summer book exchange #3: Among Others

No matter what else transpires in this review, or even in this book, you must remember this one thing, for it may someday save your life:

“If you love books enough, books will love you back.”

photoAmong Others, by Joe Walton (2010)

This book was sent to me by a guitar buddy, Tom, who is himself an author. He graciously gives me credit for turning him on to Heinlein. I’m very much looking forward to reading Tom’s own novel someday, hopefully someday soon.

Here’s the short strokes of Among Others.

Teenage girl suffers personal, family and physical trauma, survives, suffers, grows, perseveres, and triumphs.

Now for the long version.

Morwenna Phelps/Markova is her name, and she LOVES books. Or rather, I should say, the author’s love of science fiction books is weaved throughout Mori’s narrative. The one truly negative thing I have to say about this book is wrapped up in the constant listing of sci-fi (or SF, as Mori refers to the genre) books, series and authors that permeates the story.

It’s annoying. It’s oppressive. It’s right on the verge of literary bullying.

I can live with it, though, because the rest of the story is that good.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Is he really telling me a story about a crippled 15-year-old girl who sees and talks to fairies and whose mother is a witch (a real, ugly inside and out, wart-on-the-nose witch) that she has to battle – twice – is a ‘good story’?” Yes, gentle reader, yes I am.

I’m always wary of throwing down spoilers, but the journal-entry style of the book lays things bare in such a methodical fashion that you’re unlikely to be surprised by anything that happens. Morwenna is half of a set of magic-sensitive twins; her sister is tragically killed in a confrontation with their mother. This much is revealed on the back cover of the book, by the way.

If you’ve ever read a book written about a 15-year-old girl, let alone BY one (as this one truly feels like it was), you already know some of the other things that are going to happen. Raised by her mother’s extended family, she runs away to escape the wrath of her mother and the reminders of her dead sister; she ends up in the care of her estranged father, who ran away himself when the girls were babies. She’s sent to boarding school, where she’s marginalized as an outsider because of her Welsh accent, standoffish personality, and perhaps most especially, her deep, devoted love of reading (mostly sci-fi). The only place she truly feels comfortable is in the library, the only people she trusts – as much as she can trust anybody – are fellow SF fanatics.

The girls at the boarding school treat her poorly. The school’s food sucks. She loses touch with her friends from back home. Her mother attacks her at night with magic whenever she gets the chance – you know, typical English boarding school stuff.

Though Mori is a big SF fan, this book is actually fantasy, not SF. I’m not the biggest fantasy fan, though I do have my moments. One of the biggest fantasy series – perhaps at this point, THE biggest – is the tale of Harry Potter. I’ve read parts of 3 or 4 of those books, and I have to say I hated them. A lot.

This book about magic, though, I really liked. In Mori’s world (which spans September 1979 to May 1980, with a little dip into 1975), magic is mostly subtle, unexperienced by most people. Her introduction to it is through fairies; she and her sister see, talk to and play with fairies as children. The fairies help them, and Mori helps the fairies when she can, especially in one very touching scene. We learn, however, that the fairies are not entirely benign, and in the story’s double climax, she has to stand up to them in a way that is difficult for her.

Magic, then, so much a part of Mori’s consciousness, is merely a background element for 98% of the book; this is so unlike Harry Potter’s world, where magic pummels the reader at every turn. In Harry’s world, magical objects are fantastical! They’re everywhere! People fight, die and kill over them! In Mori’s world, magical objects are things like stones she keeps in her pocket and kitchen spoons that get lovingly used over the years. The one truly magical object in the entire story is a cane the fairies give her.

Mori needs a cane; her hip was smashed in the car crash that claimed her sister’s life. Mori’s handicap is one of many things that sets her apart from the girls in her school, but it’s not the most significant thing.

What I liked most about the story was the subtlety of the magic. Nothing truly, thoroughly magical happens until the second climax, when Mori is forced to fight her mother again. Even though it’s the story’s one scene of true violence, it’s done quite pastorally – not passively, by any stretch of the imagination, but not with the swing of a sword and a fiery spurt of blood. Indeed, Mori would have found such an instance to be vulgar. Instead, she uses her magic and her love of books to overcome, and bingo, we know that’s the happy ending. She walks (er, limps) into the gathering moonlight with her recent boyfriend and her un-estranged father, safe from the fairies and her mother and her past forever.

The (double) climax seems a  bit rushed, though, but it’s done well.  The story builds so slowly, so cleanly, that when it’s time for Mori to at last face her mother (again), it feels like it happens very all-of-a-sudden, and it seems a little out of place for such a languorously paced story.

My favorite little tidbit was toward the end, when Mori comes upon a freshly-released Heinlein paperback, The Number of the Beast.  Not one of Heinlein’s greatest hits, but a decent book, and I remember buying my first copy of it when I was about Morwenna’s age.  My least favorite part was a long scene where Mori spent time in the hospital having her leg rather incompetently dealt with; that part hits a little too close to home (though my doctors were eminently competent, I promise!).

