Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
This one falls into roughly the same territory as Stanislaw Lem’s classic, Solaris -- a first contact story in which the alien and its motives are deeply inscrutable, raising questions about what it means to be sentient, and if humans and non-humans can ever truly understand each other. Or even if humans can understand themselves.
This story features a Lovecraftian alien construct lurking in the Oort Cloud that calls itself "Rorschach", has sent probes to Earth, and doesn't seem to want visitors. In addition, the Earth of the 2080s is somewhat of an alien place itself, filled with people who’ve retired into the terminal dreamspace of a simulated reality called "Heaven", plus various kinds of post-humans. These make up the contact expedition.
There's a woman who has had her mind partitioned into several different personas. There's a man who has given up some of his human senses in order to be able to interface with machines. There's a military officer with unconventional ideas of duty. There's the main narrator, Suri, a guy who lost his ability to empathize with others after half his brain was removed, but gained implants that enable him to "read" others more easily. His role is as an impartial observer (perhaps). Then, there's the most interesting character, a vampire. As it turns out in this story, vampires were real, an offshoot of humanity that existed in paleolithic times and were brought back through the miracle of genetics. Vampires are still fearsome to humans, thanks to racial memory, but they're extremely intelligent and think differently than us in various ways. It’s an interesting cocktail, and the authorities hope that someone on the diverse crew will figure out how to talk to the alien construct and discover what it wants with humanity.
There are some writers who will hold your hand and lead you into the story, but Watts is not one of them. Instead, we get incomplete information about the characters and universe, and must piece together what’s going on for ourselves. I don’t necessarily mind being challenged in this way, but it did make the first chapters a chore, and most of the characters felt more like thought experiments than people.
Fortunately, Watts has a lot of interesting ideas, which were what kept me engaged. There’s game theory, the Chinese Room problem, the notion of communication as a virus, and questions about the nature (and value) of empathy and self-awareness. I also enjoyed the disquieting persona of the vampire character, who’s the captain of the expedition; the eventual breakdown of crew dynamics; and the strangeness of the alien artifact and its inhabitants, who may or may not be sentient beings.
That said, I found some of the ideas a little questionable. A creature that makes itself invisible by observing human saccades (eye movements) and only doing things during the brief downtimes? Cramming multiple people into one skull? Um, okay. And I’m skeptical about the idea that the human brain can be neatly separated into “unconscious” and “conscious” parts. I believe, based on my own reading and thinking, that consciousness is an emergent thing, coming about as evolution made our ancestors’ brains more interconnected. While there’s obviously a lot of unconscious circuitry that’s pretty good at what it’s programmed to do, the interconnectedness seems to be what makes a brain think outside the box of instinct and support the complex, adaptive neural pattern dance we call “awareness”. The Chinese Room metaphor doesn’t do this powerful, chaotic, endlessly recursive process justice, and it may be the only realistic way to make an intelligent system.
Still, Blindsight got me to think, and I enjoyed pondering its questions. While it didn’t haunt me the way Solaris did, the possibilities it entails might keep you awake at night. 3.5 stars.
Filaria is similar in concept to Hugh Howey’s Wool, but predates that book by a couple of years and didn’t make the same splash. Like Wool, it’s set in an immense installation where people have been living for generations, stratified into different social classes, and have mostly forgotten the reasons why. Where Howey’s book (which I liked a lot) was escapist entertainment focused on the workings of the Silo and the mysteries surrounding it, Brent Hayward goes for more lyrical territory, imagining a world where the machinery and social order have been steadily breaking down.
Here, the four main characters, who have lived their lives in different parts of the great structure, have only myths and rumors about what takes place in other locales. In a waste-treatment area, a drug-addled teenager who lost his hair and teeth to his toxic environment (like everyone else there), searches for a missing ex-girlfriend who may have gone to a higher level. In a more prosperous zone, an orchard keeper’s daughter befriends a computer system whose avatar is the reanimated corpse of a dead boy and who manufactures moths and other insects for her enjoyment. The most poignant story, though, concerns an old man who has spent all of his life as an elevator operator/technician, and, on his one hundredth birthday, decides to finally leave his post and ride a car up to the world above. Soon all four protagonists are caught in the shakeup created by unseen events near “the top”.
