I made a committment earlier, to write about each and every book I read this year. Obviously, I have failed to do so rather spectacularly. So it is with great pride and joy that I unveil the Rolling Review. From now on, I shall attempt to write about a book as I am reading it. This is the result of being frustrated with the ususal reluctance I feel about posting a review after reading a book, without having a complete and comprehensive thesis about the damned thing. Hence, the Rolling Review. No pressure. Just pure thoughts.

I hadn't even thought about this until I read another blog (I forget where) where the author claimed this approach greatly helped him with both understanding and apprecitating a novel, as well as get him to post more frequently on his blog.

And so, with no further ado, I present the first edition of the Rolling Review.

P.S. (or, Some ado before we continue): The nature of the writing, following as it does the meandering thoughts of my mind, tends to wander from the specific subjects of a particular book, and often incorporates other musings my brain fancies while wandering the narrow path the author provides. Please, I ask you to bear with me, for in the end even the daydreams that a book elicits from me, have hopefully, something to say about the novel itself.

Absolute knowledge is a fictional creation, as is the idea of an absolute truth. And so, while I have professed to be an avowed atheist over the past five or six years, I have slowly acknowledged within myself that I more agnostic than atheist. Of course, since the former merely allows that a God (or many Gods) might exist, it may not seem like much of a distinction after all, but it is enough.

The crux of the matter lies in the perspective one looks upon the world with. Do I take a reasoned stance that allows for the existence of the unknown, for gaps in my knowledge, or do I take an immutable stand on my stated beliefs, never to recant or change my opinions on what I accept as “truth”. And stated in such manner, most people it would seem, would choose the former. But in practice, it implies that my existence as an atheist is as rooted in blind faith and stubbornness as is that of a religious zealot. I say, “I do not believe in the existence of God because I have seen no proof that he exists. My powers of perception and reasoning have not revealed God to me and so I deny his (or her for that matter) existence.” But what we learn is that our perceptions and sense are severely limited, that we do not in fact, see everything, hear everything. My reasoning is so startlingly similar to that used against the mind bending claims of Darwin or Galileo that at first it horrified me. Our senses so clearly tell us that the sun moves around the earth, and that monkeys remain monkeys, that the absurdity of any claim that states otherwise is obvious to even the most simpleminded of simpletons.

But that is the very point of scientific thought isn’t it? To ask questions of the most obvious beliefs, and above all to never dismiss any claim out-of-hand. Yet that is what I have done most of my life; this is what we all do. What got me thinking about this was (of all things) the recent South Park controversy about Issac Hayes (the voice of Chef) quitting over an episode making fun of Scientology. A couple of friends and I were making fun of the guy and Scientology on the whole, when I suddenly realized I actually knew close to nothing about the so-called religion. So after everyone left, I fired up my computer, did a trusty Wikipedia search and sat down for some hard reading and thinking.

In the spirit of my newly purchased perspective of not reflexively dismissing outlandish and unfamiliar ideas as absurd delusions, I stopped for a moment to imagine a world where the claims of Scientology are true. Much like how true Christians believe that we are all the sons of Adam and Eve, and Judgment Day is around the corner (I’m trying to say this with as little sarcasm and skepticism I can, believe me), what if I truly believed that all of humanity is merely a pawn in a galaxy-spanning space-opera and that we have been brainwashed by a galactic dictator named Xenu some 75 million years ago? How would I react to what I see in the world around me? How would I go about sharing my privileged knowledge with the world? If we take Scientology to be true, and accept that its founder, Ron L. Hubbard had access to this knowledge of human history that has remain hidden from the rest of humanity by design, then the world at large takes on a very different face.

What secrets, I would ask, does the church of Scientology conceal from all but its most advanced members, revealing them only out in the middle of the ocean on the mysterious ship Freewinds? What need have we to look to Science Fiction and Fantasy when such a world of wonder and variety exist within our very own time and reality?

“A strange and rapidly expanding religious cult gathers power as its highly visible members begin proclaiming their beliefs on the world stage, their status in popular culture giving them voices that resound across the globe. As their existence becomes widely known, growing ridicule and persecution against them gives them more credibility than ever before, as it did the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims.

