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Review 98: The Drawing of the Three


The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

I have a soft spot in my heart for world-crossing stories. Perhaps it’s the remnant of the same childhood fantasy that everyone has – you know the one, “My family is not my family, my hometown is not my hometown – I’m really a lost prince of a strange magical kingdom and one day my true identity will be revealed and I’ll be able to go do something more fun than this….”

Escapist fiction of this sort usually does really well, mostly because so many of us are unsatisfied with the way our lives are going right now. Harry Potter blew everyone away for the same reason that, say, Star Wars did – they spoke to that desire that we all have for a destiny, a reason for being in this benighted universe other than to consume, procreate, and die. It’s a very powerful dream, that dream that we can lead a life better than the one we’re living now, and it’s one that very few of us get to realize. So we turn to fiction to realize that dream for us.

Of course, nothing comes without a price. In hopping from world to world, you may have to resist the temptations of a Snow Queen or fight off the forces of Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. You may discover that your father is the greatest force for evil in the universe, or that you’ve been born into a genetic cohort that scares the hell out of everyone. Crossing from one world to another – whether literally or figuratively – always comes with a price.

For Eddie Dean, Detta Walker, and Odetta Holmes, that price could very well be their lives.

When last we left the Gunslinger, Roland was sitting by a vast and gray sea at the end of the world. He had already sacrificed young Jake Chambers for his quest, and had been shown a vision of the universe that would have blasted the mind of a lesser man. Without any other direction, Roland continues on his journey – but not without some difficulty.

Wounded and ill, Roland has to go through three strange doors and draw out new companions to replace the ones he lost so long ago. If he is successful, he will draw out a new ka-tet – a group bound by the forces of destiny – that will stand with him on the way to the Dark Tower. If he fails, he will face total obliteration, to say nothing of being devoured alive by huge mutant lobsters.

Through door number one, Roland meets The Prisoner – young Eddie Dean, a junkie who has to bring a couple of pounds of cocaine through customs at JFK airport in New York. If he can do that, then the men holding his beloved big brother will let them both go, well-paid and well-loaded with the drugs that they so desperately want. Eddie can’t do it without Roland’s help, however – help that turns out to make the whole endeavor much more complicated and lethal than it might have been before.

Through door number two, Roland must bring the Lady of Shadows, a woman who is two minds in one body. One of these minds is Odetta Holmes, an upper-class African-American woman (though in her era of the early sixties she would probably prefer to be called a Negro) who has thrown her efforts and her fortune behind the growing civil rights movement. She is cultured and civilized, a little bit snobbish and prudish, but far, far better than her alter ego, Detta Walker.

Detta is the dark half, the evil twin who relishes in her misdeeds and embodies the worst qualities that can be found in a person. She likes to hurt people, to break things – partly out of the sheer enjoyment of hurting and breaking, but also out of a cruel sense of revenge for the ills the world has done to her. For the brick that was dropped on her head when she was a child, for the train that robbed her of her legs when she was an adult. Of all the people Roland has met so far, Detta Walker is the one who poses the most danger to him and his quest. Only by bringing the two women together can he have any chance of making it to the Tower.

Through door number three, Roland must meet death – but not for him – in the form of The Pusher. The aptly-named Jack Mort has a hobby – anonymous murder. Planning and executing the suffering of others is what brings joy to his heart and a stain to his jeans, and he has intersected with Roland’s quest even before Roland reached the beach. He was the one who pushed Odetta Holmes under a subway train. He was the one who pushed Jack Chambers in front of a speeding Cadillac. Now, Roland has control of this man’s body and will use it to get what he needs from our world so that he can carry on in his. A little poetic justice along the way is just icing on the cake.

If Roland succeeds, he and his new group will push on to find the Dark Tower and do… whatever it is that Roland needs to do there. If he fails, they will all die, and the hopes of Roland’s world will die with them.

Like I said, I enjoy tales of crossing worlds, and so this book felt good to me. I liked seeing not only how Roland dealt with the unfamiliar reality of New York in three different decades, but how the stories of Eddie, Odetta/Detta and Jack intersected with each other. At one point in his section, Jack thinks, “Who was to say he had not sculpted the cosmos today, or might not at some future time? God, no wonder he creamed his jeans!” Crude though it may be, Jack is more right than he knows – a few simple pushes altered the destinies of not only the people he pushed, but those of entire worlds. So if you think small actions can’t have big consequences, well, look to Jack Mort.

