Sunday, October 23, 2011

Aloha from Hell by Richard Kadrey

There’s a line from a Roger Ebert review that I read once that’s always stayed with me – I believe that it was from a review of Spice World – stating that a particular song was “absolutely perfect without actually being any good”.  So, not as much damning with faint praise as it is stabbing-with-a-broken-beer-bottle of faint praise.  I’m not trying to insult Aloha from Hell here, so take that in the spirit in which it is intended – this book is pretty lightweight, and you’re not going to find it on any Great Literature lists, but it’s pretty damn fun.

I don’t know a lot about Richard Kadrey other than what’s on his author’s blurb at the back of the book, and based on his picture he looks like he could walk into some scary bar, start a fight, and beat the asses of a whole bunch of people.  I mention that because this seems to be something of a theme in his work, and perhaps it’s from personal experience.  I don’t know, maybe he’s really into breeding rare orchids and tea ceremonies or something, but he just looks like a pretty tough guy, and they do say to write about what you know.

I doubt, though, that Kadrey was ever personally involved in a ring of magicians led by a sociopath who betrayed him and sent him down bodily into Hell, where he was forced for eleven years to work as an arena pit fighter, before escaping and returning to Earth for revenge.  This is the story of Sandman Slim, which followed the adventures of one James “Sandman Slim” Stark as he proceeded to shoot, beat, stab, and explode everyone who got between him and sweet, sweet vengeance.  Then in the sequel, Kill the Dead, Sandman Slim thwarts a zombie invasion of Los Angeles, again by shooting, beating, stabbing, magicking, etc.  Aloha From Hell is the third volume of this urban fantasy series, and if you read the foregoing paragraph you can pretty accurately tell what this one’s going to contain (hint:  within the first couple of chapters Slim kills a demon while committing a burglary, jumps out a window to escape and then has rough sex with a cute female monster following a brief date at a chicken and waffle restaurant.)

Now at this point, you’re probably thinking one of three things:  1) that sounds pretty awesome; 2) that sounds pretty silly; 3) that sounds pretty silly and yet also kind of awesome.  If you’re in the first category, then go out and get these right away, you won’t regret it.  If you’re in the second, then you’re not going to miss a huge cultural touchstone here, so go back to making margin notes in The Corrections with head held high.  If you’re like me and in the third category, then you’ll probably enjoy this, although you may be embarrassed to admit it if you haven’t taken an oath like I have to blog about whatever it is you read.

For whatever reason, I hadn’t really read much fantasy literature up until the past several years, and although I know that the urban fantasy genre is increasingly popular, I haven’t really read all that much of it either.  I am a big fan of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, though, and the reason I checked out Sandman Slim in the first place is that it’s been a while since there’s been one of those.  To compare these to another genre I’m familiar with, Mike Carey is playing the part of Raymond Chandler writing about a private detective with a complex inner life, while Kadrey is channeling Mickey Spillane and writing about an angry guy who goes around breaking things.

I think Kadrey’s a pretty good writer, though, and I certainly tore right through this book.  If you’re dealing with this kind of setup, e.g., gods, demons, fallen angels, Hell, etc., then you have to put some thought into universe construction as well.  What does it mean to fight a demon, for instance?  Under most conceptions, they’re already dead (or at least spirits, same sort of thing).  So can anyone fight Beelzebub with a riot baton and a Saturday night special?  For that matter, is it possible for some junkie to get lucky and take out the Lord of Hosts behind a liquor store with a butterfly knife one dark evening?  What does it mean to kill a ghost?  This only becomes increasingly difficult to manage as we learn more about the cosmos; it was OK for Milton to describe the Earth as the only concern around, but when you know there are billions of galaxies containing who knows how many worlds then it doesn’t make all that much sense to have everyone be focused on this one particular planet, and somewhat odd to suggest that angels and demons really care that much about it.

Kadrey has some answers for all this, and I have to say that it increases my regard for this work significantly.  In the first instance, anyone with the right equipment can in fact take out any particular entity, but in the case of the more powerful ones then “right equipment” turns out to be pretty substantial; and in the next instance anyone who dies who’s already dead (or who was never alive in the first place) goes to Tartarus.  This is a pretty scary concept since no one’s ever come back from there – this in a series where there’s basically a revolving door in Hell and people are coming and going all the time.

