Monday, December 28, 2015

Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand

Samuel R. Delany
Completed 11/28/2015, Reviewed 11/28/2015
3 stars

I hate giving Delany’s works three stars.  His stories, characters, and prose are amazingly complex, almost academic.  “Stars in My Pocket…” deconstructs race, sexuality, and gender the way only Science Fiction can, turning it on its head and forcing us to look at our own society in fresh and perhaps transgressive ways.  At some point, very complex literature loses its appeal to me.  I like prose, but I also need readability, something that eluded me with this book.

The book begins with Rat Korga, a man who is tricked into a high-tech lobotomy and forced into institutionalized slavery.  As a Rat, he’s forced into terrible living and working conditions and is abused sexually.  On that planet, men are valued more than women, and a person’s whole value in life is based their job.  Homosexuality is forbidden to anyone under the age of 27, and the greatest transgression is for a short person to have sex with a tall person.  Then suddenly, the planet destroys itself and Korga is the only survivor. 

The narrative then changes to Marq Dyeth, an industrial diplomat who comes from a much different world than Korga.  On his planet and in many parts of the galaxy, there are two factions, The Family, which is conservative, valuing the nuclear family and trying to recreate what they think life was like on the original Earth, and the Sygn, which values multi-culturalism, where families may consist of aliens and humans of any gender.  Marq comes from an area controlled by the Sygn.

Korga it turns out is saved by a strange group called the Web.  One of the “spiders”, Japril, is on the mission that saves Korga.  They find a way to effectively reverse the lobotomy and try an experiment to match him with his perfect sexual partner, and it turns out to be Marq.  They are compatible to seven decimal places.  The web brings Korga to Marq’s planet where they fall in love, but his presence causes chaos, being a celebrity for surviving his planet’s self-destruction. 

I really liked the device where Delany made all references to people single gender.  All people and aliens are referred to as women.  She and her are used as pronouns.  Women are either male or female and Delaney doesn’t always tell you who is what.  Names and descriptions don’t necessarily give you any clues either.  With the preponderance of aliens who also have a neuter gender it gets even more confusing.  People are only referred to as he when they are sexual partners.  If you think about it, we rely heavily on knowing how to refer to characters in a book as men or women.  Of course, I found this confusing at first, but eventually, the differences didn’t matter that much as we got to know the characters by their actions and attitudes rather than by their gender.  And fortunately, the two main characters are described as male and gay, so we have some frame of reference.  I find it interesting that Anne Lecke won multiple awards a few years ago for her book “Ancillary Justice” trying to do the same thing with gender.  With her book, I found the device simply annoying.  I have to say as complicated as the prose was, Delany did a much better job with it. And he did it thirty years before she did.

I also really liked the conflict between the Family and the Sygn.  It is pretty clear when you see the date of publication that Delany was talking about the state of the U.S. in 1984 when the rise of the conservative Christian right was threatening all the social advances of tolerance and multi-culturalism, attempting to return to an arbitrary view of how the world is supposed to look rather than being open to understanding people as individuals, representing a plurality of viewpoints and ways of existing. 

Where the book really faltered for me was in the prose.  The sentences are often very long and convoluted.  He uses parenthetical asides, multiple commas, semi-colons, and dashes, making it often hard to figure out the basic subject and verb of a sentence.  I find this terribly hard to follow, requiring multiple reading of a sentence just to get the gist of it.  When I reflect on this kind of writing, I’m reminded of the biopic of Jacqueline Suzanne when her editor is trying to rewrite her prose into something more literary.  She responds with “People don’t talk like that”.  That’s what I thought throughout this book.  As I often say, I love prosy books, but sometimes it can get so terse you sit back and realize not only do people not talk like that, they don’t even think like that.

A device I didn’t care for was using meals and parties as modes of describing the politics of the world.  It seems like a fairly common trope of the golden-age authors to have a party or a big dinner to help you understand the complexity of the world.  I find this device difficult to follow, mostly because it introduces a lot of characters at once.  I have a tough time keeping the characters separated in my head, and usually, but the end of the scene, I’m rather lost.  I got the gist, but I lost track of who’s who.

