Saturday, October 22, 2011

More about "Mote": other stuff as well

I wrote a follow-up to my review of The Mote in God's Eye, but my blog took a distinct dislike to what I'd written and, after first leaving it stranded mid-sentence, then deleted it (okay, that was my fault, but it didn't give me a chance to say, "Wait! Don't!").

I didn't talk, the first time, about the title itself, which has to do with both the world from which the "Moties" come (near the "eye" of the Coal Sack's "Face of God") and the biblical aphorism about removing an obstruction from your own eye before daring to pluck the smaller obstruction from the eye of another person. This is, I suppose, the point of the book, though it dealt with in a way that is somehow understated while also being clunky.

Niven and Pournelle set up parallels between the humans and aliens: command structure, sexuality, rising and falling civilizations. It might have helped the point had someone on the human side provided a critique of human systems in light of what they saw in the Moties, but instead everyone blunders along rather ignorantly, though a few passing comments are made to draw attention to the similarities. In a literary work, this would have surfaced as a theme; here, it's a motif that never rises beyond a surface depiction. In fact, had someone ever pointed it out, the clunkiness would have become more evident: the exact parallel of having a hidden commander about whom both sides wonder; the exact parallel of stranding three people on Mote Prime and three Moties among the humans. You can Niven and Pournelle saw this conceit as central to the novel, but it doesn't actually go anywhere interesting or take the reader deeper.

Last week I read Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman. I've read a lot about Scientology—I find quackery and homegrown religions and hoaxes fascinating—so I already knew a fair amount of what was in the book, though Reitman's information about the current leadership and the Gold Base was new to me. The one thing I feel wasn't conveyed fully was the sense of what exactly happens in "auditing" sessions, the Scientology equivalent of the confession. Everything she said about it, I knew, but I hadn't had, previously, the sense of endless hours people put into the process, and I left without a clear sense of how exactly one spends that time. And though she may have gotten at this aspect, it's pretty clear that such a process, by itself, must do so much to make the recipient susceptible to the mindset necessary to proceed further. Of course, that's the upfront point, but it's frightening to think of how, Stockholm Syndome–like, one's mental defenses must be so reduced by the process, much like the mental defenses of someone who, grilled for hours by police, confesses to something he or she didn't do. I do recommend the book for anyone interested in the subject. Reitman is pretty fair, I have to say: she doesn't just outright say that the practices Hubbard invented are stupid or dangerous; she doesn't damn the "faith" so much as she damns the way it's been run, with Hubbard drifting into megalomania and the current show-runner demonstrating some kind of narcissistic personality disorder (at best).

I've started both Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes's personal reflection on death, and Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's proto-novel. Both are funnier than I thought they'd be. Defoe's protagonist is sort of an idiot, so far. Barnes's voice is just so marvelously English; an American could not have written these sentences.

I did some work on the final section of "Unearthed" today. It's coming along. Now I have to decide (though it's hardly urgent) whether to post "Clockworks" here as a PDF or format it (and stick a picture of some kind on the front) for sale at Amazon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Recent reading

There's little writing to report. I'm waiting to hear back about two short stories. School- and (eldest daughter) wedding-related activities have contributed to a severe slackening in my writing. I did manage to do some reading in the past week or so:

The Mote in God's Eye, the 1974 novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, turned out to be  . . . I want to say "pretty good," but I'm hesitant. I'm glad I read it, but it's also, for me, one more nail in the coffin of "classic science fiction novels." I'm at somewhat of a loss to explain why I didn't read it in high school, when I went through a Larry Niven phase, reading everything I could in his Known Space–related books (except for The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, which struck me as having a dull subject), in addition to all of his short fiction collections. This novel may have seemed dauntingly long as well as less interesting due to its non-participation in the Known Space universe. It being a collaboration may also have put me off, though I enjoyed the Niven/Pournelle Inferno. Still, I doubt I'd have enjoyed it back then.

A "first contact" novel, built around the humanity's early interactions with a sentient race from another star system, the book does take the premise and problems of alien interactions seriously. While the aliens aren't all that alien (and the focus on dialogue leads you to imagine them looking pretty much like us much of the time . . . only hairier), the book does finally hinge on incompatible ideas about culture and worldviews.

It took me a while to get accustomed to the writing, which is utterly flat and colorless, though serviceable. It's not bad or clumsy writing, by any means; it's just that none of it stands out, and no passage is particularly thrilling to read. The focus, in consequence, becomes the dialogue, which again isn't compelling, but largely sounds like humans talking and is clear. The book smacks of Star Trek, unexpectedly: several characters have annoying Old Earth accents that just seem ridiculous in the distant future, despite the authors' explanations. Giving the engineer a Scottish-English dialect to speak too obviously would remind any reading of Star Trek's Scotty . . . which should in turn remind everyone that he was faking his accent, making the novel's Scot sound doubly fake.

The book is paced oddly. A dramatic sequence in the book's second act leads one to expect another exciting sequence late in the game. A host of precautions taken against alien incursions during the journey home suggest that the humans have missed something—but they haven't. The end of the book, after some delaying personal scenes that aren't interesting at all, reads like a courtroom drama, with verbal revelations from unexpected quarters standing in for any physical action. The conclusion works pretty well, in fact, but it takes an awfully long time to get there and relies on quite a few people being more thick than they really ought to be.

In addition, portions of the book on Mote Prime, the aliens' homeworld, left me feeling as if I were watching a Saturday morning cartoon. In part, that was the result of the adolescent-level writing, but it also came from the silliness of some aspects that made the proceedings feel less real.

I also read the comic book collection Messiah Complex, a recent X-Men book that crossed among the various X-titles. It was much easier to follow than many such "events," since it didn't rely on other narratives taking place in yet more titles uncollected in those pages, but one still had to know a few things about X-Men backstories. (I didn't know quite enough, in truth, but I was fairly well equipped.) The story read well and consistently, though several writers contributed; the artwork was all over the place, but I came to appreciate the varying styles, even the manga-ish one that gave everyone Japo-Bambi eyes (surely among the most annoying traits of that style). All of the artists tended to overbusy their panels, but at least you didn't think anyone was being lazy. One artist clearly felt the need to make Professor X look exactly like Patrick Stewart, which I found distracting, but the others didn't bother.