Tag Archives: death

Review 24: Death from the Skies!


Death From The Skies! by Phil Plait

I’ve always found the end of the world fascinating. So many cultures have put together their own ideas of how the world will end, from the Norse Ragnarök to the Christian apocalypse to the Hindu cycle of creation and destruction. We live in a world that was, for a long time, unpredictable to us and on many occasions seemed to be outwardly hostile. Our ancestors faced floods and earthquakes and disease, with no idea of where these things came from, why they happened or how to stop them. And so they made myths and stories to explain the dangerous world in which they lived. From that, they extrapolated – if the world is this dangerous now, how dangerous could it be if it really tried? And so came our myths of a world that not only succeeds in hurting us, but in wiping us out altogether.

Even in the modern age we have our myths. Books, television, and movies all use the end of the world (or end of a world) to tell stories – usually about the resilience of mankind and our ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and rebuild human society, hopefully for the better. As good as this is for fiction, there are two problems when we try to apply these myths and stories to the real world: the world will end, one way or another, and no amount of heroics, cleverness or pluck will save us. Not in the long term, anyway.

Science has accomplished what religion and fiction could not – it has seen the future and can make fairly accurate prophecies about how this world, and our civilization upon it, will die. Renowned astronomer Phil Plait is your prophet for this trip into all the ways the world will end….

In this book, Plait looks at nine possibilities for the end of the world as we know it. In order, they are:

Death by Impact
Death from the Sun
Death by Supernova
Death by Gamma Ray Burst
Death by Black Hole
Death by Aliens
Death of the Sun
Death by Galactic Collision
Death of the Universe

In each chapter, Plait outlines the ways in which that specific event could injure or kill us, with as much science as he can comfortably put in. He explains, for example, why we can’t just send Bruce Willis up to hit an incoming meteor with a nuke (it probably won’t work) and why any black holes produced by the LHC won’t do us any harm. He looks at how a supernova happens, what it is about a black hole that turns it into one of the deadliest weapons in the universe, and tries – very, very hard – to make the reader understand exactly how long “forever” is. (Hint: it’s a lot longer than you think. Longer than that, even. Nope, keep going….)

Each chapter outlines the processes by which we could experience the destruction of our civilization or, in a few cases, the planet itself. He looks at the scientific foundations of these events, explaining in detail what it is about the sun, for example, that makes it a cauldron of chaos and torment, or why we really, really don’t want to get even a smallish black hole anywhere near the planet. And I have to say, of all the unlikely ways we could be toasted, gamma ray bursts are my favorite – a deadly beam of energy from thousands of light-years away, cooking the planet all the way down through the crust and utterly devastating the planet’s ecosystem so as to kill off anyone who was lucky enough to be on the other side of the world. I mean, wow. And there’d be no warning, either. By the time we knew what was happening, it’d be too late. So that chapter (with a line paying homage to Douglas Adams, even) is just mind-boggling.

Probably my favorite chapter, though, is the one about supernovas, mainly because his careful, step-by-step description of exactly how a supernova occurs made me think, “What I wouldn’t give to see that in person,” disregarding the fact that a) the best parts would happen way too fast for me to observe and b) it would vaporize me. Still, it’s a beautiful and terrifying chain reaction, which Plait describes in fantastic detail. The other chapter that evoked the same reaction was the one on the end of the universe. Despite timelines for which the word “vast” is terribly inadequate, Plait tells us what science knows about how the universe will end – the ever-increasing expansion of spacetime, the eventual death of the stars, evaporation of galaxies, the reign of the black holes and the slow, careful deaths which even they face. It all ends in darkness, all matter gone into a few stubborn subatomic particles and the eventual collapse of the very fabric of space and time.

And as bleak and miserable is the future looks, I still thought, “I really want to see that.” So if I can figure out how to live one googol years (that’d be a one with one hundred zeros after it [1]) and not have my very atoms decay into nothingness, then I’ll be able to… um… be really, really bored, probably. Since after that, there’s absolutely – literally – nothing to do. Until the universe experiences vacuum collapse, or a brane collision, possibly hitting the reset button on the cosmos and we get to do it all over again….

