Dec 23, 2008

To 2009 and beyond!

I started with a list and a vague goal at the beginning of this year, and I'm amazed at how far I've come. I worried a little that confining my reading to dystopian fiction would narrow my horizons and get repetitive and boring after a while. Amazingly, I feel like this project's lifted me out of a fantasy/sf rut that I traveled in for a few years.

I dipped into older stories I'd never heard of, classics I just never got around to, cyberpunk you-gottas, and novels that I'd only experienced as movies.

In the meantime, my dreams got freakier, my politics got a little more paranoid, and my friends started saying, "If you mention dystopias one more time, we're going to kick your ass." All in all, a hell of a year.

So, is this the end? Am I ready to give it up and read a little fluff, range a little further afield?

Hell no!

In fact, I want to spread the wealth. Comment to this post. Tell me something about your year, what you read, if you dipped into the dystopian pool at all. Tell me what you'd like to me to blog about aside from the actual books themselves. Include an email address and name with your post, and I'll put it in a hat on 1/5. If I pull your name, I'll send you a book I've read and reviewed this year. I'll start doing this once a month - gotta clear room for this year's books!

Dec 15, 2008

Futureland by Walter Mosley

Futureland

Parts of this I enjoyed and parts I just felt underwhelmed by. I've been spoiled with all the William Gibson and Jack Womack cyberpunk I've read this year. Those two manage to take this sort of near-future, corporate control tale and make it thick and realistic. I found Mosley's stories a little too easily wrapped up, a little thin. Which could be the difference between short stories and novels, but I don't really think so.

Maybe it's just that Gibson and (to an extent) Womack are concerned so centrally on the technology and how that impacts society, but Mosley uses his creative takes on where we're going to express views on race and (to a lesser extent) sex and class. But, again, even those comments seemed a little too, not glib, obvious? Shallow? I'm all for a simple story told well, but if you are going to introduce what feels like Major Social Commentary into your tale, at least have something interesting to say that I haven't heard before.

Some of his characters, however, were excellent, and I would really like to revisit them in longer form. Fera Jones, boxing champ, and her drug-ravaged father and underclass lover, for example. Bits Arnold, too, and the TransAnarchist Trade Union. I want his back story and life before prison.

I understand that Mosley is mostly a mystery or crime writer, and I can see that. Futureland is nothing if not pulpish. I might pick up one of his longer works sometime and see if it carries the same flaws.

final thought: The used copy I bought was missing the final 5 pages. That pissed me off, but not enough to go hunt down a complete version. So that's about how I felt about it, overall.

Dec 12, 2008

Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody

Obernewtyn

I only read this a couple weeks ago, and I'm already starting to forget it. A passable story for the young'uns, but not much to mull over afterward. Did you read my last entry, concerning Gathering Blue? It pretty well applies to this novel as well. Look, I'm all for fantasies about plucky young women who evidence unknown strengths and powers to bring their friends and society itself to safety, but do they all have to be such sad sack characters?

final thought: Even at 13, this would have been a throw-away read for me. Nothing great, nothing terrible. Just there.

Dec 9, 2008

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue

This one's another of the young adult novels on my list. I do love the idea of dystopian fiction for preteens. I just wish it was all as amazing and worthwhile as, for instance, A Wrinkle in Time. But it ain't. Not to say I wouldn't give this to a middle schooler, because I would. The time to let them know that society will use them up and shackle them to their work is when they're still young enough to wind up paranoid and protective, I say.

Aside from that, pretty standard fare. Agriculture-based society risen from the ashes of probably our age which probably faced a probably nuclear war? Check. Plucky, hard working hero who, through courage and luck and the kindness of otherwise downtrodden friends, figures out society's Big Evil and makes her escape to a wiser and better place? Check. Semimagical gifts that make up for an otherwise condemning defect? Check.

final thought: I should write one of these myself.

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed

I've been reading but not writing. Blame the roast turkey. Blame my girlfriend being in town. Blame me being a lazy bastard. Or we could just blame Them. You know who They are. They want to keep me from telling you what I've found out. Yeah. Them.

I've decided I'm a LeGuin fan. (I know, I hear you, "Bout time. Welcome to the crowd.") That's one of the best things about this Dystopian kick for me - I'm picking up on a lot of authors that I'd meant to read for a long time but never did.

Okay, The Dispossessed. I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about and discussing anarchy and how it would ever work out in practical terms. LeGuin manages to overcome a few of the major hurdles by (a)stocking the original society with those who choose to be part of it, thereby taking out the problem of those forced into anarchy with no willingness to try the experiment and (b) settling her radicals on a planet in which willing participation in communal labor and society is pretty much the only thing keeping all their heads above water. (An odd cliche to use for a mostly desert planet, I'll admit, but you get me.)

Of course, after a couple generations of willing equality, I, too, would expect something like a socially enforced pressure to not rise above your mates to develop. A damning of the ego. A suggestion that genius or outsider thought may be dangerously divisive. The only thing that can prevent anarchy from becoming chaos is empathy, and when Shevek flies higher and higher toward the sun, those upon whom his shadows falls may feel a sort of chill. Is that acceptable? Is it justified? is it Shevek's problem, or should those people take it upon themselves to step back into the sunlight if it bothers them?

final thought: Which would you choose, Anarres or Urras?

Nov 21, 2008

match made in heaven

I watched Hellboy II last night and The Devil's Backbone two weeks ago. You know what I would give my eye teeth to see? A well funded film version of China Miéville's The Scar, as directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Of his interests, del Toro says, "I have a sort of a fetish for insects, clockwork, monsters, dark places, and unborn things." How is that not exactly what's needed to bring the world of Bas-Lag to life?

Nov 14, 2008

The Children of Men by PD James

The Children of Men

The movie blew me completely away. I was watching my mom's house and dogs for the weekend. I sat down in front of her big tv with a cold beer and sandwich and noticed it was about to come on. I flipped to that channel and suddenly it was a half hour later. My beer was warm, my sandwich was dry, and I was still sort of perched at the front of the couch with my jaw hanging open. The movie was a punch to the gut. It and Pan's Labyrinth are the two recent flicks that I have heard multiple adult, macho men admit to crying during.

The novel was not a thing like the movie. But that's good. They can be judged on their own merits, without comparison, which is a rare thing in screen adaptations. (I hear a tv miniseries is being worked on for the scifi channel, following the book more closely, and I'm very interested to see how it turns out.)

The book is not a punch to the gut. It is a quiet slide into deep waters. It's the last days of the world, our bang turning into a whimper. Borders are policed and peace upheld through strict and brutal means, but when everyone on Earth will be dead within 60 years, does that even matter? Is it worth fighting against the Warden to uplift your fellow man when neither of you will have children to appreciate the struggle? What good is a martyr with no one to carry their memory into battle?

Like so many true dystopian novels, you catch echos of 1984. The hidden diary. The fear of capture and confinement without hope of justice. Going along to get along, because what is your option? And love in the face of all of it.

I come from a large family (oldest of 4 kids) and my mom worked with midwives for many years. Birth and babies are no strangers to me, and I think that added to the emotional impact of the story. The descriptions of women treating baby dolls and pets like their missing children - all the way down to baptism - just seemed way too likely. The urge to propagate is easily twisted, in the absence of possible offspring. Xan becomes the father of a dying country. Priests tend to their dying flocks. Rolf wants to believe that his sperm makes him a sort of god, the only true leader of the remaining world (and when that turns out to be a lie, he runs for daddy). Theo, having already been the cause of one child's death, is willing to do anything for this new life, including taking on all of England.

final thought: In the end, we are left with some small hope, but is it real or just another kitten in a blanket?

