Tag Archives: science fiction

Review: The Stand

CW: Racism, sexism, manipulation of a mentally handicapped person (these first issues present mildly, as the products of a less-enlightened time), mention of cannibalism, mass deaths, gruesome/torturous deaths, use of nuclear weaponry, biological warfare, government conspiracy.

I’ve read a fair number of Stephen King novels now, and have unscheduled plans to make my way through his entire oeuvre. King’s work isn’t perfect (what is?), but not many writers provide the number and variety of books that King has turned out- his stories are good, but it’s also fascinating to see how his work has changed over the years, covering different genres, themes, styles, lengths, etc. But without the friend who suggested buddy reading The Stand this summer (King’s longest novel in the unabridged version- my copy is 1439 pages plus a two-part preface and a prologue prior to “page 1”), this book would still be sitting untouched on my shelf with a bookmark about 200 pages in, leftover from my first attempt 7 years ago. So even though The Stand isn’t a Stephen King favorite for me, it was fun to read with a buddy and finishing it feels like a major victory!

thestandIn the novel, the US government invites disaster by tampering with a weaponized flu virus with a greater than 99 percent mortality rate. Containment and vaccination attempts fail, leaving the Superflu to wipe out a vast majority of the world’s human population. The survivors begin to move toward safer places, their paths altered by encounters with others and by urgent dreams of an endearing old black woman in contrast to a frighteningly powerful “dark man.” As one crowd of survivors cluster around Mother Abigail in Boulder and begin to piece together a new sense of order from what is left of the old way of life, another group gathers in Las Vegas, ruled by their fear and reverence for the dark man and preparing for a clash with the rival city of survivors.

“Things had changed. The whole range of human perception seemed to have stepped up a notch. It was scary as hell.”

This  is a horror/dystopia novel divided into three parts. The first depicts the outbreak of the Superflu and some of the main characters’ predicaments at that time; the second features the division of the “good” group and the “evil” group, their travel patterns and initial attempts to re-establish life in their respective dead cities; the third narrates the outcome of the groups’ leaders coming into contact with each other under the impression that only one of the cities can last, at the cost of the other. Though each contains intriguing scenarios and strong characterization, the details of the first section stand out as the most compelling. There’s something so creepy and ominous about these characters discovering themselves suddenly alone in towns full of corpses, of traveling through silent cities and over roads cluttered with cars that have become tombs; many of the main characters begin experiencing recurring nightmares around this time, and though they understand that they’ve outlived a terrible disease, they don’t really know where it came from or what to expect next. To me, that initial terror of mass deaths and an unknown future is much more eerie than one mysterious man with a blurry face.

“The smell was hard to define in any way that could be correct yet less painful than the naked truth. You could say it was like moldy oranges or spoiled fish or the smell you sometimes got in subway tunnels when the windows were open; none of them were exactly right. That it was the smell of rotting people, thousands of them, decomposing in the heat behind closed doors was putting it right, but you wanted to shy away from that.”

King’s writing style tends to the informal; his characters speak in dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc. and their personalities shine clearly through their thoughts and dialogue, which gives the entire narrative a conversational feel- like King is in the room with you, relating a tale about someone he once knew. This style is common across most (all?) of his work, though not always to the same effect. Where this tactic felt heavy-handed to me in Dolores Claiborne and gave the writing an unpolished feel in The Tommyknockers, it lends a sense of realism to the dramatic and otherworldly aspects of The Stand. The most frightening prospect of this novel is not the power of the dark man on the page, but in the way that King makes the destruction of the human species feel plausible and, to an extent, inevitable.

” ‘Maybe he’s not real,’ Nick wrote. ‘Maybe he’s just … that scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

But more than anything, what stood out to me most about The Stand was its length. It sounds obvious, but the very structure of the book makes it impossible to ever escape the fact that this is a very long book. What typically allows a thousand-pager to succeed for me is an early introduction of conflict, an intricate plot, and a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t arrive too early.

With this book, the Superflu is introduced early, but that is not the central conflict of this novel. Our main characters are immune to the Superflu. The sickness is, essentially, a well-imagined backdrop behind a quest for survival in a hostile world, in which the largest obstacle is not the Superflu, but a man named Randall Flagg, and the dark force that drives him. This element arrives hundreds of pages into the story (I’m talking 400-500 pages, in this edition), which is a substantial amount of reading to endure without any sense of where this story is headed, or to what purpose.

