Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Book: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My next book from the list is The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. This is part of the 37-book series Discworld, and each book in the set is on the list. I should say, 37 and counting; book 38 is anticipated in 2010. I don't intend to read the entire series back to back (although who knows, that might happen).

I started reading The Color of Magic once before at the recommendation of a friend. I'd read Good Omens, and he told me I should really read the Discworld series. For some reason, I didn't get into it at that time and stopped reading. I think I was reading 2 or 3 things at once, and got so distracted from The Color of Magic that I wasn't really taking it in. This time around it is sinking in better, and I'm already well into the book only a week after starting it.

Also, it's very nice not to be reading Victorian literature.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dracula: Review

The thing about reading Dracula is that you know the story. Sort of. You have heard it told numerous times. So you know what will happen. No spoiler warnings needed, none necessary.

What you are left with is the opportunity to take in this story in its original form, without the lens of interpretation guiding the angle at which you view it.

The original is quite good.

Dracula is a basic monster story. In fact, Dracula is my favorite type of monster - the unstoppable evil. Dracula is old, smart, powerful, and endlessly resourceful. For much of the novel, it's not known that Lucy seems ill because she's been attacked by Dracula. The word "vampire" is not used until about half way through the novel. Our heroes are at a loss throughout much of the novel, with no sense of how to defeat this creature. Science has failed them. Logic has failed them. It is the very essence of horror.

Likewise, Dracula is not an emotional character with complex motivations for his behavior. He's just a monster, a creature with a survival instinct, and that is all. Because he victimizes humans, he must be slaughtered. It's refreshingly simple in the modern world of too many vampires with too much angst.

Of course, this simplicity is not free from flaws. In Bram Stoker's world, a vampire is a creature that has not died when it naturally should have. A human soul is trapped in it, so while killing the creature is necessary in order to stop it from killing, it's also a kindness to the human that once was because its soul is finally released. Conveniently, once a person is fully vampire that trapped soul has no influence over the person. This allows Lucy's fiance Arthur to kill her without hesitation. Once Lucy is a vampire she still remembers her life. She still knows enough to use Arthur's love for her in an attempt to take him as a victim. But any goodness she has is gone, and so Arthur can hammer a stake into her breast without shame, revulsion, or guilt - and he feels none of these, even though at the very least he's desecrated the creepy animated corpse of his love.

Likewise, when Mina is slowly transforming into a vampire, she specifically chooses her husband Jonathan as her slayer in the event that she can't be saved. Why? Because it's best if someone you love kills you, in Stoker's bizarre logic.

Reading this, it becomes clear how many others have read Dracula, and felt bothered by these same problems, and decided to give vampires consciences and choices rather than simply making them creatures who feed by instinct. It's also clear why vampire slayers were also created in time. Because really, wouldn't it be better if Van Helsing slayed all these vampires and spared those who loved Lucy and Mina the most?

Of course, all this killing of your own leads to another main theme of the novel, which is madness. The mystery of what is happening to Lucy, Jonathan's account of what happened to him in Dracula's castle, the bizarre shifts in weather and strange behavior of animals, all these elements combine to make all the protagonist feel their grip on sanity loosen, with the exception of the stalwart Van Helsing. Fittingly there is a lunatic asylum at the center of the swirling madness, with Renfield at the eye of the storm performing a function very similar to the fool in King Lear, speaking truths that no one heeds because of his station in life.

There are a few other minor flaws in the novel. Mostly it suffers from a long-windedness that I find difficult to get past in most Victorian stories. I'm particularly annoyed that whenever action is taken to fight Dracula, everything is done twice, like a little practice run is needed before we really get down to business. I think Stoker wrote in this way to make it seem more realistic, but it just slows down the story unnecessarily, and often makes the characters seem reluctant to act. Of course, this same devotion to realism is the reason why our heroes are keenly aware that their job involves a lot of breaking and entering, and also an act that any witnesses would call murder, and so they have the practical dilemma of taking precautions to avoid being arrested.

In this way Stoker avoids the wild suspension of disbelief that some horror stories completely depend upon. It is clear why Dracula is not only the archetypal vampire story, but also an archetypal horror story.

I'll be taking a little break for a while because of the demands of Christmas, and also to read Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. I am inspired by this novel to watch several film translations of the story, and so next up, I'll be posting about those films and my thoughts on all of that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Twilight vampires: accidentally clever

I'm sidetracking a bit today to discuss some information I picked up recently about Twilight. I'm deep into the world of Dracula at this time, and meanwhile vampire stuff is everywhere with the release of the New Moon film, so it's not completely off-topic.

I'm not a fan of the Twilight series. In fact, my friend J'Mel's article about the first movie pretty much expresses how I feel about the entire thing. I, like J'Mel, don't think you need to read the series to know that it's awful. Besides, someone is already reading it on behalf of all of us who refuse to. I've also met a few writers who have very strong (negative) opinions about the series, including one who specifically told me she thought it was dangerous for tweens. I don't agree that the books are dangerous, I just don't think they are very good.

I was surprised to learn, however, that there is some precedence for the seemingly non-vampiric nature of Stephanie Meyer's vampires. A big complaint is that they lack fangs, which are the most universally accepted trait of vampires. As it turns out, the title character in the vampire story Carmilla has no fangs, and this is a story that preceded and inspired Dracula.

Additionally, on Here and Now yesterday they discussed how there is precedence for the vampire as a stereotype of Mormons. It turns out that vampire imagery was used to demonize the Mormons in the early 1900s. Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon in case you've missed out on this detail, and the scholars interviewed on Here and Now note that it's a clever flip of the old archetype that Meyer's vampires are creatures with morals and self-control instead of demonic monsters gathering multiple wives.

Of course, all of this would be much more impressive if Stephanie Meyer knew it before writing these novels. As they note on Here and Now, she's never watched any vampire movies or read Dracula, or watched any vampire-inspired movies - so she's never seen these films that vilify Mormons either. I doubt she's read the lesbian vampire story Carmilla for that matter. So the fact that her stories are a part of the history of vampire fiction in interesting ways doesn't make the stories themselves interesting. It also doesn't change the fact that she arrived here by accident, having no sense of the history of the genre to begin with.

And it certainly doesn't make up for the more sparkly, baseball-playing offenses she has committed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Songs about Dune

I've been checking out the podcast The Sword and Laser. I became aware of these guys some time ago when Veronica Belmont was on This Week in Tech, and I decided to check them out and see what things were like elsewhere in the online sci fi/fantasy reading neighborhood.

I feel compelled to call this the online sci fi/fantasy book club neighborhood, but I don't really constitute a book club, being only one person. However, if any of you want to start reading whatever book I'm working on and discuss it with me, then please feel free to do so. I would gladly turn this into the 149 novels book club.

On Sword and Laser they read Dune a few months ago, and are still talking about it a bit in the podcasts I listened to. I suppose I could go back and listen to the podcast where they discussed Dune, but it did not automatically load onto iTunes when I added their podcast, and the iPod is generally my main vehicle of podcast listening. Anyway, they are still talking about it, and also talking about music that is inspired by sci fi and fantasy. Among the many songs mentioned is a parody tune called "I'm the Kwisatz Haderach" by Abner Senires. Give it a listen - pretty funny stuff.

Also discussed in the same podcast is the song "To Tame a Land" by Iron Maiden which is also about Dune, and some history on that song. Check it out, it also has a lot of information (and spoilers) about George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones: S&L #021. The internet is abuzz with George R. R. Martin these days, who in case you didn't know, is not your bitch. As someone blogging about fantasy novels, it is mandatory that I mention this.

Unfortunately, he is not on the list. One day, I may have to take a hiatus from the list to read his stuff. People seem to like it quite a lot. The interesting thing about doing this blog is that I've learned about all these other things I want to read, but many of them are not on the list. This makes me think about the direction this will go in the future. I'm bound to finish all these books eventually, and when I do I may keep this blog going and just talk about the stories I was inspired to read by these stories.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Regarding vampires.

