Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book Recommendation: "Stardust" by Neil Gaiman (audiobook)

I've been insanely busy this week. I'm still insanely busy, considering that I have a bunch of secondary applications to fill out for medical school and some of those require lot and lots of essays. But I just finished an essay, so I get to take a break by writing this blog post.

I mentioned earlier that I was going to review the audiobooks I listened to during my roadtrip, so here is the first one: Stardust, written and read by Neil Gaiman.

What I love about Neil Gaiman is that his stories and worldbuilding are very quirky. This book was a bit of an exception, in that it is very classic fantasy--not to the degree where it's super cliche, but it does have a lot of very common fantasy tropes.

Is that a bad thing? I wouldn't say so. What this book shows is that Gaiman can do standard fantasy fairly well. His villains are a lot of fun, and I did like the glimpses of the world that Gaiman showed us. The style is beautiful, and you do get to see a lot of Gaiman's cleverness and humor in the writing. This is a really good book to listen to, because Gaiman reads it himself, and he has a very nice voice.

I enjoyed it, but there were a few things that kept me from loving it. The feminist in me would have liked to see Yvaine as more of an active character, and the ending was a bit anti-climactic. But Gaiman's writing did make up for a lot of the flaws, and overall, this book is good for those who are looking for fantasy coming-of-age story and romance.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Road Trip

I am currently on a road trip through Ohio and Kentucky. I may or may not post about Identity Festival, seeing friends, etc. I will, however, be reviewing the audiobooks I've, er, read along the way. Expect a mass haul of reviews when I get back.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

On "Getting it Right"

Have you ever seen the movie Contagion? You should, assuming doomsday stuff doesn't give you nightmares. Basically, the premise is that a new, very lethal epidemic is spreading around the world. The movie explores this epidemic through the eyes of scientists, epidemiologists, government officials, the media, and, of course, everyday citizens. Not only is it an amazing movie in how it explores and develops its themes, but another thing that really stuck out to me was how well-researched it was. Granted, I'm neither a pathologist nor an epidemiologist, but never once did I question the legitimacy of the science behind the movie.

Compare that to another doomsday movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The whole movie works on the premise that scientists who are smart enough to cure Alzheimer's are also incredible idiots. I won't get into how badly they messed up on the scientific elements (They're talking about basing human drug trials on one successful animal! Has no one on the production team taken a statistics class?) (Why are you stealing lab animals out of the wild? This isn't the 1970s! Do you have any idea how unknown diseases could affect your data?) (BCL Safety Levels were created for a reason!), but believe me when I say that it was an insult to anyone who has actually performed animal research. (HOW THE HELL DID YOU NOT NOTICE THAT YOUR CHIMP GOT PREGNANT? YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO KEEP THE MALES AND FEMALES SEPARATE FOR EXACTLY THAT REASON! Unless immaculate conception is one of the side effects of this Alzheimer's drug, of course. Actually, that premise would make a great idea for a novel.*)

I know a lot of you have seen me call out writers for their lack of research. And I've had conversations with people about how much research is important for a novel. Cultural research is a big one, particularly if you're writing historical fiction or setting your book in a different part of the world. (And it can be really hilarious when authors fuck this up.) It's also important that when your characters have a special skill or profession that you understand how it works (such as the publishing industry, for example).

But some topics, especially science, medicine, and technology, tend to be really hard topics to get right, due to all the esoteric knowledge behind them. (Hey look! I found a practical use for the word 'esoteric'! Other than, you know, impressing people with my awesome vocab skillz.) A lot of this is stuff that most people won't pick up on. So how important is it to do the research here?

Honestly, I feel like this depends on the writer. For me, some areas are more important to "get right" than others. Worldbuilding is a big one. Since Takira isn't a real world/country, I can't exactly look it up on Wikipedia, but I still have to develop the world and make it feel believable. One of the major worldbuilding difficulties I had was figuring out materials. Takirans don't use metal or animal products, so I have to find a way around that. Magic makes up for some of these things, but since only one or two people can use a particular talisman at a certain time, I can't use this as a foundation for everything. Instead, I have to understand how Takirans are building houses, cutting/breaking things, starting fires, or even making music without the use of metal, bones, or hide. Mostly, they use a combination of rocks, clay, and plants, with magic thrown in whenever stuff needs to be constructed, fortified, or taken apart. They use obsidian for cutting, oil instead of wax for their candles, papyrus for writing, rubber sap for water-proofing, and a certain combination of rocks for starting fires. (I discussed some of the aspects of worldbuilding with an anthropology major to help me figure out some of these details.) Based on all the raw materials that would be necessary for this world, as well as the warm climate, the geography of the world would probably resemble Hawaii. The culture, meanwhile, comes from a wide variety of influences. The cities were, in part, based on early an Israeli kibbutz--small, close-knit, and with a huge agricultural focus. There are also some Jewish influences in the religion (small things, mostly), but for the most part, Takiran culture is its own thing, with its own philosophical and religious grounding. (Though I did borrow stuff from other cultures, such as the round (vs. rectangular) tables. In China, round tables represent equality. Also, the 'cistern' is an Arabic influence.) In terms of ethnicity, Takirans would most closely resemble Middle Easterners, since they would have probably branched off from our world during the time of the Fertile Crescent, (This is why, if my book gets published, no one will ever turn it into a movie,) though given that they've been relatively isolated for at least 5000 years, they have developed some of their own distinct facial features.

