Therese Anne Fowler's debut novel is a beautifully rendered portrayal of the woman who would become Zelda Fitzgerald. Set against the glitz and glamour of the decadent Jazz Age, the story follows young Zelda Sayre's constant attempts to flaunt the strict and conservative social structure of 1918 Alabama. It is during this time that she meets a young Army lieutenant named Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, who splits his time between courting Zelda and struggling to get his first novel published. The novel is told from Zelda's point of view (whose smooth relaxed narrative recalls the elder Jeanne Lousie "Scout" Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird) and follows her along the course of her ultimately doomed marriage to Fitzgerald, fighting against the burgeoning morals of society, the rise and fall of her husband's career, and her own tumultuous demons. Sometime humorous, sometimes tragic, this poignant portrait of Zelda serves as both cautionary tale of love and recklessness, as well as the recollection of a time when hopes were high and life was celebrated. Definitely suggested for fans of Fitzgerald, but also an excellent choice for a nice rainy day book.
I wanted to like "The Currents of Space." I tried to like it. I really did. I had just come off Asimov's "The End of Eternity" with nothing but glowing praises for it. Eager to explore further in the man's universe, I gleefully plucked this off the shelf in the library and dove into it hoping to strike gold a second time. Unfortunately, this mine proved a barren dud, unless you are into the kind of treasure that's long on metaphor and conjecture and short on actual storytelling. It could not hold my attention long enough to really get into it, and I kept getting get beaten over the head with its own perceived sense of self-importance.
The Prologue opens high above the planet Florina, where an unnamed government scientist has come to warn the ruling class of the planet's oncoming demise. Unfortunately, the chief export of the planet is the sole source of wealth for this ruling class, so of course the scientist must be silenced. From there the story begins and centers around Rik, an apparent Florinian slave with only fragments of the memory of his former life who, with the help of his boss and his self appointed care-taker, sets off on a quest to find out who he is and what his purpose for being on Florina originally was (take a wild guess who he was in his former life). For a book that labels itself as a "mystery in space," the crime is about as blatantly obvious as any cold opening of "Columbo." From the get go, you see the crime in progress, you already know who the victim is and who the perpetrator is and why it happened, and now the rest of the story is spent waiting for them to figure the mystery out "before it's too late." Sadly, while we are sitting around waiting for the main characters to hit upon a clue, we are subjected to space bureaucracy. What, oh what shall we do about Florina? How shall it affect trade. Can our chief export be supplanted on another planet? How can we maintain power if our export can be mass produced? What of the people we keep in captivity. What shall become of them? Will they rise up against us, or simply ask to live among us? Blah blah blah.
The chief problem with the novel is that Asimov couldn't decide whether he wanted to write a science fiction story or an allegory about the socio-economic ramifications of the abolition of slavery in the American South during the Civil War. So, he tried to do both. This would be more excusable, if either part could stand upon its own merits. Unfortunately, the allegory suffers by being too vague to fully realize until after the book is over, and the story (being a rehash of the same boring old Man- Goes- On- Quest- To- Challenge- And- Undo -The- System) suffers from being hampered by the aforementioned allegory. In its defense, there are some elements of good to be found here. When Asimov does decide to tell the story part (despite the plot having been done to death) he does it with panache and the narrative moves with fluidity. When he decides to focus on the characters, they have a voice and each carries a unique personality. Sadly, despite these glimmers of hope, I could not recommend "The Currents of Space" as a decent novel, either for fans of Asimov or anyone looking to break into him.
I will begin with a contrite confession: Before this, I had never read an Issac Asimov novel before. Not a single one. Oh, certainly I had heard of the guy, but my childhood interests in Science Fiction lay primarily with the likes of Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, and a vast array of Star Trek and Star Wars themed novels. Flash forward a decade of two to a friday night of perusing the stacks of my local library. I already had a burgeoning pile of materials under my arm when, out of a sudden and pure sense of nostalgia, I found myself walking into the sci-fi section. I didn't go in with any express intent or desire. If I could find a Doctor Who novel or maybe a set of short stories by Clarke, so be it. As it happened, I zigged when I should have zagged and found myself completely turned around in the section. I was about to give up and head back out when I found this little gem, just wasting away on a dusty shelf. It's spine was cracked, the cover was faded and peeling at the edges, and many of the pages were dog eared. There were even highlighted passages throughout, along with hand written annotations detailing the thoughts and feeling of one past borrower or another. Had this book been a donation the librarians didn't inspect closely enough, or perhaps a research tool for a student's literature class? Whatever the mystery behind them, these were the hallmarks of a book which had seen action and could tell far more tales than just the one hidden between its covers, but had since been left to languish in obscurity while waiting for another chance to entertain. This was a book the demanded to be explored! This was a book which begged to be read! This was a book with a personality.
