Thursday, April 8, 2010

First thoughts on Stephenson

I know at least one person has waited so patiently for me to get around to this. Fair warning, there will be spoilers. Thanks for being patient Mark!

So, I started off with Snow Crash. I found the idea of the country being broken up into private franchises pretty fitting for the genre. The technologies introduced were interesting, but if it's possible for something that doesn't exist to be outdated, some things come off that way. Being published in 1992, before the internet became a daily part of life for so many people, I think that Stephenson's Metaverse should have had the feeling of something that might have been possible and become widely available, that can always make SF much more exciting. Having seen SecondLife and not having a 3D chamber/computer or a holodeck yet, I just can't accept that something like the Metaverse is really going to happen. But, wait, how is that a criticism when I read books with talking horse beings, fairies and elves in them? I guess because Stephenson goes for a more realistic tone and sets the book in land that is supposed to be recognizable, yet futuristic; I lose a little bit of the suspension of disbelief when it comes to the technologies he is describing.

Also, the style of the book reminded me so much of The DaVinci Code . I think it was the focus on the Sumerian myth and history bit. I adored the idea of it; the linking of a virus to the explosion of languages really lit up both the science and word geek parts of my brain. However, The Librarian was tedious and I just kept wishing that there could be a better way to get the background across than those long, long sections of dialogue between it and Hiro.

But, the kicker for me was how none of the female characters are really relatable or fully realized people. Jaunita walks the line between a cypher and a saint the whole time. She never feels like a real person, but we are expected to buy that Hiro is completely in love with her and that on some level she is returning the feeling. I identified with Y.T. at first and I think that got me through most of the book. And then, with no warning or explanation he takes away all of her agency and skewers her character completely for the sake of plot advancement! It actually pissed me off, in a way that a work of media has not pissed me off since I watched rape scenes not treated as rape scenes in movies like 40 Days and 40 Nights and Rules of Attraction. He created a world were the is almost no rule of law and plops this teenaged Lara Croftesque character in it, but just could not allow himself to write the inevitable of her being raped. He gives her the dentata to protect her somewhat against this eventuality. So, she's smart enough to realize the risks of the life she is living and be prepared, but it ends up being more of a magical talisman than an effective weapon. When she is eventually captured by the villains, she runs smack dab into what up until that point had been made out to be one of the biggest, badass villains the world has ever seen, Raven. But, he makes her forget she has the dentata. I understand that since she was basically a captive in a cult, he was making her forget a lot of things. I just fail to understand how anyone could ever forget something being in their vagina. Especially something that is supposed to incapacitate an rapist in the middle of the act. Sure, you can get used to wearing a tampon or some such, sort of in the same way that you might not always consciously realize you are wearing glasses. But, you wouldn't forget about the fact that you own a pair of glasses and I don't think that when you are being held against your will is the time you will forget that you own a weapon you store in your vagina. So, what happens when our heroine is whisked away by the villain? She falls in lust with him immediately, forgets the dentata and accidentally incapacitates him with the dentata after one of the most awkward and unbelievable (not in a good way) sex scenes I have ever read. Including squicky rotting corpse sex scenes from Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series of vampire books. So, the assasination of Y.T. as a character really ruined it for me. I can admire the imagination and the storytelling ability it takes to tie everything together in the end. I might have even been in awe of the fact that the sort of rag tag group of saved the world and that you were rooting for them from saving this imperfect world from becoming even worse...if I hadn't recently read that theme done so masterfully by China Mieville in Perdido Street Station. The abrupt ending did not bother me so much as I was just sort of relieved to be finished and that nothing worse happened, like Y.T. ending up forced married to the Mob boss or something.

Given that Snow Crash was supposed to have been a graphic novel and was written early on on his career, I decided to give Stephenson another chance with The Diamond Age. This works much better as a novel on so many levels for me. It seems different enough from our world as we know it, that I wasn't bothered in the least by any sort of plausibility of the technology and was just able to admire the niftiness of it. Okay, maybe not the whole embedded guns inside your brain part, but the being able to walk to a matter compiler and just request some new clothes, or a blanket or a dish of Mac and cheese? Having a 'pen' that beeps everytime you have email? That would be awesome.

