Rapid Fire Book Reviews: American Gods, Ubik, Hothouse

It’s time for me to unload another batch of short reviews for books I have been reading recently. You can find all my book reviews and literature related musings in the literature category. I also have a Rapid Fire Book Reviews tag for your convenience.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I picked American Gods mainly because I knew Neil Gaimans writing from the Sandman comic series series which I loved. I was curious how his style would translate into a non visual medium. It turns out that it translates fairly well. While the novel lacks the gravitas of the Morpheus it still a good read.

Gaiman’s favorite thing to do is mixing the modern setting with myth and magic. I’m not really sure how to classify this genre. It is not really fantasy, but also not science fiction. Either way, it worked splendidly in Sandman, and it works very well in American Gods.

The core idea behind the novel is a question as to what happens to ancient gods that are no longer worshiped. In Gaiman’s universe gods sprout into being as a result of human worship. Once they are no longer worshiped or remembered they fade away. Unless they can trick, beg or pay people to worship them a bit, even if just for one night. As the title of the book suggests, Gaiman mainly concentrates on gods who have been brought to America by migrants from various parts of the world and then promptly forgotten or replaced by other deities.

The nice thing about these gods is that they are actual characters rather than walking stereotypes. Very often stories that include famous mythical beings don’t take time to flesh them out and show the reader their personalities. Gaiman however takes a great care to introduce them first and foremost as people. To that end, he even avoids calling them by their proper names to avoid invoking certain images. For example, if I tell you to think about the Viking god Odin, in your minds eye you are likely to see this muscular grizzled warrior type with long hair, braided beard and the canonical horned helmet on his head. But in the book, most of the time he goes by Mr. Wednesday – a clever older gentleman and a con-artist with a glass eye.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I’m definitely planning to pick up Gaiman’s other book set in the same universe: Anasi Boys.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

I have been slowly working my way through Dick’s mind-fuck catalog but I have yet to encounter something that would make as big of an impression on me as VALIS did. Ubik in the mind-fuck department Ubik is a rather straightforward story. Granted, for a while it is hard to figure out what exactly is going on, but Dick ties up all the lose ends in the final chapters, and everything makes sense.

The setting is rather interesting and a bit trippy. It assumes existence of people gifted with various paranormal talents such as telepathy, precognition and etc. For each talent there is also an ant-talent that can be used to subdue it. So for example, if you think that your company was infiltrated by a telepath hired by your competitor to steal your trade secrets, you can hire an anti-talent who will “jam” his ability by the virtue of their mere presence. Protagonists of the story do precisely that. They are all employees of a anti-talent agency, and use their skills to thwart telepaths, precogs and others.

That is until a failed mission which turns out to be a trap set by an unscrupulous rival agency (that hires talents which is where the conflict of interests arises). The team suffers some causalities, but most members escape unscratched. Or so they thought. Following the mission, weird things start to happen all around them. People start vanishing, various object seem to regress in time (a flat screen tv becomes a CRT which later mutates into progressively more antique radio sets) and their dead boss seems to be sending them messages via newspaper advertisements and tv ad spots.

Hothouse by Brian Aldis

Hothouse is a blast from the past. It was written in 1962 but you probably wouldn’t be able to tell because the novels action takes place in a very, very distant future when the sun has expanded in size, as it usually happens to stars near the end of their lifespan. This has significantly increased Earth’s mean temperatures, and also disturbed it’s gravitational relationship with the moon. The satellite got knocked out of the stable orbit, and it’s influence over many centuries has caused Earth to cease rotating around it’s axis creating perpetual day and night zones. Increase in temperature and lack of the day-night cycle caused Earth’s flora to bloom and push out most of the animal life to dwell in perpetual twilight at the fringe of the day zone. One of the few members of the animal kingdom that still survive in the vibrant jungles lit by the dying sun are humans. Sadly they have regressed quite significantly losing technology and becoming much smaller of stature. They now live mostly as tree dwelling hunter/gatherer tribes.

A young, arrogant and stubborn member of such a tribe gets himself banished for recklessly endangering lives of his tribesmen. He and his mate then set out on a journey through the hothouse world that will put them in contact with astonishing variety of weird creatures and tribes they did not even know existed. They meet semi-sentient termites, intelligent parasitic fungi, various near-human tribes (some friendly, others hostile) and various representatives of the vibrant, carnivorous and majestic juiced up flora.

The novel is basically a grand tour the force across Earth in it’s final years before the sun goes nova. Aldis plays around dreaming up creatures with extreme evolutionary adaptations and tries to figure out how various species would cope with the drastic changes in their natural environment. This is probably a spoiler [OBLIGATORY SPOILER TAG] but Aldis seems to be fan of Pansperimia. The final chapters of the book reveal that in response to the worsening conditions on Earth, some species of the overgrown flora has somehow evolved to become biological escape capsules that gather biological mass around them and jet it out into space where it can be carried by solar winds and potentially “pollinate” other worlds. He describes evolution it as a process that was once wound up, and now is winding down, with conditions favoring smaller, simpler and less complex forms. Before all life is destroyed in the nova, it will reduce itself to a state in which it might survive extreme the scorching heath of the final explosion, and centuries in open space, to once again reawaken somewhere else. Interesting idea, if not a little silly.

I found it a bit grating, probably because it was threading dangerously closely to the intelligent design line of reasoning. But I believe Aldis wrote it long before fringe religious groups developed the anti-intellectualist philosophy that spawned that worldview, so he is excused.

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4 Responses to Rapid Fire Book Reviews: American Gods, Ubik, Hothouse

  1. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    I found Ubik very interesting, although I think Pat and her ability could have been further exploited. I feel it could have a greater effect in the events. I hope I’m not spoiling too much.

    When I bought Ubik I also got Now Wait for Last Year, and I think it’s even better. It delves more into the relationships between the characters while keeping a good science fiction setting.

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  2. Dileep UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    The “Consensus Reality” setting in “American Gods” reminds me of Planescape Torment. Even in that (I am told, as I haven’t found a long enough chunk of time for a complete playthrough), things can be made to exist/happen if enough people believe in them (including “Gods” I suppose). The player character starts with no name (he can’t remember). So you have a choice of going by “The Nameless One”, or pretend to be someone else every time you talk to someone, or cook up a fictitious name (say Mr. X). After enough people have met Mr. X and have spread the fact of his existence to others, soon you’ll start to hear about mysterious exploits of one Mr. X that you had nothing to do with.

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  3. Did I miss your Cory Doctorow book reviews? Or have you seriously not read any of his stuff? Makers (a book on makerspaces), FTW (A book on economy and gaming), and Little Brother (a new spin on a classic) are all great books.

    He also has some other books which I am not as big of a fan, but they are all released under creative commons so you can put them on your ereader for free if you would like. Although again, I am sure (hoping) that you know all this.

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  4. Okay good, my first search for “Cory Doctorow” must have had a typo in it, since now I can see your reviews (though I didn’t see any of the ones that I had mentioned above).

    At least you are not some crazy who has never heard of him. :)

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