Tuesday, November 29, 2005

49. The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

The Chronoliths in the Ring book picture
Wilson is another Canadian science fiction author (I also heard him interviewed on The Arts Tonight on CBC). They seem to need to mention that he was born in California but moved to Canada at a young age, grew up there and currently lives in Toronto. Did he not take Canadian citizenship?

The Chronoliths takes place in the near future and is the story of a man who was present when the first chronolith appeared in Thailand. These giant crystal pillars just appear, one by one, either in the remote countryside or later in the middle of Asian cities, destroying everything around them. According to the inscriptions at their base, they are memorials to battles that take place 20 years in the future. As they continue to appear, they disrupt the world, with their physical destruction but more with their psychological impact. Societies begin to brace for this unknown world tyrant who appears to be taking over the world from the future. But as the world adapts to this future threat, it starts to create the conditions that will make it happen.

Caught up in this conceptual time struggle, the protaganist leads us through the development and how it impacts his own life. The appearance of these giant memorials are like a destiny he can't avoid and they mess with him and his family in direct and indirect ways as much as they affect the earth. The book follows both storylines, though more of the impact is with the psychology of the narrator.

It's an interesting book and an intriguing premise. The story plays out well, keeping you engaged with suspense and interesting characters. The conceptual element and the way the potential time paradox is resolved is satisfying as well. I found it just a bit dark. The mood was sort of sombre and regretful throughout, which may have been appropriate. It just didn't make me feel super excited. There were also a couple of small little errors that stood out for me, like the suggestion that downtown Baltimore had gone to seed during the protaganist's lifetime (when it's pretty common knowledge that that happened in the second half of the twentieth century) and a misuse of the term syllogism.

Overall, though, Robert Charles Wilson is a skilled writer and his story delivers. If all his books have such a sombre tone, I might not be so interested. Otherwise, I'll check out his other works. There are some good Canadian sci-fi authors!

Monday, November 28, 2005

48. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nola Hopkinson

Brown Girl in the Ring book pictureNola Hopkinson was recommended by Peter Watts on his excellent website as "the woman who climbed into the future and saw way too many white guys in spaceships, and did something about it." I also heard her on the CBC and she had some interesting stuff to say about science fiction. She's a Toronto native of Caribean descent. Brown Girl in the Ring is her first novel.

It's about a young Caribbean woman living in downtown Toronto in the near future. The city's core has become a walled-off place where the poor live. The upper classes have fled to the burbs, leaving the the inner city to criminals like Rudy, the gang lord who runs the place. Rudy get a commission to find a good human heart to replace the Premiere's dying one. This is some kind of transgression because organ donation has been made illegal and people rely on pig farms for their organs. This is the area where the book really suffered. Hopkinson's depiction of this dystopic future was, to my mind, simplistic and flawed. It also seemed to stem from some weird conservative viewpoints. Voters (in the suburbs) were fighting against the pig farms because they considered them inhumane, while the premiere hired criminals to find a human heart. I get the point, but it seems unrealistic and exaggerated. Furthermore, the whole reason for Toronto's economic collapes was because the world put a trade embargo on Ontario for a certain kind of wood that was on native land. So it almost seems like she's blaming the natives! I'd have to read more of her novels to see if this kind of politics of resentment is a real theme, or if it was just the incompletely thought out future of a first-time novelist (which is perfectly acceptable).

The story itself is okay, about the girl dealing with her new baby, her lame boyfriend and her witch-doctor grandmother. You kind of new where it was going to end up. What really shone, though, was the depiction of ritual magic and the role of the old African and Caribean gods. That was really cool and Hopkinson didn't pull any punches. It kind of seems that this book was targeted for young adults, but there was some nasty stuff in it. And the way she describes the various gods as they take form by "riding" a human host was incredibly visual and evocative.

