New Old Friends

Books are old friends. Here is where I mention the new ones I've made.

Category: Uncategorized

The Ruins by Scott Smith

ImageConsider this a palate-cleanser, a bit of throwaway fiction between the heavy doses of Miéville and Peake. And it is throwaway fiction; I picked it up at a Goodwill, and I doubt it will remain even on my paperback shelf for long.  I’m not saying The Ruins is a bad book, because it isn’t, but…well…  OK, look: I’m not nearly the horror junkie that I once was.  Parenthood can do that to you, as your children get older and you start to see characters as somebody else’s children themselves.  Increasing mindfulness can do that to you as well; as you start to realize your oneness with everyone else, your monkeysphere expands and seeing or reading about horrible things happening to people becomes so emotionally draining that you can’t put yourself through it unless something else about the experience makes it worthwhile.  The Ruins is juuuust that close to making a re-read worthwhile, but not quite.

The Ruins begins with two couples on vacation in Mexico.  Jeff, Amy, Eric and Stacy are fairly generic young Americans out for one last hurrah before donning the shackles of their professional lives.  They befriend a German tourist, Mathias, and a group of boisterous Greeks who speak neither English nor Spanish; they introduce themselves to everyone as Pablo, Juan, and Don Quixote.  As it happens, Mathias’ brother Heinrich has run off to a dig in the middle of the jungle pursuing some hot archeologist babe that he just met, and Mathias wants to follow him; Jeff volunteers everyone’s company to help him out, and Pablo tags along for the hell of it.  It’s apparent from the very beginning that these idiots are in way, way over their heads, and shit gets real in a hurry as the group finds itself trapped in the dig, held prisoner by a group of Mayans who didn’t want them to come but won’t let them leave once they’re there.  From here everything could easily have dissolved into hackneyed Deliverance-in-Mexico drivel or something like that, but Smith isn’t interested in that.  He wants to see what happens to people and their relationships with each other when the pressure is turned up, and up, and up.  Sure, there’s something evil in the ruins, but if you’re expecting a frenetic and white-knuckle adrenaline ride like, say, Neil Marshall’s film The Descent, you’re not going to get it.   This evil is cold, and calculating; it toys with the group, playing on their fears and insecurities, and let me tell you, it’s a dick.  The tone of the book is not frantic but brooding; Smith deals with dread rather than panic, and with nihilism rather than triumphant struggle.

Ultimately this sort of book lives and dies by its characters, and that’s where I think it misses the mark.  The only really three-dimensional character is Mathias, and Smith draws him masterfully, but the rest are stereotypical whiny, spoiled American tourists, particularly the women.  There are sporadic moments of interest as the relationships of the couples and the friendships between the six start to crack and snap under the strain, but ultimately you just don’t like them enough to care.  Smith could stand to learn a few things from George R.R. Martin, who seems to refuse to kill a character unless you’ve gotten to know him like a friend; it’s that sort of emotional investment that gets someone like me to re-read something difficult or draining, and I don’t have it in The Ruins.  Smith did part of his job really well; the situation that these people are in is chilling and in some parts transcends horror into terror.  I’m just not willing to watch people go through what they go through when I don’t feel like spending time with them in the first place.

I should note that The Ruins was adapted by Smith for the screen, to apparently mixed reviews.  I have not seen the film.

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The Ice Schooner by Michael Moorcock

ImageI don’t think Michael Moorcock has ever really written anything purely conventional, which is part of what makes The Ice Schooner ultimately so frustrating.  There’s so much promise there, as you get a sense of what he’s trying to do and the expectations he’s subverting, that when the whole thing sputters to a close it feels like such a waste.  

Konrad Arflane is a man out of time, but just how far out of time is not immediately clear.  Arflane is a captain without a ship, in a frozen world with no water.  Ships sail on runners over the frozen ground between the eight cities occupying the frozen plateau of the Mato Grosso (western Brazil), competing for commerce and hunting the land whales that roam freely.  Arflane is out alone, looking for a place to die, when he stumbles across a dying man on the ice and, despite his better judgment, rescues him and returns him to his city.  Arflane allows himself to be dragged into fulfilling the dying man’s quest: a journey to the fabled, far-off city of New York, whose fabled towers are said to still jut out from the global ice pack.  Think Waterworld plus The Day After Tomorrow, only not stupid.

