I won't deny Dead Souls has literary merit and thematic depth. It's hard for me to judge the prose since I've learned to mistrust translations. But I have a hard time getting into Russian literature — I have yet to discover the Russian novel or author who really "speaks" to me — and Gogol didn't really seem to know where he was going with Dead Souls, only what he wanted to do when he got there. As Peter Boxall says in the aforementioned 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:
"The writing of Dead Souls drove Gogol mad. It started off as a humorous idea for a story, the conceit being that Chichikov, a scheming opportunist, would travel through Russia buying up the rights to dead serfs (souls), who had not yet been purged from the census and could therefore - like all chattels - still be mortgaged. As the novel grew, so did Gogol's aspirations; his goal became no less than to rekindle the noble yet dormant core of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that was its destiny. He no longer wanted to write about Russia; he wanted to save it. He was driven into messianic obsession and, having burnt Part Two - twice - after ten years of labor, he committed suicide by starvation."
That's one of the problems with Dead Souls: on a purely novelistic level, it's incomplete. Gogol planned for it to be a sweeping three-part epic, and the fragment that is left is quite literally unfinished, with missing parts even before the end. So we never do see what comes of Chichikov's scheme. The novel ends in the middle of a long sententious speech about corruption by a Russian prince.
That Gogol was long and rambly had a point he wanted to make is obvious in this book. We can see an author who loved his country, who, as Jane Smiley says in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel:
"Like many Russian writers, Gogol employed his gifts in trying to discern the nature of Russianness and in forging a literary identity for Russia that would somehow help to engender a road to the future."
Thus, Dead Souls is a book about "Russianness" as much as it is a story about Chichikov, an amoral huckster who conceives a scheme to become rich by buying dead souls from credulous, venal landowners.
Chichikov is a character, and Gogol's treatment of Russian peasantry and the upper classes alike is sharply satirical. Gogol seems to have a sense of humor, unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. At the same time, he's still writing a Tolstoy-like ponderous Russian Epic (even if Dead Souls' unfinished state leaves it somewhat less ponderous in size), and so between Chichikov's misadventures and a host of other Dickensian characters, we get rambling monologues about details of Russian life and the Russian character. In the middle of Chichikov's travels, the author stops to digress for a long, prolix paragraph about highways.
This may be to your taste, but being a story kind of guy, I wanted to find out what was going to come of Chichikov's schemes. I am less concerned with Gogol's concerns about the character of a long-ago nation, even if today's Russia, after revolutions and Sovietizations and fragmentation and Internetoligarchization does sometimes seem not so far removed from the Russia of Gogol and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Well, this review did make me ramble a bit, didn't it? I guess I still can't quite put my finger on why Dead Souls fell flat for me, and given that it made me think so hard and dig up so many quotes, I guess it does what all excellent books are supposed to do, which is stir thoughts and conflict in the reader's mind. I'm still only giving it 3 stars, because it's just so boring for long stretches, and it's an unfinished novel, but if you are into classic Russian lit, or want to try some from the "second-stringers" (i.e., not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky), Dead Souls has humor and wit and the premise intrigues if the delivery is ultimately unsatisfactory.
While Jon Ronson reveals a great deal about his own neuroses in this book, he casts little light on the psychopaths he is allegedly researching, though he does give some interesting insights into the "madness industry" of psychologists who have studied, categorized, labeled, and tried to treat psychopaths, mostly without success.
Ronson begins with a strange introduction to the field of psychology and mental illness thanks to a group of Scientologists, who chose him to "expose" the evils of psychology. Scientologists believe that all mental disorders are because of engrams accumulated from past lives or space aliens or some such thing. L. Ron Hubbard had a particular hatred of psychologists. Ronson spends a little time discussing the peculiarities of Scientology, but this book is primarily about psychopaths and what makes them tick... and what makes the people who study them tick.
After reading The Psychopath Test, it is not hard to believe that you have to be a little bit crazy to study crazy people. (Look out for those Abnormal Psychology majors...) From the arbitrariness of what goes into the DSM (did you know that far more copies are sold to interested non-academics/non-practitioners than to mental health professionals?) to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a diagnostic tool that's become a quick and dirty way to label someone a psychopath, to the Rosenhan Experiment, the history of psychology is filled with enough self-reinforcing bumbling and egomania to make one think the Scientologists may have a point.
While Ronson's book is a collection of interesting anecdotes and observations, digressing into the overmedication of children, misdiagnoses of autism, and the brutality of capitalist devotion to "shareholder value," between interviews with ex-death squad leaders and allegedly psychopathic CEO Al Dunlap, it's a bit weak in its critique of science, and sheds little light on his subjects.
