Tag Archives: philosophy

200,000 Years of Mommy Madness

11 May

Motherhood!  You’d think we humans would have it figured out after 200,000 years as a species.  Apparently not.  While my mother certainly raised a perfect human specimen, thank you very much, TIME magazine’s latest cover (and the bemused, baffled, bewildered responses to it) indicates that questions about what it means to be a “good mom” are still feeding our cultural anxieties.

(Or should I say, they’re still breastfeeding our cultural anxieties?  But maybe that’s a bit much.)

The point is that TIME’s lead story on “attachment parenting,” Dr. Bill Sears, and his devotees liked the pictured mother and son in “Are You Mom Enough?” has already stirred up  controversy and brought moms and motherhood back into public discourse–if, indeed, these topics ever really left us.

In the United States today, the majority of women work.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2010, there were 123 million women in the civilian noninstitutional population, and of this number 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were in the labor force—that is, classified as either employed or unemployed.

Women’s labor force participation is significantly higher today than it was in the 1970s. Women’s labor force participation rate peaked at 60.0 percent in 1999, following several decades in which women increasingly participated in the labor market.

An even greater percentage of American mothers is working also.  Again from the BLS:

The labor force participation rate–the percent of the population working or looking for work–for all mothers with children under 18  was 70.6 percent in 2011.

Cool?  I tend to think so.  My mom worked full-time from the time I was seven or thereabouts (who can remember anything before the millennium anyway?  Didn’t Y2K wipe out all those records?), and I don’t think my sisters and I can complain about much from our childhoods.  Except maybe that our mother did indeed dress a bit like the working women in this old video that we still own on VHS out among the garage spiders somewhere (though I will add that you would never see her wearing loafers with a suit.  It was heels or bust).

And surprisingly for one of my rambling posts, this video is more than a trip down memory lane–watching it now, I wonder why it is that there isn’t a corresponding video called “My Daddy Comes Back” or something.  Is it really so much scarier for children when mommy goes to work than when dad does?  Or is it us, the grown-up video-makers and video-buyers and song-writers and blog-ramblers, that continue to perpetuate that baby’s going to cry only or especially when mom heads off to the office for the day?

Whatever came first, the chicken or the ovum, it certainly seems that working mothers are taking on the burden of this cultural anxiety.  As I understand it, “attachment parenting,” the subject of TIME’s lead story, is a method of child-rearing with the aim of creating a secure bond (or attachment) between parent and child.  Because of the emphasis breastfeeding as one method of fostering that bond, AP proponents especially stress the relationship between mother and child.  And “stress” may be exactly the right word.

Reading about AP theory, I followed a hyperlink trail to Judith Warner’s book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  In the book, Warner discusses the toll and burden that cultural expectations of mothers place on working and non-working moms alike:

Many women of the post-Baby Boom generation simply weren’t prepared to contemplate these kinds of choices.  They didn’t realize just how bad the incompatibility would be between the total freedom of their youth and the culture of total motherhood they’d encounter once they had children.

So while more women are working and more mothers are working women, the pressures that puts on modern women go largely unexplored.  As Warner says, parenthetically:

Happiness has never ranked high as a feminist political goal.

I’m hardly qualified to expound on my own theories of parenting (even if I had some, which I don’t), but as a woman who wants a career and may want children some day, I just want to ask: Shouldn’t it be?

The seeming impossibility of a woman “having it all” is a running joke on tv shows like 30 Rock (with Tina Fey’s career-oriented yet kind of baby-obsessed Liz Lemon).  Just last month the April 19 episode was titled “Murphy Brown Lied to Us.”

I guess I can’t be too surprised.  If the Venus of Willendorf is any indication, even people of the Upper Paleolithic had their own ideas about the feminine ideal.  And I can’t imagine it was any easier for women then.

* * *

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Better Living Through Chemistry? (Book Review: Limitless, by Alan Glynn)

15 Nov

Put away your half-started manuscripts and tragic hopes, creative writing minors. In an economy like ours, your chances of publication are bleak – unless, that is, you have unlimited access to a mind-enhancing “smart pill” called MDT-48. That’s the premise of Alan Glynn’s novel “Limitless,” anyway (originally published as “The Dark Fields” in 2001).