In the broader sense, it turns out that this series takes place in a Gnostic universe, which is a pretty reasonable decision.  It’s a pretty big belief system to summarize in a blog post, but some of the Gnostics believed that the universe was so shoddy that it could not have been made by God, but instead was made by someone else while God wasn’t looking (some of them even believed it was the devil).  Some of the other schools of thought suggested that God did it but didn’t have the omnimax characteristics ascribed by later religions.  When Sandman Slim ends up meeting the demiurge he asks, pretty reasonably, why he was left to suffer in Hell for all that time, and the demiurge thinks they’re getting into a discussion of the problem of evil, or why human suffering is allowed.  Not so, says Slim, why did you in particular allow me in particular to have that problem?  The demiurge’s answer is pretty cool and also explains why the universe is so big.  Incidentally, it turns out that God is pretty much an asshole.  I guess that’s not much of a surprise.

Now if I were to make some critiques here, and I’m going to, I’d have to say (other than the general silliness issue) that this book isn’t particularly accessible if you haven’t already read the first two.  In terms of demon killing equipment, Slim’s equipped with a na’at, which is sort of a chain-flail-whip-sword thing, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t really understand that from this book.  Likewise the key to the Room of Thirteen Doors, the black bone knife, and the angel in his head, plus a bunch of characters who just sort of show up.  I have to admit that even though I had read the two previous books I was a little hazy about some of these people and the various artifacts, and I’ve got a good memory for stuff like this.  If you read all three together it might flow a lot better.  The pacing’s also a little bit strange, since it kicks off really strong, then spins along for a while and then kind of hits a puzzling and anticlimactic climax.  I wouldn’t say it was disappointing exactly, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d been expecting given the novel so far or the general tone.

I’m not sure if Kadrey’s planning on writing any more of these or not; he basically ties up a lot of the outstanding issues that Slim’s had since day one.  He manages to make some peace with his dead girlfriend, get some additional revenge, and obtain a new job opportunity.  Nonetheless, he does still have some living enemies and there are some pretty obvious sequel hooks.  If there are more novels in this series then they’ll be much different than the first three for reasons which will be obvious if you read it.

Anyway, I don’t want to sell this too short by any means, as Kadrey’s prose is extremely if not compulsively readable and it’s really a lot of fun, probably one of the most straight-up entertaining books I’ve read so far this year.  It’s just so unapologetically goofy that I have to approve.  If you’re looking for depth this is probably not the place, although there are some surprising character moments to be found (and a reasonable solution to the problem of evil, at that).  I think that it might not be quite as strong as Kill the Dead, my vote for the standout of this particular trilogy, but I’m up for reading more about this crazy SOB Sandman Slim and I guess that’s really about as much as you can ever expect.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett.  If you’re familiar with his thirty-eight (!) previous Discworld novels, plus other novels, TV adaptations, illustrated guides, cookbooks and other assorted creative endeavors then you already know all about him, and are probably familiar with not only his extensive body of work but also some of his recent advocacy of assisted suicide following his diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  If you’re not familiar with him then this review is probably not the place to start.  Get thee to a bookstore and come back later.

Ready?  Ok then.  If you’re like me you might be a little hesitant about picking this one up because his last two adult Discworld books were, shall we say, a little uneven.  Personally I felt like Making Money had the makings of two good books but ended up getting blended into one sort of messy one, and although Unseen Academicals was decent enough it wasn’t quite up to the standard that I’ve come to expect from Pratchett.  And I was not really keen on the idea that I’d not like it very much and then have to come here and say so; therefore I’m very happy indeed to report that this is the best Discworld book in years, although it’s certainly come a long way from its origins.

Sam Vimes is a fan favorite and probably the closest thing to an autobiographical character that exists in Pratchett’s work, being a boy from extremely humble beginnings ending up in a position of authority and wealth.  He doesn’t necessarily feel like he deserves any of that, but at the same time he knows better than anyone that the world isn’t fair, and so as long as he doesn’t try and stop the wheel of fortune he doesn’t really feel like he needs to give it all away.  This is the eighth book starring him, and as this one begins he’s headed out with his wife and son (now six, so it’s been about four years since we’ve last seem them) on vacation to their country estate.  He does get to bring Willikins, perhaps the standout character of this particular book and characterized to a somewhat surprising degree in a different manner than he’s been seen before (although it fits with his continuing arc of increasing badassitude – still, it’s a pretty big change.)