So what should have been a four star book gets one star knocked off for being too complicated to really enjoy.  There’s a ton of greatness in the Delaney’s deconstruction of society and comparing and contrasting differing worlds and points of view.  Critics and other authors consider this his best work.  It probably is, but ultimately, I need a book that can convey its message without losing me in the sentence structure. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Lays of Bereliand

JRR Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
Completed 11/18/2015, Reviewed 11/20/2015
4 stars

First of all, a lay is a poem.  This book consists of several poems from the first age of Middle Earth.  The two major poems are “The Lay of the Children of Hurin” and “The Lay of Leithian”.  Both exist in “The Silmarillion” and the earlier works of the Middle Earth History series in prose form.  They are both unfinished works, but represent Tolkien’s love of poetry, words, and of course these two stories.  Being poems and not being a poetry person, these works were tough going for me, but after a while, I was able to follow the plots and appreciate the language used.  Of course it helped that I’ve become quite familiar with the stories from the prose versions.  After a rocky start where I thought I’d never finish this book, I found that I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting.

“The Lays of the Children of Hurin” is the tougher of the two peoms.  It is written in alliterative verse.  I have a much tougher time understanding what’s going on in this type of poem because I’m distracted by the alliteration.  To achieve the form, Tolkien usually plays with sentence structure so much that it is often tough to tell where the subject and verb are.  This poem took me the longest to get into the rhythm of before being able to follow the plot details.  Fortunately, I once again had a series of online lectures for this book by The Tolkien Professor at Mythgard Academy to help me understand the details. 

As mentioned in previous reviews, “The Children of Hurin” is particularly dark.  In a way, it was fortunate that the poem was left unfinished, because I didn’t have to go through the whole tragedy.  The poem only covers the capture and torture of Hurin, the giving up of his son Turin by his mother to live with the Elves, the accidental killing of one particularly nasty, bullying elf who had it coming, and the accidental killing of a brotherly elf.  So, yeah, that was already a lot of tragedy.  Despite that, I enjoyed the poem and really began to appreciate Tolkien’s love and mastery of words. 

“The Lay of Leithian” is the Beren and Luthien story.  Beren is a man who falls in love with Luthien, an elf.  Her father doesn’t approve and sends Beren to steal a Silmaril from the evil Morgoth.  This poem is in the much simpler rhyming couplet form.  I had an easier time understanding this poem and followed the details much better.  While still tragic, it’s also a love story and love eventually conquers all.  Most of the Beren and Luthien story is told here, so when you get to the end, it almost has a sense of completion. 

Both poems have shorter restart attempt Tolkien made.  It seems like he almost never went back and simply revised a poem.  He was compelled to rewrite it.  Though quite short, they provide additional insight to some details he overlooked in the originals.  There are also a few short aborted poems that are only several pages.  More than anything, they provide the reader with more exposure to Tolkien’s ability as a poet.

I don’t recommend this book to everyone.  As with all this whole series, it’s for the serious Tolkien fan.  It’s also for those who love the epic poetic form like the Edda or the Kalevalah.  I give it four out of five stars because it is masterful even if it is inaccessible to most readers.

Monday, December 14, 2015

China Mountain Zhang

Maureen F. McHugh
Completed 11/5/2015, Reviewed 11/10/2015
5 stars

This book is a collection of intertwining stories about life in a near future U.S where Chinese communism has taken over.  It follows the life of Zhang and some of the people who move in and out of his life as he tries to find himself career-wise and in his relationships.  He is an engineering tech, operating heavy equipment and he’s gay.  His journey takes him through his attempt to advance his education while trying to find happiness in a climate where he is considered a deviant.  The book is both moving and frightening.  Despite it being set in a mythical future, it’s a reflection of how difficult life was just a few years ago, and in places, is still today, for an LGBTQ or really, any person trying to find their place in the world.

