Sunday, December 6, 2015

Well, At Least I'm Reading Now

So this has been a weird year.

I can't help but feel that all year I've been... off. Not myself. Lacking luster. I think I've talked about on here. Repeatedly. I've looked for excuses, and made resolutions, and had good days where it seemed like everything was going to be fine again, but... overall, looking at the big picture, the whole year's just be a weird one and I have no good explanation.

Okay, so maybe saying that the whole year's been weird is misstating the situation somewhat. Generally speaking, it's actually been a pretty great year. I've spent a lot of time with friends especially, hanging out, emailing, liking the people I spend time with more and more and, more importantly, feeling more liked than I ever have before. I've had some truly amazing days. My life, my real, solid, outside-of-my-own head life has been flourishing in ways I'm utterly unaccustomed to.

It's the other life that's been weird, the one that plays out between the pages of books and the keys on my keyboard and the margins of journals. I feel like I've been reading more slowly and enjoying books less. And as for writing... oof. I've started books and not finished them. I started a short story and didn't finish it. I've said I'm going to start books and not actually done so. I didn't do NaNoWriMo. I haven't posted on this blog in FOUR FREAKING MONTHS. I've gotten ideas and gotten sick of them immediately. I've actually opened my word documents, determined that today, today I'm going to start in earnest, today is the day that the writer's block will finally be broken, today is the day I will start feeling like my old self again... and then proceeded to write only a sentence or two before closing them and pushing them to the back of my mind again.

Now that I write it, now that I put it all into words (heck, now that I'm actually writing something that isn't just an email or a comment on Facebook) it sounds so wrong, it feels so wrong. It's baffling to face it, to admit it, to recognize that these failures I'm describing are my own, that this whole past year has transpired in my life and can't be relived, rewritten, fixed. But only now. It's like I've been in some kind of haze for months, blissfully unaware that something somewhere is somehow broken. I've been at peace with my inactivity. My stillness. My wordlessness.

But I think something may finally have changed. Because I'm reading again.

Of course, I never stopped reading. It'd probably be easier for me to go without food than to go without a book or two on my nightstand with bookmarks comfortably positioned somewhere among their pages. But over the past few weeks, I've suddenly been reading quickly. Really quickly. To give an example, since this time last week I've read three and a half books. Short books, sure, but considering the fact that several of the books I've read this year took me more than a week to read, I think I should be allowed to celebrate small victories.

Can I explain this unexpected change for the better? No. Well, maybe, but the vague theory I have involves a lot of factors and would take a while to explain and still doesn't really fully account for the kind of change I've noticed.

Luckily, I don't need an explanation. I'm just happy that whatever's happened has happened, and hopeful that I keep reading the way that I am now - that the enthusiasm I've rediscovered persists, that I keep finding books I like or even love, that I don't fall back into a reading slump. And I'm also hopeful, cautiously, tentatively hopeful, that this shift is only the first sign of something bigger. That maybe, just maybe, my words are going to come back. That in the coming year, I'm really going to write.

So... there you go. A long-overdue update of sorts on my life.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a book to finish.       


Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Rest of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: What's the Point of all This, Anyway?

I actually finished The Moon is a Harsh Mistress a couple days ago, but until yesterday I didn't feel much like writing and I was busy yesterday. But at least I'm writing now.

So how was the second half of the book?

Terrible. I think. Maybe. I don't know. I feel like I've completely lost my ability to judge books objectively. Because this is yet another highly acclaimed book that's supposed to be so amazing and life-changing and here I am, a presumably intelligent person who believes herself to possess a reasonable knowledge of books and what makes them good or not, who thought that it was poorly written, uninteresting, disheartening, cynical, and in all other ways basically a waste of time.

Seriously, why does Science Fiction even exist?

Okay, I admit that questioning the existence of an entire genre because I've encountered a few books that I haven't managed to get along with might be a slight overreaction, but... no, really, why does it exist?

From what I've seen over the past month, it's partly an idea-based genre. And that sentence might very well be ridiculous, because obviously all fiction is "idea-based"; but Science Fiction is highly speculative, arguably moreso than other genres. "What would happen if Martians invaded the Earth?" "What would a society that had evolved on the moon look like?" "What if computers could think for themselves?"

But it's also an idea-based genre in another way: it is a way for authors to express ideas.

Hey, look, another mildly ridiculous sentence. What I mean by that is that I feel a lot of Science Fiction exists because an author had something profound he (or, occasionally, she) wanted to say about humanity or politics or the way things ought to be. So The War of the Worlds indirectly denounced colonialism while also staunchly declaring that Man is ascendant and the Earth is our home (I'm still a little confused by that juxtaposition, by the way). And the Foundation series stated that mankind is cyclical and predictable and that we cannot escape our destinies. And The Moon is a Harsh Mistress had quite a lot to say about how we should be living our lives and running our government which massively grated on my nerves. 

The trouble is that often the story and the characters get completely lost in the midst of all those ideas. As I think I sufficiently expressed, this was the case with the Foundation trilogy. Likewise, it was the case with The Moon.