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Moorcock is playing with Moby Dick here.  In case it wasn’t clear enough, Queequeg himself shows up early on (thinly disguised and renamed) with his harpoon and makes the comparison immediately obvious.  The subversion I mentioned is more subtle: there’s whales around, all right, but Arflane doesn’t care because he’s not a whaler.  He’s chasing something else: the Ice Mother, whose frozen court is supposed to be located in New York.  Arflane is a severely orthodox man: there is evidence, far away, that the ice is starting to melt and expose both soil and open water, but Arflane is positive that the Ice Mother would never allow such a thing.  The world is frozen, always as been, and always will be, forever amen, and if he has to find the Ice Mother himself to prove this, he will, to hell with such things as observation and deduction.  He doesn’t trust his senses, or anyone else’s, when they conflict with Holy Scripture, and he’s obnoxiously arrogant in his blind faith.  This, combined with his brooding introspection and hair-trigger temper, makes it very difficult to find him sympathetic, in much the same way as with Moorcock’s more famous Elric of Melnibone.

Moorcock also inserts a love interest, but where one might expect this to be a calming influence on Arflane, Moorcock intends just the opposite.  Everything seems to go wrong every time the two lovers are together, and indeed much of the friction between the major characters revolves around the doomed, forbidden relationship.

Unfortunately, and frustratingly, everything goes off the rails at the very end of the story.  I can’t describe exactly why without spoilers, but Moorcock is far too talented a writer to depend on a deus ex machina ending, and I have to wonder why he chose to resort to one here.  Ultimately, said ending takes what could have been an interesting counterpoint to Melville’s masterpiece and leaves it simply another bit of slightly-better-than-generic postapocalyptic storytelling, engaging in the moment, but ultimately forgettable in the end.

Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons has a hard-on for Shakespeare.  Not surprising in a writer, of course; indeed, one might have to question his sanity if he didn’t.  Simmons is just more open about it than most, in that he weaves his influences directly into his own work.  He started getting referential in the Hyperion series, where the first volume Hyperion is a blatant homage to the Canterbury Tales; in The Fall of Hyperion he takes it even further, with much of the narrative (far-future science fiction, mind you) being told from the perspective of the poet John Keats.  His two-volume epic Ilium/Olympos not only takes as its central concept the Greek gods resurrecting 20th-century scholars to make sure that the Trojan war goes exactly as Homer wrote it, but features a robot who is a scholar and expert on Shakespeare as well as appearances from Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban from The Tempest.  Dude likes to get meta, is what I’m trying to say here.

Muse of Fire, a brief 105-page novella, finds Simmons returning to far-future sci-fi after a brief detour into historical fiction (the excellent The Terror).  The story is told in the first person by Wilbr, a minor player in the best Shakespearean troupe in the galaxy.  Humanity is an enslaved species scattered over hundreds of worlds, held in bondage by the Archons, senseless carapaced alien overlords who themselves were only the least-powerful of the four known alien races.  Wilbr’s troupe, the Earth’s Men, make their living traveling from planet to planet, performing the works of the Bard for the workers.  During one particularly memorable performance of Much Ado About Nothing,  Archons arrive unexpectedly and summon the Players to perform directly for them.  This sets into motion a chain of events that will change the place of humanity in the cosmos…or eliminate it entirely.

There isn’t much room for embellishment or rumination in this work; instead, the reader can bask in the vicarious wonder of people who, for love of an essentially dead art, find themselves deeper and deeper into things they are able neither to control nor comprehend.  What keeps it from lapsing into boring linearity are two things: first, Simmons is and always has been a master of visual storytelling, and he turns it up to 11 here.  Every set piece, every bit of scenery is described with sumptuous economy, epic landscapes of language conjuring cinematic vistas.  Second, Simmons makes you love Shakespeare as much as he does.  He drops little bits of trivia into the story, pulls particularly meaningful passages out for examination, hammers on the universality of Macbeth and Hamlet and Lear and so forth, and just generally makes you feel like those plays are the most meaningful thing the human race has ever produced; hell, it’s not just a feeling, its an actual plot point.

