Friday, 30 August 2013

The Sparrow Review

By Mary Doria Russell

A few weeks ago in The Guardian someone wrote an article recommending five sci-fi novels for those who don't normally dig sci-fi novels.  That's me.  I picked two based on their synopsis (synopsises? synopsi?) and this was the first one I read.

All the exciting stuff (that I had a vague interest in) happened in the last two chapters but the 300 or so pages getting there was a drag.

20% of the book is a bit-interesting story of the first humans to travel to another planet (Rakhat, which I pronounced in my head as 'rack-hat' but could've been 'ra-kart') and make first contact with a sentient and advanced species.  The humans who go there are a mix of Jesuit Priests and their science-y mates.  They safely land on Rakhat and things don't go very well.  All but one of them die (that's not a spoiler by the way - we find that out in Chapter One).

35% of the book is ruminations on whether God is still with you if you travel to another planet, does God condone evil, at what point does service to God become counter-productive, what is the role of God in a priest and what is the role of God in a lay-person, and what does God want from us, generally.  Being an atheist with a total absence of belief in God this all meant nothing to me, and more to the point, being an anti-theist (opposed to anyone believing in God in the first place) meant that I did not give one holy flying fuck of a shit about any of this.  I wanted to punch them all.

35% of the book is set back on Earth where the Jesuits beg the one survivor to tell them all what really happened on Rakhat, but he doesn't want to talk about it.  "Oh please tell us," they say, and he says, "No, I don't want to," for about 150 arduous pages.  Fuck it drags.

10% of the book is non-witty 'witty' discussions between the main characters as they eat and drink.  I hated them all and was gladdened as each of them died horribly.  That's not a good sign.

Oh, there was also some 'sexual tension' meant to be happening, but it was the most chaste sexual tension one could conjure.  Desire was absent.  There were no erections. All sexuality was discussed within the framework of morality, functionality, religion, biology and love.  Not once was there a "hanging for a root".

Religious-driven science fiction is like putting raspberry jelly on a pizza.

I give it an E.  Fail!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Dangling Man Review

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow, Nobel Laureate, is best known for his masterpieces The Adventures Of Augie March and Herzog.  Of course, I've read neither of those.  Not just because I'm a wanker who prefers the lesser known works of respected authors, but because I only had $3 on me when I wandered into Fowlers' Second-Hand Books, Lorne, and this book, at $2.50, was the only Bellow I could afford.  I did in fact read Bellow's The Victim several years ago and I recall none of it; oh, there was a scene on a subway I think, or at a train station, but that's it.  But I do remember I thought it was an okay book, and that Bellow was worth another shot.  He was certainly worth a $2.50 shot. 

Dangling Man is about a Canadian-American called Joseph.  He has enlisted in the US Army (WWII) but due to some red-tape about his Canadian citizenship there's a hold up and he is forced to wait indefinitely for the call up.  It could be tomorrow, it could be never.  He doesn't know.  Thing is but, he'd quit his job, and they couldn't take him back even as a casual, and he can hardly apply for other jobs because he could be called up the next day, and so he's just stuck at home, waiting, waiting.  His missus has a job, and she's become the bread winner.  They live in a small rooming house (Chicago).

With nothing to do, and little money, he gets a kind of cabin fever.  He reads Goethe, among other whacko things to wile away the time.  Goethe recounts the tale of an Englishman so overwhelmed with the ennui of having to get dressed and undressed every day that he kills himself.  Joseph understands this.  That's where he's at.  He's edgy.  So edgy, that in social situations, with no provocation, he becomes a cantankerous cunt.  Like an un-funny George Costanza, he ruins every social engagement (for everyone), every party, every small catch-up with friends, every interaction with neighbours - he ruins them all by being hopelessly argumentative and anti-social. 

I know people like this.  The type for who the question "How are you going?" can be answered with "What do you mean by that?"

Those with smarts, but no job, little money, no school to go to, no real reason to even get up in the morning... and weirdly lacking the drive to dig themselves out of the hole.  Idle hands make ... With so much time to spare, they tend to over-think everything, see conspiracies where there are none, feel pressed, pressured, stressed, obsess over innocuous tasks that a busy person would take in their stride.  I think it was in the movie Casablanca there was some line that ran:  If you want something important done, ask someone who is already busy.  I have found that to be anecdotally true.  And the thing is, I dislike people who are both idle and cantankerous.  I can take one or the other but not both.  They bug me.  And now I got stuck for 140 pages with one of them. 

As for why he keeps causing scenes...

"It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as 'the day I asked for a second cup of coffee', or 'the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast', and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences..."

There have been many novels written by fictional social misfits in a kind of diary-form.  It's almost like a rite of passage for white morose male authors.  Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground is the best of them (because at least he does something, eventually), and I guess Kafka's The Trial is another that works.  The very worst of them is Hell by Henri Barbusse which I read a couple of months ago (here's my rating: F.  F for Fucking Shithouse.)  Bellow's book is somewhere in the middle.  He captured the spirit of an idle man very well, but he failed to elicit any sympathy from me.  I just wanted Joseph to go to the fucking war.  Oh, and on that, I wondered why he would even want to go to a war.  He seemed too cynically erudite.  But he worded it beautifully (in a way that sums up my feelings about US aggression towards, say, Taliban): " between their imperialism and ours, if a full choice were possible, I would take ours." 

Also, in the end, he just wanted the regimentation.  A reason to get up in the morning.  Don't we all?

I give it a C.