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Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Road to Dystopia

Book #27 (August 20, 2010): The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Book #28 (August 24, 2010): Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Book #29 (August 28, 2010): Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

When I was about two-thirds of the way through reading this trilogy of books,  my girlfriend and housemate Amy asked me what it is that makes YA — young adult — fiction different from adult fiction. It wasn’t a question I found easy to answer. Certainly it isn’t the absence of subtleties like good characterization, because no book for readers at any level can function without believable characters. (Well, maybe a Lee Child novel can, but I don’t think it’s fair to keep holding up Mr. Child as an example of poor writing because obviously he has an audience and obviously he’s adept at giving that audience what it wants.) It isn’t an absence of important issues of ethics and morality, because if anything young readers are more acutely aware of, and worried about, these things than adults are. And it certainly isn’t the lack of a compelling story. No kid is going to finish a novel that doesn’t have a story that compels the turning of page after page after page.

If anything, what separates a YA novel from an adult novel is the intensity with which these things matter. Young readers may not care about nuances of personality that would be of interest to an adult, but they yearn for a character they can believe in and have intense feelings about. Usually this means a character somewhere near their own age, who is concerned (but by no means exclusively so) with many of the same things the readers are. As for ethics and morality, often these issues become even murkier and more ambiguous in YA fiction precisely because these things are murkier and more ambiguous in a teenager’s life than in an adult’s. And plot — well, a YA writer had better understand how to create a plot that brings these elements together in ingenious and surprising ways. In other words, YA novels are like adult novels, only more so.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins seems to be the hottest thing currently going in YA fiction that doesn’t involve vampires or youthful sorcerers. It’s not even a fantasy. It’s dystopian science fiction, a subgenre that was already regarded as a cliche when I was reading science fiction back in the 1970s. Like all cliches, there’s a solid reason for its cliche-hood: It works. There are few fictional plots more rousing, more compelling, or more morally ambiguous than those that pit an individual or group of individuals against an oppressive authority that wants to crush them, kill them and portray them as enemies of the state. It appeals to that part of a reader’s psyche that yearns for a cause, that wants to be part of something larger than themselves in a way that will help them make sense out of their own confused lives.

Suzanne Collins obviously knows this and plays the well-worn premise to the hilt. The Hunger Games trilogy is set in what remains of the United States at some unspecified time in the future after a vaguely described disaster, probably having to do with global warming, has reduced the country to 13 geographically separated, seriously depopulated districts ruled over by a totalitarian regime based in a capitol (called, simply, “the Capitol”) tucked away somewhere in the Rockies. 75 years before the story begins the 13 districts revolted against the oppressive regime and lost. As punishment, one of the districts, unlucky District 13, was apparently destroyed outright and the remaining 12 are subjected to an annual punishment known as the Hunger Games, where two teenagers from each district are chosen by lottery to come to the Capitol and fight one another in a carefully orchestrated deathmatch from which there can only be one survivor.

The central character and first-person narrator of the books is a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen and it isn’t much of a spoiler to tell you that she gets sent to the Capitol to participate in the games. The first book is largely about Katniss and 23 other teenagers trying to kill each other without being killed themselves. But it’s a trilogy, so Collins can’t just let everything end when Katniss survives or fails to survive the Hunger Games. Something larger has to happen. And with this being a dystopian thriller, it’s really not giving too much away to say that the larger theme of the trilogy is the full scale rebellion of the downtrodden districts against the totalitarian Capitol and that Katniss will be at the center of this.

This isn’t an especially original plot, though Collins manages to take a lot of overused plot elements and put them back together in a fairly original manner. And if some of the characters are stock figures, all of them are nonetheless believable. Collins’ real achievement, though, is that she’s made the trilogy into a riveting piece of storytelling, one that isn’t just targeted at adolescent females and that seems to have an appeal that has spilled over substantially into the adult market. I wasn’t sure when I picked up the initial volume whether I was going to go ahead and read all three, but by the time I was a few chapters into the first book I knew that there was no way I wasn’t going to finish reading the trilogy as a whole. This isn’t great literature with deep characterization or novel insights into the human condition, but as pure storytelling with just enough depth to the characters to make you believe that they would do the things they do and to make you care whether they pull through okay in the end, it’s first-rate stuff. If you want a book or three that will keep you up late at night reading, I strongly recommend the Hunger Games trilogy.

Even if you’re not a young adult.

