Friday, 27 February 2015

I will miss you, Leonard!

Leonard Nimoy, you are and always will be Mr. Spok.

1931-2105.  He lived long and prospered.

The Trek universe will never be the same.  :(

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Sword of the Lictor / Gene Wolfe

4 out of 5 stars
Beneath the dying sun the disgraced torturer, Severian, at last comes to his place of exile - Thrax, the city of Windowless Rooms.
But Severian's journey is not ended, and high in Earth's ancient mountains he draws closer to his destiny.

This is a bit spoilery, so those who don't want to know detail should quit reading right here.

I continue to be drawn into the world of Urth, which is lush and fascinating. I can’t believe the detail that Wolfe indulges in—the many bioclimatic zones that are described, the details of the landscapes, the many ranks and levels of society, the details of cities. I was willing to follow Severian through his journeys just to experience more Urth.

Severian himself continues to be an enigma. He’s an intelligent guy, but so emotionless. His paramour, Dorcas, is plunged into a depression of some kind and what does he do? Installs her at an inn and goes to a fancy-pants masquerade party that his employer has commanded his attendance. So far, so good, he was ordered to go. But once there, he proceeds to make love to another woman (who turns out to be the boss’s wife) as if Dorcas doesn’t exist. So on one hand, he cares enough about Dorcas to spend a bit of dough on her, but not enough to resist the attentions of a woman who admits she’s old enough to be his mother.

He is also particularly unmoved by the deaths of people around him—and, fair enough, he’s a torturer so that kind of makes sense. And the torturers’ guild makes very sure not to admit people who get all excited about killing people (i.e. sadists), which makes me think he must have some other mental disorder that prevents him from feeling emotion. Just when I’ve decided that, he turns around and has “mercy” on his boss’s wife, who he is supposed to strangle, and sets her free to go seek asylum in another city. Later, he takes on an orphaned boy, understands that the kid may be traumatized from watching his family die, but then seems to feel barely a twitch of remorse when the child too is killed. Add to that his eidetic memory and I’m starting to play with the idea that he’s not entirely human.

So, I don’t know what to think of this guy, but I am still fascinated by the world—the alien life forms that feature, the strange mixture of space-faring & medieval technology, wondering how Earth became Urth. The aliens are absolutely enigmatic—I can’t fathom their purposes at all at this point.

Of course NOTHING is resolved in this book, so it’s on to The Citadel of the Autarch now to see if I can find some satisfaction.

Title number 164 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project. 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Robinson Crusoe / Daniel Defoe

My childhood version
Based on a real-life incident, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of a young man who yearns to escape the mundane world and set sail for a life of adventure in faraway places. Defying his father's wishes he leaves on board a ship, then finds himself marooned on a tropical island where he wrestles with his fate and ponders the nature of God and man. The world has gotten smaller since Defoe penned his novel, but the human imagination still looms large. So even in today's world of space exploration, this story of an ordinary man struggling to survive has not lost its appeal for modern readers.

There are reasons that some books are considered classics—even after many years, they still have things to say to us. Robinson Crusoe is one of those stories. I first encountered it as a child, in comic book form (anyone else remember Classics Illustrated?) and I remember reading it numerous times and then day dreaming about how I would survive on a desert island. And of course, it is often asked “If you could take only one book (or five, or whatever number) of books with you to entertain you while so stranded, which one(s) would it be?” Poor old Robinson Crusoe seems to have only had the Bible, which is rather low on entertainment value, although it does have good bits.

Now the graphic edition of RC, although fairly true to the original, was very abridged (and rightly so, for the juvenile crowd). As is so often the case, I found it fascinating to read the adult version in comparison. I’ll say right up front, that if archaic spellings and language annoy you, you would be best to stick to the modernized versions.

Originally written in the early 1700s, Robinson Crusoe is a peek back in time into the attitudes and values of that day. No one questions that Christianity is the best religion (although there is a tug-of-war between Catholicism and Protestantism). Slavery and class inequality are just facts of life. European culture trumps all other cultures. Members of non-European cultures are barbarians and savages, suspected of all kinds of indecent behavior right from running around unclothed up to and including cannibalism. Dafoe really got into describing the “cannibal feasts” happening on the shores of Crusoe’s island. This kind of thing has been happening since the dawn of time—dehumanize those who are not like you so that you can feel morally superior. After all, we get the word barbarian from the Ancient Greeks, who perceived anyone who didn’t speak Greek as saying “Bar, bar, bar….” Witches and Jews, among many other persecuted groups have been subject to the same accusations. The target moves, but the argument remains the same.

