5.30.2011

Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides
Earth Abides
It's strange to say, but George R. Stewart's Earth Abides is a curiously hopeful post-apocalyptic novel. It's also masterfully written, elegant and subtle as it takes you from disaster to survival. I don't know what I was expecting from this book--probably just a good yarn with some sociology thrown in--but I ended up with a brilliant read.

The book starts with a snake bite. The protagonist, Isherwood "Ish" Williams, is collecting data for this thesis when he is bitten by a rattlesnake. He takes himself back to his cabin to recuperate. The next thing he knows, he's apparently the last man alive. A newspaper tells him that a particularly virulent disease has killed millions. Lacking anything better to do, Ish travels across the country, meeting a few survivors and observing the changes to the environment. The language is clinical, scientific, modern. The first third of the bottle is about what you'd expect from a post-apocalyptic novel. As Ish takes stock of his new world, you can't help but think about what will happen when the electricity fails, when the stocked up food will give out, when the few survivors decide to go Mad Max.

Eventually, Ish meets up with a few other survivors that he can band together with. He finds a wife and friends. Slowly, he builds up a community that, for lack of anything better, they call the Tribe. Years zip by. The novel ends up about 40 years after the plague (as far as I can tell). Ish is an old man, cared for by his great-grandchildren. The language by the end of the book is less objective. The science is gone. Ish has given up his ecological and anthropological observations. By the end of the book, when Ish asks if one of his great-grandson is happy, the answer is: "Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them" (322*).

The change over the course of the book is subtle. At the beginning, as I said, it's utterly depressing. You can't help but wonder if, as Ish wonders, if this is it for humanity. Maybe too many people died. Maybe too many skills died out and the survivors won't last long. But as Ish and the Tribe grow, I started to feel hopeful. Ish fears for the loss of knowledge as all but one of the children show a marked lack of interest the knowledge Ish tries to pass on. He wonders if his little tribe will survive beyond a couple of generations once the canned food runs out. (It's rather surprising how long it does last.)

What I realized by the end of the book--as Ish does--is that humanity does carry on. The civilization that we know is gone. Ish's Tribe becomes more tribal as time goes on. Sure, it's sad that the knowledge of our world is lost, that the big university library will probably rot away with no one to read it. But there are still people. Humanity will go on.

Earth Abides is a terrific read. I'm very glad that I picked it up and I wish that more people would give it a chance. Unlike modern post-apocalyptic novels, this one doesn't play up the horror. Instead, it's a sober, philosophical medication on what might happen if humanity had to start over.

__

* Stewart, George R. Earth Abides. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006. Del Ray trade paperback edition.

5.29.2011

The Unincorporated Man, by Dani and Etan Kollin

The Unincorporated Man
The Unincorporated Man
One of the things I love about science fiction is that the writers can take small things about our society, extrapolate from them, and come up with fantastically frightening stories. In Dani and Eytan Kollin's The Unincorporated Man the idea of owning stock is transformed into a weird blend of capitalism, social welfare, and slavery.

A few chapters, hinting at how much time has passed and how much the world has changed, set the scene. The main action starts when a suspension sarcophagus is found and the man inside revived. For a while, Justin, the protagonist, is like a time traveler and has the new world explained to him. For the most part, he can swing with the nanotechnology, near instantaneous travel, and colonies on just about every planet in the solar system. But what Justin can't accept is the new economy. Rather than owning stock in companies, people own stock in each other. Part of a person's earnings go to the government and the other people who own stock in them. Throughout the book, Justin refuses to incorporate--in spite of the very interesting arguments to incorporate himself.

Aside from Justin's anti-incorporation stance, there isn't a major plot arc. Instead, the book reads as a series of episodes. There are trials, assassination attempts, wild Mardi Gras parties, and nanobot attacks. But just when you think that this is going to be the big show down, the Kollins wrap things up within a chapter or two. And then the last chapters are a clear set up for the next book in the series. If I had to chart it out, the plot of this book would look like an active heart monitor. After a while, I had to adjust and stop reading it like a 400+ page story and read like like a long series of connected episodes. It's a minor adjustment, but it let me enjoy the book a lot more.

