My Latest at Life As A Human: The Popculturist Reads Leviathan Wakes

"The Popculturist Reads Leviathan Wakes":

I’ve got a question for you science fiction fans out there: what was it that first drew you to the genre? It occurred to me to ask that of myself recently when a friend of mine sent me a copy of his new novel, Leviathan Wakes. You see, a lot of science fiction (SF) is highly concerned with exploration and discovery, whether it’s in the literal sense of finding new worlds and new civilizations, or more figuratively by using the genre’s framework to delve into some arcane bit of scientific lore or to highlight some facet of the human condition. It can be a very cerebral genre, providing deep intellectual satisfaction.


By Brandon Sanderson

I probably wouldn't have picked up another Sanderson novel so soon after finishing the Mistborn trilogy, but a coworker loaned me this one thinking that it was the third book in that series so I had it on-hand. Still, it made for an interesting comparison, since Elantris was Sanderson's first published novel, and Mistborn followed soon after.

Elantris is the name of a huge, once powerful and beautiful city. For hundreds of years, the city was populated by a race of benevolent demigods, each of whom was at one time human but was transformed into an Elantrian through a mysterious process called the Shaod. But ten years prior to the beginning of the story, the Elantrians' magic failed, causing their city to crumble. More than that, though the Shaod still takes people, instead of becoming powerful, near-immortal magic wielders, they turn into shambling wrecks, unable to die or even heal--any wounds suffered by a new Elantrian remain painful forever.

The story opens with Raoden--a prince of Arelon, the country formerly ruled by Elantris--waking to discover that he has been taken by the Shaod, on the morning he is to be wed to Sarene, a princess from across the sea. Like all those transformed since the fall of Elantris, he is banished into the rotting city, and the rest of the world is told that he has died suddenly. Sarene is left to find her way in Arelon on her own, while Raoden discovers the depths to which life--if it can be called that--in Elantris has sunk in the past ten years. Into this scene comes a third character, Hrathen, a warrior-priest intent on subjugating Arelon for his dark masters, and Raoden and Sarene must work to discover the secret of Elantris' downfall before Hrathen achieves his goal.

All in all, the book was decent, but in comparison with Mistborn, it was easy to see that this was the earlier work. Like a lot of speculative fiction, Elantris is built around one central idea. In this case, it's the mystery of the Elantrians' downfall. The problem is, that idea was a little too central for my taste, leaving me feeling in the end that the book was just too long for what it was. Which is not to say that the book is boring--Sanderson does a fairly good job of keeping things going from scene to scene--it's just that much of what happens, especially in the first half, ends up feeling digressive by the end.

Still, I do have to give Sanderson credit for coming up with an interesting concept. The characters were fairly well-crafted, too, even if the world they inhabited felt a little simplistic to me. What worked the best for me was actually not so much the plot but rather the time spent with Raoden, exploring the ruins of Elantris. Both the descriptions of the city, itself, as well as the survival-of-the-fittest culture that arose there were quite evocative. (As a side note, it made me wonder how much influence was drawn from Mervyn Peake's Ghormengast novels--I haven't read those yet, but reading this made me bump them ahead in my queue a few places.)

I don't know if Elantris is quite worth the praise it's gotten from critics and readers, but it was nevertheless a pretty entertaining read. It's out in paperback at this point, so you should be able to pick it up fairly cheaply in your local bookstore.

Started: 12/9/2010 | Finished: 12/16/2010

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The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

By Peter Carey

I wasn't sure, when I finished this novel, whether or not I liked it. Having had seven weeks to mull it over, I'm still not sure. That doesn't happen that often for me, but it appears to be where I am with The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.

A big part of my ambivalence stems from my difficulty in figuring out just what the book is about. It is, as the title suggests, a personal story. Tristan Smith is born with grotesque deformities that isolate him for the rest of his life--he can barely speak, only walks with difficulty, vomits when upset, and is so hideous that most people can't stand to look at him. So, on one level, it is a character study of a deeply marginalized and alienated person--we see the roiling internal life of a central figure who is effectively cut off from the world around him.