Its hard to sell a book this short as a standalone unit.  I suspect that it is already out of print; I found my copy in an online used bookstore while attempting to assemble a complete collection of Simmons’ works in hardback.  With a cover price of $35 for a novella barely 100 pages long, I suspect this was a labor of love and not meant to bring home the bacon the way the books he wrote before and after (The Terror and Drood, respectively) were and did.  But if you can get hold of it, and you love and/or admire Shakespeare, this book will bring you an almost visceral pleasure, and you will find yourself returning to it and basking in the glow of one artist’s admiration for another.  Highly recommended.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

ImageI read this book with two minds.

One mind is that of the action junkie, one who can escape into a Tom Clancy kill-the-terrorists novel or watch and enjoy Battle Royale, the easiest and probably laziest comparison to The Hunger Games. And, truly, the comparison is apt; decadent societies force large groups of children to fight one another to the death, with the last one standing as the sole victor, for the entertainment of the general populace. For the benefit of the two people reading this who are not already familiar with the plot, that’s the setup. In The Hunger Games, every year the Capitol of Panem exerts its complete dominance over the rest of its country by conscripting a boy and a girl from each of its subservient Districts, celebritizing them to the point of absurdity, then dropping them in some remote wilderness filled with cameras to brutally murder each other. No rules, no mercy; think Survivor taken rather more literally, complete with reward challenges and rule changes. Despite not being chosen by the annual lottery, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (an accomplished hunter and backwoodswoman) volunteers to take the place of her twelve-year-old sister and is shipped off to almost certain death. Glitter and carnage ensue. And, honestly, author Suzanne Collins hits nearly every note perfectly, from the squalor of coal-mining District 12 to the opulence and frivolity of the Capitol to the almost casual brutality of the Games themselves. And, make no mistake, the Games are brutal indeed; despite showing commendable restraint when it comes to graphic description, Collins pulls no punches with the inevitable whittling down of the playing field. And therein lies the problem.

You see, the other mind is that of a parent, one with a nine-year-old daughter (who desperately wants to read this book, by the way). And, as a parent, The Hunger Games is going to haunt me, probably for days. With due respect to Battle Royale, I don’t think the theme of children overtaken by violence has been done this well since William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the perspective shift that the reader goes through as characters morph from frightened children into callous adults and back to children again is very similar to Golding’s novel. Children as young as twelve are chosen for the abbatoir, thrown in blithely with their nearly-adult counterparts to battle against contestants twice their physical size, and are expected to hold their own with no concessions. It’s easy to lose track of this while reading, because the story whips along at such an impressive rate that some of the implications get left behind, but the central concept of the story bears emphasis: 24 children are sent to fight each other to the death. Even now, just writing those words turns my stomach upside-down. Although most of the deaths happen offscreen (so to speak), those that do not are heartbreaking; the memory of one in particular makes me want to cry right now.

The one criticism I would level is that Collins’ cultural satire is very blunt and lacks subtlety (this could be intentional; I’m not certain there’s much room for subtlety in a book like this). Katniss’ stylist Cinna is really the only person from the Capitol we get to spend much time with, and therefore the only one to develop any depth. The rest are basically flat caricatures representing the most vacuous parts of American media culture, where particularly through reality TV we’ve essentially turned celebrity into yet another blood sport. The thing is, I basically agree with her; our national pastime is no longer baseball, it’s schadenfreude, and it sometimes seems inevitable that without concerted effort in the opposite direction we’ll end up a nation of desensitized libertines waiting with bated breath for the next Videodrome transmission. It’s not a great leap from our current collective obsession with fame and death to staging this kind of morbid spectacle.

And so, as I was going into this, I’m of two minds regarding my final opinion. The detached, objective part of me greatly admires the plotting, pacing, characterization, and creativity of this truly excellent novel. The parent, on the other hand, is disturbed to the point that I’m not sure I’ll be able to continue reading the rest of the trilogy. I’m intellectually curious to know how the big picture turns out, but I honestly am not sure that I’m willing to put myself through this sort of emotional wringer again in order to find out. I guess I’ll have to sleep on that. I can say that, although I have no doubt that it’s excellent, I have absolutely no interest in watching the movie; the very last thing I want to do is have the events of the Games played out for me onscreen. And if my daughter thinks she’ll be reading this anytime before she reaches an age with the word “teen” in it, she’s greatly mistaken.