New Old Friends

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

The White Plague by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert has the semi-misfortune to be one of those people like da Vinci or Soundgarden, who created something so monstrously famous that, despite the high quality of their remaining body of work, nobody seems to know about anything else.  Herbert is synonymous with Dune, rightly considered a classic, if not the classic, work of epic philosophical science fiction and one that holds up to this day without seeming dated or quaint.  But even leaving aside the uniformly excellent and increasingly weird series of sequels (there are five and only five, despite the efforts of well-meaning son Brian Herbert and incompetent hack Kevin J. Anderson to suck every last drop of milk out of the Atreides teat), Herbert the Elder has a strong and diverse body of work in which the speculative fiction aficionado can happy immerse him/her/myself.  The White Plague is such a semi-overlooked classic.

Like in his Hellstrom’s Hive (a future subject for this column), Herbert sets this story in the present day (i.e. the early 80s), but unlike in Hive he doesn’t need to tweak the actual world to create the setting he wants.  Irish-American geneticist John Roe O’Neill is in Dublin to present his research, along with his wife and twin children, when an IRA bomb obliterates everything dear to him in a single moment.  O’Neill snaps under the strain, and he creates and unleashes a virulent new disease that is uniformly and quickly fatal, but only to women, releasing it in Ireland (for condoning the violence), England (for giving the Irish a reason), and Libya (for training the bombers).  So far nothing particularly groundbreaking about the plot, but all of that is covered in the first 50 pages or so, leaving 90% of the book for what Herbert does best: ruminations on the reactions of the people and institutions in power to situations beyond their imagination or control.  Unlike a lesser writer who would focus on the details of the spread of the disease and the methods used to combat it (I’m looking at you, Tom Clancy), Herbert paints the spread of the plague with broad strokes, mentioned almost as asides by the scientists, politicians, and clergymen that he instead chooses to follow.  Despite O’Neill’s threatening letters, nobody takes him seriously until it is far too late to contain the spread, and the scale of the devastation his work creates is rivaled only by the scale of the devastation caused by the world’s response.  Entire cities and regions are obliterated, either nuked or put to the Panic Fire, while politicians try desperately to hold things together and scientists work feverishly to identify and then counteract the work of The Madman, as O’Neill comes to be known.

Much of the book is devoted to a travelogue of sorts, as O’Neill returns to Ireland under an assumed name and walks through Ireland incognito observing the fruits of his labors, accompanied by a priest, an orphaned boy, and the man whose bomb killed O’Neill’s family.  There follows a quietly desperate game of cat-and-mouse as the powers that be, not being idiots, suspect O’Neill’s presence but fear revealing their suspicions either to him (for fear of additional plagues) or to the rest of the world (who would probably reduce Ireland to a radioactive sheet of glass in order to kill him).  Herbert uses the conversations held during this journey to rumination on guilt, fatalism, and the endless cycle of vengeance.  It’s a slow burn, leading up to a finale that is literally insane.

Because The White Plague was both written and set in the 1980s, some of its technobabble does seem dated and quaint, but it detracts none from the story because the story is only tangentially about the plague and how to fight it. Instead Herbert sticks to his strengths, leaving the tech as a framing device and instead focusing on the world’s large-scale reaction and the small-scale people caught up in it.  The POV chapters with the world’s (formerly) most powerful men play almost like a montage, glimpses into the aftermaths of the terrible decisions they are forced into, where entire countries are written off as lost causes while underlings bicker over venal grudges, unwilling or unable to realize that pre-Plague politics have become meaningless.  The book is chilling to read and even more so to contemplate after the fact, as the reader is forced to consider the ephemeralness of political power and how much said power depends on the ability to do violence on a scale sufficient to catch the enemy’s attention; when the people you threaten are no longer impressed, what do you do?  How far will you go to maintain control?

The White Plague is no Dune, but it never tries to be.  It abandons the future for the present, the bombastic for the bleak, and the epic for the intensely personal.  O’Neill is one of the more interestingly conflicted antiheroes that I have run across; he’s done monstrous evil, yet even in Ireland they still manage some sympathy for what pushed him over the edge.  I recommend this book without reservation, especially if you are one for whom the name Frank Herbert conjures up only heat, sand, and the cinnamon smell of Spice.


