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

Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Review: Dune, Ender's Game and American Gods

Dune by Frank Herbert
1966 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel and 1965 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel

Frank Herbert, at least in Dune, is a masterful world creator almost on par with Tolkien. Dune is fantastic in its exposition (which is about the first 95% of the book) but falters quite a bit during the finale.

In many ways, it feels like the epic background of the book boils down to a few confused moments in a room, but despite this fact I could not help but leave the book with a high opinion of Herbert’s craft. The textures of his world are rich and deep and you truly feel the living, breathing culture of the Fremen. Unlike many fictional cultures, that of the people of Dune feels genuinely shaped by the world around it.

Ultimately, Dune indisputably deserves both the Hugo and Nebula awards that it won. Not only is it well written, it also contains rich thematic depth. Sadly, Herbert’s fiction seems to falter in the stories that follow after.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
1986 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel and 1985 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel

Ender’s Game  is one of the best of the award-winners I have read so far. What makes the story so strong is not so much the world Orson Scott Card creates, but the characters he inhabits it with. That’s not to say the world Card creates in not interesting. The foe humanity faces is both interesting and menacing and the way in which Card unravels the truths about his fictional future is brilliant in execution.

The character’s are amazing, however. Amazing for their intelligence, for their loyalty and most of all for the fact that they are all children. Card treats children with respect. No more needs to be said for the surprising portrayal of children in Ender’s Game than the fact that it forever changed my friend's perspective on children when she read it.

Ender’s Game is a fantastic piece of fiction and one that everyone should read.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2002 Hugo and Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel

I've always had an interest in mythology, particularly that of the Vikings, so reading a book like American Gods, I feel like a kid in a candy shop.

American Gods is a brilliant exploration of mythology and of the nation of America, and has a fantastic plot that will keep you turning the pages and catches you with brilliant twists.
If your tastes are anything like mine, you will be drawn quickly into the compelling characters, vivid locations and thrilling story of American Gods. 

One thing I appreciate very much about the tale is the fact that, unlike many modern tales involving the ancient pantheons, Gaiman's doesn't sugarcoat the personalities of his deities; they are as oversexed, Machiavellian and brutal as their original myths portray them.

I would caution, however, that this is not a book for the young or easily offended. The book has quite a bit of vulgar language, brutal violence and overt sex (including a homosexual encounter) and can also be frightening in parts.

If I had any criticism of American Gods it would be that some of the vignettes dispersed throughout the story don't fit into, or even complement, Shadow's journey.

American Gods is, hands down, one of my favorite books and one I would recommend in the blink of an eye to anyone who thinks they could handle the more disturbing content of the book.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Friday, October 10, 2008

Book Review: The Demolished Man and Fahrenheit 451

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
1953 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel

The very first Hugo winner, The Demolished Man is a clever and exciting book with a somewhat disappointing ending.

Alfred Bester truly manages to create an interesting and elaborate world in which some humans have developed psychic abilities. While many of his ideas might might seem cliché to those familiar with science fiction (particularly fans of Babylon 5) this is the story that was the genesis of many of these ideas (as is acknowledged by the character in Babylon 5 named Alfred Bester).

Aside from being a good science fiction novel, Bester's work is also a powerful crime story that will keep the reader glued to the pages.

Ultimately, the only plot problems are the overly optimistic ending and the questionable and outdated Freudian psychology. The ending, while typical of the times, is rather a let down and the psychology sadly dates the story.

A must read for any science fiction fan, and if I say so myself is a tale just begging to be made into a film (with perhaps some updates to the psychology).

As far as writing goes, not much stood out as either particularly good or particularly bad. There are a few places where Bester uses editing tricks to show the powerful difference that psychic abilities would make in the very structure of the way telepaths think in his world. This is an interesting idea, and it basically works within the structure of his story, but I think in the end it would prove to me annoying if used too much.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
1954 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel, Retro
The Hugo awards began in 1953, but failed to give out any award in '54. In 2004, in correction of this, a "Retro Hugo" was given to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. This is a choice I entirely approve of.
Of all the dystopian fiction I have read (the others being 1984 and A Brave New Work), Fahrenheit 451 is by far my favorite. Bradbury writes with a magnificent prose that ellegently portrays a chilling vision of the future. This is not only my favorite of the dystopias I have read, but is also the best of the award winners so far.

Bradbury masterfully, and almost prophetically, portrays a world in which the desire to avoid offending anyone leads to a horrific dark age.