For example: there's a character in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress who is a professor and scholar, who taught the protagonist/narrator everything he knows. You may recall from my last post that the book provides little information about the characters beyond their backgrounds and their political philosophies. So what's this professor's political philosophy?

He describes himself as a "rational anarchist" (so immediately upon his launching into his political spiel, I wanted to throw a textbook of some sort at him and tell him that if he's such an all-fired brilliant professor he should know what an oxymoron is and that it's generally best to avoid using them if you want to sound smart and be taken seriously) (I wasn't in the best of moods when I was reading this book). If I understood the lengthy expository speech in which he described his philosophy and how awesome it is correctly, this means that he believes that there should be no centralized government, but that each person should take governing and law into his own hands, always accepting full responsibility for his actions. Thus, if the professor thinks that someone who is alive would be a more productive and useful citizen if he or she was dead, the professor will graciously help said person achieve deadness and then accept the consequences for it. He also accepts that there will be consequences, because even though rational anarchy is the only sensible way of running anything, everybody else in the world is too stupid to realize it, so the professor can do nothing but strive to live perfectly in an imperfect world. (I'm paraphrasing slightly, but that's essentially what he said.) (Except for the living perfectly in an imperfect world bit; he really did straight-up say that.) (Our hero, ladies and gentlemen, a shining example of self-awareness and humility.......) (Rolls eyes)

So because this is his philosophy, the professor spends the entire book manipulating everyone else and looking down on everyone because they're all far less intelligent and capable of handling things than he is. To make things more interesting, the narrator keeps mentioning how poor the professor's health is, like I'm supposed to be worried that he might die.

But here's the kicker: I know, and am fond of, people with this same philosophy.

Okay, maybe not the citizens' army I-should-be-allowed-to-kill-people-because-every-man-is-responsible-for-his-own-morality bit. But I do know people who take a very cynical view of government and think that the less involvement it and similar institutions have in people's personal lives the better. I even agree to an extent with some of the things this professor says.

But it's all he says.

Almost all of the professor's dialogue is based around politics and the political situation playing out in the book. The narrator has a few two-or-three-sentence-long flashbacks to his days of studying with the professor, but otherwise the only role the book ever shows the professor in is one of a manipulative politician who claims to be striving for miniscule government when it seems like what he actually wants is a government completely controlled by him and his very closest associates. I'm not willing to look over and consider this character's philosophy and approach because I don't like the character. I don't really even dislike the character, because I know next to nothing about the character. If he had been developed more, been shown interacting with people in non-political contexts, or in any other way been made into an even remotely appealing three-dimensional sort of character, I think I would have been more open to mulling over the ideas he puts forward and less likely to be so utterly put off by his apparent arrogance.

And I know that I keep going on about the lack of character development in these books. Every time I get started on a new post I tell myself I'm not going to complain about the characters again, and then it always ends up happening.

So let's get back to this post's title - what's the point of all this?

I'm not just referring to the genre in general. I'm also referring to this project.

When I got started, my hope in reading all this Sci-Fi was to gain a larger understanding and experience in this genre, maybe find a book or two that I really liked, and try to better determine what it is about this genre that I don't like. I feel I've succeeded in the first and third goal. Clearly I've failed at the second.

So I'm cutting the project short.

Originally, I was going to read one more book, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is a current Science Fiction writer, a favorite of my dad's. Snow Crash was his first successful book. I actually started it; I read a little more than 100 pages. It's much easier to read than any of the other books I read and whined about here, and its characters are actually a lot more well-rounded and interesting than the ones I've been encountering - but I still wasn't enjoying it.

I feel really terrible about opting not to finish it, because I always feel terrible about leaving things unfinished, and I've never failed to complete one of these summer projects before (and isn't that embarrassing; I got through all four Twilight books with only minor psychological and emotional damage, and then I hit the end of my rope reading brainy, mentally nutritious Science Fiction classics), and because it's better in some ways (if worse in others, which I don't feel like I need to go into, since I'm not finishing the book). But I feel like I've done what I set out to do and gotten what I set out to get, and I'm tired of forcing myself through books I'm not enjoying when I'd rather be working on the long list of books I actually want to read. I don't think it's healthy, either for me or the people who have to live with me and experience the full force of my whining firsthand.

So I'm quitting. Guiltily.

But before I do, there's one more thing I want to say.

I asked what the point of Science Fiction was. Throughout this last month, many times it's seemed like it doesn't have a point. If you're looking for social and political commentary, there are dozens of other books from other genres that provide it while also providing characters and stories worth caring about, that feel more like meaningful journeys than opportunities for the authors to show off how brilliant they are and how much better their ideas are than everybody else's. So why would you write or read Sci-Fi when you could be writing or reading something else instead?

Well, something occurred to me today.

Historical Fiction chronicles the world as it once was. Modern-day fictions of all types chronicle the world as it is. Fantasy chronicles the world as it isn't and can't be. But Science Fiction chronicles the world as it could be. Sci-Fi authors' great challenge is pulling stories from the furthest reaches of their imaginations while keeping their stories plausible. Science Fiction is all about imagining the future. Predicting the future. Even creating the future.