What I liked about this book is the way Hayward doesn’t spell everything out, but lets us make connections for ourselves. Though the denizens of Filaria have a sort of Cargo Cult mentality towards the various robots and manufactured beings that operate throughout the structure, we can guess at their original purpose. The main POV characters don’t interact with each other, but secondary characters make their way between threads, allowing us to perceive the answers to several mysteries. I enjoyed the looseness of the narrative and the ambivalent ending.
What didn’t like so much was the world’s inconsistency. Sometimes, the characters behave as I would expect them to, as members of cultures that have evolved their own unique customs and perspectives over generations in a strange place. Other times, their level of sophistication seems out of place for their experience, and they employ too-familiar 21st century vocabulary and attitudes. The background seems inconsistent as well -- sometimes Filaria comes across as a fairly organized place, like a city; other times, it just seems like a jumble of zones with only machines in charge. Suspension-of-disbelief issues kept me from fully embracing this story.
Still, the concept was interesting and there were several beautifully-written scenes. Not a book I’d recommend highly, but not a bad one, either.
This is George RR Martin’s earliest novel, and I daresay it anticipates A Game of Thrones in a few ways. The notable difference is that it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. Regardless of genre, though, Martin has always had a talent for imaginative world-building, for conveying a sense of universes that are very old, full of history, and home to many other stories besides the immediate one.
The setting here is cool and gothic, a rogue planet named Worlorn which had a brief heyday as a sort of exhibition world for the neighboring star systems, which terraformed it and built showcase cities on it as it passed by a cluster of stars called Fat Satan and the Hellcrown (great names). Now winter is coming forever, as the mostly abandoned Worlorn heads back into deep space.
The story concerns a man named Dirk, who receives an object of significance in the space mail from an ex-girlfriend he’s still sorta pining for. Gwen is on Worlorn, studying the unique ecology. When he gets there, he discovers that she’s sorta married to a man named Jaantony from a planet called Kavalaan. And to Jaantony’s bondsman as well. Gwen cares for her primary mate, but isn’t totally happy with her life. As it turns out, Kavalar society has a feudal past, very unfeminist values, a strong code of honor, and complex social rules left from its dark history. An offshoot colony has come to Worlorn in (seemingly futile) hopes of keeping its culture alive against the forces of modernization. Of course, Dirk’s arrival upsets the already uneasy relationship between three people, and he soon runs afoul of an even-more-traditional group of Kavalar, which has a very xenophobic view of outsiders. Such civilization-versus-barbarian themes will be familiar to AGoT fans, and Martin handles them intelligently, finding particular sympathy for Jaantony, who’s trying to walk the line between his people’s code and a more tolerant, up-to-date interpretation of it. The middle portion of the novel, with its chase scenes in a giant, computer-run building, is fairly suspenseful. Dirk isn’t a warrior, so he has to make realistic choices to survive against people who are.
That said, there are some frustrations. There’s a pervading feeling of melancholy, ambiguity, and tragedy, as is true in a lot of Martin’s early writing (which I like), but it feels too ambiguous at times. Dirk and Gwen aren't really fleshed out beyond being somewhat whiny modern everypeople stuck in a backwards world, and I found their relationship history vague. Jaantony was a more compelling character. It’s also a bit of a shame that we don’t see a little more of the larger universe -- the bits and pieces we do get are interesting.
Still, it’s a fairly impressive, mature first novel for a young author, and worth investigating if you’re a GRRM fan. His huge short fiction and novella anthology, Dreamsongs, offers a somewhat richer tour of his non-AGoT work, but if you get through that, this is a worthy next stop. Kudos to Iain Glen (Ser Jorah Mormont on the AGoT TV series) for the fine audiobook reading. 3.5 stars.
