Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

tumblr_mbkg7uwIXa1rs5bbqo1_400 (1)Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is arguably the most famous book written by the renowned science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, which is mainly due to the book being the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi film masterpiece Blade Runner (1982). It’s only fitting that I review this book after reviewing Heart of Darkness (1899), which inspired the film Apocalypse Now, and The Hellbound Heart (1986), which inspired the horror film Hellraiser, as in all three cases I felt the movie adaptation was better than the book.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is set in a dystopic future where Earth is in crumbled ruin and most of its inhabitants have emigrated to a colony on mars along with their android servants. The story takes place on Earth and follows Rick Deckard, a police bounty hunter whose job is to ‘retire’ escaped androids from Mars that are attempting to lead human existences on Earth. The androids he has to kill in the book are fitted with a new AI system called Nexus-6, which makes them almost indistinguishable from humans and apparently very dangerous. The only way to tell an android from a human is to administer a Voight-Kampff test, which tests for empathy levels in the subject; empathy being a human quality that androids are incapable of expressing. While this sounds very similar to Blade Runner so far, the two texts are extremely different in their execution of the subject matter. The book lacks the noire, cyberpunk aesthetic of the movie and also the tension and tight pacing. Instead it has a rushed and thinly drawn out story, peopled with transparent characters and androids that are somehow less transparent than the human characters.

Character development is nearly absent in the novel and we never find anything to really hang onto with any of its characters. Considering the theme of the novel is empathy, it is its greatest downfall that the author inspires none of it for any of its characters. This is further embellished by the constant perspective shifts to a character called J.R Isidore, who is a timid resident in an abandoned apartment complex. His inclusion seemed largely unnecessary and was obviously used solely as a plot device for later in the story, where we get to witness him interacting with the androids Deckard has to retire. This could’ve been done without him, and so I conclude that this character was nothing but filler. The other problem with the book is the relative ease that Deckard retires all the androids: of the six, he only kills four himself, and it takes him no longer than a sentence or two to end each of them. He kills the last three androids in rapid succession and there was never any hint of danger to his life. These androids were built up to be highly capable and deceptive killing machines, and yet by the end of the story you’re left thinking he might as well have been retiring toasters or microwaves.

Despite all the negative things I have to say about the book, it does do a decent job of dissecting the theme of reality and humanity. What makes us human? If we became so absorbed in our own technology that we could electrically manipulate our brains to experience any emotion, if we could interact with humanoid robots without ever knowing they are androids, and if said androids could excel in many arts that are considered to be exclusively human, then what is left? The line between organic and mechanic is especially blurred when the human existence is painted as one of autonomy and fulfilling impulses such as sex and hunger that are largely out of our control. In some ways the book suggests that it is the androids that are more free than we are, because they are not limited by our sense of empathy; after all, the main thing we empathise with in each other is despair and isolation, due to the fact that we all share the same fate – inevitable death.

Unfortunately though, all theme and no substance doesn’t make for a very engaging book. The same can be said of Brave New World.

So there you have it, throw in a couple of interesting, yet poorly developed (and seemingly tacked on) scientific inventions (such as an empathy box that allows the user to artificially program themselves to feel any human emotion), a religious undertone (everyone follows a religion called Mercerism, whose prophet is a cross between Moses and the greek legend of Sisyphus), a slew of artificial animals and a couple of real but very expensive ones, tie it all together with some good themes and you have Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. To be honest, I was left dreaming of a better book.

* * 2 stars

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Heart of Darkness (1899)

Scan 4‘Exterminate all the brutes” – Kurtz.

Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, written in 1899, is perhaps most well-known for having inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film adaptation ‘Apocalypse Now’. If you’ve seen the movie, which I’m sure you have, then you already know the basic premise of ‘Heart of Darkness’ – a man’s journey upriver to find the elusive ‘Kurtz’, who has gone insane. The journey is both physical and metaphorical, in the sense that the closer the protagonist gets to Kurtz, the closer he gets to confronting his own demons. While the novella tackles the -ism themes of imperalism, racism, and barbarism, its main target is the inherent darkness dwelling in every human heart and how easily a well-adjusted and conditioned member of society can fall prey to its influence. This is a theme that was further fleshed out by William Golding in his groundbreaking ‘Lord of the Flies’, written 55 years after Heart of Darkness.

I first read Heart of Darkness in high school, many years ago, for my literature class. I had the choice to either write my final essay on it or ‘Passage to India’, and I chose the latter. The main reason was I found it difficult to really get into Heart of Darkness due to its stream of consciousness approach – the entire book is a monologue from Marlow, the protagonist, retelling his story of meeting Kurtz to his fellow crew in England.

It’s impossible for me to review Conrad’s masterpiece without comparing it to Francis Ford Coppola’s (arguably greater) masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. They’re both essentially the same, except the movie changed the setting from the Congo River in 1890 to the Mekong Delta in 1968, during the Vietnam War. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is an educated Englishman and ivory trader, and Marlow is sent to check up on him and his operation. In ‘Apocalypse Now’, Kurtz is a highly decorated American colonel who fled to Cambodia to lead a small army of natives outside of the US militaries jurisdiction, and Willard, the protagonist in the film, is sent on a top-secret mission to assassinate him. In both texts Kurtz has suffered from ‘jungle fever’ and has a large group of followers who look up to him as a sort of God-like figure. Both texts also share the allegorical journey to the ‘heart of darkness’, where everything that appears externally actually serves to represent the inner battle that they are constantly fighting; the battle for their soul.

“There’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.” – Apocalypse Now

“Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.” – Heart of Darkness

I have to say I prefer the film adaptation to the book, and that’s because it’s paced a lot better (Heart of Darkness doesn’t really pick up, or make much sense, until halfway through), and does a better job of capturing the dark tone that is paramount to the theme of the novella. The film’s combination of an excellent script, eery synth music, and the unflinching violence juxtaposing the beautiful jungle scenery, makes for a better synthesis of the book’s themes. I also found the PTSD suffering Willard to be a better suited character to be drawn to Kurtz’s descending madness, as he shares Kurtz’s resentment of the military institution and has the same seed planted in his mind that lead to Kurtz’s own disintegration. With Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz never felt justified as there was no real similarities between the characters. Marlow felt more like a spectator to Kurtz, while Willard was in many ways linked to him.

That said, Heart of Darkness is still a fantastic book, and contains some beautifully poetic prose, especially in its descriptions of the Congo river and its surrounding jungle; the jungle in Heart of Darkness is very much alive, and its presence is so dominant that it is almost fair to say that it, and not Marlow, is the protagonist of the story. Without Heart of Darkness there never would’ve been an Apocalypse Now, and for that reason alone I have a deep respect for Conrad’s book.

* * * 3 stars 

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The Hellbound Heart (1986)

hellbound heartClive Barker’s mature horror novella ‘The Hellbound Heart’, made its debut in 1986 and spawned the cult classic horror film Hellraiser and its subsequent sequels. The book is so short I read it in one sitting and it almost feels like a short story, and this is both the book’s strength and weakness. It’s a strength because it doesn’t waffle on too much and delivers a chilling story in a bite sized chunk, but it’s a weakness because its size limits its ability to ‘flesh’ out the characters and make them three-dimensional. The story is very bleak, and revolves around a hedonist named Frank who travels the world extensively in pursuit of maximum pleasure, and eventually learns of a rumour – ‘from the lips of a fellow derelict’ – of a ‘pleasure dome where those who had exhausted the trivial delights of the human condition might discover a fresh definition of joy.’ It’s said that a handful of maps to this territory had been held by certain people, such as the Marquis De Sade, who had possession of one such map and ‘used it, while imprisoned in the Bastille, to barter with a guard for paper on which to write The 120 Days of Sodom’. Frank finds one of these maps, a puzzle box built by a craftsman called Lemerchand, and solves it in order to summon the Cenobites – demonic beings that rule the realm of pleasure that Frank desperately wants to visit. Frank quickly realises that the Cenobites definition of pleasure is a far cry from his, and actually involves considerable amounts of pain and torture. This makes the allusion to the Marquis De Sade having possession of the map an interesting one, as it implies that he wrote his infamously sadistic book due to his own twisted experiences in the Cenobite’s dimension.

The book then introduces three more characters: Rory, Frank’s polar opposite ‘nice guy’ brother, Julia, his beautiful yet cold wife, and Kirsty, an innocent daydreamer who is secretly in love with Rory. Both Rory and Julia move into the house that Frank used to live in before he mysteriously disappeared, soon after, however, Frank manages to escape the Cenobite’s dimension and lurks in their attic as a scarred and hideous monster, and he needs blood to replenish his damaged body. I won’t give any more away as to do so would be to rob you of finding out yourself, unless of course you’ve seen the film Hellraiser, in which case you already know what happens. It’s impossible not to compare the book to the movie as they are so similar… I think they’re both just as good as each other, but I have a slight preference towards the movie.

The book’s greatest triumph is its poetic prose, which manages to bring unreal situations to life through its painting of descriptions and scenes in vivid detail; it also has a gritty edge to it and describes gore and the fragility of the human body with a surgeon-like precision. Unlike the movie, which is very much a product of the time it was created (the 80s), the novella’s lucid descriptions are essentially timeless. The other element that the book excels in over the movie is the construction of the ending, while the movie takes the more typical action oriented approach to the ending, the novella instead adds layers of tension and presses on it like a tightly wound spring, holding it until its shocking release and epic resolution. I only wish the middle part of the book had been as well told as its end. The beginning of the book – the story of Frank – was also very good, but I feel it should have been explored a bit more. I wanted to learn more about Frank’s experiences in the Schism and how it shaped the monster he had become; even a few flashback paragraphs here and there would’ve been better than nothing. The Hellbound Heart is almost like three mini books in one, and rather than being seamlessly interwoven, they are awkwardly hanging together by bloody hooks and chains. The first book is the story of Frank and the Cenobites, the second book is the clumsy tale of Julia and her longing for Frank, and the third book is the story of Kirsty and the tense climax (that didn’t sound sexual at all).

The other thing that the film wins on is the aesthetic. While the book is very well written, if it weren’t for having seen the movie I doubt I’d have been able to picture a lot of what was going on. Also, the film’s aesthetic was so strong, and so perfectly done, that I couldn’t picture anything but the film while I was reading it. Frankly, I also thought the movie was a bit scarier, mainly because of its portrayal of body horror and its claustrophobic filming techniques. However, seeing as the book came first, I’m going to review it on its own merits and not its weaknesses compared to its film counterpart, so in that case it gets a 4/5 instead of the 3/5 I wanted to give it.

* * * * 4 stars  Continue reading

Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga (1985)

hammerofthegods‘Hammer of the Gods’ is the cult classic Led Zeppelin biography, famous for its unflinching portrayal of the band’s legendary exploits with groupies, orgies, violence, hotel destruction, black magic, and drugs. With this book, Stephen Davis captures the true spirit of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” philosophy of the 70s and vomits it up on the curb for all to see. If you have an aversion to seeing the word ‘fuck’ in print, or to reading descriptions of groupies getting fucked by dead sharks and whipped by live octopi, then definitely do not read Hammer of the Gods. Wild offstage behaviour aside, Stephen Davis expertly documents the bands musical career from their Yardbirds beginnings right through to their tragic breakup after John Bonham’s death in 1980 and Page’s descent into a daily heroin addiction that lasted seven years. Stephen Davis covers the musical side of the Led Zeppelin saga very well and dissects each of the albums they put out song by song, and also details the set lists of some of their key live performances out of the 600+ they performed during 1968-1971 and their tours in 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1979. The author has updated the book since its original publication to include extra chapters detailing the post-Zeppelin days, up to and including their 2007 reunion concert; however, most of this material is boring and unnecessary (it mainly focuses on Robert Plant’s solo career because Page was too strung out on heroin and John Paul Jones was too much of a recluse for either of them to have done anything interesting) and I found myself speed reading the rest of it till I hit the finish line. Besides the boring new material (Part 3: Hammer of Robert Plant) the rock biography lives up to all its hype and made for a very entertaining travel read (I read it in Japan). I’ll close by recommending a couple of Led Zeppelin live albums to buy or download should your ears be unfortunate enough to not have met with their music.

The Song Remains the Same
How the West Was Won

* * * * 4 stars 

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Neuromancer (1984)

tumblr_mdbezzKrfP1rs5bbqo1_500 (2)Neuromancer, written in 1984, was both William Gibson’s debut novel, and the father of the cyberpunk movement in science fiction. The novel is a crowning achievement of literary fiction in every sense of the word, even so far as being the first winner of the science-fiction “triple crown” — the Nebula award, the Phillip K. Dick award, and the Hugo award. How’s that for high praise? William Gibson, if you’re reading this, pat yourself on the back. Neuromancer is a high-octane, adrenaline charged, drug fuelled, violence driven, technology tangled, sex soaked, psychedelic, techno-noire masterpiece. It’s also really quite prophetic for the time it was written, considering its lyrical description/exploration of ‘cyberspace’ (a now common phrase, which Gibson invented) was put to paper when the internet itself wasn’t fully realised and in people’s homes until 1990.

A lot of people claim that ‘The Matrix’ stole, or borrowed a lot from Neuromancer, and you certainly will notice the connections, but Gibson cleared this up in an interview, when he said: “Whatever of my work may be there, it seems to me to have gotten there by exactly the kind of creative cultural osmosis I’ve always depended on myself. If there’s NEUROMANCER in THE MATRIX, there’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION and DHALGREN in NEUROMANCER, and much else besides, down to and including actual bits of embarrassingly undigested gristle. And while I was drawing directly from those originals, and many others, the makers of THE MATRIX were drawing through a pre-existing “cyberpunk” esthetic, which constituted as much of a found object, for them, as “science fiction” did for me.

