The Wind in the Willows

Monday, October 26, 2009

1908, Kenneth Grahame

The above is what people often remember from The Wind in the Willows.  I blame Disney. 

For a book that everyone seems to vaguely remember, there's very little in the way of plot.  Toad's story is a plot, misadventure piling on misadventure, thrown in jail, escape, battle, the final defeat of vanity.  The other chapters, which I find much more interesting, are almost a series of sketches exploring the significance of place: Dwelling Places, Wild Places, Play Places, Holy Places, Exotic Places.

The lyrical descriptions leave no doubt in my mind of the affection Grahame held for the countryside where he lived.  In the first chapter, Mole meets the River:

The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. - Chapter 1: "The River Bank"

The use of animal characters, in this case, allows them to be closer to the land they live on, and in, and with.  Although it's not an action-packed book to read, it is a beautiful one.

Personally I have a soft spot for the Rankin-Bass animated adaptation, even though the voice acting is far superior to the animation, and the voice acting is just okay.  Mostly I loved it growing up because unlike the Disney animated version, the Rankin Bass spends time with two of my favorite chapters: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and Wayfarers All, although it awkwardly combines them into one section.  At some point I need to find time to watch some of the British film and TV versions for comparison.

Both chapters in question are highly mystical in nature.  Me being me, an adventure in which the main characters meet Pan won my interest from a young age, and in Wayfarers All, Rat is possessed somewhat literally by the spirit of wanderlust.

A quick search of the Project Gutenberg text confirms a suspicion of mine:  Of five uses of the word “willow”, four are in the chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and similarly almost all references to wind in the reeds.  (The actual title phrase is not in the text.)  So I think it isn't unreasonable to think that Grahame considered it the heart of the book.  Especially given the cover of the first edition.

I like the chapter.  I like that it's just there, not foreshadowed, doesn't come up again, just standing alone.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

To clarify the differences between the books in this cycle, I'm going to run through some of the characteristics of the anthropomorphic society in each book. 
Here we go.

Overall: Unclear relationship toward humans.
Animals probably wear clothes and do talk to humans.  (Not all animals, though.  Stray dog and barge horse seem to be mute, some animals are pets) 

Size: Unclear.
The characters can drive cars, and may be mistaken for human.  On the other hand, the Sea Rat seems to easily stow away on ships, which implies a certain smallness.  Most film adaptations seem to split the difference, and make the characters equivalent to rather short humans.  The pictures in an early edition imply normal animal size.  So... yeah.

Law and Order: Partially subject to human law.  Maybe.
Toad is sentenced to prison time by humans, but does not fear recapture after he gets back into animal territory...
No stated repercussions for either the Weasels squatting in Toad Hall, or when the main group attacks them (with staffs and pistols) and drives them away.

Own language: Not implied.
Can communicate across species, and with humans.

Own religion: Yes.
Pan is presented as the protector and secret champion of animalkind.  He is worshiped by them, albeit semi-unconsciously.

Other Notes:
Human class structure.  The main characters are British gentlemen, appear to be upper-class, have plenty of leisure and money.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Very High
Clothing, furniture, pistols, pipes, cars, letters, etc.  Does not seem like a put-on to pretend to be human.  I get the feeling the characters would feel naked without clothing, but it may be the influence of the illustrations of the edition I had and the animated version I watched.

This is the first time I've read this book in a while.  It's not quite as brilliant throughout as I wanted it to be, but there's a lot of pleasure to be had.

"And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! 'Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company. You can easily overtake me on the road, for you are young, and I am ageing and go softly. I will linger, and look back; and at last I will surely see you coming, eager and light-hearted, with all the South in your face!" - The Sea Rat, Chapter 9: "Wayfarers All"

New Theme: Anthropomorphic Animal Societies

Sunday, October 25, 2009

In searching through Children's sections on the hunt for Girl's Books, I discovered another genre I'd been meaning to re-read a bunch of.

For each of these books I plan to chat both about the book itself and the structure of the animal society.

Planned Subjects:


Monday, October 19, 2009

Dan Simmons, 1989

There are lots of reasons to like Hyperion.  The form is intriguing, the characters complicated, the plot mysterious, and the prose lovely.  But aside from all that, I'm glad I read Hyperion because it gives me more ammunition in my long-standing fight to prove that The Time Traveler's Wife is a pointless book.

One of the main conceits in Hyperion is "time-debt".  Time-debt is what happens to people who travel via FTL drive (somewhat adorably called Hawking Drive), as they enter a kind of stasis and age slower than people who stay on planets or travel via a kind of tele-portals.  So if your friend travels to a distant world and back, you will end up many years older than the traveler.  In several of the novellas which make up the backbone of the novel, this disconnect between those who go and those who stay behind is explored beautifully.  This is a good, emotionally effective use of time "travel", even though it's only one way.  The final novella is a far better romantic time-problem story than that previously named piece of feather-weight lit.  (Okay, I have a grudge.  And TTTW was way way overrated.)

I had read a few pieces by Simmons previously.  I liked Ilium and Olympos, they were very weird, but intriguing.  So I thought I'd pick up what seems to be his most acclaimed book (and a Hugo winner.)

I got 25 pages in and went, "Oh, I get it, it's The Canterbury Tales, IN SPACE."  That is not intended as a derogatory remark.  The frame story works well, and since each character's tale is intended as the answer to the question 'why are you on the pilgrimage?' (which is usually fatal), each one builds on the previous to create a progressively clearer view of their world, and its potential turning point. 

