Sunday, February 27, 2011
It turns out, though, that Conan Doyle wrote a mind-boggling number and range of books and stories*. His historical novels, which include The White Company and Sir Nigel, are right up there with any other historical fiction you could find: they're accurate to their periods, exciting, funny, and expressive of great emotional range all in equal measure. I recall the Napoleonic Brigadier Gerard stories, which I admit I haven't read in about a decade, as being a cross between Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time and Don Quixote, with a dash of P.G. Wodehouse thrown in.
And then there are his adventure stories and science fiction, which include The Lost World and the other stories published in this volume. Anyone who's read and enjoyed the works of H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, or H.G. Wells, whose books are the best comparisons I can think of for this one (and which are probably good comparisons, since both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, I now realize, are mentioned on the back cover of my copy of the book), will either already know about The Lost World or will be delighted to hear that it exists.
In The Lost World, the belligerent, bristling, and brilliant Professor Challenger sets off to find a part of the Amazon jungle rumored to contain prehistoric fauna - living dinosaurs, in short, an idea that sets London afire with speculation. He and his companions, journalist Edward Malone, Professor Summerlee, and big-game hunter Lord John Roxton, are a strangely assorted bunch; Professor Challenger, who is perhaps even more of a genius than he arrogantly believes himself to be, bullies and insults them all throughout. In the hands of a writer as skilled and imaginative as Conan Doyle, this group might make for entertaining reading even if all they did was go to the grocery store. Add in some pterodactyls, and believe me, the use of pterodactyls in this story is epic, and the book's dynamite.
I mentioned in a previous post that Conan Doyle was the only author I've read who consistently makes his genius characters seem believable. Sherlock Holmes is one; Professor Challenger is another. It's clear to me, both from Conan Doyle's characters and from the breadth and depth of his own intellectual pursuits, that he was quite the genius himself, and not just a genius of a writer.
The other stories in this volume feature the same characters, and The Poison Belt, The Disintegration Machine, and When the World Screamed all live up to the standard of quality set by the title story. The volume's one weak point is The Land of Mist, which features spiritualism as its main theme. Conan Doyle was quite the spiritualist and student of the paranormal, and he wrote several books attempting to validate the existence of paranormal phenomena and convince the skeptics. Those books, or at least the ones I've actually seen and read, are weird beyond my ability to describe**, but at the very least they were openly written as arguments for the existence of spirits and similar. The Land of Mist is a spiritualist manifesto masquerading as fiction. Its essential dishonesty, if you're aware of Conan Doyle's leanings, lessens it greatly as a story, and the plodding earnestness with which it's written makes it dull.
I can't recommend the book too highly, however, and anyone who's missing out on Professor Challenger and company is missing one of the greatest treats in speculative fiction. Five stars, both overall and within its genre.
* Wikipedia, as usual, has a carefully categorized and to my knowledge complete bibliography.
** I thought The Coming of the Fairies, which I was lucky enough to find a rare copy of many years ago (it has since been reprinted), was a joke until I looked it up.
Friday, February 25, 2011
Let's backtrack a moment. Anyone who's ever had a favorite book adapted into a visual medium can attest that it's rarely an improvement. About the best one can hope for is that the movie, TV show, or miniseries in question will be as enjoyable as the book; often the results are mediocre, and almost as often, disastrous*. Sex and the City is the one true exception I've found to this rule. I'm guessing that the world's die-hard fans of the Sex and the City TV show and/or movies aren't going to be reading this blog in great numbers, for demographic reasons it would be pointless to attempt to analyze. I'm assuming, though, that most of my readers will have at least seen an episode or two of the show, if only because it's always on around one in the morning when the only other choices are infomercials.
So think about the show. Think about its glib, glossy writing; its shallow, morally bankrupt characters; its meaningless (I think they were meant to be deep, or at least insightful) meditations on subjects ranging from the tragedy of being ten years older than women with perkier breasts to the best way to have casual oral sex in your office with the UPS delivery guy without being caught by someone who might, you know, expect you to be working. Or doing something less completely gross, take your pick.
Got those charming images fixed in your mind? Now the kicker: compared to the book, the TV show was appealing, thoughtful, tasteful, and intellectual. Really. Anyone who thinks that the TV show's attitude towards women is empowering in some way**, and that this translated from the book, should check out this short excerpt***:
Friday night. Skipper Johnson drives out to Southampton, where he has arranged to meet friends at Basilico: four women, all in their late twenties, who work at Ralph Lauren, and who, to the naked eye, are indistinguishable from one another. Skipper finds their bland prettiness comforting, as well as the fact that there's a small herd of them. It means that he doesn't have the burden of trying to keep one of them entertained for the evening.
