Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Blighted Lives of Heroes

Nnedi Okorafor

DAW Books
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 4* of five

The Publisher Says: An award-winning literary author presents her first foray into supernatural fantasy with a novel of post- apocalyptic Africa. 

In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.

My Review: Who fears Death? I suppose most living things fear death. Onyesonwu, our title character, is the product of a genesis no one should have to carry with them: She is a child of rape, a product of brutality that should have made her mother hate her. Instead, her mother names her “who fears death” and never from that moment on, despite the both of them being outcast and made into The Other, never fears anything again.

I had a very hard time with this book, wanting to Pearl Rule it on average three times per reading session. I did in fact abandon it when a major major major anti-man hot button issue occurred near the end. But this is what earns the book four stars from me: I could not not read the rest. I had to know why what happened, happened.

Am I happy I read it? Not really. It was harrowing for me. I don't like man-bad-woman-good books. There are two unforgivable things in my moral universe: Abusing animals and rape. I'm no fan of supernatural/magjicqkal stuff (Onye's a shapeshifter). What on the surface of the earth persuaded me to read this thing?! I mean, it's even praised by Luis Alberto Urrea forevermore! I shoulda stood home, as the saying goes.

But Dr. Okorafor is a sorceress. She cast a spell on me. She reached out from inside this book and she made sure my brain needed to know this, and needed it so much I'd overcome my prejudices and make it part of my mental furniture.

I will step on her foot if I ever meet the Doctor in person.

She set the book in a post-nuclear-holocaust Africa! I love postapocalyptic fiction! How am I gonna resist that? And she made explicit a disdain for the rotten, evil-souled uses of religion in oppressing and abusing people of all types. I think I purred. I know I smiled.

It's also a joy and a pleasure to me to see women, and women of color, and women of immigrant parentage, enter the lists of American English-language speculative fiction. It makes me feel that this world has a shot at survival after all. Writers are not ignored because of their bodily plumbing or skin color or weird names. (Sorry, but I'm still an old white man, and this lady's name is really seriously weird to me.) This is the world I grew up wanting to live in, and now I get to...for a while anyway...and that, more than any other factor, made me stick with the book long past my usual stop.

Should you read it? Should you turn page after page of non-European-named characters, landscapes bursting with heat and searing miseries of spirit, heroes whose lives are blighted by origins beyond their control?


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How the Mighty Have Fallen

Olympic Games

by Leslie What

Published by Tachyon Publications

1 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda

There seems to be a literary trend of late that involves taking the gods of ancient times and throwing them into a modern day setting.  These once powerful deities have been forgotten and struggle to adjust to the mundane day-to-day existence afforded them in an increasingly secular world with little time for or interest in religion. As an early devotee of Edith Hamilton, one might assume that these have been heady times for me.  Unfortunately, this genre has been kind of a mixed bag.  There's been the good (Neil Gaiman's American Gods and some of Piers Anthony's older Incarnations of Immortality series) and the meh (Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief and Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly).  And now we have the bad--Olympic Games

This is a book that I wanted to love, but it fell short for me.  To begin with, there is one fundamental problem with writing about the gods:  in the original myths, they're two dimensional characters who only exist to either cause or react to events.  Because the gods primarily existed to explain natural forces, they were devoid of personality beyond what was necessary to explain their component in the natural world.  That's fine for reading brief myths presented in summary format or stories where the gods appear occasionally to help or hinder a beleaguered hero.  It's an entirely different matter when they become the focal point of a full length novel.  In fact, Olympic Games began as a short story entitled The Goddess is Alive and, Well, Living in New York City.  I would like to find What's original short story as I have a feeling it would be a more successful read for me.  As it stands, the gods in Olympic Games remain two dimensional, which may be traditionally accurate but makes for tedious reading.  I did not care about any of the characters--not even the humans, who themselves remain two dimensional.

The story focuses on Zeus and Hera.  In my opinion, these are the two least interesting gods.  Zeus just tossed around the occasional lightning bolt in between bouts of screwing anything with two--or four--legs and a heartbeat; Hera seemingly only existed to bitch about it.  So guess what they're doing in present day?  Zeus is philandering and Hera is chasing after him.  There's little new here.  They occasionally encounter difficulties with modern day life, but only to inconsequential and humorless effect.  Their powers are used primarily to beguile humans into doing their bidding and, in Hera's case, to constantly change her hair color, her body shape, her sandals, her wardrobe, etc. (a joke that tires very quickly as that ability is possessed by most mortal women and does not a goddess make).  There's nary another god in sight as, during the last 1/4 of the novel, it's explained that the others succumbed to ennui (an explanation that should have been provided earlier to give context as to why the other gods are inexplicably MIA).  This is a shame as the lackluster narrative involving Zeus and Hera could have been spiced up with the appearance of Athena, Poseidon, Ares, Aphrodite, or just the occasional demigod. 

