusing myself of the notion that Domechild was mostly about humans and machines (though there are certainly well-used elements of that), I began thinking of it more as social networks gone completely out of control, and Ramdas’ portrayal of life in the City neatly captured the paradox of hyper-connectivity’s close relationship with loneliness and isolation. Just when I had a fix on where I thought Ramdas was going with his book, he threw me a curveball and cast me into a whole other world, where more basic issues of what it means to be human and what it means to be decent came to the forefront. We left behind the world of the city and its titular dome and finally began to learn the truth – or at least some of it. While I could guess at a few elements of the truth through careful hints dropped by Ramdas throughout, I was still surprised and impressed by the complex plot unfolding before my eyes. Alas, this novel ends rather abruptly, and there had better be a sequel coming, because I need to find out what happens next!

Ramdas’ writing style is overall very smooth and often very witty, though I think another round or two of copy-editing would have helped some of the bumpy typos and grammar errors that disrupted the flow, more often than I would have liked. Through his excellent writing, Ramdad was able to craft not only a fascinating world, setting, and plot, but also memorable characters, each with their own unique voice, from Theo to Marcus to Colby and his squad to Father to Ollie to June and even to Vail and the Deacon. His characters are very well-developed and believable, and I was drawn in enough to care deeply about their fates.

My one complaint with Ramdas’ characterization is that of his main character and audience pull, Albert. Albert starts off questioning the system of the City, but is naturally too afraid to do anything about it, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel expertly and gets the plot moving quickly, rather than forcing the reader to wait around for him to develop. However, I am not sure Albert develops naturally either as a person or as a voice; he seems like a hollow vessel for the reader, but I am not sure it works entirely well in the novel. He seems to swing wildly from meekness to confidence, with no real way to tell which way he would go, and seems to gain everyone’s confidence awfully fast for someone they had just met. Something about him seemed off to me, and I found that he was actually the one character I was not particularly concerned for (though he was much more sympathetic at the start of the book than the end). Still, Albert’s flaws were not nearly enough to detract from the graceful prose, excellent characters, well-developed settings, and perfectly-paced plot of the rest of the novel, which I would recommend to anyone! So get out there and buy it from somewhere, like here on Amazon. Get reading!

Ta-ta for now!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 16, 2013 in Readings

 

Childhood’s End

I’ve been on a reading roll lately (unfortunately for my schoolwork). I just finished one of the classic works of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. It was a very short novel, hardly more than 200 pages, and its most incredibly achievement, I think, was telling a story on a scale covering the whole universe in so short a time. Most authors now spend 3 or 4 books telling a story that the same sense of scale and majesty that Clarke did in one short volume.

The writing was slightly archaic and cheesy, which was unsurprising given the time it was written and the way science fiction looked at the time. However, this just added to the novel’s charm in my opinion. Because the novel was so short and did not really have any central characters per se, there was very little obvious character development going on. We are used to, as readers, seeing individuals grow and learn as characters. There was very little of that in this book, and where it did happen it seemed somewhat secondary. However, I would argue that there is tremendous character development in the novel. The characters are not inidivudal humans, however, but rather the central character is humanity.

A significant portion of the novel does not focus on individual characters, but instead describes the way humanity has changed in reaction to the coming the alien Overlords, who brought peace and prosperity at the cost of ingenuity. The novel was really a medium for Clarke to explore philosophical ideas, which he did very well; Childhood’s End is probably the most thought-provoking novel I have read to date. However, some of the metaphors he drew made me wince, especially his seeming ringing endorsement of colonialism running throughout them.

The ending of the book was its most interesting feature. I could not tell if Clarke was going for a happy ending or a sad ending; he seemed to be hinting at a happy ending, as humanity’s goal in life had finally been realized, but it came at such a cost that I was unsure of whether or not he truly intended it to be happy. I did not consider it a happy ending, and to me the ending came across as humanity having been used by a more powerful force with no thought for humanity itself. It was, in a way, somewhat Lovecraftian; the novel told us that “the stars are not for man,” and hinted at things that mankind could never comprehend. What was hinted at seemed both majestic and terrible.