I think Dafoe meant Robinson Crusoe to be a way to steer the worldly reader into the fold of Christianity. The young Crusoe is unconcerned with things spiritual and out to experience what the world has to offer him (travel, booze, money—the good stuff). It really isn’t until he has been alone on his island for many years into his 28 year stay that he finally “finds religion.” And he still doesn’t really examine his beliefs until he is trying to teach them to his rescued “savage” Friday. SPOILER ALERT (if such a thing exists for a 300 year old work of fiction) he ends up rescued, returned to “civilization,” and wealthy—well rewarded for his faith. I think if Robinson Crusoe was alive in the 21st century, he would be an avid admirer of books like The Secret, where the power of positive thinking can get you whatever your little heart desires!

Parts of the story I never knew before: Crusoe’s defying his parents to go see the world, his time in Brazil before his shipwreck, and his trip back to England after his rescue. I was also very struck by the difficulty of shifting money from place to place and having someone to trust with finances. Not that our big banks have proven to be eminently trustworthy, but at least they have made international commerce less of a crap shoot than it used to be.
An interesting look at a time and cultural space that no longer exists.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Dead to Me / Anton Strout

2.5 Stars out of 5

Psychometry-the power to touch an object and divine information about its history-has meant a life of petty crime for Simon Canderous, but now he's gone over to the good side. At New York's underfunded and (mostly) secret Department of Extraordinary Affairs, he's learning about red tape, office politics, and the basics of paranormal investigation. But it's not the paperwork that has him breathless.

After Simon spills his coffee on (okay, through) the ghost of a beautiful woman- who doesn't know she's dead-he and his mentor plan to find her killers. But Simon's not prepared for the nefarious plot that unfolds before him, involving politically correct cultists, a large wooden fish, a homicidal bookcase, and the forces of Darkness, which kind of have a crush on him.  

Having just finished a true kitten squisher (The Luminaries), it was time for something light and frothy.  Dead To Me fit the bill, providing entertainment for one evening, two coffee breaks, and one lunch hour.  Not at all convoluted, it was easy to keep track of in these short reading bursts.

If I was to compare it to food (and really, why not?), I would call it cotton candy.  No nutritional value, empty sugar calories, and potential cavity hazard.

I felt it had a rather adolescent tone, with the main character being awfully fixated on “girls,” be they phantom or real.  These women (and really, anyone over 16 isn’t a girl, IMO) are frightfully inconsistent, varying wildly between being helpless & feminine and being strong & butt-kicking, often on the same page.  There is the stereotypical psycho ex-girlfriend, Tamara, who gets helpfully murdered by the bad guys, the ghost-woman Irene who goes ballistic because of the phone messages left by the psycho ex-girlfriend, and Jane, the innocent gal from the country who has been drawn into evil because she needs a job (and apparently hasn’t a brain in her head, thus protecting her from zombies).

But in all fairness, the male characters do not fare much better.  The main character, Simon, indulges in a lot of immature behaviour on the job, displaying temper, insubordination, and impulsiveness that would cause negative consequences for anyone but this special snowflake.  He carries a bat for self defense and since his moods also swing psychotically between being calm and somewhat reasonable to being a bat-wielding basher, he tends to whack first and ask questions later.  Combine that with his tendency to fall instantly in love with any female who crosses his path and you have a very unpredictable and unrealistic main character.

It’s cute, it’s fluffy, and it obviously owes a great debt to ideas from Harry Potter.  My first venture into the urban fantasy genre and I realize that there must be superior offerings out there.  I would never have chosen it if it wasn’t on the reading list for my real-life book club.  At some point, I’ll definitely check out other offerings in the genre.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

VALIS / Philip K. Dick

3 out of 5 stars
The first book in Philip K. Dick's defining trilogy (followed by The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer), VALIS is a disorienting and bleakly funny novel about a schizophrenic man named Horselover Fat (who just might also be known as Philip Dick); the hidden mysteries of Gnostic Christianity; and reality as revealed through a pink laser. VALIS is a theological detective story, in which God is both a missing person and the perpetrator of the ultimate crime.

Well, that was weird. If literature is a way for us to commune with the minds of others, I guess those others don’t necessarily need to be sane. In fact, Philip K. Dick (and his alter ego, Horselover Fat) are both pretty up front about the fact that he/they are not mentally well.

Despite his mental illness and years of drug use, Dick can write! VALIS seems to be his dissertation on his mental illness and it is a pretty lucid and rational analysis of his own state. It kept me reading for 271 pages despite the fact that hardly anything actually happens. A vast portion of the book happens only in the author’s head, thinking about his theories about nature of the world, religion, and life and musing on his personal visions. He reveals himself as a philosopher and a student of religion who has obsessively studied more texts that I ever knew existed.

