Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reviews -- Blind Run, The Dark Tower

I have been on a quest of late to find books that are both modern and good. As you might imagine from reading that, it is indeed a quest: most of the things I have found thus far in the library have been inane, terribly written, or simply unfinishable by the grounds that the protagonist sounded like a self-centered jerk - and not the kind that's fun to read about. In my youth I had to finish a story because I wanted to know what happened. Fortunately I have learned to save myself from that notion.

One of the miserable books I have read recently, which had a very pretentious title I know longer care to remember, told the story of a man who was rich and known by millions, having a very popular variety show in a futuristic world. However, due to some interaction with a weird alien critter he suddenly wakes up in a nasty hotel and nobody remembers who he is, even the people he's known a long time.

Doesn't this sound like a good set up? However, the book failed by two different ways. First of all, you expect to read about how the guy tries to reclaim his life all while going on an adventure the likes of which we would have trouble imagining. Yet this is not the case. Several of the earlier chapters are bogged down by him interacting with an insane woman who is faking his identification, and she wants him to sleep with her or else she'll turn him into the police. The main character has several boring conversations with her, and they go on an inane outing to a restaurant of no plot-importance. Getting past that, the man finally leaves the first town he encounters as a stranger, only to go to a married woman, sleep with her, and then proceed to have a stupid and irrelevant conversation with her on the nature of love. Very little of the narrative doesn't have to do with sex, and every initial observation of the main character on a woman was based on her sexiness, not on her character. I don't care how "realistic" that is -- it's downright boring, sexist, and irrelevant. Thing is, there is nothing about sex that can't be discovered by anyone. It's normal. The plotline of losing your identity is not normal, and that is what the plot gains interest from. By ignoring this part of the plot for sex you're shooting your own story in the foot.

Secondly, at no point does the author do any worldbuilding. At least not in the first ten or so chapters that I read (I wasn't going to finish this trash). Worldbuilding is the creation of a place in which the story happens, and it comes with certain rules and a level of technological ability. I will go into this topic more later, but suffice it to say that every story has a setting. This story was set in the future, with futuristic television, vehicles, and a weird sub-plot where people were trapped in some sort of "universities" and the main character was something called a "six". Again, this could have been a point of interest, where the author could describe to us what sort of future this is and why there is an inferior subset of people in the world that must be contained. He never does so. While holding back certain points of this world for intruigue would be fine, the author never tells us much about this future at all at the beginning. We must merely assume that it is futuristic while the main character does stupid things that don't matter. In fact, the future nature of the place serves to hamper the story, as identification is more important in that world than in this. In America, you can go a great distance without ID. You cannot do so in this world, and it only serves to limit the freedom, and thus the capability of adventure, for the main character.

But this blog should not linger so long on that story. It sucked, quite frankly, and I am confident in knowing that none of you will ever read that book. It is by no means popular. The library is increasingly pretentious these days, and if I lived closer to the downtown library then I think I would have access to better reading materials. What I want to discuss in this blog is two different stories. One is Blind Run by Patricia Lewin, and The Dark Tower by C.S. Lewis.
I should make no secret of it that I love older books, which you have likely already gathered. My parents in this respect are dinosaurs, having themselves loved and cherished old books themselves. I don't blame them. There is a depth and power in Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and the like that modernity has no comparison to. Stephanie Meyers? Pssshht. I really shouldn't despise her because she writes to a different audience than people like Lewis, but at the same time I feel no obligation to read anything she's written, my dislike of vampires aside.

On to the books! The first I read, Blind Run, is a successful book in one sense: it is the first book from the library I actually managed to finish without throwing it down in disgust. Other than that, it's simply okay. I found the narrative a bit pretentious, but that didn't hamper the book too much. The story follows the life of Ethan Decker, a man who worked for a secret government agency that made for anti-terrorism. At the outset, he had left the agency for three years because of the death of his son, and he wanted to stay away from his wife so that no one would go after her on his account. The story begins with him alone in the desert with no prospects. He lives there only because he feels he deserves it for not protecting his son. Shortly thereafter, another former agent shows up, leaving two strange children on his doorstep before driving off.

