Sunday, March 15, 2009

13. The Light of Men by Andrew Salmon

The Light of Men pictureI was inspired to choose this as my 50 Book Club choice by Doc's review. After my review goes up, a few other 50-bookers will be putting up their reviews and we will have a discussion about it in the comments section below.

[Here is the Mount Benson Report review.

Here is the review at the University of Crumbolst.

Here is Redwing's review at The June 23rd Project.]

I am therefore going to review this book in two parts. The first part will be the standard kind of review I would have normally done for a book I read: a general overview, with no spoilers and a final recommendation. In the second part, I'll discuss specific issues that came up in the book and there will definitely be spoilers. This is the type of book where it is better to go in ignorant of what happens, so I strongly encourage you not to read the second part unless you are sure you aren't going to read the book. I'll say that The Light of Men is a really good book, but there are certain people for whom the genre doesn't really do much and I'll make that clear.

Standard non-spoiler review
The Light of Men takes place in a concentration camp in Germany in the last months of the Second World War. A new prisoner arrives who is healthier and more aware than the rest. He also seems to have a certain psychological remove from the horrors going on around him. He is on a mission to try and find a specific prisoner in the camp and goes about manipulating the internal politics of the camp to do so. The story is written with a limited omniscient perspective, so although Aaron is the protagonist, the author doesn't totally let you into his head, nor does he give you any more than subtle hints that he is somehow different. I'm going to stop all discussion here of any more of the narrative, because a lot of the enjoyment of this book is trying to figure out what is going on.

I was concerned going in that a story of this type taking place in a concentration camp could have some very inappropriate results. The opening scene, where the trains first show up and the new arrivals are separated from their belongings and each other by older prisoners overseen by the SS, are brutal without being either exploitative or sentimental. It went a long way towards assuaging my concerns. Salmon has done his research and the opening scenes where the horrors of the camp are slowly laid out to the newcomer had the unpleasant but important effect of shocking my mind into realizing once again that this actually happened.

As the book progresses, one becomes used to the constant horrors of the camp. The story takes precedence. I'm torn as to whether the narrative overshadows the horrors unrealistically (and perhaps too easily) or if that is a reflection of the human ability to adapt. It's been a while since I read Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, but I remember that book had a similar effect at points of making the camps seem like really tough prisons rather than soul-destroying nightmares from which nobody wakes up. I guess that's the point. If you were lucky and tough enough to physically survive, it was those people whose minds could absorb the understanding of what humans really are who without snapping could come out the other side with any shred of life will left.

The Light of Men is an absorbing and entertaining read, a novel blend of history and science fiction, mixed with a light enough touch that the true horror of its subject, the holocaust, is emphasized. The story is gripping, a real page-turner. It did lose a bit of steam with me at the end, but ultimately redeemed itself. I'll discuss that more in the spoiler section below. The Light of Men is a small-press publication, available on Amazon but probably hard to find in a retail bookstore. I think the Light of Men would appeal to a wider audience than just science fiction readers, but it might be a little bit cold and removed for some non-geek readers out there. It definitely deserves wide, commercial distribution. A great read.

Part 2 - deeper analysis for book club discussion


I think the biggest difficulty I had with the book was the ending and the transformation of the main character. Partly because you spend so long not knowing who he really is that when he suddenly starts changing, you don't really have a base to change from. Furthermore, his internal logic didn't really make sense to me. I guess you could read it as a random result of an error, but it felt a bit like we needed and excuse to have a big action scene. Now, I quite enjoyed the action scene and the minor catharsis that went along with it, so I'm not complaining too much, but it just left me feeling a bit less absorbed into the story. He also never actually confirms whether Liebman is dead or not. As a reader, I felt something had been left out and it bothered me.

One other criticism is that, though really quite magnificently horrific, the scene with the camp Kommandant and all the women veered into exploitation territory for me. It just went a little too far into the details that it felt like it was possibly trying to throw a little titillation (really not the right word because the scene was so horrific) into the mix.

Ultimately, though, the way the book ended, where Aaron's involvement ultimately did nothing significant to change history, saved the book for me. I think the author succeeded in delivering a story without disrespecting the reality of the holocaust and its sufferers. It's a delicate balancing act, though!

So I guess I don't have too much deeper to add than that, but I'll throw out some questions as I'm very curious to hear what other's positions and perspectives were on these things.

Did anyone feel that it is simply inappropriate to have this kind of story take place in a concentration camp? Are there naive elements of revenge fantasy in The Light of Men that are disrespectful of the weight of the history of the holocaust?

Was there a moral message in the book? When Aaron's logic couldn't handle his predicament and he flipped out, was that an argument to act against evil, whatever damage it may do?

Did any of you learn anything from the portrayal of the camp?


Jason L said...


I didn't feel it was inappropriate to have the story set in the camps but since he made such a ballsy move I doing so I thought it would have been more interesting to take it further. I would think that if I sent an android back to the past I would have it screw things up more for the Nazis. Why not try to rescue hundreds instead of just one?

