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.]
I remember reading this for the first time when I was in junior high. I was on a kick that involved checking out all the fattest books I could find in the school library. During this period, I know I read “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” which I liked less than the movie by the same name. I tried “War and Peace” but didn’t finish. I did read all of “Inside the Third Reich,” by Albert Speer which, now that I look back on it, I am surprised the librarian let me check out. And I read “The Count of Monte Cristo” but really didn’t remember much about it.
Now, about 40 years later, I took up this 1,000+ page narrative, only this time I was smart and got it as an audio book. I decided I wanted to read it again because my book club chose to read “The Black Count,” which is about Alexandre Dumas’ father. According to reviews of that book, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was an inspiration for the person of the Count of Monte Cristo, so having a fresh memory of that novel seemed like it would add to my appreciation of the biography.
The Count of Monte Cristo was fantastic. It was everything an adventure story should be: sword fights, betrayals, horses galloping through the night with carriages careening behind, mistaken identities, damsels in distress, disguises, very rich characters who lose everything and very poor characters who are avenged. Though very long, I was completely engrossed for nearly the entire narrative. The writing was evocative, the descriptions vivid, and the plot intricate—every word, every scene, every character slowly building to the final chapters in which All Was Revealed. In a truly masterful manner, all the disparate plot lines were resolved and when the final words were pronounced, I was genuinely sorry the book was ended.
The audio version I listened to was unabridged (47 hours!) and read by John Lee. He did an admirable job giving the myriad characters different voices. The only distraction was the fact that his version of an Italian accent made all the Italian characters sound like Dracula. Still, I would recommend this audio version to anyone who is thinking about renewing their acquaintance with this classic text.
Eschewing his usual galaxy-spanning world building, this novel is set mainly in two eras of recent Earth history: 1989 and 1962. While Wilson is extremely talented at creating strange, alien worlds, he does not use those talents here. I didn’t feel like the eras were depicted in a very compelling way. Another difference is that rather than tell a tale of cosmic proportions, this novel is very personal and meditative. There are a few action sequences, but Wilson seems much more interested in examining the effects that time travel has on the life philosophies of the various characters. The end result is a slow moving novel that did not spark my imagination the way many of this author’s other books have.
[I listened to this as an audio book read by Jonathan Davis. He was an adequate reader, but I found his pace too slow. I ended up listening at 1.5 speed and that felt perfect.]
The first third of this book was nothing but fighting, all of which felt like filler to me. I almost stopped reading . . . but then it finally got into some of the pseudo-science that I liked in the first book. I am a language nerd and enjoyed the extended explanations of the proto-Indo-Europeans and how all our languages are descended from the same roots. But I honestly don’t know if I’ll listen to the third installment in this trilogy . . . maybe if it comes out on the Audible sale rack.
By chance, I read this right before reading H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and although the two books are separated by more than a century, they clearly share the same basic genetic code. Immense objects appear from out of nowhere, gouging tracks of devastation into the landscape. The objects are beyond human technology and quickly begin to wreak havoc on the Current World Order. The protagonist, our Everyman (who is a white male in both books), accidentally finds himself caught up in the Thick of Things and is there for every Significant Plot Development.
I realize I am sounding cynical and I don’t mean to. In fact, I quite enjoyed The Chronoliths. It is only due to a happy circumstance of timing that I am able to make this comparison between it and that masterpiece of Victorian speculative literature . . . revealing that perhaps not that much has changed in the intervening century. As far as science fiction goes, that may not be such a bad thing. But, unlike other Wilson novels, I thought this one had less interesting ideas in it, and ended with a bit of a whimper.
[I listened to this as an audio book. The narrator, Oliver Wyman, did a fantastic job. As he did on the Z.A. Recht Morningstar Virus books, here he changes voices for every character, helping the listener keep everyone straight. I particularly liked the way he voiced the women, especially Sulasmith Chopra, the scientist who is obsessed with discovering the time-warping secret behind the man responsible for sending the Chronoliths into the past.]
Somehow, every time I read a review, I got the idea that only young adult males who love to play video games would enjoy this book. Well, I am here to tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I think anyone who is within ten years +/- my age (50-ish) would get a HUGE kick out of this book. There are so many references to things that are in our cohort’s DNA that everyone can get the “in” jokes. References to Indiana Jones (okay, I just found out that one of my coworkers WASN’T EVEN BORN YET when the original movie came out—ghahhhhh!!), PacMan, Monty Python . . . there were tons of things nearly anyone who wasn’t living under a rock will get. I am sure there are things I missed, but that hardly mattered because there was also a kick-ass plot to keep me interested.
For his plot, Cline used a formula that is becoming familiar from the gaming world: Give the protagonist a quest, and set up obstacles. If your protagonist is likable, then the reader will want him to succeed. He is, and we do. I wanted Wade Watts to succeed so badly that I found this book every bit as addicting as the best video games: I could barely put it down. I told everyone around me how much I was enjoying it. I am telling you to read it now!
[I listened to this as an audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, who is just about the perfect choice, for so many reasons . . . not least of which is being a piece of 80’s trivia himself!!]
