Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review 20: The Doomsday Book

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I honestly can't count the number of times I've read this book. I think this is the fifth time. Or maybe the sixth, I don't know. It doesn't really matter, because it's just as enjoyable, touching and heartbreaking as it was the first time I read it, and that's a hell of an accomplishment.

It is the middle of the 21st century and time travel has finally been worked out. A reliable there-and-back-again way to go into the past and come back to the present. Unfortunately, there are limitations. The computer that makes time travel happen, through means I'm not sure even Ms. Willis understands, will not allow for a paradox. This means if you try to go to the past with anachronistic technology, or carrying a disease that could wreak havoc on the population, the interface simply won't open. If you try to place a traveler somewhere where their appearance could cause a paradox, the machine will put them in another place or time - a factor called "slippage" which can put you anywhere from five minutes and a few feet off your mark to years and miles. The machine won't allow you to get anywhere near events of importance.

Secondly, the machine won't allow you to take anything through the net. So if you travel to, say, Napoleon's palace and try to rob him blind, the interface won't open until you've got rid of all your booty.

Those two factors alone made the time machine economically useless. If you can't profit off it - or change it - what good must it be?

A lot of good, as it turns out, if you're an historian. While the machine may not allow you to get anywhere near Hitler, it will allow you to see what life was like in the ghetto in the 30s. The whole of history suddenly became open to real discovery, and places like Oxford were at the forefront of the research.

One student, a young lady named Kivrin, has a dream to see the Middle Ages. Despite all the warnings that it was full of filth, disease, superstition, danger and death, she still wants to see it more than anything in the world. The sheer force of her will finds her in the machine, ready to go to the year 1320 to see firsthand what life was like for the average English citizen. She has prepared herself as best she could, but nothing could possibly prepare her for the time and place she ends up in....

And in the present, a new plague has spread around Oxford. It's a new type of flu that seems to have come from nowhere, and it's started to kill. Kivrin's teachers and friends have to race the disease, time and sheer bloody-minded bureaucracy to try and find her and bring her back safely.

What is remarkable about the book is the detail. Willis has obviously done a lot of research into not only Medieval Oxford but modern Oxford as well. Since one of the themes of the book is that we don't know nearly as much about the past as we think we do, Willis has gone to great lengths to make sure that we - through the eyes of Kivrin - never know what to expect because our expectations are all totally wrong. And as is so often true about history, the more we know about it, the more interesting it becomes.

The Oxford of the future, by contrast, isn't all that futuristic. It looks a lot like the modern world, probably because it's only a couple of decades removed from us. Sure, there have been advances in technology, but the lives of the people aren't much different from ours.

Interesting note: the book was published in 1992, well before the age of cell phones, instant messaging and the internet. Because of this, one of the greatest hindrances to getting anything done in this far-future Oxford is that no one can get anyone on the phone. It's a videophone, yes, but most of the characters spend time waiting for phone calls to come through or trying to place calls to people who aren't near a terminal. It's a bit strange, from my modern perspective, to see a world that has pretty much conquered disease and mastered time yet never figured out a means of personal communication better than a land-line.

That's just a small thing, though, and as long as you accept that particular bit of alternate-future, you'll be okay. It's a fantastic book, one which I recommend without reservation. The characters are deep and interesting, and the writing really puts you in their world. Seriously. Go get it.

"Mr. Dunworthy, ad adjuvandum me festina."
("Mr. Dunworthy, make haste to help me.")
- Kivrin, The Doomsday Book

The Doomsday Book on Wikipedia
Connie Willis on Wikipedia
The Doomsday Book on
The 11th-Century Domesday Book at Wikipedia
The Domesday Book online

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review 19: Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I have a long fondness for Apocalyptic novels. The Stand was one of my early favorites from junior high school, and I really enjoyed its cousin by Robert McCammon, Swan Song. There's something about the End Of The World that just grabs me and won't let go. Maybe it's the thought that, should the world end, I would be one of the survivors. The rule of law would break down, all shackles of modern life would be loosed, and I would finally be free to choose my own destiny. Which, knowing me, would probably be very short and end up with me getting shot by some kind of Mad Max pirate tribe.

I can say with some certainty, however, that in this book's scenario I would not be coming out on top. Because I love astronomy.

Let me explain. This end of the world came in two parts, at least one of which was definitely of our own doing.

It started with a comet. Or a meteor shower. Or something, but whatever it was, it lit up the sky. Green streaks of light brightened the night skies around the world, and everyone who could go and watch them did so. I'm a sucker for a natural light show, so I probably would have spent the night watching the skies and enjoying myself. And I would have woken up stone blind the next day.

That in itself - the vast, vast majority of the human population on Earth being blind - would have been a pretty good apocalypse. Wyndham describes rashes of suicides, accidental deaths and, of course, murder in just the first few days. Without vision, the carefully crafted world we've made kind of falls apart. But it would have been survivable. Co-operation groups spring up pretty quickly, both voluntary and otherwise, where sighted people assist the blind in surviving. It would have been tough, yes, but not impossible, for the world to go on. If not for the Triffids.