Not a bad premise, huh? Well, the book itself was fairly meh. It had characters with no particular depth, unoriginal plotlines, and the feel of a generic action movie. I will now spoil the book. The first chapter speaks of a man who works in a secret lab on an island and children are not supposed to escape. Bam! Immediately it springs into the reader's head that this island does experiments on children. While this is obvious to any reader over fifteen, the book treats it as if this is some sort of mystery plot, never revealing a deeper revelation about the importance of the children on the island. It does go on to say that later on the children were meant to be immune to all diseases, and at one page late in the story it mentions in passing that the children were meant to be an invincible army that would spread germs without getting sick as well. However, the fact that this is only mentioned on one page, and that nothing else in the story haunts the reader that this could possibly become reality, this idea becomes ho-hum. At no time are we actually afraid of the bad guys or think that they're going to do something lasting to the main character. Come on, can't the children be used for something original? Like discovering aliens or building sophisticated robots, or being supremely intelligent beings that overthrow the scientists that created them and take over the world and force everyone to listen to techno? Something I can't guess after reading only one chapter of the book?

So, throughout the course of the story, Ethan has to go and rescue his ex-wife Sydney, and once they meet up the plot is consumed with reminding the reader of their relationship, pretty much saying that they are going to get back together by the end of the book. And of course Sydney's erstwhile boyfriend turns out to be a baddie. Ho-hum. What irks me about it is that the couple talks amongst themselves, ignoring the two children they have with them just as the author does. We learn little about these childrens' nature or motivations. They are things not unlike characters, but they have otherwise little personality. Instead of demonstrating the grace of the younger one, a little girl, they merely say that she has a joyful nature and leave it at that. The older child, Danny, is allowed to show his intellegence, mostly in the form of rebelling, but otherwise he too has little depth.

The only character who we possibly could be frightened of is Marco Ramirez, the man that is believed through most of the book to be the one behind the death of Ethan's son. However, he is shown to lose his cleverness and get caught by Ethan, only to help him rescue the experimented on children and turn out to not be the killer. The true bad guys of the story are given little opportunity to gain the haunting fright that Marco's character sort of had in the beginning.
This story did a few things to annoy me. The first of which was the Anna Kelsley, the former agent who dumped the kids on Ethan in the first place. What authors do with tough women characters far too often is to just go on and on about how tough or smart they are, leaving any other aspects of their personality completely unexplored. I hate that. Also, it had Marco randomly saying things in spanish. You'll notice this in badly written stories, where a character says random foreign things for no reason, only serving to delay any real dialogue and make the person sound like a stereotype. Not unlike cartoons. There are other ways to make a person act ethnic, ones that make this person seem more real.

The thing that was the worst of all was when the ex-wife and children would continually rebel against Ethan's knowledge of how to evade or attack dangerous people. It's absolutely despicable when a military expert says for his wife or girlfriend to stay in a safe place while he goes into danger, and then the girlfriend acts stupid and says it's more important for her to be with him and completely disregard that a non-military person is more likely to get people killed than help. Even worse is when they make it so that the soldier or expert is helped by his rebellious girlfriend or annoying child because they refused to listen.

Listen. If you are in a place where someone has worked for a secret agency for six years, and they tell you to stay out of danger and not follow them, do what they say. You'll only put yourself and others in danger if you disobey. Also, Steve Harvey once mentioned in his book Think Like a Man, Act Like a Lady, that men will freak out if their loved one is in danger. Harvey was on a boating trip with his wife, and he decided that he was going to remain on board while she went scuba diving. In a moment of paranoia, Harvey had a panic attack and was afraid his wife wasn't going to make it back on the ship. He swore that if something happened to her then nobody was getting back to shore. Thing is, danger to loved ones makes men freak out and lose their rationality. If you as a girlfriend stay out of unnecessary danger (particularly if you know people could potentially shoot at you), it will be easier for the man to do what he needs to do in complex situations. It's a man thing.

Overall, the story spends too much time explaining the past without creating a deep and interesting present. The conclusion of the book is meh, with them all running away because the government is obviously too corrupt to listen to. I'm so bored of government conspiracy books! This one in particular doesn't even go into how the government is corrupt, it just merely says that it is and moves on. So this book isn't the worst thing I've ever read, but it lacks depth and originality. I could have written it in my sleep. You could have written it in your sleep. It's like a generic action movie, except that it can't really be because it has too much violence toward children.

The second book, The Dark Tower, is actually a few notes done by C.S. Lewis that he never published. There are a few reasons for this. One of them had to have been a passing interest in the nature of memory, and since this had apparently waned in Lewis over time, the story was never finished. It was meant to be a sequel to Out of the Silent Planet, the first of his space trilogy. The Dark Tower, while in and of itself interesting, is not a fitting sequel to this book, which Lewis must have realized at some point because he went on to write Perelandra as the sequel instead.

