Monday, January 23, 2012

I Believe the Children Are the Future: The Genesis of Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks

Armageddon's Children, Terry Brooks
The Elves of Cintra, Terry Brooks
The Gypsy Morph, Terry Brooks
Stars: 2.5
Recommended for:  longtime Terry Brooks readers, survival nuts, people who think ‘Lord of the Rings’ is real, and disaffected college students

I’m beginning to believe that book marketing people are one of the most evil forces on Earth.

You see, I had a plan when I started this Cannonball. That plan lasted exactly one book. The second book on my list wasn’t in our local library, but no big deal. I put in an inter-library loan request and moved on down the list.

Third book on my list - Don Quixote. Have you ever seen an unabridged copy of Don Quixote? It’s massive. It’s roughly the same size as the Oxford English Dictionary. Clearly, this wasn’t a book that I was going to cruise through in a week.

So what’s a Cannonballer who’s faced with an unexpected challenge to do? Well, if he’s at the library, he picks a book off the shelf at random - at least that’s what I did. Keeping my rules for book selection in mind, I tried to find a stand-alone book. I arrived at “Armageddon’s Children” by Terry Brooks. I looked carefully at the jacket - it seemed like everything pointed to this being a good choice. Take it home and let the reading begin.

It wasn’t until I got to page 170 - just shy of halfway through the book - that I began to think I might have made a mistake. It was there that Brooks introduced another major set of characters and a completely different story line. What the what?!?!? There’s no way he can wrap all this up in the rest of the book. So I peek at the last page - normally a taboo for me - and there it is, clear as day. “The story will continue in the next novel.” Aww, son-of-a....

The Genesis of Shannara Trilogy - beginning with “Armageddon’s Children” - tells the story of how “Shannara” got its start. I can only infer what Shanarra is, since the term is never used in the text of the three books. It appears to be some kind of magical land where magical things happen. I’m sure it’s very nice and adventures are had by all.

The setting of the trilogy, on the other hand, is a place nowhere near as nice - a post-apocalyptic, nightmare version of the land formerly known as the United States; specifically the Pacific Northwest. Massive pollution as well as nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare have made most of the land unfit for any form of life. Further, animals and humans that have been exposed to the toxic environment have undergone a series of mutations - populating the world with a variety of monstrous creatures.

And did I mention the world was magical? Yep, yep. Magic abounds in this alternate/future America. On the one hand you have demons, servants of The Void, who seek to complete the utter destruction of life on Earth. On the other hand, you have servants of The Word, Faerie creatures and others that seek to preserve life and oppose the demonic hordes and their armies of “once-men”. Chief players on the front lines of this epic battle: the Knights of the Word - humans who have been chosen to carry the magic of the Word and lead the charge against the forces of the Void.

Our story follows one such Knight - Logan Tom - as he accepts a new assignment from his Faerie “handlers”, the Lady and a Native American named . He is to find a magical creature, called a gypsy morph, which has taken the form of a human child. This creature will lead a group of survivors to a magical stronghold where they will be able to endure the destruction of the rest of the world.

Once Logan is underway on his task of finding the gypsy morph, we’re introduced to yet another Knight of the Word - Angel Perez - who is tasked with finding and protecting a group of Elves. Did I mention this world has Elves? The Elves must find magic stones with which they can save the Elvish nation and carry them to the stronghold which the gypsy morph will show them.

Needless to say, the demon hordes don’t want either Knight to succeed, and so monstrous hunters are sent to stop the Knights and their charges from completing their assigned tasks. Hijinks ensue. Enough to fill around 1000 pages over the course of three books.

That’s right. I ended up reading a story that’s 1000 pages long, all so I could avoid Don Quixote because it was too long. The irony isn’t lost on me.

And it’s not that I’m sorry that I read the Genesis of Shannara Trilogy, it’s just that I wasn’t terribly moved by it. The story was engaging enough. The characters were better than one-dimensional. The plot twists weren’t completely predictable. Generally, it was a well--executed piece of fiction. Yet I still found the entire experience unsatisfying.

The entire Trilogy reads more like a fanboy origins story. Normally, I’m all about the origins story. I stuck with Smallville long after the series jumped the shark, because I’m fascinated by origins stories. Maybe it’s just that to care deeply about the origins of this story, one needs to be deeply immersed in the rest of the Shanarra universe.

I think, ultimately, I felt put out by being taken in by the marketing copy. Nowhere did the book warn me that I was starting a series of books. Clearly they knew. “Armageddon’s Children” just ends. There wasn’t any pretense of wrapping up some of the story lines. It was, quite literally, a cliffhanger. So why didn’t the copy clue the potential reader in to this very basic fact? I blame the marketing folks.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sex, Drugs, and a Brave New World

Book: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Stars: 4
Recommended for: the 99%, tea party-ers, and disaffected college students

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m used to my imaginary futures being more dystopian. The fact that 99.9% of the inhabitants of Aldous Huxley’s future are, in fact, living in a true utopia strikes a strange tone. It’s a major chord resolution that nevertheless sounds discordant. My senses don’t really know what to do with it.

Huxley casts a future that has been given wholly over to industry and pleasure. Everyone is bred and conditioned from the time their egg is artificially fertilized to their last, drug-hazed breath to accept their place in life, to pursue their duty joyfully, to consume as much as possible, and to partake fully and guiltlessly of their pleasures. Any hint of negativity is washed away by prodigious use of the drug soma, which takes them on a peaceful holiday of the mind.

Of course, not everyone gets along well in this world, and this is where Huxley’s narrative kicks in. Members of the Alpha class, the highest caste in the government-controlled society, have the capacity for independent thought although they are highly conditioned to fit in to the rest of society. Despite their conditioning, some few individuals begin to find themselves dissatisfied with the current life and begin to act out in various ways.

One of these malcontents is Bernard Marx, an Alpha-plus whose angst begins, rather predictably really, in a poor self-image due to some physical failings uncommon in those of his caste - he’s somewhat short and scrawny. Because of his differences, he has less success in pursuing his pleasures, and so despite his conditioning becomes fixated on one particular woman. Finally convincing his much-sought-after prize to join him on a holiday into uncivilized territory, they encounter the expected savages and an unexpected, previously-civilized woman and her grown son. Their lives are changed forever, yada, yada, yada, and the book ends along a fairly predictable vector. (What, you think I’m going to spoil the book for you?)

What I’m left with as a reader are confusion and highly conflicting emotions. On the one hand, all the marketing hype on the back of every copy of the book I’ve seen talks about how Huxley’s vision is “terrifying” and “disturbing”. Frankly, I just don’t get that. Compared to say, Orwell, Huxley’s version of authoritarian regime is positively cuddly.

Huxley’s future seems, in fact, a hell of a lot like our present, minus the factories producing the next generations from a test tube. Rampant consumerism, check. Hedonism as a prime motivator for living, check. Dubious nature of any true free will, check. The primary difference seems to be that we haven’t abandoned some of the things that Huxley’s world cast away long before the events of the book: familial love, philosophy and religion, ideals of independence and self-governance.
All of this, given the similarities, makes me wonder whether Huxley has really cast his net that far. Granted, it was pretty radical for 1932 society, but in the end how brave or new is his world? Or was Huxley incredibly adept at anticipating the forces of change at work around him, letting him open for his readers a hazy window into our present day?