After a long, long wait, the fourth installment of Literal Daze is here! This is an ongoing segment where I generally review two books, one in written form and the other in audiobook form. I might occasionally throw a movie in as well for fun. Let’s get started!
American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
What if the various Gods throughout the history of mankind were physically manifested through humanity’s sheer willingness to believe in and sacrifice to them? What would they look like, and how would they behave? And what would happen to them when they were eventually forgotten and left behind?
This is the idea behind Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel and modern fable, American Gods. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book. I liked it and didn’t like it at the same time. It’s central concept, the idea of America being this strange melting pot of the various Gods man has created over the course of human history and brought with them when they came to this country, is an interesting one. As time marches on and the old Gods are forgotten, they are replaced by new ones, Gods who are probably more familiar to you than you know – The Internet, Television, Media, etc. I liked its approach to this idea for the most part (Though I was bothered by one glaring omission. Hypothetically, if this were the way things actually worked, if the “Gods” flourish through our adoration and worship, wouldn’t the most powerful American God be, you know, Jesus? I understand that Christianity wasn’t really the focus of this story, but 70-something percent of Americans claim to be Christian, so the fact that it was basically glossed over seemed strange to me).
Still, a concept can only take you so far, even when well executed. Despite being well written and featuring subtle yet fascinating characters, the heart of any story is the plot. This one does just a bit too much meandering and side-tracking for my tastes. I found myself caring more about the secondary mystery plot that isn’t even introduced until halfway through the book than about the main story, which ends in highly anticlimactic fashion.
So yeah, this one wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t terrible either. If nothing else, it’ll probably get me reading more Neil Gaiman.
Angelology (Danielle Trussoni)
Here’s my review of Angelology:
This book sucked.*
*It should be noted, however, that the narrator for the audiobook was quite good. Probably the only good thing about this book. If I’d had to actually read it in print I probably would have gouged my eyes out.
Surface Detail (Iain M. Banks)
I admit, I’ve never read a single novel in Banks’ “The Culture” series. Frankly, I didn’t know the books existed until sometime last year. Considering what a huge fan I am of Science Fiction, this is probably a crime against the genre, but there it is. In my defense, I have heard of a couple of the books in this series, such as Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward and simply didn’t realize what they were, so at least that’s something.
Anyway, yeah, back to Surface Detail. The good thing about the Culture series, in this case at least, is that it isn’t really a series at all. Notice that little tag on the cover picture that says that it is “A Culture Novel” instead of “A Culture Series”? There’s a reason for that. The universe that these books take place in spans millennia, and so books can actually take place hundreds of years apart. Other than the titular civilization of the Culture, a hyper-advance, sort-of anarchic conglomeration of different species and artificial intelligences, there is no real common thread between any of them. Each stands alone as its own story, and other than some background on the Culture itself (much of which is filled in in each book), no knowledge of previous books is required. So hopping straight into Book 9 as my first foray into the series wasn’t as jarring as you’d think it might be.
In Surface Detail, there are a couple of different story threads that kind of dance around each other. The first, more personal story, is about a young alien woman who is born as an lifelong indentured servant on her home world to an extremely wealthy yet sadistic businessman. Even before birth, she is marked on a genetic level with intricate and amazing tattoos all over her body, the incredible patterns of which help define the novel’s title. The book begins with her attempted escape and subsequent murder by her owner. However, where the Culture is concerned, not even death is always permanent. When she seemingly resurrects many light years away on a Culture ship, she eventually teams up with a slightly insane but powerful warship named “Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints”. Yeah, if that’s not the best name for a starship ever, I don’t know what is. Eventually her story brings her back to face the man who so wronged her, and she must deal with the implications of what she has become.
That story is set against a larger backdrop of war – in this case, a simulated war which isn’t actually real. Not yet anyway. As many civilizations become more advanced, they learn how to manipulate virtual worlds, creating artificial reality constructs that seem as real as the real world. So what happens when some of them take this a step too far Several worlds eventually decide that letting God take care of the afterlife isn’t good enough, and take it upon themselves to create their own virtual heavens and hells. When someone dies, the government downloads their mental state as a digital copy and decides which of these afterlives to place them in. You can imagine how a system like this might be abused and wielded for nefarious purposes.
The war, then, is between the worlds who condone the virtual hells and those who want them destroyed (the Culture falls in this latter camp by the way, though they vow not to become directly involved). Ironically, the war itself is fought in a virtual construct to prevent deaths in the real world. This story line is followed by a soldier who lives and dies a hundred times, fights in every scenario imaginable, and who’s shoulders the war eventually comes to sit upon. In parallel, another human woman who is a representative of the Culture investigates some strange happenings surrounding the war, and why it may be close to breaking through into real bloodshed.
Finally, there’s one more storyline that follows a pair of alien quadrupeds who hack into their own world’s virtual hell. It seems that some on their world don’t believe these virtual afterlives don’t actually exist, and so these fellow activists decide that the best way to blow the lid off is to get solid proof. The only problem is, their escape plan goes badly awry, and in the end only one of them manage to escape. After this their story splits into the man doing his best to expose the virtual hell to his countrymen, while the woman suffers through seemingly endless lifetimes of pain and torture still trapped inside.
If all of this sounds like a pretty complicated affair, you’re right, it is. Each story on its own is pretty good. However, even though Banks tried to tie them all together, it never really feels like any one of these stories has much bearing on another. If I have a complaint, that would probably be it. Though each character’s story comes to a natural end with varying levels of satisfaction, the novel as a whole still feels incomplete somehow.
Despite this, it’s a great book. If you like grand, epic science fiction, it’s hard to get much better than this. I’ve read that there actually may be some modest connections to another book in the series here, which is apparently something Banks doesn’t generally do, so I know I’ll have to go back and start catching up. If the rest of them are anything like this one, great things are in store.
Oh, and as for the Audiobook? Fantastic. I’ll just say right now, the narrator of this one, Peter Kenny, is without a doubt the best audiobook narrators I’ve ever heard. His normal accent and voice is just perfect for reading, soft and gentle yet engaging, and his ability to create new voices, accents, and tones for every new character that pops up is simply remarkable. Narrators like him are the reason I listen to Audiobooks in the first place. Bravo.
Get ready, because the fifth installment of the epic “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, A Dance With Dragons, is coming up! At nearly fifty hours, this was the longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to by far, so we’ll see whether or not that worked in its favor or against it. See you back here then.