Just a Short Walk

Book #26 (August 14, 2010): The Ruins by Scott Smith

The Ruins is the book that I’d hoped The Passage would be and everything that Lee Child’s novels are not. It’s a perfect example of a type of book that seems rarer now than it used to be, if only because I’ve gotten harder to please as I’ve grown older. It’s an intelligent thriller, carefully thought out, written in a style that is neither flamboyantly literary nor gratingly flat, with characters that are fully realized and sympathetically flawed. If you’re still looking for some good beach reading before Labor Day, grab a copy on the way to the shore and I guarantee that by the time you hit page 40 or so you’ll completely forget how uncomfortable you feel toasting in the sunlight with gobs of lotion on your skin. (Come to think of it, given some of the scenes in the book, you might become all too aware of how uncomfortable you are.)

In addition to being an intelligent thriller, The Ruins is an example of a genre I love but rarely encounter, the one where a group of people start out on a small, almost trivial adventure and then things start to go terribly, terribly wrong. This is such a small genre that right off I can only think of one other example: James Dickey’s Deliverance, which was so well written that I didn’t even notice how horrifying it was until I saw John Boorman’s hypnotic, hallucinogenic film version. (I suppose the lesson from Deliverance is that it’s possible for this sort of thing to be too well written.) Another story that falls loosely within this genre is Jack London’s terrifying short story “To Build a Fire,” where a man and a dog start out on what should be a simple walk across arctic wilderness and find themselves — the man, at any rate — in a life or death struggle.

The plot of The Ruins is somewhat on the shallow side, but you don’t notice this while you’re reading it, because Smith puts the emphasis on carefully building the suspense and keeping the POV tightly focused on each of the four main characters. It’s about a quartet of college students, two guys and two girls, on vacation in Cancún, who decide to go on a day trip into the jungle, along with a couple of foreigners they’ve met, to visit a team of archaeologists at a local ruin. They plan for this trip rather poorly, not even giving much thought as to how they’ll get back. (It involves a bus trip, a cab ride and a short walk through the jungle in a place where they aren’t likely to find another cab.) However, it turns out to be a trip that nobody really could have planned for. I’m not going to tell you any more, because to give the plot away would ruin — no pun intended — the carefully planned hook that Smith is going to put into you. This book is probably about half the length of The Passage, but it felt about one-tenth as long because I read it in rapid gulps, reluctant to come up for air.

In retrospect, I think the major problem with The Passage was that Justin Cronin didn’t build his characters as well as Smith does, though I’ll give him credit for making the attempt. Cronin’s characters seemed real in the way that the people down at the other end of your block seem real. You see them every day, you exchange a few words if you pass them on the sidewalk, but you don’t really care what they’re thinking. Smith’s characters are more like your family. If anything, you know them too well, but you always care what they’re doing and whether they’re going to hurt themselves doing it. I suspect the reason it only had a minor film version — the IMDB shows that it was an Australian production with a director and a cast I’ve never heard of — is that, stripped of the intense character detail, the plot probably seems a little silly. While Lee Child’s novels would probably work better on film, with actors to give a sense of reality to his cartoon characters, The Ruins couldn’t survive the transition, or at least it would need a top level writer-director team to pull it off and give it a properly suspenseful atmosphere.

From the reader’s point of view, though, that may be for the best. Now that you’ve seen Sam Raimi’s excellent film version of Smith’s earlier bestseller, A Simple Plan, that book has been largely spoiled for you (though, trust me, the book is even deeper and better than the film). But since it’s unlikely you’ve seen the film version of The Ruins, I say skip the film and just read the book next chance you get.

The Creepiness of Strangers

Book #25 (August 11, 2010): The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

It’s hard to imagine something as drastically different from Lee Child’s novels as Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. Well, no, it really isn’t. Child’s suspense thrillers and McEwan’s macabre little horror novella do have certain things in common: People in the wrong place at the wrong time, the cruel things that one person can do to another, and very good-looking men. (I imagined Colin as being played by Jude Law. He’d be almost too perfect.) And both feature a certain quantity of blood, though on a pint-by-pint basis Child wins the bloodiness competition hands down. By the time you finish a Lee Child novel, you’ve become so familiar with blood that it becomes almost meaningless emotionally.

What McEwan knows about, or at least knows how to write about, that Child doesn’t is people. McEwan understands human beings and their relationships so uncannily well that he can write convincingly about what happens when his characters stray at some distance from normal human behavior. He also knows how to write a sentence that has a subject, a verb, several dependent clauses, and the ability to convey shades of meaning that would be completely lost in Child’s blunt weapon prose.

