Best Books I Read in 2009 – Book List

In 2009, I read 156 books. This gives me considerably more selection when it comes to choosing my best and worst books of the year. As always, this list originally appeared as a blog post.


10. Lilith's Brood

by Octavia E. Butler

Lilith's Brood cover image
Paperback, 746 pages
Warner Books, 1989

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This is one of the scariest books I have read in a long time. Good science fiction, good posthuman fiction, challenges the idea of what it means to be human. Octavia E. Butler goes beyond that, way beyond, challenging not just what human means but how open-minded I am to such challenges. This book blew my mind.

As a huge fan of science fiction, and as a relatively erudite person, I like to think that I have an open mind. I like to think that I'm receptive to the idea of drastically alternate human futures. I believe the Singularity, if we survive long enough, is inevitable—and I welcome it. After reading Lilith's Brood, especially the first book, Dawn, I'm no longer so sure of my open-mindedness. As I read the book, I found Butler's ideas running up against walls of prejudice and bias I didn't even know I have.

The Oankali rescue humanity from the brink of total annihilation by global warfare. They offer humanity the chance to survive, but at the price of human independence: humans and Oankali would hybridize, their mating supervised and controlled by the third-gendered Oankali ooloi, who can manipulate DNA of individual cells. Some humans don't like this idea, so they resist. This surprises the Oankali, who are continually frustrated by "the human contradiction" of "intelligence and hierarchical society." It takes a human, at first, Lilith, to help the Oankali succeed in their plan to save humanity. Later, two of Lilith's human-Oankali construct children, Akin and Jodahs, make valuable contributions toward ensuring the future of both humans and the human-Oankali species being born on Earth. Of course, the question remains: is it enough? Can we ever triumph over "the human contradiction" and survive, whether independently or in a merger with the Oankali?

Butler doesn't seek answers to these questions. She addresses their existence, which may or may not have been obvious to the reader, and then explores the idea of merging with an alien species. This isn't a trashy SF novel with tentacle sex and mind-blowing orgasms. It's a deeply seductive, profound, and repulsive SF novel with tentacle sex and mind-blowing orgasms. The Oankali are terrifying because they are truly alien, and it's impossible for humans to negotiate with them on human terms. Probably the most potent example occurs at the end of Dawn, when Lilith tells her ooloi mate, Nikanj, that she is not ready to have children with it. Yet ooloi are perceptive to the cellular level, and Nikanj knows that even if Lilith claims that she does not want children, her body wants children. So he makes her pregnant. This abrogation of Lilith's free will and control over her body recurs throughout the series, and is explicitly codified in Imago by Jodahs. It is undergoing its first metamorphosis, changing from child to subadult ooloi—an unexpected change, and one that may mean exile to the orbiting ship. Nikanj again makes a promise, this time to Jodahs, to let Jodahs stay with it "for as long as you want to stay." Jodahs interprets:

It meant as long as I was not more miserable alone with the family than it believed I would be if I were cut off from the family and sent to the ship. Humans tended to misunderstand ooloi when ooloi said things like that. Humans thought the ooloi were promising that they would do nothing until the Humans said they had changed their minds—told the ooloi with their mouths, in words. But the ooloi perceived all that a living being said—all words, all gestures, and a vast array of other internal and external bodily responses. Ooloi absorbed everything and acted according to whatever consensus they discovered. Thus ooloi treated individuals as they treated groups of beings. They sought a consensus. If there was none, it meant the being was confused, ignorant, frightened, or in some way not yet able to see its own best interests. The ooloi gave information and perhaps calmness until they could perceive a consensus. Then they acted.

Through the ooloi model of decision-making and action, Butler challenges our individuality by removing our prerogative for self-deception. Suddenly, our wants and needs are determined biologically, regardless of what we say we want. Is there a difference? Should there be a difference? I don't know, but the idea of some third party disregarding my wishes, whether those wishes are right or wrong, certainly scares me.

This emphasis of the biological over the social is a major theme of Lilith's Brood and also the source of my only real disappointment with the series. I dislike how strongly Butler emphasizes the biological construction of gender and ignores pretty much anything except the "traditional" heterosexual masculine male and feminine female. Yes, the mating of humans and Oankali challenges our ideas of sex, but not really gender—aside from the act being performed, men are still masculine and females are still feminine. There are no gay men or lesbian women—I don't think the Oankali would have an equivalent relation, because they would not understand the idea of "sexual orientation." To them, sex is purely physical. Love, as humans define it, does not exist. Mating is based on attraction, maintained by permanent neurochemical attraction, and for the purpose of procreation. The gender roles of the Oankali are even more strictly partitioned than human genders have ever been, to the point of being indistinguishable from biological sex. I'm not certain how much of this omission is deliberate on Butler's part or to what purpose, but I think it's an avenue of exploration that shouldn't have been left fallow.

Aside from this disappointment, this book's brilliance compensates for its other faults. Adulthood Rites and Imago are somewhat less compelling than Dawn, partly because of the changes in perspective—although it's interesting how Butler begins the series with a human protagonist, then switches to a male human-Oankali construct, and concludes with an ooloi human-Oankali. These increasing degrees of Otherness are an effective narrative strategy, but sometimes the later two books failed to hold my interest. Sometimes the Resister characters felt too thin—not that I disbelieved that humans could act so harshly and shortsightedly, but that everyone seemed to act that way. Butler explores the psyche of the very alien Oankali and human-Oankali constructs, but she seldom delves into the minds of regular humans, save for Lilith in Dawn.

Lilith's Brood made me look at my own psyche, however, and question how well I knew myself—that is, to what extent I was deceiving myself when it came to my tolerance for change. I still like to think I'm eager for the posthuman future, but Butler has helped show me that it could be far more frightening, on both a visceral and conceptual level, and far more seductive, than I previously thought. This series is a masterwork combination of thought experiment and character conflict, and it has accomplished what all books set out to do but few books can achieve: it has changed me. A thought-compelling exploration of possibilities, Butler creates verisimilitude even as she pulls us away from any sense of normal, removes any sense of safety, and refuses to reassure us that the questions we ask ourselves will have nice, comforting answers.

Read this book.

9. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America

by Robert Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America cover image
Hardcover, 416 pages
Tor, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Set in the 2170s, Julian Comstock depicts a fallen America. Hit hard by Peak Oil and global climate change refugees, America has re-imagined itself as an officially Christian nation. With technology and social norms on par with the nineteenth century—which the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth extols as the perfect template for contemporary American society—this is a profoundly different society from our own, but it strikes a chord because it may not be far off from what our society could become. That's Robert Charles Wilson's true coup with this book: he relentlessly illustrates how easily an enlightened civilization has slipped back into the pitfalls of slavery, class-ism, and religious intolerance.

