Review: The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater

>>Published: September 2012

A familiar shape stood out from the rest of the doodles. Three intersecting lines: a long, beaked triangle. It was the same shape Neeve had drawn in the churchyard dust. The same shape her mother had drawn in the steamed shower door.

Blue flattened the page to get a better look. This section was on ley lines: “mystical energy roads that connect spiritual places.” Throughout the journal, the writer had doodled the three lines again and again, along with a sickly-looking Stonehenge, strangely elongated horses, and a labelled sketch of a burial mound. There was no explanation of the symbol.

It couldn’t be a coincidence.

There was no way this journal could possibly belong to that presidential raven boy. Someone must’ve given it to him.

Maybe, she thought, it’s Adam’s.

He gave her the same sensation as the journal did: the sense of magic, of possibility, of anxious danger. That same feeling as when Neeve had said that a spirit touched her hair.

Blue thought, I wish you had been Gansey. But as soon as she thought it, she knew it wasn’t true. Because whoever Gansey was, he didn’t have long to live.

***

Blue Sargent is normal. Sort of. I mean, she’s got a fated lover she might or might not be doomed to kill with a kiss, and she herself is the equivalent of a walking, talking, magical amplifier—a supercharger for mystical elements and magical individuals. However, in a family of more-than-slightly off-kilter clairvoyants, Blue’s idiosyncrasies are decidedly simple. The Raven Boys, the first of a new YA quartet, follows the late-teens Blue as she juggles love and her fear of love, destiny and its many pitfalls, and being on the margins of normal in a family that’s anything but.

Running parallel to Blue is Gansey—Richard Gansey III—who is an interesting mix of wealthy, prep school stereotypes and altruistic, spiritual intentions. Gansey and his friends—Ronan, Adam, and Noah—are on an otherworldly treasure hunt for Glendower, a Welsh spirit who may or may not rest somewhere on the ley lines that cross the area. When early on Blue is given a glimpse of Gansey and the tragic fate destined for him, possibly by her own hands, she is pulled into the boys’ inner circle, helping them on their quest for Glendower while also working to understand the meaning behind the potentially disastrous destiny predicted for both her and Gansey. Along the way, the group will unearth a murder mystery none of them could have expected, one whose solution will forever change their group’s dynamic.

Upon first glance, The Raven Boys looks like little more than another entry into the doomed-fated-lovers-and-weird-spiritual-shit category that, in recent years, has come to dominate if not define young adult literature. Holding to that assumption, however, would be a mistake. Maggie Stiefvater’s newest has a lot more going for it than its jacket copy would have you believe. Least of all is that Blue, billed as the main character, is of less interest and focus than the relationship between Gansey, Ronan, and Adam. This trio and their shared history is the core around which everything else in the book seems to spin. Blue and her family, while intriguing, offer a greater sense of world and place than they do of character. That’s not to say that they’re bad or woefully underdeveloped, only that Stiefvater seems to have a greater sense of the raven boys than she does the psychics and Blue.

On that note, I do have some complaints. I take that back—I have one complaint with several arms to it. This is the first of a quartet, and it feels that way. What I mean is that there is a level of serialization to The Raven Boys that allows for only partial closure at the end of this entry. Of course to some degree that is expected, but in this case I feel as if a few too many things were left hanging for the inevitable next instalment—mysteries left unresolved, at least one intriguing side character vanishes without a trace while another’s existence is only hinted at. I’m confident there will be payoffs for these mysteries in the entries still to come, but the many minor cliffhangers in this first book of the series add up to an unfortunately abrupt ending.

To flip things back into the positive, The Raven Boys has a tone I greatly appreciate and did not at all expect. Namely, that it feels like a lost ’80s adventure flick/teenage drama. The characters in The Raven Boys draw from The Breakfast Club: Ronan is John Bender, Blue is Allison Reynolds, Adam is Brian Johnson, and Gansey, oddly enough, fills both the Andrew Clark and Claire Standish roles (a little bit the popular one, a little bit the princess). And the school’s villainous Whelks who seeks the same treasure as Gansey? He’s Richard Vernon, naturally. And on the adventure side of things, it has a strong The Goonies vibe running through the characters, how they interact with (and rip on) one another, and in their search for their own person One-Eyed Willy, Glendower.

