Sunday, November 01, 2009

Uglies, Pretties, Specials

Synopsis: In a highly technologically advanced city in a future North America, everyone undergoes a major (even this is an understatement) operation at age 16 to make them "pretty." People are given the same types of features with very little variation; muscles, immune systems, weight, everything is adjusted to fit a kind of stereotype defended by scientific research and dictated by "evolution." But, what happens if someone doesn't want to be pretty?

Given my recent fascination with recognizing and breaking free from the ways in which my cultural assumptions have been inherited from a whole universe of past ideas, this series grabbed my attention from the outset. I liked seeing the characters struggle with the divide between the beliefs they inherit and the experiences that they have that challenge their assumptions about the world and themselves.

I generally liked the trilogy, although there were some disappointing aspects to it as well, many of which came along in the third book, which was my least favorite of the three. Then of course, there is a challenge with sci-fi that I felt these books struggled with. To be really successful, sci-fi has to make the science both unbelievable and incredibly believable at the same time. The science has to be out there enough that it is still beyond the reach of what the reader experiences, but still within conceivable reach of the possible. There were moments where the science in these books faltered on the latter. It walked a fine line between making it fantastic and maintaining it as believable.

That said, I did like the issues that the author raised (although I felt by the end he was kind of force feeding some of his ideas to you and hammering them in to get the point across, which I believe is completely unnecessary in a really well written work - when the ideas come across in a somewhat unconscious and natural manner, I believe, is genius in writing). The ideas and concerns he raises for what a society values are pertinent, and got my brain spinning - always a good sign.

My favorite concept that the reader encounters is that of the effect of individual freedom on societies as a whole and on the individuals within them. When we are allowed to choose our own destinies and we allow others to do the same, we are accepting the fact that people may not make good choices - in fact, they may make choices that have serious repercussions for both themselves, their families, others, and communities at large. The question is, then, is it more important for people to have the ability to choose, or to avoid the negative consequences of the choices they may make? And more importantly, why? I, for one, favor choice. This angle of the story could send me into a whole realm of interesting discussion, but I'll spare you as it could get quite long and involved rather quickly.

"Everyone in the world was programmed by the place they were born, hemmed in by their beliefs, but you had to at least try to grow your own brain." ~from Pretties

Catching Fire

A fantastic sequel to Suzanne Collins "The Hunger Games." I am pretty bummed that I have to wait another year or so to finish off the trilogy.

I am going to skip the synopsis on this one just in case you haven't read the first installment yet.

As with "The Hunger Games", Suzanne Collins delivers. The story keeps getting better, although perhaps the second installment is not quite as striking as the first (for instance, the reader has already been introduced to the Hunger Games, so though variations on the horrific are unexpected, unique, and keep the reader on the edge of his/her seat, the reader has already experienced some desensitization to the way the government of Panem works). Still, the storyline pulls you in completely and continues to evolve in brilliant ways. Collins kept me guessing throughout - I never really saw what was coming, and what she comes up with is generally so much better than the different options I try to play out in my head. Again, a well written and well crafted book. The present tense is engaging and makes the events feel more immediate.

It also continued to engage my mind with ideas about agency, freedom, equality, the list goes on. I favor any story that makes me think seriously about complex ideas and issues that are highly relevant to the human experience. I highly recommend this series.

"In that one slight motion, I see the end of hope, the beginning of destruction of everything I hold dear in the world. I can't guess what form my punishment will take, how wide the net will be cast, but when it is finished there most likely be nothing left. So you would think that at this moment, I would be in utter despair."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Hunger Games

Synopsis: A post-apocalyptic story set on the future North American continent in a country called Panem, which is made up of a capital and 12 surrounding districts. As a reminder of the control of the capital over the districts and to deter rebellion, a yearly tribute of one girl and one boy ages 12-18 is required from each district for competition in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. When Katniss' younger sister Prim is chosen as tribute during the reaping, Katniss, knowing it is a death sentence for 12 year old Prim, volunteers to take her place.

A great read. Not only was it well crafted (which was particularly impressive considering the author chose to write it in the present tense!), but it made me think about the complexities of topics from survival to the ethics of reality television. People today may not watch gladiator-like fights to the death on tv, but they do indulge in what we could call the emotional slaughter of other people for the sake of "entertainment." They laugh when people are purposefully made fun of, shamed, and demeaned. Many argue that this is acceptable behavior on our part because those who are appearing on reality television programs have freely chosen to be there. They have given away their right to...what, exactly? I still find this attitude towards the treatment of others in our modern society disturbing. Mostly because I feel that this goes far beyond reality television. The belittling of people as a form of entertainment is really problematic. Alas, I digress...

This book got my brain going on all sorts of topics from reality television to the affects of fear-based government to how humans cope with conflicting emotions in survival situations. The list goes on. Of course, like so many books that I like, it also deals with agency. I especially loved seeing which characters played the game on their own terms, and which allowed themselves to be manipulated into playing to the crowd, as well as what the consequences of either choice could mean in terms of survival.

Really a fantastic read.

Quote: "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster I'm not."

The Remains of the Day

Synopsis: "The novel's narrator, Stevens, is a perfect English butler who tries to give his narrow existence form and meaning through the self-effacing, almost mystical practice of his profession. In a career that spans the second World War, Stevens is oblivious of the real life that goes on around him -- oblivious, for instance, of the fact that his aristocrat employer is a Nazi sympathizer. Still, there are even larger matters at stake in this heartbreaking, pitch-perfect novel -- namely, Stevens' own ability to allow some bit of life-affirming love into his tightly repressed existence."

This book aches with all that goes unsaid. It is quite a feat in this medium to adequately convey the emotion behind everything that is left unexpressed, especially when the narrator himself seems unaware. This book is really artistically crafted around the apparent disinterest of Stevens in anything beyond his profession and the "dignity" that he strives for therein and what lies beneath the words and events on the page. What is really expert about it is that though Stevens appears unaware (I have to say "appears," because there is always a sense that there is some kind of unmentioned denial of anything of consequence going on throughout the whole narrative) the reader still clearly sees everything that is going on that Steven's does not and it is heartbreaking. A really tragic tale of what can be forever lost when people fail to see what lies right before them and to seize the moments and opportunities that make life meaningful.

A taste of the sad tale (even more so when you read the book and see what he's talking about):
"What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment."