Archive for November, 2011

Nothing like curling up with a good book when it’s cold outside.

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2011 by JonH

Dan Simmons‘ novel The Terror gives the ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845 a fictional twist as desperation, mutiny and supernatural horror conspire against the men aboard the ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.

The story is told from the perspective of various crew members, focusing primarily on Captain Francis Crozier and Dr. Harry Goodsir, and often switches from present to past tense. Simmons goes to great lengths to articulate the emotionally and physically draining circumstances of the crew of both ships as they go about trying to survive in a nightmarish and oddly beautiful landscape.

The Terror is a monster–not just in terms of page count (over 700), or story development, but in terms of sheer psychological breadth. From desperation, starvation and exhaustion to momentary elation, cannibalism and latent psychic abilities, this novel covers a lot. Unfortunately, there were a few times the story felt like it was a dragging, and two plot elements did get under my skin somewhat; however, in spite of these, The Terror is a good read as it manages to evoke a palpable sense of dread throughout.

The first area of concern was Simmons’ need to create a fictional Inuit mythology to describe the existence of the monster (Tuunbaq). I would have preferred he take a preexisting element of Inuit culture and twist it for the sake of the story rather than creating something new. Sure this is manipulative, but it deepens the story in my mind when readers are inspired to further research an element and they discover that it’s steeped in an existing mythological narrative. In this case, it would have deepened my understanding of Inuit culture if the Tuunbaq was an actual mythological being (albeit, perhaps not as evil). The second cause for concern was the need to incorporate psychic abilities as a plot device. Funny how it works in a book like Arthur C. Clarkes’ Childhood’s End, but stumbles here. Without divulging too much, in my mind (ha, pun), this came precariously close to the contemptuous need for a “solve all” device used in poor science fiction novels that I can only describe as a cheap out.

As far as characters go, even though there a lot of them, each is well thought out and offers something unique to the story. Obviously, the major ones are fleshed out and given ample chance to develop, but even the minor characters are dealt with sympathetically and given a voice which helps propel the narrative forward. The standouts amongst all of them, though, are Francis Crozier, the Irish born and bred captain that takes over command after Sir John Franklin is no longer available to execute his duties; and Harry Goodsir, the de facto expedition’s doctor.

Crozier is a strong willed leader that skirts the delicate balance of what his men need and what they want, but he’s not without his flaws. In a navy consisting mainly of British born and bred officers, Crozier is at a disadvantage because of his Irish heritage. In fact, underneath it all, he’s the quintessential outcast who yearns for escape. Despite his genetic shortcomings, Crozier rises to every occasion in a believable and heartfelt way.
Goodsir is initially one of four medical practitioners aboard the two ships. Treated with contempt by Sir John Franklin, who refuses to acknowledge the anatomist as a doctor, referring to him only as mister Goodsir, the deaths of the other three doctors makes him the go-to guy for all things medical. Goodsir is a gentle and moral man whose admirable defiance in the face of certain death illustrates his growth throughout the narrative.

The chief antagonist is the Tuunbaq, a ravenous beast whose lust for blood is never sated and whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The Tuunbaq stalks and kills the men of the expedition , but seems to have some sort of relationship with the indigenous people of the North. The Tuunbaq, however, is not the only thing that threatens the crew. In such a desperate time, the possibility of a mutiny is never far from becoming a reality, and this is never more so than when Caulker’s Mate Cornelius Hickey is on the scene. A despicable and vicious man, Hickey, at times, makes the beast seem tame in comparison. After being caught in the hold satisfying certain urges with the giant idiot Magnus Manson, Hickey’s menace begins to cast an ominous pall over the crew and his deliberate manipulations lead to dire and inhuman consequences.

Another character central to the story is the young Inuit woman the men call Lady Silence. Found without a tongue, Silence is allowed to roam the two ships almost unhindered and is the only key to understanding and surviving the Tuunbaq.

Whether you love them or hate them, throughout the novel Dan Simmons creates characters you can really sink your teeth into. His descriptions of those that struggle to support and protect one another provide vivid insight into the psychological lives of desperate, but not inhumane, men that makes you identify with them more so; his descriptions of the levels of inhumanity that some sink to is an entirely different matter.

Despite some minor misgivings, The Terror is well worth the read.

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Hugo Agogone: Hominids by Robert Sawyer

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , , , , , on November 8, 2011 by JonH

It must have been slim pickings for the Hugo committee when Robert Sawyer‘s book Hominids took science fiction’s big prize in 2003. The first in the Neanderthal Parallax, Hominids is the story of two Earths existing simultaneously in alternate universes. One is as we know it; the other has Neanderthals at the top of the food chain. The concept is interesting, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. To be honest I haven’t read many Hugo award winning novels, but of those that I have (A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, and Neuromancer by William Gibson) I can confidently say that this book does not belong in that class.