Many people call this the master work of PKD. I still don’t know how I feel about that—it is certainly his manifesto. I find it interesting that he was repeatedly advised to “give up dope and stop trying to help other people.” I’ve never had the dope issue, but I do remember avoiding my own troubles by poking my nose into other people’s business—and like PKD’s therapists, I do not recommend this line of avoidance. Despite the fact that it is easier than tackling you own issues and gives you a feeling of virtue for “helping” others. Much better to tackle your problems head on and let others do the same.

I will take with me this truth from page 80: “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.”

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Luminaries / Eleanor Catton

4 out of 5 stars

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner.

For me, this book rated about 3.5 stars—somehow in that netherland between “I liked it” and “I really liked it.” I’ve rounded the score up to 4 stars, because it really was better than average despite the fact that I doubt that I will ever re-read it.

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “intricate.” Despite its 2013 copyright date, to me it read like a book from the 19th century, very slow building in the beginning but reaching a feverish pitch by the last several chapters. I found myself wishing that I knew a little bit about astrology, so that I could appreciate the horoscopes at the beginning of each section and mentioned in the various chapter headings. Each of the 12 men introduced to Walter Moody in the first chapter represent a sign of the zodiac and are given suitable personality characteristics; their involvement seems to wax and wane according to astronomical charts. They may also have overtones of the 12 disciples, matching Mr. Staines, who is presumed dead, and who becomes a somewhat Christ-like figure in the end.

Having briefly visited New Zealand, I was reminded of the landscape and the weather I experienced there (thinking of the pouring rain while we visited Milford Sound, the temporary waterfalls cascading from the tops of the cliffs surrounding the Sound). I also enjoyed a couple of mentions of the tui, one of the most common birds seen and heard on that particular trip, and of the albatrosses following the ships.

A Tui (from Wikipedia)

A Chatham Island Albatross (photo taken on my 2012 N.Z. tour)

It was in the nature of the time period chosen (a pioneering gold-rush time in N.Z. history) that there would be few female characters in the novel. Anna and Lydia are very much in the minority, but despite that the entire plot hinges on the two of them, especially Anna. I also appreciated the multiculturalism of the cast of characters, with one Maori and two Chinese characters firmly entwined in the tale.

It all comes down to who knew what when—and then what are they going to do about it? The interplay of personalities, the roads chosen or not chosen, the back-stories that inform the current story, all enjoyable parts of a very detailed and fiercely planned piece of writing.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Farewell My Lovely / Raymond Chandler

5 out of 5 stars
Marlowe's about to give up on a completely routine case when he finds himself in the wrong place at the right time to get caught up in a murder that leads to a ring of jewel thieves, another murder, a fortune-teller, a couple more murders, and more corruption than your average graveyard.

 Some dithering on my part between 4 and 5 stars—but I am going for 5 because I so enjoyed the reading experience.

I fear that I will repeat myself a lot from my review of The Big Sleep. Chandler’s writing is awesome—very expressive, yet very spare. Each novel is a complete joy, but not padded with anything extra. Occasional, brief descriptions of surroundings paint a full picture with very few strokes. His vocabulary choices are spot on. A delight to read.

I very much receive the impression that Philip Marlowe is Raymond Chandler’s alter-ego, the man that he fantasized about being. Handsome, brave, always knowing what to do, street smart, alluring to the ladies, and able to handle his liquor or a punch to the face. By all accounts a troubled man, Chandler certainly wrote the drinking scenes like he knew what he was talking about. It may have been the thing that he and Marlowe shared most in common.

Beautiful writing about less than beautiful subjects—Chandler is one of the masters.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Downbelow Station / C.J. Cherryh

4 out of 5 stars
Pell's Station, orbiting the alien world simply called Downbelow, had always managed to remain neutral in the ever escalating conflict between “The Company,” whose fleets from Earth had colonized space, and its increasingly independent and rebellious colony worlds. But Pell's location—on the outer edge of Earth's defensive perimeter— makes her the focal point in the titanic battle of colony worlds fighting for independence……

I’m becoming quite a fan of C.J. Cherryh. I really like the way she writes aliens and the Hisa/Downers in Downbelow Station were yet another notch on the positive side of the score board. I pictured their bodies as rather large baboon-like primates, with the faces of surprised baby orangutans. They definitely had their own thought processes and ways of communication, very foreign from those of human beings.

Cherryh’s interest in history became apparent quickly, with the humans’ treatment of the Hisa—it is very reminiscent of the treatment of Native Americans by Europeans. There are two schools of thought among the human population—treat the Hisa harshly and force them to do things the human way or recognize them as beings in their own right and get things done through co-operation.

