Collateral Bloggage What passes for thought around here…

11Sep/140

Book Review: A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

I get myself into trouble sometimes by ragging on Epic Fantasy as a genre, particularly to one of my Take Me To Your Reader co-hosts.  The problem is that I’m just not into world-building, and much of Epic Fantasy delves deeply into it.  So while I recognize the literary value of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and have read it twice), it’s not really my cup of tea. (I’ve read it two and a half times.  I quit midway though the third read-through of The Two Towers.  So.  Boring.)

So it’s probably not surprising that I wasn’t an early adopter on George R. R. Martin’s (really, two middle Rs?) A Song of Ice and Fire series.  HBO’s Game of Thrones is a pop culture phenomenon, but one I’ve elected not to partake of, partially because the Honest Trailer description of it as a “medieval encyclopedia/dungeon master’s guide/porno” is precisely 0 for 3 in terms of things I watch.  (Medieval encyclopedia is the closest to something I’d watch.)

And yet, I feel a bit culturally illiterate not watching the show, so I’ve picked the brain of one of my less scrupulous Pavement Pounders (James) and gotten the download on what the show is about.  Still not really interested.

I’ve heard a ton about the books, including that they’re the greatest thing ever, or that they’re totally perverse and filled with wall to wall rape and perversion.  So when I discovered that Library2Go had the first book (and the rest of the series), I put a Hold Request in and gave myself some time to decide if I’d read them.

Well, A Game of Thrones came through, and a couple of things happened.  One, I enjoyed it.  If nothing else, it’s certainly a page turner.  Two, I didn’t find it as offensive as I expected.  I don’t mind some depravity in characters in fiction, which is why I find Christian Fiction so underwhelming.  I liked a couple of the characters and was repulsed (rightly) by a couple of the others.  Three, I finished the book and have no solid intention to continue the series.

It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve read.  In fact, it’s pretty much right in the middle.  But in the middle doesn’t get you onto my list of things to keep reading.  I’ve got so many books I’d actually like to read that there’s almost no way I’ll consider continuing the series.  Maybe you’d like to convince me.  Good luck.

Before I go, I want to gripe about dream sequences.  Seriously, there must have been four or five detailed dream sequences.  The one after a character had a terrible fall and was in a coma I kind of got.  The others just irritated me.  Okay, they all irritated me.  I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a dream sequence in fiction.  It just seems lazy to me, getting that far into a character’s head.  But maybe I’m off my rocker about this.

I’ll say one positive thing before I sign off and start receiving hate comments.  (Actually, as my blogging has fallen off in frequency, so have the comments, so I’m not really expecting much.)  I didn’t fine Martin’s world-building as painful as I have with some other authors.  It all seemed to flow pretty organically from the story and the characters.  So that’s good.  But I also found myself getting characters mixed up, or just not caring much about others.

To sum up: I enjoyed the book.  Sort of.

Next up, Dr. Kevin Fong’s excellent Extreme Medicine.  I also still need to post something about Crisis on Infinite Earths, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Rock Breaks Scissors.

31Aug/140

Brief Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

I finished this book in July, and though recent life events have gotten in the way, I can’t say that if things were going along swimmingly, I’d be any closer to being able to collect my thoughts about Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  If you want to just go off and read it and start stewing on it yourself, I’m giving it a big recommendation.  It’s absolutely tremendous.  So you should definitely read it.

I actually didn’t know it was a non-fiction book until I read the afterward, because it’s written in a narrative prose style I normally associate with fiction.  The book takes place in Annawadi, an extremely poor slum in Mumbai, India.  Ironically, the trash pickers and sorters of Annawadi live on a substantial enough wage (still almost nothing) that many of them are considered to have risen out of poverty.  Never mind that an injury could cost them their livelihoods or even their lives.

The book follows several characters through a series of events in Annawadi mostly related to a trial of one of the slum’s leading businessmen: Abdul, a boy of perhaps sixteen who runs a recycling business out of his family’s home.  The reasons for the trial aren’t really important, but the view into the screwy justice system in Mubai was eye-opening.  At every turn, someone was making money in exchange for favors.  The concept of guilt or innocence really didn’t seem to matter to anyone but the accused.

Another person who gets a lot of attention in the book is Asha, who hopes one day to become the new slum lord.  The sections about her make it really hard to hope for easy solutions to what’s broken in India.  Maybe we should give more in aid, either at the governmental or personal level?  Fine, but with all the corruption, how do you know your money does any good?  Or maybe sanctions against the corrupt authorities?  Then what happens to those whose livelihood is connected in a tangential way to the corruption, and through no fault of their own?  The easy answers just aren’t there.

   “The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much,” she said to her children.  Asha understood plenty.  She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s old problems---poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor---were being aggressively addressed.  Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.

In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions.  But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.

I hesitate to write much more.  Again, the book is absolutely terrific, though I can’t guarantee it’ll make you feel warm inside for having read it.  I picked this one up on John Green’s recommendation on his vlogbrothers channel.  Here’s his first video discussing it.  He says basically everything better than I do.  He’s John Green:

 

I'm several books behind in my reviewingses, so maybe next I'll write up some brief words about why I don't really care if I ever read the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series, and then I'll dodge fruit from the internet for a while. And then I'll write a bit about Dr. Kevin Fong's awesome Extreme Medicine, or maybe opine a bit about Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Or maybe I'll skip straight to writing about the awesome journey down memory lane that was my recent reading of Crisis on Infinite Earths!.

18Jul/140

Book Review: Robogenesis, by Daniel H. Wilson

To say I was a huge fan of Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse would be a bit of an understatement, I think.  Not that it’s the best thing I ever read, but it just hit so many of the geeky buttons in my brain that I had to go back to it a couple more times.  I picked it up on audio, then re-read it in print (well, Library2Go) in anticipation of its sequel coming out.

So it’s perhaps surprising that I think Robogenesis is superior to its predecessor.  I’ve even already picked up the audiobook so I can enjoy it again, because it’s really quite tremendous.  It’s as if the author said, “So you liked Robopocalypse, eh?  Well, look what else my brain can spew out onto a page for your enjoyment.”

The timeline of the book starts basically the moment the previous book ended and essentially turns it on its head.  What was Archos’s (Archos R-14 in the new book) endgame?  What was the goal? Why was humanity attacked so viciously?  Could it be that Archos had humanity’s best interests in mind?  What would that even look like?  And even if he tells us he was looking out for us, would we ever believe him?

And what would happen to an army consisting of humans, robots, and robotically-enhanced humans after the war was over?  (Hint: kind of what the U.S. and U.S.S.R, did after WWII, but with more actual fighting.)

And with all this is also the overarching question: in a world with true Artificial Intelligence, what is the line between life and non-life?  Are you man? Are you machine?  Is there a middle ground?  What if all that remains of you is your brain, hijacked into a parasite exoskeleton attached to your decaying corpse?  If your brain is still alive, are you still human?

If there’s a major fault to Robopocalypse, it’s the oral-history style.  I certainly found it an effective storytelling technique, but it made the narrative a bit choppy.  In Robogenesis, the broken-up narrative continues, but it’s marginally improved by a shift to strictly first-person renderings, though I’m still not totally clear where they came from.  But it seemed somehow more coherent.

The really great thing about a sequel book (or movie, when done well) is that it takes established characters and moves them forward, allowing the author to explore them further.  And as I mentioned before, that line between human and non-human, machine and non-machine is where the character development really takes off.  It’s easy to see that Nine Oh Two, the Freeborn robot from the previous book, would easily side with other machines.  And yet he doesn’t find it quite so easy to do so.  Whereas Mathilda Perez, with her artificial eyes, finds living among humans difficult and (at times) quite dangerous.

Most Robot Uprising kind of fiction has the idea that humanity steps just too far into creating AI.  One person flips the switch and that’s it.  But this book actually brings forward the notion that when the time comes (if you believe in the inevitability of the Singularity), there could be multiple new AIs to contend with.  (Reminds me a bit of Colossus, actually.  Need to go back and read that for the Take Me To Your Reader podcast…)

I’m thinking there’ll be a third book in this series.  Totally cool with that.  I’ll go back and read the other two before it comes out.  So geeky.  So awesome.

Up next is the mind-blowing Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  I’m also reading at least a few chapters of A Game of Thrones, but I do not promise to either love it or read the whole thing.  Just wanted a peek under the hood.  I had to take Stuff Matters back to my local booklender, but I’ll get it back eventually.  I’m also working on A Climate for Change, so who knows what I’ll finish first.

On the podcast, we’ll be covering The Day of the Triffids next, and you may recall I thought the book was amazing.  The films…well, you’ll have to wait to hear what I think of them.

