Monday, January 21, 2019

Dawn


Octavia Butler
Completed 1/20/2019, Reviewed 1/21/2019
4 stars

Octavia Butler was an amazing writer.  In this book, she created amazing, well-thought out aliens and writes riveting dialogue.  This is the first book of the Xenogensis series.  It is about consent and resentment and what it means to be human.  The aliens do everything under the belief that they are doing it for the good of humanity.  But the humans view them as jailors.  It doesn’t help that the aliens are hideous to look at.  It creates a conflict that makes the book an uncomfortable but profound read. 

Aliens called the Oankali save the remnant population of the Earth after global nuclear war with the intent of repopulating it when it is safe again.  During that time, they study all aspects of humanity by awaking them basically one by one and trying to interact with them.  Lillith is a human who was saved and put into suspended animation for two hundred and fifty years.  As with all humans though, she doesn’t know who saved her until the aliens reveal themselves to her after Awakening.  She is repulsed by the Oankali, bipedal beings with masses of sensory feelers that make them look sort of Cthulu-esque.  As her initial fear and loathing wane, the Oankali reveal that they want her to lead the first team of humans to resettle the Earth.  But all this philanthropy on the aliens’ part comes with a price:  they will merge genetically with humans to create a new race that is supposedly beneficial to all. 

The majority of the book is Lilith Awakening and coming to grips with her captors.  Through her, we learn about the aliens: who they are, what they’ve done, and what they are trying to do.  Most interestingly, they have three sexes: male, female, and oolai.  All three are needed to procreate.  An oolai is assigned to Lilith to learn all it can from her, and vice versa.  Lilith becomes part of the oolai’s family.  They are good to her but she feels treated like a pet.  All she wants is to be free.  And of course, she doesn’t want the Oankali to create a race of hybrid babies which would wipe out the remnants of the human race.  Lilith is great character.  She’s very complicated, as evidenced by her love-hate relationship with the Oankali, as well as her interactions with the other humans she awakens to be part of the first team to resettle the earth.

The last part of the book is Lilith Awakening over forty other humans who have been asleep, but they are people who the Oankali have Awakened once to study and see if they could be the leaders of the resettlement team.  This part deals with the conflicts between Lilith and the humans, amongst each other, and between the humans and the Oankali.  What makes this book such riveting reading is that nothing is easy.  The humans resent their captivity and plight.  They devolve into everything that’s bad about the human race. 

Butler’s writing really shines in this book.  The prose is not flowery and poetic.  Most of the writing is dialogue or Lilith thinking.  It’s basically told third person through her eyes.  It’s gritty and realistic.  And the plot, which I thought was pretty complex, was easy to follow.  I give this book four stars out of five.  It has a terrific premise, excellent execution and Butler’s imagination is in full force.  I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series. 


Friday, January 18, 2019

The Story of Kullervo


JRR Tolkien
Completed 1/17/2019, Reviewed 1/17/2019
3 stars

This is Tolkien’s first short story.  It is an adaptation of a story from the Finnish “Kalevala”, a collection of early Finnish epic stories.  It is also an inspiration for his character Turin Turambar from The Silmarillion and The Children ofHurin.  This book contains the short story, two similar essays by Tolkien on the Kalevala, and commentary and a paper by Professor Verlyn Flieger from U of Maryland.  The short story itself is a rather tough read.  Being his first story, probably from around 1912, he uses archaic words and sentence form.  Fortunately, Professor Flieger’s paper, which compares the Kullervo with Turin, recounts the story and helps make sense of it.


Kullervo is a boy, the second generation offspring of a swan.  While still in the womb of his mother, his father is killed and the family enslaved.  Growing up, he learns of the treachery against his father and grows in resentment and anger.  His name means “wrath”.  He has a twin sister and a magical dog.  The dog gives him talismans which save Kullervo from several attempts on his life.  He continues to grow in resentment, becoming cocky, and learning magic from his dog.  Evil never leaves Kullervo and his life takes a tragic turn in the end. 

As I mentioned above, the story is difficult to understand.  I got the gist of it, but was thankful for the review in Flieger’s analysis.  Tolkien uses different names for the characters which confuses things more.  Being a short story, there isn’t much character development, except for Kullervo.  He grows in anger and orneriness throughout the story.  It reads like a fairy tale, which of course it is based on.  So there’s a lot of action.  This is definitely an extremely early work, with only little of the Tolkien prose which is more evident in the Silmarillion.

