Saturday, December 13, 2014

High and Dry

by Frank Herbert
p. 1965

Dune is an iconic piece of science fiction, one of the best-selling in the genre, and the first in an epic series by Frank Herbert, but it’s a series I hadn’t gotten around to until just now. It’s also not a story that can be fully related in few words, but I will try in a few sentences.

Set in the far distant future, it is a coming-of-age story about young Paul Atreides, the son of a Duke, Leto Atreides, and Leto’s powerful mistress, Lady Jessica, who is part of a religion that is somewhat akin to witchcraft. In any case, Jessica’s people—the Bene Gesserit—are sometimes feared, sometimes reviled, sometimes respected, and Paul himself has been trained in their ways, even though the Bene Gesserit are solely women.

Paul’s family has recently arrived on Arrakis, a desert planet from which their people mine a spice called melange, which is very valuable. They face plenty of danger from giant carnivorous sandworms, the fierce climate and the wary native population, but the biggest threat comes from the House Harkonnen, their political rivals who are making a play to snatch control of Arrakis from the Atreides. We meet up with Paul at the beginning of this coup and follow him through to its conclusion, enduring a large time jump in the middle as Paul grows into a man and finds his destiny on the strange desert planet.

Straight off the bat, I have to give Frank Herbert credit for his skill at worldbuilding. Even by today’s standards, Dune presents a remarkably realized fictional world; that it is also one of the earliest examples in science fiction/fantasy just makes the detail Herbert put into his world all the more impressive. I personally have a low skill and little patience for the art of worldbuilding, which is why most of the things I tend to write either take place in the real world or in an urban setting very similar to our own, but even if I have no interest in creating a world myself, I have mountains of respect for those that do. It takes a lot of patience and skill to create a realistic universe in which to set your tale.

Unfortunately, I think that this sometimes comes at the expense of characterization. There were very few in Dune that I found intriguing or relatable. I know this is supposed to be a coming-of-age tale with Paul at the center, but Paul is very hard to relate to because he is mind-numbingly perfect. Paul Atreides is all things; he goes by so many titles or personas in Dune that it is almost dizzying to keep track of them all. He’s Paul Atreides, he’s Maud’Dib, he’s Usul, he’s the Lisan al-Gaib, he’s the Mahdi, he’s the Kwisatz Haderach—the names never end and Paul embodies all of them. From the start of the uprising that thrusts Paul into his destiny, he goes through a sort of metamorphosis that strips him of his childhood innocence. This is a necessary transformation for Paul to become the leader he was meant to be... but it also makes him dull as a doorknob. Possessing approximate knowledge of all things past and present strips Paul of doubt and weakness and makes him an all-powerful Gary-Sue. Even Paul’s mother finds the change unsettling, as she spends the entire book alternating between being proud and terrified of her son. Lady Jessica frets to such an extent that it gets old quickly. The later addition of a second creepy child does not help matters.

Any other characters I saw potential in were quickly disposed of the moment I started to find them interesting. Shadout Mapes? Dead. Duke Leto? Dead. Liet Kynes? Dead. Duncan Idaho? Dead—and this one hurt most of all. I’m happy to hear he was revived for subsequent novels, thanks to his instant appeal and popularity, but I’m not sure it’s enough to get me to continue. Some may interpret this ruthless disposal of characters as a storytelling device—a ploy to make you think you know what’s coming before it all gets flipped on its head—but I just found it disappointing after a while. What’s the use in allowing yourself to enjoy characters if you know they’re all going to be killed off before they reach their potential?

I also don’t think Herbert did a very good job at portraying minorities. Unique for the decade it was released, Dune actually has a homosexual character... only he is a fat, evil pedophile and the story’s lead antagonist. Of course. I haven’t got much else to say about this topic; it speaks for itself. I suppose it is telling that a story that goes out of its way to present a homosexual would make him so inherently vile.

It is Dune’s treatment of women that is more complicated. The story starts with some promise, portraying the Bene Gesserit as an extremely powerful and respected subset of women in society. All the women in Dune have their heads about them but unfortunately, no matter how clever they are, they still live in a cripplingly patriarchal society, and even the most powerful female characters are still propping up their men throughout the novel. Hell, the Bene Gesserit’s lifelong ambition is to find a male to induct into their religion and become a messiah for them all. I’ll give Dune credit for its time, but on the whole, the song remains the same.

I don’t see myself picking up any future Dune novels, as the fate of Arrakis is simply not compelling enough to plod through thousands of pages of Herbert’s thick and tedious fantasy-language. There’s only so much of Kwisatz Haderrachs and gom jabbars and landsraads and sardaukars that I can take. If I have to flip back and forth between a glossary and the text every other page just to understand what I’m reading, then the endeavor, on the whole, really starts to lose its appeal.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Baby, Can You Dig [a Grave for] Your Man?