Most of the characters had way more depth this time around and for many of them we also get a real glimpse into their psyches and understand what is driving them to do the things they least sometimes. The primer itself is created by two men out of a desire to inoculate their granddaughters against the failures of the current educational system and turn them into individuals who can surpass mediocrity and into greatness for their society. However, through a strange series of events, Nell, a peasant with no cultural affiliation and tens of thousands of Chinese girls also get their own versions of the primer.

I think my favorite parts of the novel occur in the Primer with Nell. The elements of fantasy and myth were interesting, although some of the individual tales from the primer went on a little bit too long. The whole concept of the primer reminded me very much of the mind game at the Battle School in Ender's Game...complete with accidentally spawning a female gaurdian for the protagonist although Miranda is flesh and blood and Jane is A.I. In both works, the only interactions with Nell and Ender exist because of and through complex computer networks. I think there can also be some comparisons to Nell with Ender in that they both end up leaders of real armies because of their performances in what they thought at the time were childhood games, as Nell eventually leads the Chinese girls as the Queen of their Mouse Army, both in the primer and eventually in a real life war.

But, just when I thought that Nell was becoming so much of a fully realized character and so much of an improvement over Y.T., what happens? He's not done with Y.T. yet! I completely read the character of Miss Matheson at the boarding school to be an elderly Y.T. The reference to being a thrasher in her youth being the most obvious bit of evidence. I'm a little torn at liking where she ended up and hating it. On the one hand, she's independent at least, but on the other she's in this repressed society and stuck in a wheelchair and sort of pathetically trying to create a vicarious legacy with Nell.

But, then just when I thought we might get through the novel without any weird sex scenes or rapes (to give credit where it is due, Stephenson handles Nell's childhood abuse well, including allusions to at least grooming for molestation, but with enough subtlety that it's possible to believe Nell blocks out the worst parts or she escaped before it got that far) he introduces the Drummers. Which are sort of like hippies on acid and ecstasy at the same time that they create a collective concious by basically wandering around and screwing each other's brains out. From the introduction of this society on out, it not only gets weird but just down right confusing. As in, I completely will give up trying to give you any kind of plot synopsis from memory. It eventually makes sense, but I just can't explain it to you and still have time to eat, do yoga and take a shower before bed.

So, we'll skip ahead to the part that makes me uncertain on how far I want to go with this pledge to read everything by Mr. Stephenson. At the beginning of the conflict at the climax of the book, Nell is captured and raped. Again, Stephenson creates a world and puts his heroine in a scenario where this becomes inevitable. But, again, you later find out that it isn't just the situation that has created the need for it, but again rape as plot device because Nell becomes infected with a nanotech virus from the rape. Which might have been excusable, had the way that it was written not been so jarring. The language used I recall as being flowery, glossing over the details and in the end leaving her almost unaffected by her rape. A certain level of fight or flight, not being able to breakdown because she had to escape would be expected. But, instead of that it seemed as if Stephenson made it seem almost like Nell was just so strong that she transcended being raped in this weird, metaphysical way. It just did not work for me at all and to basically have the same problem in two novels in a row? Not a great sign that you aren't going to feature these gratuitous and odd rape scenes in everything else.