While we don't know what caused the green comet, the Triffids were definitely our fault. The product of bioengineering gone haywire, the Triffids are ambulatory carnivorous plants with a poison sting that can kill a grown man from ten feet away. And while they're not intelligent, they are remarkably... aware. They follow sound, they learn and co-operate in hunting, and are very difficult to eradicate.

But by themselves, they're manageable. Their stingers can be removed, even though they grow back eventually, and they make interesting garden plants. And they're immensely profitable - the oil derived from a Triffid outdoes every other kind of vegetable oil available. In normal times, the Triffids are under human control and benefit humanity greatly.

The two problems, when put together, make for a truly terrifying end - an unstoppable, unthinking army of carnivorous plants, finally freed from their shackles. A world in chaos, half-blind and not sure if they have to save themselves, or if someone else will do it for them. And an exciting story.

The message of this book is pretty clear, and Wyndham wastes no time in making sure we get it, lest the adventure part of the book get bogged down. Don't mess with nature. That's pretty much it. Don't mess with nature, because nature will inevitably come 'round and mess right back with you.

Wyndham has created a brave new world for us, with a wide variety of characters who all react to their new situation in different - and realistic - ways. Starting in London, we meet a diverse cast - from the girl who believes that the Americans will save her to the man who believes that polygamy is the way to a brighter future, everyone has an idea on how to survive. The narrator, Bill Masen, knows just enough to get the reader up to speed, but not nearly enough to know if he's even going to make it out of this alive. With the help of other sighted survivors, he is determined to make a stand, not only for England, but for the human race as a whole.

But first they have to deal with the Triffids....

"When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. "
- John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids

Day of the Triffids at Wikipedia
John Wyndham at Wikipedia
Day of the Triffids at

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review 18: Swan Song

Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Okay, have you read The Stand? Humanity being wiped out by a short-sighted government, small groups of people struggling to survive in an America laid low? A dramatic escape from New York through a dark and scary tunnel? An evil adversary from an unknown place whose only dream is the end of the world?

Yeah, that's Swan Song, too. Only with nukes instead of a virus.

It really is an alarmingly similar story, published about ten years after The Stand, but - and this is important - it's still a really good book. Derivative? Sure. But it's still good, which is a neat trick.

The story starts in an alternate world, one that seemed all-too-probable in 1987, when this book was published. The US and the Soviet Union are toe-to-toe, fighting proxy wars all over the world. Nuclear exchanges have already happened between smaller nations. The world is inches away from war, and there seems to be no going back.

Domestically, things aren't much better. In New York City, the city has fallen to crime and decay - drugs, trash and whores are all that can be found, and if any city deserves destruction it's this one. It's the worst projections of New York come true, and its eventual destruction is almost like a blessing.

In the western mountains, a group of survivalists have hollowed out a shelter against the possibility of The End, and Earth House is full to bursting. Young Ronald Croninger and his parents are there, but the boy is not impressed by what he sees. Colonel Macklin,the ex-soldier who is the public face of Earth House, seems to have gone to seed, and the shelter itself is falling apart, just like everything else.

The world is going straight to Hell, and it's all too easy for the US and the Soviets to send it all the way there.

The book has an epic scope and a massive cast, lined up pretty equally on the sides of Good and Evil. As the book progresses, the disparate groups finally come together in a final confrontation that will decide the fate of the world.

In the midst of all that, a certain mystical quality has arisen. There's a... being, a creature of demonic countenance who can change his face and travel freely throughout the wasted land. His sole desire is to see the end of humanity - he revels in destruction and despair and wants nothing more than to see the end of Our Heroes. On the other hand is the title character, Swan. As a girl, she loved plants and flowers, and had a strange affinity for the natural world. As she grew up, however, her powers matured, and that affinity became a full-on partnership. They each collect a following, through fear and hope respectively, and they each know that there's only one way this can all end.

There's an element of mysticism to this as well, though why it should be there is not explained. For example, the burned-out rubble of Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue creates a shining glass ring, filled with strands of precious metals and valuable stones. This ring becomes the guide for Sister, a woman who was once mad but becomes the sanest one of the survivors. With the ring, she is able to perform miracles. There's a magic mirror that shows the future, prophetic dreams and other elements of mysticism. It seems that when the world as we know it ends, the world as we don't know it steps in. And then there's the Job's Masks - a mysterious growth that covers a person's head in an impenetrable shell, only to crack open years later and.... Well, I'll let you find out.

The appeal of apocalyptic fiction is an interesting one, and easily understandable. Humans have been interested in how the world will end since about the same time we figured out that the world could end. And there are many ways for it to go, whether it's the nuclear fire of this book, the insidious virus of The Stand, the near-miss religious apocalypse of Good Omens, the various meteor impacts and climatological disasters that Hollywood loves to show us.... The ways in which the world ends are countless, but they all share one distinct feature - when the end comes, you'll find out who you really are.