At the same time, a religious politician is chosen to lead the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, waging war against his one-time spiritual cousins, who believe in his same God, his prophets, and his faith’s history until very recently. And out of this chaos and destruction, the people turn to the wild proclamations of the small cult that promises them a different future, which tells them that their decades of discontent is caused by money-grubbing pharmaceutical companies and their psychiatrist lackeys. It promises the masses a true, scientific path for the redemption of their souls (for despite peoples earnest professions to the contrary, Science is the true religion now) and the world sees its previous folly, and repents.”

Perhaps I paint a rather fantastical picture, but one must never forget that such far-fetched events have occurred again and again in human history and pre-history. Their grad and epic sweep overwhelms the mind, and we who live through such times never truly grasp their import until they have already passed us by. I wonder what the majestic Romans first thought of the puny cult of Christianity and its absurd ideas of a singular God. How frail and misunderstood the Christians must have thought themselves in the face of the mighty empire that receded so far into history that it dwarfed the lifetime of their recently crucified prophet. Yet Christ came to rule and judge over that mighty kingdom; he survived its collapse (though some say he was the cause of that particular catastrophe) and saw another usurp his role as the last prophet of the Lord God. Yet today his followers live their daily lives, walking about calmly buying groceries, gossiping and cheating and living, without a moments thought as to how they came to be where they now are.

Who knows? Maybe a day will soon come when their long prophesied Apocalypse will arrive, and they shall look to the sky expecting to see the (four?) dark horsemen that shall mark its coming, and see instead the ominous face of Xenu, riding in on his trusty Douglas DC-8 aircraft. Then, we shall truly know that the Apocalypse has arrived.

This is not ostensibly a post about Google. It is in part however, inspired by Google and their far-reaching motto, as well as their well publicized aim of 'indexing the world's information'. A while back I wrote about Wikipedia and the controversy over the inaccuracies inherent in such a system. What people seemed to be missing about the whole story was that the point was not that the authors of the article had posted lies or unsubstantiated facts, but rather that such stories and facts would have been posted regardless, whether Wikipedia had existed or not. Wikipedia, merely provides a common forum for all the random web pages that had sprung up over the past decade of growing internet usage, giving people a common repository for ideas and knowledge that inhabited 'net.

The sheer vastness of the web defies the perusal of a single overseeing body; no gatekeeper exists for the 'net, and nor should they. But accessing and tapping into the fragments of truth that are scattered across the internet is the defining challenge for the next decade, and without success in that sphere, the internet will remain unable to realize the immense potential that its size and scale represent. Wikipedia is merely one such attempt. It acknowledges that the knowledge of the world does not (indeed, cannot) come from a single source. Like the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica in Douglas Adams' satirical novel, any source claiming such omniscience will be relegated to ridicule and obscurity. The comparison mentioned in my previous post between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica help underline this simple fact, and convinces me that the face of the internet must change to closer align to this approach.

Google, in part, is attempting something like this: a single point of access for all the information in the world. But if fails in several key ways, most significantly, its poor browsing interface. Google, in all its various forms be it Video, Image, or Document searching, remains only a search platform. Once the searches have been completed it appears somewhat confused and unsure what to do with the results. Thus its interface, which begins with such startling simplicity, becomes uncertain and inefficient.

This is where the importance of the "social" aspects of the internet comes in. It seems to be rearing its elegant head nearly everywhere you look, and for good reason. What flickr, del.ico.us and other such services quickly realized was that much like the information services of Wikipedia, no single source could form a coherent and complete documentation and classification of a large amount of data. So the collective mind, the "community" that appears to be the core of the Web 2.0 revolution, is far more capable of undertaking this task that defies a solitary company such as Google. A combination of Google's search capabilities with its access to vast amounts of information, and the community's involvement in its organization is the key to a more usable and ultimately useful internet.

However this is merely a single view of how the future of the internet can be shaped. Another, far more ominous outlook appears to gathering greater attention and support, especially among the large companies that have of late been left out of the growing internet economy. This includes the telecom and cable giants that are our access points into the vast world wide web, but have little control over what we do beyond this point. And that is something they just can not stand for.

This has been gathering more and more attention recently (via Digg), especially after the announcements by Yahoo and AOL that they would begin a new paid service for 'priority' mail that would be 'guaranteed'… whatever that is supposed to mean. Silly me, thinking that current emails are already guaranteed to arrive where I send them. What, is there only like a 70-80% chance that when I press that 'send' button, my email will reach its destination?

Anyway the point is that when we really get down to it, we as consumers, have very little say in such things, and it seems obvious that the pure internet companies such as Amazon and Yahoo, that are currently against this 'other' form of internet, will eventually change sides once they are given a slice of the oh-so-sweet money pie. And so this is a call to all you people, consumers, workers, companies… please, Don't Be Evil! Let there exist an open forum for the world community to thrive together, communicating at a level unimaginable before, with a freedom that is unprecedented. We stand at a precipice; we can fall into the age old trap of bottom-line profit thinking, and let the floodgates of corporate ownership and control into the sacrosanct world of our internet, or stand together, strong and resolute, shouting – "We will not stand for it!" The decision, ultimately, is ours and ours alone.

I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly attracts me to fantasy novels. The historical aspect is no small part of it; I began looking to fantasy as a replacement for the poor selection of historical-fiction that was available. But it was something more than just that.

Today I started reading ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb, when one possible reason became rather obvious to me. Fantasy novels (and by extension, their authors) tend to inherently posses a certain amount of arrogance within them. This arrogance is justified because the author, in every sense of the word, is truly the ‘creator’ is such a setting. Freed from all the restrictions of reality, of physics, history or even evolution, the fantasy author is like some playful Yahweh, proclaiming the existence of the sun, a moon or two, all with a few shakes of his mighty pen. How can any fantasy author help but be arrogant?

Faced with such absolute power, the author lends himself a sense of importance, a belief that the events he describes are momentous, earth-shattering and entirely under his control. Other authors in comparison, subconsciously cower in the face of the immense limitations that bound them to the painful realities of this world. So much so, that they shrink themselves, reaching more timidly than would be normally allowed by the boundaries of our universe. They seem to ignore the absurdities and wonders that appear in our everyday lives. For these authors, there always remains the small trace of self-doubt, the small voice whispering in their heads telling them that they could not possibly have all the answers, have the complete picture.

For what mortal can assume to know what was going on in the mind of Julius Caesar as he chose to cross the Rubicon, or be fully aware of all the circumstances that surrounded the event some two thousand years in the past. The fantasy author, on the other hand, is comfortably secure in the knowledge that every motivation, every event, indeed every breath taken will only occur at his behest.

Neal Stephanson, the author of ‘Cryptonomicon’ and other sci-fi/cyber-punk classics, (as well as the historical-fictionesque ‘The Baroque Cycle’) talked briefly about this arrogance. He said that he had been scorned by ‘literary’ authors for the appearance of this very arrogance in his writing. These ‘literary’ authors are the ones cowering far within the limitations of this world that they write in, and for them assuming such omniscience is incomprehensible (my words, not his). The arrogance however, appears in abundance within the writings of fantasy/sci-fi authors, the best of whom make full use of this license and weave a story of such imagination and scope that we are left in awe of their creations. While I may be stretching his meanings a little (since he was talking about himself compared to the ‘literary’ authors, not fantasy or sci-fi authors) but I believe that he parallels my discussion closely.

Guy Gavriel Kay, nominally a fantasy writer, truly writes historical fiction (or you must, then historical fantasy). His insight is in openly acknowledging and embracing a truth that everybody already knows: that all historical fiction is truly fantastical in nature. In Kay’s case, by marginally changing the names of people and places he is writing about, he allows himself the freedom to assume the mantle of a world creator, rather than merely a chronicler of history, a figure that he even includes in one of his books. His historian is a bumbling yet sly figure, fully aware of the obscurative powers of history, knowing that even though he is part-villain in the present, history (under his control) will show him as an innocent bystander in the horrific events that he was forced record on page.

