Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood

At last another good book. Oryx and Crake is a well written novel documenting the fall of humanity as a result of our own actions and foibles. This is another book recommended by el dogo, but this time his taste and mine agree.

Atwood creates a believable world - well, all except for the product and company names, which seemed too cute to me. But then again, I've seen some of the names they use in Japan, so maybe she's right. In any event, in this future bioengineering is commonplace, entirely unregulated, and totally under the control of large corporations. In fact, I don't think the government is ever mentioned or invoked, so I have to guess it doesn't exist or is impotent.

The protagonist is Jimmy, one of the last survivors of a bioengineered global catastrophe. Jimmy is watching over a group of heavily engineered "humans" who were designed to survive the disaster. Saying too much more on that topic would be a spoiler, so I'll stop there.

There are other characters as well, particularly Oryx - Jimmy's girlfriend with a "difficult past" - and Crake, a genius Jimmy went to school with.

The story is told in flashbacks, gradually exposing the history of the disaster and those who made it happen. The characters are believable, though sometimes disturbing.

And there we hit another aspect of this novel: Atwood's dark vision of the future. If you have a sensitive stomach this is not a novel for you. Just about every form of degrading human behavior is discussed somewhere, and most of it is presented as entertainment in various ways, even for the young. Executions, sex in any form, torture, rape, it's all just "out there" on the net for anyone to watch or participate in. If this work represents Atwood's real outlook for humanity, it's bleak, even setting aside the projected effects of genetic engineering.

There is a lot to recommend this work, and a lot to think about. Read it if you can.

Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon

Last And First Men
Olaf Stapledon

Last And First Men is an SF novel by Olaf Stapledon, first published in 1931. I didn't finish it. In fact, I barely started it. I read about 30 pages over the course of several weeks, hating every moment of it, and decided that I had better things to do.

"Why were you I trying to read it?" I hear you ask. Well, that's el dogo's fault. As you'll see if you chase that link, in 2007 he reviewed a different book by Stapledon titled Star Maker. Based on his review, it sounded interesting and I thought I'd try it. Then I did some research and got a copy of this volume that contains both novels Last And First Men and Star Maker. According to a tiny blurb I read on, these two novels are related, with Star Maker being "in a sense" a sequel to Last And First Men.

OK, I thought, I'll start at the beginning and read them both. Ha!

What I should have picked up on from el dogo's review was this: "Stapledon is one of those guys who's more admired than read, and there are reasons for that. His prose style is rather dry and stuffy, almost Victorian."

Now I can't really make any claims about Star Maker. When I gave up on Last And First Men I read a few paragraphs from random pages of Star Maker to see if it differed in any useful way from what I'd been reading. It didn't seem to, so I didn't even bother trying it.

What I can say is that Last And First Men is one long, boring, inaccurate, pedantic, rub-your-nose-in-bad-smelling-stuff, diatribe. It's full of racial and nationalistic stereotypes, bad science, and fluffy thinking, and that's just in the first 30 pages.

El dogo called the writing style a "long dispassionate observation" in his review, which sounds so much nicer than my description, but he actually liked what he read, so I'll acknowledge the validity of his point of view. My impression is obviously somewhat different, so I will continue to use my more colorful terms to describe what I read when needed.

In any event, I found what I read of Last And First Men to be dry as dust, and offensive to boot. It may be that Stapledon is one of the greats of early SF, but for me he's entirely unreadable. I note that someone else on wants this book when I'm done with it, and I'll be happy to let it go.

The Scorpion's Gate, Richard A. Clarke

The Scorpion's Gate
Richard A. Clarke

I think I heard an interview with Clarke on NPR at some point and thought this book sounded interesting. Clarke, if you'll recall, was the counter-terrorism advisor to Bill Clinton who then carried over to work for President George Bush. Clarke was very critical of the Bush administration in a number of areas and wasn't afraid to say so publicly. There was a lot of controversy over what he said that can still be found in Clarke's Wikipedia entry, or at least in the discussion page related to the entry.

The tag line (if you want to call it that) on The Scorpion's Gate is "Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction." I'm not so sure - at least in this case - but he tried, and clearly he tried hard. So hard, in fact, that it appears he may have been dragged along by his publisher who saw a good thing if they made the right market window.