Overall, Brown Girl in the Ring suffered from being a bit simplistic, but there was enough pretty cool material to warrant checking out Nalo Hopkinson's other work. She is a black woman sci-fi writer and she obviously has drawn heavily from her own background and spirit and that is an important and necessary addition to a genre that must continue to evolve.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

47. Nobody Runs Forever by Richard Stark

Nobody Lives Forever book pictureI'd been eagerly awaiting this book, the latest in the Parker saga, to come in to the library. Parker is a cold-blooded, efficient heister in a series of books written in the 60s and 70s by Richard Stark, who is actually Donald E. Westlake. They are far and away the best crime books and in my opinion, some of the best series of books ever. The thing is, Parker doesn't fuck around, like so many other supposed crime books (especially American ones) that are diluted with whiny prevaricating, inefficient behaviour and general lameness (and this is saying nothing about movies). What made the Parker books so cool, was that deep down they were about going against the man, about independence from any organization that wanted to impose its rules on you, be it the cops, the mob or the company you have to work for. The last in the first iteration of the series, Butcher's Moon is a climax of anti-authoritanism, where Parker takes it hard to the outfit and houses them royally. Start with The Hunter (the first Parker book, which was turned into the movie Point Blank) and keep going.

Unfortunately, Richard Stark started writing the Parker books again in the late '90s and they just weren't as good. They were watered down, Parker was doing stupid things like talking to people and walking around in disguise. They were decent enough books, but nothing compared to the heights reached in the first set. I didn't feel too critical because Westlake is getting older and a lot of his toughness was probably the result of the anger of a young man (which we see in several of his other books, such as Killy). Though, The Axe, one of his recent books about a downsized guy who goes around killing his potential competitors for jobs, was pretty hardcore. Anyways, I stopped reading the new ones unless they fell into my lap, as they did at the library.

I read Breakout in August and it wasn't bad. It was solid but not spectacular. I'd say it was on the level of some of the less great in the first series, such as the Black Ice Score. Well I'm very happy to report that Nobody Runs Forever is really quite good. Parker is back in form. The side characters are interesting and the heist is very cool. Usually the heist take place in the middle of the Parker books. This one is all about the build up, as Parker and the guys he's working with try to hold all the loose ends in place as the other weak humans involved slowly break down. The end of the book is a gripping timeline as Stark takes us through all the actions of the characters involved step by step. As a reader, you're not sure which of them is going to fuck the whole thing up, or even if they will. It's very tense. There are also two really hardcore kickass moments where Westlake shows us why he calls himself "stark". When he writes tough, he doesn't blink and it can be quite startling. I don't know if he's gotten grumpy again in his old age, or if this is his last Parker book so he gave it his all, but I was quite happily surprised at how much a return to the form of the original series this was.

I'd like to recommend it to you, but as I've said before, you really should read the original series first.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

46. Starfish by Peter Watts

Starfish book pictureI'm very psyched about this book. It's the first one of the whole year that got me really excited. I grabbed it off the shelf at the library because the cover looked cool and it was by a Canadian author. It claims to fall under the heading of "hard sci-fi" whatever that means. I think it's just because it has a lot of science in it.

It's about a group of psychologically damaged people who have been genetically altered and put into a deep sea station where they are supposed to be handling the maintenance of these generators taking energy from powerful hydrothermal vents. These vents are supplying a lot of the energy to the world. The people running the project found that certain types of victims of abuse were the only ones capable of existing in such an oppressive atmosphere. They are modified and trained so that they can swim around.

So basically, you've got a pod of psychos who are practically amphibious. But what happens is that they start to discover that they are much happier outside of the pod in the ocean. They start to adapt to it and it changes their personalities. On top of that, the reasons for them being down their start to get really interesting, which I don't even want to get into. Suffice it to say that this book deals with a lot of cool themes: a dystopic society, complex psychological relationships, accelerated human evolution, morality politics and biological plague. It's taut and fast-moving, with really cool science and tech concepts. Most of the action takes place underwater, which is described beautifully (as is the characters' slowly developing empathy and eventual dependence on the environment). But there are tantalizing hints of the world on the surface.

This book stands on it's own, but I think the series continues and I'm psyched.

Highly recommended. Very psyched to have discovered this author.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

45. High Rise by J.G. Ballard

High Rise book pictureI must deliver a mixed report on High Rise. First, it's a great book. I strongly recommend that you read it if you haven't already. It's a dark and complex exploration into the deterioration of bourgeois civilization, in the form of a giant self-sufficient high-rise for upper middle and middle class professionals. Hierarchical social groups begin to devolve into warring clans. I don't know if he's critiquing western bourgeois society or mankind in general, but Ballard's prognosis is dark. Quite quickly, men are ganging up on the weak, killing their dogs, barricading hallways, marking their territory with urine. The women become status property, something to protect, or form matriarchal gangs of their own. He really takes the idea to the limit and the last few chapters are delicious in their excess.

However, in the context of Ballard's other work, there is not a lot that is original in High Rise. That's why I'm giving it the mixed review. He pulls out so many elements, especially from his first four post-apocalyptic novels, that I felt for a lot of the book that I was going over the same ground. The mysterious patriarch is in both The Drought and The Wind From Nowhere. There are many other examples, and probably the differences in how he presents these themes and iconic characters would be worth analysis. It's just that I felt I'd been treading over the same ground and that Ballard hadn't taken things much farther.

However, the ending redeemed a lot of my concerns, First, it was wildly entertaining (Wilder, has business suit reduced to cutoffs, fly open to expose his genitals, body covered in tribal lipstick patterns, fighting his way to the penthouse apartment from the first floor). Second, though he didn't really push his theme farther, he committed himself to it. He made it pretty clear that this is where he believes our consumerized and sheltered society will end up.

Read it.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

44. The Duel by Anton Chekhov

The Duel book pictureI'm pushing things a bit considering The Duel a book, but it's more a novella, even a very long short story, but it is published alone and is thus literally "a book". Chekhov is one of those authors that I would sort of pretend to myself that I kind of new about but would never (except perhaps when really drunk or in my 20's) have expressed this out loud. After reading The Fixer and after being quite rewarded by getting through Oblomov last year, I'm starting to find Russian literature interesting, even entertaining. They are a bizarre people, judging by their literature and the one Russian friend I had (my strongest memory of Dima, my old workmate in the Chain Division of Western Books, is him standing next to our delivery truck, holding a bag of his own puke in the air, saying "Do I look suspicious?") and I can see why a certain segment of young academics fall in love with them and go off to Russia to study.

The Duel is about a small group of the gentry in an isolated seaside town. One of them, Laevky, has fallen out of love with his mistress, but he's such a pathetic, ineffectual person that he can't do anything about it. Another character, an agressive opinionated zoologist constantly attacks Laevky verbally behind his back. The duel is almost an afterthought to the study of the two men and the people around them. In the end, everybody seems flawed but ultimately pleasant and gentle. It's a very different tone from The Fixer. The only cruelty (and even that is too extreme of a word) is more a result of the inevitable conflicts of life and society and human flaws than any deliberate malevolance.

I had thought Chekhov was more about intrigue, plotting and nasty machinations, dark studies of human conflict. This is only one story, but from the introduction, it sounds like Chekhov's books were very sympathetic to his characters. He himself sounds like an amazing person. He came out of poverty, supported his family by writing, became a doctor and wrote and treated thousands of poor people for free before dying at 41 of tuberculosis.

I'll read more Chekhov for sure.

Friday, November 18, 2005

43. Sparrow Nights by David Gilmour

Sparrow book pictureThis author was interviewed on Sounds Like Canada (the interview will probably be up for a couple more days) because he just won the Governor General's award for literature for his latest book, A Perfect Night to Go to China. He was a lively and straightforward speaker and quite funny. Up until this latest book, his theme has tended to be about sex, older men and younger woman. He also said how he rigorously edits down his prose, to make it as lean as possible, a strong advertisement for a writer when one is at the final lap of a 50 books project. Plus, I need to get some CanLit here.

I picked up Sparrow Nights at the library again and immediately got into it. It's a modern novel and I mean that in the sense that it's contemporary and adult, hardback with a fancy looking cover. It makes you feel very grown up and today reading it. It's basically the story about a slightly unhinged french lit professor and his recovery from a breakup with a younger woman. It's really about getting over heartbreak. The story and theme are not particularily original (it seems that most everybody has gone through the same feelings his character did, but usually in their 30s. I sure hope that it won't happen again in the 50s!), but his writing style and observations are hilarious. He's raunchy and critical and speaks with the angry, clever voice of the intelligent victim, whose last resistance against defeat is simply the colour of his own personality. There were several moments where I laughed out loud.

I'll definitely pick up some of his other books. I'm curious if the style will be as distinct and yet have a different voice.

