Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Book 9: Servants of the Map

by Andrea Barrett

Ok, I got a thing for stories about 19th century scientists. This collection of interlinked stories explores very similar themes as A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects.
Barrett’s storytelling deftly captures the scientific zeitgeist of the Victorian period, and her writing is tighter and crisper than Byatt’s, who at times has a tendency for long-winded prose. It's also worth noting that 'Servants of the Map' was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Although I enjoyed reading every single story in the book, I’m feeling lazy, so I’m going to provide the Salon review instead:

From salon.com:

By Laura Miller

January 24, 2002 | In the 19th century Western culture was on an exhilarating and frightening cusp; thinking people were confronted with new scientific discoveries and theories that chipped away at their age-old vision of a static creation ordained and ordered by God. We can still feel tremors from that shift today, which is one reason why fiction writers like Andrea Barrett (and her British counterpart, A.S. Byatt) find the era so intriguing. Not all the characters in Barrett's engrossing new collection of linked stories, "Servants of the Map," are Victorians, but they're all enthralled with biology in one form or another. For them, the hunger for knowledge is as tempting and dangerous as any sexual passion, and sometimes they find that the two are strangely entwined.

The first and title story in the book concerns Max Vigne, a surveyor sent out to map the Himalayas in the 1860s. His journey to the fringes of humanity's domain is paralleled by his forays into a book given to him as a going-away present: Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species." Letters Max writes to his beloved wife, Clara, back home in England alternate with accounts of his gradual seduction by an unlikely siren: alpine botany. "When I am alone," he imagines writing to Clara when he doesn't dare tell her the truth, "with my notes and plants and the correlations of weather and geology and flora springing clear before me, I feel: This is who I am. This is what I was born to do."

For Max, the craving for knowledge, the forbidden knowledge of evolution, tugs at and frays the bonds connecting him to home and family. The same holds true for a character named Caleb Bernhard, in another story set 50 years earlier. Caleb takes a holiday from running the boys school he inherited from his creationist father in order to investigate fossils in Kentucky : He's guilty over betraying his father's beliefs, but unable to resist the allure of discovery. Later his widow, Miriam, will catch this craving like a virus and travel even farther afield, as will Rose, a contemporary biochemist in yet another story, a young woman distantly and obscurely related to Caleb.

Rose begins an affair with a girlhood crush, a friend of her parents who still works in the unfashionable area of "whole-animal biology." Rose herself, a rising star, studies a protein called ubiquitin, whose molecules "bind to other proteins and mark them for degradation." Her kind of science eclipses his (starving it of grant money and other resources) even as they both try to recapture in each other a bit of their lost past.

The relentless forward movement of science may sometimes seem a cold inevitability, but Barrett shows that it's driven by human desire. For her, the impulse to explore further and deeper, the need of each generation to surpass the one before, is a force often more powerful than love itself, one both beautiful and terrifying. Her characters bear the scars of its rendings and yet few of them can resist it. Most of the people in these six stories are connected in some way by blood (though you have to be observant to spot the links), and there's a suggestion that the curiosity that impells most of them is a secret way in which the past lives on even when we aren't aware of it. Even, in fact, when we believe we've cast it away.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Book 8: The Hunger

By Whitley Strieber

Went into the library looking for ‘The Wolfen’ and ended up with ‘The Hunger’. Didn’t realize the book came first (before the 1983 movie starring Catherine Deneuve & David Bowie).

I think people mostly know Strieber for ‘Communion’, which I never read. In any case, ‘The Hunger’ was really quite an excellent kick-ass fun read with a neat pseudo-scientific spin on the vampire mythos. It had everything I could ever ask for in a cool, modern bloodsucking novel. The central figure is the immortal Miriam, one of the very few left of her ‘kind’, who has managed to live from the dawn of ancient Egypt up to present day New York City (circa 1980).

Interestingly, the book actually never mentions the word ‘vampire’. Instead, Strieber posits these immortal humanoids are a separate species from the genus homo, having branched off from a common ancestor long ago. Able to pass as homo sapien, these creatures have lived under the radar of civilization, quietly preying on people and providing inspiration for supernatural legends. They are a contradiction because although superior in strength, lifespan, speed and intelligence, they are nevertheless a parasitic species that rely on human society for, not only food, but civilized comforts, finanical wealth and high culture.

The story weaves back and forth between the present and Miriam’s past lives in ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and Napoleonic England. Much like our relationship with animals, Miriam depends on humans for nourishment and companionship, and always has a human lover in tow whom she has ‘transformed’. Her cyclical predicament is that, although her transformed partners live far longer than any normal human, they tend to rapidly deteriorate into shriveled up revenants after only a few hundred years! There are some horrifying passages when you realize what Miriam does with her expired zombie pets!

I realize the movie (directed by Tony Scott, who knew) had taken some liberties with the story and ending, but not the lesbian love scenes between Miriam and her new love interest, Sarah (she’s played by Susan Sarandon in the film). She happens to be a sleep researcher-scientist who may hold the key to human immortality, and who could potentially be Miriam’s newly transformed immortal girlfriend. Whereas the relationship-tension between Miriam and Sarah is actually quite engaging, it’s the hetero love scenes between Sarah and her boyfriend that are the cheesiest things in the book (like ugh! right out of a Danielle Steele book or something). But that’s my only complaint, the rest of the book kicks so much ass, I could easily forgive it.

There are also some good descriptions of New York City too. The story begins with Miriam and her pre-zombified current lover, John, off on a weekend trip stalking a teenaged couple in a sleepy Long Island town. They then return to their tricked out fortrified house in Manhattan's Sutton Place where there once was “a secret tunnel under the alley and garden, leading to a private dock on the East River, but the building of the East Side Drive had changed all that.” How cool is that?

What else. Strieber also does a commendable job of unifying the story with the running themes of hunger, need, and desire. It's this and the sympathetic and fascinating portrayal of the beautiful monstrous Miriam that elevates this book from just another vampire story. All in all, highly recommended!