May 30, 2012

2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This isn't so much a book as it is an epic undertaking, both to read and certainly to have written. This is hard science fiction at its most pure: everything from terraforming to human anatomy to politics is based soundly in real science, and, as is true with all good science fiction, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between Robinson's ideas and ideas he may have consulted with other scientists on. It's an incredible piece of work, while simultaneously being profoundly odd.

2312 takes place all over the solar system, but mostly on Mercury, Earth, and Venus. We follow two main characters, Swan and Wahram, and two supporting characters, Kiran and Inspector Genette. The driving force behind the plot is that there is something going on with the qubes, quantum computers that have largely taken over all the technical aspects of life. People have died, and the Inspector and Wahram, along with others in their group, are trying to find out why. Interlaced with this plot (which is vastly more complex than my own summary) are lists and extracts. These help to explain the science behind the changes Robinson has selected for this future, but also serve as a major distraction to the reader. I understand their use, and many of them are interesting, but they fracture the novel in such as way as to make this a seriously difficult read. Any reader who's main focus is plot will lose interest fairly early on, as one must persevere through some truly challenging and bizarre ideas. An argument can absolutely be made that this is what books, and science fiction in particular, are supposed to do, but the average sci fi reader will probably not make it through the entire novel. And this is a shame, as it really is a fascinating look into the future of humanity, and it's clear that Robinson worked extremely hard on it.

EDIT: I just got back from an event featuring Robinson and this work, and I have to say that I wish I had read the book after the event and not before. Robinson's reading of his novel showed that it is imbued with a certain sense of humor that I had only caught tiny glimpses of while reading. As I myself had concluded, and as Robinson confirmed, it is, at heart, a love story, and this lightens the feel of the book dramatically. Knowing these things now, I would have read 2312 as less of an undertaking, though it is still highly detailed and intellectual (and Robinson proved to be one of the smartest people I've heard speak).

May 22, 2012

Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson

I tend to shy away from coming of age books involving drugs, mostly because I have little desire to read about someone else's messed up life. I'm incredibly glad I lifted this ban in order to read this fantastic novel. Henderson is the kind of writer you would imagine other writers being jealous of. Over and over again I read the sentence, "A vagina was a thing he had squeezed bloodily out of before being given away." Writers like Henderson leave me enthralled with language, with the enormity and immense beauty of what we can create out of merely 26 letters and a few rules. I cannot think of any way in which this book could have been better. The characters are gut-churningly empathetic, the setting is real as flesh and blood. None of the main characters are particularly likable, but Henderson manages to not let that impede your sympathy towards them. As Jude, the protagonist, realizes at the end of the book, each has had his or her own particular heartbreaks, not one is exempt. I applaud Henderson's deft skill in fashioning this gem of a novel, even if I am a little bit envious.

May 20, 2012

The Demi-Monde: Winter, by Rod Rees

The first part of this science fiction novel is a bit rough; Rees dives right into the myriad proper nouns and acronyms that make up the computer simulation that is the Demi-Monde, and it's too much, too soon. Once we get past that initial awkward introduction, however, the novel opens up into something fantastic. The Demi-Monde was created to help train US soldiers in Asymmetrical Warfare, e.g. urban warfare, religious extremists, racial violence, etc. To this end, the Demi-Monde has four sectors, each with a very distinct racial, political, religious, and social milieu, all packed in very tightly. Populating this simulation are Dupes, incredibly accurate duplications of people from the Real World, mostly nonentities, but with a few key sociopaths mixed in to really get things going. Henry VIII, Reinhard Heydrich, Empress Wu, Trostky, Robespierre - these are examples of Dupes from history, and they're all running the show.

Into this mess the US military has thrown about 20 soldiers, who were promptly captured and are now being used as blood donors: due to a programming oversight, Demi-Mondians have no blood but need it to survive, whereas people from the Real World who enter the Demi-Monde DO have blood. These "Daemons" are captured and milked, creating a huge black market for blood. On top of that, the US president's daughter has been somehow lured into the Demi-Monde and taken hostage. If someone dies in the simulation, they remain a vegetable in the Real World, and obviously, this cannot happen to such an important personage. Only one person can save her: Ella Thomas, an 18-year-old, mixed race jazz singer, highly intelligent and highly adaptable. She's thrown into the Demi-Monde with her mission, and nothing else. As one might imagine, all hell ensues.

What fascinates me so much about this book is the sheer enormity of the idea Rees has come up with, without making it seem too big to be dealt with comfortably. Sociopaths aren't the easiest people to write about since they are so inimical to how "normal" people think and react, and Rees has done a good job of making these characters seem real enough to make the reader a little bit uncomfortable. The dialogue could be a little bit better, but all in all, it's an incredibly engaging story with very interesting characters, and I am looking forward to reading the next installment.

