3.18.2012

The Demi-Monde: Winter, by Rod Rees

The Demi-Monde: Winter
The Demi-Monde:
Winter
I've often compared fiction to a petri dish. It's a fertile environment where you can put ideas and characters and situations and see what comes of it. Rod Rees applies my analogy a little more literally than I'm used to seeing in the opening book of his series, The Demi-Monde: Winter. The bulk of the book takes place inside of a computer simulation that was designed to train American soldiers for combat in asymmetrical warfare environments.  The simulation is peopled with the worst, most devious, most vicious figures from history: Reinhard Heydrich, Lavrentiy Beria, and Maximilien Robespierre among others. Then the creators of the simulator stacked the deck by increasing population densities and introducing intractable political, religious, and social beliefs among the inhabitants. The place is designed to be a powder keg. No, that's not the right analogy because there is always someone fighting someone else. Maybe it's more like one of those coal fires that can't ever be put out and is wildly dangerous to even approach.

This idea fascinates me; it's what drew me to the book in the first place. But I almost stopped reading the book before I'd even finished the prologue because of how it was written. Rees is very fond of short. Punchy. Sentences.

And one sentence paragraphs.

Both of these irritated me and I was glad that the stylistics seem to calm down as the book progresses. I suspect Rees just needed to get into the right tonal groove. It also took me a while to get used to Rees's tricks with capitalization. A lot of those inflammatory political and religious beliefs programmed into the simulation have far too many capitalism and I had a hard time taking them seriously. Honestly, how are you supposed to take the vile philosophy of UnFunDaMentalism seriously? But I'm glad I stuck with the book because the pay off was completely worth a little writerly eccentricity. And, as I said, Rees does seem to calm down after a while.

So, to the plot. In the prologue, we meet Norma Williams, the President's daughter, is trapped inside the simulation. Unless she can get to a Portal site, she can't get back to her body in the Real World. The bulk of the book is narrated by Ella Thomas, the woman sent into the simulation--the Demi-Monde--to rescue Norma. If this were just a rescue mission, it would have been an exciting enough plot. But things quickly start to get weird.

The Demi-Monde exists inside of a powerful computer named ABBA. This computer appears to be so intelligent that it's clearly got its own agenda, one that doesn't jibe with its programmers' agenda. Rees hints at all sorts of mysteries that the programmers aren't aware of and definitely didn't include in their original simulation. It gets downright supernatural after a while.

So there's the rescue mission, the supernatural stuff, cyber-Nazis, and a cyber version of the Warsaw Uprising, all on top of one of the most fantastically interesting and dangerous settings I've seen in fiction. I am really looking forward to the next book in the series because this book doesn't resolve itself at the end. This book is clearly setting up things for the next book. I can only hope that Rees keeps up the good work with his wildly inventive and provocative story.

3.11.2012

A Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings
A Clash of Kings
There's only going to be one book review today, since the book in question was nine hundred sixty-fracking-nine pages long. It should count as two book, at least.

In preparation for the second season of Game of Thrones, I read George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings. Ladies and gentlemen, we are in for a hell of a ride this next season. There are battles and betrayals, daring escapes, and the series shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, as I read this second entry in the Song of Fire and Ice series, I realized that you kind of have to read it as a series of episodes rather, taking things as they come, rather than trying to spot the overarching plot. The Song of Fire and Ice reads as a delightfully messy sprawl to me. In that way, this series is almost Dickensian.

I love Martin's device of having the whole story (if there is one--there probably is, but it's too soon to tell) told by a wide cast of characters spanning two continents. You'll never get bored since you're being sent all over the place. There are numerous plots going on as well, some of them supernatural. Anytime you might get close to getting bored, Martin takes you some where else.

The downside of all this variety is that it makes summarizing this book a bitch. The first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, set the stage for a massive civil war. In A Clash of Kings there are few characters that aren't fighting some kind of war. Jon Snow is above the wall where mythical creatures have started to walk again. The Starks are fighting for independence. The Baratheons are fighting for a crown. The Lannisters are caught in the middle and are therefore fighting everyone.

A summary with any kind of detail will get me deep into tl;dr territory. But I can talk about a couple of themes I picked up on. The first being, of all things, public relations. The major players in this book are constantly wondering what people will think of their actions. They don't want to appear cowards. The contenders for the crown want their claims to appear as lawful as possible. Consequently, the major players spend as much time worrying about how their strategies will play as they do planning their stratagems in the first place. You can't really consider Martin's Westeros as an analog for our own Middle Ages, but it is interesting to wonder if the whole concept of public relations is as new as we think it is.

The other theme I picked up on was opportunism. In A Game of Thrones, only the characters with the strongest positions--the most men, capital, etc.--dared to make a claim to a crown. But as the civil war grows, minor lords seize the opportunity to settle old scores or to carve out some new territory. One of these minor lords decides to try and turn himself into a king as well--hence the sheer bloodiness of this book. If I tried to count up all the people who get killed in this book, I'd need one of those clicker counter things.

Because these books are so episodic, they can't be said to end so much as pause until the next one comes out. So far, I'm three books behind current on this series so I don't have to pine very long. But I can imagine the frustration of those readers who read them as soon as they're published. I still stand by my position: Authors, take as much time as you need to write a book, so long as it's worth the wait--no matter how much I might whine.

3.06.2012

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash
Snow Crash
Where to begin with Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash? There's so much to talk about with the premise and the plot that it's hard to believe that Stephenson got it all in 438 pages--especially consider the length of the books he's written subsequently.