What struck me the most about this book is how all the featured characters have low self-esteem.  For Zhang, it’s due to his career status and his sexuality.  For others, it’s a congenital defect making her ugly, a woman trying to make it alone on a Martian farm, and a man who’s lost everything except his daughter. Each person is trying to survive the difficulties of life with integrity and respect, but are often sabotaged by their own doubts and fears.  It’s something most people should be able to relate to, and I can particularly in my own current state in life.  It spoke to many of my own fears and the sabotaging tapes that play in my head. 

I really liked the form of the book.  It was basically a collection of short stories of each of the featured characters.  While they seem at first unrelated, they tie in together with Zhang’s journey, providing different peeks into the lives of people in this near-future dystopia.  Of course, what struck me the most was how not unlike the world was to our present.  People are still struggling, people are oppressed, and people make bad decisions.  But sometimes things come together and regardless of the circumstances, we can overcome our own self-destructive tendencies and eventually succeed.

The characters are all very likable, but my favorite was the tragic character of Zhang’s engineering tutor.  Zhang falls in love with this smart, confident man and they have a relationship.  It helps bring Zhang out of his loneliness while studying for his degree in China.  However, being gay is less tolerated there than in the U.S. and eventually the tutor succumbs to his own fear.  It speaks to the problems that many LGBT people still face today, struggling for societal acceptance as well as their own self-acceptance.  It’s still relevant and all too real for too many people.

I give this book five out of five stars.  I cared very deeply for the Zhang and the featured characters.  It’s one of the few books I’ve read recently where the characters really moved me.  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Memory of Water

Emmi Itaranta
Completed 10/25/2015, Reviewed 11/3/2015
3 stars

The premise of the book is really interesting.  I was excited to get it.  It’s short, so I expected it to have tight prose.  Noria is training to be a tea master, following in the footsteps of her father.  They live in a world dominated by China, which tries to control all aspects of their lives, including water.  Global warming has made fresh water scarce, but the tea masters know of hidden springs whose waters create the best tea.  When Noria’s father dies, she carries the secret of springs, trying to safeguard them from the authorities.  Of course, secrets are hard to keep.

The biggest problem with the book is that nothing happens.  Noira becomes a tea master, her father dies, and the secret gets out.  There’s nothing more to the story.  There’s a lot of description of the tea ceremonies and a lot of tension over the secret spring.  But really, I spent the whole book rather bored by it all, waiting for the secret to get out and see what the ramifications were.

The prose isn’t bad.  The author is Finnish and the book was published in Finnish before being translated into English.  I don’t think that had any bearing on the book.  It would have been pretty but boring in Finnish as well.  The book has been nominated for several awards, but my sense is that the premise carried most readers, whereas for me it wasn’t enough.  I like good prose, but there has to be more than nice descriptions to get me through a book, even a short one. 

I give this book three out of five stars.  I’m giving the book the benefit of the doubt because of the prose and the premise. 

Friday, December 4, 2015


Carl Sagan
Completed 11/8/2015, Reviewed 11/10/2015
5 stars

Carl Sagan is one of my childhood heroes.  My dad used to wake me up at 1 o’clock in the morning to watch him when he was the last guest on an episode of the Johnny Carson show.  I read “The Dragons of Eden” in high school and thought Sagan was genius in making hard science very understandable.  I loved the movie version of “Contact” but never read it, until now that it’s the December selection for my book club.  And I loved it.

Ellie is a brilliant radio astronomer obsessed with search for extraterrestrial life.  When a signal finally turns up, there is a mad dash to make sense of it.  It’s eventually discovered that signal contains the blue prints for some kind of machine.  It appears to be some kind of spaceship, but no one knows for certain.  If they spend the trillions of dollars to build it, what will they find?  Will we finally have contact with aliens?

The best thing about this book is that it is very hard science fiction, but written so it’s quite understandable.  I should have expected this from my experience with “Dragons of Eden”, but it caught me off guard.  The explanation of things like prime numbers and layers of signal read very easily and clearly.  I actually had more trouble remembering who characters were than understanding the science.

There are a lot of featured characters.  Sagan does a great job of delving into the lives of most of them.  It adds a great depth to the characters, fleshing out the different kinds of people that become scientists.  Eventually, I started to get their histories a bit confused.  But I think the book is really well written.  It’s just a matter of how much different data you can remember.

