2011年7月31日 星期日

"The Book of Frank Herbert" by Frank Herbert

This is a collection of stories that were published from the 1950s to 1970 or so.

This book is less than 200 pages, and contains 10 stories, so any summary of these stories is going to be nearly as long as the stories themselves. Suffice to say, some of these stories are good, and a couple of them are preposterous. The story "Operation Syndrome" is the best in this collection, even if it betrays a faith in psychoanalysis that might be hard for 21st century readers to relate to.

The story "Looking for Something," while not that great, is the first science fiction story Herbert ever saw published, waaaaaay back in 1952!

And with this said, Dear Reader, I'll close the book on Frank Herbert for the near future. I've now read all the Dune novels... and six books besides. Perhaps one day I'll get around to the remainder of Frank Herbert's bibliography, but for now I think I'll take a long and well-deserved rest from Frank Herbert.

He is one of the greats, and I encourage you to read him if you haven't.

2011年7月30日 星期六

"Batman: Broken City" by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

This is a story arc that originally appeared in the "Batman" monthly comic book. The story is by Brian Azzarello, who has been mentioned here before, with pencils by Eduardo Risso.

It is A LOT like Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns." The two series are so alike, in fact, that I am tempted to call this a copy. Risso's pencils, in particular, are like Miller's without the interesting buildings and more ambitious splash pages. Risso is an undeniably good artist, but I hope that he eventually develops a style more his own.

The story is clever enough, and I liked the twist at the end. Azzarello has, however, written much better stories, and I would only recommend this one if you've already gone through "Joker" and "Luthor."

"Countdown to Final Crisis - Volume 3" by Paul Dini, et. al.

I think that the DC Universe is often at its best when it's facing armaggedon. Given the number of godlike characters in the DC roster, only the greatest of threats will make them even halfway interesting.

This has been the case ever since "Crisis on Infinite Earths," when DC finally realized that either their continuity needed to be adjusted, or they would be losing their audience. Not only did characters such as Batman and Superman have too much backstory to deal with, but the sum total of threats they had managed to overcome could only be topped by the greatest of all threats: the destruction of the entire DC multiverse.

Unfortunately, in the years following this first "Crisis," DC has never been able to find a continuity that has really resonated with fans. I suppose that in a way they are a victim of the success they enjoyed with "Crisis," and it will always be a temptation to raise the stakes again.

In this version of armaggedon, Superboy-Prime is out to destroy the Earth, or the Universe, or whatever else stands in his way. And while he is busy with his destroying, Monarch is trying to conquer the Earth, or the Universe, or whatever else stands in his way. Whoever is doing the destroying or conquering, all I know is that I haven't read the first two volumes of this TPB, and I am already more than confused. Maybe it will make sense later, when I've had time to read the rest.

Really the only thing I got out of "Countdown" is that Mary Marvel's costume is very, very sexy. Mary Marvel is even sexier than Wonder Woman, and that's saying a lot.

"Wide Awake" by David Levithan

David Levithan writes books for young adults, and this one is no exception. I believe it was first published in 2006.

Duncan, a gay Jewish high school student, and his boyfriend Jimmy inhabit a future US, wherein another gay Jewish male has just been elected President. They rejoice at this giant step forward for LGBTs everywhere, even though the election is clouded by the kind of political maneuvering that denied Gore the Presidency back in 2000.

So alright, I realize that I'm no longer a young adult, and I furthermore realize that this book wasn't written for people like me. I am 36 years old, straight, and agnostic. Even so, I believe in the kind of tolerance that this book preaches (and yes, it does preach), so I can see the good that this book might do for many younger people.

My only real problem with this book, aside from the fact that the characters are somewhat one-dimensional, is the presence of what I will call "implausibilities." A few of these implausibilities are:

1. The idea that any government can be based upon the principles of kindness and compassion. I'm sorry, but that idea just doesn't work for me. Yes, people can be based upon the principles of kindness and compassion, but any government so founded would obviate itself very quickly. Government is based upon the rule of law, and this law, in ideal circumstances, reflects the will of a kind and compassionate people.