The Stand
by Stephen King
p. 1978/1990

Stephen King’s extended re-release of The Stand from 1990 (twelve years after its initial publication) was a book recommended and lent to me by my uncle and achieved two distinct landmarks for me: my first book by Stephen King and the longest single book I’ve ever read. My uncle knew it would resonate with me, as it is an epic post-apocalyptic novel—and probably the most famous one ever written.

As far as my former landmark is concerned, I have no excuse for never picking up a Stephen King novel before now. As an avid reader at 28 years of age, and one who has seen countless film adaptations of King’s work, you’d really think it would have come up before now. I even have several copies of his novels lingering in my book collection that I’ve never delved into—probably due to their length, if I’m being honest. It seems strange then, that I would start with King’s longest novel, but some times we all just need a little prodding. To say that I can see now why Stephen King is heralded as one of the most prolific contemporary writers seems a little... ostentatious, so I’ll just add that I was surprised to find that not all of his work is straight up horror. King’s horror novels get far more attention so I had assumed, wrongly, that that was all he was about. The Stand was not without its horrific elements, sure, but it is first and foremost a post-apocalyptic exploration and a character-driven story. I can see why my uncle recommended it to me.

I won’t compare this re-release to the original form of the novel, because I haven’t read the shorter version, I didn’t read any notes closely examining the two, and it would be pedantic to make such a thorough comparison. I will say that there were plenty of times in the first half of the novel where I often wondered if the chapter I was reading was an add-on, because some of the set-up of the wide array of characters could be considered extraneous, but I tried not to read too much into it, because I enjoyed the backstory on all the characters too much. Knowing all that I did about the protagonists made their choices and their struggles mean so much more later on.

Since the first third of The Stand keeps all the survivors apart, I’ll talk first about my impressions of various characters. As is expected with such a lengthy and complex story, my feelings often wavered back and forth for half of the main characters throughout the novel.

Stuart Redman – Stu is inarguably the ultimate hero of the novel, a quiet widower working at a gas station in Texas and thus the only main character around to witness the start of the global pandemic that kills over 99% of the population. I liked him well enough at the start, and at no point did I dislike Stu, but if I’m being completely honest, I grew a little bored of his brooding, alpha male, noble hero complex. I get the impression that Stu’s post-apocalyptic journey is about learning how to be a leader of men (and I guess finding love again?) so then I’m perplexed that he was not only left out of the final stand, but that he also took his leave of the society he helped to create at the end of the story. Sure, people had to move on eventually, but at least wait a couple years before you take off on your epic road trip. What if his unborn child needed a doctor? Are Stu and Fran just going to wing it? It all just seemed irrationally stubborn.

Fran Goldsmith – Here is the character I struggled with the most, and who can blame me, since she’s the only female protagonist worth expanding on? Susan Stern was composed and admirable but died pointlessly and Dayna Jurgens was pretty awesome but also died without accomplishing anything substantial. And Mother Abigail? Well, who can hate the 108-year-old feisty woman who is the manifestation of God’s love? But precisely for that reason, there’s not much to make you think in regards to Mother Abigail, so that leaves us with Fran. I wanted to like Fran, I really did. I liked her stubborn sense of humor, I sympathized with her when we saw how withering her mother was, and I admired her tenacity in burying her beloved father and carrying on in spite of all that was stacked against her... but ultimately I can’t stand her. Fran is totally useless. She takes no direct actions that are of import to anybody and yet ‘somehow’ she makes it on the Free Zone Committee (being the leader’s girlfriend helped, I’m sure). Fran starts out the story pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby and rejects his offer to support her any way she chooses (be that marriage or abortion or anything else), and she’s pretty callous about it, if you ask me. I get that she’s over him, but you don’t just dismiss the father of your child when he says he wants to help because you’re bummed you got knocked up by a cuckold. She makes it worse when she doesn’t even stop to wonder if the father survived (not even once) and immediately finds a new alpha male to take care of her. Now, don’t get me wrong, the plight of a pregnant girl in a post-apocalyptic world is a complex one, and I don’t necessarily begrudge her a smart move like that (i.e. seeking a protector for her unborn child), but the union of Stu and Fran played out more like an epic love story than a complex study of power dynamics, so it doesn’t make her look any more interesting. Fran might have saved face in my book if she had gone on to be useful, but she doesn’t. The only thing she contributes to the Committee is to record their meetings and to be needlessly judgmental while failing to offer alternative solutions. On the journey to Boulder, she keeps a journal that quickly falls apart and is later actually detrimental to the Free Zone. So, thanks for that Fran. Perhaps the birth of her child (the first living baby in the Free Zone) might have meant something, but all that would have happened with or without Fran. At one point it is stated that she represented the Committee’s conscience, but all I saw was a self-righteous (and at times just downright selfish) girl who has no problem moralizing at and guilt-tripping those she hides behind. If at any point this had been addressed, I would have cheered out loud, but everyone seems perfectly content to let Frannie Sue play the part she picked out, and it is so irritating.

