Lord of Light

A couple weeks ago I reread Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, a favorite novel from my memory of 1967 by listening to the new audio book edition from Audible Frontiers.  For days afterward, I hammered out an ever wordier review that I never could finish because what I kept striving to say became ever more complex and out of my grasp.  So welcome to try number two.

Here’s my problem.  Forty-one years ago I read Lord of Light and thought it deserved its book of the year, 1968 Hugo Award, that made Zelazny, as well as Samuel R. Delany, the new comets streaking across the science fictional sky.  Lord of Light took a traditional idea of colonizing a new world and jazzed it up by blending in Hindu mythology.  It was colorful, had lots of vivid scenes, and Zelazny deserved high praise for trying to do something new and break out of John W. Campbell’s vision of space opera.

Fast forward to our future and I read Lord of Light again.  It’s not the same book – well, I’m not the same reader, so the exact same book came out different this time.  In the 1960s, New Wave science fiction felt sophisticated compared to 1930s and 1940s classic science fiction, but looking back now, Lord of Light seems primitive and crude, like The Skylark of Space felt when I read it around the same time I read Lord of Light the first time.  Lord of Light is still clever and somewhat vivid, but now I feel like Zelazny didn’t spend enough time developing his ambitious fantasy.

The idea of tech savvy first colonists setting themselves up as gods and enslaving their descendants in a pre-tech world is a far out concept, although I don’t know what Freud would have done with the idea.  The idea is so anti-science fictional that’s it’s amazing to think that it won the Hugo that year, now that I’m looking backwards.

The trouble with this contrived plot is it has no philosophical weight, a quality that makes science fiction novels have lasting power.  That, and the fact that the characterization is so minimal that it has zero emotional impact.  There are people that still love this story, but I’m not one of them.  So, do I savage a classic novel of my beloved genre, or do I promote it as a worthy read for historical purposes?  In my first attempt to review this story I struggled to find all it’s positive aspects and compare them to great SF/F that’s been written since then.  But the more I work to find comparisons, the more I realized that the field of writing has evolved, even for the lowly science fiction genre, leaving Lord of Light shipwrecked in the past.

I’m currently reading The Little Book by Selden Edwards, a literary time travel novel that is so well written, so imaginative, so deep in characterization that it makes the once dazzling Lord of Light fizzle.  I also listened to Heinlein’s 1951 Starman Jones just after Lord of Light and it still shines.  Why?  Heinlein had great science fictional ideas, but he also had characterization and good page turning plotting, at least in the 1950s.  Lord of Light would make a great comic book – it has colorful scenes, super heroes and the depth of characterization that matches the average DC or Marvel comic.

I know my science fiction friends think I love to make inflammatory statements like the one I’m about to make, but I don’t.  Writers outside of the science fiction and fantasy genre are taking science fictional concepts and writing much better stories than the guys inside of the genre.  Look how Michael Chabon swept our awards this year.  Read The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Life of Pi, Never Let Me Go, The Sparrow, His Dark Materials, Cloud Atlas, and other outsider novels that build their stories around our fantastic themes.

Part of Zelazny’s failure is he wrote for a genre where he had to hammer out the books.  If he had worked on Lord of Light with the same time and applied study as J. R. R. Tolkien did for his books, Lord of Light would be a fantastic SF classic.  Instead it’s basically a foundation for a great SF novel. The forty-one years since 1967 has up the ante on what it takes to write a stand-out SF novel.  If a young new writer took Zelazny’s idea and made it into a genuine statement about reality, space exploration and added real characterization she would be a new comet blazing across our science fiction skies.

To understand what I mean, read Lord of Light and imagine how it would be filmed.  It might have much of the feel of the recent Transformers, Ironman and Hellboy movies.  That’s okay if all you want is an ephemeral summer blockbuster that will seem silly in forty years.  I just finished reading Edith Wharton’s An Age of Innocence (1920) and I’m now reading The House of Mirth (1905), and these books have lasting power.  To last, you have to have something to say, not preaching like later Heinlein, but careful observations about our reality.  Wharton is brilliant at observing communication between men and women. 

