Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

June 23, 2008

OK, I\'m sufficiently creeped out. You?After watching the mostly OK until it gets unbelievably gawdawful Will Smith movie and reading about the many people upset by the unfaithful celluloid adaptation, I decided to check out the source material for myself. Needless to say, fans of the book have quite a case for hating the Fresh Prince’s little flick as the only things the two have in common are the title, the main character’s name, and Robert Neville’s efforts to cure a disease. Of course, the diseases are different, but that’s beside the point.

I should begin by admitting a bit of ignorance that ended up coloring the way I viewed this story. You see, I thought it was a novel when I purchased the book from a local Borders. Despite looking at the table of contents at the begining, I had no idea the titular story was a novella and that the rest of the pages were filled up with short stories. I was pretty surprised when the wheels are set in motion for Neville to meet his fate, simply because I thought there were over 100 pages of story left to go. Once I realized otherwise, I think I came to appreciate the story a bit more, if only because you don’t see novellas published much these days.

But on to the story itself, and not my obliviousness to certain context clues. It was fine, I guess. I knew it was a vampire story going in so that didn’t effect my enjoyment of the tale. I suppose a lot of this would’ve felt revolutionary 54 years ago when it was first published, but in today’s post Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and (to a lesser extent) Blade world it feels average at best. The joy in reading this came from recognizing just how many authors/screenwriters/filmmakers Matheson has influenced.

To save money, I bought this ugly thing.Unfortunately, Matheson’s writing is serviceable at its peak and annoyingly stilted at its nadir. Neville’s throat moves way more than any normal man’s should, and I think that’s how Matheson thinks people show emotion. I stood in front of a mirror for a few minutes trying to make my throat convey depression or anger, but all I saw was a dude swallowing a lot. It doesn’t help that Neville isn’t the most sympathetic of protagonists, either. Sure, his situation sucks worse than any situation in the history of the world, but when we meet him he’s been living like that for several months. By that time he should’ve quit his bitching already.

In the end, I felt for Neville despite how unlikable I found him to be. Matheson gives us enough of a picture of his life that we can’t help but want him to live. When you put yourself in his position, as any responsible reader should do, it’s easy to see how important making friends with a dog would be or how odd it would be to hear the sound of your own voice after not speaking for weeks at a time. While I can see why so many people enjoyed Matheson’s work and hated seeing it mishandled so poorly, I can’t count myself among those who care all that much. Maybe if I was born 50 years earlier.

A quick note about the short stories: They range from surprisingly decent to so bad I was mad at my eyeballs for showing me such drivel. There’s a quote on the back cover from Stephen King that proclaims, “Books like I Am Legend were an inspiration to me.” Having read most of the King canon, I can certainly see that’s true. Sadly, King is a much more talented writer than Matheson and the comparison goes badly for the latter. There are certainly some good ideas in those short pieces, but very few of them live up to the promise of their premise.


Echelon, by Josh Conviser

June 13, 2008

Few things are more exciting than mounted security camerasI’m about to hate on this book pretty hard, so right now I’m wishing I hadn’t sold it to the local used book shop.  Now I’m open to the “can you be more specific?” critique.  I’m also open to misremembering since it’s been awhile.

Simply put, Echelon is the worst book I read this year.  It’s so bad that I won’t include an Amazon link because I’d prefer no one blame me for buying it.

The plot revolves around Ryan Laing, a kind of government agent brought back from the dead through the use of nanodrones.  He starts to figure out that Echelon, an electronic surveillance system that sees everything, Big Brother style, isn’t being used properly.  A beautiful (of course) hacker joins him, and the two travel around the world looking for the secret to controlling this high tech All Seeing Eye of Sauron.

There are some good, appropriately science fiction-y ideas in the book, but everything is marred by a story that was a bit too predictable (up to the ending-that-leaves-open-the-possibility-of-a-sequel) and dialogue that ranks high on the Unintentional Comedy Scale.  Add to this what I read as a cheesy, romance novel level relationship between the protags, and you’ve got a book I was barely able to finish.