The opening pages give the reader little hint of where the book is really going to end up. We meet Hiro Protagonist (it's hard for me to read that character's name without seeing the author winking at me) as he's delivering pizzas in a California that is utterly unrecognizable from our current reality. America has fragmented into franchulates (franchise plus consulate), franchises that have the legal rights to act like micro nations. They can even offer citizenship and asylum to their residents. The United States itself has disintegrated and turned into a Stalinist paranoiac nightmare. (Employees have weekly polygraphs.) The Internet has evolved into a fully immersible alternate reality where you can wear whatever skin you chose. Hyperinflation and pollution are rampant. And yet, it all kind of works. It's not pretty, but it works.

Back to Hiro and his pizza. Things quickly go wrong and Hiro ends up dumping his delivery car into a pool and losing his job. He retreats into the Metaverse (the grandson of the Internet) to collect information for the Central Intelligence Corporation (formerly the Central Intelligence Agency). Old acquaintances draw him into one of the most bizarre conspiracies I have ever seen committed to paper. Soon Hiro and his partner (a courier who helped him out with the pizza) find themselves chased by religious fanatics, the United States, the Mafia, a harpoon wielding Aleut, and hackers. The chase runs from Los Angeles to British Columbia and even out in the Pacific on a floating community of refugees with glossolalia.

When I picked up the book, I knew it was considered a classic of cyberpunk. But I wasn't expecting that Stephenson would plumb the depths of linguistics, history, and religion to create his story. (If I'm honest, I will say that the information dumps towards the end of the book to cover all this material will make the book drag if you're not particularly interested in those topics.) This confirms my theory that in order to become a classic, a book has to rise above the conventions of its genre. And what Stephenson does with these topics is truly incredible. I'm reluctant to say more for fear of giving away the crux of the conspiracy.

But I can't resist the linguistic ideas that Stephenson plays around with. I think I can do this without giving everything away, so here goes. Linguists have observed over and over again that languages will start to change and diverge if one group of speakers is isolated from the rest of the speakers. This makes sense to me since the only thing language really has to do is transmit ideas from one speaker to another. If the speakers can understand each other, mission accomplished. The isolated speakers don't necessarily have to communicate outside their community, so they're free to create their own jargon, slang, and idioms and mess about their their grammar as much as they want. But Stephenson points out that as communities have come back together again, language should start to converge again. You can actually see it when fad words crop up. Think about the history of the concept of cool. The word for that concept changes every generation.

Stephenson takes it farther by playing around with the idea that once, a very long time ago, we all spoke the same language and that that language did not diverge if speakers were isolated from each other. This flies in the face of all the linguistic theory I learned about as an undergraduate, and even my own observations. Through this thought experiment, Stephenson shows that we need diversity. Diversity gives rise to innovation and competition, propelling science and art and a whole raft of other activities forward.

Snow Crash has so many ideas in it that I know I'm going to think about its implications for days.

3.04.2012

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm
Cold Comfort Farm
The thing--well one of the things--about satire is that judging the book is more than just a matter of critiquing the plot, the style, and the characters. You have to look at how well it hits its mark. When the book in question is about 80 years old and it satirizes a genre that we don't see much anymore, it gets harder to make a judgment. In the case of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, we're pretty much left with asking, "But is it still funny?" I'm happy to report: It is. This may be because I have a warped sense of humor, but I was chuckling every few pages as I read it.

Written in 1932, Gibbons (for some reason I still don't understand) chooses to set her story at least a couple of decades into the future. The book is littered with references to phones with TV screens and wars that never happened. If you ignore them and mentally reorient the story to the 1930s, it works a lot better. (This is what the movie version did.) Setting this bizarre problem aside, the book is fairly straight forward. In the first chapter, we meet a young woman, Flora Poste, whose father has recently died, leaving her with a small legacy and no place to live. As she has no ambitions beyond living an orderly life without too much effort, she decides to go live with relatives. Of the four invitations she receives, she chooses to go live on Cold Comfort Farm with her father's people, the Starkadders, primarily because the invitation hints at irresistible family mysteries.

Cold Comfort Farm is a derelict place. The cows literally have pieces dropping off of them every few chapters. The inhabitants speak a strange patois of English farm language that takes more than a little getting used to. And they all have fascinating mental disorders or behavioral problems. Amos is a fire and brimstone preacher. Adam appears to be intellectually disabled. Elfine is a wood sprite. Seth is a misogynist nymphomaniac. Judith is depressed. And, the jewel in the crown, is Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was younger and who threatens to go mad if anyone leaves the farm or changes anything. Almost as soon as she arrives, Flora begins setting people to rights. Most of the novel covers her skillful manipulations of her relatives while avoiding the attentions of attempted writer Mr. Mybug (actually Meyerburg, but the local mispronunciation sticks).

Gibbons was mocking what Wikipedia refers to as the "loam and lovechild" genre. In this genre, the farms are miserable and the people doomed to the consequences of their own poor judgment and family curses. Think Wuthering Heights but with less style. Gibbons observes that if only there was someone to take them all in hand, everyone could end up with a happy ending. Just like Othello would have been a lot happier if one of the characters had been a marriage counselor.

While this "loam and lovechild" genre has (apparently deservedly) disappeared, I think Cold Comfort Farm still stands. You can't really read it as satire anymore, but you can read it as a humorous novel. It's sort of like an inverted soap opera, now that I think of it.If you have the right kind of humor, this book is hysterical.