Friday, December 30, 2011

Books abandoned; stories read

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Huburt Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, fell apart for me. I'm somewhat curious about where the book's thesis was headed, but the shambling structure, both narratively and philosophically, made me suspect their methods for getting there. After a lengthy analysis of why David Foster Wallace made them feel hopeless (I'm woefully shortchanging their ideas here, but in the end, it's not that important), they spend much time among Greek heroes, considering how they responded to the universe. The problem with this is that they're constructing a way to use literature to help us find meaning, but they're equating the narrative strategies of playwrights and poets with how actual Greek people responded to the sacred in their lives, and that's not an historically valid equation. The book seems to give a lot of credit to Jesus' insights into what it means to be human, but they somehow manage to not really talk about him. Great swaths of philosophical thinking a given short shrift, and then they declare that Decartes is the next great insight-provider (after Jesus). I had a hard time finding a coherent argument holding the whole thing together, and the structure of the book seemed ill–thought out. I dropped it at about the halfway point.

I'm disappointed to have stopped reading Dan Simmons's Hyperion three days in. The book started out well, and almost immediately it communicated its intention to use The Canterbury Tales as a structural method for the "pilgrimage" of the novel's seven travelers. However, the length of the first tale made me realize that the tale-telling would be the bulk of the novel, unless the other tales were radically shorter. I quite enjoyed "the priest's tale," with its gothic, grim science fiction. The next story, however, let me down rather quickly, the moment it announced we were going to be exposed to a standard suspense genre sex scene. Absolutely dreadful writing took hold, and I lost all confidence in the author's project. (I very much enjoyed Simmons's "Muse of Fire," a novella from the Dozois and Strahan–edited The New Space Opera—that is, with the exception of the ending, an awkward and unconvincing reminder of the conclusion of Star Trek: The Movie, a conclusion some wag deemed "a $40-million f**k.") Undone by the writer's misstep, I looked ahead to see whether, indeed, I wasn't going to get much of a novel out of this novel (a fact confirmed by a friend who'd read it some time ago), then elected to read the concluding 20 pages or so. Overloaded with sentiment, the book merely sets you up for the next book. No, thank you.

I also read several short stories from 1983's The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces, edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin Greenberg. (I keep seeing "Arkham" for "Arbor.")

Clifford D. Simak's "Desertion" seems like an episode of The Outer Limits, which focused at least once on turning a human into an alien. Every bit of science in the story is goofy, and there's not much to the characters, but the story is a sincere little parable that, at the end, becomes beautiful and manages to carry more weight than you'd suspect it could. The editor's note at the start that Simak wrote the story in response to first reports about Nazi death camps sets you up in a way the story doesn't deserve; it's better to know this afterwards and allow the story its own argument without tying it to some particular human atrocity.

"Warm," by Robert Sheckley, is what I'd expect from this writer I was introduced to 32 years ago by a high school friend. Either humorously grim or grimly humorous, the story doesn't go where one might expect, but gets there through a method I wasn't expecting, something more thoughtful and philosophical. I know how Bradbury would have done this story (and I'd like to see that); he'd have ended in the same place but taken a radically different route. The structure springs from the notion that one is "warm" when locating something hidden or coming closer to understanding an idea. A voice from who-knows-where tells our protagonist he's getting "warmer" to where the voice is trapped. The protagonist's attitude toward the voice is what's comic, since he treats it as real yet doesn't seem all that bothered by it, as if this sort of thing happens all the time.

Lastly I read "A Bad Day for Sales," by Fritz Leiber, another parable, this one having as its target our commercialized world. A socially awkward robot/vending machine is going through his shtick with a city crowd when disaster strikes. Leiber does a great job with the scene, switching from a vaguely threatening looniness to a nightmare scenario smoothly. That various people start picking themselves up at the end seems unlikely given the description Leiber provided, but it's a neat effect and keeps the story from stopping dead.


Calvin said...

I managed to finished "Hyperion," but I didn't like it enough to go on to read the sequels. It's been years so I don't remember details, but my general reaction was similar to yours.

I'm not reading anything of particular note at the moment, although I just got some books for a post-New Year's trip we're taking. (I am slogging through "Eifelheim" and you were right: the medieval parts are much more engrossing than the modern; the modern characters are infuriating and self-satisfied, frankly.)

Happy New Year!

William Preston said...

Yet, bizarrely, it's those clunky sections, in the form of a novella, that won an award. That's . . . troubling.

I've started some new books; let me know what you're reading. Have a good trip. We're about to put our middle daughter (the physicist) on a flight to England.

Happy New Year in Excelsis!

Luke said...

I had almost exactly the same reaction to Hyperion. I enjoyed the initial priest tale but put it down for several years when the soldier tale started, as it seemed so generic and I don't like the feeling of an author jerking his readers around. I eventually finished it based on the praise of others but don't think it was worthily to do so, and remember nothing aside from the first story. I think he would have done better to make the first story a stand-alone work.

William Preston said...

Hi, Luke. That first story seems like it might have been published in stand-alone format. However, if so, it was under a different title, and I can find no evidence of it.