All Zelazny did was take ancient super heroes, now called Hindu gods, and created a science fictional setting to justify their returned existence, which essentially is what every super hero comic does.  They are flashy action myths that offer no hidden parables.  We assume Sam is the good guy and the gods of this planet’s heaven are the bad guys, but that was never justified by skillful writing.  Lord of Light was written just as the the 1960s was about to peak in its social transformations, and Zelazny fails to even try to tie it in – what a wasted opportunity.

Now imagine writing a philosophical novel that realistically tries to capture what it’s like to become godlike.  Let’s say in the future we have access to virtual worlds where artificial beings dwell, but we don’t want them to know about our world.  This has all kinds of philosophical possibilities.  Then imagine using such a setup for first person shooter wars.  How limp would that be?  That’s sort of what Zelazny did.

Zelazny faintly hints at greater possibilities in wayward places within Lord of Light, but his plot is so thin about overthrowing heaven that we never feel that that it goes beyond setting up battle scenes.

I wish I could write fiction.  This is an exciting time to be a writer.  Writing techniques have evolved to dizzy heights of sophistication.  Yes, I urge you to listen to the new edition of Lord of Light to see why 1967 science fiction was so exciting then, but don’t accept it as a great novel, instead imagine how to retool it with modern writing technology.

I think science fiction has been coasting for years, with the exciting new Turks coming from outside of the field.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s lot of sense of wonder left in science fiction, at least I hope there is, but the genre tends to be a record label repacking old hits rather than putting time and money into finding new forms of music.  I don’t read many new novels from within the genre any more, but I still try to read a certain number of novellas, novelettes and short stories from the best-of anthologies every year. 

There’s no lack of far out ideas.  What’s needed is a New Wave of story telling techniques.  In this decade, the new Zelaznys and Delanys are coming from outside of the genre, so SF isn’t getting the credit.  To the larger outside world, only a tiny handful of true SF novels have caught the attention of their bigger pond.  The most famous is Ender’s Game.  Novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash are on the distant radar of a few non-science fiction readers, but for the most part, the world of science fiction is as isolated as the star writers known to MFA majors.

The place to be are those tables in bookstores, near the front door, that display the trade paperbacks of titles that stay on them for months, if not years – the books that all the hardcore bookworms read.  The ones that get produced as audio books, studied by book clubs and made into movies.  These are the books that surf the cresting wave of popular literature.  SF and fantasy books are seldom seen on these tables, and that’s because the SF/F/H genre writers aren’t using the latest writing techniques to tell their stories.

It’s not about literary quality, not in the academic sense.  It’s why books like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series are stacked on floor all around these tables.  I know my science fiction fans think I keep bashing the genre, but I’m trying to be helpful.  Twilight succeeds where other fantasy books fail because most genre books are tone deaf to emotion and characterization.  Lord of Light will never be a classic outside of it’s tiny puddle because it measures almost absolute zip at expressing emotion warmth, and barely climbs to the level of one-dimension for its characters.

I’m not trying to be nasty here, but I know it sounds like it. If you’ve never read any good novels, and spent your life reading within the science fiction genre, then Lord of Light will feel brilliant.  Compared to E. E. Doc Smith, Edmund Hamilton and most of the other SF up to the 1960s, it is.  In terms of storytelling plotting, it doesn’t even get up to average Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novel.  Where Lord of Light shines is fantastic ideas.  Science fiction is a literature of fantastic ideas.  What I want to see are SF novels that mix great ideas with good story telling.  Can you imagine the success of SF if science fictional ideas could be conveyed with the storytelling techniques of J. K. Rowling?

Jim

iPod touch eReader eBook

I just bought an iPod touch 8gb for $199 refurbished at the Apple Store.  I’ve been wanting a carry around Internet device and the iPod touch is very elegant.  It took nothing to set up – just typed in my Wi-Fi code and I was connected.  I immediately upgraded it to the new 2.0 software so I could have the Exchange client.  That also worked smoothly.