Examples of successful wielders of this arrogance I go on harping about are numerous, most recently (in my readings) by R. Scott Bakker in his “The Prince of Nothing” trilogy (a series I will soon talk about in far more depth). Outside the realm of novels, I believe Peter Jackson is a stellar example of someone with such capacity, in both The Lord of the Rings, as well as (more surprisingly) in King Kong. In the latter movie, I was struck by how uncompromising he was in his commitment to his vision of the movie, with a long introductory section based in a wonderfully recreated 1930’s New York. Here, in what many people felt was an unnecessary and somewhat cheesy sequence, Jackson unflinchingly throws us into the heart of the Depression period, and is so true to his vision, that I was swept up along with him, even as Naomi Watts plaintively cried to her surrogate father figure “But you’re all I’ve got!”.

The fact is, I tend to enjoy myself the most when the author/director fully embraces his mantle of ‘creator’ and show us a world where the differences are revealed in all their alien glory, rather than grudgingly explained away, as if to say “see, see, its not all that different after all!”. So it is the Scott Bakker’s of the world that truly transport us into their living worlds of inexplicable customs and races and powers, and with their sheer determination and conviction, sweep us away and allow us to truly experience a book.

I did it again…

February 25, 2006

I grew reluctant. Reluctant to post, though I had a lot to say. I’ve written a lot over these past few weeks, but without exception, all of it awaits in the shadowed wings of the ‘Drafts’ section, or saved in some obscure corner on my computer.

I need to remember to post what I write. If I continue to wait until I feel a particular piece has satisfied all my various demands of coherence, elegance and brevity, then I shall post nothing.

I must also start writing about the books I read while I’m reading them, rather than wait till after I’m finished. Otherwise I always forget or get caught up in some other book, until it is too late and I begin to feel that it has been too long, and my recollections have become blurred by the passage of time and consumption of other novels.

So over the next few days I am going to attempt to fix up my drafts and post them here, as well as complete some reviews of a few novels I recently read, including R. Scott Bakker’s intriguing “The Darkness That Comes Before”, and a few others.

Here’s to many more (frequent) posts!

An Ode to Book Lovers

February 8, 2006

I think at heart, book lovers are lonely people. Not lonely literally, but rather lonely for lack of similar minded people around them, for lack of similar readers. Readers come in all shapes and sizes, and this diversity tends to isolate them in insular pockets of monologesque discussion with themselves. Today there are the “women” readers, the bestseller readers, the murder-mystery readers, the non-fiction readers and of course ‘those sci-fi/fantasy types’. Each of them seem to occupy their own little niches, surrounded in a world overtaken by the frantic pace of television, movies and hit-of-the-week pop songs. Not that these readers don’t inhabit this world; they form a significant part of it… no-one is free from the addictive forces of TV. But within this fast-shrinking world of book readers, and the even smaller subset of book lovers, there has appeared a startling lack of a forum for book discussion.

The reading of books in general is viewed as far too indulgent a luxury; taking time off on a weekend to watch a two hour long movie is one thing but a book is a long term commitment. Its like getting into a new relationship, and the wife already takes up enough of your time. And once you actually commit to the damn thing, it seems almost excessive to actually spend time talking about it. Ever notice that book clubs are only shown as the pass time of bored housewives? Where is the neighborhood book-club for the guys? Indeed where are the books for all the male readers? It seems to be a growing trend that the popular books and the critical favorites are usually meant for women. Not explicitly, but on a more subtle level… the tag line of one goes: “the sensitive story about the black slave that helped out his recently widowed white owner to run her farm”. Another boldly displays its intentions in its title: “The History of Love”.

And what are we poor men supposed to read? The DaVinci Code? Or probably some new Robert Ludlum novel. Please. Today men are divided into two categories: either he reads the latest and hottest “business” book that tells you how to get rich fast, or its the weird sci-fi nerd who plays alone with his lightsaber. I guess I hadn’t really thought about this until I read on some random Amazon review about how a particular book was a real “guys” book, rather than something probably marketed to some lonely 30-something female with relationship issues. And that is true. Those are the books I scour the net for, going through hundreds of reviews to find that perfect gem of a fiction novel which will fit with my current mood. And those are the type of books that I have the hardest time finding. Not that reading “The Time-traveler’s Wife” wasn’t enjoyable… its just that sometimes…. throw a dog a bone, willya?

