Now, I generally try to avoid lying to my readers here at Invisible Blog, but the titular character of Umberto Eco’s 2000 novel is under no such obligation. When I first came across the title, I thought I was going to get something at least broadly similar to E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs, which is sort of a benchmark for unreliable narration in fiction. Baudolino the character is more of an intentional liar than the confused Brother Medardus from Hoffman’s book, though, which makes for a significantly different experience. Also differentiating this book is Umberto Eco’s hardcore philosophical background, which bleeds through on more than one occasion and turns Baudolino into a debate on the very nature of truth and reality.
When it’s not waxing philosophical, Baudolino takes the form of historical fiction. The longer (and better) half of this book follows the eponymous (Piedmontese) Italian, as he exploits his ability to learn languages and lie without remorse to have all sorts of adventures throughout Europe. Baudolino immediately gets himself tangled up in the ambitions of the historically real Frederick I Hohenstaufen. Frederick spends much of his life trying to impose the might of the Holy Roman Empire on Baudolino’s native Italy, but Baudolino increasingly attempts to steer him towards a far greater land – the mythical kingdom of Prester John. In the process, he makes the acquaintance of Parisian university students, has some wacky misunderstandings due to the sordid state of medieval geography, and eventually ends up turning a failed crusade into a pilgrimage to the lands of Prester John.
As you might know from reading Invisible Blog and my other works, I am a complete history nerd, and I found that Baudolino’s interactions with medieval Europe from Paris to Byzantium made for great reading. He gets to participate in the formative era of the great Italian city-states, tries to seduce Frederick’s wife, tries to write his own vernacular language in an age of Latin supremacy, and various other adventures. However, Baudolino’s rather more ‘fantastic’ adventures once his entourage passes out of modern-day Turkey (or the Caucasus or northern Iran, I’m admittedly a bit unclear on this) jump more sharks than Arthur Fonzarelli on water skis. I’ve been known to dip into fantasy fiction occasionally, but the bizarre and incoherent nature of the lands Baudolino visits on his search for the kingdom of Prester John did little to keep my interest, bearing more resemblance to a senseless theological debate than coherent worldbuilding. This might be a veiled look at how Umberto Eco perceives reality; throughout the book, Baudolino’s entourage discusses in great depth the legends they’re dealing with and the possibility that there might be any truth to them at all. They don’t make much headway in their debates, especially since they spend much of them dosed up on a potent psychoactive drug (referred to only as “green honey” in the book). It certainly alters the tone of the book, even if you’re aware of Baudolino’s unreliability as a narrator.
A common trend with my book reviews, especially for books that are divided in any sort of sections, formal or informal, is that I end up covering a lot of books where I significantly favor one part over another. Baudolino is definitely like that, and my biases as a reader are hard to overcome. Still, I recommend the first half of this book; you might be able to trudge through the second half once you’ve invested in enough in the first.
After a nuclear apocalypse, Catholic monks are Earth’s only hope for rebuilding a technological civilization in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Well, not really, since humanity eventually recovers, but you get the idea. The subject matter, along with my recent reading, does mean I have trouble not comparing this one to recent Neal Stephenson (and it’s always possible there was a direct influence). However, since Miller’s work predates what I have in mind by about 50 years…
This book is organized into three short novellas, each separated by hundreds of years, and each one was initially published separately. Emphasis is ultimately placed on the Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz, holed up somewhere around what was once Utah and dedicated both to spreading Catholicism and preserving technological knowledge from before the apocalypse. We get a few glimpses into the progress of the outside world as well, from the restored Catholic Church in New Rome, to the nomadic hordes of the Great Plains, to hints of what’s been going on in Eurasia since the war. The actual worldbuilding is fairly light, but if someone devoted enough (and insane) wanted to flesh the settings out, there’s more than enough to get started.
Despite this, it’s actually the later sections of the book that pay off most effectively. The first section of the book (“Fiat Homo”) is honestly kind of a slog. The main character of this section spends much of his time fasting or fretting in a desert landscape that is apparently still overrun with mutants and reactionaries before eventually devoting himself to a megaproject involving a fortuitous find in a nuclear fallout shelter. By the eras of later sections, though, the Order of Saint Leibowitz interacts more with the world Miller has built in the distance, as their goals of spreading knowledge and piety come into conflict with temporal powers. By those points in the book, it might simply be a matter of the subject matter appealing more to my interests; if you’ve been reading my scattered book reviews (and reading some of my literature), you’ll know that I’m something of a history nerd and understand why I latched onto the parts of the book I did.
Needless to say, this book deserves its status as a classic of the genre, at least for the latter half, which gets quite poignant at times, especially in the climax of the third section. To explain why would spoil it, but the buildup to that point is worth your time as a reader. This isn’t something I can say about much media; never underestimate the power of a poor beginning to sour an entire experience, although I would argue that the alternative (a strong introduction that leads to a weak conclusion) is more depressing in the long run.
