Category Archives: coming of age

Books that feature some kind of coming-of-age tale.

Review 211: The Diamond Age

LL 211 - Diamond AgeThe Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I sometimes get the feeling that Neal Stephenson’s writing process goes something like this:

Hey, I found a really cool idea here! I wonder what I can do with it…?

He then writes about 200 pages of really awesome, meticulous world-building, with innovative ideas about, in the case of this book, the possible uses of nanotechnology and its eventual social, political, and economic ramifications, and then thinks, Oh, crap, I’m writing a story here, and high-tails it to the end of the book, leaving the reader a little wind-blown and confused. It happened in Snow Crash, where he was playing with the origins of language and the fundamental functioning of the human mind. It happened in Cryptonomicon, where he dove into the murky waters of cryptography and World War 2 treasure and brought up all kinds of gems, and it happened here, too.

First, tiny guitars - then the WORLD!!

First, tiny guitars – then the WORLD!!

The Diamond Age is, fundamentally, about what would happen – or what might happen – if we really got nanotechnology working properly. How would society adapt if, suddenly, government and commerce as we know them became obsolete? With the Feed and Matter Compilers able to create anything out of nothing, the entire economic and political underpinnings of the planet would come undone, and in the case of the world that Stephenson has made, this led people to reorganize their social loyalties. Rather than band together into geographically or historically determined nation-states, they came together in phyles – places where like-minded individuals could come together and bond with each other through shared values and morality, united only by a commonly upheld treaty. This treaty of phyles, in turn, supported the new economy that nanotechnology allowed.

Within one of these phyles, the Neo-Victorians, one of the more highly-placed Lords realized what was wrong with the world in which he lived. The problem wasn’t the corruption of values of which the old always accuse the young. Indeed, it was that those values were passed on too well. Children did not elect to join their phyles, becoming members of their own free will, but they were indoctrinated into them from birth. This, in turn, made them… well, boring, and it was making the community stagnant.

You'd think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

You’d think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

And so Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned a great work – The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – to guide his granddaughter into a more interesting life. And had that been all that happened, the story would have been rather short. Two other copies of the Primer were made, however. One for the daughter of the book’s designer, and another that fell into the hands of Nell, a young girl born into poverty and otherwise destined to lead a life of misery and sorrow.

The Primer is a smart book, of course, fully interactive, able to teach reading, science, history, and martial arts, among many other things. What it teaches Nell, whom we follow more than most, is how to be great. In a world ruled by this amazing science and yet rigidly stratified by an ancient Victorian code of social stratification, Nell generates turbulence wherever she goes, and the book helps her do it.

All of this is quite awesome – there’s a great hunt for the Primer, plans within plans, and all that. And then, suddenly, for no reason that I can recall, a new plot about a technology to supplant the Feed and some kind of Chinese revolution and the whole book runs off the rails.

I know a lot of people who love Neal Stephenson, and I can understand why. He’s an incomparably imaginative writer, able to find ways to express ideas that some of us couldn’t even imagine. He’s an heir to the world that William Gibson and his contemporaries pioneered. He creates captivating and detailed worlds with living characters who have complex problems without simple solutions. Hell, even Stephen King gave him a direct shoutout in his book Cell, which was had some thematic similarities with Snow Crash.

I'm not saying it IS a train wreck, but still...

I’m not saying it IS a train wreck, but still…

For all that, though, he just can’t seem to stick the endings, and that more than anything else has kept me away from his newer books. Seriously, it’s like a whole new story kicks in around page 250. If he can kick this problem, he’ll be a writer for the ages.

——–
The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations–in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
-Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

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Filed under coming of age, culture, nanotechnology, Neal Stephenson, science fiction, society

Review 184: Ender’s Shadow

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

This book made me wish I could forget that I had ever read Ender’s Game.

Not because it was necessarily a better book – though it is longer – but because the two books offer different views of the same events from two distinctly different perspectives.

Ender Wiggin is brilliant and empathetic, a boy torn apart by his own doubts and fears and driven to greatness by a government that sees him simply as a means to an end. It is only his ability to understand and come to love those around him that gets him through his trials, endure his isolation, and which ultimately allows him to put together the team that defeats the Buggers. Ender seems to be more human than human, and not in that ironic Blade Runner sort of way, but in a way which makes us want to see him succeed and do well.

Bean, on the other hand, is about as different from Ender as it’s possible to get. He’s introduced in Ender’s Game as a foil, a character designed to show us how far Ender had come in the short time that he had been in Battle School. When we meet Bean, Ender is using the same techniques of isolation and constructive abuse that were used on him, making us wonder if Ender will turn out to be just a copy of the adults who were tormenting him. We learn that Bean, like Ender, is brilliant, but he is also strong-willed and ambitious and takes well to the atmosphere of Battle School. In the end, Bean shows himself to be a vital part of the team that Ender assembles to stop the Buggers and cement humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Ender’s story is all about empathy and self-understanding and his desire to be the person he wants to be, rather than the person humanity needs him to be. He has to give up some of his essential humanity in order to save the world.

