Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thoughts on "Reaper Man", by Terry Pratchett

"Reaper Man" is a somewhat morbidly humorous fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett. In "Reaper Man", Death is fired for developing a personality and liking people. The Auditors, the ones firing him, complain that this is unprofessional, as if gravity had decided to like people. So, Death gets time to live, and takes up the name Bill Door. Death has to be replaced, of course, but this happens slowly, with each species getting its own separate Death, with the new human Death taking the longest to form. In the meantime, the life force of all the things and people who are supposed to have died, but haven't been met by Death, cause problems on Terry Pratchett's Discworld. The book may be offensive to some religious people, but then again, pretty much all fantasy books are probably offensive to some religious people.

I really enjoyed it. I like how Death is portrayed not as some sort of evil monster, but as a polite, interested, and even somewhat likable. Everyone has to deal with death. The deaths of those we care about. Living with the knowledge than one or more people we care about, perhaps even ourselves, has a terminal or life-threatening condition. Some people have near-death experiences. And then there are the little deaths, the injuries, the illnesses, each breath of toxic air from the coal plants or the gas wells or our smoking neighbors or whatever. The little deaths that kill us off cell by cell, accelerating faster than repairs by perhaps the age of 20-30, accelerating faster and faster, causing our metabolism to become less efficient, our hair to grey, our skin to wrinkle, our vision to deteriorate, our hearts to become less sturdy, all leading up to the final death, the death from which there is no return, at least not to the body in question (but possibly to another one, if you believe in reincarnation). Death being a part of the natural order that we all have to face, it is nice to read about a kindly version of Death.

As an example of Death's friendliness, as exemplified during his time as Bill Door:
"The silence returned and hovered. Bill Door sought desperately for something to say. He had never been very good at small talk. He'd never had much occasion to use it.

"What did people say at times like this? Ah. Yes.


"Later on they taught him a game that consisted of a table with holes and nets around the edge, and balls carved expertly out of wood, and apparently balls had to bounce off one another and into the holes. It was called Pond. He played it well. In fact, he played it perfectly. At the start, he didn't know how not to. But after he heard them gasp a few times he corrected himself and started making mistakes with painstaking precision; by the time they taught him darts he was getting really good at them. The more mistakes he made, the more people liked him. So he propelled the little feathery darts with cold skill, never letting one drop within a foot of the targets they urged on him. He even sent one ricocheting off a nail head and a lamp so that it landed in someone's beer, which made one of the older men laugh so much he had to be taken outside into the fresh air.

"They'd called him Good Old Bill.

"No-one had ever called him that before."

The story also follows the adventures of one Windle Poons, a wizard who dies. Without Death to greet his spirit, he has nowhere to go but back to his body, where he becomes a sort of zombie. He enjoys much better thinking, hearing, and eyesight than he did while he was alive, but unfortunately, he now has to direct his heart to beat and other physical tasks that normally occur automatically. This is initially very concerning to his old colleagues, who try warding him off with garlic, holy objects, etc., but they eventually accept him after he helps to save the town. He also makes new friends, including Dead Rights Activist Reg Shoe, who writes, "Inside Every Living Person is a Dead Person Waiting to Get Out."

Don't worry, there's a good ending. Death manages to outsmart his would-be replacement and take back his place helping souls transition to being dead. And good riddance! The New Death was very pretentious. He even had a crown, indicating his desire to rule.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thoughts on "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

"The Hunger Games", by Suzanne Collins, is a futuristic dystopian horror. By horror, I mean not the sort of horror that comes from zombies, vampires, evil sorcerers, axe murderers, and the like, but rather the evil side of human nature.

Like any horror, it should be read on an empty stomach. If you are prone to throwing things in anger, I suggest surrounding yourself with soft items like pillows and stuffed animals, as opposed to glass, ceramic, and other hard and breakable objects, before settling down with the book. Do not begin reading if you are not in the mood for a good cry. You know, the standard safety precautions for reading horrors.

In Collins' world, a city called the Capitol rules over 12 Districts. There used to be 13 Districts, but apparently the 13th was obliterated by the Capitol following a rebellion. As punishment for said rebellion, the 13 Districts are required to send two children -- a boy and a girl -- every year to compete in the Hunger Games, which are a fight to the death. The winner is the last boy or girl standing. Yes, they make kids fight to the death. That's why you shouldn't read this book on a full stomach, lest you lose your lunch. The children sent to this fight to the death are referred to callously as "tributes".

 Any child from the ages of 12 to 18 can be chosen, although the deck is stacked such that the older children are more likely to be called. The poor are also more likely to be called, as children can volunteer to be entered into the drawing additional times in exchange for year's meager supply of food and oil for them and their families.

However, the kids are not simply chosen and then thrown into the arena. No. Before they can do that, they have to get dressed up, appear publicly, go through a training and a test, and appear for an interview. And when they finally get thrown into the arena, they don't just get to be themselves. No, there is a continued need to please the audience, particularly the wealthy citizens of the Capitol, as wealthy sponsors may elect to pay for gifts to give a child a better chance at making it through.

I think the way they dress children up is grotesque. Alright, so I also think child beauty pageants are grotesque. So I'm a prude. So sue me. But this is even worse. That said, the stylists who do the dressing up are trying to give their children a better chance of getting sponsors -- a better chance at survival. But all that does is shift the blame from the stylist, trying to give his or her child a better chance at survival, to the society that approves of children being all fancied up like that. So it's still grotesque.

