Saturday, July 25, 2009

Alternate Warriors - edited by Mike Resnick

1993; 434 pages. Book #3 of Resnick's "Alternate Anthologies" series. Genre : Alternate History. Overall Rating : C- (below average, but manly).
This is a "what if" book. Mike Resnick asks a bunch of writers to take any historical person of reason or peace, and examine what would've happened if they had said, "the heck with turning the other cheek, I'm gonna kick some butt!"
What's To Like...
It's Alternate History, and that's a plus. There are 29 stories all told, which is about double what you get in most anthologies. The ubiquitous Esther Friesner is here. So is Mercedes Lackey, whose books I like. I also met five noteworthy historical figures that I had never heard of.
The Best of the Bunch...
Jane's Fighting Ships. Esther Friesner's contribution. Jane Austen teams up with Davy Crockett to strike a blow against Napoleon in French-occupied England. Wow.
Sam Clemens and the Notable Mare, by Mel White. Told with a Twainsian style of humor.
The Firebringers. An all-star cast of 40's Hollywood legends are the flight crew on a plane slated to drop the first atomic bomb. Destination : Berlin.
Queen of Asia. Sisygambis (who?) rallies the Persians to defeat Alexander the Great. Probably my favorite story in the book.
The Arrival of Truth. Kind of a Toni Morrison "Beloved" story, but only 25 pages long.
The whole list of bloodthirsty characters..."(*)" indicates somebody new to me.
Julius Nyerere (*); Jane Austen; Martin Luther King; Gandhi; Frederico Garcia Lorca (*); Pope John Paul 1; King Tut's wife; Susan B. Anthony; Mother Teresa; Lawrence of Arabia; Mark Twain; St. Francis of Assisi; Leonard Bernstein; 40's Hollywood actors; Albert Schweitzer; Sisygambis (*); Moses; Marilyn Monroe; Thomas Beckett; Albert Einstein; Stephen Hawking; Tecumseh (kinda); Pope John XXIII; Neville Chamberlain; Sidney Reilly (*); Jesus; Martin Luther King (again); Jules Verne; Sojourner Truth (*).
Aspirations of Mediocrity...
I had very low expectations for this book, and it lived down to them. Other than the "best" stories listed above, this was a pretty boring read. Some of the tales were silly, such as Albert Schweitzer playing Tarzan. Quite a few were banal - Martin Luther King or Gandhi or a Pope picks up a gun and goes postal. Yawn.
In the end, I think the main problem was the theme itself, not the authors. Alternate History cannot be propely done in 10-15 pages. Here's an example.
Sisygambis, the original cougar, outmaneuvers the invading Greeks, saves Persia, captures Alexander the Great, and History takes a different fork in the road. Fine. Alas, our story ends there. What we really want to know is how Western Civilization would then have been changed. And that isn't addressed.
There is a lot of good Alt-History out there, and I kinda figured this would pale in comparison. I can't recommend Alternate Warriors, but I give it a C- because at least a couple of the stories held my attention. For the most part though, it was boring. Only my OCD made me finish it.
In closing we'll leave you with this Photoshopped image of our previous Pope, just oozing with machismo. For an appreciation of the Alternate Warriors task, go ahead and try to write an interesting short story about John Paul II in this alternate persona. I have a feeling it won't be easy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

1995; 416 pages. Comics originally published in 1986-87. Genres : Graphic (in both senses of the word) novel; action. Awards : One of the NYT "100 Best novels"; Update : 1988 Hugo Award for Best Other Form. Overall Rating : A-.

   .It is nigh impossible to discuss the plot without spoilers, so here's the ultra-condensed version : the brutal slaying of a retired superhero leads to a plan underway that threatens the fate of the whole world.

.What's To Like...
    A fantastic storyline; in-depth character development; breath-taking artwork. A cool alternate history setting where the US wins the Vietnam War due to two of our heroes' involvement, and Richard Nixon gets to be President-for-Life.