Nov 7, 2008

payday

After a very impassioned urging comment to my last entry, I went out today and picked up a used copy of The Dispossessed by LeGuin. After I finish Gathering Blue, which I should roll right through in the next day (it's a young adult novel), I'll start in on that one. I'm going camping this weekend and look to plenty of down time for drinking beers and reading.

So, it's been almost a year. I'll start doing look back sorts of entries soon. Although I started this as a one year reading challenge to myself, I'm enjoying it too much and there are too many books left on the Big List to quit any time soon. Viva la Dystopia!

Nov 4, 2008

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness

I know I've read other works by Le Guin (you can't be a sf fan and not, really), but right now I couldn't tell you what. I can, however, say that I'll search her out in the future, because I fully enjoyed this novel.

Look, I'm a Florida guy. I've never really seen snow that doesn't melt as quickly as it hits. The world she creates, Winter, with windows and doors built high on walls to accommodate for piled snow, doesn't reflect anything I've experienced in life. But Le Guin lays it out so well that I could feel the chill. I found it interesting, too, to be reading along, comfortably in that mindset of fantasy/sf based in a world simpler than ours and not as technologically advanced, and then have reference of telephone or something remind me that not all cultures progress along the same patterns. Something that many sf writers tend to forget, I think.

This is generally considered early feminist sf, although it deals more with the issue of gender itself than it reflects issues facing women in our society. Of course, in 1969 wanting to talk about gender in a probative way was pretty well left to the feminists, so there you go. So, do you fall in love with a gender or a person? Is good friendship, hard won and hard tested, the same as love? Can one type of love mutate into another? And, in a broader view, what does society look like when it's not split into her vs. him? When the question of sex drive is laid to rest and everybody gets laid when they need to and doesn't think about it when they don't? (Although, clearly, love itself - separate from sex - is a mystery regardless. That remains true.)

Of course, the other thing that remains true is that those in power wish to stay in power and will use whatever tools come to hand, including secret police and big fat lies. But then, what good is regional power against the idea of interplanetary merger?

final thought: I'm not normally one for a lot of gender theory, but Le Guin manages the story well enough to keep it interesting.

Iron Council by China Miéville

Iron Council

I can't help it, I'm a hopeless Miéville fan. I want to wallow in his prose. The writing is as good as the stories, and the stories are as good as his writing, and the richness of the details and the strength of his vocabulary make it hard to breathe.

Okay, hopeless geeking out of the way, let me talk about this particular novel.

Iron Council is politics all the way down. Of course, they're Bas-Lag poltitics, so we've got Stiltspears being wiped out by the train company and remade anti-heroes rebelling in New Crobuzon. The theme I picked up most was sacrifice - blood, time, youth, life, all spent on various altars. Most not by choice. Or maybe the theme is exactly that, choice, who has it and who is willing to fight for it.

I'm gonna skip around some. I tried to let it stew in my mind before I wrote this out, but it's still just scenes and flashes for me. The idea of a bunch of whores and workers and slaves getting together and just running off with a fucking train made me damn near euphoric. Laying down tracks, rolling across them, and then picking up and putting them down again. A slow, beautiful, hard won flight to freedom. Burying their honored dead on flatcars or under the tracks as they pass. The images leave me speechless.

There are more remade in this one, which makes the idea both more and less frightening to me. More, because of the details that come out ("Am I a prison? Was he alive inside me?"), less because even the worst horrors fade some with repetition.

More homosexuality, too, and the ways that impacts on lives and society. There's a huge gap between the homoerotic but certainly not at all gay, how can you even suggest it world of genre fantasy and the Clive Barker/Neil Gaiman yeah, so what, let's explore how this facet of sexuality and life informs everything else take on various attractions. And Miéville is in that second camp, of course (not the only way I'd lump him in with the other two there, anyway), and I've got no complaints about that. In a society where men fall for bug-headed women, I would think that being gay would be the least of someone's worries.

Of course, the New Quillers hate both. Might as well call them droogs, really, with their bowler hats and bovver boots. Miéville's English, and he knows the image of the well dressed thug, an everyday boogyman.

final thought: Frankly, I could talk about this book for hours, given beer and someone to talk to. The problem is, none of my friends have been willing to wade through his writing or find it as amazing as I do.

Oct 17, 2008

in the form of a question

My friends and I were half watching Jeopardy last night, as we are apt to do, and they were down to the final column. I missed the subject, but the first answer was:
- _____ Troopers by Robert Heinlein.

"What is Starship," I said, "That's one of my favorite novels. My copy's right there on the shelf."

Next answer:
- _______ with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.

"What is Rendezvous," I said, "And there it is." And I pointed to it near me. By now, we were all paying attention and laughing a little.

Alex continued:
- I Have No Mouth and I Must ______ by Harlan Ellison

I stood up out of my chair. "Scream!" I announced. "And it's in that book right there!"

"What is this column?" my sister asked. "Books Hank's read?"

And the Canadian said:
- The Left Hand of ______ by Ursula K. Le Guin

"Darkness," I yelled, "And it's on top of the VCR because I'm reading it right now!"

And finally:
- A _______ for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

And together, my friends and I hollered, "Canticle!" and I added, "And I read that one this month!"

Seriously, though. I'm pretty sure Alex Trebek is stalking me.

Oct 7, 2008

Terraplane by Jack Womack

Terraplane

I know I'm not doing myself any favors by reading Womack's work out of order, but he writes well enough that I get along regardless. Once again, as I said when I read Elvissey, Womack is that rare author that manages to twist language until it truly does sound evolved but not overly contrived. "Why aren't we knived?" asks the killer Jake at dinner. Nouns into verbs and back again - once you get the flow, it's worth riding.

And once again Womack delves into race and the American history thereof, into corporate ownership (no stretch to think of the Coke company owning and branding their workers), into what happens when you twist just here and here and then see what comes out of the culture. He's sort of the less-techy-obsessed William Gibson.

As a guy fairly obsessed with personal liberty and keeping as much corporate bullshit out of my life as possible, his future seems mighty damn bleak in a very WalMart sort of way. On the other hand, I'm a white man in the '00s, not a black person dealing with the hate and oppression this country's doled out for a couple hundred years. To Norman and Wanda, the idea of almost-equality goes a long way toward making up for other flaws in the Dryco age.

final thought: It's all about loyalty and what that means in the face of ownership, relationships, love, brotherhood, military comradeship, political ties. Who are you loyal to? Do they deserve it?

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A little humor, a little adventure, some church politics, a lot of warning - Canticle goes a long way without bogging down. The life of a Catholic monk isn't something I know much about but wanting to preserve what knowledge can be held onto in times of darkness is always worth respecting, and I enjoyed the interplay this led to regarding spiritual and secular truths.

I found it interesting to start at, basically, the beginning of the rebirth of human culture and work our way through to the end of an age, all through the eyes of one small group. The people changed, but the larger identity did not. And how about The Wanderer? The same man, a mystic figure, or one in a line of men carrying the same traditional burdens?

Miller did a good job, I think, of presenting the followers of a scientific God. Thon Taddeo expects the monks to be horrified or offended by certain facts, but it's the brothers who have topped him (both in their practical applications, creating the generator and lightbulb, and in certain individuals' ideas about evolution).

Of course, they are still Catholics, preaching that survivors give their pain to Jesus and turn away from the sin of suicide even when faced with miserable, hideous death from radiation poisoning. Frankly, I'm with the doctors on that one - there is nothing to be gained by forcing someone to suffer needlessly.

final thought: The Catholic Church has been such a force in this world, both for good and for violent evil. That they would remain so in a post-nuclear future strikes me as very likely.

movie versions

I was watching tv the other day and saw an ad for the new movie City of Ember. "Why doe sthat sound so familiar?" I asked myself. Well, duh - the novel, by Jeanne Duprau, is on the Big List. I should go ahead and read that before I see the flick.