The training is also sort of creepy. Perhaps it helps balance the odds, by ensuring that no one is thrown in there completely unprepared. But it also feels like the Capitol is trying to ensure a more vicious, entertaining conflict. The test after the training is conducted privately, so that the children don't have to reveal any secret skills to their competitors, but a score is provided so that the gamblers can place their bets and the sponsors can decide who they want to send gifts too. Again, betting on which CHILD is going to survive seems hideous to me.

And then there's the interview. Even here, it is dangerous for a child to, for example. express righteous anger at being forced into this gladiator-style combat. To display how openly that child may hate the Capitol for doing this to them. Because then they probably won't get any sponsors, which will reduce their chances of survival. So, the children who want to live have to play to the crowds, to present a false face, to lie, to please the very people who are hurting them. It's really hideous.

And as I said, having to please the crowds doesn't stop when the children are finally thrown into the arena to kill each other and die gruesome deaths. The main character of the book, Katniss, is repeatedly thinking of what she has to do in order to get sponsors to help her. She even ends up having to fake a romance. Which is really screwed up. Also, the Capitol continues to mess with things in the arena to ensure an entertaining, gruesome fight.

As for the ending, well, it's slightly less tragic than it could've been, which isn't saying much. So don't neglect to keep a handkerchief handy, for the tears.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on "Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future" by Mike Resnick

If you only read one space western, this is the one to read. Although it is technically science fiction, it really has nothing to do with science. Rather, Mike Resnick makes a commentary on human nature, and how legends are made.

Set far into the future, when faster than light travel has been developed and humanity has expanded to many worlds in many star systems, it focuses on the hunt for a notorious criminal called Santiago.

However, this is not a story of how the Good Guys hunt down the Bad Guys. In Resnick's universe, good and evil are not so clear cut. The bounty hunters chasing Santiago are not portrayed as angelic defenders of the law, nor is Santiago portrayed as a heinous villain.

In fact, it is very difficult to find much to like about the characters at all, at least until towards the end. This is not to say they are the embodiment of all that is evil, but many of them are killers, liars, thieves, and generally not the finest examples of humanity.

Giles Sans Pitie, for example, is obviously in bounty hunting for nothing but the money. He is very territorial, and threatens other bounty hunters who encroach upon said territory. He believes the one thing bounty hunters never lie about is Santiago, so it is probably safe to say that Santiago is the one thing he never lies about. Apparently, he believes that Santiago makes them all look bad, and that it is in the shared interest of all bounty hunters to share information about Santiago.

The Virgin Queen is a journalist who cares little for truth, and far more for her own fame and fortune. She'll cover for another journalist who is lying so that she can blackmail him in the future, when she needs a favor. That's not to say she's heartless; she does seem genuinely distressed when she sees people die gruesome deaths, but not enough to stop her from acting in her own self interest.

Altair of Altair is an assassin, although I'm really not sure if there's much difference in Resnick's universe between a bounty hunter and an assassin. Sure, one operates on the side of the Democracy, and the other against it, but I'm not really sure it makes much difference. Resnick doesn't exactly paint a brilliant future, you see. Throughout the book, we hear examples of how humanity has slaughtered entire races of aliens and exploited others. We hear how heavily polluted the more heavily settled worlds are. We hear of government corruption, and how the frontier worlds are exploited. So, if Altair of Altair kills corrupt world leaders for profit, it doesn't really seem like anything to waste any tears over. Not that it helps either. Altair of Altair herself remarks that failure to make a difference keeps hired killers, bounty hunters and assassins alike, in business. The corrupt world leaders she kills are replaced by new corrupt leaders. The criminals killed by bounty hunters are replaced by other criminals. The destructive cycle continues unabated. Indeed, it is the failure of hardly anyone to make a real difference that makes it difficult to strongly dislike the bad guys, or strongly like the good guys, or even to have an easy time telling them apart.

Black Orpheus is one of the better characters. Somehow, he seems to have escaped the greedy chase for money, material gains, or other vices. Instead, he wanders around the Inner Frontier writing a great ballad. He gives people fame; a tiny bit of immortality. The names he comes up for the people he writes up in his ballad are more memorable than their actual names. Some say he is foolish for not charging for his poetry, but he seems quite happy writing it, and the people of the worlds of the Inner Frontier seem quite happy hearing it.

The Angel, another bounty hunter, doesn't seem to be much better, ethically speaking, than Giles Sans Pitie. He is more talented, and lives by a hard philosophy. He kills only criminals and fools, which is an excuse to kill just about anyone. Ultimately, he is also a fool.

Most of the book follows Sebastian Nightingale Cain, or as Black Orpheus calls him, the Songbird. In the beginning he seems no better than Giles Sans Pitie. However, in a conversation between him and Halfpenny Terwilliger, gambling addict, we discover that he used to be a revolutionary. Apparently he was an idealist in his youth, but after three revolutions which apparently accomplished nothing beyond replacing one tyrant with another, he became jaded and stopped believing in anything but his gun.

The ending, although not strictly speaking a good one, is at least a hopeful one. Santiago turns out to be a sort of Robin Hood, and apparently his criminal enterprises fund good works. The Songbird finds something to believe in again. And Resnick makes a commentary about how legends are made. The difficulty or distinguishing fact from fiction, and how Santiago encourages much of the fiction. And how Santiago is not just a man; he's a myth. Men can be killed, but myths aren't so easy to kill. Santiago has lived for a very long time because a myth can be passed from one man to another.

P.S. Happy birthday, Smokey the Bear! :-)