Friday, April 24, 2009

The Rum Punch Review: "Chronicles of The Lensmen, Vol. 1" (Part 2)

Part one of this review is here.

Confused about what a "Rum Punch Review" is? Click here.

I was this close to giving up on the Lensmen book.

It'd been sitting on my nightstand, unread, since I posted the first part of its review, and I hadn't been all that thrilled about picking it up and keeping going. I had left off at the part where the entire history of everything in the universe had gotten up to Atlantis and its destruction (Not a spoiler, given that the chapter is called The Fall of Atlantis and begins with the Eddorians deciding to destroy it and the Arisians letting it be destroyed...) and the book just really hadn't caught fire in me yet.

So on Sunday, Sweetie asked if we could go over to the bookstore and pick up some new books. "Sure," I agreed, and said "I might return that Lensman book and pick up something at the store to read."

As I discussed in part 1 of the review, that's a step I hate to take, but then again, I hate to waste my time reading a book that I'm not crazy about. And I was a couple hundred pages into this one and it was really kind of boring. That's a tough thing to say about a book that details the rise and fall of two great civilizations that are destined to war against each other, with each trying to mold the universe in its image and shape evolution to help forge warriors, but, then, boring is as boring does.

We went to the bookstore, Sweetie and I, and I took Mr Bunches and Mr F, and as it turns out I didn't get anything, after all. I looked at one book that caught my eye just sitting on the shelf. It had a black cover with large white printing and was in the fiction section and the cover was very attention-grabbing, so I picked it up.

That was about a week ago, almost, and it's been a really long week, a week in which I got zillions of phone calls and had family emergencies and the library started hassling me again and stuff, so I don't remember what this attention-grabbing book was actually called. Something about lying, maybe.

What I do remember is that I read the back of the book, and it sounded interesting, so I did the third thing I usually do with books that capture my attention.

Step one is always: Examine the cover to see if the attention-grabbing qualities that made me look at it hold my attention a little longer.

Step two is read the back cover. There's usually one of three things on the back cover: either a summary of the plot, a teaser to draw me in, or, something about the author, or, blurbs from critics telling me how great the book is.

This book had nothing about the author on the back cover. It mixed one and three on that list: It had a tiny, short teaser and then some blurbs from critics.

I've wondered a long time why anything about the author is on the back cover of a book. I can't think of anything you could tell me about the author of a fiction book that would make me want to buy the book. Nothing. Maybe if it's a memoir, or nonfiction, or something, where the author's credentials or history is important. But fiction? Why would I care about the author when I'm buying a fiction book?

Let's say you pick up the book John Tyler: Space President for Hire, because it has a flying smelt on the cover and that caught your eye. So you turn it over to see what the book is about, and instead of a plot, you get a picture of me in a turtleneck standing on a seashore and looking pensive, and it says The author wrote this book at his office, while he was supposed to be working. He lives in Wisconsin.

Does that make it more likely you'll want to read it? If publishers want to say something about the author, put it in the book, in a foreword or afterword or midword or something. Not on the back cover.

The same with blurbs. I know why the blurbs are there. It's science, but it's junk science. here's what it's based on:

Scientifically speaking, you can make someone fall in love with someone else in two easy steps. You take two people, and do this: First, tell each person that the other one likes him or her. Second, have each person tell the other a super-embarrassing story about themselves. That's all it takes: More often than not, those two people will fall in love.

I know that works because I've done it, and the people are still married to this day, something like 17 years later.

Blurbing books works on the same theory, kind of: Telling me that someone else liked the book makes it more likely I'll like the book. That's the theory, anyway, but it fails, with me, because I don't know who those people are or what else they liked, and I secretly suspect everyone else in the world of being either (a) an uncultured bohemian idiot or (b) a snob who likes pretentious crap. So I'm not inclined to follow the advice of some total unknown person who said This book is a must-read! because that person might have said fifty-three other crummy books were a must-read, too.

