Book Review: The Mind Parasites, by Colin Wilson

Sometimes it’s easy to point out your formative experiences. We as writers love to do this, don’t we? The acknowledgments pages of millions of books are littered with references to the authors and works that influenced us. Many an interview has asked that question: who influenced your work? Many an author has waxed poetic about it–to even begin to list the credits we’ve all read in the work of others would take days.

For myself, I’m not particularly interested in the easy influences. I can say that Stephen King has influenced my writing; well of course he has–I’ve been a huge fan since childhood, and have read most of his books, many of them more than once. If a little King didn’t make its way into my writing, you’d suspect I was a total idiot. (And maybe I am, but that has nothing to do with King, I assure you.) What I’m interested in are the ones that elude me–the books and authors that I remember, but not clearly. I grew up in the pre-Internet age, when there was no Goodreads to track my reading, no Facebook to share it, no Amazon to buy new copies, no iBooks and Google Drive to carry my library in my pocket. If I read a book once, and wanted to remember it, I had damned well better hold onto it. That wasn’t always easy, though, or even possible; between libraries, borrowed books, and things I really wasn’t supposed to be reading in the first place, many books touched me briefly, then were lost to time. In many cases, I don’t even remember the titles or the authors.

The book I’m discussing here falls into that third category, probably: the books I really wasn’t supposed to be reading. I say “probably” because it’s an assumption; I wasn’t forbidden to read it–only once can I remember them ever outright forbidding a book–but they would probably have gently warned me off of this one, had they known I was reading it. It’s not that it was vulgar or profane or any of the other things that usually get books banned; it’s just that it was considerably above my level.

Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites thus became one of my “white whales”. The copy I read was lost somewhere along the way, possibly even immediately after I read it. I spent years trying to lay hands on another. It’s not that the book is unknown (it isn’t); but it did seem to be rare, for some years at least. I never located it again, in libraries or used bookstores; and by the time I became aware of Amazon and Ebay, I had forgotten about it. My life was falling apart–a topic I’ve discussed at length on this blog and in other places–and there was no time to think about or chase mysterious books from my childhood. It was only a year or so ago that I thought about it again. At that point it was easy to track down–Amazon carries it–but then, for reasons I don’t know, I put it on a wishlist and promptly forgot about it again. (The book’s protagonist, Professor Austin, would suggest that the Mind Parasites made me forget, if only he hadn’t beaten them in 1997, the year in which the book is set.) I finally picked up a copy (in convenient ebook format) last week, and set about discovering if my memories held up.

Mind Parasites 1

Cover of the December 1968 edition by Bantam Books. Artist is unknown. This is the edition I read as a child. It continues the fine tradition of science fiction cover art being only loosely related to the source material. (Photo courtesy of the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.)

Let’s say up front that this is not high literature, and it doesn’t claim to be–but it’s not quite genre either. The book was published in 1967, and falls squarely into the camp of the form of science fiction that was flourishing at the time–if you read it, you’ll hear hints of Asimov and his peers in it, though I don’t think the author ever cited them as direct influences. However, it also draws strongly upon the work of H.P. Lovecraft,  and that, I think, gives it a pulp flavor that really makes it its own thing. (I love Lovecraft’s work, and will be covering some of it here eventually as part of the Great Reddit Reading List, so don’t take that as an insult.) Wilson was acquainted with–friends with, really–August Derleth, Lovecraft’s friend, original publisher, and fellow author in the Cthulhu mythos; and it was this that led him to write the book. In fact, he dedicated the book to Derleth, “who suggested it”. (Derleth also gets an in-universe mention in the story; Professor Austin mentions him as being in his eighties, though in real life he died at the young age of sixty-two, just four years after The Mind Parasites was published. Lovecraft also gets some mention in the story; he is stated to have had visions of the parasites and other things related to them, and to have worked them into his books.) It was Derleth’s Arkham House publishing company that published the book in America, though it would be Wilson’s only contribution to that publisher.

The book follows the escapades of Professor Gilbert Austin, an archaeologist who is thrust into the book’s events by the sudden suicide of an old friend, psychologist Karel Weissman. His own work soon dovetails with Weissman’s, as he and fellow archaeologist Wolfgang Reich make a world-changing discovery: the remains of a massive city, two miles below the surface of Turkey, and many thousand years older than any other known civilization. This city fits the description of those described in Lovecraft’s work as being built by the “great old ones”–indeed, it becomes known as Kadath, the name of one of Lovecraft’s cities–and the discovery sets the world buzzing. However, at the same time, as Austin (and later Reich) delve into Weissman’s papers, they discover the existence of a threat to humanity, which they dub the “mind parasites” (or the Tsathogguans, to borrow another Lovecraftian word). It quickly becomes clear that the parasites were involved in the building and destruction of Kadath and its civilization–but that’s incidental to the story, as it turns out.

The parasites are called “mind parasites” for a reason; they are bodiless, and they exist inside the human mind, feeding on the life energy of humanity. I say “mind” and not “minds”, because it becomes evident that, although individuality is certainly a thing, all life draws from a common source, accessible at a deep level of the mind. Austin and Reich–along with many others whom they recruit–learn to sink down into these internal mindscapes and battle the parasites on that level. Along the way they develop great mental powers–telepathy, telekinesis, a form of energy transfer–and they discover the existence of alien races in the galaxy. They discover that the moon serves as a kind of amplifier for the powers of the parasites, and ultimately detach it from Earth, sending it spinning into an orbit close to the Sun. In the end, they defeat the parasites, allowing mankind to flourish in a way previously unknown.

It all sounds fantastically silly, and I suppose it is. Wilson has admitted freely that he was influenced not just by Lovecraft, but by all the spiritualist trends of the 1960s, and they are evident here. It’s a sort of “humanity, f*ck yeah!” anthem (to borrow a term from Reddit), as it spends much time and energy on the strength and nobility and potential of humanity…when they’re free of the parasites, of course. In that sense, it’s a fun read–who doesn’t want to cheer for the home team, right? Still, it’s fluffy. What caught my attention about it, though, and caused me to finish the book, is the uncanny resemblance of the mind parasites to the traditional Christian concept of demons. The parasites are unseen, omnipresent by way of numbers, have the power to influence thoughts, create general oppression, lead people to suicide or violence, can possess receptive individuals completely…all of these are traits attributed (rightly so, I think) to demons. The only difference, really, is that the parasites live inside everyone, unseen and unknown, while demons are external. It’s a remarkable comparison, because Austin–and let’s be honest here, he’s a self-insert for Wilson–is a dedicated, atheistic scientist. He’s not given to looking at things in spiritual terms; the eventual reveal of the origin of the parasites is quite scientific. However, even Austin is forced to admit as the story progresses that he can’t rule out some sort of benign, friendly power working on the side of humanity against the parasites, though he tries desperately to minimize it. It makes me wonder what Wilson’s personal worldview was, and if it changed throughout his life.

There were many things I had forgotten from my childhood reading. I remembered the buried city of Kadath, and the expedition to unearth it; I also remembered the matter of sinking down into the mind to fight the parasites. (I suspect I may have conflated those two things a bit–the descent into the earth and the descent into the mind.) I forgot completely about the world war that begins during the story, and the sabotage to Austin’s group at one point, and the telekinetic powers, and the matter of the aliens, and the relocation of the moon. Still, what I do remember, I remembered very well, as it turns out.

Earlier I mentioned that I consider this book to be an influence on my writing. Perhaps it’s not as direct as, say, Stephen King; but what I picked up from The Mind Parasites is the trick of having characters engage in introspection. That can be a double-edged sword, of course; and it’s also perfectly appropriate to have characters who don’t self-reflect, assuming that that is a facet of their characterization. Colin Wilson taught me–at a time that was very likely before my earliest attempts at writing fiction–how to distinguish between those types of characters, and how to have introspection without slowing the story down. The Mind Parasites, for all that it takes place mostly inside its characters’ heads, is not slow; it practically hurries along.

