Book Review: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

[Originally posted January 9, 2009]

I had seen this book prominently displayed at several different bookstores last year, and happened upon a couple of reviews of it which all spoke highly of it. It is a rather hard book to classify because at it’s heart it is a classic noir style detective story, but although the technology in it is not any different than what we currently have, it is set in an alternate timeline. As such, you’re most likely going to see it in science fiction sections, and indeed, it won both a Nebula and Hugo award for best novel as well as the Locus award for best SF novel. But if you’re not a regular science fiction reader, I highly suggest you pick this up anyway.

Suppose that after WWII the state of Israel lasted only until 1948 when it was defeated its neighbors and the Jewish population was expelled from that territory. Michael Chabon imagines a world in which those Jews, and others, ended up settling in an area of Alaska which was set aside for them by the US government. An idea which is based on a little known historical fact; that the US Congress considered just such an option at the end of the war. Now, 60 years later, that land is about to revert to American control. Against that back drop, the main character, Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic homicide detective on the Sitka police force, goes about solving the murder of a man who lived in Landsman’s own apartment building.

It’s a fantastically told story, weaving elements of classic detective novels, Jewish culture, and a fully developed alternate history together seamlessly. Having just read Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music which is another Chandlerian detective novel in the science fiction realm (blended with the surrealism of Philip K Dick as opposed to Chabon’s dropping his detective into a world inspired by Northern Exposure) I definitely appreciated the chance to ride along with Landsman, who yo-yos between being brilliant and exceptionally effective and being completely lost and adrift in currents of corruption, religious fanaticism and general corruption that run from Landsman’s own family, to a group of super-Orthodox Jews who have formed their own mafia and all the way over into mysterious figures in the American government. The writing is well-paced and clear, and as a reader, you never feels cheated on information, even when you aren’t familiar with certain Jewish customs and beliefs that play into the storyline as Chabon explains them quite understandably. (And he even includes a handy little glossary of various Yiddish terms which he has adapted to the unique situation of his novel. For example ‘sholem’ which means ‘peace’ is used to mean ‘gun’ as ‘peace’ is a pun on ‘piece’, which is of course American slang for ‘gun’.)

My rating: 5/5 stars

Side note, the Coen brothers are returning to their cold Fargo roots as writers and directors of a movie adaptation of the novel.

Book Review: Ender in Exile

[Originally posted November 20, 2008]

Without a doubt, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is one of the most beloved science fiction novels of the last 30 years. The subsequent series and off-shoot series have shown Card’s ability to take both aspects — the action and the philosophy — of the original novel and expand them very well. And Ender’s Game is definitely one of my favorite novels ever.

As a result of that, I’ve actually written several essays about the novel while in school. One essay which I wrote in my college freshman English class compared and contrasted it with a novel by a Russian author, though I barely remember that essay at all anymore and I believe I lost the file several years ago when a hard drive crashed. Another essay was written for my science fiction literature class with John Kessel and in that essay I was evaluating the notion of hero in science fiction by examining several of the landmark novels in science fiction — Frank Herbert’s Dune, Alfred Bester’s The Stars my Destination, Ender’s Game, and possibly a fourth novel, though again my memory is fuzzy and the file is not currently available, though hopefully I’ll be able to find it.

When I was discussing this essay with Dr Kessel before writing it, he suggested that I find an essay which had been written by science fiction author and critic Norman Spinrad. In that article, Spinrad did the very same thing as I was planning, using those same three books that I named and one of his own novels. In his article, he actually took the same stance I did on the protagonists of Dune and The Stars my Destination being the standard hero and anti-hero, respectively. But he raised a very interesting point about Ender in Ender’s Game. Though he grows as a character and as a person, he doesn’t make a conscious decision, knowing the full repercussions of his action, when he destroys the Bugger homeworld and as such is in fact a failed hero, because a hero is the person who makes the tough decisions. Ender was under no pressure to make the right decision, he was just under the pressure of what he thought was very extreme training. And because he never had to make that decision, he was cheated by Card out of his chance to be a true hero. Spinrad says that the true story of Ender’s heroism was the story of his life from the end of the war to the time he is an adult while he comes to terms with the truth of what he did. It is the story between the end of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.

Ender in Exile is that story. But as Card notes in the after word of the novel, it really could not have been written without the Shadow series having been written first. But I’m not really sure how much Ender actually grows as a character in this story. Without providing any spoilers, all of his actions are made without any seeming struggle on his part and the only way he comes to any closure with the knowledge of his having committed xenocide is through no effort of his, but through the accidental discovery of the remaining bugger queen egg. And that event isn’t even the final culmination of the story. Instead a face-off with one of Bean and Petra’s lost children serves as such. And there, the growth is in Ender’s opponent, not in himself. Ender is locked into being the same person he was in the original series. There is no growth from the time he is 13 at the end of the war to the time he’s a fully grown man on his way to meet the third known sentient species on Lusitania in Speaker for the Dead.

