Category Archives: humor

Humorous or funny books.

Review 161: Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Once upon a time, there was a man named H. Beam Piper, and he wrote a series of books that began with Little Fuzzy, a tale of space-going humans who have to learn to live on a world with an adorably cute, yet sentient, species. While I haven’t read these books, my research tells me that they’re the type of fun, optimistic science fiction that is so emblematic of the early 60s. They dealt not only with the issues of human expansion into space, but with what it means to be an intelligent, sentient species. Given that we only have one case study – us – that definition will necessarily be narrow, and challenged. Humans have trouble relating with other humans who live only a six hour drive away, after all. Being able to relate to a non-human sentience that evolved on another planet will be a massive philosophical undertaking.

In 2010, John Scalzi announced on his blog that he had done a “reboot” of Piper’s work, revisiting the characters, themes and world that Piper had created and seeing what he could do with them. He did this partly because it seemed like a good idea, but also because it was something that hadn’t been done before in literature.

Some reboots are more imaginative than others. (Art by Evan Shaner)

If you’re a fan of science fiction, you know that stories from the visual media – TV and movies especially – get rebooted from time to time. The most notable recent examples are “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and include shows like “Smallville” and the most recent run of Batman movies. If you read comics, you know this happens all the time as well, in ways big and small. Characters like Green Lantern, Thor, and the Fantastic Four are fundamentally the same as when they were created, but have evolved in ways their creators may have never expected.

In all of these examples, the fundamental core of each story is kept from the original – the world, the characters, the themes – and given new life. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and Scalzi felt that Piper’s world was good enough and interesting enough that it deserved to be re-introduced to a modern audience who might not otherwise know about it.

So, just for fun, he started writing Fuzzy Nation, a book that uses the characters and ideas from Little Fuzzy, the first of Piper’s books, and builds an entirely new story out of them. What resulted was a story that he thought was good enough to let out into the wild, and so – with the help of some intellectual property law and the blessing of Piper’s estate – he published Fuzzy Nation in 2011.

As I said, I haven’t read the original Piper books, but if they’re half as much fun to read as this one was, then I have to pick them up.

Sorry, I was looking for something pretty. Try again.

In the future, humankind has expanded out into space, as we so often do. With us, we have taken that peculiarly human trait, naked avarice, and brought it with us. The Zarathustra Corporation (ZaraCorp for short) is one of the leaders in exploiting and extracting usable resources from a planet. They’ve cornered the market on Sunstones – a decorative rock that glows with its wearer’s body heat and makes diamonds look like beach pebbles – and turned the ravaging of worlds into an art. A horribly environmentally destructive art.

Jack Holloway is a contract surveyor, a former trial lawyer, and not a very nice man. He helps ZaraCorp search for Sunstones on the hostile world of Zara XXIII, with the help of Carl, a dog with a fondness for explosions. Holloway finds seams of Sunstone and gets his cut of the money. It’s a nice enough arrangement out on a backwater world, and it doesn’t get complicated until he (and Carl) discover a Sunstone deposit that could fill the company’s coffers for decades.

At the same time, he encounters a curious form of life – or rather, it encounters him. Small, bipedal, intensely curious and undeniably clever, the Fuzzies (as Jack names them) seem to be truly remarkable animals. It is not until the ZaraCorp field biologist (and Jack’s former girlfriend), Janice Wangai, suggests that they might be sentient that things get truly complicated. After all, Colonial law is very clear on what companies like ZaraCorp are and are not allowed to do on each planet they run, and “ravaging the world of another sentient species” is pretty much at the top of their Do Not list.

The Fuzzies would make an AMAZING vest...

It soon becomes a race to save the Fuzzies from ZaraCorp and its army of lawyers. If they win, the Fuzzies will have a planet on which they can grow and thrive. If ZaraCorp wins, they’ll have nothing but the least useful bits of dirt and shrubbery left. Holloway has to do a good thing but he has to do it his way – a way that rarely has him acting like a good man.

The first thing I thought when I finished this, actually, was, “I needed that.” My reading choices for a while have been kind of heavy, or at least not a whole lot of fun to read. Good, yes, but not fun. I know this because I find myself doing things that aren’t reading – listening to podcasts, reading through articles I’ve saved on Instapaper, going through old columns at Cracked.com, things like that. With this book, though, there was none of that stalling. I read it every chance I could and blew through the whole thing in two days. So let that be take-home lesson number one: this book is fun to read.

And while it is an adventure, it does hit on some interesting and contemporary topics, not the least of which is the question of how ethically a corporation should be expected to behave. ZaraCorp, like any company, has a primary mission to make money, especially as the company is publicly traded. They have to get money to those stockholders who have invested in them so that they can make more money to exploit more resources. And that’s a point that Scalzi has made in his own blog: “I think the majority [of] corporations act logically and rationally and in a manner consistent with the general reason for their existence,” he writes. “And the reason most corporations exist — and most large multinational corporations in particular — is simple: To maximize shareholder value.”

