Recent Reads – March 2017

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

There was a time when George Saunders was one of my favorite writers. I loved his first two books, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. But then my interest waned as his star rose — the former having nothing to do with the latter, by the way; I just gravitated toward a different kind of fiction. Anyway, I never read his most celebrated book to date, Tenth of December. I did, however, meet him right after In Persuasion Nation came out, and he read one of my short stories, and I’ll never forget the incredibly kind and generous feedback he gave me. I think it’s that kindness, which you find in his writings and in the interviews he gives, that people respond to and that have made Saunders into a critical darling — he can do no wrong. So when rapturous reviews started pouring in for Lincoln in the Bardo, I figured the only way for me to get a real sense of whether the book was any good was to read it myself. And it is good. It’s weird and wonderful like the best of his stories, and it contains some genuinely heartbreaking moments (like Lincoln’s first visit to his son’s tomb). Oh George, it’s good to be back.

Story of Your LifeStory of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang

I have conflicted feelings about this book. Two of its stories — “Tower of Babylon” and “Story of Your Life” — are brilliant, while others felt more like essays on interesting SFnal ideas rather than full-fledged stories. Admittedly, I prefer this to fiction where the SFnal elements are just window-dressing to a non-SF plot — meaning, I like science fiction that can’t exist without its science — but the lack of “story” in some of Chiang’s stories made it hard for me to emotionally connect with them. I’m sure this fault is all mine because the stories that did work for me, particularly the title one, are truly heartbreaking. So as a collection of fiction, this didn’t entirely work for me, but as a collection of mind-boggling SFnal ideas wrapped in fiction, it’s stellar.

(I also wrote about the movie Arrival recently.)

Slaughterhouse-fiveSlaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

I have now read six Vonneguts in a row, and my modest theory on why Slaughterhouse-Five is his best-known book is that it combines the zaniness of his earlier work with the more cohesive storytelling of his later career (say, Jailbird). Like his best books, this one is deceptively profound and hilarious. It’s so good, in fact, you want the Trafalmadorian theory about life to be true: that a dead person is only dead in this moment but still very much alive in other moments. I’d like to think Vonnegut is still out there somewhere, scribbling away.

TimequakeTimequake – Kurt Vonnegut

This book is hysterical. I listened to the audio version while I ran and several times had to interrupt my run because I was laughing so hard.

 

 

Dog walkerDogwalker – Arthur Bradford

I come back to this book every 2 or 3 years. It’s short, bizarre, hilarious, tender-hearted, and unlike anything else I’ve read.

 

Thoughts on Arrival

I finally watched Arrival. I’d been looking forward to seeing it, because I love the short story it’s based on (“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) and the soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson, so my expectations were high. And they were largely met. I thought it was a remarkably tender, meditative movie whose message that communication and understanding between countries can prevent violence is especially relevant today. Plus how often do you see an SF movie with a female lead, and a linguist to boot?

But there was a key difference between the story and the movie that at first seemed random and then increasingly bothered me. (SPOILER ALERT) In the short story, Louise’s daughter dies in a climbing accident. In the movie, she dies from a rare unstoppable disease. As Louise learns the heptapods’ language and rewires her brain to see time as they do, she realizes that her daughter is going to die. In the story, she can save her with a simple warning, but doesn’t. The movie, on the other hand, makes the girl’s death inevitable, which misses the central point of the story, I think.

Humans see time as a sequence of cause and effect, and our language is a reflection of this. The heptapods, however, see time as a single entity — they see the beginning and end points of each action, but they do not have the power to change anything. The movie acknowledges this when the heptapods explain they came to Earth because in 3,000 years they’ll need humanity’s help, but rather than following through on this idea of time being a fixed entity, the movie in its final minutes turns into a fairly typical time travel story that doesn’t address the central conceit it started out with: namely, if Louise can prevent her daughter’s death, why doesn’t she?

In the story, Louise simply can’t prevent it. She knows it’s coming, but cannot deviate from the path that leads to this outcome, which makes her story profoundly tragic. In the movie, by choosing to have a daughter she knows will die, Louise becomes a martyr (or a narcissist — her husband leaves her when he finds out she knew all along that their daughter would die; in the story, he leaves her for other reasons, simply because some marriages fall apart). This outcome is still tragic in its own right — Louise chooses heartbreak simply to give her daughter the chance to live — but it’s not in line with the whole setup of the movie.

Why did the screenwriters do this? Was it an oversight? Did they not “get” the source material? Did they “dumb down” the movie to fit a particular mold?

Still, I loved the movie, but for different reasons than the story. The story is profound and poignant. The movie is too, but within the limits that Hollywood has put on it.