Sunday, February 05, 2006

Neuromancer

I've been trying to decide what I wanted to write about the last book I read for a while now. It's been quite a while since I read a book that I truly did not like. Sure, I've read quite a few that I found to be "good but not great" or "just ok," but Neuromancer by William Gibson is the first book in a while that I really did not like. It is one of the few I have read recently that I would never recommend.

I realize that a good number of people have praised the book for starting the cyberpunk trend, and perhaps they like it almost solely for that reason. However looking at it from 2006, I am completely disappointed based on all the praise it has received. The book does not even come close to any of the great science fiction writers, such as Dick, Asimov, or even some lesser authors. Perhaps, I have just come to expect too much from science fiction writers.

My first gripe with the book is characters. Gibson completely failed at making me even the least bit interested in any of the characters. Case, the main character, is only marginally interesting, but somehow being a drug addict is supposed to make him edgy and interesting. Gibson put too much into the addict side of Case and not enough into what Case actually did. There was more description of Case obtaining drugs ONE TIME than of him actually "working" throughout the whole book. It's almost like Gibson never decided what Case was actually doing. Actually, that brings me to my second problem with the book.

The book never takes any time to actually relate what the new technology did. I understand that science fiction is about imagination, but the author has to give the reader something to work with. Gibson only gives us names and some very basic descriptions of the lesser technologies. We never once have an explanation of any sort of how Case works in the matrix. We do get a few glimpses at how technology has changed, but other authors have done a much better job at giving the reader an actually glimpse into the future. With Neuromancer I was never sure just how much society had advanced. At one point it seemed almost identical to our current time with a few neat gadgets, but later it seemed as though every thing was different. It's like half way through we went from 100 years in the future to nearly a thousand.

Finally, the biggest flaw is the pacing and explanation of the plot. The only time the plot actually flows and seems to be revealed at all is in the last 50 pages, which leaves you with 200 pages of incoherence. Perhaps even worse is that I never once felt like I was actually absorbed in the story. A good author makes the reader at least curious about what will happen, but I never once felt any motivation to read the book except to get it finished. In other words, it was my completionist mentality rather than curiosity that got me through the book.

With all the negativity aside, I will read another Gibson book. I have heard that Count Zero is much better, so I will give Gibson another shot. I hope that Neuromancer was merely Gibson getting comfortable. I also hope it does not seem like I absolutely hate the book. I have read worse books, but my disappointment is just so great that I'm quite frustrated. I suppose the acclaim the book received was due to the new sub-genre it created, not its excellence.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Confusion

I read Quicksilver over a year and a half ago, and I was terribly disappointed. Cryptonomicon still remains in my mind as one of the best adventure stories I have read, so my expectations were very, very high. However, where Cryptonomicon was funny, exhilarating, and geeky, Quicksilver only managed to set up some characters and explain science that is anything but obscure. I actually put off reading The Confusion by Neal Stephenson because I feared I would only be further disappointed. Again, I couldn't have been more wrong.

While The Confusion does not in anyway reach the level of Cryptonomicon, it does go in the right direction. I'm not a huge fan of the characters, Jack and Eliza, that it focuses on, so it did take me a bit of time to ease into the book. Stephenson did a fine job of making me appreciate the "tough guys" in the story even though I would have rather been reading about happenings in the Royal Society. Perhaps, that is actually what helped The Confusion. The Royal Society and its science may be just a bit too far on the common knowledge side. The book still manages to cram in obscure facts, which the first was somewhat lacking.

That's not to say the book does not have some glaring issues. Pacing is one of them. Some complained that Cryptonomicon was poorly paced, but I found that it had reached an almost perfect balance when it came to how long one character was focused on. So, it's not Stephenson's typical style that bothers me. The problem here is he missed the mark when deciding how much time each situation deserved. Ultimately, towards the end it all felt rushed where the rest felt milked for all it was worth. Of course, Stephenson seems to like letting the reader fill in more gaps toward the end than anywhere else. Even Cryptonomicon felt the effect.

Past the pacing, the book shines with an intricate plot. Stephenson is back to a massive gold hunt, much like Cryptonomicon. I love the idea of searching for the legendary gold of Solomon, especially in a setting that is less focused on esoteric religions. It seems every time a subject regarding ancient artifacts is addressed in literature there has to be some cult involved or even the occult. Stephenson simply plays off the thinking of the time. When society began moving toward the mentality that everything must be proved through experimentation, it was only logical that religion be given the same test, so a search for an essence of God in biblical artifacts is not so much of a stretch.