Did I mention that Lord Vetinari, Vimes’ boss and dictator of the city of Ankh-Morpork, suggested to Sibyl Vimes that it might be an ideal time to head out on vacation?  No?  Well, if you’ve read any of the previous City Watch books, you know that Vetinari’s suggestion means it’s on.  Not that Vimes knows it yet.

The last couple of Discworld books suffered from a case of too much Vetinari.  He’s best used sitting in his office being creepily omniscient and solving problems in his own unique way, which consists either of 1) throwing someone into a situation where the problem gets solved without Vetinari having to do anything personally; or 2) throwing someone into a situation where the problem gets thrown into sharp relief and causes everyone to beg Vetinari to do what he already wanted to do anyway.  After all, Vetinari knows that the secret to being a successful dictator is not to throw his weight around too much or at least not to do it pre-emptively.  And, of course, one of his favorite persons to use as a problem solver is Sam Vimes.  Vetinari is great here in his scenes which bookend the action, and seems like himself again, especially when marking a man for death or complaining about the crossword puzzle editor.  This is the Vetinari we have come to know and . . . er, fear, actually, I guess.

In this book you know right off the bat that Vetinari wants to have something done about the goblin problem – wait, you didn’t know there was a goblin problem on the Discworld?  All the other books which mentioned vampires, werewolves, dwarfs, trolls, gnolls, Igors, demons, Hivers, orcs, gargoyles, pictsies, gnomes, elves, golems, dragons, banshees, zombies, dryads, anthropomorphic holidays, the Grim Reaper and the boogeyman didn’t prepare you for the goblin problem?  Well, they’ve been here all this time and everyone hates them, apparently.  For that matter they hate themselves, since their religion says that they did something wrong long ago and deserve all the bad stuff that happens to them.  Maybe that’s why they are such unfortunate wretches.  Nonetheless, if you want justice everyone knows you can ask Sam Vimes, since although he'll enforce unpopular or unfair laws he'll at least enforce them against everyone.  No privilege, i.e. private law, allowed in Vimes' world.  (That could even be the motto of the Watch if it weren't already "Make My Day, Punk".)

And at this point you’re probably thinking, wait, haven’t we seen this one before, where Vimes manages to save the day and improve the lot of some ethnic group or species, like the golems in Feet of Clay or the Klatchians in Jingo, or everyone besides the fascist werewolves in The Fifth Elephant or putting an end to the dwarf/troll war in Thud!?  And if you are thinking this then you are right.  Snuff doesn’t tread any particular new ground, but although it may only tread in familiar places they're at least of good quality and entertaining enough.

Anyway, Vimes doesn’t think much of vacation but he tries to make the best of it, becoming somewhat cheered up when he discovers traces of low-grade criminality all around in the allegedly bucolic surroundings.  And he only becomes happier when people start trying to tell him there’s nothing for him to do there.  If the guilty flee when no man pursues, Vimes’ line of thought is that someone doing a runner must be guilty of something.  And since everyone knows that Vimes doesn’t take vacations (which in this case he did) they assume that he must be there to dig up their skeletons (which he isn’t) and that they are in a lot of trouble (which they are).  Mixed in with Vimes’ adventures are a couple of brief scenes back at the Watch House in Ankh-Morpork, where the officers who stayed at home naturally come across elements of a crime that intersects with what Vimes is doing.  Surprisingly, the officer who gets the most page time is Wee Mad Arthur, who has apparently come back to work since finding out about his heritage in I Shall Wear Midnight and has a few new skills these days.

