The Moon Strikes Back: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

moonRobert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a sprawling novel about a lunar colony’s revolt from Earth’s domination. Check out the vintage cover on the right. It is pretty awesome, and I thought that this novel was pretty great as well. The novel has a huge scope touching on everything from political structures, space warfare, global politics, to environmental and social politics on the Moon. This is a massive novel in many ways with a fully realized world. Heinlein has thought through this world along with creating his own unique Lunar slang that is at first somewhat obnoxious to read, but begins to fit quite well by 50 pages in.  The book was published in 1966, 3 years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, yet Heinlein creates a believable and engaging lunar world – the lower gravity levels on the Moon mean that when some of the Loonies, as they are called, travel to Earth, they struggle against its much higher gravity levels while on the Moon people tend to live much longer because their bodies do not have to work as hard.

The Moon had become a modern day Australia with all of the convicts, unwanteds, and political dissidents being sent to the Moon to work off their sentences. Of course, there is no easy way to get back to Earth and Heinlein theorizes that after a certain amount of time on the Moon’s lower gravity, the body goes through irreversible physiological changes that means a return to Earth would be extremely painful. So, the Moon becomes a place of permanent exile. The Loonies themselves are incredibly resourceful and live in a kind of frontier world nominally controlled by the Lunar Authority (a kind of colonial authority). The novel also has interesting gender dynamics given that there are so few women on the moon, families are matrilineal and women, more or less, have the final say in the general culture. If a man raped a woman, he would be killed by all the other men without trial or second thought. There are a number of different family structures at work, different forms of polygamy essentially, that make the Moon a kind of eccentric backwater of revolutionary ideas.

One critic, Adam Roberts, talks about how it is easy to get sucked into debating the politics of this novel, and I wholeheartedly agree. The Lunar revolution is a quasi-Marxist revolution mixed with a post-colonial rebellion. The narrator, Mannie, is a computer technician who forms a key part of the revolution ring-leaders along with Prof, an exiled political rebel from Earth, and Wyoming, a Marxist from Hong Kong Luna. Prof espouses a form of rational anarchism that permeates the novel’s political language yet does not overtake the action.

Oh, and did I mention that there is a self-aware computer named Mike? Well there is and Heinlein simply justifies it by arguing that at a certain point Mike simply reaches a critical mass of networks, circuits, and processors. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (possibly my favorite science-fiction novel) was published 2 years later, so both these books present interesting takes on artificial intelligence. In this novel, Mike’s capacities are nearly limitless and he becomes a crucial part in the Lunar revolt. Yet, he is oddly human as well and one of the more interesting subplots in the novel is his maturation and growth from a kind of infant-like state to a mature adult (if I can anthropomorphize him like that).

Heinlein’s novel is incredible and well worth pushing through some of the slower parts in the beginning. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good sci-fi read.

Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966. Print.




forty storiesDonald Barthelme’s Forty Stories is a treasure trove of short stories. He has an inimitable style: concise narratives, sometimes outlandish plots, and an economy of words. This collection, clocking in at 250 pages, has 40 stories in it meaning that each story gets about 6 ½ pages. In reality, most stories are closer to 4 or 5 pages with a couple of longer ones interspersed. It seems unlikely that a writer could tell a compelling story in 4 or 5 pages, but Barthelme does it time and again in this collection. Take for example the story “Terminus”: only 3 full pages long, it tells about an affair between a married man and a younger woman who is staying in the Hotel Terminus. The paragraphs are short, yet within the short space, Barthelme gives us a full portrait of a flawed man, his inability to resist the woman’s beauty, and her own insecurities.