Someone's reading all those Chicken Soup books and recommending them, and it's not me.

Anyway, this particular book that I picked out had maybe three sentences of plot and then some blurbs, so I couldn't tell if it was something I might like or not and I didn't want to take a chance on just buying it because the last time I bought a book without knowing much about it, that book was Infinite Jest and I'd have been better off throwing my seventeen dollars out the window. If there has ever been a worse book than Infinite Jest, I don't know what it is. Infinite Jest was worse than Mason & Dixon and The Name of the Rose combined. I suspect that the infinite jest David Foster Wallace was referring to was the joke he played on publishers getting that book in the stores, and on critics who were too cowed to admit it sucked.

I took, then, step three, which is open the book to a random point and read a few paragraphs to see what it's like. I did that with this one, and landed smack dab in the middle of a sex scene, which I of course read -- feeling awkward, a little, that I was standing in a big superbookstore with my twin boys in a stroller reading some porn -- and then decided that the writing wasn't very good, after all, so I put the book back and moved on, leaving me, after all that, with this thought:

How full of sex does a book have to be to have a reader open to a random page and hit a sex scene?

"Pretty full," said Sweetie, when I asked her that question.

I got distracted from that thought by then noticing a big display of various zombie-themed books all on the end of an aisle, and all making millions of dollars for their authors, who were probably sitting in Hawaii even then, counting their money and thinking man, whoever made zombies big again, thanks!

That display made me both hopeful that my own zombie-related story was destined for great things, and also sad that my own zombie-related story has not yet achieved those great things, and also made me wonder a little whether I should have actually just started writing John Tyler: Space President for Hire, since I found out that day, too, that the "Pride & Prejudice & Zombies" guy is going to write a book about Abe Lincoln fighting zombies, and if I'm going to be at the forefront of a cultural movement, shouldn't I get a little credit (and by "credit," I mean "royalties.")

The upshot is that I went home sans new book and didn't return The Chronicles of the Lensman Vol. 1 to the library, so that Sunday night, when I went to bed, I had the option of (a) watching "Law & Order: Which One Is This Again?" with Sweetie, or (b) reading Lensman, or (c) giving up on Lensman and starting one of the other books on my shelf.

Option (c) wasn't a real great one because I'd be starting the new book while Lensman was sitting there on my nightstand, all pathetic and unloved, and would weigh on my conscience while I tried to start a new book (or go back to Playing for Pizza). It'd be exactly like when I was a teenager and we'd go to teen bars and there'd be two girls standing there, one pretty and one not, and I'd want to ask the pretty one to dance, but what about the not-pretty one? What about her? Wouldn't she feel bad? I'd start thinking that way, then I'd think what if the pretty one turns me down in front of her friend? That'd be embarrassing? Then I'd think what if the pretty one doesn't turn me down? I'm not exactly a good dancer? So I wouldn't ask anyone to dance and I'd just listen to The Cure on the way home.

Okay, so it wouldn't be exactly like that, but I didn't want to have to go find my Cure CD, so I instead picked up Lensman and gave it one more chance.

And I am glad I did, because within about two pages, Lensman got awesome. Way awesome.

Lensman, remember, was written as a serial -- just like I do on this website! And this one! And this one! Hey! Cool! And self-promoting! -- and, as explained in such a stultifying way by the introduction, the first couple chapters of the book I'm reading were tacked on after the fact. On Sunday, I got past those tacked-on things and got to the original serials, and they are great!

The thing about writing a serial, as you learn if you ever try, is that you've got to quickly grab the reader, and then make the reader hang around for the next installment. Which means action aplenty, and cliffhangers and jaw-droppers and introductions of new characters left and right, and then some more action aplenty.

Lensman does not disappoint in that regard. The part I'm up to now is called Triplanetary, and it's set in a future-of-humanity in which humans have taken to exploring space and are friends with Martians and Venusians and have a sort of Triplanetary government (hence the title, I assume.) It's written the way Heinlein writes stuff, too -- not a lot of exposition, not a lot of background, just assuming that you're familiar with science and the history of the world, even if that science and history are all made up.

As I hit the Triplanetary part, there's a space liner that comes under attack from V2 gas, causing Conway Costigan, a member of the Triplanetary Secret Service, to rescue a beautiful woman and don a space suit, fight pirates, inform others of the attack, and ultimately, get pulled into a giant, hidden space ship that's like the size of a planet...

... George Lucas? There's some copyright lawyers on line one...

... where they meet their nemesis/attacker/pirate, who goes by the fearsome name of ... Roger.

I loved that, and here's why: On my own serial (self-promotion rules!) I have revenants who are working for a mysterious organization to block the Gates of Heaven to keep Armageddon from happening, and the leader of those revenants is named: Steve. And that was a name I came up with (along with Rachel's friend, the Revenant named Bob) long before I read about Roger the Space Pirate attacking the Triplanetary liner.

So I loved Roger because it showed that I and the writer had something in common, something that's missing from too much sci-fi and fantasy and that was far more prevalent in the serials of days past, and that's a sense of the fun, the absurd, the interesting. It's absurd, I thought, to name a revenant "Bob" and have him wear concert t-shirts, and it's equally absurd to have the leader of a giant planet of robot pirates be called "Roger," but it's fun absurd; it's don't take this too seriously, just enjoy it absurd.

Conway Costigan and his buddy and the woman in the parts I've read [KIND OF A SPOILER ALERT, BUT HOW CAN I REVIEW A STORY WITHOUT SPOILING IT A LITTLE] go through battles with Roger as he tries to use the woman to study sex, and battles with Nevians, who are like a lizard-y-fish race of aliens that intervene in the battle because they've come across the universe to try to find iron, and while all that's going on, there's also a war with intelligent fish from the deeps of the planet Nevia, and another character from the Triplanetary service who films the whole battle and begins to figure things out, and also, there's a giant mountain covered in metal and hollowed out that serves as the base for the Triplanetary service on Earth.

... Hello? NORAD? There's some copyright lawyers on the phone...

All of which happens at a breakneck pace. Each chapter is, as you'd expect from a serial, a self-contained portion of the story, and each ends on a cliffhanger. The woman is trapped by Roger. Spaceships burst on the scene melting everything in sight. Giant fish attack with exploding orbs. People eject into space and storm onto bridges and form giant Cones of Attack and more happening all the time.

The characters are about what you'd expect from this type of story: Think Flash Gordon, only more upstanding and able. Conway Costigan can fight, hide secrets, figure out alien spaceships, store molten iron in his boot (it's complicated) and figure out how to talk to Nevians. In between all that, he can fall in love with the girl and kiss her and promise to marry her and still be respectful of her when they go to sleep on the alien spaceship, and he can also figure out alien weapon systems. The other characters are even more upstanding and charming and smart, but not in an obnoxious kind of way.

The writing, too, takes on its own style -- E.E. Smith had a large vocabulary or an easy-to-use thesaurus, or both, and the writing helps move the story forward in a breathlessly narrated kind of way, with lots of adjectives and minimal explanation and delays to talk about the science behind things only when it's necessary to do that. But even that is done in an interesting kind of way.

I'm about nearly 1/2 way through it now, and I look forward to reading a new chapter each night. That's the pace I've set for myself, because otherwise I'd probably stay up reading it all night, and I don't want to be exhausted all week, and also because it is a serial, and so it's best read that way: There's very little in life that's more fun than falling to sleep picturing Conway Costigan, his beautiful fiancee, and his sturdy assistant standing on the edge of a nearly-broken lifeboat they stole, looking over the vast expanse of an oceanic world as the purple sun sets, while a tentacle with dozens of mouths on it creeps towards them, wondering what'll happen next... and knowing it'll be good.

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