Given that this was a matter of recovering a piece of my past, I don’t think I’ll be moving on to any of Wilson’s other works anytime soon. (For what it’s worth, there are two sequels of sorts: 1969’s The Philosopher’s Stone; and 1976’s The Space Vampires. The latter was later adapted into the 1985 movie Lifeforce, featuring–of all people–Patrick Stewart! Wilson also alleged that there was an unpublished third sequel, called Metamorphosis of the Vampire.) It’s not that they’re necessarily bad; he was quite prolific, with many published works, so he must have done something right. Rather, it’s that I don’t have any history with them, and no connection of the type I felt for The Mind Parasites. But maybe someday. In the meantime, I credit this book for what it means to me…and we’ll leave it at that.

The Mind Parasites may be purchased from Amazon or other booksellers.

How’s your reading? Where do you stand on your own reading challenges for the year? I have been running behind; I’ve finished fifteen of fifty books for the year. There’s still time to catch up! Let me know how it’s going. Thanks for reading!

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TGRRL: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

When I was in high school—which feels like a very long time ago now, but really is just over twenty years ago—there were books that it was expected one would read before graduation. Certain classics are just part of the junior high and high school experience, in much the same way that the Newberry award winners are a part of the elementary school experience—here in America, at least. Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451… I read many of these, some of which will appear on this list before it’s over. (After all, they’re classics for a reason, right?) There’s one, however, that I managed to miss completely: 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.

Rye_catcher

First Edition cover.  By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1709640

Catcher (as I’ll abbreviate for convenience here) is one of the quintessential teenage novels. Now, with that said, I’ll try to avoid the five-dollar words for the rest of this, and not slip into English-teacher mode. The book has been included in numerous best novel lists, and is hotly debated every time it comes up. Since the early 1960s it has repeatedly faced challenges and censorship, even to the point that at one time it was accused of being part of a communist plot (seriously! Check its Wikipedia entry). It’s also been linked to several shootings, including the famous assassination attempt on president Reagan, and the murder of John Lennon. It’s controversial as a youth novel for its seeming promotion of rebellion and opposition to moral values; but as always, the actual viewpoints of the main character aren’t so cut-and-dry. Wikipedia has this to say about it:

The challenges generally begin with Holden’s frequent use of vulgar language, with other reasons including sexual references, blasphemy, undermining of family values and moral codes, encouragement of rebellion, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, promiscuity, and sexual abuse. Often the challengers have been unfamiliar with the plot itself.

Looking back through the lens of present-day society, it seems strange to me that these things are so controversial in a work of fiction; I was reading Stephen King’s vulgar, inflammatory portrayal of Detta Walker (The Drawing of the Three) in sixth grade, and no one said a word. (They would have probably said something if I read it out loud, I suppose, but that’s a different matter. No one ever limited their criticism of The Catcher in the Rye to verbal readings.) Perception of morality in society is a funny thing sometimes; I suspect that many of the challenges stem from the fact that teachers, librarians, and other authority figures don’t want to be seen as endorsing the concepts in the book, rather than from a desire to protect children from those concepts. We know that morally suspect ideas exist; we just don’t want to be seen supporting them, even if we’re secretly okay with their existence. The hypocrisy of that statement would have made Catcher protagonist Holden Caulfield furious, or possibly just made him laugh.

I was not young when I finally got to this book. I was thirty-six at the time, which is most definitely not the target audience for the book. Perhaps that’s why I don’t “get” the book the way that high schoolers often do; or perhaps it’s my age, coupled with parts of my background. I was romantically angsty as a teenager, and even angsty with regard to my purpose in life, but never with the level of despair and disillusionment that Holden Caulfield experiences. I knew it was likely to be this way when I started the book; and I had to fight the temptation to just dismiss the book out of hand. Reading it as an adult, my first was reaction was to yell at Holden for his childishness. He’s a boarding school student who gets expelled on the day the story begins; he spends the duration of the story putting off going home and facing his parents, meanwhile engaging in various other activities mostly involving a love interest named Sally Hayes. He also meets up with his sister Phoebe, and plots to run away, but ultimately relents. The story is framed by Holden’s later experiences in some sort of institution (it’s not specified whether this is for mental health, medical care, or correction, but I have seen suggestions that it may have been for tuberculosis). Throughout the story, Holden talks about his feelings of alienation, and his disgust at the hypocrisy he sees in the world and the adults in it.  He also focuses on the idea of innocence in children, most notably in his sister; it’s her happiness that in the end convinces him not to run away.

Holden’s issues are a teenager’s issues; I freely admit that I don’t feel the same things at this point in my life. However, it’s that fact that ultimately persuaded me to continue the book. While his circumstances are perhaps a little extreme (for dramatic purposes, of course), the things he feels are things that every teenager experiences. It may not be mature, but it’s valid. Holden is definitely no hero—there’s no evidence that he’s changed for the better at the end—but he’s certainly a sympathetic character to those who are where he is in life. It was eye-opening to me as a father; I have a twelve-year-old daughter (nine at the time I read the book) who is beginning to feel some of what Holden Caulfield felt. It wouldn’t do me any good to treat her as though her feelings are unimportant just because they’re not adult yet. We all have to pass through this age to get to adulthood; if you doubt the importance of that passage, just look back at how strong your own memories are of your teenage years. Sometimes we need someone outside ourselves to mirror the things that are inside us, so that we can understand those things better. That’s what Holden Caulfield is—at least to people his age—and I’m grateful to him for that.

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Revisiting Star Wars: The Truce at Bakura

Way back in the mid-1990s, my parents and I would routinely pick up books from the local library’s bookmobile when it visited our neighborhood. I was about fourteen at the time, and had progressed to adult-level science fiction a few years earlier, and would usually pick the shelves clean every chance I got. I don’t remember the exact occasion, but I know that one day I happened upon a book that would change my view of Star Wars forever: Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire.

I had been a Star Wars fan since childhood; one of my earliest memories was of seeing Return of the Jedi with my parents in a theater in the fall of 1983. But here was that most elusive Star Wars item: Something new. (To be fair, it was a few years old when I discovered it around the end of 1993 or so; the hardback I was reading was already battered and worn.) That book and its sequels kicked off a love for the newly-christened Expanded Universe, or EU, that lasted all the way to its decanonization under Disney a few years ago—and still persists.

What I want to do here is to revisit those old favorite books. I appreciate the place that Disney’s version of Lucasfilm is carving out for itself; but nothing can, or should, replace the EU, with the vast worlds and fantastic characters it created. To that end, I’ve started a reread of the post-Return of the Jedi EU novels, and I aim to review them here. (Full disclosure: I’m simultaneously posting this material over on Reddit’s Star Wars EU community, so if you encounter it there, it’s not plagiarism, it’s really me.) There are a lot of books in that portion of the EU, and I may or may not get through them; also I may not be very regular about it, as other responsibilities demand my time. However, I will go in order as much as possible; and if we do get through all of them, I may go back and do some of the other sections of the EU. (One caveat: I’m probably going to skip over the novels intended for children, such as the Jedi Prince series and the Junior Jedi Knights series. Young Jedi Knights gets a pass, though, only because it introduces some things that are important later on.)

Today I’m looking at The Truce at Bakura, by Kathy Tyers. I’ve seen conflicting publication dates of December 1993 and January 1994 (the latter being the date cited by Wookieepedia); either way, it’s the first adult Star Wars novel to be published after the release of The Last Command, the final volume of Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. The novel picks up just hours after the destruction of the Death Star II at Endor. Let’s get started!

It should go without saying, but, SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT READ THIS NOVEL!

