Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: The Famished Road by Ben Okri

The Famished Road by Ben Okri
Published : Jonathan Cape, 1991
Series : Book 1 in the Abiku Trilogy
Awards : Man Booker Prize

The Book :

"Our country is an abiku country. Like the spirit-child, it keeps coming and going. One day it will decide to remain." ~p.478 The Famished Road

“Azaro is an abiku, a spirit child that does not want to be born.  Abiku make pacts with their spirit companions to not leave the perfect happiness of the spirit world for the difficulty and sorrow of a mortal life.  When an abiku is forced to be born, he typically returns to the spirit world as soon as possible.  Azaro, however, chose to stay, in order to bring happiness to the woman that would be his mother.

Though his spirit companions call to him, though the road he sees ahead of him is a thankless, painful struggle, he continues to refuse to abandon his mortal life.  Azaro lives his life of hardship with his loving parents in a poor Nigerian community.  Caught between life and death, Azaro has a connection to the spirit world, and the spirits plague his life as surely as the more mundane problems of hunger, violence, and political corruption.” ~Allie

 I read this novel as a part of the Outside the Norm reading group at  As a result, a lot of this review is informed by this discussion (beware of spoilers).  I’ve never read anything by Okri before, and this was honestly nothing like what I expected. As a random side note, apparently the Radiohead song“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” was inspired by TheFamished Road. 

My Thoughts:

I haven’t had all that much experience with magical realism, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Okri’s novel.  The supernatural elements, which could be better termed the spiritual elements, were seamlessly intertwined with reality.  The spiritual content seemed to follow an animist tradition, and it mostly involved visions and spiritual journeys.  For example, Azaro often had visions of various spirits, and they sometimes even physically interacted with him.  Also, whenever anyone became sick, their loved ones went to great lengths to lure the soul back from the land of spirits into its physical body.  Both Azaro’s visions and the spirit journeys of the sick and dying were treated as if they were a normal and natural part of life.  Sometimes, the interpretations of these spiritual experiences were relatively clear, but at other times I felt like some deeper meaning was eluding me.  While the spiritual segments were often very poetically written, I couldn’t always see the relevance to the story.  I feel like this might be a novel that would benefit from more extensive study.  

I was equal parts impressed and frustrated by the protagonist, the young child Azaro.  He seemed very realistic as a child, and early in the novel he simply observed most of his world with little understanding or interpretation. He had very little power to influence or change much in his life. Like many children, he also rarely reflected on his own actions, and would often simply answer the questions of adults with, “I don’t know.”  In terms of the narrative, though, having such an incommunicative, powerless protagonist began to grate after a while.  I had hoped that he would grow throughout the book and become a more active participant in his society.  While he does age up from infancy to around 10-12 years of age, he never really loses his childlike passivity.  

Most of what Azaro provided was a highly detailed view into a poverty-stricken community in post-colonial Nigeria. The physical elements of his world, such as the nearby forest, Azaro’s family’s small, rat-infested apartment, and the local bar were brought to painful life through Okri’s descriptive prose.  Even more, though, the myriad people of the community were shown clearly, with all their dreams, hopes, and flaws.  Azaro’s father dreams big but plans poorly, throwing his money into parties and alcohol.  His mother works desperately hard, but can’t help the creeping despair that her life will never be what she once imagined.  The local bar owner, Madame Koto, aspired to material success above all things, though she was not as single-minded as her legend might make one believe.  On a larger scale, Azaro saw how the people of his community behaved en masse, how they were manipulated by corrupt politics, how they were divided by petty feuds, and how they felt that their little corner of the world didn’t really matter at all to those outside.  I found it to be a stunningly vivid portrayal of poverty and the way people coped with their lives.

While the writing was beautiful, and the setting and characters were complex and fascinating, the actual plot was frustratingly non-traditional.  The story never appeared to be leading anywhere, or building up to any kind of major event.  It simply continued, as Azaro’s life and his family and friends’ lives did.  The narrative was very cyclical, and even repetitive, portraying people facing an endless series of small successes and failures that left them in essentially the same place.  While I realize this was the point, the absence of direction in the plot left the story feeling like something of a slog. As a representation of the ideas embedded in the novel, however, the structure of the story makes a lot of sense.

My Rating : 4/5

The Famished Road, is an impressive work of literature.  The novel gave a very thorough look at Azaro’s poor Nigerian community, and the animist-style spiritual elements were integrated seamlessly into his reality.  It was interesting to see a story written from a child’s perspective, but the limitations that placed on Azaro’s ability to fully engage with his world in an active way were frustrating.  The lack of a traditional plot sometimes made reading feel like a trudge.  One of the central ideas was the never-ending struggle that defined life, and this was shown by the cyclical, repetitive stories of daily successes and failures that constituted the novel.  While I can see why this work of magical realism has many fans, I don't think it will become one of my favorites.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester

The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester
Published : Berkley/Putnam, 1975
Awards Nominated : Hugo, Nebula, and Locus SF Awards

The Book :

”There is a Group of eccentric immortals, who have all come into being after a shocking near-death experience.  Some of them are actual historical celebrities, but others simply take on names that best describe their interests. Guig’s name comes from the “Grand Guignol”, and he earned it through his obsession with recruiting new immortals.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to orchestrate an experience of horrific near-death followed by a miraculous save, so all his attempts have ended in failure.  Mostly, he just kills people in terrible ways—but with the best of intentions.

Guig has his sights set on a new recruit, a genius Cherokee scientist named Sequoya Guess.  The conversion marks Guig’s first success, but then something unexpected happens.  Guess has mysteriously formed a connection with a supercomputer known as the Extro.  Guess may want to further his research and make life better for humankind, but the Extro has more homicidal intentions.  Guig and his Group must face the terrible truth—if Guess can’t control the Extro, they may have to kill a man they think of as a brother.” ~Allie

This is my September novel for the Grand Master’s ReadingChallenge.  I picked this novel because I am generally a fan of Alfred Bester.  He is a skilled wordsmith, and everything he writes seems to be brimming with energy and enthusiasm.  While The Computer Connection was as ridiculous and energetic as usual, I don’t think it is one of his best novels.  For any newcomers to Bester’s work, I would recommend starting with some of his more well-known novels, such as The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination.

My Thoughts

In the introduction to my edition of The Computer Connection, Harlan Ellison states that this novel is Alfred Bester’s take on a Hollywood screwball comedy.  I can see that idea at the heart of this novel, with its over-the-top characters and absurd situations.  The madcap energy that Bester seems to put into everything that he writes also works well to propel the story from one ridiculous event to the next.  The descriptions of communities and characters were all exaggerated and over-the-top, which fit well with the tone of the story. All the members of the Group had developed their niche—Nemo with his sea creatures, Herb Wells with his ‘time dingbat’, Borgia with her medicine, M’bantu with his wildlife, Sam Pepys with his historical records, and so on.  Their specializations influenced all of their interactions and made them easy to distinguish.

However, the exaggeration of these characters and their communities led to some wildly stereotypical portrayals of marginalized cultures.  On the up side, many of the main characters were non-white, and most of them were portrayed in a positive light.  For instance, Dr. Sequoya Guess was a world-famous Cherokee scientist, his sister Natoma was highly intelligent and assertive, and Fee-5 (a girl described as partially Maori) was also quite a marvel.  On the downside, the depiction of several cultures, most notably the Cherokee, was about as accurate and sensitive as Looney Tunes.  For instance, Dr. Guess lives in a teepee guarded by wolves, and Natoma is introduced through an accidental marriage (though the trope is somewhat subverted in the details). Guig also regularly calls Dr. Guess by nicknames like ‘Sitting Bull’, ‘Montezuma’, ‘Chief’, and so forth, though at least one character does explicitly call him out on this behavior.  In addition to this, Guig uses some slurs throughout the story (most notably one that is still often used against homosexuals), though he appears to do so without malice.  I think that these portrayals and inappropriate terms are meant to be seen as silly, but I can see how they could easily ruin the novel for many people. 

The story of The Computer Connection is fast-paced and entertaining, but not always entirely coherent. The science featured in the story doesn’t even try to be especially realistic, so one just has to accept the existence of ‘molecular men’, the bizarre results of Dr. Guess’s experiments, and more.  Quite a lot happens in the pages, and some of it seems a little unnecessary.  For instance, Fee-5 is a very interesting adolescent girl, but she ends up underutilized in the story.  Also, there is at least one plot twist late in the story that doesn’t seem relevant to much of anything.  It is foreshadowed, but it has no real connection to the plot or the characters.  Overall, it was a short, fun book, but the plot construction left something to be desired.

Regardless of the content of the story, however, I appreciated Bester’s use of language.  He used it here to build a vernacular for his future residents, and to add to add to the chaotic forward momentum of the story. In the anarchic land of future ‘Mexifornia’, most people speak a language composed of mangled English coupled with mangled Spanish, which somehow manages to be intelligible. In the Group, however, most people speak XX (20th Century English, I assume) which is peppered with easily decodable slang and shortening of words.  Bester’s slang felt very organic to me, particularly in this era of txtspk (Y/N?).  The language in The Computer Connection wasn’t quite as fun as, for example, the telepathic word pictures of The Demolished Man, but I always enjoy Bester’s creativity in his methods of communication and uses of words.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Computer Connection is recognizably Alfred Bester’s style, but I don’t think it’s one of his best books.  His skill with language and his unstoppable energy shines through the pages, but the story does not reach the level of mastery that I remember from “The Demolished Man” or “The Stars My Destination”. The Computer Connection has been described as Bester’s take on a screwball comedy, and it is definitely full of over-the-top characters and absurd situations.  However, I was troubled by the stereotype-driven portrayals of various non-white cultures, particularly the Cherokee.  It was interesting to read a novel written later in Bester’s career, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a first taste of his work.

P.S. The cover I displayed in the 'upcoming reviews' was pretty terrible, so I found an older version to display here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published : Baen, 1986
Series : Book 4 of the Vorkosigan Saga (internal chronology)

The Book :

“Between the seemingly impossible tasks of living up to his warrior-father's legend and surmounting his own physical limitations, Miles Vorkosigan faces some truly daunting challenges.

Shortly after his arrival on Beta Colony, Miles unexpectedly finds himself the owner of an obsolete freighter and in more debt than he ever thought possible. Propelled by his manic "forward momentum," the ever-inventive Miles creates a new identity for himself as the commander of his own mercenary fleet to obtain a lucrative cargo; a shipment of weapons destined for a dangerous warzone.”

I had a plan to read the entire Vorkosigan Saga, start to finish, months ago.  I read through Falling Free, Shards of Honor, and Barrayar, and enjoyed them.  And then… I think I got distracted?  I kept planning to read the next one, but I never quite got around to it.  At any rate, I do still plan on reading the whole series.  I have the next four books (by internal chronology) lined up and ready to go.  I think I took a break from the series at a good point, at least.  Barrayar ended Cordelia’s adventures, and The Warrior’s Apprentice kicks off Miles’s story.  I still think that Shards of Honor and Barrayar are the best starting place for anyone who wants to get into the series, but keep in mind that I haven’t read them all yet!

I’m reading this series in order of the internal chronology.  Therefore, there will be some spoilers of Shards of Honor and Barrayar in this review.

My Thoughts :

The Warrior’s Apprentice was clearly the start of a new generation of adventures in the Vorkosigan Saga.  All of the babies and toddlers from the time of Barrayar have now become teenagers and young adults.  Of course, there was the irrepressible 17-year-old Miles Vorkosigan, but there was also Miles’s crush, Elena Bothari, his irritating cousin Ivan, and the young Emperor Gregor, who was just coming into his power. Starting with this novel, I began to be impressed by the increasingly complex web of interpersonal relationships that this kind of generational saga can portray. Nothing from the previous novels was forgotten, and the old conflicts, secrets, and vendettas still played a role in the story.  In fact, some of the tensest moments in the story for me involved the younger generation innocently prying into secrets that were better left buried.

It is Bujold’s deft hand at characterization that makes her expanding character base and their web of relationships engaging and easy to follow.  Some of the characters were ones that I was already familiar with from the previous novels, such as Miles’s parents and the troubled Bothari.  Others, such as the group of the ‘Dendarii Mercenaries’ were not really as deeply characterized, but still managed to be easy to tell apart.  Of the Barrayar babies, Miles, Elena, Ivan, and Gregor were memorable from their first impressions alone.  Though Miles and Elena were the most present in the story, I was still left with the impression that Ivan and Gregor would be interesting characters to explore further in the future. Altogether, in terms of establishing relationships and characters, I think this novel was a highly successful introduction to Miles’s life.

