book review: (invasion of) the body snatchers

Original Title: The Body Snatchers; title updated to Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the 1978 edition.  Written by Jack Finney, originally published in 1954 as a short story and as a novel in 1955.  Film versions in 1956, 1978 (my favorite – w/Donald Sutherland), 1993 (Meg Tilly, R Lee Ermy & Forest Whitaker), and 2007 (w/Nicole Kidman & Daniel Craig).

Written in 1954 but set in 1976, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a science fiction classic.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  It’s a fun, fast read.  It won’t challenge you intellectually, but you’ll have fun.  I take that back, actually – you very well may engage in some deeper thinking when you finish this book, I think, but that’s really kind of based on your background more than Finney’s story.

One interesting thing in the story is that the two main characters – Dr. Miles Bennell (our hero) and Becky Driscoll – go to see a movie at one point.  They go see Time and Again – which happens to be another novel written by Finney.  This is a retcon introduced in the 1978 revision – because Finney didn’t write that book until 1970 and it was never made into a movie.  It’s a time travel story, and the method of time travel in that book was used in a movie (1980 – Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour), but even that happened after the revision. (I suppose it would have been in the works in 1978, though.)  I don’t have access to a 1955 version of the story, so it may not have originally been set in 1976; Miles is telling the story in the past tense, after all.

The entire novel feels blissfully set in the early 1950s, and indeed Finney serialized this story in Collier’s Magazine in 1954, just another of many short stories he wrote that was published that way.  He fleshed it out a little, adding characters and plot side-points (but not too many, and they’re not too distracting) for the 1955 novel.

Reading the story from a 21st century perspective, the characters – our heroes plus the Belicecs, Theodora (Teddy) and Jack – seem a bit … well, stupid at times.  Miles is a medical doctor with a small family practice – he’s just wrapped up a sprained thumb as the story opens.  Jack is a writer (a nice call-out for Finney himself) and there’s no real indication of what the two women do for a living – or any of the women, actually, which somebody in 2015 might think is weird.

In 1955, not so much.  It would have been nearly scandalous that both Miles and Becky were divorced to somebody reading the book in 1955.  Divorce wasn’t uncommon back then, but divorced people were viewed as more …damaged… by American society, and as such, it would have been no surprise that Miles and Becky end up together.  (Don’t worry, I’m not ruining that – it’s clearly broadcasted from their first meeting that they’ll become an item.)  Their relationship builds as gradually as the story, and there’s some real emotion in it on Miles’ part.  When they finally have sex, it’s portrayed chastely, tastefully, and I wouldn’t hesitate to have a younger pre-teen (that already knows about sex) read this book.  Miles’ description of their first kiss is sweet, tender and full of emotion – which brings me to my next point.

Emotion is the central theme of the book, perhaps, or one of them.  It’s the way the characters identify the pod people.

Oh, wait a minute.  I need to back up.

IMG_1139The town of Santa Mira, a sleepy hamlet near US 101 in California not far from San Diego, is just like any other small town in America.  You can feel the small town atmosphere in Finney’s writing, it just oozes charm and beauty.  Some time in September or October 1976, though, pods drifted into town.

From outer space.

The pods, we soon learn, contain aliens that exist as parasitical mimics.  They float through space, gently, unthreateningly, until they find a planet teeming with life.  They morph themselves in a process that’s described in detail in the book – it’s not disgusting in the least, but it is fairly terrifying – and the become whatever life form it is they’ve imprinted upon.  Once the pod completes its transformation, the original being mimicked disappears in a cloud of dust.  Poof!  Gone!

The new alien mimic is an exact replica of the victim in every way – physically (down to the last scar or mole), mentally (all memories completely intact), and socially (not just social conventions but speech patterns) – but not emotionally.  The aliens-as-us don’t have the emotional depth we do, and that’s what enables a few minor characters to identify them early in the story.  One such minor character, Becky’s cousin Wilma (a very 1955 name if ever there was one) says her Uncle Ira looks, talks, acts, everythings like Uncle Ira – but he isn’t Uncle Ira.  Becky is concerned for her cousin and comes to the good doctor to ask him to go meet Uncle Ira, who of course Miles has known since he was a child.

Miles can’t tell any difference in Uncle Ira, but his curiosity is piqued, and the story boosts from there.

