Review Roundup for July 20, 2013

As I’ve mentioned recently, I review a lot of books.

2013-07-20 Road to SerfdomThat wasn’t my intention initially. I started my Goodreads account primarily for my own sake. I know that I’ve read hundreds–maybe even thousands–of books that I’ve since forgotten. Most of these are pretty silly, escapist sci fi novels that I read as a young adult. Although I say they are silly and escapist, they are still incredibly nostalgic for me, and not remembering what I’ve read feels like losing a part of myself.

I quickly realized that trying to go back and record all the books I’d read in the past was a monumental undertaking, so I’m not even trying, but I did start keeping track of (most of) the books I’ve read since I joined. And, because writing is what I do, I found that I was writing fairly long reviews. And then I found that other Goodreads members were liking and sometimes even commenting on my reviews.

So I figured if I’m going to do this, I may as well do it all the way.

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Note: I Review Lots of Books

Just thought I’d mention that I added some social links to the site: Facebook (which has a Page that basically mirrors the blog), Twitter (which I don’t use that much) and Goodreads.

Goodreads I actually use quite a lot. I just finished updating the books I’ve read over the last few months with long reviews on each one. I think I’ll add like a “top 5 fiction” and “top 5 non-fiction” Page to my blog here at Difficult Run, but in the meantime you can check out my reviews by clicking the link in the sidebar to the right. From now on, I think I’ll also post a short note whenever a new review goes up, but I had several to do at once so I just pumped them out over the last couple of days as fast as I could. You can also just become a friend on Goodreads (or whatever they call it) if you already use it.

(The Goodreads link goes to my read books, sorted by date. So does this link, if you’re curious to check them out.)

To All Heartbroken Game of Thrones Fans: Neener, neener.

2013-06-04 George R. R. Martin
Everyone knows this man is a grumpy, time-traveling hobbit, right?

[Here there be spoilers!]

Allow me to regale you with a tale of my relationship to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Once upon a time, long, long before most of you who watch Game of Thrones had ever heard of it, I read the first book. I was immediately impressed by Martin’s craft. The man can write, and I would never question that. But what he chose to write really rubbed me the wrong way. Specifically: I felt like the books were engineered to manufacture a sense of realism by deliberately doing horrible things to likable characters. When Ned Stark got executed at the end of the book I set it down, and I’ve never been tempted to pick up another one.

So, when all the Red Wedding stuff started breaking out over Twitter, it took me a few days enough to bother to investigate. When I eventually read a description of what had happened, I felt incredibly vindicated. And it’s not just that Martin killed off more likable characters, but it’s why he does it.

The Mirror has a couple of quotes from Martin that confirmed all my suspicions about his authorial decisions. See if you can spot the problem: 

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Is Science Fiction Intrinsically Liberal?

Mike Brotherton brought Adam Robert’s Guardian piece to my attention. I can paraphrase the article very succinctly (which is rare for me): “Since science fiction is about the future, and the future is not now, science fiction is about otherness. And is therefore liberal and good. Except that some people (conservatives) hate otherness, so they write stories about killing aliens. And love authority. PS – I hate conservatives.”

2013-04-22 Da Vinci Code
Folks thought Brown was anti-religious cause he said Jesus was married. They missed the fact that every religious person in the book was despicable and at the end the brave, new Pope was an atheist.

You can probably tell I don’t think too much of this piece, but I do think it’s an interesting topic. I love sci-fi, and I’m also fascinated by how political ideologies battle it out in pop culture. That’s actually pretty boring in most media because there isn’t much of a battle. Hollywood is about as politically homogeneous as they come, and soF when it comes to politics there’s not a lot going on. You either get orchestrated propaganda, egregious digs at conservatives, or–very rarely–you get relatively nuanced perspectives precisely because there’s so little threat  conservatism that it can occasionally be trotted out like a strange zoo creature. No, the  most interesting political battles by far are fought in the thriller / action section of the New York Times best sellers. You’ve got all kinds of conservatives, from Tom Clancy on down, but also plenty of blatant liberals like Dan Brown. Both sides interject their politics freely and in not-so-subtle ways, and it’s fascinating to read. So, if I were gong to talk about politics in books, that’s where I’d start.

But Adam Roberts writes sci-fi so he wants to talk about sci-fi. Well, alright then. Let’s drag this argument under a spotlight and take a look.

First of all, the idea that “future” is a proxy for “other” is a stretch. By that logic, all fiction (since it’s about something other than reality) would be intrinsically liberal and all non-fiction (since it’s about reality) would be intrinsically conservative. This might be true for a very, very philosophical definition of “liberal” and “conservative”, but clearly not for anything that actually looks like modern politics in the US or in the UK.

Secondly, there really isn’t that much of a dichotomy between conservatives and liberals in sci-fi. The vast majority of sci-fi writers are liberals, pure and simple. I’d say the next largest segment would be the libertarians. Roberts cites Heinlein as a great conservative, but the only way you could think that is if the only Heinlein story you ever read was Starship Troopers. That book has a decidedly militaristic / authoritarian vibe. But the man who practiced open relationships (in real life) and wrote satirical descriptions of a free-love Jesus (Stranger in a Strange Land) cannot be seriously categorized as “conservative”.

Shadow Puppets is a good example of Card's political writing: he attacks abortion and IVF practices in this one.
Shadow Puppets is a good example of Card’s political writing: he attacks abortion and IVF practices in this one.

