Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book Review: "Inverted World" by Christopher Priest

Inverted World (1974)  

Christopher Priest (1943)

322 pages

In the science fiction novel Inverted World by Christopher Priest, a city is gradually, moved across the landscape by its residents as they strive to keep it near a point referred to as the “optimum.” For the people of the city, the meaning of the optimum has been lost over many generations, and some are only dimly aware that it even exists or that the city must continue to stay close to its location. The responsibility for the critical task of moving the city onward falls to the members of a system of guilds.

A deeply secretive organization, the origins and even day-to-day function of the half-dozen or so guilds remain as hazy to the rest of the city’s residents as does the understanding of the optimum itself. Like the optimum, the guilds’ origins are shrouded in mystery, having been established in the city’s distant past. To ensure that the focus remains on the all important goal of keeping the city close to the optimum, the guilds have developed into a deeply entrenched political and social structure, responsible both for moving the city and for governing it.

As the novel opens the main character in the story, Helward Mann, comes of age and enters into an apprenticeship that will prepare him for a position in the same guild as his father. He begins this new phase of his life with a basic education, but only a most limited understanding of what the guilds do. The guildsmen perform most of their work outside the city, and only guildsmen are allowed out of the city, so the other residents remain largely unaware of what they do.

Helward must work through a series of assignments in each of the guilds before becoming a full-fledged guildsman. Once he takes up his work as an apprentice, he begins to slowly learn about and understand the reality of the city’s precarious existence, as well as the role of the guilds and the reasoning behind their seemingly dogmatic rules. As have apprentices for generations before him, he must experience first-hand the situation outside the city walls, in order to fully grasp the importance of the guild’s work.

Throughout his process of learning, however, he constantly struggles to square the preconceived notions he has carried over from his education and his life constrained within the city with the surprising reality he finds on the outside. What he cannot know as he works through his questions and doubts about the almost incomprehensible world he has been exposed to is that the future of the city is about to change in ways that will shake the foundations of all he has learned.

Built around the simple, single focus of the relentless need for the city to move forward, Priest has constructed in Inverted World an exciting story of adventure and discovery for Helward and for us the reader. With Helward as our narrator we develop our understanding about the strange world of this novel as he does, and we are limited as he is by the ways in which his preconceived notions and expectations color what he sees and experiences. Fascinating too is the social structure that Priest creates in the novel, and watching Helward deepen his understanding of it and of his place in it, his eyes finally opened by the broader base of knowledge he has as part of the guild system.

Our only advantage over Helward are the occasional facts that he mentions, but takes for granted, and that seem like they must be typo’s or mistakes by the author; but even these only leave us as readers in little better position than our narrator, uncertain whether to believe appearances. And when the whole becomes clear toward the end of the story, it comes as almost as startling a revelation for us as it does for Helward.

Other reviews / information: This is yet another wonderful book I have discovered through the series published by the New York Review Books (NYRB), which has searched out and re-published excellent fiction and non-fiction that had somehow slipped out of circulation.

The book includes an Afterword by John Clute that puts Priest’s novel in the context of his life and other work.

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 Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Friday, October 25, 2013

Book Review: "Children of the Days" by Eduardo Galeano

Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2013) 

Eduardo Galeano (1940)

Translated by Mark Fried

 423 pages

When we look back over the broad sweep of history, we can easily be left with the impression of a fast moving river: some occasional surface features --- an important general here or a prominent king there --- but mostly it’s wide and deep, with individuals lost in the jumbled flow of humanity. How different from the very recent history we have actually lived, in which particular people, beyond just the famous and powerful, stand out for us as we follow the daily news of the world. It may not be many, but we come to know about people who fight for what they feel is right and just often against losing odds, others who seem blind to the irrationality of their behavior, and generally a whole assortment of characters from the wonderful to the odd. Surely there were also such people in the past, people who were not presidents or generals or leaders of powerful movements, but who stood out in some way, positively or negatively, if only for a brief moment in time?

In his book Children of the Days, Eduardo Galeano introduces us to some of these people, pulling from our collective history, traveling from the earliest days of human existence in Africa to the first moon landing. Written as a series of calendar entries, from 1 January through to 31 December, Galeano captures a brief recollection of a person or event, writing sometimes just a few lines, never more than a page. Many of the entries are tied to the day under which they appear, though not all. Occasionally a few entries form a sequence of related history or context over two or sometimes three days, but for the most part these sketches are independent, one from the next, jumping far and wide in time and geographical location.

Focusing generally on the less famous, those lost to the dark corners of history, Galeano recalls the courageous and brave, who stood up and fought back against injustice and inequality, and too the nefarious and conniving, who deceived and exploited the gullible or powerless.