Bean’s story comes from the opposite direction. More brilliant than Ender, Bean learns to find his humanity. He has to learn to see people as people, rather than a means to an end or a puzzle to solve. The hard lessons that he learned on the streets of Rotterdam as a small child were vital in preparing him to become a commander, but they have to be put aside if he’s to become a human.

Bean’s story is much bigger in scope than Ender’s, which gives the book as a whole more depth than Ender’s Game. We start out in Rotterdam, which has become a center of poverty and violence among rival gangs of street children. Bean, tiny and starving, manages to prove his worth to one of these gangs by suggesting strategies by which they can get more food and more respect. He gains the attention of Sister Carlotta, a nun who is working for both God and the International Fleet, and she is the first to see his full potential as a student in Battle School. But in the course of trying to understand Bean, she learns that his origin is one of horror, and that his future is even worse.

As a character, I liked Bean more than I liked Ender, possibly because on a scale of Complete Misanthrope to Bodhisattva, Bean and I are pretty close to the complete misanthrope end of the spectrum. To be fair, though, Bean has a lot more reasons to feel that way, and he’s a lot worse than I am. As we meet him, Bean views people as means to an end or as problems to be solved. He doesn’t reform the street gang culture of Rotterdam because it’s the right thing to do – he does it because he needs to eat. When he does experience attachment or fondness for others, he doesn’t know how to deal with it, and turns it into just another problem to be solved.

That hyper-analytical way of looking at the world makes Bean a much more aware character than Ender as well. While Ender spends most of his book wrapped inside his own head, Bean is constantly testing the world, analyzing it and trying to figure out what’s really going on. So while Ender was exploring the computer fantasy game, Bean was crawling through air ducts in the Battle School. While Ender was researching the battles of the past, Bean was learning how to spy on his teachers.

In the end, just as Ender is learning to put aside his humanity for the common good, Bean discovers a deep well of compassion that he never knew he had. Ender becomes more isolated, and Bean becomes more connected to others. The two characters come at each other from different directions and view the world in vastly different ways, giving us a kind of parallax view of the same events, to use Card’s preferred terminology.

Most interestingly, many of the revelations that were revealed to Ender in his book were discovered by Bean in this one, which creates a whole different reading experience.

And that’s why I wish I could delete my memory of having read Ender’s Game,, or at least put it away for a while. Reading this book, I constantly compare what’s happening to Bean with what happened to Ender, looking for those scenes that are shared between the books and others that we only get to see once. Whether it’s the early days of Battle School or Ender’s fight with Bonzo Madrid or the climactic end, there are enough similarities and differences to make each book worth reading.

But at the same time, I want to read each one for the first time, without knowing what’s going to happen next. I want to share Bean’s ability to see plans unspool before him without already knowing what those plans are. And then I want to read Ender’s Game the way I read Ender’s Shadow and have those wonderful moments of revelation as new light is shed on topics that were only briefly mentioned before – like Locke and Demosthenes, or the true fate of Mazer Rackham.

Card has done a difficult job very well in this book, and I can’t imagine it was easy at all. As he noted in his forward, a dozen years passed between the first book and this one, and a person changes in that much time. He learned new things and gained new perspectives, and that naturally had a great influence on how he chose to write this story.

And then there’s the enormous popularity of his other Ender books. Between Game and Shadow, he wrote Speaker for the Dead in 1986, Xenocide in 1991, and Children of the Mind in 1996. That means he had a much more solid understanding of his world by the time he got around to Ender’s Shadow in 1999, and a much larger fan base as well. Writers will always say that they write for the story, not for the fans, but every writer wants in their heart of hearts to have people love what they write. Revisiting your most famous work and exploring a popular character brings great risks with it.

Fortunately, I think Card succeeded with this book. It both compliments and contrasts with Ender’s Game, offering enough new information and new viewpoints to merit a second novel, while being faithful to the story that fans had come to love over a decade and a half. What’s more, it feels like the work of a more experienced writer. The scale is larger, the characters have more depth, and he takes more chances with the story than he did with Ender’s Game.

All in all, if you were a fan of the first, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t read either, you really should. And if you start with this one, let me know how it goes.

—————————-
“Ender was what Bean only wished to be — the kind of person on whom you could put all your hopes, who could carry all your fears, and he would not let you down, would not betray you. I want to be the kind of boy you are, thought Bean. But I don’t want to go through what you’ve been through to get there.”

All images are from Marvel Comics.

Ender’s Shadow on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Shadow on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, aliens, coming of age, identity, military, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, space travel, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 180: The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale

The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale by John Scalzi

In Old Man’s War, John Scalzi brought us a new future, vast in scope, amazingly advanced and yet horribly familiar at the same time. Humans have spread out through space, snatching up habitable planets as fast as they can and setting up new colonies to thrive or perish. Back on Earth, most of the population is fed just enough information about the greater universe to ensure a steady supply of colonists and soldiers, but not enough to make them aware of all the cool stuff they’re missing.

HELLO NEIGHBOR! DO YOU HAVE A CUP OF YOUR CHILDREN’S BLOO – SUGAR! SUGAR WE COULD BORROW?