28Jun/140

Book Review: Innocence, by Dean Koontz

It’s been a week or two since I finished reading Innocence, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.  I certainly enjoyed it and found the characters compelling, but I actually delayed writing this up so I could let it sink in a bit.  Still sinking, I guess.

At the outset I’ll say that if you enjoy Koontz, there’s a strong likelihood you’ll enjoy this one.  It’s a bit different and a bit the same as his other stuff.  For a while, I was reading everything he’d put out, but then I read one that gave me too many nightmares (What the Night Knows) and another that was frankly creeping me out (77 Shadow Street) and that I actually decided not to finish.

Still, when Koontz is in his wheelhouse of gripping thrillers with fascinating characters, I’m totally there.  Interestingly, though I’m huge fan of Odd Thomas, I’m generally not into books with much in the way of the supernatural.  Still, Innocence has a sort of Odd Thomas vibe to it, with the main character being able to see things others don’t.  But it’s paired with the fact that when other see him, they try to kill him.

That’s the central mystery of the story: What is it about Addison that drives ordinary people to become violent if they see his face?  And how do you tell a story about a character that other people can’t stand to be around?  The answer is that you introduce another character who can equal his quirkiness.  Enter Gwyneth, who can’t stand to be touched and makes herself up in the Goth style to discourage human interaction.  She and Addison form an unlikely partnership based around a simple rule.  She won’t look; he won’t touch.

Their interactions are really quite wonderful.  The story is told, for the most part, in alternating chapters in the present day and then relating Addison’s life before coming to The City.  For once, this didn’t bother me, because both storylines were compelling enough that it never felt like going from the A story to the B story, as it often does with shifting narratives.

As I’m writing this, I’m realize that I think I now know what to make of the book: it’s terrific.  The reveal of what it is about Addison that drives people to murder is certainly an interesting one, and I’d be curious to see it adapted to film or television.  Though I’m not sure how easy it would be to have a main character not show his face for most of a movie.

If you’re at all interested in the book, you might check out the interview David Barr Kirtley did with Koontz on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy some months ago.  (Transcript available here.)

I’m working through several books at the moment, including Robogenesis, Stuff Matters, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  Not sure which I’ll finish first, but I’m going to guess it’ll be a robot uprising that wins the day.

20Jun/140

Book Review: Earth Awakens, by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston

There’s something nice about the final book in a series.  Any faults the book may have can be largely ignored on the strength of its wrapping things up.  That’s pretty much where I come down on with Earth Awakens.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Earth Unaware for its depiction of asteroid mining and the rivalries between corporate miners and free-miner clans.  I enjoyed Earth Afire a bit less because it really only had one storyline I cared for.  With Earth Awakens, the various plot threads finally coalesced into a good climax I could get behind.

In the early going, I still got frustrated from time to time with the switching between storylines, but since they pretty quickly came together, I was basically okay with it.  Aside from wrapping the series up, Earth Awakens also shows the nascence of the International Fleet, the Triumvirate (Strategos/Hegemon/Polemarch), and the Second Formic War.  Geek out!

As with the previous books, this one takes me further from being able to accept the innocence of the Formics as portrayed in much of the Speaker series.  I’m really going to be curious if OSC is moving toward a major revelation about them as he wraps up both the Shadow and Speaker series in Shadows Alive, but I’m willing to bet it won’t happen.  I still don’t let these revelations hamper my enjoyment of Ender’s Game or Speaker for the Dead.

So at this point I figure I should give my overall rankings for the various Enderverse series.  So here it is for the series:

  • Shadow Series
  • Speaker Series
  • First Formic War Series

Given my frequent assertion that Speaker for the Dead is my favorite book, you may find this surprising, but I love the military/geopolitical nature of the Shadow series, and Bean is such a great character that it gives that series the edge.  But what about my book ranking?

  • Speaker for the Dead
  • Ender's Game
  • Ender's Shadow
  • Shadow of the Giant
  • Shadow Puppets
  • Shadows in Flight
  • Children of the Mind
  • Ender in Exile
  • Shadow of the Hegemon
  • Xenocide
  • Earth Awakens
  • Earth Unaware
  • Earth Afire
  • First Meetings
  • A War of Gifts

Evidently there’s a Second Formic War series coming out soon, as well as a YA series set in the Battle School after the end of the Third Formic War.  So I guess I’ll have to revisit the rankings later.