Truce at Bakura

For all that we love them, movies aren’t great at certain things—at least, as compared to books. The original Star Wars trilogy does a great job of giving us as much characterization as is needed—for the movies, that is. It’s much different, however, when an author sits down to write a novel about the same characters. Kathy Tyers faced a unique task when she wrote The Truce at Bakura; she had to flesh out these characters that we had followed through three movies. Moreover, she had to do it in such a way as to add to the characters, but not contradict anything in the films. She also had to do so without contradicting Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, which was only a year or two old at this point, but which takes place a few years later in the story. It’s a balancing act; you want to introduce new characters and settings, but you can’t do it in such a way that those things should still be in the foreground a few years later. At the same time, if you add them in and then wipe them out, it feels like a cheap shot.

There’s no perfect way to do that, but Tyers did the best she could. The elements she introduced—the planet Bakura, the Ssi-Ruuk enemies, Bakuran senator (and would-be love interest for Luke Skywalker) Gaeriel Captison—are left hanging at the end, temporarily resolved, but still dangling there as threads to be pulled by another author. The threads of Bakura and Captison would later be pulled by Roger MacBride Allen in the Corellian Trilogy, and the thread of the Ssi-Ruuk would be pulled by Sean Williams and Shane Dix during the New Jedi Order series…but those are stories for later.

The book features the newly-victorious alliance responding to a distress call from a nominally-Imperial backwater world called Bakura, which is under attack from an unknown alien threat. The aliens are the Ssi-Ruuk, reptilian aliens who believe themselves superior to all other life…and who use that life as a tool for conquest. They possess technology that allows them to “entech” humans and others, ripping the still-conscious life energies—the soul, if you prefer—out of them and using them to power battle droids and other technologies. They do this with the assistance of an enslaved and brainwashed Force-sensitive young man named Dev Sibwarra, who guides the transfer. However, when the Ssi-Ruuk become aware of Luke Skywalker—whose mastery of the Force is much greater than Dev’s—they make it their goal to kidnap him and use him to entech humans from a distance, possibly even from the planet’s surface. Meanwhile, Luke encounters Gaeriel Captison, a young and beautiful Imperial-trained senator (that’s Bakuran senate, not Imperial senate; recall that the Imperial senate was dissolved a few years earlier). While the two are drawn to each other, both as allies and possible love interests, Gaeriel is caught in the conflict between the Empire’s designs for her world and the Alliance’s. In the short term, the local Imperial detachment is forced to work with the Alliance to repel the Ssi-Ruuk; but of course the Empire can’t be trusted. In the end, the Bakurans rise up and seize control of their own world, and forge a new truce with the Alliance—but Dev is lost in the conflict, and Gaeriel chooses to stay behind and decline a place at Luke’s side.

Early books in the post-RotJ era were obligated to contain a good mix of politics and action, as the Alliance focused on becoming the New Republic. That’s definitely on display here, as the negotiations among the Bakurans, the Alliance (led on the diplomatic side by Leia), and the local Imperials (led by governor Wilek Nereus) take center stage. While the story doesn’t feature twists and strategy on the order of the Thrawn trilogy, it does a great job at balancing the differing interests of the characters. Watching the original trilogy gives the impression that there’s a single great goal to be accomplished; the war against the Empire—which is synonymous with the war against the Sith—is overwhelming, and winning it is everything. It’s nice to see that the characters and the situations are more complex than that. The Bakurans want not only to be free, but to overcome their own internal divisions; the Imperials want to remain in power; the Alliance seeks allies; Luke finds himself searching for both an apprentice and a possible love interest, when he expected neither; and the Ssi-Ruuk want to conquer everyone. These goals, even when aligned together, work at cross purposes sometimes—much as would happen in the real world.

When you’re dealing with an ensemble cast, it’s hard to give every character the development they deserve; and that’s a weakness found here. Luke gets quite a bit of screen time and development—this is definitely a Luke story—and likewise, new characters Gaeriel, Dev, and Nereus all get plenty of attention. Han Solo and Leia Organa feature prominently, but they aren’t portrayed as well; Tyers made an effort to include elements of their budding romance, but they’re a little scattered, both personally and professionally, with Han giving in to jealousy in comical ways, and Leia given to dramatic speeches. Chewbacca stay in the background, alongside Wedge Antilles (who, I have to say, gets a good scene in the introduction as he risks his own life to keep a message drone from self-destructing). R2-D2 doesn’t get much screen time, but his personality is handled well enough. C3PO, however, gets a surprisingly good treatment here, and I consider his portrayal to be a strong point for this book. Many authors like to use him as a punching bag for insults; there’s always going to be a little of that, but here we see him piloting a speeder through a battle zone, disguising himself as a stormtrooper, delivering intelligence, translating an unknown and strategically vital language, handling security for a captured Imperial…all quite impressive, and demonstrating that he’s more than just a prissy translator.

Truce at Bakura 1

There are some elements of the Force worth noting here. Luke is able to sense emotions, but not read minds; Vader, in RotJ, was able to see Luke’s thoughts, so this is likely an aspect that will be expanded later. He’s able to sense the life energies of others, including the twisted energies of the Ssi-Ruuk’s victims; and he can communicate empathically, but not telepathically. Interestingly, the untrained Dev is able to do more than this, as he desperately passes a message to Luke in the latter’s dreams. Luke explores the notion of Jedi healing, both of himself and of others, which will be greatly expanded with the later introduction of the character Cray Mingla. Most interestingly, we get an expansion on the idea of Force ghosts when Anakin Skywalker appears—not to Luke, but to Leia, who is having trouble accepting that he was her father (a concept to be explored again in Tatooine Ghost). The description given of Anakin is no doubt based on the elderly version portrayed by Sebastian Shaw at the end of the original edition of Return of the Jedi, but it is phrased in such a way that it could also apply to the young version portrayed by Hayden Christensen in the special edition, if one prefers.

Overall, it’s a good read, and appropriate for the spirit of the original trilogy. The book tends to be a bit overlooked in the face of the Thrawn trilogy, and maybe that’s appropriate, as Zahn’s novels are easily among the best. I wouldn’t recommend skipping it, however; it’s a must-read for anyone who intends to read the Corellian Trilogy, but even if one doesn’t intend to read that trilogy, Truce is a great story on its own. It may not be necessary for the greater arc of the post-RotJ era, but it’s worth it for the experience. Here we get Leia’s first thoughts on what form the New Republic might take; here we get Luke’s first hints of the Jedi Order he will soon rebuild. Here are some early nods to Rogue Squadron, which will soon have its own series; and here are the first hints of the fracturing of the Empire in the face of the Emperor’s death. On top of all that, it’s a fun read; why skip something like that?

Next time: We’ll look at Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, by Matthew Stover! See you there.

The Truce at Bakura is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of this novel here.

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Poll: Should Readers Care About Characters?

I had an interesting encounter on Reddit’s /r/books subreddit this week. The topic of discussion was Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (which, incidentally, we’ll eventually be covering in the Great Reddit Reading List). This book famously–or perhaps infamously–saw publication in two different forms; in the UK, it was published complete, but the American version omitted the final chapter. That chapter (21, if we’re keeping track) represents a crucial difference, because it is in that chapter that protagonist Alex chooses redemption from his previously terrible ways. The well-known Stanley Kubrick film adaptation follows the American version, leaving Alex unrepentant and unchanged after his experiences. (This issue is famously divisive; even Burgess himself was on record as saying that he wished he had not written the book, largely because of the version that made it to film.)

 

In the comments, the issue was raised of whether it’s possible to care about Alex if he experiences no growth, no change. This quickly devolved into an argument as to whether a character–and for our purposes, we’ll specify the protagonist–should be cared about. One individual made the claim that characters aren’t there for us to care about:

The ‘point’ of a character is not necessarily to be ‘cared about’.

Or, put another way:

The point of literature as a “whole” is not to produce sympathetic characters for you.

