You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a former prisoner in the Soviet gulag. It details one day in the main character's life, from waking to going to bed again.

The day starts with the banging of a rail in the prison yard. Ivan Denisovitch Shukov wants to stay in bed because he doesn't feel well and it's cold. For not getting up right away, a guard pulls him out of bed and takes him to the guardroom where he has to mop the floor. The guards there treat him like a subhuman. His work squad saves his breakfast. He visits the infirmary but they have already kept back the only two they can for the day.

The workers leave for their work sites, and are made to open their coats and pull up their shirts in the cold air, to make sure they don't have more than the regulation number of shirts. They make it to the work site, and are forced to improvise in order to get their work complete. They have to add bricks and mortar to an old unfinished building, but the water and mortar will freeze if they sit too long, so they have to work fast. Shukov works quickly as a mason, setting the pace for the rest of the crew. At lunch he manages to trick the cook into giving the squad two extra bowls of oatmeal, and he gets one of them.

In the evening, they workers march back to the barracks. They get soup for supper, after making through the "Limper", who bashes men with a club if they approach the mess hall before their squad is called. Shukov gets more food again, after standing in the package line for one of his squad mates. After supper, he buys some tobacco, and relaxes in the barracks before the guards force the prisoners to march outside and back in for a final count. The narrator finishes by saying that the day has been a pretty good one for Shukov: he go extra food, could buy tobacco, didn't end up in solitary, and did some work that he was good at and enjoyed.

The story is a depressing one, but one of the emerging themes is survival. Shukov doesn't think about his former life, or creating a new one when he leaves prison. The prison has become his life, and he has adjusted. He and the others are all resourceful, finding ways to get more food and stay warmer just a bit longer. They work together as a team. Whenever more food comes in, they often share it with their squad. In a way, Shukov has joined a more perfect communist society. All the prisoners are in the same boat and share rewards and punishments, especially inside the squads.

Shukov is contrasted with others. There are two baptists who urge him to pray with them, but he won't have anything to do with their paradise or hell, and it won't get him home any faster. The former navy captain is new to the system, clashes with the guards, and ends up in solitary. Shukov would never let himself get noticed by the guards; he stays quiet and keeps his head down. Tiurin is the squad leader, who exemplifies the relationship between the prisoners and how they relate to the guards. He makes sure the squad gets what they need, and manages to bribe the guards with salt pork to keep them from sending the squad to a faraway work site without shelter. Other prisoners don't work as hard as Shukov, or aren't as crafty, and many don't get extra food.

The book is interesting, though it definitely lacks drama. There's some tension between the prisoners. There are squealers, thieves, slackers. But for the most part it's the story of one man and how he copes inside a system that degrades human beings, much like the Soviet system as a whole. The writing is good and illuminating. I found it more informative than entertaining, so I'll give it a B.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, is an 800-page novel that tells a big story. Actually just a part of the big story, since there are several sequels. The story is too vast to cover in detail, so I’ll present just a brief overview.

The main conflict involves several houses in the Seven Kingdoms. King Robert calls on his friend Ned Stark, lord of the North, to be his Hand after his previous Hand dies mysteriously. Ned is a wise ruler who knows that a leader must stay in touch with his people, and must stay close to justice. He executes a condemned man personally, believing that otherwise he will forget how serious the sentence is. Ned is contrasted by the Lannisters, a family willing to do anything to get the throne. The king’s wife is a Lannister, and her twin brother is one of the kingsguard. Their little brother is a malformed dwarf called Tyrion, who has a smart mouth, rather like a court’s fool.

Much of the action centers on Ned’s wife, Catelyn, and her travel to the capital to tell Ned of the attempt on the life of their son Bran, who had fallen from a roof and ended up in a coma. There is much dramatic tension from the fact that we know Bran was pushed to the ground by the queen’s incestuous brother, Bran having discovered the two in a romantic liaison. There’s also the story of Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son, who is sent to join the guard on the Wall, a huge wall of ice in the far north, to help guard against the Others and other dangers to the north. There’s Ned’s daughters, who travel with him to the capital, one of whom starts sword fighting lessons. Ned tries to figure out who killed the previous holder of his position (having been warned so by the man’s widow, his wife’s sister). And lastly there is a whole thread of the narrative that follows the last prince and princess of the house that King Robert dethroned to take the throne, and the prince’s attempts to gather an army to retake his place as king.