Most of what’s in the book isn’t new to me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Cosmos, and I follow countless science TV shows, podcasts and blogs (including Plait’s own Bad Astronomy blog, which is well worth keeping up with, as well as his regular appearances on SETI’s podcast, Are We Alone? and occasional guest appearances on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe – both of which make for excellent listening). For people new to astronomy, though, this will be a rather dense learning experience – and reading it will be time well spent.

In addition to its user-friendly style, I really like the way it’s arranged – from small-scale (relatively) to large, with “Things that are absolutely certain to happen” at the beginning and end, and with “things that probably won’t happen” in the middle. And my favorite aspect of this book is that each chapter begins with a short vignette describing that particular end of the world, from the perspective of someone watching it happen. It’s not something you often see in books of this nature, and I’m really glad that Plait decided to put it in there. It makes it a little less academic and abstract and more real.

For all its death and destruction, the book isn’t really a downer. For one thing, while things like asteroid impacts and the death of the sun are inevitable, they don’t have to be fatal, and Plait describes a few ways in which – in theory – we (or our distant, distant descendants) might be able to avert or at least mitigate these catastrophes. It’s not easy, of course, but saving the world never is.

It’s mainly a marvel at the forces that surround us in the universe. It’s easy to forget, looking up at the sky from our brief, limited scale, that the universe isn’t just some pretty lights drifting about in empty blackness. Things are exploding and dying, burning and freezing, moving quickly and slowly – the cosmos is replete with activity and danger. Most of the universe isn’t just uninhabitable, it’s actively hostile to life as we know it. And yet, without the black holes, the supernovas and the galactic collisions, without massive meteor impacts and breakaway comets, solar flares and deadly radiation – without all that, life probably wouldn’t exist at all. So read this book, and take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to be here at all, all things considered….

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“They say that even the brightest star won’t shine forever. But in fact, the brightest star would live the shortest amount of time. Feel free to extract whatever life lesson you want from that.”
– Phil Plait, Death from the Skies!
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[1] 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy blog
Death from the Skies! on Wikipedia
Death from the Skies! on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, astronomy, astrophysics, death, nonfiction, Phil Plait, science, survival, technology

Review 23: American Gods


American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I remember waiting a long time for this book. Neil documented the process of writing it on his blog, so every few days I would get a little glimpse at what he was doing – and it drove me nuts. Living in Japan, I can never be sure when my favorite entertainment will make it over here. Movies and books can take months to get from the US to Japan, and while I’m waiting not-so-patiently, all my friends at home have just devoured it and are in the process of raving about how awesome it is. Oh, sure, the hyper-sellers like Harry Potter might have a worldwide release, but Neil wasn’t exactly a mainstream superstar when this was written.

So yes, one of my main memories associated with this book is frustration. Fortunately, when I picked up the book during a trip home back in 2001, my frustration was erased and replaced with profound satisfaction.

American Gods was one of Gaiman’s first full-length novels, though I may be wrong about that. It was not, of course, his debut – he had made his name a household word in fantasy-reading households by penning the epic comic book series Sandman, in which he proved that he was able to marry huge metaphysical themes to personal narrative. He could make the dissolution of worlds pale beside a broken heart and make you believe that even the simplest of life had vast meaning.

In other words, this man has some serious writing chops.

As the title implies, in this book Gaiman takes on the gods, and asks a very interesting – and important – question: what happened to the gods that came to America? I’m talking about the Old Gods, the gods that had been living in the hearts and minds of people for thousands of years. Leprechauns and dryads, three-in-one forces of fate and representations of the seasons. Easter and Odin, Bast and Anubis, gods of once-great nations and unknown villages. As their people came to America over the millennia, they brought their gods with them.

But as the people stayed in America, they changed. They grew. And the gods discovered that America is not a good place for them.

Now the old gods are small and unworshipped, save by a few tiny, dwindling pockets of their old culture. What’s more, new gods are rising, gods of media and internet, highway and television and government. And, as has been said in countless westerns and cowboy movies, there isn’t room for all of them. There will be a reckoning, and a man named Shadow is in the middle of it.

Shadow is a convict, nearly at the end of his time in prison. He wants nothing more than to get out of prison and rejoin his wife. He gets one of those wishes when he is released early. Unfortunately, he is released early to attend his wife’s funeral.