Furthermore, the plot is much simpler than expected for a book of this size. Instead of twists and turns, it takes its length from the sheer amount of detail and number of perspectives it follows through a straightforward premise. To King’s credit, almost everything included seems relevant to the story at hand, to the character arcs he pursues, and to the themes he highlights; someday, I’ll want to read the original 1978 edition out of curiosity over which 400 pages he managed to cut for The Stand’s first publication. (Note: this cut did not come at the urging of an editor who thought the story too ponderous at it’s proposed length, but from the publisher who thought the cost of production would drive the book’s price up too high to for its marketed audience.)

But the biggest reason behind this book’s failure to fully impress is its quick and sadly unsatisfactory ending. Though the final sequence makes sense, in that the characters act in ways that fit their motivations and circumstances, it deviates from the drawn-out pace of the rest of the story, and essentially circumvents the epic battle between good and evil (with plenty of religious overtones) that the entire novel seems to be pushing toward. The climax does play into some interesting themes and provide food for further thought about human nature, but simply doesn’t match the trajectory of the story up to that point.

“He knew this dark man all right, his was the face you could never quite see, his the hands which dealt all spades from a dead deck, his the eyes beyond the flames, his the grin from beyond the grave of the world.”

I could nitpick a lot of small points, as well. King isn’t always good at representing women fairly, and The Stand is a prime example of this struggle (the only woman with any strength on display in this novel is Mother Abigail, who is more of a one-hundred-and-eight-year-old figurehead than a character with proper agency); many of these characters seem to share the same personality and sense of humor, differentiated mainly by the unique range of circumstances each has faced; the updating of the unabridged version to a 1990 setting rather than the original 1978 seemed a bit clumsy at times and wholly unnecessary.

But nevertheless, I don’t regret the six weeks I spent with this novel. Though from 2019 the attempt doesn’t look quite as convincing as it might have originally, it does seem that King had an intent to step away from the righteous white male hero he often employs as a champion; the godly spokesperson is an old black woman who’s risen from a history of prejudice to lead thousands of do-gooders who are unquestionably devoted to her, and another of the most significant characters is a mentally handicapped man who turns out to be stronger and more reliable than those who think themselves smarter. Unfortunately it’s also apparent that most of the women are throw-away characters meant to fill the men’s beds, cook their meals, and carry their children, and the narration has an annoying tendency to refer to Tom Cullen as a “feeb,” but under some problematic details I do think an intent to show consideration and value to characters that aren’t clear King avatars is present.

Despite its flaws and hefty size, I’m not surprised that The Stand has been held up as one of King’s lasting classics. Its messages about survival and abuse of power are still relevant 40 years after the book’s first publication; the characters are still believable, the premise intriguing, the chapters engaging and readable despite their length. It’s psychological, spooky and unique (though also interesting at this stage in the game to compare and contrast with more recent counterparts that explore along the same lines), and ultimately worth the read for Constant Readers. I would not recommend The Stand as a starting point with King’s work unless you’re sure you’ve got the patience!

“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I didn’t enjoy every moment of this journey, it did make for a great buddy read. My friend and I would read about 200-300 pages a week (alongside whatever else we were reading), and check in to go over surprises in the plot, Easter Eggs, predictions for the next chapters, and whatever else crossed our minds. We scheduled six check-ins for this book, which provided manageable deadlines and “intermissions” to keep us on track and motivated to continue. In all honesty, though I think I have the discipline to have completed this on my own in less time, I would certainly not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did with my buddy and it undoubtedly would’ve taken me several more years to convince myself to start. In any case, I’m glad to have finished, and I intend to follow-up by continuing in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy next month.

Thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me this far, this has turned into a very long review!

What’s the longest book you’ve read?