Such a synopsis barely scratches the surface of this vast story. There are dozens of main characters, and hundreds of other knights, ladies, lords, and others. The events cover most of the big houses of the kingdoms, as well as the lands where the prince and princess of the old dynasty go to find their armies. There’s a lot of intrigue, double-crosses, battles, kidnappings, killings, and traveling back and forth.

Being the first part of a larger story, it’s hard to rate the book on its own merits. One problem I often had was keeping track of the passage of time. When Catelyn travels to the capital, I expect her to be gone a month or so. But things drag on, and we find out that it’s been nearly a year since she left home. Perhaps there are more clues, but the best I found was the description of one of the character’s pregnancies.

There is a strong contrast between Ned, who is honorable to a fault, and the others who intrigue for the throne. He could avoid some of his problems if only he would take action that doesn’t meet his standard (and at some points I found myself yelling at him, “Listen to what they’re saying!” or “Don’t trust him!”). Making such characters, who we want to see live, and the drama that surrounds them, is a real gift. I would have to say that one of my favorite characters is Tyrion, despite his loyalty to his family and his drive for greed and revenge. Robb, Ned Stark’s son, takes over as lord of his house with his father gone, and gains in importance and maturity throughout the story.

I’ll give the book an A-. The final question is, do I want to read the sequel? That I do (in fact it’s already in the house). The characters and events are so compelling that I want to see what happens next. There are some series that I read where after reading the first book I decide I don’t need to read any more in the series, or perhaps will read them at some point in the future. There’s no question that the next book is already on my short list.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Brave New World

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

First, a note on form. The story starts in civilization (London), then two characters go to the wilds (a reservation in New Mexico), then travel back to civilization with a lost civilized person and her son who grew up “uncivilized”. The “savage” struggles to get along in the civilized world. Finally, we hear a long explanation of how things work and why they are better now. The structure sets up a strong tension between the individual and society.

The story starts in a center where babies are manufactured. We follow a tour of students being shown the artificial wombs as they travel along a track. We learn about how babies are created (not conceived and born), and how children are conditioned to believe things one way or another. There are several different classes, from Alphas to Epsilons, each from a plus to a minus. The Alphas are trained for mental work and to believe they are better than the Epsilons, who can barely take care of themselves. The Deltas and Epsilons, etc, are trained for grunt work and conditioned to believe that they have it better than the Alphas or Betas, who have to do difficult work. This serves as an introduction to the world of the book (several hundred years into the future), and frames the rest of the narrative.

We meet Bernard, an Alpha who is not happy with his life. He is shorter than most Alphas (and everyone is conditioned to treat taller people as authority figures). People find him disagreeable and strange. Sometimes he prefers to be alone, which is almost criminal. He decides to take a holiday at the native reservation in North America, and takes his friend Lenina. There they observe bizarre rituals of the natives, and find a woman from civilization, Linda, who has been stranded for years, and her son, John, raised without the benefit of civilization. Bernard gets the idea to take Linda and John back to society, mostly because he has figured out the Linda is the missing girlfriend of his boss.

They travel back to London, creating quite a stir. Babies are only known at the centers, and have no parents, only siblings (sometimes hundreds of identical twins at a time). So when John starts talking about his mother and long lost father, everyone is horrified. Bernard’s boss is shamed. Linda ends up dying in a death center. John finds things more and more unappealing in society. He tries to woo Lenina, who he adores, but it goes terribly awry. Since sex is not taboo anymore and is expected of everyone (a popular saying is “Everyone lives for everyone else”), Lenina doesn’t mind taking on another lover. But this shocks John’s sensibilities. He lived his life with his mother sleeping with the men of the reservation, and listening to the taunts of the women and children. He calls Lenina a whore, which she doesn’t understand at all.

The world controller comes to see the “Savage.” The two of them and Bernard and one of his friends have a discussion about society and how it is structured and what they have lost. Bernard and his friend end up going to Iceland, where there are more people who are not satisfied with the conformist society. The savage tries to live by himself in a hermitage, but after throngs of people come to watch him and taunt him, he ends up killing himself.