All told, there’s a lot to like in The Raven Boys. It has a strong set of realistic-feeling characters who aren’t afraid to curse one another out when the situation calls for it. That I’m frustrated in the least by what it doesn’t wrap up is indicative of the narrative’s hooks—I was left wanting more, not less. In as crowded a sandbox as The Raven Boys is playing in, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. Recommended, providing loose threads aren’t some sort of literary Achilles Heel for you.

Advertisements

Review: Sorry Please Thank You, Stories by Charles Yu

>>Published: July 2012

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

I am in a hospice.

I have been here before. A regular client.

I am holding a pen.

I have just written something on a notepad in front of me.

My husband is gone.

He died years ago.

Today is the tenth anniversary of his death.

I have Alzheimer’s, I think.

A memory of my husband surfaces, like a white-hot August afternoon, resurfacing in the cool water of November.

I tear off the sheet of paper.

I read it to myself.

It is a suicide note.

I raise a glass to my mouth, swallow a pill. Catch a glance of my note to the world.

The fail-safe kicks on, the system overrides. I close the ticket. I’m out just in time, but as I leave this dying mind, I feel the consciousness losing its structure. Not closing down. Opening. As it dies, I feel it opening up, like a box whose walls fall away, or a maybe a flowering plant, turning towards the sun.

***

Charles Yu’s debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was one of my top five books for 2010. A meta-science fiction narrative that wilfully, gleefully wrapped itself up in all manner of time travel paradoxes, it was at once brilliantly conceived, laugh-out-loud funny, and vicious in its density of ideas. Sorry Please Thank You, his second collection of short stories and his first book since How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, is a welcome, light-hearted follow-up that continues to showcase Yu’s caustic wit and intellect in new and interesting ways.

Sorry Please Thank You is a collection of thirteen stories split into four smaller subsections: Sorry, Please, Thank You, and All of the Above. Sorry, the first section, is about individuals seeking to shirk their feelings and responsibilities—deliberately working to, and in some cases paying great sums of money to void their emotions and sidestep failure. In the collection’s first story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” an awkward call centre worker stationed in Bangalore absorbs the feelings of others—taking on an individual’s fear as they confront their boss, or their grief at the funeral of a loved one. Naturally, depression, anxiety, and all manner of mental and psychological issues ripple through a workplace of insular avatars all designed to take an emotional beating every minute of their lives. “First Person Shooter” is a loose Walmart shopper-parody, as two customer service reps reflect on their own stagnation while watching as a self-aware zombie shuffles through the store. “Troubleshooting” is a smattering of Dr. Phil-style romantic advice for the IT crowd, expounding on the dangers of living through technology—more than that, expecting technology to do your living for you.

The second section in the collection, Please, is more personal than the first. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” is a contemporary, Diablo-esque spin on the old ’90s cartoon Reboot, using RPG stats and tracking to highlight the successes and failures of a fractured in-game family, and in the end, both confronting and removing “God”—the player—from the equation, embracing one’s choices as their own. “Human for Beginners” offers a segment of an alien species handbook—a guide for understanding the strangeness of extended family connections (and as someone whose extended family is very alien and unknown to him, this entry was particularly insightful). “Inventory” is broken paragraph story starring the author, describing what makes a man into a man—or more appropriately, the man he thinks he should be. This story is very much what its title implies: an inventory, of accountability, of blame, and of reason—reasons why the unnamed “she” of the story has at one point abandoned the author, or why he abandoned her. “Open” is one of the more on-the-nose stories in the collection, using the concept of an apartment and the lives inside as a diorama, with realities flipped; the couple, broken and spiteful towards one another within the diorama apartment, live their exterior lives “in reality” as performance artists playing to a crowd of their best friends who want only the best for them and do not see the loss of love that exists right in front of them. The final story of the Please section, “Note to Self,” is about as meta an exercise as anything from How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It presents—and answers—the age-old question of what one might say to oneself if presented with your double, or in this case, doubles spread across any number of universes. As it turns out, not a whole hell of a lot beyond basic mind games.