2. The idea of a "non-mall" where people (teenagers) make "non-purchases," wherein they go through the ritual of shopping only to make a donation at the point of purchase. I'm sorry, but why would anyone bother?

3. The idea that any group of teenagers, only a generation removed from the present, would take such an interest in the democratic process and its relation to American history. Keep in mind that we're talking about kids the same age as my older daughter here. Can you really see them campaigning for someone they can't even vote for? Can you really see a gay Jewish teenager viewing the Boston Tea Party as a life-affirming event? I sure can't!

This said, this book wasn't written for an old guy like me. Maybe many younger people would find it interesting, and maybe it would get them more involved in their own government. I can't say. I can say, however, that this book isn't very good.

2011年7月27日 星期三

"Luthor" by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo

Brian Azzarello is my second-favorite of the contemporary comic book writers, standing - in my estimation - just behind Mark Millar. I think that one day he will write an even better comic book, something that people will be unable to ignore, and I might just be calling him my favorite.

He is great at telling the villain's side of the story, and in terms of grittiness, realism, and moral ambiguity he is beyond reproach. He tells stories that are just a half-step removed from our own, and presents characters that exist on the borderline between heroism and villainy.

I read his and Lee Bermejo's "Joker" a while back, so I was already familiar with both of these talents before I started "Luthor." "Joker," I think, is slightly better than "Luthor," but both books are excellent. "Joker" stood out for its shockingly original violence, while "Luthor" stands out for its aphoristic majesty, and its portrayal of the arch-villain as a misunderstood humanist. "Joker" was something that sat with me for a long time, while I feel "Luthor" is a bit less memorable.

Anyone unfamiliar with Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's work should certainly seek it out. You won't be sorry that you did.

"Marvels" by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

I realize that it's a bit incongruous to talk about comic books in the context of a "literature blog," but I do read comic books on occasion, and they are books, right?

So here I am with "Marvels," which I just finished reading. This particular comic book was written by Kurt Busiek, and was drawn by the well-known Alex Ross. I'm really not sure what Kurt Busiek has done in the world of comics, but Alex Ross should be familiar to even the most marginal comic book fan.

"Marvels" is a retelling of the early Marvel Universe, starting from the appearance of the original Human Torch and ending with the death of Gwen Stacy. It offers a glimpse of the world of superheroes through the eyes of a decidedly average spectator, as he is swept up in a sort of superhuman revolution. The world is continually on the brink of destruction, and all mankind can do is wait for the Fantastic Four, the X-men, or the Avengers to swoop in and save the day.

In many ways, "Marvels" brings to mind DC's "Kingdom Come," which explored similar themes. Yet "Marvels" isn't quite as dark as DC's book, even if they shared the same artist. All in all, I'd have to say that "Kingdom Come" was a slightly more powerful effort, even if "Marvels" shares the same kind of grandeur.

"Under Pressure" (a.k.a. "The Dragon in the Sea") by Frank Herbert

"Under Pressure" was first serialized in Astounding magazine in 1955-1956. It has also gone by the titles "The Dragon in the Sea" and "21st Century Sub."

It isn't really a science fiction novel. All of the technology introduced in this book has been surpassed, and the submarine which forms the setting of most of the story is downright antiquated when compared to modern nuclear submarines. This book was well-researched, but the details inserted into the drama suggest World War II far more than 2011.

In the early 21st century, the world is divided between the eastern and western powers, both contending for the sake of the world's remaining oil reserves. Beset by saboteurs on every side, a crew of four men pilot a nuclear sub to the arctic circle, where they hope to retrieve oil from a well known only the the sub's captain.

This book is strongly reminiscent of Herbert's Destination: Void, in that we again see a dramatic conflict of universal proportions played out in a small, confined space. There is also a religious element shared between the two novels, though this element is more obvious in "Under Pressure." The captain of the sub often quotes Scripture to get his point across, and in doing so comes across sounding like a low-grade Captain Ahab.

