Day 993: Slipping

Cover for SlippingI have read two novels by Lauren Beukes and greatly enjoyed their mashup of crime fiction and science fiction. So, I thought I’d love Slipping, a collection of short stories, essays, and other writings.

Beukes’s writing is energetic and her ideas unusual, often gruesome. Her stories are often bizarre. But, oddly enough, after a while they seemed to be very similar. Most of them are set in South Africa in what appears to be the near future, although some are set on other planets. Many are violent; many have characters leading glitzy but vapid lives. They feature a lot of slang that may be invented. There is a glossary, but I didn’t notice it until it was too late.

“Muse” is a short poem about the difficulty of writing, in which the writer receives gloves made of “muse skin” with barbed hooks in the fingertips.

link to Netgalley“Slipping” is about athletes who are artificially enhanced competing in a race. One of them is even a dead body. “Confirm/Ignore” is about catfishing. “Branded” offers advertizers a brand new idea for sponsorship. “Smileys” is a dystopian tale about a street vendor defending herself against extortion. “Princess” puts a startling interpretation on the story of the princess and the pea.

I don’t know why I felt this sameness, as the stories are obviously varied in nature, but I found myself not wanting to read more. I think some of the images were just to grotesque for me.

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Day 848: RASL: The Lost Journals of Nikola Tesla

Cover for RASLEvery once in a while, I dabble in graphic novels, without really knowing much about them. I’m not at all interested in the violent or superhero ones that seem to dominate the genre but in the more unusual ones. This volume of RASL pulled me in with its reference to Nikola Tesla. Tesla is one of my husband’s interests, so I picked it up at the library to read together.

Alas, there was no indication on the book that it was part of a series, and it was a little difficult to pick up what was going on. Also, I should have paid more attention to the guy with two blazing guns on the cover.

RASL is an ex-military engineer and art thief whose discovery with his partner of Nikola Tesla’s lost journals has allowed them to create a machine that takes them across parallel universes. RASL has figured out that the work of his previous lab to draw energy from the parallel universes to use in ours will destroy people in all the universes involved. He returns from another universe to find the entire town surrounding one of the labs destroyed and the authorities lying about it being a small accident.

RASL sets out to destroy the labs and Tesla’s notebooks, pursued by the dastardly Agent Crow, who has apparently already killed RASL’s parter, Dr. Miles Riley. RASL is also betrayed by his ex-lover Maya.

The science is unlikely, although the story does give a good background about Tesla (ignoring the fact that he was insane when he died). However, the story devolves into the usual violence.

The art is pretty good, although I didn’t like Smith’s rendition of people’s faces. At least the book isn’t full of rippling muscles and pulchritudinous females.

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Day 784: The Heart Goes Last

Cover for The Heart Goes LastStan and Charmaine are living in their car. They used to live a comfortable middle-class life, but the downturn was worst in the Northeast and both of them lost their jobs and then their home. There has been a breakdown in society. The streets are dangerous and normal services are defunct.

Charmaine has been earning a bit as a waitress in a bar, and Stan has been looking for work. He is even forced to go to his shady brother Colin for help when it has always been the other way around. Colin offers him a job, but Stan decides to wait a while, knowing that the job is likely to be illegal.

On the TV at the bar, Charmain sees an ad for the Positron Project, which offers employment and housing. When Stan and Charmain attend an introductory session, they’re not told very much except that if they return, they will not be allowed to leave. They must be ready to commit to the project.

Stan and Charmaine decide to give up their freedom for stability, even though Colin warns them not to go there. When they commit to the project, they find that the whole community is built around a prison. To create enough work around the prison, the staff must alternate one month inside the prison as inmates, one month out, sharing their house with another couple that is in when they are out.

This situation doesn’t seem to disturb them, and they continue on for a year. Then Charmaine becomes romantically involved with their male alternate, who calls himself Max. This relationship eventually leads to discoveries about the true nature of the project.

link to NetgalleyThe Heart Goes Last allows Atwood full rein of her acerbic sense of humor and biting satire. It is reminiscent of the darker excesses of the Maddaddam trilogy but without any very sympathetic characters. Instead, it gets progressively more absurd as it continues. Its references to the current political climate are obvious. Although I found this novel entertaining, I did not enjoy it as much as I have some of Atwood’s other novels.

Note: Caroline of Rosemary and Reading Glasses has written this fascinating post comparing this novel to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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Day 751: The Martian Chronicles

Cover for The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles is an odd collection of stories about the colonization of Mars by Earth. The stories begin with an almost comic book feel, which continues with many of them, even though the message is ultimately serious, about the destructiveness of American culture. (Only Americans come to Mars.)

As with many futuristic stories, Bradbury doesn’t get it quite right, rendering them dated in these times. The stories take place beginning in 1999 and continuing for about 30 years, yet many features of the tales reflect the 50’s, when the stories were written. Of course, even the notion that Mars would be habitable for humans without space suits is a funny one for us today. Most shockingly, there is a story about all the black people leaving Southern towns for Mars, supposedly set in 2009, that is queasily stereotypical, both of the Southern whites and the African-Americans, even for the 50’s. And having shown the African-American people a modicum of sympathy in that story, Bradbury never mentions them again.

The stories begin with a series of expeditions to Mars, where the exploratory forces are killed by Martians, not because the Martians fear invasion but just sort of accidentally. The first human to Mars is murdered by a Martian in jealousy over his wife, whom the human hasn’t actually met. In fact, the Martians don’t even realize they’re being invaded. They are telepathic, but their telepathy doesn’t seem to extend to figuring out what’s going on and what a danger these people are. By the fourth story, most of the Martians have been wiped out by disease brought by the Americans. When they appear, though, the Martians seem to be residents of superior civilization to ours.

Overall, my impression of the stories is ambiguous. In many ways they seem childish, although all together they convey a powerful message. In one story that seems to be a frank indictment of McCarthyism, a wealthy man whose library on Earth was burned by government forces who have proscribed all works that aren’t realistic comes to Mars to build his own House of Usher. When government officials come to destroy it for the same reason they destroyed his library on Earth, he gets his revenge and honors Poe at the same time. It struck me that in the frontier environment Bradbury depicts, the government forces wouldn’t be that strong or present (or they would control everything, and there would be no frontier environment).

The stories are beautifully written, especially the descriptions of Martian cities and landscapes. I just think that Bradbury has more to offer us in other works, as classic as this one is. Try Fahrenheit 451 or Dandelion Wine instead.

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Day 622: Under the Harrow

Cover for Under the HarrowBest Book of the Week!
Under the Harrow is an unusual and imaginative novel. It is described in some write-ups as if Charles Dickens had written a modern thriller, and that description does give a sense of the novel.

Dingley Dell is a hidden valley occupied by about 11,000 people who have never been out of it. Their history relates that their ancestors were deserted as children in an orphanage during a terrible plague in 1890. With the only books available to them an old encyclopedia, the Bible, and the complete works of Charles Dickens, they have invented for themselves a very Dickensian environment, not omitting some of its evils, like a workhouse, a huge separation between classes, and a government by a privileged few. Only a few people have ever left the valley to see what is outside, and only a very few of them ever returned. Those few were promptly clapped into the madhouse, victims of a terrible mental illness.

Frederick Trimmers has lately suffered from some misgivings about the state of the dell. He is a writer for a muck-raking newspaper who sees much to improve in the dell. Lately, though, he has more personal problems. His troublesome nephew Newton, sent off by his parents to school, has run off from the dell. Newton’s father Gus soon goes after him. While they are having unexpected adventures outside, Frederick is learning disturbing things about the existence and history of the dell. Soon he begins to believe that the entire valley is in danger.

Dunn is having some fun with us while building up a fair amount of suspense. The novel is narrated in a sort of über-Victorian English. The inhabitants of the dell have almost all taken some of the silliest names from Dickens, and many of them remind us of his oddest characters. And in a moment of major action, he offhandedly remarks that the farmer in the dell purposefully left the cheese standing alone. That will give you a little idea of what you have in store, although he doesn’t overdo it. It’s about what you must expect from an author known for a novel where letters disappear one at a time from the text or another written entirely in footnotes.

There is a conspiracy, of course, and if I have a complaint, it’s about the unbelievable extent of the conspiracy and the unlikelihood, given how big Dunn makes it, that everything would come out okay. Still, I give this novel high marks for its originality and its ability to capture and hold my attention.

Day 613: Brave New World

Cover for Brave New WorldIt has been many years since I first read Brave New World, and I didn’t remember very much at all of this acid dystopian novel. It takes a bitter, satiric look into the future from 1931, and like the best of futuristic novels, is somewhat prophetic.