Science Fiction has value. I'll willingly admit it, even if I ended up with a lot of books that didn't click with me. Wrapping up this little summer project isn't renouncing Science Fiction forever; I'll read more of it in the future. Surely somewhere there has to be a Sci-Fi book that'll appeal to me.

And if not... well, maybe I can write one.

~Pearl Clayton               

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Day 1: The Underqualified Chauffeur

After Wells and Asimov, who to experiment with next? As I've said, there are a lot of well-known names in the Science Fiction field, and I won't be getting to most of them.

But next up, I wanted to try something by Robert Heinlein (or, as the book I have credits him, Robert A. Heinlein; I suppose the middle initial is optional).

Robert (A.) Heinlein won the Hugo Award (which I'm pretty sure is one of the biggest, if not the biggest honor in Science Fiction) four times. The totally unbiased description on the book jacket of this book calls him "the dominant science fiction writer of the modern era". He's well-known and popular. In short, there are a number of reasons I felt I should include him in my lineup.

But like I said in my first Foundation post, choosing an author is only half of the process. Next I had to decide which book I was going to read, and I had three candidates: Starship Troopers (because it's been made into a movie, which seems to indicate that it's fairly popular), Stranger in a Strange Land (because, from what admittedly little I've seen, it appears to be his best-known work), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (because a friend of mine read it last year and had good things to say about it, which is how I first heard of Robert Heinlein) (or Robert A. Heinlein).

So I asked a widely-read mentor knowledgeable about these sorts of things which of the three she thought was his most famous and important work, and she said The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (she later changed her answer to Stranger in a Strange Land, but I opted to go with her first instinct).



I've gotten tired of saying negative things about books that are popular, well-loved, and come to me recommended, and I'm sure that anybody reading these posts has gotten tired of reading said negative comments. But it's starting to seem like it can't be helped. I don't like Science Fiction. And I'm sorry about that. I'm really, truly sorry, for a lot of reasons.

I'm not really enjoying this book. Again... lots of reasons for this.

First of all: this book is kind of hard to read.

The basic setup of the book is that in the not-too-distant future the Earth sets up a penal colony on the moon. Criminals of all different calibers and a few voluntary colonists are sent up from every major country on Earth, where they live and work. Decades later, the Moon is shared by the more recently arrived criminals and by the children of the earlier groups, born free and raised on the Moon (or Luna, as its citizens call it). And, as one might imagine, the Lunar citizens (or Loonies) have developed their own unique dialect.

This is where the difficulty comes from.

Of course, it makes perfect sense for the Loonies to have their own dialect. Language is constantly evolving, and a group of people isolated from the main body of humanity as they are would certainly be talking differently within a few generations. Honestly, I think it's almost unrealistic how little Heinlein's future Moon-language differs from modern English. There are only two major differences - first, a number of foreign words and phrases of various origins have become incorporated into everyday English, and second, the language has grown more abrupt, with Loonies frequently leaving out words like "I", "you", "a", or (most notably) "the".

And the book is written in first-person narration. So the entire book is made up of sentence fragments and sentences completely devoid of the word "the".

But wait, there's more.

Like a lot of Science Fiction, this book deals with social science as much as it does physical science. The book chronicles the main characters' decision to revolt against Earth (or, as they say, Terran) rule and establish their own Lunar government (think American Revolution but in space and instead of the Founding Fathers you have an AI computer running everything). This decision is brought about because of the unfortunate economic situation on Luna - the Authority (which I think is the Lunar government established by Earth; the book's never actually said) controls everything, which leads to overpricing of necessities and inefficient trade (like I said; American Revolution). What this all amounts to is that the book has a lot of explanations of complex economics, introductions of various unconventional political ideologies, inflammatory speeches, statistical analyses, lengthy conversations, and, eventually, long descriptions of the steps taken to set up a revolutionary party and start engineering the revolt - all written in this choppy patois, as if everything going on wasn't hard enough to understand already.

Now, I get what Heinlein's doing. As I said, it makes sense to have a unique Lunar dialect. And it probably wasn't easy for an obviously educated and well-read man like Heinlein to write a whole book in this style. I respect the intelligence of the decision and the effort it must've taken to pull it off. But in practice, it's driving me a bit crazy.

There is a small amount of relief in that there are two characters who don't speak in the dialect, an eloquent earthborn Professor and the aforementioned AI computer who is running and organizing the revolt. Why the book couldn't have been narrated by one of them is anyone's guess.

As for characters, they're slightly more developed than Foundation's characters are, because the whole book is one continuous story and it's much more a story about people (and a computer) than it is about human history and human nature in general. But there still isn't an overlarge amount of time spent with the characters. I know the main characters' physical descriptions, backstories, political ideologies, and not much else.

Such is the case with just about every aspect of the book. Anything essential to the central plot is described in detail. Everything else the readers have to figure out on their own. For example - Lunar society involves both polygamy and polyandry, often simultaneously. But there are no expository paragraphs helpfully telling the reader this or explaining how such uncommon and outdated practices have become the norm in this highly advanced, futuristic society. Rather, there's a scene early on where the narrator briefly chats with a new acquaintance about his four wives and four co-husbands and if the readers can't figure out what's going on and shift all their paradigms accordingly, that's their problem. I have only the vaguest idea what the cities on Luna look like. I barely understand why this revolution is happening in the first place.

