Feb 28, 2008

judging a book by its cover

I'm adding a new link to my short list there on the right. Caustic Cover Critic is a blog about, well, covers. Their layout, the pictures chosen, different versions - you know what I mean. Except in a few truly catching cases, this isn't something I'd spent a lot of time thinking about previously (aside from occational laughter at truly inappropriate sf and fantasy cover designs that have nothing to do with the story). With this project, however, I'm picking up a lot more classic sf and old school paperbacks than I usually would in so short a time.

Even books not on the list, such as this collection of short stories by Boulle, are starting to become just a little too tempting to pass up. These days, it seems like you slap a picture of a guy with a futuristic gun or a promo shot from the movie-based-loosely-on-the-book on there and call it a day. But some of the paperbacks I pick up that came out in the early and mid 20th century are emblazoned with strange figures, streaked colors, odd little geometric designs. They weren't out to tell you what you'd literally find, they were out to draw you into the grand What If.

Anyway, it's something I'm paying more attention to these days.

judicial attitude

I'm in the middle of America 2014, which is honestly pretty cheesy. I mean, President George "Blush"? But I'll get to that when I post the full book blog in a day or two.

Right now, though, I want to discuss a bit that I find really unrealistic and lazy. The main character's been hauled into court through no real fault of his own (a common scene in dystopian fiction). He gets no lawyer, he barely gets to hear the charges, and things are clearly about to go very bad for Mr. Everyman - so far, I'm with the author, no problem. It's not that far a stroll from Guantanamo to kangaroo courts right here in the US of A.

It's when, upon receiving a plea of "not guilty" (something, we must assume, that happens constantly when the government is arresting people willy-nilly and throwing them in front of the court), the judge proceeds to call our protagonist "queerbait" and then lifts his skirts slightly, rises, and skips daintily around his chair like Homer Simpson making fun of an Englishman that I call shenanigans.

Look, Americans (and, indeed, people the world 'round, I assume) like to believe that we are doing the Right Thing, even when this is obviously not the case. A court that is nothing but a pretense to get rid of trouble makers and undesirables will appear MORE staid and officious. The less reasonable the judge's actions, the more reasonable he will want to appear. He won't want to come across as a bully or a puppet - he will convince himself that he's doing his best For God, For Country, and Against Terror.

Not only did that ring false, it's lazy writing. Our hero starts as a member in good standing of the Nationalist Party, willing to accept and parrot the party line. Despite a few misgivings, he accepts that his government is trying to help and protect him. At this point in the story, he should be questioning himself as well as the system. He should be thinking that the system could not be wrong, so he must be. But when the judge bullies him from the bench like an ignorant third grader, that takes all the guesswork out of it.

Reading these one after another really is sharpening my perception, I think. Or making me pickier. Not sure.

Feb 20, 2008

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake

You know, this one has dystopian elements, but it's less an actual dystopia and more apocalyptic. Or maybe it's about a dystopian society (the compounds) living right next to a pre-apocalyptic one (the pleeblands). Or maybe it's just a romantic novel with big ideas.

In a way, it reminded me of Fight Club. No, no, bear with me. Only in the case of the main character's (Snowman) relationship with Oryx, the woman or women he obsesses over. Much is made of her, she's his every other thought, and yet her actual participation in the action of the story - either before or after the fall - is minimal at best. She's really got jack shit to do with what happens, aside from transportation that would be handled by anyone. She's just a point for him to orbit - she might as well be mythical. And, in fact, Snowman does his best to make her so by the end.

Anyway, I liked this one as a story. Plenty of funky little details, plenty of worrying ideas. If I made a pie chart showing the different styles of dystopia and how likely I find them, class-based commercial control would be a big ol' slice. I'm not one to be spooked by the idea of cloning, or even gene-splicing particularly - although the ChickieNobs grossed me right out (does anyone else watch the show Squidbillies? they had something very similar just a week or two ago, but it was buffalo wing style) - it was more the marketing elements that I find myself still thinking about. A pill that enhances sexual prowess and good moods, but secretly sterilizes the user? Yes, I believe people would fall over themselves to take it, and that scares the crap out of me.

final thought: I'm a bright-but-not-overly-so word-happy writer type, and I still found Snowman shallow and sort of annoying in a Holden Caulfield kind of way. Your mileage may vary.

