This book really knocked my socks off. Under the guise of telling about his experience as a human competitor in an annual contest to see if computers can fool humans in a text-off, the author covers the evolution of chat-bots, but also dozens of other topics. Page after page dealt with concepts I had never given any thought to, but which were fascinating. Such as: did you know that competitive checkers basically died in the late 1800s when the two top players in the world played the exact same “perfect” game dozens of times in a row? And that the same thing is happening to competitive chess right now? How does your smart phone know what you are going to type before you type it? Do you think all those helpful chatters who appear in popup windows to “answer your questions” while you are shopping on the Internet are real human beings? What is the algorithm for knowing when to interrupt someone in a conversation? All this and much, much more awaits you in this outstanding blend of hard science, philosophy, linguistics and the-future-is-now computer facts. The author does a decent job of narrating his own book, but I believe a professional narrator would have given more life to the performance.
As I read (or more precisely, listened to) Sebastian Barry’s novel, I had trouble putting my finger on just what I didn’t like about it. I did like the form of the novel, a sort of diary written by an old woman in which she looks back at her long life. I really loved the way Barry described people, for instance, a man operating a ride at an amusement park was described as someone who “hadn’t had his ears pinned down properly.” Cassie, the protagonist’s best friend, was described as a woman who would have looked good as the figurehead on the prow of a ship.
But there was an emptiness at the heart of the novel that left me cold and toward the end I figured out what it was. Barry created a female protagonist who is an idealized, impossible, saint of a woman. She is misused by every man in her life, and yet cannot stop herself from catering to their every whim and forgiving them for every wrong. This is probably Barry’s idea of the perfect mother, someone who will not mind it when the son/grandson that she has formed her life around shuts her out, disappears, ignores and shuns her. She somehow perseveres through it all with a forgiving nature that is impossible to believe. And the ending . . . I just couldn’t buy her final decision. Why she would care that much for the grandson who seems to have treated her like a short order cook and then abandoned her is never made clear. This novel is just some man’s fantasy of how a mother, or mother figure, should give up her whole existence to nurture others with no life of her own. Girls, go read something empowering and leave this on the shelf.
[I listened to this as an audio book read by Wanda McCaddon, who did a nice job].
I was completely charmed by this novel of a young girl growing up "nerdy" in the late 1970's and early 1980's. The teenaged protagonist, much like myself, loves to read and loves science fiction books most of all. She describes her life in diary form in a brisk, no-nonsense style that is never treacly yet always very teenager-y. Every entry contains tidbits about her life along with short descriptions of her reactions to the latest science fiction book she has been reading. To hear her talk about discovering Roger Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, Poul Anderson and dozens of others was for me to relive my first discovery of them, too. It was magical. I sympathized when she described reading some of Anne McCaffrey's "Pern" novels out of order, because I did the same thing. When she waxes poetic about Lord of the Rings and equates her situation to the scouring of the Shire, I knew exactly what she meant. When she matter-of-factly tells her diary that getting her first period didn't stop her from seeing faeries "despite what C.S. Lewis thought about puberty" I laughed out loud.
I worried others from other generations (or even other genders) might not enjoy the book as much as I had, but in my science fiction book club, people who were a generation older than me loved it as did the generation younger than me, men and women alike. We did generally agree that we thought Embassytown was better in terms of the complexity of the ideas contained in the book, but we could understand why "Among Others" beat it out for the Hugo.
I would highly recommend readers do an internet search using "among others books mentioned" and you will find great lists -- no need to write them all down yourself. And you will have a list of scifi to read for years to come.
I recently toured Mark Twain's home in Connecticut. The tour guide was a font of knowledge about Twain so at the end of the tour, I asked him if I were to read one book by Twain, which he would recommend. He said everyone should read Huckleberry Finn as an adult, and that I should also try Innocents Abroad.
I vaguely recalled reading both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer at some point in my childhood, but couldn't really remember anything about it, except what one generally knows: raft, Mississippi, generally uncharitable portrayal of African Americans. Now that I have re-read it, I can say that I remember not liking it very much as a child, and that my sentiments have not changed.
About the only thing I liked about the book were the descriptions of everyday life at the time. The people's homes were described in such detail, both the poor and the rich, that one gets a very good idea of what was important to people at the time. There are some wickedly funny descriptions of the people themselves, their attitudes skewered in wonderfully subtle ways that are incredibly modern. These raised the book to two stars for me.
But the general plot was so improbable and the main characters so unlikeable that I could barely finish the book. I guess the reader is supposed to think Huck and Tom were just up to boyish hyjinks but I couldn't get over how they were lying and stealing from their family and being so cruel to Jim for absolutely no reason.
He did a fantastic job with all the accents.