But Heinlein makes sure to spend sixty pages describing the financing of the revolutionary party, the circulation of propaganda, and a lucky sequence of events that gains the revolution an ally on Earth.

I've talked before over the course of this project about preferring character-driven books over plot-driven ones. Here I want to say that there's nothing inherently wrong with plot-driven books. I've read plot-driven books before without having trouble getting through them. I've even enjoyed them. Just because they're not my preference doesn't mean I can't think they're good.

But I think that in order for a plot-driven book to work, in order to have a book that has almost no emphasis on character or setting be readable and enjoyable, the plot has to actually drive the story. And so far, in my opinion, this one just doesn't.

But maybe it will. (This is me trying to get some positivity and optimism into the post.) I'm only halfway through the book; so far it might all have been set up for a thrilling and engaging second half. Plots can become better and more engaging. This could easily prove to be a really great example of a plot-driven book... provided you can get through the first half.

*Shrugs* Well, I suppose I'd better go read some more...

~Pearl Clayton

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Foundation Trilogy, Days 9 & 10: And Thus, He Gets to the Point

Well, I've now read Second Foundation, the third Foundation book. I probably won't read the four additional books he wrote decades after the trilogy. My apologies to Mr. Asimov, but I'm just not all that interested in seeing where the story goes from here.

First of all, I'd like to say that it's very confusing to have the third book in the series be called Second Foundation. I can't help but feel like it would have made more sense to have Second Foundation be the second book in the series. In fact, considering how short these books are, I think it would've been quite manageable. Asimov would've just had to split Foundation and Empire down the middle, combining the first half with Foundation and the latter half with Second Foundation, and he'd have ended up with two longer, more reasonably named books. It would've made more sense from a storytelling standpoint, too, because the overarching plot of Second Foundation has its origins about halfway through Foundation and Empire.

Oh, I know I'm just pointlessly nitpicking. I wonder if this is something all aspiring and/or successful writers do; constantly think about what we would've done differently had we written the book that we're reading.

But on to the book itself.

This book was weird.

It was weird in a number of different ways, not least of which in the fact that there's a fairly substantial difference in tone and feel between this book and the other two. It's almost entirely free of political discussions (hooray!) and instead introduces the rather bothersome concept of mind control. For the entire book, the reader can never be sure whether someone is behaving or speaking in a certain way because they're under mind control or because they're mentally controlling someone else, but it's safe to assume that's it's one of the two. Thus, there's a new surprise revelation every few chapters. It turns out this person you thought was stupid is really in charge of the entire situation! (Jarring chord) And it turns out this person who you thought was working against this organization was actually working for them and using mind control to keep people from figuring it out! (Jarring chord) But in fact, he and the organization wanted him to get caught and used mind control to make sure he would, because it was all part of the plan! (Jarring chord) And by the way, this character who you thought was the most independent character in the book and the only one who'd escaped being controlled has been under mind control for the past fifteen years! (JARRING CHORD)

There are so many "shocking" twists in this book that they cease to be shocking. By the time I got to the last two, which were probably supposed to be the most shocking of all, I was far past the point of being surprised.

The effect is even more damaged by the fact that the reveal of the second-to-last shocking twist was brought about through one character delivering a lengthy monologue to another character... full of information the second character already knew. Asimov attempted to explain this little issue away by saying that the first character wasn't really speaking to the second character and was more expositing to himself. Which, if you ask me, makes even less sense. "I'm just going to stand here staring out a window, outlining at great length and in great detail the brilliant plan which I have just personally carried out with rousing success. I'm so awesome."

I wonder if Asimov ever stood staring out a window describing the plot of the Foundation trilogy in great detail to no one in particular when he'd finished it.


I got the distinct feeling reading this book that this was what Asimov was leading up to, that the only reason for the first two books' existence is to set up the action of Second Foundation. This was what he was heading for all along. This is where he gets to the point. This is where he makes his big profound statement about humanity and existence.

And I have no idea what it is.

Truly. I think he's trying to tell me something, and I can't figure out what it is.

See, throughout most of the book the organization with all the mind control is set up as the bad guys. They're fought against and hated and feared. Because of course, you don't want your mind and your thoughts and actions controlled by an outside force. That's human nature. And as the book progressed, it felt more and more like a strong, embittered anti-deist statement (not actually sure if anti-deist is the exact phrase I'm looking for, but... y'know... anti-God).

But in the end (spoilers), the organization with the mind control wins. Because of course the mere mortals aren't going to succeed against the all-powerful organization capable of mind control; that wouldn't make any sense. And there are a couple of indications, in the last chapter and a place or two earlier in the book, that it's good that they win. That without them, humanity would destroy itself, and that because of their success, humanity can now proceed into its bright future, into a golden age unlike any experienced before in its history.