At first I was ambivalent to the narrator of Julian Comstock. Adam Hazzard, friend to the eponymous protagonist, has a plodding tone full of pointless asides like "I won't bore you with the details of..." that serve little purpose. And although Hazzard expresses his aim of writing a biography of Julian from an inside point of view, the book seems to be more about him than Julian at times. Yet as I got further into the book, I understood why it was necessary to have a first-person narrator who was sidekick instead of hero, Watson to Julian's Holmes. This book would not have worked with Julian as the narrator, plain and simple, and it would have lost a great deal with a third-person narrator. It needed the perfect blend of innocent incredulity and incorruptible loyalty—in short, it needed Adam Hazzard.

Through Adam's eyes, Wilson shows us what America has become. Julian emerges early as a paragon who not only understands the past but is in a position to influence the future—he's the nephew of the President of the United States, although said President is also the one who sends Julian into the army hoping he'll be killed (twice). Adam chronicles Julian's rise to power through his singular intelligence, strength of self, and his friends (including Adam) and allies. This occupies the first four acts of the novel, but it's the fifth act that I found most interesting.

Julian emerges as a war hero for the second time in his life and finds himself the figurehead of a military coup. Nudged into the Presidency, Julian attempts to use his power for good, and makes powerful enemies: the Dominion, which essentially certifies the Christian churches that operate in America; and later, the very military forces that deposed the last President. I enjoyed this part of the book because it was both the most tragic and the most believable. The first four acts are rife with improbable events that, while entertaining and useful to the plot, are the sort for which suspension of disbelief is required. Act Five seizes upon reality and shoves it in Julian's face, precipitating an inevitable decline from hero to desperate dreamer.

Julian takes the Presidency hoping to improve conditions in America and enfeeble the Dominion, which holds too much power over the "democratic" Senate and Executive branches. We know from our experience with the previous president, Deklan Comstock, that the Presidency of this United States is only nominally democratic; Deklan was continually acclaimed president, not elected, and he showed little skill in his role as Commander in Chief. While Deklan ruled as a despot, we see Julian gradually become a sort of 17th-century Philosopher-King. Intelligent and good-intentioned, Julian nevertheless finds himself one man against a behemoth that has had a century to entrench itself in society. He scores several Pyhrric victories but ultimately finds himself the target of another coup. Julian Comstock ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

And that's what saved it. I was going to give the book four stars; as brilliant as I found Wilson's world-building, some of the writing was dull, and the book seemed much longer than it needed to be. But the ending simply blew me away because it felt so true. Julian, even Julian Conqueror, could not take on the entire Dominion by himself. Rather than reward the reader with a quick resolution, Wilson instead opted to offer us a ray of hope: that Julian's actions, and the actions of people like him, would lead to the fall of the Dominion and the renewed freedom for everyone in America. It wasn't the end; it was a beginning:

"You're a failure, Julian Comstock, and your Presidency is a failure, and your rebellion against the Dominion is a failure."

"I guess the Dominion will stagger on a while longer. But it's doomed in the long run, you know. Such institutions don't last. Look at history. There have been a thousand Dominions. They fall and are forgotten, or they change beyond recognition."

"The history of the world is written in Scripture, and it ends in a Kingdom."

"The history of the world is written in sand, and it evolves as the wind blows."

As an adventure story, Julian Comstock is an average book. Oh, there's plenty of action, and it's adequate in that respect. The strategy and combat aspects of the second and fourth acts should satisfy war enthusiasts (they didn't appeal to me as much, which is perhaps why I found the first four fifths of the book less intriguing, but there was nothing technically wrong with them). But it's a long adventure, with a ponderous narrator—a very nineteenth-century style work of prose, which is of course appropriate.

As a didactic work of fiction, however, Julian Comstock embodies the sublime. It neither preaches nor lectures. There are precious few speeches. Instead, Wilson shows us a possible future, and as the consequences of his what-if game unfold, we see his themes in both the dialogue and the action: it takes strength to stand up against injustice, especially when it's inevitable that you won't live to see your victory achieved; the only comfort is the knowledge that this too shall pass.

Although Julian Comstock is a tragedy, I found it cathartic and uplifting. I'm too young to remember any of the tense moments of the twentieth century, its Cold War, Vietnam War, or Gulf War that so shaped the psyche of the Western world. As such, I worry about the ramifications of global warming, poverty, and unrest. I'll probably be alive in fifty years, if I'm lucky, and I'd rather not see the world go to hell in that time. Julian Comstock reminded me that no matter how bad it gets, even if civilization collapses and humanity rejects Darwinism as heresy and America forgets that walked on the moon, there is still hope for the future. Yet that does not give us license to be complacent when there is work to be done:

"The spread of literacy is the problem here," said Palumbo. "Oh, I'm all in favor of a sensible degree of literacy—as you must be, Mr. Hazzard, given your career as a journalist. But it has an infectious tendency. It spreads, and discontent spreads along with it. Admit one literate man to a coffle and he'll teach the others the skill; and what they read won't be Dominion-approved works, but pornography, or the lowest kind of cheap publications, or fomentive political tracts."

Well, I certainly hope so, Mr. Palumbo! And I know you're probably biased, since if you're reading this you are a literate person yourself, but I hope you agree. The most dangerous threat, Julian Comstock teaches us, is not Peak Oil, climate change, or terrorism. It's that we will become content with mere survival instead of true freedom—freedom to speak, to act, and to contest.

Julian Comstock is a thought-provoking story of a what might happen, a tale both compassionate and cautionary. Read it. Ignore the science fiction label, if that scares you; it may be set in the future, but it's about the present.

8. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Dystopia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Dystopia cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 387 pages
Eos, 1974

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The success of The Dispossessed lies in Le Guin's presentation of two distinct visions of utopia. Each feels that the other is an aberration. Both are superior to the contemporary government of Earth, which at this stage has just barely managed to avoid destroying Earth's biome. Yet both are dysfunctional, have strayed from whatever utopian ideals may have founded them. They are not failed experiments, but they are not entirely successful either—owing to human nature—and Le Guin shows us the best and worth of both, all the while commenting on humanity and present-day social organization.