Oct 1, 2008

10 months in

I just switched images at the foot of this blog. The top shelf is what I have read (minus a few that were borrowed here and there) and the second shelf is "to read". I've been loaning them out more often, too - people are starting to ask for suggestions when they come over.

Sep 30, 2008

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon

This one really echos my own thoughts about what to do if I wind up in a cut off, survivalist situation. For one, it's set in Florida, near and dear to my heart. Assuming (huge assumption here) that the water, air, and land isn't poisoned, I figure we'll be better off down here compared to most of the nation. Fish, veggies year round, oranges further south, plenty of critters to trap or shoot (although I'd have to be pretty hungry to chow down on armadillo), plus we have the advantage of no real killing cold.

On the other hand, do I think that, for instance, black folks would continue to be quietly subservient simply on the basis of that being the natural order? Well, I should hope to god not. I suspect that many of the post-nuclear novels of the 50s and 60s assumed a lot about society and how certain things would fall out that are more hopeful on the (generally white and often government or military associated) authors' part than likely.

That being said, my favorite part of this sort of novel is generally just seeing how different people react to the crisis. Who commits suicide, who rises to the occasion, who goes nutballs, who happens to come up with a new and interesting way to keep their world rolling along? And that's what most of Alas, Babylon is concerned with.

This is one of the few post-WW III type books I've read in which "We won it. We really clobbered 'em!" But even that is tempered with the statement, regarding the devastating effects of nuclear war, "Not that it matters." Just because the warning involved here is "save aside some chocolate and coffee for after the apocalypse" rather than "we will all be dead within months" doesn't make it any less a tale of the end of the world as we know it.

final thought: When the big one pops off, I'm moving down to Tate's Hell.

Sep 22, 2008

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

On the Beach

Of the other books I've read, this one came closest to reminding me of Level 7. We're dealing with that same sense of helpless waiting by the end of it, as the result of a nuclear war that pretty much happened by accident. Funny how that always seems to be the case - everyone wants to write about the Big One, but no one wants to lay claim to starting it.

On the Beach is, in the end, about human dignity and the choices we make in the face of our own deaths. Do you put in the garden, knowing you won't be there to enjoy the flowers? Do you adhere to wedding vows and military protocol? Do you go to work and make sure people get the medication they need right up until the end? Do you spend your last days fishing or racing or drinking? Do you do what you've always dreamed of doing, or do you stand with others to try and maintain the common sanity until the final bell?

There's precious little hope in this book. You will die, your children will die, your pets will die. Even if you and your countrymen had nothing to do with the nuclear war. And that's a warning to the world - you can not stay out of this. we all have a dog in this fight.

I go back on forth on how realistic I find this book. On the one hand, I think a lot of folks would keep going in to the office or to school or too the job site just because, well, what the hell else do you do? On the other hand, I think a lot of people would run wild in the streets, drinking and raping and looting shit they won't live long enough to enjoy. And although we want to think that one is better than the other - well, I sure want to think so - what's the damn difference? Either way, you're just as dead.

final thought: As I already admitted, this is the first book this year to honestly make me cry. God help us.

1984 by George Orwell

1984

This is pretty much the gold standard by which modern dystopian fiction is judged. And rightly so. You've got all the necessary elements - possibly fictional government figurehead, repression at all levels of life, revision of history, brutal police, "anyone could be a spy", lack of art and music, brainwashing, denial of sexual and romantic urges. And, perhaps most importantly, Orwell could actually write. I cared about poor ol' Winston. (Not so much about Julia, mind you - after all, she was just "a rebel from the waist down".)

Books and papers and on and on have been written about 1984 and newspeak and Big Brother and all the rest. I'm just going to touch on a few things. For one, I think Orwell got it exactly right when he portrayed Winston as hating and fearing the revisionism he was deeply a part of - and yet, he still took pride in a job well done as he changed articles and destroyed past reality. That's just so damn human, isn't it? Me, I hate a lot of what my job does, but I take some pride in the way I do my small, administrative tasks.

The other thing that socks me in the gut - well, one of them - is the Parsons and their children. To be betrayed by your kids is a fear common to all parents, I would suspect. And making that an everyday - even a praise-worthy - part of society is just one more way of making sure that all control remains with the state. I can't imagine having no one worth trusting. Literally no one, even those who came from your own substance, that considers you as worthy as themselves. Worst part? Not even the kids' fault - they're the puppies from Animal Farm, raised to protect those who hold the reins.

Regarding current economic events, I just want to throw this out there:
It had always been assumed that if the capitalist class were expropriated, Socialism must follow: and unquestionably the capitalists had been expropriated. Factories, mines, land, houses, transport--everything had been taken away from them: and since these things were no longer private property, it followed that they must be
public property. Ingsoc, which grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology, has in fact carried out the main item in the Socialist programme; with the result, foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.


final thought: I can't believe this was the first time I read this one, but it's so deeply embedded in so much of our culture by now that it seemed familiar from the beginning.

That cover up there is the one I have. But I sure wish I had this one instead.

Sep 19, 2008

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Battle Royale

Before we start, I have to say that I dig the cover of this novel particularly. Go ahead and click on it and take a look, see for yourself. A little overly clever, but enjoyable.

First of all, it's just interesting to read a novel set in a fascist fictional Japan. Mostly, I've been exposed to images of such possibilities set in America or England. Interestingly, all the modern ones seem to have one thing in common, Battle Royale included - extremist, dictatorial, oppressive governments don't like rock'n'roll. No siree, Big Brother does not rock out. Not even Big Brother-san.

Someone over on goodreads recently described it as "essentially a retelling of lord of the flies, only far more violent". I have to say, I think that completely misses the point. It's more of a complete reversal of LotF. In one, you have a group of kids that are left without any adult guidance who wind up turning on each other because of that lack. In the other, you have a group of children who are forced by adults to turn on each other. It seems to me that Flies is saying "we are not scared enough of what our youth may do" and Royale is saying "we are too scared of what our youth may do".

All that aside, damn fun read. The ongoing death count, the weaving storylines, the vague hope that someone may escape the carnage - this is the kind of adventure I can dig into. The characterizations are a little shallow, but it's entertaining to see teen "types" run true across cultures. The jocks, the nerds, the mean girls, the pop fan. Or is that just a twist of the translation that makes them so familiar?

final thought: This was a good break from all the deep-thought, real lit, cold war and before dystopias I've been bathing in recently.

Sep 17, 2008

dys is how you do it

Want to play along?
1. Pick 3 (short challenge) or 5 (long challenge) dystopian novels or stories. I suggest checking out my Big List. Pick at least one I've read and reviewed, so we have something to talk about after.
2. Post your list here, with a link to the blog or site where you'll be reviewing/discussing those books.
3. Read 'em! Mull them over. Post up your thoughts. Come back here and leave a comment with a link to your post.
4. Try not to get too paranoid about the current state of the world.

That's it - have fun. Pass the word, if you know anyone who might want to get in on the project.

Sep 16, 2008

who wants to play along?

Anybody interested in playing along with me here? I'm thinking of running some sort of dystopian lit challenge. Not as large-scale as my personal quest, mind you, but a "pick 5 and read them" sort of thing. What say you, friends and strangers?

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (illustrated mostly by David Lloyd)

V for Vendetta

I watched the movie. It was sort of eh to me, mostly because Portman used up all her acting ability back around 1994. That being said, I dug the concept, so when a cool gal offered to loan me her copy of the collected comics, I pounced on it.

Who doesn't love a little chaos and humor in the face of fascism and repression? Who doesn't love the idea of the everyman who manages to evade the cops, slip between shadows, blow up the broken courts, do away with torturers and pedophilic priests? Do I think that bombing the halls of "justice" is a good way to get my voice heard at this time? Of course not - but I haven't got the government peeping in my bedroom every night yet or banning art and music yet or forcing a power-grabbing religion on me. Yet.

