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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Da Vinci Code

Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385504209

If for some reason you haven’t heard of the Da Vinci Code before now, I have no help for you. I live under a fairly substantive rock, and even I had heard of this book to death. I had even attempted to read it once or twice, during my stint at Waldenbooks, but couldn’t really get into it. So I gave up, and decided to relegate it to the same place as Titanic and Forrest Gump—works of popular culture that I have no interest in, and therefore, will not partake of. But a good friend finally broke my will, and I borrowed a copy from my local library before setting out for the Thanksgiving holiday.


So what did I think of this incredibly popular, highly controversial work that sold literally millions of copies, spawned a movie, and produced comments from the Vatican itself? In a word, it’s bad. Other appropriate single words might be awful, atrocious, terrible, or abominable. Other similar synonyms can be found here.

The Da Vinci Code is a combination of bad writing, shoddy history, poor plotting, and unconvincing characters that blends together to form a barely readable work. The fact that anyone took this work seriously in any capacity is amazing to me. The characters are flat, boring, and none of them exceed two dimensions at best. The “history” is so riddled with holes as to be completely unbelievable to the semi-alert observer (my favorite part is the explanation of how the Church’s desire to destroy the “sacred feminine” is responsible for Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims barring women from certain rites.). And finally, the plot just makes no damn sense. Even the much vaunted puzzles are fairly trite, and usually explained so quickly that it’s barely worth thinking about. The final puzzle that the main character is faced with is so mind-bogglingly obvious that anyone who knows how to draw a Magen David (Star of David) can figure it out instantly.

So the question for me became this: given how awful this book is, why the hell is it so popular? I can offer the following explanations/observations.

First off, Brown employs a clever (and I use the term loosely) narrative structure in which he ends every single chapter on a cliffhanger. This forces the reader to continue reading, hoping to reach a payoff or stopping point that is never quite realized. Thus the reader keeps going to the next chapter, hoping to finally hit a point where the story will relax, only to discover that the story never really relaxes. It just plods relentlessly forward, like the Terminator chasing Sarah Connor with a SuDoKu puzzle.

In a similar vein, Brown keeps his chapters short. In fact, I’ve read verse poetry that was longer than some of the chapters in this book (and considerably better written). This helps the reader feel as though they are making progress, because they’re suddenly on Chapter 44, and can reach Chapter 50 with only a few extra minutes of reading. Hooray for the short attention span.

Likewise, Brown taps into some popular political and historical fallacies that are guaranteed to make him well-liked. Namely that the Catholic Church is an evil conspiracy (Christianity is one of the few religions it’s still ok to hate in this day and age, after all) and the notion that ancient Europeans were all ecologically conscious, goddess-worshipping pacifists until the evil patriarchy destroyed their Edenic culture. And hey, both of those are popular, if totally un-nuanced and historically questionable viewpoints, but shoddy history is always popular with the masses. The popularity of this book is proof enough.

Knowing that I’m one of the last people in the United States to have read this book, I can hardly imagine my recommendation can save anyone at this point, but on the off hand chance it can—don’t read this book. It’s a waste of time. At the very least, take it out of the library so you don’t put more money into the pocket of an author of questionable talent. There’s much better writers in this world.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller Jr.
Publisher: Spectra; Reprint edition (September 2, 1997)
ISBN: 0553379267


The atomic Flame Deluge was over. The earth was dead. All knowledge was gone.
In a hellish, barren desert, a humble monk unearths a fragile link to 20th-century civilization. A handwritten document from the Blessed Saint Leibowitz that reads: pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.


The jacket description is somewhat accurate, if a bit misleading. In fact, the young monk in question discovers not just a scrap of a grocery list, but rather a small fallout shelter which contains a number of documents penned by an obscure twentieth century engineer that has become the (un-canonized) patron saint of the Order of Leibowitz, a group of Christian Monks devoted to preserving scientific knowledge after the nuclear holocaust. The book proceeds to trace the history of the Order, and of mankind, through three different periods in man’s future history. Along the way, it wrestles with a number of themes, most prominently being that of the constant rise and fall of civilization, and the question of whether or not mankind can really break out of that cycle. There’s also a great deal of Catholic imagery and scripture, which I am, truth be told, too ignorant to entirely understand or appreciate. 

