Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

               Published during the height of the Cold War, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. imagines the U.S. after nuclear devastation. Learning is feared and punished, defended only by small groups of religious brethren in the wilderness. Grotesque deformities, the results of radiation poisoning, are common. Set in the “wild west,” the book follows a monastery dedicated to St. Leibowitz, a martyr for knowledge. In the first third of the book, an innocent postulate stumbles upon a treasure-trove of Leibowitz’ writings. In the second third, set decades later, New Rome sends scholars to study the scientific work being done at the monastery. In the third and most powerful section, the monastery reacts to the renewal of nuclear hostilities.

                I found the disconnect between the three parts of the book fairly disconcerting. Miller did publish the sections separately before he pulled them together into a book, and I wasn’t surprised to discover that. The second section was the most difficult for me—it seemed over-long and a bit pointless. The first section was entertaining and quite funny. The third section, however, really makes the book worth reading as it wrestles with theology, ethics, and suffering. This isn’t really a character-driven book; since decades pass between the three sections, each section has to establish brand-new characters, with the exception of the Wandering Jew character who pops in and out of the story.

Miller writes with a good deal of humor, which doesn’t quite mask a real fear of what humans can and may do to one another. I’m not sure if the book was written primarily as a cautionary tale, but it certainly serves that purpose. I was also impressed by the theology included in the book; apparently Miller converted to Catholicism; here he writes thoughtfully and well about faith. Ironically and tragically, Miller later committed suicide. The book has been marketed as science fiction; it would be a shame, though, to limit its readership to science fiction fans. Since the post-Apocalypse genre seems to be making somewhat of a comeback, anyone interested in questions of faith, ethics, the value of learning, and the nature of humanity should read the book.

My husband read this book years ago; after reading it, he told me that it had convinced him that euthanasia was wrong. I’ve never forgotten this, and I’ve had an image of the book as being about an individual suffering unimaginably. I was wrong (for that story, read Mary Doria Russell’s books), but this background colored the way I read the book, since I kept waiting for the suffering to start. (Don’t worry, it happens, but it’s not like I had imagined.) The main thing I didn’t like about the book was its lack of continuity, which is why it gets 3.5/5*.

Article first published as Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. on Blogcritics.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen

Author: Thomas Mullen
Title: The Revisionists
Description : The books opens as we meet Z, a “revisionist” who has been sent from the “Perfect Future” to make sure that the future stays that way. His opponents are the “hags,” time-traveling rebels who attempt to change the future by preventing certain events from happening. After Z makes sure that a certain journalist will indeed be murdered, the point of view shifts to three other protagonists: Sari, a beautiful young Indonesian domestic worker who is trapped in her horrific employment by her lack of documentation and her inability to speak or understand English; Leo, a former CIA agent who, a bit at loose ends after his CIA gig went bad, works for some kind of intelligence-gathering company; and Tasha, a lawyer on the fringes of activism who is of interest to both Leo and Z.
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: The plot is riveting. Even though the action alternates among the four main characters, the reader is not confused about what’s going on. Mullen manages to describe the action clearly without revealing motives too soon. During a good amount of the book, the reader wonders how all four of these characters will eventually connect, but there is no doubt that will eventually happen.
Characters: The four main characters form two loose couples: Z and Tasha know one another, and Leo and Sari know one another. As the point of view moves from one to another, each character reveals enough of his or her past to become familiar and sympathetic to the reader. Z is the only character who is written in first-person, and there is no doubt that he is the primary protagonist. He also has the most backstory, though all of the characters have some history.
Writing style: This was my first book by Mullen, and I thought it was brilliant. He kept the plot spinning, drew the characters finely, and still managed to ask the big philosophical questions that make a book memorable.
Audience: While its genre is technically time-travel  sci fi, this book will be of interest to readers of literary fiction as well.
Wrap-up: What is the nature of history? If people lose their past, how much of themselves do they lose with it? Is murder ever justified? Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? These questions are the kind that keep getting raised by this book; all the while we’re trying to fight off fiendish bosses, mourning lost loved ones, and trying to figure out the moral conundrums of postmodern life with the characters of The Revisionists. 4/5*