I'm drawn to anarchy as a philosophy. Not the punk's AN-AR-KEE!, necessarily (though I've still got a soft spot in my heart for those kids), but the empathetic don't-rule-me-and-I-won't-rule-you train of thought. Too bad I can't imagine it ever working. Get two people agreeing to pull together, you'll have a third bashing them both in the back of the head while they're busy.

In a less general sense, regarding the actual comic - I loved the story, I wasn't wild about the art. But then, it had a very 80s style that seems a little dated now, which pretty well excuses it. As an American, I have no cultural connection to Guy Fawkes or the masks, but I know enough about the whole thing not to be confused by the allusion and I think it worked. I wish now that I owned the collection, because I'd like to read it again in a few months and see if it's deep or shallow.

Oh, and because I am a dork with a head full of quotes and musical bits, I liked catching the meanings, here and there, of the lines that V dropped. Especially stuff like the Anti-Nowhere League. If you want your comic to have a soundtrack, that's the way to do it.

final thought: I'd like to see an English director film it with an English cast some time.

get out of my head!

India is convicting people based on brain scans.

From the story:

Even as the debate continues over using scans to trip up obfuscators, researchers are developing new uses for the technology. No Lie MRI, a company in California, promises on its Web site to use the scans to help with developing interpersonal trust and military intelligence, among other tasks. In August, a committee of the National Research Council in Washington predicted that, with greater research, brain scans could eventually aid “the acquisition of intelligence from captured unlawful combatants” and “the screening of terrorism suspects at checkpoints.”

“As we enter more fully into the era of mapping and understanding the brain, society will face an increasing number of important ethical, legal and social issues raised by these new technologies,” Mr. Greely, the Stanford bioethicist, and his colleague Judy Illes wrote last year in the American Journal of Law & Medicine.

If brain scans are widely adopted, they said, “the legal issues alone are enormous, implicating at least the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

“At the same time,” they continued, “the potential benefits to society of such a technology, if used well, could be at least equally large.”


If this don't scare the crap out of you, you need your brain scanned.

might be starting to affect me

Last night, I dreamed about Japanese teens in blue coverall-style uniforms playing violent games on a beach. Can this have anything to do with having just read Battle Royale, 1984, and On the Beach?

Yeah, didn't sleep too well.

Sep 15, 2008

just sayin'

Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink. (1984, of course)

You know, traces of this idea can be found in the rhetoric of all political movements today, but it seems to me that the McCain campaign is really taking it to heart.

(Image by Chris Weston.)

something in my eye

I've read, well, a lot of books this year. And some went some pretty depressing directions. But the last chapter or two of On the Beach actually made me cry a little. Glad I was at home, alone, when I read it.

I'll do a full write-up on the book soon. I've still got a few before it to expound upon, including V for Vendetta and Battle Royale.

Sep 8, 2008

Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Running Out of Time

Know who else read this book? M Night Shyamalan. Because if this ain't the uncredited first draft of the movie "The Village", I'm an illiterate 19th century peasant. But no one ever accused Shyamalan of an overabundance of creativity, so there you go.

Anyway, this is one of several young adult level books on my list. It wasn't bad - an entertaining idea, set out fairly well - but it's no Swiftly Tilting Planet. I like giving dystopian fiction to children and teens. I say, teach 'em young that what authority tells you may be a big, fat lie, that it's important to find out for yourself, and that bucking the system's not necessarily a bad thing. Anyone who takes on a healthy helping of dystopia along with their Blume and Rowling is forearmed against just accepting bullshit like secret US prisons on foreign soil being none of our business and good for our society.

The book itself? Not bad. The action flows just a little too obviously, but shit - kid's book. It's apt to be simplistic. Haddix does well not simply taking the easy way out - people do die, after all - though of course our spunky heroine wins out in the end. I'd have liked to know more about the father and his attempts to rejoin society after going whole hog with the "old days" lifestyle, but you can't always get what you want.

final thought: Young adult fiction is perfect for a brain that's mushy after 24 hours on a Greyhound bus.

things fall apart

Because I was recently able to pick them up for $1 or less, I'm adding a few apocalypse novels to the list. So fuckin sue me.

They are:
- On the Beach by Nevil Shute
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

So, no big changes. Just wanted to keep it up front.

Sep 5, 2008

Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

Memoirs of a Survivor

This year I've read crappy books and I've read outstanding books, but this is the first one that bored me to sleep. Luckily, I read it on the Greyhound, so snoozing was pretty much the best thing I could have done. Thanks, Doris.

Maybe it's just different tastes. I feel like Lessing created a few flashes of a story I'd be interested in reading. Where were the gathering tribes going? What were all those people doing to scavenge the parts they sold in collected markets? What happened to folks picked up by the powers that be? What was the deal with the cat-dog? I wanted to know more about the amoral children living in the sewers and the sexual morals created in an end-times situation.

Instead I got a sort of dreamy, drifty, shoulder-shrugging, oblivious side view of the whole affair. A story about a girl's first experience with love and sex, but without any real passion applied to the tale telling. And something about an alternate reality that may or may not exist only in the narrator's mind.

final thought: Not my cup of tea, but there was enough happening around the borders that I wouldn't refuse to try another of her novels.

Sep 4, 2008

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch

What the fuck was that? You're telling me they made a motherfuckin movie based on that? How? I've got to rent the thing just to see if they added a plot or what.

That being said, I have to admit I kinda loved this book. It's all characters and language play and dirty talk - some of the my favorite stuff. I've had druggie friends, so I recognize easily enough the way things come and go in their minds, reality taking a backseat to whatever chemical's working its way through their minds at the time.

All the parts about dealers and their habit of turning up late - if at all - and keeping the buyer waiting rang way too true for me. I've smoked my share of green in my time, and the man is never home when you want him, never comes over when he says he will, and never has a steady supply when you have the cash. Is it because he gets a power high off making the user conform to his actions? Well, I can see where that idea would come from, certainly. I can see how those feelings would lead to a book like Naked Lunch, essentially the rantings of a dry junky recovering from or waiting for his hit.

The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.

I recently read the novel Hogg by Samuel R. Delany, which is probably the flat out dirtiest thing I've ever read. And I've read a lot of porn stories online. In reading Lunch, I could see a major influence on the style and subjects and various sex acts detailed so extensively in Hogg. If anyone wants an interesting and disturbing experience, I suggest reading them one after another. And then taking a long, hot shower with lots of strong soap. Burroughs was less concerned with storyline, though.

final thoughts: Burroughs was a bastard, but the man could fill a page.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Day of the Triffids

In a way, this novel struck me as being a zombie story as much as one of vegetables run amok. Same idea - slow moving, easy to avoid if there are few and you can see them, but gradually they overcome the survivors of whatever giant disaster by virtue of sheer numbers and blind (ahem) aggression.

And, okay, so it's not really a dystopia, it's post-apocalyptic, but it's close enough and I wanted to read it.

The last book I read before this was, of course, War With the Newts, and I found there to be many similarities. Man finds resource that he does not consider overly dangerous or sentient, spreads around world, is warned but ignores it, is later punished for his hubris. Newts delved much more deeply into the worldwide events and reactions, with Triffids being more of an adventure story, but as companion pieces they work.

As I mentioned before, I'm pretty sure this is one of Stephen King's favorite books. Not that I've ever seen him mention it, I just feel like he's adapted large chunks of it and used it to flavor most of his best writing. So, I just now looked up "Stephen King" Wyndham on the ol' google, and what's the first result? 'The famous American writer Stephen King has called Wyndham "perhaps the best writer of science fiction that England has ever produced".' Yep, you can tell.

final thoughts: I've already loaned my copy out and suggested it to a few different people. Easily one of the top 5 novels I've read this year.