This was a really good book. Very little violence. There are some frank passages (remember, the story is told as a series of diary entries) and short scenes (including a drunken, groping teenage make out session) of solo, hetero and homosexual activity (or near activity, at any rate). Mori’s father chain smokes and drinks.

I’d say this book is appropriate for anybody over about 13 or 14 years old that likes stories about fairies, magic, and teenage girls in a coming-of-age environment.

Naturally, somebody combed through and listed all 168 books mentioned in this book, and that list is on GoodReads.  168 books in 283 pages is 1.7 books mentioned per page.  I told you it was oppressive! I’ve read just 26 of them.

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summer book exchange list

I’ll update this list (hopefully I’ll remember to do it) with all the books that I’ve read this summer.

(Italics means I’ve received it, but haven’t read it yet.)

  1. The Dogs Don’t Bark in Brooklyn Any More, by Eric R Nolan
  2. World of Warcraft: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, by Christie Golden
  3. Among Others, by Jo Walton
  4. The Children’s Story, by James Clavell
  5. Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan
  6. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  7. How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran
  8. The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch
  9. Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914, by Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton
  10. The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, by Christopher Moore

Exchanged books sent (or planned to be sent):

  1. Jennifer Government, by Max Barry
  2. Christine, by Stephen King
  3. The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days, by Ian Frazier
  4. Marc Antony’s Heroes, by Stephen Dando-Collins
  5. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

summer book exchange #2: Arthras: Rise of the Lich King

As some of you know, I have opened myself up to being pummeled with books to celebrate my birthday this summer.  You send me a book, I read it, I review it, I send you a book.  Over and over until I’ve read all the books sent to me.

I will only be writing positive reviews.  If you send me a book and I hate it – or at the very least don’t have anything pleasant to say about it – I will not write a review.  I want this to be a largely positive experience!  If you see that my running tally skips a number, you’ll know I read a book I didn’t review.  (Note that my first review is book #2, so that already tells you something!)

For my first review, then:

World of Warcraft: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, by Christie Golden

If you told me a month ago that I’d read a book based on a video game, let alone enjoy it, I’d have probably laughed at you. Yet read one I did, and enjoy it I did as well!

I have never played the computer game World of Warcraft (or WoW, as I’m sure its fans refer to it) – not once. I tried another game of its ilk, Elder Scrolls, but found it unfun in a most thorough fashion. All that running – and I got killed by rats!

While I have played and greatly enjoyed other RPGs, I like to look forward into the future, to embrace my sci fi consciousness and revel in it. Mass Effect. BioShock. Fallout. Those kinds of games.  I played Fable and enjoyed that, but it’s far more cartoony (and easier) than Elder Scrolls. In short, Fable was fun, but ES was not.

My brother Jeremy gave me this book, saying, “You have to read this. Really.” I was kind of stunned, to tell the truth. He knows I’ve never played WoW. I did play (twice, I think) a version of WoW that is a board game – a very long (and pretty good) board game, with lots of little plastic monsters to use.  Plus, I don’t picture my brother reading for pleasure, and if he did, I didn’t imagine him reading novels like this.

See, my brothers used to pick on me incessantly when we were younger due to one of my hobbies – playing Dungeons & Dragons. If you ever played D&D, you’ll probably really dig this book. I know absolutely nothing about the WoW world and found the book engaging. It’s a well written tale of swords and sorcery, rife with magic users (mages), demons, zombies, kings, elves, dwarves, orcs, banshees and cavaliers (paladins).

The core of the story is the life of Prince Arthas Menethil, who starts as a boy and becomes a paladin – a type of warrior/priest that draws upon the Light for his strength, stamina and healing abilities. Arthas embraces the Light as a young man, then falls from grace in spectacular, gruesome fashion. The Light exists in this book as an unexplained, unexplored, fully established religion; in a lot of ways, it reminds me of the Force from the Star Wars universe. It simply is, and we’re given no explanation of its intricacies.

No matter, though, because the rest of the world is utterly familiar. Villages, farms, castles, cities, frozen fortresses, giant spiders – all of it is eminently understandable to anybody who’s read any amount of fantasy. The elves are tall, lean and beautiful; the dwarves are short, stout, bearded (possibly even the women) and inexplicably speak with a Scottish accent.

Golden weaves Arthas’ life experiences into both his rise and his fall; his most significant path takes him through gaining, losing, regaining and re-losing the love of a powerful mage, Jaina Proudmoore, who, though not royal, is a noble and a leader in her own right.

While the story contains a lot of fantasy/D&D cliches (like enchanted swords), it’s a solidly written, well paced book that was quite an enjoyable read. It’s well placed for a sequel, and I understand that there are several other books tied into this world that explain more about the other characters and some of the events they refer to.

I’ll leave you with one quote that I think sums up how the story ends:  “All that remained of him was the bitter keening of the wind scouring the tormented land.”

There is one very passively described sex scene and a lot of violence, including the brutal killing of children and animals.

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the ongoing criticism of the hiring of adjunct professors

When it comes to the practice of hiring adjunct professors, I’m definitely in the minority in that I don’t find the practice at all reprehensible.  I’m an adjunct myself, and a big fan of the system.