Whenever I get to talking about communism with people--which happens more than you might think--we always come back to the conclusion that communism failed because it never took human nature into account. Sure, people can be wonderful to each other, but we can also be utter bastards. Capitalism functions better, but there are still parts of society that suffer for various reasons. In the world of The Unincorporated Man, the worlds run on a modified form of capitalism where people own stock in each other. Curiously, it plays on the self-interestedness of people. In order to get profit from the people you own stock in, you're more concerned with making sure they get enough to eat, medical care, education, and a good job. People are motivated to work by the hope that someday that can own a majority of their own shares. I can see how it would work, given my cynical view of people in general. But it's a depressing concept to contemplate. Brilliant idea, but very depressing.

For the most part, I think, the Kollins live up to the originality and possibilities of their premise. Where they falter is in their pacing and characterization. The characters are hard to get to know. Once you get past the initial set up, the characters don't change and we never really get past their surface motivations. For example, why is Hektor so hell-bent on getting Justin to incorporate? Why is Neela so willing to throw off her social conditioning and start a relationship with a resurrectee? The pacing is strange. It's episodic. Parts are rushed, with tons exposition and information dumps about things that I would have preferred to see play out.

There is a sequel, The Unincorporated War. I wonder if the Kollins have improved their writing. The Unincorporated Man isn't a bad book. It's a very interesting read. It just has some hiccups in the writing style.

5.24.2011

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca
Rebecca
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca breaks all kinds of rules. It starts with the epilogue and ends without a denouement. The narrator never gets a first name. There's a murder, but we know who did it almost from the beginning. And the housekeeper steals the show.

Rebecca famously starts with a dream. The narrator dreams of her old house, Manderley. This dream sets the tone for the entire book. Nothing seems very real after this. This isn't a typical mystery, where the emphasize is on the facts, the evidence, the time lines. This book is about emotion. Though the narrator clearly know what's going on, she doesn't give you all the details. She lets them unfold as she remembers her time in Monte Carlo and at Manderley.

After a long introduction to Manderley--where we see it in its prime and after the fire--the narrator takes us back to Monte Carlo, when she was working for an obnoxious, celebrity-chasing American woman. The narrator clearly suffers from some kind of social anxiety. She worries constantly about the impression that she makes on people. She mentally cringes every time her employer forces acquaintanceships on anyone who's been mentioned on the society pages. She catastrophizes and fantasizes about what might happen next. As I read her inner monologue, I strongly sympathized with her because when I was a teenager, it was as painfully shy as Rebecca's narrator. In Monte Carlo, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, a widower who clearly hasn't recovered from his wife's death. In just a few short weeks, she charms him (without meaning to) and they marry.

Maxim takes the narrator back to Manderley, his estate on the coast of England. As far as plots go, until the end of the book, there's not much to talk about. The narrator struggles to fit into her new world. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, doesn't help matters. Anyone who's gotten an ambiguous text message or email knows that it's hard to convey tone with words. But du Maurier somehow writes Danvers' dialog in such a way that you can hear the scorn and sarcasm and distain in Danvers voice. She made me cringe, and she wasn't even talking to me. Danvers is the most vivid character in the novel. No matter how much she made the narrator and I squirm, it's a joy to read her scenes. She's a villain without doing anything overtly villainous. Instead, she fills the house with cold uneasiness and makes life a little hell for the narrator.

The action, the mystery, stars in the last third of the book, when a small boat is found in the bay with a body on it. The body is soon identified as the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. This would be bad enough, if it weren't for the fact that she was murdered. I won't give the mystery away, because this is a terrific book and everyone should read it. The book loses its dreamy tone and turns into a snappy noir.

Rebecca is about emotion. Du Maurier is a genius when it comes to conveying emotion and setting. This is a book you feel. I honestly couldn't say whether I love this book because of the portrait of social anxiety or for the mystery. I love both parts.