Finney does a great job of portraying emotion between Miles and Becky, and their feelings for each other intensify through the story to their natural culmination.  Because we know how strongly they feel for each other, when they’re confronted by the townies that know they haven’t transformed – led by a colleague of Miles’ named Mannie, a psychiatrist to whom Miles sends the people who feel like their kin aren’t really their kin at the beginning of the story – we can easily see the benefits of being an emotional being and exactly why Miles and Becky resist their nigh-inevitable transformation.

It would have been easy just to go to sleep, after all, and let the change come, but when Miles discovers that the aliens have a limited life span and what they’ll really do to the Earth, he resists, fighting back and (of course) eventually winning.

This isn’t a horror story – I’d call it a thriller.  Maybe a slow-burn thriller.  Finney builds the story well, gradually increasing the tension, until the characters discover – together – what’s really going on.  The pace is excellent and the writing is engaging.  The story is a little predictable, and there’s some points where it’s clear that Miles, Becky, Jack and Theodora are overlooking some quite obvious clues, but in general, they solve the mystery at a good pace.

In that slow-burn vein, one of the best scenes in the book is when Miles and Becky watch – from the window of Miles’ office – the transformed townsfolk gather.  They pin on matching buttons so they can identify who’s been changed and systematically remove – gently, carefully – anybody not wearing the right button.  Then they lay out their plan to take the pods out of Santa Mira.  It’s at that point that Miles knows he has to do something, but he figures out – too late – that the last two pods they saw in the truck were for him and Becky.

Because this book came out in the first decade of the Cold War, there have always been folks who call it a warning about the evils of Communism.  I can see how they came to that conclusion, but I think it’s incorrect.  People have also said it was a warning about Communism’s American antithesis, McCarthyism, and I think that’s incorrect as well.  Maybe I think those portrayals are incorrect because neither Communism nor McCarthyism is a threat in 2015, 60 years after The Body Snatchers came out in book form.

When I read it, I see the theme of change – and not the priceless, beneficial changes we see our children go through.  The scary changes we see ourselves go through as we age. The flattening of life, the suppression of emotions, perhaps even dementia and Alzheimer’s.  The aliens are POD PEOPLE, after all, and alien pod people at that, and they don’t have those human dimensions like we do.  They are, in essence, a shell of what we are, and turning into that shell scares the shit out of us all.  Finney seems to be telling us that change is inevitable, but if you fight hard enough, that change doesn’t have to be uncontrollable and you can change for the better.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers features some violence (the main character assaults and overcomes a policeman) and some scary imagery (when our heroes find some of the “blanks” before they transform).  There is no cursing and a few mentions of sex, including one implied sex scene.  I wouldn’t hesitate to offer this book to a child as young as 10 years old, provided I thought they could handle the idea of space pods drifting to Earth and sitting in the basement, slowly turning into their parents and then replacing them while Mom and Dad sleep.

Advertisements

book suggestions

A former student emailed me asking for suggestions on some history books to read, so I thought I’d share with you what I shared with her.  If you end up reading any of these books, please comment here, email me, or send me a Facebook messages with your thoughts on the book(s).

The best – hands down best, no kidding – history-related book I have EVER read came out not too long ago.  It’s called Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly & the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson.  It happens that one of my favorite movies (ever) is “Lawrence of Arabia,” and the author deconstructs the movie as well as the reality of TE Lawrence.  Just a fantastic book, no kidding, plus it really opens the mind to why the Middle East is the way it is now.

Another really good book is Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion & the Armies of Rome, by Stephen Dando-Collins.  He’s written a bunch of books in this series and they’re all OK, but this one is the best of the bunch.  The cool thing is that they read more like novels/stories than history books – maybe I appreciate them because that’s the way I like to teach!

Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, is a cool book that takes a serious world-spanning look at how the effort to acquire just one of life’s minor luxuries helped shape the world as we know it.  Fascinating.  This book was recommended to me (along with another book that wasn’t quite as good) by a 17-year-old home-schooled girl, and I’m glad I listened to her on this one.

If you’re interested in Cold War-era stuff, look at The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, by Lewis Siegelbaum.  You wouldn’t think a book about crappy cars made in Bulgaria or Hungary would be that interesting, but when you look at them in their geopolitical context, pretty cool stuff.  Another good CW book is Red Moon Rising: Sputnik & the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, by Matthew Brzezinski.  It’s a little more … dense & academic … than most of the other stuff I’ve listed here, but I’m obsessed with sci-fi, so I always liked this book because it combines history and space.

