Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Philosopher's Apprentice

James Morrow

At first I thought that The Philosopher's Apprentice would be a remake of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance combined with Pygmalion, set on a lovely topical island. However, it soon morphed into a new take on The Island of Dr. Moreau, with a touch of it's most recent tribute, Jurassic Park. The novel then had a brief affair with I Robot before veering off into Stranger In A Strange Land and Night of the Living Dead, then suddenly became Juggernaut, taking a few cues from The Metamorphosis, making a short visit to Elie Wiesel's Night, returning to Heinlein's Stranger theme and ending, predictably, with a baby in a bookstore. There are a few plot twists to follow.

The book also give me a chance to expound my sophomore spiel about science fiction. A science fiction story must ask "What if?" "What if we colonize Mars." "What if a horrible disease kills all but a few people in the world?" What if something. Something, whatever question a story asks, should be non-trivial and the way it is asked and answered should not offend the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. A good science fiction story will be carefully constructed so as not to trip on internal self contradiction.

Morrow asks "Is a conscience innate or is it learned, and if learned, can it be taught to a postadolescent that never had the opportunity to be a child." He uses cloning, forced feeding of learning with mysterious projectors, and other, not well developed science fiction apparatus as tools to bring the novel to the point where that question can be asked. It is OK to be a bit sketchy about the science if, as in this case, the book is asking a non-technical question. A little pixie dust never hurt anyone without an engineering degree.

The plot twists take over the story, bringing in so many surprising developments that the fundamental ethical question is somewhat obscured. It does make for a page turner, though, and the book does return to that question again, sometimes answering yes and sometimes no and gives the philosophers favorite answer, "On the one hand - but on the other hand."

I became involved enough with the characters, particularly his version of Eliza Doolittle/Valentine Michael Smith, that I became somewhat upset with Morrow over some of the things that he had her, and her disciples doing. I also had a hard time believing that the authorities would ignore a conspiracy to create an army of zombies and send them to burn down a city in the middle of Maryland. I live in Maryland for cripes sake! You couldn't even do that in Louisiana, without raising a few eyebrows, even if you were the Governor's delinquent son in law.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Baltimore Blues

Laura Lippman

Baltimore Blues is Laura Lippman's first novel, originally published in mass market paperback in 1997. I guess that the publisher was unsure about the staying power of a crime novel set in the dowdy city of Baltimore, Maryland. The edition that I read is a hardback reprint from 2007. To say that this doesn't often happen in an understatement.

Tess Monaghan, Lippman's Irish Jewish Baltimore native female detective main character, is introduced in this novel. She is already a well rounded character with a family, a history, habits and the ability to engage the reader in her fictional life. Monaghan as a character, and Lippman as an author seem to rise fully formed, like Venus rising from the sea on a shell.

It was a pleasure for me, as an affectionado of all things Lippman, to finally read this first novel and see where Crow, the young musician boyfriend, Kitty the sexy maiden aunt, Tyner the wheelchair bound lawyer, Whitney, the wealthy college roommate and lifelong BFF and many of the other characters, that float in and out of the Tess Monaghan books, came from. I started reading the series in hardback before the reprints of the original paperbacks came out. If you are new to Laura Lippman you might do well to start at the beginning, or maybe not. Working backwards in time to this first novel was a novel experience.

I have a theory about how a mystery novel should be constructed. The author must leave clues scattered throughout the book that the reader will remember as the mystery is solved. Readers are supposed to have an aha moment when the killer is revealed. "Why didn't I see that in chapter four?" you are supposed to ask. Lippman's books don't follow my theory. Nothing is ever neat. In fact there is likely to be more than one killer, as there is likely to be more than one victim. Nothing is neat or orderly. Lippman's books are more like real life. Some obscure character from chapter four that isn't mentioned for pages and pages might show up, very angry, with a gun during the denouement. Yet it always works. I guess that's why "crime novel" and not "mystery story" is the best description of Lippman's work.

Some time I'll tell you about my science fiction theory. Authors often seem to ignore it, too.