Sunday, September 28, 2008

Demon Princes

I'm re-reading the old Jack Vance series "The Demon Princes". I remember taking years to hunt all 5 books down, and also that, in the end, I felt like it hadn't quite been worth it. But with that kind of build-up, it's not clear that any book would have felt worth it.

So, I took advantage of the fact that Orb has recently packaged them into two volumes, and I picked them up. They're definitely better than I remembered, which is always a pleasant surprise. Although the story is a straight our revenge tale -- our hero must find and kill the five men who destroyed his town when he was young -- it's worth reading for all the extra fillips Vance throws in. There's the mysterious Institute, which wants to restrict the development of science, so that people will be forced to fend for themselves more. There's the trans-planetary police force, the IPCC. There's a planet where kidnap victims are kept until ransomed, very business-like. And Vance tosses all these into his story, often just on the periphery, just as a mimetic story might happen to mention the UN or the Fed -- we feel that there's a lot going on in this universe, and that the story we're following is a very small piece of it.

In the end, even though he's chasing down 5 crime lords, Gersen isn't going to change the universe much -- other criminals will replace them, and, in the end, they don't affect most people's lives that much. I think that we're so used to dealing with epics in sci-fi that this is a refreshing change.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Find Me

Just finished Carol O'Connell's latest (last?) Mallory book. She's finally gone where she should've gone three books ago -- it seemed like Mallory was slowly moving toward some sort of redemption, but then in the last few books all of her character development slowed to a stop. I was about ready to stop reading the novels (or at least wait for a non-series novel), but I'm very glad I persisted.

Find Me is a fantastic entry to the series. I almost hope it's the last one, since I think that Mallory will be a lot less interesting once she regains some stability in her psyche. On the other hand, for O'Connell to continue writing about the old Mallory would be a complete betrayal of this book. As a side note, I love the way O'Connell hides characters motivations from the reader in a very natural way -- you're not really sure why a character is acting as they do until sometimes long afterward, but it never really feels forced, or like a gotcha.

From amazon I see that O'Connel's next book is a non-series book, so maybe she really is done with Mallory. In any case, I thought Judas Child, her last non-series novel was fantastic, so I'm very optimistic.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


John Gardner's novel Grendel is presented as the story of Beowulf from the monster's point of view, but that's a really reductionist view of the story. In fact, if that had been Gardner's goal, this would be a terrible book, since it's incredibly anachronistic (Grendel talks of toruses, the Dragon quotes Bertrand Russel, and so on).

Instead, Gardner is looking at various approaches to putting a meaning into life -- the Dragon's approach, in which everything is a product of chance, and in which life is ultimately pointless; or the bard's view, in which we struggle toward an ideal, even though that ideal is based on a fantasy of life as we'd like it to be, not life as it is.

But I think that Gardner is ambivalent about the two approaches, even though he seems to lean toward the poetic. On the one hand, the shaper's poetry is set up in opposition to the Dragon -- the Dragon believes that everything is chance, but the bard says that people can give meaning to their lives through the inspiration of art. On the other hand, Gardner undercuts that message by showing us that the bard is really self-interested, taking money for his services. Also, Beowulf isn't really presented as a role model either -- he's a thug, his eyes are cold, he's sarcastic, and so on.

Ultimately, both points of view are problematic -- is Gardner hinting at some third way?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Brothers Karamazov, Frankenstein, Soldier of Arete

It's been a while since I last posted, but, for a change, not because I haven't had much time to read, but because most of what I read wasn't worth discussing. Not good, but not terrible.

In the meantime, I've slowly been making my way through The Brothers Karamazov in chunks. It strike me as a very Christian novel. Dostoevsky is concerned not just with questions of faith and forgiveness, but also of the role of the Church (see the story of the Grand Inquisitor, which wouldn't really make sense for Zen Buddhism or Hinduism, I think). I think the book is at its least convincing when talking about a character's delirium, particularly Dimitri's long passage through torment. He comes across as an idiot, rather than being in the throes of passion, which is a pity. I'm certainly enjoying the rest, and looking forward to finishing later.

On audiobook, I listened to Frankenstein. It's a cliche to say that the book is very different from the popular conception (about 3/4 of reviews say exactly that). To talk more about what this book is not, I don't think the book was really intended as a horror novel. Instead, it's really a story about man's inhumanity to his fellow creatures. The monster starts as the most humane character in the novel, although he later declares himself more akin to Milton's Satan. Shelley also throws in digs at society seen through the eyes of the monster (he learns why some people work their whole lives for nothing, while others are born to privilege). The ending, in which the monster confronts a sea captain who has just heard Frankenstein's story, is very ambiguous. The monster claims to regret killing his creator, but does he really? Given the very explicit parallels between Frankenstein and God, what does this say about humanity's relationship to God?

Lastly, I'm in the middle of Soldier of Arete. Not much to say about it, other than it's not as good as Soldier of the Mist. Still entertaining, but it seems as if Wolfe has a lot of dilly-dallying to make his timeline work with real history.