But then, it's also clearly meant as a political allegory. Tristan is born and grows up in the country of Efica, a fictional island nation whose beginnings as a penal colony recall author Carey's native Australia, but whose language and culture rather bring to mind South Africa. (Or, at least, the loosely formed image of South Africa that I have.) Tristan's mother is an emigrant from Voorstand, another fictional country whose cultural hegemony and cloak-and-dagger espionage agents are an obvious reference to the United States--though Voorstand's Dutch-influenced dialect is also reminiscent of the Boers.

The interplay between Efica and Voorstand colors every aspect of the novel. Tristan's mother is the founder of an agitprop theater company, and much of the first half of the novel is spent in the company of that theater group as they work and tour and speak against Voorstandish influence in Efica. Tristan grows up both despising Voorstand and entranced by its flashy culture. (The lie is later put to that flashy impression when Tristan visits Voorstand and sees, instead, a landscape of inanity and social decay.) Seeing Tristan's world as we do, through his eyes, we're given a glimpse at the other side of first-world relations with the third world.

The political aspect might seem overbearing if it were completely earnest--and I'm not sure it's not overbearing anyway--but there's also a fair amount of satire. Of the world superpowers, of course--Voorstand's feared intelligence agencies are depicted as almost farcical, and the country's society is based on what amounts to a literal worship of Disney characters. Conversely, Efica--especially the artists surrounding Tristan and his mother--are portrayed with such self-importance that it's hard to imagine that Carey isn't making fun of them, as well.

On top of all of that, the form of the book leaves me wondering how much, if any, can even be trusted. The story is told in Tristan's own voice, complete with footnotes on fictional history and cultural explanations, presented as a memoir or confessional. Throughout the book, Tristan addresses the reader directly, imagining us to be Voorstandish citizens who see him as a terrorist, and imploring us to understand his perspective. It's reminiscent of Humbert Humbert's repeated asides to the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Between that allusion and the fact that so much detail is included in scenes where Tristan was either not present or was too young to remember or understand, it seems at times that the reader is invited to wonder just how much is being made up or covered over to further some other agenda.

There's a lot going on in this book, and it's clearly a skillful work. But despite the fact that I can appreciate, even marvel at the craftsmanship, there was still something holding me back from really connecting with it. Maybe I'm simply too American or too bourgeois. I don't know. I'd love to get another take on it, though, so if any of you out there do read it, let me know what you thought.

Started: 11/23/2010 | Finished: 12/7/2010

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The Mistborn Trilogy

The problem with genre fiction is how, well, generic so much of it is. You know what I'm talking about. The SF/fantasy section at your typical bookstore is jam-packed with J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft and Stephenie Meyer rip-offs. (And, let's be fair, even Stephenie Meyer is kind of an Anne Rice rip-off.) Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with being derivative--not only is there plenty of entertainment to be found by adhering to genre tropes, but playing on and with those tropes can and has produced some very thoughtful work over the years.

Still, it's nice when an author comes along with a fresh take on an old genre. Daniel Abraham's magic poetry in his Long Price Quartet, for example, or Glen Cook's dark spin on epic fantasy conventions in his Black Company novels. I'm not quite sure I'd put Brandon Sanderson and his Mistborn series on quite the same level as those two, but I do have to give him credit for coming up with a pretty novel system of magic for his books.

Instead of waving wands, chanting incantations, or carving mystic symbols, magic users in Sanderson's world draw power from various metals, which they ingest and then "burn." (He calls this system of magic "allomancy," aptly enough.) Different metals give different powers--pewter, for example, makes you strong, while zinc and brass allow you to manipulate emotions. Some people, called "Mistings," can only use one metal, while others can use all of them. These latter are known as "Mistborn," from which the series draws its name.

