Feb 3, 2010

Book Reviews @ The Temple

Dune – Here I’m embarking on what is going to be a long ass journey. In deciding to reread some books I haven’t read in 15 years, Dune was an obvious choice. I read the whole series once upon a time, and I remember my interest waning as the books went on, but that’s pretty much all I remember. I’m going to do them in audiobook so I can keep reading nonfiction in real life. As expected, this book is basically fantastic. You get wrapped into this awesome world with its political, social, and economic realities very quickly. It does something with the Houses that is different than what Zelazney did with people in Amber, but it still is a political story that is extremely cool and not at all boring. I think the front of the book is the stronger half. What he does setting up immediately that there is a traitor and you know who it is, but then just letting that drag out. You are half convinced it will never actually happen. Then all of a sudden it happens, shit hits the fan, and you are almost surprised even though you were told it was coming. All the interaction with the fremen is wonderful, he imagines a culture that feels real and purposeful. The obvious connections to real life and islam are there, but I don’t think I fully understand the reflections he’s trying to make. The last bit of the book is good, but it all of a sudden gets very rushed. They jump in time a lot, I thought maybe I actually got an abridged version, but I don’t think I did. It seems like it’s the right amount of time. So in the end they just jump through time really quickly. It’s not that it’s bad, I just would like to see more of Paul & Jessica’s time with the fremen, not just jumping months or years at a time. It’s all good enough that I want to see it, not just jump to what feels like an extremely rushed ending. But that doesn’t really take away from the book as a whole, it’s great. I’m very interested to see how the rest go, is the 6th book as bad as I remember? And then I will surely read his son’s reworking of his notes into a 7th (and 8th?) book, and I’ll probably go for all those damn prequels too. So, like I say, long ass journey comin’.

Dune Messiah / Children of Dune – So I never got to writing down my thoughts about Messiah before I finished Chlidren, so I’ll do them together, which is a pretty natural way to do it anyway. These books are both really great and kinda weird. What is great is what is great about the first book, the politics, the relationships, the house feuds, and generally the drama and intrigue of this fantastic universe Herbert created. The weird is the spooky shit. I never liked the prophesy stuff of the first book. Much like time travel, future sight is an extraordinarily limiting plot device. And if it doesn’t limit the author, then it’s because it’s full of holes and stupidity. Herbert handles it as well as anyone ever has, but it still puts me off a little. Messiah bring the prophesy stuff to the forefront with Paul desperately trying to avoid the only future he can see. This aspect of him is fairly fascinating. I did not at all remember this aspect of the books, but the jihad that Paul starts by emboldening the Fremen causes 60 billion deaths across the Dune universe. BILLION! Jesus christ! They actually talk, dismissively, about other mass murderers throughout history. They talk, almost with a casual paronizing tone, about Hitler and how he only killed 5 million. I mean, holy fuck. And this is the hero! the trajectory of Messiah is a plot to overthrow him. Nominally we are not on their side, but, how can we not be? His empire caused 60 billion deaths, I mean wow. Supposedly he has guided it as best he can to accomplish this minimum of deaths. But if he had just killed himself in the desert, none of it would have ever happened. That’s a pretty amazing conflict, for Paul and for the reader. Anyway the book progresses with him trying to steer this horrible machine he’s created, and trying to avoid a worse future he can’t face and we don’t understand until the 3rd book (or the 4th, really). Dealing with a character who knows what’s coming is hard, it makes me feel trapped as a reader, which I suppose is the intent, but it’s not very fun to me. But the plot of the book is great, it is written great, and the choices are sad. For someone who can see the future, he can’t seem to make it right, which I like. These books are not uplifting, even when people win they ruin it, or they get what they want and it’s not good. This is all the more apparent in the next book, Paul’s choice was either very long-sighted, or just as horrible, because things get worse. In Children we as readers have to face the idea of a “good guy” character, Alia, turning into his horrible despot. I felt it even more through Duncan Idaho, a fantastic character, who loves her and loses her to her madness. I felt like I could have had more of this, more of Alia’s decay, but it was really good, as was the end of her story. The story with the kids is kind of odd, it’s a lot of the spooky stuff. In the first place, everyone has a god damn plan in this book, everyone knows exactly what is going to happen and it’d be nice to have one freaking character feel confused, cuz I sure as hell was. And then there’s this crazy shit of Leto communing with sand trout and becoming a different creature. What the eff? It gets so weird. And I don’t think this story, all the good things about it, require the weirdness. It’s Herbert’s book, he can do it how he likes, it’s just so weird to me, I could have done without that entire aspect of the books.  So now at the end we are stuck again. Another all powerful ruler, but even more so. Knows everything that is going to happen and is theoretically making the hard choices, the choices Paul couldn’t make, to provide the best possible future, perhaps the only possible future. Besides the freaky ass turn-into-a-sandworm thing, which I know I’m not going to like, I remember precisely 0% of the following books, so it’ll be an adventure to see what’s next!