Go on - take the pension fund. They'll probably just waste it on food...

In Fuzzy Nation, he takes this to the place where corporate rational self-interest turns bad. You see, it is perfectly possible for a corporation to achieve its goal while still being environmentally responsible or socially conscious. In other words, to fulfill its responsibility to the shareholders without violating the ethical or moral codes of the people who actually make up those groups.

But there are those who are all too willing to put the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation above the ethical responsibilities of people, and that’s where the Evil Corporation comes in. ZaraCorp fits this to a T. They see nothing but profits in Zara XXIII, and if the Fuzzies stand in their way – sentient or not – they will do whatever is necessary to eliminate them while at the same time doing their level best to stay within the legal bounds prescribed by the Colonial Authority. Or not to get caught crossing them, at least.

In the end, this becomes about why we do what we do, and how we project those reasons onto other people. ZaraCorp is motivated by untempered greed, and assumes that Holloway will be too. Holloway is interested in himself, but finds himself needing to be interested in other people. The motivations of the Fuzzies, for most of the book, is unclear, but they too have to learn the difference between what they think other people want and what they really want.

It’s a fast, tight book that is great fun to read, has characters that you like, even if they’re despicable, and has some moments of wonderful emotion that come around the corner and hit you like a hammer. It’s part philosophical adventure, part legal thriller, and part sarcastic comedy, verging on satire. Books like this are why I keep coming back to Scalzi.

———————–
“…with all due respect for your considerable skills and intellect, the fact of the matter is that you have absolutely no clue what it is I want out of this.”
– Jack Holloway, Fuzzy Nation
———————–

John Scalzi on Wikipedia
Fuzzy Nation on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog
H. Beam Piper on Wikipedia
Little Fuzzy on Wikipedia

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Filed under aliens, business, colonization, corporations, ethics, first contact, humor, John Scalzi, morality, science fiction

Review 159: Alphabet Juice

Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

When I was last home for Christmas, my mother pretty much shoved this book into my hands and said, “You have to read this.” And far be it from me to ignore my mother’s advice, except possibly that little tidbit about being trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space. I kinda spaced out on that one. Probably wasn’t important….

Anyway, Mom was right. Like nearly everyone else in my family, I am a lover of language. I read voraciously (as you well know), I’ve dabbled in writing – songs, stories and poems – and I make a living teaching non-speakers the joys of being English speakers. I grew up in a literate household, with a mother who used to teach me Latin roots whenever I asked “What does this mean?” My words are the way I express my thoughts and the way I understand the world, and as such they are as precious jewels – to be cherished and admired, used with elegance and style, and not wasted on fripperies and tacky indulgence.

He's much funnier than he looks. Really.

Roy Blount Jr is a kindred spirit indeed. He’s a humorist, the author of about two dozen books and a regular panelist on one of my favorite radio shows – Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…. He talks with a slow southern drawl and never seems to hurry. This is the kind of person who savors his language and treasures his words. He’s not only interested in the meanings of words, or the sounds, but in the very feel of them. And if you’re the kind of person who never thought about how words feel when you say them, this book might do you some good.

Think of a word. Any word. How about doldrums? It’s a great word, a “sonicky” word, to use the term that Blount coins in this book to mean “a word whose sound doesn’t imitate the concept it represents (like boom or poof), but rather evokes the essence of the word.” Say that word out loud – doldrums. Doldrummmmsss…. If you were asked to come up with a word that describes a seemingly endless, unchanging environment, you could do worse than this one. It’s got flat vowels, heavy and pendulous, that practically sit in the bottom of your mouth, defying your tongue’s attempt to shift them. Then it ends in a flat hum that becomes a thin and lifeless hiss. Doldrums.

It is clear that Blount takes great pleasure in the sounds of words and the feelings of words as phonemes slide, crash and bump together, but he’s also interested in the etymology of words. He looks into the origins of some of the most innocuous words in the language – and some of the most useful – and looks at how they descend from the same ancient Proto-Indo-European roots. Take the P.I.E. room pag- which has given us such a diverse crop of words as pagan, compact, pole, pace and pageant. All this from a little word that meant, roughly, “to fasten.” The words that we speak have taken a long and wild journey to get into our minds and our mouths. Some were ported directly from Latin, others took a longer route. But every word that you speak has great history behind it.

There is no other name that this man could have. Not a coincidence, I'm sure.

Finally, of course, there is meaning. Without meaning, words are just sounds and aggregations of letters. One of the big questions that Blount hits over and over again is whether words mean something for a reason or if they’ve just been arbitrarily assigned to ideas and things. There are those who hold to that idea – that a word like “go” is no better or worse suited to its job than iku or jít or aller (Japanese, Czech and French, respectively). There’s something to that, I suppose – after all, if one sound really were perfectly suited to a concept, why would other languages bother to use so many variations? Or, y’know, exist? You would think that eventually the speakers of other languages would hear “Go” and think, “That’s IT! That’s the word!” If that were the case, it would probably have put me out of a job.

So there probably is some element of arbitrariness in language, but Blount isn’t very convinced by that idea. He says that there are so many words – such as doldrums or go, which fit their ideas so very, very well – how could such an appropriate set of sounds have just been arbitrarily given to these ideas? Words like scribble, itch, wrest, pool – words whose sounds and meanings match so very well, how could they be arbitrary?

The most likely answer, of course, is that language defines how you understand the world. As an English speaker Blount has inextricably connected these words and ideas in his head, and to suggest that, say, berceuse is perfectly suited to describe a soft song sung to children to get them to sleep would be asking an English speaker to put aside a whole lot of the associations he or she had made about lullaby.

This isn’t an academic book, though, so don’t worry about that. Blount has made a career out of entertaining with his words, and he doesn’t put that aside just because he’s doing language analysis. He brings up common words, unusual words, thought-provoking and laugh-inducing topics, all arranged – of course – alphabetically. You can jump backwards and forwards through the book, following the cross-references, and still enjoy it to its fullest. In fact, Blount recommends that you do so.

Genius!

Language is our way of making the world make sense, no matter what language it is. For those of us who are native English speakers, we look at the world through a complex and sometimes baffling language. It’s hard to learn (and hard to teach), sometimes frustrating to deal with and occasionally incapable of doing what we need it to do. But it’s part of our cultural heritage – our cultural DNA, if you will – and deserves appreciation. So take a gander at this book – read it, savor it, enjoy it, and then look at your language afresh. You’ll be glad you did.

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“English is an outrageous tangle of those derivations and other multifarious linguistic influences, from Yiddish to Shoshone, which has grown up around a gnarly core of chewy, clangorous yawps derived from ancestors who painted themselves blue to frighten their enemies.”
– Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice
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Roy Blount, Jr. on Wikipedia
Roy Blount, Jr.’s website
Alphabet Juice on Amazon.com

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Filed under humor, language, nonfiction, Roy Blount Jr

Review 156: Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys

Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys by Dave Barry

If you’re reading this, and there’s a good chance that you are, you probably know a guy. You may even be a guy, though the way Barry talks about them, you wouldn’t think that guys would be into book reviews. If you know a guy, then this book is for you – it will illuminate some classic guy behaviors and shine some lights into the dark corners that your rational mind has been unable to penetrate. If you are a guy, then this book is also for you. Guys aren’t famous for their introspection, but perhaps it will allow you to understand why it is your wife and/or girlfriend get so frustrated with you from time to time (hint: it’s not her, it’s you).

This book is a tribute to guys (not men – those people have enough advocates as it is) and the ways in which they live. It’s like a documentary in print, really, giving us a rare glimpse into the lifestyle and habits of the modern guy.

So, what exactly is a guy, then? Well, you’re lucky – Barry has included a self-analysis quiz in the first chapter. For example:

As you grow older, what lost quality of your youthful life do you miss the most?
a. Innocence
b. Idealism
c. Cherry bombs

Complete this sentence: A funeral is a good time to…
a. … remember the deceased and console his loved ones
b. … reflect upon the fleeting transience of earthly life
c. … tell the joke about the guy who has Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

What is the human race’s single greatest achievement?
a. Democracy
b. Religion
c. Remote control

I think you can guess which answers reveal your guyness.

Being a guy means more than just being a man, and in fact there is a very definite difference between men and guys. Men are people we of the male persuasion wish we could be – Superman, Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney. Guys are who most of us turn out to be – Homer Simpson, Bill O’Reilly, Tom Arnold. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s just that as long as we assume that guys will act like men, we’re bound to be disappointed. Guys are terribly misunderstood in modern society despite the very important role they play.

Definitely a guy. (photo by John B. Carnett)

For example: without guys, we wouldn’t have a space program. Don’t believe it? What other type of person would deliberately design a rocket, watch it shoot up and then say, “I wonder if we can make a bigger one?” Guys, that’s who. The Saturn V is a tribute to guyness, as is the space shuttle – an endlessly tinkerable machine that almost never blows up.

Without guys, there would be no professional sports, to say nothing of the parasitic fan industry that has sprung up around sports like a remora. Guys have an undying and unyielding attachment to sports teams – you might see a guy leave his wife of twenty years and the children they raised together, but I’d be willing to bet that he would sooner die than switch his team allegiance from, say, Red Sox to Yankees. The unshakable, irrational dedication of these guys is what keeps modern sports afloat despite scandal and disappointment. Now I’m not a sports fan, I’ll admit, but I can certainly relate – I’ll support NASA until the last breath leaves my body, and no force on earth will ever get me to switch from DC Comics to Marvel, no matter how badly DC messes with the characters that I’ve always loved, the bastards.