Could it be better?  Yes, absolutely.

It could be a lot worse, too.

People in this country will complain about anything, though, and hardly a week goes by that some pissed-off adjunct doesn’t write a blog entry about how oppressed they are, how poor they are, how much the conditions where they teach suck, blah blah blah.

My solution to many of these problems adjuncts think they face is simple:  GET A DIFFERENT JOB.  If being an adjunct sucks so much, STOP DOING IT.  I don’t make my living as an adjunct and you don’t have to, either.

Now, on with something of a point-by-point discussion of common critiques of the practice of hiring adjuncts.

 

76.4% of college professors are now adjuncts

I see this statistic thrown down in multiple places, and perhaps it’s true across the nation. I can only speak to one of the colleges where I teach. While I won’t explicitly name the college or the campus, if you pay enough attention to me on this blog or Facebook or Twitter, you’ll have a good idea where I’m talking about.

This college and campus has 15 history professors. Five are full time (which more or less equates to tenure) and 10 are adjuncts.  This indicates that 66% of the professors in this department at this campus of this college are adjuncts.  Pretty close, but below 74.6%

What I infer from this statistic, though, is that the majority of classes are being taught by adjuncts, which I do not believe is true.  At any given college in any given department, most adjuncts will teach one or two classes, while full time professors will often teach up to 4.  (For the record, I often teach 4 or even 5 classes in a given semester.)

To that end, let’s look instead at the percentage of classes being taught by adjuncts.  For the upcoming Fall 2014 semester, I counted 46 sections of history classes in the 100 (43) and 200 (3) levels at one campus at one of my schools. Here’s the breakdown:

  •          World history: 25 sections; 15 taught by full time faculty, 10 taught by adjunct faculty
  •          US history: 21 sections; 8 taught by full time faculty, 13 taught by adjunct faculty

Now, I’m no math wizard, but 23 sections taught by full time faculty and 23 sections taught by adjunct faculty looks a lot like 50%. At this school, in world civ/history, adjuncts teach 40% of world civ/history classes and 62% of US history classes.  Both of these numbers are well below the implication that nearly 75% of college classes are being taught by adjuncts.

 

The pattern of hiring adjuncts is symbolic of the corporatization of universities

Maybe. Probably. No matter what the high-minded among us think, universities are for-profit entities. They strive to make money, because the opposite – losing money – is bad for them. Local, state and federal budgets have been systematically gutting the budgets of ALL educational institutions, including higher education. If universities don’t make money, they disappear.

Every other aspect of US life and culture is corporatized or on the way to becoming so. Why should universities be any different?

By the way, what does corporatized mean, anyway? The articles decrying the corporatization of our universities never get into that. They throw it down as a critique, yet they don’t talk about what exactly they are critiquing.

 

Adjuncts are paid less than a living wage

My classes are all 3-credit classes; this implies 3 hours of class time per week, which is about right. Figure, though, that each class requires about double that amount of time, on average, per week. There are some weeks where I only have to answer a couple of emails from students in a particular class. There are other weeks where I spend 8 straight hours grading essays or exams. It evens out over the course of a 15- or 16-week semester, so I always tell people it’s safe to double the credit hours to come up with actual work hours. I figured it down to a rate of $26 an hour for each class I’m hired to teach. Given that the minimum wage at the time of this writing is $7.25 an hour, I think $26 an hour is pretty respectable. Of course, that number includes no benefits at all and doesn’t extend through the entire year, so it does have its limitations, but $26 an hour for a PART TIME JOB is pretty damn good money if you ask me.

Would it be hard to live on one class a semester? Yes, it absolutely would. Most adjuncts who don’t have other jobs (like I do) would have difficulty living on one class, so most of them (if not all of them) teach more than one class. I will agree that living on adjunct pay may very well be difficult, but I reject that it is impossible. Get a roommate.

 

Adjuncts don’t get any benefits like health insurance or retirement plans

What part-time workers get these kinds of benefits?  This is an ongoing issue in the USA, and when it’s solved for people who work at gas stations, 7-11, and Wal-Mart, it’ll get solved for adjuncts.

 

Students who take more classes with adjuncts are more likely to drop out

I wish I could speak to that, but I’ve been kind of busy lately congratulating former students of mine who are graduating this month. Of course, I can only congratulate the ones that keep in touch, which is admittedly a very small number of them.

 

Adjuncts don’t get access to sample syllabi or learning objectives

I’m straight out calling bullshit on this one because it’s both untrue – and entirely unimportant. As an adjunct, I have exactly as much access to sample syllabi and learning objectives as any full time or otherwise tenured professor. I have gotten sample syllabi from my department, from books and from the internet. I have easy access to learning objectives at both the departmental and institutional levels from both of my schools.

This is one of those things where the responsibility falls directly and fully on the professor – adjunct or otherwise. The last sample syllabi I looked at was in a book about teaching large classes. One of my schools posts every professor’s syllabus on its departmental website, which I can browse through any time I want.

A syllabus is like any other professional document.  If you don’t know how to write one, LEARN.  Ask for help, ask for advice, seek out examples.  DO IT!