Although a capable writer, Sawyer skirts the edge of cheese a little too often for my liking (e.g. the character Mary’s nascent sexual interest in the Neanderthal Ponter). In addition, there’s something about the writing that I find mildly irritating. I experienced it once before when reading the first book in his WWW trilogy called Wake. Sawyer provides lots of asides to expand on some scientific concept mentioned by a character, but they come across as too contrived. While it’s nice to get an overview of whatever it is they’re discussing, the detail he provides through his characters looks more like he’s flaunting his knowledge than developing his characters.

While some of the ideas like accepted bisexuality, synchronized menstruation cycles and specific mating times behind Neanderthal culture are interesting, Hominids doesn’t present anything provocative or, to be frank, imaginative enough to really grab my attention. Without giving anything away, the use of flatulence as a diversion for Neanderthals who are equipped with a more sophisticated sense of smell than we have might be funny in the right context, but this isn’t it. And using the functional equivalent of a manhole cover to keep a portal between the two versions of Earth stay open is downright goofy. I wouldn’t consider Hominids cutting edge science fiction.

Another aspect of the story that was awkwardly developed was the curious juxtaposition of the characters Mary Vaughan and Louise Benoit. Both women are intellectually capable (the former is a geneticist; the latter a graduate student in physics) but diametrically opposed in terms of sexuality and confidence. Vaughan is the victim of rape and struggles throughout the novel with any sort of intimacy. Benoit on the other hand is described as the object of every man’s desire and is as confident as they come. Even though the impact of Vaughan’s rape is discussed thoughtfully, Sawyer doesn’t do anything to contrast the two characters for any real purpose that isn’t ham-handed and a bit cliché. Additionally, I couldn’t help but be struck by the idea that Sawyer took a Neanderthal that is commonly thought of as a caveman who bonks his woman on the head and drags her off to his cave as the only real love interest of a rape victim mildly bizarre.

I did find Hominids to be a quick read and at times I was entertained; unfortunately, in the end, Hominids falls way short of what I expect of a Hugo award winning novel to be, and even though I love to support Canadian writers, I’d be hard-pressed to finish this series.

Show me the Money

Posted in Editorial with tags , , , , on November 6, 2011 by JonH

I always get a kick out of athletes that invoke God whenever they achieve some modicum of success. Why, I wonder, do they think that God is watching out for them any more than God would be watching out for the next guy? We all can’t win, so is God picking sides, or is God being used as an excuse for something else?

In a recent article I found on Fox News baseball player Albert Pujols was asked about his imminent free agency. He responded by saying, “Just like my wife says, we’re going to be praying about it [free agency] and whenever the time comes we’ll make the decision.” Despite the “praying” part, Pujols comments sound reasonable enough. That is until he blurts the next bit out: “Hopefully, I don’t have to make that decision. We’re just going to see where God takes us. I don’t want to get ahead of God’s plan.”

Pujols seems to be one hell of a nice guy. His Family Foundation raises awareness for Down Syndrome and money for the poor in the Dominican Republic. I’m genuinely impressed with his obvious sincerity when it comes to helping others, but the way he’s using God as some sort of factor/arbitrator in contract negotiations is truly bizarre.

However, let’s say for the sake of argument there is a God and that bestowing a lucrative baseball contract on Albert Pujols is part of the plan. The obvious argument would be to say why would God see fit to bless Pujols with so many riches, a wonderful family and a great career, and yet allow drug addled mentally unbalanced parents to bring a child into the world (for example)?

A believer’s response might be to say that God works in mysterious ways. A believer may even go on about the trials and tribulations he or she had endured growing up. But the mysterious ways argument is no argument at all. It’s a way of stopping all dialogue.

Anyhow, let’s step away from speculating what Albert Pujols and God discuss in order to more fully explore this phenomenon of invoking God in the way I’ve been discussing.

According to the Bible, “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27); it reaffirms this after the apple incident: “men, who have been made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9), and then once again for good measure: “he is the image and glory of God”( 1 Corinthians 11:7). Based on this fact, it’s not a stretch to imagine that if we’re made in God’s image some of our greatest virtues and most noble qualities are things that God has down. Take reason for example. God would make Ghandi and Mother Theresa look unreasonable. If we agree with this, we can dispense with the “God works in mysterious ways” argument as merely a means of obfuscation and move onto some other formulation of why the world around us is as so.

For the sake of discussion, let’s base that other formulation on what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s called a categorical imperative. A categorical imperative can be thought of as a duty established by reason, and it can be summarized in the following three points:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law;” (Act in a way that you think everyone should act.)

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end;” (Treat people equally.)

“Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” (Reasonable people are able to figure out whether an argument is moral or not through reason alone. As a result, all reasonable people should conclude the same moral laws.)