5.22.2011

The War of the World, by H.G. Wells

The War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds
It's fascinating to see an original idea play out in a novel. I suppose that's one of the advantages of reading older books. In science fiction, it's particularly interesting. In The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, you get to see one of the first--if not the first--alien invasion stories. What surprised me most about this book is that, aside from the weaponry, was how contemporary it felt. I'm not sure whether to compliment Wells on his style, or to lament the fact that people haven't changed much in the last 110-odd years.

The action in The War of the Worlds kicks off right away. There are a few hints from astronomers that something strange is happening on Mars. Then, our narrator, a speculative philosopher, is working one morning when a cylinder from another world crashes into a nearby field. People gather from miles around the see the extraterrestrial ship, curious as monkeys. But things go bad as soon as the hatch opens and the Martians start incinerating people left and right. Things play out much as they do in every disaster story since. People panic. The enemy has overwhelming technology and nothing we seem to do can stop them marching right over us. The fact that the novel mostly takes place in the rural English countryside makes it all the more disturbing.

For most of the book, our narrator wanders around, hiding from the Martians and trying--not very successfully--to get back to his wife. The more I read, the more it became clear that this book is not so much about the plot as it is about the idea of alien invaders. The narrator, like any good philosopher, spends a lot of time thinking about what the invasion means for humanity and what the motivations of the aliens are. If I hadn't read The Time Machine so recently, I might have missed how the narrator makes use of Darwin's ideas of evolution and natural selection. In fact, having read The Time Machine, I speculate that evolution really captured Wells' imagination and that, to a certain extent, Wells is using his characters as mouthpieces to explore the idea much further than biologists would have.

The narrator speculates on the invader's biology. The creatures seem to be nothing more than mobile brains. They'd don't speak. They don't have much as far as bodies are concerned; they have just enough appendages to manipulate objects and to get around. To make them even more horrifying, it turns out that they're vampires and feed off of the blood of humans and other animals. The narrator suggests that these creatures--like the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine--are near the end of the evolutionary arc as a species. He thinks that they have nothing left to adapt to. I don't buy the science of this idea, but it's an interesting thought experiment. I don't like it because it presumes that a) there can be an endpoint to evolution and b) there's an ideal lifeform. If environments are always in flux, organisms can't stop adapting. Even if environments reach an equilibrium, there's still natural selection to contend with.

The other thing that bothers me about the science of this novel is the bacteria. This book was published in1898, so I'm not too worried about spoilers at this point. But, if you haven't read the book and don't want to know how the story ends, skip down to the next paragraph. By the end of the book, things seem hopeless for humanity. Nothing they do is making a dent in the invading force. What ends up killing off the Martians are terrestrial diseases. The narrator claims that there are no bacteria on Mars. I would argue, in the context of this book, that if a planet can support as complex a critter as these Martians, it can support durable bacteria. But I will accept that the Martians have no resistance to our bacteria, because they haven't been exposed to them. A more modern alien invasion story might have had the humans come up with a daring plan that took out the aliens. But in The War of the Worlds, without the humble bacteria, the Martians would have one. It's a little anti-climactic, to be honest. It might just be my American way of looking at things, but I want a hero (preferably composed of more than one cell) and a big fight.

What I really liked about this novel was its originality and its punchy, journalistic style. Aside from the narrator's musings, the novel is told in a just-the-facts manner that lets you sink easily into this wild story. The narrator provides an on-the-spot perspective that keeps you right in the action. At any moment, the narrator could stumble across some new horror. I've read a lot of apocalyptic and end-of-the-world novels and now I realize that all of them owe a debt to H.G. Wells. They follow the pattern he set. First, there are warnings. Then the event happens. There's a panic and everything seems hopeless, until a hero steps forward or a solution presents itself. Scholars talk about influence, but I've never seen it so clearly as when I read The War of the Worlds. Wells casts a long shadow over science fiction and horror.

The War of the Worlds could have been written yesterday; that's how fresh and original it feels. It's amazing how long a good novel, a good story, can stick around.

5.18.2011

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, by Mark Hodder

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Curious Case of
the Clockwork Man
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is a terrific follow up to Mark Hodder's first Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne's adventure, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. In this novel, time is even more askew. The Technologists and Eugenicists (genetic scientists) march ahead with their wild inventions and, to complicate things even more, it appears that in this world Madame Blavatsky wasn't just making things up.