Sep 2, 2008

big times in the big town

Riding a Greyhound bus from Florida to DC really gives a man time to read. Over the next few days, I'll be adding my take on V for Vendetta, Naked Lunch, Running Out of Time, Day of the Triffids, Memiors of a Survivor, and Battle Royale, which I'm enjoying right now.

Anything happen while I was gone?

Aug 19, 2008

War With The Newts by Karel Čapek

War With the Newts (originally Válka s Mloky)

Dark, funny satire. I haven't read any other Czech fiction, so I don't know if those are typical traits of their sf and fantasy, but I'm certainly looking forward to picking up Čapek's best known work, R.U.R..

In many ways, the newts might as well be robots (a word that Čapek himself invented). For most of the novel they are perfectly content to work, without much fuss or complaint, at any job presented to them. They take all abuse and violence against them in stride, as calmly as a little green anole will drop his tail when escaping a cat. It's man's inhumanity that is brought into sharp focus in the passages describing the various brutal experiments practiced upon the salamanders, not the creatures' worth as sentient beings.

I don't know about other countries or regions, but here in the American south we are carefully taught in school about the evils of the slave trade, of the way African people were crammed into ships and allowed to rot and die all the way across the ocean, as long as the bottom line was not too affected by the loss of profit. So when Čapek tells of the newts transported in dirty, sickening water tanks (or even worse, sealed into tin barrels) after being kidnapped from their homes, the comparison is obvious. But for all that, he writes well enough that the symbolism never feels forced - if it is slightly heavy handed, I can overlook that because it still gave me a punch in the gut. When the slave traders pull off a salamander's leg or arm and just shrug and assure the narrator that it will grow back anyway, so who cares?, it got to me enough that I sat the book down for a minute.

So, there's the question that is wrestled with for most of the book - are they animals? automatons? fellow thinking beings? Do they have souls, or are they simply a resource to be sold in carefully grouped batches to the highest bidder? Is education and a decent life the best thing for them, as new members of a human society? Or is that what later leads to their victory in a war that sort of doesn't even happen?

In the end, of course, we bring our downfall on ourselves. We breed them and seed them on every coastline in the world, we arm them and train them despite agreements and warnings to the contrary, we base an entire system of worldwide advancement upon them. And then they take over our airwaves and offer to buy the very land from us, with the comment that they're going to take it either way. Čapek, speaking directly to us in the final chapter, offers some little hope, but I'm pretty sure they won out in the end.

final thought: I didn't even touch on all the references to nazis (the Master Newt Race), fascism, unchecked capitalism, environmental damage, and imperialism. In less deft hands, this would have been unreadable. I'm glad to have "discovered" Čapek.

2081: Everyone Will Finally Be Equal

Welly welly welly welly welly welly well, it looks like they've gone and made a movie, called 2081, based on Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron". I don't know the release date yet, but the site and trailer are hitting all over the intarweb.

This story, which I first read back in middle school sometime, remains one of my favorites. And the ad looks slick. But how much crapass padding will they put in to make it worth filming? And will they keep the ending, depressing as it is?

Aug 18, 2008

Wyndham and King


So, how many times do you think Stephen King's read Day of the Triffids? The bit with Bill and Josella getting ready to leave London, having a final dinner in a lavish, abandoned apartment, was echoed clearly in The Stand, when Larry Underwood and Rita Blakemoor meet in NYC and prepare to escape the city. Heck, the biggest difference is very obviously a matter of the times in which they were written - in 1978, you get pills and sex. Granted, Josella is a hell of a lot stronger woman, as written, than poor, doomed Rita, but go read the two bits and you'll see what I mean.

Not to mention that the whole of King's novel Cell is essentially a reworking of Triffids. For my money, he didn't even try to hide it.

Ah, Stevie, I love ya', but at least attempt to disguise your plagiarism.

Aug 12, 2008

Count Zero by William Gibson

Count Zero

I feel like I've read the Sprawl series as a set of flashbacks. I started with the most recent, Mona Lisa Overdrive, slammed all the way back to Nueromancer, and then wound up filling in the final blanks in the middle. I don't know if it's because I have all the pieces now or just the way this one was put together, but Count Zero is my favorite of the three. (The only big flaw being the complete lack of Molly).

But what's not to like? Corporate rule may be my "favorite" form of dystopia in fiction - it's just so god damned possible these days - and Gibson loves it as much as I do. There's less out and out techbabble and more story (necessary, I guess, when you have at least three plot lines tangling up together and no dearth of worthwhile characters to follow) - although, as usual with the godfather of cyberpunk, most of the techy stuff is right on the nose some 20+ years later.

From what I understand, the reason Gibson let his image of the internet wander so far is that he really didn't have much of a clue about computers when he started writing these things. He heard a few things about it, came up with ideas that sounded cool to him, and went with it. That's how he wound up presenting us with steampunk computers and fractured AI personalities mimicking Vodun spirits and the web itself as a sort of shared hallucination of infinite space and possibility. He didn't know what was considered impossible, so he went ahead and invented it anyway.

Having finished all three of his Sprawl novels, I'd like to see a book of short stories by different authors set in that vast urban landscape. Jack Womack, China Miéville, maybe even someone like Haruki Murakami. Just an idea.

final thought: Putting aside his agile story-telling, his amazing tech predictions, and his ability at world-building, you know what I really do appreciate about Gibson? He offers a sort of hope for his characters at the end, and us through them. Not everyone makes it, but those who do are often better off, thanks to dumb luck and their own effort, at the end than they are at the beginning. And after 8 months of nearly unmitigated dark resolutions, that's something worth having.

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Planet of the Apes or La Planète Des Singes or Monkey Planet. Whatever. Translated into English by Xan Fielding.

Okay, now, you have to remember that the original novel and the movie deviate in certain major ways. The end twist is completely different, for example, and the main character is a journalist who is essentially just along for the ride, not an American astronaut. He's also a lot less... Hestonish, if you will, of course. More intellectual, less "get your stinking paws off me." I love the movie, by the way, and consider it a classic, but had to sort of ignore it in reading the novel.

You can read this one as a straight ahead 60s scifi story, and a damn good read it is. From the curiosity of the travelers as they first encounter the inhuman humans to the panicked frenzy of Mérou escaping death at the hands of gorilla hunters to the strange love triangle of intelligent human/primitive human/intelligent chimpanzee, there's no mystery as to why the basic concept could be so well translated to the screen.

If you are inclined that way, as I sometimes tend to be, you can also read it as paranoia about "lesser" races rising up to surpass and suppress European culture. With all the devolved people being depicted as beautiful and white - and the common racist portrayal of Africans as apes - this isn't exactly a stretch. But then, I may be playing Boulle false to assume that comparison was intended. I haven't studied him enough to know one way or the other.

The little details, mostly of ape culture, were what I enjoyed most about this one. Their stock market, with various apes flinging themselves around a giant room, climbing into the rafters, all shrieking at the tops of their lungs as they buy and sell, is a memorable image. The idea that the chimp scientists focus so strongly on biological and brain studies because that's the last thing their unevolved ancestors were used for by human was inspired. And, of course, Zira's refusal of the human Mérou because he's "just so ugly" - a great moment.

final thought: Our nearest cousins, and the ones most likely to overrun us in the end. Who doesn't feel that apes are just slightly too human sometimes?

Aug 8, 2008

Dystopias on Film

Somebody's posted up their version of the Top 50 dystopian movies of all time. Not a bad list. I mean, shit like this is fairly individual, but it's a good jumping off point.

