Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Seventh Voyage

Lem Stanislaw’s Seventh Voyage was a fun read with interesting message, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although I loved Stanislaw’s approach to time travel and the idea of a lone space traveler just going about his day on a long voyage, what really drew me to the novel was the character. Even before the he entered the vortices and the duplication process began, it was already clear what kind of person the main character was. As he methodically goes about his daily life, eating, calculating, and trying to make repairs, Stanislaw shows that the main character is just a normal person. The characters strengths are shown; we see that he is precise with his actions, methodical with his planning, and is good at thinking things through. And we see his weaknesses; he can be stubborn sometimes and is fairly set in his ways. It’s this setup that makes the character so interesting, and gives the 2nd half of the story such a strong impact. As the main character enters the vortexes and meets with his past and future selves, each one more stubborn and self-assured than the last, we can see his flaws begin to emerge as a more prominent issue.
As the amount of duplicates increase, the tone of the story switches from a play on the main characters flaws to a play on the flaws of humanity in general - we see that alone, a person can be intelligent and even wise, but together people are dogged, selfish, and narcissistic. When the main character realizes that his problem – finding another person to help him fix his ships rudder – is solved not by himself or any of his more recent duplicate selves, but by two duplicates of him as a child, he as the protagonist and we as the reader are given a pretty frank message – that people are productive and good as children but fairly useless as adults. This message is compounded even more by the ending – not only does no one believe him, but the main character learns nothing from his adventure and is disgusted with people for not believing his story.


Octavia Butler’s, Bloodchild was the most disturbing short story we read this semester. Pregnancy is never a particularly fun thought for men in general, and male pregnancy is even more off-putting. Bloodchild takes this issue even farther – men impregnated by bugs, who give birth to flesh eating maggots that need to be removed via cesarean before they kill the carrier. Not a huge fan of pregnancy, flesh eating, or maggots myself, this story didn’t do much for me. It wasn’t the gore the bothered me so much as the situation the author put the characters in. In fact, I had the same problem with this story that I had with Aye and Gamorrah – after a certain point I no longer wanted to relate to or empathies with the main character and eventually found myself uninterested in the story.

I wasn’t a fan of the story’s ending either; at the end of the novel the main character gives in and is impregnated with maggots to save his sister from bearing the burden. I wasn’t really expecting a matrix-style human rebellion but I was hoping the main character would make some kind of stand against the situation itself.

I think my biggest issue with the story was that for all the unpleasantness it had I couldn’t seem to a message in it. The main character eventually sacrifices himself to protect his sister, but that wasn’t the focus of the story. The situation of bugs impregnating people was a prominent element of the story but the only message I could glean from that was “the horrors of pregnancy.”

I did like the way the bug creatures were described. Butler talks about them in detail but still manages to be nondescript enough to keep the reading guessing what they look like. Then during random parts of the story different parts of the insect creatures are casually referred to until it becomes clear that the creatures are actually fairly monstrous – looking.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams’s The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of my favorite novels of all time. The story is interesting, the characters are likeable, and the humor is almost always spot on. There were very few times when I was reading the novel when I felt the story was lagging or the characters were losing their personality, two issues that are often the most problematic for me when reading novels and short stories.
What drew me into the hitchhiker’s guide at first was the flat, frank humor. Even in written form all of the book’s narration feels as though it’s being given in an ironic deadpan. As far as the humor goes I’d liken the book a lot to the “Monty Python” sketches – the same sort of wacky silliness takes place throughout the book. What makes the humor so much more appealing, however is that it is used is scattered throughout many of sci-fi’s biggest clichés to give the book a light, satirical tone. My personal favorite play on sci-fi was in the way that flying was explained. That achieving fight was simply a matter of falling and accidentally missing the ground, and that although the falling part was fairly easy, actually missing the ground was quite difficult. Many people, Adams writes, “fail to miss the ground.”
During class we saw the first few minutes of the BBC version of the Hitchikers Guide the Galaxy Movie. I noticed that a lot of the humor was kept intact and that the story and characters seemed to be remaining true to the novel, however I couldn’t help but feel that the movie lost some of the charm that the book had. Something about transferring British comedy into a written format made it feel a lot more accessible to me; In the film, all of the actors and the settings are clearly of British origins and inspiration, and because of that the story felt a lot more foreign. Seeing the BBC version, however, did make me want to watch the newer version that was released in theaters to see how it measures up to the book.