 

The Literary Elephant

Advertisements

Review: Recursion

CW: suicide, death (including death of a child), gun violence, nuclear attack, Alzheimer’s diesease

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter may very well have been one of the books that “broke” the thriller genre for me. I read it in early 2017, only a few months before every thriller I picked up started to seriously disappoint me (with the major exception being Riley Sager’s Final Girls). It was my first sci-fi thriller, and such an all-around fun experience that there was no way I could miss Crouch’s 2019 release, another sci-fi thriller, titled Recursion.

recursionIn the novel, Barry is investigating a suicide in which the victim (prior to jumping) claims to have been affected by False Memory Syndrome- a new “disease” slowly sweeping the world that leaves those affected with two sets of memories, one “real” and one “false.” His investigation soon becomes much more hands-on than he intended. Meanwhile, Helena has been forced to switch her life’s focus from saving memories for those with Alzheimer’s to erasing all traces of her invented technology from the world; she learns the hard way that manipulating memories- even with the best of intentions- can only go horribly awry.

” ‘What’s more precious than our memories?’ he asks. ‘They define us and form our identities.’ “

Much in the spirit of Dark Matter (comparisons are inevitable), Recursion is also a story of what-ifs, in which some of the main characters are able to re-live parts of their lives as though they’d made different choices. Both titles examine some of the moral and emotional consequences of altering reality, as well as dissecting the science (in a novice-friendly way) that might lead to these possibilities. And of course, both are fast-paced adventures full of unique threats and psychological twists and turns.

Recursion opens on Barry’s first brush with False Memory Syndrome, which provides a perfect introduction to a concept that is, at first, as mysterious to the protagonist as the reader. When the time is right, the story doubles back to Helena’s research efforts, switching to a new protagonist with more knowledge on memory and the pertinent technology to guide the reader through a phase of discovery. Of course the two plotlines eventually merge, as Helena and Barry meet and unite against a common enemy- someone who wants to use Helena’s invention to change the world in the name of progress, no matter the consequences.

“Memory is … the filter between us and reality. You think you’re tasting this wine, hearing the words I’m saying, in the present, but there’s no such thing. The neural impulses from your taste buds and your ears get transmitted to your brain, which processes them and dumps them into working memory- so by the time you know you’re experiencing something, it’s already in the past. Already a memory…We think we’re perceiving the world directly and immediately, but everything we experience is this carefully edited, tape-delayed reconstruction.”

If the science sounds intimidating or you think sci-fi just isn’t the genre for you, rest assured that it’s largely a conceptual backdrop to a fairly accessible thriller plot. Crouch throws in a few sentences that must be based in fact- statements about neurons firing in the brain, memory storage, and déjà vu- but the rest is one big thought experiment mainly featuring the fictional logistics of time travel via memory. As long as you understand the gist (the heroes and villains are obvious enough), it’s really not strictly necessary to pay close attention to all of the specifics. In fact, even the scientists in Recursion require plenty of trial and error with the equipment in order to understand what it’s capable of. There’s no need to worry about getting bogged down in details.

It’s a smart, exciting ride that balances right on the edge between realistic and fantastic, with just enough realistic detail to ground the reader while allowing the imagination plenty of room to run free.

“Time is an illusion, a construct made out of human memory. There’s no such thing as the past, the present, or the future. It’s all happening now.”

But there are a few ways in which the layering of timelines frustrated me. Note: these are fairly small issues that come down to stylistic preference.

First is the repetition. There are moments, days, and even years that some characters experience repeatedly; in a few instances, a particular event is written out numerous times, back to back, highlighting variations. This tactic does lend credence to the matter of false/dead memories causing insanity, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts, but I nevertheless found it annoying to know I was reading scenes that were ultimately not leading anywhere productive.

Second, once it becomes clear that characters who possess the proper knowledge and equipment can revisit key moments limitlessly, the stakes are lowered. It is infinitely harder to worry about heroes dying or villains causing irreparable damage when one only has to make provisions for re-entering the moment if things turn sour, and try another path.

Third is the way that these relationships are skewed by the lack of chronology. There are several occasions in which a character must introduce him- or herself to someone they already know well, which allows for alliances to be formed with proof of knowing someone else’s secrets rather than a gradual rapport built from circumstance and personality. As a consequence, I can recall many of the events of this book, but I would struggle to tell you what kind of person any of the main characters are beyond basic motives- doing what is right, saving the world, making a name for oneself with a life-changing invention. Unfortunately, I did find it harder to invest in characters that I wasn’t able to fully understand, and books in which the characters feel like afterthoughts to the plot (even a stellar plot) never have quite the same strength that character-driven narratives do for me.