Without friends or family, Shadow is aimless and alone. It is in this condition that he meets the enigmatic Wednesday, a man who seems to know Shadow and his situation, far better than any stranger should. He offers Shadow a job – to assist Wednesday when he needs it, protect him if he has to, and sit a vigil for him if he dies. With nothing to lose, Shadow accepts the deal. In so doing, he finds himself facing a war of gods that he never knew existed.

It’s a great story, on many levels. In one sense, it’s a love letter to America. Shadow’s journey takes him through small towns that have yet to be subsumed into the ever-devouring maw of the modern American monoculture – from roadside attractions to tiny motels to strange lakeside communities, the unacknowledged weirdness of America is put on display here for all to see. As is its history, in the form of flashbacks to the journeys that people made from their homelands to this land, voluntary or not. The book reminds us that there is a complexity to not only American history, but also to American culture, which gets lost in the ubiquity of McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The metaphysical angle of this book is also something to give you pause. It asks the questions about what gods are, how they’re born and how they die. Most importantly – how they flourish or wither, and why. It is said over and over again that America is a bad place for gods, although it’s not clearly explained why. Perhaps something to do with its geography – a vast, variable landscape that’s too big for small tribal gods to get a hold of. Perhaps it’s the people, brought from all over the world, who can’t help but wonder what other cultures can offer them. Perhaps it’s just the nature of its people – always moving, independently-minded. The old gods, who were gods of small nations and regions, simply didn’t have the power or flexibility to stay on.

Which really makes us wonder, how did capital-g God manage to get a foothold? As one of the characters notes, Jesus has done really well over here. Perhaps because the God of Abraham can be all things to all people – a god of vengeance and justice, a god of mercy and love, a creator, a destroyer, a personal friend or a distant observer. There is something to be said for non-specialization, I suppose….

This book is a journey, and it’s a long and complicated one at that. But it’s enjoyable and personal. Gaiman writes with great empathy, so that the reader may even understand the gods themselves, as reduced and attenuated as they may have become. Though Shadow is not exactly the protagonist of the story – he spends most of the book doing what he is told to do, only taking initiative on his own towards the end, he is observant. Through his eyes, we learn more about America. Its triumphs, its flaws and its potential all become a little bit clearer, and upon finishing the book, those of us from that strange, turbulent land can perhaps appreciate it a bit more.

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“This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is.”
– Wednesday, American Gods
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Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman’s homepage
American Gods on Wikipedia
American Gods on Amazon.com
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Filed under death, fantasy, gods, murder, Neil Gaiman, religion, The United States

Review 20: The Doomsday Book

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I honestly can’t count the number of times I’ve read this book. I think this is the fifth time. Or maybe the sixth, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s just as enjoyable, touching and heartbreaking as it was the first time I read it, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

It is the middle of the 21st century and time travel has finally been worked out. A reliable there-and-back-again way to go into the past and come back to the present. Unfortunately, there are limitations. The computer that makes time travel happen, through means I’m not sure even Ms. Willis understands, will not allow for a paradox. This means if you try to go to the past with anachronistic technology, or carrying a disease that could wreak havoc on the population, the interface simply won’t open. If you try to place a traveler somewhere where their appearance could cause a paradox, the machine will put them in another place or time – a factor called “slippage” which can put you anywhere from five minutes and a few feet off your mark to years and miles. The machine won’t allow you to get anywhere near events of importance.

Secondly, the machine won’t allow you to take anything through the net. So if you travel to, say, Napoleon’s palace and try to rob him blind, the interface won’t open until you’ve got rid of all your booty.

Those two factors alone made the time machine economically useless. If you can’t profit off it – or change it – what good must it be?

A lot of good, as it turns out, if you’re an historian. While the machine may not allow you to get anywhere near Hitler, it will allow you to see what life was like in the ghetto in the 30s. The whole of history suddenly became open to real discovery, and places like Oxford were at the forefront of the research.

One student, a young lady named Kivrin, has a dream to see the Middle Ages. Despite all the warnings that it was full of filth, disease, superstition, danger and death, she still wants to see it more than anything in the world. The sheer force of her will finds her in the machine, ready to go to the year 1320 to see firsthand what life was like for the average English citizen. She has prepared herself as best she could, but nothing could possibly prepare her for the time and place she ends up in….

And in the present, a new plague has spread around Oxford. It’s a new type of flu that seems to have come from nowhere, and it’s started to kill. Kivrin’s teachers and friends have to race the disease, time and sheer bloody-minded bureaucracy to try and find her and bring her back safely.