This makes for an interesting question, and I’m curious what you, as readers, think. I think it’s a given that not every character–not even every protagonist–is or should be sympathetic; the history of film, for example, is littered with protagonists that are evil and despicable (though, perversely, they seem to gain sympathy as they become more iconic–think Norman Bates, for example–but that’s a topic for another time). But it’s not a question of whether they are sympathetic, so much as a question of whether we should care about what happens to them. Darth Vader was intended to be a dark, evil, and merciless villain, but we cared very much about what happened to him, even back to his first appearances in A New Hope. (He’s since received a redemption scene, of course, and also benefits from a history of badassery, but my point predates all of that.)

I think we can agree that the production of characters we care about is not the ‘point’ of literature; but is that care necessary? My argument is that care, in this sense, is a necessary part of interest in the character. If we don’t care what happens to this person, why are we reading about/watching/playing him or her?

I’m tempted to look at this from the perspective of a writer; but this isn’t about me as a writer, it’s about us as readers. Therefore, I’m doing something I haven’t done on this blog before: I’m posting a poll. Cast your votes below! Should protagonist characters be someone we can care about, or does it not matter at all?

Thanks for voting, and as always, thanks for reading!

TGRRL: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

When I was a teenager, I was introduced by way of school assignments to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which we’ve already covered. This terrifying little novel–terrifying to me, anyway; there may have been novels–is certainly the most well-known dystopian novel; but it’s hardly the only one, or even the first. It’s a bit debatable which dystopian novel is the first of its kind, but certainly one of the most influential is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brave New World first edition

First edition, as far as I can establish. Not mine.

 

(In fact, the novel has been noted to have directly influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four; making it even more interesting is the fact that Orwell had been, some years early, a pupil of Huxley at Eton, though not in any political or writing-related subject, but rather, in French. The historical connection, however, seems to have little to do with the writings; one novel influenced the other, without much regard for the past history of the authors, as far as anyone can tell from their commentary on the subject.)

It is unfortunate that Brave New World, today, is usually discussed only in the context of comparison to Orwell’s novel. And yet, that comparison does provide the easiest way to understand the book; it’s easier to define what it isn’t than what it is. I find myself wishing I had read Brave New World first, so that I could have appreciated it solely for itself.  Nevertheless, I expect I’m inevitably going to find myself pointing out comparisons as we look at the novel here. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

From this point forward, expect spoilers; although, the book is nearly ninety years old, so perhaps it’s not even fair to call them spoilers.

Here we have the story of a world where most human problems have been resolved. That’s what we’re reaching for, isn’t it? Health, happiness, peace, prosperity? Of course we are. Brave New World supplies those things; its people have every need met through a very efficient system of production. Workloads are light and easy. Happiness is practically ensured through use of a consequence-free drug called soma (why is it conventional to italicize non-traditional words like this? I’m doing so here for emphasis, but I’ll drop it henceforward).  This focus on happiness, however, has required the upending of certain social conventions: marriage and monogamy no longer exist; childbirth is mostly nonexistent, having been replaced by birth control and birthing centers with artificial wombs; crime is mostly eliminated–certainly a good thing–by way of a rigid caste system–not so good. However, no one feels the loss of these things, due to conditioning and the effects of soma. Our initial protagonist, Bernard Marx, doesn’t quite fit in; but he is mostly a catalyst for the story rather than a major character. His situation introduces us to the true protagonist, a man named John. John is the illicit offspring of two rather normal and compliant citizens, but through a twist of fate he is raised on a “savage reservation”, a place where the conventions of society are not in effect, and people live as they have lived for years prior to the new order–though admittedly impoverished by their isolation. John is then brought back to civilization, but he is unable to cope or adapt; and in the end, he hangs himself.

This matter of absolute happiness–but at a hidden cost–is common enough in dystopias today. It was unheard of when Huxley wrote; utopian novels were common enough, and indeed he started this project as a parody of utopian novels of his day. The idea that happiness could be obtained, but that it would in turn cost us something fundamental, was new and disturbing. It’s not new anymore, but it is still disturbing, and rightly so. The desire for happiness is deeply ingrained in us, possibly even as a part of our survival instinct. Dystopias like Brave New World acknowledge that, but then counter with a more frightening idea: the idea that we need challenge, pain, difficulty, in order to really be human. If we truly get what we’re chasing, we’ll become less instead of more.

This is a radically different form of dystopia from Orwell’s vision (and here we go!). Orwell predicted a dystopia of fear–one in which the government’s power becomes so absolute as to crush all resistance, inspiring obedience by fear. The problem with that kind of oppression is that it requires endless vigilance; and endless vigilance translates into endless resources. Just how many people does it take to monitor a population of billions twenty-four hours a day, I wonder? How much infrastructure? And that’s on top of the apparatus required for punishing infractions, providing for needs, and other aspects of government. Huxley’s version is much simpler, because it makes every individual complicit in their own oppression. As John’s mother Linda graphically illustrates, people want to be compliant; they don’t have to be pushed to it. After all, they’re endlessly happy; they don’t feel the loss of less tangible things such as challenge or morality. They only feel the soothing of soma.

It’s popular to make comparisons to modern society, and try to decide what kind of dystopia we live in. I’ll be blunt: We don’t, at least not yet. However, I think that if we were trying to make projections about the real world, both versions would be too simplistic. A real-world dystopia would more likely be a blending of the two; it would have some form of enticement for the public, combined with some form of invasive monitoring and enforcement. Carrot and stick, if you will. While I don’t believe our society is at dystopian levels yet, I will say that we have elements of both in place already. We’ve had enough issues with governmental elimination of privacy over the years, and especially with the proliferation of technology and the internet; and we have the same internet serving as our soma, to some degree. (And here I am, posting on the internet! Irony, much?)

But that’s just it: we’re not there yet, and in a purely Huxleyan sense, I don’t think we ever will be. The challenges we face as a species are too great for that. Death is always going to be a thing. Suffering is maddeningly hard to eliminate. Poverty has a way of returning over and over again. Diseases adapt to accommodate our treatments. A Huxleyan dystopia requires that all of these challenges be overcome; we’ve made great strides, but I doubt we’ll ever have the kind of success required for his vision to be true. Nevertheless, we should keep trying. We should work at overcoming those challenges. We exist in a strange space, where we can’t win this fight, but neither is our striving pointless, because we can still improve–even if we never reach the end of the improvement.

This is the second dystopia we’ve examined, and I want to point out something that, in my opinion, distinguishes classical dystopias from the young-adult dystopias that are so popular today. (Not that I’m disparaging those stories; they may be common, but they’re not bad, or at least not by definition.) The YA dystopias usually result in a happy ending for most; the ruling party is overthrown, chaos reigns briefly, then something better takes its place. I think that’s a wonderfully optimistic outlook, but it’s very different from the classics, where the protagonists inevitably lose. A classic dystopia will grind the rebellious protagonists down, and keep on moving without breaking stride. In the end, nothing changes. I find this strange; with the political and social climates we face today, I’d have expected it to be the other way around.

Still, Brave New World is the more hopeful of the two. While one protagonist dies, the others don’t; nor are they greatly changed in outlook–they’re simply sidelined. And in the meantime, millions aren’t being ground down; they remain obliviously happy, but they remain. It may not be much of a chance; but perhaps that’s better than much chance at all. As Huxley never wrote a true sequel (Brave New World Revisited is a non-fiction critique), it’s open to conjecture.

How’s your reading goal coming along? I’ve set a goal of 50 books in 2018 via Goodreads; you can join me here! So far I’ve finished three books: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, and Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. You can see my to-read list here.

The Great Reddit Reading List

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Is Enough Ever Enough?

Years ago, Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about Yoda. Yes, the diminutive, green Jedi master with the Fozzie-Bear voice. If you’re familiar with Weird Al, this shouldn’t surprise you; this is the same guy that wrote a song accurately predicting the plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace months before it was released, in a day when Internet leaks weren’t a thing yet. At any rate, it’s a fun song, set to the tune of The Kinks’ Lola, about Luke Skywalker’s training relationship with Yoda. I bring it up because of a line in the last verse; when Luke is preparing to go to Bespin and rescue his friends (as in The Empire Strikes Back), he says:

But I know that I’ll be coming back someday; I’ll be playing this part ‘til I’m old and grey.

