Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book 17 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

By Philip K. Dick

Yup, believe it. Just read this for the very first time! Plenty of spoilers ahead since I assume the rest of the world has read it…

First off, I understand that Blade Runner is only very loosely based on this PKD classic. But since I’ve seen the movie, like, multiple times, and the cinematic imagery and storyline are so deeply ingrained in me, it’s almost impossible not to go in without any preconceptions or inevitable comparisons. Guess it’s rather fitting that I found a used paperback featuring Blade Runner as the cover!

In this respect, DADoES was a bit of a let-down for me, with none of the action and violence of the film version. Although everything took place over the course of a 24-hour period in which Deckard retired a total of 6 androids… mostly executed in a weirdly un-dramatic manner. There was no race against time where the rogue Nexus-6 androids seek a cure to extend their robot lives, no “lemme tell you about my mother” confrontations, nor a maker meets his doom scenario where his android creation squeezes eyes n’ brains out of skull. And lastly, no final laser tube showdown between human and machine. In fact, the ending where Deckard finishes off the remaining androids was rather anti-climactic and remarkably unexciting.

There was also a very un-sexy bedroom scene with Deckard and Rachael, a female android (unsexy because the dated descriptions and dialogue rendered it tame and rather laughable). Even Dick’s earlier work The Man In The High Castle had some excellent ass-kicking in there, so it’s not like ass-kicking was out of the realm of his stylistic milieu.

Ok, now the negative stuff is out of the say. What Blade Runner lacks in background setting, contextual details and thematic exploration, the novel provides in abundance -- PKD-style. Sometime after an unnamed nuclear war, a mysterious radioactive dust contaminates most of the planet’s surface and almost wipes out every species in the animal kingdom. With the human race at risk, a colonization program is escalated on a massive scale. As an immigration incentive, and under U.N. law:

Each emigrant automatically receives in possession an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s.

It’s this cool sci-fi background stuff that naturally makes the novel interesting. That, and how the leftover defective Earthlings live out their lives. One of the few things worth possessing is a real, live animal. Not necessarily for companionship, but because life of any kind is so rare, and a living thing, even a little toad, is worth its weight in gold. For the unfortunates who can’t afford a live animal, they fool their neighbours by acquiring an electric one that looks and behaves almost like the real thing. While the indigenous life on Earth dies a slow death, the evolution of android sentiency grows increasingly complex, thanks to the snazzy new Nexus-6 line developed by the Rosen Association.

With newfangled brainchips, a minority of rogue androids escape the oppressive colonies and gradually infiltrate all aspects of human society on Earth. Some androids even think they’re human due to implanted synthetic memories. But no matter how humanized an android becomes, they can never acquire the same right to life as human beings, or any living thing for that matter. As one android-in-hiding puts it: “… it’s a chance anyway, breaking free and coming here to Earth, where we’re not even considered animals. Where every worm and louse is considered more desirable than all of us put together.”

Apparently, the only remaining attribute that separates humans from androids is empathy, and administering the Voigt-Kampff test is standard practice in order to distinguish android from authentic human. From early on in the novel, inherent flaws in the VK empathy test are revealed, not in determining a lack of empathy in an android per se, but rather the failure to account for humans with underdeveloped empathic ability. Thus, this calls into question various moral and ethical reasoning and beliefs.

So yes, very familiar and universal themes at play here, ie. the science fiction exploration of the ethical dimensions inherent to the android concept literary device, in order to understand the persecution of a person based upon artificial distinctions such as "ethnic group" (wikipedia). Even though Deckard and all the other characters were rather flat and the lack of ass-kicking was a big letdown, Dick’s ideas and themes remain engaging and timeless.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Book 16 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz

Olman’s awesome experience with this Pulitzer Prize winner pretty much spurred me on to read it ASAP. Although I’d heard about the book before (something about a Dominican ghetto nerd and his immigrant family with lots of pop cultural refs thrown in), never in my wildest imagining would I’ve guessed that this would speak to Olman and nerds of the world (the kind of people who would not otherwise touch postcolonial, or magic realist, literature with a 10-foot jousting lance) in such a profoundly visceral way!