A better title for this book might be "How Humans Misunderstand Randomness". If you want to feel nervous about an upcoming performance review at work or day in court, Mlodinow can help you do so. Here, he shows how non-intuitive statistics and probability can be, and how people biased by their natural desire to attribute definite causes to events tend to discount the winds of chance. Consider how "brilliant" CEOs are often hired for enormous salaries, then fired a few years later when the company doesn't make the profits expected. But how much control does a typical CEO really have over all the factors that determine a company's near-term success? And consider how obvious the "clues" to Japan's WWII attack on Pearl Harbor looked in hindsight, but how they actually wouldn't have jumped out to analysts among all the other "noise" in the intelligence network. (These themes might be familiar to those who've read Nassim Taleb's book on unpredictability, The Black Swan.)
On the other hand, when we *do* think about randomness, we often have incorrect expectations about its properties. Gamblers don't always realize that it's not unlikely for a roulette wheel to favor a certain color over many spins, even when the roulette wheel is behaving correctly. Or, think about some of the mistakes the legal system has made. An example is the couple in 1960s Los Angeles who were convicted of an attack on the basis of witness testimony that reported two people with similar appearances and a similar car. The prosecution cited the one-in-a-million odds that the criminals could be anyone else. Yet, they made a few critical mistakes: the variables weren't independent and Los Angeles is a city of multiple millions: the real odds were closer to two-in-three. Yikes.
The Drunkard's Walk includes, along the way, a compelling history of the science of chance, covering figures such as Pascal, Bayes, Laplace, Brown (of Brownian Motion fame), and Einstein. Though I've studied probability and statistics before, as part of my college coursework, I find them to be fun subjects, and enjoyed the refresher (if not so much the reminders that our legal system is flawed). A bit of a nerdy book, but perfectly engaging.
I hadn't read anything by Christopher Priest before (though I liked the film The Prestige). I really enjoyed The Islanders, which is an elegant, enigmatic work of imagination and literary creation. The book is set in an world not too unlike our own in terms of culture and technology, but on a planet where much of the land takes the form of a giant archipelago. A few powerful states exist on a single continent in the north, and engage in wars there and elsewhere, but most of the planet's inhabitants live and go about their familiar lives on the myriad, more-or-less-independent islands. Well, "familiar" except for the fantastically lethal insects, the temporal anomalies that make mapping the islands very difficult, and the weird psychic phenomena that occur in certain places.
The "story" here is presented in a cryptic manner, with the initial narrator purporting to be writing the introduction to a travel guide to the islands of the Dream Archipelago. From the start, there are reliability issues: he claims never to have left his home island and that the whole task is pointless anyway, since the temporal vortices and the confusion of place names make mapping nigh impossible. Also, what we later learn about this character makes it seem rather unlikely that he could have put his name to any of what follows.
Such are the puzzles and incongruities that fill this intriguing, sometimes frustrating book. The chapters that follow sometimes adhere to the "gazetteer" format, describing the geographic and historical features of different islands, but others dispense with that, giving us vignettes about certain select inhabitants or even first person narratives by those people.
Gradually, we get pieces of several underlying stories, each of which raises its own mysteries and insinuates a sense of their being linked somehow to the mysteries of other stories. A famous mime is murdered, but the person convicted might not have been the one truly responsible. A reclusive writer might have something to do with the crime -- and is the social activist who has an affair with him quite what she claims to be? Meanwhile, a rogue installation artist drills tunnels through islands, turning them into gigantic wind instruments (look for a hilarious email exchange when another guerrilla artist suggests a creative partnership). A young woman pines for her lover, who has been drafted by one of the warring militaries (which seem to have presences throughout the archipelago, in spite of how often the gazetteer emphasizes its neutrality) and is stationed incommunicado on an island that doesn’t officially exist. Elsewhere, a young man falls for a friend who is investigating ancient, mysterious towers, but an encounter with a ghost changes their relationship. Some characters have a long chapter devoted to them, others, such as a philandering painter, reappear in different contexts throughout the book.