The long-term contract I had to sign says I’ll be making these movies ‘til the end of time,

with my Yoda.

Well, as it turns out…

old luke and yoda

Couldn’t find a single screenshot from The Last Jedi that included both of them. Use your imagination.

Yeah. Nailed it!

This post is not about Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, from which those screenshots come. I find it necessary to bring it up here at the beginning, because the controversy surrounding this movie sets up nicely for the question I want to ask. That question is: When is enough, enough? Specifically, when should we say “enough is enough” to our favorite fictional franchises? It’s a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple.

My early years of fandom—not just with regard to Star Wars, but with regard to any franchise—could be summed up with three words: I want more. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing! I loved these characters, and the worlds they inhabited. I wanted the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. I wanted to know what happened to E.T. after he went home. I wanted to know the backstory of He-Man and Eternia (I’m an ‘80s kid, if you hadn’t noticed yet)! WHAT HAPPENED WHEN REN GOT ALL THIRTEEN TREASURES OF RULE?! WHAT ABOUT—

the pirates of dark water

I loved this show way too much.

Okay, we were getting a little obscure there, sorry. (That last reference was to a cartoon called The Pirates of Dark Water, which ended before its premise could be fulfilled, and I’m still a little bitter about it.) At any rate, it wasn’t unusual to want to know more. That’s the motivation for all the sequels and prequels of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s the reason She-Ra exists, and is getting a reboot in 2018. It led to the release of E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, which sadly never even made it to an animated film. And it has led thousands of fans, myself included, to write fanfiction over the years. Why, though?

When fiction is well-written, the characters and settings become real to us. We read, or watch, or play (yes, video games count), or listen, and we get to live for awhile in another person’s world, and even in their shoes. Like family or friends, we want to know those individuals personally. When the story is enjoyable, we want more of the same. Sometimes we even get it, though sequels are commonly known for a dip in quality. This is all perfectly legitimate.

book of the green planet

This really was a thing, and it was exactly as trippy as the cover would have you believe.

Still, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Now, from this point on, what I’m saying is my own view, and I’m NOT trying to pass it off as a rule of any kind. Everyone’s threshold of tolerance is their own. You may read this and think “well, that isn’t me at all!” That’s fine. I was you for a long time, and I was happy that way. I’m also happy where I am now. You can love what you love, and you can show that love however you like! That’s the beauty of living in a world with so much variety.

Using Star Wars as an example again: For many years, Star Wars fans had what we referred to as the Expanded Universe (sometimes rendered as “Extended”), or EU. This was anything beyond the original movie trilogy and, later, the prequel trilogy. It’s a little unclear exactly where it started; early novels include Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (considered the first EU novel, and dating all the way back to 1978!) and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures (1979 and following). I can also remember comics or early graphic novels dating to at least 1986, and possibly earlier, though I haven’t researched it. The EU really took off in 1991 with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and its sequels, and the twenty-plus years afterward were packed with novels, comics, video games, and—later—cartoons. If the original trilogy was the stuff of my childhood, this was the stuff of my teens and twenties, and I absorbed it as fast as I could lay hands on it. I loved every minute, including the controversial New Jedi Order novels. All of that came crashing to a halt, though, in late October 2012, when Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney; shortly thereafter, Disney announced that it would be continuing from the end of Return of the Jedi with its own canon stories, not related to the existing EU. The EU stories were redubbed as “Star Wars Legends”, and new Legends material ceased to be produced. That’s what brings us to today, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and various novels and comics in the new continuity.

splinter of the mind's eye

The original EU novel. Worth noting: Luke and Leia had not yet been revealed to be siblings. Hindsight makes this book a little uncomfortable, which is too bad; it’s a great story.

Fans, being fans, did not go quietly. Up to and including The Last Jedi—which has raked in the money anyway, of course—there has been constant debate and controversy. We’re fans; that’s what we do. I, for one, have watched all three new movies, though I haven’t read any of the books or comics; I think they’re a fair take on the series, but I’m curious to see where they go. I don’t hate them; I don’t love them, either, not the way I loved the original trilogy. Perhaps my kids will; certainly the studio has taken pains to make these movies appeal to a new generation, and that’s not a bad thing.

Still, this change in continuity has given me time to look back at the EU and think. What I’ve found in the interim is that—to my surprise, and if I may be honest, dismay—I was kind of tired of it already. You see, the EU has covered nearly every possible time period, if not place, in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s exhaustively catalogued the lives of our original heroes, both before and after the movies, and in some cases including their deaths, although writers are understandably hesitant to kill off a major character. (Actually, it’s not just the authors; the EU always had considerable oversight, and such a decision would have to be approved. Lucasfilm wasn’t fond of killing off its cash cows, and that’s no surprise.) It shows us their descendants. It explores the galaxy, and gives us side stories. It looks deeply and exhaustively into the past, back to the very origins of the Jedi and Sith and beyond.  There may be stories yet to be told, but there isn’t a lot of room left to tell them! That’s why, at the end, the EU was delving further into the future; but in science fiction, that’s always a risky proposition. The further you get from your baseline date—in this case, the original movie trilogy—the more conjecture is required, whereas when delving into the past, you have a predefined period with which to work. It was at this point that I started to get tired of things, in large part because the series began to recycle its original plots again. After so much investment into eliminating the Empire and the Sith, and changing up the characters’ understanding of the Force, and expanding the character roster beyond the Skywalker-Solo family, we ended up with an evil Empire, led by a Sith lord from the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, with an underground rebellion involving another Skywalker. Sound familiar? It did to me, as well.

Fate of the Jedi

This is what a sigh looks like in print.

There comes a time in every long-lived franchise where you begin to think that the creators are being less creative and more money-oriented. That accusation gets tossed around a lot, and I don’t want to use it lightly. Still, recycling of plots seems to me to be a good indicator that this sort of thing is happening. I have no problem with giving money to a franchise that is earning it; but simple quantity of effort isn’t enough to earn it, if that effort is not coming from a desire to do the job well. Money may be an effective motivator, but it’s not a good one; it will always tend toward the minimum necessary effort, toward quantity over quality. And, as I’ve hinted, you can drown in quantity.

Let’s look at a more literary example. Frank Herbert’s Dune is widely regarded as one of the finest masterpieces in science fiction history. Its early sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, are regarded nearly as highly; the next three books in the series are also well loved, though less so. Unfortunately, Frank Herbert was in the midst of writing the final volume when he died, and we never got a proper ending to the Dune series. Enter his son, Brian, and established sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson (who, perhaps not coincidentally, had already written for the Star Wars EU). This duo set out, allegedly, to finish the series, working from Frank Herbert’s notes and unfinished work, much as Brandon Sanderson would later do for Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy series. If that was all they had done, it would have been fine; but they didn’t begin there. Instead, they started with a political-intrigue prequel trilogy, and then wrote a distant-past trilogy based on the nearly-mythical Butlerian Jihad. That event had been mentioned in the original series as the reason why humans were so heavily against artificial intelligence, or “thinking machines”, but it had never been properly described. Only after completing those six volumes did they write the conclusion to Dune, which itself was split into two volumes (and thus two sales). In the end, their conclusion had much more in common with their Butlerian Jihad series than with the original Dune series—a turn of events that I find hard to imagine having been in Frank Herbert’s plans. We may never know; but we DO know that Brian and Kevin have gone on to write more Dune novels—a total of thirteen as of 2016, which is more than twice the number written by Frank Herbert.

