Friday, May 20, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Phillip K. Dick

For many years now the trend in Hollywood has been to make movies based on awesome books.  I'm not sure what started the whole thing, but these days it seems to show no sign of slowing down.  It's pretty easy to understand the trend.  Authors who get books turned into movies, TV shows, lunchboxes, and shirts at Hot Topic seem to own nicer houses, and Hollywood writers can get paid a lot know...writing.  It's really a win-win situation.  At the same time, those of us in the general public, can probably think of one or two (or fifty) terrible movies that were based on really great books.  Whenever I hear about one of my beloved novels or comics being turned into a movie or TV show, my first reaction is, "Please God, don't let them ruin it!"  Unfortunately, those prayers are not always answered.

On the other hand, there is something very rewarding about discovering an author based on a movie you loved.  Working in reverse order usually has much better results.  So when I discovered that one of my favorite movies, "Blade Runner," was actually based on a book, I had no choice but to hunt down a copy and read it immediately.  

The story follows a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard, through a single day as he hunts down eight androids who have escaped Mars and taken human identities on Earth.  The androids are all of a sophisticated new model called Nexus 6, which makes them much more "human" than previous models.  As Deckard hunts them down, and comes face-to-face with each of them, he is confronted with a moral dilemma, and specific questions about what it means to be alive.  The androids desire to live.  To be as close to human as they can.  To enjoy life, and thrive on Earth.  And yet Deckard is hired to wipe them out.  At first he regards them as mere objects of human creation.  A computer that has stopped functioning as it's designer intended.  But as he goes on, he interacts with them, talks to them, hears their stories, and realizes that they might be more than just objects.  Can he continue to destroy them when he cannot define what it is that makes us alive?

Apart from the plot's central story are a few side journeys that really add a lot of depth to the book.  First is the story of Deckard and his wife.  Both are stuck in lives that are devoid of any meaning.  In fact, much of the Earth is in the same situation.  Humans rely on machines to "inject" them with emotions, often unable to feel anything without the machine's help.  They are lifeless creatures, reliant on man-made inventions to make them feel alive again.

The second subplot concerns the ownership of pets.  Earth has become a radioactive wasteland after a huge war.  Many animals have become completely, or are on the verge of being extinct.  Because of this, animals are a prized possession.  A status symbol, and coveted asset.  The less wealthy are dependent on electronic versions of animals, to allow them similar social standing, and a sense of accomplishment.  Deckard owns an electric sheep.  Nobody except he and his wife know that it is electric.  His status in intact in society, and yet he constantly struggles with knowing that his sheep is not genuine.  He cannot appreciate it, because it is metal on the inside.  He despises its falseness, constantly obsessing over the possibility of one day having a genuine animal. 

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" is a lot like the movie "Blade Runner," and yet so different in many ways.  If you have seen the movie, you will immediately recognize many of the characters and plot points, but after that many of the similarities disappear.  Phillip K. Dick's book is a lot less about sci-fi action, and more about deep philosophical questions.  It forces you to ask, "What does it mean to be alive?", and yet leaves the question unanswered.  To me there is something very satisfying about a book that is able to take you through a fantastic journey, simultaneously making you think about life's great questions.  "Androids" is able to do just that, all without feeling forced or preachy.  For all the terrible movie adaptations out there, it only takes one like "Blade Runner"  to make me hope the trend continues for a long, long time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut

As an avid reader, I have a pretty solid stack of books sitting in a pile next to my bed, waiting to be read.  I also have another stack in my office at work, and a couple more situated in key areas around my apartment.  I honestly can't remember the last time any of these piles shrunk; in fact they grow at a pretty steady rate.  Given my love for reading, as well as my hatred of throwing my hard earned money down the toilet, I know that I will eventually get around to reading all of them.  At the same time, I also have a slightly different stack of books to read.  This stack is stored somewhere deep in my brain, and consist of books that fall under the category, "Oh man, I really need to read that!"  These are books that I see others reading, or glance at on store shelves, or even hear about on TV, the radio, or from friends.  I file their memory away in my brain for later retrieval.