But enough about Child. I suspect Lee Child writes the way he writes because he understands what his audience wants and in most cases that probably wouldn’t be McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. This novella (which is barely long enough to qualify as one of my 52 books, though it’s published in book form) is the type of story, which I’ve encountered before, where people traveling abroad, in this case an unmarried couple, encounter someone from a different country who seems overeager to befriend them. Gradually that overeagerness becomes creepily predatory and you realize that something fairly dreadful is going to happen before the story’s over. John Fowle’s The Magus is a little like this; so is Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least the film version; I haven’t read the book. And there’s Jude Law again!). Come to think of it, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much strays into this territory too.

Anyway, to describe the story further would pretty much ruin it, because it’s quite short and revolves around a single series of incidents. I liked it the way that I seem to like everything that McEwan writes — because his prose has a perfect jewel-like quality to it. And also because my tastes in fiction are a little warped.

Regarding Mr. Child

Book #23 (August 7, 2010): The Killing Floor by Lee Child
Book #24 (August 11, 2010): Die Trying by Lee Child

My friend Dave, who started his writing career at roughly the same time and place as I started mine, occasionally likes to keep me apprised about what’s happening in the world of genre novels. The bad news: science fiction is dead, fantasy is dying and horror is in a kind of limbo. The good news: Mystery and suspense novels sell almost as well as they always have. A few months ago Dave suggested that I might want to visit Bouchercon, a mystery-related fan convention in LA, where the guest of honor was a popular suspense novelist named Lee Child, who I wasn’t familiar with. I never got to Bouchercon — these fan conventions can be kind of expensive, especially if you sign up at the last minute — but I became curious about Lee Child. He’s been writing novels since the mid-90s and all of them are still in print and lining the fiction shelves at my local Barnes & Noble in an attractive set of uniform editions. In a time when much of the publishing industry is collapsing and genre fiction seems to be gradually on its way out, what was keeping Mr. Child going?

Child writes mostly about a character named Jack Reacher, a former military policeman who grew up as an army brat at various foreign military bases, then signed on as an Army cop. He found himself stationed  at various international hotspots before getting himself an honorable discharge at around age 36, moving to the States, where he became a self-described “hobo,” drifting homelessly from state-to-state using his severance pay in an attempt to find out what the U.S. is really like. It’s the country of his citizenship, the country of his ancestry, and the home country of most of the people he’s worked and grown up with, yet he’s barely ever lived in it.

This isn’t a bad premise for a series of novels — an American in name-only gradually getting to know the country he wants to call his own. Unfortunately, this isn’t the series that Child wants to write. In fact, on the evidence of the first two books of the series (from 1997 and 1998 respectively), Child is merely using this background as an excuse for putting Reacher, over and over again, in the wrong place at the wrong time. (At the time these two books were written, Child was a Brit who for all I know had never been in the U.S. himself. Now he lives here.) Both books start out with Reacher stumbling into murder, mayhem and major conspiracies essentially just by walking down the street looking for blues clubs. (Reacher’s an obsessive blues fanatic.) Fortunately, his military training, quick mind and years of experience as an MP make him the ideal man for precisely these kinds of situations and after several hundred pages of being bashed by bad guys and bashing the bad guys back, Reacher emerges triumphant and goes back to being a drifter.

Why do these books have such enduring popularity? I’m not entirely sure. Child’s writing style is functional but flat, the kind of stripped down tough guy action prose where a lot of sentences omit the subject and more than a few don’t even  bother with verbs. (“Reacher grabbed for the gun. Fired it. Felt the recoil. Loud noise. Chaos.” Okay, I made that sentence up, but it captures Child’s basic style.) The characters are defined largely by quirks. The plots, despite the occasional unexpected twist, are cliched. And Reacher himself is so ultra-competent that it’s difficult to believe he could really exist. He always thinks faster than the bad guys and is rarely intimidated by having multiple guns pointed at him with malicious intent. Beautiful women fall in love with him almost on sight.

The truth is, this sort of thing works a lot better in the movies. What reads on the page as improbable or even unbelievable becomes oddly acceptable when you see it on screen. I think I could accept Reacher if I were watching him played by a young Clint Eastwood or maybe Daniel Craig with an American accent, actors who by sheer force of charisma and will could convince me that their ultra-competence and irresistible attractiveness to the opposite sex was simply a matter of good genes and a hell of a lot of time spent at the gym. And while I don’t know if anything by Child has ever been filmed, it’s clear that the resemblance between the titles Die Tryingand Die Hard is no coincidence. Reacher is in many ways John McClane without the smirk, fighting impossible odds all alone and taking the bad guys out one (or three) at a time while waiting vainly for the cavalry to arrive, though McClane somehow seems more human.