After reading the first few pages, you quickly realize TBWLOW wields a powerful combo of nerdery and historical fiction that's confidently told by a colloquial voice rich in a mishmash of Spanglish & hiphop influences. Even though the style is consistently entertaining in its delivery, it does not take away from any of the personal tragedy & struggles that permeate the novel. Right off the bat, an unknown narrator introduces this as a fukú story. Fukú is a kind of superstitious curse or doom, first unleashed upon the Hispanic New World with the arrival of the Europeans. And this vague sinister force of the fukú, we learn, follows the lives of various members of the Cabral family.

I had originally thought the story would mainly focus on Oscar Cabral (Wao is more like a nickname), but it actually vacillates between him, his mother Belicia, his sister Lola and his grandfather Abelard, who are all, in various ways, misfits or outcasts in society, whether it’s in the city of Santo Domingo or the suburbs of New Jersey. Our mysterious narrator (whose identity is revealed later in the novel) first introduces Oscar as a guy who “wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber”, and who couldn’t hide his otakuness to save his life. Sadly, our anti-hero is likely the only Dominican male on planet Earth who is still a virgin due to the fact that:

Oscar’s idea of G was to talk about role-playing games! How fucking crazy is that? (My favorite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!)

If you still don’t understand why Olman loves this book so much, well then, may Saruman help you (my feeble attempt at infusing this review with Tolkien plugs). Even I re-discovered my inner geek while reading this book, getting a frisson of gratifying pleasure whenever I recognized a nerdy reference (except the ones that have to do with gaming, of course), which isn’t hard since nerdery is generously scattered throughout the book. Even the female characters cannot escape the geek mythologizing, like Oscar’s rebellious sister, Lola, the only teenage punk Latina in her hood whose favorite books are about runaways, e.g. Watership Down, The Incredible Journey, My Side of the Mountain (like, hey, that was like me too!).

Most importantly and impressively is how Diaz integrates his one-of-a-kind vernacular into his historical accounts of the Dominican Republic (most of which is in the form of David Foster Wallace-inspired footnotes), particularly when it was under the Trujillo dictatorship throughout the 1930s and 1960s:

In some ways living in Santo Domingo during the Trujillato was a lot like being in that famous Twilight Zone episode that Oscar loved so much, the one where the monstrous white kid with the godlike powers rules over a town that is completely isolated from the rest of the world, a town called Peaksville… You might roll your eyes at this comparison, but friends: it would be hard to exaggerate the power Trujillo exerted over the Dominican people and the shadow of fear he cast throughout the region. Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor…

I don’t know about you, but who would’ve thought that learning about 20th century Latin American history and how it impacts an immigrant family can be so freakin’ fun? Not to mention the fact that history can sometimes be truly stranger than any sci-fi or fantasy and more horrific than any Stephen King concoction. What’s also notable in Diaz’s writing style is the seamless lack of quotations in regards to all the dialogue. I remember Olman had a big problem with this very same stylistic device in No Country For Old Men, so I asked him: so you didn’t have a problem with it here? The funny thing was, Olman didn’t even notice the lack of dialogue quotations, he was so into the story! Even if you don’t know any Spanish, or anything about Latin history, Tolkien, Star Trek, comic books and/or Akira, believe it or not, this is still a remarkable and unique novel. A highly recommended reading experience!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book 15 – The Watchmen

By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

With the excitement over the movie teaser earlier this summer, comic shops all over were sold out of the bound soft cover edition. Since I never read The Watchmen, Olman thoughtfully picked up a copy for me when he was in Berkeley. Of course, it’s been over 15 years since he read the original landmark series, so Olman patiently waited for me to finish it, then re-read it himself and promptly stole my thunder by giving it a nostalgic and glowing review (note I pre-date my posts, so it’s actually late October as I write this).

It’s just as well, since Olman pretty much expresses my feelings about The Watchmen, and does so with more passion and comic-reading experience than I, since I’m a fairly recent newcomer in the world of comics. What can I say other that I’m psyched I got to read this amazing work untainted way before the movie’s due out (can’t say the same for From Hell or V For Vendetta sadly)!