The story is set in the not-too-distant future and follows the activities of several groups in the middle east. There are two significant points of difference from the current situation:
  1. The Saudis have been overthrown and their kingdom replaced with an Islamic republic.
  2. The US was "asked to leave" Iraq sometime after the Iraq war ended.
  3. As a result of the above, the US has less power in the region, and most of it is in the form of naval vessels.
From there Clarke spins a tale of intrigue where the bad guys are in positions of power in the US, and where catastrophe (in the form of a significant war) is narrowly avoided by a small group of renegade intelligence and military people working on their own.

Quite frankly, the plot was OK at best. He does his best to drive the action hard - probably on the orders of his publisher as mentioned above - but as a result the characters are basically cardboard cutouts. And there's an off stage sex scene in here that may well have been added as an afterthought, again possibly at the request of the publisher. Gotta get the racy stuff in or no one will read it, right?

The writing is uneven, sometimes sounding a bit like those old radio news broadcasts. "FLASH! Something interesting just happened in Iran!" But again, the entire work feels rushed, just as if the publisher said "you've got two weeks to write a book so we can make a lot of money." Then when he handed them the book they said "OK, we don't have time get you an editor, but add a sex scene somewhere and we'll shove it through the presses." I have no proof that sort of thing happened, of course, but it feels like it did.

One of the more amusing things appears in the acknowledgments section. It says, in part: "Some may think, as they read this volume, that they see themselves or others portrayed. They do not. This is a work of fiction, in which all characters are fictional." If I hadn't read those lines I might not have seen various Bush administration people in these roles. But having read that blurb first, it was impossible not to see at least one or two of them represented here. I suspect that was deliberate. An review suggests that the book is allegory for the US invasion of Iraq. Perhaps, but that may be a bit deep for Clarke given what I see here.

Overall I think the book is far from great. Clarke's got a newer novel out in 2007, but based on this I have no desire to read it. Perhaps his time in the national spotlight is coming to an end. I don't see his career as a fiction writer taking off all that well, but I have the predictive powers of a gnat, so even I don't give that thought much credence.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, Alan Alda

Title: Never Have Your Dog Stuffed
Author: Alan Alda
Rating: Good

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed is the autobiography of Alan Alda, aka Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H. Over the years I've heard a few interviews with Alda and he's always sounded interesting, with a childhood spent backstage at burlesque shows and other unusual history. His biography confirms that, along with his mother's mental illness and the difficult relationship he had with his parents in general.

It's a light read. He approaches some serious topics, but does so fairly obliquely, stating what happened to him or what he was thinking, but not making a big deal out of anything or expecting the reader to follow in his footsteps.

If you've wondered what life is like for the kid who was born into a performing family, went into acting early, landed a starring role in M*A*S*H, went on to host Scientific American Frontiers, and then did things like The West Wing, you'll get the gist of it here.

Note that the book was published in 2005, before his roles in The West Wing and a few recent movies. He's got a newer book out now titled Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself that may cover that more recent history.

He's an interesting character, and M*A*S*H was some of the best television ever made as far as I am concerned. While this book isn't going to make anyone's ten best list, it's worth reading if you're a fan.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Dispossessed
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Rating: Great!

A while back I reviewed The Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin, and wasn't that impressed. It was good, but I had some issues with it. With this review I get write something more positive. I found The Dispossessed a very good book, with a lot to recommend it. It's complex and thought provoking, with a deliberately ambiguous point of view about some very difficult subjects. And, surprisingly, it's set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness. It's a prequel of sorts, though no characters are common, and the time frames don't overlap at all. Looking at the Wikipedia entry on Le Guin I see that she's written eight novels and thirteen short stories set in this universe. I had no idea.

In The Dispossessed, Le Guin takes a long look at what we would call both communism and capitalism, pulling no punches, and showing the good and bad sides of each. Initially I was afraid it was just a diatribe, but she steered well clear of that and instead gives the reader a well thought out encounter between two very different cultures that happen to share a common past.

I found the characters believable and the settings interesting. The writing is crisp and well paced, with the exception of one point, early on, where I briefly got confused. Then I realized we were in a flashback and it sorted itself out. Most of the book alternates chapters between the past and present of the main character, Shevek, a brilliant physicist. He leads an interesting life, and challenges all kinds of simplistic thinking along the way.

I don't want to spoil it for anyone because I want you to read it, so I'll stop the description there.

The Dispossessed is an excellent book, well worth your time and effort. Read it if you can.