Bridge of Birds – Can’t See The Flock For The Fowls

15177The pun in my title would work a lot better if this book had been bad, but alas, it was amazing. Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, is an underappreciated fantasy gem from the 80’s that I feel more people should know about. On the surface, it is a simple and elegant alternative history story set inChina, describing the journey of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in dealing with a mysterious disease. The book is told in style reminiscent of a traditional fable and jumps between many small stories with clear morals that seem loosely connected. However, under the seemingly shallow exterior of this tale lies a deep and complex story that is just waiting to be discovered.

As mentioned, the plot of Bridge of Birds is ostensibly a simple one: the young Number Ten Ox lives in a small village that falls victim to a plague. In order to heal this malady, Ox goes to a nearby city to find a wise man. There, he locates the venerable Master Li who agrees to assist him. They identify a potential cure to the plague, a rare root of power, and go on a multi-stage quest to find it. Simple, clean, clear – that is how the plot of Bridge of Birds portrays itself. It is a lie. There is a lot going on in this book, much of it below the surface. There are three or four stories beautifully intertwined in the book, and the deeper you go, the more you will realize that the book has a lot more going on than simple morals. It is a cleverly crafted, and intensely planned, novel that will lure you in with its great humor and fun antics, and pull the rug out from under you.

Speaking of humor, the book is hilarious. Not in the typical laugh-out-loud way, but in a more contextual hilarity sort of way. Each chapter functions as a small tale where the Ox learns a valuable lesson; and the themes rotate between wisdom, hilarity, and melancholy. The full cast of the book is massive for its size, with each chapter often introducing new characters that sometimes only stick around until the end of that section. While many of these characters are fairly shallow and one dimensional, a number of the cast (in particular Li and Ox) feel both like they have a nice depth to them and like they go through some good character arcs.

If you are a long time reader of the site you will know that I am a huge sucker for powerful narrative techniques, and Bridge of Birds delivers on this in spades. I am not Chinese, but I got the distinct impression that Barry Hughart had a good understanding of the country’s lore and storytelling styles – as the book feels like it was lifted straight out of Chinese fable. Hughart uses this narrative style to make the book feel welcoming and warm to all ages, even when there are some truly gruesome and violent scenes. I initially thought that this would be a great book to read to my someday children until I saw what the upbeat tone hid under the surface. The style serves to make the story feel more emotionally impactful and deep, and I can’t think of a better way to describe the narrative effect than a quote from the book itself: “Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can”.

The prose and writing are also top-notch. There were numerous times that Hughart’s descriptives, of both positive and negative experiences, elicited a physical response from me due to their evocative nature. Hughart has crafted a book that is endlessly quotable, with many lines burning themselves into my memory out of pure brilliance. Which brings me to what I would consider Bridge of Bird’s strongest attribute – it is incredibly memorable. For such a small book, it holds an impressive emotional weight. I can still remember almost every chapter clearly after finishing it, and I already want to reread it to see what I missed. Everything in the book had a profound way of coming together in the end, and I bet I missed a ton of small hints and nods as I bumbled my way through the tale.

Bridge of Birds is a masterpiece and one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. This small book was a part of our yearly book club and now has the esteemed honor of being our highest rated book – ever. Every one of us who picked it up was moved by its words and clever philosophies, and I would be willing to bet money that the effect is not localized to us. If you haven’t had the chance to read this incredible book, I implore you to do so at your earliest convenience. For I may have a small flaw in my character, but my recommendation for this book is certainly not a part of it.

Rating: Bridge of Birds – 10/10
-Andrew

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The Road – Worth the Trek

71ij1hc2a3lTo a reader like me, who voraciously consumes spoon-fed, tried-and-true Sci-Fi tropes without scoffing, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road teeters on the edge of greatness for a majority of the fittingly winding narrative. It withholds details that, to any other book, would be crucial. It chooses moments of solemn tranquility over epic conflict. It dives deep into the psychology of a father and son walking across a gutted landscape instead of pitting them against hordes of zombies or quasi-undead humans. As I read the novel, I’d lean into this gentle back-and-forth between greatness and insignificance. By the end, I landed gingerly on the side of quality, pushed along by gusts of heart-wrenching story beats and lyrical but grounded poetic prose. And the more I ponder it, the more I feel that The Road is a fantastic book, though it will inevitably polarize readers.

McCarthy’s “masterpiece,” as the back cover dubs it, follows a boy and his father as they traverse a burnt and barren America in the wake of a devastating apocalypse. Save for a few hints and memories, no concrete explanation of the apocalyptic event emerges. Instead, McCarthy treats readers to a harrowing tale of two people trying to survive. The boy and his father are never named. In fact, only one character in the entire book gives a name, and even then it isn’t clear whether he is telling the truth. To divulge any more plot details would lead us dangerously near spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at this: the boy and father venture through this destroyed world in an attempt to find safety or refuge, and they must make snap decisions that could lead to a better life or a painful death.