Our main character is also our main problem here.  Laing is too powerful, thanks to his drones, and therefore is never in danger.  He talks like an 80s action hero, and takes a beating better than actors in old Western movies (seriously, how many haymakers did the brawlers shake off in Shane?)

In one scene, Laing ends up on some kind of repurposed oil platform full of guards.  They see him and yell for him to freeze.  He responds with a simple “Not today,” and then starts a-swinging.  The overwhelm him, and start a-beating.  Conviser writes that they basically turn Laing’s genitals into mush, but other than that there’s no sense of consequence.  BLAMP! should be used way more

Most men would scream if just one beefy security guard smacked them in the junk with a nightstick.  Laing is apparently dead from the waist down because, while he mentions that it hurts, having his manhood used as a speed bag doesn’t effect him.

I found the romance between Laing and the chick whose name I can’t remember nor find online to be groan-inducingly bad as well.  I get they have a connection and the tension under which they live will inevitably bring them together, but Conviser’s descriptions of their feelings had me wondering when he’d be using the phrase “quivering loins” in a sentence.

I remember thinking that the plot got in the way of itself a few times.  I can’t elaborate on that too much, but I thought it bore mentioning.  There are double crosses and twists and turns that didn’t resonate, but that might be because I was into skimming-so-I-can-finish-this-damn-thing mode by that time.

Conviser, who seems like an affable fellow based on what I’ve read on his personal website, his postings, and his “Big Idea” entry on John Scalzi’s blog, has a knack for description.  It’s clear he has a specific vision for this universe he’s creating, and that he’s certainly passionate about his work.  I just wish that enthusiasm translated better onto the page.

Tainted Love

June 7, 2008

So, I have been on reading a lot of novels about cyborgs recently for a project I am working on.  One book that came multiply recommended was The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey.  Like Ender’s Game, this is a book that I had heard about for years but never actually read.  Overall, I was entertained but ultimately disappointed — though perhaps unfairly (more on that later).

But first, a bit about the book.  The premise of the novel is that severely physically disabled persons are fitted to command space ships as a way of providing them “life” and mobility that they would not otherwise have had.  Their bodies are left complete and encased in the center of the space ship and obviously there is a great deal of training that goes into it.  It is interesting that McCaffrey suggests multiple times that the bodies are intact — so clearly cyborg by extension rather than revision.  Our protag — Helva, in this case — cannot live without the ship but somehow her “essential” humanness is preserved — literally in fluid.  Very womblike.

Each brain ship as they are called are paired with a brawn.  Hijinx ensue. 

Ok, now on to my unfair criticisms: 

Unfair, first off, what I read as a novel was originally a series of short stories.  Expectations for continuity, characterization, etc are much different in a novel than short stories around a common character.  It was exactly these things to which I thought the novel gave short shrift.  Her first brawn, Jennan, was very important to the entire set but only appeared in the first.  The development of their relationship was brief but yet the emotional attachment she had for him influenced her throughout.  Further the establishment of her as “the ship who sang” and why that was significant was there but not fleshed out (no pun intended) enough.  I was wanting more. 

Secondly, unfair, because not only did I read in a different format but 47 years after the publication of the first story.  While it no doubt broke much of the ground that later cyborg novels plant their seeds in, there were things that gave me pause.  For instance, here is Helva, smart, powerful, with all the possibilities for independence (from running missions without a brawn to when she fulfills her contract and work for herself) and she chooses, nay desires and needs, a male brawn.  She accepts temporary and female brawns very reluctantly.  And, there is an emotional need for love that is being fulfilled no doubt.  But, it seems to resonate more as gendered rather than cybernetic.  Helva willingly places herself under the control of men and seems happy doing it — especially given the last chapter where she selects a brawn who does not fit the physical profile of typical brawns (an aptly named group) and she joy with which she describes being bossed around by him at the end of the book.   I must keep in mind that this series of stories was started in 1961 and 1969 so in a very different in terms of gender.  And, to be fair, Helva does outwit her superiors to get the man she desires — which was more subversive in the 60s than today. 