In the end, Childhood’s End was well worth the read, and I would recommend it to anyone.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Readings

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora

I have mixed feeling abut Scott Lynch’s debut novel The Lies of Locke Lamora. I read it based on the wonderful reviews it has received, and decided to give it a shot. While I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it to others, I don’t think I will be reading the next book in the series.

Scott Lynch’s writing was very good, and I was never bored reading it. The characters’ dialogue often had unnecessary curses, I thought, but it didn’t detract too much from the overall whole. The witty banter between characters was really the highlight of the novel – especially between Father Chains (by far my favorite character) and pretty much everyone he met – and the book was filled with great one-liners. I laughed quite a lot, despite the novel’s dark overtones.

The world described by Scott Lynch in the book was very well developed. All of the book’s action took place in the city-state of Camorr, which was not-so-subtly based on medieval Venice. Camorr itself was very richly developed, and it was easy to forget that I was sitting on a couch reading a book; Scott Lynch really was able to draw me into the odd quirks of the city of Camorr, from its shark-fighting to its institutionalized corruption to the hints of a forgotten people who had once lived there. I assume the rest of the world will be developed in Lynch’s later novels, as in this book he told of a world beyond Camorr, and from the details he dropped it also seemed very well-thought out and developed.

However, what will keep me from reading the next one are the characters and narrative. Scott Lynch’s writing, dialogue, and setting were all wonderful, but I never felt his characters had any depth; they failed to draw me in. Locke seemed to be absolutely perfect, with no flaws, and the rest of his Gentleman Bastard gang seemed the same way. The characters never drew me in, and they largely seemed caricatured. None of them seemed to have overly extensive backstories, and even the intriguing villain seemed to have only a rather half thought-out sob story that made little logical sense (his whole deal seemed contrived to me, like the success of the main characters). I didn’t care when the characters died; what kept me reading was wanting to uncover how everything fit together, not the charm of the characters (excepting Father Chains, who was absolsutely wonderful).

The plot was relatively predictable, and I was actually astonished at how almost nothing seemed to go wrong for them throughout the book until the very end, and even then Locke and Jean seemed to escape largely unharmed. The whole thing seemed somewhat contrived; Locke almost never screwed up, and while terrible things did eventually happen to his gang, he still managed to beat circumstances relatively little worse for the wear. The whole novel, at times, seemed to be going from one fortuitous happening after another, and came across as sort of contrived. Furthermore, the book was very back-heavy, and not in a good way; there was no real suspense building up to the finale. It just kind of suddenly happened.

So, in the end, The Lies of Locke Lamora was worth the read. It clearly set itself up for a sequel, but I think it works just fine as a standalone novel as well, and I think I shall keep it that way.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Readings

 

Lynnwood

This post has been long in the making. A month or two ago, I received an offer from a friend of mine – the estimable Thomas Brown of Hell’s Water, and Revive fame – in which I would receive an electronic copy of his new book, Lynnwood, before its release in exchange for my thoughts on it. Naturally, I leapt at the chance, having loved both of his previous novels (and eventually I’ll get around to his short stories, I promise!). Unfortunately, just after having received my copy, my last semester of university hit me like a truck and I was laid low for several weeks, only last week finally having the time to pick the book up and read it properly, after it has been released as an eBook.

And how glad I am I did! It very quickly reminded me of Hell’s Water, in that the book focuses in a very particular sin. Because of that similarity, as well as the presence of a Church in a rather central part of the story, I was expecting Christian theology in the same manner as the previous novel. To my delight, there was almost none of that, and Mr. Brown took off in a completely different, wild direction. Lynnwood was filled with many twists, turns, and surprises, and forced me to read the second half of the book in one sitting!

Lynnwood grabs you starting with its opening line, which, fittingly enough, involves a dead pig. The entire novel is perfectly encapsulated in the very first sentence, in which the corpse of a pig stirs strange feelings within the protagonist, the poor Freya. Freya lives in the titular town, Lynnwood, which slowly goes mad as winter approaches. The descent of the town into madness perfectly mirror Freya’s own descent into madness, so that the two seem like one and the same, which in many ways they are. For a very brief period, Lynnwood seems like a pleasant and wonderful place, in which everyone is happy and contented. The fast pace of the novel soon changes that, however, as everything that the town and the reader holds dear is ripped from them.

Lynnwood showcases Mr. Brown’s greatest strength as a writer, talents which manifested themselves in both Revive and Hell’s Water, but have really blossomed in Lynnwood. Mr. Brown is a master of character development and psychology; he is able to almost literally place the reader inside the heads of the characters, so that you are not reading their thoughts, you’re thinking them. The fast-paced and very accessible writing really help the reader become one with the characters, until it does not feel like you are reading the story, but experiencing it.

Along with this naturally comes a set of well-developed central characters who are extremely believable and seem very real, from their first, sane appearances until their final howls as primal madmen. I felt sympathy for each and every one of the characters, and felt their feelings almost as acutely as my own. Mr. Brown did a superb job of portraying the effects of the horror of Lynnwood on the main characters, and through them made me wonder what effect it would have had on me.

Mr. Brown also makes a sparse and very effective use of poetry and diary entries to add to the effect, and makes the world come even more to life. Even more impressive, however, was his command of epicurean language. His subtle descriptions of every item of food consume add a sense of horror and revulsion throughout the entire novel, and through them he manages to evoke the very hunger he writes about in his readers. The food becomes an unnoticed yet absolutely essential part of the story, and serves to demonstrate Mr. Brown’s mastery of the language.

My one, sole criticism of the novel is its lack of explanation. By no means does horror need to be explained, and in many – if not most – cases a lack of explanation enhances the fear. However, in this case, I was left slightly unsatisfied with the ending, as very little was explained. These explanations are by no means critical, and the story works very well without them, but I think it could have been more effective if the horror itself – the primal madness of the Forest – had been explored more, in addition to its effects on the characters.

But that minor point in no way takes away from the brilliance of Lynnwood. It is superbly written, superbly paced, and deeply unsettling. It is a very quick read, and thoroughly enjoyable. I very highly recommend it to any fan of horror. Visit Thomas Brown’s website here and then go buy yourself a copy of Lynnwood from one of the many links provided here!

 
1 Comment

Posted by on May 20, 2013 in Readings

 

Children of the Sky

So I just finished Vernor Vinge’s latest Zones of Thought book, Children of the Sky. I went in with some trepidation, as my father wasn’t too happy about it, but I loved it! It tied up a lot of loose ends from the preceding book, A Fire Upon the Deep, and introduced a whole new cast of characters, whose actions I eagerly await in the next book!

Vinge was unafraid to plunge off into unexpected directions in this book, and it was, for the most part, absent of cliches. It was thoroughly involving and engaging, and I had trouble putting it down! Perhaps the most interesting aspect of both this book and its prequel are the major “aliens” that appear in it; the Tines.

The Tines are a wolf-like race – in fact, they look almost just like wolves – with special tympana that allow them to hear each other’s thoughts (often called “mindsound”). Their tympana also give them the ability to merge into “packs,” combining their mental abilities and consciousnesses together to form one conscious individual from a group of usually 4 to 8 “singletons,” who are scarcely brighter than a real wold. In effect, this means that each Tinish character’s body consists of multiple organisms, linked together by their tympana and mindsound. Other Tines nearby can break the links between a pack, and sometimes even dissolve them!

Children of the Sky took this concept further, and introduced the idea of the Tropical Choir: a pack that consists of thousands of individuals, with mental waves that ripple along its massive area. With that many members, the pack’s mind becomes overly fragmented and incoherent, but it attains some unique attributes and possibilities that Vinge explores in his latest book.

If you haven’t read any of his Zones of Thought books – or any of his other works – they’re well worth a read!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 5, 2012 in Readings

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,851 other followers