Worth a mention at this point is that although Snuff is very entertaining, it isn’t all that funny, at least not laugh-out-loud funny.  There are some very nice comedic setpieces here and there, including a pretty amusing Die Hard reference (and a surprisingly explicit view of the sexual fantasies of a dwarf), but on the whole this book continues a trend that I’ve noticed in many of Pratchett’s later works to be a lot more true to life in unpleasant ways.  Not that bad things haven’t always happened in Discworld, mind you, but in real life you’re not likely to be killed by a dragon or a pack of werewolves unless you live in a really bad neighborhood.  However, groups of undesirables living (and, occasionally, dying) at the sufferance of their neighbors?  Slavery and drug trafficking?  Domestic abuse?  All pretty plausible.

The mystery at the heart of Snuff isn’t all that mysterious, as it becomes quickly apparent what’s going on and who is responsible for it.  I was a little surprised, in fact, that there wasn’t more to it; in previous adventures Vimes has stopped coups and wars, toppled countries and shaken the foundation of religions.  In this case he’s up against a bunch of stuck-up provincials and a tawdry criminal arrangement that’s only in it for the money.  But in that sense he’s in his element, because he figures if he’s expected to come down hard on a petty thief then he’ll come down like an entire forest on a man of privilege who decides to steal.  Also somewhat surprisingly the actual ringleader of the plot is referenced but never actually seen, and even the stock character of the psychopathic hired enforcer doesn’t really have that much of a role (however, he’s appropriately villainous).  Pratchett basically just skims over the generalities of the criminal plot here, the reader is left to infer most of the details and a surprising amount of the responsibility on their own.  As it happens Vimes can take care of most of these jokers pretty easily, even when there’s an angry mob with their own lawyer; the really serious conflicts come from nature and from inside himself.

Vimes has always been fighting against his impulses to an extent, and that’s on full display here.  The title of the book has at least three meanings that I can see; Vimes of course is a snuff user and tobacco is otherwise significant to the plot, and naturally there’s a murder in here somewhere.  But there’s also Vimes’ lingering worries that he’s not doing things to an adequate standard.  In his last appearance Vimes was possessed or at least inhabited by a spirit of vengeance, and as it happens it may be mostly gone but it hasn’t truly gone away, and it offers to help him out a couple of times here.  Vimes is torn by this; it may provide him with quicker convictions but is it perjury to rely on the testimony of a demon?  Is it really even real or just the reflection of his own darker nature?  Vimes has always been worried that he’s actually a bad person, and he manages to channel that fear into just arresting people and not giving them the fates they deserve.  Nonetheless, as he gets older he’s finding it harder and harder to restrain himself, and the demonic possession thing doesn’t help.  Not to mention that he’s finally starting to show his age and can’t always rely on winning the hand-to-hand – or rather, brass-knuckle to kneecap or groin – fights that he inevitably winds up in with criminals who are, after all, only getting younger and younger.

Much of this theme – what separates a man like Sam Vimes from a certain type of criminal – was previously explored in Night Watch, which very well may be Pratchett’s single best work.  And I have to say that Snuff isn’t as good as that, and may give the reader a sense of déjà vu.  But since the references are being made to some pretty great books I don’t mind going back over it again.  Sir Terry’s still got it, and I hope he’s got quite a few more like this in him.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Everything is Going to Kill Everybody by Robert Brockway

The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory; it’s an examination of a bunch of various ways that everyone on Earth could get killed one day.  Or over the course of a few days to a week or so, in some cases.  It’s not really a survival manual, either, since if any of these things happen then we’re all pretty screwed.

I’m an occasional reader and a fan of Brockway’s articles over there (including his essay on why writing this book was such a pain in the ass), so I was prepared to really enjoy this.  Unfortunately, I felt that it fell into an unfortunate valley between the peaks of Funny and Well-Researched, where either approach could have worked well but somehow it just didn’t connect.  Perhaps that’s an intrinsic problem when you’re trying to write a humorous non-fiction novel about doomsday scenarios, but having not really read anything similar I can’t say for sure.

When you’re dealing with subject matter like this, a little gallows humor is to be expected, so the approach probably works best in some of the chapters dealing with human activities.  There’s the story of the Soviet officer who decided that five recorded ICBM launches were a system error and held off launching a retaliatory strike, only to get fired afterward; or the tale of how a bioengineering firm failed to perform a test of root bacteria in non-sterile soil and nearly destroyed all the Earth’s plants.  These stories are engaging and fit well with the style of humor you’d probably anticipate, talking about everyone’s giant balls and so on, and were actually pretty funny.  The humor doesn’t really work quite as well with non-human risks, since nature doesn’t have a mind to care about us with or any balls to compliment and/or mock.  I guess you could make it funny, but it didn’t work for me here, sad to say.