Years spent in the Neal Stephenson fandom have taught me that the guy has two distinct modes as an author of fiction. His most famous voice is his philosophical one, dedicated more towards ideas than plot and notable in such works as Cryptnomicon, the Baroque Cycle, Anathem, etc. Stephenson does, however, have some action/suspense oriented writing to his name; Snow Crash and Reamde come to mind and don’t exactly read like philosophical fiction. Seveneves fits the latter, being slightly terse and markedly darker than average, and therefore presumably being a couple of notches downwick of the Hylaean theoric world.
A quick disclaimer: Seveneves is not canonically related to Anathem or its concepts beyond it sharing an author.
Anyways, Seveneves leads off with the shattering of Earth’s moon, which over the first half of the book or so disintegrates into a cloud of rocks that rain down on Earth and kill almost the entire population, with the exception of a few desperate survival schemes. Most of the book focuses on the development of the “Cloud Ark” – a huge collection of small space habitats centered around the International Space Station – and the people that come to inhabit it. Things go especially wrong for it considering that this is a Stephenson book – construction accidents and internecine political conflicts lead to all sorts of Ark-threatening events and make some of the terrible things Stephenson has put his characters through in previous works (Daniel Waterhouse’s kidney stones, Zula Forthrast’s kidnapping, etc.) seem light in comparison. That humanity pulls through such a crisis is part of the book’s marketing, but I spent much of the tense middle wondering how they would do so and/or shocked at how they were killed off.
The last third of the book is separated from this suffering and tribulation by 5,000 years, and depicts a society very different from ours; their culture derived from video recordings of the Cloud Ark, and their genetic material deliberately altered in the name of surviving the difficult conditions of space habitats. The species’ population has by then recovered enough for political fragmentation to alter how they deal with the revival of the Earth, which makes for refreshing reading after the doom and gloom of the first part. I personally would’ve liked to see more of the book set in this future; what I read about these people was fascinating, but in many ways only scratched the surface of what this sort of world was like. After all, this sort of world-building is one of my favorite aspects of science fiction literature.
If you’re already used to Neal Stephenson’s idiosyncrasies, there’s a good chance you’ve already read this book, and you probably should if you haven’t, since it hits most of the same notes while working in more action and drama than usual. For the rest of our species – this book is indeed fairly representative of his style, although the characterization seems more developed, perhaps due to some of the subjects this book deals with. It also stars Neil DeGrasse Tyson in all but name; if that doesn’t sway you, your mental defenses are stronger than perhaps desired by the corporate elites of society.
I think a reasonable, intelligible first response to this book would go along the lines of “lolololol u w0t m8”. Last and First Men covers the rise and fall of eighteen separate human species who struggle with the rudiments of information science, space travel, electrical power generation, and other tasks. It discusses billions of years at an ever increasing pace, abandoning pronouns, dialogue, and anything but magisterial, moralistic, stilted prose as tools of its rhetoric. These humanities end up exterminating or assimilating the rest of the life in a highly inaccurate solar system before succumbing to their own difficulties with innovation, and it becomes clear that Olaf Stapledon is full of uncomfortable prejudices and cognitive dissonance. However, Last and First Men is also considered a high point of sci-fi, at least for its decade; one that influenced countless scores of further writers in the genre, influencing authors as wide-ranging as Arthur C. Clarke and H.P Lovecraft. I personally started and finished the book of my own will; clearly there’s something of value here.
It turns out that Olaf Stapledon is one of the most imaginative writers of his era, and for all the scientific concepts that didn’t show up until after this book’s initial publication, Stapledon does go quite in depth on the ones that he does manage – for instance, most of the humans (starting from the Third Men onwards) engage in massive genetic and psychological engineering projects that directly lead to the creation of further human species, at least when they’re not being sired by horrific natural disasters like a Martian invasion or the death of the solar system. The implication I got from much of this book is that for all its suffering, humanity is surprisingly resilient if just as malleable. Last and First Men also goes into great detail about the societies the human species form, although as the pace of the novel accelerates, some of the later species are denied such world building.
Before that, though, readers are exposed to what is allegedly the book’s weakest section – its beginning chapters, which bear some resemblance to modern history, showcasing WWI and the rise of Fascist Italy, but rapidly lose it to Stapledon’s lofty ideals. Personally, as an alternate history nut, I didn’t find these sections difficult or boring, but since they hold fast to “no men, only mankind” rule (given that they kind of establish it) and tend to alternate between horrific tragedy and foolish accidents, I can see why other people find them distasteful. While these chapters labor under the most obvious of Olaf Stapledon’s various prejudices, they do contain some poignant passages that feel surprisingly relevant from the vantage point of 2014 fast bleeding into 2015 – American influence everywhere, much to the chagrin of everyone else, people blindly convinced of their various nations’ superiority, and scattered philosophers screech that humanity as a whole is tumbling into decline. What the author intended and what I get from these passages probably doesn’t line up, but you might find some other value in these early sections if you give them a chance.
