November 24, 2008

Book 55: The Lost Worlds of 2001

The Lost Worlds of 2001
Arthur C. Clarke

To fully complete my immersion in the Space Odyssey series, I decided to check out this book of extras and commentary relating both to the movie and the original book, which are endlessly related to one another. As such, the book has two distinct voices: one is the delightful and often funny Clarke himself, reflecting on the long and exciting process of creating the "proverbial good science fiction film" with Stanley Kubrick; the other exists in the material that didn't make it through the final cut, for good reason but not the kind of "good reason" that mars publication of actual second-rate material. This book is fascinating because of its behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a novel with an eye toward both potential visual aesthetics and plausible scientific credibility. Clarke's accounts of the different stages the project went through are not only well-written, they are utterly fascinating. Through Clarke's light touch and frequent deployment of wit (often self-deprecating), readers get an idea of the challenges that face both traditional novelists and traditional filmmakers, all much multiplied when the creation is bounced like a pinball from one artist and medium to another. Log entries that could have quickly become boring and redudant are instead carefully chosen and enlightening; a personal favorite notes, and in an offhand manner, that Clarke phoned Isaac Asimov to discuss some science.

Clarke comes across as reasonably modest and sheds a lot of light into the creative process, but what is truly fascinating about this book is the stunning fiction it contains. 2001: A Space Odyssey has no shortage of intriguing visions and incredible imagery, and this book only adds to the lore. In addition to being carefully selected and annotated by Clarke to fit into a greater narrative about the development of the novel, lengthy portions of earlier drafts are presented in their entirety, making excellent speculative fiction on their own and providing imaginative readers with several interesting scenarios to consider. As a special bonus, Clarke even reprints his short story "The Sentinel", which provided the initial alien-marker-on-Moon scenario. Though the final novel version is often the best in the context of the final work, Clarke's alternate visions of the first and final contact with the makers of the Monolith and Star Gate provide much intelligent fodder for readers to consider. After all, it is the same talent and mind behind both these preliminary visions and the final polished novel. Though some material falls a bit flat, it is interesting nonetheless to sense Clarke and Kubrick wrestling with different scenarios; it is particularly illuminating, as Clarke notes, to read these earlier fictions with a clear view of the final version in mind- some throwaway lines here and there contain the secrets of the final novel. Most interesting is the way in which the multiple discarded endings, all of which revolve on a theme of actually meeting the makers of the Star Gate, serve to highlight the brilliance of the novel's final ambiguity (though the movie could be a bit more clear on some points).

Full of deep scientific thought and obvious consideration, The Lost Worlds of 2001 is a delightful read for fans of the Space Odyssey series who want to learn more about the creation and evolution of the story as well as indulge in some excellent science fiction. The alternatives presented here provide an interesting hands-on look into the writing and revising that must go into a project of the scale and ambition attempted and achieved by 2001: A Space Odyssey and, to a lesser degree, its sequels. Both the fiction contained within the narrative and that narrative itself are carefully constructed and enjoyable almost down to every last period. My only misgiving about this book is that it often contains fictional material in large, continuous chunks- excellent when readers wish to be thrown into the lost worlds of 2001, but a little confusing when they are introduced as different alternatives instead of as the continuous alternative they seem to be. This, however, is a very minor point and both the nonfiction and fiction bits of this book are every bit enjoyable to Arthur C. Clarke and science fiction fans.

Grade: A

November 18, 2008

Book 54: Generation X

Generation X
Douglas Coupland

I have found myself repeatedly drawn to Coupland's work and picked this book up on a whim after enjoying All Families Are Psychotic and JPod. It turns out that Generation X is the author's first and pivotal book, an homage to the listlessness of the eponymous group of people that gave them their name. The plot, insofar as it exists, accurately captures this feeling of intellectually stimulating apathy and the book's reliance on the stories its characters tell each other characterizes them in ways a more standard plot could not. These features are the novel's strongest selling points but, interestingly, each presents a problem both for reading and for interpretation. The novel moves along at a quite leisurely pace, and almost nothing actually happens until the very end of the book, making it difficult to get into, especially if one reads it in fits and starts. This book is meant to be read in as few sittings as possible, allowing the reader to dive into the minds and lives of its characters and absorb their attitudes and experiences. Its own postmodern style echoes these sentiments and while it becomes absolutely engrossing and hard to put down, Generation X can seem inaccessible and boring without a sense of greater plotting or much of anything concrete to grab onto.