But I have gone somewhat off-track (though not totally). What I started by saying was that book lovers are lonely for similar minded book readers. I have been a voracious reader since I ever learned how, and through out these years only rarely have I come across someone I can actually talk to about books, and almost never have I met one who truly shares my tastes. Well there was this time in third grade… but I guess that doesn’t count. When I first came to university I joined a book club. My first meeting was a revelation; never had I experienced so many people sharing so much about reading. But ultimately it turned out to be a failed experiment. While a true eye-opener, the club was mostly a bunch of girls (dowdy ones at that) who insisted on reading some archaic novel about the trials of small town life and the importance of family. I just couldn’t get around to forcing myself to read a novel that sounded like the most boring piece of work ever put to paper.

For me, I’d rather just have a couple of friends who share my taste in books, who I can recommend an amazing book I just read to, and have one recommended to me in turn. But alas, those few of my friends who do make a semi-regular habit of reading, tend to have vastly different tastes in books. A book lover who finds someone who shares his love for a particular book (and for books in general) is a pitiful creature. I say pitiful because of the almost grateful and eager note in their enthusiasm, as they discuss this sole book that has brought them together. They get this somewhat crazed glint in their eyes as they bob their heads in agreement, knowing that they will never meet this kindred soul again, for surely they are stuck in a twilight zone of some kind. Or they feverishly hope against hope, even though they know that it is inevitable, that this is not some one-off chance, that this is not the only book that the two share a passion for, or indeed the only book in the known universe that both of them have read. In all probability however, it will turn out that one almost exclusively reads sappy love stories the print equivalent of “Must Love Dogs”, while the other is obsessed with the non-fictional accounts of the greatest military commanders in history. They shall inevitably have to await the much anticipated mash-up of Sun-Tzu and a Jackie Collins novel that is in the offing.

And so the forlorn book lovers retreat into their solitary worlds, enduring as their friends patronize them with a customary “So what did you think of the DaVinci Code” (sorry Dan Brown!). This trend however, has recently led to some very interesting developments occurring in the internet. Developments like Library Thing, which is a personal library cataloging service with Web 2.0 sensibilities (I know, groan, but seriously if you haven’t checked this out, do so now). These services, along with others like MetaxuCafe, are all efforts to overcome the inherent solitary confinement of the book lover, and create a forum for public discussion in a virtual scale where a real one doesn’t suffice (or even exist). This is a good development, not only because of its inherent value but because it is leading the way for a true platform for discussion of nearly any topic on the internet. So to book lovers I say, look forward with joy; ignore the cries that herald the death of book publishing… that may happen for the model as we know it. But for book readers, a new golden age is coming… welcome it with open arms.

Books form an important, no… a vital part of my life. I have always been a voracious reader, and so writing here in this blog, I feel compelled to make books a central part of my posts. I need to analyze the books I read, not only to fully appreciate them, but also to record my thoughts and remember the ideas that they awoke in me. Each book I read needs to be reviewed, perhaps not explicitly as in a summary of the novel itself, but at the very least in reference to the impression it made on me. Each book awakes in me certain ideas that stick around for as long as I am reading it, but soon enough, when some time has past and another book commands my attention, I forget. I forget so completely it is as if I had never had those thoughts at all.

Perhaps the most important book I read this past year was Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It awoke in me revolutionary ideas and an entirely new way of thinking and looking at the world. But I squandered all that the book had done for me, as I twiddled my toes wasting time before I would put down my thoughts to paper, though I had every intention to.

It never happened.

So now I must do so. From now on, every book must be accompanied by a post, be it good or bad, long or short, frustrating or enlightening. I of course could have committed this blog to be entirely of books, bestowing it with an appropriate literary name which would easily identify it as such, and so make subsequent efforts to join in the blogrolls of similar authors. But this blog is not so narrow in scope. This blog is about me; and while the books that I encounter are a part of that, they do not represent the whole. I am attempting here to create a new me. To forge with the limited tools at my disposal, a refined and more complete version of myself, and so this blog will not be limited to literature and science fiction and fantasy.

This blog will be be about books… only somewhat.