Oddly, the man she chooses is obsessed with her, wanting her to know she looks like so he constructs a model based on her DNA and claims that she is beautiful.  He also knows the code which would open her shell (metaphor, perhaps?) and be able to physically see and hold her — though that would apparently kill her.  Thus, he has to love her purely emotionally.  This clearly bothers him since he is an apparent playboy and spends the night before joining her at “pleasure establishments.”  Thus, he does have to come to grips with his physical versus emotional desires.   You know, the more I write about this book, the less disappointed I am.   Perhaps, there is a suggestion here about what makes a good marriage.

One final note on covers:  Though I am not sure whether or not McCaffrey oversaw the cover art for her novel or not.  I found these two covers for the book particularly interesting. 

I find this first cover to be rather loaded visually.  It deals directly and oppositely with the question of physicality in the novel.  Helva is literally disembodied from the ship (which would be her actual appearance) and she apparently is Farah Fawcett (or at least has her hair).  No question here, Helva is still pretty and thus valued according to those parameters.  Secondly her body disappears into the landscape with two well-placed and exploding volcanoes — mixing both the maternal and the sexual.  Finally her actual body — the ship — is quite phallic and positioned not to represent her but rather the brawn perhaps.  Ultimately the cover is quite dissonant with the novel for me.

The second cover comes from the edition I read.  Here, again, Helva has long flowing hair, quite pretty with striking eyes and lipstick.  So, again, the focus on her physicality, something none of the characters — including Helva — can ever know.  Unlike the previous cover, she is connected to the ship.  However, notice that her face appears in the white exhaust of the once again the extremely phallic ship.  It does not take much imagination to see what is being suggested here.  In order for this to happen, she is looking backwards not forwards – despite the movement of her hair.  Finally though the positioning could always be worse, note the number and proximity of the planets on the cover. 

This is by no means an exhaustive search of covers but these cover do suggest something quite different from what is encountered inside. 



Judging Books by “Covers”

June 6, 2008

We all do it of course.  Cover art is important as the quality of printing and binding.  But, I recently become painfully aware of other covers which I read or — in this case — choose not to read. 

A good friend of mine has been lobbying for years to read Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card and while I didn’t specifically refuse, I did drag my feet.  A couple of weeks ago, I was in the bookstore looking for a mass-market book to take on the plane.  Again, Ender’s Game came up but this time I was unable to find another book to buy instead.  So, reluctantly I bought it.  The “cover” for me here and why I was avoiding the book was general lack of comfort with Card’s politics.  Despite it’s status as a Hugo winner and the recommendation of a friend with good taste, I guess I still feared some sort of conservative brainwashing. 

Needless to say — I was wrong on numerous levels.  It was a book that captivated my attention and held it non-stop.  I had to curtail my reading for a day so I would have anything left to actually read on the plane.  It was a very compelling narrative with great characterization.  I was clearly wrong to let this particular “cover” keep me from enjoying a true SF classic. 

It was not the sympathetic portrayal of the military that I expected.  Quite the opposite.  I truly enjoyed the contrast between Ender’s significance and fame and Peter’s significance and anonymity as well as how they both desired to and managed to switch positions.  I would have liked to see of Peter’s rise to fame/power as a further contrast to Ender.

My primary concern with the novel is that toward the end the narrative pace (and time elapsed) picked up considerably and it seemed to start looking forward to a sequel rather than relishing in the story being told.  Even though the plot line was clearly done, the novel didn’t feel over but nor am I particularly inclined to seek out the next book — despite getting past this cover.

I guess some people never learn.