We meet up with Burton and Swinburne some months after they settled the Spring-Heeled Jack case. It appears that Isambard Kingdom Brunel is up to something when Burton catches him trying to steal a set of black diamonds. Charles Babbage makes a brief cameo and, as soon as this mini-mystery is wrapped up, Burton is off to investigate the Tichbourne Claimant. Based on what I know about mysteries, I know that the two cases have to connect at some point. It's as much a rule as Chekov's Gun. But I couldn't have predicted the amazing story that Hodder dreamed up. The end of this book is truly extraordinary.

But let me back up a bit first. Burton and Swinburne do investigate the Tichbourne Claimant and rapidly come to the conclusion that he is not who he claims to be. But people strangely believe in this gargantuan horror for some reason. This part of the story takes center stage for most of the book. But it's  clear that there's something else going on behind it. The Claimant, for one, doesn't appear intelligent enough to be the leader of the conspiracy. Hodder drops a few, very subtle and very mysterious hints as to what the larger story is.

The last quarter of the book is a whirlwind. Not only does the in-book conspiracy get wrapped up in spectacular fashion, but Hodder lets you know that there is an even larger story. This larger story was sparked by the events of the first book, so you can't just jump into the series or you will miss things. I'm intrigued to see how it will all play out in the other books that I fully expect Hodder to write.

To be a little less cryptic, I will say that Hodder is still playing with his theme of time travel. As Pratchett might explain, it's a trousers of time thing. Because of a decision (or more than one), history splits. Instead of one path, history charges down another. Because of the divergence, history can't be repaired. In The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, Hodder complicates this even more by explaining why things that would be impossible in our leg of the trousers of time work in the other, things like astral projection, mind control, centipedes so large they get turned into omnibuses, and Folk's Wagons made out of actual giant beetles.

The world that Hodder has created it delightfully complicated and stands up to the terrific mystery. It's the kind of book, I think, that would make other writers jealous. The unevenness of tone and writing in the first book has cleared up in this installment. If Hodder is this good on his second book, I can only imagine how great the next ones are going to be.

5.15.2011

The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine
The Time Machine
H.G. Wells' The Time Machine is a big story packed into a surprisingly small number of pages. It's so short that I'm not sure it even qualifies as a novella. It's not so much that there's a lot of plot crammed into this story, it's that there are huge ideas that other writers could spend hundreds of pages exploring.

The story begins with an unnamed Time Traveler talking to a group of friends about the nature of the fourth dimension, Time. The friends are quite willing to listen to him, but they don't believe that it's possible to travel through time. A small demonstration doesn't convince them. Suddenly, it's a week later. The friends are gathering for dinner when the Time Traveler appears, muddy, bloody, and missing his shoes. All this happens in the first few pages, and then the real story begins. The Time Traveler tells his friends where he's been for the past week--their time.

The Time Traveler has used his machine to travel far, far into the future, to the year 802,701. When he gets there, he soon realizes that there are no such things as humans anymore. The people he encounters have evolved into indolent, uncurious, and childlike creatures. They don't build, farm, or do much of anything except indulge in their small pleasures. The Time Traveler turns into a social philosopher, speculating on what might have lead to such a transformation. Though he doesn't mention him by name, Wells blends Darwin deeply into the Time Traveler's train of thought. It basically boils down to, with everything provided for, there's no need to strive.

Shortly thereafter, the Time Traveler is forced to reevaluate everything when he meets the Eloi's (the childlike people) dark twin, the Morlocks. These subterranean people have turned into violent nocturnal hunters. This time, the Time Traveler theorizes that social classes have become so different that humans diverged, evolutionarily speaking. The Morlocks steal the time machine and, after a horrible forest fire that took the life of the Time Traveler's Eloi friend, the Time Traveler steals the machine back and goes further and further into the future. He even sees the sun's death. At last, he goes home to his own time.

The Time Traveler, sure that his friends didn't take him seriously about his adventure, loads up for another voyage and disappears into time. He is never heard of again.