Without knowing anything about the story (hadn't even read the synopsis on the back cover), I quickly tucked the book under my arm and made for the check-out desk. If this book was screaming "Try me and you'll not be disappointed," who was I not to give it the benefit of doubt? Well, I tried it.....and I was far from disappointed. Make no mistake: beneath the veneer of a time traveling story is a deep rooted morality tale about the question of Loyalty to One's Self or Loyalty to The Cause and what it truly means to play God. The titular place in question, Eternity, is a place which exists out of sync with time and space and home to a group of people whose job it is to watch over the entire course of mankind's history and make plot out subtle course corrections here and there for the "betterment" of humainty. The job of executing these changes falls to "Technicians" such as the story's principle character, Andrew Harlan. Andrew is one of the best at his job: Cold, apathetic, never focused on the people but rather on the problem at hand....that is, until he falls in love with a woman in a century he is supposed to "fix." Realizing she will be erased from history, he breaks every rule in his society's book to save her. When they are captured, his punishment is to kill the woman he loves to save his own reality.
This book was PHENOMINAL!!! The prose sucks you in from the first sentence and maintains a death grip on you throughout, until it finally releases you with the last syllable, gasping for breath and grasping for reason. Make no mistake, though: beneath the veneer of a time traveling story is a deep rooted morality tale about the struggle of staying loyal to everything you've ever been taught to believe in or being loyal to yourself and the consequences of playing God. The characters are all firmly fleshed out from the get-go without any "getting to know them" (read: having to slog through three chapters before their personalities start to shine through) and it never feels like ideas are being re-hashed or familiar ground is being tread on. This is definitely a must try for anyone who likes to have their science fiction grounded in some semblance of reality. Moving on now to "The Currents of Space" and hoping for the same kind of magic.
"The Lost World" marks my second foray into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work outside of the Sherlock Holmes canon (The first being the incredibly tedious "Mystery of Cloomber"...but more on that in a later review.) Almost from the start, I had an incredible Love/Hate relationship with the story. Overall, I did love the book. The narrative was evenly paced, as was the action. Conan Doyle has a way with visulaizations that put you right in the driver's seat, rather than as a spectator. Although the story would occasionally get bogged by stopping for a moment to study one kind of flora or fauna, the lecture never lasted very long before starting off again on the trail (much the same sort of thing one would run into while reading Michael Crichton's work.) And the language- oh, the language! If you read this book for no other reason, read it for the rich, precise, and absolutely lucious command of language Conan Doyle has. Most of the characters are wonderful and lovable in their own respects. There's Malone, the love-lorn reporter, out ot make a name for himself and win the heart of the woman he loves by proving himself an adventurer (Who among us has not done something stupid in the name of infatuation?). Then there's Summerlee, the cantankerous zoological professor (and resident fussbudget) who acts as the level-headed Devil's Advocate for the mission. By far, though, my absolute favorite character was Lord John Roxton, who was essentially the Allan Quartermain stand-in for the story. Game Hunter, Adventurer, Capitalist, Moral Conscience, Devoted to Duty, and Stiff-Upper Lipped in the Face of Certain Doom, John Roxton is truly A Man among Men. Seriously, if Roxton could be anymore of a quintissential Englishman, Gilbert and Sullivan wouldv'e written him into H.M.S Pinafore. But, that is what is so wonderful about him. He is just unapolgetically awesome at what he does.
...And then there's George.
I don't know whether he is a walking metaphor for turn-of-the-century British Imperialism, a subtle satire of some of the prominent scientists of the day, or simply an amalgimation of the kinds of character traits Conan Doyle found hilariously offensive. Maybe he isn't any of these things, but instead a character Conan Doyle well and truly thought would be appreciated and now stands as an example of how lack of character development can sometimes backfire on a writer. Whatever the reason, "Professor" George Edward Challenger has got to be, in my personal estimation, one of the biggest ass clowns in all of literature. A first year psychology major could recognize the sociopath with meglomaniacal tendencies lurcking inside George (Hell, Malone's boss outright said it!) He's a terror to his long-suffering wife, condescending and verbally abusive to his peers and physically abusive to members of the press. If he is contradicted in his beliefs even slightly, he will lose his temper and engage in fisticuffs at the drop of a hat...only to regain his temper in the time it takes to pick that hat back up, if placated. He also sulks like a child when he doesn't get his way, which twice brings him into conflict with Lord Roxton- once, when Roxton suggests that he be the first to cross the bridge onto the plateau to make sure the coast is clear (as opposed to Challenger, who wanted to cross first because he thought it was his divine right), and the second time, when Challenger was yelling in the middle of a field amidst a massacre of iguanodons and Roxton told him to keep his damn voice down so as not to attract the attention of whatever killed the dinosaurs and Challenger (a grown man, mind you) decides to throw a tantrum until Lord Roxton- the guy to trying to keep him safe- apologizes (apologizes!)