The content of this collection varies wildly. Barthelme pushes the short story form to its furthest extent. He plays with the genre and produces some wonderful pieces of writing. “Concerning the Bodyguard” is written almost entirely in questions and yet it manages to convey an interesting story. The New Yorker has a podcast of Salman Rushdie reading it and I would highly recommend listening to it. “Sentence,” although somewhat awkward to read, is a 4 page story told in a single sentence. “RIF” is almost entirely conversation between two female middle managers at a corporation, yet the dialogue animates the narrative. These experiments with narration, form, and content demonstrate Barthelme’s ability to craft story from the oddest situations. Of course, not all of them come off. “January,” the closing story, is 8 pages of conversation that seems too loose, too stream of consciousness to really go anywhere. At times, Barthelme also is incredibly opaque and allusive. He references obscure events, knowledges, or cultures that seem to provide meaning for the story’s action but require some Googling on the part of the reader. I would not say he is an elitist writer, but his fiction operates at a high intellectual level.

One of the things about reading collections of short fiction is that they are a little harder to review as whole. This is a selected edition of Barthelme’s body of work, so there is a much higher number of the best stories in his oeuvre whereas a published collection of a writer’s mid-career might not have as many. I am going to talk about two of my favorite pieces from the collection to close this review.

“Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” is an amazing short story about how a group of friends decides to hang their friend, Colby, because he has gone too far. This surreal plot is given little explanation, it just is and Barthelme makes us go along with it. The bulk of story is not about the trial or ethics of hanging friend, but about the group’s attempt to organize the execution. They obviously need drinks, music, a location, invitations, and all the other trappings of a party for the event. The actual event goes off in 4 sentences in final paragraph and happens off-stage, yet I found myself stunned at Barthelme’s ability to make me complicit in this action.

“The Temptation of St. Anthony” tells about St. Anthony’s presence in a small town and the way the community reacts to his presence. The narrator, a neighbour of Anthony’s, details how various people attempted to decipher what his temptations were, seeking some form of juicy gossip. The narrator is not so vicarious or hungry for dirt, but does talk about his disappointment at Anthony’s mundane-ness. Ultimately, the community is unable or unwilling to accept him and Anthony moves back to the desert to the monastic life for which he was known. The story blends Roman Catholic saints with small town politics in a compelling way.

I would highly recommend this collection for lovers of the short story. If you don’t like short short stories though this is probably not for you.

Barthelme, Donald. Forty Stories. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987. Print.

Life is Complex: Discordant Harmonies

Discordant_HarmoniesThis review is going to be a bit of a struggle as Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century is more of an academic introduction to current ideas in conservation biology than a piece of pleasure reading. This is not to say that the two are separate, but to suggest that the content of this book is the primary reason I read it. I am hoping that some of the other environmentally-friendly books on my list will have more focus on narrative and story than on facts and theories.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy Botkin’s book. I did and I found his writing accessible and engaging. He uses a number of great examples to demonstrate his central point: that the tropes we use to talk about nature and the natural world are outdated and, in fact, hinder us in addressing the current environmental challenges. I was familiar with the gist of what Botkin was proposing before reading the book, so it was not a sea-change moment for my thinking. If I can sum up his idea it is this: that we have previously seen nature as either a kind of organic being that possesses some form of consciousness/ divine intention (and which we cannot truly impact) or as a machine that essentially runs itself. He argues that current biological research has proven these ideas false. Nature is not a steady-state machine that will simply repair itself if we have damaged it or achieve a kind of optimal state of equilibrium. Instead, Botkin shows nature to be a much more dynamic, complex, and ambivalent thing. Natural history shows that the climate has changed many, many times in the Earth’s long history and that our current conditions, while optimal for our life, are not guaranteed to stay that way. He also argues that we, as human beings, have had an impact on the environment and that we need to think long and hard about what kind of future we desire and how we might get there. Botkin is neither a deep ecologist who argues humanity’s tendency to destroy the natural world (the “nature is best left on its own” position) nor is he a technological utopian (we can fix and manage nature better than it could). He does believe that technology will play a very important part in our future, but he argues that we need to be very careful about new technologies and what their potential impacts are.