Thank You is a more emotionally removed set of stories focussed on adding filters over life, to lessen the impact of some of its more challenging and horrific aspects, and to continue to exist in safe, albeit muted, ways. It is the weakest section of this book, as it repeats, in less interesting ways, some of the themes presented in the first two segments. “Yeoman” is a classic behind-the-camera take on the self-aware Starfleet “redshirt”—the crewman who will, undoubtedly, die on some eventual away mission, so that the more important members of the ships crew will survive another week of potboiler narratives. Though the message of valuing life for the sake of one’s family if not one’s own existence is strong, it is one of the more obviously plotted tales in the collection, in the end offering more surface texture than anything particularly deep or introspective. “Designer Emotion 67” presents an unintelligent CEO of a pharmaceutical company addressing a future of emotional band-aids designed to eliminate dread. This story works as an amusing companion piece to the first story in the collection, but treads too much of the same water to be effective on its own, feeling more like a straight-up comedy piece than any other story in the book. “The Book of Categories” plays with an interesting concept that I would love to see developed into something larger: an open-sourced bible of sorts—a symbolic wiki defining our world, or possibly an individual’s world, its pages and meanings forever in a state of flux as experiences change the course of lives in large and small ways. “Adult Contemporary” is the closest approximation to a literary The Truman Show I’ve come across. Again, it feels as if this story borrows and expands upon ideas presented in the collection’s first story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” through the purchasing of a life manufactured for pleasure, to remove oneself from their own less-than-ideal existence; however, “Adult Contemporary” is a bit more grounded in the here and now, using television and people’s willingness to live vicariously through the lives of their heroes and celebrities to indict those who seek escapism to the detriment of their own lives and the lives of those near and dear to them.

The final segment, All of the Above, consists only of the title story, “Sorry Please Thank You,” and is less a wholly realized tale in and of itself and more a final nail in the coffin of personality flaws spread bare by the previous twelve stories. It feels almost like an umbrella piece under which to collect all others. Interesting, but certainly the weakest link in an otherwise engaging collection.

Even in the collection’s “lesser” entries, Yu’s writing is always sharp, and very carefully crafted. He frequently employs literary paradoxes, playing words and meanings off one another in rhythmic ways that, more often than not, add a great deal of comedy to even the more emotionally dour stories. The second segment, Please is the strongest collection of stories, though if I had to point to one to read above all others it would likely be the very first story, “Standard Loneliness Package.” It is by far the most developed, both creatively and in terms of its characters.

That is, perhaps, my only true complaint with the collection—that some of the stories feel less developed than others, which is more apparent when placed one after the other, when their sometimes obvious similarities are made visible. Read separately, I think certain entries like “Yeoman,” “Designer Emotion 67,” and “Note to Self” would stand stronger, but when placed within the collection their highlights are dampened by the stories surrounding them.

Charles Yu is a little bit Philip K. Dick crossed with Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. Not a terribly original set of comparisons, I’m sorry to say, but it rings true nonetheless. Though Sorry Please Thank You doesn’t reach the same giddy heights as How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, it is in itself a bright, highly amusing collection, and another notch in the belt of an original, accomplished creative voice.

Review: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu

>>Published: September 2012

And They Say Russian Roulette

I was on the landline the whole night talking to Avishag. All of the other girls stayed at Lea’s party. She made people stay, even after they heard something was up with Dan. I didn’t care about that. And I didn’t care that my mom could hear me or that my sister could hear me or that my dad could hear me. At first the thing that was up was that Dan hit his head so Avishag was worried, and then the thing was that he was badly injured in the head and in the hospital but Avishag’s mom told her not to go, and then the thing was that he was accidentally shot in the head, and then the final thing was that he and a couple of classmates went to the cellular tower hill and they called this girl, or that, but then they played Russian roulette because no one answered. I mean, no one but those in the town had cell reception and almost everyone was at Lea’s party, and that was the thing. At six in the morning the thing was that Dan had died.

But I don’t believe any of these rumors. I think he just went up that hill and blew his fucking brains out all by himself.

***

Set primarily in a small Israeli village near the Lebanese border, Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid charts the emotional deconstruction of three young women—Yael, Avishag, and Lea—from 2006 to 2012. The narrative explores their lives in the period before the Second Lebanon War (July 12 to September 8, 2006), as caustic, disaffected teenagers in a high school made up of caravan classrooms, to conscription in the Israeli army, the conflict itself, and the aftermath and how it impacts their lives.

