Thursday, January 29, 2009
The Android's Dream by John Scalzi
What do you get when you combine aliens, diplomacy, artificial intelligences, religion and sheep together? Well, for most people, the answer would be a horrible mess. For John Scalzi, however, it's a fantastic read. Nothing too complex, no greater statements about the nature of humanity and the necessity of war that holds together the stories in his Old Man's War universe, just a good old-fashioned espionage romp. With sheep. Or at least a sheep. Kind of.
The story begins with, as so many stories do, a murder. Not an intentional murder, really, but one that was born of shame and revenge, as so many murders are. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't rate much, except that the death of an alien trade ambassador is never a convenient thing. When said diplomat may just possibly have been killed by his human counterpart, that's even more difficult to deal with. Instead of a nice, tidy trade agreement cementing the relations between the United Nations of Earth and the Nidu, an alien race with an extraordinary sense of smell and hair-trigger tempers, we have what the State Department might just call "a challenge."
The only thing that can heal this little rift between the two planets is a sheep. But not just any sheep - a special breed, created just for the Nidu called the Android's Dream. Without this sheep, the ruling family cannot hold on to power, and the Nidu will be plunged into a catastrophic civil war that will, in all likelihood, take Earth with it. In order to find the sheep, avert catastrophe and, most importantly, avoid calling shame down upon the government, State Department employee - and veteran of the Earth's greatest military failure - Harry Creek will have to use every skill at his disposal. And then some.
It's a great read, this book. Telling any more about the plot would ruin it, so I'll just exhort you to pick up the book and get reading. In all honesty, you could probably finish it pretty quickly. But I can't just stop here, so let me tell you more about why I liked it as much as I did.
What made it so good, what always makes good sci-fi good, is the reality of the world the author creates. It's great to come up with high-concept scientific ideas, or intricately-planned space battles, but for the reader to really immerse him-or-herself in the book, it has to have a world in which the reader can easily imagine her-or-himself existing.
I thought of this during one scene early in the book. A character was riding the Washington, D.C. Metro and the narrator was describing the various aliens who were riding with him. There was an explanation of how various species had integrated themselves into the city, overcoming prejudice and discrimination, but what really got me was the description of a young woman reading the paper, the only other human in the car. Amidst all the different bodies, tongues, smells, and appearances, she didn't even notice.
"If her great-great-grandmother were on the train," Scalzi writes, "she would have thought she was on commuter train heading toward the fifth circle of Hell. This woman didn't even look up. The human capacity for being jaded was a remarkable thing."
It was at that point that I really accepted the reality of the book. It wasn't a perfect world, it wasn't one that had been ripped apart or perfected by alien contact. What had happened was what happens here any time cultures interact - after a brief period of unpleasantness, cultures start to mingle until it gets to a point where no one can remember when things were at all different. This book has all those little details that help sell the world, things that blend our world with theirs. Bored mall employees, amoral hit men, political jockeying, all of those things are familiar. Actual ghosts in machines, planet-cracking bombs, aliens that are almost entirely mouth and digestive systems, those are not. But they're believable, because Scalzi is one hell of a writer.
I do have one little nit to pick, however. It's not a big nit, but a nit nonetheless.
The book is an adventure, plain and simple. It's a plot-driven story that pulls you along from one event to the other with nary a chance to catch your breath, and I never complain about that. It has some great characters... who remain almost entirely static throughout the story. I can't say there's no character development in the book, because the big hairy guy who eats people does have a change of heart about it, but other than that.... Harry Creek begins the book as a reluctant hero who is hiding his super-hacker, ass-kicker light under a bushel, and he's happy to continue to be that at the close of the book. Robin Baker is a sassy, independent young woman who holds up under pressure - though not necessarily happy about it - throughout the book, and the Nidu ambassador Narf-win-Getag is untrustable the moment he walks on the page, and he remains so up through his sudden and inevitable betrayal near the end.