The basic themes of the novel are the individual and society. All individual desires and needs are subjugated to the needs of society. Not only are there no mothers, fathers, or children, but people are discouraged from creating personal relationships. Thus everyone should sleep with many different people, and not feel like any of them are particularly special. Religion is gone, replaced by a civil faith in “Ford”, essentially the founder of the society. Every once in a while they get together to worship or pray together for Ford’s Day. The society decides what one’s job is going to be, and you are conditioned and trained for it. Society decides what art and sports are available. Birth is not particularly noteworthy, and death occurs anonymously in death centers. It is rare for anyone to visit a death center to visit someone that they know. Most books are banned, and only approved reading is available. People rely on soma, a relaxing drug, to deal with any extreme emotions. People are encouraged to consume a lot, to keep the economy going, so they must throw away a torn garment instead of mending it.

Bernard is the classic individual in the repressive society. He hasn’t had sex with many women. Sometimes he prefers to be alone. He harbors anti-society thoughts. He is the typical person to visit the free society of natives. He does feel for Linda and John. In many ways, Bernard and John are very similar. Bernard is the product of the society who is not satisfied with his part of it. John is the man who comes from a life closer to our own, and we can see the new society through his eyes. He speaks for us. John inability to accept the new world mirrors our distaste for it. He cannot understand why people are not allowed to do any work they want. He doesn’t understand the lack of mothers or fathers. And his experience with his mother and his own society’s treatment of her behavior has left him unable to deal with the free love of civilization.

The last chapters, where the world controller discusses society and its changes, provide a good explanation of the society and its reasons for why it has changed. Plot wise, it’s basically the author providing commentary and exposition, filling in the gaps. We find out that not everyone can be Alpha pluses, or else none would be happy doing low-level jobs. We also find out that society has chosen happiness over the truth. (I would also argue that they have chosen happiness over freedom.) So it is enough that everyone is happy and content, not knowing what freedom is, or unhappiness, or what having a choice in life is. The society chooses what a person’s assigned occupation is before they even choose to create him.

The book is generally science fiction, since it takes place centuries in the future and deals with a “what if” question: what if society grew to a point where it takes over all individuality, so that there are no families, no choices, everyone puts the good of society over any individual need. It’s taken more of an aura, becoming a serious classic. This is a great look at the philosophical questions of society and individual. A solid A.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Year's Best SF 10

I've been reading the anthology Year's Best SF 10 for the last few months, mostly at the gym or during lunch. Most of the stories are good or great, with only a few misses.

The first story is "Sergeant Chip," one of my favorites. It's the story of a highly trained dog who ends up on a failed mission, and has to take care of some civilians. It has one of the best first lines: "Today before it was light I had to roll in the stream to wash blood from my fur." How can you not continue reading after that?

"Burning Day" is another great story, about an investigation into a murder of androids, and plays with reader's expectations. "Glinky" is a fun story, kind of a fantasy involving an investigator and a transition of realities. "Red City" is about a couple's visit to India, where they find a portal to the past. "Mastermindless" is another investigator story, involving the sudden change in a town where every male is suddenly ugly, stupid, and has very little in his bank account. It's great how it plays out from a few vauge clues to a satisfying ending.

"The Battle of York" is probably the most unique story in the group. It's an amalgam of American history, folk history, and legend, told as a far future where hard records of the past are gone, and only scraps of legend remain. General Washington has his battle-axe, Valleyforge, and fights with Arm Strong Custard, and Eisenhower Iron Hewer, challenging the four headed creature at Rushmore to get the parchment with the words of power and defeat the giant Britannia.

"Loosestrife" is an interesting story involving a retarded girl who kidnaps a baby, and a man who gets her out of the country, but things are not as they seem. "Pervert" involves a future where the rules of Islam dictate no contact between males and females, and babies are created in labs. "Strood" is another story that plays on expectations.

Some of the stories that were sub-par include "First Commandment," about scientists attempt to catalog the last uncataloged part of Earth in Australia. "Venus Flowers at Night" is an intriguing piece about a man's attempt to put movies/holograms together detailing the successful terraforming of Venus, as a demonstration to the possibility of actually changing the planet. It has some interesting scenes, but doesn't make it as a complete story, too fragmented for my taste. "The Risk-Taking Gene" is another piece that doesn't come together as a story, too much an essay and too little happening, with not much of an ending.

Given the big hits, I'll give this one an A-. The stories are about 80% worth reading.