What affected me most about this book was the Time Traveler's visit to a museum. Sometime between his time and 802,701 AD, people put a museum together that house exhibits on chemistry, technology, natural history, and more. The museum has clearly been abandoned for a long, long time. The books and organic artifacts have long since rotted away. The metals are brittle. Both the Time Traveler and I felt an ineffable sadness at all that knowledge gone to waste. The Eloi have no curiosity and the Morlocks would just have tried to destroy the rest. There's no one left who would care.

When the Time Traveler began his theorizing about the Eloi, he seemed optimistic, like it was a good thing that people no longer had to struggle so hard to live--even if it's made people stupid and childlike. There wouldn't be any more wars, fighting, pollution, or any of the other downsides of our own civilization. But the price was intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and creativity.

It's a very curious vision of the far future and, I would think, against the pattern of most science fiction. It's easy to think of history as an upward trend, progress and science making life better for everyone. Technology will make things better. But the view of future history in The Time Machine turns this interpretation on its head. There is nothing guiding history and people have evolved into something other (technically, two somethings). When the Time Traveler goes even further into the future, there's nothing left except giant crabs and lichen. It's a strange and disturbing thought to think of an earth with no humans left on it, the end of human history--maybe even of any sentient beings altogether.

It's short, but The Time Machine leaves you with a lot to think about.

5.14.2011

Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

Around the World in Eighty Days
Around the World in
Eighty Days
After The Count of Monte Cristo, I felt like visiting an old friend. In junior high, I read Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days so many times I wore out a copy. And I'm delighted to find that it's still a lot of fun after all these years. A quick trip around the world was just what I needed.

Originally published as a newspaper serial in 1873, this book flies right by. The chapters are punchy and, so short, that I kept promising myself one more--and then one more--and just one more before going to sleep. It was so much fun to spend time once again with the phlegmatic Phileas Fogg and the excitable Passepartout. I'm well aware that they're both stereotypes, but they're a lot of fun to watch. Nothing ever seems to both Fogg, while Passepartout flips out over every delay and misfortune.

There's not much to talk about, as the whole point of the book is the trip. Along the way, you get a daring rescue in India, an opium den in Hong Kong, an Indian attack on a train, and a spectacular trip on a steamboat after the coal runs out. Personally, this is my favorite part, when Fogg and his companions travel across Utah and meet a Mormon:
Trains, like time and tide, stop for for no one. The gentleman who uttered the cries was obviously a belated Mormon. He was breathless with running. Happily for him, the station had neither gates nor barriers. He rushed along the track, jumped the read platform of the train, and fell exhausted into one of the seats. Passepartout, who had been anxiously watching this amateur gymnast, approached him with lively interest, and learned that he had taken flight after an unpleasant domestic scene. When the Mormon has recovered had recovered his breath, Passepartout ventured to ask him politely how many wives he had; for, from the manner in which he had decamped, it might be though that he had twenty at least. "One, sir," replied the Mormon, raising his arms heavenward--"one, and that was enough!"
It's not often that you get to see your home in classic literature. But when I saw "Wahsatch" and "Tuilla" in the text, I had to smile. I know those names, no matter how oddly spelled.

I read the introduction to the text when I had finished and was a little surprised to find that Verne had never visited any of these places. According to James Hynes, Verne spend most of his time writing in his office. All the evocative sketches of Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, and the United States were most like made after Verne read descriptions of them from other travelers. While I can't say that these places spring to three dimensional life when you read about them, these short descriptions have just enough verisimilitude to carry you around the world.

In 1988, Michael Palin (of Monty Python) replicated the trip for the BBC. I've been watching it over the last couple of nights. Using trains, buses, and ships, Palin went around the world in 79 days. (He didn't break Nellie Bly's record of 72 days.) Actually seeing the places Fogg fictionally visited was a lot of fun. I almost wish that I could pack up and follow in their steps.

5.11.2011

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo
The Count
of Monte Cristo
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, is the biggest book I've ever read. It weighs in at 1456 pages (in the edition I read). Unfortunately, it could have done without 500 or 600 of them. Dumas also makes the mistake of taking us away from Monte Cristo's perspective for most of the book--but I'll get back to that in a moment.

The book begins with an introduction to Edmond Dantès, an upright, charming young man about to be married to the girl of his dreams. Shortly after arriving back in Marseilles after a voyage, two men who are jealous of Dantès' success accuse him of conspiring with the Bonapartists to bring back the exiled Napoleon. It might not have come to anything but for the actions of a third man who, in order to suppress the role of his father in the conspiracy, sentences Dantès to life imprisoned in the Chateau d'If. Dantès escapes 14 years later, after learning languages, science, politics, and more from an Abbé who's been in prison even longer. This all takes place in the first 450 to 500 pages and it's a great introduction. You see the transformation from immature man to a hard, bitter one. While the book is third person, Dumas sticks closely to Dantès' perspective. We get to see his surprise and confusion, and then his slow-burning anger. The Abbé tried to teach Dantès acceptance, but the only thing that Dantès has on his mind is revenge on the three men who sent him to the Chateau d'If.

After a riveting description of the escape, the novel jumps forward in time about ten years. The rest of the book is told from the perspective of other characters. You can sense Dantès' plan starting to take shape, but it happens so slowly that the revenge is not just cold, it's glacial. The action doesn't start to heat up until the last 450 pages or so. At that point, everything falls into place.

What I find interesting about the ending is that Dantès never seems to act against his three enemies directly. He just arranges things to put them in tight positions. In order to extricate themselves, they just make things worse. Danglars--who wrote the letter that sent Dantès to prison--is driven to embezzlement. Mondego--who delivered the letter--is driven to suicide after Dantès arranges things so that Mondego's past betrayals come to light. And Villefort--the man who sent Dantès to prison--is exposed as an attempted child murder and his wife turns into a poisoner. 450 pages sounds like a lot, but so much happens that it just flies by. To cap it all off, there's an odd little homily about waiting and hoping at the very end.

The middle of the book, frankly, drags. It takes so long for Dantès to put things in motion that I lost interest for a while. I have no idea why this part wasn't cut before publication, unless it was intended as filler. It was serialized, but unlike Dickens' novels, this doesn't have enough action in the middle to carry readers through. Mid-nineteenth century French readers must have had a lot of patience to see it through.

The last two thirds of the book, I thought, would have been a lot more interesting and meaningful if we had access to Dantès' inner monologue. I can see why Dumas might have wanted to tell the story of other characters' perspective. It preserves a sense of mystery. Dantès' targets must have thought that--after years of good fortune--their luck had suddenly turned. They never learn who's responsible. Of the three, only Danglars figures it out. But I think this ignorance takes the sting out of the revenge. I would argue that, from Danglar, Mondego, and Villefort's perspective, it doesn't count as revenge. I guess I'm of the Inigo Montoya school of thought on this: Before you take your revenge, you let your victim know what they did and how they're going to pay for it.

And because we watch the action from everyone else, we don't get experience either Dantès' satisfaction or regret over his success. He briefly wonders if his revenge went too far, but that's all we get. It's like watching a play, but all the action happens in the wings or off stage and we just see characters react to unseen events. This book would have been a lot more satisfying if Dumas had written the book in the first person.

5.01.2011

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World
Brave New World
I had no idea that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was such compulsive reading. I picked it up this morning and could hardly put it down. Every page is packed with things to think about. On the one hand, I wanted to race through the book to see what would happen next. And on the other hand, I wanted to slow down and really think about this new world that Huxley created. Near the end of the book, a character compares their society to an iceberg--most of it is below the waterline. This book is like that, too. There's so much that has to be going on, but the plot skims along on the surface, tempting you to dig for the subtext. There are so many things to talk about, that I made a list of the most important ones before I started to write this, just to make sure that I didn't leave anything out.

The book begins in a decanting and conditioning--for lack of a better word--factory. Huxley sticks you deep into the horrors right off the bat. At first, things don't see all that horrible. But for me, well meaning science is one of the scariest things out there. In this world, the whole process of reproduction has been replaced. (The characters would say improved.) Children aren't so much born anymore as hatched. As they gestate, chemicals and vaccines are introduced at certain points to stunk or foster growth, to inoculate, to develop tolerances to heat or toxins. The stunted kids are destined to do the dirty work as adults. A chosen few become leaders and thinkers. After they "born," the children are whisked off to some truly terrifying, Skinneresque conditioning.