Martha Stout's book The Sociopath Next Door was more illuminating. Ronson does, however, give a bit of a glimpse into the mind of a sociopath in a way that Stout only addressed abstractly: how do sociopaths/psychopaths (there is no technical difference between them) see themselves? Do they recognize that they are "broken"? Do they ever want to be cured, and can they be? (Short answer: no.)
Ronson's interview with Al Dunlap was particularly interesting, as he actually confronted Dunlap with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, and the allegations that Dunlap, according to this tool, scored high on the psychopathy scale. Dunlap proceeded to point out that every behavior presented as evidence of being a psychopath could also be interpreted as someone who has a forceful and driven personality who gets things done. True enough, there is a lot of evidence that psychopathy is an asset in positions of power, like boardrooms.
Ronson is able to see how some of his subjects ape normal human reactions and manipulate people the way they'd handle a TV remote control, but others, like Al Dunlap, are more ambiguous. Is Dunlap really a psychopath, or just a merciless SOB? As both Stout and Ronson point out, even genuine psychopaths are rarely serial killers; most live law-abiding, respectable lives, though never out of any actual respect for the law or society.
An interesting if somewhat meandering trip into the perilous world of diagnosing psychopaths, The Psychopath Test is not exactly a weighty, heavily-researched book, but it will be of interest to anyone who has an, ahem, clinical interest in psychopaths.
The Earth is facing environmental catastrophe in the 23rd century. Humans have spread to other star systems, but generally not found a lot of Earth-like planets, and those they have found are already inhabited. A handful of intelligent alien races have been discovered, but all are primitive compared to humanity. Most alien races discovered, however, are long dead, and the most prominent is one that apparently traveled to other stars, as their monuments have been found across the galaxy.
Earth has generally taken a "hands off" approach to living natives, but as pressure mounts to begin terraforming habitable worlds as an escape plan, this "Prime Directive" morality begins to seem less desirable. There is an interesting reversal of the classic sci-fi trope, and subtle commentary on colonialism and how we might justify it in the future, when an argument is made to colonize an inhabited planet "for the natives' own good." They are in the middle of a savage global war, and it is claimed that some of them have become aware of the existence of their alien watchers, and are begging for intervention. That technological aid and imposed peace would incidentally involve Earthlings resettling on their hosts' planet would be only a logical extension of a benevolent intervention...
This is a fairly hard SF novel that will appeal to fans of "big idea" SF, particularly if you like academic/scientist protagonists. Jack McDevitt gets compared a lot to Arthur C. Clarke in the blurbs for this book, and that's a fair comparison. Also an unfortunate one as far as I'm concerned, because like Clarke's science fiction, The Engines of God did little to stir any passion in this science fiction fan. It was a perfectly well written book, it was just dry and flat and even the high stakes did not truly engage my interest.
I seem to be on a survivalist reading kick lately, enjoying various books about TEOTWAWKI scenarios. One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that survivalist books and those who write them tend to be of a particular political bent. It is stronger in some than in others, but let's just say there are not a lot of people voting for Obama who write books about how the government is going to collapse and the key to survival is stashing guns and silver.
"A. American" is clearly making a statement with the very choice of pseudonym, but Going Home doesn't really get up on a soapbox until the end.
Instead, the first part of the book is about Morgan Carter's trip home after an EMP device shuts down his car and the power grid. He is in rural Florida when it happens — setting survivalist novels in Florida or North Carolina seems to be awfully popular. Certainly it's easier to explain someone carrying a gun around, as opposed to a survivalist novel set in New York or Maryland.
Morgan Carter is a prepper, and the chapters with Morgan are narrated from a first-person POV, so he goes into great detail describing the contents of his bug-out bag, the equipment he has, his survival tactics as he begins hiking home. Later he meets up with a naive college girl, another shotgun-toting survivor named Thad (obligatory Big Black Friend), and then some ex-army guys, and the novel becomes a little disjointed as it alternates between their viewpoints as they go their separate ways.
Mostly there is a lot of talk about gear and prepper basics, obviously intended to enlist the audience's interest. There are some deadly encounters with the usual sorts of low-lives whom you'd expect to turn orc when the grid goes down. As a survival story, it's not quite as compelling as One Second After or Alas, Babylon or Dies the Fire because all those books (besides being somewhat better written) are about the survival of communities, whereas Going Home is mostly a collection of individual survival stories. However, it does illustrate some of the issues an individual might have, being caught on one's own in a SHTF scenario, though the author makes it a lot easier for his protagonists by letting them all start out heavily armed.
Now, as I noted, a certain mistrust of the government and antipathy for dependent city-dwellers is at the core of most of these survivalist novels. "A. American" keeps this in check for most of the book, with Morgan making only a few comments now and then about screwed the unprepared are going to be and the observation that people turn "collectivist" awfully fast when they run out of stuff.
The end of the book, however, reveals who the true culprits behind the EMP device were. Well, President Obama is never mentioned by name, but let's just say this is a book that will appeal to those who believe in the NWO's black helicopters and FEMA camps.
This free Audible download describes a man fighting to get back to his family during a zombie outbreak. It was entertaining enough and the writing was okay, but basically it brought nothing new at all to the genre. The free sample consisted of the first chapter and part of the second, enough to give you a taste. I'm afraid it didn't captivate me. It was okay, but unless you're into all things zombie and just can't get enough of zombie apocalypses, I can't recommend it as a stand-out.
Either you dig Lovecraft or you don't. The guy had issues and his prose was the purplest, like most pulp writers of his time. But all American fantasy and horror written since the 1930s has been influenced by Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself was heavily influenced by others, of course, and At the Mountains of Madness, one of his most famous works, made explicit reference to Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
This is a novella about a scientific expedition to Antarctica. The Antarctic was even more mysterious and unknown in the 1930s, so it was a perfect place for Lovecraft to situate an ancient, alien city. His narrator, in recounting his perilous journey from which only he and one other explorer/scientist returned, is attempting to discourage others from following in their footsteps, lest they too unearth Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
All the classic Lovecraft tropes are here — alienness incomprehensible to human minds, non-Euclidian geometry, sanity loss, and awful truths about prehistory revealed. The city the scientists discover in the South Pole was once inhabited by a race of creatures from another star, known only as the Old Ones. The Old Ones were scientifically and culturally advanced, and created servants to help them build their great cities. These servants, awful, intelligent monstrosities known as Shoggoths, eventually rebelled against their creators, making this ancient story literally older than mankind.
Surprisingly to me, given Lovecraft's usual xenophobia and characterization of the alien as unknowable and inimical, his narrator displays an almost touching compassion and understanding for the Old Ones, observing that they were simply "men of another age, albeit alien."
In the climax, the awful truth is revealed, there is much slime and carnage, and the narrator narrowly escapes from the terrible underground tunnels of the ancient city of the Old Ones.
You will never see penguins the same way again. Tekeli-li!
Dies the Fire goes through the usual paces in an end-of-the-world novel: civilization collapses, there is much confusion and rioting, a few lucky/prepared ones are situated such that they don't starve while all the city-dwellers run out of food, there's a massive die-off, and then the most organized, ambitious, and/or ruthless are setting up fiefdoms.
The gimmick here is that "the Change" that causes the end of civilization literally changes the laws of physics. Gunpowder, internal combustion, and electricity simply stops working. The world is literally knocked back into the middle ages technologically. This device is an excuse to write an SCAer's fantasy: those folks in the Society for Creative Anachronism who spent time dressing up in plate armor and whacking each other with rattan swords are suddenly among the only ones with actual useful combat skills, now that guns no longer work. Sterling takes that ball and runs with it: the chief villain, who takes over Portland, Oregon, "the Protector," is a former history professor and an SCA member who uses his combat skills and knowledge of medieval history to immediately begin recreating his favorite period of history with himself in charge.
Michael Havel, military veteran and former pilot, becomes a warlord of sorts, quickly leveling up as the mercenary commander of the "Bear-Killers," with assistance from a teenage girl Tolkien-nerd who conveniently enough also practiced archery as a hobby.
As a gimmick, it's interesting and fun to see the survivors literally rediscovering medieval tactics out of necessity. "The Change" is never explained, though the characters speculate that aliens did it. It does become a bit much when witches (the wiccan kind, not the actual magic-using kind) form the basis for a large survival community, apparently because they're better able to organize and survive in a pre-industrial world. Juniper, the leader of the coven, who becomes High Priestess and "Lady Juniper," is constantly spouting "Blessed Be" and "Lord and Lady!"
Dies the Fire is not much of an actual survivalist story; there is discussion of how the survivors have to reimplement medieval technology and spend a lot of time getting agriculture going again the hard way, but most of the action is the battles against various bandit gangs and warlords.