Where I think this book really didn’t come through for me was its failure to quantify risks.  Some of these things are way more likely than others; I’m sure, for instance, that there will be a supervolcano event or asteroid strike at some point, which would be difficult to deal with; but at the same time it’s not entirely clear that a magnetic pole shift would have any negative effects at all, and some of the other scenarios might not even be possible at all, such as Grey Goo.  I realize this isn’t a textbook and I’m not an expert, but there would appear to be serious debate around some of these proposed scenarios.  Perhaps I’m a little pedantic in that regard but I find it hard to enjoy a nonfiction work when it’s obvious that there’s other information out there on the subject that might be very significant to know.  Better citations would have helped here, I think, and some of the chapters were woefully short.

Most importantly for a humor book, a lot of the jokes were very broad and occasionally forced, when I was hoping for some laugh-out-loud moments and didn’t get them.

In its favor I never wondered why I was still reading it or anything like that.  So even though this wasn’t my favorite there’s still a lot of potential here, and I’d be interested to see if Brockway could maybe focus his next one a little tighter and raise his game.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Back to my usual genre of choice this time with The Shockwave Rider, a reasonably enjoyable and somewhat eerily prescient view of life in the Internet age, given that it was written in 1975.  I haven’t read a lot of John Brunner’s work, although he was extremely prolific and won numerous awards his work is somewhat erratic as to whether it’s in print or not.  He’s perhaps known best for his Hugo-winning novel Stand on Zanzibar, and for his themes of environmental degradation, personal isolation, and dystopian politics.

The Shockwave Rider was apparently the source of the phrase “worm”, in the sense of a self-replicating computer program.  This may be the earliest novel that I’ve ever seen which goes deeply into the implications of a global Internet type computer network, although this being the 1970s it’s run mostly on wires through the phone network and computers are big monstrous things.  A lot of the elements are there though, since there’s a lot of databanks that have dirt on everyone and there’s advantage to be had in knowing something that other people don’t.

The title is a reference to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, which was sort of an in vogue reference for SF authors in the 1970s (it was also a big influence in Joe Haldeman’s Forever War.)  This is where the wide-eyed idealism of the 1950s started to get caught up in all the big cultural shifts of the 60s and 70s.  Toffler’s book dealt with the idea that change was beginning to move so rapidly that individuals wouldn’t be able to keep up with it and would become increasingly disaffected and deranged.  In Brunner’s novel this has indeed come to pass; people cling desperately to their tribal affiliations, since they’re the only thing that can be relied upon in a wonky world.  Those lucky enough to have jobs may be “plug-in people”, who are expected to relocate across the country and change jobs and companies two or three times a year to perform the exact same sort of white-collar labor no matter where they go.  The government’s decided that it’s too much trouble to clean up after major disasters and now pays people a small stipend to forgo modern conveniences like electricity and health care, although for the most part it’s captive to business interests.  And everything you do and say is likely to be bugged, recorded, analyzed and stored on behalf of entities that you don’t necessarily have contact with and might not approve of if you did.  And the government uses extreme measures to crack down on particular fugitives, including detention without charges and harsh interrogation methods.

Is it any wonder that everyone’s using a lot of tranquilizers?  For that matter does any of that sound familiar?  Our protagonist here is Nick Haflinger, who would be described as a hacker if that term was in common usage, who was trained by Tarnover, a combination think tank/boarding school/research laboratory/minimum security prison sort of place.  The goal of Tarnover is to produce individuals who are capable of adjusting to more or less any social situation without shutting down or flipping out (surfing the future shock, see?)  The eventual goal is to create, essentially, weaponized knowledge.  Nick eventually had some philosophical disputes with Tarnover, which he prudently kept to himself, managed to steal the equivalent of an administrative password to the computer network, and escaped.  Considering that he starts the novel immobilized in an interrogation chamber it doesn’t necessarily work out that well for him.