What is remarkable about the book is the detail. Willis has obviously done a lot of research into not only Medieval Oxford but modern Oxford as well. Since one of the themes of the book is that we don’t know nearly as much about the past as we think we do, Willis has gone to great lengths to make sure that we – through the eyes of Kivrin – never know what to expect because our expectations are all totally wrong. And as is so often true about history, the more we know about it, the more interesting it becomes.

The Oxford of the future, by contrast, isn’t all that futuristic. It looks a lot like the modern world, probably because it’s only a couple of decades removed from us. Sure, there have been advances in technology, but the lives of the people aren’t much different from ours.

Interesting note: the book was published in 1992, well before the age of cell phones, instant messaging and the internet. Because of this, one of the greatest hindrances to getting anything done in this far-future Oxford is that no one can get anyone on the phone. It’s a videophone, yes, but most of the characters spend time waiting for phone calls to come through or trying to place calls to people who aren’t near a terminal. It’s a bit strange, from my modern perspective, to see a world that has pretty much conquered disease and mastered time yet never figured out a means of personal communication better than a land-line.

That’s just a small thing, though, and as long as you accept that particular bit of alternate-future, you’ll be okay. It’s a fantastic book, one which I recommend without reservation. The characters are deep and interesting, and the writing really puts you in their world. Seriously. Go get it.

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“Mr. Dunworthy, ad adjuvandum me festina.”
(“Mr. Dunworthy, make haste to help me.”)
– Kivrin, The Doomsday Book
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The Doomsday Book on Wikipedia
Connie Willis on Wikipedia
The Doomsday Book on Amazon.com
The 11th-Century Domesday Book at Wikipedia
The Domesday Book online

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Filed under Christmas, Connie Willis, death, disease, England, science fiction, survival, time travel

Review 18: Swan Song

Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Okay, have you read The Stand? Humanity being wiped out by a short-sighted government, small groups of people struggling to survive in an America laid low? A dramatic escape from New York through a dark and scary tunnel? An evil adversary from an unknown place whose only dream is the end of the world?

Yeah, that’s Swan Song, too. Only with nukes instead of a virus.

It really is an alarmingly similar story, published about ten years after The Stand, but – and this is important – it’s still a really good book. Derivative? Sure. But it’s still good, which is a neat trick.

The story starts in an alternate world, one that seemed all-too-probable in 1987, when this book was published. The US and the Soviet Union are toe-to-toe, fighting proxy wars all over the world. Nuclear exchanges have already happened between smaller nations. The world is inches away from war, and there seems to be no going back.

Domestically, things aren’t much better. In New York City, the city has fallen to crime and decay – drugs, trash and whores are all that can be found, and if any city deserves destruction it’s this one. It’s the worst projections of New York come true, and its eventual destruction is almost like a blessing.

In the western mountains, a group of survivalists have hollowed out a shelter against the possibility of The End, and Earth House is full to bursting. Young Ronald Croninger and his parents are there, but the boy is not impressed by what he sees. Colonel Macklin,the ex-soldier who is the public face of Earth House, seems to have gone to seed, and the shelter itself is falling apart, just like everything else.

The world is going straight to Hell, and it’s all too easy for the US and the Soviets to send it all the way there.

The book has an epic scope and a massive cast, lined up pretty equally on the sides of Good and Evil. As the book progresses, the disparate groups finally come together in a final confrontation that will decide the fate of the world.

In the midst of all that, a certain mystical quality has arisen. There’s a… being, a creature of demonic countenance who can change his face and travel freely throughout the wasted land. His sole desire is to see the end of humanity – he revels in destruction and despair and wants nothing more than to see the end of Our Heroes. On the other hand is the title character, Swan. As a girl, she loved plants and flowers, and had a strange affinity for the natural world. As she grew up, however, her powers matured, and that affinity became a full-on partnership. They each collect a following, through fear and hope respectively, and they each know that there’s only one way this can all end.