The Dark Tower starts out as a meeting between several professors at the college Lewis worked at. He himself is a character in this story, just as he played a minor role in the space trilogy. The other characters are Ransom (the protagonist of the space trilogy), MacPhee (who went on to have a significant role in the last of the space trilogy, That Hideous Strength), Scudamour, and Orfieu. Orfieu invited them to his study because of his studies in time travel. He has a very weird notion of why you can't travel in time, namely because years in the future your atoms would have become other things - you would have rotted into the soil to be nutrients for plants and things of that sort. He doesn't believe that you can simply take your present body with you because you cannot add matter to the universe or take it away. So you can't take the mass of your body from the present into the future.

Think of that what you will, because it's not too relevant to the story. Orfieu reveals to the others his "chronoscope" which allows one to see into the future or past. Since this is a new science, none of them know exactly where into it they are seeing. I'll go ahead and spoil the plot for you, since this book has no end. So they look into it, discussing their theories about what they see, when it turns out that the tower they are seeing is the tower of the college in their world. Also, there is a strange character in the strange realm they see that is basically a double of Scudamour -- only he has something like a bee's stinger on his forehead, which he uses to sting certain people in the spine and render them as happy dolls that obey his orders without question.

Things get even worse when one of the people sent in to get stung is a double of Scudamour's fiancee, and then the personalities of both Scudamours get switched, leaving a college professor as the dark leader of a bizarre race that must defend itself from the "white riders", whose true nature is never explained. The story is cut off when Professor Scudamour is in the library of stingerman Scudamour, trying to figure out what's going on.

I like this story very much. It's a bit tough to comprehend (or so it is while my foggy head is trying to recover from its sickness, at least) because of its deep thought and complex pseudo-science that it has to explain. But I love it. I want to read it and figure it out, enjoying every mystery I come across. Fake science has always intruiged me, as long as it deep and interesting, resulting in my former like of Star Trek and Dr. Who (I grow in dislike for the directions they both have taken of late, bad acting aside). Also, going to an alternate dimension that is as bizarre and evil as this one is ridiculously intruiguing. You really have to read it yourself.

Sadly, the lack of ending to this story depresses me, because it's very good and I want to know what happens. Also, it renders it pretty much uncomparable to Blind Run, as who knows what would have become of this book in the end? However, I do like it because you can't automatically guess what's going to happen from the first chapter. Also, it goes to show that the older realm of fiction has a greater tendency to expand the things it writes about. I have particularly disliked romances (not romance in a story, but genre romances) because they ignore everything else in the world besides romance, and if they wax philosophical, that philosophy is only relevant in the story itself, not in reality. It seems like everything these days is focused on romance or mindless action, neither of which appeals to my thirsty brain.

For example, The Dark Towers describes the alternate race as having an ignorance about things like outer space, and they think that the planet is flat. However, this race has a very advanced view of time. Time doesn't merely move forward and backwards, it moves "eckwards and andwards" -- more specifically, across. Imagine something that is woven or plaid. Actually plaid works best here. Okay, so look at the lines of the plaid that go left and right. Imagine this as time, past and present. Each line is a world with different science, different people, and the like. Then look at the vertical lines. These also are different worlds with different people, except that they cross into the worlds that are horizontal, leading in similarities. Like the two Scudamours for example. Lewis also describes in the book that the people in the alternate world have these myths called smoke horses, yet are revealed with more observation to be trains.

The only comparable thing I have read in a modern book is in Dean Koontz's Seize the Night, a book that explores not going backwards and forwards, but up or down in time. The difference between this and the dark tower is that the protagonist does not find an alternate world, but Hell itself. The Dark Tower talks of perpendicular lines (two more or less equal worlds that cross each other), while Seize the Night talks of paralell lines (two worlds that run alongside each other and are related to each other). My problem with Koontz's work is that his books seem all alike, in the sense that they all involve people that are demented in some way and the guy gets the girl in the end. Seize the Night is my favorite work of his because it is the most intruiging, and it revolves more or less around real people, not those that are insane. Real people that are demented to some extent will try to go up or down in time if they can (if such science existed in reality) to see what they can see, so I don't think the scientists involved crossed any bounds in that manner.

So, Blind Run? I'll rate it "very meh, but read it if you're bored". The Dark Tower I'll rate "Wonderful and will rescue you from memory loss as you age". Yeah, exercising your brain does keep you from losing your memory. All factors aside, the human brain could last up to three million years, if exercised, so don't let anyone tell you you're dumb because you're old.

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