So, once again, I'm more relieved than disturbed by the abrupt ending. Although, it might have been nice to have seen Nell get to collapse, lose it and be nurtured through dealing with what happened to her by Miranda. I understand that Stephenson is known for doing this in everything, which also makes me question wanting to continue with the rest of his oeuvres. However, I have to wonder if it is being a symptom of being a programming geek? Not that I know anything about programming, but the point is to get all sorts of lines of codes to work together to create something else, a program that is greater than the sum of his parts. And pieces of code while they might be unique or interesting or whatever, don't have their own motivations beyond how they are being used to create the program. Once his characters have achieved the connecting of all the dots to the end of the climax of the story, there is no longer a purpose for using them or writing about them? Or maybe I have been sitting at my computer way too long and am no longer making sense.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

1.9 more down

I finished Superfreakonomics last weekend. I liked the first one and the second one is much the same, maybe going into a little bit more detail than the first one in some ways. A collection of weird factoids with the overlying theme that common sense is fallible and people don't always act rationally. If only my economics textbook had been written by these guys, I might have actually cared for that class in college!

I'm only about 20 pages away from finishing the The Diamond Age. I'm enjoying it much more than Snow Crash. More on both later.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Total Count

We're up to 7 now.

In addition to those already reviewed I have finished Snow Crash, Every Patient Tells a Story and started the Annals of the Westshore by Ursula K. Le Guin and made it through Gifts and Voices just this week. I'll try to have a Snow Crash review up this week or next and then do the Le Guin trilogy all together. I'm not going to review the other one because it's more of a work/medical nerd read than something I think most people will find fun.
I will not be doing a full review of Perdido Street Station just yet. I think I would like to read a few more books by Mieville first, particularly since some of them take place in the same world.

So, Today I will be talking about The Suspiscions of Mr. Whicher.

The book is a sort of combination of a true crime novel and autobiography of the family and the detective in the case chronicled. Summerscale uses not only archives about the case but also quotes even the letters written in to the newspapers at the time. The familiarity of the complaints about gruesome news coverage as well as the shock of authors writing novels about fictitious crimes with gruesome similarity was interesting. 'Ripped from the headlines' is not a new phenomenon and horrible crimes have been happening for forever and being exploited by the media for over a hundred years. Maybe I'm weird, but I find that oddly comforting compared to the idea that the past was a golden age of wonder and the current state of affairs is evidence of a horrible decline.

The crime occurred in 1860 and the detective at the center is a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle and it is argued by the author a possible basis for the character. Detectives were new and the idea of using scientific principles to solve crimes was new, but came into such conflict with the Victorian morals and principles of the day. Cloth evidence is sized against only the serving women of the house hold, the delicate ladies of the house could not be subject to such an indignity. This and a similar reluctance of the investigators to truly apply objective and scientific methods we would think of as basic today, leads to the investigation being majorly bungled from the beginning and the resolution all the more difficult to pursue.

A warning against for the faint of heart, the novel is about the murder of a real child and can be graphic at parts. It's not light reading, but there's redemptive quality to the twist at the end. I won't give it away in this initial post, but I definitely wasn't predicting it which is always nice when reading a book that feels like a whodunnit. Anyone interested in true crime, histories or mysteries should find it enlightening and well worth a read.

Monday, February 1, 2010

It's been awhile, I know.

I took an unusually long time to finish Perdido Street Station. And I still don't feel like I've had enough time to digest it to justify a full post about it. In short, for now, I recommend it for SF and Horror fans looking for something new and original. More to come later.

Also more to come later on The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which I just finished today.

Starting Snow Crash in February may be putting my Stephenson goal in jeopardy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Confirmed: Romance is one of my least favorite genres

Remove Formatting from selectionI swear I went in with an open mind. I finished Goddess of the Sea by PC Cast last week, her sort of modern retelling of the Little Mermaid tale. A modern women is transported into the middle ages in a magical parallel world into the body of a mermaid after a traumatic accident. Capers and mermaid/human sex ensue. I think the biggest problem is that it was just way too predictable. When you know there is going to be a happy ending, you don't get the same kind of suspenseful tension in the story that makes you want to keep reading to figure out what happens. Cast did a good job in trying to avoid a stereotypical Romance heroine. Unfortunately, too good of a job in that the numerous New Agey, women are divine and empowered messages were delivered with sledgehammers. And the amount of New Age and Neo Pagan/Wiccan language thrown in was almost as exasperating to me as trying to get through Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe. As far as I can tell through the interwebs, Cast claims to be private about her personal religious beliefs, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt that it may not be an issue of proselytizing or glorifying a personal faith as it seems to be for Card (or more egregious examples lurking in the Christian fiction aisle). The issue isn't so much that there are religious themes addressed or religious characters. I enjoy many books that deal with serious religious themes. It's an issue of subtlety and allowing the reader to contemplate the issues, rather than the concepts being thrust forward as completely true and without much nuance or complexity. I realize that Romance is by and large about escapism and I was likely expecting too much going in. I'll keep that in mind and try to avoid the genre in the future, unless I get solid recommendations on notable exceptions.