It’s a fantastically well written book. Miller builds a very rich and detailed world inside the abbey of the Order of Saint Leibowitz, and his characters are quite memorable and lively. Like many classic works of science fiction, this book is more concerned with ideas than it is with individual characters; unlike some of those classic works, the characters in this book are still fun and worth reading about.

I really have only one complaint: there’s a character who appears throughout the book, whose purpose and reason for existence is never made particularly clear. At least, it wasn’t clear to me. I’m willing to admit that I may have missed something, especially given my poor knowledge of the Catholic religion. But overall, it’s a fantastic, if somewhat low-key book. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Spinneret

Spinneret
Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Baen; Reprint edition (November 15, 1986)
ISBN: 0671655981

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m quite the Timothy Zahn fan. I can’t entirely explain why, save that his writing style and plots tend to hook me, and keep me hooked, through most of his stories and novels. Even his weaker offerings (like Outbound Flight), still keep me pretty well entertained. There’s not a lot of authors I can say that about.

Spinneret is one of Zahn’s older novels, and one I knew almost nothing about before reading it. I’m not even sure where I got it. It was interesting going into a novel totally blind, especially when it’s by an author that I’m such a huge fan of.

The setup of Spinneret is both straightforward and complex at the same time. It’s the year 2016, and humanity has finally made it to the stars. What they’ve found, however, is that the stars are already occupied. Alien races of varying stripes have already colonized most of the galaxy, and there’s really nowhere for humanity to go. Except Astra, a small planet that has the peculiar distinction of having have absolutely no metals, at all. Humanity is offered the planet, and after some politicking and discussion, the United States decides to colonize it.

Yes, the United States. One of the interesting things about Spinneret is that Zahn completely dodges the old saw that mankind has become united under one peaceful world government before developing space travel. The various nation-states of the world still exist (albeit in somewhat altered form), and the tension between the United States and the United Nations is one of the focal problems of the book. Then, of course, there’s the half-a-dozen other alien races out there.

Of course, none of them care about Astra initially, until the colonists discover exactly why there are no metals on the planet; the Spinneret, an enormous alien machine which leeches metal right out of the planet’s surface and processes it, creating enormous, super-strong, lightweight, metal rods that are launched into orbit around the planet. No one is sure exactly what the machine is for, or who built it, but everyone wants in on the action. What follows is a combination of political and military intrigue, as various factions among the colonists, the humans, and the aliens all try to figure out how to work things to their best advantage. And of course, the mystery of who built the Spinneret, and why, overshadows all of the political maneuvering.

I was pretty well pleased with this one, overall. The book is fun, fast-paced, and interesting. Some of the characters are a bit two-dimensional, like Perez, who is a radical taken to ludicrous extremes, but overall, it’s well done. The various alien races, while only touched upon, are all fairly unique—I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we got of the M’Zarch, a warrior culture that actually has jobs like “Cowards Advocate” (whose role seems to be offering suggestions that don’t involve killing things), and the Pom, a water-bound race of Dolphin/Octopoids. The mystery of the Spinneret does get answered, and if the answer is not entirely satisfying, it’s enough to satisfy the needs of the plot. In the end, this book is less about the Spinneret, and more about people’s reactions to it, and to each other. Good stuff.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye
Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
Publisher: Pocket (March 1, 1991)
ISBN: 0671741926

Like so many books I’ve read, The Mote in G-d’s Eye was recommended to me by father, many years ago.

The Mote in G-d’s eye is a story about first contact, set in the year 3016. Mankind has seeded the stars, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive, and has also reverted to living under an Imperial Monarchy, thanks to the clichés of science fiction (to be fair, this book probably helped establish those clichés, so I can’t take it to task too much). In the aftermath of an uprising on some outer rim worlds, Commander Roderick Blaine discovers an alien probe approaching the system that his ship is in. While the pilot of the ship is deceased, it still proves the basic point: humanity is not alone in the universe.

