March 29, 2009

Book 13: The Truth Machine

The Truth Machine
James Halperin

I read this author's two books in reverse order, which didn't do much except dull my expectations for this book and provide me with some basic expectations about the plot of this novel; my expectations were, for the most part, duly met and even at times exceeded. I knew that Halperin is at best a lousy writer, but I was absolutely unprepared for the extremely dull and at times hilariously stiff nature of his prose. That's what I get for expecting retroactive improvement in his writing style; The First Immortal looks excellent compared to the writing in this book. Here again, however, we have a fundamental conflict for readers: Halperin's writing is sufficiently terrible but his ideas are again interesting and pose interesting questions, even if he does blatantly call attention to them while interjecting his own personal beliefs into every second of his future vision. Held to any reasonable literary standards, then, this book is terrible; I found it nonetheless quite enjoyable, though much more wooden and far more underdeveloped than his second novel.

The characters are all wooden caricatures with completely predictable and unrealistic actions and concrete beliefs that are relayed incessantly to the reader without much straight exposition to back them up. Everything is quite compact and fits rather neatly, making even the likable characters grating after a while and the reprehensible characters truly repellent. The Truth Machine does, however, look at world events on an incredibly grand scale and chooses adequately connected characters to drive them and, consequently, the plot. Even I was rooting for the main characters to triumph by the end of the book, though I found his stuttering distracting and remarkably unnoticed in situations where it should raise significant alarm. In fact, Pete Armstrong, the novel's protagonist (not to be confused with the author, per the author bio!), is actually rendered more dislikable by his distinguishing characteristics; when he is a wooden cutout he is somewhat tolerable. Other characters seem realistic only because Halperin operates in a world of sweeping generalities and needs those who populate his world to be easily understood. The characters of The Truth Machine, while absolutely driving its action, are almost incidental to the story being told, and while this leads to boredom and dissociation, it allows Halperin to focus his efforts on the ideas the characters unfailingly represent.

Halperin operates mainly in black and white, with generous doses of The Obvious Hammer thrown in for good measure. He is extremely transparent about his beliefs, including those on mandatory capital punishment and his minor obsession with cryonics. This rampant evangelism would be maddening were it not rendered absolutely laugh-out-loud hilarious by the appendices and the author's own extra sections. The former is a useful addition to the outrageously unbelievable premise of the narrative's construction while the latter, calling for readers of The Truth Machine to help make it a reality, actually made me laugh out loud. The book includes the hilarious author bio I described above, which notes the similarities between the author and his protagonist (one sentence is actually, "There the similarities end."); the acknowledgments section is certainly appreciative but clearly self-aggrandizing; and, true to form, the book contains advertisments for the World Futurist Society and the science of cryogenics. Halperin is, at the very least, always aware of himself and what he is doing.

Perhaps despite himself, then, Halperin has actually constructed an interesting, if over-executed, narrative conceit by having a computer narrate the book- while this is plausible given the vast technological developments he foresees, he doesn't include any relevant technologies in the body of the novel and often interrupts the flow of events with parenthetical notes that try way too hard to make the computer narrator believable. The footnotes, many of which (cleverly?) insult our own primitivism by explaining semantic differences to readers contemporary to the book's events, are equally unhelpful and actually call attention to the conceit rather than adding to its delusion. Funniest, though, is the computer's introduction, which seems to be an unintentionally ironic acknowledgment of Halperin's lack of literary finesse: the computer apologizes for his lack of literary flourishes, perhaps apologizing for the poor quality of the prose to follow and even the news timelines that begin each chapter, which are actually well thought out and perhaps the book's most redeeming feature.

I must admit, though, that even the flaws of The Truth Machine only add to its charm, and while it's bizarre to read about "future" events happening in a mythical parallel 2009, Halperin's visions are, again, quite interesting. He hits his main points pretty hard, and while I certainly disagree with him on many of them he does occasionally present the merit of the detracting sides and has clearly thought out his positions on the issues. He praises rationalism throughout without insulting religion (just the institutions, not the beliefs themselves), a nice change of tone from the current atmosphere and includes some debates pertinent to the book's main issues. And though the book's characters are unrealistic and two-dimensional, I found that they were still compelling in their own way as they shaped this potential future. It's shocking, too, to see the kinds of things Halperin got right and sobering to realize that certain timelines once seemed viable (no, we did not get an AIDS cure last year). This book is kind of a literary train wreck in its writing, but at the same time it is hard to look away entirely or even to dismiss Halperin's happy jaunt into the realm of speculative fiction. The Truth Machine is rudimentary in many ways but it tackles interesting moral dilemmas, however condescendingly, and is actually enjoyable purely as entertainment and brain fodder.