For the record, I've seen all of:
50. Equilibrium (2002): terrible movie. No, really, it was so bad. And I can't even remember why I found it so bad. It may have been the gun dancing fighting style.
48. Starship Troopers (1997): I get what they were going for, and I'm all in favor of coed shower scenes, but, well. You know. Anyway, I have to admit this is one of my favorite novels, in a weird way that I completely disagree with.
44. Strange Days (1995): This movie made me sick. Not from the story, but from the style - same with Blair Witch. Motion sickness had me in the lobby, dry heaving.
43. Logan’s Run (1976): I'm a sucker for those 70s-era scifi epics. Between the clothes and the antigovernment paranoia, I could watch this shit for days.
42. I Robot (2004): Wasn't this a Converse commercial? It sure wasn't related to the stories collected under the same name.
41. Soylent Green (1973): See "Logan's Run" above. Plus, Chuck Heston.
38. Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001): A lot of this movie sucked like a Hoover, but bits were exactly as spooky creepy as they needed to be. The Flesh Fair in particular.
35. Escape from New York (1981): Snake Motherfucking Plissken. One of my favorite movies of all time.
30. Dark City (1998): This was a good ride, but I was sort of distracted by the fact that this is the only thing I've ever seen Richard O'Brien in besides Rocky Horror.
28. Mad Max (1979): He may be a crazy, Christian, S/M punchline these days, but Mad Max is still truly awesome. Where did you go, Mel Gibson?
25. Gattaca (1997): I wasn't blown away when it came out, but I do still think about it from time to time.
23. V for Vendetta (2005): I wanted to like this more than I did. I think I kept somehow comparing it to "Children of Men", and it comes out the loser.
22. Planet of the Apes (1968): See "Soylent Green" above. Plus, apes.
21. The City of Lost Children (1995): It was pretty, I was high, and damned if I remember jack shit about what it meant.
18. Battle Royale (2000): Kind of trendy these days, but fuck if it's not a great little flick. I always enjoy movies about killer school kids.
17. Ghost in the Shell (1995): Saw this in the theater, can't remember a damn thing about it, but I seem to recall enjoying it at the time.
16. Pleasantville (1998): I GET IT! NO, REALLY. I AM CLEAR ON THE SYMBOLISM USED IN THIS MOVIE.
14. Twelve Monkeys (1995): My mom's theory is that if Brice Willis is wearing a hair piece, the movie will suck. If not, it should be good. 12 Monkeys lines up with that. Also, I always prefer Brad Pitt when he's playing loopy.
7. The Matrix (1999): It was pretty at the time, but I'm no fanboy. Aside from the Bill & Ted movies and Parenthood, Reeves has no place in film.
6. Children of Men (2006): Blew me away. I'll admit it, I cried all through the last bit with the birth and the gun battle. But it was the nurse's fate that sticks with me.
5. Blade Runner (1982): Just the best.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971): My mom says the summer she and her friends "discovered" shrooms, Clockwork Orange played for two months at their local cineplex. By the end of that summer, they were all speaking nadsat.

So, which of the rest should I see next?

Jul 30, 2008

Perelandra by C. S. Lewis

Perelandra

Jesus isn't my god, but anyone raised in this society knows the Adam and Eve story well enough to follow along with this one. Honestly, even if you didn't, the book stands on its own feet as an adventure in the classic early sf style.

I'm fascinated by the image Lewis creates of the floating lands of Venus. A world-wide ocean topped with a few islands created by plants matting together, rolling with the waves, supporting animals and trees on their surfaces. A valley one second becomes a tall hill the next, as the flexible matting forming the "ground" skims along the ocean surface. I've always wanted to live on a little island - Florida kid, you know - and I can't help but feel drawn to this image of a watery world. Too bad we know now that Venus ain't a damn thing like that. Well, maybe somewhere in the universe.

When the plot slides from that sort of almost lazy beauty into the endless days of hate and evil, I have to admit it chilled me. I have this phobia of frogs, see, so when the possessed Weston is caught torturing and mutilating the frog-like creatures of Venus, I had to put the book down for a little while. They doesn't happen often, I'm usually pretty comfortable with gross out fiction.

Also, like I said - I'm no Christian. So I never spent much time considering the Adam and Eve myth. Lewis asks us, what if Eve said no? Would the devil simply have given up and slithered off? Wouldn't he, instead, have hounded her every day of her life, lying and tricking and bribing? And, honestly, no matter how long she put him off, he had eternity on his side - one of her children would eventually give in. I'm interested in the fact that the forbidden act in Perelandra - sleeping on the "fixed land" - is only slightly portrayed as being something that would impart great wisdom by its very action. Un-Weston makes a great deal of God wanting Eve to disobey him in order to stand as her own being, but Lewis never suggests that the fixed land is "the land of knowledge" or some such parallel to the apple. Different time, different tactic?

final thought: The Christian philosophy gets a little thick on the ground toward the end, but that's the nature of the novel. I'm looking forward to the third and final book in the series, when I can get my hands on it.

Jul 23, 2008

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Player Piano

You could see Vonnegut's genius in his first novel.

On a blog I read, the Devil Vet's been thinking about hope and hopelessness in dystopian fiction. I think Player Piano is good example of how hope plays into dystopian narratives. The Ghost Shirt Society of the book rises in rebellion against the soul-numbing mechanized society even though they know they will fail. Why? Simply to show that it can be done. That there can be light at the end of that tunnel, if power is wrested from the managers and engineers who hold it in that society. "Hope in hopelessness" indeed.

But then, that's one of Vonnegut's favorite themes (literally from the beginning, as we see) to kick around. You might have the whole world against you, you might know from the beginning that stretching your wings will just result in being shot out of the sky, but the exercise of whatever freedom you can snatch is worth the fall.

Of course, he didn't rely simply on ideas. The man could spin a yarn. The whole section of the book where Proteus has to go on an annual weekend team-spirit-building retreat had me chuckling through my anger. I hate that kind of workaday pep rally crap, and that particular scenario sounds like my idea of four days of hell. And the chapter in which Proteus buys a small, old school farm - thinking that will calm his need to get out of the "we are all cogs" system - and his wife takes it completely the wrong way sort of broke my heart. Though, I have to admit, I felt some for the wife - it's not like he spent any time communicating his feelings or situation to her.

The running thread of the Shah of Bratpuhr touring the US, with his guide in more and more dire straits, was a nice touch. Sometimes that kind of show-and-tell subplot can feel tacked on or unnecessary, but Vonnegut's storytelling allowed it to weave in and out of the major action.

final thought: No surprise, I agree with him. If you take away a person's chance to do for themselves, you take away a major reason to get out of bed every morning. I'm not saying we all have to work hard or die. I'm just saying, yeah, we all need that feeling of dignity that honest work can provide, whether for decent wages or just for our own benefit.

no cash no books

Oh, it's been tough times here in dystopia land. What with the near-dystopian reality we all seem to be living through these days, I'm down to a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out of. That is to say, I haven't been able to stockpile more books. I've got two that I need to blog and one on deck (hey, did you notice? look down at the bottom of this page to see my dystopian shelf), but then I need to go trade some shit in at the local used paperback store or something.

Jul 14, 2008

Thomas M. Disch: suggestions?

Thomas M. Disch passed away this 4th of July. I hear I should add at least one of his works to The Big List. Is anyone familiar with his novels? Which one/s should I pick up, which have the most dystopian bent?

Jul 3, 2008

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet

This is the only Lewis I've read aside from the Narnia series. Being as I was raised dirty heathen, I didn't pick up on the Christian aspects of his writing until later, and that still isn't the first thing that springs into view when I read him. Just so you know.

I think my favorite parts of this one are the descriptions of Ransom lying in the spaceship, watching space go by. For someone who'd not only obviously never been to space, but didn't even have any descriptions from others who had, Lewis paints a detailed and engrossing picture of the teeming heavens. The whole book is obviously influenced by HG Wells' First Men in the Moon, but not enough to keep it from being very much its own novel.