Dune Collection

Pictured: Too Much

We’ll leave the question of whether a fictional universe belongs to its original creator for another post; but I want to point out that Brian and Kevin’s books are almost universally regarded to be inferior to the original series. (Personally, I greatly enjoyed the Butlerian Jihad books, but they are very different from the originals; and the other entries have been mediocre at best, including the two concluding volumes.) So, was it just a money-grab? Maybe. I suspect that Brian Herbert originally wanted to do justice to his father’s legacy; but in the end, the money was just too attractive, and they couldn’t stop.

Maybe they should have. Maybe we, fans, should have, as well (though it’s more the burden of the authors than the fans, I think; we vote with our dollars, as it were, but only after the fact). Maybe, in the end, we only need so much of a good thing; and anything else becomes too much. There’s nothing wrong with wrapping up an unfinished tale; on that note, mystery writer Sue Grafton recently died, with only one volume left in her Kinsey Millhone/Alphabet Mystery series (Z is for Zero would have been the title), and I’d be thrilled if her family would let that last volume be ghostwritten. (They aren’t.) I would hate to have invested countless hours in The Wheel of Time’s twelve (at that time) volumes, and never get the conclusion Brandon Sanderson gave us later. But beyond that, there’s nothing wrong with letting a masterpiece stand on its own. The original Dune series (aside from the question of a conclusion) was a masterpiece. So was the original Star Wars trilogy. We don’t need every gap filled in, every era examined, every character’s every moment written out.  We don’t—heaven help us—an Episode X, XI, or XII. Too much cheapens the original, and dilutes its impact. Sometimes, enough is really enough.

a memory of light

This is how you continue another author’s work.

 

(I feel I should say, in passing, that there are some very rare series that have built-in safeguards against this very phenomenon. The best example I have is Doctor Who, of which I am a lifelong fan; those who have followed this blog for a while already know that, and for those that are new, you can find much more of my material about that series at my companion blog, The Time Lord Archives. That series has built-in mechanisms for constantly renewing itself; it has no single monolithic era, and has always been a sort of shared universe, with a multitude of contributors and a horde of characters and settings. It was designed that way, and has proved surprisingly resilient over five and a half decades. But, this sort of situation is rare; that format doesn’t lend itself well to most series. And even with a series like Doctor Who, it’s easy to get overwhelmed or burned out, just based on the volume of material.)

That’s where I am in my own life as a fan. I’ll always love Star Wars and Dune and The Wheel of Time and many other franchises; but I’ll love them with the fondness of memory, rather than the fanaticism of the future. If I do watch or read or play any future installments—and I will; I watched The Last Jedi, and Lord willing I will watch Episode IX when it’s released—I’ll try to appreciate them for what they are, but I won’t chase them the way I did in my teens. And if I miss them, that’s okay as well. It’s been a good exercise for me, this form of letting go; it has let me enjoy these things without the burden of comparing them to what’s gone before, and therefore prevented me from hating things that don’t merit that level of investment. In the course of doing that, it’s saved me from the trap of trying to get my children to be as invested in these things as I was at their age; they’re not me, and I don’t want them to be me. They deserve their own memories, even as they learn to appreciate a few of mine. After all, there’s only so much time, and there’s a lot to experience in it. We short ourselves when we expend all our effort on one beloved franchise—and life is too short for that.

But if they ever go back and write an ending for The Pirates of Dark Water, I’m in! Just kidding. Mostly.

 

TGRRL: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

Whenever a recommendation post–and they are fairly common–appears on Reddit’s book-oriented communities, certain books inevitably float to the top. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in comment threads discussing science-fiction and fantasy recommendations. I’m being completely anecdotal here–I haven’t tracked it in any formal sense–but my observation is that today’s book, Orson Scott Card’s famous Ender’s Game, is likely one of the top three science-fiction novels recommended, at least in the past few years. (The others would be Dune, which we’ve already covered, and Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut, Ready Player One. I’ve been hearing about that book since I joined Reddit in 2013, but have yet to read it. Certainly to beat out so many classics of the genre, it must have something going for it; and it’s definitely on my to-read list. It is also on the extended portion of the Great Reddit Reading List–that is, the entries after #200; I suspect it only missed being on the original list by virtue of being very new while compilation was taking place.)

enders game

Ender’s Game, first edition. Not mine, unfortunately.

 

The problem with being such a highly-recommended book is that its reputation begins to supplant the actual book. I would not be surprised to learn that there are many science-fiction readers who know the basic premise of Ender’s Game without having read the book. The 2013 film certainly helped in that regard, but I suspect this was already true prior to the film’s release. I was one such reader; I was loosely familiar with the book long before my friend Cyndera persuaded me to read it (she had recently participated in one of Card’s writing workshops, and was a bit of a Card enthusiast at the time, so I can’t blame her). What I found when I did read it, was not what I expected.

The Ender series, as well as its companion Shadow series (Ender’s Shadow and its sequels), are far less concerned with the science-fiction conventions they portray, and far more concerned with the effect those conventions have on the characters. Many of us–most, even–know by now that Ender’s Game is the story of children fighting a war when they believe they are simply playing a war game. Ender Wiggin’s tactical genius is impressive, but he believes he is only using it for games and training, when in fact he is commanding real fleets in a very real war. That’s clever, and makes for a great twist at the end; but the euphoria of discovering that twist lasts about ten seconds. That’s about how long it takes for the reader to realize that this child has been exploited and nearly destroyed by all the adults in his life, and can never have a normal life in any meaningful sense. Meanwhile, the Shadow series follows Ender’s right-hand man (boy?), Bean, who is a product of genetic engineering. That engineering gives him an amazing and ever-increasing mental capacity, which in the end causes him to far surpass Ender’s accomplishments–but it also condemns him to a painful and early death, as his body continues to grow in pace with his mind. No one gets off easy in this series, and everyone pays the price for their advancements.

I have wondered what Card meant to say in this series. It seems to me that, at least in the first few novels of each series, his goal was to expose the horrors of war by taking them to absurd extremes (there’s little more extreme than child soldiers, after all, whether in the real world or in fiction). The message that comes across, however, is a bit different: It’s a statement of the dangers in rushing into technology, into the future, without looking and counting the cost first. Card doesn’t make the argument that these things are bad by definition; his ships, his weapons, his ansible (a communication device borrowed from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World, and a contraction of the word “answerable”), his gene tech, are all legitimate technologies, but they are used recklessly and without thought for what they will do to those in their sphere of influence.

With all that said, it’s still a good book. It’s a sort of coming-of-age story, though certainly different from most; it’s a good sci-fi war novel; and it does portray a future that is as fascinating as it is frightening. Reading Ender’s Game is a coming-of-age ritual of its own for sci-fi fans, despite the fact that I was nearly thirty when I read it. I would simply recommend reading it for yourself before getting too involved in its reputation–and that, I think, is good advice for any book and any reader.

How’s your reading goal coming along? I’ve set a goal of 50 books in 2018 via Goodreads; you can join me here! So far I’ve finished Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, and have begun reading Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. You can see my to-read list here.

The Great Reddit Reading List

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Looking Ahead to 2018: Reading Challenges and Lists!

The year is over! Or, almost. So, how did you do with your reading goals?

I’ve posted on this topic a few times this year, with a few possible reading plans that you can use. I didn’t follow any of them exactly–I came to them by way of the internet, in the midst of the year, long after I had set my own goals–but perhaps some of you have used them. Still, whether you followed a plan, set a number, or just kept a running count, how did it work out for you? There’s no wrong way to read, as long as you’re, well, reading!

I set a goal for myself of fifty books this year, up from thirty-five in 2016. In previous years, I read a lot more than that; but over the last six or seven years, I’ve had a combination of factors that cut back drastically on my reading output (intake? Hmm). Workload, family responsibilities, my own writing and blogging, video gaming (when I have the time), and the general distraction of the Internet, all conspired to reduce my reading time. At the beginning of 2016, I discovered Goodreads’ Reading Challenge feature, which lets you set a goal for number of books to read in the upcoming year. It’s not the most flexible tool; it runs only from January 1 to December 31, without the ability to start your year on a date of your choosing; and it’s difficult to make corrections to its tracked books, as I discovered this year. My list from this year has one book listed twice, but left off another book that I know that I tracked (I finally gave up on fixing it, because the two items cancel out, leaving my count unchanged). At the end of 2016, I decided that, for me, thirty-five books was a weak result, and so this year I raised the goal to fifty–nearly one book per week. I made the goal two days ago, just in time for the end of the year.