If there are straightforward answers to the puzzles, they remain oblique to me, even after a second reading, but if you're familiar with writers like Murakami or Borges, you'll know that straightforward answers aren't always the point. Here, the ambiguity seems deliberate, an invitation to readers to fill in the blanks with their own interpretations.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this sort of game playing, and found a few threads to be a little too open-ended (what was going on with the drones?) Still, Priest writes with such self-assurance and grasp of meaningful human detail, that the complex, shifting topography of the Dream Archipelago, however imperfectly mapped, is well worth exploring.
In sum, an enjoyable introduction to Priest for me, though possibly not the best one for everyone. I look forward to reading more of his work.
This novel's been mentioned on a few "best of 2013" lists and I think it well deserves the honor. In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra explores the emotional complexities of life in a war-plagued place, as the upheaval of conflict and death reshape the ties of family, friends, neighbors, and tradition. The setting is Chechnya between 1994 and 2004, a period that included two nasty wars between Russian government forces and Chechen separatists. Because of the ties of the rebels to Islamic extremism, I believe, the US media never took much interest in the strife, much less its impact on the lives of regular people.
It's those lives that Marra focuses on. The narrative begins in 2004, with a man named Akhmed watching Russian soldiers abduct his neighbor, who has already lost all his fingers to a previous interrogation by state security. Left behind is the neighbor's young daughter, who has escaped into the woods with a mysterious blue suitcase. Akhmed takes the girl to the only safe place he knows, the hospital in town. There, he meets Sonja, a cynical, exhausted ethnic Russian surgeon who spends her days amputating limbs shredded by landmines and is the last competent medical professional around. I say "competent" because Akhmed is himself a doctor, but one who, to his own shame, finished in the bottom tenth of his class and excels more at his true passion, painting. He's unable to help even his own wife, who's bedridden with a wasting disease.
Such are the contradictions at the hearts of the characters, who are gradually revealed through a non-linear narrative that travels back and forth through time to unpeel the layers of their backstories, connections, and secrets. We also come to know Khassan, a WWII veteran who has spent the past few decades of his life writing a history of the Chechen people (and rewriting it, each time official guidelines change); Khassan's son, Ramzan, who turned informer for the Russians and hasn't been spoken to since by the father he provides for; and Sonya's sister, Natasha, who remained behind to endure her own horrors after Sonya went to medical school in Britain.
There's both absurdity and fragile beauty in the story's small details. Akhmed is committed to painting portraits of the disappeared, which he leaves around town -- though he adds a long nostril hair to one vain woman's face, because she died still owing him money. There's some confusion between a former US president and the mascot of McDonalds, leading to the great line "I may be an idiot, but I would never eat a hamburger cooked by a clown". Two people in a truck argue over which dead radio station has the most pleasing static. An imam imprisoned in a landfill pit gives funerals for his fellow prisoners the moment after they ascend a long ladder heavenward, disappearing from view into the hands of their executioners.
At the core of this book are the human entanglements that extend before and after wartime, but are complicated by its chaos, with people's faults and virtues both magnified. Actions motivated by pride, guilt, trauma, resentment, and shame become difficult to distinguish from those motivated by love. Even Ramzan, the informer, becomes sympathetic, when later chapters uncover a costly act of courage in his past, and whose sins, as an old proverb goes, are tied up with the sins of the father. Marra occasionally interrupts the narrative to give us little vignettes about incidental characters, a technique that's slightly distracting, but adds to a pervading sense that nothing happens in isolation from everything else. Our connections often seem to be subjective constellations, but that doesn't stop them from being. I admired his unusual choice to project a few threads decades into the future, a reminder that life will go on, with its cargo of good and terrible memories.
A beautiful, bleak, affecting work of literary fiction, and one that got me a little teary-eyed at the end. My recommendation has some caveats: the scenes of brutality might be a little tough for some readers, and the sometimes confusing web of links between characters and events requires careful attention. I also can't comment on how true-to-life the novel's details are, having been written by an American whose knowledge of place can only be secondary, but whatever blemishes might be in the brush strokes, the overall picture reaches towards a universal statement. 4.5 stars.
