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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Books I Read: April - May 2011


Dune by Frank Herbert

This one's on everyone's must-read sci-fi books of all time so I figured I'd better read it or I'm not really an author. And I hadn't seen the David Lynch movie before this, so I wasn't ruined by that (I have seen it since, but I'll get to that later) (And I did see the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series and read the comic beforehand, so I knew what to expect going in).

And it's a good thing I did -- there is a lot going on here. It takes place in a very well-developed world. Almost too well-developed. There's a lot of characters, a lot of factions, and a lot of plot lines. Too many things to remember, if I hadn't already known what was going on. It's got the feel of a Homeric epic. But at its base, it is the tale of a hero's journey. One involving a privileged prince. It's Star Wars-ian in feel -- princesses, interstellar empires vs. rebels, lots of mystical hoosefudge.

One of the biggest problems is that the hero falls into a typical "can-do-no-wrong" author trope. Everything he does works perfectly executed, reasonable, and unflawed. Plus he's got those nice deus ex machinas working for him like "The Voice" and "The Weirding Way". No matter who fights him -- an tiny assassin robot, a fight to the death, kidnapping, he wins. Likewise the villain is traditionally villainous--molests young boys, kills servants, addicted to various things, and manipulates loved ones to gain power.

I found myself reading it just for the sake of reading it. This was written sixty years ago, so science-fiction and writing style has changed a lot since then. Back in the day, this was probably awesome. But time has not been kind to Dune. I acknowledge its significance in the genre. Star Wars = Dune + samurais. In fact, each movie has a desert planet in it.


The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

One for book club. Apparently this is a cross between a self-help book and a fable. A Spanish sheep-herder looking for his "Personal Legend" when he receives a quest from a random NPC. He goes through various trials: being robbed, working in a glass shop, joining a caravan to Egypt, being forced to become the wind. Typical coming-of-age stuff. It's well-written and has earmarks of greatness.

But it's just too summarized to really become a novel that lasts in the common mind forever. The characterization is as dry as the setting, especially the romance relationships. It's uplifting, but it was obvious. It was thin. It was simple. It was... short.

...

I loved it!


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Whoa, this one was a biggy. Clear your calendar if you're going to read this. However, I highly recommend it to any science-fiction author because it's all about science. And moreover, it's about the people that discovered that science. And you get learn what idiots they really were. They were petty or insane or ridiculously competitive or naive or as egomaniacal as a CEO/politician. It's nice to see that scientists aren't all that smart (so that even YOU can discover something great). And even if they are smart, they're vulnerable to the same human trappings as anyone.

The other thing you learn is how little we really know about the universe and everything (and 42 has nothing to do with it). The book breaks down into the various natural sciences: astronomy, physics, evolution, dinosaurs, and so on and explains what we know and how we know what we know. And that amount is actually really insignificant. For instance, I was surprise by how little evidence there is for the evolution of man, one of the most recent events in Earth history.

What we really know about the universe is small, and what is out there in the universe is so vast that we shouldn't feel so bad about not being able make a microwave you can put metal in. Not to mention the sheer negative odds of anything ever happening - life, the creation of the earth, the universe, your existence. And how close we continually come to having it all wiped out by a meteor or cosmic radiation or some twist of genetics.


A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Another for book club. My wife picked this one out, and she wasn't sure whether to pick "The Kite Runner", which I've heard of, or this one by the same author (his latest). The blurb on the back says that it's a story of the friendship of two women in war-torn Afghanistan (and really, when aren't those countries war-torn?)

I would say it's like "Thelma and Louise in Afghanistan", but it doesn't really ever get there. In fact, the two women don't become friends until halfway through the book. What really happens is that an ostracized girl is forced to marry a selfish, boorish abusive man. Another girl, one who had a bright future and a good man before the communists came, is also forced to marry this man due to lack of options (said lack provided by everything getting blown up).