There’s an element of mysticism to this as well, though why it should be there is not explained. For example, the burned-out rubble of Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue creates a shining glass ring, filled with strands of precious metals and valuable stones. This ring becomes the guide for Sister, a woman who was once mad but becomes the sanest one of the survivors. With the ring, she is able to perform miracles. There’s a magic mirror that shows the future, prophetic dreams and other elements of mysticism. It seems that when the world as we know it ends, the world as we don’t know it steps in. And then there’s the Job’s Masks – a mysterious growth that covers a person’s head in an impenetrable shell, only to crack open years later and…. Well, I’ll let you find out.

The appeal of apocalyptic fiction is an interesting one, and easily understandable. Humans have been interested in how the world will end since about the same time we figured out that the world could end. And there are many ways for it to go, whether it’s the nuclear fire of this book, the insidious virus of The Stand, the near-miss religious apocalypse of Good Omens, the various meteor impacts and climatological disasters that Hollywood loves to show us…. The ways in which the world ends are countless, but they all share one distinct feature – when the end comes, you’ll find out who you really are.

It’s tempting, then, to give it some thought and wonder, “Who would I be, when all was gone?”

This book has some excellent role models to choose from – and to avoid. The characters are compelling, and the world is vividly drawn, so as long as you’re not thinking, “But this is just like The Stand!” you should greatly enjoy it. I highly recommend it.

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“Once upon a time, we had a love affair with fire.”
– Robert McCammon, Swan Song
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Swan Song at Wikipedia
Robert McCammon at Wikipedia
Swan Song at Amazon.com
Robert McCammon on Swan Song
Robert McCammon’s homepage

BONUS! The Boyfriend decided that there needs to be pictures of me recording the podcast. So he took some….

Doing the Podcast

Doing the Podcast
Listening to the playback. I’ve had a haircut since then….

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Filed under apocalypse, death, fantasy, good and evil, horror, nuclear war, Robert McCammon, society, survival, totalitarianism, war

Review 17: The Stand

The Stand by Stephen King

It’s hard to know where to begin when writing about this book, probably because I work under the assumption that everyone has read it. I mean,. I’ve probably owned at least four different copies over the years, and it occupies a permanent place on my bookshelf. I can’t imagine anyone not having read it. But I guess that’s what everyone thinks about their favorite books, so I’ll fill in those of you who haven’t.

It’s the end of the world. Not in the horrible confluence of blindness and carnivorous plants, or in the fiery desolation of nuclear war. The world dies in a more unpleasant way than that, and it all begins in Project Blue – a US military lab in the southwest. There they’ve built the greatest plague mankind has ever known, a shapeshifting flu virus that is 99.4% communicable and 100% lethal. Its intended use was probably against the Soviets or some other enemy state, but… Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, as Yeats said. And on June 13th, 1990, the superflu got out.

It was carried by Charles Campion and his family, spread throughout the southwest until Campion died in a gas station in Arnette, Texas. From there it hopped into the men gathered at the station, who passed it on to nearly everyone they met.

By June 27th, most of America was dead. And thanks to the final command of the man in charge of Project Blue, the virus was spread around the world as well. By Independence Day, the population of the world – that which by some strange genetic luck was immune – was reduced to less than the pre-plague population of California.

Of course, not everyone who was immune escaped unscathed. There were accidents, mishaps and murders that probably brought the number down, but not by much. Scattered survivors struggled to understand why they lived when so many had died, and started to seek out others like them.

And then came the dreams. An ancient woman, living in a cornfield. She radiates goodness and compassion (and still makes her own biscuits). Mother Abagail is the beacon of hope for those who see her in their dreams. And then there’s the other, the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude, whose shadow brings madness and whose gaze brings death. He is Randall Flagg, a man whose time has come ’round at last. Just as Mother Abagail attracts the good and strong, so does Flagg attract the weak and frightened. Around these two do the remains of America come together. And neither one can let the other exist without a fight….

What keeps bringing me back to this book? Well, a lot of things. For one, the writing. King has said that he’s a little disturbed about The Stand being the fans’ favorite – it means he did his best work thirty years ago. Not entirely true, I think, although I am hard pressed to say which of his other books exceeds it. King’s sense of scale as a writer is outstanding. We get into our characters dreams, in their innermost secret thoughts, and then a few pages later are presented with an overview of what’s happening around the nation. It’s like being able to go, in Google Maps, from someone’s bedroom all the way out into space. He dances between characters smoothly, so just when you get to the point where you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, but what’s Flagg doing?” he brings you there.

