Saturday, July 23, 2011

We the Living Lives On

Rand, Ayn. We the Living. New York: Signet, 1964 (1936).

It has been nearly a decade since I first picked up We the Living, and I'm surprised to find that I like it nearly as much now as I did on my first encounter with the story. Like many of Rand's other novels, We the Living is heavily skewed to promote her then-foundling philosophy of objectivism, a worldview that is a slightly more selective and glorified form of humanism, and, like any book that strives so singlemindedly to promote one particular perspective, the plot of We the Living occasionally falls a little flat under the weight of Rand's arguments and analyses. Nevertheless, this is a terrific and important novel, and worth reading for the story as well as the glimpse into a mindset of yore.

Kira Argouvna has a whole world ahead of her. She's young and strong, has been admitted to the Technological Institute to study engineering (she, like many of Rand's protagonists, dreams of building magnificent and seemingly eternal structures), and even has, after not too many pages, a male admirer or two. Her papers appear to be in order, and even the poverty of her slightly-too-independent family is not enough to discourage her from the joys of her studies (and boyfriends). Yet times are hard, and her family's struggles go unnoticed until even Kira loses most of the things that once brought her happiness. As her aristocratic ties become ever more dangerous, Kira struggles to keep her family satisfied, make a home and career for herself, and save the man she loves, yet her country and her circumstances seem to fight against her at every opportunity. Rand paints a poignant--if bleak--picture of life in communist Russia and manages to sculpt one of her most compelling characters into life as her novel progresses. One-sided in spots, We the Living paints a stark and probably quite honest picture of one woman's experience in a dark and troubled world, and although Rand claims in the preface to her Signet edition that the novel is more about ideals than about history, real history and realistic experiences leak onto the pages of this novel and cannot be completely overlooked. The philosophy is heavy-handed, but the story itself is compelling and magnificent.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

And So It Ends: Peter David and the Legacy of Babylon 5

David, Peter. Out of the Darkness. Del Rey, 2000.

Embarrassingly, there are few books I've read as swiftly and as lethargically as Out of the darkness the third volume in Peter David's futuristic Centauri Prime trilogy set in the universe of Babylon 5. On the one hand, I quite imagined that this volume would hold the key to many mysteries left unanswered in the earlier volumes as well as in the Babylon 5 television series itself; on the other hand, I was hesitant to allow the series to end. It seemed that this concluding volume was among the shortest books I've ever encountered: it began, it continued, and--all too quickly--it ended, and this is less a praise of the volume's marvellous pace than a slight criticism of its very rushed feel.

Out of the Darkness, it is to be confessed, would make very little sense without a good knowledge of the Babylon 5 universe created by J. Michael Straczynski for a television series of the same name, and without a perusal of the first two volumes in this trilogy, The Long Night of Centauri Prime and Armies of Light and Dark. In many ways, this volume provides the closure that is still lacking at the end of the final episode of the original television series: it demonstrates the ways in which many foreshadowed elements from the series are played out, allows fans and readers a glimpse into the future of Centauri Prime and the Interstellar Alliance, and allows the prophecies of earlier television seasons to reach natural and anticipated closures. For readers in search of the next great work of literature, this book leaves a little to be desired: its characters and events, while rich, lack the elegance of fleshing-out that would make this volume a standalone novel. For fans of the television series, Out of the Darkness is the end of an era, and the icing on an already very interesting and pleasurable cake.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Don't Read This First: Peter David Tackles Vir Cotto

David, Peter. Armies of Light and Dark. Del Rey, 2000.

Armies of Light and Dark, the second volume in the Centauri trilogy by Peter David, should be read with an awareness of the caveats I raised while discussing The Long Night of Centauri Prime. Primarily, this is the second book in a trilogy based upon the television show Babylon 5, and probably not intended for the non-sci-fi-geek. For those of us who can find alternate worlds a little fascinating and have already enjoyed the television series and the previous novel, this book is better than The Long Night of Centauri Prime, and all the more so because it focuses on one of the greatest characters from the original series.

That lovable and sometimes bumbling Centauri, Vir Cotto, has finally gained a little maturity and is in the process of gaining a lot of spine, and in this exceptional novel, Peter David manages to capture his transformation from a young man into a vibrant and cunning revolutionary. Over the course of this novel, he finds himself in increasing amounts of trouble, falls in love, gives away something beautiful, and manages to make several other alien races quite uneasy. Of course the troubled Londo Mollari plays an important role in the volume as well, but this book is really all about Vir, and for those of us who found the TV show occasionally lacking with respect to the ambassadors' aides, this book takes away some of the sting. As with The Long Night . . ., Armies of Light and Dark has moments of stilted scripts and a too-hastily-unravelled plot, but I found that the book solved more problems than it created, and manages to provide a quite passable character study in the process.