This is starting to look like a list of complaints rather than a recommendation to read a book that I had an excellent time with, but that is only because I can’t help comparing my Recursion reading experience to that of Dark Matter, which I enjoyed slightly more- possibly only because I happened to read it first. In the end, both are great books that I can’t see disappointing many readers, including those who are wary of the sci-fi aspect. My only gripe here is that when I have read a book that I loved (Dark Matter), I don’t hope for the author to write a very similar book that will give me a repeat experience (Recursion); I hope for something that raises the bar. Though I think Recursion is an excellent book on par with Dark Matter, it  wasn’t quite the step up into new territory that I was most hoping for.

“We have made it far too easy to destroy ourselves.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been an extremely difficult book to review, because 1) everything is a plot twist so it’s hard to talk about without spoilers, and 2) I struggled to find the right balance between explaining why I both had a great time reading it and yet also didn’t. I believe this is a personal quirk, that for something to impress me enough for a 5-star rating it has to be great but also hold an element of surprise; sometimes greatness itself can be a surprise, but with a follow-up title I definitely need something new to supercede the greatness that I was already expecting based on the first book. (Does this make sense to anyone other than me?) In any case, I’m still on board to read more of Crouch’s work- I’m hoping to pick up Pines this October, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future publications as well.

Have you read any of Blake Crouch’s novels? What’s been your favorite so far?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Early Riser

It’s happening. I’m falling behind with my Book of the Month books again. I’m not too upset about it (I’ll get to them eventually), but it does mean that I just finished reading one of my February selections, a very wintery book, in the warm spring weather of April. (Oops.) Fortunately, the Winter of Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser is such an otherworldly setting that it feels more like a fantasy world than a season.

earlyriserIn the novel, a young Charlie Worthing will work just about any job that’ll pay in Morphenox, the dreamless drug that eases almost every member of the human population (who can afford it, at least) through winter hibernation. A brave few serve as Winter Consuls, overseeing the sleeping masses through the three harshest months of the year. Charlie takes a chance on the Consul service (whose members get their sleep in the summer and stay awake through the inhospitable winter storms) and ends up in the worst sector of Wales without a proper mentor during a raging blizzard, right in the middle of the biggest mystery in Morphenox history: a mystery of viral dreams.

“The only evidence I had that this wasn’t real was that I knew it wasn’t. Nothing else.”

Early Riser is the first book I saw BOTM advertise with a warning, as a challenging read. I thought, “well, I’ve been around this reading game long enough, a challenging read doesn’t bother me,” and promptly forgot about the warning label. I remembered it as soon as I started in on the book, however; Early Riser is DENSE.

Though set in a sort of parallel world near modern day and with similar geography to our present reality, the history of Fforde’s world is not exactly the history we’re familiar with; the characters still play scrabble and view the Mona Lisa, but Morphenox has shaped society for decades and skewed connotations and perceptions. Every cultural reference comes into the novel with its own history or definition, there are a lot of new words and systems, some crucial to the story and some thrown in for world-building. Like the schtumperschreck, a gun so high-powered it can barely be lifted for use. Most of the names are imaginative like that, terms that require memorization rather than self-evident rewordings of existing objects and ideas. There are instances where the characters speak or think in ways that are meant to recap important details or plot points, but even so this is a book that requires a reader’s complete attention. There are also a lot of characters: some who aren’t who they say they are, some who are basically zombies, some who are actually two characters rolled into one. Part of the plot takes place in Charlie’s dreams. All in all, a warning label is not remiss.

” ‘We’re all something we’re not,’ he said. ‘Every one of us is stuck between the person we want to be and the person we can be.’ “

But if you are the sort of reader who likes to fully immerse in fiction, Early Riser is a wild ride. From the nightmare creatures who may be real, to tampered dreams, to corporate espionage, to gunfights in white-out blizzard conditions, I guarantee you’ll never know quite where this story is going next.

Perhaps the most intriguing element, however, is that Fforde leaves the gender of the main character up to the reader. “Charlie” is one of those names that could fit a male or female, and many would probably fill in that blank without noticing that this choice is made in the reader’s mind. Other characters are given gender pronouns, but not the main character. Charlie seemed more like a man to me, but I wonder whether this is simply due to the fact that I am a woman, and the lack of female-specific concerns made me feel that Charlie was not a woman. I waited through all 400 pages to see some indication one way or the other, but Fforde never provides concrete evidence. Which is a neat idea and it’s intriguing to peruse other reviews and see all the disparate ways readers have imagined this blank-slate character. On the other hand, if (like me) you notice early on that no gender is specified, you may have a hard time picturing Charlie. This was a small point of frustration for me throughout the story, though I do not begrudge Fforde’s attempt.