I also don’t get to play a part in the endlessly frustrating relationship that exists between guys and women, seeing as how I’m, well, into guys. As a side note, The Boyfriend is also a guy, but less than I am – he cleans, for example. And I don’t mean that he cleans the way a real guy cleans – spray a little, wipe a bit and say, “Good enough.” He actually cleans. Like, every day. I know – weird, isn’t it?

Her: "I wonder what he's thinking about right now...?" Him: "Juuuuust sit right back and you'll hear a tale / a tale of a fateful ship..."

Women and guys will always frustrate each other, you see. Women love to read meaning into every nuance of conversation, every raised eyebrow or dropped word. Women want to know what the guy in their life is thinking. The answer is that he probably isn’t thinking. At least, not about what she would want him to think about – her and the relationship they share. In fact, as Barry takes pains to point out, he may not, technically, be aware that he’s in a relationship at all. You ladies have a lot of work to do if you’re hooked up with a guy.

But before you go thinking that the life of a guy is sweet ignorant bliss, think again. You ladies will never know the pain of the Urinal Dilemma, or the feeling of knowing that, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to fix anything in your own home – your wife will have to call a man (probably named Steve) for that. Guys’ minds aren’t terribly complex, but they do run on certain rules. Know these, and your relationship with the guy in your life will go much more smoothly.

It is true that the man/woman divide is an old one, and it’s a place that nearly every comedian has gone to once or twice. Or three times. Or they’ve just staked a claim right there on the joke and built an entire career out of it. But here, Barry isn’t so much talking about the difference between men and women as much as he’s talking about men and guys, which is a fascinating idea.

He's just so disappointed in you...

As I said before, those of us with XY chromosomes and little dangly bits generally want to be Men (with the exception, of course, of those who don’t), and what’s more are expected to be Men. We’re told as youths to “be a man” or be the man of the house. Our role models are Men, our cultural icons are Men. Even in our commercials, we have the Old Spice Man and the Most Interesting Man in the World.

But most of us are fated to be Guys. And deep down, we know that we’ve somehow missed the mark.

Fortunately, we don’t do introspection really well, so it doesn’t bother us all that much.

This is really one of Barry’s classics, a book that everyone can easily enjoy. Whether you are a guy or just know a guy, there are laughs to be had here.

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“To understand guys, it’s essential to remember that, deep down inside, they are biological creature, like jellyfish or trees, only less likely to clean the bathroom.”
– Dave Barry, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys
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Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry’s website
Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys on Amazon.com

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Filed under Dave Barry, gender, gender roles, humor, jokes, parody, society

Review 148: Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

In this book, we return to the small Ramtop country of Lancre, home to Granny Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg and Magrat Garlick. Picking up from where we left off, which is actually in Maskerade, which I haven’t reviewed here yet, Magrat is Queen now, with no time for witching. So the new Third Witch is Agnes Nitt (also known as Perdita, but only by her), a girl who is sensible, levelheaded and thinks quickly in a crisis. She is also a rather, shall we say, substantial girl (and lest you think I’m trying not to be mean, believe me – Agnes is meaner about her self than I can be), and as we all know there is inside every fat girl a thin girl and lots of chocolate. Well, Perdita is the thin girl, and Agnes is the chocolate.

But that’s not the main point of this tale. The main point is that vampyres have come to Lancre, invited by King Verence to attend the naming of his and Magrat’s daughter, Esmerelda Note Spelling of Lancre (well, when your grandmother managed to name your mother “Magrat” due to an uncertainty in consonant placement, one doesn’t take chances.) But what’s done is done. No doubt we will see little Spelly in future Discworld books.

I'd still rather see this than Twilight.

Once you have invited a vampire in, you are subject to its power. Of course, vampires know this. There are a lot of things that vampires know…. These vampyres have studied, they have prepared. They do not intend to make the mistakes their forefathers did – keeping lots of knick-knacks about that could be turned into holy symbols, leaving up flimsy, easily pulled-aside drapes, that sort of thing. These are modern vampyres, ones who know their place in the food chain – on top of it. They’re ready, and they have every intention of taking over Lancre.

They don’t want a killing floor, though. Indeed not, they simply want a herd. An… arrangement.

But there are the witches to contend with, especially Esme Weatherwax. And everyone knows about Granny Weatherwax….

If you read Lords and Ladies, or even my review of it, you can see there are some similarities. Evil, inhuman force comes to Lancre, wants to subjugate its subjects, and in the end are foiled by the indomitable Granny Weatherwax. And yes, there are similarities. But the differences are worth reading it for.

