Around Thanksgiving, LitReactor published a list of “10 books to make you feel thankful.” At #10–SUFFER THE CHILDREN! For which I’m thankful too. Thanks for the call out, LitReactor!
In Sylvain Neuvel’s terrific sci-fi novel SLEEPING GIANTS (Del Rey), a young girl named Rose is riding her bike when she falls through the earth into the palm of a giant metal hand that had been buried there for millennia. Years later, the hand is in government storage, and Rose is now an adult scientist studying the hand. When she concludes the hand is of alien origin and must be part of a larger structure, perhaps a robot, a shadowy government operator begins pulling strings to find the missing pieces and find out exactly what it’s for. A weapon, or something else?
The novel is presented as a series of documents, most of them interviews between the government agent (who goes unnamed, and wonderfully emerges as a very tricky operator with brutal social skills) and the project team participants. At first the convention of using documents threw me, as we have people in formal interviews going into exposition about their childhood and whatnot–great for establishing character in fiction, but pushing suspension of disbelief. As the novel finds its depth and the mystery builds, however, Neuvel hits his stride, and the result is a very intelligent and engaging story, sort of like ARRIVAL but with far more action and character development.
The novel was turned into a trilogy, and I’ll be reading the second one shortly. I love the robot, the characters are interesting, the government agent is terrific, and I’ll be happy to see what happens next in this realistic, intelligent story.
Robert Guffey’s UNTIL THE LAST DOG dies presents a novel type of apocalypse: What if a disease made the world lose its sense of humor?
When comedian Elliott Greeley gets a tepid response to a performance at a comedy club, he wonders if he’s losing his edge but then learns the CDC is warning the public about a virus that makes people lose their sense of humor. As audiences shrink, one by one his colleagues contract the disease and quit the business, while the world stops being fun.
The wonderful idea and its huge potential grabbed me right away, but for me, the novel didn’t quite deliver. The story has little to do with the plague until the end, which in my view is the best part and makes the most interesting points. Until then, it diffuses into numerous subplots, most of it staged farce and a bit self-indulgent for the narrator. Comedy threads most of the narrative, though most of it is absurdist shock stuff, which unlike some people I usually don’t find shocking or very funny (I’m a terrible Cards Against Humanity Player).
I’ll just say I was the wrong reader for this book. There’s a proverb in the lighting industry, which I cover as a journalist for my day job: “There are no bad lighting products, only bad applications.” For me, it’s the same with books. When I was younger, I appreciated this type of story–young introverted male nobody understands is surrounded by the absurd, which he takes in stride, and everybody takes his absurd response seriously. Our introverted male even participates in a long subplot involving him being a shoulder to cry on for the beautiful crazy chick who has a jerk boyfriend, and whom he’d love to rescue by trying to get her into bed. Maybe it’s because I’m older or something, but I just don’t dig this type of story anymore.
So I think this is a great book for a certain crowd who will appreciate it as a comical romp along with the well-intended message that humor is as a necessary thing, but for this middle-aged guy, it just didn’t connect.
Naomi Alderman’s THE POWER is a novel about the final battle of the sexes that results from women undergoing an evolutionary change in which they gain the power to wield electrical current with their hands. Suddenly, men become the “weaker sex.” Women push back until a complete societal reversal occurs, as they gain not just the power to hurt men at will, but all of the other power that comes with it. I found this story, a big ideas novel written in the tradition of THE HANDMAID’S TALE (and as powerful), a work of genius that got me thinking on several levels. The novel came out in 2016 and won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.
The story starts off clunky. A man named Neil, a member of a men’s writing association, is writing to Naomi Alderman, a popular author, in the hopes she will beta read his work of historical fiction. What follows is his novel, told mainly from the perspective of four people: an abused girl who becomes a powerful leader after founding a religion based on a feminist reinterpretation of the Bible; a girl destined to play a minor role in a London crime family, who rises up to become a mafia don in her own right; a female mayor who rises to become one of the most powerful people in America; and a male journalist who travels the world documenting it all. Alderman’s decision to use Neil (and herself) as a device for introducing the novel is a bit off-putting due to the style change and the wait to get down to it, but in the denouement it ties together and really works.