To get the most out of this brief excerpt, which is, I assure you, if anything less offensive than most of the book, I will turn to some of the close reading skills I honed in my high school and college poetry classes. Let's all mentally travel back to some distant classroom, everyone, and see what the above really has to say for itself.
"friends": This usage accords well with the general meaning of this word in the book Sex and the City. It does not imply respect, affection, or even a modicum of positive feeling that goes beyond the sexual or utilitarian. (Can/will this person have casual sex with me in the next five minutes? Can I somehow become more famous or make money because I know them?)
"four women, all in their late twenties": The show does carry this particular prevailing attitude through from the book quite well. The characters, who are in their mid to late thirties, unmarried, and clearly feeling pretty insecure about it despite their posturing, leave no stone unturned in the quest to mock or belittle younger women. The characters - in both the book and the show but more so in the book - are portrayed as believing that it's bizarre and inexplicable why men would prefer bouncier busts and better attitudes than theirs. News flash: the average man, given a choice between a shallow, vapid, bitchy woman pushing 40 and a shallow, vapid, slightly less bitchy woman in her twenties will choose the almost equally unappealing but hotter version. Every time.
"indistinguishable from one another": Same deal. The possible argument that the (female) narrator is just trying to satirize the attitudes of the man in question falls down when you compare the tone of this section to the tone when the narrator is seeing the world from her own perspective alone.
"bland prettiness": Translation: they lack character and intellectual weight compared to women in their late thirties (like the narrator, natch), but they're pretty - which is enough reason to dislike them in and of itself for a woman who views all other women as rivals and enemies.
"a small herd": This one is too easy. Young women = cattle, with all that implies. Moving on.
"the burden": God, it's so much effort to actually engage a woman for a couple of hours. Why can't they just put out without the trouble of conversation, like the women in their thirties do? Also, note the repeated implication that it doesn't matter, to Skipper, to the women, or to any observer, which of them he has sex with at the end of the night.
In conclusion: the names of many of the characters, and their general milieu, were drawn from the book, along with several extremely unpleasant general attitudes. But the show's creators added a storyline (the book's even more episodic than a TV series is by nature), the strong female friendships which are most touted by fans, and anything that anyone might find appealing about anyone in the show, ever. Despite her persistent narcissism and lack of values, the TV show's Carrie does display some affection for her friends and some capacity for romantic love. This is not drawn from the book.
As the observant reader will have already noted, the excerpt above is in the present tense, as are significant other portions of the book. I would have given Sex and the City half a star for style and for its general lack of anything approaching content or meaning. One quarter of a star is all that's left after adjusting for verb tenses.
* All three films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, case in point. Anyone who wants to argue this, you'd better have read the books at least two dozen times, and be prepared - not just willing, but prepared - to discuss every detail of every plot line and character, every casting choice, all major and minor themes, and the amount of grease someone strangely chose to put on Viggo Mortensen's hair. Seriously, you could deep-fry a chicken on his head.
** Do I really need to say anything here? Is there someone who truly thinks that a woman who gets down on her knees and gives, ahem, oral pleasure to random strangers in her place of work - or anywhere, for that matter - is an empowering female role model? Anyone? Bueller?
*** Warner Books, 2001, pages 97-98; this edition.
Further reading: another take on Sex and the City, which is at least as funny as anything ever published by The Onion, only British and even more tasteless.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
When I think of how the typical high school reading list is made, I picture a dingy conference room filled with bitter (possibly non-tenured?), angry professors whose most prominent defining characteristic is that they hate children and everything about them. "Let's crush their spirits," one says, perhaps the crazy-eyed one at the end of the table.
"No," says the next, the one with very thin lips, nose hair, and a Ph.D. in education; "Let's not stop there. Let's beat every ounce of hope, optimism, and faith in the goodness of mankind out of them so thoroughly that alcoholism, three broken marriages, and reality TV will be all they can muster the energy for when they graduate."
At that, there's a chorus of ayes, and The Grapes of Wrath, Ethan Frome, The Sun Also Rises, King Lear, and The Scarlet Letter all make the list immediately. All five of these have the advantage of being both incredibly dull and almost ludicrously depressing*.
Then we get into the sort of dull and sort of depressing category, which includes such classics as Oliver Twist (really damn dull, depressing until the very end), Of Mice and Men (not long enough to be all that dull, but depressing as hell), The Great Gatsby (characters too irritating to make the book not feel boring, pointlessly depressing Modernist ending), Lord of the Flies (boring if you're not a sadist, really depressing), 1984 (so boring that one suspects Orwell of trying to indicate through style how dull a perfectly organized dystopian society would be; depressing from beginning to end; not as good as either We or Brave New World, works comparable in theme which were both written before 1984), and Wuthering Heights (not all that boring, except when no one's acting insane, which is rare, but generally depressing nonetheless).
I know that I'll get some disagreement on which of these books are actually boring and which are not, and that's fair**. I can accept that someone, perhaps not someone with either good taste or a sense of decorum, but someone out there, might enjoy reading The Sun Also Rises. That person will never change my mind about that book. I will say this for it: I gained some self-knowledge while reading it, that being that I have no interest at all in the inner workings of a relationship between a man with no testes and a nymphomaniac, something about myself of which I had been blissfully unaware.
Granted, there are books typically assigned in high school that break out of this pattern. But overall, it seems that being as thrilling as moldy cheese and as cheerful as a five-car pileup on the highway are the two major criteria used to pick books for kids to read. If the goal is to convince young readers, overall, that their time would be more entertainingly and cheerfully spent watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, then the strategy for assigning high school reading is just what it should be.
Based on these criteria, I fully expect The Road to be assigned to English classes nationwide at any moment.
* Actually, Ethan Frome is beautifully written - it is a great book. But it's kind of slow, and what it lacks in boredom it more than makes up for in how much it makes you want to jump off a bridge after reading it.
** Debate about the boredom-inducing qualities of these books is to be expected. I'll be dumbfounded if anyone wants to argue that they don't represent a cross-section of life's, and literature's, biggest downers.
Lynn Flewelling disappointed me, although she did not overly surprise me, with the poor quality of The White Road, the fifth book in a series she began in 1996 with Luck in the Shadows. The Nightrunner series follows Seregil and Alec, pseudo-nobles (in a socioeconomic rather than moral sense) who steal, spy, and mix themselves up in whatever political intrigue happens to be going at the time. Two people, both of whom have shared household accommodations with me at different times, independently read this series, both of them when they were bored and raided my bulging bookshelves out of desperation. Both of them, independently, began referring to the series as "the gay thieves."
This is more than a coincidence. While the first couple of books have quite a bit more going on than that, the characters' identities as gay thieves are pretty central to the plot and to the character development, to use an only marginally applicable term. As the series progresses, the fact that the thieves are in fact gay becomes overwhelmingly important to the plots and themes of the books. Just as a series of books focusing on how a pair of heterosexual lovers like to have sex with each other and potentially with other heterosexuals would become incredibly dull after a while, so does the Nightrunner series become monotonous, if not at all times strictly monogamous.
My reaction to the first two books could be summed up as: Cool. I like reading books about thieves** and assassins. (Full disclosure of personal bias: I always play the rogue character class in any given RPG video game.) These books are at least of average quality, which qualifies as an Epic Win (to make a bad pun, given the usual sweeping plots in fantasy novels) given the crud available at the bookstore.
My reaction to the third book: Okay. That was okay.
The fourth book: I effing get it. They're gay. And they're thieves sometimes, too, but mostly they're gay. Gay! Got it.
And by the time we get to the fifth book, The White Road, the quality of the actual writing had declined sufficiently that even a much stronger plot, and a much decreased focus on the overwhelming tendencies of the main characters to have gay sex, frequently, would not have saved this book from being not quite worth the time or the $7.99 cover price. I think this writing quality issue may have a lot to do with a pre-built audience; a certain proportion of those who bought the first four books were counted on by the publisher to buy the fifth book no matter what, and the onus of luring new readers pretty much remained on the first book, which is much better.
Even so, there's no excuse for sloppiness. One might even say that there's less excuse for sloppiness when, as in the case of The White Road, it's possible that the sloppiness was calculated to some degree.
Overall lesson to be learned from this book: Unless you are writing erotica, the sexual orientation of your characters will not carry a story. Homosexuality can certainly be an interesting addition to a fantasy's complexity, but it can also become just another gimmick to set a book apart from otherwise comparable books without any homosexual relationships.
The White Road gets two stars within its genre***.
* There are exceptions on all sides of this question. Whatever your opinion of the Harry Potter series in general, it is very arguably true that book 7 was in fact much better than book 1, with a consistent rise in quality all the way through. The book series begun with Anne of Green Gables offers an opposite perspective: this is a non-fantasy series of 8 books in which quality noticeably declines after book 4, and arguably after book 3.
