A Little Friday Fun: Christmas Eve Edition

December 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Trollquotes, aka the Geek Litmus test.

Each picture is mismatched three ways.  For instance:

The picture (Captain Hammer/Nathan Fillion aka Mal Reynolds from Firefly) doesn’t match the quote (said by Angel to his son Connor on Angel) which doesn’t match the attribution (Buffy from…well, you know).  I think I was able to correctly identify all three parts for about half the pictures and maybe one or two parts from about a quarter.  As I am not a gamer, the video game ones tripped me up the most.

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Reading Challenges

December 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Because I like methods to my madness, I’m not content to just say I’m going to read X number of books.  So here I am announcing that I’m joining this challenge:

Twelve speculative fiction books in 12 months is definitely doable.  Especially when the definition of “speculative” is broad enough to encompass a multitude of genres.

I stayed up almost all night…

December 21, 2010 Leave a comment

…to view something that has not been seen since 1638.

Solstice Lunar Eclipse

Last time this happened, the Thirteen Colonies were  being founded and settled, the Thirty Years War was still being fought, and the Principia, which laid the foundation for our understanding of classical mechanics, was still nearly 50 years away.

In other words.

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A Wind Named Amnesia: A Review

December 15, 2010 Leave a comment

A Wind Named Amnesia
Author: Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrator: Yoshitaka Amano
Translator: Joe & Yuko Swift
Dark Horse Books, 2005
Paperback, 230 pages

Nota Bene: A Wind Named Amnesia was originally written in 1983, but was published in 2005 as a double novel with Invader Summer. Originally, these books were published in Japan under the title Invader Street.  As I do not speak or read Japanese, I do not feel qualified to critique specific language use or turns of phrase; everything I am reading from Kikuchi’s original story is filtered through Joe and Yuko Swift’s interpretation.  This is the first in my series about speculative fiction and fantasy books from places other than the United States or UK.

A Wind Named Amnesia was an odd choice for me to pick up.  Normally, I’m not a huge fan of stories set in a post-apocalyptic world, though I make an exception for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Yet even this science-fiction classic written by one of the major names of the genre left me at best, lukewarm.  However, the particular apocalypse as described in Amnesia felt different–it wasn’t an all out war or an obvious alien invasion.  Something stole the memories of humankind, specifically their memories of civilization.  Therefore, our intrepid duo of Sophia* and Wataru not only had to survive their cross-country odyssey, but they also had to learn just why America (and the rest of the world) has reverted to a primitive state.

In a postscript to the book, Kikuchi wrote about how this story was inspired by his own trip to Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas, and how he was blown away by the vast American landscape.  That awe does come through.  As odd as it is to say considering this book is set after America is destroyed by loss of memories, but it really is a love letter to the United States.  The story goes from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to the ruins of Hollywood and Las Vegas to a mysterious national park in New Mexico built around a meteor impact and home to giant mutant animals, to a New Orleans that somehow has remembered its jazz roots, if not the dangers of the levees breaking.**  In between escaping giant robots and cannibalistic serial killers are moments where Wataru takes in the splendor of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, or the characters marvel at the scenery while speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway.

May 15: Las Vegas, Nevada is founded with auct...

Now with 1000% more primitive human tribes.

Yes, giant mutant animals in New Mexico.  In fact, the New Mexico interlude illustrates quite nicely the two aspects of this book I find most troublesome.  First is that the characters are less fully realized people and more vehicles for which Kikuchi uses to take us to the various bits of post-apocalyptic scenery.  Sophia knows more than Wataru for reasons that are explained later in the book, but Wataru due to some sort of experiments in Montana at least has the knowledge of human speech, using a gun, and driving a car (all thing that were forgotten with the amnesic wind).  Often he just stands there, hand on his gun waiting to be attacked while waiting for Sophia to explain the customs of the latest tribe of primitive humans that they come across in the desert.  Wataru loves to travel.  Sophia is curious and strangely powerful. But neither one really seems to have any sort of reaction to the chaos around them.  Perhaps you could argue that they have become numb in the ensuing three years, but that doesn’t feel quite right either, especially since the other humans they meet clearly have not lost the ability to have an inner life and emotions amidst the chaos.  When Wataru and Sophia meet Tonto and Rita, the latest group of people banding together trying to survive while trying to stay away from some sort of predator (the aforementioned giant mutant animals, among other things), there is no sense that this group’s plight affects them, even in a grizzled “only the strong survive” sense.   The characters are hollow not because life has hollowed them out, but because the author put nothing in them to begin with.  It makes it hard to really care about anyone’s fate.

