crap i have reread recently #1

smaug flies around the mountain

In a world where “things to read” are proliferating at an alarming rate and there’s not enough time to keep up, why use up precious time reading something you’ve already read?  Lots of reasons, actually.  Complicated books often reveal all sorts of subtleties once you are no longer carried away by the actual plot.   A second time through can recapture fond memories of a book you haven’t read in years.   Perhaps a movie rekindles your interest.  Maybe you need more room in your bookcase and must decide what to part with.  The best reason of all is that some books become best friends and you can’t get enough of them.  You read them again and again and every time you fall just a little bit more in love.  Everyone should have a book like that.

I have rather a lot of books I’d like to re-read eventually so this will be an occasional series.

Many SPOILERS below.

Use of Weapons (Iain Banks):   Some years ago now someone recommended the Culture novels to me.  I don’t actually recall why this conversation happened; I’m not really a big sci-fi reader and it’s not like people are constantly dropping reading suggestions into my lap.  I’ve read some of the classics (Ellison, Dick, Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Verne, etc.) and the occasional modern author has caught my eye (Gibson, Wolfe, Simmons, Brin, etc.).  In general though the genre for me is just OK.  Sometimes it’s compelling.  Most of the time it is frustrating.   But my friend assured me that I’d love these books so I read them, in order, until I got to Use of Weapons, the third book in the series (note: it is not technically correct to refer to the Culture novels as a series as they aren’t in any sort of chronological order.).   This book just…gobsmacked me.

There is a deep and abiding moral ambiguity at the heart of the Culture and Use of Weapons holds the darkest of mirrors up to this model of intergalactic good citizenship.  The Culture is proud of its respect for other civilizations; it does not interfere in other societies’ business, does not engage in colonialism, does not take sides.  It prefers to lead by example and it is true that its citizens are in general wealthy, content, and enlightened.  Yet hidden in the innocuous diplomatic Contact section there exists Special Circumstances, a clandestine organization of dubious purpose.   SC’s primary mission is precisely to interfere in other peoples’ business, commonly those of lesser evolved civilizations or in places where any obvious Culture interest might unduly influence outcomes.   Cheradenine Zakalwe is a non-Culture citizen rescued from near-death by agent Diziet Sma and recruited into SC.  His missions on behalf of the Culture generally involve political manipulations and assassinations.  He’s good at what he does but his methods are a bit unorthodox.

If you have never read the Culture novels I don’t really recommend starting with this one.  Read a few others first, maybe even in order, like I did.  Get a feel for the place.  Get curious about it.  Only then should you crack Use of Weapons open and dive in.   It is a complicated read.  Half the chapters tell the story of Zakalwe’s current mission for SC.   A second set of chapters deals with his past.  These chapters alternate so that one carries us forward in the present day and the next takes us farther back into Zakalwe’s history.   It takes a bit of getting used to but the complicated narrative structure reflects the complicated nature of the protagonist.  Zakalwe has a dark sense of humor and is unrepentantly cynical.  He is ambivalent about his work for SC and tormented by  his memories.  He is sentimental.  He is without mercy.  He is terrified of small chairs.  He has an epic death wish.  He is desperately, desperately trying to do good.   Both of  his stories end in brutally sad fashion but not for reasons you might expect.

In some respects this is the least space-operatic of Banks’ books.   Although set against the vast architecture of the Culture, it is mostly just a small story of a single man trying and failing to escape his past.   The book fares quite well a second time through, which is unusual for a story that depends on an unexpected twist for its emotional punch.  Knowing what I know about Zakalwe suffuses the book with a certain aura, a sort of melancholy of the  inevitable.  Despite everything, I like Zakalwe and watching his entwined tragedies wind down to their ends is just as sad as before.  I also realized this time through how much of the Culture itself is explained in this book, both through descriptions of its technology and politics and through the interactions of Zakalwe, Sma, and Sma’s snarky drone companion Skaffen-Amtiskaw (the only AI to have much of a part in the narrative).  It is also the first in depth look readers get at Special Circumstances:  what it does, how it works, the terrible choices it asks its agents to make, the complicated line on which it balances, the larger purpose it serves.  This book really solidified the Culture for me, made it breathe, gave it depth, made it in some sense real.  It’s why I’ll continue to read everything Culture-related that Banks chooses to write.

On top of all that, it’s just a terrific read from start to finish.

“… we deal in the moral equivalent of black holes, where the normal laws – the rules of right and wrong that people imagine apply everywhere else in the universe – break down; beyond those metaphysical event-horizons, there exist … special circumstances.”  —Diziet Sma, Use of Weapons

Score:  Feels like the first time!

The Annotated Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien/Douglas Anderson):   A good friend is a friend who gives you books and as luck would have it a very good friend indeed gave me The Annotated Hobbit for Christmas.  As I mentioned recently I haven’t read The Hobbit in probably…oh…twenty five years at least.   I once owned a copy but I don’t know what happened to it.  I read my shiny new copy over my New Year holiday and it was a very welcome journey back to Middle Earth.   I don’t intend in this review to compare the book and the recent film but yes, while reading the book it was impossible not to occasionally (OK, frequently) wonder to myself, “why the hell did Jackson change that?”  Also, there were lots of details in the book that I had forgotten and I’m sort of bummed that I now know the fates of some of my favorite movie characters.  Oh well, if this book teaches us nothing else, it is that it is the journey that is important.

So, worth the re-read?  Definitely, with some caveats.  I’m older now and notice things that escaped me in my younger days.  For one thing, there are no women in this story of any kind.  One of Bilbo’s female relatives on the Took side is mentioned a few times but no actual female characters, good or bad, exist.  So it ends up seeming more like a story for boys and if it weren’t for my own extraordinarily fond memories of reading this book as a kid that might be a bit off-putting.   The second thing I noticed is that Bilbo doesn’t really do all that much.  Most of the story happens around him and many of the dangerous events in the book are actually resolved by someone else, usually Gandalf.  Even after Bilbo finds the ring and goes boldly forth it sometimes ends badly.  He’s not a very good burglar.  His heart is in the right place though and he definitely shines when left to his own devices (the riddle game with Gollum, the escape from the wood elves, the verbal jousting with Smaug, etc).  The story itself meanders a bit, most likely because this is a story that a professor told his kids at bedtime over the course of several years and that’s just the nature of those things.

The biggest difference is that I now realize how much my lifelong cultural experience with “things Tolkien” has colored what I expected from this book.  When I read The Hobbit as a child I had of course never read The Lord of the Rings.  This time I’ve not only read those books (mostly) but I’ve seen most of the filmed works, listened to the Led Zeppelin songs, played the MMORPG.  I bring a lot of baggage to a re-reading.  I had to keep reminding myself that The Hobbit is not a prequel to the Lord of the Rings, but that those books are in fact its sequel.  There is no reason for Gollum or the Ring or The Last Homely House (which as far as I can remember is never referred to by that name in Jackson’s movies) to be anything other than what they are in the book.  Everything we’ve come to associate with these things is learned in the trilogy.  This is a story for children.  That in no way means that adults can’t read it and enjoy it massively, but it does mean that you will find it a different sort of experience.  It is a much simpler tale, both thematically and in terms of its plot.  I don’t even know what to say to people who come to the book from the movie.   They are likely to be as disappointed in the simplicity as I was charmed by it.  Oh well.

The annotations provided by Anderson are interesting and informative most of the time.   I was surprised to learn that Tolkien absolutely hated Disney Studios and that his US publishers had a very bad habit of editing his drawings.  There is a nice history of how the book came to be written at the beginning and a bonus short story included at the end.  Now and then the annotations are tediously long, extending for two or three pages past the item Anderson was annotating.  These intrude on the text and often aren’t that fascinating.  Yes, it is very interesting to know that Tolkien based a scene in The Hobbit on an old Norse poem.   Whether it is necessary to include the entire three columns long poem itself is debatable.   Also interesting but occasionally sort of pointless are Anderson’s inclusions of the various changes to the text over the years.  I was aware that once Tolkien decided to do a sequel to The Hobbit he made some changes to it to bring the two works into agreement with each other in terms of lore, dates, names, and the like.  He also made style changes and corrected typos and grammatical errors.  Most of them are pretty minor; there’s nothing of the sort of wholesale revision that George Lucas indulges in.  However, Anderson dutifully lists these next to the version that appears in the current edition and it can get a bit picayune.  More successful is the inclusion of art from various international editions of the book.  Most of the versions I’ve seen have no art at all in them so the color section in the middle that includes many of Tolkien’s original illustrations is especially wonderful.  Also included are various iterations of Thror’s map, handwritten drafts, character sketches, artistic inspirations for various characters and scenes, and (my favorite) all the different artistic styles used in foreign editions.   Tolkien was apparently sorely disappointed in many of these but I found them all fascinating.  Plus it’s nice to read a book with pictures.

Bottom line:  Basically this is a damn good book if you are a kid and a damn good book if you aren’t.   The basic story of a little man having a giant adventure is unchanged, so whether you are pulling a battered and much loved copy from a top shelf or buying this new for your Kindle you won’t be sorry you’ve decided to accompany this small fellowship of dwarfs and their burglar again.  If you are a Tolkien trivia nerd there’s probably nothing in the annotations that you don’t already know; for the rest of us the annotated version is pretty nice and occasionally very interesting.

“Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool!”  –Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit

Score:  Feels like the first time!

~ by gun street girl on January 17, 2013.

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