I didn't find Colette Whitaker to be a remarkable audio reader, but nothing about her performance bothered me, either.
I read some Charles Dickens during my school days, but I’m not sure that really counts. When one has a 16-year-old’s limited experience of the world, it’s hard to understand what’s so great about the “great” literature our teachers make us read. Approaching David Copperfield as an adult, though, I’m much more able to perceive Dickens’s gifts as an observer of the world, a social critic, a humorist, and a storyteller.
This novel was, of course, originally serialized entertainment, meant to have the same effect on audiences as Mad Men or Downton Abbey do now -- i.e. readers would get hooked and eagerly await the next installment. Being from Victorian times, the content is a lot tamer than what we’re used to on Netflix, but there’s some serious drama, as well as observations of human nature that are as astute as ever.
This tale follows the coming-of-age of young David Copperfield, who endures the loss of his parents, a cold stepfather, a poorly-run boarding school, and the workhouse, but gets by with a little help from friends, such as the generous family servant, Peggotty, his eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood, and the ever-grandiose, ever-indebted Mr. Micawber. As he comes up in the world, David falls in love (with varying degrees of good judgment), finds employment, faces some schemers with bad intentions, and becomes a writer.
Dickens’s cast of quirky characters is written with imagination and flourish, with such colorfully distinct mannerisms and proclivities that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter denizens feel like cheap imitations. It was impossible for me not to enjoy the absurdly melodramatic and irresponsible Micawber, the opinionated Ms. Trotwood, or the addled-brained Mr. Dick, who has trouble keeping Charles the First (died 1649) out of his personal memoirs. The villains are vividly drawn and memorable, as well, such as the obsequious, creepy Uriah Heep, or the affable, manipulative golden boy, James Steerforth, the template for a character that’s seems to have appeared in every prep school story since.
Also notable are Dickens's liberal views (for the time) of society. The trials of the destitute and downcast are examined, with most of the good-hearted, honest characters coming from the working class, while the colder, more duplicitous ones are those that grasp at wealth, power, and social standing. Dickens makes no secret of his feelings on the ineffectiveness of tyrannical schoolteachers, or towards those that seduce young women and leave them to unjustly face the slut-shaming mindset of Victorian society.
Dickens also gets his share of bashing from modern readers, and I don’t totally disagree. Yes, he can be long-winded and maudlin, and tends to lead his readers by the hand towards how he wants them to feel. For me, the book lost steam in the second half, after it became obvious where the different threads in the story were headed, and the charm of the caricatures that are the supporting characters began to wear off. And David himself becomes a bit grating, having little to do in the latter part of the novel besides receive adoration from others, be in love, and write novels -- it felt transparently self-serving on the part of the author.
Still, I can't find too much fault with this novel for being what it was, a work of popular entertainment. The writing is so immersive that I have little doubt its scenes and characters will leave an impression on my memory for years to come. Dickens's droll sense of humor and his attention to the world around him are still a pleasure. For a trip back into mid-19th century England, it may be difficult to do better.
Lastly, I have to commend audiobook voice actor Simon Vance for nailing the narration. From Mr. Peggotty’s salty accent to Uriah Heep’s groveling, he really brings out the characters.
While no one can replace Carl Sagan, Tyson might be the nearest thing the 2010s have to him, a friendly advocate of the sciences who knows how to explain abstract topics in everyday language without dumbing them down or dissipating their inherent wonder. I enjoyed his series on NOVA, so I decided to pick up this book after I noticed it on sale at audible.