Happy Halloween! In celebration of the holiday I’ve decided to read Dracula. It’s not the only vampire story on the list, but clearly the most popular, and probably the most appropriate choice for this holiday out of all the novels on the list.

I’m not going to speculate too much on the novel at this point. I’ve just started reading, and the Dracula legend is such a part of pop culture that it would be easy to make assumptions based on creative works other than the novel.

Instead I’m going to go off topic and talk about a vampire story I read recently, Courtney Crumrin and the Prince of Nowhere. This is part of the Courtney Crumrin series by Ted Naifeh, who is my current favorite comic book guy. Courtney Crumrin is a series of stories about a girl who has inherited the power of witchcraft, and who uses magic to deal with both the ordinary and the unusual problems of a young girl.

It sounds a little Harry Potter-ish, but this series goes well beyond Harry Potter’s heroic yet simple tale. Courtney is not learning to be a hero. She’s trying to learn about love and trust, learning at a very young age that giving your heart to someone means risking great pain and loss. Her flawed guardian is her uncle Aloysius, who is quite capable of instructing her in magic, but is not a much help regarding love and friendship. He allows the non-magic people in his town to believe that his house is haunted, seeming to prefer that they fear and avoid him. Likewise, he has disdain towards the community of magic users as a whole, because they tend to be as fearful, ignorant, and prejudiced as the non-magic people.

Prince of Nowhere begins like all the recent novels in the popular vampire romance genre; Courtney has never truly had a boyfriend, and she falls in love with a vampire who appears to have been turned when he was a little older than she is. Unlike the popular stories of this genre, however, Courtney’s vampire is not safe, not resisting his vampire urges in order to live a more humane life. The possibility of this kind of life is not even discussed in the story, leaving me to assume that in this story the life of a vampire is the life of a predator, with no special exceptions you can make to ease your conscience. In fact, the story doesn’t mention our vampire’s conscience, and I assume he doesn’t have one. Genteel behavior, special attention paid to his human love, these all appear to be tricks played in order to turn Courtney and gain the companion that he craves.

Which brings up an interesting point, one which I’ve noticed is a problem lately: modern vampires are always telling us that we should not want to be vampires, but the argument is always so poorly supported. The following is just a handful of popular reasons our tortured vampire male leads give for not turning their girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you are reading Anne Rice) and their obvious counter-arguments:

1. Being a vampire is awful! You crave human blood all the time! You must live with the knowledge that you are an evil killer! First of all, the vampire delivering this speech is somehow managing the temptation to eat all the tasty humans, because his lover is there, not getting eaten. So this argument condescendingly suggests that the fang-bangers wouldn’t have the strength of will to avoid biting everyone in sight, or to just fill up on True Blood or rats or – what do Twilight vampires eat, deer or something? – prior to going out amongst the humans. Also, some humans are really awful people. While we are imagining a world full of real vampires, why not also imagine that it’s ok for vampires to chow on murderers and rapists?

2. Being immortal may make you insane! This is also a side effect of mortality. Doesn’t happen to all of us. It probably doesn’t happen to all of them either. Not to mention, it’s at least worth giving it a try. Surely you’d have a millennia or two in you before the crazy set in.

3. You will watch everyone you love die as you remain the same. Not if you turn them. I guess some of them will refuse, but hey. People make decisions that are life threatening, and those of us who love them have to accept that, even if we are only mortals. By the way, this is why you should turn me into a vampire, so you won't have to watch me die. Go ahead, ease your suffering.

4. You will learn that life is meaningless. Yes Louis I might, but I might decide to dwell on that as a mortal too. I think I am more likely to mope about my meaningless existence in a cubicle all day than I would while being fast and strong and awesome all night long.

5. You will never see the daylight again. Eh. I am not a big fan as it is.

In The Prince of Nowhere the reason why Courtney should not become a vampire is simple and clear. Vampires have a particular nature about them which means that once you are turned, you are no longer like the humans. Being human is the only way to maintain your humanity.

It's not that I dislike the stories of the vampire boyfriends. I am a big Buffy fan, and I love the show True Blood. It's just that the vampire/human love story does have this one major flaw in the plot, and it's nice to read stories where the vampires stick to their guns and accept their predatory nature, and where the humans realize that they must choose human or vampire and cannot have both.

When it comes to that, I feel that Dracula will not disappoint.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My meager attempt to explain why Dune is amazing

I finished Dune over a week ago, but I haven’t written about it yet because I’ve needed time to process it. As I mentioned in my review of the Alice books, it’s very hard for me to describe what I like about a well written story. When talking Dune over with a friend I said a good story is like a magic trick. Dune is a good story, and is my favorite book from this list so far.

So what is so great about Dune?

For starters, Herbert created this detailed, rich, living universe. A lot of critics talk about Dune as an ecological novel, or a political novel. It’s hard to miss these associations. The planet Dune is also called Arrakis, which in the film version is pronounced “Iraq-us”. The spice found on Arrakis enables space travel. It makes a clear point about the relationship to certain desert lands on our own world and the travel enabling substances we get from them. But in addition to this very contemporary subject, the world of Dune contains a vast, multi-tiered political system. The story is not simply hero and villain. There are numerous parties, each with complex motivations for their actions. There are religious influences ranging from the amalgam of popular earth religions represented by the Orange Catholic Bible; to the part nun, part mystic, part spiritual manipulators of the Bene Gesserit; to the prophetic and zealous faith of the Fremen.

And inside this world Herbert constructed live these vivid characters. There is Lady Jessica, who rebels against the Bene Gesserit out of love for her Duke and her son. And there is Paul Atreides, the legend that the Fremen have been waiting for. My aforementioned friend told me that Herbert said Dune is a story about a man playing god (and she ought to know, as she contributed essays to The Science of Dune). In Paul this theme is excellently carried out as he fulfills the prophecies in order to gain the devotion of the Fremen, even while fearing a time in the future in which he foresees zealots committing atrocities in his name.

Dune is great because it is more than just the well-developed world, more than the characters, more than the plot. All these elements combine just right to create an atmosphere. While reading this novel I kept thinking of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. These stories aren't particularly similar, but both give me a sense that while I'm reading the book, I'm living in the story. I have a tendency to multi-task my reading - I might interrupt my progress in a novel to read magazines or comic books on the side. I found with Dune I did not want to be sidetracked in this way. I wanted my full focus on this one novel. That's the magic trick, the thing that I can't point to and say "here's what's so great about it." Whatever it is that makes it impossible for me to put a novel down, or to leave it for a while to look at other stories, or to stop thinking about it all the time, Dune has it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Back from DragonCon

In case you've never been to DragonCon, here's a little sample of what that's like.

We drove to Atlanta very early Thursday morning after getting no sleep at all on Wednesday night. Seriously, no sleep at all. Why? Because we had costumes to finish up, and we hadn't packed yet. Trust me, we are not the only people at the Con who stayed up all night finishing a costume. We left at 6:30 in the morning, stopping at Lowe's on the way out of town for a nut I needed for my Steampunk gun.

In Anniston, we stopped for breakfast and decided to take a nap in the McDonald's parking lot afterwards, just because we were so tired. We napped for 40 minutes, and strangely this was enough to get us the rest of the way to Atlanta.

As for the rest of the weekend, I can only say that we got more sleep each night than we did on that night, but not necessarily enough sleep. We ate junk food. We walked a lot, dashing from hotel to hotel to catch events. We sometimes crashed out midday out of sheer exhaustion.

Also, Amanda wore a very large and heavy costume for several hours, and suffered sore legs the rest of the weekend as a result. However, she won two prizes for her efforts. In the Friday Night Costume Contest, she won Best Novice and Audience Favorite. Totally worth it.

And then we went home on Monday, feeling worn out. This is considering that we don't drink at the Con. I can't imagine what Monday must be like for those who do.