Unfortunately, we are not the only ones out there who want this real estate. Dozens of alien species are out there, and most of them want the same worlds that we do. We – and they – will fight tooth and nail to get and keep the precious few worlds that will support life. Existence out in space is much like existence on Earth – a constant struggle for scarce resources, and the species who is best adapted to get and keep planets will be the one that, for lack of a better word, wins.

To keep human colonists alive, the Colonial Union has created the Colonial Defense Force. These soldiers, taken from senior citizens of Earth, are given new, superhuman bodies, terrifyingly effective weapons, and just enough training to make sure they can defeat the horrifying things that they are sure to face. John Perry, a widower from Earth, joins the CDF and becomes one of the few Earthlings to learn about the wider universe into which humanity has spread. Sarcastic and quick-witted, Perry learns a lot more than he bargained for – among other things, that his dead wife’s DNA had been used to make the Special Forces soldier called Jane Sagan.

In The Ghost Brigades, we follow Sagan through the shadowy and violent world of the Special Forces. Where the regular CDF soldiers have bodies that would make them superheroes on Earth, the special forces are on a whole other level. Grown from the DNA of people who did not survive to become CDF soldiers, the special forces are where the newest and most interesting genetic modifications are tried out. Better vision, faster reflexes, a nearly telepathic connection with their squadmates, and even in some cases whole new body plans are all options for the Special Forces soldier. They are single-minded, deadly, and proud, knowing their purpose in the universe almost from the moment of their “birth.” What they lack, however, is the years of living that ordinary humans have and all that comes with that. This makes the Special Forces even more separate from the rest of the CDF – human, but not quite, yet essential to the survival of humanity.

Jane Sagan is one of the people trying to find Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist who has vanished, taking a dangerous amount of information on the CDF’s mind transference process with him. Their worst fear – that Boutin will try to sell that technology to their enemies – isn’t even close to how bad the truth is. Boutin hates the Colonial Union with a passion and devises a plan that will make all human colonies everywhere completely vulnerable to attack. When he dies, the only thing Jane and her squad can do is escape, but not before saving Boutin’s young daughter, Zoë, from the terrifying Obin. More on them later, though.

It’s… It’s a space thing.

Their days of adventuring over, Perry and Sagan marry, creating a partnership that sounds impossible, if you stop to think about it for too long – a man well into his 80s, with the body of a 30-year-old, marrying a woman cloned from the DNA of his former wife, and who is technically still too young to get a driver’s license. They love each other, though, and are willing to bring Zoë into their family. Following their discharge from the CDF, they got new, normal bodies and accepted a position on the oddly-named colony world of Huckleberry. In the town of New Goa, John is the ombudsman, which means having to deal with all the petty problems that come with a small town, and Jane is the constable. They live with Zoë and her two Obin bodyguards in what could certainly be considered a good life.

So you know that won’t last.

They are tapped to lead a new colony – a new type of colony, actually. Whereas previous colonists had all come from Earth, the new colony of Roanoke will be founded by representatives from ten of the oldest human colonies. It’s a second generation colonization, which would be a fantastic milestone if it weren’t for one tiny little detail: the Conclave.

Having been willing to fight pretty much everyone in their area of space, the Colonial Union hasn’t made many friends. In fact, they have damn few. Their enemies, sensing a common threat, have banded together into an organization called The Conclave, which is working to end interplanetary war through a representative government of sorts. One of their first acts was to forbid colonization by any non-Conclave members. Unauthorized colonies that resist the Conclave are vaporized.

Humanity, always the contrarians, wants to flout the Conclave’s rule and undermine its presumed authority. Thus begins an intricate web of deception and misinformation and scheming that all centers around the colonists at Roanoke, who know nothing of what’s going on over their heads. There are a few clues, though, and when John starts pulling at loose threads, a whole tapestry of intrigue is revealed to him. Roanoke may be vital to the survival of humans in space, but that doesn’t mean that the colony itself has to survive.

The reason I’m putting these two books together is because they’re really one book. The Last Colony is a fantastic read, where every time the plot turns it’s like a punch in the gut. The tension never really lets up, and every time we think things are going to get better, that’s the cue for them to get a whole lot worse.

Taking narrative shortcuts makes the Baby Jesus cry, Johnny!!

After finishing the book, however, Scalzi got a light wrist-slapping by his readers for taking a few shortcuts. One is that an indigenous, intelligent life form is discovered on Roanoke, which cause the deaths of several colonists… and then they vanish, never to be seen again. From the description, they sounded pretty cool, and I was disappointed that Scalzi had just let them kind of drift away so quietly. The other problem was with Zoë – Perry comes up with an interesting end-run around the Colonial Union, one which involves Zoë pulling rank with the Obin, who revere her as the daughter of the man who gave them consciousness. She gets sent off with her Obin bodyguards, partly to get help and also to get her out of harm’s way, and returns twenty pages later with a piece of alien technology that just happens to be exactly what they need to win the final, climactic confrontation against the Conclave. The author knew he couldn’t put all that into the book without producing something of doorstop proportions, so he “did a little hand waving and hoped [he] wouldn’t get caught.”

This is what you get for cultivating an intelligent readership, Scalzi.