Everything with the King and Duke, and everything with Tom Sawyer. I could not stand the Duke and the King, who take up about one-third of the book. They are just con men, and not very good ones at that. I could understand Twain showing us one of their stupid cons, but to keep them in the story so we could witness something like five or six equally stupid tricks--not a single one of which fooled anyone-- was about the most boring thing I've ever read. And then the last quarter of the book is Tom Sawyer going on and on about every tedious detail of how he and Huck should free Jim when they could have done it in about 5 sentences was just excruciatingly awful.
This is the first T.C. Boyle book I have ever read and I can say it is one of the best contemporary novels I have read in a very long time. The characters were the biggest reason I liked it, probably because I could really identify with several of them, in particular, the white, suburban liberals in the story. Boyle did an amazing job of depicting the continual self-analysis and self-doubt of the typical liberal (me), who wants to come down on the side of the oppressed, but then has a running monolog inside his/her head arguing the other side as soon as the chips are down. Many passages describing the interior debates of the main character had me laughing out loud, recognizing the ludicrousness of much upper middle-class political correctness. In particular, the irony of the woman who was outraged at the treatment of a dog but then couldn’t care less what was happening to the human beings (Mexicans) in her neighborhood was a great reminder of how we often have our priorities completely f%^*-up. Little details like the fact that the white protagonists were lunching salade nicoise with a baguette from the local French bakery, while at the same time, the Mexican protagonists were practically starving in a ravine a short distance away, made me wince, they were so spot-on. The book also helped me better understand some of the reasons why people in states that have a lot of illegal immigrants are so militant about the issue of immigration. I live in Wisconsin, but even here we are not immune to some of the heavy-handed treatment of immigrants (see my review of “Rescuing Regina” for more on that).
I went against my normal rule and listened to this book on audio even though it was read by the author himself. To my surprise, he did a very good job and I would definitely purchase another audio of Boyle reading his own work.
Science fiction comes in many guises. Way Station is a less common variety, for the entire novel takes place on Earth, very few aliens are involved and there are no big space battles. However, what it lacks in those areas, it makes up for in ideas. The main character is the only human alive who knows that a panoply of inhabited planets exists, trading with each other and co-inhabiting the galaxy in (relative) peace. As the caretaker of a hidden portal that just happens to be located on Earth, he has lots of time between alien arrivals and departures to ruminate on the state of Planet Earth. Brought up on a farm, he is in tune with nature and takes walks every day during which he marvels again and again at the beauty and wonder of the living things around him. But he also has occasion to wonder at the violence of human beings, both as individuals and as nations. When mutual nuclear annihilation of humanity grows from a threat to a virtual certainty, our hero asks his alien overseers for advice and the option they offer is a chillingly final solution.
The parts of the book that describe the natural world are lyrically written, some of the most beautiful passages I have ever read describing our planet. The science fiction parts are not as detailed, for instance, there is practically no attempt to explain how the transportation device works…it might as well be magic, as far as the protagonist knows. And we see very little of the alien life that seems to be teeming all around our corner of the galaxy. The ending is a bit obvious, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a very good example of idea-based scifi.
As I read this novel, originally published in 1963, I couldn’t help thinking about the social and political realities that were whipping up the globe at the time—the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War are obviously weighing heavily on Simak’s mind. But the book also was an influencer. I couldn’t shake the idea that it must have influenced Gene Roddenberry as he was developing his ideas for Star Trek, primarily the Federation of Planets and transporters. There’s also a great description of something that any Trekkie would immediately identify as a holodeck, and which anticipates today’s first-person shooter video and online games. All of which makes this a good read, even 50 years after it first saw print. [I listened to this as an audio book narrated by Eric Michael Summerer]
There is so much packed into this short novel it is hard know where to begin a review. To keep it concise, here’s what I liked: This novel does what only scifi novels are able to do: ask the Big Questions. No, I don’t mean questions like “what is the meaning of love?” (although it asks that question, too) but even more profound questions like “what does it mean to be human?” and “why are we afraid of anything that is different?” Anyone who has seen and loved some of the best Star Trek episodes (Measure of a Man, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield) has seen later flowerings of the seeds planted by this 1968 novel. Which brings me to the things I didn’t like. A major element of the novel was a quasi-religion called “Mercerism” that involved people hooking themselves into machines to dial up whatever emotions they wanted to experience. Sounded a lot like a 1960’s fantasy of a culture with government-sanctioned drug trips. That part of the book’s plot felt dated and extraneous, and not because I know this thread is missing from the movie based on the book. If I have ever seen Blade Runner, I do not remember it at all. So for me, this book stands on its own. I salute it for being a visionary piece of science fiction and for its place as a touchstone for so much of modern scifi. And I really loved that the eponymous question is never outright asked in the book. What do I think is the answer? A definite “yes.”
