BOOK REVIEW: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella’s protagonist is a security cyborg that is corporately-assigned to protect a survey team of human scientists. What makes the story intriguing, not to mention humorous, are the features that we consider human frailties that are witnessed in the thoughts and behaviors of this cyborg. There is his discomfort in interacting with humans. He refers to himself as a “murderbot” and displays some of the awkward mannerisms that are familiar to me as an introvert, though — in this case — they aren’t so much about being easily overstimulated as being uncomfortable with the fact that humans see him as giant robot with great capacity for violence. (Hey, it dawns on me that maybe it is the same with me.) The Murderbot also displays the human traits of laziness and desire to be entertained, and is often watching serial shows when an ordinary robot would either be doing work-a-day tasks like downloading protocols or would be off-line.

The most salient human trait is that he bonds – if awkwardly — with part of his team, and – even though he’s lazy by nature – he goes to great lengths to make sure they survive. Because the Murderbot is notably lazy, the reader must consider whether his willingness to put his life on the line comes from something beyond his protocols. The reader doesn’t know to what degree the cyborg is free, though we do know it has hacked the governor unit that overrides autonomous functions, and so one knows it’s freer than most units in its line of work. [Of course, “putting it’s life on the line” isn’t necessarily as solemn a matter as with humans because murderbots are notoriously difficult to kill, and can suffer severe damage and be quickly repaired / healed – provided they have access to the requisite facilities.]

I won’t get into specifics of story except to say that it takes place on a remote planet that is newly being charted, and the Murderbot’s team is one of a couple teams independently surveying different parts of the planet. Things go wrong and the Murderbot’s team of humans must find out who is the culprit, why said culprit has done what they did, and get out alive.

I enjoyed this novella. The subversion of expectations that comes from the cyborg being perhaps the most neurotic of the characters provides plenty of opportunity for humor, not to mention light philosophizing about the nature of being human and how trust forms. Readers of sci-fi will certainly enjoy this story, non-genre readers should give it a try as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Intimate Ties by Robert Musil

Intimate Ties: Two NovellasIntimate Ties: Two Novellas by Robert Musil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects two recently-translated novellas written by the Austrian author, Robert Musil. Originally published in Musil’s native tongue in 1911, the novellas in question are: “The Culmination of Love” and “The Temptation of Silent Veronica.” Both novellas revolve around a woman tormented by love relationships and indiscretion. In the first, the woman is haunted by marital infidelity, and in the second, the titular character is entangled in an unconsummated love triangle gone awry.

While I can’t speak to how true the translations are to the original, I will say that the language is beautiful and is the highlight of book. However, these works shun story, and so readers of popular fiction will find them unengaging, and may come away thinking that the book’s greatest feature is its brevity. I will say, that “The Temptation of Silent Veronica” was more pleasurable to read as it built up some tension. Readers of prose poetry may enjoy the play of words and emotional content of these novellas.

For readers of literary fiction and prose poetry, I would recommend “Intimate Ties.” However, I suspect readers of popular fiction will find the book tedious. Particularly, likely to think so are those who pick up the book thinking it is romance or – even more so — erotica. While the themes revolve around love and relationships, the “action” is more in the character’s mind than in the bedroom.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow WallpaperThe Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short story, written in the last decade of the 19th century, tells the story of a sad woman’s descent into madness. The lead is an upper-class lady, wife of a doctor, and is staying in a rented mansion with her husband and her husband’s sister (who acts as their housekeeper) through the summer. The protagonist has been diagnosed with a depressive disorder with hysterical tendencies, and the story serves as an indictment of the way in which mental illness was treated.

It’s not clear what the true nature of the protagonist’s mental or emotional infirmity was at the beginning of her move to the summer-house, but it’s clear that the treatment makes her state of mind much worse. That treatment was a so-called “rest-cure,” and it prohibited her from working, writing (which is now known to be quite therapeutic), or doing much else, save for staring at the walls – hence the title. As happens when the mind is shut-off from external stimuli, it starts to form its own stories that become projected into the individual’s world in the form of hallucinations. In the protagonist’s case, these hallucinations play out in (and behind) the irregular wallpaper pattern.