Now, I fear I have compared The Confusion to Cryptonomicon too much, but that is simply because Cryptonomicon is what turned me on to Stephenson. I want to relive just how much I loved reading that book. I fear I may remember the book being better than it is, but The Confusion erases most of that doubt from my mind. I can truly see the potential here for so much, so I will definitely finish up The Baroque Cycle eventually, especially with the promise of our two heroes battling each other. What could possibly be better?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sophie's World

I've always had a bit of an interest in philosophy and have done some studying along those lines, so it's no surprise that I was intrigued by Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. The basic premise is a quick overview of philosophy as it would be conveyed to a young girl. The obvious result is easy to understand examples to go along with each philosopher.

The easiest problem for such a set up is making the dialogue read much like a textbook, which it does. The dialogue has brief interruptions for what I suppose are intended to be witty comments by the main character. However, the comments are neither insightful nor very humorous and are typically completely ignored by the teacher. My guess is these comments were written only after all the actual meat of the teaching was written with the intention of providing a place for the reader to breathe.

If this was the whole book, I would have put it down before finishing, but half way through the book takes a more agreeable turn. The philosophy Sophie, the main character, learns is finally put to some practical application. While the application was at the least a stretch, it gave me some incentive to read on. I don't suppose I can't say much about how without completely ruining the premise of the second half of the book.

Toward the end it began to seem as though the author found himself to be incredibly clever, when in fact he was just scraping by as far as I was concerned. Perhaps I'm reading too much between the lines, especially considering the book's intention, but I can't help but be a bit put off. I think the author does a good job at conveying philosophy in a more interesting way, but I don't feel it met my own expectations. The author had an even greater opportunity to capitalize on a good premise. The book is worth a read for anyone interested in a brief overview of philosophy without going through several sources.

Also, I'd just like to say how incredibly surprised I am that I haven't taken the time to update this in so long. I've been reading, but I just haven't gotten around to taking the time to update here. I plan to change that soon.


Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Simulacra

Ok, I just finished up my second Philip K. Dick novel, The Simulacra. I of course started off with his most famous novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and was reasonably impressed. While The Simulacra does share some similarities in the style and also Dick's way of making you wonder what's real and what isn't, but it is also completely different in what seems to be the reason it was written.

The Simulacra could easily be classified as a dystopian novel. We are presented with level upon level of government corruption, and we aren't even sure if every level has been revealed until the end. The control of the government is revealed slowly in a series of roughly five plot lines that are all interconnected but also seemingly unrelated at first. The setting is a world in which psychoanalysts have been outlawed and the society has been divided into two different classes. Every person fits into either the upper or the lower based on whether or not they know the upper class secret. However, the government corruption wasn't the most significant thing to me.

What I found to be the chief message of the book involved discrimination. I suppose more precisely racism, but I think it can be applied to any group. The book was written during the sixties and makes several statements that could easily be missed that suggest the black community has moved into a place of superiority, mainly financial but it can only be assumed that political power came with it. I thought that it was just Dick's way of incorporating the time period until I came to the end of the book. One statement at the end regarding a group outcast by society seemed to imply that Dick really did have that very theme in mind when he wrote the book. I actually think it makes the book a bit more powerful when viewed from that perspective because it makes the book than just another paranoid fiction books. I suppose you could draw any number of themes from the book, but what I got was the idea that groups put down by society will eventually rise above when the time is right.

Overall though, the book wasn't great, but it was far from bad. Again, it's another short read, so I don't see a reason why you shouldn't at least give it a go. However, the plot isn't the most cohesive, and the characters definitely aren't the most lovable. It is definitely marked by Dick's way of making you wonder about the behavior of a character at the end. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I think after a couple novels it would become almost annoying.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Merchant of Venice

Oh yes, it's Shakespeare time. Admittedly, I have very little experience with Shakespeare's work to the point where this is only the second play of his that I have read. The first was Romeo and Juliet which I wasn't very fond of, but The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare has fascinated me a bit more.

The play does have a few unsettling parts, such as the rampant anti-Semitism. I guess it is all a matter of understanding the time during which the play was written. I have seen some write off the mistreatment of the Jewish Shylock as an attempt by Shakespeare to in some way make Shylock a hero. However, I'm not sure I can quite buy into this. I can, however, accept it as part of the time period because no society has been without its flaws.

I'm not quite sure why the play grabbed such a hold of me, but the whole love story was far superior to Romeo and Juliet. I guess it is first necessary to see that the greatest love found in the play is between two friends. Both are willing to do anything for the other, no matter the cost. That type of friendship has always been something I can't overlook, so I suppose it played a part in my enjoyment of the play. Shakespeare's wordplay was also quite entertaining and easily perceived. The play is ripe with allusions, another thing I love. Allusions always show that the writer put more time into the work, which I can appreciate.