Next up, it’s Dean Koontz’s latest, Innocence.  And I’m going to be picking up Robogenesis and Stuff Matters, so I’m totally geeked about both of those.

12Jun/142

Book Review: Suspicion, by Joseph Finder

Joseph Finder is downright dependable.  I’m not addicted to the thriller genre, but there’s something about a good page-turner when the weather gets warm.  So it’s not surprising that Suspicion is pretty much the perfect summer read.

I won’t go too in-depth about the plot or the twists thereof, but in broad strokes it’s this: The main character is a single dad trying to give his daughter a better life after her mother dies, but he has a cash-flow problem.  To keep up with the Joneses, he accepts the unexpected generosity of his daughter’s best friend’s dad and then comes to regret it. It’s got extortion, kidnapping, gruesome deeds (though not bloody) and a good dose of realistic paranoia.   

One of these days I need to go back and read Finder’s pre-Paranoia works, some of which are closer to the spy genre.  Which reminds me of an amusing sequence in the book (from memory, so probably not totally accurate):

Guy: “You’ve been reading too many spy novels.”

Protagonist: “There’s no such thing as reading too many spy novels.”

I totally agree.  Finder is extremely active on social media, actively posting on Facebook and sending out newsletters and even Christmas cards.  (He even sent out book plates to his fans recently.  Really quite cool.)  I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t re-tweet me on this post.

So at this point I’ll do a little more sucking up, all of it truthful.  Suspicion is gripping and exciting, with believable characters and situations, and I found it genuinely hard to put down.  Pesky day job got in the way, which was the only thing that really kept me from tearing through it in a couple of days.

One thing I found interesting in this book was the relative lack of profanity, particularly when compared to some of Finder’s earlier books.  It’s possible I’m remembering incorrectly, but I seem to recall Paranoia had rather a lot of swearing in it.  Not that I have a problem with language in books, so long as it seems to fit the characters.  It’s actually one major problem I have with Christian books and movies, that the language just doesn’t sound authentic.

(Interestingly, I found a blog post from Finder about this very topic.  He makes sense.)

I’ve made no secret of my tendency to shift-read, which I define as reading alternating chapters from two or more books.  I had been doing that with Jurassic Park and Dean Koontz’s Innocence, but that all stopped when I picked up Suspicion, and I expect that may be the case with my next read, the final installment in the First Formic War trilogy, Earth Awakens.  It’s possible I’ll go back to shift-reading Innocence with it, but I’m not counting on it.

I’m also planning on a re-read of All You Need is Kill before we do a Take Me To Your Reader podcast about it, but I won’t re-review it.  By the way, go see Edge of Tomorrow.  It’s pretty awesome.  But more on that in a couple of weeks on the podcast.

6Jun/140

Book Review: Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

And here I am, back with another Take Me To Your Reader title, Jurassic Park.  This is my second time reading this novel, though I believe I last read it in college, so we’re talking about (sigh) twenty years or so. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a book in possession of a decent plot must be in want of a film adaptation that won’t live up to the book.  And yet, The Princess Bride film is vastly superior to the book.  (Opinions vary on this, but since my opinion is the only one that matters, go with me on this.)  And now there’s a second entry in this defiance of the natural order.

Jurassic Park the film is better than Jurassic Park the novel.  Search your feelings.  You know it to be true.

Oh, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the book, and I recall enjoying it quite a lot when I first read it.  And even then, I knew the movie was tremendous, but it’s quite possible I underrated it due to its lack of including everything from the book.But my understanding of what makes a good adaptation has evolved somewhat since then.  Maybe someday I’ll write down my thoughts on that.

Where the film made cuts, it was addition by subtraction.  Going back through the book, I couldn’t help feeling that every change made in the adaptation improved the film.  I literally can’t think of an exception.

Now, don’t misunderstand me here.  I still enjoyed the book this time, but I can’t imagine reading it again.  But I could watch the film ten more times, easily.  True, the book is much longer on technical detail.  But that’s exactly my point, isn’t it?  How would that greater detail reward a re-read?  (It wouldn’t.  It’d be a drag.  It was a drag.)

True, the characters are significantly altered.  It’s all good.  Seriously, check it out.  Here are some changes in the characters:

  • John Hammond goes from being the typical corporate Jerkass (see TV Tropes for the definition) to being a basically likeable, albeit naive grandpa figure.  Totally works.
  • Lex goes from being dead weight and pretty annoying to being the computer nerd who can navigate the Unix filesystem thingy.
  • Grant goes from being an older mentor type to Dr. Sattler’s man, and has a nice character arc in that he starts off a kid-hater and nobly protects them throughout the film.
  • Sattler gets to be the one to turn the power back on instead of distracting the raptors for Grant.
  • Mr. Arnold is played by Samuel L. Jackson.  It doesn’t matter what he was in the book, because SLJ is always going to add awesome.
  • Ditto for Wayne Knight playing Nerdy, er, Nedry.  Newman!
  • Ditto for Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm.  I actually can’t read the book without hearing him say the lines.

Okay, so the last three of those items were all about the actors.  Fine.  But the fact that those actors elevated the material means the material could stand elevating, doesn’t it?

Not to belabor the point, but I want to focus in on one particular scene to illustrate just how brilliantly the source material was adapted.  In the book, there’s a fairly lengthy (boooooring) section explaining the history of one Dodgson and his plans to target Nedry as an inside man for the purposes of stealing InGen trade secrets.  The film does the same thing in the space of a brief and awesome scene between Wayne Knight and the actor portraying Dodgson.  No background is given except by implication.  None is needed.  The simple conversation allows the viewer to pick up on the fact that Nedry is disgruntled and greedy.  The fact that Dodgson is paying him to steal dinosaur embryos tells us everything we need to know about his motivation.

I have some other gripes about the book, but I’m going to save my detailed thoughts on that for the podcast, which we’ll be recording in the next couple of weeks.  If you’ve read the book and seen the movie, feel free to lob me some thoughts here and I’ll gladly add them to my own and take credit for anything that makes me sound smarter.  (I’ll totally give full attribution, have no fear.)

To sum up, the book is highly worth reading.  But it’ll probably make you appreciate the movie even more.  Or maybe I’m wrong.  Feel free to tell my why (and to have me rebut your thoughts in front of an audience of ones of people).

Next up, it’s Dean Koontz’s latest, Innocence.  It’s totally not Odd Thomas, I think.  Also, I just saw Edge of Tomorrow with my son, and we’ll be eventually recording an episode about that film and the book it’s based on, All You Need Is Kill.

Filed under: bible No Comments
23May/14Off

Book Review: Robot Uprisings, ed. by John Joseph Adams and Daniel H. Wilson

Short fiction is awesome.  I’m not sure why I didn’t see it before.  My preference for books is, of course, founded on the fact that I track how many books I read and generally only consider counting short stories when it suits my arbitrary fancy (read: when it pads my numbers).

But a short fiction anthology is totally a book, and John Joseph Adams has produced a bunch of them.  I read (and loved) The End is Nigh, and now I’ve finished another terrific addition to his personal pantheon, Robot Uprisings.  From the website:

At the helm of this project are Daniel H. Wilson—bestselling novelist and expert in robotics—and John Joseph Adams—bestselling editor of more than a dozen science fiction/fantasy anthologies. Together, they have drawn on their wide-ranging contacts to assemble a talented group of authors eager to attack the topic of robot uprisings from startling and fascinating angles.

Featuring work by Hugh Howey, Seanan McGuire, Scott Sigler, Charles Yu, Anna North, Robin Wasserman, Ernest Cline, Jeff Abbott, Julianna Baggott, and many more, plus a new novella from Daniel H. Wilson.

I normally link an image with an affiliate thingy, hoping that if someone buys the book it’ll earn me a few pennies with Barnes & Noble, but in this case I’m linking back to John Joseph Adams’s website, because I’d rather he get the credit.  (The blurb above mentions that Daniel H. Wilson was also onboard, and he and Adams were recently Guest Geeks on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Great stuff!)RobotUprisings-Final-Hires[1]

It’s true that I’m a fan of the robot uprising genre, having really enjoyed Robopocalypse (and recently re-read and re-really-enjoyed it in anticipation of the sequel coming out), but there’s something really great about short fiction in regard to the genre.  Robopocalypse has a great scope to it, taking us from the nascence of the uprising through its conclusion (though the sequel would seem to indicate it wasn’t entirely concluded), but short fiction allows for cool concepts without the burden of having to chase down every idea and finish them off.

Plus, an anthology of stories has the benefit of getting looks not only from different authors, but from a variety of perspectives.  What makes it a robot uprising?  Does it have to be humanoid robots?  What about nanomachines?  And how sophisticated must the robots be?  How might humanity recover from an uprising?  All these and more are explored in the collection, and it’s absolutely tremendous stuff.

On the whole, I’d still give the nod to The End is Nigh in terms of overall rating, but there’s no question that if you’re a sci-fi fan who likes to think about the Singularity and robot uprisings, you’ll get a kick out of this one.

The standout story in this one, to me, was “We are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War,” by Seanan McGuire.  I won’t even spoil it, because it’s absolutely tremendous.  The concept is almost absurd, but that’s what makes the story so compelling.  I’d recommend the whole anthology just for this story.

(Just had to restrain myself from giving more details about that story.  It’s incredibly awesome.)

I need to get back to reading The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination (another John Joseph Adams collection) now that I’m on a short fiction kick.  Alas, I’m reading the latest Koontz, and I’ve got Robogenesis and Earth Awakens coming out in the next month or so, and I’m re-reading Jurassic Park for the podcast.  (BTW, we’ll be recording about Death Race 2000 – based on a short story – this weekend, so if you have thoughts, head over to the website and leave some.

16May/14Off

Book Review: Timeline, by Michael Crichton

I guess if I tried to make a case that I’m not a fan of Michael Crichton’s books, the biggest line of evidence I’d have to overcome is the fact that I’ve read eighteen of his books.  Seriously.  Now, I haven’t enjoyed them all or anything…(*cough* Micro *cough*)

For the most part, though, I definitely am a fan of his books.  One summer I found that my sister had a shelf full of Crichton’s books and I worked my way through them in a few weeks.  If I recall correctly, the list was:

  1. The Andromeda Strain
  2. The Great Train Robbery
  3. The Terminal Man
  4. Sphere
  5. Eaters of the Dead
  6. Jurassic Park
  7. Congo

Eventually I caught up with Crichton’s major publications, and then it was just a matter of keeping up with whatever he put out.  In fact, I even kept up with some of his stuff that got published after he died!  BTW, I’ll let you in on a little secret here: Pirate Latitudes was pretty awesome.  Micro was not. 

So anyway, I thought I was done with Crichton since after Micro I’ve given up on seeking out further titles that get dusted off and finished.  And then came the podcast.  By the way, I host a podcast!  Did I mention the podcast?  It’s called Take Me To Your Reader, and we talk about books or stories that turned into well-known films.  Well, someone finally noticed long enough to lob a suggested title at us, and it was a Crichton I’d previously read and had the misfortune to have seen the film adaptation of: Timeline.

In a way, Timeline is Crichton at his best.  He starts with a non-fiction premise, namely the rise of quantum physics and quantum computing, then weaves a fictional story around science fact.  And it’s fairly successful on a first reading.  It didn’t totally hold up on this subsequent reading, though.

So here’s the plot: archaeologists and historians are at a dig in France when they make a discovery of an apparent modern artifact in a newly discovered site.  And there’s a note, written six hundred years ago, asking for help.  And it’s from the head of the dig.  (Who had previously left the country.)

The Big Bad Overlord Corporation (TM) gives them a chance to rescue their friend.  The characters are given a whirlwind introduction to the wonders of quantum teleportation, which cannot be used for time travel.  Time travel is impossible.  Except the professor totally ended up in the past.  Still, quantum physics means never having to explain yourself, so we go with it.  Just remember that there’s no time travel.  (BTW, we dig into this on the podcast.)

The team heads back (er, to another universe) to retrieve the professor, and it’s a team specifically selected for historical knowledge, language and cultural knowledge, and some good old fashioned guts.  And rock climbing.  Can’t underestimate the value of rock climbing.  Also, some redshirts go along with them.  What better way to show the situation is serious than having someone lose their head two minutes after arrival?

Of course, France in the 14th Century is a dangerous place, and they’re thrown right into the middle of a conflict between the French and English.  And they get separated, and something very bad happens to the transport room.  So there’s that.

I’m writing this as if I didn’t enjoy the book, and the fact is that I did.  The parts of the book set in the past are really engaging, and some of the characters are tremendously compelling.  But this has always been a weak point for Crichton: he’ll over-develop some characters and give others almost no attention.  For instance, there’s a love story that I guess has to happen, and it’s straight out of the George Lucas Prequel handbook: take two good-looking people of opposite sex, and they fall in love.  And that’s the love story.  Sparked by this gem:

Chris was still grinning, and he seemed so confident and amused, and she had the feeling that she had never noticed, never been aware, that he was quite an attractive man, that he had a certain genuine appeal.

Tell me that’s not one of the worst lines of prose you’ve ever read, even eliminating the run-on nature of the sentence.

Crichton was never huge on character development, and his prose was never anything to wax rhapsodic about (unlike John Wyndham’s amazing prose in The Day of the Triffids).  He was all about the concept and execution of a technically plausible and compelling story.  He never let a little thing like writing it well get in the way. 

And do you know what?  It works.  His concepts are good enough that they drive the narrative despite some fairly ham-handed writing.  Though he absolutely had a problem coming up with good endings.  Timeline is a notably decent exception to that trend, though.

The main flaw of the book is that the present day story is mostly superfluous, showing the machinations of the Guy We’re Supposed To Be Okay With Getting Totally Screwed At the End, but I’d argue that spending time to make us dislike someone is more on the telling, not showing scale of things.  Even without those unnecessary scenes, the character was already intensely dislikeable.

Still and all, it’s an enjoyable and quick read, just not quite as quick as I’d have liked.

As for the film adaptation, well you’ll just have to give the podcast a listen in order to find out what we thought.  And let us know what you thought.

Next up, it’s another John Joseph Adams anthology, Robot Uprisings.

Filed under: bible No Comments
11Apr/14Off

Book Review: The Fly, by George Langelaan

As with Farewell to the Master, it’s difficult to classify this one as a book, but since you can find it bound as such, it totally counts even though it’s listed at 69 pages on its Goodreads listing, it totally counts toward my yearly book reading.

There’s something charming about old science fiction.  If you tried to write a story today about how a man and fly’s head and arm got swapped, you’d have a hard sell.  You’ve got to make it more plausibly science-y these days.  The 1986 film The Fly took a crack at it, but it’s still basically what TV Tropes calls “Art Major Science.”  Okay, so a dude and a fly get in a teleporter together and get merged at the molecular/genetic level.  Fine.  But what about the air in the chamber?  The bacteria on the surface of the telepod?  Nothing?

I’ve now seen both major adaptations of the George Langelaan short story, and I can definitively say I prefer the 1986 film.  The 1958 film is certainly more faithful to the book, and the screenplay was written by James Clavell, one of my favorite authors.  But I think that in sticking so close to the source, the 1958 film missed an opportunity to elevate the material.  Also, it botched the ending a bit.

If you haven’t read the story, I have to recommend that you do so.  It’s included in a bazillion science fiction and horror anthologies, and it’ll take you maybe an hour to read, and it’s a pretty terrific story.  Seriously, go do it.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  What I really want to do is write a bit about why I favor the 1986 adaptation over the original.

If you’ve seen the 1958 film, you’ve basically read the story, albeit with a slightly better and slightly worse ending, with an awesome animatronic spider and one of the great scenes in film history, but also with a conclusion that’s a little too happy.  I preferred the way the book handled it.

(By the way, did I mention we discussed the story and both films in the latest episode of Take Me To Your Reader?)

I’m actually writing up a piece about how I enjoy films that adapt a written work but take great liberties in doing so for the sake of crafting a better story.  There’s nothing terribly wrong with The Fly, but the 1958 film doesn’t improve on the material.  The 1986 film does.

What if the transformation wasn’t instant?  What if the new fly-man reproduced?  How would his transformation unfold?  Would he slowly become more bestial, or would it improve him?  These are the questions the newer film answers, and it’s crucial to note that there are almost always unanswered questions in fiction that should be answered by an adaptation.

Plus, the film is gorious.  (This was not a typo, and it’s totally a word meaning “gloriously gory.”)  The transformation into what the producers of the film called “The Space Fly” is relentless and just downright awesome.

Have you seen the 1958 film?  The 1986 remake?  Have you read the story?  I’d be curious to get your thoughts on any of them, either here or over on the podcast episode I linked above.  (Also linked here)

And what about film adaptations?  Should they be faithful no matter what, or is it permissible to improve on a story by changing it?

I’m working on a couple of books right now, including Timeline, by Michael Crichton, which was suggested for our podcast.  So I’ll be reading that over the next week or so, and I’ve got a couple of other things in the works.

(Also, we have a podcast.)