For quite a while now, maybe even several years, "Slaughterhouse Five" has fallen into the deep recesses of my brain's book pile.  It remained there until just a few weeks ago when suddenly I happened to remember it on a trip to Barnes and Noble.  I've been hearing a lot about Vonnegut lately, as more and more people recommend his work to me.  "Slaughterhouse" is of course his most famous work, and considered one of the best English novels of the 20th century.  Critical acclaim usually doesn't mean much to me, but due to all the hype I decided to give "Slaughterhouse" a shot, and dove right in.

The book tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has become "unstuck" in time.  According to him, he was kidnapped by a race of aliens called the Tralfamadorians, and put in one of their zoos.  Due to their influence, they have enabled him to become unstuck in time, which means he can see and travel between all the moments of his life in in any order.  The story goes between Billy's younger days, his days as a soldier in World War II, his life after the war, and his later years as an older man.

The majority of the story revolves around Billy's time in the war.  As I read the story I couldn't help but think about Forrest Gump.  Billy is a lot like Forrest, a slow-witted man that is somewhat oblivious to the world around him, and yet also likable due to his innocence.  As a character, Billy is everything that war is not, and yet he finds himself in the midst of one of the worst wars the earth has ever seen.  There are many political statements made throughout the book, playing off of this contrast of character and setting.

While I did enjoy the book, I have to say that I wasn't blown away by it.  It is written in a great style that I really enjoyed, but at the same time the story never really sucked me in like I had hoped.  The main problem I had with the book was that I never really found myself caring about Billy.  He was likable, but not lovable.  I understand why Vonnegut made Billy the way he did, but I found it hard to care about him as the book went on.

Even though Billy is less than lovable, one could easily argue that he isn't even the main attraction.  The real gem of this book is the descriptions of the effects of war.  Vonnegut does a great job of describing what war is really about, and focuses on what happens when the war ends, and yet doesn't really end at all.  The war has an end date in the history books, but the effects last for years to come.  Broken lives, destroyed cities, generations forever changed.  These are the real starring characters of the book, and the ones that stay in your memory long after reading the last page.

There are many things to appreciate about "Slaughterhouse Five," and really only one or two minor complaints.  The writing style was fantastic.  The story was thought provoking, and kept me interested till the end.  The story is full of humor, social commentary, and moments that can't help but tug at your heart.  I also really liked the sci-fi aspects of time travel and the alien influence.  I'm a sucker for anything science fiction, so that was fun and added some great variety to the story.  As already mentioned, my only real complaint was with the character of Billy Pilgrim, and while I didn't connect with him, I completely understand that if he was any different the story would have a much different feel and effect.  You can't really blame Vonnegut for making Billy the way he did.  He just didn't really work for me, and personal preference is of course, personal.  In the end, "Slaughterhouse Five" was an enjoyable read, that kept me thinking long after I finished reading it.  It also inspired me to read more Vonnegut, which is of course one of the best endorsements a book can get.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles - Haruki Murakami

Last month I was introduced to Haruki Murakami when I read the fantastic book, "Kafka on the Shore."  I was so hyped on that book, that immediately after finishing it I went to Barnes and Noble and picked up this novel, excitedly anticipating another mind-blowing adventure.  Unfortunately, after finishing "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles," I feel a lot less satisfied than when I first experienced Murakami's work.  If you ever saw "The Matrix: Reloaded," then you might know what I mean.  The original Matrix was amazing, and while the second had a lot of the same aspects that made the first great, the initial awe wasn't there.  In the same way, I felt that "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles," had a lot of the same great aspects as "Kafka," but when you feature them in a less inspired story, similar tricks just don't have the same impact.

The story takes place in Japan, and follows the life of a young man named Toru Okada.  Mr. Okada is currently unemployed, and lives with his wife Kumiko and their cat.  Toru has recently quit his office job, and is in the process of doing some soul searching to discover what his real calling in life is.  While he goes through this process, his wife continues to work and support their small family.  One day Toru and Kumiko discover that their cat has gone missing.  The cat has extreme sentimental value to Kumiko, and she asks Toru to find it by any means possible.  Thus starts the adventures of Toru Okada, as he sets out to solve the mystery of the missing cat.  He soons gets mixed up with several very interesting characters, including an old war veteran, a psychic prostitute, and a "spiritual healer" and her son.  What starts as a simple everyday task, soon turns into a crazy search that has much more to do with Toru, and less with his cat.

