crap i have read recently #24

space elephantA classics roundup with some SPOILERS…

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Mrs Dalloway (Woolf, 1925):  I am ashamed to say that I managed to get through an excessive amount of liberal arts education without ever reading any Virginia Woolf.  I have since read and enjoyed short works by her, especially excerpts of her letters and some essays, but I’ve never read any of her longer works.  I’ve particularly never read Mrs Dalloway, which is consistently recommended to  me as the one book of hers I should read.  So, here we go.

The story occurs on a single June day and is set in post WWI England.  The two main characters are Clarissa Dalloway,  the respectable middle-aged wife of a respectable man, and Septimus Smith, a young war veteran suffering from PTSD and survivor guilt.   Clarissa is getting ready for a high society party and Septimus is working himself up to a grisly suicide.    Other characters include Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s less respectable but more passionate former beau whom she threw over for her  husband during a bucolic summer at the family’s country estate; Rezia Smith, Septimus’ deeply frightened and desperate young wife;  Clarissa’s career-obsessed husband and independent-minded daughter; the daughter’s aggressively nonconformist tutor (who may have a crush on the daughter); a duo of patronizing and highly symbolic medical men who try to “help” Septimus face his demons; and “ghosts” from the past Sally Seton (who Clarissa once kissed) and Septimus’ dead war buddy Evans (who it is very likely that Septimus once kissed).   Of all the characters Peter Walsh stands out the most; his voice is the most distinct.  Clarissa herself is superficial but she knows it and appears to regret it.  It’s pretty clear she wonders if she might have ended up a more substantial person if she’d married Peter.   He’s come back to England to obtain a divorce so that he can marry the woman he’s been having an affair with.  It’s not something he seems particularly happy about and it’s pretty clear that he’s really there for one last chance with Clarissa.   So the two go about their day, running into each other now and then, and into other characters  now and then, and we follow along and I, at least, spent a good deal of time wondering why I should care about any of these people.  Except Peter.  I kind of liked Peter.

The narrative moves from person to person like a pinball.  As Clarissa goes to buys flowers her thoughts are taken with party plans and memories of that wonderful summer; when she returns home Peter is there and they have a chat; he leaves and thinks about her and that awful summer; he passes Septimus and Rezia in the park; Septimus is thinking dark thoughts about the war and Rezia is pinning her hopes on a meeting with a new doctor… and so on it goes.   The effect is one of meandering randomness, not quite devoid of plot and structure, but definitely taking the scenic route to get there.    It kind of made me want to keep a flow chart to follow all the meetings, both chance and deliberate, and their subsequent tangents.  Clarissa and Septimus never share the same physical space but his death does provide the opportunity for some idle chatter at her party and a nonsensical epiphany.

I wish I could say I loved the book, or even that I liked it.  I didn’t dislike it but…perhaps I will settle on “I admired it” and go with that.  Unfortunately it is one of those books that was bold when it was published but now, to me at least, seems a bit dated and kind of gimmicky.  It’s that whole stream of consciousness thing.  To be honest this style of writing has never appealed to me because it has never seemed authentic to me.   The narrative moves from head to head and with few exceptions if the author doesn’t signal broadly that we are now privy to someone else’s thoughts you’d never guess it.  Which is rather a round about way of saying the interior monologues of nearly everyone in the book sound suspiciously similar.   This is quite a feat when one considers that characters range from a high society matron to a shell-shocked war veteran half her age.  I was particularly surprised that Rezia, a young woman only recently come to England from Italy, does not apparently think in Italian.

Technically the book is interesting.  The structure is more complicated than the randomness of encounters leads one to believe and I occasionally got lost in it, like I do in my own thoughts.  It was disappointing that all this intimacy with the characters did not lead me to any sort of empathy with them.   Clarissa sounds like a spoiled child idly regretting ruining someone’s life back in the day.  Rezia is so deep into denial about her husband’s illness that you want to smack her.  Peter is a cad even in his own head.  The doctors are both pompous and symbolically evil.  Clarissa’s friends and family are self-absorbed and dull.  Septimus is crazy and angry and lost and although I think I was supposed to feel something for him (sorrow?  anger?) I couldn’t.  His suicide occurs in a frantic instance of panic and Rezia is sedated and then we are at Clarissa’s party where the hostess parades the Prime Minister around like she’s won the prize at the fair.  It’s an awful thing when a book that includes the horrible death of a sensitive and intelligent young man leaves the impression of a book where nothing happens.

Maybe I missed the point.

Score:  Meh.

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Footfall (Niven, Pournell; 1985):  This is the third Larry Niven book that I have read.  Ringworld was wonderful.  Dream Park was an unexpected good read.  This one was a struggle.  It took me months to read it and I almost gave up on it more than once.  It’s not a particularly challenging read conceptually; it’s just very drawn out and confusing and derivative.  Set in a barely alternate history (which would have been contemporary when the book was written) in which the Soviet Union is the dominant of the two main players in the Cold War, the story concerns an invasion by what are basically described as hive-mind elephants.   The Fithp have come from a long way away and are themselves divided into those who made the long journey asleep and those who remained awake to care for the sleepers.  In space as on Earth there are factional struggles for control, different opinions on how to deal with the “aliens”, and wasteful self/herd-serving political maneuvering up to and including murder.

Footfall has four pages worth of Dramatis Personae at the start of the book and as I’ve pointed out before, that is usually not a good sign.  There are separate sections for the American military and government, various survivalists and their hangers-on, the Soviets, the Fithp,  the Americans who discover the aliens, the Soviets on board the Kosmograd, a batch of people in Colorado Springs, more people in Kansas, the people who man the super-weapon created to do battle with the aliens, and a bunch of “others” including prisoners of war, random military guys, shady Russians, and a handful of Zulus.  The plot moves around from Saturn, to Hawaii and DC and Colorado, to the Russian Space Station, to the Kremlin, to the Fithp ship and its away teams, to the survivalist enclave, to a lone motorcycle warrior picking up spare women out in the prairie, to a mysterious government installation in Washington, to South Africa.   Somewhere in there Kansas gets nuked and the Americans write off the destruction of India as a regrettable nut necessary sacrifice.

We view events from the perspective of both the Fithp and the humans and by the end of the book the alien elephants come off as a lot more sympathetic than any human character.  Hell, the book reads like a paean to Ronald Reagan’s America, but even the Soviets end up more likeable than almost any American in the book.    I got a bad taste in my mouth some thirty pages in, when main character Army Captain Jeannette Crichton gets shouldered aside by a “fat lady in a yellow-flowered dress.”  Her thoughts on this?  “I’m supposed to defend a tub of lard like you?  Why?”  And I’m supposed to like an entitled holier-than-thou character like you?  Why?  Jenny later gets a major military promotion solely because she happens to be looking over the shoulder of a guy she picked up on a beach in Hawaii when he discovers the aliens, finds herself on the President’s detail when he’s sent to NORAD in Colorado Springs, sleeps with one of his Secret Service agents, and commits treason.   The rest of the cast is rounded out by studly astronauts, a band of survivalists who are almost comically neutered by the military, a liberal Congressman turned hawk during his time in captivity aboard the alien ship, a group of science fiction writers who are integral to discovering how to beat the elephants (well, that certainly wasn’t any sort of obvious self-aggrandizement), and resourceful American and Soviet prisoners aboard the Fithp mothership who effectively sabotage their captors.

The Americans win, of course, and save the Earth.  There’s no message of forbearance or understanding.  No hope of inter-species friendship or cooperation. No recognition that mistakes and misunderstandings occurred on both sides.  No nuance at all.  If you want to beat flying elephants from space you need good old American might makes right.   All of this could be tolerable and even enjoyable if there were any subtlety to the plot, if the characters weren’t sloppy stereotypes and almost uniformly unappealing, and if I weren’t left with the impression that the whole thing was Niven and Pournelle’s application to be included should the government ever need a super-secret team of hack science fiction writers to fight sentient pachyderms from the other end of the galaxy.

Also, the cover blurb by Tom Clancy should probably have tipped me off.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on June 30, 2014.

One Response to “crap i have read recently #24”

  1. Reblogged this on kinginascent and commented:
    I liked the tone and the energy of the reviews here.

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