Nick Andros – The deaf-mute drifter who wanders into his purpose was by far my favorite character in The Stand. Ironically, despite being the only protagonist with nothing to lose at novel’s start, Nick probably suffered the most in the period between the superflu and the formation of the Free Zone. His struggle to survive in a world of silence that is full of danger was compelling and I found myself more and more invested in his character growth simply because he is such an unlikely leader, yet that is exactly the role he falls into. Two of my favorite character archetypes are the nice guy and the hard luck character and Nick’s combination of compassion, intelligence, and vision had him falling into those roles nicely... so of course King full on wasted him in a tremendous explosion two thirds of the way into the novel. I’ve thought about this a lot since I finished the book a month ago, and I believe it would have been much more interesting if Nick had survived to the end of the book instead of Stu. I know, I’m totally biased, but I just found Nick Andros to be the more original character while Stu was rather bland and cliché. Seeing the drifter who never fit in anywhere take up the helm and become a leader of men would have been a perfect evolution of the character. Sure, he couldn’t hear or speak, but if apocalyptic fiction has taught us anything, it’s that survivors banding together, helping one another, and creating a community in which everyone has a voice is the only way for society to truly endure. Nick’s life provided that metaphor; his death felt like a cheap ploy to kickstart the reader’s emotional investment. (As I understand it, King was suffering from writer’s block at this point and invented the lethal explosion subplot to get out of it. Killing Nick was, I suppose a ‘kill your darlings’ move by King, but I think I will always resent it, even if I understand it.)

Larry Underwood – Larry was a character I didn’t much care for throughout most of the novel. My disdain for him evened out over time, but I have to admit I never did see the point of him. Thanks to the ‘divine intervention’ that seemingly doomed Stu (but actually spared him), Larry was supposedly forced into a leadership position. This seemed a natural evolution to the course of his character development—to go from a selfish burnout with no prospects to someone worth following, but I don’t think he quite made it there, and even when he did assume leadership, he didn’t do a whole lot of leading. I kept waiting for the moment when he reached out to Randall Flagg’s followers and gave a speech that changed their minds, turned them to the good side. He almost lifts right out and the outcome would still have been the same.

Harold Lauder – Harold is the character that probably goes through the most change. When the superflu hits, he is a lonely, fat, sixteen-year-old self-proclaimed intellectual and the little brother of Frannie’s best friend. He harbors a mighty crush on Frannie that ultimately turns deadly when she unwittingly (inevitably) spurns him. The way Harold assumed Frannie (as the only girl left in town) would be ‘his’ and the dark and petulant turn he took when he didn’t get his way made me think he would fit right in on Reddit if only he were born 20+ years later, grumbling about how the ‘nice guys’ never get noticed with all the other neckbeards. The ease with which I could picture Harold as a real person, and the extent of his possessiveness almost made him a more unsettling character than Randall Flagg himself, simply because he felt so familiar and his deadly actions had a more personal result than many of the things done by Flagg’s own hand. I’ll admit though, that for one brief moment there, when Harold started to fit into the Free Zone in spite of (or rather because of his superb act) I actually got hopeful that he might change into a better man, but my hopes were brilliantly dashed. It’s really unfortunate because Harold could have been an even more powerful character if he had only turned against the Dark Man and stood for something good, but I suppose this is where King’s adherence to the genre comes in. The story of a boy twisted into something heinous and dark by evil fits in much better to a horror story. All that being said, I was surprised to reach the end of The Stand and realize that Harold was actually one of my top characters, not because I admired or cheered for him (I actively despised him for much of the book), but because he was one of the most interesting characters with the most potential.