Another great aspect of the book is that Sagan has a lot of discussions about religion as well as women in science that are very provocative.  They didn’t surprise me, as I’ve read his “The Demon-Haunted World” non-fiction work where he discussed science and religion.  I was impressed with how here he was able to create really good arguments and actually left it to the reader to draw conclusions on the issues in the context of fiction.

My only complaint with the book was that it lacked a sense of warmth.  The characters, including Ellie, despite having thorough histories, did not seem to have much emotional breadth until the end.  Granted, we’re talking about scientists who stereotypically are driven by logic rather than emotions.  I think perhaps I was picturing the actors from the movie speaking the dialogue, but just wasn’t getting the humanness that the actors created.  Despite this, I’m still going to give it five stars out of five.  I loved reading it, I thought it was well written.  It’s a terrific hard science novel that conquers important philosophical questions as well, which I think is very much reminiscent of what Arthur C. Clarke was often able to accomplish in his novels.   

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Adventures of Crazy Liddy

Clayton J. Callahan
Completed 9/12/2015, Reviewed 9/14/2015
2 stars

Whenever I read a space opera or an action book, I always need to preface it with the statement that I generally don’t like these types of books, although I am starting to appreciate them more.  I do much better watching a movie of this sub-genre than reading it.  Fortunately, this book was short enough that it kept my attention and I could actually appreciate that it was a rather fun action-adventure novel.  Liddy is a smuggler.  Usually extremely cautious, she has one slip and is sent to a prison planet for twenty years.  After three years, the governor asks her to participate in a rescue mission to find her missing-in-action son in exchange for a full pardon.   Guess who’s on the mission:  Agent Reed who busted her in the first place.  Together with a crusty pilot and a couple of uber-religious telepathic engineer aliens, they must travel to an enemy solar system and fight ugly blue aliens to find the governor’s son and win Liddy her freedom.  Unfortunately, amid all this fun, I had some issues that made reading the book a less than pleasant experience.

The problem I had with the book was the writing style.  The book is told in third person past tense, but it reads as if an average person was recounting a story in a loud bar.  This level of informality of the prose made it a tough read for me.  I often had difficulty wrapping my inner reading mouth around many of the phrases in the prose.  I accept informality in dialogue or in a character’s mind, but I find that the rest of the narration needed to contain less colloquialisms and more formal word choices.  It would have helped offset and emphasize the informality of the characters.

There’s a sense that this book has the intended audience of a thirteen year old boy, or a reader looking for a teenage male action movie experience.  The descriptions of Liddy and her clothing often felt very self-conscious, like how I remember my friends talking about girls when I was a teenage boy, and how I tried to mimic them.  At the same time, Liddy is a very powerful, self-actualized female character.  Most of the other female supporting characters were powerful as well.  There’s definitely good intention with the portrayal of women, but the obsession with Liddy’s blond hair, makeup, bras, and cling pants was almost embarrassing.

There’s also an awkwardness to the approach to religion in the prose.  When it pops up, it’s very obvious.  It never feels organic to the characters.  It feels manually injected into the dialogues like propaganda, as if the target audience was Christian thirteen year old boys.  At the same time, along with the strong portrayal of women, there’s positive portrayal of other religions, races, and sexual orientations.  In fact, I was really moved by the gay theme towards the end.  The author’s intentions are excellent, but I think it all needed to be executed better in the writing style.

My last thought is that this book has a lot of action stuffed in a very short package.  The style and tone, and perhaps the cover art, made me think that this might have been an excellent graphic novel.  The right illustrator could have smoothed the clunky prose and made made the themes like religion and race seem more organic to the characters and ironically, less cartoonish.

I have to give this book two out of five stars.  There are a lot of problems with it, but there’s a lot of good intentions.  I think if it were workshopped in a critical environment or made into a graphic novel, it could have smoothed a lot of its issues, making it more palatable for an adult reader.  But I’d like to see how a teen boy would enjoy the book, just to prove my theory that he’s the target audience.