So... what am I supposed to be feeling? Is this meant to be a crushing ending, inspiring despair with the thought that no matter what actions humans take or how much they fight it, they'll (we'll) always be forced along an unchangeable path by some manipulative higher power? Or is it meant to be hopeful, communicating the idea that no matter how presumptuous or foolish or unaware of what's good for us we get, there's always someone greater looking out for us, guiding us to the place where we belong and where we'll be happiest and most prosperous?

I don't know too much about Asimov, but I'm guessing that for him it was probably the former. But like I said, I can only guess. His message isn't clear.

His message, whatever it is, is also really hard to get to.

There were a lot of things that bothered me about this series. Some of them I've attempted to articulate in these posts, others I've had difficulty pinpointing. Characters are thrown about carelessly, often underdeveloped and randomly abandoned midway through their stories. Whole subplots and events take place and are practically forgotten, barely effecting the bigger story. A lot of things are under-explained. A lot more things are exhaustingly over-explained. There are explanations that make very little sense. Second Foundation is the best and easiest to read of the trilogy (as you may have gathered from the fact that I read it in two days after taking a week to get through Foundation and Empire), but it still has some of these drawbacks, and it also has all the crazy mind control, which was frustrating in its own way, since I was having to go through the whole book knowing that nothing was as it seemed and nobody was trustworthy.

The point that I'm attempting to get to is that if I had merely been experimenting with this series, reading it on my own time rather than blogging about it, I probably wouldn't have read past the first book. And in light of that, I question Asimov's decision to put his big, grandiose conclusion (whatever that happened to be) after over three hundred pages of dry, repetitive inaction and another hundred and fifty pages of headache-inducing mind games. Didn't he ever worry about losing readers before he got the chance to tell them... whatever he was trying to tell them?


I feel like I'm not really saying anything of much importance here (maybe my readers will disagree; that would be nice). It goes back to that burden of intellectualism post I wrote after finishing the first book in this trilogy. Science Fiction is an intellectual genre. It's known for allegory and for probing human nature and making sweeping political commentaries and sociological statements. People write papers about Sci-Fi books, people discuss them at length. And so, I feel like this last Foundation post ought to be describing some huge epiphany I had about Science Fiction or humankind or something along those lines.

But it's not. Because I didn't have any grand epiphanies or discoveries. This series didn't change my life or my way of looking at the world. It didn't make me fall in love with Science Fiction. Honestly, there were times while I was reading it when I'd stare blankly at the page number, stunned that I'd read so much and been so little impacted by it. These books washed over me, when I was able to make progress through them. I think I'll be lucky to remember anything of significance about them by this time next year.

I still feel bad that that's the case. I feel bad that this whole genre and I have yet to get along. But there's not much of anything I can do about it. I don't have the ability to make myself appreciate things that some people possess. Oh, well.

There're still two more books on my roster, books that appear to have few similarities to the Foundation trilogy. So I still have some hope of eventually writing a less whiny, critical post. Stay tuned.

~Pearl Clayton


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Foundation Trilogy, Days 3-8: The Struggle Continues

So, needless to say, I've gotten really thrown off. I've spent the past week slogging through Foundation and Empire, the second book in the trilogy, and - obviously - not posting anything here about my progress. I don't have an excuse or an explanation or anything. Merely that every time it was a good time to be reading, I thought of something else to do, and that whenever I did manage to force myself through a chapter or two, I felt like I hadn't read enough to warrant a new post. So then I decided I would just post when I'd finished the book. And then that kept not happening.

In the first three years of doing this type of project, I never took so long to finish a book, and I don't think I ever went this long without posting an update on my reading. I don't even know if the "Days 3-8" caption in the title is accurate, because I've gone so many days without writing anything new, and I'm pretty sure there were days when I didn't read. As a planner and a scheduler, I'm frustrated that I've gotten so messed up and that this reading isn't going smoothly. As a generally fast reader, I'm frustrated that it took me an entire week to read a 150-page-long book. As a people pleaser, I'm frustrated by the fact that I'm struggling so much with a book series that people I know and respect enjoyed and recommended. And as someone used to being able to articulate her opinions and know her own mind, I am incredibly and increasingly frustrated by the fact that I don't like these books and I don't know why.

It's not only that feeling of an intellectual obligation to like it that I described in my last post anymore. There are descriptions that I like. There are characters I almost like and almost care about. There have been little observations and asides of Asimov's that have amused me. Like this one, for instance:

"Inevitably, he said, 'What is the meaning of this?'

It is the precise question and the precise wording thereof that has been put to the atmosphere on such occasions by an incredible variety of men since humanity was invented. It is not recorded that it has ever been asked for any purpose other than dignified effect."

See, that's amusing. I liked those two paragraphs. Also, Foundation and Empire was better than Foundation. It has a more concentrated plot, and more developed, central characters. There's even a female character, shockingly enough. She's got a name and she sort of has a personality and everything. The lengthy conversations aren't only devoted to politics and psychology.

But even if they were -

Alright, for some reason I'm having a lot of trouble getting my thoughts on paper (or, um, screen) at the moment. I actually started a post about the first third of Foundation and Empire several days ago that I never ended up finishing because I couldn't get the words out in any kind of comprehensible order. I have no more explanation for this dilemma than I do for any of the others I've been running into in my attempts to get through this series. So please forgive me if this post ends up being a little choppy. I'm doing my best.