Like Destination: Void, this book also gets quite boring in places, and some of the technical descriptions of the sub's interior seem entirely irrelevant - other than to convince readers of how smart Frank Herbert thought he was. It reminded me a lot of that film Das Boot, except with all of the interesting parts cut out. I never once found myself caring about the characters in this book, and the religious element, as said above, seemed very forced.

I would not recommend this book, even though it is often mentioned as one of Frank Herbert's "better efforts." I guess guys who like military thrillers might find this one more accessible, but it wasn't doing anything for me!

2011年7月24日 星期日

"A Separate Peace" by John Knowles

"A Separate Peace" was first published in 1959, and is the most famous of John Knowles' books. It was made into a movie in 1972, and was also adapted for TV in 2004. It is a book full of angst, and bears comparison to J.D. Salinger's "A Catcher in the Rye."

The book explores the friendship that develops between two young men on the eve of World War II. Phineas, the star of the school, is an avid sportsman and ringleader. Gene, his friend and the narrator of this story, is his co-conspirator and aspires to graduate at the top of his class. Early on in the story, an accident occurs, and the two are forced to reevaluate their relationship.

My mother recalls being forced to study this book in school. It is indeed that kind of book - the book that English teachers love to hand their students. It is short, has an easily discerned moral, and makes few demands on the reader. It is also a lot less controversial than "Catcher in the Rye," even if it is somewhat homoerotic.

This a good, solid book, but it's not particularly deep. It reads like one of those ABC Afterschool Specials, and is about as enlightening. Even so, it has a good heart, and it means well.

2011年7月22日 星期五

"Whipping Star" by Frank Herbert

"Whipping Star" was first published in 1970, and it is part of Herbert's "ConSentiency" series, which lies outside the Dune continuum. The ConSentiency universe is populated by all manner of alien races: some human, and some so remote from our own that communication becomes a matter of life and death.

"Whipping Star" is a kind of detective story, and in some respects it resembles Asimov's later Robot novels. The protagonist has discovered an alien life form, marooned on a distant planet, and the fate of the known universe rests upon his ability to communicate with this strange and incomprehensible being. The villain of the book is one of those "insectoid" women that are found in many Frank Herbert novels, a woman who will go to any length to satisfy her masochistic urges.

I am not a big fan of the mystery/suspense genre, and in this respect "Whipping Star" already has a mark against it. Detective stories usually seem so contrived to me, and no matter how clever the ending, there are always one or two improbabilities that call the protagonist's line of reasoning into question. Combining the detective genre with the sci-fi genre only seems to magnify this fault.

"Whipping Star" is OK, but not a book I would recommend. Herbert wrote better novels, and there are reasons that this one is among his more obscure offerings.

2011年7月18日 星期一

"Voss" by Patrick White

"Accordingly, when they made the midday halt, the German called to his dog, and she followed him a short way. When he had spoken a few words to her, and was looking into the eyes of love, he pulled the trigger. He was cold with sweat. He could have shot off his own jaw. Yet, he had done right, he convinced himself through his pain, and would do better to subject himself to further drastic discipline.

"Then the man scraped a hole in which to bury his dog. As the grave was rather shallow, he placed a few stones on top, and some branches from a ragged she-oak, which he found growing there beside the river.

"From a distance the members of his party could have been watching him.

"'What does it matter?' said Turner at last, who had been amongst the most vociferous in Gyp's defense. 'It is only a dog, is it not? And might have become a nuisance. It could be that he has done right to kill it. Only, in these here circumstances, we are all, every one of us, dogs.'"

"Voss" was first published in 1957, and Patrick White is the only Australian author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was an argumentative, fiercely individualistic sort of person, and I'm sure that many of his peers found him intimidating.