Like I said, this isn't a huge complaint, because the book that Scalzi has written isn't a character book. It's an adventure, and adventure books usually don't require a whole lot of character development. That doesn't mean the characters aren't believable - they certainly are - and it doesn't mean they're not interesting - they absolutely are. They just don't grow. Fortunately I know from having read Old Man's War and its related books that Scalzi has no problem with character development, and so I can assume that keeping his characters reasonably static in this book was a deliberate choice.
As a tangential comment on characters in the book, there was one character that drove me nuts. This character is not central to the story, and only appears a few times. What makes this person interesting are the following two things: first that the character is named Sam, and second that Sam's gender is never established. Maybe it's me and I missed something, but I have no idea if Sam was a man or a woman.
I caught it mainly because Tad Williams used the same name to pull a similar trick in his Otherland series, but in that story he was hiding Sam's gender from another character, not the reader, so we eventually found out what was what. In this story, Sam's gender remains a mystery for no other reason than I figure it amused Scalzi. It has no bearing on the story, and it doesn't make the fate of Sam's lover any less tragic, but I found it fascinating.
In any case, it's a great read and - as a bonus - very funny. The opening line alone lets you know that, no matter what you think you've read before, you haven't read anything quite like this. But I'm not telling you what that line is - I can't give away everything....
"If there's one thing that distinguishes the human species, it is a pathological need to stay connected."
-John Scalzi, The Android's Dream
John Scalzi's homepage
John Scalzi at Wikipedia
John Scalzi at AMC.com
The Android's Dream on Amazon.com
Thursday, January 22, 2009
A Series of Unfortunate Events 1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
I am not a violent man. In my lifetime, I have never been in a fight. I've never seriously threatened anyone with violence, never made anyone feel afraid by my physical presence, never even really seriously considered doing violence to another person.
Having said that, the feelings this book evoked in me were... violent.
Not because Lemony Snicket has written a book where terribly unfortunate things happen to small children - I have no problems with that and in fact encourage it; it builds character. I want to do violence towards Lemony Snicket because he's a terrible writer who should never have been allowed to have his words put to paper. His pens should be broken, his notes burned, his hard drive wiped and, if possible, his writings should banned by an Act of Congress. The First Amendment can only go so far.
You may be wondering what has roused this level of bibliorage in me. By all accounts, this series is extremely popular, loved by many. On various book review websites, this book routinely gets at least four stars and high praise. It was even made into a movie starring Jim Carry, and if that's not the Seal of Public Approval then I don't know what is. It would seem that one of two things is true: Either I'm seriously overreacting to a tiny aspect of Snicket's (AKA Daniel Handler's) writing style or the rest of the world is full of blind ignoramuses who wouldn't know decent writing if they woke up in bed with it after a bender in Vegas.
As a reviewer, I, of course, choose to believe the latter.
Snicket has taken what should be an entertaining story, filled with untimely death, physical violence, extortion, deception, and pedophilic overtones, and corrupted it by treating its audience like a bunch of drooling idiots.
I am, of course, referring to his habit of defining "difficult" words within the text, with no regard for the flow of the story or the necessity of the definition. For example:
Page 2: "...occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley - the word 'rickety,' you probably know, here means 'unsteady' or 'likely to collapse' - alone to the seashore...."
Page 13: "...over a dull dinner of boiled chicken, boiled potatoes and blanched - the word 'blanched' here means 'boiled' - string beans."
Page 18: "'Please get out of bed and get dressed,' he said briskly. The word 'briskly' here means 'quickly, so as to get the Baudelaire children to leave the house.'"
Page 44: "...the kitchen grew cozy as the sauce simmered, a culinary term which means 'cooked over a low heat.'"
And so on.
There are a few occasions where a word is defined well, in context and occasionally in character, and I don't mind those. But the constant shoehorning in of definitions made me want to take a sharpened number two pencil and work it under Mr. Snicket's fingernails until he apologized sufficiently for being a hack.
I've gotten feedback from people who like this style, especially parents, who say that it saves them from having to put down the book and explain to the child what "blanched" means. Full disclosure: I am not a parent, nor am I likely to ever be one, but I think that teaching a child to figure things out for him or herself - or, god forbid, learn to use a dictionary - is part of what will make her or him grow up to be an inquisitive, intelligent adult. In my real job, teaching English as a foreign language, I find that my students are more likely to remember a word if I make them work for it, rather than if I just tell them what it means.