Good characters, good plot and lots of laughs make this the best entry in the “Old Man’s War” series since the book that gave the series its title. The main character, Harry Wilson, bears what I think of as the typical Scalzi acerbic wit and ability to creatively solve just about any challenge thrown at him. I lost count of the number of times I laughed out loud while listening to this on Audible. I tried bookmarking some of the places that made me laugh, like this part, where Wilson is telling an ambassador that something has gone horribly wrong:
“Humped the bunk … Screwed the pooch … Gone fubar… insert your own metaphor for things going sideways here.”
But somehow all by itself it’s not quite as funny as when heard as part of the flow of the story. The banter is fast and furious, and nearly all the characters talk like they are delivering one-liners from a sitcom, but somehow it works. I lay a LOT of the credit for that with the narrator of the audio version, William Dufris.
This book was definitely meant to be heard, not read. Eschewing his usual narrator of choice (Wil Wheaton) for Dufris was a good move. Dufris does a better job than Wheaton of giving the characters different voices, even though they are all dishing out one-liners at breakneck speed.
A good example is the story of the kingsflower plant. This is a huge, Venus flytrap-type plant that eats an ambassador’s dog. So naturally, our hero has to get swallowed by the plant in order to retrieve said dog. The laconic voice used by the narrator for the character of the gardener (“Don’t be alarmed when the plant starts cutting off the circulation to your extremities, it’s a perfectly normal part of the process,”) was the defining reason this section was laugh-out-loud funny.
It is definitely worth it to stick around after the main story has wrapped up to listen to two additional short stories set in the same universe. I enjoyed both “After the Coup” and “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today.”
After reading some of the other reviews here on Goodreads, I now realize that this was originally released as a serialized novel via Audible and that a sequel(s) are forthcoming. As long as Scalzi is writing and Dufris is reading, I will be listening.
Although I was brought up Catholic, graduated from a Catholic university (Go Marquette!) and have studied a smattering of Christian authors (C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton), I am not a super-religious person and seldom read books about Christianity. So I’m not at all sure why I picked up this novella but I am very glad I did.
In beautiful, first person prose, the author brings to life Mary, mother of Jesus, as a simple, human mother. Wisely, the story does not attempt to give us Mary’s perspective on every single event in Jesus’ life as told to us in the New Testament, rather, a few select moments are mentioned in what amounts to a long eulogy for her lost son. We experience famous events from her perspective, that of a simple Jewish woman who washed the family’s clothes and observed the Sabbath. She cannot grasp what others say about her son. She will never get over his tortured death. There are no easy answers here, just the very personal reflections of a mother .
I like that the author has taken a gamble, making Mary not always likeable, not always noble, not even a particularly loving mother. It’s definitely not the saintly image we are taught in catechism but it’s deeply human.
Still, I might not have given this four stars were it not for the brilliant reading given by Meryl Streep. Is there an Oscar for performing an audio book? If so, Streep should get it. I have listened to more than 200 audio books and this was simply the best reading of a book I have ever heard.
This was a fun read with just enough science facts to keep me interested, characters I cared about, and a plot that kept me guessing. There was a section in the middle—where one of the protagonists spends many chapters reading a journal left behind by a WWI soldier—that made me think “why do we need all this detail about stuff that happened 100 years ago?” but it does eventually pay off. That was definitely the weakest part of the narrative. The way that section was written bothered me because no one would write a journal like that, with complete conversations scripted out. Still, I was hooked enough to get the second volume in the series and start it immediately after finishing.
I listened to this as an audio book read by Stephen Bel Davies. At first his voice seemed strangely sing-songy but as the character count multiplied, he started doing different accents for everyone, and I found his performance to be top notch.
Considering the enormous controversy created by her book Silent Spring, this biography seemed to go out of its way to portray Carson as a boring scientist. While Mr. Souder leaves no stone unturned in giving us an account of the process Carson used to write her multiple best-selling books, I can’t help but think that a female biographer would have delved much more into Carson’s personal life. I marveled that she was completely self-reliant, providing for not only herself but also her mother, sister and nephew, while still managing to research and write some of the most celebrated non-fiction of her times. But this part of her life is only mentioned infrequently and its impact on her writing is not really examined in any meaningful way. There are lovely passages in which Souder draws back the veil on Carson’s most intimate relationship, via letters between herself and a female friend, but he shies away from deeply examining the true nature of their relationship. If he could give us tons of background info on the nuclear threat during the years while Carson was writing Silent Spring, surely he could also have gone into some background on the status of homosexuality at the time and put a context for this relationship that was clearly the most important one in Carson’s entire life. Souder also missed an opportunity to examine the continuing impact of Carson’s environmental ideas on our world today, perhaps via conversations with current environmentalists who could speak to her influence. In all, a more modern perspective might have enlivened this book about this truly extraordinary woman.
