Sphere by Michael Crichton

A black man, a white man, and a white woman all get the power to warp reality to their will. The black man and the white woman can’t handle the power and nearly get the group killed. The white man saves the day by being more emotionally stable than them.

ಠ_ಠ

I don’t think Michael Crichton meant Sphere to come out sounding that way, but his characters are so paper-thin there’s nothing left of them but their stereotypes.

Norman Johnson, professor of psychology, gets called in by the Navy to investigate a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean. The downed plane turns out to be a spacecraft. Because of Norman’s previous work on group dynamics, the Navy has given him the job of keeping the crew from freaking out in the face of alien life. Norman and a team of scientists he hand-selected go to a deep-sea habitat to investigate the wreck.

Some of what happens next is spoileriffic. Suffice to say that whoever comes into contact with a certain sphere gets reality-warper powers. It involves time travel.

For the first few chapters, I found Crichton’s prose refreshingly sparse. After a while it gets wooden. Check this out:

Norman suddenly felt overwhelmed. He sat on his bunk, holding the notebook in his hands. Finally he looked at a couple of pages, filled with Ted’s large, enthusiastic scrawl. A photograph fell onto his lap. He turned it over. It was a photo of a red Corvette. And the feelings just overwhelmed him. Norman didn’t know if he was crying for Ted, or crying for himself, because it was clear to him that one by one, they were all dying down here. He was very sad, and very afraid.

Crichton doesn’t explore the implications of the magic sphere in nearly as much depth as he could have. Why aren’t characters inundated with pink elephants when they desperately try not to think about them? Why can’t characters imagine their way out of problems? The only thing the power seems to do is throw monsters at the habitat.

The plot runs on the characters’ terrible decisions. When the Navy learn that a typhoon is bearing down on the site of the wreck, which isn’t going anywhere, they hasten to send the characters to the underwater habitat just in time to trap them down there. When jellyfish of an unknown species swarm the habitat, one of the Navy officers decides it’s time to go for a swim. Somebody rigged the habitat with a deadman’s switch that takes away their only means of escape unless they press a button. On the outside of the habitat.

That’s not even what bugs me the most about this book – it’s the three main characters, Harry Adams, Beth Halperin, and Norman.

Harry isn’t that bad. He’s actually competent, and when his powers get the best of him, it’s because of normal human fears. And it’s gratifying to see him survive.

I like women villains. I know real women can be any one of sex-obsessed, power hungry, manipulative, hysterical (Crichton literally uses this word), incompetent, and bitter. But why is Beth all of these things? And she never misses a chance to mention she’s a woman?

Crichton’s description of her is disturbing:

Beth, with her lack of self-esteem, her deep core of self-hate, had gone inside the sphere, and now she was acting with the power of the sphere, but without stability to her thoughts. Beth saw herself as a victim who struggled against her fate, always unsuccessfully. Beth was victimized by men, victimized by the establishment, victimized by research, victimized by reality. In every case she failed to see how she had done it to herself.

I don’t know what message Crichton is trying to convey here, but I think he had a bone to pick with somebody.

Norman’s a schlub. The problems with the mission are largely his fault – it was his job to pick a team of scientists who would be unlikely to crack under stress. He picks a team of scientists with low stress tolerance who all hate each other. When consequences follow, he doesn’t feel remorse. He just rescues Harry and the hysterical Beth because he can handle the sphere-power better than them.

I think the problem here is that Crichton was trying to write a book about emotions … and he sucks at it. It’s telling that he equated emotions with space aliens in this book. He tried to get into his characters’ heads and instead knocked things over. I was rooting for the giant squid.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

I go for Terry Pratchett therapy when terrible things are happening in the news, so I eenie-meenie-miney-moed through Pratchett’s bibliography and pulled up Soul Music.

The events of Soul Music explain what makes Susan, Death’s granddaughter, into who she is by the time of The Hogfather. Susan is a student at a girl’s school and unaware of her powers at the start of the book. When Death abandons his post, Susan is forced to step in.

Meanwhile, Imp y Celyn arrives at Ankh-Morpork determined to make his name as a musician. He gets entwined with a supernatural guitar that is slowly killing him. Susan fights to change this.

Like many reviewers on Goodreads have said, this is a good read, but it’s not Terry Pratchett’s best work. It succeeds when Pratchett crams his ostensibly medieval world with rock & roll jokes. We get to see an early version of Hex, which is fun. And Pratchett manages to make the main antagonist the background radiation left over from the Big Bang, which almost makes sense.

Soul Music doesn’t work when it runs over plot holes. What did the Music want and what was it doing to Imp? What exactly did Susan and Death do about it at the end? This book left me wondering what it all added up to. It’s best read if you don’t concern yourself with the plot and enjoy Pratchett’s funny-as-ever one-off gags.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

I think I must have missed the joke somewhere.

I appreciate P. G. Wodehouse’s technical skill in Right Ho, Jeeves – the plotting is intricate, the who’s-on-first dialogue is witty, and Bertie Wooster’s point of view is a good case study in the unreliable narrator. But it just wasn’t my bag.