God Emperor of Dune – Okay, we’re starting to go off the rails here. I think the key thing to remmeber here, which I’m sure I didn’t appreciate as a teenager, and I barely appreciate now, is that these latter books aren’t so much about the story. They are complicated and continue the universe and all that. But jeez, this book is 3000 years after the last one! And I thought the 12 year gap between the first two was a lot. This book is not fan service, telling more stories of our favorite characters. It’s not Harry Potter or Twilight or Wheel of Time, it’s sometime wholly different. This book has a plot, and it’s fine, but it’s not really about that. It’s more this analysis of despotism and power and human history. Quite literally, it’s not subtle, Leto II knows all of humanity’s past and attempts to forge a course that will avoid our persistent pitfalls. Now, this doesn’t necessarily make a good book. I would say the book is long and kind of boring and not very cool. But, for what it is, it is somewhat fascinating. It’s a bit of a bullshit argument. Leto can see the future so one big moral question of the book is whether it’s acceptable that he does all these horrible things in order to save humanity. Now, of course, no one can know that in real life. And anyone who present you with some bullshit hypothetical of “would you kill a baby to save 5 babies” is more often than not trying to justify their own moral fragility by forcing you to compromise yours. That situation will never happen, it’s a false dilemma. But, for the sake of argument, this book surmises that you can, and explores what happens next. It is interesting, overwrought, not very fun, but interesting. Leto does turn into a pre-worm, which is crazy ass weird. Surprisingly I’m not as put off by that in this book, there’s too much else to be wierded out by. The perpetual Duncan gholas is extremely weird, apparently a decision that only makes sense to someone prescient, which the reader isn’t, so that’s weird. It’s also extraordinarily hard to buy that in 3000 years no one invented a way to travel without spice. C’mon, even omniscient dudes can’t control every scientist in every corner of the universe. And you simply can’t tell me that in the amount of time we’ve gone from rocks to rockets, these dudes can’t get something better than arakkis dirt. But after finishing it I’m not mostly left with those feelings, I’m mostly left with “huh, crazy, if you knew everything, how might you try to create a better future?” Kind of a bullshit stoner question, but kind of interesting. I’m on to Heretics now, and I predict travelling ever further afield, we’ll see how it goes. Audiobook performers were the same as in Children, pretty good. I got used to this guy as the voice of Leto, which was nice. Next book is someone different, but that’s okay, I’m sure it will jump 8.3 million years and have different people entirely anyway. Except Duncan, I’m sure there will always be a Duncan.

The Caged Virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Wow what a disappointment. I loved Infidel so much, it was one of my two favorite books of 2008. This doesn’t even make the radar for 2009.  It was actually written first, which I didn’t know I thought it was a newer book from her. And it has all the same ideas and intent, but none of the cohesiveness, structure, or captivation. The story of her life was such a better way to express her problems with Islam. This book wanders far too much, she makes the same point many times. And not because any particular point isn’t important (they absolutely are) but just because the book feels thrown together. Like each chapter was an article in a magazine, and then they were all smashed into a book. She has interesting things to say, but almost all she said better in Infidel, and what extra she has to say isn’t given well. She does provide some proposed solutions to the problems, but they are presented in a more political and defensive way. Again giving the feeling of a magazine article instead of a book. I’m pretty shocked, I never would have read Infidel if I had read this first, I’m glad I did it the other way around.

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein – Pretty cool book!  Sort of in the young adult scifi category, but totally suitable for adults. The book can be broken into sections, it follows a young slave Thorby who is purchased by a homeless beggar on some shitty outworld planet. His life begins anew with Baslim, the beggar. Later he has completely different experiences with the Free Traders, the military, and back on earth in a rich business family. The story is very much about cultures and the differences. These four places he live couldn’t be more different – criminal underworld, frontier tradesmen, the military, and the business elite. Each has its own rules, etiquette, language, etc. With the Traders there is an anthropologist character who is studying them (from the outside, as they are a very introverted culture). But really Heinlein is the anthropologist here, showing us these different peoples, all with prejudices against the other people, who aren’t human, aren’t proper, aren’t real. It’s really quite well done. He can get bogged down – with the minutiae of Trader familial relationships, or the law of a business. But in general you see such a sweeping perspective in a relatively short book, it’s very good. The audiobook side of it was okay. The narrator does pretty well. My only complaint is that he can only do voices by doing impressions. A good audiobook performer will give each main character recognizable voices that you know immediately, but are unique. This guy does this via impressions, seriously! Baslim is Sean Connery, the military colonel is Clint Eastwood, there’s a whole planet of Australians. I can’t remember the rest, but it was kind of weird. But anyway, ignoring that, all very good.

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein – Another good book. It’s a different book, for certain. It feels younger, not as suited for adults. On the other hand, it is very educational, and I imagine if you haven’t taken the fuckload of physics I took, it would be educational to an adult. There are whole sections that are just math and physics and equations. It’s kind of awesome! But I don’t think most people would think so. The rest is a cute story of a boy on a space adventure. It’s not as interesting as the last book, it’s just a story, it doesn’t go much deeper. But it is fun. It has this 50s innocence to it that’s nice. It also has a 50s perspective that’s kind of ridiculous. The book is set in the future, of course, and yet there are still soda jerks, and people say gosh gee wiliky (well, maybe not that, but essentially). No matter how far an author can look into the future for technology, it’s hard to break out of his present cultural framework. Nonetheless, it’s a fun read. Or, as the case may be, listen on the way back from CO. The audibook aspect is a little bit of a radio play. Many many different actors for all the characters, sound effects, even a little music. It all made the book seem even more like a fun diversion, though nothing serious.

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