Now granted, I understand that some will make the argument that God isn’t bound by rules that man/woman has delineated. But we did agree that God was reasonable, and we are told that we’re made in his image, so it’s reasonable to assume that God would use a more sophisticated version of whatever form of morality we, as his reflection, could come up with.

If we can continue to agree that this is the case, we’re left with one of two choices: a) God is ignoring his own decree that we’re made in his image because he doesn’t exemplify an amplified version of our most noble traits and characteristics (in this case, reason), which then draws a few of the other noble qualities like truth and honesty into question; or b) God is hands off, and we’re the masters of our own destiny.

If we choose the former, then we’re left with the troubling consequence of why Albert Pujols would be so blessed and the crack addled prostitute’s child is not. Why has God blessed one, but punished another? God works in mysterious ways. If we choose the latter, we’re left knowing that while some people may succumb to the hardships of life, others will surmount them, and that in the end we have a more active role in shaping our lives than just leaving it to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. We’re empowered to make change and not merely slaves to some vague destiny.

In the end what Albert Pujols is really doing by suggesting that God is going to somehow show him where to go (which, will absolutely guarantee that he makes more money) is using his religion as a scapegoat. Things like contract negotiations are out of his hands. If he signs with a team other than with the St. Louis Cardinals (which is the crux of the biscuit here because if he does think of all of those disappointed fans that would accuse him of chasing the money) it’s because it was destiny. “It must be God’s plan for me to move on,” one can almost hear him say at the press conference.

Wouldn’t it have been much easier, and more honest, if Pujols had just said, “Hopefully, I don’t have to make that decision. We’re just going to see where negotiations between my agent and the GM takes us. I don’t want to get ahead of their plans”?

But I guess some athletes move in mysterious ways.

On The Road Again

Posted in Book reaction/review on November 1, 2011 by JonH

There’s nothing quite like having no expectations when you pick up a book and then having yourself completely blown away while reading it. This is exactly what happened when I started reading Richard Grant‘s Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads.

The book sat on a table at Audrey’s bookstore with that subtle black sharpie mark up running up the spine indicating discontinued, discounted, water damaged, or all of the above. What did it matter? I was half way through lunch and primed for an impulse purchase. Besides, the photo of the sliver tube-like abode on wheels in the middle of some southwestern backdrop looked enticing. I picked it up, brought it home, popped it on my shelf, and there it sat for a month.

When I finally did pick it up, I couldn’t put it down.

In the prologue, Grant, a British expat living in the States, sets the mood by describing how life in England was sucking the life out of him:

“I remember walking to the dole office in the pissing rain, head down and shoulders hunched, and everyone else on the streets in the same posture. Dead fish in the poisoned canals, a Monday morning sky the colour of rain-darkened concrete. I remember an old man muttering to himself at a bus stop, losing his words in the wind. His face was completely caved-in–a physical deformity of some kind, the legacy of beatings perhaps, but I fancied it was a lifetime of putting up with England. ‘Teabags’, the Americans called us, and I could see their point.”

From those bleak words that served as a catalyst for Grant’s travels to the history lessons of such characters as the barefoot Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca and the mountain man Joe Walker to the vagabonds, itinerants and trailer-dwelling gray hairs that form a large contingent of people that have just decided to pull up stakes and live on the road, Ghost Riders is written as much like a travel diary as it is an historical overview of what it means to be on the road.

Even though the subheading of the book’s title is “Travels with American Nomads” there seems to be a distinction between traveling and being on the road. The former implies a destination; the latter, a state of mind. And it’s obvious that some of the people that Grant meets while on the road are out of their minds; others, however, are on the road because to do anything less is to become sedentary and the prevailing notion is that that’s a slow death and not really living life. From the hobos to the implied caste system of the Rainbow gatherings (a loosely knit group of subcultures with a well-developed disdain for Babylon culture–i.e. capitalism) there are plenty of lifestyles out on the road, and Grant introduces us to a wide cross section of them.

The beauty of Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads is that at some point in everyone’s life the thought of withdrawing from the world around us resonates on some level. Shedding perceived responsibilities, throwing caution to the wind and hitting the road is the tonic for complacency. It underscores the tension between being on the move and growing roots.

With the book, I`m not ashamed to say, you get to live vicariously through Grant’s adventures. His stories are descriptive, entertaining and, to a large degree, thoughtful. He`s opening up about his life, the people around him and the relationships he develops, especially with a woman named Gale. Ironically, Grant’s wanderlust is well grounded in the reality that there could be a deep seeded psychological compulsion that compels him: “I like to think I’ve tasted freedom, but I also recognize the signs and snares of addiction.” And like any addiction, it can tear people apart. But I won`t tell you how that turns out.

Ghost Riders is thoughtful prose on the poetic life of wandering.