So, for the example the story of Juana Manso, who in the 1800’s worked to expand the reach of education in Argentina and Uruguay:
June 30
Today in 1819 Juana Manso was baptized in Buenos Aires.
The holy waters were to set her on the path to meekness, but Juana Manso was never meek.
Bucking wind and tide she founded secular schools in Argentina and Uruguay where girls and boys studied together, religion was not a required course and corporal punishment was banned.
She wrote the first textbook on Argentine history plus several other works, among them a novel that derided the hypocrisy of married life.
She founded the first public library in the country’s interior.
She got divorced when divorce did not exist.
The Buenos Aires papers took great pleasure in mocking her.
When she died, the Church refused her a tomb.

Or, in the following century, a man who dedicated his life instead to intentionally miseducating the public:
April 2
In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would enter World War I.
Four and a half years earlier, Wilson had been elected as the peace candidate.
Public opinion embraced with the same enthusiasm his pacifist speeches and his declaration of war.
Edward Bernays was the principal author of this miracle.
When the war was over, Bernays acknowledged that he had used doctored photographs and made-up anecdotes to spark pro-war sentiment.
This public relations success kicked off a brilliant career.
Bernays went on to advise several presidents and the world’s most powerful businessmen.
Reality is not what it is; it’s what I tell you it is. We can thank him, more than anyone else, for the modern techniques of mass manipulation that can convince people to by anything from a brand of soap to a war.

And the entries are not always tied to a specific person; witness the one for 12th April, which highlights the apparently timeless ability of people to rationalize their behavior in ways that seem blatantly contradictory to their own professed philosophies:
April 12
On a day like today in the year 33 --- a day earlier, a day later --- Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross.
His judges had found him guilty of “inciting idolatry, blasphemy and abominable superstition.”
Not many centuries later, the Indians of the Americas and the heretics of Europe were found guilty of those same crimes --- exactly the same ones --- and in the name of Jesus of Nazareth they were punished by lash, gallows, or fire.

The 365 histories in the book vary from what may be only apocryphal stories to factual and documented histories, but the absolute truth is hardly the point here. In these wonderfully captured sketches Galeano reminds us of the depth and variety of humanity, and the on-going struggle for what is right and good that people have fought and won, and lost, and won again --- or sometimes not --- throughout history.

Other reviews / information:

Galeano follows a similar style, if not tied to days and more chronologically sequential, in his three volume Memory of Fire series on the discovery and development of Latin America, of which I have so far read the first book, Genesis.

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 Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Review: "Robopocalypse" by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse (2011)  

Daniel H. Wilson (1978)

397 pages

After watching a horror movie does your imagination go into overdrive? Do you find yourself spooked and jumpy when in a dark room or looking out the window into the dark night, certain something’s there, and repeating to yourself, unconvincingly, that ‘there is nothing there in the dark that’s not there in the light’? If so, you’ll want to be careful reading Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson: you may find yourself tossing your home computer out with the trash, and ripping the microprocessors out of any “smart” appliances in your house.

The title gets right to the heart of the story, an world-wide battle between humans and robots. The story opens with the war already over, humans having defeated the robots after several years of unimaginably destructive fighting. From this starting point, Wilson returns us to a year or so before the apocalypse occurs, when a scientist at a research facility creates an artificial intelligence named Archos that manages to escape the tight controls of the lab. Once out onto the web, Archos begins carefully preparing his (its?) attack, infiltrating intelligent systems that have, in this near-future world, penetrated most areas of society. All cars have been mandated to be “smart” vehicles that can communicate with one another to increase passenger safety, and humanoid and non-humanoid robots have been designed and produced that have become ubiquitous in homes and work places to simplify our lives. When Archos reprograms these machines with evil intent, and then unleashes them on their former masters, people find themselves ill prepared to fight back.

The novel is split into five sections, covering first the lead up to the robot attack, then the moment they launch their attack, the initial human struggle for survival, the galvanizing of a human resistance and finally the fight to regain control of the world from the robots. Wilson divides each section into a set of what could best be called ‘dispatches’ --- brief 5-20 page chapters, each covering a particular moment or incident in this ‘history’ of the robot apocalypse. These dispatches are centered around 5 or 6 groups of people, in different parts of the world, who gradually coalesce into a loosely connected movement that turns the tide in the war.

Wilson’s technique takes some getting used to for a reader. It’s a bit like summarizing three seasons worth of episodes of a TV show (thing Lost, for example) by taking a key ten minute clip from each show: if you pick the right ten minute segments, the story could still be complete, but it would lose a lot of character development and smoothness. Exactly that occurs here, as we never spend enough time with any of the characters, even the narrator, to build up a connection to them, to care much about them.