** Highly recommended example of the thief-fantasy sub-genre, should that be your dish of tea: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch.
*** For fantasy readers - and while there are books within the fantasy genre which have much to offer readers who don't typically go for fantasy, Flewelling's books are not among them - I do recommend the first two Nightrunner books and also, more strongly, Flewelling's Tamir Triad, which begins with The Bone Doll's Twin.
Monday, February 21, 2011
David Copperfield, full disclosure, is my favorite Dickens novel. I know, I know, Great Expectations is the one that gets on every great books list, and it is superior in most ways. But I read David Copperfield at a formative age, and I enjoyed it so much that it's been my favorite ever since, even after re-reading it several times. A Tale of Two Cities comes close, partly because I'm a sucker for people getting their heads removed in just about any way or context, and partly because it has the best opening and closing lines in literature, bar none**. It's also extensively referenced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which in my opinion gives both the book and the film a certain additional cache***.
In short, we'll proceed with the assumption that I'm prejudiced in favor of David Copperfield. Even objectively, the book contains some of Dickens's most striking characters: Mr. Micawber, the permanently penniless shabby-genteel friend of the protagonist's, is endlessly quotable, and plotting, 'umble Uriah Heep is one of the best villains ever written. David Copperfield was also Dickens's favorite among his own books, which he admits in the author's preface to the work, and which makes reading it somewhat more interesting if you're interested in Dickens in general.
The book's great flaw is its eponymous hero, who's a bit of a weak reed, to put it kindly. To put it less kindly, he's kind of a spineless jerk. And, since we're dishing out uncensored abuse here, he's also an idiot. Many of his life decisions evoke a reaction similar to that experienced when, in a horror movie, the next one to be whacked hears the funny noise, puts down their cell phone and gun, and goes to unlock and open the door.
Since Dickens is the undisputed master of the long and convoluted plot****, I will spare myself and and you the attempt to summarize heavily. In brief, the novel follows David from his childhood on, and he makes a career for himself, marries, and meets a wide variety of classic Dickensian types. Since David's (many) narcissistic blunders are realistic overall - narcissism and poor judgment being common among the young - the book hangs together despite the hero's unappealing moments. I'll give David Copperfield four stars overall, because it's truly a great novel, despite the fact that it's a classic.
* Classic works of literature are usually perceived in one of three ways: 1) as some form of Marxist/feminist/queer/colonial repression/oppression narrative, 2) as being really boring (often a justified view; keep your eyes out for a post on Steinbeck one of these days), or 3) as being great in every way because they're, you know, classics. Any Dickens novel could easily fall under any one of the three.
** I won't insult my readers by assuming ignorance of these opening and closing lines. I will refresh all of your memories, perhaps. Opening line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ." and so on, with many other flowery "it was" constructions. Closing line: "'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.'" If this last line, in context, doesn't bring tears to your eyes, you are a Cylon.
*** It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing, not even classic literature, that is not improved by being related even tangentially to William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban.
**** In English. The overall international title is held by Dostoyevsky, who earned this distinction for The Possessed. No one will ever convince me that Dostoyevsky himself had any idea which character was which or what they were doing at any given time. Honorable mention goes to Robert Jordan for his fantasy series The Wheel of Time; it's necessary to express the number of characters in that series in scientific notation in order to fit it on a standard sheet of letter-size paper.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Friday, February 18, 2011
Sunday, February 13, 2011
This type of book is frequently distinguished by its cover art - but in this case, the art is somewhat blah: no mostly naked women, disembodied brains, or even saucer people. The author's name, though, really does distinguish this one. Eando Binder is in fact a nom de plume - who would have guessed? Otto and Earl Andrew Binder wrote as a team, and chose Eando as a combination of their names. It's unfortunate that their writing proved to be as scattered and nonsensical as their choice of a pseudonym.
The Mind From Outer Space is truly a marvel, in its own way, but its great weakness might be described as a certain lack of anything that might, under other circumstances, have made a good sci-fi. You know that frustrating it-almost-worked phenomenon? Well, The Mind From Outer Space doesn't cause it. And yet, it has everything: astrally projected sea serpents, the lost continent of Atlantis, a yeti, a possessed motorcycle - and a flying saucer. This last is, when our hero Thule Hillory discovers it, lying crashed in a bush right off the main road, where it has apparently been for 35,000 years. Only, you know, no one noticed it when they were building the road.