And I’ve already gotten my first App, the eReader, which lets me read ebooks on the iPod touch.  The eReader allowed me to log into my Fictionwise.com account and access my Bookshelf there.  That’s the great thing about Fictionwise, it remembers your purchases and will let you download any book again, even in a new format.  I’ve had ebooks I bought from Fictionwise on a eBookwise 1150, Kindle and now the iPod touch.

The eReader on the iPod touch offers crystal clear type, but small, so it’s not as comfortable to read on as the Kindle.  However, after buying the Kindle I discovered I’m not much of a book reader any more, and that I’m really an audio bookworm instead.  It’s extremely easy from within the eReader program to jump to sites like Manybooks.net, to find free or commercial ebooks.  eReader has it’s own URL entry box to take you to places that provides PDB formatted books.

From inspiration to reading, it only took me about a minute to find and download “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton.  That’s the next audio book I plan to listen to, so I thought it might be fun to read it while I listen to it.

Even though I’m primarily an audio book person, it will still be nice to have visual books on the iPod touch for times when I’m at loose ends somewhere away from home and want to read, but that brings up the next issue.

Carrying Around the Internet

The advent of smart phones inspired me to want a way to carry around the Internet for 24×7 instant access to information, but I never could stomach the idea of paying their large monthly bills.  I’m currently on a  pay-as-you-go plan with T-Mobile and I add $50 worth of minutes about every 4-5 months.  It’s wonderful not having a cell phone bill.  When small mobile Wi-Fi Internet devices showed up on the market, I thought they were a good compromise – not perfect, but pretty good.  So I started researching.  I finally decided on the iPod touch when I saw it for $199 refurbished.  I like it, but I’ve got to learn how to carry it around.

I currently carry a 2nd generation iPod Nano in my shirt pocket.  The iPod touch might be too heavy to put there.  I carry my cell phone in my left front pants pocket, so the iPod touch could go on the right side, but I worry about it getting damaged, so I’m thinking about a small iPhone holster for my belt, but my pants are already overburdened with keys, wallet, phone, change, handkerchief, and sometimes voice recorder, so that I’m constantly hitching them up.  Carrying around another device is going to be annoying.  An iPhone would have been ideal because one device would replace two.

The obvious solution would be to start carrying a purse, but I think a bandolier would be better, although my wife already thinks seeing my white iPod headphones permanently hanging around my neck is nerdy enough.  I wouldn’t be bothered by any statement my carrying a purse would make, but so far I haven’t seen one I really liked.  I’d want something like a small sleek messenger bag made of leather, but if I’m going to start carrying a purse, why not plan to throw a few more items in, like a camera or a Eee PC, which means I’d want a bigger bag.

Also, I haven’t decided if the iPod touch is the perfect portable Internet device.  I can browse the net fairly easy with it, with some sites a lot more readable than others.  The iPod touch provides a convenient way to read and delete old emails, but it’s primary function would be to look up data, like movie times, weather info, or trivia, and listening to audio books.  I’ve wondered if I jumped up in size to the 7″ Eee PC if it wouldn’t make a substantially better carry around Internet device.

You don’t realize how important a keyboard is as a human-machine interface until you hunt and peck on the iPod touch.  The iPod touch certainly does a lot with it’s 3.5 inch 480 x 320 pixels screen.  I think it will take me weeks to truly explore the potential of this device.  Sooner or later I will want broadband access, because I figure in five years everyone will carry around the Internet.  I just don’t know what the device we will carry will look like.

Part 2:  Further Adventures of eReader on the iPod touch

Jim

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is the new YA novel that all my adult lady bookworm friends are reading.  At my office four women have already read it and two have even finished the two sequels, New Moon and Eclipse, and are anxiously awaiting for August 2nd to bring them Breaking Dawn.  I am more than halfway done with Twilight, but I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t be reading it.  This book has a disturbing philosophical motif that isn’t suited for males.  To put it bluntly guys, so far this story comes across as a manifesto against sex and pro all those qualities women wished us men had but most of us don’t.  Is this the beginning of a radical movement?