Scott Brick is one of my favorite narrators. I think his reading style goes well with science fiction. He can make things sound just – a – little – bit – off, which is just what was called for in this case.
As someone born in the 1960’s who has not read extensively about American presidents nor American involvement in WWII, I found this book very interesting and informative. There was just enough detail for me in this abridged version of the book, which touched on both Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt’s personal and public lives, primarily during WWII. Someone with a more burning interest in these topics would probably want to read the unabridged version, but for anyone with merely a passing interest, this abridged version is just the right length. Mr. Herrmann’s performance of the book was excellent, and a foreword and afterword are read quite effectively by the author. Having just enjoyed “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” the 2012 movie about Roosevelt starring Bill Murray (an excellent film), this book definitely expanded my understanding of both the man and his times. As I listened, my mind was full of vivid pictures from the film of the president driving his car, looking at his stamp collection, enjoying his daily cocktail hour, and posing for press photos *after* being helped out of his wheelchair so the American public wouldn’t realize the extent of his disability. The book devotes nearly as much time to Eleanor as to her husband (unlike the film) and left me with a much increased understanding of her importance, in both the life of her husband and of our nation.
The best novels speak to all of human experience by describing a particular human’s experience. This is one of those books. Though I had absolutely nothing in common with the main character--a twin boy of East Indian decent born and raised in Ethiopia who becomes a surgeon--I still felt deeply his need to be loved, his passion for his craft and his love for his family. The birth sequence that takes up the first quarter of the book is an amazing piece of writing all on its own. The fact that the rest of the book only gets better is nothing less than astonishing. This tale cut straight to my heart, and I am impaled on its truth and beauty. [I listened to this as an audio book narrated by Sunil Malhotra, who gives it a wonderful reality with his Indian accent].
The powerful ideas of this weirdly compelling novel were expressed in an almost telegraphic narrative style, blowing my thoughts in so many different directions that I felt like a wind vane in a tornado. There are multiple principle characters, each with a completely different world view, cultural background, and plot line. One minute you’re inside the head of a Nazi racist (in this alt-history novel, the Axis powers won WWII), the next you’re following a Jew who is hiding his identity and trying to live a normal life in the Japanese-controlled western U.S. Another character is an antiquities dealer making a living off his wealthy Japanese clientele, which requires him to outwardly adopt their mannerisms if not understand what really makes them tick. I thought of him as the “Vichy” collaborator, the Captain Renault of this story. Following these and other characters through their lives gives the author, Philip K. Dick, multiple opportunities to throw out marvelous observations on everything from bigotry to craftsmanship to women’s clothing.
These characters are placed in a setting that allows for critiques of current events, and Dick is clearly concerned with the major events of his day (1962), particularly the Cold War. He skewers the space race as a political smokescreen meant to distract the public from real problems. The annihilation of all humankind courtesy of nuclear weapons is also clearly on his mind.
But this novel is also oh-so-meta. It seems that nowadays every book, movie and TV show (especially the TV shows) are constantly breaking the fourth wall and winking at the fact that it knows it is a TV show and it knows you know it is a TV show. But back in the early ‘60s this must have been a very strange, almost revolutionary concept. I suppose this is one of the major reasons the book won a Hugo. The eponymous man in the high castle is the author of an alt-history novel in which the Allies won WWII and all of the characters are reading the book and interpreting it in their own way. This sort of self-aware writing creates in me a not unpleasant sensation of looking over my own shoulder, watching myself read, feeling myself actively thinking about how Dick managed to create this complex hall of mirrors and keep it all from shattering.
But alongside the many brilliant ideas and passages in this novel, there were some notable failures as well. Many times I felt like the characters’ reactions to things were very unrealistic. This kept me from empathizing very much with any of them. But a bigger problem for me was the pervasive referencing of the I Ching throughout the narrative. Nearly every character consults the I Ching in order to decide what to do next. This reminded me strongly of Nova by Samuel R. Delany, in which characters were constantly consulting Tarot cards. I have heard anecdotally that Dick consulted the I Ching while he wrote this book. I didn’t know that at the time I was reading, but for this reader the frequent I Ching references felt like an intrusion from the outside world, possibly an obsession of Dick’s, into the narrative. In other words, breaking the fourth wall in an unpleasant way that didn’t add anything to the story. Instead, these references now feel anachronistic and ultimately led me to give the novel four, rather than five, stars. [I listened to this as an audio book narrated by Tom Weiner, who did a credible job of reproducing the affectless voices of the characters along with all their various accents—Japanese, German, Italian.]
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