It's tempting, then, to give it some thought and wonder, "Who would I be, when all was gone?"

This book has some excellent role models to choose from - and to avoid. The characters are compelling, and the world is vividly drawn, so as long as you're not thinking, "But this is just like The Stand!" you should greatly enjoy it. I highly recommend it.

"Once upon a time, we had a love affair with fire."
- Robert McCammon, Swan Song

Swan Song at Wikipedia
Robert McCammon at Wikipedia
Swan Song at
Robert McCammon on Swan Song
Robert McCammon's homepage

BONUS! The Boyfriend decided that there needs to be pictures of me recording the podcast. So he took some....

Doing the Podcast

Doing the Podcast
Listening to the playback. I've had a haircut since then....

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Review 17: The Stand

The Stand by Stephen King

It's hard to know where to begin when writing about this book, probably because I work under the assumption that everyone has read it. I mean,. I've probably owned at least four different copies over the years, and it occupies a permanent place on my bookshelf. I can't imagine anyone not having read it. But I guess that's what everyone thinks about their favorite books, so I'll fill in those of you who haven't.

It's the end of the world. Not in the horrible confluence of blindness and carnivorous plants, or in the fiery desolation of nuclear war. The world dies in a more unpleasant way than that, and it all begins in Project Blue - a US military lab in the southwest. There they've built the greatest plague mankind has ever known, a shapeshifting flu virus that is 99.4% communicable and 100% lethal. Its intended use was probably against the Soviets or some other enemy state, but... Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, as Yeats said. And on June 13th, 1990, the superflu got out.

It was carried by Charles Campion and his family, spread throughout the southwest until Campion died in a gas station in Arnette, Texas. From there it hopped into the men gathered at the station, who passed it on to nearly everyone they met.

By June 27th, most of America was dead. And thanks to the final command of the man in charge of Project Blue, the virus was spread around the world as well. By Independence Day, the population of the world - that which by some strange genetic luck was immune - was reduced to less than the pre-plague population of California.

Of course, not everyone who was immune escaped unscathed. There were accidents, mishaps and murders that probably brought the number down, but not by much. Scattered survivors struggled to understand why they lived when so many had died, and started to seek out others like them.

And then came the dreams. An ancient woman, living in a cornfield. She radiates goodness and compassion (and still makes her own biscuits). Mother Abagail is the beacon of hope for those who see her in their dreams. And then there's the other, the Dark Man, the Walkin' Dude, whose shadow brings madness and whose gaze brings death. He is Randall Flagg, a man whose time has come 'round at last. Just as Mother Abagail attracts the good and strong, so does Flagg attract the weak and frightened. Around these two do the remains of America come together. And neither one can let the other exist without a fight....

What keeps bringing me back to this book? Well, a lot of things. For one, the writing. King has said that he's a little disturbed about The Stand being the fans' favorite - it means he did his best work thirty years ago. Not entirely true, I think, although I am hard pressed to say which of his other books exceeds it. King's sense of scale as a writer is outstanding. We get into our characters dreams, in their innermost secret thoughts, and then a few pages later are presented with an overview of what's happening around the nation. It's like being able to go, in Google Maps, from someone's bedroom all the way out into space. He dances between characters smoothly, so just when you get to the point where you're thinking, 'Yeah, but what's Flagg doing?" he brings you there.

And speaking of the characters, they're people who will stay with you long after you finish the book. The quiet confidence of Stu Redman, the single-minded madness of the Trashcan Man, Larry Underwood's late maturity, Lloyd Henreid's devotion, Fran Goldsmith's determination.... Each character rings true. Even the ones who really shouldn't have ended up the way they did - and I'm thinking of Harold and Nadine here - you can't help but find bits of them to love. Had they been strong enough, Harold and Nadine never would have gone as bad as they did, and I think even King kind of had a hard time making them do what he wanted.

Underlying all this, of course, is a kind of Old Testament religiosity. The God of Mother Abigail is not the kind and friendly God of the New Testament, He is the angry one of the Old. He is the God who will gladly wipe out nearly all of mankind to prove a point, and will make a 108 year-old woman walk into the desert by herself because she's getting a little too uppity. In this world, at least, God is most definitely real, even though His purpose is hard to understand.

I could go on. Thesis papers could probably be written about this book, and I reckon they already have been. But that's not why I do these reviews. I do them because I want y'all to know what's worth reading.

This book is worth reading.

"Show me a man or a woman alone and I'll show you a saint. Give me two and they'll fall in love. Give me three and they'll invent the charming thing we call 'society'. Give me four and they'll build a pyramid. Give me five and they'll make one an outcast. Give me six and they'll reinvent prejudice. Give me seven and in seven years they'll reinvent warfare. Man may have been made in the image of God, but human society was made in the image of His opposite number, and is always trying to get back home."
- Glen Bateman, The Stand

The Stand at Wikipedia
Stephen King at Wikipedia
The Stand at