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are hired last minute, so they cannot adequately prepare for a class

As I write this, it is mid-May. The spring semester is over and everybody’s gearing up for summer school. I already know my full teaching schedule for the fall semester, which of course doesn’t start until late August. LATE. AUGUST. To top that off, I’ve had my classes for the fall since April. APRIL, I TELL YOU! How exactly is that last minute? This is standard procedure for all the programs I’m involved with.

Of course, things happen outside normal processes. I have been asked just weeks or days before the semester started to take a class that a colleague had to abandon. I’ve even been tapped mid-semester to take over a course in progress when another professor was fired. Yes, that absolutely cuts down on preparation time.

However.

Any serious professor who is worth their podium has already done the bulk of the preparation needed for most classes they’ll be called on to teach. One of my deans could call me today and ask me to start teaching a Western Civ class next week – and 90% of the preparation is already done. There is always class-specific (meaning specific to those students in that section of a class) that has to be done, but it’s a few hours of work at most. AT MOST.

There is, however, the possibility I’d be called on to teach a class I’ve never taught before. If that happened right before the semester started (which would be unlikely), that would require some scrambling. In the normal course of events, I’d know about that class months in advance, so any resultant scrambling would be my fault, not the university’s.

Assuming adjuncts aren’t prepared to teach classes – even on short notice – is insulting to them at best and I completely reject it as a critique of the hiring of adjuncts.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are not provided with office space, making it difficult for them to meet with students

I’ve addressed this before, so I’m basically repeating myself here. I teach for a traditional 4-year university and a 2-year “junior” (community) college. The 4-year institution provides me with office space every semester. I share this office space with other adjuncts – we rotate using it so nobody has to overlap or double up. Every office to which I’ve been assigned has had adequate space and a computer (not that I need one). The 2-year institution does not provide me with specific office space, but every campus I have taught at has general/common office space, which includes rooms in which I can hold a private meeting with a student if necessary.

In addition, I often meet with students outside these office spaces because, frankly, offices are stuffy, weird, awkward places to meet. We have libraries, cafeterias, quads, coffee shops, and many, many more places to meet that are much more low-key than a tiny office filled with ceiling tile dust and fluorescent light.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts spend too much time commuting between schools where they teach

Possibly. I teach for two different schools at three different campuses and one off-campus location as well. One semester each of my classes was at a different location, requiring me to wrestle with remembering which place to go on which day and which parking permit to use. I made it through, largely because … really? It’s that hard to remember where you’re supposed to be on which day?  In my whole history of teaching – now reaching into its 13th year – I have only once gone to the wrong class.  Yes, it was embarrassing to walk into a math class like I knew what I was doing only to see an ocean of completely unfamiliar faces.  We all had a laugh and my actual class got an unexpected day off.  They weren’t terribly upset about it.

However, I can certainly see how this could be an issue for some adjuncts. I’m lucky in that my campuses are all within a relatively small geographic region. Yes, the traffic in that region (northern Virginia) is astoundingly shitty, but still – having every campus I could possibly teach at in a 15-mile radius may be the exception rather than the rule.

 

Adjuncts are often saddled with large amounts of student loan debt

Possibly, but that’s their own fault. You don’t hear me crying about paying off my student loans, do you? Why? Because they’re MY loans. I got them, I’m responsible for them, and that’s the news on that. When I was younger, I struggled to live within my means while still servicing my debt, and that often meant going without stuff like high quality food and cable. I had housemates until I was 35. That kind of sucked, but that’s what happens when you get a bunch of student loans. I didn’t have to do get those loans, but I did and that’s my responsibility.

In other words, why should adjuncts be any different than anybody else with student loan debt.  Can’t pay your loans on an adjunct’s pay? GET A DIFFERENT JOB.

 

Adjuncts are not compensated for outside-of-class activities, like writing recommendation letters or attending departmental meetings

True, but neither are tenured professors. I write rec letters on my own time and I attend one or two departmental meetings (out of 3 departments) a semester. Hardly worth crying about.  In 13 years of teaching at the college level, I have never once been invited to join a committee, let alone required to participate on one.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are afraid to challenge their students for fear of bad reviews, which prevents students from developing critical thinking skills

I’m going to reject this critique outright as well.

There’s a huge difference between challenging your students and offending them. Universities (and students too, for that matter) don’t look at a review that says “this professor is hard, he made me think outside the box and expand my mind” as a BAD REVIEW. This also assumes that student evaluations hold any significant place in whether or not an adjunct is rehired the next semester. I have found this to be patently untrue.

As a matter of fact, I have never had one of my supervisors (departmental assistant deans) bring up a negative review to me. EVER. They barely bring up positive reviews. If you want to talk about people in academia that are overworked, look right at the assistant deans. Hoo boy, do they do a bunch of stuff. I have had a handful of students complain to my dean(s) about me, issues which were addressed in normal fashions and which, I’d like to add, were all unfounded and resulted from a student being unhappy about something I said, did or graded. Sorry, I’m digressing.