After reading this book, I really can't help but wish that I had read it before I read "Kafka on the Shore."  I think that if I had done that, I would have appreciated this book a lot more.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, and I left with the feeling that the sequel just didn't hold up to the original.  Of course, the two books are not linked in any way, but I think the analogy still works.

One thing I really enjoy about Murakami is he is really great at leaving a lot of his stories open to interpretation.  Right as you think he is going to explain everything, you turn the page and realize that the book is done.  It makes you develop your own ways to explain the unexplainable, imagining all sorts of possible tie-ups.  While I enjoyed that aspect of his writing in "Kafka," here I found it less appealing.  One reason for that is because in "Kafka" I think that the loose ends were much more open ended, freely giving way to the reader's imagination.  The places that my mind went were fun, and played easily off of the loose ends that Murakami left.  In "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles," the loose ends were less easy to tie imagination to.  They were simply beyond the scope of my imagination, and instead made little to no sense in many cases.  A few were well thought out, but others just left me with the feeling that Murakami was just being vague for no good reason. 

Looking back over these last few paragraphs, I really feel like I am bashing this book too much.  While I was reading it, I actually enjoyed the story, and didn't have to fight to get through it.  At the same time, I just didn't feel like it met my expectations.  If you are interested in reading Murakami, I would have to recommend "Kafka on the Shore" much more highly.  However, if you think you might read a couple of his books, you may want to start with this one.  It's a lot easier to appreciate a good novel when you haven't read an authors greater works right before.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Uncanny X-Force - Rick Remender & Jerome Opena

I've never really been that into super-hero comics.  Batman is of course the exception to that rule, but if he ever starts shooting lasers from his eyes I might have to reconsider my loyalty.  I'm not sure why I've been steering clear of hero comics this long, but if I had to guess I'd say that the movie "Spiderman 3" played a pretty big role.

Thankfully, I don't hold grudges for too long, so after a short hiatus from Marvel, I was willing to give them another chance.  After reading "Uncanny X-Force," I can't help but thinking I waited too long to get back on board.  Without a doubt this is one of my favorite current series', and one that I think everybody should be reading.

First of all, if you are going to make a superhero team, this might just be the perfect formula.  You've got the tough guy, the hot babe, the wise cracking joker, the leader with an inner struggle that might destroy him, and the French guy.  Ok, well it's an ALMOST perfect formula.  Joking aside, even though I went into the story without a clue as to the mysterious Fantomex (aka the French guy), I found myself actually enjoying his character and how he fit in with the rest of the more well-known players.  Each hero fits into the story, has a unique voice, and plays well off of the others.  Plus it has Deadpool...on a team.  How can you not read that?

Even though Remender is working with an all-star cast, that doesn't guarantee a Grammy.  In the last few months I've read quite a few comics that "could have been awesome."  Great concepts and characters don't always amount to a great comic book.  Fortunately, in this case, Remender knows his way around a script, and has put his amazing cast into an equally amazing storyline.

The first story arc is one of the best things I have read in quite a while.  It is an epic adventure surrounding the rebirth of Apocalypse, and brings the X-Force into some nasty battles against his current horsemen lineup.  It immediately brought me back to my younger days as a kid watching X-Men cartoons on Saturday mornings, and the epic Apocalypse battles from back then.  Of course, as I grew up, so did the comics.  If Remender's version was made for TV they would probably have to leave Fox and go to HBO.  But that only adds to the appeal for this adult reader.

Adding to the "grown up" feel of the story is the amazing artwork.  I really enjoy the look of the series, and the way that Jerome Opena illustrates it.  It is dark and bloody, and goes well with the characters on the team.  They are all killers with messy pasts, and the artwork masterfully reflects that aspect of the story.

While I can't completely say that I've made the jump to being a super-hero junkie, I will say that "Uncanny X-Force" has opened the doors of possibility a little wider.  Due to my love for this series I have already gone out and started to read some other Marvel hero series', which is a pretty big endorsement in my book.  If you are looking for an engrossing story, with one of the better teams of heroes out there, this is definitely the place to start.