None of that is intended to brag, however. This is a competition only with myself, not with anyone else; and we should all be reading because we want to, not for the sake of comparison. And so, with that said, let’s look ahead to 2018!

I don’t usually plan my books for the year ahead of time. In fact, in doing so on this occasion, I’m not trying to suggest that I’ll hold fast to this list; nor am I saying that I won’t add to it. I pick up books as they catch my interest, and I don’t expect that to change. Still, I’ve increasingly found myself running across books that I want to read, but somehow have never made time for them. Well, this year, I want to make the time! To that end, I’ve compiled a completely NON-exhaustive list of books I plan to read in 2018, and I want to share it here.

Before I do, I want to make a few disclaimers. First, I did not compile this list purposefully; it’s not working toward a cohesive goal, other than my fifty-book reading goal (which I’ll be repeating for 2018). These are books I’ve added to my list here and there; I didn’t choose them with a purpose in mind. Second, this list has no political agenda. It’s popular nowadays–and perhaps rightly so–to recommend branching out from the traditional white-male-authored canon of books. Many people have compiled lists of books by people of color, women, authors from other countries, books in non-English languages, etc. etc. etc. I didn’t set out to do anything like that here; but neither did I set out NOT to do so. In many cases, other than just gender (as much as is obvious from the authors’ names, anyway), I couldn’t tell you anything about the background of these authors, because I didn’t choose them for that reason; I chose them because the books interest me. Is there a preponderance of white male authors here? Probably; it’s what I encounter most often. Did I intentionally exclude anyone? Nope. Third, there is definitely a preponderance of older books on here–I very rarely am caught up enough to be reading newly-published books. There’s a bit of bias there; when books have been out for awhile, I feel like I can trust the recommendations more. Still, a few newer books will probably make this list, and my reading goal as well. Fourth, this is list is mostly, if not entirely, fiction–but that in no way means I won’t read nonfiction. I read quite a bit of it, actually, but I rarely know about it this far in advance–I usually discover it while doing research for my own fiction, or else stumble across it at the library. And finally, this list does not supersede my Great Reddit Reading List project–in fact there may be some overlap. I am always working on that project, regardless of what I post here.

So, without further ado, let’s get started!

Title Author Comments
The Night Angel Trilogy Brent Weeks This book has been “in-progress” for me for a long time, and I intend to finish it this year. It’s very good, but very lengthy and dense. It’s actually a trilogy (I’m reading the single-volume edition), so I may ultimately count the books separately.
A Fire Upon the Deep Vernor Vinge Another book-in-progress that I plan to finish. It’s very good, but very slow, and long.
Doctor Who – White Darkness David A. McIntee I’ve been working through the Virgin New Adventures series of Doctor Who novels for my other blog; this is where I left off, a couple chapters in. I will probably read more DW novels during the year, but I won’t list them here.
The Robots of Dawn Isaac Asimov Continuing the Robot series.
Robots and Empire Isaac Asimov Continuing the Robot series.
Deadhouse Gates Steven Erikson Malazan Book of the Fallen, book two. I’d like to read the whole series, but that will take time; it’s lengthy, and so is each book. Gardens of the Moon took months to read, but it was excellent.
Oathbringer Brandon Sanderson Another long fantasy novel, and probably the newest thing on this list. Book three of the Stormlight Archive.
The Lies of Locke Lamora Scott Lynch I picked up this book–the first in the Gentleman Bastards series–at a Starbucks book exchange shelf, but I’d been hearing about it forever. Looks exciting.
The Three Body Problem Cixin Liu Been hearing about this forever, but not much of what it’s actually about. The suspense is exciting.
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula Le Guin I’ve wanted to read it for years; now is the time.
A is for Alibi Sue Grafton While it may seem my lists are heavily biased toward science fiction and fantasy, I love mysteries and crime novels just as much. Ms. Grafton passed away two days ago, and I wish I had checked out her work while she was alive. She died with one book left to go in her Alphabet series, but I still want to give them a try.
A Savage Place Robert B. Parker I’ve been slowly working through Robert Parker’s Spenser novels, a great classic series of detective stories. This is the next entry. I usually get through a few each year, but I’m only listing the one for now.
The Forge of God Greg Bear I loved Eon, and this looks like a great alien invasion story.
Earth Abides George R. Stewart The book that inspired Stephen King’s The Stand. I started it several years ago, but never finished.
House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski Also on the Reddit list, I’ve heard about this book so often that it’s become a bit intimidating to me. Still, I want to be able to mark it off the list, and it does sound interesting.
Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut I’m a Vonnegut fan, but I can’t remember if I’ve read this one. No time like the present to be sure!
Revival Stephen King I used to read King all the time. With his more recent work, not so much; but this one looks interesting.
Starfire Charles Sheffield Years ago, I read his Aftermath, the story of what happens on Earth after the EMP from a nearby supernova wipes out electronic technology. Starfire is the sequel, set years later, when the slower-moving shockwave of the supernova reaches Earth.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets David Simon Came across this while reading another true-crime book, Bill James’s Popular Crime.
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation Blake Harris Video game history fascinates me.
The Mind Parasites Colin Wilson I read this rather trippy, metaphysical novel years ago, but was too young to really understand everything. Have been meaning to read it again for ages.
Market Forces Richard K. Morgan I’ve previously read the Altered Carbon trilogy and Th1rte3n, and enjoyed them all. Recently I picked this novel up for a dollar at a used book shop, and have been looking forward to it.
The Inimitable Jeeves P.G. Wodehouse As I haven’t read any of the Jeeves and Wooster stories–but have had them repeatedly recommended–really I could start with any of them. This is the first, but I believe they can be read out of order.
A Scanner Darkly Philip K. Dick As prolific as Philip K. Dick was, I’ve only read one of his stories so far (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and I aim to correct this grievous oversight. Also, free on Kindle with Amazon Prime!

So, there it is. Perhaps not the most eclectic list; but it will do for a starter! And of course I intend to add to it as the year goes on. So, what about you? What books will you be reading in 2018? I’d love to hear your thoughts! And as always, thanks for reading.

You can connect with me on Goodreads here.

 

TGRRL: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I will confess that, in my reading preferences, I lean toward genre fiction. By default, that means I lean away from mainstream or literary fiction (although, when genre fiction vastly outsells literary fiction, can we really say that literary fiction is “mainstream”?). My view is not so simplistic as to say there is no good literary fiction out there, or that genre is by default superior; there is a lot of fantastic literary fiction on the market. Rather, I think that literary fiction has a tendency toward pretension and absurdity that genre fiction—being mostly driven by plot and motivated by finances—lacks. It’s only a tendency, not a hard-and-fast rule; but it explains my personal preferences. A significant portion of the literary fiction out there, essentially, is just terrible.

slaughterhouse five first edition cover

The first-edition cover, as far as I can identify it.

 

With that said, it always comes as a surprise—especially to me—when I come across a literary novel that I really, truly like. Such was the case with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Vonnegut is one of America’s literary darlings, and this book is certainly nothing new to many readers; I would confidently bet that it’s the first Vonnegut that most people read, as it was for me. The book remains popular, and has been consistently in print since its 1969 publication. So, perhaps it’s not surprising to anyone else that I would find it enjoyable; but it surprised me. After all, it has prominent qualities which I usually find irritating in books and movies alike: a non-linear structure, a distinct lack of action, a somewhat nebulous and ambiguous ending, an unreliable narrator. I like things to be straightforward, and this book is anything but. So, why would it appeal to me?