Fahrenheit 451 is fantastically crafted story that is firmly grounded in mature prose. Everyone should read this one.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Life: The Quest to Read Them All

As a reader of books and a watcher of movies and television, I have always been a fan of science fiction and fantasy. Inspired by my sister’s quest to read all of Newbury award winning novels, I set out some time ago to read all of the Hugo and Nebula award winning novels. I started this for two reasons. The first was for enjoyment. As I stated above, I love books and I especially love science fiction and fantasy. My second reason stems from the fact that I’m a writer, and am primarily interested in writing in my favorite genres. It’s always good to know what the forerunners of your medium have created, what they’ve done right and wrong in their storytelling, so that you can incorporate all of those lessons into your own writing.

This task has been a load of fun, and I’ve read some wonderful books already. It has been, however, a little slow going because of all of the reading I’ve had to do for school, as well as diversions into reading books not on the lists. Nevertheless, I’m going to keep on reading and hopefully, one day, I’ll have read them all.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to write and publish reviews of the award winners I’ve already read and then continue to publish reviews of the books as I read them. Also, as not everything I read comes from the Hugo and Nebula Award lists, my reviews  will not be exclusively of books from that list.
Note: Some of my first reviews will come from one’s I already wrote over on Facebook’s Visual Bookshelf, so if you’ve seen them already I apologize.
Hugo Award Winning Novels
Nebula Award Winning Novels

Friday, October 3, 2008

Politics: Sound Economic Advice

What I quote below is not my idea. It was put forward by forum member shadohrt over at Geekson and I think it sounds like a much more solid idea than any I've heard from the government so far.

"Look at people who are still living in their sub-prime mortgaged homes and change their situation. Foreclosures are devastating to borrowers AND the lenders. Foreclosing on a home that has lost value is even worse for the lender. So, it comes down to a VERY simple question: do you want some money or none at all? If you want some money then the bank should approach the delinquent borrower with the following proposal: "You cannot afford the new payments and are delinquent and we cannot afford to maintain the interest rate you can afford to pay for so why don't we split the interest rate change in half, make the mortgage a 35 (or 40) year mortgage instead of a 30 year mortgage and lock it in at the same monthly payment you were able to afford before your rate went up?" Because of the hassles associated with foreclosures (and the credit rating damage) I am sure that a great many people would take that offer rather than be kicked out of their homes. Likewise, the banks would take a small hit, but no where near the 150% hit that they can incur by trying to go through with a foreclosure."

Politics: Get the Facts

In the muddled atmosphere of the coming election, it can be hard to know who's lying, who's telling the truth and who's just confused. Well, there's no perfectly non-partisan source, but I have found to be a wonderful source of help. If you have questions, check it out. Project Vote Smart is also a great resource for responsible voters. Wherever you fall in the political spectrum, it's important to stay educated.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Life: My Work Begins

Today, I began serious work on a novel I hope to write. So far I have done a general outline of the story and have begun to lay out the characters. The idea for this story has been kicking around in my head for some time now, and it saw a short life as a forum-based roleplaying game over at Geekson

Thanks to its time on the forum, my story has gained a greater maturity than it might otherwise have had, and several intriguing characters have been added into the mix. I will be using these characters with the permission of their original creators: Gjordus, Misspaige21, Mr. Saltine and Justin77. I grateful for the writers generosity with their creative property.

I sincerely hope that this project comes to fruition and will let you all know about its progress. Of course, I'm crazy busy with school, so I have no idea how long this will take.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Politics: How to Fix an Economy

Our economy is in crisis. All across the nation businesses are closing, people are losing their homes and our government is scrambling to find a solution. In the environment of our coming election, the question has been raised, “What will our next President do?”
Throughout the history of our nation, the role of the President has grown in power and influence. There have perhaps been no jumps more substantial than when Lincoln established the supremacy of the Federal government over the States by wining the civil war, and when Franklin D. Roosevelt used his influence in the congress and senate to enact serious economic reform in an attempt to restore our economy from its distressed state during the Great Depression. It was not until Roosevelt’s actions that the President’s responsibility for the state of the economy was considered to be substantially important. That’s not to say that Presidents never before had economic influence. Early on, questions of whether or not there would be a Federal currency or a Federal bank were issues that candidates fought over. These, however, were principally seen as issues of States rights versus the power of the Federal government. Nobody expected the President to have much influence over the everyday ebb and flow of our prosperity. People were expected to take care of their economic situation on their own. When candidates, such as William Jennings Bryan, attempted to run on economic platforms, they didn’t get far. Ever since Roosevelt, however, people have been asking the question, “What will the President do for my wallet?” But let’s face it, no President since Roosevelt has had close to his affect on the economy. Why is this? Roosevelt had an exceptional set of circumstances that allowed him to exert influence far in excess of what is normally possible. First of all, the dire economic situation of the country helped Roosevelt to persuade the house and senate to essentially give him a blank check to pass any sort of economic program he wanted. Second, the coming of World War II created an economically fortuitous situation for the American economy. Finally, Roosevelt had four terms in which to enact his influence. This is not likely to ever happen again. So, in some ways, the question of what our President can do for our economy seems silly. There is, however, something substantial that I believe any candidate would be able to accomplish.
Our current crisis, as I understand it, largely stems from disasters that arose in our real estate market. Essentially, mortgage lenders were pushing low interest, open rate, loans to borrowers because these loans were an easy sell. Borrowers, desperate to get homes, swallowed up these loans. What is more, some individuals discovered that they could use this situation in a get-rich scheme. They would take out an open rate loan on a home, buy it and wait a year for the house’s value to appreciate and would then sell it at a profit. This worked as long as only a few people were doing it, but as more and more individuals learned about this method of “flipping houses” and began practicing it inflation was supercharged. As the economic environment changed, banks were forced to raise the rates on the open-rate loans they had put out. However, many of the people who had taken out these loans had done so barely able to afford their payments even at the low rate the loan had started out. With the raise in rates, many were unable to continue their payments and had to foreclose. The banks, however, had put out so many loans that they could not afford the massive number of foreclosures happening. Rapidly, the real estate market plummeted and everything else soon followed. The foolish actions of people, born out of ignorance, dealt a critical blow to our economy.
Today, a 700 billion dollar bailout is being proposed in the upper levels of our government. Meanwhile, while this is discussed, both candidates for the presidency are fighting over what is the best method to fix our broken economy. McCain believes that the trickle-down economics of Ronald Reagan are the best solution, while Obama says that any solution needs to help the people, more than the lenders who are, according to him, responsible for our situation. Both ideas have their upsides and downsides, though this blogger thinks trickle-down is an incredibly flawed idea.
I have a different proposal. I’m making no claims to being an economic expert. The extent of my training in economics consists of a semester of AP economics and a book. The problem I see, however, with both parties proposed solutions to the economic crisis is that the roots of the problem go far deeper than anyone seems to acknowledge, they stretch through the muddled soil of our economy straight into the minds of its participants. The current proposals are only Band-Aids to serious wounds that will only start to bleed again if we don’t do something about them. The fact is that we’re in our problem because the borrowers were ignorant of basic economic principles and borrowers, swelled up by their own greed, took advantage of them. Individuals in our society are being taught from the time they are born that wanting things is good and getting them is better, and the sooner they can get something the better. Advertisers bombard our minds with the principle that we are, from cradle to grave, born to buy, and there is currently no counterweight to this. Students, on the whole, are not being taught how our economy works. They need to have it hammered into them that in an economy of supply and demand, nothing is free, nothing comes easy and if it seems to be free and easy, it should set off alarm bells in your head. I propose that the very best thing a President could do for our economy is to require the education of our youth in practical economics. Let’s face it, most students, if they get any economic training at all, get a one-semester senior year economics course where they study supply and demand curves. Yet, in our day, high school students are required to take algebra II and physics classes. Personally, as wonderful and important as those things are, they can’t hold a candle to the crucial need to know how to survive in the capitalistic economy we live in. So, why not educate students in this crucial area?
It doesn’t even take much. As I said above, my economic training is far from extensive. Likewise, my good friend Tyler’s economic education consisted, essentially, of one class. Yet, with our limited knowledge, we saw this economic crisis coming. We saw the reckless borrowing and lending and we cried foul. I’m not saying this to claim that we are brilliant, but to say that we, college students at a local community college, figured this out on the basis of a minimal economic education. Imagine what a thorough, well thought out, practical economics education could do.
My proposal is to give people an education in economics a bit more thorough than the one we got. First, I think a candidate should push that it be required that practical economics be woven into students math and history education throughout elementary and high school. Secondly, they should fight to have high schools in all fifty states create a year-long practical economics class and set it as a graduation requirement.
Ultimately, I believe that if everyone were thoroughly trained in an understanding of our economy, the majority of them would not act in the foolish manner that led to our current state, but would instead act wisely in a manner that would generate a stable economy. This, to my mind, is a far better solution to the problem because it addresses the roots of the issue and would have long term effects. What is more, this is a solution well within the powers of the President to achieve.
This isn’t to say that some sort of temporary solution, such as the current bailout, doesn’t need to be enacted. That idea is beyond the scope of this argument to address and is above my pay grade. Certainly, the urgency of our situation needs a solution that is immediate and the beneficial effects of my proposal would take some time to come into effect. Rather, what I am saying is that any solution that our government comes up with will only delay our downfall if we are not taught to be wise. The very best thing that any President could do for the economy would be to educate the people on the practical facts of our economy.
Please, if this idea resonates with you in any way, spread it around. I truly believe that this could have a powerful positive effect for our economy and my dream would be to see it enacted. You don’t even have to give me credit for this idea. Talk about it, improve upon it. Just get it out there. Thank you.
Born to Buy
Deep Economy