Grade: C

March 19, 2009

Book 12: Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle
Kurt Vonnegut

And now for something completely different, yet again; I sure am running the gamut with the books I'm reading this year. I've only read one book by Vonnegut before (Slaughterhouse-Five) and it was quite a while ago. Also, I'm usually not one for absurdist books and am almost totally unfamiliar with the genre, but I didn't get very far into Cat's Cradle before I could appreciate its incessant satiric jabs, presented perfectly in a light tone but possessing quite the punch. Without very many solid characters or easily understood chronology, at least initially, it is a bit difficult to get into the book unless you sit back and allow it to absorb you completely; once it grabs a hold of you, however, it doesn't let up for a second. Most piercing, and central, is the book's hilarious answer to religion, found in the pack of lies known as Bokononism. Bokononism attracts its followers by immediately asserting itself as a false religion, but one that can improve the lives of its followers. It's actually a very subtle and nuanced philosophy that pokes fun at faith while retaining its best elements. Particularly uproarious is its send-up of people who wish to see connections in the most mundane and meaningless of coincidences: though Bokononism holds that humanity is organized into teams performing God's will, granfalloons are teams people invent for themselves and which hold no meaning (nationality, fans of a particular sports team, people named Dave, etc.), similar to the cat's cradle string game which, in fact, has no cat and no cradle. Imagine my delight when the central granfalloon turned out to be Hoosiers.

Bokononism and the way Vonnegut gradually and matter-of-factly presents its central tenets and history provide a wonderful and assertive, yet gentle, attack on many fallacies of modern self-centric philosophy, but its use in the novel as an opiate of the masses is right on target as well. Bokononism is outlawed on the main setting of San Lorenzo, but only to distract the masses with a common enemy in its prophet and a hero in its prophet-hunting dictator; everyone on the island is, of course, a devoted Bokononist. Aside from satirizing human associations and interactions, Vonnegut directly tackles the arms race and the end of the world, linking the two through the narrator's projected book on Hiroshima and the sudden omnipresence of ice-nine, a potentially apocalyptic new way for water to arrange its molecules. Here also Vonnegut is sharp but keeps his observations coated in a candy-sweet covering of humor. Many satires can be read entirely on the surface as good works of literature, but Cat's Cradle is inseparable from its social context on all levels, and though Vonnegut's jabs are obvious and finely pointed, they are spot-on and as entertaining as they are revealing. It's hard to say exactly what it is that makes Cat's Cradle so enjoyable, particularly when its plot is often difficult to follow, but its humor and its lighthearted view of the apocalypse and the cheerful abandon of reason by modern humans make it both searing and satisfying, a wonderful quick jaunt through absurdism that turns out, in the end, to be far too real.

Grade: A

March 16, 2009

Book 11: Dream House

Dream House
Valerie Laken

Due to its vivid Ann Arbor setting and the fact that it was blurbed by a former professor of mine, it is incredibly difficult for me to give this book an entirely fair shake, so I'll attempt to get my most biased comments in during this first paragraph. It's extremely odd to read a book set in a city I have come to know so well, often with areas and landmarks that I see almost every day, and while most details were drawn directly from life (including street names), the street that holds the book's pivotal setting doesn't actually exist. This, coupled with a tendency to thinly veil certain locations (LeMar's instead of Meijer when Wal-Mart is mentioned just half a page later, and groan-inducing pun Frontier High as a stand-in for Pioneer), made the reading process go a bit less smoothly for me. When I realized that Laken had renamed the high school a mile away from me, I had to set the book down and actually laugh at the audacity of the new name. Additionally, it's especially painful to read blistering social commentary aimed directly at your neighbors and yourself. Perhaps this speaks to my own priveliged position, but it seems like it's laid on thick at times, and when it comes to Ypsilanti and Eastern, Laken can be quite scathing (but perhaps, after all, she's right). It's impossible not to be biased when a town you know intimately and love is so vividly portrayed, but Laken does a good job using Ann Arbor to examine racial and socioeconomic residential patterns of the past two decades; I'm not sure that readers unfamiliar with the area will get the full picture as well, but for those in the know Laken paints a fairly accurate portrait.

