How I celebrated Banned Books Week 2012

A review of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Last week was Banned Books Week, and I celebrated by reading one of the books in the list of the top ten books challenged in 2011: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Fair warning: This review does contain some spoilers!

Some friends and I had a discussion the other day about why there is almost always at least one classic on the list every year. I'm pretty sure it's because most instances of books being challenged occur in the schools -- patrons of public libraries don't typically challenge books being on the shelves, but parents and other adults are constantly trying to dictate what kids ought to be able to read. 

They usually challenge books that are being taught in the classroom, or contest whether certain books ought to be accessible in the school library.  I'm sure that most, if not all, of the classics that make it onto the list were part of the curriculum.

Anyway, Brave New World is often on the list, as are a few other classics.  The reasons given for the book being challenged in 2011, according to the ALA (American Library Association), were: "insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit."  Of course, the nature of the dystopian world is such that the people are conditioned to be highly racist, irreligious and rather callous about sex, so you simply couldn't have the story (or the message, which is the whole point of teaching the book) without the aspects that are so often challenged.

I didn't know anything about Brave New World before reading it, except that it is about a dystopian future and one of the early classics of science fiction.  In the book, society has eliminated people's unhappiness almost entirely, at the same time creating a perfectly functioning society.  The society holds Henry Ford, the creator of things like assembly lines and interchangeable parts, in the highest esteem -- he is essentially their messiah, and a book about him is held in the same regard as religious texts are today.

In order to achieve this perfect society, however, where no one is ever unhappy and everyone's work gets done, the engineers of the society had to do away with things such as free will, love, compassion, religion, and -- except in an elite minority -- intelligence.  People can have sex with whomever they want, and in fact, are expected to do so with a wide variety of people, since intense relationships are viewed as a source of unhappiness.  Babies are not born anymore, but are grown in a lab environment, and children are raised via strict conditioning, a.k.a. mind control, according to their place in society.  The harder-working castes are also genetically engineered to be ugly and unintelligent, so that they will never question their lot in life.  In short, the castes are designed to work together as in a well-oiled machine (hence all the references to Ford) in order to produce the seemingly perfect society.

The story is a bit slow to get started, since the author has to make you really see and feel what society has become before introducing his character, John, also known as the Savage, who was accidentally born at a "Reservation" -- a place where Indians still live in the old ways (and are essentially locked in so that they won't contaminate the perfectly controlled society around them).  John's parents were both higher-caste people, so he is intelligent but untouched by the conditioning that controls everyone in "civilized" society.  The result is that, when he rejoins civilization, he finds a world that -- to him -- holds no hope.

It's an excellent piece of early science fiction, but even better is the commentary on society -- as pertinent to today's society as it no doubt was when it was first published in the 1930s!

The Taking by Dean Koontz

A sci-fi disappointment

Please note: This review contains spoilers!

I hadn't read any Dean Koontz (except for his pet memoir, A Big Little Life, but I'm not sure that counts) since high school, so when the sci-fi/fantasy book club I belong to chose The Taking to read for this month's selection, I was somewhat interested, but had my reservations, too.  I remembered the Koontz books I read in high school as being average suspense/horror novels, but I lost interest after only a few of his books -- I don't remember exactly why I stopped reading him at the time.To be fair, I was intrigued by the description of the novel.  A couple living in relative solitude, cut off from society by an apparent alien invasion, and forced to work together to survive -- sounds great, right?  Unfortunately, I absolutely hated the choppy, overly descriptive writing style.  It was very repetitive -- descriptions were trying too hard, if you know what I mean, using lots of big words and repetitive adjectives, but combined with that was a very choppy writing style, with only one or two sentences per paragraph.  Despite the short paragraphs, though, the prose would often linger, describing the same thing over and over (and with far too many adjectives each time).  It made for a very rough and disjointed reading experience, so mostly I just skimmed it.

Despite my issues with the writing style, I was enjoying the story until perhaps halfway through.  Up until then, it was just the couple trying to survive, and although some of the "scary" scenes were rather contrived -- a doll that moved and talked on its own, for instance; doesn't he know how overdone that sort of thing is? I found their story very compelling.

Until they decided their purpose was to save the children.  If they had just decided to do so, that would be one thing, but the main character decided she had been chosen to do so.  The whole thing smacked of moralizing, and went downhill from there.  Perhaps then I shouldn't have been surprised when, at the end, it turned out this was just another great flood, and the main characters were like Noah and the Ark, saving the children while the rest of humankind was killed for its sins. 

For one thing, changing it to that kind of a story (instead of an alien invasion) made it not sci-fi at all, as far as I was concerned.  What a disappointment!  But I also felt like a last-minute religious themed switcharoo like that was kind of a cop-out, an easy way to explain why everyone else died and the main characters got to live.

All in all, the book was a disappointment and not at all what was promised in the description -- bad writing where I wanted it to be good, religious themed where I wanted it to be real sci-fi, etc.  On the bright side, though, at least it didn't take me very long to get through it!

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

Book two is a surprising sequel

In December, I blogged about NPR's list of the top five fantasy and sci-fi novels of 2011, and how happy I was that Delirium -- a YA dystopian novel that was easily one of my favorite books that I read during the year, out of all genres -- made it onto the list.  So when Pandemonium came out a few months ago, it went right onto my reading list, and I read it as soon as I was able.  I was surprised by how different it was from the first book, and by how much I liked it, despite the differences.

Most of the differences between Pandemonium and Delirium stem from the changes in the main character, Lena.  My husband got it right when he characterized Delirium as a novel of awakening.  In Pandemonium, however, she is fully awake: She knows that the government has been lying to everyone about love and emotion being a disease that needs to be eliminated, and she has come to realize that people deserve the right to feel their lives for themselves.  So the Lena portrayed in Pandemonium is a much stronger, self-sufficient, and determined character than the one who was only learning to love -- and love herself -- in the first novel.

Yet at the same time, Lena still has to decide what to do with her newly awakened self.  Without giving anything away, Pandemonium is about her realization that she can decide for herself who she is going to be -- that the rebellion doesn't have the right to control that, any more than the government does.  So in the same way that Delirium is about her awakening, Pandemonium is something of a coming of age -- or perhaps a coming of self -- novel.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed the novel -- I was surprised but pleased by the continuing changes in Lena's character, and found the story engrossing.  Waiting for the third book in the trilogy will be difficult!

 

Movie and TV versions of sci-fi/fantasy novels

In the last couple of months, I've seen both John Carter and The Hunger Games in the theaters -- both of which are movie versions of some of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy novels.  Perhaps starting with Harry Potter, it has become popular to make sci-fi/fantasy books into movies or TV shows, and some of my favorite movies and shows are dramatizations of equally fantastic books.

A great example is True Blood, the HBO television show based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris.  My husband and I started watching the show when the first season came out on DVD, and we've been hooked ever since.  I read the books two summers ago, after watching the second season of the show -- and being too impatient to wait for the third season in order to find out what happened next.

Of course, since the second season the show has diverged dramatically from the story told in the books.  Although I still love the show, I greatly prefer the books -- the characters are more complex, and generally (especially in the case of Eric) more likeable.  Like so many others, I am eagerly awaiting the release of the 12th novel on May 1 (just a few days now!).

I'm also excited to see that they are making a movie of The Host, Stephenie Meyer's adult sci-fi novel.  I adored this book, even more than the Twilight novels (though I'm not ashamed to admit that I liked them, too), so I am pretty excited about the movie.  Too bad they start showing trailers so far in advance these days -- I think the anticipation might kill me before it ever gets to be 2013!

What are your favorite movie adaptations of sci-fi/fantasy novels?  Are there any coming out soon that you are excited for?

Science Fiction Anthologies

When most people think of reading a science fiction book, they imagine a thick binded (or in the world electronically dense e-book) book that sends its readers across the galaxy on some epic adventure. While there are many of those types of books out there, there is a growing number of authors putting together edited anthologies.

Anthologies make a lot of sense for writers. An anthology is a large book filled with short stories and novellas all surrounded a single subject. The stories are all generally done by different authors, so the readers get a variety of writing styles for one low price.

Financially, it’s great for the author. He puts together a small story that gets put into a print or e-books and he splits the profits with the rest of the authors. It’s not going to make him rich, but it he also didn’t spend a year or 6 months working on it. He sat down one weekend, banged it out and there you go.