Here's the thought that occurred to me somewhere midway through reading this book: I read nineteenth-century slice-of-life novels. I've talked about this in other posts this summer. I like Jane Austen. I like some of the Bronte sisters' books. I read a book by Thomas Hardy earlier this summer and I'll probably read more books by him at some point in the future. I have repeatedly read books that have no plots beyond, "this is the story of a few months or years in the lives of some characters experiencing drama somewhere in England". There is a book on my handwritten list of favorites called North and South (by Elizabeth Gaskell) that features lengthy scenes made up almost entirely of characters debating the morality and fairness of labor distribution and wages during the Industrial Revolution. North and South is longer than the entire Foundation trilogy.

What I'm saying here is that I have happily read books which are probably far more boring and certainly substantially longer than these ones with a fraction of the difficulty I'm having now. I can no longer in good conscience say I don't like these books because they're dry, or political, or lacking action, because I've read books that are dry and political and lacking action before without any trouble (or at least, with a lot less trouble). And I can also no longer blame my disinterest on underdeveloped, insignificant characters, because like I said, Foundation and Empire is more character-focused than Foundation.  

So I don't have an explanation for disliking these books. Unless I want to go with the idea that labor debates are just way more appealing than political dialogues.

The optimistic view I can gain from this conclusion? Maybe now that I've acknowledged that there's no logical reason for me to be struggling to get through them, I'll be more likely to enjoy the third book and it'll be easier to get through.

The cynical view? I'll keep disliking the series without knowing why and that'll drive me insane.

Which view will prove correct? Watch this space for developments.

~Pearl Clayton

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Foundation Trilogy, Day 2: The Burden of Intellectualism

Today I finished Foundation, the first book in the trilogy. In a shocking change of pace, the second half of the book contained not only many many more political dialogues, but also some very exciting trade discussions and a courtroom scene. As I rapidly approached the conclusion, I felt certain that some sort of thrilling climax must be near, some great burst of action or unexpected reveal that the whole book had been building up to.

I proved to be incorrect. It was really just more talking and then something that doesn't even quite deserve to be called an abrupt ending. And then it was over.

Also, today's reading featured a character who I briefly felt might be this story's equivalent of Han Solo (because, having first noticed similarities to Star Wars, I fully intend to keep looking for them). But then he just turned out to be the exact same conniving, scheming, unsympathetic, too-smart-for-his-own-good politician that the first half of the book was about. And I really mean that; if you asked me to make a list of all the noticeable, extreme differences in character, personality, or methods of action between the two men who are the closest things to protagonists this book has, I doubt I'd be able to come up with anything.

Because, you see, this book isn't really much of a book.

Yes, yes, I know it's a book. When I say book, though, I mean the written-out, nicely bound version of a fictional or retold story.

Most of the books you're likely to find in the fiction section of your library will be about a person or group of persons in some kind of interesting situation. The book, or series of books, will then follow the person or group of persons through the twists and turns and pitfalls of the interesting situation to that situation's resolution. Maybe new characters will be introduced along the way. Maybe the action will unfold over the course of several years. Maybe the situation will become increasingly complicated and multi-layered, until the situation that is ultimately resolved at the story's end is completely different from the original situation. There are mystery series that take readers through multiple different stories in the life of one central character. There are multi-generational epics that tell the converging and complementary and evolving life stories of characters and their children and grandchildren. Whatever it is, there is almost always some common thread of character or plot to tie everything together and keep the reader interested. The ending of a book is rarely the ending of all its characters' stories; rather, it is the ending of that particular epoch, or situation, or incident, or whatever you want to call it in their lives that the author wished to chronicle. Books are things of finite ambition that describe contained incidents.

And it could be argued that Foundation contains some of these elements. It describes characters and their movements through contained incidents. But every contained incident is part of a larger narrative.

Essentially, there is a presumed conclusion to some of humanity's current (that is, current in the far-distant future) struggles that will come about several centuries (further) in the future. The only way to get to this desirable conclusion is through a series of crises. So... the book is a series of crises. There's a problem, a man emerges who somehow knows exactly what needs to be done to fix the problem, he rises to ultimate power with stunning ease, he does what needs doing, the crisis is averted. Skip forward several decades to the next crisis and the cycle is repeated.

So to get back to my earlier point, this book isn't a book, it's a freaking essay.

That's why the characters are cardboard cutouts which are practically indistinguishable from each other. They don't need to be any more than that, because this isn't about them. This isn't a story of people, or individual triumphs, or isolated occurrences with beginnings and endings. This first book doesn't so much end as stop; pause, more like. Because, again, it's not a book. It's Asimov's commentary on politics and ideologies, on the inevitable trends of humanity, on reoccurring cycles of power and control, on the endlessly fickle masses and the ever-changing but unstoppably repetitive tides of popularity and fate that they mindlessly ride. It subtly paints a picture of hopeless, depressing, exhausting, headache-inducing infinity. You know that even if humanity reaches this objective that every major decision in the story is being made in pursuit of, it'll be no more an ending or a reprieve than any other pause in the story has been. The tides will keep coming in and before too long the solution will have unraveled and the human race will have to go through the whole mess again. Asimov studied, and pondered, and philosophized, and finally wrote his thesis, converting it into dialogue and half-hiding it behind thin characters and something vaguely resembling an overarching plot in order to get it to the masses, to the people whom he felt most needed to read it.

