June 29, 2007

Book 35: I, Robot

I, Robot
Isaac Asimov

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I really, really liked it. The story was incredibly absorbing and the metaphors were significantly complex and poignant to strike me by pleasant surprise. Asimov knows how to construct a parallel future to our own and the book is chock full of subtle commentary that lets us know exactly how, in the robot-ruled future, we are truly at fault. It is no accident that the last story in the book is called "The Evitable Conflict". But where the plot itself soars to success, the prose itself is base and, at times, dreadful. I, Robot is never actually painful to read, but nonetheless there were moments where I had to groan out loud at the unbelievable characters and extraordinarily bad dialogue.

Asimov is, no doubt, a great writer. He is, however, much more concentrated when it comes to developing plot and creating (and resolving) conflict. Specific aspects of the writing seem to give way under the importance (or perhaps just the sheer brilliance) of these more focused elements. There is often overly-descriptive dialogue. Two robot field testers are not going to need to tell each other the explicit history of robotics on Earth and the development of certain prototypes. Sure, we can assume that these remarks are sarcastic, but the characters an d their relationships aren't well enough established by the time they begin to engage in this sarcastic expose. Likewise, the very form of the book also detracts a bit from its power to engage the reader. The idea of a young reporter talking to an old robotic scientist about the history of robotics is excellent, and telling the story in vignettes is, I believe, the proper form for the book. This young journalist, however, is as ignorant as the reader about his own world. The italicized passages where he interacts with the interviewee give away too much of the stories to come; when we know that certain characters are going to survive or that certain developments will or will not take hold in society, the stories themselves become less thrilling and merely fulfill expectations rather than shock. Asimov doesn't need the overarching story arc to make his point.

With all of that being a bit harsh, I must return to the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Sure, the dialogue occasionally got to me and the interludes took me out of the story, but the stories and the general history of society are so compelling in themselves that I could forgive the imperfect writing. Asimov's strengths are not only his best attributes, but also outstrip others by miles. I absolutely cannot believe that this book was published in 1950. Aside from the dates (much of the story takes place in the 1990s- yikes!), I, Robot doesn't seem at all dated. This book could have been written today, and with the same power. It works both because robots per se haven't taken over society and because computers have. The view of a robotic society may be partial to the 1950s, but the idea of a society governed by artificial intelligences greater than itself is not a fantasy in this Internet Age. Have you ever won a game of chess against a computer? I didn't think so. Asimov is right on target with his assumptions that human-created technology will eventually overtake human capabilities. The robots (our computers) have the best of human reasoning and infallible logic- in spades.

Asimov's book is a critique of our need to create ever-increasing convenience. He also nails religion and reactionaries down pat. His insights on faith are, for once, non-polarizing and tolerant. Where it looks like Asimov is going to criticize religious faith (giving it, after all, to robots), that faith ends up helping everyone and makes logical sense. The Society for Humanity, a radical anti-robot society, is simply hungering for a simpler past that wasn't so simple for those living in it. I, Robot takes the trend of Americans to want it "faster and faster and now, dammit!" and extrapolates it to its fullest potential. He asks us where we're going but doesn't make it clear that artificial overlords are the worst thing for humanity after all. His humans are disenfranchised but are better off than ever. Asimov's commentary is intelligent and nuanced and transcends the book to apply directly to current life here in 2007. The book may be lacking in the points of fine literature, but it is a most thought-provoking piece that should not be ignored.

Grade: B+

June 19, 2007

Book 34: The Mists of Avalon

The Mists of Avalon
Marion Zimmer Bradley

Fear not, blog readers, for though I have been absent my reading time has been well spent. This book is anything but a quick, light read but it is thoroughly enjoyable and worth the time and effort it asks. The Mists of Avalon is nothing less than a complete and compelling revision of traditional Arthurian legends and manages to add an entirely new edge to the stories we all know so well. Bradley is nothing if not thorough, and addresses most of the crucial junctions in the Arthur story: the dubious conception of Arthur, his coronation and the bestowing of Excalibur, the rise of Lancelet and the seeds and fruit of his betrayal, the banishment of the Saxons from Britain, and the treachery of Mordred are all covered. Even the Holy Grail makes an appearance, though its significance in the pagan context of the book is somewhat confused and ill-explained. Readers familiar with the general gist of the Arthur tales will find their expectations thoroughly met; the only major exception I could think of was Gawaine's altercation with the Green Knight, which would have been entirely irrelevant (as with the unfortunate inclusion of Gareth's expedition to the Red Lawns). Bradley brilliantly weaves the traditional plot lines into her own story of the end of the age of magic and Fairy.

The book is a splendidly imagined tale that recasts Arthur's reign as the last critical juncture in the conflict between pagan traditions and the rising tide of Christianity. The book is hardly friendly to the new religion at first, making some excellent jabs at Roman religion that speak to the heart of its problems today, but softens as the pagan lands are themselves won over. The initial illusion of ultimate right and wrong is properly blasted by the end of the book, and if this makes the last page somewhat confusing (which it does), it speaks to the complexity of the novel and the excellence of this book in assuming the form. The book itself faces subtle changes and forces the reader to reconsider formerly held notions initially supported by the book itself. In fact, the greatest strength of the book is to take an incredibly well-established collection of legends, throw some feminist and anti-Christian spin on them, and come out with something that everyone can benefit from. Whatever dogma lies behind the book is not immediately visible, and while the characters in the book express their opinions quite forcefully, they refrain from being overly preachy at the reader.

Here we get Morgaine (Morgana le Fay) and her story, not the Arthur-centric tales of macho heroism and damsels in distress. Morgaine and the Lady of the Lake are the ones truly in power, which is a refreshing take on the sometimes clichéd man-rescues-woman motif. The world of Arthur is far more complex than previously suspected, and the book only expands on the potential of Arthurian lore. Though the fantasy elements strewn throughout the book can sometimes serve to distract the reader with their improbability (they are interacting with a work that strives mainly to present a sort of truth behind the legends), many are well-received in turn and generally make sense, even within the realm of Christianity. Bradley pushes these elements a little far at times, but once the reader is acclimated to the new world where magic meets history the fantastic often becomes a pivotal part in the tale.

The book is easy to read and flows well outside of the occasional (and thankfully infrequent) slips into the first-person perspective of Morgaine. These slips, particularly that at the end of the main plot, only confuse the reader and muddle what otherwise was clear. While Bradley's work may benefit from some doubt (and indeed I'm sure that some was intended), important plot elements are obscured and confusing when presented this way. What Bradley has done is to take a familiar story and recast it as the collision and resulting conflict between paganism and Christianity, presenting the E! True Hollywood Story of Morgaine, the real power behind Arthur's throne. Never preachy or boring, The Mists of Avalon is a must-read for those interested in diving into the deep and enchanting world of Arthurian legend.

Grade: A