Storywise, Ender in Exile is a very engaging book and does much to resolve some inconsistencies between the first series and the second and is successful at tying up most of the story lines left open at the end of Shadow of the Giant. At times, Card moralizes a bit too strongly, and though his respect for the men and women of the military is very appropriate with regard to events in the real world, they seem somewhat forced in the world of the story. And for the central character, it seems that Card has failed again. So, happy as I am to see this chapter in Ender’s story told, I’m disappointed that it didn’t come through for me the way I had hoped.

Book Review: The First Law

[Originally posted January 11, 2009]

Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law is a three book fantasy series which is heavier on sword than sorcery. The basic story centers on The Union, a medieval style kingdom which is threatened on two fronts by the barbarian hordes of Northmen and the religious zealot empire to the south, Gurkhul. The main characters are the most-feared Northman warrior, Logen “Bloody-Nine” Ninefingers, a Union military officer and minor noble, Jerzal dan Luthar, a crippled Union Inquisitor (ie. torturer) Glotka, and a several thousand year old mage, Bayaz.

When I first started reading the first book in the series, The Blade Itself, for the first 50 pages or so, I have to admit that I wasn’t really comfortable with the writing style. I’m not sure why exactly, but it just felt very stilted and undeveloped. After I got into the story, I no longer had any problem with the writing, but I don’t know if that was a result of its improvement, or just my enjoyment of the story. And I did enjoy the story. After all, I read all three of the books in less than a week. The story itself has a very solid plotline, though nothing there is entirely surprising. You have character growth, a grand quest for a magical item to defeat the enemy, several pitched battles, and interesting development of the relationships between the characters.

But what is really striking is the way that Abercrombie takes the standard fantasy character archetypes and twists them in ways that are quite unexpected. And I have to admit, that as a result I ended up not liking characters that I expected to like. Some of this twisting is done through the actions that the characters take, and some through the things they say. For example, what really startled me was that Bayaz, who I expected to be this wise and generous mage who evokes a spirit of egalitarianism and promotes the worth of the common man actually promotes the view that the common man is too stupid to care for himself and that he needs the nobility to care for and protect him. There are similar flaws in all of the characters, though developed to different extremes. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but in some cases, I felt that Abercrombie sort of cheated in how he went about presenting some of those flaws, violating the writing principle of “Show, don’t tell”, which weakens the overall effect of the story.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Definitely worth reading, simply because of the great action writing and the turning on their heads of traditional fantasy archetypes.

Parallel Evolution in Political Parties

Beginning in the late 1800s, before the adoption of the modern meanings of “liberal” and “conservative”, America saw the rise of progressivism. In general, the term was an all-encompassing word for various political efforts which focused on reforming society in response to the changes driven by industrialization and modernization. Progressivism included members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, but one of the main groups driving the various efforts were socialists in all of the term’s many varieties, and before “socialist” became a dirty word which was synonymous with “communist”.

By the 1930s though, following Woodrow Wilson and FDR’s elections to the presidency, the Democratic party was almost completely characterized by its progressive members. A key part of this loss of “conservative” party members was the growth of the influence of the more extreme elements of progressivism — most notably, Marxist socialists — and the willingness of the more moderate (in relative terms) Democrats to do things that were designed to alienate the conservative members of the party. Think FDR’s attempt to pack the US Supreme Court leading to a cross-party conservative effort to block the vast majority of the legislation Roosevelt later proposed. The influence of communists and other true extremists diminished quickly following WW2, but the result of the growth of the party in the 20s-40s was a fairly monolithic party with regard to the social ideals which it represented.

Since the late 1900s, we’ve been seeing a similar process, albeit influenced by different factors, occuring the Republican party. Following an even further homogenization of the Democratic party in the 1960s, in response to further progressivization, a populist driven effort to reform social norms based on “traditional” conservative values developed under the banner of the Christian right — a mirrored reversal of the goals of the Democrats in the early 1900s.

More recently, the rist of further populist, grassroot efforts led by demagogues in the media (for every Upton Sinclair there is a Glenn Beck? (Probably the first time they’ve ever been mentioned in the same sentence!)) has created a similar effect on the Republican Party as the polarizing grassroot reform campaigns of the many socialist-led Democratic efforts in the 1920s and 30s. And just as the populist driven growth of Democratic progressivism drove out conservative elements of the party, so too has the populist driven growth of Republican traditionalism driven out liberal elements of that party.

Assuming there is no imminent future official splintering of the Republican Party, it will be interesting to see how the more extreme members are treated in the future with respect to the persecution that the communists of the 20s and 30s experienced in the 1950s and 60s.