Roberts only real conservative is Orson Scott Card. Card is, interestingly enough, a Democrat, but since he’s Mormon that doesn’t mean what it might mean to most Americans. In any case, he is most famous for coming out staunchly in opposition to gay marriage–both in his books and in his public writing–and also for lacing his reasoning with apocalyptic prophecies of the literal downfall of American civilization. But Card, despite his stature, is an exception that proves the rule. Here’s a fun trick: pick another famous science fiction author who is conservative. I can name a couple more, but they are all dead. Phillip K. Dick was so outraged by the Roe v. Wade decision that he wrote an infamous short story about a society that arbitrarily decided that you weren’t considered a person until you could do calculus, and Walter M. Miller Jr’s beautiful “Canticle for Leibowitz” is an elegant paen to his Catholic faith. Both, like I mentioned, are no longer with us.

But when you try to think of sci-fi writers who are overtly liberal, it’s hard to know when to stop listing names. John Scalzi’s politics are not readily apparent in his fiction, but he runs one of the biggest blogs on the Internet and is not shy about his leftwing politics there. Cory Doctorow’s books are basically political sermons with a sci-fi candy coating. Kim Stanely Robinson wrote an entire trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) to put both is staggering economic ignorance and left-wing political ideology on display, and then recently wrote another novel in the same vein. These are all guys writing today (and there are more), but of course some of the greats were also very liberal. Ursula K. Leguin comes immediately to mind. It’s practically impossible to read a work of modern science fiction without being bashed over the head by certain, core liberal beliefs that sci-fi writers have really glommed onto. The most notable is the idea that sex can and should be excised completely from any consideration (cultural, emotional, etc.) and treated as a purely recreational activity with no implications beyond the immediate gratification of physical desire. If sci-fi, especially male-written sci-fi, had a single, core article of faith that would be it.

So much for Robert’s argument. As for Brotherton, I’m glad to see that (despite being the kind of religiously intolerant liberal who refers to Orson Scott Card as belonging to a “fundamentalist cult”) he rejects the notion that science fiction is intrinsically liberal. But he also rejects the notion that there’s an ideological battle of any kind going on, and there I think he goes to far. As I mentioned in a comment to his piece: it’s really hard to separate the metaphors of “battle of ideas” and “marketplace of ideals”. The key concept in each is competition.

Richard Dawkins’ conception of the ideas-as-genetics makes sense here: There is no demilitarized zone in the struggle for survival, either of genes or of memes.

Stephanie Meyer: Good Stories, Poorly Told

2013-04-18 Stephanie MeyerSo Vulture has an interview with Stephanie Meyer (author of Twilight and The Host), and she mentions that she’s working on a sequel to The Host. That caught my eye because I just finished reading the book. I had been asked by a freelance writer to answer some questions about Mormons and sci-fi for a piece about the movie adaptation of The Host (article’s not out yet, not sure if/when it will be), and so I decided to check the book out. [Spoilers ahead, if you were thinking about reading it.]

I got the audiobook version (’cause I have no time for reading) and listened to it during my work commutes. I had it sped up (sometimes as high as 3x) to get through the story faster. And the thing is: I actually liked it quite a bit at first. The premise of the story is that Earth has been taken over by body-snatching parasites and only a few humans remain. You’d expect the story to be one of resistance and rebellion (e.g. Independence Day), but it’s not. Instead of action-adventure, the story takes on a much more fatalistic view of the invasion, which is completely accomplished before the story really starts. The result is that it’s a much more interesting take–philosophically and emotionally–on alien invasion. The relationship between the main characters (Wanderer, one of the parasitic aliens, and Melanie, her unwilling and rebellious host) is also a lot more interesting and, dare I say it, believable than I would have guessed. So the first third of the novel, roughly speaking, was really winning me over.

But then Stephanie did what Stephanie does. First of all, she has almost no ability (as far as I can tell) to trim. The worst of this, by far, was Breaking Dawn (yes, I read all the Twilight books) where it was abundantly clear that she had such affection for her own ideas that she was determined to put every last one in the book. Whether it had anything to do with the story or not. Secondly, there’s just a lot of weird gender-issues stuff going on that I don’t feel competent to evaluate fully but which definitely weird me out. The number of times Melanie gets beaten by the love of her life while and then goes off to whimper over her bruises and injuries while thinking about how much she loves the man who did this to her are just… disconcerting. Of course it’s not just your average partner-abuse scenario because Jared hates the parasite precisely because he thinks she has killed Melanie, but that only gets you one beat-down, in my book. After that, things get creepy. And then of course there’s Ian (another human) who does fall in love with Wanderer (the alien parasite), but only after he tries to choke her to death at the first meeting. And yes, Wanderer falls for him too. What’s a little strangulation in the face of love, right?

In the end, I think that Meyer has basically the same view of plot as she does of romance: some inexorable force that bends people to its will. Her characters are as stupid as they need to be in order to get them where they need to be in order to further the story. And it’s really disappointing to me, because she really has some great ideas, but they tend to get first drowned out in all the not-so-great ideas and then abusively manipulated in the interest of an irresistible happy ending.

Unlike Twilight, The Host had a lot of genuinely compelling ethical questions. In terms of sci-fi, it actually did a pretty good job. There were some really compelling elements, but in the end it was just a good story, told quite poorly. Still, I guess I have hope for Meyer’s future writing, because this seemed so much better than Twilight. I don’t expect much from a sequel, but when she writes another new story (and I have a feeling that she will), I’m probably going to give it a read.