Monday, March 31, 2003

I first saw Stephen Fry as an actor on the British comedy series Blackadder, in which he plays several different parts over the four seasons, each set in a different historical era. Then Jeeves & Wooster and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, both comedies pairing him with the equally funny Hugh Laurie. So of course I've also read Fry's written work. Novels The Liar and The Hippopotamus were okay but didn't much stick in my head; Making History wasn't bad either but since I'm a longtime science fiction fan, it seemed to cover ground already much seen in other alternate-history stories. I really preferred Fry's autobiography Moab Is My Washpot, though, so I tended to sum it all up in "His nonfiction is better than his fiction."

I'm going to have to stop saying that now that I've read his most recent novel Revenge. The basic plot is not new; it's a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, and I knew about that before I started reading. But even knowing what's going to happen didn't stop me from having an intense desire to find out how it was going to happen -- I started the book around noon and finished by 4:00 p.m. Though I'm always an extremely fast reader, I usually put a book down after a while to avoid developing a headache from prolonged reading -- that didn't happen this time.

The modern setting adds an extra spice to the "kept away from the world for twenty years" plot device -- Rip van Winkle encountered the effects of time on people, but to this can now be added the effects of time on technological advance. However, the people are the interesting part: who they are at the beginning, how they change over twenty years, and how their own pasts are used against them. The setting of imprisonment in a psychiatric hospital rather than a prison adds to the opportunity to see inside the protagonist's head compared to the original (I think -- it's been nearly two decades since I read Count of Monte Cristo). Normally, thrillers don't do much for me, but Revenge is the exception.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Written 11:30 p.m., 19 March 2003: Despite the end of President Bush's ultimatum to President Saddam Hussein today, it was unsure when/if the U.S. was going to attack Iraq exactly. (And it is the U.S. -- no matter what Bush's attempts to say it's a "coalition," the fact that the U.S. has two or three allies is basically the same as Japan's being allied to Germany and Italy during the Second World War; the fights in the Pacific were still essentially American forces against Japanese ones.) The uncertainty may have been there, but the tone of the news in general may have been what prompted me to pick up science fiction anthologies rather than the non-fiction more usually reviewed here.

But hardly "escape literature," no. Today's pick was Harlan Ellison's Angry Candy, impressive stories from an impressive author. Ellison is a great favorite of mine, but I only read his fiction when I'm in certain moods. Angry Candy collects stories about death, Ellison says in the introduction, and I say that war is undoubtedly death. Despite Bush's little speech about doing his best to keep from killing innocent Iraqis, and of course his (most likely genuine) hopes that American casualties will be kept to a minimum, war between countries cannot happen without people dying. "Faces twisted in anguish at the precise moment of death, or more terribly, at the moment of realization of personal death, each soldier looked up at me with eyes just fogging with tears, with mouth half-open to emit a scream, with fingers reaching toward me in splay-fingered hope of last-minute reprieve." ("Eidolons")

It's by no means all sad and depressing. "Laugh Track," for example, is wickedly funny -- imagine a woman's soul caught on tape when she laughed as part of a studio audience at a comedy taping, and after her body's death the ability to say things on the soundtrack of newer shows re-using that laugh track! But all the potentialities of humanity are covered, real-seeming beings in real-seeming situations, even when the situation is that an alien being is taking the souls of human suicides and putting them into alien bodies, or that a vampire encounters a sort of half-plant/half-human (in Paris, no less). Many science fiction writers can make you suspend your disbelief and submerge you in another universe; not nearly as many can do that while also making you look inside yourself and your own beliefs. Other authors have used the same themes -- while reading "The Avenger of Death" I was reminded of Piers Anthony's On A Pale Horse, since both deal with a human being who is Death, in charge of all humans' ends. But Ellison provokes more thought in fourteen pages than Anthony did in a thick mass-market paperback (my copy of which eventually got donated to the library). In summary, Harlan Ellison is the kind of writer who makes me feel less depressed that the Bush Administration has pushed the U.S. into the role of the world's bully, saying that we can dictate who is allowed to have weapons of mass destruction and who isn't (for example, France has nukes, but all the U.S. government has done is rename its cafeterias' French fries). "I think we dream to forget. And sometimes it doesn't work," the protagonist of "The Function of Dream Sleep" says. Ellison's dreams should not be forgotten, and it benefits the world to read those that he's put into print.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

As a longtime fan of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear books, I wonder about the accuracy occasionally. It starts to get annoying that their protagonist Ayla, or someone she knows, invents everything from needles to spear-throwers, and that obvious bit of literary license provokes my curiosity about other possible factual fudges. Especially since the five books in the series so far have come out over two decades, and theories current when Auel started writing might have fallen out of favor. Maybe that's why I picked up The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers by Juan Luis Arsuaga, translated from the Spanish by Andy Klatt.

The book wasn't always easy to get through (and I don't know whether Arsuaga or Klatt is responsible for the duller sections and their overuse of technical terms) but on the whole, it was an interesting look at the hominids of the past, the environmental conditions that influenced their very evolution, and the archeological/paleontological research being done now. The inferences that can be drawn from ancient bones, teeth, and chipped stones are truly amazing, and Dr. Arsuaga does not hesitate to tell about both views on a disputed subject.

(On a tangential note, his focus on excavation sites in Spain was particularly interesteing, and I feel like I picked up a lot more information on the geography, geology, and ecology of the Iberian peninsula than I had before. Reading a translated work also exposed me to references to authors and philosophers that might not have been brought up in an originally English-language work.)

In short, the book summarizes current knowledge on the origins of human anatomy, consciousness, language, and behavior, while staying firmly based in physical evidence (unusual for discussions of some of those subjects). Jean Auel's stories may have made the Stone Age seem human, but it takes a work like this to make hers seem truly non-fiction.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

I was born in 1973, and raised wearing pants and playing with erector sets. (And my mom wondered why I didn't show much interest in makeup and stylish clothes in high school -- didn't she expect her child-rearing tactics to have an effect?) Lynn Peril's Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons details all the stuff I was lucky enough to miss. It's a collection of ads and products aimed at women from the 1940s to the 1970s, from pink Lionel train sets to douching with Lysol so your husband wouldn't think you smelled bad. Peril makes it amusing and ridiculous instead of completely flinch-worthy; your "oh my God!" reaction to the things in this book is a laughing "I can't believe that happened!" like a an edge-pushing comedy gets, rather than the horror that some serious news reports evoke. Yet her final chapter reminds us that "pink think" indoctrination for women hasn't ended, as the success of books like The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, described in its review as a "return to pre-feminist mind games." Pink Think should be read by all women, for those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.