First of all, we get a better look at Perdita / Agnes Nitt. Yes, she’s the Third Witch, but she’s more at home being a witch than Magrat ever was. Perdita is two witches in one, and they don’t like each other very much – a volatile combination. And as the newcomer, Agnes has the unenviable role of being the stand-in for the reader. She gets a lot of explanation that seems redundant to loyal followers of the Discworld series, but I guess new readers have to come in somewhere.

Art by Zenzzen on DeiantArt

Secondly, we get to play around inside Granny Weatherwax’s head again, which is always fun. We see a reference to her sister, Lily Weatherwax whom we last saw in Witches Abroad, and her grandmother, Alison. It is implied that the Weatherwaxes have a definite dark streak to them, against which Granny must contend constantly. What bugged me about this book is that Granny isn’t quite herself – though I suppose it can be argued that she wasn’t meant to be. Confronted with immensely powerful vampyres in her country, and insulted by seeming not to have been invited to the young princess’ naming ceremony, Granny Weatherwax just… gives up. She believes she can’t beat them, and she doesn’t think anyone wants her around. This is a side of Granny that we haven’t really seen before, and it’s not a nice one.

She does recover, of course – that’s what Granny Weatherwax does. There’s no point in being a witch, really, if you can’t make the grand entrance and pop up just when everyone thinks you’re down.

Another really neat thing about this book is that we finally get to revisit the Omnians, who were introduced as a fanatical theocratic people in Small Gods. Time has tempered the Omnians, who are now the Discworld equivalent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. An Omnian missionary has come to Lancre, and he gets caught up in the battle against the vampires as well, and it turns out that, well, the Omnians aren’t that bad anymore. Since the Prophet Brutha gave them permission to think for themselves, the Church has schismed so many times that it finally comes down to a schism in one member, Brother Oats. Like Agnes, he’s of two minds about the world, and neither of them really get along.

So yes, there’s not a whole lot that’s really new in this book, but since I’m a hard-core Pratchett addict, I have to recommend it.

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“There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
– Granny Weatherwax, Carpe Jugulum
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Carpe Jugulum on Wikipedia
Carpe Jugulum on Amazon.com
Terry Pratchett’s webpage
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Filed under Discworld, family, fantasy, humor, Terry Pratchett, vampires, witches

Review 141: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

As all dedicated readers out there know, there is a rule when it comes to books that are made into movies: the book is always better. [1] With a book, you have more time to really savor the story, to think and consider the plot and the characters and the motivations. You can go back and re-read, stop and give the story some thought and, most importantly, let the characters come to life in your own mind. This is key, and part of what makes reading so much fun. The author gives you a basic outline of who each character is, but the details of that character will vary from reader to reader, and I guarantee – my Randle Patrick McMurphy is different from your Randle Patrick McMurphy.

And my Randle Patrick McMurphy is most certainly not Jack Nicholson. I know there’s a lot of love out there for Jack, but let’s face it – Jack Nicholson was the non-comedy equivalent of Jim Carrey in his day. The same way Carrey is the default choice for “Wacky” these days, I’m pretty sure producers back in the 70s and 80s said, “We need someone who can play nuts – get Nicholson!” And he’d come out and give That Nicholson Look which made you think that he was liable to tear your throat out at any second and that’s it. I’m not saying he’s bad at what he does – he plays one note, but he plays it well.

This is a face you can trust.

The problem is that McMurphy isn’t actually nuts. He’s brash, temperamental, insolent, contrary, but not crazy. And, to borrow from the perspective of the narrator, Chief Bromden, I don’t think that Nicholson was big enough to be McMurphy. I’m not sure if I know who would have been.

So after all this about who McMurphy isn’t, let’s take a look at who he is.

There is a mental institution up in Oregon, which caters to all kinds of mentally ill patients. They care for them as best they can, keeping a close eye on the men in their care and making sure they stay in a rehabilitative state. Through the use of regular counseling sessions and the occasional narcotic therapy, they are trying to make these men back into functioning members of society, if that is at all possible. Not all of the patients can be helped – some suffer so badly that they will live out their remaining years in the institution. But there are others who have a chance, some self-admitted, even, who are looking to move towards the path to wellness. The hospital, and especially the Head Nurse of the ward, Nurse Ratched, are devoted to their tasks and do whatever they can. This being the middle of the twentieth century, their methods are, by our standards, barbaric at times – the liberal use of electroshock, for example, or even occasionally resorting to lobotomies. But mostly Nurse Ratched uses her own innate ability to cajole, nudge, scare and shame these men into line so that her ward operates as a smoothly-running machine.

No, THIS is a face you can trust...

Until the appearance of McMurphy, a man who is not ill but is rather facing madness to get out of working on a prison farm. As soon as he appears on the ward, he becomes a threat to the Big Nurse’s clockwork kingdom. He has no patience for her rules, and indeed sees her as a challenge – how soon can he get that perfect, porcelain facade to crack and show what’s really underneath? He’s sure he can, and he’s willing to sacrifice his own freedom to do it. In doing so, he shows the other patients on the ward that they don’t have to be afraid – of her or of the world.