The blend of science and broad cultural thinking makes this book an important work in terms of re-thinking how we are currently living. I want to believe that this book is out-dated, but the fact that any number of environmental organizations are still preaching the leave nature alone/wilderness gospel proves me wrong. This book took me a long time to finish – I started it near the beginning of January – and I think this is, in part, because of the complexity of the material. It is heavy reading and cannot be simply plowed through. I both like that, it forces a slower process of reading that is very beneficial, and dislike it because I have a tendency to demand scientific soundbites. Our culture has conditioned us to desire short-term, concise, and reasonable solutions to problems. Botkin argues that this is precisely not the case with global environmental problems. We will neither know everything we could possibly know if we are to act in time nor will we truly know what kind of consequences our actions will have. Reality is more complex than the 30 second news clip has room for. Amen.

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the cultural components of nature and the natural world, but I would recommend taking your time with this book.

Botkin, Daniel. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.

A Ghostly Hound on the Moor: The Hound of the Baskervilles

houndThis is number two for the mystery/crime category. And I have to say that I enjoyed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles much more. It was intriguing, compelling, and managed to keep me turning the pages in a way that Reynolds’ Beachstrip did not. One difference between the two is that I read Doyle’s novel for pleasure and Reynolds’ for work. But I do think that Doyle’s narrative possesses something that Reynolds’ did not: compelling character.

Sherlock Holmes is an arrogant prick. There, I said it. My sympathies lie with Watson who is used by Holmes at various points to test out theories and do the dirty-work. Worst of all, Watson simply forgives Holmes and justifies Holmes’ behavior. The interplay between the two characters is rich and full of interesting asides that I could not help but smile at. Doyle clearly had fun writing this book.

The novel itself is your standard detective piece: a sensational crime has been committed, Holmes hears about it and proceeds to solve it with Watson’s help. Of course, Doyle more or less created this genre, so you cannot dock points for originality. The plot runs such: an elderly wealthy gentleman is mysteriously killed while out on the moor late at night. Local legend has it that a ghostly hound has haunted the family for several generations, but Holmes won’t hear it. Watson is sent off to do some groundwork and protect the heir to the fortune, Sir Henry,  and calamity ensues. The novel is not simply a straightforward narrative but has sections of Watson’s letters to Holmes, bits of Watson’s diary, traditional narration, and, of course, a final reveal at the end. This changing narrative voice helped to keep my interest in the story while also giving Doyle different ways of dropping in hints and clues along with a number of false leads to keep readers guessing. The tell-all at the novel’s end is what bothered me as Holmes makes it clear that he had everything solved and Watson only confirmed what he already believed. I did not quite buy it, but Holmes’ bravado is certainly a hallmark of the series. I can’t claim to have solved the crime by the time Holmes starts revealing it, but I did have suspicions. In a way, I was surprised at how early Doyle revealed who did it. I expected some kind of twist (which did come albeit in an unexpected form), but was pleasantly surprised when it did not come. It would have seemed unfair in some way (the deus ex machina problem of mystery novels – bad ones have a criminal who is not introduced early on).

Overall, I would say that Doyle’s book has done a much better job selling me on the genre of detective/crime fiction. I am looking forward to the next one rather than dreading it. A sidenote: the version cited below has Michael Kenna’s photos with it that came in some sort of limited edition of the book. They are all of the English moor and have the accompanying fog/gloom/melancholy that Doyle seeks to evoke. I am not sure they added anything to the novel, but they might be worth a glance if you are not familiar with what the moor looks like.

I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in detective fiction. If you aren’t, then it probably isn’t the best read.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. 1902. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986. Print

Tale of a Tragic Love: Ethan Frome

Ethan FromeIn order to play a bit of catch-up, I picked up another novella. Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome met the bill as it is fairly short and I managed to get through it in essentially one sitting. I have not read Wharton before and I’m not sure that I plan to in the future after this one. The novella, published in 1911, is one of her more popular works and helped to establish her career when it first emerged. It concerns an unnamed narrator who becomes stuck in Starkfield, Massachusetts, a small New England town, over the winter. While there, he is intrigued by Ethan Frome, a quiet crippled man who comes into town once daily. The bulk of the novella is his piecing together of Frome’s story – who he is, what he does, and why he is crippled.