The novel is divided into three tonally distinct parts: in the first part, we’re introduced to the three friends. We learn their histories, witness arguments and crushes that either drove them apart or brought them closer together. Boianjiu offers early glimpses of trauma still to come through Avishag’s brother, Dan, and how military service changed him, turned him into something less than he’d previously been. Their families are all uniquely strained, which is reflected in their differing personalities—Yael, the most even-handed and flirtatious of the three; Avishag, who seems to be losing her grip on reality, feeling more and more alone with each day that passes; Lea, who bears the nickname “princess” and is the only one of the three that could be classified as “spoiled”.

In the novel’s second, and most captivating part, Boianjiu introduces a host of new characters, each of them peripheral in some way to Yael, Avishag, or Lea. We see, through their eyes and those surrounding them, the gradual acceptance of their respective military placements: Avishag posted as a guard near the Egypt-Israeli border; Yael trained as a marksman and weapons expert who, despite her position, never loses the more flirtatious aspects of her personality; and Lea, posted against her desires, as a member of the Israeli military police. It is in this part that Boianjiu expertly and realistically dismantles each of her three protagonists—in startling ways, leading to sometimes unexpected and disturbing results.

The final and shortest part serves almost as an extended epilogue—though their stories have not come to a close, their lives have in many ways climaxed, and the three women, together again, are faced with accepting what their experiences in the military had done to them—and what they had done, to themselves and others, as a result.

Structurally, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is an ever-widening lens. The first part is told entirely from first-person perspectives, with each chapter shifting voice between the three young protagonists. Though Avishag and Lea are both given chapters of their own to help develop their personalities, the strongest and most accessible voice is Yael’s. This feels intentional, as Boianjiu expands the novel’s scope in the second part, shifting the perspective from first to third person for all but Yael. This serves three purposes: first, to further cement Yael as the medium, the voice of our entry into their worlds; second, to illustrate, by pushing them away from the reader, limiting their internal dialogue, how service and the incidents that happen along the way are separating the three, both from their youths and from one another; and third, to play upon the reader’s expectations—by forcing us to be removed from characters we’d come to know, to some small degree, and to look upon them again as strangers in the making. In the final part, it’s only Yael’s internal voice we are partially privy to, and though she has changed, it is how they have changed as a unit, as friends, that becomes most apparent.

The transformations achieved along the way are earned, and accentuated through subtle, confident means: the change in language as Lea, having experienced a certain amount of authority and control, experiences maturity, but also, through things witnessed during her time as a member of the military police, finds herself capable of malevolent, vengeful acts; how Avishag and her father swap seats while he tries to teach her to drive, while their shared history reveals a gulf that has always existed, with Avishag, at different points in her life, occupying two separate sides of the same gulf while her father seems forever trapped in the middle, unable to fully comprehend the degree to which they have, symbolically, swapped ages.

Shani Boianjiu was herself a member of the Israeli Defense Force for two years. This background is certainly visible in the quality and concision of both language used between the girls, and the descriptions of weaponry, bases, and the girls’ small village. The world presented is wholly believable, yet neither the aspects of the military introduced, nor the politics behind the conflict, ever threaten to overwhelm the narrative or distract the reader from Yael, Avishag, Lea, and their journey. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is an engrossing, searing read. These three friends took me by surprise in ways I’d not expected. Highly recommended.

Review: vN: The First Machine Dynasty, by Madeline Ashby

>>Published: July 2012

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

Amy pinched the skin of her arms. If you couldn’t brag in the brig, where could you? “I’ve got fractal design memory in here. Even if I’m cut up, my body remembers how to repair itself perfectly. I’ll come back in one piece, no matter what.”

“Oh, believe me, dollface, I know. I’ve seen it happen. You put some vN shrapnel in the right culture, and it grows right back. Like cancer.” He snorted. “But whether what grows back is actually you? With all the memories, and all the adaptations? That’s like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

Amy imagined her skin sliced thin as ham, suspended in the shadowy clouds of vN growth medium. Maybe she wouldn’t even miss her mom and dad. Never once seeing their faces or hearing their voices or feeling their arms around her would probably hurt a lot less, if she were smashed into a million pieces.

