So I thought I’d carry on my one-year-long tradition of reviewing the books I’ve read over the summer. Last year, while travelling around Malaysia, Hong Kong and Samoa, I read my first China Mieville and Chuck Palahniuk, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, two books on the brain (Ramachandran and John Medina), the delightful Wicked by Gregory Maguire, and the disturbing Bell Jar Sylvia Plath. A haphazard book selection at best. This year, I believe my summer reading theme was a little more cohesive…! Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three.
1. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
After discovering the magic of The Martian Chronicles I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Bradbury’s most famous work. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns; Montag is the Guy (quite literally, heh heh) whose job it is to burn books. He’s a firefighter. In this dystopian future America, firefighters no longer put out fires — they start them. Emergency calls to the station send firefighters charging out to houses where residents are harbouring those illegal tomes of pure evil: books. These dissentious, madness-spreading texts are quickly lit on fire and charred to dust, sometimes along with the house and its occupants. Yikes.
Bradbury said that contrary to wide review, his is not a story about censorship. It is by his intentions “a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.” The characters who watch TV in the novel, particularly Montag’s wife, are frightening in their addiction. Their attachment to invented characters and meaningless game shows resonates sickeningly with the modern reader.
An elegant, short novel. I wish it were longer; I closed the book feeling like Bradbury had only scratched the surface of his themes.
PS. Did you know that Bradbury pounded out Fahrenheit in the basement of a library on a rented typewriter, under pressure? I guess when you gotta write, it can really make you write well.
PPS. Extra points if you can figure out where else you can find the names Montag and Faber.
2. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
Have you seen the movie? Whether you have or not, GO READ THIS BOOK. It’s almost completely different from the movie and 100x better. I know people always say the book is better than the movie, but this time it’s exponentially more so. I, Robot was a decent movie; the book is a mind-blower.
A collection of nine connected short stories, roughly continuous, featuring recurring characters who are almost as fascinating as the robots that form the crux of the book’s intrigue. The stories are told by Dr. Susan Calvin, a psychologist who studies the robots’ minds, to a reporter, some time in the 21st century. Most of the stories revolve around morality: the moral code of robots and the moral code of humans.
After I got used to Asimov’s extremely simple, straightforward style of writing, the narrator’s voice sank into the background and allowed the plot to take centre stage. The best parts of I, Robot are definitely the many mysteries. How do we prove that a rising world leader is a human and not a robot without violating his rights? How do we find a robot with murderous intent hiding in a crowd of hundreds of other nearly identical robots? Oh my goodness, Asimov! You had me on the edge of my seat!!!
After you’ve read it you’ll never forget the Three Laws of Robots. Also, you could pick up the sequal, Robots and Empire, which is a continuous novel with a more traditional, adventure-type plot. On my to-read list.
3. Kraken – China Mieville
Well, goodness me. I can’t believe it’s taken me an entire year to get around to my next Mieville book. Time does fly. Tut tut.
Kraken is a book, unsurprisingly, about a Kraken. What is surprising is that it takes about three-quarters of this hefty volume to actually encounter his glorious squiddishness. The blurb sounded promising. Ordinary bumbling 30-something museum curator, of the slightly-geeky sort, gets sucked into a London underground of spells, really really wacky religious cults, creepy assassins that will swallow you like a snake, and more gods than the Greek and Hindu pantheons put together.
Unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped. Mieville’s writing is bizarre and fantastic as usual but his pacing was slow and the plot felt messy. A lot of the time I felt lost in all the allusions, slangs, swearing and subtly hinted references. Some of the cults and spells were wonderfully creative (the Londonmancers reading the entrails of the city) but some of it went over my poor little head.
The denouement was also a bit of a let down. The City and the City was a tighter, more restrained and more rewarding story. Kraken is weird and wonderful but I’m not sure it was worth 500 pages of my time. Perhaps it would have been better as a 300 page book. Nevertheless, Mieville’s writing is still amazing and I’ll keep reading his stuff.
To come in Part Two: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blood: A Southern Fantasy, Wool, The Time Machine…