The series opens on Vin, a street girl who has begun to make a name for herself as a member of a small-time criminal organization. What no one knows--not even Vin, herself--is that her successes in her gang are because she is a natural Allomancer. She's soon discovered by Kelsier, a rebel who stands against the evil (and immortal) Lord Protector and the empire over which he rules.

The trilogy is structured much like a standard three-act story. In fact, the story arc reminded me a bit of Star Wars. In the first installment we're introduced to the major characters and shown the rules of the world; things end with a big triumph for the good guys. In the second episode we're given some big revelations and the characters are hit with a huge setback. The third and final episode finally answers all of the questions and resolves everything in one epic climax.

All in all, I'd say Sanderson delivered a thoroughly entertaining read. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling like I wanted more from him. I often felt that the series was reaching really hard for "epic," but despite the fact that world-changing events keep happening, I still came away feeling that the story was kind of small.

Part of this may have to do with the fact that I've read some really good fantasy over the last few years. I mentioned Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet already, and the comparison there may be apt. Both series are notable for being built around a novel magic system, but Abraham's world was much more deeply imagined, leaving you with the sense of having visited a place both truly exotic but still familiar. Too, Abraham worked with bigger themes, or perhaps just realized them more skillfully--either way, his characters had much more emotional resonance with me.

Lest you think I'm being too harsh, I'd like to repeat that I certainly found Mistborn entertaining. It's just that I felt that the series aspired to more, and I found myself wishing it had gotten there. But it's worth pointing out that I read the entire trilogy--over 2,000 pages--in just two weeks, so there was clearly enough there to grab me and keep me interested.



Started: 11/3/2010 | Finished: 11/5/2010

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The Well of Ascension

Started: 11/6/2010 | Finished: 11/10/2010

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The Hero of Ages

Started: 11/12/2010 | Finished: 11/17/2010

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The Liveship Traders

If you're anything like me, you have at least a few books lying around the house that you bought a long time ago but never got around to actually reading. For me, up until last month, that book was Robin Hobb's Ship of Magic.

I picked it up when it first came out in paperback on the strength of Hobb's earlier series, The Farseer Trilogy, which I had liked quite a bit even though the ending had left me a bit cold. Nevertheless, my aversion to starting an unfinished series was strong enough that I ended up sticking Ship of Magic on the shelf and ignoring it for almost eleven years. Last month, I finally got to the point where I'd read every piece of fiction left in the house, and decided to finally give it a go.

Before I did that, though, I went back and re-read The Farseer Trilogy, figuring that since this new series was a follow-on set in the same world, I should re-familiarize myself with the background. In some ways, that turned out to be a help, because I would otherwise have missed a number of references in the new series to events in the old one, references that weren't exactly necessary to understand the new series, but which added significant depth to the world and some of the characters.

On the other hand, plowing through all six books in rapid succession, it was impossible not to compare the two series, and I found The Liveship Traders somewhat lacking in comparison to its predecessor.

As I mentioned, The Liveship Traders is set in the same world as The Farseer Trilogy, starting ten years or so after the events of the first series. Rather than continuing the story of the original characters, though, the new series moves to a different part of the world and tells a story that is only tangentially related to the first.

As the series opens, we are introduced to the Vestrits, a trading family from the port city of Bingtown. The Vestrits are the owners of a liveship--a ship carved from magic wood that imbues the vessel with a life of its own, most noticeable in the ship's animate figurehead. The protagonist, Althea Vestrit, returns home from a voyage on her family ship, only to have her father die and her inheritance--ownership and captaincy of the ship--taken from her. Althea leaves, determined to regain her ship and make a name for herself. From there, we're brought along on a tale of full of nautical adventure, pirate battles, and even war, beneath the surface of which lurk secrets from ages past.

Now, you'd think this sort of thing would be right up my alley, and in a lot of ways you'd be right. I'm a huge sucker for Age of Sail maritime adventures, as evidenced by my love of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian. Combine that with the fantastic setting, epic plot, and excellent action scenes, and it should be perfect for me.

The problem was that too much of the characterization felt forced or flat to me. Part of that came from the more distributed focus--unlike The Farseer Trilogy, which featured only one point-of-view character--The Liveship Traders bounces back and forth between half a dozen or more perspectives, including all of the main antagonists. There's a lot of potential with a structure like that because it gives us a chance to sympathize or at least understand everyone, even the "bad guys." Unfortunately, nearly all of the antagonists seemed almost cartoonishly unreasonable, making it next to impossible for me to connect with them.

Things did eventually turn around with most of the important characters, but it took so long for that to happen--well into the second book--that I would never have gotten to it if not for my inability to walk away from a story I haven't finished.

Still, I don't want to sound too down on the series, because as difficult as I found the first volume, so much is paid off--both plot-wise and character-wise--by the end, that it was ultimately a very satisfying experience. It's of particular note how skillfully Hobb works the plot, starting with a relatively small-scale story of family drama and nautical adventure and building it into an epic, world-changing saga. As long as you're the kind of person who can commit to a series for the long haul, who doesn't need resolutions early and often, I'd say this one is definitely worth your time.

Ship of Magic

Started: 10/6/2010 | Finished: 10/13/2010

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Mad Ship

Started: 10/19/2010 | Finished: 10/26/2010

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Ship of Destiny

Started: 10/27/2010 | Finished: 11/1/2010

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A Fire Upon the Deep

By Vernor Vinge

Going into this book, I had only a vague impression of Vernor Vinge's work. I had a notion of him as a hard science fiction writer, of roughly the same generation as men like Larry Niven, Robert Forward, and Gregory Benford. Thus, I figured A Fire Upon the Deep would be the same sort of book that one of those guys would write--a fairly straightforward plot centered around a strong central scientific or technological concept, written in an engaging style but with more of a focus on ideas and action than compelling characterization. Now, I do enjoy those other writers. Nevertheless, I found it a pleasant surprise that this, my first foray into Vinge's work, turned out to be quite a bit more complex and engaging than I had anticipated.

Most hard science fiction novels are built on a single concept--a giant ring-shaped structure built around a star, for example, or an alien race that lives on the surface of a neutron star--and the bulk of the plot is driven by exploration of the implications of that concept. Fire, on the other hand, incorporates two main SF ideas. One, a universe in which technology becomes limited by proximity to a galactic core--thus, advanced civilizations with faster-than-light travel and interstellar domains can only exist near the edges of the galaxy, and the furthest reaches of space are inhabited by god-like AI entities. The other, a race of wolf-like aliens in which individuals have no true intelligence or consciousness and true sentience only occurs amongst highly bonded packs. Either of these ideas would be interesting enough to merit its own entire book, but by bringing them together in a single story, Vinge makes some neat ideas really spark.

In Fire, a team of researchers inadvertently awaken an ancient and powerful AI that immediately turns on them, destroying the outpost and then spreading outward like a virus to take over entire civilizations. One ship escapes, carrying with it a small piece of the AI that could be the key to defeating it, but it is marooned on a primitive planet within the Slow Zone--a part of the galaxy close enough to the core that faster-than-light travel is impossible. Immediately after landing, the survivors on the ship encounter the planet's inhabitants--a group-minded race called the Tines--and become caught up in the local politics and war. Meanwhile, the malevolent AI continues to spread, and the starfaring races in the outer galaxy scramble to oppose or flee it. The novel bounces back and forth between epic, space-opera interstellar war and medieval intrigue and betrayal, culminating in a breathtaking climax.

Fire combines gripping action, well-realized characters, and tense, complex intrigue in what I think is one of the best examples of its genre. It's also surprisingly funny for hard SF--scenes are intercut with newsgroup-style posts discussing the events of the story, many of which are hilarious to an Internet-savvy reader. It's little wonder that Fire won the Hugo for Vinge--I could scarcely put it down, and even having had weeks to contemplate it I can think of no flaws and still find it a very satisfying story. Indeed, this is the best hard SF I've read in quite some time.