Part of my job is to introduce students to ideas outside their own experiences, which in and of itself can be challenging. Trying to explain to a lifelong southern Christian about the motivations of the people who started Islam … you have no idea what a challenge that is for both me and them. Trying to explain away the myth that people in the 15th century thought the world was flat is, though perhaps less controversial, similarly challenging.

If you are constantly offending students and they’re not learning anything along the way, you’re just a bad teacher. That has nothing to do with you being an adjunct; it has everything to do with you being a shitty teacher. Students don’t equate HARD with BAD. If your class is so impossible to pass that students give you a reputation as an impossible-to-please professor, you’re a shitty teacher – adjunct or not.

It is, however, a lot easier to punish (“fire”) bad adjuncts than it is to punish (fire) bad tenured professors. With an adjunct, you just stop calling with offers. Getting rid of a tenured professor is a long, tedious process – and in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. Also in my opinion, it’s time to abandon the whole concept of tenure, but that’s a different discussion. To add to that, though, professors – including adjuncts – are no different than workers in other industries. Some of them are awesome, some of them suck, but most of them are OK.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are stuck in this academic wage slave system because they have to teach so much in so many different places for such low pay just to survive that they cannot produce scholarship (research/published articles), and that prevents them from attaining tenured positions

This is a big reason why I think we should abandon the tenure concept entirely. The idea that you have to publish an article or a book based on original research on such-and-such a schedule to be a good teacher is completely idiotic. It’s been my experience that great teachers generally care little about research and great researchers generally care little about teaching. Some of the worst teachers I’ve ever had have been brilliant academics that wrote important books that expanded the knowledge on some subject.

Teaching and writing do not go hand in hand. It’s time universities stop forcing them to do just that.

None of my feelings on this matter address the issue, though, that adjuncts are wage slaves stuck in the system because they work so much (commute, teach, write recommendation letters, meet with students, commute, teach, repeat) that they have no time to do original research, write articles and find somebody to publish them to boot. This criticism may very well be true, but it’s not part of my sphere of influence since I’ve never published a single article. I wrote one, sure, but it’s been rejected 67 times at this point by various publishers, so meh. I’m a teacher, not a researcher, so I really don’t give a shit if I ever get published. I also don’t see being published as a way to further my teaching agenda, but it’s clear that lots of folks do.

 

Adjuncts cannot organize with each other due to the nature of their positions – they are cut off from other adjuncts

Really? In the age of the internet, adjuncts can’t find a way to meet with each other?

Criticism: REJECTED

 

Well, that wraps up today’s little rant about how poorly adjuncts are doing in academia.  It’s unlikely that my little blog will garner much attention outside my Facebook friends, but some of y’all are teachers, professors, students and former students, so maybe this will reach you.

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three dystopian classics

dystopian_booksPlease note that this piece contains spoilers.

I’m planning on doing a bit of reading this summer – and the plan is to go through a pile of classics of various genres. I said that’s the plan – I can’t promise I’ll venture far from the science fiction books that I so dearly love. My intention, though, is to read books I think I should have already read or that I haven’t read in a very, very long time – to the point that I can’t recall what happened or why.

Here’s my exam books – that is, these are the books I read during the two weeks of final exams this semester. I decided to start with dystopian classics – that is, books set in a world where society is suffering (from our perspective) from some unconscionable ill.

  • Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

I read them in this order, so I’ll look at them in the same order.

Fahrenheit 451
Published 1953
Main characters:

  • Guy Montag, a fireman
  • Mildred, his wife
  • Clarisse McClellan, a teenager
  • Captain Beatty, Montag’s fire chief
  • the Mechanical Hound, a hunter/seeker robot
  • Faber, a former professor

I’m an unabashed Ray Bradbury fan. I’ve liked almost everything I’ve ever read by him (as opposed to Robert A. Heinlein, whose work dropped off seriously as he got older). Fahrenheit 451 is no exception. This is an excellent book. Set in the not-too-distant future, there’s nothing about it that’s inherently unbelievable except for the dystopian twist. In Guy Montag’s world, firemen don’t put out fires – they start them.

They burn books.

Montag is generally OK at the beginning of the story, maybe a little unsettled with a side of discontent, but he doesn’t know what’s bothering him, so he mostly suppresses it. His wife is addicted to drugs and television – she and her friends spend a lot of time with “the family” – but he seems to genuinely care for her.

One night after returning home from a fire, he meets Clarisse, a free-spirited 17-year-old girl who recently moved into his neighborhood. They strike up a tentative (for Montag) and chaste friendship. The chaste aspect was a pleasant surprise, given how many books (even my beloved sci-fi novels) seem to be obsessed with pedophilia, rape, incest, etc. (I’m talking to you, Piers Anthony, and your “Bio of a Space Tyrant” series). Montag is intrigued by Clarisse, but not interested in her sexually or romantically. As I said, he seems to genuinely care about his wife.

The problem is that Clarisse’s free spirit awakens something in Montag, and he starts to wonder if he’s cut out to be a fireman. Some time after they meet, Clarisse and her family disappear, never to be heard from again. Montag is understandably upset by this and it does add to his downward spiral.