OK last suggestion, and this one might be a little off the wall: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman. It’s a graphic novel filled with mice, cats & pigs, but it’s a really powerful book about how an American man learns to cope with his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor.  My copy is 2 volumes, but I think it’s available as one complete book now.

3e8154f3d0164fb9c74d9212c54db126

following in the footsteps of giants, or around the world in 5 years

There are titans in the world of travel writing.  Bill Bryson, certainly, but he doesn’t ride motorcycles.  In the motorcycling world, there’s Ted Simon (Jupiter’s Travels and Dreaming of Jupiter) and Neil Peart (Ghost Rider and Roadshow). Those four books define the art of the motorcycle travelogue* – equal parts adventure, misfortune, introspection and advice.

With The University of Gravel Roads, Peart’s countryman Rene Cormier is trying to work his way into the lexicon of the world rider; for the most part, he succeeds, but there’s probably more wrong with this book than there is right.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Cormier hasn’t written a bad book. It’s … well, around here, some folks say middlin’, and by that we mean not bad, but not good, either.

IMG_0762The biggest and most glaring problem with The University of Gravel Roads is the photos.  Look at that photo of the book.  How big does that book look?  Just looking at it, it looks 8.5 x 11 in landscape mode, right? It’s actually …uh… 8.5 x 11 in landscape mode.

Now, when you see a book like that, run sideways and with giant, glossy photos on the front and back covers of scenic vistas – albeit one with a half-naked biker on it – it’s not unreasonable to assume, as I did, that the book I was about to read would be filled with large-format, high-resolution photographs.

It’s not.

There are photos on nearly every page, but Cormier admits that on the first leg of his journey, he not only went cheap on his camera, but he went cheap on the storage as well, setting his camera to its lowest resolution in order to pack as many photos as possible onto the memory chip.  Mid-journey, he runs out of money and is forced to return to Canada to work/earn/save for a year, and during that year he buys a new camera and clearly learns his lesson about camera memory cards, because the quality of the photos jumps up about halfway through the book.  Other than a few beautiful panoramas, however, Cormier wastes the landscape format of his book, and frankly, he includes only a very few spectacular photos.

That seems like a petty complaint, and I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did like it just fine.  There’s a little Simon-ish action and adventure related, including shenanigans at various border stops.  There’s a little Peart-ish soul searching, including the realization that he’s not cut out for travelling with a companion for long periods of time.  He learns some lessons and through his lessons, we gain a little advice.

Reading the title, The University of Gravel Roads, the expectation is that we’re about to learn something, because the author learned something.  I suppose he does, but other than a highly introspective (but short) final chapter, we don’t really learn what he learns other than his Central/South American experiences seem more rewarding because of the shared language, which he committed himself to learning as well as he could.  Travelling in Africa and Asia was a miasma of changing languages, and he makes a point of telling us that the only phrase he had in most of them was “I only speak English.”

I suppose my disappointment with Cormier’s book isn’t because of what it is, but rather holding onto what it is not. It’s not Ghost Rider, Peart’s journey from the depths of emotional pain to something resembling normalcy.  It’s not 10 Years on 2 Wheels, Helge Pedersen’s absolutely stunning collection of photos taken during his decade-long journey. I wanted Gravel Roads to be either – or both – of those things, and it’s not. It’s Cormier’s journey, and every journey is different.  This book just feels a lot like a fundraiser so he can take another journey.

I say it’s worth reading, but only if you’ve already read the other books mentioned in this post and can – unlike me – let go of some lofty expectations.

* You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There’s a good reason for that – it’s not a motorcycle travelogue.  A lot of people think it’s a book about zen and/or a book about motorcycle maintenance – or at least motorcycles. It has nothing to do with zen at all, and, while there is a solid chunk of motorcycle journey (and a well written one, to boot) at the beginning and again at the end, that’s not really what the book is about. It’s about values and the pursuit/examination of those values.

a far more likely apocalypse

Dystopian fiction is all the rage with kids today – both in print and at the movies.  The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, all that noise.

(I’ll do us all a favor and not get into how weak those movies really are – and other than The Giver, how unbelievably weak and derivative their source material is. You want to watch a great dystopian flick? Check out Children of Men or Soylent Green. Plus there is no better dystopian novel than 1984. Period.)

IMG_0757All that aside, I think dystopian fiction is popular because we don’t see those situations and the people that rise above them as reflective of our own lives.  We’re unable to think that our world would be divided up into districts, each of which is required to send one boy and one girl to fight to the death in a special arena in order to determine which of us eats well next year.  It’s pure, unadulterated fantasy.

If that’s why you enjoy dystopian fiction, then you absolutely should not read William Forstchen’s One Second After, because it is absolutely not that kind of dystopia. Only read this book if you’re ready to face some hard truths about the nature of humanity and what happens to people when everything around them goes straight to hell.

(By the way, you can skip Newt Gingrich’s foreword. It adds nothing to the credibility of the author and comes across as cloying and pedantic. Worst part of the book. The afterword by Bill Sanders is fantastic, though.)

Our hero, John, is a former Army colonel who has retired from the hectic life of rising through the ranks, left the hustle and bustle of command, and headed for the hills of western North Carolina. He chooses his family over his career, a choice which immediately endears him to us and pulls us into a place where we inherently trust him.  We know right away that he prioritizes his kids over his job, even though his new, post-Army job is a cushy tenured professorship teaching history at a tiny (>600 student) Christian college a few miles east of Asheville.

It’s his youngest daughter’s birthday as the story opens, and we get to the meat of it quickly – in a split second, all the power goes out and everything with modern electronics dies a silent, irrevocable death.  Since I read the back of the book before reading the inside of it, I already knew that the cause of the power outage was an EMP, so I wasn’t surprised by that.  You knew it was going to happen because the first chapter is titled “Day 1.”

If you don’t know, EMP stands for Electro-Magnetic Pulse.

(Don’t say “EMP burst.” That’s like saying “ATM machine.” Pulse is another word for burst in this context.)

An EMP is a side effect of a nuclear explosion, and this side effect fries everything electronic in sight.  It results from an extremely powerful burst of gamma radiation originating from the detonation site.  Draw a straight line from the detonation point out in every direction, and if that line touches something electronic, that bit of electronics is fried.  The only electronics that survive are items that are “hardened,” or specially prepared to resist this specific burst of radiation, and items that are otherwise (luckily) shielded – perhaps behind or under many inches of concrete or something like that.  If you take that detonation and put it up in the sky, then that line-of-sight effect is expanded, and even more so the farther up in the air you do it.  This is the basic premise of the book – that some enemy of the United States (we never really find out who) sets off a nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere over the USA, frying EVERYTHING.

Well, nearly everything.  While John may be our hero, his hero is a 1949 Edsel that’s too old to be affected by the EMP and runs throughout the book.

Needless to say, the EMP takes out pretty much everything, sending the community of Black Mountain, NC (a suburb of sorts of Asheville) into the Stone Age.  They say (in the course of the book) that they’ve gone back to Medieval times, but I think that’s being generous.  In Medieval times, those people knew how to cope with their environment.  What the residents of Black Mountain are faced with is more like being dropped on an alien planet.  They’re simply not equipped to handle their new lives, and things go downhill very, very quickly.

John’s family follows some predictable patterns.  His mother-in-law, Jen, is tough as nails, but her husband, Tyler, is riddled with late-stage cancer and suffering in a nearby nursing home. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth, is 16 and unequipped to handle the end of civilization; once Forstchen starts John to worrying about her relationship with her 17-year-old boyfriend Ben, you know how that plot line is going to end (it is, sadly, the most predictable part of the story – the upside, though, is it’s one of the few predictable parts of the story).  His younger daughter, Jennifer, has Type 1 diabetes, and as the pharmacy infrastructure breaks down soon after the electrical one dies, you know her demise is a matter of when, not if.  That’s the only spoiler I’ll lay down, because it’s not really a spoiler, you just don’t ever want to face that reality, even when John is screaming into the phone at an Asheville doctor who refuses to give up a tiny slice of his critical supply of insulin.

The Asheville doctor, after all, realizes that Jennifer’s death is an inevitability. The EMP has destroyed civilization as they know it, and at that moment towards the end of the book – about four months after the EMP – it’s quite possible that Jennifer is the last Type 1 diabetic alive in the region.  Every other T1D has already died, and the only reason Jennifer is still alive is because John bullied a scared pharmacist into giving him a supply of insulin that slowly goes bad without constant refrigeration.

Jennifer, however, is not the only lamb sacrificed in the wake of civilization’s collapse, and this is the main point of Forstchen’s book. We are not prepared to handle being cut off from everything modern living affords us – food (which will run out way faster than you think it will), information (which, even when it’s very bad news, allays fear and promotes hope), and medicine.  Imagine everybody with high blood pressure or schizophrenia running out of their medication.  EVERYBODY.  All the medical conditions we manage with pills, within a few weeks, become a very real problem.

The climax of the story is a battle between a large, aggressive Satanic cult called The Posse and the Black Mountain Rangers, the militia – mostly made up of the young adult men and women attending the college – led by Colonel John, US Army, retired, and his former USMC drill instructor, Sergeant Washington. What Forstchen does, though, is (if you ask me) nearly brilliant. It would be easy to throw down a blow-by-blow accounting of the battle, looking at every enfilade and defilade, discussing every death in detail, but Forstchen doesn’t do that. We know the battle is coming, and he skips 95% of it, dropping us in as the battle ends and the survivors deal with the dead and wounded.  It fits in with the general theme of the book, surviving the tragedy and trying desperately to hold civilization together as a survival exercise.

The reality of just how many people would die in 2 weeks, a month, a year after everything shut down – just from medical problems and starvation – is well portrayed in the book, and it’s entirely disheartening. Now you have to remember that we all have guns, and as civilization deteriorates, the have nots will quickly grow desperate enough to try to get at what the haves are holding onto.

One Second After, then, is not a book about a nuclear holocaust. It’s a book about a humanity holocaust, and it’s a good book to boot. I started reading it at about 4 pm after work and literally could not put it down until I finished it about 7 hours later.  It’s not an easy book to read from a subject standpoint, but it is well written and flows easily. Calling it a “page turner” would be a little cliche, but I seriously had to finish it in one sitting. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep if I didn’t find out who lived, who died, and how long it took for relief to arrive.

OK – one more spoiler. Relief does arrive, but it takes way longer than anybody thought it would, and for the vast majority of the Black Mountain community, it’s too late when it does show up in the form of a column of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and regular Army troops.

10 science fiction books you should read before you die

I saw a list the other day with this same title – “10 sci-fi books you should read before you die.”  I thought, well, that’s a serious challenge, especially since I’m already 45. I could go at any time.

As I looked through the list, however, I noticed that several of the books were fantasy novels – not sci-fi.

“What?” I hear you cry. “Aren’t they the same thing?”

No, gentle reader, they most certainly are not.

Perhaps I’m a bit more stringent in my definition of science fiction than most people. Clearly, novels directed at people are going to have people like us in them, so they could be any genre. Fantasy, to my mind, involves people in fantastic situations. Maybe those situations are believable, maybe they’re not.  Maybe they’re utopian, maybe they’re dystopian.  If it’s got elves and shit like that in it, it’s not sci-fi. Period.  Magic?  Probably not sci-fi.

George Orwell’s 1984 is quite often on lists such as these, as is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. To me, neither of these books are sci-fi.  They’re fantasy – dystopian fantasy.  Why?

No spaceships.  No ray guns.  No aliens.

To me, it’s not sci-fi unless it has at least one if not all three of those things. A book like William Gibson’s Neuromancer is an absolutely great book, but to me it’s on the fringe of sci-fi because it’s all just plain humans. Fantastic, modified, souped-up humans, but just plain humans nonetheless.  To me, it’s a fantasy novel.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of 10 sci-fi books to read before you die, then, and they all contain at least two of those things.

  • Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The whole series is fun, but the first book is the one that will really blow your mind. It contains so many sci-fi tropes that you’ll finally understand where most of them come from.
  • Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles.  One of Bradbury’s best collections of short stories, and all on the theme of humans colonizing Mars. Utterly brilliant.
  • Frank Herbert, Dune. I only read this just this year and I totally see why it’s a giant of sci-fi literature. Reviewed not too long ago in this very blog.
  • Isaac Asimov, I, Robot. If you read my blog, you know how much I dig robots. This is a collection of short stories and a really fantastic book.
  • Philip K. Dick, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. This book was the inspiration for two movies, both of which are pretty good, but only one of which features the trip to Mars.
  • H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds.  Possibly the best really old sci-fi novel around.
  • Alan Dean Foster, Lost and Found. A funny and poignant book I only recently discovered. It’s good enough to make my list, and one of the main characters is a talking dog.
  • Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit, Will Travel. There’s a lot of Heinlein books involving the three sci-fi criteria, but this is the most accessible and most fun of all of them.
  • Harry Harrison, The Jupiter Plague.  Not the book the movie Soylent Green was based on, but still a great read.
  • John Scalzi, Old Man’s War. Another book I only discovered just this year, and WOW! what a great book!  I love his book Redshirts, too, but Old Man’s War is a more traditional sci-fi novel.  You can go back through my blog to find my review of this book.

