Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lost Souls

Poppy Z. Brite
Completed 7/11/2014, Reviewed 7/18/2014
3 stars

“Lost Souls” is Brite’s first novel.  It is an atmospheric alternative to the vampire mythology of Anne Rice.  Rather than Rice’s subtle gay subtext, Brite’s vampires are overtly bisexual. And vampires aren’t made, their born.  But like Rice, the main struggle for the vampire is about isolation and the search for connectedness.

The book is primarily about a boy named Nothing, a vampire orphan who begins coming into an understanding of his true nature at the age of fifteen.  He runs away from home in search of the “Lost Souls”, a small-town band to whom he feels a deep kinship.  Ghost and Steve, the young adult members of the band, live their own lives of quiet desperation in rural North Carolina.  There, they all happen across a gang of sadistic adult vampires, with one of whom Nothing finds companionship and perhaps love.  When they leave North Carolina for New Orleans, Ghost and Steve follow them, hoping to save Nothing from the evil that seems to be in store for him.

“Lost Souls” is great on prose and great on character development.  Everything is described quite exquisite detail.  Nothing, Ghost, and Steve all have the angst that was so prominent in the goth culture of the ‘90s.  What’s sorely lacking is plot.  The characters go around moping or causing havoc, but there is no real suspense as these characters meet, separate, and come back together for the finale.  While the storytelling is great, there isn’t much story to tell.

I feel like I did a disservice to myself reading a later book of Brite’s first.  By about halfway through “Souls”, I realized she had done basically the same story much better in the context of a ghost story in “Drawing Blood”.  There, the meet and chase concept was much tighter.  The plot kept me going while I enveloped myselft in her prose.  “Souls” seems all atmosphere, no substance.

Perhaps if I had been involved more deeply in the goth culture of the ‘90s, not just hanging out at a pagan coffeeshop on Goth Night to read Clive Barker while pale make-upped kids oozed on the dance floor to The Cure and Marilyn Manson, I might have been more affected by the book.  Instead, it just felt more like a reminiscing of a passing fad.  I really liked the alternative vampire mythology, but even that couldn’t keep me from the occasional boredom. 

I give this book 3 stars out of 5.  It’s a good book, just not that powerhouse I expected after reading “Drawing Blood”.  Still, I must say that Brite is a really good writer.  I still look forward to reading her third horror novel.  And I’m sad that she’s no longer writing in the genre.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Island of Doctor Moreau

H.G. Wells
Completed 7/15/2014, Reviewed 7/16/2014
3 stars

I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read any Wells before “Moreau”.  The reason I read this one was because my partner had gotten it from the library.  It’s short, I hadn’t polluted any perception of the book by seeing the movie, and I thought I’d be able to squeeze it in between the novellas of the current book I’m reading.  Jacob warned me that the style is typical of older literature, and it was a more difficult read than he thought it would be.  So what I thought would be one quick, enlightening evening read turned into four days of serious concentrated effort with only a mild payoff. 

The plot is pretty simple.  An Englishman, lost in equatorial waters, is rescued by a passing ship, only to be deposited on an island where a crazed scientist is turning animals into humans.  The story is told in first person journal style, with all the bias and repulsion you’d expect from a privileged, nineteenth century gentleman.

The themes of “Moreau” are morality and the nature of humanity.  There’s the clear issue of animal cruelty for the sake of science, though it may be clear to me because I’m reading this from the perception of a twenty-first century person.  There’s the issue of playing god and the rights and responsibilities that engenders.  The beast-humans worship him as a god, the law-giver and wielder of punishment, which is the only way Moreau controls them. 

Ultimately, though, it’s a statement of humanity in general.  Wells sees us as being not much more than talking animals, easily reverting to our primal nature.  Even the repetition of commandments and threats from an angry god cannot keep us from regressing.

So how does a book with high thematic concepts have such a low payoff?  Uneven prose.  It felt like Wells thought that for this book to be successful, he had to make sure it contained elements of a high seas adventure, which was all the rage during this period in literature.  Even Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was nestled into a high seas arctic adventure.  But Wells was not as nearly successful at seamlessly immersing a very interesting story into the popular genre.  Whenever I found myself to trudge through terse sentences, that’s where I felt Wells was forcing the story. 