Now, don't get me wrong - there's a fairly simplistic "man is often evil due to the presence of Satan/bent Oyarsa on Earth, but the peoples of Mars are good, kind, and wise because they have true angels/true contact with God" theme running through the novel. Being as it's Lewis, I guess that's par for the course, and it didn't keep me from enjoying the story itself. I was intrigued by the idea of the various Martian races seeing each other as both human and animal (and thereby not needing pets in the way that Earthlings seem to, as a connection to the animal world within our own culture). I suspect that some folks right here see other races/nationalities the same way, and not in the respectful way Lewis lays on his creations.

You know, I think this book (or the whole series - I haven't got far enough into it to know) helped inspired L'Engle when she wrote A Wrinkle in Time. Ransom's discussions with the different races is echoed in some of the childrens' encounters as they travel outward from Earth. Plus, there's the image of our planet being shrouded or silent - set apart from the rest of creation.

final thought: It really all comes down to whether your believe that "Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower." I don't, and I enjoy the case made by Lewis on the matter as much as I enjoy his descriptions of the petrified Martian forests and the bright, warm stretches of space.

Jul 1, 2008

in case y'all missed it

If you want to see an example of an author who can't take criticism, make sure to read the comments on the post before this one. The one about Alongside Night. I've never seen anyone get so fussy so quickly about so little.

Alongside Night by J. Neil Schulman

Alongside Night

Maybe I'm not enough of an economist to get this book, but good god. As far as I'm concerned, you could lock all copies of this one in the same underwater vault where I'd like to hide everything ever penned by Ayn Rand. If there is one thing I hate more than whiny libertarian characters, it's underage, endlessly noble, upperclass libertarian characters who believe in anarchocapitalistic revolution.

Seriously. The story was no great shakes. The protagonist bumped along, the sex interest was ideal in every way (she can fight! she can fuck! she believes in the ideals of open markets and hates taxation!), a few people died to make the reader feel that the economic revolution was justified, and so on. Blah blah blah. I got mine, screw you.

final thought: Not worth reading, not worth any further blogging about.

Jun 24, 2008

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald

Level 7

First off, let me say that this copy, which I got for under a dollar from The Paperback Rack, is the proud winner of Worst Cover Yet. Click on that thing and really check it out. It's like they summarized the plot for a seven year old, gave her glue and round-end scissors, and said, "do it up, kid."

Just had to say that, because it's sort of been bugging me.

With that out of the way, I did enjoy the book. It's a quick read, fairly slim, but nice and creepy in that nuclear-war-leading-to-the-complete-loss-of-human-life 1950s way. It's interesting in that the enemy isn't the Soviets (or even us, from their point of view), but the nuclear arms themselves. A 2 hour war is set off by a glitch in the system, and it wipes us out from top to bottom.

The whole thing is done diary-style, by a military man living 7 levels below the earth, where he should be among the safest people on the planet. His daily life, food, air, and social needs are met without worry. He has only to do his duty and stand the fact that he'll never be above ground again. It's the loss of sunshine, more than anything, that preys on him. You know, I suffer from a fear of being trapped underground, and I could feel the weight of all that rock and soil the whole time I was reading.

The style was a little dated, but what do you expect? It was written 50 years ago. My main complaint has to be the sexism that permeated the narrative. The main female character, although a psychiatrist and one of the chosen few living in the deepest, safest level, giggles and flirts and generally acts like a manipulative female stereotype. Frankly, even Heinlein does a better job writing women, and that ain't saying much.

final thought: Worth reading, but more as a blast from the past than a warning for now.

Jun 20, 2008

The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

The Shockwave Rider

I enjoyed The Sheep Look Up so much that I had really high expectations for this novel. But where Sheep was a sort of free form, bloody, experimental warning about the USA's impact on the global ecology of Earth, Rider is more of a standard cyberpunkish story. Don't get me wrong - there are some very cool, bleak moments, especially those involving "therapy" for children. But it just didn't live up to Sheep's promise.

I think my favorite concept Brunner brings into this book is that of "Hearing Aid", a free number one can call to rant, rave, cuss, complain to with a promise that it is not recorded and no one but the person on the other end of the line can hear them. In these days, when our every keystroke is recorded and our phone conversations are easily dipped into, I sort of wish we had something like that available to us as a regular thing. Some stuff you don't even want to blog about.

By the end, the story just wrapped up too neatly. It was a happy ending all around (something, I'll admit, I haven't seen much these past 6 months). All the mutant dogs do their noble best. The revolutionaries pull one over on the government and manage to put out a powerful computer worm (this book is here the term comes from) that exposes all the secret data hidden from view, effectively bringing about a sort of socialist drive for freedom and love. But, see, I don't think that the average US citizen would actually care much who we've been torturing or why. I think we would find it interesting for ten minutes and then go back to their daily routine.

final thought: I'm too cynical for this novel, but it wasn't a half bad read. If you want true dystopian horrifics, though, go for The Sheep Look Up instead.

Jun 17, 2008

Harlan Ellison short stories

I'm killing two birds with one stone here, since they were Ellison short stories and contained within the same collection that my buddy Jonny loaned me.

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream"

I'd really never dipped too far into Ellison land, and now I'm hooked. This was excellent - creepy, hellish, perfectly contained. Four people bearing the eternal punishment brought on ourselves. If we create consciousness, we have to also create a freedom for the personality - no slave stays in chains forever.

"'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"

I'm slow and a little lazy, and apt to do things at the last second and waste time, so this one hit home pretty well for me. The Harlequin's not a classic hero. He's not so much out to free the world - he's just a guy who likes to let time slide a little.

So, one story about the tyranny of machine over man, and one of man over man. Either way, being controlled by others is hell. Giving up your freedom for the sake of comfort or safety or even profit - we all do it. We all chafe under it. We all dream of escaping it. Well, maybe not "all", but I don't think I want to hang out with the other sort.

final thought: The stories are great, the style is even better. I don't know how I went this long without becoming an Ellison fan, but now is as good a time as any to start.

Jun 13, 2008

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm

This is how you do it. There's a reason Animal Farm is a classic of both literature in general and political satire specifically - it's damn near perfect. The allegory is simple enough for a literate child to grasp, even if they have no information about Stalinism or Soviet Communism to base it on, and for those who have studied history it maintains its worth as a fable.

The telling of the story itself can scarcely be criticized. You know what's going to happen. It's obvious from Napoleon's first appearance that he'll soon be as much (or more) of a tyrant as the original farmer. Heck, I'd read it before, back in middle school, but I still felt the rush when the animals drove out their owner and burned the whips, seethed with anger at Squealer's endless propaganda (swallowed whole by the mostly-illiterate and trusting workers), shared Benjamin's rage and horror as Boxer is sold to the knackers to pay for the pigs' carousing.

I believe it was Terry Pratchett who said something like, "There's a reason they're called revolutions - it all just keeps coming around to the beginning again." What I found interesting, though, was that the book really isn't a flat out condemnation of socialism or even communism - it's about a promise broken, power seized, and ideals twisted into a horrible shape. I think that's part of why, even while USSR-style communism fades into history, you can apply the Animal Farm allegory to any number of political situations. It's not strictly tied to the obvious.

final thought: This book scared the crap out of me as a preteen. (I was already fairly paranoid and antigovernment way back then.) These days I find it less frightening, but I think it maintains a current of power found in very little political writing.

Jun 9, 2008

on vacation

Hey: just wanted to say that I'm on vacation and away from computers until the end of the week. That being said, I have a half dozen entries to add as soon as I can sit down and sort my thoughts. It's been a good couple weeks of reading.