But the story is an entertaining ride, not unlike a roller coaster with lots of dips, rolls and twists. Wilson, who has a degree in robotics, brings such a realistic feel to the simple yet deadly capabilities of the robots that it will leave you looking sideways at your computer, with its little camera eye staring out at you, and its microphone listening to your every word…

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Book Review: "The Infatuations" by Javier Marías

The Infatuations (2013)  

Javier Marías (1951)

(translated by Margaret Jull Costa) 

346 pages
“…it’s so easy to introduce doubt into someone’s mind.” 
This reflection comes in the final pages of Javier Marías’ novel The Infatuations, but captures a notion that runs through the story: we cannot know the whole truth of an event, and so can easily be swayed to question what we think we know about it. Moreover, each new explanation we receive can often, instead of increasing our understanding, leave us only more uncertain.

The Infatuations takes place in Madrid, where María Dolz works at a publishing firm. María narrates the story, and opens by recalling a couple who she has seen for several years in a café at which she stops each morning before going to work. Despite never having approached or spoken with them, she has developed an attraction to the couple --- finding the husband handsome and the wife pretty, and the two apparently very much in love with one another. At times she sees their kids join them, before the father drives them off to school, and she begins to imagine the couple’s seemingly happy life together. Struggling at work with the various literary oddballs her firm publishes, she finds that these few minutes she vicariously spends with her ‘Perfect Couple’ each morning make her workday more bearable.

At one point the couple don’t show up for a few weeks she quickly begins to miss them, hoping they will come back soon to brighten her mornings. When weeks stretch into months she begins to wonder what has happened, fearing that their lives have taken on a different daily routine or that they have moved elsewhere. What she finally discovers is much more shocking: the husband was killed in a seemingly random act of violence by a street person in one of the better neighborhoods of Madrid. Some months later she sees the wife again at the café, somber and distracted, sitting either alone or sometimes with a male friend who ends up driving her kids off to school. Awkwardly, as they had never spoken before, María approaches the woman one day in the café to introduce herself and offer her condolences, only to learn that the woman and her husband had actually also noticed her, and had had a nickname for her: “The Prudent Young Woman.” What begins as a brief meeting to offer her sympathy ends up involving María in the mystery of the man’s murder; though the truth of the event must exist, she struggles to turn what she learns into a coherent explanation, as she finds herself mixing together her incomplete information with her assumptions about people’s motivations and rationalizations, including her own. We the reader are left in the same position, reliant as we are on María as our narrator.

By not providing us with “the truth,” by allowing us only into the thoughts of one character in the story, Marías leads us into a situation we encounter regularly in our every day lives: striving to make sense of what happens around us without having all the facts, never quite knowing whether we can fully believe what others tell us, wondering about their motivations and our own biases. We know that we ourselves rationalize, that we ourselves block out unpleasant or uncomfortable facts from our own thoughts, so we cannot help but realize that others do this too.

The actual physical action in the story could probably be boiled down into a few dozen pages at most. The real drama here, aside from the slowly revealed back story behind the murder, lies not in the physical action, but in María’s thoughts as she tries to interpret what she sees and hears, to make a plausible story out of it to satisfy her curiosity. For pages at a time we follow her thoughts as she imagines first one logical sequence of events or inner motivation of another character based on what she has heard, and then suddenly adapts it as she sees a new reaction or hears a new explanation. And we readers too cannot help but also interpret what we “hear” and “see” even if it is through María, as we try to divine for ourselves what has happened.

Woven into the plot --- as a kind of bonus that enhances the story and yet can also stand alone --- are Marías’ spot on revelations about our human condition. Some of these startle us to read because though we recognize immediately the fundamental truth, we find that we have never had it so precisely crystallized. Others, more pointedly, confront us with truths that had never occurred to us before, because, we are forced to realize, we have not allowed ourselves the honesty to actually think them consciously. Marías brings this wonderful engagement with his readers’ lives and thoughts to all of his novels that I have read, and it is in part this ability and technique that draws me so strongly to his work.

Take care if read you Marías’ novels: you may suddenly find the fog blown away from your fuzzy rationalizations and hazy motivations, and encounter realizations that challenge your thoughts and beliefs.

Read quotes from this and other books by Javier Marías

Other reviews / information:

Other works I have read by Marías, though I read all but one before I began this blog of reviews:
  • While the Women are Sleeping: A collection of short stories.
  • When I was Mortal: A collection of short stories.
  • A Heart so White: A novel of a man who upon getting married reconsiders his past.
  • Dark Back of Time: A novel written as a kind of imagined biography; a study of human nature that will pull you in deeply and force you to consider ideas and fears you had tried to leave buried in your subconscious. 
 You can find quotes from these works here.

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