Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
Published: Galaxy Science Fiction, 1957
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

Have you ever worried about your memory, because it doesn't seem to recall exactly the same past from one day to the next? Have you ever thought that the whole universe might be a crazy, mixed-up dream? If you have, then you've had hints of the Change War.

It's been going on for a billion years and it will last another billion or so. Up and down the timeline, the two sides--"Spiders" and "Snakes"--battle endlessly to change the future and the past. Our lives, our memories, are their battleground. And in the midst of the war is the Place, outside space and time, where Greta Forzane and the other Entertainers provide solace and r-&-r for tired time warriors.” ~WWend.com

This is my second-to-last novel for WWend’s 2012 GrandMaster’s Reading Challenge.  Fritz Leiber was an author with a wide-ranging imagination, who applied his skill to many kinds of speculative fiction.  He wrote a number of Hugo award-winning science fiction stories (including this one), but he was also the author of many acclaimed works in horror and fantasy. Last year, I reviewed his horror/urban fantasy novel Conjure Wife, which may soon get its 4th film adaptation. The styles of Conjure Wife and The Big Time are so different that they seem almost written by different people.  I think that Conjure Wife was written more for wide appeal, which could be one of the reasons why it has been adapted to film so often.  The Big Time, on the other hand, is a very unusual book, and one that I could see having a smaller audience through the years.

My Thoughts:

I think that Leiber’s background in theatre is evident in The Big Time.  It is very easy to imagine the story being performed on stage, and—unless you wanted to do something elaborate with the alien costumes—I don’t think it would even be an especially expensive production.  The set and various prop pieces are very clearly described (as such) by the narrator, and the entire story takes place in a single location (called the Place).  The story is tightly bounded in time, as well, telling the events of a short period in the lives of Greta, the other entertainers, and a small group of time soldiers.  The eventual mystery and its resolution are paced well, and I appreciated that the reader is actually given all the clues to solve the mystery on their own.  As in a play, most of the surface plot of the story is told through visual description and dialogue.  I liked how Leiber gave each of the characters a distinct style of speech, reflecting their home time period, but I thought that it sometimes sounded a little too stilted.  I feel like the dialogue might come across better in a well-performed audiobook, or in a conversion of the story to stage drama.  

The strong personality of the first-person narrator, Greta Forzane, might be a major factor in whether or not one enjoys the novel.  She’s '29 and a party girl', and she tells her story in a very casual and conversational way.  Here’s an example of some of her early exposition:

…you are not likely to meet me in the cosmos, because (bar Basin Street and the Prater) 15th Century Italy and Augustan Rome—until they spoiled it—are my favorite (Ha!) vacation spots and, as I have said, I stick as close to the Place as I can. It is really the nicest Place in the whole Change World. (Crisis! I even think of it capitalized!)

Anyhoo, when this thing started, I was twiddling my thumbs on the couch nearest the piano and thinking it was too late to do my fingernails and whoever came in probably wouldn't notice them anyway.” ~Chapter 1

To me, Greta seems pretty immature and ditzy, but I don’t think that would be a fair assessment of her character in total.  She seems to strive to diminish herself in order to care for others more.  She doesn’t really have strong opinions or convictions (except that the Surgery room is awful), and thus frames most situations in terms of how they affect the people around her. Her behavior and style of narration make her seem kind of empty-headed, but she proves to have pretty good reasoning skills.  It seemed almost as if her self-dismissive party-girl persona was designed to keep her focused on her work and distracted from thinking too seriously about her life.

The different ways Greta and the other characters cope with their strange lives is what lies behind most of the conflict of the novel.  All of the characters have been permanently removed from their natural timelines to fight a war that seems to have no end or final goal.  They know very little about either side, so they don’t even know whether they’re fighting to achieve an outcome that they would consider worthwhile. Regardless, the decisions made by the “Spiders” completely govern the characters’ lives. They don’t even have control over their own minds, as the actions of soldiers in the war alter their own memories of their lives.  Since they have essentially no control over their own destiny, they are left in a continuing existence that seems arbitrary and purposeless. The characters grapple with the facts of their existence in their separate ways and consider whether an attempt at rebellion is even a meaningful gesture.  The exploration of these reactions made the story much more compelling to me, but also considerably bleaker.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Big Time is a very short novel, and one that I think I appreciated more than I enjoyed reading it.  The narrator, Greta, with her exaggeratedly ditzy behavior and moments of clarity and insight, may be a difficult character to like, and her personality colors the entire story.  I think it’s a pretty common observation that this novel is very influenced by principles of theatre, and even that it would be very easy to convert this story into a relatively simple theatre production.  The basic plot and eventual mystery moves along swiftly, with plenty of character-based tension (prompted by circumstances).  However, the underlying existential crisis of the characters gives the story a surprisingly depressing depth.  It’s definitely a strange novel, but I think I’m glad I gave it a chance.

For more of a discussion of the philosophical content of the novel, The Hugo Endurance Project has a good review here.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Blindness by José Saramago

Blindness by José Saramago 
Published: Harcourt, Inc. (1997)

The Book:

“In a nameless city, a nameless man goes blind.  His blindness is not ordinary—though his eyes appear completely healthy, his vision has become an impenetrable whiteness.  Very soon, it becomes clear that his blindness is contagious, as “white blindness” sweeps through the population. Desperate to keep the blindness from spreading, the man and other sufferers are quarantined in a mental hospital and guarded by soldiers. 

The only eyewitness to what will happen in that place is one woman, who carefully hides her unexplainable immunity in order to accompany her husband.  Removed as the victims now are from civilization and authority, they must find a way to establish their own community or risk falling into lives of unending brutality.” ~Allie

I read this novel loosely as a part of the Outside the Norm reading group (at WWEnd), which is not active at the moment.  I’m hoping for a revival in 2013!  Apparently, there is a movie of this novel as well, which I’ve heard is pretty good.  Lastly, I feel like I should include a trigger warning about this book, because it contains some disturbingly graphic sexual violence.

My Thoughts:

Since I’m unable to read Portuguese, all of my comments here relate to the English translation of the text.  I can’t compare the novel I read to the original, so I can’t guarantee that the stylistic quirks hold true in both languages. The English language version of Blindness employs an unusual grammatical structure, with no quotation marks to denote dialogue and a high amount of commas per sentence. The text is often composed of massive sentences with many clauses and lines of dialogue spliced together by commas. For a quick example of the style, here is a sentence taken from late in the novel (cut for brevity and spoiler prevention):

“The doctor’s wife had already guessed what the writer’s reply would be, You and your wife, like the friend who is with you, live in a flat, I imagine, Yes, in her flat in fact, Is it far away, Not really, Then, if you’ll permit me, I have a proposal to make… [~1 page of text]….I do not know braille, How can you write, then, asked the first blind man, Let me show you.” ~pages 232-233, one sentence

I’ve read some reviews that suggested this style was intended to immerse the reader in the confusion of blindness, but I’ve also heard that this is just Saramago’s preferred style of writing.  There are also no names used for any characters or locations.  People are referred to by characteristics, such as “the boy with the squint” or “the girl with the dark glasses”.  My guess was that this was meant to stress the universality  of the story, and to avoid pinning it down to a specific culture or region.  It might seem strange to refer to every character by a phrase rather than a name, but I didn’t think it interrupted the flow of the story.  With the strange grammar and nameless characters, I did not find this to be an effortless read, but I don’t think that the content of the novel was ever obscured by its presentation.

The main science fictional element of the novel is the mysterious illness that topples civilization, ‘white blindness’.  However, the physical origin of the white blindness is not explored, and the story focuses almost entirely on its disastrous effects.  The real point of the blindness is as a tool to explore human nature and the fragility of civilization.  Basically, Blindness tells a similar kind of story to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but with adults and children living in the wreckage of their own civilization. 

While the characters actions are important in the sense of portraying various aspects of human nature, they were not really very deeply developed.  Perhaps the most interesting character is the one who emerges as the leader of the group.  She is the one sighted woman,  who observes all these atrocities and reacts to them with an initially frustrating passivity.  It brings up the question of how much horror one person has to witness and experience before they are willing to take an action that might risk their personal well-being.  Rather than developing individual characters, the novel seemed more focused on observing how many different people abandoned or embraced their humanity when faced with personal blindness and the loss of the infrastructure of their society.

Due to apparent lack of accountability brought about by the changes in their world, many people begin to act out their worst impulses. This leads to some of the more disturbing parts of the book, which include violence, rape, and large amounts of human waste.  The various characters’ reactions to these things are also sometimes quite painful to read. The story does not have a completely bleak view of humanity, however.  The central group, formed mostly of the first to be struck blind, continues to attempt to hold together their small community, despite all the hardships they face.  I think that examination of the motivations and actions of the various characters could lead to a lot of interesting discussion.

My Rating: 4.5/5

In this short review, there’s no way I can even mention all the topics that would make this an interesting book for discussion.  It’s definitely not light reading, both due to the unusual writing style and the disturbingly graphic content.  The white blindness, as an illness, is never much explained, but it is used as a tool to examine how many different people would react to finding themselves in the world the blindness created.  It did not explore only the negative, but also the positive, as some of the survivors struggled to preserve at least their small community.  I’m glad I ended up reading Blindness, and now I’m really curious to see how well the English film represented the novel.    

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1996
Series: The Vorkosigan Saga Book 6 (by internal chronology)
Awards Nominated: Locus SF Award

The Book:

When the Cetagandan Empress dies, Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril are sent to Cetaganda for her funeral as diplomatic representatives of Barrayar. But when the lifelong attendant of the Empress is found murdered, Miles and Ivan find themselves in the thick of things.

Miles tries to play detective in a strange, complicated, and deceptively alien culture, while lascivious Ivan manages to get himself involved with several noble females at the same time – a diplomatic no-no of the first order. As the plot thickens, it becomes clear that to save the Empire, it's up to Miles to do the job. He doesn't mind exactly, but... an adversary's Empire?” ~WWend.com

Cetaganda marks the 6th book I’ve read in the Vorkosigan Saga!  I think there are still plenty of exciting novels ahead, but I’ve been enjoying the series thus far.  Next up is going to be Ethan of Athos, and then I’ll have to see about buying the next batch (they’re mostly sold in omnibuses these days).

My Thoughts:

Cetaganda was a planet-bound mystery, unlike the military adventures of the last few novels I’ve read in this series. The mystery was heavily involved with Cetagandan class politics, so developing the society and culture of the Cetagandan Empire was a major focus of the novel.  To me, the most interesting aspect of the culture was its approach to genetic engineering, specifically the way they used it to create both art and themselves.  There was also some examination of class and gender politics, and the different kinds of power people yield.  It was fun to learn more about a society that has only been briefly mentioned in earlier novels, and there were some entertaining side characters portraying the experience of various social stations.

Though the Cetagandan Empire is a focus of the novel, the main characters are two Barrayarans, Miles and Ivan.  In this foreign setting, they stumble into an intriguing mystery that leads to a humorous adventure.  The contrast between Ivan and Miles’s very different personalities lead to some of the most amusing scenes of the story.  Ivan Vorpatril just wants to have a good time on his trip, hopefully a time full of wine and the company of beautiful women.  He has little patience for Miles’s apparent mystery-mongering, and is often exasperated by his friend’s apparent inability to just let things go.  Though Miles seems to be a magnet for trouble, playboy Ivan manages to get into plenty all on his own with the local ladies.  

Miles, in his early twenties here, is intelligent but still fairly immature.  He thinks poorly of Ivan’s preoccupation with women, but he himself falls head over heels for a pretty (and completely untouchable) woman.  While Miles and Ivan are very, very different people, it’s clear that they do have a loyal friendship, which might be one reason why their arguing comes across as funny rather than mean-spirited. I hope there’s plenty of Ivan in the novels to come, because I think he and Miles have made for a highly entertaining duo every time they’ve appeared so far in the series.

While Miles and Ivan’s adventure does involve surviving assassination attempts, investigating murders, and so forth, Cetaganda still has a decidedly lighter tone than some of the other Vorkosigan novels I’ve read.  Besides Falling Free, I think it is also the most independent of the chronology of the series.  There aren’t many callbacks to characters or events from previous novels, and I don’t think that there are any major changes in Ivan or Miles’s characterization throughout the story.  It feels like more of a humorous side jaunt than a part of the central series’ storyline.  Overall, it was just a light, fun, mystery, and I thought it was well-paced and entertaining.  I don’t think this one will become my favorite of the series, but I did enjoy the time I spent reading it.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Cetaganda is a planet-bound mystery that introduces the structure of the society of the Cetagandan Empire.  I enjoyed reading about the practical Cetagandan approach to genetic engineering, and how that interfaced with their strictly class-based society. Miles and Ivan work remarkably well as the main characters, and the contrast of their personalities injects a lot of the humor into the story.   There’s relatively little dependence on past characters and events, so Cetaganda felt more like a stand alone novel than most others I’ve read in the series.  Altogether, it felt like a light, humorous side adventure that would not suffer much from being read out of sequence.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Published: Macmillan Publishing (2000),  Del Rey (2001)
Series: New Crobuzon Trilogy: Book 1
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association, Locus Fantasy, World Fantasy, Hugo, and Nebula Awards
Awards Won: British Fantasy Society and Arthur C. Clarke Awards

The Book:

Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to none—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.