Aye and Gomorrah

Samuel R. Delany’s Aye and Gomorrah was one of the more unusual short stories I’ve read this semester. I wasn’t exactly enamored of it, but it was nice to see something completely different. The world the author created, in which astronauts are neutered to prevent the affects of radiation that would eventually cause the birth of mutants was unsettling. It wasn’t the kind the story that really made me stop and think or changed the way I looked at the world, but about halfway through reading I realized that I no longer wanted to be a part of the world that was being described. I normally try to empathies as much as I can with the main character when I read novels and short stories, but with Aye and Gamorrah, I had to step back a little.
I’d imagine this was the authors’ intention – to show people something a little disturbing, and he definitely succeeded in that respect, although by the end, I did find myself wondering what the message of the novel was. It seemed like with all the strange Ideas and situations the author was throwing there must be some sort o underlying theme or message that he was trying to communicate. Whatever it was though was completely lost on me.
One thing that I did like, and that I felt was done very well, was the interaction between the Spacer and the Frelk when they first meet. What made it fun was that the author created a world where the power dynamic that gender creates is completely different than the one we’re used to. But he did it in such a way that rather than alienating the reader, it drew the reader in more. Even though the world was different, all of the wants, the actions, and the thought processes of the characters felt completely believable and easily relatable to everyday life.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Song in a Minor Key

CL Moore’s Song in A Minor Key, was a pleasant, almost poetic reflection on human nature and the inevitability of the future. The story was short, it was a nice read, and felt like a breath of fresh air after reading Johnny Mnemonic. What drew me to Song in a Minor Key was the character. The entire story is basically a long reflection by a space outlaw who’s taken refuge on earth – his home planet, and the very place he was originally outlawed from. We learn that the main character has had a very difficult and violent past, however his problems are all the result of his own rebellious nature.

What makes the character interesting is that although he continually talks about how rambunctious he was, and all the problems that resulted from that, the feeling we get from him as he is talking is that of a calmer, more somber person. This difference in personality makes the character feel a lot more 3-dimensional and much more likeable as well.

Midway through the story, I found myself actually interested in what the character was saying and what had gone on during his life. In fact my only real issue with the story was its length. For what it was – a short reflection on a past life – I thought Song in a Minor Key was just long enough. But it would be nice to see the character in action; now that we’ve been introduced to him I want to see what his world is like, to read about his adventures and the specific events that took place in his life.

The ending to Song in a Minor Key my favorite part of the story. After going on about the events that took place in his life and thinking about how it would have been had he been given another chance, the main character came to an interesting conclusion, and one that often holds true in real life – that even if he could start his life over knowing everything that he currently knows he would still make the same mistakes and probably end up in a similar place. His problems, he reflects were not the result of serendipity or circumstance, they all came from within him.

Johnny Mnemonic

My first impression after reading William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic was that although the story’s sci-fi/film noir style gave it a very dark and interesting feel, the lack of personality in all of the character sucked a lot of life out of the story overall.

I was never really a huge fan of applying film noir to different genres; I think it was cool in watchmen and I it generally makes for an interesting story, but I’ve seen it used so many times in so many different genres, it almost feels like a cliché by itself. That’s the feeling I got with Johnny Mnemonic; the dark atmosphere that the story created was interesting at first, but it didn’t hold my interest for very long. Part of what bothered me so much about the style was the way the author tended to jump around for story point to story point with minimal explanation. It made the story just confusing enough to be a bit of a pain to read.

My biggest problem with Johnny Mnemonic, however, was the characters. Johnny, the main character was my least favorite. I liked that he went through an arc during the story – that by the end of his adventure he had gained a new perspective and become a different person, however I didn’t really feel myself caring very much about him. The biggest reason for this was most of the events that took place in the story were neither triggered by him, nor affected by him; his only real “act” in the story was making the shotgun, and his efforts were completely negated as soon as the other characters were introduced.

The other characters were interesting in the ways that the helped move the story along; I liked the female assassin with the knife nails and the faceless businessman with the diamond-twine finger. But they all seemed to lack personality, and this is really what draws me to novels and to stories in general.

I did like the talking dolphin man.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Technology and the Mediascape in the Future

In five years, e-readers will have become commonplace, although they still won't have completely overtaken books and other paper media. Smart-phones will go from becoming "an option" to "the only option," although hopefully phone data plans will decrease in price. 3D will be making a bigger move into home entertainment, especially in video-games. Television will be more interactive and allow more options for video recording and customized playback. Online activities like shopping and chatting will become more streamlined and more easily accessible without a computer. Electric cars will be more popular, but still won't be standard. Animated films will continue growing in complexity and popularity.

3D and motion capture will be a standard for video-games. Television will be completely customizable so that adjustments can be made on a per-user basis. Personal computers will give way to more streamlined online communication devices. Electric power in cars will be standard and continually improving in efficiency. Commercials will be commonplace not just on television, but in stores, restaurants, etc - restrictions will need to be created to ensure that certain areas are free of commercial intrusion by advertisements. The process for the creation of animated films will be much more streamlined technologically.

Computers, smart-phones, and other media and communication devices will be replaced by something much smaller and more efficient - these devices will be a normal accessory for every person. The more these are standardized, the more they will become a way for people to express their individuality. Serialized television shows will still be around, however "television" won't exist. The technology for the creation of high quality animated films will become much more accessible for normal people.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Although I was only able to read the very beginning of Warbreaker, I was very much impressed with both the writing and the story. In the first ten pages of the novel the concept of “Breath,” its implications and benefits, and even what it felt and looked like were all addressed in a way the was both interesting and informative of the plot. Having read a lot of manga, I’m very much used to stories simply being interrupted for a straightforward explanation of certain rules or powers that operate in the world the author is describing. It may be for this reason that Warbreaker impressed be so much; I was not taken out of the story at all, rather I was brought into the story more with the explanations of “Breath” and the various “heightening”. What really drew me in at the end of the prologue was the talking sword, Nightblood. A brief foreshadowing of the dangers of Nightblood was made early on in the prologue, however by no stretch of the imagination was I expecting a talking, killing sword.
I was also very pleased to see that only two main characters were introduced. One issue I often have with sci-fi and fantasy novels is that too many characters and concepts are introduced too quickly and I’m left struggling to keep up with each character and his or her place in the story. In Warbreaker, to start with, we were given one character, Vasher, the good guy. We were left with him until we understood him and his personality and then we were introduced to Vahr, the bad guy. I often find that simple, clear characters make for much more interesting stories and Warbreaker seems to be no exception.
I’ll be very interested to see where this story goes, and even more so to find out why it is completely free and so readily available online. One thing I noticed was that this version of Warbreaker was 6.1, which implies a fairly great deal of updates. It maybe not be on the level of Tolkien’s work but at the very least, Warbreaker seems like a great read.

What the Moon Brings

After reading Lovecraft’s What the Moon Brings I was more confused than anything else. The dreamy abstract way the story is written makes it very hard to distinguish between what is meant to be taken literally and what is meant to be taken figuratively. There is very little initial setup of plot or character; we don’t know who the protagonist is, where he is specifically, or what he is doing there. The only information available are the little tidbits of information described amid Lovecraft’s long, surreal descriptions of mood and scenery.
While this makes reading What the Moon Brings difficult, it also helps heighten the feeling of suspense that the story gives. Because we don’t know exactly what’s going on, we don’t know exactly where the story’s going and so every advancement of the plot comes as a surprise. References are made to a garden, a stream, and later a sea, and a “city of the dead.” It’s not clear if the story’s protagonist really sees these things or if they are all part of some sort of fantastic allegory. It’s not until the very end when the protagonist glimpses the horrible monster rising from the see and throws himself into the city that we can really be sure anything is actually happening.
As a story, I didn’t enjoy What the Moon Brings very much, however, the writing was fun by itself. It would be very difficult and probably incredibly frustrating to read more than a few pages of any story written this way, however it would be interesting to see this surreal style of writing used for poetry or some other more abstract literary art form.
I also enjoyed Lovecraft’s surreal descriptions; even if they weren’t particularly helpful in grounding me within the scene, they were interesting to read, and really set the mood of the story. Hearing these verbally narrated would be an interesting experience simply because the voice of narrator would have such a huge effect on how the descriptions were perceived by the audience. I imagine it would feel similar to listening to a dictation of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe: creepy but satisfying.

Anansi Boys

Having grown up listening to “Anansi the Spider” tails from friends and relatives in Ghana Africa, being introduced to Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys was a nice surprise. “Anansi the Spider” stories, much like Anansi boys, generally follow the same basic premise; something happens to “Anansi the Spider” and he must use his quick-wit and storytelling ability to get himself out of a jam. What makes “Anasi the Spider” stories so fun is that no matter what the circumstances, he always comes out on top. Anansi Boys seemed to follow a similar pattern. Events in the novel start failry normally and then eventually spiral out of control, almost beyond the point of believability. We are left wondering how Charlie will ever get back in control of his life. In the end, however, not only does he get “back in control,” but he “wins.” At the end of Charlie’s journey, he comes out on top rather than just breaking even. I think that’s an important distinction to make between an Anasi style story and a more traditional western story where the main character finds a way to “not fail,” and lives “hapilly ever after,” but doesn’t necessarily “win.”
Knowing that Anansi and his friends will always come out on top can make his stories predictable, but also very entertaining. In the same way we know that Bugs Bunny will always be victorious, we know that Anansi will always defeat his enemies. Because Anansi Boys is a full novel and not just another “Anansi the Spider” story we don’t know for a fact that Charlie will win, but when he does it not only doesn’t feel all that surprising but it feels right.
Another interesting thing that Anansi Boys shares with “Anansi the Spider” storys is the presence of animal gods and animal god magic. Magic as a plot device, is not often seen is western storytelling the way it is used here; rather than having magic exist as an entity that is part of the world the story takes place in, magic is part of a world that is almost outside the story. Magic in Harry Potter, for example, doesn’t move the plot along the same way that it doesn’t in Anansi Boys.

Vampires: I am Legend

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is easily one of the most interesting short stories I have ever read. Both conceptually and character-wise it is original and had the rare effect of really making me think. The story is based around protagonist Robert Neville who is the last remaining human on an earth populated with what appear to be vampires. Robert must survive – find food, keep up his shelter, and fend of creatures of the night – every day, alone. The way this idea is executed is a large part of what makes Matheson’s story so poignant: a massive amount of time is spent simply describing the daily events of Robert Neville’s life and how he feels about them. Because of the attention that is given to Robert Neville’s feelings in particular, the stress that he feels about being alone and in constant danger really comes through.
We believe Robert Neville is really alone because he is not simply brave in the face of danger; he often has to resort to heavy drinking simply to get through the night, and most of “battles” against the infected “vampires” he fights while terrified for his life.
The way the arc of the story is set up is another important part of what makes I am Legend such an interesting read. We spend the bulk of the story simply following Robert keeping himself alive. We are forced to empathize with him and even to root for him as he struggles for survival. Then our entire perception of Robert and his world is completely turned on its head at the very end of the story. It’s revealed that the many of the “vampires,” the monsters Neville has been hunting are working collaboratively to create a new, structured civilization. Suddenly rather than being the last real human fighting for survival, Robert is an unwelcome stranger tearing away at a newly forming society. We’ve spent pages and pages rooting for him, only to find out that not only was he wrong, but so were we. And as he is more or less, politely asked to die, we’re left wondering if maybe somewhere we went wrong as well. It’s hard to argue with a story that makes you think like that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Spiritual Education: Harry Potter Prequel

It's hard to describe the feeling of nostalgia I got after reading J.K. Rowling's "prequel" to the Harry Potter series, but a good place to start might well be spiritual. After having read all of the Harry Potter books the world, in a sense, exists within my head. If asked, I could pick out any character or any place and explain them to a person who was not familiar with the series. What makes the world so appealing is not only its size, but its believability. Each characters personality is developed in its own unique way as the series progresses. Environments change and grow just as they would in real life, and new characters are introduced into the world as old ones leave. Reading a prequel to all this is like being given a back-stage pass to the world of Harry Potter; J.K. Rowling is going into even more detail and adding to her world in a way that makes it even more interesting. Its really hard to ask for more than that.
Two of my favorite characters, Sirius Black and James Potter, are illustrated in a way that they never were in the actual books. Rather then hearing about discussed by another character or having them described from another character’s perspective, the two are shown in their youth, acting as they would have then. For any Harry Potter fan this is an incredible experience; we are forced, after all, to spend seven novels wondering what James, Sirius, and the gang were like when they were younger. Not knowing who they were specifically ads a lot to the novels themselves, and allows us to sympathize with the characters, specifically Harry Potter, a lot more. Still, there is always the nagging sensation that we are missing out on another story that must be incredibly interesting. J.K. Rowling is giving us that story with the Harry Potter Prequel.
If I had a single complaint about the Prequel it would be that the fact that it even exits, ruins a little bit of the magic of Harry Potter’s world. We no longer will wonder what it would have been like to see James or Sirius in their youth, and on that level we will no longer be able to Sympathies with Harry. Still, I think the prequel would be very enjoyable for any devout Harry Potter fan. Its just a shame it was never finished.

Heroic Journey: Troll Bridge

I thoroughly enjoyed Terry Pratchett's Troll. Bridge As soon as I began the story and was introduced to the main character, "Cohen The Barbarian," and his horse, I thought of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; as it turned out, I wasn't too far off. Pratchett's numerous plays on the idea of "slaying the savage beast," and "hero's of old" reminded me a lot of Cervantes' famous novel. What really sold me to Troll Bridge, however was the way the characters developed through their dialogue. By the end of the story, I had a very specific sense of who the characters were: a old-time hero longing wistfully, though not naively for the good old days, and a old-fashioned troll wondering what happened to tradition. This idea of the two seasoned old men wallowing in their own nostalgia is incredibly funny by itself, but when it’s spliced with Trolls and Barbarians it jumps to a whole new level of hilarity.
Troll Bridge makes you think, but then takes the edge off by making you laugh. As the reader, we are invited to root for Cohen to “defeat a troll” and feel that he proved himself to his father. Our desire to see him win is heightened even more by the fact that he is near the end of his life. Then, when we finally meet a troll, the author points to us and says, “just kidding!” We find out the troll is actually just another person with normal thoughts and feelings, worries, joys, and even a wife and children. It’s at this point we realize the troll probably isn’t going to be “defeated” and we’re simply along for the ride while the author plays out his even more. The troll not only isn’t a vicious bloodthirsty monster, but is actually flattered to even be in the presence of Cohen. Rather than wanting to fight, he is eager to be defeated in hopes that it will bring fame to his bridge. We even find out the Troll and his wife have a dynamic set up that is similar to Cohen and his horse: the Troll is stuck in his old ways while his wife is eager to leave them behind and embrace a more practical life. These kinds of character setups nearly always make for very funny stores and Terry Pratchett’s Troll Bridge is no exception.

J-Horror: The Werewolf

I was pleasantly surprised by Angela Carter's The Werewolf; it was much different than I expected, both in story and in writing style. I was expecting a standard wolf-man type story from The Werewolf because of its fairly generic sounding title, but I'd heard the name "Angela Carter" before and was curious to see what made her such an interesting author. What impressed me initially about her short story was the concise but mysterious way in which it was written. Nearly everything in The Werewolf is described in short, rather harsh sentences, each written in the present tense. This gives the whole story a feeling of immediacy that makes every twist feel much more abrupt and heightens the
What I found interesting about The Werewolf's story was the combination of witches and wolf-people. When I first read the line about the wolves, the vampires, and the witch, I assumed they were all separate entities, and when the "good child" was attacked by the wolf I wasn't particularly surprised. But when the grandma turned out to be the wolf and a witch, I was a little stunned, which I always a nice feeling when reading horror.
If I had a single complaint about the Werewolf it would be that it is very short. We are given a rather abstract plot, an unexpected twist is set up, and this twist is executed nicely in the ending. But afterwards we are left with very little. I would be eager to know, for example, the story of what happened to the little girl after her grandma was driven away, and even more excited if I was given a little more detail about how she felt about the whole affair. The plot seems like it’s more of an engine to move the story into its suspenseful parts then a catalyst for character development. This probably has a lot to do with the kind of story Carter was writing: it was a short story and needed to be pithy and clear. It still would have been nice, however, to get more of the girl, and of her world before the story ended.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Monster Island - Pithy Goodness

From what I read of Monster Island, I was thoroughly impressed by the quality of the writing and the story. The writing isn't particularly clever of interesting in itself, but it is very concise. By the end of the first chapter it was clear to me that the author was writing simply to tell a story. He wasn't trying to impress his readers with fancy language or clever literary devices, and he wasn't trying to amaze them with long, detailed descriptions of characters and environments. The writing was just a necesary medium to communicate with the reader, and the author clearly knew exactly what he wanted to say. As I was reading there was one block of text that really stuck with me, because I was fully expecting it to turn into a long rambling speculative monologue:
"If the Warlady died there would be nothing to hold the Women’s Republic of Somaliland together. Clan factions would tear it apart. How long could a country in the middle of a civil war resist the dead?"
After the author posed the question, he simply moved on with the story. It was as if he was saying, "you think about it," rather than "this is the question I am going to answer for you." This sort of direct connection with the author made reading Monster Island alot more fun. It may also be a large part of what makes blogging and reading bloggs enjoyable for so many people.
It would be interesting to see a novel written in this sort of direct-connection format and then moved to book form. The reception of Monster Island was probably much different than it would have been had the novel simply been in book form. I can sure for certain that if I had purchased a book like Monster Island only to find it written in that short pithy style, I would have felt, at best, cheated. But I also would have blazed through the novel fairly quickly and probably enjoyed it more much than a novel with a more traditional writing style. It will be interesting to see how peoples expectations for novels in general change as blogging becomes more of a standard method for communication.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why are Zombie movies so popular

A big part of what makes the zombie genre so much fun is that it puts us in a situation where we have to fight for survival against an enemy that's incredibly similar to ourselves. Often times the reason zombies make such appealing villains is this similarity. The key difference is that because the zombies are not "human" or even really alive we don't have to empathize with them at all. It makes no difference to us whether the zombie are subdued or simply destroyed. The hero's methods for overcoming the zombies never bring to question his or her principles; they must be defeated in any way possible.

Mary Shelly's Frankenstein

What struck me most about Mary Shelly's Frankenstien was the believability she managed to achieve in the monster's personality. The progression of emotions the monster goes through as he's rejected by humanity again and again really brought him to life for me. When he's first brought to life, rather than being a typical angry monster-type character, he spends most of his time marveling at the wonders of nature. Even when he's run out by the first town that he meets he maintains a positive attitude. Rather than take the easy way out and make the monster react angrily, Shelly uses this as an opportunity to tell us about the monster's character - he's a true optimist. It's only when the monster is rejected by the people that he idolizes that his anger starts to get the better of him.
I found the monster's tale interesting not simply from a character perspective but story wise as well - after all it's only once the monster is introduced that the novel truly becomes horror story. I also found the monster's tale much easier to read and enjoy than any of the chapter's about Frankenstien. While I enjoyed Frankenstien's back-story I didn't find him to be as likeable of a character as the monster. Most of his time in the novel was spent either in complete bliss or complete despair. There was very little middle ground for him to transition between the two states and really develop a personality in the way that the monster did.
Also although I thought her story within a story method of storytelling was interesting, I didn’t think it made the novel much better than it would have been had she just narrated it traditionally. I enjoyed the novelty of having a fictional narrator initially but as I got more and more into the story, knowing that the story was literally being told by someone who did not exist somehow pulled be out of it a little. I am fairly certain other people would have different reactions to this style of writing, and I definitely don’t question its validity, it just didn’t do much for me personally.