Yet whatever his personal failings may have been, "Voss" is an indisputably great novel. It explores the relationship between Voss, the German immigrant to Australia, and Laura, one of the newly arrived "colonials" in New South Wales. The two share a brief intimacy prior to Voss's expedition into the Australian interior, after which point they are separated by miles of wilderness and all of the difficulties that beset the German in pursuit of his vaguely defined goal.

Patrick White's style of writing brings Faulkner to mind, though Voss lacks the labyrinthine sentences and book-length paragraphs that continue to make Faulkner a challenge. Both writers share a love of digressions into memory, both individual and racial. Both also share a love of cryptic statements that give one a sense of teetering on the brink of an abyss. Patrick White is a much easier read than Faulkner, yet not something you'd want to skim through. This book requires a higher level of attention from the reader.

I haven't read much Australian fiction, so I can't say how "Voss" stacks up against other Australian classics. I can say that "Voss" is a great book, and it has me wondering what other Australian writers are out there, waiting, unread.

2011年7月9日 星期六

"The Godmakers" by Frank Herbert

"The Godmakers" was first published in 1972, after both "Dune" and "Dune Messiah." It is, however, composed of several short stories that appeared much earlier, and were later combined to form this novel.

As the title suggests, the book outlines the creation of a deity, in the person of Lewis Orne. Lewis Orne works for a galactic organization in charge of maintaining peace, and in this capacity proves his skills admirably. He is promoted quickly through the ranks, and is eventually summoned to the planet Amel, where he learns that he will be the next God, or Messiah, or Prophet, or all three.

Unlike "Destination: Void," this book is more action-oriented, and less focused on explaining things. Herbert never bothers to explain exactly how or why Lewis Orne is the next "God," and I think that leaving this process to our imaginations is one of the book's many strengths. The story flows smoothly from beginning to end, and I never found myself bored by this one.

This novel is something like a streamlined version of "Dune," with all the random philosophizing and political subplots removed. As such, it is an immensely readable book, and probably one of the best things Herbert ever wrote. It has the kind of depth you would expect from a Frank Herbert novel, but avoids the digressions and overcomplicated subplots that bog down many of his other books.

2011年7月7日 星期四

"Tales of Hoffmann" by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman died in 1822, in the midst of a government inquiry into his "treasonable activities." He was a talented man, being not only a writer, but also a composer, conductor, and artist of some stature in Germany. He was also good at poking fun at the wrong people, as evidenced by his troubled career in the Prussian civil service.

Hoffmann is placed within the Romantic period, and his stories often bring Hugo and Mary Shelley to mind. The first and most famous of his tales, "Mademoiselle de Scudery," is set in Paris and is something of a detective story. Echoes of "Les Miserables" can be detected here, though Hoffmann's native ingenuity is evident throughout.

The second of these tales is "The Sandman," which is a prototypical science fiction story. It is one of the more original things I've read in a while, and resembles some of Poe's work. This is no accident, since Hoffmann was a big influence on Poe.

All of the other stories in this collection are good, "The Artushof" being my favorite. If you are a fan of Poe, or even of the more recent fabulists like Italo Calvino, you will find a lot to like in Hoffmann.

2011年7月5日 星期二

"Destination: Void" by Frank Herbert

"Destination: Void" was written in 1966, quite a while after Frank Herbert wrote "Direct Descent," which has also been reviewed here. It is much closer in tone to the Dune novels, and is more densely written. Fans of more "action oriented" sci-fi will probably find this book too "talky," or even "intellectual," but those who (like me) admire the more cerebral sci-fi authors will probably like it.

The story begins with a spaceship on its way to Tau Ceti, many light years distant from Earth. The crew of this spaceship, reliant upon the "brain computers" that guide the ship, are thrown into a desperate situation after the third and last of these "brain computers" has succumbed to insanity.

Unable to pilot the ship manually, they spend most of the book trying to create an artificial intelligence smart enough to get them to their destination. It is at this point that "Destination: Void" gets DEEP. The crew spend much of the book debating what consciousness is, how it might be created, and other philosophical and neurological issues related to their goal of crafting AI out of spare parts.