Science fiction anthologies can be about any subject from alien species, tributes to great authors like Ray Bradbury or wormholes. The stories are all different, but they have something to do with the overall subject of the anthology.

Anthologies are popular with fans because you are opening up the fan base. Unlike a book, which has the fan base of a single author, you’re opening it up to a dozen or more. The fan gets stories from his favorite science fiction writer and may end up enjoying the style of some of the other writers as well.

Gearing Up for The Hunger Games

Have you read the books, or are you planning to see the movie first?

The movie The Hunger Games came out today, and already is raking in the big bucks: Midnight showings last night brought in $19.7 million, which is apparently the 7th highest total from midnight showings ever -- and all 6 of the movies ahead of it are either Harry Potter or Twilight sequels.

The movie has destined to be big from its inception, and I think everyone has known it.  One only has to look at the incredible success of the books to know that of course the movie will be equally successful.  There was an article on NPR just the other day about the rigorous physical training Jennifer Lawrence had to go through to play Katniss.  It's clear that everyone -- the actors, producers, everyone -- has taken this movie very seriously.

In anticipation of the movie, I just finished reading the entire trilogy a few nights ago.  I'd read the first book, The Hunger Games, a few months ago, and finally got around to reading Catching Fire and Mockingjay because I knew I'd want to have read them before I saw the movie.

I am the kind of person who like to read the book before I see the movie, especially with a blockbuster like this one.  Usually I find I like the book better, so I don't want to see the movie first and have that impact my interpretation of the book.  I imagine, however, that there will be a lot of movie goers at The Hunger Games who haven't yet read the books.  Some will probably love the movie so much that they'll go on to read the books, so that they can find out what happens next, and of course, there will be others who will never read the books.

Are you planning to see the movie in the theaters, and have you read (or are you reading) the books first?  Or do you intend to just see the movie and never read the books?

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

What makes “The Invisible Man” such a great book isn’t just the plot, but how it’s all done in small town England. There are no chases through the streets of London and the Prime Minister wasn’t called in to help with the situation.

The story is about Griffin, a doctor that studies refraction and develops a way to turn the human body invisible. He impulsively uses the machine on himself, but is unable to turn visible again. He lives in a Inn and uses his abilities to steal money to help fund his research.

Griffin has an accomplice named Marvel that betrays him to the police and devises this “reign of terror” on the populous using his abilities. The bulk of the book is about him detailing how he became the invisible man and escaping the police by getting naked and running away. (Sadly, that never seemed to work for me.)

Of course, his evil plot is foiled and he ends up being lynched and killed by a mob of angry townsfolk. I can practically see the torches and pitch forks now. As he dies, the broken and bloody body become visible and we discover his assistant kept copies of his notes i.e. a proper cliffhanger.

Wells grew up in a small town and is probably why he decided to set the story in one instead of a large city. It brings a great view to things and you can get away with more things than in an urban environment.

 

The Re-Emergence of Science Fiction's Legitimacy

Michael Chabon's defense of science fiction indicates a growing acceptance of the genre as literature.

Discussing the merits of science fiction books in public can be a little stigmatizing. The nuances of Bradbury over Clarke, the inherent brilliance of Asimov’s Foundations, and the recent spat of more literary types like Cormac McCarthy and Colson Whitehead “classing up” the genre. Of course, the uninitiated (and often disdainful) will shoot you an eye roll or even slyly inquire about what your topic of conversation. Upon finding out, as a coworker of mine did at a recent work function, they’ll smirk and walk away. Why does everyone hate on sci-fi? A recent guest on Underwire’s Geeks Guide to the Galaxy, Michael Chabon is the author of a diverse body of work, including the book turned major motion picture Wonderboys and the recently released Disney sci-fi adventure epic John Carter.

Michael Chabon’s genesis as a writer is in the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of the John Carter character, a fact he elaborates upon in his interview. (He even took to signing his name Michael “Burroughs” Chabon for awhile.) He laments the culture of the writing establishment, admitting that as he was coming up through various undergraduate and graduate writing programs, if he had, “had more courage or integrity I might have stood up to it more than I did.” Still, the establishment largely dictates the delineation between literature and pulp, which is largely a trick of marketing. Chabon says he takes much of his inspiration from Charles Dickens and other authors of the turn of the century that would write broadly about whatever tickled their interest. “The reasons why it changed… [are] economic and financial and marketing reasons, and they have to do with snobbery and academic laziness.”