I think the problem was Bertie Wooster. He’s an upper-class twit with no reason to be alive. No job, no need of one, no family who needs him, not even any hobbies. His motive in Right Ho is to preserve the status quo. If Wooster doesn’t have any purpose in life, why should I care what happens to him?

Which leaves me baffled why Jeeves works for him. The man could get any position at MIT he wanted, so why does he work as a servant? If he’s gay, he has terrible taste. Is manipulating the British aristocracy his hobby? Damned waste of his talents. Is he a spy? My favorite explanation is that, like Steerpike, he’s planning the downfall of every aristocrat around him. That thought made Right Ho, Jeeves a much more enjoyable read.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Legend has it that a spectral hound terrorizes an old country estate in Devonshire and the bloodline that owns it. Our heroes Holmes and Watson are called onto the scene when the latest heir to Baskerville Hall dies just outside his home without a mark on him. Next to his body, there is the mark of a giant paw.

What surprised me the most about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it’s such a beach read. I expected a Dickens level of convolutedness, but this book is simple, clear, and short. In fact I’m a little disappointed because I wanted more depth. Doyle is good and spooky when he’s describing the moors, but the characters aren’t spooky and neither is the mystery. The book ends like an episode of Scooby Doo: (the ghost is just a cranky neighbor of theirs and a dog in glow-in-the-dark paint).

But like I said, beach read. The Hound of the Baskervilles is fun to read. It’s fun to read an entire mystery with the late Victorian attitude that science can fix everything. Doyle’s habit of describing every character in excruciating detail is also fun, and led to this knee-slapper of a line:

There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

6892870It was time to see what all the fuss was about. Although I accidentally started with the third book in the Millenium series, I don’t mind. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest gives a good explanation of what came before it and brings closure to the series.

Lisbeth Salander, a woman who’s wanted for three murders, shows up nearly dead of gunshot wounds in Gosseberga, Sweden. Her father, an ex spy, has an axe wound to the face. As Salander recuperates in the hospital, awaiting trial, shadowy forces try to make the whole situation disappear.

The book’s greatest strength is Salander herself. It’s fun to inhabit the mind of a genius computer hacker who’s uninhibited by the morality of mere mortals, though I wouldn’t want to meet her in person. Larsson writes with a crisp, dry style that even makes the infodumps interesting. I learned more about Sweden, the Swedish justice system, and the Swedish Intelligence Service than I ever thought I wanted to know.

The whole book was fun.

It has some problems. It’s heavy-handed: I get the point already that violence against women is bad, and breaking the Swedish constitution is bad. Computer hacking does not work the way that it is presented in the book. And it’s a pretty serious wish fulfillment fantasy for journalists. Not only does Mikael Blomquist have a full-time job at a financially solvent magazine, he gets to dash around protecting the vulnerable, exposing crooks, and earning the admiration of Swedish Intelligence agents. And for some reason everybody wants to have sex with him.

The book also has some worrying ethics. The protagonists of the book form a team effort to clear Salander’s name of the murders she didn’t commit. But Salander really is a criminal. She’s stolen billions, attempted murder twice, and in the epilogue, she’s an accessory to another murder. Her friends do a lot of breaking and entering and creepy-as-hell surveillance to help her. A doctor at the hospital intentionally misdiagnoses Salander to buy her time before she goes to prison. His actions echo those of the villain Teleborian, who misdiagnoses Salander to get her locked up in a mental institution. Why is this behavior okay when it’s done in the service of Salander?

I recommend the book. Though it’s odd, and Lisbeth Salander is terrifying, it’s a wonderful romp through Swedish society.

Love Trumps Hate

I’m saddened by the results of last week’s election. Tuesday night felt like this:

 

I was so wrong about the direction my country wants to head in and found out so suddenly.

I draw some comfort from the fact that the election was legitimate. I applaud the current administration for paving the way for a peaceful transition of power and Hillary Clinton for conceding with dignity.

The events have me thinking about my grandmother’s generation. Elizabeth Serbell was born in July 1920, a few weeks before women earned the right to vote in the U.S. Her family lost its fortune in the Great Depression when she was nine years old. She went to college before it was popular for women to do so. In the 1930s and 1940s, she saw the rise of right-wing authoritarian regimes throughout the world. After Elizabeth Serbell graduated from college, she worked as an oil chemist for the U.S. home front.

Democracy was sorely tested during World War II and won. After the war, my grandmother would have liked to go to medical school, but because of an influx of returning GIs, she didn’t get accepted. She earned a Master’s degree in biology instead. She divorced before it was common for women to do so and raised three daughters by herself.

Elizabeth Serbell lived just long enough to see Barack Obama elected president in 2008. She died three weeks later.

I think the worst things my country has ever done are the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and HUAC. The underlying institutions of democracy survived these storms, though democracy did not necessarily come back quickly.

