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.


serge-lj said...

Ironically, the movies may have chosen Patrick Stewart as Xavier because of an earlier comic-book. If you've never read 1993's "Marvels", by Busiek & Ross, please do so asap. You will easily recognize Timoty Dalton as Tony Stark, Dona Reed as Sue Storm, and... Stewart as Xavier.

That being said, even when I was reading more of the DC/Marvel comics, I stayed away from those crossover events, which I found quite annoying. Nowadays, I only read "Captain America", preferring Mike Mignola's pulp descendants over at "HellBoy", and the loony "Atomic Robo".

serge-lj said...

As for Niven... I went thru a similar "Known Space" phase back in college. I liked "Mote" ok, but found their latter collaborations unreadable.

William Preston said...

I did read Marvels, and always felt ambivalently about Ross's photorealistic style (and use of photos for his human depictions). Didn't he use somebody (not Stewart) as a model for Prof X? Of course, the Ultimates' Nick Fury looked from the get-go like Samuel L. Jackson.

I love Mignola & c. too; I don't know Atomic Robo.

I made another post about Mote, but blogspot was feeling ornery and didn't let it live. Think I'll try again. The book did try to make a point, but not one especially worth making.

serge-lj said...

I seem to remember Ross saying that Stewart had indeed been his inspiration. As for Atomic Robo, he was created in the 1920s by Tesla and is still around in the 21st Century. To get an idea of the story's tone, go here ( ).

William Preston said...

Sounds like good fun.

I just grabbed the first issue for free at the web site. Thanks for recommending it.