Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

About four years ago I encountered a list of the top science fiction novels of all time, which included many I would have expected to see on the list (e.g., War of the Worlds, Stranger in a Strange Land, Brave New World) and several I had never even heard of (Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light and Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, for instance). A Canticle for Leibowitz fell into the latter category and, after scoring used copies of the novels on the list that I hadn't read, I set about reading them as time permitted. Only now have I gotten around to the Miller novel.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is flat-out one of the best things I've read this year, and I can't believe it languished on my shelf all this time.

In terms of setting, the novel focuses on post-nuclear holocaust civilization as it struggles its way through about 1,800 years of development. Divided into three sections, the first section takes place about 600 years after the "Flame Deluge" (i.e., the present-day's nuclear holocaust) as civilization works its way thru a new Dark Ages; the second section takes place 600 years after that, as civilization undergoes a new Renaissance and Enlightenment; the final section brings the novel full-circle as mankind once again enters a Space Era, bringing with it the renewed capability for nuclear annihilation.

The story itself follows a cloister of monks who have managed to base their entire belief system and way of life on the writings of the Blessed Martyr Leibowitz: a collection of blueprints, letters, and even a shopping list. Miller makes abundant use of Latin phrases and terminology to fashion the world of the monastary, and the novel -- while beginning with a humor that is dark and reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove -- steadily develops a vision that is altogether bleak.

Read the book and check out the soundtrack. Great stuff here!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Cynthia DeFelice, Under the Same Sky

Joe Pedersen is the fourteen-year-old son of a farming family in upstate New York. It's the start of summer and Joe has his eye on a motorbike, but his parents won't simply buy it for him. The alternative: he agrees to work for the summer on his family farm, laboring side-by-side with migrant farm hands, and as he experiences first-hand the prejudice against his fellow laborers it quickly becomes the most important -- and educational -- summer of his life.

DeFelice gives the reader an engaging and suspenseful story with characters that are well-drawn. The humor that she incorporates into the saga of Joe's development enhances his characterization nicely, making him a "typical" young man who is learning the value of money, the strain of peer relationships, and the agonies of that first adolescent infatuation.

I enjoyed this book. You will, too!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

For about the past forty years or so there has quietly developed a whole subgenre of literature that offers a "retelling" of an established literary work, but from the point of view of one of the minor characters. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea are good early examples of this genre, "retelling" Hamlet and Jane Eyre, respectively. This genre also describes the entire Gregory Maguire ouvre.

Which is one of the reasons why I feel somewhat disappointed by Atwood's latest novel, The Penelopiad. While I had hoped she'd give the Stoppard and Rhys treatment to the character of Penelope and the events of Homer's Odyssey, I was disappointed to find a novel that, well ... doesn't say much that I hadn't already heard before. Its "story" adheres closely to the Homeric epic for obvious reasons, but the voice of Penelope -- who laments her inferior position within the household, and comments on how little credit she is given in the "official" mythic accounts -- merely echoes that of Elpheba from Wicked (the catty competitiveness between Penelope and Helen even parallels that of Elpheba and Glinda). And having read Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale years ago (which I think is a masterpiece), Penelope doesn't seem to "say" much about man/woman relationships and society's perceptions of those relationships that hasn't been said already.

What I did enjoy about the book was the conversational approach Atwood took to giving the stories of the ancient Greek underworld and the myths, maintaining the spirit of the oral tradition from which all of these myths derive. Penelope peppers her narrative with countless sidebars involving characters we all know from Greek mythology, and these serve to season the narrative nicely with fresh qualities that a simple rehashing of The Odyssey wouldn't. All told, I was more interested in her observations of the underworld than her trite feminism and obvious characterization of a teenaged Telemachus.

Bottom line: Methinks Maguire's Wicked covered the same ground and did so more entertainingly and profoundly.