December 17, 2009

Flashforward is a science-fiction novel by Canadian writer Robert Sawyer. I wanted to like the novel, I did. I first heard of it, of course, when ABC began to air commercials for their version of the story. The TV series has been kind of terrible so far. There is a lot of potential in the premise, I think, but neither the series nor the novel delivers it.

There are significant differences, too. In both cases, a global event occurs where everybody has a glimpse of their own future for a couple of minutes or so. Except for this, there is really not much in common in both cases. In the TV series, the `jump’ is six months or so. In the novel is several decades. One of the main characters finds out he is going to be killed, and when. Other than this, there is nothing much in common.

Sawyer has won several awards for his writing, but I do not understand it based on this novel. Perhaps his other works are better. In this one, what is clear is how little understanding he seems to have of the science he is using. His characters are actually well developed, and in a less plot driven story, I think his strengths would be evident. 

Here are three quotes:

Frau Drescher went as white as the snow cap on Mont Blanc. “Mein Gott,” she said. “Mein Gott.

I mean, seriously? Ok. Perhaps that is a bit unfair; his comparisons and metaphors usually work, and his characters tend to talk like people. Let’s forget that one.

“Of course,” said Michiko. “It’s not that three minutes passed during which planes and trains and cars and assembly lines operated without human intervention. Rather, three minutes passed during which nothing was resolved—all the possibilities existed, stacked into shimmering whiteness. But at the end of those three minutes, consciousness returned, and the world collapsed again into a single state. And, unfortunately but inevitably, it took the single state that made the most sense, given that there had been three minutes of no consciousness: it resolved itself into the world in which planes and cars had crashed. But the crashes didn’t occur during those three minutes; they never occurred at all. We simply went in one jump from the way things were before to the way they were after.”

“That’s… that’s crazy,” said Lloyd.


“No, it’s not. It’s quantum physics.”

No, it’s not. It’s crazy. It’s just absurd. It is what happens when rather than understanding the science, one takes the metaphors scientists use and erroneously assumes they are literal truths. The TV series quickly distanced itself from this nonsense. In the book, only humans see the future, since they are the only ones with “consciousness.” And no recording devices work during the `jump’, because nobody is observing them. Seriously. Sawyer seems to think that the tree actually makes no sound. Or, perhaps, there isn’t even a forest, if nobody is watching it. It gets worse, because of course it is not only quantum mechanics that is thoroughly misunderstood. 

Surely all consciousness everywhere had to agree on what constituted “now.”

This being what the main physicist of the story thinks. Everywhere being, of course, the entire universe. This in the same paragraph where the physicist explains some relativity theory to himself. 


The big kill

April 28, 2008

I decided a while ago to get a good working understanding of noir fiction, which among other things means to read the classics. The lady in the lake was entertaining. This one… well, this one was not good.

The end was ridiculously, portentously, absurd. It would have made a cute joke in an early Woody Allen movie, I think. The one liners get old rather quickly, although I suppose they may have been a bit of a novelty back when. It is funny how the over the top language that is used throughout Sin City ended up not being a caricature but rather very close to what we have here. 

All the dames fall for Mike Hammer, the hero of Mickey Spillane’s novels. They fall just because that’s how it is, which makes the tale rather silly, a not particularly clever wish fulfillment adolescent fantasy of sorts. And the writing is quite pedestrian.

There is more violence than in other noir stories I had read. I now believe the explicit violence, nothing too unusual by today’s standards, was actually a selling point for Spillane’s pulps. There is also a lot of anger; Mike is so angry all the time that you fear he’ll end up hospitalized with a serious ulcer. He does not. It would have been a better ending. 

In any case, it was entertaining for what it was, but clearly Raymond Chandler is much better writer than Mickey Spillane.

World War Z

February 5, 2007

World War Z

Subtitled An oral history of the zombie war, this book was certainly a gratifying surprise. Never having been particularly interested in zombies or horror, I am not sure why I took a look at this book in the first place. What immediately caught my attention, the reason why I decided to give it a try, was the style in which the story is being told. The framework is a series of transcripts of interviews being conducted around the world by a United Nations representative (presumably somebody named Max Brooks) about a decade after the end of the war. It should immediately remind the reader of Studs Terkel’s “The good war”.