Though many of the secondary characters had their own subplot arcs, it was Miles’s coming-of-age issues that formed the backbone of the novel.  While Miles is pretty hyper-capable, I liked how his state of mind was portrayed.  He was an essentially well-meaning young man who had, as a result of the environment of his upbringing, a good amount of unexamined prejudices.  While he is highly skilled at strategy, he also doesn’t always clearly perceive the full consequences of his actions. Basically, a lot of his flaws are a result of his youth and inexperience, and I enjoyed watching him start to overcome them.  The main problems he personally struggles with in this novel are his desperation to prove himself to his parents and his awkwardness in dealing with a crush on his childhood friend Elena.  

Much of his intense desire to prove himself seemed linked to his parent’s attitudes regarding his physical handicap. As we know from previous novels, Miles’s body was harmed before his birth by poison gas associated with an assassination attempt on his father.  His parents felt extremely guilty about the damage their political career inflicted on their son.  The dynamic that played out here was actually very realistic, though the specific situation was, of course, science-fictional.  From the parents’ point of view, his physical disability was evidence of their failure to give him a good start in life.  Their guilt is not because they feel their son is inadequate, but because they gave him a much more difficult life than they intended. From Miles’s point-of-view, things look quite different.  As Miles said, after his father once again apologized for the damage:

 “Apologizing to me again, thought Miles miserably. For me. He keeps telling me I'm all right—and then apologizing. Inconsistent, Father. He shuffled back and forth across the room again, and his pain burst into speech. He flung his words against the deaf door, "I'll make you take back that apology! I am all right, damn it! I'll make you see it. I'll stuff you so full of pride in me there'll be no room left for your precious guilt!" ~The Warrior's Apprentice, Near the Beginning

Miles adventures essentially started with the twin goals of proving himself to his parents and impressing Elena.  His flirting with Elena was almost painful to read, because he was so awkward and inexperienced at courting.  While he didn’t have a consciously sexist attitude, his upbringing on Barrayar inevitably left him with some strangely incongruent ideas about the opposite sex.  His experiences over the course of the novel forced him to examine his own ideas and assumptions more closely, and, I think, to become a better person for it.  

While Bujold’s characters and their development is proving to be the main draw of this series for me, the adventures themselves are also a lot of fun.  I’ve seen mention of Miles and his ‘forward momentum’ several times before, so I’m guessing this is going to be a continuing dynamic.  Miles dives into any interesting situation he finds with both feet, relying on his charisma and his strategic flexibility. This story was a bit lighter and more humorous than Cordelia’s adventures in the previous two volumes, and Miles seemed completely unstoppable.  I commented on Barrayar that Cordelia seemed a little bit too much like an unbeatable action hero, and Miles’s adventures left me with the same feeling.  He’s able to manipulate pretty much everyone around him, and he manages to gain a lot of trust based on some pretty flimsy lies.  All the same, though, Miles is simply a ton of fun to read about.  His story, so far, is consistently both exciting and humorous, with just enough moments of seriousness.  I am looking forward to reading more about Miles’s life!

My Rating : 4/5

The Warrior’s Apprentice is another entertaining installment in the Vorkosigan Saga.  This novel kicks off Miles’s story, as he heads out as an inexperienced 17-year-old in search of adventure.  There’s plenty of adventure to be had, and he soon manipulates his way into someone else’s war by pretending to be the owner of a mercenary fleet.  While Miles’s unstoppable successes were on the edge of credibility, the story was full of fast-paced, often humorous fun.  I enjoyed the adventures, but my favorite part of this novel was the characters.  The Warrior’s Apprentice introduces a new generation of players, including the now-grown babies and toddlers of Barrayar.  Bujold’s characters are as well-drawn as always, and I particularly liked how the addition of the new generation built on the web of relationships and loyalties from the generation before.  I’m actually already near the end of The Vor Game, and I can’t wait to see how Bujold’s saga unfolds!  

PS: Isn't that cover just atrocious? 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Published : Black Swan, 1996
Series : There is a sequel, Children of God
Awards Won : British Science Fiction Association Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
Awards Nominated : John W. Campbell Memorial Award

One kind-of spoiler follows, which is revealed at the beginning of the first chapter.

The Book:

“When the first alien society was discovered, it was not the government of any country that sent the first expedition. Instead, the first to react was the Society of Jesus, a religious order with a long history in the exploration and study of newly discovered foreign lands. The Jesuits quickly and privately mobilized a group of eight friends and experts to make the dangerous journey to a new world.

