Tag Archives: Mixing it up challenge

What’s human? What’s not?

Review: Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler

A keeper? I have to think about that some more.

For the first two parts, this was one of those books I wanted to read fast to find out what happens, and also wanted to read slow so I could think about the ideas. The last part – well, let’s set the stage before we talk about the last part. (Note: Lilith’s Brood is really a trilogy – Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago – republished as a single book.)

If it weren’t for the Oankali, human beings would be extinct a few centuries before the beginning of this story.

Who are the Oankali? That’s what Lilith Iyapo wants to know as the saga begins. Somebody has shut her up in a very strange doorless room; somebody she never sees or hears. Her last memories are of hiking in the Andes, trying to forget her dead husband and son, when the final nuclear war broke out. She should be dead; she seems to be alive.

Eventually, an Oankali joins Lilith in her room. She’s horrified. He’s hideous, with no eyes and little tentacles all over his head. But she adjusts. She’s more or less adopted by his family and turned over to his ooloi child Nikanj to learn about the Oankali and what has happened to people. (The ooloi are the third sex among the Oankali. As the story goes on, we learn just how important they are, in a self-effacing way.) It seems that the humans who could be rescued have been healed (the Oankali are master genetic manipulators) and, mostly, kept sedated until the earth had been coaxed into supporting life again.

Much, much more happens. (Lilith’s Brood is almost 750 pages long.) The Oankali give Lilith the job of training groups of humans to recolonize earth (with Oankali partners, whether the humans like it or not). Fastforward – oh, maybe a century – and many humans, including Lilith, are back on earth. A large fraction of the humans – the Resisters – refuse to have anything to do with the Oankali, and have been made sterile. And the Resisters’ despair at being the last of their kind leads to all sorts of problems, including kidnapping young hybrids. Hybrids?

The fertile humans are the ones who have joined Oankali families to produce human-Oankali hybrid children, each with five parents – two humans and three Oankali. We follow one of Lilith’s part-Oankali sons as he grows up, develops ties to some Resisters, and fights to talk the Oankali into terraforming Mars for the Resisters. His dream is to let Mars become an independent human world where they will be allowed pure-human children. (Why not give the Resisters earth? Because, in time, the Oankali and their humans will use most of the planet as raw material for several starships and go seeking new life and new civilizations to assimilate. There won’t be enough left of earth to make a decent moon.)

So far, we have an exciting story with some meaty science fiction ideas – what does it mean to be human? Who is human? Is homo sapiens genetically doomed? (The Oankali certainly think so.) How far can you go in exploring and accepting another culture (or species) without betraying your own people?

Then comes the third section. Another century or thereabouts has passed, and another of Lilith’s children is growing up (the other parents are Tino, a human man, the male Oankali Dichaan, the female Oankali Ahajas, and the ooloi Nikanj – the same Nikanj Lilith has known since it was a child). The hybrids don’t know what sex they will be until they’re twenty or thirty years old – but everyone is surprised when this child, Jodahs, realizes it’s becoming an ooloi.

As Jodahs matures and tells its story, we realize just how powerful the ooloi really are. In human-Oankali families, it’s the ooloi who selects what genes will go into the next embryo, from which parents. They manipulate genes to change the bodies of full-grown adults – always for good, we’re told. They inject biochemical tranquilizers to soothe anyone who objects to what they are doing.

In effect, both the humans and the male and female Oankali have been domesticated, like dogs or cows, by their ooloi. And the ooloi can’t stop. Their own biochemical urges force them to tinker with everybody around them. I suppose I’ve read too much history; I can’t swallow this level of control as Officially Good, no matter what the manipulators believe they’re doing. With this last section in which we hear Jodahs’ story, Lilith’s Brood changed from thought-provoking science fiction to quiet horror.

Mixing up years and characters…

Review: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

A keeper? I’m afraid not

Not a bad book, exactly – but it should be either longer or shorter. The initial situations are intriguing: in 1913 London, a very little girl is settled in a hiding place on the deck of a passenger liner – but the woman who told her to hide there never comes back for her. And in 1976 Brisbane, Cassandra’s mother drives the two of them to her mother’s house and leaves Cassandra there. For keeps. So we start with what looks like two parallel stories of abandoned little girls. Very promising.

Unfortunately, it almost seems as if Kate Morton really wanted to tell a story about the turn of the twentieth century but didn’t trust her readers to care unless she included characters from the present day, or close to it. She gives us a lot of detail about young (and adult) Eliza’s experiences between 1900 and 1913; she makes us mourn when Eliza’s twin brother dies and fear what might happen to Eliza in the slums of London – and fear the worse things that might happen to her among her wealthy relatives in Cornwall. We enjoy Eliza’s talents for storytelling and evasiveness, and we worry about her sickly rich cousin Rose, and we hate her aunt Adeline. I’d have been perfectly happy to read three or four hundred pages about all these late nineteenth century and early twentieth century people.

On the other hand, Morton could have put more detail into the stories of Cassandra and her grandmother Nell (who probably didn’t start life as Nell; but after a head injury on the ship bound from London to Australia back in 1913, she can’t remember what she used to be called). True, this would have made the book at least six or seven hundred pages long – but it’s already 549 pages. What’s a few hundred more, if it makes the story better?

A sentence or two here and there suggests that Nell spent her married life in the United States, but we never see her there or find out why she lived there. As for Cassandra, there are (I think) just two brief hints that she has some great personal loss – aside from Nell’s recent death – by the time we meet her in 2005, before we find out on page 200 exactly what happened. Now, if Morton told us that Cassandra refused to think about her loss, this delay would work. But on p. 200 we’re told her tragedy (the deaths of her husband and toddler; this isn’t a spoiler, because it’s not really important to the rest of the story) was “never far from her mind”, and I don’t believe it. Not when I’ve spent so much time in her mind by that point in the story without being able to figure out what was wrong other than Nell’s death. Not when she rarely thinks about them again for the next 350 pages.

Basically, Morton uses Nell and Cassandra to sub for the reader and investigate the story of Eliza. If we had spent time hearing their own stories in emotionally involving detail and had a chance to find parallels or contrasts to Eliza’s life, this could have been a wonderful book. If we stayed with Eliza and her friends and enemies, it would be a good book. As it is, it’s a book that keeps yanking us away from each piece of the story as soon as we plunge into it. 😦

Mix it up challenge – Lost in the forest

Review – A Forest of Kings
by Linda Schele and David Freidel

A keeper? Thoroughly undecided

A Forest of Kings promises to let you in on the recently deciphered history of the ancient Maya in what’s now Mexico and Guatemala. And it is packed solid with information. (Including some insight on whether we really ought to expect the world to end in seven months.*)

At this point, I should probably add a short warning about how to apply my opinion of this book to your own interests. Once upon a time, I was an archaeology major. In other words, I think things that happened a long time ago are interesting, and I think using the crumbling, grimy remnants of Back Then to understand what people who have been dead a long time were up to is interesting. Your Mileage May, as usual, Vary.

A Forest of Kings is a hybrid (about a four-way hybrid, actually). On one hand, it does offer us Mayan history – which turns out to be a lot more dramatic and human than the old version that thought the Maya were peaceful astronomer-priests obsessed with the calendar. Uh-uh. No. It’s true that they were kind of obsessed by the meaning of various dates and time periods – and they were obsessed because they meant to use the information to their own advantage to get rich and win wars and become powerful. They were very rich indeed – probably some of the most prosperous people of their time, the 600s and 700s and 800s, when Europe was in the poverty-stricken depths of the Dark Ages.

There are many, many line drawings of Mayan art – which is astonishing and hard to “read”. A lot of the images show Maya kings and queens wearing clothes that are so elaborate you have to search for the human being hidden in them, and so elaborate you wonder how they could have moved around without falling over, or at least having their huge headdresses tip down across their faces.

The book also goes into lots and lots and lots of detail about excavations and tombs and inscriptions, probably too much detail for many people. And the history tends to get lost among the excavations and the painstakingly literal translations of reproduced inscriptions – for example, “18 days, 7 uinals” [a uinal is a 20-day time period] “ 11 Etz’nab 11 Ch’en” [the date] “hubi (it was brought down) the flint-shield of Jaguar-Paw of Calakmul captive of the ahau”. The quote here means, more or less, “On 11 Etz’nab 11 Ch’en (August 8, 695), King Jaguar-Paw of Calakmul was captured by our king Ah-Cacaw of Tikal.”

And finally, there are little scenes scattered through the book – not connected enough for a historical novel, but maybe we can call them historical short stories. They try to show us how various events looked to the people involved, and many of them are effective.

Will I keep A Forest of Kings or get rid of it? It’s a rich-as-fruitcake introduction, as complex as Mayan art, to what has been learned about the ancient Maya over the last few decades. But it tries to be too many different books all at once. I’ll keep it for now, but it may have to go later when I make final decisions about just how much we have room for.

* Okay. Is the world going to end this December??

The Maya had a lot of interests besides keeping track of the date, but they did develop one of the most complicated calendars ever, with a couple of different ways of figuring out where they were in the “real” solar year combined with a system for counting how many days had passed since their beginning of time, August 11, 3114 B.C. When they used this beginning-of-time system, they normally settled for writing “only” the first five digits of the date – and that cycle will reset to zero in December 2012.

But there are larger units in the Mayan calendar – one king of Palenque had an inscription made that predicted the anniversary of his reign will be celebrated in October, 4772. What happens this winter is more or less the same as what happened twelve years ago, when we started a new millenium.

So relax.

Romance? Horrifying.

Review – Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

A keeper? Depends on how I think of it. Probably not.

I’ll be honest. I started reading Twilight expecting to hate it. And there are many things to dislike – but it’s all in your point of view – and, on the other hand, some parts that are really well done. So this is going to be a three part review; what Meyer does well, why this is an awful book, and why this is really a pretty good book.

Part 1: Meyer’s strong points

Meyer is excellent at putting us into the mind of an insecure teenage girl forced into yet another difficult situation. When we first meet Bella Swan, she’s leaving the bustling Phoenix, Arizona desert for small-town, soggy, Forks, Washington. It’s not that Bella has lots of friends and happy memories of Phoenix – but it’s all she knows, and she’s leaving as yet another dutiful try at taking care of her mother (Mom, or rather Renee, has just remarried, and Bella’s in the way). Bella’s uneasy first few days in Forks, getting reacquainted with her father and meeting her new high school classmates, are cheerless but very lifelike.

And then, halfway through the book, Meyer does one of the best staged infodumps I can remember. The whole world knows by now that Twilight is a story with vampires; pretty much the whole world knows that Meyer’s vampires don’t exactly follow the standard pattern. And when you change the rules on a well-known fantasy creature like this, you need to tell the reader the details about your vampires. But how? Several pages of what amounts to class notes from Monsters 101 won’t do. Even worse, most of the time, is to have one character make a speech to someone explaining it all.

Unless you do it the way Meyer does. Young lovers are thrilled to talk endlessly about themselves and one another – so it works perfectly to have Bella question Edward for pages and pages, while he gives her the Intro to Vampirism lecture. Yes, it does get boring – onlookers don’t find young lovers nearly as interesting as they find themselves – but it felt realistic.

Finally, when Twilight turned into a suspense story about two-thirds of the way through, it became genuinely exciting and enthralling. It helped that Edward wasn’t around for that part of the story.

Oh, and the cover design is gorgeous, and goes beautifully with the cover designs for the other books in the series.

Part 2: Why Twilight is an awful romance

And this will be brief, because so many people have already said the same things. Bella’N’Edward do not have a healthy romantic relationship. She’s seventeen; he’s 107. True, he seems to be emotionally stalled, but he’s still a dirty old man. And he bosses her around and makes fun of her in a way that makes it clear he sees her as tiresomely childish.

Beyond that, what he desperately wants to do is kill her. And everyone in his adoptive “family” would love to kill her, moral scruples and strenuous self-control or not. Bella knows this, and she doesn’t care.

So what does tie them together? Bluntly, sex. They both want to get into each others’ pants, though Edward is determined to resist. But I don’t see anything else to keep them on speaking terms once the first thrill wears off. Meanwhile, Bella is hurling herself into a classically abusive trap.

Part 3: Why Twilight is a great horror story

If you step back a little, refusing to see everything the way Bella does, Twilight becomes a well-told, thoroughly creepy piece of classic horror – scarier than the original Dracula, because in Twilight the monsters are winning.

And Meyer does give us all the clues. She points out in various places that the vampires are abnormally attractive to their prey (explaining why all the girls in Forks drool over Edward and company). She explains that the Cullens – the vampire “family” – have various individual talents that help them to manipulate humans. (Notice how much trouble Bella has talking to Edward, and especially disagreeing with him, unless she looks away from him. And that’s when his “brother” Jasper isn’t using mood control on her.)

Basically, this is a takeoff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers: it’s the story of a small town invaded by monsters who can keep the authorities, like Bella’s dad Police Chief Swan, from getting suspicious. The vampires are free to seduce anyone they choose without interference.

After all, what’s Bella getting out of all this? A physically repulsive boyfriend – never mind the sparkles, I cringed every time we were reminded that Edward is as cold and hard as an ice cube. And, once she gets him to vampirize her, an eternity of high school – implying that being a vampire involves some serious mental and emotional stunting. If I could function round the clock and expected to survive for centuries, I’d find a lot more interesting things to keep busy with than repeating senior year English class over and over. And over.

And over.

Wouldn’t you?

Twilight: One of the most terrifying horror novels of the past fifty years.

The critter construction kit

Review – Endless Forms Most Beautiful
by Sean B. Carroll

A keeper? Definitely. And you should read it too.

Okay, you have a cell – just one – containing a bunch of genes. Where can we go from here? More to the point, since we can look around us pretty much anyplace on earth and see a lot of possible end points ranging from humans to nasturtiums, HOW can we get there from here?

For a long, long time, the details were mysterious. Some of them still aren’t clear. But now, by combining DNA analysis and embryology, an overall picture is forming out of the mist. (The “evo devo” of the subtitle is short for “evolutionary developmental biology”. Cute, and much easier to say.)

It turns out that living creatures share an amazing number of basic genes that control how their bodies are formed. Some of these genes are so universal that they must go back to before the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago. Then how can there be so much variety? It turns out that “gene” is biologist-speak for “a segment of DNA that makes a particular protein”, and there are stretches of DNA that don’t qualify as “genes”. What do they do? They control details of when and how specific genes and their proteins become active in the developing embryonic creature. (This, of course, is a horribly compressed version of what “Endless Forms” has to say. There’s more, so much more.)

Carroll shows how the interaction of genes and this “DNA dark matter” works. He also explains how such a variety of animals can be formed by tinkering with reusable parts – the dozens of ways that insects and crustaceans have started from a simple limb with a pincer on the end to build legs and mouths and feelers and gills and wings, for example.

What’s wrong with the book? First, Carroll is a specialist in fruit flies, and it shows sometimes. One or two chapters told me much more than I ever wanted to know about insect development, but even here there were unexpected nuggets of interesting stuff. Second, “Endless Forms” is not an easy read. I don’t think it could be easy and still do the subject justice. Be prepared to spend several weeks on it, and to re-read some parts and think about them before that part of the picture becomes clear.

Overall, though, if you have the slightest curiosity about the “hows” of life, if you aren’t already up to date on the latest in biology, you need to read “Endless Forms.” It’s that good.