I Evoke Brow XX: Hip-Hip-Jorge!

A triple feature today:

Empire133133, Orson Scott Card

Interface,134134 Stephen Bury

Thirteen135135, Richard K. Morgan

Pure but happy coincidence that I read these three novels one after another. As luck would have it, all three stories feature the breakdown of American politics. I was also lucky to have come upon them in the order listed above, as they progress in quality from the fairly awful Empire, to very enjoyable Interface, all the way up to phenomenal Thirteen.

I cannot overstate how disappointing Empire was. I treaure Orson Scott Card’s work (I’m currently rereading Ender’s Game for perhaps the tenth time): even the works that weren’t up my alley, like some of his fantasy (Wyrms) or Mormon allegory (The Alvin Maker series) works always struck me as above average. Empire was lousy, not just by comparison to Card’s other works, but by any objective standard. It fails on multiple levels: as a thriller, the identity of the “evil mastermind” is far too obvious; as a mystery, you aren’t given sufficient clues to try to guess along with the more minor plot twists; as science fiction, it lacks rigor and technical detail. The plot, briefly: following the explosive assassination of the POTUS, VP, and most of the Cabinet, the country nearly divides into red state and blue state factions, complete with plotted military coups and secret liberal armies, though order is restored by a Machiavellian moderate. Only it reads as eight times more implausable.

The afterword proved to be the best aspect of the book. First of all, it revealed that the story was created in conjunction with a video game developer, which nearly made me slap my forehead and exclaim: “Oh…that makes sense.” More than anything, the plot of Empire feels like a hastily thrown together video game plot or perhaps worse, a Tom Clancy: Op Center clone. Leaving aside the badness that precedes it, though, in the afterword Card writes lucidly about the current political climate. To paraphrase the bit that really got me thinking, the definition of a fanatic is someone who thinks anyone who disagrees with him must be evil or stupid. That rings true to me. It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking those on the other side of the aisle must be malicious or ignorant, but maybe that’s not true. Could it really be just a difference of opinion? I’d like to think so, and yet….a third of the country still supports the current mockery of a President. It’s hard to believe that those people aren’t evil (in the sense of either being indifferent, or stubbornly dismissive to the easily perceived, massive harm to others that is currently being perpetrated) or ignorant (willfully so, basking in the comforting glow of Tony Snow [alliteration unintentional]). Lately, politics has become an overwhelming topic for me, almost like 9/11–I can’t think about it without spiraling down into despair or depression, respectively. So I just put it out of my head and try to think of others things. But I digress.

1/5

Just when I thought I had read every bit of fiction written by Neal Stephenson, I discover that he has written two books (in collaboration with his history teacher uncle) under the name Stephen Bury. Interface was a delightful read (wow, I can’t believe I just wrote that–I feel like I’m auditioning for Publisher’s Weekly. Still, I’m sticking to it–it was delightful, albeit not in a Jessica Alba covered with chocolate sauce way. It bears mentioning that I love my girlfriend and find her far more attractive than Ms. Alba, or any other being on the planet. Hopefully that last sentence will spare me her ferocious right jab.)

I’m pretty sure I mentioned the book back there, before my endless parenthesizing. In typical Stephenson fashion, it blends quirky humor and eerie prescience in a thoroughly entertaining read. It’s hard to believe this book was written over ten years ago–the cranial chips featured within aren’t a far cry from prosthetic chips I’ve recently seen profiled in Discover and Wired. And the depiction of overwhelming importance of the media in the modern electoral cycle is, in turns, riotous, hard-edged, and insightful. A media consultant character refers to this development as “the Age of Scrutiny,” and I think that’s a perfect phrase.

“In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson cam up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used in to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam.

“… [now] we are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media… . The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under ultimate scrutiny … the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond.”

Again, this was published in 94, before Monica Lewinsky was news, but it is the best analysis of the 00 and 04 elections that I’ve yet seen.

4/5 — short of perfect in that it’s a bit silly at times, and the ending, while enthralling, is beyond belief.

You can’t describe Richard K. Morgan’s novels without using the word ‘gritty.’ I find it fitting, not just because of their dark, violent settings but also for their wonderful detail. I find his future worlds to be among the most realistic in all of science fiction, and Thirteen is no exception. In particular, Morgan’s vision of a overpoweringly strong UN that remains hobbled by jurisdictional issues feels just right and Thirteen’s division of the US into East Coast, West Coast, and religious nutjob territories also rings true.

Morgan, it seems, loves the idea of superhuman, supermale, superkillers. The technology in Thirteen differs from that in the Kovacs series (genetics instead of training) but the result is similar: a terrifying, awe-inspiring, unstoppable hero who inevitably is drawn into a righteous, murderous rage (pausing only to screw the invariably gorgeous women who litter his path.) Unfortunately, while still as gripping and “unputdownable” (I’m coining it…or apparently, not136) as Morgan’s earlier works, this one falls just a bit short of excellence. The key difference is that Morgan’s earlier protagonist, Kovacs, had his share of internal conflict–moments of doubt, regret, guilt, and so on; Thirteen’s Carl Marsalis, on the other hand, is relatively one-dimensional–bred to be the uber-Alpha male, he is ruthless and without remorse. Marsalis’s only inner battle is with his asocial instincts. His utter lack of conscience distances the reader in the exact opposite of the way Kovacs’s angst draws you in.

Morgan makes up for this lack of character depth with many interesting themes popping up as the story progresses. The novel’s original, British title is “Black Man,” which should clue you in that an undercurrent of racial tension is pervasive, but there are also bits of politics, class, pop culture, sex, and everything else that makes cyberpunk so interesting (I hate that name though–it as though someone thought, “you know what: Science Fiction doesn’t have quite enough of a dorky stigma attached to it–let’s kick it up a notch.”) As in his other works, Morgan reveals the details and history of his future setting in dribs and drabs, through characters’ thoughts and speech and descriptions of their surroundings–never the omniscient narrator drolly recounting a timeline, as lesser scifi works often fall back on.

4/5

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