The book is a cracking good read, and well worth your time, just as a story of a perfectly ordered world tipped upside-down. As an allegory, of course (and a very clear one, at that) it’s even better. This is a story about order and chaos, about freedom and security. Nurse Ratched has a very well-ordered world over which she exerts perfect control. The men in her ward are taken care of, if not exactly helped, by her and her crew. There is no freedom for them, but no danger either, and for many of the men, that’s a life they can live with, if not enjoy.

McMurphy, then, is chaos. He’s the sand in the gears, the hair that won’t go where you want it to go no matter what kind of salon goop you put in it. He’s the rebel who will break the rules just because they’re rules and who prizes freedom above all else. This isn’t to say that he’s a saint – McMurphy spreads his own brand of freedom mainly by manipulating the other patients. In that way, he’s very much like Nurse Ratched, though I think he’d strangle anyone who said that to his face. But whereas the Big Nurse gets her pleasure from watching men get cut down and made docile, McMurphy gets pleasure from men finding their strength. And if he manages to make some money or have some fun of his own while he’s doing it, then all the better.

Or "freedom"

It’s a novel of freedom, naturally. It’s about people choosing their own destinies (even if the people in this book are mostly men – with the exception of Nurse Ratched, women don’t come off so well in this book.) It’s also about freedom as a society. The Nurse and her minions represent a culture that insists on conformity, that finds comfort in rules, regulations and regularity. Called “The Combine” by the book’s narrator, it would rather cut people down to size, because that’s the only way it can exert control. McMurphy shows us that we are the ones who should be in control of our lives. It’s hard, it requires risk, but the rewards are far, far greater than blind, sheeplike obedience.

The book is narrated to us by one of the more far-gone patients, a half-Native American man named Chief Bromden. He has been in the hospital for many years, and as far as the others are concerned, he’s a deaf-mute. McMurphy catches on that he’s faking pretty quickly, though, and manages to make Bromden feel like the big man he used to be. But as a narrator, it must be remembered that Bromden is unreliable – he occasionally drifts off into hallucinatory visions, and his interpretation of events is filtered through the strange, paranoid reality he’s constructed where the world is run by an Illuminati-esque “Combine” that replaces people with machines. In fact there’s a line in the very first chapter that made me wonder about the whole story: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. And it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

Two guys playing chess under an oddly-shaped chandelier. What?

So how much of the story is real? We have no idea. The Chief tells us everything he can in the best detail he can, and is an excellent relater of the tale. But knowing that he’s rather biased, we have to wonder if the heroism of McMurphy and the wickedness of Ratched are as bad as they’re made out to be, or if Bromden’s mind has changed them, made them into the avatars of freedom and control that he feels represent the way the world works. We can never know, and if you assume that he is reliable, the story is excellent.

A small confession, though: I feel kind of sorry for Nurse Ratched. I know, I know, it’s like saying, “Yeah, Hitler was bad, but I see where he was coming from.” She is undoubtedly one of the best villains in modern American fiction – frankly, between her and Darth Vader, I think she’d have him sobbing like a little baby within ten minutes (“Mister Skywalker, do you really think that this habit of choking people is beneficial to you? Would it not be more mature to discuss your feelings of disappointment? What would your mother say if she could see you like this?”) But I am a fan of order in general. I know how it feels to have a well-ordered routine get screwed up, and I think it sucks. So, putting myself in her shoes, I can see how she’d view McMurphy as a threat, and try to beat him in the only manner she knew how.

And she does beat him. But she has to cheat to do it, so I can’t really say that she wins.

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“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”
– R. P. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
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[1] The exceptions are Lord of the Rings, where I like the movies better, and Watership Down and The Princess Bride, both of which I hold equal to the books.

Ken Kesey on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Wikipedia
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Review 135: Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Look around your house. Sneakers, computers, movies, household items. How many of those things are made by massive, multinational corporations? Probably all of them. And how many of these companies are from America? Lots, I’ll bet.

In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein takes a trip through the history of branding – the association of a particular company with a particular product. Given that most products with similar function – sneakers, for example – are fairly similar in their makeup and function, the companies that make them use brand marketing to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

The Nike people are a wee bit intense...

Thus, Nike, Reebok and Adidas, whose sneakers are, by and large, as good as each other, use brand marketing to make you believe that, if you buy their product, you are somehow superior to those who buy the product of the other guy. If you buy Nike, you’re part the the Nike family – the uber-atheletes, the people who Just Do It and don’t go in for all the fripperies of life. If you buy Reebok, you’re more down to earth, more involved in the gestalt of life, and not quite as intense as the Nike people. If you have Adidas, you’re probably more fun, a little irreverent, and you dream about sex all day. Or something like that.

