Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: "TransAtlantic" by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic (2013)
Colum McCann (1965)

307 pages

There are passages in Colum McCann’s novel TransAtlantic in which the suffering and loss the characters encounter tear at one’s heart. And yet in other scenes these characters experience wonder and accomplishment that fill one’s heart with hope. Here, condensed into a novel, are the vagaries of life.

Spanning the past one hundred and sixty some years, McCann builds his story around brief but critical times in the lives of several historical figures. These ‘real’ characters, otherwise unrelated, become linked together in his novel through the transformative effect they have on the lives of four fictional characters, one or another of whom they happen to come into brief contact with: four generations of women --- mothers and daughters, one to the next. Through his characters, historical and fictional, McCann explores the vicissitudes of everyday life, whether experienced by the famous or the unknown: from the dreams and passions that motivate us to push beyond what we already know, to the natural and man-made disasters that can threaten to destroy our hope and our will.

The novel focuses on each of the main characters in turn (if not precisely in chronological order), and is built around crossings most of the characters make of the Atlantic Ocean, between North America and Ireland.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the historical figures in the novel. In the mid-1840’s Frederick Douglass, then an escaped slave living in Boston, spends time in Ireland speaking on the need to abolish slavery and raising funds for anti-slavery groups in the United States, as well as receiving donations to buy his own freedom. Some seventy-five years later, in 1919, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown fly a modified World War I bomber --- a cloth-framed biplane --- non-stop from Newfoundland to Ireland, the first such plane flight across the Atlantic. Finally, another eighty years further on, in the late 1990’s, former Senator George Mitchell leads negotiations to end the “Troubles,” the long period of self-inflicted death and destruction in Northern Ireland.

The stories of these famous men become bound together, in McCann’s telling of their histories, by a woman who encounters Douglass during his time in Ireland, and then by the woman’s daughter, grand-daughter and great-granddaughter, who eventually cross paths with Alcock and Brown, and later Mitchell. Though the meetings are tangential to the lives of the historical figures --- unimportant to them really --- for the women these encounters provide a glimpse into possibilities for futures different than they had earlier imagined for themselves.

The second half of the book details the lives of each of these four generations of women. The men of the first half drift for the most part into the background, though never completely disappearing. Instead it is now several of the women who are inspired to make trans-Atlantic crossings and search out their destinies, as had before them the famous men they have met. Each in their own way, these women experience both the marvels and the pains of life, as they travel far from their origins.

In a note at the end of the novel, McCann thanks among others Wendell Berry, who, like McCann, has written movingly of the land and people’s place on it, and also forcefully on injustice and against violence. These themes appear through TransAtlantic: Douglass goes to Ireland arguing for justice for slaves; a century and a half later George Mitchell makes that same trip to try and bring peace to Northern Ireland; one of the primary motivations of Alcock and Brown to make their historic flight was to turn a machine of war, the WWI bomber, into one of peace. The women of the story, in their more private histories, also engage with the injustice and violence of the world, whether it is the struggle to work alongside men, the misery of the U.S. Civil War or the seemingly endless and random death of the Irish “Troubles.”

McCann’s powerful writing envelopes a reader in his characters; he does not so much tell us what they are thinking as form images of their emotional reaction to the world, as they reflect on their past successes and failures, try to make sense of their present struggles, and imagine their potential futures. The images he paints can sometimes amaze with their beauty and precision, but also in other passages break one’s heart when faced with the crushing depth of a character’s pain.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Book Review: "Shift" by Hugh Howey

Shift (2013)
Hugh Howey (1975)

603 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the second book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the first book, Wool.  So, if you haven't read that first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review here.]

In Wool (reviewed here), Hugh Howey introduced us to a world of silos, deep underground structures home to thousands of people living beneath a poisonous surface. The story in Wool takes place during a critical couple of weeks in the life of a silo, as the elite of the existing order struggle against a revolution from below. The novel provides some hints at how this strange, future world came about, but we readers only come to know what the characters themselves can ferret out from the well-hidden information they discover, and we are constrained too in our understanding by the characters own biases based on their limited view of the world they grew up in. Shift, the second novel in the series, serves as a prequel to Wool, describing the origin history of this future world.

(If you have not yet read Wool, then you may want to skip the rest of this review until you have; I try to keep any of my reviews from containing significant spoilers, but it is not possible to review Shift without giving away some information that is only revealed well into the telling of Wool. Even my opening paragraph above reveals a subtle piece of information that many of the characters in the story only discover well into the action.)  

Shift tells the founding story of the world of silos. Spanning several centuries, the action begins just thirty-five years or so in our future, concluding at roughly the same point as Wool, though from a new point of view. In Shift, Howey describes all too plausible global dangers and political machinations during the middle of our current century that lead to the construction and operation of the silos. By transforming relatively minor extrapolations of current technology into deadly weapons, evil forces in the world threaten to destroy humanity even as powerful leaders aware of the danger struggle to put in place their solution to it. Once the silos have been built and populated, the remainder of the story takes place over the succeeding centuries, as the law of unintended consequences frustrates the careful planning, and many checks and balances, that the “founders” built into their system.

Whereas Wool reads as an adventure story of revolution and discovery set in a far, if dystopian, future, Shift adds to the mix a nightmarish reality of how the silos come about that feels too probable not to leave a reader scared for the future of our real world.

Like Wool, Shift was originally written as a set of e-books which have been combined here into a single print edition titled The Shift Omnibus. The approach Howey uses is similar in both novels: in each of three sections (originally released as separate e-books), the action is divided into very short chapters which alternate between two frames of reference, the two paths eventually coming together as the action in the section plays out. And, as in the earlier novel, this technique and Howey’s writing style in general give the story an urgency and ‘cliff-hanger’ feeling that make it hard to set the book down.

A quote from my review of Wool applies equally to this prequel: “Whatever you do, don’t read Hugh Howey’s novel Wool --- unless you are prepared to drop everything else you are doing and stiff-arm any interruptions. Once you have entered into his dystopian view of earth’s future, you won’t want to set the book down until you finish.”

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A third novel, Dust, will apparently be appearing soon.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Book Review: "The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War (1974)  

Joe Haldeman (1943)

266 pages

What are the consequences of a militarized world prone to a policy of ‘shoot first and ask questions later,’ both for the soldiers who most leave home to fight and for the societies they leave behind? In the novel The Forever War, couched in the techniques and devices of science fiction, author Joe Haldeman provides his reflections on this question. Written in 1974, the story opens in 1996, which would seem to date it for a modern reader; however it serves Haldeman’s purpose perfectly: as the Vietnam veteran explains in the Author’s Note to the edition published in 2008, he wanted the story set in a time when military (and to some extent political) leaders would still be products of the Vietnam War. This choice of starting points turns out not to be a distraction, even for a reader in 2013, and is at any rate quickly left behind by the rapid progression of time in the story.

As the novel opens, a group of draftee soldiers struggle though basic training on Earth. Soon enough, however, they ship out for further training on a planet far outside Pluto’s orbit. It turns out that portals in space have been discovered that allow ships to jump instantaneously to distant points in the galaxy. This has led to shiploads of colonists traveling out to earth-like planets around far-away stars; when one such ship ends up destroyed, political and military leaders quickly put the Earth on a war footing. A planet-wide military command is created, and the best and brightest among all nations are drafted into a fighting force to counter an alien race known as the Taurans.

Through the eyes of the main character, William Mandella, we get an intimate view of this war of the future. Though the technology may be new, and the locations exotic, Mandella experiences the personal and organizational confusion of being a foot soldier in a conflict that he feels little direct stake in. The disorder and contradictions arise even before the first battle: though they have trained on a planet that has the near absolute zero temperatures the military leadership expected to encounter in the war, the new soldiers’ first engagement is on a jungle planet, against an enemy that no one can even tell them the shape or look of. That the confusion of the battle scenes and the camaraderie between the fellow soldiers feels so convincing would seem to reflect the experience Haldeman brings to the story from his time fighting in Vietnam.

The novel’s title comes from the time dilation the soldiers experience as they travel at near light-speeds across the galaxy from one battle to the next. The story spans a little over a thousand years of Earth-time, though Mandella ages only about a decade during that period, participating in only a handful of battles. When his first two-year period of military service ends, he heads back to Earth, on which thirty years have past. Once back, however, Mandella and his fellow returnees struggle to re-integrate into a society that has changed dramatically during their absence. He and many of his former colleagues soon end up back in the service, returning to the one home where they feel, if not exactly happy, at least a part of something they understand. As his time in the war continues, Mandella’s degree of separation with society back on Earth only widens, eventually impacting even his military life and relationships, though he himself remains far from Earth.

Haldeman’s style and some of his themes reminded me a bit of the science fiction stories by Robert Sheckley, in Store of the Worlds (reviewed here), particularly Sheckley’s depiction in Morning After of an economic system on a future Earth in which there are not enough jobs for everyone; and his description in If the Red Slayer of the life of a soldier in a future war, in which the wounded are able to be repaired no matter what their injury, and are then sent back into battle. As does Sheckley, Haldeman wraps his story in a science fiction structure, but at its heart this is a tale of the chaos and confusion of war, and its impact on both the soldiers who go off to fight, and the society on the home front built around its demands. As but one small example, Haldeman’s imagined solution to the issue of men and women serving together in the military will certainly surprise many readers.

The Forever War stands as a rousing novel of science fiction, with a fascinating imagination of our future. At the same time it provides social commentary relevant even today, forty years after it was written.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION