11.16.2008

Mendoza in Hollywood and The Graveyard Game, by Kage Baker

Since I've been participating in NaNoWriMo, my reading has tapered off a bit. If I weren't I would be further ahead in this series of novels about the Company, time traveling historians and preservationists, by Kage Baker. Last year, I read the first two books in the series. And I only recently found the rest of them at one of the local public libraries.

Mendoza in Hollywood
Mendoza in Hollywood
Mendoza in Hollywood is the third book in the series. It follows--as you might guess--Mendoza, a botanist we met in the first two books. Her job is to preserve samples and genetic materials from plants before they go extinct. In this book, she's sent to preserve plant materials before the 1863 Los Angeles drought destroys them. After her mission is completed, she meets a man who is like a clone of her first love, an Englishman who died a martyr's death in the sixteenth century. Since the action takes place in and around Los Angeles, many of the Company characters talk about early Hollywood and stage screenings of films. Mendoza herself spends a lot of time reminiscing about her life and pining for her dead Englishman. The pacing of the plot in the novel really started to drive me nuts after I had reached about page 250 and the main action of the story hadn't really started. It was like reading Dune again; it's all backstory and then the plot happens in the last 100 pages of the book. Yeesh.

The Graveyard Game
The Graveyard Book
The next book, The Graveyard Game, was better. More action. More plot. Things definitely happened in this one. We get to spent time with Joseph, the man who recruited Mendoza during the Spanish Inquisition. The story begins with Joseph and Lewis, another Company man who fell in love with Mendoza, trying to find out what happened from her after the events of Mendoza in Hollywood. As they follow her trail, they find that other Company agents are disappearing after they uncover Company secrets or start to ask awkward questions. This book is clearly setting you up for the rest of the series.

As I've read these books, I've gotten the impression that I might be reading one really long book that just happened to get published in parts. Nothing really gets resolved; you just learn more about the Company and its history. Sure, there are plot arcs in these novels, but they're small compared to the overall story.

11.09.2008

Swallowing Darkness, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Swallowing Darkness
Swallowing Darkness
Yes, I caved and bought a copy of Swallowing Darkness, the latest Merry Gentry novel. The reviews I've seen have led me to believe that it might not be horrible. I finished it just a little while ago, and it looks like Hamilton is keeping up the good work she started in the previous volume. There's much more plot here than sex (by a significant margin) and some loose threads got tied up at last. I actually enjoyed reading this, much more than I've enjoyed the previous volumes.

The only real problem I had with this book was the repetitive dialog. It seemed like every time a new character would enter the scene, we would have to go back over what had already been discussed. It was frustrating. I mean, how many times do we have to hear that Merry's going to have twins? After a while it started to read like filler, and I think the book would have been a lot shorter if you trimmed the fat a little bit. I have noticed that dialog has been a growing problem over the last several books, in both series. With the exception of lecturing professors and one retired librarian I used to work with, no one I know speaks in paragraphs or repeats things over and over again without getting really irritated with whoever they're talking to.

I know that the series is not going to end here. Hamilton has said so herself on her blog (read here). But what worries me is that, in the post I just linked, Hamilton says we're going to see quite a lot of Merry being pregnant. I realize that the enemies that were defeated in Swallowing Darkness were only defeated temporarily, and there's Taranis, who needs to be taken down. But I wonder how much of that stuff (in my mind, the really interesting stuff) is going to get dragged out while Merry's busy being preggers. I've gripped about pacing before, so I'm hoping that the pacing of these latest books is not a fluke, and is a sign of Hamilton moving on to the next thing.

Fingers crossed, anyway.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake is Margaret Atwood's second dystopic novel, after The Handmaid's Tale. It's a totally different story, though. In The Handmaid's Tale, society used religion to tear itself apart. In Oryx and Crake, it's science. If you think about it, it's kind of a mad scientist tale. This book is chock full of things to think about, beyond the role of ethics in science. There's the education system, where liberal arts are considered the ultimate waste of time. There's the games they play, like Blood and Roses and Qwiktime Osama.

The story is narrated by Snowman (formerly known as Jimmy), whose best friend was the mad scientist in question. Snowman shows you want happened after the plague, with the new society that Crake (the mad scientist) created before he died. But a good chunk of the story is also told as a series of flashbacks, to the worked before the plague.

One of the things I've always liked about novels set in the near(ish) future, is the way that the author extrapolates from the present. They take what's going on now and expand on it. In Oryx and Crake, Snowman's world was highly commercial. Anything could be bought and sold. The world was segregated into pleeblands (for the plebians) and Compounds, gated communities for company employees with malls and clubs and golf courses. But the most interesting thing, I think, is what happens to science. I've always been interested in the story of Dr. Faustus and stories where science runs ahead of ethics, and people start to experiment without thinking about the consequences. In this novel, that's exactly what happens. The employees of these companies create pigs hybrids that grow multiple organs for transplants, modify genes to create designer children, and search for medical procedures that can turn back or stop the aging process. There's no regulation at all. Meanwhile, diseases are mutating at alarming rates and running through the population like wildfire.

The mad scientist in this story, Crake, joins a company that creates the ultimate sex drug--an uebervaccine that kills any STD that also sterilizes the user. But Crake uses the drug to spread a plague with absolutely no cure. Within a matter of weeks, just about everyone is dead except Snowman and Crake's genetically modified humans.

The point of this book isn't really the plot. Nothing much happens, plotwise. It really is more like a series of images and concepts for the reader to ponder on a while. Even though a lot of it was disturbing (especially that Blood and Roses game), I really enjoyed reading it. I'll be thinking about this one for a long time, just like I did with The Handmaid's Tale.

11.02.2008

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

The Road
The Road
The Road reminded me to two other writers I've read: Ernest Hemingway and Alan Garner. It reminded me of Hemingway because there seemed to be only five adjectives and adverbs in the whole book and because there was a dearth of women. And it reminded me of Garner (I had to read Strandloper for a literary analysis class), because it seemed like McCarthy had written the book the same way Garner did, like he spent as much time un-writing it as he did writing it. There was almost no exposition or backstory, and there was barely any punctuation. When you read the dialog in this book, it's really easy to lose track of who is speaking. There are no chapters, just small breaks between vignettes or scenes.

The Road is the story of a father and a son traveling through a blighted landscape. You never learn why everything is burnt, or why most of the people are dead. All you know is that there's ash everywhere; it's cold; and nothing grows anymore. It's one of the bleakest landscapes I've ever come across. At least with the global pandemic novels, those who manage to survive can keep living once they figure out how to work the land again. This novel is one of the most depressing books I've ever read, because even if the unnamed father and son found a safe place to hole up for a while, you knew that the food would eventually run out. While the boy eventually finds a new family to take care of him after his father dies, it was still a depressing ending because I couldn't see that they had anywhere to go that would support life for long.

Perhaps those are the big differences between literary science fiction and regular science fiction. In regular science fiction, you have a) people explaining things and theorizing and b) people who are working on figuring our and solving the problem. Even in the bleakest genre book, there's still hope.