I am extremely disheartened that a man on the campaign trail can refuse to show respect for women, or people of color, or the press, or the rule of law. He can do everything wrong with his campaign, flub debates, run with disorganized leadership, and be rejected by his own party. He can be destined to face a fraud trial later this month. And voters accepted these things. At any rate, they failed to punish him for them.

I am married to a man who is a legal immigrant and a naturalized U.S. citizen. This election feels like a violent rejection of our family.

Now I hope that Donald Trump will break all of his campaign promises. My thoughts also turn to what to do now. On Facebook the day or two after the election, there was an outpouring of fear and anger. But there was also a surprising amount of solidarity. Here are some examples.

One ironclad pledge: If you know me well enough to be seeing this, and you or one you love feels unsafe from threats and violence where you are, my guestroom is yours, night or day, with or without prior notice. I will collect you and I will protect you. If you don’t already have my phone number, message me now to get it and save it in your phone.

In Florida, we know how to handle a hurricane. You put plywood over your windows, bring in the lawn furniture, and wait for the whole thing to blow over. You’ve got a limited window to operate in before the hurricane arrives. You do what you can early, because once the storm hits, ain’t nothing gettin’ done.

Many of the legal changes we’ve seen over the past decade have come about via executive order. A small (but important) number have come about via Supreme Court rulings. The former are likely to disappear come January 20th, while the latter have a plausible chance of disappearing over the coming years. Many folks are talking about taking advantage of the narrow window left to us to avail themselves of these options. I don’t pretend to be a legal expert. I won’t give you advice on how to proceed.

But I’m here to provide any help you need. No one accomplishes anything alone. This is especially true when we’re pressed for time.

You should know this is a standing offer, and it always has been. It doesn’t disappear on January 20th. But when you’re feeling lost and overwhelmed, sometimes things like this bear repeating.

To all my queer, poc, non-christian, immigrant, and lady friends and neighbors – to all of you out there who now feel worried about your continued safety – I am here for you. You are amazing. If you need a listening ear, a hug, a shoulder to lean on in the days to come, I can do that. If there is some concrete thing I can do to help you feel safer (beyond donating to causes designed for these needs), tell me and I can try to do that too. I can’t magically make things ok, but we can stand together in solidarity and protect each other.

My Facebook friends are behaving better than I would ever have asked them to. The roughly 52% of the electorate who voted for Clinton or for a third-party candidate are still here. We have so much work to do. There really is no guarantee that anything is going to be okay, but we should still stand together and love one another.

Mind of my Mind by Octavia Butler

116254-_uy475_ss475_Wild Seed was my introduction to Octavia Butler’s work. I loved it. My edition contained a large chunk of Mind of my Mind, the next book in the series, which left me eager to learn what becomes of Doro and Anyanwu.

Mind of my Mind takes place in the 1970s or so, about a century after the events of Wild Seed. Both immortals have settled in California. The story focuses on Mary, the latest of Doro’s breeding experiments. As Mary comes into her powers, the experiment gets out of hand.

This book is one of Butler’s early works (her second), and it shows. The book feels unfinished. The narrative skips over great gaps of time in the middle as Mary learns to control her telepathic network and the writing is so spare that it cuts into the bone.

Within that short text, though, Butler raises questions about power and control. The telepaths are a race of people who have to prey on others to survive. Should they exist? If they already exist, what kind of ethics can they hold on to? Is Mary a villain? What about Doro?

The climax of the story was rushed but brought a satisfying closure to the story of Doro and Anyanwu. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a classic one, following in the tradition of Frankenstein.

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman

Silver on the RoadAnother well-regarded book that I didn’t like. I wonder what’s going on.

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman features an alternative West where the Devil rules the Great Plains, preventing the United States from expanding any further west than the Mississippi. Enter Isobel Lacoyo Távora, the Devil’s foster child. On the day of her majority, she walks up to him and demands a job.

It’s a Western with a Latina main character (cool) and a bildungsroman about the Devil’s new left-hand man (awesome). How do you mess this up? Somehow, Laura Anne Gilman manages to do just that.

The biggest problem with this book is that Izzy doesn’t have clear goals. The Devil throws her out onto the road to learn by doing, without explaining what she’s supposed to do. Izzy spends the first third of the book complaining that she doesn’t know what to do, instead of, well, doing anything. Which isn’t entirely Izzy’s fault. The Devil pulled a Yoda-level it-will-all-become-clear stunt on her. He’s not a Jedi, he’s a businessman. He’s the sort of boss who would be very explicit with his minions and make sure he gets results.

The narrator keeps telling us that Izzy is not a namby-pamby young woman, but tough and capable. Izzy’s actions belie this. (See the bit about the whining.) Early in the book, because of some emotional upset, Izzy loses her appetite and tosses away her breakfast. That doesn’t make sense! She knows how precious calories are out on the road. If she were tough and capable, she would stuff that into her pockets for later.

The descriptions of the land in this book are beautiful. You can tell Gilman has been to all the sites she writes about and loves them deeply. But I think I’d rather deal with The Mechanical, which got me angry and excited at the same time, than with Silver on the Road, which left me cold.