Townhouse Books

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fledgling: Octavia Butler

It's not every author that occupies her very own literary niche, but as the only African-American woman science fiction author this reviewer can think of, Octavia Butler held a unique place in the genre.

I haven't read anything else by Butler, but I have to imagine she built her reputation on better books than Fledgling. Before her untimely demise last year, she won a MacArthur Foundation grant, a Hugo, and a Nebula This was her first new book in seven years, and the last before her untimely demise.

The premise of Fledgling is that vampires are real (although they call themselves the Ina), they're a parallel species to homo sapiens, and yes, they're super strong, super fast, they're not immortal (although they naturally live into their fifth century), they don't burn to ashes in sunlight, but they do sleep through the day and get a nasty sunburn from direct sunlight, and they walk around smelling everything.

The protagonist is an Ina named Shori who has the body of a 10-year-old at the young age (in Ina years) of 57. She wakes up in a cave burned, shot, and ravenously hungry. She grabs the first living thing that wanders by and eats it, and spend the rest of the book looking for answers.

That's the elevator pitch, and it sounds great. The reality is a little different.

Most science fiction and fantasy happens in a fantastic place or time and authors (other than John Clute) typically need a character that represents the reader's point of view. This viewpoint character is usually clueless about the crucial parts of the world, which provides ample opportunity for the author to have some second character explain crucial things to the first character, and therefore the reader.

You see this all the time in sci-fi movies where you'll often have a character that's a doctor on a space station, a young farmboy who's going to explore the galaxy, or a mysterious traveler from another land and who is completely clueless about all the technical aspects of their futuristic world. The farmboy doesn't need to know how their warp drive works, and if it were explained to them they'd never understand it anyway, so the author can just engage in some handwaving and TLA-lobbing, and still weave a vaguely realistic world.

You'd think that amnesiacs would pop up more often in books to fill this role since they ostensibly don't remember anything and need everything explained to them, but in practice, or at least in this book, they're just annoying. Shori must have had a case of super-double amnesia, since she doesn't know what a car is, she doesn't know what a horse is, she doesn't know what refrigerators are for, she doesn't know anything about anything, (but seems to know English well enough,) and we're constantly being reminded of that fact. Repeatedly.

Sometimes we're reminded of her amnesia multiple times in the same sentence. Just because the main character has amnesia doesn't mean the reader does.

The actual plot of Fledgling is: there's a group of Ina who don't like the fact that Shori's family has been trying to breed a daylight-resistant Ina by combining human and Ina DNA. Shori is the result of that genetic tampering, and it's left her with dark dark skin and kinky hair. In theory this brings in the racial issue, but since we're talking about a black Ina and not a black human, the comparison seems initially clever, but on further examination just seems lame. The other Ina look down on her not because she's black but because she's part human.

The climax of the book is actually pretty good, but slogging through the court scenes leading up to it just isn't worth it. The story doesn't work, but it's because Butler doesn't give us any real reason to care about Shori or her family. The horrible things happening to her would carry emotional weight if we were able to identify with her, or if we thought that Shori actually was in danger of losing something that mattered to her.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

The Secular Bible: Jacques Berlinerblau

Most books about religion, especially books about any particular religion, tend to be written from the point of view of an adherent of that religion and addressed to the faithful or to the potential faithful for conversion purposes. Rarely do we see books that are intended to critically discuss the texts of a religion from a secular standpoint, which is exactly what The Secular Bible does. In fact, besides analyzing The Bible, one of the stated purposes of this book is to agitate for more critical discussion about religion and religious texts.

The Secular Bible concentrates on the history of the Hebrew Bible, interpretations of the Bible, Jewish intermarriage, and acceptance of homosexuality.

The history section is the most interesting of the three main sections, and he spends most of it comparing religious and secular questions of authorship. If you ask a believer who wrote the Bible, you usually get answers like God, Moses, or "prophets." But by taking the reader through the process of hand-copying and showing cases of marginalia that made its way into the main, accepted text, Berlinerblau makes a good case that no-one really wrote it, at least not in anything like its present form.

As you might imagine, he also shows that Jewish marriage requirements aren't really supported by scripture, and that condemnation of homosexuality is only vaguely alluded to in both the Old and New Testaments.

The Secular Bible is an interesting book, and an excellent starting point for someone who's not well versed in western religion. Karen Armstrong's A History of God explores many of the same questions in much more detail, although, its a much larger, more ambitious book.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Arguing A.I.: Sam Williams

Artificial intelligence, much like fusion research, has claimed to be within reach of its ultimate goal for the last 30 years. There's always a breakthrough projected just around the corner, but that assertion is based more on public relations and funding than any actual progress.

Once upon a time the public goal of AI was to produce a computer that could solve problems that typically require a human. Creating a machine that can use language, recognize objects, and generally employ cognition were originally the goal. In the past forty years researchers have tried to solve the problem of artificial intelligence from the bottom up and the top down, and the closest we have to HAL are some basic systems that can track moving objects, sometimes, and some systems that use techniques of machine learning, but we've made no basic progress towards a truly intelligent machine.

The book is laid out as an introduction to the world of artificial intelligence, four profiles of figures in the field and a summary that tries to give an overview of the fictional treatment of Artificial Intelligence and compares it to the reality. If you're interested in the subject, Arguing A.I. is an interesting overview of the current problems in the field, but it's not the best introduction. It's also very short, so if you can check it out or borrow it, do so, but it's not worth the $15 you'd pay if you buy it through Amazon.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Extra Large Medium: Helen Slavin

Annie Colville has been talking to the dead since she was a little girl. She can't block them out, but tries to lead her life with as little interference from them as possible. Then one day her husband disappears and doesn't come back, either in person or as a ghost. And so begins a seven-year waiting game, with characters ducking in and out of Annie's present and past.

This is a great, quick read that has stayed in my thoughts all week. It's only a tiny bit spooky, and the author does a beautiful job introducing a wide variety of present-day and historical characters.

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