However, it is a jumping off point for the story of Turin.  Flieger breaks down the story of Kullervo and compares and contrasts it with the story of Turin, as well as the original tale in the Kalevala.  As primitive as Tolkien’s Kullervo seems, he clearly had big ideas when adapting it into his own work from the Kalevala.  And this germ of a story then blossomed into the very emotionally and psychologically complex Turin.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It is interesting reading for the diehard Tolkien fan.  However, it would probably be lost on the casual reader.  The real intent of the book is Flieger’s paper, and to illuminate us on the origins of a major character in Tolkien’s imaginarium.  The additional two lectures by Tolkien that are included are very similar, one actually having been presented, the other being just about a page and a half short of its conclusion.  They are interesting, and reading two versions of it drives home some ideas.  But again, these are probably only appreciated by the diehard reader.  I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you liked the works recently published by Christopher Tolkien and some of the translation and critical essays by JRRT, like “Beowulf” and The Fall of Arthur.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Fall of Gondolin


JRR Tolkien
Completed 1/16/2019, Reviewed 1/16/2019
4 stars

The Fall of Gondolin is the third in the stories of the First Age that Tolkien thought were central to his mythology.  It recounts the fall of the last stronghold of the Elves in Middle Earth at the hand of Morgoth.  This volume is like Beren and Luthien in that it is not one continuous story, but a collection of the versions of it that Tolkien wrote over the course of his life.  Unlike its predecessor, I found it much more interesting and satisfying, probably because I have not read quite as many versions of it.  Although I was familiar with the story, its retellings felt fresh, and the different versions added and subtracted enough to make each one interesting. 

The story follows Tuor, the son of Huor, brother of Hurin, father of Turin Turambar.  So Tuor and the hero of The Children of Hurin are cousins.  Living as an outlaw, he follows a river west to the sea.  There Ulmo, god of the waters, and second in power to Manwe, appears to him.  Ulmo tells Tuor to go to the hidden city of Gondolin to warn the elves to fight against Morgoth now before Morgoth discovers and destroys Gondolin.  He gives Tuor an elf companion who knows the secret entrance.  They journey to Gondolin and warn Turgon the king, but Turgon refuses the information, relying on the council of his evil nephew.  Tuor nonetheless stays in Gondolin, marries Idril, the king’s daughter, and has a son Earendil, the hero of the end of the First Age.  This is the second known marriage of a man with an elfmaiden.  Morgoth eventually discovers the location of Gondolin and invades. 

The first presentation of the story is like Beren and Luthien, full of archaic English words and form.  It is not easy reading, but you get the general gist of the story.  Then you get later versions of the story written in much more contemporary English and it all comes together.  Unfortunately, you never get one complete story in modern English.  But for me it all came together rather cohesively in my head.  The prose of the modern English is terrific.  There isn’t much dialogue, as is true of much of the First Age tales, but what’s there is beautifully written.  The description of the seven gates at the entrance to Gondolin is simply mesmerizing. 

In addition to the basic story of Gondolin, Christopher Tolkien also provides the continuation of the story which follows Earendil to the end of the First Age and the prophesy of the end of all things.  Tolkien never wrote any detailed stories of Earendil, so in these passages, we just get summaries of his doings.  What we do get is fanciful and entertaining.   

I give this book four stars out of five.  It is more accessible than its predecessor.  The only part I didn’t care for was the evolution of the story.  I found Christopher Tolkien’s explanations a little drier than usual.  This was perhaps because I was so engaged by the story, I just wanted more of that. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Beren and Luthien


JRR Tolkien
Completed 1/14/2019, Reviewed 1/14/2019
3 stars

Towards the end of last year, a bunch of Tolkien’s works went on sale at the Kindle store.  I bought lots of the posthumous works, including this one.  I went into this one with trepidation because I had read some reviews and knew that unlike The Children of Hurin, this was not just the prose version of the story.  Rather it has a prose version and then some prose and verse segments detailing parts of the story as well as providing some introductory pieces, plus explanations by Christopher Tolkien on the evolution of the story.  It’s not as much of an analysis of the work, like what we get in the History of Middle Earth series, but a compilation.  So instead of feeling like visiting an old friend like with Hurin, it felt a little tired. 

The plot begins a little complexly.  In the earliest form Beren and Luthien were elves of different branches of the race.  There was little love between the races, but Beren falls in love with Luthien when he spies her dancing to her brother’s flute playing.  In the later form, Beren is a human outlaw whose father was killed by Morgoth’s armies.  But then the stories coincide.  Luthien’s father is a king of the elves who dismisses Beren by offering Luthien’s hand in marriage if he can steal one of the Silmarils from Morgoth.  Beren, who is serious about his love for Luthien, takes up the task.  Luthien despairs and wants to help Beren, but her father locks her in a house in a hugely tall tree.  She escapes and together they brave Morgoth’s compound to achieve the task.  The versions of the story then differ and coincide in different details of the plot. 

