Posted on May 17, 2013 in Book Report
Inferno, Dan Brown’s “highest-stakes novel to date” (don’t you just love blurbs?), came out a couple of days ago. I’ll admit it. I used to be a Dan Brown fan. I demolished Angels and Demons when I first discovered it. It’s a cliche, but I really couldn’t put it down. Once I did, I immediately went out and bought the Da Vinci code, Digital Fortress and Deception Point. I loved them too. Despite a sometimes questionable grasp of history, geography, religious scholarship, science, and technology, they are unquestionably entertaining reads. But a couple of years ago Dan Brown came out with The Lost Symbol. A godawful book that has soured my opinion of Brown. Considering how bad The Lost Symbol was, I was thinking of giving this one a miss entirely. However, and unfortunately, my curiosity got the better of me yet. I say unfortunately because just like The Lost Symbol, I majorly regret the waste of my time and money. Inferno confirms what many of us suspected after The Lost Symbol debacle; Brown has utterly lost the Indiana Jones-esque magic he captured in Angels and Demons and the Da Vinci Code.
As you might expect, Inferno is set against the backdrop of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Symbolist Robert Langdon must follow a stream of Dante related clues through Florence and Venice, all the while fighting amnesia and being chased by soldiers and assassins. But rather than sadistic monks or super-secret societies, this time it is a mad scientist who leads Symbolist Robert Langdon on his merry quest. This particular mad scientist has a Dante fixation, a Thomas Malthus fixation, and obviously never learned from all the cartoon villains who got busted by leaving behind elaborate clues. The stakes are also higher. Langdon isn’t saving the Vatican from the illuminati or the descendant of Jesus from radical Christians, he is saving the world from a biologist who wants to kill off humans to stave off overpopulation.
First off let me just say that the whole save the world shtick really ruined the whole thing for me. It is one thing for a symbolist to be interpreting clues left behind by the Priory of Scion or the Illuminati, overcoming foes that for centuries have actually existed in secret, expressing themselves through symbols. But the entire time I read this book I could not stop questioning what a symbolist was doing saving the world, and what a committed, genius scientist was doing leaving a Dante laden trail of bread crumbs. Who was he leaving the clues for? Why was he leaving the clues? What person hell bent on changing the world leaves any room for their plan to be thwarted? The whole episode comes off more 1990’s James Bond or Joel Schumacher’s Batman than it does Ian Fleming’s James Bond or Frank Miller’s Batman.
Secondly, the characters in this story leave a lot to be desired. Robert Langdon is now well and truly down pat, and some of the main antagonists give him a run for his money, but the rest really are terrible. For example, one of the most visible antagonists, The Provost, spends the novel lurking in his lair, a huge grey yacht with a whole bunch of futuristic equipment. We are meant to take him as a serious and dangerous underworld figure, but what underworld figure has personal rules against finding out anything about their clients, and hires mercenaries that can’t capture an aging and wounded professor? Really all that separates him from being Dr. Evil is that his ship doesn’t have his face on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was in one of the earlier drafts.
But it isn’t just the content of this book that is a real let down. I normally enjoy Brown’s unpretentious style of writing. Brown generally jams a lot of information into his books but he still manages to keep the pace going. Unlike the Michael Crichton’s of the world, Brown usually struck a good balance of action and explanation. But Inferno is quite the opposite. We get never ending lectures about Dante, about the Divine Comedy, about Florence and Venice. The exposition is so thick and so lengthy, and often adds absolutely nothing to the story, it just comes off Brown trying to prove to us how much he knows about the subjects. You can often skip entire pages and not have missed anything related to the actual story. It’s as if he has written this book because we won’t believe that he has been on tours of Florence and Venice and dutifully took down all the inane trivia the tour guides spout. As if we won’t believe he has access to the internet to read Dante’s biography. I understand he was an English teacher and therefore very knowledgable on and interested in the subject of Dante, but he should have found a better outlet for his knowledge rather than padding out what was meant to be a thriller.
In summary this book is a horrible disappointment. It is a guidebook of Florence and Venice, and a sermon on Dante’s Divine Comedy, not very artfully wrapped up in a “thriller”. Rather than a thriller that includes trivia and puzzles, this is a whole bunch of trivia that also has some suspense. A very little bit of it. As far as characters go, they don’t come close to what we have seen in previous Robert Langdon books; the torn and tortured figure of the Camerlengo comes to mind. Rather the characters that inhabit this story are either uninteresting, ill formed, or comical. By the end I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t care about the twists, I didn’t even really care about the outcome. I just wanted to see the last page. Two out of five. I probably won’t be wasting my time with another Dan Brown book in the future.
Author: Dan Brown
Pages: 480 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 2/5
Amazon Link: Inferno
Posted on Apr 14, 2013 in Musings, Politics, Technology
The past two weeks have seen a lot of attention given to the Coalition’s proposal of ditching Labor’s version of the National Broadband Network, and instead implementing a cheaper solution. In short, the ALP wants to spend $37 billion running fibre optic cable to every house in Australia. Paired with requisite equipment, this will allow Australians to connect to the internet at a speed of 100mbps, and, apparently, fibre optic cable is “infinitely” upgradable, so if necessary the speed could be upped to well in excess of 1000mbps. By contrast the coalition wants to spend $20bn in what is called “fibre to the node”; running carbon fibre cable to big boxes on street corners and then using the existing copper network to connect from that box to the individual houses. The coalition’s plan will allow Australian consumers to connect at a “whopping” speed of 25mbps.
I have relished the debate that has unfolded in the past few weeks – especially the contributions of the Communications and IT experts that have lambasted the Coalition for overlooking the quality downsides and operating costs of maintaining the copper wire network and providing power and utilities to the “big ugly boxes”, for sidestepping how ugly the “big ugly boxes” will be when placed on streets, and their insistence that 25mbps is more than enough for average Australian households (let me just state right now that I once had a 20mbps connection and I was not that impressed). I am not a futurist, and I don’t have the IT or Communications expertise to predict what the internet needs will be in the future. However, I can point to two examples that show how unwise it is to build infrastructure for today’s world.
I grew up in North Sydney. I lived in a house off a beautiful road called Burns road. But while this road was indeed beautiful, framed by magnificent trees and nice houses, it had a massive downside; it is only a two-lane road. This was a vital route through my suburb, not only for people living in my suburb but also for many who worked, or went to school around it. But because this road was built oh-so long ago, and was built with only two lanes, every morning and every evening it becomes a parking lot. When I was in primary school I used to walk almost a kilometre down this road every morning and every afternoon, and there is no doubt my speed was comparable to the poor saps sitting in their cars. When I started driving to university in 2009 it would take me about 10 minutes just to traverse the 500 or so metres of Burns road I needed to cover. The rest of my trip, which covered about 15 kilometres, but which mostly took place on 6 lane roads, did not take much longer. Burns road alone accounted for a considerable proportion of my travel time. What’s more, there is no possibility of Burns road ever getting expanded to meet the needs of ever more motorists, as it is already built right up to the property lines of houses on both sides. Burns road is a perfect example of building infrastructure to meet the needs of the day, rather than the needs of the future. It might have made sense when cars were a luxury and only local residents needed to use the road, but that is no longer the world we live in.
The second example I have is the Pacific Highway. I have driven between Sydney and the Gold Coast on the Pacific Highway many times, and every time I do I notice how piss poor the design was. The Pacific Highway is one of the lifelines of Australia, but it too was only built as a two-lane highway. The road is by used everything with wheels – cars, buses, trucks, and learners. And the only opportunity given to overtake the latter two is at one of the sporadic overtaking lanes. Furthermore, rather than going straight, it winds slowly through the country side and frequently passes straight through little villages and hamlets – a large part of the reasoning behind the low speed limit. What is a 900 km journey often takes more than 12 hours to accomplish. Again, this is a road that was built for another time. Building it as only two lanes was a drastic oversight, and allowing villages and houses to spring up around it has stymied any improvement. We have paid the price in more than just travel time as various governments have spent decades and billions of dollars trying to overcome this shortfall.
We cannot always see the needs of the future, and obviously the explosion in the ownership of cars was something no one foresaw. But claiming that a 25mbps download speed is sufficient or will be sufficient for everyday life is just being willfully blind to what is happening all around us. Even with Labor’s 100mbps proposal we will only just be catching up to the likes of South Korea. Furthermore, Australia is only just starting to see the beginnings of internet media streaming, and there are already many improvements in media quality that we know are in the pipeline – let alone the ones that have not been conceived of yet. Many of my generation might forsake traditional media models altogether and take up an internet only approach – something I have basically already done. What all this comes down to is that we don’t have to make the same mistakes we made with our appalling infrastructure. If we did it again we would not build Burns road or the Pacific Highway with only two lanes. Let’s apply the same logic to our National Broadband Network. We already know that 25mbps is not sufficient, why can’t we learn from our past infrastructure mistakes and do it right the first time?
Posted on Apr 11, 2013 in Book Report
So, I recently joined the team of Final Draft, 2ser’s book show. The first book I was given was The Childhood of Jesus, the latest novel by Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee. According to the book jacket The Childhood of Jesus is a “surprising fable… about childhood, about destiny, about being an outsider.” But to be honest I am not so sure. To me it is a confused fable that has very little to do with anything.
The story follows a child refugee named David and his guardian Simon. David has lost his parents on the journey and Simon has pledged to help them become reunited. It all begins with Simon and David leaving the refugee centre to try to find a place to live. We immediately experience the full force of Coetzee’s acerbic storytelling, as a comedy of errors forces the two to sleep outside. But from there the story starts to drift. Simon gets a job stevedoring so the two can rent their own apartment. He also starts seeing a woman in a nearby apartment, and they begin to go on picnics. On one of these picnics Simon suddenly “sees” the boy’s mother, despite never having met her before or knowing what she looks like. Simon ‘offers’ David to the Woman, she accepts, and Simon attempts to remove himself from the picture. This soon fails as Simon cannot stand being away from the boy, and the ‘Mother’ proves to be a lousy mother. Despite being gifted, David starts acting out and comes to the attention of the education authorities. They decide to send David to a special school for trouble children, and a battle for control ensues. The story ends suddenly after the novelty of the impulsive Mother, the aimless Simon, and the enigma of David have truly worn thin.
From the prerelease hype, the title, and my experience with Coetzee, I really expected more from this book. At the very least I expected some moralizing, some exploration of Biblical allegories or truths, or some underlying agenda. But none of this is evident to me. If it is there, it is hidden quite deep, so deep I spent more time digging for meaning than enjoying the story. About the only connection I can make is that the figure of Simon somewhat resembles that of Don Quixote – who is referenced at length in the story – but even that gets us nowhere to solving the point of the work. The story just meanders along at it’s own pace, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Simon lurches from one situation to another, from one experience of his new world to another, characters appear and then fade away, the child steadily becomes more of an enigma, and then the story ends with absolutely no satisfaction. We hardly ‘meet’ any of the characters, we hardly explore this new world, we hardly even truly learn about David and Simon, apart from that Simon is some good Samaritan and that every aspect of David seems to change on a dime. I guess you could call this an allegory for religion, but that too is tenuous.
To be blunt I feel like Coetzee has wasted my time. I have read Disgrace and remember it with awe, but Childhood of Jesus just comes nowhere close. The story just feels so pointless, and I have been left bewildered rather than entertained or enlightened. When I look at the notes I made while writing the book, they are almost all questions; “Why did that happen? Why did she/he do that? Why are all the dockworkers philosophers? Is he pretending to be obstinate? Why did it end suddenly?” And I honestly have no answers. The only reason I kept turning pages was more out of hope that Coetzee would pull a rabbit out of his hat rather than a real care for the characters or an interest in the story. The two best explanations I can come up with are that this is a very elaborate prank, or that Coetzee needed to pump out a book to fulfill his part of a contract. I certainly cannot see any love or necessity to tell this story.
Title: The Childhood of Jesus
Author: J. M. Coetzee
Pages: 288 (Hardback)
Publisher: Viking Adult
Josh’s Rating: 2/5
Amazon Link: The Childhood of Jesus
Posted on Mar 30, 2013 in Book Report
Like a lot of people I suddenly became aware of Cloud Atlas and the author David Mitchell with the release of the Cloud Atlas movie. It was a struggle, but I did manage to sneak in reading the book before seeing the movie, and I am very glad that I did. Like all too many adaptations the movie is nothing to write home about, but the novel itself is absolutely superb on a number of fronts. Not only is it a spectacular and unique idea (which alone is enough to get a tick from me), but it is also a well executed story.
The plot of Cloud Atlas features six different characters living in different geographical areas, and living in different times throughout history. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one character, using a variety of literary styles and mediums. At first the chapters are ordered chronologically, but from the middle “double chapter” the chapters start going backwards through time. The first ‘story’ comes in the form of a diary written by Adam Ewing, a surprisingly eloquent American Lawyer journeying in the pacific in the 1860s. The second is from the early 20th century and told through some incredibly potent and suggestive letters written by a down-and-out musician named Robert Frobisher (letters written to his friend Rufus Sixsmith). The third is a ‘novel’ about a journalist named Luisa Rey who is investigating an unsafe nuclear reactor in the later 20th century. The fourth is a comic autobiographical film of Timothy Cavendish, a 65 year old publisher who has been tricked into a retirement village by his brother. The fifth is the confession of Sonmi-451, a genetically engineered worker/clone in a dystopian near future. And the sixth is set on what used to be Hawaii after some immense disaster and is told in the form of an old man named Zachary telling his story to a child.
The book begins and ends with the diary of Adam Ewing, along the way we transcend space, time and genre, and the plot evolves through a number of interrelated plot points and characters. But it is the connections between the characters that are especially genius. Frobisher has read the journal of Adam Ewing, Luisa Rey has run into Rufus Sixsmith and read some of Frobisher’s letters, Timothy Cavendish receives a manuscript for the novel about Luisa Rey, Somni-451 watches part of the movie about Timothy Cavendish, and Zachary has seen the recording of Somni’s confession (and previously worshiped her as a god). Many of the characters also share a similar birthmark (which is actually commented on in the Luisa Rey chapter), and the author has stated the characters are actually all reincarnations of the same soul (as signified by the birthmark). It wasn’t until about halfway through the book that I realized the pattern, and I am still astounded by it weeks after finishing the book.
But there are some downsides to this book. It is a hard book to get into, and some of the chapters are especially hard to follow. At the beginning I just could not get my head around Adam Ewing’s ‘stream of conscious’-esque diary. In fact I really had to persuade myself to keep going through the first chapter, and it was only when I reached the Frobisher letters that I was well and truly hooked. Similarly, Somni’s confession is a very strange literary experience and the dystopian world comes out of nowhere. I had to get quite a bit of the way into the Somni chapter before I understood what was going on, and even now I am still at a loss. But the middle ‘double chapter’ about Zachary were probably the hardest to read. The Zachary chapters are by far the slowest, and made the least amount of sense. Zachary’s ‘way of speaking’ makes it a challenge to read, and I feel like there is a lot of implied knowledge built into the story. Zachary’s chapter probably would have been ok in a full sized novel, but such a quick hit without much exposition just leaves the readers in the dark. In fact the whole novel could have been quite a lot longer, a serious negative of the approach taken by Mitchell is that just when you are getting ‘into’ a character or a setting, you are quickly whisked away to something else entirely.
All in all this book provided an incredible experience. When I first started this book, with a strange account of a man on a beach, I never thought I would read a story that wound its way through the pacific islands in the 19th century, the musical salons of the 1930s, an investigation into a corporate coverup, a hilarious account of a hapless old man, a dystopian corpocracy, or a battered old man in a post-apocalyptic society. Equally amazing was how each character had their own voice, and how well Mitchell carried out each style. The dairy of Adam Ewing is nothing like the letters of Frobisher, and the humour mixed with despair of Timothy Cavendish is something else entirely. As all the characters told their own stories using different mediums, Mitchell had a real challenge on his hands making them sound unique and real. But it was flawless. He not only captured the character, but he also captured the medium. I have often read books where I was counting the pages, not wanting the dream to end, but this was the first book where I did this with each individual chapter as well. Cloud Atlas is a brilliant book. Four stars.
Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Pages: 528 (Paperback)
Publisher: Random House
Josh’s Rating: 4/5
Amazon Link: Cloud Atlas