One of the most remarkable things about The Stand made possible by its immense length is that each of its three books feels like a completely different story. The first is character-driven and reactionary and feels the most post-apocalyptic because it takes place in the immediate aftermath. There is a lot of world-building and character development, and a lot of tension too because there are so many different characters in various places and so much ground to cover, so you may go almost a hundred pages before you hear from someone again. There is also an element of uncertainty to the whole affair, because you don’t know what kind of a story it is going to be yet. Characters are introduced and developed and shockingly discarded. I mourned the most for the hard-nosed Shoyo sheriff that Nick befriended because I imagined hundreds of pages of their friendship developing before realizing it wasn’t that kind of apocalypse and the sheriff was bound for the grave. The first book is also the most ‘horrific’ of the three, with its nightmarish descriptions of Captain Trips’ effects on people. It’s all so terribly vivid that you almost start to feel paranoid in real life; I know that every time I had a tickle in my throat or a stuffy nose while reading this book, I got a little flutter in the pit of my stomach, a mere flash of ‘what if...?’ in my head.

The second book is where everyone comes together and tries to rebuild society. I thought this part was the meat and bones of the story. I enjoyed watching people develop into their post-plague roles and redefine themselves. This is the other side of post-apocalypse fiction; once you’ve survived, what then? Where do you go from here? How do you decide who is in charge? I liked watching the Free Zone rebuild itself and I could have read an entire novel entirely focused on the challenges faced in a post-apocalyptic society, as explored from all angles and a variety of persons. Come to think of it, I really haven’t encountered a novel like that so far. During Cold War times, post-apocalypse books tended to be pessimistic and focus on small groups of people. In the more contemporary Directive 51, we saw things only from the government’s point of view. There is always a focus on the science side of things and less on the politics and community, as in The Stand.

But there is a third part to The Stand that builds in the background the entire time our survivors are learning how to survive, and that is the titular ‘Stand’ itself. The final part of the novel abandons the Free Zone setting and takes the fight to Las Vegas, where Randall Flagg is building his own army. Everything had been leading to this, so I’m certainly not saying that it came out of nowhere, yet I feel like the final part could have been left off and it still would have been an amazing book. It wouldn’t be the good-vs-evil story King intended to write, sure, but that just goes to show how wide of an array of emotions this book sends you through. 

As I understand it, there is soon to be a new film adaptation of The Stand, and I’m thrilled, especially since I’ve heard that Matthew McConaughey has expressed interest in playing Randall Flagg. Anybody would have balked at this casting suggestion even five years ago, but McConaughey has shown real promise lately, and I think he’d nail this role. Unless they plan on leaving out a lot of characters, it would have to be a trilogy of films, because there is just too much content to cover in one sitting. And since it is set for the big screen, they would probably overdramatize a lot of things and ramp up the action, because Hollywood demands this in their trilogies. As I stated earlier, I would welcome certain drastic changes, but something tells me the stuff I’d like to see moved around would probably stay put, as King probably wouldn’t allow so much editing of the original material. Still, just the thought of a postmodern reimagining of The Stand makes me all atwitter with anticipation. Let’s hope this newest incarnation does it justice.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Don't Fear the Reaper

by Rob Thurman
p. 2009

Deathwish is book four of the Cal Leandros series by Rob Thurman, and it marks the furthest I got into the series before setting it aside until this summer. I had thought, initially, that I hadn’t started Deathwish at all, but I found, to my surprise, that I had. At least the first hundred pages. That makes sense, considering the cliffhanger Madhouse ends on, but I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out why I didn’t continue.

Deathwish stands out in three pretty unique ways:

The first, and my favorite way, is that it is split evenly between Cal-centric chapters and Niko-centric chapters. This is the first time Thurman has employed this technique and it constitutes a major change-up in the narrative. Finally, we get to hear what Niko’s inner voice sounds like, we get to see things through his perspective. This is something that readers have been wanting for a while now and it’s really nice to hear things from a slightly different perspective, but I have to admit that it was not as revelatory as one would think. As I’ve mentioned in my reviews of preceding books, Cal and Niko know each others motives so well, that we almost don’t need the split to understand what the other is thinking. Cal has already guessed what motivates Niko and will go on at length about it from every angle.

The narrative device may not accomplish anything substantial, but it’s still refreshing to get a change-up in the voice. While Niko still retains a sharp wit and a penchant for sarcasm he shares with his brother, his inner voice is definitely more refined over all. Now all I’m waiting for is a chapter employing Goodfellow’s inner voice. Now that should be interesting.

The second distinction is that Deathwish gives us our first hearty digression into Promise’s backstory. Having been around for a couple of centuries, Niko and Cal’s vamp cohort surely must have a lot of interesting history but until now, she has been mostly relegated to the sidelines. Now we finally get to meet some of Promise’s family, who are considerably less... ‘evolved’ than Promise herself. Understandably, the clash between Promise’s old and new definitions of family put quite a bit of strain on her relationship with Niko and the others. I know the events of Deathwish will continue to be referenced from here forward, and I hope to see more incidents from Promise’s storied past continue to make waves in the present. You don’t live as long and as mysteriously as Promise does and not have a few more secrets up your sleeve.

