Friday, February 27, 2015

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Think about this -- most science fiction, both written and filmed, portrays aliens as more or less humanoid in shape, with two arms and two legs and so forth, and with more or less human emotions and motivations. While they may not be exactly like us, they are close enough for humans to understand them eventually, if not immediately. Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem believed the opposite. He imagined that non-Earthlings would be non-human in appearance and that it would be impossible for humans to communicate with them or understand their actions.

The novel Solaris takes place on a planet almost completely covered by an ocean which is apparently sentient, one massive brain or entity. However, decades of observation and research have brought human explorers and scientists no closer to communication with or understanding of this alien intelligence. Interest in the planet has thus waned when young scientist Kris Kelvin arrives on the space station orbiting the planet, only to find that one of the three men stationed there has committed suicide and that the remaining two seem to be verging on insanity. Almost immediately he begins to understand their distress, when he is visited by a woman who is a physical twin of his long dead love, as he remembers her. The eventual conclusion he reaches is that the "ocean" has, for whatever reason, read the subconscious minds of the men and has brought to life duplicates from their repressed memories.

While I have not seen the big budget movie adapted from this novel starring George Clooney, it reportedly focused on the love story of Kris Kelvin and his resurrected love. Lem was highly critical of this, saying that his book was "not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space." Instead, he said he "...wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that...cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas, or images."

Solaris is considered a science faction classic, but I don't believe every SF fan will appreciate it. It is more philosophical than plot driven, and contains page after page of scientific and pseudo-scientific jargon concerning the various theories about the planet. As for myself, I find it intriguing to think about alien life in a different way, and think that it is very likely that Lem is correct in his assessment.

This next paragraph has nothing to do with the novel, but it's interesting (and kind of funny) background information I ran across. Lem was very vocal in his criticism of American science fiction, so much so that the Science Fiction Writers of America rescinded his honorary membership in the organization. He is reported as saying that US science fiction was "a domain of herd creativity." In a 1975 essay in the journal Science Fiction Studies he praised only one American SF author, Philip K. Dick, saying that he was "a visionary among charlatans." However, in 1974 the ever-paranoid Dick had written a letter to the FBI, saying that Lem was a false name used by a composite committee operating on orders of the Communist party, to gain control over public opinion. Presumably, Lem did not know of Dick's letter when he wrote his praise of him.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

As it turns out, Lady Audley actually has several secrets, and her husband's nephew Robert Audley uncovers them all in his quest to find his friend George Talboy, who has disappeared following a visit to the Audley estate. Bigamy, murder, arson, and secret identities make this one of the most well known examples of sensation fiction, which came into widespread popularity in England in the 1860s. Braddon's novel made so much money that it provided her with life-long income and its publisher was able to purchase an estate from his portion of the profits.

This is a fun book to read, although its ending is a little weak. The detective hero is charmingly portrayed and his transformation from a genial layabout to a dedicated and energetic investigator is believable. The anti-heroine Lady Audley resembles Thackery's Becky Sharp more than a bit, but is not nearly as interesting. The writing is suprisingly good, especially considering that the novel was written very quickly. Not Gothic at all, it is instead basically a detective story.

Recommended for those who enjoy Victorian novels and have run out of books by the big names and so are ready to visit the second tier.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Reading Anthony Trollope is like chatting with a good-hearted gossipy old friend who tells you of all the goings on of his neighbors without once being snippy or sarcastic or even overly condemnatory of those who misbehave. He gives you hints right off that his stories end happily, so you are not held in suspense as to the outcome, but the charm is in hearing the details of how it all comes about. He is a welcome reprieve when you wish to slow down and believe once again that people, despite all their faults, are mostly decent, and that sometimes, despite all the odds, things do end up as they should.

For those familiar with Victorian literature, I would say that he is less sharp and bitter than Thackery, less melodramatic and prone to painting in black and white than Dickens, less passionate and personal than the Bronte sisters. He is humorous without lapsing into farce, critical of certain aspects of the society of his time without being a crusader, and altogether a very pleasurable friend to have.

This novel is #3 in Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire series and tells the story of the titular doctor and his niece Mary. Despite her poverty and questionable parentage, she is the beloved of Frank Gresham, the heir to a large estate. However, because the estate is mortgaged to the hilt, all his relatives tell him constantly that "he must marry money!" Will Frank sacrifice love for lucre? Will May reject him because she feels her "blood" is inferior to his? Will they marry and live in poverty and ignominy? Will Mary ever receive her rightful inheritance?

Trollope affectionately portrays rural English life among the middle and upper classes, and I can't think of a better place to spend a weekend.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The problem with this comic/detective/science fiction/alternate reality/romance/literature referencing novel is that the author took all these excellent ingredients, mixed them together, and created a bland mush. The saving features are that the basic premise is pretty nifty (though not original), and the book can be read very quickly.

The nifty plot device is that a new invention makes it possible for a reader to actually insert himself into the world of the original manuscript of a book and kidnap or kill one of the characters, thus changing the text of the novel for all time in all subsequent copies. I just wish the author had been able to make better use of his scenario.

Throughout, Fforde tries desperately to be wacky and funny, only periodically succeeding. He gives his characters funny names: the hero detective is Thursday Next; the arch villain is Acheron Hades; there are characters named Paige Turner, Jack Schitt, Braxton Hicks, and even Millon de Floss (Mill on the Floss, get it? haha.) He includes a bit of word play and quite a few ludicrous situations, but I can think of several humorous writers who are capable of doing better (Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Connie Willis, for example), and I don't even read much in that genre.