DragonCon is great fun. It's like Halloween all weekend long. But it's also one of those places that you like to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. Who could live there? Just 5 days of it beats the crap out of me.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Off Topic: SyFy

Warning: I switch between Sci Fi and SyFy quite often in this post, and it may be confusing. It's not helped by the sci fi genre, also often mentioned. To assist in your navigation, I say Sci Fi when it makes sense to me to refer to the channel that was, and SyFy when I mean the channel that is. I use standard capitalization on both, so that the sci fi genre is distinguished from the network. It may be that the network would have been better off imitating the world of sci fi publishing, with names like Tor or Tachyon, or something else that begins with a T. It could not have been less awesome than SyFy, after all.

It may also be that this explanation strikes you as unnecessary and dorky. As is explained later, I am aware of and comfortable with my dorkiness.


I've waited a long time to have my say on this, so you've probably heard - the Sci Fi channel has changed its name to SyFy. They've matched this new name with a fairly lame new slogan - "Imagine Greater" - and the most bland and unattractive web site to come out of web 2.0.

I mean really. Look at that logo. It's as if they were trying to do something retro like a 60s science fiction TV show title, only without being awesome.

So why this change?

According to the VP of the channel in an article in
, SyFy can be trademarked and branded, and sci fi cannot because it is a genre.

According to the President of the channel in an article in
, the old name reminds people that they don't like science fiction, although they really do, they just don't know it. Quoting the article directly:

Mr. Brooks said that when people who say they don’t like science fiction enjoy a film like “Star Wars,” they don’t think it’s science fiction; they think it’s a good movie.

The president of a network that was once called the Sci Fi Channel believes that people watching Star Wars don't think they are watching science fiction. Oh, the implications of this statement. For starters, I don't recall ever seeing anything as classic and popular on the Sci Fi Channel as Star Wars. But then, it's not like playing a Star Wars marathon would be groundbreaking programming, and would not exactly win them a devoted audience. The statement reveals a tremendous misunderstanding and disrespect for their audience, that ranges from "they don't know what science fiction is" to "people like good movies, not science fiction". As if sci fi and good movies are mutually exclusive.

I present to you, the highest grossing films of all time. The vast majority of these films are sci fi or fantasy, a genre divide that I think we should overlook considering that the Sci Fi Channel often did. Obviously, this list is no representation of whether these films are good or not, but it does represent what sells - something that I think SyFy is much more interested in. It would seem that either SyFy is out of touch with what is popular, or just incapable of delivering it. Considering how few hits they've had, I'd say both.

Further evidence that they don't understand the audience they should be marketing directly too is this direct quote from the SyFy president, also from

The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular.

Oh, the many things I could rage about, where to begin? That video games are a thriving mainstream business? That "geek" has become a word so over-adopted by hipsters that people who bore the title before it was cool make feeble attempts at reclaiming their cred (not to mention their community) by crying out "but you were POPULAR in high school!"

Or perhaps, that sci fi has plenty of female fans, of which I am one, blogging about sci fi novels? OK, this activity does not really put me in the mainstream of female sci fi fans. But what about the tons of women I see at sci fi conventions, their numbers equaling or exceeding those of the men? Women who are not just the sci fi women that the president of SyFy is thinking of. Most of them are young, attractive women, the type who will gladly make out girls-gone-wild style for the attention of slobbering men. Those women you see at your local bar on ladies night? They are also at the sci fi cons. Don't these women represent the very demographic that they think they are missing?

In the end, I think the best explanation for why Sci Fi became SyFy was described in the TWiT podcast, episode 207: that Sci Fi is too specific, and in order to justify showing non-sci fi programming while also telling their audience to quit their whining about the non-sci fi programming, they must change their name. Sci fi fans do tend to be sticklers for details, and we are more likely to complain - far more likely than the viewers of AMC when they show films that are not really movie classics. This post is part of that.

Of course, they could have tried something really wild, like acquiring better original programs instead of the occasional hit, thus permitting them to keep their focus on science fiction and keep their old name. But that's just crazy talk.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The one's I've already read: the Alice books

So, it will take me a while to finish Dune. I knew this when I started it; I have a lot of preparations to make for DragonCon, and so I have less time to read right now. Also, a friend of mine confirmed that Dune is a slow read. This made me feel better, because I've frequently re-read paragraphs to try and figure out what all was just said. It's nice to know that it's not just me.

But until I finish Dune, I will try to keep the blog going with a few more of these posts about the books I'd read before I started the blog.

So here's a way in which I'm a bit of a hypocrite - I did not like the free love in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Meanwhile, I love Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Of course, the Alice stories have no sex in them, but it is believed by many scholars that Lewis Carroll was most likely a pedophile - although a pedophile who didn't act on his desires.

It's a debatable topic. There's information that his family removed and marked out of his diaries. but that information may not be what we think it is. There are the nude photos of girls - but they were taken with the permission of the girls' mothers, and given to the families rather than kept by Carroll. But they are creepy to the modern eye. But there was a trend of photographing nude children at the time, as a theme of innocence. But still, they are creepy photos. I've seen them, and they make me want to wash my brain.

But when I read the stories, I don't find myself thinking about the biographical details. In my mind, the Alice stories exist outside of the seedier details of Carroll's life. Instead, I see his love of math, and games, of language and puns. He doesn't appear to have an agenda, and that allows me to forgive his personal flaws.

With Stranger in a Strange Land, on the other hand, I felt like I was being told that life would be better if we learned what the Man from Mars knew. I felt preached to (the long, speechy style did not help), and therefore I felt compelled to review the novel in terms of the flaws I perceived in the lesson. Likewise, Chronicles of Narnia. It's preachy at times. It evokes a response against preachiness in me.

Having said that, I am not a scholar on any of these works. I did not like Stranger in a Strange Land, but it's considered a sci fi classic. I disagree, and I can think of books that I liked a lot more which would be a good replacement on the list. But the list-makers are entitled to their opinions. This is the thing about reading books on a list - you won't like it all, and that's alright. These genres were not created strictly for my tastes. It gives me the opportunity to shape a sense of what I like in the genres, and choose directions from that. For instance, this list has made me into a Philip K Dick fan, and that's a good thing. It's nice to have things to read, but it's also nice to gain a sense of direction in my reading.

I'd also like to add that at the time in my life when I was surrounded by people who took illegal and recreational drugs, I spent many days amongst the druggies watching Disney's Alice in Wonderland. The druggies liked to speculate that anyone involved in something this weird must have been on drugs. Lewis Carroll must have been on drugs while writing Alice in Wonderland. The Disney animators must have been on drugs while they were creating this film - which is a ridiculous and laughable assumption for many reasons. Primarily, it just seems very unlikely that Disney employees were getting high at work. Not to mention, making an animated film is a very difficult and technical process, and back then they did the whole business by hand. I sincerely doubt anyone could carry this off under the influence of hallucinogens.

Lewis Carroll may have taken opium. It certainly was available, although it seems there is little to support the rumors of his opium addiction. Even if he did, I sincerely doubt he wrote under the influence. It was my observation during those years amongst the druggies that none of them ever did anything creative, or even productive.

Sure, there are artists and musicians who are both exceptionally creative and drug users - the 60s as a collective whole prove this. But those people were talented to begin with. Drugs don't create talent.

I feel a little regret that this post has very little to do with these actual novels. But this blog isn't about reviewing each novel, it's about the experience of the novels. My experience with Alice is complicated.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jekyll and Hyde: The dual nature

There's a popular question: if you could choose a super power, would you choose flight, or invisibility? The question is deceptive, because it's not just about entering the world of comic book heroes. It's about why you want that power. People who want to fly want to get someplace quickly, want to stop paying for transportation, and want to show off. In an episode of This American Life, one man specifically says that all the girls would want to sleep with the flying guy. People who want to be invisible want to get into movies for free, spy on people, and steal clothing - assuming anything that they are wearing is also invisible. No one would use their powers to fight crime (which is reasonable, because they do not have super strength, or immortality).

I thought of this question and its moral implications while reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Dr. Jekyll believes that all humans are divided creatures, split between good and evil. He wishes that the human mind could be freed from the struggle to reconcile the two, and so he uses his medical knowledge of drugs and their side effects to make a compound that will divide the low from the high. He feels as if doing this will allow him to become two separate people, and even creates a name for his darker self. But he soon learns that he cannot be free from the crimes of Mr. Hyde, which were far darker than he predicted.

I liked this story a lot, and recommend it. It's good to read a well-known classic and see how it was originally presented, free from the various adaptations. I like that, while it is essentially a horror story, it has an element of science fiction, with Jekyll's reference to experimenting with drugs that have known side effects. I was delighted that it is not revealed that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person until you are well into the novel, which seems to me an especially Victorian element. It's smartly written with an effort towards timelessness - Hyde goes out at night and does evil things. We don't know what - it is left to us to imagine what he does, to adjust his crimes to our own sense of evil.

According to some reading I've done on the novel's meaning, the Victorian interpretation was that good and evil exist in everyone, and attempts to repress your darker nature will cause it to erupt, and will cause great outbursts of evil. In my own reading of the novel, I perceive that Jekyll was more evil than he admits before dividing his soul. He wished that he could live without the struggle between his evil nature and Victorian morality, and his desire to free his evil side is the goal, not an effort to create a personality of pure goodness. At his transformation, he delights in the feeling of losing the reservations of morality. Only in fear for his life does he regret what he has done. The true horror of the tale is that he is a man without remorse throughout.
Next up is Dune by Frank L. Herbert. It comes highly recommended by a few fans of the novel. It is also difficult to find at the library; the library search engine is not designed to provide simple results for a simple search. When you type in "Dune", it pulls up an entire page of various novels in the Dune series, putting them in no logical order, so that you have to move on to the second page of results just to locate the first novel in the series. And of course, then you have to keep searching to find copies that are available at your local library. I think the catalog divides them between distinct editions of books, because a search for one novel may turn up several different results which are all the same novel, along with a few books about Dune, a book on dune buggies, and a children's book about deserts.
This is not meant as a complaint on my local libraries, which are excellent. I just wish some local benevolent tech genius would donate a new search engine to the library.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

When is a feminist not a feminist?

A few more notes on Stranger in a Strange Land, so that I can purge this all and move on:

Said best in this article in The Stranger: "Are there people who call themselves feminists in this day and age who would actually call this book feminist?"

Okay, he was talking about a different book by Heinlein, but I think this applies to Stranger in a Strange Land as well. Stranger is supposed to deal in part with feminism. I know this is true because it said so on the back cover of the book. As I read the book, however, I kept wondering where the feminism came in to play. All those men who talk too much are often condescending to women while doing so. The women didn't seem to be full of liberation either; one of them says that rape is the woman's fault 9 times out of 10 (she did not explain why this is, by the way, and I wish she had).

My thoughts on the subject only stray from The Stranger insofar as I don't think feminists of any age would call Heinlein's writing feminist. This book was published in 1961, and I find Virginia Woolf's writing - in the 2os and 30s! - far more advanced in terms of feminism. I suppose he can be apologized for from a number of angles, such as being a mere sci fi writer compared with Virginia Woolf. But I reject the notion that higher thoughts and better writing are restricted to classic literature, which is part of the reason why I am reading this list of novels!

So I keep searching for evidence of feminism. The women had jobs, but they were nurses and secretaries. The women were fairly strong-willed, but they were also ordered around a lot, usually being told to go cook dinner. I just don't see it. Anyone who has a different point of view on this is welcome to share.


Following my completion of this novel, I felt like my brain needed cleansing. At first I craved Sherlock Holmes very badly. I guess I wanted the order and logic of his world, but I also didn't want to get fully involved in something that isn't on the list, short though the Holmes novels are.

I decided instead to read A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman. I think it is one of the most perfect short stories that Neil Gaiman has ever written. I'm a big Gaiman fan, and preferring this over some of his other works is like preferring that your favorite musician play cover tunes. Still, I have some favorite musicians who play very excellent covers, and likewise Neil Gaiman "covers" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle excellently. Or I should say, Doyle and Lovecraft - he was asked to write this as a story that combines the worlds of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft.

You can read A Study in Emerald online for free. If you don't like reading stories on a computer screen you could print it - it's designed to be very attractive - or you could read it from the book Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman, which is a collection of short stories.

Next up, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, which I think A Study in Emerald provides a good transition into. It mentions Dr. Jekyll, and a few other monsters from literature as well. I spent a few minutes today identifying them all, and I'm pleased and amused at their cameo appearances.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Didn't realize the land was going to be this strange

I'm nearly finished with Stranger in a Strange Land, so nearly finished that I think it's okay if I go ahead and review it, because I can pretty much tell how this car crash is going to end up.

I'm not a fan. Sorry, old sci fi fans who say things like "may just possibly be the most popular sci fi novel ever perhaps!" (uh, no) or even "one of the most influential novels of our time maybe or perhaps that's just me!" (yes, it is totally just you).

OK, so a big problem with this novel is the wordiness that I discussed previously. There are some very talkative characters in this novel. About mid way through the novel, Robert Heinlein tips his hand completely on why his characters talk so damn much, when one of those really chatty guys goes on for an entire chapter about how he doesn't like abstract art. Pages and pages of that kind of business, and no, this is not a very important theme in the novel. To sum up (which rarely happens in this novel), the character says nobody likes abstract art because they like to know what art is about. At this point, I got it; all of this talking is because Heinlein wants to make sure the readers understand what the novel is all about. Every major concept of the novel, at some point, conveniently needs to be explained to someone ignorant. These ignorant people represent you and me, the readers, whom Heinlein has little faith in.

But whatever, I don't care so much that the author comes across as an arrogant snob who thinks his ideas might be too high-minded for his audience. My real problem is that I'm from the school of "show don't tell" when it comes to writing, and Heinlein is much more of a teller.

So, the main points that he wants us to get: 1. Free love is the ideal life 2. So is anarchy.

Regarding the free love - it's depicted as a free-for-all, enjoyed by all the members of the man from Mars' inner circle, which by the way is a religion or a cult, depending (as it always does) on your point of view. Many of the members of the free love cult have children, which led me to wonder where the kids are during the constant love-fest. Apparently the idea is that the kids are raised by the group communally instead of by one or two parents that take specific responsibility. Which leads to stuff like the curse of the hippie parents. As noted in that article, parents who are into free love can lead to inappropriate sexual experiences for minors. I wondered what Heinlein thought about such stuff, did a little research, and learned that he explored that idea to its obvious conclusion in other novels, in which he promotes incest and even pedophilia. I'm not sure what I found most disturbing: the fact that his later work includes lots of creepy sex, or that many of his fans online say "he's a really good writer if you can disregard the pedophilia." I also hear John Wayne Gacy was a really nice man if you could get past that serial killer thing.

Sticking just to this novel, however, Heinlein conveniently glosses over simple human jealousy as an emotion that people could just sort of get over. As I understand it, this is not what the hippies learned when they gave it a shot.

As for the anarchy, Heinlein conveniently doesn't follow that through to its logical conclusion, which is a rather dangerous game. I am of the opinion that anarchy leads to fascism, a notion that is supported by the novel in a section that is not explained at great length. The man from Mars believes it is wrong to put a man in prison, but not wrong to kill a man who has done you wrong. The man from Mars is able to determine if a person needs to be killed, and as his followers say he is incapable of lying, so we can trust his judgment regarding who needs to be killed and who doesn't.

Of course, there is no discussion on whether the person who is being killed might prefer the "wrongness" of imprisonment over his death sentence, decided upon by a jury of one.

So overall, I found this novel paternalistic, full of the creepiest aspects of hippie society, and irresponsible in its political message. To top it all off, the writing was kind of crappy with all that talking and explaining.