If your favorite sci-fi novel isn’t on this list, I either don’t consider it sci-fi, I haven’t read it, or if I have read it, it didn’t resonate with me – like Asimov’s Foundation. I’ve heard dozens of times what a great book this is, but when I read it, all I could think was … meh. I really just didn’t do it for me.

3e8154f3d0164fb9c74d9212c54db126

book review: Old Man’s War

This is perhaps the last book I’ll get to read (quickly) for pleasure until my summer class ends.  Oh, I’ll pick one out to read, but with teaching requirements now encroaching on my free time, I won’t be able to rip through them as quickly as I’ve been doing since mid-May.

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, 2005

photo 1If you’ve never read Robert A. Heinlein’s classic (of both science fiction and critique of communism) Starship Troopers, you might want to hold off on that.  Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is – and it pains me to say this – a better version of that story.

Well, perhaps “better” is a loaded word.  It’s not exactly the same story, but it’s pretty damn close.  The differences aren’t all that significant – except for one.

Heinlein is clearly preaching in Starship Troopers.  Scalzi doesn’t presume to do so.

The similarities are numerous, though.  In both books men and women fight side by side as absolute equals.  There are boot camp sequences.  The warriors have super-human capabilities (in OMW, through genetic engineering; in ST, through their jumpsuits).  They face vicious alien bug enemies (though OMW features some non-bug enemies as well).  Both stories feature dropships and military camaraderie – you could layer Scalzi’s description of why the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) troops don’t immediately accept replacements over Heinlein’s description of why the Mobile Infantry (MI) troops don’t immediately accept replacements and practically be reading the same book.  I take that as homage rather than ripoff, though, because I really dig both books.

Scalzi also wrote one of my favorite – and I mean all-time favorite – sci-fi books, Redshirts. Absolutely great book.  It’s because of that book I wanted to read something else he wrote, to see if he’s really that good (spoiler alert: HE IS).  I’m not a big fan of series, though, so I picked up this stand-alone book (which, apparently, he wrote a sequel to, but I didn’t know that when I got this).

The premise of Old Man’s War is pretty simple.  Humans are expanding throughout the universe, colonizing as they go.  They must protect themselves from any number of hostile races they have suddenly found themselves competing against for territory, from the vaguely birdlike Rraey to the very scary beetle-like Corsu.  To effect this protection, Earth’s senior citizens sign up to leave the planet at age 75 and venture forever off world to fight – and die – for the colonists.

The gimmick, though, is that when you sign up, you get a fresh, new body to do the fighting in… and it’s glorious.  You’re young again.  When you finish your term of service (up to 10 years), you’ll get another new, but entirely human, body in which you’ll live out the rest of your (un)natural life, growing old again and dying in your due time.

The geriatric warriors reminded be a bit of the blue folks in that movie Avatar – even though Scalzi’s genetically-modified old-man (and -woman) warriors are green.

This book is both funny and poignant, lofty and disturbing, and even though it’s kind of a cliche, I have to say it’s a real page-turner.  I read it in one sitting, starting at 9 pm and not stopping until the wee hours (I think it may have been 1 am).  Fantastic book.

The science aspects of science-fiction are present here, which I dearly love.  Skip drives, alternate universes (or are they?), tachyon fields, and even some math.  Ray guns, space ships, and all that, but the plot pivots on a weird cross between gladiator games and a soccer game-ending shootout.

One of the themes of the book is the human reliance on technology; I’m not entirely sure if Scalzi thinks it’s a negative, but he certainly paints the picture of what can happen when we rely to heavily on technology without understanding how (and why) it does what it does.

There’s lots of violence (with some gory wound descriptions) and plenty of sex (though none too graphic) that would push this book into older teen territory.  Younger readers might not understand the dilemma faced by the main character, John Perry, as he realizes his role in the universe, but it’s far more lightly developed than in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and that, I think, makes this book a lot more fun to read. Not as thought provoking, certainly, but a lot more fun.

(now I’m all caught up on my book reviews – three in one day…ooof!)

book review: Dune

There are classics of science fiction and then there are CLASSICS.  If you enjoy the genre, you owe it to yourself to read the CLASSICS, if only to learn where the modern writers get their inspiration.

Dune, by Frank Herbert, 1965

Before I get into this review, which encompasses more than just the book, let me break into an aside for a bit.

I’ve had 6 weeks off school, the break between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of my summer class.  I decided to use that time to read, read, read and opened myself up to new material. I  asked friends to help celebrate my birthday this summer by sending me books – I’d read whatever they sent, then send them something to read.  I’ve read some books that I never would have otherwise picked up, and have enjoyed almost every book that I received.  I’m hoping to get some more, too (hint! hint!).

Since I finished the first batch of books sent or given to me – 9 of them! – but classes hadn’t started up yet, I decided to dive into my pile of recently-purchased books (I can’t resist a good used book store) and see what was there.  Apparently I really needed to read Dune, because I bought it TWICE in the last six weeks!  The upside of that is that I have an extra copy to give away now.

photoDune is one of those books that, if you’re a fan of science fiction, history, fantasy or epic stories, you simply have to read.

The greatest thing about Dune is that Herbert drops you into a fully functioning (though dysfunctional) galaxy-spanning society. It is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and Herbert doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to explain the things you haven’t encountered before.  He drops you right into it and you’re fully immersed from page one.

The story is pretty straightforward – political intrigue and courtly maneuvering, with healthy doses of betrayal, magic and mysticism thrown in for good measure.  The characters positively crackle with life and the situations are wrought with tension.

Paul Muad’Dib, nee Atreides, is the main character, but we experience the maelstrom of people that surround him, including his parents, sister, concubine, friends and enemies, both civilized and otherwise.

I imagine this book seemed a lot more exotic in 1965 when it first came out than it does now.  Herbert infuses the book with Arabic words that invoke Islam; while “jihad” is a word we’re all familiar with in 2014, in 1965, many Americans would have had to figure out what he meant by examining the context.  I actually found this aspect of the writing somewhat distracting, but the story is compelling enough that it didn’t matter too much to me.

This really is a fantastic book with very few hiccups in the plot.  I’ve heard and read largely negative opinions of the sequels, so I think I’ll be stopping with this book, but it’s an excellent book all around.

Having never read this book before, I quickly discovered how absolutely shitty that Dune movie really was.  The mini-series wasn’t much better but did adhere more to the story.  Still, both can be judged not by what they included (or, as in the case of the theatrical film, made up entirely), but by what they left out.  I realize you can’t translate a book to film word for word, but still … I don’t know how either team could justify leaving out that very intense dinner party scene when the Atreides have just arrived on Arrakis.

The film especially glad-hands the fate of the Atreides’ Mentat, Thufir Hawat.  He goes from loyal to captured to traitor in the movie with no explanation – and that’s it. Bam.  Weak.  I doubt I’ll be able to watch that movie ever again despite being a big fan of Sean Young.

One question I have for Herbert (which I might ask if he was still alive) is why Paul gets two Fremen names (Usul and Muad’Dib) but nobody else does.  Paul has a pet nickname for Chani, but we never learn her “other” name, nor that of Jamis, Stilgar, or any of the other Fremen.  The planetologist Kynes has a Fremen name, Liet, but that doesn’t count because he has a human name, too, and we never learn his other Fremen name.  It’s a little thing, but it bothered me.

Something that I really found interesting was the religious aspect of the story.  Paul is clearly the Fremen messiah and a cult begins developing around the Lisan al-Gaib, the person of this Fremen prophecy.  To that end, there is one passage that really struck me in a powerful fashion:

“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a bland rush until it’s too late.”

It’s credited as a Bene Gesserit proverb, but it’s amazing how Herbert could see in 1965 that religion and politics are difficult bedfellows.

The book features a good bit of violence and some disturbing imagery (the test with the Box at the beginning of the story pops immediately to mind), but there’s very little sex (if any, really) in the book.  There’s some courtly romance, but this wasn’t Herbert’s strong suit.