Could generations of publishing companies honing the market actually have pushed people to an inherent dislike of sci-fi and fantasy stories? Has public interest been conditioned by those same factors that, as Chabon accuses, have more to do with academic snobbery and laziness? Absolutely. In fact, if you look at the previous thirty years of book writing, until very recently there have not been an incredible number of sci-fi or fantasy novels hitting the New York bestseller’s list when compared to other genres. Certainly in college writing programs you won’t see those genres in the curriculum. Still, something is happening now that is starting to change all of that., and I believe it began with movies.

Film has been an incredible boon to the sci-fi and fantasy genres (though you can make the case not to the book publishing industry). As movies get bigger and special effects get better there’s a public hunger for blockbuster sci-fi and fantasy, and with breakout novel series in those genres like Harry-Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games we’re starting to see a revitalization of the genres. Granted the examples I’ve mentioned here are still fairly one-dimensional and entertainment driven, but they are instilling a love of the magical and supernatural in readers. As the Hunger Games fans of today grow up and their tastes mature, we may see a broadening of the market for intellectual and socially-relevant science fiction once again.

If nothing else, we’re surely going to see a greater mainstream acceptance of science fiction from kids that grew up on Hunger Games and new Star Wars movies carrying those interests into adulthood. It will be similar with what’s happened to video games, going from the province of teenaged misfits and “nerds” to the fastest growing entertainment industry in the world.

John Carter Brought to Life

Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars is brought to life in Disney's new movie, John Carter.

Last night, opening night, my husband and I went to see John Carter, Disney's new movie rendition of the classic science fiction novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars.

I've been excited about this movie since I first saw the first preview, months ago.  I looked it up and discovered that the author of the original book-- and actually, there was a whole series of books about Barsoom (Mars) -- is the same one who wrote the Tarzan books.  Those never took my fancy, even though I knew they were immensely popular in their day, but I was so excited by the movie preview that I decided to give A Princess of Mars a go.

I liked the book, and eagerly awaited the movie.  March seemed like so far in the future!  When I realized it was finally almost here, I decided to read the book again, and insisted to my husband (who is not an opening-night kind of moviegoer) that we had to go the day it opened.

Although I'd been seeing some mixed headlines, some predicting the movie to be a flop or a colossal waste of money, I loved it from beginning to end.  Although they did make some minor changes, mainly shifting the emphasis of certain aspects of the novel to make it into a bigger story of good versus evil, the basic plot was unchanged.  The special effects were awesome, and the creatures were all very true to the original.

Now that I've read the book twice and seen the movie (which I plan to see again in the theaters, by the way), I intend to read the rest of the books in the series.  The second book is about John Carter's second visit to Mars, and I do hope that they make a sequel to the movie, too!

The Science Fiction Hero

There have been many heroes of science fiction through the ages and they range from the confident and strong Buck Rogers to the timid and unsure Luke Skywalker. When you're writing a science fiction story that has a bit of an adventurous bend to it, then you'll probably looking more for a Buck Rogers type of hero.

 

There is no establishing a learning curve for him. He's able to step right into the action and start kicking intergalactic butt and taking names. These heroes already have a developed history. They were former police, army, etc. and have the skill necessary to get the job done.

 

That doesn't mean they can't be a fish out of water. William Shatner created the Tekwar series of books that featured Jake Cardigan. Cardigan was a former cop who was framed and put in cryostorage for a few years. When he was finally released, he still had the skills, but the world around him had changed drastically.

 

If you science fiction is more a epic origin story, then you'll want more of a Skywalker. These characters don't start off with the skills necessary and have to learn them as the story goes on. These could be done suddenly in the form of spells or arcane knowledge or through training and practice.

 

While they don't have the skills, they often do possess the personality of a hero. They are willing to help out no matter that and are willing to take on a dangerous quest even though they know they are not prepared. The other option is the unwilling hero. He's someone that is thrown into a situation against his will and slowly turns into the hero.

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