Will be interesting to see if the author actually makes aliens responsible in the next book.
This book has gotten much, much love from bloggers and Young Adult aficionados in general. Because girls! In World War II! And it's kind of a little bit dark with Nazis, toned down to YA levels.
Code Name Verity is a girls' adventure story about a pilot and a secret agent, both based in historical reality though the author admits in her afterword that she took a bit of fictional license to allow her young female pilot to fly a plane into occupied France.
As the book begins, Julie, the secret agent half of this best friends duo, is writing a confession to her German captors. She got caught as an enemy spy when she looked the wrong way crossing a street in France, and now she's in the hands of the SS. The first half of the book is her story. She is Scheherazade, trying to prolong her life by giving away secrets and playing mind-games with her captors, games she can't possibly win.
Then comes the second half, which is Maddie's tale, Maddie being the working class girl who became a pilot, who crashed in France, and now works with the French Resistance. She learns of Julie's capture and want to free her. Of course.
Much has been made in reviews of the "shocking twist," which I shall not spoil, but let's just say it is dramatic and moving but not wholly unexpected and certainly not as wrenching for adult readers who have read war stories before. Likewise, the horrors of the Nazi occupation are described, but the author spares the reader the worst.
This isn't a flaw in the book per se — not every war story has to be gory and brutal to excess, but I was constantly reminded that this was a YA novel meant to stir an emotional response. The focus is on Julie and Maddie's friendship and we are treated to long internal monologues regarding everything that passes through their heads.
The story was good and so was the writing, but despite the cleverness of an unreliable narrator, it seemed to be written to appeal to a different sort of reader. Code Name Verity tries very hard to yank your heartstrings and make you shiver with dread at appropriate times. For a teenage girl, this is maybe a near-perfect book. For me, merely decent.
Contrary to its title, Hard Magic is not an urban fantasy: it's basically a superhero novel. Set in an alternate history between world wars, a mysterious alien "power" came to Earth in the middle of the 19th century and granted a subset of the population magical powers. For the majority of "Actives," these powers come in singular and well-defined forms: there are "brutes" who have super strength, "torches" who are pyrokinetics, "mouths" with mind control powers, "heavies" who can manipulate gravity, etc. But it turns out there are also other forms of magic, such as those wielded by the Japanese Imperium's "Iron Guard." These magical super-soldiers have kanji branded into their skins that give them accelerated healing, protection from harm, strength and speed, and other powers. There are also necromancers who raise the dead to create zombie armies, and other manifestations of magical power, but they all function pretty much like super powers.
In this alternate history, Japan is on a path to world domination thanks to possessing the most powerful and heavily trained magical warriors, and fleets of dirigibles that function like bombers and aircraft carriers all at once. Led by the most powerful man on Earth (literally and figuratively), Chairman Tokugawa, this is the Japan of the 1930s: expansionist, fascist, and unambiguously and unapologetically the bad guys. Tokugawa, as the Big Bad, is a great if somewhat stereotyped villain. Yes, he's a centuries-old samurai with magical superpowers who goes on about strength and honor and likes to recite poems to his enemies before killing them, but he has class and style and he's the sort of villain you love to see chewing the scenery and can't wait for the climactic battle where he finally goes down.
This book has lots of climactic battles, each one more epic than the last. Jake Sullivan, the main character, is a "heavy" who can control gravity. He's also a great big slab of macho, a war veteran, an ex-con, an ex-P.I., fearless alpha, and probably a little bit of an authorial wish-fulfillment. He hits every manly-man trope in the noir genre, and you know what? That's okay! Because this book is what it is, a raging male power fantasy like the classic superhero comics where Superman knocked Nazi fighter planes out of the sky. Here we have Jake Sullivan fighting other "Actives," then pitted against his own brother, who of course is bigger and badder than him and thus is the penultimate Boss level Jake must get past before he can face the Chairman himself.
But it's not just Jake tromping around in a California fortified with "Peace Rays" created by Tesla and fighting Imperium ninjas and invincible Iron Guards and dirigible sky pirates. He joins the Knights of the Grimnoir, an international organization dedicated to protecting the magically gifted and the non-magical alike. Jake's ex is Delilah, a former New Orleans whore with super-strength. A secondary protagonist is Faye, an Okie "Traveler" (teleporter) who is a hoot as a character, her mind running a mile a minute in a hundred directions, and in the climax (in which she, like Jake, has without a whole lot of plausible explanation powered up by a factor of about eleventy) is running amok through the Japanese dirigible fleet blasting magical ninjas with a shotgun that never seems to run out of ammo, and that's before she and Jake go completely Super Saiyan against the Chairman and his Iron Guard.
