Monday, June 20, 2011

Preliminary Praise

First off, 'preliminary' looks funny and without spell check there is no hope for me ever spelling it correctly.

So I'm reading Titus Groan, the first book of the Gormenghast trilogy.  I knew I would like this book for reasons I can't express.  It's awesome and has been better than every expectation I had.  I'm only a hundred pages in and can't even begin to guess at the level of awesome the next three-hundred will hold--or where there story is going for that matter.

I'm going to break one of my self-imposed blogging rules and upon the books completion leave a commentary.  It goes against my 'don't rave about dead authors of the classics' rule, but I'm willing to look the other way concerning my own infraction.  I could be wrong, but I feel that Mervyn Peake's name isn't as well known as it should be, but beyond that I'm not going to justify my rule breaking.  

Put this one on the bucket list: hell just go to your library and get a copy.  Now.  You will not be sorry.   

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I have a very poor concept of what is science fiction.  It is ironic considering I think the vast majority of everything written is some form of fantasy hiding behind a multitude of guises.  Aliens, outer-space, interstellar warfare, Starwars: that's what immediately comes to mind when I think of science fiction.  I know I'm wrong (and shallow), but for me those elements are such a turn off and have left such an impression that I mistakenly pan the whole genre.  Stories of Your Life and Others is marked as science fiction and all the praise on the back and inside of the book seems to mention the genre as well.  I didn't read a single one of the stories included as science fiction.  They all made me think and forced the use of my imagination.  Perhaps my definition of fantasy is so all encompassing that science fiction has become part of the meld.  I now feel I've done my due diligence with this up front disclaimer concerning myself and the genre.
The best stories in this collection share a feeling of plausibility and those that aren't quite as strong as the best still manage to impart, at minimum, a powerful verisimilitude of profundity.  I would describe Chiang as a confident writer, one who thoroughly believes in his abilities and has achieved an uncanny measure of erudition in the medium he has chosen to work in.  His success in achieving an almost instantaneous acceptance in whatever we should deem, 'fantastic' has to do with the immediacy he brings up a topic, the nonchalant manner in which it is mentioned, and most importantly in how the incredible or unrealistic isn't dwelled on: the characters involved believe in whatever the issue is and move on.  So does the reader.  Instead of trying to invest the reader in what is fantastic or making them 'buy into' the premise he just moves on; stating the issue as fact and never looking back.  It works.
From the most scientific (Seventy-Two Letters) to the least (Tower of Babylon), more than a character or setting Chiang writes about ideas.  There is a certain amount of active reader participation that he demands. That is not to say his writing is difficult but you do have to be willing to impart some of your own brain power to fully enjoy what he is trying to write about.  Every story in the collection embraces the idea of 'what if…' and then ask the reader to think things through morally, problematically, socially sometimes even religiously.  Chiang is always there to guide us with suggestions for new lines of thought and more often than not takes definitive measures for the sake of the narrative.  
Understand is about about a man who experiences severe brain damage after a traumatic accident that left him in a coma.  He is given an experimental growth hormone treatment that proves to re-grow previously damaged parts of his brain.  Is that really too far fetched to believe?  Division by Zero is about a fundamental truth that a woman discovers that upends everything known about mathematics and a good deal of the fundamentals thought to be natural law.  The story is also of her slow decent into madness as only she and a handful of others can fully comprehend what she has discovered.  These stories illustrate Chiang's ability to suggest to all readers what is left undiscovered in our world: a simple--plausible--'what if' developed logically, or perhaps it is proper to say 'scientifically' into a narrative.  Despite all the examples and proofs offered to support his premises all of his stories have a very humane element to them.
Hell is the Absence of God deals with the most basic of storytelling elements that never fail to arouse interest: the afterlife, and the mysterious ways of God's existence (in this particular story there definitively is a God).  Though all of the stories here are independent of one another, if there were a unifying element it could be argued that many share a strong theme of personal decay or degradation unto the point of loss though not always death where an individual gains a new perspective by way of Pyrrhic achievement as in The Tower of Babylon, Understand, Division by Zero and Story of your Life.  
As introspective as Chiang's characters seem to be, I feel he was at his strongest in the concluding story, Liking what you see: A Documentary, where there isn't a central character as in standard storytelling rather a host of vignettes from multiple outlets.  Calliagnosia is the ability to turn off facial recognition features that people define as attractive or not-so-much.  We hear thoughts from different age groups and perspectives and by the end you shouldn't be surprised to find yourself debating the merits and flaws of completely made up cosmetic treatment.  
I had no expectations going into this book as I had previously only read one story by the author that was not collected here.  (Too many times have I been led astray by one amazing story to a collection of FAIL, but such is not the case with Chiang.)  Upon finishing the book I still have no clear definition of science fiction, though I think I like the trendy, internet, hipster term 'speculative fiction' as it seems incongruously both more general and specific.  However you want to brand Ted Chiang or his writing he should be thought of as a writer whose works are not only seminal for his 'genre' but necessary reading to further the quality of all others.     

Monday, June 6, 2011

Some thoughts on Unsound Variation by George R R Martin From Dreamsongs Volume II

If ever there were a story that exposed my deficiencies as a reader this would be it.  After completing this story, and ultimately being wrong about every warning sign I interpreted as impending fail, I think I will have to re-evaluate how I read which is simultaneously a refreshing and scary thought.
Four friends from a decade past chess team, the B team at that, at the University of Northwestern reunite under absolutely no pretense at all.  They haven't kept in touch over the years nor were they particularly close back in the day.  An invitation is extended and they all inexplicably decide to attend.  ( And we are all aware of the horror of these kinds of reunions…)  The host, Bunnish, is the only one of the four to be met with any kind of success in life and has become exorbitantly wealthy dealing in electronics.  Delmario, has had brilliant ideas, but always beaten to the punch by Bunnish and now has only alcohol to keep him company.  E.C. Stuart has had every sound business decision he has ever made work against him and now revels in a life of mediocrity.  And Peter has suffered a life of failure in every creative endeavor he has ever pursued.
At the heart of Bunnish's success and everyone else's failure is a chess game.  In particular a game that Bunnish lost in what would have been a colossal upset of the University of Chicago's "A" team.  Bunnish has played beautifully and to all eyes in the tournament has the game won.  Nonetheless, he finds a way to lose.  Then he, logically,  becomes a psychopath….     
Using a time travel machine of his own device (roll your eyes here) Bunnish has successfully ruined the lives of his three teammate and the person at UC who beat him.  Apparently, he never once has considered going back to alter the game so that he might win.
It starts with what I thought an inane character and host of repetitious backstory.  Oh the tedium.  Peter's wife is the nagging harridan who by way of the author's skill in depicting her annoyed the hell out of me.  We watch Peter set himself up for her verbal abuse while they drive up to Bunnish's mansion.  He sets 'em up; she knocks 'em down.  Peter: open mouth, insert foot.  It goes on and on.  Through this tedium we get backstory and a slightly manic desire to choke a fictional character.  I had written her off to the point that, when she later suggest the only reasonable course of action, and what was to me the redeeming point of the story, in accepting this future it came as a great surprise.  I didn't expect, nor can I imagine other readers would, the bitch of time to be the voice of reason and wisdom.  
The time travel (I feel like it is always a horrible story mechanic), repetition, and the slightly esoteric nature of chess all paled once Bunnish unleashed his devious plan: he wants to play famous game of chess against each of his teammates from the point it was deemed he had the game won to show that there was no way to win.  I almost skipped the remainder of the story when Delmario was the first to play, and his game with Bunnish got serious attention to detail, lots of chess explanation, and intimate emotional content.  I said to myself, "I've got to go through this two more times!"  Thinking that those two more times had to be even more intense than Delmario's experience to resonate with readers.  Boy was I wrong.  Martin knows what he is doing.  Stuart's game was super short and Peter declined to play--and in doing so, 'won.'  Each of their experiences in play against Bunnish was shorter than the previous player's.  
I feel I was predisposed to dislike this story even though everything I thought to be a pitfall turned out to be a strength.  It's not my favorite story in the collection, to be as objective as I can I think it's the weakest inclusion I've coming across thus far, that said, it was solid, only not for me.  If nothing else it showed me that it may not hurt to turn off my analytical side while reading and simply enjoy what is given.  
Easier said than done, but I'll work on it.      

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

It's been a long month.  Thirty-one days.  It has also been an unproductive and terribly depressing month, but fear not.  I won't bore you with the minutiae of my life; well, no more than I usually do.

The East Atlanta Beer Festival was easily the high point.  Fifty-seven beer producers and one hundred forty something different beers.  It was also the low point in the month, as I ended up going alone, unable to convince any of my friends to go out on a Saturday afternoon and drink beer (A much tougher sell that I would have thought!).  Either I'm old, or we--my friends, and I--are old.  Regardless of the truth, I'm telling myself that everyone else is old and I remain unchanged...

In such a long month and with so much underemployment you would think I'd recount how much reading I've gotten done, and you would be very very wrong.  I read
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and Dancing with Bears by Michael Swanwick.  I also read about three hundred pages worth of short stories from George R R Martin's Dreamsongs Volume II.  So I got a door stopper in this month and that's good, I failed to leave comments for anything let alone two books, and I feel no less weary for laziness.  Franzen was great.  Swanwick was a wonderful novel where Darger and Surplus, long running short story characters of the authors, felt forced into the narrative rather than the book being about or build around them.  Martin's short stories were exactly what I needed to be reading at that specific point in time.  And I'll have more to say about one of them in a day or so.   

I've no expectations of June.  I'm taking a hiatus from assigning myself books to read in a given time period seeing how poorly I failed in May.  That said, I have a stack of books, I'd like to get through by summer's end. 

The biggest, and lamest, thing to talk about for this past month is the weather.  It was 71 degrees last night at 1:30am.  My poor air conditioning unit can't keep up and I'm dreading the bill.  I don't complain about being hot because I've lived through winter in Chicago and I know what the wind off Lake Michigan feels like in February.  I also know at what temperature below zero your breath will freeze over.  I don't complain about the heat, but allow me a comment that few who haven't lived here and fully appreciate.  It's hot.  More specifically this heat is usually reserved for August so I'm a bit scared of what's to come. 

Hoping for eternal rain in June...