Friday, December 21, 2012

A review of "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" by Philip K. Dick

This book is a doozy of a read, but also one of the most fun, thought provoking books I read this year. In a plot that almost defies exposition, a business man named Palmer Eldritch visits another planet, and is possessed by a godlike being. He creates a drug that transports people into a hallucinatory pocket dimension where they become him, or aspects of him. One man tries to stop him from imprinting his image on the inhabitants of the solar system, and insanity there follows. Philip K. Dick tosses out nutty ideas that are at points both wacky, profound, disturbing, or a combination of all three, and creates eerie atmosphere like Ray Bradbury with a screw loose.

The way he subverts the old "Mars is a land of romance and adventure" cliche, is both genius and intensely saddening. The way he develops every character, with their own neuroses and heroic elements is great, and even the Palmer Eldritch/immature godlike being character is revealed to have several dimensions to him, and is not painted as some ancient evil, but instead as a well intentioned idiot who happens to have cosmic powers. This book is filled with psychedelic tripping, and its gleeful hops through time, space, and relative dimensions almost make this a kind of Wrinkle in Time for 1960's LSD enthusiasts. My main issues with this book include that the plot doesn't really pick up until the protagonist arrives on Mars, and the hallucination sequences are definitely on the incoherent side. They make sense, but not enough to remove the sense that you yourself may be on psychotropic drugs.

But if you're ready to take an unhinged thrill ride into the imagination of Philip K. Dick, and want to try some sci fi that's a little different from your run of the mill space opera, jump down the rabbit hole with Palmer Eldritch. You might just enjoy it.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

A review of "A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula K. LeGuin

Often compared to Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin is a true visionary. This book tells the deceptively simple tale of a kid named Ged who lives in a magical realm called Earthsea. He is destined to be the greatest wizard in the world, but still has a lot of growing up to do. After meddling with the powers of chaos,  he accidentally summons an eldritch creature from the outer dark, and has to put it back there. In the process, LeGuin tells a compelling coming of age story, and  by combining this with a high fantasy story, she sets the groundwork for Harry Potter (Hogwarts is suspiciously similar to the Roke Island wizard academy Ged trains at), Eragon, The Legend of Zelda, (perhaps unconsciously) Star Wars, and many, many others.

The thing that defines this from other high fantasy works like The Lord of the Rings is how well developed the character of Ged is. Whereas Frodo (and even Harry Potter sometimes) got through their adventures simply by "being there", Ged has to constantly be taking responsibility for his actions because the otherworldly menace that haunts him exists partly because of his own shortcomings, making this also one of the first "existential" high fantasy books. Ged's own angsty brooding over his own failings did, and will continue to resonate with modern day teenagers. On top of all that, the cast of characters has a surprising amount of ethnic diversity, for a fantasy novel. Whereas A Song of Ice and Fire or something along those lines usually has a nearly all white dramatis personae, Earthsea has a myriad of different cultures and ethnic groups represented. Although it may sound like I'm bashing fantasy, I'm not. I love it, which is why I so enjoyed  A Wizard of Earthsea. It revels in and codifies some of the cliches of its own genre. Not only a good fantasy tale, but also a cracking good YA novel.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A review of "The Diviners" by Libba Bray

Libba Bray returns to the form she does best, the "teen historical occult thriller with romantic elements". This latest book is basically an extended Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode set in the 1920's, ,involving a rising demon, evil cultists, and a cyborg. But make no mistake: this isn't a moon-eyed Mortal Instruments-esque fantasy. This is a well researched, well plotted thriller, that doubles as a luxuriant historical novel. While it simply shuffles and deals old occult fiction tropes (for how many mystical cliches are in here, I'm surprised Cthulhu and Aleister Crowley didn't turn up),the excellent characterization and impeccable period detail shine past that little dispute.

There are also some great spooky moments that actually frightened me, and portentous foreshadowing that, unfortunately, partly set up a sequel. There isn't any of the hyper-self aware smugness that accompanies some YA books (coughHolly Blackcough) which is a definite plus. Although some weird, pulled-it-out-of-thin-air-at-3:00 AM plot twists turn up (the aforementioned cyborg), this is overall, a very good book.