April 29, 2014

Book 3: Into the Silence

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest
Wade Davis

The story of George Mallory, would-be and possible first (known) conqueror of the world's tallest mountain, is perhaps easily forgotten in the age of Mount Everest's ever-increasing commercialization. In the wake of recent tragedies, however, it seems wise and timely to remember that ascending the mountain has always been an exceptionally difficult task. In Into the Silence, Wade Davis provides detailed descriptions of the first three British expeditions to this particular region of the Himalaya and attempts to place those attempts into the context of the interwar period. He succeeds quite admirably on the first account but, sadly, falls a bit short of the second.

The author's attempts to recall the war do offer informative insights into the psyches of the men who took part in the reconnaissance and climbing efforts of 1921, 1922, and 1924, but they tend to stand apart, interspersed with the main story yet simultaneously outside of it. These capsule biographies- which often focus on the war- appear throughout the volume, usually accompanying an early mention of a major figure, but seem to taper off toward the end of the volume, even as new (pivotal) characters make their initial appearances. They also have the annoying propensity to blend together, making it easy to forget who was who and driving the reader to lump all of the biographies together as something akin to "terrible experiences at the front." Davis has an uncanny ability to evoke the sights and sounds of the Western Front, as well as the attitudes that led to widespread British support of the war effort and the appallingly outdated tactics that effectively doomed a generation, but he never effectively links the war to the Everest expeditions. Sure, he states outright several times that there was a connection, and indeed it is evident in some of the personalities he describes, but he never actually ties them together. As a reader, I don't mind doing some of the legwork myself, but when the thesis is essentially the title of the book- and mentioned repeatedly throughout, no less- I expect a bit more active effort on behalf of the author.

Davis, does, however, create a compelling narrative, one obviously based on extensive historical research with the best of all possible primary resources, the explorers' letters and diaries. It is obvious that he tries to draw conclusions only when they are supported by available evidence, and he is usually upfront when making conjectures. That he does this in unobtrusive fashion is a credit to him and a great relief to readers. Despite creating biographies that all-too-often run together, he is able to bring these men to life, a feat made all the more remarkable by a lack of dialogue. The story itself is powerful simply because of its nature as one of Britain's final grand imperial gestures (which readers will recognize despite the author's seeming reluctance to actually connect the dots), but Davis presents it as an ongoing adventure into the unknown as the British walked, as one explorer put it, "off the map." The monasteries and people of Tibet come alive and, though readers will need to repeatedly consult the book's helpful maps to keep the geography straight, the mountain looms over all. Remarkably, Davis also manages to keep an aura of mystery and suspense in his telling of the story, though the ultimate outcome has long since been determined.

The writing itself is, at its best, remarkably vivid, respectful, and emotional, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention its primary flaw. Davis relies so heavily on the phrase even as that I began noticing every occurrence- and believe me, there are a lot of them- only a few pages into the book. Worse, he doesn't seem to be aware what the phrase actually means and implies, using it constantly as a substitute for the simple, yet accurate, as. That phrase does not mean what he thinks it means, and it often makes the text burdensome.

Grammatical gripe aside, however, the book is quite compelling from start to end. Davis's decision to include a sketched history of British interaction with Everest from the Survey of India's first sightings to the treatment of Mallory's corpse in 1999, as well as additional context about the history of Tibet and relevant figures and legends of Tibetan Buddhism, does place the early-20s expeditions in context, though some of that context does suffer from heavy implication and light actual treatment. Overall, Into the Silence is an excellent and engaging history of the Mallory expeditions.

Grade: A-

April 17, 2014

Book 2: The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain
Michael Crichton

I came into The Andromeda Strain expecting a fast-past plague thriller, as advertised by numerous blurbs on and within the book. Finding instead a science-based explorative story at a much more measured pace, I'm unsure to what degree my expectations influenced my disappointment. The plot initially shows much promise with the opening, featuring a mysterious plague, secret government projects, and a crack team of scientists poised to isolate and fix the threat, but any sense of impending doom is quickly whisked away as the scientists (and the readers with them) become isolated in an underground research facility. Crichton drops several hints that indicate that the book is supposed to be a fast-paced thriller, but his constant Obvious Hammer remarks that Something Is Amiss are annoying, misleading, and often dreadfully misplaced, inserting an overbearing narrator where the story and characters should be driving the action. Rather than ratcheting up any dramatic tension or exploring the relationship of the scientists to the world above that depends on them (a fact that Crichton constantly struggles to make clear), these not-at-all-clever asides frequently serve as reminders that events at the surface are actively ignored in favor of long-winded scientific explanations and too many tantalizing hints dropped and then immediately forgotten. The characters themselves are described in broad brushstrokes during their introductions and fail to develop any particularly distinguishing characteristics throughout the course of the novel; they're simply there, and though some actual characterization certainly wouldn't hurt the book, they are just sufficient enough to serve the narrative rather than becoming two-dimensional distractions.

