Review: Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson

Tau ZeroTau Zero by Poul Anderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alas, this fantastical, relativistic journey through spacetime has squashed the humans in the book into two-dimensional simulacra with stilted dialogue, the emotional intelligence/range of turnips, and a protagonist who spends his time chewing scenery — and by scenery, I mean the other horribly stereotyped characters. It is sexist, borderline racist, and entirely too nautical.

However.

The journey is awesome, and the science very, very cool. Anderson manages to pack an entire universe into a slim book, no small feat compared to the massive SF tomes that say virtually nothing at all.

Your infinite mileage may vary.

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White Teeth by Zadie Smith: Review

White TeethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of (Mad) Mice and (English) Men

I was ordering coffee a couple of weeks ago, holding White Teeth, and the barista asked me what it was about. I’m just a couple of chapters in, I told him, so I’m still working that out. Having finished the novel now, I can answer the question up to a point, but to do so I suspect I’d just be retelling the entire story.

That in mind, I will limit my recitation and mention a certain minor character, a religious leader who gives awful speeches. He has the “habit of using three words where one would do, of emphasizing the last word of such triplets” — such as democracy, freedom, liberty and oppression, persecution, slaughter and chaos, disorder, confusion.

In a sense, that is what the three families of White Teeth (indeed, all of us) are — the latest generations of variations on familial, cultural, and genetic themes, with an emphasis of story on the youngest generation because, well, that’s the way of the world. And it’s set in fin de si├Ęcle, 20th Century England — not a melting pot of immigrants, but a boiling cauldron as people drawn from around the world try to find their way in the capital of a dying empire. Religion, science, family, and going down to the pub collide for ontological primacy.

That awful speaker with his tautologies, repetitions, and pleonasm is Human History incarnate. Life is messy. We seem to live in circles, trapped on the wheel of life, endlessly repeating the sins and virtues of our ancestors with our own minor variations, fighting the same battles and wars, making the same gross miscalculations and grand gestures.

But despite it all, the trip around that wheel is worth taking, just to see how we can make it our own. As the old saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.

Zadie Smith is an astonishingly good writer, as I’ve found in the shorter works of hers that I’ve read. This is my first of her books. It is not perfect — there is a lot of holding the characters at arms-length, with diegetic commentary standing in for real emotion, as well as artifice and too-tidiness of story. But she is a stylistically gifted and brilliant writer, as proved in this wonderful novel.

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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell: Review

Homage to CataloniaHomage to Catalonia by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is something of a slog through Orwell’s descriptions of the brutal trench war he experienced, alternating with attempts to explain the complicated politics making up the Spanish Civil War. Even as he grimly sketches the fractured, kaleidoscopic factions arrayed on the anti-Fascist Republican side, you can sense his heart breaking as his idealistic determination is subsumed under the reality of the war and of the surreal urban scenes away from the front lines. The sorrowful denouement, with a poetically ironic ending to Orwell’s career as a militiaman, gives closure neither for him nor the conflict, which was ongoing when the book was published in 1938. He is left only with guilt for a job unfinished and undoable, grief over friends lost and left behind, and a mournful adoration of a place and people caught in a tightening net of tyranny from which there would be no escape. A devastating read, especially with hindsight of the great darkness that would befall Europe and the rest of the world in succeeding years.

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