Okay, I’ll give Child this much credit: There’s a long suspense set piece in the second half of Die Trying that really did keep me turning the electronic pages almost despite myself. No, I didn’t really believe that Reacher could perform some of the superhero feats he was performing or that the cartoonish villains were anything resembling real people, but I actually did care how it turned out. So Child was obviously doing something right.

In the end, though, I think what keeps people reading books like this are what you learn from them. In The Killing Floor I got a pretty good lesson on the economics of counterfeiting and why the U.S. government is so desperate to prevent it. In Die Trying I learned more than anyone but a professional sniper will ever need to know about how to blow somebody’s head off from 1,200 feet away with an M-16. Child, who wrote for British television before he became a novelist, has clearly done a lot of research. This is surprisingly educational stuff.

I had thought about reading more of the books in the series, just to see how Child’s style and characters evolve over time (he seems to turn out one of these books every year or so and the second is more confidently written than the first), but his toneless prose is starting to grate on me. So for now I think I’m going to turn back to a reliable novelist whose writing style never disappoints. Those of you who have been following these book reports of mine can probably guess who it is and I’ve already got the novel loaded into my Nook. Be back soon.

Thriller Without the Thrills

Book #22 (August 3, 2010): The Passage by Justin Cronin

Given that I’m several volumes behind in my book-a-week project and finding my life filling up with a surfeit of ways that Amy and I can amuse ourselves with entertainment media that don’t involve reading, it probably wasn’t wise of me to pick a 795-page horror/science fiction/epic quest novel as my next reading project. But it isn’t always obvious how long an e-book is going to be unless you’re paying close attention and it wasn’t until I switched this book over to my Nook that I fully appreciated its length. And, BTW, those aren’t 795 Nook pages. Those are 795 real pages. In Nook pages that’s closer to 2,500, since I had the font size set so that the Nook-page-to-real-page ratio was roughly 3 to 1.

But this book sounded so good in theory that I probably would have read it even if I’d realized I’d wind up spending more than a month plodding through it. It starts with great promise. Indeed, I had hoped that I could begin this review with the line, “Drop every other book in your reading queue and pick this one up immediately, because I’ve found the perfect piece of beach reading for you.” Alas, I can’t.

The Passage (which is currently something like #7 on the New York Times hardback fiction list) starts out great guns, like a collaboration between Stephen King around the time of The Stand and Michael Crichton around the time of The Andromeda Strain. Scientists have discovered a virus deep in the Bolivian jungles that shows potential to make people immortal. It also shows potential to turn them into something like vampires. And these aren’t your romantic, civilized Anne Rice/True Blood vampires. These guys are horrific and prehistoric, about as much like the Vampire Lestat as a sabre-tooth tiger is like a house cat. They are monstrously muscled, fast as lightning, and have stalactite-like teeth that can shred a large animal in seconds. They can also pass on the virus to selected survivors, creating more of their kind.

Of course, the army scientists who discover these things believe they can refine the virus and take out the bad parts, thus obtaining a universal cure for disease, a general preventative for aging, and a way to  breed super soldiers who heal on the battlefield. They start infecting death-row convicts with the bug and locking them away in the bowels of a giant military complex to see what happens. And then — well, you can guess what happens next. The vampire convicts get loose, multiply, and set about destroying the rest of the human race.

This is the gist of about the first third of the book. Up until that point I had hopes that this would be an epic horror novel along the lines of Stephen King’s The Stand, with that same through line of unbearable tension and characters I would learn either to love or to hate. But then Justin Cronin makes an odd decision. It’s not a decision I agree with, but in retrospect I don’t think he could have made any other, because I think what I just described to you wasn’t really the story that he wanted to tell. In fact, he barely describes the part about the escaping vampires and the ensuing slaughter, giving only brief glimpses of it from news stories and handwritten accounts. Instead, he abruptly jumps 93 years into the future, when for all we can tell the only remaining members of the human race, at least in North America, are a tightly knit village of people living inside a crudely fortified town somewhere near Los Angeles. They protect themselves from the vampires — or virals, as they call them — using lights, because this is something that vampires can’t stand and it’s extremely difficult (though not impossible) to kill them with conventional weapons. Unfortunately, the lights are powered by aging storage batteries that are finally starting to go dead, which will leave the town effectively defenseless.

I won’t tell you any more than that, but there’s a lot more novel beyond that point. A LOT more. In fact, for my tastes there was a bit too much more. By this point things were starting to feel a little too much like a standard post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, of which I’ve read many, and there were times when it felt like it was going to drag on forever. There’s a large cast of characters, some of whom I really wanted to like, but I never found myself liking them quite enough to care what happened to them. Let’s just say that what happens to them involves a lengthy trek, from California to Colorado, and Cronin winds up leaving the ending way too ambiguous, which suggests the possibility of a sequel that I have no intention of reading.