A long passage describes the conditioning process. As I read it, I though about how awful it would be to never have a genuine, original thought. In their sleep, recordings play. Voices spouts platitudes and catchy rhymes shape how the children think about their place in society, how to be consumers, how to fear solitude. In times of stress, these little homilies come back. One could argue that we are conditioned ourselves, by our parents and our childhood experiences. But we can change our perspectives and habits, with enough effort. Most of the characters in this book can't do this. The only ones who can are either more intelligent than they were supposed to be, or they were never conditioned in the first place.

Returning to the iceberg metaphor for a moment, another thing that made a deep impression on me was that the experimentation that must have gone on to achieve all this was barely hinted at. But they never talk about the genetic experiments that must have happened. All through the book, the "civilized" characters are so damned proud of their science. Everything is orderly, sterile, with minimal waste. But I have to wonder how many embryos and children were sacrificed along the way to get a system that, for lack of a better word again, works. It's a very disturbing thought, and it never occurs to any of the characters to think it. And how many people were driven insane, addicted, or were killed during the soma experiments? In order to perfect a drug that is not addictive, is euphoric, and has predictable behavior, how many human guinea pigs did they have to go through?

The big issue of this book, as I see it, is the nature of happiness. What makes people happy? What can make the largest number of people for the longest amount of time? In Brave New World, apparently its all a matter of changing the human. It's clear that you can't change the world. So they condition the lower castes (the ones who were poisoned as embryos) to be stupid, to fear learning and beauty, and to never want more than their next dose of soma. The people who struggle the hardest to stay happy are the ones who are granted their full intelligence. In a sense, this book clearly demonstrates that ignorance is bliss after all. But it makes me wonder what it really means to be happy. Does it mean being satisfied with what you have? Does it mean getting what you want? Is it, as Viktor Frankl supposes, different for everyone? I tend to agree with that idea. I think there are as many different ways to be happy as their are people.

Which is probably why we fight so much. We all want different things. Characters in Brave New World refer to devastating wars in the past and governments that collapsed. So to avoid the merest hint of society instability, they changed how people think and feel about happiness. Instead of seeking their own happiness, they settle for their lot in life. It's a terribly depressing thought.

After the factory and some character introductions, two of the main characters, Bernard and Lenina, take a trip to a reservation in New Mexico. For no adequately explained reason, the world government left certain areas of the world alone. The people who live there are left to their own devices, to live and reproduce and worship as they will. On a more prosaic note, these "savages" provide a point of reference for the reader because they think more like we do. In a Dickens-level coincidence, one of these savages turns out to be the children of "civilized" people. Bernard and Lenina talk John back to England with him, in a repeat of Smith and Rolfe taking Pocahontas back to show off to important people back home. John, who partially learned to read from Shakespeare, provides a strong contrast to civilization.

At the end of the book, John has a long, losing argument with the controller for Western Europe about happiness. John feels so strongly about concepts like freedom and honor and romance that he is utterly incapable arguing their merits when it comes down to it. The controller is able to shut him down at every turn. But then, if you were called on to argue about why people should be allowed to love beauty for its own sake or to be allowed to be noble, would you be able to be coherent about it? Poor John. I agree with him, and I wish he could have made a better showing. Another way of looking at this is that human happiness is an insoluble problem. We can argue about it forever without changing anyone's mind.

One last note before I wrap up. The civilized characters use the name Ford instead of God. I'm pretty sure they're calling on Henry Ford, given the assembly lines and mass consumption. They never say for sure, but it's an odd rock to build a civilization on. I wonder how much Huxley knew about the historical Ford's ideology, specifically the antisemitism.

I'm really glad I read this book. I know that I'm going to have to read it again (probably more than once) to get everything out of this story. It's disturbing and profound. I wished that it had gone on longer than it did, so that I could learn more about this deliciously weird world.