And speaking of the characters, they’re people who will stay with you long after you finish the book. The quiet confidence of Stu Redman, the single-minded madness of the Trashcan Man, Larry Underwood’s late maturity, Lloyd Henreid’s devotion, Fran Goldsmith’s determination…. Each character rings true. Even the ones who really shouldn’t have ended up the way they did – and I’m thinking of Harold and Nadine here – you can’t help but find bits of them to love. Had they been strong enough, Harold and Nadine never would have gone as bad as they did, and I think even King kind of had a hard time making them do what he wanted.

Underlying all this, of course, is a kind of Old Testament religiosity. The God of Mother Abigail is not the kind and friendly God of the New Testament, He is the angry one of the Old. He is the God who will gladly wipe out nearly all of mankind to prove a point, and will make a 108 year-old woman walk into the desert by herself because she’s getting a little too uppity. In this world, at least, God is most definitely real, even though His purpose is hard to understand.

I could go on. Thesis papers could probably be written about this book, and I reckon they already have been. But that’s not why I do these reviews. I do them because I want y’all to know what’s worth reading.

This book is worth reading.

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“Show me a man or a woman alone and I’ll show you a saint. Give me two and they’ll fall in love. Give me three and they’ll invent the charming thing we call ‘society’. Give me four and they’ll build a pyramid. Give me five and they’ll make one an outcast. Give me six and they’ll reinvent prejudice. Give me seven and in seven years they’ll reinvent warfare. Man may have been made in the image of God, but human society was made in the image of His opposite number, and is always trying to get back home.”
– Glen Bateman, The Stand
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The Stand at Wikipedia
Stephen King at Wikipedia
The Stand at Amazon.com

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Review 02: A Series of Unfortunate Events 1 – The Bad Beginning


A Series of Unfortunate Events 1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

I am not a violent man. In my lifetime, I have never been in a fight. I’ve never seriously threatened anyone with violence, never made anyone feel afraid by my physical presence, never even really seriously considered doing violence to another person.

Having said that, the feelings this book evoked in me were… violent.

Not because Lemony Snicket has written a book where terribly unfortunate things happen to small children – I have no problems with that and in fact encourage it; it builds character. I want to do violence towards Lemony Snicket because he’s a terrible writer who should never have been allowed to have his words put to paper. His pens should be broken, his notes burned, his hard drive wiped and, if possible, his writings should banned by an Act of Congress. The First Amendment can only go so far.

You may be wondering what has roused this level of bibliorage in me. By all accounts, this series is extremely popular, loved by many. On various book review websites, this book routinely gets at least four stars and high praise. It was even made into a movie starring Jim Carry, and if that’s not the Seal of Public Approval then I don’t know what is. It would seem that one of two things is true: Either I’m seriously overreacting to a tiny aspect of Snicket’s (AKA Daniel Handler’s) writing style or the rest of the world is full of blind ignoramuses who wouldn’t know decent writing if they woke up in bed with it after a bender in Vegas.

As a reviewer, I, of course, choose to believe the latter.

Snicket has taken what should be an entertaining story, filled with untimely death, physical violence, extortion, deception, and pedophilic overtones, and corrupted it by treating its audience like a bunch of drooling idiots.

I am, of course, referring to his habit of defining “difficult” words within the text, with no regard for the flow of the story or the necessity of the definition. For example:

Page 2: “…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley – the word ‘rickety,’ you probably know, here means ‘unsteady’ or ‘likely to collapse’ – alone to the seashore….”

Page 13: “…over a dull dinner of boiled chicken, boiled potatoes and blanched – the word ‘blanched’ here means ‘boiled’ – string beans.”

Page 18: “‘Please get out of bed and get dressed,’ he said briskly. The word ‘briskly’ here means ‘quickly, so as to get the Baudelaire children to leave the house.'”

Page 44: “…the kitchen grew cozy as the sauce simmered, a culinary term which means ‘cooked over a low heat.'”

And so on.

There are a few occasions where a word is defined well, in context and occasionally in character, and I don’t mind those. But the constant shoehorning in of definitions made me want to take a sharpened number two pencil and work it under Mr. Snicket’s fingernails until he apologized sufficiently for being a hack.