I feel like a spy reading a classified document meant for her eyes only.  Can women really read our thoughts from looking at our eyes?  Are women’s secret desire to have their true love stay all night in bed with them without trying a damn thing?  Is attention, talk and protection all what women really want from men?  If Twilight is a big time fantasy for girls, then boys, all those porn fantasies you spend every waking moment on, are on such a vastly different wavelength from the object of your desires that I think maybe you ought read Twilight, just to learn what the enemy is thinking while you are picturing them without their clothes.  They are picturing you in clothes.  Nice clothes.  Outfits you don’t take off.

Strangely enough Twilight is about vampires and werewolves, which you’d think would be full of great action and thrilling violence, but no.  These vampires all belong to my sister’s Please and Thank You Club.  Like I said, I haven’t finished with the first book, but so far killing and stakes through the heart are absent.  This is a far cry from Van Helsing, and it’s definitely not Buffy and Spike bringing down a house.

If J. K. Rowling had used a female as her lead character instead of Harry, would the Hermione Granger series have had as many readers, and would the working of the magic unfolded as it did for a male point of view?  Is Stephenie Meyer different, a writer revealing feminine secrets unlike most female writers who play along with male fantasies, or does her explosive success represent a large segment that’s pro chastity?

I have to admit that Meyer’s take on vampirism is quite cool, if intellectual, but I’ve got to wonder if it’s just one giant metaphor for male desire, where Meyer ties lust and sex to violence and death.  Edward Cullen becomes the ultimate beautiful male that must control his instinct to kill, which for the average guy is the instinct to get laid.  Now I could be completely off base here, and Meyer will eventually come around to the traditional values of sex and violence that all us guys enjoy and love, but I’m worried how far she will delay gratification.

This is a fun way to review a book.  I can’t spoil the ending because I don’t know it.  I can tell you the book is gripping, full of tension between Bella and Edward, and that women love this story.  I’m not used to reading teen girl fantasies, so it may not be as much fun as seeing into the girl’s locker room, but it might be like having a secret microphone planted there.

Jim

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

I seldom read non-English speaking authors, so I have Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings to thank for pointing me to this vivid little book, After Dark by Haruki MurakamiAfter Dark came out in Japan in 2004 and was published in English in 2007.

I wonder how much the translation to English altered Murakami’s prose?  What we get is stark.  Crisp dialog and vivid details suggests little of Japanese culture.  It’s almost as if world culture has all melded together.  After Dark had more American pop culture in it than Japanese.  Was the cultural specifics converted for American readers, or do people in Japan eat at Denny’s and pick up milk at 7-Elevens?

Murakami plays with narration, telling the reader to pretend to be a movie camera, while weaving in unexplained fantastic elements.  The novel was beautiful to listen to, but it caused so many questions to enter my mind while listening.  Am I learning about citizens of Tokyo from reading this story?  How many of them love American music and old LPs?  Is the percentage about equal to American kids who love Anime, or is American pop music very popular in Japan?  Is crime part of their culture like it is in ours?  Why is the prostitute Chinese?  Is Japan becoming an Asian melting pot?

AfterDark2

Mari, the 19 year-old main character seems no different from young female characters in American novels.  Now these observations are not meant to be critical of Murakami’s writing.  What I’m exploring here is how much we’re all alike.  One hundred years ago, stories from Japan made their people seem exotic and even alien.  This story only confirms the Los Angelization of the world.  Is that good or sad?

The story is full of detail observations, like Mari sitting at Denny’s smoking and drinking coffee, or surreal views of her sister, Eri, sleeping like Snow White.  All the reviews I’ve read are positive and mesmerized by the writing.  I know I was too.  The writing is real and meta-real which pushes me to believe that After Dark has something to say, but I’m never sure what.

The story starts with Mari accidentally meeting with Takahashi, a jazz lover and musician late at night, who just happens to know her model beautiful sister.  Mari has a mild adventure during the seven hours covered by the novel, and gets a glance at the seamy side of life.  It’s not a major story with a gripping plot, but a quiet tale allowing the writer to show off his writing chops.