I will say, however, that I was very impressed with Moore’s complex, innovative story. Although Scott McCloud doesn't mention The Watchmen in Understanding Comics, I'd say this work belongs in the elevated level of pioneering work that made a difference. The idea of a superhero comic about regular people being costumed vigilantes and their love-hate relationship with society/humanity is ironically appealing. The interspersed sections of expository text provide a meta-fictional quality and fills in a lot of biographical background of the various characters. It also helps make this a valid 50-book entry as there’s a goodly amount of text! Olman tells me that the original comic series was the first of its kind with its glossy design, slick format and lack of ads.

The story-within-a-story about the shipwrecked man and his raft of human carcasses seemed somewhat bewildering and digressive at first, but the "he who fights monsters must take care lest he become a monster" theme does tie into the conflicts and turmoil of the vigilante heroes. Adding to this, Dr. Manhattan’s ability to transcend time and space contributes to a non-linear narrative structure with multi-layered subplots.

I can’t help but think how the TV show Heroes has been influenced by this comic, and its attempt to possibly one-up the narrative complexity with multiple heroes jumping back and forth in time suffers with mixed results. I was wondering why I was getting fed up with that silly TV show with all the heroes running around trying to save the world, repeating the same stupid and/or inexplicably irrational mistakes, then trying to re-save the world again. The heroes in the The Watchmen do save the world, in a sense, but at great cost and sacrifice. You get a clear idea of where each individual hero stands in their complex moral spectrum, their relationship to one another and how their past histories affect their present choices. You also get a satisfyingly solid ending!

Although I wasn’t as much into the aesthetic style of Dave Gibbons’ illustrations, nevertheless, I appreciated the care and attention to detail, which totally does the text justice. Perhaps it was done on purpose, but I found that the panels didn’t ‘open up’ to reveal wide shots very often and were kept consistently small. This added a very claustrophobic effect for me. But once I got to the climax of the story, the illustrations do become more psychedelic, creative and expansive, which was really eye-opening!

Based on Olman's observation, I can see why reading the entire bound edition or re-reading the entire series in one go would be a more rewarding experience than reading the original series piecemeal in stops and starts. With all the intricacy of plot and details you really need to keep a consistent flow to absorb this work properly. If I had to sum up The Watchmen, it is intricate, surreal, dark, complex, violent, uncompromising, and mindblowingly cool. It’s no wonder The Watchmen remains the only comic to ever win a Hugo award. Try to read it before the movie comes out!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Book 14 – Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

By Scott McCloud

Art Spiegelman sums up this enlightening book quite nicely in the rear blurb:

Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple-looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comix while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art and the Cosmos! The most intelligent comix I’ve seen in a long time. Bravo.

Over the past couple of decades, comics of all kinds have experienced unprecedented cachet and commercial appeal. As a graphic medium, comics have been around since the dawn of civilization. Like painting, music and film, comics have their own language and modes of expression. But as a legitimate art form, recognition is still a long ways away.

There has been some recent progress with the publication of Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Thierry Groensteen’s academic tome, The System of Comics. But for aficionados and newcomers alike, what better way to explain the history and theory of comics than to convey the information in actual comic form? And to make it even more fun and personal, the self-illustrated Scott McCloud himself takes you on this magical mystery tour of the world of comics. What’s more, Understanding Comics came out at least a whole decade before Wolk’s and Groensteen’s work.

If you’ve had some background in art history, the first couple of chapters are familiar territory as McCloud covers the developments in drawing and painting. It’s important to note that he does this in order to contextualize comics’ place in the history of art, literature, photography and film, since the only thing missing from academic textbooks seems to be gasp comics!

McCloud helps put comics back on the map, and really deconstructs the medium down to its fundamental components of theory, vocabulary, time-spatial relations, and color in a way that is engaging and thought-provoking to readers of various backgrounds. That’s no small feat. For myself, I'd say I'm fairly new to comics, but I have a decently substantial background in art, photography and film and I found Understanding Comics really quite a fascinating, thoughtfully put-together book. I thought that reading this would be a breeze, but at over 200 pages, it’s actually quite wide in scope and jam-packed full of information. Of course, McCloud has some very strong opinions about comics that some may disagree on, but that’s to be expected for someone who’s become a kind of spokeperson for comics as an art form.