Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Few names in fiction are more iconic than Frankenstein.  Story, character, and premise borrowed, bent, and twisted in the near 200 years that have passed since the idea’s conception, what is perhaps the seminal work of science fiction has become an image of Halloween, the original story by and large lost to time.   In fact the tragedy of an ordinary doctor with extra-ordinary skills, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus is a powerful examination of the meaning of being human as told through the eyes of a man who created one, and if Brian Aldiss is to be believed, it is the first work of science fiction.

A frame story, Frankenstein is bookended by the notes of an Arctic sailor who has the experience of talking with a dying man found wandering the frozen north.  The dying man named Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the story of his youth up until his delirious expedition in the north forms the main narrative.  Born into a rich Swiss family, from an early age Frankenstein showed interest in not only biology and chemistry, but “old science”—the study of supernatural wonders.  After finishing a medical degree at university, he secretly puts his skills as a doctor and arcane knowledge of the unknown into action, creating the now famous monster on a stormy night.  Hideous beyond hope, the monster’s ugliness scares Frankenstein, and he flees the room, allowing his creation to escape.  Twisted together in desire and loathing, the creator and the created’s lives are never the same thereafter, their tragedies unfolding in the telling.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review of Watership Down by Richard Adams

Among the first, and still one of the most influential, Richard Adams’ delightful 1972 Watership Down is a highly original work of animal fantasy.  Charmingly and savagely bringing to life a rabbit’s world, the novel is one of the top sellers of all time, and winner of several awards.  Eminently enjoyable by the young and old, Adams struck imaginative gold with his heroic tale of Sandleford warren and their quest to establish a new home.

Watership Down begins with Fiver, a rabbit who has a vision of his home warren being destroyed in a terrible catastrophe.  Only able to convince a few of his friends of the impending doom, Fiver, along with Hazel, Bigwig, Blackberry, Dandelion and others, escape just in the nick of time.  Homeless, the group need to find a warren where they can live in peace once again.  But finding a new home proves more than difficult.  Their quest taking them to a variety of places in the English countryside, the band of survivors must always be on alert; not all evils are of the black and white variety.  Dangers appear on all sides—traps, foxes, impassable waterways, and other rabbits, making the start of a new warren a harrowing experience they may not survive.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review of The Word for World is Forest by Ursula Le Guin

Given Ursula Le Guin’s penchant for mixing real world social, political, and cultural concerns, it should come as no surprise that her voice could be heard on the Vietnam War.  The Word for World is Forest, published in 1976, is some of Le Guin’s most overt commentary on war and colonization.  A revision of her eponymous 1972 novella, the novel comments directly on the presence of major political powers in less-developed areas for profit, all in highly personal and well-told fashion.  

The Word for World is Forest is set entirely on the planet Athshe.  Humanity (called the Terrans) has arrived and set up mining, logging, and other resource-based enterprises, enslaving the indigenous to perform labor in the process.  A smaller, greener, hairier version of humanity, the natives also sleep in a significantly different fashion.  In fact sleeping little at all, they rather fall into a state of lucid dreaming at random periods of the day.  Thinking them to be lazy and avoiding work, the humans, in particular a man named Davidson, routinely beat and otherwise abuse the Athsheans, forcing them to perform the labor whose profits are sent to Earth.  It isn’t long, however, before the natives rebel against the humans, the resulting fight deciding the sentient fate of Athshe.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Review of The Stone Canal by Ken Macleod

The Stone Canal, second in Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series, is a difficult book to write a review of.  The reason is the story’s structure.  Broken in half, the chapters alternate to tell the first and second halves separately, with the ending joining the two together at the middle into a single whole.  The details at the end of one revealing important information about the beginning of the other, and vice versa, it’s quite easy to wander into spoiler territory writing a summary.  (Be warned, the majority of reviews I have read spoiled large portions and some of the major surprises in the novel.)  It’s best to start with Macleod’s introduction, and leave the rest to instinct and hope. 
In classic sci-fi style, the opening page of The Stone Canal features a man waking from the dead in the middle of a desert on a strange planet.  Named Jonathan Wilde, the last memory he has is being shot by a fair weather friend, David Reid, on Earth.  A robot is standing beside Wilde waiting for him to come to consciousness, and together the two wander into the nearest town.  Feeling like the wild west, the town is on a planet called New Mars and is riddled with canals, rundown concrete buildings, and a healthy mood of chaos and freedom amidst the robots, net tech, and biological misfits.  Also walking the streets of the town is a cyborg woman.  Named Dee Model, she is fleeing her owner after experiencing the epiphany that she has the right to her own autonomy.  Seeing Wilde in a bar, the two have a brief ‘don’t I know you moment’ before the goons arrive.  It is not the last time the two cross paths.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review of Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny

In the early part of his career, and in an indirect sense throughout it, Roger Zelazny combed Earth’s cultures, religions, and legends for story material.  His brilliant Lord of Light and This Immortal riffing off Hindu/Buddhist and Greek mythology respectively, he established himself as writer who combined the classic themes of myth and legend with more modern, imaginative tropes of science fiction and fantasy.  His 1969 Creatures of Light and Darkness is no exception.