It's not all drama and SF ideas (and literary references, obscure and less so, and religious and moral philosophizing).  The Soldier's Tale, in particular, takes a sudden left turn into highly visceral descriptions of sex and violence, which mostly startled me because I was reading on the subway at the time.  Now, I read romance and such on the subway, but I like to have a little warning.  I read a criticism of this novel that it's sexist, and I will say that there are not a ton of good female characters, and while the tough lady cop who's one of the tale-tellers is cool, her tale is, well, it has ups and downs, and the technobabble (and explanation-babble) within I found the least interesting. 

I'll admit, unless your book is really really fascinating, I'm not going to do outside research which seems to be applicable to the plot (I might seek out additional information if I'm interested enough in the original subject, for example I went to the South Street Seaport Museum when I was into naval history, reading the Aubrey-Maturin series).  But it felt like I was missing something in this book, despite what seemed like adequate explanation.  If you can't give me enough infodump to understand the plot, I'm a little disappointed.  I'm not going to research romantic poetry for background to read a sci-fi novel.  Even a really "literary" sci-fi novel.

Now it's entirely possible that I wasn't missing anything, but I didn't, by the end, completely understand the relevance of the planet Hyperion.  On the other hand, I didn't think this was an obstacle to enjoying the novel.  I read what various characters hypothesized, and in the end there was a certain amount of faith involved that the planet - and the creature - that the characters are moving toward is important.  It's unfathomable, and I can get into that.  The characters themselves don't understand it, but they're hoping to.  Whatever happens (in Book Two), they might affect the course of the future, or even of the past (given all the time stuff.)  I found the ending suitable.  It could be argued it's a bit of a cliff-hanger for the next book, but I found it satisfying in itself, mystical, funny and dark, both bleak and hopeful.  The whole book is kind of like that.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book


Monday, October 12, 2009

C. J. Cherryh, 1994

I enjoy thinking about the link between language and cognition, and this work manages to delve into this subject on a deeper level than the back-of-the-book-copy would have you believe.  " human's fondness for a species which has fourteen words for betrayal and not a single word for love?"  I'm glad I didn't actually read that before picking up the book.  In fact, Foreigner does a nice job not playing into that "Eskimos have x number of words for snow" silliness, instead subtly exploring the fundamental differences between two sentient races, reflected in their language.

The aliens, called atevi, aren't less moral, or less good, or less or more anything than humans, but they are irrevocably different.  It's actually refreshing for a sci-fi piece not to go with the easy out of 'we are all the same at the core'.  It's a completely separate sentient species, developed on a different world, and all bets are off.

Foreigner is also a nice exploration of a diplomatic (non-action-guy!) protagonist, who does his best to sympathize and understand the atevi, but has to always watch his human instincts, and always has to think of his own people.  In the most moving passages, Bren constantly realizes anew he can't really understand or be understood by even his closest atevi companions.  It's almost like playing ambassador to dolphins or gorillas, once you fall back from communicating on their terms and ascribe human motivations to their behavior, you'll never really understand what's going on.  And even if you don't, maybe you actually can't understand.

Okay, so that's all well and good, but the first thing that struck me about this book was the beginning.

Foreigner is divided into three books.
Book one is pages 9-23, book two is 27-61, and book three pages 65-423.

You don't meet the main protagonist until book three.

The first two sections set up the situation of the humans on this world.  The first is how the ship ends up in that system, the second the first contact between the species.  Not knowing what I was getting into, I was a bit surprised when, 20 pgs in, getting intrigued by the characters, the storyline jumped several generations.  I was growing very interested in the second story, when again, 200 years skipped ahead.  I didn't fully trust that Cherryh was going to stay put in her final time until a few chapters had gone by.

So, my opinion is complicated here.  Showing the story this way saves Cherryh from many awkward exposition possibilities, the dreaded "he remembered when he had learned how humans landed..." style info-dump, the interaction with a supernumerary whose purpose is to be explained to, or many other cringe-worthy strategies. I know it's often a struggle for science fiction and fantasy authors to present their world with style.

I'm conflicted about this approach.  It certainly gave me as a reader a clearer and more personal feel for the history which backs up the main story to see it through the people who were there.  Also there's some opportunity for subtle humor with later characters misunderstanding the same events.  However, I did feel slightly disappointed once it became clear that I would never get the full story about the protagonists in Part 1 or 2.  (Of course, at this point, she's written a ton of books in this series, maybe some of them fill in the gaps.)  I'm not categorically stating I need every detail of every character for a book to be good, just that in this case it was jarring to be flung forward in the timeline.  So, is the bait and switch justified in the name of clearer exposition?  I'm undecided. 

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

The Deep Beyond

Monday, October 5, 2009

C. J. Cherryh, 2005

It's two books in one!  Two... completely unconnected books.  According to Wikipedia, they take place in the same universe, but I didn't get that from reading them.

Cuckoo's Egg (1985)
Intriguing premise that never really goes anywhere, more of an extended character background than a novel in it's own right.  The identity of the main character is interesting, but not surprising the way the book seems to imply it should be.  The politics are slightly too muddled, the plot fuzzy.  The last little bit has all the plot, and then it ends.  It does bring up some intriguing ideas, and the society of Space-Cat-Samurai is fairly original, but I'd prefer if those ideas were attached to more of a plot. 

Serpent's Reach (1980)
Very cool world, interesting, if confusing, plot.  Again I could have wished for a bit more resolution (Of the situation outside of the planet the plot ends on), but this one's much better.  Probably the best space-bug society I've ever seen.  I like the idea of the Kontrin, (long-lived humans who have a hereditary ability to communicate with the bugs) and why the castes of humans were necessary/came about.  In describing this book to Erin, he pointed out that the human castes are like an insect society.  I feel silly for not adding two and two myself.  Cherryh's world building is solid and original enough that I'll definitely look for more of her work.  Even though apparently her last name is really Cherry, but she changed it because it was too feminine to sell sci-fi.  Sigh. 

3 Stars - A Good Book