Read, dammit.

Books are fun. Read 'em whenever you can.

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Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

I'm a writer, podcaster and skills coach in Vancouver, BC. I have two legs, but often misplace the left one. If you see me operating this blog in an erratic or dangerous manner, please smile, nod and back your way out of the room slowly.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Island of Dr Moreau - H G Wells

The Island of Dr Moreau
H G Wells

Published: 1896
Read: January 2006

Capsule: Edward Prendick finds himself on a desert isle with myriad beast people created by a wanton vivisectionist, Dr Moreau. A classic early foray into the genre of scientific horror, The Island of Dr Moreau challenges Darwinian exploration and assumptions of Christian dominion. It also successfully displays both sides of the ethical scientist argument while taking typically 19th-Century British shots at "lesser" races.

Trade Paperback: 104 pages
ISBN: 0486290271
Dover Thrift Editions

I've read only a little H G Wells over the years, but spurred by the recent Tom Cruise debacle thought I should give the real deal a try. Despite being contemporaries in the newly emerging field of science fiction, Wells and Jules Verne apparently used to hate each other's writing. Wells thought Verne was unnecessarily dry and dark; Verne thought Wells was implausible and overly fantastic. For readers today, both authors provide fascinating looks at a genre in its infancy.

The Island of Dr Moreau is best placed beside works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: it's as much about the people involved as it is the crazy science of it all. With monthly breakthroughs in cloning, the Genome Project and medical nanotechnology, these stories are perhaps more important now than they have been in a hundred years.

At the same time, the most jarring issue for a modern reader is most likely going to be a very old one. The narrative spends half the book slamming species and races "less" evolved. Even with a clear call for scientific (and colonial) restraint, the racial intonations are, today, uncomfortable -- in agreement with British thought at the time, Wells equates white with intelligence and civilisation, black with brutish ignorance.

Moreau's attempts to inflict civility upon the animals of the kingdom, of course, turns out horribly. The vivisected beasts learn language to certain degrees, and are taught a rudimentary religion centred upon the good doctor's pain-giving abilities. "Stubborn beast-flesh" prevails time after time, however: invariably, the creatures slowly revert to instinctual, speechless animals. The racist comments make an otherwise brilliant text difficult to read in a modern context.

Sympathy for Moreau's victims quickly becomes awareness of colonial slave trade. One can't help think that Prendick's judgement of human servants would read similarly -- when the teachings of the great white man start wearing off, Prendick observes, "I... distinctly perceived a growing difference in their speech and carriage, a growing coarseness of articulation, a growing disinclination to talk."

The obvious allusions to race relations aside, Moreau is intelligent storytelling; Wells was incredibly well-read, and no matter Verne's opinion, his literacy shows through in his work. Near the end of the book, the Monkey Man offers up a little pre-Orwellian newspeak: everyday topics are "little thinks", while abstract discussion and inventive wordplay are "big thinks".

South Park took 30 minutes to tackle the little thinks in Moreau with their four-assed monkey interpretation. It would take a few semesters of studying colonial and black history, however, to even attempt a cranial wraparound on the big thinks in this story.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J K Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
J K Rowling

NOTE: Raincoast Books, the Canadian publisher of the Harry Potter franchise, is the sole publisher of these books to use Old Growth-free, recycled paper. Please support responsible companies like this whenever possible -- order the Raincoast edition of Harry Potter!

First Published: June 1997
First Read: 2000
Last Read: June 2005

Capsule: Is there anyone who doesn't know? Well, okay, for consistency's sake: Harry Potter is maltreated and abused by his step-parents. His life seems dreadful and sad, until his eleventh birthday, when he finds out: he's a wizard! He subsequently goes to Hogwart's, the finest school of magic and witchcraft in England. This, the first book of seven (six as of this blog post), literally woke up the bookreading world and started an empire for J K Rowling, who is now richer than the Queen of England.

Trade Paperback: 256 pages
ISBN: 155192398x
Raincoast Books

My review is hardly necessary -- there's so much cyberspace devoted to Harry Potter and the six books we've been treated to so far that I won't add my two cents. Suffice to say, as a storyteller I admire how she's created such an intriguing, complex world with essentially simple characters. As a writer, I love that Rowling has brought people -- especially children -- back to reading for the love of books. As a reader, I'm excited to see how she winds it all up. I go back and read all the books prior to publication of each new one; here's hoping the ending lives up to the stupendous material to come before it.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Calculating God - Robert J Sawyer

Calculating God
Robert J Sawyer

First Published: April 1999
Read: May 2005

Capsule: Robert J Sawyer, Nebula Award-winning science fiction writer, weighs in on the intelligent design debate through contrived, heavy-handed fiction.

Paperback: 352 pages
ISBN: 0812580354
Tor Books

This was lent to me by a friend with high praise. Unfortunately I can't support his claims. While positing a smattering of interesting ideas and posing one or two questions of note, Calculating God is pretty much an ageing science fiction writer's attempt to show off how much he knows about physics, astronomy and cutting edge religious dogma.

After an alien spacecraft lands at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, the world is shocked when the extraterrestrial that emerges asks not to meet political or military personnel, but rather desires an audience with the ROM's head paleontologist.

It seems that there are at least two other civilised worlds on the brink of self-destruction, like ours. These aliens, then, are searching for similarities in our cultural and physiological evolutions to head off disaster for our three races. Oh, did I mention both of these otherworldly visitors have scientific evidence for the existence of God?