The other reason for writing Zoë’s Tale, of course, was that Zoë was a really interesting character. The daughter of a man who would have betrayed humanity, and at the same time brought consciousness to the Obin – a species that had been uplifted long ago to have intelligence without consciousness. The Obin revere Zoë, and would do anything to protect her. Under these circumstances you might think that she would grow up kind of weird, but she actually ends up pretty cool. We get to see her in action a few times during The Last Colony, and those few times are more than enough to make you want to read a whole book about her.

That book, then, is Zoë’s Tale, a re-telling of the events of The Last Colony from the perspective of the most important teenage girl in the known universe.

This is what I imagine being a teenage girl is like. How’d I do?

It’s hard enough being a teenage girl here and now (or so I’m told), so imagine how much harder it must be when your father is one of the greatest traitors to humanity; when your adoptive parents are ex-soldiers, and your mother is technically younger than you are; when an entire species depends on you as a model of what it means to be a conscious, self-aware being; and when you suddenly have to leave your home to start a new colony on a world that no one has ever heard of.

That would be enough to mess anyone up.

Fortunately, Zoë is a tough girl. She’s bright, resilient and sarcastic. She enjoys a deep inner life, knows how to taunt boys, and keeps her head in a crisis. In short, the kind of teenage daughter we would all want to have, if we wanted to have teenage daughters. She and her friends do what teenagers do best: push the boundaries of their new home, have fights, fall in love, and feel big feelings about everything. Through her, we learn a lot more about the indigenous life forms of Roanoke, and we find out much more about the universe at large when she is sent to find a way to save her family and friends.

While Zoë’s Tale was very enjoyable, I find it hard to evaluate fairly. I love Zoë, and her friends are great characters as well. Scalzi does a fantastic job at writing the intricate webs of angst that make up our teenage years, fraught with emotional land mines and exciting new feelings. Her relationship with her boyfriend Enzo is very well handled, as is the ever-shifting dynamic of friendship between her and the other teens of the colony. There are some beautiful, raw moments of emotion in the book that made me – the man whose heart was long ago replaced by a spinning, cold lump of stone – stop for a moment and say, “Wow.”

What I can’t fairly say is whether or not Zoë’s Tale works as a stand-alone book. As I read it, I was constantly filling in gaps from my knowledge of The Last Colony, which made everything make sense. If I had my way, I would wipe my memory of both books and then read them again in reverse order to see if they still worked. Perhaps one day, if Scalzi has a lot of free time, he will integrate the two into a larger single volume. I wouldn’t envy him that work, but I think the resulting book would be a brilliant read.

One of the things I like about the work of John Scalzi is that I can always recommend him without reservation, so I’m doing that now. If you like good science fiction, an engaging plot and wonderful characters, pick up The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale. You won’t regret it.

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“Being from Earth in this universe is like being a small-town kid who gets on the bus, goes to the big city and spends his entire afternoon gawking at all the tall buildings. Then he gets mugged for the crime of marveling at this strange new world, which has such things in it, because the things in it don’t have much time or sympathy for the new kid in town, and they’re happy to kill him for what he’s got in his suitcase.”
– John Scalzi, The Last Colony

“You and I are so totally going to be best friends.”
“Are we? I don’t know. What are the hours?”
“The hours are terrible. And the pay is even worse.”
“Will I be treated horribly?”
“You will cry yourself to sleep on a nightly basis.”
“Fed crusts?”
“Of course not. We feed the crusts to the dogs.”
“Oh, very nice. Okay, you pass. We can be best friends.”
“Good. Another life decision taken care of.”
“Yes. Now, come on. No point wasting all this attitude on ourselves. Let’s go find something to point and laugh at.”
– Zoë and Gretchen, Zoë’s Tale
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The Last Colony on Wikipedia
Zoe’s Tale on Wikipedia
The Last Colony on Amazon.com
Zoe’s Tale on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog

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Filed under aliens, colonization, coming of age, family, humor, John Scalzi, revolution, science fiction, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 174: Dark Lord – The Rise of Darth Vader

Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader by James Luceno

When you think about Darth Vader, many things come to mind. Dark Lord of the Sith. Bane of the Jedi. Throat-Crusher Supreme.

Emo?

No. Or rather, “NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

Of all my complaints about the new trilogy – and there are many – the biggest one has to do with how Anakin Skywalker was handled. I grew up loving Darth Vader. He was a vicious bastard, but by gods he was awesome about it. He was a hard-ass who inspired terror wherever he went, and he was a man who overcame insurmountable evils to ultimately redeem himself. From the moment we see him emerge from the smoke in A New Hope, we know that this is a man to be feared and reckoned with.

He never said, “Yippee,” and he most certainly was never a mopey little emoboi. I despised the choice to make Anakin a whiny little brat who was turned to the Dark Side. And please note the passive voice there – “was turned.” He was manipulated and pushed and pulled, and finally when Palpatine said, “Go murder children,” Anakin just said, “Okay,” and did it. I never got the feeling that Anakin was making his own choices in these movies, or doing terrible things because he truly thought they were the right thing to do.

The title of Darth Vader fit very, very poorly on this wet noodle of a Sith-wannabe, and that, more than anything else, made me very angry about the new trilogy.