And while I found many of their discussions interesting, I am left to wonder how creating AI for the second time in human history is somehow easier than just piloting the ship the rest of the way. You would think that the crew members would have found some middle ground between using their "brain computers" and creating AI. As it is, the book never really explains WHY the crew can't pilot the ship the rest of the way, aside from the facts that a) it's really far, and b) it's stressful. But then again, what is more stressful, piloting a ship to Tau Ceti, or worrying whether or not your spaceship is going insane?

Taken altogether, this is a great book and I would highly recommend it. It has a few plot holes, but these are both far smaller and far fewer than what you will find in most popular sci-fi.

2011年7月1日 星期五

"Against All Enemies" by Richard A. Clarke

"After the shock of September 11, Americans rallied around the flag in support of their country and their government. Unfortunately, that commendable sentiment brought a blind loyalty, an unquestioning willingness to accept whatever the leadership said was necessary to fight terrorism. By suppressing our natural skepticism, turning off our analytical filters, we participated in a major national mistake, the invasion of Iraq."

I agree with the above statement. Whether or not you agree depends upon complex arguments which will not be cataloged here. Whether or not there were any WMDs, whether or not Bush Jr. was trying too hard to make a name for himself, and whether or not the War on Terror is/was a preventable mistake are all points open to debate, and none of these points will be decided anytime soon.

I will say that books like this have a definite shelf life. The "Washington insider" genre has always been popular, and new additions to this category of non-fiction are to be found each month. A few of them stand the test of time, but most of them fade from memory once the events they attempt to describe have been replaced by newer, more relevant issues. I assume that this will be one of those books that fades.

Reading this in 2011, I am left to wonder how much of the War on Terror is directly attributable to Bush Jr. and Co. As we have seen in recent months, many of America's previous blunders with regard to foreign policy have continued into the Obama administration, as our recent debacles in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan show.

I just wish that Americans (like me) could start learning from our history, in order to avoid repeating it. Reading a book like this is perhaps a step in that direction. It is a far-from-masterful survey of what led us into our present predicaments, but as an example of popular non-fiction it is not surprising that this book lacks the detail and fleshed-out arguments found elsewhere. It is a good introduction to the War on Terror, but far from the last word on this subject.

"Direct Descent" by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert is famous for writing the Dune novels, which his son (and another guy) later wrote sequels to. I thought one of these novels ("Chapterhouse Dune") was awful, two were just OK ("Children of Dune" and "Dune"), and the other three ("Dune Messiah", "God Emperor of Dune", and "Heretics of Dune") were truly epic. As for the books his son (and the other guy) wrote, I think they are best left in the discount bin where they belong.

"Direct Descent" is one of the many, many novels Frank Herbert wrote before he was famous. It is an extension of a short story first published in 1954. Like many of Herbert's "pre-Dune" novels, it showcases ideas in their embryonic form. It is a lot like reading the author's notebook, and offers a fascinating glimpse of ideas that he would later bring to a wider audience.

The setting is Terra, thousands of years in the future. At this point in time, the entire Earth has been converted into a vast library, wherein the knowledge amassed from a galactic empire is stored. A new president has been elected, and believing all knowledge to be evil, sets out to destroy the library in the hopes of eradicating knowledge itself. The book is something of a dialogue between rationalism and mysticism, and given that the book belongs to the SCIENCE-fiction genre, the outcome is fairly obvious from the beginning. The book also resembles Asimov's Empire novels in many ways, though I can't say if this was intentional or just coincidence.

Regardless of whoever owned these ideas first, Herbert presents them in his own inimitable style. And even if Asimov created some of these concepts, Herbert could always take them to a higher level. This book is an easy read, and I liked it a lot. Of course it's not on the same level as something like "God Emperor of Dune," but it's a lot less ponderous than the more labored of his Dune novels.