Egyptian myth and cosmology the source material, Creatures… is an epic tale of warring gods where space and time have little meaning—or all the meaning if the story as a whole is viewed.  Stakeholders in universal power, Osiris, Set, Anubis, Isis, and a variety of other deities from Egyptian myth come alive in the narrative.  But the story is also grounded in semi-reality.  Regardless whether a far future vision or simply an extra-terrestrial fantasy setting, six versions of human life inhabit six worlds in the Middle Realm of the gods’ domain.  Some worlds more advanced than others with the gods being able to control and apply technology at will, there is a distinct sci-fi edge to what is otherwise a full-on fantasy story.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Biting wit, a well-told tale, and a spiritual truth perfectly outlaid, these are the hallmarks of Oscar Wilde’s one and only excursion into novel land.  The Picture of Dorian Gray initially published in 1890, Wilde played off the Faust legend to write his own tale of moral decay, beauty, and vice.  Controversial upon its release, the book is bland by today’s publishing standards.  Its message, however, remains as timeless as word itself.

Set at the time of the novel’s publication, the story opens with Dorian Gray posing for the artist Basil Hallward at the home of Lord Henry Wotton.  Basil’s tongue sharper than any knife, the conversation he has with Lord Wotton intrigues Dorian.  Coming to believe that beauty and sensuality are the only virtues worth pursuing, Dorian swears by the portrait Hallward produces that it will grow old, not himself.  Emerging into society a different person, Dorian proceeds to live the life he’d sworn by, indulging in women and the excesses of luxury at will.  The end of his hedonistic endeavors, however, is not the product of his dreams.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Jules Verne is perhaps the single most important persona in the evolution of science fiction as a genre.  Seminally seminal to say the least, his books utilized and pushed beyond the limits of discovered reality to incorporate elements of the yet undiscovered in adventurous tales.  Appearing a century prior to the likes of Asimov, Bester, and Clarke, his novels of Earth’s exploration, though certainly dated by today’s standards, set a high bar for imagination, science, and entertainment rolled into one.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is Verne’s fifth major published work and sees the author finding form writing stories of exotic expeditions.  After cracking a secret message hidden within the saga Heimskringla, Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel head to Iceland.  Hiring the services of the guide Hans Bjelke upon their arrival, they following the instructions of the encrypted message to a local volcano and enter the caldera.  The trio’s journey from there only becomes more adventurous by the page: what exists at Verne’s center of the Earth is anything but predictable.

Review of the Hand of Thrawn Duology by Timothy Zahn

Based on the success of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, Bantam and Lucas Arts offered several contracts for additional books in the Star Wars expanded universe.  Various works starting to appear toward the end of the 20th century, all dealt with different aspects of the fictional world.  Some told X-Wing stories, others tales from the Mos Eisley cantina, Jabba’s lair was expanded, and some picked up Zahn’s story where he’d left it at the end of The Last Command.  The universe had not heard the last of Zahn, however, and four years after the completion of the Thrawn trilogy, a new duology of books appeared that continued the main Star Wars storyline, picking up where other writers left off.  

Called the Hand of Thrawn duology, Zahn adds little new to the Star Wars universe, rather ties up a couple of important loose ends.  Working with the story infrastructure handed him by Lucas and that which he created in the original Thrawn trilogy, the books bring together two key characters in matrimony, as well cements the New Republic’s position in the universe.  The story divided between Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, the writing is in the same solid style that Zahn previously displayed and generally continues to show a respect and understanding for all things Star Wars. There are, however, a few new items which show authorial license.  More importantly, the overall story is beginning to show its limits.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The transition from child- to adulthood is perhaps one of the most trying times of life.  Questing for social acceptance, over confidence, lack of compassion, angst that needs outlet, and being rebellious for rebelliousness’ sake are all parts of growing up for most young people.  There are times, however, that the behavior goes to the extreme.  Anthony Burgess’ wife victim to an act of random violence by a group of young men, in 1962 he decided to write a novel from the perspective of one such delinquent, A Clockwork Orange the result.   A delicious yet appalling stew of wildly creative language and violent behavior, Burgess digs deeper into the head of a sociopathic young man than is perhaps good for a sane man, but if the ending can be trusted, comes to a measure of peace for what transpired with his wife.

A Clockwork Orange is the story of Alex, the teenage leader of a gang of hooligan delinquents.  Terrors of the streets, Alex and his droogs—Georgie, Pete, and Dim—spend their nights arbitrarily stealing, beating, raping—preying upon society.  Taking pleasure in the anguish, the flow of blood and screams of pain set lights in their eyes and smiles on their faces.  And Alex’s parents are helpless to intervene; he skips school, tricks girls to bed with drugs, and lives a life entirely void of empathy.  Biting off more than he can chew one night out, Alex’s life takes a flip-flop after a flight of bravado.  But will the situation he suddenly finds himself in make any difference?