Despite their namelessness, our two protagonists are remarkably defined. The boy is curious about the world and eager to help others thrive whenever he is given a chance. The father’s memories of the old world jade him to the new one, and he’s driven only by his desire to keep the boy alive. McCarthy varies his descriptions of their journey and their world so skillfully that the reader sees everything through the boy’s eyes and his father’s in near simultaneity.

Some descriptions of the world and depictions of the conversations between the protagonists are so fittingly drab that readers could be quick to denounce McCarthy’s writing as dull or uninspired. Instead of casting it off as such, I asked myself: In a post-apocalyptic setting, how much brilliance can be allowed to emerge? When a ravaged landscape strips bare all of its inhabitants leaving only dust and the will to survive, is there room left for actual human emotion? How can the eyes of this man and his child, so tinted by destruction, see beauty in the world at every turn?

McCarthy’s prose walks these lines and tackles these questions with remarkable poise. At times, the dialogue ignites into radiant descriptions of the world before the catastrophe or vividly dark passages about the spoiled earth. In other sections, the story finds the lowest common conversational denominator, effortlessly and tangibly indicating the need for survival above all else. “Okay.” The boy says. “Okay.” The dad says. It may be less than they need, but it’s the most they can manage.

In my research about The Road, I noticed a majority of reviewers mention McCarthy’s choice to use only the occasional punctuation. Some wax romantic about his brilliant use of poetic license. Others remark that it’s unnecessarily obtuse. In my mind, they’re not mutually exclusive. Sure, only using periods with the occasional comma and never once using quotation marks can symbolize the starving nature of the characters at hand. But there are other ways to approach that goal. Personal preference will reign supreme here, deterring some while attracting others.

The entire story of The Road culminates into a gloriously tragic and satisfying end, flavored by slight hints of ambiguity. It’s poignant and true to the many pages and words that comprise the bulk of the novel. True to the title, the ending sees our characters at an intersection with a crucial decision to make. Given the skill with which McCarthy teaches the reader about his characters, I felt equipped to guess what might happen next. And while that may not be satisfying for all, it certainly was for me.

The Road is a genuinely astonishing tale marred only by the inevitability of personal stylistic preference. If you don’t mind occasionally dense prose or doing some of the world-building on your own without hand-holding, this touching journey deserves a slot on your to-read shelf.

Rating: The Road: 9.0/10
-Cole

Douglas Adams Never Gets Old

 

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I found myself unusually nostalgic this Memorial Day weekend. The nature of the holiday feels like one of reflection and remembrance, and it made me start thinking of books and movies I enjoyed a long time ago. A item that was in both those mediums was Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. While most agree it is a phenomenally good book, feelings about the movie are a little more controversial – but I am a big fan. HBO has it in their movie library for free (if you have the service) and you should check it out if you haven’t.

I don’t usually revisit a lot of media. The nature of how I read and watch things revolves around an ever growing pile of new things to experience before I die. This unfortunately does not leave a lot of room for revisiting old favorites – something I am finding I want to do more and more. I got into the fantasy and sci-fi genres about 20 years ago, and the first books I read are starting to lose their crispness in my memories. Hitchhiker’s was one of those books, and all I could really remember about it was a couple of key plot points and that I had a profound and life changing experience when I read it. So I decided to rewatch the movie and see if it recaptured the spark I felt a long time ago, and unsurprisingly it metaphorically lit me on fire.

Adams never gets old. He is quoted endlessly on clothes, laptop decals, and Facebook pages because it is so hard to read Hitchhiker’s and not feel something memorable. It is deliciously ironic that a book about “no one understanding the meaning of life”, feels like it was written by one of the few people who have the answer to life’s biggest question. Hitchhiker’s is just filled to the brim with witticisms that are funny and poignant at the same time, and rediscovering it after all these years just makes me like them more.

I have tossed The Guide on the pile of things to be read. No one needs to hear my thoughts on Hitchhiker’s Guide, because I doubt I need to convince any of you to read it. This means it will cut into my review time and put me behind my schedule of books – but frankly I don’t care. Hitchhiker’s Guide is worth the inconvenience and I am so excited to dive back into its wonderful and comforting pages.