Golem100 by Alfred Bester

OK, so bear with me here: there’s this group of bored housewives in near-future New York, right?  And they’re bored enough that they’ve decided to try invoking the Devil through a ritual they’ve pieced together featuring Latin chants, backwards Hebrew, and the hand of a dead man coated in the fat of a virgin.  Or something.  Anyway, it doesn’t work, only it does work and they summon some force from a parallel universe that goes around killing people in very, very inventive ways, and only a blind Jamaican private investigator, a Vietnamese biochemist with an extraordinarily sensitive sense of smell, and a phlegmatic Indian police captain can stop it.

Trying to summarize Alfred Bester’s “Golem100” is, probably, pointless, because the book is more of an experience than a story (yes, that’s “Golem to the 100th power”).  It has features that should be familiar to readers of his better-known “The Stars My Destination,” such as fragmented rapid-fire dialog with no indication of who is speaking, illustrated sections demonstrating a character’s becoming disjointed from time and space, nigh-incomprehensible gutter dialog, and a disturbing amount of rape.  It also takes some getting used to the typographical methods he uses to demonstrate a character’s speech patterns without having to actually describe them; it’s a bit jarring, but extremely effective, for a character to exclaim something like “You mean those BEAUTIFUL things were actually all !!!handmade!!! by H*A*N*D?” rather than for the author to spend a paragraph describing how dramatically said character is given to speaking.  Bester tries very hard to break the reader out of his groove and force her to pay attention to how things are said, which for characterization is often more important than what they’re saying.

That’s not the only way in which the book can be a difficult read.  There are, for example, the aforementioned rape scenes.  The book manages to be extremely sexual  while staging nearly all of it offscreen, but much of the sex is either violent or deviant or both, and makes one feel rather squidgy.  Also, although the book seems very progressive in the diversity of its cast, Bester still succumbs to a good deal of racial and sexual stereotyping; many of the characters are referred to (albeit generally either by unsympathetic characters or self-effacingly) using ethnic slurs, and homosexuals get a rough time in general (“I knew you weren’t [a] fag…you’re a man!” exclaims one character non-ironically).  Sometimes the two are combined, such as the Jewish lesbian who calls herself “Yenta Calienta” and needs to get the best deal possible on everything.  On the other hand, it’s very difficult to tell when Bester is being ironic and when he isn’t; face it, you can’t call a character “Yenta Calienta” and take it seriously.  And some parts of the book are just laugh-out-loud “WTF” ridiculous, such as when the Jamaican PI goes to the Palestine Liberation Organization and talks her way past the guards in Yiddish, pretending to be an Ethiopian Jew (the PLO, you see, took over narcotics distribution after the collapse of the Italian mob, and since Israel is the only country left that condemns drugs, they now love the Jews).  There’s also the psychoanalyst who pretends to be a diabolist because the ritual evil lets his patients relax so he can read them better.

Anyway, like I said, trying to summarize the plot is near pointless and it’s better to just describe impressions; either you like this sort of read, in which case you’ll probably enjoy it, or you don’t and you won’t.  As I mentioned before, it feels in many ways like an expanded version of “The Stars My Destination,” which is surprisingly short for a work of its influence.  This one clocks in at nearly 400 pages, but large sections are devoted to visuals so it actually reads faster than that.  Bottom line: if you’re a fan of science fiction that puts its energy into pure imagination and balls-out craziness, then this one’s worth a shot if you can find it (it is out of print).  Otherwise, probably best to give it a miss.

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.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

To be honest, I was apprehensive about this book.  Every glowing recommendation that I received came with the rave-cum-caveat that it was basically the geekiest thing ever written and therefore I would love it.  Unfortunately, geek though I am, I have lately found myself tiring of the metageek geek-for-geek’s-sake self-referential geekery that seems to have crept into geek culture.  You know what I’m talking about, the land of the intentionally-pixelated Christmas wreath and the borderline-ironic love for shitty 80s cartoons.