May 13, 2012

The Tigress of Forli, by Elizabeth Lev

The name Catherine de Medici is one which lives in infamy: Catarina, though never especially powerful during her life, is still synonymous with strong, independent women throughout history. While she was certainly those things, Lev also reveals her to have been exceptionally brutal, not, certainly, for her time, but definitely for a woman. Catarina lived in 15th Century Italy, a period of internecine warfare and replete with some of the most infamous characters of all time: Machiavelli, Lucrezia Borgia (and the rest of her murderous family), the Medici family - these names are instantly recognizable to us now as paragons of cunning political intrigue and dastardly murders. Catarina fit right in. She was married at age 10 to the favorite nephew of the pope, a position which should have (and did occasionally), garner her immense wealth, power, and prestige. Instead, her inept husband was routinely concerned with only himself and short-term benefits, never focused, as Catarina always was, on the perpetuation of the family name. She bore him six children, five of them boys, before he was murdered by enraged retainers and his own populace. Catarina, on her own for the first time in her life, very quickly took command of her three fortresses and soon developed a reputation for no-nonsense cruelty when it came time to take revenge for her husband's death. Two subsequent marriages (both for love, incredibly for that time) produced two more children, and Catarina once again proved her mettle and capacity for bloody vengeance after her second husband's murder and the all-out assault on her holdings several years later. She ended her life in Florence, buried in a simple tomb within the walls of the Muratte convent she particularly loved. Lev's writing is fantastic. I was at first a little dismayed by the narrative focusing more on Catarina's surroundings than herself, but this is probably due to the lack of correspondence she produced due to her young age. As the book goes on, we relive Catarina's emotional, financial, and political ups and downs through prose that is enjoyable and incredibly engaging. The sieges and battles read like fiction, and the book at those times becomes impossible to put down. I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in, well, anything!

May 5, 2012

Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg

This novel reminds me a bit of Ivan Doig's writing: it is not plot or narrative driven, but rather pulled from the subtle emotions of its protagonists in a setting where the land itself is the main character. The Reverend and Mrs. MacKenzie are sent to the desolate isle of St. Kilda, the remotest inhabited island of the Hebrides, north of Scotland. The natives speak no English, only Gaelic, live in the same manner and huts in which their ancestors lived, and are - according to the Church of Scotland - stricken with pagan superstition. MacKenzie, full of unspeakable guilt from an incidence in his past, resolves to pull the natives out of the proverbial and literal muck and turn them into enlightened, eager Christians. His wife, young and pregnant upon their arrival and lacking any sense of purpose, is instantly, helplessly lonely. As the years go on and children are born and live or die, the MacKenzies grow further apart, one accepting the realities of life on St. Kilda, one railing against them.

This is a slow book; it requires patience and complete reading. It is not a book written so the reader can find out what happened, rather, it is meant to draw attention to the way in which nature eventually takes its own. The cycle of life on the island is inexorable, though the St. Kildans cannot survive without extra supplies brought to them from the mainland at least once a year. It is about the constant struggle between evolution and tradition, man and nature, life and death. Sixty percent of babies born on St. Kilda die within eight days, but the islanders are not embittered or hardened by this; they mourn each child that cannot survive and treat each other with a compassion that Rev. MacKenzie cannot seem to emulate, let alone understand.

There are times in the book when my eyes glazed over a bit, such as the detailed descriptions of how the St. Kildans climbed the cliffs or fished, but the overall beauty of the writing would always pull me back in. I am impressed with Altenberg's sophisticated prose, and would certainly read more of her work in the future.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, by Melanie Benjamin

This lovely book is a novelized, first-person account of the first forty or so years of the life of Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, later known as Lavinia Warren. Vinnie, as she was known to family and friends, was born about twenty years before the Civil War in rural Massachusetts as a normally sized baby, but stopped growing when she was two. She was afflicted with proportional dwarfism, and never grew over two feet and eight inches. Intelligent and proper, Vinnie was a school teacher for a year before getting into show business, eventually forming a partnership and friendship with the famous P.T. Barnum, through whom she met her husband, Charles Stratton, also known as General Tom Thumb, who had the same medical condition. The couple was immensely popular due to their perfection in miniature and traveled around the world, meeting kings and queens and all the best society. It takes a bit to get used to Vinnie's voice (as interpreted by Benjamin), as she is a most proper 19th Century lady, but eventually the tone ceases to be distracting and we are pulled wholly into Vinnie's remarkable story. Benjamin did a great job of bringing a larger than life character (please pardon the play on words) into stunning realism, though she makes it clear in her afterword that though we have many of Vinnie's own writings, she addresses her emotions and feelings only rarely, so Benjamin took it upon herself to give Vinnie more depth of character. Despite the incredible circumstances, Vinnie's story is completely familiar: fear, love, and self-doubt are tropes common to all people, no matter their size or fame or fate. Vinnie spent nearly her entire life under a bright spotlight, yet remained surprisingly unknowable and aloof. With this novel, Benjamin has given her new life and a little more soul, and I was utterly charmed.