The giant mutant animals are indicative of another problem: way too much of the good stuff is prologue.  Not only is this world three years into its amnesia, but apparently there are also space colonies, giant metal walkers that behave like malfunctioning Robocops, experiments reminiscent of Weapon X on Wataru and his dead friend Johnny, and genetically engineered giant animals. Now, I’m a huge fan of little details that give the setting texture and make the story feel like it’s set in a real place, even if the “real place” is in some imagined future of America.  However, there comes a point when all these details overwhelm the back story and instead of feeling situated, you become unmoored. For me, that happens when we learn that the park in New Mexico was created by a meteor that crashed into the Earth some years back, dropping the temperature 4 degrees centigrade and killing off the tropics.

What?

At that point, I started wondering why we started this story when we did.  A meteor drops the world’s temperature four degrees centigrade and kills off the tropics, but ever resourceful humans use their technology to turn the site of the impact into a national park.  A national park with genetically engineered giant bears and owls.  This same technological savvy allowed humans to create space colonies, turn other humans into X-men in the wilds of Montana, create Imperial walker type street patrollers that can vaporize “criminals,” and regular sized sedans that can drive 700 miles on one tank of gas.***  It feels like there were several far more interesting stories about far more interesting people that occurred before the book started.  Every stop along the way seemed like it could have been a story on its own.

Their expies survive in the future.

As it’s written, A Wind Named Amnesia feels like a video game.  The hero and some Black Magician Girl stop in several cities, meet some townsfolk who may be friendly or hostile.  Wataru fights some of the lower mooks off before they face the Boss (which could be anything from a giant tentacled monster to rogue construction equipment) before moving on to the next city/level.  The quest is to get the meaningfully named Sophia from San Francisco to New Orleans (which in part is a sewer level)**** to….well, if you read the book, you’ll know.  Not giving away that spoiler.

Because for all my complaining, the book is worth reading.  Kikuchi may use flat characters, but there is suspense in finding out why the world lost its memories and whether they can ever come back.  The individual scenes he sets are wonderfully detailed and really situate you in these imagined parts of America.  The ending, while not a truly satisfying resolution for the characters, somehow fits the video game aesthetic this book seems to portray.  This book builds a world with multitudes of history only hinted at.  Now we just need some enterprising fanfic writers to not only develop this history, but actually populate the world with characters in their own right.

* That the female lead is named after the Greek word for “knowledge” is no coincidence.

** To be fair, this story was first written in 1983, long before Hurricane Katrina.  However, it was bizarre to read about how the Superdome held 80,000 people and hosted Super Bowls, but have no mention of what that place became in the wake of the storm.

*** The need for gas varies as the plot demands.  Though it is odd that in this world, they still used cars with internal combustion engines before the Wind Named Amnesia struck.

**** Should the Sewer Level really be the one just before the fight with the final boss?

Why I Read

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

While this blog focuses primarily on genre fiction, my general reading tastes are much more eclectic. I have been known to indulge in the truths universally acknowledged in the works of Jane Austen. I have days where I love nothing more than to escape into the poetry of Lisel Mueller, Robert Frost or Richard Wilbur (among others). And I have long said that if I could ever learn to write even half as well as Ian McEwan (post The Child in Time), I would give up whatever day job I had and write novels for the rest of my life.

(Of course this isn’t to say that genre fiction can’t be great literary masterpieces.  The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell isn’t just a well written genre book–it deserves to be a classic. Not a genre classic, a CLASSIC with no hedging modifiers).

No modifiers whatsoever.

I also am not one of those who rends her garments and bemoans the children when I hear people don’t read novels as much anymore.  The unspoken assumption in those pieces is that “Reading is the brussel sprouts of culture–you do it because it’s good for you, even if you just end up spitting out a regurgitated gooey mess for a B+ level paper in a liberal arts literature class for it.”  I guarantee you that the vast majority people won’t do something merely because it’s “good for them.”  Furthermore, turning reading into brussel sprouts, designed to cure intellectual spasms, is the fastest way to kill the enjoyment of any book.*

Any sort of medium is capable of producing great art (it is TV that gives us Mad Men, it was film that gave us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and any sort of medium is capable of producing throwaway entertainment (many mass market paperbacks).  To single out reading as something special and magical that only the truly intelligent can appreciate both oversells its importance and undersells its potential.

In other words, I read because I like it.  When I pick up a book, I have decided there’s something about it that’s worth my time.  I can either enjoy the book on its own terms or perhaps ironically, the way people enjoy throwing spoons at theatre showings of The Room.  Sometimes I’m in the mood for a literary masterpiece, a book that will change the way I look at the life, the universe and everything.**  Other times I’m looking for a fast read that may not give new perspectives on life, but give me a few hours of enjoyment.*** And other times, I’ll have what TVTropes calls bile fascination–I’ll want to read a book simply because I can’t believe such a thing can exist and I want to see how off the wall it can go.****

In a future post I’ll go into more detail about what sorts of characters, themes, and plots make me stick with a book vs. ones that make me throw the book at the wall in disgust.  With all the books out there, one has to know her own tastes to get a better sense of what books are worth her time.  Sometimes you just know, while other times, experimenting is the way to go.  Just like with any other artistic medium.

* Of the books that I consider my favorites of all time, only one of them I initially encountered in a classroom setting: The Master and Margarita.  And even that one was in a college class where we spent two class days on it max.  Enough to make me want to re-read on my own time, but not so much that I was worn out by the epic quest to find symbolism.

** Examples of such books are Atonement (Ian McEwan), Til We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis), and the aforementioned Sparrow.

*** Charlaine Harris is particularly good at crafting books like this.

**** Real Vampires Have Curves anyone?

My New Favorite Blog

October 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Better Book Titles

Because Journey and the Polar Express go together like milk and cookies.

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Solar: A Review

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Solar
Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese, 2010
Hardcover, 304 pages

After writing such a lengthy post on one paragraph in Solar, it seems strange that I would use such few words to talk about the book as a whole.  However, this is an Ian McEwan novel which means that it has already been reviewed in countless widely circulating publications and highly trafficked websites.  So I’ll stick with this small blurb.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking of Alan Lightman’s essay “A Scientist Dying Young,” anthologized in A Sense of the Mysterious. Lightman describes how many scientists do their most revolutionary work in their 20’s and early 30’s, and how he entered “early seniority” at age 35.  In particular, I thought of this line:

The administrative and political plums conferred in recognition of past achievements can crush future ones.

Lightman describes the many avenues the old scientist can take to stay relevant: lectures, book writing, advisory committees, etc.  He could be describing Michael Beard.  However, Beard is the dark side of this “scientific aging;” instead of getting older wistfully and gracefully in the way Lightman describes, Beard is the 50-year-old actor who gets 10 plastic surgeries in 5 years to convince everyone he’s still 30 and still thinks he’s entitled to 20 something blonde fashion models even though everything that made him relevant is a good 15 years behind him.  He has fed off the prestige of his Nobel Prize until he became bloated and lethargic, both physically and spiritually.  However, as we later see in the book, perhaps it’s safer when he’s lethargic because when the chance comes for him to be the big hero again…*

Usually,  I cannot be in the head of someone so narcissistic and unlikable, but somehow McEwan makes it work.  Perhaps because he makes it abundantly clear how a monster like Michael Beard can come into existence.

Some parts of the book dragged (the “women in science” imbroglio seemed less like something the Beard character would do and more an excuse for McEwan to filibuster on the old Larry Summers controversy and his own personal drama).  It’s not his most well written (Atonement) or his funniest book (The Innocent).  However, there is still plenty here to showcase what McEwan does best: morbid humor, protagonists that are at once thoughtful and completely unselfaware, and the fluent incorporation of complex science into the overall story.

* And that chance comes from the cumulation of several unsavory actions by our protagonist Dr. Beard.

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