On Anarres, society is anarchistic and government no longer exists. Yet administrative work must be done, and the institutions in place to do that work have become more bureaucratic with each generation. Those who seek power over others will find positions in social structures, even if such structures aren't explicitly authoritarian, that allows them to assume that power. While the system of non-government on Anarres works well some of the time, the harsh climate of the moon makes it difficult to eke out a living some years, resulting in a hungry, weary population.

On Urras, there are a few different models of government. Most prominently featured is the capitalist A-Io, and there's also mention of the authoritarian Thu and the war-torn dictatorship of Benbili. Shevek visits A-Io, where Urrasti are "profiteers" who exist only to make money and revel in their superiority over others—or at least, that's what Anarresti learn in school. The truth is, as usual, far more complex. In fact, A-Io is a heavily class-based society, one in which women are relegated to the role of decorative, carefree wife and the lower classes toil ceaselessly to support the elite intellectuals and businessmen. Social mobility is nearly non-existent, and A-Io is just as closed-minded about change and new ideas as Anarres (and this may be the only thing they have in common).

My descriptions over-simplify, of course. Le Guin manages to make both nations seem viable, but it's clear that neither are ideal places to live. There is no utopia, Le Guin proclaims. This is the common theme of utopian literature, of course, but The Dispossessed stands out because it's discrediting two visions of utopia. And each has different flaws, different vulnerabilities. On Anarres, society the pressure on the individual to conform with social norms replaces laws. The danger of this, however, is that it stifles the very foundation of Anarresti society: "we didn't come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we're no better than a machine." On Urras, we see classical forms of government with classical flaws: the individual becomes subordinate to the State and the Economy, slave to the twin whips of Authority and Profit. Despite these obvious flaws, however, it's clear that these are visions of utopia. And that's where it really gets interesting.

Through the Terran ambassador, Keng, Le Guin expresses her fears of what Earth may become if humanity doesn't wake up and change how it's behaving. The Terra in The Dispossessed is functional, but only just. Keng refers to the planet Urras as "Paradise" because it still has green space and its people have some form of choice, even if it isn't perfect. She sees Anarresti society as desirable in theory but no longer attainable in practice:

"My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed our world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. . . . We failed as a species, as a social species. . . . We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little. Not very much."

"Then Anarres, as you heard me speak of it—what would Anarres mean to you, Keng?"

"Nothing. Nothing, Shevek. We forfeited our chance for Anarres centuries ago, before it ever came into being."

This conversation occurs toward the end of the book, by which time Le Guin, through the eyes of Shevek, has us convinced that both Anarres and Urras have pretty undesirable societies. And here is a Terran expressing her admiration for both—one which she envies and the other which she considers just so far beyond her reach it's no longer relevant. What may be Hell for one person is Paradise for another.

These notions of subjectivity and cycling, the idea that Anarres is Shevek's present, perhaps Urras' future, and Earth's past, are linked to the physics that Le Guin explores in other parts of the novel. Shevek seeks a grand unified theory, one which reconciles "Sequency" (cause and effect) and "Simultaneity" (laws of relativity) and allows for such marvels as faster-than-light travel. While he doesn't quite get that, it does lead to the reification of the ansible, which allows people to communicate instantaneously across several light-years. Before I look at the implications of Shevek's research, however, I want to examine this theory of time in closer detail.

Shevek's theory about time is central to any reading of The Dispossessed, as it influences his outlook on life. We get a sense of this from the repetition of a common idea. Here are two quotations that demonstrate this, first from when Shevek meets his eventual partner, Takver:

It is now clear to Shevek, and he would have thought it folly to think otherwise, that his wretched years in this city had all been part of his present great happiness, because they had led up to it, prepared him for it. Everything that had happened to him was part of what was happening to him now. Takver saw no such obscure concatenations of effect/cause/effect, but then she was not a temporal physicist. She saw time naively as a road laid out. You walked ahead, and you got somewhere. If you were lucky, you got somewhere worth getting to.

and then from the end of chapter 10, when Shevek and Takver reunite after four years of postings on opposite sides of Anarres:

So, looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

The point is pretty clear, thanks to Le Guin's writing. I'm sure I'm not alone in experiencing frustrating evenings when I look back on the day's events and think about how much time I wasted not doing anything productive. Shevek would advise me to take that in stride: everything that happens, has happened, and has formed part of your life, part of who you are. The acceptance of this inevitability may seem deterministic. Shevek admits, later in the book, that such thinking is inherent in Simultaneity, and that one reason for his search for a grand unified theory is to keep the Simultaneity without the need for determinism. Accepting the inevitability of the past is still necessary, but it makes it all the more important to strive for a better future.

And that's why Shevek wants everyone to have his theory, wants everyone—Terran, Hainish, Urrasti, Anarresti—to be able to construct an ansible. Because communication is one of the most necessary and most worthwhile activities. Freedom of speech is paramount, and Le Guin makes a strong case for open source information and academic freedom. As a student and academic, these themes are close to home for me. I empathized with Shevek has he ran up against the walls of bureaucracy and reactionary thought on Anarres and corporatism and capitalism on Urras. Ideas, especially scientific knowledge, should belong to no one person, corporation, or country. They should belong to the species at large. However, freedom of speech is not something that flourishes untended, like a conifer in a boreal forest. It must be constantly maintained.

Le Guin demonstrates this in a very creative way, through the Anarresti language. Pravic is artificially constructed, mostly by computer. Even Anarresti names are all 5- or 6-letter names assigned by computer. There is only one Shevek at any given time, and the names themselves are gender-neutral, which helps contribute toward the gender equality we see on Anarres. If language shapes our perception of reality, then the use of an artificially-constructed language is the ultimate shaping of reality.

There are more themes in The Dispossessed than I could do justice to in such a brief discussion, so I'll only briefly touch on gender relations and political allegory. In the case of the former, the distinction seems obvious at first: women and men are social equals on Anarres; on Urras, at least in A-Io, women are considered inferior. As Shevek learns during his visit, however, A-Ioan women don't see themselves that way; they think they run the men! While I envy the equality we see on Anarres and condemn the attitudes of Urrasti men toward women, again Le Guin reminds us that the situation is never as clear cut as we want it to be.

The political allegory is very transparent but still relevant even thirty years after publication. Analogues for the U.S. and Russia are hostile toward each other but do not openly invade the other's country. Rather, they fight proxy wars in other countries. This is the face of warfare in the late twentieth-century, still the face of warfare in many senses, although guerrilla warfare and terrorism are beginning to get an edge. Through Shevek, the traveller from another utopia, Le Guin can express her scorn for war, for the military, for the unnecessary aggression and conflict she sees in her contemporary world.

