Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: The Sculptress

Minette Walters
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –


This book was great, a real page-turner, up to the halfway point, when it abruptly started losing my belief and my patience and my interest.

The story revolves around Olive, an enormously obese woman who is serving a 25-year prison term for the gruesome murder of her mother and sister. A writer, Roz, is doing research for a book about the murders and ends up discovering evidence that suggests that Olive didn't commit the murders after all.

Olive is a disturbed, creepy person who makes voodoo dolls of clay and candle wax and has to be carefully drawn out to say anything of value. Roz's initial investigation into the murders was lively and kept my interest up, particularly when she was interviewing Olive.

But it all starts to go downhill when Roz gets involved with Hal, one of the policemen who arrested Olive, who is now retired and running a restaurant.

Roz’s ex-policeman/restaurateur boyfriend has problems of his own - a foreclosure-scam lawyer trying to get him to close his restaurant. As it turns out, the lawyer was Olive’s family lawyer and had invested in properties (including Hal’s restaurant) with Olive's inheritance assuming she'd be in jail for 25 years, and now that it appears she might be innocent after all he has to start breaking people's kneecaps to get the money back. All of this seemed like an attempt to be twisty that just got too complicated.

Also the relationship between Roz and the policeman is juvenile and annoying. When they got together, Roz suddenly became the stereotypical sassy but helpless heroine. Hal became her stalwart protector and kept referring to her as "woman", as in, "woman, you drive me crazy."

I also didn't buy Olive's character change over the course of the story. She went from being a tough, recalcitrant prisoner who insists she committed the murders to a soft mush-mouth who cries a lot and is practically falling over herself to explain everything that really happened.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the book, though, if I may hearken back to my politically correct college days, is its treatment of the Female Body Image. First there is the obvious contrast between fat, creepy, evil Olive and skinny, sassy, virtuous Roz. There are also a couple times when Roz gets beaten up – once by her ex-husband and once by thugs hired to take back Hal’s restaurant. There is a lot of lingering detail about Roz’s injuries, and her bruises bring out the lover and romantic protector in Hal in a way that I found less than comfortable.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Odd Video from Early 1980s

The Russian Federation recently released a number of Cold War era materials, including this snippet of video it intercepted from an unknown American broadcaster in the early 1980s.

Book Review: Starship Troopers

Robert A. Heinlein
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

I was surprised that I liked this book as much as I did, given all the controversy about it.

It is set in the future, at a time when Earth is at war with an alien race, the hive-minded Bugs. The overly-idealistic citizen governments of Earth collapsed sometime back in the late twentieth century and the world is now governed by a (some would say fascist) military Federation. Becoming a soldier is very difficult, and only a small number of people even try, much less make it – but it alone earns you the right to vote.

You ride along with one of the tiny pawns in the Bug war, Juan “Johnnie” Rico, as he changes from a green recruit into a hard, professional soldier. Johnnie is in the Mobile Infantry, the grunts, the front line of combat against the Bugs. He is part of an epic war that will determine the fate of the human race, but he has no time to worry about higher levels of politics and strategy – his life revolves completely around getting enough sack time, not getting in trouble with the lieutenant, and keeping himself and the other members of his platoon alive.

Johnnie isn’t someone I would necessarily want to be, or even be friends with, but he is colorful and an appropriate guide to his time. Heinlein also creates a creative and consistent, if scary and hostile, world around his main character – both on the large scale (the Bugs, the state of Earth and its colonies, military and government structure) and on the small scale (boot camp, combat drops, everyday details of military life both in and out of battle).

For example - the mantra of the soldiers is to always be “on the bounce!” This comes from the heavily armored suits they wear in combat on other planets, which allow them to jump long distances and perform several tasks while in midair.

Yes, this book does glorify the military. And Heinlein does inject his tiresome personal-responsibility philosophy into the story, chiefly through Johnnie’s high school History and Moral Philosophy teacher Mr. Dubois. But the libertarian preaching wasn't as intertwined with the plot as in some of his other books, so I could skim those sections without losing much of the story. Plus, Johnnie doesn’t have an opportunity to have a lot of interaction with women, so Heinlein’s misogynistic tendencies stay mostly under cover (or, when they come out, at least they fit his rough-and-ready warrior characters).

