Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: The Gods Themselves, Ringworld and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
1973 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel and 1972 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel

Isaac Asimov takes the title of his book, and the subsequent titles of its subsections, from the quotation by Friedrich Schiller, “against stupidty, the gods themselves contend in vain.” Asimov's use of this quotation promises and interesting premise that then book ultimately falls quite short of.

In the story, humanity has discovered a source of limitless power that appears to come without consequence. However, one scientist discovers the terrifying truth that this power source threatens to destroy humanity. The novel sets itself up to be an interesting story of the desperate struggle of a few beings to warn humanity that their doom is eminite when humanity just doesn't want to know. This problem, it seems, is one that science can’t solve. Humanity will have to make a sacrifice or die.

Asimov unravels the novel throughout the course of three poorly connected sections. The ultimate climax of the story proves, to my mind, incredibly disappointing in the face of the novel's promising setup (and initially apparent theme). I won’t spoil the way the story ends, but it left a rather sour taste in my mouth.
Another problem with Asimov’s book is one common to science fiction literature written in the 1970s. Asimov, throughout the story, obsessively writes about sex though it has no point to the story. My problem with his portrayal of sex is not from some prudishness on my part (though it does contain a message I happen to disagree with). My problem is that it’s written poorly, serves no purpose to the narrative and feels, as my sister put it, “rather like Asimov is an adolescent boy who just discovered sex”.

My initial reaction to The Gods Themselves as I began the book was one of extreme excitement. The premise was interesting, the science fiction good and the theme promising, but in the end I found it to be a massive let down. This was surely not Asimov’s greatest offering. 

Rating: 5 out of 10 

Ringworld by Larry Niven
1971 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel and 1972 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel

Larry Niven’s Ringworld is most certainly not a perfect book, but it was an enjoyable ride in a captivating setting. While the plot ultimately faltered and the human characters were never interesting (and at times repulsive), I still found that I could not put the book down.

The greatest strength of Niven’s novel is certainly his alien characters, who achieve the greatest semblance of true "alienness" I have yet to encounter in science fiction. The Puppeteer Nessus and the Kzin Speaker-to-Animals are enjoyable and exotic. How unfortunate it is, then, that the humans who travel with them ultimately seem bland and obnoxious. I found nothing to like about the main human, Louis Wu. Even less enjoyable was his female companion Teela Brown.  

Throughout the course of the narrative, Louis never struck me as anything but a bored, spoiled brat and Teela never rose above being his shallow sex partner, despite some interesting facts the story reveals about her. Louis Wu goes on the adventure because he’s bored, falls in love because he’s bored, is convinced to bring Teela along so he can sleep with her because he’s bored and does just about everything else because he's bored. The interesting implications of how the paradise of Earth in the far future creates boredom for the human characters is the only thing that redeems them in my eyes. 

Another issue with Ringworld is, as with The Gods Themselves I was bothered by the portrayal of sex in Ringworld because of its emptiness and pointlessness. Indeed, Asimov at least tried to make a point with the sex in The Gods Themselves, where it seems like Niven simply assumes that a 200-year-old man simply couldn’t go a chapter without having sex with his twenty-year-old companion (or another female if Teela wasn’t available). Like any other event, sex should be used in a story only as it furthers the plot or characters, not as method to titillate the reader. 

However, despite the fact that I found the human characters boring, the aliens pulled me through the exploration of the titular Ringworld, and the setting was revealed well. One got a sense of a much bigger world outside of the adventures of Louis Wu’s motley crew without being overwhelmed with needless trivia. Unfortunately, the story, while captivating, does not quite achieve what it’s aiming for. It creates a few interesting mysteries that beg answering, but are never even addressed, and pulls off a twist that struck me as rather lame. 

In the end, I enjoyed Ringworld quite a bit, despite its glaring flaws and I would recommend that fans of science fiction read it and form their own opinions about it.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
2005 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel
Susanna Clarke's debut novel is such a delight to read. The style reads perfectly like a classic Victorian novel, with all the flourish of prose and clever wit. What is more the setting and plot play out like something straight out of Jane Austin, except, of course, that there are wizards.

In many ways Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an examination of what Victorian England would have been like if their had been wizards. The society gossips about the wizards, and attempts to form strict rules of propriety for them, in an absolutely convincing manner. 

All of the characters in the novel should be enjoyable to anyone with a taste for Austin, Bronte or Dickens. What is more, it has one of the best portrayals of a devilish fairy that I have ever read.

The reader should be warned, however, that the plot is slow moving and the novel is long, and while there are certainly perils which beset the characters, they are not at all of the epic variety. Indeed, one friend of mine commented that I could use the book as a shield because “nobody ever gets through it.” I certainly enjoyed it greatly, but it’s not for everyone, but if you like the Victorian novel, and you like fantasy stories, then you will love Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Rating: 9 out of 10