And central to all these themes, all these many entwined points of light, is Shevek. He's just this guy, you know? Trying to do the right thing. He's got a woman he loves, two daughters he loves, and a cause in which he believes. He has a choice: do nothing, or do something, anything, even if it's dangerous . . . just to spark some change. He chooses the latter, and that makes him more than just a mouthpiece or an ideologue. Shevek is a hero. Not a gun-toting, smart-mouthed, badass action hero. Just a hero. And that is enough.

For such a small, compact book, The Dispossessed is a political and social force to be reckoned with. This is a novel that can be read in a day or two, as I did, but it's something that needs a lifetime of thought. Every so often, a book comes along and shakes me up, surprising me with is verisimilitude. It reminds me that this light, bound work of paper in my hand has the ability to profoundly influence people, including myself. The Dispossessed is what a book should strive to be, more than just words on a page, but the encapsulation of ideas sublimely expressed.

Read it.

7. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

by Lawrence Lessig

Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy cover image
Hardcover, 327 pages
Penguin, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I'd recommend Remix to anyone who creates content, whether as part of their day job or simply as a hobby in their basement. Lawrence Lessig takes the complicated issues surrounding modern copyright and explains them in terms laypeople can comprehend. Moreover, he makes a compelling argument from an economic standpoint as to why less copyright could lead to more profit.

My favourite quotation from this book is:

Copyright law has got to give up its obsession with "the copy." The law should not regulate "copies" or "modern reproductions" on their own. It should instead regulate uses—like public distributions of copies of copyrighted work—that connect directly to the economic incentive copyright law was intended to foster.

Lessig succinctly reveals the flawed premise from which most corporations approach the concept of copyright in our digital age. Thanks to the Internet, it's now possible to distribute an infinite number of copies of a digital work. Regulating that work like it's a physical object doesn't work, as we saw empirically through the failed experiment of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Focusing on copying is a doomed tactic. Focusing on usage is a much better way to exercise one's control over one's content.

Never does Lessig advocate the abolition of copyright. I've often struggled with the very existence of this legal quagmire we've constructed. As a content creator in general, I am happy to release as much of my content as possible under a Creative Commons license. I love to let people benefit from my content by reusing it wherever possible. Yet, as a writer, I'm reluctant to do that for everything I produce, since traditional publishing still requires (at least in some cases) a traditional, all rights reserved copyright. So either I must accept copyright in some form, or I must abandon any hope of being published through "traditional" means.

Lessig's stance reassures me that there is nothing wrong with the concept of copyright itself—indeed, so-called "free" licenses, like Creative Commons and "copyleft" are also copyright, just of a different breed--the core dilemma we face is that copyright has become distorted during the twentieth century by increasingly restrictive regulation. Lessig argues that we need new legislation to remove our copyright quagmire and update our laws to reflect current cultural values. But how effective is his argument?

Having never read his previous works, I was in the dark regarding Lessig's rhetorical style, so I went into Remix with no expectations and an am unable to compare it to his other arguments. I found Remix both compelling and accessible. What truly surprised me was the types of premises Lessig used to advance his argument. Although both points of legality and appeals to ethos appear in Remix, Lessig's primary concern is one of economics. Would less restrictive copyright be better or worse for the economy? Is it still possible to derive value (i.e., make money) off a work with a less restrictive copyright? Lessig's answer is an unequivocal yes.

I admire this strategy more than I admire the argument itself, for I think it will go a long way toward convincing economists, lawyers, and business people--anyone concerned with making money from their content or the content of their clients—that less copyright isn't as scary as it seems. Remix is not the manifesto of a copyright revolutionary attempting to storm the Bastille of commerce and tear down the walls of sane legislation. Rather, Lessig points out that sometimes more control is less desirable—for instance, it can often bring unwanted liability to the copyright holder or stifle possible opportunities for fan-based revenue. Although making money is always a concern, it isn't necessarily the only concern—sometimes it's better to build customer loyalty or cultivate what Lessig terms a "sharing economy" than just reap profits.

I won't attempt to summarize all of Lessig's arguments here. Remix is short enough—perhaps my largest complaint about the book—and well-organized enough that anyone should be able to muddle through, and anyone with interest in these issues will derive enjoyment from it. Those of us who agree with Lessig's perspective are lucky to have such an eloquent and sharp voice for remixing. As for our opponents—well, if Remix doesn't persuade you, I at least hope that it opens your eyes as to why why some people promote remixing, beyond a twisted desire to steal profit from other content creators. Copyright certainly isn't a black and white issue; Remix succeeds in showing that it doesn't need a black and white answer.

6. Little Brother

by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother cover image
Hardcover, 382 pages
Tor, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I read this book in a single night, which is a pretty good testament to how much I enjoyed it. I won't be the first person to compare Little Brother to 1984 (Doctorow himself does it, alluding to it in the story by giving his protagonist the handle w1n5t0n and through the title of the book itself), but it's a very apt comparison. Little Brother is 1984 updated to take into account September 11th, the Internet, and the Department of Homeland Security. I'm not saying this book supplants 1984; you should read both.

First, a caveat: Little Brother is polemical in a way that occasionally compromises the story. Sometimes the main character, Marcus, gets a little too caught up in his explanation of how he's accomplishing something. Doctorow wants to educate his readers about modern security measures and ways to thwart them. Nevertheless, I'm giving this book five stars because it still managed to keep me entertained and package all of the emotions I feel when I think about the United States' reaction to terrorism in the past eight years. Little Brother hits you in the heart, because you read it and think, "This is my world" and wonder what will happen next, not in the book, but in reality.

Most of Doctorow's antagonists are fairly stock characters (who even get generic names!) and are two-dimensional set pieces against home his protagonist reverberates. For example, the Chavez High School vice-principal is an uncool blowhard who represents "the Man" and Marcus' desire to thwart the institution. The Man ultimately replaces the teacher who sympathizes with Marcus' freedom-of-speech ethics, of course, the first step to turning education into indoctrination. Doctorow's conflicts are far from organic. Rather, Little Brother reads more like an action movie where the action scenes have been plotted first and their transitions woven in afterward. Although I'm not convinced it could stand up as a movie, that's how it feels to read the book (not a bad thing). This is not a work of great literature, and although Doctorow is an entertaining writer, he's not a perfect one by any means.