I really enjoyed the book, although talking of enjoyment feels incorrect. It is a stark story, with many depressing passages. It is not a horror novel, and there is not more gore here than what you would expect to find in war fiction. What you have instead is snapshots of how people cope with the events being related. Apparently a virus is responsible for the first few cases; although this is not stated explicitly, it seems clear that it is the product of the Chinese chemical warfare industry. The Chinese government tries to keep the first few incidents quiet by removing victims and witnesses, and as a result many people in early stages of infection try to illegally emigrate. There is some description of the pathology of the virus, of which not much is known, but it kills the victim in the traditional sense, while keeping the brain somehow running. The infected “reanimate” and attack and only by destroying the brain can they be stopped. Of course, nobody pays much attention to the first few cases, and by the time concerned voices go public (and are finally believed) it is too late. The book describes effectively how standard war tactics and artillery are of no use, and how people try to escape in huge herds, producing the largest exodus in history (and casualties in the millions). Rather than what I was fearing when I began to read—namely, countless descriptions of zombies overrunning poor families trapped in dark allies—a big part of the gloom of the story comes from how governments and individuals react, of the many terrible things they do to survive or of how meanness and greed are ever-present.

If I had to classify the book as anything, I would say it is a good example of what now is called mundane science-fiction (or is it mundane-science fiction?). There are many neat examples throughout the book of how the events described affect the world, its climate, ecology, economics, politics, language. We see examples of several genuinely new psychiatric disorders and a few unexplained events (the ultimate fate of North Korea is perhaps the most haunting). It is not a comedy by any means (although a few passages are witty and humorous) but apparently is presented in some libraries in the humor section, something I do not understand at all. Quite well researched, Brooks also uses the formal framework to his advantage, so we do not see many technical descriptions or statistics and a few important events are left out of the picture. Something worth mentioning is how many details are told by omission, how we understand some of the events precisely because they are not described. Some of the passages where this device is used are the most effective of the book. The framework Brooks chooses to tell his story presents serious storytelling difficulties: With many voices to present, there is the risk of different voices becoming indistinguishable, but this actually does not happen. And I kept expecting first-person problems, which is how I describe the series of narrative shortcomings almost always present in first person narratives; the most serious of these is to have people say too much, to compensate for the lack of omniscient descriptions. I was glad to find my fears unfounded. 

As surprising as I find typing this, I recommend this book without reservations. 

Abril rojo

January 16, 2007

Abril rojo

Abril Rojo is a novel about contemporary violence in Peru, told using noir conventions. There is an undercurrent of humor throughout the story, in spite of its serious and grim subject matter. Its main character, the fiscal distrital adjunto Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, is very unaware of his surroundings, living instead within a shallow bureaucratic formalism of laws and paperwork. Set in March and April 2000, during elections, the novel begins with the discovery of the charred remains of a body. Chacaltana finds unusual resistance from the police to investigate the murder and as he tries, obsessively but simple mindedly, to overcome this obstacle, he ends up drawing the attention of the army. What follows is the discovery of a serial killer at large, with gruesome ritualistic murders that represent decades of unrelenting violence.

Santiago Roncagliolo, the author, received the Premio Alfaguara in 2006 for this novel. However entertaining it is, I found two minor problems with it and a bigger one. There are a few grammatical oddities (for example, on two ocassions an incorrect “de que” is present), which seem to be the editor’s fault; however, these are surprisingly few. There are many liberties taken with the judicial system and the history of violence in Peru, which seems odd given the intention of the story; these are not so easy to spot and are so integral to the narrative that can be considered part of the framing of the tale and be overlooked. The main problem, the one I couldn’t ignore, is the extravagant nature of the serial killer’s actions. They fit well within the noir conventions the story uses. However, these crimes are so brutal that they distract from the actual, real crimes that the novel wants to highlight and condemn. As a result, the framework ends up hindering the impact of what has actually happened, of what the author presumably expects us to notice and care about.

That being said, the story is quite satisfying. The ending was so well executed that one could almost forgive the problem I mentioned. I wasn’t aware of Roncagliolo’s work prior to this novel, and will for sure keep an eye on him. Thanks to Rafael Benjumea for suggesting it.