Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Update, August 15, 2011: See Michael reviews the weekend I for the motivation behind this critical spree.

Alongside Night

Crappy libertarian sci-fi novel by J. Neil Schulman. My dad bought me this years ago, and I kept it around through numerous moves cos it looked like I might someday find it interesting. The premise is fine – America is crippled by hyperinflation (the book was written in the Carter administration) and an anarchist underground topples the increasingly oppressive federal government. I don’t know enough about economics to challenge the basic premise of the plot, which is that a monetary system not based on gold or some other commodity will inevitably self-destruct. The fact that inflation has been well under control for about two decades would seem to suggest that Schulman overlooked a variable, but what do I know?

Apart from questionable dogma, the novel’s biggest flaw is that it’s hopelessly boring. Protagonist wanders from scene to scene killing time, intermittently getting in touch with the revolutionaries who are the actual agents of the plot. Runs into one of those flawless sci-fi girls – beautiful, sexually promiscuous, fascinated by the fiction of Robert Heinlein and the movies of the Marx Brothers, and, although not yet out of high school, able to argue laissez-faire economics for pages at a time. Together, in between satisfying their voracious sexual appetites, they read books, watch movies, listen to classical music, and always Schulman takes care to tell us exactly what they’re reading, watching, and listening to – obviously because they’re precisely the same things Schulman enjoys.

Interestingly, there’s an afterword where Schulman criticises the writings of Ayn Rand for her absurdly superheroic characters. (The afterword is more readable than the novel, probably because the author is no longer compelled to break up his arguments into stilted dialogue among indistinguishable characters.) I never got more than halfway through Atlas Shrugged because I couldn’t believe Rand took all this crap seriously; it read like a parody of a didactic novel. Schulman correctly diagnoses the main weakness in Rand’s writing, but is hampered by an even greater weakness of his own. However loony, Rand was a fairly capable stylist, whereas Schulman is simply a crappy writer.

Anyway, now that I’ve read it, I’m putting Alongside Night on my discard pile.

A Kiss Before Dying

More popular fiction, this time by Ira Levin. Another one I’m finally moving from my read-eventually pile onto my discard pile. Levin wrote this when he was in his early twenties, which depresses me, because overall it’s pretty good. Undermined by a disappointing third act.

Basically, the anti-hero is a handsome, slick social-climber who beds all three daughters of a wealthy industrialist. All he’s trying to do is marry into the family, but plans keep going awry, forcing him to murder each daughter in turn, and move onto the next one.

By the time we get to the third act and the third daughter, we’re all excited, because (we mistakenly assume) the murderer is finally going to meet his match. The eldest daughter has been built up as the cleverest of the bunch, and we look forward to seeing her unravel his deceptions. But then Levin pulls a trick and the father, the wealthy industrialist, winds up being the hero of the book. The third daughter is just as clueless as the first two.

I don’t know why this bothered me. I certainly didn’t see it coming. I guess something about the murderer’s modus operandi demanded that his comeuppance come at the hands of a woman. Poetic justice, y’know. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to hold the book to fault for failing to end predictably, but sometimes the predictable ending is the right one.

The Man in the High Castle

Never read Philip K. Dick before. Guess I was expecting something different. Enthusiasts comparing him favourably to Borges, etc., are right on track. Strange, wonderful, unnerving.

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3 Responses to “Michael reviews the weekend II.”


  1. 1 J Neil Schulman August 18, 2011 at 4:10 am

    “Having said all that, I believe that “goodness” and “badness” do exist, that they exist outside of ourselves, and that however incapable we are of isolating them or even proving they exist, it’s still important to try to identify them when we see them.”

    Ayn Rand called that the first premise of Objectivism.

    You know what you don’t like.

    You need to write your own novel, man. That’s the only way you’ll find out what you do like.

  2. 2 Michael A. Charles August 18, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks, J Neil, your comment is more respectful than my snide review probably deserves. Sadly, I don’t have sufficient concentration to write my own novel – these days I can’t even muster the concentration to update my blog.

    Good luck with getting the “Alongside Night” movie made. I’ll watch it.

    M.

  3. 3 J Neil Schulman August 19, 2011 at 5:11 am

    How many words in one of your blog pieces? Let’s say it’s 500. You do that every day for a year — even half a year — and you’ve written at novel length. Or screw off every other day. You’ve still written at book length.

    The trick is not to let the thought of writing something that long scare you. If you know in general the argument you’re trying to make then the story is you proving your argument, like a lawyer making a case then summing it all up. The reader reads forwards; the writer starts at the end and works backwards. You choose what has to happen, then you choose the people who it would have to happen to. Never think more than a few pages ahead and try not to get overwhelmed.

    If you simply write with it in mind to keep surprising the reader, pay off the promises to the reader that you make, play fair with the reader, and always keep in mind when writing that some poor shmuck has to figure out what the hell you’re saying, you’ll find enough readers who like what you do that when someone doesn’t like what you write, and writes a bad review, you keep your temper and try to remember the ones that were good.


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