Tuesday, May 28, 2013

books

I read a bunch of stuff while camping over spring break (and audiobooks on BART, as usual) and forgot to write them down until now.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein - Matt is always telling me about sci-fi books I "have" to read, and I got him to narrow it down to this one as number one on the list, since I can rarely stand sci-fi and am not about to go through the full set :)

I'm still not sure what I think of this book overall. The first quarter or third was standard sci-fi - too much effort spent in building an alternative universe and expounding on details that don't add to the story, along with many stilted conversations with strange characters I can't relate to and don't get invested in. Along the same lines, the artificial English/Russian dialect that the book is written in is an aggravating touch that makes it less enjoyable to read and adds nothing that a few isolated Russian terms wouldn't have accomplished on their own. The same applies to the weird social constructs such as centuries-old line marriages and professional surrogate mothers - it isn't convincing and only makes you less sympathetic to the heroes of the story. (But, I would like to read a story exploring these ideas if they were more convincingly done, but Heinlein's treatment just really didn't do it for me.)

The middle 40% or so I definitely did get into, though. The story about the buildup to the revolution was thoroughly engrossing, and Mike the computer was a really funny character. (Stilted sci-fi characters work better as computers, turns out.) My only nitpick is a trivial pet peeve: throughout the build-up towards the revolution, Mike periodically announced odds of winning, and a few times they said effectively "they're worse now, but that's ok, we knew that was going to happen." You can't anticipate that odds are going to change! If you anticipate it, they've already changed.

And then the last third was pretty mind-numbing. Waaaay too much boring detail about a revolution that was utterly anti-climactic.

Overall, as a political statement, it fell flat, despite the fact I'm about as sympathetic an audience as Heinlein is going to find for his message. Even people who are extremely skeptical of government and the monopoly on force that it has and are very optimistic about the power of social norms to maintain order absent centralized authority are not going to be convinced of the feasibility of anarchy by stories of vigilante artificial selection and voluntarily hired private judges. I would have preferred 1% as much "then we bombed X, then we bombed Y, then they attacked Z" and have the spare 200 pages devoted to the settling down of the new society on the lunar colony post-independence. I admit I'm a harsh judge of political statements presented through fiction, but at least there are some examples I thought were very well done and enjoyable to read (Atlas Shrugged, 1984, etc.) and this wasn't one of them. I think part of the reason it's unconvincing is that the political system and the social constructs are presented as simply and obviously effective, with no psychological difficulty or complex emotional conflict. Maybe those systems would be feasible but love and governance are never so peaceful, especially when so violent and complicated. But this is a common problem with utopian stories - if you believe in one thing, it's easy to convincingly describe the downfall of the original system, but hard to honestly present the difficulties that might arise in the utopian alternative and how they might be resolved.

The Brooklyn Follies, by Paul Auster - I love Paul Auster. This one was better than Book of Illusions but not as good as The New York Trilogy, but the story was the best. I read it in one sitting, literally.

The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster - This is actually a collection of three novellas that were originally published separately, but they explicitly go together (the last refers back to the first, and the stories are parallel in theme.) This was definitely my favorite Paul Auster so far. So engrossing, and psychologically complex, and confusing, and one of those books that you keep thinking about for awhile afterwards (although perhaps that's partly because I'm so bad at reading fiction, it takes me awhile to figure out what happened and what the point was :)

Why is Sex Fun by Jared Diamond - Short popular science book on evolutionary biology. A lot was redundant after seeing about a dozen David Attenborough series, but some was new too, and fascinating. Planning to read a more scientific version, though.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach - I don't remember who/what told me this was worth reading, but it ended up on my list. It was boring.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace - DFW is one of the best wordsmiths I've ever encountered (after Nabokov, but not sure who else.) This is a collection of essays, a few of which were amazing and worth reading the rest of them, which were on topics I don't know anything about and don't care about and were thus difficult or impossible to slog through. (He's similar to Proust in that way, stunningly fantastic when writing about something of interest and impossible to read otherwise.) Everything else by DFW is higher up on my to-read list now.

2 comments:

Simon Halliday said...

Hey Vera, if you are being asked to read 'political-challenge' sci-fi, I'd recommend Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed'. It's sets up two societies - one sort of anarcho-syndicalist and another stratified capitalist. It's not perfect by any means, but I found it thoroughly interesting because the protagonist finds issues with each system and struggles to reconcile his beliefs with what would be a better system.

When I read Auster's New York Trilogy, it fell flat for me. I don't know why specifically. It was like reading something very self-consciously constructed as post-modern, which I think I found annoying. It was certainly well-written, but I got bored.

I also need to read more DFW. I really enjoyed his collection of essays 'Consider the Lobster'.

Totally with you on Jonathan Livingston Seagull - I found it more interesting as a representation of some of the attitudes of the late 60s and early 70s than as a book itself.

Vera L. te Velde said...

huh, I actually tried to read The Dispossessed for my bookclub but couldn't keep going. Maybe I should give it another chance. Thanks for the recommendation :) "Consider the Lobster" is definitely high on my list... (and Infinite Jest).

Actually Matt said almost the exact same thing about the New York Trilogy. Weird.