This loose sense of plot and action may hamper the novel's efforts, but it accurately reflects the attitudes of its characters, who are at once frustrating and utterly compelling. The characters that populate the novel are, for the most part, listless Gen-Xers who have dropped out of life and who actively despise the yuppie lifestyle. They have carved their own slice of life out of the desert in California where they spend their time working and doing a whole lot of nothing. It is often unclear what the characters actually want- their disdain for their former lives and for consumerism and other features of modern society are obvious but seem to lack any tangible roots. They are not lazy, per se, but their bad attitude makes them at times unsympathetic no matter how accurate their perceptions are at times. It is easy to relate to them but it is hard to empathize, and perhaps that is the point. Regardless, their stories reveal much about their personalities and a little about their motivations. Their real draw is their pointed and shocking observations about society, which are manifest in their stories but really brought to life by definitions along the sidebar of the novel.

This illustrates the problem and success of Generation X. The book excels in delivering the experience of listlessness that characterizes its main cast, and the notes on the sidebar are piercing, accurate, and often hilarious (who, after all, can't relate to the term McJob?). The book consistently delivers nuggets of wisdom along with a few well-plotted moments and some compelling stories in the mouths of its characters. Even if one isn't of Generation X, this book explains many of its attitudes by example. Unfortunately, the driving force of the novel is, ironically, apathy, and the book often becomes slow or seemingly pointless when nothing happens for long stretches of time. Generation X is most definitely worth reading for 20-somethings of any generation and does a good job capturing the mood of its period, but those looking for a straightfoward or particularly exciting plot should be forewarned that Coupland's book is a testament to dropping out of society, to taking it slow and to defying conventions.

Grade: B+

November 12, 2008

Book 53: Visions of Sugar Plums

Visions of Sugar Plums
Janet Evanovich

Though there's a mystery at the heart of this Stephanie Plum adventure, its clear throughout that Visions of Sugar Plums is intended to flesh out the world of this intrepid bounty hunter a bit. Unfortunately, though there is much fun to be had in this short novella, Evanovich is unable to straddle the line between fresh, interesting ideas and utter absurdity. This book reads throughout as the woefully unfulfilled promise of what it could have (should have?) been. The boundaries of credibility are stretched even for Evanovich's awkward and lovably odd Trenton landscape. Oddly enough, given recent problems of predictable plots and recycled series cliches, Visions of Sugar Plums is frustrating largely because it ignores much of what makes the Plum series so likeable in the first place. Evanovich tries too desperately to integrate Diesel into Stephanie's veritable parade of love interests; the characters have almost no chemistry and the preoccupation with another man is reckless given Stephanie's reconciliation with Joe at the end of Hard Eight. The novella turns in a worthy performance from former FTA and roommate Randy Briggs, but though he is sharp and true to form he cannot save the story. I believe this book would have been an excellent short addition to the Plum canon if it did not contain a mystery at all- developments with Valerie are relevant to the story arc of the series as a whole and the glimpse of a Plum family Christmas is precisely what loyal readers would expect. The book does well when it ignores the mystery at hand- often for unexcusably long sections, considering the book believes itself to be a mystery- and the FTA plot would be best discarded. Not only is it an unwelcome distraction from the thematic matter at hand, it is utterly absurd. Evanovich's Trenton already has a semi-mystical being in Ranger, who can mysteriously unlock doors and who moves silently unseen through all sorts of booby traps; she does not need the unnecessarily supernatural Diesel or the grand-scale superhero plot she attempts to develop. Combine numerous unnecessary elements with sluggish writing, ridiculous and predictable nods to the Christmas season (Stephanie puts off shopping? Scandalous and unexpected! And an FTA named Sandy Claws? Creative!), and a mystery so transparent that no reader will be surprised by its outcome, and what you have is Visions of Sugar Plums, a barely passable attempt at an alternate look at Stephanie Plum that would benefit from some of her characteristic humor and, yes, some of her more useful and interesting cliches.