Isaac has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before fathomed. Though the Garuda's request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger.

While Isaac's experiments for the Garuda turn into an obsession, one of his lab specimens demands attention: a brilliantly colored caterpillar that feeds on nothing but a hallucinatory drug and grows larger and more consuming by the day. What finally emerges from the silken cocoon will permeate every fiber of New Crobuzon, and not even the Ambassador of Hell will challenge the malignant terror it invokes...” ~WWend.com

After months languishing in my upcoming review list, I’ve finally finished reading Perdido Street Station! This novel has gotten plenty of attention from genre awards, and I’ve heard more than one person say this is the first Miéville work a new reader should try.  I’m not new to reading Miéville, since I’ve already read The City & The City and Embassytown, but those two novels inspired me to seek out more of his work.  Perdido Street Station is the first book of a series, but I believe that each novel is effectively a stand-alone book set in the same world (Bas-Lag), of which New Crobuzon is a major city-state.

My Thoughts:

The complex and gritty city of New Crobuzon is one of the most impressive parts of Perdido Street Station.  In a sense, one could consider New Crobuzon to be one of the most important characters in the story.  The wealth of information on all of the architecture, neighborhoods, species, social groups and attitudes, and political factions could sometimes be a little overwhelming, but it was always fascinating to see how all of these pieces interacted to build up the whole of New Crobuzon.  By the end, I felt like I not only had an appreciation for the geography of the city, but for the physical and psychological makeup of the population and their internal conflicts.  All of this information was slowly dispersed throughout the story, so that it seemed there was always something new to discover on the next page.  I’ve always been a fan of detailed world building, so I loved learning about the massive, diverse city of New Crobuzon.

In talking about the story, I think it is easiest to define two sections—“pre-metamorphosis” (of Isaac’s strange caterpillar) and “post-metamorphosis”.  I ended up being more interested in the “pre” section.  This part of the story was relatively low tension, and gave a feel for what normal, daily life is like in New Crobuzon.  The main characters were a rebellious scientist, Isaac, and his khepri (part-insect, part-human) artist girlfriend, Lin.  I enjoyed spending time looking at the world from their perspectives, and their existence in distinct racial and social groups gave a good view of some of the different lifestyles within the city.  They also provided a window into how one practices art and science in this fantasy world.  Aside from the perspective they gave on New Crobuzon, they were also pretty well-drawn, flawed, likable characters. I was thoroughly engaged in following Isaac and Lin’s ‘normal’ lives.  

The “post” section was basically a monster hunt.  The city was still interesting, and there were still more nooks and crannies to discover, but I found my enthusiasm for the story occasionally flagging.  One thing that might have contributed to this was the proliferation of characters in point-of-view positions and their associated subplots.  I was very invested in Isaac and Lin, and I just didn’t have the same interest in all the minor characters, especially since they were often not very fleshed out.  Adding so many subplots also made me feel as though the pace of the story was slowing down as the tension increased. I was also less interested in the monster hunt, so this section began to seem a little unnecessarily long.  Since there are very limited ways a monster hunt can end, I did not think that the ending would surprise me.  While some things went as expected, I would have to call the ending, at the very least, unconventional.  I’m not sure whether I appreciate leaving the story on that particular final note, but I’m still looking forward to returning to the world of Bas-Lag in the future.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Perdido Street Station is an impressively creative novel.  The city of New Crobuzon is such a complex setting that I felt as though I were still learning about its intricacies up through the end of the novel.  The city, its structure, its magic and science, its art, its subcultures and its various species and cultures all feel gritty and real.  The main characters for the first part of the story, the scientist Isaac and the artist Lin, are well developed and sympathetic.  I was most fascinated by the portions about the two of them going about their careers in this fascinating city.  Midway through, the novel takes a wild left turn, and I was less engaged with the subsequent story. This section exploded with many new minor characters and subplots, which seemed to slow down the pace with the rising action.  I’m still not sure if I’m satisfied with the ending, but this is definitely a novel that I will remember for a long time to come.