I give this book three out of five stars.  It’s a decent book, a great concept, but it’s often a tough read.  Now, I have to read some of his other work to compare the storytelling style, and, well, not be a SF classics ignoramus.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow
Completed 6/21/2014, Reviewed 7/1/2014
5 stars

While deep in the middle of my TBR list of 56 books, my partner showed me the library copy of “Little Brother” he just finished.  He told me I needed to read it before he takes it back.  I told him I was a little hesitant about Cory Doctorow because I had heard he wrote cyberpunk.  He told me to ignore that and just read it.  I did.  Wow!

The setting is post-9/11 San Francisco.  A teen hacker and a few of his friends cut class and head into the city to play an ARG, i.e., and Alternative Reality Game.  Terrorists bomb one of the bridges and the teens are picked up as persons of interest.  Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, they are subject to severe interrogations.  All but one are eventually released.  They are threatened to never tell anyone what happened to them, then released.  Once back, they realize just how much homeland security has its nose in almost every aspect of their lives.  Marcus, the main character, decides he has to do something and starts a quiet revolution that spreads through the entire youth hacker/gamer community. 

Doctorow’s not-so-young-adult novel shows us just how close we were/are to a totalitarian society, not unlike “1984”.  He makes no bones about his fear of our giving up our rights for the sake of fighting terrorism. He covers a lot of very technical concepts related to the freedom versus surveillance of liberty and data, but does so with very readable prose for the less technical, and in a way that blends right into the first-person narration by Marcus.  Where sometimes Orwell could get quite dry, Doctorow’s prose is very readable.  It’s not overly literary; it’s raw and direct.

The character of Marcus is very well drawn.  I’ve read some reviews criticizing how the supporting characters range from somewhat to very cardboard.  However, I think it makes sense from the perspective of a teenager.  For that matter, how many of us reduce those who threaten us to soul-less, unfeeling caricatures of real people.  I don’t want to sound like I’m justifying weak characterization.  I think in the context of the narrative, it makes a lot of sense.

I had the opportunity to see Cory Doctorow at our city’s Public Library.  He gave a talk about many of the internet security issues he incorporated into this book.  It was like getting a book report of “Little Brother” without mentioning any of the characters.  Interestingly, I found myself less than enthralled by the lecture than I was by the novel.  “Little Brother” presents the scary nature of internet security in the context of a very realistic scenario.  It had more impact on me than his passionate delivery at the podium.

I had a tough time writing this review, finding it extremely difficult to articulate the experience I had reading the book.  Even after many days of reflecting on it, I stumbled trying to quantify its positive qualities.  So subjectively, I’ll summarize with this:  This is an important and timely novel.  It deals with concepts that I think we often relegate to the paranoid survivalists.  It reminds us of the power of fear.  And it inspires us to make the effort to make a difference.  Five stars.  

Hugo Winner Review: 1976 The Forever War

Joe Haldeman
Read 1981, 2012, reviewed 5/19/2013
4 stars

This is one of the books I first read for my SF class in college.  I enjoyed it then and enjoyed it now.  It is a brilliant interpretation of the Viet Nam war: frustrating, unwinnable, and pointless. 

The brilliance of the novel is in the change of the society while the main character, William Mandella, is at battle.  Since the war is so far away, the paradox of time dilation causes time to move slower for Mandella than it does on the earth.  So whenever he returns to Earth on leave, hundreds of years have passed and society has changed dramatically, leaving Mandella feeling like a stranger in his own home.

My favorite change is when the Earth becomes predominantly homosexual.  It is portrayed as matter of fact, with no moralilty approving or condemning it.  It just is.  And it emphasizes how difficult it is for a soldier to readjust to being home after being at war. 

The characters are well-developed.  I cared about the main character and his girlfriend and their relationship.  It wasn’t soapy, although it had the potential for leaning that way.  I particularly liked the sequence where they are at her home farm and must survive a marauding gang.  I didn’t remember this from my original reading, which may be because it was a later edition with some restored material. 