What he is, however, is a good storyteller. He makes you feel. Oh, and he uses phrases like "teh suck" in the narration, which raises his cool quotient by a considerable amount.

The brilliance of Little Brother is that it's science fiction, but it's not set in the future. This is happening here, now—much like in Heroes, only without the bad acting and horrible storylines. And for the most part, I think that the situations Doctorow depicts are fairly plausible. In between his thinly-veiled lectures and arguments about freedom of speech and the effects of terrorism on a free society, Doctorow shows us how the government's attempts to catch terrorists are ultimately helping terrorists by sowing fear and hindering true investigation.

Above all, he emphasizes how the government can use technology not just to track us, but to profile us and our habits. Imagine a world where you're investigated not because you do something illegal but because your movements just happen to be "abnormal" compared to your past few months of activity. This isn't Luddite fear-mongering either; Doctorow's addressing real concerns about the intrusive nature of new-old technologies like RFID. These aren't issues that affect only the military or upper class white-collar workers or secret agents; these issues affect everyone, rich or poor, desk or factory, government or private sector. And they affect us here, now, today--not tomorrow. Doctorow is clearly on one side of this issue, but even if you eventual come to stand on the opposite side, at least you'll be choosing a side. If you remain apathetic, then you will have no voice in this silent revolution. And if you have no voice, how can you really call yourself free?

Oh dear, my review appears to have turned polemical as well. I can't help it, I suppose. Little Brother made me passionate; it's moved me in the way that only a good book can, and that's why I'm giving it five stars.

5. Fool

by Christopher Moore

Fool cover image
Hardcover, 311 pages
William Morrow, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I had to add a new shelf for this book: "deliciously quotable." That admirably summarizes Fool, a bawdy comedic interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear. Not for the faint of heart, Fool puts the reader through a whirlwind tour of Shakespearean clichés mixed with a healthy dose of anachronisms and sexual innuendo.

I love any sort of irreverent Shakespearean fun. It's all well and good to call the Bard one of the greatest writers of the English language, but I've never agreed with scholars who treat Shakespeare's writing as sacred. After all, I'm sure good ol' Will wasn't looking to become the most lauded British playwright—he just wanted to make some money and have a good time. And we all know that Shakespeare, although a master wordsmith, was far from original—almost all of his plays are based on earlier works anyway. So it's more homage than heresy to reinterpret the Bard's own work.

King Lear is my favourite of Shakespeare's plays; however, even if it isn't your favourite, or even if you've never read it, you'll still enjoy Fool (just maybe not as much as I did). Christopher Moore draws on inspiration and quotations from several of Shakespeare's plays "largely to throw off reviewers, who will be reluctant to cite and criticize passages of my writing, lest they were penned by the Bard hisownself." It's King Lear sprinkled with Macbeth and Hamlet and a happy ending. I'm not suggesting that a happy ending is better for King Lear—I'm looking at you, Nathan Tate—but it's better for the King Lear reimagining that is Fool.

Take Fool with a grain of salt and suspend your disbelief and you'll be rewarded with a funny and entertaining story. I laughed out loud at several parts of the book, something I very rarely do, and was ready to grant the book five stars when I was less than halfway through (contingent on the book remaining awesome, which it did). Not only is Fool fun and easy to read, but it makes Shakespeare accessible to people who might otherwise never find time for the Bard—I'm looking at you, vapid Twilight-enslaved teenage populace. Fool isn't a replacement for King Lear, and maybe I'm just being too idealistic here, but I hope it'll stir up more interest in Shakespeare, who could be every bit as bawdy as Christopher Moore.

Yes, I loved hearing Regan described as "sadistic (but erotic-fantasy-grade-hot)" and several independent discussions of her "shaggacity." My taste in comedy runs more toward the cerebral, so I hope my enjoyment of Moore's wordplay is all the more convincing a testimonial. It's simply brilliant: "We've been rehearsing a classic from antiquity, Green Eggs and Hamlet, the story of a young prince of Denmark who goes mad, drowns his girlfriend, and in his remorse, forces spoiled breakfast on all whom he meets." As that quotation indicates, Moore peppers Fool with anachronisms. He doesn't go out of his way to describe the mythical medieval Britain he's conjured into existence; Fool is very light on description and heavy on dialogue. Moore sets the stage prior to the beginning of the book: "generally, if not otherwise explained, conditions may be considered damp" and then rarely goes on to describe the environment except when required by the plot. And I don't mind the scant description; it fits the quick-paced, witty tone of Pocket's narration and his banter with enemies and allies alike.

In keeping with the wit and dialogue, another reason Fool appealed so much to me is that it's very meta. The characters occasionally break the fourth wall—usually when Pocket criticizes their behaviour as a stock character:

"So," said Oswald, "you lived through the night?"

"Of course, why wouldn't I?" I asked.

"Well, because I told Cornwall of your rendezvous with Regan and I expected him to slay you."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Oswald, show a little guile, would you? The state of villainy in this castle is rubbish, what with Edmund being pleasant and you being straightforward. What's next, Cornwall starts feeding orphans while bloody bluebirds fly out of his bum? Now, let's try it again, see if you can at least keep up the pretense of evil. Go."

"So, you lived through the night?" said Oswald.

"Of course, why wouldn't I?" I asked.

This sort of meta-repartee can only work in a certain type of book—it would be out of place in a deeply serious piece of literature, for instance, but is fine for something like Fool or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Moore goes further and interposes a page-length "intermission" scene consisting of fourth-wall-breaking dialogue between Pocket and Edmund at the end of Act IV:

"Bloody ghost is foreshadowing, innit?"

"But all the gratuitous shagging and tossing?"

"Brilliant misdirection."

"You're having me on."

"Sorry, no, it's pikeman's surprise for you in the next scene."

"I'm slain then?"

"To the great satisfaction of the audience."

"Oh bugger!"

Lest you think Fool is only vapid innuendo, I'd argue that there is a more profound level to this novel. Although it transforms King Lear from tragedy to black comedy, in the course of doing so it makes some very touching observations (this was particularly the case with Pocket's recount of his relationship with the anchoress). My favourite, hands down, is this dialogue between the banished Kent and Pocket:

"I'm beginning to wonder," said Kent, sitting down now on an overturned wooden tub. "Who do I serve? Why am I here?"

"You are here, because, in the expanding ethical ambiguity of our situation, you are steadfast in your righteousness. It is to you, our banished friend, that we all turn—a light amid the dark dealings of family and politics. You are the moral backbone on which the rest of us hang our bloody bits. Without you we are merely wiggly masses of desire writhing in our own devious bile."

