Saturday, August 4, 2007

San Diego Book Review

For the week I was in San Diego, I read two and a half books, so I thought I would give some quick thoughts on the two books I finished. I'll go back to longer reviews when I fnish the one I am currently working through.

The Andromeda Strain - When I started this book, my memory had been that Crichton was really good at writing characters and the plot was driven by this. This was based primarily on my reading of Jurassic Park close to fifteen years ago when it came out. Unfortunately, that recollection did not hold up very well in light of Andromeda. The characters are kinda flat, and what drives the story is way cool 1960s cutting edge technology that hasn't survived the past forty years particularly well. The story still is compelling, especially given the foul-ups that keep the mystery from being solved as quickly as would have been useful and the lack of communication that adds a sense of heightened peril when the protagonists move along in their methodical process, not knowing that the safety they feel is not real at all.

Two things of interest--I'd like to see this story retold with modern technology; I think it could survive fairly easily, because the failures that plague the investigation are human failures rather than technological ones. Secondly, this is the first book I can recall whose movie was actually better than the book. I think this is primarily because the characters are allowed to be more fully rounded in the movie, as well as the technology not being nearly so clunky looking on the screen as it was in the book.

Camouflage - In what is almost a throwback to the golden or silver ago of science fiction, Joe Haldeman has created the story of aliens unknowably more powerful than humans moving about the Earth. The story doesn't really have much depth to it, but it is entertaining nonetheless, in the way of evaluating human culture from a distinctly third-person point of view. I had worked out the impending big plot twist about halfway through the book, so when it was revealed, I wasn't terribly surprised.

What really succeeds in the book is the characterization of the changeling alien, able to take all manners of forms, making its way through the course of human history. As could be expected from the golden-age tone of the novel, the alien slowly becomes more and more human, resulting in a secondary plot twist that could be (and has been) the primary source of many good strong science fiction stories. There is also some feeling of personal investment in the description of the Bataan Death March, lurid and sad in its telling. But the protagonist alien survives its experiences there with a more clear insight of the race it has infiltrated.

Unfortunately, the other threads that make up this story are not so nearly well developed as that of the protagonist, and Haldeman's use of short concise chapters up to the point where he doesn't any more adds to the fogginess of those other plot elements. And when, suddenly, the chapters are far longer, it feels a little bit like the reader is involved with a different story altogether.

Nonetheless, it is a strong novel, especially for its resonances with earlier ages of writing, and ultimately a good bit of fun.

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