Certainly, Deathwish did much to improve my opinions on the complexity of Promise’s character. In Nightlife and the two books that followed, it was hard to think of her as more than simply an ideal girlfriend for Niko to be rewarded with; here, we learn she is much more inherently flawed than previously indicated.

The third thing that distinguishes Deathwish from the three that precede it is also the most important going forward, and that is the total destruction of the Auphe as a threat. I guess I was wrong when I predicted in Nightlife that they would be the chief antagonists for the entire series... sort of. While it’s true that Cal and Niko obliterated all the purebred Auphe that had been torturing them all their lives, it seems this is only the start of Cal’s acceptance of what he is. Deathwish manages to be even darker than the other books; Cal and Niko operate all over the ‘shades of gray’ spectrum, doing things that can be controversial for the hero of the story. And Cal seems to be embracing his Auphe-gifted abilities, including a dark, violent streak. I suspect this is actually the catalyst for Cal’s inner darkness to come out more, as he realizes he has more in common with his demon heritage than anyone would like to admit.

I have to say, I’m a little over all the excessive angst, but what would this series be without it? In any case, I’m impressed that Thurman ‘went there’ so early in the series. It takes guts to destroy a recurring supervillain like the Auphe, and I’m excited to enter ‘Phase Two’ of Cal and Niko’s lives and see what new antagonists emerge to challenge the brothers in new ways.

I’m taking a little break from Thurman to explore some other worlds this fall, but it won’t be as long of a break as it was last time. I have every intention of getting caught up with the series before the end of 2014. For now, Cal and Niko will just have to sit back and celebrate—as well as the Leandros brothers can allow themselves to celebrate anything—their victory over their enemy and the end of running.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

America's Appalachian Trail is Where it's AT!

A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson
p. 1998

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a stark break from the fictional fare I’d been indulging in lately, and the first creative nonfiction book I’ve read in a little while. It chronicles Bryson’s summer of 1996, in which he set out to hike America’s Appalachian Trail from start to finish in order to catalogue the experience in his next book.

I’ve got this image of Bryson in my mind: a guy who set out to do something intense and admirable, who wanted to believe that this experience would be transformative and revelatory. Maybe that’s not quite right, but you certainly don’t set out to do a task like hiking the Appalachian Trail in a single season without expecting it to be the challenge of a lifetime, that much is made clear to the reader. As it is in life, Bryson finds out that the actual experience is not quite what he expected.

A Walk in the Woods alternates between informational and narrative chapters, leaning rather heavily on the informational, because, let’s face it, walking on a path isn’t exactly riveting material, even if there’s an awful lot of it. Bryson does a lot of fear mongering, making the task seem exponentially more dangerous than the experience ended up being, but it’s understandable. He probably psyched himself out an awful lot before he hit the trail, and there were dangers, even if he avoided them himself.

For the majority of his expedition, Bryson is accompanied by his profoundly out of shape old friend, Stephen Katz, who provides a bit of comic relief to the journey, but to be honest, I found Katz’s protestations more cringe-worthy than funny some times. I’m sure Katz’s idea of what he was in for was even less complete than Bryson’s, and since this wasn’t a cinematic piece of fiction, neither man made any life-changing discoveries. The whole book kind of leaves you asking, ‘so what?’

So what, indeed. Not far into their trip, the pair discover to their dismay that they will not be hiking the entire trail and in all, they end up completing less than half of the 2200-mile journey. And yet, in spite of all the disappointments, I find myself reading A Walk in the Woods and fantasizing about hiking it myself, just like Bryson and Katz. I know, after reading Bryson’s story, that I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I’d like to think, and yet I still want to slap a pack on my back and grab my walking stick. There’s something to be said about the power of a real challenge. Knowing me, however, I’d probably be so disappointed that I couldn’t complete the trail that I wouldn’t want to do it at all to avoid the letdown.

Well, that and I don’t think I could physically haul that much around for several months without losing my mind. One thing is for sure, if you're doing it alone, you better like your solitude. And if you're hiking with a companion, you should be prepared to hate them by the time it's all over.

All said, A Walk in the Woods is a must-read for hikers, outdoorsmen, and aficionados of the AT, but it’s not the most interesting piece of travel fiction I’ve read, as it could get a little bland at times. Bryson tries to spice it up with historical anecdotes about the Trail, but ultimately, the book left me wanting more. Perhaps I will never fully understand the appeal until I set foot on the trail myself.