After reading it, I felt like the story itelf was slight, or, perhaps, passe. Frome rushes into a marriage to Zenobia after caring for first his father and then his mother’s final illnesses. Zenobia, who had come to help with his mother, soon becomes ill and Frome feels shackled in his marriage. This all changes when Mattie Silver, Zenobia’s abandoned cousin, comes to help with the housework which Zenobia cannot do when she is ill. Frome and Mattie are attracted to each other and things happen. This narrative in itself was not that appealling to me as I found the relationship overwritten and overwrought. The sense of fate or doom hanging over Ethan was too trite for my liking, and his unending passivity was grating. Of course, this is a 21st century reader speaking, so the question of how he could get out of a lifeless marriage no longer has the same kind of emotional charge that it did in the early 20th century.

The story really got interesting, for me, when I glanced at some of the criticism included in the Norton edition of Ethan Frome that I had borrowed from the library. It alerted me to the importance of the frame narrative. In my first reading, I had taken Ethan’s narrative as simple fact, but one critic, Cynthia Griffen Wolff, points out how Ethan’s tale may not actually be true. The frame narrative does not condone the narrator’s interpretation, so that what we read is only his “vision of the story” (12). In hindsight, I had totally missed this kind of narrative complexity. I found myself mulling over the events of the story and wondering why the narrator feels compelled to read Frome’s tragedy as a grand tragedy. From this vantage point, the novella is much more interesting.

At the same time, the frame narrative is not enough to make this a great read. It is clear to me that narratives of tragic love are not my thing. They do not interest me as they often have very flat characters and narrative arcs. Ethan always felt like a beaten-down man who has no luck, Zenobia feels like a controlling wife, and Mattie comes across as a naive dolt. At the least, reading this novella reminded me that romances are really not my thing.

I would not recommend this novella to readers. It felt dated and somewhat tired. I have read narratives like this before (no fault of Wharton’s to be sure). Perhaps if you enjoyed Victorian literature, you might enjoy this. No guarantees though.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. 1911. Eds. Kristin O. Lauer and Cynthia Griffin Wolff. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. Print.

A Raucous Romp on the Reserve: Motorcycles & Sweetgrass

SweetgrassIt is a double-dose of indigenous literature! I picked up Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles & Sweetgrass because I knew it would be a fairly fast read. And it was, not that it makes it any less meaningful or good. The novel, like his short stories, is humorous, at times light-hearted, and, at other times, deeply serious. Taylor’s writing style reminds me of Thomas King’s, so it was not a surprise to find King thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

The novel is set in the Otter Lake Reserve and circles around Maggie Second, the chief, her son Virgil, and a mysterious stranger named John who shows up on an Indian Chief motorcycle. If you have not seen one of these before, it is worth a quick google search. They really are a thing of beauty. This strange detail becomes a key part of the plot and illustrates Taylor’s adept and mischievous use of what could be seen as a culturally inappropriate symbol. What is typically a racist stereotype, the Indian warrior, used by white culture to justify the exploitation and theft of native land, becomes in Taylor’s hand, a re-appropriated ironic symbol. The Reserve has just purchased 300 more acres of land and this has caused no end of headaches for Maggie. Again, what could be a contentious issue, think of the recent battles in Caledonia, is turned into a comic event by Taylor. The non-indigenous locals are anxious about giving the natives anymore land and gripe about losing taxable property while Maggie is continually pestered by every band member with ideas about what to do with the land. Everything from a casino to a theme park, a revolutionary protester school to a nuclear waste dumping ground is presented. The humorous tone that Taylor deploys keeps the issues from bogging down the narrative into a too-serious discussion of what are very-real issues for many indigenous peoples in Canada.