Actually, I think that is what I like the most about the work. The care that went into it. I would challenge anyone to write something as well crafted as a play like this. While we might not all agree on how enjoyable the work is, I think we can agree that the poetry and references show a good bit of skill. I always find that I'm a sucker for writers that use cultural references and carefully craft their wording. Maybe I've just been suckered again.

I'll definitely pick up some more Shakespeare after The Merchant, but maybe not for a while. Although I did enjoy it and it didn't take long to finish, reading multiple Shakespeare plays in a row can't be good for your sanity. I think I'll just take my doses of Shakespeare in moderation for now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

Ok, I just wrapped up The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. I had absolutely no clue what the book was about when I started except for the blurb on the back, but a friend highly recommended it. The book reads as I expect a book published in 1908 to, which is in what I consider the typical style for a book from the early twentieth century. I actually quite enjoy the style for an adventuresome novel because it reminds me of other classic adventures. So, it started out with a plus from me for reminding me of books I read long, long ago, but the whole book takes a twist near the end.

The book is admittedly quite short, so you really don't have to worry about wasting too much time on it. The story starts out with a member of Scotland Yard planting himself in the core of an anarchists group as a spy. Unfortunately, I really can't tell you much more because it would ruin some of the excitement. I can tell you the style in which it plays out though. The book moves very quickly covering only a few days, but the pace was quick enough that I didn't even notice how far along in the book I was until I picked it back up after a night of reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the spy escapades that take place all the way through the first hundred pages or so, but after that the book got a bit strange.

Let me just say that I had figured out the twist behind the characters very early on, but I did not even begin to expect the reason behind them. I don't think anyone could expect what comes at the end because it is so surreal when compared to the rest of the story. The reason is quite simply to get the author's point across, which was to poke fun at the sort of pessimism of his time by emulating it through his ending. That may sound like a spoiler, but it truly tells you nothing until you have finished the work and start to think about all the possibilities. I think it is safe to conclude that the book is somewhat religious in theme, but that only serves to enhance other parts of the story. While I do like both sections of the book, I must say that they read as almost two completely separate stories. I was left asking myself if this was even the same writer at times, but I still have to recommend the book.

I can't recommend it quite as highly as it was recommended to me, but it definitely falls into my good book category. It is most definitely above average, and I would place it above most modern spy stories simply for its writing. It's a quick read, so I don't see any reason to avoid it. However, it may evoke some thinking afterwards (not as much as other books, but still some), so be prepared.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Harry Potter

With the newest Harry Potter book now on the shelves, I feel inclined to write down my thoughts about the series. I have only read one of the books so far, and that was not too long ago. Honestly, compared to some of the books I read when I fit the target age of the Potter books, this book was gold. I'm not quite sure exactly how to describe the book, but it definitely felt like many of the classic children's books out there. I suppose that shouldn't have really surprised me with all the kids hitting the bookstores at midnight to get their copy of a 650+ paged book, which seems almost mind boggling.

I have heard some people complain that there are other books that kids should be reading instead, but I look at Potter as a way to get kids to read other books too. I expect that many kids out there would be interested in finding other books that they enjoy just as much as Rowling's series. Most of the time it seems that the people making these claims either haven't read the books or are upset that their favorite children's book isn't being slobbered all over. Having read one of the books now, I would much rather see a kid reading Harry Potter than some of the utter crap out there among children's literature.

For a while, it seems like publishers and authors took one of two routes. Either they figured kids didn't care what they read as long as it had certain elements, or they underestimated the mental capacity of chilrden. I still have some books like that from when I was a kid (yeah, I'm a pack rat when it comes to books), and even when I originally read them, I thought they were, quite simply, weak. Sure there's nice little chracters with a cohesive little plot, but if you've read one of those books, you've read them all. I only wish more books like Potter existed when I was younger. I was always an avid reader, but near the end of my children's book phase I read fewer and fewer books until about seventh grade. It really is sad that I remember my reading history so clearly. Also, I think it is great that the books are aging with the audience that was first entranced by Harry. Each book covers the next year of life in the school.

I'm sure some kids don't like the books for various reasons, but I don't see any reason to discourage a child from reading the series. I realize some religious groups do not want their children reading the books, but the first book of the series clearly outlines each and every character as good or bad with emphasis on the necessity of good fighting evil. If that isn't something worth teaching our kids, I don't know what is. As for adults interested in the books, the first one is pretty short and shouldn't take more than a night to read, so you might as well give it a go just to see what all the fuss is about. If you're taking a stab at any of the other books (2-6), I haven't read them yet, so you'll just have to take a dive.