Strongly recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

42. What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr

What is History? book pictureThe principal of the school I'm teaching at lent me this book, when I we were discussing ways to approach the 10th grade history class I'm covering for the month of November. It's a series of lectures from the early '60s by a Cambridge professor and covers very broadly the history of the study and philosophy of history.

He looks at the relationship between the historian and history, the relationship between historical facts and theories, the place for morality in history, the role of accident and causality in history, the concept of history as progress and how these notions have changed through time. It's an excellent survey of historiography, seen primarily through examples of European historians in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. He is a moderate and progressive thinker, arguing for a balanced approach to history that takes into account both sides of the various arguments:

"The historian and the facts of history are necessary to one another. The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historian are dead and meaningless. My first answer, therefore to the question What is history?, is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past."

He builds from these balances and develops a rich and nuanced overview to the state of history today, with a progressive conclusion that calls for historians and society to recognize the dynamic state of change in the world and not stay stuck in the structures of the past.

I studied history in college, so most of the ideas in this book were not new to me. Some of them I studied quite explicitly and others were implicit in whatever else was being studied. But I never had a chance to read them all summarized as an overall study of the discipline in such a concise, clear and well-written manner. Had I the patience and the mental sophistication to read this book in my first or second year, I would have had a much better appreciation of the discipline as a whole and my mind would have been much better prepared to approach the work. I think this is an excellent book for someone who likes history and politics but hasn't really studied it in any depth. It will open your eyes to very important concepts of interpretation and give you a much more sophisticated understanding of what you are being told about history when you read it or see it in other media.

Personally, I was also quite inspired (as you can probably tell by the length of this posting) and it made me feel that desire to just focus on one historical period and study the shit out of it. Unfortunately, I also still seem to have real difficulty reading non-fiction, where I just phase out for whole paragraphs, even pages and have to force myself to re-read them several times. I had it in college and it hasn't gotten much better (though my motivation to read the material has). I'm just a distractable person and in these wired days, there is too much competing information. So that dream of intense, focused scholarship is one more on the Theoretical Project World shelf. But I'm happy to know that my love of history is still there.

As for the class I'm subbing, I have to cover 100 years of material (including Canada's three most significant political developments) in roughly 12 hours of class using only a skinny textbook that has whittled out anything but the most basic facts. So we're taking notes and memorizing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

41. Sundiver by David Brin

Sundiver book pictureI'm trying to get a few popular science fiction novels read and this was the first of the Uplift series that seems pretty popular. For some reason, which may have had to do with the physical binding of the book more than anything else, it took me a while to get into Sundiver.

It's an interesting concept. Its all about aliens and posits a universe where all sentient beings were brought into sentience (or uplifted") by another sentient species. There are complex codes of social dependency based on who uplifted whom and everyone is searching for the species that first uplifted the others (the Progenitors) now lost in the mists of time. The humans are an anomaly because they appear to have uplifted themselves, though the dogma of the other species claims that they were uplifted and then abandond.

Sundiver is about a human-sponsored trip to the sun and the politics and intrigue that takes place on the ship.

The universe is pretty interesting and the politics around uplift are quite rich and well thought out. The sci-fi stuff is pretty wild too. Theres lots of flying around in the sun's atmosphere and cool descriptions thereof.

The main character was really interesting as well, because he had a split personality, which he kept under control with extreme mental discipline. His "Hyde" personality was also the ass-kicking one, so he would release it every now and then when he needed to be a badass. Pretty cool concept.

Unfortunately, other than the main guy, the characters were very difficult to get a handle on. They didn't behave consistently and their dialogue seemed to jump all over the place. It was sort of supposed to be like that, because it turns out their minds were being messed with. Also, the big mystery that was going on in the first part of the book seemed so obvious, It was unbelievable that nobody was aware that something weird was going on.

Cool concept and a well-developed universe, but it just didn't grab me enough to want to continue on in the series.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

40. The man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle book pictureI've always wanted to read this book and Buzby's recent review spurred me to action. I picked it up at the Library.

I love the idea of the alternate history where the Allies lost the Second World War. It would be fascinating to see how the Japanese and Nazi governments ran the world and Dick does a great job. What I found really interesting was the aesthetic and philosophical affects that Japanese occupation had on western North America. I don't know if he made it all up or if he studied the Japanese psyche, but it seemed pretty convincing. The upper class Japanese are very focused on the relationship of designed elements to existence and spend a lot of time philosophizing on them. There is no current abstract art. Everything is functional or carries some connection to the past. There is a great scene where a Japanese collector spends hours on a park bench trying to understand a piece of jewelry that has no purpose other than its design.

The Nazi leadership and how their internecine struggles play out are also really cool. I like that he put Bormann as the next leader of the Reich after Hitler. There are some very disturbing ideas here. The Nazis drain the mediterranean and make it farmland and they basically destroy Africa.

Ultimately, I'm not sure where the plot ends up. It pulls away from the various narratives, which are mostly fully grounded in the reality he creates and suddenly makes the reader self-aware and questioning of that reality. I'm not sure where to go with that. It definitely begs further analysis.

My only complaint is that the female character, though as interesting and complex as all of Dick's characters (he does a great job of writing peoples internal thought processes), kind of falls apart in a way that doesn't ring true. She suddenly becomes an unhinged female that really smelled of the way that women were perceived in the period when he wrote the novel. He may have had some greater purpose in portraying her in this way, where she almost becomes schizophrenic when confronted with the notion that her boyfriend is a Nazi spy. But it came off to this reader as not quite forward-looking as good sci-fi should be.

Still, Dick had an amazing mind and having read The Man in the High Castle has made me much more interested in the body of his work.

Friday, November 11, 2005

39. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

The Fixer book pictureI picked this one up because The Assistant by the same author was on the Time top 100 list, but they didn't have it in the library. I read that that one, this one and a third were considered Malamud's classics and that he was considered a classic writer of Jewish literature. Thought I should know more about him.

The Fixer is about a poor Jew in Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. He lives in a small village and decides to go to Kiev. By luck, he gets a job in a brick factory in a part of town where Jews are forbidden. A small child is brutally murdered and the Fixer is framed for it, his Judaism revealed and is the main reason he is scapegoated.

The rest of the book is him in jail, awaiting an indictment, being treated more and more cruelly. The terrible things that are done to him, and the anti-Semitism portrayed is almost farcical. Unfortunately, it rings very true. I don't know much about the history of this period. The Fixer inspires me to learn more. You hear so much about the Nazi persecution of the Jews and only rare references to the pogroms in Russia. My own great-grandparents fled Byelorussia in 1905 to come to Canada.

But the way Russia is portrayed in The Fixer is shocking. People are easily convinced that a Jew would kidnap a small boy, bleed him ritually in order to drink his blood in a religious ceremony. He's separated out from the rest of the prisoners, kept under constant guard, chained to the wall. High-ranking priests give evidence that Jewish rituals that require Christian blood. It's the kind of book that makes you very angry when you read it. It is almost to the point where you start to feel towards the Russians as they seem to feel in the book towards the Jews! This made me a bit suspicious of the bent of the book, though I think it is much more complex than just a polemic against Russian anti-Semitism. One thing that I am convinced of, every time I read a Russian novel or a book about Russia, is that Russians may have the consistently most brutal history towards themselves.

As a novel, it is engrossing and moving. You spend a lot of time with the fixer's (or Yakov Bok, which is his name) thoughts, which I usually find boring. But he goes over his past and questions the value of god and suffering in the world in a way that gets into your soul without you having to do a lot of intellectual struggling as a reader. I'm not sure what conclusion to make, though I would say there is some teeny hope for humanity (or Jewmanity, at least) but it is buried way down deep in a mountain of suffering.

Note that this review is informed only by the book. I go now to do some internet research on Malamud and what others have to say about The Fixer.

[10 minutes later: Okay, just found out this book was based on a true story. Holy shit.]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

38. Death in a Canadian Military Hospital by Victor Dyer

I picked this one up on the library, looking for a book by a different Dyer. It had Canadian in the title and a cool red cover with a skull on it. It was published in 1961, I guess as a mystery and perhaps the only book by this author. It's about a woman who gets murdered on a park bench that is somehow connected with a terrible veteran's hospital, where they patients are treated like crap by the doctors and orderlies.

The portrayal of the hospital is heartfelt and disturbing. I get the feeling that the author had very personal reasons for portraying the hospital in such a bad light. The mystery itself is complex and kind of compelling. But it seems as if it was written by a computer or a really organized 8th grader. Every single person talks in this direct and mannered way, just like the narrator, with no contractions, just like a robot. And the town, though in Canada, is in some bizarre, unnamed province that bears no resemblance to any Canada I've ever heard of.