What really pushes Montag into rebellion, though, is a routine fire. His crew is called out to a home where a woman has been hoarding books. She was reported and it’s their duty to uphold the law – to destroy the books. They set about burning down the entire house; the kicker is that the woman would rather die with her books than live without them; she runs back into the house and perishes in the fire. THIS is what sets Montag on his path – a path that follows right along with some books he managed to secret away and take home.

He forces Mildred to read (or listen to him read) some of the books. Mildred clearly can’t handle it and eventually turns him in. Montag escapes the fire, but subsequently kills Captain Beatty and is forced to go on the run, aided (somewhat) by Faber and hunted by two fearsome Mechanical Hounds. Montag hooks up with some folks living off the grid, people who each memorize one book and are identified by the title they have committed to memory. At the end of the book, Montag is no longer a fireman and free from Mildred, happier than he’s ever been despite losing everything.

Montag’s turn to rebellion is one that many of us can understand – his mind is awakened by a book of poetry that sticks with him, and his rusty intellect yearns for more knowledge. It is an awakening that many of us can relate to.

Throughout the story, there is an undercurrent of approaching nuclear war. It’s heard in snippets, discussed in passing – and treated like it’s no big deal. Montag isn’t freaked out when his city is destroyed, which I found a little disturbing. Given that F451 was published in 1953, during the early years of the Cold War, I would have thought the thought of nuclear war – let alone its actual occurrence – would bother the characters a bit more. Perhaps Bradbury was making a comment on how commonplace atomic weapons already were at that point, so much so that even their use is treated casually by his characters.

F451 reads fast and easy; though the language is sometimes outdated, it is easily understandable. Sex and violence is mildly portrayed; the most disturbing scenes involve, of course, fire – when Montag’s crew burns the house with the woman in it and when Montag kills his chief and one of the Mechanical Hounds. Montag treats women well (well, except for the one he burns up, but that was her choice), and he has a kind soul.

I would recommend this book for most kids by 12 as long as the parents think they can handle the deaths by fire.

Brave New World
Published 1932
Main Characters:

  • Bernard Marx, an Alpha Plus
  • Lenina Crowne, a Beta
  • Helmholtz Watson, Bernard’s friend
  • John, the Savage
  • Linda, his mother

Brave New World, in contrast to F451, takes place in a world that, though populated with humans, is completely alien in nature. It appears to be a utopia, which of course is why this is a classic of dystopian literature. Their utopia is our nightmare – one in which scientific processes destine each person’s role in a rigidly structured caste system of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Epsilons and Gammas. Alphas are each an individual – Betas, too – but at the bottom of the system, each Gamma can be one of hundreds of identical humans all bred for a specific set of jobs.

Much like F451, one of BNW’s critical plot points involves a book in the midst of a society that has banned reading for intellectual or emotional enrichment – this time, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. The spectre of nuclear war haunts BNW as well, though it happened in this world’s past and was the impetus for the creation of their manufactured society.

The book starts slow, but you can’t stop reading it, experiencing a combination of horror and fascination as Huxley details exactly how the citizens of this brave new world are constructed – and they are, indeed constructed – and educated, largely by subliminal repetitive conditioning. It truly is horrifying, but you can’t stop turning the pages.

The first chapter gives way to the main characters of Lenina and Bernard fairly quickly, where we discover that, though a top-of-the-heap Alpha Plus, Bernard is intellectually and socially an outlier. He prefers to spend time alone in thought, even discussing nearly rapturously a time where he just … sat … and did nothing. NOTHING. Bernard is also marginalized sexually; in a society that treats sexual encounters as freely and casually as this one, Bernard’s desire to keep Lenina more or less to himself is nothing short of bizarre.

The central events of the book get into gear when Bernard takes Lenina on vacation to Malpais – the Savage Reservation – in New Mexico. There they discover Linda, a Beta from London (like them) who was accidentally lost and left behind during a similar vacation many years before. Linda had a baby and became a mother – concepts which disgust Lenina so thoroughly that she car barely resist puking. Bernard can’t resist taking Linda and her son John, usually referred to as The Savage, back to London. John is treated as a major scientific discovery and Bernard becomes a celebrity for a little while. In the third act – the second act being the vacation to Malpais, which translates from French as “bad country” – sees The Savage supplant Bernard as the main character. Bernard is exiled to an island (where, ironically, it’s likely he’ll be happier than he was in London) and The Savage tries to live a solitary, isolated life after his mother dies.

F451 isn’t rife with too terribly much social commentary, but BNW sure is. It is a biting critique of communism, consumerism and education as well as the moral/ethical values of 1920s/30s England/Europe. It is a fantastic story in every sense of the word; though it starts a bit slow (all the science is a little hard to get through at times, and I found a typo (perhaps intentional) in a chemical formula in my edition), but once you read your way out of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, it moves very quickly and smoothly.

