Book Review: Time and Again

(Sorry about this; I know it’s been a month, and this is lame, but I wanted to make sure I posted something in the month of August. I’m teaching now, so therefore not doing enough of what I should be doing, reading and writing. I’ll try to get something better up soon. For now, here’s this.)

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Time and Again

by Jack Finney

I bought this because Jack Finney wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is a science fiction classic, and one of my all-time favorite short stories, Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, which is just brilliant. Also, my copy of this is from the Fantasy Masterworks series; and, last but not least, it’s about time travel. I wrote a book – two, now – about time travel. Clearly I need to read this fantasy masterpiece by an excellent author about a theme similar to mine.

Now I’ve read it; I’m not sure I really needed to read it.

The book is the story of a government project to realize time travel. The concept is deceptively simple: based on Einstein’s theories that time is similar to space in that it is a dimension of the space-time continuum, which means it has an axis, and therefore just as you could move in either direction along one axis in space (up-down, right-left, forward-back), you should be able to move in both directions in time. I don’t want to get too far into it, but the government project is, I think, quite well done: they do things the government would do, in the way that government would do them. The main character is a graphic designer and illustrator living in New York City in the 1960’s or so (The actual date of the modern era is left vague), who eventually attempts to travel back in time to 1882. The key is to find a space that can be isolated from the modern era completely: in this case (though there are several different attempts going on at once), the central element is the Dakota, a residential apartment building/hotel in New York City that has remained unchanged from the 1800’s until now. It’s a clever idea, honestly, and Finney does it really well.

There are some things about this book that are incredible. The level of detail that Finney was able to summon and wield in order to capture the time frames, both the character’s starting point and the destination, is amazing. The world he describes is lovely, but not actually idealized – one of the very best scenes is a conversation the hero has with a wagon driver in 1882 who describes what absolute hell it is to have his job in the New York winters, and it’s a brilliantly dark moment – which just made its loveliness more impressive; reading the book feels like being nostalgic for an era that I never knew, and a city I have visited but never cared too much about. As much as anything else, this book is a love letter to New York City: the comparison between the Big Apple of the past and the modern one makes both cities seem glorious, from Central Park to St. Patrick’s cathedral to Madison Square, from the Museum of Natural History to the Dakota building to the Statue of Liberty. It’s all wonderful. The descriptions are specific and detailed and interesting, and Finney made liberal use of original photographs and drawings from 1882 New York, making his main character into an artist as a means of drawing the actual historical art into the narrative. Some of the reproductions in this paperback edition were a bit sketchy or blurry, but it did certainly bring the setting to life, and I loved that.

You know what I didn’t like, though? The characters. Not a one of them. The main character, Simon Morley, struck me as an arrogant putz, and they went downhill from there. The best people are the cast of characters in the past, but several of them are, as you might expect, a little too alien for me to relate to very well; I suppose I can appreciate gathering with the other roomers in my boarding house to sing songs together in the drawing room, but I can’t help but think it strange, too.

You know what else I didn’t like? The plot. The major conflict is resolved in the first 150 pages (of 400) when – spoiler – time travel works. After that it’s Simon Morley putzing around, making bad decisions and then following them up with worse decisions; it does, I admit, make him realistic, because I think most people would do a lot of the things he did – but they were stupid things to do, so I can’t like him for it. I do like his final decision, which I will not spoil here but which did surprise me; unfortunately, it made reference to an earlier detail that I had forgotten entirely, so the poetic denouement was lost on me. Part of that is because the book took me a long time to read: a slow plot and annoying characters, combined with the start of the new school year, dragged this one out for a couple of weeks, which is a long time for me.

Don’t let me ruin this one, though. The time travel idea is interesting, if in some ways far fetched (Yes, as compared to the far more realistic means of time travel from other books – like mine, where it is, y’know, magic. Reality squared, that’s what that is), the writing and the descriptions really are remarkable, along with the photos and the historical details. It’s a good book. I just wish Finney had written a better hero.

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Book Review: Christopher Moore’s (Alas!) Bad Book

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The Griff

by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson

 

I hate this. I hate it!