"Really?" asked the old knight.

"Aye," said I.

"I'm not sure I want to keep company with you lot, then."

Not only is this funny, but it actually provides a great look at the character of Kent from the original King Lear. The most anomalous aspect of the original play is the fact that Lear's kind of a jerk, so it's curious that Kent stays loyal to him even after banishment. Here Pocket attempts to give an answer to that question, with his usual graphically disturbing diction. The characters in Fool are slightly thinner than cardboard, with very little development. Yet it's easy to forget that most of Shakespeare's characters are like that too. Fool is, at some level, an allegory with a paper-thin cast.

Fool is my first, but definitely not my last, Christopher Moore book. Friends of mine who like Moore, and many of the reviewers on this site, seem to concur that Fool is not one of his best novels. If that's the case, then I'm in for a treat; since I loved Fool, I can't wait to get my hands on Moore novels that don't suck!

There's a certain subset of people who will pan this book because their sense of humour isn't compatible with it—they'll find it childish, or perhaps even repugnant. I respect their differing opinion, but if you don't share that opinion, then you must read this book. It is awesome.

4. Foucault's Pendulum

by Umberto Eco

Foucault's Pendulum cover image
Trade Paperback, 623 pages
Harvest Books, 1968

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I read a lot, and the people around me are used to seeing a new book in my hand every day or couple of days. Naturally, they ask me what I'm reading, usually in a way that implies I should divulge more than just the title and the author, which are plainly visible on the cover. How do I respond when I'm reading something so sublime and transcendental as Foucault's Pendulum? It defies ordinary description of plot, because Umberto Eco has again unified his narrative with his themes and characters to create a complex masterpiece. Even the hook on the back of my paperback edition doesn't do it justice.

At its core, Foucault's Pendulum is a fable about conspiracies. It is a cautionary tale that demonstrates what happens when people begin to believe in conspiracy theories; lending credence lends life, which can have unfortunate consequences for everyone involved. The main characters begin as sceptics, working for a publishing house that's allied with a vanity press, who begin constructing a fictitious Plan by connecting seemingly-disparate historical facts. When organizations and individuals begin showing up seeming to be acting in accordance with this Plan, however, our protagonists realize that if you make up a Plan, even a false one, someone might try to execute it.

This book is not about conspiracy theories though. It has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, and of course there are similarities; both books deal with Templar mythology, for instance. Foucault's Pendulum is so much more though. It isn't a mystery about a conspiracy theory; it's a mystery that looks into the effects of conspiracy theories on otherwise rational, scholarly people. The narrative parallels the characters' journey in its own structure, beginning with a strong foundation in logical principles and eventually transforming into a very spiritual, emotional text.

We have so many books based on the premise that such and such conspiracy theory is actually valid. Here, the theories are all fictitious; it begins as a harmless game among three people determined to mock conspiracy theories and the obsession with finding hidden meaning through occultism. The theory only becomes real because people begin believing in it; they begin seeing meaning where before there was nothing, no relationship. Characters emerge, ones we're familiar with from prior in the book, who appear to have a part in this Plan and think it has been in operation for centuries. These characters are in some ways created by their fellow characters (our protagonists); Foucault's Pendulum is very meta-authorial in that respect, much like Sophie's World.

Eco gives us an unreliable narrator so that we're forced to think critically about the story we're given and wonder how much is true and how much may be the feverish imaginings of an unbalanced, misguided mind. The narrator is named Casaubon, and I'm very glad I read Middlemarch before reading this book. Casaubon is sort of like his namesake from Middlemarch, who devotes his life to the syncretic task of unifying human myths. In Foucault's Pendulum, Casaubon and his friends Belbo and Diotallevi sift through the slush of conspiracy lunatics ("Diabolicals") to compile a master theory, a Plan, spun around the framework of the dissolution of the Knights Templar. As they come to believe in the reality of their own Plan, the world around them changes, becomes darker and more sinister. All conflicts in this book, even the external ones, are ultimately internal, created from our characters' own imaginations. The fact that some of these internal conflicts manifest externally, through the antagonism of rivals like Colonel Ardenti or Agliè, gives the story plenty of variety.

In between, we get glimpses of Belbo's childhood in rural Italy, and Eco mentions both historical and contemporary Italian politics. As an outsider, I found this part of the book fascinating, since I'm totally unfamiliar with Italian history or even how its citizens were affected by the rise of fascism and their time under Mussolini. That's what I like so much about Eco: he reminds me that I'm steeped in my own ignorance, but he doesn't condescend me for it. Instead, he forces me to meet him on his intellectual level.

One thing that makes Foucault's Pendulum so transcendental is the fact that it's rife with allusions to medieval and Enlightenment history and philosophy, arcane rituals and religions, and other esoteric and occult phenomena. You'd practically need a degree in these areas (like Eco has) to understand it all without a reference book; I don't, and I admit I got lost at times. Almost every page is filled with this historical references, particularly when Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi are thick in their discussions of the Plan. Consider that for a moment: I got lost in the historical detail of the book, yet I'm still giving it five stars. That's how good it is; even its flaws are strengths.

Still, the tendency of this text toward tones academic will turn some people off the book. It may not be for everyone. If you find yourself reading my review and thinking, "Hmm, this sounds like it is right for me," however, don't wait. Go out and get this book now. Read it, and then read it again—I will, some day, because Foucault's Pendulum is one of those books where you need to read it through several times to grasp its complexity. And every reading will be its own reward, as reading should be.

3. Middlemarch

by George Eliot

Middlemarch cover image
Paperback, 736 pages
Oxford University Press, 1872

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This book blew me away. Forget Jane Austen or any of the Brontë sisters. I found Pride and Prejudice tolderable and liked Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but they are nothing compared to the scope and genius of Middlemarch. George Eliot has given Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens a run for their money, and I think Middlemarch has won the title of My Favourite Victorian Novel.

Middlemarch is sublime; it avoids the pitfalls that would label it "pretentious" rather than "profound." Its plethora of characters and several intertwining plots allows Eliot to keep the pace of the book progressing quite quickly. The narrator seldom dwells on any one point too long unless it's thematically important, and he or she is always willing to gloss over aspects of Middlemarch life that are irrelevant to its characters' stories. Eliot gives us an episodic glimpse at the lives of her characters, picking those instances which together form an overwhelming argument to advance her themes. Although Middlemarch is certainly long by today's standards, it deserves its length.