...Yet, being a little bitch about everything isn't what makes George so awful.
I think the thing which disturbs me the most about G.E.C, even more than his very evident mental instability, is the fact that the aformentioned instability is the only thing which might explain away why he is otherwise so painfully bad at his job. First, instead of sending down a team of 20 or 30 trained experts with pleanty of provisions and a detailed notebooks of his findings to guide them on their journey like any self respecting peer of his day would have done (any, in many documented cases, actually did), he decided to send three dudes, only one whom (Roxton) has the slightest clue about the lay of the land. The other members of this intrepid team consist of an elderly zoologist who ought to be long past the point of any field research, and a newspaper reporter whose greatest qualification is that he's pretty good at rugby. Admittedly he also sends along some Indians and a helper named Zambo to aid them on their journey (read: carry shit so they don't have to), but two of the Indians turn out to be enemies of Roxton (who, for a master gamehunter, seems to have a poor sense of situational awareness) and Zambo (possible, the most sensible of the bunch) later decides to remain at the base camp because he probably the most sensible of the bunch. Then Challenger hands them detailed coordinates of this myterious plateau, with orders not to open it until they get to the destination point. Lo and behold, when they arrive and open the envelope, they discover a blank sheet of paper, at which point Challenger strolls in and immediately takes comand of the expedition as though that had been the plan all along. That's not simply a dick move on George's part, but also a particularly reckless one for a man of science (considering all of the things that could have gone wrong in between leaving England and arriving in South America) which says to me that he is now making it up as he goes. So, they finally reach the plateau and make a bridge out of a conveniently tall tree to corrs the chasm that separates the two land masses. Naturally, the tree collapses cutting them off from civilization, but instead of making sure they can escape the plateau again, George decides to file that little peccadillo under "Shit I'll Deal With Later" and heads on his merry way with his bewildered companions in tow. Later, the group is attacked and captured by ape-men, huge hairy anthropoids with a warlike temperament. While the others are appropriately in fear of their lives, George is busy trying to classify the damn species. No worry about escape, no concern about mortal peril. No, no, let's just have a seat and play a round "Guess the Genus." Meanwhile Roxton, of the opinion that "ain't nobody got time for that," manages to escape and get help. Ironically enough, during this captivity, we discover that the are other human beings on the plateau (Indians, specifcally), but does George give one fig about where they came from or, perchance if they happen to know a way home? Nope. Not one solitary damn given all that day to the nature of the native Indians (Way to be a scientist, George). Finally Roxton come back with Malone (who had wandered off during the initial melee) and frees them all, including the Indians, whom the gang takes back to the Indian village. There, Challenger shoots his mouth off again. First, he assumes the Indians are "unevolved," despite that fact that Malone the reporter (not a trained anthropologist) is able to figure out that they not only built their own homes, but also have a social heirarchy, as indicated by the presence of someone Malone correctly identifies as the Chief- all of which Challenger should have been able to pick up on. He then siezes on of the Indians, not bothering to ask whether grabbing one's hosts is some sort of social faux-pas punishable by death. Finally, at the end, one of the Indians takes pity on the company and shows them a way out. They manage to get back to England and present their findings, and it is there that Goerge Edward Challenger commits the greatest sin of all. Earlier in the story, the gang encounters a colony of pterodactyls, which comes close to eating them. Clearly having learned from this experience, George decides to capture a baby one and bring it back to society as proof of his findings. Anyone who's ever seen "King Kong" of any number of Tarzan films knows what about to happen here. Quite naturally, at the perfect moment, Challenger releases the creature from it box, which causes no amount of pandemonium and allows the pterodactyl to escape through a open window before George can capture it again (really didn't think that through at all, did you George?) The Pterodactyl is last seen flying out over the Atlantic, presumably trying to get home to its family before it starves to death in a hostile enviroment. That's right...George Challenger, supposed preeminent scientist of his generation, stole one of the last dinosaurs in existence from its enviroment, apparently without any real plans on how to properly care for it, brough it thousands of miles from it's home and millions of years out of it's time, and dropped it in the modern world to die alone - all so he could rub it in the faces of his opponents. Way to go, George. Way to go.
So, there you have it. On the one hand, it truly is a well written tale, chock full of danger, suspense, and adventure. Well written characters, a thrilling narrative, and a such descriptive language as I have never seen outside the works of Jules Verne and J. Ryder Haggard. Lord Roxton is a badass, Summerlee will remind you of your grumpy grandfather, and Malone is so thoroughly likeable that you immediately place yourself in his shoes, regardless of your age or sex. And, on the other end of the whole thing, is George. I gave the novel the 3 1/2 star rating and encourage you to read it. However, I also recommend you buy it in hardcover somewhere. It will stand up much better to you occasionally hurling it across the room while muttering "Goddamit, George" every once in while.