Really a strange book, and I'm surprised it got published at all. But it was earnest and has a cool title.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

37. Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion book pictureThere is a decent english science fiction section at La Bibliotheque Nationale here and I chose Hyperion simply because it had a cool cover and I felt pretty sure it was popular. I'm trying to catch up on my sci-fi.

It's about 7 people who come together on a remote planet called Hyperion that is just about to be the site of an interstellar battle between the dominant human Hegemony and an outcast society called the Ousters. For various reasons not made clear at the beginning, Hyperion and some ancient tombs on it are extremely important to the fate of the galaxy. Because of the war, and because of a mysterious and viciously deadly monster called the Shrike who has somehow been released from the tombs, everyone is fleeing Hyperion, except for the 7 pilgrims.

I know it all sounds kind of complicated and at first it is, but what's really great about this book is the structure and the way it unfolds the backstory. Each of the 7 pilgrims has a reason connected with the tombs and the Shrike for coming to Hyperion. And they decide that they should tell each other their story as they make their journey to the tombs. The book, then, becomes a collection of stories, each framed on top of the journey. Each story reveals a little bit more about the galaxy and man's development in space. It also reveals more and more about the nature of the Shrike and the tombs and the war. Into this mix is a rich future history that explores man's relation with computers (the AI's play an important role) and the destructive nature of colonialism.

The writing is solid and entertaining and the setting and science fiction concepts are rich and imaginative (there are a people who float around space in giant space trees). My only real complaint is that by the time you get to the last pilgrim's story, you realize there just can't be enough pages left to complete the larger story. And it doesn't end. I picked this book up because it didn't appear to be necessary to read the sequels. But I see that was just because the copy I got was printed before the sequels came out. It's definitely a part of a series, something I'm trying to avoid. But I'm hooked and I'll at least give the next book a read to see how the pilgrims' progress turns out.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

36. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Brighton Rock book pictureI've read a couple Graham Greene books in the past (Ministry of Fear, the End of the Affair) but I don't think I was really old enough to appreciate them at the time. I was looking for good english crime and he is good at that, but his books also have so much more going on that I found myself a bit distant from the narrative the first time around.

Brighton Rock was on a friend's top 11 list and because I had a sense that I had not given Greene a real chance, I picked it up. I'm glad I did. From the first sentence that I was in good hands:

"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him."

That's how you start a book.

The story revolves around a young psychopath who has elevated himself to the top of his small and small-time gang. There are several narrative threads going on, around and through the anti-hero, but the book concentrates on his own crazy mind and the actions that he does. This is an extremely dark book. Brighton is portrayed as a desperate, tawdry middle-class vacation spot where there is no success and less hope. Every metaphor is brutal, waves hitting pilings are like punches to the face, a shop window is a future of despair. The characters are confused, driven by fear or hatred.

The Boy (as the young gangster is referred to) is Catholic and has a twisted view of sexuality (and pleasure of any kind). Trying to close the trail of clues to several murders, he makes acquaintances with a young waitress and ends up having to marry her, which fills him with constant dread and disgust. It's almost funny (but it's so dark that it's not funny at all) the agony he goes through just trying to respond to her requests for a kiss.

Brighton Rock is a rich and disturbing study of a people, a place and a time. It's so tortured and painful that I can't say it's the most enjoyable read, but it is convincing and interesting and extremely well-written. Read this if you're feeling dark and mysanthropic.

Friday, November 04, 2005

35. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides book pictureWell I jumped on the bandwagon with this one, following in the footsteps of the Mt. Benson report as well as the Crumbolst response. Unfortunately, June 23rd accidently erased his archives, so I can't compare his reaction to the others. I do know that he is using the book in his 9th grade humanities class, which will be very interesting to hear about.

