Sunday, May 24, 2009

Soon I Will Be Invincible: A Review

I just finished reading Soon I Will Be Invincible.

I'm including this under my Summer of Science Fiction because this a story about an evil genius who attempted multiple times to conquer the world through science. However, there are also aliens, fairy, and magic, all of which had the potential to be a fantastic novel of superheroic proportions.

It failed. Dismally.

Superhero Fiction is a delicate niche -- I mean, it has to be. It's hard to take people running around in spandex seriously.

I think the problem with this novel is that it takes itself too seriously in all the wrong ways. Doctor Impossible continues to try to conquer the world in cartoon, devilish ways. Robots, fungus, moving the earth's orbit to create an ice age, that sort of thing. Seriously, if you're gonna have a villain taking over the world two things need to happen in order to make him a villain instead of a two-pence clown with delusions of grandeur: 1. Have a half-decent reason that doesn't include vengeance when life deals the villain a rotten hand in his childhood. 2. Make the schemes actually plausible. Bonus points if the villain doesn't end up ruling a post-apocalyptic earth

The villain of the story, Doctor Impossible, is obviously crazy but not in the bone chillingly way. More in the shake your head and cluck softly, you poor thing way.

It also felt a bit like Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (which isn't his fault since Grossman wrote the novel before Whedon wrote DHSAB). Doctor Impossible even had a freeze ray and a death ray. There were even attempted witty retorts which fell flat most of the time (it's okay, Grossman, not everybody can be Whedon).

The thing is, Whedon did it better. Doctor Impossible wants the girl and take over the world. Dr. Horrible is conflicted between being a villain and pursuing Penny -- a conflict that doesn't really bother Doctor Impossible.

In some ways Corefire, who is often hinted at being a jerk (seriously, that's prime material there!), resembles Captain Hammer -- they are both heroic tools. However, Doctor Impossible goes into monologues in which he says that the good guys are supposed to win, end of story, that's the way it's done: I'm supposed to try to take over the world, they're supposed to stop me, I'm supposed to lose, they're supposed to win.

This. Irks. Me. It's like...predestination, like everybody's just reading the script. Doctor Horrible didn't stop trying and doesn't fool himself with the angsty I'm supposed to lose nonsense. "It's not about making money, it's about taking money," he says.

Doctor Impossible had no vision beyond his character's role.

Doctor Horrible did.

The ending wasn't even worth the time it took to even read the novel. Since Doctor Impossible never let the reader forget that he was supposed to lose, it really wasn't that surprising when he, well, lost.

The characters of the novel were very unsatisfying and one dimensional. They were all either extremely smart or they were lucky. Heck, one was the daughter of an Alien Princess. This bugs the heck out of me. Superheroes aren't supposed to make the privileged even more privileged -- it's supposed to be the empowerment of the average Joe as it explores philosophical issues, the spectrum of evil to good and all that grey in between, and -- I can't stress this enough -- about the people.

This wasn't about the people. It wasn't even about the ramifications of good or evil. Sure, mentions were made that people who had super powers often tended to be mentally unbalanced in some way, but it wasn't enough. In essence, Soon I Will Be Invincible did not deal with Asimov's rule: it didn't explore how these people reacted to their own powers (angsty drivel doesn't count, sorry). It didn't really go into how the public saw these heroes. They were just kind of there. I honestly think that every superhero story needs a person who is human so that it can explore their reaction to all this Super as well. Soon I Will Be Invincible touched on it, but then the ordinary girl overshadowed by the Supers became super herself. Sigh.

Another disappointing aspect of the book was the style of the writing. Seriously, I can't help but wonder how this got published.

There are two alternating point of views within the novel -- not something I would choose, but hey, to each his own. The problem is that they both sound exactly the same. Seriously. They both go into long, boring, repetitive monologues, they both push the rewind button as they constantly deviate from the main plot of the story to enlighten the reader about various characters, their back stories, etc.

It was like a little kid constantly interrupting their older sibling as s/he tries to read a book.

Intensely annoying and rather amateurish compared to someone like Neil Gaiman.

But not everyone can be the Gaiman. But that fact shouldn't deter them from trying to outdo him in their own way.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Timequake: A Discourse

This is the truth:

I was not expecting Timequake to be slightly autobiographical, but something a tish more timey-wimey.

But that's okay, because Vonnegut is still my hero. And, in light of that fact, there were still tons of interesting things in this book.

A Timequake is when the Universe recedes, forcing the inhabitants to relive x number of years of their lives. For the novel, it was ten years. Life is a constant deja vu, where you can't change anything until it finished. And then free will finally kicks in again.

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, "The Beatles did."


Henry David Thoreau said most famously, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

So it is not one whit mysterious that we poison the water and the topsoil, and construct ever more cunning doomsday devices, both industrial and military. Let us be perfectly for a change. For practically everybody, the end of the world can't come soon enough.


That there are such devices as firearms, as easy to operate as cigarette lighters and as cheap as toasters, capable at anybody's whim of killing Father or Fats or Abraham Lincoln or John Lennon or Martin Luther King, Jr., or a woman pushing a baby carriage, should be proof enough for anybody that, to quote the old science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, "being alive is a crock of shit."

This is actually a theme that shows up especially at the beginning of the novel: a scientist working on the H- Bomb comes home to his wife, a pediatrician. As he works to build a bomb to go kablooey on thousands of people -- children included, she works towards healing the children. Odd, isn't it?

Vonegutt described World War II thus: "civilization's second unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide."

Chief among manmade epiphanies for me have been stage plays. Trout called them "artificial timequakes." He said, "Before Earthlings knew there were such things as timequakes in Nature, they invented them." And it's true. Actors know everything they are going to say and do, and how everything is going to come out in the end, for good or ill, when the curtain goes up on Act One, Scene One. Yet they have no choice but behave as though the future were a mystery.

Perhaps that is the allure of chance music: every sound is an adventure.

What hit me really hard that night, though, was the character Emily's farewell in the last scene, after the mourners have gone back down the hill to their village, having buried her. She says, Good-by, good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners...Mama and Pap. Good-by to clocks ticking...and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths...and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

"Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? -- every, every minute?"

Torchwood had an episode about this. It was called "Random Shoes."

Why is everyone in such a hurry to die?

Every minute should be an adventure.

[when asked if he memorized a lot of Shakespeare] "Yes, dear colleague, including a single sentence which describes life as lived by human beings so completely that no writer after him need ever have written another word...: 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.' "

Life as an Artificial Timequake


I think they both agree that tragedy is always an option, no matter what sort of stage we're on.

And that's just sad.

When the timequake ended, two things were said:

Wake up! Wake up! You've got free will again and there's work to do!


Wake up! Wake up! You were sick but now you're well again!

...I asked Kilgore Trout for his ballpark opinion of John Wilkes Booth. He said Booth's performance in Ford's Theater in Washington D.C, on the night of Good Friday, April 14th, 1865, when he shot Lincoln and then jumped from a theater box to the stage, breaking his leg, was "the sort of thing which is bound to happen whenever an actor creates his own material.

I think this passage, towards the end of the novel, nicely puts a series of questions and ideas readers can ponder if they so wish:

If humans have free will, then life is not a Timequake (or a stage on a play).
If humans have free will, we drop bombs on Japan or assassinate presidents and musicians or people in general.
Is that why humans wish to die? (Vonnegut also relates a story of a musician who cries, "Shoot me while I'm happy!")

If humans do not have free will, then we are characters in a play -- someone else's continuous Timequake.
I humans do not have free will, then humans are sick. If humans decide to adlib their way through life, as did Booth, does that mean we are really better? (see quote above)
Is that why humans wish to die?

I have heard of an eastern monarch who once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence which would be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, 'And this too shall pass away.'

So let's wake up and smell the roses before they're gone too.

There's work to do (work that doesn't include assassination or murder or wars). Bikes won't ride themselves. There's sex to be had and stories to write.

Life to be lived.