To be honest, this story left me wanting more.  Like I said at the start, I live in the American pop culture and study English lit, so I don’t get far from my own language.  I read books like Memoirs of a Geisha to travel to places and times I’ll never get to see on my own.  That’s sad, but I try to make do. This book makes me want to know a whole lot more about Tokyo today.  I wished my cable company got the Japanese equivalent TV show like our CBS Sunday Morning or The Today Show.

What is the best way to transmit a snapshot of culture from one part of the world to another, while changing languages at the border?  Do movies do a better job?  Did Priceless give me a good view of life in Paris?  How accurate was The Band’s Visit of Israel?  Or how does Jane’s Austen teach us about England in Pride and Prejudice?

Am I expecting too much by trying to travel via novels and movies?

Jim

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, is a story about how people never communicate their real feelings.  Wharton suggests at the end of her book, set twenty-five years after the start, that the next generation is more open, but I’m not sure even a hundred years later, in our own times, if this is true.  The love triangle of Newland Archer, his fiancée May Welland, and her older cousin, Ellen Olenska is shown through the viewpoint of Newland’s mind.  Edith Wharton does an excellent job of taking on a male point-of-view, considering the cultural restrictions of her time, and her consideration for the minds of people from the 1870s.

AgeOfInnocence

The Age of Innocence is a story of culture and manners and their impact on people.  Newland Archer knows what he’s suppose to do, and how other people are suppose to act, but within his own mind he wants to be different, and imagines that maybe other people do too, but his life is frustrated by the few clues he gets to verify his theories.  He thinks he has the perfect young woman lined up to be his wife and then he meets a woman who has run away from her husband, a Count no less, abandoning wealth and position, to flaunt traditional behavior.

Countess Ellen Olenska is described as looking old at thirty, and no where near as beautiful as her younger cousin May, at twenty-two.  Yet, Newland Archer finds himself more attracted to Ellen.  Plenty of other men do too, and readers are never sure how many men are chasing Ellen, or how many are catching her.  Many men want to make her their mistress, but we’re never told the details of the relationships because we only get to know what Archer knows.  He gets conflicting information from Ellen and the people who know her.  Archer is never sure what May is thinking, or Ellen.  He often plays games, telling himself if this happens, he’ll do this, and it means that, but they never work out like he plans.

Archer wants to tell May, sorry old sport, but you’re as dull as your society, and then run away with Ellen.  We know that even in Wharton’s time, 1920, men were doing that, and readers today probably have a very hard time understanding why Newland didn’t just chuck it all for love, but then I guess that’s why Edith called her novel the age of innocence about the 1870s.  In our times, we act on our impulses but do we communicate why?

People today still don’t say what they’re thinking but instead communicate with a strategy like the old Battleship game, where players try to guess the location of hidden ships on a grid.  Readers following along behind Newland Archer and watch his strategic plans and waits with him to see if his remarks hit anything in the minds of May and Ellen, and then ponders along with Archer about May and Ellen’s commands back and if they offer any clues to what they are thinking.  Even to the end, what May knows about Archer’s feelings for Ellen is ambiguous to the reader, but Wharton lets us know that May is no dummy and is playing her own game with as much passion as Newland’s.

We know even less about what Countess Olenska is thinking.  Is Archer someone special to her, or is he just one of many men that she plays along.  And does Archer really want to know?  Edith Wharton has written a beautiful masterpiece about the battle between the sexes.  The ending is perfect.  Reading this novel makes me, and I assume other readers, wonder why people don’t just say what they are thinking.  My guess is we’re afraid of shattering our fantasies.  Our expectations of other people are all built on fantasy, speculation and desires.  If men knew what women were thinking it would be crushing blows to our egos and sexual fantasies.  If women knew what men were thinking it would be the end of romance.

I think Wharton knew this.  I’m guessing Countess Olenska knew this, and from the last scene I think Newland Archer knew this, and we’re given hints that even May eventually learned this truth.  But we never know anything for sure, because Wharton knew that, too.

Jim

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