Also of interest is the formatting of the book, which includes footnotes (which I thought were fun but not strictly necessary) and excerpts from fictional historical texts at the start of each chapter (which I found very amusing and generally helpful in envisioning this world but also very distracting from the main plot). Both of these elements, though not entirely effective for me, do help immerse the reader in this wintery world and in Charlie’s mind.

“It’s the loneliness. In the Summer it simply makes you glum, but in the Winter it can be fatal. I’ve seen strong people collapse inside.”

The only real setback for me came from a lack of danger. The reader is told over and over that Charlie’s chances of survival are slim, but there’s no real worry of Charlie dying an untimely death. Unexpected saviors intervene, or Charlie is lucky, or someone sacrifices themselves for the sake of the mission- which requires Charlie staying alive, of course. In most books, the reader expects that the main character will live through most of the narration, so this shouldn’t have been a problem, but there’s a disconnect between the stakes claimed loudly in the narration and the actual likelihood of Fforde allowing Charlie to befall even a minor injury. This killed some of the tension and excitement for me, as I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters more likely to meet their demise.

“As long as I had value, I was safe.”

Initially, I picked this book up because I was interested in its viral dream aspect; earlier this year I loved Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, and was hoping for another weird sleep saga. Early Riser is certainly weird and does have some Inception vibes, but I found the Winter far more compelling than the dreams in this case. Don’t let my middling rating fool you- I’m sure I will remember parts of this story for a very long time, and the world stands out as one of the most thoroughly-imagined settings that I’ve ever read. I’m glad I picked this one up.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I had a good time reading this and loved the rich world and unpredictability of the plot, I also had a hard time reading very many pages of this book at a time. The lack of fear for Charlie and the constant need to parse new terms and concepts distanced me from the story, even though overall I would say I found the plot impressive. I wish I had made time for Early Riser back in the depths of winter, as much because of the book’s density and length as its setting.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Suspicious Minds

Like many, I’m impatiently waiting for Stranger Things season 3 to drop in July. In the meantime, I was pretty excited to see the release of an official Stranger Things novel: a prequel to the TV series, titled Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds, written by Gwenda Bond.

suspiciousmindsIn the novel, Terry Ives takes her roommate’s place in a mysterious government-run psychology experiment. She wants to be part of something important, and she wants the money they’re offering as compensation. She quickly befriends the other participants. When Terry discovers a strange, young child at the Hawkins National Laboratory, where they are transported for their own experiment, she must work with the others to unearth Dr. Brenner’s secrets and free the child. But the deeper they get, the more they discover that Brenner’s reach extends far beyond the lab.

” ‘You have rights. You’re Americans.’

Gloria smiled wryly. ‘When it’s our government involved, I think you’ll find our rights are often to be determined.’ “

It’s probable that the only readers this book will appeal to are going to be the ones who watch the Stranger Things TV series. It would be entirely possible to read this novel before watching any of the episodes, or at any point in the midst of them (these events take place before the first season, but they overlap with a bit of backstory revealed in the second season) but I would guess that only the most avid of Stranger Things fans who’ve devoured every detail so far borne into the world will be reaching for this volume.

Both the biggest boon and the biggest drawback to the fact that Suspicious Minds‘s readership will be largely comprised of readers who’ve already seen season 2 is that those readers will know the trajectory of this novel before even cracking open the cover, but they’re probably also the exact audience who won’t mind a bit of overlap in the face of new information. This book is in no way necessary to understanding the TV series, though it does offer deeper insight into a time period that’s barely grazed (so far) in the film.

Among the most intriguing elements this novel offers are an exploration of Terry’s character and personal history, as well as a more thorough examination of Brenner’s behavior and early days at the Hawkins National Laboratory. There are several brand-new characters that I don’t believe have been mentioned thus far in the film, though I haven’t yet done a careful rewatch to see whether there are any small connections I missed. The details and characters that readers will recognize (and there are plenty of those) do seem to match up very well- I didn’t find a single flaw or conflict between the information provided in the film and in the novel.