No regrets. If you want an introduction or a refresher course on the basics of astronomy and astrophysics, this series of essays on various topics should fill in the gaps nicely. Tyson covers topics such as the mechanics of the solar system, the formation of the Earth and planets, the Big Bang and the origins of the universe, and the essential concepts of 20th century physics (quantum theory, relativity, subatomic particles, forces, string theory). Much of the ground Tyson treads will be familiar to those who watched Dr. Sagan's classic Cosmos series in the early 1980s, but a lot of discoveries have been made since then, so the update is worthwhile. Like Sagan, Tyson makes no bones about the fact that he sees science, not religion/superstition/mysticism, as the only reliable tool for understanding how the universe actually works. As he points out, no religious text has yet proved useful for predicting physical phenomena -- in fact, The Bible significantly misstates the value of Pi. (However, he's much less obnoxious about it than Dawkins.)
Tyson also spends some time nitpicking on the scientific errors in several Hollywood blockbusters. Yes, he's that guy -- the one that you stopped inviting to Doctor Who night.
If I have a complaint about this book, it's that its provenance as a collection of articles is pretty obvious. Things that were stated as assumptions or background information in one chapter will be repeated again a few chapters later. The editor could have done a better job integrating everything. And it's probably not a book I'd recommend to more knowledgeable readers; most of the information here, though presented in an appealing, accessible way, is basic.
The cover blurb bills this an over-the-top, edgy satire, which is what I look for from Chuck P. However, the actual novel is more of a juvenile farce, as though the author went on a South Park binge, then wrote it.
It starts off promisingly, narrated in ludicrously mangled English by an insane caricature of an agent from some imaginary North Korea-like country. The agent, who refers to himself as “Operative Me”, has somehow been placed as an exchange student with a cardboard caricature of an American family (known as “Cow Father”, “Chicken Mother”, “Pig-dog Brother”, and “Cat Sister”). His mission, like his fellow agents’, is to wreak havoc on American capitalist devils with an insidious science fair project and to “impregnate fertile American ova with Operative Me seed utilizing bam-bam-quick pumping rabbit maneuver.” Yes. And, yes, that’s how he talks -- listen to a clip of the audiobook.
Being a Palahniuk book, it contains a few trenchant observations, such as when the protagonist notes that American high schools seem to be good for little more than brain-wasting fluff classes and useless mating rituals, with social failure being the main incentive for actual knowledge pursuit. Mostly, though, the clumsy, unbelievable plot is just an excuse for bad English humor (featuring phrases and grammar no one would ever use), foreigner-misunderstanding-something-obvious humor, rape humor, vibrator humor, boob humor, dogs-as-food humor, and predictable shots at dumb American teenagers, evangelical Christians, and Wal-Mart. "Satire" is rather generous.
Still, Operative Me’s voice often made me laugh. He addresses an old lady at church (“religious propaganda distribution outlet”) with titles like “venerated living skeleton” and “revered still-animated corpse”. Taking a page from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il, he ticks off a well-informed listing of America’s national blemishes during a model UN debate, then lists insane suggestions about how to atone for these misdeeds, such as “offering beloved children to serve as sexual chattel slaves to noble third worlders”.
I probably would have loved a book like this as a teenager, but there’s not enough brilliant craziness to really get it off the ground for the adult me. Mostly, it’s just puerile. If you’re a fan of the author and/or are a young male, consider checking it out from the library. Otherwise, don’t bother. 2.5 stars.
This is the last part of the Book of the New Sun tetralogy, which is acclaimed as one of the most intelligent, imaginative, beautifully-written works in fantasy. And, certainly, it is. Wolfe's richly rendered distant future setting of Urth is like nothing else out there and the novels thrum with wonder, gorgeous imagery, and philosophical contemplation. There are interesting characters, strange beings, and fantastic places. There are moments of terror, humor, awe, and sadness. There are multiple layers and puzzles whose illumination reaches from the final chapters back to small moments in Shadow of the Torturer.