I give this book 4 stars, particularly for the time dilation aspect, and because of my affinity for the main character feeling like an outsider.  It is a great novel about the futility of war and its affect on the lives of the soldiers who must deal live with it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Hugo Winner Review: 1975 The Dispossessed

Ursula K. LeGuin
Read 2012, reviewed 5/19/2013
4 stars

I love Ursula LeGuin’s writing.  She creates amazingly detailed societies.  This book has two societies, and the process of the book makes you compare and contrast them.  Each society believes it is utopian, but both are dysfunctional in one way or another.  It is clear that she is mirroring the US and Soviet Union.  Each thinks they are better than the other, full of tension and suspicion, yet both are being confronted with the idea of accepting each other through interactions of an individual.  Clearly, both sides are flawed, but being brought up in one society makes you suspect of the other, no matter how open you may be to the other.  This eventually inhibits the exchange of ideas, and eventually each society’s people.

Though I was young during the cold war of the 60s, I remember the tension between the US and USSR, and the uneasy sharing of arts and sciences between them.  We generally would be able to see people from the USSR as individuals, understanding that they are people with beliefs formed by growing up within their socio-political system, but that they are still people.  But no matter how much we could welcome them to visit and share with us, there was still an underlying suspicion of them.  That is the feeling represented by the plot of the novel.  An uneasy acceptance filled with suspicion. 

I loved the structure of the book, with chapters alternating between the current plot, and the life of the main character, Shevek.  You get to see snippets of his life that form his perception of the world, followed by a chapter of his current situation on the rival planet where his response to events are based on the snippets from the previous chapter. 

The one thing I didn’t like about the book is that it felt cold and disaffected.  Granted Shevek’s home planet is a cold, unyielding place, and it is reflected in the storytelling.  Maybe it’s because I had just read Left Hand of Darkness and was feeling tired of the cold, unyielding planet story.  But I felt the harshness through Shevek’s interactions on the lusher rival world.  Again, this reflects the feel of the harshness of the Soviet Union and how one maintains that paradigm even when presented with the alternative of the US.  It almost makes the novel read like a documentary instead of fiction.

I give the book 4 stars despite my criticism of the coldness of the book.  It is a masterful work of SF, observing current events through an alternative perspective.  And despite the coldness, I did relate to Shevek and his plight, finding myself caught up in the same questions I did as a child.  Can’t we just be friends?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Stainless Steel Rat

Harry Harrison
Completed 6/28/2014, Reviewed 6/30/2014
4 stars

I chose “The Stainless Steel Rat” because I felt it was one of those classic SF books that I should read.  Besides, one of my favorite blogs right now is called “Stainless Steel Dropping”.  So I figured I really needed to get that reference, as well as to see what all the fuss was about.  I was a bit worried I was going to get standard space opera.  What I found was an incredibly well-written, darkly-comic tale of a gruff but lovable anti-hero.  I was hooked at the first page.

Slippery Jim diGriz is a premier thief and con artist in a future where there is almost no crime.  For years, he has eluded the authorities until one day, he slips up and is caught.  Rather than the usual mine-wipe punishment, he is “persuaded” to join the Special Corp, which consists of former criminal masterminds like him.  Who better to capture criminals than those who already think like criminals.  His first mission is investigate the possible construction of an illegal warship, which he himself uncovered.  Soon he’s on the trail of devious criminal who appears bent on starting an interplanetary terror spree. 

The story is told in first person.  I think that’s what hooked me so quickly.  Unlike other contemporary space operas, the narration creates an immediacy and intimacy with haughty, cigar-chomping Slippery Jim and his exploits that could otherwise be horribly melodramatic.  The plot allows for ample opportunity to turn soapy, but Harrison’s wry perspective keeps it fresh and fast-paced.  Throughout the book, there were echoes of James Bond’s wit and Han Solo’s swagger in the character of diGriz. 

The book was written the year I was born, and gives me a run for my money on how well it holds up for being over fifty years old.  The computers still use punch cards.  However, there’s an ESP-based immediate intergalactic communications system.  While the “psi-“ concept is very old-school SF, this device made me think of the LeGuin ansible,  On the softer side of the SF, we’re supposed to be surprised that diGriz’s quarry is a woman.  But it doesn’t really end up being that much of an issue.  Of more importance in the plot is the understanding and anticipation of the criminal mind.  That’s what makes the book so exciting, diGriz using his own experience and thought processes to second guess his prey.

This was a fun read.  I think it’s a must for anyone who wants to explore the classic period of SF genre.  I hope to get to a few more in the series in the near future.  Four stars.