I hadn't planned on going for this sort of "what were you thinking" brand of criticism, but in The Guardian's list that led to this project, I honestly can't believe that this book made the list and Ender's Game did not. Epic fail, Guardian.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Connections between Joss Whedon and Stranger in a Strange Land: A very geeky investigation

I'm about half way through Stranger in a Strange Land. It is good, but it reads slow; it's somewhat dense. A couple of the main characters talk A LOT. They sort of remind me of men in movies from around the time that this book was written. Especially newspaper men; very wordy, constantly clever, to the point of being too clever. I like the book, but it requires that I forgive this kind of wordiness.

Anyway, I believe I've spotted a few Joss Whedon connections in the book. First, one of those very talkative men is named Jubal Harshaw. Of course, anyone who has obsessively watched and re-watched the sadly short-lived Whedon show Firefly knows that the brilliant episode Objects in Space features Jubal Early, a bizarre bounty hunter that manages to confound the entire crew, with the exception of one teenage girl. I always suspected that Jubal Early was meant to have been a subject of the same experiment that River Tam was a part of, but a much earlier subject, perhaps the first. I learned while reading Stranger in a Strange Land that the name Jubal means "The Father of us All." And of course, Early means, um, early. Lends support to my theory, anyway, if Joss Whedon knows the meaning of the name Jubal!

OK, and yes I know that Jubal Early is the name of a Confederate general that is also an ancestor of Nathan Fillion. But I'm just saying, if the name meaning is completely coincidental to Jubal's role on the show, it is a mighty big coincidence!

Also, in the novel religious leaders are called "shepherds". This isn't a completely unique idea for either Joss Whedon or Robert A. Heinlein, but it's another interesting parallel.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Grokking and the nature of geeks

My little comic book hiatus is at an end - I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land from the library, and will start it later on today.

I know only one thing about this novel, and that is its most well-known contribution to the world of science fiction: the word "grok." The word means to understand a thing as if the thing is a part of you, to truly internalize it.

This is a fantastic word for geeks. I know, there are a ton of people out there glorifying all things geeky, just as there are tons of people who were actually popular in high school who now call themselves geeks - posers! Bear with me - I'm not about to start going on about "oh how delightfully geeky was my Han Solo action figure that absolutely everyone born in the 70s owned." This is about the real geeks. People who know what that thing over C3PO's head is.

Because what do true geeks do? They become fascinated with things, and learn every detail. They memorize the tiniest facts of everything that strikes their interest. This is why geeks are excellent at recalling trivia, obscure characters, and movie quotes that you have no interest in. This is also why they are excellent at, say, creating a computer language.

So the word "grok" perfectly demonstrates the true geek's mindset - a geek does not merely like something, but takes it in, learns it, knows it, until it is part of who the geek is.

I use the word myself (in my head, normally). Normally I use it in the negative form; if I read a book that doesn't grab my attention, I did not grok it. Narnia doesn't count in this regard - I got Narnia, I just didn't like it. When I tried to read The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, however, something didn't quite take. There were things going on in my life, I was distracted, and I couldn't pay attention to the story. I lost track of the plot, and found I couldn't keep reading it. Failure to grok. I will try again later.

So I approach Stranger in a Strange Land with anticipation. It gave us a word that the old-school sci-fi fans have embraced, and so I feel that probably, it has earned its place on the list in other ways as well.

There's a question that I have been asked a few times now, which is "why did it take you so long to finish the Chronicles of Narnia?" Another question that absolutely no one has asked me is "have you devised some sort of plan to prevent yourself from getting distracted away from a book, especially if you don't like it that much?"
Indeed I have. I developed this while reading Narnia, out of necessity. I eventually got a little embarrassed at how long it was taking me to finish Narnia. Not to mention, I wanted to read something else. So I devised a system in which I count the number of chapters in the book, and divide that by the number of days I have until the book is due back at the library.
So as an example: I have 3 weeks until the book must be returned of renewed. That's 15 days of reading - I have found that I don't usually read on weekends. There are 39 chapters in Stranger in a Strange Land. 39 divided by 15 is - well, some number involving decimal points, but basically a number between 2 and 3. So I need to read 3 chapters a day, at least. Obviously, if I stick to this formula I will finish the book early. It also accounts for nights when I don't find time to read as much as I want to - those times that I did meet the goal, or exceeded it, will make up for it.
Yes, its sort of dorky and obsessive to use math to accomplish something that I allegedly want to do for enjoyment. But what can I say? I'm easily distracted, and goals and lists tend to keep me on task.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Farewell, Narnia

I finally made it through The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Last Battle was strange, and violent, and pretty good. It was nice to see numerous characters - both lead and supporting - express the kinds of feelings you might reasonably have if your world was (literally) going to hell.

The end was very Biblical, but Lewis managed to surprise me: there's a race called the Calormene, and they are dark-skinned and live in the desert and worship a god other than Aslan. So basically they are Arabs. We learn that one Calormene has made it to Heaven - I mean "Aslan's Country" - because he was very noble, despite following a god other than Aslan. Aslan basically says that all the good he did in the god Tash's name, was actually done in Aslan's name, which is why the Calormene gets to go to Aslan's Country. Lewis appears to be suggesting that if you are a good person, this is all that counts. That's an unexpected conclusion, considering how Old Time Religion he is in previous books.

Overall, I'm glad to be done with this series. It's not as good as its reputation. But they are such a fundamental piece of fantasy literature, that reading them helps the rest of the genre to make more sense.

Kind of like how the Star Wars prequels aren't that fantastic, but Robot Chicken is much funnier if you have seen the prequels.

Next up, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I'm waiting for my library of choice to get the copy they ordered. While I wait, I'm taking a little break to read the Fables comics that I bought with my birthday gift cards.

Gratuitous violence, Jesus, more gratuitous violence

The Last Battle is actually pretty awesome. I was not expecting that.

Right away, a unicorn kills someone with its horn - something that there is just not enough of in fantasy novels. I mean, it's a horse with a horn. It should be killing folks, right? Later, the unicorn wants to go on a dwarf-killing rampage, and talks about skewering 10 of them at a time on its horn, which would have made a fantastic cover-illustration. The king commands him not to, which is too bad. The dwarfs have it coming, considering they are all off on the sidelines shouting racial slurs (yes really, racial slurs. The "D" word. Which starts with "Dark". And ends with "ie").

There's a lot of religious stuff, which feels extremely forced. But whatever, as long as there are kill-crazy unicorns wanting to stake racist dwarfs, it's totally worth it to be occasionally told "all of this has something to do with God."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Getting closer to the end, in more ways than one

I finished The Silver Chair, and it was really good. This, like The Horse and His Boy, turned out to be a good adventure story primarily, with much less allegory. Yes, I had to deal with children learning things again, and that was all pretty dull. But then Puddleglum endeavored to teach the children to be gay by watching him, so it all worked out.

I'm two chapters into The Last Battle, and already the allegory is thick and soupy. Spoiler alert! The Last Battle is based on the Book of Revelations. Actually, I take that back; spoilers are situations in which something not commonly known is revealed, and if you know anything about C.S. Lewis at all, then you know that obviously, the final book in a series by him will have to be the Book of Revelations. That's like saying "spoiler alert! On Family Ties this week, Meredith Baxter Birney is going to sing."

The Book of Revelations is tricky. There are numerous interpretations of it, and little consensus over exactly what it means. And no wonder, because it's a very strange text.

And so very early in the story, the dogs are barking and the peacocks crowing. Everyone seems to have a symbolic name that I haven't figured out the meaning of, like Shift the ape, or Puzzle the donkey, or Jewel the unicorn. Perhaps later on they will be joined by Motorcar the manticore and Tetrahydrocannabinol the girl with hippie parents.

It seems to me that a children's book based on Revelations can only be fantastic or awful. Once the verdict is in, I will let you know.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Oh good, you're reading my blog. Most likely, the radiation levels from your monitor are giving you cancer.

I finished Dawn Treader, and now I'm working on The Silver Chair. After that it's The Final Battle, and then I get to read something else. Hooray! I'm told that in The Final Battle, the allegory really goes over the top. Apparently Aslan comes around and says "just in case you haven't noticed - I'm Jesus." Way to go, C.S. Lewis. What an amazingly subtle style you've developed.