None of which is to say that Cronin is a bad writer. He’s actually pretty good, but I would have preferred if he’d held himself to something a little less ambitious — a 400-page epic, say, with slightly fewer characters and slightly fewer irrelevant details. Toward the end he starts getting maudlin and while in some books I’d have found that excusable or even welcome, I never really felt that the story had earned the right to ask the readers to get teary eyed, an effect it never quite managed to have on me (and, believe me, I’ve read books that have made me uncontrollably teary eyed at the end).

So if you’re still looking for summer reading, or just for YAVN (Yet Another Vampire Novel), I’m afraid this one might not be it.

No Can Do

Book #21 (June 17, 2010): Beyond Reason: Eight Great Problems that Reveal the Limits of Science by A.K. Dewdney

A.K. Dewdney used to write a column for Scientific American called Computer Recreations. I remember that I enjoyed reading it back in the 80s, when I was obsessed with computer programming and liked to learn about the more esoteric aspects of it. He also wrote an interesting little book called The Turing Omnibus (the title is a pun that I’ll refrain from explaining), which had some fascinating things to say about algorithms and problem solving. I’d forgotten all about Dewdney, though, until I stumbled on his name somewhere the other day and wondered if he’d written any more books. It turned out that he had and the title above was the most recent. In an attempt to reawaken my interest in science and computing, I decided to read it.

What it’s about is limitations, things that humans and science can’t do or can’t know. These aren’t technological limitations but real limitations imposed by the laws of the universe. No matter how good our technology gets or how bright our computers become, these limits will always be there (though in some cases there may turn out to be ways to work around them). The best known of these is probably the speed of light barrier, which Einstein established with his Special Theory of Relativity. The speed of light barrier isn’t some sort of cosmic signpost that says we’ll get arrested if we exceed 186,000 miles per second. It’s a real physical barrier caused by (among other things) the fact that we gain mass as we gain speed. If we could move at the speed of light our mass would become infinite and so would the amount of energy required to accelerate us. Thus, 186,000 miles per second is as fast as we can ever go.

As the title suggests, there are eight such limitations discussed here and I’ll list them with merciful brevity:

1. You can’t build a perpetual motion machine — You can, in theory (and in the absence of friction), build a device that runs forever without additional energy input beyond an initial push, but you can’t get it to do useful work, like generating electricity or grinding grain. The energy transferred into the work would eventually bring the device to a stop unless more energy were put into it.
2. You can’t move faster than the speed of light — See above.
3. You can’t simultaneously detect the location and velocity of a subatomic particle — This is otherwise known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and has some very spooky ramifications.
4. You can’t come up with precise predictions of the future behavior of systems that exhibit so-called “chaotic” behavior, like the weather — At best you can come up with an educated guess, because even the tiniest imprecisions in your data can destroy the prediction completely.
5. You can’t square a circle — This has to do with creating one shape that has exactly the same area as another shape using only a t-square and a compass. You can do it with most shapes, but you can’t use this method to create a square with exactly the same area as a circle. Why you’d want to, I’m not entirely sure, but apparently it could be useful under some circumstances.
6. You can’t prove every possible axiom in a mathematical system — This is otherwise known as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which was a real blow to mathematicians in the 1930s, because mathematicians of that era liked to believe they could do anything.
7. Some computer problems can never be solved — There just isn’t an algorithm for everything. Sorry.
8. Some computer problems that have algorithms would take too long to solve — This is largely because the complexity of the problem grows so rapidly as you add elements to it that the fastest computer imaginable would take more than the lifetime of the universe to solve them.

Dewdney is a clear and often witty writer, but this book exists out on that scary edge of popular science writing where math starts to appear. To Dewdney’s credit the math almost never goes beyond high school algebra, but there’s a lot of it and my algebra is very, very rusty. So I very quickly started glancing at the equations and just taking Dewdney’s word for what they proved. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of the value of the book this way — he presents mathematical demonstrations of some very important stuff here — and I can’t recommend the book to anybody who isn’t willing to sit down with a piece of paper and work through the math step by step. However, even if you don’t do this, there’s a lot of interesting history here, about perpetual motion hoaxes and rivalries among mathematicians, to give the book some value even beyond the math.

Fortunately, I was already aware of most of the subjects he discusses, from the reading I did back in the days when I wrote science books for kids, so I was never completely lost, but I did develop quite a headache from staring at all those numbers.