I love Christopher Moore. He is one of my all-time favorite authors, one of my heroes. I’ve read everything he’s written, and I’ve loved everything he’s written.

Except this.

This is a crappy book.

Well, I suppose it had to happen sometime; there have been some of his books (Island of the Sequined Love Nun, Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove) that I haven’t liked nearly as much as his best works, like Lamb and Fool and Sacre Bleu. It’s reasonable to think that one of them could sink down low enough to actually be unenjoyable. It is not surprising to me that the one that did so was a collaboration, which none of his novels are; and that it was a graphic novel, which is not Moore’s usual medium. I would guess that Moore had little to do with the actual illustrations – which, unless I’m reading the credits in the book wrongly, seem to have been sort of mass-produced? They are all owned by Harper-Collins, and though a half-dozen people are thanked, no one is listed as the actual artist, other than the person who did the cover, Jennyson Rosero – and the illustrations are a fair piece of the problem with this. But really, there isn’t much here that’s good, so I can’t cover Moore on this one. He made a stinker.

All right: details. So this is an apocalypse story. The Griff are, quite literally, monsters from outer space. They are called The Griff because they look something like griffins: four legged beasts with claws, wings, and lizard/dragon like heads with sharp beaks. They arrive in large space ships, much like Independence Day, and immediately fall to wiping out humanity. (Reminded me of Footfall, if any of you are as deep into sci-fi nerdery as I am. Also, they seem to be summoned by an accidental signal sent into space by guys who uncover a mysterious artifact from the sea-bottom, which made me think of Star Trek IV. Woo! Nerdiverse!) So far so good: but that’s where the first problem appears. The design of the book is so poor that there are a couple of pages that literally can’t be deciphered; the rapid transitions between scenes of slaughter and ineffective human resistance to the invasion are just a jumbled mess. But that doesn’t really matter, because the majority of this story is about the survivors of the initial onslaught.

Which is where the larger problems come in.

First, the character development and much of the plot leans heavily on people being comic book hot, and endlessly horny. Now, Moore uses a lot of humor around sex; but this isn’t funny, this is just lame. The two female characters are in absurdly revealing outfits – one woman wears a wetsuit for the entire story, which seems to be the only reason she is a trainer at SeaWorld – and the male characters do nothing but make horndog remarks, which the women shoot down. Then the one woman – not the one in the wetsuit, the one with absurdly large breasts in a skin-tight spaghetti-strap crop-top, which is generally what one wears as the world ends – has a ridiculous sexualized response to finding a BFG, a Big Fucking Gun, with which she’s gonna go Griff-hunting. Because that woman is a gamer, a master programmer and a genius; therefore, somehow, she is capable of using an actual .50-caliber military rifle, since she’s used them in video games. Suuuuuure. I mean, she’s played all the video games, even created some of them, so she’s badass, right? But hey, none of that matters: what matters is that she’s hot. And, as the book goes on, horny. Her character is mostly depicted as a pinup. Who does finally sleep with the goofy nerd horndog who’s been coming on to her, because comics are all about nerd wish fulfillment.

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Then, at the end of the story, though there is a good twist regarding the Griff, it turns out that the Griff are the minions of – the little gray men. Yes, them. Scrawny bodies, large heads, huge featureless black eyes. Them. Just like every other alien story for the last 20 goddamn years. And the humans finally win, because that’s what humans do: we fight, and we kill, and we win. WOO! USA! USA! I mean – Earth! Earth! Earth!

Anyway. Characters are lame, design is poor, the art is too CGI-crisp for my taste (though to each their own) and the climax and ending of the plot were cliché and anti-climactic and annoying.

I hate that Christopher Moore wrote this, but not that much; everyone throws out a pile of crud every once in a while. Much more than that, I hated this book. Do not recommend.

Book Review: Mortal Engines, Hungry City Chronicles #1

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(Also, see that hot air balloon on the cover, with the tiny gondola the two characters are in? Not at all how the airships are described.)

 

Mortal Engines (Book One of the Hungry City Chronicles)

by Philip Reeve

 

I kind of hated this book.