I’ve gotten feedback from people who like this style, especially parents, who say that it saves them from having to put down the book and explain to the child what “blanched” means. Full disclosure: I am not a parent, nor am I likely to ever be one, but I think that teaching a child to figure things out for him or herself – or, god forbid, learn to use a dictionary – is part of what will make her or him grow up to be an inquisitive, intelligent adult. In my real job, teaching English as a foreign language, I find that my students are more likely to remember a word if I make them work for it, rather than if I just tell them what it means.

Let’s face it – if this book is written for adults, then the author should treat his readers like adults. If the book is written for children, which this ostensibly is, then the author has to choose whether to talk up or down to them. In a book where the main characters’ parents die before the first page and where the eldest daughter nearly becomes a child bride to her blood uncle, one would think the author has judged his audience mature enough to deal with these themes. If that’s so, then overtly defining “difficult” words is an insult to his readers, and that is unacceptable to me.

I am reminded of a passage in Terry Pratchett’s book, Wee Free Men, where the main character, a nine year old girl named Tiffany, asks an itinerant teacher about zoology:

“Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it.”

“No, actually it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”

I think Mr. Pratchett may have read Mr. Snicket’s book as well.

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“If you enjoy books with happy endings than you are better off reading some other book.”
– Lemony Snicket
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Lemony Snicket homepage
Lemony Snicket on Wikipedia
The Bad Beginning on Amazon.com

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Review 01: Good Omens


Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

For lovers of modern fantasy, there are two names that are on most people’s must-read lists: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much in common with this pair. Terry Pratchett writes the world-renowned Discworld series, a fantasy epic set on a flat world, which is supported by four elephants, who in turn are standing on a great turtle which swims through the emptiness of space. What started as a parody of the “sword and sandals” genre of fantasy, Discworld has become a mirror for our world, taking familiar ideas and giving them a sharp twist.

Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, gained fame with his groundbreaking comic book – sorry, graphic novel – series, Sandman. Over seventy-five issues, packed with mythological retellings, Shakespearian inspiration, love, Death, family, heartbreak and redemption, Sandman is still considered to be one of the most literary comics of the modern age.

Despite these superficial differences, however, their shared love of a good story makes them perfect for each other. Like chocolate and peanut butter, steak and eggs, hydrogen and oxygen, when you put two great things together, you get something that’s even better.

This book is about the End of the World. It begins with a birth, that of the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness.

Also known as Adam Young.

With his birth, the inexorable wheels of Revelation begin to turn, the Horsemen start their long ride, and two immortals – a demon named Crowley and an angel named Aziraphael – find themselves in the unenviable position of having to make sure everything works out the way their respective sides want. Rivers of blood, skies of fire and the scything clean of all life in the world, that kind of thing.

Crowley and Aziraphael, for their parts, really don’t want the world to end. They’ve been walking it since it began about 6,000 years ago, and found that they quite like it, for all its flaws and problems. And despite their innate loyalty to their masters, they’ll do their best to try and stop its end.

It’s an outstanding book, one of my top five of all time. Not only is it roaringly funny, with outstanding characters and witty dialogue, but it has the kind of razor-sharp insight into human nature that can only come from Gaiman and Pratchett. Ostensibly good people act like utter bastards, and people we know to be bad by their very natures end up doing the right thing. There’s no clear-cut line between good and evil here, which is perhaps a lot more realistic than most end-of-the-world stories go. Also, very few end-of-the-world stories are quite as funny as this one.

Humor can be used for many purposes, but the most noble use of humor is to illuminate truths that we routinely ignore. When you read this book, you think about God and the Devil and everything in between – namely, us. What is the purpose of humanity in this benighted world, and what is our responsibility towards it? These are all questions that the characters have to deal with, and, of course, so do we.

While neither Gaiman nor Pratchett would claim to have an answer to that, they have a great ability to point us towards the question.

As I said, this is one of my top five of all time. I think I own three copies by now – one that’s been read to death, a hardcover edition with that weird M-25 illustration on the front, and a softcover signed by both Neil and Terry. This is my Precious, and I hope it’s buried with me someday.

So, as you may have guessed, I can’t recommend this book enough.

And now, a quote from the book:

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“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. ”
– Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
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Neil Gaiman’s homepage
Terry Pratchett’s page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman at Wikipedia
Good Omens at WikiQuote
Good Omens at Amazon.com

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Filed under angels, antichrist, apocalypse, Christianity, demons, fantasy, humor, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett