Sunday, April 18, 2010

Weaving the Plot - David Copperfield

Last year I took a crack at Charles Dickens and read “Great Expectations”. I found the experience to be entertaining and educational. So this year I decided to give him another try (again during winter, which just seems like a Dickensian time). I heard that “David Copperfield” was not only the book that Dickens’ considered his favorite, but many readers consider it to be one of his most accessible novels. At the bookstore I was in for a bit of a shock – “David Copperfield” was a huge book. Weighing in at slightly less than one ton, I was intimidated. Could I endure that much Dickens, or would it end in tears? But hey, I read all of “The Histories” by Herodotus and it was about that long.

Once again it took me a couple of chapters to get into the style and language of the time. Dickens is pretty notorious for getting paid by the word, and yes there are sections of this story that prove that. But Dickens does something else that helps increase his word count without being overly verbose – he structures his story in a way that lends itself to multiple points of view. He did this to an extent in “Great Expectations”, but in “David Copperfield” it felt more obvious.

David is telling us his story, and so he provides us with two points of view. One point of view is of younger David as he makes his way through life and the other is the older David commenting on that life. This isn’t Dickens merely restating the same scenes, he actually offers commentary as older David, hinting at things we have yet to read and offering a bit more depth that the younger David can’t know. This duality actually works very well to not only increase the word count, but also add to the story on various levels.

The other thing that Dickens does is introduce a whole cast of interesting and colorful supporting characters. Some of them help David, some of them actively try to hinder him. All of them pop up continuously through the narrative. This is typical of Dickens and some fault him for it. I find it to be a charming part of the world he creates. Yes, he is commenting on current events, but I think it’s a bit easier for us reading years later to see it as a different world, a fiction where people would come into contact throughout life.

The danger of this technique is that readers will lose track of who is who. Dickens avoids this by give each character a unique personality. Sure Mr. Murdstone and Uriah Heep are both villains (with great names!), but they are uniquely wicked in their own ways. Murdstone is a rigid man who’s hypocritical adherence to religion and rules literally destroys those around him. Heep on the other hand is a slimy man, who puts on a face of humility while abusing the weaknesses of others and going out of his way to make everyone as unhappy as he is. The characters are so vividly drawn and observed by both David’s that the reader actually wants to know just what is going to happen next.

And that is pretty much what happened. I was engrossed in the story and enjoyed reading the weighty tome to its conclusion. David Copperfield himself is a rather bland fellow, reminding me a great deal of Pip from “Great Expectations”, but he’s basically a good soul who finds himself in all kinds of situations. But the reader is entertained by the supporting characters and the situations that Dickens comes up with. I have to admit that I chocked up quite a bit during the last few chapters – to me that’s a solid testament to the skill of the writer. For a book that long, I think Dickens did an excellent job.

What do you think of “David Copperfield” or Dickens in general? Do you think his approach to characters is a valid one, or do you consider it a cheat? What is the longest book that you’ve tackled, and why did it work (or not)?

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Other Side of the Coin – The Naked Sun

Last year I read Isaac Asimov’s “Caves of Steel”, an interesting combination of mystery and sci-fi. It was Asimov’s first novel length Robot themed work and to tell you the truth, I enjoyed it a great deal. Anyone who is not familiar with Asimov should give it a try. It’s very accessible and entertaining to boot.

Now I’ve read Asimov before. I’ve blogged about “The Gods Themselves” and read the Foundation trilogy in high school. So I was pretty familiar with his style and the way he weaves interesting science based themes into his work. “The Gods Themselves” did it in a way that was fairly obvious, but the story was engaging enough to keep the themes from disrupting the flow.

I can say that the two Robot Novels I’ve read, “Caves of Steel” and “The Naked Sun” are much more based in telling the story and having the themes play more of a background role. After all most mystery stories have to be plot based by their nature – otherwise the mystery ends up taking back seat to the thematic action. That’s what makes these two books easy to recommend to people who aren’t huge fans of science fiction. The mysteries are both compelling enough to make the story entertaining, and if they make you think outside of the story – well that’s just a great bonus.

“The Naked Sun” is really a solid companion novel to “Caves of Steel”. Sure you could read “Naked Sun” and enjoy it without reading “Caves of Steel” first, but they actually work together so well, that I really wish I had read the two books back to back. The Naked sun follows the protagonist of the first book, Elijah Bailey to the world of Solaris, where a murder has taken place. He is brought in to find the killer, and bring them to justice – simple enough right?

Well, Bailey has a few problems right from the start. Being from Earth, he’s not used to huge open spaces and wandering about on the surface of the world. In “Caves of Steel” we learn that humanity is living underground in densely populated mega-cities. Bailey is used to crowds of people and recycled air. The fact that Solaris is all open fields and huge mansions presents not only a huge culture shift for him, but actually makes it difficult for him to concentrate on the task at hand.

In addition the world is sparsely populated, but has an enormous robot to human ratio – something like 10,000 robots to every one person. On Earth robots are disliked and considered to be a necessary evil. On Solaris, they are a fact of life, built to serve and do whatever the Solarians ask.

While the mystery is still the focal point of the plot, it is the huge cultural differences that not only drive the story, but also provide for the themes of the book. The contrast between earth and Solaris is very obvious, but as Bailey attempts to untangle the mystery, he finds more and more that the differences between the two cultures shows strengths and weaknesses in each that he never considered before. And this leads into the final chapter of the book where Bailey realizes a truth about human kind and the fate of those on earth.

All in the all the book is a solid read, every bit as intriguing as “Caves of Steel”, if a little on the slower paced side. There isn’t much in the way of action in the novel, most of the interaction happens via view screen (Solarians refuse to see each other face to face and find such close contact abhorrent and obscene). But the mystery itself as well as the finding out bits of the culture as you search for clues with Bailey keeps you turning pages. The only downside for me was that the very interesting character of Robot Daneel Olivaw has a smaller role to play. While in “Caves of Steel” he was a main character and key to the investigation. In the “Naked Sun” he is removed from the story for a good third of the book. He plays a key role, but I missed his interaction with Bailey.

What “The Naked Sun” is an excellent example of is the fact that Asimov took his characters and situations from “Caves of Steel” and wrote a sequel that not only expanded and developed those ideas, but also made sure that “The Naked Sun” took the world concept into a new direction. This is actually a really impressive sequel – one that doesn’t rehash the previous book, but moves things in a new direction and provides a very interesting ending.

In his introduction to the book Asimov says that he felt that “The Naked Sun” was the perfect ending to his Robot series. I agree with him. He did end up writing a third book 25 years later called “Robots of Dawn”. I’m curious to read it, but I wonder if it was really necessary. “The Naked Sun” was a perfect ending for these characters and that world.

Have you read “The Naked Sun”? What did you think of it? Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that was a excellent sequel – one that took the established characters and situations and took them in a new direction (instead of just rehashing the story)?