The tale of ‘Neuromancer’ follows a console cowboy (hacker) named Case who hustles for a living in the neon lit underbelly of Chiba City, Japan. As a result of events that transpire, which I won’t describe, Case is hired by a dark cloaked man named Armitage (cough, Morpheus, cough), and his femme fatale henchwoman, dressed from head to toe in black leather, Molly (cough, Trinity), to crack a military AI system that Case later learns is split into two darkly mysterious, sentient cyber personalities. The book has a gritty edge to it, like a dark alleyway at night, and the world that Neuromancer depicts is bleak and depressing; however, Gibson juxtaposes this sense of dread brilliantly with his subtle, and delicately poetic prose. It’s a world clouded in technology, and one that we seem to be spiralling out of control towards, and yet it doesn’t ever take the ‘Brave New World‘ approach of judging or comparing it to any pre technological society. It is what it is. And it is a bloody good read.

* * * * * 5 stars 

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Echo’s Revenge (2012)

I was recently asked (and by recently I mean over a year ago) if I would be interested in reviewing a YA (young adult) book which was due for release in May 2012. Even though I don’t read young adult fiction I replied to the email anyway and said I would check it out. Here I am, writing a review, hundreds of days later, simply because I finally got around to reading it and thought it was actually pretty good.

The book is about two brothers, 11-year-old Jeremy, and 14-year-old Reggie, who are stuck in a life which they believe to be a far cry from normality – living in an unstable home with an abusive and alcoholic step father – something that sadly a lot of kids can relate to. These kids are too young to do drugs, and so their method of escape is online video games. The video game of choice for them is a first person shooter called Echo Hunt, which allows them to enter a temporary world where they can excel and be praised for their skills rather than be put down and told to take out the trash.

The ultimate purpose of the game is to find and destroy a shape-shifting cyborg mutant called Echo, which is described in the book as a ’35-foot tall extreme predator clad in impenetrable armor’ that can de-cloak and materialise ‘out of nowhere, like a nightmare of shiny, sharp, shifting, glass like scales’. Sounds pretty scary, right? Well not for Reggie, who is somewhat of a master at the game and has built a reputation among his fellow gamers for being able to destroy this virtual tyrant with ease. Word of Reggie’s skills spreads like fire and soon he receives a letter by the game’s creators asking him to meet with several other kids just as good at the game to help with the brainstorming of an update to Echo Hunt. All the while Reggie feels a strange presence around him, like he’s being followed. As each of his gamer friends mysteriously disappear one by one, Reggie soon discovers that Echo is stalking him for real and that it is a lot different when you’re not playing a video game.

The premise of the book lends itself to the idea of blurring of the lines between the virtual world and the real world and does it quite well. As it’s aimed at a younger audience its involvement with video games makes it more relatable to kids today, but then again they are probably too busy playing games to read anything that doesn’t stimulate their attention in short meaningless bursts (e.g. anything that isn’t Facebook or a top 10 list of something). Unfortunately it doesn’t help that the book is a bit too long for most attention spans roaming the planet today. If you write and market a book for kids growing up with TV, computers, internet, iPhones and games, and not so much books, it better be a quick read, which this is not. Overall I rate this as a decent book that has the potential to become popular, and hopefully might encourage the youth of today to unplug themselves from the matrix for a while and sit down and read. If I were into young adult fiction I would give this book a 3 or a 4, but since I’m not, it gets a 2/5.

* *  2 stars 

The Only Dance There Is (1974)

ram dassThe Only Dance There Is is a compiled transcription of two lectures Ram Dass gave to a room of psychotherapists in the early 1970s; the first lecture at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, and the second at the Spring Grove Hospital in 1972. Seeing as Ram Dass was a trained Harvard professor and psychiatrist before he transformed into a yogi, he was in the fortunate position of having two perceptual vantage points to overlook the whole thing. His clear insight into the Western approach to solving man’s spiritual problems through psychology, and his new understanding into the Eastern approach through yoga and meditation allowed him the opportunity to act as a solid concrete bridge between the worlds of East and West. Prior to Ram Dass bridges existed, but they were of the old and fragile, made of rope variety, which were rarely crossed out of fear of the bridge collapsing and you falling into the abyss below. Because of this the game at that point was very polarised – us vs them, hippies vs police, East vs West, and so on.

In these lectures Ram Dass attempted to share the Indian’s non-dualistic outlook on life, called Advaita Vedanta, to an audience very much attached to the separation of all living things. Ram Dass eloquently shared what he had learnt in India, and what he had given up in Harvard, by comparing the comparatively new Western psychology to the 10,000 year old Eastern method of Yoga. For example, he discusses in detail the Hindu chakra system and how it closely resembles psychological systems for understanding human motivation – an area that Ram Dass happened to specialise in when he was a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Richard Alpert. The 1970 Menninger lecture occurred at the same time that ‘Be Here Now‘ was being written and a year before its release to the public, the lecture displays Ram Dass in the flush of discovery of a method infinitely times more fulfilling than anything he had encountered or studied in the West, including psychology and psychedelics. And here he was, delivering this news from a far away land to his old colleagues and suit wearing brothers of psychotherapy – the result is this book, a bottomless pot of honey. Continue reading