Eliot masterfully balances several related but distinct plots that take place in the fictitious town of Middlemarch. Although the story takes place during the Great Reform Bill of 1832, politics plays a secondary role. The story is largely character-driven and focuses on rural English life, which sounds boring until you realize that it's utterly fascinating. It's like the Victorian version of reality television.

Middlemarch owes its success to its characters. Every single character is three-dimensional, with virtues and vices, hopes and dreams and setbacks. Even characters who start out as seemingly two-dimensional foils or antagonists, like Rosamond Vincy and Mr. Bulstrode, turn into people for whom we feel a mixture of sympathy, pity, and disgust. Eliot doesn't pander to her readers; her characters do both noble deeds and horrible ones. Often the latter are so deliciously predictable that Middlemarch attains that enviable quality of being a trainwreck—too fascinating to turn away—without becoming camp or dull.

Almost all of the conflict in Middlemarch stems from missteps by the characters themselves, along with a little external conflict added by itinerants like Raffles and Ladislaw. Eliot loves to pit two very likable characters against each other. Take, for instance, Mr. Farebrother and Fred Vincy, who both love Mary Garth. Mr. Farebrother's an honest vicar who's so well-meaning that he in fact sabotages his chances with Mary by acting as Fred's emissary. Fred, while somewhat indolent and unfocused, also means well and eventually determines to shape up and do whatever it takes to earn Mary's hand. As a result, Eliot creates quandaries to which there's no happy answer—a stark parallel to real life.

Of course, that's what Middlemarch is: realism. Time and again, characters entertain delusions about the world around them that prove false and even harmful. Fred Vincy—his entire family, in fact—rely on the fact that he will inherit property from the ailing Peter Featherstone; he's left with nothing when Featherstone wills his estate to an illegitimate son from out of town. Dorothea marries the unattractive Mr. Casaubon because she believes it's her purpose in life to help him in his religious scholarship; instead, she ends up an unhappy widow who remarries a flighty man. Rosamond Vincy falls head-over-heels for up-and-coming Dr. Lydgate only to discover that he's far more in love with treating patients than attending parties. Lydgate experiences a similar dissatisfaction with his spendthrift new bride. In case you haven't noticed, a good deal of the unhappiness in Middlemarch stems from marital conflict.

Eliot's observations about marriage—in fact, about life in general—are accurate and clever. She's like a funnier, more acerbic, more ironic Jane Austen (keep in mind that I say this while acknowledging that Jane Austen is a funny, acerbic, ironic author!). While I've shelved this book under romance, it definitely doesn't qualify for "happily-ever-after." Yet while Austen often demonstrated how marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be, her situations often felt contrived. In Middlemarch, on the other hand, the marital strife is organic; it's also reflected in the reactions of the townspeople. Eliot's social commentary is much stronger than Austen's because Eliot has constructed an entire microcosm in the form of Middlemarch society. As someone who enjoys living vicariously, Middlemarch particularly resonated with me, but it should appeal to everyone: the variety of views espoused by its characters expose you to perspectives you may otherwise never experience. Ultimately, that is what makes a story successful, and in an era where technology makes it increasingly easier to control the perspectives to which one's exposed, Middlemarch is all the more relevant.

2. Midnight's Children

by Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children cover image
Trade Paperback, 533 pages
Random House, 1980

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

It's easy to review something you hate. Indeed, reviewing a bad book is enjoyable, because you feel free to tear it apart and vilify it as much as possible—your harshness is excused, justified by the poor quality of the book itself. Reviewing a good book is more difficult; you have to struggle to find something interesting to say or to come up with criticism. It is nearly impossible to review a great book with any amount of confidence, for then you feel the weight of having to do justice to something that, in your opinion, exceeds the excellence of sliced bread by a long measure.

That's how I feel about Midnight's Children. I began the book wanting to fall in love with it, anticipating it because I'd previously read other works by Salman Rushdie. Thus, I was already favourably predisposed toward the book. Yet at first, I thought it merited only four stars—I desperately desired to give it five, but the critic in me stubbornly demanded four. However, at some point during the last half of the book, my resistance melted, and I got it. I thought, This is good—not "good" in the sense of mediocre, but "good" in the sense of good storytelling and good writing and, crucially, good will. Try as I might, having finished the entire book, I am at a loss for criticism. What follows is an untempered, completely biased encomium of Midnight's Children. I make no apology for this.

Rushdie personifies the country of India in a single citizen, and tells its history allegorically through the autobiographical account of the narrator, Saleem Sinai. To borrow some phrasing from the book, India is Saleem and Saleem is India. The significance of this narrative framework was lost on me at first; the frame story of recounting one's autobiography seemed like a mere interesting plot device rather than a brilliant theme.

Saleem has taken narcissism and followed it to its extreme logical conclusion—i.e., he is so self-absorbed that he believes events in his life precipitated events in India's history. As he recounts his life story, he pronounces judgement upon his past self (whom he often refers to in the third person, a separate entity from the omnipresent, judgemental "I" of the unreliable narrator). It took some time for me to realize that this was Rushdie's way of generalizing the Indian collective consciousness at various key points during its history—Saleem's judgements weren't a statement about Saleem, but a statement about how Indians felt about India, how they saw themselves and their society, at that period in their history. With this in mind, the entire narrative-as-allegory fell into place, and I truly began to appreciate the masterpiece that Rushdie has created.

Rushdie's prose and style are second to none. He takes liberties with the English language the likes of which we haven't seen for the better part of a century. As with any good writer, his diction and syntax are just two more tools he uses expertly to create atmosphere and tone. Midnight's Children is packed full of one-sentence paragraphs consisting of semi-colon connected clauses. Commas become optional if they'll break the stream of consciousness. While ignoring (or at least stretching) such basic rules of grammar can be perilous, running the risk of making the story hard to follow, Rushdie never crosses the line.

In fact, the actual experience of reading Midnight's Children reminded me why I love prose so much, why reading is eminently superior to other forms of entertainment (I'm looking at you, television!). In the hands of an author like Salman Rushdie, words can transcend language, and prose becomes beautiful. While other authors can describe a scene in such a way that I feel present, that I can smell the smells and feel the textures, Rushdie wields a different sort of literary magic: his words evoke emotions, their euphony resonating with the soul and reminding us of the beauty of life itself. I savoured the words of Midnight's Children, each one dear to me because I knew I could only read it once—this is the type of book, of course, that requires many readings before one can truly get a handle on it, but the first time is always special. I can tell, without reading any other reviews, that many will reject Midnight's Children on the grounds that it is too difficult to read. That viewpoint is valid, but it represents a denial on the reader's part of a willingness to surrender themselves to the experience. Such people prefer lighter fare, books that are easier to digest or utterly linear in narrative. And there's nothing wrong with that per se, but it is their loss.