The novel is billed as a screwball absurdist romp, a la Christopher Moore, but there's little in the way of humor here.  Sure, there's plenty of absurdity, but it's not particularly funny.  There are some clunky and obvious one-liners.  If nothing else, the novel made me wish that Christopher Moore would try his hand at this gods-in-the-modern-world genre.  If you’re interested in mythology based literature, I would recommend any of the novels previously mentioned in this review or, hey, kick it old school and get a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology or revisit Medea, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, The Illiad, or The Odyssey.  I think you would find any of them a more rewarding experience.

Rise of the Machines

The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

by Nicholas Carr

Published by W. W. Norton & Company

4 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda

For the last few years, I've noticed that I seem to have developed a form of ADD.  This was always the most apparent during the first few weeks of summer vacation when I would start and stop projects with lightning speed, when I couldn't sit still to read a book or watch a movie all the way through, when I couldn't clean my house all in one day, when I couldn't keep my mind on just one train of thought.  As someone who had always lived for structure, who craved the routine and the predictable, who always finished one task completely and thoroughly before moving on to another, this was quite alarming to me.  I blamed teaching.  My mind had adapted to the need to deliver content, monitor student behavior, answer questions, pass out papers, remind everyone for the umpteenth time that classwork is to be turned in to the orange basket, run the PowerPoint, avoid saying anything that might get me fired (“do not tell little Johnny that there is such a thing as a stupid question and he just asked it”)--and the need to do so all at once.  Turns out there may be something to my theory.  And it turns out that this manner of thinking, the need to hyper-multitask, may be exacerbated by the rise of technology as a conduit to information.  It’s comforting to know that, if I’m mentally deteriorating, it’s not entirely my fault.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr questions the impact technology has upon our lives.  What’s most important here is that Carr is in no way advocating a return to the pre-technology era.  He admits that much good has been done and will be done by technology, and he fesses up to loving and relying on technology himself.  However, he examines the idea of neuroplasticity—the idea that the brain rewires itself to adapt to the stimuli it encounters.  During the age of the book, the brain had to rewire itself to be able to focus for long periods of time upon text and to think about that text deeply.  This didn’t happen all at once, but was accelerated as books became more readily available to a more widely educated public.  The mind became accustomed to taking in information intensely, if not rapidly, as the brain had time to ruminate on and process the information it encountered.  The result was a deep thinking, literate individual.  People became experts in specific areas and the keepers of knowledge associated with their particular field of specialty.  They were responsible for filtering, critiquing, and judging the quality of new knowledge which had to be “vetted” before it could be accepted as accurate and true.  

So what have we sacrificed in this age of point and click?  We’re losing the idea of specialization, which is one of the more frightening aspects to me.  Any idiot with access to a keyboard and an Internet connection can post anything he wants online and it’s accepted as truth by the great majority.  A society that becomes accustomed to finding any and all information online may never learn anything deeply (and what will happen when Skynet becomes self-aware, takes over, and the machines rise against us?)  Instead, people will have little pockets of knowledge supplemented by what they can find online.  Also, I have to wonder how many innovations and ideas were serendipitously created when answers weren’t easy to find.  When an answer can be found through a quick web search, the deep thinking that may lead to phenomenal breakthroughs and intense creativity may be forfeited.  In addition, our attention spans are suffering.  We bounce from hyperlink to hyperlink, chasing new pieces of information which we scan quickly and, because we read over it so rapidly, it’s never stored in our long-term memory.  The next time we need that information we’ll have to log back on and find it again instead of relying on our ability to recall it.

Carr’s book is not the ramblings of an ill-informed radical.  This book is well-researched and Carr traces how the human brain has evolved throughout history, including pre-technology, to show that neuroplasticity has allowed us to adapt to our ever-changing environments.  There’s hard science here as well.  If you don’t agree with Carr’s thesis by the end, there’s no denying that he's done his homework. 

I love technology and I think Nicholas Carr does, too.  Carr’s book is not an indictment of technology, but rather a call for the public to be cognizant of the ways in which technology is affecting us—both the good and the bad.  Our society has so quickly and readily embraced technology that we haven’t thought about the potential long-term tradeoffs.  When we think about it and realize, “Hey, wait a minute.  This food I’ve planted on Farmville—I can’t eat one damn bit of it,” then we might become more responsible about how and when we use technology (and maybe we’ll go plant a garden in the backyard).  I know that I, for one, have started logging off more frequently and making sure that the time I do spend online  is enriching my life in some way.