If you're thinking this sounds a lot like Steelheart or Mistborn, you're right. This was my first Larry Correia novel, but his writing style and his worldbuilding reminded me a lot of Brandon Sanderson. Like Sanderson, Correia writes straight-up action/adventure with lots of heroics and over-the-top power stunts and characters who are often archetypes more than fully-realized people, but if you are in the mood for grand pulp adventure, this book hits a high mark and almost got 5 stars from me. It is a guns blazing, powers activating, bloody spectacular pulp superhero slugfest that is, if not a literary masterpiece and unabashedly un-PC, absolutely great fun for those who like an occasional dose of fist-pumping "America, booyah!" heroics.
In the first book of the Milkweed trilogy, British secret agent Raybould Marsh and his poncy toff friend Will Beauclerk tried to find a way to fight supersoldiers created by Nazi science. The solution was the top-secret Milkweed project: gathering Britain's warlocks, who can bargain with cosmic horrors called Eidolons, they used magic to destroy the Reich's armies and counter the supermen, at the cost of sacrificing their own citizens.
In Necessary Evil, Raybould Marsh is sent back in time thanks to Eidolon sorcery and the machinations of Gretel, the most powerful of all the original super-soldiers, with the power to see the future and, it turns out, all the many possible branches it can take, and choose between them. Gretel is basically unstoppable: she brings into the question the very existence of free will, since nothing happens that she doesn't foresee. Unfortunately, she foresaw the end of the world in every possible future, and so schemed to create a new timeline in which the Eidolons don't destroy the world and she lives.
Thus, Necessary Evil is not only an alternate history but a time travel novel. The older, scarred Raybould Marsh has to somehow manipulate his younger self and his friend Will into not using the power of the Eidolons to save Britain from the Nazi supermen. The problem with this, of course, is that saving the world might mean losing World War II. With a younger Gretel also involved, still playing her omniscient games, the plot twists through replays of events in the first book, taking them in new directions.
Like the first two books, Necessary Evil is heavy on plot and imagination, and while the characterization is still a little shallow at times, the tormented Raybould Marsh, seeing a wife that still loves his younger self, manages to elicit sympathy, while Gretel becomes, almost, human. Still crazy and evil, but human. The "necessary evils" the characters are required to perform cause quite a bit of angst, but they never really search for alternatives.
Time travel is tricky to pull off; time travel combined with an all-seeing precog even trickier. How do you create surprises and avoid paradoxes? Tregillis manages to pull it off without unraveling the plot. The ending is just right: a climactic battle, a bittersweet victory, and just desserts. It's a fine ending to the trilogy.
Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon is a classic novel of post-nuclear war survival. Set in Fort Repose, Florida, a tiny town that is missed by the nuclear missiles that level all major cities in the U.S., it is less Cold War science fiction than a survivalist epic.
The author of One Second After acknowledged this book as one of his inspirations, and the two books are very similar in many ways. Both feature the residents of a small Southern town forming a survivalist community in the wake of the collapse of the U.S. government and technological civilization. In Alas, Babylon, it is a nuclear war between the US and the USSR, the ominous and inevitable build-up to war taking up the first half of the book, as only a few people realize just what is unfolding before them on the news.
As in One Second After, Alas, Babylon features an All-American protagonist stepping up to take charge because no one else will, while he tries to manage his small family (in this case, the family of his brother, an Air Force officer who knew what was going down and sent them to relative safety ahead of time). There are food shortages, the necessity of modern people figuring out how to survive without modern technology, the return of the barter economy, as well as bandits and highwaymen. As a survivalist epic, it's not as grim as it could have been, but it's another one of those books that might make you think about stocking up on bullets and beans, just in case.
For a book written in 1959, Alas, Babylon holds up surprisingly well, largely because as with all stories about a total collapse of civilization, once the grid goes down and there is no more government, it doesn't matter whether it was 1959 or 1980 or 2014, everything is going to look like the 19th century pretty quickly. The USSR is no longer, but Russia still has missiles pointed at us; nuclear war may no longer be as likely as it once seemed, but it's hardly a threat that's vanished. The black characters, despite living in Florida in 1959, are treated better by the author than in some more recent post-apocalyptic novels I could name.
This was a good read for anyone who's a fan of survivalist novels and stories about what a community would do after the end of the world. Very slightly dated, but the writing style and the challenges facing the characters will mostly keep you from noticing.
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