The story of women around the world suddenly gaining power over men initially leads to what one would expect (and hope) to happen. Repressive societies like Saudi Arabia undergo revolutions, men catcalling and sexually harassing women comes to a dead stop, sex slaves liberate themselves, and other events occur that are, well, satisfying to read for anybody who hates these things. All good, right? As the gender reversal accelerates, however, Alderman takes a gutsy path with the novel: Women start to act like the worst of male behavior. Rape, humiliation, stereotyping, subjugation, rewriting history and religion to promote a single gender, stealing creative work, this is what some women do after they get all the power (pursuing a similar premise as portrayed in the film WHITE MAN’S BURDEN). While reading THE POWER, you’re going, hey, payback’s a bitch, then, wow, maybe women really would become the worst of the “patriarchy” if they ran the world (an assertion that power universally corrupts), and then, jeezus, in the real world, women have to put up with a lot of crap. The ending is conclusive but open, and while acknowledging the truth is unknowable, the denouement suggests what happened, or at least confirms what the world is like in the present, in a final clever note among many.
Overall, I loved it for what it was–a gutsy big ideas novel about gender and power spiced with terrific action set pieces. Recommended if you like speculative fiction that tugs your brain strings. If you read it, like it, and want more, TV rights were acquired by Jane Featherstone (Sister Pictures) in an 11-way auction and will be turned into a TV series with global distribution.
DRAGON TEETH, written by Michael Crichton in 1974, was published after his death May 23, 2017. This light and entertaining novel about the Bone Wars in the Old West flits along and is somewhat forgettable, but it’s an easy read with many entertaining elements.
In DRAGON TEETH, William Johnson, a listless Yale student, decides to join an expedition into the Wild West on a bet. He follows paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh into territory contested between the United States and the Sioux Nation to dig up dinosaur bones, which at the time were amazing the public, shaking up the scientific world already in turmoil from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and challenging firmly held religious views. A lot was happening around this time–the gold rush into the Black Hills, the lawless town of Deadwood, Custer’s Last Stand, Wild Bill Hickock’s murder, Wyatt Earp’s travels. Johnson’s adventures take him out of Marsh’s service and into the camp of the man’s arch rival, Edward Drinker Cope, another paleontologist.
When Johnson gets separated from his expedition, he finds himself stranded in Deadwood with crates of bones, including an extraordinary find. He must protect the bones and somehow get them back East on his own. Johnson takes on the challenge and becomes a man in the process.
As far as a Wild West novel, it’s very light fare, if touching on some interesting American history. DRAGON TEETH is far more engaging in his description of the Bone Wars. The two paleontologists portrayed in the novel were real men who hated each other and dedicated their lives and fortunes to the pursuit of fossils and discrediting and ruining each other, socially and financially ruining themselves in the process. Their competition, which sometimes came to gangs of paleontologists shooting at each other at remote sites, produced a revolution in recovering precious fossils and our understanding of Earth’s history. Before their very eyes, humanity was achieving an understanding we now take for granted, that dinosaurs walked the earth long before modern humans existed.
So I give an “A” to Crichton for teaching me something I didn’t know in a novel that, while not his best work, reads short, fast, and easy. A fantastic beach read. If you’re interested in the Bone Wars, check out some of the sources Crichton points out at the end for further reading. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Amblin Television are apparently also working on a limited TV series.
I grew up watching LITTLE BIG MAN starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, which I’d enjoyed several times, and finally got a chance later in life to read the even better novel by Thomas Berger. Berger is a great novelist; another one of his books got made into the movie NEIGHBORS starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
The novel is similar to George MacDonald Fraser’s terrific Flashman series. Both present picaresque tales, picqaresque meaning fiction that presents the adventures of a roguish hero, usually told in first person and combining realism with comedy and satire. While Fraser turned popular conceptions about popular Victorian figures on their head for comedic effect, Berger does same for the American West, relying on overlooked historical documents such as diaries, memoirs, and letters as research for his account.
The novel presents the reminisces of Jack Crabb, a 121-year-old man who’d come out West with his family as a boy, been raised by the Cheyenne after losing his father, and then finds his way around the Old West crossing paths with many well-known historic figures, such as Bill Hickock and George Armstrong Custer. Through twists of fate, he often finds himself crossing over between the native and White worlds, though never finding a home in either one. As with the Flashman series, non-Whites are talked about as they were during the times depicted, which may offend some, though Berger’s Jack Crabb is an equal-opportunity cynic about people and cultures, being on the outside of both worlds.
Berger’s story is well told, irreverent, and hugely entertaining. I loved it and recently ordered NEIGHBORS to give a try as well.