Actually, his section of the book was my favorite. While Roland vs. Eddie was an action-packed shoot-em-up, and Roland vs. Detta was a hostage drama, Roland vs. Jack was almost a dark comedy. Taking over Jack’s body and keeping the man’s mind at metaphorical gunpoint, Roland carves a swath of confusion through New York City. The mental disconnect people have between Jack Mort’s appearance as a well-off CPA and his behavior as a seasoned gunslinger is enough for some moments of gold.

By the end of the book, we’re not much closer to the Dark Tower than we were at the beginning, but we are very nearly ready to get started on the journey. Not quite there yet, but Roland now has people he can count on when things turn bad. And they will turn bad, you can set your watch and warrant on it.

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“Well, what was behind Door Number One wasn’t so hot, and what was behind Door Number Two was even worse, so now, instead of quitting like sane people, we’re going to go right ahead and check out Door Number Three. The way things have been going, I think it’s likely to be something like Godzilla or Ghidra the Three-Headed Monster, but I’m an optimist. I’m still hoping for the stainless steel cookware.”
– Eddie Dean, The Drawing of the Three
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Review 94: The Gunslinger


Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

There’s really not much more you need to know about this story except what’s right up there. That’s the essence of the whole thing – a chase. A man in black, who has obviously done something terrible, and a gunslinger, who is obviously going to set things right.

If, by “set right,” you mean “kill a whole lot of people,” then you’re pretty much on target.

This is the beginning of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, a story told in seven volumes that manages to be the lynchpin for all the worlds that he has created. It’s a story that was 22 years in the writing, and almost never got finished. It’s an epic story, all about the endless quest for the Dark Tower, the center of all reality, the axle upon which the wheels of creation move.

Roland, the gunslinger, is hunting for this tower. He wants it more than anything in the world. He has lost everything in pursuit of this tower – his friends, his family, his world – and yet he pressed on. The man in black has information for him, can set his path towards his goal. If only Roland can catch him.

On his way to the man in black, Roland finds a small town taken over by a mad preacher woman, a sympathetic hermit, and a boy who doesn’t look like he’s terribly local to this world. All of them help point the way to the man in black, and none of them make it to the end with Roland. Even he is unprepared for the terrifying reality that awaits him when he and the man in black finally have their palaver….

There truly is something magical about this book. Even if there were no other Dark Tower books, it would stand out as a good story, well told. Part of this is its deceptive simplicity – moving from point A to point B, with only a few flashbacks to fill in the backstory. Well, quite a lot of flashbacks, actually, seeing as how King did set this story in a featureless desert with a singular protagonist, and there’s only so much you can work with without dipping into the well of the past from time to time.

The glimpses of Roland’s past that we get to see are tantalizing – they tell of a rich and cultured world that is nonetheless hard and merciless. The gunslingers are all that stand between civilization and chaos, and there are precious few of them left. Roland and his friends know they may be the last of their kind, but that doesn’t deter them from pursuing their guns and growing up to honor their fathers.

The fact that we know from the beginning that they all fail just makes it all the more poignant to watch them try.

It’s hard to talk about this book without trying to talk about the rest of the series, and it’s even harder to convey the feeling of reading it when the series was still ongoing. My father, a huge Stephen King fan, had these books when I was a kid, and I eventually got into them, and was – like so many others – immeasurably frustrated by the pace at which King was writing them. I finished this book, which does not necessarily have a happy – or easy-to-understand – ending, and I wanted more. I wanted to know what Roland was going to do now that he’d had his palaver with the man in black, and I wanted to know if he would ever find the Dark Tower. Whom would he enlist in his quest, as the oracle had suggested? Whom else would he sacrifice, as he did young Jake?

Speaking of which, the relationship between Roland and Jake is an interesting one, especially as I got older and re-read it. When I first read the book, I was probably around Jake’s age – eleven years old [1]. Reading Jake’s story of how he came to Roland’s world was horrifying enough, but to see how their relationship would eventually end was even worse. The idea that there might be something more important to, say, my parents [2] than I was – well, that was horrifying. To think that a purpose might exist for which they would let me fall to my death…. That’s not the kind of thing an eleven year-old boy wants to think about.