Started: 9/21/2010 | Finished: 9/23/2010

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My Latest at Life As A Human: Old Books

"Old Books: Don't Judge a Book By Its Megabytes":

The first time I ever had a writing piece published was in my senior year of high school when an essay I wrote for my English class made it into the local paper. My teacher had assigned us to answer the question, “Will computers ever replace books?” Being the book-lover that I am, I said no.

First Book

Next up in my "Copying NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour" series: my first "adult" book. And by that I don't mean a book featuring throbbing loins, but rather a book that was written for adults rather than children. The folks over at PCHH further constrained it by limiting it to books you chose to read on your own, rather than one that was assigned to you by a teacher or parent.

This is a particularly difficult one for me, because I started reading so early. My mom tells me that I had figured out the early literacy books by age 2, and I remember reading Mr. Men books to my grandmother when I was 3. The earliest "chapter books" I can recall reading are probably The Hobbit and The Neverending Story, each of which I read around age 7. Those are the first two that spring to mind when I think of my earliest books, especially since I've continued to re-read and enjoy them into the present day. Still, most book lists put those two squarely in the "juvenile fantasy" category, so I suppose they don't count.

I know I was reading some highly age-inappropriate stuff while I was still in elementary school. I read Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Mordant's Need series in third or fourth grade, and I'm pretty sure that I had gone through the first three of Jean Auel's Earth's Children books before I finished fifth grade. I know I didn't understand everything the first time I read any of those books--most of the heavy stuff in Thomas Covenant was beyond me, for example, and I read it as a more-or-less straightforward adventure--but I did get some of it. I even remember getting in a little bit of trouble at my afterschool day care once for showing one of the other kids a passage from a sex scene from The Mirror of Her Dreams. Though, looking back on it, not nearly as much trouble as I'd expect a kid to get in these days, not to mention the parent for letting the kid bring a book like that to school.

Lest you think I was only reading dark and smutty stuff as a child, I should point out that I also read a lot of children's and young adult stuff as well. I already mentioned The Hobbit and The Neverending Story; the Hardy Boys, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Encyclopedia Brown were also staples of my pre-middle-school reading, as were the works of Lynn Reid Banks, Susan Cooper, L. Frank Baum, E. B. White, and Beverly Cleary. So I did read a lot of stuff aimed at the age I actually was, just interspersed with more mature novels.

But what was my first real grown-up novel? The honest answer is that I don't really know for sure. I've just read too many books in my life to know. I've been reading upwards of twenty books a year for my entire adult life, which seems a lot compared to most people I know but is still less than half what I read when I was in school.

If I had to take a guess, though, I'd probably go with The Lord of the Rings. I know I was pretty young when I first pulled my mom's old paperback editions off the shelf--definitely under ten. Young enough that the way they looked and felt made an impression. I can still recall quite clearly the slightly yellowing pages and the age-softened edges of the covers. I particularly liked the bold lines of the maps at the front of the books.

The odd thing is that due to the Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass films, I already knew the story pretty well before I ever opened those paperbacks. In fact, several parts that didn't appear in those movies--Tom Bombadil, the Paths of the Dead, and the scouring of the Shire, for example--got almost entirely skipped in my first few read-throughs; I don't think I really read, paid attention to, and retained the whole story until I was in high school.

So, there's my answer. It may not be my actual first, but J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was definitely an early pick of mine, and an early favorite. And it remains the series I've read the most times, in no small part due to the fact that I was young the first time I read it.

OK, your turn: what was your first grown-up book? Fiction or non-fiction, anything counts as long as you picked it yourself.

Brideshead Revisited

By Evelyn Waugh

In what is by now, I'm sure, a familiar pattern to readers of this blog, Brideshead Revisited made its way onto my reading list via the community forum here. A then-regular poster described it as "one of the greatest works of twentieth century Christian fiction," and the surrounding discussion piqued my interest. Unfortunately, though I can appreciate the craft that went into the novel, I found that its viewpoint was simply too far removed from my own for me to be able to connect with it.

