Aug 13, 2010

Hellstrom's Hive, by Frank Herbert

Herbert has certainly achieved one of the goals of science fiction in this award-winning book: the reader's profound discomfort. In this book, we are faced with a society whose participants look exactly like us, but act completely differently, and we cannot help but be repelled by such utter differences as we are faced with when reading about the Hive.

Hellstrom is the leader of this society, a descendant of the elders who began it. The Hive is, rather obviously, the attempt of a group of humans to ensure human survival by mimicking insect behavior and chemistry. Hive workers are fed chemicals to increase their productivity and decrease individuality. All protein matter (including dead Hive members and intrusive Outsiders) goes into the vats, to become recycled as the Hive's food source. Yum.

The action in the book results from a government (?) Agency's growing interest in Hellstrom's farm and movie production business, which it feels is a front for something a little more nefarious. Obviously, their worst fears do not even come close to the reality. Part of what makes the reader so uncomfortable about the Hive is its seeming disregard for life. They have no qualms about killing a person, because that person then helps provide the life force for the entire Hive by being put into the vats. In this way, they actually show quite a bit of respect for human life; it is that which keeps them alive. Hence the reader's uncertainty: we can understand their view of life, but cannot comprehend it. They are similar enough to be recognizably human, but too different to feel real affinity with them. This is what good science fiction is made of.

That said, I was not overly fond of the writing style. I haven't yet read Dune (a personal failing, to be sure), so I am unaware of whether this book's style differs at all from Dune's, though I would be quite interested to find out. Dune is an entirely different world, whereas Hellstrom's Hive works within the parameters of our own universe.

Aug 12, 2010

The Medieval World, by Friedrich Heer

Though published in 1961, this survey of medieval European history is really quite a good little book. Again, I find that non-fiction written before, say, the 1980s, has a wonderful writing style that makes it much easier to read than non-fiction written today. This is not merely a chronological listing of facts, but an emotive description of a world brought to life.

Heer's argument is that the earlier Middle Ages - from about the late tenth century to the twelfth century - was an "open" society: intellectualism flourished, religion was explored and sometimes even questioned, dialogue and disputation occurred frequently and respectfully between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish worlds. As time went on, however, the Catholic Church sought to aggrandize its own power, and used censorship, fear, and intolerance as its weapons.

Heer's book is filled with wonderment at the richness of life during this time period. Religious mysticism, courtly love, political machinations, all are discussed both with a depth and brevity befitting of his goal and the length of the book. There is, however, little discussion of the "average" people's existence, beyond their experience of a distinctly rural, half-pagan Christianity. As a general survey of a time period, though, Heer is really quite thorough, and his writing is exciting and easy to read. If only modern non-fiction writers could evoke such feeling as those from the past were able to.

For my own use, documents Heer mentions that I want to check out: Bel Inconnu by Renaut de Beaujeu, Collection of Histories by Rashid al-Din, the Havamal.

Aug 8, 2010

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

I finally got around to reading this Civil War novel that everybody read about five years ago. As a first novel, it falls in the same category as The Kite Runner, in that it is quite remarkably good for a first attempt at fiction. There were some awkward parts to it, however.

The author makes no secret that his book is partly a love elegy to a geographical area, but towards the end of the novel, the descriptions start to overpower the narrative, and I wish there were a little more about the characters and a little less about the locations.

That being said, this book is imaginative and unique, extremely well researched, and a thoroughly enjoyable read (though rather depressing). It is, in the end, a book about war, and about how war makes monsters out of men. Inman is an extremely rare trustworthy soul in a country where brothers were killing brothers. I found his story rather difficult and brutish, but this was made up for by the story of Ada and Ruby. Two women making the land work for them, eking out an existence, growing into a friendship despite their many differences - this was the most interesting part of the book for me. I feel that is one of this book's strong suits; it has three different stories: the land, Inman, and Ada, and there is enough of each one to satisfy the reader who prefers one of these over the other two. All in all, this is quite a good novel, and worth the read.