The first part of the novel focuses on his interactions with his interrogators.  They’ve got the power to directly manipulate his brain so he can’t lie to them, they just take the data they want about how he managed to evade capture while taking on all sorts of different identities.  But at the same time he’s able to engage in philosophical conversation with at least one of his captors, which allows him to bring that guy around to his point of view and escape once more, but this time being more hotly pursued and with his enemies more aware of his methods.  But he’s better than the pursuers so he manages to bring down the Man, thwart a retaliatory nuclear strike on him, and ride off into the free information future with his girl.

Brunner’s writing style here is unique.  There are a lot of flashbacks where you’re just thrown right into the action and you have to figure out who various people are (especially Nick).  It rewards you for keeping up, but it’s pretty clear that he meant the style to be disorienting in the same way that his subject matter (or the modern world, for that matter) is.  So it’s a nice mixture of the theme being illustrated right there in the text, which isn’t something that happens all the time.  And there are a couple of stretches of brilliance in there too.  Unfortunately there are also a large number of ponderous info dump sorts of conversations, and I don’t think I’ll be quoting passages out of this in the future.

The philosophy is also fairly interesting but doesn’t quite push the rock over the hill to become profound.  I find myself in agreement with most of the points made in this novel but I don’t think I could have been convinced by the novel if I didn’t already hold most of those beliefs.  One of the more interesting concepts introduced here is basically a prediction market, where everyone’s opinions are averaged out and used to set policy.  Nick eventually takes down the system by eliminating secrecy, so that everyone is able to find out what everyone else knows.  This has the effect of tearing down the corrupt system and creating a quasi-socialist meritocracy with no bloodshed.  This idea about eliminating all secrecy isn’t exactly unheard of in SF circles or writings, such as David Brin’s Transparent Society, but I’m a little disappointed in how well it all works out given the care that Brunner has taken to create a fractured dystopia.  Are the various violent street gangs really going to cooperate and allocate resources to each other based on need now?  But at the same time I can agree with the idea that we’re still stuck with tribal hunter-gatherer brains, which is probably the larger point.

For that matter I’m a little disappointed that he can suggest that such a complicated problem can have such an easy solution, and for that matter that there is really someone (the corrupt government and corporations) to blame.  As I get older I increasingly discover that there’s plenty of responsibility to go around for the evils of the world but not necessarily a lot of out and out guilt.  But in fiction it’s pretty common to be able to defeat one bad guy or system and fix all the problems.  I guess that’s because it’s a lot more fun to read about that way.  And the philosophical discussions are a little bit ponderous, they would probably sound pretty portentous if you were really hammered, but that’s really the sort of thing I associate with a lot of SF from the 70s – a lot of deep ideas, man, really deep.  And then you take a step back and ask, wait, what was that all about again?  The light that the day makes and the day that the light makes?  Oh well.

But I don’t really want to take that much away from this novel, since it’s actually pretty interesting and if he did get a lot of predictions wrong, he basically anticipated the Internet in 1975.  I don’t think I can really work my head around how strange this must have been to read at the time.  For a modern reader it’s perfectly natural that the first thing you do after getting off a plane is to head for a public terminal to check the news, the stock market and to check if you have any messages.  From the perspective of someone who’s constantly carrying around at least one device that will do all that stuff this seems elementary, but at the time there’s no way.  He even anticipated the Internet ecosystem arising around the networks, with various programs and counter-programs going about their purposes without interference from humans who in many cases aren’t aware of them.  But of course Brunner had a lot of tech readers so this may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent.

Anyway, this is a pretty interesting classic SF piece that got a bunch of things surprisingly right and others not so much, and it’s reasonably accessible as these things go.  It’s definitely interesting as an influence on some later works, but it does have some of the drawbacks of its era as well.  If any of the above sounds interesting then check it out, if you can find it.  It appears to have been reprinted recently, though.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll (annotated by Martin Gardner)

To paraphrase E.B. White, you can dissect a joke like a frog but it has the same lethal effect.  So break out the formaldehyde, I guess, because this week I’ve been catching up on the classics, namely this annotated set of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice adventures (both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, with the bonus Wasp in a Wig).  Martin Gardner apparently managed to fit time into his busy schedule of writing, stage magic, mathematics and generally being an awesome polymath to also be one of the world’s leading Alice scholars.  This is the third edition of his annotations; the first set came out in 1960, the second in 1990, and this one in 1999, incorporating all the elements of the first two plus a little extra bonus material.  This is also going to be the last edition, since Gardner passed away in May of last year.  I may actually have more to say about Gardner at some point, since he was a pretty cool guy, but at this point I’ll just say that if you have any interest in recreational mathematics, his articles for Scientific American are a necessity.