The book was much better than Paul Verhoeven's movie, which was more war-action-oriented and didn’t go into much of the detail of the preparation and hardening of the soldiers, which was what about three-quarters of the book was about. The movie also invented characters that didn’t exist in the book and drastically altered the roles of others, to its detriment.

I think it is important to stress that I appreciated this book as a character study. I do not recommend it as a guide to attitudes about the military and government. Two excellent books already reviewed here on Cheeze Blog were written at least partly in reaction to Troopers, and both would help in maintaining some perspective on war after reading it:

* Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
* The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review: Ringworld

Larry Niven
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The main idea behind this book is fantastic.

Far, far away from Earth, somewhere in the Lesser Cloud of Magellan, an unknown alien race has built a life-supporting solar system of unique design.

It is basically a small yellow star – like our own sun – with an enormous ring orbiting it. The ring is like a hoop of ribbon, with one surface always facing inwards towards the sun. Niven describes it as “an intermediate step between Dyson Spheres and planets.”

The ring in cross-section is a million miles across and a thousand miles thick and, in total, it has the mass of Jupiter. But because the ring’s radius is so huge – 95 million miles, about the same as from Earth to our sun – it appears from a distance to be relatively narrow.

The ring is spinning around its sun at 770 miles per second, so it has gravity. Thousand-mile-high mountains at the edges prevent air from escaping off the sides. The flat side of the ring facing the sun is completely habitable and is covered with oceans, farms, forests, prairies, deserts – and is three million times the size of the surface of the Earth.

Since one side of the hoop always faces the sun, it would always be noon everywhere on Ringworld. But the engineers built another ring, slightly inside the first, of evenly-spaced opaque black squares connected to each other with wires. The inner ring of squares rotates at a slightly different rate than the outer ring, so that, for those living on the surface, the black squares alternately reveal and cover the sun at intervals roughly equivalent to Earth’s day and night.

Of course the book has characters and a plot. But primarily the characters serve as tools and the plot serves as a vehicle with which to explore the ring.

When Ringworld begins, it is well into the future. Humans have a long history of space travel, have made contact with several other alien species, and have developed "boosterspice" to lengthen their lifespans.

Humans and aliens alike know that there was a giant explosion in the galactic core ten thousand years ago that sent waves of radiation outward. The galactic core is thirty thousand light years from Earth, which means that the outer radiation wave is still twenty thousand years away, so humans aren't worried yet.

However, one race of aliens, the “puppeteers,” who are by nature extremely fearful and whose worlds are dangerously overpopulated, has started to plan ahead. They snapped a photo of the Ringworld in a long-range survey and think it might solve all their problems – a place to relocate to escape the radiation wave for several millenia and that, conveniently, could give them a lot more room.

So the puppeteers arrange a scouting expedition to check it out. They send one of their own – Nessus, a puppeteer who is just insane enough to be brave enough to do it – to recruit a crew of three to go with him. Two of his crew are humans: two-hundred-year-old restless adventurer Louis Wu and twenty-year-old good luck charm Teela Brown. The last member of the crew is a “kzin,” an alien species that has an honor-driven, warlike culture to rival the Klingons and looks like fluffy eight-foot-tall orange cats.

The four of them head out to Ringworld. Along the way they have personality clashes, romances (Louis & Teela), run-ins with dangerous natives, and revelations of disturbing things about each other and about Ringworld.

A structure as cool as Ringworld deserves exploring, and the crew serves to do that adequately in this book. But they do not wear well; the characters became progressively more and more silly in the many Ringworld sequels and I quickly lost interest in the franchise.

For another Nebula-winning novel involving a totally neat-o, unusually-shaped, artificially-created world, see Rendezvous with Rama.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Book Review: The Speed of Dark

Elizabeth Moon
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This story is told almost entirely from the point of view of an autistic man, Lou Arrendale.

Lou is one of several autistic savants working for a big corporation that hires them for their abilities in math and pattern recognition. Lou also takes fencing classes outside of work. He is very good at fencing, since it also requires good pattern recognition, and he has a crush on one of his fellow fencing students. Lou’s work and his fencing occupy pretty much all of his life, and he likes it that way.