The tetralogy is also known as one of the most oblique, self-referential, meandering, WTF works in the genre, and that’s certainly true as well. Revelations about the mutability of time and being cast things that happened in previous books in a new light, which isn’t surprising given that Severian’s interpretation of events never seemed totally reliable. At the end, it *appears* that Wolfe has left some significant questions unanswered, but Severian insists that everything we need to know is in the text he’s written so far. People on the internet (including one guy who apparently did his thesis on these books) have said that rereading the cycle provides more insight, that passages that didn’t seem particularly important the first time take on new significance. With a lot still fresh in my memory, that seems credible enough -- maybe in a few years, I’ll see what emerges for me from a second pass.
Yet, not fully getting a work doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Taken on a scene-by-scene level, Citadel is as imaginative, thought-provoking, and moving as the rest of the Cycle. Severian at last finds himself at the front of the war with the Ascians, which was a vague background detail in the previous three books. The nightmarishly fascinating engagements with massive formations of mind-warped enemy troops, who speak in stock phrases reminiscent of Orwell’s newspeak, are a high point of Wolfe’s already impressive imagination and storytelling. I also enjoyed his resurrection of the soldier Miles, which proceeds in a somewhat comical way, and the storytelling competition between patients in a camp hospital, which seems to be sly meta-commentary from Wolfe on what the purpose of stories really is (an Ascian even has an entry).
And Wolfe does answer a number of questions directly. We learn who the autarch really is, and how Severian ends up becoming the autarch himself. Mysteries concerning Dorcas, Thecla, the goals of the aliens, and apparitions that had appeared to Severian get resolved, or at least illuminated enough for readers to draw their own conclusions.
If you search the internet, it becomes apparent that intelligent people hold widely varying opinions on Wolfe’s masterwork. Make no mistake, it is difficult and dense compared to most SF and fantasy, with multiple layers and allusions contained in its dreamlike world. Yet, if you feel up for the challenge, this is a work that pushes the envelope of what speculative fiction can be. I strongly recommend treating all four as one large book and taking them on in a single pass. Finally, I loved the audiobook treatment -- the cool, attentive reading of Jonathan Davis, a talent in his own right, was perfect for Wolfe’s precise, crafted prose.
This is the third book in Gene Wolfe's fantastical, literary-aspiring Book of the New Sun tetralogy, and I won't say much about the cycle in its entirety here (see my reviews of the others for that). While the first book had Severian getting acquainted with Urth and its ways, and the second involved him in various intrigues near the city of Nessus, this is the one where he finally makes it to his posting as jailer/executioner in the provincial city of Thrax. Not surprisingly, circumstances eventually compel him to move on to points further.
Compared to Shadow and Claw, this one is more of a road-tripping book, and thus is more episodic in structure. There’s not much going on that really advances the plot, unless you want to read it at an allegorical level, but I enjoyed getting a wider glimpse of the world, which, as you've no doubt figured out by now, is South America in the distant future. There's a cliffside city, an encounter with an old evil high in the mountains, and a strange fortress on a lakeside. Severian battles an Alzabo, one of the creepiest monsters I've come across in fiction in a while. And Wolfe does shed more light on the nature of characters and objects we've met already, such as Dorcas, the Claw, Agia, the Pelerines, the offworlders, and Doctor Talos and Baldanders. The science fiction elements of the story, always in the background, come more to the fore.
As before, most significant events are occasions for some philosophical musings from Wolfe, which might get to be tedious for some readers, though I found them interesting. There are thoughts on the meaning of justice, being human versus being animal, and the impossibility of finding utopia without surrendering what drives us to seek it. Wolfe even seems to comment on his own goals as an author.
“I fell to thinking about the worlds that circled [other] suns... At first I thought of green skies, blue grass, and all the rest of the childish exotica apt to inflict the mind that conceives of other than Urthly worlds. But, in time, I tired of those puerile ideas and began in their place to think of societies and ways of thought wholly different from our own... worlds where there was no currency but honor... worlds in which the long war between mankind and the beasts was pursued no more...”
Sometimes a third book in a fantasy series will derail my interest in continuing it, but I'm pleased to say that that wasn't the case here. Something about the writing feels less fragmentary and more self-assured, too. I've mentioned before that Jonathan Davis is a great audiobook narrator, but I'll say it again.
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