The bulk of the story is presented as a memory of the narrator's. Charles Ryder, an English Army captain during WWII, finds himself and his unit unexpectedly brought to a new station that turns out to be the former home of the aristocratic (and eccentric and deeply dysfunctional) Flyte family, which he knew and befriended in his younger days. Wandering the grounds and halls of his new billet, Ryder remembers to himself (and, thus, to us) the story of his friendship with Sebastian, the younger son, his increasing involvement over the years with the family, and his eventual estrangement from them.

It's hard for me to know exactly how to interpret this book. On the one hand, it seemed a bit like a deconstruction of English upper-class society and values, since more or less all of the characters that inhabit that social stratum are depicted as shallow, self-absorbed, and boorish. The problem for me was that the contrasting figures--mainly Ryder and Sebastian's sister, Julia--are largely unsympathetic themselves, managing to be just as shallow and unpleasant as the people they sneer at. Additionally, I couldn't help but feel that the author, despite portraying it in what seemed such a negative light, nonetheless had a strong attraction to the upper-class lifestyle.

Most likely, the unpleasantness of the principal characters is meant to give more weight to the religious theme that ultimately is the central focus of the novel. But, here again, I didn't feel as though I had the right context or viewpoint to connect with that focus, especially as it's only fully realized in the closing pages with the conversion of the two main agnostic characters of the story. And even at that, given my own religious leanings, it was hard for me to feel that the payoff as a reader was worth having to endure what was basically an entire novel of awful people being awful to each other. In the end, it simply felt empty to me.

Still, I have to admit that my feelings on this book are largely informed by my own spiritual viewpoint, and I suspect that many Christian readers--especially those with an appreciation for subtlety--will come away with the same feeling of beauty and admiration for the book that the forum poster I mentioned felt. And even though I didn't connect on a religious level with Brideshead Revisited, I have to appreciate just how subtle Waugh's depiction of "the operation of Grace" (as he put it) was. So often writers seem to want to beat the reader over the head with a religious message, where in this book, I suspect that many people might miss it entirely. That may not sound like a virtue to everyone, but for me, all of the most profound experiences I've had with fiction have come from books that made me feel like I discovered something on my own.

Started: 9/13/2010 | Finished: 9/20/2010

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The Neverending Story

By Michael Ende

My copy of The Neverending Story is getting a bit worse for wear. The dust jacket has long since been lost, and the lettering and imprinted design on the rust-colored cover are barely visible. The binding has stiffened and the pages are becoming brittle. None of which is terribly surprising, considering that I've had it for twenty-four years, and have read it at least a dozen times.

Like a lot of people of my generation, my introduction to The Neverending Story came via the 1984 film, which immediately became a favorite and went on to become a staple film in my young life. My mom bought a copy of the book a couple of years later--initially it was for her, but it's been mine ever since I saw it lying on a windowsill where she'd left it. Like The Lord of the Rings, it grabbed a hold of me from the first and I've been returning to it ever since.

I love this book. I love the feeling of nostalgia I get when I read it, remembering all the nights I stayed up late as a kid to finish just one more chapter. I love that even having read it so many times, it never feels stale to me. I love that at 31 it still gives me the same rush of adventure and imagination and wonder that it did when I was 7. I love the way it invites you to tell your own stories.

What struck me the most as I was reading it this time is that I can't wait for Jason to be old enough for me to read this with him. As I turned the pages, I imagined the look on his face when he hears about Uyulala, the Southern Oracle, or Bastian's adventure with Grograman, the Many-Colored Death. I even thought about what sort of voices and accents to try with each of the characters. My only worry is that he might learn to read early enough that by the time he's mature enough for this story he'd rather read it on his own than have me read it to him. I know what I was like at 7, and in so many ways he seems to be on the same track I was when I was his age.

But we'll leave that problem for when or if it comes. For now, I'll just savor the anticipation. Because if he really is like me, then Jason is absolutely going to flip for this book.

Started: 9/9/2010 | Finished: 9/11/2010

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