Other random thoughts:

[when folks advised Newton to brush up on theology]I like to think they did this not because they were foolish, but to remind him of how comforting and encouraging the make-believe of religion can be for common folk.

To quote from Kilgore Trout's story "Empire State"...: Science never cheered up anyone. The truth about the human condition is just too awful."

I've often described atheism as walking over sharp rocks with bare feet. However, walking somewhere is better than never poking one's head out the cave to see what, exactly, is making all those shadows.

...Bernie and Trout had both, since their earliest adolescence, played games in their heads that began with this question: "If such-and-such were the case in our surroundings, what then, what then?"

Ie, Science Fiction.

She died believing in the Trinity and heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I'm so glad. Why? Because I loved her.

I wish my extended family were big enough to be happy that I was happy in my beliefs for the simple reason that they loved me. I wish I were big enough to give them the same gift.

And even in 1996, I in speeches propose the following amendments to the Constitution: Article XXVIII: Every newborn shall be sincerely welcomed and cared for until maturity.

Aritlce XXIX: Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage.


Article XXXI: Every effort shall be made to make every person feel that he or she will be sorely missed when he or she is gone.

I think that one speaks for itself.

All quotes taken from Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: A Discourse

One female (most were men, but women made up for it in silliness) had a long list she wanted made permanent laws -- about private matters. No more plural marriage of any sort. No divorces. No "fornication" -- had to look that one up. No drinks stronger than 4% beer. Church services only on Saturdays and all else to stop that day. (Air and temperature and pressure engineering, lady? Phones and capsules?) A long list of drugs to be prohibited and a shorter list dispensed only by licensed physicians...she even wanted to make gambling illegal...

Thing that got me was not her list of things she hated, since she was obviously crazy as a Cyborg, but fact that always somebody agreed with her prohibitions. Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws -- always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: "Please pass this so that I won't be able to do something I know I should stop." Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them "for their own good" -- not because speaker claimed to be harmed by it.

Robert Heinlein, I frakking love you (except when I don't).

This -- this -- is honest. This, is Science Fiction making timeless social commentary. This paragraph is relevant today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

Unfortunately, it is also an example of Heinlein's sexism. Though there are strong female characters, they are often (but not always) exceptionalized in a condescending sort of way, silly or not as smart as someone else (usually a man), etc; I guess it's kind of a mixed message, but the silly adjectives happened often enough to be rather annoying.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is about the lunar colonies becoming independent from earth. There are some interesting characters (a sentient computer named Mike, for example) and some interesting ideas on political themes.

Which, really, was the only downside with the story as far as I could see -- sometimes it was heavily political (to the point that it didn't seem like the characters) and sometimes I lost interest (I know, I'm working on being less shallow, more deep when it comes to politics -- wip).

Despite that, though, there were some really interesting ideas about politics that I found fascinating:

[when a politician asked how the newly formed government was to pay for itself since involuntary taxation was out of the question] Goodness me, sir, that's your problem. I can think of several ways. Voluntary contributions just as churches support themselves...government-sponsored lotteries to which no one need subscribe...or perhaps you Congressmen should dig into your own pouches and pay for whatever is needed; that would be one way to keep government down in size to its indispensable functions whatever they may be. If indeed there are any. I would be satisfied to have the Golden Rule be the only law; I see no need for any other, nor for any method of enforcing it. But if you really believe that your neighbors must have laws for their own good, why shouldn't you pay for it? Comrades, I beg you -- do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him."

Legislation for someone else's own good. Doesn't that sound familiar?

The sentiment is later emphasized when the narrator, Manuel, is arrested on earth because of the different marriage practices on the moon (polygamy, interracial -- not same-sex that I noticed but coming from Heinlein not surprising).

This raises another essence of Science Fiction which I have overlooked:

Science Fiction is very big on individuality. Some of the most common and dangerous enemies are those entities that take away a person's individuality whether it be shoulder humping parasites (The Puppet Masters by Heinlein and others), the Borg (Star Trek), or government (Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

Our individuality is the most precious thing we own. It should never be taken away.

Also, all quotes from Moon is a Harsh Mistress of course.