Another important research element is anything medicine-related. When a person gets injured, I need to know exactly what is going on with their body. Which nerve would have to be torn in order to produce a certain kind of handicap? Where would a bullet have to hit in order to produce an almost-but-not-quite lethal effect? How much time would transpire before a character with a certain injury bled to death? I have used medical textbooks and dissection videos as a reference for these injuries and re-worked certain elements of the plot so that everything made sense.  Maybe this is going overboard a little (and I don't expect most authors to go this far), but I don't want to come back to my book five or ten years later, after I have graduated from medical school, and cringe at all the stuff I got wrong.

But what about stuff I don't care about? Technology is a big one. I am perfectly willing to use hand-waving on all technology matters. If I read a book where a computer hacker has God-like powers, I will bow my head and say "okay." Why? Because I don't care about technology. Programming sounds incredibly dull, and I have no interest in actually learning enough about it to know what is and isn't possible. (And anyway, my book doesn't have that much technology in it.) I get that some people would be upset by this, but those people can go find something else to read.

But what about my advice to other writers? I have outlined all the stuff I care about research-wise, but other people have different priorities. So could we establish some guidelines that work for everyone?

A) It depends on the focus of the story. For example, if your story centers on your protagonist's psychological condition, or a significant part of the story takes place in another country, you should be doing hardcore research. If it affects an important plot event, you should also do the research. (Distance and timing are a big thing here. I had to re-structure some of the events of my novel so that a character would have enough time to physically travel from Point A to Point B in order to arrive at the "action scene" at the right moment.) However, the more minor this particular character/setting/event/object are, the less you have to torture yourself over "getting it right."

B) It should make logical sense. A big issue I had with the first two books of the Divergent trilogy is that they don't make sense. Veronica Roth keeps trying to tell us that Divergents are special because of their strong-will and flexible personalities, but those two things are not correlated. If anything, I would expect a flexible person to be less strong-willed. This should also make sense in terms of character ability. There are certain skills that cannot be mastered in a matter of days. One example is the character Phoebe, from Legend. She's thirteen years old, and one character comments that she is a "natural healer." How can you be a natural healer? Sure, some people have steadier hands or are better at memorizing huge chunks of scientific knowledge, but actual medical skills are not innate. Unless this girl grew up reading medical textbooks or shadowing surgeons, I don't know how she could have any established skill at "healing"--unless her healing skills are limited to stitching wounds and wrapping bandages, neither of which are that difficult to master. (Or are we talking about setting broken bones? I have no idea whether or not that's a skill that can be learned naturally, though I do know that if I ever broke a bone, I wouldn't trust anyone except a trained professional to set it.)

Wow, that got long. Anyway, I have to go be responsible and work on application essays and/or get some story writing done. So I hope that helped!

*I'm not kidding. Somebody please write that book.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Giving Harsh Reviews to Under-Publicized Books

I'm currently reading an ARC of a book that comes out in August. Given that I hadn't heard of this book until my sister showed me her friend's copy, and that I never saw the author's first book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, I assume that this is going to be one of those books that never sees the shelves of a major bookstore and that is only known to the world via word of mouth. Normally, I would be very happy to promote one of these books, except that, well, I really don't like this book.

I'm still going to review it, of course. But how, erm, blunt should I be with my opinion? If you're familiar with some of my negative reviews, you know they can be, well, pretty harsh. But those books were either a) not new releases, or b) best-sellers. In the case of this book, though, I'd feel like I was kicking something that was already trying to claw its way out of the mud. So should I be gentler? Or should I treat this novel like one of the big boys and give it the harsh review it deserves?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dear America: It is NOT a surprise that Europe is better than you at science

To all those people lamenting that the Higgs boson particle was not only discovered by non-Americans, but that the announcement of the discovery was made on the Fourth of July:

You do realize that fireworks, those epic, patriotic things that you set off every year, were invented by the Chinese, right?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Book Recommendation: "The Drowned Cities" by Paolo Bacigalupi

A long time ago, I mentioned that Ship Breaker is the epitome of post-apocalyptic novel. As for The Drowned Cities? It could better be described as the epitome of a holy-fuck-the-apocalypse-is-happening-right-now novel.

Although Goodreads lists this book as #2 in the Ship Breaker series, it stands alone really well. There is only one crossover character, Tool, and given certain elements of his personality and the fact that the events of the first book never seem to cross his mind, I would assume that this story actually happens prior to Ship Breaker. But I'd still recommend reading Ship Breaker first. Why? Because The Drowned Cities is much, much darker (and better).

The Drowned Cities is about war. Not "fight and sacrifice for your freedom and beliefs" war. The characters in The Drowned Cities are trapped in the midst of wars that are, if anything, entirely pointless. The wars tear through everyone's lives, and the only way to avoid being a victim is to be a perpetrator. As much as Ship Breaker dealt with loyalty vs. survival, the theme comes out much stronger in this book. And Paolo Bacigalupi explores every aspect of these themes.

But what really makes this book shine are the characters. There are no token characters in this book. Mahlia, Mouse, and Tool are all very dynamic. And even the soldiers are more than stock villains. They are written as reckless, fearful young men all trying to find meaning and a sense of security in their violence.

Something else I loved about this book is the way it differs from so many other modern dystopias. This is more than a crapsack background that brings two young lovers together. The Sparkle Project recently commented on how many authors seem to shelter their characters from the truly horrific realities of their world. Sure, they might have an angsty past and a few near-death experiences, but for the most part, the "plot shield" still holds. This is not the case in The Drowned Cities. Mahlia and Mouse are just as vulnerable as any other character, and they suffer just as much as everyone else.

To recommend this book to fans of dystopia would be an understatement. Actually, it would be wrong. Until you have read The Drowned Cities, you cannot even call yourself a true lover of dystopia.
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