This is the thing I enjoyed most about Taylor`s novel. The novel steps lightly, even dances around, serious issues like residential schools, alcohol abuse, decolonization. This is not to say that it dismisses them or treats them unfairly, but that it refuses to let itself drown in sorrow or self-pity. I am tempted to call  Motorcycles & Sweetgrasss a comedy, but that would be a disservice to indigenous literature as it is clearly something else. From the outset, it is clear that in the end everything will be alright. The novel itself is set up by an italicized narration that says “Hey, wanna hear a good story? Supposedly it’s a true one” (1). Framing the novel as a “good story” while refusing to call it truth or fiction allowed me to enjoy the various narrative twists and turns. I am not sure why this is. I would hesitate to call the novel a fable, but the structure is somewhat similar in the sense that we know the ending outcome will be good over evil, or order over chaos. Of course, having a hostile raccoon army, a native martial arts master, and a white man riding in on an Indian Chief motorcycle create a comically chaotic ride.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any reader. Taylor is a great storyteller and this novel manages to cover a lot of ground while keeping readers turning pages.

Taylory, Drew Hayden. Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011. Print.

Mesmeric, or Did I Just Walk Through A Desert?: Carpentaria

carpentariaAlexis Wright’s 516 page tome left me with mixed feelings. It is like a complex wine with different notes that come at different times. Not altogether unenjoyable, far from it, but also not straightforward in any simple way. This is, perhaps, Wright’s aim. She is an Australian indigenous writer whose style mimics oral storytelling more than the linear narratives of Western culture. The book is mesmerizing in the way it moves backwards and forwards through time, along different narrative threads and around places and characters. At the same time, this free movement can produce a dizzying effect for readers more accustomed to point-A-to-point-b-in-a-straight-line logic. At times the narrative was absolutely mesmerizing, but at others times it wanders and I found it hard to pay attention to what was going on. In some ways, I feel like I walked through a desert (somewhat fitting given the novel’s setting in Queensland region of Australia – a claypan desert along the island’s far north), only to find myself at the other end feeling like I’ve missed numerous sights along the way.

The novel is centered on the town of Desperance, a white settler town about to come into money and the political spotlight because of the buried mineral resources that an international mining firm wants to exploit. However, these issues are ultimately secondary to the two different groups of Aboriginal peoples: the Westsiders led by Norm Phantom and the Eastsiders led by Joseph Midnight. These factions have been at war for 400 years, but the mine’s presence has significantly altered the landscape. Will Phantom, Norm’s son, has become an eco-terrorist of sorts, sabotaging the mine in defense of indigenous land rights. The novel explores the difficult postcolonial terrain of contemporary Australia as the white settlers continually grumble against the “blackfellas” who live on the outskirts of town, complaining that they stand in the way of progress. I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel as I normally read within Canadian literature, so it was interesting to see another settler-invader nation questioned by an indigenous writer. In the second half of the novel, a number of shocking racist crimes are committed and Wright manages to hit readers right in the gut. I finished the book feeling (again) like European settlers were and are always invaders on someone else’s land.

In terms of the reading experience, the first half of the novel is the most diffuse. The narrative shape-shifts like the snake that lies underneath the indigenous world of the novel. It winds its own way across the page, following an internal logic that is alien to (Canadian) readers. The second half of the novel becomes much more narrative-focused as though the first half had to set up the full context before the action could happen. In hindsight, I think I enjoyed this novel more than I realized. Getting through the first section was tough, but rewarding by the end.

A weird thought just occurred to me: this book spends a lot of time at sea. Norm is a master fisherman and he spends lengthy periods at sea. This is the second large novel about the sea that I’ve read in the last month. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for more fortuitous parallels.

Overall, I would recommend this book to readers who have the time to spend on a 516 page novel. For those who prefer more compact narratives, steering clear is probably the best course of action.

Wright, Alexis. Carpentaria. Toronto: Atria Books, 2009. Print.