But let's not go there yet, shall we? Dawn Treader, as it turns out, was not an awful read. I liked the courageous mouse Reepicheep, who insists that our adventurers seek out every challenge. The view from Chapter 7 is also pretty good in The Silver Chair. I like Puddleglum, the mopey host to the children from that Other World. He's the sort of character that says things like "here we go on our quest, though I expect nothing good will come of it. We'll probably argue along the way and kill each other with knives." See, that's what the other books have been missing, a guy who says "oh finally, a running stream. We so need a cold drink. Of course, I'm sure it's contaminated. We'll all die of dysentery, mark my word."

In the middle of reading Chronicles of Narnia, my progress really slowed down. That's because I became obsessed with the Series of Unfortunate Events on audiobook, and spent every spare moment I could afford listening to those. I think that, above all, describes my dislike for Narnia: I prefer the Beaudelaire orphans (children who are very smart and resourceful, although sometimes plagued by despair at the very awful situation they are in) to the various Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve (not very smart children, with an unrealistic amount of tolerance for starvation, exposure, and exhaustion). This is why the series is regaining my interest with good tertiary characters.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Just popping over to the nearest parallel dimension, won't be a minute

Finished Caspian. Guess what? The end was as boring as the rest.

I started Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and thanks to some lengthy downtime in which I was unable to use my work computer at all, I'm now 4 chapters in.

According to Wikipedia (and I know what you're thinking - it MUST be true!) J. R. R. Tolkien did not like the Chronicles of Narnia because "he disapproved of stories involving travel between real and imaginary worlds." I think Tolkien was being nice, and didn't want to say that Lewis is just not that graceful with the whole "travel between the worlds" thing. I've read plenty of stories and seen plenty of movies with travel between our world and some parallel dimension, and they usually play out just fine.

That has everything to do with presentation; your hero can't just walk by the crack in the wall in chapter 1 and say "I say, that looks like the Faeriey* World over there! I think I'll just pop over and see, although I've no motivation for such a journey!" The movie cannot open with Sarah saying "where is the baby? Good grief, there's a mystical labyrinth in the back yard! I'm sure that David Bowie has stolen the child! I must save it from the evil muppets!"

Meanwhile, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 1, just barely paraphrased:
Lucy: Look at that picture of a boat, Edmund! It looks just like a boat of Narnia! Oh how I do wish we could be in Narnia right now!
Edmund: I say, I've never seen a more Narnian boat! Blimey, the picture is moving!
Lucy: Cor!
Edmund: I'm certain this picture is a portal to Narnia! Put down those crumpets, Lucy, and let's just pop in and see!
Annoying Cousin: You and your stupid Narnia!
Lucy: Even though you are a ridiculous prat and the author is using both you and your parents to represent people he hates, I feel very sorry for you because I am the sweetest little girl in all of literature!
Annoying Cousin: Oh no! I've come through the picture with you, and now I'm in Narnia! Here I shall surely get all the punishment I deserve! It's all your fault, Edmund and Lucy!
Edmund: That's your majesties to you, blighter!

But what the hell. It's easy reading, so they go by really quickly if I don't get distracted.

*intentional misspelling of "fairy".

Monday, May 11, 2009

Getting bored with Narnia

I am very nearly finished with Prince Caspian. My progress has slowed to a crawl lately, and I think I know why - Prince Caspian is dead boring. Spoiler alert! Nothing really happens. It's a book about a battle that might occur, but never really does.

That is, unless the final chapter is full of thrilling heroics. And I sort of doubt it.

And don't give me any "but there is a fight in the next to last chapter in the book!" OK, first, hardly. Second, isn't the next to last chapter a little bit late to start up the action?

I haven't seen the movie Prince Caspian yet, and I really doubt Hollywood held out until the last 10 minutes of the film to get some fightin' in there. I'll have to rent that DVD now, and see how it goes.

This is four of the seven books I've read now, and I can see why J. R. R. Tolkien didn't care for them. They're dull, that's why. The stories are totally obvious, and C. S. Lewis writes down to children as if he's telling the house cat a story. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is ok. The Horse and His Boy had an interesting plot, at least, although the time it took to moralize for a while before getting around to the point started to get pretty dull. And now Caspian - good grief.

I'm trying to get back on track with these stories. It's embarrassing to read them so slowly, considering how simple they are to read. But I really am beginning to think that C. S. Lewis's legendary status as a fantasy writer is completely undeserved. Apparently if you write some completely obvious allegory about Jesus, everyone will fall over themselves in an effort to say how fantastic it is.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The problem with The Horse and His Boy

So I’ve come to the end of The Horse and His Boy, and it was a decent enough adventure story. There was, however, a situation near the end that I found troubling.

The girl Aravis is attacked by a lion at one point, who cuts open her back with his claws. Later, we learn that this lion was Aslan. Later still, Aslan explains why he did this. When Aravis was running away from home, she drugged the slave woman that was meant to be on the watch so that she could escape. The slave woman was whipped as punishment for allowing Aravis to escape. Aslan says that the scars he gave her are exactly equal to the scars the slave woman received after being whipped.

I was bothered by the idea of Aslan attacking a young girl when it was first revealed that he was the lion that attacked her. The later explanation for the attack didn’t give me much relief. First, he’s holding a girl accountable for the damage she’s caused in the way an adult would be held accountable.

Second, the girl is punished in the same manner that the slave woman is punished. I’ve not read any mention of slaves being kept in Narnia yet – in fact, much is made of how creatures of Narnia are “free” creatures. The punishment given from master to slave is by it’s nature cruel and unfair under any circumstances, and in this situation the slave woman was punished for a situation that she could not control. While Aravis is responsible for the slave’s punishment, this cruelty is part of the very way of life that Aravis is escaping. It is indicated at various parts of the story that slavery is one of the many unsettling practices of Aravis’s people, and yet Aslan believes that the punishment given from slave master to slave is appropriate punishment for a girl, although she is at all other times commended for escaping her land.

Finally, Aravis is escaping her land because she is arranged to marry a 60 year old man. I’m sure that C.S. Lewis intended for readers to find her arranged marriage repulsive, and it serves well as justification for her escape. Aravis is seldom unwatched in her family’s house, and so she had few options regarding her method of escape – in fact, it seems that no matter what, a slave was bound to be punished for her escape. And so Aslan’s punishment indicates that although her situation is desperate, although she is a child, and although her culture is cruel, she should still be held accountable for a situation that may have been unavoidable. Add to this that so far, she has received the most severe punishment of any of the protagonists; Edmund only got a good talking-to for being a traitor. I also can’t shake the concern that she is the only protagonist so far that is of a dark-skinned race, and it leaves me with an unsettling feeling that Aslan thinks a more severe punishment is appropriate for her race.

It’s a troubling choice that C.S. Lewis makes here. Aslan is the unquestioned authority in Narnia – all people and creatures treat his judgment as absolute and always correct. He is the high ruler of the land, he is above kings and queens. And of course, at this point it is unavoidable to mention that C.S. Lewis uses Aslan as an analog for Jesus. Lewis appears to believe that judgment from God should match the crime, which is a very Old Testament way of seeing things.

Which is something I find unpleasant about his writing. At some points in the other novels in which he describes England from some time before the current day, he talks about the past as a time when things were much better than they are now. Between that and his stern view of discipline, I find myself perceiving the author’s voice as that of a grumpy old white man, who doesn’t like this modern world with all of its changes and social evolution.

I’m still moving forward with these stories, and next up is Prince Caspian. The series is still a classic of children’s literature and of the fantasy genre, and I will not give up the list just because of one troubling element. But I must note at this point, the problem discussed here clearly goes against my post from March 24th, in which I noted that the deeper meanings don’t matter that much to me. There are deeper implications when a young girl of a non-caucasian race is clawed by a lion, and then told that she deserved that punishment by an authority figure that no one questions. I think these things would have bothered me as a child, even if I didn’t recognize the allegorical nature of the story.