As for the book as a whole? In many ways, it’s difficult, and in many ways it could be improved by more direct prose or simply a few decades postponement to give it some perspective. Again, Last and First Men wins points for the strength of its worldbuilding and its unique style, but it also loses points because a lot of the worldbuilding is quite frankly illogical and ridiculous, and at times also the prose. Double edged sword, folks. I personally find that this book was good enough to keep my interest, but I would be amiss not to criticize it. I’d probably also be amiss not to read Stapledon’s other works, like Star Maker, and see if they improve upon the formula established here, but that’s a story for another blogpost.
Note: This review covers all four Worldwar books. It does not cover the Colonization series (which is essentially their sequel) because I am not done reading those books yet. In reading this, I noticed that I was kind of on a World War II binge… and yet I still can’t get into Hearts of Iron. Funny how life is.
So in comparison to Stuart Slade’s relatively grounded (if fairly brutal) The Big One, Harry Turtledove alters WW2 by adding in an alien invasion of Earth that forces the various belligerents to put aside their differences as the covers of the books indicate. The “Lizards”, as humans call them, appear to have military technology not particularly more advanced than what’s available in 2014, but it’s enough to push the nations of Earth to the brink. However, the Lizards suffer greatly from the weaknesses of their social structure, which is hierarchical and conservative to the point of absurdity; much is made of the fact they waited 800 years from their initial appraisal to launch an invasion. Footfall by Larry Niven comes to mind; while I haven’t read it, it appears to be a fairly similar story of a mildly technologically superior alien race with dramatically different psychology.
Far from having a central protagonist, Worldwar reads like a series of intertwined novellas about dozens of characters all over the world, each with their own development arcs and various plot devices (things like nuclear bombs, optical lasers, and ginger). All of the various interactions help to make for a rich, detailed world… well, maybe not so rich after the Lizards disrupt human industry, but you get the point. Already by the end of the first book, affairs have become more complicated than initially thought, as even the Lizards are forced to invent new methods on the fly to deal with rapidly advancing human technology. The sheer amount of plotlines sometimes means you have to read for dozens of pages to get to the next part of a particular character’s narrative, but the text is engaging enough that this isn’t really an issue. I also find that at times, everyone’s musings about the ongoing war and its devastating effects gets heavy handed at expense of narrative development, but the characters in this series face all sorts of insane stressors that would have a bad effect on yours truly.
It could be because this hits so many of my interests, but I’m finding it very difficult to find any flaws in this series beyond minor nitpicks. If you like this genre, you’ll definitely enjoy the Worldwar series.
This is not a music album, although arguably an album based on it could be a fun derivative work. Furthermore, I usually don’t do book reviews; it should be evident from the fact this is the first time I’ve done such a thing on my blog. Seriously, though… while it was in desperate need of good copyediting, and there were some extraneous bits that I don’t really feel contributed to the main plot, this book grabbed my interest in a way that I don’t think any other has since I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt.
The Big One falls clearly into the alternate history genre (which, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know I have some interest in); it’s set in an alternate World War II where Germany was far more successful early on, Japan never got the chance to properly participate, and the USA relied primarily on its air force and navy to project power. By 1947, a stalemate develops, and the main plot of the story focuses on a massive American atomic bombing run on the heart of Nazi Germany. One thing that’s rather notable is that at all points, the eventual outcome of this event is telegraphed by scenes comparing the overall state of the Allied and Axis military forces; despite this, the book still had me interested because I wanted to know the gritty details.
Part of this attention is due to the many technical details Stuart Slade provides; he has experience as a military analyst in both naval and aerospace fields, and it shows. Being a bit of a WW2 aviation buff myself, I particularly enjoyed seeing how Slade incorporated various equipment from both sides of the war into the book. Amongst other things, it gave me a sense of the rapid technological progress aviation was going through – not Moore’s Law fast, but still. As such, the book is strongest when it focuses on these things, which are particularly important to the main plot. There are a few subplots concerning other developments in the world, like a German pilot’s desperate suicide attack on an aircraft carrier, and the attempts of the British colonies to secure their way in the evolving world, but these are honestly not as interesting, as they seem to be of limited relevance to the story at hand, although it seems they do set up for the other books in this series. Either way, I figure they’re more interesting there, but they don’t detract too much from the main story due to their limited length. The final product is good enough that I plan to acquire the other titles in the series as money or library availability permits.