You might remember “Limitless” from theaters last spring – or maybe not, judging by its lukewarm critical reception. In any case, it was the movie with Robert DeNiro and that guy from “The Hangover,” and I guess it was pretty good. Some of the visual effects that critics like to describe with words like “stunning” or “experimental” were in keeping with the movie’s billing as a techno-thriller, sure, but in the end they just left me dizzy.

What I found truly stunning – dizzying enough to reverse that age-old tradition of reading the book first and seeing the movie second – were the ideas.

“Limitless” is a novel about human enhancement. And while our trans-humanist hero Eddie Spinola’s journey might end up in some unlikely situations (convincing a shady Russian loan shark to give him half a million dollars by promising to write him into a screenplay about the Mafia, for example), in terms of believability Glynn’s novel is light-years ahead of old-school science fiction that couldn’t see beyond evil cyborgs or disembodied brains in jars. Chances are, the future’s going to look a lot more like “Limitless” than “I, Robot.”

Eddie Spinola starts the novel writing his own novel (that’s right, it’s meta from the very first page), with a day job as a copy editor at some podunk publishing firm. There may have been a point in the distant past at which he had his life together, but it certainly isn’t now, fifty pounds and one failed marriage later.
Lucky, then, that his ex-wife’s brother hasn’t changed at all. When they serendipitously meet on the street one mediocre morning, Eddie’s drug-dealer-in-law gives him a sample of a mysterious substance that propels the intelligent but unmotivated Eddie to the stratosphere of genius and productivity. Lucky, also, that Eddie gets his hands on the entire existing supply of MDT-48 when his supplier gets offed in a very messy scene that I’ll happily leave to Alan Glynn for description.

Taking half, then one, then two or three pills a day, Eddie finds himself playing the stock market like a true Wall Street One-Percenter – with the spare time to wax philosophical about the global trading network as a “template for human consciousness” or “humanity’s collective nervous system.”
On a tangential note, that’s something I liked better about the book: like its original title, it’s deeper, darker and includes quite a few more discussions about the nature of free will and determinism.

You don’t have to have seen the movie to guess that with great power comes great responsibility, and even greater plot twists (involving many, many terrible things happening to our Eddie Spinola as he spins out of control). But even if you did see “Limitless” in theaters, the original, words-only iteration is well worth the read. In fact, it might not be fair to compare the two versions at all: the book is so much more nuanced – subtle where the movie is showy – that it makes you think even while calling itself a techno-thriller.

Along those lines, what’s most impressive is how Glynn makes an apparently far-fetched plot completely believable – from the ideas about boosting human intelligence to the political context of the United States invading (pardon me, “liberating,”) Mexico (from drug cartel tyranny, ironically enough). By the end, you get the feeling that not only could this book happen – it could be happening right now.

China Mieville keeps getting weirder (and that’s a win for all of us)

20 Jun

“Weird fiction” writer China Mieville doesn’t write space opera (or at least he hasn’t yet), but even so (perhaps because of it), his non-human races are nonpareil.  The khepri, garuda, and vodyanoi of Bas-Lag are foreign and compelling, but Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council are most memorable as masterpieces of crypto-communist steampunk.  Kraken was completely different, a thriller-detective-theological hybrid.  And now we have Mieville’s latest literary work, Embassytown, my favorite without a doubt (and here I was thinking nothing but Gormenghast was better than Perdido Street Station), with the most breathtaking alien race I’ve ever read (and that includes The Gods Themselves).

But let me stop title-dropping and write a little more coherently (with less parenthetical asides).

You could call China Mieville’s writing style schizophrenic–if he weren’t so good at everything.  Every book he has come out with has been different–wildly different–from the last.  Maybe he’s experimenting with narrative.  Maybe he gets bored easily.  Maybe he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.  “Weird Fiction,” after all, as far as genre categorization goes, doesn’t tell readers much.  And neither can I, except that I’m in raptures and YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK:

Click for Amazon.

China Miéville doesn’t follow trends, he sets them. Relentlessly pushing his own boundaries as a writer—and in the process expanding the boundaries of the entire field—withEmbassytown, Miéville has crafted an extraordinary novel that is not only a moving personal drama but a gripping adventure of alien contact and war.

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.

 

This has been a production of the Scattering’s “Least Helpful Books Reviews” series.  I’m going to blame the whole “applying to grad school” thing.

The Philip K. Dick Primer*

4 May

Hi Dr. Michelson,

Going through the blog logs, I’ve found that I’ve actually never written a proper review of any Philip K. Dick novel—it seems that I just make hipster-esque references in passing, which may be more embarrassing than having an actual link to send you.  Still, here is my list of PKD books for non-initiates, in my personal (but probably less-than-preferable) reading order:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): The movie Blade Runner was adapted from this novel, and as much as everyone loved Harrison Ford, the book is better.  For one thing, it’s something by Philip K. Dick with a discernible plotline (a miracle!).  It’s short, relatively lucid, and all this being said probably the introductory text for a SF 101 course somewhere.

VALIS (1981): Almost universally accepted as his masterpiece, and very much in the style of 1980s PKD (highly mystical, barely coherent, and as one reviewer wrote “known as science fiction only for lack of a better category).  This is probably the one you’d be most interested in, and, interestingly enough, is semi-autobiographical (Horselover Fat is PKD himself, and his Roman Catholic friend David is my former high school English teacher’s brother, apparently).  Essentially, it’s a book about a quest for God, and I have no doubt you’ll be able to make more sense of PKD’s theological treatise than I ever could:

“The proponent of the novel, Horselover Fat, is thrust into a theological quest when he receives communion in a burst of pink laser light. From the cancer ward of a bay area hospital to the ranch of a fraudulent charismatic religious figure who turns out to have a direct com link with God, Dick leads us down the twisted paths of Gnostic belief, mixed with his own bizarre and compelling philosophy. Truly an eye-opening look at the nature of consciousness and divinity.”

The Man in the High Castle (1962): PKD’s most famous counterfactual/alternate history novel, wherein the Allies lost WWII and the United States is a slave-owning outpost of Nazi Germany.  This is the only book by dear Philip that won the Hugo (it was also nominated for the Nebula, but that’s an honor he never won).  Maybe he was one of those artists not fully appreciated during his time. Of course, now, Philip K. Dick has his own award—given to giants of the genre like Richard K. Morgan (Neuromancer, Altered Carbon) and China Mieville (The Scar), and less notable authors like my aforementioned high school English teacher’s brother Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).

Time Out of Joint (1959): If you’re interested in the “reality is a state of mind” aspect of Philip K. Dick’s writing, this is the book to read.  SFsite.com reviewer Martin Lewis commented, aptly: “Ragle Gumm is a perfectly realised example of the classic Dick protagonist; the paranoid man who discovers he has every reason to be paranoid because he inhabits a world where people know more about him than he does and reality itself is fluid.”  That’s pretty much the thematic underpinning of all of his books, but here the idea is central—Ragle Gumm lives in a world where the structure of the universe is, literally, held together by tiny hand-lettered strips of paper.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965):  Everyone with any sense who doesn’t think VALIS deserves the top spot puts this one there—Palmer Eldritch not only wins the award for best SF title ever, but presaged PKD’s more mystical novels like VALIS.  But fair warning—I read this while I had a cold earlier in the semester, and I’m convinced that this book made such a chaotic muddle of my mind that it prolonged my illness.  From Amazon’s book description:

“Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.  Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?”

Philip K. Dick’s other 39 published novels can be found (or at least, synopses and links on where to purchase can be found) at the official website of the PKD estate.

There’s also some “exclusive content” that I haven’t seen before—including a two-page summary of an unwritten novel in which Saul of Tarsus never converts and Christianity is overtaken by Manichaeism.

Maybe this is a book project you can encourage the Syriac portal-ers to take up?

All the best,

Isabela

* Happy Publish Your Private Emails Day everyone!  In honor of this festive occasion, always Cuatro de Mayo, I’m posting an email I sent to my fantastic Digital Humanities professor Dr. David Michelson.  Hey, he asked for a PKD reading list–I generally try very hard to keep my secret life as a second-rate science fiction blogger out of the hallowed halls of academia.  Not really.

Also, it makes me feel like kind of like Erasmus, publishing highly literary letters for the world to see!  Not really.

Rasputin Wants YOU! to read Whom God Would Destroy

12 Apr

Bless you, Alexis, and be cured of your haemophilia!

Or maybe that’s just my interpretation of this absolutely bizarre book trailer–and who better to have made it than the mysterious, mystical, highly heterodox Commander Pants?

The good Commander, you might recall, is the author of a delightfully blasphemous book, Whom God Would Destroy–which, as you might also recall, I reviewed a couple months ago.  If you don’t recall, you can read about the winner of the Spring 2011 Heretic Badge of Honor right here.

In any case, here’s the book trailer.  Watch and enjoy–unless you’re a person particularly susceptible to hypnosis, subliminal messages, and/or the piercing eyes of a really messed-up Russian mystic.  If you have any of the above weaknesses, you might want to click on another hyperlink, any other hyperlink, and get far away from here while you still can.  Just some friendly advice.

Bonus points to the first person to spot Rasputin.  And when I say bonus points, I mean it in the Whose Line way.

Be A Good Cyber-Citizen: Edit Wikipedia

18 Mar

After reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, my Facebook religious views status read “Cult of Palgolak” for a couple months.  Because the truth is, if I were to believe in a deity, it would totally be this one:

(Wikipedia) Palgolak is the god of knowledge, who features in the novel Perdido Street Station. Palgolak is typically depicted as either a human or a Vodyanoi, sitting in a bathtub that floats mystically across the cosmos’ infinite dimensions, observing and learning. It is believed that anything learned by a follower of Palgolak is also known by Palgolak himself, a quality that gives his worshipers desire for knowledge.

And from the book itself:

He was an amiable, pleasant deity, a sage whose existence was entirely devoted to the collection, categorization, and dissemination of information … Everything known by a worshipper was immediately known by Palgolak, which was why they were religiously charged to read voraciously. But their mission was only secondarily for the glory of Palgolak, and primarily for the glory of knowledge, which was why they were sworn to admit all who wished to enter into their library.

I love the idea of a religion completely devoted to the creation, consumption, and dissemination of knowledge–I tell my classmates, only half-joking, that Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library on campus is my church.  But in this digital age of ours, the real manifestation of the Cult of Palgolak and library cathedral would have to be Wikipedia.

Wikipedia editors are volunteers, contributing to the largest encyclopedia in human history, available to anyone with an Internet connection.  It’s the bane of teachers, the holy grail of homework, the first resource of anyone looking for information on any topic in almost any language, and the most successful digital humanities projects… ever.  Democratization of information ftw!

This semester I’m taking a class through the UA history department called Intro to Digital Humanities.  Basically, DH (and no, I don’t mean Deathly Hallows) is about integrating technology into traditional scholarship (particularly in the more qualitative fields of the humanities).  What our excellent professor suggested the first day of class, however, is that DH is a set of values too: an ethos of collaboration and sharing that the Internet makes possible on a wider scale than ever.  Wikipedia definitely brings together technology and research, but it also demonstrates that collaborative spirit in action.  It’s kind of a crazy utopian idea when you think about it–but it’s working.

Last class, we had a guest speaker join us, a professor of Middle-Eastern History from Florida State University.  We had a long debate about the value of Wikipedia (the class seemed to divide fairly quickly into idealists and skeptics)–and then our guest asked how many of us have ever edited a Wikipedia article.  No hands.  And then we broke for Spring Break.

But it made me think–we’re in a class all about the sharing of information, and not even contributing to the greatest such project in human history.  Volunteering to edit Wikipedia is an act of democratic participation–maybe even a sign of good global citizenship.  You don’t have to be a worshipper of Palgolak to start to feel that participation is almost a moral duty.  Which is why I’m making a belated New Year’s resolution to be an active Wikipedia editor.  Current task? the Unreferenced Articles WikiProject.  As a history student, I’ve got some mad citation skills.

So now the only question is– when can I put this on my resume under community service?

Cures for the Common Cult (Lenten Reading for the Non-religious)

5 Mar

As Ash Wednesday draws near, science fiction initiates may be wondering what devotional reading they can delve into this shriving season.  Accordingly, here is the Scattering’s list of the Top 10 classic irreligious SF for Easter (or Eostre, as you’ll have it) 2011:

1. VALIS, by Philip K. Dick

This one’s hard not to see coming.  Not only is it a prominent piece on Benjamin Linus’s bookshelf, VALIS is classic 1980s PKD: incoherently, barely-intelligible, highly theological, and just plain weird.  The back cover description might be a little too lucid:

This disorienting and bleakly funny work is about a schizophrenic hero named Horselover Fat; the hidden mysteries of Gnostic Christianity; and reality as revealed through a pink laser.  VALIS is a theological detective story, in which God is both a missing person and the perpetrator of the ultimate crime.

2. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by (surprise!) Philip K. Dick

I haven’t written so many posts about my beloved PKD since my stint at OCON 2009 (Objectivist Conference in Boston)–where reality was getting so objectively rational that I had to break out the crazy.  Three Stigmata is classic 1960s PKD: visionary, genius, and a masterpiece of science fiction.  Still weird (of course), but far more understandable.

Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.

Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?

Maybe I should have made this #1, after all.

3. Dune (and the rest), by Frank Herbert

I’ll always have a special fondness in my heart for sandworms and female Jesuits of the future–the first research paper I ever wrote, after all, was a pseudo-biography of Frank Herbert (I don’t think li’l Brian did him justice).  Not to mention that he was a world builder par excellence who mastered above any other single SF author the craft of really, really elaborate backstory.

“A portrayal of an alien society more complete and deeply detailed than any other author in the field has managed…a story absorbing equally for its action and philosophical vistas.” —Washington Post Book World

Considering anyone reading this has probably read Dune and all its subsequent iterations as many times as there are incarnations of Duncan Idaho, there’s not much more I can say.  But with 40 days of penitence looming, I think the Bene Gesserit would approve of a re-read.

4. Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov

Somewhere on the books, there has to be a law that no science fiction reading list of any kind can go to print without including something by the superhumanly prolific Isaac Asimov.  His 1941 short “Nightfall” has a sort of legendary quality about it–and rightly so–but the novelization’s pretty damn good too.  Even if it was co-written with Robert Silverberg.

The planet Kalgash is on the brink of Chaos–but only a handful of people realize it.  Kalgash knows only the perpetual light of day; for more than two millennia, some combination of its six suns has lit up the sky.  But twilight is now gathering.  Soon the suns will set all at once–and the terrifying splender of Nightfall will call forth a madness that signals the end of civilization.

And you thought Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was terrifying.

5. The Stand, by Stephen King

Yes, it’s 1,100 pages (that’s almost Atlas Shrugged status, there).  But the read is worth it–and the pace gallops along about as rapidly as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  King called the book a “dark chest of wonders,” and I must humbly agree: this is the End of Days novel to end all End of Days novels.

In 1978, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a scathing review of The Stand in which he exhorted his readers to grab strangers in bookstores and beg them not to buy it.

The Stand is like that. You either love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Stephen King’s most popular book, according to polls of his fans, is an end-of-the-world scenario: a rapidly mutating flu virus is accidentally released from a U.S. military facility and wipes out 99 and 44/100 percent of the world’s population, thus setting the stage for an apocalyptic confrontation between Good and Evil.

“I love to burn things up,” King says. “It’s the werewolf in me, I guess…. The Stand was particularly fulfilling, because there I got a chance to scrub the whole human race, and man, it was fun! … Much of the compulsive, driven feeling I had while I worked on The Stand came from the vicarious thrill of imagining an entire entrenched social order destroyed in one stroke.”

There is much to admire in The Stand: the vivid thumbnail sketches with which King populates a whole landscape with dozens of believable characters; the deep sense of nostalgia for things left behind; the way it subverts our sense of reality by showing us a world we find familiar, then flipping it over to reveal the darkness underneath. Anyone who wants to know, or claims to know, the heart of the American experience needs to read this book. –Fiona Webster

Also, it will give you nightmares.

6. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes

This is, admittedly, an anomalous choice.  It’s more psychology text than science fiction (and it’s definitely not a novel), but if you’ve read anything by that most eminent Canadian Robert J. Sawyer, you’ll know that he uses his characters to mention this book in almost every single one of his own.  The WWW series, at least.  It was getting really annoying, actually, until I made my father track down Julian Jaynes for me for Christmas last year, and then I got it.  Warning: Not for the faint of heart… or the myopic.

At the heart of this seminal work is the revolutionary idea that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but was a learned process that emerged from a hallucinatory mentality only three thousand years ago.  The implications of this scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history, our culture, our religion–indeed our future.

Makes you wonder whether Philip K. Dick ever did emerge from that hallucinatory mentality, right?

7. Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer

After the star-crossed tv series FlashForward lost favor with…well, everyone, I started reading Sawyer to fill my time before V came back on air (much good that did me).  I quickly realized that, as a writer, Sawyer likes his characters to talk.  And think.  But mostly talk.  The climax of Mindscan‘s “action” is actually a really long courtroom scene, in which various individuals debate philosophy.  Which is fine with me–when the philosophy involves clones, robots, and the origin of consciousness.

Jake Sullivan watched his father, suffering from a rare condition, collapse and linger in a vegetative state, and he’s incredibly paranoid because he inherited that condition. When mindscanning technology becomes available, he has himself scanned, which involves dispatching his biological body to the moon and assuming an android body. In possession of everything the biological Jake Sullivan had on Earth, android Jake finds love with Karen, who has also been mindscanned.

Meanwhile, biological Jake discovers there is finally another, brand-new cure for his condition. Moreover, Karen’s son sues her, declaring that his mother is dead, and android Karen has no right to deprive him of his considerable inheritance. Biological Jake, unable to leave the moon because of the contract he signed, becomes steadily more unstable, until finally, in a fit of paranoia, he takes hostages. Sawyer’s treatment of identity issues–of what copying consciousness may mean and how consciousness is defined–finds expression in a good story that is a new meditation on an old sf theme, the meaning of being human. —Regina Schroeder

There was a Twilight Zone episode kind of like this, if I recall.

8. Kraken, by China Mieville

A deep and abiding love for the much-neglected Mervyn Peake (in the States, that is) led me to China Mieville’s lyrical prose and fantastic urban settings.  For the best contemporary world-building in science fiction today, I commend you to Perdido Street Station.  For the cult of the giant squid, I give you Kraken.

British fantasist Miéville mashes up cop drama, cults, popular culture, magic, and gods in a Lovecraftian New Weird caper sure to delight fans of Perdido Street Station and The City & the City. When a nine-meter-long dead squid is stolen, tank and all, from a London museum, curator Billy Harrow finds himself swept up in a world he didn’t know existed: one of worshippers of the giant squid, animated golems, talking tattoos, and animal familiars on strike.

Forced on the lam with a renegade kraken cultist and stalked by cops and crazies, Billy finds his quest to recover the squid sidelined by questions as to what force may now be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Even Miéville’s eloquent prose can’t conceal the meandering, bewildering plot, but his fans will happily swap linearity for this dizzying whirl of outrageous details and fantastic characters.

Cthulhu might just have a run for his money.  Wait… please… I didn’t say that… have mercy O Ancient Ones!

9. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

He came to my school!  Neil Gaiman actually visited the University of Alabama last fall–and I couldn’t make it.  But I’ll make it up by adding his novel American Gods to this list, so no one else misses out on the dark fantasy writer that is Neil Gaiman.

Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations. For instance, Shadow’s dead wife Laura keeps showing up, and not just as a ghost–the difficulty of their continuing relationship is by turns grim and darkly funny, just like the rest of the book.

For fans of the New Weird, see Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a somewhat less intense Kraken.

10. Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory

Julian Jaynes indicates that religiosity might be a mental illness, but Daryl Gregory takes that idea and runs.  Demonic possession has never been so scientific.

In this fascinating alternative time line, thousands of demon possessions have been carefully recorded by scientists each year since the 1950s. Each case is always the same: a recognizable, named strain of the disorder possesses a person, wreaks havoc and then jumps on to its next victim. Del Pierce’s case is unique: when the Hellion possessed him at the age of five, it never left. Now an unhappy 20-something, Del undertakes a dangerous quest to exorcise the Hellion as it fights him for control.

The trim prose keeps the pace intense and the action red hot through some emotionally disturbing scenes and heavy backstory. Absorbing psychological discussions of possession abound, from Jungian archetypes to the eye of Shiva. Readers will delve deeply into Gregory’s highly original demon-infested reality and hope for a sequel.

Verdict? Whom God Would Destroy, by Commander Pants

4 Mar

I hope PKD would approve.

What can I say?  This is a novel of celestial proportions.  The tag line alone (“a novel about taking reality with a pillar of salt”) had me sold on the eccentric Commander Pants’s irreverent speculative fiction novel.

The plot–a second incarnation of Jesus Christ returning to 1980s America to “infect” humanity with faith via public access television–is impudent, incredibly imaginative (bizarre might be a better word), and immaculately written.  I expected the book to be good if not exactly godly, but Whom God Would Destroy turned is nothing if not great.  For that, I am officially awarding Commander Pants the Scattering’s prestigious Heretic Badge of Honor for Spring 2011.  Wear it well, mysterious pseudonymous author.  Wear it well.

The best comparison I can make for the advanced SF reader would have to be Philip K. Dick’s classic The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.  Not only is WGWD in a similar league of impressive titulature, the author’s writing style has a comparable what the heck? effect.  Like PKD, CP’s novel WGWD (see what I did there?) treads the border of idiosyncratic and incomprehensible–and does so admirably well.

 
Recommendation: Devout Christians probably shouldn’t read WGWD.  No, devout Christians definitely shouldn’t read this book.  Spoiler alert: Devout Christians might start crying if they read this book.  But for the rest of us, Whom God Would Destroy is the most brilliant irreligious romp I’ve been fortunate enough to read.

Reading Time: 2-3 weeks in a busy month.

Availability: At $0.99 as an ebook, WGWD is a blasphemous bargain.  This is one of the highest-quality indie books I’ve reviewed on the Scattering, and far and away the most entertaining.  You can get it (really, get it) at this link to Amazon.

Warning: Religion Can Be Dangerous to Your Health (review: Whom God Would Destroy)

4 Mar

This cult and flu season, be careful what you’re carrying.

Turn on the History Channel this month and you’ll have no trouble finding any number of Lenten specials on the mysteries of the Life of Jesus.  Or on the mysteries of The Da Vinci Code.  Or that really bizarre 2000 adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  But my favorites of all the sensational religion specials have always been those that deal with the “missing years” of Jesus of Nazareth’s childhood.  All the canonical gospels leave major holes in the narrative, and it’s almost as if they’re hiding something…

Like the possibility that baby Jesus didn’t just sit on Mary’s lap and smile for the Renaissance artist paining him?  Anyone looking for some vaguely sacrilegious reading for Easter need look no farther than the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, one of those fun apocryphal texts written by fun-loving Christians of the 2nd or 3rd centuries.  Thomas has some interesting insight into those missing years.  Apparently, a side effect of befriending li’l Jesus was, disturbingly often, death or serious maiming.  Wikipedia tells us this:

The text describes the life of the child Jesus, with fanciful, and sometimes malevolent, supernatural events, comparable to the trickster nature of the god-child in many a Greek myth. One of the episodes involves Jesus making clay birds, which he then proceeds to bring to life, an act also attributed to Jesus in Qur’an 5:110; although in the Quran it is not attributed to him as a child.

In another episode, a child disperses water that Jesus has collected, Jesus then curses him, which causes the child’s body to wither into a corpse, found in the Greek text A, and Latin versions. The Greek text B doesn’t mention Jesus cursing the boy, and simply says that the child “went on, and after a little he fell and gave up the ghost,” (M.R. James translation).