All in all, if you want fairy tales retold in a magical world with strong female characters, I would recommend Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series instead.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

First book finished in 2010

The Devil's Alphabet by Darryl Gregory.

This is only going to count as .5 for the 2010 total, because I started it before New Year's Eve and finished it January 2.

I had actually read his first novel Pandemonium last year and really enjoyed it. My library classifies his books as horror, probably more because the first one technically contains demons and the title of the second one. Pandemonioum won a few fantasy awards and The Devil's Alphabet read more as SF than horror to me.

The gist of the plot is that 15 years ago a tiny town becomes infected out of nowhere with a mysterious disease that comes in three waves that kills off about a third of the population and completely transforms others into one of three types depending on if they contracted the A, B or C strain. The disease completely alters DNA to the point that those who survive strain A become giants called Argos. Betas have dusky skin, no hair are mostly female and can reproduce by parthenogenesis. Charlies become super obese. The entire town is not affected and those passed over are called skips. Our main character, Pax, is a skip that was sent away to Chicago after the initial quarantine ends and only returns for a funeral and stays because he is suspicious of the secrets the town may hold, including if his friend was murdered or committed suicide. The ensuing caper is part classic science fiction, part small town murder mystery and still manages to be a bit of a coming of age story.

There are parallels between the first book and the second book that I just can't ignore. Both main characters are young men that can't seem to get their lives together until they address things that have happened in their childhood. In both, the fear of contagion plays a significant role (in the first novel, demon possession is fairly common and recognized as a sort of contagious mental illness) in shaping the way that the main characters have isolated themselves from having meaningful relationships. Even with the parallels, the two novels are vastly different and the second one maintains a fresh, almost hip style that you don't get with many SF authors. Or maybe I don't get because I was born in the eighties, so I've had to play catch up with most of the greats and some of the not so greats, but favorites in the genre.

With the sophomore effort, Gregory may be becoming a new favorite author. And 2010 is soundly rung in with a great read.

Next, I will be showing some love to an Oklahoman author, PC Cast. My library finally obtained her YA vampire series, but there's a waiting list. Trying to keep an open mind, I checked out the only book of hers I could find on the shelf at my last library trip Goddess of the Sea. And I mean, keeping a really open mind, it's tagged as Romance. I'm hoping it's Romance in the way that Darryl Gregory is Horror.

On Deck:

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale (recommended by Spencer)

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Powers by Ursula K. LeGuin

In the beginning

The purpose of this exercise is primarily to catalog my effort to meet two important reading goals for 2010:

1. Read all of Neal Stephenson's novels.

2. Read 96 books total.

Along the way, I will probably also keep track of the movies and TV shows I'm watching or occasionally a neat article or two. But, mostly books.

Yes, I realize there are applications for keeping track of every book that you've ever read or movie you've ever seen. But, I'd like to have a more in depth record of my first impressions. I also like being able to have some discussions with the two to three other people who have expressed interest in reading this. I've never been one to obsessively keep spreadsheets or lists. I won't be able to keep to any kind of regular posting schedule, but since I have specific goals to track I believe this effort should last much longer than if I was trying to keep any kind of regular diary or talk about my life. My life is not that interesting. The books I read often are and even if they aren't, I can warn you ahead of time.