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.

Apr 10, 2008

paranoia will destroy ya

Four months of almost nothing but dystopian fiction. That's about 32 novels, each with their own take on a perfect society harboring a fatal flaw. I've waded through bloody dictatorships, brutal authoritarianism, drugged out masses, information hoarders. I've wallowed in stories about corporate control, religious rule, all-for-one fascism, medical manipulation for the good of society. Big Brother's heart beats on every page - children turn in their parents, husbands their wives, teachers their students.

So, how is it affecting me? Well, my friends say I'm a little more paranoid. Rather, when I point out something that sounds perfectly logical to me (for instance, the fact that a largely unemployed populace of young adults makes for a very good pool of soldiers in ongoing wars, when I suspect some of our leaders may have in mind), they've taken to saying things like, "Still reading dystopias, huh?"

I think this literary diet is making the dystopian elements of our own society jump out at me. My friends, although a paranoid and anti-authoritarian bunch in general, think it's making see ghosts that are only dust mites. I suspect it's six of one and a half dozen of the other.

suggested addition

From someone on goodreads.com (a very cool site for those of us who read compulsively): Just Like Beauty by Lisa Lerner.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go

Yes, I bought this and read it last night. Didn't really mean to zip through it like that, but after the detailed, intertwined, techy plot of Mona Lisa Overdrive,it all flowed so well I didn't feel any compulsion to put it down.

For all the fog and blur he tries to put on the reality of his characters' situation in this one, the final reveal isn't all that shocking. I mean, if you've ever read much, you know what's coming. But, I say again, sometimes it's the story itself that matters.

Ishiguro tells us almost nothing about what the main players in this book - Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy, carefully mindful students of the sort common to much of the British lit I've thumbed through - look like. I caught a glimpse of a haircut here, a favored shirt there. But their settings, the school, the grounds, the cottages, the centres where they live out their last days, are given every loving detail. When you don't own your own body, I guess where you are matters more than who you are.

What struck me most, after so much dystopian fiction, is that they never fight or try to run. It's not so much Spartan stoicism as the pre-destined plod of cattle. Not only do the main characters simply go to their fates with a hope of being "good" at it, no mention is made of anyone else attempting to skip town, get the hell away, become their own master, survive. In every other book I've read so far, it's the main character vs. the frightful society or vs. the looming dictatorship. This isn't a book about struggle or the ability of human spirit to win out over all. This is about accepting what we are taught and told, even when we know it will ruin us. About getting hold of a little music or love or a quiet moment and letting that be enough.

final thought: Creepy, even if I knew what the end would be. I sort of wish it'd lasted longer, but, honestly, I can't see where you could put more of anything without fucking up the whole flow.

Oh, and just for kicks: Margaret Atwood's review of the book.

Apr 9, 2008

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

Mona Lisa Overdrive

Normally, I'm a stickler for reading series (serieses?) in order, but so far I keep reading Gibson's work all which-a-way. His novels are fairly convoluted, too, so I'll probably reread it in the future, once this whole dystopian list is over and done.

That being said, I do enjoy his work. I'm not enough of a geek to get all the techy little computer/matrix/nano stuff, but as long as I keep up a good clip and let the story roll, it's clear enough. His world isn't that far from our own (in fact, it's dead similar in certain places), and people are people regardless of what kind of hardware they wear/are jacked into/have implanted in their skulls.

You know, a lot of really tech-noodling speculative fiction is a total sausage fest. It's still a boy's club in a lot of ways. But Gibson does a really good job hopping gender to gender. Even his purely artificial personalities come across as more realistic than some of the "people" offered to us by some other authors I've picked up lately (Rand, I'm looking at you).

I think I need to read the first two Sprawl books before I can offer up much on the actual plot, frankly. I'm just starting to really delve into the cyberpunk genre, and I feel like I need to take a better look around before I can fully comment.

final thought: Even as shallowly as I have read Gibson's work, it's clear to see why he is considered a true genius of cyberpunk. He was writing in the 1980s about technology we're just starting to consider common now.

Apr 7, 2008

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies

I read LotF back in middle school, but that was almost 20 years ago so I figured I'd give it a refresher. I'm glad I did, too. After I got into it, I realized I couldn't remember exactly how it ended.

Okay, let me get this out of the way right up front: have you ever used glasses to try and make a fire? It's hard. Sometimes, depending on your prescription, it's nigh impossible. But that's a minor nit-pick and has little to do with the actual story. I just had to point it out.

First off, I'm fat and nearly blind without my glasses. So, yes, poor ol' Piggy gets much of my sympathy. Left with half his sight, powerless, knowing what should be done but without any way to get his voice heard - pretty much my childhood nightmare. I think that when I read this book as a kid, I spent so much time tied up in that side of things that the larger struggle went by the side for me.

I'm pretty sure that the fact that a nuclear war was going on in the outside world while the boys are trapped went completely over my head the first time. Stories about Brits always seem a little old timey to a lot of American kids, myself included, and that and the 1950s language had me setting it mentally during World War II. Even so, the comparison between the boys' battles and the larger war didn't entirely escape me. "I expected better from British boys." Except that British men were engaged in struggles that only differed in their scope.

As a kid, of course, I felt like I could do better. I'd know to keep that fire burning. I'd know to build better shelters and make sure the whole tribe felt engaged in our attempts to be rescued. Looking back now, of course, that's bullshit. I'd be Piggy or, in the best case, Ralph - aware but frustrated almost to the point of madness. I've watched a lot of Survivor since then (ha!). I've been part of various troops and crews and teams. I know that the loudest voice and most entertaining path takes the lead, and if that's not me than to hell with what I might think is the right thing to do.

Folks write books and papers and websites and so on detailing the symbolism of Lord of the Flies. What did the pig skull symbolize? How about the downed pilot? The conch? The pool in which they swam? The face paint? But, in the end, all that doesn't matter. When Ralph notices that his spear, the one the sow's head was impaled on as an offering to the Beast, is sharpened on both ends and realizes what that means about about the fate that Jack and Roger have planned for him, that's just damn good storytelling.

final thoughts: If anyone tells you seriously that they could do better, keep an eye on them. That's a Jack right there.

Apr 1, 2008

added by suggestion

I put another one on the Big List. Why do I keep adding to it? Because, really, my life goal is to read every book I can get my hands on. So, at Kylie's suggestion, the Big List now includes Halting State by Charles Stross. It's supposed to be techy but a good read.