Blaine and his ship are quickly drafted as part of the mission that sets out to find the alien home world and make first contact between the human empire and the Moties (nicknamed such because their home planet is located in a star system referred to as the Mote in G-d’s Eye). As one would expect, the first contact is fraught with a variety of questions and problems, which quickly result in everything from complicated political intrigue to outright violence.

First contact stories are always tricky, for one simple reason. Creating a believably alien race is tough enough (witness Star Trek for a number of failures, among others), but anticipating the assorted problems that might occur from that first contact is even harder. Niven and Pournelle do a bang-up job, however. The Moties seem very plausible, yet totally alien; indeed, in a clever twist, the Moties bodies are not symmetrical (they have a single large arm on one side, and two smaller arms on the other), which helps to remind the reader just how inhuman these creatures are. 

Unlike some science fiction novels, however, this book contains more than an interesting idea. The story itself is well-executed and interesting to follow, as various factions on both sides try to make sense out of their new situation, and figure out how to exploit it to their own advantage. The pace is just slow enough to maintain a feeling of mystery, without being so slow as to be completely boring. And, in a wonderful twist, most of the mysteries are answered by the end of the book. There’s certainly further that the story COULD go, but there’s no reason that it needs to go any further. It’s fine the way it is.

Robert Heinlein apparently said that this was “possibly the finest science fiction novel [he had] ever read.” There might be points I’d argue with Heinlein on, but this isn’t one of them. This is a damn fine book.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Chiefs

Chiefs
Stuart Woods
Publisher: W. W. Norton; 25th Annv. edition (March 6, 2006)
ISBN: 0393014614

Chiefs was a very interesting read for me. It was recommended to me by CP, the assistant manager of the Waldenbooks I used to work at, and a voracious reader of mystery fiction (and romance novels, but you won’t catch me reading one of those any time soon). When I left, she put four mystery novels in my hands; this is the second one I’ve gotten to (the first was Black Echo). This is a much better novel, but not necessarily as good a mystery, depending on what it is you’re looking for.

Chiefs is the story of town of Delano, Georgia, beginning in the early 1920’s and running up through the 1950’s, focusing primarily on three men who hold the office of chief of police in Delano. The three chiefs are not related in any way, but they share a common bond in that they each stumble across a series of unsolved murders that have been occurring near the town for generations. Each chief must take up the case, and try to solve it where his predecessors failed, while dealing with the changes that overtake Delano during the Depression, the Second World War, and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s a terrific novel. Woods paints a marvelously well-developed picture of a small southern town without crossing over the line into either ludicrous nostalgia or hyperbolic stereotyping. He creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere and history, so that the town itself becomes a character into itself. The inhabitants of the town are equally well-developed, and while some naturally receive more attention than others, every one of them feels like a real living, breathing person.

There’s also much more to this novel than just a simple murder mystery; the chiefs, and the town as a whole, deal with not just murders, or even crime, but the intricate politics of the South as Delano grows in power and influence. Most of the significant characters in the novel are politicians, not cops, and there’s as much devotion to the intricacies of backroom negotiations and cultural upheaval as there is to dead bodies and criminal investigations. The stories all flow together to create a single coherent, but very multifaceted tale that draws the reader in, and keeps pulling him along.

I have very little bad to say about this novel, but I will say that it’s really not much of a murder mystery, in the conventional sense. Who the murderer is becomes obvious fairly quickly; the question is not who or what is committing the murders, but hwy, and how they’ll be solved (if they ever will at all). If you are the sort of reader who reads mysteries to see how fast you can solve them, this novel may disappoint you. In addition, the ending is not entirely satisfying; the resolution itself works, but the way it’s actually set up had a little bit of a deus ex machina feel to it that doesn’t entirely work, especially given how well the novel is constructed overall.

Still, it’s a great novel despite it’s flaws; the story is rich, the characters are engaging, and Woods’ writing flows wonderfully. Definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of mystery, or just like a good book.