Another child dies when Jesus curses him when he apparently accidentally bumps into him. In the latter case, there are three differing versions recorded the Greek Text A, Greek Text B, and the Latin text. Instead of bumping into Jesus in A, B records that the child throws a stone at Jesus, while the last says the boy punched him.  When Joseph and Mary’s neighbors complain, they are miraculously struck blind by Jesus.

How badass is that?  Almost makes me wish I were a Christian… almost.

In any case, as I read Whom God Would Destroy, I began to mentally refer to the book as The Apocryphal Gospel of Commander Pants.  Because, honestly, what’s more ridiculous–a second reincarnation of God coming to earth in the 1980s to create a public access tv program and New Age incense store, or junior Jesus killing kids and growing up with delusions of messiah-hood?

That first clause is pretty much the plot summary for Commander Pants’s irreverent (and that’s way too inadequate or word for the blasphemy going on) novel of the second coming of the son of God: Jeremy Christ.

For 2,000 years, Jeremy was up in Heaven–tediously bored.  He must’ve been listening to Billy Joel instead of his choirs of seraphim, too, because it would seem that the Savior got an idea that chilling with the sinners would be way more fun than crying with the saints.  In any case, he plops himself back into the body of a charismatic thirty-something and sets out to renew the earth.  But like any tragic hero, Jeremy has a few mishaps–like killing a harmless receptionist with a too-divine smile.  Though, all things considered, literally dying of happiness can’t be too bad a way to go.

Then there’s the matter of celibacy, which Jeremy finds problematic–considering that he’s inexplicably attracted to a seriously schizophrenic young woman named Abby, who happens to be the love interest of Jeremy’s first apostle, the rock on which he will build his church, a mild-mannered zealot named Oliver.  But let’s not give any divine love triangle plot points away (not that I could explain in any coherent way just what the connection between Big Macs and eternal orgasms may be).

Whom God Will Destroy is, in a word, brilliant.  In another few: hilarious, irreverent, and downright heretical.  Commander Pants’s imaginative take on religion is as ridiculous as his (her… it’s…) pen name, and the writing is true laugh-out-loud quality.  But like all good science fiction, WGWD has a social commentary, couched as it is in the blasphemous and absurd.  In my opinion, it’s this quote from one of Jeremy’s interior monologues:

Like Abraham, the booty that Oliver possessed was far more important than charisma: he had faith.  And faith was contagious.  Jeremy wanted to be a virus, and here, sitting on the floor sporting headphones and a goofy grin, was his first carrier, Typhoid Oliver.

As readers will soon discover, the resulting pandemic can be catastrophic.  Astonishingly funny, but catastrophic.

Whom God Would Destroy is available as an ebook on Amazon for $0.99.

Verdict? Luminous and Ominous, by Noah K. Mullette-Gillman

3 Jan

There’s nothing fun about the end of the world–but there might be something beautiful.

The alien “invaders” of this unique science fictionish novel are exactly what the title tells us, Luminous and Ominous, a ravenous plant species with a mesmerizing beauty and a will to live as strong–or perhaps stronger–than any human survivor.  And therein lies the problem for our protagonists: not just surviving in a new world, but preserving their very sense of what it means to be alive, and be human.

I’m a bigger fan of Noah K. Mullette-Gillman’s second novel than I was of the first (and I’m a pretty big fan).  The writing is as mesmerizing as the beautiful alien Cornucopia Blue it describes, and the characters’ thoughts and struggles pull readers along with them just as surely.

Reading Time: On the Kindle, Luminous and Ominous is a little over 5,000 locations, which would make it 500+ pages in the physical world.  But how long it takes to read?  I’m hardly competent to say–it took me a weekend: I couldn’t put it down.

Recommendation: It’s 2011, and apocalypse scenarios haven’t been so popular since Y2K.  So let’s not pigeonhole Luminous and Ominous as strictly science fiction–it’s General Audiences all the way.

Luminous and Ominous is available as an ebook on Amazon for $2.99