Friday, June 18, 2010

Dead Beat, Red Mars, Revelation Space

The only book of the above that I've actually finished is Dead Beat, so I'll start with that...

Dead Beat is the the 7th book in the Harry Dresden series, and it feels the most polished by far -- nice to see that Butcher hasn't rested on his laurels.  The surprises are nicely set up; they rarely feel like they come out of nowhere, which used to be a problem.  Even better, there were elements that I could tell were going to be used from the beginning, but I still didn't quite put them together until the end (for example, once Harry mentions the Field Museum, it's almost inevitable that Sue the dinosaur will play a part in the proceedings).  In previous books, Harry ended up relying on dumb luck, mostly to make up for deficiencies in Butcher's plotting -- here, the plot flows quite smoothly.

Lastly, Butcher has toned down Harry's constant interjections of "Hell's Bells!" which were really getting irritating.  Harry is now a much smoother narrator.  Butcher's style doesn't really stand out for me in a positive way, but it's not the negative it used be.  (As I recall, for one of the previous novels, I said that the plot overcomes the negatives of the style; now, the plot can stand without interference from the style).

Red Mars and Revelation Space are part of the trend to ridiculously large science fiction books, shared by books like Pandora's Star.  Although all three are very different in most respects, they each could use an editor with a heavier hand.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, seems the worse offender so far, but maybe that's because I'm further into the book.  Robinson has chosen to write about the settlement of Mars in fairly realistic terms, including a lot of the political infighting among the early settlers.  When it works, it's fantastic -- it's easy to imagine the debates about how far we should go to terraform Mars vs. leaving it in a pristine state.  But his characters aren't rounded enough to carry the places where it's not so interesting.  In trying to write a realistic treatment of settlement, Robinson has ended up with lots of time when nothing much is happening.  When that happens, the shallowness of the characters is thrown into sharp relief, and it makes it that much harder to continue with the novel.

Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds, is a huge novel, and at 120 pages, I'm just a fifth of the way in.  Reynolds has some great ideas in there, and it hasn't felt tedious yet, but not a whole lot's happened, either.  In days of yore (say, the 60s), a Heinlein or a Clarke would be halfway through the story by this point, not just introducing characters and concepts.  And, again, the problem here is that the characters aren't strong enough to carry the weight of the novel.  A 600-page novel needs characters who are intriguing, not slightly filled-out stereotypes of the hard-working scientist, the driven spaceship captain, etc.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Catch 22, Open Season

After the first few hours of reading Joseph Heller's Catch-22, I wasn't sure I would make it all the way through to the end.  In some ways, Heller puts his worst foot forwards.  Most of the humor in the first part of the book is pretty jejune, thin stuff, the sort of thing you might see on a sitcom.  As Heller tightens his focus, though, the humor becomes much more incisive and bleak.  Milo Minderbinder best demonstrates the book's arc through his own character arc.

At first, he's a kind of goofy mess sergeant who buys eggs for 7 cents and sells them for 5 cents.  However, as he grows into a wheeler-dealer, he develops a sleazy edge, removing the tubes that inflate the soldiers' life jackets so that he can use them to make something else that he can sell in the mess hall.  Eventually, he mutates into a sort of one-man KBR, reminding everyone that "what's good for [his business] is good for the country."  By the end of the novel, he'd rather spend time chasing after some profit in cigarettes than look for a missing 12-year-old girl.

In the same way, the novel moves from the goofy humor at the beginning, where Yossarian signs his name as "Washington Irving," triggering an investigation into whether Washington Irving is a code word, through the bleaker humor where the men in his squadron get shot down one at a time, culminating in the nightmare evening in Rome, which is not funny at all.

C. J. Box's Open Season is entertaining enough in its own way, but was too predictable for my tastes.  In addition, Box can't leave well enough alone with his villains.  Bad enough one is a murderer, but he's a child molestor and sadist (for no plot reason whatsoever).  It's too bad -- I like Joe, the main character, but not enough to read any more of the series.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Cosi Fan Tutti, Orlando Furioso

My last outing with the Aurelio Zen series was to Venice, in Dead Lagoon.  This time, I followed him to Naples in Cosi Fan TuttiDead Lagoon is, I recall, the darkest piece in the series; Cosi Fan Tutti, in a bit of chiaruscuro, is by far the lightest.  Dibdin weaves in wit, slapstick, mistaken identity, and other tools of the farce-writer's trade in a masterful comedy.  It's a pity that, although he delved in humor in other novels, he never wrote another full-on humorous mystery.

In general, I think it's hard to write a humorous mystery -- either the humor or the mystery tend to get short shrift.  Here, it's definitely the mystery.  In the end, Zen "solves" a crime he wasn't even investigating by the criminals' mistaking him for someone else.  But I can forgive Dibdin this, for a few reasons.  First and foremost, it fits the tone of the novel; the novel's light tone would be undermined with a lot of actual investigating.  In a way, the best way to think of the book is as a comedy which uses the trappings of the detective novel. 

Second, the whole thing feels legitimate.  Often, when a mystery focuses on the humor, the actual crimes end up being completely implausible.  (E.g. Amanda Cross, who's very funny, but ends up with solutions involving filling a swimming pool with salt water, then draining it and refilling it with regular water.)  Here, although the plot is over the top, as befits a farce, the actual motivating events (a simple gang war) make sense.  Although Zen stumbles through the novel, the underlying events are well-motivated.

From modern Italy, I then retreated a few hundred years, into the world of Orlando Furioso.  Ariosto, the poet who composed the epic Orlando has been considered second only to Dante among Renaissance Italian poets.  Sadly for him, since most people only know one Italian Renaissance poet, his work is not as widely read as it used to be.

Penguin splits Barbara Reynolds's translation into two parts, and each part is very long -- part I is 700 pages, without the introduction, endnotes, etc.  It's a sprawling epic -- in Part I, Orlando himself barely shows up.  Instead, Ariosto concentrates on a number of his compatriots, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Ferrau, Astolfo, et al.  He somehow manages to keep them all straight; although the poem jumps around among them very frequently, whenever it returns to someone, it only took a line or two for me to remember who he was.

I think in some ways the jumping around is one of the defining characteristics of this work.  Ariosto will jump away from his current thread several times in any canto, saying something to the effect of "this is exciting stuff, but now I want to draw your attention somewhere else; we'll return here later."  It's a very different feel from the classical epics I'm used to.  On the other hand, his use of simile is clearly influenced by Homer.  Many of the subjects could have come straight out of the Iliad, and Ariosto develops them at a length (half a stanza) that feels Homeric as well.