.The term "superhero" is a misnomer here, since only one of the group has superhuman powers. That's Dr. Manhattan, who through personal ineptness turns himself into a walking, talking Star Trek transporter. This fascinates the US government, but generally irritates everyone else, particularly Manhattan's Vonnegutian view of time.

.The group also includes Ozymandias, the world's smartest human. But face it, right now, someone's walking around on earth with that same distinction. And Nite Owl creates some fabulous Batmanesque gadgets, but nothing unbelievable. The rest of the group seem to be ordinary people with a sense of vigilanteism and a fetish for capes-&-spandex.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?One of the charms of Watchmen is that it examines a number of situational ethics themes. Here are two of them; albeit modified so that spoilers are avoided.

.Theme #1 : What if your superheroes aren't?
Yeah, Spiderman may have to occasionally confront his dark side; and Batman might have a moment or two of psychological self-doubt. But in the end, they always emerge as all-American good guys, that little boys can idolize when they read the comic books.

.But what if they had some permanent character flaws? Suppose Superman felt compelled to get a sex-change, or Batman physically abused Robin, or Underdog got insanely jealous of all other superheroes. Would we still hero-worship these world-savers if they weren't perfect?

.Theme #2 : The Hiroshima Syndrome
For all the nuclear-weapons-in-terrorists-hands phobia nowadays, the fact is - only the USA has ever detonated an atomic bomb on another nation. And we did it twice, and against civilian, not military, targets. At Hiroshima, roughly 70,000 people died on the day of the blast; then another 40,000 a few days later at Nagasaki. After another three months, those numbers double; and another equal number of deaths occurred due to long-term cases of cancer, etc. All told, more than a quarter million lives lost.

.Even today, the debate still rages about these bombings. In school, the teachers always justified the action by saying the bombs were dropped to "save American lives that would have been lost if we had actually invaded Japan" and to "destroy the will for warfare of the Japanese people."
Watchmen gives you its opinion of the Hiroshima Syndrome. I won't spoil it for you, instead I'll lay out a similar scenario.
Suppose a swine flu epidemic arises. It has a 95% mortality rate; is highly contagious; and spreads rapidly. For now, it is confined to Iran. In another week, it will spread throughout the world. Question - do we nuke Iran for the sake of the rest of humanity?
Now what if the point-of-infection was, say, your home state? Does your answer change? And who makes the decision? The US Government? Would their answer be different if the point of infection was Washington DC?

.Halt! Hugo's there?I give Watchmen an A-. It is a genre-changing opus and redefines the depth that a comic can have. It is complex, with a lot of food-for-thought, and held my attention. Plus I'm a sucker for situational ethics.
OTOH, it is not one of the 100 best novels of all time. While the ending is superb, the final steps in getting there are a bit clunky.

.Nor should it have won (update : nor did it win) the Hugo Award for Best Novel. As beautiful as the artwork is, I am more in awe of somone who can give you just as vivid of a scene, using only text. Like Sylvia Plath, for example :

."The wind has blown a warm yellow moon up over the sea; a bulbous moon, which sprouts in the soiled indigo sky, and spills bright winking petals of light on the quivering black water."

.Oooooh, that's sensational! It's not a matter of which is better, it's a matter of what constitutes a novel. Thankfully, the Hugo folks came to their senses, and have since established a separate Awards category for Graphic Novels. As for me, although I can't say I won't read another Graphic Novel in the future, I will say that they'll never replace a good, text-only book.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

2000; 437 pages. Awards : NY Times #1 Bestseller; nominated for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize (General Non-Fiction). Genre : Memoir; Fictional Non-Fiction (yeah I know, that's an oxymoron). Overall Rating : B..

    This is David Eggers' break-out book, giving his reflections on about an 8-year period of his life, starting around age 22. His parents die within a few weeks/months of each other, leaving their four children orphaned. Dave's older brother (Bill) has a full-time job, and his older sister (Beth) is just starting law school, so it falls to our author to be the family guardian of 8-year Christopher ("Toph"), despite having no parenting skills. It's a coming-of-age tale, as Eggers struggles to be both a mentor and a buddy to Toph, while also starting up an off-beat magazine ("Might", patterned after "Wired"), holding down various jobs to make ends meet, and somehow finding time to pursue the opposite sex.

.What's To Like...
    The literary style is unique. Eggers deftly weaves stream-of-consciousness and techniques like the "Fourth Wall" into the narrative. There are philosophical musings - the Might crew strives hard to adhere to a "we're doing this for Art's sake, not for financial reward", all the while knowing that without readers and advertisers, the magazine is toast.
There's a gentle self-deprecating humor running throughout the book. Eggers recounts the foibles of his love life, dealing with his Mom's ashes ("cremains"), baby-sitter anxiety, and his I'm-gonna-die experience which turned out instead to be passing a kidney stone.

.The writing is polished (see below), which seems surprising, given that Eggers was still in his 20's when he wrote this. Last but not least, be sure to check out the "dull" sections of the book - the copyright page, the acknowledgements, etc. Eggers' wit is there as well.
OTOH, Eggers can get quite wordy at times (the contrived transcript of the MTV interview being a salient example). Lots of people found AHWOSG to be too self-indulgent (but isn't that what a memoir is all about?). By his own account, Eggers also takes substantial "literary license" with the facts here (but isn't that what an 'authorized' memoir is all about?).
Finally, I suggest skipping the 40-odd page prologue, in which Eggers self-analyzes himself and his book, and go directly to page 1. If at the end, you've been thrilled by the story, you can always go back and read the intro. .Excerpt (first two sentences, actually) :

"Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic. Exhaust from the dryer billows out of the house and up, breaking apart while tumbling into the white sky." Sigh. I wish I could write like that.
You'll like AHWOSG if...
    The style reminded me a lot of A Confederacy of Dunces, or perhaps a David Sedaris book, but with mellower humor. I'm not big on reading biographies and memoirs, but I liked AHWOSG. The Americana descriptiveness is nice, and I can see how this would appeal to the Pulitzer peeps. So I'll give it a "B", and wonder just how good of a writer Eggers will be when he's gotten a couple decades of experience under his belt.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Going Postal - Terry Pratchett

2004; 394 pages. Book #33 in the Discworld series. Awards : nominated for the Nebula and Locus Awards in 2005. Genre : Fantasy. Overall Rating : A-..

    Condemned to be hanged by the neck until dead (and in fact, done so), con-man extraordinaire Moist von Lipwig is made an offer he can't refuse - become Ankh-Morpork's postmaster general. The alternative is to jump (or be pushed) from an incredibly high tower, and hope that angels catch him. Moist chooses the more terrestial alternative.

   .Alas, the postal system is in disarray, being viewed as obsolete now that the clacks system (think giant semaphore towers) have been built. It is going to require all of Moist's effort and ingenuity to turn the business around.

.What's To Like...
    A good storyline and some good themes. There's the sorry state of the postal system, of course. The clack towers are the equivalent of our modern-day Internet and e-mail (bigger, faster, and prone to meltdowns), and at least in this book Pratchett's sympathies are with the Post Office. But Pratchett also dwells upon shady and asset-less business dealings. And gives some insight on why people fall for scams.
Going Postal marks the debut of Moist von Lipwig. Besides him, the book also showcases Lord Havelock Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork and self-professed tyrant. Pratchett presents both in a rather favorable light, which is a nice literary change. Moist gradually finds the Post Office a more-satisfying career than swindling people out of their money. And Vetinari may be a tyrant, but he does look out for the welfare of Ankh-Morpork, albeit while employing some highly effective assassins and spies. .Being a recent Discworld book, Going Postal focuses more on the story, and less on groan-inducing puns and mangled metaphors. I've made my peace with Pratchett on that issue.

    .Going Postal is especially recommended if you value interesting plotlines over plentiful wit. I think this is as good as it gets for recent Discworld books, so we'll give it an A-, particularly if you're looking for a "light read". The Locus and Nebula Award people agree.