The fact that the woman’s husband is a doctor, ironically, contributes to her worsening condition because she accepts his “treatment” as being formulated by a great authority. As much as it is an indictment of the specific treatment offered (i.e. “rest-cures”), it may be even more of an indictment of the belief that there exists an infallible authority on the mind. A humbler doctor might have listened to his patient, and adjusted course when it became clear the patient was getting worse under the existing treatment.

This is a very quick read. It may be slow in places, as one might expect of a story that involves a substantial amount of staring at, and contemplation of, wallpaper, but as her condition becomes more serious the story becomes gripping and the nature of reality more in question. The edition that I read contained drawings.

I found this story both intriguing and thought-provoking, and would recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

The Elephanta SuiteThe Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas that feature Westerners out of their league in India. As an American living in India, I suspect anyone who’s had this experience will recognize instances in which—for good, bad, or a mix of each—one is swallowed whole by some feature of India that one couldn’t possibly have anticipated. The novellas aren’t interconnected, except by way of the themes that run through them and Theroux’s trademark use of what I’ll call—for lack of a better term—cameo references. These aren’t his own cameo appearances in the book—as he’s also been known to do—but rather minor instances in which the lives of the characters in one story brush up against those in another.

The first of the novellas is called “Monkey Hill,” and it features a tourist couple who are staying at an upscale resort that’s near a town with a large Hanuman temple. (Hanuman is the “monkey-god” of Hinduism, a popular deity with a monkey-like face and a man-like body who features prominently in the epic entitled Ramayana.) The resort grounds also have monkeys, and so there are two potential meanings to the title. Like many wealthy travelers to India, the couple isn’t really experiencing India—though, like the characters in the other stories, they end up doing so in a major way by the story’s end. Experiencing India in unexpected ways is a central theme across the three works. The couple’s only real experience of India comes through each of their respective dalliances with locals that are carried out unbeknownst to the other. (I would point out that characters who aren’t particularly high in moral fiber are another prevailing theme across these stories, but really such characters are a hallmark of Theroux’s writing in general.)

“The Gateway of India,” as Bombay visitors might suspect, is set in that city and the waterfront attraction features prominently in the novel. The lead in this story is a business traveler who’s staying in the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai. (The hotel overlooks the Gateway and was allegedly built by a pissed off J.N. Tata who was irate because, as a Parsi, he wasn’t allowed to stay in any of the upscale hotels because they exclusively catered to Westerners. As a “screw-you,” he built the most elegant hotel in the country at the time.) At the story’s beginning, our business traveler is a caricature of business travelers to India. He’s too scared to eat or drink anything that isn’t from a five-star hotel—and even then he’s wary. He’s filled with disgust whenever he rides through town or interacts with locals in the street. By turns, he’s transformed over the course of the story. Like the couple in “Monkey Hill” his introduction to the real India comes from a sexual liaison with a native. That said, this story features the most positive character transformation of the three stories. This is the one “feel-good” transformation of the three.

The final novella, entitled “The Elephant God,” begins in Mumbai, but is largely set in Bangalore. This story features yet another class of traveler to India–the backpacker. This lead is a young woman who is traveling on a tight budget while staying at an ashram. Beginning the story in Mumbai allows the reader to see how the backpacker loses her traveling companion, an issue that will prove crucial to the story’s resolution. As one might expect of a backpacker, our protagonist has had a truer experience of India than the wealthy protagonists of the other stories. She knows a little of the indigenous culture and how real people behave faced with real world events. In fact, there’s an intriguing piece of the story line that involves a job she gets teaching English to employees of a call center for a multinational corporation. [It should strain credulity that she’d be able to get a job on the visa she would have, but this is India.] At any rate, she begins to realize that—by teaching the call-takers to speak to American customers in a way that will make Americans comfortable—she’s essentially turning them rude—all their endearing deferential mannerisms fade in the face of her teachings. She feels bad about this. The titular reference involves an elephant and its handler (mahout) that she befriends. (In two years living in Bangalore, I’ve not seen an elephant living inside the city, but I can’t say that I found this aspect of the story unbelievable. I have seen, for example, the equally improbable camel or two.) The elephant isn’t a major feature of the story until the climax, though visits do recur.

I enjoyed these stories and would recommend The Elephanta Suite–particularly for any Westerners who have spent, or plan to spend, substantial time in India. The book may not surprise or inform such readers, but it’ll probably resonate with them.

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