But Bond certainly plays it safe. Though there is mention of subjects 001 – 011, the only children present in any significant way in the novel are the two we are already aware of from the TV series. Brenner is just as cruel and influential, but he doesn’t reveal any more answers about his motives or past than he has in the film. Terry is brought to life in a way she didn’t have a chance at in the film, but all of her actions reveal a sort of inevitability toward the outcome we already know is coming- by which I mean that her personality and the choices that would lead her to Brenner are already in motion at the opening of the novel; we don’t see anything formative but rather the dusting off of the backstory we already know about. In sum, I don’t believe that those who read this novel will have any sort of advantage in understanding or predicting future seasons of the TV series over fans who skip the book and other extras and simply watch the episodes.

Which isn’t to say that Suspicious Minds isn’t entertaining. It throws the reader into the culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s the same way that the film does for the mid-80’s. There is mystery and experimental science- almost magic; the characters are compelling, their relationships strong and their enemies dangerous. If I found myself unsurprised by the unfolding plot here, I didn’t succumb to boredom.

“She’d never expected her comic books to be training for life, but then she’d never expected to have a friend who wanted to share visions via a homemade electroshock machine. It turned out the comic books had one thing right. Having powers put you in danger. Even being near people that had powers put you in danger. And being discovered by people who wanted to control those powers put you in even more. Of that she was certain.”

I did find the writing a bit bland, perhaps because the main characters here are college students and older adults portrayed in anticipation of younger readers; Bond keeps things as simple and PG as possible for accessibility across a wide range of audience members. Though it might not spark the same excitement as the film, Bond has crafted a novel in all ways acceptable in connection to the pop culture sensation that is Stranger Things.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a fun and quick read, if not quite as engrossing as the TV series. The novel in no way requires a sequel, as the next events are depicted briefly as a flashback in season 2, but there is room for continuation, as well as plenty of other characters that could be explored in the same way. I’d hoped for a little more to be revealed in Suspicious Minds since it is canon, but I was content enough with my reading experience that I would read another Official Stranger Things Novel. In the meantime… bring on season 3!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Test

I usually try not to let length determine what I read, but there’s something so irresistible about a short book that you know you can finish in a single sitting. Yesterday I (temporarily!) abandoned a 600+ page novel in favor of not one but two single-sitting books… the one that completely stunned me was Sylvain Neuvel’s brand new slim volume, The Test.

thetestIn the novella, Idir goes to take a UK citizenship test that will either grant his entire family permission to stay in London, or get them deported. After making his way past some unpleasant people in the immigration office, he sits down to take a written 25-question multiple-choice test. A disruption in the room changes everything.

“Those who fail […] wake up on an aeroplane with their whole family, mild to severe memory loss, and the headache of the century. They never learn what happened.”

“I’ve put people on the plane, and it’s not as pretty as what the brochure says. He’ll forget everything that happened, that’s for sure. He’ll also forget he has a dog, or where he went to school. He might forget what he likes for breakfast, how much he loves his wife. He won’t be the same man.”

That’s really all you want to know of the plot going in, so I won’t say more about that.

What’s obvious from the beginning is that Idir is an endearing man worthy of any citizenship, and that he is about to fall victim to a deeply flawed system. In a few short chapters, Neuvel examines both Idir’s experience with this absurdly challenging citizenship test and a trainee’s experience with running it. Though the horrors in Idir’s chapters are somewhat expected once the reader understands the way this book operates, the cold reasoning revealed in Deep’s chapters lends satirical depth to the situation.

“Studies show that the vast majority of subjects recover completely given the right medication…”

By far the most compelling facet of the story is the way that the moderators of the test rationalize their actions and the very existence of the citizenship test in this form. Morality is a science to them with distinct right and wrong answers, and every action is quantified; the rule book is law and leaves no room for emotion. In this way, though Neuvel’s dystopian-style citizenship test is not the experience real immigrants face, he still manages an effective criticism of a recognizable process.