I did like the idea of a world where everyone is passionate about literature, so that millions of dollars of ransom money would be paid to keep the character Jane Eyre from being killed off.

This is not a book to hate, or even actively dislike. It's just not very tasty.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Faber's new novel is aptly named, as it is indeed strange. It's a science fiction/Christian religion/apocalyptic/love story, and, strangely enough, it all works together to provide a satisfying and thoughtful reading experience.

Peter, an earnest and sincere pastor, is hired by a mysterious corporation with a small outpost on a far away planet to serve as spiritual leader for members of the native population. Feeling chosen by God to witness to these humanoid aliens, Peter reluctantly leaves his beloved wife Bea, who has previously rescued him from alcoholism and a life of crime and introduced him to the Christian life. Upon arrival, he finds that his new flock has already been introduced by a previous pastor to the teachings of the Bible, calling it "The Book of Strange New Things." Communicating with his wife only through the equivalent of e-mails, Peter finds himself becoming emotionally detached from her as he immerses himself in his "mission," although she tells him of the increasingly dire events back on Earth, as both society and the environment disintegrate into chaos.

The story is told through the eyes of Peter, and the author is very skilled in conveying an understanding of his behavior when he does not understand it himself. Faber believably portrays a man's conflicts of mind and heart about what duty to God actually entails, as well as telling an achingly sad love story.

Readers who are primarily science fiction fans may not appreciate this novel because it actually tells little of the alien race. Although the book contains many quotes from the King James Bible, adherents of "Christian" novels may be disappointed because it concerns questioning rather than pat answers. Fans of apocalyptic literature will be disappointed because Faber allows Bea to report only events happening without examining the whys and what happens next. Strangely enough, I felt this was mainly a love story, although the two principals are only portrayed together in the first few pages. Most of all, this is a combination and a creation all to itself, and it is very beautiful.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

I just read that this 2014 best selling novel is being developed as a television series, and that fact suddenly puts the whole book into perspective for me. I was having a hard time sorting through my impressions prior to writing a review: while I was reading the book and immediately after, I was terrifically impressed and would have written a glowing review, but after a couple of days of reflection I began to think that the book was actually somewhat shallow and formulaic. Then I read about the TV deal, and it all makes perfect sense.

Fourth of July Creek has "hit TV" written all over it. Its hero Pete Snow (or anti-hero, perhaps) is a social worker who is a seriously flawed human being, but who tries to do the best he can to help children who are neglected, mistreated, molested, in need of rescuing. Meanwhile his own family is in shambles: he has left his wife because of her infidelity and his teenage daughter has run away from home and cannot be found. He is also a functioning alcoholic and has anger-management issues. In his quest to do what's right for the children, he often disregards and circumvents the law. Think Detective Stabler of Law and Order. In fact, I believe the actor who plays Stabler might be a good casting choice, though he is maybe a bit too old now.

The plot centers on two of Snow's cases: Cecil, filled with anger against his mother who sexually molested him, and Benjamin, living with his deranged fundamentalist father as a fugitive in the Montana wilderness. Benjamin and his father take center stage when the FBI and ATF (this is set prior to the creation of Homeland Security) take an interest in him. I can imagine that a television series would start with these, but would then come up with case after case of other children in need of help. Perfect. There is probably no end to the cruel and abusive damage adults can inflict upon children which can be exploited in the quest for advertising revenue.

Henderson is obviously trying to make some sort of statement about freedom in the USA (note the title), but for the life of me I cannot decide what his point is. Maybe he's trying to say that it's very hard to determine where one person's freedom negatively impacts another person's freedom, or maybe it's about the appropriate role of the government in guaranteeing freedom, or maybe he's saying something else entirely. The intent of the novel, except to tell a darn good story, is ambiguous, at least to me.

But this is a page-turner of a story, and I liked it very much while reading it, though not as much afterwards. And it will make a dynamite television series. Television thrives on moral ambiguity.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Readers who love Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and who expect something similar in this later novel will be sorely disappointed. They will find no highly dramatic events (such as finding out at the alter that your intended groom has a mad wife hidden in his house), no touches of the supernatural (such as hearing your beloved call to you from miles and miles away), no wild encounters with nature (such as being lost and starving on the moors). Even the male love interests are rather tame creatures, who pale in comparison to the dark, brooding Rochester in Jane Eyre. Charlotte, herself, even wrote in the first chapter: "Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something as unromantic as Monday morning...."

Evidently, most readers prefer the romantic, as do I. Shirley is seldom read nowadays, while almost everyone has read (or at least has been supposed to have read) Jane Eyre.

The story takes place against the backdrop of the Napoleonic War, when a blockade against exports and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution led to riots and unrest by factory workers against the factory owners; however, little use is made of the background except as a plot device to account for the actions of one of the male characters. The main action centers on two young women -- one of landed aristocracy and one of more humble (though genteel) circumstances -- who become fast friends, each one in unspoken love with someone. Despite the title, the novel focuses more on the life and love of Caroline, the more humble character. Shirley doesn't even appear for about 150 pages.

In tone, this novel is more similar to Trollope, but without his gentle humor and satire. In her effort to write something "real," perhaps Charlotte Bronte erred by being too "cool and solid." Perhaps it's just that readers expect something else, and are disappointed not to find it.

Still, it's an interesting, well-done novel.