There are aspects of the book that are well-done and even exciting; I was as eager as anyone to discover what the Andromeda Strain was, how it worked on Earthlings' anatomy, and how any and every delay would spell certain doom for the world. Yet after an entire novel full of efforts to explain just how foreign, how deadly, and how important the Andromeda Strain is, the book goes out with an utterly embarrassing whimper. Sure, I may have been expecting a full-blown plague novel (and that expectation surely contributed significantly to my feelings toward the book), but Crichton himself sets the scene for apocalyptic peril numerous times, only to end the book in the name of capital-s Science. The twist is clever and could work well in another context, but after repeated ominous warnings throughout the narrative, itself framed as a report issued after the fact, the reader feels cheated, not outwitted. The Andromeda Strain does not frame itself as a novel to playfully engage and mislead readers' expectations, and its meta-ironic, anticlimactic ending, while not misplaced given the book's celebration of the science that makes the ending possible, caps a disappointing experience.

Ultimately, The Andromeda Strain feels one-note and a bit plodding. Crichton does, however, deserve credit for some of the book's more pleasant aspects. While the overt narrative involvement often interferes with the plot and, indeed, the very tension it is no doubt intended to build, the framing device is effective. The blurbs may lie to the modern reader, but the book itself is what it is- a book about the powers of science- and rather unapologetically so. Crichton has written a very believable narrative shell and it is remarkable that, despite advances in computing that make the disease the book's primary science fiction element seem outdated (and render its punchcode references obsolete), there remain a few elements that keep this book firmly in the speculative domain. The biology-based inquiries hold up after time, and the book is just as plausible today as it must have been when it was first published. The Andromeda Strain contains a lot of frustrating asides and missteps, to be sure, and ignores or otherwise brushes aside the expectations that it and its reviewers establish, but it is nonetheless an intriguing look at the scientific method and the truly terrifying ability of unseen molecules to wreak havoc, if only we could have seen them doing so.

Grade: B

April 15, 2014

Book 1: Year's Best SF 18

Year's Best SF 18
Edited by David G. Hartwell

After an extended hiatus, I eased back into reading over the first four months of the year, and I found Year's Best SF 18 to be an excellent way to get back into reading with its strong group of (mostly) compelling stories. Editor David G. Hartwell has clearly made an attempt to reflect many of the genre's nuances by including stories of varying subgenres, styles, and length. Not all of the stories are particularly memorable (and some, of course, left me quite a bit flabbergasted for one reason or another), but the highs are very high indeed. Some of the highlights are the stories that effortlessly transport readers into their realms and explore those settings through the plot; these include Eleanor Arnason's delightful pastiche "Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery" and Naomi Kritzer's "Liberty's Daughter." Though the latter story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (as it is part of a larger narrative), I was so drawn to the setting that I didn't even mind the ending; I can't wait to get my hands on the whole thing (if it comes into being). Every anthology has its duds and its stories that could be good for other readers- just not for me- but I was pleased with the overall quality of fiction here. In other contexts, I might skip the very military (but surprisingly intellectual) "The Battle of Candle Arc" by Yoon Ha Lee; instead, I read it and loved it. The story is set in a universe that is a little difficult to fully digest within the context of a single short story, but it has compelling characters and an ending that perfectly encapsulates a previously unnoticed theme running throughout the whole story. I believe, upon reflection, that it is "Weep for Day" (by Indraprimit Das) that has had the most lasting effect on me. Beautiful, elegiac, and allegorical, it is a deeply human story that serves as a fine example of the ways in which the fantastic settings, characters, and scenarios of science fiction can provide us with valuable and unexpected mirrors with which to view ourselves. Sure, there are plenty of aliens here, but Year's Best SF 18 demonstrates the vast scope of modern science fiction and offers enough variety that everyone should find at least a story or two that speaks to them.

Grade: A-