Lou works with a number of other autistic savants. They have a tight bond through their work and also their mutual understanding of each other’s particular fears and routines. They go out for pizza regularly, sitting at the same seats at the same table in the same restaurant where they know they will always get the same waitress and where the interactions are comfortingly predictable. It is a calming refuge when other parts of their lives are in turmoil and these scenes are some of the best parts of the book. I loved all the conversations and non-conversations they have, how they have learned what makes each other nervous, and how they accept it and make accommodations for it.

Lou’s company offers all its autistic workers a new experimental treatment which might cure their autism. He has to decide if he is going to have the treatment or not; it would make him “normal,” which is something he very much wants in the abstract, but it could also fundamentally change who he is as a person and there is a possibility that he could lose the talents that make him useful. To make things more stressful, the company claims it is offering it as an “optional” benefit, but they make it clear that if you do not volunteer for it, you are jeopardizing your job.

I really wasn’t sure until the end of the story whether Lou would decide to take the experimental treatment that his company was trying to force on him. And I worried along with him what would happen to his advantages in pattern recognition if he was cured.

Seeing the world through Lou’s eyes gives you a remarkable perspective on us “normal” people. For example, Lou cannot instinctively understand facial expressions. You follow his thought processes as he sees someone’s expression and consciously deconstructs it, painfully slowly, in order to understand what the person is trying to convey. It makes you think about how much we take for granted about what our faces convey and also how much we can lie with them.

Lou’s co-workers, the people in his fencing class, and the waitresses, policemen, and shopkeepers he comes into contact with every day relate to him with varying and sometimes surprising degrees of understanding, sensitivity, impatience, and cruelty. You really feel good about the people who do their best to overcome their own fears to try to understand Lou and to relate to him with integrity. And you are repelled by the people who take advantage of his naiveté and who are harmful.

Because of the subject matter and plot, this book is often compared to Flowers for Algernon. But I thought The Speed of Dark was a far better book.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Friday, July 02, 2010

Book Review: The Moon and the Sun

Vonda N. McIntyre
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


The Moon and the Sun takes place at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. The main story revolves around a minor lady of the court, Marie-Josèphe, whose beloved brother Yves is one of the king’s scientific explorers. On one of Yves’ ocean voyages he manages to capture two humanoid sea monsters. One of them dies in the process but he brings them both back to Versailles, installing the live one in a pool and conducting a dissection of the dead one under observation by the king.

The living sea monster becomes the attraction of the summer at court, with nobles coming to gawk at her in her pool. Marie-Josèphe is the only person willing to pay enough attention to the sea monster (and to spend time with her outside of gawking hours) to realize that she is an intelligent creature and thinks like a human and can communicate (through song).

Unfortunately, of course, no one believes Marie-Josèphe about this. And, in fact, the king wants to cook and eat the sea monster at a banquet. So Marie-Josèphe and her brother have to engineer an escape.

This is actually a novel of alternate history, but you don’t know that until the very end. The idea is that this all really did happen; there really were intelligent sea monsters living in the ocean in the 1600s, and two were brought back to Versailles. But in our version of history, the sea monster was eaten by the king and the world was never any the wiser and all the sea monsters went extinct, most killed by sailors who didn’t know what they were killing.

In The Moon and the Sun’s version of history, Marie-Josèphe and her brother saved the sea monster, humans found out that they were not the only intelligent species on earth, human-sea monster diplomatic relations were established and it changed history right down to the modern day.

The story itself was so-so. But it served as a great vehicle for embedding you in life at Versailles. I thought the best parts of the book by far were the everyday details and nuances of court behavior – including how the women did their hair and handled their periods – which really made the era come alive.

I liked how every little part of the king’s life got blown up into something unbelievably ceremonial and elaborate. The very highest-ranking nobles at court, for example, had the dubious honor of being required to get up super-early, dressed to the nines, to attend the "awakening" of the king each morning. (The king actually woke up several hours earlier and had his hair and makeup and clothes done, so what the courtiers saw was really his second awakening, but you can’t have the king looking disheveled.)

There are also some great king-related moments around the otherwise sad scenes of the dead sea monster's dissection, which the king insists on attending in person. One day he is unable to come, so the men-at-arms bring in a portrait of the king instead and put it on the king's chair, and everyone has to act like the portrait is the actual king.
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