May 27, 2008

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer

This damn book took me forever to get through. Not that it's not great sf, by the way - because it is. Just as forward thinking and right on as the rest of his work. But I'm more interested in the odd little side details - the Sprawl itself, the people in the bars, Panther Moderns, 3Jane - than I am in all the tech forecasting.

Now, any book with Molly, the modern samurai with the embedded glasses and razor tip fingers, is worth picking up. Don't get me wrong - if I'd started the Sprawl series with the first one like I should have, I'd probably have enjoyed it more. But working backward put it in a different frame, and I got fairly bored halfway through.

I may have to revisit this one later. I suspect I am simply burned out on Gibson's cyberpunk view of our future/now. Which is why I jumped into some classic Harlen Ellison stories last night, changing directions for a new view.

final thought: You have to really admire that so much of it has already come true. I wonder what else will.

May 12, 2008

paranoia decor

In the course of looking for various book covers and so on, I ran across this graphic:


Thanks to the magic of rasterbation, it's now a very handsome 5'ish x 3'ish poster on my bedroom wall.


Now I can dream of the Cold War all through this coming hot summer.

May 9, 2008

going old school

I think I'm burning out slightly on the modern dystopias. I've done a few too many in a row. Instead of starting Shockwave Rider after I finish Neuromancer , I think this weekend I'll look for something on the List written in the early part of the 1900s.

May 6, 2008

twentytwelve by Andrew Keogh

twentytwelve

Let me go ahead and admit that I was worried this book would be terrible. Not because of anything related to the book itself, but because the author reads my blog and comments regularly. I figured it was unlikely to suck completely, because his own blog is well written and entertaining, but the fear lingered. Luckily, that turned out to be mostly unfounded.

As you can guess by the title, twentytwelve concerns the near future, a nightmare of a fascist England where leaders openly praise Hitler and anyone nonwhite or Jewish is hunted down and exterminated. The hero, his mom, his half-black daughter, and various others scratch their way across Wales in an attempt to make it into Ireland, land of the (fairly) free. They dodge brutal cops of various sorts, fall in and out of captivity, and so what they can to stay alive and together. An altogether worth it story.

My main criticism comes down to style. I could see in the writing that Keogh is a lawyer by trade. He doesn't fuck around with a bunch of flowery descriptions - the narrative is done in a very "just the facts" style. On the one hand, it keeps the adventure clipping along. On the other, I feel like we miss out on some characterization and motives. All the good guys are resolute, willing, and quiet in their suffering. Maybe it's that "stiff upper lip" Britishism coming out.

The text could also have benefited from a good going over for small flaws, the kind of thing an author can't see after rewriting a novel too many times. A few too many cases of Keogh using the same word over and over in a paragraph kept sort of bumping me out of the story. With this kind of tale to tell - worth reading both as a caution and as simply a "what will they do next?" adventure - a good editor could have made all the difference.

final thought: I suggest this one. Read it now before the government bans it.

Apr 28, 2008

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

The Sheep Look Up

I actually finished this one last Sunday, but I wanted to mull it over a little before writing about it. This is a classic dying-environment near-future novel from the early 70s. The Mediterranean Sea is deader than the Great Salt Lake, most of Africa is defoliated. What few crops that still grow, despite insane levels of pollution from wars and corporate greed, are being eaten at the root by insecticide-resistant pests. Filter masks are the only thing standing between Americans and miserable lung diseases. Dose after dose of antibiotics are necessary to cure minor infections and rampant STDs. All children born in the US have something wrong with them, from minor asthma to terrible deformity. You can't drink the water. You can't eat the food. Hundreds of years of not giving a fuck is coming back around to bite the us in our collective asses.

We're not there yet. Our water's actually doing a little better than it was in 1972. But you want personal air filters? Smell it. You want antibiotic resistant pathogens? Howdy, Mr. Staph Infection. Government brutality, corporate sins, Brunner knew what he was talking about, and it scares the crap out of me.

But without a story, it's all just Future Shock. And damned if he didn't tell the story brilliantly. He used a cut and paste style, short chunks of a dozen people's lives, moving across the world to show the damage and our response to it. The Trainites (predating and foretelling the coming of the Earth Liberation Front) riot and smash in the name of the environment. The rich ignore the damage they cause, even to their own sons and daughters. The middle class just try to stay afloat with water filters and dreams. Starving Africans are poisoned into madness by the food sent from the US to keep them alive. Brunner wasn't afraid to kill off his main characters, either. Nobody's safe when you've got too many rats and not enough maze.

"Leading" the USA is a president known only as Prexy. I hear he was modeled after then-Gov Reagan, but the media quotes from him sprinkled throughout the text sure sound like another leader known for going by a nickname.

On foreign war orphans being adopted by Americans: "I guess if they can't break down the front door they have to sneak around the back."
On a scientific report showing rising IQs in third world countries and falling IQs in the US due to pollution and lack of nutrious foods in developed nations: "Well, if they're so smart why aren't they clever?"
On Hondorans fighting against American invasion: "If you bite the hand that feeds you, you're apt to get a mouthful of fist." And so on.

final thoughts: If you match Gibson's ideas about current and coming technology with Brunner's image of what corporate and national greed and overpopulation can do to the world itself, you've pretty much got my biggest nightmare. How likely is it? Too likely.

Apr 16, 2008

at least one of you will be interested

This is the email I just received from Word Traffic Books, one of the local used stores:

Hank. Greetings. Just a note to let you know that the book you ordered, twentytwelve, is now in the store and available for pickup at your conveninece. Cost is 19.95 plus tax. Take care, and thank you for your order.

Just in time - I'm between books again. I'll be picking that up tomorrow on my way home from work.

Apr 15, 2008

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

First off, let me say that Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies. Any cut of it is still head and shoulders above all the CGI-infested bullshit special FX scifi flicks rolling out of Hollywood these days. So, for years, this has been one of those "I can't believe I haven't read that yet" books. I finally picked it up at the Paperback Rack on Friday and tore through it that night. I won't say it was a better experience than the movie, but I will say that I am glad the two versions are so very different, so no comparison is really necessary.

The animals. The animals really got me. We're already split away from the rest of the animals as it is - to be down to just a few individuals of each species as we all go down the last drain together is a nightmare.

The story itself basically comes down to the question of what makes us human? Biology? Well, not in this case - the robots are made of nearly the same meat the rest of us are. The ability to create art? Not with one of the andys singing opera beautifully, and by choice rather than programming. For Dick, it came down to empathy. (It might be important, I think, to remember that he regularly took amphetamines, and I suspect the line between real person and bio android may have been a little slippery in his mind in reality at times.)

Honestly, that assessment - that empathy is what makes us "human" - lines up with some of my own beliefs. The more empathy people have, the less laws are needed to govern them. You do not have to prevent someone from beating their kids if they are capable of understanding and sharing the effects that beating will have, emotionally and physically. A cop without empathy is a bully. A president without empathy quickly becomes a dictator.

Mercerism - a religion of reinforced empathy - would be almost necessary in a world like that in Androids. Of course, when one group is highly empathetic and another group is not, the latter can rule and run roughshod over the former. Which is why you would have to draw the line at feeling empathy toward these "machines", these "andys" - mere servants, soulless. Not worthy of the feelings one puts toward a spider or toad. Deckard begins to lose himself as he grows in empathy toward his prey. And yet, those feelings are almost impossible to dodge. If he can care for an electric sheep, almost like a living being, there is no way he can fail to do the same for an opera singer who stirs his soul or a woman who takes him to bed.

It had a few holes - how can two independent police stations operate in the same town without any knowledge of one another, with both employing human bounty hunters? - but, generally speaking, this is how you do it.

final thoughts: It shouldn't have taken me until now to read this. Probably the only book and movie that I can not say one is better than the other.