Jason L said...

Was there a moral message in the book? When Aaron's logic couldn't handle his predicament and he flipped out, was that an argument to act against evil, whatever damage it may do?

Selfishness? I can't say that I felt any sort of moral message other than the most obvious one.

Crumbolst said...

As for learning, I'm not sure what is historically accurate in the novel, but I'd never given thought to the idea that there might have been populations other than Jews imprisoned in the camps. I'm looking into that.


I didn't mention it in my review but the story is not-so-vaguely reminiscent of Terminator 2. I'm certainly NOT saying that's a bad thing.

OlmanFeelyus said...

First of all, this whole comments section is

SPOILER ALERT! So that being said, let's not worry about it anymore for those of us who read the book.

OlmanFeelyus said...

@Lantzvillager, well see that is where I think the danger is. It turns the book from a thoughtful look at the horror of the camps to a revenge fantasy that I think would many would find rightfully offensive. It reduces what is a to-this-day an unresolvable critique of humanity's very being to a simple military/technological equation, which is the kind of thinking that motivated the Nazis in the first place. Potentially, anyways.

OlmanFeelyus said...

@Crumbolst Definitely! I was thinking, this movie is Terminator 2: Holocaust.

You should really read Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. Aside from being a great book, it really goes into the organization of the camps, which is something everybody should understand better. It was complicated and bureaucratic (something Salmon does a good job of portraying) and will make you see that the spectre of the kind of thinking and behaviour that was behind the Nazis is never far away from us.

WeSailFurther said...

my review's (finally) up.

OlmanFeelyus said...

I knew you weren't going to like the "surprise" Jarrett. I remember you spassing out about the surprise in Fatherland. You're just too realistic! :)

I do think you make a good point about knowing the moves, knowing when to duck. I kind of felt that way a bit, but it's been a long time since I've read a good POW book (Michael Gilbert's Death in Captivity may have been the last) and I don't think I've ever read a thriller fiction that took place in a concentration camp. So it didn't bother me. But it's a valid critique.

Jason L said...

Nice review @Jarrett. You crystallized something that I felt while I was reading the book as well. I think it was that feeling that I had read this before only without the sf elements which popped up occasionally.

@Olman For me the moral let down came when I realized that Aaron was there to save the live of one man and not the rest of the camp (read: hasten the downfall of the Nazis). Obviously not but even if there had been some sort of an inventive larger plan I would have felt more invested in the story.

WeSailFurther said...

Yeah, why didn't they send the clone army to wipe out all the National Socialists right after the Night of the Long Knives? Or save even that effort and mysteriously kidnap the young Austrian boy, Adolf? Lot of effort in the leave-no-man-behind vein.

Anyway - what was good; what did I like; what did I take?

I think Crumbolst did a good job explaining just the things I thought were good.

And maybe some explanation of why Aaron could go back, but couldn't go forward. Or send Sol forward. I did appreciate the detail about the mission being too dangerous to send a person. And the other sound, smart-person-designing-a-dangerous-mission kid of considerations like disease, starvation, and violence.

And I definitely did not like the coincidence that the daughter designed time travel just in time for her colleagues to use their new dummy...

I'm not sure what you mean, Olman, when you say you aren't sure that Sol survived...

OlmanFeelyus said...

I really think these "science-fact" criticisms are quite geeky and entirely missing the point. We were clearly not given enough info to have any idea of the constraints of time travel and that's on purpose. Once you start trying to figure out what works and what doesn't with time travel it always ends up in a paradox. The parameters were clearly given to us. One android could be sent back in time and that was it. It seems extremely geeky to then ask, well why couldn't he go forward or why couldn't he bring a super stun gun/teleport wand from the future?

It also, I think, misses two major points, which is that the people from the future were already taking a major risk doing this one mission. Trying to make some major changes would have messed up the timeline too much and caused who knows what consequences. But I think there is a moral and literary element as well and I explained that already in an earlier comment. If the story is about robots from the future preventing the holocaust, the book becomes an adolescent revenge fantasy and loses its weight. I think what was effective about The Light of Men was the balance between reality and science fiction and the way it respected what happened. The fight at the end, did kind of undermine this for me somewhat.

OlmanFeelyus said...

About Sol not being dead, I didn't write that clearly at all. I meant that when the scene in the truck happens, it's not specific whether or not Liebman actually died. But Aaron just assumes he is dead. Wouldn't he have gone and checked the body? As the reader, I felt like I had missed something the whole time Aaron's programming is freaking out over the fact that he had failed his mission.

WeSailFurther said...

Andrew Salmon should send us his next book for final edits...

I hear you about the revenge fantasy. And it will be/must be stressful for time travelers to figure out how much influence they could/should have when they go back. Is that a Ray Bradbury story when the guy goes back and steps on a butterfly and ruins everything in the future (is that, in fact, the Butterfly Effect?)?

WeSailFurther said...

Also, Fatherland sucked.

Though, I'll admit that I am writing a book. It's called Union! It's what would the world be like if the North won the Civil War.