In only 104 pages, The Test contains a surprising number of twists and doesn’t refrain from stomping on the reader’s heart. I, for one, will be recommending this little gem widely.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I think if I had read this at another time (read: not at 1 am) or under other circumstances (read: not as a much-needed break in the midst of a long book that’s not as exciting as I’d hoped it would be) this may have been a 4 star read, due to a certain level of predictability. But as it was, I had a 5-star time while reading it! I may have to bump Sleeping Giants up my TBR.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Dreamers

I have always loved reading about intangible things: reincarnation, fate, dreams… so of course Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers caught my eye.

thedreamersIn the novel, a picturesque Californian town becomes a news sensation when the perplexing case of one girl who can’t be woken turns into an epidemic of sleeping citizens. At first the “sickness” is confined to a single dormitory floor at the local college, but the dreams (and the students) defy containment. One by one, the young and the old drop off to sleep and are essentially lost to the living.

“But isn’t every sleep a kind of isolation? When else are we so alone?”

The narration hops between a large cast of characters, some of whom become stuck in the sleeping sickness and some of whom never do. Thompson Walker does a superb job of keeping the reader invested enough in each character’s situation for every facet of the story to remain interesting even as it becomes obvious that the focus of the book lies in the sickness itself and the community it sweeps through, rather than any of the individuals who experience it. Though some readers will likely feel a disconnect with the narration because of the quick switches, this tactic leaves room for beautiful and disturbing commentary about dreams and epidemics. My only disappointment with the characters is that some of them seem more like ideas of characters than like actual characters; each fits a “type” that leaves them very two-dimensional.

By far the most compelling aspect of the novel for me, it was the alarming (non)reaction to the sleeping sickness that propelled me through these 300 pages. As more and more people fall irretrievably into this mysterious sleep, the sickness devolves into a game of “everyone for themselves.” Some barricade their families in their homes, others fight for dwindling supplies at the local stores, and everyone wants to skip town, unrealistically denying the fact that they may already be carrying the disease. Legality takes precedence over safety, and increasingly cautious “protocols” are viewed as inconvenient formalities that come too little and too late. Meanwhile, the narration shows the many ways that the sickness ravages the careless population.

“But whoever shares her lipstick that day, whoever borrows her eyeliner, whoever kisses her cheek that night or dances too close or clinks her flute of champagne, whoever touches her hand to admire the ring, whoever catches the bouquet at the end of the night- all of them, every one, is exposed.”

The prose itself is dreamy and evocative, and the level of research evident throughout brings the premise to frightening life. Of course no one can choose to stop sleeping, no matter the danger it might bring. I don’t believe it’s possible to close your eyes at night without at least a little misgiving while reading this book, so close does this story seem our real world.

But for all of its dark beauty, the downfall of the novel is that it doesn’t seem to be making much of a point beyond convincing the reader that dreams remain an unknown. Much about the sickness and the consequences the dreamers face in the aftermath remains unanswered at the end of the book. The Dreamers never lost my attention or interest, but instead of following any of the questions it presents to a solid conclusion, the plot fizzles out after a convenient change upturns the status quo.

“Not everything that happens in a life can be digested. Some events stay forever whole. Some images never leave the mind.”

And that, essentially, is how I felt upon closing this book. I will be thinking about some of the suggestions and implications of this novel for a long time, though I also think that the story ended somewhat incomplete.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. The Dreamers was gorgeous to read, though the ending didn’t quite deliver as much as I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I do feel that the scare the novel invokes about our potential modern response to a new epidemic does leave the reader with fodder for contemplation. I did think Karen Thompson Walker did a much better job with this premise than Stephen and Owen King managed with Sleeping Beauties, though I found the Kings’ characters more compelling. I think Ling Ma’s Severance with its satirical zombies is a more fitting comparison in tone for The Dreamers, and I highly recommend both.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Watchmen

I’m pretty sure my favorite art form will always be the novel, but I don’t want that to hold me back from enjoying other stories. One genre I’ve not spent much time with is the graphic novel form. I’ve been following along with Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (though I haven’t gotten to vol. 9 yet) and I’m loving it so much that I wanted to check out more comics. Preferably finished story lines, because the year-long “intermission” for Saga is going to be difficult enough. So I picked up a title I’ve seen around: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

watchmenAbout the book: The era of “masked adventurers” is grinding to a halt. The people are tired of costumed vigilantes, and the heroes have come to realize that crime is a bigger issue than can be solved by taking out a few stalkers in dark alleyways at night. Sometimes the people who steal are the good guys just trying to take back what belonged to them, and the people who follow the law are the bad guys building their empires on the backs of the poor. It’s a hopeless, endless battle. And so the heroes begin to fade out of sight, some by choice and some by government’s orders. But then The Comedian is killed, and the others begin to worry that someone is trying to wipe out the (mostly) retired heroes. Rorschach suspects a conspiracy and reaches out to his old cohorts- but can they solve the mystery before they’re all killed? And what will happen when the heroes are all gone?