That said, this book is rather ambitious for its relatively small size, and its high aspirations often overshadow its actual accomplishments. Laken is torn between writing a novel about a priveliged white couple whose marriage is falling apart and a scathing portrait of residential inequality personified by the struggles of a disadvantaged black man to maintain the American Dream his father began to build. The book is all about building and centers around a house and a grisly crime committed therein; though all of its characters belong in a web of connections centering on this hub, their interactions often feel forced and unrealistic. Additionally, the first portion of the book (after its prologue) revolves entirely on two characters, only to branch out awkwardly later. Point-of-view shifts are often jarring and confusing, particularly after one character's story continues long after he has seemingly severed his connections to the house. The book does its job as an in-depth character study of two, maybe three people, but their stories could have been juggled with a better view toward the whole. This effect is achieved a few times near the end of the book where the point of view shifts as with a camera angle in a scene, but the beginning of the book feels disjointed both in its distinct parts and the second half that follows.

That said, however, Dream House is an interesting character portrait that quite adeptly tackles the American ideal of home ownership, especially timely since the economy has tanked and foreclosures are on a meteoric rise. Its characters and setting are vivid and believable, even if their situations often are not (though if Pioneer teachers really break in and throw a party, I am totally changing my career path). The book's conclusion is fitting in retrospect but still feels forced as it plays out in real time (and animal lovers beware, I'm still pissed that she kills the dog). Dream House is filled with not-so-subtle social commentary that occasionally veers into Obvious Hammer territory but which is often insightful and thought-provoking. Laken takes a considerable risk making none of her characters entirely likeable, but that risk pays off as they become even more intriguing and real because of their far-too-human flaws. Despite its occasional missteps and larger plotting awkwardness, Dream House is a page-turner that I devoured in about three sittings. It is, at times, extremely gripping and provides a great portrait of disaffected but not-too-cynical suburban malaise without succumbing entirely to cliche. Its writing is fresh and crisp and happily readable despite its litfic overtures. Dream House is an unforgiving and refreshingly new view of the American Dream and some of its less-noted ramifications through recent decade.

Grade: B+

March 10, 2009

Book 10: Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century

Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century
Edited by Orson Scott Card

What an amazing collection of science fiction! As a relative newcomer to the genre, I cannot speak for this collection as definitive or even representative of the "best" science fiction (which always must be relative, anyway). What I can say is that every story brought something entirely new and fresh to the table and that each probes a different facet of the general science fiction label to high success. This collection highlights excellent writing and heart-wrenching and/or thought-provoking characters and themes that rival the very best in "mainstream" fiction. Very few stories were disappointing at all, and only one stood out to my mind as nearly incomprehensible. While it is true that I did not enjoy every story equally in this collection, I was incredibly pleased by the variety and quality of the stories herein, thoughtfully grouped by era and chronological appearance and tracing the general arc of science fiction through the late 20th century. I had already read several of these stories, and I found that although Ray Bradbury's "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed" didn't work as well outside of the framing context of The Martian Chronicles, Isaac Asimov's "Robot Dreams" is an excellent and well-built exploration of what makes humanity...human. Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" is stunning on re-read, despite its known ending, and it fully retains the awe it awakens in first time readers.

I was especially pleased by the stories that put a new spin on now-familiar scenarios. "The Tunnel under the World" by Frederik Pohl reminded me a bit of a Simpsons episode but combines social satire with a baffling scenario to keep readers engaged and, in doing so, creating an excellently constructed story that reveals its surprises only gradually, though it gets a bit expository at the end. Though both "Tunesmith" by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. and "A Work of Art" by James Blish look at the importance of music, and art in general, on society, each approached this theme in an extraordinary new way, forming together an interesting pair ruminating on the impact of creation in a more rigidly controlled culture. "All You Zombies--" by Robert Heinlein is absolutely hilarious despite its now-familiar punchline and creates a truly convoluted storyline that is fun to attempt to unravel. On the more serious side, Brian W. Aldiss and "Call Me Joe" both put forth almost-great attempts to further refine the definition of humanity, and in an entirely different way both from each other and from other works of fiction. "Sandkings" by George R.R. Martin and "Dogfight" by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick are almost incidentally science fiction as they explore the deeply important and universal themes of karma and isolation, respectively, and again are distinct from any other stories that touch upon those general themes.