They went not to proselytize, but to learn and to meet God’s other children.  They went with the best of intentions.  When the next public expedition finally arrived, they found only one of the original expedition still alive. 

Emilio Sandoz—severely injured in body, mind, and soul—was unable to give any explanation for the squalor in which he was found.  How could such an well-meaning expedition have gone so horribly wrong?” ~Allie (with some phrases taken from the prologue)

I decided to read The Sparrow on a whim.  I remembered seeing it mentioned in a few reviews of Embassytown, as an example of a well-written book about a disastrous first contact.  The Sparrow is very different from Embassytown, but I am very glad that I allowed the recommendation to steer me towards this novel.  I was also surprised to learn that such a fantastic novel was actually Mary Doria Russell’s debut.  There is a sequel, Children of God, which I will probably read at some point, but I think that The Sparrow is satisfying as a complete story.

My Thoughts:

The story of The Sparrow is split into two timelines.  The first, the ‘past’ narrative, provides the background of the main players, and progresses through the expedition to the alien planet of Rakhat. The second timeline is the ‘present’ story, which begins after the spectacular failure of that mission. I think that the two stories, told in alternating chapters, complemented each other remarkably well. The shifting between the two storylines allowed well-employed foreshadowing and interesting alternate perspectives to enrich the experience of both. By telling the outcome of the mission from the beginning, it was clear that this was going to be more of a contemplative novel.   It felt like the novel was less focused on what was going to happen next, and more involved in exploring the causes and effects of the events of the story.

I was initially a little skeptical of split-timeline approach, since I thought that knowing the expedition was doomed from the start might suck out all of the story’s tension.  In practice, I found the opposite to be true, mostly because I found the cast so immensely likeable.  The members of the expedition were so good intentioned and full of life that I couldn’t help but feel an odd mixture of pity and dread about their eventual fate. While I liked that they were not perfect—each had their flaws and secrets—I also found it refreshing that they were generally decent people.  In the present timeline, also, I found most of the cast to be generally likeable, though a little less interesting.  I couldn’t help but worry about how they would react on learning the truth of Emilio’s experiences, and what they would eventually do with him. Emilio was certainly the star of the cast, though the lifelike characters around him never seemed extraneous.  Much of the story involves getting to know Emilio, his personality, and how his experiences in the novel (and before) have shaped his life and beliefs.

As a Jesuit priest, a lot of Emilio’s thoughts included considerations of faith and the society he had pledged his life to serve.  Overall, this was probably one of the more positive representations of religion I’ve seen in a science fiction book.  While the expedition members often discussed their faith among themselves, they were not going to Rakhat to convert ‘heathens’.  They hoped to eventually share their beliefs with their alien friends, but their original intention was simply to learn more about God’s universe.  Emilio’s eventual crisis of faith was one that is likely familiar, in broad outline, to any Christian.  There is no easy answer to his anguish, and I appreciated how Russell managed to give the end of the story a sense of closure without forcing an unrealistically happy ending.

The Sparrow is not a hard science fiction novel, so it is necessary to be able to accept some unrealistically optimistic science.  For instance, the Society of Jesus seemed to make a star-spanning asteroid-spaceship surprisingly easily, considering that their departure was less than a decade from now.  The alien planet could also conveniently support human life, and the aliens seemed very similar to the kinds of life forms to which we are accustomed.  However, though they were biologically familiar, there were many things about the inhabitants of Rakhat that were very alien.  Both humans and aliens made assumptions about the other that did not prove true, and these assumptions often led to disastrous consequences.  I was not overly concerned with the wishful science, perhaps in part because I was so engaged by the strength of the story, the ideas, and the memorable characters. 

My Rating: 5/5

The Sparrow is a thoughtful novel of first contact with an alien species and the disasters of misunderstanding that seem to commonly follow. It is also about Christian religious faith, and a familiar crisis of faith carried out on an alien planet. The novel follows the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz on his doomed mission to Rakhat, and simultaneously tells the story of his return. The characters in both timelines were well-drawn, complex, and generally decent people that I found easy to care about. The Sparrow has definitely earned a place as one of my favorite books of the year. Even though this novel does feel complete, I am going to have to put the sequel, Children of God, on my to-be-read list.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Hugo Award for Best Novel

Congratulations to Jo Walton for winning the Hugo Award for her novel Among Others!  That was actually my top pick for the award as well.  My thoughts on the complete nominee list are here.  What do you think about how this year's awards have turned out?