Many of the characters are at once complex and stock, deep and three-dimensional while still blatantly allegorical. In this way, Midnight's Children reminded me of Shakespeare, whose characters were often representative of abstract concepts or environs. Amina Sinai, who changed her name from Mumtaz Aziz in order to have children, is the mother of Saleem, and thus the mother of India—except that we quickly learn that Saleem is not Amina's biological child (yes, a changeling, he was switched at birth!)—so what implications does this have for India? Here Rushdie interweaves his favourite motifs of post-colonialism. Saleem has two possible biological fathers: Wee Willie Winkie, and impoverished street singer and performer, and William Methwold, an expatriate Brit who subsequently left India after it gained independence. This uncertainty mirrors the deep-seated identity crisis that India must have undergone shortly after becoming its own country—is it the byproduct of colonial Britain, or the creation of its own common people? By never answering the question for certain, Rushdie preserves the duality of this crisis (the answer, of course, is that India is both, and neither, but such a phenomenon would stretch Saleem-as-metaphor somewhat further than necessary). Saleem observes his tendency to "give birth" to parents in a sort of "reverse fertility", much like India struggles to find its own leaders and voice as its various internal ethnicities vie for power. Although Saleem himself is Muslim, he often refers to the Hindu mythology entwined with Indian culture, and at times he refers to himself as a buddha (not, however, a Buddha with a capital B!).

Religion figures prominently in Midnight's Children. Lack of religion is the motivating factor behind Saleem's grandfather's life, one which leads to his obsession with a perforated sheet, dooming Saleem and India to its fate. The partitioning of India, into Pakistan-and-India, and then Pakistan-and-India-with-states, is a response to the religious tension among India's people. Who is Muslim, who is Hindu? Who can have power, and who must be persecuted? Former friends become enemies, opposing generals moving their armies into battle against each other. And ultimately, no religion is safe from corruption by the humanity that drives it: Hindus and Muslims alike do terrible things, to their own people and to each other. India, like many countries in the world, unlike many countries in the world, was never One Big Happy Family, much like the Sinais struggled with their own dysfunctional unity.

The culture and history of India make it a perfect setting for magic realism in a way that is no longer true for places like Canada and the United States. This is the romance that has lured me into my love for fiction about India. Even now, when India is quickly modernizing, it's the duality of technologically-advanced cities alongside undeveloped rural villages that preserves India's vulnerability to magic (and perhaps to the optimism virus of the Rani of Cooch Naheen). The thousands of gods of the Hindu pantheon and the one-true-God of Islam coexist alongside the gods of technology, their religion enshrined and embedded in their culture far beyond what we experience in our increasingly secular countries. That is not to say that India is superior to other countries. But it goes a long way in explaining the attraction of India, its siren call to young, impressionable travellers who are looking for meaning in a world they have discovered, much to their discomfort, to be harsh and unforgiving.

In Midnight's Children, Rushdie captures the simultaneous states in which India exists throughout its history, much like a particle may actually exist in several states of quantum superposition, only to have is wavefunction collapse upon being observed. Yes, I just compared India to Schrödinger's Cat. You want to make something of it?

1. The Gone-Away World

by Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away World cover image
Paperback, 576 pages
Vintage, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The genius of The Gone-Away World sneaks up on you in a loud and bombastic way. Nick Harkaway's writing reminds me two Douglases who are masters of the absurd and apocalyptic: Douglas Coupland and Douglas Adams. Sardonic and observant, Harkaway tosses off scene after scene of unrelenting zany fun. Yet when the smoke clears and the score is tallied, The Gone-Away World is ultimately, like JPod or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, about what it means to be human.

The title of the book comes from the most terrible superweapon ever invented, the "Go-Away Bomb." When deployed, the bomb makes information instantly cease to exist. Unfortunately, a side-effect of going away is the creation of nebulous "Stuff", which responds to random thoughts and memories in a person's mind and makes those thoughts real. The result: mutants, monsters, and even entirely "new" people made real by Stuff. When multiple countries deploy Go-Away bombs in a fantastic feat of mutually-assured destruction, the Gone-Away World begins.

After a brief opening chapter set in the book's present, the story jumps into the past and covers events from the narrator's childhood up until the beginning of the book. While this narrative tactic results in almost exclusively entertaining events, it really only makes sense after the massive mind-screw plot twist toward the end of the book. About halfway through this section of the book, I started getting bored, because I was wondering when the first chapter would become relevant again. Then the plot twist made it all worth it.

It's the sort of plot twist that would ordinarily be a horrible device; Harkaway manages to pull it off because it actually makes the book make more sense. What was, up until that point, seemingly an exercise in random autobiographical anarchy becomes relevant to both the plot and The Gone-Away World's chilling themes about dehumanization in the face of bureaucracy. And here Harkaway shows why he's on the level of Douglas Adams. Adams was an extremely funny writer who managed to produce scathing satires of British bureaucracy (think Vogons). Harkaway does the same with his massive Jorgamund Corporation, and he also manages to throw in ninjas and mimes for good measure! Like Adams, his humour subtly reinforces the book's themes.

What themes? As mentioned above, much of The Gone-Away World attacks bureaucracy. The major antagonist is what the protagonist terms a "type A pencil-neck": "a person so entirely consumed by the mechanism in which he or she is employed that they had ceased to exist as a separate entity". The book goes on to explore how some people use cognitive dissonance to keep their humanity intact in dehumanizing lines of work, whether they are appallingly destructive or just mindlessly tedious. The Gone-Away World isn't merely about retaining one's humanity in the face of external threats like Stuff; it's a cautionary tale about unintentionally sacrificing one's humanity in the name of doing good.

I like it when I read a book that's obviously well-planned, where each piece of the narrative supports the others. I love it when I don't realize how well-planned a book is until a sudden reveal near the end. As long as the journey along the way is enjoyable, it's a much more rewarding experience. The Gone-Away World is unquestionably a long, rambling story. But it all comes together in the end. There are Crowning Moments of Awesome and genuine moments of peril for the protagonist, moments when you wonder how he could possibly win against the odds.