Monday, August 31, 2015
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the second time I've read this book, though the first time was over 30 years ago, so I didn't remember anything other than the fact that I really liked it. Having just seen Vonda N. McIntyre on several panels at WorldCon (the world science fiction convention) I was prompted to reread this classic. And I'm very glad I did!
The book is set in a post-apocalyptic future on earth (hints as to a nuclear holocaust, but there are also references to aliens) where our protagonist, a young healer named Snake, is out on a journey to remote areas, as sort of a traveling country doctor. The unique thing about her healing is that she uses snakes as a medium for medicine delivery. Through genetic manipulation, healers have created snakes that metabolize various medicines. A bite from one of these snakes injects the medicine instead of venom. (Healers also provide vaccinations via a more typical mechanism.) Healers also have a special snake, called a dreamsnake, that is alien in origin, and whose bite is used as a painkiller and a sedative. This snake is important in helping patients during treatment, and also in helping patients who are dying, so that they can die in peace.
We first see Snake among desert nomads, treating a boy with a cancerous tumor. She starts one of her snakes on the process of metabolizing a cure, which will take several hours. She leaves the dreamsnake with the boy to ease his pain and keep him from being afraid. She goes outside to rest, and meets a young man from the tribe, named Arevin. When she goes back in, she discovers that the boy's family killed the dreamsnake because they were afraid of it. Since dreamsnakes are alien in origin, and healers don't know how to breed them, the loss of one is a terrible blow. Because of this, Snake fears she will no longer be able to be a healer. The rest of the book is about her journey to find more dreamsnakes.
I liked the mix of primitive (nomads living in the desert, riding horses) and advanced (genetic manipulation, alien contact) and it all seemed very believable. The only thing that was a bit weak was the immediate love between Arevin and Snake. They really only had a couple of conversations together, but somehow fell deeply in love - so much so that Arevin risks his life in trying to find Snake after she leaves his tribe.
The storytelling is otherwise quite strong, with interesting characters who have believable motivations. This is definitely a page-turner, as Snake gets closer and closer to finding the truth about dreamsnakes. And her relationship with Melissa, a little slave girl whom she frees and adopts, rang quite true.
I was pleased to see that a book from decades ago doesn't show any signs of aging or of feeling outdated. There are no old-fashioned prejudices or cultural references. Like Dune, the world in this book stands outside of time and culture, while its themes of trust, fear of others, and perseverance against all odds are still relevant to our current day. This is a rousing good story, with a strong female protagonist that anyone can relate to.
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I must admit that I felt a great deal of trepidation before I finally decided to read Go Set A Watchman. I had heard the leaked reviews that Atticus Finch (the beloved icon of reason and justice in To Kill A Mockingbird) was a racist supporter of segregation in this book. This was hard for me to accept, as much as I admire that character, and as much as I love that book – I’ve read it 30-40 times in my lifetime, and each time I appreciate it more, and get something new out of it. So, it was with trembling fingers that I finally picked it up to read. But it was very much worth it!
First, one must keep in mind that this book isn’t a true sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird – it was submitted to the publisher, who requested that Ms. Lee rewrite it to focus on the character of Scout as a young girl. However, for a fan of Mockingbird, it’s hard to not read it as a sequel – most of the same characters are present (with the notable exception of Boo Radley.) And Scout is very much the same, even though this story takes place about 20 years after the events in Mockingbird. Scout is in her mid-twenties, but is still the impetuous, independent person we saw in Mockingbird. In this new book, she is coming home (from NYC) for a visit with her family and her beau. It is very much a coming-of-age story – even though Scout is an adult – as she is forced to confront some things in her family and in her own life that will truly set her on her feet as her own person.
The first part of the novel feels much the same as Mockingbird – Scout fights with her Aunt Alexandra (that pillar of imperial southern women) just as she did as a child, and her memories of youthful escapades could easily fit into the pages of Mockingbird. Things take a decided turn toward new territory when Scout surreptitiously attends a meeting of the ‘town council’ which Atticus chairs, only to find it is a meeting about how to deal with the ‘black problem’ – complete with a racist speaker who calls Negroes sub-human. Scout is beyond stunned, as she remembers the time that Atticus defended a Negro against a rape charge, and won on appeal (another difference from Mockingbird) and she remembers that he always treated Negroes with respect, when most other people didn’t. And not only is Atticus there, but so is her boyfriend, whom she had been thinking of marrying.
Angry, shocked and confused, she goes to her Uncle Jack (Atticus’ brother) to tell him what she saw. Here she doesn’t find the comfort that she thought she would, and she leaves as angry as she arrived. She finally confronts Atticus, with accusations of racism and bigotry, and he doesn’t defend himself. This is probably the hardest part for a Mockingbird lover to read – Atticus speaks about the “black problem” and the “meddling” of the NAACP, and he constantly refers to the Negro community as “children” who need the guidance of white people. His only response to Scout’s accusations is “I love you.”
Still not knowing what to think, she returns to Uncle Jack, where he confronts her with the revelation that she must be her own conscience (the “watchman” of the title) and not rely on Atticus to be her moral compass. She must fully grow up and become her own person.
Overall, the book was not quite as good as Mockingbird (but what is?), though I still think it has merit on its own. The point of the book – to learn to be your own person – is relevant to everyone, and the issue of racism and bigotry is, sadly, still one we must confront. I think it serves as a great adjunct to its ‘big brother’ and I enjoyed my visit back to Maycomb, Alabama. And, speaking as a true fan of Mockingbird, I’m glad I read it and I don’t feel as if it has spoiled the image of the Atticus I know and love.