So, in comes James Luceno to clean things up.

Set about a month after the events in Episode 3, this book starts Vader’s transformation from mopey to malicious.

“Yoda? Know this ‘Yoda’ I do not.” (from @bonniegrrl)

Despite the best efforts of the Clone Army, some Jedi survived the initial massacre of Order 66. One of those, a Jedi named Roan Shyne, is trying to lead his dead comrade’s padawan to safety, wherever safety may be found. He’s questioning his purpose now, in a world where evil has emerged victorious, and where the Jedi are no more. Should he make a stand and die defending the Idea, or should he obey Yoda’s last orders and go to ground?

Sadly, he’s a principle character in a Star Wars novel, so the Force takes the choice out of his hands. He finds himself drawn ever closer into the mystery of the Empire and the Emperor. And Vader.

Who, I might add, is having issues of his own. The first three pages of his first POV scene are about how uncomfortable the Suit is (Luceno talked to the folks at LucasArts to find out what it was like), and how miserable he is being a nubby lump of burned flesh inside a mobile life-support system. He can’t see properly, can’t hear normally, can’t move like he used to – hell, he can barely walk steady, much less wield a lightsaber like he used to.

Palpatine, being the good mentor that he is, knows exactly how to cure Vader’s blues: give him a project, something to keep his mind off things. Like hunting people down and killing them.

Luceno handles the transition from brat to demon very delicately and very smoothly. By the time the book is over, Vader still isn’t the avatar of evil that he will one day become, but he’s certainly over the hump. In addition, the advantage of writing a prequel story is that you can boost the power of events that happen later on, giving them much more significance. When Vader finally kills Palpatine at the end of Return of the Jedi, for example, the moment is a little richer and more powerful for having seen what Palpatine put Vader through in his early days.

Dammit. Just… Dammit.

In this book, we get a good look at the Master-Disciple relationship of the Sith, and the precarious balance that it requires. The Master works his hardest to break and subjugate his disciple in order to make him strong enough so that he will one day exceed his master. The problem is that, traditionally, the disciple usually kills the master at that point, finds a new disciple of his own, and the cycle begins anew. Palpatine is looking to avoid that, if at all possible, and Vader is just itching for a chance. The key is that power is an end unto itself, and the cycle of murder is just a part of that.

But at the end of Jedi, Vader kills his master for the benefit of another, something that is antithetical to the core philosophy of the Sith. Vader gained no power by killing Palpatine, at least not in the sense that he understood “power” up to that point.

Star Wars purists might stay away from the novels, and that’s certainly their right. I think this one is worth reading, though. It’s an excellent move away from the horrorshow that was the new trilogy, and does a very good job at helping us rediscover the Darth Vader that we all came to know and love.

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“The old system is dead, senator. You would be wise to subscribe to the new one.”
– Darth Vader

Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader on Wikipedia
James Luceno on Wikipedia
Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader on Amazon.com

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Filed under coming of age, good and evil, James Luceno, science fiction, Star Wars

Review 122: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

When I started in on this book, I knew there were certain things I could expect from Neil Gaiman – insight, clever twists on literary assumptions, a good perspective on the nature of our reality. And, I must say, he delivered in full. This story draws from some of the most ancient of human tales and reflects on the most ancient of human needs – the need to have a story of one’s own. It’s a book about purpose and destiny, and other very deep subjects.

Yes - this man is hilarious.

What I didn’t expect was to spend most of the book laughing out loud and disturbing the people around me.

Seriously, there were some times when the other teachers in the staff room would stop whatever conversation they were having because they’d been interrupted by my cackling. Or the staff would come over and ask what was so funny, and I’d try to explain – which doesn’t really work when you’re trying to cross languages and literary traditions. People in Japan don’t really laugh out loud at their books, and can’t quite understand why I do. But I laugh. I snicker, I giggle, I cackle, and I never expected that from Neil Gaiman.

The book was, needless to say, wonderful. While by no means a sequel to Gaiman’s previous bestseller American Gods, it inhabits the same universe. This is a world where the gods exist – they’ve been called into existence by us and, in turn, shape our lives.

The book follows the unfortunately nicknamed Fat Charlie, whose life has been ruined by his father’s death across the Atlantic. This wasn’t the first time his father had ruined his life – it had happened many times before in many terrible ways. For Fat Charlie, however, dying in the middle of a karaoke hall just seems to be a final slap in Fat Charlie’s face.

Fat Charlie isn’t his real name, of course – his real name is Charlie Nancy, which isn’t much better. Fat Charlie is only a nickname given to him by his father. He tried to shake it in his life, asking people to call him Charlie or Charles or Chaz, and he wasn’t even fat – just a little soft around the edges. But his father gave names that stuck like gum to the underside of a school desk, and no matter where he went, Charlie Nancy inevitably became Fat Charlie.

You would think this would raise eyebrows in the delivery room....

The reason for this phenomenon, of course, is that Fat Charlie’s father is a god. He is Anansi, the Spider, a trickster god who managed to steal all the stories from Tiger back when humanity was young, and who managed to trick, deceive, swindle and humiliate nearly every other god and spirit there ever was. He was good at it, and there was nothing he wanted that he couldn’t get.

Fat Charlie was, in very many ways, a disappointment. Where his father was debonair, Fat Charlie was a klutz. Where his father could command the respect of men and women, Fat Charlie was a doormat. Where his father was the embodiment of confidence, Fat Charlie was a crumbly mess. I suppose it’s normal, really, being the child of a god, and not really his fault, even if he didn’t know it until his father was dead.

He didn’t know about his brother, either. His brother is Spider, a young man who is so cool that he can convince an entire L.A. party that they can walk on water. He can do real magic, step in and out of the world with ease, and carries his own bedroom with him. When Spider comes into the picture, everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. Think The Odd Couple, except that Oscar Madison has divine powers and absolutely no sense of consequence.

The story is a lot more than two brothers who don’t know how to get along. It’s a story – about stories. In the stories of Anansi and Tiger that are laced throughout the book, we learn that once, long ago, all stories were Tiger’s stories, and they were stories of fear and blood and hunger. When Anansi took them, the stories became about cleverness and trickery and resourcefulness. So in a way, the victory of Anansi over Tiger is the story of humankind’s emergence from barbarism.

Speaking of someone whose story has been re-written over and over. Anansi would like Spidey, though....

It’s about personal stories as well, and that’s a theme that’s far more important to us as individuals. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Fat Charlie didn’t need to be the tightly-wrapped ball of embarrassment that he was. But that’s who he told himself he was, and, so, that’s who he became. Once he starts to accept his heritage and his responsibility to his family, once he starts to re-tell his own story, he changes himself. The same is true for Spider – he’s written his own story as a rake and a charmer, but he finds that that story is lacking. It’s a story that needs some editing, and he’s better off for it.

This is a funny, funny book that reminds me in places of Dave Barry, though that might be a side effect of the Florida settings. There’s also a few footnote jokes, so I suspect that Neil has been hanging out with Terry Pratchett recently. Despite the laugh-out-loud general tone of the book, there’s a lot of Meaning to be found as well – the meaning of story and song, of family, and why you should always be nice to spiders. And birds. Definitely be nice to birds.

The ultimate message of the book, though, is that you can always re-write your story. The weak little spider can become a conquering hero, and the fearsome tiger can be a timid coward. No story is set forever. So if you don’t like the way your story is turning out, get out your red pen and start editing. Anansi would approve.

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“People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers.”
Anansi, Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Amazon.com
Neil Gaiman’s homepage

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Filed under brothers, childhood, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, fathers, gods, humor, identity, Neil Gaiman, quest, sons, spiders, story

Review 112: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A little while after I started teaching literature, I thought about what kinds of books I’d like to do with students in the years to come. The texts I did last year – Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories – are all well and good, but probably not what I would have chosen to teach. I wanted something that would speak to the students, that would engage with their lives, and which ideally was some good classic science fiction. So I went over to Ask Metafilter and asked them what science fiction they would recommend teaching to high school students studying English as a foreign language.

Child soldiers in science fiction are so cute....

Just about everyone mentioned Ender’s Game, and with good reason. It’s a good story, for one, and it addresses a lot of the issues that young people have to deal with that are often left out of the literature they have to read for English class. The adults in the book are like the adults in the students’ lives – slightly removed, seemingly omniscient, and not necessarily acting in their best interests, at least not as they see it. It deals with issues of bullying and isolation, of fitting in and standing out and accepting your place in the grander scheme of things. It’s about critical thinking and moral reflection, all wrapped up in the unending carnival that is youth.

In real life... not so much.

Ender Wiggin is, as our book begins, six years old, and he may be the last, best hope for humanity.

Ender comes from a strange place. In a near-totalitarian America, families are allowed to have only two children, in order to keep the population static. If a good reason exists, however, they might be allowed to have a third. That third is destined from the beginning to have a hard life, no matter what happens, especially if that third has been bred for a very specific reason.

Ender Wiggin is a Third. His parents had two children already – their son, Peter, and daughter, Valentine. Peter is a brilliant young sociopath, and Valentine is an equally brilliant pacifist. In ordinary times, either of them could have been an historical figure, but these were far from ordinary times. Earth is at war with an insectile alien race it has named the Formics (nicknamed “Buggers”), and has survived two invasions. Everyone knows there will be a third, and if they can’t fight it off then humanity will be scythed clean off the planet. The International Fleet needs a commander, one who has enough empathy to understand the enemy, but who also has the killer instinct to be able to wipe them out. Where Peter is too hard and Valentine is too soft, Ender Wiggin could be the one they’re looking for.

Almost makes me want to have my childhood stolen from me....

Young and frightened, Ender is taken off-planet to Battle School, where he and hundreds of other youths will take part in battle games to train them in how best to one day defeat the Buggers. While Ender knows that he’s been chosen, he doesn’t know why, and his experiences in the school lead him to wonder if being a Chosen One is really worth it. In game after game, Ender manages to prove his worth to the International Fleet by defying their expectations of what a battle commander should do. He is pushed to his limits and beyond by the International Fleet, whose motives and methods remain a mystery to him until he has accomplished their goal – one which he never even knew he was aiming for.