Bernard Marx is an unusual misfit in a society structured around the contentment of its people, or contentment as is rigidly defined there. Family units no longer exist. Society is strictly tiered. Everyone is artificially born, and the lower castes are cloned in multiples. Each caste is conditioned chemically and psychologically from before birth to be content with its lot, the mental and physical abilities of the lower castes chemically limited.

Everything is designed around productivity and consumption. People spend their leisure hours in pursuit of pleasure and get their daily dose of the drug soma. The arts are obsolete, supplanted by a very limited science.

At first it seems as though the discontented Bernard will be the hero of this novel, but there actually is none. He likes Lenina Crowne but is afraid to approach her for fear of being rejected. Lenina is a bit attracted to Bernard and is getting flak from her friends for being too exclusive of late, for there is no concept of faithfulness in this society: “everyone belongs to everyone.” So, she agrees to go with Bernard on a trip to New Mexico to view the savages—remnants of society, apparently American natives, who have not been civilized and live within a barbed wire reservation.

Lenina is too conventional a girl to enjoy this trip, horrified by the dirt and squalor of life that is not antiseptic. But Bernard, who has heard his boss’s story of a lost girlfriend in New Mexico years ago, is intrigued to find this woman, Linda, and her son John, actually born of his parent. John is an outcast of his culture, because he is the son of a woman considered a whore for behavior her own culture believes is normal. He has educated himself from Shakespeare’s complete works. Bernard gets permission to bring Linda and John back to London, setting in train unforeseen consequences.

Huxley apparently firmly believed that future societies would be controlled by drugs and psychological conditioning. It is his interest in cloning and the power of propaganda that strikes more modern readers. I’m willing to bet he paid attention to the then-current theories of eugenics that were particularly popular in England and Germany. His choice of Henry Ford as a godlike image for that society is telling not only for Ford’s invention of the assembly lines, clearly a model for Huxley’s vision of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, but also for Ford’s own interest in eugenics.

I couldn’t help comparing Huxley’s vision of sexual freedom with that of Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, a book I really hated. There are other similarities too, John the Savage almost standing in for Heinlein’s alien-born Messiah, only finally shunning what he views as an immoral society rather than trying to start a religion. I think Huxley’s ideas are much more insightful, though.

That being said, I enjoyed this re-read only moderately. I appreciate Huxley’s deadpan humor, but a late section of the book, where Mustafa Mond explains his choices in life, is a bit too much like a sort of reverse didacticism, by which I mean that Huxley is not trying to make us agree with him, but trying to show us what is wrong with Mond’s ideas (or maybe I’m wrong—I believe Huxley thought that such controls over society were inevitable). In any case, any kind of didacticism in a novel is a good thing to avoid. Still, reading this novel after such a long time was an interesting experience.

Day 593: Maddaddam

Cover for MaddaddamBest Book of the Week!
Maddaddam is the final book in Margaret Atwood’s funny, cruel, and profound Maddaddam trilogy. At the beginning of the novel, all of the remnants of the Gardeners cult and the Maddaddam hackers have teamed up to try to survive the horrendous conditions post-Waterless Flood together. Ren and Toby, the main characters of The Year of the Flood, have managed to rescue Amanda from the vicious Painballers. They have also found Jimmy and the Crakers, from Oryx and Crake. The two groups of survivors are worried about the two remaining Painballers and incursions from the pigoons on their garden. They are also searching for Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners.

This novel again returns to the time of the other two, providing a look at events from the point of view of Zeb. Zeb has been a mysterious presence in both books, returning periodically to the Gardeners and going off again. Toby is so happy to see him after the long isolation following the Waterless Flood that she uncharacteristically bursts into tears. The story moves forward as Zeb, now Toby’s lover, tells her about his life with his brother Adam.

The novel is humorously punctuated with the stories Toby is telling to the Crakers. As Snowman-the-Jimmy is sick for the first part of the novel, Toby reluctantly takes up his role as the interpreter of the Crakers’ origins. She also befriends a young Craker boy named Blackbeard.

Maddaddam is touching and exciting, building to a battle between the surviving decent humans and the Painballers, with one side making an unlikely alliance with the clever pigoons, pigs with human DNA that were created during the manic gene-splicing days of the large drug companies. The aftermath of the battle is touchingly related by Blackbeard.

This trilogy is a profound one, about the evils of greed and rampant corruption, the perils of climate change, and the madness of one man who felt that the only solution was to wipe humans from the face of the earth and replace them with a gentler species. The third book is also about a group who understood where everything was going and did their best to save some of the people.

This series is great.