Let's face it - if this book is written for adults, then the author should treat his readers like adults. If the book is written for children, which this ostensibly is, then the author has to choose whether to talk up or down to them. In a book where the main characters' parents die before the first page and where the eldest daughter nearly becomes a child bride to her blood uncle, one would think the author has judged his audience mature enough to deal with these themes. If that's so, then overtly defining "difficult" words is an insult to his readers, and that is unacceptable to me.
I am reminded of a passage in Terry Pratchett's book, Wee Free Men, where the main character, a nine year old girl named Tiffany, asks an itinerant teacher about zoology:
"Zoology, eh? That's a big word, isn't it."
"No, actually it isn't," said Tiffany. "Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short."
I think Mr. Pratchett may have read Mr. Snicket's book as well.
"If you enjoy books with happy endings than you are better off reading some other book."
- Lemony Snicket
Lemony Snicket homepage
Lemony Snicket on Wikipedia
The Bad Beginning on Amazon.com
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
For lovers of modern fantasy, there are two names that are on most people's must-read lists: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much in common with this pair. Terry Pratchett writes the world-renowned Discworld series, a fantasy epic set on a flat world, which is supported by four elephants, who in turn are standing on a great turtle which swims through the emptiness of space. What started as a parody of the "sword and sandals" genre of fantasy, Discworld has become a mirror for our world, taking familiar ideas and giving them a sharp twist.
Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, gained fame with his groundbreaking comic book - sorry, graphic novel - series, Sandman. Over seventy-five issues, packed with mythological retellings, Shakespearian inspiration, love, Death, family, heartbreak and redemption, Sandman is still considered to be one of the most literary comics of the modern age.
Despite these superficial differences, however, their shared love of a good story makes them perfect for each other. Like chocolate and peanut butter, steak and eggs, hydrogen and oxygen, when you put two great things together, you get something that's even better.
This book is about the End of the World. It begins with a birth, that of the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness.
Also known as Adam Young.
With his birth, the inexorable wheels of Revelation begin to turn, the Horsemen start their long ride, and two immortals - a demon named Crowley and an angel named Aziraphael - find themselves in the unenviable position of having to make sure everything works out the way their respective sides want. Rivers of blood, skies of fire and the scything clean of all life in the world, that kind of thing.
Crowley and Aziraphael, for their parts, really don't want the world to end. They've been walking it since it began about 6,000 years ago, and found that they quite like it, for all its flaws and problems. And despite their innate loyalty to their masters, they'll do their best to try and stop its end.
It's an outstanding book, one of my top five of all time. Not only is it roaringly funny, with outstanding characters and witty dialogue, but it has the kind of razor-sharp insight into human nature that can only come from Gaiman and Pratchett. Ostensibly good people act like utter bastards, and people we know to be bad by their very natures end up doing the right thing. There's no clear-cut line between good and evil here, which is perhaps a lot more realistic than most end-of-the-world stories go. Also, very few end-of-the-world stories are quite as funny as this one.
Humor can be used for many purposes, but the most noble use of humor is to illuminate truths that we routinely ignore. When you read this book, you think about God and the Devil and everything in between - namely, us. What is the purpose of humanity in this benighted world, and what is our responsibility towards it? These are all questions that the characters have to deal with, and, of course, so do we.
While neither Gaiman nor Pratchett would claim to have an answer to that, they have a great ability to point us towards the question.
As I said, this is one of my top five of all time. I think I own three copies by now - one that's been read to death, a hardcover edition with that weird M-25 illustration on the front, and a softcover signed by both Neil and Terry. This is my Precious, and I hope it's buried with me someday.
So, as you may have guessed, I can't recommend this book enough.
And now, a quote from the book:
"It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. "
- Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
Neil Gaiman's homepage
Terry Pratchett's page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman at Wikipedia
Good Omens at WikiQuote
Good Omens at Amazon.com