(My sense of pacing demands that there be some sort of pause following a paragraph like that, so imagine me sighing heavily, leaning back in my chair, rubbing my temples, knocking back the dregs of a glass of iced tea, and taking a deep breath before resuming.)

I don't know if I'm actually doing a good job of expressing myself at the moment, being by no means a good or impartial judge of my own writing. As it often does, my frustration has made me feel addled and incoherent. Whether I actually am addled and incoherent is beside the point; I feel like I am, which naturally does nothing to lessen the feelings of frustration.

And the source of that frustration (aside from the boringness, and the repetitiveness, and the weird sameness of the characters, and the apparent futility of everything everybody's doing)?

I feel like I should love this. And that is a feeling that I'm tired of having.

I've spent a fair portion of my life being that one really smart kid. You know, the one who knows all the answers and does all the assignments and gets straight A's. The teacher's pet, if you will. This was inadvertent at first, but I confess that it wasn't long before I started taking pains to make sure I retained my status. I have been (and at times still am) a showoff, a braggart, and an egotist. When, in high school, I started encountering people unquestionably more intelligent and capable than I was, it dealt a blow to my self-esteem and my feelings of self-worth that I've scarcely begun to recover from.

This position of "gifted-child-totally-bursting-with-potential" brings with it a lot of expectations and assumptions. Oh, you'll do well on this assignment. You'll understand what the teacher's saying. You'll know the answer to this question. You'll like this book/movie/project. You're smart. You're intellectual. You're into this kind of thing.

At this point, I hardly know if these voices ever truly existed or if I imagined them. I'm reasonably sure that there must've been some, but probably nowhere near as many as I've been prone to think. Whatever the case, I've brought them into my own head now, and I hear them constantly, when I watch movies, or have conversations, or read books.

Why in the world are you still blathering on about how cute your favorite actors are? You're supposed to be smart. You're supposed to be above that shallow nonsense. Why can't you talk about something that matters for once?

Quit whining about how bad you think this movie is. It's a classic. Smart people like it, so complaining about it makes you sound stupid. And you're not supposed to be stupid. Everyone thinks you're smart. I guess they must be wrong.

Oh, come on, this is brilliant intellectual writing! He's studied history and is applying those studies to his writings about the future. Intelligent people love it for the commentary and criticism it provides. It comes recommended by people whose opinions matter to you, people whom you want to think well of you. You pass yourself off as some towering intellectual, and yet you don't like this masterwork about precedent and human nature because the characters aren't developed enough? How disgustingly shallow and pathetic. You should feel ashamed of yourself for accepting all those compliments of your intelligence over the years, because if you were really the person that the people giving them thought you were, you would love this.

As I think I've said before, my favorite books are all children's books, or fantasies, or nineteenth-century dramas. I like books with humor and adventure, with characters I feel like I've known personally for years, maybe even with just a touch of romance. But I find I'm often reluctant to admit to that. I get annoyed with myself for going on about how much I love Jane Austen, or for recommending the Charlie Bone series to people and telling them it's my favorite book series.

Those are the kinds of books normal girls like. You're meant to be so much more than that.

By failing to properly appreciate the intellectual, symbolic, and cautionary significance of this book, I feel like I'm letting down the people who think highly of me. I feel like I'm failing to live up to my full potential by preferring Austen to Asimov.

All this, when deep down I know that if I actually asked any of the people whose disappointment and disapproval I'm so consistently afraid of, they would tell me that my failure to get into Science Fiction doesn't matter to them at all. They don't care. These are demons I've created for myself.

And more than the boredom, more than my inability to connect with the characters, more than the repetitiveness, more than the abiding sense of absolute futility, that is why I got so frustrated with this book. Because it made me feel frustrated with myself, and then frustrated with myself because I'm so continually frustrated with myself.

So here is my new resolve for the summer (reached sometime during the rather lengthy process of getting this post written): not only to better familiarize myself with Science Fiction and develop a taste for it if I can (and there's still time to do that; I've got four books left), but also to work on being more aware of how silly and damaging this fear of not living up to others' expectations of me is. And to work on getting the heck over it.


And with that massively cathartic and personal vent over and done with, I think I'm ready to face the rest of the Foundation Trilogy, not as a frustrated intellectual wanting desperately to like a book series in order to maintain peoples' confidence in her, but as a booklover reading books (or, y'know, essays disguised as books) and openly and honestly saying what she thinks of them.

After sleep. First - first there needs to be sleep.

Until tomorrow (er... later today) (or possibly tomorrow; we'll see).

