Saturday, May 10, 2014

To Live Forever

Author: Jack Vance
Genre: Science Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1956

A recent reread of this book reminded me why I generally reread others of Vance's books instead of this one when I'm looking for a dose of restoration of my faith that books don't all suck. Compared to the rest of Vance's oeuvre, which includes hyper-intelligent sardines that maintain part-ownership of a sardine canning plant, a galactic criminal who spends several fortunes mining a moon into the image of his own face to get revenge for a disappointing real-estate deal, and a planet where murder by poison is commonplace but throwing sour milk on one's grandmother is a capital crime*, To Live Forever is nothing special. It relies on heavy-handed allegory and a setting that appears to be Earth in a not-too-distant possible future, and as such, it fits right in with much of the sci-fi of the fifties.

The idea's an okay one. On this version of Earth, civilized humanity's packed into a relatively small area, with wilderness and barbarians without. Because of limited resources, everyone only gets a certain allotted lifespan, with extensions possible based on contributions to society. There are machines like ATMs where you can get a readout of your remaining life in a handy graph format and find out when the executioners are likely to come for you.

Making this state of affairs more bitter for those of low status, immortality is a technological reality, and it's reserved for those considered worthy of it. Our hero, though already immortal, has lost his place among the society of his equals and is determined to get it back. In typical Vancian style, he manages to cause utter mayhem in the process. Also in typical Vancian style, various pompous blowhards get their comeuppance simultaneously. (Vance is the best at satisfying revenge stories; he's the spec-fic Rafael Sabatini, and in more than just that way, come to think of it.)

Anyone who's read Jack Vance will already know that he could probably rewrite the phone book into a gripping mystery, alternately darkly hilarious and almost unbearably poignant. He was (sad to say, he died in 2013) a master at combining horror and humor and at drawing out the funny tragedy of human life with just a few sentences. Any aspiring writer who doesn't want to slit his own wrists a little after reading Vance, just because he'll never be that good, doesn't have any sense of proportion.**

So To Live Forever isn't bad at all -- it's Vance, and he's never bad. It's just not that engaging. The hero's motivations are entirely selfish up until about 95% of the way through the novel, and he's not funny or weird enough (for Vance fans, think of Cugel) to redeem his essential unlikability. There's also the fact that the story's mostly depressing, featuring a variety of unhappy people living mostly meaningless lives. And then there's the aforementioned fifties-style problem: this book has a message.

For a writer of science fiction, Vance maintains an unusually small scope in his novels. Almost all of them are structured like mystery novels. There are no battles to determine the fate of the galaxy, his protagonists aren't secretly the emperor of anything or the only remaining Furyan or whatever, and generally the central mystery of the story is important to a very limited group of people. This restricted focus is where Vance shines; his angel is in the details, while his devil, as demonstrated in To Live Forever, is in the big picture. With this novel he tried to make a larger point about the Meaning of Human Life, and in the process lost his usual effortless grasp on what it means to be a human being. In other words, it doesn't rank among Vance's better works, though it'd be a masterpiece for most of his contemporaries.***

This book gets three stars, one of the only Vance novels I'd rank that low. For an introduction to this truly stupendous author, try The Demon Princes or The Complete Dying Earth. Vance enthusiasts will enjoy this one, though, particularly if their only other choice is Isaac Asimov.

* I'm not going to say which books I've referenced here. You should immediately go and read them all to find out for yourself.

** He's basically the Total Perspective Vortex for sci-fi and fantasy authors.

*** Yep, looking at you, Eando Binder.

Takedown Twenty

Author: Janet Evanovich
Genre: Chick mystery? It has a shiny cover.
Original Pub. Date: 2013

There are a few popular female authors out there -- Barbara Cartland, Nora Roberts -- who have a seemingly superhuman ability to pump out mediocre books at a rate that would be considered alarming if they were producing, say, enriched plutonium. Janet Evanovich isn't quite in that class, but with about 50 books to her name she's definitely in the silver-medal running. (If Barbara Cartland is Soviet Russia, Evanovich might be the equivalent of those Libyans in the van in Back to the Future, to extend the plutonium idea past its point of usefulness.)

Takedown Twenty is actually the twenty-fourth (if you count the "between-the-numbers" holiday-themed books) novel in Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, the long-running saga of a former lingerie buyer turned bounty hunter from Trenton, NJ. In the first book, twenty-something, pretty, not-badass-at-all Stephanie's out of work, and rather than go to the personal products plant and get a job putting maxi pads in boxes, her mother's suggestion, she blackmails her sleazy cousin Vinnie into giving her a bounty hunter job at his bail bonds business.

If you think predictable hijinks immediately ensue, well, don't bother thinking again. The charm of this series isn't in its leaps of startling literary innovation. It's charming nonetheless; Evanovich has a good sense of humor and knows how to do slapstick while keeping readers invested in her characters as people. She's also adept at writing plots that are just simple enough to be blown through in a day while you're drinking coffee and lounging around but complex enough that they're not boring. Basically, she's your garden-variety bestseller-writer, with a little more pleasant goofiness than most.

But Janet Evanovich has achieved something notable with Takedown Twenty that's worthy of special praise; in fact, she's done something unique in my experience. I've touched before on series-itis, the tendency of authors of long-running series to start writing on autopilot and reducing their characters to sad, cardboard caricatures. (Let us all have a moment of silence for the Southern Vampire Mysteries series, may it rest in peace.)

And in about books 14 through 18 or 19, Evanovich was following this pattern to the T. The supporting characters had all become their own shadows, the overall plot arc had stalled out like a Dodge Aspen, and I was just about to give up. It takes a lot to make me give up -- like, the only series I haven't even been tempted to finish began with possibly the worst book ever written.*

But lo and behold! Along came Takedown Twenty, which doesn't quite recapture the magic of the first ten books, but which is head and shoulders better than the last five or six at least. There's a love triangle in the series, of course -- although given some very popular but dreadful series out there, we're lucky it's just a triangle and not a hexagon or worse -- and for the first time in many books, I felt like there were some hints of a shift in the relationships between Stephanie and her two paramours. Overall, Evanovich seems to have recaptured her joie de vivre and resumed some interest in the series again, and I'm genuinely looking forward to the twenty-first book, due out in June.

Since I hear that book reviews are supposed to include some discussion of what happens in the actual book, I'll just tell you that there's a runaway giraffe and some mobsters. Anyone who's read previous books in this series will immediately fill in the blanks, and if you haven't read any of them, it's pointless to try to summarize this one for you. Bottom line: most mystery/chick lit readers will enjoy the Stephanie Plum series. If this is your dish of tea, I say go for it and read them all. This one gets 3.5 stars.

* Yep, I'm including this.