My favorite stories in the collection are spread out across the eras defined by editor Orson Scott Card, but each leaped out quickly as relevant, original, and deeply moving. "Passengers" by Robert Silverberg is absolutely pitch-perfect, with a science fiction element that is so innovative I'd love to see it employed elsewhere or here at greater length but which belongs firmly in this story and, perhaps, this story alone. "The Road Not Taken" is a not-so-subtle jab at human militarism that is playful throughout but which takes a sharp turn in its final sentence, pivoting entirely and perfectly on a chosen moment to reveal issues not immediately apparent on a first reading. The story may be a bit on the didactic side, but its lesson is timely and is made in an incredibly original and friendly way. "A Clean Escape" is a psychological drama that can reach no true solution and which benefits greatly from the confusion at its ending. It is the perfect length to allow the reader to understand what is going on and its ending makes its point perfectly.

My favorite story in this book filled with gems, however, is "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven, which takes an apocalyptic scenario and explores human psychology within the framework of an incredibly moving love story. The story is perfectly narrated and captures the emotions that can both overtake and arise from stone-cold logic, as well as constructing a believable and immediate narrative world that envelops the reader entirely from start to finish; its ending is both unforeseeable and retroactively obvious. It, and so many stories in this collection, are wonderful testaments to the power of unlimited imagination and the power of literature to transcend genre and open readers' eyes to new ways of thinking and to stories that are buried deep within us. This collection embodies all that I love about literature, and in an oft-maligned genre nonetheless. This may not be a beginner's guide to science fiction, but it will delight fans of genre fiction and has the power to soften a few hearts to the skill and power with which science fiction can operate.

Grade: A

March 1, 2009

Book 9: Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the End
Joshua Ferris

I finally get around to reading my first straightforward novel in a while, and it happens to be one that's narrated in the first person plural ("we"). I suppose this just goes to show that each book is new, exciting, and different from the rest, which is reflected perfectly in this refreshing, lighthearted book about the day-to-day drudgery of office life. Despite some plotting missteps and my blissful ignorance about the subject matter, Joshua Ferris appears to have hit the nail squarely on the head in this chronoicle of not-quite-white-collar office humor. His most daring choice, the use of the first person plural for the main narrative voice, is entirely and completely appropriate and fits the story perfectly, setting its tone as a kind of collective manifesto. Ferris balances sweeping pronouncements with character-centered stories, and though the book's first section makes readers a bit weary, the rest of the book is easy to follow and reconstructs stories in an omniscient first person plural that allows for sentence variation and readability. A mid-section told in third person present tense feels a bit out of place but provides a nice break from the main story and is connected to the bigger picture by novel's end.

What is most striking about Ferris's choice of narrator(s) is how well and how seamlessly he moves from generalizations to specific stories- a group gathers at a water cooler and is regaled by a tale that itself comes into sharp third-person focus. One by one, the members of the office group are singled out and characterized while maintaining a collective persona that makes them, and their environment, what it is. This effect, however, does take some time to flourish, and the beginning of the book feels muddled and fails to immediately establish characters or a general timeline. Events are related only to have the story revert for much of the book; though the anecdotes that make up the core of the book need not happen sequentially, there is too much hopping around in the beginning and it takes some time for the reader to become comfortable with the environment. This is a shame, because Ferris has clearly put a lot of thought and careful construction into his characters, all of whom embody some cliches but defy complete stereotyping. By not shying away from cliche but not succumbing entirely to it, Ferris creates a realistic office environment; we know people like these people, personalities just shy of boring but with a splash of unique flavor that makes them memorable. What's remarkable is that these characters are so fleshed out and so realistic when they are all supporting characters in a non-serial ensemble piece, and despite this loose feel the storyline becomes more coherent as the book goes on and the sitcom begins to settle down into a thought-provoking drama.

Ferris's ability to mix the stereotypical and the unique in his characters reflects the somewhat dual nature of Then We Came to the End. Blurbs compare it to Catch-22, and rightly so as it has its moments of perfectly tuned cynicism. It is, however, also a moving testament to our innate need to socialize and form rules of engagement with the casts of our everyday lives. By the end of the book, the characters are in vastly different places and the reader is emotionally connected to them despite the sometimes childish nature of their pranks and idle chatter. The characters that populate this unnamed Chicago advertising agency are the same that populate offices and other institutions across the country and perhaps the world. Then We Came to the End reflects a very specific brand of white-collar upper-class culture but also has a vibrant undercurrent that asks readers to reconsider their own daily interactions. The book is hilarious but carries with it moments of deep sentiment that do not overwhelm its lighthearted tone but which do give the thoughtful reader a moment's pause. Then We Came to the End is much more than it first appears to be and cuts much deeper than an amateur office farce, but the joy of reading it is that Ferris allows these themes to build naturally and does not force them down readers' throats. We come to the end, and, like Ferris's separated former co-workers, we see simply what has been there all along.

Grade: A-