The book was years in the making; the first chapter, rather than diving into the narrative, gives Vonnegut’s perspective on the writing of the book and, more importantly, the experiences upon which it is based. Vonnegut fought at a young age in World War II, and was present as a prisoner of war for the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, an event which was little known in America for decades. By some calculations, the destruction in Dresden was worse than that in Hiroshima. Vonnegut’s fictional protagonist follows the same steps, for the most part, as Vonnegut himself (though, to be fair, Vonnegut doesn’t mean for his protagonist to be him; he casts himself in a bit part of the novel, claiming to have been there along with the fictional Billy Pilgrim). These experiences are framed in a mild science-fiction story; Billy Pilgrim has had two remarkable sci-fi experiences. He has been abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who placed him in a zoo for an extended period before returning him to the same night in which he left; and, more importantly, he has become “unstuck in time”, meaning that he has out-of-body experiences in which he lives moments from his own past and future. The two situations are unconnected, but are vital to the story; the “unstuck in time” scenes allow the non-linear telling of the story to develop organically, while the alien abduction gives Billy a motivation for changing his outlook on life, death, and war.

My first, rather shallow, thought upon first reading the book was that it was the sci-fi elements that attracted me; and indeed, I’ve seen this novel billed as a science-fiction story. I assure you, though, it isn’t; and the sci-fi elements aren’t even particularly strong or well-developed. They seem to affect only the inward aspects of Billy Pilgrim; they have little effect on events, and even seem to be actively insulated from affecting events. They exist to move the story along, and to allow Vonnegut to obliquely tell what must have been an incredibly difficult story for him. The story is anti-war, but not overtly so; there’s a clear undertone that war is bad, but mostly inevitable. Still, it’s clear that the firebombing of Dresden—not to mention the entire war—was a troubling and formative time for Vonnegut, and he seems to need the frame story to get it down on paper.

In the end, that’s what I liked about the story. One could argue all day about the message Vonnegut wanted to get across; but what I saw in the story is that he hadn’t yet worked it all out. Dresden was troubling, yes—as a massacre should be, and that’s the understatement of the year—but Vonnegut had not in fact come fully to terms with it. He dances through and around the issue, taking a peek into one viewpoint or another—and in the end, he’s still disquieted, and still not sure, and that strikes me as a very honest take. The lessons of such a terrible event shouldn’t be easy to process. It takes an entire lifetime, whether in or out of order.

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TGRRL: Dune, by Frank Herbert

If you’ve made it to adulthood and haven’t heard of Dune…what’s your secret? I have to know! Few science-fiction classics have permeated public consciousness the way that Frank Herbert’s famous novel has. Sandworms, spice, and spacefolding—the words and the concepts alike have been borrowed and recycled time and again. The book, to put it plainly, is popular.

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition

This is the cover of the copy I read, some eighteen years ago; and I am sitting here kicking my own ass, because I just discovered it was a FIRST EDITION! Which was subsequently destroyed. I am truly a monster.

 

It may come as quite a shock, then, to learn that the book was rejected by more than twenty publishers. When it was finally accepted, it was by Chilton Books, whose bread and butter consist of auto repair manuals. (Full disclosure: I’m referring to publication as a novel here. The story was previously serialized in Analog magazine; in a just world, that would instantly guarantee that some publisher would snatch it up, but this—like Herbert’s Arrakis—is not a just world.) Its themes may be tropes now; but in the early 1960s, this ecology-driven work was new and unfamiliar, and very much a hard sell. Herbert didn’t shy away from that or compromise in any way—with his own history of ecological work on the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, he unashamedly dedicated the book to the ecologists engaged in such labors. It would be two more decades before saving the world—from an environmental standpoint—would be fashionable.

Dune, however, is not about saving the world. The story simply assumes a world where conservationist measures are an absolute necessity. That’s the backdrop; the story is political and religious. Wait! No! Don’t run! Frank Herbert had a gift for taking those themes and making them intriguing. The desert world of Arrakis, colloquially called “Dune”, sits at the center of every major power conspiracy in the known universe, and for a very good reason: its ubiquitous spice, melange, is the source of the mystical prescience that allows faster-than-light travel, as well as a host of other powers in various special-interest groups—and it can be produced nowhere else. Melange is a waste product of the planet’s enormous, building-swallowing, man-eating sandworms, which live nowhere else in the universe. The story begins when the galactic emperor, Shaddam Corrino IV, displaces the noble family in charge of Dune—the Harkonnens—and replaces them with their ancient-but-weaker rivals, the Atreides. It’s a trap, however, designed to destroy the Atreides, who have long been a thorn in the side of the Emperor as well. The Atreides heir, Paul, was secretly bred by a religious group, the matriarchal Bene Gesserit as a step toward their long-awaited messiah figure, the kwisatz haderach, the “one who shortens the way”; but unknown to the Bene Gesserit, he is the Kwisatz Haderach. In the end, he upends the empire, seizes power, embarks on a bloody jihad (a term that likely had less political weight in the real world when Herbert wrote the book), and sets the galaxy on a long path of predestination and fate.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I read Dune, and my memory required a little refreshing before writing this entry.  Prior to that first reading, I was only loosely familiar with it via the David Lynch film adaptation, which I had watched as a young child, and which famously took some notable liberties with the story. (It IS David Lynch, so of course it did—but then, his experience here eventually gave us Kyle MacLachlan in the role of Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, so I cannot complain.) It’s hard for me to look back on this volume without filtering it through the lens of what came after; and by that I mean both Frank Herbert’s incomplete Dune saga, and his son Brian’s supporting and concluding novels (written with Kevin J. Anderson, and based at least loosely on notes left by Frank Herbert). A word of caution, should you wish to continue the series: those two categories are two very different animals. Frank Herbert’s novels are nearly universally revered, and justifiably so; Brian Herbert’s novels are nearly universally reviled, at least by fans of his father. I personally think that’s a bit unjust; I found them to be great books on their own, but a bit deservedly overshadowed by the original series. Nowadays there are more books by Brian and Kevin than the original series contains; but quantity doesn’t make them superior.

dune-explained

Kyle MacLachlan is my hero. Also this tweet is 100% accurate. Read the book!

 

The later entries cover thousands of years of future history, and greatly expand on the themes of predestination, fate, and prescience (that is, future-sight, a hallmark power of those who use the spice). Herbert was setting up for some kind of titanic conflict at the end; some unknown enemy still waited, of which the readers had only received hint. Compiling various sources, Brian and Kevin posited in their novels that the true enemies were the thinking machines against which humans had once fought, now returned in great strength and power. Frank, unfortunately, never got around to telling us; he passed away before he could write the final volume. At any rate, there is none of that in the first volume, which is limited to the life of Paul Atreides on Arrakis, and not even all of that. With that limitation, the book can be notoriously confusing to some, as it simply hurls its readers into the morass of intrigues without a life preserver. I, myself, find it to be the least interesting book in the series; but don’t let that discourage you; we’re dealing with a high bar here. The entire series is good, so to call this one the least interesting is no insult at all.

The bottom line: Dune is a fantastic classic science fiction story in its own right; a great political novel; and, perhaps most importantly, it kicks off one of the truly great series in sci-fi history. Its effect on the course of science fiction has been profound; of all the series out there, perhaps only Asimov’s Foundation series, which we will cover in a few months, is its equal. I feel compelled to hold back any more details of plot and character, for the simple reason that this is not an obscure book—if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? You may struggle through it sometimes, but you won’t be disappointed.

Note: Unfortunately, unlike Foundation—which appears as an entire saga together—none of the other Dune novels made it onto the Great Reddit Reading List. That’s a pity; and if you have opportunity to continue the series, I highly recommend it. God Emperor of Dune is my personal favorite, though the others are great as well. ~Timewalkerauthor

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