Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: Issac Asimov's "Foundation"

Foundation, the first novel in Issac Asimov’s famous Foundation series, speculates how to use a scientific sociology (here called “psychohistory”) to predict (and control) future events. As with most of Asimov’s writing, the prose is frequently leaden, but this is secondary to the ideas and plot. Indeed, the whole fun of this book is seeing how Hari Seldon’s plans to reduce a coming “galactic dark age” from 30 millenniums down to one plays out on an epic scale. And it is fun seeing Seldon's original hints and insinuations come to fruition, even if I didn't find it as engaging during my second reading. Still, I've read a fair amount of epic “space operas” since Foundation and very few of them stack up to the original. Recommended.

Cross posted on Thought Ambience

Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book"

A fun, fairy-tale like YA novel, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is filled with magic, both literally and figuratively: many scenes are constructed such that you truly experience a sense of wonder. Magical books are a cliché, yes, but reading TGB reminded me of the books I loved as a kid, and how the world seemed new and filled with opportunity afterwards. What is magic if not that?

Not surprisingly given its title, the book starts with a murder. A boy’s parents are killed, and the only thing that saves the boy is being adopted by the ghosts and specters of the local graveyard. They raise him as one of their own, and his ongoing education is a fun take on the myths and history of these supernatural creatures.  (It's apparently loosely based on Kipling's The Jungle Book.) In particular, Silas, a vampire that takes the boy – now named Nobody Owens – under his care, is wonderfully depicted in how his fatherly nature and vampiric nature conflict and complement each other. My only criticism is that the story can occasionally feel a bit too pat, but that's probably the result of the genre more than anything, and certainly a minuscule price to pay for this little gem of a book.

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Margaret Atwood's "MaddAddam"

Ever since I stumbled across an old paperback of Cat’s Eye, I've loved reading Margaret Atwood. Everything that I've read has been well constructed, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining. So I'm a bit surprised to have to report that MaddAddam - the final entry in her Oryx and Crake dystopia - is not the slam dunk I expected it to be.

Don't get me wrong: Parts have the propulsive narrative and interesting ideas that made the previous two books in this trilogy – Oryx and Crake (the best!) and The Year of the Flood - so compelling. But I’d be lying if I didn't say that I thought the characterization of the female characters – especially Toby, such a strong woman in TYotF – to be weak and inconsistent compared to their previous lives. Hell, Toby spends a good part of this book pining for or wallowing in jealousy for a man! In addition, parts of this book are - sadly - boring. This may be to the fact that she's revisiting scenes we've seen before in previous books, but also it's due to her framing devices, in which events are depicted at a distance. This is especially problematic with the climax of the novel, which is told as an afterthought and thus so removed from real-time action that it feels like a dream, and makes its repercussions (which were also blatantly foreshadowed beforehand) seem unreal.

This doesn't mean that the book isn't worth your time! On the contrary, any time spent in Atwood’s O&C world is worth it. It's a place where humanity has come to a horrible end through the efforts of the titular biologists who both design an ideal human being (the “Crakers”) and also unleash the apocalyptic virus via a designer vitality drug. There are so many fascinating and scarily prescient ideas here that exploring them is half the fun. MaddAddam in particular really gets rolling when she starts exploring Zeb’s story, the fascinating tale of this preacher's son who ends up intertwined in the lives of all of the main characters in what lead to the end of humanity.

Overall, though, what I found most interesting about MaddAddam was it's strange combination of hope and rebirth to what had been a relentlessly grim series. (The previous books read like The Road as written by Kurt Vonnegut.) The main arc of this third book is humanity’s efforts to rebuild and reestablish itself, perhaps most importantly with how to define its relationship with the Crakers and the other GMO beings (especially the pigoons: a pig with implanted human stem cells who escaped from their organ-harvesting fate and how are one of the most intelligent post-apocalyptic species).  And while I read the end of the book to be a delightfully snarky and ambivalent take on where all this might end up, overall MaddAddam is an interesting (if uneven) take on what happens the day after the world ends.