The peopling of space also reminded me very much of the days of European exploration of our world, when sailing ships went out into uncharted waters and returned with experiences that no European had ever dreamed of before. Once out on the ocean, these explorers were on their own and would be making their own decisions within the framework specified by the powers that had sponsored their expeditions. Just as in Downbelow Station, it was commerce which inspired the vast majority of these adventures, but the outcomes were not necessarily what was originally anticipated. One issue that I found somewhat confusing was the growth of crops for human consumption on a world where humans couldn’t breathe the atmosphere—surely plants grown in those “hostile-to-Earthlings” conditions wouldn’t be compatible with our biology?

There were also echoes of more modern history and culture—the lab-produced troops of the planet Cyteen had a definite “Boys from Brazil” vibe. The war scenes, with shifting alliances and priorities, can be compared to virtually any modern war (and probably many ancient ones as well). The where and when of war changes, but the basic events stay repetitively the same. And aren’t modern city dwellers equivalent in many ways to residents on space stations—out of touch with the natural world, surrounded by human construction and noise, and glued to their various man-made communication devices? Cherryh’s version of that technology has dated, but think how fast our technology has changed since 1980! No one had even considered the internet or mobile phones at that point.

I think it was rather prophetic of Cherryh, back in 1980, to see the role that big corporations were going to play in future human politics. As we watch large multinationals stick-handle around various national laws, taxes, and other constraints, we see some of the Downbelow Station world coming of age before we have even left the planet.

Downbelow Station provides a great prologue for further adventures in the Union-Alliance universe.

This is title 162 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Big Sleep / Raymond Chandler

5 out of 5 stars
When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.

OMG, how have I missed out on Raymond Chandler’s work for so long? From the very first sentence, I was hooked. The plot is pretty good, but where The Big Sleep excels is in characters and in atmosphere.

Philip Marlowe is the kind of guy you want to have on your side if there’s something not-quite-above-board happening in your life. Not a guy you would want to date, but definitely a guy who you hope you can afford when you need his skills.

I adored the dialog—Chandler had a real talent in that department. Marlowe is pitch perfect, letting the reader assess how much he knows and frustrating those that he is questioning/not answering. Working both sides of the law, friends with lawyers and with criminals, all of whom see him as a straight-shooter, he tries to be a decent guy. Decent or not, he’ll let something slide if it promises to complicate his life too much.

It is easy to see how works like The Big Sleep have influenced modern crime fiction. The almost-burnt-out investigator who is world weary and cynical is pretty standard, although the more interesting authors find a way to give the stereotype a new spin. The omnipresent rain, making the whole investigation into an endurance test. The moral ambiguity of “bad guys” who are actually pretty likeable and “good guys” who are pretty despicable. For me, a wonderful introduction to the hard-boiled genre and a darn good read besides. 

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Gray Lensman / E.E. "Doc" Smith

3 out of 5 stars
Somewhere among the galaxies was the stronghold of Boskone - a network of brilliant space-criminals whose hunger for conquest threatened the continued existence of all known civilization.

But where was stronghold? Boskonian bases were scattered across the universe - shielded by gigantic thought-screens that defied penetration. The best minds in the Galactic Patrol had tried. And failed. Now it was up to Lensman Kim Kinnison, using his fantastic powers, to infiltrate the Boskonian strongholds, find the location of the enemy's Grand Base - and smash it forever.

But Kinnison didn't know then that the power of Boskone reached further than anyone had dreamed - into the Galactic Patrol itself...

This is an old science fiction series and I have experienced difficulty in finding all the volumes at the appropriate time. As a result, I had given up on finding this volume and went ahead and read the remainder. Then surprisingly, just before Christmas, I found Gray Lensman in my local second-hand book store. Being a bit of a completionist, I grabbed it and added it to my stack of sci-fi for 2015.

In all honesty, it was an unnecessary exercise—Gray Lensman is very similar to the book before it and the book after it. Smith found his formula and stuck to it. Interesting to me was the degree to which the romantic relationship between the hero, Kim Kinnison, and his wife-to-be figured in these novels. They reminded me of the westerns of Zane Grey, which my mother owned stacks of and which I read during the long summer holidays during junior high school--the square-jawed, good-guy hero who is reluctant to entangle a “good woman” in his less-than-savoury life. For that reason alone, I actually kind of like these old space operas, which bring me happy memories of my past.

These are not great science fiction novels compared to some of the masters of the genre today, but they are where sci-fi got its start and are interesting to me for that reason. They were ground-breaking at the time that they were written and I can see how they influenced more recent writers, including Robert A. Heinlein.