Anyway.  It’s commonly known that these works were written by Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of Charles L. Dodgson, and that he was inspired to write them after a boat outing with one Alice Liddell and her sisters (although he later disputed that he wrote them for any one person).  In daily life Dodgson was a professor of mathematics at Oxford who gave uninspiring lectures.  It was under his pseudonym that he penned the humorous and logically wonky works that have made him famous.  In his personal life he had a fixation on young girls which was somewhere between questionable and criminal (we’ll never know for sure and his biographers disagree), so reading these works and some of the included excerpts from letters he wrote to other young girls can be slightly unnerving, as a modern reader knowing about his proclivities you’re always wondering in the back of your mind what he was thinking when he was composing that stuff.

The other thing you think when reading this book is that these little girls were pretty goddamn smart, since the whole thing is packed to the rim with multi-lingual puns, satires of poetry from the 1500s on up, and various concepts from calculus to chess that aren’t necessarily that obvious or that elementary.  But of course the average little girl in England in the 1860s was probably mucking out a pig sty or working twelve hour shifts in a match factory, so this probably wasn’t intended for just everyone.  In fact it was filled with a bunch of in-jokes and subtle references to Oxford and people that Dodgson personally knew, as well as a bunch of contemporary references that will fly right over the head of a modern reader.  The really amazing thing is that it became a classic with so much of the content becoming inaccessible with time.

For instance, I was especially surprised to find that each of the nonsense poems is a direct satire of some other poem, typically moralizing and sanctimonious verse that would have been in common use for educating Victorian children and which they would have been intimately familiar with.  Gardner’s annotations are especially helpful there, since he tracks down and reprints the originals that are being mocked.  This side-by-side comparison demonstrates that these are pretty barbed takedowns, so I’m sure that it was much appreciated by the target audience.

Perhaps my own reading is impoverished, but I’d never read these all the way though before.  I had a collection of children’s stories inherited from my mother which contain an abridged version of Through the Looking-Glass, and although I did like some of the verse, I didn’t really appreciate the Victorian prose and a lot of the dream logic went over my head.  Now that I’m an adult, I can appreciate it a lot better.  Nonetheless, I have the same feeling about it that I’ve had whenever I’ve encountered Carroll’s work, namely that he has a lot of hits and a lot of misses, can’t necessarily tell the difference, and seems to be trying way too hard either way.  Am I saying that his work is not droll and amusing?  And that the situations are not terribly absurd and over-italicised?  Not in the least.  This is some good stuff, that’s why it’s still around after all this time, but it’s certainly the product of another era and a pretty strange dude.

The annotations are, as I said above, very useful in understanding the cultural milieu, and Garner mostly sticks to the verifiable facts and references as opposed to throwing in the raft of Freudian and Jungian psychological analyses that some critics have (apparently) written about these books, although I guess with a hookah-smoking three inch caterpillar it makes sense that people would want to.  If you do want to read that kind of thing there are a bunch of useful reference indexes in the back, as well as a list of all the film, television and theatrical adaptations over the years, including a porno adaptation that was made in the 1970s.  Nonetheless a lot of the notes are somewhat dry and pedantic, but I’m not going to lie, I live for that sort of thing, so I found it remarkably helpful.

In fact, that bibliography is so long and intimidating that I don’t have too much more to say on the subject, feeling a little small in comparison to what’s already out there and being unlikely to throw in anything that hasn’t already been said.  I feel like I’ve plugged a small hole in my missing canon knowledge and would recommend that anyone wanting to do the same to avail themselves of Gardner’s scholarship, that being much easier than looking up poetry from the 1500s yourself.