It took me a while to realize how different this book is from the rest of the Post-Apocalyptic genre. As the previous readers mentioned above have noted, it is the grand-daddy of the genre, since it was written in 1949 and it really does avoid the standard tact of some kind of conflict after the fall. Rather, the nature of the apocalypse is relatively gentle. Almost everybody dies from a disease. But there is no horror of violence and fear. It all happens very quickly and society is very ordered about their response, right up into the end. So for the protagonist, who was up in the mountains, it's more like the world just emptied out all of a sudden. We get to see the slow degradation of what man has left behind, as some animals die out and others multiply. Building begin to collapse, forest fires rage, the roads deteriorate. The first third of the book is a thorough and delicious exploration of this slow reversion to nature.

The rest of the book then deals with society as the narrator finds a wife and a few other people and they start a little community. There are conflicts, but only one major one and it is not the point of the narrative. The narrator is much more concerned with the graual detachment from the traditions, behaviours and learnings from the past and how this affects the older people (who were around in the past) and the younger ones differently.

By the end of the book, the narrator is old and feeble and the last person around before the disease came. Society and mankind look like they are going to begin again, but down a very different path, semi-primitive but perhaps socially more sophisticated and maybe freer.

Overall, I'm not sure if this is a pessimistic or optimistic vision. It almost seems more like a very indifferent anthropological study, as if the author just wanted to explore "what would happen". The main character is a geographer and is constantly positing himself as a researcher, just on the outside of society.

I have two points of disagreement with the author. First, he makes a huge distinction between intelligent people and stupid people. I don't know if this is because of the period, but he seems to be making eugenic assumptions. There is a half-wit girl who (thought treated with kindness by the tribe) is treated as basically a non-human. There is no sense at all that she might have something to offer. All the children are considered unteachable because they came from "unintelligent" parents. He theorizes that the reason their parents survived the shock of the post-disease world was because they were not intellectually sensitive enough to appreciate the horror of it. I found this to be a limiting scope on the study of how man would react to such world. That kind of thinking was quite common at the time.

I found that it played into his views on education. The narrator just gives up on teaching the kids because they (except one) don't have the bright eyes and natural desire for learning. Well what kid does? If all kids wanted to learn, we'd all be teachers (or we wouldn't need any). It's the same with how sort of lame and pathetic the first wave of survivors were. He tried to suggest that it was because they could just scavenge, but I have a more optimistic view of human nature (at least in this context). We are a busy and progressing species. Even if we could just scavenge for food, there would be so many other projects that people would undertake. It could be that this took place in America. The people almost seemed like the cast of Survivor. Perhaps had it been Canada, some serious shit would have been getting done.

Overall, a really enjoyable book, though I found the prose a bit too lyrical at times. It does make you think about how humans would rebuild and paints a rich and detailed, though in my opinion, fundamentally flawed, picture of this process.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

34. Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman

Fargo Rock City book pictureI found out about Chuck Klosterman after reading an email exchange between him and Sports Guy (Bill Simmons, whom I would consider one of the funniest and liveliest collumnists today) that was quite entertaining. After a bit of research, I realized Klosterman is a fairly well-known music and social critic. This was the only one of his books I could find at the library.

It's a bunch of semi-chronological essays about his love for heavy metal, a love he developed as a teenager in the midwest of America. I myself was a hater of heavy metal, seeing it as the enemy music of all the trendoids in my own small town. Klosterman sees himself and his fellow metalheads as outsiders as well, which seems weird to me. Maybe things are different in North Dakota, but in Lantzville, the headbangers were the dominant, aggressive musical force and if you dressed differently or listened to different music, you were often victimized by them.

Because of this, it's taken me years to appreciate the musical qualities of metal. I do appreciate them today and can often be found rocking out to Sweet Leaf in the kitchen. But Klosterman is really pushing the envelope. His book is an appreciation of the most poppy glam metal bands like Mötley Crüe, Warrant, Guns and Roses, KISS, Def Leppard. He makes a strong case for all of them, and though I don't buy his arguments enough to make me really like those bands, I do believe that his love for them is real and that they do deserve some level of respect.

Arguments aside, Fargo Rock City is an excellent informational overview to the whole genre. Read this, with iTunes nearby to listen to the many songs and albums he describes, and you will be comfortable having an intelligent discussion with a fan of 80s glam metal. Some of Klosterman's analysis is a bit meandering and uninspired but there are nice ideas and it doesn't really get boring.

If you do want to learn more about 80's metal, than you should definitely read this book. If you want some insightful social commentary from our generation, you might want to try some of his other books (which I'll probably pick up at some point in the future).