***

The film industry, some days, can be rather depressing. Following his work on Lincoln, Steven Spielberg is set to direct the film version of Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, a novel of grand ambition but marginal creative substance. Wilson’s novel is an emotionally hands-off tale of a robot uprising that threatens humanity—an end result that is made immediately apparent. Madeline Ashby’s debut novel vN, on the other hand, tells a similar, though much more open-wounded tale of a developing machine supremacy and its uncertain future alongside its flesh and blood creators. vN succeeds where Robopocalypse and others like it fail: it keeps the story human and emotionally grounded—even when the emotions are software and nothing more.

vN is Amy’s story. Amy is the five-year-old daughter of Charlotte and Jack: a von Neuman, self-replicating humanoid mother and an organic “chimp” of a father. With her growth restricted via a specialized, controlled diet, Amy is growing at the rate of a human child, though she is most certainly not human herself. Like her mother, Amy is a vN, a (for the most part) socially accepted creation designed, originally, to be a human companion following the Rapture—to befriend those poor, unfortunate souls left behind. Naturally, such an event did not occur, and vN’s have been integrated into society to varying degrees of success. As the vN species has developed, with different models for different purposes, some have been able to make the transition, to more or less “pass” for human. This is due in large part to the failsafe—a part of a vN’s programming that makes them feel sick when a human is hurt in any way. It’s “a humane response to inhuman behaviour.” When Amy’s grandmother Portia threatens her mother, Amy intervenes—and in the process, learns that her failsafe no longer functions as it should.

vN succeeds because Ashby never contradicts her characters or justifies their humanity and the very human way they are written through unearned means. In fact, without giving anything away, the nature of Amy’s empathic subroutines, through which she is able to function in the specific manner she does, apart from all other vN, is explained in a pseudo-scientifically satisfying manner—not to mention true to the novel’s presented world. It is far more believable than simply falling back on the all-too common trope of artificial intelligence evolving along natural humanistic paths.

Without wanting to beat the Spielberg horse into the ground, vN shares a lot in terms of its emotional journey with the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. While A.I. is more or less the tale of Pinocchio, of a young artificial boy’s journey to become real, vN is about Amy’s journey to accept herself as an artificial life form, and to understand how and why she is and will always be different from others—from humans, her organic father included. Similar to A.I., however, is the overwhelming focus on family—both the traditional organic definition of, and the vN clades of similar models banding together (and in some cases, attempting to kill one another).

Amy’s journey is set in motion when she succumbs to instinct, violating a social contract of sorts that, until the end of the book’s prologue, helped maintain a level of peace and comfort between humans and the vN communities among them. In doing so, in exhibiting a sort of empathy both wonderful and to be feared, Amy is involved in an incident that pries her from her parents, and simultaneously from her childhood. The issue of family and being removed from one’s family and forced to find definition through other means is further accentuated by four modes of abandonment presented throughout the novel: Portia abandoning (in a way) her offspring in an attempt to perfect her model; Jack’s father abandoning him for falling in love with and marrying a vN; Javier abandoning his children to fend for themselves, believing in a more machine-like sense of development through world, not parental, interaction; and at the highest level, society—humans, creators of the vN in the first place—wanting to abandon their creation should they, in any way, exhibit autonomy not constricted by their failsafes.

In many ways, vN is a love letter to science fiction nerds of all kinds. Amy’s journey is tragic, its final destination uncertain, but along the way, Ashby litters the book with enough casual film and video game references to lighten the mood: the xenomorphs from Alien and a pair of Portal references in particular stood out. (Remember: the cake is a lie…)

vN feels like the start of something new. Whether or not Ashby has more planned for this world and these characters I’m not sure, but Amy’s journey, and more importantly where her journey comes to a close, leaves me feeling as if this story is just getting started. I’m excited to see what she does next.

Review: Goldfish Tears, by Curtis Ackie

>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

She approaches it tentatively; The Bath of Mary, as he has chosen to call it, is more a cluster of large apparatus than a machine. It consists of a small stone doorway for her to stand in, with a series of metal hooks at the back; in truth, it looks rather menacing. She notices a collection of symbols sandblasted into the stone framework of the door, but only recognizes a few; a pentacle, a wheel of some sort, and what looks like a peacock tail feather. Resting on a stone platter, attached to the main apparatus through a collection of metal pipes there sits a triumvirate of crucibles which decrease in size the further they are from his creation. Stepping closer, Henrietta runs her hands along the framework, paying special attention to the glass tubes threaded in and out of the stone. She trusts him, but is apprehensive of stepping into his formidable contraption; she finds the hooks especially off-putting, but he urges her not to be intimidated. They are there to straighten out her posture, but an assortment of concoctions she is to drink beforehand will make sure there is no pain.

