Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Replay by Ken Grimwood
Published: Grafton, 1987
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

Jeff Winston was 43 and trapped in a tepid marriage and a dead-end job, waiting for that time when he could be truly happy, when he died.

And when he woke and he was 18 again, with all his memories of the next 25 years intact. He could live his life again, avoiding the mistakes, making money from his knowledge of the future, seeking happiness.

Until he dies at 43 and wakes up back in college again...”

Replay is the first novel I’ve read by Ken Grimwood, and it seems that it is his most well-known work.  It appears that a few of his other novels were connected to details in Replay, which I think is a really interesting idea.  Unfortunately, Grimwood’s lesser-known works are currently a little difficult to find, so I don’t know when or if I will be able to read them.  

My Thoughts:

I had high expectations for Replay, but it took me a while to really warm up to the book.  I started reading it twice in the past few years, only to get distracted and put it down. I can trace my lack of interest to an ironic difficulty I have in identifying with ‘everyman’ protagonists.  Jeff Winston, in the beginning, seemed to be exactly that, and his first replay started with the pursuit of fast money and fast women. I’m very glad that I finally settled in to read the novel, because the story became so much more than it first appeared.  Jeff’s subsequent replays of his life began to build on one another, such that his mental state and identity became increasingly complicated and compelling as the story progresses. In retrospect, I can see how Jeff needed to get those juvenile dreams out of his system when he was first faced with inexplicable new youth, but he was not the kind of shallow person who could accept their fulfillment as the end of his journey.

The replays carried with them great promise, but also great sadness, since every life was self-contained.  Jeff had numerous lifetimes to explore the limits of his capabilities and to learn how he could affect the world, but he could never move past his 43rd year of life. Jeff could never grow old with his family, and he had to start each new life knowing that everything he had accomplished, every relationship he had developed, had been wiped out as if it never existed.  I thought it was a very interesting situation—giving a person the opportunity to shape their lives as they wish, but also repeatedly erasing everything they achieve.  It’s such a strange balance between optimism and meaninglessness, and I enjoyed seeing how characters would react to being faced with this again and again.  Jeff was not one to passively accept his situation, and his search for understanding of himself and his situation propelled the story.

Given the repetitive nature of the premise, I was surprised that the story did not actually feel repetitious.  Each of Jeff’s lives go in very different directions, both in terms of his external situation and in terms of how he has changed as a result of his experiences.  The story also has a few surprising game changers that Jeff uncovers as he searches for meaning in his ‘replays’, but I don’t want to spoil them here.  At points, I feared that the ending would be a bit sappy and trite, but those fears turned out to be unfounded.  I felt that the ending was neither altogether happy nor sad, but instead filled with a sense of hope and uncertainty. Replay was published nearly thirty years ago now, and it is set in a particular period of history, but I think that the story will continue to resonate with readers for many years to come.

My Rating: 5/5

I had high expectations of Replay, and after I made it through Jeff’s first replay of his life, the rest of the story exceeded them.  It is a story about the risks people take or avoid in their lives and what they could accomplish with the assurance of second chances. It’s also a story about coping with circumstances outside of one’s control, and of facing the reality that one’s accomplishments will be swept away as if they had never existed.  Jeff starts out chasing juvenile dreams of money and sex, but with his many lives, he has an opportunity to see what kind of a person he is capable of becoming.  Several plot twists make the story delightfully more complicated, and I felt that things came together into a surprisingly hopeful and clear-sighted conclusion. Though it is set in a time that is growing increasingly distant from modern day, I think this is a story that can pass the test of time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review: The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson
Published: Warner Books, 2007
Awards Nominated: Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial, and Mythopoeic Awards

The Book:
The New Moon's Arms is a mainstream magical realism novel set in the Caribbean on the fictional island of Dolorosse. Calamity, born Chastity, has renamed herself in a way she feels is most fitting. She's a 50-something grandmother whose mother disappeared when she was a teenager and whose father has just passed away as she begins menopause.

With this physical change of life comes a return of a special power for finding lost things, something she hasn't been able to do since childhood. A little tingling in the hands then a massive hot flash, and suddenly objects, even whole buildings, lost to her since childhood begin showing up around Calamity.

One of the lost things Calamity recovers is a small boy who washes up on the shore outside her house after a rainstorm. She takes this bruised but cheerful 4-year-old under her wing and grows attached to him, a process that awakens all the old memories, frustrations and mysteries around her own mother and father. She'll learn that this young boy's family is the most unusual group she's ever encountered—and they want their son back.”

Nalo Hopkinson is an author I’d whose work I’ve been meaning to check out for a while, so I was happy to see that The New Moon’s Arms fits nicely into one of my 2014 reading challenges.  This is the first book I’ve read by Hopkinson, but I doubt it will be the last.

My Thoughts:

The New Moon’s Arms is a story in part about a woman’s difficult transition from youth to middle age. Calamity (born Chastity) is entering menopause, but she is still clinging desperately to her youth and to the life history that has defined her.  Not only is her sense of identity shifting, the world in which she was a young woman is also beginning to no longer exist.  From the long-ago destruction of her childhood home and loss of her mother, to the recent death of her father, to the new perspectives of a younger generation, everything is disappearing and changing. She must come to terms with the mysteries and painful memories that fill her past before she can move forward into a future that threatens to leave her behind.  Part of this digging up the past comes through her re-awakened ‘finding’ ability, which causes lost artifacts of her childhood to resurface, and part is through interacting with the people that have caused her to become the person she is in the present.

While Calamity’s life has shaped her into an energetic, fiery woman with a sharp sense of humor, it has also left her with some glaring personality flaws.  From the beginning, she comes across as very immature, impulsive, and prejudiced, with a level of self-absorption that prevented her from seeking to understand anyone outside herself.  At her best, she can be charming, but at her worst, she is a trial to the people who attempt to love her.  Her rescue of the sea child reflects her best and worst qualities—she is a woman who would care for an abandoned 4-year-old with barely a second thought, but her lack of capability or desire to understand others prevents her from even learning the kid’s name.  Though I can’t say Calamity is exactly likeable, I thought that her progression as a heroine felt realistic.  People don’t change overnight, and Calamity’s growth as a person is an inconstant and slow process.

On a last point, I really loved the language of The New Moon’s Arms, and the vivid physicality of the descriptions of the islands where Calamity lived.  Everyone in the story spoke with a local patois, which gave a pleasant rhythm to their speech, and Calamity’s voice, in particular, gave the narration a casual, conversational style. I am wholly unfamiliar with Carribbean speech patterns, but I thought that the narration and dialogue both felt very natural and easy for a reader to follow. I am curious to read Hopkinson’s other novels, and to see how they are similar or differ from the style of The New Moon’s Arms.

My Rating: 4/5

The New Moon’s Arms is a story of growing older and of having to face the person you’ve allowed yourself to become.  Calamity has not had an easy life, but she is a difficult person to love. Calamity’s story in told a distinct and interesting voice, and the weaknesses of her character are shown with an unflattering honesty.  Calamity was not always an especially likeable character, and the fantastical elements reflected her tendency to cling to the past and her self-absorption.  She was an engaging flawed heroine, though, and I was eager to see her find some way to grow into a life where she could be happy. I enjoyed A New Moon’s Arms, and will look forward to reading more of Hopkinson’s work in the future.   

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod

The Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod
Published: P.S. Publishing, 2008
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

A man lies half-drowned on a Cornish beach at dawn in the furthest days of this century. The old woman who discovers him, once a famous concert violinist, is close to death herself... or a new kind of life she can barely contemplate.

Does death still exist at all, or has it finally been obliterated? And who is this strange man she's found? Is he a figure returned from her past, a new messiah, or an empty vessel? Is he God, or the Devil?”

This is the first book I’ve read by Ian R. MacLeod, which is a shame, because I briefly met him at Loncon 3, before I’d finished the book.  It was an e-book, so I suppose I couldn’t have gotten him to sign it anyway, but I would have liked to be able to say something to him about his work.

My Thoughts:

The Song of Time is not extremely long novel, but the story it told felt sprawling and immersive in a way that I would generally expect from a doorstop of a book.  The story is told from the perspective of Roushana Maitland, now an elderly, terminally-ill woman who is recounting the important personal events of her long life, in order to fix all the memories in place for the post-human life she is contemplating.  In the process, she is also re-forming her experiences as a story, and making sense of the many changes that have happened to the world and to herself in the past century.  The man who washes up on the shore, who she calls Adam (and who calls himself Abaddon), becomes her audience.  The quiet, contemplative domestic life of Adam and Roushana gives a nice anchor for delving into Roushana’s tumultuous memories.

Roushana has lived through the end of the world as we know it, and the long apocalypse has a feeling of authenticity.  It isn’t any one thing that changes the world, but a variety of disasters and developments over many decades.  There are weaponized diseases like WRFI (wide range food intolerance), nuclear war in politically unstable regions, environmental problems and natural disasters.  However, the story is focused on Roushana’s life, and how she has navigated these changes in the world. This seemed to me to make the story more personal and human, and much more easily relatable.  For instance, Roushana heard about the first nuclear strike from the news on TV, while she was busy doing something else—just as most of my generation in the US first heard of the events of 9/11 from news broadcasts, when I was in high school.  It did not feel like Roushana was shoehorned into major events unrealistically, but her life made an excellent lens through which to see her world’s future history.   

I think it is impressive that Roushana does not come across to me as passive, despite her inability to affect anything that is happening on a wider scale.  She may not be stopping nuclear wars, but she has goals, dreams, and a strength of personality that aids her struggle to find her own path. As a child, she is driven by her adoration of her brother to pursue musical excellence. As an adult, she is known worldwide as a brilliant violinist, and I enjoyed reading the whirlwind of her young adulthood in the wild, declining Parisian art scene. Altogether, I felt that the novel balanced well the large-scale slow apocalypse and the small-scale story of Roushana’s life, such that both were equally compelling.

Near the end of Roushana’s life, her story has moved into a contemplation of the nature of identity, mortality and memory.  Roushana’s musing on the imperfection of stories, as they change depending on the perspective of the teller, is reflected in a major musical piece of her century, an artificially intelligent symphony that changes over time.  There isn’t a lot of information on the technology of the symphony, or on the technology that would enable Roushana to exist past her physical lifetime.  Instead, the story focuses on the meaning of these technologies in the context of human life.  I don’t know if I would have made the same decisions as Roushana, but I felt like the conclusion was true to her character. 

My Rating: 4/5

Song of Time tells the life story of an elderly violinist who has lived through a turbulent century, through the memories she recounts to an amnesiac man she has rescued. The story worked extremely well on the large-scale level of the world’s slow collapse as well as on the small-scale, personal, emotional level of Roushana’s life.  The mystery of the rescued man, Adam, ties into the ideas about identity and mortality that Roushana is exploring as she considers the end of her life, and whether she should seize the chance for a post-death existence in the future world. Song of Time was a wonderfully immersive story, though a pretty sad one, and is a novel that I think I will remember for a long time to come.