The prose is beautiful but it comes from his writings from a hundred years ago.  So there’s a lot of “thou’s” and “thee’s” as well as archaic words in the text.  It makes for a little difficult reading, but I still enjoyed it.  The poetry is also beautiful, but I have a hard time absorbing the content of poetry as I get distracted by the mechanics of it.  I have to work hard to get what’s being said.  Add that to the typical myriad of names and places that Tolkien uses and it makes for some laborious work. 

There’s not much in the way of character development or other things I usually talk about in my reviews because the story is so short and packed with a lot of action.  One of the side characters though that was really interesting was Tevildo, the evil cat ruler who is kind of a forerunner to Thu the Necromancer and eventually to Sauron.  Tevildo and his crew of cats work the kitchen for Morgoth.  Morgoth captures Beren and makes him a thrall to Tevildo.  Its archenemy is Huan the wolfhound, who Luthien enlists to help free Beren.  It makes me wonder if Tolkien was not really a cat person. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  I think if I hadn’t read so many other books containing the story of Beren and Luthien, I might have given it a higher rating.  But I think if a person wants to read the story, its best treatment was in The Silmarillion, unlike The Children of Hurin which was superior to the Turin Turambar treatment. 



Saturday, January 12, 2019

Patternmaster


Octavia Butler
Completed 1/11/2019, Reviewed 1/11/2019
2 stars

This is the last book in the Patternist series, and the first written.  It ties together all the concepts from the first three novels, or rather, all the concepts of this book were fully explained in the first three.  It speaks to Butler’s greatness that she had this universe so carefully built that she was able to create three prequels of extraordinary depth and detail.  However, this was Butler’s first novel, besides being the first in the series, and is the weakest.  It lacks the qualities that made the other three, particularly Wild Seed, far superior. 

The story follows Teray.  He’s fresh out of school and travelling with a friend and Housemaster as well as his wife, Iray.  Teray happens to be the son of Rayal, the Patternmaster, inheritor of the great telepathic power that connects all the Patternists.  Mary from Mind of My Mind was the first such Patternmaster.  Teray and his wife are sold to Coransee, the most powerful Housemaster and heir apparent to Rayal.  Coransee is also Rayal’s son, making the two men brothers.  However, Teray does not want to be subjugated by anyone.  He’s a very powerful patternist, but not as strong as Coransee.  Eventually he escapes with Amber, the house healer, to attempt to get to Forsythe, Rayal’s home.  There he hopes to confront Coransee and fight him for succession to Rayal’s throne.  On the way, they must keep on guard from the clayarks, the belligerent sphinx-like human species encountered in Clay’s Ark.

The plot is a basic battle for the throne and a large part of it is taken up by the journey from Coransee’s house to Forsythe.  It’s really a very boring plot. I was waiting for some kind of grand epic confrontation but it mostly fell flat.  What makes it different and interesting is the Pattern and the clayarks.  But because we are equipped with the extensive background from the prequels, even that is not very exciting. 

The prose is okay, with moments of brilliance.  You can see Butler honing her skills here, but unfortunately she does not approach the level that she attained in Wild Seed.  Even the characters are a little more cardboard than usual.  Again the characters are not very likeable, and I wanted to have empathy for Teray and Amber, but just couldn’t.  However, it does make an interesting statement about the world of the Pattern, that having these telepathic abilities do not make life better or easier.  It creates a world of haves and have nots, with the normal humans, or mutes, being the latter.  They are treated as slaves by the patternists.

It’s interesting that Butler did not include a story line for the clayarks.  All we know about them is that they are simply the enemy of the patternists.  They seem to have lost intelligence in the time between Clay’s Ark and this book.  At least the little interaction we have with them tells us that their speech has degraded, although some are excellent marksmen.

I give this book two stars out of five.  I think it was a big disappointment because it was the last book read and the other three were so much better.  It makes me wonder what my experience of this book would have been if I started with it and read the rest in published order.  This doesn’t put me off from Butler at all, because I know her writing got so much better very quickly.  I look forward to the Xenogenesis series, which came later in the 80s.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Clay’s Ark


Octavia Butler
Completed 1/8/2019, Reviewed 1/9/2019
3 stars

This is the third of the Patternist Series, and the last written.  It doesn’t have much connection to the first two books.  Rather, it creates the genesis of the clayark creature in the fourth book.  The clayarks are the progeny of humans that have been infected with a symbiotic parasite from Proxima Centauri, brought back to earth by Eli, the survivor of the interstellar ship Clay’s Ark.  The book is about the struggle between the parasite’s desire to reproduce and spread versus the infected humans’ attempt to control it.  It’s an interesting story, and as always, well written.  However, I found it difficult to read.  I was always waiting for the connection to the Patternists, which only came in the form of Clay Dana, who has a brief appearance in the previous novel.  It’s his discovery of faster than light space travel via telekinesis that is the propulsion method of Clay’s Ark.  And we don’t find out about it until about halfway through the book.  It was only after beginning the fourth book that I realized the necessity of this one. 