It’s a fun book, and a very quick read, and it’s one of those “I should have read this when I was a teenager” books. While I was never put in a position where my action could very possibly save the existence of all humanity, I – like every other teenager ever – had doubts about my place in the world. I saw the conflict between what I wanted for myself and what the adults in my life wanted for me. I was given responsibility that I didn’t want, and had to make a choice about whether or not I would live up to it. In other words, while the scale of Ender’s problems are much bigger than that of the average young person’s, they are essentially the same. I am fortunate in that Ender’s Game can work to explode a pervasive and not entirely accurate belief held by all teenagers everywhere, from the dawn of time until now: the belief that there is no one else in the world who understands what they are going through.

The big question then becomes, How do I teach this? What can I do to not only get my students to read it but to also understand its relationship to their own lives? However I manage to do it, that will hopefully reveal to them the whole point behind reading for pleasure: that you can look at a book or a story and say, “Yes – life is like this.” Not all of it, but you can find that moment, that point of any story that can connect what it is saying to your own life, and thereby learn something from it.

There are also a whole host of other issues that can be brought up with this novel, not the least of which is the systematic indoctrination of young people by their educational system. Perhaps a bit self-defeating, but the anti-authoritarian in me would be vastly entertained if I could somehow encourage these kids to look suspiciously upon the very foundation of the system in which they were currently residing. There is also the greater issues of how a society teaches its children, and the limited value of truth. We tell kids that “honesty is the best policy,” but this book blows that axiom away. If they had told Ender the truth about what he was doing and why, he would have refused, and Earth would likely have been wiped out. In the same way, how do we – adults, and especially teachers – lie to young people in order to achieve a greater goal? What value, then, do these lies have, and are they worth telling?

Even Peter would be helpless against the LOLCats.

We can explore redemption and atonement through Ender’s attempt to make up for the things he has done. Even more interestingly, we can look at Card’s prediction of how the internet would shape political discourse and how citizens can easily be manipulated. Peter and Valentine put on electronic personae through which they gain immense power despite their youth, using their own innate genius to spark debate on the topics that will achieve their own goals.

Outside the text, too, there is an excellent opportunity to discuss the relationship between a work and its author. While Ender’s Game is a brilliant story that is so well-written that it is recommended reading by both Quakers and the U.S. Marine Corps, its author holds some rather despicable views that don’t seem to mesh with the message he has put into his book. I speak here of Card’s public denouncement of gay marriage, including accepting a position on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage. This group has made many attempts to block the spread of queer civil rights in the U.S., and it disturbs me that an author whose work I respect is spearheading the effort.

FINE. I didn't want to marry you anyway....

What, then, is my responsibility as a reader? Should I never read his work again, lest it be seen as a show of support for his politics? Can I even read him fairly from now on, or will I always be looking for that anti-gay undercurrent, perhaps where there is none? Or should I simply ignore the author and enjoy the work? There are a great many authors and artists who are in the same position as Card, and it is a worthwhile discussion to have.

There are so many topics to mine from this book that I had to stop myself from time to time and remember to enjoy it, rather than make mental lesson plans.

In any case, if you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I recommend that you do. If you have a young person in your life, see to it that he or she has a chance to read it as well. If you’re really lucky, it’ll foster a lifelong love of reading. If not, at least they might walk away with the understanding that their problems are pretty universal, and that, on the whole, things could be a whole lot worse.

They could be Ender Wiggin.

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“It was just him and me. He fought with honor. If it weren’t for his honor, he and the others would have beaten me together. They might have killed me, then. His sense of honor saved my life. I didn’t fight with honor… I fought to win.”
– Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game”

Ender’s Game on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Game on Amazon.com

I couldn't NOT put it in....

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Filed under brothers, childhood, children, coming of age, ethics, family, friendship, military, morality, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sisters, teenagers, truth, war, young adult

Review 107: Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

So. Now that we’ve put three books behind us, and sit at the pivot of the series, it is time that we settle down and have ourselves a little palaver about Roland, the Gunslinger.

We know little about this man, the protagonist of our epic series. We know he’s a hard man, the kind of man who can cross deserts, brave oceans, and kill entire towns if need be. We know he’s a dedicated man, who will follow his quarry wherever they may flee to. We know he is single-minded, the kind of person who would allow an eleven year-old boy to fall to his death if that meant getting another foot closer to his precious Dark Tower. He is a hard man, Roland Deschain is. He is the Gunslinger.

But who is he really? Who was he before he started on this mad quest for something that may or may not exist? How did he get set on this path that could determine the fate of worlds, this quest that led to the deaths of everyone he ever loved? Who is he?

Blaine the Mono (art by Revenant42)

Well settle down, boys and girls, because this is where we get to find out. In between destroying a sentient monorail at a rigged game of riddles and facing off against the darkest Dark Man there is in a mock-up of the Palace of the Emerald City, Roland tells his ka-tet the tale that shaped him and set him on his path. It is a tale that begins with his entry into manhood – a trial by violence where he bested his teacher, Cort, in a duel to the pain, and ends with Roland’s soul nearly destroyed.