Issues of jealousy, motherhood, survival, tolerance, and generally crappy living ensue as the women struggle to do the best they can while the world falls around their ears. It's nice to read about another culture once in a while, and this does a good job, going from the 70's to now. But all it really does is reinforce how crappy these third world nations are and how unsurprising it is when they fall and rise and fall and rise. If it was supposed to make me sympathetic, it didn't. But I don't think it was. Plus, making me sympathetic is about as easy as getting blood out of a stone.


Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

I would say this was the best thing I read this period, but it was hard to decide between this and A Short History of Nearly Everything. I put this on my list a long time ago when I heard its reboot would be Scalzi's next novel. And it's in the public domain, so that's nice.

It's not a new story--new alien animal is discovered and everyone wants to know what to think of it. In this case, they want to know because otherwise the resource-takers lose their planet full of gems because the creatures may be sentient.

The story comes to a head when one of the Little Fuzzies is killed. So everyone's wondering if it was murder or not. To decide if it's murder, they have to know if the Fuzzies are sapient or not. To do that, they have to define what sapience is. And that's no easy task for some backwater scientists. All this is executed in a gripping courtroom drama.

I saw a lot of potential in this book--and I can't wait to see what Scalzi does with it, because I think he can fix a lot of the problems. One of those is that everything's too easy for the protagonist. Immediately, the court sides with him, and allows him all the advantages. While the Company (the resource-takers) are given the short shrift, and the burdens of proof are placed on them. In fact, the only real problem that occurs is how to define sapience, and that crisis is averted when the courtroom trial is annexed by the deus ex government which reveals its secret evidence its been gathering on the Fuzzies, rendering all the tension rather moot.

My favorite part is that the book is labeled as a "science-fiction juvenile", except that when the antagonist realizes he's about to lose the case and go to jail for murder, he SLITS HIS OWN THROAT WITH HIS JACKET ZIPPER IN A PRISON CELL. You know, for kids!


Apt Pupil by Stephen King

My question during the first half of this novella was "who is this scary for"? But not all of King's stuff is scary. Still, I wasn't sure who the sympathetic character was and who was the guy I was supposed to boo. It's about a kid who finds out his neighbor is a former prison camp Nazi. You'd think you're supposed to boo the Nazi, but then the kid makes him dress up like an SS soldier and parade around, then blackmails him, and starts murdering winos.

I guess the neat thing is that the balance of power shifts throughout. It seems the kid's got something. Then Old Man Nazi uses his age and the kid's potential to his advantage. Then it seems like the kid has the upper hand when the Nazi has a heart attack. Then the kid needs something from the Nazi, and so on.

The problem is that the kid seems too smart for his age, too devious. And then the ending feels like King ran out of things to say, so he just added in some coincidences (the other person in the Nazi's hospital room just HAPPENS to be someone in the concentration camp Mr. Nazi used to run) and then had everybody kill each other.

And by now I've probably said Nazi so much I'm going to get some unpleasant search terms in the trackback.


Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout

Boy, you'd think the tale of Vikings and Norse gods attempting to stop the end of the world where huge monsters are going to fight would be exciting. And you'd think someone like Greg van Eekhout, author of some of the greatest EscapePod stories, would be able to execute that. But somehow, everything fell flat.

Maybe it would have been better if I'd known some more Norse history. I know the legend of Baldr and the mistletoe, but my expertise runs to the major gods like Odin, Loki, and Thor. This novel focused on everyone else, like Jorgumandr and Radgrid and Grimnr and other names with D's and G's and not always the letter I.

Maybe it would have been better if the characters had more of a spotlight. I do not do well with "action books". I didn't get a firm grip on the characters--their history, their motivations, and their personalities never shown through. It was like they had no backstory.

I kinda felt lied to because the inciting incident (an organization that kidnaps people and forces them to fight or die so they can become Valkyries) has nothing to do with the real story. And all throughout (sorry, Greg) I kept thinking "Neil Gaiman did this better, Neil Gaiman did this better." Again, I found myself paging through just to say I completed it. Suffice to say, I was disappointed.
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