We use brands to define ourselves. When my father worked for GE, we only had GE appliances in the house, even if that meant paying a little more for the new washer. I had a student who wore nothing but Jean-Paul Gaultier clothes. Hell, Generation X has been divided into the Pepsi Generation and the Coke kids, a terrible schism that may never be repaired in my lifetime, unless the Mountain Dew Freedom Fighters intervene. And we won’t even start in with the Windows-Mac Civil War.

Brand loyalty is more important to some of us than others....

I don’t pretend to be immune, either. I drink Diet Coke and used to smoke Marlboros, and would never have chosen another brand if those were available. Of course, this probably has something to do with scary chemical additives than anything else, but the point is the same. I was loyal to my brands, one way or another, without even thinking about why.

Like it or not, our brands define us, and we allow them to do so. Mainly because they use their commercials to terrify us – buy Preparation H or lose that valuable sale, wash your husband’s clothes in Wisk, or all the other wives will laugh at you, that sort of thing. And the moment you start to wonder if perhaps there isn’t any real difference between cars made by Honda and those made by Toyota, they hit you with a barrage of special offers, incentives and tie-ins to remind you that they love you. Really, they do.

Max Barry takes this kind of brand identification one step further.

This is a world where, economically speaking, most of the world is the United States. All of the Western Hemisphere (except Cuba), the UK, Southeast Asia and Australia, Russia, India and South Africa belong to the US, for all intents and purposes. The US government operates in all those places, if you have the money for it. Europe, Africa, China and the Middle East stand alone against the US economic juggernaut.

I pledge allegiance...

Corporations are king here. There are no taxes, as the US Government is simply another corporate organization, responsible for enforcing such laws as they have the budget to enforce. Every service – police, medical, fire – has been privatized. And while the concept of the political nation has pretty much vanished, there are economic nations emerging – the US Alliance and Team Advantage, both economic alliances that have their roots in airline mileage campaigns. Each of these groups controls dozens of markets, and cross-promotes all their goods. So if you wear Nike shoes, then you had better not eat at Burger King – that’s Team Advantage territory. And if you work for McDonald’s, then you’ll want the NRA to protect you, rather than the Police, because you get a membership discount. Schools are run by “kid-friendly” companies such as McDonald’s and Mattel, and are basically corporate propaganda mills. Not like now, of course. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, your surname is the name of whatever company you work for.

Thus, a young man named Hack Nike is given a pivotal role in the marketing of a new Nike sneaker, the Mercury. As part of their marketing strategy, they’ll limit production and distribution to five pairs per store. As Beanie Babies, among other products, have shown, the more limited the availability, the higher the demand, and the higher the price. Thus, charging $2,000 for a pair of shoes that an Indonesian laborer made for $0.85 is perfectly reasonable.

The second part of their marketing strategy is to increase the public’s awareness of the sneakers, as well as to give them some street credibility. That’s where Hack Nike comes in. His new marketing job is to shoot and kill ten purchasers of Nike Mercury sneakers.

Can Nike get away with this? They seem to think so, and they probably could have, were it not for Hack’s distaste for murder. Suffice to say, the plot becomes complicated, and the Government’s best and most dedicated officer, Jennifer, is on the case.

The "E" stands for "Egregious corporate malfeasance that makes a mockery out of our democracy!" Yay!

The story is a lot of fun, and well written. The world that Barry has created is a logical extension of our own, if hopefully improbable, and his characters are pretty easy to identify with, with only a few who don’t shine as brightly as the others. Being a native of Melbourne, Barry also takes a few nice stabs at Americans, but they’re good-natured and accurate, so I didn’t mind. It was a tale of massive corporate malfeasance based on the solid marketing and corporate ethics of today. And since 2003, when the book was published, we’ve seen plenty of examples of how much large corporations are able to get away with and how unethical they’re willing to be in order to make a quick buck.

Barry’s book is, fundamentally, about the problems that arise when you allow the free market absolute control. The adage about the corruptive influences of power does not only apply to individual people, it most definitely applies to corporate entities as well. The excesses of the early 2000s showed that not even the law – to say nothing of basic ethics – could make some of the biggest corporations in the world behave honestly. The recent housing/financial services collapse is another example – when pursuing the almighty dollar, considerations for what is right and wrong fall by the wayside, and the law might only be a temporary stumbling block.

Read this book. It’s a lot of fun, and then watch the papers and see how true it really could be….

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“There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper meaning. There was no place in marketing for that, either.”
Max Barry, Jennifer Government
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Filed under consumerism, corporations, fiction, humor, Max Barry, politics, science fiction, society

Review 128: Soul Music

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

“Music is my life.”

How many times have you heard that? From bona fide rock stars to teenage wannabes, there’s something about music that occupies us, that possesses us and just won’t let go. Even if you’re not a big music lover, there are probably songs which can ease your mind, pull you out of a dark mood, or set your heart to racing. There’s music that’ll lift your heart and make you think the world is a better place than it really is, and songs that will convince you that the dark heart of the world is just as decayed and corrupt as you always thought it was. Music has a kind of magic in it that can reach to the very core of who we are as thinking – and more importantly, feeling – beings.

That magic is dangerous enough on our world, where magic doesn’t actually exist. Imagine how powerful it would be on one where magic really was real. Like, say, to pick one out of thin air, the Discworld.

Sometimes, even more horrible things would emerge....

Of course, the Discworld has had its share of trouble with popular entertainment before. Acting troupes brought about an Elf invasion in Lords and Ladies and the Horrible Betentacled Things of the Dungeon Dimension nearly escaped thanks to the Disc’s proto-cinema in Moving Pictures. There’s just something about the arts in Discworld that leads to trouble – usually the world-ending kind.

In this case, though, the introduction of rock and roll – better known in Ankh-Morpork as “Music with Rocks In” – is only really dangerous to one person, the young Imp y Celyn. Just eighteen years old and already one of the best bards of Llamados, he wants to make something of his life. He wants to be more than just another bard, and in a mysterious shop that has only recently always been where it was, he finds his chance. Or rather, his chance finds him. A guitar-like instrument that does what no guitar should do – it whines, it growls, it sends out noises that run straight down your spine and make your nerves run with fire. It’s clearly not of this world, and it wants nothing more than to live. For that, it needs to change Imp’s fate, and by extension the fate of hundreds in Ankh-Morpork.

Soon, Imp and his band – The Band With Rocks In – are the most famous thing in the city, and the strange magic of this music is being felt everywhere. Even the wizards are helpless against it. Normally this would result in the aforementioned Horrible Betentacled Things, but in this case it’s more of a reversion to teenage years that never were. Still, Archchancellor Ridcully knows that there’s some force acting on people that shouldn’t be there, and nothing good ever comes of that.

Keith Death (art by Soulstripper on DeviantArt)

As if that weren’t enough, Death has decided to get existential and tries to figure out how he can make himself forget for a while. Why he decides to do this is not clearly explored, but it results in him leaving his duty. In his place comes his young Granddaughter, Susan, who would be great for the job if she didn’t think the whole idea of personifying a force of nature was just romantic woolly thinking. And it would be even better if she knew what her connection was to the doomed musician Imp y Celyn.

This book can be seen as a companion to the earlier Moving Pictures as an examination of and homage to popular culture. By transplanting it to the Discworld, Pratchett is able to look at rock music from the point of view of people who’ve never even thought about such a thing before, and who can more easily see the magic of it. And of course, it’s his big chance to make as many music jokes, puns and references as humanly possible, from the translation of Imp’s name (“Imp” meaning “small bud” and “Celyn” meaning ‘of the holly”) to some proto-heavy metal musicians trying to make leopard skin pants from a cat that has some severe hearing difficulties.

It’s a sort of love letter to rock and roll and all that it has brought us. From teenyboppers to punk to the horrible misuses of leather and spandex, it holds a mirror up to the way that rock music has influenced our modern culture. But it does not mock, oh no. It shows great attention to and reverence for this young art form that has done so much to change the world. To list all the references made in this book would be nearly impossible, but the amount of work and thought that went into making it is quite clear.

We're not here to judge.

More importantly, though, the book addresses some questions that are a little deeper than the simple rock and roll jokes. Like Death’s question: “WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? SERIOUSLY? WHEN YOU GET RIGHT DOWN TO IT?” Probably since the beginning of music, people have tried to find meaning in it. People have connected to music and to musicians in ways that they could never connect to other people, even family and friends. People find meaning in music, which then gives meaning to their lives, and the more you give your life to something, the harder the crash when that thing goes away. Imp discovers this in a very literal sense, but out here in the real world that is just as true.

People mourned for Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain and other superstars as if they knew them. And in a way, I’m sure they thought they did. Like so much else in the world, though, music doesn’t have any meaning but what we give to it. The truly great musicians, the ones we always lose too soon, give everything they have. They manage to say to us what we’ve been saying to ourselves, but could never really figure out how to put into words. Music is the voice our emotions could use if our brains didn’t get in the way so often, and the best people lucky enough to be able to create it gain a kind of immortality.

Not the literal kind, unfortunately.

If you love music – especially rock music – then this is a book you should pick up and read. Even if you’re not a Discworld fan, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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This was music that had not only escaped, but had robbed a bank on the way out. It was music with its sleeves rolled up and its top button undone, raising its hat and grinning and stealing the silver…. It made you want to kick down walls and ascend the sky on steps of fire. It made you want to pull all the switches and throw all the levers and stick your fingers in the electric socket of the Universe to see what happened next. It made you want to paint your bedroom wall black and cover it with posters.
– from Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
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