Feb 19, 2008

some would applaud

"What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it's only a pipe dream! I'm not so sure--now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I'm not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don't want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That's good enough in its way, but isn't it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline--Will Power--Character!"

(It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis)

Feb 15, 2008


My friend just picked me up a copy of Lord of the Flies for me at a $1 book store in the DC area. First of all, books make the best gifts. Second, a $1 book store sounds like heaven to me.

Feb 11, 2008

Virtual Light by William Gibson

Vitual Light

Okay, now that I've read VL, I need to go back and reread Idoru, the next book in Gibson's Bridge Trilogy. I enjoyed it at the time, but I think having a basis for some of the characters would open it up a little wider for me.

Let me just say, Virtual Light was a much-needed break after the bleakness of most good dystopian fiction. Gibson didn't write about a society that's worked out all the kinks and put down all the uprisings, but about one not far from our own. Fascist and getting more so all the time, police state on the way, but still with enough wiggle room for the drunks and artists and regular folks to go on about their business without too much hassle. He offers hope-within-despair, such as the "AIDS saint" J. D. Shapely and his life-giving blood, murdered by Christian thugs while still passing his gift on to those who will accept it.

What I enjoyed most about VL were the backdrop and details. The bridge, in all its piecemeal glory, really drew me in. But then, I'm a fan of found space and urban warrens. The religious sect that believes the Lord can be seen in old movies and tv shows could be spun into a whole new book and still keep my interest. The different drugs and dealers, the cargo-ship mall, the Nightmare Art Gallery - that's the kind of story telling I like. Rich and real, even when it's completely off the wall.

And, in the end, the day is saved by the balance struck between the legal and the illegal, both attempting to keep their side in power. I find that telling. You show me a society with no crime but many laws, I will show you a society I'd rather die than join. The underground is as necessary to a full life as sewer systems and literacy.

final thoughts: I honestly can't believe it took me this long to read this one. Not the best thing going, but a damn good read.

Feb 5, 2008

"To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

The US Government would never sink so low as to torture prisoners. Well, only if they were REALLY evil men. And only if that was the fastest way to get the information we wanted. Because torture is well known to provide useful and truthful information.
After all, compared to a beheading, what's a little water or sleep deprivation? And we certainly wouldn't keep people locked in foreign gulags without hope of trial or release. Plus, I mean, waterboarding isn't really even torture. And we've really only used it a couple times recently. I mean, it's not like the CIA has anything in common with the Khmer Rouge or the Gestapo.

We're the good guys!

Feb 4, 2008

Devil On My Back by Monica Hughes

Devil On My Back

(That particular wiki page does little justice to the book, by the way, but there aren't a lot of online options for plot summary on this one.)

This is one I read as a middle schooler. It's young adult all the way, and not as good as, say, A Wrinkle in Time. You've got all the classic elements of dystopian fiction - a slave class, a shadowy overlord, forced hive mind, withdrawal from nature, controlled reproduction. The story clips along just fine - a little adventuring, a touch of freedom, and hint of amnesia. But, in the end, not really a satisfying book.

The ending just felt like a cop out. "We know what's best for everyone, son. We'll drive the slaves until they have to escape or die, and through dream-programs, we'll slowly wean others from the infopak lifestyle." Meh. Throw open the gates, let the people roam free, quit with the pussy-footing.

I guess it just all felt too... easy. The guy at the top agreed with the protagonist, and was already working against the system he was supposed to be upholding (albeit very slowly). There was never any real danger for the escapees. The society was already on the track to major change/destruction of the dystopian system.

final thoughts: I liked it better when I was 11. No surprise, huh?

Feb 1, 2008

God bless the used book store

I hit the Bookshelf (on S. Monroe here in beautiful Tallahassee, FL) while I was out running payday errands and picked up 3 books off the Big List and one extra, just for fun, for the grand sum of about $15. I scored:
- The Devil on My Back by Monica Hughes. I read this one back in middle school (when I first figured out that scifi novels were marked on the side in our local library with a little rocket ship on the tag and plowed through everything I could grab), and I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes now.
- Virtual Light by William Gibson. I read Idoru sort of sight unseen and mostly enjoyed it, so I'm looking forward to this one.
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I've only read A Handmaid's Tale by her, but she keeps getting suggested, so when I saw it I grabbed it.

I also nabbed Time Out of Mind, a book of translated short stories by Pierre Boulle. He's on the Big List for Planet of the Apes, and the cover looked interesting enough to catch my attention.