Not everything about it. Some things in here are wonderful. The concept is fantastic: a future world where cities are mobile, enormous steampunk structures on wheels, rolling around in the wasteland that is all that remains of our world, destroyed (of course) by World War III and hyper-advanced war machines. These cities follow a philosophy of “municipal Darwinism” (great name), which teaches that the largest, strongest city will devour the smaller cities. It’s a “town eat town” world, and the mobile towns do exactly that: they capture the smaller, slower towns, swallow them, tear them apart and use their raw materials as fuel and building materials to maintain and expand the larger town.

That’s a cool idea.

The main town in the story is London, and London is now governed by four Guilds: the Historians, the Navigators, the Merchants, and the Engineers. The Historians, who comprise both doddering old museum relics and Indiana Jones-style explorers who search through the wreckage of ancient civilizations to find useful artifacts from the time before the wars that ended everything (This is our time, of course, and the Frankenstein We-let-our-technology-advance-too-far-and-it-destroyed-us theme is vigorous in this book), are sort of the main protagonists, and the Engineers, who care about nothing but power and control, as those engineers would, are the antagonists. There is also the Anti-Traction League (the moving cities are called “traction cities”), which have settled in parts of the world not dominated by moving towns nor devastated by ancient wars, and they oppose the traction cities as a whole.

This is fine and good. I was a bit annoyed by the stereotypes of the heartless engineer and the hapless-but-wise-and-kind historian, but I like the plotline that involves the Lord Mayor of London and his megalomaniacal schemes, and the discovery of a new doomsday weapon that allows his city to destroy any other; the weapon is actually a rediscovery from the ancient times, and I thought the book handled that well, particularly at the end. (Though there are some pretty severe plot holes, especially regarding the time lapse between the ancients and the traction city era:  it’s been like two thousand years. So really, the ancient technology? It just wouldn’t work. At all.) I like the Anti-Traction League, and I particularly like the subset of non-city-dwellers who live in the air: this being a proper steampunk novel, there are airships galore, and even a flying city, and those parts were great.

No: I hated the characters. The specific characters who play the roles of hero in this book are half crappy, and by the end, half dead. I won’t say which group is which so as not to spoil, especially since this book is now being made into a movie by Peter Jackson, who probably won’t be able to save this thing, in my opinion. However, since the book won oodles of awards, I suppose most people liked the characters a whole lot more than I did. But really, they aren’t good characters: there’s one who should hate everything London is doing and all that it stands for, but at a crucial moment, this character freaks out on those who want to stop London from destroying everything good with its doomsday device; and then later the character realizes, “Hey, wait – London sucks! I should do something about that!” But this epiphany comes at an entirely random time, and is annoying because of that; I would think that the betrayal by a Londoner whom the character worships would have changed the character’s mind, or maybe when the two main characters are tricked and enslaved by a traction city; or maybe when they are captured and abused and threatened and nearly killed by a bunch of half-insane traction city pirates. No: it’s while the character is – climbing stairs. It’s ridiculous.

The other big problem for me was the writing. Half of the characters, good and bad, are entirely unbelievable; their emotions and motivations don’t make a lot of sense. There are a ton of cliches and platitudes, and some of the descriptions and action sequences are just not well done.

And then, at the end – he killed the fucking dog. That’s right: Philip Reeve kills the dog. No reason, either; we already hate the people who do it, and the character who I suppose is intended to be inspired to murderous vengeful rage by the death of the dog WAS ALREADY AT THE POINT OF VENGEFUL RAGE. It’s an entirely gratuitous dog-killing. And I don’t mean to overstate how much this bothered me, because I was already annoyed by the plot holes and the poor characterization and the mediocre writing – but really, that moment just took the cake. And then for the next thirty pages until the very end (when almost every other sympathetic character dies, too), Reeve kept mentioning the dead dog: the dog’s owner kept looking around for the dog, kept expecting to hear the dog’s footsteps, but no, because the dog was dead.

Screw you, Reeve. Dog killing crap writer.

No, that’s too strong. But really, I didn’t think much of the book. I wish someone else had thought of this idea and done a better job writing it. I hope the movie is better, but I won’t be watching it: because they’ll probably kill the dog.