***

Goldfish Tears, Curtis Ackie’s first collection of short fiction, is an oddly likable, sparsely connected mosaic of magical realism-based tales. Fourteen stories in all, Ackie’s short, sometimes flash fiction-length narratives share a common, at-a-distance vibe—poetic language aplenty, but lacking true character development.

The tales included in Goldfish Tears vary quite a bit in terms of both tone and quality; “The Bath of Mary”, “Birthmark Like a Scar”, and “Oh, Blue Hag” are the collection’s stand-out entries, while “The Culpable Pair” and the final tale, “Carnival Evening”, fall unfortunately flat. Additionally, “Birthmark Like a Scar” and “Impatience” have a harshness to them, a tenacity of language and emotion that feels strangely juxtaposed when placed in the same collection as “Luminary Luna Dairy”, which presents an almost childlike tale of worker’s dissatisfaction mining cheese on the surface of the moon for the ungrateful blue world below.

Ackie’s writing is intelligent, but as previously mentioned, the stories, for the most part, lack strong identifiable characters and interesting, illustrative dialogue; instead they trade their worth on ideas and curiosities made real. A strong theme running throughout several stories—“The Bath of Mary”, “Shadowplay”, and “Oh, Blue Hag”—has to do with the impact and/or gaze of the “other”; shadows, twins, and reflections are used liberally as stand-ins for themes of body/life dissatisfaction, depression, and an unwillingness to step out of one’s comfort zone and let their other half assume control. From the story “Oh, Blue Hag”:

The shopping trip goes well, Egon is saddened when it comes to an end. He heads home with his bags, mournful but determined that his plan will work. He has decided to exchange his lacklustre life for hers, at least for a short time; if she doesn’t go for it he will just have to force it on her, after all it is unfair that she should get more joy out of life than him.

Goldfish Tears is a self-published collection, and as such has several editorial and structural problems. Aside from run-on sentences and minor grammatical and spelling mistakes, I found myself tripping far too often on single-syllable words broken up and hyphenated onto two lines—a giant, frustrating no-no. The illustrations from Lorena Matic are a lovely touch and go a surprisingly long way to adding a much needed sense of character to stories decidedly trim with description and identifiable traits and/or idiosyncrasies.

Grammatical issues aside, the only story I felt simply didn’t measure up to the rest of the collection was the aforementioned “The Culpable Pair”, which feels, frankly, like a collection of ideas and archetypes that never once feel as if they come together—hammered home, unfortunately, by the stark, inorganic transitions as the story moves between each character. That being said, one not-so-great story does not do irreparable damage to the rest of the collection.

There’s enough of interest to recommend Goldfish Tears to short fiction aficionados who also happen to share a love for magical realism; though its structural and editorial issues, and its lack of vivid characters, limit this title’s reach.

Review: Origin, By Jessica Khoury

>>Published: September 2012

Uncle Paolo’s lips twitch, and there is a sharp twinge around the corners of his eyes. For a moment, I almost sense he’s about to slap me. But he swallows and says calmly, “It’s that Fields woman, isn’t it?””

“No—”

“She’s been putting ideas in your head. I know she would. She has that way about her. If I’d had my say she’d have never… Pia. Listen to me.” He grips my shoulders and ducks his head so he’s looking me square on. There’s stubble around his mouth; he’s been working so long and hard in preparation for Corpus that he’s not even stopped to shave. “You are perfect. Perfect. Not just perfect for who you are, but for what you are. What you mean to your entire race.  You are the pinnacle of human perfection, the dream men have dreamed for millennia. There is no greater good than you, Pia. You are the end to all debates of religion and morality. There is no right and wrong. There is only reason and chaos. Progress and regress. Life and death. We created you for reason, Pia, and for progress, and for life. For life. It is the most precious thing of all, and you have more of it than anyone has ever had in history.”

***

What a breath of fresh air. Jessica Khoury’s debut novel, Origin, is a young adult novel with nary a prophecy, nor supernatural creature, nor dystopian, war ravaged world to be found. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. Did I mention it looks to be a one-off and not part of a pre-scheduled trilogy? Another mark in its favour!

Origin is Pia’s story. Pia is a sixteen-year-old girl with a perfect memory, an extreme aptitude for science and learning, and unbreakable skin. She is an immortal—the first, and so far only one of her kind. Hidden away in Little Cam, a secluded, privately-funded research facility tucked away deep within the Amazon rainforest, Pia spends her days performing Wickham tests—of her intellect, her memory, her willingness to perform—and dreaming of the day when she can fulfil her life’s destiny and become a member of Little Cam’s Immortis team. The Immortis team’s goal? To create an entire species of immortals, of which Pia is only the first—the blueprint. All the while, despite the best efforts of the scientists that surround her, each of them an “aunt” or an “uncle” of differing degrees of intimacy and devotion, small fragments of the world outside of Little Cam—a world which Pia knows next to nothing about—begin to seep into their carefully controlled compound. When one night a living breathing, member of that outside world, a young boy named Eio from a nearby village, crashes into Pia, she’s given a taste of the world she’s been hidden from for so long. What’s more, she’s offered, for the first time, a differing, difficult to stomach view of the world that had created her; and through Eio, she experiences her first real taste of love.

Origin is science fiction light done right. The tale, at its core, is about a young girl wanting to break free of overbearing constraints that offer her little in the way of respect or confidence. It could easily be construed, thanks to the use of “aunt” and “uncle” to describe each and every one of the scientists and workers at Little Cam, as a story of overbearing parents unwilling to let their child grow and blossom into a fully realized individual. It’s also a love story between two children of warring families who come from vastly different worlds (someone should write a play about that), an Avatar/Dances With Wolves-style fish out of water tale, and a pre-dystopian look at science and the possibilities for future warfare that may erupt from a capitalist-run science facility with too much money at their disposal and too few ethical constraints.

As you might have figured out, I had a great time with Origin. It’s not perfect—there are, at times, a few too many redshirt scientists that clutter the landscape; Pia and Eio’s burgeoning love burgeons a bit quick for my taste; and the main villain’s deviousness and willingness to kill for his beliefs feels a bit too over-the-top in the last 100 pages—but overall, Origin is a fast-paced, surprisingly sure-footed morality play wrapped up in a physical setting not often used, especially in YA fiction. Most importantly, Pia’s arc, as she transitions from hyper-intelligent-but-still-naïve teenager to someone more mature and understanding, is handled extremely well.

As I mentioned at the top of this review, Origin feels fresh without having to do too much to reinvent the wheel; Pia and Eio are likable leads, and the intrigue behind Little Cam and the Immortis team’s true intentions, as well as their simple, sweet love story, is enough to keep one reading through to the end… possible in a single night… not that I did that or anything… did I mention I’m a sucker for immortality stories?

Review: The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, by Frank Rose

>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

Hyperlink films, like hyperlinks themselves, are really about simultaneity—the sense that you can be seeing one thing and instantly switch to something else that’s occurring at the same time. At some basic level, the implication is that we exist in a multiverse. Simultaneity as the salient fact of our culture long predates the Internet. It was television that got people acclimated to the idea—especially after remote controls started to proliferate in the seventies. But simultaneity predates even broadcasting. It began with the nineteenth-century inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, who gave us the telephone; and Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the development of alternating current.

“The greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, “that ended sequence by making things instant.” That ended sequence: from that point on, McLuhan was saying, the demise of sequential narrative was inevitable.

***

Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion occupies an interesting cross-section between marketing and art—more specifically, the production of art. Throughout history, the two have not always been so intimately entwined, but we live now in an age where they are, in fact, inseparable.

The water cooler concept is at the heart of Rose’s argument—the understanding that as individuals, we (a broad percentage of us, at least) want to somehow participate in our world and the narratives constructed therein. Often that participation is passive (watching television, reading a book), but Rose’s thesis shows that passive role turning active. Through things like Alternate/Augmented Reality gaming (real-world treasure hunts), Web 2.0-based social immersion (Twitter, Facebook, and blogging), and the crossing of mediums in ways that have not before been achieved, storytelling has changed, and is still changing, dramatically.