Grade: C+

November 10, 2008

Book 52: Hard Eight

Hard Eight
Janet Evanovich

Again we find Stephanie Plum, master bounty hunter, hot on the trail of Trenton's most wanted- except this time, she's not out to find a probably-criminal FTA. Rather, Hard Eight has Stephanie working to find her neighbor's missing granddaughter and great-granddaughter, a task whose complexity is multiplied many times by the group that accumulates to help and hinder Stephanie's chase. This book, like the others, moves quite quickly in parts but tends to drag in certain areas, though the detail given to Stephanie's life outside of bounty hunting adds to the intrigue and keeps the series afloat. Stephanie's frequent encounters with the two major men in her life, along with fairly routine (routine being a relative word in Evanovich's delighfully awkward Trenton) dinners with her family contribute to an overall sense that there is more to the Stephanie Plum books than the mysteries they contain. This is good because Stephanie's well-worn trick of being just incompetent enough to be a credible threat is beginning to wear a little thin by this eighth book in her series. If readers had to live on the mysteries alone, the series would have long since fallen flat, but a vivid and imaginative Trenton brings Hard Eight to life. Newer characters enter seamlessly into the pre-existing Plum universe and several old friends reappear, including enough of beloved Grandma Mazur to make us all glad (or, perhaps, sadly regret) that we don't have one ourselves. Albert Kloughn is frighteningly immature and is taken to a bit of an extreme, but Evanovich has wisely toned down Lula and, in doing so, fleshed her out a bit. The two characters, create a balance of cliche and actual characterization that works overall and shows that Evanovich is willing to grow as a writer. The pacing of the book leaves a bit to be desired; though various interludes into Stephanie's life keep the book from becoming another rote mystery novel, they tend to drag and make action sequences seem unduly rushed. The thrilling end of the book is again crammed into just a few pages, leaving a bit to be desired but faithfully and adequately wrapping up the story within. The real draw for Hard Eight is its success in relating a vivid vision of Trenton through Stephanie's spot-on narration and reliable performances from supporting cast members, as well as encouraging growth for Stephanie herself. Evanovich certainly has enough tricks up her sleeve to keep loyal readers entertained, but though Hard Eight fits in well to the Stephanie Plum series, it's a familiar gig, even when the missing person is only an acquaintance and not a criminal at all.

Grade: B

November 3, 2008

Book 51: Seven Up

Seven Up
Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum returns in this gung-ho adventure, one full of surprises but true enough to the series to meet and perhaps exceed the expectations of Stephanie's loyal fans. Though the writing is true to form and the mystery at hand full of originality and surprises, Evanovich falls back on some familiar plot devices in this seventh book. It is familiar by now that Stephanie will go after an "easy" capture and discover something much more to the story- the stress on how easy Eddie DeChooch should come in seems old and like a procrastination instead of a worthwhile addition to the story's humor. Readers should know by now that Stephanie is frequently in over her head, and Evanovich may be better served simply cutting to the chase. Once the book settles down, however, and readers are thrown into the story, Evanovich proves that she has plenty of interesting and new tricks up her sleeve. Trenton is rendered with crystal clarity and loyal readers will recognize local hot spots and general geography. This strong sense of setting is mirrored by strong internal consistency within the series- Mooner and Dougie return for a brilliant encore, as well as the familiar cast of characters that surround Stephanie at work and at home. A couple of innovative plot twists as well as a strong sense of humor underlying the book make this one definitely worth reading, but more interesting is the slightly stronger focus Evanovich puts on Stephanie's family and personal life in Seven Up. Little-mentioned sister Valerie makes an appearance that shifts the action to the Plum household more often than usual as a side story develops not as a distraction but instead as a compliment to Stephanie's bounty hunting dilemma at hand. What Seven Up proves is that Evanovich can still spin a worthy mystery but that it is instead her characters that drive the Plum mysteries. Despite some plotting problems that make the resolution slightly unclear in spots, Evanovich's unbelievably strong and reliable supporting cast, as well as her willingness to study Stephanie outside of her job alone, make Seven Up a worthy addition to the Plum canon and a must-read for Plum fans. Halfway through (to date), the series is as strong as ever and I cannot wait to see what lies in store for Stephanie.

Grade: A-