It is this book’s treatment of sex that makes me hesitate to recommend it to anybody under the age of, say, 14 or 15. Certainly I wouldn’t let a kid who hasn’t learned about sex (and not just the mechanics of the act) read this book. There is very little violence in BNW, but one character whips himself viciously and there is a suicide as well – though portrayed “off screen.” The story also features pervasive drug use throughout – the people of BNW consume a recreational semi-psychedelic called soma like we take aspirin.

Both Bradbury and Huxley are excellent writers – descriptive and evocative don’t even really begin to describe them. Dick’s style is as dystopian as his future, a stark contrast in every way to the above two novels.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Published 1968
Main Characters

  • Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter
  • Iran, his wife
  • Rachael Rosen, a Nexus 6
  • J.R. Isidore, a chickenhead
  • Pris Stratton, a Nexus 6

When you read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the first thing you have to do is forget everything you think you know about this book because you’ve seen Blade Runner 57 times. Here’s the similarities between the book and the movie:

  • the main character’s name, Rick Deckard, and occupation (hunting down and killing androids)
  • Deckard’s boss is named Bryant
  • Rachael is a Nexus 6
  • the name Roy Batty (Baty in the book)
  • the name Pris
  • the Voight-Kampff test
  • the androids stole a shuttle and came to Earth
  • flying cars

Things that are different between the book and the movie – from the perspective of the book:

  • Roy is a married, pudgy, slovenly “andy” who is easily ambushed and killed
  • Joanna Cassidy’s character (Zhora) doesn’t exist at all
  • Pris doesn’t fight back
  • Brion James’ character (Leon) is a Soviet cop
  • the closest thing to Edward James Olmos’ character (Gaff) is a bounty hunter called Phil Resch
  • Rachael and Pris are 2 “editions” of the same “model” – i.e. they are nearly identical in appearance
  • Rachael is a mean-spirited, nasty person – er, andy
  • Animals – real or artificial – are the most important and expensive things in the world
  • JR Isidore (JF Sebastian in the movie) is nearly retarded
  • the world is permeated with radiation-laced dust
  • a religion called Mercerism guides the book’s human characters
  • and much, much more

Pretty much everything else is different – and vastly so. I’m going to go ahead and say it now – but I liked the movie more than the book. I’m not sure this is a book I’ll reread.

The world Deckard lives in was devastated by a nuclear war, which prompted the humans to emigrate off world – mostly to Mars. They started creating androids to keep them company – apparently life on Mars is quite lonely – and work. The Rosen Association has been constantly improving their “andys” (androids) to the point where bounty hunters have to use intricate empathy tests to ferret out and “retire” the ones who have illegally returned to Earth. (Dick actually refers to them as illegal aliens several times.) Deckard’s predecessor, Holden, hunts down two of a group of 8 andys who have come to Earth, but is nearly killed by one. Deckard takes over and with a little help from Phil Resch, manages to retire (execute) the other 6 in one very long day. Resch kills 2, Deckard kills 4, including Polokov (the one who lasered Holden), Pris, Roy and Roy’s wife. The climax of the hunt takes just a couple of paragraphs and is quite anti-climactic given the time and effort Deckard has put into finding the androids.

Rather than looking at the hunt for the andys as the central plot device, then, let’s look at what really matters to Deckard. His main goal in life is to own a real animal – a real, live animal – and the $1,000 bounty he gets for each andy he retires helps him achieve that goal. After he does, he is dismissive of his artificial (electric) sheep, which it is clear at the beginning of the story he clearly cares deeply for. This, perhaps, is the central theme of the book – that humans can so easily shift their affection from one thing to another thing that is perceived as better. The denizens of Deckard’s nuclear wasteland of a society spend their time obsessing about live animals and looking up their values in a ubiquitous catalog.

Isidore is what Dick calls a “special” – and the other characters call a chickenhead. It’s clearly a derogatory term and liberally peppered throughout the story. Ironically, Isidore is the one character who doesn’t care that Pris, Roy and the others are andys. Though Deckard has sex with Rachael in an almost self-hating way, Isidore feels great affection towards Pris and struggles to protect her. Even though it is a hopeless, unrequited love, it is perhaps the one bright spot in the entire book.

A great deal of the book is taken up with a religion called Mercerism; the characters interact with Mercer with the aid of a box that they kind of port into with their minds. It’s an immersive and interactive experience, but in the end one that is denounced and exposed as fake by a TV/radio personality called Buster Friendly, who is most likely at least one android, if not two or more. However, in the long run, neither Mercerism nor the “mood box” concepts are fully fleshed out, leaving the reader wondering if the story could have been streamlined by leaving them both out completely.

The most intense scene in the book takes place after Deckard is himself arrested for harassing a suspected andy, an opera singer called Luba Luft. He’s taken (by an android masquerading as a beat cop) to an unfamiliar police station run by another android masquerading as a cop, though a high-ranking one.  Inspector Garland (the andy) completely messes with Deckard’s mind, nearly convincing him that he himself is an android, but Phil Resch comes in, laser a-blazin’, and saves the day.

Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test on Rachael is subtly erotic and fairly charged, but when he runs the same test on Luba Luft, it’s as if Deckard has become one of the Keystone Kops, suddenly unable to control a suspect or manage an interrogation.  It’s a stark indication that Deckard just might suck at his job.  After all, Holden is the primary bounty hunter in his precinct; Deckard is only sent after the 6 remaining andys after Holden is grievously wounded.  Deckard is easily fooled by Polokov and suckered in by Garland as well.

The idea that Deckard is an incompetent cop stuck with an important assignment shows through in his resistance to go after the 3 remaining andys, a task he puts off with sex and alcohol, finally resigning himself to finish the job after Rachael agrees to go with him and kill the andy that looks like her so he doesn’t have to do it.

There is one lightly described sex scene and a good bit of violence – one of the androids is “blown apart” by Deckard’s “laser tube,” but most of the violence isn’t particularly graphic and it’s all over very quickly. Though I’d let kids as young as 10 or 12 read this book, I doubt they’d like it much, so it’s perhaps better left to older teens who have developed the patience to crawl through a lot of extraneous material and can focus on the story at the heart of this book.

I think DADOES would have made a great short story. It is not a great book. It’s a decent book, maybe even good, but it’s not great. This is one of the rare cases in which the movie is better than the book.

Wrap Up

I think it’s clear from the above descriptions that Fahrenheit 451 was my favorite, followed by Brave New World, with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? coming in a distant third.

There are things about Dick’s book that I like better than the other two, though. I like that Dick’s dystopia is a harsh, dirty, rough place – like a dystopia should be.  Living in that world sucks, and they all know it.  Bradbury’s and Huxley’s dystopias have a taste of the rough life, but both are minimally populated.  Perhaps, however, Bradbury’s dystopia is just getting going – after all, the nuclear war in his story happens all the way at the end – but for those characters, that is actually the beginning of the redemption of their world, a return to a time when literature was important and those who possessed it (even if only in their memories) were revered.

I find it interesting that books are a central theme in all three stories – Montag’s new obsession with forbidden books, The Savage’s ability to understand the world outside Malpais through his understanding of Shakespeare, and Deckard’s dog-eared, heavily used Sidney’s Catalog.  While one of the books Montag rescues is an actual Bible, in the other two stories, the iconic books in them take on the role of religious texts to their owners, which is quite an interesting parallel between all three stories.

Feel free to leave suggestions for other works of classic dystopian literature that you think I might enjoy.

cinco de drinko and Mexican independence

mexican-flag-historyIt’s bad enough that Americans sully the image of the Irish by turning St. Patrick’s Day into an excuse to consume mass quantities of green beer, but it seems as if no grossly misinterpreted “national” holiday is safe from this treatment.

Example: Cinco de Mayo.

The 5th of May is what that means, and of course, Americans use it as an excuse to drink a lot of beer and misinterpret the people of another nation.

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s “independence day.”  Mexico claimed its independence from Spain on 16 September 1810, though the resulting war (which started in 1808) continued on-and-off until 27 September 1821. Technically, then, 16 September is Mexican independence day, and it is celebrated across Mexico as such.

Conspirators rebelling against the rule of Napoleon’s big brother, Joseph Bonaparte, declared Mexico an independent state. Joe ran Spain after Charles IV and Ferdinand VII abdicated. The independence movement wasn’t terribly widespread at first, taking several years to catch on; the so-called “New Spain” turned into the Mexican Empire, officially becoming independent in 1821.  The Spanish tried to take the territory back a couple of times, but finally recognized Mexico’s independence in 1836.

Cinco de Mayo, then, isn’t Mexico’s independence day – and it has nothing to do with Mexico’s independence from Spain in the first place.  I’d wager that it’s celebrated more thoroughly in the USA than it is in Mexico, where it’s more of a regional holiday than a national one.

On 5 May 1862, Mexico’s army defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla.  France invaded Mexico in 1861 after Mexico’s government, in dire straits financially, said it would stop paying back its foreign loans for a few years until they got back on their feet.  England and Spain reached an agreement with Mexico, but France’s reaction was to invade.

France was taking advantage of Mexico’s instability; they had lost a war with the US in 1848, suffered through a destructive civil war in 1858, and had more internal strife in 1860 – all of which led up to the financial crisis in 1861.

France’s invasion force attacked Veracruz, won, and headed for Mexico City.  When the French army reached the Mexican state of Puebla, resistance stiffened despite worsening conditions for the Mexican army.

France’s army, then considered one of the best in the world, was about 8,000 troops; Mexico fielded about half that number, and they were poorly equipped and underprepared at best.  Against all odds, Mexico won a decisive victory at the Battle of Puebla, boosting the nation’s morale and hardening their resolve to resist the French incursion.

None of that ended up mattering in the long run; France followed up that defeat by sending 30,000 soldiers to Mexico, finally forcing the country into submission in 1864.  The US stepped in to aid Mexico after the US Civil War ended in 1865, leading the new Mexican king, Napoleon III, to abandon Mexico.  Mexico reestablished control over Mexico City and seated a new government in June 1867.

The “holiday” of Cinco de Mayo has its origins in California, making it much more an American holiday than a Mexican one. Go ahead & drink all you want, but at least know what it is you’re actually celebrating – and why.