~Pearl Clayton        

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Foundation Trilogy, Day 1: SpaCe-SPAN

Now that I've covered very early Science Fiction with Wells, it's time to move into the twentieth century, and that's where choosing what to read gets hard. The list of famous and iconic Science Fiction authors is pretty long, for one thing. A lot of well-known, respected authors didn't make it onto my planned reading lineup; Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, etc. For another thing, have you ever noticed that Science Fiction authors seem to write a lot of books? Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like even when I'd finally decided which authors I wanted to make sure to get to, I still had a lot of books to choose from.

Authors first, though. And I decided that after The War of the Worlds, I wanted to read something by Isaac Asimov. He's one of the classics. I'm pretty sure he's also the only author referenced in a great quote from my favorite TV show which is meant to parody technobabble ("I've realigned the Penrose Tubes and jettisoned the stream of Einsteinium through the Hawking Converter, thereby reversing the Oppenheimer Effect and propelling us through the Asimov Space Curtain") (Mystery Science Theater 3000, Season 7, Episode 6, "Laserblast", in case anybody's interested).

But which book(s) to read? With Asimov, there are a lot to choose from. So I thought it'd be best to consult a widely-read mentor with very valuable opinions who would undoubtedly be reading these posts. She suggested that I read the Foundation Trilogy. So that's what I'm doing.

There are seven books in the Foundation Trilogy (a statement which makes no sense and is therefore really fun to make). This is because the first three books were published in the 1950s and known as the Foundation Trilogy for thirty years, until Asimov randomly wrote four more books in the 80s. However, this month I'll only be reading the original trilogy: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.

Which brings us at last to the first review. Having read the first half of Foundation, the first book, what are my initial thoughts?

Um... well... at least the characters have names.

You might've noticed that I didn't post yesterday. I meant to, but it didn't end up happening because I had trouble getting into this book.

Allow me to attempt to describe my difficulty by comparing this book to other things.

One of my very first thoughts upon starting the book, popping up around page 2, was, "Ooh, this is like Star Wars!". It takes place in a society consisting of millions of planets united under one centralized government, incidentally called the Empire. People move between planets by traveling through hyperspace. The planet where the seat of government is located consists of nothing but a single city. People with existing names like Lewis and Yohan hang out with people who have names like Salvor and Hari. There are definite similarities.

Especially to the prequels.

Now, I know that everybody hates the prequels (I've actually never had a problem with the prequels, but that's a different discussion). There are a lot of common, constantly repeated complaints against the prequels. One complaint against them which I've heard surprisingly infrequently is how talky they are.

See, the original Star Wars trilogy follows a pretty basic outline: there are some bad guys, there are some good guys, they all have interesting story arcs to follow, eventually the good guys win and we all go home happy. There's a lot of fighting and adventuring and flying around in spaceships, with occasional pauses for character drama. It's pretty straightforward storytelling.

The plotlines in the prequels are a lot more complicated. The distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys are less clear, and as many battles occur in state rooms and audience chambers as they do on battlefields and in space. The prequels feature shifting alliances, multiple different treaties, double agents, double-crosses, decoys, fronts, and situations which are not what they seem. And all this leads to a number of lengthy discussions of policy and strategy and elaborate schemes. So I have seen one (like I said, this seems to be a surprisingly rare complaint) person on the Internet say that watching the Star Wars prequels feels like watching C-SPAN.

And reading Foundation feels like reading C-SPAN.

Granted, I can't say that with any real certainty, having never actually watched C-SPAN (real quick, in case anybody doesn't know, C-SPAN is a specialty political TV and radio network which broadcasts things like Congressional and Parliamentary meetings; as one might imagine, it's infamously boring). But I'm saying it anyway, because it has a nice ring to it.

The whole book so far has basically been various different groups of people discussing politics, psychology, or both. When war looms, brilliant manipulators use political machination to prevent actual fighting. Political unrest is quieted through the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the acting government. Men move calmly and confidently along a path marked out for them decades earlier by a group of psychologists so good at their jobs that they could flawlessly predict the future of human progress and considerately arranged everything precisely the way it needed to be arranged. How nice.

The trouble is that it doesn't make for very exciting reading.

Because every issue so far has been resolved through diplomacy and/or manipulation rather than open warfare, and because the reader enters every new plotline knowing the basic eventual outcome (the psychologists being kind enough to give us glimpses of said outcomes), the book basically amounts to various groups of scheming businessmen having long, roundabout conversations with inevitable conclusions. You go into every new situation knowing who's going to get what he wants and who's going to be proven wrong. Everybody talks things through behind closed doors, things that we already knew were going to happen happen, and we move on to the next bit of the story. There's no suspense and no action. And, like in The War of the Worlds, there is almost no character development. Like I said earlier, these characters at least have names, but in many cases all you know about a character is his name, maybe something very basic about his appearance, and, of course, his political affiliations and aspirations. So not only is the whole book so far made up of nothing but discussions of events and the sly countermeasures being taken to make sure events don't get out of hand, they're events I don't really have any reason to be interested in.

Having said all that, I am trying to be optimistic about the second half and the other two books. There have been a few throwaway comments by various people which could imply that policy alone isn't going to work forever. I feel like there might eventually be some more interesting content. I guess I'll see tomorrow (if I have enough willpower to read further).

Until then.

~Pearl Clayton