In many cases, the narrative implications are minimal, and it is the social element—the marketing language, distribution, and social delineation—that is seeing the largest push. Using the Why So Serious? alternate reality game that led to participants, after jumping through a series of real-world hoops, to being given a glimpse of 2008’s The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s Joker before anyone else was an early successful example of the sort of event posited by Jane McGonigal in her 2011 book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Games (video games, specifically), though often lacking in terms of narrative construction and development, offer a feeling of accomplishment that few other artistic mediums do—a sense that, as a player, the individual has played a part in the telling of a narrative. Whether or not that narrative was decided in full prior to the gamer’s involvement changes depending on the type of game being played—an open-world role-playing game versus a platformer, for example—but the rewards, to a large degree, remain the same: a heightened sense of immersion in the story being told. In the case of The Dark Knight, individuals participating in the Why So Serious? game did not, of course, have any direct impact on the film’s actual narrative, but their actions involved them in what eventually became a blockbuster cultural experience—and their voices, from that initial screening, bled into the cultural hive mind, playing part and parcel with the film’s marketing message regarding Ledger’s final performance and its cinematic impact.

While alternate reality games involve human interaction on a grand physical scale, smaller digital pushes are also being made. Twitter, for example, played host during Mad Men’s infancy to individuals writing as its main characters—in their voices, in their time period. This was an unexpected event: free detailed marketing, of a sort, by fans of the show. Offering individuals both the chance to be creative as well as to extend their preferred cultural and narrative sandbox, several companies and studios have learned to encourage these types of viewer interactions, seeing them as a means of drawing in a larger crowd by allowing for the infinite expansion, sometimes beyond their control, of their initial creative concept.

Going even further are the cultural touchstones like Lost, which have adopted the Easter egg approach: hiding extra content within the program itself, encouraging (but not demanding) audience participation. By seeking out and researching seemingly innocuous clues, such as a specific book seen in one shot, or a piece of art or a statue seen in another, and by telling their story in a non-linear manner, the creators and writers of Lost courted audience sleuthing on a grand scale, without ever making the extra material necessary for the casual viewer to understand the larger narrative. In the process they created a narrative of differing dimensions: a surface-level battle between good and evil on an island of mystery for the casual audience; and a deeper, semiotic-laced discussion for those wanting to dive in to attempt to discover the hidden meanings and mysteries yet revealed.

In The Art of Immersion, Rose posits this level of immersion, be it for creative desires or for the needs of a marketing department, as the future of narratives. What isn’t covered to the same extent, unfortunately, is the possibility that, for some, employment of too many devices in too many different ways might in fact damage the sense of immersion—case in point, a television show or a book holding key details from the audience in an effort to shepherd them to a website or online resource to fill in the blanks. It’s one thing to encourage a deeper level of immersion by offering these as possible but inessential elements, but another thing altogether to provide only a partial to a larger narrative, leaving firm details, or possibly even a conclusion, to another medium altogether. Though the possibilities that stem from the immersive activities Rose outlines are incredible, there is also the chance that some may feel left out in the cold, not wanting to divide their attention from the one thing they hoped would provide a fulfilling experience—it would be as if the climax of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows cut off mid-sentence with the final resolution available online or as a downloadable video or PDF… one cannot sacrifice narrative momentum and integrity for the sake of the multiverse-based marketing push. It is a bit of a slippery slope, which, admittedly, we are still figuring out. However, the potential for greatness—for using people, not non-interactive advertising, to encourage, examine, and accentuate narrative going forward—is there.

What we are entering into with respect to artistic and narrative expression, what Rose sees as our future going forward, is an accelerated form of the thesis given in Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art—not only is art made and given meaning through society’s influence, but now it is being pushed, promoted, and generally affected and given additional weight—often while still in progress—by the very people for whom it is made. In this sense, the creators are looking more and more like instigators, setting forth a plate of ideas for relentless consumption and redistribution.

The Art of Immersion is essential reading for anyone in a creative field. It’s a strong first step to gaining a better understanding of where society and culture is taking our art, whether we want to accept it or not.