From the point of view of an older person, a grown man, I found something uncomfortable about their relationship. The bond that formed between man and boy was instant, and intense, and having grown up in a culture where a strange man being that friendly to a young boy would be automatically colored with the taint of pedophilia, well, I had to work a little harder to stay in Roland’s head. The fact that I know that wasn’t where King was going with the relationship helps a little, but every reader brings his or her hang-ups along when they read and some of mine are a little more persistent than others. I’m sure any psychologist who needs to put a down payment on a yacht would be happy to help me work on it.

All in all, it’s an excellent beginning. What follows is a massive tale, a great quest that spans time and space and reality, culminating in Roland’s final understanding of who he is and why he exists. Not all of it is as good as this book, but it’s still worth reading, I say ya true.

So put on your good boots, don’t forget your hat and horn and donkey. It’s a long trip to the end….

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“This is not the beginning but the beginning’s end. You’d do well to remember that… but you never do.”
– The Man in Black
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[1] This is another example of the Eleven Year-Old Boy Rule: if you have a major character in your book who is not an adult, chances are that it will be an eleven year-old boy. King is a master of this.

[2] Because if Roland isn’t a father-substitute then I don’t know who is.

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Review 73: Old Man’s War


Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Somewhere in the unspecified future, humanity has reached out beyond the solar system, settling colonies wherever they can find a habitable planet. It’s the inevitable expansion of the Human Race, finally freed from its precarious position on Earth. With the new skip drive, capable of taking people vast distances in only a moment, a whole range of new and interesting worlds are open to hardy settlers willing to make new lives for themselves.

Unfortunately, there are many alien races out there with the same idea, who need worlds with similar climates and resources. And very few of them are keen on sharing with us. So, in order to protect the human race against its competitors, the Colonial Defense Force was set up – a space military whose basic mission is to deal with the alien menace by whatever means necessary.

No one on Earth has ever seen a CDF soldier. Nobody knows anything about them – how they fight, where they fight, or even whom they fight. People do know one thing, however – there’s always an opportunity to join. Protect and serve.

If you’re seventy-five years old, that is.

The CDF isn’t interested in hotheaded youths with no experience. While they have traditionally been the main component of the soldiering class, they are erratic at best, cannon fodder at worst. The CDF is looking for an entirely new type of cannon fodder, hopefully one with a better head on its shoulders. Therefore, the CDF recruits from the elderly. The theory is that once you get to be seventy-five years old, you’ve seen a bit of the world, you know how much you don’t know, and you’re less likely to be infected with the special brand of insanity that comes along with being in your late teens and early twenties.

So, on your sixty-fifth birthday, you go to the recruitment office for a routine physical and a basic description of what you’re in for. Ten years later, if you’re still around, you join up for real. There’s no turning back, though. Join the CDF and your life on Earth is over. You will be declared legally dead, and there will be no coming back to your home planet, ever.

For many people, this might be a somewhat intimidating proposition. After all, the Earth is the only home we have. But once you’re seventy-five and looking your mortality straight in the eyes, it might be a reasonable price to pay.

As for the myriad physical problems that come with being 75, well, there are ways of getting around that.

The book follows John Perry, a widower-turned-soldier as he fights for the safety of people he doesn’t know, in a universe he’s only beginning to understand. Once he begins his new career as a soldier, he discovers that, to paraphrase Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe is stranger than he can imagine. He is taken to new and interesting worlds to meet new and interesting species of intelligent life and, more often than not, to kill them. Along the way, he has to deal with new takes on the old questions that have plagued philosophers for centuries – what is identity, what is duty, and what is the function of war? Even the nature of reality itself pokes its head in to cause a little trouble. All through this, John Perry is just trying to keep his head down and get through his tour of duty – but you know it can never be that simple.

This was Scalzi’s first novel, and as first novels go it was just the kind you want to have. Exciting, funny, nominated for a Hugo and immensely popular. To say nothing of being reminiscent of Heinlein (if Heinlein had had more of a sense of humor). Not only do we have a cracking good military space adventure, but we’re introduced to a far wider universe that Scalzi will later expand upon. The “Old Man’s War Universe” is vast and exciting, and as of this writing, there have been three more books that take place in it.

With that in mind, this book is mostly exposition. While the adventure parts are adventurous, the vast majority of this book is laying down the important concepts that are necessary to understand the book and those that follow. And so we get a lot of explanation about what the CDF is and how it operates, why it needs its soldiers and how they’re prepared for battle. We’re introduced to the BrainPal ™ and SmartBlood ™ and the MP-35 Rifle, truly one of the most useful weapons ever made by man. We meet a variety of alien species – some disturbingly ugly but gentle, others utterly adorable baby-eaters, and still more who believe that murdering other life forms is an act of religious grace for which the murdered should be thankful.

Lucky for us, Scalzi chooses the most logical way to do all of this exposition – the main character is as clueless as we are. He also needs everything explained, sometimes in vivid and gruesome detail, in order to make sense of the universe in which he now works. By following John Perry through basic training and his first year in the CDF, we start to understand the basics. The rest will come in later books, and our learning curve will be somewhat accelerated.

The book manages to hit all the right notes – it’s exciting, it’s poignant and it’s funny. John Perry has been given a quick and sarcastic sense of humor, which reminds me of a lot of my friends, so I felt an immediate kinship with him. We like the people he likes, we care about the things he cares about, and we understand what it is that keeps him going, even when he’s risking his own humanity in the process. In short, John Perry is a character who is at once singularly interesting and at the same time easy to identify with. This, I must say, is a tough feat to pull off.

If you like funny, exciting, universe-scale science fiction, pick this up. If you’re interested in how our eventual coexistence with aliens might one day go, give this a read. And by all means, if you’re a fan of Robert Heinlein – and you know who you are – definitely get this book.

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“If the universe is bigger and stranger than I can imagine, it’s best to meet it with an empty bladder ”
– John Perry, Old Man’s War
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Review 19: Day of the Triffids


The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I have a long fondness for Apocalyptic novels. The Stand was one of my early favorites from junior high school, and I really enjoyed its cousin by Robert McCammon, Swan Song. There’s something about the End Of The World that just grabs me and won’t let go. Maybe it’s the thought that, should the world end, I would be one of the survivors. The rule of law would break down, all shackles of modern life would be loosed, and I would finally be free to choose my own destiny. Which, knowing me, would probably be very short and end up with me getting shot by some kind of Mad Max pirate tribe.

I can say with some certainty, however, that in this book’s scenario I would not be coming out on top. Because I love astronomy.

Let me explain. This end of the world came in two parts, at least one of which was definitely of our own doing.

It started with a comet. Or a meteor shower. Or something, but whatever it was, it lit up the sky. Green streaks of light brightened the night skies around the world, and everyone who could go and watch them did so. I’m a sucker for a natural light show, so I probably would have spent the night watching the skies and enjoying myself. And I would have woken up stone blind the next day.

That in itself – the vast, vast majority of the human population on Earth being blind – would have been a pretty good apocalypse. Wyndham describes rashes of suicides, accidental deaths and, of course, murder in just the first few days. Without vision, the carefully crafted world we’ve made kind of falls apart. But it would have been survivable. Co-operation groups spring up pretty quickly, both voluntary and otherwise, where sighted people assist the blind in surviving. It would have been tough, yes, but not impossible, for the world to go on. If not for the Triffids.

While we don’t know what caused the green comet, the Triffids were definitely our fault. The product of bioengineering gone haywire, the Triffids are ambulatory carnivorous plants with a poison sting that can kill a grown man from ten feet away. And while they’re not intelligent, they are remarkably… aware. They follow sound, they learn and co-operate in hunting, and are very difficult to eradicate.

But by themselves, they’re manageable. Their stingers can be removed, even though they grow back eventually, and they make interesting garden plants. And they’re immensely profitable – the oil derived from a Triffid outdoes every other kind of vegetable oil available. In normal times, the Triffids are under human control and benefit humanity greatly.

The two problems, when put together, make for a truly terrifying end – an unstoppable, unthinking army of carnivorous plants, finally freed from their shackles. A world in chaos, half-blind and not sure if they have to save themselves, or if someone else will do it for them. And an exciting story.

The message of this book is pretty clear, and Wyndham wastes no time in making sure we get it, lest the adventure part of the book get bogged down. Don’t mess with nature. That’s pretty much it. Don’t mess with nature, because nature will inevitably come ’round and mess right back with you.

Wyndham has created a brave new world for us, with a wide variety of characters who all react to their new situation in different – and realistic – ways. Starting in London, we meet a diverse cast – from the girl who believes that the Americans will save her to the man who believes that polygamy is the way to a brighter future, everyone has an idea on how to survive. The narrator, Bill Masen, knows just enough to get the reader up to speed, but not nearly enough to know if he’s even going to make it out of this alive. With the help of other sighted survivors, he is determined to make a stand, not only for England, but for the human race as a whole.

But first they have to deal with the Triffids….

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“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. ”
– John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids
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Day of the Triffids at Wikipedia
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Review 16: Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams

This is one of my top five books. Whenever anyone asks me, “What is your favorite book?” this is at or near the top. It was the first adult-length book I read when I was in Elementary school, and I have every intention of getting my hands on a copy for my goddaughter at some point soon. I remember watching the movie when they used to show it annually on CBS, way back in those days beyond recall….

Why should this book, of all the books I’ve ever read in my life, stay so dear to me? I have no idea. Perhaps because, even though its main characters are rabbits, it isn’t a “talking animals” book. Adams didn’t talk down to his readers, and assumed that they were ready to follow Hazel and Fiver wherever they went. And so, unusually for children’s literature, there is violence and loss and true danger in this book. Characters die. Unpleasantly. The rabbits live in fear of mankind and the Thousand, and accomplish great things despite. They do what no rabbit had done before, and find a new world for themselves. And, of course, are forced to fight for it.

Our heroes, you see, are living an idyllic life in a warren in England. They do what rabbits do – eat, sleep, mate, and entertain themselves. But one rabbit, Fiver, can see more clearly than others. He can sense danger, and grasp the shape of the future, and he knows that any rabbit who stays where they are will certainly die. With his brother, Hazel, Fiver and a small group of rabbits leave their home.

They do what rabbits never do – they explore. They go through dense woods and cross streams. They hide among gardens and search for the best place they can find to set up their new warren – a safe place, high in the hills, where they can see all around and the ground is dry. They seek to build a new society, as so many humans have done in our history.

And what’s more, they try to build the best society that they can. The need leadership, yes, but how much? How much freedom should the ordinary rabbit have to live its life? This question becomes more and more important when they meet the cruel General Woundwort, de facto leader of the warren known as Efrafa.

The battle that they have, choosing between personal liberty and the safety of the warren, is emblematic of so many struggles that have gone on in our world, and continue today. Through a tale about rabbits, Adams manages to tell us about ourselves, which is the mark of a great writer.

As cynical as I have become in my years, I still find this story to be honest and true. Adams isn’t trying to make an allegory or grind an axe. He’s trying to tell a good story about hope and perseverance and triumph over adversity, a story with – as Tolkien put it, “applicability” – that we can overlay onto our own lives and experiences. The fact that the main characters are rabbits is incidental.

Well, not really. Another layer to this story is the culture that Adams has created. The stories of Frith and El-ahrairah (which, I’ve just noticed, is misprinted on the first page of the contents in this edition as “El-ahrairah.” Weird) are sometimes deep and meaningful, sometimes fun and silly, but always relevant and rich, in the tradition of oral storytelling. There is a language to the rabbits, which is regularly used throughout the book (and one complete sentence in lapine – Silflay hraka u embleer rah. Memorable….) Adams did a lot of research into the social structure of rabbits and their lifestyles, making it as accurate is it could be….

Anyway, every young person should read this. Hell, older people should read it too. Every time I read the story, it moves me. I can hear the voices of the characters clearly and see what they see. I am inspired by the steadfastness of Hazel, the strength of Bigwig and the resolve of Blackavar. I find qualities in these characters that I would like to possess, and that’s as good a reason as any to love a book.

As a side note, this book is the reason I got into Magic: The Gathering way back in college. For a long time, I thought it was just a stupid card game, with no cultural or imaginative merit. Then I happened across a “Thunder Spirit” card, which had a quote from Watership Down at the bottom:

“It was full of fire and smoke and light and…it drove between us and the Efrafans like a thousand thunderstorms with lightning.”

Still gives me goosebumps.

Anyway, I thought, “Maybe there’s something to this,” and the rest was (very expensive) history….

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“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you, digger, listener, runner. Prince with a swift warning. Be cunning and your people will never be destroyed.”
– Frith, Watership Down
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Review 05: The Princess Bride


The Princess Bride by William Goldman

If you haven’t read this book, then all I can tell you is to go out, get it, and read it. Now. Don’t bother with the rest of this review, you’ll thank me later. It has:

Fencing.
Fighting.
Torture.
Poison.
True Love.
Hate.
Revenge.
Giants.
Hunters.
Good men.
Bad men.
Beautifulest ladies.
Snakes.
Spiders.
Beasts of all natures and descriptions.
Pain.
Death.
Brave men.
Coward men.
Strongest men.
Chases.
Escapes.
Lies.
Truths.
Passion.
Miracles.

For a start.

It’s one of the greatest love/action/revenge stories ever abridged by a modern author. Well, it seems that Mr. Goldman felt that the original story, as written by the immortal S. Morganstern, was a little too dry for public consumption, as well as damaging to treasured childhood memories, so he went through it and put together this “good parts” version, and the world is a better place for it. [1]

Of course, the big gag is that there never was an original version of the book. There never was an S. Morganstern, the greatest of the Florinese writers. Goldman’s father may have read books to him as a child, but he never read this book to him. The entire thing is a fiction, beginning to end, but Goldman sells it really well. He tells the tale of how he blossomed as a boy – going from being a sports-obsessed disappointment to a ravenous bookworm, all thanks to this book. He talks about trying to give the same gift to his son, who manages to make it through one chapter before giving up in exhaustion. He talks about the great shock of discovering that his father had done something utterly brilliant – he had skipped the dull bits and left the exciting parts intact.

Knowing that all of this is false certainly doesn’t detract from the story. It’s a story about a story, and the effect that a story can have on a young mind. Or any mind, for that matter. It’s about how stories can teach us lessons that only later we understand – such as how life is not fair – and how stories can change us in ways that we never expected. It’s about our relationship with fiction, and with the world around us. In his fictional childhood, Goldman learned more about the world from the process of watching the story unfold than he did from the story itself. And so this book is a story about stories. The actual story is just bonus.

Which brings me, of course, to the film. Let me say that this is one of the very, very few instances where I will put the movie up on par with the book. 99.9999 repeating percent of the time, the book is better than the movie. This is one instance where they are equal in nearly every measure. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with the fact that Goldman wrote the screenplay for the film, so not only is the story intact, but a great deal of the dialogue is almost verbatim from the book. It was gold in print and gold on the screen. The hardest part about reading the book is trying not to hear Andre the Giant, Christopher Guest, Robin Wright and all the other fine actors and actresses in your head as you read.

So, whether you read the book or see the movie, you’re in for a treat. And as you read, just remember the books that molded you into who you are today. Think about the stories that taught you life’s lessons before life got around to doing it. Think about them and appreciate them, and remember that every book is a lesson, one way or another….

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“I’m so stupid. Inigo has not lost to the man in black, he has defeated him. And to prove it he has put on all the man in black’s clothes and masks and hoods and boots and gained eighty pounds.”
– Fezzik, The Princess Bride
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[1] This is a fun type of meta-fiction, writers writing autobiographically about writing about books that never existed. I find it interesting that The Princess Bride can sit comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with House of Leaves.

The Princess Bride at Wikipedia
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Review 03: The Android’s Dream


The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi

What do you get when you combine aliens, diplomacy, artificial intelligences, religion and sheep together? Well, for most people, the answer would be a horrible mess. For John Scalzi, however, it’s a fantastic read. Nothing too complex, no greater statements about the nature of humanity and the necessity of war that holds together the stories in his Old Man’s War universe, just a good old-fashioned espionage romp. With sheep. Or at least a sheep. Kind of.

The story begins with, as so many stories do, a murder. Not an intentional murder, really, but one that was born of shame and revenge, as so many murders are. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t rate much, except that the death of an alien trade ambassador is never a convenient thing. When said diplomat may just possibly have been killed by his human counterpart, that’s even more difficult to deal with. Instead of a nice, tidy trade agreement cementing the relations between the United Nations of Earth and the Nidu, an alien race with an extraordinary sense of smell and hair-trigger tempers, we have what the State Department might just call “a challenge.”

The only thing that can heal this little rift between the two planets is a sheep. But not just any sheep – a special breed, created just for the Nidu called the Android’s Dream. Without this sheep, the ruling family cannot hold on to power, and the Nidu will be plunged into a catastrophic civil war that will, in all likelihood, take Earth with it. In order to find the sheep, avert catastrophe and, most importantly, avoid calling shame down upon the government, State Department employee – and veteran of the Earth’s greatest military failure – Harry Creek will have to use every skill at his disposal. And then some.

It’s a great read, this book. Telling any more about the plot would ruin it, so I’ll just exhort you to pick up the book and get reading. In all honesty, you could probably finish it pretty quickly. But I can’t just stop here, so let me tell you more about why I liked it as much as I did.

What made it so good, what always makes good sci-fi good, is the reality of the world the author creates. It’s great to come up with high-concept scientific ideas, or intricately-planned space battles, but for the reader to really immerse him-or-herself in the book, it has to have a world in which the reader can easily imagine her-or-himself existing.

I thought of this during one scene early in the book. A character was riding the Washington, D.C. Metro and the narrator was describing the various aliens who were riding with him. There was an explanation of how various species had integrated themselves into the city, overcoming prejudice and discrimination, but what really got me was the description of a young woman reading the paper, the only other human in the car. Amidst all the different bodies, tongues, smells, and appearances, she didn’t even notice.

“If her great-great-grandmother were on the train,” Scalzi writes, “she would have thought she was on commuter train heading toward the fifth circle of Hell. This woman didn’t even look up. The human capacity for being jaded was a remarkable thing.”

It was at that point that I really accepted the reality of the book. It wasn’t a perfect world, it wasn’t one that had been ripped apart or perfected by alien contact. What had happened was what happens here any time cultures interact – after a brief period of unpleasantness, cultures start to mingle until it gets to a point where no one can remember when things were at all different. This book has all those little details that help sell the world, things that blend our world with theirs. Bored mall employees, amoral hit men, political jockeying, all of those things are familiar. Actual ghosts in machines, planet-cracking bombs, aliens that are almost entirely mouth and digestive systems, those are not. But they’re believable, because Scalzi is one hell of a writer.

I do have one little nit to pick, however. It’s not a big nit, but a nit nonetheless.

The book is an adventure, plain and simple. It’s a plot-driven story that pulls you along from one event to the other with nary a chance to catch your breath, and I never complain about that. It has some great characters… who remain almost entirely static throughout the story. I can’t say there’s no character development in the book, because the big hairy guy who eats people does have a change of heart about it, but other than that…. Harry Creek begins the book as a reluctant hero who is hiding his super-hacker, ass-kicker light under a bushel, and he’s happy to continue to be that at the close of the book. Robin Baker is a sassy, independent young woman who holds up under pressure – though not necessarily happy about it – throughout the book, and the Nidu ambassador Narf-win-Getag is untrustable the moment he walks on the page, and he remains so up through his sudden and inevitable betrayal near the end.

Like I said, this isn’t a huge complaint, because the book that Scalzi has written isn’t a character book. It’s an adventure, and adventure books usually don’t require a whole lot of character development. That doesn’t mean the characters aren’t believable – they certainly are – and it doesn’t mean they’re not interesting – they absolutely are. They just don’t grow. Fortunately I know from having read Old Man’s War and its related books that Scalzi has no problem with character development, and so I can assume that keeping his characters reasonably static in this book was a deliberate choice.

As a tangential comment on characters in the book, there was one character that drove me nuts. This character is not central to the story, and only appears a few times. What makes this person interesting are the following two things: first that the character is named Sam, and second that Sam’s gender is never established. Maybe it’s me and I missed something, but I have no idea if Sam was a man or a woman.

I caught it mainly because Tad Williams used the same name to pull a similar trick in his Otherland series, but in that story he was hiding Sam’s gender from another character, not the reader, so we eventually found out what was what. In this story, Sam’s gender remains a mystery for no other reason than I figure it amused Scalzi. It has no bearing on the story, and it doesn’t make the fate of Sam’s lover any less tragic, but I found it fascinating.

In any case, it’s a great read and – as a bonus – very funny. The opening line alone lets you know that, no matter what you think you’ve read before, you haven’t read anything quite like this. But I’m not telling you what that line is – I can’t give away everything….

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“If there’s one thing that distinguishes the human species, it is a pathological need to stay connected.”
-John Scalzi, The Android’s Dream
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John Scalzi’s homepage
John Scalzi at Wikipedia
John Scalzi at AMC.com
The Android’s Dream on Amazon.com

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