Another plot weakness, although it might be fruitless to attempt to enumerate more than a few, is that the main disembodied-mind alien villain travels billions of light years across the galaxy to find something which has been hidden on Earth, and then finds Earth - and then, once here, is unable to find Mount Everest. Despite, I must add, being psychic, and in the same room with three or four people who all know where Mount Everest is. I am also forced to the assumption, based on the villain's lack of geographical knowledge, that his ancient planet did not have reference books, or Wikipedia.
In order to properly convey the wonder of The Mind From Outer Space, allow me to provide a few samples of Eando's writing style. This is near the beginning of the book.
"I've got something to tell all of you," said Hillory, drawing himself up and facing the small group. "The android didn't suddenly turn killer. Something entered him - animated him."
At their surprised murmurs, Hillory went on to tell how the saucer skeleton and motorcycle had both menaced himself and Merry.
From this brief excerpt, it's pretty easy to extrapolate the entire first third of the book. Moving on, the intrepid Hillory meets the disembodied alien who had inhabited the dead saucer person and the motorcycle and the android, in turn - he cleverly traps him, actually, beneath a psi-net. No, it's not explained any more fully than that.
A moment later, the unspoken but perfectly clear thought-words came. "Quite clever, earthling, this trap. I underestimated you. I did not think your kind" - he said it as if speaking of lowly worms - "capable of such psi refinements."
"You can skip the lordly attitude," snapped back Hillory. "Now, just who are you? And I might remind you that if you don't care to answer my questions, I'll just drop the net lower so that it collapses in on itself and leaves no space for you . . ."
"No need for childish threats," came back scornfully, yet a bit fearfully. "Why should I not answer you? I am Jorzz!"
The name had been given pompously, flourishingly.
To recap: Jorzz announced himself scornfully, fearfully, pompously, and flourishingly. (To anyone who can manage to say something in all of those adverbial states simultaneously, I will send a box of chocolates.) Now, not to give too much away, but Jorzz somehow escapes the fiendishly clever psi wire bag trap thingy in which Hillory had imprisoned him, and escapes - to attack once again, this time as a yeti on the top of Mount Everest. In case anyone's wondering, Jorzz finally finds Mount Everest by following Hillory there. Score one for Jorzz!
Hillory and his companions find a strange black cube on the mountain, and then dive for another one in the ocean. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that they are being assisted in this search by a supercomputer named Brains, who scans the locations of the black cubes from a metal "scroll" found in the saucer. I will not sport with your intelligence or patience by transcribing any of those passages here. Be that as it may, Jorzz, this time in the guise of a half-astrally projected sea serpent, is defeated again - with the second cube almost in his semi-ghostly jaws.
The third and fourth cubes - thankfully, there are no more - are found in a cave in Africa and in space, respectively. Things seem to be proceeding according to plan. However, at the last moment, Jorzz takes over an indestructible android and hypnotizes all of Hillory's scientific colleagues, including the charming girl-technician, Merry - and it appears that this final plot twist has undone our heroes.
Not so. I'm sure the suspense is killing anyone who's stayed awake through this recap of Hillory's terrifying adventures, and so: spoiler alert. The end of the story comes when Jorzz, whose name I think might be one of the best in sci-fi ever, is thwarted in his plans to reconstruct his alien planet and take over the galaxy. Is he, you may ask, thwarted by Hillory's ingenious use of science? By some sort of deus ex machina, or perhaps, under these circumstances, a deus ex saucer? No.
Jorzz meets his end when, in attempting to use a time-shaker pistol (don't ask) of his own design and construction, he shoots himself. He was, it transpires, holding the device . . . backwards. Conveniently, the time-shaker pistol was the only weapon capable of destructing the indestructible robot, and thus the human race is saved from what actually sounded like a pretty mellow and generally bearable fate.
While it's entirely irrelevant to the (quote unquote) plot of The Mind From Outer Space, there's one more excerpt worth including here, if for no other reason than to give any environmentalist blog readers an immediate coronary.
Hillory and his companions go to the Amazon jungle, at one point, on a wild goose chase - they have been (temporarily) misled by the fiendish Jorzz. Hillory is moved to comment on the geographical region, as they approach in their psi-bubble (again, don't ask).
"Brazil has done a good job of clearing some of the jungleland and converting it into cattle ranges," commented Hillory. "But much of it is unreclaimed. It's still the wildest patch of tropical jungle on earth."
And there you have it. Let's hear it for Eando Binder, Jorzz, and The Mind From Outer Space: one star for quality, five stars for awesomeness.