There are some very cool ideas in this third installment in the METAtropolis short story collection, but the authors got less disciplined here and there are some stories that seem to be phoned in. On top of that, the very famous scifi actors who narrated the first two installments have been replaced by some sub-par narrators who were almost annoying to listen to. I would recommend this collection only to the hard-core scifi readers who are here for the ideas, for there are some extremely cool ideas here despite the mediocre plots, same-old characters and confusing story arcs.
I’ll review each story separately. Here there be (minor) spoilers . . .
Rock of Ages, by Jay Lake. Narrators: Mark Boyette, Dion Graham, Robin Miles. As the METAtropolis franchise moves farther and farther into its imagined future, it would be nice if Jay Lake would also move forward. The explanation for extending Bashar’s life (he is around 150 years old in this story) is complicated and does not really fit in with the rest of the METAtropolis mythos. I could get over that, if there were some really good reason to keep Bashar around, but I don’t think there is. It’s like the author couldn’t be bothered to come up with a new character. Stretching the reader’s credulity further, the author makes the super-centenarian Bashar the hero of a ridiculous James-Bond-type escapade. The only cool thing in this whole story was the forest that had been legally incorporated as an entity and that could speak via the Internet. To my utter disbelief, the door was left open for Bashar to survive riding an asteroid down from high earth orbit and smashing it into Seattle.
Green and Dying, by Elizabeth Bear. Narrator: Jonathan Davis. This story of a group of con men/women running a scam reminded me of an episode of Leverage (not necessarily a bad thing). The scam takes place on a “seastead,” which I imagined like an oil rig only full of condos for rich people. Unfortunately, neither the “seastead” nor the characters were particularly interesting, and the way the story unfolded was too slow. I was actually pretty bored until about halfway through when the story took a turn and seemed like it was going to tie in with some of the plagues that were mentioned in the previous story by Jay Lake, but then that connection wasn’t quite made so I was left more confused than anything else.
The Desire Lines, by Karl Schroeder. Narrator: Sanjiv Jhaveri. Refreshingly, this story was set in a new place—the Amazon rain forests of Peru/Brazil—and featured people of color as the protagonists. And, since it was written by the ever inventive Karl Schroeder, it featured some of the most mind-meltingly awesome futuristic ideas in this entire collection. Again, we are treated to a forest that has a mind of its own, but there are also corporations with really interesting ideas about how to fix a broken environment. One scientist even theorizes that she could revise the ecology so that none of the animals had to kill in order to survive! The narrator was amazing at doing different accents for all the different characters, but for some reason when he was doing straight prose narration, his cadence was so sing-song that it was actually hard to listen to.
Midway Bells & Dying Breeds, by Seanan McGuire. Narrator: Jennifer Van Dyck. The protagonist of this story has grown up as part of a very large, extended family that runs a travelling circus, a remnant of an earlier time that has survived into this high-tech future. Her main job is to steer a huge dinosaur (created like they were in Jurassic Park) to which the circus tethers its floating (?) ferris wheel. Okay, I’ll admit I’m a little fuzzy on what the dino was actually doing. Mostly, we are treated to descriptions of how it oh-so-slow-ly munches its way through the forest. The story could be read as an examination of what happens when things live on past their original expiration date, but rather than taking this opportunity to have the characters debate the merits of resurrecting long-extinct species or the need to continue old traditions, the plot degenerated into the protagonist and the Big Boss of the circus whining about their personal love-hate relationship like adolescents rather than two adults discussing different world views. The “resolution” of their differences was definitely the kind of half-baked, impulsive solution that a teenager would come up with, leaving me disgusted and dissatisfied. The weakest story in the bunch, this seemed like it was originally written for some other reason and then gerrymandered (I’ll add some high-tech circus tents that pack and unpack themselves!) to fit into this collection.
Tensegrity, by Tobias S. Brickell. Narrator: Scott Brick. The possibilities of future tech and social advances were the highlights of this story. A giant, three-mile-in-circumference, concrete city floats into the stratosphere. AIs “govern” small city-states automagically, making most of the pesky day-to-day decisions and leaving us humans to pursue our passions. “Murder” is redefined. I liked that this story tied in better with the rest of the METAtropolis world and the overall story arc. Scott Brick, always amazing!
Forest of Memories, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Narrator: Allyson Johnson. This was my favorite of the bunch, mainly because it was written with a unique point-of-view. The protagonist is telling her story to someone else who has evidently paid her to tell it. In this future where nearly everyone and everything is wired 24-7, for a crucial several days, the protagonist’s connectivity was cut. Of course something mysterious and untoward happened to her during that time, and now she has only her memories and no independent verification of the facts. Wonderfully read by Allyson Johnson.
Let Me Hide Myself in Thee, by Ken Scholes. Narrators: Dion Graham, Robin Miles. This story felt like an obligatory “let’s tie up the loose ends with a nice bow” kind of thing. I give the author an “A” for effort, but could have done with a few less hand-wavium moments. (Oh! I need an action heroine! I’ll conveniently give this person who has been a desk-hugging fiscal researcher her whole life a backstory in which her unconventional parents forced her to learn to be a sniper! And she will miraculously remember this skill 20 years later!)
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