-Andrew

The Left Hand Of Darkness – Gender Politics

left-hand-of-darkness-design-alex-trochutToday’s post is more of a thought piece than a review, because no one needs another positive review of The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin. It is one of the best science fiction books ever written, has won a number of awards, and is considered one of the most iconic books ever printed – if you haven’t read it you should. I will say that I have been making my way through a number of iconic sci-fi novels this year, and have had a few that didn’t quite live up to my expectations like Stranger in a Strange Land. However, I am happy to say this was decidedly not the case with The Left Hand of Darkness and it is definitely worth a read.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, Darkness is a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a series of semi stand alone books that catalog the stories of the lives of ambassadors for the Hainish empire. The Hainish are a consortium of planets who possess methods for instantaneous communication, but not instantaneous travel. This means that planets can talk to each other to trade ideas and technology, but visiting other planets is a colossal effort. For this, and a number of other reasons, when the Hainish discover a new planet they want to bring into the alliance they send a single ambassador to study the planet and convince it to join. Darkness in particular tells the story of Genly Ai, an ambassador to Winter. Winter is a cold and icy planet with a very interesting adaptation from the humans who live there – they can freely switch between male and female genders, but mostly remain androgynously between them.

Darkness tells a wonderful story that is worth reading, but it also contains a large thought experiment on the meaning of gender and our unconscious assumptions about both genders. I will say right off the bat I have not read a better book at helping me discover some of the unconscious biases for both genders I apparently personally hold and clearly need to work on. Before reading this I would have said I didn’t have any bias at all, but Darkness has a way of digging deep and, ironically, letting the light in. The power of Darkness is in its subtlety. The book doesn’t focus on the genderless aspect of the story, instead treating it as almost background information that occasionally gets brought up – usually by the narrator Genly Ai as he reacts to people flipping genders around him. Le Guin instead takes the characters, who have been wiped clean of any gender identity, and put them into situations that have traditional gender roles and identities attached to them. She then pulls apart our expectations about those roles and how it influences how we think of the genders. I know that seems confusing as an abstract so let me give you a concrete example. One of the eye opening things for me was the monarch. Winter has a royal ruler, a king/queen. While there are of course any number of queens, a monarchy is something that I (and I assume others) associate as a traditionally male role. In addition, the monarch is arrogant and stubborn which are two additional things I apparently associate with being male. Using these primers, Le Guin got me to think of Winter’s monarch as a man, but then as I got to know the monarch I found I was uncomfortable and confused when they both revealed themselves to also be nurturing and motherly, in particular when the monarch eventually gets pregnant. Darkness is just clever and subtle in its gender manipulations and it is something I really appreciate about it.

While reading Darkness, my mind often jumped to two recent popular sci-fi novels that both play with gender politics: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, and Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. I have talked about both before, and like both of them. Both books have clearly taken some of Le Guin’s ideas and taken different directions to explore the reader’s assumptions about gender (I am oversimplifying but Justice is told from the perspective of an AI who can’t tell gender apart and Lightning constantly lies to you about what gender people are). However, I found I liked Darkness’ take on gender most because of the previously mentioned subtly. With the two newer books the gender discussion is at the forefront – always present. The Left Hand of Darkness’ clever use of it as a subconcept hidden in the noise in the story allowed me to have a much higher degree of self discovery than in Justice or Lighting. As such, if you have not read The Left Hand of Darkness yet, I definitely recommend that you do. You might learn something about yourself.

-Andrew

The Mote in God’s Eye – Vision From The Past

51fdqllebklIn an attempt to be more thorough in my understanding of science fiction, I decided I would look back at some more well-known books that I have yet to read. My Dad recommended Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye, and I decided to crack it open and give it a whirl. Unsurprisingly, it is a great representation of old-school science fiction that tends to explore big ideas, rather than being published solely for entertainment. Clearly written with the intent to perform a thought experiment detailing first contact with an alien race, the story services the “what if” scenario presented by the authors. While Niven and Pournelle avoid directly addressing the morality of their answers, their solutions feel natural to the world they created.

As the book opens, humanity is in the midst of its third interstellar empire, and scientists notice an object approaching a star within one of the empire’s outermost systems. Realizing this could be an opportunity to engage with an alien object, naval captain Lord Roderick Blaine is sent to investigate with a team of scientists and anthropologists on the McArthur, the ship he commands. Upon intercepting the object, Blaine and his crew find the dead body of an unknown species occupying the starship. After returning with these findings, the system’s local government sends the naval crew to the Mote, the starship’s system of origin. Their mission is to make contact with whoever may have sent the manned probe, and determine the sender’s intent. Upon arrival to the Mote, the crew of the McArthur encounters a wholly alien species that could present a threat to the future of humanity.

The plot fully begins about one hundred pages into the book upon first living contact with the aliens. The crew of the MacArthur intercepts a ship while on their way to Motie Prime, the presumed home world of the aliens, and the scene that unfolds feels like a stroke of genius. Assuming the pilot of the intercepted ship is an envoy, the humans prepare for an historical moment of meeting its first intelligent species amongst the stars. In the first change in point of view for the book, the readers are let in on the joke that the alien is not an envoy, but an engineer unable to communicate. As the humans try desperately to talk with the alien, they repeatedly fail and grow more perplexed as the encounter continues. The innate grandeur assigned to first contact is completely undercut by the innocent confusion on both sides. Neither side can engage with one another in a scene that plays more like a comedy than a drama.

What follows is a more in-depth introduction between humanity and the peoples of the Mote. Through their interactions with the Motie mediators, the humans find out that the Moties are a species subdivided genetically into different biological roles (engineers, farmers, masters, etc.). This is particularly well-written, as the authors show the work involved when two different species with different vocal patterns slowly learn to talk to each other. In a refreshing chain of events, both sides meet in the middle with great optimism about what they can offer each other. Both sides are open with their intentions, but remain guarded about their vulnerabilities and secrets. However, when the humans discover that the Moties are a more advanced species, most of the humans do not react maliciously. The conflict starts to creep in when Lord Blaine discovers the empire holds the keys for the Moties to travel through the stars.

The patient pacing truly shines at this point, as the characters debate how to proceed throughout their interactions with the Moties. The novel moves quickly enough to keep you interested, but allows for the Moties to become more and more alien as they are fleshed out. The humans are constantly adjusting their intentions as they learn about Motie biology and culture, while the Moties attempt to unveil the secrets of space travel and the act of human sexual reproduction. As the writing shifts to the Motie perspective, the authors make unambiguous observations about humanity’s odd social constructs, such as our attitudes towards discussing sex or the formalities that humans apply to conversations. Normally, I would find this interesting because the engagements are cool to read and it feels like the authors have created a funhouse mirror. However, instead of exploring the bizarre truths behind already strange interstellar interactions, these reflections on humanity felt wooden and almost perfunctory.

Niven and Pournelle truly found the Goldilocks zone while detailing their world, as they limit their descriptions to the utilitarian and do not burden the reader with cosmetics. Their focus on the cultural, political, and scientific aspects of the empire flows seamlessly into the story. The imperial society feels quaint and reserved, with an emphasis on religious ethical code and prominent displays of military force to keep order. Time is used to ground the reader in this universe, setting up the conflict on a civilizational scale. The characters are generally shallow, but fit perfectly into the story. They have important roles to play and are written to service the plot. The main protagonist, Blaine, is a quick-thinking decision maker who uses his crew’s knowledge to efficiently weigh the pros and cons of any situation. The list of supporting characters includes: the plucky pilot, the ethical anthropologist, the high minded optimistic scientist, the scheming profiteer, the rock-faced admiral, and a host of other side characters who fill the gaps. All of them are fleshed out and handed their cue cards through a mixture of dialogue and action that pulls the reader into their lives. The roles hold up for most of the book, but start to wear thin near the final third as Blaine becomes the central focus in the story.

At this point, I started to lose interest. The main conflict drifts increasingly far away as the reader is given glimpses of alien history through Motie internal conversations. Most of the characters also felt stretched to their breaking point, pulled to make sure their role felt used to its fullest extent. The main conflict lingered heavily like Damocles’ sword, but progress towards finding a solution felt artificially stalled. My interest was recaptured with a well-timed action sequence that heightened the immediate tension in the story. While it served as a good way to lead the reader into the final act, the last section itself is a plodding reflection on how humanity deals with “the other”- in this case, a thinly-veiled symbol for Cold War-era communism. The characters’ decisions and attitudes feel heavily influenced by the dangerous duality of U.S. establishment thinking during the post-Cold War years, where “the other” is considered to be both a potential threat and a possible future partner. Even though these attitudes can be partially translated into contemporary thought, the decisions made by the characters feel of their own time. They are reactionary, inflexible and fairly myopic. The novel, while well written and true to the characters and world created, does not question the morality of those decisions, leaving the reader to take them at face value.

Ultimately, The Mote in God’s Eye feels confident in its cohesive portrayal of humanity protecting itself from a future threat. Niven and Pournelle avoid distracting the reader too often with unrelated ideas, and keep a strong focus on the central question. There are clearly some issues, but overall, The Mote In God’s Eye is a clever thought experiment. There is a noticeable attention to detail that is completely in service to story and does not feel contrived. It is especially apparent on the macroscopic scale and applies less so to the personal character arcs. The concluding moments of the story will stick with me for a long time, while the existential absurdity of first contact will be forever burned in my memory. It deserves to be read and serves as a great comparison piece since there is a decent amount to learn from it. I wish I liked the book more, but maybe it is far more tailored to its time than mine.

Rating: The Mote in God’s Eye – 7.0 out of 10.

-Alex