Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I tend to read highly popular books well after their initial appearance.  The title of this blog suggests why--it's pretty difficult to read a brand-new best seller for free without being some sort of pirate.  So it is with The Hunger Games--the movies have revived interest, but wait times are now going down.  Also the books are short, so that most anyone can finish them before they are due.

The other thing about reading such a popular item is that it's hard to add to the canon on it--popular guides, world expansions and scholarly deconstructions are all available in quantity.  But I am committed to adding my two cents' worth, so here goes...

The best highly influential works of fiction are both timeless--they state deep truths about human nature--and time-bound--giving a future reader insight into the time and society in which they are written.  Usually one or the other dominates, and the less-apparent aspect is unpacked in subsequent commentary.  I suggest that Rowling's Harry Potter series is more of a timeless work--a long retelling of the story of Jesus (a subset of  Campbell's Hero's Journey).  The Hunger Games is much more the latter.  While it's a very good action story on the surface (thus accessible as a YA novel, much like Harry Potter), it is also a very open critique of American society in the early 21st century and where Collins thinks it is going.

The story itself is as old as the Roman gladiators.  The protagonist, Katniss, is part of a group of youth (the Tributes) sacrificed for the entertainment of the Capitol, because they can.  And it's all done up with the trappings of professional sports and fashion.  Boxing was the popular modern equivalent blood sport--mixed martial arts and American football represent two contemporary directions.

What's new and interesting here, and what I think will be revealing for readers fifty years from now, is the emphasis on style and commercialism in the blood sport.  Collins presents the game arena as a future reality show--Survivor on steroids.  The mentor and former winner Haymitch spends much more time coaching his protégés on winning sponsors and story making than on fighting skills.

There's no point in avoiding spoilers at this remove.  Obviously Katniss survives to appear in the next two books in the trilogy.  I give it four stars--not five because it's so straight-on that it feels more like a news report than a novel, even though it's written in the first person.  If you are just coming to it now, try to imagine what your grandchildren will bring to it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe

With The Citadel of the Autarch I have finished Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.  And I am certainly glad I reached back into my teen years to read it.

The last book finishes Severian's heroic journey.  Spoiler alert--I just feel like giving away the ending, so quit here if you don't want to know.  Severian continues his fall in his detached, almost elegiac way, making his way through war zones and abandoned places.  He learns the true nature of his associates Dr. Talos and Baldanders.  And in a quite unexpected twist (except that one gets the sense Severian almost DID expect it) he himself becomes the autarch.

Of course we knew this all along, because Severian is writing the account of his adventures and has already told us that he is the autarch.  But this is no story of a rise to power, though I kept expecting that given his capability.  No, it sneaks up on him--the current autarch (the absolute ruler of the country, and also the administrator of a brother) makes Severian his successor in a personal encounter.  We see the autarch's bravery, and hear more of it as Severian is told what must be done to bring the New Sun.  The previous autarch tried and failed, and survived as a eunuch.  Severian closes as he is about to embark on a voyage to try again.

The series won't raise the hairs on the back of your neck, but if you have any SF writing aspirations it is a must read.  I would also say that anyone who has read a lot of science fiction, but somehow skipped this one (as I had) should definitely read it.  Wolfe does much more than create a setting through these novels.  Through the unusual words (a mix of created and obscure) and the detachment of the tale he captures a very broad "feeling" of the time, the sense of winding down but with hope for a future.  He gives that a definite kick with his interesting appendices.

Severian pulls at us by portraying a jailer and torturer in about the best light one could do it.  The Torturers practice a detachment from the sentences they carry out, but it is not a cold detachment at all.  They care about their clients and try to make the torments and executions bearable.  They steadfastly do not judge.  Severian has a strong belief in the rightness of what he does, even as he knows others cannot understand it.  This extends to the entertainment qualities of executions and the careful details of "excruciations".  It's a challenging work to read and enjoy, but one simply revels in the mastery Wolfe displays.  I give it three stars, because it is such a stretch for most SF fans.  But by all means try it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Wolfe, Gene - The Sword of the Lictor

I have now reached the third of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series.  The Sword of the Lictor continues Severian's heroic journey, and in this book he changes much more than in any other.  In the first two books, Severian is very detached from himself and his experiences.  Not quite to the point of dissociative disorder--he owns his actions--but he definitely stands outside himself.  In the third book he becomes more human--touched by others, but also greedy.  He forms a deep attachment to the Claw, the jewel he was supposedly carrying on behalf of the Pelerines, but maybe not so much anymore. 

His adventures become more fantastical than ever.  He meets more "cacogens", but can't really continue to call them that, as he gets to understand them better.  He still does not seem to know his path, but continues on. 

This book wasn't nominated for awards the way the first two were, but it is in many ways more powerful.  Mostly for the development of Severian as a fully rounded character.  In the appendix to the second book, Wolfe "speculates" that Severian's detachment is a result of encountering beings who have transcended the speed of light--they are outside of the Einsteinian universe, so react differently to it.  Not so much anymore.  Severian now journeys toward humanity.  3 stars.