The story takes place in a dystopian future where some people live in gated, protected communities while others live in the degrading remnants of cities, known as the sewers.  The book is told in two narratives.  The first is a past narrative which describes the crashing of Clay’s Ark and its sole survivor Eli who is infected with the alien parasite.  It recounts his initial infections of other people and the building of a community of infected people and their genetically modified children.  Their community is out in the California desert, isolated, so that they can’t spread the parasite.  The second narrative is told in the book’s present.  It tells of Eli’s carjacking and kidnapping of a doctor and his two daughters.  The doctor, Blake, is brought in to study the parasite and the three are basically fresh victims for infection and procreation.  The story follow’s Blake and his daughters’ attempt at escape and the threat that poses to spread the parasite worldwide. 

I thought the plot was very interesting and the world building well-imagined.  It paralleled the same themes of the first two novels, building a community of people with a specific issue or gift and struggling to exist with the rest of the world.  They also have the common theme of having a maniacal leader who exerts some type of control over the rest of the community.  In this story, the leader, Eli is more morally ambivalent than Doro from the first two books.  Both exert a sexual control, but Eli’s is based on the parasite’s need to spread.  Eli fights against the power of the parasite, only bringing in fresh victims as necessary.  

The character development is good, although I thought a few of the supporting characters were glossed over a bit.  This is compared to the first two books where I felt that every character presented was well developed.  Once again I could not identify with any character though I had empathy for all of them.  I thought they were all very interesting personalities. 

Even though the trope of the microbe from space infecting the earth had already been done in books and movies, this was still very inventive.  What I like best about Butler is that no matter the sub-genre she’s writing in, I find her world-building and character development to be quite exquisite, even when I’m only rating the book as good.  I give this book three out of five stars. 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Mind of My Mind


Octavia Butler
Completed 1/5/2019, Reviewed 1/5/2018
3 stars

This is the second book in the Patternist series chronologically, and the second written.  It takes place in the present and follows the lives of the descendants of Doro and Anyanwu as they try to cope with their psionic abilities.  It is well written, but lacks relatability to the characters.  Everyone is angry and violent, something I could not identify with.  Nonetheless, the characters are well developed, and there are quite a few of them.  The concept is downright intriguing, but ultimately, the book left me a little unsatisfied.


The plot begins about a hundred years after the end of Wild Seed, in a town in the violent outskirts of Los Angeles.  Doro and Anyanwu, now known as Emma, have many descendants, together and separately.  Most of them have some form of telepathic power.  Some have become full telepaths, some are latent.  Both types become dangerous because either they are on the receiving end of a lot of psychic noise, or they actually have the power to control other people.  They are all part of Doro’s experiment to create a master race of telepaths by selective breeding. 

One such bred child, Mary is the most powerful telepath ever produced.  After she makes her painful transition from latent to active, she draws other actives to her through a web that’s created in her mind, a Pattern.  The others don’t know why they’re drawn, but they have to go to her, like being tugged hard on a leash.  After much anger and frustration, they become a sort of family, Patternists.  They reach out to other actives and latents, helping transition the latents to fully active psionic ability, as well as helping them live calm, less violent lives.  This sets Mary up as a sort of nurturing matriarch compared to Doro’s abusive, murderous patriarchy and culminates in an ultimate showdown of power and will.

I found the book hard to get into.  I had no empathy for most of the characters and only a little empathy for Mary.  None of the characters are really relatable.  However, they are all well developed.  There are a group of telepaths who are drawn to Mary shortly after her transition and they become a sort of First Family.  Somehow, none of them are cardboard; they are all very realistic.  Not all the characters are simply telepaths.  Rachel in particular is a healer, like Anyanwu was.  And Clay has the ability to levitate himself and others.

Race and racism have some play in the book, although it is not too strongly developed.  I got the impression that most of the characters are black and that the few who are white are noted as such.  Jan, one of the first family, begins as a racist, but eventually softens as she comes into herself and discovers her talent for art.  Doro, as in the first book, sometimes shows up as white and sometimes as black, depending on who has killed in his need to constantly change bodies.  Karl, Mary’s husband, is white and when Mary asks him what he thinks of black people, his response is, “Did you see my cook?”

I give this book three out of five stars.  I didn’t have as strong as a response to this book as I did the first.  The first book was an intense sprawling epic.  This book is the rise of the first PatternMaster.  It is intense in that there is a constant sense that at any moment, one or many of the Patternists may explode.  But it just doesn’t carry the weight of the first book.  I’m still looking forward to the rest of the series, because this world Butler created is very intriguing, albeit brutal.  I’m amazed these books were written in the late 70s/early 80s.  They hold up well with time, unlike some of the psionic stories of the 50s.