What follows is little more than a seminar on intelligent design. Reading the book, you'll either feel that Sawyer's a holy salesman trying to convert you, or be oblivious to it and come away with all that subliminal religious programming swimming around in your head. Hey, I'm all for exploration of faith -- this, however, smacks of the Scientologists handing out coupons for "free IQ testing" to get people through the door. There's no subtlety whatsoever; it's just Sawyer as sci-fi preacher.

Calculating God is a mercifully quick read; as such, it's not a waste of time, but surely there are other sci-fi books that prophesise with a lighter touch.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Published: 1943
Read: May 2005

Capsule: The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of the world's most beloved children's stories. A pilot finds himself stranded in the desert where he meets an extra-terrestrial prince -- the alien's seemed innocence of course belies a cosmic wisdom, and forces the pilot to question all that he holds dear, all that he "knows". To date, The Little Prince has sold over 50 million copies worldwide.

Paperback: 96 pages
ISBN: 0156012197
Harcourt Publishers

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote a wonderful, touching and thoughtful story that should be mandatory reading for everybody. Simple characters give countless opportunities to think about the truly important things in life, and to put everything in your life in real perspective. Even if you're broken down in the desert, you need to realise the cosmic significance of your predicament, and the consequences of your actions. Do you want to be The Drunk, who drinks to forget he's ashamed of drinking? Or the Cartographer, who makes maps of the world, but never leaves his desk to actually experience those wonderful places?

The messages are simple, too. Open your eyes, and even more important, open your heart. Help those who need help. Appreciate what -- and whom -- you have around you. And strive to be the best person you can be while you're at it.

A wonderful story.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes - Neil Gaiman

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
Neil Gaiman

Published: Single issues, 1988; Collection, 1991
Read: April 2005

Capsule: Neil Gaiman's work as a writer is hailed throughout the comic, goth and post-modern literature communities as some of the best work of the late 20th Century -- issue number 19 won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, prompting a rule change to disallow illustrated works from future consideration. These stories about Dream, the ruler of the dream world, weaving characters and ideas from myriad faiths and mythologies, is among the most influential of the past 50 years -- its touch is seen on television, in the movies, and in music around the world.

Graphic Novel: issues 1-8; 233 pages
ISBN: 1563890119
Published by DC/Vertigo

Morpheus is pissed off. The ruler of the dream world, he has been inadvertantly captured and imprisoned by some basement witchcraft of a hobby cult. Immortal, he outwaits two generations of human captors before escaping and regaining control of his domain. In the meantime, horrible things have taken place in our world; without the ability to dream, some bad shit goes down for nigh on 100 years.

This is how we're introduced to the Sandman, the brainchild of the brilliant Neil Gaiman, who was asked in the mid to late 80s to create a title for DC's new adult-themed imprint Vertigo. He took the obsolete superhero Sandman (a WWII hero dressed in green and gold with a gas mask and sleeping powder) and ramped him up several notches. Instead of a traditional superhero comic, readers were treated to a sophisticated, literate rendition of entities older than ancient mythology. Dream had seen Zeus come and go; he watched Buddha, Mohammed and Ron L Hubbard rise and fall; that Christianity? -- just a phase.

To placate the suits at DC, some mentions of heroes from that universe are present: Arkham Asylum gets a few plugs in the first storyline, which has the Justice League of America's old foe Doctor Destiny in possession of the Sandman's ultra-mystic paraphernalia. The original Sandman even appears for a guest spot as a one-panel illustration of how Morpheus's decades-long absence has inspired mortal copycats.

From these humble beginnings grew a phenomenon that has touched TV (X-Files, Charmed), movies (Matrix, Underworld), and music (Tori Amos, every goth band since 1990). This first collection isn't as polished as the volumes that follow, but after all, it is titled Preludes and Nocturnes. A wonderful read, extremely literate and intellectually as stimulating as any well-planned university lecture on mythology.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings
George R.R. Martin

Published: September 2000
Read: April 2005

Capsule: The sequel to George R.R. Martin's successful A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings is pretty much more of the same. The first 200 pages or so is stiff going, but the it's all investment for the last 800-plus pages of pageturning pleasure.

Paperback: 1040 pages
ISBN: 0-553-57990-8
Random House Books

The second installment of medieval struggles between the honourable House Stark and the seedy House of Lannister, A Clash of Kings focuses largely on the misshapen imp Tyrion Lannister. Written off by his enemies and ignored by his family, Tyrion is nonetheless the smartest of them all. Despite being wracked by painful dwarfism in a time where the slightest scar belittles you in social circles, Tyrion schemes and plays power with the best of them. He wheedles his way from bedroom to dungeon, from whorehouse to control of the very throne of the Seven Kingdoms.

The arena in which the story is played out is widening, moving into bizarre, magical eastern lands and harsh northern climes full of threats both mortal and spiritual. Also entering the fray are shadowy forces under the guise of religion, that look to usurp steel as the power of choice. Brother fights brother, father fights son, and the fates of the Stark children are as variant as the landscape of the kingdom. One lies a cripple, unable to remember the Lannister prince who dropped him from a second story window; another walks the 30-metre ice wall at the northern perimeter of the kingdom; the eldest daughter is held captive by a merciless Lannister queen; the other daughter lives alternately as a soldier boy and a serving girl, using her samurai-style training to help her subvert the bad guys' war effort from within.

As mentioned in the capsule above, the first 200 pages or so are frustrating, a slow go at best. Stick it out to get to the good stuff. After Martin finishes setting up the board, he moves his pieces without peer.