I had considered reading the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman next, because irony is the birthright of my generation. I’m now beginning to think that after Narnia, it might be nice to read a single novel instead of going immediately into another series.

Friday, April 3, 2009

My favorite line from Chronicles of Narnia, so far

Aravis is a girl who is being forced to marry a sixty-year-old man. And so she decides to leave behind the land she is from and head out for Narnia. A friend of hers does not understand why she won't stay, considering that her husband-to-be is wealthy and important. Her friend begs her to stay.

"Goodbye," said Aravis, "and I thought your dresses were lovely. And I think your house is lovely too. I'm sure you'll have a lovely life - thought it wouldn't suit me."

As far as I'm concerned, that is what fantasy writing is all about.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The unavoidable conversation: Christian themes in Narnia

I spent all day Friday in a waiting room, and during that time I finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At one point a man and a woman were sitting next to me in the waiting room. The man was reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, the woman was reading a sci fi novel that I am not familiar with, and cannot remember the title of. We talked a few times, and the woman told me a little about the book she was reading. I showed her that I was reading The Chronicles of Narnia, and confessed that I never read the entire series as a child.

"I never did either," she said, "and now that I know about all the religious themes in it, I don't really want to read them." She didn't say this in a mean sort of way, and I actually appreciated her frankness on the subject. I don't often find people in Alabama who can openly say that religion turns them off with out sounding confrontational, but she pulled it off admirably. I let her know that the religious themes are poorly disguised to an adult, but that I also didn't catch them when I was a kid watching the animated film or reading Wardrobe.

Which figures, and is sort of the way it is. I was a teenager when my peers began to tell me that The Chronicles of Narnia were all about Jesus. The teen years seem to be the age at which we are obsessed with disguised meanings. This is the same age at which I learned that the Alice in Wonderland stories are about drug use, and The Wizard of Oz is about politics and economics in the late 19th century. I received these interpretations with interest, or amusement, or disapproval. I decided that all books must be about something deeper than the story they seemed to be telling, and that this was the mark of a good book.

Now that I am no longer a teenager, these deeper meanings don't matter that much. They are interesting bits of trivia that I've picked up along the way, but they are otherwise meaningless. I have a greater interest in whether the stories are good and entertaining. I didn't hesitate to buy my niece the full box set of The Chronicles of Narnia for Christmas several years ago for fear that she will be indoctrinated with Christian subtexts. She lives in Alabama. She attends church. Christianity need not be delivered to her through subtle means.

Besides, children take away from stories what they want, and keep very little of the rest. So even as I easily recognize the subtext in The Chronicles of Narnia, I still read Wardrobe with a sense of comfort, as I remembered so much of the story from the animated series. It was pleasant just to revisit a familiar story.

So that one is finished, and now on to The Horse and His Boy.

In other news, I realized today that a title that I'd been counting as one book is actually a series - His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is actually a trilogy, not a single book. So the individual novel count is now up to 198. No doubt, I will find more instances of titles that I did not recognize as a series as I continue.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The ones I have already read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's (or Philosopher's) Stone

This is the entry I am the most mystified about, and is the choice that I feel the greatest level of disagreement with. In the entire Harry Potter series, why is the first title the only one on the list of excellent books?

There are a few instances in the list in which only one book from a series is listed. Foundation, for example. Dune. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I disagree with, but which also lets me off the hook because I've never finished the entire series. In each of these situations, however, it can be argued that the first book in the series is the best, the one to read if you must only read one.

Not so with The Sorcerer's Stone. Many fans consider Prisoner of Azkaban the best of the series. I am personally fond of the Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry and his friends learn that most adults are motivated by self interest, and cannot be relied upon to do the right thing. Rebellion is introduced to the series in that novel. I always hear the Sex Pistols in my head when I think about it.

I suppose the point of selecting only the first book of a series when the entire series is not excellent makes sense from the point of view that the first book will make more sense than picking up in the middle. But this is Harry Potter. It wouldn't be all that hard to start in the middle and still understand everything that is happening. In fact, you could just watch the films up to the book in question, and then read Prisoner of Azkaban, or Order of the Phoenix. Both books are far better than their film versions, and the films leading up to each are sufficient to catch you up to date.

Or you could just read the entire series. It's not that hard. If scads of 9 year olds can finish a Harry Potter novel in one all-nighter, an adult can read the entire series in the space of two months, easily.

Meanwhile, the entire Discworld series by Terry Pratchett is on the list, which is 36 novels. Soon to be 37. I doubt that I will read that series all together - I'll probably have to read other novels in between. I really doubt I could finish it in two months time. I wonder if I will finish that series in one year's time.

Which brings up a point that I've been dodging for a while now. This isn't actually a list of 149 novels. It's a list of 149 novels and series. It's much more than 149. It's actually 196 novels. And also 7 short stories in the Earthsea series by Ursula K LeGuin.

If we count in individual novels, I've finished 20 so far. In completed titles/series, I've finished 17. I'm going to stick with the original 149 novel count, but I think it's worth noting that at times, I am reading well more than it seems like I am reading. Especially once I start on that Discworld series.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

More on the order of The Chronicles of Narnia

My young niece, whom I mentioned in the previous post, also read them in the new order. She seems to think this order is fine. When discussing this reading order with people my own age, however, I've been told by one person my own age (so far) that the new order is stupid.

I still think that the quality of the stories does not hinge on the order in which they are read. They are very simple stories. The plots are not difficult to follow. You could probably read them in any order at all and follow along just fine.

There is only one reason I can see, so far, for putting them back in the old order: The Magician's Nephew was not exciting, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is. So I guess for children who bore easily, the original order may be better.

But then, I was one of those children that bore easily, and I started with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was a child, and then went no further. So most likely, it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Moving along with The Chronicles of Narnia

Finished The Magician's Nephew. My young niece let me know that this was not her favorite book in the series. That made me feel better, because I was not crazy about it.

I'm now reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which already seems like a much better book. Of course, I've seen the old cartoon and the film, and both of them seem to tell the story very faithfully. Meaning that so far, none of this is new to me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Nightmarish memories of cover art

When I was a kid, my sister or I had the full collection of the Chronicles of Narnia. I say "or" because I can't remember who actually owned them. I recall that I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then stopped, while she read the full series. So in that way the books ended up being hers, regardless of who they were originally given to.

One thing I do remember about that collection was that all the covers were odd looking. They have what I now think of as a tarot card-like quality about them. The strangest one of all was The Magician's Nephew, which shows two children falling upwards out of a pool of water, while a large woman hangs onto them by the girl's hair. The children look frightened, but it's hard to tell if they are more afraid of the woman or of the horrifying fate they will meet if they continue to fall into the sky.

Combine that with the strangely quiet animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which also has sort of a tarot card look about it. As a result of these, I often felt that the Narnia series contained strange mysteries that were better left unlearned. Upon opening one of these novels, you might learn that at the center of your spread is the Children Who Fall Up card, which means you will find yourself having to choose between two equally awful things, both of which may hurt a lot. In the position of who you are, you may find the Lion's Breath card, which means that you are currently unwilling to make changes and are suffering as a result.

Honestly, makes you wonder why these books always get a free pass when the more extreme Christians decide to condemn the inherent evil of the fantasy genre!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sheep finished, beginning Narnia

I finished Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? today, and also skimmed the afterword, which is all about how Philip K. Dick originally didn't like the idea of the film Blade Runner, but over time changed his mind, and when he saw the first 2o minutes in a private screening, he loved it and said that it would become a classic (Dick was never able to see the full film; he died of a heart attack before it was completed).

The afterword made me realize that I've made mention of the film Blade Runner quite a lot while discussing the book in the blog. It's hard to avoid referencing a sci-fi classic when reading the book that it is based on. However, making constant comparison between the book and the film are not really the point. The point is that I'm reading a lot of books, and having finished the first one that I had not read previously, I am beginning to wonder why I'm doing this.

I think partly, any list that says "these books are worthy" makes me wonder if they really are. There is also my originally stated motivation, which is simply to expand my acquaintance with the genre. Beyond that, I suppose I'm doing it for the same reason that someone attempts to run a marathon or break a world record - just to see if I can do it.

And on that note, one down!

As I neared the end of Electric Sheep, I decided the time had come to pay off some long-standing library fines and check out the next book I would like to read. I set out with the intention of checking out The Man in the High Castle, because I enjoyed Electric Sheep so much that I felt like reading another novel by Dick. That novel had been checked out, and so I went with The Magician's Nephew from the Chronicles of Narnia. Sometimes the universe makes our decisions for us.

As for why I'm not starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: When I was a kid, the Chronicles of Narnia were arranged in the order in which they were published. These days, they are arranged chronologically in order of the events that occur within the books. I've decided that I'll comply with the new order, because all the copies at the library are numbered in the new order, and it just makes it easier. Besides, if Wikipedia is to be believed, C.S. Lewis approved of this reading order.

By the way, in that Wikipedia article I'm ammused by the vague reference to "some readers" who think that the novels ought to be read in order of publication, because The Magician's Nephew assumes you have some awareness of Narnia, while The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe introduces you to this new world. In geek circles, it is unimaginable that you would not have at least a general awareness of Narnia and Aslan. That's tantamount to asking someone what his Han Shot First t-shirt is all about.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The first sentence is not actually a question.

I really like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I somehow got the idea in my head that Philip K Dick's writing would be dense and inaccessible. Not true. In fact, I find there are lots of times and places in which it may be inappropriate to read a book - on the job, while driving, while walking, when someone is talking to me, when I am visiting family, when I have a sinus headache so awful that my eyes hurt - in which I want to read the book, appropriateness-be-damned.

This is a good discovery, because at times I've worried that reading 149 novels would feel a lot like doing homework. I hope this is the trend, and that many of them are very enjoyable and few or none of them remind me of book reports.

Guilty admission, which may seriously damage my geek cred; I found the movie Blade Runner kind of boring near the end. So far, the book is much more interesting. I am sure some ritual hazing will occur at the next DragonCon once word of this gets out. Probably I'll be dragged out into the Marriott lobby and a crowd of gamers will pelt 20-sided dice at me.


Testing an app that lets me update lots of things at once. Ignore this boring post.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It begins.

This weekend, I started reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. I've now officially started reading from the list.

I bought this novel a couple of months ago before the list was published, before I'd thought to take on a huge list of novels to read. I had a gift card to Barnes and Noble, and I was trying to decide between this and Dune by Frank L Herbert. I read the first chapter of Electric Sheep, and went with that.

As anyone who would take the time to read this blog probably knows, these are both sci-fi novels that have well known sci-fi films attributed to them. I've seen both films, and I often like to read the book that a film I watched is based upon. As you may have also noticed if you have checked out the list that I have committed to read, Dune is also on the list. So despite my decision that day in the bookstore, I will read it as well, eventually.

As for the title of the film (which is also the title on the cover of my little paperback - the actual title is in parentheses in small print under the words Blade Runner), I can understand why they changed it. Blade Runner sounds like an exciting sci-fi/action film that Harrison Ford would star in, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? sounds like a movie that Michel Gondry would direct. I suspect, however, that the words "blade" and "runner" are not going to appear adjacent to one another at any time in this novel.

I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The ones I've already read: A Clockwork Orange

I read this when I was around 22 or 23. I can't remember if I read it because I'd seen the movie, or because I wanted to see the movie. It seems most likely that I saw the movie first.

I recommend the book over the film. And I like the film very much. It is the Stanley Kubrick film that I enjoy watching the most. Specifically, my other top Kubrick films - Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket -I often watch because they are meaningful to art, and film, and some Big World Thing. They are good films, but they are big and meaningful and take a bit of commitment to watch in full.

But Clockwork Orange, I just plain like (draw what assumptions you like). I like the white, mod world that Alex inhabits. I like the droog fashion. I like Malcolm McDowell's smirking, vicious Alex. It's a fun movie, although I don't think Kubrick intended it to be fun. I'm not the only one who delights in it: a brief Internet search turns up Clockwork Orange t-shirts, posters, and even a really expensive (but quite lovely) Clockwork Orange Ludwig Van bust. At sci fi conventions and Halloween parties, you can see attractive young ladies in Clockwork Orange costumes.

See, fun. It's not just me!

Which is the difference with the book. In writing this, I tried to explain this difference a few ways, and all of them came out making the book sound boring by comparison, which is not the case. When it comes down to it, I think the movie is punk. Punk criticizes without offering a solution. Punk is entertaining, but also chaotic, anarchistic. So the film is fun to watch, but I don't want to live in Alex's world. I can only handle his existence as a caricature of my world.

The book is more classic. Although Alex's world in the book is just as chaotic, Anthony Burgess put very specific structure around it. It has 3 parts, with 7 chapters each. And the book does, eventually, come to a resolution, unlike the film. The problem of Alex - that he can only be a consciousless menace or a defenseless victim - is resolved in the book. As much as I enjoy the punk version of the story, I feel more satisfied at the resolution of the classic telling.

For that reason, the book makes me feel a little less guilty about liking it.

If you decide to read it, make sure it includes the 21st chapter. The film leaves out the final chapter, and many American printings of the book do as well.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The ones I've already read: Fahrenheit 451

When I was a sophomore in high school, I fell in love. I fell in love with Clarisse McClellan, the teenager in the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. She was my favorite character in all of literature at that time; idealistic (like me) and endlessly patient with her book-burning fireman (not like me).

I also fell in love with this novel, and it is my favorite sci-fi novel to this day. As a teenager, I furrowed my brow quite seriously at the evil of censorship, but I also romanticized the adventure of it all. Imagine, committing the noble crime of owning a book. Over time I've learned it's not that much of an adventure: just ask the CBLDF. Or the man they are currently defending for the crime of owning manga.

Which is why the book was relevant to me almost 40 years after it was originally published, and which is why it is still relevant now, 56 years after it was published.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Regarding the Chronicles of Narnia

You may have noticed, it's on the list. But it's not on my list, the list of books within the list, which I have already read.

Which seems wrong. To me, anyway.

I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child. I remember a collection of the entire series, arranged in the order in which they were written, which is the way it was back then, although these days they seem to be arranged in chronological order whenever they are packaged for sale as a collection. I can't remember if the books belonged to me or my older sister, but I know that she read all of them, and I read the first one. I may have started the second one, but I don't really remember. Since then I've meant to read the entire series. Haven't done it yet.

On a somewhat related note, I have a cat named Aislan. Not Aslan, Aislan. He is not named after the famous Jesus lion, although I guess there probably are a lot of house cats named Aslan out there. His name is a Gaelic name, which everyone mispronounces as Aslan, and which I later learned I was mispronouncing as ACE-lin, but at that point it was too late, as I was too fond of calling him "Ace" for short (the name should be pronounced ASH-lin, and is also a female name, which are just two examples of the trouble with looking up Gaelic names on the Internet).

The idea.

The Guardian posted its list of 1000 novels everyone must read.

Of the cleverly divided categories, the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror category was the only one I was interested in reviewing to see what made the list. I found myself a bit disappointed in all the novels on the list which I had not read.

This is not to say that their list is the very definition of smart or worthy or cool, and I am none of these things because I have not read many of the books on the list. I just always feel as if, for someone who loves to read, and for someone who loves sci-fi and fantasy movies and comic books, I just have not read enough novels in these genres.

Often, I find I have not read many because I don't know where to start.

So here's my starting place. The 149 novels that made this list. And yay, it turns out I own a few of them but have not read them yet, so I'll clearly start with those.

And of course, I have read some of them. 16 in fact. These are:

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling (we like to call this one Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone here in the States, Guardian)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
The Sword in the Stone by TH White
Orlando by Virginia Woolf

16 down, 133 to go.