“Well, me, I kinda like it when things get weird, y’know? I like it when all the cards are on the table.”

Watchmen is a sci-fi/superhero graphic novel comprised of twelve sequential volumes; I read a complete bind-up that included all twelve.

Essentially, this is a story about corruption, power, and humanity. Are there such things as “good” and “evil”? Does methods matter as much as results? These are timeless themes, though the book does have a bit of historical flavor as the politics and culture of its time setting factor into the plot.

It did take me a few volumes to find my stride with this story. There are a lot of characters, and I had to go back and forth a few times within the first three or so volumes to remember who was which hero and what was important about them. The masked adventurers are referred to both by their code names and their real names, and there are two Nite Owls. Jon / Dr. Manhattan actually has real super powers, and his “costume” is his altered human body. One of the heroes is the daughter of another. There are also a few side plots that don’t seem to connect until the end of the story. It took me a while to keep all of those details straight. But once I managed it, I appreciated the array of characters and their unique motives and personalities. These are “superheroes” like I’ve never seen them before. (Even though I’ve not read many comics I have seen quite a few of the movies.)

“As I see it, part of the art of being a hero is knowing when you don’t need to be one anymore, realizing that the game has changed and that the stakes are different and that there isn’t necessarily a place for you in this strange new pantheon of extraordinary people.”

I won’t talk about each of the volumes individually, as I read them all back-to-back in a short amount of time and was more focused on the story as a whole than on differentiating the chapters. But I will say that Vol. 4 was my favorite, probably because Jon was my favorite character and I love narratives that play with time- which Vol. 4 does. Rorschach was my second-favorite character, because I found him the most interesting and morally gray, though I wasn’t always rooting for him to win.

Though the story takes place mostly chronologically, there are a few flashbacks mixed in. The focus alternates between all of the main characters, who feature more prominently in some volumes than others. I also mentioned side plots, one of which includes a comic within the comic. That’s a lot to juggle, but once I could keep the characters straight I had no trouble following the story. And I absolutely loved the juxtapositions between everything going on. I don’t feel very qualified to talk about the quality of the artwork (though it was easy enough to follow and to recognize the various characters and settings, which is really all I need in a visual story), but I can say that the art seemed impeccably planned. The transitions are often brilliant, with the words of one portion of the narrative mingling with the images of the next, or vice versa. There are some beautiful splits and parallels between similar events happening to different characters, or different events with comparable tones, etc. This is definitely a story that belongs in the comic world- I love novels, but I can see that this story would lose its magic if removed from its graphic format. I suppose that is how someone unversed in comics can tell whether the art is “good.”

But as someone who has a general tendency toward longer text and fewer pictures, I  enjoyed that each volume (except for 12) concluded with a few text-based pages that related to the content of their respective volumes and offered further information about the main characters. There is an excerpt from a retired adventurer’s memoir, correspondence from another’s desk, news articles with adventurer interviews, etc. I wondered at first whether these sections were strictly necessary to the overall plot, but they do give helpful insight into the characters and played a large role in my ability to keep them straight, so in the end I was glad to have them for that reason as well.

All in all, I thought this was an engaging story with phenomenal construction, and well worth the read for anyone who likes to dabble in sci-fi.

“You get to be a superhero by believing in the hero within you and summoning him or her forth by an act of will. Believing in yourself and your own potential is the first step to realizing that potential.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Actually, this was nearly a 5 star read for me once I got the hang of it. I enjoyed it immensely. I can see why Watchmen is considered a classic of its genre. The cover states, “This is the book that changed an industry and challenged a medium. If you’ve never read a graphic novel, start with WATCHMEN.” Which is basically why I picked it up, and even without much experience in graphic novels it seems accurate to me. This book has definitely increased my interest in comics and graphic novels. I’d call that a success. Highly recommend.

 

The Literary Elephant