Roland and his companions, Alain and Cuthbert, have been sent by their fathers to the most out-of-the-way place they know – a small village called Hambry in the Barony of Meijis. Their alleged purpose is to count things, more as a punishment than a mission. They seem to be three boys who got into trouble, and who now must pay by spending their summer doing menial work. They don’t want any trouble, and they hope that no one will give them any.

They say there is a monster in the Citgo fields. Green, mayhap.... (photo by Cogito Ergo Imago)

That’s the story, anyway. In reality, they’re looking for evidence of the workings of John Farson, also known as The Good Man, who is leading a popular revolution against the established order in Roland’s home country, In-World. Hambry has an oil field, the work of the Great Old Ones, which is known to locals simply as “Citgo” Should Farson get enough oil – and the means to refine it – he will be able to revive ancient war machines and bring death to all of In-World. With Roland, Alain and Cuthbert as spies for the Affiliation, the Gunslingers in Gilead hope that they can stall, if not stop, Farson’s rebellion.

That would have been great if only Roland Deschain hadn’t met Susan Delgado, the daughter of a deceased horse-breeder and soon to be the promised girl of the mayor of Hambry. As soon as they meet, their destiny is clear: it is true love. No more able to stand against their fate than a tree in a whirlwind, Roland and Susan do as all young lovers have done, and risk discovery and death in the process. In every corner there are those who would stand against them: Susan’s spinster aunt, Cordelia, who hopes to make some money selling her niece off to the mayor; the Big Coffin Hunters, three mercenaries who work for Farson and who mean to see every last drop of oil gets in his hands; and Rhea of the Cöos, a horrible witch who possesses a crystal orb that lets her see all the malicious things that people do. Against these arrayed forces, Roland and his friends must not only foil the plans of John Farson, but also escape Meijis with their lives.

With the first, they are successful. With the second, not so much.

Dark Tower fans that I have talked to generally agree that this is the best book of the seven, for many reasons. First, we get to see Roland before he became all tall, gritty and scary. We see him as a callow youth, a boy of fourteen who is in way over his head, tackling responsibilities that would be better handled by a grown man. They’re on the losing side of a terrible war as it is, as they’re up against the combined cunning and guile of some very bad people. In many cases it is luck as much as skill that leads them to their eventual victory.

Roland and Susan (art by Jae Lee)

What’s more, we get to see Roland in love, and this is really where King shines in this book. He says in the afterward that he was dreading writing this book, mainly because he knew that he would have to portray teenage love – first love – in a realistic fashion, which can be hard to do when you’re several decades removed from being a teenager. All the madness that comes with teen love – the longing, the furtive trysts, the absolute certainty in what you are doing and that no one can stop you. The way that the person you’re in love with is all you can think about, and the only thing you want is to be with them again, if only for a moment. The way you freely and willingly lose your mind for love.

It’s something which, thankfully, we grow out of as adults. Frankly, if I ever felt like that again, I’d probably throw myself under a train.

King has done a fantastic job with the relationship between Susan and Roland – it’s as realistic as he can make it, without being mawkish and overly romantic. We are never allowed to forget that, like so many doomed lovers before them, they are risking everything with their love – their mission, their friends, and their lives – and we know that even the slightest misstep can mean disaster. Mixed with the other, more adventure-driven elements of the plot, it’s incredibly tense, and it’s handled very well.

The romance aside, there are some wonderful characters in this book, and as is the case with so many Stephen King novels, the best ones are the bad ones. Susan’s aunt Cordelia is a bundle of jealous paranoia, and you can feel her mainspring winding up every time she shows up on the page. Eldred Jonas is a laid-back killer, an old man who has buried countless young men, and means to bury Roland and his friends. And Rhea is just palpably foul. You can almost smell her when she shows up, which is a great accomplishment – and you can’t wait to see her again.

Rhea of the Cöos (art by Jae Lee)

As an aside, Marvel Comics has been doing comic book stories of Roland’s youth, and the first one re-tells this tale. It’s called The Gunslinger Born, and while it’s not bad, there is a certain emptiness to it. It’s not easy to compress hundreds of pages of character and plot development into a seven-issue comic series. I don’t know how it would read to someone who hasn’t read this book, but to me it looked like it was missing a whole hell of a lot….

As I said, this book is the pivot on which the series turns, and it is essential to understanding Roland. We have to know who he was and how he became who he is. While there are still questions to be answered, and stories to be told, the big story is out. Now he and his ka-tet can continue in their quest for the tower, confident that they know a little more about this man who yanked them from their worlds into his. For us, the character and his world become richer, more full of meaning. Things that we might not have thought about in the first few books become more meaningful, and we can better appreciate the history of his dying world. Most importantly, we can begin to understand why it is so important that he find the Dark Tower, and we pray that he knows what to do when he gets there.

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“I’ll pay ye back. By all the gods that ever were, I’ll pay ye back. When ye least expect it, there Rhea will be, and your screams will break your throats. Do you hear me? Your screams will break your throats!
– Rhea Dubativo of the Cöos, Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
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Filed under adventure, coming of age, Dark Tower, death, fantasy, friendship, murder, quest, romance, sexuality, Stephen King, teenagers, witches, wizardry, world-crossing