For this reason I found myself occasionally walking over to my borrowed copy, picking it up, and then setting it back down because I simply didn’t want to deal with it.  And, for the first few chapters, my fears were realized, as our painfully geeky protagonist Wade told us about the übergeek and his contest to find the ultimate Easter Egg hidden within a virtual pop-cultural labyrinth of absolutely monumental proportions.  It took me, oh, 4-5 sittings to get through the first five chapters, rolling my eyes the whole time.

Then a funny thing happened: the story finally kicked in and all the Matthew Broderick/Atari/Monty Python window dressing folded itself neatly around this guided missile of a plot, and the next time I came up for breath I was halfway through the book.  Finished the whole thing in less than an afternoon.  Turns out, in the future post-energy-crash world, everybody lives most of their lives plugged into the ultimate virtual-reality MMO game, the OASIS.  The creater of said game announced a contest upon his death, wherein the first person to solve a series of puzzles related to his obsessive love of 80s pop culture and find the hidden Easter egg would inherit the company that controls the game and instantly become a kajillionaire.  So the world is now populated with the futuristic equivalent of billions of World-of-Warcraft addicts, all competing with each other for the most encyclopedic knowledge of 80s films, music, and especially video games.  Individual egg-hunters compete with each other but also with an evil corporation bent on solving the puzzle first, by any means necessary, and gaining control over the world’s largest and most profitable business.  The story evolves into an extended chase sequence interwoven with some elaborate and (often literally) cinematic set pieces, marred only by a bit of (again, literal) deux ex machina near the denouement.  But the most compelling aspect of the book is the interaction between the five hunters that eventually begin solving the puzzle and building relationships despite never having met in “real life”.  Characters squabble, commiserate, and fall in love virtually, to the point where it doesn’t matter anymore who they really are, because their online personas are just as real as their flesh-and-blood bodies.

Prior to reading this book, I would have sworn that Neal Stephenson was the only author who could have turned this nerd stew into something actually exciting, and I would have been wrong.  In fact, heresy though it may be to say it, Stephenson could learn a thing or two from Cline about focus, and about how to end a story.  Reading Ready Player One is like watching Babylon 5; if you can make it through the tedious first bit where pieces are (by all appearances) clumsily being put into place, you’ll be sucked along for the ride when everything gets turned up to 11.  And if that isn’t a geeky enough simile, I don’t know what is.

Kraken by China Miéville

"Kraken" by China Mieville

China Miéville and I have an understanding.  I promise to accept that he’ll let the story meander all over the place, like a spinning top on a marble tabletop, and in return he promises that, whether or not eventually he gets to the point, it’ll all be worth the trip.  The man doesn’t always know how to end a book, but he’s so good at weaving a story that feels like it could veer off in literally any direction at any moment that you don’t mind, even when the narrative sputters to an end and you’re slightly bewildered at what just happened.  This is most true in the otherwise masterful The Scar, but holds for his other work as well.

Kraken is the first time he’s come close to letting me down.  Nominally a whodunit, Miéville sets Kraken in modern London and the dialog practically drips with Englishness.  He obviously set out to write an absurd farce and definitely succeeds with the absurd part, populating his story with a dead (and generally absent) giant squid, a foul-mouthed spell-slinging constable, Penn-and-Teller-esque mass murderers, and a collection of cults worshipping anything you can think of and a good many things you can’t.  Throw in a work stoppage by the familiars’ union, a sentient tattoo, an honest-to-God fully functional phaser, and an oh who cares its just a whole lot of fun.  Having gone into the read without realizing that Miéville was just going to let it all hang out and see exactly how crazy he could get, I found the experience slightly frustrating.  On reflection, however, I find myself wanting to ride again just to experience the weird.

If you’re expecting a linear story then you’ve obviously never read Miéville, but with Kraken you can’t even count on the modicum of coherence that you find in, say, Iron Council or Perdido Street Station.  You’ll probably want throw the book across the room a time or two, but if you’re OK with that, then you’re going to enjoy the ride by the time it’s over.