Sunday, December 6, 2009

Name of the Wind, Patriot Acts, Dr Bloodmoney

Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind came very highly recommended by some acquaintances, and it took me a while to get around to reading it. Now that I've read it, I must admit that I just don't get adulation. Not that it's a bad book. Rothfuss is a competent story-teller, and his word-smithing is good. But in a fantasy field that contains writers like Nix, Vandermeer, and other luminaries, I'm not sure why it was so seized-upon.

The story concerns Kvothe, a hero-in-the-making, and relates his time in university. Kvothe is a prodigy who can learn a language in a couple of days, and he enters the academy at the age of 14, earning the jealousy of many students and teachers. I suppose part of my problem comes from this premise -- I feel that if you're going to have a genius for a narrator, he shouldn't sound like the guy next door, but Kvothe too often does. Another problem I had was logorrhea -- the frame story alone probably takes 50 pages to get started. I have no problem with length per se (I loved The Brothers Karamazov), but the length should have a purpose, and I felt that too often Rothfuss was just noodling around without going anywhere.

Patriot Acts, by Greg Rucka, was another disappointment, although I should've been prepared to be disappointed, I suppose. It's the penultimate installment in his Atticus Kodiak series, which started with a really fresh idea -- Atticus Kodiak is a bodyguard, and the books were about his various guarding assignments. Unfortunately, Rucka upped the ante in a couple of the more recent novels, having Kodiak defend clients from two of the world's greatest assassins, leaving the carefully-established realism in the dust. In this novel, Kodiak joins forces with one of those assassins (now former assassin), and together they try to hunt down a man who has a contract on them. At this point, Rucka might as well be playing in fairy-land. It may be that these super-assassins exist (though I confess myself a skeptic), but I have a hard time believing that a 35 year old man can suddenly train to become one in the course of a few months.

Dr Bloodmoney is an altogether different kettle of fish. In some ways it's more audacious than the other two, and so it's a harder book to judge. Superficially, it's a post-WWIII story, following the fortunes of a small group of people in the Bay Area 8 years after a nuclear attack. But Dick invites a more allegorical reading from the first. Communications across the US are maintained through a satellite manned by Dangerfield, whose mission to Mars was screwed up when the nuclear attack happened. Everyone in the US tries to listen to the radio as Dangerfield's satellite flies overhead, and this is seen as a unifying effect across communities -- it's the one thing everyone does.

The two people trying to stop Dangerfield are Hoppy Harrington, a phocomelus with psychic powers, and Dr. Bluthgeld, the "Dr. Bloddmoney" of the title. Harrington wants to be the center of attention, and he wants to usurp Dangerfield's place, imitating Dangerfield's voice so that nobody would even know. Hoppy's nemesis is another kid with a birth defect, Bill Keller, who can channel real dead voices. So I think that Dick has set up a pretty clear opposition between the real and the counterfeit, as he does so often in his work. But I think that Bill Keller is a pretty scary figure as well -- it's not so obvious that Bill is any better than Hoppy, except that in the end he does the right thing and Hoppy doesn't.

Dr. Bluthgeld, on the other hand, is not so easy to classify. He's paranoid with delusions of grandeur, but he may actually have the ability to start a nuclear war. That uncertainty is par for the course with Dick, and didn't bother me. But I felt that (a) it's too much of a throw-away -- in the end, it barely matters if Bluthgeld could start WWIV or not, and (b) to the extent that Bluthgeld is responsible for Dangerfield's illness, there's no story reason given for it. I understand that on a symbolic level, Dangerfield represents community and Bluthgeld represents a destructive force inimical to that community, but within the story there's no really good reason.

On the whole, I felt that Dr Bloodmoney is not one of Dick's strongest books. It showcases a lot of his obsessions, and carries his kaleidoscopic style, but it doesn't really gel. It was worth reading, but if someone asked me for a book to get started on Dick with, it'd have to be something like The Man in the High Castle.

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