Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Friday, March 25, 2011
Once more into the breach, dear friends!
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Christopher Nolan’s film version of this novel is one of my favorite films of the past five years. I also liked the novel quite a bit, but it is unfortunate that each version ruins the other a bit. The story is a puzzle, and a very entertaining one; it’s too bad that you can’t come to both versions fresh and spoiler-free.
The novel follows the careers of two turn-of-the-(20th)century stage magicians: Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. Both take their craft very seriously, but a series of confrontations at the beginnings of their respective careers lead to a vicious and sometimes violent rivalry between the two. Both develop innovative acts involving “transportation” of the magician across the stage that challenge explanation (and possibly violate the laws of physics – this book does qualify as speculative fiction). The story is told from the point of view of their descendents, and we get the story through journals from Borden and Angier, presented in turn. We get multiple perspectives on the same events that illuminate each other.
It’s very well-written, and Priest gives us convincing Victorian narrators. It’s also a very fun and engrossing experience overall, and Priest plays with some interesting and subtle metaphors about identity and “otherness.” I do have some reservations at the ending, which goes for a horror-style scare rather than a further meditation on family, career, or any of the other themes that Priest has established, but that’s really my only complaint.
Normally, I recommend reading the book before seeing the movie, but I think I would say see the movie first here. There are a few subtle changes, and the film is tighter with a clear evocation of the themes (and a different ending). Either version will slightly dilute the experience of the other, and I have to say the film is a little better and thus the one that should be seen fresh. But, it’s a great story either way, and I’ll definitely be seeking out more Christopher Priest.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Monday, March 14, 2011
Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. His 1992 novel Snow Crash, a hyperbolic, hyperactive cyberpunk novel set in a future where the state has crumbled, is probably his most famous work, but it didn’t win any of the awards I’m covering. This is probably for the best, since I don’t think it’s a great novel. It’s funny, exciting, fun, and interesting, but it’s also silly, ridiculous and swerves erratically between over-the-top action scenes and infodumps about Sumerian religion. Every novel since has won an award though (apparently, Locus readers adore Neal Stephenson), so I get to talk about him a lot.
The Diamond Age is Stephenson’s one Hugo win. The novel is an homage to Charles Dickens’ class-oriented Victorian fiction, but it takes place in a future world dominated by nanotechnology. Matter compilers can create just about anything a person could need or want, but it’s an expensive and potentially deadly technology – sentinels have to protect people from deadly nano-viruses and the majority of the world’s population still have to toil to afford their basic necessities. Meanwhile, a select few live with immense wealth, but to protect that wealth they congregate in “tribes” that enforce social order. The action in this novel takes place in Hong Kong where the Han tribe dominate, though there is also an enclave of Neo-Victorians. The Neo-Victorians have retreated to the strict social mores and class deference of 19th century Britain to bring order to the modern world.
The leader of the Neo-Victorians, Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, commissions an amazing educational text that combines nano-technology, sophisticated interactive software, and live remote actors to give his granddaughter a well-rounded understanding of the world, morality, and her own emotions. When its creator is mugged, the book accidentally ends up in the hands of a very young, abused working-class girl named Nell. The rest of the novel follows Nell’s education and mimics the style of enlightenment novels (which obsessed over the idea of education and what we would call “nature or nurture”). As always with Stephenson, there’s a variety of entertaining side stories, including my favorite involving a Neo-Confucian judge. There’s also a secret society of hackers trying to bring down the hierarchical social order that has evolved.
The ending is the one point where the novel seems to fall down a bit (a common problem for Stephenson), but this is a fantastic and original novel, especially the portions involving Nell or Judge Dee. Highly recommended.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
God is dead. Even more surprising, he was a two-mile tall bearded Caucasian dude, and his body has fallen from Heaven into the Atlantic Ocean. The archangels, dying of grief, contract with the Vatican to hire disgraced oil tanker captain Anthony Van Horne to tow the Holy corpse to a burial site. However, the Church wants to disobey the angels’ orders and cryo-freeze Yahweh, Walt-Disney’s-head-style. At the same time, a team of rogue atheists want to destroy the corpse before anyone catches wind of it.
Yeah, it’s a plot so intriguing/weird that I had to lead with it. It’s in the irreverent, cynical-yet-insightful tradition of Kurt Vonnegut, but wacky blasphemy only takes you so far. Morrow won the 1991 World Fantasy Award as well, for Only Begotten Daughter, a book about Jesus’s little sister who is born into the modern world, becomes a lesbian and writes a tabloid advice column. Other stuff probably happens in that novel, but I put it down halfway through. It’s not that I was offended…in fact, I think the problem was that I was in no way offended. The story’s humor and narrative hooks depend on the reader caring about Morrow’s twisting of religious ideals…and I didn’t. I feel much the same about this work, though I did finish this one.
Both novels were actually well-written and full of well-rounded characters. I really liked the female Messiah’s adopted father in Only Begotten Daughter, for instance, and Van Horne and his Vatican counterpart, a Jesuit physicist named Thomas Ockham are quite nice here. There’s also a decent set of themes – faith and forgiveness, parents and children, and a discussion of the source of ethics similar to The Terminal Experiment’s but infinitely more logical, erudite, and funny. There’s plenty of good here, I just never felt like there was enough story to float the novel. I really liked Morrow’s recent novella, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, and there are many similarities; to destroy God’s body, the atheists hire a bunch of World War II-obsessed special effects gurus that would have fit right into Shambling’s oddball origin-of-Godzilla story. Towing Jehovah has the same play of slapstick and morality tale, cynicism and humanism, and absurdity and metaphor as Shambling…the only real difference is the additional two hundred pages of length. But, I think that is the crucial difference. It’s a good conceit, and well-told, it’s just too long for that conceit to carry. This could’ve been a great novella, but, for me, it’s merely an okay novel.